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10. Neda-nedi: vaishnava-buddhist syncretists
The word neda indicates a man with a shaven head. Nedi means a shaven-head woman. The neda-nedi cult is said to be still visible around the Navadvipa area, where they are indistinguishable from other shaven vaishnavas wearing tilak and white cloth. The neda-nedi apasampradaya began at the time of Sri Virabhadra Gosvami, the son of Lord Nityananda and Jahnava Mata. It is said that Sri Viracandra converted over a thousand nedas and an equal number of nedis to vaishnavism from tantric Buddhism. Under his direction, these neda-nedis took to the chanting of the Hare Krishna maha-mantra. Most of them got properly married, thus ending the illicit connections that had been going on between them in the name of tantric meditation. But after some time, a number of them again revived their old practices while passing themselves off as vaishnavas. Nowadays, the neda-nedi is taken to be a type of baul.
From Dr. Ramkantha Cakravarti, we get a historical account of a Buddhist monk of Orissa who became a vaishnava in Puri during the time of Srila Sanatana Gosvami's stay there. He was initiated and received the name Acutyananda das. But after mixing with the vaishnavas for some time, he became dissatisfied by their adherence to varnashrama-dharma. Buddhists are naturally antagonistic to varnashrama, so when Acutyananda consulted a Buddhist guru named Mahananda, he was advised to leave the company of the devotees. Acutyananda established his own group, preaching, bolanti prabhu bhagavan buddharupa mo sri caitanya tanka carana seva kara: "I serve the lotus feet of Lord Buddha in the form of Sri Caitanya."
Though Acyutananda's cult has long faded into irrelavence, this vignette shows the type of sycretism that, on the fringe of Lord Caitanya's sankirtan movement, produced new, unauthorized movements like the neda-nedi. The same tendency was noted by Srila Prabhupada in a 1968 letter to a disciple who had chosen to follow a wayward ISKCON sannyasi:
"Now it is understood [that he] does not believe in parampara or in the necessity of scriptural authority. He seems to feel that this is a sort of tyranny. That means, after taking sannyasa and understanding the philosophy for more than a year, he has changed the whole view, and I do not understand how you would like this recent doctrine."
On syncretism as a tactic for preaching to different religious communities, Srila Prabhupada wrote in 1969:
"Actually we have nothing to do with compromising with Christians or Buddhists. Our principles should be to preach Krishna Consciousness as it is spoken in the Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam. As we are now collecting some fortunate students in our movement, it will be possible to collect more students in the future. But it is a fact that the unfortunate persons who stick to the four material misbehaviors, just like illicit sex life, etc. cannot accept these principles of Krishna Consciousness. But still there is chance for them simply by giving aural reception to this transcendental sound of Hare Krishna mantra. If we turn our attention to fit with the Christian people, or any other religious sect, I think it will not be very much fruitful because nobody will change his faith even though he is given scientific or archeological evidences. And that will not help anybody. We have already discussed this point in many articles and change in religious faith does not make one advanced in spiritual understanding. The spiritual understanding as taught by Lord Caitanya is that all living entities are eternally servants of God. We have to propagate this philosophy, and for this we have to make propaganda. Every religion believes in God, and we want that everyone should actively come to this understanding of accepting one's eternal servitorship to God."