He who, by the Lord's mercy or by the shower of the Lord's mercy through the mercy of a great saint, is completely free from all anarthas and firmly established in the realized knowledge of the Scriptures and in the realization of the Absolute Truth, who is directly united with God and constantly engaged in His bhajan or service, he alone is definable as GURU." (Srila Sarasvati Thakura)
In the person of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, we had the opportunity to observe the above qualities. Once His Divine Grace physically departed from this world, the question of the continuation of the parampara arose: From whom would one receive initiation in the line of devotion he had introduced to the whole world?
Can one initiate on behalf of a past acarya?
After Prabhupada's disappearance, the rittvik system he had established to give initiation on his behalf while he was physically incapacitated met its natural death. One cannot initiate on a guru's behalf after his physical disappearance. Of course, a genuine guru always feels that he is not guru and that he is training junior devotees for the service of his own spiritual master, and therefore he gives them initiation with the inner feeling, that he may sometimes express outwardly out of humility,that he is doing so on his guru's behalf. This, however, is his inner bhava or devotional sentiment towards the lotus feet of his guru and shouldn't be officialized as a philosophy. And it would be offensive for the disciple to see his spiritual master as just a priest, just a connecting link with his grand spiritual master. A bona fide disciple doesn't see like that. That is not the guru-pranali, or the bona fide Gaudiya Vaisnava system of disciplic succession. Only in apasampradayas, non-bona fide disciplic lines, is this system seen to be instituted. No bona fide vaisnava line of disciplic succession accepts this system of "Rittvik-vada."
A Little History
A few months before his physical departure, on May 28, 1977, leading members of the ISKCON Society approached Srila Prabhupada with questions, among which: "Our next question concerns initiations in the future, particularly at that time when you are no longer with us." This question, if you analyze it, contains actually two questions: The first one was: What was to be done about initiation now (that Prabhupada was physically very ill and incapacitated to perform his regular activities) and in the near future until he would leave the world? His Divine Grace answered that he would name some rittviks or priests to initiate on his behalf with full discretion to decide who could take diksa, choose the person's spiritual name and chant on his beads, that's to say, full power of attorney as he had never given so far. The second question, asked in the same sentence than the first, was also pertaining to initiation, but after Prabhupada's disappearance. His Divine Grace answered that one could initiate when he would receive his order "When I order 'you become guru', he becomes regular guru."
Upon studying the transcription of the entire conversation, one can see that, although very clear, it could indeed lend itself to many possible interpretations.Unfortunat
The next month, June 1977, Srila Prabhupada gave the list of those who could be the rittviks. He said that any senior sannyasi, whoever was nearest, could perform that function. Then he gave the actual list of names. This list was based on obvious geographical distribution, for the sake of practicality only. Srila Prabhupada also said that if necessary others could be added to that list of rittviks. But that list was mistaken to be not only a list of rittviks but a list of gurus as well: The eleven rittviks wrongly assumed that they were to automatically become gurus after Srila Prabhupada's departure.
So, who could initiate? Didn't Srila Prabhupada appoint gurus?
Srila Prabhupada had appointed 11 rittviks up to the point of his departure, but he had not given anyone of these eleven disciples the order to become a diksa-guru. He had already said many times that his own Guru Maharaja had not appointed anyone as a guru nor Acarya. The so-called guru-appointment was nothing more than a rittvik-appointment misunderstood or willingly twisted and presented as a guru-appointment. Only by qualification can one be a bona fide guru. However, ISKCON's leading secretaries unfortunately misconstrued that this appointment automatically bestowed upon them the fitness not only to be gurus but select acaryas ruling over the institution. Srila Prabhupada wanted all his disputes to carry on the parampara by becoming qualified first. The qualifications he had always stressed are found in all his books and other Vedic literatures. He never intended to restrict it to a select few, but it was misinterpreted as such. Thus, the Exclusive Successor Acarya theory erroneously became the basis of the continuation of the parampara in ISKCON. In addition to their becoming diksa-gurus, each "acarya" was allocated by the GBC a specific geographical zone in which he was the exclusive diksa-guru.
Srila Prabhupada gave the order to initiate their own disciples to Srila Gour Govinda Maharaja and to HH Radha Govinda Maharaja.
Bhakti caru Swami has admitted in private that he heard Srila Prabhupada order Tamal Krishna Goswami to make a GBC meeting and decide who would initiate after him. As TKG didn't obey, Prabhupada asked him if he should suggest a couple of names, and TKG admitted then to a third party that he was afraid it wouldn't be him but Kirtanananda prabhu and Satsvarupa prabhu. Then Prabhupada mentioned the two names quoted a little above. But TKG, who would later on claimed he was the only acarya, never obeyed the order...
Siksa from the Gaudiya Math?
Srila Prabhupada had said before he departed that, although everything needed was in his books, if one had philosophical or technical questions he couldn't answer by reading his books, he could go and consult Srila Narayana Maharaja of Mathura, a disciple of Srila Kesava Maharaja from whom Srila Prabhupada had taken sannyasa, or his godbrother Srila BR Sridhara Maharaja of Nabadvipa, both belonging to different branches of the Gaudiya Matha, the spiritual institution founded by Srila Prabhupada's own spiritual master, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura.
The repetition of a mistake
After the departure of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, as it usually happens after the departure of a great Acarya, a great confusion had arisen. Srila Sarasvati Thakura had not appointed anyone as the Acarya or head of his Mission to be his successor. He had advised his disciples to keep on preaching co-jointly. He told them to form a GBC until a self-effulgent acarya would manifest and would be put at the head of the Mission. The idea was that the Acarya would be the spiritual head and leader of the Mission, and the GBC would remain as the managerial body. (The same system was set up by Srila Prabhupada and we had the same experience in ISKCON during Prabhupada's times.) But his leading secretaries started to argue about who would occupy the seat of Acarya. Two parties formed, each one backing a particular devotee. (Some other disciples,including Srila Prabhupada, didn't get involved and later on established their own separate missions and temples, but Srila Prabhupada always tried to persuade his godbrothers to reunite to preach conjointly.)
One party installed their "acarya" and drove out the members of the other party. That "acarya" later fell down; the other party came back and wanted to install their "acarya"; litigation dragged on for years; it was finally settled by civil court judgment and the two parties shared the Maths among themselves. "Both the Bhag Bazaar party and the Mayapura party have unlawfully usurped the missionary institution of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati." (Conv 30.9.69) Srila Prabhupada had narrated that story to his disciples and he had warned not to make the same mistake in his ISKCON movement. Unfortunately, a similar thing happened, with eleven acaryas instead of one. Srila Prabhupada had also said upon various occasions that Srila BR Sridhara Maharaja, for whom he had both affection and respect, was one of the leading secretaries involved in the mistake. Not knowing how to install themselves in their new position, the eleven 'acaryas' went to inquire from him, the very person whom Prabhupada had specifically warned not to take advice on this particular point, the continuation of the disciplic succession after the disappearance of the Acarya! There are two versions of the story. One is that the eleven told Srila Sridhara Maharaja that Prabhupada had appointed them as acaryas. The other is that they told him that they had been appointed as rittviks only but that he said that rittvik is almost as good as acarya. Whatever the case may have been, Srila BR Sridhar Maharaja then advised them that the major temples should be kept neutral as places of worship for all the members to come together, managed by non-initiating devotees, and that the new gurus should go and open new temples. Thus each of them would have a place where their relationship with their disciples could go on unchallenged, in the proper mood of holiness needed for it to develop. He gave the example of a man who gets married and who needs at least one room for his family. As this was not at all the mood prevailing in Iskcon that they had always known, but the mood of the Gaudiya Matha that had practically exploded in various branches, each with its exclusive acarya, after the order of its founder had been disobeyed, the idea, as it was presented to them didn't appeal to the eleven at all. They kept the concept, though, but in a completely different dimension: They divided the world among themselves, and the one room became a big territory, a 'guru-zone'.
The zonal acarya system revisited.
Ravindra Svarupa dasa has given a very good account of the unfolding of the events, published in the Iskcon Journal Nø 1 (1990) partly reproduced here. Comments between [ ] are mine. "The conviction soon grew up that these eleven had been especially selected by Srila Prabhupada to be his spiritual and material successors... They viewed their private zones as their patrimony from Prabhupada...In other words, the idea of acarya as initiating guru had become fused with the idea of acarya as the head of a spiritual institution, and under that misunderstanding, each of the eleven took the same relation to his zone that Prabhupada had held in relation to ISKCON...As each initiating guru was thought to require his exclusive territory, increasing the number of diksa-gurus became very difficult. In effect,a property requirement was added to the qualifications of guru. At least one of the existing gurus would have to sacrifice territory for a new guru to be authorized. So the number of diksa-gurus remained very small [no other devotees took up that position before 1982, and even then,only 3, then 5 more only three yearslater,in 1985] and each guru soon bore the burden of a very large number of disciples. All those who joined in a particular zone were considered providentially intended to be disciples of that local acarya.They "chose"their guru automatically when they moved in...An increasing number of Prabhupada's disciples began to feel spiritually disenfranchised. With the passage of time, ISKCON filled more and more with the acaryas' disciples, and each zone became increasingly centered on the
person of the local acarya. The movement began to take on the aspect of a dozen or so separate societies. It began to fragment... It is no wonder that very soon a number of them found themselves in spiritual difficulties.... It took [many dark years] and the deviation or falldowns of six "acaryas" before the unauthorized zonal acarya system was finally dismantled."
No proper focus
There had been complaints right from the beginning against the phenomenon of successor acaryas. As other devotees were seen to be a least as advanced or more than the selected few, there were legitimate complaints that only the eleven could be gurus, and not just gurus, but that they had become exclusive heirs of the mission of the common father, Srila Prabhupada. The focus was on that point, and unfortunately not on the actual qualifications required before one can assume the weighty responsibility of becoming the representative of God and deliver his disciples. So, more gurus were gradually added, but the basis on which they were added was only the comparison with other devotees already in the position of guru. And the unlawful basis on which the original eleven were in that position was never seriously reconsidered. The dissenters that did challenge the system were unfortunately dismissed as envious faultfinders and ostracized. Even during the "reform" of the mid-80s, the focus was still on a comparative basis and not on the adhikara or eligibility according to qualifications. The "guru reform" turned out to be only concerned with managerial issues: how individual GBC members should improve, who should be added to the body. Even though much of the fuel for reform came from concerns that the guru system was not at all proper, when the long anticipated 50 Man Committee met, there was no discussion of the qualifications of guru.
The gangrene of misconception kept on spreading.
Prabhupada never appointed gurus. He only appointed temporary rittviks, and that should be clearly understood. I deal more on this point in part 5.