(iskconnews.org) – ISKCON News | Coming of Age #8 – Prophets versus Priests – Who are You?
Prophets have been persecuted throughout history. This fact is thoroughly counter-intuitive since all prophets are eventually revered, and many have millions of followers. So, why would they be persecuted and then later adored? Think of Moses for Judaism, Jesus for Christianity, Mohammad for Islam, Chaitanya for Gaudiya Vaishnavism, and literally countless others, especially if the whole of creation is considered (NOTE: The author recognizes that prophets do not all fit the same mold and that some are more empowered than others).
Prophets are visionaries. They are not followers; instead, they are leaders. They question existing beliefs and practices, generally shaking up existing spiritual/religious doctrine. They are usually labeled as heretics of their time. As a result, prophets and their followers are typically ostracized from the communities in which they were born and subjected to punishment, often including imprisonment or death. On a spiritual level, think of Jesus. On a relatively secular level, while he is not a spiritual prophet who started his own faith path, think of the iconic visionary Nelson Mandela.
Priests, on the other hand, are responsible for maintaining the status quo. Their responsibilities include leading their existing flock, supporting the existing institution, and setting examples by their behavior, which is apparently not so easy in Kali-yuga, the age of quarrel and hypocrisy.
While this differentiation between priests and prophets seems very clear, much is unclear within the confines of the still very young institution called ISKCON. Srila Prabhupada’s vani or instructions are probably as clear as any major prophet in history, based on the sheer volume of his written and recorded teachings. In fact, like Jesus trying to teach/uplift the existing priests (rabbis) and then being ostracized, Prabhupada also tried many times to garner support from his own godbrothers. Still, his ardent requests fell upon deaf ears, and he was also abundantly criticized.
With the descriptions of prophets and priests now clear, what about ISKCON or any other “new” denomination in an existing faith path? Should the followers of a preeminent prophet or acharya blindly follow without consideration for time, place, and circumstance? After all, Srila Prabhupada emphasized both “not changing the founding principles he established” and “adapting to the needs, mindset, and culture of the local population.” We can conclude that the fundamental principles Srila Prabhupada established are unchangeable but that the details can and should be adjusted for good reasons to attract more and more conditioned souls to the eternal and non-sectarian teachings of Krishna Bhakti or Gaudiya Vaishnavism.
The looming challenge we face as an institution is to clearly identify these eternal principles and the details that can be adjusted. This challenge currently divides ISKCON in significant ways, from outreach methods to outward dress, to the role of women, and much more. You see, everyone has some visionary capacity since the Supreme Visionary is the Lord Himself. So, just like we each have all qualities of Krishna in minute quantities, we each can be visionary in our own ways. Whether these align with what Srila Prabhupada’s vision would be nearly 50 years after his departure or not is the conundrum. It is highly doubtful that the question will ever be answered in a way that is accepted by all.
What can we do to be peaceful amid the division that hovers over our ISKCON Society today? Let’s answer philosophically and practically. On a philosophical platform, one way is to see that everything we experience is under the purview of the Supreme Personality of Godhead both from within as the Supersoul guide and witness, and outside as the Lord undoubtedly has the ability to know everything, from the smallest to the largest thought and event going on in infinite universes. Yes, God is great!
On the practical side of things, we can look at the evolution of every spiritual path in this world. Consistently, they each subdivide into various denominations over time. Is this good or bad for ISKCON? I am not sure that the “good” or “bad” matters, but if history does, in fact, repeat itself, ISKCON will eventually divide into many denominations as well. Perhaps the leaders of ISKCON will accept this apparent eventuality and work towards cooperative and peaceful conclusions that can be implemented for the benefit of as many souls as possible.