Who is a mahajana? The following excerpt from Srila Prabhupada's Sri Caitanya Caritamrta purports explains very clearly who is not.
In the material world, the word mahatma is understood in different ways by different religionists. Mundaners also come up with their different angles of vision. For the conditioned soul busy in sense gratification, a mahajana is recognized according to the proportion of sense gratification he offers. For instance, a businessman may consider a certain banker to be a mahajana, and karmis desiring material enjoyment may consider philosophers like Jaimini to be mahajanas. There are many yogis who want to control the senses, and for them Patanjali Rsi is a mahajana. For the jnanis, the atheist Kapila, Vasistha, Durvasa, Dattatreya and other impersonalist philosophers are mahajanas. For the demons, Hiranyaksa, Hiranyakasipu, Ravana, Ravana's son Meghanada, Jarasandha and others are accepted as mahajanas. For materialistic anthropologists speculating on the evolution of the body, a person like Darwin is a mahajana. The scientists who are bewildered by Krsna's external energy have no relationship with the Supreme Personality of Godhead, yet they are accepted by some as mahajanas. Similarly, philosophers, historians, literary men, public speakers and social and political leaders are sometimes accepted as mahajanas. Such mahajanas are respected by certain men who have been described in Srimad-Bhagavatam (2.3.19):
sva-vid-varahostra-kharaih samstutah purusah pasuh
na yat-karna-pathopeto jatu nama gadagrajah
"Men who are like dogs, hogs, camels and asses praise those men who never listen to the transcendental pastimes of Lord Sri Krsna, the deliverer from evils."
Thus on the material platform animalistic leaders are worshiped by animals. Sometimes physicians, psychiatrists and social workers try to mitigate bodily pain, distress and fear, but they have no knowledge of spiritual identity and are bereft of a relationship with God. Yet they are considered mahajanas by the illusioned. Self-deceived persons sometimes accept leaders or spiritual masters from a priestly order that has been officially appointed by the codes of material life. In this way, they are deceived by official priests. Sometimes people accept as mahajanas those who have been designated by Srila Vrndavana dasa Thakura as dhanga-vipras (imposter brahmanas). Such imposters imitate the characteristics of Srila Haridasa Thakura, and they envy Haridasa Thakura, who was certainly a mahajana. They make great artificial endeavors, advertising themselves as great devotees of the Lord or as mystic hypnotists knowledgeable in witchcraft, hypnotism and miracles. Sometimes people accept as mahajanas demons like Putana, Trnavarta, Vatsa, Baka, Aghasura, Dhenuka, Kaliya and Pralamba. Some people accept imitators and adversaries of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, such as Paundraka, Srgala Vasudeva, the spiritual master of the demons (Sukracarya), or atheists like Carvaka, King Vena, Sugata and Arhat. People who accept such imitators as mahajanas have no faith in Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu as the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Rather, they accept godless cheaters who present themselves as incarnations of God and cheat foolish people within the material world by word jugglery. Thus many rascals are accepted as mahajanas.
It is those who are devoid of devotional service who sometimes mistakenly accept persons with mundane motives as mahajanas. The only motive must be krsna-bhakti, devotional service to the Lord. Sometimes fruitive workers, dry philosophers, nondevotees, mystic yogis and persons attached to material opulence, women and money are considered mahajanas. But Srimad-Bhagavatam (6.3.25) gives the following statement about such unauthorized mahajanas:
prayena veda tad idam na mahajano 'yam
devya vimohita-matir bata mayayalam
trayyam jadi-krta-matir madhu-puspitayam
vaitanike mahati karmani yujyamanah
In this material world, karmis (fruitive actors) are accepted as mahajanas by foolish people who do not know the value of devotional service. The mundane intelligence and mental speculative methods of such foolish people are under the control of the three modes of material nature. Consequently they cannot understand unalloyed devotional service. They are attracted by material activities, and they become worshipers of material nature. Thus they are known as fruitive actors. They even become entangled in material activities disguised as spiritual activities. In the Bhagavad-gita such people are described as veda-vada-ratah, supposed followers of the Vedas. They do not understand the real purport of the Vedas, yet they think of themselves as Vedic authorities. People versed in Vedic knowledge must know Krsna as the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Vedais ca sarvair aham eva vedyah. (Bg. 15.15)
In this material world a person may be famous as a karma-vira, a successful fruitive worker, or he may be very successful in performing religious duties, or he may be known as a hero in mental speculation (jnana-vira), or he may be a very famous renunciant. In any case, Srimad-Bhagavatam (3.23.56) gives the following opinion in this matter.
neha yat karma dharmaya na viragaya kalpate
na tirtha-pada-sevayai jivann api mrto hi sah
"Anyone whose work is not meant for elevating him to religious life, anyone whose religious ritualistic performances do not raise him to renunciation, and anyone situated in renunciation that does not lead him to devotional service to the Supreme Personality of Godhead must be considered dead, although he is breathing."
The conclusion is that all pious activity, fruitive activity, religious principles and renunciation must ultimately lead to devotional service. There are different types of processes for rendering service. One may serve his country, people and society, the varnasrama-dharma system, the sick, the poor, the rich, women, demigods and so on. All this service comes under the heading of sense gratification, or enjoyment in the material world. It is most unfortunate that people are more or less attracted by such material activity and that the leaders of these activities are accepted as mahajanas, great ideal leaders. Actually they are only misleaders, but an ordinary man cannot understand how he is being misled.
Narottama dasa Thakura says, sadhu-sastra-guru-vakya, cittete kariya aikya: "One should accept as one's guide the words of the sadhus, the sastra and the guru." A sadhu is a great personality like Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, the sastras are the injunctions of revealed scriptures, and the guru, or spiritual master, is one who confirms the scriptural injunctions. Accepting the guidance of these three is the actual way of following the great personalities (mahajanas) for real advancement in life (mahajano yena gatah sa panthah [Cc. Madhya 17.186]). A man covered by illusion cannot understand the proper way; therefore Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu says, dharma-sthapana-hetu sadhura vyavahara: "The behavior of a devotee is the criterion for all other behavior." Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu Himself followed the devotional principles and taught others to follow them. Puri-gosanira ye acarana, sei dharma sara. Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu personally followed the behavior of Madhavendra Puri and advised others to follow his principles. Unfortunately, people have been attracted to the material body since time immemorial.
yasyatma-buddhih kunape tri-dhatuke
sva-dhih kalatradisu bhauma ijya-dhih
yat-tirtha-buddhih salile na karhicij
janesv abhijnesu sa eva go-kharah
"A human being who identifies this body made of three elements with his self, who considers the by-products of the body to be his kinsmen, who considers his land of birth worshipable, and who goes to a place of pilgrimage simply to take a bath rather than meet men of transcendental knowledge there is to be considered like an ass or a cow." (SB 10.84.13) Those who accept the logic of gaddalika-pravaha and follow in the footsteps of pseudo mahajanas are carried away by the waves of maya. Bhaktivinoda Thakura therefore warns:
miche mayara vase, yaccha bhese',
khaccha habudubu, bhai
jiva krsna-dasa, e visvasa,
ka'rle ta' ara duhkha nai
"Don't be carried away by the waves of maya. Just surrender to the lotus feet of Krsna, and all miseries will end." Those who follow social customs and behavior forget to follow the path chalked out by the mahajanas; thus they are offenders at the feet of the mahajanas. Sometimes they consider such mahajanas very conservative, or they create their own mahajanas. In this way they ignore the principles of the parampara system. This is a great misfortune for everyone. If one does not follow in the footsteps of the real mahajanas, one's plans for happiness will be frustrated. This is elaborately explained later in the Madhya-lila (Chapter Twenty-five, verses 55, 56 and 58). It is there stated:
parama karana isvare keha nahi mane
sva-sva-mata sthape para-matera khandane
tate chaya darsana haite 'tattva' nahi jani
'mahajana' yei kahe, sei 'satya' mani
sri-krsna-caitanya-vani -- amrtera dhara
tinho ye kahaye vastu, sei 'tattva' -- sara
People are so unfortunate that they do not accept the instructions of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Instead, they want to be supported by so-called mahajanas, or authorities. Tate chaya darsana haite 'tattva' nahi jani: we cannot ascertain the real truth simply by following speculators. We have to follow the footsteps of the mahajanas in the disciplic succession. Then our attempt will be successful. Sri-krsna-caitanya-vani -- amrtera dhara: "Whatever is spoken by Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu is an incessant flow of nectar." Whoever accepts His words as reality can understand the essence of the Absolute Truth.
No one can ascertain the Absolute Truth by following the philosophy of Sankhya or the yoga system of Patanjali, for neither the followers of Sankhya nor the yogis who follow Patanjali accept Lord Visnu as the Supreme Personality of Godhead (na te viduh svartha-gatim hi visnum [SB 7.5.31]). The ambition of such people is never fulfilled; therefore they are attracted by the external energy. Although mental speculators may be renowned all over the world as great authorities, actually they are not. Such leaders are themselves conservative and not at all liberal. However, if we preach this philosophy, people will consider Vaisnavas very sectarian. Srila Madhavendra Puri was a real mahajana, but misguided people cannot distinguish the real from the unreal. But a person who is awakened to Krsna consciousness can understand the real religious path chalked out by the Lord and His pure devotees. Sri Madhavendra Puri was a real mahajana because he understood the Absolute Truth properly and throughout his life behaved like a pure devotee. Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu approved the method of Sri Madhavendra Puri. Therefore, although from the material viewpoint the Sanodiya brahmana was on a lower platform, Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu considered him situated on the highest platform of spiritual realization.
Srimad-Bhagavatam (6.3.20) states that there are twelve mahajanas: Brahma, Narada, Sambhu, the four Kumaras, Kapila, Manu, Prahlada, Janaka, Bhisma, Bali, Sukadeva and Yamaraja.
To select our mahajanas in the Gaudiya-sampradaya, we have to follow in the footsteps of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu and His representatives. His next representative is Sri Svarupa Damodara Gosvami, and the next representatives are the Six Gosvamis -- Sri Rupa, Sri Sanatana, Bhatta Raghunatha, Sri Jiva, Gopala Bhatta and Dasa Raghunatha. A follower of Visnu Svami's was Sridhara Svami, the most well known commentator on Srimad-Bhagavatam. He was also a mahajana. Similarly, Candidasa, Vidyapati and Jayadeva were all mahajanas. One who tries to imitate the mahajanas just to become an imitative spiritual master is certainly far away from following in the footsteps of the mahajanas. Sometimes people cannot actually understand how a mahajana follows other mahajanas. In this way people commit offenses and fall from devotional service.
Madhya 17.186 purport