Q. In the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (Iskcon) the phrase “being chaste to Srila Prabhupada” is used a lot these days, even though he never used these exact words. This phrase is repeated over and over in lectures and discussions in an effort to keep Iskcon members from straying outside that organization, either to read literature published by other Gaudiya missions or to take instruction from devotees who are not members of Iskcon. The implication is that if one takes a serious interest in either of these they are being unchaste to Srila Prabhupada—and thus an offender to him. What is you opinion about this?
I asked some Iskcon members how hearing from a devotee outside that society would make one unchaste to Srila Prabhupada and the answers I got were interesting. Many simply cited references from Srila Prabhupada against hearing from his Godbrothers saying that these were reason enough for them. Others said that hearing from a devotee outside of Iskcon might confuse members, and others thought that being initiated by a guru outside of Iskcon would connect one with a different branch of our sampradaya and that such a branch wouldn’t be as bona fide as Iskcon. Most devotees acknowledge that in his last days Srila Prabhupada said that his disciples could go to his Godbrother, Srila Sridhara Maharaja—a guru outside of Iskcon, for philosophy. However many believe that this was only for the purpose of asking for technical information and not for taking shelter of as one’s siksa guru, which would in their minds be unchaste to Srila Prabhupada. As an initiated disciple of Srila Prabhupada who later accepted a siksa guru outside of Iskcon, do you consider yourself chaste to Srila Prabhupada?
A. The ideal all devotees strive for is exclusive dedication to Sri Guru. For myself and other disciples of Srila Prabhupada, this, of course, means exclusive devotion to him. This certainly involves chastity, but on a higher level it also involves purity, within which the dynamic expression of chastity is contained. It is possible to be chaste but not pure, but it is not possible to be pure and not chaste, for the purity of spiritual advancement depends on the grace of Sri Guru. Only when he or she is pleased with the disciple can the disciple attain purity, and no one can please their guru by abandoning or relativizing him or her—by not being chaste to Sri Guru.
Chastity, as opposed to purity, implies some force. The famous chastity belts of old world Christian Europe are a good example. Whereas purity denotes absence of temptation, chastity implies controlling one’s impulses and actions. In some ways, the concept that of chastity you have described is similar to purdah, the Muslim idea of chastity imposed on its women, involving total seclusion from the world.
Chastity of this sort does have its advantages—bad influences are kept out and temptation is minimized; however, the fruit of these advantages contains the seed of their downside: insularity. In the vacuum of insularity, time stands still, and if one remains in this vacuum after its fruits are attained and does not internalize one’s chastity and go forward, what follows is the rapid slowdown of both personal growth and relevant preaching.
Going into the larger world of Gaudiya Vaisnavism, meeting other devotees and conceptions, sorting out the relative from the absolute, the siddhanta from the misconception—these things push and pull a devotee and challenge his or her faith. Not everyone is ready to make the transition from insular chastity to the madhyama stage that leads to true purity, but one whose faith is strong enough knows that staying too long in the nest of insularity actually checks the development of one’s service to Srila Prabhupada.
Let me relate to you how Srila Prabhupada himself addressed this issue. Dr. O.B.L. Kapoor (Adi Kesava dasa), a dear Godbrother of Srila Prabhupada who assisted him in Vrindavana and contributed articles to “Back to Godhead,” once expressed concern that Prabhupada’s disciples might eventually suffer from insularity by not taking advantage of the association of other advanced devotees and the entirety of the Gaudiya scriptural canon. Furthermore, he suggested, they might succumb to offensive thinking toward other advanced devotees, thinking only Srila Prabhupada as worthy of hearing from. Srila Prabhupada replied that he looked at his disciples as young trees around which he had built a fence to protect them in their early stages of growth. However, he said that as they grew to maturity they would naturally reach beyond that fence. Firmly rooted in one place in exclusive devotion to Sri Guru, they would then also be able to take advantage of the association of others without being confused.
Another way of thinking of how to proceed from insularity to a well-integrated and mature understanding of chastity is in terms of Srila Prabhupada’s books. Reading Srila Prabhupada’s books carefully leads one naturally into the entirety of the Gaudiya canon with his particular emphasis, that of the line of Thakura Bhaktivinoda—Bhaktivinoda parivara. After all, are the innumerable references within Srila Prabhupada’s books to other Gaudiya texts not there to tell the reader that he or she can look to those texts for further information on a particular subject? Only one lacking interest in a particular subject would react otherwise.
In the beginning it is natural and quite appropriate for a guru to tell the student to listen to him or her alone. However, if the student listens well, he or she will eventually realize that guru is everywhere—the universality of Sri Guru—and that our initiating (diksa) guru can speak to us through other devotees, devotees who are pure enough to serve in the capacity of an instructing (siksa) guru. How shall we regard them? Scripture is clear on this point: the diksa and siksa guru are equal manifestations of divinity and thus must be honored equally.
Ideally it is not lack of faith in one’s diksa guru that leads one to one’s siksa guru. Identifying one’s siksa guru is an exercise of faith by which divine faith is nourished, fostering its growth. In contrast to strong faith, weak faith requires an enemy. As I have said earlier, there is a place for that—but not a place in eternity.
Divine faith is independent and may appear wherever she likes. We offend her by any attempt to rule over her and legislate where and in whom she can appear. We are her servants, not her master. Divine faith is our Deity, not our doormat.
You write of your experience of Iskcon. I have not been a member of Iskcon for more than twenty years, but some of its leading members do keep in touch with me, and I think they would agree with everything I have written above. They would likely agree with you to some extent as well and honestly admit that in many instances Iskcon is troubled by weak faith in the name of chastity while lacking purity (which is a problem that is hardly exclusive to Iskcon). My humble advice is that while it is appropriate at one stage to advocate insularity, if in doing so this in turn fosters offensive thinking towards more advanced devotees whose chastity is dynamic within the scope of spiritual purity, then leaders must correct the situation. They must speak up against this, as it is counterproductive to that which it seeks to accomplish: maintaining and increasing the ranks of the institution for the pleasure of its Founder Acarya and Sri Krishna Caitanya.
Without speaking up, moderates leave the microphone in the hands of fanatic flag-waving fundamentalists, who take pride in trampling on the faith of others in the name of chastity to their Founder Acarya. Moderates must speak up for the simple reason that they know better, and the gift of knowledge brings with it the mandate to share it with others. Only as much as the leaders speak up will Iskcon experience dynamic chastity within purity. Of course in doing so leaders must exercise spiritual discretion, for while a carte blanche rejection of everyone outside of the institution in the name of chastity is faulty, it is also true that not every devotee’s association is favorable and complimentary to the emphasis of Srila Prabhupada.
In my particular case, I accepted Pujyapada Bhakti Raksaka Sridhara Deva Goswami as my siksa guru. I did so following the suggestion of Srila Prabhupada, who told us that after his departure we could approach Srila Sridhara Maharaja for philosophical guidance. Philosophical guidance is siksa, not technical advice on how to perform a particular ritual. Furthermore, no single devotee has received a more glowing endorsement from Iskcon’s Founder Acarya than Pujyapad Sridhara Maharaja. God knows that I and other ex-members of Iskcon have made the case time and time again, even while blocked from the podium. In the face of this historical record and Gaudiya siddhanta, the arguments you cited that others raised against Iskcon members accepting someone like Pujyapada Sridhara Maharaja as a spiritual authority are unbecoming an institution that prides itself in representing Srila Prabhupada. These arguments have been answered many, many times.
[Editors note: Further information on this controversial subject can be found in the book “Our Affectionate Guardians” by B. B. Visnu Maharaja, which is available for free download here.]
However, I understand the pragmatic institutional concerns and sentiments that may make it difficult for Iskcon to allow its members to accept spiritual authorities who are not members of the institution. If someone is a member of a particular institution, he or she must accept the spiritual authority of that institution, and if such a person has a second spiritual authority while remaining within the institution, this could be a recipe for problems. It is also best to remain with those who share the same sentiments and important to preserve the personal sentiments of Srila Prabhupada within Iskcon. At the same time, I believe that a policy that takes individual cases into consideration is better than a blanket policy forbidding all Iskcon members from accepting siksa from devotees who are not Iskcon members. Furthermore, in instances where it may not be appropriate for a given member to remain in Iskcon while accepting a siksa guru outside Iskcon, the faith of such persons should be honored, and all dealings between such ex-members and members should remain cordial and mutually respectful, fostering unity in diversity. It is no more spiritually correct to be on one side or the other. What is correct is to honor the free flow of divine faith.
Let me conclude by explaining further how I view my own position, about which you have asked. I am one and different from my Godbrothers and Godsisters who have not embraced Srila Sridhara Maharaja as their siksa guru. We are all initiated by Srila Prabhupada and are thus members of the Gaudiya sampradaya and the Bhaktivinoda Parivara. Thus we should be one philosophically. We have the same diksa guru. We also share the same religious sentiment for our guru. However, I have another religious sentiment for Sridhara Maharaja that they do not share. While we must be one philosophically (abheda), there is also room for a variety of religious sentiments (bheda). This difference is not philosophically wrong, nor is it somehow inordinate. The variety of sentiments in the philosophy of Mahaprabhu constitutes its beauty. Furthermore, the sentiment I have for Srila Sridhara Maharaja, although not shared by some of my Godbrothers and Godsisters, is one that I share with Srila Prabhupada himself, who called Srila Sridhara Maharaja his siksa guru. If Srila Prabhupada had affection for Srila Sridhara Maharaja, as he made clear, and if he felt that Sridhara Maharaja helped to prepare him for coming to the West in the capacity of a siksa guru, as he publicly told us in Mayapura, how can anyone justifiably object to my affection for Srila Sridhara Maharaja and my faith in his instructions?
Ultimately, all of Iskcon’s objections to my accepting Srila Sridhara Maharaja as my siksa guru are based on institutional concerns, not guru, sadhu, and sastra. Sastra does not place institutional limits on accepting a diksa or siksa guru. It speaks in universal terms and leaves practical details to the faith and discretion of the guru and disciple. In proportion to the disciple’s level of advancement, the guru guides him or her according to time, place, and circumstance; thus the record shows that in most cases before his departure Srila Prabhupada did not want his fledgling disciples to associate with many of his Godbrothers. However, his final words on the matter were that his disciples could go to Srila Sridhara Maharaja for philosophy, which I did. I never regretted this decision even though because of it I am no longer welcome in the institution that Srila Prabhupada founded. Still, I believe now, as I did then, that in the matter of accepting a siksa guru I have been truly chaste to the instructions and mission of my diksa guru, His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. By his grace may I also become pure.