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9. Preaching Days Begin
THUS, Kedaranatha, in March of 1868, was appointed Deputy Magistrate of Dinajpur. His health improved, and to his delight he found many Vaishnavas residing there under the patronage of the great Zamindar of Dinajpur, Ray Saheb Kamala Lochan, who was a descendant of Ramananda Vasu, a great devotee of Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Kedaranatha writes: "In Dinajpur the Vaishnava religion was fairly strong due to Ray Kamala Lochan Saheb. There were many renunciates and gosvamis coming and going there. A few wealthy persons were supporting many assemblies of brahmana panditas. Respectable gentlemen would regularly come to discuss the Vaishnava dharma with me. I had a desire to know what the genuine Vaishnava dharma was. I wrote to our agent Pratap Chandra Ray, and he sent a published translation of Shrimad-Bhagavatam and Shri Chaitanya-caritamrita. I also bought the book called Bhakta-mala. On my first reading of Chaitanya-caritamrita I developed some faith in Shri Chaitanya. On the second reading I understood that there was no pandita equal to Shri Chaitanya. Then I had a doubt: being such a learned scholar and having manifested the reality of love of Godhead to such an extent, how is it that He recommends the worship of the improper character of Krishna? I was initially amazed at this, and I thought about it deeply. Afterwards, I prayed to the Lord with great humility, 'O Lord! Please let me understand the mystery of this matter.' The mercy of God is without limit. Seeing my eagerness and humbleness, within a few days He bestowed His mercy upon me and supplied the intelligence by which I could understand. I then understood that the truth of Krishna is very deep and confidential and the highest principle of the science of Godhead. From this time on, I knew God as Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. I made an effort to always speak with renounced Vaishnava panditas, and I came to understand many aspects of the Vaishnava dharma. In my very childhood the seed of faith in the Vaishnava religion was planted in my heart, and now it had sprouted. From the beginning I experienced anuraga, and it was very wonderful."
Now we see the natural character of Sac-cid-ananda Bhaktivinoda Thakura beginning to emerge. Krishna had covered his spiritual qualities and kept him hidden from the world under the mantle of His yogamaya, but now the Thakura's great mission of reviving Lord Chaitanya's Movement was to begin. He states in his autobiography that from the beginning of his contact with the pure teachings of Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu he experienced anuraga, or spontaneous devotion.
We imagine the scene: the highly intellectual and scholarly philosopher, fully recognizing that he had found the Absolute Truth, brimming with his natural constitutional ecstasy as Krishna's eternal servant, experiencing feelings of bliss in the privacy of his study. His extraordinary ascension to the higher rungs of bhakti was not the gradual evolution of a conditioned soul to the point of spontaneous devotion, but rather the removing of the yogamaya curtain by the Lord Himself and the ushering of His loving servant further onto the stage of the transcendental drama of his life. The pace was quickening: Shrila Bhaktivinoda Thakura was enthused by his association with Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and Shri Krishna in Their literary incarnations and was exhibiting all the symptoms of a liberated soul.
Kedaranatha concludes his description of this period: "Day and night I liked to read about Krishna-tattva." Shortly thereafter, in 1868, out of his ecstatic feeling for Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, he wrote a Bengali poem on His glories, called Sac-cid-ananda-premalankara. From that time on he became famous as Sad-cid-ananda, or one who embodies eternity, knowledge and bliss. In early 1869, he gave a lecture to a large congregation consisting of many prominent men of letters, religion and culture who had come from many parts of India. Some interested Englishmen also attended the meeting. They had all come by the invitation of Khajanji Babu, the president of a prestigious local assembly, who was an officer in the Government of Bengal. At this time, controversy between the Dinajpur followers of Rammohun Ray, the Brahmos, who were mostly schoolmasters, and the town's more conservative Hindus was at its height. The Hindus were attempting to put the Brahmos out of caste (to ostracize them socially). The Brahmos invited the Thakura to their assembly, but he informed them he was not a Brahmo, but rather the servant of the followers of Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. The Hindus then invited him to form an assembly for Hindus. At their first meeting, in 1869, he gave a speech, which later took the form of a book called The Bhagavat: Its Philosophy, Its Ethics and Its Theology. In that lecture he openly criticized the sectarianism that characterized the religious strife between the Hindus and Brahmos. He no doubt intended to instruct the angry Hindus, but at the same time he explained the defects of the Brahmos' thinking while simultaneously glorifying the Shrimad-Bhagavatam's great, universal message. The reader can easily make out the great art of the sadhu therein, as he cuts the illusion and attachment of conditioned souls, but at the same time presents the truth so palatably, poetically and expertly that all his hearers were pleased rather than offended. In the following excerpt from the published version, the Thakura gently points out the glaring defect of Rammohan Ray's neglect of Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu:
"The Bhagavat like all religious works and philosophical performances and writings of great men has suffered from the impudent conduct of useless readers and stupid critics. The former have done so much injury to the work that they have surpassed the latter in their evil consequence. Men of brilliant thoughts have gone through the work in quest of truth and philosophy, but the prejudice which they had already imbibed from its useless readers and their conduct, prevented them from making a candid investigation. Not to say of other people, the great genius of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, the founder of the sect of Brahmoism, did not think it worth his while to study this ornament of the religious library. He crossed the gate of the Vedanta, as set up by the Mayavada construction of Shankaracharya, and preferred to chalk his way out to the unitarian form of the Christian faith, converted into an Indian appearance. Ram Mohan Roy was an able man. He could not be satisfied with the theory of illusion contained in the Mayavada philosophy of Shankar. His heart was full of love for Nature. He saw through the eye of his mind that he could not believe in his identity with God. He ran out from the bounds of Shankar to those of the Koran. There even he was not satisfied. He then studied the preeminently beautiful precepts and history of Jesus, first in the English translations and at last in the original Greek, and took shelter under the holy banners of the Jewish Reformer. But Ram Mohan Roy was also a patriot. He wanted to reform his country in the same way as he reformed himself. He knew it fully that truth does not belong exclusively to any individual man or to any nation or particular race. It belongs to God, and man whether in the Poles or on the Equator, has a right to claim it as the property of his Father. On these grounds he claimed the truths inculcated by the Western Saviour as also the property of himself and his countrymen, and thus he established the Samaja of Brahmos independently of what was in his own country in the Beautiful Bhagavat." There is a footnote at this point clarifying the source of Shrila Bhaktivinoda Thakura's foregoing analysis. It runs as follows: "This is gathered from what Ram Mohan Roy told the public in the prefaces to the three dissertations, which he wrote about the precepts of Jesus as compiled by him from the Gospels and in answer to Dr. Marshman, the Serampore Missionary."
The main text continues, "His noble deeds will certainly procure for him a high position in the history of reformers. But then, to speak the truth, he could have done more if he had commenced his work of reformation from the point where the last reformer in India left it. It is not our business to go further on this subject. Suffice it to say, that the Bhagavat did not attract the genius of Ram Mohan Roy. His thought, mighty though it was, unfortunately branched off like the Ranigunj line of the parent Railway, from the barren station of Shankaracharya, and did not attempt for an extension from the Terminus Station of the great Bhagavat-expounder of Nadia. We do not doubt that the progress of time will correct the error, and by a further extension the branch line will lose itself somewhere in the main line of progress. We expect such attempts in an abler reformer of the followers of Ram Mohan Roy."
In the next section the Thakura recounts his own history as a "sectarian thinker" who ignored the beauty of the Bhagavat, and indeed outlines the defective ideas of the Calcutta intelligentsia, among whom were his good friends and associates. Thus, he spared no one, himself included!
"The Bhagavat has suffered alike from shallow critics both Indian and foreign. That book has been accursed and denounced by a great number of our young countrymen, who have scarcely read its contents and pondered over the philosophy on which it is founded. It is owing mostly to their having imbibed an unfounded prejudice against it when they were in the school. The Bhagavat, as a matter of course, has been held in derision by those teachers, who are generally of an inferior mind and intellect. This prejudice is not easily shaken off when the student grows up unless he candidly studies the book and meditates over on the doctrines of Vaishnavism. We are ourselves witnesses to the fact. When we were in college, reading the philosophical works of the West and exchanging thoughts with the thinkers of the day, we had contracted a hatred towards the Bhagavat. That great work seemed like a repository of ideas, scarcely adapted to the nineteenth century, and we hated to hear any argument in its favour. To us then a volume of Channing, Parker, Emerson or Newman had more weight than the whole lots of Vaishnav works. Greedily we poured over the various commentations of the Holy Bible and of the labours of the Tattwa-Bodhini Sabha, containing extracts from the Upanishads and the Vedanta, but no work of the Vaishnavas had any favour with us. But when we advanced in age and our religious sentiment received development, we turned out in a manner Unitarian in our belief and prayed as Jesus prayed in the Garden. Accidentally, we fell in with a work about the Great Chaitanya, and on reading it with some attention in order to settle the historical position of that Mighty Genius of Nadia, we had the opportunity of gathering His explanations of the Bhagavat, given to the wrangling Vedantists of the Benares School. The accidental study created in us a love for all the works which we could find about our Eastern Saviour. We gathered with difficulties the famous Kurchas in Sanskrit, written by the disciples of Chaitanya. The explanations that we got of the Bhagavat from these sources, were of such a charming character that we procured a copy of the Bhagavat complete and studied its texts (difficult of course to those who are not trained up in philosophical thoughts) with the assistance of the famous commentaries of Shreedhar Swami. From such study it is that we have at last gathered the real doctrines of the Vaishnavas. Oh! What a trouble it is to get rid of prejudices gathered in unripe years."
Here the Thakura places himself before his audience (for their benefit) as a product of the prejudices and misconceptions of his time, as many of his listeners were surely just that. He presents himself as a sectarian thinker who has had his eyes opened. The Thakura had been chosen by Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and sent to this world as a preacher. And what better person could He have chosen to preach to the intelligentsia of the day than Shrila Bhaktivinoda Thakura? Here was a person who was fully conversant with all the burning issues of the day, who had a substantial intellectual background and respectable social origins, who was well studied in the major philosophies and languages of the world, and who was a pure devotee of God. He was a recognized, respectable figure, whose opinion would be seriously heard and in whose footsteps others would follow.
The Thakura next takes issue with the sectarian spirit of various religions and urges the audience to become true critics with "...a comprehensive, good, generous, candid, impartial and a sympathetic soul." To his audience, some of whom were interested in putting the Brahmos out of caste, this message must have been hard for them to hear, but the Thakura speaks convincingly:
"As far as we can understand, no enemy of Vaishnavism will find any beauty in the Bhagavat. The true critic is a generous judge, void of prejudices and party-spirit. One, who is at heart the follower of Mohammed will certainly find the doctrines of the New Testament to be a forgery by the fallen angel. A Trinitarian Christian, on the other hand, will denounce the precepts of Mohammed as those of an ambitious reformer. The reason simply is that the critic should be of the same disposition of mind as that of the author, whose merits he is required to judge. Thoughts have different ways. One who is trained up in the thoughts of the Unitarian Society or of that of the Vedant of the Benares School, will scarcely find piety in the faith of the Vaishnavas. An ignorant Vaishnav, on the other hand, whose business is only to beg from door to door in the name of Nityananda will find no piety in a Christian. This is, because the Vaishnava does not think in the way in which the Christian thinks of his own religion. It may be, that both the Christian and the Vaishnava will utter the same sentiment, but they will never stop their fight with each other only because they have arrived at their common conclusion through different ways of thoughts. Thus a great deal of ungenerousness enters into the arguments of the pious Christians when they pass their imperfect opinion on the religion of the Vaishnavas.
"Subjects of philosophy and theology are like the peaks of large, towering and inaccessible mountains standing in the midst of our planet inviting attention and investigation. Thinkers and men of deep speculation take their observations through the instruments of reason and consciousness. But they take their stand on different points when they carry on their work. These points are positions chalked out by the circumstances of their social and philosophical life, different as they are in the different parts of the world. Plato looked at the peak of the Spiritual question from the West and Vyasa made the observation from the East; so Confucius did it from further East, and Schlegel, Spinoza, Kant and Goethe from further West. These observations were made at different times and by different means, but the conclusion is all the same in as much as the object of observation was one and the same. They all searched after the Great Spirit, the unconditioned Soul of the Universe. They could not but get an insight into it. Their words and expressions are different, but their import is the same. They tried to find out the absolute religion and their labours were crowned with success, for God gives all that He has to His children if they want to have it. It requires a candid, generous, pious and holy heart to feel the beauties of their conclusions. Party-spirit-that great enemy of truth-will always baffle the attempt of the enquirer, who tries to gather truth from religious works of his own nation, and will make him believe that absolute truth is nowhere except in his old religious book. What better example could be adduced than the fact that the great philosopher of Benares will find no truth in the universal brotherhood of man and the common fatherhood of God? The philosopher, thinking in his own way of thought, can never see the beauty of the Christian faith. The way, in which Christ thought of His own father, was love absolute and so long as the philosopher will not adopt that way of thinking he will ever remain deprived of absolute faith preached by the Western Saviour. In a similar manner the Christian needs adopt the way of thought which the Vedantist pursued, before he can love the conclusions of the philosopher. The critic, therefore, should have a comprehensive, good, generous, candid, impartial and a sympathetic soul."
Both Brahmos and Hindus thus duly chastened for their narrow-mindedness, Shrila Bhaktivinoda Thakura then systematically glorifies the Bhagavata, its categories of knowledge: sambandha, abhidheya and prayojana, its universality, its profundity, the mysterious nature of Krishna's sports with the gopis, etc. A few poetic segments are excerpted here, but we urge the reader to peruse the essay in full to experience the incredible genius of the Thakura's presentation.
"The Bhagavat is undoubtedly a difficult work and where it does not relate to picturesque descriptions of traditional and poetic life, its literature is stiff and its branches are covered in the garb of an unusual form of Sanskrit poetry. Works on philosophy must necessarily be of this character. Commentations and notes are therefore required to assist us in our study of the book. The best commentator is Sreedhar Swami and the truest interpreter is our great and noble Chaitanyadeva. God bless the spirit of our noble guides for our eternal good.
"These great souls were not mere luminaries like comets appearing in the firmament for a while and disappearing as soon as their mission is done. They are like so many suns shining all along to give light and heat to the succeeding generations. Long time yet to roll on when they will be succeeded by others of their sublime mind, beauty and calibre."
"OUR UNIQUE GUIDE IS VYASA, THE GREAT"
"The texts of Vyasa are still ringing in the ears of all theists as if some great spirit is still singing them from a distance! Badrikasram! What an awful name! The seat of Vyasa and of the selected religion of thought! The pilgrim tells us that the land is cold! How mightily did the genius of Vyasa generate the heat of philosophy in such a perpetually snowy cold region! Not only he heated the locality but sent its serene ray far to the shores of the sea! Like the great Napoleon of the political world, he knocked down empires and kingdoms of old and by-gone philosophy by the mighty stroke of his transcendental thoughts! This is real power!
"Atheistic philosophy of Shankhya, Charbak, the Jains and the Buddhists shuddered with fear at the heroic approach of the spiritual sentiments and creations of the Bhagavat philosopher! The army of the atheists was the legions that stood under the banner of the fallen Lucifer; but the pure, holy and spiritual soldiers of Vyasa, sent by his Almighty Father were invincibly fierce to the enemy and destructive to all the unholy and unfounded."
"NATURE OF TRANSCENDENTAL LEELA"
"The nature of transcendental Vraja-leela is liable to be misunderstood by the empiric study of the Bhagavat. The limit of empiric reference is reached by the speculations of the paroksha method. By the abandonment of empiricism, represented by the aparoksha method, the Brahma and Paramatma conceptions are realised. But these also are not objects of worship. We have already seen that the activity of service is possible only on the plane of the adhokshaja, which yields the realisation of the Majestic Personality of the Absolute as Sree Narayana. Aprakrita Vraja-leela, the central topic of the Bhagavat, is the highest form of adhokshaja realisation.
"The dalliances of Sree Krishna in Vraja have a close resemblance to unconventional mundane amour. Sexuality, in all its forms, is an essentially repulsive affair on the mundane plane. It is, therefore, impossible to understand how the corresponding transcendental activity can be the most exquisitely wholesome service of the Absolute. It is, however, possible to be reconciled, to some extent, to the truth of the narrative of the Bhagavat if we are prepared to admit the reasonableness of the doctrine that the mundane world is the unwholesome reflection of the realm of the Absolute, and that this world appears in a scale of values that is the reverse of that which obtains in the reality of which it happens to be the shadow."
Shortly after the occasion of this momentous lecture, the Thakura's wife gave birth to a son, but the boy died a month later. A few days later his wife's father also died. The Thakura withheld news of this additional source of grief from his wife for several days and then informed her in a timely way. She suffered greatly due to these losses, and thereafter Shrila Bhaktivinoda Thakura began to think of leaving Dinajpur. He was awarded a promotion, and in May of 1869 received three months leave. He traveled to many places of pilgrimage. The people of Dinajpur, who regarded him very highly, lamented his absence. Returning to Dinajpur, he spent two more months there and then transferred to Champaran.
While in Champaran the Thakura observed many persons worshiping a ghost, a powerful brahma-daitya, who was living in a Banyan tree. This ghost had the power to influence people's minds, and a local court judge, who was under his spell, repeatedly delivered court judgments which favored some bandits who were propitiating the ghost. One day, a pandita, the father of a famous woman scholar, approached the Thakura for alms, and the Thakura engaged him to recite the Shrimad-Bhagavatam beneath the tree where the ghost resided. After one month, when the reading was completed, the tree fell to the ground and the brahma-daitya left. The bandits were irritated, but many townspeople took inspiration from this incident and took up the message of Shrimad-Bhagavatam.