Prabhupada Calls for an ISKCON Constitution
“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.” [Letter to Giriraja—August 12, 1971]
“…the real thing is that we must make broader constitution of the management by GBC. But the difficulty is that our GBC men are falling victim to maya.” [Letter to Jayatirtha— December 16, 1974]
Thirty-five years after Prabhupada called for an ISKCON constitution, after many inconclusive attempts, the GBC resolved in 2006 to answer the call. Ten years later—forty-five years after Prabhupada’s original request—the GBC has produced a relatively short draft of a proposed constitution, which I will refer to here as CD (Constitution Draft).
CD tells its readers: “We need your feedback.” I will provide mine here.
What is a Constitution?
A constitution is a system of fundamental principles or established precedents according to which a nation, state, corporation, or society is governed. Laws without a constitution are like a ship without a rudder.
Purpose Six, Devotee Rights, Unfulfilled
The preface to CD gives its six primary purposes. The sixth is “To protect the rights of [ISKCON] individuals and entities.” This sounds good, but sadly, that is the last we will hear of “the rights of individuals.” CD itself, ten years in the making, says nothing about the rights of individual ISKCON devotees.
Section IV is titled ISKCON Organizations, and Section IV.3, “Rights,” lists three rights of ISKCON Organizations. There is no section on individual devotee rights. Thus CD does not fulfill, nor even address, its ostensible Purpose 6.
Although in the past ten years, the GBC has been unable to articulate the rights of individual devotees, the GBC has been able to publish an official paper, and pass laws that forcefully affirm the GBC’s rights and powers.
As quoted above, Prabhupada seemed to attribute the lack of a proper constitution to the spiritual weakness of the GBC:
“…the real thing is that we must make broader constitution of the management by GBC. But the difficulty is that our GBC men are falling victim to maya.”
The goal of the constitution committee was to ratify a constitution by 2016. That will not happen.
In any case, let us explore further the GBC’s latest attempt to draft a constitution.
Four Conflicting Core Principles
A separate PowerPoint introduction to CD lists four “Core Principles.” The first two are promising:
- Establish the foundational principles that govern, guide and inspire ISKCON.
- Address both structure and values.
But the last two core principles go to an extreme that defeats the purpose of the first two:
- Be more inspirational, less legalistic.
- Leave details to ISKCON Law.
As we shall see, in its attempt to be “less legalistic,” and “leave details to ISKCON Law” (which we saw to be inadequate to ensure justice) this draft provides far too few legal principles and details. Thus it will not fulfill the purpose of a sound constitution—to guide, delimit, and inform a society’s legislative and judicial process, to guarantee justice and good governance to all ISKCON members.
I have given a practical example, Purpose 6, to show how CD, in its concern not to be overly legalistic and detailed, fails to provide adequate legal principles and details.
Other Articles Give No Rights
There are more problems. Article V discusses the GBC, and V.3 gives the “scope and responsibilities” of GBC members. V.3 lists nine GBC duties, such as “delegating authority, managing resources,” etc. But V.3 does not list protecting the rights of ISKCON members, or ensuring them justice as a GBC responsibility.
Another example: Article V.3 states that the GBC is responsible to do “all things necessary and proper to facilitate the success of ISKCON’s mission.” This means that if ISKCON is not successful in some parts of the world, the local GBC or the GBC body, are responsible. Those who accept power, also accept responsibility. But there is no hint of what is to be done if the GBC fails to facilitate the success of ISKCON’s mission. CD gives no legal principle and no details.
As stated, CD’s Primary Purpose 6 is “To protect the rights of individuals and entities.” However, Article VI discusses “Principles of ISKCON Governance,” without ever using words like justice, rights, fair process etc.
Having announced individual rights as a primary purpose of the draft, CD never explicitly mentions it again.
Article VI.3 on Purpose of Governance, and VI.4 on Ethos of Service, list the qualities of ideal management, but fall far short of guaranteeing anything like justice to individual members of ISKCON. The very notion of fair process, a cornerstone of a just society, does not appear in a proposed ISKCON constitution. Keep in mind that a constitution is a system of fundamental principles or established precedents according to which a nation, state, corporation, or society is governed. Thus if CD were to be approved, ISKCON would be a society not governed by fair process.
VI.5 states that ISKCON devotees “who have accepted responsibility within ISKCON are entitled to a process of review when administrative decisions are made that affect their service.” But what are the codes of that review? And what of faithful devotees who do not hold responsible positions? In either case, we find not a word here on fair process.
Indeed, the tiniest section of CD is Article VII on ISKCON Dispute Resolution. CD merely states that the GBC “shall establish both formal and informal dispute resolution methods…” Again there is no mention of fair process or justice.
The draft authors provide their own commentary or “Explanations” on CD. For Article VII, mislabeled in the explanation section as Article VI, the authors say what the Article already says, “This article simply requires the GBC to have both formal and informal dispute resolution systems,” adding that this Article “leaves the details to ISKCON law.”
Remarkably, this explanation says nothing of fair process, of justice, of individual rights. Whatever system the GBC may devise seems alright with CD. As we will see in my discussion of the ISKCON Dispute Resolution Office, having created it, the GBC did almost nothing to inform ISKCON devotees that this facility even exists, nor has the GBC seriously funded IDRO. CD does not address such eventualities.
Article VI.4.3 is another example of a promising CD statement whose promise is emasculated by the official explanation of it.
VI.4.3 states: The GBC is responsible “to establish an environment where…the respect, value, and safety of individuals is maintained.”
Explanation: “This article simply requires the GBC to have both formal and informal dispute resolution systems and leaves the details to ISKCON law.”
Rather than provide robust constitution protection for devotees, this section, and its “explanation,” offer only vague, idealistic language, easily circumvented by the GBC, as ISKCON history abundantly attests.
CD leaves details to ISKCON law, which itself gives little if any details on justice or devotee rights. Did the CD authors carefully study ISKCON law before they confidently invoked it as an adequate source of details for ISKCON justice?
In fact, CD concern with justice seems limited to dispute resolution groups, that historically have often been unable to prevent, rectify, or compensate injustice perpetrated by ISKCON leaders against subordinate devotees.
Limited Call for Feedback
CD seems to fulfill few of its lofty goals. Its own Core Principles prevent that, since this draft provides neither clear legal protection for our rights, nor details of those rights.
The Constitution drafters seek input, but not from devotees in general, who are perhaps the group that most needs constitutional protections. Rather CD’s authors “strive for consensus amongst ISKCON leaders.” Indeed, the “Feedback process focused on the ISKCON Leadership Sanga in 2016.”
The 2016 ILS meeting came and went and we hear nothing of a breakthrough in establishing a constitution. In fact, I have not met a single devotee outside present ISKCON leaders who even knows about the constitution draft process, or the call for feedback.
Still, we must praise the following section of CD which shows real wisdom.
Proposed Social Contract
Article II, Section 1: “ISKCON…is…given in stewardship to his followers who are organized as an international society under the governance of the ISKCON Governing Body Commission (GBC).”
CD explains this as follows:
“ISKCON is not entrusted to any individual but to the collective body of Srila Prabhupada’s followers organized as a society as he instructed, including his instruction that the ISKCON GBC body created by him would in his absence be the “ultimate managerial authority.”
“Stewardship of ISKCON is therefore not the exclusive domain of the GBC body but is shared in some capacity among all of Srila Prabhupada’s followers organized as a society in accordance with his instructions, including members and affiliates.”
This is clearly a different voice than we heard in the GBC claim to have inherited ISKCON.
CD also states: “The above definition of ISKCON suggests limits to the authority of the GBC, for example: the GBC cannot change the core mission of ISKCON as defined by Srila Prabhupada.”
The body of ISKCON devotees are not a managing authority. But, consistent with Article II.1, they can and should act as a moral and spiritual force. The vigilance of the saintly Vaiṣṇavas will help to save ISKCON from corruption, tyranny, and injustice. Prabhupada perfectly captures this mood of cooperation:
“Now all my disciples must work combinedly and with cooperation to spread this Sankirtana Movement. If you cannot work together then my work is stopped up. Our Society is like one big family and our relationships should be based on love and trust.” [Letter to Upendra—August 6, 1970]
Since CD repeatedly reduces devotee rights to the right to appeal to an ISKCON dispute resolution body, we will next consider what the GBC currently offers in that regard.
IR and IDRO
ISKCON Resolve (IR)
ISKCON is blessed with an excellent mediation program, ISKCON Resolve (IR), led by highly trained devotees. Throughout ISKCON, IR has facilitated peace and cooperation where there was strife and conflict.
Yet as IR explains on their website, mediation works within strict and limited boundaries.
I will list these in IR’s own words:
- “Mediation is a voluntary process that helps two or more people in conflict clarify their issues and goals… and try to reach a constructive resolution.”
Thus if an ISKCON member believes that he or she has been mistreated or denied justice by a leader, the leader may simply refuse to enter into mediation, which is voluntary on both sides. Result: there is no mediation.
- “Mediators do not make decisions about who is right or wrong or how things should be resolved—all decisions are made by the parties.”
Thus a mediator cannot rule that an ISKCON leader acted improperly no matter what the circumstances.
- “The Mediator is not a judge and will not impose a solution on either party.”
The mediator cannot enforce justice.
Conclusion: IR is a valuable program that does much good within ISKCON. But by its own rules, and the very nature of mediation, IR cannot ensure justice, including fair process, to those who feel they have been treated unfairly in ISKCON.
IDRO ISKCON Dispute Resolution Office
The GBC Resolution establishing IDRO admits that ISKCON’s justice ministry was long defunct:
“Whereas previous attempts to create a judicial process in ISKCON never took hold…” There is clear evidence that though allowing IDRO to exist, the GBC made no serious
commitment to justice in ISKCON, as shown by the following:
- A senior non-GBC devotee lobbied for IDRO.
- After authorizing IDRO, the GBC took three years to appoint a director.
- To enable IDRO to promote justice in nearly a thousand ISKCON projects in over a hundred countries, a task requiring a competent staff, global communications, international investigative travel etc., the GBC provides IDRO about $250 per month. This amount provides for about $20 per year per country, or one dollar and sixty cents per month, per country. ISKCON spend tens of millions of dollars on opulent temples and, literally, pennies on justice.
- Having taken three years to appoint an IDRO director, and having provided almost no funding for IDRO, the GBC did virtually nothing to let ISKCON devotees know of IDRO’s existence. A search of the official GBC website produced no information of its existence. A search of Iskconnews.com produced no information. A search of Dandavats.com shows one brief article on IDRO posted over a year ago.
Still, IDRO does exist, and it could provide hope for ISKCON justice. In that spirit, I point out here what I see as IDRO’s main structural problems. All quotations below are from IDRO’s own documents.
- IDRO will only accept a case that “concerns a violation of ISKCON law.” I showed earlier the grave inadequacy of ISKCON law in regard to justice for individual devotees. Andwithout adequate law, many, probably most, cases of injustice will not qualify for resolution by IDRO. Indeed, there are so few laws protecting basic devotee rights, that many forms of injustice in ISKCON are consistent with ISKCON law. IDRO cannot act in those cases of legal injustice.
- IDRO does not accept a case “when the substance of the complaint is theological.” I discussed this in detail in my review of UILA’s claim that the GBC is to manage philosophy in ISKCON. At times, theological views sanctioned by Prabhupada are forbidden by local ISKCON authorities, including GBCs. IDRO could not act in such a case.
- IDRO states that in a case of dispute, “Individual parties pay for arbitration.” In the past, the high cost of justice ruined the Justice Ministry, which essentially could only offer justice to the rich. This same danger stalks the IDRO, unless the GBC funds justice. Presently, this is not the case.
- IDRO also rejects a case as inappropriate “when the matter requires an ISKCON authority’s decision. This system does not circumvent standard managerial decisions by ISKCON leadership nor is it meant to allow leaders to neglect their duties.”
This rather opaque rule seems to allow the GBC, or lesser authorities, to declare a matter to be a managerial decision, and thus outside IDRO jurisdiction. Of course a complainant could allege that the managerial decision was abusive, unfair etc., but we have no clear guidelines for such cases, assuming ISKCON law, which is weak on justice, is not violated.
The intersection of managerial responsibility and justice is not clear. This rule requires explication.
IDRO could be a significant step toward ISKCON justice. Yet to fulfill its potential, IDRO must receive much more GBC support. Years ago, the GBC invited senior, learned devotees to form a Śāstra Advisory Council (SAC) to counsel the GBC on theological matters. But the GBC later ignored key findings of the SAC, such as their conclusion that a qualified Vaiṣṇavī has the right to accept disciples. This and other GBC neglect of the SAC demoralized several important members who then resigned. The SAC at present plays a very limited role in ISKCON.
We can expect something similar with IDRO, unless the GBC takes justice in ISKCON far more seriously.
Summary of ISKCON’s GBC
I began this essay explaining that although the GBC is ISKCON’s ultimate managing authority, there have been crucial moments in ISKCON’s history when non-GBC devotees provided the impetus and logic for urgent action taken by the GBC.
Further, Prabhupada wanted us all to work together, as he made clear when he first convoked the annual GBC meeting in Mayapura.
Using the word political in its neutral sense to indicate the exercise of authority in a society, I described the political pendulum effect, whereby one administrative extreme, be it anarchy or tyranny, produces its opposite extreme. This should caution us to avoid administrative extremes in ISKCON.
I showed how Prabhupada wanted us to engage all fields of advanced knowledge, including social sciences, in the Lord’s service, and in that spirit I engage scholarship in my attempt to analyze ISKCON governance.
I began with standard sociology of religion, which speaks of the three forms of authority in a religious movement: charismatic, traditional, and legal-rational.
We saw that to survive and flourish, a religious movement must channel the spiritual power and authority of its charismatic founder into sustainable institutional traditions and rational laws. Indeed, the Gauḍīya Maṭha disintegrated because it failed to perform that process.
I then analyzed a GBC self-description from the official GBC website and concluded that at least in this statement, the GBC had mistakenly concluded that in his will, Prabhupada had appointed them the successor ācārya of, and heir to, ISKCON.
I argued that in fact, Prabhupada did exactly what he said he was doing: naming the GBC as the ultimate managing authority of ISKCON, not as a successor Ācārya that stands above ISKCON law. The GBC failed to provide historical evidence for their argument that Prabhupada implicitly named as his full heir and successor, simply naming them in the first clause of his will.
I then discussed the dangers to ISKCON of this mistaken self-understanding, in which imperfect souls claim the authority of a perfect soul. Imperfect souls suffer loss of empathy in proportion to their increase of power. Also, the GBC is an oligarchy and the iron law of oligarchy explains the tendency of ruling groups to increase their power at the expense of the citizens; and the tendency of power to fall into ever fewer hands.
The tendency of saintly GBCs to avoid heavy management adds to this problem.
We then saw that history is replete with cases of austere, pious tyrants who acted cruelly. The GBC is not cruel but its members who are not fully pure will be affected to some extent by general human tendencies.
Perhaps the most significant manifestation of this error is the GBC’s tendency to act above and outside the rules of justice, such as fair process. I argued by obeying reasonable laws, the GBC follows Prabhupada. To act outside those laws is to imitate Prabhupada.
I then discussed Western and Vedic notions of justice and showed that both traditions link justice to the equality of souls, and the need to govern in a way that maximizes human freedom.
Kṛṣṇa Himself teaches justice and equality in the Bhagavad-gītā.
I explained that Kṛṣṇa also teaches hierarchy in terms of the varṇāśrama system He created, and that a virtuous society must balance the spiritual equality of all souls with the needfor functional hierarchy. This concern finds close echoes in Western philosophy, as in the ideas of Mill and Durkheim.
I then surveyed the categories of justice, and the special importance of fair process.
A study of GBC/ISKCON law showed that the very language of justice—words like equality, justice, fair process, rights etc.—is missing from ISKCON law. Also the GBC allowed the Justice Ministry to lapse into total dysfunction, and did not take the initiative to revive or replace it.
I then showed that restraint and punishment in GBC law is heaviest on those with little or no power and lightest on those with ultimate power. This has obvious implications and perils.
I gave special attention to the dramatic disparity in the rules, restraints, and punishments placed on ISKCON’s two most powerful groups: GBC and Gurus.
An examination of the appeal process in GBC law showed it to be seriously deficient.
This matters, since the right to fair appeal is a pillar of justice.
I next examined the important GBC paper titled Understanding ISKCON Lines of Authority. The essay aims to define and clarify the relationship between ISKCON managers, such as GBCs and Temple Presidents, and ISKCON Gurus and Sannyāsīs.
I appreciated the intention of the paper, to persuade devotees that the GBC is reasonable and justified in its policies. However, I pointed out a number of serious problems in UILA, such as the tendency to exaggerate GBC power and minimize the role of other ISKCON authorities. We saw this in UILA’s virtual exclusion of gurus and sannyāsīs from the planning of preaching strategy.
UILA also tends to strongly subordinate all devotees to ISKCON’s ultimate managers. Prabhupada stressed cooperation. The GBC stress subordination. Prabhupada also stressed the importance of individual freedom and dignity among the Lord’s servants. There is little of such language in UILA.
UILA quotes Prabhupada saying that the GBC will be ISKCON’s primary teacher when he is gone. I then suggested what the GBC must do, and not do, to fulfill this mandate. For example, GBCs must not use political power to exclude ideas they cannot objectively refute, nor to impose ideas that they cannot reasonably show to be exclusively valid. This has been a problem in ISKCON.
Since Prabhupada urged the GBC to write a constitution, I next examine the latest constitution draft. I showed that this draft is well-intentioned, and wise on some points, but that it ultimately fails to inspire, mandate, or explain justice in ISKCON. Thus it does not fulfill its stated purpose — to protect our rights, and establish a constitutional foundation for a rational, just ISKCON.
Finally, I show that ISKCON Resolve, an effective mediation program, and the more recent ISKCON Dispute Resolution Office, cannot, by their own charters and rules, ensure justice to ISKCON devotees.
Without justice, any managing authority will rule within a culture of impunity, in which mediocrity, tyranny, and injustice go unaddressed.
The more devotees are convinced that the GBC governs with justice, compassion, and strategic ingenuity, the more devotees now estranged from ISKCON bureaucracy and hierarchy will consider more direct involvement in ISKCON’s mission. Only thus can the GBC fulfill their obligation to Prabhupada — to unite ISKCON and dynamically spread his movement.
There exists between GBC and non-GBC devotees a relationship of mutual obligation, mutual duty. The GBC receives its authority from Kṛṣṇa through Prabhupada. That authority requires them to treat devotees with respect and fairness.
It is the GBC’s duty to do what is right, fair, and beneficial for ISKCON. And they must persuade the devotees that they are doing so.
Hierarchy and equality must be kept in balance. The GBC must not overemphasize hierarchy so that it obscures our ultimate equality. Nor can we overemphasize equality so that it obscures legitimate hierarchies. Extreme equality and extreme hierarchy both threaten Prabhupada’s balanced vision for ISKCON. We must avoid the political pendulum effect.
Ultimately, ISKCON needs a strong, wise, inspiring GBC if we are to flourish as a society and fulfill the brilliant, ambitious hopes and prophecies of our Founder-Ācārya.
I wrote this paper as a sincere attempt to address needed reforms in ISKCON governance. I hope the GBC and other ISKCON devotees will accept it in that spirit. To all those who read these words, may we work together to fulfill Prabhupada’s vision for his movement, ISKCON. The world depends on us.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]