ELEVEN NAKED EMPERORS covers a ten year period immediately succeeding the demise of the founder of ISKCON, the Hare Krishna Movement, Bhaktivedanta Swami, affectionately known by his disciples as Prabhupada. It covers in some detail the appropriation of the role of guru by eleven of Prabhupada’s senior disciples, whom he had strategically placed around the world as his proxy officiating gurus, due to the unexpectedly rapid expansion of the Movement. Since Prabhupada had grown too old to travel incessantly, these intermediaries, called ritviks, performed the ceremonial aspects of initiation in his name in the eleven managerial zones the Swami had established around the world. Upon Bhaktivedanta Swami’s demise, these eleven disciples soon commandeered the initiatory functions within their respective zones, and monopolized the function of guru-ship for all new devotees joining the Movement in their particular zone, but now initiating in their own right.
Allowing for the best of intentions from these individuals, given the inevitable confusion following the wake of the founder of any religious tradition, the hallowed and very personal relationship between guru and disciple was at this point replaced by a mandatory institutionalized initiation between a guru who happened to be responsible for a particular geographical zone, and any new incoming devotees who chanced to join any of the temples in that zone. Of course, for several years before the passing of Bhaktivedanta Swami, many of the new initiates in ISKCON had very little personal relationship with their guru, having received their initiation through these ritviks, given the Movement had grown so rapidly and so internationally, and the aging Prabhupada was a lone figure whose primary focus was on completing the translation of the canonical texts for the tradition he was transplanting all over the world. Nonetheless, in post-Prabhupada ISKCON, a sacred bond that had for millennia in India ideally been based on a heart relationship between a disciple inspired by the behavior, renunciation and wisdom of a teacher - at least in the yoga traditions (as opposed to the hereditary family gurus of the ancient Indian caste system) - took the form of a geographically mandated commitment to the zonal guru by newcomers who were granted no choice in the matter of initiation.
In time - indeed, within the decade covered by this book - the absolutist and autocratic roles assumed by some of these gurus drove away the majority of their fellow disciples of Bhaktivedanta Swami from their zones, and, in numerous cases, provoked various forms of conflict with the ecclesiastical Board set in place by Bhaktivedanta Swami, the Governing Body Commission (GBC). One can empathize with the intoxicating nature such absolute power exerted on young men in their twenties and thirties, who had for the most part been part of the hedonistic counterculture barely a few years earlier. But the dissonance and subsequent strain caused by this sudden expectation of them becoming ‘pure devotees’ almost overnight, as per the idealized notions associated with gurus in ISKCON at that time, resulted in a number of the eleven gurus eventually falling dramatically from their posts in various scandalous and, in some cases, criminally laden ways. Consequently, a Reform Movement, or actually various reform positions, soon emerged and eventually played a major role in the dismantling of what came to be called ‘the zonal acharya system.’ But this not before tens of thousands of disciples, and now not just the earlier ones of Bhaktivedanta Swami, but countless more who had since joined and looked up to these zonal acharyas as “pure devotees of Lord Krishna,” left the Movement. Many of those with fallen gurus left heartbroken, disgruntled, disaffiliated, and cheated, upon discovering the shockingly compromised behaviors of a number of these gurus, after having fully dedicated the prime of their lives to them.
The Hare Krishna Movement, a highly visible part of urban America and Europe in the 60s and 70s, had numerous temples at that time, some crammed with one or even two hundred full time saffron and sari clad devotees who had given their life to serving Lord Krishna through their gurus. But by the end of this decade, many of these temples had become comparatively empty shells struggling just to survive (although one cannot over-generalize here, as there were important exceptions). To this day, while many devotees work sincerely to continue the Mission of Bhaktivedanta Swami, and there are numerous positive developments on the ‘Krishna Consciousness’ landscape, the number of devotees actually joining the Movement full time in some of those zonal areas with the greatest fallout is a fraction of those ‘shaving up and moving in’ during its heyday. However, having said that, we must note that in other parts of the Western world, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, and the former Soviet countries, the Movement seems to be spreading with the same dynamism that characterized its trajectory in America and Western Europe in the early era. It is also very important to note that the social dynamics of ISKCON have significantly changed, and lay participation has become the prominent mode of Krishna fellowship. Over the past 2-3 decades ISKCON has mostly shifted to a congregation-based participation model, with only a very small percentage of the devotees living in temples, and with a more fluid definition of ‘membership.’
The story of this decade immediately after Bhaktivedanta Swami’s demise is a long and complicated one, with many twists and turns, but Doktorski has done an outstanding job putting the entire drama into a very well documented and highly readable account. His work has required the tracking down of masses of documentary evidence tracing the myriad developments in this entire post charismatic decade, and conducting as many interviews as were available to him. While his narrative is primarily based on the perspectives of the rebels and reformers of the guru system, he has interviewed a wide array of the major players in these developments, at least those who agreed to speak to him. This is important, as the direct disciples of Bhaktivedanta Swami, who are testimonials to the events in question, are now at the terminal periods of their lives.
Doktorski is not an academic, and does not engage in Neo-Weberian or other types of theorizing as to how post-charismatic Institutional structures are by their nature destined to shore up flagging spiritual potency by increased institutionalization etc. He situates himself as a researcher and good old-fashioned, data-collecting historian. He is clear about his location as an ex-member of the Society, who witnessed many of the events during the period in question, and was a disciple, in fact, of one of the most compromised gurus encountered in this book. But his tone is generally remarkably non-partisan and non-polemical and he has tried sincerely to be fair and impartial, invoking multiple voices with different recollections or understandings of the events in questions, as also different stakes in the outcomes (even as many of these voices are, understandably, highly polemical). So while not trained as an historian in any sort of academic way, Doktorski has risen to the dharma of the historian in terms of providing an impressively thorough and overall fair account of documenting a defining period in the history of the Hare Krishna movement.
Of course there are many other voices that will have something to say about the topic of this book, the guru crisis, and some will inevitably find important perspectives missing. But as Doktorski states in his preamble, more accounts and perspectives from others on this period of ISKCON history with differing personal contexts and experiences can only be a desirable thing and would be most welcome. Indeed, at the time of writing, we look forward to another forthcoming academic work on this period written from within ISKCON, which is likely to provide other types of perspectives on this period in question.
This story is not only fascinating in its own right, but gives the scholar of Religion valuable access into the turmoil surrounding the aftermath of a charismatic religious leader’s demise - the struggle to understand how to perpetuate the Founder’s mandate, as well as the all too human jockeying for control over the spiritual power that is exerted over followers, again, even with the best of initial intentions. So, for example, while a plethora of early Christologies emerged in the first century, if we consider how little we actually know about the immediate post-Christ struggles of the early Christian followers and apostles in the very first few decades in terms of the management and power issues played out in this earliest period, and likewise those of Buddhism for several centuries, the access to written material and the recording of oral interviews in our own day and age provide valuable data on succession struggles in real remembered time.
Of course only Time itself will tell how the Krishna Consciousness Movement will fare in the decades ahead. Certainly in India, gleaming nouveau riche marble ISKCON temples are springing up in every major urban center of the subcontinent, and ISKCON is now one of the most prominent religious presences in Indian Hinduism with access to real political and economic power. But while ISKCON’s destiny in the West remains to be seen, there is no question the institution has very deeply inculcated global ambitions that arguably have parallels to the other great world religions in their infancy. So from this point of view, Doktorski has provided the scholar of religion with an abundance of material focused on the sociological dynamics of members of a fledgling international religious preaching Institution struggling to understand their Founder’s intentions in determining how to channel access to divine power - in this case, the power of disciplic succession. This story is thus relevant to the larger field of Religious Study writ large, particularly in terms of the window it provides into the struggle to understand the mechanisms of spiritual connection to the tradition’s ultimate Truth claim.
For members of ISKCON, this story provides an important document into the dangers of absolutism. As noted by several voices in this book, there is an obvious tension - and some voices herein argue an inherently incompatible tension - between, on the one hand, the absolute role a guru plays in the life of the devotee, which, from a theological point of view, transcends any material or legislative oversight, and, on the other hand, the ecclesiastical and bureaucratic administrative and legislative power of an institution with a more down-to-earth managerial set of needs. Historically, many yoga-related gurus in pre-modern India were for the most part not members of institutions, (although they were almost invariably members of disciplic lineages, sampradayas), but were lone operators who attracted followers by their charisma and spiritual potency. Generalizing somewhat, they tended to be empowered as gurus by their own gurus. But their role is essential to the spiritual path: in Hinduism in general, especially in the bhakti traditions, the guru embodies an indispensable link to God. ISKCON, if anything, emphasizes even more this indispensability of the guru as utterly central to the disciple’s life, but subsumes its gurus under the ultimate authority of a Governing Body Commission, which, furthermore, holds power over whom is approved as potential guru in the first place.
A number of the voices in this book speak to the inherent tension of this structure, and while one will encounter herein various opinions as well as enacted reforms intending to manage this dissonance, it is unlikely that this relationship will ever be friction free. While most of the ISKCON gurus today at the time of writing are still Prabhupada’s direct disciples, and hence have strong emotional ties of fidelity to his Institution, time will tell if particularly charismatic guru figures with many disciples from future generations will be willing to surrender their absolutist rights as gurus to the delimiting oversight of a governing ecclesiastical body. Doktorski skillfully paints the emergence, development, dissonance and inevitable confrontations this tension between these two sources of authority created the minute Prabhupada passed away. There is every reason to suppose many future such clashes with distinctive flavorings will be a perennial feature of the dance between powerful gurus and the GBC (the number of gurus already disciplined by the GBC by 2014 noted herein is remarkably high).
Having said that, given the colossal fallout in the spiritual lives of the disciples when absolutist authority runs haywire, as is amply illustrated in this book, ecclesiastical oversight is very arguably a much needed safeguard - if only, as the Shastric Advisory Committee recommended to the GBC herein, as an “after the fact” intrusion from the part of the GBC over gurus whose deviancy becomes apparent. Another foundational feature of this dilemma, of course, is the fact that while Prabhupada extolled the ultimacy of the GBC ubiquitously and unambiguously throughout all his writings and discourses, he never mentioned anything clearly about how diksha initiation was to continue after his demise (as evidenced by the plethora of interpretations of the one solitary so-called ‘initiation tape’). Bracketing the likelihood that he recognized that none of his disciples were qualified to be uttama-adhikari gurus (completely egoless lovers of Krishna), one might very well wonder whether Bhaktivedanta Swami himself, too, could not see an easy resolution to the disjunction between these two necessary functions while he was alive. But he clearly favored the safer and arguably much more prudent approach of at least having an ecclesiastical body monitoring the otherwise potentially unrestrainable power of absolutist guru-ship with all the havoc that can ensue when gurus go rogue.
Doktorski has done a remarkable job bringing in a range of voices and case histories. There is nothing polemical in documenting this history (although he has captured plenty of polemical voices), and nothing that ISKCON need resist. I might add, for those who feel that dirty laundry should not be displayed in public, that there is nothing in Doktorski’s work that seeks to undermine the faith of the devotees in Krishna or, for that matter, in the institution of ISKCON. It is surely self-evident that global religious Institutions can only exist through political and economic resources and manpower, and that control over these will always attract character types whose motives are not purely spiritual. Everyone should be able to understand that there will be scandals and problematic periods of growth and development within Institutions. But what alienates people, both the internal membership within an institution, as well as the larger external public who encounter it in any way, is when such scandals or problems are covered-up and any exposure of them by insiders resisted or demonized. Rather, it is admirable for a tradition to revisit and dissect the questionable periods of its history, self-reflect, and strengthen its intention to guard against any such reoccurrences. It is a testament to the spiritual power and value of a tradition when its members are inspired and encouraged to do so. This book provides a thorough documentation of the entire history of the zonal acharya phenomenon, particularly through the eyes of its detractors, and thus an excellent opportunity to revisit the problematics inherent in the nature, power and expectations of guru-ship.
A debt of gratitude it thus owed to Doktorski who has been driven to document these internally sensitive topics with honesty and fairness (especially since he may well get some flak from conservative quarters of ISKCON). To my reading, his book, the product of many years of hard legwork chasing down written and oral sources, serves as an important warning of the dangers inherent in the absolutist role of the guru. It documents the disastrous consequences wayward guru-ship had in the West in reducing an enthusiastic and thriving missionizing tradition to a shadow of its former glory. We ourselves hope for it to re-emerge with appropriate safeguards in place. Indeed, there have been significant steps taken in this regard - the GBC College for leadership training; the SABHA for providing checks and balances on the authority of the GBC; the Organizational Development Committee for monitoring restructuring; ISKCON Resolve for mediation and conflict resolution, etc. - that indicate that ISKCON is trying to learn from its past mistakes and implementing important measures to prevent the re-emergence of any form of absolutism. But the history in this book is a perennial warning that can never be ignored as long as there are those who accept the role of guru (a role which, we should add, cannot be jettisoned without jettisoning, or significantly editing, the canonical texts of the tradition). Clearly guru-ship as a position has enormous potential to become psychologically unhealthy and dangerous for both the guru and the disciple.
Hence, in my view, those assuming the role of gurus, most especially, should read this book carefully. By revisiting the stories of the many initially sincere devotees who victimized and became themselves victimized by the trappings of the position of guru, these pages provide deep opportunity to reflect on the ever-present dangers of the absolutism of their roles vis-à-vis the spiritual mandate for their disciples to perceive them in this way. And this is also a book for the tens of thousands of devotees driven away from ISKCON with their spiritual ideals in tatters; this is their story too. And, finally - and the author may concur with this conclusion - in its own way, this book can also be read as a vindication of the vision of Bhaktivedanta Swami, to place a GBC as the ultimate monitoring entity over all members of the Society (following the vision of his own guru for his parent organization, the Gaudiya Math, which was not enacted by his disciples). Safer, perhaps, the prosaicness of Institutionalized oversight, than the vagaries and dangers of rogue absoluteness recognizing no constraints. After all, were any genuine uttama-adhikari to eventually emerge, one can perhaps extend the Gita’s comment about the atma-ratih (III.17-24): while it may be true such a person need not submit to any authority, by the same enlightened token, there is no reason for him or her not to, in which case such a person should do so to uphold social structures needed by others, and to set an example for them.
In conclusion, ISKCON’s core canonical lineage texts contain powerful philosophical insights into the great, perennial, existential ‘big questions,’ of human life, and a delightful vision of a highly personal and lovable Godhead. Well-wishers of ISKCON would like to see the Movement thrive once more in the West, free from the cult-like aberrations that remain perennially potential in the persona of the absolutist guru. For those sincerely seeking love of Krishna, or in any way appreciative of the broader yoga teachings of the Gaudiya tradition, Doktorski’s work can only serve as an important historical testament. It is a testament documenting the damage that was done, and hence - and this is perhaps the most important point - can always potentially be redone (perhaps in some other guise than the zonal acharya-ism featured in this book), when absolutism runs amuck, not just to the personal spiritual lives of thousands of sincere seekers, but also to a benevolent, at core, spiritual organization, with much to offer our troubled world.
Professor of Hindu Philosophy and Religion