Śikṣā outside ISKCON?

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PART TWO - Application in ISKCON
Śikṣā-gurus in Prabhupāda’s Time

In narrating this aspect of ISKCON’s history, I am obliged to mention a less than laudatory role played by certain Vaiṣṇavas and Vaiṣṇava Societies (though I have attempted to maintain their anonymity). Where inference makes persons or parties known, I beg forgiveness for any offence taken by them.

1. Śikṣā-gurus within ISKCON
Devotees fortunate to be in ISKCON when Śrīla Prabhupāda was physically present will remember the high level of respect shown to seniors at that time. Śrīla Prabhupāda engendered a culture of faith, not directed solely to himself, but to all devotees in general, seniors in particular.(4)

Śrīla Prabhupāda requested ISKCON devotees be trained(5) in a way much resembling the śīkṣā-guru tradition. As his disciples became more conversant with the concept of guru, Prabhupāda confirmed that “any senior devotee,” “anyone who can give spiritual advancement”(6), “an advanced devotee”(7) who “speaks what I speak”(8) could be respected as an instructing spiritual master.

What was a license for senior devotees in general, when applied to members of the GBC, became a mandate. By dint of the grave responsibility invested in them, they should be instructor gurus, acting as representatives of the dīkṣā-guru.(9)

By 1977, the culture of śīkṣā-guru, without a doubt, was well established in ISKCON. After Śrīla Prabhupāda’s departure, however, this culture declined, becoming obscure in both principle and practice.

2. Śikṣā-gurus outside ISKCON
As liberally as Śrīla Prabhupāda shared his authority within ISKCON, equally reserved was he in sharing it with anyone outside ISKCON — especially with those who could, or would, exercise spiritual authority over his disciples. Though the history is a little convoluted, those who were close to Prabhupāda remember, without exception, his strong feelings against devotees taking instruction outside.

As early as 1967, before his first return to India, Śrīla Prabhupāda indicated that he was not in favour of Vaiṣṇavas outside ISKCON either replacing him or acting as his proxy. Why? His Divine Grace did not feel others could or would suitably represent him. He said clearly,(10) “If this person speaks just one word different from what I am speaking, there will be great confusion among you.”(11)

By the following year, ISKCON devotees had begun travelling to India with no place to stay other than the ma±has of Prabhupāda’s Godbrothers. In 1969, when a disciple wanted to take śīkṣā from one of Prabhupāda’s Vṛndāvana Godbrothers, Śrīla Prabhupāda disapproved.(12) Considering the circumstances,(13) Śrīla Prabhupāda recommended another Godbrother, one he deemed more qualified.(14) Though at the time Śrīla Prabhupāda wrote of this preferred Godbrother in glowing terms, later, in 1974, he wrote the contrary,(15) indicating that the previous instruction had been circumstantial.

It is undeniable that the above instruction of 1969 was specific, while the later instruction of 1974 was general (“... my instruction to you all ...”) and included extensive background explanation. I reproduce relevant portions of the 1974 letter below:

“So it is better not to mix with my Godbrothers very intimately because instead of inspiring our students and disciples they may sometimes pollute them. ... This attempt was made previously by them, especially M and T and B but somehow or other I saved the situation. This is going on. We shall be very careful about them and not mix with them. This is my instruction to you all. They cannot help us in our movement, but they are very competent to harm our natural progress. So we must be very careful about them.”(16) (Letter, April 28, 1974)(17)

The conclusion from the letter above is that, except within the context of institutional formalities, devotees should not ‘mix’ with members of other Vaiṣṇava groups(18) — which clearly excludes taking śīkṣā from them. This is supported by other instructions from letters,(19) conversations,(20) purports,(21) — and by a lack of any later directive to the contrary.(22)

In Prabhupāda’s mature estimation, other Vaiṣṇavas, from outside ISKCON, could not represent him. No doubt many Vaiṣṇavas had much to contribute, but experience had shown that their śīkṣā could also “poison”(23) or “pollute”(24) his disciples, something he wanted to avoid at all costs.

3. Summary
ISKCON’s policy in regard to accepting śīkṣā-gurus was universally understood in Prabhupāda’s time. For śīkṣā, ISKCON devotees could approach their senior God- brothers and Godsisters as Prabhupāda’s representatives, but they could not approach Vaiṣṇavas outside the Society’s membership.


Because Śrīla Prabhupāda had concluded that one not dedicated to his mission, and not trained by him, would not and could not properly represent him. Thus, great Vaiṣṇavas outside ISKCON, despite their erudition, could not be śīkṣā-gurus for Śrīla Prabhupāda’s followers.


4Prabhupāda writes, “This position of our subordination should always be maintained and we should always give respect to our pure devotees who are engaged, in devotional service. ...” (Letter, Montreal, August 19, 1968) “[Prahlāda] considered his teachers, spiritual masters and older Godbrothers to be as good as the Supreme Personality of Godhead.” (Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 7.4.32)
5Prabhupāda writes, “Now some of our leading boys, like you, Brahmananda, Tamala, etc. you should be very careful to train your other junior Godbrothers to the right type of preacher, keeping full faith in Krishna and the Spiritual Master.” (Letter, London, October 31, 1969)
6Letter, Los Angeles, July 7, 1974.
7Bhagavad-gītā lecture, Honolulu, July 4, 1974.
8Letter, New Vṛndāvana, July 20, 1974.
9Prabhupāda writes, “The GBC should all be the instructor gurus. I am in [sic] the initiator guru, and you should be the instructor guru by teaching what I am teaching and doing what I am doing.” (Letter, Detroit, August 4, 1975)
10The following statement reiterates that the śīkṣā-guru must be a transparent and knowledgeable representative of both the founder-ācārya and the dīkṣā-guru.
11Prabhupāda-līlāmṛta 26.
12Śrīla Prabhupāda considered him unqualified to be guru, being an offender to Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī. He writes, “I suspect that you have interest in taking instruction from some siksa guru, but ... it is my duty to refer you to someone who is competent to act as siksa guru. This B perhaps you do not know, has been rejected by Guru Maharaja. So I cannot recommend him as siksa guru.” (Letter, Los Angeles, January 31, 1969)
13The circumstances were: while in India, his disciple required lodging; being impetuous, were he not given senior association, he would seek it anyway. Therefore Prabhupāda felt obliged to direct him.
14In the same letter as above, Prabhupāda writes, “So if you are actually serious to take instructions from a siksa guru, I can refer you to one who is most highly competent of all my Godbrothers. This is S, whom I consider to be even my siksa guru, so what to speak of the benefit that you can have from his association.” (Letter, Los Angeles, January 31, 1969)
15See Letter, Tirupati, April 28, 1974.
16Śrīla Prabhupāda warns his followers to keep their distance from his Godbrothers. Since his Godbrothers’ disciples are faithful to and influenced by their dīkṣā-gurus, “we must be [also] very careful” about associating with them, as well as with subsequent generations of their followers.
17The preface to Prabhupāda’s instruction is, “You are right about S’s genuineness. But in my opinion he is the best of the lot. He is my old friend, at least he executes the regulative principles of devotional service. ... But S is responsible for disobeying this order of Guru Maharaja ... he and others ... thought that there must be one acarya. ... Guru Maharaja ... said openly you make a GBC and conduct the mission. ... who would come out successful and self effulgent acarya would be automatically selected. ... Actually amongst my Godbrothers no one is qualified to become acarya.”
18In this letter Prabhupāda refers to taking śīkṣā from the Gauḍīya Maṭha. What about the many other Vaiṣṇava groups outside the Gauḍīya Maṭha? It should be remembered that by dint of a common spiritual lineage — from Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura — the Gauḍīya Maṭha and ISKCON are in the same ‘Sarasvata’ spiritual family. Other Gauḍīya, or non-Gauḍīya, lines, by definition, have a different spiritual lineage, meaning: different founder-ācārya, differing philosophical views, different sādhana, etc. Based on the tradition of śīkṣā-guru, it would be challenging to the extreme to formulate a cohesive argument how members of such sampradāyas could ever, even in theory, act as śīkṣā-guru for members of ISKCON. For instance, of the ‘bābājī’ Gauḍīya line, Prabhupāda said, “Rascal. That is his bad association. Therefore I say don’t follow these so-called Radha-kunda babajis. Nara-kunda babaji.” (Letter, Vṛndāvana, September 6, 1976) Prabhupāda also wrote, “I have received information that some of our devotees are mixing with the babajis in Vṛndāvana. This has produced so many problems amongst our men and women who visit Vṛndāvana.” (Letter, Los Angeles, June 7, 1976) In other words, if Śrīla Prabhupāda did not envisage his Godbrothers being śīkṣā-gurus for ISKCON’s members, then how much more disqualified are those outside the Sarasvata family.
19See Letter, Bombay, November 9, 1975.
20See Conversation, Los Angeles, July 13, 1974.
21See Caitanya-caritāmṛta Ādi 12.9, 12.
22While Prabhupāda instructed disciples to seek outside guidance on Deity worship, cosmology, performance of his samādhi ceremony, etc., such guidance was specific and isolated and solicited by him. However, Prabhupāda never gave any blanket instruction to take śīkṣā from outside Vaiṣṇavas.
23See Letter, Calcutta, September 25, 1970.
24See Letter, Tirupati, April 28, 1974.
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