Devotee: We have heard it said that Śrīla Prabhupāda (A. C. Bhaktivedānta Svāmī Mahārāja) received the name Bhaktivedānta from his guru, Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura. Others have said that he received the name Bhaktivedānta from Śrīla Śrīdhara Mahārāja and yet others are saying that he received the name Bhaktivedānta from Śrīla Keśava Mahārāja. Can you please say something to clarify this issue?
Narasiṅgha Mahārāja: When our Guru Mahārāja (Śrīla A. C. Bhaktivedānta Svāmī Prabhupāda) was initiated in 1933 he received both hari-nāma and mantra-dīkṣā at the same time. At his initiation Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta named our Guru Mahārāja, Abhaya Caraṇāravinda Dāsa, meaning ‘one who is fearless, having taken shelter at the lotus feet of the Supreme Lord.’ During his lifetime Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta did not confer any other names or titles upon our Guru Mahārāja.
In later years, after the disappearance of Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta, our Guru Mahārāja was engaged in writing articles for a Bengali journal published by his godbrother, Śrīla Bhakti Sāraṅga Gosvāmī Mahārāja. Gosvāmī Mahārāja and other leading Vaiṣṇavas of the time were so impressed with the writing and preaching capabilities of our Guru Mahārāja that Gosvāmī Mahārāja conferred upon our Guru Mahārāja the title ‘Bhaktisiddhānta.’ This was indeed the most honorific title a disciple could ever expect to receive, the very title of his guru.
According to the practice of name giving when awarding titles to deserving disciples, Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta had never given the name of his gurus, Śrīla Gaura Kiśora Dāsa Bābājī Mahārāja or Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura to anyone. Accordingly, some of the senior disciples of Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta thought that the title Bhaktisiddhānta should not be given to any disciple, however deserving. This matter was discussed among the senior Vaiṣṇavas with whom our Guru Mahārāja was regularly associating and in a mood of deep respect and harmony it was decided that our Guru Mahārāja would be given the title ‘Bhaktivedānta.’
During those discussions it was recognized by all present that our Guru Mahārāja was a strong preacher in the line of Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta and that the inspiration of Śrīla Bhakti Sāraṅga Gosvāmī Mahārāja to bestow an honorific title upon our Guru Mahārāja was directly inspired by Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta.
In the days of Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta, certain senior disciples were often called upon when some particular point or issue was in need of clarification —Śrīla Śrīdhara Mahārāja was among those select few disciples of Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta who were able to clarify even the most difficult points of spiritual understanding.
In the discussion where the honorific title for our Guru Mahārāja was being discussed, Śrīla Śrīdhara Mahārāja suggested that our Guru Mahārāja be given the title Bhaktivedānta. The titles Bhakti-siddhānta and Bhakti-vedānta are synonymous in meaning. Thus the adjustment was made in keeping with the original inspiration felt by Śrīla Bhakti Sāraṅga Gosvāmī Mahārāja.
From that time on our Guru Mahārāja became known amongst his Godbrothers as Bhaktivedānta. This occurred in Calcutta in 1939.
Some persons may look upon this event in our contemporary Vaiṣṇava history as being of little significance —the simple act of bestowing an honorific title upon a Vaiṣṇava. But apparently not so for everyone— the event was so spiritually moving that Śrīla Bhakti Prajñāna Keśava Mahārāja decided for the future to name all his sannyāsī disciples Bhaktivedānta— a title synonymous with Bhaktisiddhānta. This standard is still carried out among the disciples of Śrīla Keśava Mahārāja even to this day more than half a century later.
In contemporary times, our Guru Mahārāja was the first person in the line of Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta to receive the title Bhaktivedānta (1939).
In 1959 when our Guru Mahārāja accepted sannyāsa, Śrīla Keśava Mahārāja retained our Guru Mahārāja’s title Bhaktivedānta, given by Śrīla Śrīdhara Mahārāja and then gave our Guru Mahārāja the sannyāsa name ‘Svāmī,’ which was chosen from the list of 108 names of sannyāsīs authorized by Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta in Gauḍīya Kaṇṭhahāra. Our Guru Mahārāja then became known as A. C. Bhaktivedānta Svāmī Mahārāja or simply as Svāmī Mahārāja amongst his Godbrothers.
Our Guru Mahārāja retained the initials ‘A. C.’ for “Abhaya Caraṇāravinda” from his first initiation, but officially his sannyāsa title and name was ‘Bhaktivedānta Svāmī.’
In the Gauḍīya tradition, the prefix Svāmī is added to the sannyāsa title. However, if our Guru Mahārāja had strictly kept this tradition then his name would have been written thus: ‘Svāmī A. C. Bhaktivedānta Svāmī.’ In a letter to his disciple Rāyarāma Dāsa, our Guru Mahārāja explained something of the complexities of his name as follows:
“So far the title Svāmī is concerned, although this word is used generally for sannyāsīns, this Svāmī is my particular name as a sannyāsī. Therefore, it must be suffixed at the end of my real name, A. C. Bhaktivedānta. So far the prefix Svāmī is concerned, every sannyāsī has got to do that, but two ways Svāmī (Svāmī A.C. Bhaktivedānta Svāmī) is not good looking. The end Svāmī is necessary because it is my sannyāsa name. The first Svāmī may be transformed into Gosvāmī, which is on the same order of Svāmī. Therefore, I use the prefix Tridaṇḍi Gosvāmī and suffix Svāmī, as I have printed on my card enclosed herewith. That will be nice. In small lettering, it can be written above my name, Tridaṇḍi Gosvāmī. Vaiṣṇava sannyasins are known as Tridaṇḍi Gosvāmīs, and Māyāvādī sannyāsīns are known as only Svāmī.”
After the establishment of our Guru Mahārāja’s mission, the International Society for Kṛṣṇa Consciousness, in the western world, our Guru Mahārāja stated in a letter to a senior disciple that he wanted all his qualified disciples to continue the title Bhaktivedānta. However, this has only been done by one of our Guru Mahārāja’s senior disciples and that is Śrīpāda Bhaktivedānta Tripurāri Mahārāja.
Due to the successful preaching campaign of our Guru Mahārāja, the title Bhaktivedānta has now become famous all over the world with special reference to the Bhaktivedānta Purports of the Śrīmad Bhāgavatam.
There are now many Bhaktivedāntas in different parts of our sampradāya, but as for fulfilling the purport of Bhaktivedānta our Guru Mahārāja has set the standard in all respects and it behooves other Vaiṣṇavas with this honorific title to strive to live up to the standards that our Guru Mahārāja has set as a world-class preacher. Certainly one should beware of being a Bhaktivedānta in name only.