Not so long ago, I read a magazine that arrived in my letterbox. I had an hour to spare during my daughter’s Indian dance class and wanted to study its pages so that I could properly reply to the sender. Back to Prabhupada was sent to me by someone who espouses the ritvik doctrine, the conclusion that since Srila Prabhupada is the spiritual master of every ISKCON member, that consequently there should be no other initiations or gurus. The magazine is very well produced on glossy paper with colour photographs and well-researched articles. I have read them several times before because propounders of this particular idea distribute their magazines with great enthusiasm at our Rathayatra festivals around the country. They are also mailed in substantial numbers to almost anyone whose postal address is listed in any ISKCON publication.
I receive a lot of mail these days, and there’s always a fair bit from devotees of Krishna in some part of the world who have strongly-held views on either philosophy or organisational policies. Some feel that a particular nuance of Vaishnava philosophy has been misunderstood or improperly applied. If only ISKCON were to fully comprehend and apply this particular doctrine, they say, then it would surely become rightly situated. Others maintain that the Vaishnava philosophy as taught within ISKCON is perfect but that its organisational policies are ineffectual, or that a particular section of the international community’s membership is being unheard or ignored. If only ISKCON would allow its organisational policies to be set by this section of the community then all would be well. Still others clamour that ISKCON should embrace a particular charismatic individual under whose benign guidance the movement would become a heaven on earth.
Now of course, this sort of passionate expression of thoughts and feelings is beneficial, even when accompanied by zealous table thumping and highly charged journalism. The energetic discussion of ideas and political reform within a movement like ours is not only to be expected, but encouraged. Writing, debate, and campaigning should be regarded as a sign of intellectual vitality, particularly within a spiritual community that wishes to avoid the theological constipation that debilitates many religious organisations.
After all, most of us modern devotees of Lord Krishna who were not born of Indian parents have embraced Vaishnavism after periods of intellectual struggle and great leaps of faith. It wasn’t easy for us to adapt to a new world-view, to take up the rigorous daily practises, and to lose a few friends along the way. We had to become rebels to the society of our birth, rejecting materialistic views, political notions, and consumption of harmful foods and drugs that were considered socially normal. ISKCON is consequently made up of people who dared to be different, who reached the platform of spiritual happiness through the process of argument and intellectual conviction. So you’d expect devotees to enjoy debate wouldn’t you?
The particular ideas put forward by those who espouse the ritvik doctrine are sincerely heart-felt and have developed out of concern for the well being of ISKCON’s members. They gradually developed from 1978 onwards, just after Srila Prabhupada’s physical departure, and have been perpetuated by a vocal minority ever since. Their understanding is that the only guru worthy of the name is the liberated soul who perfectly loves Krishna. Since Srila Prabhupada is the only person who clearly demonstrated this degree of love and devotion, he should obviously be the only guru within ISKCON who gives initiation. And since we have experienced periodic disappointment with spiritual leadership over the years we should reject all notions that a guru-disciple relationship can exist in anything other than this cardinal relationship with Srila Prabhupada. Although these ideas are all well known to me, I nevertheless read the Back to Prabhupada magazine in its entirety to see whether any new perspectives were there. As I closed the last page I realised that my allotted parental waiting time was up and I went in search of my daughter’s classroom.
The Harrow Arts Centre in north London is made up of several buildings and by the time I found the right one I was just in time to see the Bharata-natyam students lining up to pay respects to their dance guru. I watched as my daughter Jahnavi respectfully bowed to touch the wooden tattukazhi box at the feet of her guru then raised her hands in a pranam gesture. The guru is from India, an excellent dancer, and comes in a long parampara or disciplic succession of gurus. When I asked her how she felt making such obeisance she explained that her guru has given her something she really enjoys; that he gives her discipline that is paying off in her growing ability; and that paying respects feels natural to her. I then thought that such things are a fundamental part of the classical guru-disciple relationship in Eastern culture and essential for the transmission of knowledge and skill from the senior expert to the junior learner.
Now, the ritvik reformists may argue that the teaching of dance and the teaching of the absolute truth are entirely different. And of course I agree. One teacher is known as the vyavaharika, or ‘conventional’ guru, and the other is known as theparamarthika guru, the teacher who gives ‘ultimate wisdom’. But the culture of respect and the need for parampara are identical. As we drove home I was wondering whether one could only gain knowledge – whether of dance or the absolute truth – from one who is perfect in his art. I am confident that my daughter’s dance-guru is not the best dancer in the world, or the best dancer there has ever been in history. But he is a disciple of a guru who was a good disciple of his guru and in this way he is continuing the parampara (literally ‘one after the other’) passing on the knowledge and skills he has learned, to the best of his ability.
Our contemporary ISKCON Vaishnavas who have assumed the role of guru for their students would never claim to be liberated souls, and are certainly not the best devotees who have ever lived in history. They regard themselves asupakarikas, or ‘helpers,’ in the mission of the acarya. They don’t claim to be perfect, and no-one makes that claim for them. What they do claim with confidence is that Srila Prabhupada is a liberated associate of Sri Krishna who was sent to this world to deliver the message of Godhead and to travel the world establishing a movement to perpetuate the teachings long after his physical disappearance. If they claim to be anything themselves, it is that they are recipients of his grace, and as such, they feel compelled to share their good fortune with others. And so they travel, preach, inspire, guide and encourage. They also initiate their students who naturally develop a healthy respect and gratitude towards them.
It is not a fact that Srila Prabhupada did not want anyone to take disciples or to become the next in the parampara succession. Quite the opposite – and for obvious reasons. He told several of his disciples that this was the traditional process and that they must have even more disciples than he himself. At the Bhaktivedanta Manor in 1973 he told every devotee sitting in the temple room that he was 12th in the succession coming from Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and that: ‘…all of you are the 13th.’ It is certainly true that there were those who took up this order prematurely, or who allowed the privileges and honour ensuing from the role to affect them, but that in itself – disappointing as it is – should not cancel thousands of years of tradition or the natural relationships which develop between teacher and student today.
ISKCON continues to grow despite those many mistakes, and wherever it is growing you will find healthy guru-disciple relationships. Srila Prabhupada is the unquestionable source of all knowledge and guidance, direction and encouragement for all of his senior disciples who now have disciples of their own. Surely those who want Srila Prabhupada to be exclusively honoured, and who want us all to go ‘Back to Prabhupada,’ should recognise the contribution of his senior disciples who, over the 30 years since his physical departure, have brought tens of thousands of souls to his feet?