The Guru-Disciple Relationship in ISKCON by Janakirama Dasa

Although each disciple in ISKCON has a unique relationship with his or her Guru, in my observation there are some general characteristics that can be outlined.

Firstly, Gurus tend have disciples in many areas of the globe, and rarely do disciples live in close proximity with their Guru for extended periods of time. The primary reason that Gurus and disciples live apart is that Gurus tend to travel, often making disciples in parts of the globe they may only visit a few times a year, if that. The lack of a close connection between Guru and Disciple is also due to the transient nature of our society.

It is structured in such a way that people move here and there for their jobs, education, etc. One of the most problematic results of the temporal nature of Guru-Disciple relationships in ISKCON is that Guru tends to mean a preacher of doctrines derived from various sources, but this does not allow him to be a teacher.

I distinguish “teacher” from “preacher” in that the former systematically educates the student in a particular body of knowledge or book over an extended period of time. After being taught the student knows the contents of that body of knowledge, and upon further study is in a position to teach it to others.

A preacher on the other hand does not stay with the student for a period of time long enough to complete a series of lectures or classes on an entire book (say, the Bhagavad-gita). Unlike teaching (good teaching that is) preaching is not systematic. A preacher may speak on the basis of inspiration and personal realization rather than merely convening the contents of a book as a teacher does. A preacher often jumps from one text to another, for instance lecturing on the Gita one night and the Bhagavatam the next day; and this is done even without making the logical connections between texts or topics lectured upon.

I say Gurus in ISKCON are preachers because ISKCON Gurus rarely take the time systematically teach a particular book to their students. Rather, most instruction is a unsystematic, bouncing from one book to the next over the course of a few days. I think that this definition and conception of a Guru has been fine for some people in ISKCON, but for others it is inadequate.

I do not wish to suggest that preaching is unimportant, but that preaching without teaching is incomplete. From this main problem—preachers without teachers—a number of problematic consequences follow. One is that ISKCON is mainly made up of people whose knowledge of sastra has been collected piecemeal, from a wide range of sources and in an unsystematic manner. Even those ISKCON members getting PhDs or something of that sort were never educated in sastra. Thus, devotee PhDs may know Sanskrit from Indologists, philosophy from the Western philosophers, science from the scientists, etc., but we do not know sastra from the their Guru. Those that do not go into academics are just left with a mish-mash body of information.

Another danger is that without a strong foundation in sastra, the worldview of ISKCON will simply float wherever the winds of Western culture thrust it. The worldview might change even without us knowing it, for if there are no Gurus whose knowledge is firmly rooted in sastra, then no one would be able to determine a deviation from a genuine teaching based on sastra. I think we need to introduce into ISKCON the notion that Guru-ship can be more than an itinerate preacher. We need to show that a Guru can also be a systematic resident teacher.

We must re-conceptualize the role of the Guru to that of an educator in sastra, or in the very least this conception must be added to the current view.

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