A curious confection: The British ‘Stick of Rock’ is made entirely of pink and white coloured sugar and has the name of the seaside town where it is sold running all the way through it. No matter where you slice it, or suck it, you’ll always get the same name, the same sweet taste. So it is with the Vaishnava tradition. The sampradaya is sweet all the way through as is the Name of God. And the stick – the parampara – is the structure that delivers it.
The words sampradaya and parampara are often used interchangeably, as if they conveyed exactly the same meaning. Sampradaya means a school of thought or philosophical conclusion or siddhanta, embodied by a community of orthodox practitioners. Parampara is, quite literally, ‘one after the other’ – an historical chain of spiritual preceptors, each of whom was a legacy-holder for the same path and practice.
Sampradaya refers to what the sincere aspirant may contact in the here and now, how he may be taught the siddhanta in the present day, and locate a current exemplar of the tradition. Whereas parampara refers to how the siddhanta has been transmitted down through the years. It is a chain of illustrious preceptors, each of whom was connected to the previous one, either through accepting the teachings (siksha) or by becoming initiated with a mantra (diksha), or a combination of both. The parampara is a lineage of successive gurus which is established retrospectively, sometimes long after their physical demise. A leading member of the sampradaya – usually the current acarya himself – looks back over the centuries, traces his finger over the spiritual family tree, and concludes: ‘This is how we all got here.’
When we describe a parampara we single out certain persons who have contributed the most in establishing the siddhanta, explaining it to others; defending it from intellectual attack; and leaving behind a body of literature that served best to perpetuate the siddhanta beyond the lifetime of the authors. Yet in choosing some lineage-holders we simultaneously de-select others. They were not unworthy souls, rather, they were great Vaishnavas, each playing their part in supporting, defending and extending the sampradaya in their own time. But others were singled out to have their names as a permanent fixture in the list of the greatest historical contributors.
No devotees living today – including those who initiate disciples – know whether they will be ‘in the parampara,’ although by definition they are already ‘in the sampradaya.’ Of course, for disciples, their own chosen guru is the current representative of the parampara. But if the disciples do not initiate their own disciples then that singular branch of the parampara will terminate at the death of the last disciple.
It may be that the majority of current initiators in the ISKCON branch of the Gaudiya lineage – by this process of discipular termination – will not feature in the parampara 100 years hence, and what to speak of 300 years. They might be collectively featured in some future chronicle as the sincere and determined followers of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada; as those who met him personally and helped him in his mission to establish Gaudiya teachings outside India. But the moving index fingers of historians or acaryas of the far-distant future may pass immediately from Srila Prabhupada to the next major contributor in the chain. Names that are firmly fixed in the minds of all today, written in black ink as it were, may fade to grey or disappear completely, as many thousands throughout history have already done. Those who criticize the ISKCON movement for having what they consider to be less-than-suitable names ‘in the parampara’ should not unduly trouble themselves: time and tide will wash away anyone who is undeserving. And those who are already brilliant will continue to shine.