Charisma and Religious Innovation

Prabhupada and the Founding of ISKCON

Charles Selengut

 Part One
NB. The footnotes for this article are linked to a separate footnote page.

Continuing our theme of articles about Srila Prabhupada in his centenary year Charles Selengut offers us this study of Prabhupada as the founder and charismatic leader of Vaishnavism's first international society. He gives us a comprehensive overview of Prabhupada's struggle to establish ISKCON and the qualities that marked him as uniquely suited for the task. He shows us Prabhupada's attitude to Western values and his faithful regard for Vaishnava principles. Finally Selengut questions if it is possible for scholars to acknowledge the experience of charisma or "the Holy" without reducing it to psychological states or sociological categories.

It's an astonishing story. If someone told you a story like this, you would not believe it. Here is this person, he's seventy years old, he's going to a country where he has no money, he has no contacts. He has none of the things you would say that make for success. He's going to recruit people not on any systematic basis, but just picking up whomever he comes across and he's going to give them responsibility for organising a world-wide movement. You'd say "what kind of program is that?" (Hopkins, 1983:127)

A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), was this person. Born Abhay Caran De on September 1, 1896 in Calcutta, India, to a traditionally religious Hindu family, he received a comprehensive religious and secular education, studying Sanskrit and Hindu philosophy with private tutors, and later attending the prestigious Scottish Churches' College in Calcutta. Upon reaching adulthood, his father, Gour Mohan, a pious follower of the Vaishnava tradition, arranged a marriage for Abhay Caran De to Radharani Datta, the daughter of a prominent Vaishnava family, who was to be the mother of De's five children. After completing his studies, De entered upon a career as a manager for a large Indian pharmaceutical company. He remained in the pharmaceutical business for some thirty years, working both as a manager for large firms and as a small entrepreneur. De was moderately successful in his various ventures, but several of the companies he established in large Indian cities ended in bankruptcy.

Although his early childhood piety had waned somewhat during his college years, as an adult he visited temples regularly and maintained contact with the Vaishnava community. A turning point in his life came when, in 1932, he received initiation from Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, the spiritual leader of a religious institution known as the Gaudiya Math, that traced its roots to the revitalisation movement founded by Sri Chaitanya in sixteenth century India. From 1932 to 1954, De continued his pharmaceutical work, but spent increasing time and money on his religious activities. During this period he greatly increased his writing and preaching activities, and began publishing Back to Godhead magazine. In 1954, following conflict with his wife over his increasing religious commitments, Abhay-now called Bhaktivedanta, a title awarded him in 1939 for his scholarly and devotional activities-left his family, committing himself fully to religious life.

From 1954 until 1965 Bhaktivedanta lived in various Indian cities, writing, preaching and publishing books, pamphlets, and lectures in his effort to spread the Krishna religion. In 1959 he was initiated as a sannyasi (monk) by Keshava Maharaja, one of his "Godbrothers" in the Gaudiya Math. During this period he made some important contacts with Indian leaders. Through his writing and preaching he began to attract a few disciples. But it was to America, the largest English-speaking country in the world, where he felt himself drawn and where he believed his religious mission to be.

Bhaktivedanta's own "Godbrothers" and sympathetic acquaintances tried to discourage him from leaving India, arguing that since he was making an impact in India he should not undertake such a long journey at such an advanced age (he was nearly seventy). Bhaktivedanta, however, persisted, explaining that his spiritual master had asked him to preach the Krishna tradition in America.1 So, in accordance with Bhaktisiddhanta's instructions, Bhaktivedanta left his native India in 1965 for the United States.

Bhaktivedanta's trip to the United States was not sponsored by any religious organisation, nor was he met upon arrival by a group of loyal followers. Rather, he travelled for more than a month on the Indian freighter "Jaladuta" as it made its way from India-first to Boston and then to New York City. He arrived in New York on September 19, 1965 with a few belongings-but with a firm determination to spread the Krishna philosophy in America. From New York he took a bus to Butler, a small town in western Pennsylvania, where he stayed with the Agarwal family, who, though strangers to him, had agreed to sponsor him.

The first few weeks of Swami Bhaktivedanta's stay in America were relatively uneventful and unnoticed. He lectured at some local colleges and community gatherings-there were even a few notices about his arrival in the local newspapers-but he does not appear to have made any lasting contacts. One month after his arrival he returned to New York City where he hoped to establish himself as a teacher and preacher. In New York, Bhaktivedanta contacted Dr. Ramamurti Mishra, a teacher of Indian philosophy on New York's West Side. Dr. Mishra helped Bhaktivedanta get settled in New York, providing him with temporary living quarters.

Within five years of these modest beginnings, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada was the acknowledged spiritual leader and guru of hundreds of devotee followers who were organised into a religious movement with branches on several continents. By 1970 the new movement, incorporated as "The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON)", had been given wide publicity by the media and popularised for the sixties counterculture through such celebrities as Allen Ginsberg and the Beatles. This new movement from the East was avowedly evangelistic and situated in the mainstream of the sixties youth and countercultural movements, performing their religious dances in public parks, participating in anti-Vietnam War rallies, and even, on occasions, appearing at rock concerts and music festivals.

In spite of Bhaktivedanta Swami's close connection with the places and personalities of the counterculture, he remained firmly committed to the cultural and religious traditions of his native Indian Vaishnava community, particularly in his emphasis on devotion to the Indian Deity, Krishna. Bhaktivedanta Swami insisted on the most exact performance of Vaishnava rituals, and on the observance of various religious duties and prohibitions, the bulk of which were probably unknown to his followers until they made his acquaintance.

These events leave us with some intriguing questions. How, for example, was it possible for this elderly Indian holy man to transplant an indigenous Indian devotional tradition to the entirely different social and cultural terrain of America? Why did some of the young Americans who visited him come to accept his authority? Moreover, why is it that some of those attracted to him and his preaching took up the lifestyle he advocated-a life characterised by austerity and self-denial, so unlike their previous mode of life?

There are, of course, many different answers. The faithful see Bhaktivedanta Swami's success as the work of God, of divine grace. Others, antagonistic to unconventional religions, view the development of ISKCON as the result of "coercive socialisation", of deception, and even of "brainwashing". Still others would not want to focus on the person of Bhaktivedanta Swami, but rather upon the "functions"-such as relief from anxiety and tension-his movement performed for the distressed and confused.2

The focus in this paper, however, is upon A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada-his person and his style of leadership. The position taken here is that psychological or cultural needs alone do not create charismatic leaders. The rise of a religious movement is not simply a matter of historical or cultural propitiousness, but the result of a unique convergence of personality, social setting and cultural needs. This is not to deny that charismatic religious movements are likely to emerge, as Robert Tucker (1970:81) tells us, when prevailing widespread dissatisfactions deepen and evolve into distress or suffering. But to acknowledge situational factors in the emergence of charisma does not explain why and how a particular religious leader comes to be accepted and followed as the path to salvation. My contention here is that the unique personal authority of the charismatic leader grows out of the followers' conviction that the leader, by virtue of special powers, qualities and wisdom, can provide relief from their distress, suffering and confusion. Both the leader and the message make the charismatic effervescence possible. Theories which emphasise one factor to the exclusion of the other do an injustice to the confluence of forces necessary for the rise of charismatic movements. The successful development of ISKCON in American must be seen, then, as largely a result of Prabhupada's leadership.

Prophetic Charisma: The Source of Prabhupada's Authority
Prabhupada's religious authority and innovative leadership are explainable in terms of his being a charismatic prophet. As Weber explained (1947:358-59), charisma is a descriptive and non-evaluative category-applicable to conventionally "good" as well as "evil" leaders-and describes "a certain quality of individual personality by virtue of which one is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional power or qualities". These special qualities are regarded by followers as of "divine origin", and on that basis the charismatic individual is treated as a leader worthy of loyalty. To his followers, Prabhupada was such a person, the bearer of an ultimate and salvationist truth available to them if they were loyal and obedient to his directives. The uniqueness of the charismatic prophet is his ability to provide, as Weber puts it, "a consciously integrated and meaningful attitude to life". Prophets, therefore, tend to come forward at times of social and cultural crisis; they preach that personal and societal life can be made meaningful and satisfying once again if lived in accordance with their proclamations. As Weber (1963:59) explains:

To the prophet, both the life of man and the world, both social and cosmic events, have a certain systematic and coherent meaning. To this meaning the conduct of mankind must be oriented if it is to bring salvation, for only in relation to this meaning does life obtain a unified and significant pattern.

Unlike the warrior or priest-other possible types of charismatic leaders-the prophet's authority does not derive from the performance of religious ritual, heroic deeds or heredity, but from his conviction of "being the organ, instrument, or mouthpiece of the divine will" (Wach, 1944:347). Again, in contrast to charismatic political leaders, the prophet's claim to authority is not based upon his personal will, or even deep insight, but upon the word of God revealed to the prophet directly or through a sacred tradition.

The prophet is also a radical critic of society. As a consequence of his intense relationship with the divine-with what he takes to be the deepest sources of truth and reality-the prophet demands that the social order conform to the moral order as known to him through his experience and knowledge of God's will. The prophet, possibly as a consequence of his personal experience of the divine will, appears throughout religious history as a confident and courageous critic of the status quo.

Srila Prabhupada's ability to create ISKCON needs to be seen in light of his own self-consciousness as an authorised prophet, and of the acceptance and recognition of his prophetic powers by his early followers. Evidence abounds of his conviction that he was a messenger through which Krishna consciousness would be brought to the Western world. From the time Prabhupada left his family and business associations and took up full-time religious life, he saw himself as the person who would awaken the entire world-particularly the educated elements in India and America-to the faith system and redemptive powers of Krishna consciousness.

This powerful self-consciousness, the overwhelming sense of being the organ, instrument, or mouthpiece of the divine will, is the distinguishing characteristic of the prophet.3 Bhaktivedanta Swami apparently possessed this awareness, and in spite of occasional doubts, even serious organisational setbacks and, at times, blunders and errors, he appears never to have wavered from this strongly felt inner conviction.4 This inner conviction of having been called to the prophetic mission gave Bhaktivedanta Swami enormous personal confidence and the courage to persist in reaching his goals. An example of his prophetic confidence is seen in the reflections of a Village Voice reporter (S. Goswami, 1980:90-91) who interviewed him on New York's Lower East Side in 1966-a time before Prabhupada really had any fully committed devotees:

I thought his ideas stood a good chance of taking hold, because he seemed so practical. His head didn't seem in the clouds. He wasn't talking mysticism every third word. I guess that's where his soul was, but that is not where his normal conversational consciousness was at. Everything was very practical. Then he talked about temples all over the world, and he said, "Well, we have got a long way to go. But I am very patient."(my italic)

In the authentic tradition of prophecy, Prabhupada never presented himself as a religious innovator but as the authorised representative of the divine will. Over and over again, he insisted it was not his personal desire that led him to America, but obedience to his own guru, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati. Typical of his pronouncements is an entry in his diary (S. Goswami, 1980:1) composed aboard the ship during his initial trip to the United States:

I have left Bharatabhumi just to execute the order of Shri Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, in pursuance of Lord Caitanya's order. I have no qualification but have taken up the risk just to carry out the order of His Divine Grace. I depend fully on Their mercy, so far from Vrindavana.

In spite of his highly traditional rhetoric-Prabhupada always presented himself as a part of the Vaishnava disciplic line (parampara)-his leadership was both original and innovative. While he was theologically orthodox, his emphasis on the priesthood of all fully committed Krishna devotees regardless of nationality and family origin, and his willingness to virtually go it alone in the West with little help (and even some opposition) from his own "Godbrothers", differentiates him from other initiated disciples of Bhaktisiddhanta. Bhaktivedanta was no conventional pious priest and devotee, but the prophet of a revitalised Krishna tradition.

Prabhupada and His Disciples
Charismatic authority requires more than a leader's inner conviction and confidence: it demands acceptance of the leader's authority by his followers. What was it about Prabhupada that encouraged his disciples-and even some people outside his institutional circle-to view him as an "extraordinary" person worthy of veneration, loyalty and obedience? The young men and women initially attracted to Prabhupada and his teachings-those who recognised him as a charismatic prophet-were, as J. Stillson Judah (1974) explained, people of the counterculture who were searching for an explanation of life's meaning but did not find it or were not satisfied with the answers they did receive from conventional authorities. Many who were attracted to Prabhupada were "seekers"-people who had sought a comprehensive philosophy of life in Marxism, communal living groups, Eastern philosophy, or in psychedelic cultures, but who were never really satisfied with what they found (Selengut, 1989). It was Prabhupada and his presentation of Krishna consciousness which appeared to answer their deepest longings.

Many disciples tell of their long spiritual quest which was only satisfied upon meeting and hearing Prabhupada's expositions of Vaishnava philosophy. An early devotee (now a leader in ISKCON) who had been involved in the sixties' counterculture studying with a spiritual teacher in California, tells of his experiences (T.K. Goswami, 1984:12):

Although I had attended numerous lectures by Ron Lamerick, they consisted mostly of abstract ideas presented in a contrived, complex terminology which I found difficult to remember from one meeting to the next. The meditation sessions had been no less confusing. Each person was encouraged to "travel" out of his body, and upon re-entering, to describe where he or she had been. There was no direction given as to how to channel our energy toward a particular goal. Whatever the goal was, Ron Lamerick had never clearly defined it. Comparing the two, I felt that there was more to gain by hearing Prabhupada lecture. Chanting Hare Krishna was a more tangible process than some vague meditation.

In defining what appealed to him about Prabhupada during an interview with me, another early disciple explained, "He had answers about the nature of the soul, the nature of God and the relation between the two... He presented a vocabulary to understand spirituality, and made it real and accessible." 5

What attracted prospective followers in many instances was the religious message of Krishna consciousness-namely, that human beings are spirit souls whose essential earthly task is to serve God (Krishna) so that they "do not have to take birth again in the material world" and can return to their original, blissful transcendental position in the spiritual world. As one devotee put it:

Prabhupada taught us who God is, what our relationship is with Him and how to develop our love for God in our daily lives. My brother and I would always ask ourselves: Where did we come from? Here is this universe, how did it get here? What is behind this and that? But these questions never came up in our social circles. Krishna consciousness answers them clearly and in a non-sentimental way.6

Prabhupada, in essence, rejected Western culture and showed his followers a "way out" from the secularisation and functional rationality of modern social systems, a condition in which human activity is unrelated to transcendental meaning. Prabhupada's teachings were a call for the sacralisation of human activity. In practising devotion to the Krishna tradition, disciples were assured that they were participating in the divine plan in which all actions, relationships, and experiences have cosmic meaning. Personal biography and the pains of mundane experience could now be transcended through a life lived in fidelity with Prabhupada's instructions.

Prabhupada subtly wedded Vaishnava religious philosophy to a radical social critique of Western culture. The beliefs and practices of Krishna consciousness were presented not only as religious obligations, but also as means for the alleviation of the personal and collective malaise engendered by modernity. Prabhupada claimed that the high crime rate, the dissolution of stable family forms, and even the alienated work conditions of many modern societies were attributable, not simply to social or economic causes, but to the absence of a specifically transcendental spirituality and practice centred around devotion to Krishna as God. Reincarnation, vegetarianism, celibacy, Deity worship-central tenets of Krishna consciousness-were shown to be the path to higher spirituality, and also the only authentic "solution" for the problems faced by modern social systems. "He looked at the symptoms of our times", said one devotee, "and could describe very accurately what was going on below the surface." Another disciple put it his way: "It's not lack of food, clothing, or even shelter that's the problem. What Prabhupada showed us was that it is people's refusal to surrender to Krishna, to love and serve Him, that is at the root of the problem."

The philosophy of Krishna consciousness, however, is but one element in explaining the early success of ISKCON. Social movements of either a religiously salvationist or politically revolutionary type always present scenarios for personal or social transformation. An attractive worldview promising relief from distress does not, by itself, engender a charismatic movement. What makes such movements possible-at least in the initial phases-is the critical presence of a leader with "extraordinary" qualities to inspire, sustain, embody and articulate the movement's message and vision for would-be joiners and followers. The authentic leader, i.e., the bearer of charisma, "radiates a buoyant self-confidence in the rightness and goodness of the aims he proclaims for his movement" (Tucker, 1970:87). Moreover, he shows a stubborn "self-confidence and faith in the movement's prospects" for success.

Prabhupada was experienced by others as such a personality. From available sources, we get the sense of a leader who, in spite of setbacks and periodic doubts, was convinced of the final success of his vision. It was this self-confidence-derived both from the inspiration and authority given to him by his own guru (and thus, according to Indian tradition, by Krishna himself acting through the guru), and from his own prophetic stature-by which he was to be successful in spreading Krishna consciousness throughout much of the world.

The acceptance of Prabhupada as a charismatic prophet and teacher endowed his person and directives with sacred authority. For his disciples, Prabhupada's instructions were seen as emanating from divine reality and were identified with that ultimate realm of truth. There was little reason for disciples to evaluate his pronouncements, viewpoints, or authority in the context of any other social, ethical or religious system. The fact that what Prabhupada decreed might be "wrong" by prevailing scientific or moral standards would not be reason for its rejection. Ultimately, prophetic authority is not predicated on human understanding or social acceptability but upon faith in the charismatic person, who is known to represent transcendental truth. In obedience to Prabhupada, the early ISKCON followers felt themselves to be "in tune with the Universe", while disobedience was seen as denying the fundamental order of God's will. Living in accordance with the prophet's directives is to be in harmony with the essential nature of the cosmos. To deny or to disobey this authority is to be removed from that order and to invite the terrors of suffering, anomie and chaos on the self.


Part Two