In general, I stand by everything I said about Bon Mahārāja yesterday, but some new evidence came to light that modified my perspective. I mean this review by our own Satyarāja Prabhu of a book written by Bon Mahārāja himself about his quest to .. find what, exactly?
The book itself is not easy to get, there’s no epub version, it’s not on Amazon, it’s a hard cover printed somewhere in former USSR and they don’t even tell you the price, so reading it for myself is out of the question, the only thing we have to go on is this review plus some comments by ex-ISKCON devotees who worked on the English translation, which is not much.
The book was written in 1943, several yeas after Bon Mahārāja’s banishment from Gauḍīya Maṭha but before he made a new life for himself in Vṛndāvana. This, I think, is important to keep in mind because all our interactions with him happened long after that, it’s not exactly the same Bon Mahārāja we knew in ISKCON.
Let’s start with a disclaimer – if Bon Mahārāja really begged forgiveness of Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī in his prayers the matter of offense at his guru’s feet should be closed. Whatever disagreements that were apparent between these two very senior personalities should not be taken at the face value, they are eternally linked together and quite possibly are happily engaged in the service of Kṛṣṇa and Lord Caitanya as we speak.
This shouldn’t stop us from learning lessons from their fallout, however temporary, and take it “impersonally” – it’s just the material nature acting under direct control of Lord Caitanya. Bon Mahārāja was supposed to fail in England and pave the way for our Śrīla Prabhupāda, all the events of that time could be seen as supporting this overarching goal. It wasn’t Bon Mahārāja’s fault.
I can also argue that Bon Mahārāja’s apparent transgressions were Lord Caitanya’s design to show Śrīla Prabhupāda how not to preach and how not to claim any success in following guru’s order for himself. Śrīla Prabhupāda learned A LOT from that failed effort, so how can we really claim it was a failure if it eventually led to so much success?
Likewise, Bon Mahārāja’s later dealings with ISKCON and Prabhupāda’s disciples can be seen as lessons in the danger of envy. He himself, in his eternal spiritual position, was probably not affected by the goings on of his material body, and so it’s important for us to see his life in a certain way – whatever is done in the service to your guru is glorious, whatever done in opposition to your guru leads to ruin, and envy and pride are one’s major enemies on the path of spiritual progress.
After all, what was Bon Mahārāja’s externally visible achievements at the end of his life? He didn’t succeed in preaching, he didn’t write any books, he didn’t make any disciples of note, he only had his renunciation and his character, and pride and envy are perfect in destroying that.
Now, to the book. One of the most often repeated accusations against ISKCON is that we don’t know the real Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava siddhānta. Okay. This book is called “On the Way to Vaikuntha” – what Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava would even want to reach Vaikuntha? It’s a spiritual hell devoid of personal relationships with the Lord, we aim for nothing less than Vṛndāvana, or at least serving those who reside in Vṛndāvana. Who would even want to waste his time on a journey to Vaikuṇṭha?
The excerpts provided on publisher’s site do not say anything about making amends with Bon Mahārāja’s guru, instead it’s about Lord Śiva making an appearance and granting Bon Mahārāja a wish to reside in Vrṇdāvana. Okay, this means he didn’t really want to go to Vaikuṇṭha, but it also means he didn’t really want to return to the shelter of his guru either.
Afaik, no one in Gauḍīya Maṭha was aware of Bon Mahārāja’s repentance, and devotees there were as offended by Bon Mahārāja’s rebellion as Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta himself. If Bon Mahārāja made amends with his guru, who has left the world several years earlier, he would have also made amends with his godbrothers who were still present, and yet he didn’t.
What are we to make of this? Was this repentance genuine? Was it possibly inserted in the book later on by the editors – we are not talking about some established publishing house but about a group of people with clear anti-ISKCON agenda. I wouldn’t put it past them to slightly embellish the record here.
Or maybe the repentance was genuine but Bon Mahārāja’s role in Lord Caitanya līlā here was that of a pariah and he had to stick to it no matter what he felt in his heart. Looking at it this way makes sense to me – ex-ISKCON devotees need some kind of hope and shelter to keep then in Kṛṣṇa consciousness, they need to know that Kṛṣṇa still has a place for them even after they rejected Śrīla Prabhupāda, and example of Bon Mahārāja provides that.
We can say that it’s not a shelter but a place of misery and spiritual emptiness but it’s also a sign that Kṛṣṇa never ever abandons anybody who was saved by Śrīla Prabhupāda, no matter how offensive they become. It might take these people many many lives of ghostlike existence pretending that their daily notions are fully spiritual but Kṛṣṇa would not abandon them in the meantime. Māyā has this power to convince living entities that they are happy and safe in any condition of life and this is what happens to them. The moment Śrīla Prabuhpāda calls them back they’ll shake it off like a bad dream and beg for the service at his feet.
Back to the book – there are different ways to interpret Bon Mahārāja’s attempt to please Lord Śiva. As Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas we have no problems with approaching Lord Śiva if it’s done in a proper consciousness, as seeking his help as the topmost devotee, but in Bon Mahārāja’s case it could have happened for different reasons, too. Should we give him the benefit of doubt? We could, but what would be the lessons to learn here then?
If he wanted to live in Vṛndāvana so much, why didn’t he approach his guru? Why didn’t he pray to Lord Caitanya? Why did he consider Lord Śiva as the ultimate authority on the matter? I can’t help but seeing it as “my guru and Lord Caitanya won’t let me, but I’ll get in through a backdoor anyway”. And apparently he did, how’s that possible?
My answer would bet that Lord Śiva didn’t give him any blessings he hadn’t earned in his service to his guru already. Getting a place in the external manifestation of Vraja is practically a birth right for a follower or Lord Caitanya, but without service to your guru it’s empty and meaningless. There are thousands of people who get to live there, they are all blessed in some kind of way, but it’s not the blessings we should seek for ourselves – we need service in Vṛndāvana, not residence.
My mind is wandering off and I sense there’s something else I wanted to say but it escapes me now, it’s probably time to call it a day.