ISKCON’s GBC


GBC and Philosophy

UILA cites a 1976 Room Conversation in which Prabhupada tells a reporter that the GBC members will succeed him “as the primary teacher of the movement.”

Reporter: “Is there anyone who is designated to succeed you as the primary teacher of the movement?”

Srila Prabhupada: “I am training some, I mean to say, advanced students so that they may very easily take up the charge. I have made them GBC.”

Unfortunately, of the seventeen “advanced” GBC members of whom of Prabhupada speaks, about two-thirds of them, eleven, fell down and left the GBC.11

We must be cautious. Clearly ISKCON’s ultimate managers should guard the society from false teachings, and protect ISKCON’s philosophical integrity. History shows the grave danger of philosophical deviation in a religious movement.

But history also shows that if the GBC is to fulfill their grave philosophical mandate, they must avoid three obstacles, which I will now explain.

  1. Fanaticism

Philosophy does not mean to merely memorize a dogma or doctrine, but also to have the power to reason logically about it.

Prabhupada confirms this in his discussion of the philosopher Hume with Hayagrīva:

“religion without philosophy and logic is simply sentiment.”

Similarly, in his purport to Bhagavad-gītā 3.3, Prabhupada writes, “Religion without philosophy is sentiment, or sometimes fanaticism.”

A fanatic is “a person with extreme, unreasoning enthusiasm,” or “with extreme and uncritical enthusiasm or zeal, as in religion or politics.” (Uncritical here means “forming a judgement without objective analysis and evaluation.”)

Prabhupada confirms this sense of philosophy as the ability to reason, and the opposite of fanaticism, in a Bhagavad-gītā class [December 20, 1968]:

“You should be religious, but should understand everything philosophically. Otherwise one becomes fanatic, religious fanatic. In the Caitanya-caritāmṛta it is clearly said that śrī-kṛṣṇa-caitanya dayā karaha vicāra [CC 1.8.15] …try to understand the gifts of Caitanya Mahāprabhu by your philosophical understanding.”

Prabhupada here translates the words karaha vicāra as “…understand…by…philosophical understanding.” The original Sanskrit word vicāra means “pondering, deliberation, consideration, reflection, examination, investigation.” The standard Saṃsad Bengali dictionary gives synonymous or identical meanings for vicāra: “consideration, deliberation; argument; discussion; decision; inference.”

Note that inference is “a conclusion reached on the basis of evidence and reasoning.” Thus Prabhupada’s famous teaching that one must combine religion with philosophy, and

Lord Caitanya’s own words, both indicate that one should not merely memorize a doctrine, but that we should actually be able to reason faithfully and logically about the Absolute Truth. Prabhupada steadily teaches this:

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“Science must be based on logic and philosophy. Science means that. And religion means sometimes sentiments. So religion without philosophy is sentiment, and philosophy without religion is mental speculation. Both must be combined. Then it is perfect.

You cannot have religion without philosophy. That is sentiment, fanaticism. And if you simply take philosophy without religion, without sense of God, this is mental speculation. So religion must be on the basis of science and logic. That is first-class religion.” [September 10, 1973]

I raise this topic because it is my sad experience that some senior, ultra-conservative GBC men, having failed, in fair debate with me, to establish the exclusive validity of their version of philosophical orthodoxy, then tried to impose their same view through overt and clandestine political maneuvers. I will not give names here as a courtesy to those involved. But such dealings hardly engender confidence in the GBC as the caretakers of right thinking.

Clearly, to circumvent philosophical reasoning, and yet insist on one’s exclusive orthodoxy, fits the classical definition of fanaticism as defined by Prabhupada and standard dictionaries. If the GBC are to fulfill their duty to safeguard Prabhupada’s philosophical teachings, they themselves must be reasonable.

Otherwise, as Prabhupada states, this movement will be unable to attract, or retain, intelligent people:

“Religion should be combined with philosophy; then intelligent persons will stay with it.” [August 13, 1971]

As in all societies, ISKCON has liberal, moderate, and conservative views. Yet in some parts of ISKCON, despotic leaders suppress free discussion of bona fide views that differ from their own, forbid devotees to think independently, or to think at all, or to initiate valuable new programs, even within reasonable boundaries. In such areas, brāhmaṇas are treated like śūdras.

As the guardian of Prabhupada’s teachings, the GBC must ensure philosophical freedom, within Prabhupada’s boundaries, to all ISKCON devotees. The duty of the GBC is not to passively allow ultra-conservative GBCs to suppress other views, but rather to protect devotees from unreasonable, and often irrational, philosophical bullying.

  1. Corruption

There seem to be instances where the GBC sacrifices a precise understanding of certain aspects of our teachings, due to political pressure.

Here is a report from a learned Prabhupada disciple regarding a senior GBC, whom I refer to here as “SG”:

“I asked SG… whether it’s ethical of the GBC to disallow Vaisnavi diksa-gurus, given what the verse and purport said. He responded ‘I’m a member of the GBC who agrees with the two SAC [Śāstra Advisory Council] papers that establish the bona fides of Vaishnavi diksa-gurus.’

“But for him [SG] the unity of ISKCON takes precedence; he said that, ‘there’s a likelihood ISKCON will split if the GBC votes in line with the śāstra.’ Even though the party opposing Vaisnavi diksa-gurus lacks a sastric basis to support its opposition, he admitted, still he defers to it out of managerial expediency; other GBCs are probably doing the same.”

There are many similar stories. If these stories are true, even to some extent, then a small group of ultra conservative leaders holds Prabhupada’s GBC hostage on a key issue, imposing their own will on ISKCON through threats and coercion.

The title of this section, corruption, refers not to SG, but to a situation. In fact, I know SG to be very sincerely devoted to Prabhupada’s mission. I know what a sacred, at times frightening, duty it is to keep ISKCON united.

Still if such stories are true, then Prabhupada’s GBC system, on this and perhaps other vital issues, has been compromised. The collective wisdom of the GBC does not manage this philosophical issue. Rather, one or more bullies, in the name of purity, undermine Prabhupada’s system with political intimidation. This is a challenge to the GBC’s ability to manage philosophy in ISKCON.

Further, this incident shows that GBCs themselves believe their duty is to defend our basic philosophy, and that details, such as Vaiṣṇavī gurus, can be negotiated or traded away if necessary for what they believe to be a higher purpose. I assume that neither SG nor any other serious GBC would trade away a basic philosophical tenet such as the eternal soul, or that God is Kṛṣṇa. If the GBCs interpret their mandate to guard our philosophy, to refer only to basic philosophical points, then they should not use their political power to oppose details with which they may not agree.

  1. Incompetence

The third problem is simple incompetence. In the last few years several senior GBCs have posted essays or talks on controversial issues. The lack of philosophical acumen in some of those texts is evident.

Further, I tried to show that even UILA presents some good points but also noteworthy imprecisions. In Plato’s Apology, Socrates states that if the Delphi oracle was right, and he, Socrates, really is the wisest man, it is only because Socrates, unlike most men, knows what he doesn’t know.

Avoiding the “GBC Word”

At the end of my analysis of GBC law, I mentioned that after passing a series of laws on February 26, 1988, detailing why and how errant GBCs are to be disciplined, the GBC then removed all explicit mention of the GBC when they published those laws as ISKCON law 5.5.

I stated there that, “we will see more [of this] in our analysis of the major GBC paper, UILA.” I will now give that additional evidence by quoting UILA.

“In a spiritual society a manager cannot fulfill his or her duty to manage simply by declaring and enforcing rules.”

Note that the GBC never says, “a GBC cannot fulfill his or her duty…etc.” The GBC may argue that they are included among the managers. But they never explicitly define GBC limits, by directly naming the GBC.

Similarly, “If the spiritual master…strongly feels that the…care for his disciples within the local management structure is inadequate…, he may appeal on their behalf to the higher levels of management, the local GBC member, or other ISKCON avenues of appeal, as listed later in this paper.”

This rule speaks of local management, indicating that the inadequate manager is not a GBC secretary. Also, one appeals to the local GBC, not against him or her.

“If the spiritual masters act in a contrary way, they will erode the faith of others. Conversely, those in the managerial line of authority should manage, preach, and behave in such a way that they build and sustain the trust of those in the spiritual line of authority and their disciples.”

Again, spiritual masters are mentioned by name, GBCs are not. They are, as always, implied within the category of managers. But UILA, like GBC law, is shy to ever say that a GBC must or must not do something in relation to “lower” devotees.

UILA gives six principles to be followed by gurus in training their disciples, and three principles of guru conduct. This is followed by seven duties of managers.

There is no list of duties or rules of conduct that is specifically, explicitly for GBC members. They are of course included in the general term manager, but just as in ISKCON Law, so here in UILA, the GBC is reluctant to publicly state, by name, the limits of GBC power.

UILA once states that GBC power is not absolute or infallible, but only in the sense that GBC edicts are not Śāstra. But the paper does not state how we can know that a specific GBC action is wrong, or what we should do about it. UILA does not give clear, reasonable rules by which we can evaluate and judge GBC conduct.

History shows that it is harder to appeal against a GBC member than a lower devotee. Yet UILA gives us no special guidance or instructions in this difficult case of an appeal against a GBC member.

We see in GBC law, and UILA, a consistent pattern: the GBC does not explicitly deal with the case of a GBC member mistreating a non-GBC devotee, even though alleged cases of this are numerous. In contrast, GBC law and UILA speak directly, in detail, about the misconduct of gurus and everyone else.

We have duties to the GBC, and they have duties to us. UILA emphasizes our duties to the GBC, but apart from general duties of managers, UILA says almost nothing about the GBC’s specific GBC duty to each of us.

As Prabhupada stated, the GBC should work in consultation with other senior members of ISKCON. Thus the law will reflect the collective wisdom of the devotees, who will understand that they are serving their own self-interest by following the law. I hope my essay will be a step in that direction.

Social Contract vs. Tyranny

Earlier, I introduced the concept of public reason, a principle requiring “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.”

This principle of rational accord between rulers and the ruled entails a social contract between them. Perhaps John Locke articulated most relevantly for us the idea of the social contract.

“The Law of Nature, which is on Locke’s view the basis of all morality, and given to us by God, commands that we not harm others with regards to their ‘life, health, liberty, or possessions.’ Because we all belong equally to God, and because we cannot take away that which is rightfully His, we are prohibited from harming one another. So, the State of Nature is a state of liberty where persons are free to pursue their own interests and plans under God’s laws…, where persons recognize the Law of Nature and therefore do not harm one another. [But] the state of war begins between two or more men, once one man declares war on another, by stealing from him, or by trying to make him his slave.”12

Formally enslaving is a radical extreme, however a governing power may usurp by lesser degrees the God-given freedom of a society and its members. And to the extent, great or small,

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that a ruling power unnecessarily suppresses or revokes the natural freedom of its citizens, to that extent there will be conflict and unrest.

But are the related principles of public reason and social contract compatible with our Vaiṣṇava process of descending authority coming from Kṛṣṇa, through the great ācāryas in the divine succession of paramparā?

In fact, Prabhupada taught principles quite similar to those of Locke. In his purport to ŚBh 1.6.37, Prabhupada confirms Locke’s thesis that our natural state is one of freedom:

“Every living being is anxious for full freedom because that is his transcendental nature. And this freedom is obtained only through the transcendental service of the Lord.”

Prabhupada explains further that this freedom is not merely internal freedom from, say, lust and greed, nor is freedom a factor only in the final, most advanced stages of Kṛṣṇa consciousness: “…in all spheres of devotional service, freedom is the main pivot. Without freedom there is no execution of devotional service. The freedom surrendered to the Lord does not mean that the devotee becomes dependent in every respect. To surrender unto the Lord through the transparent medium of the spiritual master is to attain complete freedom of life.”

Similarly: “The need of the spirit soul is that he wants…complete freedom…He wants to see the free light and the spirit.” [ŚBh 1.2.8 Purport]

By the way, the word freedom occurs in Vedabase over three thousand times. That is a lot.

Prabhupada also said these things:

“Because here everyone is giving voluntary service. Nobody is servant. So if he doesn’t like something, at any moment he can go away.” [September 5, 1976]

“But one test is that all the devotees should be satisfied. They have given their lives to Krishna, so we should see they are always happy. Their service is voluntary. It is not that we can force anyone to do anything. If we do, they will go away and that is a great loss. Everyone must be encouraged to do what he likes to do for Krishna.” [November 30, 1971]

Apply Prabhupada’s criteria above, can we say that ISKCON devotees in general satisfied with the GBC? Are ISKCON devotees always happy with the GBC, or even often happy with the GBC? In other words, does the GBC pass Prabhupada’s “one test?”

The Vanishing Reference Point

UILA states that, “This essay is not a detailed or definitive analysis of ISKCON’s management system…”

Neither is the Constitution Draft (CD), as I will show next. For practical details, both UILA and CD defer to GBC law. But as we saw, that law gives such meager protection to devotees, that justice itself often starves in ISKCON.