Restoring the Authority of the GBC

Ravindra Svarupa Dasa

In April this year, at an ISKCON Communications meeting in Oxford, England, Ravindra Svarupa Dasa presented his personal vision of how GBC authority could be restored. This was a landmark event in the history of GBC communications. It is the first time that a GBC chairman presented his views and plans to a forum of general ISKCON members while leaving the floor open for frank discussion. The model proposed for ISKCON's development assumes that integrity and accountability will form the real basis of authority in the movement and should become the foundation of all levels of ISKCON leadership.

I have heard many people say they feel there is no leadership, vision or guidance in the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. What I took to be my mission, at first with regard to the Governing Body Commission (GBC) and then the rest of ISKCON, was the restoration of authority. By authority I mean spiritual authority, moral authority, managerial authority, even legal authority. In all of these areas there is a lack of confidence and trust.

Although I say my goal is to restore the authority of the GBC, in one sense perhaps it never really had that authority to begin with. Until the mid-1980s, the ability of ISKCON's leaders to control people within the Society was partly based on the fact that devotees were financially dependent. When you want to exercise control over financially independent people, those people have to willingly surrender; it is their own choice. It is true that if you live in a temple, you have some freedom to leave, but it can be difficult. So I think this could be a new understanding for the GBC - that it is not a question of power, but rather of the exercise of real authority.

I am very much dedicated to the principle of the GBC; its establishment and the implementation of the principle behind it was a major achievement of Prabhupada's. In my opinion, the GBC is a good model of leadership. In its formation, Prabhupada took some ideas from Western corporate structure, the GBC being the name of the Board of Directors of the Indian Railroad, a British corporate institution. But Prabhupada also talks of how the idea of co-operation, cohesiveness and working together is fundamental to the notion of sankirtana; this idea of basing leadership on the notion of sankirtana is in contrast with the older, more traditional, hierarchical Indian model of a single, self-effulgent acarya who heads an institution. This sankirtana style of leadership and management is what Prabhupada wanted.

I think that you can become Krsna conscious and go back to Godhead in institutions that do not follow this sankirtana model. There are devotees outside of ISKCON -Vaisnavas in the Gaudiya Matha for example - who have not been able to follow this model of co-operation and cohesiveness. It is not a question of whether these people are going back to Godhead; the question is, what do we have to do to propagate Lord Caitanya's movement? That is the mission that we owe to Srila Prabhupada.

I have heard lectures in which Prabhupada says, 'Here is the proof that you love Krsna - if you do, then you'll follow His order.' This is not sentimental; it is the test of love. Prabhupada said the same thing regarding ISKCON: 'Your love for me will be shown by how much you co-operate to keep this institution together after I am gone.' This is a quotation from the Srila Prabhupada-lilamrta, and it is often quoted.

�In Tamala Krsna Goswami's diary entry of 23 May 1977, this statement is recorded in a slightly different form:


Srila Prabhupada emphasised, 'Your love for me will be tested how after my departure you maintain this institution. We have glamour, and people are feeling our weight. This should be maintained. Not like Gaudiya Math. After Guru Maharaja's departure so many acaryas came up.' (TKG's Diary: Prabhupada's Final Days)


So I think this GBC is Prabhupada's achievement, and therefore I am convinced of the importance of trying to make it work.

It is a difficult thing to do. Having been on the GBC for a long time, I am aware of the problems. Devotees gather from all over the world; they come from different backgrounds and different cultures, and cultural misreadings between Westerners and Indians do take place. And now the GBC has become very, very weak. The principal reason for this has been the fall-down of spiritual masters and the decay of spiritual authority in general. This applies to sannyasis, gurus and the GBC. There has been a big overlap of these three categories, and they are all in disrepute. The renounced order of life has come to be called the denounced order of life - we hear that all the time. People are very dubious about gurus - everyone is wondering when the next one is going to fall. And the GBC seems to be floundering and cannot do anything about it. There is a feeling that we do not know where our vision is going to come from.

We need to have vision; illumination, light, should come from the GBC. The conditions under which vision, illumination or enlightenment takes place come from Krsna.

sarvasya caham hrdi sannivisto
mattah smrtir jnanam apohanam ca


'I am seated in everyone's heart, and from Me come remembrance, knowledge and forgetfulness.' (Bhagavad-gita 15.15)


The people who lead this movement are supposed to be those who are actually directed and guided in their intelligence by Krsna. If that direction and guidance is not there, then we have to think, 'What is wrong, and how do I create the conditions under which they can take place?'

The sankirtana movement is not an individual matter; it has to be a group event. What I would like to do, to the extent that I have some influence on things, is to create the conditions under which illumination, enlightenment and vision do take place. What I'm asking for, you could say, is Pentecost - a sense of the holy spirit - when the GBC meets. This was certainly Prabhupada's purpose for the GBC meetings. That is why he wanted them in Mayapura, a holy place. Prabhupada expected this to happen. At the same time, Prabhupada really wanted us to work by a parliamentary procedure. So there is parliamentary procedure and Pentecost. How do these two things go together?

Prabhupada appreciated parliamentary procedure so much that when he instituted the GBC in 1975, he sat there and raised his hand with everyone else. Over the past five or six years, parliamentary procedure has been more and more disregarded by the GBC. When I did some research on parliamentary procedure, I found it was designed to achieve the desire of the deliberative majority. Now, 'deliberative majority' is not the same thing as 'unanimous'. There will be decisions that some will disagree with. But the people who are in disagreement will be heard, and their opinion will have been stated fully before the decision is made. That is the principle of co-operation - once you have gone through the procedure, you accept its outcome. If you wish to challenge a decision, there are lawful ways of doing so. That is the basis of parliamentary procedure, and it's actually quite impressive. Prabhupada wanted the GBC to be run on this basis, but at the same time he wanted it to convene in a holy place; he wanted the devotees to gather together in spiritual association, and he wanted the GBC to be able to receive inspiration and guidance from Krsna, the Supersoul, who in this case has exactly the same function as the holy spirit.

In The Nectar of Instruction Prabhupada talks about the general condition that we have to be in to receive direction and guidance from Krsna. The first verse reads as follows:

vaco vegam manasah krodha-vegam
jihva-vegam udaropastha-vegam
etan vegan yo visaheta dhirah
sarvam apimam prthivim sa sisyat


A sober person who can tolerate the urge to speak, the mind's demands, the actions of anger and the urges of the tongue, belly and genitals is qualified to make disciples all over the world. (Prabhupada, 1975, p. 1)


In the preface, which serves as a commentary on the first verse, Prabhupada says, 'In all spiritual affairs, one's first duty is to control his mind and his senses. Unless one controls his mind and senses, one cannot make any advancement in spiritual life. Everyone in this material life 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, and then everything concerning how to make future progress will be revealed.'

Prabhupada uses this word 'revealed.' This is not to say that everyone in the mode of goodness gets revelations, but devotees on this platform will know what to do; there will be reciprocation. If you look at the purport to Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.18.5, Prabhupada again talks about how this movement receives guidance:


At this moment it has become fashionable to disobey the unimpeachable directions given by the acaryas and liberated souls of the past. Presently people are so fallen that they cannot distinguish between a liberated soul and a conditioned soul. A conditioned soul is hampered by four defects: he is sure to commit mistakes, he is sure to become illusioned, he has a tendency to cheat others, and his senses are imperfect. Consequently we have to take direction from liberated persons. (Prabhupada, 1978, Fourth Canto, Vol. 2, p. 387)


Now, at this point in Prabhupada's purport, you might expect Prabhupada to describe how to recognise a liberated person. This is how the purport continues: 'This Krsna consciousness movement directly receives instruction from the Supreme Personality of Godhead via persons who are strictly following His instructions.' So that is the substitution for liberated persons: 'from persons who are strictly following His instructions.' Prabhupada continues:


Although the follower may not be a liberated person, if he follows the supreme, liberated Personality of Godhead his actions are naturally liberated from the contamination of the material nature. Lord Caitanya therefore says: 'By my order, you may become a spiritual master.' One can immediately become a spiritual master by having full faith in the transcendental word of the Supreme Personality of Godhead and by following His instructions.


When Prabhupada talks about spiritual master, he means all kinds of siksa guru - anyone who is actually giving spiritual guidance and instruction to anybody else should be qualified in this way. So here Prabhupada emphasises this strict following.

We find the same instructions in a quotation by Lord Caitanya to the brahmana Kurma. Prabhupada also uses this quotation a lot. Brahmana Kurma is worried that if Lord Caitanya goes away, he will fall into maya again. Lord Caitanya says,


If you follow this instruction, your materialistic life at home will not obstruct your spiritual advancement. Indeed, if you follow these regulative principles, we will again meet here, or, rather, you will never lose My company. (Sri Caitanya-caritamrta, Madhya-lila 7.129)


So this is how to maintain association with the spiritual master by vani-seva; Prabhupada refers to this topic in the Bhagavatam when he explains the allegory of King Puranjana, who becomes the daughter of the King Vidarbha in his next life and is then married to King Malayadhvaja. After her royal consort passes away, she laments. Prabhupada explains that figuratively speaking, the king is the spiritual master and the queen is his disciple. Thus, when the mortal body of the spiritual master expires, his disciples should cry exactly as the queen cries when the king leaves his body. However, the disciple and the spiritual master are never separated because the spiritual master always keeps company with the disciple. As Prabhupada made clear later on, this means he still gives guidance and direction.


The spiritual master always keeps company with the disciple as long as his disciple follows strictly the instructions of the spiritual master. This is called association of vani (words). Physical presence is called vapuh. As long as the spiritual master is physically present, the disciple should serve the physical body of the spiritual master. When the spiritual master is no longer physically existing, the disciple should serve the instructions of the spiritual master. (Prabhupada, 1978, Fourth Canto, Vol. 4, p. 228)


Of course, when I say spiritual master, I am thinking principally of Prabhupada, but this is true for everyone's spiritual master, either diksa or siksa.

When Prabhupada left the planet, ISKCON was faced with a crisis of succession. Prabhupada essentially named the GBC as successors in his will, but the GBC is not at the same standard as Prabhupada - the transfer of charisma does not seem to have taken place. So how is this supposed to happen? Well, Prabhupada tells us right here - by following strictly the instructions of the spiritual master.

As the queen is about to immolate herself on the pyre of her husband, a brahmana appears. He is described as an old friend of King Puranjana. Allegorically speaking, the brahmana represents the Supersoul. Prabhupada says when one becomes serious about following the mission of the spiritual master, his resolution is tantamount to seeing the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

vyavasayatmika buddhir
ekeha kuru-nandana
bahu-sakha hy anantas ca
buddhayo 'vyavasayinam


Those who are on this path are resolute in purpose, and their aim is one. O beloved child of the Kurus, the intelligence of those who are irresolute is many-branched. (Bhagavad-gita 2.41)


This verse is commented on by Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura; it is a theme that runs throughout Prabhupada's writing and expresses his personal realisation about accepting the spiritual master as one's life and soul. Visvanatha Cakravarti says one should serve the words of the spiritual master, and by simply following along that line, he will see the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Prabhupada elaborates on this:


If a disciple is very serious to execute the instructions of the spiritual master, he immediately associates with the Supreme Personality of Godhead by vani or vapuh. That is the only secret of success in seeing the Supreme Personality of Godhead. (Prabhupada, 1978, Fourth Canto, Vol. 4, p. 235)


In the purport to the next verse, Prabhupada also teaches that seeing the Supersoul seated within everyone's heart is possible only when one is completely free from the contamination of material attachment.


One who is sincere and pure gets an opportunity to consult with the Supreme Personality of Godhead in His Paramatma feature sitting within everyone's heart. The Paramatma is always the caitya-guru, the spiritual master within, and He comes before one externally as the instructor and initiator spiritual master. The Lord can reside within the heart, and He can also come out before a person and give him instructions. Thus the spiritual master is not different from the Supersoul sitting within the heart. (Prabhupada, 1978, Fourth Canto, Vol. 4, p. 235)


When the brahmana asked the woman who the man lying on the floor was, she replied he was her spiritual master and that she was perplexed by what to do in his absence. At such a time, the Supersoul immediately appears, provided the devotee has become pure of heart by following the directions of the spiritual master. A sincere devotee who follows the instructions of the spiritual master certainly gets direct instructions from his heart from the Supersoul. Thus the sincere devotee is always helped directly or indirectly by the spiritual master and the Supersoul.

These are Prabhupada's particular instructions about what to do when the spiritual master is gone. So now we understand what has to happen. People have said that the problem with our movement is we do not have any self-effulgent acaryas. Prabhupada says that is not what is required. We simply need to strictly follow Prabhupada's instructions - that would be adequate.

Prabhupada set up the annual GBC meetings so that decisions could be made and some enlightenment received. I have given some thought to how these meetings might be conducted. My notion was that there would be one day of spiritual retreat for every three days of parliamentary procedure. As an example of the activities occurring during the days of spiritual retreat, we might take a statement such as, 'the GBC is the custodian of the legacy of Srila Prabhupada', and make it the subject of discussion and meditation. We would not hold these sessions in the meeting room, but rather go and sit down in front of Prabhupada at his samadhi in Mayapura, all perform guru-puja together for Prabhupada, and then discuss the topic in front of the deity of Prabhupada. The questions raised during this discussion might include, What is the legacy of Prabhupada? What does it mean to be the custodian of it? What are we supposed to be doing? What can we do to succeed where we have failed?

After a day of meditative reflection, there could be a few more days of meetings, followed by another retreat, perhaps this time in front of Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati's samadhi, then Bhaktivinoda Thakura's samadhi and finally in front of Prabhupada once more. At the end of the meetings, we could engage in a more formally directed process of strategic planning involving resolutions and proposals, through an organised series of reflections. By the end of the meeting we would have an idea of where are we now, where we want to go, the steps to be taken to get there and the obstacles to be overcome. If we organise ourselves in this way, it will make a different kind of impression on the devotees present in Mayapura at that time, who are either participating in the meetings in some way or who merely want to know what is going on.

In the Bible, John 13, which contains the apostle John's version of the last supper, Jesus puts on the garb of a servant, wraps a cloth around his waist and washes the feet of his disciples. Some devotees believe this is something the GBC should perform. Some devotees believe this is something the GBC should contemplate. Although I think having the GBC wash feet may be too much, there could be a GBC prasadam day, where all the members of the GBC cook a feast, offer it to Prabhupada and serve it to the devotees. It would be good for the GBC because it would force everyone to work together on a practical, goal-directed task.

These are the kinds of things I am thinking about, at least for the GBC meetings. Things that are done in Mayapura are very powerful, and I think this was Prabhupada's intention with this Mayapura meeting.

Prabhupada's idea was that after the meetings ended, the GBC members would go to Gaura-purnima together. I would like to arrange things so that at the end of meetings, there would be about three or four days of group seminars, in which various members of the GBC would give a presentation on topics relevant to the devotees. We did it this year, and many members of the GBC gave courses on different topics after the meeting. I think it went well, but it was an individual thing, with devotees speaking on topics relating to their own particular interests, whereas I would like to see those presentations linked to what has been discussed at the GBC meetings. There is supposed to be ista-gosthi after these meetings - this would be a more organised ista-gosthi.

Essentially, I want to set up the conditions under which long-term vision can emerge from the group as a body. For some time the GBC has been in agreement that ISKCON should be seen primarily as an organisation for education and training; in the long term, our idea is to create the culture of Srimad-Bhagavatam and the holy name, and to provide the existential conditions under which everyone can have realisation. This means that there really has to be the culture of the holy name and the culture of the Bhagavatam. There are certain things that we have to do to achieve these conditions, however. For example, we need to follow the order of the spiritual master, which first and foremost means to cultivate the holy name while very diligently trying to give up offences. According to the philosophy of the holy name given by Haridasa Thakura, if you perform these actions you are on the platform of namabhasa, which gives liberation and certainly brings you to the brahma-bhuta platform. If you keep on going, very soon you will have krsna-prema. There has not been a scrupulous attempt to avoid offences to the holy name while chanting, at least on the part of many of our leaders, and I believe there would not have been so many people falling down if there had.

Devotees are really afraid that their gurus will fall down. We have spiritual masters in the movement who do not talk to each other about what they are doing. When I was teaching English at college, every so often all the professors and instructors in the English department would be handed the same student essay and asked to grade it. When everyone gathered together afterwards, you would find that someone had given the essay an 'A', whereas somebody else had given it a 'D', prompting everyone to ask, 'What are our standards?' Something like this should be undertaken within the GBC. Ultimately, as part of our mission, there should be ongoing training, education and evaluation of gurus.

While spiritual masters are giving initiations and taking on disciples, they also have their own spiritual offences to deal with. I believe there should be a time each year when all spiritual masters go to a place of pilgrimage where for one month they chant rounds, perform austerities and engage in purifying activities so that they will be able to help discharge the accumulated burdens of sinful reactions built up by initiating disciples, especially if the guru has not been perfectly following himself. It is very important to do this, and it would give the disciples a lot more confidence in their gurus. I also believe that so far, ISKCON has been running on the credit of Prabhupada's austerities and that one day we ourselves are going to have to be a little more austere because the bank account will be empty. We are going to have to build up our capital again from people who are coming after Srila Prabhupada.

I think you will find that if there is vision, management will quickly follow. I do not think that GBC members have to be managers themselves, but they have to ensure that the management is sound. If this happens, I think devotees' lives will improve, they will have more spiritual enlightenment and become happier in the Hare Krsna movement. It is ultimately a spiritual problem, and this is the way to dealing with it. I will be putting these ideas before the other members of the GBC Executive Committee for their input. I am also trying to get myself in the proper position to receive guidance from Krsna so that I can take things in the right direction. I ask for your prayers and blessings that I can serve you in the way that Krsna wants me to.


A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Nectar of Instruction. London: BBT, 1975.

A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Srimad-Bhagavatam. Los Angeles: BBT, 1978.