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NITAAI-Veda.nyf > Other Scriptures by Acharyas > Biographies of Acharyas > Bhaktivinoda Thakura > Bhaktivinoda Thakura > Prologue

1. Prologue

SRILA Sac-cid-ananda Bhaktivinoda Thakura appeared in the 19th century at a critical, historical juncture, when the teachings of Lord Chaitanya had been so much disparaged and depreciated that the Thakura, despite eight years of inquiry and endeavor, was unable to secure a copy of Shri Chaitanya-caritamrita (the most important biographical work on the philosophy and life of Lord Chaitanya) even in manuscript form. Lord Chaitanya's pure teachings had been virtually lost, though only a few hundred years had elapsed since His disappearance. These teachings were preserved solely by a handful of reclusive renunciates, who were not actively preaching His message, except by their living example. Although the Thakura is especially noted for his having re-discovered the site of Lord Chaitanya's birth, in fact, he practically re-discovered and re-established Lord Chaitanya's movement, which was obscured by the cultural and religious chauvinism of the ruling British, and discredited by the perverse and useless activities of a number of sahajiya (deviant) sects and other groups with motivated, concocted philosophies. He revived Lord Chaitanya's message, published the writings of the Gosvamis (Lord Chaitanya's principal apostles), and proved the timeless importance and relevance of these teachings to the modern world.

Shrila Bhaktivinoda Thakura's life can easily be misrepresented and misunderstood if subjected to a mundane, scholarly approach. At the outset he appears to be a typical Bengali intellectual, a product of the British educational system and Calcutta literary scene and a student of European philosophers. Nineteenth century Calcutta was the epicenter of the cultural, literary and religious life of India. The Thakura appears in the midst of this period of historic ferment in the guise of a typical, British-educated, Bengali Babu. He seems to dabble in various philosophies and to eventually take up the study of Krishna consciousness out of intellectual curiosity. He then appears to have been transformed by spiritual association into an ardent apologist of Gaudiya Vaishnavism in reaction to its misrepresentation by others, both foreign and native, and to take up the propagation of Krishna consciousness, gradually achieving a state of elevated spiritual consciousness. Although this view of Shrila Bhaktivinoda Thakura is superficial and far removed from a true understanding of his spiritual significance, it may nevertheless appear to have some merit. Ultimately it does not, but unfortunately some scholars present him in just such a superficial and uncomprehending manner. In writing a biography about Shrila Ramananda Raya, the intimate associate of Lord Chaitanya, Shrila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, cautions the reader in the beginning, "This brochure is not to be considered as a hagiological attempt but an endeavor for inculcating [a] procedure of following the life of a transcendental devotee who had a thoroughly peculiar mood of service of the Absolute, unknown to the vitiated mundane atmosphere ... Readers ... are respectfully solicited to go through these pages, not with a challenging mood but with an approaching aptitude, to be acquainted with the undiscovered track of Devotion. A submissive and attentive audiencing will surely facilitate comprehension of the transcendental procedure, aiding one's journey to his hitherto unexplored transcendence. The Absolute must not be obliged to come under finitudinal examination by our poor senses..." Having opened like this, he nevertheless tried to accommodate readers heavily conditioned by a tendency to view the life of a self-realized soul in an empiric way. Shrila Sarasvati Thakura wrote a whole chapter called "The Lord and His Beloved (Viewed by Empiricists)", which he concludes by saying, "This is a short narrative of the Supreme Lord and Rai Ramananda as gauged by mundane spectators known as hagiolaters who search about the accounts of heroes." His next chapter takes the reader to unexplored regions of the profoundest depth and has the same title as above, but this time it is sub-titled "Viewed by Devotees", in which he begins, "We have surveyed in the last Chapter the seeming conception of worldly people about Rai Ramananda. Now we are to enlighten those who are interested in the esoteric aspect of the devotee. Savants of the spiritual manifestations do not corroborate the view of the ordinary observer of mundane phenomena. Conception is carried both in worldly phenomena as well as in Transcendental Manifestive Aspects. A stricter caution may not be neglected in distinguishing the two different planes so as to rescue the true view from confusion." It is the purpose of this biography to keep uppermost the true view of the Thakura as a fully spiritual personality, despite whatever deluding appearances external details or ordinary observers may attempt to establish. The spiritual plane is real and eternal. The material plane is unreal being temporary. When a spiritual personality comes to the material world for the salvation of others, there is bound to be bewilderment on the part of those whose vision remains clouded by the material world, as to who and what he is.

Thus, "to rescue the true view from confusion" we must know that Shrila Bhaktivinoda Thakura is nitya-siddha, an eternally realized associate of the Supreme Lord, who descended from the spiritual world to assist Lord Chaitanya in establishing His mission. Whatever external appearances, forms and figures are present in his life, he was never a conditioned soul of this world. This assurance we have from our acaryas. He was a member of Krishna's inner circle in Goloka-Vrindavana, the supreme spiritual planet of the spiritual world, and he has come to rescue us from confusion. The inner life of a nitya-siddha devotee can never be fully understood, but the aim of a biographical work of this sort is to attempt to delve into the inner life and mood of a great soul, so as to afford inspiration and direction to those who have set out, or are yet to set out, on the path back to Godhead: life's only truly great journey. The inner life of a mahatma can be traced out, especially in his writings, in which his personal ecstacies are revealed, so far as words can describe them. This was especially true in the case of Shrila Bhaktivinoda Thakura, who left detailed descriptions of the spiritual process and his personal experience of the Transcendental Reality Himself, Shri Krishna. Great souls may exhibit ordinary seeming activities, but they are not to be misunderstood because of this.

In the process of attempting to appreciate the Thakura's inner life, we must simultaneously note the recorded movements of this great soul's course through the world, which can also help us to gain understanding. The activities and words of such persons do not simply exhibit a temporary significance, but rather instruct us eternally. As the Thakura himself has written in The Bhagavat regarding Vyasa and other great sages: "These great souls were not mere luminaries like comets appearing in the firmament for a while and disappearing as soon as their mission was done. They are like so many suns shining all along to give light and heat to the succeeding generations." Nevertheless, the Thakura himself called matter "the dictionary of spirit", so a good deal can also be comprehended from the trajectory of his observed and recorded activities and deeds, which included tremendous efforts to communicate Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu's message by book and magazine publication, personal door-to-door preaching and his many public addresses and lectures. By carefully hearing from both worlds: his philosophical and revelatory writings by which he lives eternally in sound, as well as the historical details of his activities described by the various hagiographers, we can hope to gain a glimpse into his transcendental life. Furthermore, by thus hearing about him and from him, we may realize the greatest boon of human existence: association with a pure devotee, a paramahamsa of the highest order, one who was justly honored as the "Seventh Gosvami" due to his writings and spiritual realization being of equal stature to that of the Six Gosvamis of Vrindavana, the principal disciples of Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.

Shrila Prabhupada commented on the importance of not misunderstanding the life of the Thakura in a letter to Madhusudan Prabhu written on November 20, 1968: "Regarding your questions, 'I read in a book sent from India that Shrila Bhaktivinoda Thakura was sent directly by Lord Shri Chaitanya from the spiritual sky. I am not sure if the book was bona fide. Is the above true? Someone, a God-brother, [mentioned that] he heard that Shrila Bhaktivinoda was at one time an impersonalist. Was he ever?' Yes, what you have heard is all right. Just like Arjuna is [the] constant companion of Krishna, as it is confirmed in the 4th chapter [of Bhagavad-gita where] Krishna says that both Arjuna and He appeared many times on this world, but he had forgotten his past appearance and Krishna did not. Krishna is like the sun, and maya is just like darkness. When Krishna is present there cannot be any darkness of maya. So although Arjuna was always in the presence of Krishna as an eternal companion in friendship, still he had some illusion in the battlefield of Kurukshetra, and Krishna had to dissipate that darkness by the teachings of Bhagavad-gita. The purport is, sometimes even a liberated person like Arjuna plays the part of a conditioned soul in order to play some important part. Similarly, Bhaktivinoda Thakura was for some time associating with the impersonalists. And then he exhibited himself in his true color as pure devotee, exactly in the same way as Arjuna exhibited [himself] in the beginning as a conditioned soul, and then as a liberated soul. So there is nothing to be misunderstood in this connection. Krishna and His devotees sometimes play like that, as much as Lord Buddha although an incarnation of Krishna, preached the philosophy of voidism. These things are conducted in terms of place, audience, time, etc. In the Chaitanya-caritamrita it is said that the activities of the Vaishnava cannot be understood even by the greatest scholar. So we have to understand everything through the transparent via media of the Spiritual Master. There is no doubt about it-that Shrila Bhaktivinoda Thakura is the eternal energy of Lord Shri Krishna Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. And whatever he did, was just to suit the time, place, circumstances, etc. There is no contradiction in his activities." [S.P Letters 68-11-34]

Therefore, it is described in the Chaitanya-caritamrita (Madhya 23.39):

yanra citte krishna-prema karaye udaya

tanra vakya, kriya, mudra vijneha na bujhaya

"Even the most learned man cannot understand the words, activities and symptoms of a person situated in love of Godhead."

It is not at all possible by any process of scholarship or review of a devotee's biographical facts and figures to understand the nature of one who is situated in love of Godhead. When Lord Chaitanya described the glories of Mukunda, the royal physician, He also confirmed this point. Mukunda was sitting with a Mohammedan king on a high platform, and the servant of the king brought a peacock fan and held it over the king's head to shade him from the sun. Mukunda became absorbed in ecstatic love of Godhead merely by seeing the fan, which invoked his remembrance of Lord Krishna, and he fell unconscious from the platform. When the concerned sovereign questioned Mukunda as to why he had suddenly fallen, Mukunda claimed to be afflicted with a form of epilepsy, but the king, being perceptive in spiritual matters, began to glimpse the actual glory of Mukunda. Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu declared:

bahye raja-vaidya inho kare raja-seva

antare krishna-prema inhara janibeka keba

"Mukunda dasa externally appears to be a royal physician engaged in governmental service, but internally he has a deep love for Krishna. Who can understand his love?"

Shrila Prabhupada comments, "Unless Shri Krishna Chaitanya Mahaprabhu discloses the fact, no one can understand who is actually a great devotee of the Lord engaged in His service. It is therefore said in Chaitanya-caritamrita (Madhya 23.39): tanra vakya, kriya, mudra vijneha na bujhaya: even the most perfect and learned scholar cannot understand a Vaishnava's activities. A Vaishnava may be engaged in governmental service or in a professional business so that externally one cannot understand his position. Internally, however, he may be a nitya-siddha Vaishnava-that is, an eternally liberated Vaishnava. Externally, Mukunda dasa was a royal physician, but internally he was the most liberated paramahamsa devotee. Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu knew this very well, but ordinary men could not understand it, for the activities and plans of a Vaishnava cannot be understood by ordinary men. However, Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and His representatives understand everything about a devotee, even though the devotee may externally pretend to be an ordinary householder and professional businessman."

Pundarika Vidyanidhi also concealed himself in the guise of a worldly enjoyer, and so expertly that only Mukunda, Vasudeva Datta and Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu understood his actual position. Gadadhara Pandita was very dear to Mukunda, and so Mukunda told him to come with him to meet a very exalted devotee. Gadadhara agreed but was surprised to see, upon meeting Pundarika Vidyanidhi, that he was living in tremendous opulence. He beheld him lying on a couch being fanned by servants, and smeared with perfume; in short, living in the style of a sense-enjoyer or extravagant prince. Gadadhara experienced some doubts on seeing all of this. Then Mukunda, following the movement of Gadadhara's mind, sang some verses about Krishna's merciful treatment of the Putana witch, who came to kill Krishna with her poison-smeared breast but was compassionately given the position of His mother in the spiritual world. Immediately upon hearing these verses, Pundarika Vidyanidhi underwent a radical transformation and began to exhibit all of the ecstatic symptoms of love of Godhead simultaneously. He cried out, "Say more! Say more!", fell to the floor, and began to thrash around in the grip of spiritual emotion, breaking all of the room's furnishings to pieces in a helpless state of extreme ecstasy. Ten men tried to hold him down so that he would not be injured, but it was useless. Finally, after some time, he recovered and was pacified. Gadadhara then realized that he had disrespected a great devotee in his mind and commented, "I was heading into a critically dangerous position, but as you have brought me here today, I have been able to avoid that pitfall. Seeing Shri Vidyanidhi dressed as a sense enjoyer, I supposed that he was a materialistic devotee. But you were able to understand my mind and therefore you so kindly caused his devotion to dawn, just as the sun rises in the east in the morning. As long as I continue to make mistakes you should always remain diligent in pointing out to me the errors in my thinking. All those who take up this path of devotion accept a spiritual guide. But I have not as yet accepted anyone as my preceptor. I should get myself initiated by this personality. If I can do that then the fault of whatever contempt I felt will be reduced."

Thus, the true glories of the Vaishnavas may not easily be known, but by the grace of a pure Vaishnava or the Lord Himself, their glories can be revealed. Although Shrila Bhaktivinoda Thakura appeared to be no more than a magistrate with a large family and many material concerns, he produced over a hundred books explaining the philosophy of Lord Chaitanya and the Gosvamis in the greatest depth. And in his songs and poems he described his states of ecstatic emotion and realization, which the acaryas in our line have confirmed to be pure expressions of the highest understanding of love of Godhead and non-different from the vibration of Vedic literature. Furthermore, by his practical life's demonstration, he exhibited his true feeling for the Lord by engaging twenty-four hours a day in his service, striving with his whole being to deliver the message of Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu for the benefit of the suffering world. He was successful in re-establishing the purity of the teachings of Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, sending the Lord's teachings to the West for the first time and having as his son the great paramahamsa Shrila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, who expanded his mission to an unprecedented degree. He can be said to be mainly, even solely, responsible for the revival of the Krishna consciousness movement in its original form and the most important Vaishnava philosopher in the history of Gaudiya Vaishnavism since the time of Shrila Baladeva Vidyabhushana, who composed Govinda-bhashya, the authoritative Gaudiya Vaishnava commentary on the Vedanta-sutra.