Vanity thought #269. Bhaktivinoda Thakur. Approaches.

I’ve been reading Seventh Goswami and I got to the point in Bhaktivinoda Thakur’s life where I left it last time, just on the precipice of turning into a vaishnavava.

This is a contentious point, however, because from our POV he has always been a vaishnava, Lord Krishna and Srimati Radharani’s dearmost servant. This is also the point on which I can’t entirely agree with Seventh Goswami presentation.

I generally agree that his early life, seemingly devoid of devotion to the Lord, was only a spell cast by Krishna Himself, just like Arjuna had never been a conditioned soul despite his doubts at Kurukshetra. He appeared life after life as Lord’s best friend but he never remembered any of them, the time spent before he met up with Krishna all over again being just a fleeting and insignificant moment spent in preparation for the reunion.

Same thing happened with Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur, I agree, but this approach also makes his life disappointingly flat. Yes, it was fine for him and His relationship with Krishna and it was great for preaching, but there are no lessons to be learned from it, all his preparations for the preaching mission were inconsequential. I don’t believe this is the case, and I don’t think that Nalini Kanta Mataji, the author of the Seventh Goswami also meant it that way.

What she did was to draw as many devotional lessons from it as possible, just like I’m trying to do, I just don’t always agree with her interpretations.

Her book closely follows Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur’s autobiography, Svalikhita Jivani, ie. we are drinking from the same source. She had also added a bit of background information on the Indian society of that time, and she also added some outside sources and excerpts from Bhaktivinoda Thakur’s own books and speeches that are missing from Svalikhita Jivani and that I haven’t seen or read before.

I must say those speeches do fill a little gap that is left in the autobiography, they show the side of Bhaktivinoda Thakur that he was presenting to the outside world while his autobiography is more of a personal letter addressed to his son. Those speeches also add depth and perspective to Bhaktivinoda Thakur’s own progression on the spiritual path, they give us a sample of what his thinking was before he manifested himself as a fully fledged acharya.

Again, I see the progression here, there were seeds of what was to come but there were also weeds.

Nalini Kanta clearly tried to spin Svalikhita Jivani in the devotional way, overstressing some episodes and underplaying others. I don’t think it’s the best approach, it might work in certain circumstances but I’m trying to reconstruct a deeper, more nuanced picture of one man’s progress to acharyahood, if that’s the word.

As I said before, I don’t think listening to guards telling Ramayana stories in a language young Kedar couldn’t understand was of some special significance, I bet every child of his age heard those same stories, it’s part of Indian folklore, stuff everybody learns from a very young age, on its own it doesn’t mean anything. The fact that Kedar sat down to listen to these stories while his brothers did some mischievous things is nice but it doesn’t mean that Kedar had some transcendental attraction that overcame his desire to play. He hasn’t learned the concept of God from them, for example, they were just stories.

Later on someone told him to chant Rama’s names to drive away ghosts and Kedar took this advice very seriously, I agree, that is significant, but it lacks the devotional or ontological aspects of relationship. Episodes like this planted the seeds, and Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur writes himself that he was very fond of Hari kirtan he heard as a little boy, and he also met several vaishnavas while he was growing up – those are all milestones to awakening devotion to Krishna within his materially provided body but they weren’t defining moments as far as his general life was concerned, there were plenty of other influences that had bigger and more direct effects on how his youth and early career played out and on what books he wrote and what speeches he made before firmly embracing the religion of Bhagavata.

Speaking of vaishnavas, I think I got a few things wrong. When he got sick it wasn’t a cobbler who cured him, it was another man, introduced by the cobbler, a fakir. Mataji Nalini Kanta also gave the name of that fakir’s guru, Golok. Apparently she found some other source and apparently that Golok was more of an impersonalist than a follower of Lord Chaitanya. Could be so, but the lessons Bhaktiinoda Thakur learned from his association were of worship to Krishna and the value of connection to Krishna, and Krishna’s supremacy over demigods, not straight up mayavada of everyone being a god. Actually demigod worship specifically prohibited by Golok is perfectly acceptable to mayavadis.

Anyway, Bhaktivinoda Thakur personally didn’t see himself behaving as a devotee at that time and later he wasn’t proud of some of the stuff he did, and we should be aware of this, too.

There’s also the argument that EVERYTHING in his life led to what he had later become, nothing was unimportant or insignificant, there’s a lesson to be learned from each and every decision he made and each and every anecdote has its own place on the path to pure devotion, or at least on the path of external manifestation of it since we reject the notion that at any point in his life Bhaktivinoda Thakur was not a devotee.

He had to learn English, for example. We can say it was simply to write first English books about Lord Chaitanya’s mission but it was also important for advancing his career that enabled him to carry a lot more weight in the society and influence far more people than simple babajis of that time. I dare to say that without English he wouldn’t have become a leader of Gaudiya Vaishnavism.

There’s also more – it wasn’t enough to simply learn English, he had to learn western philosophy and poetry, too. British rulers thought that they had to develop a new breed of Indians, western in their hearts and their minds and native only in appearance. It would have been impossible for Bhaktivinoda Thakur to succeed without playing by their rules and his eventual betrayal of the western paradigm actually gave more power to the philosophy of Bhagavat, as he called it himself.

By learning a lot about impersonalism and Christianity he also made much bigger impression on the educated society when he rejected Brahmos, which was very popular at that time. He wasn’t speaking as some dogmatic outsider then, he knew Brahmos much better than most of Brahmo followers themselves, so when he presented his arguments against Brahmos they worked much better, he presented Bhagavat as a step up from there, not as some forgotten and discarded atavistic tradition he was trying to push instead or alongside.

It all made sense in the end. We just have to have trust in Krishna’s plan and we have to pray for intelligence to understand it. I don’t think it’s fair to ignore some parts of it simply because we can’t fit those pieces in the bigger picture. Yet, I hope we can’t do it yet but eventually we will.

Maybe not today, maybe tomorrow.

There’s some controversial stuff about meat eating that falls into this category – wait until tomorrow and pray that it comes together then.

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