The Traditional System for Choosing Gurus was Not Bureaucratic

The traditional system for becoming a guru was not similar to the bureaucratic system for producing the ordained clergy of modern religions. Çréla Bhaktisiddhänta Sarasvaté Öhäkura gave warnings against bureaucratic systems.


Çréla Bhaktivinoda Öhäkura writes in Çré Caitanya Çikñämåtam (p. 242) that Pütana

represents a deceitful guru. Obviously, the Gauòéya Vaiñëava sampradäya does

not wish to have deceitful persons taking the role of guru. It might seem that

one way to avoid this is to institute bureaucratic controls. However, in his commentary, Çréla Bhaktisiddhänta Sarasvaté Öhäkura argued that bureaucratic systems for producing ordained clergy are not the way to ensure qualified gurus:


It is not from any deliberate opposition to the ordained clergy that these observations are made. The original purpose of the established churches of the world may not be always objectionable... But no mechanical regulation has any value even for such a purpose. The bona fide teacher of the religion is neither any product nor the favorer of any mechanical system... The mere pursuit of fixed doctrines and fixed liturgies cannot hold a person to the true spirit of doctrine or liturgy. (Çréla Bhaktisiddhänta Sarasvaté Öhäkura, printed in the January l932 edition of The Harmonist, or Shree Sajjanatoshani, Putana, part 1)


Some devotees may discount these words of Çréla Sarasvaté Öhäkura, bringing up the seemingly contradictory fact that he started and led a spiritual organization. However, that would be a mistake. Referring to a properly qualified spiritual personality, Çréla Sarasvaté Öhäkura said, In his hands no system has likewise the chance of degenerating into a lifeless arrangement. So Sarasvaté Öhäkura does not reject all systems. Some system should be there, but it should be, as much as possible, like the traditional system of guru selection, with minimal bureaucracy. We should not rush into imitating the bureaucratic systems for ordaining clergy found in modern religions.


Çréla Prabhupäda has also written against officially appointed gurus:


Self-deceived persons sometimes accept leaders or spiritual masters from a priestly order that has been officially appointed by the codes of material life. In this way, they are deceived by official priests. (Caitanya-caritämåta, Madhya 17.185 purport)


Çréla Prabhupäda has also given many general warnings against the over-centralization and over-bureaucratization of ISKCON.


Forget this centralizing and bureaucracy. (letter to Karandhara, Bombay, 22 December 1972)


Krishna Consciousness Movement is for training men to be independently thoughtful and competent in all types of departments of knowledge and action, not for making bureaucracy. Once there is bureaucracy the whole thing will be spoiled. (letter to Karandhara, Bombay, 22 December 1972)


Our point in bringing up these warnings is not to say that the current system is completely wrong, or that the gurus that have gone through this system are just official priests. However, we do think that it would be an improvement if the system for guru authorization in ISKCON resembled more the traditional system and resembled less the modern systems for appointing official priests. We are not advocating the removal of all institutional oversight of the guru authorization and selection process. Some minimal institutional oversight should always be there. We are simply suggesting that it would be better to emphasize the education of devotees to choose the right guru by personal testing as the primary system, with institutional oversight applied afterwards to correct things if wrong choices are made.


A decentralized and non-bureaucratic institutional form of disciples and gurus engaging in mutual testing meets the criteria given by Çréla Prabhupäda and Çréla Sarasvaté Öhäkura, and it avoids the pitfalls they mentioned. Perhaps the main pitfall is the fact that with a bureaucratic process, once a person starts taking disciples, other prospective disciples get the impression that the guru has been certified; thus they often forgo the proper process of mutual testing.


We should also note that there are religious and secular organizations which have decentralized and non-bureaucratic forms. Such forms are not anarchies. Some of these organizations are very effective in achieving their purposes and protecting their core principles.


Again, ISKCON has a legitimate concern over who represents it and who can officially accept disciples. However, the leaders of ISKCON also have an obligation to fulfill this duty according to guru, sädhu, and çästra. There are enough admonitions against bureaucracy and centralization to conclude that our institutional concern about the purity and loyalty of gurus is possible to accomplish in ways that are decentralized and non-bureaucratic.


Bhakta Joe


One argument against a decentralized system is the Bhakta Joe argument. Those who put forward this argument are convinced that Bhakta Joe or Bhaktin Mary are completely incompetent to hold the primary responsibility for choosing a guru (although guru, sädhu, and çästra state that aspiring disciples have the primary responsibility for this choice). To those who make the Bhakta Joe argument, we draw their attention to the following points: (1) If we cannot train our Bhakta Joes and Bhaktin Marys to differentiate a bona fide guru from a hole in the wall, or if

they are not intelligent enough to be so trained, we are in big trouble. They should learn about the qualifications of a bona fide guru from çästra, sädhu, and guru and then make their decision ideally on the basis of the recommended process of personal association with gurus or prospective gurus who are members of ISKCON in good standing. (2) SAC also advocates that Bhakta Joe consults with senior devotees about their choice of guru, and (3) in the last resort, if after all good training and advice, Bhakta Joe makes a decision that turns out to be incorrect, then the organization will step in to rectify the situation by taking action against the wayward guru; this is what is already happening in practice anyway.

SAC does not believe that exams are required, but it should be required that aspirants read a booklet that we prepare, or sit in some lectures based on this booklet.


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