Balancing the Roles of the GBC and the Disciple in Guru Selection

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Members participating in the authorship of this paper: Drutakarma Dasa, Gopiparanadhana Dasa, Purnacandra Goswami, and Urmila Devi Dasi

“The rules and regulation are that nobody should accept blindly any guru, and nobody should blindly accept any disciple. They must behave, one another, at least for one year so that the prospective disciple can also understand, ‘Whether I can accept this person as my guru.’ And the prospective guru also can understand, ‘Whether this person can become my disciple.’ This is the instruction by Sanatana Gosvami in his Hari-bhakti-vilasa.” (Srila Prabhupada, Bg 13.1-2 lecture, 25 February 1975, Miami)

“In the Mantra-muktavali: By living together for one year they can ascertain from seeing each other’s nature whether they can act as guru and disciple. Indeed, there is no other way to determine this.” (Hari-bhakti-vilasa 1.74)

“It is imperative that a serious person accept a bona fide spiritual master in terms of the sastric injunctions. Sri Jiva Gosvami advises that one not accept a spiritual master in terms of hereditary or customary social and ecclesiastical conventions. One should simply try to find a genuinely qualified spiritual master for actual advancement in spiritual understanding.” (Srila Prabhupada, Caitanya-caritamrita, Adi 1.35 purport)

“Self-deceived persons sometimes accept leaders or spiritual masters from a priestly order that has been officially appointed by the codes of material life. In this way, they are deceived by official priests.” (Srila Prabhupada, Caitanya-caritamrita, Madhya 17.185 purport)

SAC’s Mandate given by the Executive Committee of the GBC

Early in 2004, the Executive Committee (EC) of the Governing Body Commission (GBC) of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) wrote to the Sastric Advisory Council:

“Srila Prabhupada states that it is the responsibility of the prospective disciples to examine and test their prospective guru prior to initiation. Given that the GBC gives tacit approval to gurus via their no-objection procedure, it could be that the prospective disciple’s desire to examine their prospective guru prior to initiation is compromised. Although there are many glorious descriptions of the qualities of guru in sastra, it is the duty of prospective disciples to not automatically assume those qualities are possessed by all ISKCON gurus. Rather, they should objectively examine their prospective guru. There is prima facia evidence that suggests that prospective disciples do not take this responsibility seriously. Therefore we request the Sastric Advisory Council (SAC) to research the balance between the responsibility of ISKCON to protect its members from unqualified gurus and the duty of the prospective disciples to give proper attention to the study of their prospective gurus prior to initiation.”

The SAC is free to accept or reject requests from the GBC. We decided to accept this particular request because we accept that there is truth in the premise of the EC’s statement.

Normally, the SAC submits papers to the GBC containing only philosophical and historical evidence, but in this case we felt that we could not address the philosophical issue of the responsibility of the aspiring disciple to test the prospective guru without also addressing practical issues of policy within ISKCON. We wrote to the EC expressing this, and they said that the GBC would be willing to receive a paper from SAC that included policy recommendations.

Introduction

In sastra we find some rare examples of aspiring disciples being directed to particular gurus. For example, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura was directed by his father, Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura, to approach Srila Gaurakisora Dasa Babaji. In earlier times, Lord Brahma told the demigods to accept Visvarupa:

“O demigods, I instruct you to approach Visvarupa, the son of Tvashta, and accept him as your guru. He is a pure and very powerful brahmana undergoing austerity and penances. Pleased by your worship, he will fulfill your desires . . . .” (Bhag. 6.7.25)

These above examples do not contradict the statements found in Hari-bhakti-vilasa seen later in this paper. Even if advice is received from others, the aspiring disciple still has the full responsibility of making the ultimate decision. The aspiring disciple is responsible for choosing, testing, and evaluating a guru. The sastric injunction is that a guru and disciple mutually test each other for a year in the course of personal association.

There are, however, several aspects of current ISKCON practice and understanding that make it difficult for an aspiring disciple to personally test a guru. The current procedure and understanding of the guru authorization process is one such obstacle. And there are others. Therefore SAC recommends that the GBC consider the following initial suggestions:

  1. Devotees should be helped to understand that it is their responsibility to test their prospective guru, as recommended by Srila Prabhupada and the previous acaryas. Generally, this should be done in consultation with trusted senior devotees.
  2. Devotees seeking initiation from a spiritual master in ISKCON should be informed that they can choose any qualified senior devotee in good standing as their diksha-guru, not just those who are already initiating.
  3. The GBC should openly encourage all senior devotees in good-standing who are qualified ISKCON representatives to accept the role of a spiritual master.

The Responsibility of the Disciple to Test the Spiritual Master

When it is clear to aspirants that their choice is not limited to those already taking disciples, it should also be clear that they have the opportunity to study the qualifications of a whole range of possible spiritual masters, apart from those who are already initiating.

In ISKCON the range of acceptable spiritual masters is, however, limited by a certain principle. There are different sampradayas and sangas, and the members of those sampradayas and sangas, although respecting each other, follow their own leaders.

The eternal leader of our sanga, ISKCON, is Srila Prabhupada, and he had his own special vision about how to practice and spread Krishna consciousness. Devotees in ISKCON have decided to follow Srila Prabhupada because he is the one who saved them and is bringing them to Sri Krishna. They understand Prabhupada as the most empowered Vaishnava acarya of modern times mainly because his vision and method of world-wide preaching is most effective for people in general. Not every Vaishnava guru in the world has this same personal vision and mood. Accepting a guru who does not have the same vision and mood as Srila Prabhupada would create disharmony in the Society he created. Therefore, if someone is attracted to a guru who is functioning outside of ISKCON, the best arrangement is that he or she goes outside ISKCON to associate with that guru in the kind of environment the guru has created. Thus ISKCON members are limited to choose as guru only qualified devotees serving in ISKCON. (Note: This point could be explained to new devotees in a brochure on this topic to help them understand why such an ISKCON policy exists.)

But before making a final choice, they should personally test the guru. The testing may be in terms of basic qualifications: “Is this guru representing Srila Prabhupada and the previous acaryas in the best way? Am I capable of accepting instruction from this guru?” Or the testing may extend to more personal requirements. A disciple may wonder, “Will this guru deal with me personally? Will this guru respond to my letters? Will I have a chance to personally serve this guru?” These considerations should be tested in advance.

This is in line with the instructions of Srila Prabhupada, who recommended that a disciple personally test a guru for at least one year before accepting initiation. Such recommendations can also be found in Hari-bhakti-vilasa, which gives practical instructions for executing devotional service in the Gaudiya Vaishnava line. This responsibility to personally test and judge the guru remains whether or not the prospective guru already has diksha disciples. In other words, a prospective disciple should not think, “Well, this guru already has disciples. This means that he is qualified, and so I don’t have to test him myself.” The disciple still must examine the guru.

“Blind following and absurd inquiries. These things are condemned in this verse. Blind following means: “Oh, there is a svami. So many thousands of people are following. Let me become his disciple.” This is called blind following. You do not know what is that svami, whether he is a svami or a rascal. You do not know. But because everyone is going, “Oh, let me become his disciple.” This is blind following, without any knowledge, blind following.”(Prabhupada BG lec. 4.34-39, 12 Jan. 1969, LA)

References for a Guru-sishya Mutual Examination Period

Hari-bhakti-vilasa—a section from the first vilasa
(translation by Gopiparanadhana Prabhu)

Text 73 tayoh pariksha canyonyam / ekabdam saha-vasatah
vyavahara-svabhavanu- / bhavenaivabhijayate
The two of them should live together and test one another for one year. This test is fulfilled by observing one another’s behavior and character.
atha parikshanam
The mutual examining is described as follows.
mantra-muktavalyam,

74 tayor vatsara-vasena / jnatanyonya-svabhavayoh
guruta sishyata ceti / nanyathaiveti niscayah
In the Mantra-muktavali: “By living together for one year they can ascertain from seeing each other’s nature whether they can act as guru and disciple. Indeed, there is no other way to determine this.”
srutis ca,

75 nasamvatsara-vasine deyat
There is also the statement of sruti: “One should not give (the vishnu-mantra) to one who has not resided with one for a year.”
sara-sangrahe ’pi,

76 sad-guruh svasritam sishyam / varsham ekam parikshayet

77 rajni camatyaja doshah / patni-papam sva-bhartari
tatha sishyarjitam papam / guruh prapnoti niscitam
And in the Sara-sangraha: “A proper guru should test for one year a disciple who has taken shelter of him. The faulty acts of a minister accrue to the king, and a wife’s sins fall on her husband. Similarly, a guru certainly obtains the sinful reactions accumulated by his disciple.”
krama-dipikayam tu,

78 santoshayed akutilardratarantaratma
tam svair dhanaih sva-vapushapy anukula-vanya
abda-trayam kamala-nabha-dhiyati-dhiras
tushte vivakshatu gurav atha mantra-diksham
“The Krama-dipika, however, says this: ‘Without deception and with a heart moist with affection, one should satisfy him with one’s own wealth, with the work of one’s body, and with favorable words. He should do this for three years, remaining sober and thinking of the guru as non-different from the lotus-naveled Supreme Lord. Then, when the guru is satisfied, he may speak the mantra in the initiation ceremony.’ ”

Commentary

evam “varsham ekam pariksha ca tato diksheti niscitam” tatra sri-gopala-mantra-vara-dikshayam varsha-traya-guru-sevanantaram eva diksheti tatra tattva-vidam matam likhan diksha-praktana-guru-seva-vidhim ca sankshepena darsayati, santoshayed iti….abda-trayam ity atra visesho granthantarad drashtavyah; tatha hi, “trishu varsheshu viprasya shatsu varsheshu bhu-bhritah / viso navasu varsheshu pariksha tu prasasyate // samasv api dvadasasu tesham ye vrishaladayah” iti. yac ca sarada-tilakadav uktam, “ekabdena bhaved vipra bhaved abda-dvayan nripah / bhaved abda-trayair vaisyah sudro varsha-catushtayaih” iti. tad atyanta-purva-parisilita-vishayam iti vivecaniyam.

“It has thus been said that ‘There should be testing for one year, and then initiation.’ In this regard, when the initiation is with the best of mantras, the Sri Gopala mantra, diksha should be performed only after serving the guru for three years; this is the opinion of those who know the truth. Recording this opinion, the passage beginning santoshayet briefly sets forth the processes of initiation, along with the preliminary service to the guru…. Further particulars about this three-year period can be found in other books, as for example, ‘It is best to test a brahmana for three years, a kshatriya for six years, a vaisya for nine years, and sudras and others for twelve years.’ It is also said in the Sarada-tilaka and other texts, ’A brahmana is tested in one year, a king in two, a vaisya in three, and a sudra in four.’ This, we should distinguish, refers to what was practiced very long ago.” (Dig-darsini-tika by Srila Sanatana Gosvami)

Statements by Srila Prabhupada on a Mutual Examination Period

“Unless one is prepared that ‘I am accepting somebody as my spiritual master. I must accept whatever he says,’ if there is any doubt, that ‘I cannot accept his words verbatim,’ then one should not accept him as spiritual master. That is hypocrisy. One must be first of all convinced. Therefore it is the duty of the spiritual master and the disciple to associate—that is the injunction of Sanatana Gosvami—for some time, and both of them should study. The disciple should study “whether I can accept this saintly person as my spiritual master.” And spiritual master also will see “whether I can accept this boy, this person, as my disciple.” That is the way. But sometimes the time is reduced. That doesn’t matter. But the principle is this, that before accepting a spiritual master you can examine him, you can scrutinize him, but not after accepting him.” (Srila Prabhupada Initiation lecture, 13 July 1971, LA)

“First of all you find out the person, that one who is better than you. Then you submit. Therefore the rules and regulation are that nobody should accept blindly any guru, and nobody should blindly accept any disciple. They must behave, one another, at least for one year so that the prospective disciple can also understand, ‘Whether I can accept this person as my guru.’ And the prospective guru also can understand, ‘Whether this person can become my disciple.’ This is the instruction by Sanatana Gosvami in his Hari-bhakti-vilasa.”
(Srila Prabhupada Bg 13.1-2 lecture, 25 February 1975, Miami)

“So therefore the process is before accepting a guru, one must hear him at least for one year. And when he’s convinced that “Here is actually a guru who can teach me,” then you accept him, guru. Don’t accept whimsically. This system now should stop that somebody’s coming for three days—“Prabhupada, initiate him.” Why? First of all see whether he’s fit for becoming a disciple; then recommend. Otherwise, don’t recommend. Because the cheap recommendation is creating havoc. One is not fit for becoming a student, disciple, and he’s accepting discipleship, and after three days he’s going away. This should not be allowed. Therefore, in the Hari-bhakti-vilasa by Sanatana Gosvami it is directed that the spiritual master and the disciple must meet together at least for one year so that the disciple may also understand that “Here is a person whom I can accept as my guru,” and the guru also can see that “Here is a person who is fit for becoming my disciple.” Then the business is nice.”
(Srila Prabhupada SB 1.16.25 lecture, 21 January 1974, Hawaii)

“First of all, you must find out a person who if you can surrender there. Tasmad gurum prapadyeta. Tad viddhi pranipatena [Bg. 4.34]. Pranipata, surrender, that is required first. If you think somebody that he’s not worth surrendering, then don’t make him guru. Don’t make a fashion. First of all you test that “Whether I can surrender?” Pranipatena. Then try to understand.”
(Srila Prabhupada SB 7.6.2 lecture, 18 June 1976, Toronto)

“…acceptance of spiritual master must be selected, you see, after careful examination, just like one selects his bride or bridegroom after careful examination. And in India they are very careful because the marriage of the boys and girls take place under the guidance of the parents. So the parents very carefully see. So one has to accept a spiritual master whose guidance will make his life perfect. That is the relation between spiritual master and disciple. It is not a formality. It is a great responsibility both for the disciple and for the spiritual master.
(Srila Prabhupada BG lecture, 2.7-11 2 March 1966, NY)

“But if you want to know who is a spiritual master, then you have to test him whether he is speaking exactly like the bona fide spiritual master. Sri Narottama dasa Thakura has explained about this, who is spiritual master. What is that? He says, sadhu sastra guru vakya, tinete kariya aikya. If you want to advance yourself in spiritual science, then you have to test these three things. What is that? Sadhu, saintly person. Sadhu, sastra, scriptures, and spiritual master. Now suppose you want to know who is a spiritual master. Then you have to test whether he’s speaking just like other saintly persons and whether he’s following scriptures. Sadhu sastra. So you have to test a spiritual master by corroborating whether he is speaking according to the scriptural injunction, whether he’s speaking (according) to other saintly persons.”
(Srila Prabhupada TLC lecture, 25 September 1968, Seattle)

“Suppose you are going here. You are coming here to learn something. When you are convinced that “Swamiji knows the thing,” when you are convinced, then you accept. Then you ask for initiation. Otherwise don’t do it hesitatingly or knowing half. Therefore in the system it is enjoined that the spiritual master also observe the disciple at least for one year, and the disciple also studies the spiritual master at least for one year. So when both of them are convinced that “He can be my spiritual master” or “He can be my disciple,” then the relationship is established. We initiate our students.”
(Srila Prabhupada BG lecture 4.34-39, 12 January 1969, LA)

“It is imperative that a serious person accept a bona fide spiritual master in terms of the sastric injunctions. Sri Jiva Gosvami advises that one not accept a spiritual master in terms of hereditary or customary social and ecclesiastical conventions. One should simply try to find a genuinely qualified spiritual master for actual advancement in spiritual understanding.” (Srila Prabhupada, Caitanya-caritamrita, Adi 1.35 purport)

This last reference makes it clear that a real candidate is one who is serious and has studied sastra to the point of being able to recognize who is a genuine spiritual master; not that ISKCON should base its guru system on the uninformed neophyte. We would do better to lean towards a system that educates its aspirants. It is also obvious that such aspirants are the ones who then make the choice. Furthermore, the above condemnation of the acceptance of a spiritual master in terms of ecclesiastical convention casts a negative light on our present system. Finally, the last sentence places the onus on the aspirant to find out who is genuine and compatible.

Gurus Should Test Disciples

Although in this paper we are emphasizing the duty of the disciple to personally test and evaluate a prospective guru, it follows from the statements of the Hari-bhakti-vilasa and Srila Prabhupada that the guru should personally test and evaluate his prospective disciple.

In fact, a guru who does not test a disciple runs the risk of committing the offense of preaching the holy name to the faithless. A diksha-guru takes the responsibility of recommending the disciple to Sri Krishna, and suffers if the disciple commits some mistake.

  1. “If a servant makes a mistake, the master is punishable because he is responsible for the offense.” (Bhag. 6.3.30 purport)
  2.  “But when a living entity plays the part on behalf of Krishna, he also takes the responsibility for the sinful activities of his devotees. Therefore to become a guru is not an easy task. You see? He has to take all the poisons and absorb them. So sometimes—because he is not Krishna—sometimes there is some trouble. Therefore Caitanya Mahaprabhu has forbidden, “Don’t make many sishyas, many disciples.” But for preaching work we have to accept many disciples—for expanding preaching—even if we suffer. That’s a fact. The spiritual master has to take the responsibility for all the sinful activities of his disciples. Therefore to make many disciples is a risky job unless one is able to assimilate all the sins… Therefore your question was—when I suffer is it due to my past misdeeds? Was it not? That is my misdeed—that I accepted some disciples who are nonsense. That is my misdeed.” (PQPA 6: The Perfect Devotee)

We should also note that if a guru does not properly test devotees before accepting them as disciples, the bad behavior of unqualified disciples will hurt the reputation of the Krishna Consciousness Movement, not just the individual guru. Therefore, the responsibility of a guru to test disciples should be taken as very important. This duty of the diksha-guru—the one who officially brings someone into the sampradaya—is similar to the responsibility of a university admissions officer who wants to bring in students who will have a high chance of academic success and of whom the school will be proud.

Delegation of the Responsibility to Personally Test

Personal testing should always be considered the standard because it is declared by guru, sadhu and sastra. But this standard has been modified in ISKCON in the following ways: (1) A disciple sometimes delegates his responsibility of testing the guru to others such as leaders or committees in the institution. (2) A guru sometimes delegates his responsibility to test his prospective disciples to others such as temple presidents. These modifications do not relieve the guru or disciple of their ultimate responsibilities in this matter. The prospective disciple is ultimately responsible for the choice of guru, and the guru is ultimately responsible for accepting a disciple.

The choice of a guru should always be considered primarily the personal responsibility of a prospective disciple. Therefore, delegation of that responsibility to others should not be encouraged, and what to speak of mandated. Rather, official policy should always encourage personal and direct testing. Similarly, it is the responsibility of the guru to test prospective disciples. Therefore, delegation of that responsibility to others should not be mandated. Rather, official policy should always encourage personal and direct testing of disciples. It is better to risk having disciples and gurus make their own mistakes and thereby acknowledge their own responsibility, not least of all because doing so is the sastric injunction.

It is presently ISKCON law that a guru cannot accept a disciple unless there is a recommendation from a temple president or a similarly situated person. In this way, some of the responsibility for mutual testing has been delegated to a third person who could possibly interfere with the process. Although Srila Prabhupada himself established the precedent of delegation, even he experienced problems with it, as when he said that devotees were being recommended too easily for second initiation and called for a “boiling of the milk”. SAC, in their discussions, have not tried to resolve this issue, but feel that it should be considered in the future.

According to sastra there is a great responsibility for the aspiring disciple to personally test the guru. But in ISKCON this is not always possible, especially when gurus have large numbers of disciples. Disciples’ delegating their responsibility to the institution for testing gurus has become quite common in ISKCON, so much so that many take it to be the standard. This is especially true for devotees aspiring for initiation from gurus who already have many hundreds of disciples and who may not often visit the aspirant’s geographical location.

The aspiring disciple is confronted with some important decisions: “Shall I choose a guru whom I can test in a personal way through direct association? Or shall I choose a guru I am not able to test through direct association?” These considerations are individual, and individuals have the freedom to decide for themselves. We hope, however, that the aspirant will consider the choice of guru very carefully in reference to sastra, in consultation with trusted senior devotees, and on the recommended method of direct personal association. But no matter which of these methods the aspirant applies, he assumes the ultimate responsibility for testing the guru’s qualifications.

Conclusion

We conclude that sastra, tradition and Srila Prabhupada place the ultimate responsibility to test whether or not a guru is bona fide on the prospective disciple. Therefore, if we wish that new aspirants understand their need to examine a guru, we should move our guru-authorizing system as close as possible to the traditional form and terminology.