What the ISKCON GBC is Supposed to Be?

What the ISKCON GBC is Supposed to Be?

Life is weird. There are things we don’t want to be involved in at all, yet we can’t get off our minds. In such times, I think maybe the best idea is to get it off our minds by expressing it and trying to let go. This particular subject is hard to let go of, because Śrīla Prabhupāda, naturally, is such an important person in our lives, and we are attached to the hope that the main part of his Society would function with as much spiritual efficacy as possible. Maybe it already does, but I think it’s worth the stress publish my thoughts about how to dramatically improve its spiritual performance… and then try to let go.

Unfortunately I am a junior person with no special qualities, and no position in or out of ISKCON, but hopefully someone might pay attention to the truth in this presentation.

Anuttama Prabhu (current Chairman of the GBC) says, “Srila Prabhupada stated the GBC is ISKCON’s ultimate managing authority. That means overseeing the practical management as well as being the highest ecclesiastical body of ISKCON.”

My guess is that “highest ecclesiastical body” means “ultimate religious authority.” So, Anuttama means, “The GBC is not only the overseer of all practical management in ISKCON, it is also ISKCON’s ultimate religious authority.”

He makes this statement immediately after quoting Śrīla Prabhupāda, so the obvious implication is that Prabhupāda’s quote validates his statement. Prabhupāda said, “The GBC is ISKCON’s ultimate managing authority.” Do you see any mention of anything ecclesiastic in this? I don’t. I do see obvious validation for the idea that the GBC is the overseer and ultimate director of all practical management in ISKCON, but I don’t see any validation for the idea that the GBC is also the ultimate religious authority.

One can argue: “ISKCON is a religious institution, the ultimate institutional authority is necessarily also the ultimate religious authority.”

That’s a weak notion. A religious institution requires practical management, and religious authority. There is no necessity that they be provided by the same entity.

One can ask, “Well, if not the GBC, the who is the ultimate religious authority for ISKCON?”

The answer is, “śāstra” (see Vedānta Sūtra 1.1.3, 2.1.27, and 2.1.11, for example). Anyone who doesn’t agree that śāstra is the ultimate religious authority has no right to consider themselves Vaiṣṇava or Vedic. This being the case, I am sure every leader of ISKCON would immediately agree.

Of course, the problem is that śāstra doesn’t sit in front of you and reply directly to the nitty-gritty of your short-list. That’s what a guru is for. Guru is the entity who understands śāstra so thoroughly and carefully that s/he can sort out how śāstra would most likely address the nitty-gritty of your short-list.

Really, these are elementary points. Certainly Anuttama and everyone else is already very familiar with them. Therefore everyone knows that asserting the GBC to be “the highest ecclesiastical body” of ISKCON is in fact an assertion that the GBC is the ISKCON’s ācārya, ISKCON’s ultimate Guru.

Is that really a good idea?

Is it really a good idea to expect a large panel of people to function effectively in a role classically placed in the care of a single individual? How many cooks can fit in a kitchen?

Further, is it really a good idea to expect that panel to juggle the practical managerial affairs of a complex international corporation at the same time as we ask them to be the (necessarily) detached spiritual leaders of our society? Can anyone be a brāhmaṇa, kṣatriya, and vaiṣya all at the same time, without significantly compromising their efficacy in all three roles?

There are infinite precedents for individual gurus teaching śāstra (and thus the ultimate religious authority) for one or many people. Is there any precedent of a group of people burdened by monumental management tasks yet effectively teaching śāstra (and thus functioning as the ultimate religious authority)?

Someone may say, “Yes. Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvati Mahārāja set the precedent.”

That’s quite misleading. He established a GBC to look after the practical management of his institution. As for the spiritual leadership, he explicitly told them to wait for an obvious spiritual leader to emerge.

Someone may lament, “What you say is reasonable, but there is no one fit to assume the position of ācārya for ISKCON.”

Probably there are at least a few who could at least be considered. But I can also agree that no one is doubtlessly “self-effulgently” qualified to fill the role of spiritual leader for ISKCON.

But, Why not?

Doubtlessly there must be many reasons. But here is a ver big, very relevant one: all of the candidates currently looked towards for the position of “spiritual leader” are practically forced to become mired in managing the web-like co-dependecies of “practical affairs” for an international clearinghouse of novices who are still very needy, confused, and often quarrelsome. Thus these candidates scarcely ever find the time and inner-clarity to focus on purifying and increasing their dedication to hari-nāma-saṁkīrtan and hari-nāma-japa.

Ironically, those who do make time for personal purification are removed from the running, so to speak, somewhat insanely looked upon as having a misunderstanding of “Prabhupāda’s mood” and labeled as a “Bābājī” and “Bhajanānandī” (as if such titles disqualify one from spiritual leadership).

The slogan “work now, samādhi later” is brandished with confidence against such trends. But the brandishers seem not to realize that we are supposed to work towards samādhi. The misconception that workaholism dovetailed to the legacy of a pure devotee with grant us kṛṣṇa-prema is heterodox, wrong, against śāstra. Harer nāmaiva kevalam! Hari’s name is the only means to get kṛṣṇa-prema. Working for a pure devotee is also glorious because it is karma-miśra bhakti and rapidly purifies us for hari-nāma niṣṭhā. However, if an individual languishes for decades in karma-miśra without developing inclination for hari-nāma niṣṭhā, something is amiss in their approach to karma-miśra-bhakti.

Conclusion

The problem is that ISKCON asks its leaders to be multinational managers and spiritual superheroes at the same time. That doesn’t work. Fish are fish and birds are birds. Some birds can swim, but not very far. Some fish can fly, but not very far. ISKCON currently asks its leaders to be fish who can fly south for the winter. Thus the leaders die, or never become very spiritually healthy.

Then what’s the solution?

1) GBC restricts itself to being the overseer and ultimate director of business and politics in ISKCON.

2) Spiritual leaders (Gurus) are expelled unless they relinquish all financial and political power, direct or indirect.

The GBC no longer decides who will be a guru or a sannyāsī. A disciple decides who will be their guru, and it is the guru’s business whether to acknowledge or discourage the relationship. Similarly it is the sannyāsa-guru’s business to accept or reject a candidate for sannyāsa.

Obviously the situation needs “police” but these police are not the managers. Brāhmaṇas, sannyāsīs, and gurus police one another.

This would fail because power corrupts. To combat this, Gurus and sannyāsīs no longer have any position allowing them to control finance and manpower. The role of the GBC (and the whole hierarchy, coming into the individual temples as the presidents, etc) is to allocate resources. The role of gurus (sannyāsīs, brāhmaṇas, etc) is to educate people in the bhakti-śāstra so that they can clearly and intelligently understand sambandha, abhidheya, and prayojana-tattvas and thus attain kṛṣṇa-prema.

The GBC determines the practical “services” of individual members, and the gurus oversee the sādhana of their disciples.

In addition to separating the spiritual leaders from corruptive practical power, they must also volunteer to abide by an extremely rigorous sādhana: Gurus (sannyāsīs, etc.) are required to spend several months a year in Vṛndāvana, studying with learned scholars, doing kīrtan in the Kṛṣṇa-balarāma Mandir several hours a day, and chanting 64 rounds every day, in focused solitude.

Within a short time of such adopting sādhana many self-effulgent leaders will emerge with sincerely pure hearts free from greed and envy. At that point the GBC managers would naturally look to them for general inspiration as to the best allocation of resources, etc.

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2 Comments

  1. If the GBC is the managing authority and the gurus are ecclesiastic authority, then who decides who has the privilege to use ISKCON’s preaching platform?

    A person may have good sadhana, chant 64 rounds, and be well respected by a community of Gaudia Vaishnava devotees. Should that person be permitted to use ISKCON venues like temples and programs to preach?

    History shows that ISKCON has an aversion for other institutions and is quick to find shortcomings; and if that fails then preachers from other institutions are deemed to be in a different “mood” from Srila Prabhupada and therefore unfit to present Gaudia Vaishnava philosophy.

    Clearly if you own a home and use it as a preaching platform, then you as the house holder have the right to decides who enters your home. That is your prerogative. In case of ISKCON, again, who is the “holder” that decides who is permitted to use preaching facilities?

    GBC has been that gatekeeper. GBC cannot certify “gurus” or approve “sannyasis” – they can only set the guidelines and be the gatekeeps for who is permitted to present themselves in those roles within their venues. A devotee can certainly accept disciples and take sannyas, but if they don’t follow the prescribed guidelines then the gatekeepers (GBC) strip their privilege of using ISKCON facilities.

    There is also the dynamic that to be true and loyal to Srila Prabhupada, one must function within the framework of ISKCON, and if one transcends the institution then that person is demonized as disobeying the orders and wishes of Srila Prabhupada. So not only are these devotees locked out, but a stone is cast to delegitimize their standing.

    My simple solution is to spread the realization that the Guadia Vaishnava tradition will naturally branch out as it has for generations. Bhaktisiddhanta started Guadia Math. Srila Prabhupada operated within that institution but when it become unfavorable he started his own. So devotees need to take Srila Prabhupada’s example and branch out.

    Srila Prabhupda did not come to the West to give us his legacy to preserve. Srila Prabhupada came to give us Krishna Consciousness which knowns no institutional bounds and does not operate under the orders of any managing or ecclesiastic authority. Bhakti is free. If there is an obstacle in the way, then we can simply walk around it – just like ISKCON’s founding Acharya.

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    1. Thank you for your intelligent comment, Alexander.

      It does express, particularly towards the end, the mood which seems to prevail now among most people facing the shortcomings of ISKCON. That mood is, “Bhakti is all-powerful, it will triumph even if the GBC fails, even if ISKCON sinks.” While I also share this mood, I find it hard to let go of the dream I inherited when I first met ISKCON devotees in 1990 — the dream that ISKCON would actually be the vehicle to broadcast bhakti, not that it should be something that bhakti will triumph in spite of.

      I admit that it may be a pipe dream, and I am not willing to pour all my blood into the well that may have no bottom, but still I think I can do little things like post this particular article, or answer this particular comment.

      Coming to the specific issues you raised:

      First, to define my use of the term “Gurus.” I meant it to include all spiritual teacher. So this includes the brāhmaṇa, sannyāsī, and mantra guru.

      Regarding brāhmaṇa I suggest there being five distinct classes of brāhmaṇa, the first is the dvija, a person who chants gāyatrī. The second is a pūjarī, a dvija who is expert in deity seva. The third is a purohit, a dvija who is expert in religious affairs and rituals. The fourth is the muni, a dvija who is learned in Śrī Bhāgavata and associated śāstra. The fifth is the ṛṣi, a muni who is has the additional talents required to be able to teach bhakti-śāstra to others.

      I suggest that sannyāsī be a muni or ṛṣi who additionally expresses the inclination to practice more extreme renunciation. A mantra guru should be a ṛṣi who grants and explains the meaning and cultivation of Gauḍiya mantra.

      All “Gurus” should have one absolute requirement which the managers can enforce: they may not influence any political or financial resources in ISKCON. Such resources are left entirely to the care of managers like temple commanders, temple presidents, regional whatevers, and zonal captains (or whatever the titles may be). And guru who refuses to relinquish direct or indirect control over ISKCON’s political or financial resources should be censored from utilizing those resources in any way, except as a guest.

      Clearly gurus need more oversight than this, but it is not done by managers, it is done by other gurus. Each and every ISKCON temple should have at least one resident Ṛṣi living there for at least 60% of the year. This Ṛṣi (or group of Ṛṣins) should naturally be the one(s) to decide who will “preach” at the temple, and what direction the preaching should take, etc.

      This is my simple solution. It requires that people have actual faith in bhakti śāstra, which is difficult for vaiṣya and kṣatriya mentalities to have, frankly. Otherwise it is quite a simple, decentralized, vitalized solution, I think.

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