The ritvik philosophy developed and thrives on the anomalies that crop up in ISKCON with respect to the guru issue. We would do well to heed their criticisms of the dynamics in ISKCON, which caused them to take shelter of the ritvik belief system as an alternative to the traditional practice of neophytes taking shelter of a living guru in parampara. According to them, the initiating spiritual master becomes like the Pope in the Catholic Church, who is the intermediary for Jesus Christ. Similarly, after Srila Prabhupada, guru is no more than an intermediary for connecting newcomers to Srila Prabhupada, who is really the guru of everyone.
The simple truth is that there are many gurus in the history of the Church. Saints like Francis of Assisi, Dominic, Loyola, and others were gurus. A simple priest may be guru. These renowned saintly persons had disciples, and in many cases those disciples had disciples. They were devoted to Jesus, and to their spiritual masters, just as today many have Mother Theresa as guru. Her nuns are also devoted to Jesus Christ.
Similarly, there is no harm in being devoted to both a living guru and to Srila Prabhupada. With this understanding, one realizes that this business of ritvik-vada is really a language game. The role of guru in our philosophy, is to deliver the disciple to the previous guru, all the way back up the chain of disciplic succession. In a letter, Srila Prabhupada expressed this concept (June 1970):
“I can assure you that if you follow my instructions as above mentioned there is no doubt that through me, my spiritual master, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura will be pleased, and through His mercy Lord Nityananda will be pleased. In this way, Lord Caitanya and ultimately Radha-Krishna will be pleased, and thus your life will be successful.”
Here he gives the concise nutshell description of the workings of parampara. He was never a ritvik-guru for us. Yet he considered his role one of connecting us in parampara. That is the responsibility of the guru. Either one is capable of doing so, or one is not. There is no functional difference in using the word ritvik guru or guru. Thus, we find no sastric support for the concept of ritvik-guru. Either one is guru or is not.
Rationalizing the idea of ritvik-guru simply means having a loophole to avoid the responsibility of being guru, of being the ideal example, by saying “Prabhupada is your guru” to the newcomer. Naturally the newcomer is flattered. Moreover, that also puts some distance in his sense of responsibility to follow. Not in every case, surely, but in many cases. Of all the millions, billions perhaps, of Christians who declare that Jesus Christ is their lord and savior, (guru); how many, follow? Ritvik-vada is a mechanism for cheating.
In light of our Gaudiya Vaisnavas philosophy, with respects to who can be guru, it is very logical and reasonable to surmise that,
“One who follows can lead.”
The task of the neophyte is to know Prabhupada’s teachings and to determine who is following them. When he or she is satisfied in finding such a sincere follower, that person can be their guru. Simple. Ever so simple. Prabhupada said it so many times, as in this Letter to: Nandarani—Navadvipa29 October, 1967:
“Regarding the Teachings in the temple; every one of my disciples may become a teacher strictly following my instructions. I am a bona fide teacher as long as I follow the instructions of my spiritual master. That is the only one qualification for becoming a teacher. As soon as one deviates from this principle one is no longer a teacher.”
There is nothing preventing new initiates in ISKCON from being devoted followers of Srila Prabhupada, because guru connects one to the chain of parampara. So, any duly initiated devotees are connected to Srila Prabhupada, and may think themselves devoted to Srila Prabhupada to their heart’s content. Their task is to follow.
The problem comes because currently the role of initiating guru is over-played, which has the effect of obscuring the principle of parampara, a highly significant aspect of our philosophy. Guru is valuable because he/she connects us to the parampara. He/she has no importance apart from that connection, but owing to immature understanding, we have made the concept of devotion to guru in the sense of a Personality cult.
In reality, devotion to guru means dedication to the process of devotional service, bhakti-yoga, which translates into dedication to the parampara system. Thus if, unfortunately, one’s guru falls down, or proves unqualified, that should not be a major calamity as some devotees make it out to be.
Throughout the world there are so many unqualified gurus. When by sincerity and proper education, followers of bogus gurus realize, they made a mistake, they simply reject the bogus and accept the genuine guru. Moreover, that applies all the time. People simply need to be educated about what is a guru. Our duty is to educate based on sastra.
In the above letter Prabhupada says,
“I am a bonifide teacher as long as I follow the instructions of my spiritual master. That is the only one qualification for becoming a teacher. As soon as one deviates from this principle one is no longer a teacher.”
If my guru deviates, that is certainly not good news, but it is also not the end of the world; one simply seeks another guru, notwithstanding more carefully this time.
One must simply learn from the experience and remain fully dedicated to the process until one finds a qualified guru, and takes shelter there. There is no need to undergo a major crisis of faith, if one is properly educated in this matter.
The problem is that we do not educate people about the principle of guru, and of parampara, so they understand these two in proper perspective. Instead of educating people to understand what is a guru, they are taught “who is a guru”. They learn to be attached to the person of the guru, instead of to the process of bhakti, which is given by Krishna, the original guru. Since the spiritual master is the external manifestation of Supersoul, his instructions are really the Supersoul’s instructions. Primary attachment is to those instructions. Therefore, it is said that vani, the instruction of the spiritual master, is more important than vapu, the physical presence of the spiritual master. Therefore, neophytes should be trained to understand that their primary attachment should be to those instructions.
Having failed to train newcomers properly, naturally, some are vulnerable when the ritvik-vadis come along. This ritvik foolishness is not, and has never been, our process. Ritvik-vadis say that Srila Prabhupada, as a great acarya, can change things, can make innovations where necessary, even if those innovations are not found in the philosophy. They point to examples of how Prabhupada adjusted certain things for the sake of preaching. This plausible sounding argument is bogus. There is no sastric support for ritvik philosophy. Indeed, the Srimad-bhagavatam 11.25.4, says that speaking without scriptural support is a symptom of tamo guna. The result of action in tamo guna is foolishness. Acting whimsically leads neither to perfection, nor to happiness, nor to the supreme destination. That is Krishna’s opinion.
Ritvik vadis fail to distinguish between marginal things and essences. An acarya cannot change fundamental principles of the parampara siddhanta. An acarya is the acarya because he upholds those fundamental principles. A fundamental principle of Krishna consciousness is that one must have a bona fide guru coming in disciplic succession, who is fixed in the absolute truth. One must please Krishna by service and submission to that person. This is an essential principle of Vaishnava siddhanta, which has the full support of sastra. Since the authority of the acarya rests on sastra, how can he change the sastra? The notion is preposterous.
We should, however, heed the ritvik-vadis genuine criticisms about how the guru-tattva philosophy is applied in ISKCON, and be proactive in seeking a solution. That would reduce their appeal considerably, because the ritvik-vadis’ strategy is to use their valid criticisms as leverage to lead the gullible down the path to their false conclusions.
Ritvik-vadis are without exception terrible mathematicians. They add one and one and conclude eleven. Thus, instead of proposing practical solutions to the problems, (or just help to define them so they can be addressed), they advocate that we abandon the parampara philosophy about guru and adopt ritvik-vada in its place. Generally, they are right in what they oppose, but wrong in the solution they propose.
The problem of improper application of a principle in our philosophy. In this case having unqualified gurus, does not mean we have to somehow develop a new philosophy as a solution. We must simply apply the standard principle properly.
First we have to understand the standard principle, which is that one who knows the science of Krishna, and whose behavior is consistently exemplary, can be guru. Lord Caitanya said, that the conduct of a sadhu establishes religious principles. So, one who can explain the sastra with consistent logic and reason, without adding or subtracting anything, and whose conduct is clearly based on religious principles, can be guru. He/she can impart the science of Krishna to others and she/he can teach them by example. This is the essence of the matter as taught by Lord Caitanya and Srila Prabhupada. We do not need to embroider this with sentimental notions and so-called practical measures. We simply need to apply the standard method properly.
“One who knows the science of Krishna,” Srila Prabhupada used to say, quoting Lord Caitanya, “can be guru”. How can we tell who knows the science of Krishna? Srila Prabhupada’s solution to this was to have four examinations, culminating in the Bhaktivedanta degree. Following this, his disciples would be eligible to initiate, assuming that by their preaching they could create faith in others. This is a perfectly clear and simple blueprint for how the guru parampara was to continue after his departure.
Unfortunately, by the fluctuations of the three modes of material nature, we have failed to pay close attention to some instructions of Srila Prabhupada, while placing undue emphasis on others. Therefore, we all know that one must surrender to the guru, because “Prabhupada said.” But how does one qualify to be a guru? We have “Prabhupada said” for that as well; but the part he said about studying his books and taking exams, no one, neither the ritvik camp nor the ISKCON camp, is discussing or applying. Yet Prabhupada did say that, and one cannot help but wonder from time to time, how many of ISKCON’s existing gurus, (what to speak of those who fell down and left), would pass the required exams?