Gurus and expectations

Last weekend our regular program class was on the section in the Nectar of Devotion which deals with not accepting unfit disciples, not constructing too many temples etc. It’s a pretty straightforward topic – one should not initiate too many disciples, certainly not with the idea to increase his own prestige. Śrīla Prabhupāda also discusses the obvious statement that one should not initiate those who are unfit – how sometimes it’s necessary for propagation of Kṛṣṇa Consciousness. Nothing we haven’t heard of before.

What spiked my interest, however, was looking at the sources for this section. In Bhakti Rasāmṛta Sindhu there’s a line by Rūpa Goswāmī stating these three rules (we’ll talk only about guru-disciples one here) and then he gives a supporting verse from Śrīmad Bhāgavatam (7.13.8). The way Śrīla Prabhupāda translated that verse later on, when he got to the Seventh Canto, is somewhat different from how he talked about it in NOD:

    A sannyāsī must not present allurements of material benefits to gather many disciples…

See how it’s not about them being unfit or about extracting material benefits yourself (by guru). This is something else entirely – do not make any promises. This has not been mentioned in the class and I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone explaining the rule this way. Once I spotted it, however, it downed on me that it’s what the very first line in NOD says as well:

    … a person may have many disciples, but he should not act in such a way that he will be obliged to any of them for some particular action or some favor…

That is a development on the initial thought, which is based on one word in that Bhāgavatam verse – anubadhnīta, which in word-for-word given as “one should induce for material benefit”. This word is repeated in Rūpa Goswāmī’s own line as well, in fact it’s the only meaningful word for this rule, the other two are “no” and “disciple”. Then in both SB and NOD we see Śrīla Prabhupāda explaining various implications of that word. In SB purport it’s all about not making alluring promises and nothing about “unfit” or “for your own prestige”:

    So-called svāmīs and yogīs generally make disciples by alluring them with material benefits. There are many so-called gurus who attract disciples by promising to cure their diseases or increase their material opulence by manufacturing gold. These are lucrative allurements for unintelligent men. A sannyāsī is prohibited from making disciples through such material allurements.

It’s pretty straightforward here, too, but let’s discuss implications of this rule most of us overlook when it comes up in NOD or when it’s buried deep somewhere in the Seventh Canto. I mean this rule is evoked quite often but is somehow never put this way. When we were reading it last week in class it went straight over our heads, too.

In NOD Śrīla Prabhupāda actually gives an explanation why attracting disciples with materialistic promises is dangerous – it makes guru obliged, ie conditioned and bound up by karma. Śrīla Prabhupāda doesn’t even say what promises are forbidden, he says one should not act in such a way that he becomes obliged. Stated like this it casts a very wide net – any time one feels a guru is obliged to do something for him the rule has possibly been broken.

A disciple might have his own expectations, of course, it doesn’t mean his guru actually promised anything, but I can think of several examples where two hands must have been clapping, and they are not very comfortable topics to discuss. Still, let me try, I only try to understand the issue here, not cast any doubts on anyone’s spiritual purity.

A typical ISKCON disciple expects that initiation will bring him recognition, that he would leave his current social strata of uninitiated “friends of Krishna” and enter into an exclusive club of ISKCON members for real. It’s a huge step up, nowadays it’s somehow even harder to make, but it’s a topic for another discussion. Offering initiation so that one becomes a fully fledged member of community has been done since forever, including by Śrīla Prabhupāda himself. In NOD he explains why sometimes this rule has to be broken but in the absence of emergency there’s no justification for this.

When most of our devotees lived in the temples initiated disciples expected a place to live and engagement in service. When I grew up it was practically a demand – every temple resident must be given service, and not just any service but the one suitable to his nature. There were tons of seminars on how to achieve this and they were given by gurus who actually felt that it was their obligation. These days devotees live mostly outside but temple management or project management is a big big thing, gurus might not be directly involved but that’s only because there are too many people to manage so they delegate these responsibilities. The point is that our spiritual leadership obviously feels obliged to provide comfortable situation for our devotees. It would be an anathema to reject this responsibility, it’s unthinkable – we spent so many decades indoctrinating our entire society it’s not even an option anymore.

No one can stand up and say “I’m not making any promises. You might have service or you might not have service. You might get living quarters, food, and clothing, or might not – nothing to do with me.” And yet this is exactly what Śrīmad Bhāgavatam, Bhakti Rasāmṛita Sindhu, and Nectar of Devotion tell us – do not make promises.

For non-temple devotees getting guru’s blessings for any project is a must. They open a restaurant – it must be under auspices of a guru, you set up a publishing company – it must publish books by spiritual leaders, you start a farming project – it must be associated with a big name, too. In all these cases devotees expect their projects to succeed. I don’t know how much of an obligation it is for the spiritual masters themselves, I hope they don’t get caught up and do not make any promises.

Varṇāśrama is, perhaps, the most controversial topic here of all. The very meaning of varṇāśrama is to produce tangible material benefits. It must produce food – milk and grains, and some even talk about allowing polygamy. If our varṇāśrama projects do not provide sense gratification they are considered a failure. Of course we all say that varṇāśrama is needed for practicing devotional service but it’s just our code word for “comfortable material situation”, let’s not pretend otherwise. The full sentence should read “comfortable material situation is needed for practicing devotional service”.

When we look at varṇāśrama this way it’s hard to justify our gurus and even Śrīla Prabhupāda himself pushing for it and not breaking “do not make promises” rule. I mean we generally think that by following Prabhupāda’s specific instruction on varṇāśrama we can obtain satisfactory sense gratification, be it marital advice or gurukula advice or farming advice, or advice on making your own toothpaste. We treat this advice as promises, and as the most solid promises ever. It. Should. Work.

Why? Did Śrīla Prabhupāda consider that advice as his solid promises? I don’t think so. Did he use it to attract people? Generally – no, but sometimes devotees were inspired to get closer to him by engaging in those projects, succeeding, and then claiming their rightful spots in his entourage, like on morning walks. When a spiritual leader starts any such project now it does attract devotees and disciples. The word in SB and BRS is śiṣya, btw – any kind of disciple, not only initiated ones. Projects do attract following, that’s a fact of life, and so if someone talks these projects up to recruit people then he creates an obligation, and that would be against the rule.

The tough part is that managing ISKCON is impossible without making promises and luring people in. One of our senior leaders lured devotees through their wives, for example. Ever so subtle but the message was “you do this and your marital happiness is assured”. It’s just how the world works, so what can we do? Here’s a radical solution – stay out of it. ISKCON is a preaching movement meant to attract more and more people but the rules for them are not the same as rules for making personal spiritual advancement. Personally, we should not fall for the same type of propaganda we are forced to produce when we reach out to non-devotees.

Even more radical solution – ISKCON is not meant for our own comfort. We cannot expect or demand it to serve our material needs. It is not meant to provide us with pensions or provide emotional support or business opportunities or food or shelter – nothing, really. Only when we want to serve it without any such expectations, not even waiting for a thank you, we can start making actual progress the way Rūpa Goswāmī has meant it. When all these egotisitical interests are absent from our relationships with our guru we can start to appreciate him for what he really does for us – saṁsāra-dāvānala-līḍha-loka trāṇāya kāruṇya-ghanāghanatvam…

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