Vanity thought #284. Bhaktivinoda Thakur. Sacidananda Bhaktivinoda

It’s been a long break and I was kinda busy with some other things that I think were pretty important. Now I’m done and I want to get back to the biography of Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura.

There’s one more reason – it’s New Year and if I’m still not in bed I better do something connected to devotional service rather than watch TV and do the stupid countdown.

I think I left the biography at the point where Srila Bhaktivinoda got diksha initiation. After that he just got crazy – in a good sense, he started writing and preaching as if there was no tomorrow. In two short years he wrote so much about Krishna that Mataji Nalini Kanta compared his speed and workload to Srila Prabhupada completing seventeen volumes of Chaitanya Charitamrita in one and a half year. That’s not to say one acharya was more productive than the other, it’s just Srila Prabhupada’s daily schedule left no more than one or maximum two hours for sleep. Try maintaining that and most of us will go bonkers in a couple of days.

Simply going through the list of works completed by Srila Bhaktivinoda in two years is a mouth-watering exercise but all in a good time. Bhaktivinoda Thakura still had to work and that period of his life was not the most auspicious for him, astrologically speaking. He lived through a series of moves from one Bengali town to another, in some places the job was easier, in others a tad more difficult. Sometimes people welcomed him, sometimes they schemed to made his life miserable. He just didn’t care that much anymore, he was busy writing.

I’ll leave the story of the discovery of Lord Chaitanya’s birthplace for another time and the nama-hatta program also needs its own blog entry, so I’ll just cover the rest today, from the mid eighties to his retirement in 1894. It seems like a long time but I bet it flew very fast for Bhaktivinoda as he was extremely busy with his duties, family life, writing and preaching. In fact he was so absorbed in preaching that he even took a two-year sabbatical just to concentrate on spreading the glories of Lord Chaitanya.

Towards the end of his career he managed to get a placement in Krishnanagar, close to Navadvipa, and there’s a story about it. He first contemplated retirement in 1887, he wanted to spend the rest of his days in peace, doing his personal bhajan in Vrindavana but Lord Chaitanya had other plans. He appeared to Srila Bhaktivinoda in his dream and told him the retiring to Vrindavan was a good idea but, incidentally, there was still some work left in Navadvipa, urging Bhaktivinoda to explore the possibilities. That dream led to moving to Krishnanagar and the eventual discovery of Yoga Pith.

The reason Bhaktivinoda wanted to retire was his health. His writing took a heavy toll on him and he suffered severe headaches. Devotees recommended applying ghee to his head, an old method by Srila Jiva Goswami himself. Since Bhaktivinoda just got a few of Jiva Goswami’s books to work on he thought it was not just an coincidence and the ointment worked. At another point he had to follow a strict diet, living only on milk for forty five days. That was during his move to Navadvipa, in fact he couldn’t even walk at that time due to high fever and he had to be carried around. Another time he almost lost his eyesight that wasn’t great from his childhood. Some doctors recommended eating fish heads but Bhaktivinoda decided not to listen to these quacks and follow the advice of homeopaths. These days they are also considered quacks but their medicine worked.

These couple of episodes were a lesson for me in expectations from devotional service. As we decide to take that path in our lives we all, I bet, rely on “My devotee will never perish” promise in Bhagavad Gita, hoping that we’ll solve all our material difficulties. We might not be after sex and riches but at least we think that material nature won’t bother us anymore as we place ourselves in Krishna’s care. Well, it doesn’t work quite that way.

Material nature might indeed not bother a devotee but with one big but – it won’t bother a devotee in a same way it bothers an ordinary person. Devotee doesn’t identify himself with his body and that’s why he doesn’t suffer. The body might get worn to shreds from all the service and age but devotee doesn’t feel it affects him and his consciousness. It’s not like the troubles go away, a devotee just doesn’t have time to dwell on them.

In Bhaktivinoda’s case the more he suffered the more he worked. Sufferings didn’t go away but he didn’t really care about them, he got transcendental, so to speak.

His work was cut out for him. Vaishnavism was in disarray, no one took devotees seriously anymore. Just a hundred years earlier vaishnava culture permeated all of Bengal, everybody knew devotional songs, they were like today’s pop music, but things have changed and Bhaktivinoda figured out the reason – there were no serious books. I mentioned once that he couldn’t find a copy of Chaitanya Caritamrita when he heard about it. He had to wait eight years to get his hands of a copy, and that’s in Bengal, Lord Chaitanya’s birthplace!

Last time books like Chaitanya Charitamrita, Srimad Bhagavatam, Bhakti-Rasamrita-Sindu and Hari-Bhakti-Vilasa were printed was in the beginning of the 19th century, after that they were replaced by poor quality publications catered to rural folks rather than Bengali intelligentsia. Not only were they printed on low grade paper but they also used questionable manuscripts and were accompanied by all kinds of sahajiya literature that mislead Bengali folk into excusing Gaudiya vaishnavas all kinds of weird behavior. While peasants might have been pleased, Bengali upper classes weren’t and so by the end of the century Gaudiya Vaishnavism was reduced to sentimental opium of a religion to keep low classes happy, not for any serious thinkers.

Thus the first order of business was to propagate proper understanding of vaishnava siddhanta and explain the public the error of the ways of various apa-sampradayas. By Krishna’s arrangement he became friends with a famous Bengali novelist, Bankim Chandra, who wrote a book called Krishnacarita, Bhaktivinoda Thakur was sorely needed to correct a bunch of misconceptions in author’s head and he did so in four days and four nights of uninterrupted editing. Mostly it was about proving that Krishna indeed is the Supreme Personality of Godhead and not just a mythological hero of old Indian folklore.

The outcome was criticized in “learned” circles but it was just the beginning, most importantly, the novelist himself wes very impressed and with his help Bhaktivinoda Thakur published Vishavatha Chakravarti’s commentaries on Bhagavad Gita together with his own purports. Bankim Chandra wrote the introduction and the book was quickly sold out. Everybody loves a good Gita.

For the western audience Bhaktivinoda Thakur wrote an introduction to a very scholarly work by a descendant of Lord Nityananda, Pandit Mohan Gosvämé Nyäya-ratna. The book was in Sanskrit but Bhaktivinoda wrote an English introduction to elicit interest in the subject among western scholars. He got back a reply of Emerson with thanks but Sanskrit book was still unreadable outside India. Bhaktivinoda would attend to that later.

In 1885 he set up his won press in Calcutta and started publishing Sajjani Toshani. That project didn’t really take off until 1992 but that was a start, perhaps the first vaishnava periodical in those days. With the new press at his disposal Bhaktivinoda started to write at full steam. First he published Chaitanya Shikshamrita, sort of our “Teachings of Lord Chaitanya”. Then he wrote a book on Siksashtaka, Sanmodana Bhashyam I still haven’t finished writing about here. Then he wrote comments on several works by Six Goswamis and ten principal upanishads, and book on rasa based on works of various vaishnava acharyas. He wrote commentaries on parts of Mahabharata, too.

What we should remember here is that most of these books, in fact all them, come to think of it, were originally written in Sanskrit and so needed translations to Bengali. Just like our Srila Prabhupada had to write his books in English for us. If I ever lay my hands on translations of these Bhaktivinoda Thakur’s books I’ll pay attention to the format of his presentation. Recently I heard accusations regarding Srila Prabhupada’s translations. The point is whether he had the right to translate the books from our point of view or confine presentation of our philosophy to the purports only.

Take the first verse of Isopanishad, for example – om purhnah adaha purnam idam. Stila Prabhupada’s translation talks about The Supreme Personality of Godhead while there is no such word in the verse itself or in the word-for-word translation. It’s not a big deal for us as we understand that real purnam must refer to The Supreme Personality of Godhead only, no one and nothing else is purnam. This is our understanding in our sampradaya but do we have right to state this in our translation rather than in our purports and interpretations? Should the translation itself be philosophically neutral?

In books for devotees the answer should be “no”, we don’t strive for neutrality, but we also need recognition in the wider world, among wider scholars, and so we can’t dismiss their standards without thinking. One reason is the recent case of a lawsuit against our Bhagavad Gita As It Is in Russia. ISKCON won this time but who knows how the thing might have turned out if not for acceptance of our books among non-devotee scholars and politicians.

That’s why I’d like to see how Bhaktivinoda Thakura dealt with his translations, I don’t think any vaishnava before him translated our scriptures in vernacular languages for preaching purposes, he set the precedents and he set the standards.

Moving on, not satisfied with Chaitanya Siksamrita Srila Bhaktivinoda started writing commentaries on the entire Chaitanya Charitamrita. He published the first two khandas but got very sick. That’s when he had to smear ghee on his head.

Bhaktivinoda Thakur also hunted for Chaitanya Upanishad, one of the non-traditional Upanishads describing the glories of Lord Chaitanya. This episode shows us the dynamics of the official Upanishad canon. As everybody knows, there’s a body of 108 principal Upanishads that are accepted as shruti all over India. What about upanishads that didn’t make it into Muktika canon? There are so called “new Upanishads” written on the last couple of centuries to satisfy the earning for legitimacy by various aspiring sects. There’s even Allap Upanishad. Are we talking of one of those? Is Chaitanya Upanishad a recent invention to prove Lord Chaitanya’s position post-factum? Or did it exist ages ago but no one cared enough to write it down? Bhaktivinoda Thakur was told that it was part of the Atharva Veda but was it really? Or was it a later addition? People argue about that to this day. No other sampradaya but ours accepts it. No other commentators from Shankaracharya’s time ever mentioned it. It might be proof of Chaitanya’s Mahaprabhu’s divinity for us but for preaching it’s not very reliable, people might easily reject its authority.

Eventually Bhaktivinoda Thakura obtained a copy from a vaishnava pandit and wrote a commentary on it. It’s at this point in his life that senior Bengali vaishnavas took notice of his efforts and bestowed the title of Bhaktivinoda on him. Well deserved.

Some twenty years earlier, in 1868, he was given the title of Sac-cid-ananda for publishing a Bengali poem about Lord Chaitanya called Sac-cid-änanda-premälaìkara. That title meant one who embodies knowledge, eternity and bliss, and Bhaktvinoda means “pleasure of devotional service”.

And thus Saccidananda Bhaktivinoda Thakura was officialy born.