How can I deal with uncertainties about the guru system in ISKCON?
From: Keshav P
Edited By: Shyam Venkateswaran P
Question: How to understand what Prabhupada said, in numerous purports, Srila Prabhupada explains that a guru cannot fall. He also says that those who think that I can replace my guru will fall down for sure. At many places Prabhupada describes those who run after women, money, and fame fall down.
I have read your post about Ritvik Theory also, but I am asking this especially with respect to 9 June 1977 letter where Prabhupada appoints 11 disciples to act as Ritvik. Why did he not say for them to directly become Diksha Guru?
Later we see that nearly 7, 8 out of 11 fell down. Some people later accepted that Srila Prabhupada appointed Ritviks and the concept of self appointed guru was created to overcome the position of Srila Prabhupada. And the same system is still present, which has created two parallel groups.
Please do not take my post as unimportant; because I am in duality that if I accept Ritviks as true then it opposes Vedic Tradition; if I take the present guru system in ISKCON, then I am afraid to accept that my Guru can fall. I am also afraid that Guru System leads to divisions that becomes centre of own understanding. Like in the future, there can be rivalry between the disciples of two gurus or the same guru over women, wealth, name and fame. How can this danger be removed?
Answer: Firstly, regarding the 9 June 1977 letter, if we look at the context of what Srila Prabhupada is talking about, he is just talking about a functional arrangement of how the initiations can proceed amidst his sickness. Tamal Krishna Maharaj, who was taking care of Srila Prabhupada, has written a book called TKG diary which is there in the Vedabase, and there he described the background to this letter. So devotees from all over the world were asking for initiation and some practical arrangement needed to be made. So there, at that time, Srila Prabhupada was talking and responding more from a functional or practical arrangement point. He was not making an arrangement for all time to come thereafter. While he was present on the planet, at that time, he said that these devotees should act as his representatives and they gave initiation on his behalf. So the point here is that it’s a functional arrangement and we have to not just look at the letter but look at the context when the letter was given. So it was more of the devotees were also asking for a functional arrangement at that time, while you are sick and there are devotees all over the world to be initiated, what should be done? Srila Prabhupada explained, replied by giving this arrangement.
So now, Srila Prabhupada said that, “guru cannot fall”? Not to my knowledge. Srila Prabhupada was asked by Satswarup Maharaj, “Can we attain a stage of Krishna Consciousness from which we will never fall back?” Srila Prabhupada said yes, that is possible. And then there are different pastimes of Srila Prabhupada. Srila Prabhupada was once very fervently praying before the deities and the devotees asked, “What are you praying for?” Srila Prabhupada said I am praying that Krishna please, Radharani please, do not let me fall down. Of course,Srila Prabhupada at other points and places said that even if I am in a room with unclothed woman I will not fall. So Srila Prabhupada was transcendental and he would not have fallen under any situation. But the fact is that it is not that his transcendence is independent of Krishna. Because he was praying to Krishna, because he was Krishna Conscious, and Krishna Consciousness was a natural inclination and attraction of his heart, that is why he would not fall. And there is a process by which anyone and everyone can develop that state of Krishna Consciousness. So now Srila Prabhupada in the Nectar of Instruction talks about who can be a spiritual master? And he says that one doesn’t have to be a uttama-bhagavata for that. One doesn’t have to be an absolutely pure devotee who has attained a level from which one cannot fall back. So it is not that a pure devotee cannot fall back, there are books which do talk about it. In the Mahabharata, there is a verse which describes, if one’s spiritual master acts in contrary ways to the scriptures, one has to abandon the spiritual master. Similarly, in the broad Vedic tradition, in the Gaudiya tradition, there is book called Krishna Bhajanamrit by Narhari Chakraborty where he describes what a disciple should do when the spiritual master has difficulties and he is no longer following the principles of devotional service. Jiva Goswami talks about it in Sandarbhas, Bhakti Vinoda Thakur talks about it in Jaiva Dharma also. So it is not that the Guru will not fall down. It is very unlikely that such a thing will happen if the Guru is authorized and is practising properly, but it can happen and there are adequate references within the broad Vedic scriptures as well as within the Gaudiya Vaisnava tradition that such a thing is possible. And then what is to be done? Srila Bhakti Vinod Thakur explains that at such a time, one should try to go the Guru’s godbrother who is close to the guru and tell the guru’s godbrother about one’s situation and then the guru’s godbrother, if it is possible, he will talk to the guru and help him to come back on the right track; otherwise, if the guru’s godbrother is not available, then the disciple can try to talk with the guru and if that doesn’t work, then the disciple should keep a distance from the guru. He doesn’t have to take initiation, but he can continue practising devotional service in the association of devotees who are practising properly.
So, first of all, the idea that the guru cannot fall doesn’t have sastric basis. Now, the second point is that the idea that I can replace my guru, they will fall down. Again we have to look at the context in which Srila Prabhupada made that statement. So, Srila Prabhupada is pointing out that the role of a Guru in a disciple’s life is irreplaceable. The devotees were thinking that Srila Prabhupada is going to India (this happened in 1967-68), he is so old and sick and he is going back, what if he doesn’t come back then what should we do? And the devotees just casually asked, “Prabhupada, can you send some of your other godbrothers and then they can continue?” Prabhupada then started crying and he said, “My guru was a Vaikuntha man, he saved me!” Then Mukund Maharaj, who was Mukund Prabhu at that time, Michael Grant, who had asked this question, realized that he had actually transgressed the etiquette in asking such a question. Later on, as they studied the books, they understood that actually the spiritual master is not something that can be interchanged or replaced like that. But then what is Srila Prabhupada talking about? He is talking about a person, a spiritual master who is in good standing and is well connected with Krishna; such a spiritual master cannot be and should not be replaced.
But then what about other situations? Its not that if the spiritual master has some difficulties then what does one do? One doesn’t replace the spiritual master in terms of rejecting that person, but one does have to continue on one’s devotional service in the association of devotees. So, certainly if such a thing happens it is very unfortunate, its heart breaking for the disciple. At the same time, one has to continue on in the devotional service, continue in the association of other devotees taking guidance from other senior devotees.
So as I said, the possibility is mentioned in the Vedic scriptures. The idea that one cannot replace one’s guru is for the context of where the guru is in good standing and the disciple feels, “I dont want this guru, I will have another guru”. That doesn’t work. That mentality that the guru is dispensable even when the guru is in good standing, that is the mentality that will cause fall down. And now Srila Prabhupada is saying that those who run after money and women will fall down. Yes, it is possible that they will fall down, but that possibility is in the material world itself, and those who practise devotional service properly will not fall down.
So now, regarding the question of yes if we respect the Ritvik idea, then we will be going against the Vedic tradition, that is certainly true. At the same time we have to understand that we should not demonize those who are propagating the Ritvik idea. They are also devotees, they are also trying to serve Srila Prabhupada, and they are also trying to grapple with the realities of what happened. So the realities of what happened have been distressing, devastating for some people also. They have come up with a response which is non-Vedic, and while this specific response has to be refuted, at the same time, their concerns have to be respected. They may not always express the concerns properly, they may blaspheme the present ISKCON gurus who are in good standing also sometimes, and that is not proper, but at the same time their concerns are valid and they have to be respected. So beyond that, we need to also understand that in every tradition, when the charismatic founder departs, there is a phase of turbulence. When Jesus departed there was devastation. And actually what was Jesus’ position and what was the Christian theology? That was not finalized for four centuries. That time they were able to clearly understand what Jesus taught, who he was, what is his position, what are our philosophical understandings. So it took so much time. Same with the departure of Mohammad, there was bloodshed. The next three Khalifs were actually killed. The first three successors of Mohammad were killed actually. So in general, after a charismatic founder departs, there is a period of chaos. How do we negotiate the period of chaos? Ultimately, it is by faith in Krsna. It is not that we are putting faith in the Ritvik system or in the ISKCON guru system. We are putting faith in Krishna and Krishna tells us (BG 4.34)
“tad viddhi pranipātena paripraśnena sevayā
upadekshyanti te jñānam jñāninas tattva-darśinah
That please go a guru and surrender to him. He will give you the knowledge. And of course Krishna is using the guru in a plural sense of it. Go to the self realized souls and they will give you knowledge.
So, that means when we are connecting with the parampara and taking initiation, we are following Krishna’s instructions. We need to have faith in Krishna, that if we try sincerely to render service to Him, He will guide us in how to go ahead. Yes, there will be some turbulent phase, in every moment after the charismatic founder departs, and that is what is happening within ISKCON right now. And both the ISKCON leaders as well as the Ritviks, they are trying to come to terms with this turbulent period. And what is the constant amidst this turbulence? It is that Krishna is in our heart, Krishna loves us and if we sincerely approach Him, He will guide us. He has told us in the scriptures to go to a guru so we will go to a guru, we will go to a spiritual master and take initiation from him, but beyond that we are connecting with Krishna and the spiritual master is not that he is some other person who is doing something else. Actually spiritual master is meant to connect us with Krishna. Even if in the very remote situation, if the spiritual master has difficulties, then we have to understand that we will not be the losers because we have put faith in Krishna, and by putting faith in Krishna we will always make spiritual advancement. As I said in the earlier answer, that I have to follow the process of pure devotional service. Even if I have the most exalted spiritual master, if I don’t follow process of devotional service, I will fall away. I will fall away. So we have the Caitanya Caritamrita example of Kal Krishna Das who was a personal associate of Caitanya Mahaprabhu but even from Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s association he fell away. Of course, Caitanya Mahaprabhu dragged him back, but the point is that he fell away for some time. So, rather than bothering about the exaltedness or otherwise of our spiritual master, we should focus on the dedicatedness of our practice of devotional service. And if we find a senior vaisnava, existing ISKCON spiritual master, who inspires us to practice devotional service, we take initiation from that person. By that, we will be further inspired to practise devotional service and it is our practice of devotional service that will lead to spiritual advancement. Certainly the mercy of spiritual master is important, but the mercy of the spiritual master comes when we practice devotional service, and the mercy of spiritual master is not independent of the mercy of Krishna. Krishna’s mercy can come from many sources, but the primary source is the spiritual master. So rather than bothering about whether the spiritual master will fall, we should bother about whether I will fall or not. And if I don’t want to fall, then I need to practice spiritual life in a committed way. And to practice spiritual life in a committed way, if somebody gives me inspiration, let me take the inspiration from that person.
So there are two points I said:
1. we are putting faith in Krishna, and
2. we are committing to the process of devotional service.
And these two can never go wrong. Because of our faith in Krsna, we take initiation from the spiritual master because the spiritual master initiates us, inspires us in devotional service; that’s why we take inspiration from him. There are higher principles to which also we are connecting through the initiation from the spiritual master and they should be kept in mind. Then we can overcome the fear of the spiritual master falling away. Such a thing will not happen, but even if it happens, we will not be the losers.
Regarding the conflicts that may happen between the disciples of a guru or between gurus themselves, Srila Prabhupada told us that we should not have a utopian idea of a spiritual society. Utopia means an ideal situation where there are no problems and everything is wonderful. Srila Prabhupada said utopia is never found in the material world. We are individuals and we have our own individual notions and ideas and opinions, and there will be some differences. How will those differences be solved? They cannot be solved by the magic wave of the hand. They will be solved to the extent devotees practice devotional service. What makes the Krsna Consciousness movement transcendental is Krsna Consciousness. To the extent the devotees cultivate Krsna Consciousness, to that extent they will be transcendental. And to the extent they don’t cultivate Krsna Consciousness, to that extent they will not be transcendental. That applies to me, to you, and that applies to even spiritual masters within ISKCON, and the disciples. So now the solution to the problem of this sort of conflicts is what? The solution is Krishna Consciousness. To the extent we cultivate a culture of Krishna Consciousness and become Krishna Conscious, to that extent these conflicts will be less. But if we reject the process of Krsna Consciousness, itself, by not taking initiation, then really it will be difficult for us to cultivate Krsna Consciousness. So we should not have to bother too much about too many big issues about future conflicts and their solution. Suppose an Indian goes to America for studies and starts thinking, “If a future war takes place between India and Pakistan and America takes the side of Pakistan and if I am in America, then the Americans may think that I am an Indian spy over there and I may get arrested. Therefore I will not go to America!” How many Indians think about such things? Are they not possible? They are possible, but just because something is possible does not mean that we give up our prospects for advancement in fear of that possibility. If it is a realistic possibility, we consider it and then we factor it into our planning, and go ahead.
Is it a possibility that there are conflicts between the disciples of different gurus? Yes, definitely that possibility is there. But actually speaking, when it comes to conflicts, it does not even have to be between disciples of different gurus. There are so many conflicts between the disciples of the same guru also. So having one guru is also no guarantee for avoiding conflicts. So what is the only guarantee for avoiding conflicts? Its cultivation of Krsna Consciousness. Please practice Krsna Consciousness and don’t bother about too many problems in the future. If we find a place where there are conflicts, then we can connect with the devotees who are not interested in conflicts so much and who are focusing on the practice of Krsna Consciousness, and we practice Krsna Consciousness. So in this way, we can take care of our process of spiritual advancement and go back to Krsna. We don’t have to bother about the well being of every one and everybody else even within the devotee community. According to our capacity and adhikara, we understand that this is a hospital and in the hospital there are other sick people. Is the treatment given properly? Is the treatment available to me properly? Is it curing me? If it is curing me, fine, it may be possible that there are certain departments of the hospital that are not well administered, there are certain doctors who are not so good, there are certain places where certain things are going wrong in the hospital, that is fine, that is possible, that may be true. Fine in the sense that not that it is good, but fine in the sense that such facts may be true. But does that mean that the hospital cannot treat me or that I should stay bereft of the treatment? Not at all. I have to take my treatment, I have to ensure that I get the treatment properly and get cured. And while I am getting cured, if I can, I help in solving the problems in the hospital, fine, I can do that. But just because there are problems in the hospital, it does not mean that I have to stay sick forever. I have to take treatment, my treatment is my responsibility. So like that, practising Krsna Consciousness and devotional service is my responsibility. I should not take up anxieties that I am not authorized to take up. So what is the exact position of guru, how different gurus will relate, how different disciples of different gurus will relate, that is not for me to take up the anxieties right now. If in the future I become a dedicated advanced devotee and I am given the responsibility of deciding these roles, then surely I will play my part over there. It’s like suppose I am given a key role in the hospital administration- then I will try to solve the problems in the hospital. But if I don’t have that, I just make sure am I getting the proper treatment, am I getting cured. If I am, then let me go forward.
So chant Hare Krsna, study the scriptures, cultivate Krsna Consciousness, stay in the association of those devotees who inspire us in Krsna Consciousness, take initiation from a spiritual master who inspires us the most in Krsna Consciousness, and become Krsna Conscious. There is no need to get involved in too many complexities even in the material world and even within a movement like ISKCON. Just focus on what we need to do for our own spiritual growth and while doing that, whatever we can contribute according to our capacity and according to our position, we can contribute for solving or assisting in solving problems also.