Deviant Vaisnava Sects Part One: Caste Gosvamis and Smarta-brahmanas

From time to time a devotee of Krsna is faced with touchy questions about the shadow side of his religion. “Is it true there are gurus in West Bengal who do dope when they chant Hare Krsna?” Or, “What about that place in West Virginia where they mix Krsna, Christ, New Age, and everything else?”

It’s best to keep a broad historical perspective when considering this problem. Hybrid versions of Krsna worship, or even downright perversions of it, are nothing new. They all tend to fit a pattern laid down long ago in India by thirteen deviant sects known as apasampradayas.

But before looking at the deviants, one should understand the correct culture of Krsna consciousness. Fashionable or not, there is a definite standard of spiritual life. It is called sampradaya.

The word sampradaya implies “genuine instruction that has been received through guru parampara, or disciplic succession” (guru paramparagatu sad upadesasya, from the Amarakosa Sanskrit dictionary). In the fourth chapter of the Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krsna declares Himself to be the original source of genuine spiritual instruction and says that a person is connected to His teachings only through disciplic succession.

Genuine spiritual instruction is meant to foster ideal qualities in the human being. Truthfulness, cleanliness, austerity, mercy, humility, and freedom from material desire are called daivi-sampat (transcendental qualities) because they have their origin in Sri Krsna, the transcendental Supreme Person. But fallen souls have no way of associating with Krsna directly. The scriptures therefore say, sarva maha-guna-gana vaisnavasarire: in this world, all the best qualities are embodied by the Vaisnavas, Krsna’s pure devotees.

Vaisnava spiritual masters instill these qualities in their disciples through association and instruction. The disciples of a Vaisnava guru thus become qualified to impart daivi-sampat to their own disciples in turn. This is the meaning of disciplic succession.

In Kali-yuga, the present age, there are only four genuine sampradayas wherein saintly Vaisnava association can be found. One of these is the Brahma Sampradaya, established in South India by the great acarya Madhva. This sampradaya was accepted by Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu when He received initiation into the chanting of the Hare Krsna maha-mantra from His guru, Sri Isvara Puri. Then, in Bengal (Gaudadesa), Lord Caitanya began His movement of sankirtana, the congregational chanting of the holy names of Krsna. Lord Caitanya’s sankirtana mission, of which the International Society for Krishna Consciousness is the worldwide exponent, is known as the Brahma-Madhva- Gaudiya Sampradaya.

Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura has identified thirteen apasampradayas that claim to have inherited Lord Caitanya’s mission, though they have nothing to do with the Brahma-Madhva-Gaudiya Sampradaya. They are known by the names aula, baula, kartabhaja, neda, daravesa, sani, sahajiya, sakhibheki, smarta, jata-gosani, ativadi, cudadhari, and gauranga-nagari. Because these apasampradayas (apa means “deviated”) do not nurture Vaisnava qualities, their missionary activities are condemned as cheating.

As mentioned in Vaisnava Ke, by Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, the apasampradayas display only inauspicious qualities. One is anitya-vaibhava, the hankering for material success. Another is kaminira-kama, illicit sexual affairs that are usually passed off as “transcendental.” And a third is maya-vada, philosophical speculation that undercuts the personal nature of God as taught by the Vaisnava sampradayas.

What follows is an in-depth look at the deviations of each of the thirteen apasampradayas. In this article’s first installment, two of the most important, the jatagosani and the smarta, are dealt with.

Caste Gosvamis

The word jata means “by birth” or “by family.” Gosani is a Bengali form of the Sanskrit word gosvami, which means “one who controls his senses.” The word jatagosani is used in a critical sense to refer to those who take the position of gurus only on the basis of heredity, without having the required spiritual qualifications as well. The point here is that it is not enough to claim family connections to associates of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu. One must be a pure devotee of the Lord.

The devotees in the Gaudiya Vaisnava sampradaya, follow the original six Gosvamis of Vrndavana. These six devotees, who were all in the renounced order of life, were most illustrious disciples of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu. About these Gosvamis Srinivasa Acarya has written:

The six Gosvamis—Sri Rupa, Sri Sanatana, Sri Raghunatha Bhatta, Sri Raghunatha Dasa, Sri Jiva, and Sri Gopala Bhatta—are worshipable because they renounced their aristocratic family life as insignificant and became mendicants to preach and deliver the fallen souls. They are always bathing in the waves of ecstatic love for Krsna.

Thus the six Gosvamis set the ideal example of pure devotional service. To follow in the footsteps of the six Gosvamis, one must strictly follow the rules and regulations of devotional service, as explained by Srila Rupa Gosvami in his Bhaktirasamrta-sindhu (The Nectar of Devotion).

Sometimes, however, persons who neglect these devotional principles claim to be gosvamis simply on the basis of heredity. They have inherited the name Gosvami but not the consciousness of a gosvami. Without proper devotional training, such jata-gosanis, or caste gosvamis, disregard the regulative principles, neglect the devotional service of the Lord, and use the temple as a place for their own family comforts.

As Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati used to say, such untrained persons use the worshipable form of the Lord as “stones for cracking nuts” (that is, as a means of income for sense enjoyment). On the other hand, in India there are still families that are learned and devoted by tradition and training. They strictly follow regulative principles, they render excellent service to the Lord, and they foster Krsna conscious devotional service generation after generation.

Those born in such gosvami families have the fortunate opportunity to serve the Lord, and when properly trained they may also become pure devotees. They are then to be accepted as gosvami not only in name but in fact.

The essential consideration, therefore, is pure devotional service. Whether born in a high family or a low family, anyone, from any part of the world, can become a pure devotee of the Lord. As stated by Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu:

kiba vipra, kiba nyasi, sudra kene naya

yei krsna-tattva-vetta, sei ‘guru’ haya

The pure devotee is one who knows the science of Krsna and follows its principles. Such a person can be accepted as a bona fide spiritual master. What is objectionable, therefore, is the claim that pure devotional service can be performed or spread only by a particular caste or clan. This idea is contrary to Lord Caitanya’s teachings.

An example of such a clan is the so-called Nityananda Vamsa, who claim to descend from three grandsons of Lord Caitanya’s great associate Lord Nityananda. The members of the Nityananda Vamsa sometimes say that Lord Nityananda’s divine essence is carried in their family blood line.

This is mendacious on two counts. First, the ancestors of the Nityananda Vamsa were actually disciples, not sons, of Lord Nityananda’s only and childless son, Sri Virabhadra Gosvami. Second, a person is known to be a Vaisnava not by birth from a particular womb but by his character.

Up until the early part of this century, the Nityananda Vamsa held the lower-caste Vaisnavas in a thrall of superstition and wrong teachings. But beginning in the late 1800’s, Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura challenged them in his popular Bengali-language books like Jaiva Dharma and Hari Nama Cintamani. He proclaimed that it is not enough to accept a spiritual master merely on the basis of caste.

Before taking initiation, the candidate must be sure that the initiator is fully conversant with the scriptures and can lift his disciples out of ignorance. The guru should be of spotless character: if he is addicted to sinful acts, then even those he may have already initiated must reject him.

Bhaktivinoda’s books unleashed a wave of reform in Bengal that pushed the jatagosani into a defensive stance. But the confrontation came to open war when his son, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, took over the Gaudiya mission. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati publicly smashed the arguments placed before him by those who held that devotional service was a monopoly of their own caste. Such ideas, he said, were products of “skin disease.”

The basic misunderstanding in materialistic life is that the body is the self. Under illusion, one thinks of oneself as American, British, or Indian, young or old, man or woman, white or black. In fact, however, these are merely bodily designations, labels for the skin. And so too are designations of family and caste. To take birth in a high family may offer one an opportunity to become Krsna conscious. But the birth itself is not an automatic guarantee. Nor does birth in a low family exclude one. Anyone who performs pure devotional service to the Lord, regardless of jati, or birth, becomes a member of the transcendental family of Lord Sri Krsna. This is Lord Caitanya’s teaching.

Smarta-brahmanas

The Padma Purana, a text of Vedic teachings, states that if we always remember Visnu or Krsna (smartavyah satatam visnoh) before performing our duty, we automatically fulfill all scriptural rules and regulations. If we forget Him, we unavoidably transgress the spirit of the scriptures even if we observe them to the letter, because keeping Krsna always in mind is the purpose of all the scriptural codes of behavior.

Not everyone admits that purpose. There are three classes of brahmanas: the dvija, the vipra, and the Vaisnava. The third-class dvija is ritualistically initiated, the second class vipra is learned in the Vedas, and the first-class Vaisnava knows that the goal of the Vedas is to always remember Krsna and never forget Him. A dvija or vipra who is not a devotee can’t know the real sense of the rules and regulations of scripture; like a crooked lawyer, he’ll use the law to enrich himself materially. The nondevotee dvija or vipra is what is meant by the term smarta-brahmana.

Smarta-brahmanas totally reverse the instruction of the Padma Purana: rather than always remember Krsna and thus fulfill the rules and regulations, they remember the rules and regulations and always forget Krsna. The acara (behavior) of a strict smarta brahmana and a strict Vaisnava may externally be almost the same, but the consciousness is completely different.

In its subtlest form, the smarta contamination is a shift of values more than of behavior or even philosophy. Smarta values are called purusarthika, whereas Vaisnava values are paramapurusarthika. The difference between the two is explained by Srila Prabhupada in the Caitanya-caritamrta (Antya 7.24, Purport):

Purusartha (“the goal of life”) generally refers to religion, economic development, satisfaction of the senses, and, finally, liberation. However, above these four kinds of purusarthas, love of Godhead stands supreme. It is called paramapurusartha (the supreme goal of life) or purusartha-siromani (the most exalted of all purusarthas).

Smarta-brahmanas think that one must be born in the brahmana caste to be a guru. But according to Lord Caitanya, a person from any family, race, color, or creed can be guru as long as he or she knows the spiritual science of Krsna consciousness.

The smartas also claim the exclusive birthright to worship the salagrama-sila (Lord Visnu’s form as a black stone, which may be worshiped only by qualified brahmanas). And they never marry outside of the brahmana caste—this taboo is followed so rigidly that a smarta father would rather give his daughter to the son of a priest of the tantric school (which uses black rituals and offerings of meat and wine) than to a non-brahmana Vaisnava.

The smartas then, are afflicted by upper-caste pride. But although the jata-gosanis who overemphasize birthright may also be afflicted by pride, the two communities differ in their mode of worship. Caste gosvamis are exclusively priests of Krsna temples; ritualistically, at least, they are Vaisnava brahmanas. Caste brahmanas, on the other hand, worship according to the Mayavadi pancopasana conception. Thus they regard Lord Krsna or Visnu to be one of five forms of Brahman. Of the five (Durga, Ganesa, Surya, Siva, and Visnu), Bengali smartas have always preferred goddess Durga because she supplies her devotees with material opulence.

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries A.D., the importance of the Bengali smarta community was practically nullified by Lord Caitanya’s sankirtana movement. Among the great Vaisnava acaryas of that period, Srila Narottama Dasa Thakura stands out as the preacher who most cut down their pride.

The smartas, considering Narottama just a low-born kayastha (the clerical caste in Bengal), became so infuriated at his making disciples from among their ranks that they enlisted the king, Raja Narasimha, and a conquering pandita named Sri Rupa Narayana to lead a crusade to somehow expose Acarya Thakura as a fraud. The king, the pandita, and a large party of caste brahmanas made their way to Kheturi, where Srila Narottama Dasa had his headquarters.

When Sri Ramakrsna Bhattacarya and Sri Ganga Narayana Cakravarti, two Vaisnava brahmanas, came to know of the smarta conspiracy, they disguised themselves as sudras and set up two small shops in the Kumarapura market: one a pan and betel nut shop and the other a store selling clay pots.

As the party arrived at Kumarapura, the smartas sent their disciples to the market to purchase wares for cooking. When the students came to the shops of Ramakrsna and Ganga Narayana, they were dumfounded to find that these merchants spoke perfect Sanskrit and were eager not to do business but to engage in philosophical disputation.

Finding themselves outmatched, the distressed students called for their gurus, who arrived on the scene with Raja Narasimha and Rupa Narayana. When the smartas fared no better than their disciples, Rupa Narayana himself was drawn into the debate and was soundly defeated.

The king demanded they introduce themselves. The two shopkeepers humbly submitted that they were low-born and insignificant disciples of Srila Narottama Dasa Thakura Mahasaya. Shamed, Rupa Narayana and the smarta-brahmanas lost interest in proceeding to Kheturi. They returned immediately to their respective homes.

That night, Raja Narasimha had a dream in which an angry Durga Devi threatened him with a chopper used for killing goats. Glaring at him with blazing eyes, the goddess said, “Narasimha! Because you greatly offended Narottama Dasa Thakura, I shall have to cut you to pieces! If you want to save yourself, then you had better immediately go and take shelter at his lotus feet.”

His sleep broken, the frightened king quickly bathed and set out for Kheturi. Arriving there at last, he was surprised to meet the pandita Rupa Narayana, who sheepishly explained that he’d had a similar dream. They went to the temple of Sri Gauranga to meet Srila Narottama Dasa Thakura.

Acarya Thakura was absorbed in his devotions, but when a disciple informed him of the arrival of the two guests, he came out to meet them. Simply by seeing his transcendental form, the two offenders became purified and fell down to offer their obeisances at the Thakura’s lotus feet. Finally he initiated them with the Radha-Krsna mantra.

Because their leaders had become Vaisnavas, many lesser smartas thought it fashionable to externally adopt Vaisnava customs. This is how the smarta apasampradaya, or Vaisnavism compromised by caste brahmanism, began.

In the late nineteenth century a well-known member of this community claimed to be the incarnation of Rama, Krsna, and Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu. He established a missionary movement that preached the worship of Kali-Krsna, a concocted deity blending the forms of goddess Kali and Sri Krsna.

Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura soundly defeated the smarta apasampradaya at the town of Valighai Uddharanapura, West Bengal, in September 1911. He presented a work in which he conclusively argued the superiority of Vaisnavas to brahmanas. He read the paper before a gathering of more than ten thousand panditas, and though he was the youngest speaker present, the judges acclaimed Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati the winner of the dispute.

Nowadays, the smarta-brahmana community of Bengal has largely succumbed to secularism and exerts little influence in spiritual affairs.

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