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Religion Library: ISKCON (Hare Krishna)

Early Developments

Written by: Benjamin E. Zeller

The eleven gurus created what came to be called the "zonal acharya system." Though the Sanskrit word acharya has several meanings, in the Gaudiya Vaishnavas lineage, it generally refers to a guru who is also a singular leader of a religious sect as well as a model of the highest modes of bhakti, or devotion. Bhaktivedanta had served as ISKCON acharya, and in keeping with this approach, the eleven new gurus divided the movement into eleven distinct geographic regions. In each of these regions a single guru served as acharya, meaning that he both had religious authority, and controlled the institutional bureaucracy -- including finances and personnel decisions -- for that region.

The zonal acharya system was ultimately untenable, though it lasted a decade. For one, the gurus' claims over the institution conflicted with Prabhupada's clear instructions that the Governing Body Commission was to oversee ISKCON. However, because the eleven gurus also served as a supermajority within the GBC, they were able to exert a high level of control over the movement for many years. Over time, their management began to show signs of stress. Though some were good leaders, many lacked the skills to direct a sprawling religious organization, and several others engaged in illicit and even criminal activities. In some cases, they offered substantially different teachings than one another, in affect creating multiple Hare Krishna sub-movements throughout the world. During the 1980s, the GBC suspended and eventually removed from office most of the gurus who had engaged in drug use, sexual activity, and in some cases felonious criminal activity. In some cases, the gurus left ISKCON, or founded their own sectarian organizations. By the time of this writing, only two of the eleven zonal gurus remain in good standing as ISKCON gurus.

In 1987, the GBC terminated the zonal acharya system, permanently removing from office the disgraced gurus, stripping the remaining gurus of bureaucratic control, permitting the elevation of new gurus, and appointing fifteen new members -- all opponents of the zonal acharya system -- to the GBC itself. Though the decade-long transition resulted in significant defection (by some counts, four-fifths of Prabhupada's disciples had left the movement by 1987), the eventual settlement allowed ISKCON to structure itself as a modern corporate institution. Today the Governing Body Commission oversees the financial, institutional, and political issues facing ISKCON, while a wide array of gurus, about eighty of whom now operate worldwide, provide religious leadership.

Study Questions:
     1.    What was the role of gurus in the continuation of ISKCON after Bhaktivedanta's death?
     2.    Did the role of capitalism play a role in the success of ISKCON? Why or why not?
     3.    What is ISKCON's Governing Body Commission?
     4.    What was the Zonal Acharya System? Why was it terminated?


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