Steps to Initiation
By Kripamoya Das - 20.3 2017
There are several important steps towards initiation in ISKCON. Although requirements will differ according to locality, most of the steps described here are common throughout the Society. Details are available from your local ISKCON centre.
Initiation means the beginning of something. In spiritual life, it refers to the beginning of a new stage of spiritual practice, normally when you begin some new discipline, begin a course of study of an ancient text, start performing a particular ritual, or enter into a student-teacher relationship with a guru – or all of the above. Srila Prabhupada offered two initiations to his disciples; the first was given when they had reached a level of stability in their daily meditation on the maha-mantra; and the second when, through that chanting, they had become ‘spiritually purified.’
To receive the first, or ‘Harinama’, initiation within ISKCON means to receive the Hare Krishna mantra from an experienced Vaishnava and to promise to recite it a fixed number of times daily. It also means to avoid committing any offenses to the Hare Krishna mantra which, as you will have been instructed, is non-different from Krishna Himself. It also means to refrain from bad habits that compromise your spiritual focus, your determination, or your morality. It also means that from now on you promise to live as a Vaishnava for the rest of your life, dedicating your days to His devotional service from early morning, to offer everything you eat first to Krishna, to study Krishna’s words, and to serve Him and His representative, the guru.
The long road to initiation begins from the moment you find you’re becoming serious about the teachings of Krishna because of the difference they’ve made to your life. In keeping with most people who experiment with the teachings and practices of bhakti-yoga, you’ve probably found that you can only move forward in spiritual life when you begin to enjoy it. That’s as it should be.
Many newcomers to Krishna consciousness, for instance, discover they can move relatively easily from chanting one round of the Hare Krishna mantra to two, then four and so on, until they reach a level that’s comfortable for them. They also find that being a vegetarian is not too difficult, and the other dietary rules don’t pose too much of a problem. As they experience the pleasurable results of a new way of life, it becomes easier for them to trust that any other efforts they make towards Krishna will also be more than amply rewarded, and so they adjust their life, their circle of close friends, and their daily routine to reflect their new goals.
The minimum qualifications for becoming initiated are that you have been chanting sixteen rounds of japa and following the regulative principles for a significant period of time. You must be able to say that you accept the teachings of Krishna as taught by Srila Prabhupada, and that you have a supportive network of devotee friends who will assist you to maintain the promises you make at initiation. You should also understand the meanings of the major Nama Aparadha as listed in the Padma Purana. These are the various offenses to the Holy Name of Krishna that are to be avoided by the initiated disciple. With all that in mind we can now have a look at the stages involved in the process of your becoming initiated.
Friends, Group and Guide
If you have gradually made progress in your commitment up to chanting sixteen rounds each day, studying Srila Prabhupada’s books regularly, and you’ve successfully given up your unwanted habits, there’s a good chance that you managed to do it with help from other devotees. Perhaps you have some good friends who have always encouraged you; maybe you belong to a group that meets regularly for kirtan and discussion, or perhaps you have the help of a senior devotee who guides you.
Whoever helped you this far in your spiritual life is going to be even more important to you after you become initiated. At the time of initiation you will be making lifetime vows that you will be expected to keep. You’ll also be promising to continue to make spiritual advancement just as seriously as you’ve been doing up until now. In order to be successful, you will need various types of help. Firstly, you will need solid, supportive friendships with other devotees who can offer you moral and sometimes practical help. They should be sympathetic to your efforts in spiritual life, and ready to discuss the philosophy and how it applies to their own life. Preferably they should be open and honest and ready to offer you constructive criticism if they feel you need to hear it.
Initiation is a stage on your journey of spiritual life. Although it is a time of change for you, the change should not include moving away from those who have helped you and supported you so far. Good friends, especially spiritually strong friends, should not be relegated to your past. Rather, initiation is a time for deepening existing friendships as well as making new ones, because those good friends will be an important part of your future as well.
Joining a Group
A very good practise is to meet together with your friends separate from any temple functions you attend. You can chant japa and sing kirtan together, read and discuss scriptures, talk about how your spiritual life is going on, and take prasadam. By meeting together as a group of friends you will gain strength and inspiration; by discussing common challenges or question you will maintain a sense of realistic perspective in your life as you balance your spiritual practice with your study, work and family commitments. It is for this reason that small, local groups were created. These are not for newcomers only, but are meant to provide the foundation for sustainable spiritual practise. The dynamics of such a group – the sum total of the relationships that comprise it – work best when everyone is a close friend.
In the early days of the Hare Krishna movement, devotees would all live together at the temple. It would be their place of worship, their place of work, and their home. They would sing together, work together, and eat together – all in the same place. Now times have changed, and the success of Krishna consciousness is that there are many places where devotees of Krishna come together to sing, study and eat. The local group is thus the basic building block of the Hare Krishna movement today.
Without being a member of a group, it is not guaranteed that you will have regular access to kirtan, study and devotee fellowship. For these and many other reasons, it is highly recommended – and is now obligatory in many places – that as a candidate for initiation, you join a group near to you and enjoy the benefits offered. If there is no group within easy reach, the devotees will help you to start one.
Groups may be styled and formatted variously according to the local preferences, but the central purpose is to gather together at least monthly for kirtan, readings and discussions. Some groups may opt for meetings that are simply kirtan all the way through, and some groups gather simply for reading.
Finding a Guide
It is also essential to have at least one friend who is senior to you who can act as a spiritual guide. Although there are many Sanskrit terms for such a spiritual guide, the English terms Mentor or Counsellor now seem to be popular. He or she – or perhaps you will be lucky enough to be guided by a couple – will be able to provide you with regular instruction and guidance. Your guide should be acquainted with the scriptures, should be balanced in his or her own spiritual life, should have consideration for your own particular needs and goals, and have sufficient time and concern to help you. Your mentor must demonstrate a good example of a positive, confident approach to devotional life and must, of course, be practising Vaishnava sadhana at a serious level.
Meetings with your mentor or counsellor should take place regularly, preferably in person. In some cases where distance is a factor, the meetings may be over the telephone. During meetings any questions on the philosophy can be discussed and challenges revealed. Confidentiality is important in these meetings, naturally. Some devotees like to keep a record or chart of their progress in chanting their daily japa, their reading etc and some mentors and their ‘mentees’ share these records with each other as part of their regular discussions.
Understanding the Subject
Prior to initiation, it is advised that you learn about Krishna consciousness – the philosophy, theology, the values and the history – by reading the legacy of words left to us by Srila Prabhupada. He wrote his books not simply for his disciples of yesterday, but for the disciples of today. He is not only the founder of the Hare Krishna movement, but the acarya, the spiritual master upon whom all other teachers base their life and teaching. Regarding Srila Prabhupada as your guru, and carefully studying his books, you can discuss any questions that may arise with your guide. By understanding the standard characteristics of an initiating spiritual master from the scriptures and our founder-acarya’s commentaries, you will know what qualities to look for in your own prospective guru.
Although you will hear from many senior and advanced devotees, it is not recommended for you to regard anyone in particular as your future guru for at least one year. Only upon maintaining the standard of sixteen rounds and four regulative principles for a minimum of one year may you then seriously begin to develop a relationship with a senior Vaishnava with a view to taking initiation.
So to summarise: Understanding the basics of the Vaishnava life from Srila Prabhupada; having a circle of supportive friends; having a Guide; and becoming a member of a local Group make up the first step of the path towards initiation.
The Disciple Course
In order to ensure that you and others get comprehensive information on the many different aspects of initiation you will be requested to attend a course of classes on the subject. This course includes subjects that you may have not heard about before and will help to prepare you to take the next step. You will learn more about the qualifications of a guru, the significance of initiation, how to relate to your guru and what to expect from him, the characteristics of a disciple and some episodes from Vaishnava history.
The course also touches on the particulars of what acceptance of a guru practically means in a modern context within an international society such as ISKCON. The course also touches on what may go wrong in the guru-disciple relationship and therefore what pitfalls to avoid.
The course usually runs at least once every year and is well advertised beforehand. If you are already a mentor or the leader of a group, then it is very helpful for your members or those whom you are guiding, to let them know about the course and what they can expect to learn. In some regions of the ISKCON world it is a compulsory part of the procedure for becoming an initiated disciple.
During the last class of the course, you will be given a Pre-Initiation Exam to complete. It consists of some questions that Srila Prabhupada himself wanted initiation candidates to answer, and they are quite easy. You are allowed to answer the questions at home, in your own time, and by referring to Bhagavad-gita, a copy of which you may have open beside you as you answer the questions. There is no time limit for the exam. The exam paper will also ask you for confirmation that you have read one statement and one essay that describe Srila Prabhupada’s unique position within our Vaishnava community. These have been prepared by ISKCON’s GBC. The GBC statement can be found as an appendix to the pre-initiation exam and the essay, entitled Harmonizing ISKCON’s Lines of Authority, can be found either by searching the internet or directly with this URL:
Once you have completed the exam, you can hand it to your mentor. At the conclusion of the course, and if you have not already done so, you may wish to take part in the Registration. This will involve having your details and photograph entered into the Initiates Database. You may still be thinking whether you want to become initiated or not, but having your details will mean that you’ll be already registered when you do make a decision.
Summary: The Disciple Course; The Pre-Initiation Exam, the Registration, and the ‘Sadhana Chart’ make up the second step of the path towards initiation.
Testing and being tested
Your guide or mentor will continue to encourage you to listen to Srila Prabhupada’s recorded lectures, carefully read his books, and in general discover for yourself the teachings of Krishna consciousness directly as taught by the founder-acarya. This hearing from Srila Prabhupada is crucial, since he is our perfect example of a guru, both in words and living example. Initiation means to be initiated by someone who is a follower of Srila Prabhupada in his teachings and behaviour, so study of Srila Prabhupada will enable you to understand what exemplary teaching and behaviour is. You will be able to make a comparison of any other Vaishnava with the perfect example of Srila Prabhupada.
At this time you will probably know some advanced senior Vaishnavas in whose company you feel particularly inspired and encouraged. You will have listened to them carefully, studied their lives, and felt uplifted by their words and example. Although you will continue to receive the blessings of such teachings and inspiration from these and many other Vaishnavas, for the purposes of initiation, you will be required to choose only one as your initiating guru.
An ‘Aspiring Disciple’
Once you have settled that question, and upon your satisfactory completion of the pre-initiation exam, and in consultation with your mentor, you can begin the next period as an Aspiring Disciple. You cannot become an aspiring disciple without informing your mentor.
You must inform your mentor when you feel the time is right for you to cultivate a relationship with someone you wish to regard as your guru. Generally speaking, your mentor will be positive about your decision. He or she will be encouraging you to begin this next stage, but also helping you to reflect on the inner resolution involved, as well as the life-long responsibilities you will be taking on.
At the time when you formally become an aspiring disciple, a period of testing the guru and being tested by him will begin. In some parts of ISKCON this may last for two years. During this period of testing, your aspirations to become a disciple, your understanding of yourself as a spiritual practitioner, and the prospective guru’s acceptance of you, all continue to grow. Since it is also a time when many realisations develop within you, previous conceptions are challenged, and sometimes adherence to basic practises increase or decrease in strength it will, on average, require a longer period for you to adequately prepare. Previous experiences have shown a decrease in preparation time to be inadequate, so most ISKCON centres are now asking for a period of more than a year be allowed before initiation takes place.
You should now write to the senior Vaishnava asking if you can begin ongoing correspondence with a view to developing a relationship of teacher-student and possibly guru-disciple. When permission is given a ‘testing period’ begins.
Your duty as a prospective initiate is to carefully scrutinise the instructions and personal behaviour of the senior Vaishnava in order to ascertain how faithfully he represents Srila Prabhupada in word and deed. You are looking for the many devotional qualities you’ve learned about up to this point as well as commitment to Srila Prabhupada’s mission and care for others. In addition to your own observation and discussions with the Vaishnava’s senior disciples, you will also need to talk to other senior devotees. All scriptures recommend this period of examination; it should not be dispensed with due to any reason. Only when you have adequately tested your prospective guru, and he has tested you, or asked others to test you, will the relationship become strong.
Testing questions to put to your own prospective guru should also include enquiries on how often he regularly corresponds with his disciples, and offers them relevant and helpful instruction. You need to ascertain how often he visits your country (or your part of the country) and how he tends to deal with principal life questions such as marriages, studies, employment, family life, child-rearing and so on. You should satisfy yourself that your prospective guru has factually been successful in helping his other disciples move forward in spiritual life and that he will have adequate time and inclination to teach and assist you if you become his disciple. If he already has many disciples whom he does not instruct personally, then you must look for his concern to either establish or endorse a system to care for his disciples. Somehow he must make some kind of regular assessment of his disciples’ progress within an existing system such as the mentorship and group structure.
You should also look to see whether he has formed healthy relationships with his own peers, and that he is responsive to the GBC, the governing body of ISKCON. You should also check to see whether he has tried hard to push forward the sankirtan movement.
During this period he will also test you in order to understand your suitability for discipleship. This may be done through correspondence, personal interview or referring to others. After an indefinite period of time, your faith may have developed to the point where you decide that you would like to formalise your relationship and take initiation as a disciple of the person you now fully regard as your guru.
Summary: Selecting only one senior Vaishnava; understanding the need for a lengthy period of mutual testing; formally becoming an aspiring disciple; writing to the Vaishnava for permission and receiving permission; testing him carefully – all these make up the third step on the path to initiation.
Acting in the Relationship
There now begins a period of acting in the relationship of aspiring disciple and prospective guru. During this period you are continuing to allow yourself to be tested by the guru and should be prepared for anything this might entail. In consultation with your mentor you may begin chanting your prospective guru’s pranam verse in addition to Srila Prabhupada’s pranam verse, offering flowers or incense to his picture in your home, (somewhere separate from the main altar on which you offer your food), and assisting him with various services as and when possible. This period should last a minimum of six months. Please note that the offering of food to the guru’s picture should properly begin only after formal initiation has taken place. At any stage prior to the day of initiation you may change your mind about accepting a guru. You may also change your choice of guru.
Summary: Allowing yourself to be tested; reciting the prospective guru’s pranam verse; and keeping an open mind make up the fourth step on the path to initiation
Your mentor will naturally check to see if you’ve taken all relevant issues into consideration and whether you seem ready for the initiation. When he or she is satisfied, your mentor will ask the temple president, the initiation committee, or the preaching director, whoever is appropriate in your local area, to write a Letter of Recommendation to your prospective guru. No initiation may take place without such a letter from your local authorities. Once the recommendation has been sent, the decision to offer initiation, as well as the time and place, is in the hands of your prospective guru.
Your local authority needs to be satisfied that you have met all the requirements pertaining to all of the above stages before giving you a recommendation. In addition to this, they will have concerns about: (a) Your maturity and ability to seriously fulfil responsibility which ensue from initiation (b) The quality of your relationship with other devotees generally (c) Steadiness in the main activities of bhakti yoga (d) Attendance whenever possible of group meetings, temple festivals, kirtans and classes (e) Involvement in some form of devotional service to the mission of Srila Prabhupada.
You should consider that whatever standards you meet before initiation will need to be maintained afterwards, too. You will require help to remain steady in your spiritual life. There are varying standards of practise amongst the initiated congregation. In fact it is sometimes observed that initiated devotees have strayed from their previously good practise and slipped into bad habits with no-one even asking them how they were faring. We want to reverse this increasing trend. There is also growing expectations by gurus of temple and congregational leaders to ensure their disciples are maintaining standards and serving appropriately. So different ISKCON centres have felt the need to clarify and reiterate the essentials of maintaining a healthy spiritual balance in the service of Srila Prabhupada’s mission.
Although upon taking initiation you will be required to promise publicly to chant sixteen rounds and follow the four regulative principles, you will not be asked to promise to rise early in the morning or to go for preaching service, or to raise funds for the mission. However, items like these are all corollary functions that serve your main promises. They are helpful for strong spiritual life and were certainly important enough for Srila Prabhupada to ask devotees to do them. In fact, there was no question of not doing these things in Srila Prabhupada’s time. It was unheard of for an initiated devotee to rise after six in the morning, or to not attempt preaching, or, if they were working householders, to fail to make a financial contribution.
In order to put those essential things back in place; to protect the spiritual life of all initiates, and to ensure our strong and continued growth as a movement, the following checklist now forms the minimum standards for recommendation.
To chant sixteen rounds every day, half of them before 10.00am.
To follow the regulative principles.
To meet regularly with a senior Vaishnava guide, either individually or with a small group of others, for kirtan, reading and discussion on personal progress and challenges.
To offer the food one eats to Krishna.
To have a broad understanding of Vaishnava teachings, behaviour, and the guru-disciple relationship.
To complete the ‘Pre-initiation exam’
To have good relationships with fellow devotees.
To rise early in the morning, at least before 6.30am.
To study Srila Prabhupada’s books each day.
To perform a simple arati in the home.
To visit a major temple for a morning programme at least monthly; to participate in festivals and special events.
To offer service to the mission whenever possible.
To have good relationships with fellow devotees, both seniors and juniors.
To have a strong recommendation for your initiation from a senior Vaishnava.
To secure approval from significant family members such as wife or husband.
Summary: Maturity in your relationships with other Vaishnavas; steadiness in sadhana; attendance at a group and temple; offering service to the mission of Srila Prabhupada; and the Letter of Recommendation make up the fifth step on the path of initiation.
The Day of Initiation
On the day of initiation you will be promising to follow the regulative principles and to chant sixteen rounds every day. You may also be promising to read Srila Prabhupada’s books and to remain faithful to his society. Your guru will give a talk either on the significance of initiation or on the ten offences to the Holy Name. Three strands of tulasi beads will be placed on your neck. You will be asked to perform acaman – a purifying ritual involving sipping water and saying a mantra. You will then be called forward to make your obeisances to Srila Prabhupada and to your guru. Then you will be asked to recite the vows. You’ll be handed your chanting beads, and then given a name ending in dasa or dasi, indicating that you are now initiated. A fire sacrifice follows during which you’ll join in the chanting of prayers to the members of the Vaishnava parampara and the Deities. During the fire sacrifice you will be directed to offer grains into the flames. It is traditional for the new disciple to beg for some alms to give to the spiritual master immediately after the fire sacrifice.
Some months before the initiation takes place, you can ask your mentor to show you how to perform acaman and to check your pronunciation of the prayers to the parampara.
Summary: Three strands of Tulasi neck beads, your vows to your guru; being given japa meditation beads; sipping of sacred water; your spiritual name; prayers to the parampara; all these make up the sixth and final stage of (first) initiation.
Being offered the Gayatri mantra and other Pancharatrika mantras constitute Second Initiation within ISKCON. Known as Brahmana Initiation, it is normally offered at some time after the first initiation, sometimes one or two years afterwards.
While requirements differ regionally, and even from one guru to another, there are a commonly agreed range of qualifications. A greater level of maturity and scriptural knowledge; stability in spiritual practice, cleanliness, and an aspiration to further dedication. Other qualities looked for may be humility, respect in dealings with fellow Vaishnavas and an attitude of service.
Srila Prabhupada requested that candidates for second initiation sit an exam based on several of his main books: Bhagavad-gita As It Is, Sri Isopanishad, The Nectar of Instruction and The Nectar of Devotion (Rupa Goswami’s Upadeshamrita and Bhakti Rasamrita Sindhu, respectively). He also required that they be conversant with his ‘small books’ such as The Perfection of Yoga and Krishna Consciousness, the Topmost Yoga System.