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9. Kartabhaja: worshipers of guru as God
"One should accept a thing as genuine by studying the words of saintly people, the spiritual master and sastra. The actual center is sastra, the revealed scripture. If a spiritual master does not speak according to revealed scripture, he is not to be accepted. Similarly, if a saintly person does not speak according to the sastra, he is not a saintly person. Sastra is the center for all." (Caitanya-caritamrta, Madhya 20.352, purport)
In India, the kartabhaja-apasampradaya is nowadays lumped in with the Bauls of Bengal (aula, baula, sani, daravesa). Though indeed it is in many ways similar to the bauls, there is yet a singular feature of this cult that distinguishes it from all others: its doctrine of guruvada. To be sure, all the tantric apasampradayas venerate the guru, and they all justify this veneration with a philosophy they call guruvada. But none go to the extreme that the kartabhajas do by proclaiming the guru to be God incarnate.
Kartabhaja-guruvada is drawn from the mayavada idea of Absolute Oneness; the conclusion is that the guru alone is God in His worshipable form. No form other than his is worshipable, including the arca-murti. No name is chanted other than the name of the guru -- if the name "Krishna" is chanted, it is because the guru is Krishna.
In Lord Caitanya's acintya-bhedabheda philosophy, the guru is known to be non-different from God, but that does not mean he is identical to God in all respects. He is asraya-vigraha -- the receptacle of Krishna's mercy. He is vishnupadaya (situated at Lord Vishnu's lotus feet) and krishna-presthaya (very dear to Krishna). As Srila Raghunatha das Gosvami states in his Manah Siksa, yuruvaram mukunda presthatve smara parama ajashram nanu manah: "O mind, please remember again and again your spiritual master, who is most dear to Krishna."
The founder of the kartabhaja-apasampradaya was one Aul Chand, who lived approximately from 1686 to 1779. He was a fakir or daravesa said by his followers to be none other than Lord Caitanya Himself, whom they say reappeared at Ghosepara in Nadia 200 years after He appeared in Sridhama Mayapura. In Ghosepara, the residence of Karta Ram Sharan Pal and his wife Sati is still preserved as the kartabhaja place of pilgrimage. This husband and wife were Aul Chand's principal disciples, said to be adi-purusa and adyasakti. Nowadays, the Ghosepara Kartabhaja center is overrun with bauls during the three-day Dola Yatra festival. This is probably why many people think the kartabhajas are a kind of baul. But they are a distinct group with a distinct philosophy, and they used to be extremely influential in the last century. In 1893, an invitation was extended to Karta Dulalchand, a famous songwriter and guru of this sect, to attend the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago (at which Vivekananda lectured). But the invitation was a little late -- by that time, Dulalchand had been dead for 60 years!
The kartabhaja sect has its own holy book called the Bhaver-gita, most of which was written in the form of songs by Dulalchand. Much of the text is puzzling and purposefully contradictory; it is to be understood only by initiates. But there are clear hints of mayavada and tantric ideas (though it seems the kartabhaja sect does not have a reputation for sexual promiscuity like the bauls). The followers are supposed to marry and be true to their partners. And they should be vegetarian, at least on Fridays (the Muslim sabbath). Husbands and wives should not have sex on this day also. The kartabhajas share with the bauls the concept of jiyante mara -- living death -- as the highest goal. They chant the name of Krishna, but say the names of Kali and Khoda (Allah) are equal to it, because all are names of the guru.
An interesting note of history is that the kartabhajas were a powerful movement of revolt against the jati-gosai and smartas, who as mentioned earlier, had become the sedentary establishment of 18th century orthodox Gaudiya Vaishnavism. The kartabhajas and other sahajiya groups converted thousands of common folk on the plea that "the company" (their special term for the Gaudiya Vaishnavas) was once rich, but is now bankrupt. Out of the ruins of the old company, a new company has arisen (meaning the kartabhajas). This company does not carry out business in the name of religion.
The word karta means "master" or "boss"; with this term the kartabhajas address their gurus, beginning with Karta Ram Sharan Pal. All the kartas lived at the residence of the first karta and organized the kartabhaja mission from there.
The faithful followers of the kartas are called baratis, which means "members of the bridegroom's party" in the curious terminology of this sect. The business of the baratis is to fully accept and serve the karta as God on earth. Because of their fanatical devotion to this principle, the kartabhaja sect was very well organized and enthusiastic, and thus very influential among people who could see the faults of the jati-gosai and smartas.
The kartabhajas worship no deity other than the karta. Whatever words he speaks are themselves sastra and should be blindly obeyed. His activities are always divine. Such divine activites were revealed by Aul Chand, the founder-avatar. While living with his disciple, Ram Sharan Pal, he used to squat in a room alone without moving for many days together. But when Ram Saran had a wedding ceremony for his eldest daughter, Aul Chand suddenly came out of his room completely naked and danced all around the wedding party. Ram Sal became angry, but when Aul Chand threatened to leave his house forever, Ram Saran surrendered and begged him to stay, suddenly realizing that Aul Chand was God.
In Bangladesh, a new version of the kartabhaja sect was founded some years back by one bogus "God". He is now dead, but latter-day devotees can be directly initiated by him through preachers known as ritviks. New initiates must agree to follow the principles -- be vegetarian once a week and worship no deity other than his picture.