We have become rather accustomed to seeing much quibbling about who genuinely represents Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. There are many points of contention, but the great symbolic distinction is found in the differing concepts of disciplic succession.
It is my personal feeling that human experience is multi-faceted. Different historical situations give rise to different interpretations; different contexts to different responses. Is it not then possible that there is more than one way of looking at Chaitanya Vaishnavism? Furthermore, will not a more complete and nuanced view of Gaudiya Vaishnava history and doctrine not make those who hold Chaitanya Mahaprabhu dear more capable of adjusting to circumstances as they change?
Gaudiya Vaishnavism evolved over 350 years after the disappearance of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. As with every human phenomenon, it was born, grew and developed in response to the social situation in which it found itself. Without an understanding of context, our understanding is only partial. We make judgments based on our understanding or misunderstanding of context. This why Benedict Arnold can be a synonym of treachery to Americans while being a loyal hero to the British.
The victors write history, and so most people are left with only a one-sided understanding of it, in other words, myth. Victors promote their understanding of events, which places their successes in the light of inevitability and divine will. It is the duty of the historian to see through such an ideological understanding of how things happened.
Throughout most of the world, those in the line of Siddhanta Saraswati view their successes in preaching as the sign of their being the true inheritors of the mantle of Chaitanya and Sri Rupa Goswami. This is neither suprising nor, one might say, unjustified. However, the Gaudiya Math movement was born out of a polemic against the institutions of Gaudiya Vaishnavism as they existed at the beginning of the 20th century. The result is that most of those whose knowledge of Vaishnavism comes through the Gaudiya Math and its offshoots have a perception of its history that is colored by this polemic.
It is my feeling, however, that a broader understanding of Vaishnava history in its social context will lead to a more nuanced and appreciative view of the traditional Gaudiya Vaishnava world, a view that will benefit all.
Gaudiya Vaishnavism, as well as myriad other bhakti movements in India, took birth and first flourished in the Islamic period. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu appeared when Muslim rulers held the reins of power in East India and the Islamic religion was making great inroads throughout the region, primarily through effective proselytization by Sufi preachers. One who ignores this context will misunderstand much about Gaudiya Vaishnavism. Furthermore, one must also comprehend that Saraswati Thakur appeared, not necessarily when Vaishnavism had become degraded, but rather when the social and political context had fundamentally changed.
Though much could be and has been said about Hindu-Muslim relations, religious historian Joseph O’Connell gives the following assessment of the role Chaitanya Vaishnavism played in softening the edges of a situation that otherwise may well have been filled with tension, “One of the most fundamental sociological implications of the Chaitanya Vaishnava movement and ongoing community was its contribution to the socio-cultural integration of Hindu-Muslim Bengal.”
O’Connell argues that the religio-psychological aspects of Krishna devotion affected tbe basic social orientation of Chaitanya Vaishnavas and facilitated participation in the mixed and potentially conflicted relations of Hindus and Muslims in Bengal.
Of course, this is a much more complex matter that may be (and has been) discussed at length. My point is simply that the development of Gaudiya Vaishnavism prior to British colonial rule would be better seen in this context--not that it was just plodding along, but had achieved a great deal of success as a religious movement, spreading to all the corners of the Bengali-speaking world and even beyond it in Manipur and some other tribal areas, and developing sound institutions that worked in that environment.
With the arrival of the British, the social and cultural situation in Bengal changed radically. The modus vivendi of coexistence Hindus had developed over the centuries with Islam became irrelevant and a new one with Christianity (and nascent European secularism) had to be sought out. The situation was further complicated by the fact that Islam as a religion and culture had remained fairly static over the 223 years between the departure of Mahaprabhu and the British conquest, whereas the British were a dynamic race for whom Christianity was only one dimension of their identity. The real roots of British power lay in other areas of cultural superiority--namely, European rationalism.
This was not just rationalism in matters of religion, but extended to various other spheres. For instance, British military rationalism made it possible for a handful of regulars and British-trained sepoys to defeat Indian armies ten times their size. Here is the Abbé Dubois' assessment:
"The Moguls and Mahrattas, two rival powers who for a long while disputed the supremacy of India, placed on some occasions as many as 100,000 horses in the field. The Mahratta princes combined could have commanded as many as 300,000 horses. But they never knew how to utilize this unwieldy multitude to its full advantage, because they did not understand how to maneouvre it in a scientific manner. The lessons which the European invaders gave them time after time, for more than 300 years, seem hardly to have taught them to appreciate their mistakes. Even at the end of this long period, and when it was too late to mend matters, there was a vast inferiority in their tactics compared with those of their dreaded opponents. They never could be brought to understand the value of strict discipline, good tactical handling, orderly arrangements in marching and camping, and, in short, all the skilled dispositions by which it is possible to manoeuvre large bodies of troops without confusion. They thought their work was done when they had collected a miscellaneous horde of men, who marched to battle in a disorderly mass and fell upon the enemy without any method or concerted plan." (Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies, 674)
This European rationalism and efficiency extended to government administration, technology and a hundred other facets of life. Thus, whereas Hindus could look on Islam as "just another way" of religious life and even as culturally inferior, when it came to the British, the majority of the Hindu elite was forced to admit a much more widespread cultural inferiority. This can be seen to some extent even in the writing of Bhaktivinoda Thakur, but is especially obvious in Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya and other of his contemporaries. In this world of the 19th Bengali elites, the admiration of the British was closely accompanied by an attitude toward Chaitanya Vaishnavism that approached revulsion. One only needs to read the books of Ram Mohun Roy or Bankim Chandra, such as Ananda Math and Sri Krishna Charita, to get an idea of this development.
In part, this can be seen most simply in a language of discourse which contrasted British "masculinity" to Indian "femininity." This terminology was all-pervasive at the time wherever the British discussed their conquered peoples (and was indeed rather common to imperialist discourse everywhere). They customarily depreciated Hindus as being even more “effeminate” than the Muslims. Whatever we may think of such discourse today, it weighed heavily on the psyche of the Indian intellectuals of the time, who struggled with and railed against this typology. Bhaktivinoda Thakur's riposte was to use the analogy of the British as India’s “younger Aryan brothers” to whom the responsibilities of management could be handed while the more spiritually mature Indians tended to the cultivation of their spiritual life. Though this idea likely did not originate with Bhaktivinoda, variations on it do represent a significant undercurrent in Hindu nationalism.
Bankim Chandra attempted to rationalize the understanding of Krishna by following the historical method used by Renan and other European scholars to discover the “historical Jesus.” The “historical Krishna,” according to Bankim, was covered by two mythological layers. The outermost layer was the Krishna of the Bhagavata who played with the gopis. This, Bankim argued, was a later, entirely fictional accretion to the original historical personality of Krishna. He blamed the popularity of what he considered to be a purely mythological figure on Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, and argued that it was responsible for the effeminization of the Bengali people. Though Bankim avowed that the Vaishnavism taught by Chaitanya may have been of benefit to a few highly elevated souls, he claimed that its unfortunate misuse had misled the majority into a degraded life of debauchery.
Bankim's second mythological layer was the warrior hero of the Mahabharata and incarnation of Vishnu. The historical Krishna, the teacher of the Bhagavad-gita, though cut down by Bankim to purely human proportions, was defended as not only historically real, but as perhaps the greatest person in Indian history, truly worthy of the title "avatar."
Through this kind of argumentation, Bankim and others gradually transformed the debate to a justification of a revised version of Hinduism. Pure, pristine Hinduism could never have been like this! To them, it was a heroic and philosophically profound religion, not one permeated with and distorted by sexual imagery.
This idea was very influential and took many forms, the early culmination of which was the Ramakrishna Mission. Like the Brahmo Samaj before it, the Ramakrishna Mission was a movement with a Hindu core, but one that had adopted certain Western institutional forms and principles. Vivekananda clearly stood against the Hinduism of the day, as did many others like Dayananda, etc., who all believed that the essence of Hinduism was pure and holy, but had only become decadent.
Let us admit that this perception of decadence was in great part possible only because of the mirror that the British--both Orientalist and Christian--held up before these reformists.
We must look at both Bhaktivinoda Thakur and Siddhanta Saraswati in their time and place. No one likes to hear that Saraswati Thakur took a page out of Vivekananda's book, but this is in fact what he was doing. He saw the Vaishnava society of his time to be hopelessly decadent on many levels. Its householder acharya core was (according to him) engaged in religious life purely as a business and acted like any other self-interested elite. This was part and parcel of the contemporary critique of the caste system--which though age-old consituted a fundamental (and still does) Western critique of Hindu society. I recommend reading what I have called Saraswati Thakur's Manifesto--"Brahmana o Vaishnava"--for one of the earliest available expressions of his views on this issue.
Like the British secularists, Christians, Vivekananda and Bhaktivinoda before him, Saraswati criticized the renunciates for being disengaged from any social role and thus acting as a drain on the society and economy, begging to make a living but contributing little or nothing in return. Indeed, many of them were living practically as householders and yet still maintaining the trappings of renunciation and expecting the rewards that accompanied that status.
Finally, Saraswati Thakur saw the rise of Sahajiyaism as a particularly distasteful consequence of the overemphasis of Gaudiya Vaishnavism on Radha and Krishna's dalliances. Though Chaitanya Vaishnavism had an impressive theological core, the end result was elaborately explained as being Radha and Krishna's love affairs. The long-lived and resilient Sahajiya tradition, which was born in Buddhist times, had adapted very effectively to this doctrine. Thus, in the minds of many British and Christians, Vaishnavism was associated with sexual immorality. They took no account of the yogic aspects of the Sahajiya tradition (or dismissed it as distasteful), but only its self-evident immorality.
Furthermore, this was Victorian England, whose mastery of the world was attributed to its discipline and that, in turn, to its sexual self-control. These things were not lost on the Hindu reformers, nor on Saraswati Thakur.
All of Saraswati Thakur's reforms can be seen in the light of these three fundamental criticisms of traditional Vaishnava society. His preaching was often harsh, but it struck a chord with many who felt that his voice was one that led to a rationalization and modernization of Chaitanya Vaishnavism. Saraswati even broke entirely with the disciplic succession system of the caste Goswamis, calling it a "Pancharatrika" system.
By emphasizing what he called the "Bhagavati" aspects of Vaishnavism, he effectively undercut the traditional spiritual leadership of its diksha monopoly. By criticizing the siddha-pranali system, he undercut the Sahajiyas and brought the emphasis of Krishna consciousness to the intellectual and away from the affective and away from the easily misunderstood aspects of Radha Krishna lila. By taking a novel form of sannyas, he established a new Vaishnava social order and institutional system, thus sidestepping the disreputable Vaishnava renunciates of the day.
There were many reasons that Saraswati Thakur felt incapable of reforming Gaudiya Vaishnavism from within the system, so he broke away. But break away he did, let us make no mistake. I repeat this again for all those in the Gaudiya Math and Iskcon who still try to establish some kind of diksha relationship between the various members of their Parampara system. Saraswati Thakur created a new, Bhagavati parampara, whose basis is not Pancharatrika initiation.
I personally cannot criticize any of these reforming moves on the part of Saraswati Thakur. They were appropriate according to time and place and I honor them. Indeed, we must accept the historical effectiveness of his rationalizations of Gaudiya Vaishnavism and acknowledge that without them, it would have been unlikely that the chanting of the Holy Name could have spread around the world so rapidly.
But we are left with a number of what I think are important questions:
Did the Vaishnava system that existed prior to Siddhanta Saraswati have NO redeeming features? This is very important, as the firm belief of the Gaudiya Math and Iskcon today seems to be that ex ecclesia nullum salus--anyone outside this tradition has no chance of salvation. Admittedly, those outside the Gaudiya Math tend to think the same way about those inside. This is where the parampara question takes on particular significance.
In fact, there are other, objective criteria by which one can measure a person's spiritual acumen, and the reliance on external signs like initiation for legitimacy is only superficially helpful. In this case, however, initiation means more than the possibility of perfection, it means the adoption of external rites and rituals, external modes of dress and other kinds of cultural distinction. The traditional Gaudiya Vaishnavas have a 500-year-old culture that has to a great extent been jettisoned by the Gaudiya Math. For example, the songs and aratis of Bhaktivinoda Thakur are sung to the almost total exclusion of the great Mahajans of Vaishnava padavali like Govinda Das, Jnana Das, and Lochan Das, etc. Are we to say that one is better than the other? Can even the Gaudiya Math suggest that Bhaktivinoda supplants or supersedes these predecessors common to the Gaudiya Vaishnava heritage?
In effect, with one or two exceptions, what the Gaudiya Math has done is to nullify the historical development of Gaudiya Vaishnavism as being entirely without value and basically, all wrong. I believe that this is an excessively black and white way of looking at things, as well as being fundamentally wrong. It even goes beyond wrong and affects the basic principle of Vaishnava good manners. Historically, the Gaudiya Vaishnava system in place in the context of the late 19th century Raj may have been wrong for the time and place and necessitated reforms, but does that mean it was wrong for the mid-18th century, for example? Or, that it may not have some validity even today, in the beginning of the 21st century?
Whatever Vaishnavism exists in the Gaudiya Math has, ultimately, come through the grace of those who preserved it over the 350 years that preceded Bhaktivinoda Thakur, not the least of whom was Bipin Bihari Goswami, his guru. Is it surprising, then, that some feel that the callous disregard of the rich contributions that all these Vaishnavas made to the preservation and development of Gaudiya Vaishnava culture is "guror avajna"? Minaketan Ramdas rejected Krishna Das's brother for honoring Chaitanya while dishonoring Nityananda Prabhu. He called it "ardha kukkuti nyaya." Similarly, to accept Gaudiya Vaishnavism but to reject the contributions made over the centuries by the so-called Sahajiyas, Babajis and Jati Goswamis is looking at only half of the hen—and perhaps not even the good half at that.
The Gaudiya Math recognizes Vishwanath Chakravarti Thakur, Baladeva Vidyabhushan, Jagannath Das Babaji, Narahari Das, and other traditional Vaishnavas. Apparently they think that these members of their "disciplic succession" arose in a vacuum, that they were not surrounded by and a product of the exact kinds of people that it condemns as apasampradayas.
Babajis, Jati Goswamis, Sahajiyas have all become confounded into one amorphous mass. In fact, there is no monolithic Vaishnava world outside the Gaudiya Math. There are manifold subsects following numerous individual gurus each of whose adhikara differs. Why should one be miserly about honoring anyone who worships Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and Radha Krishna, who chants the Holy Names, studies the Bhagavatam, or lives in the Holy Dham?
I call on all Vaishnavas to be hearty in their approbation at the achievements of those they have become in the habit of criticizing. There is no one representative of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, but many representatives, each of whom is developing his or her vision of Mahaprabhu according to the time and circumstances. Let us not blind ourselves to history, or pervert history in order to achieve our own ideological goals, but look at the history of our tradition objectively and work to perfect ourselves and our movement on that basis.