Monday Morning Greetings 2022 #16 – Inherent, Inherited, and the Culture of Faith

April 18th, 2022

The audience for my Monday Morning Greetings is a mix of people from various spiritual backgrounds. Many readers may therefore not be aware of the debated doctrinal issues that sometimes arise within the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava bhakti tradition. Today I want to touch on one of the issues that has been brewing recently. My objective in doing so is not to resolve the issue but to use it to highlight a related point: that great ācāryas sometimes seem to contradict one another, so how should we behave when a current ācārya writes or speaks something that appears to be at odds with something stated by a previous ācārya? Let’s begin our analysis by briefly outlining the dispute at hand.


One side states that bhakti is inherent in the soul and that this principle is a foundational tenet of our lineage, especially through the last three or four generations of our ācāryas. The other side states that Śrī Caitanya’s original followers whom He specifically empowered to systemize the tradition’s philosophical conclusions, led by Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī, espouse something different—that bhakti is not inherent but rather is a spiritual energy that must be bestowed on a spiritual aspirant by one who has attained it.


Again, it’s obviously beyond the scope of a weekly post to argue either side. What I want to speak about, however, is how essential it is to discuss and analyze these types of disputes by emphasizing how the tradition deals with its ācāryas through a principle I’ve come to know as “the culture of faith”.


I first heard the term “culture of faith” in a conversation I had after attending a conference I had organized for young Vaiṣṇavas studying for their doctoral degrees in disciplines somewhat relevant to the study of bhakti. I was concerned about one of the presentations at the conference, which offered a critical analysis of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s Bhagavad-gītā As It Is, including references from an academic text sarcastically entitled Bhagavad-gītā As It Was. After further discussion among the participants, most of whom had studied the Gītā with Śrīla Prabhupāda’s commentary thoroughly at ISKCON’s VIHE,[1] the concluding consensus toward Śrīla Prabhupāda’s version was very favorable. Still, I was uncomfortable with the topic itself, so I asked Śrīla Prabhupāda’s learned Sanskrit editor, Pradyumna das, what he thought of such a critical presentation by and among followers of Śrīla Prabhupāda.


Pradyumna, too, questioned the tenor of the presentation, then shared several examples within the Vaiṣṇava culture of what he called “the culture of faith”—that is, how nurturing of faith in a bona fide guru and Śrī Krishna is prioritized throughout Vaiṣṇava discussions and dealings.


One of his examples particularly struck me. Great contemporary scholars in the Madhva tradition sometimes find what appears to be an error in a commentary written hundreds of years ago by one of their revered ācāryas. Even though they are unable to reconcile that ācārya’s point with their own understanding, they never presume, what to speak of write, that the previous ācārya was wrong.[2] Rather, they use the phrase “ṛṣi uvāca,” “the great sage said,” and then simply quote him directly. Only then do they write their own version, even though it may seem to contradict what the previous ācārya said.


But why not directly assert that they cannot understand what the ācārya has written rather than quote him without that qualification? Isn’t avoiding the issue simply a lack of candor?


Not if you understand Vaiṣṇava theology and, in cultivating knowledge, the importance placed on the role of faith. Faith is the deep impression in the mind of humble trust in authority; faith allows one to contemplate and comprehend truths beyond one’s present purview and understanding. Without such trust, our own capacity, conditioning, and prejudices are the limiting lens through which our concept of reality is formed. Faith, therefore, is essential in any learning, but it’s especially important when trying to understand the Divine, which operates through laws not limited to our two-dimensional, spatiotemporal reality.


Therefore, a culture concerned with uplifting its community spiritually necessarily protects its members’ faith, both by training and then holding accountable those who take positions of authority, and by how one deals with those qualified to be authorities.


This “culture of faith” principle is espoused in Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam. In the Eleventh Canto, chapter 17, entitled “Lord Krishna’s Description of the Varṇāśrama System,” Śrī Krishna outlines the brahmacārī’s duty to twice daily worship those in positions of reverence. He then lends His own absolute authority to those who represent Him by declaring, “One should know the ācārya as Myself and never disrespect him in any way. One should not envy him, thinking him an ordinary man.” (Bhag. 11.17.27) Krishna’s statement here indicates His own concern with culturing faith. He even warns us about the human tendency to envy, which results in attempts to denigrate or critically examine even those worthy of the greatest respect.[3]


Of course, one may object that this type of promotion of faith leaves one vulnerable to rationalization, loss of integrity, and consequent exploitation. I have already discussed these dangers extensively in a previous post called “The Perils of Faith.”[4] Obviously, one must be encouraged to be very thoughtful before reposing his or her faith in someone. But despite the perils of faith, cultured persons do not lose sight of the primary importance of nurturing reasonable faith. If faith is lost, all is lost.


Now that I’ve outlined the thesis, I would like to apply this principle of faith to the specific philosophical issue at hand. Again, the teaching being questioned is the statements of Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura and his lineage, which sees bhakti as inherent in the soul. This tenet is said to conflict with that of Śrī Jiva, the foundational Gauḍīya siddhāntic ācārya, whose teaching is thought to be that bhakti is not inherent in the soul but inherited.


Here are my thoughts on the culture of faith as applied to this matter:


  1. We need to be aware that by taking sides in a doctrinal conflict and declaring an ācārya wrong or mistaken, even if you feel the mistake is an isolated one, you risk establishing your authority over the ācārya. This leaves you open to relativizing and questioning anything that ācārya says and thereby limiting your knowledge and understanding to your own conditioned frame of reference.[5] One cognizant of the culture of faith is therefore extremely careful when dealing with apparent doctrinal differences among ācārya
  2. When we’re unable to understand how an ācārya’s statement is true given what other points of view we’ve heard, as faithful persons our duty is to reserve judgment and instead rigorously attempt to reconcile the conflicting views by doing sufficient research. After all, we’re not tattva-darśine, realized seers of truth, and the truth doesn’t always conform to our prejudiced convictions and understanding of reality. Often, in time and as our realization matures, we may find ourselves able to understand truths that previously we could neither accept nor appreciate.
  3. In our attempt at reconciliation, we should be careful that the solution we come to doesn’t inadvertently diminish the authority of the current ācārya. For example, dismissing Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura’s view as a “preaching strategy” might inadvertently present Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura and those who follow him as disingenuous or lacking candor.
  4. Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī is no doubt the ultimate philosophical authority in our tradition. Yet our present ācāryas also have extraordinary authority within Śrī Caitanya’s lineage, for they themselves have carried Śrī Caitanya’s legacy to every town and village in the world. Is it therefore not unreasonable to accept them as authorities in how they present their understanding of the teachings of the Six Goswamis, especially since they too are scholars who have studied Śrī Jiva’s work in its original language?[6]
  5. Matters of faith are very sensitive. We therefore need to be careful how we discuss these foundational, siddhāntic issues publicly. This is the age of the internet, and internet audiences come from all sorts of backgrounds and levels of faith, who have particular loyalties to perhaps ācāryas different from our own, many of whom have also strongly expressed opposing opinions on the same subject. The most likely outcome of pushing such issues into public forums is further division and conflict in the Gauḍīya family, even among those of deep faith and spiritual attainment.
  6. Even though I may not share others’ conclusions, I accept that sincere people, after deep study, can develop strong convictions supported by well-reasoned argument—in this case, that Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura’s statements on this matter cannot easily be reconciled with the conclusions of Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī.[7] And as Śrī Jiva is recognized as the siddhāntic ācārya of our lineage, his conclusions should stand supreme. I have no problem with this idea. But a truly learned and cultured person will avoid the careless mistake of placing any deficiency in understanding on great souls like Śrīla Bhaktivinoda and his lineage; rather they accept their own inability to reconcile opposing points of view. After all, subtle subjects like the one at hand deal with ontological issues relating to the soul and its origin beyond time. The topic itself requires faith. So such is the culture of faith.


This paper was initially written for my Monday Morning Greetings. I naively thought I could make a point, then whittle it down to my standard page and a half. What was I thinking?! I now realize that many more papers need to be written to do this subject justice.[8]


If there’s one thing I strongly wanted to communicate, however, it’s that in discussions about topics espoused by our ācāryas that are beyond our comprehension of scripture or even defy our social or moral convictions—and these will naturally arise,[9] we need to be soberly and strongly grounded in a culture of faith.





[1] Acronym for the Vrindavan Institute for Higher Studies, the first and perhaps most prominent institution in ISKCON for śāstric studies.

[2] Due to its relevance, I’m including an excerpt from Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura’s commentary on the Brahma-saṁhitā (text 37): “Whatever is spoken by pure Vaiṣṇavas is true and utterly free from any bias or party spirit, but there is a mystery surrounding their apparent verbal disagreements. Those whose intelligence is materialistic and lacks the spirit of devotion cannot fathom the deep secrets of the loving controversies between pure Vaiṣṇavas, and thus they wrongly conceive of such great personalities as philosophical adversaries.

“Only the worldly beliefs of those who are imbued with mundane intelligence are missing in Goloka. Different visions of the variegated pastimes in Goloka are realized according to one’s level of qualification. Thus it is difficult for one to establish a fixed conclusion to determine which aspects of those varieties of visions are illusory and which are pure. Therefore, there is no need to argue and counterargue this matter because it will not elevate one’s qualification. The truth of Goloka is filled with inconceivable bhāva, and any attempt to investigate this inconceivable reality by the mind would prove as unproductive as threshing empty husks. Hence, one should disregard the method of empirical knowledge, and strive for realization through the practice of unalloyed devotion.”

[3] The Sanskrit word asūyā in Bhag. 11.17.27 can be read as “envy” or “ill will,” but it also means “to depreciate” or “to detract”—in other words, to attempt to diminish the worth or value of the guru by thinking him an ordinary man who makes errors. In the Catholic tradition, detraction is the unjust damaging of another’s good name by revealing some fault in that person.

[4] I encourage you to also read my earlier article, “The Perils of Faith”: https://wavesofdevotion.com/2022/03/28/the-perils-of-faith/

[5] I realize that in this issue it’s not that one is trying to establish authority over the ācārya, but rather to establish the authority of Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī over the philosophical view of all others, as it should be. What must be cautioned, however, is that the later ācārya has studied the writings of Jīva Gosvāmī and nonetheless presented something in a particular way, and not in an isolated instance but consistently and repeatedly throughout his writings. What one risks doing, then, in correcting this ācārya is privileging one’s own reading and understanding of Śrī Jiva over that of this ācārya’s.

[6] An example of this type of faith is exhibited in the statement of Śrīla Bhakti Prajñāna Keśava Mahārāja, the sannyāsa guru of Śrīla Prabhupāda [ A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami]: “I don’t know or recognize the path of the previous gosvāmīs. I simply accept Jagadguru Śrīla Prabhupāda’s [Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura’s] line of thought as unerring truth, and I will try to know and understand the previous gosvāmīs through Śrīla Prabhupāda’s vision. I will first accept the excellence of his explanations and commentaries.”

[7] “By accepting the Six Gosvāmīs as his instructing spiritual masters, the author specifically makes it clear that one should not be recognized as a Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava if he is not obedient to them.” (Cc., Adi-lila 1.37)

[8] Another issue that needs further discussion is what to do if we find that a more contemporary ācārya seems to contradict himself within the corpus of his own recorded teachings. In such cases, his actual intention may be clarified by referring to the foundational ācāryas. For example, Śrīla Prabhupāda’s statements take both sides on the “fall of the jiva” issue. In this case, not only the foundational ācāryas but Śrīla Prabhupāda’s immediate predecessors share a common view. In a case like this, I have no objection if on that basis one concludes that the living entity did not fall from Vaikuntha if one simply acknowledges one’s own inability to reconcile or understand Śrīla Prabhupāda’s other statements on the matter.

The issue I mentioned in this article also discusses origins, and this appears to be the area where most contentious issues arise. This is because by discussing these issues we enter the realm of the Lord’s inconceivable potency—a place where we’re forced to describe beginningless phenomena with temporal language. How do you use words to denote something that has neither cause nor a beginning?

However, the inherent/inherited controversy discussed here can’t be easily solved in the way I suggested concerning Śrīla Prabhupāda’s statements on the fall of the jiva. This is because Śrīla Bhaktivinoda’s contention is clearly a foundational principle found throughout his writings and strongly supported by those who follow him. Perhaps he makes isolated statements that can be interpreted in a way that contradicts his foundational tenet about the nature of the soul, but they really can’t hold weight against his declarative, consistent, and plentiful concerning inherency.

One hermeneutic principle used to clarify what a teacher means to say in the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam is to analyze the common understanding of the teacher’s students. It’s clear that those who came after Śrīla Bhaktivinoda, including contemporary respected senior Vaiṣṇavas who have carefully studied Śrīla A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami’s books, have understood his teaching as espousing bhakti as inherent in the soul.

[9] If we accept that our vision and understanding is imperfect and limited, we cannot expect to find everything we read and hear from an ācārya’s corpus of teachings—including his translations and commentaries on scripture as well as his recorded testimonies in a variety of other circumstances—to fit neatly or exactly into our conditioned worldview.

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