Let’s examine two approaches:
- One Guru – Many Disciples
- Many Gurus – Few Disciples
Both models seem to exist inside and outside of ISKCON and in the present as well as the past, but the first model (One Guru – Many Disciples) is particularly relevant to the dynamic in the modern world and in ISKCON. First I’ll express my comparison of the two models, then I will clarify certain points and questions.
Model One: One Guru – Many Disciples
We start out with a relatively advanced practitioner of bhakti. The guru in any model has to be advanced, at least relative to the people s/he is guiding. This practitioner attracts from the masses a few people who take bhakti seriously enough to become novices.
The original novices become more serious initiates. The guru and the disciples continue to attract new people, thus the number of novices becoming dependent on the guru begins to escalate.
The guru has to focus on many newcomers and new initiates, leaving less focus for the existing initiates, who become intermediates fairly slowly. Everyone continues attracting new novices from the masses – all of whom require the attention of the guru.
With the guru’s focus divided to many people, s/he often may not find the time or connection to understand and resolve the specific problems and doubts some of his/her initiates and novices face. Thus, some of them become confused.
If this is not rectified, the confused initiates eventually drift away from direct connection to the guru to fend for themselves (become “independent” and take to “speculation” or “mundane scholarship”), look for a new guru (commit “treason”), or blend back into the masses (“bloop”).
The system reaches an equilibrium, with new people coming in and existing people drifting out. The entire system doesn’t likely progress far beyond an intermediate level, because the guru is more involved in dealing with new people than dealing with the intermediates. There is even significant likelihood that the guru’s own spiritual standing will suffer and slip, since s/he is surrounded mostly by novices.
Model Two: Many Gurus, Few Disciples
In this model, gurus do not accept more disciples than can essentially “fit under their roof.”
It begins in the same way as model one: a relatively advanced bhakti-yoga practitioner reaches out to the masses, or somehow attracts or is sent by destiny a few interested persons to become novices.
The guru helps the novices become better practitioners, Initiates. Here model two becomes different from model one because the guru and the novices do not give much focus on finding new novices. They primarily focus on their own development.
When the initiates start to gain solid realizations and becomes somewhat advanced, they gradually begin to help novices of their own. They become gurus. Thus model two is described as having “many gurus,” At this point that Model Two begins to expand, exponentially.
The likelihood of members leaving is much lower because each member gets the attention and understanding they need, since each guru only has a few disciples in his or her care. Each guru also is less likely to fail and “fall” because they associate with advanced disciples, not just novices. Model Two reaches no equilibrium, but continues to expand exponentially.
Yes, there have always been gurus who had thousands of disciples, and there have been disciples who spent half a minute with guru but achieved phenomenal spiritual success. However, these are exceptional gurus and disciples. Yes, Dhruva heard five or ten minutes of instruction from Nārada and then achieved Hari darśan in six months, but we are not Dhruva and our gurus are not Nārada. Even Nārada says this. When Nārada glorifies Dhruva to the Pracetas (Bhāg 4.12.41-43) he says that no one else can do what Dhruva did.
Yes, some exceptional personalities accept thousands of disciples – but they also establish ways to ensure that each disciple receives their full attention. Bhaktivedāntra Swāmī Prabhupāda, for example, accepted over four thousand disciples, but spent hours every day writing them letters, and, even more important, writing books with commentaries very specifically tailored to the exact circumstances his disciples were in. Through the written word he extended beyond his physical limitations and provided care for each disciple. He was also exceptionally powerful and transcendentally enriched, a “superhero.” A superhero can punch a hole through a wall of solid metal, but if the superhero’s fans try to do the same, they break their hands and the wall remains standing.
A system is mostly useless if it only works when the participants are exceptional. Systems cannot be developed based on exceptions, they must be developed based on norms. We need a system that works well under normal conditions, with normal participants. Our guru-disciple model needs to work with the gurus and disciples that we actually have on hand right now in the real world. The second model (Many Gurus, Few Disciples) works best for the vast majority of gurus and the vast majority of students.
Advantages of Model Two
Model One expands much more rapidly than Model Two, but reaches a ceiling fairly quickly and ceases to expand. Model Two takes longer to rev up, but once it does it begins to expand exponentially, without hitting a limit.
Model One fails to reliably produce experts and even threatens to drain the guru. Model Two produces and nurtures experts slowly but surely.
Essentially Model One and Model Two express the importance of the “teacher:student ratio.” Education is always more difficult when the ratio of students to teachers is high. A low student to teacher ratio is always preferred. In poor schools, for example, one teacher has to teach classrooms with forty or fifty children. In very high quality schools one teacher has only a few students – or in some cases one student even has several teachers.
When Model One Works
The “One Guru, Many Disciples” model works under certain circumstances:
- When the guru is exceptionally qualified.
- When the concept of “guru” is broad
The first condition needs no explanation.
The second condition indicates that Model One stands a better chance of working when in the context of a culture that does not isolate the guru principle exclusively to a single individual. If our parents, spouses, and sibling can also function in the role of guru, Model One can succeed, because in truth it is Model Two. There appears to be one significant guru figure initiating many disciples, but in fact there are many gurus.
For this to work, however, the guru figure must recognize and empower the parents, spouses, siblings and so on – not work against them. In todays busy and politically burdened institutions I have experienced this to be a reality often spoken of but seldom seen.
– Vraja Kishor dās
Photo: The photographer is Ganesh Ramachandran. The student being taught is Malini Srinivasan.
Note from Photographer: Guru C.V.Chandrasekhar, his student Malini Srinivasan and myself the photographer – Ganesh Ramachandran | www.purpleganesh.com. This image is a part of the documentary series I have been working on photographing Gurus and Shishyas in non-performance settings. The objective for these photography projects are to reach out to as many people as possible. But that can only happen if we can get duly credited.