For a while now I’ve been stressing the need to accept our authorities for the sake of our own spiritual progress and I might have become repetitive in that. I notice it myself when my mind goes off on that quest again and so I sometimes restrain myself. I don’t want this message to become worn and dry, you can listen to exactly same words only so many times, after all. Having said that, today’s story deserves full consideration and it shows us something we don’t normally see in our conversation on the role of authorities.
It’s about Kholāvecā Śrīdhara, the famous banana trader who conquered the heart of Lord Caitanya with his unassuming devotion. His story is quite long and multifaceted one and can illustrate many devotional points so I don’t know where to start.
Well, he was very poor, that’s probably the main context to everything else that happened with him. He was a banana trader, that is he used to collect bananas, banana tree leaves, make cups from them, collect banana flowers, cut up banana tree trunks and, as usual in India, utilize every part of the tree. He also ate a lot of bananas, some say jokingly. Bananas are not a rare commodity in India and so Kholāvecā’s business didn’t have any particular selling points, he was just one dude out of many sitting at the local market.
He made no profit from his business whatsoever. His clothes were torn and the roof of his house had holes in it. “So what, the roof still keeps most of the water out”, he would reply. Lord Caitanya would tease him about his poverty but Śrīdhara would answer philosophically that time passes equally for everyone, kings in palaces and birds in trees. He had his food and some clothes to cover his body and so all his needs were looked after.
Half of his income he would spend on worshiping the Ganges. Some devotees tell a story how people would give him great financial advice to suspend his pūjā and invest profits in growing his business, hire a couple of guys to process more bananas and sell them for him. That way, after a year, he would have sufficient income to resume his Ganga offerings and would actually offer a lot more that he was offering now. He would reply that no one knows the future and so there’s no guarantee that he would resume his pūjā or that he would become sufficiently wealthy. I don’t want to talk about how we should donate money to the temples, not my point today.
Lord Caitanya offered another advice – stop worshiping Viṣṇu and start offering prayers to Caṇḍī, which is another name for Durgā. She was guaranteed to supply him with all wealth he desired while Viṣṇu was indifferent to his prayers.
There a great point here – the fact was that Lord Caitanya, just an impudent young scholar then, didn’t go to Śrīdhara to make jokes and hassle over bananas, He went there, almost everyday, because Kholāvecā Śrīdhara possessed devotion to the Lord which was far greater than all the material wealth in the world. In the face of all opulence of Navadvīpa Kholāvecā Śrīdhara had something no one else had and he wouldn’t exchange it for any amount of money. He had the unique comfort of not having any material desires and relishing only in the chanting of the Holy Name.
While people around him were agitated that he didn’t share in the same values as them and didn’t even try to lead “normal” life Śrīdhara was fully satisfied with just chanting and worshiping the Ganges. When he was offered various business plans he didn’t know he needed them or their results. He was probably simply inconvenienced by all these well-wishers and waited until he could get rid of them and resume his worship.
This is something we all need to learn, eventually, but it’s still not the point I have in mind today.
Lord Caitanya never gave him any respite and harassed him over his bananas at every opportunity, probably just to test the depth of his devotion. At what point would Śrīdhara start talking money instead of philosophy? Lord Caitanya never found out. He would come to Śrīdhara and demand whatever he wanted at half price, accusing Śrīdhara of running a racket there.
One time Lord Caitanya when to Śrīdhara’s house instead of the market and demanded a donation. He said that because Śrīdhara always appeared calm and satisfied he must have some hidden treasure somewhere, which was devotion, but at that time Lord Caitanya pretended not to value it. Anyway, when Śrīdhara said that all he has is some banana leaf cups there wasn’t anything worthy of giving Lord Caitanya. That didn’t go down very well with the Lord.
“Give me your cups and your leaves and your bananas and banana stalks – the whole lot!” Śrīdhara thought that young brāhmaṇa was very aggressive and unreasonable but here’s what he thought, according to Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī:
“Prabu has a very arrogant nature and it looks like he can even beat me up if I don’t give him what he wants. I don’t have anything valuable and even what I have has to be spent on worshiping the Ganges so I can’t give him anything free of cost.” That was his dilemma, and he solved in exemplary vaiṣṇava way:
“A brāhmaṇa is a representative of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, if I can help him it might awaken my good fortune. Therefore, even if he takes my stuff by trickery or by force, if it gives him benefit in some way I should consider it a success. He can come and take whatever he wants everyday for the rest of my life.”
Just think of it – he considered the situation of being abused by his authority and still reasoned that if he can bring some benefit to his superior then it would be his good fortune.
And he wasn’t talking about his spiritual authority, just a random brāhmaṇa off the street. As a representative of the Supreme Lord, Lord Caitanya sucked, he never offended devotees but he never seriously considered becoming a devotee himself either. As a brāhmaṇa he was unbearable. Actually, at that time devotees used to avoid him due to his arrogance and incessant challenges for debates. Did it stop Kholāvecā Śrīdhara from making a life long commitment to supply Lord Caitanya with all banana products he needed? Not at all. I stopped capitalizing “he” when referring to Lord Caitanya on purpose – he made a point not to behave like a Lord then.
So, vaiṣṇava should have no material interests whatsoever and always, always put his duties towards others above his own comfort. I could say that vaiṣṇava always relies on the Supreme Lord for his daily sustenance but it isn’t totally correct – he just doesn’t care about his sustenance, it’s not something that visits his mind at all. He is too busy worshiping that Lord to think about his own life, and there’s no amount of obligations that would force him to become egotistic again. He considers all these obligations as his service to the Lord and therefore they are all welcome. He doesn’t think “if I take this much I’ll be swamped”, it just doesn’t concern him.
I don’t know how to follow Kholāvecā Śrīdhara’s footsteps, he cannot be imitated, but I hope that by reflecting on his attitude some of it might penetrate my own heart, too.
At the end of the day, though, it all comes down to chanting. We must develop sufficient taste for chanting to completely forget all other considerations like Śrīdhara did. All his exemplary qualities were simply side-effects of his love for Kṛṣṇa, the Holy Name, and the Ganges.