Law and Language
In his Preface to the published body of ISKCON Law, the late, lamented Suhotra Swami, who was then [1997-98] the 2nd Vice Chairman of the GBC, wrote, “there are undoubtedly areas that our laws do not cover sufficiently.”
He was certainly correct. A perusal of ISKCON law shows few if any laws guaranteeing justice to regular ISKCON devotees, who constitute most of our movement.
On its current website, the GBC hedges Suhotra Swami’s statement by declaring that “…there may be some areas that our laws do not cover sufficiently.”
I begin my analysis of published ISKCON/GBC law by studying its language. Does ISKCON law contain the very language of justice? Read and judge for yourself.
Equality is a key concept in the Bhagavad-gītā, and it stands at the core of justice. Yet the word equality does not appear in ISKCON Law. Equality cannot be taken as a merely Western concern. Indeed, Prabhupada uses the word many hundreds of times in Vedabase, often with a philosophical and moral sense similar to the Western sense.
The word equal appears once in forty years of GBC law, in this sentence: “The devotional service of the women is considered equal by Lord Kṛṣṇa and the spiritual master.” Given the status of women in ISKCON, and the wording of this sentence, and the absence of any ISKCON law guaranteeing equal justice to women, this one use of the word equal in ISKCON law can only refer to the internal pleasure of Kṛṣṇa and guru. It guarantees Vaiṣṇavīs no equal justice in the visible world.
Other Key Words
Published ISKCON law does mention rights of devotees, but only as follows:
- Law 7.1.1 Disciples have a right to worship their guru, to accept instruction and initiation, to associate with other gurus, and to aspire for shelter and initiation.
But what if a leader mistreats them in some way? In that case, ISKCON law gives disciples no right to justice or compensation.
- Law 126.96.36.199.d states that Regional Governing Bodies must define the rights and responsibilities of RGB members. ISKCON law does not define those rights, nor do those undefined rights apply to non-RGB members.
- Law 188.8.131.52: Congregational programs must negotiate sankirtana rights with local temples.
Conclusion: ISKCON law says nothing about the rights of regular devotees to be treated with justice by their superiors.
Are rights a purely Western idea? No. Kṛṣṇa states in Bhagavad-gītā 2.47, “You have a right to your duty.” Kṛṣṇa teaches that our duty is born of our nature [3.33, 18.41-44], and that we achieve perfection by working according to our own nature [18.45-46], and that we must not perform another’s duty [18.47], for it is dangerous to do so [3.35].
We may therefore conclude that this vital right to perform the service or duty born of our nature entails a clear right within ISKCON: the right, the necessity, to perform service according to one’s nature.
Any leader who denies a devotee, man or woman, the right to serve Kṛṣṇa according to his or her nature is preventing that devotee from obeying Kṛṣṇa’s order, and is forcing that devotee, man or woman, into a spiritually dangerous situation. [3.35]
Thus Kṛṣṇa’s declaration of our right to serve Him according to our nature has serious social consequences, and is ultimately the foundation of all our other rights. So the notion of rights comes from Kṛṣṇa Himself. But the word does not appear in forty years of GBC law.
The word fair occurs once in ISKCON law, in the phrase, “the fair market value for such property.” The word fair is not used in ISKCON law to express ethical, moral, or spiritual concern for the treatment of devotees.
The word fairness does not occur in ISKCON law.
The word just, as a synonym of fair occurs once in ISKCON law, to say that a GBC’s annual report should include: “…debts which with just cause could not be avoided…” The word just is not used in ISKCON law to express ethical, moral, or spiritual concern for devotees.
The word impartial occurs once in ISKCON law, to describe an investigation into whether a property should be sold or not. GBC law does not use the word impartial to express ethical, moral, or spiritual concern in the treatment of devotees.
ISKCON law uses the terms fair, just, and impartial only to describe management concerns, never to speak of the treatment of devotees. Equality and fairness do not appear in ISKCON law. And the word rights is used in ways that offer devotees no significant protection from mistreatment.
The terms due process and fair process do not appear in ISKCON law.
What about the word justice itself? Here too, those seeking guarantees of justice in ISKCON law will be disappointed.
Justice in GBC Law
Published ISKCON law has two sections on justice:
- Section 4.4.2 establishes and defines the so-called Justice Ministry.
- Section 17 defines ISKCON justice itself.
GBC Law 4.4.2 Justice Ministry
The 2011 GBC resolution establishing the ISKCON Dispute Resolution Office (IDRO, to be discussed later) contains this telling phrase, “Whereas previous attempts to create a judicial process in ISKCON never took hold…”
“…never took hold…” is a polite way of saying that the GBC’s Justice Ministry has been essentially defunct for many years. And nothing substantial has been done to replace it. Nonetheless, we should examine what ISKCON law says about the Justice Ministry to better understand the GBC theory of justice.
In 2002, the GBC authorized, and then supported, ISKCON Resolve, an often effective mediation program. More recently, in 2011, the GBC established IDRO, as stated above.
However, neither program provides a system of justice for ISKCON, as I will show later. For now, let us examine what GBC law says, and does not say, about the phantom Justice Ministry.
I begin with the unsaid: no GBC Resolutions—that is, no ISKCON law—dealing with the Justice Ministry says anything about individual devotee rights, nor makes any reference to any other text, including GBC papers, that guarantees the rights of regular devotees to justice in ISKCON.
Moreover, as stated above, for decades none of the GBC resolutions about the Justice Ministry have been executed. Thus for decades the GBC knowingly allowed a situation in which ISKCON has no program dedicated to justice.
It is sad and ironic that the first ISKCON law about the Justice Ministry states:
“184.108.40.206 Definition: The Ministry of Justice is…fully authorized by the GBC, …given assurance of the participatory support of each GBC member which will be necessary to successfully execute the mandate described herein, and given sufficient resources to efficiently and effectively deal with grievances and complaints which arise within ISKCON.”
Of course, apart from mediation, none of this has really taken place for decades. Also this section of GBC law does not give guidelines, definitions, or descriptions of what justice actually is within ISKCON.
GBC Law 17.1-2 Justice
One might hope that section 17 of ISKCON law, titled Justice, would explain what justice is for devotees in general. But that hope would be in vain.
ISKCON law’s tiny section 17 on Justice basically states that a devotee with grievance against a temple president may appeal to the GBC zonal secretary, and meanwhile follow orders.
Note that according to this Justice section of ISKCON law, a devotee cannot appeal a decision of a GBC zonal secretary. Only a temple president can do that. Nothing has been added to this section on Justice in twenty-three years.
Besides resolutions establishing the phantom Justice Ministry, and a tiny section telling us how to appeal the actions of a temple president, the word justice does not appear in published ISKCON law.
In all published ISKCON law, there is no description of justice itself, nor a clear declaration of the rights of individual devotees.
Yet though GBC law does not efficiently protect devotees from injustice, it does efficiently punish them. To use the preferred GBC word, the laws discipline the devotees.
Sadly, however, GBC law lacks both the language and spirit of equal justice based on the equality of souls, a concept taught in Bhagavad-gītā, and in the West. Thus it is not surprising that GBC law presents a system of hierarchical justice: heavier on the powerless, and those with limited power; heaviest on those with competing power: and most lenient with those who make the laws.
I will first list the ranks in this hierarchy, and then survey the hierarchical justice system by citing GBC law.
The ISKCON power hierarchy is as follows:
- The powerless tend to be devotees in general who hold no position in ISKCON, and have little influence on decisions that shape Prabhupada’s mission.
- Those with limited power are what GBC law 5.5. calls ISKCON officials, with the titles of President, Vice-President, Treasurer, Temple Management Council Member, Project Director, Congregational Preaching Director etc. Law 5.5 stipulates that this group does not include Regional Secretaries, gurus, or GBCs.
- Those with competing power are gurus. As I will show, the GBC goes to extraordinary lengths to control this potentially dangerous group. More than managers, gurus tend to be charismatic leaders. And sociologists point out that charisma by nature threatens bureaucratic authority.
- At the hierarchical summit is the ruling GBC, with their closest colleagues: regional secretaries, and members of regional governing boards whose members include some GBC representatives.
Next, a study of GBC law, especially those laws that set standards, and punish deviation, reveals the hierarchical, unequal, nature of justice for various groups. Beginning with the powerless, devotees in general, we will proceed through the four groups till we reach the legal pinnacle: GBC members, the lawmakers themselves.
Discipline of Devotees in General
In Section 8.4 of GBC law, we find two full pages of crimes and punishments aimed at those who participate in ISKCON, but are not necessarily leaders of any kind. This section lists seven kinds of misconduct and failure to follow authority, followed by five kinds of escalating punishment—censure; probation; suspension pending investigation; suspension; and excommunication (also called expulsion).
An appeal process is mentioned but with no clear instructions or information about how one actually files an appeal. There is no mention of due process. Thus an appellant has no stated right to know the charges against him or her; no stated right to a timely decision; no stated right to present evidence; no right to a fair and impartial fact-finding or hearing, no right to a fair decision, nor to freedom from retaliation, nor to privacy.
Discipline of Lesser ISKCON leaders
Section 5.5 of ISKCON law, titled Discipline and Conduct of ISKCON Leaders, gives over two pages of rules and procedures to discipline, censure, place on probation, suspend, and remove ISKCON leaders.
But the law adds a caveat: none of these rules apply to ISKCON’s top leaders:
“Sections concerning tenure and discipline of Regional Secretaries, Gurus and GBC members are to be included in different sections.”
Sections 5.5 aims at temple presidents, and also “Vice-President, Treasurer, Temple Management Council Member, Project Director, Congregational Preaching Director, etc.”
Discipline of Regional Secretaries, RGB
We find here a curious distinction: section 5 of GBC law lists many dozens of duties and standards for temple presidents, but almost none for Regional Secretaries, other than to assist the zonal GBC secretary, and help the temple presidents set up a zonal exhibition booth for the annual Mayapur-Vrindavan festival.
Further, there are no laws that explain when and how to discipline deviant Regional Secretaries, nor does GBC law provide any descriptions of the spiritual character and conduct that Regional Secretaries should manifest. In other words, GBC law gives page after page of rules on these very subjects for Temple Presidents, but nothing for Regional Secretaries, who stand above Temple Presidents.
Moreover, GBC law says virtually nothing about standards of character and conduct for members of Regional Governing Boards. There is no law telling us when and how RGB members are to be disciplined?
Discipline of GBCs, Compared to TPs
GBC law states that a GBC member cannot break the regulative principles, commit a crime, or criticize other GBC members. Apart from that, there is no explicit GBC law telling us why and how a deviant GBC member is to be disciplined.
GBC law 220.127.116.11 states, “a GBC member should be an ‘acarya’ by teaching by personal example the path of Krsna consciousness in its purity.”
This is a nice idea, but with little practical, detailed articulation in ISKCON law. To illustrate, let us compare the standards of conduct for Temple Presidents and GBC members. We cannot include Regional Secretaries and RGB members in this comparison because GBC law does not enjoin any explicit standards of conduct for them.
GBC law 18.104.22.168 lists five spiritual standards and three service standards for temple presidents. So let us compare the specific, detailed qualities expected of Temple Presidents to those expected of GBC members. “TP” here indicates Temple Presidents.
TP: “avoid intimate dealings with the opposite sex.”
GBC: No such rule.
TP: Must be…honest, and trustworthy. [Able to] manage, organize, and conduct meetings.
GBC: No such rule.
TP: Has a service attitude, respects all devotees and is able to work with others.
GBC: No such rule.
TP: Can communicate well and is able to motivate and inspire people.
GBC: No such rule.
TP: Cares for people.
GBC: No such rule.
TP: Must be expert in his or her area of service or possess a willingness to learn.
GBC: No such rule.
TP: Must follow an entire section 22.214.171.124.6.3, titled Care [of devotees]:
GBC: No section on Care of devotees.
TP: His mood is as servant of the community members.
GBC: No such requirement.
We have seen that GBC law prescribes many rules, and threatens many punishments, for temple presidents, and other junior leaders, but very few for members of the GBC, and none for the RGBs, and regional secretaries. What does GBC law say about gurus? Are there many rules and punishments for them, or very few, as for ISKCON’s top managers and lawmakers?
Conduct and Discipline of Dīkṣā Gurus
Having promised in law 5.5 that different sections of law will give standards and discipline of top leaders, the GBC does not disappoint us in the case of dīkṣā gurus. Indeed, the
section covering the conduct and discipline of dīkṣā gurus, 7.4-7.5, is the largest section of its type in all of GBC law. Therein, we find dozens and dozens of GBC laws to restrict, regulate, discipline, and punish, dīkṣā gurus.
These laws include nine general standards; three more standards in relation to the GBC; three standards in relation to GBC zonal secretaries; eight standards in relation to “ISKCON Spiritual Authorities; and four standards in relation to temples, for a total of twenty-seven. There is a host of other laws regulating many aspects of a guru’s life. All of these myriad standards and laws trigger a barrage of punishments when not followed.
Here is just a sample of GBC laws regulating dīkṣā gurus:
7.2 Qualifications of Gurus in ISKCON
7.2.1 Twelve Mandatory Qualifications
7.2.2 Four Discretionary Qualifications
7.3 Eligibility of Devotee to be Guru in ISKCON
7.4.1 Procedure for Commencing the Service of Diksa-Guru
126.96.36.199 Endorsement of an Area Council
188.8.131.52.2 Principles of Evaluation
184.108.40.206.4 Communication of Objection
220.127.116.11 Provision for “No Objection” Letters
18.104.22.168 Requests for Further Review
22.214.171.124.4 Further Direction to Guru Candidate
7.4.3 Seven Vows of Guru (over half of these involve obedience to the GBC and its laws)
126.96.36.199 Nine General Standards of Guru Conduct
188.8.131.52 Three Standards in Relation to the GBC Body
184.108.40.206 Three Standards in Relation to GBC Zonal Secretaries
220.127.116.11 Eight Standards in Relation to ISKCON Spiritual Authorities
18.104.22.168 Four Standards in Relation to a Temple
7.4.5 Monitoring of Gurus by the GBC
22.214.171.124 Annual Reports from Gurus
126.96.36.199 Emergency Reports about a deviant Guru
7.4.6 Discipline of Diksa-gurus, including:
- Nine kinds of Misconduct and Failure to Follow Religious Principles or Higher Spiritual Authority
- Two kinds of Improper Discharge and Neglect of Duty o Four kinds of Spiritual Discrepancy
o Five ways to censure a dīkṣā-guru
o Two ways to place on probation, suspend, or rescind the power to initiate, of a dīkṣā-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
188.8.131.52.4 Restriction of times for Vyaspuja
184.108.40.206 Five ways to restrict a Guru under suspension
7.5.1 Five circumstances in which one rejects a fallen guru.
In the past many gurus had problems, and so have many GBC members. So just as the GBC provides many dozens of rules to control gurus, so that they cannot seriously harm ISKCON, one would expect a similar long list of rules for those who claim and wield ultimate power in ISKCON: GBC members, and their closest colleagues: Regional Secretary and Regional Governing Board members. But as we saw there are no GBC laws on the conduct and discipline of Regional Secretaries. Let us look more closely at the RGB members.
Regional Governing Board (RGB) Members
In 2002, the GBC passed an amendment, GBC law 3.4.1, to establish ISKCON RGBs. With a 2010 update, this section fills three pages of GBC law. Law 220.127.116.11 defines the power given to RGBs:
“If the GBC Body delegates a particular function to a Regional Governing Body, then any decision of the RGB within the scope of that function is binding within the Region as if the decision had been made by the full GBC Body, but it may be overruled by majority vote of the GBC Body.”
Note that in GBC law, a single GBC member may overturn the will of a temple president, or guru. But a majority of the entire GBC body is required to overturn the will of an RGB. Thus we may say that the RGBs are second only to the full GBC in their power and authority.
And yet GBC law says not a word about disciplining an RGB member, nor their standards of conduct.
18.104.22.168.1 lists Minimum Delegated Functions for an RGB (Regional Governing Body).
There is no mention of justice for devotees, nor of expanding the preaching.
There is no list of standards of conduct for RGBs. Unlike temple presidents, RGBs are not told to care for the devotees, nor to inspire people, nor to act as servants of other devotees. ISKCON law says nothing about the discipline, conduct, or character of RGBs, though it says a great deal about these for temple presidents and gurus.
But what of ISKCON’s ultimate managing authority, the GBC? The GBC claims to be Prabhupada’s heir and successor, so it would seem most vital that the GBC monitor and verify the excellent character and conduct of its own members. What then does GBC law say about the character, conduct, and discipline of GBC members?