Found in Sanga, Sanga 2005.

Never Leave Iskcon

February 23rd, 2005 | No Comments

Q. Sankirtana means congregational chanting of the holy name of God. Why is preaching equated with sankirtana?

A. Sankirtana involves, among other things, glorifying Krishna widely, loudly, fully, collectively (sam), for the benefit of oneself and others. In the vision of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura, this extends to the distribution of the message of Mahaprabhu. Thus advocated a dynamic understanding of sankirtana and coined the phrase brhat mrdanga (big drum) in reference to the printing press and the distribution of Krishna conscious literature.

Q. Iskcon members told me that their society is based on preaching while the Gaudiya Math is based on nama-bhajana and lila-smaranam (meditation on the pastimes of Krishna). They say that for Western devotees Srila Prabhupada established the path of preaching because if one is not pure, lila-smaranam may be easily confused with maya-smaranam. What are your comments on this?

A. Although I am not a member of Gaudiya Math, I can tell you that this statement seriously misrepresents the Gaudiya Math institution of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura. In his mission Srila Bhaktisiddhanta emphasized preaching along with nama bhajana, both of which bring about the removal of unwanted habits (anarthas), thus qualifying one for lila-smaranam. Preaching and bhajana are not divorced from one another. One leads naturally to the other and Srila Prabhupada instituted both in his mission.

Srila Prabhupada asked his devotees to chant sixteen rounds of nama japa every day. What is sixteen rounds of nama japa? Is it preaching? No. It is bhajana. He also told devotees who reside in his temples to rise before sunrise and attend the mangala arotika ceremony as well as attend arotika again in the evening before they retire. Is this preaching? No. It is kirtana and arcana, and where did Srila Prabhupada teach that devotees should not remember the pastimes of Sri Krishna (lila-smaranam)? His books are all about the pastimes of Sri Krishna and the philosophy underlying them.

What he did say was “work now, samadhi later.” Work in this sense refers to preaching, japa, kirtana, arcana, and other forms of guru seva including cooking, cleaning, and management. Performing these acts with sincerity leads to a pure heart with which one can remember Krishna always in samadhi of lila-smaranam.

Q. I took first initiation from a guru in Iskcon but lost contact with him. This happens because once you’re initiated there are new prospects that need care and attention. I have no hard feelings about this but find it difficult to get the spiritual guidance that I feel I need. Instead of spiritual guidance one mostly gets a pep talk from local authorities on how we should preach and save the world. This gives one enthusiasm for a short time and then most devotees go away. My question is whether it is mandatory to take second initiation from the guru who gave me first initiation?

A. Iskcon is the largest international Gaudiya Vaisnava organization and the vast majority of devotees affiliated with any international Gaudiya institution have been introduced to Krishna consciousness through Iskcon. Thus Iskcon deserves our appreciation and respect. However, if Iskcon is not working for you, then move on. Krishna consciousness is not exclusive to Iskcon. Srila Prabhupada acknowledges this in his Nectar of Devotion where he writes, “There are many societies and associations of pure devotees and if someone with just a little faith begins to associate with such societies, his advancement to pure devotional service is rapid.”

If you would like to receive mantra diksa from someone other than your nama guru, you are free to do so. Diksa is based on faith. You are free to seek mantra diksa from whomever you like, and again, one need not be a member of Iskcon in order to practice Krishna consciousness and make spiritual advancement.

Q. There are many statements in Srila Prabhupada’s books that appear by modern standards to be quite sexist. If Srila Prabhupada had understood how women really feel about hearing such statements and how it impairs their tender creeper of spiritual resolve, would he have spoken so strongly and at times so blatantly?

A. The answer to this kind of question—what would Prabhupada do if?—is found in the concept of guru-parampara. Those who represent the dynamic spirit of Srila Prabhupada do not say things that might negatively affect people’s enthusiasm for Krishna consciousness in the present social environment. In other words, there is no need to speculate as to what Srila Prabhupada would have done had he been given different information or had there been different circumstances because he lives on within the institution of guru-parampara. This system provides for adjustment as new information and circumstances arise, adjustment of details that serves to implement the essence of Sri Caitanya’s precepts.

Otherwise, in my experience Srila Prabhupada was unlimitedly compassionate and considerate of others in all circumstances. In many cases when he found out that people of another culture looked at a particular social issue differently than his own culture did, he would adjust his presentation in consideration of cultural differences as long as such adjustments did not compromise the essence of Mahaprabhu’s teaching.

Q. I was told that one’s gratitude to Srila Prabhupada is in question if one takes initiation from a guru outside of Iskcon. What is your opinion of this statement?

A. My opinion is that this statement is offensive to Srila Prabhupada and contrary to his essential teachings. Srila Prabhupada taught that initiation is based on the faith of the disciple and the qualifications of the guru, not upon the guru’s affiliation with a particular religious institution. Gurus that are actually qualified inspire people to accept initiation by their scriptural knowledge and pure spirituality, not by using subtle intimidation such as you have described.

While Iskcon is the religious institution that Srila Prabhupada founded and no doubt wants to flourish, he also acknowledged that there were qualified gurus outside of Iskcon. Iskcon members would do well to admit this and thereby stop trying to denigrate the faith of those who have been initiated by gurus who are not members of Iskcon. Srila Prabhupada’s acknowledgment is illustrated in the following excerpt from a letter where he gives permission for his own disciple, a devotee who had been in Iskcon, to take second initiation (diksa) from his Godbrother and join that Gaudiya mission.

“Please accept my humble obeisances at your lotus feet. I understand from the letter of Asita das that he has gone to your place in Jagannatha Puri. He has asked permission from me for taking initiation from you. I have given him my permission and you can initiate him if you like so that he may increase his devotional service there.” (Letter 75-01-14 Bombay)

Gaudiya siddhanta teaches that one should take initiation from the guru who awakens one’s faith in nama dharma. If a person finds faith and inspiration in relation to a qualified guru outside of Iskcon, then naturally that devotee should take initiation from him or her. Would Srila Prabhupada approve of doing otherwise? Would he approve of a person taking initiation from a guru that he or she was not fully inspired by, simply for the sake of showing gratitude to him?

Such a display of ignorance and sentimentality would certainly not be pleasing to Srila Prabhupada. Is his mission to increase the membership of Iskcon or to spread Krishna consciousness? Those that answer this question by saying ‘both’ need to be aware that Krishna consciousness is infinitely larger than just Iskcon. Knowing this, members of Iskcon should be encouraged toward healthy interaction with devotees of other Gaudiya institutions, rather than being erroneously told that one’s gratitude to Srila Prabhupada is in question if one takes initiation from a guru outside of Iskcon.

Q. Wasn’t Srila Prabhupada’s siksa to “never leave Iskcon” and doesn’t this instruction apply for his disciples as well as their disciples?

A. Where exactly, and in what context, does the siksa to “never leave Iskcon” appear? Srila Prabhupada might have said something similar to this, but I could not find anywhere where he actually wrote or said “never leave Iskcon.” I did find an instance in a letter written in 1976 where an unhappy devotee was told by Srila Prabhupada not to go outside the shelter of Iskcon. Considering its contents one should note that Srila Prabhupada was still personally in charge of Iskcon at that time and that until 1981 his society was the only Gaudiya Vaisnava organization in the West. Now there are many Gaudiya organizations preaching outside of India.

Even if the so-called siksa “never leave Iskcon” does appear somewhere, how can one justify making those words the pivotal instructions around which all other siksa from Srila Prabhupada must revolve? Especially considering everything that has happened in Iskcon during the past twenty-seven years since his disappearance?

For example, what if one is faced with a choice between an instruction such as “never leave Iskcon” and the instruction to never offend a pure devotee? Certainly the instruction to never offend a pure devotee is more prominent in Srila Prabhupada’s books. Therefore, which instruction is more important? What if the so-called mandate to never leave Iskcon implicates one in offenses to pure devotees because Iskcon administrators instituted a policy of Vaisnava aparadha shortly after Srila Prabhupada’s departure? Note that many of the original architects of this policy are no longer in Iskcon themselves, including seven of the eleven Iskcon gurus that came to power almost immediately after Srila Prabhupada departed.

Of course, I recognize that to many devotees the virtues of choosing between remaining in Iskcon and leaving Iskcon are not so clear. But in my case Iskcon’s governing body made the choice perfectly clear. They ordered me to reject Sridhara Maharaja as my siksa guru or leave Iskcon. They ordered me to reject the guru that Srila Prabhupada said was a pure devotee and his siksa guru.

Srila Prabhupada said,

“I had the opportunity of associating with Sridhara Maharaja for several years. Krishna and Prabhupada (Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura) liked him to prepare me. Sridhara Maharaja lived in my house for many years, so naturally we had very intimate talks and he was my good advisor. I took his advice and instructions very seriously, because from the very beginning I knew he was a pure Vaisnava, a pure devotee, and I wanted to associate with him, and I tried to help him also. Our relationship is very intimate.” (Room conversation, March 17, 1973)

Srila Prabhupada wrote,

“If you are actually serious to take instructions from a siksa guru, I can refer you to the one who is the most highly competent of all my godbrothers. This is B. R. Sridhara Maharaja, whom I consider to be even my siksa guru, so what to speak of the benefit that you can have by his association. So, if you are serious about the advancement of your spiritual life, I will advise you to go to Sridhara Maharaja. It will be very good for your spiritual benefit, and I will feel that you are safe. When I was in India with the others, we lived with Sridhara Maharaja. You can also make arrangements for your other godbrothers to go there in the future.” (Letter, January 31, 1969)

[Editor’s note: further information on the relationship between Srila Sridhara Maharaja and Srila Prabhupada can be found in the book Our Affectionate Guardians.]

However, rather than continue this endless debate regarding “never leave Iskcon,” I propose that we adjust to the present, forget the contentious past, forgive one another, and work cooperatively to preach the essential teachings of Sri Caitanya. To agree to do this, I believe, would please Srila Prabhupada infinitely more than further argumentation on the subject of leaving Iskcon. The following letter illustrates that cooperation between Iskcon and other Gaudiya societies is what Srila Prabhupada had ultimately hoped for.

My dear B. S. Bodhayana Maharaja,

Please accept my humble obeisances. I am in due receipt of your letter dated 2/11/76 for which I thank you very much. The Bengali letter delivered with my letter has been delivered to Kamal Narayana. My thanks are also to Santo Maharaja. I’m very much obliged to you that you write to say, “It is clear to me that you are great powerful Acarya in the Vaisnava world at present.” Sometimes Sridhara Maharaja also says like that. So, actually if you are feeling like that let us work conjointly. There is great prospect for preaching Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s message all over the world and in India also. At least in India we can preach very vigorously if we combine together. It is already tested in many cases. Whenever we held some festival in big, big cities like Calcutta, Bombay, Hyderabad, Madras, Delhi, etc., thousands of men gather and they request regularly to continue the program. Recently we held a similar program in Candigargh and the devotees of Sri Caitanya Gaudiya Math also participated. They invited me in the local center of Sri Caitanya Gaudiya Math and many thousands of people came to hear me. So there is great prospect if we work conjointly at least in India. So you can consult Sridhara Maharaja also. He’s also of that opinion you have opined and if in this old age we can do something combinedly it will be a great triumph. I thank you very much once more.

Yours affectionately,
A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami

Leave a Reply

* Name, Email, and Comment are Required

Subscribe without commenting