One distinguishing feature of Prabhupāda’s disciples is their utmost, unreserved faith in his words. Factually, not everyone was affected by this condition equally and we’ve learned to deal with this but I’m not sure how much we benefited from this accommodation.
“Prabhupāda memories” series in a good case study into this phenomenon. In preparation for Śrīla Prabhupāda centennial devotees went all over the world looking for all inactive Prabhupāda disciples they could find and interviewed them. I think videos come from these interviews but even if they didn’t the effort was there, it was documented and statistically processed and the conclusion is permanently etched into our memory. I have no reason to suspect other devotees has heard different conclusions as it was gradually propagated all throughout ISKCON.
These disciples were obviously what we call “in māyā”, some had simply taken the time off of active service, some just couldn’t restrain urges unacceptable in our society, some had philosophical differences, some greatly resented GBC and ISKCON as an institution. That time, early to mid nineties, was probably the first outreach effort by ISKCON to bring our entire family together. I’m not sure it was entirely sincere because it was also the time when our leaders discovered profound truth in literature like Seven Habits of Highly Successful People and created our first PR departments to control how we project ourselves.
Problem with this adoption of foreign techniques is that one can smell them a mile away, and many of our early members came out of a hippy movement where they had decades of operating BS radars with or without ISKCON so they couldn’t be fooled, and those who discovered them before ISKCON in their workplaces couldn’t be fooled either. In a way it was similar to book distributors quoting science or some well known authorities as if they supported our philosophy. It sounds great on surface but anyone familiar with what we are talking about becomes utterly disgusted with us appropriating their authorities to fool their people while pretending to be their friends.
I guess this needs examples but I’m not in the mood of digging up documented stories. Our devotees sometimes sold books on all kinds of pretenses. Exact value of this kind of saṅkīrtana is debatable, but it would cast our book distributors in a negative light and that would bring no good to anybody. There are cases of people becoming devotees by finding our books in most unexpected places where the original buyer would have been a “victim” of “fraudulent” saṅkīrtana methods. What price are we going to put on their devotion? Who can say bringing them to Kṛṣṇa was not worth it?
Back to the point – I don’t know why our leadership went for outside help there. I suspect the excesses of the eighties put a heavy block on the path towards our own humility and with all this baggage we simply couldn’t express ourselves without taking shelter in “sādhana” of PR. Perhaps we thought that by doing it we would gradually develop the actual sincerity, just as we are asked to offer obeisances even when we don’t feel like doing so.
On that note, Satsvarūpa Dāsa Gosvāmī talked about probably the first obeisances in ISKCON, In New York. He had a heavy workload and couldn’t come to lunch on time so he asked Śrīla Prabhupāda to save him some food. When he finally arrived the lunch was already over and nothing was left but Prabhupāda told him to sit down and then brought his saved plate. It’s at this moment that “Steven”, who wasn’t even sure Prabhupāda remembered his name at the time, offered obeisances to Śrīla Prabhupāda’s feet, grateful for the food and care, as Prabhupāda was towering over him. It didn’t go down well with others and many have left right at that point – where people started to bow down to Prabhupāda’s feet. It wasn’t a natural thing to do for those early devotees but some of them got used to it and then became disciples and the movement was born.
Anyway, regardless of how our effort was accepted, old devotees answered and the conclusion was that their personal memories of Śrīla Prabhupāda were unblemished, statistically speaking. They had absolutely no doubt that he was their eternal well-wisher and that’s what the rest of us understood from that survey, too.
“What’s wrong with it?”, one might ask. Excellent question. Nothing inherently bad, but “well-wisher” is still below “unquestionable authority”.
We often quote a verse from Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad:
yasya deve parā bhaktir
yathā deve tathā gurau
tasyaite kathitā hy arthāḥ
“Only unto one who has unflinching devotion to the Lord and to the spiritual master does transcendental knowledge become automatically revealed.” (Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad 6.23) Often it’s translated as “implicit faith” but I like this translation better (SB 2.9.43).
What is required is not simply seeing one’s guru as a well-wisher but having unflinching/implicit faith in his words, and this level of understanding was not supported by that survey. To find it we need to take our lessons from real Prabhupāda men, devotees who would take a bullet for Śrīla Prabhupāda and consider it a blessing.
Over the time we can find spots even in the most pristine character and this history might spoil our appreciation for their devotion but it should not discourage us from seeking it. Various memoirs give us plenty of clues if we bother to look. Everything Prabhupāda said in those days was accepted as absolute, unchangeable truth.
It was much much later that doubts started arising over whether Prabhupāda really said this or that particular thing, we even had a website investigating various claims. We also got Folio, and now all Prabhupāda’s letters and conversations are online, so we can check and double check everything, find inconsistencies, reconcile them, and, generally, approach the matter with greater intelligence and understanding. Not with greater devotion, though.
Second guessing our authorities is an obstacle to our progress. We won’t get any further, as simple as that, because intelligence and understanding can take us only so far. Consider an example of a simple devotee who, upon hearing “Prabhupāda said” goes and does that thing without a second thought because it would please both his immediate authority and Śrīla Prabhupāda.
A highly knowledgeable, independent thinker in his place would check the internet first, check with sources, check with previous ācāryas and then, by a stroke of luck, he might actually agree to follow – because it’s a right thing to do, not because out of love and service attitude. If he refuses to follow he might also say that by correcting his authorities he is doing them a service.
Yeah, well, sometimes mistakes are obvious and we can offer a correction but those cases should be exceptionally rare. We, however, take second guessing as a norm, as our modus operandi, and this attitude is atheistic in nature because we think ourselves to be in charge of our fate and our intelligence to be our guiding light.
I hope after many years of trying and after gradual increase in our understanding we’ll come to realize that at the end of the day taking the words of our guru and authorities is more beneficial than doubting them. I hope we will realize that we can’t possibly see the full picture and all the pitfalls of our personal decisions, and the only guarantee is faithfully following the authorities as they pass the knowledge down from Lord Caitanya Himself. Everything, absolutely everything done with devotion and faith will eventually prove itself to be right and all our speculations will prove themselves to be wrong, no matter how correct they look at the moment.
One might say that blind faith lead people to many stupid and harmful decisions, but so do our speculations, which makes sense only in the short term. No matter how convincing they look at the moment they entangle us in the chain of karma and real consequences will manifest themselves much much later, unexpectedly, and there would be nothing we could do about it then.
Eventually we will learn all of that and eventually we will realize that śāstra was right all along, and then we might develop unflinching faith in our guru, and only then the actual, spiritual import of his words will automatically be revealed. Until then all our “spirituality” will remain a product of our imagination.
Or we could save ourselves the trouble and try the benefits of unflinching faith right now, and so we should literally become Prabhupāda’s or our guru’s men, not just see them as well-wishers who might sometimes be useful.