So, while talking about Kholāvecā Śrīdhara a few important points got left out. Let’s see if I can express them today. Third time’s a charm, as they say.
First, the history – I can’t seem to find the originals for most of our Śrīdhara folklore. Caitanya Caritāmṛta mentions him only once, as part of Lord Caitanya’s tree, and that’s all. Śrīla Prabhupāda gives a brief outline of his personality there and uses words like “Most probably he had a banana-tree garden and…”
If even that is under question, what can we know for sure about him at all? Śrīla Prabhupāda mentions several episodes from after Lord Caitanya conversion but those are rarely spoken about in our classes, they are less fertile than his pre-conversion pastimes. He gave a squash to Mother Sacī to cook or danced in jubilation during Lord Caitanya’s visit to Kazi, or regularly went to Jagannātha Purī. The story about Lord Caitanya drinking from his water pot is more instructive but we don’t talk about it as much as about his poverty and his spending fifty percent of income on worshiping the Ganges and about his conversations with the Lord regarding regularly supplying Him with banana products.
Besides Caitanya Caritāmṛta we have very few authoritative sources. There’s Caitanya Bhāgavata, of course, and then Caitanya Maṇgala and that’s all. As far as I can search, Kholāveca Śrīdhara is not mentioned there at all, so it’s only Caitanya Bhāgavata left. That’s where I got the story about him submitting himself to the demands of an arrogant and possibly dangerous brāhmaṇa, as Lord Caitanya looked the part then.
It must be said that most of that story has been known to us from the time immemorial – from before we had Caitanya Bhāgavata translated and widely read. So what’s our source?
Śrīla Prabhupāda, of course, but when he himself starts with “most probably” we need to pay attention to various interpolations we produce from there as if they are a real thing. Sure, we need to extract useful lessons, and those lessons are true regardless of whether they are based on facts or common folklore, but we should also be aware that we might be using Kholāvecā Śrīdhara’s name as a label for our own imagination.
Fifty percent spent on worshiping the Ganges is not mentioned there, for example. It’s in Prabhupādaś purpot in Caitanya Caritāmṛta so that’s good enough for us but it’s probably something we shouldn’t really insist on in case there are arguments about the exact number. The business plans offered to Śrīdhara are not mentioned there at all. Where do they come from? I don’t know. Caitanya Bhagavāta spends two dozen verses describing his banana conversation with Lord Caitanya but that’s all. It happened in his house, once, and there’s nothing about Lord Caitanya regularly hassling him at the market for a better price. The idea that worshiping Caṇḍī makes people rich is there but not as any kind of actual business proposition. No taking a year off, no hiring other people, nothing. Where did that come from? I don’t know.
Anyway, the episode with Lord Caitanya making impossible demands and Kholāvecā agreeing to them is there, so it’s legit, and that’s something that needs a little clarification.
As I said day before yesterday, Śrīdhara considered that giving away his products to impudent brāhmaṇa was in his best long term interest even if it happened by trickery or threat of force. He just wasn’t that attached to his income, whoever laid claim on it, it seems, had a very good chance of getting it.
We can say that it was Lord Caitanya’s time, things were different then, but that is not a good excuse. This attitude is described in the purport by Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī in more detail than in the text itself. What it means is that Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta considered it important and quite relevant less than a hundred years ago when brāhmaṇas were not in very high regard already.
I mean Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta spend decades fighting over the position of brāhmaṇas in the society, they nearly killed him for that, and here he is suggesting that people should give brāhmaṇas everything they ask for even if they cheat you out of it. Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta considered even vaiṣṇava brāhmaṇas and guru bogus, he had no problems with reinitiating their disciples and he certainly had no problems with his own disciples not giving them any money, he had his Gauḍīyā Maṭhas for that.
The way I see it, it wasn’t a commentary on social customs of half a millennium ago and even a hundred years ago these customs were unacceptable, but still Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta thought it’s important enough to mention – in relation to describing a character of a devotee. What he rejected himself for general public was considered extremely pure and attractive when displayed by devotees like Kholāvecā Śrīdhara.
Perhaps that’s how we should apply it to our lives, too. Submission to our authorities should become unconditional as we progress in our devotion. Nothing would be able to touch us then. In our current, state, however, we should naturally consider whether our authorities behave appropriately and whether their demands are reasonable.
I’m not about to start a revolution for total submission to GBC and I’m not about to argue for one. Yes, it would be better for everyone involved but if it’s a behavior displayed by pure souls of Śrīdhara’s caliber then we can’t demand it from everyone. I mean if becoming a pure devotee is a prerequisite then, if we got that, why would we worry about little things like dealing with GBC resolutions? I mean if we got a society full of pure devotees these matters would disappear from our minds completely anyway, it’s something we preoccupy ourselves only due to our impurities.
Another point about this episode is a lesson on blasphemy. After securing His banana supplies Lord Caitanya jokingly asked Śrīdhara what he thought about Him. “Tumi vipra, viṣṇu aṃśa,” Śrīdhara replied. “You are a brāhmaṇa and a portion of Lord Viṣṇu.” Lord Caitanya, however, told him that actually He wasn’t a son of a brāhmaṇa but a son of a gopā, a cowherd man. Śrīdhara just smiled, not being able to understand how true these words were.
Then Lord Caitanya said that actually He is the source of the glories of the Ganges, the object of Śrīdhara’a daily worship, according to our folklore. I think it would have been considered fairly blasphemous if said somewhere outside. I think quite a few Muslims would be rightfully upset if someone says he is the source of the sanctity of Mecca. It’s not a direct comparison, though, and Lord Caitanya didn’t make these claims in public, but still.
What did Śrīdhara answer? “Aren’t you afraid of insulting Ganga this way?” He then added that people supposed to grow up and mature but Lord Caitanya’s restlessness only doubled, and that was it. In short, he considered it a childish talk not worthy of actually replying to.
Imagine, though, for a moment, someone making similar claims publicly in the present day. We’d dismiss that person as another lunatic impostor, another self-declared incarnation. I’m not sure we would take offense at such nonsense and I’m not sure Muslims would react angrily, too. Some things are just too outrageous and too improbable to affect one’s faith so they will not cause anger.
This is another point – people get angry about things they are afraid might be true, things they do not want to admit the possibility of to themselves, and when it’s forced on them they become defensive. When westerners tell Muslims to take Muhammad cartoons easy they imply that their faith shouldn’t be affected by such silly things. There’s a grain of truth in this advice but also a heap of arrogance. Only atheists would consider pushing religious buttons until they find people’s weak spots and then capitalize on weaknesses. It’s just not cool. Our creeper of devotion needs to be protected, not trampled upon in jubilation.
But blasphemy aside – it only increases renunciation of Kholāvecā Śrīdhara who decided to give a major part of his income away to someone insulting his dear object of worship, just because he asked and because brāhmaṇas constitutionally are a “part of Viṣṇu”. Pure devotion does wonderful things to people, and probably looks like total madness to outsiders.
Or we could consider the whole episode as a pastime forced by Lord illusory energy and so it would have been impossible between Kholāvecā Śrīdhara and anybody else. If we take that as an explanation, though, the value of whatever lessons we can learn from it would greatly decreases, so, personally, I’m not in favor of it.