Vanity thought #1153. Critical edition

For a restless mind like mine no coverage of Lord Nityānanda would be considered complete without mentioning his marriage. Well, I mentioned it already, so what else is it that I need to discuss now?

Lord Nityānanda’s marriage is a fascinating topic. Are we supposed to follow His footsteps or is it one of those “God only” pastimes? There were other celebrated devotees who had similarly abandoned their sannyāsa and got married, should we follow their footsteps? Or is it one of those “pure devotees only”, “do as I say, not as I do” type of cases? Or should we follow footsteps of devotees who saw all these things and kept their faith up? Lots of things to discuss but very little is actually known.

There are no books describing Lord Nityānanda’s pastimes in full, from birth to disappearance, like there are books about Lord Caitanya. We live on bits that were mentioned elsewhere, like Caitanya Caritāmṛita and Caitanya Bhāgavata. We also accept whatever Śrīla Prabhupāda had told us about Him as an authoritative source. Other books describing Lord Nityānanda’s pastimes are Bhakti-Ratnākara and Premā-Vilāsa.

So, when I thought about what I actually know about Lord Nityānanda’s marriage I realized that I have to check for the details in primary sources if I want to get it right. This takes time, Bhakti-Ratnākara is not a short book, for example, there’s a lot of stuff there that is solid nectar in its own right and I don’t want to miss any of it for the sake of “research”.

But it’s the other book, Premā Vilāsa, that really put a brake on everything for me. It can be downloaded from a legitimate ISKCON desire tree site in their e-books section but once I started reading it I was taken aback at the stuff said there in the open.

It literally starts with (in the very second paragraph) with blasphemy of Advaita Ācārya, that He “had given up the doctrine of devotion” and started preaching impersonalism. It then goes on to imply that Lord Nityānanda wasn’t doing much preaching either. All that was to set up the scene for the birth of Śrīnivāsa Ācārya who is presented in this book as the only savior of Gauḍīyā vaiṣṇavism in Bengal.

I have no problems with Śrīnivāsa Ācārya’s devotion and contributions to Gauḍīyā vaiṣṇavism but not when it’s done at the expense of others. Even Lord Caitanya wasn’t spared.

First, I don’t see Lord Caitanya addressed as the Lord anywhere in the book, certainly not in the maṅgala-ācaraṇa, the most appropriate place to state it unequivocally. He is addressed simply as Mahāprabhu, which isn’t enough in our line of devotees. He is also shown as someone impotent in the face of betrayal by Advaita Ācārya and Lord Nityānanda’s “inadequacy”. Lord Nityānanda is also not addressed as the Lord, btw.

There’s this wholly Indian description of uncontrolled love floating about, creating troubles for everyone in the form of earthquakes, that Lord Caitanya finally managed to deposit in the body of Śrīnivāsa Ācārya. It reads more like passing spiritual power in the form of “divine electricity” between charlatans like Ramākṛṣṇa and Vivekānanda then authoritative presentation on the nature of premā.

Lord Caitanya also looked unable to locate Śrīnivāsa’s father Himself, He had to beg the goddess of the Earth to do geolocation for Him.

It all reads like medieval version of Sampradaya Sun – there’s undeniable devotion and dedication but it’s diluted by unwarranted criticism and exaggerations. Yes, we can learn a lot about contemporary ISKCON from a site like that but most of it will be garbage, permanently spoiled by the aforementioned faults.

So, if Premā-Vilāsa contains some information about Lord Nityānanda’s pastimes, how much of that is true? How much of what it says about Lord Caitanya is true? Generally, it fits fine with what we already know from other books but that makes the task even more complicated. There rises the need for a “critical edition” of all available material.

Usually, “critical edition” is a term applied to various versions of the same book. It’s when historians compare all available manuscripts, find discrepancies and divergences, try to trace their roots, and eventually produce something that is accepted as “critical edition”, a version that is considered as close to the original as possible.

Here we are talking about different books describing the same events. They are written by different authors at different times but they also rely on the same sources – notes taken by Lord Caitanya’s associates that have, unfortunately, been lost.

There’s the riddle sent by Advaita Ācārya to Lord Caitanya that is mentioned everywhere in the same form, delivered by the same devotee, for example, so we can accept it as a true event but other details surrounding this same story sound far less plausible in some of the sources, like this Premā Vilāsa.

We can try and understand the mind of Nityānanda Dāsa (NOT Lord Nityānanda), the author of this book, and we can try and figure out how these same events might have looked to someone more in line with our paramparā, without any criticism of these personalities and without any uncertainty about their divine, viṣṇu-tattva status. I’m all for this approach, I’m sure lots of devotees would benefit from such a comprehensive “critical edition” of Gauḍīyā history.

I also think that this would be a fool’s errand.

We don’t really need books that are historically correct. We don’t need to know the “originals”. All such originals would never perfectly describe the actual pastimes anyway because we are talking about spiritual truth, not its external manifestations. We can and we must approach spiritual truth in the form of our guru, it won’t get any “truer” if we move up the paramparā. The alleged “original” won’t have any more powers about it, in fact, it won’t have ANY spiritual potency if we approach it on our own, bypassing our guru.

We don’t really need to know how exactly Lord Nityānanda’s marriage played itself out, accepting what Śrīla Prabhupāda said about it is perfectly enough. Any other versions might only confuse us even if they were factually correct.

There’s no such thing as “correct” rendering of material events anyway, the only thing that matters is devotional attitudes of our superiors which are supposed to rub off on us regardless of what has factually happened.

It is a fact of life under material illusion that different people will have different perspectives on the same event. They would all be correct in their frames of reference but that would be of no use to us, our goal is to find what it looked like to pure devotees, the plausibility of all other explanation is not our concern.

As such, we don’t need a “critical edition”, we need an authoritative edition, blessed by all our ācāryas. It will never satisfy historians but that is not our goal anyway – we only want to satisfy Kṛṣṇa and our guru.

Maybe with this attitude in mind I’ll do better when reading up on Lord Nityānanda’s pastimes. I’m looking forward to it even if it might take a long time.


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