Last time I checked Sampradaya Sun editorials there were no articles explicitly criticizing ISKCON devotees and I thought that was a welcome change. Unfortunately, they slipped back into their old habits. One of such articles caught my attention and I thought I’d try to deal with it appropriately. I’m not sure I succeeded so here is a case study, just to see what works and what doesn’t.
Earlier this year one ISKCON sannyāsī and guru visited the famous Ramesh Baba of Maan Mandir in Barsana. This sannyāsī wasn’t the first one by any means but this time the darśana was recorded on video and everyone who was interested got to see what was discussed there. The video was soon pulled off but not before someone downloaded it and put it back up on Vimeo. Then someone wrote a critical article about it for Sampradaya Sun.
Despite the name, this story didn’t come to us through sampradāya and so this description is unauthorized by our ācāryas, which means anyone can look at the source and make up his own mind.
We have a video, we can check what people have been saying about Ramesh Baba on the internet, and I wouldn’t talk about ISKCON guru in question – if he is considered in good standing by GBC that is more than enough reason NOT to criticize him no matter what.
I guess I should make it clear that my goal here is to try and understand the situation AND avoid committing vaiṣṇava aparādhas at any cost. Maybe it’s not possible at all, simply reading Sampradaya Sun article is offensive enough (therefore no link), but that would mean that remedy is in order, which means sincere regret that we allowed our minds to be polluted, begging forgiveness for any offenses made, and setting out minds right so that it doesn’t happen again.
The author of Sampradaya Sun article chose to frame his narrative as follows – Ramesh Baba is a sahajīyā and therefore any ISKCON devotee seeking his śikṣā or association is deviating from Śrīla Prabhupāda. Some examples of such deviations and other deficiencies were given.
Let’s start with Ramesh Baba. He came to Vṛndāvana some fifty or sixty years ago and eventually settled near Barsana where he lived ever since, barely leaving his temple. Well, it’s not his temple per se but he restored it singlehandedly and build a large community there. His goshala has some thirty thousand cows – it’s huge!
For the first thirty or forty years, however, Ramesh Baba lived a very ascetic life, sleeping on the ground, covering himself by a blanket woven from dried weeds and collecting mādhukarī to sustain his life. According to this page he spent his first years in a forest where his life was constantly in danger and he often had to be saved by Kṛṣṇa’s grace. Eventually he realized that instead of serving the Lord he had to rely on the Lord serving him and so he moved to a place where his maintenance wouldn’t cause so much trouble. He has been looked after by residents of Barsana ever since, which is quite an achievement because that area of Vraja is known for being very hard on outsiders.
Ten-fifteen years ago he became famous and got a lot of followers. They document his daily activities and upload tons of videos on youtube, mostly in Hindi. There are a few English translations of his classes on Maan Mandir site and even though they sound a litle strange by our standards there’s nothing particularly wrong with them.
What I mean to say is that Ramesh Baba doesn’t look like a sahajīyā, this label, with the current evidence, is completely unwarranted. There’s one photo of him with women’s shawl draped over his head but that’s just a Vṛndāvana custom, locals offer this thin piece of cloth along with food to all visiting sādhus. This ritual might or might not have sahajīyā origins and it’s not what Śrīla Prabhupāda instructed us to do but it’s not an indictment of Ramesh Baba in any sense.
It is also possible that Ramesh Baba qualifies as a sahajīyā in a subtle sense, I’m not in a position to make such a judgment, but sahajīyā tendencies are present in every embodied living entity, it’s one of those things that we should overlook in saintly persons who are constantly engaged in Lord’s service.
We can also question how legitimate this Ramesh Baba is, no one seems to know who his guru is and what particular branch of vaiṣṇavism he belongs to. Which ācāryas does he follow? It seems his usual approach is to accept everything favorable to devotion to Kṛṣṇa (or Rādhā, as evident from the video in question) and do not make any distinctions between devotees. Visiting ISKCON guru mentioned the atmosphere of love and friendliness among Ramesh Baba’s community. Perhaps there IS a point to be made here but we shouldn’t be judgmental about someone who has spent his entire life in service of Vraja, however imperfect it might look to our eyes.
There were some other strange going-ons during this visit. First Ramesh Baba had his feet washed in public and he accepted is nonchalantly. That’s not how we do things in ISKCON. Our Śrīla Gaurakiśora Dāsa Bābājī was very strict with foot dust or any kind of personal praise, actually. Washing feet is reserved only on special occasions when guru must provide this service opportunity for his disciples, it’s not an everyday occurrence.
In the beginning of the video ISKCON sannyāsī addressed Ramesh Baba as “lion of Vraja” and they both laughed, it took Ramesh Baba ten seconds to correct him – “small insect of Vraja”, and they both laughed again. Any insect of Vraja is not a small position either, and we usually deflect such praise immediately, and it’s not a laughing matter but if that’s how Ramesh Baba does his thing then it’s his business, just as his habit of sipping water straight from the glass, not pouring it without touching lips as is done by our devotees to maintain cleanliness.
So this is what I took from this encounter – Ramesh Baba is a devotee of a solid reputation in Vṛndāvana, his character and behavior are spotless, save for little insignificant things here and there. He is evidently very attached to serving Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa and he dedicated his life to helping others to serve them, too.
Does it mean it’s okay to take his association? Umm, what for? We have been given everything we could possibly need by Śrīla Prabhupāda already and seeking same instructions and same devotion elsewhere is spiritually unchaste.
Is it enough reason to criticize ISKCON sannyāsī there? Not necessarily. There are certain customs to be observed when visiting famous people outside our circle, certain things need to be said, certain praise to be offered, certain attitude need to be shown when asking questions. I wouldn’t hurry to judge our sannyāsī’s by how he behaved in Ramesh Baba’s presence. It’s more important what he said to his disciples after he left, how he instructed to interpret what they just saw. We don’t know that, we can only guess, and guessing should never be sufficient for vaiṣṇava criticism.
There’s a nice answer from Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī to a plea to “rectify those Vṛndāvana bābājīs who, though lacking legitimate spiritual aspirations, duplicitously presented themselves as great devotees”. He said (quoting from Śrī Bhaktisiddhānta Vaibhava) that “all Vaiṣṇavas were his gurus and he did not have the wicked disposition to think of correcting them”. There is a need to differentiate between actual Vaiṣṇavas and imitators but in the case of Ramesh Baba there’s absolutely no reason to suspect his devotion as not genuine.
And I leave it at that.