Revisiting Chota Haridas

I assume everyone knows the story and our canonical interpretation of it. We’ve heard it in our lectures and there is Caitanya Caritamrita where Srila Prabhupada gives various explanations, including a seven point summary lessons from Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati. However, there is another side to this story that is interesting to explore. It doesn’t contradict anything said before, as far as I can see, and it could be an interesting addition to what we already know. The point is that sometimes we take these stories and put them into our situations, which then colors our conclusions, but the same stories can remain equally true in a different context and if our conclusions don’t match then it’s on us and rethinking is probably required.

The quest to truly know the story then becomes determining the exact context first, and then distilling the very essence of the story so that we can apply it to our lives correctly, without being swayed by our situation and without dragging extraneous things from the past that don’t really belong. Plus there are multiple aspects to each story as well and the same process should be applied to them, too. So let’s look at what interesting things we can extract from this one.

Facts of the matter were that one day Lord Caitanya was having lunch at Bhagavat Acarya’s house and asked about rice. He was told that it was Chota Haridas who brought this rice from Madhavi Devi’s house. Mahaprabhu didn’t say anything and continued eating, and only when he returned to His place that He told Govinda that He doesn’t want to see Chota Haridas again. When pressed for an explanation He said that He didn’t want to associate with those who have private conversations with women.

It was up to the devotees then to investigate what happened and connect the dots between Chota Haridas asking Madhavi Devi for rice and Lord Caitanya’s words. Maybe they did it right, maybe their investigation was incomplete. Srila Krishnadas Kaviraja Goswami was pretty confident in Caitanya Caritamrita that this was what happened but Narayana Maharaj and even Srila Prabhupada on several occasions, notably in Teachings of Lord Caitanya, offered another version where Chota Haridas was eager to meet with a young servant girl in the house of Madhavi Devi, and this obviously goes way beyond begging for rice from an eighty year old woman. Everybody would understand that, but sexual connotations in regards to Madhavi Devi? It’s hard to imagine. Nevertheless, at the time Krishnadas Kaviraj was writing it down he either didn’t hear about it or didn’t think it was solid enough to commit to paper. The point is that we don’t really know what happened. We can only guess that it was during that episode of begging rice. Even Caitanya Caritamrita does not commit itself to stating it with full confidence.

The discussions about Lord Caitanya’s decision went on for several days and nobody could understand why He was so serious about it. Devotees came to see Him several times, they sent high profile negotiators, too, but Lord Caitanya wouldn’t budge and He wouldn’t offer any other explanations beyond what He told the devotees already. His final argument was that “I’m not in control of my mind and my mind does not want to associate with Chota Haridasa”. It sounds like a rhetorical device of shifting responsibility from oneself to something else but what if it wasn’t? What if it sounds like an excuse to us but Lord Caitanya was quite serious?

There have been many other occasions when Lord Caitanya restricted His association based on how He felt about it. He always offered explanations, sure, but the deciding factor always was that it didn’t feel right. When Srivas Pandit sneaked in a brahmacari to a nightly kirtan Lord Caitanya didn’t even know someone was there but He felt that something was not right. He felt it first, explanation came later. On another occasion He refused to see a devotee and no one knew why until Lord Caitanya said that this devotee was listening to Yoga Vasistha. This devotee wasn’t an impersonalist and Lord Caitanya reversed His decision in a very short time but the fact of enjoying Yoga Vasistha spoiled His mood nevertheless. When Advaita Acarya was preaching impersonalism there was no ban, however.

It is now, after five hundred years have passed, we see these episodes as a matter of tattva, as a matter of infallible logical arguments – if someone has done that then the consequence must be this, and the consequence must be enforced, but why? Why not see it as a matter of rasa – Lord Caitanya didn’t feel right about something and sometimes He offered a reasonable explanation for His feelings and sometimes He didn’t. Apart from Chota Haridasa story, Lord Caitanya also refused to see Kala Krishnadasa even as Lord Nityananda Himself was advocating on his behalf. Even to Lord Nityananda the rationale for the ban didn’t make sense, so why should we elevate it to the status of tattva, to the status of “it must be this way”?

The simple answer could be – because it makes sense to us and because we don’t want to rely on our feelings when conducting our affairs, especially when managing ISKCON. This is another aspect, however, and I get to it shortly. First, however, if we take it as a matter of tattva, then if someone in ISKCON was preaching impersonal ideas what should be the consequence? Same as Advaita Acarya’s case? And what would be consequence for the members of the audience? Heavier than the punishment of the preacher? This tattva based approach wouldn’t work, we would have to be selective, and this goes against the very principle of tattva and objectivity.

More importantly, Lord Caitanya wasn’t managing a society. Sometimes He would give advice and all the devotees would make it into a rule, like in case of associating with mayavadis, but in case of Chota Haridasa Lord Caitanya spoke only for Himself. He didn’t tell anyone what THEY should do about him. He didn’t warn them that if they keep his company there would be consequences for them. It was rather the opposite – Lord Caitanya warned the devotees what would happen if THEY try to force HIM to behave they wanted. He told them that if they force Chota Haridasa’s company on Him then He would leave and go somewhere where He could practice His bhajan in peace.

Do you get this point? Rather than trying to institutionalize some rule Lord Caitanya’s reaction was to avoid following the rule imposed by the institution. Okay, not a formal institution but devotee sanga, which was speaking in unison about the need for Lord Caitanya to accept Chota Haridasa back. And His given reason was “My mind doesn’t feel right about it,” as I mentioned.

This aspect doesn’t mean that privately associating with women is alright. Worrying about this means worrying about institutional rules on the level of tattva. My point is that regardless of what the correct tattva was, Lord Caitanya went with “rasa” consideration first. If someone disrupts the flow of devotion then it must be rejected. One cannot allow his bhajan to be disrupted for the sake of institutionalized rules. In this case it’s not the rule about female association but the rule that one must accept collective decision and follow it that was rejected. Both aspects coexisted in Lord Caitanya’s behavior in that story.

The only possible contradiction I see is in one of the lessons cited by Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati – the one about standards for the “heads of institutions propagating the Caitanya cult”, as Srila Prabhupada puts it in the purport. It does sound like some rules need to be enforced institutionally, doesn’t it? But the reading is ambiguous – it could equally be about standards expected FROM our leaders, not standards imposed by leaders on everybody else. The sentence continues with the comma: “, and for all actual devotees.” This, again, reads as a standard expected from the devotees rather than a standard imposed on the devotees by the leaders. To put it simply – it doesn’t mean that anyone not living up to this standard should be institutionally punished. This is a very important distinction – standards expected from the leaders (and from rank and file devotees), and standards enforced by the institution.

One other thing – Srila Prabhupada writes that Chota Haridasa returned to Puri in his spiritual body and continued singing for Lord Caitanya’s pleasure, which is shown in the picture at the top. The exact words, however, were “gandarhva dehe – in the body of a gandharva”. This is how it stands in word-for-word translation of CC Antya.2.149. Gandharva body would suit the whole narrative better. Lord Caitanya spoke of Chota Haridas as accepting the result of his activities – sva-karma-phala-bhuk (from CC. Antya.2.163), and singing for Lord Caitanya as a gandarva, for whom female company is allowed, sounds like a nice resolution to the problem of duplicity highlighted by Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati, as Chota Haridas otherwise behaved like a renunciate.

Maybe Chota Haridas was in a spiritual body, I’m not going to argue against Srila Prabhupada (“In a spiritual body resembling that of a Gandharva”), but his name is not mentioned among Lord Caitanya’s associates from Krishna lila in Gaura Ganoddesa Dipika. A similar argument is used against counting Kala Krishnadasa among Lord Caitanya’s eternal associates in the debate about jiva falldown. If he was in a gandharva body it would also explain why other devotees could sometimes hear his singing – gandharvas live within this universe while fully spiritual bodies are not a part of this world at all.

Lastly, when Chota Haridasa got into this new body, his singing became totally acceptable and Lord Caitanya personally called for him to be brought back. Except it was too late and he committed suicide already, and Lord Caitanya behaved as if it was news to Him. He said that suicide was a proper atonement, too, which we don’t mean to apply to us, as evidenced by Srila Prabhupada’s discussions about it involving Vishujana Swami.

All in all, it’s very hard to line up all the ducks together properly in this story. Something somewhere always doesn’t fit and something always sounds inconclusive, if we are being truly honest about it.

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