Adi-Guru and Founder Acarya

Sanga: Q and A, October 21, 2004gadadhara_scm_bhag

By Swami B.V. Tripurari

Q. Srila Prabhupada is the founder acarya of Iskcon and because the position of founder acarya is unique it mandates that all Gaudiya Vaisanvas follow him today. Was there institutionalization in Gaudiya Vaisnavism before Srila Prabhupada became the founder acarya of Iskcon? Do you underestimate the importance of the institutionalization of Lord Caitanya’s teachings?

A. It is important to note that Srila Prabhupada is the founder acarya of an institution, not a religion or even a lineage. The founder of Srila Prabhupada’s religion is Sri Caitanya. This is explained in Sri Jiva Goswami’s Sarva-samvadini tika on Sat-sandarbha. In Sri Caitanya’s religion there are many lineages. Srila Prabhupada is a member and prominent guru in one of them, one that in modern times follows the vision of Bhaktivinoda Thakura. Indeed, Srila Prabhupada identified his movement as the movement of Thakura Bhaktivinoda. This statement is merely factual. It does not minimize Srila Prabhupada and would not need to be made if it were not for those who have tried to identify the title “Founder Acarya,” with founders of sampradayas, such as Madhva, Ramanuja, and Sri Caitanya. Unfortunately, this kind of so-called glorification of Srila Prabhupada is often done to minimize other Gaudiya Vaisnava acaryas and inadvertently clouds philosophical discussions with emotions and tears that smear the ink on the printed page of sastra.

As for the institutionalization of Gaudiya Vaisnavism, other than the softer form of institutionalization in the form of literature, not much had been done previous to Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura. He was perhaps the first to make a major experiment in institutionalizing Gaudiya Vaisnavism, even though he made a number of statements about the potential problems that could arise from this. Given what has occurred in Iskcon in recent decades, it might be in the interest of spreading Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s precepts to place more emphasis on his essential teachings rather than so much emphasis on institutionalization.

Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura wrote, “The idea of an organized church in an intelligible form marks the close of a 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.” (The Harmonist, January 1929)

Q. I read in an Iskcon publication that there are four disciplic successions and the leaders of these successions are known as adi-gurus, or original gurus. The duty of each member and all subsequent gurus in the sampradaya is to simply transmit the message as received from the adi-guru without adulteration. Is this correct?

A. The Padma Purana says that there are four Vaisnava sampradayas. In relation to this statement our sampradaya would be the Brahma sampradaya and our adi-guru would be Brahmaji. He passed the teachings through Narada to Vyasadeva, who compiled the Vedas. When the teachings came to Madhvacarya, he did not simply repeat what he had heard from others, rather he shed new light on the Vedas by interpreting them according to his own spiritual realization. His interpretation, known as dvaitavada, gave birth to a new spiritual movement, in which prominent members further elaborated on the philosophy of Madhva, as the tradition developed its own rites, rituals, and spiritual practices.

Later in the Brahma-Madhva sampradaya, Sri Caitanyadeva, in accordance with his own spiritual experience, shed new light on the teachings that Brahma received from Krishna. His disciples, the Six Goswamis of Vrindavana, further elaborated on the teachings of Sri Caitanya. In this way the Caitanya branch of the Madhva sampradaya came into being and developed its own rites, rituals, and spiritual practices. It is the religion of Sri Caitanya that Srila Prabhupada came west to establish. He did not come to establish a new sampradaya or religion. He came to promote the Brahma-Madhva-Gaudiya sampradaya, which he did by innovative preaching, not by simply parroting what he had heard from his guru.

The point here is that while it is true that the teachings should be passed on without adulteration, the real spirit of the parampara involves shedding new light on the teachings, making them relevant to people of the times. While Srila Prabhupada would often say to pass on what you have heard without adulteration, his own example of adjusting the teachings according to time and circumstance clearly demonstrates that preaching involves understanding the teachings enough to deliver the essential message, in the midst of altering many nonessential details. Disciplic succession is not simply about repeating what you have heard from the previous guru. It is about realization.

Q. I read that the adi-guru is the devotee who founds the disciplic succession and establishes its original teachings, and that “founder acarya” refers to the devotee who redirects the parampara and corrects the teachings when they become lost or altered. In this regard some consider Srila Prabhupada’s contribution to be like that of Madhva and Ramanuja, who are founder acaryas. Some consider them adi-gurus as well, so I guess Srila Prabhupada could also be both an adi-guru and a founder acarya. The book I read says further that Bhaktivinoda Thakura explains that devotees who succeed the founder acarya are duty bound to see the teachings of the parampara through the founder acarya’s instructions. There was however no reference from the writings of Bhaktivinode Thakura given to support these statements. Did Bhaktivinoda Thakura actually say all this?

A. The terms adi-guru and founder acarya are defined here in a novel way. Except for one instance, I have never read where any acarya used the term adi-guru to refer to anyone other than Krishna, the original guru. Similarly, the term founder acarya is not a scriptural term. If it were, it would be a translation of a Sanskrit term. Founder acarya refers to the founding acarya of an institution. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta was the founder acarya of Gaudiya Math, Srila Prabhupada was the founder acarya of Iskcon, Srila Sridhara Maharaja was the founder acarya of Sri Caitanya Saraswat Math, and so forth.

Srila Prabhupada himself never explained the terms adi-guru and founder acarya in the way that you have done. So from the start we are left to accept the explanation of these terms with no supporting evidence. Indeed, there is evidence to the contrary.

Srila Prabhupada writes, “If we are to accept guru, so the original guru is Krishna because He instructed Lord Brahma, the first living creature within this universe. Tene brahma hrda ya adi-kavaye [SB 1.1.1]. He instructed the adi-kavi (Brahma, the original poet from whom the Vedic scriptures emanate). He is the guru, Krsna. And in the Bhagavad-gita, he also says, imam vivasvate yogam proktavan aham avyayam [Bg. 4.1]. So He (Krsna) is adi guru. In Bhagavad-gita also he is instructing Arjuna. He is adi guru.”

Bhaktivinoda Thakura writes, “The adi-guru of all the spiritual masters in the disciplic succession is Bhagavan, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Showing his great mercy, he instructed Brahma, the adi-kavi. These truths were in turn taught by Brahma to Sri Narada, by Narada to Sri Vyasa, and by Vyasa to Sri Madhvacarya. Such instructions as received through this disciplic succession are called guru-parampara-upadesa.

The one instance I mentioned of adi-guru referring to someone other than Krsna is in Bhaktivinoda Thakura’s Harinama Cintamani, where he refers to Madhva, Ramanuja, Nimbarka, and Visnuswami as adi-gurus. In Gaudiya Vaisnavism the term founder acarya first came into use during the time of Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura. It is not found in Harinama Cintamani or any of the writings of Bhaktivinoda that I am familiar with. Therefore I don’t know how anyone could justify writing that Bhaktivinoda Thakura interpreted the term founder acarya in any particular way. In this case it appears to me that this reference from Harinama Cintamani has been grossly misconstrued to equate the term founder acarya with the founder of a sampradaya. I have already explained that the terms adi-guru and founder acarya are not synonymous. Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, not Srila Prabhupada, is the founder of the Gaudiya Sampradaya.

Q. I am trying to understand the role of the siksa (instructing) guru in the Gaudiya sampradaya. Some people are under the impression that the Gaudiya sampradaya means Iskcon exclusively and are teaching that members of Iskcon should not receive instruction in Gaudiya Vaisnavism from devotees outside that organization. What is your opinion on this?

A. The International Society for Krsna Consciousness (Iskcon) is the largest international Gaudiya Vaisnava organization. Some members of that organization may believe that Iskcon alone, at the exclusion of other similar Gaudiya sects, represents the Gaudiya Vaisnava sampradaya. In my limited experience, even when they know otherwise in theory, in practice some Iskcon devotees tend to forget this fact, which sometimes leads them to disrespect the rest of the sampradaya. While you may have accurately described Iskcon’s official policy in regards to siksa guru, the truth is that many disciples of Srila Prabhupada have at one time or another accepted advice and spiritual instructions from senior devotees outside that organization.

In spite of their rules to the contrary, I have found that Iskcon members have no difficulty in applying the principle of siksa guru in a way that extends beyond the borders of that society. Many Iskcon devotees subscribe to Sanga and send me relevant questions on Gaudiya Vaisnavism, although I have not been a member of Iskcon for twenty years. Others regularly read the writings of acaryas who are outside of Iskcon or have accepted one or more these acaryas as their siksa guru(s), while remaining within Iskcon for convenience sake or other nobler reasons.

Yet some members of Iskcon are still blinded by the glaring misconceptions that their official siksa guru policy is based on. The official position, stating that disciples of Srila Prabhupada, my beloved diksa guru, cannot accept someone outside of Iskcon as their siksa guru without being considered deviant, is understood by many devotees as not only theologically unacceptable but insulting as well. One result of this ill-conceived policy is that devotees who practice Krishna consciousness outside of Iskcon are ostracized and vilified by Iskcon members, instead of being embraced as fellow Vaisnavas, which is the type of non-sectarianism that Srila Prabhupada had ultimately hoped for.

At any rate, differences of opinion are a fact of spiritual life and it should be clear on this matter that I differ with Iskcon’s official policy. However, differences should only remain if each party can muster sufficient scriptural support to justify their opinion. I have yet to see any actual scriptural support justifying the theory that one can only take siksa from a member of one’s own religious institution. Indeed, if this were an actual scriptural imperative then no member of any other Gaudiya Vaisnava sect or organization could take siksa from anyone in Iskcon.

Q. I read that there are many types of siksa gurus and their role is to give instruction in devotional service, generally known as abhideya. Is it correct to say that a founder acarya is the siksa guru for his or her followers, and the diksa guru initiates disciples giving instructions in devotional science, known as sambandha?

A. There are many types of siksa gurus and of course the founder acarya of an institution is certainly one of them. The founder acarya’s influence on the spiritual life of any particular devotee will depend on many factors, but generally the best siksa guru for a devotee is the one who is helping him or her the most at any particular point in time. While Srila Bhaktisiddhanta, Srila Prabhupada, Srila Sridhara Maharaja, Srila Kesava Maharaja, and so many others are founder acaryas for their respective missions, it is left to those who represent them to make their teachings understandable and accessible to devotees and the general public. This is what these founder acaryas did with regard to the teachings of the acaryas who came before them. Therefore to the individual, a particular representative of the founder acarya may be even more important than the founder acarya of the institution. This is the dynamic principle of disciplic succession.

Otherwise, when it is said that the diksa guru gives sambandha jnana, this really refers to the fact that he or she gives the mantra, wherein knowledge of one’s relationship with Krishna is found. Diksa means giving the mantra. Everything else that follows is siksa. The disciple requires siksa at every stage of progress. There is siksa on sambandha (conceptual orientation), siksa on abhideya (the nature of the path), and siksa on prayojana (the goal). Siksa may come from friends and associates, but the most helpful and meaningful siksa comes from the association of advanced devotees. One should seek out this type of siksa regardless of where it is found. Prohibiting devotees from going beyond institutional boundaries to seek advanced association can sometimes constitute an offense to the principle of guru, of which Krsna is the adi-guru. Krsna cannot be imprisoned within the walls of any particular religious institution and offenses to the principal of guru cannot be counteracted by official institutional policy.


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2 Responses to Adi-Guru and Founder Acarya

  1. I have sometimes heard Srila Prabhupada referred to as ISKCON samstapaka acarya during premadvani prayers. I assumed that this was a Sanskrit term for founder acarya. What does samstapaka mean?

    • Actually I see now that this question was already addressed in a previous sanga:

      Standing in the Land Beyond Doubt Oct. 16th, 2001
      Q. I have heard that Swami Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada is the samsthapaka-acarya for the Gaudiya sampradaya because the term “Founder Acarya” means samsthapaka-acarya and he called himself “Founder Acarya.” Is this accurate?

      A. I believe the term samsthapaka-acarya is common to the Sri sampradaya. Although the term is not part of common Gaudiya vocabulary, if there is anyone in our sampradaya who best fits the description of a samsthapaka-acarya, it would be Rupa Goswami. The samsthapaka-acarya is one who founds the sampradaya—establishes its siddhanta, procedures, mantras, etc. In our sampradaya this was the work of the Vrindavana Goswamis, among whom Sri Rupa is the foremost. Therefore our Gaudiya sampradaya is often called the Rupanuga sampradaya. Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura was described as being rupanuga-viruddhapasiddhanta-dhvanta-harine, enraged at anything that deviated from the siddhanta of Rupa Goswami.

      Although the term samsthapaka-acarya translates well into “Founder Acarya,” Srila Prabhupada did not have the implications of a samsthapaka-acarya in mind when he called himself ISKCON’s Founder-Acarya. What he meant was that he considered himself the Founder-Acarya of ISKCON, not the entire Gaudiya sampradaya. This is what he told us repeatedly—that he was the Founder-Acarya of ISKCON. Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura called himself the Founder-Acarya of Gaudiya Math, and many of his disciples, like Srila Prabhupada, called themselves Founder-Acaryas of their respective institutions.

      While there is no limit to how much the disciple can glorify his guru, such glorification should be accurate. Some may like to call Prabhupada the samsthapaka-acarya of the Gaudiya sampradaya, but this will not be universally accepted because it is not accurate. At the same time there is much we can say about the greatness of His Divine Grace that everyone will readily accept. What he did was extraordinary. Srila Prabhupada’s contribution was unique and unparalleled in our times. Srila Sridhara Maharaja compared it to the campaign of Nityananda Prabhu himself and considered Prabhupada to be empowered (avesa) by the sakti of Nityananda Prabhu. Thus he described him as saktyavesa—vando mui savadhana mate.

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