Vanity thought #274. Bhaktivinoda Thakur. Conversion.

When Bhaktivinoda Thakur lived in Chapra he got attracted to eating improper food (don’t want to open the post with words “meat” and “fish”), and tasting local variety of pickles that gave him an ulcer. He later moved to Purneah where his disease went away. It appears it was the best method of maintaining health in those days – move to a more suitable place, even if it’s only a few kilometers away, it has always worked. Chapra is only five kilometers from Mayapur, for example.

From Purneah he moved to Dijnapur and, in his own words, “Vaishnava religion was fairly strong” there. Local rulers and influential persons maintained many brahmana pundit assemblies and there were many renuncitates living there. Apparently this is what could make all the difference for potential devotees. Bhaktivinoda Thakur wasn’t a potential devotee, he was a “hidden” devotee but I think the point still stands – support from the ruling classes is very very important for spreading Krishna Consciousness, or any other religion, for that matter. Without this support grassroots movements probably can’t survive at all, not in the long run. ISKCON needs to convince world leaders if we have any hope of creating a Golden Age.

Anyway, in Dijnapur, as was in Midnapur a few years earlier, there was some tension between followers of Brahmo and Hindu traditionalists who wanted to “put Brahmos out of their caste”. It’s at this time when Kedar Nath finally disassociated himself from Brahmo and declared allegiance to vaishnavism. He gave a very big speech in front of many local luminaries that was later made into a book “The Bhagavat: Its Philosophy, Its Ethics and Its Theology.” It wasn’t very pleasing to traditionalists but it was even harsher on Brahmos.

In that speech Kedar Nath criticized reformist approach of Brahmo founter, Ram Mohan Roy and he also criticized racist thinking among Calcutta intelligentsia, and his own, too. They have never ever gave Srimad Bhagavatam any credit and young Kedar wasn’t any different, but now he finally saw the light, so to speak.

To the Hindus he directed the part about non-sectarianism and open minded approach to all religions, looking at the substance rather than superficial issues. I’ll just give a quote from Mataji Nalini Kanta’s work here:

Both Brahmos and Hindus thus duly chastened for their narrow-mindedness, Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura then systematically glorifies the Bhagavata, its categories of knowledge: sambandha, abhideya and prayojana, its universality, its profundity, the mysterious nature of Krishna’s sports with the gopés, etc.

This is indeed a remarkable transformation on his part. At this point I’m getting a bit tired of reminding myself that there are no transformations in the nature of an eternally liberated soul such as Bhaktivinoda Thakur. I assume that it’s true but it doesn’t mean there were no transformations to his external behavior while on this Earth, and by external I also mean his mind, intelligence and understanding. I’m also pretty sure he had no idea of his eternal identity at that point yet.

In fact I’m advocating reading his biography “as it is”, and same goes for his speeches, especially if he himself acknowledges deficiencies in his earlier understanding.

Now, the way these transformations happened to him does not mean they will happen to us in exactly the same manner so there should be no imitating and no “but you did this for Bhaktivinoda Thakur” pleas to Krishna, but in the context of his own life they worked as intended – he heard about Bhagavatam from a vaishnava but nothing happened until he moved to the area where he had a lot of vaishnava association. This proves that we can’t make progress on our own, devotion spreads only through devotees.

In his autobiography he also writes about his love for listening to kirtan. He goes about it in a curious way, though, he talks about Manoharshahi kind of kirtan that conquered his heart. Turns out Manohar Shahi is a traditional style of Gaudiya kirtan, actually not so much kritan as we know it but a style of music. I’m pretty sure he listened to glorification of the Lord Hari but when Bhaktivinoda Thakur heard it for the first time it was the style that made the biggest impression on him and he goes on to say that he would never listen to anything else anymore. This is pretty much as our neophytes fall in love with our style of kirtans, which is not quite the same as classical Bengali music and Manohar Shahi, afaik.

Who cares if he got distracted by style? Or that he couldn’t recognize that it was actually kirtan that made such profound changes in his heart, not the style. I bet he was too overwhelmed to notice the difference. In our practical life, though, it shows that proper singing is important, it’s not just a superficial aspect.

Another important point was that he finally procured copies of both Srimad Bhagavatam and Chaitanya Charitamrita. The above mentioned lecture was the result of his studying both books, though it wasn’t a smooth sailing, too.

I don’t know how much it matters in this instance but he probably couldn’t read Sanskrit at that time as he mentions he got a translation of Bhagavatam. I don’t know whether that translation included Sridhar Swami’s commentary that he came to appreciate so much later on. Srimad Bhagavatam with Sridhara Swami’s purports was the main reference for Srila Prabhupada’s translation, too.

Maybe he could read Sanskrit then, maybe he couldn’t, he was good at learning languages anyway. Once he was assigned to an area where people mainly communicated in Urdu and he learned that language and even written a few books in it.

Anyway, his first reading of Chaitanya Charitamrita gave him a “little faith”, the second reading made him think that there was no other learned pundit as Lord Chatianya but that wasn’t the end of the road either because he still had doubts, and the nature of his doubts make me doubt that he understood much at all. I’m speaking from my perspective here, how I would imagine a person would progress through reading Chaitantya Charitamrita and Srimad Bhagavatam after being exposed to ISKCON preaching and Bhagavat Gita.

Again, in Bhaktivinoda Thakur’s own words about Chaitanya Mahaprabhu:

…being this sort of pandit, and having revealed the reality of love to such a degreee, how is it that He recomends the worship of the improper character of Krishna?

My question here is – how was that Kedarnath didn’t know the first thing about Krishna after reading Chaitanya Charitamrita? To answer this I think we need to realize that we come to this book from very different backgrounds. We first learn about Bhagavat Gita from Srila Prabhupada and his followers. For practical purposes his translation and purports give us all spiritual knowledge we will ever need in this lifetime. That includes all we need to know about Krishna, too. Of course there’s a lot more in Bhagavatam and Chaitanya Charitamrita but for the vast majority of us those will remain “just books” for a very very long time, until we gradually cleanse our hearts to appreaciate their true spiritual beauty.

On the superficial level, though, any graduate from a bhakta program can tell Bhaktivinoda Thakur all about his doubts in Krishna, his character and his relationships with Srimati Radharani and other gopis. Many of us can give these explanations in our sleep. In our heads everything is so logical and organized.

Bhaktivinoda Thakur, however, didn’t have this kind of background. He probably knew all about Gita that there was to know at that time but he never heard its explanation from a devotee. Consequently he had no idea who Krishna was, just as in his childhood he had no idea what Deities were, he just worshiped them with faith and devotion. We know all about the Deities but have no devotion or even humility in our hearts. We are children of Kali Yuga, our path starts in different places and has its own set of obstacles.

In Bhaktivinoda Thakur’s case the obstacle was the lack of formal knowledge and he addressed it as a devotee – by praying to the Lord for intelligence, and the Lord provided.

When we want to know something we go on the Internet and in a matter of seconds we can find an answer to any question that is bothering us. In fact questions themselves don’t bother us anymore, our main concern is access to the Internet, it has become an external repository for our knowledge. Once we are online the difference between knowing an answer and not knowing it becomes very very thin. We might forget the answers with time but we always know how to retrieve them back.

Does it help us with our devotion, though? Does this outsourced knowledge make our hearts any softer? Do our question matter if the answers are so easy to find?

Bhaktivinoda Thakur had natural predisposition, he got a few books and that was everything he needed to become the greatest acharya ever. I should mention here that in addition to Srimad Bhagavatam and Chaitanya Charitamrita he also got books by the Six Goswamis, he mentioned it in his speech which was obviously given after all his doubts went away in response to his sincere prayers.

Anyway, when he moved to Puri a year or two later he might not have been an accomplished acharya yet but he was an accomplished scholar of vaishnava siddhanta already. Next chapter of his life was about to be opened.

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