Thoughts on ‘Back to Prabhupada’ magazine




Srila Vyasadeva explains the Vedas to Madhvacarya

Not so long ago, I read a magazine that arrived in my letterbox. I had an hour to spare during my daughter’s Indian dance class and wanted to study its pages so that I could properly reply to the sender. Back to Prabhupada was sent to me by someone who espouses the ritvik doctrine, the conclusion that since Srila Prabhupada is the spiritual master of every ISKCON member, that consequently there should be no other initiations or gurus. The magazine is very well produced on glossy paper with colour photographs and well-researched articles. I have read them several times before because propounders of this particular idea distribute their magazines with great enthusiasm at our Rathayatra festivals around the country. They are also mailed in substantial numbers to almost anyone whose postal address is listed in any ISKCON publication.


I receive a lot of mail these days, and there’s always a fair bit from devotees of Krishna in some part of the world who have strongly-held views on either philosophy or organisational policies. Some feel that a particular nuance of Vaishnava philosophy has been misunderstood or improperly applied. If only ISKCON were to fully comprehend and apply this particular doctrine, they say, then it would surely become rightly situated. Others maintain that the Vaishnava philosophy as taught within ISKCON is perfect but that its organisational policies are ineffectual, or that a particular section of the international community’s membership is being unheard or ignored. If only ISKCON would allow its organisational policies to be set by this section of the community then all would be well. Still others clamour that ISKCON should embrace a particular charismatic individual under whose benign guidance the movement would become a heaven on earth.


Now of course, this sort of passionate expression of thoughts and feelings is beneficial, even when accompanied by zealous table thumping and highly charged journalism. The energetic discussion of ideas and political reform within a movement like ours is not only to be expected, but encouraged. Writing, debate, and campaigning should be regarded as a sign of intellectual vitality, particularly within a spiritual community that wishes to avoid the theological constipation that debilitates many religious organisations.


After all, most of us modern devotees of Lord Krishna who were not born of Indian parents have embraced Vaishnavism after periods of intellectual struggle and great leaps of faith. It wasn’t easy for us to adapt to a new world-view, to take up the rigorous daily practises, and to lose a few friends along the way. We had to become rebels to the society of our birth, rejecting materialistic views, political notions, and consumption of harmful foods and drugs that were considered socially normal. ISKCON is consequently made up of people who dared to be different, who reached the platform of spiritual happiness through the process of argument and intellectual conviction. So you’d expect devotees to enjoy debate wouldn’t you?


The particular ideas put forward by those who espouse the ritvik doctrine are sincerely heart-felt and have developed out of concern for the well being of ISKCON’s members. They gradually developed from 1978 onwards, just after Srila Prabhupada’s physical departure, and have been perpetuated by a vocal minority ever since. Their understanding is that the only guru worthy of the name is the liberated soul who perfectly loves Krishna. Since Srila Prabhupada is the only person who clearly demonstrated this degree of love and devotion, he should obviously be the only guru within ISKCON who gives initiation. And since we have experienced periodic disappointment with spiritual leadership over the years we should reject all notions that a guru-disciple relationship can exist in anything other than this cardinal relationship with Srila Prabhupada. Although these ideas are all well known to me, I nevertheless read the Back to Prabhupada magazine in its entirety to see whether any new perspectives were there. As I closed the last page I realised that my allotted parental waiting time was up and I went in search of my daughter’s classroom.


The Harrow Arts Centre in north London is made up of several buildings and by the time I found the right one I was just in time to see the Bharata-natyam students lining up to pay respects to their dance guru. I watched as my daughter Jahnavi respectfully bowed to touch the wooden tattukazhi box at the feet of her guru then raised her hands in a pranam gesture. The guru is from India, an excellent dancer, and comes in a long parampara or disciplic succession of gurus. When I asked her how she felt making such obeisance she explained that her guru has given her something she really enjoys; that he gives her discipline that is paying off in her growing ability; and that paying respects feels natural to her. I then thought that such things are a fundamental part of the classical guru-disciple relationship in Eastern culture and essential for the transmission of knowledge and skill from the senior expert to the junior learner.


Now, the ritvik reformists may argue that the teaching of dance and the teaching of the absolute truth are entirely different. And of course I agree. One teacher is known as the vyavaharika, or ‘conventional’ guru, and the other is known as the paramarthika guru, the teacher who gives ‘ultimate wisdom’. But the culture of respect and the need for parampara are identical. As we drove home I was wondering whether one could only gain knowledge – whether of dance or the absolute truth – from one who is perfect in his art. I am confident that my daughter’s dance-guru is not the best dancer in the world, or the best dancer there has ever been in history. But he is a disciple of a guru who was a good disciple of his guru and in this way he is continuing the parampara (literally ‘one after the other’) passing on the knowledge and skills he has learned, to the best of his ability.


Our contemporary ISKCON Vaishnavas who have assumed the role of guru for their students would never claim to be liberated souls, and are certainly not the best devotees who have ever lived in history. They regard themselves as upakarikas, or ‘helpers,’ in the mission of the acarya. They don’t claim to be perfect, and no-one makes that claim for them. What they do claim with confidence is that Srila Prabhupada is a liberated associate of Sri Krishna who was sent to this world to deliver the message of Godhead and to travel the world establishing a movement to perpetuate the teachings long after his physical disappearance. If they claim to be anything themselves, it is that they are recipients of his grace, and as such, they feel compelled to share their good fortune with others. And so they travel, preach, inspire, guide and encourage. They also initiate their students who naturally develop a healthy respect and gratitude towards them.


It is not a fact that Srila Prabhupada did not want anyone to take disciples or to become the next in the parampara succession. Quite the opposite – and for obvious reasons. He told several of his disciples that this was the traditional process and that they must have even more disciples than he himself. At the Bhaktivedanta Manor in 1973 he told every devotee sitting in the temple room that he was 12th in the succession coming from Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and that: ‘…all of you are the 13th.’ It is certainly true that there were those who took up this order prematurely, or who allowed the privileges and honour ensuing from the role to affect them, but that in itself – disappointing as it is – should not cancel thousands of years of tradition or the natural relationships which develop between teacher and student today.


ISKCON continues to grow despite those many mistakes, and wherever it is growing you will find healthy guru-disciple relationships. Srila Prabhupada is the unquestionable source of all knowledge and guidance, direction and encouragement for all of his senior disciples who now have disciples of their own. Surely those who want Srila Prabhupada to be exclusively honoured, and who want us all to go ‘Back to Prabhupada,’ should recognise the contribution of his senior disciples who, over the 30 years since his physical departure, have brought tens of thousands of souls to his feet?








Filed under Guru-Disciple

18 responses to “Thoughts on ‘Back to Prabhupada’ magazine

  1. guru carana padma

    I think this is a very balanced understanding of the ritvik issue and the relationship between guru and disciple. Surely most disciples at present in ISKCON do not think that their guru is a perfectly liberated soul but understand that their depth of knowledge and understanding of Krishna consciousness is greater than their own and so can learn from them about Srila Prabhupada’s teachings and respect the principle of guru.

  2. “It is not a fact that Srila Prabhupada did not want anyone to take disciples or to become the next in the parampara succession.”

    Srila Prabhupada encouraged his disciples on many occasions to take up the role of guru. It is an essential service required to support flourishing devotional communities.

    Thanks for the clear analysis.

  3. Thank you Prabhu for a nice analysis of this phenomena. I too have been a recipient of their magazine, which on many occasions I found too tempting to read if only to see what their latest angle was to push the doctrine.

    I always find that the way they ‘prove’ that only Srila Prabhupada is qualified to bu Guru is to find any discrepancy in other Guru’s and blow it out of proportion, as if to say ‘just see, this is what they’re all like!’

    I like Hridayananda Maharaja’s point in a class where he says that taking this philosophy that because some are disqualified then all are, you can show that because 1/4 of all souls fall into the material world then none are qualified to be with Krishna!

    Since nobody but Prabhupada is qualified to teach, then that includes them and self-defeats their own philosophy…

    I find it a fascinating subject, and sad that people buy into it so easily, especially when they’ve been burnt out.

  4. Shalav

    Hare Krishna Prabhu.

    This is by far the most clear insight into the ritwik issue I have read so far. Being a neophyte these juicy discussions interested me, but still somehow I tried to keep away from such articles.
    But when i came to bangalore my awareness of this issue heightened a bit and when i visited ISKCON Bangalore, all i could think was that this is different. This is not the “real” ISKCON. But after reading your article, my mind has been put to rest.

    Thank you so much.

    Your unqualified servant,

  5. Rohith

    Hare Krishna Prabhu,

    Please accept my humble obeisances.

    I have been hearing and observing this debate for quite some time and am quite happy to read your balanced presentation here. However, I have a few doubts and I am hoping you can help.

    If Prabhupada really intended his disciples to be diksha gurus and succeed him to his vyasa asana, why did he leave us all in a doubt on how this was to be done. We are all aware that Prabhupada did not go into samadhi ‘accidentally’, but knew very well of his limitation on time. When he has given the minutest of details on how to run a temple; how to conduct deity worship etc, it is quite difficult to digest that he would overlook or avoid an instruction on how the parampara should continue – after his samadhi. As far his last instruction on this subject matter goes, it is limited to how initiations are to be done – while he was still on this planet – and not available physically to give initiations. There is no communication available at all (except of course the claims of the current gurus) that he personally asked his 11 disciples to take up his Vyasa Asana and ‘continue the parampara’.

    It is very evident from Prabhupada’s teachings that he never permitted or allowed concocted ideas on anything. How is it that he let his disciples to decide on how the system to work post his ‘appointed 11 acharyas’, on subjects like what to do when a ‘guru falls down’, about re-initiation, about how to deal with ‘other’s guru maharajas’…

    And just to look at this from an ‘extra-iskcon’ perspective… how is it that a ‘deviant camp’ like the Bangalore temple is able to manage such a large scale operation – like attracting over a lakh of devotees every month; feeding krishna prasadam to over 7 lakh children every single day, distributing the highest number of Prabhupada books in the world, having the grandest and biggest festivals amongst all of ISKCON temples….When – they are ‘obeying’ the orders of their spritual master?? How is Srila Prabhupada and Krishna permitting such an ‘offense’ against them and allowing it to happen?

    Why is it that the ‘real followers’ of Srila Prabhupada are not able to keep up the standards and are falling down one by one – so much so that the GBC has to make laws on what to do when your guru falls down!

    Why is that the ‘real followers’ of Prabhupada are not able to attract ‘western followers’ which was the biggest intention of Prabhupada going to the US – but have reduced most ISKCON temples outside India to either a gathering place for NRIs or to a complete shut-down due to bankruptcy?

    Please – do not take these to be a ‘ritvik argument’ – I am still trying to figure out what makes sense.. and as you can see – the scales do tilt a great deal towards the ‘ritvik’ story… but it would help if someone can prove it otherwise – IF its true!

  6. Dear Rohith, thank you for all your questions. Time does not allow me to answer them in detail, but I will try to write something more in a day or two.

    Many devotees have questions such as yours and much has been already written on the subjects you’ve raised. The discussion has been going on now for 30 years and the end is not in sight. That is the way of personal opinions and often too much of the wrong kind of discussion can prevent us from the right kind of action. And life is short!

    So here are just a few points to you by way of reply:

    1. We don’t know that Srila Prabhupada knew exactly when he would depart. He may have done, but the fact is that he did not tell that to us and we cannot guess.

    2. Srila Prabhupada would not leave instructions on the future direction of his movement until a few months from his departure. He wanted his movement to continue to be successful and had been giving guidance as to how this was to be done ever since 1966 when ISKCON began.

    3. Those who follow the ‘ritvik’ idea claim that the letter of July 9th is the document that shows how he wanted initiations in his movement to continue. There are many reasons why this idea does not make good sense.

    4. He had already explained carefully that those of his disciples who carefully followed his instructions would accept disciples in the future and that this was the law of disciplic succession.

    5. The Bangalore temple is successful because they are following Srila Prabhupada. ISKCON’s contention is simply whether they have sufficient in place to guarantee success into the next generation of followers. We must plan for decades and centuries and not only for this years successes.

    6. As I have said before on this site, it is most unfortunate for the disciple, the guru, and the Vaishnava sangha, when someone no longer holds to their vows. But it is not a modern phenomenon. At least 400 years ago there are records of it in our line, and Srila Bhaktivinode Thakur, writing back in the middle of the 19th century, explained how a disciple should reject an incompetent guru .

    You would expect anyone who was in the line of Srila Prabhupada to not repeat history having been forewarned wouldn’t you? But pride still comes before a fall it seems. Perhaps we all have to heed our acarya’s warnings when he said: “My disciples only fault is that they are not afraid of maya.” Of course, this ‘only fault’ leads to every other fault and fall.

    7. I’m not sure what you mean by your claim that only ‘Non-resident Indians’ come to ISKCON. I know that this is a claim by the ‘ritviks’ to further portray ISKCON as a failing organisation, but do you have the figures to substantiate your statements? I am in Europe and have just attended our international meeting in Italy with representatives from all over the EU. It is certainly not the case there, and neither is it the case in Russia. Of course, if people from India who now live in any country of the world discover one of our temples they may naturally wish to become supporters. Is there any harm in that? Should we turn them away?

  7. Braja Hari das

    I would just like to comment (in support of) point 7 in your email above.
    ISKCON is certainly NOT digressing into being a social occasion for NRIs. I have been to a lot of temples all over the world (quite recently Hong Kong, Frankfurt and Radhadesh, Belgium) and see quite a few local (and western) devotees.
    And we (my wife and I) are living proof of your point that Indian devotees living in different countries find ISKCON temples and gravitate towrds them. In my case, I try to resist a posting by my Company to a town where there is no ISKCON temple available. Haribol!

  8. Amit Krsna Das

    Well, a detailed article but I don’t agree with your points. I was initiated by an ISCKON guru and later I had some difficulties in my Spiritual life so I seeked answers from my Diksa guru. Unfortunately, I didn’t got any anwers from him. Later, Prabhupada answered my every spiritual query in his lectures. I don’t need an incompetent show bottle guru for fashion, when the real bonafide guru is available in his lectures, books, room conversations. One just need to get serious to take his association.

    • Thanks Amit Krsna das prabhu, I appreciate your feelings on this. My follow-up article is “Two Gurus and a False Dilemma” in which I make the point that it is not an either/or situation. You don’t have to reject your diksha guru in order to obtain a relationship with Srila Prabhupada, nor reject Srila Prabhupada in order to have a relationship with a diksha guru.

  9. Amit Krsna Das

    Thank you Prabhu. I will read it. All glories to Srila Prabhupada.

  10. Mohinder

    Hare Krishna. I have found your articles on gurus and disciples mature and thoughtful, and am wondering whether you accept disciples or may be doing so soon?

  11. I have read Srila Prabhupadas books for a long time and don’t really like to hear others speak much, which makes it hard to listen to anyone else with faith in what they say. I have faith in Srila Prabhupada so when I read his books My mind is peaceful and I come away with determination to serve krsna, on the other hand when I hear others speak I become disturbed as my experience is all my seniors lack the purity of Srila Prabhupada and can’t be trusted to give or even relay correct instructions on how to execute this life’s mission, I have been let down time and again by nonsense philosophies and advice when ever i have seeked shelter outside Srila prabhupadas books, But I think due to the numerous instruction to seek higher association and to take shelter of the initiation process and get initiated by a bonafide guru in SP books, Something is missing, I don’t agree with rtvic philosophy, as no where in the books is this instructed that forever Srila Prabhupada will be like jesus. What is in SP book is: one comes and hears then, takes up process, chanting reading, one or any nine of the devotional activities, and then when our motivation becomes free from karma and jnana the result is association with a pure devotee and thats perfection. How ever this cant take place if your associating with a plastic guru, as thinking you have achieved the goal already (association with your fake guru) you’ll probably never accept real guru and because of fake guru’s association you’ll never become purified or qualified to have association with actual good elevated persons. also rtvics wouldn’t accept higher association even if narada muni came they will ask, are you initiated by SP? if not? go away! My personal thought is iskcon should abandon all nonsense gurus and initiation processes and bogus philosphies like feminism, etc.. and together executing prabhupadas instructions fully lead by sravana kirtanam again become a movement that not only sends transcendental ripples out through the universe but attracts the mercy of Krsna and His unlimited pure Devotees, If their is any problem it is with us, because we Have not developed the sukriti and fortune to have that personal association. instead we pretend to surrender and follow and accept a pretend guru or we change the philosophy like the christians and create a savior. AGTSP PAMHO

    • I agree with many of the things you’ve said here. You certainly can’t accept anyone as a teacher or guide if you find something in their spiritual standard or guiding ability to be at fault. Yet you know you have to seek out senior association because you’ve also read that in Srila Prabhupada’s books. And you’re not convinced of the ritvik argument that the parampara finishes with His Divine Grace. But you can’t find anyone that you find trustworthy or inspiring. I would urge you to remember that a guru comes to you as a result of much prayer and strong desire, and that Krishna is compassionate to all of us, as we surrender. I can only imagine that there is an even better plan for you, one that has simply to be revealed at some stage of your progress.As always, let’s chant and be happy.

  12. Thankyou for your nice reply lets chant and be happy jaya!

  13. mpopat

    Hare Krishna, a few points I would like to make in response to the above. Firstly parasu108 says “no where in the books is this instructed that forever Srila Prabhupada will be like jesus.” Yet Bhakti Caru Swami says that Srila Prabhupada should be worshipped in ISKCON just like Jesus.

    “What Jesus is to Christianity and what Muhammed is to Islam, Srila Prabhupäda should be that to ISKCON.”
    (Bhakti Charu Swami, Day 3, LA Seminar, 11/6/2000)

    Also, HH Tamala Krishna Goswami said Srila Prabhupada was equal to Jesus:

    “I had no doubt that Srila Prabhupada was equal to Lord Jesus in every way.”
    (Tamal Krsna Goswami, “Servant of the Servant”, page 25)

    And Srila Prabhupada himself said that Jesus is the current spiritual master for the Christians:

    “When you read the Bible, you follow Spiritual Master. How can you say without? As soon as you read the Bible, that means you are following the instruction of Lord Jesus Christ, that means that you are following Spiritual Master. So where is the opportunity of being without Spiritual Master?”

    ” As you say that “by reading Bible”, when you read Bible that means you are following the Spiritual Master represented by some priest or some clergyman in the line of Lord Jesus Christ.”
    (Conversation 2/10/1968 in Seattle)

    Secondly, parasu108’s statement that “rtvics wouldn’t accept higher association even if narada muni came they will ask, are you initiated by SP? if not? go away!” is not true. The ritvik argument (as I understand it) is that we should all take association from siksa gurus who are teaching correctly what the diksa guru Srila Prabhupada is teaching. To support this, they quote the following:

    “The GBC should all be the instructor gurus. I am in the initiator guru, and you should be the instructor guru by teaching what I am teaching and doing what I am doing. This is not a title, but you must actually come to this platform. This I want.”
    (Srila Prabhupada letter of 4 Aug 75)

    To say that “we create a savior”, implying that Srila Prabhupada is not our savior, is shocking!

    Finally, the ritvik argument is not that the parampara ends with Srila Prabhupada, but that the parampara is continuing with Srila Prabhupada as he is still very much alive in his teachings.

    Thanks for listening.

  14. Anonymous

    Hare Krishna, I have a question regarding this point:

    3. Those who follow the ‘ritvik’ idea claim that the letter of July 9th is the document that shows how he wanted initiations in his movement to continue. There are many reasons why this idea does not make good sense.

    What are these “many reasons”?

    Thank you.

    • Thank you for your question,
      Well, several of the many reasons might be Srila Prabhupada’s letters, lectures, and conversations in which clearly indicated that his disciples could initiate after his physical disappearance.

      I don’t agree that the letter of 9th July, which was not written by him, and was clearly in response to a different and much more immediate initiation question, can be regarded as a conclusive direction as to how initiations were to be conducted for ever afterwards.

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