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.