In the “Buddhafication” of Srila Prabhupada, it was pointed out that Śrīla Prabhupāda establishes a link between Buddhists declaring Buddha as the only source of spiritual knowledge and endless speculation about the Absolute Truth.
“According to the Buddhists’ fifth principle, Lord Buddha is the only source for the attainment of knowledge. We cannot accept this, for Lord Buddha rejected the principles of Vedic knowledge. One must accept a principle of standard knowledge because one cannot attain the Absolute Truth simply by intellectual speculation. If everyone is an authority, or if everyone accepts his own intelligence as the ultimate criterion—as is presently fashionable—the scriptures will be interpreted in many different ways, and everyone will claim that his own philosophy is supreme. ” (CC Madhya 9.49 purport)
And I further asserted that ISKCON’s members and leadership in practice have made Srila Prabhupada into the only source of spiritual knowledge, which in turn has lead to rampant, wide-spread speculation about the Absolute Truth within ISKCON itself. However, I did not extensively support my assertion.
Here is the evidence.
First is a general statement about the character of ISKCON’s ongoing controversies by long-time ISKCON observer and scholar of the history of religions, Dr. Thomas A. Hopkins (bold emphasis added):
The search for self-identity has already started on one level in the passionate exchanges of arguments and counter-arguments, charges and defences, on ISKCON-related internet sites, which help identify some of the critical issues. Discussions at this level, however, typically generate more heat than light and seldom resolve any issues of real importance. What is needed is a long-term commitment by ISKCON to the kind of theological enterprise that is at the heart of most religious traditions: a continuing critical assessment of the tradition’s sources of authority, both personal and scriptural, to gain further insights into their meaning, and a continuing evaluation of its institutions and practices to find the best ways to respond to current circumstances.
The issues involved in such an enterprise are typically not at the level of facts but at the level of values, interpretations, and priorities. Many of the disagreements within ISKCON, by contrast, involve claims that “Prabhupad said this” versus claims that “Prabhupad said that.” This is the kind of literalist proof-texting that characterizes Christian and Muslim fundamentalists, and it basically settles nothing because the “proof” presented on both sides is all on the same level – i.e. it is one quote versus another, with no systematically applied exegetical principles to determine their relative authority.
The situation is if anything even worse in ISKCON than in these other traditions, because the volume of Prabhupad’s statements and writings over the years is so great, and they have been so carefully recorded and made available, that a careful search of the cumulative records – an activity at which ISKCON’s various factions have become very adept – can usually turn up something to prove almost any point. This makes it even more important to have an exegetical system that can help determine the relative importance of various statements in different contexts and circumstances. Without this, there is a tendency to treat every statement as if it had ex cathedra authority, which is a claim that is not even made about the Pope.
Thomas J. Hopkins, “ISKCON’S Search for Self-Identity: Reflections by a Historian of Religion”, ed. Graham Dwyer, Richard J. Cole, The Hare Krishna Movement: Forty Years of Chant and Change (London: I.B. Taurus, 2007) 186 – 187.
From top to bottom in ISKCON, this is how spiritual reasoning is conducted: “Prabhupada said” is the first, middle and last word of any kind of discussion. But as pointed out by Dr. Hopkins, you can turn up almost any statement attributed to Śrīla Prabhupāda to prove any point you want. And also, as Dr. Hopkins suggests, this is due to a lack of a standard principle of knowledge (“no systematically applied exegetical principles”).
Dr. Hopkins also notes the reluctance of ISKCON’s members to refer to any source other than Śrīla Prabhupāda. Or, if it is some other source, it has to come through Śrīla Prabhupāda to be considered legitimate.
Beyond the question of the relative authority of Prabhupad’s statements with regard to each other is the question of their authority in relation to Vaishnava scriptures and to teachers within the Chaitanya tradition. ISKCON in the beginning had no authority except Prabhupad, because all of its access to the tradition he represented came through him. This continued even after he translated many of most important scriptures and writings of the tradition, since his translations and his commentaries gave them all his personal authority.
Is Prabhupad’s authority absolute for all time, and does ISKCON accept only his authority? Prabhupad himself gave ultimate authority to Krishna, but does ISKCON believe that Krishna’s guidance is available only through Prabhupad’s presentation of him? Does Krishna have no independent or superior authority, or is his authority limited to what Prabhupad taught about him? Can Krishna not speak for Himself through others? Can others not speak with authority about Krishna?
From this description, if accurate, it appears that even if ISKCON’s members sometimes say that besides Śrīla Prabhupāda there is śāstra, and there are ācāryas or other sources of knowledge, the general practice is that Śrīla Prabhupāda is regarded as the only source of knowledge for ISKCON’s members.
A specific example of this is an influential position paper on women in ISKCON written by Jyotirmayī devī dāsī (ACBSP) titled “Women in ISKCON In Srila Prabhupada’s Times” (1997). Therein, she argues that the occupational roles and social status women had in ISKCON up to 1974 is the standard that Śrīla Prabhupāda wanted and that deviation from that standard resulted in the marginalization and abuse of women in ISKCON. (An analysis of her paper with references to the originally published version of her paper is available here: What about Srila Prabhupada’s Books?)
What is interesting about her paper is the overwhelming number of sources she cites are either letters written by Śrīla Prabhupāda to individuals or are stories about what Śrīla Prabhupāda said or did, as remembered by various disciples. Out of 60 sources cited in her paper, 29 are stories about Śrīla Prabhupāda from different disciples (but 13 are her own), and 23 are letters from Śrīla Prabhupāda himself. That means an overwhelming 87% of the evidence is either from Śrīla Prabhupāda or stories about him, with the stories being even more numerous than letters. The remaining sources include three from Śrīla Prabhupāda’s books, one from a recorded conversation with him and one direct quote from śāstra (scripture). No references from any of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s lectuures are quoted. The remaining three references are letters of support for Jyotirmayī’s paper from ISKCON institutional authorities. Even though “books are the basis” is a widely repeated aphorism within ISKCON, in practice they are not.
Another important example of ISKCON’s members accepting Śrīla Prabhupāda as the only source of legitimate knowledge is the paper titled “The Final Order”, by Krishnakant Desai. This paper continues to be the intellectual basis of “ritvikism”–the idea that Śrīla Prabhupāda only wanted representative ācāryas called “ritviks” to initiate on his behalf after his passing, not full-fledged dīkṣā-gurus in his absence. Not only does “The Final Order” extensively cite Śrīla Prabhupāda, it also explicitly rejects any counter-evidence from scriptures or ācāryas that Śrīla Prabhupāda himself did not cite.
Despite a total absence from Srila Prabhupada’s books of bona fide gurus deviating, the GBC’s book GII has a whole section on what a disciple should do when his previously bona fide guru deviates! The chapter begins by asserting the importance of approaching a current link, and not “jumping over” (GII, p. 27). However, the authors proceed to do precisely this by quoting numerous previous acaryas in an attempt to establish principles never taught by Srila Prabhupada.
Krishnakant Desai, “The Final Order” 1996, ISKCON Revival Movement, 12 May 2020 <https://www.iskconirm.com/tfo.htm>.
And finally, it is also seen that some senior ISKCON leaders also reject sources from other scriptures and ācāryas in the same way that Krishnakant Desai rejected such sources in “The Final Order.”
In this regard, some of my colleagues and I researched the matter of the eligibility of women who do not yet have the spiritual status required to give up varṇāśrama-regulations to act as dīkṣā-guru. In the course of our research we discovered that the Nārada-Pañcarātra itself forbids women to act as dīkṣā-guru unless they are at the stage of seeing Krishna face-to-face (bhāva-bhakti or higher). We initially presented our work in an essay that attempted to reconcile the various statements Śrīla Prabhupāda made about women and their eligibility to give dīkṣā, and we showed how the statements from Nārada-Pañcarātra reconciled all of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s statements without the need to give some indirect meaning to any of his statements. (Later on, a book that expanded on the essay was written.)
One senior ISKCON leader who reviewed our paper gave this response (bold emphasis added):
Subject: Re: FDG: Final version
Date: 2017. September 28
Please accept my humble obeisances. All glories to Srila Prabhupada. Sorry to take so long to reply.
My very first impressions were two: first that when I see that only Bhakti Vikasa Maharaja followers are involved, then I become a little disenthused. Second that this is based on a book which is not one of Srila Prabhupada’s books. Among other considerations I don’t know if the book has been preserved intact from Vedic times. So much Vedic literature has been lost or tampered with, and it is very difficult to wholeheartedly accept as valid something which was not authorized by Srila Prabhupada. I know they try to address this point, but still I feel it remains.
If one puts those considerations aside (which for me is not so easy) then the paper is well presented and argued. These are some initial thoughts.
Hoping this meets you well.
Your servant, ABC
Although some other leaders showed much appreciation for the evidence from śāstra, the above response has been more common. In this way, Śrīla Prabhupāda becomes the only source of evidence. against his own stated teaching that it is not only guru but guru AND sādhu AND śāstra understood in a harmonious way (aikya).
For some devotees within ISKCON, what counts as evidence from Śrīla Prabhupāda’s statements depends on what their opinion is. If the śāstra supports what someone already believes Śrīla Prabhupāda meant, then it is acceptable. If not, then it is not accepted. Thus, what has actually happened is that by eliminating the other sources of information (direct śāstra and sādhu, other saintly persons like Rāmānuja, Madvhācārya, Jīva Gosvāmī, etc.) by saying “only Prabhupāda”, or only what he has quoted from śāstra or sādhu, and by ignoring the consistency criterion (aikya), Śrīla Prabhupāda’s teachings have become a grab-bag of useful statements for proving almost any idea one can think up, as Dr. Hopkins has observed. In this way, instead of us serving Śrīla Prabhupāda’s desires, we engage Śrīla Prabhupāda in serving ours.
Consequently, this opportunistic way of citing Śrīla Prabhupāda has generated a lot of commentary that does not “touch on the spirit” of his teachings. Śrīla Prabhupāda explains this phenomenon with regard to the Bhagavad-gītā itself.
This present edition [of Bhagavad-gītā] can be explained in the following way. Recently an American lady asked me to recommend an English translation of Bhagavad-gītā. Of course in America there are so many editions of Bhagavad-gītā available in English, but as far as I have seen, not only in America but also in India, none of them can be strictly said to be authoritative because in almost every one of them the commentator has expressed his own opinions without touching the spirit of Bhagavad-gītā as it is. (Bhagavad-gita As It Is, Introduction)
The same misuse of Bhagavad-gītā by unscrupulous commentators, who use Lord Krishna’s words to advance their own ideas, has become the widespread practice in ISKCON. Unscrupulous so-called followers of Śrīla Prabhupāda use him to advance their own ideas.
And Śrīla Prabhupādaa has further described such unauthorized commentary as Māyāvāda-bhāṣya.
Generally the so-called scholars, politicians, philosophers and svāmīs, without perfect knowledge of Kṛṣṇa, try to banish or kill Kṛṣṇa when writing commentary on Bhagavad-gītā. Such unauthorized commentary upon Bhagavad-gītā is known as māyāvāda-bhāṣya, and Lord Caitanya has warned us about these unauthorized men. Lord Caitanya clearly says that anyone who tries to understand Bhagavad-gītā from the Māyāvādī point of view will commit a great blunder. The result of such a blunder will be that the misguided student of Bhagavad-gītā will certainly be bewildered on the path of spiritual guidance and will not be able to go back to home, back to Godhead. (Bhagavad-gita As It Is, Preface)
This Māyāvāda-bhāṣya on Śrīla Prabhupāda’s teachings has been the standard of discourse in ISKCON for a long time. To say that Śrīla Prabhupāda has undergone a process of “Bhuddafication” within the ISKCON society is just another way of looking at the same problem of the pervasiveness of Māyāvāda commentary on Śrīla Prabhupāda’s teachings. Since Śrīla Prabhupāda himself has many times described the Māyāvādīs as “covered Buddhists”, the “Buddhafication” of Śrīla Prabhupāda and Māyāvāda-bhāṣya in the name of Śrīla Prabhupāda are equivalent terms.