It is observed over and over again that many religious and spiritual leaders tend to take their popularity for granted and indulge in acts inappropriate for someone in that position. This is historically true for every such organization. Srila Prabhupada, the Founder and Acharya of International Society or Krishna Consciousness, or ISKCON, has categorically warned his followers against such behavior and has instructed them to carefully maintain both external and internal purity. This holds even more importance when it comes to leaders and preachers. All practicing devotees are bound to have shortcomings and it is acceptable, but such devotees must not pose as religious leaders, for that does more harm than good. Srila Prabhupada practiced what he preached, and wanted his followers to do the same. He told them not to be cheap preachers.
Riding on the popularity based on religious sentiments of innocent people, and at the same time engaging in immoral and unethical acts is utterly condemned. The number of scandals coming to light is increasing by every year, and the list of fake, tainted religious leaders and so-called saintly persons keeps growing.
Accidently missing a step or transiently traversing a wrong path is human error but misusing philosophy for sense gratification and that too at the cost of others is a grave offense to humanity and to the scriptures.
The scenario outside of ISKCON is certainly next to hopeless but unfortunately, devotees in ISKCON are also falling prey to immoral practices. Often they are seen behaving as if the instructions given by Srila Prabhupada on behavior, ethics, morals, etc. are meant only for the outsiders. They seem to think that because they have already taken to Krishna consciousness, which, in its highest form, is beyond mundane principles, the rules of ethics and morality in this world do not apply to them. This is self-deceiving.
Acknowledging that ISKCON has a policy in place to deal with wrongdoers and has curbed the nuisance to a good extent, there is no good reason to exclude all ISKCON leaders and preachers from the list. Rather it’s a matter of shame that ISKCON also has a history, both old and recent, of abusers walking around freely as if nothing happened in the past.
Not knowing abusers as abusers is acceptable, but sadly there are people who prefer living in denial even after knowing it, and keep honoring and worshipping such abusers. Either they are obliged to do so to protect their own wrongdoings or they are blatantly irresponsible. In either case, they don’t realize that by their callous public conduct they mislead others and put the vulnerable at risk. Leave the rank and file, even leaders, who know the history, also tend to behave, for whatever reasons, willingly or unwillingly, as if everything is fine. This must stop if ISKCON has to be what Srila Prabhupada wanted it to be.
But sexual abuse is not the only menace that has been a challenge in our society. Millions of dollars have been siphoned off or mishandled by unscrupulous leaders and people in influential positions. These people work hand in glove with other types of abusers and, in turn, get supported and shielded by them. They know well they need each other. It’s a nefarious network of seasoned criminals.
A devotee never justifies immoral acts, be it sexual abuse, abuse of power or financial fraud. If someone directly or indirectly supports it or tries to cover it up then it may be understood that such a person himself/herself has skeletons in his/her closet. Such supporters should also be investigated and brought to justice.
Srila Prabhupada’s instructions are primarily meant for and directed towards his immediate followers, that is, the members of ISKCON, including its congregation members and especially the initiated ones. While it is understandable that ISKCON, with its existing infrastructure, cannot possibly keep track of every initiated devotee who may be in any corner of the world, it must monitor what it calls “full time devotees” and all prominent congregation members, for they directly represent ISKCON. If neophytes and spiritually unqualified people are allowed to take up leadership roles, or worse, offered a position of being a “pure devotee” or a guru, who is looked up to by others, it simply creates nuisance.
A Vaishnava is first of all a first class gentleman. ISKCON needs to ensure that its devotees and preachers do not take their “devotee” status for granted. They need to watch themselves and not get allured by worldly pleasures and popularity. Lord Chaitanya’s Sikshatakam is not only for singing. Every verse has profound advice embedded in it. Popularity often makes one falsely proud. In his song, “Vaishnava Ke?”, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakur Prabhupada says: jader pratistha shukarer vistha“- worldly popularity is like the stool of a pig. But in the name of preaching, neophyte devotees often fall prey to this trap when they ignore established etiquettes and moral conducts.
It is crucial that progressing devotees keep a safe distance from professional “sadhus” and so called celebrities, and not take pride in befriending them. Associating with vishayis can prove futile for one’s spiritual progress. Not to speak of association, Srila Sanatana Gosvami, a prominent acharya in the Gaudiya Vaishnava parampara, has forbidden even hearing from those not situated in the right Vaishnava behavior.
Srila Prabhupada stresses on the term “sadachara-sampanna“, one who is established in or possesses and practices good qualities. Again, one should not jump to a conclusion that this is directed only towards non-ISKCON preachers and sahajiyas.
“Unless one is situated as pure Vaishnava in his dealing, in his behavior, inside and outside, he should not become a preacher because it will not be effective, neither one should hear from such person. But people in general, they can not understand, but those who are preaching, they must be very sincere, the same way. Rupa-raghunatha pade, haibe akuti. They should read the literatures, the instruction, just like Upadeshamrita, The Nectar of Instruction. We should follow, strictly follow. Then prithivim sa shisyat” Then you’ll be able to preach and make disciples all over the world. This is the injunction. That is called gosvami. Don’t be cheap preacher, cheap guru. No, no. That is not good. It is not possible.” – Srila Prabhupada lecture S.B. 7.9.28, Mayapur, March 06,1976
It is confirmed herein by Srila Prabhupada that it is not possible to become a preacher, a guru, if one does not strictly follow the teachings of the previous acharyas explained in the books like Upadeshamrita. It makes no sense to a sane person if one claims to be a Vaishnava and does not follow ethics. Wrongly applying exceptions and examples from the past, and using Krishna conscious philosophy to justify one’s own misdeeds is a self-destructive crime.
Krishna consciousness does not exclude mundane good qualities like truthfulness, honesty, morality, compassion, charity, and other ethics; it goes beyond them.