Delivery of transcendent knowledge is key to initiation process
Posted November 5, 2003
ABSTRACT: Dhira Govinda das responds to the GBC's Sastric Advisory Council criticism of his booklet Srila Prabhupada: The Prominent Link, contending that transcendent knowledge is a primary, not secondary, characteristic of initiation, that the GBC may not be able objectively to analyse guru-tattva, that the GBC unnecessarily refers to previous Gaudiya acaryas when Prabhupada's direct meaning is clear, that Prabhupada is not merely a "previous acarya" but fully present in his recorded instructions and his murti forms, and that Vaishnava guidance from many exalted siksa-gurus and a particular diksa-guru should supplement, not supplant, an initiate's relationship with Srila Prabhupada.
The ISKCON Governing Body Commission's (GBC) Sastric Advisory Committee (SAC) devoted extensive time to the study and critique of Srila Prabhupada: The Prominent Link (PL). I acknowledge and appreciate this. For several months in 2002, I corresponded with SAC members. This exchange enriched my understanding of the subject matter addressed in PL, as well as other topics connected with guru-tattva in Srila Prabhupada's movement.
The SAC wrote, "We can agree without hesitation that Srila Prabhupada is the most prominent link to the sampradaya for all of his followers," and confirmed that Srila Prabhupada being the prominent link to the parampara "is something few will disagree with." With regard to worship practices within ISKCON, the SAC has requested the GBC to define the range of acceptable practices, and has recognized the need for guidelines in other matters for devotees who understand their primary guru relationship to be with Srila Prabhupada. Further, in connection with the Terms of Relegation section of PL, the SAC has suggested "changing the wording of the GBC statement to eliminate the words 'can' and 'may'. This step would establish what we understand to be the GBC's position that having Prabhupada as one's prominent guru is equally acceptable to any other situation." In these and other ways, the SAC has grasped the spirit and intention of PL.
This article will address some points that hopefully will assist in further elucidating Srila Prabhupada's relationship to those who contact his movement. These points include Srila Prabhupada's presence in his vani and murti, initiation as a process, understandings of the term diksa, and Srila Prabhupada as our medium to understand previous acaryas.
The Initiation Process
Srila Prabhupada: The Prominent Link asserts that the most essential aspect of the process of initiation is the delivery of divya-jnana, transcendental knowledge, from the spiritual master to the disciple. "Initiation means receiving the pure knowledge of spiritual consciousness" (CC Madhya 9:63 Purport). Understanding this clarifies Srila Prabhupada's role and relationship with the members of his movement.
The formal initiation ceremony is an important, transcendental component of the process of initiation. However, it is not the most fundamental element of initiation. Srila Prabhupada stated, "From 1922 to 1933 practically I was not initiated, but I got the impression of preaching Caitanya Mahaprabhu's cult. . . . And that was the initiation by my Guru Maharaja. Then officially I was initiated in 1933 . . ." (Lecture in Hyderabad, Dec. 10, 1970).
Our disciplic succession, as delineated by Srila Prabhupada, is characterized by transmission of divya-jnana. On the first page of an earlier edition of Sri Caitanya-caritamrta, Srila Prabhupada even uses the term "initiated" to describe parampara relationships where no formal initiation ceremony occurred. "Srila Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura accepted Srila Jagannatha dasa Babaji, who initiated Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura, who in turn initiated Srila Gaurakisora dasa Babaji." (CC Adi, Page 1).
In the new edition of Sri Caitanya-caritamrta the words "initiated" in the above excerpt are deleted. According to a representative from the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, the main reason for this book change is that Srila Prabhupada's usage of the term implies something other than the usage of the term "as we know it in ISKCON". This, I believe, reflects a consciousness that may prevent fresh, unfiltered study of Srila Prabhupada's instructions, free from unexamined and perhaps unfounded assumptions that may have entered ISKCON and become part of its culture.
Srila Prabhupada: The Prominent Link devotes a chapter and an appendix to the above discussion. The paper of the Sastric Advisory Committee (SAC) did not address this change of Srila Prabhupada's words, the import and impact of that change, and the ramifications of that modification on the ethos of the organization and its members. I believe it would be fruitful for the GBC, through the SAC or otherwise, straightforwardly to discuss this topic.
In discussions about the process of initiation, Srila Prabhupada sometimes refers to the essential aspect of initiation, as on the first page of Sri-Caitanya-caritamrta, and sometimes to the formal ceremony of initiation. In the purport to Madhya-lila 15:111, for example, Srila Prabhupada employs both usages. When he writes, "An advanced devotee should respect a person who has been initiated by a bona fide spiritual master and who is situated on the transcendental platform," he refers to the essence of the process. When Srila Prabhupada writes, "Whether a Vaisnava is properly initiated or not is not a subject for consideration. One may be initiated and yet contaminated by the Mayavada philosophy," he refers to the official ceremony.
The SAC contests the claim that transmission of transcendental knowledge is the essence of the process of initiation. In correspondence with the SAC, I wrote that initiation is a process ordained by Sri Krsna, and that the initiation ceremony is a part of that process. I concluded, "[The official ceremony] contains transcendental potency. Still, it is not the most essential aspect of the process of initiation." A SAC member replied, "You are wrong about that." The SAC's paper describes divya-jnana as a "secondary characteristic" of the initiation process.
The disciplic succession as established by Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati's song Sri Guru Parampara and Srila Prabhupada's list at the end of the Introduction to Bhagavad-gita As It Is, describes a parampara based upon spiritual teachers giving spiritual knowledge to disciples, just as Sri Krsna describes in the Fourth Chapter of Bhagavad-gita. In Bhagavad-gita (4:34) the word upadeksyanti means "they will initiate", and this process of initiation consists of imparting spiritual knowledge. Similarly, Sri Krsna opens Chapter Four by declaring "I instructed this imperishable science of yoga to the sun-god, Vivasvan, and Vivasvan instructed it to Manu, the father of mankind, and Manu in turn instructed it to Iksvaku." Revealing divya-jnana to the student, rather than any formal element of the process, is the essence of the disciplic succession.
I suggest that the SAC's focus on the formal ceremony of initiation at the possible expense of realizing the primary role of delivery of transcendental knowledge, is a legitimate cause for concern, especially in light of the damage caused in recent decades by over-emphasis on the formalities of initiation. Srila Prabhupada presented a disciplic succession grounded in the essential principles of Krsna consciousness. We need to adjust the imbalance that has arisen since his disappearance to avoid degeneration to a hollow, ritualistic religion.
As part of its response to the section of PL entitled "Srila Prabhupada is Qualified to be Worshipped", the SAC wrote: "We do not make formal offerings to Sukadeva in our regular puja because he is not in the line of initiators of the Brahma-Madhva-Gaudiya sampradaya. The diksa-guru of a properly initiated devotee in ISKCON, however, is the immediate link in the diksa-parampara for his disciple." This seems to imply that being in the line of formal initiators is the criterion for being formally worshipped, in ways such as pictures on the altar and pranam mantras, in Srila Prabhupada's movement.
If we consider, however, the altar that Srila Prabhupada gave us, and the way he defined the parampara, we see that worship is not based on performance of initiation ceremonies. I cite the above example from the SAC paper as an instance where the organizational culture of accentuating the ceremonial aspects of the initiation process may cloud our understanding of the legacy that Srila Prabhupada has given. Srila Prabhupada did not emphasize the diksa-parampara. PL mentions Sukadeva Goswami to illustrate that lack of formal worship for a Vaisnava does not indicate neglect or disrespect.
As another instance of supposition that has perhaps been insufficiently questioned influencing the organizational culture, the SAC wrote, "Since this is the formal pancaratrika method, the guru who is given the offering first is normally the pancaratrika diksa-guru. There may be exceptions; the guru-parampara given to us by Srila Prabhupada for worship in ISKCON, for example, includes Bhaktivinoda Thakura's siksa-guru, Srila Jagannatha dasa Babaji, rather than his diksa-guru. Nonetheless, offering puja first to one's diksa-guru is the norm practiced in all Vaisnava sampradayas."
This apparently suggests that it is an exception for links in the parampara not to include a relationship involving a formal initiation ceremony. From the time of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, however, most of the disciplic succession connections do not involve formal initiation. Thus, what we have come to accept in ISKCON as the "standard" parampara system is perhaps not actually standard.