Writing the last chapter of the Srila Prabhupada-lilamrita was an intense experience for me. Prabhupada was teaching “the final lesson,” and I relived the day-by-day remembrances of being with Srila Prabhupada and serving in his ISKCON movement in the final days leading up to his disappearance. Those days were like a drama unfolding. Would Prabhupada stay with us? What would we do without him? And again I felt the grief at his departure. I was also reminded that Prabhupada’s last days were filled with the preaching spirit as he encouraged his disciples to continue his work. He exemplified calm and tolerance in the face of great pain, and fearlessness in the face of death. He allowed us the intimacy of chanting soft kirtanas in his room and reading to him from Srimad-Bhagavatam, Krishna book, and his other books.
Then it was again November 14, 1977 and Prabhupada departed at 7:30 p.m. In the Lilamrita I told briefly about Prabhupada’s actual passing–how he left in perfect circumstances in Vrindavana after a life totally dedicated to Krishna, a life of incredibly potent achievements for Lord Caitanya’s mission. I also told about how the news of Prabhupada’s departure affected his disciples around the world.
Well, was that it? Biography finished? No. There was more. I had to tell about service in separation. Even though Prabhupada appeared to pass away from this world, he continues to live through his instructions. Service in separation, vipralambha-seva, is a high level of realization, something which the residents of Vrindavana feel in Krishna’s absence. We too can feel a form of union in separation, even though we are not so advanced in spiritual realization, simply by meditating on Srila Prabhupada’s presence and instructions.
He was gone but he was still very much present. This realization was not a pretension or a myth, nor was it sentimental or psychic phenomenon or mental telepathy-it was a completely substantive, palpable reality, a fact of life. Srila Prabhupada had given them personal service and now they would continue that service. Prabhupada was still present through his instruction and all the nectar of his direct association-all the nectar of Krishna consciousness that he had given and shared with them was still available.
Service in separation for Prabhupada’s disciples was undoubtedly a fact. Otherwise, now that they were without his personal presence, how would they be able to sustain themselves in spiritual life? The fact that they could continue as before, increase their feelings of devotion, and increase their serving capacity, meant that Srila Prabhupada was still very much with them.
Now had I completed the biography? Again I found myself feeling that something more was needed. Therefore I wrote the Epilogue. I wanted readers to understand clearly that they too had a claim to a relationship with Srila Prabhupada. I expected that most of the readers would not be initiated disciples of His Divine Grace. In fact, I assumed that some of the readers might be encountering Srila Prabhupada for the first time in this book. Each of them could have a relationship with Prabhupada. It was their right. Otherwise, as touching as the biography of Srila Prabhupada might read, the reader would be left only with the idea that this was a story of one guru with his little band of disciples who tried to begin a worldwide movement. It had nothing to do with them and there was no way in which they could participate now since that guru had left this world. I wanted the reader to understand that Prabhupada was more than the guru of a particular generation; he was to be with us forever.
In describing how the followers of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada continued to relish the nectar of serving him in separation, we are not speaking of only a small band of several thousand devotees whom he initiated during his lifetime. Srila Prabhupada was not only an acarya, but he was the founder-acarya of the Krishna consciousness movement, which is a dynamic spiritual reality.
We cannot limit Srila Prabhupada, therefore, by describing only the drama of his being the guru for one generation of followers. Srila Prabhupada is jagat-guru, the spiritual master of the entire world. He is a bona fide spiritual master, faithfully conveying the message of the disciplic succession from Lord Krishna, as he received it in parampara from his spiritual master. But more than that, he was empowered by Krishna to do what no other spiritual master has done. He is the founder-acarya for spreading Lord Caitanya’s sankirtana worldwide in the midst of the age of Kali.
-SPL, Vol. 6, pp. 42324
Such a personal relationship with the founder-acarya is possible even for persons not directly initiated by Srila Prabhupada. It was Srila Prabhupada who taught us to apply Krishna consciousness to the modern context. It was Srila Prabhupada who set the standards of sadhana and cleanliness, of purity and association. Whoever follows these basic practices and recognizes Srila Prabhupada as Krishna’s direct representative is his follower.
In the Epilogue, I also pointed out that people could serve Krishna through their fields of endeavor-artists, philosophers, businessmen, and laborers could all become devotees. Srila Prabhupada placed few restrictions on his followers as to how they could serve. After all, he wanted Krishna consciousness to pervade the entire society and he felt that the Krishna conscious philosophy had jurisdiction over all subjects of learning and action. Why shouldn’t anyone anywhere in the world feel that if he took up Prabhupada’s instructions, he could become Srila Prabhupada’s follower?
The Krishna conscious gifts Srila Prabhupada brought to the West are for everyone. Srila Prabhupada left us with a dynamic legacy in his books, through his devotees, in the development of his communities, and in his teachings of how to expertly apply Krishna consciousness of his communities, and in his teachings of how to expertly apply Krishna consciousness in every situation. If we simply use our intelligence to claim our relationship with Prabhupada by practicing Krishna consciousness in the mood in which he taught it, we will inherit the most wonderful relationship with Krishna’s pure devotee, Srila Prabhupada.
That was the purpose of the Srila Prabhupada-lilamrita, and if anyone reads it and opens himself to the possibility of a deep relationship with Srila Prabhupada, he will not only become a Prabhupadanuga, but he will taste the sweetness of Prabhupada’s association. This is true not only of persons who joined ISKCON during Prabhupada’s physical presence but for those who joined after 1977.
Srila Prabhupada’s Mission
A Prabhupadanuga has exclusive devotion to Prabhupada. He doesn’t like to hear that Prabhupada is just one of many gurus teaching Gaudiya Vaishnavism and that there is little distinction between Prabhupada and any other Gaudiya teacher. A Prabhupadanuga recognizes Srila Prabhupada’s special place among gurus of Gaudiya Vaishnavism.
What is that special place? To understand that, we have to understand some of the history of the Gaudiya Vaishnava mission. Lord Caitanya predicted, “In every town and village My name will be sung.” For generations following the prophesy, Gaudiya Vaishnavas wondered what it could have meant. How could such a thing be achieved all over the world? Did Lord Caitanya refer only to every town and village in India?
Immediately after Lord Caitanya’s departure, many brilliant acaryas appeared. Narottama dasa Thakura, Shyamananda Prabhu, Srinivasa Acarya, and Vishvanatha Cakravarti Thakura all appeared contemporaneously or in quick succession. Each of those acaryas propagated Lord Caitanya’s mission in Gauda. Then after their disappearance, the Gaudiya mission became disturbed. There was a sudden proliferation of prakrita-sahajiya and other bogus sects-so many, in fact, that the average Bengali began to identify Gaudiya Vaishnavism with a sex cult.
Some generations later, Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura appeared and pioneered the reestablishment of the purity and solidity of Lord Caitanya’s teachings, bringing the movement again to people’s attention as the deep religious tradition that it is. He was assisted in his mission by his son, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, whose attacks on Mayavadi philosophy and the growing secularism of India were powerful and effective.
Bhaktivinoda Thakura and his son were not only interested in defeating Mayavadis and other unbona fide religious expressions, however. Rather, the main thrust of their movement was to teach the yuga-dharma, the chanting of the holy name of Krishna. It is in this tradition that Srila Prabhupada appeared, and with this mission.
It is stated in the Caitanya-caritamrita, kali-kalera dharma-krishna-nama-sankirtana/ krishna-shakti vina nahe tara pravartana: “The fundamental religious system in the age of Kali is the chanting of the holy name of Krishna. Unless empowered by Krishna, one cannot propagate the sankirtana movement.” (Cc., Antya 7.11) This verse underlines Srila Prabhupada’s specialness: he was empowered to spread the sankirtana movement all over the world. It was he who fulfilled the prediction Lord Caitanya had made five hundred years earlier that His name would be spread to every town and village, not just of India, but of the world.
Srila Prabhupada’s very human story of how he carried out this mission can capture our hearts. His courage and dedication inspire us to follow him, to love him, and to want to do great things on his behalf. He fought against great odds to carry out his spiritual master’s legacy. He came to America at an advanced age with only a trunkful of books and the equivalent of eight dollars in his pocket, yet he was the wealthiest philanthropist. To accept his gift fully requires that we become exclusively his followers. As Prabhupada is no ordinary guru, so our following of him cannot be ordinary or diffused. Rather, it must be focused on his mood, his teachings, and his mission.
Guru-nishtha in ISKCON
Srila Prabhupada’s mission is nondifferent from Srila Rupa Gosvami’s mission. In his purport to Cc. Antya 1.117, Srila Prabhupada writes:
The special function of Srila Rupa Gosvami is to establish the feelings of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu. These feelings are His desires that His special mercy be spread throughout the world in this Kali-yuga.
His desire is that all over the world, everyone, in every village and every town, know of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu and His sankirtana movement. These are the inner feelings of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu. Sri Rupa Gosvami committed to writing all these feelings of the Lord. Now again, by the mercy of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, the same feeling are being spread all over the world by the servants of the Gosvamis, and devotees who are pure and simple will appreciate this attempt.
Srila Prabhupada also writes, “Advancement in Krishna consciousness depends on the attitude of the follower.” (NOI, Introduction) All the shastras declare the necessity to accept and follow a bona fide spiritual master in parampara. “Following” implies accepting the spiritual master’s particular mood and emphasis in his relationship with Krishna. Srila Prabhupada perfectly exemplified such following in his own relationship with Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, as was proven by his successful execution of the mission. Srila Prabhupada’s own mood toward his Guru Maharaja was one of exclusive devotion and attention. We can follow that example.
Guru-nishtha is the most important point in spiritual life. In a lecture in Vrindavana (November 28, 1976), Srila Prabhupada states:
All you are young Westerners. You never study Vedanta, but you can surprise many so-called Vedantists how to understand Krishna. How it has become possible? Simply by your firm faith in your spiritual master and Krishna and chanting Hare Krishna. That’s all. Yasya deve para bhaktir, yatha deve tatha gurau. This is the Vedic process. If we have got firm faith in guru and firm faith in Krishna-guru-krishna-krpaya paya bhakti-lata-bija-then you get the seedling of bhakti-lata.
There is a tendency now that time is passing to see things more objectively and to think that perhaps Srila Prabhupada wasn’t so special. After all, he is just one more link in the parampara chain of innumerable gurus stemming from Krishna. Actually, ISKCON devotees are often accused by those outside ISKCON of being too exclusive in their devotion. Why should we claim a special place for Prabhupada or for any other guru for that matter? Even within ISKCON we can hear the advanced realizations of other devotees, or see them travel around the world, gain followers, write their own books. A follower of Prabhupada won’t allow such minimization to creep into his faith. Srila Prabhupada accomplished something so extraordinary that any comparison to others becomes a minimization of his position.
This is the nature of an ISKCON devotee: he or she wants to develop love for Krishna by following strictly in Srila Prabhupada’s footsteps and in the mood that he taught. It will be to the credit of Srila Prabhupada’s disciples and succeeding generations of followers to continue with this fixed determination in their glorification of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Such devotion is not fanatical. Prahlada Maharaja expressed a similar sentiment when describing his feelings toward his own spiritual master, Narada Muni:
My dear Lord, O Supreme Personality of Godhead, because of my association with material desires, one after another, I was gradually falling into a blind well full of snakes, following the general populace. But Your servant Narada Muni kindly accepted me as his disciple and instructed me how to achieve this transcendental position. Therefore, my first duty is to serve him. How could I leave his service?
I am sure that Srila Prabhupada would encourage this kind of exclusive devotion. He expressed such undiverted attention toward his own spiritual master, and he tried to protect ISKCON from the various outside influences that could disturb it or that would misunderstand his application of Krishna consciousness for Westerners. Such exclusive devotion is not the property of only those devotees who joined ISKCON before 1977; it is the property of all who wish to follow Prabhupada. We can cultivate that exclusive devotion to Prabhupada by hearing about his life, studying his teachings, praying to him, and rendering service to him according to his desires.
Srila Prabhupada Inspires Our Faith
Since devotion to Prabhupada necessarily includes following his instructions, it is useful to know what types of things please Srila Prabhupada. When he was confronted with the question, “Srila Prabhupada, how can we please you most,” Prabhupada usually didn’t offer a list of service or preaching engagements, but made the simple statement, “If you love Krishna.” (“I have noted in your letter that you want to serve me. I only want that all you my disciples always think of Krishna and never forget Him for a moment. In this way you can conquer Krishna. He becomes so attracted by pure devotion that He gives Himself to His devotee. And if you get Krishna, then what you want more?”)
Beyond that, however, Srila Prabhupada instructed us how to come to the stage of remembering Krishna at every moment, and that constituted the basis of his ISKCON movement. In order for us to engage in his movement, we needed to have faith. Srila Prabhupada created that faith in his followers, most of whom were hampered by the cynicism born of living in an age of atheism and sense enjoyment. We were able to have faith in Prabhupada because he was renounced, because he was saintly, because he was so honestly and obviously dedicated to God. There were no scandals in his life. He was able to create faith in the minds of those who had come to believe that God was dead, or, as the East Village Other put it, present only in LSD.
He also created faith by his strong lecturing in which he not only appealed to shastric authority, but to logic. “Let us come to reason,” he would often say. The teachings-that we are eternal spirit soul, servants of God, and that real liberation is not to abandon our individuality but to fulfill our relationship with Krishna-he presented with strong yet simple arguments. We became convinced because the philosophy made sense; he made sense. He could answer all doubts, and he continues to do so in his books. Srila Prabhupada’s whole life was gloriously supportive of his own faith in guru and Krishna. Because he embodied faith, he became worthy of our faith in a world where we had been cheated and disappointed again and again.
Gratitude and Obligation
When faith develops in a devotee, he or she naturally feels gratitude and obligation toward the spiritual master. This sense of gratitude and obligation helps Srila Prabhupada’s followers to become the limbs by which he fulfills his own spiritual master’s order. We all know that any Westerner who has heard the words “Hare Krishna” must have had some kind of contact with Srila Prabhupada or his followers, if only from a distance. It was Srila Prabhupada who made “Hare Krishna” a household word. Once when Srila Prabhupada was traveling with a stopover in Athens, Greece, he overheard some young man jokingly singing the Hare Krishna mantra. Prabhupada himself was amazed at how far the holy name had spread. Just to contemplate that-what we were before, what we have become, that we have learned to aspire for the highest goal of life-and that all this has become possible, not only for us but for hundreds of thousands of people by Srila Prabhupada’s mercy can only increase our thankfulness.
Gratitude and obligation toward the guru are expressed through service. Following the spiritual master’s orders is the real test of love and faith. When a follower is serious about a relationship with Srila Prabhupada, he or she will begin to receive knowledge from him. The spiritual master gives that knowledge freely, unofficially. When the follower begins to feel gratitude,that is an open acknowledgment of debt. Whether or not we acknowledge our debt openly, however, the debt is there. We have accepted something from the guru and we are obligated to reciprocate with him. That is the meaning of guru-dakshina.
What Did Srila Prabhupada Want?
Then what did Srila Prabhupada want? That we should love Krishna, yes, and that we should follow his instructions in order to attain that love. This is evidenced by the fact that as soon as people become serious, Srila Prabhupada introduced them to the traditional relationship of guru and disciple. He also introduced them to the four regulative principles: no meateating, no illicit sex, no intoxication, and no gambling. He established the standard that all initiated followers should chant sixteen rounds of the Hare Krishna mantra a day both to purify their hearts and to awaken their dormant love for Krishna. We cannot overemphasize Srila Prabhupada’s importance in our lives as the giver of the holy name. That was his special contribution. Therefore, to follow this formula of avoiding sinful life and chanting and hearing about Krishna is the basic program Srila Prabhupada expected his followers to pursue. He also wanted us to cooperate with each other and to preach to the nondevotees.
Following the order of the spiritual master is not simply sentiment. The real substance of the spiritual master’s association is his vani, his teachings. We should know what it is, feel attached to it, and serve it with our life’s energy.
Satisfaction of the selfrealized spiritual master is the secret of advancement in spiritual life. Inquiries and submission constitute the proper combination for spiritual understanding. Unless there is submission and service, inquires from the learned spiritual master will not be effective. Not only should one hear submissively from the spiritual master, but one must also get a clear understanding from him, in submission and service and inquiries.
-Bg. 4.34, purport
Following Srila Prabhupada’s Order is the Only Way to Be Guru
Srila Prabhupada said that it was not difficult to be a guru. Guru means following one’s own spiritual master in parampara and repeating what Krishna has said. We have already discussed that following the spiritual master means following both his orders and his emphasis. Specifically in ISKCON this means chanting sixteen rounds of the Hare Krishna mantra every day, following the four regulative principles, and rendering service in ISKCON in the mood in which Srila Prabhupada requested. A spiritual master is not measured by the size of his aura or his capacity to generate electric shocks while he’s teaching, and neither is he measured by whether or not he reveals to the disciples their individual svarupa-siddhi. The qualification is that he is always serving his spiritual master purely in thoughts, words, and deeds.
Generally, as in school, the critical student becomes the next professor. Through relevant inquiry and service (the test of his understanding) to the teacher, the student is trained to teach. Lord Caitanya Himself preaches this simple principle to Kurma Brahmana: “Instruct everyone to follow the orders of Lord Sri Krishna as they are given in Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam. In this way become a spiritual master and try to liberate everyone in this land.” (Cc. Madhya 7.128) Lord Caitanya goes on to say, “If you follow these regulative principles, we will again meet here, or, rather, you will never lose My company.”
Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura quoted this verse on the occasion of his Vyasa-puja in February of 1936. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta claimed that to set oneself up as a representative of God can be seen as arrogant. He said that by listening to the words of praise directed at him by his disciples, however, he was actually discharging a duty on behalf of his spiritual master:
I have therefore to practice to sit at these assemblies in the garb of a wise person and to listen to the words of praise relying on the dictum that the command of the master is above questioning. If, however, I am thereby led to suppose that it is a good thing to listen to one’s own praises, my worthlessness is published to all the world in a glaring manner by such silly thinking.
I am obliged to accept this honor in order that the current of the word of God may not be obstructed and its perennial flow may not cease. Our judgment in this matter is different from that of persons who listen to their praises for pampering their arrogance by such audiencing.
In other words, accepting the role of guru in ISKCON is one of the duties Srila Prabhupada has designated for his disciples. His disciples should therefore perform this service as duty, with the aim to spread Prabhupada’s fame and mission, and not to “pamper their arrogance.” It was not Srila Prabhupada’s mood to emphasize our own genius or spiritual status as something separate from our identity as his disciples. Therefore, our teachings should be in line from him, and we should not feel inclined to discuss topics which Srila Prabhupada himself did not discuss. Being guru in ISKCON means strictly following Srila Prabhupada’s examples and remaining always his servant. Srila Prabhupada said about himself, “My credit is not that I am a great scholar or a great devotee. Neither can I perform any magic. Rather, the one qualification I have is that I have cent percent faith in my spiritual master.” Srila Prabhupada did not change his own spiritual master’s teachings nor emphasize those things that Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura chose not to emphasize. Srila Prabhupada claimed that this loyalty was the source of his power to spread the Krishna consciousness movement all over the world.
The Qualifications of Srila Prabhupada’s Followers
That’s the process for us to follow, but in ISKCON there have been many failures in following Prabhupada to this degree that have led to disappointment. Because Srila Prabhupada’s books are nondifferent from himself, people still come to Krishna consciousness through Srila Prabhupada’s preaching. People still make the commitment to chant the holy name because they have been convinced by Srila Prabhupada’s encouragement. People have still decided to pursue a guru-disciple relationship based on the power that Srila Prabhupada himself displayed as a spiritual master. Even though they are joining after Srila Prabhupada’s disappearance, their attraction to Srila Prabhupada and their desire to follow him are what give them solidity in their attempts to practice spiritual life.
Often devotees wonder whether because of the disappointments, it means that none of Srila Prabhupada’s disciples are qualified to be gurus, or whether we should not think of another, seemingly more practical system to avoid the chance of disappointment. There is no blanket statement we can throw over this issue to say that none of Prabhupada’s disciples are capable to accept disciples just because some of his disciples have failed in this regard. The point that makes them qualified is their own strict following of Srila Prabhupada. It is to Prabhupada’s glory that he was able to take such raw recruits, people who had previously been eating meat and living for sense gratification and turn them into Vaishnavas. Any disciple who is strictly following Srila Prabhupada’s orders has had to renounce more than just their breaking of the regulative principles. They have had to step into a whole mode of life to which they were not conditioned. They had to become childlike with Srila Prabhupada and do things they could never have imagined doing, such as going off to foreign countries to establish Krishna consciousness there. The power of their austerities and the strength of Prabhupada’s blessings for their surrender have given them potency. I don’t say this only looking to Srila Prabhupada’s initiated disciples; that same potency is being evinced and will continue to be evinced in the present generation of his granddisciples and in generations to come. This offering of a life to Srila Prabhupada’s mission is a more important qualification than any mystical qualification.
Srila Prabhupada is the Center
Since the personal identification with Srila Prabhupada is the source of every follower’s potency, no one in ISKCON should dampen another devotee’s attraction to Srila Prabhupada or divert it to others. Srila Prabhupada is just as accessible now as he was before his disappearance. Part of ISKCON’s mood in following Prabhupada is that even though such persons must take diksha from one of Prabhupada’s disciples and cannot receive diksha from Srila Prabhupada himself, Srila Prabhupada is ever the founder-acarya and thus the central focus of our branch of the sampradaya.
Our worship of Srila Prabhupada is not exaggerated. All founder-acaryas in the various sampradayas are accorded similar worship. In ISKCON’s case, although it is true that we are a branch of the Gaudiya Math through Prabhupada’s connection with his spiritual master, and as such, we are also part of one of the four basic lines descending from Krishna, Srila Prabhupada began something that was distinguished enough from the main branch that it became a sub-branch in itself. ISKCON is not the same as the Gaudiya Math and neither did Srila Prabhupada try to make it the same. His purpose was to apply the traditions of Gaudiya Vaishnavism to Westerners in a worldwide movement, and that included making adjustments for cultural disparities between traditional Indian Vaishnava cultural expressions and the lack of them in the West-and so many other adjustments that only a worldwide preacher such as Srila Prabhupada could understand. Those adaptations and adjustments form a part of Srila Prabhupada’s emphasis, and make those who accept and identify wholeheartedly with that emphasis his followers.
To be effective, therefore, his followers have to teach and bolster faith in Srila Prabhupada and represent him effectively. Then people approaching ISKCON after Srila Prabhupada’s disappearance will be grateful to have received Srila Prabhupada’s association through such persons who have already been trained as Prabhupada’s followers. The whole basis of their relationships in ISKCON will be that everyone is following Srila Prabhupada and helping to connect one another to the founder-acarya.
No One is Denied Srila Prabhupada’s Shelter
In Vaishnava history, and particularly in the history of the Gaudiya sampradaya, there is an unbroken chain of spiritual masters. The guru’s disciples become the next gurus. When people come to ISKCON post-1977, they must take diksha from one of Srila Prabhupada’s followers. That is the ISKCON system, and it is based on the sampradaya tradition. We have already discussed how the initiating spiritual master’s in ISKCON have the duty to humbly present Srila Prabhupada’s teachings, to facilitate every ISKCON devotee’s following of and association with the founder-acarya, Srila Prabhupada, and to present only what he taught strictly in parampara. Then no one will be denied a connection with the pure devotee, Srila Prabhupada, not now and not generations in the future. Srila Prabhupada will remain the diksha-guru of those he personally initiated before his disappearance and the shiksha-guru of all those who came after.
Bhakti is a science, and following the guru-parampara system is a part of that science. There is no need to invent a new system for the most basic tradition. No follower of Srila Prabhupada is being denied his shelter. Srila Prabhupada can appear in their hearts, in their dreams, in their minds, and he can imbue their following of him with his own special quality of mercy. Whatever relationship we can imagine with Srila Prabhupada as a beloved spiritual master can be experienced by all devotees regardless of what year they joined because the relationship with Srila Prabhupada is eternal.
ISKCON’s Right To Its Own Integrity
One point to note is that as Srila Prabhupada expresses a certain integrity and fixedness in his following of his Guru Maharaja, and as Srila Prabhupada’s followers take up that example and maintain a similar integrity and fixedness in their following of Srila Prabhupada, so ISKCON has a right to represent that integrity and fixedness without outside influence. Although ISKCON’s detractors have argued that ISKCON’s closed doors are a sign of weakness and politicking, ISKCON has a right to conduct its affairs according to its understanding of Srila Prabhupada’s mission. It is not required to accept influence from other Vaishnavas that it feels will stress something other than what Srila Prabhupada emphasized.
Rtvik-A Pragmatic Approach?
The concept that Srila Prabhupada directly initiates followers after his disappearance is not something that he himself taught. Neither is it found in the teachings of the Gaudiya sampradaya. Neither did it appear in ISKCON in the years immediately following Srila Prabhupada’s disappearance. Rather, it is a concept that made its way into ISKCON around 1985 as result of the frustration resulting from gurus falling down and abandoning their positions. The first essay to appear on this topic was by Karnamrita dasa, printed in The Vedic Village Review. His subtitle was telling and true to the experience of the times: “A Pragmatic Approach.” Pragmatism means that truth is determined by whatever works best. In that essay he admitted that Srila Prabhupada had established a system, but because we were unqualified to follow that system, it would be more practical to follow something we could do.
The question is sometimes asked, “Are we limiting Srila Prabhupada in saying that he cannot initiate followers after his disappearance?” But that’s not the real discussion. The question more is, “Did Srila Prabhupada teach in his books, lectures, or letters, that the ritvik system was what he wanted to establish after his disappearance?” I will not discuss the intricacies of this question here, but I will say here that Srila Prabhupada’s main teaching was that the disciple becomes the next spiritual master. Our becoming guru does not put us, in our minds or anyone else’s, on the level of Srila Prabhupada, but that does not mean we can avoid our responsibility to preach and to give people who come as a result of that preaching Srila Prabhupada’s full shelter. The ISKCON guru’s qualification is that he very carefully represents Srila Prabhupada and links his own disciples to Srila Prabhupada’s teachings. Srila Prabhupada said that our love for him would be proven in our willingness to cooperate with one another to maintain his institution. Therefore, Srila Prabhupada must be the central focus.
The ISKCON Experience
That said, I have to acknowledge that ISKCON devotees have all experienced a lot of disillusionment and disappointment in regard to spiritual masters falling down. ISKCON has made mistakes. We began the worship of gurus after Prabhupada in a highspirited way, with the mistaken idea that there were only eleven gurus selected by Srila Prabhupada and that their authority was greater than the authority of the GBC body. These gurus also accepted worship even greater than what Srila Prabhupada was offered. Those Godbrothers who were not gurus were often treated almost like disciples. In some cases, this led to a corruption that blighted ISKCON’s spirit and caused confusion, and ultimately, attempts at reform.
It also gave rise to disappointed devotees searching for alternatives. Some devotees became proponents of the ritvik theory and others left ISKCON to join various branches of the Gaudiya Math.
ISKCON is still in process. We can sympathize with people looking for a radical change in the system because of our recent history, and we all want to avoid falling into the traps that caused those problems. Reform is an ongoing process. The movement needs to be brought to a greater level of purity. Leaders, and especially those taking the responsibility of accepting disciples, should be careful not to commit the same mistakes that were committed in the past. They should not claim ownership over devotees and money, and they should concentrate on making their sadhana strong and focused. They should also work to maintain the devotees’ faith in their strict following of Srila Prabhupada and ultimately in Srila Prabhupada himself. Larry Shinn summarized this point nicely in his essay, “Reflections on Spiritual Leadership: The Legacy of Srila Prabhupada”:
I was reminded of images of a special, holy man who, by his erudition and personal piety as well as by his traditional role, touched the lives of thousands of devotees in India, America, and around the world. I was also struck by the realization that for all of his extraordinary attributes, Prabhupada could not pass on the mantle of leadership (i.e., traditional roles) for ISKCON. As I reminisced about my interactions with Krishna gurus and devotees, which began in 1974 and intensified through the 1980s, I was struck by this realization that the traditional roles and scriptural erudition could be transmitted by teaching, but that the personal piety and deep faith that attracted devotees to Prabhupada could not.
As I reviewed my interviews with devotees from the years just following the death of Prabhupada, I came to realize that many devotees, and certainly all of the newly appointed initiating gurus, spoke with a confidence and enthusiasm about their maturing Krishna faith that was almost always grounded in scriptural authority (i.e., in reciting a Krishna text), or in Prabhupada’s interpretations of those texts. It is true that some of the new gurus were noted for their ecstatic chanting or personal piety, but their claim to authority was grounded primarily in scriptural passages like those cited above. Most “new gurus” exhibited a confidence, even a cockiness, that if the scriptures said a guru was “as good as God”, then it was so-forgetting that such claims must be grounded in the kind of personal humility that Prabhupada exhibited. In the early and mid1980s, I talked with some new gurus who were exceptionally bright and erudite in scriptural argumentation but who had stopped doing sankirtana themselves even as they taught the importance of such “preaching” to new devotees. I met other new gurus who were talented organizational managers but who had stopped chanting their morning rounds of japa, and ultimately fell from their lofty positions because of immoral behavior. I met only a few new gurus who were impressive because of their humbleness and piety, and they have continued to provide leadership for ISKCON-even in the dark days of the early and mid-1980s.
What is the legacy that Prabhupada has left for ISKCON? It is the legacy of traditional authority (parampara), scriptural erudition and personal piety as necessary corollaries to a healthy and vibrant Krishna faith. Even as the reformers in ISKCON attempted in the mid-1980s to reduce ISKCON’s reliance on relatively few gurus (by appointing many new ones) and to separate some managerial and organizational functions from the spiritual role of the guru, Prabhupada’s legacy of personal piety and moral purity seldom was offered as the key to a new guru’s success. Prabhupada’s legacy is a faith marked by a blend of head and heart-both focused upon God’s divine mercy and compassion-that separates the true spiritual master from the impostor.
The good news is that there are many signs in America, Europe and elsewhere in the world that gurus and other leaders in ISKCON recognize that they must live and act in ways that are more consistent with their teachings. Conferences held in Europe during the past half dozen years reveal a more contrite and apologetic tone in public self-presentations by devotees. However, Prabhupada’s legacy is richer still in the lesson it would teach to contemporary devotees: that the quality of one’s spiritual practice and growth must undergird one’s theological and scriptural erudition and public and private actions. His lesson is for the developing spiritual seeker-not for one seeking a religious role in ISKCON as an institution.
In the final analysis, Prabhupada’s life suggests that only the guru who truly is linked to Krishna by his or her own private and public devotion can serve as a conduit for disciples who rely upon the Vaishnava’s disciplic succession. Over the years, many Krishna devotees have quoted to me numerous scriptural passages that confirm this view of their disciplic authority-but seldom have they cited the faith-development of Prabhupada as a model for their own development. With Prabhupada, the recitation of scriptural authorities was not really necessary to confirm his role as acarya. Images of the love-filled and ecstatic Prabhupada softly singing praises to Krishna is his legacy of God-centered love-images which can serve ISKCON and its leaders well in his absence. It is this legacy of a guru’s devotion and humility before God-his piety-that Prabhupada asks his successors to emulate. What better legacy could a spiritual teacher leave to those who would follow him?
Ultimately, what ISKCON’s devotees want to do is not to leave ISKCON or take up the banner of things not taught by Prabhupada in their disappointment. Rather, they want to get back to Prabhupada. This requires working from within the movement to effect reform. The GBC should also be open to discussing reform. But the process will not be effective in an environment of rebellion or anarchy. ISKCON needs leadership because it is a large organization. Srila Prabhupada’s ambitious plan to influence the world toward the bhakti path seems almost impossible to realize, but this was the desire of the compassionate Vaishnava. His methods of realizing that goal included book distribution, temple maintenance, educational programs, prasadam distribution, and the elevation of those followers who had already joined. All of these projects require organization. To contend with opposition, both internal and external, also requires organization and singlemindedness. We have to protect ourselves, through laws and regulation, from undue internal competition or misunderstanding. The society’s individual branches must be able to maintain their integrity and yet share the same vision as all other centers. Only by such organization can we assure that no individual member becomes corrupt and tries to mislead the whole mission. The GBC is an important feature of this organization.
Therefore, it is vital that the GBC become responsive to the body of devotees and that the body of devotees cooperate within the system. Together, we can go forward both in developing our internal Krishna consciousness and in carrying out Srila Prabhupada’s mission. Allegiance to ISKCON is a way of expressing allegiance to Srila Prabhupada. We should not think of ourselves as lone aspiring Vaishnavas in the world but as Prabhupada’s followers, interested in maintaining, improving, and expanding his mission. Doing so from whatever position we find ourselves in life, whether living inside the temple or outside, single or married, is our testimony of our love and faith in Srila Prabhupada. We all recognize that our movement is imperfect. As Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura states, “Nothing is pure in the beginning. From impurity, purity will come about.” Our movement will be rescued not by abandoning it or by changing Srila Prabhupada’s teachings but by becoming the devotees Prabhupada wanted us to be and by sharing that example and that happiness with the world.