A disciplic succession or parampara is an unbroken chain of enlightened spiritual masters which originates with God Himself. Such a chain enables spiritual knowledge to be passed down and protected from one perfect guru to the next without change. Linking up with a pure spiritual master in disciplic succession is the same as linking up with God.
In order to learn the transcendental science, one must approach the spiritual master in disciplic succession, fixed in the Absolute Truth.
Glorification of the Supreme Personality of Godhead is performed in the parampara system; that is, it is conveyed from spiritual master to disciple. Such glorification is relished by those no longer interested in the false, temporary glorification of this cosmic manifestation. Descriptions of the Lord are the right medicine for the conditioned soul undergoing repeated birth and death. Therefore, who will cease hearing such glorification of the Lord except a butcher or one who is killing his own self?
[Srimad Bhagavatam 10:1:
Just try to learn the truth by approaching a spiritual master. Inquire from him submissively and render service unto him. The self-realized soul can impart knowledge unto you because he has seen the truth.
If one is not actually connected with a bona fide disciplic succession, whatever mantras he chants will not bring the desired result.
No one should hear or take lessons from a person who is not a Vaisnava. Even if he speaks about Krishna, such a lesson should not be accepted, for it is like milk touched by the lips of a serpent.
Accepting a bona fide spiritual master has nothing to do with joining some team or religious group or organization. It is entirely about an individual being given the vision that “this person is the representative of God” from God Himself. As Lord Jesus Christ put it:
If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority.
Being part of a group has nothing to do with this very personal and life changing experience. Others may help to guide us, but we have to go within to hear the Lord in the Heart. No-one else can do this for us and joining a particular team or group is not enough. What others think or say will not help us if we do not make the effort ourselves. It requires serious and sincere introspection and prayer.
It is also important to understand that there is never an external announcement: “this person is the next spiritual master.” Krishna makes it clear from within to a sincere person:
“This person is my pure devotee. You can trust him and give your life to him and you will be giving your life to me. I have empowered him to bring you home.”
Not that we hear Krishna’s voice from within necessarily, but out of His great mercy, Krishna brings us in contact with His great devotee, and if we are sincere He gives us the vision to appreciate:
“This person speaks the truth and I know I can trust him and give my life to him and not be exploited – by linking up to him I am confident that I am linking up to Krishna.”
Not that this understanding necessarily happens immediately. It is often a gradual realization that grows over many years, as we become more and more spiritually purified by following the process of sadhana bhakti – primarily the practice of regularly chanting the Lord’s holy names. But we will not start the journey of accepting a guru without being given some faith and vision that this person is not an ordinary man, that he is empowered by God and he genuinely loves me and cares deeply about my well-being. And this faith and trust comes from the Lord in the Heart:
To those who are constantly devoted and worship Me with love, I give the understanding by which they can come to Me. Out of compassion for them, I, dwelling in their hearts, destroy with the shining lamp of knowledge the darkness born of ignorance.
Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati [1874-1936], the spiritual master of Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami, described the role of the spiritual master in the following way:
The Reservoir of Grace whom the Supreme Lord, the personification of the Supreme Good, has made responsible for looking after my welfare, is my guru.
The spiritual master is the embodiment of the Lord’s mercy, and he is entrusted by Krishna to look after the welfare of a sincere spiritual aspirant. That is why a spiritual master may be addressed as His Divine Grace – because he is the reservoir of Krishna’s love, compassion and mercy. He is Krishna’s amazing grace personified.
For myself, I was initiated by Srila Bhaktivedanta in 1973 after about eight months of chanting, without having much appreciation or vision of who he was. Out of his great mercy he accepted me on the off-chance that I would one day become more serious. While Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami was still on this planet, I had the opportunity to also meet Jagad Guru Siddhaswarupananda, and although I was not very sincere, Krishna somehow let me know that he was also a great devotee, though at that time he was not initiating disciples himself, but was very happily recommending to people who trusted him that they should approach Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami.
A true disciple never feels that he is in any way the equal of his spiritual master, and it is not correct Vaisnava etiquette to initiate disciples while one’s spiritual master is still present in this world. But a pure disciple of a bona fide spiritual master may become an instructing spiritual master and give wonderful spiritual guidance to others. And I was very fortunate to be given such guidance by Srila Siddhaswarupananda, who always encouraged me to develop my appreciation for Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami. He was never interested in cheap followers for himself.
After Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami left this world in 1977, there was great sadness among his sincere disciples and students, and Siddhaswarupananda was clearly devastated at this time. But after being begged by a number of people who were already hearing him speak and working with him, and who appreciated his greatness as a devotee, he agreed to take on disciples of his own. These people did not need an official announcement. Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami was lucid and still translating Srimad Bhagavatam into English on his deathbed. He was quite capable of announcing “this person or that person will be the next spiritual master.” But he didn’t appoint anyone. In fact, when he was asked by a journalist who would be the next spiritual master, he said:
All of my disciples will take the legacy. If you want, you can also take it. Sacrifice everything. I, one – may soon pass away. But they are hundreds and this movement will increase. It’s not that I’ll give an order: ‘Here is the next leader.’ Anyone who follows the previous leadership is a leader. I don’t make any distinction between Indian and European. All my disciples are leaders … as much as they follow purely. If you want to follow, then you can also lead. But you don’t want to follow. ‘Leader means one who’s a first-class disciple. ‘Evam parampara praptam.’ One who is perfectly following. Our instruction is ‘guru-mukha-padma-vakya.’ Do you know this? ‘Arna koriho mane asa.’ (‘My only desire is to have my consciousness purified by the words emanating from the lotus mouth of my spiritual master.’) To become a leader is not very difficult, provided one is able to follow the instruction of the bona fide guru.
So, the influence a spiritual master has about who will be his successor, is not by appointment or announcement. But when he sees his disciple is completely pure and sincere without any ulterior motive for gaining fame, wealth or followers, he completely empowers him to give Krishna to others. This is the way disciplic succession works – a completely sincere disciple who completely surrenders to his spiritual master out of great love, will be empowered by his spiritual master and by Krishna to give Krishna to others. Such a person is a bona fide spiritual master. He may have no disciples, one disciple or thousands of disciples – that is up to Krishna, who He brings along to that person. And there is often more than one spiritual master at a particular time – there is no envy among great devotees of the lord.
A spiritual master does not inherit or desire the organization set up by his spiritual master. Spiritual life is not something you can join or quit – it is based on you as an individual having a personal relationship with the representative of Krishna, who had a personal relationship with a previous representative of Krishna. This is called disciplic succession, and it goes all the way back through time to God Himself.
Organizations are sometimes set up by great spiritual masters to facilitate passing on their teachings and furthering Lord Chaitanya’s movement. They come and go over time. There may be a number of such organizations set up in different parts of the world to present the teachings of the spiritual master in different ways according to differences in time and culture, using different approaches etc. Sincere students and disciples of that spiritual master may work within one of those organizations or they may work independently outside of one of these organizations. But the relationship with the spiritual master, the pure devotee of Krishna, must be there. That is the actual link that empowers a person to give Krishna to others – the spiritual master is a transparent via medium of Krishna and linking spiritually with him is identical to linking with Krishna.
And not everyone who has a role within or identifies himself as a member of one of these organizations is necessarily connected to the spiritual master. Sometimes a person may have an ulterior motive, and may view a spiritual organization as being like a political organization or a business, where they can make their way up the hierarchy, gaining more importance, power and respect along the way. They see advancement as being an external thing, rather than an internal change of consciousness. And they may then try and use their position within the organization to lord over others or gain some material benefit or esteem. Such a person is a great fool. Passing up the most wonderful gift one can possibly receive, they are like a person who is offered gold but chooses shit instead, thinking they are the same color.
For this reason, a bona fide spiritual master will generally start his own organization and work with those people who he knows are sincerely accepting him as their spiritual master, their life and soul, rather than simply slotting into an existing organization. They are not ecclesiastical gurus who seek a role within an existing religious organization. For example, if I am a Catholic and I attend the Catholic church in Wynnum, then whoever the Catholic Church hierarchy appoints as the local priest is my spiritual teacher. I may like him, I may not. But he is the guy that’s there and he is the one I go and listen to. This is an ecclesiastical system, where joining the organization is paramount, and who I accept as my teacher, the one who gives the sermons, is secondary.
When Lord Jesus Christ was active on this planet, he had no organization as such. There was no Catholic Church, no Wesleyan or Anglican or Presbyterian Churches with big church buildings and cathedrals etc. No big organizational hierarchies. The term Christianity had not even been invented at this time. What did his followers call themselves? They called themselves “followers of Jesus.” So, I am a follower of Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami and Jagad Guru Siddhaswarupananda. That is at least what I am trying to do with my life. It is a personal relationship thing, not a matter of having a position within an ecclesiastical system or hierarchy, not a matter of joining or belonging to an organization.
I once worked for a roofing contractor. He had a dog who went with him wherever he went. He had an old truck with a tiny cabin just big enough for two people. His dog would often come along, and he would sit in my lap. My boss told me that he was working on the roof of a house and saw a poor, dirty and miserable dog chained up in the yard next door. Feeling compassion for the dog, he stole him and took him home. The dog was so grateful to his new master, that he would follow him wherever he went. If his master got up to go to the bathroom, the dog would get up and follow him, waiting outside until he came out. Other people might be friendly to the dog, pat him etc. But he was only interested in his master, because he had saved him from a life of suffering. So his loyalty was one-pointed. This is how we should feel towards the devotee who saves us from countless lifetimes of suffering in the material world.
Organizations are only useful when they are connected with and perfectly representing the teachings of a bona fide guru. Once they deviate, disobey their guru’s instructions or change his teachings, they become useless. The disciplic succession is likened to a tree, and those who claim to be part of it, but have changed the teachings for some ulterior motive, are likened to branches which have been lopped off the tree. Such branches will wither and die. It is totally crazy for any organization to claim that they own Lord Chaitanya’s Sankirtan movement. This movement is like a powerful river that cannot be dammed by any organization. The river of Lord Chaitanya’s mercy will just break the dam walls and keep flowing. It is a movement of pure souls who are empowered by Lord Chaitanya and by their spiritual masters.
Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami never had a position within his spiritual master’s organization. He lived independently, and during his householder life he ran a pharmacy business. But for many years he worked tirelessly, studying and translating Vedic scripture, surrendering more and more within his heart to his guru and publishing books such as the Bhagavad-gita and Srimad Bhagavatam. And finally, at the age of 70, he brought the teachings of his guru, Lord Chaitanya and Krishna to the Western World. He suffered great hardships and performed great austerities to do this. An old man seemingly alone, he was able to spread Krishna’s teachings and the holy names of the Lord all over the world. He was empowered because of his sincere and perfect internal relationship with his spiritual master.
After Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami left this world in 1977, some people who already had the vision that Jagad Guru Siddhaswarupananda was a great devotee of God on the highest level of spiritual realization, approached him and requested that he accept them as students and disciples, and he agreed and started instructing these people and working out how he could best pass on Lord Chaitanya’s teachings. He would not accept any existing organizations, land, ashrams etc. which were set up to serve Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami, but started afresh, as he did not want to simply be seen as an ecclesiastical guru who takes over his spiritual master’s organization, property, buildings etc.
As a great Vaisnava acharya, Jagad Guru Siddhaswaupananda had the vision and ability to be a great innovator and introduced many new approaches to spreading the teachings of Krishna and Lord Chaitanya in ways which were perfect for the different cultures, times and places around the world. After countless thousands of years, these eternal teachings had finally left India and were being spread throughout the world in a fashion that was tailored to suit the different cultures of different countries. The message was unchanged but the presentation was perfectly adapted and is continually being refined. This is the special skill of a great acharya.
Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami once said:
I want to see a few sincere devotees, not many false devotees or pretenders. If there is one moon in the sky, that is sufficient for illumination. There is no need of millions of stars. My position is that I want to see that at least one disciple has become a pure devotee. Of course, I have got many sincere and pure devotees. That is my good luck. But I would have been satisfied if I could find only one.
One concern that some newer students have is that they understand that they need to make a relationship with a bona fide spiritual master to be successful in spiritual life, but worry that they may never get the opportunity to meet such a great personality face to face or have physical association with him. This shows that they do not have a clear understanding about what constitutes association with a living spiritual master. While it is true that one has to make contact with a living spiritual master and have association with him, this does not necessarily mean that you have to sit in the same room as him.
Factually, if one has heard a perfect spiritual master chanting, they have received the holy names of the Lord. And if they are now chanting and endeavouring to apply his instructions in their life, then they have begun the process of establishing a relationship with a saintly personality. This is all association. The primary way we associate with a pure devotee is by hearing his chanting and instructions and applying them to our life. It is not that we have to sit in the same room with the devotee of Krishna, though this is wonderful if we get the opportunity. Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami himself has said that he had very little close physical association with Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, his spiritual master.
So, if we are hearing from an enlightened spiritual master and trying to apply his teachings to our lives, then an eternal relationship is becoming established. This only has to be appreciated and built upon as our faith and understanding grows. If you see the devotee of Krishna as Krishna’s representative, and you sincerely want to give your life to him and follow his instructions, then you have a relationship with a great devotee of the Lord. He is a transcendental personality and his presence is not limited to his bodily self. You can pray to him and he will hear your prayers and petition the Lord on your behalf – he is already your well-wisher, otherwise you could not appreciate the holy names and the truth you read and hear. In this way, you become linked up to the disciplic succession, and linked up to Krishna.
This wonderful article explains this crucial topic so well. And I loved the story of the devoted rescue dog. Many thanks.