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17. Bankim Chandra and a Flow of Books
DURING his stay in Barasat the Thakura met the famous Bengali novelist, Bankim Chandra, who had just completed a book on Krishna called Krishnacarita. The author had been greatly influenced by English and French philosophers, although he had much regard for traditional Vaishnavism. Bankim Chandra heard that the Thakura was an authority on Krishna, as well as an expert writer, so he wanted to take the opportunity to show him the book. Unfortunately, the book was full of all kinds of Westernized concepts and various mundane speculations. It presented Krishna as an ordinary person who had many good qualities. For four days, taking little food or sleep, the Thakura put forward arguments from the scriptures to prove Krishna's position as the Supreme Personality of Godhead. The author, being much swayed by the conviction and authority of the Thakura's presentation, corrected many of the improprieties in his book and brought them more into line with the transcendental teachings of Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. The author was subsequently criticized by scholars for presenting Puranic histories of Krishna's activities as literal facts rather than "pure legends, myths, fables, and traditions". Such criticism may be seen as a kind of certificate of success for the Thakura, whose aim had been to convince Bankim Chandra of just this: that Krishna was the Absolute Truth and His transcendental pastimes were literal facts.
At the end of his stay in Barasat the Thakura received some important books from an advocate friend, Babu Sarada Charan Mitra, who later became a Calcutta High Court Justice and, in 1916, wrote the introduction to a biography of Shrila Bhaktivinoda Thakura called A Glimpse into the Life of Thakura Bhaktivinoda. Among the books sent were the commentaries on Bhagavad-gita and Shrimad-Bhagavatam by Shrila Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura. At the request of his friend, Thakura Bhaktivinoda took up the task of publishing a good edition of the Bhagavad-gita with the commentary of Shrila Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura and his own commentary called Rasika-ranjana. This was published in 1886. The popular Bankim Chandra wrote the introduction, expressing his indebtedness to Shrila Bhaktivinoda Thakura and impressing upon the Bengali public their good fortune in receiving such a great work. All copies of the book were quickly sold out.
In 1883 the Thakura came across a Sanskrit manuscript called Nitya-rupa-samsthapanam ('Establishing God's Eternal Form') by Pandit Mohan Gosvami Nyaya-ratna, a descendant of Lord Nityananda, who had written a very scholarly presentation on the title's subject concerning this essential point of Vaishnava theology. The Thakura wrote a review of the book in English for a European journal, so that Westerners might be attracted to the subject matter. He comments: "The object of the book is to prove the eternal spiritual form of the Deity. The subject is certainly not a new one, but in the latter part of the nineteenth century, when science is so deeply engaged in its warfare with popular belief, it looks like a new subject inviting the attention of the public. Amongst the scientific beliefs that have come to India along with the British rule, the metaphysical inference that the Deity has no form has been accepted as one of the most philosophical acquisitions that man has ever obtained. The current of the abstruse idea of a formless Brahma, which has invaded thought and worship in India since the time of Pandit Sankaracarya has, with the existence of the European idea of a formless God, become so much extended, especially in the minds of the youngsters of this country, that if an attempt is made to establish the fact that God has an external form, it is hooted down as an act of stupidity."
The Thakura does not use the word "external" in the above sentence in the sense of "material", but in the sense of an eternal, spiritual form which can, under conditions of spiritual purity, be visualized as distinct from His internal essence. Thakura Bhaktivinoda cites the scholarly sources of the Pandit: the Sandarbhas of Shrila Jiva Gosvami, the Vedanta-sutra and the commentaries by the Vaishnava acaryas, as well as the sruti and smriti. He lauds the author not only for his scholarship but for his devotional sentiments as well:
"...Not only reasoning of a healthy kind, there is enough of that superior sentiment which is called affection, for things beyond the regions of the senses. The slokas of which the following are translations have created a sort of thrilling sensation in our heart, which we feel unable to express in writing:
Let crowded sins repeat my trial scenes!
and lead me on from woe to woe!
Care I for that? If love of God alone,
would bless my heart where'er I go.
The Holy seat of Love is Vrindavan,
where matter's laws have no domain
Ah! when my panting soul shall find its rest
in that Eternal realm again!
"There are several of such spiritual effusions which the Materialist and the so-called positivist will scarcely understand. The book under review is replete with unprejudiced discussions about the sastras and considerations of points of pure Bhakti or the spiritual sentiment to God. We fear, however, that the young people and European thinkers will scarcely comprehend the object of the Book. They may put it off to a distant corner of the almirah for happy enjoyment of white ants and other insects with the expression that the book is nothing but a repetition of some old rejected arguments of idolatrous nature. The reason why even thoughtful men might be induced to believe [this] is, that with the change of time, phraseology, [the] process of reasoning and the manner of using evidence also change, and the work before us now has not been composed in accordance with the manner of writing which is now in vogue. The old Sanskrit style has been adopted. We, for ourselves, do not attribute this to want of ability in the author, but to his dislike of the modern form of writing. Be that as it may, we shall review the book arranging the arguments in a purely modern style. Let our readers know it for certain that we shall simply reproduce in the modern style the arguments of Prabhu Upendra Mohan Goswami."
The Thakura then proceeds to give a highly logical and brilliant explanation of spiritual form, addressing the various arguments which might be raised by the rational thinker and answering them strongly. Some excerpts:
"There is one more argument of the rationalist which we shall take time to consider. He naturally questions the possibility of the manifestation in nature of that Supernatural form. We have read in the Hindu scriptures and in the lives of holy men such as Prahlad and Dhruva, that God made His appearance in nature in His form of spirit and acted with men as one of their friends. We are not prepared, in consideration of our short time and space, to prove that the statements made in the sastras were all historically true, but we must show that the principle taught in these statements is philosophically safe. God is spiritually Almighty and has the power to overcome all conditions of matter, space and time. It is certainly His power and privilege to be aloof from matter in the position of His Shri Vigraha, and at the same time to exist in the universe as its soul. In the exercise of His liberty and sovereignty over matter and space, it is not hard to believe that He may now and then, or at all times, be pleased to make a manifestation in nature, sometimes accepting her rules and sometimes rejecting them at His pleasure. The conclusion is that the universe in general and man in particular can never by a rule enjoy a sight of the All Beautiful in the scene of matter, but God of His own freedom can exhibit Himself in supercession of all rules and prove His dominion over all He created. Man sees Him when he regains his pure spiritual nature, but God shows Himself out of kindness to man whenever He is pleased to do so.
"Holy men to whom God has been pleased to show His spiritual form have often attempted to picture it to their fellow brethren. The picture, whether it be by pencil, chisel, or pen, is always made through the medium of matter, and hence a degree of grossness has all along attended the representations. This emblematic exhibition of spiritual impressions is far from being open to [the] charge of idolatry. Those who rationally conceive the idea of God, and by the assistance of the imagination create an image, are certainly open to the charge. There is one absolute truth at the bottom of this important question. It is this: Nature has indeed a relation to the spirit. What is that relation? As far as we have been instructed by the inner Tutor, we may safely say, that spirit is the perfect model and nature is the copy which is full of imperfections. Draw inferences from the side of nature and press them upon the Deity, they will ever remain gross and imperfect. Draw from the spirit inside and push your impressions at first to the mind and then to the body, you simply spiritualize them both. Here is [the] advent of God on the scene of nature. It is then that the model is to be found represented by the corresponding copy in nature. God's transcendental form also finds its corresponding reflection in nature, and when we worship the Deity, in pure love, in the reflected scenes of Vrindavan. Here the imagination has no play. It is the soul which sees and makes a description in the corresponding phenomena in nature. The spiritual form thus conveyed to us is none but the eternal form of God. The grossness is simply apparent, but all the actions and consequences are fully spiritual. The man who weeps and dances in felicity when he spiritually sees the beauty of God is certainly translated to the region of spirits for the time and the gross action of his body is but a concomitant manifestation caused by a current of spiritual electricity. Here we find the absolute in the relative, the positive in the negative and spirit in matter. The spiritual form of God is therefore an eternal truth and with all its inward variety, it is one Undivided Unity. What appears to be a contradiction to reason is nothing but the rule of spirit. And the greatest surprise arises when we see full harmony in all these contradictions."
The above is only one among the many arguments advanced by the Thakura in one of the most brilliant of his essays. He proves by logical argument that the eternal form of God is a necessity if the word "theism" is to have any meaning.
In 1884 the Thakura received a transfer to Shrirampur, where he lived in a residence beside the court. His sons-Radhika, Kamal and Bimal Prasad stayed with him. In October his mother died, and the Thakura, taking a leave of absence, went to Gaya for the performance of the sraddha ceremony. During his stay in Shrirampur he got the opportunity to visit the former residence of Lord Nityananda's great associate, Shrila Uddharana Datta Thakura, at nearby Saptagram, as well as Abhirama Thakura's place at Khanakul and the place of Lord Chaitanya's great devotee, Vasu Ramananda, at Kulinagram.
In 1885 the Thakura organized a press in Calcutta at Bhakti Bhavan called the Chaitanya Yantra or Chaitanya Press. The Sajjana-toshani was published only occasionally during this period up to 1892, at which time it began to be published regularly.
In 1886 a literary explosion occurred. The Thakura published his Gita with commentaries (previously described), and Shri Chaitanya-sikshamrita, a philosophical work in Bengali prose based on Lord Chaitanya's teachings to Rupa and Sanatana Gosvamis as found in Shri Chaitanya-caritamrita. The teachings are compared to a flood of nectar and are divided into eight rainfalls, each rainfall being further divided into downpours. In this work the Thakura fully describes the different kinds of impediments to devotional service, the usefulness of varnasrama-dharma in the practice of vaidhi-bhakti, the specific deviations of many of the so-called Vaishnava sects of the day, etc. etc. This book was very well received.
The Thakura also published Sanmodana-bhashyam, a Sanskrit commentary on Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu's Sikshashtakam, the Bhajana-darpana-bhashya, a Bengali commentary on Shrila Raghunatha Dasa Gosvami's Manah-siksha, together with a Bengali verse translation of Dasa Gosvami's Sanskrit poem, Manah-siksha. He also wrote Dasopanishad-curnika, a book of Bengali prose on the ten principal Upanishads, the Bhavavali, a compilation of Sanskrit verses on the subject of rasa written by different Gaudiya Vaishnava acaryas, edited by the Thakura with Bengali translations of the verses. He also managed to write a philosophical novel called Prema-pradipa in Bengali prose, and to publish the Shri Vishnu-sahasra-nama from the Mahabharata with the Sanskrit commentary of Shrila Baladeva Vidyabhushana called Namartha-sudha.
Also in 1886, the Thakura established the Shri Visva Vaishnava Sabha, a spiritual society, in Calcutta, and many educated men became his followers. Some of the meetings were held in Sarkar's Lane and several committees were formed with assigned duties in the propagation of Krishna consciousness. To acquaint the public with the functions and aims of the Society, the Thakura published a small booklet called the Visva-vaishnava-kalpatavi. The Visva-vaishnava-raja-sabha was started by the Gosvami followers of Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and was described at some length in the previous volume of this series. The Thakura regularly lectured and read from the literature of the Gosvamis at the Bhakti Bhavan, and his son, Bimal Prasad, often attended during these years, imbibing the philosophy of Krishna consciousness from his father and simultaneously learning about the printing that was going on there. The Thakura began work on an edition of Shri Chaitanya-caritamrita with his own commentary called Amrita-pravaha-bhashya. Describing this period in his autobiography, the Thakura notes: "It was a highly intellectual task for me to publish all these books ... Haradhan Datta of Badanganga in Kayapat came to Shrirampur and offered a very old manuscript of Shri Krishna-vijaya-I published that. At that time I established the Chaitanya Press, which was operated by Shri Yukta Prabhu. When I had printed two khandas of the book Chaitanya-caritamrita ... I got a very intense head ailment from all this intellectual work." For some time the Thakura could not work due to dizziness. At the suggestion of some Vaishnavas, he smeared ghee on his head, taking their instruction to be the suggestion of Shrila Jiva Gosvami, as he had, simultaneous to their urging, received some of Jiva Gosvami's books. "I prayed to Shri Jiva Gosvami that the affliction would not continue. Praying in this vein and applying ghee, my ailment vanished. Again I began to work and read the books [of the Gosvamis]."
In 1887 the Thakura traveled to many places in Bengal in search of the Caitanyopanishad, which is part of the Atharva Veda, but found only in very old manuscripts. Few people had even heard of this work, which offered overwhelming evidence of Lord Chaitanya's identity as the Supreme Lord and yuga-avatara (the avatara for the present age of Kali). His endeavor was finally brought to the attention of Madhusudan Das, a Vaishnava pandita, who possessed an ancient manuscript of the Atharva Veda. The pandita at once dispatched it to the Thakura from his place in Sambalapur. When the Vaishnava community learned of the Thakura's discovery, they immediately requested him to prepare a Sanskrit commentary. The Thakura agreed and produced Shri Chaitanya-caranamrita. Madhusudan Das assisted by writing a Bengali translation of the verses called Amrita-bindu.
The Thakura was awarded the title 'Bhaktivinoda' during this period of his colossal efforts in preaching and book publication. Shripada Acarya Kul wrote a letter to the Thakura in Sanskrit awarding him the title, and the Thakura gratefully answered in the same. He comments: "The masters had given the title Bhaktivinoda to me, and this was also the desire of Mahaprabhu..." The title 'Bhaktivinoda' means 'the pastime' or 'pleasure of devotional service', and, taking either or both of these meanings as appropriate, it must be said that the Thakura was the embodiment of one who performs and takes pleasure in the pastimes of devotional service. The Thakura's statement that his being awarded such a title was the desire of Mahaprabhu should not be misunderstood. First of all, it clearly was Mahaprabhu's arrangement, as the scholars had not been requested by the Thakura that he be given any title. They were inspired to do it from within. What is more, Shrila Bhaktivinoda Thakura was pure and able to understand Lord Chaitanya's desire, and thus there is no element of speculation or pride in his declaration.
Shrila Bhaktivinoda Thakura also began to propagate the Chaitanya Panjika, a Vaishnava almanac, and it was by his efforts that the appearance day of Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was made a respectfully observed and important fast-day in the Gaudiya Vaishnava calendar. By lecturing to various societies in Calcutta and elsewhere, the Thakura was profusely distributing the seeds of bhakti. He published a detailed account of Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu's life in the Hindu Herald, an English periodical, which was widely read, and the article drew much favorable attention. Thus, along with his earlier title, Sac-cid-ananda, which was awarded after the publication of Sac-cid-ananda-premalankara, and together with his new title, Bhaktivinoda, he was thenceforward known to the Gaudiya Vaishnavas as Sac-cid-ananda Bhaktivinoda Thakura.