Q. I have been told that there are gaps of up to a hundred years between many of the gurus in the lineage of Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura and that this explains why he placed more emphasis on instruction (siksa) than on initiation (diksa). Can you comment on this?
A. If Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura’s lineage relies more on siksa than diksa, then why did he give diksa to thousands of disciples? Why not just give them siksa? The answer is because diksa and siksa are both important. Still, one must acknowledge that in some instances a siksa guru may have a more significant influence on a disciple than the diksa guru.
For example, with regard to treading the raga marga, Visvanatha Cakravarti writes in his Ragavartma-candrika that one can receive esoteric instructions on this path from the diksa guru, a siksa guru, or such instructions may appear of their own accord within the purified heart of the initiated sadhaka. Devotees who receive those instructions from a siksa guru might find him or her to be more or equally prominent in their spiritual life than their diksa guru. This is not unusual in Gaudiya Vaisnavism.
Of the two kinds of guru, diksa or siksa, which is most important? The spiritual answer to this question is the guru who is helping you the most at the stage you are in. If the siksa guru plays a prominent role in your spiritual progress, it stands to reason that the siksa guru would be included in your guru-parampara, which is, after all, the line of preceptors through which Krishna consciousness has descended to you.
For example, I include Pujyapada Sridhara Maharaja in the guru-parampara that I belong to even though Srila Prabhupada is my diksa guru. Why? Because I felt that the grace of Krishna came through Srila Sridhara Maharaja to me in a prominent way after the departure of my diksa guru. I think this is a rather dynamic way of looking at the institution of guru-parampara, one that is hardly unprecedented in the history of our sampradaya.
Q. Before Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura was there any precedence for this type of thinking with regard to diksa and siksa guru?
A. Look at the example of Krishnadasa Kaviraja Goswami. Who is his diksa guru and who are his siksa gurus? At the end of nearly every chapter of Caitanya-caritamrta he pays respects to his siksa gurus Sri Rupa and Raghunatha, with no mention of his diksa guru. He does the same in Govinda-lilamrta, including other siksa gurus. Why has he not mentioned his diksa guru pranali? Why has he not stressed it anywhere?
The emphasis among the Six Goswamis was in many respects also on siksa, or, better stated, the emphasis was appropriately placed on those who had the most influence on the devotee’s life. Indeed, in his writings Sanatana Goswami only briefly mentions his diksa guru. Raghunatha dasa is another prominent example. Should we not include Svarupa Damodara in his lineage? It is clear from Caitanya-caritamrta that he got esoteric instruction on bhajana from Svarupa Damodara, not from his diksa guru Yadunandana.
Q. What exactly is a diksa guru pranali, and why didn’t Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura emphasize his?
A. The term diksa guru pranali refers to a lineage of diksa gurus extending back to a particular associate of Caitanya Mahaprabhu. In some Gaudiya lineages, disciples are given a spiritual form to meditate on and identify with through sadhana and are taught the spiritual identity of all the initiating gurus in their lineage. Not all Gaudiya lineages do this, nor is it necessary to have received this information to attain the ideal of Gaudiya Vaisnavism.
The opinion of Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura was that at some point the emphasis on diksa guru pranali had became inordinate because in many lineages a physical conception of guru-parampara had overshadowed the spiritual conception of parampara. In other words many of the so-called diksa-guru-paramparas of his time were less than spiritual because the so-called gurus were considered qualified merely because they were connected to an associate of Mahaprabhu through a series of initiations or because they were born in a particular family, such as the family line descending from Nityananda Prabhu. As I understand it, in some cases these lineages had simply become businesses for putting food on the table.
Saraswati Thakura strongly objected to the idea of a guru pranali in which the guru was determined solely by connection through initiation or by birthright while spiritually unqualified. He considered this an example of a broken disciplic successions, hardly an unbroken one. In his opinion these so-called spiritual lineages were simply examples of Kali-yuga infiltrating the ranks of Mahaprabhu’s fold. It was these so-called Gaudiya gurus that Thakura Bhaktivinoda was speaking about when he coined the term “kali cela” (disciples of Kali yuga). Srila Prabhupada spoke of this condition after experiencing it in his home life, and Srila Sridhara Maharaja spoke of how his father hated Gaudiya Vaisnavas for their immorality. Now we have the same thing happening in the Western world, and in some instances within the so-called lineage of Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura. However, no modern person with spiritual sensibility will accept this deception, any more than they will accept a caste system in which a brahmana is determined by birth without regard for guna and karma (quality and work).
Q. Some followers of so-called traditional Gaudiya Vaisnavism teach that membership in a diksa guru pranali or birth a particular family is not the only qualification that a guru needs, but that a guru does not have to be a fully realized (siddha). So how important is it to find a truly perfected guru?
A. We agree that the guru does not need to be perfect in realization. Whatever he or she lacks Mahaprabhu can make up for. Still, the guru must be a saranagata, a fully surrendered soul. In the devotional stage of ruci, there is a slight influence of the svarupa-sakti, sreyah kairava candrika vitaranam. Therefore Bhaktivinoda Thakura writes in Bhakti-tattva-viveka that a ruci bhakta is an uttama adhikari.
Q. As for gaps in parampara, I accept the siksa lineage argument. But, in our parampara what about the gaps of decades in-between gurus? I understand why a siksa guru may be more important than a diksa guru, but why aren’t some gurus (siksa or diksa) listed in successive generations?
A. There is at least one gap of about one hundred years between Baladeva Vidyabhusana and Jagannatha dasa Babaji. Either there was no one prominent enough to equal the stature of these two devotees to warrant listing his or her name or, more likely, the names of the prominent siksa or diksa links for that section of the list have been lost. In any case, Thakura Bhaktivinoda has written that sometimes not everyone will be listed. In his book Jaiva-dharma the question is asked, “Is there a list of names of spiritual masters in the parampara given without any breaks?” The answer given is that “from time to time, only the more important spiritual masters’ names are included in these lists.” (Jaiva-dharma Ch.13)
Some sects object to this, but let’s hear from them in a thousand or more years and see how many guru names they are listing. For that matter, Kali-yuga is said to last for 432 thousand years, of which only five thousand have passed. With approximately four acaryas per century in any given line, that means that by the end of Kali-yuga those that insist on listing all the gurus in the lineage–and mediating on their siddha deha’s and eternal seva as an essential aspect of their sadhana (siddha pranali)—will have to add 1,037 names to the list they already have.
In contrast, the Bhaktivinoda parivara takes a practical approach to this matter, listing only the prominent members. Its list will vary among its now-numerous branches because prominence is somewhat subjective.
Q. There are objections to Srila Bhaktisiddhanta having received initiation in a dream. Is there any precedent for this?
A. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura did not receive diksa in a dream. He received initiation from Gaurakisora dasa Babaji. Because of Saraswati Thakur’s innovations, many in the orthodox community doubted that he was initiated at all. However, he was giving initiation in the presence of Gaurakisora, his diksa guru, and Bhaktivinoda Thakura, his siksa guru, with their blessings. The thousands of devotees who joined Bhaktisiddhanta and under his direction preached widely for Mahaprabhu exemplified those blessings. Most were well aware of the Gaudiya sampradaya, but it was not until they met Bhaktisiddhanta that they became enlivened to actually join it—not only join, but also sacrifice. Sacrifice and surrender was the standard of Bhaktisiddhanta’s Gaudiya Matha monasteries. This is evidence enough for his followers.
He did get inspiration in a dream to take sannyasa from Gaurakisora, and later he formalized his sannyasa in front of his guru’s picture. However he was a life long celibate, morally stout, and learned, so in quality he was already the perfect sannyasi. Having been ordered by Bhaktivinoda to establish daiva-varnasrama, he established the order of sannyasa in Gaudiya Vaisnavism as part of doing so. Many of us are proud to be members of his illustrious lineage, a lineage we term “Bhaktivinoda parivara,” in that we accept Thakura Bhaktivinoda as a nitya-siddha associate of Mahaprabhu, the “seventh Goswami,” whose inspired vision positioned Gaudiya Vaisnavism to interface with the modern world. This is our faith.
If others are uncomfortable with our faith, let them seek shelter elsewhere. If they can constructively point out any actual discrepancies in our lineage as it is manifest today, let us be sincere enough to address them and correct ourselves. We should conduct ourselves such that, regardless of perceived discrepancies from times gone by that others make much of, our character is enough to dispel them. Let the current of Bhaktivinoda thrive forever in this world. It is to this parivara, as it comes through Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura, that the entire international community of Gaudiya Vaisnavas is indebted. Our burden is to represent it properly, and I have no doubt that if we do, any objections will disappear.