Loyal opposition and the Vaishnava right to dissent
By Ananda das
Posted April 12, 2003

After the Almviks Gard Temple arranged for Dhira Govinda prabhu to teach some practical seminars for devotees this spring, Danavir das Goswami sent a peremptory email to various Swedish and British devotees.

"I have heard that there is a plan to host Dhira Govinda & company at your center for presenting 'Life Skills Seminars' and 'Personal Transformation Seminars'," wrote Danavir Maharaj.

"In case you are not aware, it was suggested at this year's GBC meeting that no ISKCON center host these seminars since Dhira Govinda has deviated so much in promoting ritvik theory through his 'Prominent Link' papers. Many ISKCON venues have recently cancelled these seminars and I strongly urge you to do the same."

Danavir prabhu knows, or ought to know, that good writing avoids use of the passive voice. "It was suggested," he baldly declares, without clarifying who actually made the suggestion. We are left in perhaps intentional ambiguity as to whether Danavir means us to infer that the suggestion was reflective of widely-held views, the object of a voted-upon resolution, or only the unseconded opinion of a single speaker, perhaps himself. Although I searched the 2003 GBC resolutions, I found no reference to Dhira Govinda prabhu's seminars, so this letter from Danavir Maharaj may be merely his personal and reflexive campaign, grounded in his opposition to Dhira Govinda prabhu's particular guru-tattva theory.

Dhira Govinda das, as Danavir prabhu writes, is indeed the author of a pamphlet which strives for middle ground between two polarized views of guru-tattva -- the traditional system of parampara versus the innovative neo-Christian "ritvik" idea of post-samadhi acceptance of Srila Prabhupada as eternal intercessor between individual jivas and the Supreme Lord. Although Dhira Govinda's proposal is problematic, having been rejected both by the orthodox camp and by the ritvik camp, his personal integrity, sincerity and quality of devotional service have not been impugned prior to the circulation of Danavir Maharaja's letter.

There are organizations which see things as all-white and all-black. Some religious movements are willing to "shun", "boycott", "disfellowship", or "excommunicate" individuals who depart in any way whatsoever from generally accepted opinions.

Look for areas of agreement, not disagreement
A short-sighted attempt to isolate, however, ought not to be the approach of a Vaishnava organization. Rather than finding fault with a particular devotee because we happen to disagree with a particular theory he or she may have enunciated, we should be encouraging free debate in the marketplace of ideas. Rather than restraining temples from inviting Dhira Govinda to speak, how much better it would be to look for the good in what he has done and continues to do. Dhira's views on guru tattva may have some support from sadhus, gurus and shastra, or they may be completely "out to lunch", but those views do not form his entire person. Perhaps on 98 per cent of topics we might discuss, Danavir and Dhira and most of the community of devotees would actually be in partial or complete agreement. How foolish it would be to exile him over the two per cent of topics on which we disagree!

It is a very simple-minded, kanistha-adhikari mentality which sees everything in only two categories: evil or good, "demon" or devotee, my enemy or my friend. Once we have learned our ABCs of Krsna consciousness, we need to progress to a more broad-minded, inclusive attitude without which preaching is not possible. We need to start thinking in degrees, nuances, gradations and spectra, so that we can expand our consciousness to a higher, more inclusive level.

Perhaps there are devotees whose grasp of Krsna consciousness is so tenuous that they must be protected from non-approved thought. Beginners need to study shastra in depth, under the instruction of their diksa- and siksa-gurus, to develop their faith and conviction, and increase their understanding of Krsna consciousness. Perhaps it is for these novices, and the tender creepers of their newsprung devotion, for which Danavir prabhu is fearful. Maybe the fear would be somewhat founded if Dhira Govinda were lecturing on his "Prominent Link" theory. In such a case, perhaps, attendance should be limited to devotees who had already practiced Krsna consciousness for some years or who had passed the Bhakti-sastri exam, etc. However, Dhira Govinda describes his topic as "A twenty-hour intensive course in the development of basic helping and life skills," focussing on "reflective listening, attending and non-verbal behavior, questioning, concreteness, immediacy, suicide prevention, perspectives on finding solutions, accountability, assertiveness training, and conflict resolution."

From his prospectus, it is hard to see just exactly how improving counselling and communications skills could be perceived as threatening the undeveloped minds of kanistha-adhikari devotees. At least on the surface, it seems to be no worse than learning cabinetmaking or typography from a non-devotee master craftsman, or learning history or chemistry from a non-devotee university professor. But Dhira Govinda prabhu is not only a teacher with a Ph.D. in social work; he is a surrendered Krsna conscious devotee as well. If parents wanted their child to develop improved rapport with people, or temples wanted to improve the listening skills of their book distributors and Sunday feast preachers, they could do far worse than sending such persons to one of Dhira's seminars.

GBC Support for "Alternative Dispute Resolution"
Pursuant to GBC Resolution 302 (March 14, 2002), for example, the GBC unanimously endorsed the process of "alternative dispute resolution" under the project leadership of Arnold M. Zack, an author of several books on dispute resolution who teaches at Harvard Law School. Within ISKCON, the process is intended "to recognize and serve the needs of its members, to empower devotees to articulate their concerns without fear of recrimination, to facilitate conflict resolution via trained third-party assistance, to create transparency between the GBC and devotee communities, and to address concerns in a timely manner before they escalate."

The alternative dispute resolution process makes use of (1) a confidential ombudsman to offer guidance, information, practical recommendations and other assistance without revealing the identity of a complainant, and (2) a mediator who encourages two parties to advance toward a mutually acceptable, voluntarily agreed, common position.

While the GBC resolution envisages training "a number of experienced individuals from within ISKCON" to serve in such ombudsman and mediator roles as "inside facilitators", it acknowledges that some disputes may require the services of "outside facilitators" -- that is, qualified practitioners who are not members of ISKCON. Training of inside facilitators was supposed to begin last fall in North America and Europe. The GBC established a subcommittee including Braja Bihari das, Madhava Pandit das and Professor Zack, "to coordinate these efforts in ISKCON on behalf of the GBC Body."

The GBC executive members have themselves taken advantage of Professor Zack's mediation services to make their meetings "proceed more smoothly and productively." The GBC endorses Mr. Zack's conflict resolution skills among its board members, recommends his technique to ISKCON as a whole, and advocates sending devotees for training under the aegis or Professor Zack, who, as far as we know, is not a devotee.

Dhira Govinda's seminars can be viewed as an informal extension or arm of this GBC-approved process. People who attend his seminars are likely to learn many of the essential communication and dispute resolution skills which make them possible ombudsmen or mediators, so that they can act as facilitars within ISKCON.

Danavir Maharaj presumably has no difficulty with devotees approaching Prof. Zack, a presumed non-devotee; nevertheless, he objects to an ISKCON temple allowing an ISKCON devotee, a Vaisnava whose integrity and devotion are well known, to teach a course in basic psychological skills on the Almvik village grounds. This is irrational and unsound thinking on the part of our esteemed prabhu, and Danavir Maharaj ought to, I think, write a new letter to ISKCON temples encouraging temple sponsorship of, and devotee attendance at, Dhira Govinda's seminars. Perhaps the GBC could sponsor Danavir prabhu to himself take one of Dhira's seminars; he might learn a lot.

Personal choice and free thought
Finally, if Danavir das Goswami has some personal resistance to hearing from Dhira Govinda prabhu, why should he impose this preference on others? It is clear that not all devotees agree with Danavir. For example, Bhakti Marga Swami commended the seminar as "educational and enjoyable for Canadian ISKCON leaders as well as future leaders," whilst Smita Krsna Maharaja, a resident of Almvik, Sweden, found his course "inspiring and interesting" and suggested that Dhira's course should be "an integrated part [of] the training and teaching of our leaders, preachers, managers, etc."

We need, as ISKCON devotees and temple leaders and members, to realize that not everything spoken by a guru or a sannyasi is necessarily ex cathedra or infallible. All of us have the possibility of cheating, of having imperfect senses, of being illusioned or of committing mistakes. While Danavir prabhu undoubtedly meant well by his letter, there is no necessity for any temple leader to follow his advice.

Every Vaisnava has the right to dissent, if he or she wishes, from opinions uttered on his or her behalf with which he or she may disagree. As a Parliament works best when it has not just a strong government, but also a strong Loyal Opposition, ISKCON may also function better as a democratic institution with a corps of respectful devotees willing to challenge its elected managerial leaders when these devotees believe the leadership to have erred.