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

Ferdinando Sardella

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

The contemporary Caitanya movement that began with Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura and was later developed in a distinctive way by his son Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī (1874–1937) and then by Bhaktisiddhānta’s disciple Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda has, for almost thirty years, been embroiled in an ongoing leadership crisis regarding the matter of guru succession. The result has been a proliferation of views. The Rival Positions in the IRM–GBC Controversy within ISKCON, edited by Rahul Peter Das, presents two opposing perspectives in relation to ISKCON, the movement founded by Prabhupāda. These views can be roughly summarised as (1) to consider Prabhupāda the last initiating (dīkṣā) guru of the disciplic succession – this is the position of the ISKCON Revival Movement (IRM), and (2) to keep and gradually improve upon the traditional initiating guru succession system – the position of the Governing Body Commission (GBC) of ISKCON. The first option, enunciated by Krishnakant Desai, proposes eliminating the living dīkṣā guru system by ‘freezing’ the disciplic succession with Prabhupāda, thereby forestalling the risk of future guru failures, or ‘falldowns’. The second option, presented by Christopher Shannon, calls for a moral and charismatic revival based upon qualified gurus who can strengthen ISKCON’s current guru system and keep its basic structure intact.

The IRM position is based on a detailed hermeneutical study of a selection of Prabhupāda’s last instructions regarding guru succession. The analysis is very comprehensive and goes into considerable depth. The GBC perspective provides the reader with a good number of counter-arguments and places slightly more weight on the history of the Caitanya tradition. The basic IRM strategy is to rely exclusively on the authority of Prabhupāda’s written words. Shannon gives greater weight to the cumulative body of scriptural evidence (śāstra) and to previous gurus (sādhus) to resolve the conflict. At the end of his section of the book, to a large extent, he directly answers the challenges posed by Krishnakant Desai.

While both presentations are impressively detailed and substantial in their own right, there is some lack of a broader contextual discussion regarding the history of ISKCON and the consequences of the conflict in light of its future. Shannon, however, does move in that direction, not least by referring to the challenges met by Prabhupāda’s initiating guru, Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī. Because the IRM stance does not place the guru issue in the frame of the tradition’s history, it can be described, in social-scientific terms, as synchronic. The GBC position, though, can be described as diachronic, because it attempts to harmonise its present stance with the overall development of the Caitanya tradition.

The Gauḍīya Maṭha – the mother organisation of ISKCON, founded by Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī – underwent a similar crisis of succession just after Bhaktisiddhānta passed on. A series of court cases was fought to resolve the issue, but there never truly was a satisfactory settlement although the legal proceedings stopped in 1948. The result was that most of Bhaktisiddhānta’s senior disciples adopted the role of dīkṣā gurus and founded their own institutions. Although Prabhupāda was not directly involved in these various contestations, about twenty years later he also founded his own institution.

During his life, Bhaktisiddhānta had introduced a number of institutional reforms that allowed qualified members increased mobility (compared to the fixed caste system), and this prepared for the expansion of his movement beyond Eastern India and Vṛndāvana – an important development for the Caitanya tradition. One of Bhaktisiddhānta’s shifts entailed the understanding that guru leadership should be determined on the basis of individual merit and spiritual qualification rather than caste or traditional genealogical considerations, i.e., passage from father to son. Bhaktisiddhānta put this understanding into controversial practice by personally initiating caste brāhmaṇas, though he himself did not come from a brāhmaṇa family. His vision was that a guru should be self-manifest through exemplary deeds, realisation and spiritual influence, provided that he had received training from another Vaiṣṇava guru in good standing. This approach created the potential for each of his disciples to become dīkṣā gurus after his departure, which is ultimately what happened in a considerable number of cases. It was largely by this means that Bhaktisiddhānta’s movement proliferated; more than thirty off-shoots have been counted up to now.

Shannon argues that Bhaktisiddhānta never explicitly appointed one guru successor, and that this was no mere oversight given the usual thoroughness of his thought and the fact that his departure was not sudden. In the context of the present argument, this appears to be a significant point. One plausible explanation is that he assumed that one spiritual leader would naturally shine forth and be accepted by all others; another is that leadership proliferation and multiple gurus were, in fact, welcome, if not inevitable. In any case, Bhaktisiddhānta chose not to control the process of succession by publicly appointing Prabhupāda or any other disciple as guru-successor. This left the matter to be decided in terms of the individual merit of his disciples – and this appears to be consistent with his overall thinking.

For his part, Prabhupāda seems to have understood the concept of guru proliferation in the very same sense: i.e., that it is possible for numerous dīkṣā gurus to be simultaneously operative in the same movement on the basis of personal merit and qualification. In keeping with this understanding, Prabhupāda did what many of his godbrothers had already done and began a new branch of Bhaktisiddhānta’s movement.

In general, the position of the GBC appears to be based on a more or less orthodox point of view. It suggests that the guru crisis is correctable, supports the development of checks and balances to safeguard against abuse, looks back at the tradition to substantiate its claims, and is more in tune with the succession structure followed since antiquity by the Vaiṣṇava tradition in India. The IRM position, however, appears to be characterised by what might be termed a ‘protestant outlook’. It considers ISKCON’s present leadership to be irreversibly degraded, relies exclusively upon a selection of Prabhupāda’s last statements rather than referring to either śāstra or the cumulative Vaiṣṇava tradition, and envisions a more egalitarian ISKCON – without living gurus – with Prabhupāda as the sole dīkṣā guru for all future adherents.

The problems of succession and what is generally termed the institutionalisation of charisma are well-known phenomena in religious studies. In this sense, the IRM–GBC conflict has a significant historical parallel. In the late Middle Ages, the perceived ethical and theological degradation of the apostolic succession involving the popes of Rome gave rise to a Protestant movement that effectively disjoined itself from the pope’s exclusive authority. Instead, it relied upon the ultimate authority of Jesus Christ and the canonical Bible. Denial of the popes’ exclusive authority allowed for a new freedom of thought and expression, which resulted in the gradual proliferation of a large number of independent protestant churches. The Catholic Church remained more or less united, but reformed itself at different stages, partially in response to the protestant challenge. There are obvious differences between this parallel and the one under discussion, especially since ISKCON has not adopted the idea of following one overarching institutional leader like a pope. However, it is not unrealistic to assume a parallel development issuing from the IRM–GBC debate: the emergence of two distinct movements, each with its own position on guru succession.

The IRM position has its own merits, not least in suggesting a stable basis of authority that forecloses the possibility of dīkṣā guru failures, which can be devastating for disciples. But it appears to place a considerable degree of pressure on Prabhupāda’s movement as they want it to be in relation to the greater Vaiṣṇava community worldwide. The IRM’s effectively stopping dīkṣā succession by living gurus appears to represent a significant departure from an old, established tradition that neither Bhaktisiddhānta nor Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura thought it necessary to reform. And this was the case despite both of them having frequently voiced dissatisfaction with the degraded condition of Caitanya Vaiṣṇavism in Bengal.

Both the Gauḍīya Maṭha and ISKCON represent a differentiation of the Caitanya tradition, in that many of the more indigenous esoteric elements of its practice – specifically those that Bhaktisiddhānta thought had been abused by a variety of practitioners – have been discouraged in favour of a simple stress on the chanting of the sacred names of divinity. However, his discouragement of such elements as active meditation on and re-enactment of the pastimes of Rādhā-Kṛṣṇa has set these two institutions very much apart from other ‘branches of the Caitanya tree’ in North India.

IRM’s call for the elimination of living dīkṣā gurus represents yet a further differentiation, but with one important distinction: While the Gauḍīya Maṭha/ISKCON differentiation appears to hark back to something intrinsic, IRM’s differentiation seems to have introduced an element that has never been there, and one that has further removed a modern Vaiṣṇava movement from its historical, social, and cultural roots.

By placing exclusive emphasis on Prabhupāda as the last initiating guru of a Vaiṣṇava tradition hundreds of years old, the IRM presents a number of challenges to an ‘insider’ understanding of his role and contribution. One such challenge concerns the fact that such an understanding elevates Prabhupāda to a position that is at odds with the natural humility of a Vaiṣṇava. More important, perhaps, as indicated by Shannon, is the notion that Prabhupāda represents the last and only qualified dīkṣā guru of the Bhaktisiddhānta line. This strongly implies that the process of meditation on the Lord’s sacred names is ineffectual in raising Vaiṣṇava practitioners to the highest standards, and this is something that Bhaktivinoda, Bhaktisiddhānta, and Prabhupāda would not have accepted.

From the insider perspective, the dispute finally concerns the question of whether it is possible to produce qualified dīkṣā gurus in this age. ISKCON considers that it is, while the IRM implicitly believes that conditions have become so degraded as to preclude that possibility for good. Regardless of which of these positions is ‘correct’, it is clear that ISKCON now faces a formidable challenge that can be met only through the exemplary conduct of gurus who embody humility, tolerance, and unfailing devotion to Kṛṣṇa.

The Rival Positions in the IRM–GBC Controversy within ISKCON presents two thought-provoking responses to a leadership crisis that has affected ISKCON since the early 1980s. Both views have merits and offer possible ways of resolving the problem. Also, both share a strong commitment to the legacy and role of Prabhupāda within ISKCON, and on that common ground the opposing positions find their most natural intersection. In this sense, it is not unreasonable to envision that in time the differences may be accommodated and resolved. Alternatively, both positions may go on existing side by side.

Rahul Peter Das has succeeded in bringing both positions together, to allow a reliable overview of their merits and arguments. The book enables one to make a balanced assessment, which is valuable in its own right for an informed insider/outsider discussion of ISKCON.