As Krishna says in Bhagavad Gita – religions tend to decline and He has to personally come and restore them. He was speaking in cosmic terms, though, quite often He sends His empowered devotees instead.
So, last time He came as Lord Buddha to stop the meat eating business in the name of Vedas, and then sent Lord Shiva to restore their authority. Then we had Ramanuja and Madhva acharyas who restored the supremacy of Lord Vishnu, then we had Lord Chaitanya with His own missions – to establish the yuga dharma and to relish the nectar of gopi’s devotion to Krishna, especially in separation.
In the next three-four hundred years the religion, in this case Gaudiya Vaishnavism, has declined, too. I was recently reading HH Bhakit Vikasa Swami’s take on the situation and it prompted me to appreciate what Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati did for us even more.
A hundred and fifty years ago Gaudiya Vaishnavism was in dire straits. It was represented by various apa sampradayas that were simply repulsive to ordinary people, and family gurus who had no interest in spiritual uplifting of their disciples whatsoever. Quite often they were fish eaters themselves or were partial to intoxication.
Basically, they were acting as tax collectors on behalf of God, passing down areas under their control from generation to generation. They came around once a year, demanded to hold a large festival in their honor, collected dakshina, and moved onto the next family on their list. It was very efficient but it had nothing to do with spiritual guidance whatsoever.
It was so bad that no serious seeker of spiritual knowledge would ever consider asking Gauidya Vaishnavas.
Over in Vrindavana it wasn’t much better. As Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati once said – women thought they could get exceptional sons if they were begot by sadhus so they moved to Vrindavana with an aim of seducing them. Men heard of these women and also moved to Vrindavana, pretending to be sadhus. Cheaters and cheated, there was practically no one else there.
If, by some luck, a person would meet a genuine sadhu like Jagannatha Dasa Babaji he would still run into a problem of not being able to follow. This was demonstrated by people surrounding Srila Gaurakishora Dasa Babaji. He might have had only one disciple but around him there were always plenty of aspiring devotees and they tried their best, I assume.
A neophyte, however, simply cannot perform the same sadhana and bhajana as self-realized paramahamsas. Many have tried and some even got the babaji initiation but without being on the completely transcendental platform no one can simply chant and talk about Krishna twenty hours a day, sooner or later the material desires still residing in one’s heart take over and the devotee inevitably leaves.
So, there was simply no hope and no future in the prevailing status quo.
Then Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswait invented sankirtana.
Of course the word and the concept were already there but no one understood them properly. “San” in sankirtana means complete and another meaning is congregational. The confusion lies in what it means to be complete. And can sankirtana be congregational but incomplete? Or can it be complete but not congregational?
It doesn’t really matter to devotees on the uttama adhikari level but for us the correct implementation is absolutely crucial. If we do not properly perform sankirtana yajna we are doomed, it’s our only salvation in this age.
Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati postulated that proper sankirtana means preaching, imparting transcendental knowledge to other people.
If a group of devotees sits down together and sings a bhajan there’s no transmission of knowledge even though there’s congregational chanting. If one devotee sits down and chants Hare Krishna there’s neither transmission of knowledge nor congregation. At least we chant japa audibly so some one must occasionally hear the Holy Name, even if its only ants and mosquitoes.
If a group of devotees sits down and discusses Srimad Bhagavatam all the ingredients are there but, unfortunately, we can’t maintain interest and concentrations for long periods of time, a couple of hours at most and certainly not kirtaniya sada harih.
What is also missing is the engagement of all our other senses and sooner of later they pull us into action, so listening to devotees explaining Srimad Bhagavatam is not really complete sankirtana.
Preaching, however, answers all demands. A preaching devotee must talk about Krishna and people listen and appreciate, and in order to preach effectively a devotee must work on his presentation, he must go and find people, sometimes he must travel long distances, he must be aware of the world around him and people’s general concerns and interests, and there’s no limit on the amount of material wealth one can engage in the preaching mission.
Preaching engages each and every resource and desire available to the material body, it’s the perfect implementation of not only sankirtana but also yukta vairagya.
Prior to Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati (and Bhaktivinoda Thakurs) Gaudiya Vaishnavism hasn’t been proselytizing for a couple of hundred years and times have certainly changed form Lord Chaitanya’s era. Five hundred years ago it was enough to go from house to house and tell people to chant Hare Krishna but material progress of the nineteenth century has added so many new opportunities and there was enough preaching work for everybody.
With re-inventing of preaching any interested person could engage in sankirtana on a 24/7 basis and in a few short years Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati made thousands of new devotees, all busy in the new preaching mission.
Our Srila Prabhupada took this mission even further, to all the corners of the globe. Anyone anywhere, possessing any talent or no talents at all, is given an opportunity to practice sankirtana, something they would not have been able to do if they followed the traditional babaji doing a personal bhajan routine.
Preaching is so versatile that one can engage any material desire in advancing it. Always wanted to go to America – go there and preach! Always wanted to be a superstar – become one and preach Krishna consciousness. Always wanted to be a writer – write and publish Krishna Conscious books and materials. A singer? Dead easy – either lead temple kirtans or perform on stage for the uplifting of the general, materialistic audience, or go on harinama like in the good old days.
Preaching needs money, preaching needs brains, preaching needs energy, preaching needs skills – whatever you have, it can be used in preaching.
That’s why I think it was a wonderful, wonderful idea, one that comes once in a millennium.
If, however, we forget that preaching is the essence of everything we do we fail to perform our sankirtana yajna and we will definitely see a decline in our spiritual progress, without preaching it’s inevitable. We can see how it happens from the example of Gaudiya Math when after disappearance of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati they stopped preaching and started dividing the properties and life had practically gone away from their temples.
Srila Prabhupada resurrected the preaching spirit of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati and somehow ISKCON has been able to maintain it after his departure. As a society we face a different set of challenges than Gaudiya Math but whatever solutions we propose must be based on continuation of preaching or we will be doomed, too.
I hope to develop on this tomorrow.