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The efforts of Shrila Bhaktivinoda Thakura to re-establish the pure form of Gaudiya Vaishnavism can be better appreciated if something is said about the prevailing, and generally opposing currents of thought espoused by the ruling British, the Indian intellectuals of the time, and the common people of 19th century India. The British, with some notable exceptions amongst their scholars, such as H. H. Wilson and Sir William Jones, viewed any native endeavor to uncover and extol the glories of their great heritage as undesirable and foolish at best. At worst, they piled abuse and invective on Vedic thought and scriptures in ill-conceived and misinformed attacks. In 1838, the year of Thakura Bhaktivinoda's birth, there was some debate on India's Supreme Ruling Council, chaired by Lord Bentinck, as to the value of teaching Sanskrit and India's classical literatures, as well as regional languages, in schools to be established by the British for the education of the Indian people. A few members of the Council were mildly in favor of it, but the elegantly expressed, fully ethnocentric and Philistine view of Thomas Macaulay prevailed. In his Education Minute, Macaulay wrote that he could not find one Orientalist: "... who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia." He went on to make the outrageous assertion that, "... all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in the Sanskrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgements used at preparatory schools in England." He then made the following creatively expressed, though uneducated assertion as his central statement of belief: "The question now before us is simply whether, when it is in our power to teach the [English] language, we shall teach languages in which ... there are no books on any subject which deserve to be compared to our own ... whether, when we can patronize sound philosophy and true history, we shall countenance at the public expense medical doctrines which would disgrace an English farrier, astronomy which would move laughter in girls at an English boarding school, history abounding with kings 30 feet high and reigns 30,000 years long, and geography made up of seas of treacle and rivers of butter." His statement on education, especially in connection with Sanskrit, Sanskrit literature and regional languages, set the tone for British endeavors to educate the Indian natives thereafter, and he further declared, "... the great object of the British government ought to be the promotion of European literature and science among the natives of India."
This sort of extreme religious and cultural chauvinism was not rare, and, in fact, it prevailed. The historian, James Mill, denigrated the Vedic scriptures and deities with phrases like, "grossest images of sensual pleasure", "the worship of the emblems of generative organs", and ascribed to God "an immense train of obscene acts". He described the whole of Vaishnavism as something "wild". H.H. Wilson, in response, made the following comments on Mill's historiography: "Mill's view of Hindu religion is full of very serious defects, arising from inveterate prejudices and imperfect knowledge. Every text, every circumstance, that makes against the Hindu character, is most assiduously cited, and everything in its favour as carefully kept out of sight, whilst a total neglect is displayed of the history of Hindu belief." Wilson, being more liberal and much better informed, was appalled at Mill's presentation. Yet, he was himself convinced of the basic thesis that Indian culture and religion was something inferior, albeit fascinating.
Dr. Tytler wrote, "The histories of Buddha, Salavahana and Krishna comprise nothing more than perverted copies of Christianity." And the British missionaries were especially disturbed by the temple "idols", particularly those at Jagannatha Puri. George Gogerly, the historian, describes the reaction of Dr. Claudius Buchanan, one of the first British missionaries, who arrived in Bengal in 1790 and described "the horrors of Juggernaut". "Juggernaut" was generally referred to by the missionaries as "that Indian Moloch". Gogerly wrote, "The whole history of this famous God (Krishna) is one of lust, robbery, deceit and murder ... the history of the whole hierarchy of Hindooism is one of shameful iniquity, too vile to be described."
Thus, with regard to the rulers of the day, their opinions were certainly not helpful towards a renaissance of Vaishnavism, nor supportive of the publication of its important literatures and the excellently articulated views of the propounders of Vaishnava thought. The situation was compounded in the course of time by Indian intellectuals who were trained in the schools established by the British, and who tended to parrot all the criticisms of their schoolmasters, and took it for granted that the Vedas and Puranas were at best a fascinating collection of mythological tales that have little to do with reality. If there was any substance in Indian philosophy it was certainly not to be found in the histories and Puranas, but rather in the Upanishads, which, due to a certain degree of textual ambiguity, were easier to interpret from the impersonal viewpoint. Sometimes Indian reformers created elaborate fusions of Indian thought and the Christianity of their British conquerors. These they considered an improvement that could be more easily embraced by the so-called rational thinkers of the day. A clear example of this predilection is to be found in the ideas of Rammohun Ray, a famous Bengali philosopher, who borrowed eclectically from the doctrines of a number of Western thinkers and from Christianity. He created a belief system he called "Brahmoism" and he emphasized what he considered a rationalistic view of the Vedic scriptures. He rejected Gaudiya Vaishnavism and was critical of Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. His countryman K.C. Mitter says of him, "Rammohun tried to subvert Hinduism and disseminate purer and more elevated notions of religion and morality." Of course the so-called "purer and more elevated notions" of Rammohun Ray were simply mental speculations of no particular redeeming value, and his misdirected efforts, along with those of other misled Indian thinkers, led to all kinds of foolish theories about Vedic culture and philosophy, which was excellent beyond any of their insignificant imaginings and ramblings. The ideas of Rammohun, however, became popular with Young Bengal, which was steeped in the ways of the British, and Shrila Bhaktivinoda Thakura had to contend mightily with the awful effects of such theorizing, as will be documented in this volume.
The last great obstacle confronted by the Thakura was the widespread acceptance of the doctrines of the numerous, deviant sahajiya (pseudo-devotee) groups which had sprung up after the disappearance of Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and His principal followers. There were a variety of spurious ideas and practices espoused by these groups, which did not create much in the way of regard in the minds of the Bengali thinkers of the day. Unfortunately, such groups were thought to represent standard Gaudiya Vaishnavism. Some of them espoused very sentimental versions of Gaudiya Vaishnava doctrines in which mundane physical sensuality amongst its members was equalized with the completely transcendental conjugal affairs of Radha-Krishna. Some mixed Islam with Gaudiya Vaishnavism. Some of them smoked ganja, had illicit sexual intercourse, took advantage of sentimental people for material gain, practiced Tantric rituals, etc.-all this in the name of the pure doctrines of Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. What is more, a group of publishers called the "Baratalas", out of commercial motivation, popularized the apocryphal literatures of many of these bogus groups by publishing and disseminating them widely in the villages. It is estimated that between 1815 and 1899 more than fifty such works were published, and thus sahajiya Vaishnavism and its rancid ideas became accepted as standard amongst the less educated masses in the villages.
Thus, the Thakura had a great deal to contend with in his struggle to establish the pure and original teachings of Gaudiya Vaishnavism. And yet, because of his journalistic attempts (especially through the very popular and widely read Vaishnava journal Sajjana-toshani), his organization of door-to-door preaching in the villages, his publication of authentic philosophical works by the Six Gosvamis and their followers, his discovery and establishment of Shri Chaitanya's birthplace as the principal place of pilgrimage in all of Bengal, and his instructing and educating many followers, including his son, Shrila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, who successfully disseminated his father's mission all over India and other parts of the world, he was enormously successful. In Dr. Ramakanta Chakravarti's book Vaishnavism in Bengal (1486-1900), he frankly admits, "Vaishnava journalism as well as Gaudiya Vaishnava organization in Bengal really became meaningful under the guidance of a dynamic Vaishnava Deputy Magistrate named Kedaranath Datta, Bhaktivinoda (1838-1914) ..." He goes on to relate a little of the Thakura's history which is more elaborately detailed in the succeeding pages of this book: "In his youth he came into close contact with Dvijendranath Tagore (1840-1926), eldest son of Devendranath Tagore. With Dvijendranath, Kedarnath assiduously studied Western Philosophy and History. Later he initiated the study of comparative philosophy in the light of Gaudiya Vaishnava theology. When he was a Deputy Magistrate in Puri, Kedaranath caused the incarceration of a man named Visakisan, who was the leader of the heretical Ativadi sect ... Kedaranath first published the famous Vaishnava journal, Sajjanatoshani in 1884. In 1885 he founded a Vaishnava society named Vaishnava Sabha, and also set up the Depository Press in 181, Maniktala Street, Calcutta. The Vaishnava Sabha appointed three Gaudiya Vaishnava preachers named Bipinbihari Gosvami, Mahendranath Gosvami and Harigopal Gosvami. They were to work in districts of Bengal..."
Shrila Bhaktivinoda Thakura's son, Shrila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, was also responsible for the printing of many authoritative Vaishnava tomes and was famous for confrontations with the thinkers of the day in which he was repeatedly successful in altering their stereotypical conceptions of Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu's sublime philosophy. The result was a newly won respect for the brilliant doctrine of Lord Chaitanya and his followers-the Six Gosvamis, a new pride in the culture and tradition of Gaudiya Vaishnavism and a serious interest among the educated classes in the teachings of Lord Chaitanya. As a result of Shrila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura's inspired efforts, many educated and qualified men came forward and assisted him in spreading the mission of Thakura Bhaktivinoda all over India and other parts of Asia, and even into Europe, eventually establishing sixty-four mathas, or temples. One of his disciples, the most eminent maha-bhagavata, Shrila A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the Founder-Acarya of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, was actually successful in spreading the profoundly mystical message of Lord Chaitanya all over the known world, establishing more than a hundred temples, farms, schools and institutes, thus instrumentally fulfilling the most ardent desires of Shrila Bhaktivinoda Thakura.