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7. Atavadi: "Too great"
In the early 1870's, when he was a deputy magistrate stationed in Jagannath Puri, Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur arrested, judged and jailed a pseudo-incarnation of Maha Vishnu named Bisa Kisen. This man had mystic powers: he used to sit near a fire and lean into the flames, then lift his head and make flames come out of his hair. He had two companions who went by the names Brahma and Shiva. Many wealthy and influential Hindus of Orissa were under Bisa Kisen's sway. They sent him funds for constructing a temple and also provided him with women for "rasa-lila." He boasted he would drive the British out of Orissa and rule it as a divine king. Bisa Kisen belonged to the ativadi-apasampradaya.
In a letter dated August 18, 1871 that was addressed to the editor of a Cuttack newspaper called Progress, Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur described the origin, philosophy and practices of the ativadi sect. What follows is a synopsis of the most pertinent points of that letter, along with additional details gleaned from Apasampradaya-svarupa by H.H. Bhakti-vilasa Bharati Maharaja.
a) The ativadis claim to be vaishnavas, but in fact they are quite opposed to the principles of Vaishnavism.
b) This apasampradaya was started by one Jagannatha dasa at the time Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu was staying at Puri as a sannyasi. He claimed to be a disciple of Srila Haridas Thakur, but later on he broke his connection with Thakur and began preaching his own ideas. For instance, he had his followers cover their mouths while chanting the maha-mantra, and told them to chant the second half (Hare Rama) first, before Hare Krishna.
c) The word ativadi means "too great." Once Jagannatha dasa arrogantly approached Lord Caitanya, ignoring the Lord's associates like Svarupa Damodara, who would screen visitors so that they would not disturb the Lord with some strange presentation of wrong ideas. This Jagannatha dasa wanted to recite his own translation of Srimad-Bhagavatam, which contained five chapters of his own invention. He also wanted to explain his independent manner of chanting Hare Krishna. To avoid him, Lord Caitanya said, "A fallen soul like Me is not worthy enough to hear the Bhagavatam composed by an author like you." Then Jagannatha das declared Lord Caitanya to be Krishna, and himself Radharani. The Lord replied, "Sir, you have become too great (ativadi). An insignificant and fallen soul like Me can have nothing to do with you."
d) Very foolishly, Jagannatha dasa and his followers took the Lord's statement as praise instead of what it really was -- a condemnation. Thus this apasampradaya considers itself more well-read in the scriptures than Mahaprabhu and His associtates, and likewise better in judgement and logic. Jagannatha das was also "too great" when he seemingly or supposedly exhibited an eight-armed form to prove himself even greater in mystic opulence than Lord Caitanya.
e) Jagannatha das had a sweet singing voice, which attracted women to him. He engaged these ladies in massaging his body. When brought to the court of Prataparudra Maharaja for indecent behaviour on this account, he said to the King, "I don't see any difference between men and women." He was imprisoned for conduct unbecoming a vaishnava sadhu.
f) Jagannatha dasa had been living in an ashrama donated to him and his followers by the King, but when he rejected Haridas Thakur and started his own nonsense, the King took the property back. Then Jagannatha founded his own ashrama on the sea shore; it is called the Satlahari Mandira, and can still be seen today.
g) Ativadi priests sometimes dress up as women on certain religious occasions; they are known for loosely mixing with women.
h) The ativadis are very influential in Orissa because Jagannatha das's Oriyan translations of Srimad-Bhagavatam and Bhagavad-gita are widely liked, especially by simple people who are not so discriminating about what is authorized and what is not. The ativadis have often exploited their influence for political ends, and can be quite fanatical. In this sense, Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur said they resemble certain Islamic sects like the wahabis.
i) They appear to be very devoted to Lord Jagannatha. It is a source of pride among this group to claim that Lord Jagannatha has personally revealed some truth or prophecy to them. Thus every respected ativadi can recite what they call their malika, or series of revelations from the Lord. A common prediction one will hear from them is the year the world will end.
j) Yet at the same time, despite their fervor for Jagannatha, the scriptures they have received from their founder contain many impersonal ideas. Though they worship the Lord's form in life, they believe after death they will realize that He has no form, and that they will merge into Him. This shows the influence of Sankaracarya's Advaita philosophy.
k) Ativadis are mystics. They practice yoga and sometimes work magic, to cure diseases, for instance. They form a secret brotherhood, like the Freemasons in the West, and are also involved with drugs like marihuana and opium. Bhaktivinoda Thakur reckoned there were 15,000 of them in Orissa during his stay there. At that time, they were often engaged in conspiracies against the government.
l) Bisa Kisen was only one of many self-proclaimed avatars hailing from this apasampradaya. Lord Caitanya instructed, avatar nahi kahe -- ami avatar: "The real incarnation of the Lord never claims Himself to be so."