Fictional Prabhupadas

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While developing a personal relationship with Srila Prabhupada, it is important to dispel impersonal and sentimental misconceptions we may have about him.

To honor the fiftieth anniversary of Srila Prabhupada’s incorporation of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, BTG presents Part Nine of a ten-part series celebrating Srila Prabhupada’s unique, transcendental position in ISKCON, as well as every follower’s foundational relationship with him.

Studying Srila Prabhupada’s teachings without studying his life and how he lived and applied those teachings is impersonal. And becoming attached to Prabhupada’s personality without studying and following his teachings is sentimental. Both approaches give us a “fictional Prabhupada” we should avoid. Let’s look at some examples – some obvious, some not.

Impersonal Fictions

“Prabhupada is God”

Strange as it sounds, this fiction once possessed some of Srila Prabhupada’s leading disciples. It happened during the summer of 1970.

That spring Prabhupada had countered a threat to his movement. While expanding Krishna consciousness in the Americas and Europe, he was meeting resistance in India. Some inimical swamis were trying to prevent ISKCON from acquiring land in Mayapur, the birthplace of Lord Chaitanya.1 Worse, they were spreading a minimized view of Prabhupada, which was affecting the faith of some of his leading disciples in America.

To counter the threat, Srila Prabhupada formed a Governing Body Commission of trusted leaders, whom he would train to manage the movement’s worldwide preaching in his absence.2 After correcting the misled leaders, he deployed four of them as sannyasis,3 to travel and preach with full faith in guru and Krishna.

As the young renunciants toured ISKCON America that summer, the gravity of their offense to Prabhupada weighed on them. Mortified at how they had been minimizing his position, they began to maximize him, even deify him, citing scriptural references that the spiritual master is nondifferent from Krishna Himself.

In late August the four traveled to New Vrindaban,4 West Virginia, for the Janmashtami/Vyasa-puja festivals5 and the largest gathering of ISKCON devotees to date. The sannyasis' apocalyptic message: Prabhupada is God, Krishna, and because we haven’t recognized him, he has rejected us and gone back to India. Without understanding that Prabhupada is God, our chanting is useless.

Their preaching so disturbed the devotees that the Governing Body phoned Prabhupada for guidance. Prabhupada thundered his reply: “They have committed the greatest offense. There is only one thing worse than underestimating the guru – overestimating the guru. They have said I am God. Therefore, if I am God, they also can become God. This is impersonalism.” (Radha-Damodara Vilasa I, Eleventh Wave: “New Vrindavan Shakedown.” From author Vaiyasaki Dasa’s interview with Madhudvisha Dasa)

Banishing the offenders from his Society, Prabhupada said they could return if they separately opened centers, inspired people to take up devotional service, and preached the truth: the spiritual master is not God. God is God. The genuine spiritual master is God’s authorized representative. Any so-called spiritual master who says he’s God is as good as a dog.

End of fiction.

“ISKCON is Prabhupada”

Although less obvious than the previous fiction, the giveaway is is. To equate ISKCON in all respects with Srila Prabhupada repeats the impersonal flaw of oneness without difference. Prabhupada’s oft-quoted statement on the subject is flawless: “ISKCON is my body.” Although this quotation was never recorded, reliable earwitness testimony is abundant, and the following letter excerpt says the same thing: “You are all my limbs of my body. Unless you cooperate, my life will be useless.” (Letter to Brahmananda Dasa, 17 July 1968)

Indeed, whenever Prabhupada’s followers don’t cooperate, a part of his ISKCON body falls ill. And if the noncooperation becomes systemic, all of ISKCON falls ill. The unfailing cure: re-immersion in Prabhupada’s life, teachings, mood, and mission, especially his admonition to cooperate.

Interestingly, Prabhupada also rejected as material this fiction’s inverse – “Prabhupada is ISKCON”: “Suppose if I say, ‘I am everything in this, my institution,’ does it mean I have lost my personality? No, no . . . If somebody says that ‘Bhaktivedanta Swami is everything,’ does it mean I have lost my personality? That is material understanding.” (Conversation with college students, London, 11 July 1973)

As ISKCON’s founder-acharya, Srila Prabhupada is certainly ISKCON. At the same time, everything in ISKCON doesn’t equal Srila Prabhupada, his Society’s life and soul. As the philosopher Emerson once observed, “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.”

“The Governing Body Commission is Prabhupada”

This fiction reflects an impersonal understanding of the first item Srila Prabhupada declared in his will: “The Governing Body Commission (GBC) will be the ultimate managing authority of the entire International Society for Krishna Consciousness.” (Declaration of Will, 4 June 1977)

The fiction lies in the way Prabhupada’s GBC trainees understood his faith in their collective capacity to manage, a faith he several times expressed. Sometime after he signed the will, for instance, Prabhupada called for his personal secretary in the middle of the night. The secretary’s diary discloses what happened next:

He could not sleep; thinking of the will had kept him up. “Amongst the GBC, have you selected one after me who will succeed?” I replied that we felt that we should manage together as a group, that none of us was more qualified than the others. “Yes, each of you can be acharya of your zone.” (TKG’s Diary: Prabhupada’s Final Days, entry for 27 June 1977)

Acharya, but not the founder-acharya – a vital distinction it would take the Governing Body years to assert. After Prabhupada’s passing, regional imitations of his pivotal position threatened to turn ISKCON’s zones into sectarian camps. The offenses devastated many. While the imitation was abating, the GBC began to reflect on Prabhupada’s mandate for the Body. In March 2013 the GBC published its matured realization about Prabhupada’s will that the Governing Body Commission be the Society’s “ultimate managing authority”:

When we use the word “authority” in the context of the managerial structure, we do not mean an absolute, infallible authority – such as the authority of scripture – but the mandate to organize the preaching movement so that it is aligned with the instructions of Srila Prabhupada. (Harmonizing ISKCON’s Lines of Authority, GBC policy paper, March 2013)

In sum, “The GBC is Prabhupada” is a fiction because it is incomplete, seeing the oneness but ignoring the difference between Srila Prabhupada and his managerial body, the Governing Body Commission.

“Prabhupada is the guru only of his initiated disciples”

A hangover from ISKCON’s “zonal-acharya” era, this impersonal fiction arose from ignorance of the founder-acharya’s personal, foundational role in the lives of all generations of his followers.

In 1994, as Srila Prabhupada’s Centennial year was approaching, the GBC began to present a deeper understanding of Prabhupada’s position by passing the first of several founder-acharya resolutions. The resolution began as follows: “Srila Prabhupada is the foundational shiksha-guru6 for all ISKCON devotees because he has realized and presented the teachings of the previous acharyas of the Brahma-Madhva-Gaudiya sampradaya7 appropriately for the modern age.” (1994 GBC Resolution No. 35, “The Founder-Acharya Statement”)

At ISKCON Mayapur, some five months after this resolution was passed, the day of Prabhupada’s Vyasa-puja arrived. As the sun rose outside the temple, a Prabhupada initiate was chanting on his beads when he noticed a young devotee had stopped chanting to have a morning snack. Tactfully, he approached the young man.

“Oh, Prabhu,8 maybe you didn’t know. We’re fasting till noon today for Srila Prabhupada’s Vyasa-puja.”

Squinting into the sun, the snacker was blunt: “You say that because Prabhupada is your spiritual master; he’s not my spiritual master.” And with that he went back to his snack.

Incredulous, the Prabhupada initiate didn’t know what to say, so he just walked away. “I guess no one told him about that founder-acharya resolution,” he pondered. “To give meaning to its legislation, our Governing Body needs to follow up with education.”

Fortunately that’s happening now, so to continue our study, we’ll identify and dispel some sentimental fictions about Srila Prabhupada.

Sentimental Fictions

“Illusory Prabhupada”

This fiction draws its title from ISKCON educator Bhurijana Dasa’s account of what happened while he and his wife, Jagatarini Dasi, were pioneering Krishna consciousness in Hong Kong.

To attract Chinese people to Krishna in the early 1970s, Prabhupada had allowed Bhurijana and Jagatarini to adjust their appearance and dress. As guests started coming to their programs, more adjustments followed – in their food, music, mood, and decor – which in turn attracted more guests. The Chinese were becoming devotees.

As they adapted their outreach, however, Bhurijana and his wife also began to neglect their spiritual practices. Resting and rising later, they were chanting Hare Krishna without the support and focus the quiet, early morning hours provide. They thought themselves too busy to study Prabhupada’s books, and material desires began to reenter their hearts. But flush with success, they imagined they still had Prabhupada’s approval.

Then an aerogram arrived. In two weeks Prabhupada would be arriving in Hong Kong, his secretary wrote, so get ready.

By the time Prabhupada arrived, Bhurijana and Jagatarini had prepared a beautiful rose garland and arranged a fancy hotel room. After picking him up in a Rolls Royce, they expressed to Prabhupada how wonderful it was to see him again.

Turning to Bhurijana, Prabhupada was grave: “What is your morning program?”

“Well, Prabhupada, we don’t really have so many guests coming in the morning right now, so we usually don’t have much of a morning program.”

Prabhupada disapproved.

“Guests may or may not be coming, but why don’t you have a morning program? Whose disciple are you?”

Shaken awake, Bhurijana realized he had become a disciple of illusion.I had been imagining a Prabhupada that allowed a compromise of purity and Krishna conscious practices. When I was suddenly confronted by the real Prabhupada, the illusory Prabhupada dissolved like mist after sunrise. Prabhupada, as he himself said, was “90% liberal,” but that other 10% was strict. (Bhurijana Dasa, My Glorious Master)

Despite his disciples’ preaching success, Prabhupada knew if they continued to neglect their spiritual practices, they would gradually succumb to the Lord’s illusory energy. To avoid becoming illusory disciples of an “illusory Prabhupada,” we need to continue living in the clear light of his protective instructions.

“Figurehead Prabhupada”

Not long ago Queen Elizabeth II became England’s longest-serving monarch. And perhaps the most popular one too, as the adoring crowds on her jubilee tours have attested. Yet the queen has no real authority over her people, no parliamentary power like the prime minister. Elizabeth’s influence is purely sentimental because, like almost all monarchs today, she is a figurehead.

By contrast, when Prabhupada toured ISKCON as the founder-acharya, he wielded absolute authority over his disciples. He did this by the transcendental knowledge he revealed as well as his own endearing example of pure devotional service. Keen to see his knowledge and example inspire all generations of his followers, Prabhupada took steps to protect his foundational role in ISKCON. One step was the introduction of his daily guru-puja.9

In April 1974 after his morning walk on Bombay’s Juhu Beach, Prabhupada went up to the temple as usual to offer his respects to the deities.10 At that time the devotees would offer flowers both to the deities and to Prabhupada. But this morning, in plain view of the deities, Prabhupada sat on his dais to receive full worship with his disciples singing Sri Guru-vandana, a traditional Bengali song glorifying the guru.

The song praises pure service to the guru as the way to obtain the full mercy of God. Since Prabhupada was the only guru in ISKCON when he introduced the hymn, his direct disciples had yet to witness its full purport. Today, as successive generations of gurus and disciples come together daily to sing to Prabhupada, the significance of his position as the jagat-guru11 continues to grow. Far from being a mere figurehead without real presence in the hearts and minds of his sincere followers, Prabhupada lives in the core of their very being. Janme janme prabhu sei: “He is my lord, birth after birth.”

Only failure to follow Prabhupada’s teachings will leave us with a sentimental, “Figurehead Prabhupada,” akin to the next despairing fiction.

“Gone-Forever Prabhupada”

On July 16, 1975, at a packed press conference in Berkeley, California, a reporter challenged Prabhupada: “What will happen to the movement when you die?”

“I will never die,” Prabhupada replied. “I shall live in my books, and you will utilize.”

If Prabhupada’s reply sounded defiant, it was also an invitation. To know Krishna and transcend death, anyone could read and use the knowledge he was translating and explaining. Especially his followers, who rested as Prabhupada wrote through the night. The problem, he would chide them, is that they didn’t read his books, where he was making himself most available.

As inspirational as Prabhupada’s personal presence was, his writings speak of a deeper intimacy by following his instructions. In fact, this was his experience while executing the order of his own spiritual master. Although he was only with Srila Bhaktisiddhanta perhaps a half dozen times, he always felt him to be right by his side: “There is no difference between the spiritual master’s instructions and the spiritual master himself. In his absence, therefore, his words of direction should be the pride of the disciple.” (Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita, Adi 1.35, Purport)

Although Prabhupada’s form and initiations were certainly divine, it is his everlasting instructions that sustain us over time. “He lives forever by his divine instructions, and the follower lives with him.”12 “Living still in sound,”13 Prabhupada will now dispel one more forever fiction.

“Diksha-guru Forever Prabhupada”

In the 1980s this sentimental fiction arose to challenge the zonal acharyas in ISKCON who were imitating the position of the founder-acharya. I call this imitation FAD, the Founder-Acharya Disease, which blocked devotees’ foundational relationship with Srila Prabhupada. But to counter that abuse by saying the founder-acharya appointed himself as everyone’s perpetual diksha-guru betrays ignorance of Prabhupada’s consistent teachings.

“Keep trained up very rigidly and then you are a bona fide Guru, and you can accept disciples on the same principle. But as a matter of etiquette it is the custom that during the lifetime of your spiritual master you bring the prospective disciples to him, and in his absence or disappearance you can accept disciples without any limitation. This is the law of disciplic succession. I want to see my disciples become bona fide Spiritual Master and spread Krishna consciousness very widely, that will make me and Krishna very happy.” (Letter to Tushta Krishna Dasa, 2 December 1975)

Further: “Because people are in darkness, we require many millions of gurus to enlighten them. Therefore Chaitanya Mahaprabhu's mission is, He said, that ‘Every one of you become guru.’ [If you say,] ‘But I have no qualification. How can I become guru?’ There is no need of qualification. ‘Still I can become guru?’ Yes. ‘How?’ Whomever you meet, you simply instruct what Krishna has said. That's all. You become guru.” (Lecture, 21 May 1976, Honolulu)

Since Prabhupada and Lord Chaitanya want everyone to qualify themselves as spiritual masters, avoiding FAD, or even the pride of becoming a regular guru, may seem difficult. In the following lecture excerpt, Prabhupada reveals the service attitude of a true spiritual master:

“A spiritual master takes his disciples as his spiritual master. That is the position. He thinks that ‘Krishna has sent me so many spiritual masters.’ He does not think himself as spiritual master. He thinks himself their servant. Because they have to be trained. Krishna has appointed him to train them. Therefore he thinks himself as servant of the disciples. This is the position.” (Lecture, 23 October 1972, Vrindavan)

Full immersion in our founder-acharya’s life, teachings, mood, and mission is the best prevention for FAD, or any “guru complex.” And when FAD is absent, so is the sentimental fiction it spawns, “Diksha-guru Forever Prabhupada.”

NOTES

1. Mayapur, in West Bengal, India, is the birthplace of Lord Chaitanya, Krishna’s "Golden Avatar."

2. Srila Prabhupada-lilamrita, Satsvarupa dasa Goswami, Chapter 31: "A Threat Against ISKCON."

3. A renunciant whose preaching is enriched with knowledge and detachment.

4. The first ISKCON rural community, founded in 1968 and named after Vrindavan, India, the village where Lord Krishna sported as a boy.

5. Back-to-back festivals on the ISKCON calendar celebrating the advent anniversaries of Lord Krishna and Srila Prabhupada.

6. A shiksha-guru is an instructing spiritual master.

7. A sampradaya is a spiritual community or tradition.

8. Prabhu means “master” and is the way devotees formally address one another. By serving the Lord’s devotees, one pleases the Lord.

9. Guru-puja is the ceremony to formally worship the spiritual master.

10. Deities are forms of God authorized by scripture and worshiped by devotees.

11. A jagat-guru ("world-guru") is a guru of gurus, a universal teacher.

12. From the Dedication page in the First Canto of Srila Prabhupada’s Srimad-Bhagavatam.

13. “Living still in sound” is a phrase from a verse Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura inscribed on the sacred tomb of Srila Haridasa Thakura.

About the Author: 

Sureshvara Dasa

Sureshvara Dasa joined the Hare Kṛṣṇa movement in 1970. From 2011 to 2015, on behalf of a committee of the movement's Governing Body Commission called "Śrīla Prabhupāda's Position," he traveled the ISKCON world presenting the seminar series "Śrīla Prabhupāda, Our Founder-Acharya."