By Sita Rama das
According to the ISKCON foundational document “Srila Prabhupada: The Founder Acarya of ISKCON” (The Founder Acarya) two ideas exist which are a rejection of Srila Prabhupada’s instruction for continuing the disciplic succession. One idea is to reject individual gurus, the other is to eliminate the GBC and have one acarya (p.24). ISKCON needs to foster both an “…intense common loyalty to ISKCON and the GBC…” and a deep “…full teaching relationship between individual gurus and disciples within ISKCON” (The Founder Acarya, p. 24) Members need to realize that there is no conflict between loyalty to Srila Prabhupada, ISKCON, and their guru; rather, these two factors reinforce and support each other (The Founder Acarya p.24).
My point is, this “realization” is simply theoretical until an intense loyalty to ISKCON and the GBC, combined with surrender to an individual guru, is established as the cultural fabric of the movement. Until that happens the conflict exists. We need to do more to mitigate this conflict.
The disciplic succession is a foundational principle, without which there is no possibility of conditioned souls transcending the cycle of birth and death. There is no time or place where this principle can be neglected.
In “The Founder Acarya” the GBC is described as the “successor acarya” of Srila Prabhupada. It follows, quite correctly, that the GBC is the link in the chain of disciplic succession connecting ISKCON gurus to Srila Prabhupada. In my experience, however, this rarely acknowledged. I therefore see the chain deteriorating before my eyes.
The reality of parampara in ISKCON, as described in “The Founder Acarya” must be regularly discussed to reinforce this most important principle. Although devotees may have their own opinions, and may express them in private circles, the GBC must insist that devotees acknowledge the official teaching of ISKCON and forbid them from preaching anything opposed to this. This rigidness will make ISKCON more attractive to genuine spiritual seekers.
We can see that Christian religious organizations which uphold rigid theological principles remain dynamic, and the ones with a culture of individualism, and flexible interpretation, decline. ISKCON and these organizations share enough elements for us to conclude that growth and decline of ISKCON will be affected in a way similar to the way it is in these organizations. The common element shared by ISKCON and most Christian organizations is the goal of salvation. This invariable includes the concept of following the will of God in order to, by His Grace, obtain an eternal, joyful, life. One learns how to follow God’s will through leaders who teach from a sacred text.
Below is a small sample of the available data which justifies the assertion that religious organizations which demand strict acceptance of central beliefs, and restrictions on behavior, remain dynamic; and those who adopt theological liberalism and freedom of individual freedom decline.
In 1931, Ernst Troeltsch, through a study of the history of Christianity, developed the, “sect to church” concept. Religious movements start off as strict sects which have beliefs, values, and customs that create tension between them and society at large. The successful sects grow into churches, slacken doctrinal demands, and embrace secular morality. When this happens church growth slows down. Then reactionary groups break from the church and form sects, these new sects gradually become churches, and the cycle repeats.
Other scholars have given historical data to paint the same picture (see, The Churching of America, by Finke and Stark). We can also see this happening recently with the Presbyterian Church. Hundreds of Presbyterian congregations are leaving this liberal church and joining, the conservative, Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, formed in 2010, and the, Evangelical Presbyterian Church, founded in 1981. The Evangelical Presbyterians declares itself, “reformed”, defined as accepting the, “…Scripture alone as the only infallible authority for belief…” (http://www.epc.org/faq)
Beyond simply theorizing, an abundance of empirical research on church growth and decline was precipitated by a 1977 book by Dean Kelley, “Why Conservative Churches Are Still Growing” Several theories have been developed, and debates have ensued, regarding why, “mainstream/ liberal” churches have declined and “conservative/strict” churches continue to grow. But there is, essentially, no denying that this trend has continued for over four decades.
Among other things, strict churches are characterized as having “costs”, such as demanding literal acceptance of the scriptures, restrictions on diet, dress styles, and social interactions, which often invite ridicule. These include several Pentecostal groups, Mormons, and Jehovah Witnesses. The mainstreams, liberal, churches which have been declining since the 1960’s include the Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and United Methodists.
Why are people more attracted to churches that demand more, when they could choose one that demands less? Answers to this are found in an academic paper published in the, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (Sacrifice and Stigma: Managing Religious Risk, by Prosper Raynold). It is because people have the propensity to develop faith and hope in God; but people tend to rely on “faith intermediaries” to deepen their understanding of the will of God. They need to believe they have found intermediaries who have access to God (through sacred texts) and can transmit the will of God, and not exploit them. People then act in accordance with God’s will in order to obtain eternal life. But there is a, “mediation risk”, involved regarding whether the prescribed path will lead to the desired outcome. This intermediary risk is mitigated by “strictness.”
This makes sense. Regulations on behavior and literal acceptance of the scriptures are principles which do not jibe with the morals, ambitions, or world views, of the masses in materialistic society. Intermediaries who insist on these principles are making religion costly, but the cost being paid is not something the intermediaries can utilize for their own profit: this adds to their credibility. Conversely, genuine seekers can see that intermediaries who water down the scriptures are motivated to gain followers for reasons other than to inspire them to act according to the word of God. These intermediaries are unable to transmit the will of God or show the path to achieve eternal happiness.
Watering down the criteria may result in a boost in church membership but this will inevitable be short lived. It may attract those who have less spiritual desire; those who are less willing to pay a price for eternal life. But such people, invariably, have greater material ambitions, and will be ultimately drawn away by secular organizations which can offer material rewards much more effectively than any church. In other words, when churches stop emphasizing their unique product, eternality, they place themselves into the competitive market of material organizations which they are unable to compete with. They become unappealing to both genuine seekers and superficial members.
Similarly, ISKCON gurus who are not willing to accept the GBC as the link in the disciplic succession connecting them to Srila Prabhupada, and who do not emphatically teach the same to their followers, may be able offer greater freedom of personal opinions, and other things which jibe with the ideals of the masses in society; ideals which are precious to conditioned souls. They may be able, by personal charisma, to inspire faith in followers who openly have little faith in the GBC and are unwilling to accept it as the, successor acarya. But such gurus will not be able to inspire “intense loyalty to ISKCON and the GBC”. It follows, they will not be able to inspire intense loyalty to Srila Prabhupada, nor to the disciple succession coming from him.
If such gurus become the norm, then the continuation of ISKCON will eventually be in the hands of charismatic disciples of these charismatic gurus. It is easy to see that after a few generations the potency of ISKCON; which comes from making a direct connection with Krishna available, through rigidly following the instructions of Srila Prabhupada, will dwindle and eventually vanish.
However, if gurus display, and advocate, acceptance of the GBC as the link between them and Srila Prabhupada, this strict acceptance of the disciplic succession will increase their own credibility among followers who intelligently weigh intermediary risk. These gurus will “cost” more in terms of disciples giving up freedom of personal opinion, but the payback will be greater confidence that the guru/ intermediary is accurately transmitting the will of God, without personal interpretation or egotistic motivation. Thus, as idealized in “The Founder Acarya”, when gurus advocate loyalty to ISKCON and Srila Prabhupada their disciples develop greater faith in them. As an alternative route to persuasion, those who are inspired primarily by faith in Srila Prabhupada will have more confidence in the gurus when those gurus fully adhere to the system Srila Prabhupada established. Thus, acceptance of Srila Prabhupada, the GBC, and ISKCON gurus, as the chain of disciplic succession, will support and reinforce acceptance of all these links.
Let’s begin to develop a consensus regarding the nature of the parampara in ISKCON before our mundane sensibilities delude us into seeing acceptance of the GBC as some form of material authoritarianism.