Monday Morning Greetings 2022 #41 – The Hare Krishna Movement and the Lord of the Flies

October 10th, 2022

Lord of the Flies is an acclaimed novel written by William Golding in 1954 about a group of young boys stranded on a deserted island who revert to savagery and primitive ritualistic behavior. One of the boys, named Ralph, assumes the role of ruler of the other young and confused boys and gets carried away with his power, and from this the term “Lord of the Flies” acquired an idiomatic meaning indicating a leader ruling peers with an inflated self-perception of their own status and dominion. I have also heard the term used to describe the early days of ISKCON, especially after Śrīla Prabhupāda left this world, when sincere young men, most less than ten years in the movement, assumed immense positions of authority over their peers, not only as spiritual masters, but as ācāryas, the institutional and spiritual heads of large zonal areas covering many countries.


I am not writing this to place blame on anybody. Mostly, I am reflecting on my own immaturity as a young devotee who was, at the age of 28, thrust into a position of authority and prestige way above my pay grade as the head of a relatively prestigious educational institution, the ISKCON school in Vrindavan. The sign above my office, placed by the previous principal, an elderly and distinguished Indian gentleman, read “Prādhān Ācārya”—the Hindi nomenclature for principal. “Ācārya” means guru and “Prādhān” means the chief. The sign above my door thus literally read, “Chief Ācārya” or “Chief Guru”. What a joke! I am glad most ISKCON devotees at the time, who were mostly foreigners, couldn’t read Hindi. Was that not, in a sense, Lord of the Flies?


Śrīla Prabhupāda recognized the quandary of trying to establish a spiritual institution, which is still corporate, by placing young and uneducated men in positions of authority. In that regard, he described his predicament and offered a Bengali proverb to illustrate his dilemma: “Sometimes my god-brothers criticized me, but there is one thing that they were correct about—I gave very young men sannyāsa, but what could I do? ‘When there are no large trees in the forest the castor oil tree looks big.’” In other words, his preaching movement required a social structure with a class of people holding spiritual authority to move forward, which in his lineage meant the renounced or sannyāsa order. But, as there were no elders, all he had to choose from were inexperienced men in their early twenties. What could he do? But was the sannyāsa order at the time in ISKCON not in a sense Lord of the Flies?


Two young men were barely past twenty when Śrīla Prabhupāda gave them sannyāsa.[1] They immediately began to travel to South India to defeat all opposing views to Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism, their lineage, as they thought was their duty as sannyāsi spiritual leaders. They first met Pejavara Swami, the most distinguished and learned Madhva sannyāsa and guru. They immediately challenged him: “What are three aspects of the Absolute Truth?” It was the most rudimentary question, but not for them. The saintly Pejavara Swami didn’t get angry. He was just amused and smiled at these immature children in the guise of sannyāsis trying to sincerely serve their guru. It’s astounding how much we were Lord of the Flies.


Ravindra Svarupa Prabhu, a saintly god-brother known for his clarity of thought and sharp wit, years ago summed up the challenges of ISKCON in its budding days:


“The problem with ISKCON in the early days was that Śrīla Prabhupāda was the only adult!”


The behaviors of the early devotees were not savage, but there is something to be learned from Golding’s cautionary tale. Still, there were significant problems caused at least in part by lack of maturity. So, I look back and lament. But I also feel hope for a more grounded and realistic understanding of who I am. I am also seeing how much devotees have matured, and hopefully so have I. I pray for more years so that I can now relish the depth and sweetness of true Vaiṣṇava relationships free from the Lord of the Flies.



[1] This was told to me over thirty years ago by one of those men. As I haven’t had to time to get his permission to use the story and confirm the details, I have kept their names anonymous.



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