When I was initiated in 1975, Srila Prabhupada wrote a letter to my temple president at the Bhaktivedanta Manor, asking him to make sure I followed all the rules. He wrote:
13th November, 1975
My dear Prabhavisnu das,
Please accept my blessings. I am in due receipt of your letter undated and accept upon your recommendation the following as my initiated disciples….I also accept the following as twice-born brahmanas and their threads and mantra sheets are enclosed: Kripamoya das…You should have a fire sacrifice and the second initiates should hear through the right ear the mantra on my recorded tape….It is your responsibility to see that these devotees that you have recommended strictly follow the rules and regulations, chanting 16 rounds, attending the classes and the mangala aroti and refraining from the four prohibitions. You should lecture on these points at the initiation ceremony so that everyone understands fully. And by your own example you should teach.
I hope this meets you in good health.
Your ever well wisher,
A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami
It was quite a common style of letter, and many temple presidents received one like this at some time. The reason was simple. Travelling the world fourteen times in a dozen years, Srila Prabhupada tended to spend only three or four days at each of his centres, perhaps once a year. There was insufficient time for meeting every disciple, so he spoke to them in groups. He eventually initiated 4,800 disciples and almost always asked the responsible senior devotees to look after them for him.
This was nothing new in the ancient Vaishnava tradition, although Srila Prabhupada’s single-handed pioneering of a world-wide movement was unique in history, and called for unprecedented arrangements. He grouped his disciples – the majority of them – in communal living arrangements and, during the 1970s, this was the standard way of life for most devotees of Krishna. “Strictly following the rules and regulations,” as he wrote in the above letter, therefore involved living in a ‘temple’ under the supervision of a ‘temple president.’
The average size of one of the temples of ISKCON, outside a few larger ones in cities such as Los Angeles, New York, London and Bombay, was between 8 – 20 residents. Keeping an eye on young devotees, freshly initiated and newly committed to their vows, was relatively easy in such small groups. It also contributed to what members fondly remember as a ‘family feeling.’
Fifty years on and the movement has grown and changed. The philosophy and practises remain the same, but most of the members do not live in small communal clusters. There is still communal living – in around 600 locations internationally – but the majority of ISKCON’s members now live in their own homes, visiting a nearby temple or group if there is one.
Preserving Srila Prabhupada’s request for his responsible senior disciples to provide spiritual leadership and to ‘teach by example’ has needed some careful re-designing for a new and vastly expanded situation. The rapid growth in the movement’s membership is proof of the success of Srila Prabhupada’s messages, but with size often comes greater complexity, and so it has with the challenge of helping others on the spiritual path. Because helping others to grow in spiritual life is as important as initiating them into it, for ISKCON simply to hang on to its membership required a slightly more developed approach.
The beginning was the formation of small groups for kirtan, Gita discussion and prasadam. Wherever devotees lived, they wanted to come together with others for the essential practises of spiritual life. And in doing so they supported each other. As relationships between them developed, a loving community of Vaishnavas grew, as affectionate a community as there ever was in the ‘good old days.’ When new people joined these groups, attracted by what they found there, the senior members helped them along their newly-chosen path; teaching them what they knew and offering words of inspiration, encouragement and guidance whenever they could.
When it came time for initiation, the aspiring disciples found that they needed to be ‘recommended’ by ‘an ISKCON temple president’ according to Srila Prabhupada’s orders. Because the local temple president might look after a temple many miles away, and would often not know the candidate well, if at all, the onus was upon the small group leader to provide an account of the suitability of the prospective disciple.
Although initiation is a matter of the heart, it is also a matter of the head as well. Clear thinking is required on the part of the candidate, as well as knowledge of all that the guru-disciple relationship requires. Adequate preparation for lifetime vows is essential, and the disciple must be conversant with the beliefs and practises of a devotee of Krishna. He or she must have also successfully developed some level of relationship with the prospective guru. For his part, the guru had also to get to know his prospective disciple.
But even with all that in place, the guru would only see his disciple once or twice a year. It still remained that there be a responsible person caring for the spiritual needs of the disciple. In Srila Prabhupada’s words: “It is your responsibility to see that these devotees that you have recommended strictly follow the rules and regulations, chanting 16 rounds, attending the classes and the mangala aroti and refraining from the four prohibitions.”
So the group leader, or other senior member in whom the young devotee had faith, began to take the role of pastoral supervision seriously. Regular meetings were held, and a list of pre-initiation requirements prepared. The role of the senior devotee was still one of spiritual friendship rather than spiritual director or supervisor, but elements of counselling, direction and supervision were increasingly needed as devotees became more serious about their formal spiritual commitment. Having adequately prepared the aspirant disciple, sometimes over the course of two years, the senior devotee would then submit his or her letter of suitability on behalf of the candidate, to be ratified by the temple president in the formal letter of recommendation.
There were a few hiccups along the way; some gurus suggested that it was all becoming a bit too formal and somewhat restrictive for their prospective disciples. That was particularly the case when the candidate did not receive a resounding recommendation. But there were other occasions when, somewhat brow-beaten by a no doubt well-intended guru, the senior devotee gave in to pressure and relented, voicing approval of the candidate against their better judgement. Months later, when the newly-initiated disciple was no longer following his vows, and when everyone involved had been thoroughly embarrassed, both guru and local group leader could understand that there was indeed value in a formal system.
Getting it right has taken time, but after five years the result is that even more devotees are becoming initiated. They are better trained and prepared, and there is a growing network of senior devotees who are very successfully guiding new members towards a progressive life in Krishna consciousness. In Britain, there are some four hundred new devotees being guided at the moment.
Somewhere along the way the generic term ‘mentor’ was chosen in preference to anything more traditional or Sanskrit. There are many such ancient words describing the teacher-guide, but the word had already come into use with our university clubs, youth groups, and was used extensively in the corporate world. It was a legitimate English word of almost universal application. Mentor is originally a Greek word now meaning ‘a wise and trusted counsellor or teacher,’ and this seemed to fit exactly. From this came the expression ‘the mentorship system’ and the rather unfortunate American back-formation ‘mentee.’
Over the four years, some experienced mentors have been compiling and sharing their successes and mistakes, and as a consequence there is a growing body of material on mentorship as it applies to ISKCON. What follows is a description of some key elements – in Q&A format. A more formal booklet on mentorship, particular as it applies to preparing a candidate for initiation, is also available.