Ethics and Community


When A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada founded ISKCON, he did so in keeping with modern norms of corporate leadership, forming the International Society for Krishna Consciousness as a legal entity, a non-profit corporation created under the laws of the State of New York. Today, ISKCON is a multinational religious organization with multiple legally-distinct branches throughout the globe.

Following the pattern set by his own guru's movement, Bhaktivedanta created a Governing Body Commission to oversee ISKCON at the end of his own lifetime, and charged it with leadership of the society after his death. Originally formed with twelve celibate male devotees, the GBC has since expanded to eighteen members, and today includes non-celibate (i.e., married) members as well as two female representatives. The eventual inclusion of non-renunciates took place following the protest by congregational members that their needs had been ignored by the leadership. A current movement exists to encourage the inclusion of more women on the GBC as well.

The Governing Body Commission has, since the demise of the zonal archarya system in 1987, assumed the mantle of organizational leadership of ISKCON. The GBC makes all major financial, bureaucratic, and organizational decisions on behalf the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, though it seldom interferes in the operation of individual temples. The GBC also determines theological orthodoxy and standard ritual practice across ISKCON, as well as arbitrates in the event of disagreement.

Though the GBC serves as the ultimate organization leadership of ISKCON, a series of gurus operate as global and religious leaders throughout the Hare Krishna movement. All are male sannyasis who have taken lifetime vows of celibacy. These gurus serve many roles. Most importantly, they are spiritual leaders. As such, they offer religious instruction on the theological, ritual, and devotional practices and beliefs. They interpret the sacred texts of ISKCON, and comment on the scriptural commentaries of Bhaktivedanta.

Additionally, gurus serve the crucial role of performing initiations of new devotees. During this ceremony the new devotee takes the guru as their spiritual master, and becomes a disciple of that guru. As such, the initiate joins a lineage of spiritual teachers that reaches back through their guru to Prabhupada, and from there back through the Gaudiya Vaishnava lineage to Sri Chaitanya himself.

Though he passed away in 1977, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada continues to serve a symbolic leadership role. ISKCON devotees consider him "founder-archarya," meaning that he not only created the movement, but served as Vaishnava exemplar and a living saint during his tenure at its head. As the original Hare Krishna guru, all other gurus trace their leadership through him.

Following Bhaktivedanta's death, the GBC established the role of guru as an appointed position. In the language of the sociology of religion, this "institutionalization of charisma" permitted ISKCON to continue as a religious organization. Yet it is not without its problems, or critics. Many of the first generation of gurus demonstrated failures of leadership and morality, and their errors led to distrust of the institution of guru. According to surveys of ISKCON membership, a sizable minority of the movement distrusts both GBC and the current guru system. The persistence of the "ritvik controversy," the view of the gurus as merely stand-ins for the true guru Bhaktivedanta, demonstrates the complexity of the institutionalization of charisma.

Most gurus operate out of one of ISKCON's larger and more established temples as a home base, but they also travel to smaller communities to offer periodical instructions and initiations. This practice has opened the door for community members to exert leadership during the times in which the guru is not present. Temple presidents, which have always existed within the structure and are usually longtime congregational members, have often filled the void. Such individuals offer lectures, lead classes, and function as community leaders, and represent one of the most important manners in which women and non-celibate men can lead their communities.

Study Questions:
     1.     What is the GBC? How does it influence ISKCON?
     2.     Who has more influence upon ISKCON devotees: the GBC, or the gurus? Why?
     3.     How has ISKCON become institutionalized? Why has this been problematic?

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