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GBC Resolution 311: Annotation Sets a Risky Precedent

By: on May 15, 2008
Opinion
Srila Prabhupada records his commentary on the Srimad Bhagavatam.

GBC Resolution 311 is a watershed in ISKCON history. The resolution — to annotate and "explain" Srila Prabhupada's books — is an attempt to redefine the constitutional structure of ISKCON. Whether intended or not, Resolution 311 changes the established relationships and power balance between individuals, managerial authorities (such as temple presidents and the GBC), the Founder Acarya Srila Prabhupada, and his teachings.


Until now, the relationship between ISKCON members and Srila Prabhupada's teachings was direct, unmoderated by another voice. Each member could read Srila Prabhupada's books "as they are". By creating the "the power to annotate" and exercising it, even indirectly through a second party, the GBC is extending its constitutional power and unilaterally redefining this relationship.


The annotations, however careful, however well-intentioned, are an interpretation. By creating the power to add these annotations, the GBC is interposing another voice between ISKCON members and Srila Prabhupada's teachings – a voice which will act as the official interpreter of the works, with equal status to Srila Prabhupada's canonical words.


This isn't the GBC's stated motive, of course. The resolution states:



Whereas some of Srila Prabhupada's books contain sentences such as the following, which when taken in isolation may be considered derogatory to and offensive against women”¦


Whereas some ISKCON devotees may have used these statements out of context as an excuse to offend, neglect and abuse women;


Whereas some people who read such statements may consider them to be derogatory or offensive, may misunderstand what Srila Prabhupada actually means, and may not want to further read those books, notwithstanding the many other beneficial statements in them;


RESOLVED: That the GBC Body recommends to the BBT Trustees that the above quotes, and other such statements as determined by the BBT, be explained in endnotes or in appendices.



Their motive is to achieve certain effects in response to current social and political conditions. Put less grandly, their motives in giving themselves the power to annotate are managerial, rather than being born of adherence to an eternal and indisputable principle or scriptural injunction.


This is a problem. We might all agree with the annotations proposed, particular with regards clarifying the rape quote in the 4th canto. That's not the real question, however. Once the power to annotate is created, the constitutional structure of ISKCON is fundamentally changed. And we won't be able to change it back.


The real question raised by Resolution 311 is:


Who is to wield the power to annotate?


Srila Prabhupada and his teachings will not fail. And when a commentary on, or a work citing his teachings is written by a follower who later falls from grace, with a sigh we move the book from our main bookshelf to "that other one, over there".


If that same commentary is integrated into Srila Prabhupada's books, however, what are we to do?


The GBC is a demonstrably fallible body. It has recanted past positions and apologized for past decisions. And it is this body that wants to extend its constitutional power into Srila Prabhupada's books.


Many ISKCON members are happy for "separation between religion and state" to continue. This way crises of faith arising from the shortcomings and mis-steps of management do not have to affect the faith they have in the Founder's books and teachings.


The Founder Acarya wanted the GBC and the BBT to be separate. Even if ISKCON were to fail, Srila Prabhupada's books — the legacy through which he lives on — would continue. Integrating a managerial agenda into the books goes against the policy and wishes of His Divine Grace.


What will be the effects of annotating Srila Prabhupada’s books?


There are many ways to interpret and explain Srila Prabhupada's works, no one of which is satisfactory to everyone at all times. The fact that he can be understood in different ways undergirds the dynamic of “unity in diversity” that characterizes ISKCON.


So, from which perspective are these annotations to be written? The GBC's? The Gay and Lesbian Vaisnava Association? His Holiness Bhakti Vikasa Swami? The perspective of a secular anthropologist?


No matter who writes these annotations, they will have a particular perspective, seek to achieve a particular aim and, consequently and necessarily, will adhere to the agenda underlying the aim and speak primarily to the audience that shares the perspective.


And the GBC's justification for establishing the power to annotate is, explicitly, to achieve a particular aim - perhaps a laudable aim, but an aim nonetheless.


When explaining Srila Prabhupada's books in person, the presentation can be adjusted for time, place and audience. Once an explanation is part of the book itself, the presentation is frozen: tied forever to the time, place and audience the annotation was written for.


This will inevitably alienate readers who have a different way of interpreting or understanding.


Even today, it's not as if ISKCON speaks with a single voice. One group would only be happy if Amara Dasa (head of GALVA, the Gay and Lesbian Vaisnava Association) wrote the annotations. Others would be convinced that only His Holiness Bhakti Vikasa Swami (author of "Brahmacarya in Krishna Consciousness" and ISKCON traditionalist) has the appropriate perspective to add such annotations.


Srila Prabhupada “built a house in which the whole world can live”. And ISKCON members agree to live in that house. They may sometimes disagree on how to interpret, apply, or implement his instructions, but the common denominator remains: ISKCON members have faith in Srila Prabhupada. Srila Prabhupada's books, just like his rooms in temples around the world, should remain as he left them.


A crisis of faith in the GBC


The GBC has sought to create and exercise a new constitutional power: the power to annotate. Whether it is exercised directly or by requesting a second party to carry it out is an important detail, but a detail nonetheless. Meanwhile, beyond an initial proposed use the GBC has not discussed how this newly created power is to be exercised, how it is to be balanced against competing concerns and, most important, how to prevent its misuse.


There has been no open discussion of the potential downsides of this new power, nor even any discussion of the positive outcomes this new power will afford. There's been no mention of risk, apparently no exploration of possible alternatives and definitely no explanation as to why these unspoken alternatives were rejected in favor of the GBC gaining the power to annotate. In a brahminical society this discussion is indispensable.


Since Resolution 311 is implicitly justified on its projected outcomes, rather than on a moral or scriptural imperative, this type of discussion is necessary to frame the decision. Yet the wording of Resolution 311 shows no self-awareness that it is a constitutional change in addition to an executive order. Whether this is intentional, a tactic meant to allow the resolution to "slip through" more easily, or an unintentional oversight arising from a genuine lack of awareness of its import is currently unknown. Neither of the two bode well.


By introducing resolution 311 the way it has, the GBC has provoked a crisis of faith in many members of ISKCON. Just as Romaharsana was accepted until he exceeded his authority, by attempting to implement a constitutional change through executive order the GBC has also approached the limit of its mandated authority and threatened its own legitimacy.


The GBC's mandated authority in ISKCON — a volunteer organization — derives from two sources: from Srila Prabhupada and from the voluntary submission of ISKCON members.


By giving itself this power, the GBC dangerously gives the appearance of placing itself above Srila Prabhupada and his teachings. It did this without providing brahminical explanation or discussion, which gives the appearance of a body acting out of mandated power, and without brahminical oversight.


In doing so, the GBC threatens both its sources of authority at once.


A large number of ISKCON members are loyal to Srila Prabhupada and his teachings first and foremost. They view the GBC as a sub-ordinate authority. Now this sub-ordinate authority is attempting fundamental constitutional change without explanation or justification. And this change threatens the only certain shelter members have had through repeated managerial mis-steps: Srila Prabhupada's books. This places an enormous strain on the trust between the GBC and the ISKCON membership, and brings its past disqualifications to the fore.


If the justification for the power to annotate is, as resolution 311 suggests, based on the ability of the GBC to "know what's best" and accurately predict the outcome of managerial adjustments, then the way in which resolution 311 has been introduced to the society itself undermines its own credibility.


Where does it take us?


As Vaisnavas we are liberal. We ascribe to people the best possible interpretation of their motives. At the same time we have to be realistic and plan for worst-case scenarios: "hope for the best, plan for the worst".


If managerial authority gains the power to annotate Srila Prabhupada's books, notwithstanding the assumption that current managers have the best and most noble of intentions, what is the worst-case scenario we need to be prepared for? That the power to annotate is misused to promote a future managerial agenda which turns out to be counter-productive, must be recanted and apologized for.


Tags:
[ annotations ] [ bhaktivedanta-book-trust ] [ book-review ] [ governing-body-commission ]
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