Charisma, genius, chutzpah

When I first made my appearance on the internet on the Garuda listserv in 1997, many devotees found my use of certain terms in talking about Srila Prabhupada more than a little offensive. Take, for instance, one of the few responses I saved.

Jagadananda, to read your message is like reading a message from an unbeliever, an atheist. It manufactures many speculations and ends up confused and questioning. You don't want to offend, but then you write that the followers of Prabhupada "make" Prabhupada something, that Prabhupada is mediaeval and "chutzpah", only an ordinary person, that >Srila Bhaktisiddhanta did vituperous criticism on the sadhus, that sastra is not absolute, that guru is ordinary person... well, WHO is this hellish dog you did NOT want to offend?

I know that you had intimate relations with some of Prabhupada's godbrothers. Your message is proof that what Srila Prabhupada said about them, is completely right. You know of which statements I'm speaking. Look what they've done to you! They even made you a cheap guru? Look what they've done to you! What kind of dog is the dog who bites the giving hand of its owner and well-wisher? What do you expect from this kind of dog?

What you wrote is something what one expects to hear from an unbeliever and not from a disciple of Srila Prabhupada. But you are disciple of Srila Prabhupada. Krishna gave you so much and He will give you a lot more, but it's up to you, to use it for the higher purpose, for the well-being of people who didn't have your blessings. This shall be your greatness - the honour of your spiritual master and Krishna. Reject these dogs who want to bite those who love them. They'll do no good. Life is much to short to squander on this kind of people and they won't help you when you have to pay for your life.
Of course, this was in the early days. I have regularly faced barrages like this over the years, some much worse than this. I have long since stopped collecting them or give them much thought. Nor do I bother answering most of such letters. In these posts, also, I have mostly eliminated the questions and comments of others, no matter how good. That may be wrong of me, but I am interested in what I have to say, and to understand myself. Selfish, as usual.

Like I said in my last blog post, I am interested in a workable synthesis of Krishna bhakti and modern ways of thinking. By modern ways of thinking, I mean reducing as far as possible the necessity to depend on unsubstantiated authority and go as far as one can go with direct perception and rational discourse. Ultimately what we are trying to do is to explain a real phenomenon, that of religious experience generally and the experience of prema-bhakti in particular, not explain it away or to reduce to any other field of thought, like sociology or psychology.

But this is not being done without the serious caveat that we are practitioners. We are practitioners of raganuga-bhakti and sahaja-sadhana. We are not attempting to do anything other than to understand and explain our own experience. We are not the enemies of the devotees, we are simply trying to understand the "science" of bhakti. We study and we experiment, and we observe.

In my paper, The Parampara Institution in Gaudiya Vaishnavism, I used the word charisma to describe exactly the features of Prabhupada's character that devotees like to highlight. Charisma means in Pauline Greek, "gifts of the spirit." It is certain that this quality is one that is needed to mobilize a spiritual movement and there can be no doubt that Prabhupada possessed such.

When I speak of an archetypal process that repeats itself, I mean that it is rare, if not impossible, for a charismatic leader to be replaced by an equally charismatic leader. Charisma is generally speaking a perceived quality, not an empirically objective one. This is the real reason that movements that seek to establish stable successions have to understand the process known as "routinization of charisma," which of necessity means making objective standards that must be adhered to by the "bearers of charisma."

The solutions proposed by ISKCON and its different splinter groups are all different approaches to such routinization. Because of charisma's subjective character, it is all but impossible for the original movement to regroup under another individual's charisma as whole.

We see this often enough: A disciple who knows only too well the failings or limitations of his godbrother finds it difficult to be entirely honest to that godbrother's admirers or to heartily recommend him as a guru. It may be correct for the first disciple to say that he has a better perspective on the godbrother than his admirer, but he is also well aware that he is not about to succeed in changing her attitude.

All this reminds me so much of the way things operated in the Gaudiya Math. Did not Madhava Maharaj have a perspective on Bhakti Prasad Puri Maharaj that was more objective than the one taken by the latter's disciples? Of course. Did that change anything other than to embitter group rivalries? No.

[To be honest, I don't think this was meant as a reference to anything specifically historical, though Madhava Maharaj worked with Bhakti Vilas Tirtha until he started his own math. But I can't remember hearing anything specific. (Jagat, 2013)]

Can we as disciples of Prabhupada, seeking that epiphany that is the encounter with the guru, expect it to happen again, now that Prabhupada is no longer materially with us?

Well, unless we are perfect, we had better hope so. The siksha-guru is a flesh and blood reality; the caittya-guru is a dynamic inner force, and they are true and existent, available for the sincere seeker. But I believe that these manifestations of guru-tattva have a tendency to lead us in different directions (centripetal movement). This multiplicity of directions is not necessarily a bad thing, as that wonderful divine hand of market forces supplies the specific, often unconscious demands of the Vaishnava clientele.

I find that the way things are working out has a certain aesthetical symmetry and I wish everyone the best -- may all they find a siksha-guru who will clarify their direction and like-minded sadhus who will help them on their way.

KUNDALI : Prabhupada, we might say, had charisma and reason. Sahajiyas opt for charisma sans reason. And they are nothing short of a nuisance. And the same applies to followers of any school of thought, including ISKCON devotees who think reason is the enemy.

First of all, bhakti without knowledge is not a nuisance, in the sense that the gopis were hardly a nuisance, even though their method of bhakti was original, i.e., not according to śruti-smṛti-purāṇādi-pañcarātra-vidhi. And yet they are our highest standard. It is something similar to the way that Christ says one must become as a child to enter the kingdom of heaven. A devotee who is not inclined to rational discourse and executes devotional service according to the directions of his spiritual master in good faith is still better placed than one who is overly active intellectually and has no prema. This is frequently stated in the shastra, so I don't think the point needs to be belabored.

Secondly, the word charisma is not exactly being used here in exactly the same way I (or Max Weber) had originally intended and it would be very misleading to think that it stands distinct from reason in any way, or that it is synonymous with bhāva. It means, basically, “spiritual power.” It is the defining quality possessed by a spiritual leader; it is the authority possessed by an individual that makes it possible for him to overturn an established tradition or win converts to an new way of thinking. It may therefore be a totally intellectual quality, whereby an effective debater sways people to his way of thinking.

Nor should one think that charisma operates entirely on sentiment, even though that is a substantial part of its nature. The point is that an intelligent person who is swayed by the "right" answers of a convincing rationalist may become an admiring and even sentimental follower. The psychology here can be quite complex, so we just use a general term, charisma, to summarize the gifts of leadership, which in spiritual life can refer to a very high bar indeed.

In Weber’s vision, charisma is of two kinds, personal and institutional. An organization like ISKCON, which has to maintain its life in the best way it can, promotes institutional charisma; this is why the current acharya system is in operation. There is nothing that bars someone with institutional charisma (by which I mean a position in the hierarchy of an institution, whose spiritual power comes primarily as a result of holding that position) from having personal charisma as well, and indeed, for an institution to flourish, or even for a person to advance within a hierarchy, such personal qualities are necessary. An extraordinary individual can overcome the limitations placed upon a particular institution and take it in a new direction.

Again, when I use the word charisma, I don't mean anything different from what a devotee would perceive to be pure Krishna consciousness. There is no difference between the two, just different terms, depending on one's particular belief stance. When we use the word charisma, however, that allows us to make comparisons with other religious traditions and their leaders or founders, who will have similar qualities in the way that they exercise personal authority over their followers.

I use the term charisma because it has a long tradition. It comes from the Greek kharis, which means 'favour, grace.' In early Christian theology, it meant "a special spiritual gift bestowed by the Holy Spirit on a group or on an individual for the general benefit of the Church." A second definition given by Webster is "an extraordinary power in a person, group, cause, etc., which takes hold of the popular imagination," etc. Unfortunately, in this latter meaning, it has become associated with smiling politicians and its original spiritual sense has been lost. Nowhere in anything I say am I insinuating that I am putting Prabhupada on a par with, say, Princess Diana.

Why do I use this term? I specifically use it because Max Weber, the influential German sociologist of religion, used it to describe the formation of religious groups and more interestingly for us in our situation, the process of succession. You may have noticed me using the term "routinization of charisma." This is a Weberian term to describe what happens after a founder of a religious tradition dies. If devotees weren't all so busy being offended by the use of a word they feel does not adequately describe Prabhupada's glory, they would see that Weber and other sociologists have described almost perfectly the problems that faced ISKCON in the wake of Prabhupada's departure.

This is because, whatever ISKCON's claims to being sui generis, since it is in the material world, it follows the rules of the material world. Clever and observant people, even outside of ISKCON, can perceive the mechanisms of religious societies and their successions and make reasonable commentaries on them.

The word "genius" (Websters: "extraordinary aptitude") is being used in a similar way. This is the first time that I hear people being offended because I call someone they respect a genius.

Now chutzpah, I admit, is a little different, and does have a somewhat negative connotation. Chutzpah is a Yiddish word which at its best means "boldness" and at its worst "effrontery." The example usually given is of the man who killed his parents and then asks for clemency from the court because he is an orphan. This is a Jewish joke and is a caricature of what is meant by the word, but it gives you an idea. The first time I used the word, I said "endearing chutzpah," because we know how bold Prabhupada was in presenting Krishna consciousness as an absolute philosophy with no compromises. He rarely allowed any scope for dual interpretations, a both this and that. There was always only one answer possible for Prabhupada. Only black or white, no grey.

For me the Vedic planetarium is a classical example of chutzpah because scientifically speaking, the Fifth Canto does not have a leg to stand on, and yet here we are supposedly going to replace modern, scientific cosmology with this archaic bit of mythopoeic mental speculation. And the gang of ISKCON PhDs who are trying to do so on Prabhupada's order are, in my view, wasting their God-given intelligence to try to prove not only this, but various other ideas (some of which seem to have no relation to anything in śāstra), which are similarly fruitless. They have various allies in the world of Christian anti-evolutionists, Vedic supremacists and other people on the fringes of scientific thought.

I am not saying that science is God, that scientists are infallible; but all these unsupported and unsupportable ideas are hopelessly unprovable. So one devotee conspiracy theorist can write that astronauts never landed on the moon but on Rahu's head, because the real moon is millions of kilometers further away and unattainable by human beings. X-Files stuff... And I get the impression that a disproportionate number of devotees are taken by these things.

What makes me sorry is that none of this has anything to do with Krishna consciousness. You can be Krishna conscious without having to believe that somewhere there is an ocean of honey and another of yogurt and another of milk. Are these mythical realities any different from śaśa-śṛṅga or ākāśa-kusuma, the usual nyāya examples of logical absurdities?

At any rate, I don't think that my point on charisma is a smokescreen. I am merely stepping back and trying to look objectively at the issues, despite my lengthy involvement with them. "Charisma' is admittedly a term which will not do justice to a true believer's faith in the uniqueness of particular revelations of different sorts, from Sun Myung Moon to Guru Maharaj Ji. An outsider would only see Prabhupada as one among all these. What I am trying to establish, in my own mind, is whether natural laws discovered by social scientists for the formation of religious movements and their development into churches or established religions have been operative in the formation and development of ISKCON. To this, my answer is yes. Can we learn from this analysis? Once again, I think that the answer is yes.

That does not mean that we cannot use the term charisma and still be well aware of Prabhupada's uniqueness and of the role which he played in our personal lives. Alam atipallavitena.


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