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2. Jata-gosani: caste goswamis
"So there are thirteen pseudo pretenders belonging to the Caitanya sampradaya ... So if I describe these thirteen, it will take thirteen hours. So I don't describe them all. But one or two must be described. The most important is the jati-gosai. They created a caste of gosvamis, just like they created a caste of brahmanas. So this gosvami will come by hereditary birth, just like brahmana. So my Guru Maharaja's contribution is that he defeated these caste gosvamis, the same way as Caitanya Mahaprabhu did that, as Caitanya Mahaprabhu said, kiba vipra sudra nyasa kebe naya yei krnsa tattva vetta sei guru haya: 'There is no consideration whether a man is a sannyasi, a brahmana, or a sudra, or a grhasta, householder, or - No. Anyone who knows the science of Krishna, he is alright. He is gosvami. He is brahmana.'"
"That is the contribution, say, within a hundred years. That is the contribution. And for this reason, he had to face so many vehement protests from this brahmana class gosvamis. They conspired to kill him. Guru Maharaja told me personally, because by his grace, when I used to meet alone, he used to talk so many things. He was so kind that he used to talk with me. So he personally told me, 'These people, they wanted to kill me. They collected 25,000 rupees and went to the police officer in charge of that area, that, "You take this 25,000 rupees. We shall do something against Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati. You don't take any step."' And the police officer refused and came to my Guru Maharaja that 'You take care. This is the position.'" (Srila Prabhupada, lecture, 7 February 1969)
The following quotations from Srila Rupa Gosvami define the qualifications of a bona fide spiritual master, who is sometimes addressed as gosvami, gosani or gosai in the Brahma-Madhva-Gaudiya Sampradaya.
iha yasya harer dasye
karmana manasa gira
nirhilam api avasthasu
jivanmurtah sa ucyate
"One who engages in the transcendental service of the Lord in body, mind and word is to be considered liberated in all conditions of material existence." (Bhakti-rasamrta-sindhu 1.2.187)
vaco vegam manasah krodha-vegam
etan vegan yo visaheta dhirah
sarvam apimam prthivim sa sisyat
"One who can control the urge to speak, the mind, anger and the tongue, belly and genitals is able to accept disciples from all over the world." (Sri Upadesamrta 1)
The scriptures give clear warnings to those who would accept the post of guru without qualification:
na ca mantra upajivi syanna
capya arco upajirikah
na aniredita bhogas ca
na ca nirdyah niredika
"Never accept the post of an initiating spiritual master or temple priest as a profession. Never eat what is not offered, and never offer what is not recommended in the scriptures." (Narada Pancaratra)
svalpa api handi bhuyam
sam svadharma nirdita kriya
drstim kudrstir bhaktis tu
"Even the slightest disreputable activity destroys a great quantity of virtue. Vast learning is destroyed by just the slightest wrong understanding. Bhakti is destroyed by the slightest dependence upon the demigods." (Narada Pancaratra)
guru nasa syat sva jana nasa syat
pita nasa syat janani na sa syat
daivam na tat syan na patis ca sa syan
na mocayea yah samupaiti matyum
"One who cannot deliver his dependents from the path of repeated birth and death should never become a spiritual master, a father, a husband, a mother or a worshipable demigod." (Srimad-Bhagavatam 5.5.18)
The jata-gosani are a hereditary caste of so-called spiritual masters. Their qualification to give initiation is too often limited to the boast of family connections to associates of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu or to disciples of these associates. A famous example of such a family is the so-called Nityanandavamsa. They claim seminal descent from Lord Nityananda through persons who were actually disciples, not sons, of Lord Nityananda's only and childless son Sri Virabhadra Gosvami.
The jata-gosani use of "gosvami" as a family name is a deviation peculiar to this apasampradaya. Though sunken in mundane family affairs, they think themselves as important as the renounced gosvamis of the Gaudiya Sampradaya.
"One who is still in family life should not misuse the title gosvami. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakur did not recognize the caste gosvamis because they were not in the line of the six Gosvamis in the renounced order who were direct disciples of Lord Caitanya -- namely, Srila Rupa Gosvami, Srila Sanatana Gosvami, Srila Bhatta Raghunatha Gosvami, Sri Gopala Bhatta Gosvami, Sri Jiva Gosvami and Srila Raghunatha das Gosvami. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakur said that the grhastha-ashrama, or the status of family life, is a sort of concession for sense gratification. Therefore a grhastha should not falsely adopt the title gosvami. The ISKCON movement has never conferred the title gosvami upon a householder. Although all the sannyasis we have initiated in ISKCON are young, we have awarded them the titles of the renounced order of life, svami and gosvami, because they have completely dedicated their lives to preach the cult of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu." (Caitanya-caritamrta, Adi 12.27, purport)
A popular superstition in Bengal, alluded to in the purport of Caitanya-caritamrta, Madhya 10.23, is that persons born in caste gosvami families are automatically uttama-adhikaris. Thus the title Prabhupada is theirs by birthright. The Gaudiya Vaishnava Sampradaya rejects this.
"It is said, phalena pariciyate: one is recognized by the result of his actions. In vaishnava society, there are many types of vaishnavas. 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 he has changed the character of his disciples." (Caitanya-caritamrta, Antya 3.143, purport)
In Vrindavan, many of the important temples are managed by caste gosvamis. The history of two such prominent families illustrates how the jata-gosani contamination can divert even highly-qualified persons from the path of the great acaryas. To avoid the unpleasantries of controversy, some names are omitted.
One clan has temples in Mathura, Jatipur, Gokul and Kaman. They descend from a brahmana who is a famous contemporary of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu who, as described in Sri Caitanya-caritamrta, became formally linked with Gaudiya Vaishnava Sampradaya when he received initiation from Sri Gadadhara Pandita. Srila Prabhupada remarked that Lord Caitanya accepted him as a great scholar, but not necessarily as a great devotee. At Govardhana, he took over the management of a temple that had been established by a great Gaudiya Vaishnava acarya. During this time, the learned brahmana associated with the six Gosvamis, especially Rupa and Sanatana. Because his own men lacked training, Gaudiya Vaishnavas were appointed to do the puja under his supervision.
The brahmana had two sons; after he left the world in the year 1530, Srila Raghunatha das Gosvami requested one son to take over the temple management. The temple duties continued to be shared between Gaudiya Vaishnavas and the learned brahmana's disciples until around the year 1550, when an intrigue was begun against the Gaudiya devotees. Once, while they were worshiping the Deity, an envious disciple of the brahmana set fire to the homes of the Gaudiya pujaris and drove them out. Thereafter, the Deity was claimed as the sole property of the brahmana's clan. (In 1699, due to threat of Muslim attack, the Deity vacated Vrindavan and eventually came to Rajasthan.)
Though the brahmana's son was not part of the intrigue, he took no steps to heal the rupture with the Gaudiya Sampradaya. To block a challenge to his authority from among his father's disciples, he appointed his seven sons as acaryas and willed that only they and their descendants could use the title "Gosvami Maharaja" and give initiation. Later on, the family propagated a myth that the great brahmana's son was an incarnation of Krishna; the same pseudo-divinity was appropriated by succeeding generations and used as means of explaining away the "amorous pastimes" of some of the clan.
The second line of Vrindavan caste gosvamis under discussion was started by someone who took sannyasa from Gopala Bhatta Gosvami. As if in imitation of Lord Nityananda, he later married two sisters and claimed that he had been ordered to do so by Sri Krishna personally. The Gaudiya Vaishnava community disapproved both his deed and defense. In the year 1585, he established a mandira near Kaliya Ghat. The caste gosvamis who manage this mandira today are descendants of his first son. Descendents of his second son manage another famous Vrindavan temple.
This clan takes a dim view of what they think are the unnecessary austerities of the gosvamis of the Gaudiya Vaishnava Sampradaya. Krishna loves his devotees, they argue, and He becomes pleased when He sees them living a life of material comfort and sense gratification. They uphold their founder's example as superior to that of the Six Gosvamis. One Priyadas of this clan composed a work called Suslokamanimala in which he asserts that the founder was the spiritual master of Sanatana Gosvami and Jiva Gosvami. With this and other fabrications, they defend their apasampradaya as the genuine sampradaya.
Several historical accounts, including the biography of Srinivasa Acarya entitled Prema-vilasa, relate that the founder met his death by having his head chopped off, either by robbers or by a disgruntled pujari.
In 1932, the caste gosvamis of Vrindavan opposed the Vraja Mandala Parikrama of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakur and his Gaudiya Matha disciples on the grounds that he had deviated from the Vedic system by offering the sacred thread to persons not of brahminical parentage. Srila Prabhupada explained the fallacy of the jata-gosani in this regard in a letter to Acyutananda Swami: "Regarding the validity of the brahminical status as we accept it, because in the present age there is no observance of the garbhadhana ceremony, even a person born in a brahmana family is not considered a brahmana, he is called dvijabandhu or unqualified son of a brahmana. Under the circumstances, the conclusion is that the whole population is now sudra, as it is stated kalau sudra sambhava. So for sudras there is no initiation according to the Vedic system, but according to the pancaratrika system initiation is offered to a person who is inclined to take Krishna consciousness."
In Bengal, besides caste gosvamis who at least have a valid genealogical link to some vaishnava of the past, there are even pretenders whose claim to the name "gosvami" lacks any foundation whatsoever. Many of the important temples and holy places connected with Lord Caitanya's pastimes remain under jata-gosani control. Up until the early part of this century, they held the lower-caste vaishnavas in an iron grip of ignorance and exploitation.
Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur challenged the jati-gosani in such works as Jaiva Dharma and Hari Nama Cintamani by proclaiming that it is not enough to accept a spiritual master merely on the basis of his caste. Before initiation, the candidate must be completely satisfied that the initiator is fully conversant with the scriptures and can lift his disciples out of ignorance. The guru must be of spotless character: if he is addicted to sinful acts, even those he may have already initiated must reject him. Bhaktivinoda's books unleashed a wave of reform in Bengal that pushed the jata-gosani into a defensive stance. But the confrontation came to open war when his son, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, took over the Gaudiya mission.
In 1912, he was invited to attend a samminlani (assembly) of vaishnavas sponsored by the Maharaja of Kossimbazar. But some jata-gosani and their sahajiya supporters prevented him from giving a public lecture; in protest, he fasted for four days straight. According to the account of his disciple Sambidananda das, Acarya Siddhanta Sarasvati refuted all the arguments placed before him by the caste's proponents in a discussion separate from the main program. The jata-gosani thus learned to fear Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati as the singlemost threat to their privileged existence.
After taking sannyasa in 1918, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati mounted a concerted effort to smash the influence of the jata-gosani even in their strongholds. He fearlessly toured Jessore and Khulna (now in Bangladesh), the home turf of Priyanath Nandi, who was the leading spokesman of the caste gosvamis. Priyanatha met defeat in a public debate held at the village of Toothpada.
Things came to a head in February-March 1925, just as the Gaudiya Matha began nine days of a Navadvipa parikrama leading up to that year's Gaura Purnima festivities. The party of devotees, numbering several thousand and personally lead by Srila Bhaktisiddhanta, was viciously attacked by goonda hirelings of the jata-gosani when it entered the city of Navadvip without paying a tax for maintenance of caste gosvami temples. Armed with brickbats and other weapons, the goondas charged the elephant procession, injuring many pilgrims. The shocked public sided with the Gaudiya Matha devotees and the pilgrimage continued under police protection. This incident permanently tarnished the reputation and influence of the jata-gosani. Overnight, their stubborn opposition to Srila Bhaktisiddhanta's preaching lost all force.
The Caste Gosvami Mentality and ISKCON
By Srila Prabhupada's mercy, the grossest jata-gosani deviation - hereditary guruship - seems unlikely to take root in the ISKCON he constituted. Yet the author recalls a period in the 1970's when the devotees of the New York temple were addressing their GBC man as "Gosvami Maharaja" even though he'd abandoned his sannyasa ashrama and taken a wife (ed. note: Bali Mardan). After various indelicacies about his marriage came to light, this person was forced to relinquish his position. So here is at least one example of how an aberration of the jata-gosani type found its way, albeit briefly, into ISKCON.
In this connection, there are other characteristics of the caste gosvami apasampradaya that are worth noting. The jata-gosani are the priestly class of a mundane religion that superficially resembles vaishnava-dharma. As Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati used to say, they use the saligram-sila and arca-vigraha as "stones for cracking nuts" (i.e. as a means of income for sense enjoyment). They give siddha-pranali initiation (in which they "reveal" the disciple's rasa with Krishna) as a ritual means of garnering a follower's lifetime financial support. They neglect their disciples' factual spiritual advancement by not teaching them the regulative principles of sadhana-bhakti; indeed, such "gosvamis" are worshiped by bidi-seva (ceremonial presentations of cigarettes) and offerings of fish.
How do such deviations begin? Here are a few indications:
"Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakur explains that even though one may become free from the desire for fruitive activity, sometimes the subtle desire for fruitive activity comes into being within the heart. One often thinks of conducting business to improve devotional activity. However, the contamination is so strong that it may later develop into misunderstanding, described as kuti-nati (faultfinding) and pratisthasa (the desire for name and fame and for high position), jiva-himsa (envy of other living entities), nisiddhacara (accepting things forbidden in the sastra), kama (desire for material gain) and puja (hankering for popularity)." (Caitanya-caritamrta, Madhya 12.135, purport)
"If a person overly addicted to family life takes to Srimad-Bhagavatam or Krishna consciousness to earn a livelihood, his activity is certainly offensive. One should not become a caste guru and sell mantras for the benefit of mundane customers, nor should one make disciples for a livelihood. All these activities are offensive. One should not make a livelihood by forming a professional band to carry out congregational chanting, nor should one perform devotional service when one is attached to mundane society, friendship and love. Nor should one be dependent on so-called social etiquette. All this is mental speculation. None of these things can be compared to unalloyed devotional service." (Caitanya-caritamrta, Madhya 8.83, purport)
"Everyone gets a mother and father at the time of birth, but the real father and mother are they who can release their offspring from the clutches of immiment death. This is possible only for parents advanced in Krishna consciousness. Therefore any parents who cannot enlighten their offspring in Krishna consciousness cannot be accepted as a real father and mother." (Caitanya-caritamrta, Antya 13.113, purport)
"One should not proudly think that one can understand the transcendental loving service of the Lord simply by reading books. One must become a servant of a vaishnava. As Narottama das Thakur has confirmed, chadiya vaisnava-seva nistara payeche keba: "One cannot be in a transcendental position unless one very faithfully serves a pure vaishnava. One must accept a vaishnava guru (adau gurv-asrayam), and then by questions and answers one should gradually learn what pure devotional service to Krishna is. That is called the parampara system." (Caitanya-caritamrta, Antya 7.53, purport)
"In purified consciousness, or Krishna consciousness, one sees the presence of Krishna everywhere. If, therefore, one only engages in Deity worship in the temple and does not consider other living entities, then he is in the lowest grade of devotional service. One who worships the Deity in the temple and does not show respect to others is a devotee on the material platform, in the lowest stage of devotional service." (Srimad-Bhagavatam 3.29.21, purport)
"A real brahmana is never envious of a vaishnava. If he is, he is considered an imperfect neophyte." (Caitanya-caritamrta, Madhya 15.277, purport)
"'My dear King, if one derides an exalted devotee, he loses the results of his pious activities, his opulence, his reputation and his sons. Vaishnavas are all great souls. Whoever blasphemes them falls down to the hell known as Maharaurava. He is also accompanied by his forefathers. Whoever kills or blasphemes a vaishnava and whoever is envious of a vaishnava or angry with him, or whoever does not offer him obeisances or feel joy upon seeing a vaishnava, certainly falls into a hellish condition.'" (Caitanya-caritamrta, Madhya 15.261, purport)
"Although posing as great scholars, ascetics, householders and svamis, the so-called followers of the Hindu religion are all useless, dried up branches of the Vedic religion. They are impotent. They cannot do anything to spread the Vedic culture for the benefit of human society. The essence of the Vedic culture is the message of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu. Lord Caitanya instructed:
yare dekha, tare kaha 'krsna'-upadesa
amar ajnaya guru hana tara ei desa
(Caitanya-caritamrta, Madhya 7.128)
One should simply instruct everyone he meets regarding the principles of krishna katha, as expressed in Bhagavad Gita As It Is and Srimad-Bhagavatam. One who has no interest in krishna katha or the cult of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu is like dry, useless wood with no living force. The ISKCON branch, being directly watered by Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, is becoming undoubtedly successful, whereas the disconnected branches of the so-called Hindu religion that are envious of ISKCON are drying up and dying." (Caitanya-caritamrta, Adi 12.73, purport)
And, as Srila Prabhupada explains in his purport to Caitanya-caritamrta, Adi 12.8, when the inheritors of the spiritual master's assets fight bitterly over property rights to land and temples and thus lay waste to the whole mission by their endless litigation, they simply emulate the feuding spirit long seen among the jata-gosani. The congregations of such quarrelsome Kali-yuga vaishnavas lose faith and look elsewhere for spiritual guidance -- perhaps, unfortunately, to something far worse.
History shows that the questionable activities of the caste gosvamis drove untold numbers of simple Bengali folk into the arms of charlatan avatars espousing reform. In other words, the secret behind the charisma of many of the other apampradayas lay in their independence from the jata-gosani's ossified and uninspiring "establishment Vaishnavism." These bogus alternative movements became prominent within two centuries of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu's departure and grew unchecked until Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur reestablished the sankirtan mission with his Visva Vaishnava Raja Sabha.
We should note in closing this chapter that the jata-gosani tradition was originally bona fide: "According to the pancaratra injunction, only a householder brahmana can initiate. Others cannot." (Caitanya-caritamrta, Madhya 4.111, purport) But the caste pride, greed, jealousy and moral decadence of some unworthy descendants of great vaishnava-brahmana householders spoiled this system. "Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu gave us His opinion in the verse kiba vipra kiba nyasi, etc. This indicates that the Lord understood the weakness of society in its maintaining that only a grhastha brahmana should be a spiritual master." (ibid.)