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Challenging the GBC

by Locanananda dasa

Part 1: Letter  to Madan Gopal (abridged)

Dear Madan Gopal Prabhu,

Please accept my humble obeisances. All glories to Srila Prabhupada!
Thank you for your very kind letter. I would have answered sooner, but my physical condition is not the greatest. On Monday night at 26 Second Avenue, after Radhanath Swami's class, he and I led a kirtan which spontaneously flowed out of the temple room and into the street. With so many devotees chanting, it seemed as if the entire Lower East Side was roaring with the sound of the Holy Name. When devotees are chanting in ecstasy, they become oblivious to the condition of this body, but afterwards we pay the price. I hope you will forgive me for not replying until now.

There are many devotees more qualified than myself who could explain the subtleties of guru tattva, but since your inquiry is directly related to an article I posted, I will attempt to answer on the basis of my meager understanding. Because the topic of initiations has both managerial and philosophical implications, I wanted to first present some background information concerning the implementation of the system recommended by our founder/acharya before tackling your specific questions.

When Srila Prabhupada was asked on May 28th, 1977 to clarify how ISKCON would be managed after his departure, one of the topics raised by the GBC select committee dealt with how initiations would be performed in his absence. His immediate reply was a perfect, ISKCON-specific managerial directive. "I shall recommend some of you to act as officiating acharyas." He thus coined the term "officiating acharya", the title by which those who would later perform initiations in ISKCON were to be known, and stated that they would be named at a later date. This he did officially in an announcement sent to all temple presidents on July 9th, 1977. Those men chosen to fill the post were all trusted members of the GBC who had been personally trained and molded by His Divine Grace to become leaders of the Krishna consciousness movement. 

To my knowledge, Srila Prabhupada did not refer to them as ceremonial priests. In fact, quite to the contrary, he expected them to manifest all of the qualities of a "regular guru": to be conversant with the science of Krishna, to be fully surrendered to the instructions of their spiritual master, to always act as a humble servant, to inspire others to place their faith in the Personality of Godhead, etc. They were to act as representatives of the founder acharya with full transparency and initiate on his behalf.

As you have stated so succinctly, all ISKCON devotees must learn to serve Krishna by following the teachings of the great acharya, Srila Prabhupada. As an eternal associate of the Lord, he can enter our hearts and dispel the darkness of ignorance. He is our life and soul, and without his blessings we cannot make any advancement in Krishna consciousness. Only by his grace are we able to cross the ocean of material suffering and obtain our life's destination, the lotus feet of Sri Sri Radha and Krishna.

Srila Prabhupada encouraged all of his sincere followers to act as guru by preaching the message of Godhead throughout the world. In the Sri Caitanya Caritamrita, it is confirmed that every vaisnava should be seen as the guru of those he instructs and inspires. A guru is therefore not necessarily one who performs initiations but he who is fixed in transcendental knowledge and who shows by example how to remain constantly engaged in devotional service. Such exalted devotees broadcast the transcendental science of Krishna consciousness to whomever they meet and instruct others to surrender to Krishna. This is how pure devotees show compassion to the conditioned souls suffering in forgetfulness of their relationship with the Supreme Lord. The initiation ceremony performed by the officiating acharya is a formality. To successfully propagate Krishna consciousness, our emphasis should be on preaching the glories of the Lord, not on endless argumentative discusions concerning such formalities.

As far as how the initiation process recommended by Srila Prabhupada was to be implemented, only those selected to act as officiating acharyas would perform the formalities of chanting on beads and giving spiritual names to new initiates. Other senior preachers would continue to offer ongoing training and spiritual counsel. This is basically the system that was in place while Srila Prabhupada was still physically present. What remained for the GBC to do after his departure, in accordance with his recommendation, was to create the post of the officiating acharya. (Because it is against vaisnava etiquette for a disciple to be called an "acharya" in the presence of his own guru, the post could not have been established before Srila Prabhupada entered samadhi.) Unfortunately, instead of endorsing Srila Prabhupada's proposal, the GBC erred by promoting unauthorized arrangements to worship so-called "diksa gurus" on ISKCON altars as if they were fully liberated residents of the spiritual world. 

Srila Prabhupada always assured us that our Krishna conscious philosophy would appeal to people who are reasonable and intelligent. If you explain to anyone that although our guru passed away some twenty-two years ago, his senior and most advanced disciples continue to perform initiations on his behalf, they will accept this arrangement. If, on the other hand, you tell them that those who join ISKCON today must worship a "new" guru as though he were "as good as God", even though he may fall down from devotional service later on, no reasonable person will agree to this proposal. ISKCON's current guru hoax is sufficient to keep almost any educated person from joining its ranks. 

Our mission is to spread the Krishna consciousness movement, by which love of God is awakened, to every town and village in the world. For this goal to be accomplished requires that devotees preach very vigorously. To be able to preach with great enthusiasm and conviction, devotees must have the perception that Srila Prabhupada is being properly represented by the leaders of ISKCON. In other words, for ISKCON to expand, the correct system of initiations must be put into place. If Srila Prabhupada's recommendation for officiating acharyas is followed, devotees will rejoice, knowing that whoever comes forward to join the movement will be encouraged to take complete shelter at the lotus feet of Srila Prabhupada.

For us to please Krishna and to become empowered to propagate the chanting of the Holy Name, we must place our complete faith in the order of our spiritual master. His Divine Grace said that officiating acharyas would perform initiations after his departure, and this is the instruction we are duty bound to follow. There is no need to award any other title to those who perform initiations. Nor is it appropriate to try to counter our spiritual master's instruction with advice received from outside of ISKCON. We should not offer opposing arguments to his specific order either from sastra or from the writings of previous acharyas. Because this was Srila Prabhupada's final order, it conclusively overrides all previous instructions even he himself may have given on this matter. 

In approaching the transcendental realm, we should accept that certain topics we may touch upon are inconceivable and beyond our limited scope of comprehension. Deeper insight, however, may be awarded us by Krishna Himself Who is seated in the heart as Paramatma and Who is the source of higher spiritual intelligence. Before we have progressed to these superior stages of enlightenment, topics of an inconceivable nature should not become the subject of argumentation. The issue of how the dual manifestation of siksa and diksa guru occurs is one such area where even the most scholarly devotees vacillate in their understanding, what to speak of bewildered neophytes. 

At this point, I would like to point out that when preaching either to his disciples or to the public, Srila Prabhupada very rarely touched on the intricacies of the siksa and diksa roles of the spiritual master. The distinctions between the siksa guru and diksa guru are not specifically mentioned in the Bhagavad-gita, the Nectar of Devotion, the First Canto of Srimad Bhagavatam, the Krishna Book, the Sri Isopanisad or the Teachings of Lord Caitanya. It is mainly in an esoteric section of the Sri Caitanya Caritamrita that we find the explanation. Considering the simplicity of Srila Prabhupada's program, it is unlikely that he would have approved of his followers becoming so absorbed in analyzing one particular chapter of such an elevated philosophical treatise. The net result has been that devotees everywhere have allowed themselves to become distracted from their true service in the sankirtana mission of Caitanya Mahaprabhu. This trend can only be reversed by implementing Srila Prabhupada's recommendation that initiatons be performed on his behalf by officiating acharyas.

I hope that my explanation has been satisfactory. I look forward to our future correspondence and hope this finds you blissfully engaged in the service of Srila Prabhupada.

Your servant, Locanananda Das


Part 2: Challenging the GBC

In March, 2000 the GBC will have an ideal opportunity to reset the course of ISKCON history by instituting the program for initiations actually recommended by Srila Prabhupada. His instruction given to the GBC select committee on May 28th, 1977 was that first and second initiations were to be performed by "officiating acharyas" after his disappearance. Because the GBC never created this post, for twenty-two years no one has ever referred to an ISKCON leader as an officiating acharya. If the leaders of ISKCON are unable to place their utmost faith in this guideline given by His Divine Grace to perpetuate the Krishna consciousness movement, history will hold the GBC ultimately responsible for the inevitable deterioration of his legacy. In their attempt to follow in the footsteps of the great acharya, those who have performed initiations since Srila Prabhupada's departure always referred to themselves as "ISKCON gurus". Sadly, though, they have mistakenly classified godbrothers who do not initiate disciples of their own as "non-gurus". This is in contradiction with the teachings of our Guru Maharaja who instructed that all vaisnavas should be seen as spiritual masters, whether they initiate or not. 

"Anyone who gives spiritual instructions based on the revealed scriptures is accepted as a spiritual master." (Cc. Adi 1.34, purport)

By definition, a guru is one who preaches the glories of God. He is conversant with the science of Krishna and inspires others to place their faith in the Personality of Godhead. In the Bhagavad-gita, for example, Lord Krishna Himself acted as Arjuna's spiritual master without the question of initiation ever arising. The term "ISKCON guru" is therefore a misnomer and our proposal is that it should no longer be used to describe those who perform initiations in ISKCON. The only title approved by Srila Prabhupada for those who would initiate in ISKCON after his disappearance was "officiating acharya". We have also heard the term "officiating acharya" equated with the term "diksa guru". This is also incorrect because of the differences in their connotation. When we speak of a "diksa guru", we imply that he who initiates is empowered to deliver the disciple from birth and death, having attained the topmost level of transcendental realization. The term "diksa guru" is not a title. It describes someone on the uttama platform who is a paramahamsa thakura and an infallible absolute authority. A "diksa guru" is also considered to be beyond the restrictions imposed by the regulations of any ecclesiastical body. Because of its connotation, the term "diksa guru" cannot be properly applied to those who initiate in ISKCON as representatives of the founder/acharya.
Today, in ISKCON, a diksa guru is thought of as an absolute authority by his own group of disciples but not necessarily by others. This concept does not agree with Srila Prabhupada's instructions on guru tattva and conflicts with his ISKCON-specific managerial directives meant to preserve the unity and coherence of our society. Only Srila Prabhupada himself, as the representative of all predecessor acharyas, may be recognized as an absolute authority by the members of ISKCON. The words of his disciples and granddisciples are absolute only to the extent that they agree with the teachings of His Divine Grace.
An officiating acharya must be advanced in Krishna consciousness in order to represent the founder/acharya with potency and transparency. Unlike a "diksa guru", who is generally the head of his own math or institution, an officiating acharya should not expect to be worshiped "as good as God", although he may be highly honored. The past has taught us that to do otherwise inevitably detracts from the worship of the founder/acharya. The role of the senior devotee who thus performs initiations is to encourage new members to take shelter of Srila Prabhupada and to serve within his mission. This is how the aspiring devotee will receive the "bhakti-lata-bija".

"Dormant devotional service to Krishna is within everyone. Simply by associating with devotees, hearing their good instructions and chanting the Hare Krishna mantra, dormant love for Krishna is awakened. In this way one acquires the seed of devotional service." (Cc. M. 19.151, purport)

The relationship between the founder/acharya, the officiating acharya and the new initiate can perhaps be better understood from the following letter written in 1967 by His Divine Grace to a disciple in Boston:

"When I left your country on July 22, I had very little hope of coming back again. But Krishna informed me that I'm not going to die immediately; therefore I have come back again to get inspiration of Krishna Consciousness from you all good souls.
Although officially I am your spiritual master, I consider you all students of my spiritual master because your love for Krishna and service for Krishna teach me how to become a sincere Krishna conscious person." 

New candidates for initiation are, in fact, students of Srila Prabhupada who have been placed in the care of Srila Prabhupada's disciples by Krishna's arrangement to receive training in Krishna consciousness. 

The Sri Caitanya caritamrita mentions the role of the "official initiator spiritual master" in relation to the pastimes of Yadunandana Acharya. He was officially initiated by Advaita Acharya but considered Vasudeva Datta to be his actual spiritual master. Yadunandana Acharya himself was the official initiator of Raghunath Das who later took shelter of Caitanya Mahaprabhu in Puri. The concept of the officiating acharya thus has its basis in scripture and it can be applied today to provide the formal link with the great acharya, Srila Prabhupada, who is the "ashraya-vigraha" and deliverer of all ISKCON devotees. 
The more it is understood that the initiation ceremony is a formality, the sooner the GBC will also abolish the unauthorized practice of re-initiation. There is no basis for re-initiation given in Srila Prabhupada's teachings, nor is there any term in Sanskrit, Hindi or Bengali that can be translated as "re-initiation". 
It is interesting to note that in its 1999 resolutions, the GBC has relied heavily on the words of Narahari Sakara Thakura to explain how one should react when his guru becomes fallen. They also mention that whatever siksa one receives from other sources must be acknowledged and confirmed by one's diksa guru. The discrepancy is that the founder/acharya of ISKCON never proposed the concept of a fallen guru and certainly never approved that such guidelines be incorporated as a part of ISKCON law. Rather than follow the direct and specific order of our own spiritual master recommending officiating acharyas, the GBC seems to prefer to validate its current imperfect arrangement by drawing from general instructions given by another vaisnava in our line who lived five hundred years ago. 
What is always recommended in Srila Prabhupada's teachings is to take shelter of the association of more advanced devotees who inspire surrender to Krishna. Re-initiation is not part of the formula and its enforcement in ISKCON has created an unending disturbance in the lives of thousands of nice devotees.

sruti smrti puranadi pancaratra vidhim vina
aikantiki harer bhaktir utpatayaiva kalpate

"Devotional service of the Lord that ignores the authorized Vedic literatures like the Upanisads, Puranas, Narada pancaratra, etc., is simply an unnecessary disturbance in society." (B.r.s. 1.2.101)

Another discrepancy concerns Deity service. Although regular public worship of initiator gurus was disallowed by resolution of the GBC, it is still required that a pujari worship a picture of his guru on the altar before offering artik to the Deities. Many devotees feel, however, that this form of public worship is inappropriate if ISKCON cannot guarantee its initiating gurus are liberated residents of the spiritual world. The GBC proclaims Srila Prabhupada to be everyone's siksa guru. And, according 
to the new rules, a pujari may choose to offer worship to a picture of either his siksa guru or diksa guru. If Srila Prabhupada's granddisciples can perform daily guru puja to him directly on the vyasasana, why can they not worship their primary siksa guru directly on the altar? It should be acknowledged that since we all have a personal relationship with the founder/acharya, his followers should all be permitted to worship him directly without an intermediary. Many such anomalies have appeared recently in resolutions enacted by the GBC, but they will all be adjusted automatically by implementing the correct procedure, namely, initiation by officiating acharyas.

In pursuance of the above, we hereby offer the following recommendations to the GBC which we hope they will place on their agenda for discussion at their next series of meetings:

1) To create the post of the officiating acharya as per Srila Prabhupada's instructions given on May 28th, 1977

2) To abolish the term "ISKCON guru" as used to exclusively describe those who perform initiations in ISKCON

3) To no longer use the term "diksa guru" as a title for those who perform initiations in ISKCON

4) To abolish entirely the practice of re-initiation within ISKCON

5) To remove from its earlier resolutions any references to "non-guru" godbrothers

6) To allow Srila Prabhupada's granddisciples to worship him directly without an intermediary when performing Deity service 

The active principle in spiritual life is to follow the order of the spiritual master. To introduce concepts that do not correlate with his instructions is like adding sand to sweet rice. Reform is the process by which the sand is removed and the original sweet taste restored. Our purpose in making these suggestions to our GBC godbrothers is to revive the original spirit of loving interaction amongst all of the followers of His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada and to guarantee that His Divine Grace will forever remain the acharya most glorified by all future generations of ISKCON devotees.