For many years I couldn’t made my mind about HG Aindra Prabhu. On one hand his reputation as the foremost kīrtanīyā is undisputed. No one in ISKCON history came even close, the informal title of modern day nāmācārya is fully deserved. On the other hand, he was always somewhat at odds with ISKCON leadership and that aspect of his life can’t be avoided, too.
I don’t know if there are different opinions on this, perhaps someone would provide an authoritative account how it happened, but, personally, I credit only Aindra with the grassroots worldwide saṅkīrtana revolution that has visibly changed the face of our society. It isn’t complete but it already has made a big difference.
I’m talking about proliferation of various kīrtana melās no one has ever heard of before. Aindra didn’t personally started them but it was his call for significant increase in performing harināma saṅkīrtana that provided the impetus. People just did whatever they could and short of 24-hour kīrtanas, kīrtana melās are the next best thing.
At this point I can’t help but notice that both these kīrtana melās and Aindra’s 24-hour kīrtanas have the same format – a group of devotees sitting down with traditional instruments and chanting for hours non-stop. They are not walking the streets and imposing themselves on unsuspecting public, often against people’s will. In both cases their main audience are temple visitors. Maybe this similarity is not that of causation – Aindra did this and kīrtana melās followed – but it looks so to me.
There are differences as well. Lots of kīrtanīyā groups look like professionals and pay more attention to the musical side of things. When Aindra started his one man band he didn’t even know how to play harmonium, he was self-taught and he learned more as he moved along. Eventually he produced professional CDs but most of his regular recordings are not musically impressing at all. He surely had a few catchy tunes but also tons of tunes no one could keep up with.
There’s also the inherent difference between pioneers and followers. Aindra started with nothing, he didn’t even plan to start 24-hour kīrtanas when he arrived in Vṛndāvana, and for the first half a year he was doing it alone, without any help. He says he’d ask anyone hanging around to pick up karatālas and join in, mostly various onlookers of Indian extraction.
Kīrtana melās of these days, otoh, are well advertised and enjoy massive support. The biggest ones gather over ten thousand people, it’s just not the same as struggling alone against all odds for years without any reward.
This struggle to establish himself also had its side effects, like everything in Kali yuga does. Unfortunate but true. And it’s this unintended consequence that puzzled me for years.
I might be wrong but my theory makes sense to me and it resolves whatever issues I might occasionally have with Aindra’s preaching so I’m quite happy about it. In fact, I can’t see it in any other way anymore.
It’s very simple – in his fight for recognition, not for himself but for big increase in congregational chanting of the Holy Name, Aindra had to justify it in all possible ways. He had to establish it philosophically, he had to made it look like a success to attract support, he had to preach to volunteers, and he had to prove it to himself, too. All of that had to stress relative supremacy of his chosen service which naturally looked as if it was made at the expense of everything else.
Whether he was talking on book distribution, saṅkīrtana, varṇāśrama, guru tattva, nature of the dhāma, development of bhakti, practically everything, he eventually turned it around to support his own service as the best solution possible. He would argue from śāstra and experience, he would argue from common sense and our preceptor ācāryas, he would argue for and against different positions, but at the end of the day it would always turn to implicit suggestion “therefore you should join harināma saṅkīrtana party in Vṛndāvana”. That has become the main giveaway for me.
I can’t possibly retrace all his arguments but very often I listened to them and thought that I wouldn’t necessarily interpret it this way, that other views are possible and just as valid, but there usually wasn’t anything clearly contradictory to our siddhānta. It’s only at the end, when he concludes that congregational chanting of the Holy Name in the Holy Dhāma is the best possible service that everything falls into the place. Why didn’t you say so at the beginning? Obviously there ARE other ways to serve the Lord which are just as valid so you premise and your conclusion can’t possibly be right.
Incidentally, every Indian bābā does exactly the same thing. They can drop tons of wisdom on you but at the end of the day the conclusion is that what they are doing is the only right thing.
To be fair, Aindra Prabhu never argued against book distribution, for example, and there’s nothing wrong with placing it below congregational chanting on a relative value scale, but for some reason he never ended his preaching with “therefore you should distribute books”. Never, under no possible circumstances, one would leave his room, pick up books, and try to distribute them. That’s just not right.
Why was it so?
Well, I already mentioned the need to prove his service and attract other devotees. You don’t do it by declaring it as second best and not really that important. The other reason is Aindra’s personal history. He left the West for Vṛndāvana after an acrimonious split up with his local management. I’m fully prepared to accept that the management was wrong and unfair and not spiritually enlightened enough even though I don’t know the exact circumstances. I’m prepared to give Aindra the benefit of th doubt on this, but the result was that he decided to chart his own course, pick his own service, and make his own name, so to speak. It worked, Kṛṣṇa clearly recognized his efforts, but it’s still not the best way to achieve progress in spiritual life.
In his case it led to the necessity to make his own judgments on practically everything. Ever since he left the US he had to make his own decisions and he didn’t accept any authorities but his own experience, understanding, and intelligence. More often than not it ends in disaster. In his own case it led to the assumption that one must take charge of his own progress, chart his own map and work towards his own goals, and there’s no other way.
The problem is that anyone who has a living breathing guru pleading his disciples to help him in moving the mission of our ācāryas has no space for passing his own judgments on what service he should take. We should try to please our guru, not invent our own ways. We are supposed to become “servant of the servant of the servant”, solely dependent on the mercy of other vaiṣṇavas and interested only in other vaiṣṇavas wellbeing, not chart our own course and declare it as pleasing to the Lord.
No arguments in the universe can overwrite the request of our guru. If he says “please go into the streets and distribute books” then this is the best and only possible service for us regardless of how little benefit we would derive from it objectively. I mean, according to Aindra and his quotes, every service done in Vṛndāvana is multiplied a thousand times – can’t compete with this math.
We can’t develop Kṛṣṇa premā by walking the streets either, it’s just not the place for such exalted emotions. Kṛṣṇa premā can only be obtained at the feet of a fully self-realized mahā-bhāgavata devotee who himself is fully absorbed in intimate pastimes of Rādha and Kṛṣṇa. Can’t argue with that either, it’s patently true, and Kṛṣṇa premā should be our only goal in our Kṛṣṇa consciousness, but whatever arguments are there, if our guru asks us to start a prasādam distribution program then this is what we must do. For a devotee there should be no other choice. We serve Kṛṣṇa by serving other vaiṣṇavas and whatever service we are given should be taken as absolutely precious. We can’t turn it down because it’s not exalted enough.
Aindra put himself in the position where he had to make his own choices and his guru had long departed this world so it was really only up to him. For most of us this isn’t the case, and looking at the example of Gauḍīyā Maṭhas we can see that going alone is a very risky proposition. Aindra survived, good for him. He had enough purity and sincerity, we might not be so lucky.
Sometimes he was frustrated too – he felt didn’t progress towards Kṛṣṇa premā fast enough. If we put our fate into the hands of our guru we wouldn’t worry about such things, whatever realizations come, they come when we are ready and when Kṛṣṇa is ready to trust us. When we set our own timeline it’s easy to turn it into a succession of artificial deadlines, too. I mean who else are we going to trust with judging our progress? Who is going to tell us we are too slow or too fast? Kṛṣṇa directly? Nope, our own intelligence and our own estimate.
Anyone who is trying to do so, to take his service into his own hands, is likely to create disturbances for himself and for others. There’s a verse supporting it but I don’t remember where it is from. I’m not saying Aindra created disturbances but I bet there were quite a few unsettled souls who didn’t know what to do with their lives after listening to him, as coming back home and following their local authorities didn’t seem like an option anymore, and pure and simple living in Vṛndāvana simply isn’t for everybody. Many have tried, most have failed.
I think this rant is getting too long and I probably didn’t give as much credit to Aindra’s unprecedented dedication to saṅkīrtana as he deserved, perhaps some other day, there’s a lot to say about his particular style of chanting.