Keeping Good Men Good


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The recent departure of Balabhadra Dasa from ISKCON, and the account of the circumstances leading up to his departure, will no doubt prompt some of my newer readers to ask the obvious question: “How could this possibly happen?”

How is it that a man who was has been a Vaishnava for more than thirty years, a spiritual leader, acknowledged by all as a guru – how could such a man fall prey to sensuality, anger, and corruption?

My simple, short reply would be: ‘Please read the Bhagavad-gita, Chapter 2 verses 58-64. It’s all in there.

Many other readers, who already know something of the history of spiritual leadership within our movement, will ask the next most obvious question: “Yes, but why is it still happening?”

My simple reply to that would be that we have, quite remarkably, still not learned enough lessons from history. And that in addition we have a little institutional blind spot. Just a little spot that restricts our peripheral vision; something that causes us to rest when we should be vigilant.

The lesson from history is that men become corrupt when in close contact with power, money, women and followers. Our little ISKCON blind spot is a vague, if not articulated antinomianism – the belief that when men achieve the grace of God they rise above the laws of God – and somehow the laws of nature.

Srila Prabhupada explained how measures must be taken to keep good men good. He told the story of how one man in India visited his friend at his place of work. The man’s friend was the proprietor of a large factory and explained that his job was made all the more pleasant by the fact that each of his workers was an honest man. While walking through the factory the visitor noticed that all of the cupboards were locked with padlocks. Surprised, he asked: “You told me that all your workers were honest, but I see that you have padlocks everywhere. What is the meaning of this?” The proprietor replied: “Oh the padlocks – those are to make sure that my honest men stay honest.”

For thousands of years in India, men who had taken to the fourth stage of life – sannyasa – were protected from deviation by maintaining a healthy distance from all possible sources of temptation. They owned nothing aside from a begging bowl, a few clothes, a bamboo staff, and a few items with which to conduct their daily worship.

Because one who takes to this way of life becomes the object of affectionate regard by others, the sannyasi keeps travelling with no permanent home anywhere. He travels, says the Srimad Bhagavatam, like a fish through water or a bird through the air, leaving nothing behind him. The cautionary proverb for sannyasis in India is ‘The rolling river grows no weeds. Weeds grow where the river water slows and touches the earth of the riverbank.’

Lord Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu mentions how desires for money, followers and women are an obstacle on the spiritual path in his famous eight verses known as The Shikshashtakam. And it is a well known fact that when a man – even a man of careful spiritual discrimination – is in contact with any or all of these then the desires to enjoy them may once again arise in his heart. Not only that, but the sense of power which may affect one who has followers can be strong enough to begin the process of corruption.

For this reason alone there are many cases in history where sannyasis would not initiate disciples. Their constant travelling also precluded them from offering the education required as part of the initiation process.

But if a sannyasi was part of a mission, such as the sannyasis of the Madhva and Ramanuja communities, and their service to God was the initiating of followers who all lived together in a religious university, then measures would be put in place to safeguard their positions of celibacy and spiritual leadership – a social padlock, so to speak.

Sannyasis would be very carefully selected, often using subtle Vedic techniques to determine his inner psycho-physical nature, then arrangements were made so that he would not have to personally deal with any person or situation which might dilute his spiritual strength. This concern for the sannyasi’s wellbeing was also echoed throughout the social system.

Srila Prabhupada taught us that in addition to such common-sense precautions, the spiritual power of Krishna consciousness itself was sufficient to prevent temptations, and that the more an individual enjoyed his growing relationship with Krishna, the less he would even think of contemplating the earthly, temporary pleasures of life.

But Srila Prabhupada offered his own cautions and explained that we should not, in the name of Krishna consciousness, place ourselves in needlessly dangerous situations. For example, one who is a sannyasi is meant to control his tongue, both in the desire to speak that which is not spiritually helpful, and in the matter of eating. Yet food offered to Krishna becomes liberating, and thus a powerful aid to spiritual life. Still, Srila Prabhupada cautioned: “Many sannyasis have fallen down in the name of ‘maha-prasadam.'”

The plain facts of the matter are that in a rapidly growing movement such as ours a spiritual leader will be required to be in regular contact with many people, some of whom may naturally offer financial contributions for the work of the movement. He may also have an institutional post which requires that he be responsible for certain aspects of management. This places him in a situation where directing the movement’s assets and guiding the spiritual lives of its members may cause him to develop – if he is not careful – an unhelpful self-identity. The notion of ‘I, me, and mine’ is the main obstacle to spiritual life when it is applied to temporal objects and powers.

This becomes further compounded if an individual is given the title of ‘guru’ as it is so easy to move from the mere title to the self-identity of: ‘I am a guru’ and from there to think in the possessive sense of ‘my disciples.’ As soon as the sense of personal proprietorship is awakened the door is opened for an increased notion of one’s personal ownership of wealth, buildings, and powerful position. And the conception of ownership is merely the precursor to enjoyment. Both conceptions are unhelpful to a progressive soul, especially one acting within a mission wherein nothing actually belongs to him. Indeed, Srila Prabhupada’s spiritual master remarked: “As soon as one thinks ‘I am guru’ he becomes ‘gauru’ or a cow” (Meaning that a cow, though sacred, is still not someone to approach for tuition)

It is not suggested by this that no-one should take responsibility for training and guiding others. The teacher-student/guru-disciple relationship is an essential component of spiritual life and is enshrined within our sacred tradition. However, the facts of the matter are that repeatedly, and with disastrous consequences, the combination of the spiritual role of guru in the context of a temporally powerful organisation is proving to be incompatible.

The difficulty in all this seems to be that, though a person is really only a guru for his disciples and no-one else, when he becomes such through institutional approval, he in effect attains an institutional position. But ‘guru’ is not an institutional position, neither is it a social position, although ‘sannyasi’ is.

I am a husband to my wife but not to others. The title ‘husband’ is therefore used by her to think of me, but is not used by others to indicate me. It may be of interest for others to know that I am a husband to a wife, but it is an expression of our relationship, not a social designator. Socially I am known as a ‘grihasta’ (married person) which is an expression of my place in society and how I relate to others.

In ISKCON, however, the title ‘guru’ has become a social and institutional designation. Institutional approval for the role of guru has led to it becoming by extension an institutional position. Thus a role that is only relevant to one’s students has become a notch in the institutional hierarchy, something it was not intended to be. It has led to such tautological statements as: “Please come to our Krishna Festival, there will be lots of gurus and sannyasis there,” as if somehow there are two different categories of Vaishnava in attendance, one group higher than the other.

The further complication is that ISKCON has further endorsed this ‘position’ of guru with such temporal power that it is hardly checked by the normal organisational scrutinies exercised by any movement of our size and purpose.

The antinomianism which abounds in some quarters of ISKCON is, perhaps, one of the reasons why we are somewhat too naive in the face of potentially disastrous combinations of spiritual authority and temporal power. Certainly, until we can understand that spiritual advancement does not, and cannot, obviate a man from following all the necessary dharmic and social codes pertaining to his age and social station, we shall fail to keep good men good, and will continue to be embarrassed.

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7 Comments

Filed under Guru-Disciple, ISKCON, Journal

7 responses to “Keeping Good Men Good

  1. Madhava

    Prabhu,

    Thank you so much for this article. As a disciple of a fallen guru I saw the very danger signs you pointed out in my guru, but could do nothing. I watched helplessly as the seclusion and other activities slowly took away his taste for sannyasa.

    I like the mood and genuine care for the betterment of how ISKCON conducts the sannyasa ashram as expressed by your words. I have oftentime thought, “I wish one day a travelling sannyasi would knock on my door and beg for alms.” As householders, we would naturally be so happy to give whatever we could to serve such a saintly person to have given up everything and live by the charity of others.

    And what would he want? Not a huge donation to push on his program. Granted, he can get that from the wealthy grihastas. But my understanding is that he will go to everyone, not to distinguish from one grihasta to another. Like the madhukari honey bee, take a little from one flower and go to the next. The mood is not that HE needs anything, but WE grihastas NEED him to come to our door so we can serve and hear krsna-katha from him.

    Today, it seems, unless you are a wealthy householder, it is practically impossible to feed a sannyasi without creating a formal event to feed a hundred people. And when the mass of devotees do go to see him, it is usually in a packed room and impossible for the grihasta to ask the personal questions to help him progress in his life.

    I understand that it takes an entire culture for such a lifestyle to work smoothly, but at least when a sannyasi comes to an established community of devotees, why not live like that? Don’t stay in the most wealthy grihasta’s home with the most opulent prasadam. Spend a night at a different home each evening. What sincere follower of Srila Prabhupada would turn such a person away?

    This only addresses my appreciation for part of your article. It will require a full in depth consideration of all those points to help the future of sannyasa in ISKCON.

    Until then, I await that knock on my door…

  2. michelle

    Thank you, Kripamoya, for such a lucid explanation of a big hurdle in spiritual life, that of antinomianism. I think that even those of us at the bottom of the heap can be careful not to use Krishna consciousness as an excuse to flout the rules and regulations, which, after all, are there to protect us.

  3. Thank you for the nice article. It is nice to see that healthy respect for sannyasis is on the increase, and that the traditional Vedic social role of the sannyasi as a renunciate, rather than the modern idea of the sannyasi being a social magnate, is on the increase as well. The more closely we follow the Vedic culture and social norms as prescribed in Srila Prabhupada’s books, the more we will all benefit spiritually.

  4. vamsi

    Dandavats Prabhu, very nicely put on such a touchy subject, but it had to addressed.
    Can I please have the sloka reference of the fish and bird from S.B. I have the sloka on an Indian music/Sanskrit tape but had no idea it was from Bhagavatam.
    Regards,
    Vamsi

  5. Mahatma Das

    Prabhupada said that when someone leaves our movement it is 50% their fault and 50% our (the movement’s) fault.

    Our movement often teaches people to swim by throwing them in the water. So naturally some will drown. If we first teach them, as best we can, how to swim in the particular waters we plan to throw them in, and also be careful who we throw in what waters, we are helping them to succeed. As you point out, in some cases it’s as if we are setting them up to fail. Thus, it is our failure and as much as it it theirs.

    With the history we have, it’s not right that anyone be given a position of extreme responsibility without being trained. This training should include understanding the potential pitfalls inherent in that position and how to deal with them. A godbrother of mine who was trained to be a minister told me that in his training there was a section on potential pitfalls. They isolated the most common ways priests, pastors and ministers had fallen in the past, examined case studies (so to speak), and were given guidelines that would help prevent the same kinds of fall downs happening to them.

    Billy Graham also did the same thing. The preachers in his organization take vows never to be alone with any woman other than their wives(these are all married men) ,not to manage money (they receive a salary that isn’t dependent on how much the organization makes), and to never criticize another genuine Christian preacher.

    All glories to those devotees who have learned how to swim by being thrown in the water. But I don’t think we should base leadership entirely on this principle. Of course we learn by doing the job, but certainly we should prepare our men and women for what lies ahead – and for a glorious future.

  6. Svaha devi dasi

    Hare Krishna devotees,for me the so-called falling of maharaja was a huge blow. I’m from South Africa and maharaja spent almost a year with us before his so called falling and we really admired him. I personally was very hurt with how the whole thing came out. The article posted on Dandavats had no difference with the way the other groups write. I felt it was just to kill his spirit, like he did nothing whilst serving ISKCON. I’m really pleading with our writers to be really mindful of the words they choose whilst writing and posting articles on spiritual websites. YS, Svaha devi dasi,

  7. Kaif

    interesting write-up. 🙂

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