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12. Vaishnava Studies and Two Mahatmas
SRILA Bhaktivinoda Thakura made great strides in his studies at Puri. He describes them in his autobiography: "I appointed Gopinatha Pandita as my tutuor and with his assistance I first studied the twelve cantos of the Bhagavatam with Shridhara Svami's commentaries." Two other panditas named Harihara dasa and Markandeya Mahapatra, who had studied nyaya [logic] and Vedanta at Navadvipa and Benares, studied with him. Being a little weak in grammar, which he had originally studied with Isvara Chandra Vidyasagara and Dvijendranatha Tagore in Calcutta, he resumed his studies and gradually learned to compose in Sanskrit. "After finishing the Bhagavata I made a copy of the Shat-sandarbha [by Shrila Jiva Gosvami] and read it. Then I copied and read the Vedanta commentary, Govinda-bhashya, written by Baladeva Vidyabhushana. Next, I read the Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu [by Shrila Rupa Gosvami]. Then I made a copy of the Hari-Bhakti-kalpalatika." The latter work was an unsigned manuscript found by the Thakura, which he was much impressed by. It was later published by him and thereafter by his son, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura.
The Thakura also studied Prameya-ratnavali and other Gaudiya Vaishnava classics which he was able to secure from the library of the Raja in Puri and from the homes of Vaishnava panditas. His study and worship were intense, and he quickly became well-versed in the Gaudiya Vaishnava philosophy. He composed a book in Sanskrit called Datta-kaustubha in 1874, 104 verses on Vaishnava philosophy with commentary, and he began composing the slokas of Krishna-samhita, one of his best known works.
While living in Puri, the Thakura formed a society of devotees called the Bhagavata-samsat, which held meetings in the Jagannatha-vallabha gardens for the purpose of discussing topics of Krishna. These gardens were the former bhajana site of Ramananda Raya, the great follower of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Many Vaishnavas and panditas attended the discourses, but one saintly devotee named Raghunatha dasa Babaji refused to join, due to a misunderstanding about the society's function and because the Thakura was not wearing the traditional Vaishnava tilaka and Tulasi neck beads. He even requested other Vaishnavas not to attend the meetings, for he did not consider the Thakura to be a real devotee. The Thakura's biographer, Paramananda Vidyaratna, and others recount the details of this incident. After criticizing the Thakura, the babaji became afflicted with a severe illness. One night in a dream, Lord Jagannatha appeared to him and told him to pray for the mercy of Thakura Bhaktivinoda if he wanted release from certain death. In the Gaura-parsada-caritavali by Hari-kripa dasa (a work containing biographical sketches of many great Vaishnavas) it is mentioned that upon awakening, the babaji quickly approached the Thakura's residence and fell at his feet begging forgiveness for his offense. He spoke humbly to the Thakura saying, "I noticed that you never wore Tulasi beads on your neck nor tilaka on your forehead, and because of this I disrespected you and have committed an offense. Please forgive me." The Thakura replied, "Babaji Mahasaya, what is my crime? The Vaishnava tilaka and Tulasi neck beads are given by the diksha-guru, but so far Mahaprabhu has not sent me a diksha-guru. I therefore just chant the Holy Name on Tulasi beads. In this situation would it be good to whimsically wear tilaka or neck beads?"
The Thakura recounts: "Babaji Mahasaya was a siddha-purusha [a perfected soul], therefore he could understand everything ... he praised me and showed mercy to me. And I became his follower." The Thakura arranged some medicines to help cure the babaji and completely forgave him for any offense. From that time on, Raghunatha dasa Babaji had nothing but praise for the Thakura's Vaishnava qualities.
On the way to the samadhi of Haridasa Thakura, near the Tota Gopinatha Temple, was the bhajana-kutira (cottage or hut where one worships the Holy Name by constant chanting) of Sanatana Gosvami. Some great renunciates regularly met there to chant the holy name. An especially great soul in that gathering, who later associated with Gaura Kisora dasa Babaji, was known as Svarupa dasa Babaji. The Thakura recognized him as a paramahamsa and often visited him and sought his association. He describes the activities of this saintly person in the following way: "All day he would perform bhajana within his small cottage, and in the evening he would come outside and pay his prostrated obeisances to the Holy Tulasi tree. Then he would loudly chant the Holy Name and sing, dance and cry in ecstasy. At this time many Vaishnavas would come to get his darsana [audience].
Some of them would offer him small handfuls of Jagannatha prasada. In order to satisfy his hunger, he would consent to accept it, but he would not accept much. At this time one of the Vaishnavas would read from Chaitanya-bhagavata or other Gaudiya Vaishnava literatures, and he would listen. By 10 PM. he would go into his kutira and again start his bhajana. In the middle of the night he would go to the shore of the ocean alone, wash his face and take a complete bath. He did this for fear that some Vaishnava would perform some service for him without his knowledge. Since he was blind in both eyes, the question arises: how could he go to the ocean in the middle of the night to take his bath? Only Mahaprabhu knows. There was no doubt that he was a siddha-purusha, a spiritually perfected soul. He did not have a single material desire. In the evening I would sometimes go to take darsana of his lotus feet. He would talk with the people and his speech was very sweet. He instructed me, krishna-nama bhulibe na-'Never forget the name of Krishna.'"
The Thakura further comments on this period of his life in his autobiography: "While in Puri I made much advancement in devotional service. I became more detached from worldly life. [Any idea I might have had] that worldly progress produces anything of lasting value was gone forever. Almost every evening I would go to the temple to see the Lord, to hear and chant the Holy Name and associate with the devotees... On one side of the Temple was the Mukti Mandap. The brahmanas would sit there and give some instruction, but all of them were Mayavadis [impersonalists]. When I would pass them my mind would become disturbed [because of the blasphemy they promulgated]. Therefore, I would sit near the Goddess Lakshmi Mandira or the Mahaprabhu Pada-padma. When I was sitting there many of the panditas from the Mukti Mandap would come and sit [with me]." This place is in a sub-temple within the walls of the Jagannatha Mandira, and it contains the divine footprints of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Many of the Mayavadis became devout Vaishnavas by receiving the association of Bhaktivinoda Thakura at what came to be known as the Bhakti Mandap, where he lectured on the Shrimad-Bhagavatam.
One day, while Thakura Bhaktivinoda and the Vaishnavas were sitting in the Bhakti Mandap reading Shrimad-Bhagavatam, the Raja of Puri, along with about fifty of his attendants, burst noisily into the meeting. The Thakura was unable to tolerate the king's disrespectful behavior towards the Vaishnavas and the Bhagavatam. The biographer Sundarananda Vidyavinoda mentions in his Shri Kshetra that the Thakura addressed the king as follows: "You have the right to hold the position of kingship over your small kingdom, but the Supreme Lord, Jagannatha Purushottama, is the King of all kings. Therefore, it is mandatory that you show respect to His Bhakti Mandap, where His glories are daily sung." Realizing he had behaved badly, the King of Puri bowed down to the Shrimad-Bhagavatam and all the assembled Vaishnavas and begged them to forgive his offenses.
At various holy places celebrated by Gaudiya Vaishnavas, specifically the Tota Gopinatha Temple, the samadhi of Shrila Haridasa Thakura, the Siddha Bakula tree and the Gambhira (the private apartment of Shri Chaitanya), the Thakura spent long hours absorbed in discussing the pastimes of Krishna and chanting the holy name. He devoted much time to discussion of the scriptures, and he prepared notes on the Vedanta-sutra later used by Syamalal Gosvami, who published the notes in his edition of the Vedanta-sutra with the commentary of Baladeva Vidyabhushana, Govinda-bhashya.
The Thakura recalls his stay in Puri with happiness: "Just as the Jagannatha Temple is very lofty and beautiful, so also the service to the Deity was wonderful. To see it was charming to the mind. Daily, from five- to seven-hundred people were present to see the routine festivals like the evening arati, etc. What bliss! Many kinds of pilgrims came from all over India to attend the religious festivals. Seeing that, one's eyes are soothed. O Lalu, [his son, Lalita Prasad] when you behold all these pastimes with a pure heart, only then can these events be understood. There were many celebrations, like Dola-yatra, Ratha-yatra, etc.... Taking many constables ... I made such great exertions to oversee the pilgrims-how can I write of it all? I would make favorable arrangements for the pilgrims to see the Deity and take prasada, and I would hear the people's complaints ... I spent my time in Puri in great happiness, seeing the festivals, acquiring knowledge and devotion. Purushottama-kshetra is directly Vaikuntha [the spiritual world], what doubt is there?"
In 1874, Bimal Prasad, the fourth son of Bhaktivinoda Thakura, took his birth, and the Thakura mentions that all of the auspicious ceremonies such as anna-prasana (first eating of grains) were performed with Jagannatha prasada. Later this son, (as has been documented in A Ray of Vishnu, Volume I of this series: Lives of the Vaishnava Acaryas), would come to be known as a Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura Prabhupada, the Founder of the Gaudiya Math and spiritual master of His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Founder-Acarya of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.