Spiritual disciplic successions are called in Sanskrit ‘sampradayas’ and are formed through the medium of divine sound vibrations (sabda-brahma) from the spiritual master to the disciple. In such preceptorial lineages much emphasis is laid on the development of the proper mental attitude of the disciple for service, under the expert guidance of the guru. During the course of his spiritual practices and association with the spiritual master and other seniors, the disciple realizes the actual conclusions of the Vedas.
Sampradayas have existed in India since time immemorial. The word sampradaya literally means ‘to hand down’. Lexicographers define it as ‘the instruction that is passed down in a line of spiritual masters.’ This is also called disciplic succession or parampara, and implies that such instruction in spiritual truth is passed down personally from teacher to disciple in a direct chain.
The topmost knowledge relating to God himself has been kept intact to the present day through the institution of disciplic succession. Outside of the sampradaya, it is difficult, if not impossible, to come into contact with these pure teachings. That is why the Padma Purana states:
sampradaya vihina ye mantras te nisphala matah
atah kalan bhavisyanti catvarah sampradayinah
Any mantra that does not come in disciplic succession is considered to be useless. In the age of Kali there will be four sampradayas.
In other words, if one desires to take up spirtual life, it is imperative that one follows a genuine sampradaya. Just as when we want to become a doctor, we must study at an acredited medical school. If we try to practice surgery without the approval of an acredited institution, chances are that we will wreak havoc. The four sampradayas and their main acharyas are mentioned in the Padma Purana as follows –
ramanujam srih svicakre madhvacaryam caturmukhah
sri-visnu-svaminam rudro nimbadityam catuhsanah
Ramanujacharya appeared in the Sri (Laksmi) sampradaya; Madhvacharya appeared in the Brahma sampradaya; Vishnu Swami appeared in the Rudra (Shiva) sampradaya and Nimbaditya appeared in the Kumara sampradaya.
Of these four sampradayas, the oldest is the Brahma sampradaya. This disciplic succession has existed since the time of Brahma, the first created being in the universe, and is still strong. Whatever scriptures—whether Veda, Vedanta or other—are taught in a particular sampradaya maintain their original form – no interpolations are possible in these texts. There is no doubt about the mantras that are found in the books of these ancient schools. Thus a disciplic succession of saintly persons is an absolute necessity for human society and that is why the institution has existed since the earliest times.
Spiritual knowledge can never be understood through an ascending process of scholastic research. The following verse from Katha Upanishad supports this
nayam atma pravacanena labhyo
na medhaya na bahuna srutena
The Supreme Self can never be known by any amount of argument, reasoning, intelligence, or by much hearing. (Katha Upanishad 1.2.23)
Spiritual Knowledge is always descending. Therefore, the knowledge of the Vedas is easily revealed only to one who surrenders with faith unto a bona-fide self-realized spiritual master coming through proper disciplic succession.
yasya deve para bhaktir yatha deve tatha gurau
tasyaite kathita hy arthah prakasante mahatmanah
Only unto those great souls who serve the spiritual master and the Lord with implicit faith is the import of the Vedas fully revealed. (Svetasvatara Upanishad 6.23)
Consequently, those who are seekers of the Absolute Truth should approach a spiritual master as per the instructions of Lord Krishna to Arjuna in the following verse –
tad viddhi pranipatena pariprasnena sevaya
upadeksyanti te jnanam jnaninas tattva-darsinah
Just try to learn the truth by approaching a spiritual master. Surrender to him and inquire from him and render service at his lotus feet. The self-realized soul can impart knowledge unto you, for he has seen the truth. (Bhagavad-gita 4.34)
Chaitanya Mahaprabhu appeared in the Brahma sampradaya of Madhvacharya as a dsiciple of Sri Ishvara Puri. After the appearance of Mahaprabhu this lineage became known as the Brahma-Madhva Gaudiya sampradaya.