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Book Review: The Rival Positions in the IRM–GBC Controversy within ISKCON. Authorised statements by Krishnakant Desai and Christopher Shannon

Måns Broo

Ed. Rahul Peter Das
Halle (Saale): Sudasienwissenschaftliche Arbeitsblatter, Band 9. 2006
ISBN 10:3-86010-844-1

This book is an important addition to the ongoing debate on how A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda (1896–1977, henceforth, ‘Prabhupāda’), the founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), wished his succession to be handled. Questions of succession are of course as important and difficult in the religious world as they are in the secular one, especially when the person to be succeeded is as charismatic and powerful as Prabhupāda.

Sociologist of religion Max Weber coined the term ‘routinisation of charisma’, whereby the followers of a charismatic religious teacher attempt to perpetuate their cohesion and purpose by codifying a doctrine, formulating rules, and founding institutions. In this way, the personal charisma of the charismatic founder is transformed into an institutional charisma to be picked up by successive leaders. Weber furthermore distinguished six types of succession. In my own studies of the guru institution of Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism (Broo 2003), I have identified four of these: (1) heredity; (2) designation by the charismatic leader himself; (3) designation by an elite of qualified followers; and (4) revelation through oracles, divine judgements, etc. Additionally, because of the loose organisational structure of most Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava groups, people may for whatever reason appoint themselves the ‘true’ successor of a deceased guru.

Contrary to much of popular understanding of the guru institution, the most common type of succession within Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism is primogeniture, whereby the eldest son of the previous guru becomes the next guru. This is the most stable form of hereditary succession, since it leaves little room for scheming between different candidates. The hereditary gurus of Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism are generally called goswamis. Their role in the religious life of their students may be quite formal; they may just give the student initiation (dīkṣā) into one or several mantras, and then if the student wishes to know more, direct them to (often renunciant) instructing (śikṣā) gurus. However, Prabhupāda’s own guru, Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī (1874–1937), opposed this system of hereditary gurus. A lifelong celibate, he introduced several innovations into Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism, one of which was the institution of sannyāsa. He himself accepted sannyāsa in 1918, and in the branches of the movement he started, spiritual leadership is almost exclusively exercised by male sannyāsīs.

Upon the death of Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī, the movement he founded, known as the Gauḍīya Maṭha, broke up into several contending factions. The definitive history of this break-up is yet to be written, but one reason for it was that Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī had not clearly designated any successor. This opened the door for several disciples to claim his seat. In time, most of his leading disciples founded their own institutions with themselves at the head, and eventually they themselves had to deal with the question of succession. The most successful of all these self-appointed gurus was Prabhupāda. In many ways, Prabhupāda’s success was dependent on the break-up of his guru’s institution, leaving the field open to independent and innovative ventures such as his.

The most common way for renunciant gurus to pass on the succession has traditionally been appointment, and this has been the system followed by most disciples of Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī. Some have also formed boards of senior students that elect the next guru, whereas others – in what seems to be almost destructive behaviour, considering history – have not taken any steps at all. We will return to this later. I am not aware of the fourth type of succession listed above (revelation through oracles, divine judgements, etc.) having been used by the followers of Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī.

The present book opens with a short introduction by editor Rahul Peter Das in which he briefly discusses the divine status awarded the guru in Bengali religions, as well as the immediate background and raison d’être of this book. Professor Das’s initial interest in this issue stems from the difference he perceived between the divine position awarded to the guru in Bengali religions and the institutionalised, almost bureaucratic role of the guru in ISKCON today. In Weber’s terms, the guru in ISKCON is today more of a priest than a charismatic prophet; to Das, this seemed curious. Wishing to know more, he eventually stumbled on the GBC–IRM conflict, with all the unpleasant details of that conflict reported in the press and on the internet.

This book represents an attempt to present in a neutral manner both sides of the issue to the academic public. There seems to be no hope of resolving the differences between these groups: both sides seem far too estranged from each other at the present for any kind of rapprochement. Both the spiritual and secular leadership of ISKCON are at stake.

The book contains authorised statements on the issue of succession in ISKCON by the ISKCON Revival Movement (IRM) and the Governing Body Commission of ISKCON (GBC). However, Christopher Shannon (Kṛṣṇa-kīrti Dāsa), the representative of the GBC, subtitles his essay ‘An ISKCON Member’s View’, so while his paper is approved by the GBC, it is not a statement from the GBC itself. From an academic perspective, this is unfortunate, since it diminishes the authority of the essay. This can be seen either as the GBC either being too disorganised to formulate an official response or as not finding the issue important enough. Considering the loss of interest in this topic within ISKCON during recent years, as well as what seems to be stagnation of the IRM after some initial success, the second alternative seems the more plausible.

Krishnakant Desai has from the beginning been the ideological leader of IRM, so it is only natural that he present their case. His arguments are mostly taken (often verbatim) from his seminal The Final Order and are by now well-known to any student of this debate. A second edition of The Final Order was released in 2002; the differences between the two editions are small, reflecting the strength of his original thesis. On the other hand, as Desai never fails to show, the GBC position has changed many times over the years, both on details and on larger principles. No doubt consistency is one of the reasons for Desai’s success.

One reason for this consistency is the simplicity of Desai’s thesis. Simply put, since Prabhupāda never ordered the termination of the system of ṛtvik-initiators (persons acting as initiators on his behalf, a system he set up during his final illness), that order should never have been terminated. That order was terminated, first by the ṛtviks becoming regular gurus in their own right and later by the appointment of more gurus. Rather, Desai contends that the order should continue to be followed within ISKCON into the future. Since presenting his thesis in 1996, most of the work done by Desai in propagating his thesis has been to counter attempts to defeat it. The IRM website (www.iskconirm.com) presents no less than 76 ‘defeated challenges’, but not all such challenges have been formal attempts at refuting the thesis expressed in The Final Order, or even attempts to counter the agenda of the IRM itself.

For both parties to this conflict, Prabhupāda’s books form the primary source of evidence (pramāṇa). In these books, Prabhupāda often told his disciples to become gurus; Desai counters this by stating that Prabhupāda meant them to become instructing gurus, not initiating gurus. More problematic for Desai are the six documented instances in which Prabhupāda stated that one or other of his disciples could become an initiating guru after his departure. Desai argues correctly that none of these statements are found in Prabhupāda’s books but only in personal letters or conversations not meant for general distribution. He maintains that they were mainly meant to block over-ambitious disciples who wanted to start accepting disciples, but not disappoint them so much that they might consider leaving ISKCON altogether. Considering the history of the particular individuals involved, this is feasible, but one might wonder why Prabhupāda would say that they could later become gurus if he really did not intend it. Rather, scenarios such as those involving these ambitious disciples would have provided the perfect opportunity for presenting a future ṛtvik scheme of initiations. This is especially true of the recorded conversation between Prabhupāda and a researcher in Detroit in 1971; in that conversation, Prabhupāda states that all his initiated disciples may take disciples of their own after his passing. Desai again states that a conversation of this kind lends itself to Prabhupāda’s presenting a more optimistic view of his disciples than what he might personally have felt, but it would also have been an excellent opportunity for him to present the ṛtvik scheme.

Perhaps the best evidence supporting the IRM’s position is Prabhupāda’s Declaration of Will, which he made in June 1977. In this declaration, as presented in the IRM paper (85), Prabhupāda decrees that his properties in India should be managed by a number of executive directors. The will states, ‘In the event of death or failure to act […], a successor director or directors may be appointed […], provided the new director is my initiated disciple [emphasis added] […].’ Unless this is taken to mean that there will always be persons initiated by Prabhupāda in ISKCON, as the IRM states, this statement may be understood as indicating that Prabhupāda did not plan for more than a few decades into the future, thus going against the idea of his creating a movement for the next ‘10,000 years’, as taught by ISKCON devotees.

Alternatively, this may be a simple oversight, as suggested by other inconsistencies in the will. It says (§ 2) that ‘each temple will be an ISKCON property and will be managed by three executive directors’ (emphasis added). Next (§ 3) it lists the executive directors for the properties in India, giving four executive directors for two out of five properties, and stating that there must ‘never be less than three (3) or more than five (5) executive directors acting at one time’. It also says (§ 5) that ‘properties outside of India in principle should never be mortgaged, borrowed against, sold, transferred, or in any way encumbered, disposed of, or alienated, but if the need arises, they may be mortgaged, borrowed against, sold, etc., with the consent of the GBC committee members associated with the particular property’. Quite apart from the rather strange statement ‘in principle’, in contrast with the phrase, ‘if the need arises’, this paragraph introduces ‘GBC committee members associated with the particular property’, a term not used before or defined in the will. To me, these examples make it clear that this will was not drawn up very carefully. Placing too much stock in a single phrase of it may thus be unwise.

One of the ‘GBC objections’ that Desai deals with in his paper is that the ṛtvik system is unprecedented. Although it may not be directly forbidden anywhere, there is no precedent for it in any Vaiṣṇava saṁpradāya. Desai counters this by arguing that Prabhupāda did many other unprecedented things in his preaching mission, such as giving initiations through the mail. Somewhat scholastically, he also points out that if a guru never sets any precedents, nothing will ever be unprecedented, since no precedents would exist in the first place to act as a comparative standard! That aside, Desai does have a point here. For all practical purposes, Prabhupāda founded a movement of his own, and he could certainly have done with it whatever he wanted.

Also, handling succession by not naming a successor guru is not unheard of in Indian culture. The tenth guru of what we today know as Sikhism, Guru Gobind Singh (1666–1708), terminated the Sikh line of gurus by appointing the holy text Guru Granth Sahib as the guru for all time to come. Gobind Singh had many reasons for taking this step. All of his sons had been killed, and recent Sikh history had shown the difficulties of appointing a new guru (after the early death of the eighth guru, Harkrishnan, as many as 22 different persons set themselves up as the next guru). Not everyone accepted this decision; Banda Singh (d. 1716), one of Gobind Singh’s officers, became the next leader and proclaimed himself guru. However, in time, the political role of the guru shifted elsewhere, and today Sikhs turn to the Guru Granth Sahib for spiritual guidance, honouring it in ways very similar to how a living guru is honoured. This is of course very similar to what the ṛtviks maintain. The formality of initiation would be handled by ṛtviks, but the real spiritual guidance would come from Prabhupāda’s books. Prabhupāda often claimed that his books contained everything his disciples needed to know in their spiritual life, so considering them the real guru is not as far-fetched as it may sound at first.

Giving initiation by proxy is also not unique to Prabhupāda. His own guru, Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī, authorised his sannyāsi-preachers in Europe to initiate on his behalf. The procedure was quite similar to that of Prabhupāda: Bhaktisiddhānta recited the mahā-mantra on a string of tulasī-beads in India and sent these beads to his preachers, who then gave them, the mantra, and the traditional tulasī neck-beads to the new initiate on his behalf. Today, B. V. Nārāyaṇa Mahārāja occasionally asks some of his sannyāsi disciples to initiate people on his behalf. In both these cases, the reason for this procedure is that of geographical distance.

In the second paper, Christopher Shannon (Kṛṣṇa-kīrti Dāsa) goes beyond the narrow confines of this debate in first presenting a short introduction to the whole issue, giving a brief and reasonably neutral history of the ṛtvik doctrine/heresy within ISKCON. For the general reader, this is very helpful, since it provides a much needed historical context to the debate at hand. I would personally have liked to see more on the various positions the GBC has taken on the role of the guru since the passing of Prabhupāda, but perhaps that would not have been in the interest of Shannon’s overall presentation. As Burke Rochford and others have pointed out, the history of ISKCON since 1977 is an immensely important topic both for ISKCON members and for academic students of religion, yet it still remains to be written.

Shannon reasonably enough locates the origin of the ṛtvik doctrine in the wide-scale dissatisfaction felt by ISKCON members in the late 1980s and early 1990s toward the leadership of the movement in reaction to the failings of prominent ISKCON gurus. Shannon here takes the opportunity to briefly mention his own pet theory for why these failings occurred: that ISKCON has not gone far enough in implementing varṇāśrama-dharma. Shannon then provides a ten-page overview of the key terms and concepts of the conflict, such as the difference between śikṣā- and dīkṣā-gurus. Readers familiar with the topic will not need this information, but for the general reader, it should prove very valuable.

Shannon next examines the debate itself, claiming that the ṛtviks are guilty of excluding evidence, equivocation, arguing from ignorance, improper accent, and out-of-context references. Not all of his examples are that convincing, but taken together, they do make a dent in Desai’s argumentation. He then deals with the main evidence the ṛtviks present for their case (the 28 May conversation and the 9 July letter), attempting to show how, using the above-mentioned fallacies, the ṛtviks have interpreted them incorrectly. When it comes to the 28 May conversation, Shannon is quite successful.

This essay differs from many earlier attempts at disproving the ṛtvik doctrine in almost completely leaving out evidence from earlier gurus and texts of the saṁpradāya. In doing so, Shannon is of course trying to defeat the ṛtviks on their home ground, but to me, it does not seem to be a wise strategy. As Shannon correctly points out (p. 117), Desai has implicitly rejected the tripartite classification of śabda-pramāṇa that Prabhupāda so often spoke of – guru, sādhu, and śāstra – for only the guru part. Desai explains this (p. 67) by saying that the very definition of a ‘bona fide’ guru is that he follows sādhu and śāstra, ergo, since all parties in the conflict agree that Prabhupāda is a bona fide guru, there is no need to resort to other evidence. This is clearly circular reasoning, and while Prabhupāda at times did ask his disciples to stick exclusively to his books and advice, he did on occasion also ask them to read other texts. This is especially necessary when the ‘guru’ part of the above trinity is inconclusive. But most of all, capitulating to the ṛtviks here would be an important step away from the normative Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava epistemology of Jīva Gosvāmī and would lead to a theologically and intellectually impoverished ISKCON.

Another common anti-ṛtvik argument also noticeably absent is that of parīkṣā, the mandatory time of mutual examination between guru and disciple. If the guru is not physically present, how would this be possible? Desai soundly defeats this argument by pointing out that Prabhupāda’s constant travel very seldom gave him the chance for personally examining his students. Rather, this task fell to senior students, who would recommend those they felt to be serious candidates to Prabhupāda for initiation. If parīkṣā could be done in that way back then, why not now also?

Shannon ends his essay by proposing two alternative futures for ISKCON, one in which the IRM has taken over and one in which the present situation continues. Hardly surprisingly, he finds the second alternative better in all ways. In this he is probably right: if ISKCON today did exclusively adapt the ṛtvik system, no doubt many of the more charismatic gurus of ISKCON would take their disciples and leave. Considering the already precarious manpower situation in many ISKCON temples in the West, this might spell ruin for the movement. The IRM of course maintains that by returning to the leadership of Prabhupāda, ISKCON would – perhaps after a rocky start – be reborn and that its members would be filled with new enthusiasm.

The IRM already has its own temples in which Prabhupāda is the only guru; however, only in Bangalore has it been able to show consistent success, and that temple was successful even before adapting the ṛtvik cause. If ‘returning to Prabhupāda’ really is the panacea for ISKCON that the IRM claims it is, one would expect them to be able to show some evidence for it. However, the latest reports indicate that the very strongholds of the IRM, the Bangalore and Singapore temples, have severed their connections with the IRM because of conflicts over how to apply the ṛtvik doctrine.

So who wins the debate? In my opinion, Shannon does. Desai does score some good points, but to me, there is not enough evidence to support his position. Since the ṛtvik system would be an unusual way of continuing the succession – to say the least – the burden of proof falls on him, and apart from Prabhupāda’s will and the 9 July letter, he really doesn’t have much evidence to support his case. Most importantly – and this isn’t covered in either of the papers – his thesis presupposes a huge conspiracy. According to his theory, the ṛtviks Prabhupāda appointed conspired with each other to declare themselves full gurus after Prabhupāda’s death and thus to take over the movement. From all the evidence I have seen, these persons were woefully unprepared, both spiritually and materially, but do seem to have done what they thought was the right thing to do. Even the now maligned ‘zonal ācārya’ system was based on Prabhupāda’s and Śrīdhara Mahārāja’s advice; that system failed mostly because the ācāryas in question were unqualified. And most importantly, considering the fact that out of the eleven ṛtviks whom Prabhupāda appointed and who later became gurus, no less than seven stepped down or defected from ISKCON, how likely is it that such a conspiracy would have remained secret?

If Prabhupāda wanted the ṛtviks to become full gurus, why did he not clearly say so? There may be many answers to this question. Personally, I think he purposefully left his succession open, just as Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī had done before him. In spite of having founded a large and successful institution, Bhaktisiddhānta was profoundly sceptical of organised religion, and seems to have thought it best to let things play out by themselves after his death. Rather than this being an ‘After me, the deluge’ mentality, I see this as a profound faith in Kṛṣṇa as the supreme controller. The break-up of the Gauḍīya Maṭha was a traumatic event for those involved, but it did lead to a greater spread of Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism both in India and abroad. While Prabhupāda clearly did not want ISKCON to break apart after his departure, he may have had enough faith in his disciples and Kṛṣṇa to arrange everything in a satisfactory way on their own. He also knew how ambitious many of his leading disciples were, but his own success in Kṛṣṇa consciousness may have made him regard their future with more optimism than what, with hindsight, seems warranted.

With all of their failings, Prabhupāda’s successors seem to have done their best, and ISKCON has, almost miraculously, been spared larger schisms. Just as Prabhupāda developed his movement largely through trial and error, so his successors have continued to do so since his passing. After the failure of the zonal-ācārya system, ISKCON’s gurus have been subjected to the authority of the GBC, a process that has considerably stabilised ISKCON as an institution but has also weakened the authority of the guru. Perhaps in trying to compromise with ṛtvik sentiments, the role of Prabhupāda as the most important śikṣā-guru of all present and future members of ISKCON has been stressed, and it is even sometimes argued that while the present gurus in some sense are ‘real’ gurus, they only bring the disciples to Prabhupāda, who is their real saviour. Both of these developments have strengthened ISKCON as a unified institution, but they also left it vulnerable to the allure of independent, charismatic Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava preachers such as B. V. Nārāyaṇa Mahārāja, who more closely conform to the general conception of the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava guru. The dissonance between the experience of Prabhupāda’s unique charisma and that of the institutional charisma of his bureaucratic successors have also led to a whole range of quasi-ṛtvik philosophies, such as that of Prabhupāda as ‘the prominent link’, ‘the saṁpradāya ācārya’ and so on.

In routinising a founder’s charisma, ISKCON has not been alone. The movements of Yogānanda, Śivānanda, and countless other gurus have had to deal with the same issue. The usual strategy has been to keep the preceptorial line alive by appointing a successor to the founder, often subordinated to a board of trustees, but in different ways keeping the founder and his teachings in the centre. How many even know who succeeded Śivānanda or who the present ācārya of Yogānanda’s movement is? ISKCON differs from these movements in having multiple successors to its founder, making the transition to the next generation potentially problematic. There are already a few gurus in ISKCON who are grand-disciples of Prabhupāda, but, at least in my experience, who portray themselves as his disciples, giving their own dīkṣā-gurus a very formal if not positively invisible role. None of the deceased disciples of Prabhupāda have had clear successors. If this continues to be the case, one may very well question whether the ṛtviks actually did not win out after all.