We all know “tarko ‘pratisthah” verse (CC Madhya 17.186) and how it ends with “mahajano yean gatah sa panthah”, but please also note the line in the middle – “dharmasya tattvam nihitam guhayam”.
“Dharmasya tattvam” doesn’t need an explanation. Nihitam is translated as “placed”, but the most interesting part is “guhāyām — in the heart of a realized person”. This is the same “guha” as countless verses in the Gita – most confidential, secret etc. The meaning is “hidden in the heart”, which isn’t obvious but that’s what being “in the heart” means – it’s not easily visible to others.
SB 10.3.8 also describes the Lord as “sarva-guhā-śayaḥ — who is situated in the core of everyone’s heart.” In the purport Srila Prabhupada briefly mentions what other acaryas said about this “sarva-guha” – it also includes difficult to attain places like Vaikuntha or Mathura (Try going there during Covid? It’s impossible!). The Lord is also “sayah” – He lies there, but let’s not digress.
My point is that the ways of dharma are hidden in the hearts of mahajanas, and if we realize that then the last line – about following their paths, becomes a lot less clear.
First of all – who are the mahajanas? Their names were not given in Mahabharata where the verse is from but we usually take Bhagavatam list “svayambhur narada…” etc. Are these the only mahajanas we should follow? That seems impractical – we’ve never met any of them and know very little about their lives, let along about contents of their hearts.
One could say that we have their instructions written down in Srimad Bhagavatam and Mahabharata but that is not the same thing – it’s following the scriptures, not what we see in the hearts of great devotees ourselves, which was Maharaja Yudhisthira’s point in the “tarko pratisthah” quote.
What does following mahajans mean exactly? Bali Maharaja and Prahlada Maharaja had thousands if not millions of followers – all demons. Do we want to be followers like them? These demons saw Bali Maharaja, for example, as their legitimate and very inspiring leader, not as a hidden devotee of Visnu.
So, if we come across a “mahajana” like that – will we even recognize him? And if we do – how should we follow him? Okay, Bali Maharaja gave everything to Lord Vamanadeva, we can follow that, but that was a one off occasion and we are not likely to be placed in a similar situation more than once or twice in our lives. And yet we have to live our lives in full, moment after moment, so what does it mean “follow Bali’s example” here? What is this “pantha”, the path we are supposed to follow?
Maharaja Yudhisthira wasn’t talking about that one special moment, he was talking about day to day decisions regarding one’s dharma. Day to day Bali Maharaja lived like a demon, probably didn’t follow four regs even. What does it mean to follow him?
How about Krishna’s instruction to Uddhava: “one should be guided by the exemplary activities of My devotees, who appear among the demigods, demons and human beings”? SB 11.29.10 The verb used was “āśrayeta — he should take shelter of.” Take shelter and follow the demons (if they are devotees at heart)?
To me it doesn’t mean searching out gurus among demons or demigods but about discovering these devotees in our own environment, wherever it might be. Krishna *sends* a guru, after all, it’s all arranged according to our qualification, it doesn’t mean we have to go out of our way to find one.
I don’t mean “guru” guru, I mean a person we can learn from about what to do with *our* lives. If one wishes to go to Vrindavan and find a genuine sadhu there it’s fine, but how useful his lessons would be when you return to your world and have to deal with your boss or your subordinates and don’t know what to do? Not very useful and not very obvious. But if you knew a devotee who lives in the same society and deals with the same situations all the time he would definitely be far more helpful.
That person might not know much about Krishna’s pastimes or know nothing about Krishna at all but it’s not what you need from him right now, you need to know how stay true to the Absolute Truth in the situation you are in now. Whether his conception of the Absolute is as developed as that of Srila Prabhupada is not really important. Good enough for you, it’s all that matters. We don’t really need Srila Prabhupada telling you how to organize your Excel document, do you?
It doesn’t mean we should approach experts in their fields either – that’s not what is meant by “mahajans”. We rather need people with the correct “moral compass”, if speaking in everyday language. They should be liberal enough to keep that compass straight and understand and accept the situation we are dealing with right now. By absolute standards we, as people who chant the Holy Name, might be considered more advanced, but when we are placed in a difficult situation we should rather judge it by the standards of the situation itself – we don’t know what to do and other people do, so they are higher and we are lower.
But let’s get back to that “path of the mahajanas”, specifically Bali Maharaja. So he was a king of the asuras, he was educated in the asuric society and he lived his life like an asura should, even better than all the rest of them, and yet his personal path through all these circumstances and all his decision making eventually led him to the moment of surrender. That’s a PATH. In each and every situation he learned something, he decided something, he did something, and it all accumulated and in the end he dismissed Sukracarya’s advice and surrendered to Vamanadeva. There was a PATH leading to that decision and so every choice, every turn on the way, mattered and so should be considered as a valuable lesson we ourselves could follow.
If we come to judge these decisions by our sadhana rules or a typical understanding of varnasrama we would get nowhere. We will conclude that it’s all nonsense, doesn’t fit in our ideal model of human behavior, we will give quotes to demonstrate how wrong it was and… – we will transfer ourselves to “tarko pratisthah” line of the verse. Exactly what was rejected. Bali Maharaja’s life choices were all correct and should be accepted as such in the absolute sense. They can’t be refuted even by “sastra” – we usually call our selected quotations as “sastra”, we don’t know what the actual opinion of the personality of that sastra is. One’s own opinion is good enough for most debaters.
In the end, we must discern who a mahajana is, which is not easy, we must determine the scope of his authority, we must determine whether every his decision is correct and to be followed or only some – related to the scope of his authority, and we should decide whether it’s applicable to us. None of it is easy or simple. It’s simple in the hindsight – when we know that Srila Prabhupada was a maha-bhagavata devotee, for example. Try following him unconditionally when he was still running his business and organizing that League of Devotees? I’d say none of us would have been impressed back then.
And if one happens to find an actual, real life Mahajana, a real devotee of Krishna the way Bali Maharaja was, then good luck trying to reconcile his behavior with the ideals taught in our lectures. Our lectures present Vedic ideals, but devotees “appear among the demigods, demons and human beings” and they are not constrained by our ideals or by societies they live in. If it’s hard to reconcile then it would be much much harder to follow them ourselves.
Remember, that “tarko pratisthah” verse was supposed to end all arguments.