Apasampradayas: what can we learn from them? Part 2, caste goswamis and smartas
During centuries, monarchical regimes continued on a hereditary basis, where the older son would inherit the kingdom from the father. However, this passing of titles and privileges to one's biological sons doesn't work very well in spiritual traditions, where a guru needs to pass the responsibility to his qualified disciples.
We know that in other eras, the son of a great person would also normally become great, because all the purificatory processes would be rigidly followed. Still, even at those times, there would be exceptions, like Drona and Ashwathama, or king Anga and Venu, for example. In Kali-yuga, there is no such rigid observation of purificatory processes, therefore frequently the son of an advanced devotee is just an ordinary fellow. Therefore the injunction is: "In Kali-yuga everybody is sudra". Until the son can prove himself to be qualified, he can't be accepted as a great devotee just because he has a great father.
We can see that this led to the decline of monarchical regimes all over the world. After centuries of unfit rulers, such regimes declined so much that they ended being overthrown. However, this idea of hereditary becomes especially dangerous when applied to spirituality.
Actually, one of the greatest problems in Kali-yuga is that in this era demons can take advantage of the lack of proper purificatory processes during the conception to take birth in exalted families and thus create havoc. This lead to the decline and collapse of brahminical culture in India, but it also has ramifications in recent vaishnava history.
As Srila Prabhupada mentions in his purport to SB 4.21.40:
"At present, in the Age of Kali, it is very difficult to render service to the brahmana-kula, or the brahmana class. The difficulty, according to the Varaha Purana, is that demons, taking advantage of Kali-yuga, have taken birth in brahmana families. Raksasah kalim asritya jayante brahma-yonisu (Varaha Purana). In other words, in this age there are many so-called caste brahmanas and caste gosvamis who, taking advantage of the sastra and of the innocence of people in general, claim to be brahmanas and Vaisnavas by hereditary right. One will not derive any benefit by rendering service to such false brahmana-kulas."
There are many clans of caste goswamis (jata-gosani), both in Bengal and in Vrindavana. Most of the traditional families have a connection with some exalted Vaishnava in the past (usually through initiation), and where this entrusted at some point with the maintenance of some temple, passing the service to their sons. However, as the time passed, most of the families declined in their practices and spiritual standards, and gradually declined into a caste of hereditary gurus who make a living by exerting a monopoly in the control of temples and initiation of members of lower castes.
The problems start with the use of the tittle "goswami". We understand that a goswami is a member of the renounced order, that is capable of controlling his senses. In the caste goswami families, all the male members (and sometimes the ladies also) inherit the title automatically, and are expected to be revered as such by the greater public even if unqualified.
Even though frequently immersed in bad habits and worldly behavior, caste goswamis would claim to be renounced goswamis, even while living with their families and using the donations given to the temples for their livehod.
On the one hand, the caste goswamis were responsible for the maintenance of most of the temples in both Vrindavana and Navadwipa, but on the other hand the philosophy of heredietariety and all the folclore related to that leads to many problems.
Some are sincere vaishnavas that show respect to Srila Prabhupada and cooperate with ISKCON devotees, while others are immersed in bad habits and bogus philosophies, using the temples as their personal properties, neglecting the worship of the deities to maintain a luxurious lifestyle.
Sometimes, sentimental devotees may become attracted to members of the jata-gosany class just because they claim to have seminal descendance from some important acarya. It's interesting to note, in connection with this, that the high priest of the demons is Sukracharya, whose name means, literally, “seminal guru” or someone who declares the birth connection as the only way to transmit powerful positions to future generations. This makes it clear to understand where this idea comes from.
In any case, their claim of seminal descendance is usually false, as their connection with previous acaryas is usually through initiation, and not thorough family ties. In other words, in most cases, these families are not descendants of the claimed acaryas, but descendants of disciples. One group in Bengal, for example, claim to be descendants of Lord Nityananda, but their connection with him is through a disciple of his son, Sri Virabadra Prabhu, as proved by Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura.
In any case, even when seminal descendance is present, this doesn’t mean much. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati explains how the families of even incarnations of Krsna may become degraded over time. The central point, according to him, is that the son of Krsna is not Krsna, but a Vaishnava, therefore from the third generation there is no difference from a regular Vaishnava family. The sons of even a pure devotee are not always pure devotees, consequently, the lines initiated by powerful Vaishnavas continue through disciplic succession to their confidential followers, and not through seminal descendance.
As Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura mentions (Sajjana tosani, Vol. 19, Part 7/8):
“We may go on bragging that we are born in the seminal dynasty of a Vaisnava and we may exhibit lifeless limbs of devotional service, but unless we have firm faith in the service of Hari we will simply cheat ourselves and become enemies of society.
Acyuta-gotra is never a saukra gotra, or -seminal family, therefore Vaisnava vamsa does not refer only to the seminal dynasty. The spiritual Vaisnavas who belong to the Acyuta-gotra, or family of Krsna, entrust their respective authority only to their most confidential servants. The unqualified descendants can never claim to be successors just because they were born in that family. Even if they achieve such a position, they are unable to protect it. These facts are similarly applicable to the dynasties of Lord Visnu as well. Specifically, the Lord and His devotees appear in different dynasties at different times, and there are no obstacles for nondevotees and demons to take birth in such families. The son of Lord Visnu is not Lord Visnu, but a Vaisnava. So from the third generation there is no difference between the descendants of Visnu and the descendants of the Vaisnavas.”
The main point is that advanced devotees may take birth in caste goswami families, just like they may take birth in any other family, but such Vaishnavas should be respected by their spiritual realizations and achievements and not by their seminal descendance. As Srila Prabhupada mentions on his purport to CC Antya 3.143:
“It is said, phalena pariciyate: one is recognized by the result of his actions. In Vaisnava society there are many types of Vaisnavas. Some of them are called gosvamis, some are called svamis, some are prabhus, and some are prabhupada. One is not recognized, however, simply by such a name. A spiritual master is recognized as an actual guru when it is seen that he has changed the character of his disciples. Haridasa Thakura actually changed the character of the professional prostitute. People greatly appreciated this, and therefore they all offered obeisances to Haridasa Thakura and glorified him.”
Although there was not yet a case of someone trying to implement hereditary guruship in our society, we may be tempted by more subtle jata-gosani deviations, like, for example, to use a temple or a deity as means of livelihood, or to try to maintain privileges or titles even when though one is not maintaining the proper standards demanded by such position. In other words, to use spiritual life as a means to attain and maintain privileges.
In one sense, the jasa-gosanis are the starting point for the other apasampradayas, for they were at a certain point the established tradition. Because of their degradation, people started to rebel and demand change, leading to the rise of other groups, which instead of improving the situation, just resulted in increasingly degraded practices. This is also a warning for us. If we don’t keep high standards in ISKCON, people are going to flock to other groups, which are also not going to provide any real improvement. Human tendency is towards degradation, and this is even more prominent in kali-yuga. Different acaryas and Krsna Himself in His different incarnations come periodically to elevate the standards, but outside of this, human concoctions never introduce anything better. Just like we had our dose of problems in ISKCON in previous decades, but other movements that appeared in this period didn’t offer anything superior.
Continuing, the idea of hereditariety is also found in the smarta brahmanas, that try to follow the rituals, rules and regulations but leave aside the devotional aspects. The injunction of the scriptures is that we should always remember Krsna, and never forget Him. To this end, we have so many rules and regulations that help us to keep pure in consciousness and thus be able to remain fixed in Krsna consciousness, which is the ultimate goal of all injunctions of the scriptures. The smarta brahmanas invert the logic, remembering all the rules and regulations, but forgetting Krsna. Smartas are bogged down in an inveterate fruitive mentality: their sole goal is to get material piety and fame. Generally, smartas have a greater propensity to worship demigods, especially Durga devi, but even if they adopt devotional practices, like chanting the maha-mantra, visiting the holy places or fasting on Ekadasi, their idea is usually to just increase their material piety and sense of self-accomplishment. They just take all these as fruitive activities.
The smartas are a much older community, but according to Suhotra Maharaja, they adopted Vaishnava dress and habits from the 16th century, after Raja Narasimha surrendered to Srila Narottama Dasa Thakura.
This is a very interesting pastime. In the course of his preaching, Srila Narottama Dasa Thakura converted and initiated a number of illustrious members of the smarta community, including Ganga Narayana Chakravarti, Jagannatha Acharya, and other well known brahmanas. The smartas considered Srila Narottama Dasa Thakura a sudra, because he took birth in a kayastha family, therefore the fact that he was giving initiation to brahmanas of the community created a great stir. At some point, a large fraction went to complain to Raja Narasingha, the local king. With his support, they enlisted Sri Rupa Narayana, a famous digvijay, and proceeded to Kheturi, with the intention of somehow exposing Srila Narottama Dasa Thakura as a fraud.
On the way, they stopped at a small town called Kumara Pura to rest. Coming to know about the plot, Sri Ramakrishna Bhattacharya and Sri Ganga Narayana Cakravarti disguised themselves, one as a seller of clay pots and the other as a seller of betel nuts. In this way, they set up shops within the local market and waited. When some of the disciples of the panditas went to buy provisions in the market, they met the two Vaishnavas who, speaking perfect sanskrit, engaged them in a debate. Gradually, the teachers got involved, and soon Raja Narasingha himself arrived with the digvijay. In the presence of the king, the two Vaishnavas soundly defeated Sri Rupa Narayana and all other members of the group.
Surprised that a pan-walla and a potter could defeat such great panditas, the king inquired about their identities. Showing great humility, they answered that they were humble disciples of Srila Narottama Dasa Thakura. Turning to the digvijay, the king exclaimed: If two of Narottama’s ordinary disciples can defeat you in debate, there is no need of going to see him! Later, Durga Devi herself appeared to the king and Rupa Narayana, and ordered both to go to Narottama and beg forgiveness for their offenses. Surrendering, both became initiated disciples of Srila Narottama Dasa Thakura. From this point on, an increasing number of smartas adopted Vaishnava habits, mixing vaishnavism with smarta values.
Another famous clash between Vaishnavas and smartas happened in 1911, when a group composed of many of the most illustrious members of the smarta community were fully defeated by Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, who proved that Vaishnavas are superior to ordinary brahmanas and that anybody can be elevated to a pure platform by executing devotional service, regardless of birth or social position. The arguments given by Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati on this occasion can be found in detail in the book “Brahmana and Vaisnava”. He starts by quoting different passages from the sastra that glorify the exalted position of the brahmana, basically exhausting all the arguments that could be used by the smartas. He then expertly changes the subject and starts explaining why the Vaishnava is even more exalted than ordinary brahmanas, describes the wrong concepts and practices adopted by the smarta community, and explains how even the ones born in lower families can be elevated to the topmost platform by receiving spiritual initiation and practicing under the guidance of a bonafide spiritual master, again quoting extensive scriptural evidence. By the end of his lecture, the smartas could not put forward any plausible argument.
The smartas illustrate our tendency to take devotional service as a means to nurture our materialistic tendencies, using it as a fruitive endeavour to improve our existence in this material world, achieving fame, opulence and prestige or, on the other side, to become ritualistic, taking the rules and regulations as everything, forgetting that they are just means to achieve the real goal, that is love for Krsna. If we chant the maha-mantra, fast on Ekadasi or do different services with any other goal than to please Krsna and develop our love for Him, we may be already deviating in this way.