Gurus in ISKCON

(you can download a PDF version of this essay here)

ISKCON is still trying to perfect its guru system. I’m convinced some critical adjustments must be made for the good of the institution and the spiritual lives of our members. I’d like to contribute to this discussion by offering my views and recommendations on the subject of gurus in ISKCON. Basically there are three key problems: 1) the criteria and governing rules we currently have for identifying diskha-gurus, 2) misunderstandings as to the role of the diksha-guru and 3) not recognizing the vast importance of our shiksha-gurus and the founder-acharya, Srila Prabhupada.

Preliminary Assumptions

First, I believe Srila Prabhupada has given us all the core knowledge we need to go back home, back to Godhead and reunite with Krishna in an intimate blissful relationship. He has given us so much transcendental knowledge in his books, approximately 30 thousand pages, that few devotees even manage to once read it over, what to speak of actually study it in detail and fully absorb it. Because we now have his printed books in so many languages and his recorded lectures, letters and conversations available to anyone, anywhere in the world – Prabhupada’s presence today is actually greater than it was when he was physically present in the planet.

Secondly, I believe that despite the vast store of knowledge brought to us by Srila Prabhupada, we all need gurus to help us first find out about Krishna Consciousness, help us understand it, engage us in practical service, remove our doubts, give us encouragement, etc.

Lastly, ISKCON is a society of gurus. A missionary society is one that is dedicated to teaching spiritual knowledge – and teaching spiritual knowledge is exactly what makes one a guru. I firmly believe all active members of ISKCON, from the newest enthused bhakta or bhaktin to the most senior GBC or sannyasi members, are gurus.  Further, we live in the Internet and Information Era. Never before has information been so abundant, and this applies to spiritual information as well. Members of ISKCON have a vast selection of devotional classes in audio or video, essays, websites, blogs, tweets, social networking sites, etc. – in all these there is a chance to learn more about Krishna. And anyone who comes in contact with any of our active members, in person or via some other media, has come in contact with a guru and has a chance to make progress in Krishna consciousness.  For a typical member of ISKCON today, literally hundreds of such gurus will contribute to his or her progress, from the very beginning to the very end.

The role of a guru

The role of a guru is primarily to teach (for me this includes encouraging, guiding, being an example, etc.). I here firmly reject all mystical claims as to the role of the guru. These claims are not to be found in the Bhagavad-gita or Srimad Bhagavatam. Any such claims made by our acharyas, including Srila Prabhupada, are to be properly understood in light of the scriptures, not in contradiction to them. Krishna Consciousness is a spiritual science – things are rational and make sense. There is no reason to throw in mystical claims which are not a prominent part of the teachings of Krishna as seen in the Gita or Srimad Bhagavatam.

Though in normal circumstances a diksha-guru in ISKCON should have a prominent role in the life of a disciple, his or her role must be properly understood in light of the fact that we have so many active shiksha-gurus in our life and, above all, we have Srila Prabhupada. The current emphasis generally given to the diksha-guru in ISKCON simply does not properly take into consideration this fact. As such, I believe it is not an overstatement to say that no diksha-guru in ISKCON is our lifeline to Krishna or our ticket to Vaikuntha. No diksha-guru in ISKCON is our sole and only source of transcendental knowledge. No diksha-guru in ISKCON is the only one capable of engaging us in service, nor is service to the diksha-guru our main concern. The reality in ISKCON is very different. All those wonderful verses we find about the guru in our tradition do not apply exclusively to the person of our diksha-guru. For members of ISKCON they refer to the sum total of the gurus in our life, first and foremost in the person of Srila Prabhupada, but also extending to our past acharyas and including the thousands of other gurus in ISKCON.  If one’s diksha-guru should happen to quit his or her practices, change his or her mind, commit a terrible mistake or reveal to the world that he or she has always privately been struggling with one or a sum of character flaws – this in no way affects one’s spiritual life. This fact must become common knowledge in ISKCON. We must demystify the role of the diksha-guru in ISKCON.

So who should be our diksha-guru in ISKCON?

Of these hundreds of gurus one comes in contact with in his progress in Krishna Consciousness, generally one assumes a more prominent role. One experienced member with whom we connect, create a bond of trust, have good and easy communication with and whose life we feel honors and reflects well our spiritual goals. There should be a real relationship between these two, the guru and the disciple. They should work together, talk, and see one other. If the guru feels the disciple is sincere and has met ISKCON standards, he or she can accept him. If the disciple wants this person to be his guru then this special shiksha-guru should become his diksha-guru. This is the traditional method. This is the Vedic system.

I believe it would be much healthier in general if diksha-gurus were local, or at least local in the sense of being the most active and present guru in our lives. A guru who is close to us will be able to help us much more than one that is not – this is just simple common sense.

Contrary to common belief in ISKCON, a guru need not be a liberated soul, nor the most advanced kind of devotee. There is both scriptural confirmation and the teachings of Srila Prabhupada to support this statement (see CC Adi-lila 1.47, for one such example).

A disciple of such a non-perfect guru has nothing to lose in ISKCON, because all of us have Srila Prabhupada and access to hundreds or thousands of other gurus in ISKCON who constantly offer their guidance, teachings and practical help. Diksha is our formal, official connection to this wonderful Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition, to Srila Prabhupada and to the ever-growing and rich association of sincere practitioners of Krishna Consciousness, of gurus, we find in ISKCON.  We are thus not limited by our diksha-guru as someone in the past might have been, when the relationship was that of an individual with another individual, in isolation, without the resources we have at hand, and without full access to a powerful founder-acharya.

Practical recommendations

ISKCON should, therefore, abolish the ecclesiastical guru stamp. Instead, it should empower its thousands of active missionary devotees who today are not properly recognized as gurus. ISKCON should allow its members to choose their own diksha-guru as they see fit. The burden of verifying the guru’s qualities should rest with the disciple, not the GBC, not the administrative authorities. The decision of accepting a disciple should rest with the guru (of course following minimum ISKCON requirements). This system has worked for thousands of years and it can work today, to the benefit of ISKCON as an institution and the individual members.

This is not a new idea. It’s the suggestion made by the Shastric Advisory Committee (SAC) to the GBC years ago. Click here to read that report.

The following is a quote from a Srimad Bhagavatam class by Bhakti Caru Swami on October 5th in Vrindavana [no year is given]:

“…but since we are not putting the importance on shiksha, Srila Prabhupada’s position as the pre-eminent shiksha guru of this movement for all the devotees for all time has been minimized.”

ISKCON is a society and as such it naturally polices itself. Bad Temple Presidents, GBCs, congregational members, lecturers, etc. are quickly identified and dealt with, to minimize damage to the society. The same thing will naturally happen with those acting as diksha-gurus – it need be no different. The pre-approval of the authorities has not protected the society from damage caused by diksha-gurus gone bad. Our society has dealt with diksha-gurus gone bad many times. The situation, however, was made worse by the very fact that there was a pre-approval by the authorities and by the unrealistic understanding of the role of the diksha-guru in ISKCON. Without this pre-approval and with a more realistic understanding of the role of the diksha-guru, we will be much better equipped to deal with such fall downs.

This is a more practical, safer, more Vedic, more down to earth view of gurus in general and especially of diksha in ISKCON. Such a system would end the suffering caused by guru misconceptions in ISKCON, end personality cults, would more appropriately put the focus on Srila Prabhupada, end the parallel lines of power created by bigger-than-life gurus, and empower thousands of sincere preachers.



Filed under Realizations on Krishna Consciousness

11 responses to “Gurus in ISKCON

  1. Good article, but the GBCs are giving their blessings in their services. Presently the GBCs want more qualified devotees to come forward to take the role of gurus. The GBC body keeps a check and balance otherwise, so many bogus people in the name of guruship will exploit innocent devotees.

    • Giridhari Das

      That’s not really good enough. The fundamental problems remain, even if you increase the number of diksha-gurus in the present system. What we need is a change of the system and, more importantly, a profound change in our understanding of the role of the diksha-guru.

  2. Very good conclusion in a last paragraph. I think some devotees still hope that their guru secretly at night doing rasa lila with Krishna, or something of that sort what they read in CC or in any other confidencial literature….

    Guru’s devotion and merit should be judged, like SP states, how many people become Krishna Conscious because of their instructions and their lifestyle (daily activities).

  3. dfj

    I could not agree more with your analysis. This is a well structured and argued piece. From my point of view, if an institution is in need of reform and refuses to reform itself, it can simply be worked around. I have my siksa gurus and the most prominent among them is who I take to heart as my diksa guru, although he cannot give diksa by ISKCON’s authorisation. So the only real difference is I don’t get a spiritual name. Oh well, that will keep me humble – but it is a socialising issue.

  4. The present (new and improved system that is being put in place). Apply before 29Feb ’10!!

    1) There has to be 10 local Brahmans that approve the candidate
    2) All the Local GBCs have to Approve – (There is a North American – Committee of 3 GBC men, that Bhakti Marg Swami is working with – One of them is Annuttama Prabhu).
    3)The Candidate has to take Guru Training Course (1 or 2 week course for 2 years) (which was initiated at Juhu) Mumbai couple years ago.

    The system presently will be similar to Sanyas Approval which – NO OBJECTION RULE – (you are already familiar with).

    The following items which are also necessary according to individuals situation.

    4) The Married Candidate should have permission from the immediate family members (or spouse). The candidate must have good marriage record.
    5)Of course the candidate should be in Good standing with the local Board and Temple Authorities.
    6)Most important of all is that the person is well versed in ISKCON’s Philosophy and Srila Prabhupada’s mission.
    7)Another Most important item is the person’s Sadhana is strong.
    8)In some cases, they have to have permission from their initiating guru.
    9)The person is naturally exibiting the qualities of a guru (by personally doing that service of siksha, and training junior devotees)

    This is a new system, still being implemented.
    —The GBC body knows that they will have to deal with each case individually apart from the first 3 pre-requisites. Eventually, they will have a ‘Standard 10 brahman committee’ in every local area.
    —But presently, the candidate can choose his/her own 10 brahmans who will approve of his qualifications.
    —This committee presently is NOT required to interview or question the individual.
    —It is simply done even by a letter of approval.
    —The brahmans are usually senior known leaders who are holding various posts of important services in ISKCON. E.g. Temple president, Preachers, Pujaris etc.

    Usually, the persons nominated by the local GBCs are preachers who have been making devotees over the years and have exemplary qualifications in terms of leadership qualities etc. These devotees also normally have aspiring devotees also (a natural consequence).

    This year the GBCs decided at Mayapur meetings that they should allow/approve women devotees to become diksa gurus in ISKCON.

  5. niscala dasi

    Some thoughts…
    Initiation can mean either the beginning of an evolutionary process, for both guru and disciple, which leads to enlightenment and is thus in the mode of goodness, or the beginning of ownership, which is a symptom of the modes of passion and ignorance. If it is in the mode of goodness, without taint of ownership, then one will be pleased to see one’s disciple enquiring and learning from many sources- the only concern being that the disciple not become confused!

    But when the many sources of knowledge- the various gurus Krishna sends- are enabling the disciple to broaden his vision, and see the philosophy from different angles and with different applications, then the guru is ecstatic- because he is free from any desire for ownership. If he hears the disciple glorifying his other gurus more than himself, because they have helped him more, he does not become jealous. His focus is on enlightenment, without personal considerations.

    It is, after all, not the guru himself, but the knowledge, which is the source of enlightenment. The knowledge is like electricity, the guru in the mode of goodness is like a copper wire. A so-called guru in the mode of passion or ignorance is like plastic- electrcity cannot flow through it in a way that touches the receiver. A parrot can also recite verses.

    Your point is excellent that anyone in our movement who teaches is a guru. However, one should always use the philosophy for its intent- only with the purpose to enlighten, not to create a following. If one has the motivation to enlighten, even if one is a potwasher or a sweeper, one’s words will be potent. Then one is a true guru, even if never given the title of “guru”! However, if one has a motivation for fame or prestige, even if one is a sannyasi, or widely proclaimed as “guru”, one’s words will fail to have the purifying effect on the hearer. Nevertheless, due to personality and charisma, one may still gain a following, often a very large one!

    The desires for fame and following are symptoms of the mode of passion which must end in misery. There has been no purification, because one has used the sacred philosophy like one uses a salagram sila for cracking nuts. Because of motivation, he has not allowed the philosophy to purify him, and thus usually there is falldown. Because he has not allowed the philosophy to purify his disciples, but bind them to him in a contract of ownership, then when he falls down, they are lost- they generally fall away.

    If initiation is real, there is an exchange of knowledge which fixes the disciple at the lotus feet of the Lord. If the guru falls down, afterwards, then the disciple is unaffected. I personally had a guru who did not allow tamas and rajas to influence him to own me in any way, but had a sole contract only for my enlightenment. Thereafter he fell away, and though I feel very sorry for him, I am actually unaffected spiritually.

    So in addition to having many sources of enlightenment, our guru-disciple relationships can be purified by both gurus and disciples ridding themselves of any desire for ownership and other such symptoms of the lower modes- the desire for prestige, honour, acceptance etc. These modes have nothing to do with genuine initiation. Each disciple is free to enquire from whomever helps him internalize the philosophy, and naturally whoever helps him the most should be given the most credit, as gratitude is an essential quality for a vasinava

  6. Goloka Vrindavana Das

    I actually have to disagree with the direction of these conversations. I was raised in ISKCON, and love Srila Prabhupada with all my heart. I still practice Krsna Con. every day.
    IMHO, the real problem with ISKCON is that we have certain individuals that are pretending to be more advanced than they are. Not all, but some few in power. Spirtual life can not be governed by a GBC, nor can Guru’s be voted on, or be made by taking some sort of courses.
    Organised religion is a nessacary evil, as it invetiblly waters down standards to appeal to the masses. ISKCON, to me can be compared to the Catholic church, in that, the church seems to have taken precidence over Krsna, thus creating sectarianism. And anyone who has read Jiva Dharma knows that Vaisnavism is the defintion of non-sectarian. Here are some quotes to ponder. Hare Krsna,

    ” Party spirit – that great enemy of the truth – will always baffle the attempt of the inquirer who tries to gather truth from the religious works of his nation and will make him believe that the Absolute Truth is nowhere except in his old religious book.” Bhaktivinoda Thakur

    “The idea of an organised church in an intelligible form, indeed, marks the close of a living spiritual movement. The great ecclesiastical establishments are the dykes and the dams to retain the current that canno be held by any such contrivances. They, indeed, indicate a desire on the part of the masses to exploit a spiritual movement for their own purpose. They also unmistakably indicate the end of the absolute and unconventional guidance of the bonafide spiritual teacher.”
    (Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Prabhupada, The Harmonist, January 1929)

    “A gosvami must be free from all these vices before he can dare sit on the vyasasana. No one should be allowed to sit on the vyasasana who is not spotless in character.”
    SB 1.1.6 Questions by the Sages

    Therefore, for a neophyte, simply by consulting scriptures, he will not be able to reach tothe absolute goal.
    690425LE.BOS Lectures

    Bg 11.54 P The Universal Form
    One who has unflinching devotion for the Supreme Lord and is directed by the spiritual master, can see the Supreme Personality of Godhead by revelation. For one who does not take personal training under the guidance of a bona fide spiritual master, it is impossible to even begin to understand Krsna. The word tu is specifically used here to indicate that no other process can be used, can be recommended, or can be successful in understanding Krsna.

    “Krsna can, however, be known as such by the causeless mercy of the pure devotee and by no other way.”

    721018SB.VRN Lectures
    “You cannot become a pure, perfect devotee unless you are directed by another pure, unadulterated devotee. Evam parampara-praptam. So therefore Rupa Gosvami has mentioned in his Bhakti-rasamrta-sindhu, adau gurvasrayam. You have to find out, you have to take shelter, not find out. You have to take shelter of a bona fide spiritual master.When we are further advanced, we do not see only Krsna, but we see His devotees also. We can recognize,”Here is a pure devotee of Krsna.” But in the lower stage, a, the devotee’s concerned with the Deity worship, but he does not take much care of the devotees. But when one is advanced further, he can see Krsna and His devotees also. Isvara tad-adhina. Tad-adhina means devotees.Devotees are always under the service of Krsna. So anyone who is giving service to Krsna, we should take care of them also. We should offer our respect in… You’ll find in Bhakti-rasamrta sindhu, it is stated somewhere, that if, if a devotee is coming, then another devotee who is engaged in worship of the Deity may stop Deity worship for the time being and should go immediately to receive the devotee. So Krsna also says, mad-bhakta-puja abhyadhika. Krsna is satisfied more when a devotee worships His devotee. Krsna says, “If one is worshiping Me and one is worshiping My devotee, then the person who is worshiping the devotee, he’s more important than the person who is worshiping Krsna.” So it is not the aim of human life, to becomea tiger. It is, the aim of human life is to become a devotee of Visnu, Vaisnava. That is perfection of life. So we are, this movement, we are giving the highest benediction to the human society.They are becoming Vaisnava. There is great necessity of Vaisnava at the present moment because everyone has become sudras. Kalau sudra sambhava. And because it is, everywhere the sudras are there, how there can be peace? They do not know. They have no brain how tomake the society peaceful and prosperous. They are sudras. They have no intelligence. There is necessity of creating brahmanas and Vaisnava. This movement is meant for that purpose. So becareful. Don’t be turned again to sudra and mlecchas. Go on making progress to become pure Vaisnava. Then your life is successful and you’ll give the best service to the human society.”

  7. Vinod Kumar

    How do you convert a sudra in to a Vaishnava or a brhamana, and is it necessary to get converted to a brahamin to become a vaishnava. thanx

    • Giridhari Das

      Anyone can be a Vaishnava, be they shudras or otherwise. Once a person in established in true Vaishnava behavior, he is more than a brahmana, due to his perfect moral and ethical behavior, cleanliness and shastric knowledge.

  8. chandru

    So can u help me in a clear cut way to tel how one should way to chose a diksa guru?
    I want more help in choosing a diksa guru.

  9. chandru

    I live in chennai. ( Tamilnadu – India ).
    I’ve a spiritual counsellor also.
    I’ve decided to take up few yrs of bramhacari training after 2015.
    Currently my counsellor is recommending me to take initiation from his spiritual master.
    I don’t agree with him.
    He feels its better for me to do so.
    I don’t agree with him.
    Initially his and my relations were very nice.
    But later I found some discrepancies in what he is saying and doing.
    I found some other devotees more inspiring than him.
    But he has the view that i better take initiation from his spiritual master.
    I don’t like that and I feel I’m being pushed into this.
    Pls give some guidance

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