Vanity thought #267. Bhaktivinoda Thakur. Career.

During Kedar’s last years of education in Calcutta death was still following him but he still behaved like a young, irresponsible boy. First his sister died, about a year or two after returning to Ula after her wedding, I guess she was one of the first victims of the cholera epidemic there. To escape the epidemic Kedar brought his remaining family to stay in Calcutta but they didn’t have any money left while everyone around him thought they were still rich.

Kedar tried to study for his exams but he got sick himself and had to be treated with quinine. He got better but he still didn’t have enough power to continue studying. He was sick and penniless while his women were looking up to him and his heart was in pain. He had no friends who he could confide in, though he still kept talking in his usual circles on usual topics, mainly to divert his mind from his internal sufferings. There was no concept of praying to Krishna at that time yet. He had interest in bhakti but then popular Brahmos didn’t allow for it and Kedar somehow didn’t want to convert to Christianity.

Then his maternal grandfather became very ill, he was the family patriarch and it’s due to his position people thought Kedar and his family were rich. But, instead of attending to his dying grandfather, Kedar decided to go on a trip with his friends. All Bhaktivinoda Thakur said about that trip is that their association wasn’t very good. When he returned his grandfather was already gone but at least he was able to catch funeral rights on the banks of the Ganges. This is awful even by modern day standards but Kedar was largely forgiven given his young age. From then on, however, he was the sole provider and had to start working.

His first jobs were as a private tutor and they were low paying but he also sold “Poriyed”, which I guess was some sort of a poetry book. He even published a second volume. Still, that wasn’t enough. Once Kedar was helping a merchant to procure sugar and accidentally he got more than he paid for. He noticed the discrepancy, thought it was dishonest to keep it, and told the merchant about it. The merchant replied that it didn’t look like Kedar Nath was suitable for business and that he should probably stick to teaching instead.

At that time his paternal grandfather was preparing to leave this world and he called Kedar to come and see him before his death. Calcutta wasn’t promising anymore and so they decided to move the whole family to Orissa where grandfather lived. That grandfather was a peculiar person, Bhaktivinoda Thakur described him as kali-siddha, whatever that means, and as a very strong man who didn’t eat anything during the day and only chanted japa, he would eat only at night and only the food he prepared himself, which was too spicy for Kedar. This grandfather predicted that Kedar Nath’ fortune will arrive at the age of twenty six or twenty seven.

In the meantime Kedar secured himself an employment as a teacher in a school in Kendra, not far from his grandfather’s place, I understand. He got some good recommendations form some locals there and caught attention of Inspector of South West Bengal schools, Dr Raer Saheb, an Englishman, I suppose, though the title Saheb at that time could be used with prominent native personalities, too. Good doctor recommended Kedar to take a teaching examination in Puri and if he passed it he’d be qualified for much better positions and higher salary.

While Kedar was preparing for the exams his grandfather called on him because he was about to leave his body. When Kedar arrived to see him he didn’t noticed any illness or anything, grandpa was still smoking his tobacco and chanting japa. He never smoked ganja, which is a good thing, I guess, but we don’t know whose names he was chanting in his japa. He again told Kedar that from the age of twenty seven he would achieve success and that he would become a great vaishnava. Hooray! No one told young Kedar that he was destined to become a vaishnava before. Right after saying these words the grandpa left his body and that was it. Remaining fortune was deposited with the relative in Calcutta, Kasi Babu, it was in his house that Bhaktivinoda stayed when he studied there.

Twenty seven was still quite a few years ahead and Kedar put his energy into his career. He passed the exam and got the teacher certificate. A few months later he got a job as a teacher in Cuttack and he relocated there. His input on newly established educational policies earned him the appreciation of one of Cuttack’s big shots, another Englishmen, and pretty soon Kedar had become a headmaster of his own school in Bhadra and more than doubled his income. Things were looking up and up.

His wife finally came out of age and become pregnant with the first child. I should note here that the age difference between Kedar and his wife was too big, about seven years, to accommodate their developing sexuality. I think Kedar had reached puberty about five years before he could touch his wife. Was it normal? I don’t know and the autobiography doesn’t say. Kedar didn’t live as a brahmachari in a guru’s ashram, he was a householder maintaining his family, he lived with his wife for quite a few years already. Was he supposed to practice celibacy? I don’t think so. Mochi gurudev I mentioned yesterday, the follower of Lord Chaitanya, told him that having sex is okay if not more often than once a month, which means he wasn’t telling him to abstain altogether. I think it’s a curious complication from the “arranged early marriage” practice that I will surely remember the next time this subject comes up.

Also at that time Bhaktivinoda Thakur wrote a book, Maths of Orissa. I don’t know what to make of it. At a first glance it would appear that he meant maths as short for mathematics, he couldn’t be talking about maths as in Gaudiya Maths. On the other hand, the book was really about his visits to various temples in monasteries in Orissa. Perhaps he wasn’t telling it all in his autobiography, at this point there’s nothing there to indicate his interest in studying Orissa religious culture.

Soon he received yet another promotion to a school in Midnapur, again on a request of an Englishman who required Kedar Nath’s services. Over in Midnaput Kedar Nath got himself in a bit of trouble because local educated community was split between Hindus and Brahmos. Kedar was asked to take sides but because he didn’t really like Brahmos and preferred Christian devotion to Jesus. Once again, to those who argue that Bhaktivinoda Thakur was an impersonalist – he wasn’t, far from it, he consistently shunned those views throughout his life. So Kedar organized his own group instead and that made a few people into his enemies.

While dealing with differences in opinion in Midnapur community Kedar Nath was called to pass a judgement on an accusation against some vaishnavas that they shouldn’t eat fish. Kedar Nath studied the subject for a while and concluded that it was indeed wrong. Eating fish was okay for shaktas, followers of Kali or Durga but vaishnavas were supposed to be transcendental and pure. That discovery aroused his interest.

He wanted to learn about bhakti for a long, long time but never had a chance. He read so many books from so many libraries but bhakti was nowhere to be found. He discussed the value of pure bhakti with educated Englishmen but never had a chance to put it in practice. Now, however, he heard from a fish eating vaishnava, I suspect, about Chaitanya Charitamrita. The problem was – the book was unobtainable, no one has ever seen a copy of it.

I’ve heard about the decline of Lord Chaitanya’s mission over the years but it never occurred to me it was so bad. I’m sure there were plenty of followers left in Orissa practicing all kinds of things but if they’ve never read Chaitanya Charitamrita then it’s very very unlikely they kept the tradition pure. When Bhaktivinoda Thakur took on all the apa-sampradayas there one could argue that he was an outsider who had no right to dictate what was correct practice and what wasn’t but if none of those followers had ever heard of Chaitanya Charitamrita then the argument loses its strength, for without foundation in the shastra any religion is nothing but a sentiment and is bound to be corrupted by the material nature.

Anyway, despite this discovery of vaishnavism Bhaktivinoda Thakur wasn’t twenty seven yet, there were quite a few obstacles to overcome on the path to becoming a vaishnava but I’m getting close.

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