Local Diksha: For When the Oil Runs Dry

Sri Ramanujacarya chose 74 disciples to act as gurus after his death, one for each major holy place. Did he create ‘zonal acaryas?’ And if so, how did they avoid the corruption we have come to associate with such an idea?

Sri Ramanujacarya (1017-1137) created 74 simhasana-dhipatis or ‘throne-holders,’ to give initiation after his death, he created what we in ISKCON would term ‘zonal acaryas.’ He chose 74 of his disciples to give diksha, each of them affiliated to one of the many temples spread far and wide throughout a large tract of India. Those temples were not created by Sri Ramanujacarya but were ancient places made famous by his disciplic predecessors, the Alwars, who sung about the Deities within them in their four-thousand hymn Divya Prabandham. In many cases Ramanujacarya restored or regularised the worship of those Deities and safeguarded their worship in perpetuity by establishing systems of succession.

The Sri Vaishnava movement sought to contend with, and defeat, the spread of philosophical impersonalism, the atheistic notion that the personality of the Godhead evaporates at a particular point in the Hierarchy of Realities. So to ensure the daily ceremonial worship of the Supreme Person in every branch of the movement was a grave consideration which could not be allowed to fail. Indeed, the success of each and every temple was factually the success of the entire enterprise. And because people require diksha in order to perform Deity worship, ensuring the continuation of disciplic succession through diksha was an integral part of planning for future success.

Many of the original 74 were householders, married men who were greatly learned, qualified and able to teach the scriptures for the required period so that an aspirant could become fully trained. Ramanujacarya created 700 sannyasis, but due to their ashram requirements, they travelled constantly which made such periods of formal tuition improbable. But the householders did not travel and could engage in teaching and the regular Deity worship the movement required. As the years went by, the qualified family descendants of the 74 gave initiation and continued the Deity worship.

This same system was also perpetuated within the Gaudiya Sampradaya – the forerunner of the modern Hare Krishna movement – by Sri Gopala Bhatta Goswami. He arranged that disciples would care for his Deity of Radha Raman with the understanding that their descendants would take up the worship as the years went by. His disciple, Damodara Goswami, wrote in detail of the procedures by which this was to happen. The worship of Radha Raman has thus been safeguarded for 500 years, much as the worship of the 74 Deities has in south India for the past 1000 years.

Much later on, when the 74 gurus had become 74 large brahmin families, or rather communities of families, each family group selected a sannyasi to become the guru for samasrayanam or ‘taking shelter’ initiations, while the brahmins would continue to perform the upanayanam or ‘gayatri’ initiations.

Both the founder-acarya of ISKCON, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, and his own guru, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura Prabhupada, heavily criticised flaws in the seminal succession – the lineage of brahminical families – especially when the system seemed to produce those who were factually, ritually, initiated but spiritually unqualified. Yet Srila Prabhupada was appreciative when the system worked well and produced the carefully-preserved Deity worship of the Radha Raman temple.

Today in ISKCON we are faced with similar considerations of safeguarding the teaching, Deity worship and missionary preaching on into the next generations. There are those who give initiation within our movement and we also have a system of localised training. Factually speaking, and notwithstanding our well-known instances of spiritual leadership failure, the movement is growing in size and geographical spread. Yet there is some systemic indecision – a vacillation which has persisted for many years – over the best way to ensure the movement’s future growth; to produce the desired result with none of our previous failures. We have also had leaders who were factually and ritually initiated but who later proved themselves to be spiritually unqualified. Avoiding the seminal succession and practising disciplic succession does not in and of itself, it seems, guarantee freedom from corruption.

Those failures in the matter of spiritual leadership, so painful and far-reaching for all concerned, have created a movement with several strongly-held opinions as to how best to create systems of succession that will not result in corruption and disappointment a generation from now. We don’t want any future followers, one hundred years hence, to endure anything similar.

While many of us now reserve our undiluted scorn for the period of our ISKCON history known as the ‘zonal acarya days’ it seems that a notion of geographical dispersion for localised initiation was favoured by Sri Ramanujacarya, one of the greatest Vaishnava acaryas of all time. And it may be that our own sampradaya acarya, Srila Prabhupada, did actually intend, in his last days, to choose eleven gurus for the giving of initiation, one in each continent. It was a logical idea with considerable history of success and a thousand years of history behind it.

Being a guru for a particular geographical ‘zone’ is not an inherently bad idea and does not inevitably produce corruption. What produced the corruption within ISKCON was the same confusion as took place within the Catholic Church; the confusion of spiritual power and temporal power. When the position of spiritual leadership becomes mistaken for temporal ownership of a human following and material resources then all men become tempted and some do not survive that temptation.

Our ISKCON ‘zonal acarya days’ also produced the phenomenon of such men, duped by their apparent ‘ownership’ of adoring followers, wealth and buildings, forcing initiations upon those who really didn’t want it. Such spiritual abuse produced widespread disgust. Yet I believe it wasn’t exactly the system that produced the bad results, merely, as is very common, the bad people within the good system.

Of course, one other underlying reason behind all these problems, the theological mistake which precipitated everything else, was the confusion between ‘guru’ and ‘acarya.’ Srila Prabhupada was the only guru that his followers knew, but he was much more than that, he was also the founder and head of the institution and arranged everything over a mere twelve years to establish his position for years to come. Not only this, but Srila Prabhupada was the kind of pure Vaishnava who comes only once in a generation. Emulation of Srila Prabhupada, his voice and speech, his dress, manner, acceptance of worship, travel, and so on was perhaps predictable, given that in their new role ISKCON’s gurus took it as their duty to model their behaviour on that displayed by him. But for many of them it proved their undoing.

The Sri Vaishnavas, it would seem, have avoided such indiscretions by keeping the figure of their founder-acarya as unique, and by having realistic expectations of their gurus.

In our haste to move away from our troubled beginnings I feel we may have come to conclusions too quickly. The zonal system may not be as bad as we imagine, and there may even be good reasons for its restoration in some form.

Consider what we have in its place currently: 84 initiators criss-crossing the world in aircraft, giving initiation to three people here, five people there. The relentless travel places a strain physically on the guru and is not economic with their precious time. Due to the various countries in completely different parts of the globe where the guru must show his face in order to have any kind of relationship with disciples, each disciple gets only a few hours personal tuition per year, if that. Even with the theological conceptions of vani-seva and service in absentia taken into consideration, this makes for weak connnections between guru and disciple, which of course, when multiplied thousands of times, makes for a weakened movement.

Then there is the slight question of cost. The cost of travel for 84 men to fly around the world, in some cases duplicating each others routes, has surely reached the point of misuse of funds, if not patent absurdity. And we won’t even mention the carbon dioxide creation that entails.

And if that wasn’t enough, we are all faced with the spectre of rapidly diminishing oil reserves and the consequent scarcity of aviation fuel. We have the strong possibility that within this generation we will see the gradual disappearance of air travel as we know it today.

For a sustainable future for ISKCON, for a strengthened future, we need to explore today what our movement’s procedures for initiation would look like without international air travel. I personally feel that we need to think globally, act much more locally.



Filed under Guru-Disciple, ISKCON

15 responses to “Local Diksha: For When the Oil Runs Dry

  1. crowfineart

    Dandavats Prabhu,
    As ever you make perfect sense.

  2. Thanks Jereme, to me both sadhana-bhakti and pushing forward our mission are very logical pursuits; and the organisaton of both of them must also be founded on logical principles. We are not the first to undertake a large scale operation for spreading Vaishnavism, so perhaps we can learn from previous acaryas who also did it.

    There is evidence that Srila Prabhupada’s guru examined the Sri Vaishnavas to see how they operated, and he even examined the Rama-Krishna Mission which was quite a prominent organisation in Bengal at that time.

    Srila Prabhupada based his management of ISKCON on the best organisational practises, too. He asked the GBC to conduct their annual international meetings according to ‘Robert’s Rules of Parliamentary Procedure,’ a handbook followed at Westminster; and he even said that devotees should examine the Catholic Church to see which systems and structures helped them to organise an international concern.

  3. ccd

    I feel there are elements of what was called zonal acharya system that could have been more sustainable should the associated worship and competition be removed from the picture.

    One needs to be honest. Two of the 11 gurus selected by Prabhupada to possibly be his successors were householders. Lets think, what made them take sannyasa?

    Another consideration is that when we talk about some of the above later taking a lower standard, eg getting married, that would suggest that they should not have been demonized for this. It appears that reasons for that are the same as the reasons pushing them to take up the sannyas.

    Examples of Ramanujas line could be further reinforced by successions of the line of Vallabhacharya. While before him the sampradaya was mainly ascetics, after him it is all ‘white’ and very stable.

    Anyway, just a few questions from my neck of the woods.

  4. And very important questions, too, ccd, thank you.

    It is a curious idea that prematurely adopting the fourth stage of life, sannyasa, will somehow result in spiritual advancement. Curious, also, is the associated notion that married people are intrinsically bereft of it. These concepts, born of neophyte understanding of a complex subject, have wreaked havoc.

    If we read Srila Prabhupada’s books carefully we’ll discover the opposite ideas. Perhaps we should simply follow his books?

  5. ccd

    There is a notion of advancement that is automatically received because the person appears to be qualified to receive the sannyas mantra, which has esoteric meanings. But I agree that this is not a requirement that Prabhupada ever put forward. In fact it appears that he, on a number of occasions, went ahead and clearly opposed this system of the Gaudia Maths, where (for still to be explained reason) guru/acharya has to be a sannyasi. Nobody knows why really, but I guess it is the result of the initial power struggle that happened right after disappearance of BSST. Incidentally both successors to BSST were not sannyasis (but took sannyas after the disappearance of BSST, with roughly same rate of success as our zonal acharyas.

    I do not dispute that to be a sannyasi one needs to be more advanced than a regular householder. But to be a proper householder one needs to be even more advanced. So the system that we inherited without regard to Prabhupada’s instructions can be rightly questioned. Why it is not being questioned, that remains to be seen.

    ys Caitanya candrodaya dasa

  6. Giridhari Das

    What Caitanya Candrodaya Prabhu says (“both successors to BSST were not sannyasis (but took sannyas after the disappearance of BSST, with roughly same rate of success as our zonal acharyas”) is not actually true.
    Whereas Ananta Vasudeva obviously had serious problems and made severe deviations, Bhakti Vilasa Tirtha Maharaja never deviated philosophically and maintained his sannyasa perfectly. Thus, I think it is somewhat unfair to say that he had the “same success rate as our zonal acaryas’. Forgive me for sounding controversial, but any so-called deviation that happened in Gaudiya Math is nothing compared to what happened in our movement after Srila Prabhupada’s disappearance.

    Caitanya Candradaya Prabhu also say –”In fact it appears that he, on a number of occasions, went ahead and clearly opposed this system of the Gaudia Maths, where (for still to be explained reason) guru/acharya has to be a sannyasi. Nobody knows why really, but I guess it is the result of the initial power struggle that happened right after disappearance of BSST.”

    Srila Prabhupada had a conversation with Jayatirtha Dasa wherein he said that “Acarya must be sannyasi. I am a sannyasi and my Guru Maharaja was a sannyasi.” When Jayatirtha brought up the example of Bhaktivinode Thakur, Prabhupada interrupted him and said, “Why do you bring up Bhaktivinode? You are not Bhaktivinode!”

    Srila Prabhupada took sannyasa. Bhaktisiddhanta took sannyasa. They both did the majority of their preaching as sannyasis and gave diksha to thousands of people as sannyasis. In this way Prabhupada was following in his guru’s footsteps. In what way was he opposed to the Gaudiya Math system created by his Guru Maharaja?

    In the traditional system, generally householder gurus do not leave their village/town very often. I guess you can say that is their ‘zone.’ However, a sannyasi is supposed to be a parivrajaka – one who travels everywhere and preaches widely. If a householder has the desire to make disciples everywhere and anywhere, perhaps he should start thinking of taking sannyasa. Otherwise, why did Prabhupada need to take sannyasa? He could have continued to preach as a householder/vanaprastha.

    Sridhar Maharaj, Prabhupada’s godbrother, tells a story about Bhakti Saranga Goswami (a householder disciple of Bhaktisiddhanta). When the Gaudiya Math fell apart, Saranga Goswami was disheartened and went back to live with his wife and children. Sridhar Maharaj felt this was a waste of a good preacher and went to his house and refused to leave until he came with him, back to the math. At that time Saranga Goswami’s only disciple, a householder by the name of Vishnujan, came to his house to serve him. He had been so inspired by Saranga Goswami’s preaching that he gave up his household life to serve his guru. At this point Saranga Goswami felt, “How is it that I am staying at home with my wife and children, and this young man has left everything to serve me?” He packed his bags and left with Sridhar Maharaj and took sannyasa. When he took sannyasa he commented, “Actually I am really taking sannyasa from my disciple Vishnujan. He was the one that inspired me!”

    One last point. If we wish to follow the example of Bhaktivinoda Thakura as an initiating guru, we should also remember that he did not rely upon his disciples to financially maintain him and his family. He had his own employment as a District Magistrate to take care of his grha.

    Forgive me for such a lengthy posting.

  7. vamsi vadana das

    Thank you for this important article.
    I might add that the practise of sannyasis not travelling, but remaining for four months in one place during the monsoon season was observed of old by the ancients.
    It was not just because of the weather but for recharging themselves from constant travelling. The side effect of being the third of a year in one spot created devotees and ashrams.

  8. ccd

    Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati left behind two leaders (Kunjabihari and Ananta Vasudeva), both were wearing white when he left the planet, that is the truth (one was white brahmacari another was married).

    Prabhupada clearly supported grihastha leaders and gurus. Prabhupada also encouraged them to travel if need be, there is no difference. The traditional Gaudiya Math system is unsustainable and we should follow the system left by our founder-acharya and improve it based on sustainable models of other Vaishnava traditions. Besides many other remarks, he wrote a very critical letter in March 1974: “In some maths they change an acharya three times a year! Nobody of my godbrothers is qualified to be an acharya.” Was he wrong?

    Lets therefore build a system of gurus who actually train the devotees as local as possible and without pratistha.

  9. dave

    Many thanks for this wonderful insight and thoughts about Zonal Acharyas. We always seem to focus in on the negative rather than the good, replacing rather than improving.
    It is nice though that we can see different acharyas and they too have developed and learnt from the small difficulties of the past; we see that although there is a more global view that many limit themselves to just a few areas. This makes practical sense.
    I thank you for not only explaining but exploring this issue and sharing it with us

  10. unless a ‘guru’ is realized, he is simply a priest, (ritvik), representing a realized master, and GOD/KRSNA.
    Forcing him to pretend otherwise insures chaos and burn out.
    Let him be honest.
    Focus on what works; Sri Sampradaya seems to have continued on well.

    • Yes, spiritual life must have simple honesty as a foundation. The Sri sampradaya has continued well for at least 1000 years so I also feel we could do well to understand the practises that work well for them. That’s why I write about them sometimes.

      The word ritvik is actually derived from two words, ritu (season) and ija (worship) and it means a brahmana or priest who is contracted by someone else to perform worship at particular times of year, or for particular functions.

      Traditionally it is not a word used for someone who adopts a teaching or preceptorial role for another. Sanskrit is an exact language, and the word for a teacher or preceptor is guru. There are many types of guru and all must be realised in brahman to one extent or another, or in our own Vaishnava tradition, practising bhakti to one extent or another.

      The onus is on the disciple to examine the prospective guru in the light of scriptural evidence to see firstly whether the guru knows the Veda, practises the Vedic principles, has produced disciples who do likewise, and is prepared to teach the Veda to the candidate. That is why all scripture urges the would-be disciple (sisya) to live with the guru for at least one year to collect this evidence personally. Although in our modern times this is somewhat problematic, and others may be therefore relied upon to provide that evidence, still because the Vedas are eternal the scriptural edict remains ever valid: the prospective disciple must test the guru. No organisation can ever take the place of that personal testing.

      Must the guru be completely self-realised? That is best, of course. But the science of bhakti is still quite young as a worldwide phenomenon and it is to be expected that not all gurus that are available – or those offering themselves as such – will have reached the height of God realisation. Therefore for giving of mantras and initial teaching one guru’s shelter can be sought, but one should always aspire for the company of the person or persons who love Krishna the most, serve them, and request guidance from them. The only condition is that normally, ones mantra guru’s permission is sought first.

  11. Narayana

    Srimathe Ramanujaya Namaha
    Srimath Varavaramunaye Namaha.

    I would like to make a slight correction. Sri Ramanuja is not the ‘founder acharya’ of our tradition. He is the greatest acharya in a great line of acharyas. No tradition of VedAntA has a founder. For that matter, even Buddhism or Jainism do not accept Gautama Siddharta or Mahavira as founders.

    Sri Ramanuja was preceded by TankA, DramidA, BoudhAyanA in the Sri BhAshya paramparA and by YAmuna Muni, NAthamuni, etc. as well as the AzhwArs in the general guru paramparA.

    Sri Ramanuja’s success is simply because of his administrative abilities. He has achieved more than SankarA or MAdhvA. Look at his achievements:

    1) Propagation of Sanskrit VedAntA by giving us 9 beautiful granthAs on the source books.

    2) Propagation of Dravida VedAntA by emphasising and appointing heirs for commenting on the NAlAyira Divya Prabandham.

    3) Taking care of the 106 divya desams and various other abhimAna sthalams.

    4) Appointing 74 simhAsanApadhis to take care of these temples and propagate Vishishtadvaita.

    5) Planning various festivals in each temple (in accordance with pancarAtra and VaikhAnasa AgamAs), taking care of accounts and management activities in temples, etc. Note, Srirangam has about 320 unique festivals per year, and each of the temples have their own unique festivals. Such is the genius of achArya RAmAnujA. And all these festivals are in complete accordance with the ShAstrAs.

    6) KarnAtakA and AndhrA Digvijayam. In these states, Bhagavad Ramanuja established the bastions of MelkotE, Tirupati, Ahobilam, etc. Temples like BhadrAchalam, SimhAchalam, etc. came into Sri Vaishnava influence in later days as a consequence as well.

    Although Andhra and Karnataka have smArtha and MAdhvA population significantly, Sri Vaishnavism has quite a large following here as well.

    Note, TirumalA nowadays is solely popular due to Sri BhAshyakArAr. Can anyone rival such an accomplishment? He alone is the only achAryA to have a sannidhi in this great kshetram. All rituals were revitalised by him only.

    7) Digvijayam in the North. Sri Ramanuja visited the major shrines of the north. One can see Sri Vaishnava influences in AyOdhyA, MathurA and Badri. Sri Thirumangai Azhwar’s pasurams on BadrinAthan are inscribed on a plate near the shrine. In later days, Sri Varamangai Muni, sishya of Manavala MahAmuni, established TOtAdri (VAnamAmalai) Mutts in North India. The Ramananda Sect has been influenced by the writings of Sri Pillai LOkAchAryA.

    Hence, Sri Ramanuja’s not restricted to only the South. His influence is explicit in the north as well.

    8) Lastly, his genius in general welfare. When he appointed people to look after temples, he ensured that they received good salaries to continue their service. In Karnataka, under his command, the vaishnava King Vishnuvardana built houses for the temple workers close to the temple (so that they did not need to travel far). Small scale industries were brought up under Swami Ramanuja’s guidance for generating alternate income. Clothes, food and other necessities were taken care of.

    Sri Ramanuja took care of even these minute details. And it is worthwhile to remind that during all these activities, BhAshyakArAr was busy propagating VedAntA with his granthAs and saving temples from being desecrated by Muslims and fanatical Saiva rulers. Plus, debated with jains, buddhists, saivas, advaitins, etc. Is there any wonder he is recognised as Adi Seshan himself?

    Now, to come to the point. I have respect for what ISKCON does in the West, but the reason why they cannot duplicate the success is because there is no-one like Swami Ramanuja, and probably will never be. Even within Sri Vaishnavism, Swami AlavandAr (YAmuna Muni) recognised Bhagavad Ramanuja as the one who is gifted with all the abilities of Sriman Narayana Himself, although AlavandAr had many sishyAs. In fact, no Sri Vaishnava achAryA, even if he be a vidwAn, can accomplish all that Sri Ramanuja did.

    Two bits of recommendation I can offer to ISKCON:

    1) Please try to follow traditional VedAntA and do not mix semitic religions. VedAntA would reject any religions whose books are authored, as authorship leads to mutual dependency (god exists because book says so; book exists because god gave it). Hence, there is no need to call Jesus a Vaishnava when he has no VedAntic backing.

    The Brahma SutrAs categorically reject anything that is unvedic. Saivam is rejected for that very purpose.

    2) Please co-operate well with your traditional mutts in India. By their guidance, it would work better for you.

    However, I beg to state that I am a follower of Sri Vaishnavism and do not intend to advise GaudiyAs or ISKCONites. I was merely interested in this post because it mentioned the organisational skills of Swami Ramanuja.

    Adiyen Ramanuja Dasan,


    • Narayana, thank you so much for this excellent review of Sri Ramanujacarya’s many contributions. I am sure that readers unfamiliar with Sri Vaishnavism will be astonished.

      You have correctly pointed out that Sri Ramanujacarya is not the ‘founder-acarya’ of the Sri sampradaya; and this is true also of ISKCON’s founder-acarya Srila Prabhupada. He founded a Society known as ISKCON, and is the acarya of that particular mission, but is in himself a member of the ancient Brahma sampradaya.

      I must have slipped in my concentration when I wrote that he was the Sri sampradaya’s ‘founder-acarya’ and for that I apologise. My comparison was focused on his revitalization of the sampradaya and the geographically widespread dissemination of his ideas and practices that persist up to this day. In this I wanted to compare Srila Prabhupada’s own spiritual and organizational contribution to the Brahma sampradaya.

      Perhaps it is an ISKCON expression that you yourself might not use, but when we refer to the Sri sampradaya we often say the ‘Ramanuja sampradaya’ thus indirectly inferring – or giving the impression to others – that he is the ‘founder-acarya.’ What do you think?

      I take your point regarding Semitic traditions and Vedanta traditions. As we are living in the western world we are often speaking to those who have the highest regard for great teachers of the Semitic traditions. They have never heard of Vedanta. So in order to share knowledge with them we often use terms and persons they are familiar with, that’s all.

  12. Hare Krsna,
    I should just like to bring to your attention that there is a very unpleasant
    advertisement at the top of this page, some kind of meat burger. Much better
    if it could be removed.

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