Iskcon Reform

Sanga Q & A with Swami Tripurari

Q. Why are loving, truthful gurus so rare, and foolish gurus so abundant?

A. Perhaps for the same reason that sincere, loving disciples are rare and foolish ones are abundant. Both need to connect with one another. Otherwise real love, bhava, is very rare (sudurlabha). Love involves seeing God everywhere and Sri Krishna says in Bhagavad-gita that to see in this way—vasudeva sarvam iti—is to be a mahatma, a great soul, and this is very rare, sa mahatma sudurlabha.

Sri Rupa Goswami also explains in his Bhakti-rasamrta-sindhu that love (bhava) is rare. Again, he uses the word sudurlabha, very rare. It is very rare because one cannot attain it by any sadhana other than bhakti. Mixing bhakti with other sadhanas is not recommended because this will negatively affect one’s ability to concentrate on the sadhana of bhakti, and only such single-mindedness can bring one to attachment (asakti) for Krishna, without which bhava will not descend. Furthermore, even after attaining asakti, Krishna does not bestow bhava for some time.

As Srimad-Bhagavatam states, muktim dadati karhicit na bhakti-yogam dadati: while Krishna gives liberation (mukti) easily, he tends to withhold bhakti proper (bhava/love). In other words, it is bestowed only to those who attain asakti and even then not quickly after attaining such spiritual attachment, which is characterized by absence of interest in anything else. However, it is not that Krishna does not want to give bhava and prema by which he is controlled. Indeed, he takes great pleasure in being controlled by his devotees. In fact, Vrajendra-nandana Krishna refers to that form of the Godhead that is controlled by his devotees, the Purna-brahma becoming the friend of his devotees by the force of affection, yan mitram paramanandam purnabrahma sanatanam. To be controlled by his devotee’s love is the most joyful state of the Godhead. Why then does he not give bhava and prema more readily? He wants to give it to all of his devotees, but they themselves must desperately desire it. If they want anything else, he withholds it.

There may be many gurus without real love, but if you can find only one that has it and he or she accepts you, your life will be successful to the extent that you follow in the wake of such a sat-guru‘s love of God.

Q. I have a question about attraction for great Vaisnavas other than one’s own guru. In some organizations this seems to have become a problem. What to do about it?

A. One should not be whimsical, jumping around from guru to guru, but all considered, a devotee has every right to accept a siksa guru other than his or her diksa guru. Our initiating gurus do not own us. They come into our lives to help us grow spiritually. It is not uncommon for a devotee to be initiated by one guru and later develop an attraction to the siksa and example of another. In fact, the scriptures are full of such cases. Therefore, with all respect for our diksa guru, we should take siksa from the guru who inspires us the most. The idea here is to develop love of Krishna. Take all the help you can get.

Q. I heard that when you were a member of The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (Iskcon) you were nominated to be an initiating guru but were rejected because you took guidance from Srila Sridhara Maharaja. Is this true? If so, will you explain some of the history behind this?

A. I was initiated by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada in 1972, took sannyasa from him in 1975, and was present with him shortly before his departure in 1977. During that period, Srila Prabhupada said that his students could receive further instruction from his Godbrother Srila B. R. Sridhara Deva Goswami. I was at the feet of Srila Prabhupada when he spoke these prophetic words. However, it was not until several years later in the midst of the confusion that followed Srila Prabhupada’s departure that these words blossomed into the directive that would deeply affect the course of my life.

Initially the governing body commission of Iskcon (the GBC) pursued and welcomed the advice of Srila Sridhara Maharaja, but after some Iskcon members had accepted him as their siksa guru, the GBC began criticizing him and finally officially prohibited association with him. I first read Srila Sridhara Maharaja’s words when Ramesvara Maharaja asked me to read Sri Guru and His Grace and tell him what was philosophically wrong with the book. I found nothing wrong; indeed, I felt I had come into contact with the same spiritual substance that I had found in Srila Prabhupada’s words. Having come to realize the true spiritual stature of Pujyapada Sridhara Deva Goswami, I contacted the leading devotees who had been forced to leave Iskcon because of their taking shelter of him. In consultation with these devotees, I decided that it would be best for me to try to continue my service in Iskcon and be a voice of reason and sastra over the emotion and religious fanaticism that were so prevalent at that time.

As deviations of the original eleven gurus became apparent, increasing numbers of Srila Prabhupada’s disciples became absorbed with trying to figure out how to set Iskcon back on track. My own conviction was that the detached, objective, and highly spiritual insight of Pujyapada Sridhara Maharaja was vital to steering Iskcon in the direction that Srila Prabhupada envisioned it should go—and it was increasingly apparent that the gurus Srila Prabhupada appointed were floundering their ability to realize this direction, as was the GBC.

My understanding of Srila Prabhupada’s vision was not that Sridhara Maharaja should be Iskcon’s acarya, but that Prabhupada’s disciples would themselves rise to the occasion. Pujyapada Sridhara Maharaja also had no ambition to be the acarya of Iskcon. His only desire was to assist Prabhupada’s mission while personally remaining in the background. After all, it is well known that Srila Sridhara Maharaja himself preferred to refrain from initiating disciples and did so only when inspired to do so by Nityananda Prabhu, who told him that “you ask for my mercy, but when others ask you for initiation you do not give them your mercy.” Thus Srila Sridhara Maharaja decided that although he would not seek disciples, he would not turn them away if they asked for initiation.

In those days, many of the devotees who had affinity for Srila Sridhara Maharaja felt that the GBC would soon realize its mistake and acknowledge the spiritual potency of Srila Sridhara Maharaja’s guidance. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen, and the GBC’s shameful prohibition against hearing from Srila Sridhara Maharaja, and even reading his literature, remains in place today throughout much of Iskcon.

My coming under the influence of Srila Sridhara Maharaja happened to coincide with pressure that Iskcon members were putting on the GBC to increase the number of gurus in the society. Many devotees believed that this would help mitigate the abuse being perpetrated by the original eleven gurus who had assumed power in Iskcon after the disappearance of Srila Prabhupada. Ironically, Srila Sridhara Maharaja had first suggested this idea. He said that the GBC should increase the number of gurus–not lavishly but extending it to senior devotees who were seen to be qualified. In his opinion, doing so would encourage devotees by creating what he referred to as “a fair field for preaching.” After all, Iskcon leading members were awakening people’s faith in Krishna only to have one of the eleven gurus fly in and initiate the new converts, and then in many cases turn these new devotees against the preachers who had initially inspired them. Needless to say, these were troubled times for Iskcon and many disciples of Srila Prabhupada felt extremely oppressed.

In this difficult transitional period, a GBC member who was also one of Iskcon’s eleven initiating gurus approached me about this issue. He admitted that the organization’s policy needed reform and supported the proposal that the GBC now authorize other senior members of Iskcon to also become diksa gurus and initiate disciples. In this spirit he submitted my name to the GBC as a devotee (a non-GBC member) that he felt was qualified to initiate in Iskcon. He did so even though he knew my appreciation for the siksa of Srila Sridhara Maharaja. Although I agreed with him that the society’s policy needed reform, I also made it clear that I didn’t see increasing the number of gurus to be a comprehensive solution to the problems Iskcon faced.

The GBC approached me in 1985 about becoming an initiating guru in the organization. Knowing that I had affinity for Srila Sridhara Maharaja, the only question they asked me was why I was interested in him. Along with the obvious spiritual reasons, I replied that if I left Iskcon I did not feel that any of them cared enough about me to come after me to bring me back, but that Srila Sridhara Maharaja, upon learning that a senior sannyasi had left the mission, would undoubtedly send someone for me. That said, the GBC ruled that I was not qualified to initiate in their society.

After this ruling in March of 1985, I remained within Iskcon until the famous meeting in New Vrindavana took place—a meeting intended to reform Iskcon that was well attended by Srila Prabhupada’s disciples. The two prominent positions that devotees took at the meeting were to support the current eleven gurus or to decrease the power and prominence of the gurus. One side wanted to engage in lavish worship of questionable gurus, while the other side proposed what could be called a covert rtvik system, which all but did away with successor acaryas altogether. I saw both these stances as problematic, but I was not allowed to speak because of my affinity for Pujyapada Sridhara Maharaja.

At this point I realized that I could no longer be a voice for reform within Iskcon and that its policy of not allowing its members to take siksa from Srila Sridhara Maharaja was not going to change. Listening to the opinions voiced in that meeting, it seemed to me that material solutions were taking the upper hand over spiritual ones, and I felt discouraged by what I felt to be an overwhelmingly shallow understanding of Krishna consciousness and Srila Prabhupada’s desires. I had the strong conviction that despite the fact that there were sincere devotees within Iskcon, the institution as a whole had deviated from the desires of Srila Prabhupada and was not living up to his expectations.

Having been essentially barred from preaching in Iskcon, I felt that my ability to change the course of Iskcon’s misguided trajectory was greatly hampered within the institution, and further, I did not want to be in any way connected with the serious deviations that were taking place. History has shown that significant change comes more readily from committed individuals, not organizations or governments, and certainly not committees. Further, as Gandhi said, you should be the change you want to see. Mutely following leaders who had proven themselves unworthy of respect was not my idea of progressive Krishna consciousness. Thus I decided with much regret that I could better pursue the ideal I had imbibed from Srila Prabhupada outside of Iskcon. Indeed, if I were to have a voice at all, it would have to be from outside of corporate Iskcon.

Thus in October/November of 1985, I went to Nadiya to seek the blessing of Pujyapada Sridhara Maharaja, knowing that leaving Iskcon and having a desire to help it were not mutually exclusive. When I asked Srila Sridhara Maharaja for some service, he advised me, “Swami Maharaja (Prabhupada) has taught you everything. Now go and start something yourself and I will be in the background to help you.” This is what I did, and by the grace of Sri Guru and the Vaisnavas, I am happy and my efforts have been met with some success.

It should be clear from Srila Sridhara Maharaja’s instruction to me that he wanted to see Prabhupada’s disciples flourish in leadership positions and to serve his mission as acaryas. He personally wanted to remain in the background and assist Prabhupada’s disciples in being all that Prabhupada wanted them to be. He had no desire to be the acarya of Iskcon after Prabhupada’s departure. Despite being offended repeatedly by members of Iskcon, he never changed his position on this. He initiated disciples only when they could not develop faith in others who were initiating with his inspiration. He never presented himself as the acarya or successor of Srila Prabhupada, but it is clear from the historical record that Srila Prabhupada had more faith in his ability to guide his students than he did in anyone else. And for good reason. As I stated above, Srila Sridhara Maharaja dutifully endeavored to assist Prabhupada’s mission in realizing its founder’s hopes for his students: to grow and become spiritually realized leaders for Iskcon and the world at large.

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11 Responses to Iskcon Reform

  1. Maharaja- Your insight and experience are an encouragement to me.

  2. This is so beautiful and sad at the same time!

  3. Dearest Maharaja,

    I truly value the importance of your sharing history, unadulterated.

    Though so many so called authors and others try to manipulate and change history, you are a true preserver.

    daso smi

  4. Thank you for your insights Maharaja. I also have quotes of part of the conversation documented of Srila Prabhupada recommending his disciples to go to Srila Sridhara Maharaja for siksa. I received it years ago from your old assistant HH Ganapati Maharaja

    What puzzles me is , as far as I know, when Srila Prabhupada wanted something for his entire ISKCON to follow, he would have one of his secretaries draft up a letter that would be sent to every temple, and it would become “law” for every temple to follow, or at least a directive, so that there would be no speculation on the issue in the future.

    Why do you think Srila Prabhupada did not do this for such an important issue such as taking siksa from SSM ? It doesn’t make sense to me that such an important instruction as this should only be spoken to a handful. Who else was in the room when you were there and heard this spoken by Srila Prabhupada ?

    I was also told by one of our sanyassi godbrothers that you actually were asked to return to ISKCON but that you were told you could not keep Srila Sridhara Maharaja’s picture on the altar and that this was also a major reason why you refused to return in addition tho the reasons you have given.

    A few years back, a godbrother sanyassi told me that you were an inspiration for others to leave ISKCON because of their offence to Srila Sridhara Maharaja, and that many gravitated to Srila Narayana Maharaja for shelter and siksa for this reason. He told me that you also came to visit SNM, but in spite of the seniority of SNM, you were unable to take shelter of him because you wanted to maintain your independence. What would be your response to that, please ?

    • >> in spite of the seniority of SNM, you were unable to take shelter of him because you wanted to maintain your independence.

      Whoever told you this was very presumptuous, and not very wise.

      Spiritual life is personal, and there is no legislation requiring every junior bhakta to surrender to every senior bhakta. Devotees have different moods, and have understood their guru-varga in different ways, with different emphases.

      If there are disciples of SNM who say that everyone must surrender to SNM, those disciples are making the same kanistha-adhikari error of which Srila BR Sridhara Deva Goswami warned — the temptation to proclaim “My guru is jagad-guru, and all must submit to him.”

      Long-time devotees who have known them both can tell you, quite plainly and without acrimony, that the moods of Srila Sridhara Maharaja and Srila Narayana Maharaja are quite different. A devotee who has imbibed Srila Sridhara Maharaja’s innate caution about higher lila — keep it on your head, worship it from a distance, remain in the servant’s quarters and do not barge into the lila unqualified — may quite understandably prefer not to follow SNM’s more bold advocacy of entering into “rasika” topics as a sadhaka.

      Also, if the premise is that we must all surrender to the seniormost Vaishnava, then if Swami is to be faulted for not surrendering to SNM, shouldn’t SNM be equally faulted for not surrendering to Srila BP Puri Maharaja? Did SNM fail to take shelter of Srila Puri Maharaja because he wanted to maintain his independence?

      If that charge seems outrageous when aimed at SNM, please consider that it is equally inappropriate when leveled at Swami, who by all accounts remains fully dependent on his guru-varga.

    • Gaura das,

      Das ist gut answered one of your questions in breif. I appreciate his answer, but it may be worth while to go into the question in greater depth. So I will do that in another post.

      You also asked why Prabhupada (SP) did not explicitly establish Srila Sridhara Maharaja (SSM) as Iskcon’s siksa guru. Let me answer that question first. I do not think that SP desired that SSM become his successor. Nor did SSM think this. As I made clear in the article these comments refer to, SP wanted his disciples to succeed him, albeit by qualifying themselves to do so, and so too did SSM. The door to approach SSM for philosophical questions was a clear reference to a qualified person from whom we could get Gaudiya siddhanta, should the need arise However, things do not always turn out they way we might like. SP’s disciples proved themselves unqualified in many respects, and instead of taking good council from SSM and being nourished by him, they offended him. Some of us were left to pick up the pieces, and in the course of doing so the affection and realization of SSM was not something to be dismissed for those who did approach him for siddhanta, especially on the issue of guru tattva.

      Thus the rise of SSM to prominence over the years was something that happened of its own accord. It happened naturally, unplanned. But can anyone say it was a bad thing? His siksa was something that SP himself relished in his own words. SSM is who he is by Krsna’s arrangement. Prabhupada opened the door for him to come in to the lives of his disciples and some took advantage and others did not. And those that did not inadvertently did as much if not more to make SSM prominent in the international Gaudiya community.

      Regardless, whatever SP may have wanted in terms of any particular detail, overall he wanted a spiritually vital successor, details and managerial policies aside. We find SSM to be such a person and this is irrefutable. And as a successor of sorts by the arrangement of providence his only desire was to help SP’s disciples fulfill SP’s desire to see them succeed him in all respects. Iskcon would have done well to embrace his siksa. As for managerial policies, these are relative, and any number of them can serve an institution well if it is spiritually viable. In other words no particular managerial policy insures the spirituality of a sect, while spiritually vital, realized leadership does. Only Krsna consciousness can spread Krsna consciousness.

      You also asked about Iskcon officially inviting me to rejoin their ranks. This has never happened. If I was to rejoin, I would rejoin as I am, indelibly and positively influenced by the grace and siksa of Pujyapada B.R. Sridhara Deva Goswami. How could it be otherwise?

  5. Das is gut, I agree that it is kanishta bhaktas who make those outrageous statements that everyone should surrender to my guru. We see that that has been the norm, however, since about the time the Gaudiya Mayflower landed. It’s a long tradition here in the west, and one that will hopefully grow fainter over time, if the guru position is to survive in a significant way over here.

    As far as the moods of SSM and SNM being different, well I would hope so. Spiritual variegatedness is a valuable commodity, and we can let go of the fantasy that all the acaryas are of one mind. That said, there is a line of thought, coming down from on high, that Srila Prabhupada introduced in the west, Srila Sridhar Maharaja brought into relief, and Srila Narayan Maharaja expanded upon, if I’m not too bold in stating it that way. To infer that there are irreconcilable differences is troubling for me. I think it would be tantamount to saying there is too much of a gap between Srila Prabhupada and Srila Sridhara Maharaja. Srila Prabhupada never talked like SSM, but I was ready to hear what was for me at least, the next installment, back in ’84 when ‘The Search for Sri Krishna’ dropped into my hands. And on it went through ‘Sri Guru and His Grace’ to ‘The Golden Volcano of Divine Love’. And through that trilogy of books, the very pure and precious understanding of ‘Radha Dasyam’ was being inculcated.

    The amazing thing about SSM’s warnings about hearing higher lilas, was that they were followed by higher lilas. 🙂 His explanation of the Rathayatra pastime was all new to me, even though it was in SP’s CC, it was not brought out and emphasized by anyone else up till then, that I knew of. We would read the pastime every year at Ratha Yatra time, but who really understood much rasa. SSM brought that out and also told us of Srila Rupa Goswami’s svarupa, Ramananda Samvada, that the environment is friendly, and so many wonderful things. But are his books to be the lawbooks for the next ten thousand years? Are the commentaries closed? Doesn’t look like it.

    And so the question of entering into ‘Rasika topics’ while still a sadhaka. Well, technically that is what sadhakas do. But we all have our own level of ability to hear rasika topics, to do it with honour. Hearing Rasa Lila is essential for conquering lust, they say, but what level of Rasa Lila are we qualified to hear. SSM did not, I am very sure, mean that we are not to hear any lila at all till we enter bhava. It is a warning to be vigilant and not throw mud into transcendence, as SP warned. Krishna Books, which contained the five chapters of the tenth canto’s Rasa Lila in an unexpurgated form, were distributed on the main streets and airports of the cities of the world. Swami probably distributed more than anyone, to his infinite glory. Letting the world know that at the core of transcendence is a love affair like no other is mercy indeed. It was the first Gaudiya book that I read. SP’s purports were intermingled there, with plenty of warnings not to see this as a mundane affair. And SSM gave his warnings too, though I wonder how much time he gave over to that actually, as I have only read books that were edited versions of his talks, and they seemed to vary widely, by editor, on the amount of emphasis that topic received.

    And so SNM continued that line of expanding the glories of Radha and Krishna here in the west. If the books didn’t appeal to all, that’s okay, they worked for a lot of others. And they are not without warnings also. To make a lot of the divides between Vaisnavas, especially the higher ones, is a tear at the fiber of the Gaudiya community. To debate issues is another matter. It is a must, for the healthy marketplace of ideas. Gaudiya Vaisnavism can transcend it’s kanishta beginnings here in the west, and at last be taken seriously by the sumedasah, the intelligent. Looking forward to that!!

    • That said, there is a line of thought, coming down from on high, that Srila Prabhupada introduced in the west, Srila Sridhar Maharaja brought into relief, and Srila Narayan Maharaja expanded upon, if I’m not too bold in stating it that way. To infer that there are irreconcilable differences is troubling for me. I think it would be tantamount to saying there is too much of a gap between Srila Prabhupada and Srila Sridhara Maharaja.

      Please clarify who or what “on high” refers to. I disagree with this line of thought. Indeed, to me it represents the basis on which followers of NM claim that those who do not take shelter of B.V. Narayan Maharaja fail to do so because they desire to be independent and are thus spiritually deviant. Personally I know of no Gaudiya sect that embraces this line of thought other than BVNM’s own sect. It is certainly not the opinion of Sri Caitanya Saraswata Matha, Promode Puri Goswami’s sect, or even Gaudiya Vedanta Samiti, the sect of NM’s guru BP Kesava Maharaja.

      • Please clarify who or what “on high” refers to. I disagree with this line of thought. Indeed, to me it represents the basis on which followers of NM claim that those who do not take shelter of B.V. Narayan Maharaja fail to do so because they desire to be independent and are thus spiritually deviant. Personally I know of no Gaudiya sect that embraces this line of thought other than BVNM’s own sect. It is certainly not the opinion of Sri Caitanya Saraswata Matha, Promode Puri Goswami’s sect, or even Gaudiya Vedanta Samiti, the sect of NM’s guru BP Kesava Maharaja.

        I didn’t mean anything like that at all. It is the line of thought of Rupa Goswami, and it’s been coming down from on high for some time now. It descends through different channels and there is no force involved. The followers of NM who say things like that are, like I implied, fanatical. Personally, I got a lot out of his books. I’ve never gotten into Puri Maharajas shiksha much. Does that make me a deviant? We only get what we get, and spiritually a little is a lot. No, Maharaja, I’m not implying that you have deviated from the line of Sri Rupa, because you are not involved in NM’s sect. That kind of talk is insane it seems to me. But it makes sense to fundamentalists everywhere, whether Christian fundamentalists or Krishna fundamentalists. Everyone should join my religion, and surrender to my guru. So tiring!! I myself am an independentist these days for that very reason. I’m a commited non-sectarianist.

        At the same time, I have to say that Narayana Maharaja’s books have been very enlightening for me, and I’ve read through all of them mostly. With the exception of Gita Govinda, they are not the Sahajia material that has been so often claimed by various parties. They don’t enter into the very intimate pastimes of the Divine Couple generally, but do glorify their sweet and innocent lilas. It seems that the persons who made those claims, either didn’t read the books, or read them with an eye to finding some sort of deviation. Unfortunatly that sort of politics is very common in our greater Gaudiya sanga. Gita Govinda is an exception, and could really be classified as a ‘rasika’ literature. One should be very advanced before opening that book, I think.

        I hope I’ve clarified my position on this. I don’t intend on taking sides in a sectarian battle. To me the real struggle for the Krishna movement is the struggle to advance beyond the neophyte sectarian stage where we are so deeply ensconced. That is where the bottleneck is and remedying that, the movement has a real chance of making a positive impact on the future evolution of the world. And because I don’t really see too much progressive KC around me, I think ‘The Harmonist’ is a beacon of light for the Gaudiya line’s continued thrust into the modern world, so thanks for keeping it up. I’ll be checking in.

  6. bijaya kumara das

    Thank you Guru Maharaja for the clarity of the issue at hand. Your broad understanding based on bhakti is greatly appreciated. The truth shall be known and as you say bhakti goes where she wants and no walls can contain her.

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