The sankirtana tree of Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu
Lord Caitanya thought, “My name is Visvambhara, ‘one who maintains the entire universe.’ Its meaning will be actualized if I can fill the whole universe with love of Godhead.” Thinking in this way, He accepted the duty of a planter and began to grow a garden in Navadvipa. Thus the Lord brought the desire tree of devotional service to this earth and became its gardener. He sowed the seed and sprinkled upon it the water of His will. (Cc. Adi 9.7-9)
Lord Caitanya thus addressed the multifarious varieties of branches and subbranches of the tree of devotional service: "Since the tree of devotional service is transcendental, every one of its parts can perform the action of all the others. Although a tree is supposed to be immovable, this tree nevertheless moves. All the parts of this tree are spiritually cognizant, and thus as they grow they spread all over the world". (Cc. Adi 9.31-33)
In the Sri Caitanya Caritamrta (Adi-lila, chapter 9), it is described how the sankirtana movement descended from the spiritual realm. When manifested in this world, the sankirtana movement grows like a tree which emanates from Lord Caitanya personally. This tree has many branches connected to the main associates of the Lord, and from them grow various sub-branches that correspond to the main acaryas of our sampradaya. One of the biggest of such branches relates to Srila Prabhupada who created ISKCON and connected all of us in the form of numerous twigs and leaves.
There are four famous verses in the Caitanya Mangala (Sutra-khanda, song 12, verses 562-565) where Lord Caitanya says:
nama-guna-sankirtana vaisnavera shakti
prakasa karibe ami nija prema-bhakti
ei mate kali-papa karibe sanhara
sabe cala age pache na kara vichara
"Chanting of the name and qualities of Krsna gives the energy to the Vaishnavas. I will reveal these activities, a pure devotional service unto Myself. In this way I will destroy all the sins in Kali Yuga. So all of you, My associates, go ahead and take birth on the earthly planet before My advent and don't remain behind."
ebe nama sankirtana tikshna khadga laiya
antara asura jivera phelibe katiya
yadi papi chadi dharma dure dese yaya
mora senapati-bhakta yaibe tathaya
"Taking the sharp sword of nama-sankirtana, I will root out and destroy the demoniac mentality in the hearts of all the conditioned souls. And if some sinful people escape and giving up dharma go to far off countries, my Senapati Bhakta will go there to deliver them."
The expression “Senapati Bhakta” refers to a highly exalted devotee and preacher. Senapati is a military expression which means “commander-in-chief”. From recent history, we can understand that the chief commander is Srila Prabhupada. Not only did he start the western front of Sri Caitanya's movement, but he also brought it back to India, reestablishing the eternal principles of devotional service amongst the Indians themselves.
In the Caitanya-Caritamrta (Madhya 7.128) the Lord gives us another very famous verse:
yare dekha, tare kaha ‘krsna’-upadesa
amara ajnaya guru hana tara’ ei desa
Yare dekha, tare kaha means: "Wherever you go and whoever you meet", krsna’-upadesa: “Instruct everyone to follow the orders of Lord Sri Krsna as they are given in the Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam”. And then: amara ajnaya guru hana tara’ ei desa: “By my order become a spiritual master and try to liberate everyone in this land.”
There are different types of spiritual masters. The initiating spiritual master should be a liberated soul, a very elevated devotee that has not only firm faith and knowledge, but also realization, and is therefore capable of elevating his disciples up to the ultimate goal. As Srila Prabhupada teaches us in the Nectar of Instruction (purport to verse 5):
“A neophyte Vaisnava or a Vaisnava 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. Therefore a disciple should be careful to accept an uttama-adhikari as a spiritual master”.
The second type is the instructing spiritual master, who should also be a liberated soul, capable of further instructing one how to develop his relationship with Krsna. Both the initiating and instructing spiritual masters should be very elevated Vaishnavas. As Srila Prabhupada points out in the previous quote, a neophyte devotee may eventually assume these roles when other, more advanced Vaishnavas are not available, but this is not an ideal situation.
Finally, there is the connecting guru, who introduces one to Krsna consciousness. By giving a book or prasadam, inspiring him to start chanting and coming to the temple, or whatever it may be: the one who introduces a new person to Krsna consciousness. He is called vartma pradarsaka guru: the guru that makes the initial connection. Even if someone is not a very advanced devotee, still he knows something, and by repeating whatever he knows, he can connect others to Krsna.
HG Yasodanandana Prabhu: Prabhupada's room at the Radha-Damodar temple, you can see behind, there were these little holes that let the wind come through and you can actually see behind in the courtyard. So Shyamasundara's daughter, Saraswati, was there, and she was pulling on the shirt of a little Bengali gentleman and she was telling the gentleman, "Who is Krsna? Do you know who is Krsna?" And the gentleman had this amused look on his face. Saraswati may have been 4 or 5 years old at the time, she was very young. Prabhupada was looking and we were looking, and the man was amused that this little girl would ask him that. Then she told him, "Krsna is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and you should surrender to Him." And Prabhupada said, "Just see, she is a guru. She is preaching about Krsna." (Following Srila Prabhupada - A Chronological Series)
This system is so perfect that if one of the gurus (be the connecting guru, instructing guru, diksa guru, or even the father or mother), can somehow direct his dependents to the right path, putting them on the way back to Godhead, he can also go by sharing the merits of the disciple or son/daughter, even if he himself is imperfect. The prime example is Dhruva Maharaja. His mother, Suniti, acted as his vartma pradarsaka guru by instructing him to go to the forest and worship Krsna. In due course of time, Dhruva Maharaja became a perfect devotee and went back home back to Godhead, taking his mother with him. As Srila Prabhupada humbly points out in his purport to Srimad Bhagavatam 4.12.33, if we can help a single soul to become perfect in Krsna consciousness, then, despite our imperfections, we can also go back to Godhead:
“This incident proves that the siksa- or diksa-guru who has a disciple who strongly executes devotional service like Dhruva Maharaja can be carried by the disciple even though the instructor is not as advanced. Although Suniti was an instructor to Dhruva Maharaja, she could not go to the forest because she was a woman, nor could she execute austerities and penances as Dhruva Maharaja did. Still, Dhruva Maharaja was able to take his mother with him. Similarly, Prahlada Maharaja also delivered his atheistic father, Hiranyakasipu. The conclusion is that a disciple or an offspring who is a very strong devotee can carry with him to Vaikunthaloka either his father, mother or siksa- or diksa-guru. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura used to say, “If I could perfectly deliver even one soul back home, back to Godhead, I would think my mission — propagating Krsna consciousness — to be successful.” The Krsna consciousness movement is spreading now all over the world, and sometimes I think that even though I am crippled in many ways, if one of my disciples becomes as strong as Dhruva Maharaja, then he will be able to carry me with him to Vaikunthaloka”.
Despite being a liberated soul, Srila Prabhupada wrote in such a way just to give us the example as to what our mentality should be. Instead of pursuing our own liberation, we should try to help others to become Krsna conscious.
Whatever our situation is, we can serve the mission of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu by spreading Krsna consciousness to others; and the main tools to spread the sankirtana mission are the books. There is a reason for that: in the past, people used to be more simple and open-minded. If you would come to their village chanting, they would immediately get curious and ask about it. After hearing the explanation that these are the names of God and so on, they would immediately join. Because they were simple-hearted, they would start to chant, and immediately the chanting would have effect: they would become devotees. After that, you could give them some simple instructions and they would follow. This still happens in some villages in India, but in most places nowadays, people are crooked and complicated. You go on chanting but they can't simply accept and also chant. They come with many misconceptions and prejudices: Is this paganism? Is this Hinduism? They want to understand, analyze, therefore it's difficult to convince these types of “sophisticated” people with the chanting alone. You would need to spend a long time with each person to get some result.
Therefore, we have spiritual books, which are an efficient way to affect modern people. If we can just convince them to read our books, they’ll find all the answers there. If a person is a little pious, by the time he finishes the book, he’ll be willing to chant and join. If not, we can give them another book, some prasadam, another book, more prasadam, etc. until they get convinced. This way, on each encounter a person receives something, becoming more purified, up to the point he is ready to become a devotee.
“Persons who had formerly criticized Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu, calling Him a drunkard, also ate the fruit and began to dance, saying, “Very good! Very good!”
Purport: When Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu started the sankirtana movement, even He was unnecessarily criticized by Mayavadis, atheists and fools. Naturally we are also criticized by such men. They will always remain and will always criticize anything that is actually good for human society. But the preachers of the sankirtana movement should not be deterred by such criticism. Our method should be to convert such fools gradually by asking them to come and take prasadam and chant and dance with us. This should be our policy. Anyone who comes to join us, of course, must be sincere and serious regarding spiritual advancement in life; then such a person, simply by joining us, chanting with us, dancing with us and taking prasadam with us, will gradually also come to say that this movement is very good. But one who joins with an ulterior purpose, to get material benefit or personal gratification, will never be able to grasp the philosophy of this movement. (Cc. Adi 9.53)
Even if someone doesn't become a devotee in this life, our books will have some effect on his life -- they will make him rethink and change a few things. Nowadays, so many people are becoming vegetarians, starting to believe in karma and reincarnation, protesting against animal slaughter, desiring a less materialistic lifestyle, etc. We can be sure that the mass distribution of Srila Prabhupada's books in the last five decades is the main factor behind these changes in society. And the more we distribute, the more the world will change.
“The sankirtana movement has been introduced by Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu just to dispel the illusion of maya, by which everyone in this material world thinks himself to be a product of matter and therefore to have many duties pertaining to the body. Actually, the living entity is not his material body: he is a spirit soul. He has a spiritual need to be eternally blissful and full of knowledge, but unfortunately he identifies himself with the body, sometimes as a human being, sometimes as an animal, sometimes a tree, sometimes an aquatic, sometimes a demigod, and so on. Thus with each change of body he develops a different type of consciousness with different types of activities and thus becomes increasingly entangled in material existence, transmigrating perpetually from one body to another. Under the spell of maya, or illusion, he does not consider the past or future but is simply satisfied with the short life span that he has gotten for the present. To eradicate this illusion, Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu has brought the sankirtana movement, and He requests everyone to accept and distribute it”. (Cc. Adi 9.36)