ISKCON and the Gaudiya Maths: Conflicts, Schisms, Growth, and Aspirations

Ferdinando Sardella

Ferdinando Sardella
Stockholm University


Between 1918 and 1920, Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī established two Vaiṣṇava maṭhs in Bengal: the Sri Chaitanya Math (1918) located in Mayapur, West Bengal, and the Gaudiya Math (1920), an ashram located at Ultadanga Junction 1 in Calcutta. The former is generally considered more important owing to its connection to the nearby yoga-pīṭha, the birthplace of Caitanya that was identified by Bhaktisiddhānta’s father, BhaktivinodaṬhākura. Indeed, Sri Chaitanya Math became the spiritual root of all subsequent Gaudiya Math branches. The total number was sixty-four maṭhs in India and one each in London, Berlin, and Rangoon, Myanmar.1

On January 1, 1937, Bhaktisiddhānta passed on. Shortly thereafter a power struggle ensued between two leading members of the Gaudiya Math. This caused a schism and a court case, which was settled in 1948, though acrimony, friction, and mutual criticism continued long after.2 Schisms are common phenomena in the history of religions, often beginning with rivalries, antagonisms, setbacks, and revolutions, out of which certain factions survive while others dwindle or even disappear. On the positive side, however, schisms often serve as catalysts for innovation, development, and  expansion. With respect to the Gaudiya Math’s crisis (after Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta’s departure), what started as an acrimonious con-test between rivalling factions eventually became a positive attempt by several emerging leaders (gurus, ācāryas) to re-enable growth by establishing their own independent Gaudiya Maths. It is these developments that we explore herein.3


The court case

Immediately after Bhaktisiddhānta passed on, the fate of the Gaudiya Math hinged upon the relationship between Kuñjabihārī Vidyābhūṣaṇa Dāsa (1894–1976) and Ananta Vāsudeva Dāsa (1895– 1958), the opposing protagonists in the legal dispute.4 Both individuals were respected senior disciples, the former being responsible for various administrative duties and the latter for publishing books, magazines, and journals. On December 31, 1936, the day before his passing, Bhaktisiddhānta dictated his last wishes, advising disciples to form a governing body to manage his mission, with the qualification that “Kunja Babu [Kuñjabihārī Vidyābhūṣaṇa] will manage for as long as he lives.” 5 In his final remarks, Bhaktisiddhānta never named a particular successor guru. Thus his disciples were left to decide upon this important matter. In June, 1937, disputes over a number of post-charismatic issues led Kuñjabihārī Vidyābhūṣaṇa to initiate a legal proceeding at the High Court of Calcutta, naming Ananta Vāsudeva as the defendant. The latter had been specifically selected by the governing body to act as the Gaudiya Math’s new ācārya, which Kuñjabihārī accepted. Problems arose, however, because the governing body was unwilling to accept Kuñjabihārī in the role of the Math’s general administrator, leading him to feel disrespected. The court case revolved around the fair and proper distribution of Bhaktisiddhānta’s goods and properties.

To support his case, Kuñjabihārī presented a 1923 will apparently signed by Bhaktisiddhānta, naming Kuñjabihārī, Ananta Vāsudeva, and Paramānanda as the will’s executors. Kuñjabihārī’s aim was for the court to validate the will and accept the three executors — an arrangement that effectively would hand control of the Gaudiya Math to him, since Paramānanda, the third executor, was already on his side in the dispute. Their ultimate goal was to invalidate the new structure (the governing body) and install Kuñjabihārī as the factual administrator, along the lines of Bhaktisiddhānta’s final remarks.6 Instead, the court’s final decision, in 1940 — accepted by both parties in 1948 — ordered the disputants to divide the Gaudiya Math’s asset into two parts, virtually creating two distinct institutions: the Gaudiya Mission, headed by Ananta Vāsudeva,7 and the Sri Chaitanya Math, headed by Kuñjabihārī.8 As a consequence of the court’s final decision, Ananta Vāsudeva officially registered the Gaudiya Mission for the first time, the sort of proceeding that Bhaktisiddhānta himself had apparently considered unnecessary.9 The temple and ashram at Bagh Bazar became the official Gaudiya Mission headquarters, while Kuñjabihārī acquired the Sri Caitanya Math and centers in its proximity. Afterward, on March 25, 1948, Kuñjabihārī accepted the renounced order of sannyāsa and received the name Swami Bhakti Vilāsa Tirtha.10 While resolving the court case, however, the institution largely lost its momentum and severely damaged the Gaudiya Math’s reputation.


The aftermath of the dispute and court case

The Gaudiya Math’s internal conflict, along with the eleven-year court case, gave rise to other serious institutional consequences. Ananta Vāsudeva and Kuñjabihārī both had loyal followings among the Gaudiya Math’s senior and junior members and its congregation, who followed their respective leader regarding the divisions dictated by the court. However, others, especially among Bhaktisiddhānta’s senior disciples, considered the entire affair an unpleasant, undesirable distraction from the Math’s spiritual mission, since the dispute and settlement disregarded Bhaktisiddhānta’s advice that disciples cooperate and the institution be managed by a governing body, not by an appointed single hierarchical head.

The response of those dissatisfied with the new status quo, and thus unwilling to adapt, is key to understanding the developments between 1948 and 1966. Basically, the unified entity — the Gaudiya Math, Bhaktisiddhānta’s pan-Indian movement with numerous temples, several printing presses, and thousands of initiated and congregational members — more or less ceased to exist. In its place arose a number of offshoots independent of those under Ananta Vāsudeva’s and Kuñjabihārī’s leadership and control. The new heads were many of the dissatisfied senior men. While most of the numerous new entities remained relatively small, some grew as large as the original Gaudiya Math. Two examples of such success are the Sri Gaudiya Vedanta Samiti, established in 1940 by Swami Bhakti Prajñāna Keśava (1898–1968), and the Sri Chaitanya Saraswat Math, established in 1941 by Swami Bhakti Rakṣaka Śrīdhara (1895–1988). Among the large independent offshoots, one more stands out: the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (iskcon), founded in New York City in 1966 by Swami A. C. Bhaktivedanta (1896–1977).


Bhaktivedanta Swami

Bhaktivedanta met Bhaktisiddhānta in 1922 at Ultadanga Junction 1 in Calcutta. At that time, being very impressed by Bhaktisiddhanta’s religious understanding and intellectual prowess, Bhaktivedanta resolved to commit himself to this guru — a commitment he formalized in 1932 by accepting initiation from him. During their first meeting, Bhaktisiddhānta suggested that Bhaktivedanta, a Westerneducated Bengali, present Caitanya’s teachings to the Englishspeaking world, an instruction he reiterated in a letter written shortly before his demise.11

Although in his heart Bhaktivedanta accepted Bhaktisiddhānta’s suggestion as an order and his primary mission, he was both a husband and father and therefore spent most of his adult life on the periphery of Bhaktisiddhānta’s movement. He earned a living by selling natural pharmaceuticals. As such, during the years of litigation Bhaktivedanta remained distant from the dispute, with no role in the court case and no desire to take sides in the power struggle. In 1973, while reminiscing how in July 1935 he had been advised to live in the Bombay Gaudiya Math, he said, “I was never with them, either this party or that party. Guru Mahārāja also recommended: ‘When there will be need, he [Bhaktivedanta] will do [everything] himself. There is no need of his living with you. It is better that he lives apart from you.’”12 As a prominent congregational member, he had been aware of the uncooperative spirit and the disruption it had caused — something he later referred to as “the fire in the Math.”13

In 1944, to stay focused on Bhaktisiddhānta’s specific instruction to him, Bhaktivedanta began publishing Back to Godhead, an English magazine that presented Caitanya’s teachings and related them to contemporary issues and events. Furthermore, between 1944 and 1959, Bhaktivedanta completed an English translation of Bhagavad Gītā (1948), wrote Bengali articles for a Gaudiya Math publication (1946–59), founded a short-lived India-based institution named the League of Devotees (1952–53), and fully transitioned out of married life (1954). On September 17, 1959, Bhaktivedanta accepted sannyāsa, the renounced order, so as to fully dedicate himself to Bhaktisiddhānta’s order. In 1965, after spending the previous years writing, publishing, and printing a three-volume English translation, with commentary, of the First Canto of Srimad Bhagwatam, Bhaktivedanta traveled with three trunks of the books by cargo ship to New York City to present Caitanya’s teachings to the Western world. He observed his sixty-ninth birthday at sea.

When Bhaktivedanta arrived in New York on September 16, 1965, he was alone. He came to America with no means of support, just a handful of tenuous contacts, and modest expectations. After passing his first year without much success, he settled into a small apartment on the Lower East Side, which his early followers located for him, and also rented the building’s storefront to hold his classes. He founded iskcon. Bhaktivedanta had never set foot outside India prior to this journey, so he had little understanding of the daily lives of Americans. Although that first year was relatively unproductive, it laid the groundwork for future developments by affording him the opportunity to interact with and observe the people and culture of the United States. On the basis of these interactions and observations, Bhaktivedanta introduced a number of innovations to attract American (and later European) youth and accommodate their lifestyles and sensibilities — innovations that provoked negative responses from some Gaudiya Math leaders.

On November 14, 1977, ten years after founding iskcon, Bhaktivedanta passed away in Vrindavan, India, surrounded by disciples from all parts of the world. Remarkably, in the years between his arrival and demise, Bhaktivedanta attained all that he had set out to accomplish and more. He had spread Caitanya’s teachings to major cities in North and South America, Europe, Africa, India, Australia and New Zealand, Russia, and the Far East; initiated around five thousand disciples; established just over a hundred temples and farms; and published some sixty volumes of traditional Vaiṣṇava works, millions of which had been distributed in a dozen or more languages worldwide. In other words, within eleven years, Bhaktivedanta had achieved a level of international penetration that went far beyond the previous reach of all the traditional Vaiṣṇava communities in India. He had managed, along the way, to make the Hare Kṛṣṇa mantra an internationally known expression. By so doing, he is said to have fulfilled Caitanya’s prediction to that effect14 — something that most Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas had come to regard as more of a figurative statement than a literal foretelling.


Relations between ISKCON and various Gaudiya Maths

After Bhaktivedanta passed on, his global movement continued developing at the same pace in some places. However, just as problems arose in the Gaudiya Math shortly after Bhaktisiddhānta’s demise, problems arose in iskcon after Bhaktivedanta’s departure, largely owing to the missteps and shortcomings of leading disciples who were supposed to function as initiating gurus. As a result, during the 1980s and 90s, hundreds of Bhaktivedanta’s disciples felt both disaffected with such authorities and estranged from iskcon. They drifted back into old patterns of life, formed alternative institutions, or gravitated to one or another Gaudiya Math, where they thought they might find more mature spiritual guidance.

This third outcome created tremendous friction between iskcon’s leaders and the Gaudiya Maths that sheltered former iskcon members — institutions such as Narāyana Swami’s Gaudiya Vedanta Samiti, which welcomed over a hundred iskcon members, with some accepting sannyāsa, and Śrīdhara Swami’s Sri Chaitanya Saraswat Math, where a small number of leading Bhaktivedanta disciples received sannyāsa initiation and began offshoots of Śrīdhara Swami’s Math in the United States and other parts of the world.

Even prior to these events, the general attitude in iskcon toward the Gaudiya Maths, before and after Bhaktivedanta passed on, was to refrain from association and interaction. This avoidance was in response to negative attitudes held by Bhaktivedanta’s godbrothers regarding the innovative manner in which he had conducted and spread iskcon and had differed here and there from the standards of the Gaudiya Math. For example, during his first few years in America, Bhaktivedanta — having observed that men and women mixed without restriction, and wanting to provide all persons with the opportunity to practice bhakti-yoga and become Kṛṣṇa conscious — offered brāhmaṇa initiation to both men and women and allowed single men and women and married couples to reside and work together in his temple ashrams. This was unprecedented in the all-male, monastically structured Gaudiya Math.15

Gaudiya Math leaders also objected to Bhaktivedanta giving “low-class” Westerners brāhmaṇa initiation; appointing them as leaders of iskcon; allowing them to conduct deity worship, perform marriages, and oversee various brahmanical rites and rituals; allowing sannyāsis to perform marriages; allowing women to do the brahmanical work of caring for temple deities; and allowing disciples to address him as “Prabhupāda,” a honorific title that Bhaktisiddhānta’s disciples reserved for Bhaktisiddhānta alone. Bhaktivedanta, however, by now in his seventies, knew not how long he might live and so was intent on quickly spreading his mission as widely as possible. He therefore maintained a broad focus on distributing Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism’s sacred texts to the general public, an approach that some Gaudiya Math gurus considered inappropriate.

In judging Bhaktivedanta, some godbrothers may have overlooked the fact that Bhaktisiddhānta himself had introduced innovations that rankled many of Bengal’s upper “goswami” caste: establishing several presses in temples to print religious books; using automobiles as regular means of transportation; constructing large temple complexes such as Calcutta’s Bagh Bazar; and accepting Vaiṣṇava initiates regardless of class, race, or ethnicity as long as the persons were qualified in terms of knowledge, practice, and moral behavior.16 In other words, Bhaktivedanta’s willingness to adjust certain features of his movement according to time, place, and circumstance appears in keeping with Bhaktisiddhānta’s approach,

which was based on the principle known in Sanskrit as yukta vairāgya, that is, “renouncing the propensity to enjoy the objects of the world while actively engaging those objects in God’s service.”17

In responding to such criticisms — sometimes expressed directly to his fledgling Western disciples — Bhaktivedanta expressed the need to protect them from this sort of disparagement. Thus he discouraged them from corresponding or associating with or having anything to do with members of the Gaudiya Maths.18 At other times, he softened this tone and instructed disciples to maintain cordial, respectful, friendly relations with the Gaudiya Maths with the hope of future cooperation. In this regard, Bhaktivedanta notes in Caitanya-caritāmṛta that an “ācārya who comes for the service of the Lord cannot be expected to conform to a stereotype, for he must find the ways and means by which Kṛṣṇa consciousness may be spread.”19 Currently, iskcon is the largest Vaiṣṇava institution worldwide with more than half a billion books distributed, its members numbering in the hundreds of thousands, and its Indian and non-Indian congregation numbering in the millions.20


Areas of cooperation

Despite (ongoing) tensions between iskcon and the Gaudiya Math, over the years there have been several cooperative endeavors. In 1995, Jayapatākā Swami, the leading disciple of Bhaktivedanta who has always headed iskcon Mayapur, established the Sri Sarasvata Gaudiya Vaishnava Association. Its work consists of coordinating efforts by iskcon and the Gaudiya Math to maintain Mayapur’s infrastructure and accommodate the millions of pilgrims who visit this sacred area year round. Its aims are to cooperatively spread Caitanya’s teachings and to develop Vaiṣṇava communities in Mayapur.21 The inspiration for this project is said to have come from Bhaktivedanta, who, in 1977, established the Bhaktivedanta Swami Charity Trust, which was designed to unite the followers of Lord Caitanya, especially those descended from Bhaktisiddhānta (i.e., the Gaudiya Math and its offshoots).22 A second example of cooperation is the work of iskcon’s Kolkata-based Bhaktivedanta Research Centre (brc), founded in 2008. One of its primary aims has been to gain complete access to all available Vaiṣṇava works, including the writings of Bhaktisiddhānta and Bhaktivinoda. The problem was that in the aftermath of the Gaudiya Math schism, the full collection of Bhaktisiddhānta’s many writings and journals had been scattered, along with numerous valuable volumes of Vaiṣṇava works, including some that are extremely rare. Eventually, most of these valuable documents and texts were gathered together and stored in Mayapur’s Sri Gopinath Gaudiya Math under the care of B. B. Bhodayan Swami, a disciple of Bhaktivedanta’s godbrother Bhakti Pramode Puri Goswami. Gradually, through numerous friendly exchanges between the brc scholars and Bhodayan Swami, he agreed to transfer the entire library (over three thousand books, manuscripts, and documents) to the Bhaktivedanta Research Centre.23

A final example of cooperation was the founding of the World Vaishnava Association (wva), in 1994, by leading members of iskcon and the Gaudiya Maths. Its primary purpose is to enable Vaiṣṇavas worldwide to communicate with one another. As explained by the wva, it is not another branch or mission of the sampradāya and will neither open temples nor promote a particular ācārya.24 Rather, its aim is to create common ground for all Vaiṣṇava missions to share information about their services.



The creation of the Gaudiya Math and the development of its local and international offshoots was inspired by Bhaktivinoda’s and Bhaktisiddhānta’s devotion to Caitanya. Bhaktisiddhānta founded his Calcutta-based institution in 1918, and though the Gaudiya Math’s progress as a unified entity was hindered by squabbling, the schism itself inadvertently set the stage for a blossoming of various successful offshoots, including Bhaktivedanta Swami’s iskcon, which spread Gaudiya Vaiṣṇavism almost throughout the entire world. iskcon’s extraordinary international success helped establish that Caitanya’s teachings are relevant not only to the populations of Bengal and India but to varied populations worldwide.

Today, all of Bhaktisiddhānta’s leading disciples have passed on, as have most of his regular disciples, and the relationship between iskcon and the Gaudiya Maths is entering a new phase, which involves new generations of leaders and devotees. Prior to this, iskcon’s Governing Body Commission had attempted to avoid unnecessary friction by passing certain positive resolutions. At present, although a certain number of second- and third-generation iskcon members have shifted their affiliation to the Gaudiya Math, the earlier problem of iskcon’s dissatisfied members gravitating toward one or another Gaudiya Math seems largely resolved as iskcon becomes a more mature, stable, and congregational global organization. The Gaudiya Maths’ criticisms of iskcon for so-called deviations have lessened since they have become more like iskcon, some incorporating Westerners and other non-Indians into their ranks. The question is whether these two competing institutions — adhering to the same spiritual tradition — can set aside differences, forgive grievances, and reach the point of appreciating each other and working together to advance the cause of Caitanya, especially with respect to Mayapur, the sacred space where they both reside and in which they must learn to coexist.



Bhaktisiddhānta, S., 1904–36. Diary, unpublished. Text is preserved at the Bhaktivedanta Research Centre, Kolkata.

———. 1936. “Minutes of the last wishes of Bhaktisiddhānta,” December

31. Document is preserved at the Bhaktivedanta Research Center, Kolkata.

Bhaktivedanta, Swami, 2019. VedaBase. Sandy Ridge, NC, USA.

“Certificate of Registration of Societies, of 1860 [Act No. 21 of Yr. 1860].” Indian Ministry of Corporate Affairs, actsbills/pdf/Societies_Registration_Act_1860.pdf (accessed on February 24, 2020).

Sardella, F., 2013. Modern Hindu Personalism: The History, Life and Thought of Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī. New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press.

———. 2020a. “Bengali Vaishnavism in Court: the Gaudiya Math’s Crisis of  Succession.The Journal of Hindu Studies, 13, pp. 54–70.

———. 2020b. “Hindu Umbrella Organisations in Europe.” In Knut Jacobsen and Ferdinando Sardella (eds.), Handbook of Hinduism in Europe. Leiden; Boston: Brill, pp. 687–709.

Sasmal, R. P., 2000. Preceptorial Line of Succession and Srīla Āchāryadeva. Nabadwip: Srīmad BKAS Sevāshram.

Testamentary Suit no. 2 of 1938. In the High Court of Judicature at Fort William in Bengal. Testamentary and Intestate Jurisdiction. “In the Goods of Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvatī.” Calcutta High Court.

Yati, B.P.S., 1994. Three Apostles of Gaudiya Vaishnava Movement. Madras: Sree Gaudiya Math.

———. 1998. Ontological and Morphological Concepts of Lord Sri Chaitanya and Mission, Vol II. Mayapur: Sri Caitanya Math.



1 Of the three centers outside India, only London’s center has endured to some degree. For information regarding the London and Berlin centers, see Sardella 2013, pp. 134–180.

2 For further information on the Gaudiya Math’s schism, see Sardella 2013, pp. 129–132.

3 Ibid.

4 For a positive description of Kuñjabihārī, see Yati 1994, and for one of Ananta Vāsudeva, see Sasmal 2000.

5 “Minutes of Bhaktisiddhānta’s last wishes,” point No. 2, 1936.

6 Sardella 2020a, p. 58.

7 The headquarters of the Gaudiya Mission was located in Calcutta’s Bagh Bazar. For information on the Gaudiya Mission’s centers as of 1948, see

8 The headquarters of the Sri Chaitanya Math was located in Mayapur, the site of Caitanya’s appearance. Kuñjabihārī also received other properties located in that pilgrimage site as well as centers in India (e.g., the Gaudiya Math in Chennai, formerly known as Madras).

9 The Gaudiya Mission was registered in the “Certificate of Registration of Societies of 1860 [Act No. 21].”

10 Yati 1994, pp. 149–50.

11 Bhaktivedanta 2019, 681209DA–Los Angeles.

12 Ibid, 730921R2–Bombay.

13 Ibid, 760726R2–London.

14 This prediction can be found in certain hagiographical works on Caitanya’s life and teachings, for example, Vṛndāvana dāsa Ṭhākura’s Śrī Caitanya-bhāgavata (Antya-khaṇḍa 4.126; pṛthivīte āche yata nagarādi grāma/ sarvatra pracāra haibe mora nāma).

15 See, for example, Yati 1998, pp. 429–30.

16 Sardella 2013, pp. 118–19.

17 Ibid, p. 204.

18 Bhaktivedanta 2019, letter to Viśvakarma, November 9, 1975.

19 Bhaktivedanta 2019, Caitanya-caritāmṛta, Ādi-līlā 7.31–32, purport.

20 See, for example, iskcon in the Hindu Forum of Europe, Sardella 2020b.

21 See Tishta Mohan Krishna Das, “Sri Sarasvata Gaudiya Vaishnava Association (sgva),” April 3, 2002, http://vaishnava-news-network. org/world/WD0204/WD03-7251.html (accessed on Feb. 29, 2020).

22 Interview with Jayapataka Swami in Mayapur on February 24, 2002. iskcon’s global leadership body, the Governing Body Commission, in 2003 passed the statement: “Jayapataka Swami is encouraged to continue his service with the Sarasvata Gaudiya Vaisnava Association and is authorized to represent iskcon and co-opt additional representatives to attend sgva meetings as needed,” 510 Saraswat Gaudiya Vaisnava Association, 2003, (accessed on July 16, 2020).

23 Bhaktivedanta Research Centre, Kolkata, (accessed on February 29, 2020).

24 For information on the World Vaishnava Association or Vishva Vaishnava Raja Sabha, see (accessed on Feb. 29, 2020).


FERDINANDO SARDELLA is an Associate Professor at the Department of Ethnology, History of Religions, and Gender Studies at Stockholm University. He is the co-director of the project “Bengali Vaiṣṇavism in the Modern Period” at the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, where he is a research fellow. His area of interest is modern Hinduism and the history and sociology of modern Vaiṣṇavism. He is the author of the book Modern Hindu Personalism: The History, Life, and Thought of Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī, published in 2013 by Oxford University Press. He has co-edited The Sociology of Religion in India: Past, Present and Future (with Ruby Sain; 2013) and The Legacy of Vaiṣṇavism in Colonial Bengal (with Lucian Wong; 2020). He edited Brill’s Handbook of Hinduism in Europe (with Knut Jacobsen; 2020). He is also on the editorial board of the series Stockholm Studies in Comparative Religion