As with RGB members, there is no requirement, or even suggestion, in GBC law that a GBC member see himself or herself as a servant, feel deep concern for devotees in general, or guarantee them justice. Instead, here are the GBC laws regulating GBC members.
Law 188.8.131.52 states that “the GBC Body is responsible for establishing the proper standards of conduct for its members and others to whom it delegates authority. If an individual…fails to perform his mandated duties or acts in a manner contrary to ISKCON Law or principle, then the GBC Body is responsible to correct or remove the deviant.”
This law states that a GBC may be corrected or removed for two reasons:
- Failure to perform a mandated duty.
- Acting contrary to ISKCON Law or principle.
Since ensuring justice to all devotees is not a mandated duty in any GBC law or paper, neither of the two points above provides any recourse or protection to ordinary devotees from GBC injustice. Indeed, according to the strict terms of the GBC statement above, a GBC member could be removed for failing to impose upon a devotee an unjust arrangement mandated by the GBC. This is the reality of a society without sufficient laws or a fair constitution.
Let us look further for practical standards of GBC behavior.
GBC law 184.108.40.206 is titled, Standard for Sadhana and Spiritual Practices
This law states that a GBC should strictly practice bhakti-yoga: “A GBC Member must be an exemplary practicing devotee who follows daily sadhana and full morning program, demonstrably chants sixteen rounds, follows strictly the four regulative principles, regularly gives classes, and participates in temple festivals and harinama parties. A GBC Member must live in or near a Krsna conscious temple community so as to regularly, on a daily basis, participate in devotional activities and associate with devotees.”
Obviously, this law is not enforced. For various reasons—health, traveling, a human need to relax and get away, or spiritual laxity—many, if not most, GBCs do not attend a full temple program on a daily basis.
Also, even this unenforced rule says nothing about the character of a GBC, nor how the GBC treats other Vaiṣṇavas. Rūpa Gosvāmī warns us in Upadeśāmṛta 2, that external principles are necessary but insufficient.
Gurus and Temple Presidents have specific rules that regulate their exercise of power and their treatment of other devotees. ISKCON’s most powerful leaders need similar guidelines.
GBC law, 220.127.116.11 begins with this bold declaration: “A GBC member [must] be an “acarya” by teaching by personal example the path of Krsna consciousness in its purity.”
There is no clear explanation of what this means in practice. Clearly not all GBC members teach by personal example the path of Krishna consciousness in its purity. Again, we have a broad general rule with no specifics or detailed rules, like those for temple presidents and gurus.
We have only 18.104.22.168: “No GBC can…permit his men or himself to engage in illicit, illegal activities.”
It is encouraging to know that a GBC member may not perform or permit illicit or criminal activities.
Finally, “GBC members should not speak in a derogatory way of other GBC members in public.”
A GBC cannot defame another GBC in public, but there is no law against publicly defaming a non-GBC member, such as a guru.
Nothing has been added to the very short list of GBC behavior and character standards for twenty-four years. None of these rules specifically requires a GBC member, or the body, to treat other devotees fairly or kindly.
Compare Laws for GBCs and Gurus
Section 3 of ISKCON law is titled Governing Body Commission, and it is here we find most of the laws that define, describe, and regulate the GBC body and its members. To help us compare how the GBC deals with gurus and how it deals with GBC members, I will again list categories of law for regulating gurus, and compare them to analogous laws, or the lack of them, for GBC members.
7.2.1 Twelve Mandatory Qualifications
7.2.2 Four Discretionary Qualifications
GBC: No similar list for GBC members in ISKCON law. I will illustrate my point that rules for Gurus are far more specific than rules for GBC with examples from Law 7.2.1 and
22.214.171.124 A dīkṣā guru must be twice-initiated for at least ten years. No such rule for GBCs.
126.96.36.199 A dīkṣā guru must be in good standing in ISKCON. No such rule for GBCs.
188.8.131.52 A dīkṣā guru must have substantial knowledge and realization of sastra, including a Bhakti-sastri degree. No such rule for GBCs.
184.108.40.206 A dīkṣā guru must preach according to Srila Prabhupada’s teachings. No such rule for GBCs.
220.127.116.11. A dīkṣā guru must work cooperatively with local authorities. No such rule for
18.104.22.168. A dīkṣā guru must have no loyalties that compete with or compromise one’s loyalty to Srila Prabhupada, to his teachings, and to ISKCON. No such rule for GBCs.
22.214.171.124. Spiritual degrees—Bhakti Sastri, Bhakti Vaibhava, and Bhaktivedanta (when available)—shall be a strongly recommended qualification for being granted no objection status to serve as a guru in ISKCON. No such rule for GBCs.
Please note that there are no rules for GBCs that do not also apply to gurus. But there are many rules for Gurus that find no parallel in rules for GBC.
126.96.36.199 gives one GBC disqualification: a devotee who divorces a devotee wife cannot be
Here are more examples to show that the mandatory qualifications for gurus are far more specific than the general call for GBCs to set an ideal example.
Gurus: 188.8.131.52 Endorsement of the Guru by an Area Council. Note: no less than eight sections of GBC law (184.108.40.206; 220.127.116.11.1; 18.104.22.168.2; 22.214.171.124.3; 126.96.36.199.4; 188.8.131.52; 184.108.40.206.3, and 7.4.2) stress the need for local community support for a would-be guru.
GBC: No local endorsement or support required for a GBC to take control of an area.
Gurus: 220.127.116.11.2 Principles of [Local] Evaluation of the Guru
GBC: No local evaluation of a zonal GBC.
Gurus: 18.104.22.168 Provision for “No Objection” Letters for Guru
GBC: Not required for a zonal GBC.
Gurus: 22.214.171.124 Nine General Standards of Guru Conduct—plus all of the following:
126.96.36.199 Three Standards in Relation to the GBC Body
188.8.131.52 Three Standards in Relation to GBC Zonal Secretaries
184.108.40.206 Eight Standards in Relation to ISKCON Spiritual Authorities
220.127.116.11 Four Standards in Relation to a Temple
Total: twenty-seven required standards for gurus
GBC: 3.5.3 In comparison to the 27 standards for Gurus, GBCs must 1) practice Krishna consciousness; 2) not permit or perform illicit or illegal activity; and 3) not publicly criticize other GBC members.
Gurus: 7.4.5 Monitoring of Gurus by the GBC
GBC: No provision to monitor GBC members
7.4.6 Discipline of Diksa-gurus, including:
- Nine kinds of Misconduct and Failure to Follow Religious Principles or Higher
- Two kinds of Improper Discharge and Neglect of Duty o Four kinds of Spiritual Discrepancy
o Five ways to censure a diksa-guru
o Two ways to place on probation, suspend, or rescind the power to initiate, of a diksa-guru
o A statement that none of the above limits the power of “any Regional Governing Body, Divisional Council, National Council, or other local authority to withhold permission for a…diksa-guru to [initiate] within their jurisdiction.”
o Definitions of Censure and Probation
o Details of Suspension Pending Investigation o Details of Suspension
o Details of Rescindment
18.104.22.168 Five ways to restrict a Guru under suspension
7.5.1 Five circumstances in which one rejects a fallen guru.
GBC: No specific GBC laws to discipline GBCs. No circumstance given in which one may reject a GBC member’s order.
A few ISKCON laws describe discipline of leaders in general, but never mention the GBC.
Thus, all of the following are found in GBC law for gurus, but never for GBCs:
- Improper discharge and neglect of duty.
- Spiritual discrepancy (four kinds given for gurus) o Ways to censure (five ways given for gurus)
o Ways to place a guru on probation, suspend, or rescind power (two ways given for gurus)
o Details of censure and probation
o Definitions of Censure and Probation (Large paragraph provided for gurus, nothing for GBC)
o Details of Suspension Pending Investigation (Large paragraph on this for gurus, nothing for GBC)
o Details of Suspension (only for gurus, not GBCs)
- Details of Rescindment (only for gurus, not GBCs
To conclude this topic, I juxtapose here two GBC laws that show clearly how GBCs see themselves as standing far above other devotees.
Compare these two statements:
22.214.171.124.1 “A GBC member should be an ‘acarya’ by teaching by personal example the path of Krsna consciousness in its purity.”
126.96.36.199 “No guru should declare himself or allow himself to be declared an ‘acarya’…”
Based on the above, we would assume that GBC law would set a higher spiritual and moral standard for GBC members, the only members of ISKCON declared to be Ācāryas in ISKCON law. But we have seen that this is not the case. Indeed, higher standards are reserved for a) lower leaders; and b) Gurus.
It is often said that even stronger than sex desire is the lust for power. And we have all heard the adage that power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely. Yet in ISKCON, precisely where there is greatest power, we find least legal restraint.
It is natural for us to assume and expect that those in higher positions, those who make decisions that affect all our lives, will set a higher standard. Yet this reasonable principle finds no practical, detailed articulation in GBC law.
One might argue that the flood of GBC laws that restrict gurus are the result of past guru excess. There is truth in this assertion, but real ISKCON history is also more complex. We ignore the complexities at the risk of repeating historical mistakes. Consider the following.
During the zonal acarya system, virtually all of the gurus who caused serious problems were also GBCs. I do not recall a single major problem with a zonal acarya who was not also a zonal GBC. Thus it was not just a zonal acarya system that disturbed ISKCON. It was the combined power of GBC and acarya invested in a single immature leader, fostering an autocratic regime.
Today, we still have many Guru-GBCs in ISKCON. And precisely because ISKCON has externally reformed the guru system, lingering Guru-GBC dictators no longer attract the attention they once did.
Even today, we see GBC zones where a GBC-Guru uses this combined power to monopolize control, impose the leader’s views, and virtually persecute those who dare to hold other bona fide views.
Just as some zonal-acaryas, even if immature, acted sincerely, and thus survived in Krishna consciousness, so some GBC-Gurus today are advanced devotees who lead happy zones. Indeed, many ISKCON leaders at all levels are advanced devotees, selflessly dedicating their lives to Prabhupada’s mission.
But we do have a lingering problem with autocracy in GBC zones and temples, that can be traced back to the early days of ISKCON.
As a liberated devotee, and the charismatic Founder-Ācārya of ISKCON, Prabhupada wielded absolute authority in ISKCON. Kṛṣṇa teaches in the Gītā 3.21, that people follow the example of the greatest person. And the young and immature follow immaturely, without discrimination.
Thus a dictatorial, often oppressive, management culture arose in ISKCON in GBC zones and temples, in crude imitation of Prabhupada. And even today, there are remaining pockets of tyranny. We must now cleanse ISKCON of the remnants of the old dictatorial management culture, a product and residue of our past immature imitation of Prabhupada. We need a constitutional leadership culture worthy of a spiritual society of Vaiṣṇava brāhmaṇas.
In the next section, I will conclude my discussion of GBC law.
Appeal in GBC Laws
Recourse and Appeal for Ordinary devotees?
An important principle of justice is the right of appeal. For ISKCON devotees, this means that a devotee who believes that he or she has suffered injustice has the right to present their case to an appropriate ISKCON authority, with full confidence that the case will be handled strictly according to fair process. Clearly, this right of appeal is needed to help eliminate injustice based on poor adjudication, or simple tyranny.
I will review here the forms of appeal offered by ISKCON law.
188.8.131.52.3.2: The GBC, at its discretion, may accept appeals of decisions made by the (defunct) Justice Ministry, with no guarantee of fair process.
5.5: A disciplined “ISKCON Official” may appeal a ruling to an RGB, or if there is none, to the GBC, with no guarantee of fair process.
7.4.2: Similarly, diksa-guru candidates may appeal their rejection by a Local Area Council, with no guarantee of fair process.
7.4.6: Disciplined, i.e. punished, gurus may appeal, with no guarantee of fair process.
8.4: An “ISKCON participant” not allowed to participate may also appeal, with no guarantee of fair process.
17.1-2: Generally, decisions of lower authorities may be appealed to higher authorities, the process ending of course with the GBC body, with no guarantee of fair process.
All the above appeals involve alleged misconduct by an ISKCON leader below the GBC. What if you believe that a GBC member acted badly? What can you do? We find two GBC laws to guide us:
184.108.40.206.4. Guidelines for evaluating GBC Zonal Secretary
“That if a Temple President or local Temple Council thinks that an assigned GBC Zonal Secretary is not fulfilling the responsibilities of that position, he should communicate with the GBC Executive Committee.”
If you are not a temple president, nor member of a temple council, or if you are a council member but cannot convince the other members to join you, then even if you are sure that a GBC zonal secretary is acting badly, you have no clear recourse in ISKCON law. And even if you are a temple president or council member with council support, you have no guarantee of fair process.
8.2.2 Difficulties with a GBC member
“When there are significant difficulties with a GBC member, one should state his problem in writing and forward to the GBC Executive Committee for necessary consideration.”
Needless to say, neither GBC law 220.127.116.11.4, nor 8.2.2., guarantees that the GBC Executive Committee will read your communication, act upon it, or give you timely justice. The GBC here as everywhere in GBC law, does not commit to fair process, whether you are the appellant, or the accused.
Further, if the GBC body allows one of its members to seriously harm a temple or project, the GBC body is not responsible for the damage it permitted, according to GBC law:
18.104.22.168 “If it is demonstrated that the GBC Body did not function in a timely manner to rectify one of its representatives, and as a result, an individual ISKCON temple or project suffers inordinately, then the GBC Body is to consider how to help the local temple or project overcome its difficulties, but the GBC Body cannot be held liable in any way.”
Note that this law only covers harm to an ISKCON temple or project. The law does not consider a case where the GBC Body allows one of its members to seriously harm you as an individual. GBC law does not concern itself with that. Indeed, the GBC is not even required to “consider how to help” a devotee damaged by the actions of a GBC member.
Moreover, if you have been harmed by the GBC body, or if you believe the GBC body caused serious harm to other individuals or projects, then ISKCON law forbids you to privately discuss your concerns with a member of the GBC, as stated here:
22.214.171.124.6 “[A] GBC member shouldn’t indulge with non-GBC men in criticizing the GBC Body.”
Sadly, it seems that whatever the good intentions of some GBCs may be, GBC law recognizes two distinct levels of devotees:
- Above: GBC members (and their RGB and Regional Secretary colleagues.)
- Below: Everyone else.
GBC Admission of Flawed Law Doesn’t Fix It
On their website, the GBC acknowledges the need to update their laws, “to address laws that may be outdated, unneeded, ambiguous or unclearly worded.”
Based on that statement, one might argue that I have unfairly cited laws that the GBC itself sees as outdated or unclearly worded. However, I believe that I have been reasonable in my citations for two reasons:
- I have quoted laws that reflect the way that many, GBC members behave in the real world. These laws may seem outdated or unneeded to some saintly GBCs, but those laws are implicitly deployed by other members to stifle opposition and impose their will.
- Ultimately, law is law. Until those laws are repealed or changed, present and future GBCs may impose those laws at their pleasure.
Stifling Debate Through Outdated Law
I will give a practical example of a GBC law which is clearly outdated in one sense, but is still deployed in another dangerous sense, and therefore needs to be cited here. I refer to GBC law 8.2.2, titled, Support and Adjust to GBC Decisions. It states:
“The authorized forum for GBC policy is the annual GBC meeting, annual ISKCON Leaders meeting, annual sannyasis assembly, and similar official meetings held after the Gaura-purnima festival at Sri Mayapur. Outside of these meetings it is the duty of all ISKCON members and leaders to support and adjust to GBC decisions. Srila Prabhupada’s principle was to meet once a year, make decisions, and follow them during the year. Activities contrary to this, shall be considered as a serious breach of etiquette and discipline.”
This law is both outdated and dangerous.
- Outdated: This 1986 law claims that Prabhupada’s “principle” was for the GBC to meet once per year, and that to do otherwise is “a serious breach of etiquette and discipline.”
The GBC now has at least two annual meetings, and no one considers this “a serious breach.”
Also, the law states that the GBC meets after the Gaura-pūrṇimā, festival when in fact they now meet before it. So those parts of the resolution are outdated.
- Dangerous: The real point of this law is its title, the command to Support and Adjust to GBC Decisions. The intention is clear: the real serious breach of etiquette and discipline is to question or criticize GBC decisions outside of these meetings. Since inside the meetings, it is very hard for devotees in general to gain admittance, and nearly impossible to get quality time to speak, this GBC law effectively criminalizes free speech and open debate in ISKCON regarding the laws that control our lives.
This is perfectly clear from the opening words of this GBC law: “The authorized forum for GBC policy…” A forum is “a place, meeting, or medium where ideas and views on a particular issue can be exchanged.” Thus according to this law, outside of GBC related meetings, there is no authorized place, meeting, or medium (including email, personal conversation etc.) to exchange ideas on GBC policy. This does sound rather totalitarian, based on the literal meaning of the words in GBC law 8.2.2.
GBC resolution 126.96.36.199 has a similar message: “A GBC member shouldn’t indulge with non-GBC men in criticizing the GBC Body.” This means:
- In the company of non-GBC devotees, a GBC member can never admit any fault on the GBC’s part.
- Thus non-GBC members can never discuss GBC problems with a GBC member, at least not if the GBC member agrees with the criticism.
GBC Does Not Publish Self-disciplinary Rules
The GBC also discourages possible challenges to GBC conduct by concealing GBC laws that speak in detail of possible GBC misconduct.
For example, at the 1988 Mayapur meetings, on February 26, the GBC passed a resolution explicitly stating under what circumstances a GBC member may be censured, put on probation, suspended, or removed. But this resolution was not published in ISKCON Law.
Rather, in ISKCON Law 5.5, the word GBC has been everywhere deleted from this elaborate text, and replaced with the words, “an ISKCON official.” GBC published law thus refers only indirectly to a GBC member.
Although technically, “an ISKCON official” could be a GBC member, the GBC is shy to ever publish laws that explicitly spell out possible GBC misconduct.
The GBC is not shy about explicitly mentioning other leaders, especially dīkṣā gurus. Basically, the same rules to censure, put on probation, suspend, or remove a dīkṣā guru, by name, are found in section 84 of ISKCON law. The GBC did not soften the laws on dīkṣā gurus by, for example, replacing the word dīkṣā guru with spiritual authorities. But they did remove the name GBC from all detailed disciplinary laws.
We have already seen much of this in our study of ISKCON Law, and we will see more in the next section, in our analysis of the major GBC paper, Understanding ISKCON Lines of Authority.
Understanding ISKCON Lines of Authority
An official GBC paper, Understanding ISKCON’s Lines of Authority (UILA), affirms the admirable goal of stating principles by which managers and spiritual leaders can work together peacefully for the good of ISKCON and the world.10
UILA has special significance. Unlike GBC law, which sprawls over four decades, with the voices of different leaders, UILA explains with a united voice the current GBC concept of ISKCON governance, how authority should be exercised, especially as it relates to ISKCON’s two greatest powers: gurus and managers. UILA locates both within a single, orderly hierarchy of authority, with the full GBC at the top.
It is precisely in this process of outlining ISKCON’s hierarchy of power that the GBC puts forward its own interpretation of Prabhupada’s mandate that the GBC is ISKCON’s ultimate managing authority. I explain here that a) there is more than one plausible way to interpret that mandate; and b) the GBC interpretation, as found in UILA, must be refined and brought closer in line with Prabhupada’s teachings on ISKCON governance.
Let me emphasize that any valid interpretation of Prabhupada’s mandate to the GBC must accept that the GBC is indeed ISKCON’s ultimate managing authority. To question some aspect of the GBC’s interpretation of that mandate is not to challenge the mandate itself. My critique does not attack the core GBC system, nor does it support those who oppose the GBC system. Rather, I am trying to restore a better balance in ISKCON between hierarchy and equality.
Let us first consider how Prabhupada’s vision for power relations in ISKCON corresponds to the Western notion of public reason.
Prabhupada emphasized that ISKCON devotees volunteer their services, and therefore must be respected and treated kindly.
“…things must be done very nicely by cooperation. That is wanted. Everyone should remember that we are serving Krsna, and everyone should remember, the other person is serving Krsna. And because he is serving Krsna, he is not my servant; he is my master. That should be always in view. Therefore, we address, prabhu: You are my master. We never address, You are my servant. [Room conversation—November 24, 1976]
Similarly, “Our leaders shall be careful not to kill the spirit of enthusiastic service, which is spontaneous and voluntary. To draw out spontaneous, loving spirit—that is the art of management…But where are so many expert managers?” [Letter to Karandhara—December 22, 1972]
Prabhupada also taught that the GBC should govern under a fair constitution, and act in a reasonable way.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines public reason as a principle that “requires that the moral or political rules that regulate our common life be, in some sense, justifiable or acceptable to…those persons over whom the rules purport to have authority.”
Clearly ISKCON needs peace and balance between those inside ISKCON’s power structure—those who wield power—and those outside the managerial system—those upon
whom, and even against whom, managerial power is exercised. Naturally the managers and the managed will at times have different perspectives, needs, and priorities.
Public reason is the concept that those who govern should persuade the governed that the rules and laws “that regulate our common life” are reasonable and justifiable. Failing to do this, rulers act as mere tyrants, ruling by threat and coercion. Public reason holds that rulers have a duty to convince reasonable citizens that the society’s laws are fair and necessary restrictions on individual freedom. This is especially so in a society like ISKCON that claims, or aspires, to be a brahminical society.
UILA tries to persuade us to accept a specific concept of authority within ISKCON. In that sense, we should applaud the GBC’s sincere effort to engage public reason. And just as the GBC has done their duty to the best of their ability, so now I will do mine, as a member of the ISKCON public, by responding to their claims.
It is the GBC’s duty to show us that their rules, that a priori limit our freedom, are necessary, reasonable, fair, and beneficial. The GBC tries to do this in UILA. How far they succeed is the topic of this section of my paper.
In UILA, the GBC state, “When we use the word ‘authority’ in the context of the managerial structure, we do not mean an absolute, infallible authority—such as the authority of scripture—but the mandate to organize the preaching movement so that it is aligned with the instructions of Srila Prabhupada.”
There is much of value in UILA, but there are also problems that need to be discussed. In doing so, I am engaging with the GBC in the process of public reason. This is necessary because in regard to the exercise of power in ISKCON, this dialogue combines and balances the insider and outsider perspective, and so helps leaders come to objective conclusions about what is best for the society, what the leaders’ mandate really is, and how they can best fulfill that mandate.
Two Visions of ISKCON
Consider two different visions of the proper relationship between devotees, and the GBC:
- ISKCON is a, brahminical society in which mature devotee-citizens who follow ISKCON law are free to serve according to their inspiration, as long as they don’t cause significant harm to other devotees or projects. ISKCON law itself, when followed, guarantees that in pursuing one’s own service, one will not interfere with the service of other devotees.
This is analogous to a free society in which the citizens are not servants of the government, but they respect the law of the land, and thereby respect other citizens. This was also Prabhupada’s vision, as shown in his famous letter to Karandhara, December 22, 1972 (and elsewhere): “The Krishna Consciousness Movement is for training men to be independently thoughtful and competent in all types of departments of knowledge and action, not for making bureaucracy. Once there is bureaucracy the whole thing will be spoiled. There must be always individual striving and work and responsibility, competitive spirit, not that one shall dominate and distribute benefits to the others and they do nothing but beg from you and you provide. No.”
Prabhupada also said, “GBC is to see that things are going nicely but not to exert absolute authority. That is not in the power of GBC.” [Letter to Giriraja—August 12, 1971]
It is the natural role of Vaiṣṇava brāhmaṇas to constructively critique management for the good of society. Thus within Vaiṣṇava etiquette, devotees in good standing speak on ISKCON affairs, voice their views, and wisely observe how ISKCON is being governed.
But there is another, very different vision of the relationship between Vaiṣṇavas and the
- In an unfree society, the leaders have absolute authority to tell everyone what to do, and what to think. Thus conservative leaders may forbid non-conservative views, even if taught by Prabhupada, from being spoken or discussed in temples or anywhere in ISKCON. All devotees serve their masters, the managers. Everyone needs permission to act, or even to think. It is not enough to act within ISKCON law, and not interfere with the service of others. In this model, even if the GBC or other managers act unjustly, unkindly, or incompetently, the saintly brāhmaṇas have no right to speak out.