Austere and “Pious” Tyranny
We should also note that personal ambition for power is not incompatible with an ascetic or religious lifestyle. The evil Mughal ruler Aurangzeb who attacked Vṛndāvana around 1670, forcing the transfer of Deities like Govindaji to Jaipur, rejected the lavish lifestyle of his Mughal predecessors. In the name of Muslim purity, he spent little for himself and chose to be buried in a plain, unnamed tomb. Yet his fanatical ambition cost the lives of over four and a half million people, nearly bankrupt India, starved South India, and ruined the Mughal empire.
Although he spread Mughal power farther than any other ruler, “within decades of Aurangzeb’s death, the Mughal Emperor had little power beyond the walls of Delhi…The highpoint of imperial centralization under emperor Aurangzeb coincided with the start of the imperial downfall.” [Wikipedia] Here is a good example of the political pendulum effect.
Thus oppressive power does not always garb itself in opulence and pomp. The austere bureaucrat or the pious tyrant can be the most oppressive of rulers. The brutal French Revolution leader Maximilien Robespierre, the father of modern terrorism, was a puritanical bureaucrat obsessed with establishing “virtue” among the people. He was known as “the Incorruptible.” Here again we find a deadly mix of austere piety and cruel tyranny.
No one can accuse the GBC of such extremes. But as Plato points out in The Republic, the optician shows us oversized letters so we can easily read them. Similarly, extreme historical examples show us human tendencies that operate among us to lesser degrees, but nonetheless with damaging effect.
Follow vs Imitate
For the GBC, to work under a fair constitution is to follow Prabhupada. To act above and outside the law is to imitate Prabhupada.
Consider this analogy: Prabhupada began ISKCON’s guru tradition. Yet Prabhupada was not merely a guru. He was and remains ISKCON’s Founder-Ācārya, with special powers and rights. When Prabhupada departed, ISKCON’s gurus took some time to understand how to follow Prabhupada the guru, but not imitate Prabhupada the Founder-Ācārya.
Similarly, Prabhupada acted as ISKCON’s supreme managing authority, a power he transferred to the GBC. Yet like gurus, the GBC must learn to follow Prabhupada the ultimate ISKCON manager, but not imitate him in his role as the Founder-Ācārya.
As Founder-Ācārya, Prabhupada appointed and removed devotees at his will, adjudicated disputes, and generally managed with summary power and freedom, unfettered by administrative or judicial formalities.
Lacking Prabhupada’s purity, vision, and authority, the GBC must respect due process, obey a rational constitution, and treat every devotee with measurable justice. Prabhupada was above ISKCON law. The GBC must submit to the rule of law.
We find in Śāstras such as Mahābhārata and Bhāgavatam, that the Vedic political system was constitutional, not absolute, monarchy. Even kings were expected to follow dharma, rational law, enacted by God and sages for the good of all. Prabhupada often said that monarchy fell in Europe when the kings became corrupt. Again, we see the political pendulum effect.
In verses 10.33.29-32. the Bhāgavatam clearly explains the difference between following and imitating. King Parīkṣit asked how Kṛṣṇa, who came to this world to restore dharma by His own example, could violate dharma by intimate contact with so many women in the Rasa dance. In reply, Śukadeva Gosvāmī, beginning at 10.33.29, taught the difference between following and imitating the Lord. Here is a literal translation of these key verses.
10.33.29 “Transgressing of dharma, and also audacity, is observed in Lords. Among the very powerful, this does not lead to harm, just as Fire consumes all.”
10.33.30 “A non-Lord should never do this, not even mentally. Foolishly behaving so, one is ruined, just like [one who imitates] Rudra who drank the poison ocean.”
10.33.31 “The speaking of Lords is true [for us], and so too, in some cases, is their behavior. The wise do what they [Lords] do [when] it is supported by their speaking.”
10.33.32 By their pious or [apparently] impious acts, Lords have no selfish interest, and no setback, for they have no false ego.”
These verses teach that we should act as great souls act only when they order us to do so. [10.33.31] As Founder-Ācārya, and a pure devotee, Prabhupada could dispense with judicial formalities and constitutional limits, both of which constitute basic social principles, dharma, even in ancient Vedic society, as well as our world. For Prabhupada, that was not a fault.
But the GBC cannot imitate that behavior [10.33.30], since Prabhupada did not directly order them to do so [10.33.31]. In fact, he ordered the GBC to do the opposite—to form a constitution and, as I will show later, to respect the reasonable freedom of ISKCON devotees.
Prabhupada was free of false ego [10.33.32], and was empowered by Kṛṣṇa to act as he did. We are not free of personal desire on Prabhupada’s level, and thus our transgressing of dharma, justice, will harm us and those whom we lead.
The GBC must follow, not imitate, Prabhupada by governing ISKCON within the boundaries of due process and justice, under a proper constitution.
In the next section I will discuss traditional and contemporary Western notions of justice, and show how these closely agree with Lord Kṛṣṇa’s own teachings on justice in the Bhagavad-gītā. We will then see to what extent GBC law embodies those universal principles of justice.
Justice Needed for Social Stability
I will first very briefly review key Western notions of justice. “As the ethicist John Rawls has pointed out, the stability of a society—or any group, for that matter—depends upon the extent to which the members of that society feel that they are being treated justly. When some of society’s members come to feel that they are subject to unequal treatment, the foundations have been laid for social unrest, disturbances, and strife. The members of a community, Rawls holds, depend on each other, and they will retain their social unity only to the extent that their institutions are just.”
Justice Linked to Ethics, Morality
“…no idea in Western civilization has been more consistently linked to ethics and morality than the idea of justice. From the Republic…by Plato, to A Theory of Justice…by the late Harvard philosopher John Rawls, every major work on ethics has held that justice is part of the central core of morality.”8
Justice linked to equality
“Moreover, as the philosopher Immanuel Kant and others have pointed out, human beings are all equal in this respect: they all have the same dignity, and in virtue of this dignity they deserve to be treated as equals. Whenever individuals are treated unequally on the basis of characteristics that are arbitrary and irrelevant, their fundamental human dignity is violated.” Indeed, “justice means giving each person what he or she deserves.”9
The notion that equality is the basis of justice is not new. The ancient Stoics held that God is everywhere and in everyone. Moreover, the divine spark in everyone enables us to live in accord with God’s will, manifest as natural law. Justice is to honor the equal presence of soul and God in every body, and thus follow the natural law.
Krishna Acts Justly
But is justice, based on the equality of souls and fair reciprocation with each, a Western concept or invention? Not at all. Throughout Bhagavad-gītā, Lord Kṛṣṇa gives the very same idea of justice—the equality of all souls, and fair reciprocation with each soul.
For example, “As everyone approaches me, I precisely reciprocate.” [4.11]
Echoing Kṛṣṇa’s language at 4.11, yathā…tathā eva, Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura, in his famous song Gurudeva, prays to his spiritual master, sakale sammāna korite śakati deho nātha yathāyatha, “O master, grant me the power to honor everyone as they deserve.”
In fact, the equality of souls is a major topic in Bhagavad-gītā. Just as in Western moral and political philosophy, equality is the core of Kṛṣṇa’s own teaching on justice.
Here is a sample of what Kṛṣṇa says about equality:
A truly wise person sees all creatures with equal vision. [5.18]
To fix the mind in equality is to conquer material life. To stand in equality is to stand on the spiritual platform. [5.19]
The highest yogī empathizes with all souls. [6.32] To truly see is to see Kṛṣṇa in all beings. [13.28]
Seeing Kṛṣṇa equally in all things, one does not harm oneself. [13.29] Being equal to all beings, one attains the highest devotion. [18.54]
Further, Kṛṣṇa Himself sets a perfect example of justice, based on fair reciprocation with all souls. Thus He sees and treats everyone equally and fairly, in perfect reciprocation and justice. [4.11, 9.29, 13.28]
Kṛṣṇa demands justice of earthly leaders, and even comes to this world to reestablish justice when it wanes. [4.7-8] Keep in mind that dharma is a primary Sanskrit word for justice and Kṛṣṇa comes to reestablish dharma.
Kṛṣṇa teaches justice in another important way by fairly rewarding the virtue of one who does not worship Him. To understand this principle of detached justice, let us consider a famous example from Western philosophy. In the Platonic dialogue called Euthyphro, Socrates asks a brilliant question to the self-righteous and hypocritical Euthyphro:
“Do the gods love good acts because they are good. Or are they good because the gods love them?” [Euthyphro 10a]
There is a long tradition of posing the monotheistic version of this question: Does God love the good because it is good? In other words, does God impose his whims and personal tastes on human beings, or is God a fair, rational creature who gives each soul what they deserve according to objective standards of good and evil?
Kṛṣṇa emphasizes in the Gītā that the latter is true: He is equal and just with all souls, fairly reciprocating with each of them.
In Bhagavad-gītā, we see Kṛṣṇa’s impartial justice in action. He states that if a person does not worship Him but still acts virtuously in the ordinary sense, Kṛṣṇa will reward that person. Here is the evidence:
- Those in the material mode of goodness worship demigods [17.4]
- Yet those in goodness are elevated. [14.18]
- Goodness manifests in happiness. [14.9]
- Goodness brings happiness. [14.17]
- That is because goodness is relatively pure, enlightening, and free of malady. [14.6] Thus Kṛṣṇa teaches, with perfect impartial justice, that those who worship demigods, but
act virtuously, receive mundane happiness, wisdom, and elevation.
Similarly, Kṛṣṇa even rewards the impersonalists who do not initially recognize His supreme personality. [12.1-5] Arjuna asks Kṛṣṇa whether those who worship Kṛṣṇa as a Person, or those who devote themselves to an impersonal truth, are the greatest knowers of yoga. Kṛṣṇa replies that the personalists are the greatest yogīs. But the impersonalists too, despite all the extra trouble they take on, eventually achieve Kṛṣṇa, if they are dedicated to the good of all creatures.
Equality and Hierarchy
Despite this emphasis on universal equality, Kṛṣṇa teaches another fact of this world that stands in tension with equality: hierarchy. Kṛṣṇa personally created the hierarchical system of four vocational classes or varṇas, called cāturvarṇyam. [Bg 4.13]
Indeed, in every society, including Vedic, we find political, economic, social, cultural, and intellectual hierarchies. There are ubiquitous hierarchies between parents and children, teachers and students, rich and poor, strong and weak, learned and unschooled. Yet both contemporary principles of human rights, as well as Bhagavad-gītā, insist that despite these hierarchies, ultimately there is a natural equality of all souls. Of course the Gītā goes beyond modern principles and extends that equality to all living beings.
The Bhāgavatam emphasizes that to identify with varṇāśrama, or any other bodily hierarchy, is to bind oneself to illusion. Hierarchy is needed, but it is never ultimate truth.
Even in ISKCON, those who stand atop a social hierarchy, as gurus, GBCs, sannyāsīs, temple presidents etc., will be tempted to identify with their position. After all, we all come to this world to lord it over, and we are not yet fully pure like Prabhupada. Only pure Krishna consciousness frees us from all attachment to social position, even in a spiritual movement.
Since we cannot expect that all ISKCON managers, including GBCs, will be fully pure devotees, ISKCON must have comprehensive rational law, as in all civilized societies, to protect devotees from possible occurrences of personal ambition, bullying, vengeance, corruption, cronyism, or favoritism among leaders who are not yet pure in Krishna consciousness.
Kṛṣṇa, the Ācāryas, and a long, wise tradition of political philosophy, all teach us about the equal ultimate dignity of every person, not to speak of every Vaiṣṇava. This is the essence of justice, and ISKCON cannot thrive without justice. Kṛṣṇa Himself comes to this world when justice, dharma, wanes.
An important part of ISKCON’s mission is to teach and demonstrate that Krishna consciousness brings the highest justice, dharma, to the world. ISKCON must have consistent justice or we will be transparent hypocrites.
Lord Kṛṣṇa teaches both equality and hierarchy in perfect balance. We find echoes of His universal teachings in Western thought. To illustrate this, I will compare the teachings of John Stuart Mill, and Émile Durkheim, two of the greatest modern Western thinkers on the role of the individual and society.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states: “John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), British philosopher, moral and political theorist, and administrator, was the most influential English-speaking philosopher of the nineteenth century. His views are…are generally recognized to be among the deepest and certainly the most effective defenses of…a liberal political view of society and culture.” And also, “Mill’s conception of liberty justified the freedom of the individual in opposition to unlimited state control.” [Wikipedia]
Mill believed that society is the result of a social contract between intrinsically free and equal persons. In his famous On Liberty, Mill wrote, “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” Social and moral psychologist Jonathon Haidt adds that, “Mill’s vision appeals to many liberals and libertarians.”
Émile Durkheim (1858-1917), known as the “father of sociology,” believed that thinkers like Mill had overemphasized the individual and neglected the key role of society. “Chief among his claims is that society is a sui generis reality, or a reality unique to itself and irreducible to its composing parts [individual persons].” [Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy]
Haidt states that for Durkheim, “the basic social unit is not the individual, it is the hierarchically structured family, which serves as a model for other institutions.” [The Righteous Mind 2012] He quotes Durkheim: “man cannot become attached to higher aims and submit to a rule if he sees nothing above him to which he belongs. To free himself from all social pressure is to abandon himself and demoralize him[self].”
We may roughly say that Mill espoused the Gītā principle of equality, whereas Durkheim emphasized the Gītā principle of hierarchy, “duty over rights.” [Haidt]
Prabhupada expertly taught Bhagavad-gītā’s perfect balance of equality and hierarchy. Prabhupada taught that we must offer profound respect to all devotees, and all life, and at the same time, we must faithfully respect natural and necessary hierarchies.
To effectively govern ISKCON, the GBC must maintain Prabhupada’s balance between equality and hierarchy. An impartial review of GBC law, papers, and conduct, will all show the need to find a better balance in ISKCON. Within ISKCON, there are pockets of tyranny, zones and temples ruled dictatorially in the name of Vedic culture. And at times there is flagrant managerial disregard for justice, including due process.
The duty of ISKCON managers is to facilitate and serve a brāhmaṇa society, not as in in some temples and zones, to treat the Lord’s servants as dependent śūdras, incapable or unentitled to hold their own views within Prabhupada’s broad parameters.
My paper is not a typical liberal argument against conservative views. It is a plea for moderation, justice, and balance.
Types of Justice
To better understand justice, and to what extent it exists in ISKCON, let us consider four standard types of justice.
- Distributive justice: fair distribution of benefits and burdens (heavy duties) to society’s members.
- Retributive justice: fair and just punishment, i.e. the punishment fits the crime.
- Compensatory justice: those who injure others give fair compensation to those they injure.
- Procedural justice, also called due or fair process. Clearly, the process or procedure that determines the other forms of justice must itself be fairly conducted.
There is a relationship of mutual dependence between the first three forms of justice, and the fourth. Without due process, there is no vehicle or method to arrive at the other three forms of justice. And without clear laws ensuring those three forms of justice, due process is rendered impotent, for it can only ensure that published laws are honored.
Since in my view, the GBC has been particularly remiss in due process, I will provide here the basic principles of due process as given by the ISKCON Dispute Resolution Office and approved by the GBC.
ISKCON’s Definition of Fair Process
- Notice to the accused; right to know the charges or at least all the major elements of the charges. The right to know the rules and policies in ISKCON that are relevant; Generally, the right to know who is the accuser, what are the consequences if found guilty;
- Timeliness of the process and of each step of the process;
- Right to present one’s own evidence; generally, the right to question the evidence brought by the other side; generally, the right to face or meet with the accuser; the right to respond to the concerns that are raised;
- A fair and impartial fact-finding; a fair and impartial hearing;
- Right to a decision that is not unreasonable or arbitrary in nature;
- Notice of the decision, and generally the right to a written decision with a statement of the reasons for the decision;
- The right to request an appeal;
- Freedom from retaliation, especially when one has raised a complaint in a responsible manner and in good faith;
- The right of privacy, as far as possible, for all concerned.
Many ISKCON leaders are saintly Vaiṣṇavas who foster peace and justice in their areas. But there is a problem in other places, the pockets of tyranny. Lack of fair process also surfaces at times in the collective actions of the GBC body.
We can attribute a fairly common disregard of due process to a belief among some of ISKCON’s ultimate managers that they are now the collective Ācārya of ISKCON, with the right to govern their zones and ISKCON without the constraints of due process. And among some regional and temple leaders, we see a type of junior autocracy, always in the name of Vedic culture and paramparā.
No one in ISKCON—whether a guru, sannyāsī, GBC, temple president, or whatever— has the right to mistreat anyone, or to deny anyone justice, in the name of Prabhupada or Kṛṣṇa. No one in any position can claim divine authority to treat anyone unfairly.
Courthouses and halls of justice around the world symbolize justice with a statue of the Roman goddess of justice, holding a punishing sword in one hand and the scales of justice in the other. Generally, the scale hand is above the sword hand, since fair, objective weighing of evidence, must precede any punishment, reward, or settlement. The goddess of justice is often blindfolded showing that in her weighing of evidence, she disregards arbitrary and irrelevant factors, such as race, ethnicity, gender, rank, or the private wishes of the judge. Indeed, to be swayed by such factors would offend the equal dignity of souls and their equal right to justice, and would thus perpetrate injustice, adharma.
I will next analyze ISKCON/GBC law, to determine whether or to what extent GBC law embodies justice for devotees in general.