Srila Prabhupada often said that a vaishnava must be a perfect gentleman. This means that we are allowed to be judged by material standards of propriety and that we should exceed them. There are plenty of “good qualities of a vaishnava” lists that assure us of devotee’s status on the material scale of goodness.
There’s one case, however, where we diverge from what is expected of a perfect gentleman. I’m talking about “Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion” attitude. Originally it was said by Julius Caesar who, despite presenting no hard evidence of his wife’s adultery, said that even public suspicion is enough grounds for divorcing her.
Now it came to mean that our public servants must be held accountable to higher standards and dismissed for any suspicion of impropriety. We are taught to think that this is a good, democratic thing to do.
Well, Lord Ramachandra banished Sita to the forest when He heard people using her example to admonish unfaithful women but otherwise this is not how we should treat out authorities. Despite the logic that “Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion,” a devotee should not be disturbed by the activities of his spiritual master and should not try to criticize him. This is straight from Srila Prabhupada’s purport (CC Adi.3.11).
That purport is so good that I’d just paste the rest of it here.
A devotee should be fixed in the conclusion that the spiritual master cannot be subject to criticism and should never be considered equal to a common man. Even if there appears to be some discrepancy according to an imperfect devotee’s estimation, the devotee should be fixed in the conviction that even if his spiritual master goes to a liquor shop, he is not a drunkard; rather, he must have some purpose in going there. It is said in a Bengali poem:
yadyapi nityānanda surā-bāḍi yāya
tathāpio haya nityānanda-rāya
“Even if I see that Lord Nityānanda has entered a liquor shop, I shall not be diverted from my conclusion that Nityānanda Rāya is the Supreme Personality of Godhead.”
Not to forget, however, is that this applies only in certain circumstances, the beginning of that purport makes it clear.
“Dāmodara Paṇḍita was a great devotee of Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu. Sometimes, however, a person in such a position becomes impudent, being influenced by the external energy and material considerations. Thus a devotee mistakenly dares to criticize the activities of the spiritual master or the Supreme Personality of Godhead.”
Couple that with “imperfect devotee’s estimation” and the idea appears not so shocking anymore.
However, even if our estimates are right, criticizing our guru is still strictly forbidden, there’s no escape around this rule. We can offer respect to a wayward guru from a distance or, if a guru has become inimical to vaishnavas, he can even be rejected, but that is still not an excuse to criticize.
Most of the time we should rather suspect our own imperfection. Srila Prahbupada gives an example of guru going into a liquor shop here, meaning that even this kind of activity can possibly be misconstrued, what to speak of various gossip floating around ISCKON that looks like big distortion of reality even without giving any benefit of doubt to the victims.
Best policy is to take this rule as absolute, don’t criticize. We don’t have to follow obviously erroneous instructions but even if we do the downside would be negligible comparing to committing a guru aparadha.
In practice it means we should take “Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion” in a literal sense – we cannot even suspect Caesar’s wife, not how Caesar himself intended it to be understood.
This attitude, sadly, will be unacceptable in the modern society which encourages everyone to look for everyone else’s faults. We’ve been raised on quotes like this: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” and so we cannot remain indifferent to other people’s faults, we are culturally conditioned that way, we see everyone around us as a potential target to be judged and corrected, we assume it as some sort of a mission.
I think it’s not difficult to explain how we became this way. First of all, we are children of a enlightenment that rejects any possibility of God’s control over human affairs. Therefore if you don’t correct others, no one else will do it. You can’t leave it up to God, it would be irresponsible.
Secondly, it’s Kali Yuga, all that is necessary for the evil to triumph is give it some time. It grows on its own. With a bit of an effort you can stamp out obvious transgressions but it’s a bit like a whack-a-mole game, you can entertain yourself while your money lasts but there’s no higher purpose behind it.
To counteract the influence of Kali Yuga we must chant, to chant we must become devotees, and to become devotees we must stop looking at our gurus with critical eyes. If we tell ourselves that we can correct misdemeanors in ISKCON by criticism we are delusional, we don’t understand the very basic things how spiritual progress happens – by the mercy of guru and Krishna, not by criticizing or being correct.
Simple point, hard to restrain ourselves, even harder to avoid criticism sounded by others, but we must stay firm. No vaishnava aparadhas in our presence, if we sense it’s coming, we must leave. Our hearts cannot be exposed to that kind of thinking.