Ashram vs. Institution
by Krsna dasa
Posted January 17, 2003


I read with interest the two articles on the sannyas ashram and on Guru Tattva, by Hare Krishna Dasi and by Dhira Govinda dasa, respectively, published in the new Chakra Website. I appreciate both the articles for their intelligence and their willingness to bring up delicate subjects that affect the lives of sincere followers of Sri Krishna.

The problem I find with Mother Hare Krishna's analysis, though very correct in its description of the present condition of the sannyas "order" in ISKCON, is that it is a purely institutional analysis. Thus she describes it as "an order" or an "institution" or most depressingly, a "terminally celibate order of priests" !! And therein lies the problem.

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Ashram vs. Institution
By Krsna dasa

I read with interest the two articles on the sannyas ashram and on Guru Tattva, by Hare Krishna Dasi and by Dhira Govinda dasa, respectively, published in the new Chakra Website. I appreciate both the articles for their intelligence and their willingness to bring up delicate subjects that affect the lives of sincere followers of Sri Krishna.

In Hare Krishna dasi's article, the comparison, between the celibate order of the Catholic Church, and that of the sannyasi ashram of the Vaishnava society, I believe, is not fully apt. In Catholicism, the celibate order is an institution. An institution is a man-made object, a creation by an organization or an institution. As such, the behavior of the members of that order is governed by rules formulated by a legal body, or an organizational leader, for the purpose of meeting some goal of the institution. In the end, it is an artificial creation, made by man.

An ashram, on the other hand, is a natural object, since its origin is with the Supreme Lord Himself, Sri Krishna. The four varnas, and the four ashramas, come directly from the Supreme Lord. As such, they are not temporal creations of any man, but are eternal and spiritual in origin and purpose. They are thus not governed by any legal impositions, but by the natural, eternal laws of spiritual relationships and spiritual love.

A readily understood example of this is the grihastha ashram: No human being needed to create the grihastha ashram; the state of wedlock existed in humanity since time immemorial. What governs the behavior of a man and a woman in the grihastha ashram are the natural laws of love and affection for each other and of the natural sense of responsibility for children, rather than what any lawmaker may inscribe in any book. As the married relationship gets established and matures, the rules and responsibilities of the ashram manifest themselves without external prompting. Similarly, with respect to the sannyas ashram, when a person comes into contact with a genuine, renounced spiritual personality, there is no denying that a natural feeling of respect, love and submission is the result. By the development of Krishna prema, which arises from sincere service to the bonafide spiritual master, the rules and responsibilities of the Sannyas ashram naturally manifest themselves, as a by-product of the relationship with Guru. In this respect, Bhaktin Martina's letter, where she invokes the parampara as the reason for practicing celibacy, is absolutely correct.

The problem I find with Mother Hare Krishna's analysis, though very correct in its description of the present condition of the sannyas "order" in ISKCON, is that it is a purely institutional analysis. Thus she describes it as "an order" or an "institution" or most depressingly, "terminally celibate order of priests" !! In other words, it is purely an institutional analysis. And therein lies the problem.

As ISKCON grows, the need for institutional control of its far-flung empire becomes more and more imperative. The organization, like any other that operates in a multi-national, multi-ethnic and multi-lingual setting, is beset with challenging problems, the greatest of which is to impress upon its members and followers a common, unifying vision of its purpose for existence in the face of multifarious centrifugal forces. In this, one cannot deny the need for proper checks and balances, and yes, institutional controls over its organization.

However, in the haste to control things, there is a danger of over-control, or should I say, a desire to institutionalize things that should be best left outside the purvey of organizational rules and regulations. This is a conundrum, not just for ISKCON, but for entire societies. For example, the first Amendment of the American Constitution is the Bill of Rights, which in effect says that the Government has no business in certain aspects of the personal and civil life of its citizens. It is often said that the best form of government is the least government, especially when it comes to the personal life of its citizens.

As it pertains to the Sannyas ashram, I would humbly suggest that most of the problems that ISKCON has experienced is because it is trying to institutionalize the sannyas ashram, rather than allow it to operate under its own natural laws. For example, the power, position, prestige, money, lavish living quarters, etc are perks and privileges that are solely institutional in character. It seems that sannyas in ISKCON is becoming a career move, given as an institutional reward for managerial ability or loyalty; it something akin to becoming the CEO of the company. This is of course a grotesque distortion of the sannyas ashram.

Historically, the Guru awards sannyas initiation to the sannyas aspirant as a recognition of spiritual progress, and as a recognition that the aspirant is advanced sufficiently enough to bring novitiates into the process of Krishna prema. So, far from bringing sannyasis more under the control of organizational authorities, maybe what is needed is a separation between the sannyas ashram and the managerial institution of ISKCON. Maybe sannyasis should not become GBC members; to become involved in building temples; handling money; having lavish quarters, dealing with women, etc, etc. Maybe their sole focus should be to develop their spiritual love for Krishna, and to also develop personal, spiritual relationships with their disciples, and by this method, reestablish their disciples eternal relationship with the Supreme Lord Himself, which is the goal of Krishna Consciousness.

This is not to say that the sannyas ashram should be a free for all; but rather, that instead of being controlled by an institutional administrative framework, the sannyas ashram should be controlled by the natural laws of the sannyas ashram, as described in the Chaitanya Charitamrita and other scriptures. This means, that for example, initiation into the sannyas ashram should be left to the person most suited to determine the spiritual advancement of the sannyas aspirant, that being his diksha or siksha Guru, and not as a rubber stamp by the GBC as a reward for managerial exploits or for purposes of political loyalty. It would also mean that the sannyasi should not accumulate thousands of followers, that he should live a life of simplicity, not accumulate wealth, etc. These things are not anything new; this is the way that the sannyas ashram has been regulated for thousands of years, as described in the scriptures. Rather, the attempt to institutionalize the sannyas ashram is fairly new in the history of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, and quite frankly, has been mostly unsuccessful.

The real role of the GBC with respect to the sannyas ashram would be to remove deviant Gurus or to straighten out dysfunctional Guru-Disciple relationships. Srila Prabhupada meant for the GBC to be the ultimate authority in ISKCON, but not the overriding one. In other words, the GBC should be like the Supreme Court, where cases are judged, ultimately and irrevocably; but this does not mean that the Supreme Court has a hand in every decision made by the government. The GBC does not have to regulate the Sannyasis, but should police it. This, I believe, is much closer to what Srila Prabhupada wanted.

If the Sannyas ashram is reinstated as an ashram in ISKCON, rather than as an institutional organ as it now is, many questions regarding celibacy would be answered. The goal of the sannyas ashram, that of being guided by and attaining to the natural laws of love of Krishna, and of loving reciprocations, outside of all types of institutional obligations, would make it much easier for its members to follow the rules of celibacy. If it is forced into becoming an institution, i.e. - subserving the goals of sannyas to the goals of the institution, then celibacy will naturally become difficult.

However, the greatest objection to the institutionalization the sannyas ashram is the damage it does to the guru-disciple relationship. And this brings me to Dhira Govinda prabhu's article. After wading through all the verbiage, it become clear what his position is. Basically, it is ritvik philosophy, presented in a different bottle. Same substance, different presentation. He admits as such, by his statement that, "The PL (Prominent Link) framework supports a wide latitude of relationships, the litmus test being whether the relationship assists the initiate to strengthen his direct link with Srila Prabhupada. Srila Prabhupada, not the devotee who conducted the initiation ceremony, should be the center of the relationship."

Let's call a spade a spade. Ritvikism, is, at its core, a political philosophy, and has nothing to do with spiritual advancement. It started with some temple presidents in India, who felt that they needed more power, and that the GBC man and the Guru (usually the same person in most cases) were too powerful and standing in the way of development of their projects. (In this, they may have been quite right. The power-grabbing mentality of one or two of the GBC-Gurus is simply astounding.) Thus, they came up with the philosophy that Prabhupada was the only initiating Guru, and that the diksha gurus were nothing more than mere officiating priests. By removing the Gurus from the picture, they, the temple presidents, would become both the managerial and spiritual authority over the devotees in their temples. In this, they found widespread support amongst devotees who were betrayed by the "institutional gurus" who, though, unqualified, were rubber stamped as Gurus by the GBC. If there is any doubt as to its political nature, one has to only realize Dhira Govinda prabhu's timing in the release of the second edition of the book, that is, just in time for the Mayapur meetings.

It seems that Dhira Govinda sees a personal, spiritual relationship between a disciple and a living Guru as a threat. He feels that a relationship with a Guru within Srila Prabhupada's parampara somehow diminishes Srila Prabhupada himself. He thus creates a division between Srila Prabhupada and his parampara. Quite frankly, my observation has been the exact opposite. By associating with someone who truly loves Srila Prabhupada, one develops his love for Srila Prabhupada. There is much about a person that cannot be transmitted by books; things of great spiritual significance, such as his mood; his bhava; his rasa. Only persons who have been with him, spoken to him, and received his instructions can fill in the spaces of his life and of his teachings with the many small loving exchanges with his disciples, and his uniquely spiritual responses to circumstances in life.

Even in ordinary life, one recognizes different types of knowledge: intellectual, emotional, practical, etc. Spiritual knowledge is not just intellectual, or should I say, philosophical. There are spiritual emotions that also need to be transmitted. A purely intellectual transmission of the philosophy is not sufficient; rather the mellows of devotional service, i.e. the spiritual emotions, being a purely experiential phenomenon, can be transmitted only within the scope of a living relationship with a self-realized spiritual master. This has been the strength of the Vedic model of spiritual transmission; that it transmits the whole message, the philosophical, the emotional, and the practical, in a holistic way from one generation to the next. This holistic transmission is the reason why Vedic knowledge has withstood the test of time and so successfully transmitted itself over the centuries with such little deviation. In other words, the "preferred model" for the transmission of full spiritual knowledge is already described in the scriptures. It is called "the parampara."

By legislating, or by relegating the Guru-Disciple relationship to a meaningless status, proper transmission of spiritual knowledge becomes defeated. It also becomes easier for the institutional authority to control its members. By getting the living Guru out of the picture, the institutional authority (the GBC, of which Dhira Govinda is a member) will more easily control its membership. Quite frankly, many devotees look towards their Gurus as a counterweight against the excesses and exploitation by ISKCON managerial authority.

Dhira Govinda asks a lot of the ordinary devotee when he asks us to accept his "model." Basically he is asking us to devalue, or dismiss, our relationship with our Gurus, and instead accept a GBC resolution (again the political base of this ritvik philosophy) which would drastically change a living personal relationship. On one hand, you have Dhira Govinda das, who we don't know from Adam, and on the other hand we have our Gurus, with whom we have developed, over the course of many years, by the process of submissive inquiry and service, a loving and trusting relationship. The first lesson of trust is knowing who to trust. To put it quite bluntly, why should we trust you?

On a practical level, I really have no idea how this PL model is supposed to work. Dealing with a living spiritual master is so easy: any time one has a spiritual problem or question, one just needs to call him up and ask him. However, the PL model asks us to concoct within our minds a mental relationship with Srila Prabhupada (yes, that's exactly what it is,) and then use it to advance in our spiritual lives. Please don't tell me that I can develop a proper relationship with Srila Prabhupada solely through the reading of his books. If you give the same passage from the same scripture to ten different people, then you will get ten different interpretations. This is called confusion, not edification.

All this is, again, a reflection of the institutional mentality. Dhira Govinda's methods, that to change a natural relationship built up over the years, by the way of a resolution passed at an organizational meeting is proof of that mentality. It is an attempt to legislate, and institutionalize what should be best left to develop naturally. Can you legislate love; or legislate against it? What next, a "preferred model" on how to love my children or other family members? Again, sannyas is an ashram, not an institution. Loving relationships in that ashram will manifest themselves naturally.

ISKCON has had some disastrous results when the sannyas ashram has been mixed with managerial authority. The worst of these was the "zonal acharya" system, where the so-called Gurus took on managerial authority (along with their spiritual authority) and divided the world into zones and forced initiates in those zones to accept them as Gurus. I see Dhira Govinda's proposal as another attempt to mix spiritual authority with managerial authority, of the institutional with the ashrama. For that reason alone it should be opposed.

If you ask what my suggestions for Guru reform are, well, here goes: Most devotees really do want a genuine spiritual master who will care for them, and lovingly guide them in their spiritual lives. Unfortunately, a vast number of devotees do not have this kind of deep, personal relationship with Guru. The fault is with both the unqualified gurus ISKCON has churned out, who don't really care about the spiritual advancement of their disciples, and of the mixing of the sannyas ashram with the managerial, leaving everyone, Gurus and disciples, unsatisfied, and in some cases, leading to falldowns and apostasy. The real solution would be to finally separate the managerial, institutional authority in ISKCON from the sannyas ashram; for the GBC to only police the sannyas ashram for deviant Gurus, and to let the Gurus to freely advance in their Krishna consciousness and to preach Krishna Consciousness. We don't need the "Guru-GBC" man anymore. In other words, what is needed is GBC reform, as much as Guru reform. At present, there is no body in ISKCON more distrusted, and frankly, in some quarters, more despised, than the GBC. Lord knows our leaders are bad enough; God save us from our reformers!

Finally, from the spiritual perspective, it has to be recognized that Ritvikism is a spiritual disease. I am surprised at Dhira Govinda prabhu's lack of understanding of the Guru-disciple relationship. We all need to examine our own spiritual lives to see if what we propose, in terms of Guru Tattva, are manifestations of a lack in that spiritual relationship.

Your servant,

Krishna dasa