Founder Acharya His Divine Grace
A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada

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Some Thoughts on Disciples in ISKCON
By Krishna Dharma Das   |  Feb 12, 2022

Some years ago, the GBC commissioned their Sastric Advisory Council (SAC) to produce a paper on ISKCON’s responsibility to protect its members from choosing unqualified gurus, versus the disciples’ responsibility to undergo due diligence in testing their prospective guides. This is from the GBC’s request to the SAC:

“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 facie evidence that suggests that prospective disciples do not take this responsibility seriously. Therefore we request the Sastric Advisory Council 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.”

Following this request, the SAC produced a paper entitled, ‘Balancing the roles of the GBC and the disciple in Guru selection,’ in which they stated:

“We conclude that sastra, tradition, and Srila Prabhupada place the ultimate responsibility to test whether 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.

“Bureaucratic processes about the suitability of a person to function as guru before the person has actually functioned as a guru have not proved successful as an effective guarantee. The actual behavior of the person as guru has, in practice, turned out to be the only effective basis for determining merit.

“It seems to us that if a devotee is apparently in good-standing and wishes to accept disciples, it is best to let the devotee accept disciples after a period of mutual testing between guru and disciple for at least a year. The institutional check against unfit gurus should be applied not a priori but a posteriori, in terms of attention to the actual behavior of the guru. If it turns out that the guru is unfit, this fact will be exposed.”

You can read the whole paper here:

Despite the SAC offering support for these conclusions from scripture and the examples of tradition, the GBC elected to keep the system of a priori checks in place. One who wishes to initiate disciples within ISKCON must undergo institutional procedures before they can commence that service. The underlying rationale for such procedures is that without them, we run the risk of unqualified individuals inveigling new devotees into becoming their disciples. What this effectively means is that they do not see new devotees as having sufficient discernment to select a qualified guru without their oversight. This is something of a paradox as the GBC admits there is an issue with disciples not properly testing their gurus, but by approving gurus, separating them from other preachers into a category of ‘ISKCON guru’, we exacerbate the problem. Hence, they commissioned the SAC to research the matter and see if we cannot make improvements.

To me, it seems the real question is how can we properly educate devotees to make intelligent choices, obviating the need for much of the bureaucracy occasioned by our guru approval process? In their paper, the SAC calls for better training of prospective initiates, and indeed we have the ISKCON Disciples Course, which one must undergo before taking diksha. Still, the GBC oversight remains so plainly this course is not sufficient. So, what kind of training can we offer that will equip devotees with the discrimination required to avoid unqualified gurus?

Firstly, when is someone even considered ready for initiation? According to scripture, it should take place at the bhajana kriya stage of devotional service when one is prepared to give his life to the practices of bhakti.

“In the beginning, there must be faith. Then one becomes interested in associating with pure devotees. Thereafter one is initiated by the spiritual master and executes the regulative principles under his orders.” -Chaitanya Charitamrita (CC), Madhya Lila 23.14

As stated in the above verse, there are two stages preceding initiation, sraddha and sadhu sanga, or initial faith and association with sadhus, “pure devotees” of Krishna. By the process of sadhu sanga we should reach a high level of practice even before initiation.

“One who is not self-controlled, specifically in sex life, can become neither a disciple nor a spiritual master. One must have disciplinary training in controlling speaking, anger, the tongue, the mind, the belly, and the genitals. One who has controlled the particular senses mentioned above is called a gosvāmī. Without becoming a gosvāmī one can become neither a disciple nor a spiritual master.” -Srimad Bhagavatam (SB) 2.9.43 purport

One must be a goswami, sense controlled, *before* becoming a disciple. As those of us who have been practicing for some time know, this is no small thing. We have seen over the years how those who accepted vows at a young age often find them difficult to follow in course of time. In the Madhurya Kadambini (chapter 3), Vishvanath Chakravarti Thakur describes this as the unsteady stage of devotional service, at the beginning of bhajana kriya. It goes through various stages before finally maturing to steady practice, when initiation should ideally take place. It is only then that one can be confident of keeping his vows, without which the initiation is meaningless.

“Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī warns, however, that if a person is properly initiated by a bona fide spiritual master, he should not think that simply by the acceptance of such initiation his business is then finished. One still has to follow the rules and regulations very carefully. If after accepting the spiritual master and being initiated one does not follow the rules and regulations of devotional service, then he is again fallen. …In other words, simply becoming initiated does not elevate one to the position of a high-class brāhmaṇa. One also has to discharge the duties and follow the regulative principles very rigidly.” Nectar of Devotion 5

As well as the above requirement, there is also the standard test of a disciple that the guru must make; is he or she intent upon achieving life’s ultimate goal?

“As far as the mutual testing of the spiritual master and disciple is concerned, Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura explains that a bona fide disciple must be very inquisitive to understand the transcendental subject matter. As stated in Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam (11.3.21): tasmād guruṁ prapadyeta jijñāsuḥ śreya uttamam. “One who is inquisitive to understand the highest goal and benefit of life must approach a bona fide spiritual master and surrender unto him.” A serious disciple must be alert when selecting a bona fide spiritual master. He must be sure that the spiritual master can deliver all the transcendental necessities. The spiritual master must observe how inquisitive the disciple is and how eager he is to understand the transcendental subject matter. The spiritual master should study the disciple’s inquisitiveness for no less than six months or a year.” (CC, Madhya Lila 24.330 purport.)

As the above quote states, there must be “mutual testing”, so while the guru must ensure the disciple is qualified, the disciple must similarly assess the spiritual master. Which brings us back to where I began this article, that the GBC do not trust devotees to make an independent assessment or decision without their oversight. They also do not allow gurus to independently assess prospective disciples. The gurus must accept a third-party recommendation from an ISKCON authority, such as a Temple President.

So back to my first question; how can we better equip devotees with good discrimination to make informed and wise choices, while also bringing them to the high standard required of a disciple? While we can educate devotees in those parts of scripture which describe the characteristics of a bona fide guru, we cannot easily teach them the wisdom to apply such knowledge. Nor can any academic course—whether it be the IDC, Bhakti sastri, or whatever—turn them into self-controlled goswamis. This is where sadhu sanga comes in, the stage of bhakti preceding bhajana kriya, when initiation occurs. This should develop all the qualities required of a disciple, and indeed the percipience needed to choose one’s guru.

Sadhu sanga is absolutely key to developing our Krishna consciousness. One verse in scripture says how even a moment’s association with a sadhu can give one “all perfection”. (CC Madhya 22.54) Then there is Lord Chaitanya’s statement that the “root cause of bhakti is sadhu-sanga” (CC Madhya 22.83) which Srila Prabhupada translates as the association of advanced devotees. There are hundreds of such statements in our scriptures emphasizing the importance of associating with devotees. What then constitutes sadhu-sanga, and who is the sadhu?

In one place Srila Prabhupada directly equates it with hearing.

“Lord Chaitanya, therefore, recommended five main principles for attaining perfection in the devotional service of the Lord. The first is association with devotees (hearing).”(SB 2.9.31)

For the most part, though, he defines it as discussing about Krishna.

“Those who are devotees, they assemble together. Bodhayantah parasparam. In the Bhagavad-gita it is said, “They discuss about the glories of the Lord.” Bodhayantah parasparam. That is sadhu-sanga” (Lecture Bombay, December 4, 1974)

Here Srila Prabhupada quotes a seed verse of the Bhagavad-Gita , where Krishna describes the symptoms of a pure devotee, how they “derive great satisfaction and bliss from always enlightening one another and conversing about me.”(Bg 10.9)

We find in this section of the Gita, the four seed verses, Krishna telling us that by this practise, hearing and chanting about him, he will give us spiritual intelligence, dadami buddhi yogam tam (Bg 10.10).

Krishna conscious discussion is also known as istha-gosthi, instituted by Srila Prabhupada. Here is his definition of that:

“For a devotee, there is no point in making friendships with ordinary persons; he should make friendship with other devotees so that by discussing among themselves, they may elevate one another on the path of spiritual understanding. This is called ista-gosthi. In Bhagavad-gita there is reference to bodhayantah parasparam, “discussing among themselves.” Generally pure devotees utilize their valuable time in chanting and discussing various activities of Lord Krishna or Lord Caitanya amongst themselves.” (SB.3.29.3)

Prabhupada would often cite a key Bhagavatam verse that describes how by sadhu or sat-sanga, by discussing Krishna consciousness in the association of devotees, the entire process of bhakti unfolds.

“In the association of pure devotees, discussion of the pastimes and activities of the Supreme Personality of Godhead is very pleasing and satisfying to the ear and the heart. By cultivating such knowledge one gradually becomes advanced on the path of liberation, and thereafter he is freed, and his attraction becomes fixed. Then real devotion and devotional service begin.”(SB 3.25.25)

By this process, we will achieve success in all our endeavours.

“This process of hearing about and glorifying the Lord is applicable for everyone, whoever he may be, and it will lead one to the ultimate success in everything in which one may be engaged by providence.”(SB 2.1.5)

Discussion about Krishna is how we develop detachment and come to the Lord.

“Therefore one must learn detachment by discussion of spiritual science based on authoritative scriptures, and one must hear from persons who are actually in knowledge. As a result of such discussion in the association of devotees, one comes to the Supreme Personality of Godhead.”(Bg 15.3-4)

In 1972 Prabhupada issued an instruction to a prominent GBC member that his “first job” should be to ensure that the devotees in his care were regularly reading and discussing his books.

“Your first job should be to make sure that every one of the devotees in your zone of management is reading regularly our literatures and discussing the subject matter seriously from different angles of seeing, and that they are somehow or other absorbing the knowledge of Krishna Consciousness philosophy. If they are fully educated in our philosophy and if they can get all of the knowledge and study it from every viewpoint, then very easily they will perform tapasya or renunciation and that will be their advancement in Krishna Consciousness.” (Letter 16 June 1972)

Srila Prabhupada wanted us to thoroughly analyze his writings from various perspectives, to clear all doubts.

“Try to always study our books and see our philosophy from different lights of directions, become convinced yourself of this knowledge and without a doubt all of your difficulties of mind will disappear forever and you will see Krishna face-to-face.”(Letter 8 July 1972)

He did not expect us to just blindly accept what he had written, and he explained how, by the process of discussion, we would gradually become attached to the subject matter.

“Suppose you hear something of the Bhagavad-Gita, and it appeals to you, or even does not appeal to you. Just try to think over: ‘What Bhagavad-Gita says? How Swamiji has discussed this matter?’ Apply your arguments. Apply your logic. Don’t take it as a sentiment or as blind faith. You have got reason; you have got arguments; you have got sense. Apply it and try to understand it… You will gradually develop your attachment for hearing it, and devotional service will be invoked in your heart, and then gradually, you will make progress.”(Lecture 28 July 1966)

The above instruction is particularly pertinent to those still testing their guru prior to initiation in that one should question and raise doubts.

The benefits of sadhu sanga are great indeed.

“Such pure devotees, always merged in the knowledge of Krishna and absorbed in Krishna consciousness, exchange thoughts and realizations as great scientists exchange their views and discuss the results of their research in scientific academies. Such exchanges of thoughts in regard to Krishna give pleasure to the Lord, who therefore favours such devotees with all enlightenment.” (CC Adi 1.49)

“My dear King, in the place where pure devotees live, following the rules and regulations and thus purely conscious and engaged with great eagerness in hearing and chanting the glories of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, in that place if one gets a chance to hear their constant flow of nectar, which is exactly like the waves of a river, one will forget the necessities of life — namely hunger and thirst — and become immune to all kinds of fear, lamentation and illusion.”(SB 4.29.39-40)

Srila Prabhupada also defined sadhu sanga as “associating with the bona-fide spiritual master and abiding by his order.”(Lecture 19 August 1968) In the Bhagavatam verse cited above (3.25.25), Prabhupada translates the word ‘satam’ as “pure devotees”, and this is usually how he translates the word ‘sadhu’. It is a frequently repeated point. Lord Chaitanya says,

“Unless one is favoured by a pure devotee, one cannot attain the platform of devotional service. To say nothing of Krishna-bhakti, one cannot even be relieved from the bondage of material existence.” (CC Madhya 22.51)

Commenting on this verse, Prabhupada says,

“If one is serious about escaping maya’s influence and returning home, back to Godhead, one must associate with a sadhu (devotee). That is the verdict of all scriptures. By the slight association of a devotee, one can be freed from the clutches of maya. Without the mercy of the pure devotee, one cannot get freedom by any means. Certainly a pure devotee’s association is necessary in order to obtain the loving service of the Lord. One cannot be freed from maya’s clutches without sadhu-sanga.” (SB 5.3.14)

The sadhu is a perfect devotee.

“Sadhu means a devotee, perfect devotee of Krishna. That is a sadhu. Therefore it is recommended, sadhu-sanga. We have to associate with sadhu, means who have completely dedicated life for Krishna’s service.” (Lecture 16 Feb 1973)

Everything depends upon their association.

“The secret of success in the cultivation of Krishna consciousness is hearing from the right person.” (SB 4.29.39-40)

Hearing is the proper way to associate with sadhus.

“…one has to associate with liberated persons not directly, physically, but by understanding, through philosophy and logic, the problems of life.” (SB 3.31.48)

Although there may be other pure devotees, there cannot be any argument that Srila Prabhupada is the “right person” as described here. He is our foundational siksha guru and has made his association freely available in his instructions, which he wanted us all to study carefully. That will answer all questions and clear all obstacles.

A temple is a place whereby one is given the opportunity to render direct devotional service to the Supreme Lord Sri Krsna. In conjunction with this you should always read my books daily and all your questions will be answered and you will have a firm basis of Krsna consciousness. In this way your life will be perfect.” (Letter to Hugo Salemon, 22nd November, 1974)

“Here is the remedy for eliminating all inauspicious things within the heart which are considered to be obstacles in the path of self-realization. The remedy is the association of the Bhagavatas. There are two types of Bhagavatas, namely the book Bhagavata and the devotee Bhagavata. Both the Bhagavatas are competent remedies, and both of them or either of them can be good enough to eliminate the obstacles.” (SB 1.2.18)

I believe that by deeply and carefully discussing Srila Prabhupada’s books together, we effectively get the association of both Bhagavatas , the book and the person. It is direct service to Srila Prabhupada.

“To serve the topmost devotee means to hear from him about the glories of the Supreme Personality of Godhead.” (SB 4.22.22)

Only such personalities can give perfect knowledge that frees us from ignorance:

“Because conditioned soul cannot give you the truth. I am conditioned soul. I cannot say something which is absolute… Because we cannot take any instruction from a conditioned soul. So the spiritual master, even if you take that he is conditioned soul, but he does not speak anything from his own side. He speaks from Kṛṣṇa’s side. So unless… The Vedic principle is that unless one is not liberated from the material conditions, he cannot give us any perfect knowledge. The conditioned soul, however he may be academically advanced, educated, he cannot give us any perfect knowledge.” (Lecture 27 Nov 1968)

I would suggest then that we carefully consider how we can improve our sadhu sanga, specifically discussing Srila Prabhupada’s books together, both in classes and if possible istha gosthis. He wanted this to be a primary focus of our sadhana.

“We should have regular classes, just like school and colleges, eight hour, six hour. Be engaged always in reading Srimad-Bhagavatam, discussing amongst yourself. Then you’ll make progress. Otherwise, if you take it as an official routine work… You should take as routine work, but with consciousness that “We have to learn something,” not simply attending the class, but to learn something. In this way make your life successful.” (Lecture 16 Jan 1975).

I feel that if we can work this out and introduce all new devotees to a culture of hearing and deeply discussing Srila Prabhupada’s books, we will see everything improve. Devotees will develop their good discrimination based on scripture, their detachment, and their attraction for Krishna. The need for administrative processes to regulate them will be significantly reduced, and the love and trust, and thus the cooperation, between us will increase markedly. The Bhagavatam sums it up nicely:

“One should learn how to associate with the devotees of the Lord by gathering with them to chant the glories of the Lord. This process is most purifying. As devotees thus develop their loving friendship, they feel mutual happiness and satisfaction. And by thus encouraging one another they are able to give up material sense gratification, which is the cause of all suffering. The devotees of the Lord constantly discuss the glories of the Personality of Godhead among themselves. Thus, they constantly remember the Lord and remind one another of His qualities and pastimes. In this way, by their devotion to the principles of bhakti-yoga, the devotees please the Personality of Godhead, who takes away from them everything inauspicious. Being purified of all impediments, the devotees awaken to pure love of Godhead, and thus, even within this world, their spiritualized bodies exhibit symptoms of transcendental ecstasy, such as standing of the bodily hairs on end.” SB 11.3.30-31

My wife Cintamani-dhama and I have compiled a set of principles drawn from Srila Prabhupada’s instructions about sadhu sanga which can be found on our website:

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Krishna dharma das