Constitutional Issues: Disciplic Succession

BY: ROCANA DASA - 9.5 2023

Originally published in May 2015, following release of the draft Constitution.

I would like to address the issues recently brought up by two Sun readers, Haridasa dasa and Krishna dasa regarding an essential principle within our philosophy about the continuation of our Sampradaya. Within the ISKCON As it Is Constitution (Article 8), I have made a concerted effort to provide many quotations from sastra and from the Founder-Acarya, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Srila Prabhupada, in regards to the essential philosophical principles underlying this issue. Due to the complexity and seeming contradictions of the many quotations originating from Guru, Sadhu, and Sastra addressing the deliverance of a sincere jivatma from their material bondage, this subject remains open to much discussion.

Ultimately this "deliverance" requires surrendering to a bona fide representative of Lord Sri Krsna. Arjuna, after hearing his Guru, Sri Krsna present the truth about fighting in the battle, had to surrender by wholeheartedly fighting. Srila Prabhupada's disciples had to surrender to help him spread the Sankirtan Movement in the manner he dictated. Many present day aspiring Vaisnavas may wish their "surrendering" circumstances where more clear, because they are faced with the dilemma of not being convinced that the personalities claiming to be true bona fide gurus are actually able to save them by orchestrating the unique set of circumstances required for their gradual purification. In fact, they cannot be sure if they are completely connected to the Sampradaya.

In all honesty, I cannot say that I fully understood the gravity of surrendering to the bona fide Spiritual Master when I was initiated. Since that time I have experienced many situations that required my "re-surrendering", and I expect this constant process of exercising my God-given freewill by making the choices that will please my Spiritual Master will continue until I leave this body. We must all have complete faith in Caitya Guru. He will always be available.

As I have tried to communicate to my associates, personally I have expanded my perception of Srila Prabhupada, not only as my diksa-guru, but as a rare representative of the guru-parampara, one of 32 topmost Sampradaya Acaryas. I realize that this opens me up to criticism as a "narrow-minded fanatic". But, only a few devotees on the battlefield of Kurukshetra recognized Sri Krsna to be God. That absolute truth is what Arjuna had to "surrender" to accept. I am forced to realize that most of my Godbrothers are not inclined to share my viewpoint. This reality is illustrated by Haridasa prabhu in his recent article. What if he had presented this question to the authorities at the various temples and mathas he visited:

"Do you recognize A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami to be the successive Sampradaya Acarya (topmost member of the guru-parampara) after Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Thakur? In other words, is your spiritual master considered a "regular diksa guru" in comparison to these two Sampradaya Acaryas?"

Of course, the answer would be a resounding "No", not only at Gaudiya Matha temples, but also at many ISKCON temples. ISKCON authorities are only obliged to accept HDG A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Srila Prabhupada as the Founder-Acarya of ISKCON. But a "Sampradaya Acarya" is not restricted or confined to a particular Society, regardless of whether its hereditary roots were planted in the original preaching mission founded by the Acarya and used during the later portion of his manifest lila.

Granted, I have written extensively on the subject of the unique position of a Sampradaya Acarya, and the actual Sampradaya Acaryas have chosen simply to state the obvious and not elaborate philosophically on the distinction. Lord Sri Krsna and Lord Chaitanya did not broadcast the fact that they were, in fact, God. That was a task deputed to their enlightened followers such as the successive Acaryas, and in the case of Lord Chaitanya, most notably the Six Goswamis and their successive representatives, the Sampradaya Acaryas up to HDG A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami.

The many branches, sub-branches and leaves of the tree rooted in Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu's Sankirtan Movement are obviously not all comprised of Sampradaya Acaryas. In fact, most are regular "bona fide spiritual masters" attached to the main branches, i.e., the topmost Sampradaya Acaryas. Staying with this analogy, some of the present confusion lies in the historical reality that Lord Chaitanya deputed three successive Sampradaya Acaryas to appear in unbroken and rapid succession. Those followers attached to the branches of past Sampradaya Acaryas, namely Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur and Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur, are finding it next to impossible to appreciate and recognize A.C. Bhaktivedanta Thakur as an equal, or main branch. As such, the followers of Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami are called upon to not criticize, and thus offend the members of the other legitimate branches -- and that includes not asserting that our Srila Prabhupada is the spiritual equal of these past great Acaryas.

In fact, many of the direct disciples of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, including leaders of ISKCON, also find it difficult to surrender philosophically to this Sampradaya Acarya concept. There is so much dramatic proof of this lack of realization, but I will refrain in this essay from pointing out examples. The reader can easily find many articles in the Sampradaya Sun that illustrate this truth. Suffice to say, strictly following in the footsteps of the past Acaryas is not a policy embraced by ISKCON leaders. Instead, we witness a great deal of sentiment mixed in with storytelling, rather than actual philosophy concerning Srila Prabhupada's spiritual status.

It is difficult to appreciate and accept the fact that our Sampradaya, going back to Lord Brahma, is composed of only 32 great Acaryas. These Acaryas have been identified by the latest of these topmost members of the guru-parampara (the Sampradaya Acaryas), namely, Srila Prabhupada, who has included in the Introduction of Bhagavad-gita As It Is what I call the 'List of 32'.

In the Gaudiya Matha and in various guru ashrams within ISKCON, the leaders of these organizations have concluded that it's perfectly legitimate for them to just add their latest living acarya or head of the matha to the end of the List of 32. Of course, within the Gaudiya Matha Srila Prabhupada is not recognized as being on the same level as Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati. Nor do they make a clear distinction as to who is and who is not a Sampradaya Acarya (i.e., a topmost member of the guru-paramapara). Therefore it's not surprising to find this bewildering circumstance within individual mathas, where they just add any name they wish onto the guru-parampara list after Srila Bhaktisiddhanta.

In ISKCON today they are struggling with the same problem. While the Gaudiya Matha follows an eastern form of religiosity with gurus/disciples living together in Mathas, in present day ISKCON we have both eastern and the western institutional church-like forms of religiosity. I've explained this many times. In the case of ISKCON, the western-style religionist advocates apparently have enough of a majority to be able to vote-in papers such as the one Ravindra Swarupa dasa recently penned on "Srila Prabhupada, the Founder-Acarya". The GBC can state that such a paper is ISKCON policy, but in practice it's principles are not followed by those GBC/Gurus who are following the eastern religious style. A relatively small number of maha-gurus represent a large powerhouse of men and money within ISKCON. They're not about to comply with this GBC trend towards "ultimate authority", relegating them to voting members, nor are their disciples ready to abandon their strongly held perceptions of their guru being the final absolute authority.

Although the authors of the Founder-Acarya paper approach the idea of Srila Prabhupada being above and beyond the 'regular' ISKCON Guru, GBC/ISKCON stops short of declaring the List of 32 Sampradaya Acaryas/topmost members of the guru-parampara, and Srila Prabhupada's inclusion as 32nd on the list. Nor will they acknowledge the philosophical distinction between these topmost Acaryas in the Sampradaya and the 'regular gurus' in ISKCON. They will not declare that Srila Prabhupada is not restricted to the ISKCON institution. Rather, the leaders like to project that Srila Prabhupada is "theirs", exclusively. The logic being that if you're not following the GBC you're not in ISKCON and you're not following Srila Prabhupada.

Srila Bhaktisiddhanta is universally accepted as a great Acarya within our Sampradaya. Srila Prabhupada's creation of ISKCON has helped to establish this universal perception. In other words, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta is obviously not restricted to the Gaudiya Matha. And in the case of Srila Bhaktivinoda, his initiating guru was not part of the Gaudiya Matha either. We understand that Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur obtained his enlightenment or connection to the Sampradaya through the previous Sampradaya Acaryas' writings, right back to the Six Goswamis.

ISKCON devotees need to understand Srila Prabhupada and our connection to the Sampradaya in this same way. This is an essential element in the current discussion on the disciplic succession within the ISKCON institution. It goes to the heart of the whole principle of being in the Sampradaya -- being members connected to the Sampradaya through one's diksa guru, or any one of the different types of gurus.

One has to keep in mind that our philosophy recognizes the maha-bhagavat and the book-bhagavat, what to speak of all the past Sampradaya Acaryas. And whether one has a guru, or is aspiring to take diksa, or has taken diksa, the bhakta is obliged to study their absolute teachings which, by Krsna's arrangements, have been made abundantly available. Devotees have to educate themselves in order to be able to determine whether their guru is truly connected to the Sampradaya Acaryas. Unfortunately, there have been many of these so-called bona fide diksa gurus within ISKCON and the Gaudiya Matha who have proven, both by time and circumstance, that they are in fact not bona fide, even though many in their communities still respect them. So the question remains: were these people ever connected? At what point in their deviation did they stop being connected? Are those who were initiated during a period somewhere along the timeline of a guru's deviation actually connected to the Sampradaya?

Ultimately, this issue brings us down to the essence of our philosophy. That is, that Krsna is God, and He's a person. All the other personalities who emanated from Him are also unique personalities. In order to achieve love of God, one has to properly use the freedom that is given by God, and that's free will. You have to decide, surrender, and make a sincere, honest commitment to become a servant of God, by serving His pure devotees.

In their Sun editorials, Haridasa dasa and Krishna dasa pose a number of questions. Krishna dasa asks, "Who delivers the sadhaka from the ocean of birth and death?" To answer, we need to clarify exactly what his definition of "delivers" is.

Does "deliver" refer only to the delivery of divya-jnana? If so, the deliverer could be caitya-guru, book bhagavat, or the qualified siksa or diksa-guru. If "delivery" means connection to the pure sampradaya via the transmission of absolute truth, then it is not just the diksa-guru who delivers the sadhaka (whatever the adhikara of the diksa-guru).

Or, does Krishna dasa also refer to "delivery" in terms of divya diksanam -- transmission of divya-jnana as well as conveyance of the requisite authority for one to engage in pancaratra-vidhi. If so, then by sastric definition, the one who "delivers" is the diksa-guru. (Constitution § 8.6.1)

Given the context of the discussion at hand -- the progression of disciplic succession in the institutional environment -- being clear about the definition of "delivers" is an important distinction. In this case, the question would seem to presuppose that "deliverance" refers to divya diksanam, since we are talking about whose picture might be placed on the altar after Srila Prabhupada's.

Krishna dasa writes, "Everyone agrees that Srila Prabhupada can deliver his immediate disciples. But can he deliver his granddisciples etc.?"

Again, the definition of "delivers" is essential. Srila Prabhupada cannot now deliver divya diksanam to his granddisciples. That could only be considered a Ritvik conclusion. However, as Book Bhagavat, certainly he can deliver divya-jnana to any sincere candidate, of any generation, within or outside of the ISKCON institution.

So if the GBC says yes, Srila Prabhupada can deliver divya diksanam to his granddisciples, then the GBC would be correctly labeled as Ritvik -- no 'hard' or 'soft' about it. But if they say only that yes, he can deliver divya-jnana to his granddisciples, then there is no siddhantic rationale for calling them "soft Ritviks". The label would be inaccurate.

As for the claims of Gour Govinda Swami and his followers that 'the guru can't give what he doesn't have', that is a different issue entirely. This goes not to the definition of "delivery", but rather to the qualifications of the bona fide spiritual master -- both instructing and initiating. We have long been on the record for challenging certain aspects of Gour Govinda Swami's preaching. But again, in his characterization of the Gour Govinda camp position, Krishna dasa gives us a rather unqualified use of the term "delivers", so the comments above apply equally. Neither ISKCON nor Gour Govinda Swami can say that divya-jnana cannot be delivered to the sadhaka by Caitya Guru or Book Bhagavat.

That the GBC's recent Founder-Acarya paper has created further confusion should come as no surprise. As stated in our commentary on that paper, they err in several important ways, including not being specific about the exalted position of His Divine Grace, and in their own compromised, politicized position, which clouds the message of the paper at every turn.

Krishna dasa writes:

"If, on the other hand, the GBC says Srila Prabhupada can't deliver future generations then many members will become disheartened because they think that their guru isn't qualified to take them home. This could lead to an exodus of ISKCON in search of the pure devotee who can deliver his followers."

Surely GBC/ISKCON would never say that Srila Prabhupada, as Book Bhagavat, cannot deliver divya-jnana to the sadhaka. They do say that divya diksanam can only be delivered by the living guru.

"Also, the GBC claims that if the guru falls down then one can simply take shelter of Srila Prabhupada and get delivered that way. So the GBC would need to amend that claim if it decided that Srila Prabhupada can't deliver his granddisciples and so on."

Again, our point about definitions must be made. We should also point out that GBC/ISKCON has erred in its contrived use of the term, "maha-siksa". This is addressed in § 8.5.7 of the Constitution: The contrived categorization of His Divine Grace as 'maha-siksa' of all followers is rejected, as the concept has no basis in sastra. It does not properly describe His Divine Grace's post-samadhi relationship with his diksa disciples, nor does it describe his relationship with his grand-disciples.… "

In response to Haridasa prabhu's recent article, we referred the readers to two papers: Guru-parampara: The List of 32 and Sampradaya Acarya. The first of these deals specifically with the issue of Gour Govinda's picture (or others) being put on the altar beside Srila Prabhupada's and preceding members of the disciplic succession. He also asks the question, "Is the whole of ISKCON Rtvik?" This we answered above in our comments to Krishna dasa.

Haridasa dasa writes:

"So I went to other Gaudiya temples and posed the same question and received the same answer. Then at one temple they said to me, ever so politely, "...Your ISKCON mission is full of Rtviks, from the top to the bottom, because you think no other acaryas can appear, therefore you are all either Rtviks, hidden Rtviks or some sort of Christian/Krsna mismash..."

This has become a classic Gaudiya Matha disinformation soundbite. Other than the actual Ritviks (the proponents of post-samadhi ritvik diksa on the basis of the July 9th Letter), we have never heard devotees saying "no other acaryas can appear". To say this would be to presume you can limit Sri Krsna. It is nonsense, and the only ones we ever hear it from, aside from the ISKCON Ritviks, are those in the Gaudiya Matha, Gour Govinda and B.V. Narayana camps who wish to discredit GBC/ISKCON.

Haridasa concludes:

"So I was wondering, as a fallen conditioned soul: will we ever have a picture of an acarya next to Srila Prabhupada on our ISKCON altars? Or will there just be an empty photo frame with a large question mark in it? Are we really all Rtviks or hidden Rtviks, or some sort of Christian mis-mash? Will the gap between Srila Prabhupada, and the aspiring devotees, GBC included, grow larger and larger as the centuries roll on? Will the message become lost? The same as Christianity?"

We cannot answer for GBC/ISKCON, but we can answer on behalf of the ISKCON As It Is Constitution, whose Preamble states:

"Although Sri Krsna may at any time choose to send another self-effulgent nitya-siddha acarya, the instructions of His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, under the guidance of guru, sadhu and sastra, represent Absolute authority in the Society."

Will the gap between pictures on the altar grow longer over the years? Srila Prabhupada told us not to worry about the gaps. Should another Sampradaya Acarya manifest, we can be sure that the message they impart will be no different than Srila Prabhupada or any of the other Sampradaya Acaryas. That's what qualifies them as being such an Acarya. Although Srila Prabhupada's godbrothers do not accept that Srila Prabhupada is a Sampradaya Acarya, still none of them to my knowledge criticize him for saying something different than Srila Bhaktisiddhanta. And should another self-effulgent nitya-siddha maha-bhagavat Sampradaya Acarya manifest, then the question of whether or not His picture should be placed beside Srila Prabhupada's on the altar will naturally be asked, and answered.

As for today, the historic circumstances we are in do make matters somewhat confusing. Krsna Consciousness has spread into the western culture and the pure devotee, the most recent Sampradaya Acarya, Srila Prabhupada, ended his manifest lila nearly 40 years ago. Throughout this time period aspiring Vaisnavas have been forced to spiritually struggle -- as many, many Vaisnavas in similar periods have had to struggle. When Lord Chaitanya disappeared, when all the great Acaryas of our Sampradaya disappeared, their disciples had to deal with ongoing issues around disciplic succession.

I have personally made an attempt to share my struggles by writing extensively and broadcasting my realizations on the Sampradaya Sun. We've now created a Constitution, which embodies the most essential elements of siddhanta that must be dealt with in pushing the Sankirtan movement forward according to Srila Prabhupada's instructions. I admit that there's much more to do, and much more that I'll try to do between now and the time I leave my body. Among these will be the task of writing a much more clear conception of the Sampradaya Acarya position. We have been working on it, and particularly on a clarification of the terminology issue, which I believe will be settled to the satisfaction of most. I'm not claiming to be a pure devotee; I'm just sharing what I can, and I don't claim that what I put out for discussion with my godbrothers is absolutely true. In an attempt to try and clear up any problems, or any misconceptions that I might have, I've opened it up to the public and asked devotees to share their thoughts. Many have over the years, and I've published much of what they've had to say.

Today we are trying to address the comments and concerns of Haridasa and Krishna dasa prabhus, emphasizing how the Constitution deals with these issues. Haridasa said that as he travels to many of the temples and maths in and outside of ISKCON, he gets bewildered. That's understandable. In order to spread Krsna Consciousness throughout the world, our most recent Sampradaya Acaryas have found it necessary to institutionalize their preaching missions and the Sankirtan Movement they're representing. Thus, there is an inherent risk that after their disappearance, their preaching missions will devolve towards religiosity, which is precisely what we have seen in both the Gaudiya Matha and ISKCON.

ISKCON at the present moment is representing a two-headed form of religiosity: one eastern, one western, while the Gaudiya Matha is primarily representing the eastern model. ISKCON likes to project the impression that they're all cooperating together under the banner of ISKCON and the GBC, being the Ultimate Managing Authority, but the way they're trying to push that concept forward is under the persona of a western style of religion. And not all of them are following it, even in the western camp. As I've said many times, the reason they're trying to emphasize the Ultimate Managing Authority concept is that many gurus and disciples are instead following the eastern religious model, and are not surrendering to this GBC concept. In due course of time we may find that there is an official split, and the GBC body itself will fragment into two (or more) camps. Then we may have two preaching institutions that need to offer clear explanations of their siddhantic conclusions on disciplic succession. In other words, things could well become even more confusing.

Either way, individually we are all left to sort it out for ourselves. You cannot look to the GBC for answers. At this point in time, GBC/ISKCON is far too compromised to be able to give members of the society the philosophical leadership they need in this area. Many disciples are finding that they can't even look to their guru for the answers. Today in ISKCON, every guru has a different perception, or a different vision and philosophy of what it means to be a guru. It's like colors in the rainbow. They project their personal philosophy onto their disciples, who carry it forward. And once they do, once that phenomenon takes place, it's very hard to change anyone's mind.

You're not going to be able to change GBC/ISKCON, and you're not going to be able to change the Gaudiya Matha, or those in other individual circumstances, like Gour Govinda Swami's followers. Nor will these disparate groups ever likely agree on the siddhanta of disciplic succession as it applies to all those within the Gaudiya Vaisnava Sampradaya. In the absence of any such cooperative conclusion, it takes a lot of personal time and effort, and each individual must come to their own understanding. I'm doing my best to share my personal realizations, most recently in the form of the Constitution for ISKCON As it Is.

Whether or not devotees in future will embrace what I'm saying and do something substantial, with thousands of devotees cooperating under a banner like the Constitution… I'm not losing sleep wondering if that will happen in my lifetime. Hopefully, our efforts will contribute to the process of figuring it out, and in that mood we share our realizations with other devotees.