History of Gaudiya Vaishnavism – Post-Prabhupada ISKCON

by Chaitanya CharanApril 12, 2012

Last class we discussed about the dramatic expansion of Krishna consciousness under the stewardship of Srila Prabhupada.  Just as dramatic was the expansion during his manifest present with us, it was almost as much traumatic for the followers of Srila Prabhupada when he departed from the world in 1977. Srila Prabhupada prepared them for his imminent departure by inviting them to take up responsibilities right from 1968 onwards. Srila Prabhupada created a system for management, the GBC.  He gave the example of how to live and then how to leave from this world. Srila Prabhupada did all that is possible for an individual to carry on the legacy during his own life time and to set up a frame work for it to be continued after him. When a charismatic leader departs the movement that he has founded faces a great crisis. For many personality cult movements the crisis is fatal. HH Jayaadwaita maharaj gave series of lectures called ‘unity in perversity’, he explains after the departure of Buddha, Buddhism split into two.  After Jesus Christ departure his movement is almost eradicated, but it was his followers who got the conviction that Jesus did not like an ordinary man, he has raised from the grave and the spirit of God came and empowered them. Their response to the demise of Jesus is critical for the subsequent spread of Christianity, even though there is lot of confusion about what exactly was his teachings, about the questionable history of Jesus. In Bible there are two books, one book says how Jesus was very peaceful and composed, and when he was about to crucified he said ‘forgive them for they not know what they do’. But in another it was described that Jesus was actually very scared and he did not speak anything in last movement, and just before died he said ‘Oh father, why have you forsaken me’. These two descriptions are radically different. Luke portrayed Jesus in a positive way and Mark portrayed Jesus in a fearful way. The worst succession crisis happened in the history of religions was after the death of Mohammed. To a large extent Mohamed had to use lot of violence and people around him were quite violent themselves. He appointed one person Ali as one of the most trust worthy associate. To large extent Ali was supposed to become his successor. But there are other people who conspired against him and took over the power and there were so many Imams and leaders who were practically killed at that time. Whenever there is charismatic leader departs there is chaos that results. Most personality cults within one generation of departure of charismatic leader, the whole organization crumbles into debris. In the case of Srila Prabhupada there were both positives and negatives. The positives were Srila Prabhupada words are quite well documented. From 1967 onwards they recorded everything. Although veda base is not the complete record of what Srila Prabhupada said but still it is a quite large record, and it is much larger than any of the personalities that I have already talked about. At least to some extent what Srila Prabhupada spoke is unambiguous, there can be some interpretations what he meant by what he spoke. At least what he spoke is clear. There were negatives like the generation gap between the founder and successor has never been as great in religious history as it was between Srila Prabhupada and his successors. Jesus was same age as of his followers, even Mohammed followers are also little below his age. In the case of Srila Prabhupada he was almost 80 year old man and his oldest leader were around 33 and 35. Srila Prabhupada expected higher levels of dedication and material renunciation than all the other previous teachers, especially in environments which were far more provocative than what was there in past. From point of view of organizational history the transition of ISKCON from Srila Prabhupada to post Prabhupada phase was a recipe for disaster, because of high standards expected and because of huge generation gap, immature and impious back grounds of subsequent leaders. It is credit to first generation leaders ISKCON has not only survived and flourished in several parts of the world.  Movement means there is action, organization means some sort of structure, and coordination, Srila Prabhupada often used Krishna consciousness movement, we are meant to move and get things done and the organization is also for that particular purpose. Organization can become store house for interests and status quo, and when the movement practically dies then the organization stays. Organized religion had lot of bad news, the Catholic Church has very dubious history of has huge political conspiracies, corruption etc, catholic church also have positives.

Transfer of Charisma and routinization of Charisma

In general when a charismatic leader departs there are two ways that the movement can continue. One is called the transfer of Charisma and the second is called routinization of charisma. Transfer of charisma means the successor has more or less similar charisma; he can become the next charismatic leader and continue the movement. In most cases the successor never matches to continue the charisma of the founder. routinization of charisma means an institute is created and the institution becomes the representative of the founder, no one person has the authority, that forum becomes the supreme authority. Traditionally Hinduism has been personality cantered, not personality cult. Personality cult means that person doesn’t have any predecessors and no successors, that person appear by his own charisma attract people, like in movies and sports. The mathadipathi appoints a successor, like Madhvacharya appointed 12 successors, this is the traditional way of continuing matha . The eastern way of doing things is transfer of charisma. Depending on the competence and potency of the successor the movement can go on. The way with abrahamic religions is routinization of charisma. The pope is the topmost authority in Catholic Church still there is a body and the pope is not considered as personal saviour of the followers, but the bishop of a church is considered as the saviour of the people. In reality even if there is routinization of charisma the movement will continue only when within the body some people are charismatic. Even when there is transfer of charisma there has to be some amount of routinization because there will be different groups and they may not accept one charismatic person as unquestioned leader. Whenever we have analytical categories to describe historical or sociological or psychological, these are never like digital logic 1 or 0. They are more like analogue systems. There is a continuum which moves from one extreme to other extreme. Srila Prabhupada and Bhakti Siddhanta Saraswati Thakur who organized Gaudiya Vaishnavism in a structured way. The protestant churches which were successful in Bengal and in India during the time of Bhakti Siddhanta Saraswati Thakur, they are quite well organised. Our acharyas felt that if we have to spread we also need organization. In Kaliyuga the challenges for spiritual leaders in previous ages the organizational aspect was taken care by the ksatriyas and the knowledge aspect was taken care by Brahmanas. These two roles were well defined. Now the political leaders have very little spiritual inclination, therefore the spiritual leaders have to play the both the roles. Srila Prabhupada played the both the roles and Srila Prabhupada said we want Brahmanas with ksatriya spirit. It is challenge to play both the roles because ksatriya role brings passion, because of lot of involvement with material energy. Brahmana role requires goodness and it requires minimization of interaction with material energy. This challenge that our leaders have to face playing two roles at the same time. Srila Prabhupada was not involved in hands on management except for the early days, but he was always available for his managers, all the major managerial decisions were referred back to him for final approval. When

Srila Prabhupada integrated both transfer and routinization of charisma

Srila Prabhupada departed he blended both this transfer of charisma and routinization of charisma. He appointed GBC as the highest body and it will work by democratic means, there will be voting and GBC members can elect more GBC members by majority vote when they feel that others are qualified, this is routinization of charisma. Along with that he also appointed gurus as his successors, GBC was his managerial successors, and gurus are his spiritual successors. Srila Prabhupada said that gurus are under GBC. GBC has the authority over spiritual successors. After Srila Prabhupada gurus made their own guru board, and they considered that to be a lead group higher than GBC also, they used to take all the final decisions, but eventually it was found that is not what Srila Prabhupada wants and that particular sub forum within GBC was dismantled. Currently in GBC both the gurus and non gurus they all treated as equal members.

Dynamics of ISKCON after Prabhupada & transfer of power house to India


After Srila Prabhupada the GBC has to take over the management of ISKCON, especially in the first decade after Srila Prabhupada there was considerable upheaval. After that things started stabilizing, during Srila Prabhupada time movement spread primarily in America and there was significant success in Europe also. During Srila Prabhupada time America was like power house of ISKCON, among the first generation most of them are from western body, the primary leaders were largely from America. During Srila Prabhupada ISKCON has lot of public visibility but limited recruitment, Indians could accept western hare Krishna devotees as evidences of glory of their own culture, but they were not able to accept this young Hare Krishna devotees as their own spiritual teachers. Also there was cold war between Russia and USA, India to a large extent aligned with USSR, and everything from America was seen suspiciously, even ISKCON devotees were accused as CIA agents. The sensation that was created by seeing westerners wearing dhoti, kurta and sari was also accompanied by suspicion about the motives of these people. Also Indian leaders not able to get continuous visas to stay in India, also lack of cooperation from Indian government.  Because our movement was largely based in America during Srila Prabhupada time lot of upheavals happened in America. The strength of the movement in America was diminished. In India the movement kept becoming stronger and stronger, now by all standards in terms of number of devotees, financial resources, number of temple residents, book distribution, and  number of temples built, India is the power house of ISKCON. ISKCON is now having its greatest success in India, and it has good success in Russia and Ukraine. Succession crisis hit American ISKCON more than Indian ISKCON. Most of us were introduced after the whole succession trauma was over, we have seen our spiritual master and his god brothers in many ways exemplary and inspiration, and we have been living in a relatively stable phase of ISKCON. But that stability came after lot of chaos, and it is to the credit of the first generation leaders. One western scholar says ISKCON has volatile setting internally, and very hostile environment externally. Volatile internally because of the so many difficulties that the some leaders faced, the scholar says “the impressive fact for any careful observer of ISKCON history can observe 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”. Hostile environment was because of brain washing case, and the anti cult movement which created lot of problems. Internally volatile because, the gurus are traditionally considered absolute authority, then how can he be under GBC.  Also when some leaders had problems that lead to questions about the system that Srila Prabhupada has set. ISKCON reform movement, ritvik movement has their own philosophy which has no precedent in Gaudiya Vaishnavism or all of Vedic history. The idea that one can take initiation from spiritual master who has already departed. Although this idea was unprecedented, still this idea gained ground because there is a feeling that something wrong with the existing system. Ritviks came more because of the organizational upheavals that happened, and with the feeling that something is wrong, and need to be corrected. Movement has stabilized and spread quite widely. One of the remarkable successes has been in India, where we have largest committed followers.

Modifications happened in the preaching


One of the change that we can be seen is the change from a confrontationalist to a largely non confrontation approach. In Srila Prabhupada letters and conversation we see Srila Prabhupada using rascal, fool terms. Some of the ISKCON thought that since Srila Prabhupada did it we will also have to do that. But that alienated large number of people for several reasons, first reason is they did not have spiritual advancement and compassion that Srila Prabhupada has, they did not have the advantage of old age which gave Srila Prabhupada grandfatherly authority, most importantly they themselves did not have exemplary behaviour. We have unbridled ksatriya within us, our false ego gets sort of delight in breaking other people’s conceptions, we often take the language of war without understanding and assimilating the compassionate purpose of outreach. Srila Prabhupada spoke strongly but he was able to transform hearts easily, if we speak strongly we only activate the egos of people and we only activate the egos of people and we alienate them. We have to present Siddhanta in an uncompromised way, but in a way it is appealing to people. Outreach is like bridge building, our outreach is meant to build a bridge so that people can cross over their misconceptions and come to Krishna consciousness. We need to remove people’s misconceptions that are only after they have developed some initial faith in Krishna consciousness. Srila Prabhupada use of confrontational language that comes largely in conversations, which are for total committed insiders. This language is minimum in his books. If we start using the words and metaphors that Srila Prabhupada used for outsiders then we alienate people. Parampara involves both continuation and adaptation. The essence of pure devotional service and core philosophical message has to be adopted as one’s own, but its presentation need to be adapted. In ISKCON also we have the debate between liberals and conservatives, but it is very difficult to define anybody within ISKCON as liberal, from the outsider point of view following four regulative principle makes even a liberal iskcon devotee an ultra conservative, iskcon has strongly sticking to the tradition in terms of the rigidness of the commitments required, so we need to use that vocabulary with a caution. There is a dynamic confrontation about what all in Srila Prabhupada legacy is eternal and what is contextual. If we look at Srila Prabhupada life, we see Srila Prabhupada was dynamic, he had different strategies for different places. He focussed on book distribution in America, but temple construction in India, the way he dealt with his disciples is also dynamic. When some body says ‘I am doing body building’, Srila Prabhupada says ‘you are not this body, it is just waste of time’. In north India when Srila Prabhupada was taken to akada, where people were building their bodies and they have Hanuman’s image. Srila Prabhupada says, ‘all of you are building your bodies, it is important, for good society we need Brahmanas and ksatriyas, you become ksatriyas, along with building muscles like Hanuman, you also chant the names of God like him’. Because of Srila Prabhupada strong speaking of renunciation and repeated glorification of Sannyasa and brahmacarya, the generation born within iskcon was largely neglected, children instead of being seen as gifts of God, they are seen as product of temptation, that was very unfortunate. Because of that the children born within iskcon they don’t want to associate too strongly with iskcon, because they did not get loving environment, and they did not get the culture of loving and protecting home. Now the devotees have gone deeper into Srila Prabhupada books, Srila Prabhupada said many positive and encouraging things for grihasta ashram, like how the children has to be taken care, how the family should be maintained. Unfortunately some aspects of Srila Prabhupada teachings are emphasized, and others are minimized. None of the second generation leaders of ISCKON are born to the first generation of leaders. In 19th and early 20th centuries the world rascal did not have strong negative connotation as it has now. Srila Prabhupada was using the word rascal in very compassionate way, he was not using in angry or vindictive way. Srila Prabhupada says ’The only concern of devotee is so many rascals are suffering in the concocted civilization of illusory enjoyment, how can they be saved, our Krishna conscious movement is meant for saving the rascals’. We are not meant to call them rascal, but we are meant to save them. Srila Prabhupada uses language motivated by compassion, we use the same language and our motivation may be entirely different. To understand Srila Prabhupada legacy we need to understand the culture in which he lived, and the culture that Srila Prabhupada transmitted. To some extent the confrontation approach was highly successful in America, because hippies themselves were highly confrontational. They had the idea that the government, education system, religion, politicians everybody stinks. They have this idea that all of them were bad, and Srila Prabhupada gave philosophical justification for calling all of them as rascals, and that approach jelled very nicely with them. In west the culture of respect was lacking, hippies had the idea never trust anyone above 35yrs. In India  still there is culture of respect, anybody who is seen as saintly he is given certain amount of respect, and speak statements of value judgement alienate lot of people. After sp, apart from the decrease in confrontational approach, another thing that happened within iskcon is shift from temple based community to congregation based community. During Srila Prabhupada time devotee meant who lived in the temple, even grihastas stayed in the temple. After sp, for time the book distribution went on very nicely in America, gradually as the anti cult movement became stronger, the appeal of the movement went down, one of the reasons was the excessively aggressive and tactics used by the book distributors, they alienated lot of people. Young American devotees who had lot of passion, they wanted to distribute books by hook or crook, Srila Prabhupada said ‘use you intelligence to persuade that person to take book’, but many times instead of using intelligence they used deceptive tactics, because of that the general American public got alienated. The book distribution in the 80’s came crashing down, and the temples were short of funds, and the devotees who were staying in the temple had to leave the temple. This resulted in iskcon spreading wider, while the lot of people did join the movement as full time, a large number felt that they did not want to join full time, but at the same time they wanted to practice seriously.  During Srila Prabhupada time there was no concept of weekly congregational  program, that concept came a decade after Srila Prabhupada departed. There were occasional programs like donor cultivation programs, well wisher programs, etc. In iskcon context the word congregation means the devotees who are married. The idea that there can be devotees who stay outside the temple and still committed to practice Krishna consciousness, took root in the post Srila Prabhupada iskcon. To some extent that is essential for the stabilization and the wide spread of movement. Because the number of devotees who renounce the world is limited. To create a system by which grihastas can continue and practice Krishna consciousnessis very important. There was a book written by western scholar ‘Forty years of chant& change’. In that one of the scholar says iskcon, chowpatty project is the prime example of a project that was initiated after the departure of sp, and that has become one of the successful projects. We have Delhi project which was initiated by sp, but largely developed by his disciples, also Tirupati project. There are healthy signs that movement is going on in a stable way, in india it took strong roots. The current challenge before iskcon is the ability to maintain the purity and sanctity of the principles, at the same time not alienating the people in the current changing culture. The vedic planetarium also going to lead to some sort of confrontation, because vedic cosmology is difficult to understand in terms of modern science, Bhagavatsam says even Brahma can not understand universe in full.  The challenge with modernity and post modernity, how we navigate it in a way that does not compromise our connection with tradition at the same it does not compromise our appeal to the contemporary situation. During Srila Prabhupada 108 anniversary celebrations in 2004, there was both mood of introspection and acceleration. We need to learn a lot at the same time it has been significantly successful. The success is in terms of global outreach of Krishna Bhakti, diety worship, book distribution, and large number of devotees who come for yatras etc. If you look at the iskcon history from 1966 when it was founded, till now the growth is remarkable despite the difficulties. Ishcon has spread widely, now it has to spread deeply, where ever we are we need to make the devotees stronger, but the wide spread itself is historical. One social historian says,’the way iskcon spread in first 40 years, even if it spreads with half of its pace, in the next 500 years it becomes world’s largest movement’.  Krishna and Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu send in every generation responsible leaders, and the souls who have to take the responsibility to carry on the movement. When we understand the history of our movement one of the things that brings to our mind is sense of responsibility, all our spiritual masters they have done their role in stabilizing and spreading the movement. Responsibility for glorifying Krishna in our generation is on us, we can seek strength and inspiration from previous acharyas, but they are not going to glorify Krishna in this generation, they gave the teachings for all time to come, but the responsibility of representing and glorifying Krishna in our generation is entirely upon us. Upon us means everyone has to feel, not everyone else except me. We have been fortunate enough to be a member of that tradition, and now we need to be interested in the sacred responsibility of continuing on that tradition. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu said it will spread for ten thousand years, it will spread, in every generation Krishna and Lord Chaitanya send representatives who will take the responsibility, but in our generation the responsibility is on us. Every devotee should feel that ‘if I don’t glorify Krishna, then who is going to do it’, of course we don’t think that we are indispensable, but we do think that it is our responsibility to all that to glorify Krishna. The Lord’s prediction is devotee’s responsibility. The Lord has made prediction and fulfilling it is our responsibility. If we take up the responsibility then Krishna will give us the empowerment. Connection with history gives us both the responsibility and sensitivity of understanding of how we have to stay connected to the tradition at the same time appealing it to the contemporary people.

About The Author
Chaitanya Charan
  • April 12, 2012 at 11:14 am

    Hare Krishna,

    First time i listen to u was the series of these lectures History of Gaudiya Vaishnavism . I’m truly impressed by the depth of the knowledge about the subject matters. I’ve become a great fan of urs now. Pls pray for my spiritual advancement.

    Your Servant,

  • Praveen Shanmugam
    April 16, 2012 at 11:51 am

    Simply amazing lecture prabhuji. You discussed many important concepts behind the evolution and sustenance of a spiritual organization. I feel certainly your inputs on these kind of topics will clarify and give:

    1. The reason why certain issues come after the departure of a charismatic leader,

    2. The strength and the wisdom required to oversee and face those issues/ problems,

    3. And the Inspiration, Responsibility and Faith in taking the movement/legacy ahead (by trying to be a part of the solution and not of the problem).

    I am really touched and inspired by your analysis. Thank you from the core of my heart, for giving what i always wanted to hear.

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