It’s quite a popular opinion that there are no pure devotees left in ISKCON or in the rest of the world. We can’t see them, the reasoning goes, there are no self-effulgent acharyas. True enough, but it’s not an absolutely valid criteria. There had been no self-effulgent acharyas converting people to vaishnavism by thousands for several hundreds of years in Gaudiya history. Even Bhaktivinoda Thakura wasn’t self-effulgent enough for many of his contemporaries. Jagannatha Das Babaji wasn’t self-effulgent. Gaurakishora Das Babaji wasn’t self-effulgent. For thirty years after disappearance of Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati there had been no self-effulgent acharyas visible either. Srila Prabhupada was already there but no one noticed his “effulgence”.
“Self-effulgent” acharyas appear every once in a while and the actual meaning of their “self-effulgence” – when we use that word – is that we see what they do to other people. We need to see “reflection” of their self-effulgence in others, which contradicts the very meaning of the word. If there are no thousands of followers we can see there’s no self-effulgence we can’t. Therefore I can’t take this line of reasoning seriously.
Visible conversions of thousands of people are rare events in history and they happen according to the schedule of the Lord, the schedule we don’t have access to and can’t predict. These periods come and go and they depend on so many factors – the US wasn’t ready for Srila Prabhupada until late 60s, for example. It’s unreasonable to say that unless there are mass conversions and mass preaching going on there are no pure devotees in the world.
Let’s address the problem of visibility then. There could be pure devotees out there but because it’s not the time to manifest their preaching power we can’t see them, but that’s not how the reasoning goes, unfortunately. Instead, the argument is that “I know most of our devotees and I don’t see anyone pure among them”. Jagannatha Das Babaji and Gaurakishora Das Babaji weren’t big preachers but they were well-known in devotional community so one does not need to be a big name preacher to get noticed by the community itself. So it becomes “because I don’t see any pure devotees in ISKCON it means there aren’t any.”
Notice how “objective” existence of pure devotees becomes dependent on our subjective ability to see. Materialists talk like that, not devotees. Kanishtha adhikaris talk like that, not madhyamas. I mean the definition of madhyama is that he sees three categories of people, one of which is pure devotees. Therefore if one does not see uttama adhikaris it means one is not on a madhyama level yet.
There is no “objective reality” here, all these perceptions are personal. Even what we accept as “objective” is just a consensus. There ARE very large communities in ISKCON where this or that devotee is accepted as uttama and they accept it as objective reality, with all contrary views dismissed as the vision of a fly. Step outside this community and this objective reality dissolves by itself, leaving one with his own subjective impressions instead. There ARE examples of devotees changing their minds on the basis of association. In one sanga they knew this devotee to be uttama and that devotee to be a deviant but when they join another sanga their views switch around. These are not the visions of madhyama adhikaries but of kanishthas.
Definition of kanishtha is that he sees bhakti only in himself and maybe in his guru. There’s even a stage where one considers his guru a great devotee because he is my guru. “He gets me,” they say, “he knows how I feel, how devoted I am,” which becomes the main guru qualification eclipsing all other considerations. I don’t want to name names but there are plenty of devotees, some are very vocal, who believe they know Srila Prabhupada and judge everyone else by this very subjective standard. If one agrees with me on everything, he can be considered my guru or at least a siksha guru. Of course they don’t consider their own understanding of Srila Prabhupada to be subjective – atmavan manyate jagat – they believe the entire universe complies with their visions.
This gets complicated when devotees remember times when everybody else thought the same way and everybody was taught the same understanding but I’m not here to prove that this or that devotee is truly a kanishtha, just to point out a common kanishtha fallacy – they do not see bhakti in anyone else but themselves and therefore it’s impossible for them to see pure devotees. It’s impossible even for a madhyama adhikari, to be fair. Madhyama devotees only recognize that someone is more advanced than themselves but not much more. They would rather reserve judgement on who is pure and who is not and offer equal respect just in case.
Kanishtha adhikaris do not have bhakti, they have only anarthas, and madhyama adhikaris possess some bhakti already. Consequently, what they see in the world is a reflection of their own hearts and so kanishthas do not see any devotees around while madhyamas see some. This is the heart of my argument, really – we do not see what is there in the world, we see what is reflected in our minds. We do not see the world with our eyes, we see it with our minds.
There’s even scientific data to demonstrate this. Human eye collects much more data than even today’s cameras. Calculations vary, the highest number I’ve seen is 576 megapixels, but the optic nerve can pass only less then 10 megabits per second. In another place they say that transmitting images from the eye should take about two seconds (if they were transmitted in full). This article puts it all together and there is one interesting fact there – for every ten neurons getting data from the retina the brain has four thousand neurons to begin to process it. Sorry for this little detour, but it demonstrates what we know from our scriptures – one perceives the world through his mind, through his “ceto darpana”, the mirror of his heart. External information contributes relatively little.
This is true for uttama adhikaris, too. They have nothing but bhakti in their hearts and so they do not see anything else in the outside world either. Everybody is a pure devotee for them because that’s the only thing they are able to recognize. Kind of devotional application of “for a hammer every problem is a nail” phenomenon. There’s a story to illustrate this.
There was one Swami Samarth, a big devotee in cult of Dattatreya in Maharashtra. He was translating Valmiki Ramayana into Marathi and giving extensive discourses on Rama lila. Even Hanuman attended them in a disguise of an ordinary human. At one point, however, Hanuman noticed a discrepancy. Swami Samarth said that the flowers in the Asoka Gardern where Mother Sita was kept were white but Hanuman, who was actually there, remembered them as red. After the lecture Hanuman approached the Swami and asked for this small correction but the Swami refused. They argued but then decided to ask Lord Ramachandra Himself for a judgment. Hanuman put Swami Samarth on his shoulder and took him to Lord Rama. After listening to both of them Lord Rama refused to take sides and send them on to Sita. Sita then confirmed that the flowers were white, apparently granting victory to Swami Samarth over Hunuman, who personally visited and talked to Sita in this garden. How could this be? Mother Sita then explained that the flowers were white but Hanuman was so angry at Ravana, so filled with rage, that he saw everything, including flowers, as red.
This sounds a bit apocryphal but the story was picked by Gour Govinda Swami to illustrate this same point and so it should be acceptable.
To sum it up – when people make proclamations about non-existence of pure devotees all they say is actually the content of their hearts, not much more. Of course there are plenty of clever ones who call everybody a pure devotee, calculating that the chance of getting something good out of this flattery is greater than a chance of getting something bad, but that’s another topic for another day.
Speaking of Gour Govinda Swami, he often cited another proof that there are pure devotees in the world, shastra based, but I don’t feel it’s as straightforward as it sounds so I’ll leave that discussion for another day, too.