Reflections on Spiritual Leadership

The Legacy of Srila Prabhupada

Larry D. Shinn

As this is the centenary year of Shrila Prabhupada's birth (ISKCON's founder and acarya), we have decided to print a number of articles about Shrila Prabhupada's work. The following article by Larry Shinn provides us with an examination of Shrila Prabhupada as a mahatma, his faith in the Lord, his sadhana, his erudition and his role in the tradition. Significantly, it also explains the value of his profound teaching by his personal example and how it cannot be imitated by his followers. Shinn argues, consistent with everything Shrila Prabhupada stood for, that the standards of personal devotion and s�dhana set by ISKCON's founder-ac�rya must be met by any member who wants to inherit the kind of spiritual authority he possessed; the position of guru is not befitting those unable to follow in the footsteps of the previous ac�ryas as ac�rya means one who teaches by example.

In India, the term mahatma, or "great-souled one", is reserved for the exceptional person whose integrity as a religious, or even political, leader stems from an inner purity or spirituality that is expressed in all of their actions. When a person exhibits an extraordinary piety reflecting a basic fidelity between their daily actions and their religious claims, they are considered "great-souled". Such was the case with Mohandas K. Gandhi, who was often called simply "The Mahatma". Allowing for the obvious idiosyncrasies and failings of all humans, Gandhi was an exceptional proponent of non-violence who remained a public leader in South Africa and India for more than fifty years because of his personal and spiritual integrity in living a non-violent life. When a person with such spiritual power and personal integrity exercises influence over a large number of people, they are popularly called "charismatic". Such also was the case with Gandhi.

However, not all such persons gain the wide renown of Gandhi, even when they exhibit such consistency of spiritual intentions and actions. Such a person was Abhay Charan De, who became better known as A. C. Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada, the spiritual founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). Though virtually all of those who met Prabhupada attest to his spiritual fidelity and integrity, few outside of ISKCON have claimed for him the title of mahatma or the personal attribute of "charisma". In these brief reflections, I will suggest that Prabhupada was "great-souled" and "charismatic". I will then suggest that it was the failure of his eleven early successors to understand fully the issues surrounding fidelity of spirit and action that led many of them astray. It seems to me that a brighter future for leaders in ISKCON in America and elsewhere lies in an understanding of Prabhup�da's personal spiritual legacy.

Whether one is born in a humble home with few religious pretensions or as the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, spiritual maturity is a hard-won attainment. No person is born with the depth of spirituality of a mah�tma. Such clearly was the case with Abhay Charan De. His early childhood hardly prefigured the powerful religious person he was to become. His embrace of his family's Krishna faith was tepid at best in his early years; indeed, he tells us that he was very reluctant even to meet with Bhaktisiddhanta, his eventual spiritual master. When Abhay began to express interest in his childhood Krishna faith, his wife did not share his enthusiasm. The story of his own growing faith and his wife's rejection of that faith reminds us that developing religious teachers are not universally attractive nor always materially successful. However, several influential persons, from his childhood friend Naren Mullik to the members of the League of Devotees in Jhansi, formed a cadre of supporters that Abhay needed to develop his own deeper faith in Krishna.

There is no doubt that the depth of Prabhupada's faith and spiritual power was forged in the long hours of chanting, reflection, and writing over eleven years of near-solitude in the temples and retreat rooms of Vrindaban and New Delhi just prior to his coming to America. But one cannot discount Prabhupada's own depiction of his spiritual journey as one of gradual awakening and deepening certainty throughout his whole life, including the period of his American and world ministry. His Back to Godhead articles, written between 1944 and his death in 1977 reveal the balance of spiritual practice and theological conceptualisation that Prabhupada brought to his life's work. His piety was grounded in both his intellect and his heart, and the two were mutually sustaining. Therefore, Prabhupada's spiritual journey included not only scriptural study and theological argumentation, but also daily chanting and worship of Krishna; he thus engaged his heart as fully as his head. I realise that this very way of separating a faith of head and heart would be uncomfortable to Prabhupada, but it is just such a split that I think led some of his appointed successors down roads of self-deception and ruin - a theme to be discussed later in this essay.

While on his voyage to America on the Indian ship Jaladuta in the Autumn of 1965, Prabhupada wrote a prayer that said, in part, "Although my Guru Maharaja [Bhaktisiddhanta] ordered me to accomplish this mission, I am not worthy or fit to do it... Therefore, O Lord [Krishna], now I am begging for Your mercy so that I may become worthy." Even at the age of sixty-nine, Prabhupada felt a deep-seated need for the guidance of Krishna to lead him in his daily work. This is the perspective of a humble, faith-filled man. These are the words of one who believed that the knowledge gained from the Krishna scriptures, and his years of study and translation of them were not sufficient without continual nourishment of his faith by the practice of chanting and praising of Lord Krishna. It was this balance of scriptural erudition and deep personal faith to which his early followers were attracted - not to a flashy self-presentation or spellbinding sermons. One of Prabhupada's first devotees said simply, "I didn't have any emotional experiences. Prabhupada was very much an ordinary person until you developed a relationship [with him]."

In my interviews with more than 130 devotees between 1980 and 1990, devotee after devotee revealed that they were strongly attracted to Prabhupada because of his scriptural erudition and sincere devotion - that is, his piety. One early devotee said, "He was chanting, and just by the sound of his voice I could see that this person loves God." Another devotee who was sceptical of flashy Indian gurus said, "When he walked in, I thought, 'He is different...' He had that bearing, that gravity, that clear seriousness that you associate with a military leader, a commander... The kirtana began and Prabhupada became immediately ecstatic... [He] shattered all my previous conceptions about a spiritual master." Even academic scholars like Stillson Judah were "struck by his humility". As yet another devotee said, "he never put on a show." The composite picture one gets of Prabhupada is of a religious seeker who never forgot his finitude before God, even when he achieved a high level of spiritual development and served as the channel for the devotee's love to God. Prabhupada was impressive to devotee and outsider alike because of his personal piety. In this sense, he was a mahatma.

However, Prabhupada's spiritual authority was also rooted in traditional Vaishnava theological claims about the guru as a direct channel to Lord Krishna. The Gaudiya Vaishnava notion of disciplic succession, or parampar� (literally "uninterrupted series"), says that an initiating guru stands in an unbroken chain of disciples from Chaitanya and other notable teachers back to Krishna himself. The guru is understood to be an external representation of God, and as such, receives devotion intended for Krishna and serves as a conduit for that devotion. Prabhupada says this succinctly: "A disciple has to accept the spiritual master not only as spiritual master, but also as the representative of the Supreme Personality of Godhead and the Supersoul. In other words, the disciple should accept the spiritual master as God because he is the external manifestation of Krishna." Prabhupada spoke with just such traditional authority. He instructed his disciples to surrender completely to the guru in order to attain their fullest spiritual maturation. In making such assertions, Prabhupada was conveying age-old teachings of the medieval Vaishnava scripture that says, "It is the duty of every human being to surrender to a bona fide spiritual master. Giving him everything - body, mind, and intelligence - one must take a Vaishnava initiation from him." In this sense, Prabhupada had "traditional charisma" in Max Weber's terms.

When I was asked to offer this brief reflection on Prabhupada, I was reminded of images of a special, holy man who, by his erudition and personal piety as well as by his traditional role, touched the lives of thousands of devotees in India, America and around the world. I was also struck by the realisation that for all of his extraordinary attributes, Prabhupada could not pass on his own personal faith to his appointed successors even as he did pass on the mantle of leadership (that is, traditional roles) for ISKCON. As I reminisced about my interactions with Krishna gurus and devotees, which began in 1974 and intensified through the 1980s, I was struck by this realisation that the traditional roles and scriptural erudition could be transmitted by teaching, but that the personal piety and deep faith that attracted devotees to Prabhupada could not.

As I reviewed my interviews with devotees from the years just following the death of Prabhupada, I came to realise that many devotees, and certainly all of the newly appointed initiating gurus, spoke with a confidence and enthusiasm about their maturing Krishna faith that was almost always grounded in scriptural authority (that is, in reciting a Krishna text), or in Prabhupada's interpretations of those texts. It is true that some of the new gurus were noted for their ecstatic chanting or personal piety, but their claim to authority was grounded primarily in scriptural passages like those cited above. Most "new gurus" exhibited a confidence, even a cockiness, that if the scriptures said a guru was "as good as God", then it was so - forgetting that such claims must be grounded in the kind of personal humility that Prabhupada exhibited. In the early and mid-1980s, I talked with some new gurus who were exceptionally bright and erudite in scriptural argumentation but who had stopped doing sankirtan themselves even as they taught the importance of such "preaching" to new devotees. I met other new gurus who were talented organisational managers but who had stopped chanting their morning rounds of japa, and ultimately fell from their lofty positions because of immoral behaviour. I met only a few new gurus who were impressive because of their humbleness and piety, and they have continued to provide leadership for ISKCON - even in the dark days of the early and mid-1980s.

What is the legacy that Prabhupada has left for ISKCON? It is the legacy of traditional authority (parampara), scriptural erudition and personal piety as necessary corollaries to a healthy and vibrant Krishna faith. Even as the reformers in ISKCON attempted in the mid-1980s to reduce ISKCON'S reliance on relatively few gurus (by appointing many new ones) and to separate some managerial and organisational functions from the spiritual role of the guru, Prabhupada's legacy of personal piety and moral purity seldom was offered as the key to a new guru's success. Prabhupada's legacy is a faith marked by a blend of head and heart - both focused upon God's divine mercy and compassion-that separates the true spiritual master from the impostor.

Too many of the early gurus relied upon their traditional scriptural authority alone or upon artificial affectations of spirituality to maintain their positions - until they "fell". Those who have engaged in arduous spiritual practise balanced with disciplined scriptural study over the past thirty years have acquired the status and piety of the acharya that the scriptures describe.

Nori Muster, in her forthcoming book Betrayal of the Spirit, offers a perspective on the gap between religious proclamations and practise in ISKCON during her years in the movement throughout the 1980s that I encourage all of those in leadership positions in ISKCON today to take seriously. Though Muster's book may emphasise primarily the negative attitudes and events associated with ISKCON in America, it also reveals her longing for models of piety and integrity that gurus and ISKCON leaders purportedly represent. Her story reveals the deleterious effects of shallow religiosity, unethical conduct and self-deceptive proclamations by some of ISKCON'S gurus and leaders on the average devotee who simply looks to see how wide the gap is between what a person asserts about his or her authority as a spiritual leader and what he or she actually does. For Prabhupada that gap was quite narrow. That is his legacy, from which contemporary gurus can learn much.

The good news is that there are many signs in America, Europe and elsewhere in the world that gurus and other leaders in ISKCON recognise that they must live and act in ways that are more consistent with their teachings. Conferences held in Europe during the past half dozen years reveal a more contrite and apologetic tone in public self-presentations by devotees. However, Prabhupada's legacy is richer still in the lesson it would teach to contemporary devotees: that the quality of one's spiritual practice and growth must undergird one's theological and scriptural erudition and public and private actions. His lesson is for the developing spiritual seeker-not for one seeking a religious role in ISKCON as an institution.

In the final analysis, Prabhupada's life suggests that only the guru who truly is linked to Krishna by his or her own private and public devotion can serve as a conduit for disciples who rely upon the Vaishnava's disciplic succession. Over the years, many Krishna devotees have quoted to me numerous scriptural passages that confirm this view of their disciplic authority - but seldom have they cited the faith-development of Prabhup�da as a model for their own development. With Prabhupada, the recitation of scriptural authorities was not necessary to confirm his role as acarya. Images of the love-filled and ecstatic Prabhupada softly singing praises to Krishna is his legacy of God-centered love-images which can serve ISKCON and its leaders well in his absence. It is this legacy of a guru's devotion and humility before God - his piety - that Prabhupada asks his successors to emulate. What better legacy could a spiritual teacher leave to those who would follow him?1


For an early thought-piece on the guru-disciple relationship, see my essay "Conflicting Network: Guru and Friend in ISKCON", in Religious Movements, Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers, edited by Rodney Start (New York: Paragon House, 1985). For a fuller description of my understanding of the role and place of Prabhupada as guru and the difficulties of transmitting prophetic charisma to one's successors, see "Chapter 2 Godmen and Gurus" and "Chapter 3 The Transmission of Charisma" in The Dark Lord: Cult Images and the Hare Krishnas in America (Philadelphia: Westminister, 1987). The reader will see how my reflections have moved from an earlier formal and scholarly analysis of religious and institutional roles and categories, to one currently more reliant on the intangible synthesis of thought and religious practise in what I can only imprecisely call "piety" or "spiritual integrity".