Chakra Discussions

Book offers insight to ISKCON spiritual heritage:
Sri Guru-parampara: Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura, Heir to the Esoteric Life of Kedarnatha Bhaktivinoda, by Swami B. V. Tripurari

Book Review by Babhru das

Posted January 18, 2004

In his introduction to Sri Guru-parampara, Swami B. V. Tripurari says the essay's purpose is "to examine the sensitive issue of Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura's critique of prevalent practices in the [Gaudiya Vaisnava] sampradaya and his analysis of the modalities of raganuga sadhana." Tripurari Maharaja then clearly, directly, and systematically confronts criticisms of the line of Gaudiya Vaishnavism that issues from Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura and Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati, and in so doing demonstrates its authenticity without the high degree of contentiousness that often attends this controversy.

The booklet begins by exploring the aspect of raganuga bhakti commonly practiced by Srila Bhaktivinoda and Srila Bhaktisiddhanta's contemporaries, known as the siddha-pranali system. As ISKCON devotees are aware, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta and his followers have not emphasized this practice. This is partly because its too-liberal dissemination has historically resulted in immoral behavior disguised as spontaneous devotion, which has in turn diminished public regard for Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu's movement. The qualification for this initiation has generally been the candidates' eagerness for knowledge of their eternal relationship with Krishna in Vraja.

However, citing Srila Jiva Goswami, Srila Visvanatha Cakravarti, and Srila Bhaktivinoda, the author clarifies Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati's distinction between immature desire and the mature eagerness that develops from genuine spiritual progress. Such mature desire for perfection, he says, arises naturally from the positive attachment to Krishna based on freedom from material desire, as described by Srila Rupa Goswami. Thus, as Tripurari points out, "Bhaktisiddhanta appears to have rejected siddha-pranali-diksa, while in reality he rejected its misappropriation" [emphasis added]. Indeed, the author appends a short lecture in which Bhaktisiddhanta tells his disciples, "Do not think that astakaliya-lila-smararana is the property of the sahajiyas.sahajiyas."

Maharaja explains that Srila Bhaktisiddhanta's approach to raganuga bhakti stresses kirtana, enhanced by chanting the traditional Gaudiya vaisnava mantras, more than smaranam. Moreover, he broadened the understanding of kirtana to include practical activities for disseminating Lord Chaitanya's teachings, especially the production and distribution of transcendental literature. Tripurari cites many sources asserting the preeminence of kirtana, including Srimad-Bhagavatam and Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita.

Srila Bhaktisiddhanta's approach was somewhat innovative; however, Maharaja demonstrates its roots in tradition predating the siddha-pranali system. The chanting of the holy name is the prime purificatory activity for kali-yuga and is accessible to all without any discrimination. This system, he writes, neither ignores nor prematurely imitates the esoteric practices of raganuga bhakti; rather, it prepares the practitioners by purifying their hearts, ensuring gradual progress, from initial sraddha through the anartha-nivritti stage, so the sadhakas may realize their spiritual identity in truth rather than in imagination.

This booklet also explores the nature of the sampradaya as conceived by Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati. In response to the degeneration of many venerable lines of succession, Srila Bhaktivinoda and, following his explicit instruction, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta, sought to reform the Gaudiya Vaisnava sampradaya by stressing the substance over apparent form. Therefore, in pursuance of this end, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta fashioned such an essential lineage, consisting of universally acknowledged maha-bhagavatas, thus making the important teachings of the most prominent lines accessible to all sincere devotees. This essential sampradaya may be called a bhagavata- or shiksa-sampradaya. The outward form is less important than essential spiritual ideal, the Swami explains. Such is the nature of Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati's revolution.

What is the significance of all this to devotees today? After all, Srila Prabhupada had remarkable success through establishing ISKCON, and nowadays so many other Gaudiya preaching missions exist and grow along with ISKCON. Tripurari Maharaja has written this booklet to encourage all devotees -- including those in ISKCON -- to understand the nature of their spiritual heritage. It often seems that ISKCON's focus on A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, its founder-acharya, has isolated ISKCON and its leaders from the rest of the spiritual family Maharaja calls the "Bhaktivinoda-parivara."

This isolation, together with Srila Prabhupada's caution regarding the particulars of cultivating spontaneous devotion, Maharaja suggests, has limited the society's impact and perhaps stunted the growth of its members' devotional creepers. ISKCON's leaders teach, following Srila Prabhupada and Srila Bhaktisiddhanta, that following the process of vaidhi-sadhana-bhakti and vigorously preaching Krishna consciousness will automatically deliver the practitioner to the goal. Tripurari Maharaja wants to remind them that that goal is to develop an inner desire for Vraja bhakti. This desire, he says, "is the spiritual heritage of ISKCON." ISKCON's leaders, then, should ensure that the service to the movement actually yields such desires; further, they should be prepared to help other devotees cultivate those desires as they mature. More than this, though, Maharaja suggests that an honest connection with the rest of Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura's family, and an increased focus on the essential mission in all its forms, may enhance ISKCON's potency.

Many ISKCON leaders may tend to resist this advice. They may see Tripurari Maharaja as an "outsider" whose stress on "substance" over "form" appears to be code for neglecting Srila Prabhupada and the institution he worked so hard to establish and exhorted his disciples to maintain. However, this essay itself provides evidence that such suspicions are mistaken. The booklet's tone indicates that Maharaja wrote it in a mood of service to ISKCON and the other preaching missions following Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati. Its purpose appears not to be criticism of any institution, but to critique it with an eye to extending the principle of "unity in diversity" among all preaching missions. The author advocates revival, not rejection.

It may be that the author's tone is as significant as the essay's subject. Tripurari Maharaja's essay may be an example of what communication scholars have come to call "invitational argument." Such a rhetorical approach is concerned less with dominance than with inviting interlocutors into a conversation based on mutual regard and exploration. This may be a model of dialogue more appropriate for the discussions among devotees than the more agonistic response to controversies arising in the movement over the past few years.

Maharaja points out that his essay is somewhat exploratory, meant more to open discussion than to close it down. In his introduction he writes, "I offer this article as food for thought and with openness to information that I may not be aware of that might alter its conclusions. . . ." Scholars who read Sri Guru-parampara will apprehend more clearly the dynamic nature of the Krishna consciousness movement. Leaders and preachers within the movement who read this booklet -- including those in ISKCON -- may be better prepared to defend the sampradaya they serve when asked about apparent deviations from Gaudiya traditions or apparent gaps in the lineage. If those who accept Tripurari Maharaja's invitation also examine its manner of presentation, they may benefit from both its substance and its form.


(This article was originally published, in a slightly different form, in ISKCON Communications Journal, Vol.7, No. 2, December 1999.)