ISKCON AND FUNDAMENTALISM
by Hare Krishna Das, 1994
There is no doubt that the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) has faced many problems in trying to introduce Vaishnava culture to the world at large, particularly the Western world. These are problems related to such areas as negative public awareness, lack of financial resources, high turnover of members, internal disagreements on matters of policy and philosophy, and internal divisions. As most ISKCON members or associates are aware of these problems, I will not deliberate on them at length. In my opinion, some of these problems are caused by inherent differences in life style and philosophy between Vaishnavism and its host cultures. Another cause of problems is the relative immaturity of the Society itself. Twenty-five years is still rather young, especially for a religious organization.
A significant number of problems are rooted in ISKCON itself, and can be attributed to a collective and predominant attitude that has (unknowingly) evolved over a period of time. This attitude, the causes and symptoms of which are discussed below, is characterised by negativity, and is both spiritually and materially counterproductive. As attitudes are seldom changed overnight, there are no clear-cut and simple solutions to solve these problems and turn ISKCON into an instant success. It is firstly required that the Society becomes aware of the fact that this attitude exists, that it is counterproductive and that there is a need to change it. Secondly, the process of change will need to be implemented, which will take time, effort and a great deal of maturity.
Many ISKCON members may not at all agree with my analysis that there are serious problems. They may view the difficulties mentioned above — such as lack of success, negative public perception or internal divisions — as simply unavoidable and inevitable historical developments, all inevitable hurdles to be overcome by a transcendentally guided mission. If seen as nothing but tests for their faith, they will conclude that there is no need to change anything other than returning to the pure and pristine teachings of Prabhupada. As such, they will never be motivated to make more than marginal adjustments.
Not that success is the only criterion by which the activities of the Society are to be judged. Although it is true that the Society was created by its founder with the aim of being successful in realising its goals, there is always the issue of weighing longer-term goals against short term ones. Sometimes short term, fleeting successes may have to be sacrificed in order to obtain long term, more durable success. Even more important, however, is whether objectives, successfully realised or not, are properly understood, formulated and acted upon.
In order to answer the above question, as well as understand and analyse this collective attitude referred to above, and place it in perspective, ISKCON members firstly need to define and determine the Society's objectives, its 'raison d'être.' What are the basic objectives in spreading Vaishnava culture and philosophy to the world at large, and what is to be accomplished? This question is not to be asked within the context of "operational goals" but, rather, within the context of existential and philosophical principles. The question can be expanded to encompass any spiritual or religious organization. In other words: what is the role of religion within human society?
I believe this question can be answered from two essentially different viewpoints and attitudes, leading to distinctly different results. One attitude is what I call the 'fundamentalist' attitude; the other one is the ‘spiritualist’ attitude.
Definition and characteristics of fundamentalism
Fundamentalism, sometimes also called literalism, advocates the literal interpretation of certain historical writings, which contain a philosophical, often religious, system of thought. Fundamentalism assumes that such writings — or scriptures as they are called within religious contexts — are self-explanatory and coherent, and that no (further) human interference is required to explain them. It furthermore assumes that their message is perfect in and of itself. Obviously, fundamentalists apply such notions of perfection only to those writings that form the bases of the tradition and system of thought to which they themselves adhere. Christian fundamentalists therefore believe that the Bible is the word of God, that it is perfect, and that its texts must be interpreted in a literal way. Likewise, Muslim fundamentalists believe that only the Qur’an contains perfect knowledge, and that its texts must be interpreted in a literal way. As a consequence, fundamentalist followers of either tradition believe that the scriptures of the other are invalid or incomplete.
The term fundamentalism is applied here within the context of those philosophical systems that propagate a dualistic world-view. Such a dualistic world-view supposes the existence of a perfect, absolute and transcendental world, beside the imperfect, relative and mundane world in which we live. Although dualistic philosophies are predominantly religious in nature, they are not necessarily limited to religious systems of thought. Marxism and even Nazism contain strong elements of dualism. In addition, many dualistic philosophies have strong ideological tendencies, in that they encompass cultural, ethical, social and political aspects of human life, and tend to prescribe an ideal or normative form of human behavior.
While recognising the enormous diversity of ideological fundamentalism, there are a number of characteristics that are common to the fundamentalist attitude:
1. The 'Ideology' adhered to is absolute, unchanging, and transcends, or may even invalidate, human experience and reason.
2. The Originator and/or Source of the Ideology is infallible, absolute, and cannot ever be challenged, even on trivial matters. Furthermore, there is a strong tendency towards personality cult type of deification of the Originator/Source.
3. The 'Ideology' is interpreted in a literal way, whereby overall scientific, philosophical and rational coherence is subordinated to literal interpretations, no matter how inconsistent and contradictory, and no matter how much in conflict with scientific evidence.
4. All ideologies, other than the one adhered to, are a priori wrong. Consequently, the world is strictly divided into good and bad, right and wrong, and good and bad people.
5. Ideology is the single most important factor in human life; ideological considerations cannot be compromised.
6. The political, social and economic organization of society must be moulded around the 'Ideology.'
7. The individual is subordinated to the collective, and particularly to the 'Ideology.' Consequently, human rights are subordinated to the collective and the 'Ideology.'
8. Consequently, the political system will be highly authoritarian and anti-democratic.
9. The end will justify the means.
10. Anti-rationalism is the cornerstone of all fundamentalist attitudes and systems of thought.
The essential mistake of fundamentalism is that it fails to understand the relation between the absolute, transcendental realm, and the relative material world in which we live our day-to-day lives. At the cornerstone of the fundamentalist's thought lies the total rejection of the material world, and the subsequent notion that human beings are unable to gain real knowledge of this world and the ultimate reality beyond this world. The "knowledge problem" is based on the assumption that human cognitive instruments, such as senses and intellect, are structurally incapable of providing any real knowledge. Furthermore, the fundamentalist assumes that real knowledge can only be obtained when it is provided and revealed by a source directly emanating from the absolute world. This type of knowledge, once recorded in written format, or even transmitted orally, and once its final format is established historically, is viewed by the fundamentalist as inerrant, perfect and self-explanatory.
However, fundamentalism fails to recognize that no written or spoken texts are self-explanatory. First of all, these texts have to be understood and assimilated by the same instruments that are rejected by the fundamentalists as imperfect, namely the senses, mind and intellect. Furthermore, words and sentences — as part of a comprehensive explanation of reality — are but building blocks of abstract and complex philosophical concepts that, by their very nature and complexity, require an active participation of human mind and intellect in order to make sense. This also presumes a certain degree of learning and training; as such, we will find that even the fundamentalist traditions require human intermediaries to explain the ideology. Usually a certain framework of basic thoughts and dogmas is then established, to discriminate between the 'correct' and 'incorrect' interpretations of the ideology, and to distinguish between 'bona fide' and 'un-bona fide' human intermediaries. A crucial error is that fundamentalists do not distinguish between 'invalid' and 'incomplete' knowledge.
In the Vedic tradition, great Vedanta philosophers and Vaishnava acharyas like Ramanuja explicitly acknowledge three sources of valid knowledge, namely sense perception (pratyaksah), logic (anumana), and revealed knowledge or scripture (sabda). While Ramanuja acknowledges that sense perception and logic may be incomplete, they are not considered invalid. While sabda is considered both complete and valid, it must be complemented by sense perception and logic. As such the Vedic tradition embraces the three sources of knowledge as valid and complementary to one another.
In general terms, revealed knowledge provides the basic metaphysical paradigm, and provides the structure within which scientific knowledge and philosophy will find their complementary places. Revealed knowledge is therefore universal, broad and inclusive in nature. Scientific knowledge, on the other hand, tends to be specific, detailed and exclusive, and lacks the ability to arrive at truly metaphysical conclusions. Philosophy can act as an intermediary bridge between the two, yet also lacks the ability to arrive at ultimate and conclusive knowledge.
While this describes the functions of the different types of knowledge in general terms, this is not to say that revealed knowledge could not provide detailed information in the areas of science and philosophy. However, such information, and for that matter all revealed knowledge, must comply with a number of criteria, related to the areas of scientific and philosophical knowledge:
1. it must be internally consistent;
2. it must not defy the basic laws of logic (although there are some exceptions in this regard); and
3. it must not contradict empirical and irrefutable scientific evidence.
These criteria imply that scientific knowledge and philosophy are very important factors in understanding the material world and, consequently, in the way we live our day to day lives, how human society is to be organised socially, politically and economically, etc. The above criteria also clearly define the role of religion in human society, and as such provide a broad foundation to answer the question posed at the beginning of this essay.
Two types of fundamentalism
As stated above, fundamentalism is based on the rejection of the material world. This rejection may take on two forms, namely one whereby the material world is categorically rejected in favour of the spiritual world, and one whereby the spiritual qualities and values, belonging to the absolute realm, are mistakenly projected unto the material realm. Therefore we can distinguish between two types of fundamentalism, namely:
1. Negational: the material and spiritual worlds are viewed as mutually exclusive, and are in total conflict with one another. This type is materially passive, since the only useful activity is one aimed at liberation from material life by means of total negation. Consequently, little or no effort is made to transform or improve the conditions of ordinary life.
The essential mistake of this type of fundamentalism is that the material and spiritual realms are viewed as ontologically separate, and that there exists no substantial relationship between the two. This is incorrect, since both energies have one common source, share many qualities in common, and are related to one another. As a matter of fact, the existence of conscious, living beings within the material world presents the most obvious evidence of the existence of the relationship between matter and spirit.
2. Transformational: although the material and spiritual worlds are viewed as separate and different, there is a possibility to (physically) transform the material world, either partially or totally, into the spiritual world. According to this type, such transformation can be achieved only when specific actions are undertaken, and specific energies are applied, usually under the guidance of a specific spiritual authority. Often there is an apocalyptic tendency, in which the eventual transformation is viewed as inevitable and unavoidable. This type is materially very active, and potentially most dangerous and destructive.
The essential mistake of this type of fundamentalism is that, while a relationship between the two energies is recognised, the distinct characteristics of the absolute, utopian world and those of the relative, material world are not properly understood, and are being mixed up and confused. It is believed that the qualities of the material realm can be transformed into spiritual ones, provided the right method and course of action is applied. Such transformation can be achieved either by evolutionary means, in which the utopian state is achieved in due course of time, or it can be achieved by revolutionary means (e.g., the Marxist view). The revolutionary model is based on the premise that the perfect, utopian world already exists within the material world, or that it is immanent, but that its qualities can be brought out by extraordinary events.
Relation between matter and spirit
As mentioned before, fundamentalism in all its varieties is based on an incorrect understanding of metaphysical principles, particularly the relation between matter and spirit. The material world, inhabited by countless living entities, is essentially an interaction between material and spiritual energies. Although these two energies contain elements of incompatibility, the measure of such incompatibility is determined by the way in which living entities understand these energies, and subsequently conduct themselves and direct their intentions and willpower. A proper understanding of the way in which these energies interact, will enable one to use them in support of one another, and eliminate the incompatibility. In fact, the very cause of the incompatibility between the two energies is the ignorance on the part of individual living entities as to how these energies work and interact. This ignorance is itself caused by our desire to be independent from God, and our tendency to reject our constitutional position as servant.
Although one might wish to be free from the incompatibilities of matter and spirit, or indeed, one might wish to be free from the influences of matter altogether, wishing this to be so will not make matter disappear. Such wishful thinking is ultimately based on avoidance, the avoidance of accepting one’s condition as it is. Rather then avoiding matter, wishing it away, and eventually fighting it, it is better to use it, and use it to one’s advantage. The fundamentalist is also seeking liberation from the imperfections of everyday existence; however, he is doing so with the wrong means. As a result, not only does the fundamentalist not reach his goal, he gets ever farther removed from it, while increasing the miseries of ordinary life manifold in the process.
Since fundamentalism, particularly the transformational type, has strong ideological tendencies, it has a great impact on the way human society functions and is organised, once it gains influence and broad support. These practical implications are summarised below.
Confrontation: Fundamentalism, since it is based on the rejection of the material world, propagates a confrontational world-view, whereby the different forces at work in human society are always seen as in conflict with one another. Rather then resolving problems and conflicts by means of positive integration and reasonable compromise, they are resolved by means of negative elimination and extremist, uncompromising rejection. Rather than using human reason, emotional appeals are made to unverifiable dogmas.
Arrogance: A rigid division of human society into good and bad people, and the subsequent sense of privilege on the part of the fundamentalist, knowing that he or she belongs to the "good" section of the population, the chosen ones, inevitably instils an air of superiority and engenders arrogance. This arrogance becomes an important feature of the collective culture of any fundamentalist organization.
Disillusionment and violence: Furthermore, the mistaken projection of utopian ideals onto the material reality creates false hopes and expectations, whereby, after inevitable and continuous disappointments, increasing force (or violence) appears to be needed to make the concept work. It is like trying to push a piece of a jigsaw puzzle into the wrong hole. If one carries on trying, thinking that it must be right, one is impelled to use more force, in the end destroying the puzzle.
The 'fundamentalist' attitude, particularly the transformational type, will therefore lead to fanaticism, arrogance, intolerance, violence and extremism. Human history has shown clearly that fundamentalist attitudes of this type, whether political, religious or otherwise, once organised into effective social and political movements, have been the single greatest cause of suffering, oppression and violence. Nazism, communism and various forms of religious extremism — just to mention a few — have repeatedly and regularly produced their disastrous results.
Any philosophy, no matter how true, no matter how benevolent its intentions, can be transformed into an instrument of extremism and ignorance when subjected to the fundamentalist attitude. This holds true for Vaishnavism as well, if this philosophy is narrowed, limited and misunderstood.
Vaishnavism and fundamentalism
I am afraid that the 'fundamentalist' attitude — even though the issue has not, as such, been discussed in terms of policy — is gaining strong ground in the ISKCON Society. I even believe that it is happening more or less unknowingly. Yet, if we study some of the basic ISKCON attitudes, as well as some of the popular generalizations and one-liners often presented in classes and private discussions, we will find that all of the abovementioned fundamentalist characteristics and symptoms are there. Below I have compiled an incomplete summary of these:
- There cannot be any compromise in the exercise of devotional service;
- A devotee may do anything, if it is done in the service of Krishna; 'mundane' ethics are of little consequence
- ISKCON political viewpoints are strongly anti-democratic, anti-individualist and authoritarian; individualism is a symptom of 'false ego' and lack of 'surrender,' whereas surrender to authority is considered a sign of advancement;
- consequently, individual rights and human rights are not considered to be of primary importance, but only a secondary issue. This attitude is clearly reflected in the record of how the ISKCON Society has dealt with its own members;
- All other philosophies and religions are wrong, even when the contents of such philosophies and religions are unknown to those who condemn them;
- Every word ever spoken by Srila Prabhupada, even on matters of detail or concerning relative, worldly facts, is considered absolute, unchallengeable truth; consequently, his successors, (eventually) occupying similar positions, will be considered equally absolute;
- ISKCON members should and may only study Srila Prabhupada's books; even historical works of other great Vaishnavas are considered taboo, what to speak of those of other philosophical and religious schools;
- In present day ISKCON there is a strong personality cult around Srila Prabhupada, which has lead to a sentimental and distorted historical perspective of his personality and achievements. It must be noted that such distortions can easily create precedents that can be misused by future spiritual leaders. In fact this has already happened;
- All human science and philosophy are basically useless, since humans have imperfect senses;
- Even those expressing viewpoints that are only marginally different from established doctrine, are excommunicated; and
- There is censorship exercised by the leaders and a strong lack of freedom of thought and expression.
I am of the opinion that much of that openness, universality and emphasis on individual responsibility has been lost and that ISKCON is also falling into the trap of fundamentalism and dogmatism, in danger of becoming a Hindu variety of the Jehovah's Witnesses.
I am not saying that it is wrong to have a philosophical conviction and to defend such a conviction. Neither am I saying that an organization that is created with the aim of disseminating a certain conviction should give up its identity. What I am saying is that the fundamentalist approach to the dissemination of knowledge is in itself a contradiction in terms. Knowledge, by definition, cannot be disseminated by force, repression and intolerance, for the medium to which 'knowledge' is directed is human reason itself.
Particularly, in the case of Vaishnavism, such a fundamentalist attitude is unnecessary, since the truth content and depth of knowledge of its philosophy are self-illuminating attributes that do not require 'overkill.' It is important to note that very often fundamentalism, sentimentality and extremism have been used as a tactic, necessitated precisely by a lack of philosophical and scientific depth.
Neither is my support for the importance of science and philosophy (and common-sense) concerning the affairs of human society, as well as our understanding of the world of matter and all of its attributes, to be confused with secularism. Secularism is very much a product of western society, and has come about mainly by two factors:
1. The rejection on the part of Christianity (and Islam) of rationalism and science as means of obtaining valid knowledge of the world. Christianity has, for the most part, viewed faith and reason as irreconcilable opposites.
2. The sectarian religious wars that have plagued Europe for centuries have led Western intellectual and political reformers, to reject (Christian) religion in general, and to reject religious domination of politics, education, economics etc. in particular.
As such, secularism is itself, in some respects, a product of fundamentalism, for it is a reaction to the evils of fundamentalism and tends to take an opposite, sometimes extreme, position.
I am propagating instead the process of the harmonious integration of revealed, spiritual knowledge with material knowledge, on the assumption that there is no fundamental conflict between the two. The Vedic tradition has never postulated or emphasised a dichotomy between science, philosophy and religion. As mentioned before, Vedic philosophers and teachers have emphasised the validity of all realms of knowledge.
Individual development and personal relationships
Many ISKCON members over the years have recognised that ISKCON has performed particularly poorly in the area of the development of mature, meaningful personal relationships between its members. Recently, some attempts have been made to correct this problem, e.g. by organizing discussion groups that have therapeutic aims. This is not a surprise, since fundamentalist organizations will subordinate the individual — and individual relationships — to the ideology, and to the principle of ideological purity.
In practical terms the above means that since fundamentalism is based on the rejection of the material world, the individual and individual relationships, being part of this material world, are also to be rejected. This rejection is often basic, subtle and implicit. However, under certain circumstances — e.g., when an individual appears to be threatening the ideology or its related organization — it may become explicit. The individual is only accepted inasmuch as he appears to display qualities that conform to the definition of ideological purity. However, that acceptance only relates to that aspect of his personality displaying these qualities of purity. Since every individual is necessarily a mixture of different and conflicting qualities, the person as a whole remains rejected.
In addition it must be kept in mind that fundamentalist notions of purity, although they may vary greatly from tradition to tradition, are invariably unrealistic and one-sided. The setting of unattainable goals puts tremendous pressure on the individual and has various ramifications, some of which are discussed below.
When an individual is placed in an environment in which he is rejected, he will end up rejecting himself. Eventually he will base his actions and ambitions on a distorted perception of the "ideal person" and "ideal behavior." This is furthered by the fact that, in an atmosphere of rejection, the need for self-esteem by social recognition is greatly increased. Since social recognition and respect within the group are obtained by the (perceived and artificial) purity and loyal adherence to the ideology, it creates a fiercely competitive environment and induces artificial behavior in which individuals are not able to 'be themselves.' In other words, they are not able to come to terms with themselves, to make progress based on realistic evaluation of their qualities and shortcomings, or to set realistic goals. Any honest admission of weakness, or inability to live up to the so-called standard of "ideal behavior" will immediately be punished by rejection from the group. Needless to say, such an environment is not conducive to individual spiritual development.
Authority and subordination
An additional complicating factor is that the notion of ideological purity, as has been mentioned before, is not a self-evident one. It requires human intermediaries to explain and define it. That means that fundamentalist organizations will subject an individual to the evaluation of an "authority" within a given level of the organization's hierarchy. Such an authority will have to judge and evaluate the individual's performance, naturally on the basis of his own, arbitrary (and artificial) notions of purity and ideal behavior. Again, such a social structure is extremely hierarchical, stifles personal initiative and development, and invites manipulation and abuse of power.
Disillusionment and disappointment
Since the individual, when subjected to the fundamentalist attitude, has set unrealistic goals for himself, as well as for the group in which he operates, he will, in due course, inevitably be disappointed and disillusioned. Such disappointment often brings about intense and dramatic reactions, for the individual will feel betrayed and cheated, and will feel that the very foundation of his existence has been swept from underneath him. As a result he may react in an extreme manner, doing harm to himself and his environment.
All of the above items contribute to an unhealthy psychological atmosphere and an unfavourable climate for individual development. Consequently, relationships between individuals will be subjected to similar restraints and obstacles. In general terms, it is only logical that an incorrect understanding of reality and life will lead to inappropriate and erroneous actions. However, this is felt nowhere more than in the area of human relationships and in the way humans treat one another, for it is in this area that real intentions become visible and human strengths and weaknesses are revealed. It is also in this area where real progress is measured and where the ultimate criterion, namely, the level of happiness — or lack of it — is perceived most strongly.
Other implications: the guru problem
Many essays have been written about the "guru problem" within ISKCON, many of them offering different varieties of the same solution to the same problem. The problem can be summarised as follows: "How do we combine the need for absolute, infallible spiritual authority with the reality of imperfect humans within an imperfect world?" However, the basic assumption, as expressed here, is incorrect. Firstly, it is important to understand that the term ‘infallibility’, as it is used within the Vaishnava tradition, can have two distinct different meanings.
- In the first sense the word infallible applies to the Supreme Being, who is omniscient, all powerful, infinite and immortal, possessed of all good qualities. According to the Vedic tradition, God sometimes incarnates as an Avatar into the material world, where he displays his pastimes, and remains at all times perfect and infallible.
- In the second sense, the word infallible is applied to the living entity, or jiva-atma, who is constitutionally finite, yet part of God's essence, and who has achieved a perfection in devotional attitude. By dint of his perfect attitude, he then becomes endowed with certain God-like qualities. The guru, or spiritual master, is defined in the Vedic tradition along those terms.
There are understandable reasons for the fading of the distinction. Firstly, the culture of respect in general, and for spiritual authorities in particular, is very strongly developed in Vaishnavism. Secondly, this fact, in conjunction with scriptural references containing strong devotional homages to the guru, his position as representative of God and embodiment of devotion, etc., are major factors in bringing about this blurred perception, and consequently bringing about an element of paradoxicality. Yet, respect and devotional tributes may not compromise, in the end, the philosophical and rational consistency of Vaishnava metaphysics. The above principles also apply to the position of Srila Prabhupada. Although few ISKCON members would openly and directly claim that Srila Prabhupada was God, or rather an incarnation of God, the underlying tenets reveal an attitude that implicitly acknowledges that somehow or another, he really is. In particular, some of the practical implications, such as his unquestionable and absolute authority in all matters, based upon a presumed infallibility and omniscience, confirm these tenets. This perception of Srila Prabhupada and his position has greatly influenced the role and definition of the “guru” in general. I will come back to this later. What then is the role and position of a guru?
In many respects the role of the guru corresponds, in my opinion, to the role of revealed knowledge, as discussed earlier on, providing the basic philosophical paradigms to human society. The guru is to provide insight into the existential truths of life, including topics concerning the origin of life, the existence of God, the meaning of good and evil, the meaning of life and death according to the principles of reincarnation and karma, the ultimate meaning and destiny of life, and the position of the living entity as eternal servant of Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Furthermore he must provide practical tools, or a way of life including certain basic directions, by which practical goals can be accomplished.
On the other hand, the guru is not omniscient, and as such he is not required to be expert in all spheres of knowledge related to the material world. Although he should be well-versed in philosophy and should have a general understanding of scientific knowledge, he does not have to be an authority in science, nor does he have to be an expert in organising and managing human society from a social, economic or political standpoint. Most importantly, the affairs of the world should be run by those who are trained and expert in doing so — not in contradiction to spiritual principles, however, but in harmony with them.
The effectiveness of a guru's teachings is no doubt dependent on his ability to practice his own teachings and to teach by example. The requirement to teach by example is, however, not to be confused with a requirement to be infallible, specially not infallibility in the first sense, as described above. Even infallibility in the second sense is not an absolute requirement. Knowledge is an objective phenomenon, and is, in itself, not dependent on the behavior of the individual transmitting it. In case a guru — or any individual, for that matter — is teaching valid knowledge, but is unable to practice his own teachings, he merely diminishes his moral authority, but he does not invalidate the knowledge itself. Gold will remain gold, even if it is found in a dirty place. Obviously, the title “guru” should be applicable only to those who: 1) have moral authority, 2) are committed to the principle of teaching by example, and 3) have sufficiently cultivated and developed the devotional attitude, characterised by the mood of genuine servitude and humility.
A guru does, however, have the most important responsibility to stimulate the process of individual understanding, realization and responsibility on the part of his student. This is so because the practice and application of spiritual principles in life cannot be executed by means of mathematical formulas and simplistic solutions. Life in the material world is by its nature complex, ridden with contradictions and strained by conflicting forces. It takes individual effort, wisdom and determination to overcome these conflicting forces and achieve the delicate, yet essential balance. Within this individual struggle lies the actual key to spiritual progress and evolving wisdom.
Subsequent to the above, I believe that it is incorrect to assume that the guru should permanently regulate and control every aspect of his student's day-to-day adult life. Although there are no hard and fast rules as to how one individual can take guidance from another individual at any one stage of his life, it is safe to say that the end goal of such guidance should be the development of individual responsibility, psychological balance, knowledge, maturity and spiritual emancipation. That is not to say that, depending on the individual qualities of a guru, he cannot, in principle, provide great wisdom and practical guidance to his student in matters concerning everyday life. Any person, if he is so qualified, could provide such guidance. Yet, it is undesirable and counterproductive for a student to develop an excessive dependency on his teacher, thereby sacrificing his individual responsibility in action, decision making and thought.
It appears that, to a degree, the way the guru has been positioned within ISKCON also reflects a desire for security, dependence and certainty on the part of certain students. To them, the guru has become some type of father figure, who will make decisions on their behalf and who will take full responsibility for their lives. Such an attitude of apparent devotional obedience on the part of students may bear the semblance of deep spirituality, but is often a disguise for weakness. Although weakness is a common human quality that one should endeavour to overcome, disguising it as a strength will only further the weakness. To build an educational system upon such a disguised and mistaken identity will only exacerbate the problem.
In summary, I believe that the ISKCON Society has, in general, put far too much weight on the guru-disciple relationship and wrongly made it a too-central theme in its practice and philosophy.
Firstly, it has incorrectly defined the guru as an infallible person of superhuman, God-like qualifications. This point has distorted some of the basic metaphysics of Vaishnava philosophy, blurring the distinction between Krishna and the jivatma. The exalted position of Srila Prabhupada has been used, inadvertently or not, to establish this mistaken notion. Even worse, it has assumed that such a status of infallibility and perfection could be obtained by institutional procedures, such as appointments, elections or succession. It has thereby created a precedent that has enabled some of the successors of Srila Prabhupada, implicitly or explicitly, to claim superhuman, god-like qualifications and exaggerate their own positions and qualifications. We are all aware of some of the disastrous results this has brought about.
Secondly, it has propagated a system of slavish subordination and obedience on the part of disciples towards their gurus, rather then the development of individual responsibility and personal growth.
Thirdly, the over-emphasis on the guru-disciple relationship has also undermined the possibility of creating a coherent management structure within the Society, since the absolute allegiance demanded by infallible gurus of their disciples is inevitably in conflict with the Society's formal management structure.
Fourthly, it has failed to recognise that there are different levels of teachers, reflecting the natural variegatedness in human qualifications as well as the different levels in development in spiritual progression. A much more pragmatic view should be taken of the human resources available in ISKCON, and positions and responsibilities granted on the basis of available resources and qualifications. While there is an obvious and continued need for teachers in an educational, spiritual organization, the role of the teachers should not be exaggerated, nor should the qualification of a teacher be inflated beyond what is attainable in human terms and what is available in present human resources. In other words, we have to recognise that there will at all times be different levels of teachers and gurus and that these different levels should not be confused with one another. It also calls for the “minimum qualifications” guideline to determine who is and who is not qualified to take on the role of a teacher in the organization and to define a framework of standards for teachers.
The entire “guru” issue has created tremendous philosophical confusion within the minds of many ISKCON members. While Srila Prabhupada was no doubt an exalted person, moreover a person to whom I am personally greatly indebted, we do him a disservice by overinflating his position in such a way that it leads to a distorted and incorrect presentation of Vaishnava metaphysics.
Srila Prabhupada sacrificed everything for the single purpose of reminding human society of the fact that we humans are only insignificant specks of dust, small parts and parcels of the Supreme and His eternal servants. All suffering is caused by our unwillingness to accept this simple fact. Our egos possess a nearly unlimited arsenal of tricks to foster, support and justify this unwillingness. Even while practicing sadhana bhakti, which is the very process aimed at eliminating this unwillingness, our egos can find ways to reaffirm this unwillingness.
The guru issue is such a trick: assuming an ill-defined role that propagates one's infallibility and social elevation far beyond the ordinary will almost inevitably shake one's ego and eclipse the attitude of service — even if the only motivation for assuming this role is kindled by a sense of duty.
Fundamentalism is another trick: it cultivates a sense of superiority thinking that one knows more than others, thereby forgetting that real knowledge means that one knows that one knows less.
Srila Prabhupada’s mission would be seriously hampered if we failed to deliver the truth of the difference between Jivatma and Paramatma, and firmly establish the philosophical foundations thereto. To properly establish Srila Prabhupada’s position is not to pay him disrespect; to the contrary, it is an act of proper respect for him and his mission.
The “guru” issue is, in my opinion, an example of the increasing influence of the fundamentalist way of thinking within the ISKCON Society. In this instance, fundamentalism shows itself by a one-sided and literal interpretation of scriptural references while ignoring the philosophical framework and logical consistency of Vaishnava metaphysics. Secondly, it shows itself by the desperate attempt to fit a spiritual ideal into an imperfect material reality, whereby the qualities of the spiritual and material realms are blurred, mixed up and confused. Rather then accepting the imperfections and dealing with them maturely, they are simply ignored and avoided. Imperfections, once acknowledged and properly dealt with, can be quite manageable, even in a spiritual organization. Imperfections that are ignored — or worse, presented as perfection — will breed ignorance and confusion.
I am of the opinion that the fundamentalist course is incorrect, counterproductive, and entirely unsuited for our modern times, which are dominated by unprecedented openness and access to information. The collapse of communism, one of the bulwarks of fundamentalism, exemplifies the problems faced by fundamentalist, totalitarian systems. I do not believe, that approaching Vaishnavism from the fundamentalist point of view will lead to any significant success in our modern times.
More importantly, fundamentalism is, in fact, a powerful trick of Maya, fostering our unwillingness to accept our position as eternal servants of Krishna. Consequently, fundamentalism distorts the role of religion in human society and violates the very purpose of the Vedic culture, which is to cultivate a spiritual, benevolent, enlightened, and reasonable attitude on the part of the individual, and to promote a socially just, non-repressive society.
Hare Krishna Das
June 16, 1994