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A Glimpse into the Life of Thakura Bhaktivinoda
Thakura Bhaktivinoda led a life of incessant labor and activity for Shri Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. He effected such immense good in the world that his work is only to be compared with the unbounded works of Shri Chaitanya Himself and the Gosvamis. It was the spiritual attempts and divine writings of this individual that turned the scale and led the intelligent and educated community to believe in the noble precepts and teachings of Lord Chaitanya.
If we look back one century, we cannot but be astonished to find how degraded was the condition of the Vaishnava faith which had its pure origin in the deep and majestic spiritual philosophy of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Even vastly learned panditas could not fathom the superexcellent precepts of Lord Chaitanya’s philosophy, yet due to incredulity born of the ignorance of uncultured men, the Vaishnava faith had been degraded and was considered a beggar’s excuse for living at the expense of society. It was by sheer love for the Godhead that Thakura Bhaktivinoda expounded the deep philosophy which had remained concealed in the pages of the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Puranas, and the Bhagavatam. By his action toward divine service and also by his words, set in simple language to be easily understood by readers in general, he has given this philosophy to the world. It is his writings and his divine, unparalleled character that have helped to produce a class of educated and enlightened men who are now proud of their Vaishnava faith and of their acquisition of the spiritual knowledge of the pure and sublime philosophy of Krishna, on which the stern teachings of Shri Chaitanya are based.
Though born in opulent circumstances (on September 2, 1838), Thakura Bhaktivinoda, who was given the name Kedaranatha Datta, had to meet many difficulties in his early life. His childhood was spent at his maternal grandfather’s house at Birnagar (Ulagram), from where he came to Calcutta at the age of thirteen, after the death of his father. After he completed his education, he was requested to be present at the time of his paternal grandfather’s death. His grandfather, Rajavallabha Datta, had been a famous personality of Calcutta and had retired to a lonely place in Orissa to spend his last days as an ascetic. He could predict the future and knew when he would die, since he could commune with supernatural beings. Thakura Bhaktivinoda was present at the eventful time when that great soul passed away, and after receiving his grandfather’s instructions, he visited all of the major temples and ashramas of the state of Orissa.
Bhaktivinoda Thakura then entered the educational service and introduced English education into the state of Orissa for the first time. He wrote a small book about all the ashramas of the state and mentioned an ashrama which was on his ancestors’ property. "I have a small village Chotimangalpur in the country of Orissa of which I am the proprietor," he wrote. "In that village is a religious house which was granted by my predecessors to the holy men as a holding of rent-free land. The head of the institution entirely gave up entertaining such men as chanced to seek shelter on a rainy night. This came to my notice, and I administered a severe threat that his lands would be cruelly resumed if in the future complaints of inhospitality were brought to my knowledge." Bhaktivinoda Thakura later took to the government service and was transferred to Bengal. In one town he gave a historic speech on the Shrimad-Bhagavatam which attracted the attention of thousands. He made the world know what hidden treasures pervade every page of the Bhagavatam, which should be read by all persons having a philosophical turn of mind. He was transferred some years later to a town called Champaran. In this town there was a brahma-daitya living in a great banyan tree, and he was being worshiped by many degraded people. (A brahma-daitya is a type of ghost.) One day the father of a famous girl scholar came to Bhaktivinoda for alms, and Bhaktivinoda Thakura at once employed him in reading the Bhagavatam under the shade of the banyan tree which was the abode of the ghost. After one month, the Bhagavatam was completed, and then and there the tree crashed to the ground, and the ghost was gone for good. Everyone was thankful for this act except the few dishonest persons who were worshiping the ghost.
Bhaktivinoda’s next move was to Puri. The government commissioner was much pleased to get him in his division, and he asked him to watch the affairs of the temple of Jagannatha on behalf of the government. It was through Bhaktivinoda’s exertions that many malpractices were checked and the time for the offering of foods before the Deity was regulated to its extreme punctuality. Thakura Bhaktivinoda was especially entrusted to quell the rise against the government of one Bishikishena, who declared himself to be an incarnation of Maha-Vishnu. During the course of his investigation, Thakura Bhaktivinoda found him to be a hoax and a culprit and charged him with transgressing government injunctions. After his trial the fellow was sentenced to imprisonment for a year and a half, but he died shortly after in jail. This man was really possessed of unnatural powers, but as they were the outcome of nonspiritual practices, he had to submit to the Thakura when the latter wanted him to do so. Bishikishena was held in dread by the common people, and everyone warned Shrila Bhaktivinoda not to admonish him, even for the sake of justice, in view of the serious consequences that the yogi would inflict. But although the Thakura was not a man of ostentation and did not allow people to know his true qualities and spiritual strength, he easily cut down the demoniac power of the impostor. With the fall of Bishikishena there rose an impostor Balarama at another village, and there were also other so-called incarnations of God, but their plans were similarly frustrated.
During his stay at Jagannatha Puri, Thakura Bhaktivinoda devoted much of his time to the discussion of spiritual works and prepared notes on the Vedanta-sutras which were published with the commentaries of Baladeva Vidyabhushana. He also composed the Kalyana-kalpataru (from which Vibhavari Shesha, one selection, appears in this book). This may very truly be termed an immortal work, and it stands on the same level as the divine writings of Narottama dasa Thakura. In 1877 he left Puri on government service, and in 1881 he started a well-known spiritual journal called the Sajjana-toshani ("The Satisfaction of Pure Devotees"). He also published the Shri Krishna-samhita, which revealed to the world the underlying philosophy explaining the spiritual existence of Krishna. This book opened the eyes of educated people to teach them their true relationship with God. It also attracted the admiration of many German scholars, for although the public regarded Krishna as a poetic creation of erotic nature, Shrila Bhaktivinoda revealed Krishna as Parabrahman, the Supreme Transcendental Person, the Absolute Being, on the basis of Vedic evidence.
At the close of his stay at the village of Narail, he visited Vrindavana. There he had to encounter a band of dacoits known as Kanjharas. These powerful bandits spread all over the roads surrounding the holy place and used to attack innocent pilgrims. Bhaktivinoda Thakura brought this news to the government and after many months of struggle extirpated the bandits from Vrindavana forever. From this time on, Thakura Bhaktivinoda preached extensively in large gatherings, explaining all of the precepts of the sankirtana of the holy names, Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
While staying at Barasat, Thakura Bhaktivinoda met the famous Bengali writer Bankimacandra. This novelist and playwright had just finished writing a book on Krishna, and knowing Shrila Bhaktivinoda to be an authority on topics of Krishna, he gave the manuscript to Bhaktivinoda Thakura to see. It was full of mundane Western-stylized speculations and ideas, but after four days of discussion, Bhaktivinoda had the whole text revised by Bankimacandra to accommodate the pure supramundane precepts of Lord Chaitanya. During his last year at Barasat, Bhaktivinoda was requested by a noted high court judge to publish an authoritative edition of the Shrimad Bhagavad-gita with the commentaries of Shri Vishvanatha Cakravarti Thakura as well as his own (Bhaktivinoda’s) translation. The preface, written by Bankimacandra, expressed his gratitude to the Thakura for his endeavor, and when it was published, the copies were soon exhausted. Then Thakura Bhaktivinoda published a unique work entitled Shri Chaitanya-shikshamrita ("The Nectarean Teachings of Lord Chaitanya"), which dealt with Lord Chaitanya’s theistic philosophy and the philosophies of the Western speculators. This book defeats every other philosophy point for point and establishes the philosophy of Lord Chaitanya as supreme. In 1885 he started a society named Shri Vishva-vaishnava-raja-sabha for the propagation of pure hari-bhakti. Many eminent citizens of Calcutta joined the society, and several committees were organized with assigned duties.
Bhaktivinoda Thakura was so anxious to see the land of Lord Chaitanya that he applied many times for a transfer to any town nearby. Upon not receiving the desired transfer, he formally submitted a resignation from public service, but it was refused. Then, to his great rejoicing, he obtained a transfer to Krishnanagar, twenty-five miles from Navadvipa, Mayapur. Once stationed at a place near Navadvipa, he did not let a single free moment pass without visiting the land of Navadvipa. He at once made inquiries about the exact whereabouts of the different places of Lord Chaitanya’s pastimes. He soon discovered that the then city of Navadvipa was a town of only a hundred years’ standing, so he was curious to locate the actual birthplace of Lord Chaitanya. He was convinced that the town of Navadvipa was not the authentic location, and he at once commenced a vigorous inquiry to find the truth of the matter. But he could not easily escape from the people who tried to make him believe that the birthplace of Chaitanya was at that town. Then, after careful inquiry, he was told that the site was lost under the shifting course of the Ganges. Not satisfied with this explanation, he himself set out to discover the yoga-pitha (birthplace). After great difficulties, he came to know of a place which was being adored by many realized souls as the true birthplace of Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and which was then in the possession of the Muhammadans. Local inquiry and corroborative evidence from ancient maps of the latter part of the eighteenth century which showed the name "Shri Mayapur" at last helped him to discover the real site of the birthplace. The discovery led to the publishing of a valuable work called Navadvipa-dhama-mahatmya. (Chapter Five of this book has appeared in ISKCON’s Bengali Back to Godhead magazine.)
The year 1895 was the most eventful year in the history of the Vaishnava world, and Bhaktivinoda Thakura was the prime mover of the events. It was in this year that he officially memorialized the birthsite of Shri Chaitanya and brought its true identity and importance before the public eye. Thousands of visitors were present at a function held at the spot.
Just after retiring from government service, Thakura Bhaktivinoda himself, in a spirit of perfect humility and with a view to giving a firm standing to the discovery, went from door to door to raise funds for a temple. In the Amrita Bazar Patrika newspaper, on December 6, 1894, the following article appeared: "Babu Kedaranatha Datta, the distinguished Deputy Magistrate who has just retired from the service, is one of the most active members. Indeed, Babu Kedaranatha Datta has been deputed by his committee to raise subscriptions in Calcutta and elsewhere and is determined to go from house to house if necessary and beg a rupee from each Hindu gentleman for the noble purpose. If Babu Kedaranatha Datta sticks to his resolution of going around with a bag in hand, we hope that no Hindu gentleman whose house may be honored by the presence of such a devout bhakta as Babu Kedaranatha will send him away without contributing his mite, however humble it may be, to the Gaura-Vishnupriya Temple fund." Truly, Thakura Bhaktivinoda honored the houses of many persons for the furfillment of the noble object he had undertaken. He went to persons to whom he would not have gone for any purpose but for this mission of Lord Chaitanya, and his efforts were not fruitless, since the sum collected contributed to the construction of a building on the holy site of Lord Chaitanya’s appearance.
The work of preaching the holy name was also in full swing, and it spread fast into the distant corners of the globe. The Gauranga-smarana-mangala-stotra, with a preface in English containing the life and precepts of Shri Chaitanya, came out from Bhaktivinoda’s pen soon after the discovery of Lord Chaitanya’s birthplace and found its place in all the learned institutions of both hemispheres.
The more the names of Lord Chaitanya and Lord Krishna were preached, the merrier was Thakura Bhaktivinoda. He thereafter made annotations of Shri Brahma-samhita and Shri Krishna-karnamrita and gave to the world his immortal and precious works Shri Harinama-cintamani and Bhajana-rahasya. He also edited, with commentary, Shrimad-bhagavatarka-marici-mala, which contains all the most prominent shlokas of the Shrimad-Bhagavatam pertaining to the Vaishnava philosophy. His pen never tired, and it produced many other Vaishnava philosophical works. He would begin his writings very late at night, after completing his government work, and stay up until one or two o’clock in the morning composing songs and literatures. Most of his works appeared in the Sajjana-toshani magazine. He was equally engaged in writing and in preaching the holy name in many districts of Bengal. His personal appearances at villages had marvelous effects on the people. To maintain the center at Nadia he built a house at Shri Godrumadvipa which is called Shri Svananda-sukhada-kunja. Here in this abode the preaching of hari-nama continued in full swing.
It was at the beginning of the twentieth century that he chose to live at Puri and build a house on the beachfront there. Many honest souls sought his blessings and readily obtained them when he accepted the renounced order of life by taking babaji initiation from Shrila Gaurakishora dasa Babaji in 1908. Though he was leading the life of a renounced soul, he could not avoid the men of all description who constantly visited him. All of them received oceans of spiritual training, instructions, and blessings. In 1910 he shut himself up and remained in a perfect state of samadhi, or full concentration on the eternal pastimes of the Lord. In 1914 he passed on to the blissful realm of Goloka on the day which is observed as the disappearance day of Shri Gadadhara. Here we quote a stanza written about the samadhi of Haridasa Thakura which Shrila Bhaktivinoda wrote sometime in 1871 to explain what influence a Vaishnava carries in this world even after his departure:
He reasons ill who tells that Vaishnavas die
When thou art living still in sound!
The Vaishnavas die to live, and living try
To spread the holy name around!
Shrila Bhaktivinoda predicted, "Soon there will appear a personality who will preach the holy name of Hari all over the world." It is clearly understood that His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada is that personality. I offer my prostrated obeisances first unto all the devotees that have surrendered unto his divine lotus feet and next unto the devotees who will in the future take shelter of his lotus feet, and I then offer my humble obeisances unto his lotus feet again and again. May he bless this first translation attempt so that it may be accepted by the Lord Shri Krishna, and may he engage me in the service of the six Gosvamis of Vrindavana, Lord Chaitanya, and Radharani.
August 20, 1972
Disappearance Day of Shrila Rupa Gosvami