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The Disciplic Succession

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Satsvarupa dasa Gosvami

1970-1973-01-48-09Many times, when people inquiring about Krsna consciousness hear from us about the importance of disciplic succession, they are not able to grasp what we are talking about. We say, “Krsna consciousness is coming down in disciplic succession. The Absolute Truth was first spoken by the Supreme Lord, Krsna Himself, and He taught it to the first living entity, Lord Brahma, who taught it to his pupil Narada, who taught it to Vyasadeva.” To one who is already a student of Krsna consciousness, just the mention of the names of these great personalities is enough to bring great pleasure; just in the sound of their names there is reassurance of Absolute Truth and complete authority. But this is not conceivable to a person who doesn’t know these spiritual masters as anything more than names which are difficult to pronounce. I would therefore like to speak to you in terms of myself, a thirty-two year old American who is not different in qualification or upbringing than the average reader to whom the concept “disciplic succession” is foreign. Let me relate to you my own experience with the disciplic succession.

1970-1973-01-48-10By the grace of Krsna, I have been in association with His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada since 1966 as one of his initiated students. I can recall the first night I heard His Divine Grace. He spoke of disciplic succession and the name Lord Caitanya, which sounded foreign to me, and he said that the knowledge that he was speaking was to be taken as Absolute Truth. I remember thinking, “How can he presume that what he says is the Absolute Truth?” When he answered questions after his lecture, he answered only on the basis of what the previous spiritual masters had said and what was originally recorded in Bhagavad-gita. He even said at one point, “I am not speaking myself. I am a mouthpiece.” He claimed to be speaking perfectly, and yet he said that he was personally doing nothing at all. He said that the only thing to his credit was that he was repeating, without change, what was perfect and was recorded thousands of years ago. He compared his perfection to the perfection of a mailman who simply delivers the mail but does not change the message by opening the letter and making additions. He stated that if he could deliver this message of Krsna consciousness unchanged, it would be perfect, since it was originally spoken by the perfect source.

Although I was accustomed to reading many different literatures and speculating on their relative truths, I was nevertheless impressed that His Divine Grace did not care to show off his own thinking power or say something that the audience would like to hear; he simply presented the view of the disciplic succession for everyone’s benefit. It gave me a feeling of awe to think of sages speaking in ages long, long past and of this same ancient knowledge coming down fresh and intact just for the benefit of the present audience. “Just imagine,” I remember telling my friend as we left the little storefront temple where His Divine Grace had spoken. “That person who was speaking was saying the same thing that was spoken by sages thousands of years ago. It’s all coming down in the vibration of his voice. If the scriptures are really the recorded word of God, then his pure vibration is coming from infinity itself. It’s as if God is speaking to you. He can speak and cut through temporary time with eternal truth.” My friend, however, was more impressed with the immediate time and place, regardless of Absolute Truth, and he said that there were many different ways for different people to communicate.

The presentation of the spiritual master was for those who wanted the truth. He had nothing else to offer but the Absolute Truth, and he personally endorsed it as beneficial for all. He did not tell lies or indulge in flattery. He was convinced. He had surrendered to Krsna through his spiritual master and had become a surrendered devotee, spending all his time delivering the message of the Gita to the devotees. I began to attend the classes and to take them seriously, and gradually I inquired, accepted and studied, served and practiced, to the point where he accepted me as his initiated disciple. I accepted him as a representative of God, and I accepted the Vedic literature as speaking the Absolute Truth.

Then quite suddenly His Divine Grace had to leave to open another temple in San Francisco, and we new students were left to manage the New York temple and attend to the many visitors who used to come to his evening classes. What would we do when they came and he was not present? And how could we live without our spiritual master? The first question had to be answered right away because the night after he left, the visitors came as usual to hear his lecture.

He had instructed us how to lecture in his absence, so on the first night one of his more advanced pupils gave a talk. He cited in his talk the same examples that our guru gave, and it was satisfying. He simply tried to present the teachings of Bhagavad-gita: “We have all forgotten Krsna. Krsna is God. He is the eternal spiritual person, and everything is coming from Him. He is all-pervading. Our real place here is not to try to struggle for enjoyment and happiness in a temporary world filled with miseries of birth, death and old age and ending in inevitable death. Our real business is to go back to Godhead, our eternal home. This we can do by the grace of Lord Caitanya, who is the form of Krsna for this age, by chanting Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.” After the boy’s talk, when we chanted, it was just as transcendentally satisfying as if Srila Prabhupada were there. In fact, it was more poignant for his students; there was ecstasy in the feeling of separation.

1970-1973-01-48-11On another night, I was chosen to speak. I remember looking at the people who had gathered and praying to God for the courage to be able to say something pure and effective and not let down my spiritual master and my assembled Godbrothers and Godsisters—and to actually impart the Absolute Truth to the audience. After all, we students knew the great value of these teachings of Krsna consciousness. But all the others did not. So it was up to me to present them. I prayed to cast off all desire to show off my own learning; I wanted just to say what my spiritual master was actually teaching. This left me no room at all to speculate or to concoct. I attempted to remember what he had said. For me personally, it was a very grave occasion. As I spoke, I said, “Krsna can be compared to the sun. The sun is a planet, a material thing in one place in the sky, and its energy, the sunshine, is diffused, spread out all over the universe. This is a material example. Similarly, Krsna is the source of all energies and all emanations and creations. That is the definition of the Absolute Truth—that from which everything is coming. The Absolute Truth is intelligent and conscious, and according to the Vedic literature, He is a person, the Supreme Person, God, Krsna. Just as the sun has form and is local, so Krsna has form. But His form has inconceivable energies, like the sun. All spiritual and material existence is His energy. We say that God is great, but how great He is is inconceivable. But we can study this in the Vedic literature to get some idea of the greatness of the Supreme Person.” As I spoke, I became somewhat reassured and tried to remember more. But I felt very inadequate and understood that I was not a very good disciple. I was not able to speak more than five or six minutes before I was unable to go on. So I stopped.

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The advanced disciples who heard my talk said that it was very nice, especially because I had not deviated from what the spiritual master had said or hadn’t made anything up. This made me happy, and yet, at the same time, I could not think that I had done anything at all because actually I had not. It was not my wonderful additions, or my brainpower, good looks or speaking ability, that had made my little talk acceptable; it was not within my power to make people begin to think about Krsna and to take the philosophy seriously—but it was the power of His Divine Grace, and I had transmitted some of it. After the talk, there was a question. Someone asked, “How do you know that Krsna is God?” Remembering what Srila Prabhupada had said in answer to that question, I answered, “How do you know who is the President of the United States? By his credentials. He can show you that he actually has that position. In the same way, all the Vedic literatures describe that Krsna, who appeared as the son of Devaki and performed many wonderful acts, is actually the Supreme Brahman, or the Personality of Godhead. It is stated in Bhagavad-gita by Krsna’s disciple Arjuna that not only did Arjuna accept Krsna as God, but He is accepted by all the great spiritual masters in disciplic succession, such as Narada and Vyasadeva. Also, when Krsna appeared on this earth, He displayed all the opulences of the Personality of Godhead—that is, full strength, beauty, knowledge, fame, wealth and renunciation.” After the question, I invited the audience to chant Hare Krsna. I had preserved the format and the words of my spiritual master, which are the words of Bhagavad-gita.

Although one feels lowly when taking on the work assigned to him by a pure devotee or a spiritual master, he cannot check the bliss that comes when he acts as an agent for the disciplic succession. Giving up false prestige and just serving brings untold joy and satisfaction. No one can know it unless he acts in this line. All it takes is a faithful serving attitude; by living a life of pure principles, one can qualify to speak on behalf of his spiritual master. It is a fact that we are all intended to act in this disciplic succession. It is not that just a few priests or preachers are required to take this on, but everyone is supposed to faithfully follow the words of the Supreme Lord as transmitted by the bona fide spiritual master.

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There is a prayer in the Srimad-Bhagavatam which states: “By regularly hearing the Bhagavatam or rendering service unto the pure devotee, all that is inauspicious in the heart of a candidate is practically destroyed, and thus loving service unto the Personality of Godhead, who is praised with transcendental songs, is established as an irrevocable fact.” Hearing is the most important part of Krsna consciousness, or bhakti-yoga, which is the most powerful yoga, far beyond standing on one’s head, practicing sitting postures and breath control, or trying to think that one is God by mystic meditation. These other methods are not intended for this age, and no bona fide teacher is teaching them. The most important method in this age is to hear from a genuine authority. The Absolute Truth is beyond our sensual experience. We cannot confront it with our present senses or intellect, so we have to hear from someone who is an authority. Krsna says to His disciple in Bhagavad-gita, “You are not this body. You are spirit soul.” If one can accept this, he has knowledge; if one listens to the presentation of the spiritual masters of Krsna with submissive inquiry, he will know the truth.

It is definitely necessary that one associate with devotees or spiritual masters who can personally present spiritual books and instructions. These should not be understood just by reading them alone. If one reads presentations by unauthorized commentators not in disciplic succession, the whole study will be ruined, and he will get the wrong idea. It is necessary to see and experience the pure message in the living example of the spiritual master and hear from the lips of one who is realized. Lord Caitanya said that the spiritual master should teach by the example of his life, not merely by precepts. If one does not hear from such a person, Krsna will be no more than fiction to him, and the Gita will remain a mysterious philosophy. The greatest havoc is caused by those who misrepresent the scriptures and destroy the import of the disciplic succession which is coming down from Krsna. One should never hear from such unauthorized persons. To know who is authorized, one should hear and study the science of God as presented in books like Teachings of Lord Caitanya, The Nectar of Devotion, Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam, which are presented by the ISKCON movement as a service to humanity. Otherwise he may be cheated.

The disciplic succession is compared to a ladder of different men sitting in the branches of a tree and passing down, from top to bottom, a nice, ripe mango fruit. If carefully passed from hand to hand, the fruit can be given intact to the man at the bottom, without damage.

Disciplic succession has a kind of potency which comes down through one who repeats what he has heard in that succession. One who hears receives the potency. The material example is given of sexual intercourse. When a man and a woman come together in sexual intercourse, if the man is potent and healthy and other conditions are right, then there will be conception. In the same way, if a willing and sincere student hears from an authorized speaker in disciplic succession, he will be injected with devotion to God. The quality has to be genuine on both sides—the hearer must be sincere, and the speaker must be spiritually potent.

The knowledge given has to be authoritative. This is guaranteed by the disciplic system, which is unbreakable. The knowledge has been compared to a family secret passed from generation to generation. The difference is that this secret is not material. Once there was a group who claimed to be followers of Lord Caitanya’s chief associate, Lord Nityananda. They said that they were the family descendants of Lord Nityananda and claimed to be the only ones who could understand Krsna consciousness. However, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, the great spiritual master of our spiritual master, completely smashed their idea. He pointed out that the real succession goes on spiritually, from spiritual master to student. It has nothing to do with the seminal succession of father to son, which is based on the material body. Spiritual potency is not like material semina; it is passed down by the spiritual master to the qualified disciple who is dependent on the master. The spiritual master blesses the student who shows that he is sincere and eager to serve and who presents submissive inquiry. Such a student can speak on behalf of an expert spiritual master. The spiritual master is compared to an expert engineer who has with him an assistant who does exactly what he says. If by the instructions of the engineer the student can turn a screw with a screwdriver just as he is asked to do, then he is functioning as an expert himself. In this way, if one can carry out the orders of the expert spiritual master, he can act as a representative of God. To do this, one must lead a pure life, following the regulative principles, and must not indulge in intoxication, illicit sex, meat eating or gambling.

The great sage Narada Muni appearing before his disciple Vyasadeva, the compiler of the Vedas, to offer him enlightenment "...just the mention of the names of these great personalities is enough to bring great pleasure..."

The great sage Narada Muni appearing before his disciple Vyasadeva, the compiler of the Vedas, to offer him enlightenment
“…just the mention of the names of these great personalities is enough to bring great pleasure…”

When His Divine Grace first left us students in order to open another temple, we wrote to our spiritual master, and he wrote back, “I understand that you are feeling my separation.” But he described that for us to serve him in the absence of his physical presence was even greater than to be with him. If one follows the instructions, a link is set up not just with one’s own spiritual master but with the entire disciplic succession of spiritual masters—including Lord Caitanya and going all the way back to Brahma and Krsna. His Divine Grace once wrote to all his students, “You are all helping me in pushing forward this mission of Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu which has come down by disciplic succession to my spiritual master. So whatever you have spoken in praise of me, it is simply due to them. I am simply the via medium to receive your words of praise on behalf of my guru maharaja [spiritual master], His Divine Grace Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Gosvami Maharaja Prabhupada.” The disciple’s immediate link is his own spiritual master, who is the transparent via medium to the whole disciplic succession and back to Krsna.

Going back in history, only eleven spiritual masters before our own is the appearance of Lord Caitanya, who is described in the scripture Srimad-Bhagavatam to be the form of Krsna Himself who comes in this age of quarrel and hypocrisy. He will be known, it states, by the fact that He always chants Hare Krsna with His associates, and those who have sufficient brain substance will worship the Supreme Lord in this age by chanting the holy names of God. Lord Caitanya especially taught that the best name of God is Krsna, and for the deliverance of all people He taught the Hare Krsna mantra—Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Lord Caitanya said that these names of God would be heard in every town and village in the world, and now, on the order of this own spiritual master, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada has factually spread that teaching and fulfilled the prophecy of Lord Caitanya by teaching throughout the whole world this authorized instruction of the Hare Krsna chanting.

Spiritual greatness is attained by carrying out the orders of the spiritual master. One of the Godbrothers of our spiritual master recently gave testimony that His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada is the most prominent spiritual master today in carrying out the instructions which come from Krsna through Brahma and the disciplic succession. Doctor Kapoor, of the Gaudiya Matha, made the following statement in a speech in Vrndavana, India, where Srila Prabhupada was welcomed by the mayor of Vrndavana. (Vrndavana is the place in India where Krsna performed His transcendental pastimes when He appeared in the world 5,000 years ago.) Dr. Kapoor said of His Divine Grace: “He has inherited the mantle of Prabhupada Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati. He alone has fulfilled the mission of our spiritual master, taking it to every nook and corner of the world. And it is in the hands of his disciples in the future to reap a rich harvest of devotion all over the world.” To he who has faith in the spiritual master and Krsna, and to no one else, all the meaning of the scriptures is revealed. The science of God cannot be learned by academic knowledge or by study in comparative religion. It is transcendental, beyond material knowledge, and can be received only by the mercy of the spiritual master. To speak as a representative of the disciplic succession is not a casual thing but is full of gravity, and one must gradually qualify to do this great work for all mankind. Recently, in a conversation with U.S. Ambassador to India Kenneth Keating, Srila Prabhupada said, “Send me all your American boys, and I will save them. That is not a bluff.” The spiritual master can speak like this because he is authorized to give shelter to all humanity by virtue of the purity of the disciplic succession.

To go back to the first meeting when I met His Divine Grace, the question that arose in my mind may arise in yours also. How can we say that what the spiritual master is speaking, even if it is carried in disciplic succession, is Absolute Truth? First, let us look at the stature of the spiritual masters themselves, who are carrying this message as links in a chain. If you study the writings of the stalwarts in the disciplic succession—Lord Brahma, author of Brahma-samhita, Vyasadeva, the author of all the Vedic scriptures, Narada Muni, the author of Narada-pancaratra, Lord Caitanya, author of Siksastakam—you will find that they are great learned scholars in the transcendental science. They are powerful sages who are able to see past, present and future. They are not interested in anything mundane or in telling fiction stories. Proof of the perfection of the great sages is given in the symptoms which they possess. These symptoms of a person who has attained transcendental life are given in Bhagavad-gita. Steadily controlling his senses, he fixes his consciousness on Krsna and is not bewildered or disturbed by desires. Thus he is able to be fixed in consciousness. Bhagavad-gita further states that one should approach such a sage, a spiritual master who can impart knowledge because he has seen the truth. In other words, there exists a check and balance system whereby the spiritual master is confirmed by the scripture and the scripture is exemplified in the life of the saintly person. A saintly person or spiritual master is one who speaks only what is in the scripture. Krsna says in the Gita, “Surrender to Me,” and the spiritual master says, “Surrender to Krsna.” So there is no difference between scripture and the spiritual master. In this way, the Absolute Truth is mercifully available in age after age to all persons in all places.

The more we reflect on it, the more we see that persons who are impartial and serious will accept this. It is not a question of this or that religion but a philosophy of living. The disciplic succession makes Krsna consciousness most authoritative. Lord Caitanya appeared within everyone’s memory, only 500 years ago. He is cited in the Vedic literature as Krsna Himself. Thus the movement is most authoritative because God Himself has come as a teacher in this fallen age. He has presented a life of spiritual realization in the very attractive form of chanting, dancing and eating foods offered to Krsna. Krsna is coming to save the world by the disciplic succession, and everyone should take advantage of this great opportunity.

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