Vanity thought #276. Bhaktivinoda Thakur. Puri Bliss.

Testing Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur’s faith and devotion by pitching him against impostors with yogic powers was probably the only uncomfortable moment during his stay there. Everything else was pure bliss.

Remember how the only thing he brought with him when he was assigned to Puri were sets of Srimad Bhagavatam and Chaitanya Charitamrita? He put them to good use.

He had learned Sanskrit earlier but wasn’t very good at it. In Puri he got himself a tutor to help him study Bhagavatam. There were also two friends who studied with him but soon they were left behind. Yesterday I wasn’t sure if he originally brought Sridhara Swami’s commentary with him but this was the edition he read in Puri. After Bhagavatam he devoured lots of other Gaudiya vaishnava literature like Sat Sandarbha and Bhakti Rasamrita Sindhu and lots of other works by Six Goswamis and their followers. He even read Govinda Bhashya – Gaudiya commentary on Vedanta written by Baladeva Vidyabhushana.

Not only did he study those books, he learned Sanskrit well enough to start writing books of his own. His first Sanskrit book was Datta-kaustubha and while in Puri he also started work on his famous Krishna Samhita.

Simply studying and writing wasn’t enough, he had to go and practice his understanding by preaching.

Everyday he would go to Jagannath Temple and hold discussion about vaishnavism. He avoided groups of mayavadis that also gathered there, he said that their blasphemy towards the Lord was unbearable for him to hear. He started his own community, by the place where Lord Chaitanya left imprints of His feet (how appropriate!) Eventually more and more people joined in and he had become a famous preacher of the Bhagavatam. His worldly scholarship paid off again as he was able to quickly pick up on philosophy he was only vaguely familiar with only few years ago.

He also held regular discussions in the place of Ramananda Raya’s bhajan. Many vaishnava pundits came to hear him talk there.

His success was noted and some people were not very happy, initially. There was one renounced devotee, a babaji, by the name Raghunatha Dasa, who thought that Kedarnath didn’t look like a real vaishnava – he wore neither tilaka nor kanthi-mala – tulasi beads worn around the neck.

It was like a replay of the episode between Gadadhara Pundit and Pundarika Vidyanidhi from Lord Chaitanya’s lila. When Gadadhara Pundit, a member of the Panca Tattva, saw Pundarika Vidyanidhi for the first time he thought he met an ordinary self absorbed sense enjoyer but then he observed transcendental transformations in Pundarika Vidyanidhi as soon as he heard verses about Krishna from the Bhagavatam. Gadadhara Pundit realized his mistake and begged not only forgiveness from Pundarika Vidyanidhi but also asked to be accepted as his disciple.

Well, this case was very similar – Raghunatha Das was a great devotee himself but at first he didn’t recognize Kedarnath’s greatness. We commit similar mistakes all the time, in Raghunatha Das case, however, Lord Jagannath Himself appeared in his dream and told him to beg forgiveness from Bhaktivinoda Thakur. We don’t get this kind of mercy, if we criticize vaishnavas even in our minds we get doomed. Actually Raghunath Das was first afflicted with a severe illness, too, but later the Lord came through and revealed him the cause of his misfortune and told him how to rectify it.

Raghunath Das immediately went to see Bhaktivinoda Thakur and begged his forgiveness. Unlike the case with Gadadhara Pundit, though, it was Kedarnath who asked to be accepted as a disciple.

It went down like this – Bhaktivinoda Thakur accepted that he wasn’t wearing the signs of vaishnavas but he said that it was because he didn’t have a guru, Krishna hadn’t sent him one yet, and without guru’s blessings he would look like a fraud wearing tilaka and kanthi mala. He already had japa mala and that was enough for him ATM, he said. It’s in this context that he asked for Raghunath Das shelter. It wan’t formal, though, the proper initiation was still a few years away. Still, Bhaktivinoda Thakur had probably learned a lot from association with Raghunath Das.

Raghunath Babaji wasn’t the only exalted vaishnava who Bhaktivinoda Thakur respected very much. At that time in Puri lived another great devotee, Swarupa Babaji, who, btw, later became an associate of Gaurakishora Dasa Babaji. Swarupa Babaji lived near bhajan kutir of Sanatana Goswami and many devotees came there for the kirtans, bhajans, and readings from vaishnava books.

Swarupa Babaji spent whole day doing his solitary bhajan and came out only after sunset to engage in congregational chanting of the Holy Name. Devotees would bring him Jagannatha prasadam and he took very little, only what was necessary for his body maintenance. After that he would ask someone to read books about Lord Chaitanya, and then, around 10 PM, he would retire to his kutir for further bhajan. In the middle of the night he would go to the ocean for a bath. Bhaktivinoda Thakur says he went for a bath so late because he didn’t want to give people a chance to serve him, but he needed the service indeed – he was blind in both eyes! As Bhaktivinoda Thakur says: “Only Lord Chaitanya knows how he found his way to the ocean all by himself.”

This is the kind of association that anyone could only dream of and Bhaktivinoda Thakur took full advantage of the opportunity.

As I said, he became a very respectable member of the vaishnava community. His service to the government also didn’t go unnoticed and he became a magistrate. He was actually in charge of maintaining the temple itself and organizing all the festivals, as far as the government was involved.

He was very dear to the Englishmen in charge but his relations with the locals were not very smooth. Once he even put down the king of Orissa in his place when the raja unceremoniously broke into a devotee’s assembly in the temple compounds. Bhaktivinoda Thakur rightly told the king that he rules only on the outside, inside the temple there’s only one Lord – Jagannath, and raja was in no position to show any disrespect towards Jagannath’s devotees.

His relationship with the king was a complicated one. First of all, it was the king’s library that supplied many of the books Bhaktivinoda Thakur was reading. Then there was that incident in the temple. At first the raja offered his apologies and the matter would have been forgotten but next time he got caught embezzling temple’s money and was sentenced by Kedarnath to pay for Lord Jagannath services from his own pocket, Lord Jagannath eats fifty two times a day and the expenditures were very taxing even on the king himself. Eventually the raja became very upset with Kedarnath, so envious that he decided to kill him.

Kedarnath was too prominent a man in Puri society that simply hiring hitmen wasn’t a very wise idea, the king decided to turn to brahmanas instead, he hired a team of fifty and ordered a series of massive fire sacrifices lasting for thirty days with the sole intent of killing Bhaktivinoda Thakur. On the last day, when the curse was supposed to finally unleash its power, the King’s only son died instead. Talk about backfiring.

It wasn’t a big deal for Bhaktivinoda Thakur, though, he was too absorbed in the bliss of his daily sadhana to notice. King’s episode deserved only a bare mention in Svalikhita Jivani but in those days other devotees started memorizing his pastimes and so now we have far more detailed accounts.

It was also in Puri that Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati was born and all his samskaras – first grains, first solid food etc were performed with Jagannath’s prasadam. In fact that was the time that Bhaktivinoda Thakur and his family ate nothing but Lord Jagannatha’s prasadam. When he entered the temple for his daily service someone would always give him a bowl of dahl there, without tasting that dahl Bhaktivinoda Thakur could not be satisfied.

All in all, it was a period of pure bliss, but as with all periods it had to come to an end. Kedarnath was transferred back to the vicinity of Calcutta and that’s a story for another day.

Oh, one more thing – while dealing with Besikisen and other impostors Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur had to learn a lot about their philosophy and, by extension, he also learned about all kinds of deviations practiced by many different groups there. The fight for the purity of Lord Chaitanya’s movement was practically born there and then. But that is also a story for another day.

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