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What is the ritvik philosophy and why is it wrong?

Any devotee that has access to the internet is probably familiar with the ritvik philosophy. According to it, the last instruction of Srila Prabhupada was that he should remain the only initiating spiritual master and anyone can take a posthumous initiation from him thoroughly a priest, who chants on his beads and do the other rites in front of a picture of Srila Prabhupada. There are different versions of the ritvik philosophy, but they are all centered around interpretations of two tapes recorded in the last days of Srila Prabhupada.

The ritvik movement appeared in the 1980s, during the zonal acarya period, a time of confusion when there were excesses from the part of many. Seeing that some of the gurus were acting in questionable ways, a few devotees went to the other extreme, coming to the conclusion that there would be no bonafide spiritual masters after Srila Prabhupada.

This was fruit of a polarization phenomenon, where some go to one extreme and others end-up going to the opposite extreme. Since that time, many things were corrected and our collective understanding about the role of the spiritual master matured inside our movement. The ritvik philosophy was not based on sastra, but merely on supposition and interpretation of a few of Srila Prabhupada’s last statements. It was discussed for some time between the leaders of our society, but the lack of philosophical consistency led it to be quickly discarded. Most of the devotees that were initially pushing it, abandoned it over the years. What happened is that some unscrupulous persons took it and started using it to get followers, or at times just to attack our society. Many of them are envious people that don’t follow principles or chant. Frequently their sadhana is simply to post offenses over the Internet.

The importance of accepting a spiritual master is one of the most central aspects of the Vaishnava philosophy. One that can't accept a spiritual master out of pride, assuming that nobody is higher than him, or that no one is perfect, is actually doing so out of ignorance. In fact, in his purport to CC Adi 1.35, Srila Prabhupada directly states that: “If one thinks that he is above consulting anyone else, including a spiritual master, he is at once an offender at the lotus feet of the Lord. Such an offender can never go back to Godhead. It is imperative that a serious person accept a bona fide spiritual master in terms of the śāstric injunctions.”

In the whole story of vaishnavism there is not a single acarya that had not accepted a spiritual master. Even Lord Caitanya, that is Krsna Himself accepted Isvara Puri. To say nothing of Caitanya Mahaprabhu, even Krsna Himself accepted Sandipani Muni! By the time of Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura, the teachings of Mahaprabhu had been practically lost. Still, to give example, he took initiation from Bipin Bihari Goswami, a member of a lineage coming from Jahnavi Devi.

The main point is that it is practically impossible for a conditioned soul to free himself from material conditioning, and it's completely impossible to attain a relationship with Krsna without being connected with one of Krsna's associates. The main problem is that because our consciousness is entrapped into the material energy, we can't associate with Krsna, much less with His eternal associates. For all practical purposes, they are there and we are here. Even though Krsna is in our heart, we can't perceive or hear Him.

For any conditioned soul, the only real opportunity to re-establish his relationship with Krsna is by associating with a liberated soul that is here is this world, walking amongst us. Devotional service is not a theoretical thing, it must be learned by hearing, serving and associating with a liberated soul. Not only that, but we need someone that can act as our lawyer, presenting our case to Krsna and standing in our favor. We are guilty of indescribable acts since time immemorial, and only by surrendering to Krsna's representative can we realistically be rectificated.

One could argue what is the the necessity of associating with a pure devotee if we can just hear Srila Prabhupada's classes and read his books. Naturally, to associate with Srila Prabhupada's vani is an essential aspect of our spiritual life, and even someone that doesn't have contact with other devotees can make great advancement by doing that. However, one is going to benefit only to the extent he follows what he hears. If Srila Prabhupada says that one should accept a spiritual master and one refuses, then the relationship is broken and the advancement stops. This is an instruction that Srila Prabhupada constantly repeats in his books and classes. As he wrote in the same purport to CC Adi 1.35 mentioned earlier:

"One should always remember that a person who is reluctant to accept a spiritual master and be initiated is sure to be baffled in his endeavor to go back to Godhead. One who is not properly initiated may present himself as a great devotee, but in fact he is sure to encounter many stumbling blocks on his path of progress toward spiritual realization, with the result that he must continue his term of material existence without relief. Such a helpless person is compared to a ship without a rudder, for such a ship can never reach its destination. It is imperative, therefore, that one accept a spiritual master if he at all desires to gain the favor of the Lord. The service of the spiritual master is essential."

The initiating and instructing spiritual masters have the mission of not only teaching, but to especially observe and correct his disciples, allowing them to grow. To humbly accept chastisement and to acknowledge one's own faults is a difficult process to follow, but anyone that is sincere in the spiritual path must accept it. This is a process that was ultimately created by Krsna to correct the conditioned souls.

Ritviks doesn't want to accept this instruction, and thus concoct a conspiracy theory, based on the idea that Srila Prabhupada reached something during his whole life and then contradicted himself in the last moment. They then try to cover the incongruences and contradictions in their theory with further speculation, arguing that no disciples of Srila Prabhupada are qualified, that his books were changed and so on.

The ritvik philosophy is an example of philosophy that, in the name of maintaining Srila Prabhupada's legacy, propagates a conclusion that is opposite to his teachings and is thus offensive to him. Anyone who studies Srila Prabhupada's books will understand the concept of parampara and the importance of learning the spiritual science from a living spiritual master. Just like Srila Prabhupada connected his disciples with Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura and the other members of the parampara, one needs to be connected to Srila Prabhupada through one of his qualified disciples or grand-disciples. The allegation that there are no pure and bonafide gurus after Srila Prabhupada is a direct offense to him. It means that Srila Prabhupada was not competent enough to train his disciples to become pure devotees, that the process given by him doesn't work, or that he wasn't successful in his mission. It’s a ridiculous statement.

Still, even if one would believe that there are no pure devotees on the planet, the necessity of accepting a spiritual master remains. Unless one is like Duryodana, incapable of finding anyone higher than himself, he should choose someone connected to a bona-fide line and that one sees as more elevated than himself, and accept him as a spiritual master. One that is attracted to Srila Prabhupada, should connect himself with him through one of his bona-fide disciples or grand-disciples.

Ritviks are thus not bona-fide followers of Srila Prabhupada, since they are not following his instructions. On the opposite, in many aspects they do precisely the opposite: attacking Srila Prabhupada's bona fide disciples and followers that are carrying out his mission. By concocting an unbonafide process, many of them end-up developing anger, lust and envy instead of proper vaishnava qualities. Instead of advancing spiritually and developing a relationship with Krsna, they just degrade themselves by becoming offenders.

A good example in this connection is the story of Ekalavia, narrated in the Mahabharata. The deeper meaning was explained by Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura in his article "Upakhyane Upadesa" (translated by H.H. Bhakti Caru Swami) and also explained in the book "Spiritual Connection" by HH Bhakti Dhira Damodhara Swami.

"One day, on the order of Dronacarya, the Kauravas and Pandavas ventured out from their capital to the forest to hunt. They soon came across a dog, directly on their path and were extremely astonished to find that seven arrows had been shot into the dog’s mouth simultaneously when he had opened it to bark. They could see that the archer who had let loose those arrows was even more skilled than any of the Pandavas, and set out to find him.

After searching for some time, they discovered that the boy who had performed this feat was Ekalavya, the son of Hiranyadhanura, and that he had developed his extraordinary skill by making and worshipping an idol of Dronacarya.

The Pandavas returned to their capital and informed Dronacarya of this amazing incident. In a humble mood, Arjuna informed Dronacarya of the fact that the acarya had one disciple more skilled in the art of archery than he. The acarya listened to these words in shock. At once, he returned to the forest with Arjuna and came upon Ekalavya, who was fully absorbed in practising archery as he let loose dense volleys of arrows, one after the other.

When Dronacarya approached, Ekalavya suddenly saw the acarya standing directly before him. The young archer immediately worshipped his feet, introduced himself as one of his disciples, and stood submissively with folded hands.

Dronacarya addressed Ekalavya, “You must offer me guru-daksina.” Ekalavya replied, “Whatever you order, I am prepared to give.”

Dronacarya next told Ekalavya to sever his right thumb and give it as daksina, and he followed the order of his gurudeva with a bright face, without any objection."

At first, it looks like Ekalavia was the perfect disciple and Arjuna was envious of him, but the real meaning is the opposite. Ekalavia was a member of the Nishada tribe. Not only did he lack the proper moral qualifications, but he was also envious of the Pandavas, being a member of a tribe that was a sworn enemy of the Kuru dynasty. When he approached Dronacarya, wanting to learn military science, Drona could read perfectly his mentality and thus he flatelly rejected, seeing that whatever he would teach him, would just increase his pride and would ultimately be used against his other disciples.

At this point, Ekalavia had three options:

Act like a bona-fide disciple, accept the order of the guru and just go home.

Try to learn from someone else.

Try to reform himself, so he could become qualified to be teached by Dronacarya.

Instead, he concocted a method of worship with the goal of stealing the military knowledge from Dronacarya. His worship was thus not based on love and submission, but on pride. When Arjuna saw the situation, he was alarmed that the good name of Dronacarya could be dishonored by such a nonsensical person. He thus called Dronacarya, that solved the situation by taking the thumb of Ekalavia. At the time, archers would hold the arrow using the thumb and the index finger, thus by losing his thumb Ekalavia’s talent became useless. In this way, Dronacarya nullified what Ekalavia had stolen from him.

Still, one could argue that Ekalavia should be given credit by his incredible sacrifice in offering his thumb to Dronacarya, but even this was not done with the proper consciousness. On the opposite, he just acted out of pride, out of the fear of losing his reputation by breaking his word. He just did that out of mundane considerations, just as other Ksatryias did so many things out of pride throughout history. Understanding his mentality, Dronacarya asked his thumb as a daksina in order to quickly solve the problem.

Ekalavia can thus be considered the first ritvik of history. A ritvik may claim to be a disciple of Srila Prabhupada, but in reality he is just concocting a process of worship that will not lead to any good result. One that is sincere, will eventually be guided by the supersoul to meet a bonafide spiritual master and surrender to him. The ones that are envious, however, will just fall into further darkness.

When confronted with arguments against their philosophy, many ritviks ask for "scriptural evidence". Naturally, much evidence can be provided, starting with BG 4.2, but this effort is largely useless. Whatever evidence can be offered, a ritvik will always reject, using word jugglery or twisted logic. The fact is that the scriptures repeatedly emphasize the importance of accepting a spiritual master and hearing the spiritual science from him ("Just try to learn the truth by approaching a spiritual master. Inquire from him submissively and render service unto him. The self-realized souls can impart knowledge unto you because they have seen the truth"). However, the ritvik philosophy is not based in sastra, and therefore these arguments are not accepted. It's not based on Srila Prabhupada either, since this is a point Srila Prabhupada repeatedly states, reinforces and repeats in his purports. Ritviks, however, ignore all these statements and instead base their philosophy in creative interpretations of a couple of recorded tapes. They use word jugglery and passages taken out of context to create a conspiracy theory, sustaining that Prabhupada contradicted himself, teaching all his life that we should accept a spiritual master and them changing his mind in the last moment, creating some concoction that deviates both from sastra and from the predecessor acaryas.

Ultimately, the importance of accepting a spiritual master is a subject matter that comes down to one understanding it or not, according to his adikari. To one that really can't understand it, my suggestion is to study Srila Prabhupada's books and follow the spiritual process described by him. This, combined with drinking one or two glasses of milk per day will develop the subtle tissues in the brain that are necessary for the understanding of spiritual matters.


Question: What is the difference between the ritvik system, where a priest initiates on behalf of Srila Prabhupada, and the current system in ISKCON where the guru initiates under the direction and monitoring of the GBC on behalf of Srila Prabhupada's ISKCON, and not independently. It seems they are the same system practically speaking. One has Srila Prabhupada as the acarya empowering ritviks to initiate on his behalf. The other has the GBC as the authority empowering some members to initiate under the authority and guidance of the GBC. It seems that both systems are practically the same, since if an ISKCON guru was to leave the GBC authority, that person would be rejected as bogus and unauthorised, is it not?


Answer: The central point is that in the ritvik system the priest doesn't assume any responsibility for the devotees being initiated. He just does the ceremony and expects that Srila Prabhupada will take care of the rest. This is very similar to the idea prevalent on some Christian sects, that expect that Christ will take away their sins. This is not an authorized system, and thus the so-called ritvik initiation is null and void. The devotees remain uninitiated and without the benefits of a spiritual master. They may still be able to make some advancement, according to their sincerity, but according to the scriptures they can't go back to Godhead by following such an irregular system. As mentioned by Srila Prabhupada on CC Adi 1.35: “If one thinks that he is above consulting anyone else, including a spiritual master, he is at once an offender at the lotus feet of the Lord. Such an offender can never go back to Godhead. It is imperative that a serious person accept a bona fide spiritual master in terms of the śāstric injunctions.”

One central thing to be understood is the relationship of the guru and the disciple. The guru is not just an ordinary teacher, he assumes the responsibility of guiding the disciple in his spiritual life and ultimately bringing him back to godhead. Similarly, the initiation is not just a mere ceremony, but a formalization of this relationship.

The position of the guru is thus similar to a parent. There is no question of becoming a son or daughter of a deceased person. A parent does his job by educating his children, and after growing-up the children have the responsibility of educating their own children. If one wants to join the Acyuta Gotra, the family of Krsna, he needs to become the spiritual son of a member of the current generation, that is here in this planet and willing to accept him or her as his disciple, connecting him to Srila Prabhupada and to the rest of the parampara. This is the way Krsna created the system, and the way Prabhupada explains all over his books. One can't become a direct disciple of Srila Prabhupada any more than one can become a disciple of Bhaktivinoda Thakura or Rupa Goswami.

About the question of the relationship of the gurus and the GBC, the point is that the position of the guru needs to be reconciled with the necessity of working in a cooperative way under the supervision of the GBC (that acts as Prabhupada's representative). Two good readings in this connection are the book "Srila Prabhupada, The Founder-Acharya of ISKCON” and the document "Srila Prabhupada and the Gaudiya Math" by Drutakarma Prabhu.

This is actually a point that is still being debated and adjustments may be done in the future. We can just note that the first attempt of a guru system in our society was the zonal acarya system, that had many flaws. Over time, many mistakes were corrected, resulting in a system that is closer to what Srila Prabhupada instructed. The current system may still need some adjustments, but it seems we are going in the right direction.

A few ideas that one needs to reconcile in his mind to understand this topic:

a) Prabhupada will not accept anyone as his disciple because he is not on the planet. He passed the baton to his disciples and grand-disciples.

b) The GBC works as Prabhupada's representative in administrative matters, but being an impersonal entity, the GBC can't accept disciples. One can only be a disciple of a person, not of an institution or of an assembly body.

c) Only individual disciples or grand-disciples of Srila Prabhupada can accept disciples. However, they also need to work cooperatively under the institution (as per Prabhupada's order) therefore there is also need of some checks and balances on the part of the GBC.

d) Being the ultimate authority and representative of Prabhupada, the GBC has the responsibility of overseeing the gurus and alerting members of the society in case a guru falls down from the regulative principles and is not willing to correct himself. However, for the last decades they have been using this power in a very conservative way. The idea seems to transfer more of the responsibility of choosing and observing the guru to the disciples.

Similarly, the GBC does not currently “empower” any guru, this was a term used in the 1980’s. Since then, the GBC has reduced it’s interference in the process. Currently, the GBC just evaluate the candidates and give their “non-objection” if proved that a candidate is in good standing. The GBC therefore does not take the responsibility of judging if the candidate is a pure devotee or not, this is now up to the potential disciples to evaluate.



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