Question: Recently, we read an article where the author begins by establishing certain well-known scholars from the Rāmānuja and Madhva sampradāyas (most notably H.H. Śrī Raṅgapriya Mahā-deśikan Swami and Vidyā-vācaspati Bannanje Govindācārya) as authoritative sources of transcendental knowledge regarding guru-tattva. In that article the author tries to establish that Śrīla Prabhupāda is the deliverer-guru for the duration of 10,000 years. All gurus following Prabhupāda are only instrumental-gurus, whose purpose is to assist him. Is this in any way correct?
Narasiṅgha Mahārāja: We have personally had the pleasure to meet Śrī Raṅgapriya Mahā-deśikan Swami and Bannanje Govindācārya on several occasions, and we are happy to say that they are indeed scholars and sincere devotees of Śrī Rāmānujācārya and Śrī Madhvācārya, respectively.
We also agree that what the Madhva and Rāmānuja scholars have stated in regards to guru-tattva is indeed true to their creed and applicable to their sampradāya.
However, the conception of guru-tattva in the Madhva tradition is quite different from the concept of guru-tattva in the Gauḍīya sampradāya. The fact that Madhva himself could not accept the pastime wherein Brahmā (the original guru of both his and our sampradāya) became bewildered, is itself conclusive evidence for this statement. While Madhva omitted the section of Bhāgavatam known as Brahma-vimohana-līlā from his version, the illusion of Brahmā was accepted by Śrīdhara Svāmī, the original commentator on the Bhāgavatam. Śrīdhara Svāmī’s commentary was accepted by Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu.
That which is useful to Gauḍīyas in Madhva’s commentary is certainly negligible compared to that of Śrīdhara Svāmī. Most notably, Madhva accepted Viṣṇu as the āśraya-tattva (ultimate shelter), whereas Śrīdhara Svāmī accepted Śrī Vṛndāvana-candra (Kṛṣṇa) as the āśraya-tattva, and śaraṇāgati (surrender) as the ultimate sādhana, or means to the end.
Bearing this in mind, it would be safe to say that guidance from the Madhva tradition in the matter of understanding guru-tattva amongst Gauḍīyas is indeed of limited value in the ultimate issue. Although it may appear to be helpful to some devotees at this present time, since there seems to be a glaring inability for many to understand our own tradition from within, it will nonetheless lead to difficulty in the future.
The teachings of Rāmānuja are much closer to Gauḍīya siddhānta than those of Madhva. In the conception of Rāmānuja, śaraṇāgati plays the essential role, as it does in the teachings of Śrī Caitanya. Regarding topics like dīkṣā, arcana, and sannyāsa, there are also more similarities between the Rāmānujas and the Gauḍīyas than there are between the Madhvas and the Gauḍīyas. Our connection with the Madhvas is actually one of form, whereas our connection with the Rāmānujas is based more on substance. The similarity between the Rāmānujas and the Gauḍīyas is certainly an interesting topic, but it is not the topic of this essay and can therefore be dealt with separately at another time.
Overall, the numerous rudimentary points regarding the Founder–ācārya and the gurus that succeed him were well addressed in the article that you have mentioned. There is a need, however, for some clarification.
It is true that Madhvācārya and Rāmānujācārya each hold unique positions in their respective sampradāyas as the uddhāraka-guru (deliverer-guru). However, to be more precise, the deliverer-guru in the Rāmānuja sect is Nammāḷvār, one of the twelve Āḷvars from whose writings Rāmānuja drew his doctrine of śaraṇāgati.
Although Rāmānuja considered himself to be an upakāraka-guru (instrumental-guru), he is nonetheless regarded as the head of the Śrī sampradāya in modern times – the uddhāraka-guru.
One might ask that since Rāmānuja considered himself an instrumental-guru, how is it that his followers consider him the deliverer-guru? The answer can be traced to the fact that it was Śrī Rāmānuja who gave shape to the Visiṣṭhādvaita philosophy (not accomplished previously by Nammāḷvār) by writing a commentary on the Vedānta-sūtras. One who knows the answer to this question knows the secret of the guru-paramparā.
The position of uddhāraka-guru, held by Rāmānuja and Madhva in their respective successions, has already been given to Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī Prabhupāda in our Gauḍīya sampradāya by none other than Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu, 500 years ago.
Our Śrīla Prabhupāda does not hold the same position as Madhva or Rāmānuja, since he did not introduce a new philosophical system or establish a sampradāya based on that. That was accomplished by Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī, and hence we are all known as rūpānugas, followers of Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī – this includes Śrīla Prabhupāda, Sarasvatī Ṭhākura and Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura.
Without being a rūpānuga, one cannot be a prabhupādānuga (as followers of Śrīla Prabhupāda are sometimes called), and vice-versa. Śrīla Prabhupāda established his mission within an existing sampradāya, for preaching purposes only. His mission was not intended to be a separate sampradāya from that which was already established in the 20th Century by Sarasvatī Ṭhākura and Śrīla Bhaktivinoda. If it were a separate sampradāya, then a new tilaka would also be necessary for the mission, along with substantially more commentary – including a new commentary on the Vedānta-sūtra in Sanskrit, showing how Śrīla Prabhupāda’s conception differed from that of his predecessor ācāryas. Indeed, no intelligent disciple would entertain such a thought for even a moment.
śrī-caitanya-manobhiṣṭaṁ sthāpitaṁ yena bhū-tale
svayaṁ rūpaḥ kadā māhyaṁ dadāti sva-padāntikam
“When will Śrī Rūpa, who has established the cherished desire of Śrī Caitanya within this world, give me shelter at his lotus feet.” (Prema-bhakti-candrikā)
I do not think that either the institutionalised devotees or the Ṛtvik proponents have understood this basic point. Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī is the head (uddhāraka-guru) of our sampradāya in this world, and in the spiritual world he is our supreme leader in the form of Śrī Rūpa Mañjarī. The sampradāya of the Gauḍīyas has descended from Goloka Vṛndāvana and its ontology is complete.
It seems that both institutionalised devotees and the Ṛtvik proponents, each in their own way, want to put Śrīla Prabhupāda in the place of Rūpa Gosvāmī. This appears to be the case largely because a vast majority of devotees have no proper ontological understanding of siddhānta. The idea that Śrīla Prabhupāda is the head of the sampradāya for the next 10,000 years has no basis in spiritual reality. It appears that many devotees are simply driven by mundane sentimentality, compounded with vaiṣṇava-aparādha. The result of this is complete bewilderment!
The position of Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī has been conclusively established by Sarasvatī Ṭhākura in his last instructions before leaving the mortal world:
“All of you please preach about Śrī Rūpa and Śrī Raghunātha with great enthusiasm. The supreme goal of all our desires is to become specks of dust at the lotus feet of the followers of Śrī Rūpa Gosvāmī.”
Again, the supreme position of Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī in the Gauḍīya sampradāya is made clear by Narottama Dāsa Ṭhākura in his song, Śrī Rūpa-mañjarī-pada:
śrī-rūpa-mañjarī-pada, sei mora sampada
sei mora bhajana-pūjana
sei mora prāṇa-dhana, sei mora ābharaṇa
sei mora jīvanera jīvana
“The lotus feet of Śrī Rūpa-mañjarī are my treasure and the object of my worship. They are the wealth of my existence, they are my ornaments and the very life of my life.”
Actually, Śrīla Prabhupāda was an upakāraka-guru (instrumental-guru), in that he delivered his disciples to the lotus feet of Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī, the uddhāraka-guru (the deliverer-guru).
As for Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu, He is our iṣṭa-deva or the most treasured Deity of our sampradāya. But many devotees do not fully understand this either. Anyone who does not accept these basic conclusions regarding the position of Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī and that of Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu is a kaniṣṭha disciple, at best.
There is no indication by anyone from the Madhva or Rāmānuja sampradāyas that the instrumental-guru cannot be a liberated soul or pure devotee, as is the deliverer-guru. The fact that all the ācāryas in our paramparā since the time of Mahāprabhu were pure devotees does not alter the fact that they were instrumental-gurus, and Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī was the deliverer-guru.
Therefore, our conclusion is that Śrīla Prabhupāda does not become the head of a new sampradāya because he was a pure devotee, the Founder–ācārya of an institution or even a śaktyāveśa-avatāra (which we believe he was). In fact, to become a pure devotee of Kṛṣṇa is the necessary qualification to become a guru of any kind, either uddhāraka or upakāraka! There are no short cuts. This is also not understood by the institutionalised devotees or the Ṛtviks.
If I’m not mistaken, the Madhvas and the Rāmānujas understand this point to some degree, but the fact is that they have similar problems in their own sampradāyas. For example, being a pure Vaiṣṇava is not enough to initiate in their sampradāya – one has to be born a brāhmaṇa, and this is often a contentious point in the Madhva and Rāmānuja communities.
An interesting point to note here is that those that propound the idea of Śrīla Prabhupāda being the deliverer-guru are prepared to inquire from scholars outside our sampradāya, who know nothing of the teachings of Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu and the Six Gosvāmīs. They refuse to inquire from advanced Gauḍīya scholars and devotees who are surrendered souls at the lotus feet of Mahāprabhu. Some devotees are prepared to accept the advice of those who are in complete ignorance of the divinity of Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu, but they are averse to accept the advice of Mahāprabhu’s direct representatives. Such a mentality could easily get one classified as a fool and a rascal.
It seems that the author of the article we are discussing does indeed understand the difference between the uddhāraka-guru and the upakāraka-guru, save that he does not understand the position of Śrīla Prabhupāda. It appears that the leaders of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s mission are trying to get out of a difficult situation with the Ṛtviks, but without help from advanced Vaiṣṇavas they cannot come to conclusive answers, at least answers that others will accept. Because they endure in their offences to the senior members of our sampradāya, they have no opportunity to approach them, either personally or through books.
All these questions regarding the position of Śrīla Prabhupāda and those gurus who would succeed him were already answered in 1978 by Śrīla Śrīdhara Mahārāja. Unfortunately, many of the devotees in leadership positions in the western Vaiṣṇava communities have developed amnesia regarding this fact. But fortunately for all, the answers given by Śrīla Śrīdhara Mahārāja regarding guru-tattva were recorded and published in a book called, Śrī Guru and His Grace. This book is recommended reading material for any and all devotees who would like clarification on guru-tattva.
At the conclusion of the article we are discussing, the author summarises that Śrīla Prabhupāda is the deliverer-guru and that he takes everyone back to Godhead. Yet such a statement is not found anywhere in the teachings of Śrīla Prabhupāda (books, letters, room conversations, or lectures, etc.). The idea that the institution established by Śrīla Prabhupāda is a sampradāya separate from the line of Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī is possibly the biggest deviation to have occurred in our sampradāya since the reject sons of Advaita Ācārya began to preach impersonalism.