Used with permission of the author: Originally published mid 2015, this article was written by Willem Vandenberg (Varnadi das), who joined ISKCON in Amsterdam in 1990. He served in the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust in Sweden as a translator and editor and as a manager of one of its sub-complexes. After officially leaving ISKCON in 2010 he went on to further his career as a computer programmer in higher education. He now lives in Texas and enjoys life reading, writing, and traveling the world.



The Not-So-Transparent Via-Medium


When getting involved with the Hare Krishna cult, whether early on or further along the way, you will undoubtedly be introduced to the concept of guru, with great emphasis on the importance of first and second initiation. Whether that happens as the result of what you read in the books of founder Bhaktivedanta Swami or what you are told by cult members doesn’t really matter, as the message is the same.

The doctrine espoused by the Swami and imbibed by his followers can be summed up as follows: Surrender unto a guru is absolutely required for reaching god because the guru is the via-medium between god and the soul.

Followers will impress upon you that without the “second birth” provided by the guru it is impossible for you to “make spiritual advancement” and will likely back that up with songs from Bengali poets from centuries ago, like Visvanath Chakravarti, Narottama das, and Bhaktivinoda,[1] and/or Bhaktivedanta Swami’s interpretation of statements from scripture that he quotes or paraphrases throughout his teachings, such as:

      Tad viddhi pranipatena (Bhagavad-gita 4.34)
      Tadvijnanartham sa gurum evabhigacchet (Mundaka Upanisad 1.2.12)
      Acharyavan purusho veda (Chandogya Upanisad 6.14.2)
      Yasya deve para-bhaktih (Svetasvatara Upanisad 6.23)

Bhaktivedanta Swami employs these snippets especially to underline the absolute position, superhuman qualities, and overall importance of the guru and to emphasize the general message that you cannot know god without a guru.[2]

In addition, he also made clear that such a guru has to be “bona fide” and must come within one of the four “authorized” successions mentioned in the Padma Purana.[3] Beyond that, the Swami considers the guru an educator, a family instructor, and the one who is to teach men about women and sex.

Ekkehard Lorenz sums it up quite well when he says that “From these and other statements that Bhaktivedanta Swami makes about the guru, it appears that he envisions the master as an all-knowing, all-competent spiritual autocrat: a person without whose mercy the devotee is doomed, who is beyond criticism, and who exercises total control over the lives of his disciples. Bhaktivedanta Swami’s statements about the position of the spiritual master take on special relevance since, in matters of epistemological conflict, his views are deemed ultimate, even over scripture, the traditional source of highest authority.”[4]

To understand the fallacy behind this grand scheme to control people through betrayal of the spirit, it must first be noted that the importance and position of the guru as promoted by Bhaktivedanta Swami through interpretation of scripture and manipulation of his followers is unprecedented in the history of both the cult itself and the general tenets of Hinduism. The abovementioned reference from the Bhagavad-gita (4.34) is a good example of the kind of manipulation that is used in the cult in regards to absolute obedience to the guru and its deeply profound consequences.

      tad viddhi pranipatena pariprasnena sevaya
      upadeksyanti te jnanam jnaninas tattva-darsinah

The Swami’s version: “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.” [the 1972 edition maintains the singular tense]

The reality, in context, is much less dramatic than what is presented here. This verse appears as the conclusion of a chapter on action vs. inaction and the knowledge of various types of sacrifices, covering verses 4.16 to 4.33. Breaking down the Sanskrit without the cult slant shows a pretty straight-forward understanding:

Tad viddhi Come to know that (referring to the knowledge on various sacrifices that has been discussed up to this point); Pranipatena – Through respect and reverence (literally “coming forth and falling,” which is the ancient system of prostrated obeisance by which respect and reverence was shown); Pariprasnena – Through full inquiry; Sevaya – Through service; Upadeksyanti – Through undergoing initiation; Te – Unto you; Jnanam – That knowledge; Jnaninas – Those who know; Tattva-darsinah – Understand its principles.

A broader, yet still more accurate, modern-day translation of this apprentice-type relationship would be: “Learn this stuff about sacrifices by going to those who understand how that all works. Be respectful, ask pertinent questions, and be of assistance, and in return they’ll teach you.”

Despite the original context of approaching teachers with the customary attitude of submission and service common to the cultural mores of India several millenniums ago, there is no indication whatsoever about full surrender to a “spiritual” master or any of the other gibberish from the purport. And thus the Bhagavad-gita happily continues with further explanations about karma and dhyana. The import of this oh-so-important verse in Bhaktivedanta Swami’s guru-is-the-only-way arsenal will show up absolutely nowhere else in the Bhagavad-gita, and especially not in any chapters that truly deal with spiritual matters. Yet, the entire guru-scam in the Hare Krishna cult rests on the importance given to the misleading translation and interpretation of this verse in particular.

Another, lesser known, verse used frequently for this particular purpose by Bhaktivedanta Swami:

      Tad vijnanartham sa gurum evabhigaccet srotriyam brahma-nistham

The Swami’s version: “In order to learn the transcendental science, one must approach the bona fide spiritual master in disciplic succession, who is fixed in the Absolute Truth.”

Though sometimes referred to by Bhaktivedanta Swami as coming from the Katha Upanishad, it is from the Mundaka Upanishad, 1.2.12. Context is important here, too, because once again it appears in a chapter on sacrifices. The quote used by the Swami isn’t even the full verse, which should question its context to begin with. In chapter 2, Angiras explains the various types of sacrifices and then concludes:

“Let a brahmin, after having examined all these worlds that are gained by works, acquire freedom from desires. Nothing that is eternal can be gained by what is not eternal. Let him, in order to understand this, take fuel in his hand and approach a guru who is learned and dwells entirely in Brahman.

So the message is essentially the same as that of the Bhagavad-gita: Want to know about sacrifices? Bring some wood or ghee to the guys who do this all the time and they will get you up to speed. A simple message that was changed into something like “you must fully surrender to a bona fide spiritual master in order to understand transcendental knowledge of the supreme lord and stand a chance in going back to the spiritual world” — yet another one of those singular edicts directed towards controlling whomever it is meant for.

So what about those other two quotes then, acharyavan purusho veda and yasya deve para-bhaktih?

Well, the former appears in a chapter on the upanisadic version of the true essence of the self, with an example of a man taken from his village blindfolded knowing only how to make his way back home by asking the way after the blindfold is removed. The verse in question states that in the same manner, a man who has a teacher in this world knows (acharyavan purusho veda) that he is only delayed from arriving home (knowing the essence of the self) as long as he is not freed (from ignorance). Though reference is indeed made to the tradition of teacher and student in matters of spirituality, the conclusion is to understand one’s nature as atman – a complex concept referring to the principle of life and sensation, the abstract individuality associated with the more common idea of the soul.

The latter is an epilogue, stating that the spiritual matters discussed in the upanishad will be manifested to someone high-minded if they are full of devotion to the divine and the teacher. It appears after the last chapter, which negates nature and time as primal causes and establishes the divine as the primal cause and existing within everyone – creating various views on its nature as a monotheistic, pantheistic or monistic text. As the last of three epilogues, the verse has also been questioned as a later insertion because of its use of the word bhakti, devotion.

Needless to say, the way the Swami uses these snippets is quite different[5], and any kind of context of a journey back to some kind of god in a spiritual world full of cows and maidens through being controlled by a middleman guru who requires lavish worship and free labor without any spiritually valuable reciprocation is completely absent in these cases, too.

Initiated cult followers will also almost certainly extol the glories of their own chosen guru in the hope that you will understand that their guru is better than the other gurus and you should therefore take initiation from that same guru. This guru one-upmanship is still very common in the cult, despite, or perhaps because of, the ongoing periodic exposure of such gurus being involved in sexual misconduct, fraud, philosophical deviation, embezzlement, exploitation, corruption, and down and out hard criminal activities. Keep in mind that gurus and other charismatic leaders in religious institutions and cults like the Hare Krishnas are important only within that context and to the degree that their followers are willing to endow them with superhuman traits. The truth, of course, is that they are merely human, like all of us, and even when they take a dump – so to say – it smells all the same…

The better thing to do, therefore, is to learn about life and the world as humans have intrinsically done throughout time: in the light of our own invaluable insight and experience.

We learn from our parents, school teachers, sports instructors, and vocational experts just as well while showing respect and appreciation, and apply the gains to further the understanding and skills we can use in life, without any requirement for slavish worship or sacrifice of self-worth and integrity. So why do it for a bunch of self-deluded social misfits with a deep-seated need to control your life, just so that they can fill the voids in their own lives with the fantasy of being messengers from an imaginary god?

Really, your first birth was sufficient. Please do thank your mom and dad for that. Now it’s up to you to make something great of the life they gave you.

Semper questio!


– Willem




[1] In the Hare Krishna cult Visvanatha’s song Gurvastakam and Narottama’s song Guru-vandana, extolling the glories and necessity of the guru, are sung each morning. Bhaktivinoda’s song Gurudev is another well-known cult favorite serving the same purpose.

[2] BG 7.14, purport: “Therefore, only Lord Krishna, or His bona fide representative the spiritual master, can release the conditioned soul.”
BG 11.54, purport: “For one who does not take personal training under the guidance of a bona fide spiritual master, it is impossible to even begin to understand Krishna.”
SB 2.3.1, purport: “Unless one is in touch with a realized spiritual master, he cannot actually realize the real nature of self.”

[3] Letter to Upendra, 02-13-68, Boston and SB 6.3.20-21, purport. Although oft-quoted, these verses cannot be located as such in any edition of the Padma Purana available today. See also From Master to Disciple, Willem Vandenberg, 2015.

[4] The Hare Krishna Movement: The Postcharismatic Fate of a Religious Transplant, by Edwin Francis Bryant, Maria Ekstrand, 2004, page 117

[5] SB 7.15.56, purport:Acaryavan puruso veda: one who is guided by the bona fide spiritual master knows everything as stated in the Vedas, which set forth the standard of infallible knowledge.”
BG 9.2, purport: “This process [service] is so potent that even without performing the religious process regularly, one can be raised to the highest perfection. How is this possible? This is also confirmed in Vedic literature: acaryavan purusho veda. One who is in association with great acaryas, even if he is not educated or has never studied the Vedas, can become familiar with all the knowledge necessary for realization.”
Lecture on BG 2.1-10, Los Angeles, November 25, 1968: “So acceptance of spiritual master means to accept anything, whatever he says. Therefore one has to select a spiritual master whom he can completely surrender. That is the technique. Veda-vakya. Just like in the Vedic injunction, nobody can deny. Similarly, spiritual master is also representative of Veda. Acaryavan puruso veda. So similarly, it is just like Vedic injunction.”
Lecture on CC Adi-lila 1.3, Mayapur, March 24, 1975: “Especially in India, the whole Vedic system is being followed by the people under the authorities of the acarya. Acaryavan puruso veda. One who is following the path of the acaryas, he knows. Acaryavan puruso veda. We cannot accept anyone as authority if he does not follow the parampara, disciplic succession of acarya.”
BG 11.54, purport: “…this is confirmed in the Vedic literature (Svetasvatara Upanisad 6.23) … One who has unflinching devotion for the Supreme Lord and is directed by the spiritual master, in whom he has similar unflinching faith, can see the Supreme Personality of Godhead by revelation. One cannot understand Krishna by mental speculation. For one who does not take personal training under the guidance of a bona fide spiritual master, it is impossible to even begin to understand Krishna.”
SB 2.9.43, purport: “Receiving transcendental knowledge is not like exchanging dollars; such knowledge has to be received by service to the spiritual master. As Brahmaji received the knowledge directly from the Lord by satisfying Him fully, similarly one has to receive the transcendental knowledge from the spiritual master by satisfying him. The spiritual master’s satisfaction is the means of assimilating transcendental knowledge. One cannot understand transcendental knowledge simply by becoming a grammarian. The Vedas declare [quotes Svetasvatara Upanisad 6.23]”