Used with permission of the author: Originally published on January 19, 2015, this article was written by Willem Vandenberg (Varnadi das), who joined ISKCON in Amsterdam in 1990. He served in the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust in Sweden as a translator and editor and as a manager of one of its sub-complexes. After officially leaving ISKCON in 2010 he went on to further his career as a computer programmer in higher education. He now lives in Texas and enjoys life reading, writing, and traveling the world



The Disciplic Succession That Never Was


The Hare Krishna cult considers its “disciplic succession” of utmost importance. Followers are taught that the term indicates a true, unbroken chain of spiritual teachers, each a direct disciple of his predecessor. Without being a direct disciple of a teacher in such a succession, they claim, one cannot ever hope to please god and return to their version of heaven.[1]

The founder makes it very clear in his writings that being connected to an authorized succession is required for a spiritual organization to be authentic and spiritually potent, and he claims that the Hare Krishna movement belongs to such a succession.[2]

So what is an authorized succession, then?

Well, for the Hare Krishna cult it mainly means that the succession must connect to one of four main successions mentioned in “the Puranas” or “Vedic scriptures.” Based on those references they believe that spiritual knowledge received outside of these successions is useless. The founder traces his succession to its Puranic roots through a line of teachers that links up with a medieval tradition, which in turn claims descent from one of these four main successions. As support for this lineage, the founder and his followers refer to a song written by the founder’s guru, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati.[3]

So they’re authorized, right? Then what’s the problem?

In a tiny nutshell, the problem is threefold: 1) references to the four Puranic successions are questionable and those successions consist of mythological persons only, 2) the medieval succession has questionable roots, and 3) the later succession is largely made up.

Now, before we go into further detail about these successions, the reader must take note of two important facts:

  1. The Hare Krishna cult is quick to counter opposition to its lineage with the claim that it is based on the propagation of teachings (siksha), rather than the formal links between its teachers through spiritual initiation (diksha). But the endless discussions about siksha and diksha make no difference,[4] as the core teachings of the Puranic, medieval, and current successions vary significantly in theory and practice anyway.
  2. In India, localized genealogical, familial, historical, and circumstantial evidence from the pre-British era — all the way into the renaissance era and beyond — is primarily based on oral traditions and hagiographies. There is very, very little reliable information on actual dates and events, so claims of any spiritual lineage quickly become difficult or impossible to verify.

Let’s start at the root, then. The existence and acceptance of the Puranic uber-successions is based primarily on a single reference ascribed to the Padma Purana:

        sampradaya-vihina ye mantras te nisphala matah
                atah kalau bhavisyanti catvarah sampradayinah
        sri-brahma-rudra-sanakah vaisnavah ksiti-pavanah
                catvaras te kalau bhavya hy utkale purusottamat
        ramanujam sri svicakre madhvacaryam caturmukhah
                sri visnusvaminam rudro nimbadityam catuhsanah

Mantras that are without a disciplic succession do not bear fruit. Therefore the founders of four disciplic successions appeared in the age of Kali. Thus the four world purifying Vaishnavas like Sri (Lakshmi), Brahma, Rudra (Shiva) and Sanaka will appear in the age of Kali, out of Purushottama (Jagannatha Puri) in the land of Utkala (Orissa). Lakshmi accepted Ramanuja, Brahma (the four-faced) accepted Madhvacharya, Rudra accepted Vishnusvami and the four (Kumaras) accepted Nimbaditya.”

There is currently no existing version of the Padma Purana in which this verse can be found. The reference as it appears most commonly in the Hare Krishna cult actually comes from the Prameya-ratnavali (Chapter 1, verses 5 and 6) by Baladeva Vidyabhusana (who, in the early 1700s, was already desperately trying to establish the authenticity of the Renaissance-era succession[5]). Also, verse 6, the part of the alleged Padma Purana quotation that lists Ramanuja, Madhvacarya, Visnuswami and Nimbaditya, is not found in other instances of references to the Padma Purana, which makes a compelling case that it is an even later addition. Another reference detailing the four lineages and their seminal teachers is attributed to the Garga Samhita, Canto 10, chapter 61, verses 23 to 26. Few translations of this work are available and almost nothing is known about its origin.

The bottom line is that we simply do not know enough about the origins of the source texts, their manuscripts, their existing editions, evolution, dating, and historical context to say with certainty that they originate the verses as quoted. While this would be problematic in an academic context, or really for anyone concerned with verifiable facts, members of the Hare Krishna cult have a tendency to blindly accept and propagate anything that seems to support their ideologies.

Now consider the Puranic lineage itself:

  • Brahma, the first created being in the universe.
  • Narada Muni, the son of Brahma, who can travel throughout the universe at will.
  • Vyasadev, the mythological author of the Vedas.

These three figures are purely mythological. From Vyasadev, whom ISKCON’s founder says was a real person, born some 5,000 years ago, the succession continues with Madhva. Madhva at least was a real, historical person who lived from 1238 to 1317 C.E.[6] He allegedly met the mythological Vyasadev in Badarik-ashram, in the Himalayas, where the sage is said to still be alive, meditating for the next 427,000 years – a meeting to which there were no witnesses. In addition, Madhva seems to have had a penchant for fabricating verses, references, and entire books (much like Bhaktivinod Thakur did many centuries later). He also established himself as an incarnation of Vayu, the god of the wind.[7]

The succession from Madhva throughout the centuries is well known. The connection of this line to the later Gaudiya line through Madhavendra Puri is highly questionable, though. Historically, Madhavendra Puri is said to be the teacher of Chaitanya, yet Madhavendra Puri’s own grand-teacher from the Madhva line, Vyasa Ttirtha, lived from 1469 to 1539 – outliving Chaitanya by five years. This is important because it not only spans three links in the chain, but would woefully violate the custom wherein disciples will not initiate anyone before the demise of their own teacher. In addition, none of the renaissance era teachers ever give any details about Madhavendra Puri.[8] It also deserves to be noted that in May of 2001 the Poornaprajna Vidyapeetha in Bangalore, an institution founded by Shri Vishvesa Tirtha Swami of Pejavar Math (an actual 32nd link in the Madhva chain from his disciple Adhokshaja Tirtha), issued an official position statement categorically denying any conclusive philosophical connection between the Madhva line and that of the Gaudiyas.[9]

That leaves us with the lineage from modern time back to Madhavendra Puri.

When Bhaktivinod Thakur, the 19th century seminal teacher of the later Hare Krishna movement, died, it was traditionally up to his disciples to carry on the mission. However, his only initiated son had no interest in the task and implored his older brother, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, to take it up, despite the fact that Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati had been rejected by his father and had never been formally initiated. To that end, he was advised by his younger brother to invent a disciplic succession, which he did.[10] It is this succession that the Hare Krishna cult holds up as their ticket to authenticity. The problem with a made-up succession is, of course, exactly that no matter how much it may appear coherent and factual, it can never be a proof of authenticity if it’s not in fact authentic.

The cult’s claim to descend in succession from renaissance reformer Caitanya Mahaprabhu himself, whom they consider an incarnation of Krishna, is usually presented like this (with pictures of the first five persons found on the altar of every ISKCON temple):

  • Bhaktivedanta Swami (the founder)
  • Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati
  • Gaurakisor das Babaji
  • Bhaktivinod Thakur
  • Jagannath das Babaji
  • Baladeva Vidyabhusana
  • Visvanath Cakravarti Thakur
  • Narottam das Thakur
  • Lokanath das Gosvami
  • Krishna das Kaviraj
  • Raghunath das Gosvami
  • Svarup Damodara
  • Nityananda, Advaita Acarya, and Caitanya

But Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati was not a disciple of Gaurakisor. He claimed he took initiation from Gaurakisor in a dream, and he took sannyasa initiation from a picture of his alleged guru years after Gaurakisor’s death.[11] Gaurakishor, in turn, was not a disciple of Bhaktivinod Thakur, but a close friend, and Bhaktivinod Thakur was not a disciple of Jagannath das Babaji, but of Vipin Bihari Goswami.

Of these five important links, four are broken to begin with. But it doesn’t stop there.

Jagannath das Babaji was not a disciple of Baladeva Vidyabhusana, but of Jagadananda Goswami. Baladeva Vidyabhusana was not a disciple of Visvanath Cakravarti Thakur, but of Sri Radha-Damodara Deva. Visvanath Cakravarti Thakur was not a direct disciple of Narottam das Thakur. There are 160 years between their births. The link can be substantiated through Visvanath Cakravarti Thakur’s actual guru, Radha Ramana Cakravarti, a great-grand disciple of Narottam das Thakur, and it’s anyone’s guess why these intermediaries were left out. Narottam das Thakur was indeed the only disciple of Lokanath das Gosvami, but there are no indications that the latter was a formal disciple of Krishna das Kaviraj. As a matter of fact, Krishna das Kaviraj asked Lokanath das Gosvami for permission to write his hagiography on Caitanya, which would make little sense had Lokanath das Gosvami been his disciple.

The line does pick up with Krishna das Kaviraj, Raghunath das Gosvami, and Svarup Damodara, though not all seemed to have had formal teacher-disciple relationships. Svarup Damodar was a close friend of Caitanya, but there is no indication of a formal initiation by any of his purported predecessors.

Caitanya, however, was a formal disciple of Isvara Puri, while Advaita and Isvara Puri were both formal disciples of Madhavendra Puri.

In summary, there is the mythological Puranic Brahma-sampradaya, which has a fabricated connection to the medieval Madhva-sampradaya, which has a fabricated connection to the renaissance Gaudiya-sampradaya, which is full of holes and sputters to an end with the modern Hare Krishna cult, which therefore lovingly calls its own lineage the Brahma-Madhva-Gaudiya-sampradaya – just in case you missed the connections.

So don’t be blind. Don’t ever just accept what you’re told.

Semper questio!


– Willem




SB stands for Srimad-Bhagavatam (Bhagavata Purana), the compilation with translation and commentary by Bhaktivedanta Swami.
BG stands for Bhagavad-Gita, the compilation with translation and commentary by Bhaktivedanta Swami.
CC stands for Caitanya-Caritamrta, the compilation with translation and commentary by Bhaktivedanta Swami.

[1] Lecture in London, August 22, 1973: “Somebody was asking whether guru is absolutely necessary. Yes, absolutely necessary. That is the Vedic injunction. … Guru must come from the parampara system by disciplic succession. … Guru cannot change any word of the predecessor. … You cannot disobey the previous acarya or guru. No. You have to repeat the same thing. … So guru’s task is very great responsibility. He has to guide the disciple how to make him quite eligible candidate to get the perfect position, immortality, back to home, back to Godhead.”
Science of Self-Realization, BBT: “Reporter: Do you think your movement is the only way to know God? Bhaktivedanta Swami: Yes.” and “In order to learn the transcendental science, one must approach the bona fide spiritual master in disciplic succession, who is fixed in the Absolute Truth.”
CC Madhya-lila 9.289: “Unless one is connected to the disciplic succession of Madhavendra Puri, there is no possibility of awakening the symptoms of ecstatic love.”

[2] SB 6.5.22, purport: “Thus the Gauḍiya-Madhva-sampradaya is in the disciplic succession from Narada Muni. The members of this disciplic succession — in other words, the members of the Kṛiṣhṇa consciousness movement — should follow in the footsteps of Narada Muni”
Letter to Upendra, February 13, 1968: “There are four Sampradayas from the beginning of the creation. One is called Brahma Sampradaya, and is coming down by disciplic succession from Brahma; another Sampradaya is coming down from Laksmi, called Sri Sampradaya; another is coming down from the Kumaras, they are known as Nimbarka Sampradaya; another Sampradaya is coming from Lord Siva, Rudra Sampradaya or Viṣṇu Svāmī. These are four bona fide Sampradayas that are accepted by the bona fide spiritualists. … In the later age the Brahma Sampradaya was handed down though Madhva Acarya; in this Madhva Acarya disciplic succession came Isvara Puri. This Isvara Puri was accepted as Spiritual Master of Lord Caitanya. Therefore, we being in disciplic succession of Caitanya Mahaprabhu, we are known as the Madhva Sampradaya. And because Lord Caitanya appeared in Bengal, which country is called Gaudadesa, our Sampradaya party is known as Madhva Gaudiya Sampradaya.”
Lecture SB 3.26.10, December 22, 1974: “…if one person who desires to advance in spiritual life, he must take initiation from the sampradaya.

So we belong to the Gauḍiya-sampradaya.”
[3] Sri Guru Parampara, by Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakur:

1- krishna hoite catur-mukha, hoy krishna-sevonmukha, brahma hoite naradera mati

narada hoite vyasa, madhwa kohe vyasa-dasa, purnaprajna padmanabha gati

In the beginning the science of serving Krishna was received by Brahma from Krishna, and Narada received it from him.

Narada gave it to Vyasa, who gave it to his servant Madhva, who was the only refuge of Padmanabha Tirtha.
2-nrihari madhava-bamse, akshobhya paramahamse, sishya boli’ angikara kore

akshobhyera sishya jaya-tirtha name paricaya,tara dasye jnanasindhu tore

Nrihari and Madhava, and then Akshobhya, the great soul, were accepted by the teacher as his student.

His principle disciple was known to be Jayathirta, who, on his turn, served Jnanasindhu.
3-taha hoite dayanidhi, tara dasa vidyanidhi, rajendra hoilo taha ha’te

tahara kinkora jaya-dharma name paricaya, parampara jano bhalo mate

Dayanidhi received it then, who gave it to Vidyanidhi, and then on to his student, Rajendra.

His servant was Jayadharma, also known as Vijayadhvaja. In this way the succession should be understood.
4-jayadharma-dasye khyati, sri purushottama-jati, ta ha’te brahmanya-tirtha suri

vyasatirtha tara dasa, lakshmipati vyasa-dasa, taha ha’te madhavendra pure

Purushottama received it as the servant of Jayadharma, and his principle disciple was Subrahmanya.

His student Vyasatirtha followed, then Lakshmipati, and then his disciple Madhavendra Puri.
5-madhavendra puri-bara, sishya-bara sri-iswara, nityananda, sri-adwaita vibhu

iswara-purike dhanya, korilen sri-caitanya, jagad-guru gaura mahaprabhu

Madhavendra Puri’s student was Isavara Puri, who taught Nityananda and Sri Advaita.

The master of all worlds, Caitanya, made Isavara Puri very happy by accepting him as His great master.
6-mahaprabhu sri-caitanya, radha-krishna nahe anya, rupanuga janera jivana

viswambhara priyankara, sri-swarupa damodara, sri-goswami rupa-sanatana

Caitanya Mahaprabhu is the same as Radha and Krishna, the very life of those who follow Rupa Gosvami.

Pleasing Gaura, Vishwambara taught Swarup Damodara, Sri Rupa Gosvami, and Sanatana.
7-rupa-priya mahajana, jiva, raghunatha hana, tara priya kavi krishnadasa

krishnadasa-priya-bara, narottama seva-para, jara pada viswanatha-asa

Rupa taught the great souls dear to him, Sri Jiva and Raghunatha, and the latter’s beloved student Kaviraja was next.

Kaviraja’s intimate friend (Lokanath, from Gadadhara) had Narottama as his student, and devoted to his feet there was Cakravarti.
8-viswanatha-bhakta-satha, baladeva jagannatha, tara priya sri-bhaktivinoda

maha-bhagavata-bara, sri-gaurakisora-bara, hari-bhajanete ja’ra moda

Viswanath instructed bhakta Baladeva, and he instructed Jagannath, who was dear to Bhaktivinod Thakura.

Gaurakisor was his great and intimate devotee friend, whose sole joy was found in hari-bhajana.
9-ihara paramahamsa, gaurangera nija-bamsa tadera carane mama gati

ami seba-udasina, namete tridandi dina sri-bhaktisiddhanta saraswati

These great paramahamsas are all part of Gaura’s lineage, their holy feet are my refuge.

With no real interest in bhakti, I’m a poor, fallen tridandi Sri-bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati.

[4] See Google search on Siksha vs. Diksha:

[5] Is the Gaudiya Vaishnava sampradaya connected to the Madhva line?, by Jagadananda das


[7] Genuine Ancient Source, Deliberately Fabricated Material, or Divine Revelation: An analysis of selected quotes that Madhva ascribes to the Brahmatarka, Ekkehard Lorenz, 2005 (MA thesis. Bramatarka is the name of a fictitious work which is quoted most frequently, and often at considerable length, in the Sanskrit commentaries of Madhva, the founder of the Dvaita school of Vedanta. Some Indology scholars, and of course the entire Madhvaite community, believe that Brahmatarka is a genuine ancient work, now lost. There is, however, good and ample evidence that this work never existed, but was used as a source by Madhva, who claimed that it was an ancient text, like the Veda, authored by Vyasa, and therefore ultimately authoritative in philosophical debates. The verses that Madhva ascribes to the Brahmatarka, are all his own compositions)
Mahidasa Aitareya in the Work of Madhva, Ekkehard Lorenz, 2003 (BA thesis. The opponent was Asst. Prof Erik af Edholm from the Department of Comparative Religion, Stockholm University)

[8] Is the Gaudiya Vaishnava sampradaya connected to the Madhva line?, by Jagadananda das

[9] Position Paper on ISKCON by the Poornaprajna Vidyapeetha:

[10] Saffron, by Subal das [autobiography], Steve Bohlert, unpublished 2004: “[Lalita Prasad Thakur:] The line that your guru maharaja listed in his Bhagavad Gita was made up by my brother Bhaktisiddhanta. He was rejected by our father Srila Bhaktivinode Thakur and his guru, who was Bipin Bihari Goswami. Bhaktisiddhanta spoke against Bipin Bihari from the stage of a large public gathering in Calcutta. He called him a caste Goswami and a sahajiya (a cheap cheater). When our father heard about this, he said, ‘You should keep out of religious affairs. It would be better if you went and lived in Mayapur alone. Chant Hare Krishna and pray for Lord Chaitanya’s mercy.’ But when our father Bhaktivinode Thakur died, I went to my brother and said, ‘Who will carry on our father’s teachings now that he is gone? You are the oldest.’ I was working for the government like our father did, while he was doing his spiritual practices and was a scholar. ‘You’re the one to do it,’ I told him. ‘How can I do it when I’ve been rejected by our father and his guru?’ was his reply. ‘You’re smart. Make up a disciplic succession. Who will know?’ He did it. When he went to Vrindaban to preach, the babajis there knew he had made it up. It did not jive with known historical facts and relationships between the personalities mentioned. Bhaktisiddhanta approached Gaura Kishor Das Babaji, a highly respected hermit saint who was an intimate associate of Bhaktivinode Thakur, for initiation a couple of times and was rejected. When Gaura Kishor died, Bhaktisiddhanta got word of it and claimed his body saying he was his only disciple. No one else had been initiated by him and Gaura Kishor was in no position to object”

[11] The True History of Bhaktisiddhanta, by Madhavananda, 2002