The Guru in ISKCON

Ravindra Svarupa dasa

This statement of the understanding of the Guru in ISKCON was specifically written for inclusion as evidence in a recent legal challenge brought by ISKCON against alleged misrepresentation by the German Federal Government. The word Guru has found it's way into the international vocabulary over the last thirty years but few can claim to understand the words actual meaning, especially in its relationship to the language and culture from which it comes. This statement is concise, philosophically sound and relevant to ISKCON's unique culture of global Vaishnavism. As such it is an important contribution to our attempts to communicate a genuine understanding of Vaishnava culture in today's world.

Those who have not actually studied ISKCON can easily misrepresent the position of the guru as actually understood and practiced in ISKCON. They usually derive their prejudice from vague, over-general conceptions of 'Hinduism,' or from what they see in some Hindu-derived guru-sects which are in fact quite contrary to ISKCON in philosophy and practice.

There are many diverse traditions in what is called 'Hinduism.' ISKCON is the contemporary extension of a particular, very ancient Vaishnava tradition or denomination called the Gaudiya Madhva sampradaya. The Vaishnava traditions are the monotheistic denominations within 'Hinduism.' They all teach that every living being is eternally the subordinate servant of the Supreme Being, God. Those who have not taken the trouble to acquaint themselves with ISKCON, or even with the teachings and practices common to all Vaishnavas, crudely misrepresent the position of guru in ISKCON as an absolute autocrat, accountable to no one, able to act on any whim, to whom the disciple owes unthinking, uncritical, fanatical obedience. These ignorant critics claim that the guru is thought to be identical with God Himself-a blasphemous equation according to Vaishnava teaching.

The guru is the representative of God as well as of the entire historical teaching tradition. He is not God but the servant of God, and indeed the servant of the servants of the servants of God. The Word of God is Scripture, and that Scripture has been elucidated and applied throughout the historical guru-succession coming from God. The devotee who has become a guru or teacher in succession does so by virtue of being the disciple of the previous teacher, who has in turn become guru by the same process. Thus the guru is held accountable for his actions to Scripture and to the teaching tradition, that is, to the previous authorities of the community. The guru in the Vaishnava tradition is not absolute in himself, then, but rather supremely relative: relative to the Lord and to the tradition.

As a teacher, the guru is supposed to instruct his students in the Scripture and in the teaching of the previous exemplary devotees. He makes these texts and instructions available to his students. The students are to use their own critical judgement, their intelligence, to see that their own teacher is in strict conformity with Scripture and tradition. Only by virtue of that conformity, that relativity and dependence, can the guru be said to truly represent (re-present) God and the tradition.

For this reason, Srila Prabhupada made it the prime work of his mission to deliver to us a vast library of philosophical and practical writings. These books are the central Scriptures of the tradition, elucidated by the reflections and realisations of the previous teachers in the tradition. Whatever he taught was backed up by the word of God and the great authorities of the past. Thus, Srila Prabhupada gave the standard by which we were to judge him, and accept him or reject him by the exercise of critical intelligence. That meant gaining real philosophical understanding of the tradition, and applying it with discrimination.

'Religion without philosophy is sentiment, or sometimes fanaticism,' Srila Prabhupada wrote in his commentary to Bhagavad-Gita 3.4. He amplified this in a lecture of l966: 'You should be religious, but should understand everything philosophically. Otherwise one becomes fanatic, religious fanatic. In the Caitanya-caritamrta it is clearly said that caitanyer dayera katha karaha vicara. You people, you try to understand the gifts of Caitanya Mahaprabhu by your philosophical understanding. Not blindly, philosophically.' This instruction is applied in the matter of the guru: As stated in the Science of Self-Realization (Chapter 2): 'The sastras [scriptures] enjoin that before we take a guru we study him carefully . . . . We should not accept a guru suddenly, out of fanaticism. That is very dangerous.'

Indeed, the regulations of ISKCON also explicitly set forth the specific circumstances under which a disciple ought to reject his guru. These regulations are based upon the direction of previous authorities. The existence of such provisions (for a disciple's rejection of his guru) attests to the recognition of the need for continuing cultivation of critical intelligence on the part of the disciple.

The regulations of ISKCON are established by its governing board. ISKCON also differs from many 'guru-sects' in that it is headed not by a single individual, but by a board of directors, the Governing Body Commission. At present this board consist of about thirty members, some of whom are gurus and some not. Within ISKCON, about sixty devotees currently act as initiating gurus. Each one of them operates under the GBC's authority and scrutiny, and are fully accountable to it.

Thus the guru in ISKCON is not an absolute autocrat who can act according to his whims and whom his disciples must blindly accept and follow. The guru is held up to a rigorous standard and is accountable for all he does: to God, to Scripture, to the tradition, to the governing body of ISKCON, and to his own disciples.