Ravindra Svarupa Dasa, a long-time participant to ISKCON reform, presents in this paper a first-hand historical overview of the problems facing ISKCON, and what he sees as a sure point for successful change.
A devotee, therefore, should execute his devotional services with full energy, endurance, and confidence. He should perform his scheduled duties, he should be pure in heart, and he should serve in association with devotees. All six of these items will lead the devotee to the path of success. One should not be discouraged in the discharge of devotional service. Failures may not be detrimental; they may be the pillars of success. (Light of the Bhagavata, 43)
In October of 1984, I became active in what was later to be known within ISKCON as 'the guru reform movement'. Over the next two years I wrote a series of widely circulated papers in an� attempt to understand and help rectify some failures in ISKCON. As things turned out, I became a leader of the reform movement. At the annual meeting of the Governing Body Commission (GBC) in March of 1987, the reform effort reached a denouement of sorts. Four of the most powerful leaders of ISKCON all (simultaneously) sannyasis, initiating gurus and GBC members resigned or were removed from office, each under a noisome cloud of scandal.
These and other depredations had shrunk the GBC to fifteen members. At the same time, the GBC had empowered an outside 'Committee of Fifty', all senior disciples of Srila Prabhupada, to interview and evaluate each of the remaining GBC members and to share its findings with the body. That being accomplished, the GBC then requested that committee to place before the GBC the names of some devotees as prospective new members. (The GBC added new members by a two-thirds vote.)
My name was among those proposed, and I was voted onto the body. I had wanted to return to my services of writing and scholarship with the Bhaktivedanta Institute and the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, but I fell unwittingly under the sway of a fairly well-established law: If you lead a successful revolution, you are condemned to become part of the government. There is no doubt that in the activities of reform I had to criticise many devotees�who — deviations and shortcomings notwithstanding harboured an inviolable seed of devotion to Prabhupada and Krsna. Having to serve on the GBC was only a fitting punishment for my offence.
Although I prefer the contemplative to the active life, it is true that my active engagements with the guru reform movement and later the GBC have repeatedly produced bumper crops of material to feed contemplation. I should explain that reflecting on the Hare Krishna movement — in that mode of critical self-awareness inculcated in academia — formed, from the beginning, an important component of my involvement with it.
In 1971 I had moved with spouse and children into a fledgeling temple community in Philadelphia, thereby committing our joint and several futures to Prabhupada's movement. It was indeed an act of faith, but faith seeks ceaselessly to understand, and I strove daily to comprehend more fully just what I had done, what adventure I had embarked on. The understanding that gradually took shape was composed of three closely interrelated dimensions; and these three, eventually, were to provide me with the features of certain broad principles for reform. I shall call them the historical, the personal and the social.
Prior to my joining ISKCON I had seriously pursued academic study in religion and philosophy. Although the limits of the merely academic impelled me to refuge within a living spiritual tradition, I could not simply shed my prior formation. And so it was with a certain thrill that I realised that, having joined the Hare Krishna movement, I was granted the closest, real-time access to a kind of event that fascinates scholars of religion: a religion transplanting itself from its natal culture. I had once studied the movement of Christianity from its original Jewish milieu into the cosmopolitan Mediterranean world of the pax Romana. Now I recognised a parallel in Prabhupada's ISKCON: Gaudiya Vaisnavism being led from its Bengal cradle-land into the modern global civilisation of the pax Americana. I didn't have just a 'ring-side seat' to this event; I was in the ring.
I was committed. I had committed more than this life to the mercies of ISKCON. I had committed my very soul. In spite of my predilections for the long historical perspective, I was anything but a disinterested observer. My own personal stake in the success of Srila Prabhupada's endeavour had an individual as well as a social dimension. As an individual, I had committed myself to the enterprise of becoming a pure devotee. Prabhupada had succeeded in convincing a coterie of idealistic American youth that sainthood was a feasible vocation, a 'live option', and I was one among them. Prabhupada called us to a kind of heroism of risk, of commitment, and of sacrifice in an ultimate 'war against maya'. Prabhupada taught that this consummate victory was granted only to those prepared to subordinate all other concerns to the service of this single ultimate concern. When I took initiation from him, I pledged myself to this principle. Yet I could not carry out this pledge by myself; I required favourable grounds. That was ISKCON, painstakingly crafted by Prabhupada himself, placed by him in late twentieth century America, to nourish and foster my personal pilgrimage toward pure service to God.
ISKCON harboured a further significance: ISKCON was itself my service. Even as ISKCON nurtured me, I was bound in turn to nurture ISKCON. Assisting Srila Prabhupada in his mission was both my obligation and my saving grace. His mission was to deliver throngs of fallen souls through propagation of the sankirtana yuga-dharma, effecting thereby 'a respiritualisation of the entire human society'. In this effort, ISKCON was both his means and his end. In the bhakti sankirtana movement, as Prabhupada taught it, saving myself and saving the world entailed each other. ISKCON was the context for both.
Bhakti is at once personalistic and social, for it is a philosophical truth that the personal and the social cannot be separated. What a 'person' is can be fully manifest only through interactions with other persons. This principle is exemplified at the highest ontological level in Krsna, whose supreme personhood entails that He is also supremely social. The fullness of the Godhead entails that the supreme, transcendental Absolute is equally the supremely, transcendentally relative. Krsna, therefore, is never alone but always in the company of his devotees. He is constituted by relationships, and many of His proper and eternal names include those of his nearest and dearest — as, for example, Radha-kanta (Radha's sweetheart), Yasoda-nandana (Yasoda's darling boy), Partha-sarathi (charioteer to Prtha's son) and so on. For this reason, bhakti — devotional service — is pre-eminently a social activity, and that social principle attains its fullest exfoliation in the idea of sankirtana, the congregational glorification of God's name, fame, activities and so on. Therefore, Prabhupada's founding a society of devotees was not simply a tactical expedience; it was a metaphysical necessity.
The effort of Prabhupada, then, was to establish the community or communion of devotees, a communion that, out of the natural overflowing of its own joy, would be ever increasing. That communion is one in which certain kinds of personal transactions would take place among the devotees; by them, the devotional consciousness of the participants would ever increase; and, in a spirit of compassion for those suffering outside this community, the members would always be initiating others into their circle to share in the felicity of their communion.
Prabhupada, however, was not inaugurating this society de novo, from scratch. Inducted into ISKCON, we became part of a sampradaya (the Brahma-Madhva-Gaudiya-sampradaya, to be precise), a venerable historical community whose task, generation after generation, was properly and correctly to receive a spiritual culture, attain full formation and realisation through it, and pass it on complete and sound, free from any adulteration, to the next generation. Although Prabhupada came to us in the West as a solitary figure (an anomaly we shall examine later), he was the repository of a vastly rich tradition of teachers and students, who studied, composed, taught and practised volumes of theology, commentary, drama, poetry and song. When we became Prabhupada's students, he was initiating us into the teachings and practices of that tradition, to become its heirs.
Here, then, was quite another way the historical past came to be known by me — as age-old tradition, received and transmitted through authority. It is the outstanding national trait of Americans to be without tradition. A nation of migrants, the United States could realise more thoroughly than Europe the Enlightenment project of a radical break with the past, of wholesale rejection of traditional political and spiritual authority, of the reinvention of humanity from the ground up. In America, tradition and traditional authorities are reflexively viewed with scepticism, suspicion and even hostility. Rootlessness is the national style, and the ability to perpetually reinvent oneself through a series of discrete identities is practically the national ideal. It is, unfortunately, the world's future, as indigenous communities and traditions are dissolved by the solvent of the ever-spreading pax Americana, to survive only in the travesty of the theme park and the multi-media 'experience'. At first, American — I should say modern — rootlessness was an important, even necessary, condition for the beginning of ISKCON; very soon, it became one the greatest impediments to its development and continuance. The contrast between the condition of modern America and the 'Vedic' culture of tradition and authority, of continuity and conservation, that Prabhupada was attempting to transplant could hardly have been greater. With growing amazement, I gradually got sight of the immensity of Prabhupada's endeavour. It was breathtaking.
I also came to see that Prabhupada was very well aware of the overwhelming difficulty of his undertaking. Seeing him immersed in that endeavour gave me new appreciation for certain of his oft-repeated sayings, such as 'Impossible is a word found in a fool's dictionary,' and for his injunction to 'shoot the rhinoceros' (meaning that if you are to attempt something, you might as well make it something formidable). As Prabhupada explained in a 1971 letter to Balavanta Dasa: 'We should always be enthusiastic to try for shooting the rhinoceros. That way, if we fail, everybody will say, "Never mind, nobody can shoot a rhinoceros anyway," and if we succeed, then everyone will say, "Just see, what a wonderful thing they have done."'
Prabhupada understood the obstacles, but he remained ever-confident, and instilled the same confidence in others. His ability to convey a sense of unshakable confidence in himself and his mission attained its impressive power because it was evidently part and parcel of a simple and deep humility. The confidence of Prabhupada reposed, of course, on supernatural foundations, on firm dependence on guru and Krsna, and therefore it held impervious to all failures and setbacks. 'So I don't think there is any cause of discouragement', he wrote in 1969 to Vrndavanesvari, 'because we are working on a different platform.'
Yet at every minute Srila Prabhupada was wrestling with failure and setbacks. Indeed, as I was gradually to learn, when Prabhupada single-handedly conducted Caitanya's mission to the West, he did so as the sole undebilitated survivor of a monstrous spiritual failure in India, the foundering of his spiritual master's mission and institution, the Gaudiya Matha. He came to America like a survivor paddling away from a colossal shipwreck. Even from the beginning of his Western mission, Prabhupada was carrying on in the face of massive failure and discouragement in the generation previous to us. He noted this, for example, in a letter of 1972 responding to a disheartened Guru Dasa: 'Do not be depressed. All along my godbrothers gave me only depression, repression, compression — but I continued strong in my duty. So never mind there is some discouragement, continue with your work in full enthusiastic Krishna Consciousness attitude of service.'
Prabhupada's own movement also soon provided him with ample reason for discouragement. From the very outset there was trouble: his authority was challenged; his position compromised; his instructions distorted, neglected or selectively followed; his teachings moulded to various fancies; his assets misused, mismanaged and misappropriated; his standards broken; his dependents neglected, exploited and abused. And the worst of this was committed by men Prabhupada entrusted with responsible positions. Prabhupada travelled continuously around the world, grappling with problems. Each day his mail washed up to him a jumbled deposit of scandals, failures and disappointments. Internal weaknesses and shortcomings turned the eleven years of Prabhupada's personal supervision into a concatenation of crises.
It is a noteworthy feature of ISKCON during that time that there was hardly any frank and open acknowledgement of the problems among the members. Even though almost any of us could provide impressively detailed accounts of a plethora of scandals and failures, a weird sort of schizoid compartmentalisation allowed us to maintain the conviction that we as a society were pure and transcendental and that, almost by definition, we could do no wrong. Scandals and failures tended each to be viewed as discrete and anomalous, and they were rarely surveyed as a whole to alarm us with the picture of a chronic condition, a pervasive pattern, a trend. We became so captivated by our own dazzling ideals that we were blinded to our actual behaviour. We could have benefitted by accepting some of the devastatingly accurate criticisms levelled against us by the anti-cult movement, but unfortunately the anti-cultists called for the destruction of ISKCON. Their condemnations were indiscriminate and sweeping, and they in no way wished us well. As a result, they simply fostered the very bunker mentality they condemned and only fed the self-righteousness of the devotees.
Yet given all that, it was more than possible to flourish spiritually within ISKCON. True, when I moved into a temple of little over a dozen residents, it was a shock to discover the extent of the struggle with spiritual weakness that went on daily. It was a test to undergo the difficulties of human relations within a small, tightly-knit, high-demand, high-intensity, religious community, especially one nearly bereft of the human comforts of social or psychological compatibilities. Nevertheless, one could, if one wanted, negotiate all the individual and group minefields, and not only advance in Krsna consciousness, but also deliver it effectively to others. In fact, I could do neither of those things at all outside of ISKCON. If, on my worst days, I found myself thinking that the devotees I lived with were fools and rascals, I always reminded myself that without these fools and rascals, I could make no advancement in Krsna consciousness. I had better learn to appreciate them. We were, all of us, fools and rascals; nevertheless, Prabhupada still enabled us to do miraculous things, rendered all the more miraculous in light of the character of the performers.
Thus, it was not until after the demise of its founder-acarya in 1977 that ISKCON as a n institution had to acknowledge and come to terms with its failures and shortcomings. At first — with the lineage apparently handed over securely by Prabhupada to eleven hand-picked successor-acaryas — ISKCON set out with great panache, leaping off with the boyish ebullience of Siegfried bounding down to the Rhine, horn blaring. Yet it was not long before ISKCON had to confront, at last, its own shadow, as over the decade intractable failures and shortcomings — abuse of authority, enjoyment of position, attachment to material pleasures, and the like — emerged within the group of initiating gurus. The movement was forced to begin facing, frankly and openly, the gap between its ideals and its actual achievements. We had attained the condition for real progress.
So profound was ISKCON's denial, its concealment of its own problems from itself, that many reacted initially as if these problems among leaders were some shocking brand-new phenomenon. They contrasted the prelapsarian paradise of ISKCON under Prabhupada with the now hopelessly degenerate society, devoid as it is of the salvific presence of any 'maha-bhagavata'. Some awaited eagerly the emergence of a new 'self-effulgent acarya' who would restore us to our lost purity. There are those who still await the coming of such a saviour, while there are yet others who proclaim to have found him manifest in the person of some particular devotee, usually this or that elderly Indian sannyasi.
Yet even in the presence of Prabhupada — the all-acknowledged 'maha-bhagavata' — ISKCON regularly failed to live up to its own ideals. Moreover, it was during Prabhupada's presence that ISKCON devotees were most successful at maintaining their concealment; only after Prabhupada was gone did the concealment begin to break down. It has taken longest for those failures enacted during Prabhupada's own presence to attain admission to consciousness. Seeking the reason for this delayed recognition has led me to face an uncomfortable fact: It was Prabhupada's very presence that had gradually begun to function for many devotees as an instrument of concealment and denial.
It was natural for us to identify ourselves to some extent with Prabhupada as the living embodiment of our ideals and to see him as the very personification of ISKCON (so that his purity became ours). This helped us maintain our ideals and our enthusiasm to attain them even in the face of setbacks and adversity. However, such a relationship turns unhealthy if I engage in the worship or adoration of an ideal precisely in order to compensate for personal failures. In such cases, my self-respect no longer resides in the heroism of my struggle, for I have given up on the struggle, without acknowledging that I have done so. Now, as a substitute for dealing honestly with my failures, I identify intensely myself with my saviour-figure. My disowned anxieties about my true condition and the psychic tensions of concealment find release as adulation, one that reveals its origin in falsity though its strident, driven character. In such cases, worshipping a guru becomes a substitute for becoming Krsna conscious. Thus we have the too familiar phenomenon in ISKCON (then and now) of fanatical followers and so-called 'guru groupies'. This pathological submergence of self into an all-powerful, idealised saviour-figure is, of course, one of the phenomena that gives rise to the notion of a 'cult'. It is a sure sign of arrested spiritual development disguising itself as true religion.
The point is that the difficulties that precipitated the guru reform movement are intimately connected with psychological patterns and styles of relationships that began to establish themselves from the beginning. These are grounded in the inability of many devotees to acknowledge and deal fruitfully with their own spiritual shortcomings and failures, or, in traditional vocabulary, their inability to execute the process of anartha-nivrtti (the eradication of 'unwanted things' from the heart). This general, widespread failure, which pervades the institution and has even shaped some structural features of it, is the root debility, of which the guru crisis — the 'crisis of succession' — is simply a highly visible symptom. It is my conviction that any real reform has to address effectively the root debility. Too many of us have tried to fix the symptom while ignoring the local manifestation of the disease, including the manifestation within our own hearts. Too many have tried to purify ISKCON as a substitute for purifying ourselves. This kind of behaviour is the disease, not the cure.
In 1979 questions about the gurus' position had burst out in major eruptions at ISKCON centres at Vrndavana and Juhu Beach, ejecting over the rest of the movement thick fascicles of photocopied papers. In May of 1980 the GBC body was forced to convene an 'extraordinary general meeting' — an emergency meeting — in Los Angeles to find immediate responses to controversial behaviour on the part of Hamsaduta Swami (abuse of power, drugs, sex, crime), Jayatirtha Swami (LSD, as it would turn out), and Tamala Krsna Goswami (extreme autocracy). A mere three months after sanctioning these gurus, the GBC issued a philosophical position paper defending the position that the current gurus were to be understood as maha-bhagavatas. In any case, by 1981 the GBC had to remove Hamsaduta from his position, and it did the same with Jayatirtha in 1982. By this point, most senior devotees believed that guru failures and abuses were going to continue and the GBC could not control them. This growing anxiety finally found institutional articulation at a routine meeting of the North American temple presidents and sannyasis in September of 1984. The thirty-five voting members present polled themselves and discovered that 94% of them believed that 'there are fundamental and compelling problems with the guru institution as it presently exists in ISKCON'.
The group called a second meeting in November to pursue this issue further, and, in spite of a good deal of reluctance, I was persuaded to attend the meeting. Much to my surprise, I found myself becoming greatly enlivened and encouraged by the association and the commitment of the devotees. I realised, with a shock, that quite unconsciously I had fallen into a state of despair about ISKCON — and about myself as well. I was in a spiritual slump, and the meeting was waking me up. At this gathering I was asked to conduct research to determine just exactly what had gone wrong with the way the position of the guru had been institutionalised in ISKCON. I agreed to take the job.
Back in Philadelphia, I concluded that the only way I could responsibly conduct research on such a loaded subject was to attempt to entrust myself to the guidance of Supersoul, the indwelling guide and director of intelligence. I feared more than anything else my own stupidity. I was the straw man, and I needed a brain. I decided to entrust myself to Prabhupada's instructions for attaining direction from Supersoul. Thus, as a remedial measure, I undertook to rigorously restore my sadhana to a strict level. I defined good sadhana as chanting the holy name while trying assiduously to avoid offences. In this way, I would be in a position to receive intelligence from Krsna whenever He chose to give it. Prabhupada's instructions were as potent as they are simple:
In all spiritual affairs, one's first duty is to control his mind and senses. Unless one controls his mind and senses, one cannot make any advancement in spiritual life. Everyone within this material world is engrossed in the modes of passion and ignorance. One must promote himself to the platform of goodness, sattva-guna, by following the instructions of Rupa Goswami in the first verse of Upadesamrta, and then everything concerning how to make further progress will be revealed. (The Nectar of Instruction, Preface)
It seemed that this was as pertinent for guidance of the entire movement as it was for personal guidance.
As my sadhana became strict, my spirits picked up, and my despair over the fate of ISKCON began to evaporate like fog. And every day I thought hard about what had gone wrong in ISKCON. Then a breakthrough came.
One evening some of us who had attended the meeting in Towaco were discussing strategy. Sesa Dasa, the temple president, was there, as well as Mahakrama Swami, who had been elected vice-chairman in Towaco. He was also the regional secretary for Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami, the initiating guru and GBC for our area. Although Satsvarupa Maharaja would later publish an influential book called Guru Reform, his initial reaction to the nascent reform movement had been filled with misgivings. He did not interfere with our participation, yet he had publicly expressed strong reservations about the Towaco meetings, questioning the suitability of politics to deal with spiritual issues. After our strategy meeting broke up that night, Sesa took me aside and warned me: 'You know, you should be really careful about what you say around Mahakrama! He reports everything back to Satsvarupa Maharaja. You should know that.'
I was stunned. I thought: 'Here we are supposed to be the reform party, and we think we can save ISKCON, but we cannot even trust each other. How will we be any better?' It was during the sleepless night that followed that I came to realise that the 'guru problem' was merely a symptom of a disease, with which we were all infected. The polarity of 'us-and-them' was wrong. I remembered the famous motto of Pogo, the newspaper-comic possum: 'We have met the enemy — and he is us!' Any effort at reform that did not begin with myself and with our 'side' would be superficial and counter-productive. It would indeed be mundane politics.
Ideas flooded into my head, and in the morning I began intensely discussing them with Kundali Dasa and others and setting them down on paper. Addressing my godbrothers and godsisters. I began by asserting, 'The root of all problems now facing ISKCON is that we, the disciples of Srila Prabhupada, have not yet established proper Vaisnava relationships among ourselves. While Prabhupada was here with us, we did not enjoy such relationships, and our spiritual master plainly told us that our greatest fault was our tendency to quarrel with each other.' And then I went on to commit to writing — for the first time — my honest perceptions of life in ISKCON:
A society of devotees in which proper Vaisnava relations are not yet the norm is called a kanistha-adhikari society. Its distinguishing characteristic is contentiousness arising from envy. Envy is a product of false ego. Because of false ego, the members are unable to establish spiritual friendship among themselves. Instead, they vie with each other for prestige, power and perquisites. Intensely desiring the honour and respect of others, the contentious neophyte pretends to be more advanced than he actually is. He tries to conceal his shortcomings and falldowns, and in so doing he develops a secretive mentality and holds himself back from entering into open and honest relations with his Godbrothers. Because he cannot reveal his mind in confidence, he remains aloof from real fellowship.
He strays from the path of devotional service, but his peers do not help him. For he thinks that if he allows someone to preach to him, he implicitly admits his own subordination. Therefore he cuts himself off from hearing and becomes impervious to instruction or good advice. Because he has many secret misgivings about himself, he becomes eager to find the faults of others; that way he reassures himself of his own superiority in spite of his many unacknowledged weaknesses.
Spiritual immaturity often leads a kanistha-adhikari to identify spiritual advancement with organisational advancement. He thinks that attaining prestige, power and the perquisites of office is evidence of spiritual advancement. Lacking the assets for real spiritual achievement, he substitutes organisational elevation, which he can attain through his cunning or political prowess. He therefore competes intensely with others for high office, and he comes to believe implicitly that one achieves a spiritually elevated state only by becoming victorious over others. In this way material competition becomes institutionalised in kanistha-adhikari societies.
I could also propose a path of reform:
Fortunately, however, the kanistha stage is followed by the madhyama stage. A kanistha-adhikari advances to the madhyama platform by means of sadhana-bhakti. Sadhana-bhakti, pursued diligently and attentively, destroys false ego, and as long as the neophyte devotees attend to their sadhana they can be sure of elevation to the higher stages. There is, however, no other assured means of advancement, and habitual negligence in sadhana is therefore fatal to progressive spiritual life. Furthermore, when a neophyte devotee has risen to the madhyama platform, sadhana is absolutely necessary to maintain him in that position. If he becomes slack in sadhana, he rapidly reverts to the neophyte condition. Therefore, the essential prerequisite for both creating and sustaining a madhyama society is intense common commitment to sadhana.
Further on, when I described this grass-roots process of reform, I expanded upon what I felt were the pervading social and individual deficiencies in ISKCON:
One special advantage to this revolutionary project for the regeneration of ISKCON is that it need not wait on the action of the GBC. It can be initiated in each temple immediately. It can be started by one devotee, and then spread by progression to two, three, and on and on. Thus there can be many centres of reformation, and they will each widen until all of ISKCON is included.
Any devotee who wants to institute reform must begin with himself. The prerequisite for coming to the madhyama stage is to be a strict follower of the regulative principles of devotional service. Spiritual fellowship cannot flourish if anarthas are not being relentlessly uprooted by daily practice. Therefore, every devotee who wants to help in the reformation of ISKCON must first carefully review his own spiritual condition and his personal devotional practice. If he is careless in observing regulative principles and slack in sadhana, he must immediately take up the process of rectification. This entails attending the complete morning program in all alertness, with especial concentration on attentive, offence-avoiding japa. By this effort, a devotee may quickly remove all his accommodations to sense gratification and undertake the deliberate dismantling of his false ego. A devotee of the reforming party should recognise sense gratification and false ego as the two great impediments to Vaisnava fellowship. They are the mortal enemies of ISKCON, and he should resolve to conquer them.
Having undertaken whatever personal reformatory measures are required, the reforming devotee should then undertake the rectification of his relationships. Most devotees will discover that few, if any, of their relationships are satisfactory. The devotee will probably see that he has almost no confidential friends, and that he does not and cannot trust most of his associates. He is conscious that many of his associates have made accommodations — sometimes quite extensive — to sense gratification. Indeed, he has participated in many meetings in which the faults and shortcomings of those not present have been thoroughly examined. Yet the established patterns of relationships are such that while everyone is free to talk about, no one is free to talk to them. In this situation, devotees find themselves standing helplessly by as they watch one of their associates sink deeper and deeper into maya until he finally bloops; no one is able to come to his aid. As the failing devotee falls further and further away, the criticism of him intensifies, but no one helps.
Nor can the devotees work together effectively, because they have no way of working out the inevitable differences that arise in any collective effort. When one devotee transgresses against another, the offended party will either respond in wrath or else retreat into wounded silence (complaining, however, vociferously to others). He does not know how to approach the other devotee and openly resolve their differences. He is unable to reveal his mind without giving offence.
Under these conditions, a great stockpile of resentment builds up in time, and the atmosphere is filled with sullen undercurrents of hostility and mistrust, relieved only by periodic outbursts of anger. In this uncongenial climate, devotional relations become more and more burdensome, and materialistic people start to seem relatively nice. The devotees find themselves living in deepening isolation from one another, each enthroned in a well-fortified ivory tower of false ego. They learn to get along by avoiding each other. These are some local conditions that arise in the milieu of fratricidal strife.
I called the finished paper a 'preliminary proposal', and gave it the title 'The Next Step in the Expansion of ISKCON: Ending the Fratricidal War.' My realisations were quite personal; I had conducted no surveys, nor much textual research, on the guru question. So, tentatively, I mailed photocopies to three or four devotees to get their responses. (Remember that at this time — November 1984 — facsimile machines were not yet in common use; it was photocopying, then ubiquitous, that carried the reform movement.) What happened next astonished me: within two weeks strong responses — some of them very personal — began flooding in from devotees all over the world. Chain-photocopying had geometrically propagated the paper swiftly throughout ISKCON. I received phone calls from devotees who complained that I had left them off my mailing-list — I had to explain that the paper had published itself.
Clearly, I had struck a nerve. The response was overwhelmingly favourable. However, Ramesvara Swami, the head of the North American BBT, was outraged, and he charged me with the worst of malefactions: because I was discouraging the devotees, I was hurting book distribution. This I worried about until the Christmas mail delivered a store-bought card from Los Angeles displaying on front the words 'Good Job!' and 'Thank you!' inside. It was signed by Ramesvara Swami's biggest book distributors — 'Mothers Kaumadaki, Jagaddhatri and friends too shy to write their names' — who added the message: 'Dandavats for your "Preliminary Proposal" for ISKCON. At last some hope!!'
Bahudaka Dasa, the chairman of the North American temple presidents and leader of the reform movement in America, was a little disappointed. He wrote me that:
We need solid research to understand what should be the role and position of guru. With that paper we can push on strongly for real change. ISKCON as Prabhupada set it up has changed radically and the primary cause is the serious mistakes being made regarding the position of guru. How can we establish the importance of sadhana in our movement when the majority of gurus give the worst example in this regard?
As Bahudaka wanted, I did go on to write a further paper about the misunderstanding of Prabhupada's order concerning the position of guru in ISKCON. '"Under My Order ...": Reflections on the Guru in ISKCON' (August 1985) became accepted as the position paper of the reform movement, and the paper's thesis helped lead, two years later, to the formal dismantling of the 'zonal acarya' system.
My investigation of this issue brought home the fact that the difficulties undergone by ISKCON uncannily paralleled those suffered by the Gaudiya Matha after the demise of its founder. Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura had appointed no successor to occupy the chair at the head of his institution; instead he ordered the institution to be managed by a 'Governing Body Commission', that is, a board of directors of the kind that runs modern corporate enterprises. ('Governing Body Commission' is in fact the name of the governing board of the British-established Indian Railways.)
Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura was attempting to construct a preaching mission effective in the modern, global context. To do this he instituted a collection of reforms that rendered his mission suspect to many formed by and attached to prevailing practices, which they regarded as sanctified by sacred tradition. The idea of a GBC was one such innovation. However, it did not prevail. As Srila Prabhupada recounts it:
Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, at the time of his departure, requested all his disciples to form a governing body and conduct missionary activities 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 asara, or useless, because they had no authority, having disobeyed the order of the spiritual master. Despite the spiritual master's order to form a governing body and execute the missionary activities of the Gaudiya Matha, the two unauthorized factions began litigation that is still going on after forty years with no decision. (Sri Caitanya-caritamrta, Adi-lila 12.8, purport)
According to Bhakti Raksaka Sridhara Deva Goswami (who discussed this matter during a audio-taped conversation with a group of GBC members on October 17, 1980), a GBC of thirteen members was formed ten days after the departure of Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, but Sridhara Maharaja — who would not serve on the body — was dissatisfied with it, and he and some other senior members prevailed upon the Matha to elevate Ananta Vasudeva Dasa, a brahmacari of brilliant scholastic ability who had served as Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura's secretary, to the position of acarya. In effect, the Matha reverted to an ancient, traditional model of leadership, in which a single guru, recognised by all as possessing exceptional spiritual power (charisma) is elevated above all others to rule autocratically at the seat at the head of the institution. One of Ananta Vasudeva's 'principle supporters', B.R. Sridhara Swami recollects (referring to himself in the first person plural):
We made him acarya, though a brahmacari, because, next to Prabhupada [Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura], he could satisfy us with the siddhanta, sastric siddhanta, sastric conclusion. He was well versed [in the sastra]. It was universally accepted: Next to Prabhupada, he knows the sastric siddhanta. So we felt indebted to him. And from early time, we thought the next acarya will be he. That was our conviction.
Two years after the elevation of 'Vasudeva Prabhu', however, someone stumbled across some 'love letters', part of a correspondence between Ananta Vasudeva and a woman; these letters were brought to B.R. Sridhara Swami, who concluded, together with some other senior men, that Ananta Vasudeva could not 'do justice to the seat of our Guru Maharaja' and should step down. Ananta Vasudeva, however, did not agree, and he and his loyal followers squared off with the others in protracted, painful hostilities that included systematic discrimination, much persiflage and on occasion physical assault. Finally, as Sridhara Maharaja put it, 'Prabhupada withdrew from him', and Ananta Vasudeva began to preach against Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura — Sridhara Maharaja says this blasphemy was the result of Ananta Vasudeva's having committed so many offences against devotees — and he left the mission. He gave himself sannyasa in Allahabad, and later took initiation (as Puri Goswami) among the babajis of Radha-kunda — a group highly antagonistic to Bhaktisiddhanta — among whom he continued as leading intellectual light, even though he eventually got married. After his abdication, the Gaudiya Matha fragmented into contending parties over the succession, and the case ended up before the Calcutta High Court for resolution.
We see that ISKCON is not going through anything new. It faces the same issues that broke apart the Gaudiya Matha. The fact that Bhaktisiddhanta's disciples could not continue their founder's visionary reforms demonstrates first of all the sheer difficulty of the undertaking. It may well take several generations to get it right. The undertaking is to pass on a spiritual tradition in a sound and healthy form, its living force undiminished, into the modern world. This is no small task. Up until now, when the religions of the West have encountered modernity, they have tended either to remain intact by withdrawing into the self-protective shell of fundamentalism, or to become swallowed up and assimilated by the world, to live on only as a few nostalgic gestures. Does a similar fate await Lord Caitanya's movement? The task facing Gaudiya Vaisnavas, it seems to me, is to discover another alternative.
Awareness of the history of the Gaudiya Matha not only shows us the difficulty of challenge, but it may save us from the same mistakes or at least help us rectify those we have made. Any hope we have of healing fragmentation and isolation depends upon our recognition of past mistakes. At the beginning of the reform movement, I tried to show how, within ISKCON, concealment of failure leads to isolation. This principle holds as much for relations among communities as among individuals. Progress in spiritual life, individually and institutionally, depends first of all on the frank acknowledgement of shortcoming, errors and mistakes. Without that, all 'progress' is mere bluff.
At a certain time, Germans found it necessary to put themselves through a painful process to which they gave the name Vergangenheitsbew�ltigung — that is, 'coming to terms with the past', 'past' here referring to the period 1933-45. ISKCON requires its own Vergangenheitsbew�ltigung. Each devotee needs to undergo it as an individual, and the society needs to undertake it as an institution. It is also a necessity for the various present offshoots and spin-offs of the original Gaudiya Matha. ISKCON is not the only place mistakes get buried. In those quarters there seems to be a reluctance to face up to a historical failure to serve the order of Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura.
The reform movement in ISKCON aimed at establishing the GBC-principle and subordinating initiating gurus to the GBC authority, based on Srila Prabhupada's order. To me, however, the most important element of reform is the personal reform as I envisioned it in my 'preliminary proposal'. And it is this project that has, as you might suspect, proven to be the most intractable.
For devotees in the Krsna consciousness movement, reform must be a fundamental spiritual practice, inseparable from our cultivation of the holy name. We must accordingly recognise that reform is a never-ending enterprise, our daily work. It should never be neglected, nor should we ever assume that the job is accomplished. Our confession should be perpetual:
trnad api sunicena taror iva sahisnuna
amanina manadena kirtaniya sada harih
One who thinks himself lower than the grass, who is more tolerant than a tree, and who does not expect personal honour but is always prepared to give all respect to others can very easily always chant the holy name of the Lord. (Sri Caitanya-caritamrta, Antya-lila 20.21)
At the same time, if we show some perseverance in the matter, always begging Krsna to destroy our desires to enjoy independently in this world, Krsna will reciprocate with us and give us guidance from within. In this way, the devotee becomes acquainted with the infinitely caring and carefully guiding presence of Krsna, a presence that becomes the solace of the devotee's heart. And the devotee can progress confidently. The devotee is also empowered to give guidance to others.
When I became involved with the reform movement, it distressed me to see the number of my revolutionary godbrothers who thought that the problems with ISKCON were due to the fact that other people were not Krsna conscious enough. The other people, in this context, were those who had become the first initiating gurus after Prabhupada. Each of them had been a responsible leader under Prabhupada, and Prabhupada relied much upon them. Prabhupada deeply appreciated them because they had shouldered the burden of so much responsibility on his behalf. Whatever their shortcomings, they were Prabhupada's 'best men'. If, in the event, they turned out to be not good enough, then the question I had to ask myself was: 'Why wasn't I any better?' After all, we are told that the spiritual master's mercy is equally available to all disciples, without discrimination. Prabhupada did not play favourites. So the fault was mine: I had every opportunity to be better, but I did not take it.
I also realised that, despite all their failings, Prabhupada appreciated the service of these people. I should therefore appreciate it as well. And it seemed to me that success in reform of leadership would only come when Krsna became convinced that there were other people who would be as willing to carry the burden of responsibility as those who had failed and who would strive more diligently than they did to become free from impurities. In sum, the personal qualification for reform is: With a firm vow, we in ISKCON have to commit ourselves to (1) purifying ourselves, and (2) accepting responsibility to care for others. I am convinced that any devotee — man or woman, senior devotee or new bhakta, big preacher or humble doorkeeper — can, by taking these two vows, become increasingly empowered by Krsna to save ISKCON. We can begin today.