Charismatic Renewal in Gaudiya Vaishnavism (Part II)


II. Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati

Our second “great man,” Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati, was a charismatic figure who acted as a reformer of the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition and, according to some, broke with it. Though the extent of his influence on Bengali society as a whole was nowhere near that of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, he must nevertheless be included among the many Bengali reformers in the 19th and early 20th centuries who contributed to the revitalization of Hindu pride in its own traditions. His role in inspiring others to carry the Chaitanya Vaishnava message beyond Bengali society alone makes him worthy of examination.

Unlike Chaitanya, Saraswati was not an ecstatic, but an ascetic and intellectual, who was driven by a vision of the potential glory of Chaitanya Vaishnavism and by the desire to overcome the restraints placed on it by contemporary conditions. He saw himself as continuing his father Bhaktivinoda Thakur’s attempts to rationalize Gaudiya Vaishnavism and bring it into the modern age. Ironically, in view of his later preaching, part of Saraswati’s charisma came from being the son of this leading Vaishnava. Born in 1874 in Jagannath Puri, Saraswati (the hagiographers say, as the answer to the Thakur’s prayer for a “ray of Vishnu”) was both materially and spiritually advantaged as Bhaktivinoda Thakur’s son. He participated with his father in the publication of books and periodicals; on several occasions, he took extended trips with his father to important sites connected with Gaudiya Vaishnava history and accompanied him to Puri in 1901 after his retirement, where the two intended to live a life of devotional dedication together.

Nevertheless, whereas Bhaktivinoda Thakur, though possessing strong opinions about the needs for reform in Gaudiya Vaishnava society, stayed within the traditional structures of the sampradaya and dealt with it in a conciliatory manner, Saraswati took a more directly confrontational approach. As a reformer, he broke with the traditional authority structures in the Gaudiya Vaishnava world. This, coupled with the desire to make use of modern institutions to preach Gaudiya Vaishnavism, resulted in the creation of the Gaudiya Math in 1920.

Much has been made of the perceived illegitimacy of Saraswati’s initiation. Nitai Das, for example, catalogues the various differences between the Gaudiya Math and contemporaneous Gaudiya Vaishnava disciplic lines, some of which are major, others minor.(note 18) We will attempt to look into some of the most fundamental of his innovations here.

Saraswati’s social philosophy

In his brief mention of the Gaudiya Math (or Gaudiya Mission), Ramakanta Chakravarti states that it
...ostensibly had no social aim. It did not pretend that it was an organization with a social mission. But it set up schools, libraries, research centers, and free hospitals. These, however, had only secondary importance. Its primary object was to preach mysticism.(1985:398)
Though Saraswati’s ultimate purpose may indeed have been mystical, it is a serious error to underestimate the social concerns that underlay the creation of the Gaudiya Math. Saraswati’s interest in the sociology of Gaudiya Vaishnavism were no doubt inspired by his father’s articles on the subject in Sajjana-toshani,(note 19) which presented a wide-ranging critique of the social structures in Bengal, and in particular within the Vaishnava world. In 1900, Saraswati published a book, Bange samajikata (“Social relationships in Bengal”), that indicate a preoccupation with the subject.(note 20) In a letter written in 1910, Bhaktivinoda Thakur told him to “establish the daivi varnashram dharma—something you have already started doing” (note 21) What exactly Bhaktivinoda Thakur was refering to is not clear, but evidently it was an acknowledgment that Siddhanta Saraswati was already active in some kind of social reform program based on Vaishnava principles. Saraswati’s researches into the Sri Sampradaya also seem to have informed his thinking about reforming social structures, if not in Bengal as a whole, at least in Bengal Vaishnavism.(note 22)

A defining moment of Saraswati’s career came on Sept. 8, 1911 when he participated in an assembly in Balighai, Midnapore, where Vaishnavas from all over Bengal were summoned to debate aspects of the recurring Brahmin and Vaishnava controversy. The probable points of discussion were whether those belonging to non-Brahmin castes were authorized to worship Shalagram Shila after receiving Vaishnava initiation, or to act as acharyas by giving initiation in the mantras.(note 24) Saraswati’s arguments presented on that occasion were later published as a booklet Brahmana o Vaishnava taratamya vishayaka siddhanta (“Ascertaining the relative positions of Brahmins and Vaishnavas”). This is one of the earliest available expressions of Saraswati’s ideas that led to the eventual creation of his separate branch of Gaudiya Vaishnavism and is therefore an important document to which we will refer to often in this essay.(note 25)

From the point of view of European culture, the arguments presented by Bhaktivinoda and Saraswati appear self evident. Indeed, the general democratic thinking that had arisen in the European enlightenment was not without influence on the English-educated new artistocracy of Bengali, from which the Brahmo Samaj, the first wave of Hindu modernization, had sprung and to which Bhaktivinoda himself belonged. The educated classes saw India through the eyes of their British rulers and deeply felt the need to make changes. In the later 19th century, with the rise of the Ramakrishna Mission, reform and revival joined hands and there was a general recrudescence of pride in Hindu culture. Bhaktivinoda and Bhaktisiddhanta were a part of this movement. Their feeling was the Vaishnava culture was in no way inferior to any other religious system; indeed, that it was superior. Nevertheless, they admitted the need for certain societal reforms. Bhaktivinoda’s principal criticisms concerned the deteriorating morality in the Vaishnava world. He saw no harm in maintaining the institutions that had served Gaudiya Vaishnavism for three centuries, as long as everyone did what they were supposed to. Vaishnava gurus should lead exemplary lives of religious leadership while renunciates were to either maintain their vows of chastity and poverty or take up a respectable householder life.

Bhaktivinoda wrote that a man’s caste should never be determined by birth alone, but according to his actual qualities or nature. Thus a son’s caste might be quite different from that of his parents. It should not be considered at all before one attained the age of 15 and once fixed should be preserved and protected from the assaults of so-called samaja-patis, zamindars, or government.(note 26)

Bhaktivinoda also proposed a solution for the so-called Jati Vaishnavas, considered untouchable by the higher castes. He asked them to give up begging for a living and practices deviating from the Vaishnava orthodoxy and take up making an honest living from cottage industries.

In Brahmana o Vaishnava, Saraswati furthers the cause by presenting arguments for the existence of caste mobility in ancient times, citing the Mahabharata, Puranas and even the Smritis and Dharma Shastras. He also points out how Bengali social customs had deviated in other ways from the pristine Vedic model.(note 27) When Saraswati began taking disciples, as an aspect of his effort to establish daivi varnashram, he would give the sacred thread and Gayatri mantra to his disciples, no matter what their caste, thus appointing them as Brahmins, or what he hoped would be an exemplary class of spiritual leaders. This was a controversial move, though by no means the most controversial one that he took.

In 1918, Saraswati took another major step in his plan for daivi varnashram by initiating himself in a new order of sannyas that had a form quite distinct from the existing Vaishnava tradition of bhekh. He took the reviled saffron cloth, seen by Vaishnavas as representative of the “Mayavada” sects of Hinduism, and the triple staff (tridanda), reviving a tradition that though mentioned in the Puranas never had much currency in any of the Vaishnava lines.(note 28) Saraswati’s objective here was twofold: to criticize the existing system of renunciation, which he felt brought the institution established by Rupa Goswami into disrepute, and to create a committed preaching brotherhood of impeccable character. The Gaudiya Math sannyasi, though fully committed to his spiritual practice, was to be a part of society, not divorced from it. The essence of this attitude of renunciation was to be yukta-vairagya, mentioned by Rupa Goswami in Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu and which seems to give licence for a “this-worldly asceticism.”(note 29)

Saraswati’s initiation (bhagavati diksha)

Just as Saraswati rejected Brahminical status by birthright, he similarly rejected the idea of automatic accession to guru status by the same means. This is one of the lynchpins of the Gaudiya Math and requires some detailed analysis, especially since legitimacy in Gaudiya Vaishnavism (even in some cases, to the deviant lines) customarily required initation in a recognized line leading back to one of Chaitanya’s associates. Saraswati claimed to be initiated by Gaura Kishor Das Babaji, but contrary to custom, placed no importance on the line of disciplic succession in which his guru himself had taken initiation and never communicated this line it to his own disciples.(note 30) Rather, he innovated something called the bhagavata-parampara (see attached diagram). Furthermore, Saraswati clearly marked his separation from the rest of Gaudiya Vaishnavism by giving initiation to Vaishnavas who had already received the mantra from a family guru (kula-guru).(note 31)

Though some point to the fact that Saraswati “did not have high regard for Bipin Bihari Goswami” (his father’s spiritual master),(note 32) it seems that his quarrel was not with an individual, by with the entire existing system. Saraswati claimed that the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition had been infected by a kind of ritualistic approach to religion, styled as vidhi-marga, in opposition to the spontaneous devotional spirit of the bhagavata school of Vaishnavism that had existed at the origins of Chaitanya’s movement.

Siddhanta Saraswati took initiation from Gaura Kishor Das Babaji in January, 1901. Legend has it that he had to ask his master three times before being accepted, as the humble hermit of lower caste background at first doubted the sincerity of the well-to-do scholar. There are differing ideas about the type of initiation Saraswati received: according to some biographers he was given mantra, others it was a bhagavati diksha.(note 33) Not surprisingly, bhagavati diksha is a concept unfamiliar to most people, even those within the Gaudiya Math, as the only kind of initiation current in Vaishnava circles has always been of the Pancharatrika type. The result is that many have wasted much time and effort unnecessarily trying to establish that Siddhanta Saraswati received Pancharatrika-type mantra initiation from Gaura Kishor Das.

We get an idea of what Siddhanta Saraswati meant by bhagavati diksha from his Brahmana o Vaishnava essays where he cites the example of Hari Das Thakur, a Muslim convert, who likely never received Pancharatrika initation, who says:
I have been initiated into a vow to perform a great sacrifice by chanting the holy name a certain number of times every day. As long as the vow to chant is unfulfilled, I do not desire anything else. When I finish my chanting, my vow comes to an end (dikshara vishrama)…I have vowed to chant ten million names in a month. I have taken this vow (diksha), but it is now nearing its end. (note 34)
Saraswati continues, “Unless one becomes qualified as a sacrificial Brahmin in the sacrifice of chanting the holy names, the name of Krishna does not manifest. Although Hari Das was not a seminal or Vedic Brahmin, he had attained the position of a qualified initiated (daiksha) Brahmin.”(note 35) In other words, the simple commitment to regularly chant the holy names a certain number of times constitutes bhagavati diksha.

Saraswati then goes on to distinguish between the Bhagavata and Pancharatra schools of Vaishnavism. According to his analysis, though there were originally many categories of Vaishnava, all but two of which had been lost. These were the Bhagavatas, whom he associates broadly with bhava-marga, or the path of emotion (raganuga bhakti), and the Pancharatras, who are associated with the ritualistic path of deity worship (vidhi-marga). The former followed the ecstatic path of chanting the Holy Name, the religious procedure meant for the Age of Kali, while the latter followed a path that had been prescribed in a previous age.(note 36)

Saraswati divides the four principal Vaishnava acharyas according to these two categories, assimilating Madhvacharya and Nimbaditya to Bhagavata-marga and Ramanujacharya and Vishnuswami to the latter. Nevertheless, to a greater or lesser extent, he admits there had been an intermingling of the two broad groups of Vaishnavas, with the elements of the Bhagavata culture based on hearing and chanting being accepted by the Pancharatrikas and the Bhagavatas accepting the need for deity worship on the lower stages of practice (kanishtha-adhikara).

According to Saraswati, though Madhva strictly speaking followed the bhagavata-marga and Madhavendra Puri had accepted initiation in his line, neither Madhavendra nor Chaitanya accepted his doctrines, which had in time been infiltrated by Pancharatrika ideas. In fact, Saraswati even equates Madhva’s “Tattva-vada” with Pancharatra. Saraswati cites Baladeva Vidyabhushan who, though considered by many to be wholly responsible for the Gaudiyas claims of connection to the Madhvas, pointed out four teachings in the Madhva line to be particularly unacceptable to Gaudiya Vaishnavas.(note 37) Thus, Saraswati says, “This Tattva-vada, or Pancharatrika system, is not acceptable in the opinion of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Rather, He taught the path of bhagavata-marga.” (ibid.)

Saraswati further goes on to associate everything that is connected to the vidhi-marga with Pancharatra, and all that is with the raga-marga to the Bhagavata path. This is particularly significant, especially in view of the claims of traditional Gaudiyas to be faithfully following the raganuga process and to whom initiation and the practice of raganuga are integrally linked. He writes,
The regulated worshipers on the Pancharatrika path serve their worshipable Lord Narayan here under the shelter of two and half rasas—shanta, dasya, and sakhya with awe and reverence. Above Vaikuntha is Goloka Vrindavan, where Sri Krishna Chandra, the perfect object for all five rasas, is eternally worshiped by His devotees who are the repositories of love… The worshipable Lord of the Pancharatrika Vaishnavas resides in Vaikuntha, and the worshipable Lord of the Bhagavata Vaishnavas resides in Goloka. (121-2)
Saraswati then directly criticizes the situation in the contemporary Gaudiya Vaishnava world:
The Pancharatrika Vaishnava principles of medieval South India have to some extent entered the current practices of the Gaudiya Vaishnavas. Descendants of the Gaudiya Vaishnava acharyas became more or less attached to the path of archan, like the followers of the Pancharatras, and spread subordination to Sriman Mahaprabhu, sometimes in its pure form but more often in a perverted form. Like the householder acharyas of the Ramanuja sampradaya who are addressed as Swamis, Gaudiya householder acharyas have similarly accepted the title of Goswami. While preaching the pure path of bhava explained in the Srimad Bhagavatam, Sriman Mahaprabhu distinguished it from mundane formalities, but in due course of time His teachings have become distorted into a branch of the Pancharatrika system. This, however, is not the purpose of Sriman Mahaprabhu’s pure preaching. (98-99)
This criticism he extended to the hereditary gurus of the Gaudiya Vaishnava Sampradaya for further distortions:
…some immature Pancharatrika mantra traders are presenting imaginary material names and forms as the goal of life and the path of perfection (siddha pranali); in this way they gratify the minds of their disciples as well as disclose their own foolishness and ignorance of the Vaishnava literatures.(119)
Followers of the Gaudiya Math hold that the siddha pranali tradition is not to be found in the earliest texts of the school. They have a very different idea of the practice of raganuga bhakti. The spiritual identity is something which comes out of one’s inner being as a result of purification through spiritual practice and not through formal instruction. This implication is present in the following statement by Sridhar Maharaj:
To get the mantra from a sat guru, a genuine guru, means to get the internal good will or real conception about the Lord. The seed of a banyan tree may be a small seed, but the great big banyan tree will come out of that seed. The will with which the particular sound is given by the guru to the disciple is all-important. We may not trace that at present, but in time, if a favorable environment is there, it will express itself and develop into something great.(note 38)
To summarize, it would appear that Saraswati went beyond simply criticism of the deterioration of morality in the sampradaya, but attacked its very foundations as established at the Kheturi festival.

Siddhanta Saraswati and the “hard institution”

According to one legend, Gaura Kishor gave Siddhanta Saraswati the traditional instruction for renunciates to keep away from Calcutta, which he called Calcutta kalira brahmanda, “Maya’s universe,” and avoid taking disciples. According to Saraswati’s biographers, he had a vision in 1915 in which Gaura Kishor and many other great saints of the disciplic succession enjoined him to preach widely. This vision confirmed Saraswati’s intuition and gave him the determination to take tridandi-sannyasa system and establish the Gaudiya Math.

In view of the attempts made by Siddhanta Saraswati to establish the Gaudiya Math and its evident successes, it is rather surprising to find in his writings a very pessimistic attitude to institutional religion as such. Perhaps this derived from inevitable jostling for power amongst his disciples while he was still alive, or perhaps from a deepseated philosophical conviction. In 1932, he wrote,
The idea of an organized church in an intelligible form, indeed, marks the close of the living spiritual movement. The great ecclesiastical establishments are the dikes and the dams to retain the current that cannot be held by any such contrivances. They, indeed, indicate a desire on the part of the masses to exploit a spiritual movement for their own purpose. They also unmistakably indicate the end of the absolute and unconventional guidance of the bona-fide spiritual teacher.(note 39)
In view of the above vision of organized religion—that of an outsider and prophet—it is perhaps not surprising that there was a disruption in the organization of the movement after Saraswati’s death. It is not altogether clear how he intended the charismatic center of the movement to be preserved, or how the principle of bhagavata-parampara was meant to be continued. The bhagavata-parampara idea had never stopped Saraswati from initiating disciples according to a Pancharatrika model. On the other hand, his ideas about unconventional leadership may have prevented him from designating a successor, in the expectation that a true spiritual leader would emerge from the ranks of his disciples. His principle instruction on his deathbed appears to have been for everyone to “work together to preach the message of Rupa and Raghunath.”(note 40)

Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati left a council of three governors to handle the affairs of the Math, Ananta Vasudeva, Paramananda and Kunjabihari, without designating any of them as acharya. All three were brahmacharis, and with the presence of a sizable contingent of sannyasis, it does not seem that his intention was that they should form anything other than an ad hoc group to handle the management of the properties and continued publication of Vaishnava literature. Nevertheless, Kunjabihari (who upon taking sannyas in 1948 became Bhaktivilas Tirtha) and Ananta Vasudeva (who in 1941 became Bhaktiprasad Puri) both had their individual charisma and their own group of dedicated followers. There were no doubt others who saw themselves as playing the traditional guru role.

The Ramakrishna Mission had survived the untimely passing of its founder by the election of a single successor and there was little protest when the leaders amongst Saraswati’s disciples chose Ananta Vasudeva to act as acharya. Unfortunately, this did not sit well with Kunjabihari and his followers, who familiarly called him guru-preshtha (“most dear to the guru”). Lawsuits and even violence followed, and the disciples of Saraswati either fell into the camp of one of these two, or left in disgust to strike out independently. Sridhar Maharaj, Keshava Maharaj, Goswami Maharaj, Bharati Maharaj and others all founded their own maths in the 1940s and 50s.

Puri Maharaj, or Puri Das as he later called himself, and his close associate Sundarananda Vidyavinoda, both of whom had been intellectual pillars of the Gaudiya Math, took up a spirited regimen of scholarly criticism of their own movement. They abandoned secondary literature and concentrated on the primary works of the six Goswamis of Vrindavan. Puri Das was particularly unhappy about the proselytizing work of the Gaudiya Math, which he considered to have been overly zealous, ill-informed, and offensive to the true spirit of Vaishnavism. To a great extent these two leaders of the organization were disillusioned by the rapaciousness of Puri Maharaj’s opponents in the succession battles, which they came to attribute to the very nature of the math institution itself. Yukta-vairagya was a difficult discipline, indeed; the vices associated with wealth, reputation and power were not the monopoly of any religious school or institutional system.

Puri Das and Sundarananda eventually came to accept the necessity for initiation in an accredited disciplic line and advised all of his disciples to also seek diksha from such gurus.(note 41) The position formulated on the basis of early writings of Chaitanya’s followers was expounded in Sundarananda’s treatise, “The characteristics of the guru according to Vaishnava theology” (Vaishnava-siddhante shri-guru-svarupa).(note 42) Sundarananda engaged in an exhaustive critique of Gaudiya Math deviations in accordance with the traditional Gaudiya Vaishnava position.

Despite the extremely damaging defection of Puri Das and Sundarananda, the Gaudiya Math survived, but lost much of the momentum that had existed during the life of its founder. One of the strongest critics of the situation was Bhaktivedanta Swami who, as a householder, had been a relative outsider in the Gaudiya Math’s heyday. In the 1950’s, Bhaktivedanta wrote several articles appealing for a return to the previous institutional unity, but to no avail. With the loss of the strong, centralized “hard” institution, the institutional model of the Gaudiya appears to have reverted to one not so radically from what existed in the Gaudiya Vaishnava world.

First of all, the Gaudiya Math has its “soft” institutions or symbol system, much of which though it shares with the greater Gaudiya Vaishnava sampradaya, is sufficiently different to be a different species: The liturgical corpus, or hymnology is almost entirely based on the writings of Bhaktivinoda Thakur; the great mahajanas of the post-Chaitanya effervesence—Govinda Das, Jnana Das and others—as well as most of the books of the Six Goswamis, other than those that are purely philosophical or theological in content, have been almost entirely purged from the religious practices of members of the Gaudiya Math. The practice of lila kirtan, the nama yajna and other staples of Gaudiya Vaishnava community, are consipicuously absent.

The siddha pranali aspect of the traditional raganuga practice has been entirely jettisoned. As a result, Bhaktivinoda and Siddhanta Saraswati’s identities as associates of Radha and Krishna (Kamala Manjari and Nayanamani Manjari) are considered special signs of their eternally perfect status rather than a routine aspect of the Gaudiya Vaishnava culture, even though in at least Bhaktivinoda’s case, it was received in precisedly the traditional manner.

Though the Gaudiya Math was born as a “hard” institution, the current situation is closer to the kind of loose collection of disciplic lines that existed in Bengal after Chaitanya’s disappearance. A number of Siddhanta Saraswati’s disciples set up their own “houses,” each of which functions independently. Similar patterns of inter-math discipline based on exclusion, etc., maintains the orthodoxy, and festivals, etc., assure their continued association. There is, however, little real cooperation among these maths or missions, whose relative success depends on the individual charismatic powers of their leaders. The recent attempt to create an association of Gaudiya Maths to foster cooperation and pooling of resources, the World Vaishnava Association, has not met with much success.

The method of preserving the disciplic lines in the Gaudiya Maths is clearly Pancharatrika in nature. The idea that one has to be an uttama adhikari or “unconventional” spiritual master before one can take disciples has been abandoned and the idea that one can take disciples in a “routine” manner accepted. The process of succession in these maths has, on the whole, been comparatively trouble free, though of course, heredity is not an option; in nearly every case, the parting acharya has named a single successor.

The most successful of the Gaudiya Math’s offspring, however, is a special case. Iskcon had its own set of succession problems, which left it searching for ways to resolve the succession conundrum. As a worldwide organization, different situations in different countries have resulted in different real patterns being established. Iskcon’s strength as a monolithic central institution is greatest in India and weakest in America, where the “religious free market” appears to favor the individualistic “intermediate” institutional model.


In my 1996 paper, I concluded that Iskcon’s future depended somewhat on the appearance of charismatic renewal within the movement. In the intervening years, the three directions of institutional development I pinpointed in that article seem to have remained in place: these are the Ritvik model, which subsumes any possibility of new charismatic leadership, putting “the seal on prophecy,” so to speak. The other extreme is the openly charismatic model, led by Narayan Maharaj, an outsider from the Gaudiya Math who rather openly makes claims of esoteric knowledge to which Iskcon’s leaders are not privy. After the disastrous leadership of the eleven successors to Bhaktivedanta Swami, Iskcon itself has developed a middle way, in which a certain amount of charismatic leadership is given scope, but one that is nevertheless subject to the approval or sanction of the governing body. On the whole, however, like any institution that seeks self-preservation, Iskcon is wary of the true charismatic leader, whose objectives are invariably destructive to existing power structures. As such, the charismatic attractions of Narayan Maharaj, and to a lesser extent, that of other Vaishnava leaders outside the Gaudiya Math or even Gaudiya Vaishnavism itself, continue to cause a certain level of discomfort within the movement.

The reason for this is rather easy to pinpoint: Siddhanta Saraswati placed so much emphasis on the need for “unconventional” leadership from a spiritual master, to the detriment of the “conventional” leadership of the caste Goswamis, continuously pointing to the ideal example of notoriously unconventional Vaishnavas such as Gaura Kishor Das and Vamshi Das, that the purely bureaucratic functionary leader (“guru by committee vote”) pales by way of comparison. In an age where the urge to personal religious experience dwarfs the idea of adherence to duty as a spiritual ideal, the attraction of the charismatic leader will no doubt continue to exercise a hold on the seekers drawn to the Vaishnava path.

On the other hand, as the Ritviks have pointed out, the concepts of bhagavati diksha and bhagavata-parampara open the door to a kind of organization that does not specifically need charismatic leadership at every generational level. This permits institutions that are more rational in character. The contradiction here is that a certain amount of charismatic leadership is necessary for the promotion of even this idea if it is to take root in Iskcon itself. Whatever little successes the Ritvik movement has had seem to be due to the banding together of disgruntled ex-Iskcon members rather than to any great shows of positive spiritual strength. It seems as though this splinter group is destined to remain marginal unless it can find that kind of leadership.

Within Iskcon itself, it does not seem as at present that there are any individuals who wish to exercise a uniquely dominant leadership over the movement as a whole, living out the traditional role of an institutional acharya. The bad experiences of the immediate post-charismatic phase have left a very deep mark in the consciousness of the movement’s current leaders. It is yet possible that the spirit of collegiality and even a certain degree of democracy may take root in the movement, though the problems involved in developing truly modern institutional structures may well be insurmountable.


(1) Chaitanya Bhagavata, Madhya 6.167-9: “If it is your intention to distribute devotion, then you must also give it to the women, the lower castes and the uneducated. Those who would withhold devotion or obstruct your devotees out of pride in their knowledge, wealth, social class or ability to practice austerities are most sinful. May they die and roast in hell, while the lowliest outcaste dances in joy at the sound of your holy name.”

(2) There is much reason to believe that the connection to Madhva is a fabrication that became necessary in later times to legitimate the Gaudiya school outside of Bengal and has been preserved for its continued usefulness as a source of such legitimacy. S. K. De has voiced the principal arguments in his work. The Early History of the Vaishnava Faith and Movement, 13-24. See also Friedhelm Hardy, “Madhavendra Puri,” JRAS, 1979. Indeed, most scholars find these arguments against a Madhva connection to be most persuasive, while only followers of Chaitanya Vaishnavism refuse to entertain the possibility. See also my article on this website. For the Gaudiya position, see B. V. Narayan Maharaj’s Five Fundamental Essays , pp. 55-76.

(3) Sanatan Goswami’s commentary to Hari-bhakti-vilasa, 2.1: “Since it is impossible for him to have directly instructed him [in the mantra], as the presiding deity of the consciousness, he is the supreme guru of all beings. Thus it is legitimate for [Gopal Bhatta] to call him his guru.” Joseph O’Connell explains: “There is a standard explanation (or restatement) of the anomaly that Chaitanya, though founding an emergent tradition (or meta-sampradaya) of devotees, seems not to have bestowed diksha himself. It is to say that Chaitanya is the samashti-guru or collective spiritual master for the age, while his several associates are the vyashti-gurus, or particular spiritual masters.”

(4) This incident is described in Chaitanya Bhagavata, Antya 5.222-229. According to the Nityananda-vamsa-vistara, a later book, Chaitanya’s instructions to Nityananda included the order to get married and to establish a hereditary line of gurus.

(5) Chakravarti (1985), 235-38; H. Sanyal (1989), esp. Ch. 10.

(6) Both the doctrine of Chaitanya as the combined form of Radha and Krishna and that of the Pancha Tattva are credited to Svarupa Damodar, a close associate of Chaitanya in Puri. Though the Pancha Tattva idea seems to have come to Kheturi without passing through Vrindavan, the other certainly received is potent force through the theological efforts of the Vrindavan school.

(7) This doctrine was put to paper in the Gaura-ganoddesa-dipika by Kavi Karnapur, who was present at Kheturi, in 1572, around the same time.

(8) The principle was that the possiblity of attaining the ultimate goal of spiriutal life, a role in the eternal pastimes of Radha and Krishna, came through establishing a connection through disciplic succession with Chaitanya’s original companions.

(9) 4.41. Sanatan Goswami’s gloss of amnayagatam.

(10) Bhagavata-purana 7.13.8, quoted in Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu 1.2.113. This is taken as one of the ten principle prohibitions of devotional practice.

(11) The reasons for this have not been fully explored, but may well be traced to local traditions, i.e. the strength of Tantricism in Eastern India.

(12) I borrow the terms “hard, soft and medium institutions” from Joseph O’Connell, who defines a hard institution as one “with centralized executive authority with coercive sanctions, and mechanisms for marshalling extensive mundane resources for community interests or for mobilizing adherents against external threats.” Soft institutions are “symbolic means of articulating their cherished mode of loving devotion to Krishna, prema bhakti. Such ‘soft’ symbolic institutions are bound up with the production and utilization of religious literature (sahitya, shastra) and with a complex repertoire of recommended devotional practices (sadhana).” Intermediate organizational institutions in Gaudiya Vaishnavism are “diverse and diffuse networks of affiliation, formed through groups of religious mentors (gurus) and their disciples (sishyas). Typically, these groups are voluntary and hence non-coercive.” From “Chaitanya Vaishnava Movement: Symbolic Means of Institutionalization.” in Organizational and Institutional Aspects of Indian Religious Movements. Ed. J.T. O'Connell, 1999, 215-239.

(13) ibid.

(14) See Hitesranjan Sanyal (1981:64).

(15) There were others that laid claim to the charisma of one or the other of Chaitanya’s associates, but of these only a few were non-Brahmins, and of the non-Brahmins, only the Thakurs of Srikhanda had widespread influence.

(16) In any case, as R. K. Chakravarti argues, without a change in “means of production,” genuine social change was impossible.

(17) “The Impact of Devotion upon the Societal Integration of Bengal.” Studies in Bengal Literature, History, and Society. Ed. Edward C. Dimock Jr. New York: Learning Resources in International Studies, 1974; reprinted in Studies on Bengal. Ed. Warren Gunderson. East Lansing: Asian Studies Center, Michigan State University, 1976, 33-42.

(18) “Some Reflections on Initiation.” March 19, 1999. and subsequent issues, especially “Why Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Never Received Initiation from Gaur Kishor Dasa Babaji” at For instance, the tilaka (sectarian marking) used by Saraswati and his disciples does not correspond to that of any existing disciplic line.

(19) These articles were mostly succinct and prescriptive rather than descriptive, and dealt with most of the issues that spurred Saraswati to action. See Sukavak N. Dasa, 211-216, 244-249. Caitanya-shikshamrita, 102-111. Sajjana-toshani. vol 2, (1885), 123, 142; vol. 4 (1892), 121-4.

(20) I have not seen this book, though no doubt it would shed some light on the development of Saraswati’s thinking at this time.

(21) The Authorized Sri Chaitanya Saraswata Parampara. Swami B. G. Narasingha. Bangalore: Gosai Publishers, 1998. Page 9. Prabhupada Saraswati Thakur. (page 17). No firm date is given for this letter, so it may perhaps refer to the Balighai meeting, discussed below, where Saraswati argues for a more fluid concept of the Varnashram system

(22) Though Saraswati’s vision was that Chaitanya Vaishnavism was a universal religion and his social philosophy was meant to reflect this..

(25) Nabadwip: Gaudiya Vedanta Samiti, 1995. It was first published in 1920, making it one of the Gaudiya Math’s first books. An English translation has been prepared by Pundarik Vidyanidhi Das. Any quotations here are from that translation, but page numbers refer to the Bengali edition.

(26) Sajjana-toshani, Vol. 2. 1885, pp.123-124.

(27) In Bengali society, there was in fact no system of four castes, but rather a two-tiered system consisting only of Brahmins and everyone else. A hierarchisation of non-Brahmin castes existed, divided into six categories based on the degree to which Brahmins permitted intermingling with them. In the 1931 census, Brahmins represented about 7.5% of the Bengali population, 7.4% belonged to the other higher castes, i.e., Vaidyas, Kayasthas, Khatris and Rajputs. See Census of India, 1931.

(28) Saraswati made much of the supposed currency of tridandi sannyas in the Ramanuja sampradaya, but there is not much evidence of any such practice. He also often identified Prabodhananda Saraswati, a Chaitanya contemporary, as being such a tridandi sannyasi, but there is absolutely no evidence anywhere to support this contention.

(29) anasaktasya vishayan yathartham upayunjataù |

nirbandhah krishna-sambandhe yuktam vairagyam ucyate ||

Yukta-vairagya is defined as the attitude of one who is detached from the objects of the senses, but uses them only inasmuch as they have utility in the service of Lord Krishna.” (BRS 1.2.255). It is unlikely that Rupa Goswami understood the concept in quite the same way that Saraswati did.

(30) I have given the disciplic successions of Bhaktivinoda Thakur as given to his son Lalita Prasad Thakur and the Bhagavata-parampara delineated by Saraswati Thakur in my article, “The Parampara Tradition in Gaudiya Vaishnavism”, Journal of Vaishnava Studies. Vol. 5, no. 1. Winter, 151-182. Bhaktivinoda’s parampara is also given by Shukavak Das. B. V. Narayan (1999) has given a rather interesting diagram attempting to combine the two kinds of disciplic succession. According to him, the bhagavata-parampara includes the the Pancharatrika.

(31) On the basis of Bhakti-sandarbha 210: “One should give up a mundane guru and take a spiritual guru.” The traditional Vaishnavas hold that “mundane guru“ refers to other authorities such as parents or village elders, not to a family guru, for this custom is approved in Hari-bhakti-vilasa (4.141), which quotes the Brahma-vaivarta Purana, “Even the vultures will not eat the dead corpse of the ungrateful one who abandons the guru in disciplic succession (amnaya-gatam).”

(32) Swami B. V. Tripurari. Sri Guru Parampara: Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura, Heir to the Esoteric Life of Kedarnath Bhaktivinode. Mill Valley, CA: Harmonist Publishers, 1998. 37-38.

(33) Prabhupada Saraswati Thakur. Eugene, OR: Mandala Publishing Group, 1997. p. 15. Bhakti Promode Puri. “Of Love and Separation.” San Rafael, CA: Mandala Publishing Group, 2001, p. 48, 82. “esoteric initiation into Bhagavata Dharma.” B. G. Narasingha says mantra diksha. The Authorized Chaitanya-Saraswata Parampara. Bangalore: Gosai Publishers, 1998. 9. According to Rupa Vilasa Das (Robert D. MacNaughton), Gaura Kishor gave him “initiation” and the name “Varshabhanavi Dayita Das.” A Ray of Vishnu. Washington, MS: New Jaipur Press, 1988. 18.

(34) CC 3.3.240-1, 124. These translations are by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, which Pundarika Vidyanidhi uses throughout his translation of Brahmana o Vaishnava. Swami translates diksha as vow, which seems to fit the context. Neither Siddhanta Saraswati nor Bhaktivinoda Thakur have explained these verses in their commentaries to CC.

(35) Brahmana o Vaishnava, 92.

(36) BhP 12.3.52: krite yad dhyayato vishnum tretayam yajato makhaiù, dvapare paricaryayam kalau tad dhari-kirtanat, where paricarya is taken to mean Pancharatrika temple worship

(37) ibid. 103. These are: Only a Brahmin devotee is eligible for liberation, the demigods are the foremost devotees, Lord Brahma attains sayujya-mukti (merging in Brahman), and Lakshmi Devi is a jiva. The Baladeva text is from his commentary to Tattva-sandarbha 28.

(38) Sri Guru and His Grace, 19.

(39) Excerpted from the essay “Putana” ( printed in the January 1932 edition of The Harmonist.

(40) This period was traumatic for the members of most Gaudiya Math members and most accounts of it are understandably vague. Thorough scholarly research of the post-charismatic phase of the Gaudiya Math would be most welcome.

(41) All this appears to have been accompanied by personal problems. Ananta Vasudeva married one of his disciples. He liberated all his disciples to take initiation elsewhere, gave over the Gaudiya Mission to Bhaktikevala Audulomi Maharaj on the condition that he dress in white rather than the saffron of the Gaudiya Math sannyasis. He then left for Vrindavan where he lived out the rest of his life more or less as a recluse. Ex-disciples of Ananta Vasudeva formed a large contingent of the renounced residents of Radha Kund and sri krishna caitanya gaura guna-dhama, the kirtan promulgated by Puri Das can still be heard there. (Puri Das also came to accept that the congregational chanting of the maha mantra was not authorized.) His abandonment of Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati made him an anathema in the rest of the maths, and left many of his admirers particularly disillusioned. Bhaktivedanta styled Tirtha as guru-bhogi, “exploiter of the guru,” and Puri as guru-tyagi, “renouncer of the guru.”

(42) Calcutta: Karuna Dasa, Sripata-Paraga, 1964.

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