Devotee: Can you explain how the principle of disciplic succession works? I was under the impression that in your teaching there must be an unbroken chain of disciplic succession beginning with God Himself, in order for the knowledge to be properly understood. But when I read Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupad’s Bhagavad-gita As It Is, I found that the disciplic succession contained only thirty-eight names, although it says that the system is fifty centuries old. Is this a complete list, or are some names left out? How are we to understand these apparent historical discrepancies?
Srila Sridhar Maharaj: Our Guru-parampara, disciplic succession, follows the ideal, not the body; it is a succession of instructing Spiritual Masters, not formal initiating Spiritual Masters. In a song about our Guru-parampara written by Srila Bhakti Siddhanta Saraswati, it is mentioned:
mahaprabhu sri chaitanya radha-krsna nahe anya
rupanuga janera jivana
The highest truth of Krishna consciousness comes down through the channel of Siksa-gurus, instructing Spiritual Masters. Those who have the standard of realisation in the proper line have been accepted in the list of our disciplic succession. It is not a Diksa-guru-parampara, a succession of formal initiating gurus.
Diksa, or initiation, is more or less a formal thing; the substantial thing is siksa, or spiritual instruction. And if our Siksa- and Diksa-gurus, or instructing and initiating Spiritual Masters, are congruent, then we are most fortunate. There are different gradations of Spiritual Masters. In the scriptures, the symptoms of the Guru and the symptoms of the disciple have been described; the Guru must be qualified in so many ways, and the disciple must also be qualified. Then when they come in connection, the desired result will be produced.
We are concerned with Krishna consciousness, wherever it is available. In the Bhagavad-gita and especially in the Srimad Bhagavatam, Krishna says, «I start the Krishna consciousness movement, but gradually by the enervating influence of the material world, it weakens. When I find that it has diminished considerably, I return and begin a fresh movement. Again, when I find that it is becoming degraded by the adverse influence of the environment, I send one of My representatives to clear the path and give some fresh energy, invest some fresh capital in My Krishna consciousness movement.»
What is Krishna consciousness? We must examine the standard of knowledge. The Guru should try to impart to his disciple the capacity of reading what Krishna consciousness really is. Krishna consciousness is not a trade; it is not anyone’s monopoly. The sincere souls must thank their lucky stars that they can appreciate what Krishna consciousness is, wherever it may be.
Devotee: How are we to understand that in the history of our disciplic succession, it appears that there are gaps where there was no initiating Guru present to formally accept disciples?
Srila Sridhar Maharaj: We are not concerned with a material connection. The mediator is not this flesh and body as we generally think. In studying the development of scientific thought, we may connect Newton to Einstein, leaving aside many unimportant scientists. We may trace the development of science from Galileo to Newton, and then to Einstein, neglecting the middle points. If their contributions are taken into account, then the whole thing is taken into account, and lesser scientists may be omitted. When a long distance is to be surveyed, the nearest posts may be neglected. Between one planet and another, the unit of measurement is the light year; distance is calculated in light years and not from mile to mile, or metre to metre. In the disciplic succession, only the great stalwarts in our line are considered important.
Devotee: There was one question still in my mind on Guru-parampara which was not clarified. Between Baladev Vidyabhusan and Jagannath Das Babaji is a gap of almost a hundred years. How is it that between the two of them no one is listed in our Guru-parampara?
Srila Sridhar Maharaj: We have to forget material considerations when we consider the spiritual line. Here in this plane, the spiritual current is always being disturbed and interrupted by material obstructions. Whenever truth is interrupted by a material flow and becomes mixed or tampered with, Krishna appears to again reinstate the truth in its former position of purity (yada yada hi dharmasya glanir bhavati Bharata). That attempt is always being made by the Lord and His devotees.
The flow of spiritual truth is a living thing, not a dead thing. The vigilant eye of the Lord is always over our heads, and whenever it is necessary to keep the current pure and flowing in full force, help descends from above. Krishna says to Arjuna, «What I say to you today, I spoke to Vivasvan many, many years ago. Now, by the influence of material conception, that very truth has become contaminated, and so again I say the same thing to you today.»
Here in the material world, the material consideration is always tampering with the spiritual current; the purity of the truth is always being disturbed. So, sometimes Krishna has to come Himself, and sometimes He sends His personal representative to again reestablish the truth in its former and pure state.
When the truth is sufficiently covered, disturbed, and mutilated by the influence of maya, the illusory energy, then an attempt is made by the devotees of the Lord, or by the Lord Himself, to rejuvenate it and return it to the previous standard of purity. We cannot expect truth to continue here in this world of misunderstanding without any tampering or interruption. It is not possible.
The intelligent will understand how to apply these principles practically. Suppose we are writing a history: we will note the main figures in the history, set aside those who are not so qualified, and begin the dynasty in order of their importance. Those who are negligible will not be mentioned. In a similar way, those who are really thirsty for spiritual truth like to see the line of pure spiritual heritage. They search out where it is to be found, connect the dynasty of stalwart teachers together, and say, «This is our line.»
The disciplic succession is not a bodily succession. Sometimes it is present, and sometimes it is lost and only appears again after two or three generations, just as with Prahlad Maharaj. He was a great devotee, but his son was a demon; then again his grandson was a devotee. Even in the physical line we see such interruptions. In the spiritual line we also see the channel of truth affected by the influence of maya, or misconception. So, the experts will seek out the important personages in the line.
Suppose a scientist researches some truth. After a few generations, another scientist comes and takes up that thread and continues his research. Then after a few more generations, another comes and takes up that thread and goes on. If we are to understand the real channel through which the particular research is progressing, we will have to study the important thinkers who helped bring it out.
We see that Copernicus has contributed something before Galileo began, then Newton came. Then there may be a gap for some time, and from Newton, we find that Einstein took it up. In this way, there may be a gap, but still that thread is continued. An intelligent man will see that it began with a particular person, and then it came to another, and then came here. That will be the proper line of research. So, in the spiritual line this also holds true.
Those who cannot understand this simple point are guided by physical considerations. They do not understand what is real spiritual truth. For them, the physical continuation is the Guru-parampara. But those who have their spiritual eyes awakened say, «No. What was there in the first Acharya is not found in the second or the third. But again we find the same standard of purity in the fourth Acharya.» The Gaudiya sampradaya of Mahaprabhu is one, and whoever contributes to that real line will be accepted.
Srila Baladev Vidyabhusan’s contribution to the sampradaya is no less important than that of the other great stalwarts in the line. He may be a member of another line, the Madhva sampradaya, in the physical sense, but his contribution, especially in attracting people to Gaudiya–Vaisnavism with his commentary on the Vedanta-sutra, cannot be neglected by the students of posterity. So, his contribution has been utilised by our Acharyas, considering the degree, the essence, and the purity of his thought in our spiritual line.
Sastra-guru, Siksa-guru, Diksa-guru, and Nam-guru are all taken together; in this way a real channel has been given to save us, to keep up the flow of the highest truth from that world to this world. This policy has been adopted by the Acharyas. Wherever we have found any contribution that is, by the will of Krishna, the highest contribution to the line, we have accepted it. So, we accept Sastra-guru, Siksa-guru, Diksa-guru, Mantra-guru, Nam-guru — we accept them all as our Guru.
We give respect to Ramanuja, who is the head of another school of Vaisnavas, but we do not give respect to a sahajiya, an imitationist who is in the line of Mahaprabhu only in the physical sense, but who is mutilating and tampering with the real teachings of Mahaprabhu. The imitationists are not considered. Although in a physical sense they are in the line of Mahaprabhu and Rupa and Sanatan, when we go to judge the very spirit of the line, we see that they are nowhere. Their connection with Mahaprabhu is only a physical imitation.
On the other hand, we find that Ramanuja has made a substantial contribution to Vaisnavism, Madhva Acharya has given a sufficient contribution to Vaisnavism, and Nimbarka has also made his contribution, so we accept them, according to our necessity. But we reject the physical so-called current-keepers because what is found there is all mutilated and tampered with.
There is a proverb. «Which is more useful: the nose or the breath?» The intelligent will say that the breath is more essential than the nose. To sustain the life the nose may be cut off, but if the breath continues, one may live. We consider the breath to have more importance than the nose. The physical form will misguide people to go away from the truth and follow a different direction.
We don’t consider the body connection important in the Acharyaship. It is a spiritual current, and not a body current. The disciple of a true devotee may even be a nondevotee. We admit that, because we see it, and the Lord Himself says in Bhagavad-gita (4.2):
sa kaleneha mahata yogo nastah parantapa
«The current is damaged by the influence of this material world.» In the line, some are affected, go astray, and may even become nondevotees. So, the continuation through the physical succession is not a safe criterion to be accepted. We must trace only the current of spiritual knowledge.
Wherever we can get that, we must accept it, even if it comes from the Ramanuja, Madhva, or Nimbarka sampradaya. As much as we get from them substantially, we accept, and we reject the so-called followers of our own tradition if they are mere imitationists. The son of a political leader may not be a political leader. A political leader may also have a political succession, and his own son, although brought up in a favourable environment, may be rejected. A doctor’s son may not be a doctor. In the disciplic order also, we admit the possibility that they may not all come up to the same standard. Those who do not should be rejected.
And if the truth is found in a substantial way somewhere else, that should be accepted. Wherever there is devotion and the correct consideration about Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, our Guru is there. Who is our Guru? He is not to be found in the physical form; our Guru is to be traced wherever we find the embodiment of the pure thought and understanding which Sri Krishna Chaitanya Mahaprabhu imparted to save us.
Baladev Vidyabhusan was very akin to the Madhva sampradaya. But when he came in connection with Visvanath Chakravarti Thakur, he showed great interest in Gaudiya–Vaisnavism. He has also commented on the Srimad Bhagavatam and Jiva Goswami’s Sat-sandarbha. And that enlightened thought is a valuable contribution to our sampradaya. We cannot dismiss him. He is our Guru.
At the same time, if my own relatives do not give recognition to my Guru or to the service of Mahaprabhu, I must eliminate them. Srila Bhakti Siddhanta Prabhupad has explained the Siksa-guru-parampara in this way. Wherever we find the extraordinary line of the flow of love of God, and support for the same, we must bow down. That line may appear in a zigzag way, but still, that is the line of my Gurudev. In this way it is accepted. We want the substance, not the form.
We have left all social concerns and so many other shackles. For what? For the Absolute Truth. And wherever I shall find that, I must bow down my head. And if a great soul shows us, «This is the path to where you will find your thirst quenched. The line is in this zigzag way», we must accept that for our own interest. We are worshippers not of form, but of substance. If the current of spiritual substance comes another way, but I think that I must try to go this way to reach my goal, it is only jealousy, blind tenacity to stick to the physical thing. We must free ourselves from this material contamination and try to understand the value of spiritual truth. We should always be prepared for that. We must follow what is necessary, for our own interest.
I am not a servant of A, B, C, or D. I am a servant of Mahaprabhu. I may have to turn this way or that way, or whatever way will be favourable to reach my Lord. Wherever I feel the presence of my Lord in an intense form, I must be attracted to that side. We are out for that thing, and not for any fashion or formality; that will hamper our cause.
Krishna says, «Sarva-dharman parityajya Mam ekam saranam vraja.» Wherever we shall find Him, we must run in that direction. The direction may not be always straight, it may go in a zigzag way, but if Krishna comes from that side, I must run there. Again if He appears on this side, I must run to this side. My interest is with Him. Not that we can challenge, «Why did Krishna appear here, and why is He appearing there? That may be a doubtful thing, so I must stay on this side.» No. If I have genuine appreciation for the real thing, the proper thing, I must go to that side, the side of Krishna.
If I am blind, that is another case. Then, I must have to suffer for my inability. But, if anyone has the ability to understand things properly, he will run wherever he finds help. If a man in a boat is passing through the current and finds himself in danger, then from whatever side help may come, he must turn to that side.
If we are worshippers of Siva, when we understand the special superiority of Narayan, should we stick to Siva? And if we are worshippers of Narayan and are shown the superiority of Krishna, should we stick to our Narayan worship? And then should we not try to go from Krishna’s Bhagavad-gita to Srimad Bhagavatam? One may think, «I have read the Bhagavad-gita, I like the Krishna who is the speaker of the Gita.» Then when the Srimad Bhagavatam is given to us, should we stick to that Gita Krishna, or should we try to go to the Krishna given in Srimad Bhagavatam? If we have our interest in Krishna, we must run to His side, wherever He appears.
In the Brhad-bhagavatamrta the story is told of how Gopa Kumar, by chanting his Gopal mantra, gradually leaves one stage and progresses to the next. There, the gradation of devotion is traced from the karma-kanda brahman, to a devotee-king, then to Indra, then to Brahma, then to Siva, from him to Prahlad, then to Hanuman, then the Pandavas, then to the Yadavas, to Uddhava, and finally to the gopis.
In this zigzag way he is passing. In the sincerity of his quest, his thirst is not being quenched. He is going from this side, to that side, and going up. So, all of them have their Guru-parampara. There is Prahlad’s Guru-parampara, Hanuman’s Guru-parampara, the Pandava’s Guru-parampara, Mahadev’s Guru-parampara. They have their own Guru-parampara. Brahma and Mahadev are Gurus themselves; they are the creators of their own lines of Guru-parampara, but Gopa Kumar passes them also. Why? His thirst is not quenched until he goes to Vrndavan. So, the Brhad-bhagavatamrta has shown us the line of Guru-parampara, or the real line of our quest, of our search.
If we are sincerely searching after real truth, then wherever we go may be a contribution to our experience for further preaching in the future. If we go somewhere, hoping with all sincerity that our thirst may be quenched there, but find that it is not quenched, and feel some uneasiness, then, by the grace of the Lord, a connection with higher truth will come, and we will go somewhere else, thinking that there our thirst will be quenched. Gradually we will again find dissatisfaction, the need for something higher, and again we will progress further. In this way, we may cross many Guru-paramparas before ultimately attaining the Vraja-lila of Krishna, as given by Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.
We are not interested in fashion or form; if we want the real truth, then wherever it will be found, we must accept it. Mahaprabhu says:
kiba vipra, kiba nyasi, sudra kene naya
yei krsna-tattva-vetta, sei ‘guru’ haya
«Anyone, regardless of caste or social position, may become Guru if he knows the science of Krishna.» Sometimes the father may not be our guardian. Our uncle may be our guide, and not the father. It is possible. The line of interest is to be considered the most important. So, our line is the Siksa-guru-parampara.
I am thankful to those that are helping my spiritual understanding not only in a formal way, but in the real sense. Whoever is untying the knots of our entanglement in this material world, giving us light, and quenching our thirst for inner understanding and satisfaction is our Guru. In this way, we live on the contribution of all these Spiritual Masters. They are all our Siksa-gurus. All the Vaisnavas are more or less our instructing Spiritual Masters. Our spiritual life may live on their contribution. But we do not accept the imitationists. They are our enemies, asat-sanga, bad association. They will take us away from the real path of understanding and progress.
We must ask our sincere hearts, «From whom do I really get the benefit of spiritual life?» Our sincere consciousness will be the best judge, not form. If in an earthen pot there is Ganges water, and in a golden pot there is ordinary water, which should we select? In a case like that, brahmans, the intelligent class of men, take the holy Ganges water in the earthen pot. So, the substance contained, and not the container, should be given the real importance.
I am not this physical body. My own physical identification should be challenged if I am too much addicted to the physical guru-parampara. «Who am I? Am I this physical body?» If I am spiritual, then in the spiritual sphere I shall have to look with spiritual eyes and pursue whoever will come before me who is really following the path of Mahaprabhu.
When the Pandavas retired to the Himalayas, Yudhisthir Maharaj was going ahead. Nobody believed they would fall. Arjuna couldn’t believe that his brothers had fallen. But even after Arjuna had fallen, a dog was going on, following Maharaj Yudhisthir. We may see many men fall down in the path of our journey towards the spiritual goal, but still we should try to reach the goal. And with the help of whoever comes along, I shall go.
Some may be eliminated; even a madhyam-adhikari guru may sometimes be eliminated when he falls down. It is not a happy thing, but it may even occur that my guru was going ahead, taking me forward, and fell down. Then with fresh energy, invoking the help of the Lord, I shall have to go on. Even such a disaster may come in our journey. But still, we must not be cowed down. Sometimes alone and sometimes with company we must go on.
First there must be sukrti, accumulated merit, and then sraddha, faith, will guide us. The quality of faith must be examined. Sraddha, faith, is a general term, but sraddha may be defined into different classes. A high form of faith will be our fare on the way back to Godhead. Sometimes we may find co-workers, and sometimes we may have to go alone. What of that? We cannot but go to the goal because we shall have the grace of so many unseen Gurus.
There are others also who are working, and their ideal will inspire me, although physically I am not seeing any companion or any follower with me. The inspiration of the unseen Gurus will be our fare. They will inspire us to go on with the journey. And our own sincere hankering for the truth will be our real guide. That is Guru-parampara.
Who is Guru? Is Guru a body? Or is the Guru a vairagi, a renunciant? Or is the guru only a formal guise, a hypocrite who is showing the appearance of a sadhu, but within is doing something else? Who is a Guru? Only one who will exclusively guide me to Krishna and Mahaprabhu, with devotion. He is my Guru, whatever he may be.
Mahaprabhu told Ramananda Ray, «Ramananda, why do you shrink away? Do you think that I am a sannyasi and you are a grhastha? You are always hesitating to reply to My questions. Do you think it does not look well for you to advise a sannyasi brahman? Don’t hesitate. You know Krishna best. Give Krishna to Me. Have courage.» In this way, Mahaprabhu was encouraging Ramananda. «By the grace of Krishna, you have that capital. Give it to Me. You are a real capitalist. I have come to preach to the world that you are the wealthiest capitalist of the spiritual world. And that must be used for the good of the public. Don’t hesitate. Don’t shrink away. Come out.»
Ramananda said, «Yes, it is Your capital. You have deposited it with me, and today You have come to withdraw it from me. It is Your property. I understand. And You press and push me to take it out. All right. I am a mere instrument, used by You. Whatever You want me to say, I am ready to say.» In this way, Ramananda was going on. But is Ramananda a member of a sampradaya? We are so much indebted to Ramananda Ray, but he is not in the Guru-parampara. Still, he is more than many of the Gurus who are in the Guru-parampara.
Srimati Radharani is not in the Guru-parampara. Should we dismiss Her? First there should be Guru, and then there is the question of parampara. The question of first importance is, «Who is Guru?» And then there can be a chain of them coming down.
Sometimes the formal must be left aside. Once, Alexander the Great was with his father, and they came upon a chariot with a thick knot tied in its rope. There was an inscription above the knot, and there it was written, «Whoever can untie this knot will be a great king in the future.» The young Alexander asked his father, «What is it, Papa?» His father replied, «This knot has been firmly tied here, and there it is written that whoever can loosen it will be a great king in the future.» Alexander said, «I shall do it.» He took out his sword and cut the rope. Is it clear? The formality was not kept. A man stood by the side. He came out and said, «Yes, he will be a great king. It cannot be otherwise.» The formality was left aside, the realistic view taken, and immediately Alexander cut the Gordian knot. It is a famous story. Sticking to formality, he would have been lost. This happened also in the case of Columbus. Someone challenged, «Can you make an egg stand on a nail?» Columbus pushed it in, a portion broke, and he stood it on the nail and said, «Yes, I have done so.» This is practical knowledge.
So, the real disciplic line provides practical knowledge in support of the divine love which is coming down. We must bow down our heads wherever we find support of that. We should not become formalists, but substantialists; not fashionists, not imitationists, but realistic thinkers. That should always be our temperament.