NB. The footnotes for this article are linked to a separate footnote page.
Imagine, if you will, a seventy-year-old Hindu Vaishnava scholar journeying from India aboard a steamship bound for America. His personal effects consist of but a few sets of saffron renunciate's cloth, a pair of white rubber shoes, and forty rupees ('hardly a day's spending money,' he would later remark after arriving in New York City). Though asking for alms is a privilege of his calling, he has no intention of begging. Before taking the vow of renunciation (sannyasa), he had a family, a business and hailed from a community of Bengali merchants who prospered during the British Raj. Now he had, stowed amidst the ship's cargo, three treasure chests filled with sets of his published translations of the ancient Bhagavata-Purana. These priceless treasures are to be both the basis of his mission and the means of his survival, but he wonders how the West will receive them. Arriving at Boston Harbour on 17, September 1965, observing the awesome display of material success played out on the American skyline, he composes the following lines:
My dear Lord Krishna, You are so kind upon this useless soul, but I do not know why You have brought me here. Now You can do whatever You like with me. But I guess You have some business here, otherwise why would You bring me to this terrible place? Most of the population here is covered by the material modes of ignorance and passion. Absorbed in material life, they think themselves very happy and satisfied, and therefore they have no taste for the transcendental message of Vasudeva. I do not know how they will be able to understand it (Goswami, S. 1983: Vol. II: p281).
From the moment of his landing, his thoughts pregnant with uncertainty, to his first temples in the counter-culture capitals of New York's Lower East Side and San Francisco's Haight, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami focused his mission: to transplant the sacred wisdom of India into the fertile soil of the West. His mission was time-bound, no less by his advanced age, than by the growing secularism which had already begun to uproot his motherland's timeworn traditions. If his fledgling attempt succeeded in America, he would not only export it all over the world, but use it to rekindle the flagging spirit of his own countrymen.
Prabhupada (to use the respectful address later given Bhaktivedanta Swami by his disciples) brought to his task some exceptional qualifications. His religious education began in childhood under the tutelage of devout parents. Later, he attended compulsory Bible classes while majoring in philosophy, Sanskrit and English Literature at Calcutta's Scottish Churches' College. Family obligations then obliged him to pursue a business career that provided him skills as an organiser. But the missionary zeal, which energised the second half of his life, was a consequence of none of these. Rather, it was the direct influence of his guru, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati.
Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati's lineage is traced to the fifteenth century saint Shri Chaitanya, who is considered by the tradition to be an incarnation of the Godhead with other gods subordinate to him. Chaitanyaism, or more correctly Gaudiya-Vaishnavism, traces its line further back to the thirteenth century teacher Madhva and, the tradition holds, to the creator Brahma and before him, the Godhead Krishna. The various branches of Vaishnavism are clearly monotheistic, worshipping Vishnu or one of his prominent manifestations as the Supreme Deity. The nuances which differentiate each of the schools of Vaishnavism will not concern us here apart from distinguishing Sri Chaitanya's teaching which is compressed within the slogan acintya-bhedabheda-tattva - the inconceivable simultaneous oneness and difference between God and the individual soul.
The foundation of Chaitanya's philosophy is the Bhagavata-Purana, a Sanskrit compilation of prodigious length, attributed to Vyasadeva. Chaitanya's followers produced a vast corpus of original work as well as commentaries on the Bhagavata and other classic texts. A formidable library was thus created to firmly fix the sect's teachings. As an initiated disciple in the line of Chaitanya, Prabhupada studied and published articles on many of these texts and in 1939 was awarded the title 'Bhaktivedanta' by his godbrothers in recognition of his scholarship (Goswami, S. 1980: Vol. I: 103).
While much care was taken to insure the sect's textual orthodoxy, organisationally Chaitanya's movement was nothing more than numerous disciplic lines descended from his original followers. Though doctrinal differences often differentiated them, they were bound together only by their collective allegiance to Chaitanya, not by any common organisational affiliation. An effort to resolve this lack of cohesion was made by Kedaranatha Datta, later known as Bhaktivinoda Thakura. The father of Prabhupada's guru Bhaktisiddhanta, Bhaktivinoda served as Chief Magistrate of the High Court in Puri, Orissa, a post that included honorary jurisdiction over the ancient temple of Jagannatha. He was an avid student of world religions. A spiritual search eventually led him to rediscover his own Chaitanya tradition, and he became its most ardent champion. Over the centuries, its prestige had become tarnished by various sahajiya sects who often sacramentalised sex. Bhaktivinoda concluded that they misconstrued the theology, claiming allegiance to Chaitanya without strictly following his pure discipline. Bhaktivinoda proceeded to renovate the line. Most importantly for our purpose here, for the first time he gave Chaitanya's movement coherent organisational structure, creating a loose confederation which he dubbed Sri Nama-Hatta, 'the market place of the holy name.' 1 Using the influence of his office, he vigorously organised a massive network of practitioners, creating a hierarchy of leadership and designating for himself the humble role of 'sweeper' of the market place-in effect, 'protector of the faith'. (See Bhaktivinoda 1983: 17)
Bhaktivinoda's son continued the work begun by his father. Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati founded the Gaudiya Matha with its sixty-four affiliated temples and initiated some sixty thousand disciples. Keeping in the spirit of his father, not only was he a prolific author and publisher of Chaitanyaite literature, but he also further standardised the Chaitanyaite devotional practices while erecting a tightly knit organisational superstructure. However, the weakness of that structure was revealed only after he expired. His chief followers failed to abide by his final instruction to form a governing body that would replace him as the ultimate authority. Consequently, the Gaudiya Matha succumbed to factionalism and legal bickering over the division of the vast holdings accumulated during the lifetime of its founder.
Prabhupada's solitary voyage to the West was as much due to his disgust at seeing his guru's institution fracture as to the missionary order he had received from him. He was determined that the society he formed would not repeat the failure of succession that had befallen the mission of his guru. But given the strangeness of his religious and cultural message as well as the youth of his first followers, the same problems of succession were practically inevitable.
Perhaps the most formidable, and certainly the first, obstacle to overcome was his Western audience's relative unfamiliarity with Chaitanya's teachings. He would have to unpack the densely encoded Sanskrit texts for his Western readers. For this purpose, he reached beyond the specific Chaitanya liturgy to the Bhagavad-gita, Isopanishad and Bhagavata-Purana. His 'Bhaktivedanta Purports,' heavily stamped with his devotion for Krishna, were meant to insure his followers absolute fidelity. As he would declare in 1975, 'My books will be the law books for the next ten thousand years.'2
But Prabhupada quickly discovered that while his young American converts could easily modify their hippie habits to conform to the monastic discipline, it was far more difficult for them to leave behind their intellectual baggage. Obedience to authority of any sort was the thing his largely youthful audience found most abhorrent. If subservience to the guru's instructions was something even his advanced godbrothers in India had found difficult, could these young Americans be expected to conquer their own rebelliousness? As often and repeatedly as he beat them with mantras and lessons, at least a few could not. One disciple in particular, Kirtanananda Swami - the very first to shave his head and don the traditional monk's robes of a sannyasi as early as 1966 - proved to be incorrigible.
The early case of Kirtanananda Swami forecast the problems of succession that lay ahead, problems of authority and of the continuity of tradition, faced both by Prabhupada and later, by his disciples after Prabhupada's departure. While he might personally be able to nourish and protect the movement in its infancy, its inevitable expansion would require a suitable superstructure that would endure the crisis created by his demise.
E. Burke Rochford, Jr. and Larry D. Shinn in their respective works, and ISKCON scholar Ravindra Svarupa dasa in a number of essays, have amply documented the struggle for authority created by Prabhupada's departure (See Rochford, E. B., Jr. 1985, Shinn, Larry 1987: 47-60, and dasa, Ravindra Svarupa 1985, 1994). All three scholars more or less concur on identifying the major issues: 'who are the real inheritors of Prabhupada's mantle? The new gurus? The GBC? All the disciples of Prabhupada who have the capacity to be gurus? No easy answers emerged in the years following Prabhupada's death.' (Shinn, 1987: 49).3
Two prominent Indian supporters of ISKCON raised the same questions when they met Prabhupada in Vrindavana shortly before his death in 1977.4 Would Prabhupada appoint a single successor from among his followers? Prabhupada's answer: All his disciples would succeed him. The response disappointed them, for they had in mind the autocratic guru of Hindu tradition. Perhaps if they had been more familiar with Prabhupada's teachings they would not have been so surprised. In a purport to the Shri Chaitanya-caritamrita (Adi-lila, 12.8), he writes:
Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, at the time of his departure, requested all his disciples to form a governing body and conduct missionary activity cooperatively. He did not instruct a particular man to become the next acarya. But just after his passing away, his leading secretaries made plans, without authority, to occupy the post of acarya, and they split into two factions over who the next acarya would be. Consequently, both factions were asura, or useless, because they had no authority, having disobeyed the order of the spiritual master (Prabhupada1975).
Indeed, Lord Chaitanya had given an open order for all to "become a spiritual master and try to liberate everyone in this land."5 But a succession of 'all' is a succession of none. Yet, anarchy was certainly not Prabhupada's intention.
In the disobedience of his first disciple Kirtanananda, Prabhupada recognised the seeds of dissent, which, if left unchecked, would dismantle his fledgling institution. Kirtanananda's challenge must have convinced Prabhupada that he needed to train his disciples quickly in order to form a governing board to insure the institution's cohesion, particularly when he was no longer present. At least while he was present he could lay the foundation and construct the framework for his vision of a vast missionary movement. Thus by 1970, four years after incorporating the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), Prabhupada established the Governing Body Commission (GBC), as his 'direct representatives to act as the instrument for the execution of the will of His Divine Grace'. (Goswami, S. 1982: Vol. IV: 103-104) 6 But an organisational superstructure is no better than its members and therein lay a huge problem.
Kirtanananda Swami was the son of a Southern Baptist minister. Initiated by Prabhupada into the order of sannyasa while accompanying his master to India, Kirtanananda believed that the spreading of Krishna consciousness was hampered by the devotees' odd appearance - by the traditional robes and sikha, the tuft of hair left on an otherwise cleanly shaven head.7 But Kirtanananda and his spiritual master disagreed on more than what constituted proper devotional attire. Underlying the misgiving about dress, were Kirtanananda's doubts about dualism: he could not distinguish between the impersonal and personal features of Krishna, between the soul as individually distinct from the Godhead (See letters to Brahmananda, Rayarama, and Gargamuni, Prabhupada1987: 229-230, 232).
Prabhupada's initial response to Kirtanananda's deviation was novel: rather than condemning his speculations, he suggested that Kirtanananda stop in London on his return to America in order to test out his ideas. But Kirtanananda circumvented his guru's order, flying directly to New York where he made his godbrothers the target of his new gospel. Prabhupada tightened the screws: he ordered that Kirtanananda should be stopped from speaking in any of the society's temples.8 When his disciples wrote to India repeating Kirtanananda's arguments, Prabhupada refuted impersonalism in each of his replies. Yet he did not reject his wayward disciple; Kirtanananda's confusion, he suggested, was a "temporary manifestation of maya [illusion]" and "will be corrected as soon as I return" (See letter to Himavati, Prabhupada1987: 241-2).
Prabhupada explained that he signed all his letters to disciples as 'Your ever well-wisher' to indicate that he remained ever concerned for his disciples, even if they left him. But other disciples found it difficult to embrace their spiritual master's mood. They spat on Kirtanananda and ejected him from the temple (See letter to Rayarama, Prabhupada1987: 243-4).9
Kirtanananda's mistaken attitude, Prabhupada ultimately concluded, was based on his refusal to accept the parampara (disciplic succession) system and the authority of the scriptures. His misfortune, however, proved a learning experience for the other disciples. Though one or two had been swayed by Kirtanananda's arguments, the majority had become strengthened by successfully defending their guru's teachings. The harsh response of the spitting incidents was tempered by Prabhupada's abiding concern for even one who had turned against him. Consequently, within a matter of months, Kirtanananda had recanted and apologised and began work once more under his master to establish the New Vrindaban, West Virginia community. Though time would prove that his philosophical misconceptions were not in fact corrected, Prabhupada's skilful handling of the incident allowed Kirtanananda to return, at least temporarily, to active and beneficial service for ISKCON. 10
The Kirtanananda incident is the first instance of an open challenge to the founder's authority. It was not Prabhupada alone but the authority of the entire disciplic line and the scriptures that were being questioned. In the Christian tradition, such challenges were regarded as heresy; and the heretic was considered as evil:
The word heresy is derived from a Greek word meaning 'choice.' It had been used to designate the particular teachings of philosophical schools, and it denoted the opinions that each one had chosen. Christian writers began to use the term and soon gave it a pejorative significance. To them it indicated that a person had chosen a human opinion and rejected divine revelation. In this sense heresy has an evil significance, and the heretic is considered evil (Tyson 1984: 410).
We may note, in comparison, that in Prabhupada's estimation Kirtanananda deviated from the authority of the disciplic line and scripture, which was for ISKCON a rejection of divine revelation in favour of human opinion. Prabhupada treated Kirtanananda's influence as an evil to be carefully guarded against, but unlike his disciples who demonised the evil-doer, Prabhupada treated him with compassion.11 As we shall see, this is often a distinguishing feature in the way Prabhupada and his disciples handled similar challenges.
In fact, the challenges faced first by Prabhupada and later by his disciples are so strikingly similar that they appear to be mirror images of each other, logically suggesting a treatment in consonance with their inherent congruence. They fall within two broad categories: the problem of a) authority of the leadership, and b) continuity of the tradition. These are the two crucial problems every founded religion must solve if it wishes to preserve its identity over time, particularly after the founder's departure. We shall look at four 'heresies' of authority, the first two as they arose while the founder was still alive, showing how he met these challenges, then looking at two 'heresies' of authority that arose after the founder's departure, showing how his disciples met and are meeting these challenges. We will then treat four heresies of continuity following the same scheme-first during the founder's time, then during the period of his disciples. But before we begin, a brief caveat for ISKCON readers.
Heresies polarise. But divisiveness is not necessarily bad. The disruptive beliefs and actions of contentious persons can also be stimulants, forcing the institution and its leaders to define and defend itself. Exploring heresy can provide insights into doctrinal and institutional issues that other methods might not so easily reveal. The study of heresies, therefore, is important for more than antiquarian reasons. A religious tradition should pay attention to heresies not merely to guard against the errors of the past (and certainly not to demonise their advocates) but to learn from them. Every heresy is a warning of unresolved tensions within a tradition and a challenge to preserve the tradition in changing cultural and intellectual circumstances.
Heresies of Authority
The Guru is God Heresy
There were lessons, undoubtedly, in the Kirtanananda episode for Prabhupada as well as for his disciples. Upon his return to America, he increased his translation output with the intention of establishing the movement on a firm philosophical footing. At the same time he began the formation of a body to govern his growing institution.12
It may be recalled that after the departure of Prabhupada's guru, the Gaudiya Matha splintered when Bhaktisiddhanta's senior disciples, instead of following his instruction to govern collegially, attempted to appoint a sole successor. Thirty years had elapsed and each leader was now the head of his own institution. They had been silent when, immediately after arriving in America, Prabhupada had sought their help. Now, hearing of Prabhupada's success, they suggested he return to India to discuss the most effective means to spread Chaitanya's teachings. But Prabhupada was wary of their sudden interest in his activities. 'Tell them,' he said, 'that I will only come if they agree to form a governing body with twelve members. Since they have never dared to leave India, they can collectively appoint one representative and ISKCON shall make up the other eleven.' (Goswami, T. 1991:193)
There was no reply. Instead, a veiled criticism of Prabhupada was included in a letter to devotees in New York from Acyutananda dasa, a disciple of Prabhupada who was living in one of the Indian Gaudiya Mathas. Acyutananda dasa suggested that the title 'Prabhupada' ('he, at whose feet all masters sit') should be reserved for Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati and Rupa Goswami (Sri Chaitanya's foremost disciple). Always alert lest any harm befall his fledgling movement, Prabhupada viewed his disciple's criticism as a spot of cancer which, if left unchecked, would relativise his absolute position. He also noted that the honorific 'His Divine Grace' and 'Prabhupada' had come to be omitted from the cover of the most recent of his translations released by ISKCON Press, Boston. Another publication merely described him as 'acarya', ('the institutional head') even though he had instructed that the title 'founder-acarya' be included in all his publications.
To get a better sense of the distinction we need to explicate the term acarya. 'One who teaches by example' (which may refer to any genuine devotee) is the first definition. Another meaning is 'one who grants initiation to a disciple,' - in other words, a guru. Then there is a third meaning, 'the spiritual head of an institution,' a title that may be given to future successors. But the designation 'founder- acarya' is exclusive, inapplicable to any other head of the institution other than its founder.13 When Prabhupada objected to the omission of 'founder' before the title 'acarya,' he was obviously insisting on this last definition.
Prabhupada detected similar challenges to his absolute authority in the behaviour of certain leaders of his Los Angeles headquarters. Increasingly, in the guise of protecting his privacy for his translating, the leaders denied devotees direct access to him. In San Francisco at the Festival of the Chariots, there was no seat for him on any of the carts. Thus, he saw on a number of places moves to minimise his position. With an adroitness which was characteristic of his administrative skills, he acted suddenly to check this latest threat. First, he awarded the renounced order of sannyasa to his errant managers, commanding that they give up their administrative roles in exchange for travelling and preaching. Simultaneously, he appointed twelve of his most trusted disciples as members of the first Governing Body Commission. As a final act, he announced that despite his poor health and advanced age, he would himself leave for establishing ISKCON's mission in India, the source of the attack on his movement.
But the cancer had not been checked. Halting in Japan en route to India, Prabhupada learned that four of his new renunciants had begun preaching a strange gospel. At a huge gathering of ISKCON faithful at New Vrindaban on Krishna's birth anniversary, 1970, they had announced that by leaving America, Prabhupada had rejected his disciples for failing to recognise that Prabhupada was actually Krishna Himself. This was nothing but another aspect of impersonalism. While Kirtanananda had previously failed to distinguish between the personal and impersonal conceptions of Godhead, the new sannyasis had failed to distinguish the guru from the Godhead. Vaishnavas teach that the guru is the servant of God, but never the Godhead Himself. A Vaishnava spiritual master will never say that he is God or that God is impersonal.
In Japan, Prabhupada revealed the underlying implication: by making him God, the seat of the guru was now vacated to make room for one of his Gaudiya Matha godbrothers. He was, in effect, being picked upstairs. He asked Sudama dasa and Tamal Krishna Goswami, the two GBC representatives with him in Tokyo, what they intended to do. In unison they responded that the four errant sannyasis should be driven out of ISKCON. Prabhupada immediately agreed.
The GBC members at the New Vrindavana festival had already begun to expose the fallacious teachings of the four sannyasis by citing numerous references from Prabhupada's books. But they were surprised by the harsh edict that came from Japan. Nevertheless, they carried out the order, relaying Prabhupada's instruction that the sannyasis must now preach separately from the institution, depending solely on Krishna for their support. Though penniless and without institutional shelter, the forced independence appeared to strengthen their connection with Prabhupada, and they headed in different directions to carry out his order to preach.
Prabhupada's stern response seems to indicate that he was prepared to sacrifice a few individuals to save his Society from being seriously infected with what he considered impersonalist poison. He did not, however, reject the errant sannyasis; he had merely quarantined them from other disciples to prevent further harm to his movement. He continued to correspond with them and encouraged them to preach. Gradually purified by the ordeal, each was eventually incorporated back into ISKCON and went on to perform important service for the Society. At the heart of this heresy is the challenge to Prabhupada's authority. Elevating Prabhupada to the position of God cleared the way for a successor, which in this case Prabhupada believed to be one of his godbrothers. Because Prabhupada saw this as the real threat, he may have been more severe in his response than when he dealt with Kirtanananda. As long as the living authority is on earth, he may adopt strategies that can seem inconsistent. Although he never acts arbitrarily (he is guided by sadhu and shastra - the precedents set by previous saintly persons and the injunctions of scripture), time, place, and circumstances may influence his decisions. Guru, sadhu and shastra check and balance each other. But when the guru departs sadhu and shastra can take on a new import, as those who succeed him become the new interpreters of past precedents, scriptural law and new set of circumstances.
The Centralisation Heresy
Although the Governing Body Commission would eventually become 'the ultimate managing authority' of ISKCON (Goswami, S. 1983: Vol. VI: 328-9) Prabhupada retained final authority in all matters during his lifetime. Once in a while he vetoed the GBC's decisions, and on one notable occasion he was forced to suspend its functioning entirely. In March of 1972, without consulting Prabhupada, eight of the twelve GBC members held a meeting in New York to centralise ISKCON's management. The plan was to centralise control in the hands of each zonal secretary by giving the GBC member complete control over the temples' finances. All funds collected were to be sent to a head office, which would then allot expenditures to each temple. In a memo he issued to all ISKCON temple presidents, Prabhupada referred to the 'big, big minutes' of the meeting in which they had inducted one of his disciples, the chartered accountant Atreya Risi dasa, as a new member and as secretary. The meeting had empowered a management committee of two to act without Prabhupada's permission and 'without divulging to the devotees.' (Prabhupada1987: 1956-7)
This attempt at autonomy 'has upset my brain,' Prabhupada wrote his temple presidents. He spelled out his alarm in capitals: 'I AUTHORISE YOU TO DISREGARD FOR THE TIME BEING ANY DECISION FROM THE GBC MEN UNTIL MY FURTHER INSTRUCTION.' Seeking to establish a direct link with each temple president, he urged that they manage their temples' affairs 'peacefully and independently,' and inform him of the names of their assistants. Finally, he repeated: 'ALL GBC ORDERS ARE SUSPENDED HEREWITH BY ME UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE.'
In a further letter to Hamsaduta dasa, one of the illegitimate meeting's organisers, Prabhupada pointed out how it was unconstitutional (1987: 1958-9).14 The seven members in attendance may have constituted a quorum, but the meeting had been convened without a general announcement to all twelve GBC members. Prabhupada expressed surprise that none of the other GBC members had detected this defect in the procedure. 'What will happen when I am not here, shall everything be spoiled by GBC?'
Prabhupada's concern seemed to focus on two issues. The first was to avoid centralisation that would hamper each temple's development by dampening their individual enthusiasm. In a letter dated 13, October 1969, prior to the GBC's establishment, Prabhupada wrote this writer (1987: 1054):
I have seen the agenda of your presidents' meeting. This is nice. One thing should be followed, however, as your countrymen are more or less independent spirited and lovers of democracy. So everything should be done very carefully so that their sentiments may not be hurt, According to Sanskrit moral principles, everything has to be acted, taking consideration of the place, audience and time. As far as possible the centres should act freely, but conjointly. They must look forward to the common development.
Further instructions contained in a letter dated October 18 indicate Prabhupada's concern to avoid centralisation, yet encourage organisation (Goswami 1991: 189-97).
A secondary concern was the undue stress on management and finances that Prabhupada believed was not a solution to some of the problems of spiritual laxity, but their cause. He described these problems as (1) a failure to maintain neatness and cleanliness ('I still see those who are initiated as brahmanas, they do not wash their hand after eating even; of course, there may be so many defects due to your births in non-brahmana families, but how long shall it go on?'); (2) failure of all the members to chant sixteen rounds daily; (3) failure at times to maintain the rigid schedule of temple worship beginning at 4:00 a.m. ('I find that the devotees are still sleeping up to six, seven o'clock.') (See letter to Hamsaduta, Prabhupada1987: 1958-9)
A terse telegram from Prabhupada summarises his view: 'Your material legal formula will not help us. Only our spiritual life can help us.' (See telegrams to Hamsaduta, Karandhara and all temple presidents, 1987: 1954-5)
Prabhupada called his GBC member for Western USA, Karandhara dasa, to Tokyo to clearly establish the GBC's responsibilities. In a letter issued by Karandhara, but bearing Prabhupada's signature of approval, one can sense Prabhupada's authorship:
The formula for ISKCON organisation is very simple and can be understood by everyone. The world is divided into twelve zones. For each zone there is one zonal secretary appointed by Srila Prabhupada. The zonal secretary's duty is to see that the spiritual principles are being upheld very nicely in all the temples of the zone. Otherwise each temple shall be independent and self-supporting. Let every temple president work according to his own capacity to improve the Krishna consciousness of the centre. So far the practical management is concerned, that is required, but not that we should become too much absorbed in fancy organisation. Our business is spiritual life, so whatever organisation needs to be done, the presidents may handle and take advice and assistance from their GBC representative. In this way let the Society's work go on and everyone increase their service at their own creative rate. (See letter to all temple presidents, Prabhupada1987: 1966-7)
The failed attempt at centralisation did not mean that Prabhupada's chosen leaders would cease jockeying for position and control, desires that seem at the heart of each heresy. Indeed, every religion's history is chequered with dark moments of ambition, in which personal desire is seen as divine empowerment. Prabhupada's formula for preventing such hegemony was to ensure each temple's autonomy within a loose-knit framework supervised by the GBC. Local temples were to be financially and legally autonomous though spiritually answerable to the GBC. Yet in 1976 Prabhupada again encountered an attempt at centralisation, this time under the prompting of lawyers who suggested that all ISKCON temples in the United States should be sheltered under a single 'umbrella corporation'. Prabhupada again stubbornly opposed this, insisting that it would make all ISKCON temples vulnerable to any litigation filed against one. Time proved Prabhupada's wisdom; had ISKCON followed its legal advisors, it would have been bankrupted by the anti-cult inspired court cases of the 1980s.
By suspending the GBC temporarily, Prabhupada indicated that this highest body was neither infallible nor autonomous. As long as he was present, it was answerable to him, but in his absence how would its mistakes be rectified? Ideally, it would correct itself, but events following Prabhupada's departure proved otherwise.
The Zonal Acarya Heresy
The departure of ISKCON's charismatic founder traumatised the Society's entire membership and, as might be expected, inaugurated an extended struggle to resolve the issue of authority. His death was not sudden, but followed a protracted illness lasting a year. Though devotees had enough time to prepare themselves for the inevitable conclusion, their total dependence upon Prabhupada left them deeply shaken by his absence. The aftershocks were felt again and again, individually and on ISKCON as a whole. Prabhupada had warned that the acarya's departure is a great loss to the world; the spiritual vacuum thus created would be the cause of havoc in his institution, a view confirmed by the history of the Gaudiya Matha. But despite such warnings, ISKCON's leaders acted hastily to fill the void created by Prabhupada's departure. No doubt they were motivated by one of Prabhupada's final requests that they at least maintain what he had left them. Yet immaturity and, on the part of some, desire and ambition, led to the establishment of a zonal acarya system in the 1980s which threatened to leave ISKCON as divided as the Gaudiya Matha. The eighties decade also saw attempts to bring into ISKCON acaryas from outside Gaudiya groups. It also saw the proposal that since none of Prabhupada's disciples was qualified to serve as guru, Prabhupada himself would continue to initiate posthumously (the ritvik-acarya theory).
The GBC was in place to oversee the functioning of ISKCON. Yet how was this 'ultimate managing authority' to be harmonised with the position of the initiating guru, particularly as the role of the guru had become institutionalised in ISKCON after Prabhupada's departure? Ravindra Svarupa frames the issue for us 'The problem arose when the conception of guru was implicitly based on the traditional model of an inspired, charismatic, spiritual autocrat, an absolute and autonomously decisive authority, around who an institution takes shape as the natural extension and embodiment of his charisma.' (dasa, R. 1994: 43) This echoes Shinn's remarks, following the views of Max Weber: 'Consequently, if the movement begun by such a charismatic figure is to continue, the charisma must somehow be 'routinised' or transferred to surviving institutional rules or structures.' (Shinn 1987: 50)
Prabhupada prepared for such routinisation by creating the GBC. 'The practical problem facing ISKCON after Srila Prabhupada's demise was this: How do gurus, who are God's direct representatives and according to fundamental Vaishnava theology to be worshipped by their disciples 'on an equal level with God,' fit within an organisation functioning through modern rational and legal modes under the direction of a committee?' (dasa, R. 1994: 25)
In their first annual meeting held after Prabhupada's demise in the spring of 1978 in Mayapur, West Bengal, the GBC decided to consult Prabhupada's respected and closest godbrother B. R. Sridhara Maharaja to help resolve this dilemma. But in the Gaudiya Matha, Sridhara Maharaja himself had been prominent among those advocating a successor acarya instead of the GBC that Bhaktisiddhanta had ordered after his own guru's demise. Now the acarya at the head of his own institution, he recommended that ISKCON gurus must be similarly absolute:
The majority (of the GBC) are non-acarya (non-guru). According to my opinion, that will create a difficulty. In our system, both autocracy and democracy cannot go together. But ours is an autocratic thing, extremely autocratic. Guru is all in all. Our submission to guru is unconditional. This is a great difficulty. Submission to guru is unconditional. So when I (as a disciple) see my guru's powers are being pressed by other Vaishnavas it will create disturbance in the mind of the shishya (disciple), to grow his shraddha, faith, absolute faith... It is better that the members of the governing body be gurus. They are all acaryas. The assembly of acaryas will consult with one another. (See Rochford 1991: 223)
Six months before his own demise, Prabhupada had announced that he would appoint some of his disciples to perform all of the functions of initiating new disciples, as he had become too ill to do so. Those so initiated would still be Prabhupada's disciples, while those who would be initiated after his demise would become his grand-disciples. Shortly thereafter, Prabhupada selected eleven disciples to begin assisting him and asked his secretary to communicate their names to the rest of ISKCON.15
Following Prabhupada's death and the fateful meeting with Prabhupada's godbrother Sridhara Maharaja, the eleven gurus named by Prabhupada assumed an extraordinary position above all others including the non-guru GBC members. Even within the GBC, they established their own Guru Board to appoint new gurus and handle guru problems. In the temples their status was elevated practically equal to Prabhupada's. They accepted honorific titles, were given elevated seats and were worshipped in the same manner accorded previously to Prabhupada. Each was allocated his own exclusive geographical area in which to initiate-his own GBC zone and that of any other non-guru GBC willing to align with him. Since all the new recruits soon became his disciples, each guru exercised an increasing influence over not only the devotees within his own GBC zone, but any other zone of which he was the initiating guru. Thus, for all purposes he became the zonal acarya, the head of the institution (or at least a significant geographical portion of the institution).
As Ravindra Svarupa notes, 'The guru zones were more unified than ISKCON as a whole, which was becoming increasingly fragmented, turning into a kind of amphictyony of independently empowered leaders.' (dasa, R. 1994: 31) While disciples of the new gurus found nothing strange in this new arrangement, disciples of Prabhupada who were not gurus became increasingly alarmed. In Pradyumna dasa's prophetic letter written just after the changes were set in place, he expresses his concerns in two ways. First, that the eleven gurus not having been appointed to the position of acarya and for which they are unqualified both by a) insufficient knowledge of shastra (scripture) and b) the incomplete realisation of Krishna Consciousness, are accepting worship on that level-and this may lead to anomalies in the Society and personally, because of lack of complete detachment in atma-jnana (knowledge of the self), to have build-up of pride, and subsequent fall-down. Secondly, that the united society ISKCON, because of a legal division and control by a few members instead of the joint GBC will become broken up in separate societies and the unified preaching effort very much hindered. (See, dasa, R. S. 1985b)
An exodus of Prabhupada's disciples followed. Within only a few years of his departure, a majority of Prabhupada's disciples ceased to actively participate in ISKCON.16
Faith in the gurus and in the institution as a whole was severely shaken when the GBC had to censure three of the eleven gurus for varying degrees of misconduct. Jayatirtha dasa was found to be taking 'LSD' and was guilty of sexual transgressions. Hamsaduta Swami, in a much publicised case, was discovered amassing weapons, and was also found to be sexually promiscuous. Tamal Krishna Goswami, the leader of a large number of sannyasa and brahmacari preachers, insisted that he was now their via media in relating to Prabhupada and expected that his godbrothers follow him absolutely. Furthermore, he temporarily engaged them in raising funds for community development rather than allowing them to continue the service of book selling, the principal missionary directive they had received from Prabhupada. The GBC suspended the initiating rights of all three gurus. But when on the advice of Prabhupada's godbrother Sridhara Maharaja, the sanctions came to be lifted surprisingly soon, it seemed that individual gurus had become stronger than the collective GBC. At the same time, Sridhara Maharaja's influence continued to increase as a number of prominent ISKCON leaders including Jayatirtha defected to join his camp. The defectees claimed that Sridhara Maharaja, due to his exalted qualifications, was clearly Prabhupada's successor.
As Rochford has rightly pointed out, Sridhara Maharaja, perhaps unwittingly at first, became a political symbol for growing discontent with the ISKCON management system. (Rochford, 1985: 247) Surrounded by dissidents, Sridhara Maharaja's criticism of the GBC increased, and he also raised the questions about certain decisions and actions of Prabhupada. This seemed to confirm to ISKCON leaders what they had previously learned from Prabhupada: it was best to keep away from the Gaudiya Matha. Wary of further contact, the GBC entirely separated themselves from Sridhara Maharaja.17
But this did not remedy the unhappy state of affairs within ISKCON. Divisiveness due to zonal acarya hegemony continued to increase until the leading non-GBC disciples of Prabhupada, many of them temple presidents in North America, expressed their collective outrage. By the end of 1984 they launched what came to be known as the 'guru reform movement,' culminating in the fateful meeting at the New Vrindavana community attended by all GBC and temple presidents and open to all Prabhupada disciples. This cathartic gathering, which had begun from a groundswell of discontent, gained such momentum that it eventually swept away the entire zonal acarya system. At the next annual GBC meeting in the spring of 1987, the number of ISKCON gurus was more than doubled and the number of GBC men significantly increased to include some of the prominent leaders of the guru reform movement.18 Gurus were now free to initiate in any zone.19 Most significantly, each guru was clearly made to understand that his authority was tied to the GBC, thus re-establishing Prabhupada, through the GBC, as the head of ISKCON.
The stormy decade following Prabhupada's demise left many casualties in its wake: perhaps as many as 90% of Prabhupada's initiated disciples were now marginalised; disciples of fallen gurus felt they had no shelter; the preaching mission as a whole lost momentum and cohesion. ISKCON was battered and bruised-but it had survived. Important lessons had been learned. One was that Prabhupada's position was unique and not to be imitated. His status was not due merely to being ISKCON's founder, but to his exalted level of Krishna consciousness. The status of GBC, gurus, and other leaders, on the other hand, was as much a matter of inheritance as personal qualification. But reliance on such inherited status, without a continued effort to become actually qualified, would prove to be but a thin veneer of spirituality. Knowing devotees to be fallible, Prabhupada had purposely named no single successor, but instead had designated the GBC as the ultimate managing authority for ISKCON.20 In doing so, Prabhupada forbade any single person, no matter how exalted, to try to imitate his position. Rather, all were enjoined to 'follow in his footsteps.'
The GBC emerged from the zonal acarya decade a tougher, more honest, and thoroughly collegial body. No longer did individuals fighting for turf dominate it. Gurus with large followings sat on an equal level with non-guru godbrothers. And they were not the only ones to be humbled. The GBC itself, the 'ultimate managing authority,' had seen its own authority collapse, only to be resurrected by a 'lower house' of temple presidents. Assuming extraordinary powers, the temple presidents had made the GBC submit itself to the judgement of its own appointed committee of 50 non-GBC godbrothers, thus in effect temporarily suspending itself, something that only Prabhupada while alive could have done. This action put the GBC and everyone in ISKCON on notice that no individual or group was beyond scrutiny. Even 'ultimate authorities' have limits. As Shinn notes shortly after the momentous meetings of 1986 and 1987, 'the impressive fact for any careful observer of ISKCON's history is that it has been able to evolve in a very short time from a charismatic movement to a relatively stable institution in the face of a hostile external environment and a volatile governing structure within.' (Shinn, 1987: 60)