The following is a thread of quotes and ideas which ties together several aspects of approaching a guru and taking initiation. It’s by no means complete, but if one insists on a different understanding it should be kept in mind that quotes given here should also be accommodated and not excluded as impossible. They exist and we have to deal with them.
Let’s start with the most basic definition of a guru given by Srila Prabhupada, as recollected by Hari Sauri Prabhu from a morning walk on December 20, 1975:
If there is no need of guru,” Prabhupada said sharply, “why are they writing books to tell people? As soon as you tell someone something, that is guru.
From Hari Sauri’s Transcendental Diary, Vol 1
Actual transcript differs in wording but it conveys the same idea and there’s really nothing strange about it. That’s how we get mother as the first guru, and then how things like trees, pigeons, and pythons can also become guru, not to forget the prostitutes (SB 11.7-8). The principle is very simple – every time we learn something, there is a guru. There’s a guru who teaches you to write, there’s a guru who teaches you to tie your shoes, play mridanga, cook, and so on.
When talking about ISKCON, however, we clearly mean something more specific, something related to purely spiritual instructions. Here we can start with the often quoted Upanishadic verse: tad-vijñānārthaṁ sa gurum evābhigacchet. That’s the guru we are talking about. The second line tells us about qualities of such guru: śrotriyaṁ brahma-niṣṭham, and it tells us something about the disciple as well: samit-pāṇiḥ – bring firewood, which immediately brings the question: “What are you going to do with that?” and then from possible answers we can figure out the dynamic of guru-disciple relationships. Previous line says something more about qualification of a disciple but that’s before he tries to approach a guru.
In Bhagavad Gita Krishna is a lot less cryptic and He gives us three components: praṇipātena, paripraśnena, and sevayā, and they form the basis of our understanding, thanks to Srila Prabhupada repeating them over and over again. One must surrender, one must inquire, and one must serve his guru. Srila Prabhupada himself attributed his success to unwavering commitment to fulfilling the order of his spiritual master to preach to English speaking audience, and then Prabhupada’s disciples made it their life goal to further expand this mission to cover the whole world. Being part of this mission is what defines ISKCON as opposed to members of various other branches of Gaudiya tree. That’s where we want to be – in Srila Prabhupada’s mission, and that’s also the goal of our surrender to guru and Krishna. There’s nothing more we could possibly want, though there are plenty of lesser goals for us to settle. Would one be comfortable enjoying Krishna’s company in Goloka while Srila Prabhupada continues the battle for lost souls in one material universe after another?
This could lead to a potentially uncomfortable discussion but let’s get back to the main topic – we still haven’t heard anything about initiation yet. Well, let’s take this quote from Srila Prabhupada, describing his own initiation process:
So anyway, from 1922 to 1933 practically I was not initiated, but I got the impression of preaching Caitanya Mahāprabhu’s cult. That I was thinking. And that was the initiation by my Guru Mahārāja. Then officially I was initiated in 1933…
From, Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Disappearance Day Lecture, Hyderabad, December 10, 1976
It appears he considered the moment guru’s order was given and accepted to be the moment of his initiation, though not official yet. One might say it’s just one quote to stress one point, but look at the next one and see how serious Srila Prabhupada was about this understanding of initiation:
Student:: I came to New York from Detroit with a recommendation from Bhagavān dāsa to be initiated. I have my letter with me.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: You’ll be initiated. Any one of you—when you agree to follow the regulative principles and you are recommended by our men, then you can also be initiated. Initiation is a formality. First of all you have to decide whether you will abide by the rules and regulations and become Kṛṣṇa conscious. That is your consideration. You have to decide for yourself whether you are going to take this Kṛṣṇa consciousness seriously. That is your decision. Initiation is a formality. If you are serious, that is real initiation. If you have understood this Kṛṣṇa philosophy and if you have decided that you will take Kṛṣṇa consciousness seriously and preach the philosophy to others, that is your initiation. My touch is simply a formality. It is your determination. That is initiation.
From a conversation published in Back To Godhead
I don’t know how to double bold the last three sentences – real initiation happens in the heart of the disciple when he becomes determined to accept Krishna consciousness seriously. This is not a mere recollection, these are instructions given to devotees just as they were about to be initiated themselves. Srila Prabhupada fully meant it there.
Another quote in a similar vein:
So you take the bhakti-latā-bīja from the spiritual master—that is called initiation—and develop it by pouring water of hearing and chanting. Then it will grow.
From lecture on The Nectar of Devotion, October 29, 1972, Vṛndāvana
Note that one has to “take” the seed of devotion to become initiated. One might say that in order to take the seed it must be offered first and this offering of the seed happens during initiation procedure, but it would mean that the same words about Krishna consciousness spoken prior to the ritual do not carry the seed of devotion in them, which is obviously absurd. The offering is always there, from the very first moment of meeting with guru, and initiation happens when the disciple takes it. Of course some gurus do not always speak of Krishna in public and keep the “good stuff” for private conversations, but Srila Prabhupada was not one of them. Any book you open, any class you hear – the seed of devotion is always there, ready to be accepted and ready to grow. Just take the advice to your heart and that will be your initiation – that’s what Srila Prabhupada was saying there. There’s further clarification in this quote:
…chanting Hare Krishna is our main business, that is real initiation. And as you are all following my instruction, in that matter, the initiator is already there. Now the next initiation will be performed as a ceremony officially, of course that ceremony has value because the name, Holy Name, will be delivered to the student from the disciplic succession, it has got value, but in spite of that, as you are going on chanting, please go on with this business sincerely and Krishna willing, I may be coming to you very soon.
From letter to: Tamala Krsna, 19 August, 1968
Here Srila Prabhupada first tells his prospective disciples (from the context it’s clear he didn’t mean already initiated Tamal Krishna) that real initiation is chanting of Hare Krishna mantra, but then he adds that the formality of initiation ceremony still has value because at that moment they would hear the Holy Name from the disciplic succession. This could mean that so far the disciples had heard the mantra from fellow devotees and hearing it from Srila Prabhupada himself would carry more potency, not that the Holy Name heard from Srila Prabhupada before initiation ritual is less potent. Still, the importance of “official” and “formality” initiation is undeniable and one should not forsake the ceremony when one eventually gets the chance. That would be silly, just as if Krishna appeared in front of one’s very eyes and asked for an apple, but the devotee replied that in Kali yuga Krishna should be satisfied only with chanting.
Let’s not forget how Srila Prabhupada pushed for initiations in the summer of 1966 when the devotees had only started developing their faith. It’s wasn’t a formality back then, certainly not for Srila Prabhupada himself and he, apparently, hoped that the ritual would make his disciples more serious. Some did, others didn’t and drifted away, which, again, stresses the most important part of initiation – it should be accepted in one’s heart.
Now we come to the subject of the first initiation and it was the only initiation our devotees knew for almost two years, until brahman initiation was conducted in May 1968. Up to this day anyone who receives this first initiation is considered as “initiated devotee” in ISKCON, but that wasn’t the case in Gaudiya Math where this ritual was known as harināma-pradāna and devotee was then called harināma–āśrita as opposed to dīkṣā and dīkṣita – what is known to us as second initiation now. Only after that dīkṣā a devotee would be considered a fully fledged disciple of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati, not before. That was general understanding widely shared by all GM devotees, but there was one occasion where Srila Bhaktisiddhanta disagreed, perhaps to curb the pride of some dīkṣita disciples, but nevertheless:
The dīkṣita are inferior to the harināma-āśrita. They don’t believe that the name and the named are nondifferent. For them deity worship is required.” He then quoted Lord Caitanya’s statements ihā haite sarva-siddhi haibe sabāra (The holy name alone gives all perfection) and dīkṣā puraścaryā-vidhi apekṣā nā kare (With the holy name, one need not undergo initiation or puraścaryā observances, as with other mantras).
From Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Vaibhava by Bhakti Vikasa Swami
The passage in the book continues to establish the main point here – chanting of the Hare Krishna alone is sufficient and perfect, but some devotees require help of deity worship and, correspondingly, dīkṣā initiation:
Indeed, to some disciples he never awarded dīkṣā, deeming harināma alone sufficient for their spiritual progress. And he stated, “The success of dīkṣā is inclination for harināma. Whoever remains fixed in chanting inoffensively should be understood to have undergone dīkṣā and all other proceedings.
From Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Vaibhava by Bhakti Vikasa Swami
Speaking of ISKCON’s first brahman initiation, this is how Hansadutta Prabhu remembers it:
“After the first Brahmin initiation ceremony (Boston 1968), I asked Prabhupada, “What is the significance of this Brahmin Initiation?” Prabhupada gestured dismissively and said, “It is not very important. My Guru Maharaja introduced this ceremony of Brahmin initiation, because in his time SMARTA BRAHMINS (caste conscious) were deriding Vaishnavas as not being qualified Brahmins, because they were not born into Brahmin families and had received no second initiation. So to counteract their belittling attitude towards the Vaishnava community, he introduced this policy, but it is not very important. One can become perfectly Krishna conscious simply by first initiation, Hare Nama initiation. Nothing else is required. It is a formality to satisfy the SMARTA BRAHMINS – CASTE CONSCIOUS community.
About an hour later, still not being completely satisfied, I again approached Prabhupada and asked him, “What is the meaning of this Gayatri mantra? What does it do?” Again Prabhupada’s reply was quite casual and dismissive. He said, “IT IS A LITTLE AUXILIARY TO THE MAHA MANTRA. IT IS NOT VERY IMPORTANT, but it helps in chanting Hare Krishna. The main thing is chanting HARE KRISHNA. That is the main thing. So Gayatri mantra, it is a little helpful, but chanting Hare Krishna is sufficient. It is the main thing.”
One might question veracity of Hansadutta’s recollection, but it seems completely in line with how Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati explained the same point above. Similar understanding is expressed in this letter:
Srila Prabhupada explained the difference between first and second initiation as follows: “Why do you believe in rumors, that first initiation is not so important as second? I have already said that it is equally important, but you say rumor. Actually first initiation is more important. You can go without second initiation; if the first initiation is executed very thoroughly that is sufficient. First initiation stands strong. The spiritual master accepts the disciple’s sinful reactions upon giving first initiation. The Vedic system was to give the sacred thread at the first initiation. We are following Pancaratriki. Vedic initiation was given to a person born to a brahmana. That is not possible in this age. Therefore he has to be prepared by Hari Nam initiation and then second initiation. He is given a chance. Therefore others protest that I am giving initiation: He is not born of a brahmana, how can he be initiated?
From letter to Satswarupa complied by Tamal Krishna Goswami, August 7, 1977
The following letter mentions many of the points above and puts them together:
Regarding your questions, second initiation is real initiation. First initiation is the preliminary, just to make him prepared, just like primary and secondary education. The first initiation gives him chance to become purified, and when he is actually purified then he is recognized as a brahmana and that means real initiation. The eternal bond between disciple and spiritual master begins from the first day he hears. Just like my spiritual master. In 1922 he said in our first meeting, you are educated boys, why don’t you preach this cult. That was the beginning, now it is coming to fact. Therefore the relationship began from that day.
From letter to Jadurani, 4 September, 1972
Notice how at first Srila Prabhupada seems to contradict the other quotes about first initiation but then comes around to the same thing – real initiation happens on the first day disciple hears, and then rituals need to be performed in a certain (and inviolable) order as the disciple gradually purifies his consciousness.
What about our previous acharyas? What did initiation mean to them? Rupa and Sanatana Goswamis received their names from Lord Caitanya, they received the Holy Name from Him, they received instructions, they received orders, they surrendered, they inquired, they took up the assigned mission, and yet they were not considered initiated disciples in a sense they did not get dīkṣā. Or look at the description of initiation of Ramacandra Kaviraja (of ramacandra sanga mage fame) by Srinivas Acharya:
Ramacandra spent the night in a brahmanas house, thinking deeply about Srinivasa Prabhu. In the morning he came running to Srinivasa and fell at his feet crying loudly. Overwhelmed with emotion, he begged the blessings of Prabhu. Srinivasa lovingly lifted him from the ground and embraced him warmly. Sri Acarya emotionally confessed that they had a long-deeped rooted relationship and were meeting again after a long separation. Thus Srnivasa gave Krsnanama in his ear and sang Radha Krsna lila to him. He also assisted him in the study of Vaisnava literatures, and blessed him to become an earnest lover and devotee of Lord Krsna. Srinivasa told Ramacandra about the glories of Narottama Thakura, and instructed him to go to meet him in Vrndavana. Thus, in due course of time, Narottama and Ramacandra became such good friends that people considered them like one soul.
From Sri Karnananda by Yadunandana Acharya, chapter 1
All three of praṇipātena, paripraśnena, and sevayā were evidently present and Srinivas Acharya unquestionably became a guru of Ramacandra Kaviraja, but it wasn’t a dīkṣā according to Pañcarātrika rules. Speaking of which – Jiva Goswami raises the subject of pañcarātrika dīkṣā in Bhakti Sandarbha when it comes to the necessity of worshiping the deity – an important aṅga of devotional service, but not as important as guru-pādāśraya, which always stands first.
Now will be considered worship of the Lord (arcana), which begins with the invitation (avahana) to the Lord to appear. If one has faith in the path of worship, one should take shelter of a bona fide spiritual master and ask questions of him. This is described in these words of Srimad Bhagavatam (11.3.48); “Having obtained the mercy of his spiritual master, who reveals to the disciple the injunctions of Vedic scriptures, the devotee should worship the Supreme Personality of Godhead in the particular personal form of the Lord the devotee finds most attractive.
Although in the opinion of Srimad-Bhagavatam the path of worshipping the Deity, as it is described in the Pancaratras and other scriptures, is not compulsory, and without engaging in Deity worship one may attain the final goal of life by engaging in even only one of the nine processes of devotional service, processes that begin with surrender, nevertheless, in the opinion of they who follow the path of Narada Muni and other great sages, by accepting initiation from a bona fide spiritual master one attains a relationship with the Supreme Personality of Godhead, a relationship established through the feet of one’s spiritual master, and when one is thus initiated, the process of Deity worship is compulsory.
Therefore in the Agama-sastra it is said; “Diksa is the process by which one can awaken his transcendental knowledge and vanquish all reactions caused by sinful activity. A person expert in the study of the revealed scriptures know this process as diksa.
“It is the duty of every human being to surrender to a bona fide spiritual master. Giving him everything; body, mind and intelligence, one must take a Vaisnava initiation from him.” / “Therefore one should offer respects to guru, offer him everything and accept vaishnava mantra according to the rules while taking diksha” [alternative translation by Bhanu Swami]
The words “divyam jnanam” (transcendental knowledge) here refers to the descriptions of the Lord’s transcendental form in sacred mantras. Chanting those mantras establishes a relationship with the Supreme Lord. This is explained in the Padma Purana, Uttara-khanda’s description of the eight-syllable mantra. Thus for wealthy householders the path of Deity worship is most important.”
From Bhakti Sandarbha by Jiva Goswami, Anuccheda 283, 16-20
I’ve bolded “Lord’s transcedental form in sacred mantras” above because it’s something different from “generic” Hare Krishna mantra. Dīkṣā mantras describe specific forms of the Lord and specific relationships with them and, therefore, have special values. Gopa Kumara in Brihad Bhagavatamrita received one such mantra and chanting of this mantra took him all through various places and planets in the universe until it finally delivered him to Krishna’s personal company. It’s not a trivial thing. BUT, please also look at the last bolded sentence – dīkṣā is meant for wealthy householders so that they could engage in deity worship.
This Bhakti Sandarbha passage, and I apologize for how lengthy it was, gives us a clue to understanding how Bhāgavata marga and Pañcarātrika-vidhi relate to each other in relation to initiation, taking shelter of the guru, chanting the Holy Name, and taking dīkṣā. They are all necessary components and they help each other, but among the two Bhāgavata marga is superior, which is confirmed in the next Anuccheda:
…It may therefore be questioned why there is a necessity for further spiritual activities in devotional service for one who engages in the chanting of the holy name of the Lord.
The answer is that although it is correct that one who fully engages in chanting the holy name need not depend upon the process of initiation, generally a devotee is addicted to many abominable material habits due to material contamination from his previous life. In order to get quick relief from all these contaminations, it is required that one engage in the worship of the Lord in the temple. The worship of the Deity in the temple is essential to reduce one’s restlessness due to the contaminations of conditional life. Thus Narada in his pancaratriki vidhi, and other great sages have sometimes stressed that since every conditioned soul has a bodily concept of life aimed at sense enjoyment the rules and regulations for worshipping the Deity in the temple are essential.
From Bhakti Sandarbha by Jiva Goswami, Anuccheda 284, 1-2
We’ve just heard the same explanation in the above quoted letter to Jadurani – initiation rituals and accompanying deity worship help one to purify his consciousness, but [pure] chanting itself does not depend on initiation.
This was taught by Lord Caitanya Himself:
Upon hearing this, Satyarāja said, “How can I recognize a Vaiṣṇava? Please let me know what a Vaiṣṇava is. What are his common symptoms?”
Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu replied, “Whoever chants the holy name of Kṛṣṇa just once is worshipable and is the topmost human being.
Simply by chanting the holy name of Kṛṣṇa once, a person is relieved from all the reactions of a sinful life. One can complete the nine processes of devotional service simply by chanting the holy name.
One does not have to undergo initiation or execute the activities required before initiation. One simply has to vibrate the holy name with his lips. Thus even a man in the lowest class [caṇḍāla] can be delivered.
By chanting the holy name of the Lord, one dissolves his entanglement in material activities. After this, one becomes very much attracted to Kṛṣṇa, and thus dormant love for Kṛṣṇa is awakened….
Caitanya Caritamrita, Madhya 15.10.105-109
But when instructing Sanatana Goswami in the matters of regulated devotional service, Lord Caitanya put dīkṣā right after guru-pādāśraya:
guru-pādāśraya, dīkṣā, gurura sevana
“On the path of regulative devotional service, one must observe the following items: (1) One must accept a bona fide spiritual master. (2) One must accept initiation from him. (3) One must serve him. (4) One must receive instructions from the spiritual master and make inquiries in order to learn devotional service. (5) One must follow in the footsteps of the previous ācāryas and follow the directions given by the spiritual master.
Caitanya Caritamrita, Madhya 22.115
Thus, dīkṣā should not be avoided, but it isn’t central to success in developing love of God, which depends on chanting of the Holy Name. Perhaps a story of a devotee, Sitalasayi Prabhu, who by all accounts achieved perfection of regulative devotional service as outlined in the quote above, can illustrate this point. For the last fifteen years he reduced his sleep to two-three hours a day, spending the rest of the night chanting extra rounds of japa. During the day he was a regular temple devotee (sankirtana leader, actually) and did everything that was expected of him. Eventually his health deteriorated and he couldn’t perform active service anymore so he dedicated himself to chanting three lakhs of names per day, though no one was counting. He stuck to this vrata until his very last days, even when his body refused to cooperate completely, as you can see in this short video. He left this world in Vrindavana in May 2018.
Youtube video – warning, we don’t usually see devotees or even people in general in this condition, it can be unsettling.
The beginning of his devotional life was standard for many of ISKCON devotees at the time – he lost interest in material life, got Srila Prabhupada’s book, Easy Journey To Other Planets in his case, surrendered his life to Krishna, and started chanting the holy name – just as Lord Caitanya described above. Then he understood the necessity of accepting a spiritual master and began his search. He understood that book distribution was at the core of Srila Prabhupada’s mission and looked for initiating gurus who put sankirtana first and foremost. He settled on two of them and tried to approach them personally. One was simply too busy and had too many disciples to hope for any meaningful personal relationship while the other was easily approachable and personally appreciative and that sealed the deal. He took shelter of this guru, received pranama mantras, went through the waiting period, got duly initiated according to ISKCON standards, received instructions regarding his service and carried them out to the best of his ability. In other words, he closely followed the sequence for executing regulative devotional service given by Lord Caitanya and somehow he also attained an unprecedented taste for chanting of the holy name, which is the symptom of success on the path of Bhāgavata marga. Did his dīkṣā help? Certainly, but dīkṣā mantras and deity worship did not play a prominent role in his life. The relationship between Srila Prabhupada’s books, initiating gurus, and disciples is an interesting topic but is outside the scope of this article.
One interesting thing that could be added is that, historically, dīkṣā mantras in ISKCON have never taken center stage even during second initiation. It was always known as “Brahman initiation”, during which one would get a Gayatri Mantra. This is how Srila Prabhupada described it in his answers to Hansadutta above and there are countless references in Vedabase Folio where it’s identified similarly, most often speaking of *the* Gayatri mantra with no mention of the other six mantras, which actually constitute pañcarātrika-dīkṣā, though they were included on all “Gayatri tapes” used by hundreds if not thousands of devotees. Just as an example – please consider this famous letter to Vaikunthanatha Prabhu often cited as a precedent of women giving Gayatri mantra, which isn’t a correct understanding of what was going on, but ignore that aspect for a moment:
Even though you have had no gayatri mantra, still you are more than brahmana. I am enclosing herewith your sacred thread, duly chanted on by me. Gayatri mantra is as follows:
Ask your wife to chant this mantra and you hear it and if possible hold a fire ceremony as you have seen during your marriage and get this sacred thread on your body. Saradia, or any twice-initiated devotee, may perform the ceremony.
From Letter to Vaikunthanatha and Saradia, April 4, 1974
“Taken out” part is present there since the first edition of Prabhupada’s letters, so we don’t know which mantra(s) were there exactly, but what I find curious is that Srila Prabhupada refers to “this mantra” here – in singular, apparently not giving any consideration to the other mantras that were supposed to be included. Moreover, he talks about brahmana, not pañcarātrika initiation as necessary for deity worship – the reason these instructions were given in the first place. Vaikunthanatha and his wife were far away from any other devotees and they needed to establish a temple but Vaikunthanatha wasn’t qualified to serve deities so Srila Prabhupada told him to receive second initiation via his wife, Saradiya, and the key part of that initiation was Gayatri mantra, not the dīkṣā mantras specifically meant for deity worship, as we learned above from Jiva Goswami.
I’m pointing this out to demonstrate the scope of applying Pañcarātrika-dīkṣā rules to ISKCON – historically, it has not been very great. It can’t be ignored, it was always present in how we organized our deity worship and initiation ceremonies, but it’s never been given the central defining role in the same way Bhāgavata marga features in our practices, and in the definition of initiation and our understanding of guru-pādāśraya.
It doesn’t mean that Pañcarātrika-viddhi is an alien subject that often simply gets in the way. Fundamental principles of Pañcarātrika-dīkṣā deserve careful consideration in this regard. In fact, Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur once wrote an article specifically dedicated to this process of pañca saṃskāra which constitutes full pañcarātrika-dīkṣā. If we go through five of these items word by word and check how they are described in Pañcarātrika literature it would appear that our initiations have little resemblance to the process – we don’t brand out bodies with hot iron, we don’t wait to put tilakas until the initiation, we chant Hare Krishna mantra from the very first day, too, we don’t get any special mantras until the second initiation, and we don’t aim towards deity worship. I mean that the last step in pañca saṃskāras is yāga – literally the deity worship, but for the vast majority of devotees in Srila Prabhupada’s time deity worship was done only by a few designated pujaris and everyone else was out in the streets preaching or distributing books. No one had ever thought that unless he became a pujari his devotional service would not bring desired results.
On the other hand, essential elements of our initiation are not present in Pañcarātrika-dīkṣā – we give a vow to chant 16 rounds, we give a vow to follow four regulative principles, we receive japa beads from the guru, and we also get a right to wear three threads of kanthi-mala, but that is kind of secondary. Vows and beads – these two have always been the most important. Thousands of devotees received their beads in mail, but everyone always got them, so initiations were completed even without actual guru’s presence, which makes another supporting argument that the ritual is a formality and actual initiation happens in the heart of the disciple when he agrees to accept his guru’s words.
Of course we shouldn’t forget unique ISKCON context – Srila Prabhupada was ready to initiate every sincere soul. This context is not always present and sometimes devotees had to beg the guru repeatedly to accept them. Narottama Das Thakur and Lokanatha Goswami is a prominent case, as well as Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati and Srila Gaurakishora Dasa Babaji. It should be noted that this latter case is not accepted as genuine initiation by some “traditional Gaudiyas” on the grounds that not all aspects of “traditional” initiation have been carried out when Gaurakishora Dasa Babaji finally consented to accept Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati as a disciple, but we can only laugh at their literal application of the rules where they can’t see forest for the trees.
Nevertheless, in the second part of his article, Bhaktivinoda Thakur delves deep into the meaning of each of the saṃskāras and demonstrates to us how they do not deviate in any way from the praṇipātena, paripraśnena, and sevayā principles given in Bhagavad Gita, and from his elaboration we can understand how they rather expand on the understanding of these principles. He goes through each of them and shows how they manifest in our traditional Gaudiya practices even as they manifest differently in Pañcarātrika literature. The first one, tāpa, is described as a voluntary atonement taken by the disciple for his previous years of material life. The guru observes the disciple for one year to see that his dedication to the process is, indeed, serious. The same could be achieved by observing eagerness of a disciple to be branded forever by hot iron as still practiced by vaishnavas in South India. The second step, ūrdhva-puṇḍra, is described as a counterbalance to the renunciation of tāpa where, instead of giving a disciple a list of forbidden things guru gives him an elevating path forward, his new relationship as a servant of Krishna, which what tilaka marks signify in Pañcarātrika process. I encourage the reader to complete the list by reading the original article called “Panca Samskara — The Process of Initiation”, it’s enlightening. The point is – Pañcarātrika-dīkṣā is not entirely alien to our initiation, but it should be seen as a particular extension of the same underlying principles where, as I demonstrated above, real initiation happens when a disciple takes guru’s instructions to his heart.
Once again, this is the point when actual dīkṣā happens and when a person gets divine knowledge, gets relief from his previous karma, and gets protection of the Lord. To illustrate this point let me tell a story of Sarabha Prabhu, which I heard in a class recently. He grew up in Bosnia Herzegovina and found Bhagavad Gita in a house of his friend. He became a devotee, stopped all illicit activities and started chanting sixteen rounds a day. Eventually he got to the point where he had to go and find other devotees. The problem was that Balkan wars were raging at the time and the only temples were in Croatia, so he decided to walk there on foot. Everybody said this was the craziest idea ever, but he recited the line he learned from the books – if Krishna wants to protects someone then he cannot be killed. He got a bag with essentials, his beads, and set out through the war zone. In one desolated village he heard a familiar click-clack of an automatic weapon, turned towards the sound, and saw a muzzle of a Kalashnikov releasing a volley of rounds in his direction. Bullets were bouncing of the rocks to the left and right but none hit him. He ran for his life, never forgetting to chant the mantra. On another occasion he was pinned down inside an abandoned house and had a barrel of a gun pressed against his face. He kept chanting, soldiers demanded him to stop but he didn’t. Eventually they shot him point blank but the bullet somehow hit his bag, ricocheted off the wall, and almost hit one of the soldiers themselves. They decided not to shoot in close quarters anymore and instead took him for questioning. All he told them was that he was going to a temple and then he kept chanting. They checked his ID but now he was shaved up and didn’t look anything like in the picture. In the middle of the night one of the militants approached him and said that he knew his family and that he knew he had a Serbian mother, which was almost like a death sentence at the time. Sarabha didn’t stop chanting and instead showed him a picture of Krishna he kept on him. Upon seeing the beautiful form of the Lord the militant’s heart immediately softened and he retreated without causing any more trouble. Next morning they agreed to drive him to the Croatian border but said he had to deal with three checkpoints on the way himself. Miraculously, he passed all three and no one ever asked for his papers, they just looked at his shaved head and how he was chanting and waived him through. Next day he was offering fruit to the Lord in a public park – Panca Tattva picture and food on the bench, Sarabha himself kneeling on the ground. A police patrol happened to pass by at this very moment and they asked him what he was doing. Sarabha had seen everything by then and he confidently told them to wait until he finishes. That really threw them off and, confused by his audacity, they patiently waited. When he explained his situation they checked his papers, concluded that he had no right to be there, and decided to send him back to the same checkpoints again. As they were driving, Sarabha remembered that now he had prasadam and so he offered it to the policemen, they accepted it, and immediately decided to drop the idea of strictly following rules and regulations and drove him back to the city. Eventually, he found a way to cross the border, met the devotees, got initiated and everything.
Who can honestly say that before initiation he didn’t get recognition and protection from the Lord? Obviously, his real initiation had happened very early in his devotional life when he decided to surrender himself to Krishna. This, accidentally, reminds me of another aspect of our initiation – it’s considered the beginning of one’s relationship with the guru, it’s the start of one’s devotional life. Traditional mantra initiations, on the contrary, often become the end of guru-disciple relationship. After getting the mantras the disciple can and should start deity worship on his own and so there’s no reason for him to serve his guru anymore, pretty much in the same way we don’t go back to school to learn ABCs but always respect our first teachers anyway. Relationships with our Bhāgavata marga gurus, by contrast, are eternal, which is explained by sevayā part from Bhagavad Gita and by Srila Prabhupada’s personal example.
I guess I need to write another article to present a “full theory of initiation” where all the above points can co-exist and support each other without contradicting all our known legitimate practices. I call it “theory” not in the sense of scientific theories where people don’t know the conclusion but as an admittance that full knowledge of all aspects of guru-tattva and guru-disciple relationships is impossible for an embodied being. We select some of these aspects as the most important to us and hope it will be enough to please our gurus. Our bottom line, for example, is chanting sixteen rounds and following four regulative principles. Everything else might go totally wrong in our lives and we might misunderstand all kinds of things but as long as we stick to these two foundational principles we should be safe – on the strength of Srila Prabhupada’s promise and his firm conviction that Krishna will take care. Even more fundamental than that is “harer nama eva kevalam” – even the strength to follow regulative principles depends on the mercy of the Holy Name. It’s in this sense that I call everything else a “theory”. Only the Holy Name carries substance in this age and everything else is dependent on it, and can and will go wrong.
Nevertheless, I believe it’s entirely possible to construct a compelling theory of initiations based on the above mentioned quotes, and when this theory is clear one could address all sorts of questions and doubts. Ritviks and FDG are two most obvious topics of interest here. The backbone of this theory should be Bhāgavata marga acceptance of guru to attain spiritual knowledge, and Pañcarātrika-dīkṣā and Gaudiya Math and ISKCON initiations should be seen as local and contextual applications. They might appear different but they share the same root in Bhāgavata marga and this root presents “unity in diversity” in this case. Ultimately, only success on Bhāgavata marga counts for us as Srila Prabhupada’s followers and it’s be the degree of this success that all other practices should be judged by. Now is not the time to start this discussion, though, and so I shall stop here.
PS. Many of the quotes used in this article were originally collected by Bhanu Swami for his 2018 presentation on ambiguities in ISKCON diksha.