Śikṣā outside ISKCON?

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PART ONE - The Tradition of Śikṣā-guru
There Are Many Śikṣā-gurus

1. The many kinds of śīkṣā-guru
A devotee must have only one initiating spiritual master, but he may, though need not,(33) have more than one śīkṣā-guru.(34)

Among śīkṣā-gurus, the first devotee who shows the path of devotion is known as the vartma-pradaraaka-guru.(35) Those Vaiṣṇavas who give guidance on the path are also śīkṣā-gurus; among these, the one who gives the most regular guidance generally becomes the devotee’s dīkṣā-guru.(36) Thus, the dīkṣā-guru is also an instructor.(37) Thus, up to and including initiation, there are three types of śīkṣā-guru.(38)

A fourth type of śīkṣā-guru is the one most commonly identified with the name. His distinction is that he is the Vaiṣṇava selected by the dīkṣā-guru to give his disciple continuing spiritual instruction. Why would the dīkṣā-guru pass to someone else the responsibility of śīkṣā? There may be a variety of reasons, including force of circumstance(39) or his feelings of spiritual inadequacy.(40)

2. The founder-ācārya
Though śāstra repeatedly mentions śīkṣā-guru, it says little of the founder-ācārya; though the tradition of śīkṣā-guru is abundant, that of the founder-ācārya is not.

Yet there is a glorious culture of the worship of, and obedience to, leaders of sampradāyas, such as Brahmā,(41) Vyāsadeva, Madhvācārya, Caitanya Mahāprabhu, and Rūpa Gosvāmī,(42) as well as other ācāryas prominent by the recognition of their followers.(43) This traditional respect for ācāryas appears to be the basis upon which we now revere Śrīla Prabhupāda. Although tradition sometimes did define the ācārya within an institutional framework, that was rare.(44) And never did the framework parallel the sophisticated modern institutional structures of the Gauḍīya Maṭha and ISKCON.(45)

Following the example of Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura, Śrīla Prabhupāda introduced to ISKCON the concept of an institutional ācārya and coined the title founder-ācārya. To the present day, ISKCON’s leadership continues to develop the idea of founder-ācārya as it pertains to Śrīla Prabhupāda.

The founder-ācārya is a śīkṣā-guru of paramount importance; his role in the tradition of śīkṣā is all-pervading in his line. This prominence is due to (1) the emphasis and direction he gives the paramparā’s teachings,(46) and (2) the institution he establishes to fulfil Lord Caitanya’s mission.(47)

Because of the indelible stamp the founder-ācārya places on the śīkṣā of his line, all subsequent gurus and followers must execute their service and direct their dependents through the founder-ācārya’s teachings.(48) This is the pre-eminent śīkṣā position of the founder-ācārya.

3. Śikṣā-gurus of varying characteristics
I have already mentioned(49) that instructors vary in spiritual strength and commitment to disciples. The degree to which spiritual potency manifests in a Vaiṣṇava guru is a consequence of his service(50) and bhajana.(51) And naturally, his advancement is reflected in his consciousness, which in turn determines the quality of his śīkṣā. In this way, śīkṣā-gurus vary in their ability to guide their disciples.(52) Śāstra classifies them in two ways: either (1) beginner, intermediate, advanced, or (2) liberated or non-liberated.(53)

As an adjunct to the paragraph above, Vaiṣṇavas also vary in their ability to direct their disciples in practical affairs—a quality independent of spiritual strength.(54) Good practical direction enlivens devotees in spiritual progress, and may enhance their ability for bhajana.

Instruction also can be categorised according to the extent of the śīkṣā-guru’s commitment to the disciple. A śīkṣā-guru may give guidance that is:

  1. occasional (e.g., Bhāgavatam class);
  2. limited (i.e., for a certain time or for a certain purpose);
  3. uncommitted (i.e., not obliged to the disciple’s liberation); or
  4. committed (i.e., up to and beyond liberation).

Some instruction is merely educational; other goes beyond this world, having been secured for eternity by service and surrender.(55)

4. Other śīkṣā-gurus
A devotee may have an unlimited number of śīkṣā-gu-rus. In recognising and respecting various gurus and their various qualities, spiritual sensitivity and theistic intelligence will serve one well. The Śikṣā-guru book was written to be a tool to help cultivate such sensitivity and intelligence.

A final category of śīkṣā-guru, though not within the Vaiṣṇava community, is worth mentioning. It consists of those humans, non-humans, or inanimate objects that indirectly nurture one’s spiritual life.(56) Even the physical body, evidence of the soul’s entanglement, may be a source of illumination.(57) Yet the teachings acquired from such sources must be filtered through mature intelligence, for they are but an impetus for contemplation; in the ultimate issue, one’s own spiritual intuition is one’s guru.(58)


33Viavanātha Cakravartī Ṭhākura’s comments: “... There are many similar verses in Vedic literature indicating that one must take shelter of a single bona fide spiritual master. We also have the examples of innumerable great saintly persons who did not accept more than one spiritual master ... I myself certainly follow this principle and worship my bona fide spiritual master.” (Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 11.9.31, purport)
34“One may accept only one dīkṣā-guru, but one may accept many śīkṣā-gurus.” (Jīva-dharma, chapter 20)
35Literally means “the guru who illuminates the path.” (Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 4.12.32, purport)
36“... generally the śīkṣā-guru later on becomes the dīkṣā-guru.” (a href=/books/sb/4/12/32>Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 4.12.32, purport)
37“The dīkṣā-guru may also perform the duties of a śīkṣā-guru.” (Jīva-dharma, chapter 20)
38They are (1) the vartma-pradaraaka, (2) other instructors, and (3) the most prominent instructor, the initiator.
39Prabhupāda says, “Sometimes a dīkṣā-guru is not present always. Therefore one can take learning, instruction, from an advanced devotee. That is called the śīkṣā-guru.” (Bhagavad-gītā lecture, Honolulu, July 4, 1974)
40See a href=/books/kbhnm/46>Kṛṣṇa-bhajanāmṛta 46-61.
41See Harināma-cintāmaṇi, chapter 6.
42“This is the process of the perfect way. One must take lessons from authorities like Nārada, Vyāsa and Asita, and follow their principles.” (Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 6.16.45, purport)
43Śrīla Prabhupāda often quotes Chandogya Upanisad 6.14.2, referring to ācāryas as particularly “great” spiritual teachers rather than spiritual masters, e.g., “great ācāryas like ... Śa ̄karācārya, Madhvācārya, Rāmanujācārya, Viṣṇu Svāmī — so many other ācāryas — Lord Caitanya.” (Bhagavad-gītā lecture, Bombay, April 1, 1971)
44Rāmanujācārya, Śa ̄karācārya, Madhvācārya and Jīva Gosvāmī all organised their followers and established systematic rules for Deity worship, preaching, and administration of ma±has.
45My definition of founder-ācārya is restricted in this paper. It will not include the concept of the founder of a sampradāya like Lord Brahmā, or even one who revives a lost tradition as Kṛṣṇa mentions in Bhagavad-gītā 4.2. I shall deal strictly within the modern realm of Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism, beginning with Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura.
46See Harināma-cintāmaṇi, chapter 6, on “founder-ācārya.”
47In a lecture, Śrīla Prabhupāda says, “That was Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura’s first attempt. Before that, even the ācāryas, Rūpānuga Gosvāmīs, they left literature, but they did not attempt to preach practically. And Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura, he was very, very anxious to preach this Caitanya cult in the western countries. This is Śrī Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura’s special contribution.” (Lecture, Los Angeles, December 13, 1973)
48One of the many times Prabhupāda repeated this principle: “This is paramparā system. You cannot jump over. You must go through the paramparā system.” (Caitanya-caritāmṛta lecture, Māyāpur, March 28, 1975)
49See section 2: What is a śīkṣā-guru?
50Here service refers to fulfilling Lord Caitanya’s mission. This is an activity that invokes His mercy — the indispensable factor in spiritual advancement, which complements individual effort. See Gīta-mālā 18.2–3.
51Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 11.2.44-48 describes the symptoms of three general categories of Vaiṣṇavas: kaniṣ±ha (beginner), madhyama (intermediate), and uttama (advanced).
52In his purport to The Nectar of Instruction, text 5, Prabhupāda explains how guidance varies according to the guru’s advancement: “A neophyte Vaiṣṇava or a Vaiṣṇava situated on the intermediate platform can also accept disciples, but such disciples must be on the same platform, and it should be understood that they cannot advance very well toward the ultimate goal of life under his insufficient guidance.”
53“There are two kinds of instructing spiritual masters. One is the liberated person fully absorbed in meditation in devotional service, and the other is he who invokes the disciple’s spiritual consciousness by means of relevant instructions.” (Caitanya-caritāmṛta Ādi 1.47, purport)
54Satsvarūpa Mahārāja writes, “Our service to Kṛṣṇa should be guided by our spiritual master. He will help us to serve according to our psychophysical nature, in a way that is most effective for our purification.” (Nārada-bhakti-sūtra 82, purport)
55See The Śikṣā-guru, Part Three, Chapter 9.
56In Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, Canto 11, chapter 7–9, Kṛṣṇa instructs Uddhava in the process of sā ̄khya, a science that includes learning from non-devotee śīkṣā-gurus.
57See Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 11.9.24-29.
58In Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 11.7.32, the words santi me guravo rājan bahavo buddhy-upāarita¤ mean, “... with help of my intelligence I have taken shelter of many spiritual masters.”
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