Historical Moments for Non-GBC Help
ISKCON’s history shows that at times in crucial situations, non-GBC devotees can provide the impetus and logic needed to motivate and even guide the GBC Body. In the zonal acarya issue, the Narayan Maharaja issue, and the abusive Gurukula issue, non-GBC devotees powerfully brought the GBC’s and ISKCON’s attention to areas of vital concern, resulting in essential correction, compensation, and progress.
I believe that such a historical moment is upon us again—a moment in which good and faithful ISKCON devotees, respecting Prabhupada’s GBC system, must petition the GBC to correct a critical problem with ISKCON leadership, including the GBC itself.
Having served for many years as a GBC member, including four years under Srila Prabhupada’s direct training, and one year as GBC chairman, and serving now as a loyal yet concerned member of ISKCON, I here present my case to the loyal servants of Prabhupada, for their sober consideration. My sincere desire is to strengthen Prabhupada’s GBC system, and not to injure it.
Unity in Diversity
In convoking the first annual Mayapura GBC meeting, which took place in 1974 [not 1975 as stated on the GBC website], Prabhupada clearly indicated that the GBC should govern in cooperation with other senior devotees: “With all GBC and senior men present we should discuss how to make unity in diversity. But, if we fight on account of diversity, then it is simply the material platform. Please try to maintain the philosophy of unity in diversity. That will make our movement successful.” [Letter to Kirtananda Swami—October 18, 1973]
Accordingly, there must be dialogue between the GBC and senior devotees that disagree with them on practical points, or that advocate reform within Prabhupada’s principles, as I do here. After all, Prabhupada speaks of unity in diversity. He knew there would be different views. Prabhupada did not ask the GBC to eliminate bona fide diversity by punishing those who disagree with them, but rather to search for unity in diversity with other faithful devotees.
Prabhupada’s Will and the GBC
The first article of Prabhupada’s final Declaration of Will states that “the Governing Body Commission (GBC) will be the ultimate managing authority of the entire International Society for Krishna consciousness.”
Prabhupada often warned his disciples not to follow the tragic example of the Gauḍīya Maṭha which disintegrated because Prabhupada’s godbrothers did not follow their Guru’s order to form a GBC.
“Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, at the time of his departure, requested all his disciples to form a governing body and conduct missionary activities cooperatively. He did not instruct a particular man to become the next acarya. But just after his passing away, his leading secretaries made plans, without authority, to occupy the post of acarya, and they split in…factions over who the next acarya would be.” [CC 1.12.8-10 Purport]
Prabhupada himself diligently developed the GBC system in ISKCON, after introducing it in 1970. Given the dissolution of the Gauḍīya Maṭha, and Prabhupada’s personal crafting of the GBC to prevent history from repeating itself, it is natural that ISKCON has always aimed its radar at any possible challenge to the GBC system.
Danger on Both Sides
However, we must keep in mind that one can veer off any road to the right or left. Thus history teaches us that there are two dangers to Prabhupada’s GBC system:
- not accepting GBC authority;
- giving oppressive power to the GBC.
Failure to follow the GBC system will sabotage Prabhupada’s ISKCON. But an unjust or oppressive GBC can itself damage and even destroy Prabhupada’s GBC system. Consider the following.
History and social science demonstrate that a political or managerial extreme will breed its opposite extreme. This dynamic is often called the pendulum effect. First described by Galileo in 1602 within the physical realm, the pendulum effect is the law that a movement in one direction eventually causes an equal movement in the opposite direction. Newton presents a related idea as his third law of motion: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”
Social and political science often cite the pendulum effect to show that cultural, social, and political trends, when brought to one extreme, will tend to swing back to the opposite extreme. Thus throughout history, tyranny has often led to anarchy or democracy. A classic example is the oppressive French monarchy that led to the chaotic French Revolution. A current example is seen in Libya.
Prabhupada himself said that in the West, monarchy fell and gave way to democracy because it grew corrupt and oppressive. The opposite is also true: anarchy leads to tyranny, as seen in Germany after World War I.
I will argue in this paper that ISKCON has diligently guarded against one extreme: rejecting the GBC system. But ISKCON must also guard itself from the opposite extreme: tyranny. The GBC must take care not to claim, beyond Prabhupada’s mandate, an extreme power that will ultimately destabilize and undermine Prabhupada’s GBC system. Dictatorial authority may lead to a collapse of that authority, as with the Gauḍīya Maṭha, or to strong institutional democracy that jeopardizes the descending authority of the paramparā system.
As Newton said, “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Thus moderate, balanced authority will generate moderate, balanced opposition. Judicious, moderate rule is stable and sustainable over the long term, and that is what ISKCON needs from the GBC.
Engaging Scholarship to Understand ISKCON
ISKCON governance, with its achievements and failures, does not take place within a vacuum, but within a specific historical context. An objective consideration of that context reveals much about where we are, how we got there, and where we need to go.
In ISKCON’s early days, with youthful zeal we often thought that a sincere devotee is beyond the laws of nutrition, psychology, medicine, or sociology. We now know that even sincere devotees still live within human bodies and human communities. To be free of karma is not to be free of all of nature’s God-given laws, be they laws of gravity, nutrition, psychology, or sociology. Therefore, we can and should rationally study and engage those fields in a spirit of yukta-vairāgya, literally engaged detachment.
In his purport to the Bhāgavatam 1.5.22, Prabhupada states: “Human intellect is developed for advancement of learning in art, science, philosophy, physics, chemistry, psychology, economics, politics, etc. By culture of such knowledge the human society can attain perfection of life. This perfection of life culminates in the realization of the Supreme Being, Viṣṇu…When advancement of knowledge is applied in the service of the Lord, the whole process becomes absolute…Therefore, all the sages and devotees of the Lord have recommended that the subject matter of art, science, philosophy, physics, chemistry, psychology and all other branches of knowledge should be wholly and solely applied in the service of the Lord.”
In that spirit of using knowledge in Kṛṣṇa’s service, let us see what social science and history can teach us about the present state of ISKCON governance. While appreciating the sincere efforts and accomplishments of ISKCON’s governing body, we must also consider how Prabhupada’s GBC system can more effectively, fairly, and rationally govern his society. In that spirit, I turn now to the sociology of religion.
The Term Political
In this paper, I sometimes use the term political. Prabhupada often used this word in its derogatory sense: acting to achieve status or power within an organization, rather than acting on higher principle.
However, the term political also has a primary, neutral sense that refers to the government or public affairs of a society. ISKCON has a government, and ISKCON has public affairs, issues that concern devotees in general. Therefore, ISKCON has a political dimension.
Also, since individuals and groups manage ISKCON, power is wielded in ISKCON. In this way too, in the neutral sense, ISKCON has a political sphere. I suggest it is healthier to acknowledge this fact. We can then rationally study how power is, and should be, engaged inISKCON.
We must consider how, within Prabhupada’s parameters, power can be engaged more consciously, rationally, and effectively for the good of ISKCON, in a spirit of informed yukta-vairāgya.
Routinization of Charisma
Three Forms of Social Authority
In every society, including ISKCON, some individual or group exercises power over others. Max Weber (1864-1920), one of the founders of sociology, and seminal thinker in the sociology of religion, identified three forms of social power or authority: charismatic, traditional, and legal/rational. Let us consider how these three forms of authority manifest in ISKCON.
In the sociology of religion, charisma (from the Greek kharisma, “gift of grace”) indicates divinely conferred power or talent, and is thus synonymous with the Sanskrit śakti-āveśa. Weber showed that it is often a charismatic leader who founds a new religion, or a new religious movement. That religious leader possesses charismatic authority, defined as a “certain quality of an individual…by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman…powers or qualities…not accessible to the ordinary person, [and] regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary…”1
In that sense, Prabhupada is clearly a charismatic leader whose extraordinary personal qualities “inspire loyalty and obedience from followers.”2
A charismatic religious authority is often considered to have the power to communicate directly with God, and to then relay God’s will and message to followers. Thus in the language of social science, Prabhupada possessed charismatic authority. His followers accept his unique purity, and spiritual connection with Kṛṣṇa.
His followers, as is normal with charismatic leaders, accept that ultimate authority resides in and emanates from his person. Thus, as scholars point out, a charismatic leader is often revolutionary, redefining authority, and thereby, subverting traditional, unenlightened, profane authority. For his young followers, Prabhupada’s divine authority transcended all mundane cultural norms, such as mundane family or career obligations.
Similarly, when Prabhupada’s disciples went out to steal flowers for Kṛṣṇa, or sell his books, they often ignored, indeed laughed at, rules and laws that governed ordinary people. In our minds, we served a higher spiritual law that Prabhupada alone revealed. His pleasure was our law. (Of course in our immaturity, we ignored Prabhupada’s pleas that we not disturb the public.)
Many of us went straight from the revolutionary political movements of the 60’s to revolutionary ISKCON. Our youthful understanding of Prabhupada’s radical critique of the world and its customs gave us all the justification we wanted to do the needful to execute our service. The world was illusion, its rulers fools, its laws corrupt and mundane, and our cause absolute and always self-justifying.
In religious movements throughout the world, we find that followers claim absolute, exclusive authority for their charismatic leader. Thus for many, Prabhupada’s exclusive authority as a charismatic leader even extended internally to our Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava tradition. Yet, as an enlightened spiritual leader, Prabhupada always faithfully taught the traditional system of tripartite authority—guru, sadhu, and śāstra, i.e. one’s own guru, revealed texts, and previous
- Weber, Maximillan. 1947 . Theory of Social and Economic Organization. “The Nature of Charismatic Authority and its Routinization” translated by A. R. Anderson and Talcott Parson. Originally published in 1922 in German under the title Wirtshaft und Gesellschaft, chapter III § 10.
- Kendall, Diana, Jane Lothian Murray, and Rick Linden. 2000. Sociology in Our Time (2nd ed.). Scarborough, On: Nelson, 438-439.
spiritual authorities in our tradition. He insisted that it was precisely our balanced system of guru, sādhu, and śāstra that distinguished us from other movements.3
Of course in some religious movements, so-called leaders openly claim and demand exclusive, independent authority, a claim that Prabhupada rejected.
In any case, as Prabhupada well knew, charismatic authority is as precarious as it is powerful, in two ways.
- A person or community that doubts the charismatic leader’s authority can reject all his teachings more easily and quickly than a society will reject long tradition, or established law.
- A new religious society led by a charismatic leader faces an even bigger challenge when the leader passes away. Because the charismatic leader’s personal presence and authority sustained the society, the society must find a way to maintain that essential authority in the leader’s personal absence, lest the society unravel.
History and social science show that new religious movements survive when a departed leader’s charismatic authority is successfully channeled into a stable, enduring institutional structure, a process called the Routinization of Charisma. Prabhupada was keenly aware of this need to safely perpetuate his authority by investing it in a stable enduring structure after his passing. He had witnessed the collapse of the Gauḍīya Maṭha, when its own charismatic leader, Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura, passed away.
In social science language, Sarasvatī Ṭhākura ordered his disciples to routinize or stabilize his own powerful charisma, his spiritual authority, by forming a governing body. Instead, his disciples tried to perpetuate their guru’s charismatic authority by investing it in an unqualified successor Ācārya, with disastrous results.
Traditional and Rational-Legal Authority
To understand the process of routinizing charisma, we will look at the other two forms of social power or authority—traditional and rational-legal.
The Encyclopedia of Science and Religion states:
“According to Weber, the two principal types of routinization are traditional and rational-legal. In the traditional structure, a person is understood to inherit charisma in some way, often with mystical sanction (e.g., kingship). In rational-legal authority structures, a set of laws or rules serves this purpose. Real-world authority structures are usually of mixed character.”4
Again, Prabhupada understood this, and he acted to perpetuate his movement through both tradition and law:
- He personally established and trained the GBC body during his life, and named them in his will as ISKCON’s ultimate managing Prabhupada thus created a tradition of GBC management, a form of office charisma, in which spiritual authority is attached to an office, such as GBC member or temple president.
- He instructed that the GBC govern not by whim, but by reasonable, constitutional law. Thus Prabhupada provided for both traditional authority, and rational legal authority.
The GBC’s own ISKCON Constitution Committee states, “Srila Prabhupada began the creation of ISKCON’s constitution in 1966…” The committee cites Prabhupada as follows:
“We are in the experimental stage but in the next meeting of the GBC members they should form a constitution how the GBC members manage the whole affair.” [August 12, 1971]
“As far as your proposals are concerned the real thing is that we must make broader constitution of… management by GBC. But the difficulty is that our GBC men are falling victim to maya.” [December 16, 1974]
Prabhupada understood that the rule of rational law, joined to tradition, would save ISKCON from the caprice and corruption of rulers who do not possess the spiritual purity and power of the Founder-Ācārya. The Constitution committee states that the GBC has worked on a constitution, off and on, for over forty years, yet a final constitution does not yet exist. This fact is both a symptom and cause of many problems within ISKCON, as I will show later.
The GBC will maintain their power to govern and inspire the devotee community, and not just the small minority that lives in temples, to the extent that the GBC demonstrates their ability to govern by reasonable laws. Devotees need to see that they are governed by objective, fair principles, not the preferences of imperfect leaders.
The GBC must also show their ability to dynamically spread Prabhupada’s mission, since Prabhupada equated divine empowerment with that ability.
History teaches us that new religious movements, and even older established movements, face real danger of schism, deviation, or disintegration. Thus, in Prabhupada’s absence, ISKCON needs an empowered, inspiring GBC that governs according to Prabhupada’s scientific administrative principles.
As stated above, too little, or too much, power will undermine Prabhupada’s GBC system. We must balance our fear of anarchy with an equally rational fear of tyranny and corruption. In other words, tradition must be united to rational law.
For example, consider how office charisma works in ordinary life: a police officer stops a driver on the road. The officer may not be personally charismatic, but his or her traditional authority, symbolized by a police uniform, a badge, a police car, and traditional ways of speaking and acting, all evoke the power of tradition and law.
This power is positively perceived in a well governed society. In corrupt or oppressive societies, the traditional symbols of police power evoke the specter of oppression, threat, hypocrisy, and corruption. Appeals to patriotism, loyalty, and civic pride do not mitigate the negative impression caused by bad government. All these factors operate analogously in other realms of government, whether military, judicial, legislative, or executive.
The same principles operate in ISKCON governance. Without rational, fair, effective administration, the GBC’s traditional symbols of power, and their claims to sacred authority, will come to symbolize oppression, injustice, and inability to spread our global mission.
In contrast, the combination of hallowed tradition and rational law is stable, effective, and enduring. The judicial tradition does not die with the judge’s death or impeachment, nor does police authority collapse with the loss of a police officer. Similarly, the GBC system will endure as long as it stands for justice, purity, and dynamic leadership of the sankirtana movement.
The danger of losing balance between tradition and rational law can be seen in the current Roman Catholic Church. Current studies show that in America, for every person that joins this church, six people leave. This trend is mirrored in other first world areas, such as Western Europe.
Educated Catholics often see the Church as clinging to archaic, irrational traditions, such as restricting the priesthood to unmarried males despite massive evidence that women or married people can be excellent priests. Strong attachment to an irrational tradition prevents the Church from reversing its downward slide, and the much anticipated “Francis-effect” of a popular pope has failed to solve the problem.
Yet even as the Catholic Church shrinks in the first world, it does relatively well in the third world, where education levels, and expectations of good governance, are significantly lower. One wonders if something similar is taking place in ISKCON.
I now proceed to a more detailed analysis of the GBC, in which I cite evidence from their own declarations, laws, and essays.