Sri Ramanujacarya (1017-1137) created 74 simhasana-dhipatis or ‘throne-holders,’ to give initiation after his death, he created what we in ISKCON would term ‘zonal acaryas.’ He chose 74 of his disciples to give diksha, each of them affiliated to one of the many temples spread far and wide throughout a large tract of India. Those temples were not created by Sri Ramanujacarya but were ancient places made famous by his disciplic predecessors, the Alwars, who sung about the Deities within them in their four-thousand hymn Divya Prabandham. In many cases Ramanujacarya restored or regularised the worship of those Deities and safeguarded their worship in perpetuity by establishing systems of succession.
The Sri Vaishnava movement sought to contend with, and defeat, the spread of philosophical impersonalism, the atheistic notion that the personality of the Godhead evaporates at a particular point in the Hierarchy of Realities. So to ensure the daily ceremonial worship of the Supreme Person in every branch of the movement was a grave consideration which could not be allowed to fail. Indeed, the success of each and every temple was factually the success of the entire enterprise. And because people require diksha in order to perform Deity worship, ensuring the continuation of disciplic succession through diksha was an integral part of planning for future success.
Many of the original 74 were householders, married men who were greatly learned, qualified and able to teach the scriptures for the required period so that an aspirant could become fully trained. Ramanujacarya created 700 sannyasis, but due to their ashram requirements, they travelled constantly which made such periods of formal tuition improbable. But the householders did not travel and could engage in teaching and the regular Deity worship the movement required. As the years went by, the qualified family descendants of the 74 gave initiation and continued the Deity worship.
This same system was also perpetuated within the Gaudiya Sampradaya - the forerunner of the modern Hare Krishna movement - by Sri Gopala Bhatta Goswami. He arranged that disciples would care for his Deity of Radha Raman with the understanding that their descendants would take up the worship as the years went by. His disciple, Damodara Goswami, wrote in detail of the procedures by which this was to happen. The worship of Radha Raman has thus been safeguarded for 500 years, much as the worship of the 74 Deities has in south India for the past 1000 years.
Much later on, when the 74 gurus had become 74 large brahmin families, or rather communities of families, each family group selected a sannyasi to become the guru for samasrayanam or ‘taking shelter’ initiations, while the brahmins would continue to perform the upanayanam or ‘gayatri’ initiations.
Both the founder-acarya of ISKCON, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, and his own guru, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura Prabhupada, heavily criticised flaws in the seminal succession - the lineage of brahminical families - especially when the system seemed to produce those who were factually, ritually, initiated but spiritually unqualified. Yet Srila Prabhupada was appreciative when the system worked well and produced the carefully-preserved Deity worship of the Radha Raman temple.
Today in ISKCON we are faced with similar considerations of safeguarding the teaching, Deity worship and missionary preaching on into the next generations. There are those who give initiation within our movement and we also have a system of localised training. Factually speaking, and notwithstanding our well-known instances of spiritual leadership failure, the movement is growing in size and geographical spread. Yet there is some systemic indecision - a vacillation which has persisted for many years - over the best way to ensure the movement’s future growth; to produce the desired result with none of our previous failures. We have also had leaders who were factually and ritually initiated but who later proved themselves to be spiritually unqualified. Avoiding the seminal succession and practising disciplic succession does not in and of itself, it seems, guarantee freedom from corruption.
Those failures in the matter of spiritual leadership, so painful and far-reaching for all concerned, have created a movement with several strongly-held opinions as to how best to create systems of succession that will not result in corruption and disappointment a generation from now. We don’t want any future followers, one hundred years hence, to endure anything similar.
While many of us now reserve our undiluted scorn for the period of our ISKCON history known as the ‘zonal acarya days’ it seems that a notion of geographical dispersion for localised initiation was favoured by Sri Ramanujacarya, one of the greatest Vaishnava acaryas of all time. And it may be that our own sampradaya acarya, Srila Prabhupada, did actually intend, in his last days, to choose eleven gurus for the giving of initiation, one in each continent. It was a logical idea with considerable history of success and a thousand years of history behind it.
Being a guru for a particular geographical ‘zone’ is not an inherently bad idea and does not inevitably produce corruption. What produced the corruption within ISKCON was the same confusion as took place within the Catholic Church; the confusion of spiritual power and temporal power. When the position of spiritual leadership becomes mistaken for temporal ownership of a human following and material resources then all men become tempted and some do not survive that temptation.
Our ISKCON ‘zonal acarya days’ also produced the phenomenon of such men, duped by their apparent ‘ownership’ of adoring followers, wealth and buildings, forcing initiations upon those who really didn’t want it. Such spiritual abuse produced widespread disgust. Yet I believe it wasn’t exactly the system that produced the bad results, merely, as is very common, the bad people within the good system.
Of course, one other underlying reason behind all these problems, the theological mistake which precipitated everything else, was the confusion between ‘guru’ and ‘acarya.’ Srila Prabhupada was the only guru that his followers knew, but he was much more than that, he was also the founder and head of the institution and arranged everything over a mere twelve years to establish his position for years to come. Not only this, but Srila Prabhupada was the kind of pure Vaishnava who comes only once in a generation. Emulation of Srila Prabhupada, his voice and speech, his dress, manner, acceptance of worship, travel, and so on was perhaps predictable, given that in their new role ISKCON’s gurus took it as their duty to model their behaviour on that displayed by him. But for many of them it proved their undoing.
The Sri Vaishnavas, it would seem, have avoided such indiscretions by keeping the figure of their founder-acarya as unique, and by having realistic expectations of their gurus.
In our haste to move away from our troubled beginnings I feel we may have come to conclusions too quickly. The zonal system may not be as bad as we imagine, and there may even be good reasons for its restoration in some form.
Consider what we have in its place currently: 84 initiators criss-crossing the world in aircraft, giving initiation to three people here, five people there. The relentless travel places a strain physically on the guru and is not economic with their precious time. Due to the various countries in completely different parts of the globe where the guru must show his face in order to have any kind of relationship with disciples, each disciple gets only a few hours personal tuition per year, if that. Even with the theological conceptions of vani-seva and service in absentia taken into consideration, this makes for weak connnections between guru and disciple, which of course, when multiplied thousands of times, makes for a weakened movement.
Then there is the slight question of cost. The cost of travel for 84 men to fly around the world, in some cases duplicating each others routes, has surely reached the point of misuse of funds, if not patent absurdity. And we won’t even mention the carbon dioxide creation that entails.
And if that wasn’t enough, we are all faced with the spectre of rapidly diminishing oil reserves and the consequent scarcity of aviation fuel. We have the strong possibility that within this generation we will see the gradual disappearance of air travel as we know it today.
For a sustainable future for ISKCON, for a strengthened future, we need to explore today what our movement’s procedures for initiation would look like without international air travel. I personally feel that we need to think globally, act much more locally.
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