Today is the disappearance day of three prominent vaiṣṇavas – Śri Puruṣottama Dāsa Ṭhākura, Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī, and Gour Govinda Svāmī. It’s not usual for me to write about vaiṣṇava holidays like that but these devotees were truly special.
I don’t know anything about Puruṣottama Ṭhākura, apparently he was an associate of Lord Nityānanda and was one of twelve cowherd boys of Vṛndāvana but that’s all I know. Had I been a real member of Gauḍīyā family it would have made sense for me to learn the names of all the “relatives” but… they don’t know me, I don’t know them. In big picture view I’m one of those mlecchas saved by Śrīla Prabhupāda, a faceless name or a nameless face, one in the crowd. I wasn’t even saved by Prabhupāda but by his followers but that doesn’t really matter.
ISKCON is better defined by Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta, whose disappearance is also today. Why not Śrīla Prabhupāda? Isn’t he our founder ācārya? Isn’t it disrespectful to him? I hope not, not today. In a big family of Lord Caitanya we, ISKCON, take a very special place, not like any others, and it was Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta who was responsible for this differentiation. He was the one who established our understanding of siddhānta and our sādhana, Śrīla Prabhupāda just faithfully transplanted it to the West. There are only minor differences in rituals between us and Gaudīyā Maṭha but philosophically we are exactly the same, with same values and same moods in our service – preaching first, and nothing else is really important.
Of course modern day Gaudīyā Maṭha devotees might not look exactly like us but that’s the thing I wanted to talk about today – how and why they changed so much after Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta’s disappearance.
They had a troublesome history after him, much worse than anything that ever happened in ISKCON, and they didn’t survive. Well, of course they still have many temples but they are not united as an organization and they have long forgotten their preaching mission. Influx of ex-ISKCON devotees has livened up things a bit but after departure of Nārāyaṇa Mahārāja they’ve gone very quiet again, just as they were when Śrīla Prabhupāda brought his dancing white elephants from the West and turned Mayapur upside down.
Incidentally, in Transcendental Diaries Hari Śauri Prabhu describes how ISKCON devotees forgot to sent out invitations for Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta’s disappearance day and no one came, our big temple was practically empty save for the residents and visiting western devotees and Śrīla Prabhupāda didn’t like that at all, of course. It was not how festivals were usually celebrated there even in those days. I hope there were plenty of people in our temple there today.
So, what happened to Gaudīyā Maṭha after Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta’s departure? How could they disintegrate from the most dynamic preaching movement in Indian history into a loose collection of unrelated and often hostile temples? The obvious answer, of course, is that they didn’t follow the order to establish a Governing Body Committee but rather tried to select a single successor ācārya. What happened is that if no one was really qualified they didn’t actually have an ācārya and without an ācārya to lead the way they quickly got lost.
Having your own understanding of devotional service and your own ideas how to serve the Lord, however solid, is not enough. One must follow the footsteps of a guru, that’s the only way we, conditioned souls, can do the right thing. No matter how much we know we won’t get anywhere on our own, and, conversely, no matter how inadequate a guru might appear, following him would bring us success. It’s a paradox that not many in our society are ready to admit.
One could object – but most Gaudīyā Maṭha devotees followed their guru(s) even after his departure! That’s not entirely true – they followed self-appointed ācāryas, and to the degree they accepted those ācāryas bogus authority they strayed from the path laid down by Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta.
What concerns me more, however, is why it happened at all. There were problems while Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta was still present and sometimes Śrīla Prabhupāda said that internal squabbles was one of the reasons for his guru’s early departure – he was only sixty-two years old, nothing by the standards set by devotees in our sampradāya, but his leading disciples were spotless according to all available evidence. Yet it was those exemplary devotees who strayed away from their guru’s orders. Why? What changed?
What is it in our psyche that suddenly gives in as soon as our immediate authority leaves? One minute they know everything, next minute they get carried away. And they really knew stuff, realized it rather than understood it on the mental level. Their love for their guru was real and their dedication to service was unquestionable. Even when Maṭha was falling apart they didn’t stop their service, even when they were ostracized and exiled from their community they still didn’t stop their service. Those were real devotees if not liberated souls already, yet they brought entire Gaudīyā Maṭha to its knees. That’s not what they ever wanted, not what they ever contemplated, not what they ever suspected they would do.
We must search our hearts deep and wide for these traces of betrayal, they are there, we aren’t special, but we must guard ourselves from ever letting them grow. Personally, I think the first sign is the belief that we can serve Kṛṣṇa on our own, that we’ve got all education from our guru we need and now can lead the way ourselves. That never happens, it’s only an illusion.
Our Śrīla Prabhupāda was undisputed leader of ISKCON with absolute authority in all matters but he never ever saw himself as independent of his guru’s orders in any possible way. He might not have said it every time he opened his mouth but we’d be foolish to think of him as a man who achieved his powerful position trough his own efforts, that he “deserved” his glory. We will never ever deserve anything in our devotional lives, and neither did Prabhupāda, guru’s mercy is causeless no matter how great we are, and once we get it, it still isn’t ours, it’s always our guru’s.
In the material world we always appear to have some position and some power to control things, that’s what being a conditioned soul means, and we can use this power for good, which is great, but as devotees we are always lowest of the lowest with infinitely small claims to anything. Once we forget that and confuse our spiritual position with our temporary material empowerment we are doomed.
That’s what I think happened to Gaudīyā Maṭha – they misunderstood their material relationships with the world around them for their true spiritual nature. They thought that if they had transferred temple properties and temple authority into their names they’d become owners, free to do whatever they want, blessed with spiritual powers. That’s how it works on the material level but not in our service to Kṛṣṇa, which is thankfully free from any such contaminations.
There’s not a shred of hypocrisy or selfishness in real devotees, otherwise guru and Kṛṣṇa wouldn’t be worthy of worship, they’d be just ordinary materialistic rulers no different from demigods or politicians. What I mean to say is that we can put a label “guru” or “Kṛṣṇa” on anything but it won’t make it spiritual, only selfless devotion would, and that’s how we can separate real bhakti from cheap imitations.
Anyway, today is also disappearance day of Gour Govinda Svāmī. I’ve never met him personally and I only vaguely remember half-listening to his lectures in Bhubaneshvar a couple of weeks before his departure. We left for Mayapur and he left for Vṛndāvana, so to speak. I still didn’t know what I missed. It’s not until his lectures became available on the Internet that I realized that I was in the presence of a pure devotee. Well, I could see him on the vyāsāsana even from very far away and he could have seen my face, so technically “in the presence”.
We never know the value of things given to us until they are taken away, and that is doubly true for vaiṣṇavas – we never appreciate true value of their association until it’s too late.
Oh well, life goes on, there are lessons to be learned and service to be served, we can express our deepest gratitude even when vaiṣṇavas are no longer present, just be careful about not missing the next chance.