Serving Our Gurus: An Interview with Anuttama Dasa

This article is originally from ISKCON News and used here under a Creative Commons Agreement.”

BY PARIJATA DEVI DASI
Recently Anuttama Dasa, Director – ISKCON Communications and member of GBC’s Guru Services Committee facilitated a four-day seminar on ‘Being a Guru in ISKCON’ at ISKCON Juhu, Mumbai prior to the GBC Strategic Planning Meetings. This seminar was being presented for the second time. The pilot seminar was launched in Ujjain last February.

The seminar explored various aspects of spiritual leadership in ISKCON including role and identity of guru, guru’s relationship with ISKCON, guru-disciple relationships, cooperation with ISKCON and peer support, amongst many others. Parijata devi dasi from the ISKCON Communications office at Mumbai spoke with Anuttama Das to understand the role and purpose of such a seminar in ISKCON. Here are excerpts from the interview:

Q: I understand you are facilitating the “Spiritual Leadership Seminar: Being a Guru in ISKCON”.  How was the idea for this seminar conceived?

Anuttama Das: One of the committees of the GBC (Governing Body Commission) body is the Guru Services Committee. Its main purpose is to extend support in various ways to the gurus within ISKCON and to establish systems through which GBC body can work closely with the gurus.

For several years, this Committee contemplated the need for a seminar which would facilitate opportunity for diksha gurus (initiating spiritual masters), shiksha gurus and other leaders in ISKCON to meet and discuss ways and means through which gurus can work cooperatively amongst themselves and within ISKCON. This seminar encourages the gurus to enliven each other through sharing their realizations and insights how to effectively preach Krishna Consciousness. It also explores how gurus can better care for their disciples and deal with the many pressures that this type of service entails.

Q.  Who is qualified to participate in the seminar?

Anuttama Das: The seminar is open to four types of persons: a) diksha gurus; b) aspiring diksha gurus (those who will soon initiate); c) senior shiksha gurus and d) senior leaders in whose service includes working with gurus and ISKCON communities.

To understand the need for the seminar requires we keep in mind the unique situation of ISKCON. Historically the guru, who would head a particular ‘math’ (spiritual institution), was the spiritual authority and the managerial authority all rolled into one person.

Srila Prabhupada gave a very clear structure specifically for ISKCON as a multi-guru society. Historically, ISKCON has faced with many challenges as a multi-guru community. There were many instances of lack of coordination, and sometimes antagonism between individual gurus and the GBC Body, especially when individuals in the role of gurus had serious personal difficulties.

Part of the goals of this seminar is to bring senior devotees together and ensure we work cooperatively now, and lay the foundation for solid understanding and cooperation for the future.

Q:  What kind of response did you receive when you announced this course?

Anuttama Das: The response has been very positive, especially from those who have attended the seminar. It is important to note than many senior devotees contributed in its conception. In May 2007, the Guru Services Committee invited about a dozen sanyasis and senior devotees, including Bhakti Caru Swami, Radhanatha Swami, Jayapataka Swami, Prahladananda Swami, and Ravindra Svarupa prabhu to Washington, D.C. for almost a week to determine the direction of the seminar, the topics it would include and the opportunities it would provide.

At that meeting it was determined that we would look at two levels of association:

  1. A seminar which will help clarify how we can function as a multi-guru society under the leadership of the GBC, and
  2. A second level was suggested by Bhakti Caru Swami. He expressed the need to create a sanga (spiritual association) for ISKCON gurus. Out of this, the idea of a spiritual retreat for gurus was born whereby gurus, primarily diksha gurus, shall gather once a year for close and in-depth association to include hearing, chanting, and discussing issues, concerns and realizations.

Thus the plan is to develop two levels of the whole experience. A structured seminar, and a retreat.

Q:  How shall the gurus benefit from this seminar?

Anuttama Das: Krishna Consciousness is based on hearing from the scriptures, association with devotees and striving to improve the quality and quantity of our service. The seminar is meant to assist gurus and spiritual mentors (both diksha and siksha) of our society to better perform their service.

The seminar discusses issues and difficulties that may arise from ISKCON’s management structure in interacting with the gurus and vice versa. The seminar helps to deal with misunderstanding and areas of potential friction between the gurus and management. It is an attempt to harmoniously blend responsibilities since both management and gurus are concerned about the welfare of the devotees. Some people have more experience in specific areas than others. For example, gurus can exchange insights how to address certain types of problems a disciple may bring to their spiritual master.

This seminar also highlights the importance of caring for disciples. Gurus are encouraged to interact with each other, learn from each other and build on each other’s strengths to help to serve their disciples better.

The seminar reinforces the importance of peer association. In my opinion, being a guru in ISKCON is the ultimate sacrifice to Srila Prabhupada. I am not an initiating spiritual master. But from what I see, the responsibility undertaken by my god brothers—and in the future, I believe, god-sisters—to serve as a guru, is an extremely demanding service that bears great responsibility. Thus, part of this seminar, and later the retreat, is to help to nourish these devotees and serve them, so they can better serve Srila Prabhupada and their own disciples.

Q. How do you justify guiding gurus who have exhaustive knowledge of scriptures?

Anuttama Das: Sukadeva Goswami explains in the Srimad Bhagavatam that hearing and chanting are the most important means to advance in spiritual life. Srila Prabhupada taught that every member of ISKCON should regularly chant, hear and study sastra.  It is not that after one receives first initiation, second initiation, and then perhaps becomes a Temple President, sannyasi, or a guru, one discontinues the process of learning. Krishna is unlimited and we are meant to constantly strive to learn more about Krishna, His qualities, His pastimes, etc. It is not that after one becomes a swami, or a GBC member, or a guru that one no longer attends Bhagavatam classes or gains new insights or realizations. That would be an impersonal philosophy. We are constantly growing and maturing in Krishna Consciousness.

It is interesting to note that we held the first ‘Being a Guru In ISKCON’ seminar in Ujjain. That is the place were Krishna Himself studied 5,000 years ago in the ashram of His teacher Sandipani Muni. Thus, Lord Krishna taught through personal example that learning is an exalted practice to be accepted even by the most exalted. Also, Canakya Pandit said that we should take good instructions even from a fool. And, there is also a wonderful story in this connection we learned about Srila Prabhupada while researching the seminar. Prabhupada had a disciple nick-named “Stats,” because he would always contribute little known statistics to conversations. One day when he added some unknown information, Srila Prabhupada commented, “Just see, even though I am his spiritual master, and even though I will take him back to Godhead, still I can learn something from him.”

Q. How would this seminar impact spiritual leadership in ISKCON?

Anuttama Das: We hope both the seminar and the retreat will encourage more opportunities for sanga (association). Secondly, we hope it will clarify the relationship between gurus and the larger ISKCON movement.

Q. What are your future plans in relationship to this seminar?

Anuttama Das: The seminar will be held again next year in Mayapura prior to the annual GBC meetings. The first spiritual retreat for gurus will likely be held in Ujjain during Kartik season 2009.

Q. Thank you.

Anuttama Das: You are welcome. Hare Krishna.