The aim of this paper is to present how the “No Objection” procedure, the mechanism the GBC has established to encourage devotees to serve as diksa-gurus in ISKCON, is not contrary to Gaudiya Vaisnava siddhanta. We will examine how the system came to be and why it remains in place as the best option available now for the GBC to ensure as best it can, that ISKCON has qualified diksa-gurus available to its aspiring bhaktas. It will also look at how the procedure best helps the GBC manage a multi-guru system within one organization. That dynamic of a governing board managing an institution, which includes within it multiple gurus, is, of course, a relatively new concept in Gaudiya Vaisnava history. However, regardless of the structure, Srila Prabhupada certainly expected those serving as diksa-gurus to be qualified. The question then arises: should ISKCON’s ultimate managing authority, the GBC body, be responsible along with the prospective disciples to ensure that those serving as diksa-gurus meet set qualifications? However we manage the procedure that allows diksa-gurus to initiate in ISKCON, ISKCON’s performance in this area puts Srila Prabhupada’s glorious reputation very much at stake.
A Brief History
Immediately after Srila Prabhupada’s physical departure in 1977, there was uncertainty about how initiations would continue in ISKCON. Key questions needed to be answered, and with many devotees ready for initiation and more entering the pipeline, the GBC knew that these questions should be answered promptly. Who should initiate? Should it be restricted? If so, who should it be restricted to? And on what basis should those restrictions be applied? What status would those giving initiation have? Would they be considered in the same category as Srila Prabhupada?
This paper will deal only with the questions related to “who.” The question about the status of ISKCON’s gurus, while not yet fully resolved, has to a large degree improved since the heady zonal-acarya days and the excesses that went along with that system.
Initially, the GBC body, which, immediately after Srila Prabhupada’s departure became effectively a “hostage to fortune” to the zonal-acaryas, proceeded with the understanding that the service of diksa-guru should be restricted. That restriction initially resulted in only the eleven devotees Srila Prabhupada named to initiate could serve as diksa-gurus. There is certainly evidence that creating this restriction was not a unanimously held view, but it seems to have been a view held by the majority of GBC members in 1977 and ’78. Over time and for different reasons, the restriction was lifted, albeit at first conservatively, when the GBC added three additional devotees to the diksa-guru roster in 1982 – Bhakti Svarupa Damodara Maharaja, Gopal Krishna Maharaja, and Panchadravida Swami. The GBC resolution preceding the appointment of these three new gurus reads:
1. That all GBC[s] be nominated as candidates to become initiating Gurus with the requirement that they receive the blessings of 3/4 (three-fourths) of the GBC members present to begin their initiating role.
Thereafter the individual GBC men who are initiating will be responsible for recommending new candidates for initiating Guru from the godbrothers within their zone. These names must then receive the blessings of 3/4 (three-fourths) of the majority of the GBC present at the annual meeting for them to begin their initiating roles.
The addition of those three devotees to the original eleven, as well as the 1982 resolution, could be seen as an indication that at least some of the GBC members wanted a broader and more fluid understanding about who could serve as diksa-guru in ISKCON. There was some forward movement. In truth, though, it was more likely an indication that the conservative view of keeping a tight reign on who could serve as guru still held sway, even though the conservatives were willing to make some minor adjustment. Still, this resolution had the effect of putting the diksa-guru topic more or less front and center on the GBC’s agenda, and in 1983 the GBC amended its first resolution as follows:
13. [Amendment to existing resolution on extending initiating Gurus]
Initiating Gurus In ISKCON –
That all GBC are candidates to become initiating Gurus with the requirements that they receive the blessings of 3/4 of all members of the GBC present, or 2/3 of the total GBC (whichever is greater), to begin their initiating role. The procedure for receiving the blessings shall be exclusively followed during the GBC annual meeting and at no other time.
A. Procedure for GBC members:
1. All GBC members are candidates for appointment as initiating Guru. When a sitting initiating GBC Guru shall personally endorse a candidate, there will be a preliminary ballot to consider his appointment as initiating Guru according to the following preliminary procedures:
a. GBC members shall be given an opportunity to withdraw themselves from consideration.
b. Thereafter, the GBC members whose names still stand for consideration, or the endorsing GBC, shall have the option to make a brief preliminary explanation to the GBC body.
2. After the preliminary explanation, if any, each GBC member may write the name(s) of any GBC member in whom he feels completely confident to extend his blessings for him to be initiating Guru in terms of the needs (individual and collective) and qualifications established by the GBC in its published papers.
3. The officers of the GBC shall count the endorsements of at least 1/2 of the full GBC by the above ballot shall be interviewed by the GBC for final consideration. Those with less endorsements shall wait until the following year for reconsideration. The number of endorsements that an individual received shall be kept confidential.
4. Thereafter a full deliberation of the voting members will ensue. Those persons who receive the blessings of 3/4ths of the GBC present shall be considered fully approved candidates for initiating Guru.
5. After the fully approved candidates for initiating Guru make the necessary oaths according to the GBC rules in this regard, they shall be garlanded as an initiating Guru on Gaura-Purnima day in Sri Mayapur by the chairman of the GBC or his representative. Thereafter, the individual full GBC who are initiating will be responsible for recommending new candidates for initiating Guru from the godbrothers within their zones. These names must then receive the blessings of 3/4ths of the GBCs present at the annual meeting for them to begin their initiating roles. The procedure for nomination and receiving the blessings of the GBC are as follows:
B. Procedure for non-GBC members:
1. A full initiating GBC member may put forward the name of a godbrother in his zone for whom he feels completely confident as being qualified and for whom he feels adequate need and cause exist to nominate him for being accepted as an initiating guru in ISKCON. The GBC member shall have a right of giving a preliminary explanation at this time.
2. Thereafter, the sponsored individuals’ names will be placed before the GBC for consideration following the same procedures as for the GBC candidates.
This amendment resolution is considerably more stringent than the 1982 one, and required candidates to receive a preliminary endorsement of 50% of the GBC members, then be interviewed, and then be subject to a final vote requiring 75% of the GBC members to vote in their favor before the candidate could begin his service as diksa-guru. Again an indication that the conservative members of the GBC were in the ascendency.
However, in 1985 the GBC passed the following resolution:
February 27, 1985
1. The GBC zonal secretary, whether initiating or not, is the ultimate managerial authority in his zone, as the official representative of the GBC Body.
2. An initiating guru may belong to any ashram.
3. An annual Vyasa-puja book for Srila Prabhupada will be published by the BBT for the next 10,000 years.
4. A GBC vote on adding an initiating guru requires a quorum of 3/4 of the GBC Body to be present. To be approved, a candidate must receive a vote of 2/3rds of the [members present at that meeting].
5. Bhaktitirtha Swami is empowered to begin giving diksa initiations.
6. Jagadisa Goswami is empowered to begin giving diksa initiations.
February 28, 1985
1. Worship of an Acarya outside his Prabhu-datta-desha is not obligatory beyond ordinary etiquette accorded any sannyasi or senior Vaisnava.
2. Agrani Swami is empowered to begin giving diksa initiations.
3. Gaura Govinda Swami is empowered to begin giving diksa initiations pending the approval of a 3-man committee appointed by the GBC Body.
Something interesting to note: in addition to it being only the second time that devotees were added to the original list of eleven diksa-gurus, there is an apparent schizophrenia between opening the service up to more devotees yet committing to produce a Vyasa-puja book for Srila Prabhupada for the next 10,000 years. It’s almost as if expanding the number of diksa-gurus created a feeling of guilt or a fear of disrespecting Srila Prabhupada. This discomfort with the issue of diksa-guru is something that has affected ISKCON leadership since Srila Prabhupada’s physical departure and continues to do so today, although to a lesser degree as the excesses and imitation of Srila Prabhupada have reduced. This resolution did, though, reduce the percentage vote for the approval of a candidate for diksa-guru from 75% to 67%.
In 1986 things opened up even more, as we can see from the GBC resolutions from that year:
MARCH 30, 1986
3. Based upon the GBC guidelines for initiating gurus, any GBC can present a diksa-guru candidate before the GBC body. Unless the majority of voting members object to the nomination, the candidate will be placed on a required one-year waiting period, during which he should neither conclude nor convey to others that he will automatically be approved.
At the end of the year’s waiting period, the GBC body will review the candidate’s qualification, taking into account the opinion of the local leadership, and upon majority approval of the body, he may take up the responsibilities of an initiating guru in ISKCON.
4. The GBC gives its blessings to those who have begun to give formal initiations since September 1985. They are as follows:
1. Lokanath Swami – Padayatra, Pandharpur, Delhi
2. Bhakti Abhaya Carana Swami – Costa Rica, Guatemala
3. Maharam das Adhikary – Columbia
4. Bir Krsna Swami – North Carolina
5. Virabahu das Adhikari – Los Angeles, Venezuela
6. Paramananda das Adhikar – Gita Nagari
7. Caru das Adhikari – Los Angeles, Utah
8. Narahari Swami – Hawaii
9. Radha Krsna Swami – Mexico
5. The following, who have received recommendation from 3 GBC members according to the September 1985 GBC resolutions are given blessings to initiate.
1. Mahanidi Swami – Baltimore
2. Romapada Swami – New York
3. Niranjana Swami – Boston
4. Navayogendra Swami – Punjab, Kenya, Kashmir, Gulf
5. Rupanuga prabhu – Southern USA
6. Ravindra Swarupa prabhu – Mid-Atlantic States
7. Vipramukhya Swami is placed on a one-year waiting period to be considered for initiation at the following Mayapur Festival.
So now, for the first time, it would require only a majority of the GBC body (51%) to approve a devotee to serve as diksa-guru. There was also quite an amnesty in relation to those who had been initiating since the extraordinary GBC meeting in New Vrindavan in 1985.
At that “improper” New Vrindavan meeting, those present decided that any Prabhupada disciple who could provide three “no objection” letters from existing GBC members could commence initiating. Those who did so submitted those three letters, and, as there was a quorum of GBC members present at New Vrindavan at the time, they started initiating with GBC approval.
However, in the minutes of the 1986 Mayapur GBC meeting we find the following:
1. The GBC Body considers that the meeting held at New Vrindavan in September 1985 was not properly called and held according to the existing rules and procedures (void – see Resolution of March 31, p. 64, April 1 Bdg).
Still, although the 1985 New Vrindavan meeting was deemed invalid, the GBC did later ratify the green light given at that meeting to devotees to initiate – a further indication that the “ISKCON guru reform” movement was now well established. In an attempt to avoid further division, and out of genuine concern that ISKCON could actually split, the GBC worked with the reform movement and further modified the system, including, as mentioned, adding a number of diksa-gurus to the list. For the record, here are the reasons why the 1985 New Vrindavan meeting was deemed invalid:
Resolution regarding the GBC Emergency Meeting of September 1985
Although the September 1985 Emergency Meeting was found to be improperly called and held according to GBC rules and procedures, the GBC has recognized the concern of the assembled devotees and the relevance and importance of the issues, and has therefore taken up each resolution of that meeting as a proposal during this current General GBC Meeting.
Srila Prabhupada has instructed that it is extremely important that all GBC meetings – especially Emergency Meetings – be called and conducted according to proper procedure.
The irregularities of the September 1985 meeting were as follows:
1. Emergency meetings are to enforce and clarify existing GBC rules, not to change them or create new laws.
2. Adequate notice was not given to all GBC members. (Srila Prabhupada strongly stated in 1972 that timely notice should be given to all GBC members.)
3. As per GBC rules (and according to the precedent established by Srila Prabhupada in 1972), “stipulated topics” or agenda must be circulated beforehand stating the specific issues at hand to all GBC members, on convenmeeting. Many members did not receive any clear indication of topics before the September 1985 meeting. (Rule SMG 111. A)
4. No minute book was maintained, and specific resolutions were not recorded at the time of the meeting and confirmed by the members present. Minutes were published without authorization of GBC officers, and error was found (BGD).
In the context of this paper there was another significant resolution passed by the GBC in 1986:
21. The GBC blessings for becoming an initiating spiritual master on behalf of the disciplic succession are given to devotees who have, for all practical purposes, fulfilled the qualifications and guidelines approved in this regard. GBC blessings are not intended to be a statement on the degree or level of God realization of the initiating guru. Sadhu, Sastra, and Guru are the authorized references to understand the level of advancement of a devotee. Candidates for initiation are personally responsible to accept initiation only after mature faith in the spiritual master has developed.
This resolution clearly shows that the GBC was now conscious that choosing a guru is primarily – if not exclusively – the responsibility of the prospective disciple, and that the disciple should base his or her choice on guru, sastra, and sadhu. The GBC’s role was now to simply give blessings to the chosen diksa-guru solely on the basis of their having no obvious reason not to give those blessings. In other words, the principle being established was that any devotee could serve as diksa-guru and would only be prevented from doing so if there were clear and obvious reasons why they should be prevented from doing so.
In 1987 we see explicitly for the first time a reference to the ten-person committee and what is today known as the “No Objection” procedure:
72. That a devotee may serve as a guru in ISKCON after receiving majority approval by a council consisting of all the GBC members of his zone and at least ten senior devotees in that zone. This group of devotees should apply the criteria for gurus recommended in accordance with Srila Prabhupada’s books and by the GBC body in its codes, guidelines, and rules. (Amended on p. 152 by resolution 18 on April 4, 1987)
91. That after a guru candidate is approved by a council [see resolution 22, p. 139], his name shall be sent to all GBC members. If three GBC members express serious doubts in writing to the council within three months of having been notified, the candidate shall not accept the role of initiating guru, and his case shall be considered at the next annual general meeting of the GBC. In the event that any of the above-mentioned GBC members subsequently withdraws his doubts in writing, thus bringing the number of such GBC members to less than three, the guru candidate may then take up the role of initiating guru.
Of course, in reality the GBC had been functioning under a “no objection” policy for some time, clearly focusing on the principle that no devotee should be barred from serving as diksa-guru unless he was for some reason disqualified.
The key question was who should identify potential disqualifications? Should such work be done exclusively by a prospective disciple, or should the GBC body take some responsibility to ensure the potential guru’s qualification?
Some may argue that even disqualification should not be a bar – that in fact the only bar should be the voluntary decision of a prospective disciple not to choose a particular person as diksa-guru for whatever reason. However, Srila Prabhupada didn’t seem to support this position.
Another examination will be held sometime in 1971 on the four books, Bhagavad-gita, Srimad-Bhagavatam, Teachings of Lord Caitanya, and The Nectar of Devotion. One who will pass this examination will be awarded with the title of Bhaktivedanta. I want all of my spiritual sons and daughters will inherit this title of Bhaktivedanta so that the family transcendental diploma of Bhaktivedanta will continue through the generations. Those possessing the title of Bhaktivedanta will be allowed to initiate disciples. (Letter to Hamsaduta, December 3, 1968)
“One who cannot deliver his dependents from the path of repeated birth and death should never become a spiritual master, a father, a husband, a mother, or a worshipable demigod.” (SB 5.5.18)
Another interesting resolution from 1989 further underscores the GBC’s desire to be as hands-off as possible, not only with the general process as it has been outlined but even should objections to particular individuals be raised. The GBC clearly desired to give such persons every opportunity to clear the objections before the objections impeded their becoming diksa-gurus.
95. That before officially objecting to any guru candidate’s recommendation, a GBC member should contact in writing the guru candidate and the chairman of the ten-man committee for clarification. If unsatisfied with the reply, or if not receiving a reply within a reasonable period of time, the GBC member may then officially object. To give enough time for exchange of correspondence, the period allowed to lodge all objections shall be extended to six months.
And in 2004, the GBC further underscores their resolution of 1986, stressing the primary responsibility of prospective disciples in choosing their own diksa-guru:
The GBC officially accepts the following conclusions about continuing the disciplic succession:
Srila Prabhupada consistently said that his disciples would themselves become spiritual masters. Guru, sadhu, and sastra all support this standard way of continuing the disciplic succession.
Srila Prabhupada said that his disciples would become “regular gurus” and that each of their disciples would thus be a “disciple of my disciple.”
On the strength of our Vaisnava tradition and the statements of Srila Prabhupada, the GBC concludes that Srila Prabhupada intended his disciples to become “regular gurus” after he physically departed.
As a matter of utmost ecclesiastical responsibility, ISKCON’s ultimate managing authority, the GBC, regulates who within ISKCON may perform the service of initiating disciples.
When the GBC allows a devotee to take up the service of initiating, it does not thereby endorse him as an uttama-adhikari or “pure devotee” or certify his having achieved any specific state of realization. Rather, the GBC indicates that it has no objection to his initiating disciples within ISKCON.
Each prospective disciple, before initiation, should become familiar with the qualifications mentioned in Srila Prabhupada’s books as those that a spiritual master ought to have and decide for himself which senior devotee, if any, to approach for initiation.
Within this context, the choice of whom to select as one’s spiritual master is ultimately the prospective disciple’s own responsibility.
The issue of succession in ISKCON is somewhat of a curious tale. On the one hand, it was very clear: the GBC body would succeed Srila Prabhupada as the ultimate ISKCON authority. On the other hand, succession was not something devotees in general wanted to think about as it would bring the issue of Srila Prabhupada’s physical departure very much front and centre. So the topic of who would actually initiate after Srila Prabhupada’s physical departure was only seriously broached quite late in the day. When it was eventually discussed with Srila Prabhupada, he appeared to be somewhat nonchalant about it, seeming to put as much emphasis on geography as anything else.
That said, whenever Srila Prabhupada sensed that any of his disciples were ambitious to become guru, he threw cold water on their ambitions and stressed the need for etiquette and qualification:
Keep trained up very rigidly and then you are 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. (Letter to Tusta Krsna Dasa, December 2, 1975)
On the one hand, understanding “without any limitation” seems straightforward enough, but it’s somewhat clouded when you read other references on this topic, such as:
I shall appoint some of you to give initiation. Those who they initiate will be their disciples and my grand-disciples. They will be guru by my order. (Letter to: Tamal Krishna Maharaja, May 28, 1977)
Prabhupada: What is the use of producing some rascal guru?
Tamala Krishna: Well, I have studied myself and all of your disciples, and it’s a clear fact that we are all conditioned souls, so we cannot be guru. Maybe one day it may be possible …
Tamala Krishna: … but not now.
Prabhupada: Yes. I shall choose some guru. I shall say, “Now you become acarya. You become authorized.” I am waiting for that. You become all acarya. I retire completely. But the training must be complete.
Tamala Krishna: The process of purification must be there.
Prabhupada: Oh, yes, must be there. Caitanya Mahaprabhu wants that. Amara ajnaya guru hana [Cc. Madhya 7.128]. “You become guru.” (laughs) But be qualified. Little thing, strictly follower … (Room conversation, April 22, 1977, Bombay)
“Guru means who follows the predecessor, authorized predecessor. He is guru. Not that everyone is guru. So therefore we have to follow the superior order. (SB Lecture Bombay 2nd December 1974)
This mood and example of Srila Prabhupada’s “They will be guru by my order” and “Yes. I shall choose some guru” are something the GBC would be remiss if they discounted and arguably more deserving of criticism if they were to do so. Hence the GBC has been mindful of these two statements. It may well be (and I would certainly argue that it is so) that the GBC was, in the beginning, overzealous about these statements. Indeed, the protectionist measures imposed during the zonal-acarya era were both over-protective and somewhat self-serving. It may also well be the case that the system in place now may not yet be fully adjusted. However, to argue that the GBC should play no role as to who should serve as guru in ISKCON, the organization it is responsible for, doesn’t seem to be supported by Srila Prabhupada, and one certainly struggles to logically sustain such a notion.
Also, if we examine the chronology of the GBC’s resolutions, it’s a weak argument to say that the GBC is not conscious of – or desirous of – protecting and preserving the sanctity of an aspiring bhakta’s choice.
As ISKCON grows and develops, and as those serving as guru in ISKCON more and more succeed at honoring the trust invested in them, it’s natural that GBC oversight will decrease. Still, although the umbilical cord may eventually be cut, it’s also natural for parents to maintain at least a small degree of oversight over their maturing children simply out of love. It’s clear from the evolution of the GBC’s resolutions that the GBC has moved toward deregulation and that further movement in that direction is likely. Still, based on Srila Prabhupada’s instruction and example, it’s also unlikely that we’ll ever see zero regulation. This doesn’t change the intent of the “No Objection” procedure, which is intended to open up the service of ISKCON diksa-guru to all who are duly qualified.
There is also the point about the GBC having to manage a multi-guru institution and the possible ramifications of guru’s becoming self-appointed. For some at least, this would create an opportunity to exploit others.
The spiritual master must never be carried away by an accumulation of wealth or a large number of followers. A bona fide spiritual master will never become like that. But sometimes, if a spiritual master is not properly authorized, and only on his own initiative becomes a spiritual master, he may be carried away by an accumulation of wealth and large numbers of disciples. His is not a very high grade of devotional service. If a person is carried away by such achievements, then his devotional service becomes slackened. One should, therefore, strictly adhere to the principles of disciplic succession…. (The Nectar of Devotion, 1970 edition, chapter 14, “Devotional Qualifications.”)
Presently, devotees can choose to take diksa from one of about eighty gurus. The list can be expanded by any devotee’s desire. That is, any devotee can ask someone for initiation who is not on the list, and that person will then sail through the “No Objection” procedure if the prospective disciple has performed his or her due diligence:
He must be mahatma, real mahatma. We want guru like that. Then it will be a … We must be also qualified, and guru also qualified. Therefore it is said in the Hari-bhakti-vilasa that one year should be taken to study one another, the guru and the disciple. The guru also will see whether the person is fit to become a disciple, and the disciple also will see “Whether this gentleman can become my guru.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam lecture, Vrndavana, August 10, 1974)
In addition the service of diksa-guru in ISKCON is no longer limited to diksa disciples of Srila Prabhupada – another clear indication that the GBC body wants more and more qualified devotees to take up this service. Yet that should not obscure the sastric principle of following the order of the guru; what to speak of following the order of the Founder-Acarya. Our Founder-Acarya wanted the GBC to have the final authority over the Society he created, ISKCON. The current procedure, although perhaps not specifically or explicitly delineated in sastra, does not contradict sastra. Who can say its wrong if senior vaisnavas discuss the merits and potential downsides of another vaisnava accepting a responsibility, any responsibility, that influences the community, the new devotees and arguably the stability and reputation of Srila Prabhupada’s Society?
In closing, it should be noted that the “No Objection” procedure is a mechanism that allows our institution to maintain minimal oversight with regard to who carries the title of “ISKCON guru.” Prospective disciples are expected to study, scrutinize, and examine both Srila Prabhupada’s teachings about the qualities of a guru and their own chosen guru before accepting diksa. With these things working in tandem, it should provide each devotee with the best opportunity to find a bona fide diksa guru – something for which all vaisnavas can rejoice.