GBC as Heirs
It seems that an error in the GBC’s self-understanding affects their ability to govern
ISKCON effectively. I base my analysis on a GBC self-description on the official GBC website.
I first cite the relevant portion of this GBC self-definition, and then analyze the problem.
“Traditionally, the acarya, or head of a spiritual institution would appoint such a position [of successor acarya] to one individual, an advanced student, who would, in turn, become the next leader of the institution upon the demise of his teacher. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakur broke from this tradition, opting instead for a council of leading disciples, a governing body, to cooperatively guide and manage the spiritual institution…Traditionally, the will of an acarya first names an heir, a successor of the institution, in effect passing on the institution to a leading disciple who would then act as the next acarya. Srila Prabhupada’s will does not name an individual, however, but rather states “The Governing Body Commission (GBC) will be the ultimate managing authority for the entire International Society for Krsna Consciousness.” By naming the GBC as the heir to ISKCON, Srila Prabhupada again affirms the position of the GBC as the ultimate managerial head of ISKCON.”5
Problems with GBC Self-Understanding
The above statement contains various problems:
- The GBC claims that Bhaktisiddhānta broke from the tradition that “the ācārya or head would appoint such a position to one individual, an advanced student, who would, in turn, become the next leader of the institution upon the demise of his teacher.”
This is a rather dubious claim since we have little historical evidence that Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas ever formed an institution in the modern sense, until Bhaktisiddhānta formed the Gauḍīya Maṭha. Thus it unclear what tradition Bhaktisiddhānta rejected. Let us review the history. Note that the GBC does not merely state that a guru would appoint a student to succeed him or her as guru, but to become the next leader of the institution.
- During Lord Caitanya’s personal presence in this world, He acted as the quintessential charismatic leader. His followers recognized Him as God, and thus accepted Him without question as the perfect, absolute authority. At this time, we do not find a formal institution, nor an official governing body.
- In the century after Lord Caitanya, His movement continued to spread without an official institution with an official institutional leader or managing body. In the time of Lord Caitanya, and in the following years, many exalted devotees, appeared in this world, pure souls who did not need to be managed as in today’s world. We do find then senior saṅgas, spiritual leaders, and joint decisions. But as scholars note, there is no formal, structured, institution with an official leader or governing body.
- Then at the time of Baladeva Vidyābhūṣaṇa (born in the 1660’s, and active in Jaipur in the early 1700’s) when Aurangzeb’s persecutions forced the Vaiṣṇavas to make their center in Jaipur, rather than Vṛndāvana, history shows that the Jaipur king, not a Vaiṣṇava ācārya, nor a governing body, made key decisions about the status of the Gauḍīya community. It was there in Jaipur that Baladeva famously proved the validity of our tradition by winning public debates and writing his celebrated Vedānta commentary. One might argue that the king’s power over the
devotee community is comparable to the power of modern governments to accept or reject ISKCON as a bona fide religion. However, it is clear that the king’s examination of Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism was theological and religious, far beyond the legal interests of modern secular states. Further, there is no evidence at that time of a significant, formal Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava institution ruled by an ācārya, or a governing body.
- We know that Bhaktivinoda revived Lord Caitanya’s mission in the modern age. Like Prabhupada, he did not inherit an institution, nor did anyone declare him to be the Ācārya. We have no evidence of a serious Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava institution anywhere in India when Bhaktivinoda began his mission. Indeed, the history of Lord Caitanya’s movement shows no evidence of any formal, centralized institution before Bhaktisiddhānta.
Bhaktivinoda did not establish an institution in the sense that his son and Prabhupada did. Bhaktivinoda certainly played an invaluable, glorious role in reviving and organizing Lord Caitanya’s movement. But it seems that he did not establish a network of permanent centers, nor purchase significant institutional property, nor engage a body of full time missionaries or sannyāsīs.
- Upon his father’s passing, Bhaktisiddhānta himself revived the order of Vaiṣṇava sannyāsa by taking it before a picture of his departed guru. He then opened his first center in Calcutta. He did not inherit a center. The GBC do not provide evidence of Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura willing an institution to his son as the successor Ācārya.
Prabhupada often used the term “men and money” to indicate institutional resources. Bhaktisiddhānta did not inherit significant institutional resources of men, money, or property from his father. I am not aware of any formal, legal declaration from Bhaktivinoda,
Apart from the united Gauḍīya Maṭha of his youth, Prabhupada never referred to an earlier Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava institution that was formally willed from one Ācārya to another, or to a governing body.
Therefore, since we have no clear evidence that Lord Caitanya or His followers before Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura established formal institutions and that one Ācārya legally inherited an institution from the previous Ācārya, nor that Bhaktivinoda willed a formal institution to his son, we cannot say that Bhaktisiddhānta broke with tradition by not naming a successor to lead his institution, the first of its kind in Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava history.
One may argue that Lord Nityānanda’s divine wife, Śrī Jāhnava, was accepted as the leader of the Vaiṣṇavas. But, her position was neither institutional nor managerial, since there was no formal institution to lead. Further, in his will, Prabhupada names the GBC as the ultimate managing authority of ISKCON, giving them precisely the type of duties that Śrī Jāhnava never performed. Nor can the GBC imitate the wife of God. The analogy fails.
As mentioned before, the GBC provide no evidence of a Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava tradition in which the Ācārya names a successor Ācārya to lead a formal, centralized institution.
- The GBC also state: “Traditionally, the will of an acarya first names an heir, a successor of the institution, in effect passing on the institution to a leading disciple who would then act as the next acarya.”
I am not aware of any surviving will of an acarya in our line that names an individual as heir to a significant institution. More problematic is the use of the word heir, and the claim above that Ācāryas, in their wills, pass on the institution to their heir.
The English word heir means, “a person legally entitled to the property or rank of another on that person’s death.” An heir is also one who inherits and continues the legacy of a predecessor, a legacy being either money or property left in a will, or simply anything handed down from the past.
The GBC make two related claims:
- normally an Ācārya bequeaths his institution to a successor who becomes the heir to the institution, i.e. the new owner;
- “Traditionally”, an Ācārya will name the heir in the first clause of his Will.
Again, I have no idea what the historical evidence for this might be. Judging from the literal meaning of English words, the GBC does seem to consider itself be heir to ISKCON and thus to possess ISKCON in the same way that Prabhupada did.
Of course Prabhupada never called the GBC his heir in his will, nor did he use a synonym of heir. Prabhupada did say, “I want that all of my spiritual sons and daughters will inherit this title of Bhakti-vedanta, so that the family transcendental diploma will continue through the generations. Those possessing the tide of Bhakti-vedanta will be allowed to initiate disciples.” [Letter to Hansaduta—February 1, 1969]
Since the GBC claims on their website to take the place of the so-called traditional heir-Ācārya, the GBC de facto declares, or at the very least strongly insinuates, itself to be the collective successor Ācārya of ISKCON.
To make this clear, the GBC claims in the text above not merely to inherit Prabhupada’s managing authority, but, as they state above. to inherit ISKCON itself. The English word heir has this primary sense: a person legally entitled to the property or rank of another on that person’s death.
Since the GBC does not in any way qualify or limit their use of the word heir, and since they use the word in the context of a legal will, the word must be taken in its primary sense: the GBC claims they inherited ISKCON, making them the lords of all of us who are not GBCs.
Further, the GBC directly and explicitly equate ultimate managing authority with being
“By naming the GBC as the heir to ISKCON, Srila Prabhupada again affirms the position of the GBC as the ultimate managerial head of ISKCON.”
In fact, Prabhupada does not name the GBC as the heir to ISKCON. In the GBC sentence above, we find, “Prabhupada again affirms the position of the GBC” as the ultimate managing authority. In other words, the mere fact that the GBC is named in Article 1 of Prabhupada’s will means, according to a tradition for which the GBC provides no evidence, that they are the successor Ācārya. And being the successor Ācārya, they are the ultimate managing authority. I will outline the GBC’s logic:
Premise 1: In his will, Prabhupada explicitly names the GBC as the ultimate managing of authority of ISKCON.
Premise 2: Prabhupada does so in the first clause of his will. According to undocumented tradition, an Ācārya names his successor ācārya , and bequeaths his institution to that successor, in the first clause of his will. Thus Prabhupada explicitly names the GBC as the ultimate managing authority, but he also implicitly names them as his heir and successor.
Premise 3: As ISKCON’s heir and successor, the GBC is automatically ISKCON’s ultimate managing authority.
CONCLUSION: Prabhupada explicitly names the GBC as ultimate managing authority, and again implicitly names them as such through a series of two inferences stated above.
As we will see later in the section on ISKCON’s constitution draft, there are other, more sober voices among the GBC who take a more realistic view of things.
In the 1980’s ISKCON rejected an Ācārya system. Sadly, as I show here and elsewhere in this essay, it seems from the GBC’s words and laws, that the GBC sees itself a group Ācārya, rather than a mere ultimate managing authority. As I will explain, the difference is profound. If I am right, then ISKCON again confronts the danger of an Ācārya system.
To recapitulate, Lord Caitanya’s movement has centuries of tradition, but a significant formal institution seems to begin with Bhaktisiddhānta. And a collective ultimate managing authority, an official oligarchy, has no clear historical antecedents in Gauḍīya tradition.
Thus lacking a venerable tradition, or rational constitution, to justify and moderate its power, the GBC relies on its only source of legitimacy: Prabhupada’s mandate. And to bolster that mandate, they over interpret it to mean that they are the collective successor Ācārya.
Seeing themselves in that way, it is no wonder that the GBC sometimes acts as if their divine authority cannot be encumbered by the limiting formalities of fair process, comprehensive laws, or justice itself.
For example, consider GBC law 22.214.171.124 which decrees how dīkṣā gurus should relate to the GBC. The first part of this law declares that gurus, “must respect the GBC as Srila Prabhupada’s chosen successor as the ultimate managing authority of ISKCON and maintain a respectful serving attitude towards the GBC.”
Here again, the GBC equates ultimate managing authority with being Prabhupada’s chosen successor. Prabhupada was many things, not just a manager. In his final will, after years of praising and chastising the GBC, increasing and decreasing their authority, Prabhupada made his final decision. He defined the GBC as ISKCON’s “ultimate managing authority.”
The GBC seems to believe that with this mandate, Prabhupada made them his “chosen successor,” and transformed all other Vaiṣṇavas, even very senior ones, into subordinate servants of the managers, an attitude reaffirmed in GBC law, and a recent GBC paper, as I will show later.
Thus the GBC declares, here and elsewhere, that just as senior preachers respectfully served Prabhupada, so we must also respectfully serve the GBC.
The GBC’s claim to have inherited ISKCON is not mere careless composition. It matches the behavior of some GBC members and occasionally of the GBC body. It is also consistent with ISKCON laws and papers, as I will show in detail. I will next analyze other conceptual and structural problems facing ISKCON governance.
Interpreting the Mandate
No one can dispute that Prabhupada appointed the GBC as the ultimate managing authority of ISKCON. The GBC itself often parades that mandate to justify their actions. However, we find embedded in their acts and claims a particular interpretation of Prabhupada’s mandate. I will argue in this paper that the current GBC interpretation of their own mandate is a bit flawed and does not perfectly reflect Prabhupada’s original intent. I base my conclusion on a careful analysis of GBC actions, laws, and papers.
I will present my general analysis, and then show how GBC laws and papers confirm that analysis.
Danger of Bureaucratic Tyranny
History shows that unrestrained bureaucratic power can be just as oppressive as the power of emperors, religious despots, or zonal Ācāryas. ISKCON’s ultimate managers do not all sit on thrones, or accept opulent worship and gifts. Crowds of disciples may not throw themselves at their feet. Nonetheless, three factors make the GBC’s potential accumulation of unrestrained power just as dangerous, or more, than the zonal Ācārya system ever was:
- In sociological terms, the GBC wields traditional Prabhupada himself, with his great charismatic authority, established the GBC tradition. Prabhupada also spoke of a guru’s spiritual authority, but he never explicitly authorized the zonal acarya system, and thus devotees could challenge and overthrow that system.
But Prabhupada did establish, empower, and defend the GBC system. Thus ISKCON devotees tend to think that to defy GBC authority is to defy Prabhupada’s will, even when the GBC does not perform well. Thus the GBC system has a sacred traditional authority that the zonal acarya system never possessed.
- Traditional authority tends to be more stable and enduring than living charismatic authority. A managing body tends to accumulate power over time, as I explain below, whereas a guru’s living charismatic power ends over time, either by the guru’s passing, his malfeasance, or with the bureaucratic domestication of gurus as we see in GBC law and papers, as I will show.
- During the days of zonal acaryas, there was a balance of power in ISKCON that does not exist now. The GBC body confronted and disciplined four of the eleven original acaryas. Indeed, in every case where the power of a big guru confronted GBC power, the GBC emerged as the ultimate authority in ISKCON. Most zonal acaryas were also GBCs and they faithfully backed the GBC in every serious conflict with a zonal acarya. The zonal acaryas did have much power, but the GBC effectively balanced and restrained that power, as history shows.
But in today’s ISKCON, there is nothing to reliably and regularly balance or moderate GBC power, even when it exceeds the limits of justice, Vaiṣṇava etiquette, or Prabhupada’s guidelines.
GBC tyranny, as well as rejection of the GBC, both threaten Prabhupada’s GBC system. And history has long shown that unbalanced power tends toward corruption and tyranny. That is why Kṛṣṇa Himself created a system of four varṇas in which the power of rulers is balanced by the power of brāhmaṇas. But the GBC claims both powers, that of the ruler and sage.
This presents a serious and interesting challenge to ISKCON: how can we faithfully preserve Prabhupada’s GBC system, and at the same avoid the real dangers of unrestrained, unbalanced power? How can we ensure that ISKCON management is expert, fair, and honest?
Prabhupada himself gave the answer: ISKCON’s leaders must act under the restraint of a constitution. In Bhagavad-gītā 3.17-26, Lord Kṛṣṇa declares that self-realized souls, and Kṛṣṇa Himself, follow the principles of civilized life, to set an example for people in general. Civilized societies recognize the need for the rule of fair, reasonable law and ISKCON’s leaders must show an example of lawfulness in their own lives and duties.
History, social science, Prabhupada, and Śāstra all tell us that the rational authority of fair laws—justice well enforced—must balance the power of managers. Prabhupada wanted the GBC to work under a fair and reasonable constitution that clearly defines and regulates managerial power in ISKCON.
On their current website, the GBC admits the need for “a constitution for ISKCON, which Srila Prabhupada asked the GBC to put together in the early seventies.”
Now, over forty years after Prabhupada requested it, the GBC must finally do their duty and make proper laws so that devotees who follow those laws, including leaders, will not disturb other devotees or projects, nor be unfairly disturbed by them, as Prabhupada desired.
Kṛṣṇa Himself states in the Bhagavad-gītā 12.15, that “one who does not disturb the world, and whom the world does not disturb…is dear to me.”
We need a proper constitution and laws precisely because ISKCON cannot just depend on the purity and pure wisdom of the GBC. I will give four reasons why this is true.
- Management Hierarchy and Spiritual Hierarchy
The history of religions, including ISKCON, clearly shows that those who follow the basic rules of a religious institution, and show skill in management, often rise to high positions of managerial power in that institution. Some GBCs are undoubtedly spiritually advanced, but all of ISKCON’s ultimate managers are not necessarily our most advanced devotees. In any society, religious or secular, the strongest are not always the wisest.
Therefore, we cannot ignore Prabhupada’s call for a constitution and simply trust
ISKCON to the purity of managers, because as Prabhupada knew, all managers are not pure.
They certainly are not pure simply because they hold a high managerial office.
Indeed, there are two logical possibilities:
- All GBC members are fully pure devotees.
- Some GBCs are conditioned to some extent.
If the latter is the case, then we can conclude that, as Prabhupada teaches, the main conditioning will be the desire to lord it over others. So to the extent that GBC members are conditioned souls, they will to that extent use their power to lord it over others.
To repeat, the minimum qualifications that may propel one to ISKCON leadership are:
- basic faith, with or without philosophical depth;
- ability to follow basic principles, with or without strong spiritual advancement;
- managerial ability.
In cases where powerful managers are not highly advanced, power will diminish their empathy, as I show below, and with it their concern for justice When flawed leaders influence the GBC body, injustice and unfair decisions can result. This in turn alienates many devotees from ISKCON management and weakens our mission.
- Decreasing Empathy
Recent science shows how a sense of power often diminishes a person’s capacity for empathy, and actually shuts down a part of the brain that helps us connect with others.6
Thus “…the balance of the [scientific] literature suggests that people in positions of power tend to act in a self-interested manner, and display reduced interpersonal sensitivity to their powerless counterparts.”
In the years following Prabhupada’s passing, we found that some ISKCON leaders who wielded great power displayed little empathy for the less powerful. This disparity shook ISKCON and resulted in major reform. It should not surprise us to again find that some of ISKCON’s powerful leaders seem to lack empathy with devotees who are loyal to Prabhupada but do not blindly submit to these leaders on various issues.
Sadly, the disconnect between many GBCs and devotees has reached the point where it is a cliché in ISKCON, at least in the West, to say that the local or plenary GBC “is not relevant to my life.”
One eminent scholar who has long studied ISKCON, comments, “I have heard from many devotees over the years that the GBC simply has no relevance in their lives. This may be the worst possible outcome.”
Reliable science shows that a sense of power tends to weaken the empathy of leaders, resulting in injustice and loss of faith in an institution.
- The Iron Law of Oligarchy
The GBC is an oligarchy, a relatively small group of people who govern an organization or institution. History and social science show that a ruling oligarchy tends to be concerned with its own power and dignity, often at the expense of justice. This brings us to the Iron Law of Oligarchy, which can be stated as follows:
“Any large organization…has to create a bureaucracy in order to maintain its efficiency as it becomes larger. Many decisions have to be made daily that cannot be made by large numbers of disorganized people. For the organization to function effectively, centralization has to occur and power will end up in the hands of a few. Those few—the oligarchy—will use all means necessary to preserve and further increase their power.”7
To the extent that GBC members are pure, they will transcend these tendencies. To the extent that they are still conditioned, they will succumb to them.
My own long experience as a GBC member, including one year as GBC chairman, showed me how easy it is, when one holds power in the GBC oligarchy, to believe that only GBC power can protect ISKCON from deviation, chaos, and dissolution. In this mindset, any increase of GBC power strengthens ISKCON, and any decrease of GBC power threatens ISKCON.
One might reply to all these points that the sheer number of advanced devotees on the
GBC protects the body from significant errors. However, this argument faces two challenges:
- History shows that the GBC has in fact made significant and damaging errors.
- As I explain in the next paragraph, the iron law of oligarchy functions even within the GBC body, to limit the number of GBCs who actively engage in some major decisions.
- Sadhu Burnout
We know that some devotees become GBCs by their potent preaching and spiritual purity. But they are often the first to burn out with heavy management. Yet, when saintly preachers decrease their management, and focus instead on preaching and spiritual practice, they usually remain on the GBC. Thus hands-on managerial power falls into the hands of fewer members. This defeats Prabhupada’s GBC vision in which a sufficient number of senior leaders actively manage and guide ISKCON.
On some important issues, those leaders who are comfortable with the passion of management may act without serious scrutiny from burned out GBC sādhus, confirming the iron law of oligarchy. The most active managers tend to be the most inclined to management, and thus the most passionate, according to the principles of varṇa. Being more passionate, they are less objective, according to Bhagavad-gītā 18.31. Thus the quality of decisions declines from goodness to passion.
When flawed, passionate decisions are pushed through by the few, devotees leave ISKCON or distance themselves from direct ISKCON affairs, since GBC law and tradition offer few practical, reliable procedures for regular devotees to challenge or redress GBC blunders or injustice.
For these reasons, ISKCON cannot depend only on the purity of GBCs to ensure that Prabhupada’s mission is managed with justice, efficiency, and transparency. As Prabhupada stated, ISKCON needs a proper constitution. And even the GBC must obey it. Such a constitution would authorize emergency measures in cases of true emergency. Thus constitutional management would preserve the agility necessary to deal with extreme cases.
Given these facts—that ultimate managers are not always ultimately pure; that power tends to lessen empathy; that saintly GBCs often avoid heavy GBC issues and cede power by default to passionate managers; that oligarchies tend to seek ever greater power—ISKCON must guard against the corruption and tyranny that ruin a free brahminical society.
History, śāstra, social science, and Prabhupada himself all teach us that to avoid or at least lessen the above problems, ISKCON must establish a proper constitution that all ISKCON members must follow.