A group called the “SABHA,” formed in August 2017, is now providing checks and balances on the authority of ISKCON’s Governing Body Commission, and course correction for its decisions.
“More consultation, dialogue and interaction can be conducive to better, wiser and more acceptable decisions,” the group writes in its manifesto.
The idea stemmed from the GBC’s own Organizational Development Committee, which was established and mandated to thoroughly review ISKCON’s current leadership model.
A Sabha in ancient Vedic times was an assembly, or council to the King. In this case, the word is also an acronym for “Spiritual Advisors Bhagavata Assembly.” The SABHA communicates online throughout the year, and meets annually in Mayapur right after the GBC meetings. In 2020, they are set to convene from February 23rd to 25th.
The Assembly has historical precedent during Srila Prabhupada’s presence. A GBC resolution dated March 15th, 1976 states: “Since several resolutions under ‘ISKCON Organization’ passed at the March 9, 9 a.m. meeting, caused a great disturbance among the temple presidents and thus with our spiritual master, the GBC acknowledges that they were mistaken proposals and hereby rejects them. This was ordered by Srila Prabhupada, and refers specifically to resolutions 1, 2, 3, and 10.”
The next year the GBC formally established a system of review of its decisions by the Temple Presidents: “After the agenda has been completed a Temple President’s meeting will be held. If by a 2/3 majority the Presidents vote any suggested amendments to the resolutions or make new resolutions, these will be referred back to the GBC who will meet to vote on them and that decision will be final. Srila Prabhupada will then review this decisions [sic] for ultimate decision and/or approval.” (1st March 1977).
During the time of these decisions, ISKCON members were represented only by temple presidents. Today, the diaspora of devotees has grown and is represented by many different interest groups.
Thus the SABHA comprises of thirty-five members. These include twelve sannyasis and gurus, five senior devotees, and ten area representatives such as zonal supervisors or temple presidents from territories around the world, elected by their national councils and the SGGS (Sanga for Gurus, GBCs and Sannyasis).
There are also five Vaishnavis elected by the Vaishnavi Ministry (not counting women in the other categories), and three youth elected by the ISKCON Youth Ministry. Current GBC members are not eligible for nomination or election.
Elected SABHA members serve four years, and can be elected for two consecutive terms. A chair is elected by members and serves a two-year tenure. The current chair is Prabhupada disicple Nrsimhananda Das, known for his work with ISKCON Television (ITV).
By a two-third majority of all its voting members, the SABHA can formally object to any GBC resolution and send it back to the GBC for review and reconsideration. The GBC will suspend the resolution while considering the SABHA’s concerns and recommendations, then either dialogue with the SABHA and pass a mutually acceptable modified version, or reaffirm the original resolution.
The SABHA can also suggest issues to the GBC for discussion or solution, and can directly propose new legislation or modifications of existing legislation to the GBC.
In the future, the group plans to request that they be permitted to review previously rejected resolutions to see if they’re worthy of reconsidering and passing.
The SABHA is thus intended to enrich the decision-making ability of the GBC by providing variegated viewpoints and deeper insight into the needs and concerns of the various ISKCON constituents. The SABHA also offers the GBC the opportunity to hear from other qualified Vaisnavas and to tap their collective wisdom.
“We’re performance driven, and want 100% participation from members,” says chairman Nrsimhananda Das, who feels that the group has “been very productive, and had a meaningful impact” so far.
One of the first issues the SABHA took up was that of the posthumous editing of Srila Prabhupada’s books, a contentious topic amongst ISKCON devotees for many years. The SABHA first hosted an online debate between scholar Garuda Das and BBT editor Dravida Das, then passed a proposal that the GBC support a February 2020 academic symposium at Graduate Theological Union in Berkely, California, entitled “On the Challenges of Posthumous Editing: Focus on the Works of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.”
The SABHA also made proposals in relation to the new BBT Textual Revision Panel, which will research Srila Prabhupada’s statements on editing his books, and produce a list of principles and guidelines for book revision.
“After many decades of discontent, this has resulted in significant dialogue and changing of attitudes on both sides,” Nrsimhananda says.
The SABHA also discussed Vaishnavi Diksa gurus, another divisive issue in ISKCON, and presented a paper in support of them to the GBC. According to Nrsimhananda, this made a strong impact on the GBC’s ultimate decision to approve Vaishnavi Diksa gurus in ISKCON.
In addition the SABHA has discussed, but not yet generated proposals on, a number of other topics including initiating disciples in the presence of one’s living guru; whether ISKCON should endorse favorable political candidates like Tulsi Gabbard; and fratricidal wars in ISKCON stoked by negative propaganda websites.
The SABHA will also give voice to rank and file devotees, who are welcome to approach any member of the SABHA and voice their concerns. These concerns will then be brought to the attention of the assembly, who will decide if it’s worthy to be presented to the GBC.
“We have a very important role to play in representing the concerns of the various constituencies,” Nrsimhananda says. “An individual does not have direct access to the GBC body, but we do. And we’re approachable and available. So it increases the ability of the individual to communicate their concerns with the organization.”
A website for the SABHA is underway, which will increase the ability of individuals to connect with them. For now, the full list of SABHA members and the groups they represent is included below:
Sannyasis and Gurus:
Bhakti Dhira Damodara Swami
Bhakti Rasayana Sagar Swami
Sureshvara Das Vanacari
Representing Different Areas of the World:
Bhakti Bhagavatamrita Keshava Swami – Russia and Former USSR
Bhakti Anugraha Janardana Swami – South East Asia
Bhakti Prabhupada-vrata Damodara Swami – Latin America/Caribbean
Pancaratna Das – India
Vrinda Dasi – North America
Representing Senior Devotees:
Representing the Vaishnavi Ministry:
Divya Priya Dasi
Sri Radha Govinda Dasi
Representing ISKCON Youth Ministry:
Madhuri Pura Das
Radha Damodara Das
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