ISKCON’s GBC


UILA Seems to Favor Controlled Society

UILA seems to lean towards vision #2. Here are some examples of UILA’s vision:

“Indeed, all disciples should follow their ISKCON authorities in the same way that all

initiating and instructing spiritual masters should follow their own authorities within ISKCON.” Let us explore this analogy. A devotee serving a Krishna conscious temple, center, or

project works under the direct, personal authority of the local leader. The GBC here claims that in the same way, all gurus in ISKCON, even the most senior, follow GBC members, who presumably tell them what to do and where to go. After all, GBC law states that a guru cannot even change his address without GBC permission. [Law 7.4.4.3.2] A guru may not merely follow ISKCON law and cooperate with others.

We also find this statement in UILA: “Both [gurus and managers] are authorized by the full GBC to give shelter to devotees under their care.”

I always thought that Prabhupada authorized us to preach and give shelter. The GBC’s duty is to verify that we do so within the Founder-Ācārya’s guidelines, in cooperation with other ISKCON preachers and projects. This does not mean that conservative GBC members may use political power to suppress other bona fide views, or harass those who hold them.

UILA’s claim that the GBC authorizes us to give shelter is consistent with theories found in GBC law. For example, in ISKCON law 7.4.4.2, the GBC is not merely ISKCON’s managing authority, but also the personal authority for all gurus and all devotees.

Law 7.4.4.3 states that gurus “must act under the supervision…of GBC zonal secretaries.”

And as stated above, Law 7.4.4.3.2 even wonderfully commands that gurus cannot “change residence without consulting the local GBC zonal secretary beforehand…”

This idea of GBCs as personal monitors of senior preachers strays far from Prabhupada’s vision. In UILA’s vision, it is not enough to be a good citizen of ISKCON and follow its laws. It is not enough to do one’s work peacefully. A guru must be supervised by the GBC zonal secretary, who is his superior, regardless of seniority or actual spiritual advancement.

Consider this GBC law defining the GBC-guru relationship:

7.4.4.2 “[A guru] 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.”

This bizarre law claims that even the most advanced brāhmaṇa gurus must respectfully serve the managers. This language does not reflect the mood of Vedic culture, or of Prabhupada, as I will show. Of course, GBC law does not require, or suggest, that GBC managers serve other spiritual leaders.

But are these merely outdated laws? A product of the old, hard-fought Guru Reform movement?

They are not for two reasons:

  1. Some of the above rules come from a very recent GBC paper, UILA.
  1. These nanny state laws describe how many senior preachers are treated even now.

GBC Subordinating Language

I will give more examples of UILA’s subjugating language, and then contrast it with Prabhupada’s own language.

UILA states:

“…the authority bestowed upon [a guru or other leader] is complete only if he or she follows Srila Prabhupada’s instruction to serve in ISKCON under the authority of the full GBC.” “Those who are submissive to our sampradaya and who serve under the authority of the full GBC are authorized to give shelter in this spiritual line…”

“Those serving as spiritual masters in ISKCON are meant to follow the instructions of Srila Prabhupada and work under the full GBC.”

Prabhupada uses a different language: “I hope the GBC in cooperation with the sannyasis in their touring program will be able to keep vigilance systematically in order to keep the Society as pure as possible.” [Letter to Bali-mardana—August 25, 1970]

Similarly, “…our main business is to train up men to be self-sufficient and competent in many ways to carry on the preaching work, not to…minimize their responsibility by centralizing everything.” [Vedabase, Letter—December 1973]

To justify itself, the GBC states in UILA, “The basic premise of this essay is [that for] …anyone in a position of authority within ISKCON, the authority bestowed upon that devotee is complete only if he or she follows Srila Prabhupada’s instruction to serve in ISKCON under the authority of the full GBC…To establish this premise, we feel we need do no more than emphasize that His Divine Grace consistently and clearly established this principle…

But did Prabhupada consistently and clearly state that we must all serve under the GBC? I cannot find a single instance in Vedabase where Prabhupada uses the phrase “under the

GBC” or “under GBC [authority].” Prabhupada does speak of being under the authority of Śāstra, of kings, of Ācāryas, of Vedic injunctions, but Prabhupada never states directly that we all serve under, or under the authority of the GBC. Perhaps Prabhupada really wanted the GBC to be just an ultimate managing authority and not a successor acarya.

We have no evidence that Prabhupada wanted the GBC to subjugate other Vaiṣṇavas, but rather to engage ultimate managing authority in a spirit of serving the devotees. This is not a challenge to the GBC’s role as ISKCON’s ultimate managing authority. But it is a direct challenge to UILA’s subjugating language and style.

Ironically modern leaders of free countries are often seen, and describe themselves, as servants of the people. ISKCON is a spiritual society whose ultimate leader, Lord Caitanya, taught that we are all servants of the servants of the servants of Kṛṣṇa. Yet UILA does not state that ISKCON’s top leaders aspire to serve all the devotees.

Under Conduct of gurus, UILA states that gurus should ask local managers how the guru “may serve that yatra.” Gurus should also ask GBC zonal secretaries how the guru could serve the local vision.

But UILA does not say that GBCs should ask how they may serve senior devotees or devotees in general. Although UILA states that all leaders, including GBCs, should serve ISKCON, UILA never states that a GBC member should specifically serve other devotees, no matter what their rank.

Indeed, the Conduct of gurus section, which twice states that gurus should serve managers, is followed by a supposedly balancing list of Duties of Managers. This list of managerial duties does not explicitly state that managers should serve gurus. Item 1 simply suggests that managers should be receptive to a guru’s advice on devotee care, but not on any practical preaching matter. I will discuss this last point at length below.

UILA states: “If a disciple has the mistaken conviction that his or her spiritual master is above the full GBC and ISKCON’s laws and policies, that should be corrected by the spiritual master and other authorities.”

True. But what if a GBC secretary, or indeed the GBC body, has the mistaken conviction that they are above ISKCON law, or above obvious principles of justice, such as the rules of fair process that the GBC formally accepted in establishing the ISKCON Dispute Resolution Office (IDRO)? Who will correct them? I have personal experience of this problem.

UILA features a large bold header: SPIRITUAL MASTERS ARE NOT INDEPENDENT

UILA does not clarify that the GBC are not independent of ISKCON law, nor that they must follow their own rules of fair process, which they do not always do.

The GBC tells us what we must do to be worthy of the authority bestowed on us – we must follow the GBC. But the GBC never says what they must do to be worthy of their authority. I suggest that the GBC must establish and obey reasonable laws that ensure justice for all ISKCON members. Prabhupada did not authorize the GBC to act above the law, and he certainly did not declare that the GBC is his “successor Ācārya,” standing as Prabhupada did above ISKCON law.

Nourishing Bhakti

Upadeśāmṛta 4, speaks of six loving exchanges between devotees. In his purport, Prabhupada states: “The International Society for Krishna Consciousness has been established to facilitate these six kinds of loving exchanges between devotees…The life of the Kṛṣṇa conscious society is nourished by these six types of loving exchange among the members.”

Prabhupada here states that loving exchanges among devotees nourish ISKCON. In contrast, UILA states that hierarchical managerial structure nourishes ISKCON.

“…Srila Prabhupada established ISKCON as a spiritual institution with a managerial structure. The purpose of this structure is to maintain the standards he established, to offer shelter and spiritual nourishment to the devotees,”

Loving devotee exchanges and managerial structure can both nourish a healthy spiritual society. And UILA admits that management flourishes only when based on spiritual principles. But UILA does not speak of the key Vaiṣṇava principle of loving exchange, nor of the need, in a spiritual society, for GBC members to treat non-GBC devotees with kindness and dignity, and assure them of justice within ISKCON. The GBC’s constant assertion that they are above us and we are below them, does not nourish preaching through loving reciprocity, as Prabhupada teaches in his purport to Upadeśāmṛta 4. Rather UILA claims that we will all be nourished by subjugating ourselves to managers, seeing and treating them as superiors, whatever their spiritual qualifications may be.

The GBC has a duty and right to clarify ISKCON’s management system. But they should do so in a way that reflects Vaiṣṇava culture and Prabhupada’s teachings and language. For example, Prabhupada states:

“…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]

We discussed earlier in this paper that ISKCON must maintain a balance between the two principles of equality and hierarchy. UILA emphasizes a hierarchy which places them above everyone, and everyone under them as their servants. UILA is not balanced. I will now give another example of this imbalance.

UILA Undermines Preachers’ Autonomy

Ultimately, ISKCON is a preaching movement that must be well managed, not a management movement that allows preaching. Sadly, however, UILA omits preachers from a meaningful role in planning preaching strategy. I will explain.

Under Conduct of Gurus, UILA states that “every spiritual master should…before planning a visit to a zone or region where there is no local temple or preaching center, first ask the Zonal GBC if there is a vision local leaders have for that place or region which he (the spiritual master) could serve.”

In the corresponding balancing section on the Conduct or Duties of Managers, managers are not encouraged or required to ask the guru about his or her vision for preaching, even in an area where there is no temple, even if the guru is a successful preacher. There is thus a tacit assumption that a manager will always know best how to preach in a zone, even where there is no preaching. UILA does not mention that a dedicated preacher may have special insights or effective strategies for preaching in such a place.

The paper lists seven duties of managers toward gurus and spiritual guides. But managers have no duty to inquire or take any advice from a senior preacher about preaching methods. A manager’s duty to a guru is limited to giving spiritual care to the guru’s disciples.

Similarly, the paper’s Summary states: “The goal of the managerial structure is spiritual: to facilitate the spiritual advancement of ISKCON’s members through association with devotees, opportunities for service, and effective preaching strategies. Simultaneously, ISKCON affirms the fundamental importance of accepting initiation from a bona fide spiritual master.”

In UILA, only managers plan preaching strategies. Gurus initiate and encourage disciples to love Kṛṣṇa and obey managers. Thus UILA authorizes only managers to develop effective preaching strategies.

Prabhupada says something very different:

“So now the factual administration will depend on the Governing Body Commission and the sannyasis are entrusted for making propaganda work.”

With UILA’s doctrine, that only managers organize preaching strategy, a dangerous new policy, reminiscent of the zonal acarya concept, has appeared in parts of Europe, and perhaps elsewhere: in order to preach in a country or region, a sannyasi must fit into a GBC’s national vision for that country or region.

In verified practice this means that a GBC need not prove that a sannyasi is doing any objective harm, nor breaking ISKCON law. A GBC may simply state that he or she has a different preaching vision for a vast area where little or no preaching takes place. A sannyāsī must submit to the vision or leave. Thus a faithful ISKCON preacher may be banned from bringing Kṛṣṇa to a large country where few ISKCON devotees preach.

This is very different from Prabhupada’s standard. I know because when Prabhupada was here, I preached for two years all over America as a non-GBC sannyāsī. I respected other ISKCON projects, and usually preached in cities without temples, I was not under the authority of any GBC member. Prabhupada never asked or expected it and the GBC never requested it.

Prabhupada speaks of a relationship of cooperation, not subordination, between GBC and sannyasi preachers. Just nineteen days after creating the GBC, Prabhupada wrote this:” “So now the factual administration will depend on the Governing Body Commission and the sannyasis are entrusted for making propaganda work. I wish to remain on the background to give you some directions.” [Letter to Bali-mardana—August 16, 1970]

Similarly, “I hope the GBC in cooperation with the sannyasis in their touring program will be able to keep vigilance systematically in order to keep the Society as pure as possible.” [Letter to Bali-mardana—August 25, 1970]

This language of cooperation, not subservience, is consistent with Prabhupada’s placing sannyāsīs outside ISKCON’s management hierarchy, as I will now show.

Sannyāsīs Not in Management Hierarchy

UILA makes another unfortunate argument that begins with this Prabhupada quote: “…we are managing our Krishna Consciousness Movement by the Governing Body Commission, GBC.

  • above the GBC I am there. Below the GBC there are the temple president, secretary, treasurer in every center. So the temple president is responsible to the GBC and the GBC is responsible to me. In this way we are managing.”

UILA adds: “In Srila Prabhupada’s physical absence the structure is now somewhat different.” They mean that Prabhupada did not include gurus in this management hierarchy because Prabhupada was the only guru in ISKCON then.

This argument neglects a key fact. Prabhupada made this statement in 1976, at a time when many sannyāsīs, including myself, served ISKCON. Yet Prabhupada does not include sannyāsīs within this management hierarchy.

UILA argues that everyone serves under the GBC, and suggests that Prabhupada did not mention gurus because they did not exist. But sannyāsīs did exist and Prabhupada does not include them. Prabhupada uses here words like above and below, to rank managers. But he does not insert sannyāsīs within a managerial hierarchy. He does not say that sannyāsīs are below the GBC, or that the GBC is above the sannyāsīs.

Again, I took sannyāsa in 1972 and for two years I traveled and preached as a non-GBC. Prabhupada never asked me to work under a GBC secretary, nor under the body. He did expect me to follow ISKCON rules and respect other projects.

If managers constantly emphasize, as the GBC does in UILA, that they are above all the preachers, that they authorize the preachers to preach, that all preachers are under them, they distort Vaiṣṇava culture, and weaken the spirit of individual preaching initiative that was the heart of Prabhupada’s method. Prabhupada was deeply troubled by the tendency of leaders to rob devotees of their individual freedom and initiative.

Clearly sannyāsīs and other preachers must always cooperate with ISKCON’s managers and respect other projects. In this way, as good, law-abiding citizens of ISKCON, they cooperate with the GBC

In a small section titled, “Defining the Point of Divergence,” UILA explains how spiritual leaders and managers, may interfere with or discourage each other. Here too, the paper says nothing about a manager who ignores advice about preaching from a proven preacher, or

who fails to properly engage a devotee in preaching, or who does not respect a preacher’s successful work in the same region. Nothing in UILA paper gives an official or meaningful role to preachers and gurus in the planning of preaching.

Freedom in Devotional Service

I explained earlier in this essay that Vaiṣṇava śāstra balances the eternal reality of equality of souls, with the need in this world for hierarchy. Unfortunately, UILA does not contain this balancing spiritual language. But Prabhupada does use such balancing language.

Prabhupada warned us against the dangers of bureaucracy. He criticized as bureaucracy the tendency of ISKCON leaders to assume excessive power over other devotees in his famous letter to Karandhara, December 22, 1972. Here and elsewhere Prabhupada insists that freedom is a key component of ISKCON culture:

“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 criticized as bureaucracy the tendency to criticize others when things don’t go well.

Prabhupada disciple: But again they have made the same mistake with these cauliflower and cabbage.

Prabhupāda: They mistake. You say, “They mistake.” Who are they? You [should] say you do mistake. Don’t say they. This is bureaucracy.”

Thus the GBC is personally responsible to see that our Western preaching is successful, and the GBC is personally responsible if Western preaching does not flourish.

GBC members are appointed for life, and the GBC is notoriously inefficient in monitoring the productivity of its members. If a zonal secretary is not seen to commit a crime, or break our regulative principles, then he or she holds power for life, even if his or her performance is lethargic or mediocre, or their dealings oppressive. This is typical of bureaucracies.

Next, Prabhupada explains that bureaucracy kills the spirit of spontaneous devotional service, which is, after all, the goal of bhakti-yoga. Note here that Prabhupada links bureaucracy with a tendency to centralize power.

“…our leaders shall be careful not to kill the spirit of enthusiastic service, which is individual and spontaneous and voluntary. They should try always to generate some atmosphere of fresh challenge to the devotees, so that they will agree enthusiastically to rise and meet it. That is the art of management: to draw out spontaneous loving spirit of sacrificing some energy for Krishna. But where are so many expert managers? Krishna Consciousness movement must be always a challenge, a great achievement to be gained by voluntary desire to do it, and that will keep it healthy. So you big managers now try to train up more and more some competent preachers and managers like yourselves. Forget this centralizing and bureaucracy.” [December 22, 1972]

GBCs, temple presidents, and other managers should govern ISKCON with a sincere wish to serve us all, to maximize our individual freedom, and promote our common good. Mature devotees should study GBC policies and ponder whether they truly serve ISKCON’s best interest. When doubts arise, we must talk to each other. All of us, GBC or not, should submit to the rule of just law, the rule of spiritual reason, which Kṛṣṇa calls buddhi-yoga in the Bhagavad-gītā.

A ruling power cannot abrogate people’s natural freedom without carefully showing due cause. Might does not make right in ISKCON. Prabhupada called for dialogue between the GBC and senior devotees when he convoked the first annual GBC meeting in Mayapura, which took place in 1974.

One may argue that in Krishna consciousness, we should aspire to serve others, so why not serve the GBC?

This argument cuts both ways. Even Lord Caitanya, acting as a perfect devotee, declared Himself to be the servant of the servant of the servant of Kṛṣṇa. Shouldn’t the GBC, on spiritual grounds, declare themselves to be servants of all the devotees, and mean it?

Certainly, in free societies, rulers may restrict the citizens from acting in certain ways, or require them to act in other ways, through reasonable laws created by the legitimate exercise of explicitly circumscribed powers. This does not mean that in all matters citizens are managed by rulers. Such a totalitarian system would be incompatible with the principles of a free society. In Vedic culture, a brahminical society is a free society.

Here is a standard definition of totalitarian from the Encyclopedia Britannica: “a form of government that …seeks to subordinate all aspects of the individual’s life to the authority of the government.”

We know that that the GBC does not normally try to control every aspect of a devotee’s life, but sometimes some leaders do try to exercise inappropriate control over other devotees. Thus there is no general security for devotees. Further, UILA does not clearly limit the GBC’s power over us. UILA repeatedly declares that in general, we all live and work in ISKCON under GBC authority. No specific principle of justice, freedom, or human dignity is given. We have only this general statement of limits:

“In a spiritual society a manager cannot fulfill his or her duty to manage simply by declaring and enforcing rules. The rules themselves must have a spiritual foundation, and their implementation and enforcement must be applied in accordance with Vaiṣṇava principles.”

Three doubts emerge about this statement:

  1. As regards GBC power over us, the limiting force of spiritual foundation and Vaiṣṇava principles is not defined. Thus we cannot measure GBC behavior against an explicit standard, to know if a particular GBC action is appropriate or not.
  1. In fact the spiritual principle invoked may be a call to submit to the GBC. The Vaiṣṇava principle may be the principle of humility on our part (not theirs).
  2. The statement mentions managers but does not specifically speak of GBC secretaries. This continues a pattern we see frequently in GBC law: the GBC avoids publicly and explicitly discussing the limits of their power over us, or the consequences to GBCs if they violate those limits.

ISKCON governance is a collective exercise in buddhi-yoga. We must govern ourselves, and our society, through buddhi, rational, spiritual intelligence. Devotees will submit to the GBC to the extent that the GBC submits to the rule of fair, constitutional government. I state this to support, and hopefully clarify, UILA’s own statement above, that managers must act on discernible Vaishnava principles.

Prabhupada emphasized individual dignity and autonomy in devotional service, within reasonable limits. To fully appreciate and apply this, the GBC must clearly understand that to wield ultimate managing authority is not to become Prabhupada’s successor Ācārya, and to thus stand above the principles of justice and fair process. The GBC seems to equate these two posts – ultimate managing authority and successor Acarya—in a GBC law already quoted above: GBC Law 7.4.4.2 “[A guru] 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.”

A true successor Ācārya, which Prabhupada did not appoint, presumably holds the same authority as the previous Ācārya. In fact, the GBC is not equal to Prabhupada in two important ways:

  1. Prabhupada combined managerial and spiritual authority in a way that the GBC does not. We do not seek spiritual enlightenment and salvation from the GBC in the same way we sought it in Prabhupada.
  2. Lacking Prabhupada’s purity and charismatic authority, the GBC is not above the law as Prabhupada was, a fact that to my knowledge the GBC has never clearly articulated.

Devotees cannot be subjected to the unbridled will of managers who may or may not be pure. Thus Prabhupada insisted that the GBC formulate a constitution.

Feudal ISKCON?

ISKCON will not flourish in a managerial feudal system wherein even senior preachers become vassals of the local GBC, serving at their whim, forced to conform to their subjective style. This is not what Prabhupada established or wanted in ISKCON.

ISKCON’s ultimate managing authority should be a force for freedom, not subjugation. For example, in the American civil rights movement, the federal government protected the rights of blacks when state and city leaders withheld them. Similarly, Prabhupada often intervened to protect the freedom and dignity of his disciples when a local or regional leader, or a GBC, tried to excessively limit them.

In the hands of bad leaders, ultimate managing authority is used to degrade brāhmaṇas into śūdras, exactly the opposite of what Prabhupada wanted. And of course all this is done in the name of Prabhupada. Some prominent temple presidents behave in this way.

This critique certainly does not apply to all GBCs or temple presidents, many of whom do excellent service with great sincerity and devotion. But the number of leaders who exploit their ISKCON position is sufficient to make this a real problem.

Managing authority, ultimate or intermediate, can be used to maximize the freedom of others, or to suffocate that freedom. Managing authority can be used to inspire devotees to act as brāhmaṇas, or to batter them into a miserable śūdra state, from which many retreat, giving up the preaching battlefield in frustration.

Whether one sits on a high seat as a zonal ācārya, or in an office chair as a despotic manager, the exercise of unrestrained power corrupts the ruler, and demoralizes those who are subjugated.

Let us recall Prabhupada’s words and intention:

“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.” [Letter to Karandhara—December 22, 1972]

“…our main business is to train up men to be self-sufficient and competent in many ways to carry on the preaching work, not to…minimize their responsibility by centralizing everything.” [Vedabase, Letter—January 1973]

Using managing authority to expand individual freedom and autonomy is “our main business,” indeed it is the very purpose of ISKCON. Sadly, in the name of Prabhupada, some leaders around the world have done exactly the opposite, expanding their own power, and suppressing the freedom and autonomy of those under them—and always in the name of Prabhupada and Vedic culture.

I will next discuss UILA’s assertion that the GBCs are the guardians of Prabhupada’s teachings, the ultimate protectors of our philosophy.