Summer 2005

Following the departure recently of His Holiness Bhakti Tirtha Swami, Prahladananda Swami, a voted-in ISKCON Guru, wrote in his travel diary the following account:

“Traveling to Serbia we visited Subotica where I gave initiations. Some just initiated disciples of HH Bhakti Tirtha Maharaja also sat in at the fire sacrifice.”
(Prahaladananda Swami, “On the Road” Blog, 30/6/2005)

Here Prahaladananda Swami reveals that some devotees who had been “initiated” by Bhakti Tirtha Swami, attended the initiation ceremony which he was performing for his own disciples. In other words, Prahladananda Swami officiated as a ritvikpriest at an initiation ceremony on behalf of a departed “Guru”, Bhakti Tirtha Swami. However as the account mentions, the devotees in question were already considered “initiated”. Thus even the GBC accepts that the initiation ceremony does not constitute initiation, with initiation having already taken place, and that the physical presence of the Guru is not required at the ceremony, or indeed on the planet at the time of the ceremony.

This is what we will now examine in detail.

Before Initiation

It is argued that before initiation can be granted to a prospective disciple, the Guru must be physically present on the planet so that he can personally meet the disciple and examine him. Indeed, this is the traditional method, whereby the Guru and disciple would associate for an extended period, so they could check each other’s qualifications. However, in ISKCON the system for fulfilling this requirement was different, as explained by Srila Prabhupada below:

“Similarly, a disciple’s qualifications must be observed by the spiritual master before he is accepted as a disciple.
In our Krsna consciousness movement, the requirement is that one must be prepared to give up the four pillars of sinful life—illicit sex, meat-eating, intoxication and gambling. In Western countries especially, we first observe whether a potential disciple is prepared to follow the regulative principles. Then he is given the name of a Vaisnava servant and initiated to chant the Hare Krsna maha-mantra, at least sixteen rounds daily. In this way the disciple renders devotional service under the guidance of the spiritual master or his representative for at least six months to a year.”

(Caitanya-caritamrta, Madhya lila, 24:330, purport)

This observation, as Srila Prabhupada states above, was to see if the prospective disciple was following the 4 regulative principles, and as Srila Prabhupada states this observation could be done either by Srila Prabhupada or his representative. In practise, this observation was carried out almost exclusively by his representative, the Temple President, and indeed this was the standard system in ISKCON right from the early days of the movement.

Somebody would join a temple, a few months later the Temple President would send a recommendation for initiation, and the devotee would be initiated via the mail, having never met Srila Prabhupada. For example:

“If you think so, Gary can be initiated by post and you can arrange it for him.”
(Letter to Upendra, 18/11/68)

And then 2 weeks later:

“P.S. Gary is initiated yesterday and his name is Gajendra das.”
(Letter to Upendra, 2/12/68)


In this way, this became the standard system for initiation as the hundreds of initiation letters available on the Vedabase will show, right up until 1977. However, when Srila Prabhupada was personally present at a centre, then he would meet and initiate devotees personally where possible. Sometimes he would also correspond with a prospective disciple beforehand before the initiation. But in most cases, the pattern was initiation via the mail following recommendation from the Temple President, without any contact with the prospective disciple himself.

During Initiation 

Now though we have seen that disciples were initiated sight unseen, simply on recommendation of the Temple President via the mail, Srila Prabhupada was physically required to be on the planet, to accept and initiate the prospective disciple, even if it was done via the mail.

However, within the ritvik system set up by Srila Prabhupada in 1977, this acceptance and initiation of the disciples was delegated entirely to the ritvik representatives, and hence Srila Prabhupada had no involvement in the process of initiation at all:

Srila Prabhupada: So without waiting for me, wherever you consider it is right... That will depend on discretion.
Tamala Krsna: On discretion.
Srila Prabhupada: Yes.
Tamala Krsna: That’s for first and second initiations.
Srila Prabhupada: Hm.
(Appointment of Ritviks, Room Conversation, 7th July, 1977)

Then confirming this delegation, two days later the July 9th directive signed by Srila Prabhupada is issued, in which it is stated:

“In the past Temple Presidents have written to Srila Prabhupada recommending a particular devotee’s initiation.
Now that Srila Prabhupada has named these representatives, Temple Presidents may henceforward send recommendation for first and second initiation to whichever of these eleven representatives are nearest their temple.
After considering the recommendation, these representatives may accept the devotee as an initiated disciple of Srila Prabhupada by giving a spiritual name, or in the case of second initiation, by chanting on the Gayatri thread, just as Srila Prabhupada has done. The newly initiated devotees are disciples of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupad, the above eleven senior devotees acting as His representative.”

(July 9th, 1977 directive issued to all Temple Presidents and GBCs)

Previously, Srila Prabhupada had initiated devotees by receiving a recommendation from the Temple President via the mail, without any contact with the prospective disciple being necessary. Now even this acceptance was to be done by the ritviks he had delegated for this task.

So it is clear that giving initiation does not require the physical presence of the spiritual master, and indeed Srila Prabhupada specifically set up a system shortly before he departed to allow initiation to be granted on his behalf without his physical involvement.

After Initiation

Following initiation, it is accepted that the diksa Guru may also not be physically present:

“Sometimes a diksa-guru is not present always. Therefore one can take learning, instruction, from an advanced devotee. That is called the siksa-guru.”
(Lecture, 4/7/74)

And of course this has been the case in practise also, since none of Srila Prabhupada’s disciples have had his personal association for the last 28 years, and many of them never met him at all even when Srila Prabhupada was physically present on the planet.


So both by teaching and practise, we can see that there is no absolute necessity for the diksa Guru to be physically present, either before, during or after initiation. And this is the mark of an acarya, he teaches by example.

Hence there will never be any contradiction between his teaching and example. So he never met the majority of his disciples at any time, and also gave instructions explaining how this was possible, how he could use representatives to take care of all the functions required before, during and after initiation. So even though these points are clear, both via teachings and example, still the myth that the Guru must in all cases be “living” or physically present on the planet in the life of the disciple is probably the most widely prevalent myth in ISKCON today. We will examine below some of the common misconceptions that have contributed to this myth.

Common Misconceptions

a) “Srila Prabhupada taught many times we need a ‘living’ Guru”

Actually the term “living Guru” or “living spiritual master” is never used, not even once by Srila Prabhupada. And indeed the one time it was used by his disciple, Srila Prabhupada reacted strongly, pointing out that the Guru is always living, giving the example of Lord Jesus Christ:

Srila Prabhupada: When you read the Bible, you are following the spiritual master. How can you say “without a spiritual master”? As soon as you read the Bible, that means you are following the instruction of Lord Jesus Christ.
That means you are following the spiritual master. So where is the opportunity of being without the spiritual master?
Madhudvisa: I was referring to a living spiritual master.
Srila Prabhupada: Spiritual master is not the question of... Spiritual master is eternal. Spiritual master is eternal.
(Lecture, Seattle, 2/10/68)

One may argue that though all spiritual personalities are “living” in this sense, still we do not accept Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Maharaja as our diksa Guru. No, because Srila Prabhupada is the current link. And if all personalities are “living” anyway, then to say that Srila Prabhupada is not a “living Guru” obviously cannot be a bona fide reason as to why he is no longer the current representative of the Gaudiya Vaisnava sampradaya.
For this we would need an authorised successor, which of course Srila Prabhupada never gave.

b) “Unless the spiritual master is physically present, how will he be able to chastise us and instruct us?”

As we have seen, this argument is rendered useless by the simple fact that the very persons who are offering this argument, the unauthorised ISKCON Gurus hunting for new disciples, themselves have not had any “living Guru” to chastise or instruct them for the last 28 years.

Ironically, the argument that Srila Prabhupada needs to be physically present in order to be able to personally guide us, has already been accepted by the GBC as being false. For they have said that Srila Prabhupada will always be our pre-eminent siksa Guru:

“Of course Srila Prabhupada should be given exceptional respect as the Founder-Acarya and pre-eminent siksa guru of all members of ISKCON.”

So it is already accepted by the GBC that in order to impart instruction and give us the highest siksa, Srila Prabhupada does not need to be physically present on the planet. For Srila Prabhupada is not just any siksa Guru, but the “pre-eminent” siksa Guru!

c) “Bhagavad-gita 4:34 states we must approach and inquire from the Guru. How can we do that unless he is ‘living’?

Bhagavad-gita 4:34 actually states:

“Just try to learn the truth by approaching a spiritual master. Inquire from him submissively and render service unto him. The self-realized soul can impart knowledge unto you because he has seen the truth.”

And the purport to this verse, explains that this process is applicable to the DISCIPLE:

“One must be able to pass the test of the spiritual master, and when he sees the genuine desire of the disciple, he automatically blesses the disciple with genuine spiritual understanding. […] A bona fide spiritual master is by nature very kind toward the disciple.”
(Purport, Bhagavad-gita, 4:34)

d) “Srila Prabhupada states we must accept the ‘Physical’ spiritual master.”

Yes, he does. For he states that we cannot accept only the non-physical supersoul as the spiritual master, but rather we must also accept the spiritual master who comes out in a physical form. Otherwise there would be no need for any spiritual master to have manifested on the planet in a bodily form:

“Because Krsna is situated in everyone’s heart. Actually, He is the spiritual master, caitya-guru. So in order to help us, He comes out as physical spiritual master.”
(Lecture, 28/5/74)

“Therefore God is called caitya-guru, the spiritual master within the heart.  And the physical spiritual master is God’s mercy.”
(Room Conversation, 23/5/74)

And Srila Prabhupada is the current link in that parampara of externally manifested physical spiritual masters whom we must accept; we cannot rely only on the supersoul. However, as we have seen above, the physical spiritual master does not always need to be physically present before the disciple, either before, during or after the initiation.

e) “But if the Guru is on the planet, physical interactive communication with him is at least POSSIBLE.”

Yes it is, but having established that such communication is not necessary, the mere possibility of it cannot be necessary either. It is illogical to argue that though it is not necessary to have interactive communication with the Guru, it is necessary to have the possibility to do that which does not need to be done!