“Bon” is not just for lightning large outdoor fires, there’s a Tibetan sect by that name, too. And there’s a Japanese festival in honor of the spirits of the ancestors. Actually, even the name of the English “bonfire” comes from originally burning bones – so dead people are somehow involved anyway, and spirits are tricky, we don’t want to offend them.
A few days ago someone dug up this old article about Bon Mahārāja. At first I simply dismissed it, then it got me thinking of a response, then I thought that objecting to a presentation about passed vaiṣṇavas might easily constitute an offense, not to mention provoking a fight with the person(s) who hold Bon Mahārāja in high regard. So I’ve decided to deal with it here first, let’s see if it somehow clarifies my thoughts.
By the dint of his incalculable service to Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Bon Mahārāja must have earned a place for himself in eternal Kṛṣṇa līlā or at least liberation from material nature, and so he is transcendentally beyond reproach. This is in addition to never treating godbrothers of our ācāryas as ordinary people subject to mundane criticism. Yet, having said that, we can take twists and turns of his life as a lesson in pitfalls to avoid in our service. He could pull it off (though there are people who might disagree), but we can’t.
He was born in a respectable brāhmaṇa family and was always absorbed in seeking pure devotion, his childhood heroes being Dhruva and Prahlāda. When his father was on a deathbed he was sent to Calcutta to buy medicine but instead he wandered into Gauḍīya Maṭha and decided to stay. At first no one paid any attention to him, it was a day after ekādaśī, and so he continued fasting for a couple more days before he got to take prasādam, and in an unclean place. His pride of being a pure and well trained brāhmaṇa was all gone and rules didn’t matter in the face of the pure spiritual potency of Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta’s mission.
When Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta first saw him he asked him to write a short essay outlining his views on everything he had heard there, and when completed he demanded this essay being included in the current issue of Gauḍīya magazine against objections of the editors that the issue was already finalized and there was no space in it anymore.
Future Bon Mahārāja was so brilliant that he got his sannyāsa after just one year and he quickly moved at the forefront of the preaching efforts. He was the first to take Gauḍīya Maṭha to South India, for example, and there he discovered the place of talks between Lord Caitanya and Rāmānanda Rāya.
Not even a decade later he was selected to preach in the West and that’s where things went wrong. I think I won’t be too far off the mark in explaining how it happened.
The man was clearly brilliant and knowledgeable, and also a multilingual speaker. He also arranged meeting with hi-so personalities who also appreciated his talents. When he continued in the same vein in England, however, his knowledge came up short. He publicly concluded that “Westerners ask questions that cannot be answered” and this should serve as an indication of the kind of debates he was facing there.
Never mind, this could happen to anyone, but Bon Mahārāja took it personally. Even before that he was writing reports about “my journeys” and “my meetings”, which didn’t go unnoticed by Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta who was visibly upset at this attitude while preaching. So, in transcendental terms, defeat was imminent – no one can preach on his own strength and claim ownership over the process, no matter how brilliant he is.
It seems Bon Mahārāja was confused by the superior brilliance of the Englishmen and even though his faith wasn’t completely lost he thought that Lord Caitanya’s and his guru’s mercy was powerless against the West. He blamed Gauḍīya Maṭha and his guru for that and, shortly before Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta’s passing away, he wrote a letter outlining all the problems he saw with the organization. That letter so upset his guru and that he was immediately banished and all his credentials with GM were revoked.
He disappeared off the scene for some five years, I don’t know what he was doing then, but then he re-emerged at the beginning of the linked article where he decided to worship Lord Śiva for a blessing to reside in Vṛndāvana.
This is all wrong.
If you offend your guru you don’t get to step over his head and demand admission into Vraja from the powers “superior” to your guru’s. There’s no such thing as superior powers to your guru, he is a direct representative of Kṛṣṇa and so he is backed up by all Kṛṣṇa’s potencies if it comes to a push. An attempt to circumvent your guru is, perhaps, a bigger offense that whatever it was that made the guru upset in the first place.
I heard that if one rejects his bona fide guru Kṛṣṇa will leave that person wondering without another opportunity for seven hundred lives. That person might search high and low and come in touch with genuine vaiṣṇavas but Kṛṣṇa won’t manifest Himself as a guru even when everyone around is accepting gurus left and right and being very happy with their choices.
It could also be said that Bon Mahārāja wasn’t even trying to sort things out with his spiritual master but rejected his guru outright, seeking other ways to approach the Lord. This is foolish as well.
I should also add that if it’s impossible to beg forgiveness from the person one has offended then one must take full shelter of the Holy Name and beg the Name for the opportunity to purify oneself from the offense. Doing tapasyā for Lord Śiva won’t help and even a slightest hint that Lord Śiva has any power over the Holy Name is a grave offense in itself. It’s a very dangerous path to take, but it appears that Bon Mahārāja approached Śiva as the best among Vaiṣṇavas, not as a Lord in his own right.
From this point on the article extols Bon Maharāja’s later achievements. By the standards of his youth, however, they should be considered as an objective failure. His “institute” didn’t produce any students of note and his preaching became non-existent. Giving new names to Prabhupāda’s disciples was not cool either. Śrīla Prabhupāda succeeded where Bon Mahārāja failed – in preaching to Westerners, and so such treatment of Prabhupāda’s disciples is unacceptable. It makes Bon Mahāraja look like a zombi ghost devoid of life but feeding on the flesh of others.
As I said in the beginning – Bon Mahārāja has earned himself a place with Kṛṣṇa and all disagreements between him and his guru must be seen as transcendental pastimes and they cannot affect his spiritual position. This means that he can reside in Vrṇdāvana for all eternity already, but the quality of this relationship with the Lord is not what we want to achieve for ourselves. We should take great care not to go down that way and become zombies. Not even Vṛndāvana zombies – there are better role models for us there and so we should choose wisely.
I see that article as an attempt to comfort those who rejected ISCKON and give them the illusion that spiritual life exists outside your rejected guru. It does, sort of, but not of the sort we want. We want to be like Bon Mahārāja of his glory years, as a potent instrument in the hands of his guru who brought immense satisfaction and admiration to thousands of vaiṣṇavas. Glorifying life outside that is just pathetic.