Madhvas and Gaudiyas

A few years ago I read quite a few attacks on Gaudiya Vaishnavism by some followers of Madhvacharya . If you search this blog you’ll find my reactions, it was a technical discussion about verses and translations, as I remember, but details are not important right now. There was another ex-ISKCON devotee who tried to prove to anyone who’d listen that Madhva’s dvaita is the real thing and Gaudiyas are just degenerate deviants. Questions about our parampara connection to Madhvacharya are probably a few hundred years old by now because the list given by our acharyas does not correspond to records kept by Madhvas themselves. Some explanations have been given but we can’t really know anything for sure about those times and names. I suspect Madhvas themselves were not very meticulous with keeping their records, and for ordinary devotees it was a matter of oral transmission. Our Gaudiya records begin with Kavi Karnapura, meaning after disappearance of Lord Caitanya, and so we have no accounts of the previous two centuries at all, just what Kavi Karnapura and others remembered from what they heard. It appears influential contemporaries who were godbrothers have been put into guru-disciple relationship in our parampara, for example. This doesn’t bother us at all but I mention it just to give some background.

Recently I read an interesting article on this matter in Krishna Kathamrita Bindu magazine, Issue #253. It was originally written for The Harmonist by Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura and it uses a novel approach to such challenges. It doesn’t answer all of them but it goes straight to the heart of the matter and addresses the main argument itself – Madhvas are traditionalists and Gaudiyas are an offshot. Madhvas are conservative but Gaudiyas are liberal inventors. Madhvas are the original and Gaudiya are an add on. No, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati paints a completely different picture where we, the Gaudiyas, are conservative preservers of the tradition and they, the Madhvas are inventors swayed by the currents of time. How about that!

MADHVAS AND GAUDIYAS

Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur Prabhupada

There is a tendency, especially in this country, to approach the past history of a sect on the basis of the prima-facie authenticity of the guru- paramparā as preserved in the sect. We would be more scientifically employed if we turned our attention to obtaining greater information by comparative study of the different records instead of resorting to gratuitous assumptions against the validity of the preceptorial lists.

For this very cogent reason we must accept as historically valid the existing preceptorial list of the Madhva Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava sect till its authenticity in any particular is conclusively  mpugned by specific historical evidence. We have had no cause up till now to doubt the truth of any portion of this list.

This list discloses the fact that the Supreme Lord Sri Chaitanya accepted Sri Iswara Puri as his preceptor. Sri Iswara Puri was a disciple of Sri Madhavendra Puri. Sri Madhavendra  Puri is a most renowned vaiṣṇava. He is, in fact, the great founder of the society of transcendental lovers who adhere strictly to their all-absorbing passion for the amorous transcendental hero, Sri Krishna. This constitutes a great development of the original doctrine of Sri Madhvacharya. In spite of this peculiarity of the teaching of Sri Madhavendra Puri, the list of the former gurus shows that Sri Madhavendra is descended from the line of Ananda Tirtha in the ascetic order of the Madhva Vaiṣṇavas. There is really nothing against the genuineness of the list of the gurus of the line of the Madhva Vaiṣṇavas.

Some misguided critic may try to rashly propose to disconnect Sri Madhavendra from the line of the gurus of the Madhva Vaiṣṇavas by asserting that the Madhva sannyāsīs are known as “Tirthas” and that no sannyāsī of the title “Puri” can have admittance into their ecclesiastical order. But the solution of this apparent difficulty is offered by an incident in the authentic career of the Supreme Lord, Sri Krishna Chaitanya. He is stated to have embraced the order of the Bharati sannyāsīs. But he was also stated to be a disciple of Sri Iswara Puri. This irregularity is to be ascribed to the practice of attaching their surnames by the older associations. The different guru-paramparās show the same line. So we  cannot discredit those records by basing our arguments on assumptions and ordinary argument from current practices.

Moreover, whenever there is any congregational gathering of the different schools of vaiṣṇavas, the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas, as a class, introduce themselves as belonging to the line of Sri Madhvacharya. These are hard and indisputable facts and cannot be lightly explained away by inferences based solely on certain practices of either sect.

If, however, the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas actually preferred to brand themselves as Madhva Gauḍīyas as a matter of history, inquirers would naturally be anxious to know whether the servants of the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas subscribe in toto to the professions and practices of the Madhvas or whether they differ from the older school in some other points. In case they have a distinctive reference, an inquirer should naturally start to make a list of the differences between the two schools. This comparison should necessarily be made in regard to their practical activity, social procedure, philosophy, theology, and different performances; in other words, the examination should embrace both their exoteric and esoteric differences.

If we take up the practical activities of the Madhva and the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas for the purpose of such comparison, we find that the former are severely reserved in their propagatory methods, whereas the latter are vigorous proselytizers. The Madhvas keep up the old habits and ideas, whereas the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas have advanced towards and utilized everything for facilitating the true cause of devotion. The former are very fond of arcana according to the pañcarātrika system, whereas the latter, though not different in their adoption of arcana, additionally perform bhajana like the dāsakūṭa section of the Madhva community. The Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas give more stress to bhajana whereas the vyāsakūṭa section of the Madhvas give stress to arcana. The habits and customs of the Southern Indian vaiṣṇavas are different from those of Northern Indian Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas, though both of them have a common base and origin as their guiding principle.

Turning to their respective social procedures, we find that there is one great point of resemblance. According to the Madhva community, Brahmins are alone considered to be eligible for the service of God. Brahmins are thus in sole charge of the religious institutions of the sect. They alone conduct all public and private worship. This is also the practice of the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas. But in this matter also there is an important distinction between the two. The point has already been referred to in connection with propaganda and proselytization. The Madhvas are not prepared to go outside the pale of the caste Brahmins for imparting initiation for worship. In this they are in one sense too narrow in comparison with the method of the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas. Sri Chaitanya accepted all who possessed the real inclination for leading the exclusive spiritual life and bestowed on them even the position and function of the ācārya. Thakur Haridas, the great ācārya of the Gauḍīya sect, was a Mohammedan by parentage. Most of the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava Gosvāmīs were not caste Brahmins.

In another respect, however, the Madhva practice is more lax than the practice of the Gauḍīya society. No person is entitled in the Gauḍīya community to mantra-dīkṣā unless he or she is prepared to submit unconditionally to follow the instructions of the ācārya in every particular of actual conduct. By this test, caste Brahmins are also liable to be ineligible for the service of God in the Gauḍīya community if they are not prepared to give up their unscriptural mode of life by submitting to the autocratic rule of the ācārya.

Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas claim to follow the essence of the scriptural varṇāśrama institution in the organization of their spiritual society, whereas the Madhvas follow the hereditary principle which is seldom applicable in the present age when few persons possess either the habit or the inclination to follow the spirit of the śāstric regulation. Judged by the test of loyalty to the spirit of the scriptural regulation, the Gauḍīya community may justly claim to be far more conservative in their social practices than the Madhvas.

— From the article, “A Word to our Madhwa – Vaishnava Brethren”,
The Harmonist, Vol. XXXI, Issue No. 18, 14 May 1935.

The last two paragraphs really bring it home – caste Brahmins of Madhva sampradaya are considered ineligible by Gaudiyas because they lack unconditional surrender and other necessary qualities. Nor are they loyal to the spirit of shastric regulations.

Interesting turn, isn’t it?

63 out of 108 most quoted Bhagavad Gita As It IS verses in 68′ and 72′ editions are different

The program that displayed the differences highlighted punctuation marks, capital letters, and different spelling of Sanskrit words and names and I have no control over that, but each verse selected for this list also has difference in wording. Sometimes differences are small, sometimes quite significant. Good news is that the other 45 verses are exactly the same (ignoring punctuation etc).

Theoretically, I can compare the rest of the book, too, but verse numbering is different between the editions and sometimes verses are split differently, so it’s a lot of work to manually match verses first. I thought the fact that over half of the most popular verses, which we should ideally commit to memory, are different already is sufficient to raise a question about which edition exactly should be considered “original” – for those who insist on Macmillan 72 being the standard. I don’t want to editorialize here, just preserve the visual list of differences.

68′ is on the left, 72′ is on the right.

1.40

 

n

 

1 1.40

 

n

 

2 By the destruction of a dynasty, the eternal family tradition is vanquished, and thus the rest of the family becomes involved in irreligion.

 

n

 

2 When irreligion is prominent in the family, O Kṛṣṇa, the women of the family become corrupt, and from the degradation of womanhood, O descendant of Vṛṣṇi, comes unwanted progeny.
3  
3 4
4 2.2 5 2.2

 

n

 

5 The Supreme Personality said: My dear Arjuna, how have these impurities come upon you? They are not at all befitting a man who knows the progressive values of life. They do not lead to higher planets, but to infamy.

 

n

 

6 The Supreme Person [Bhagavān] said: My dear Arjuna, how have these impurities come upon you? They are not at all befitting a man who knows the progressive values of life. They do not lead to higher planets, but to infamy.
7  
6 8
7 2.7 9 2.7

 

n

 

8 Now I am confused about duty, and have lost all composure because of weakness. In this condition I am asking You to tell me clearly what is best for me. Now I am Your disciple, and a soul surrendered unto You. Please instruct me.

 

n

 

10 Now I am confused about my duty and have lost all composure because of weakness. In this condition I am asking You to tell me clearly what is best for me. Now I am Your disciple, and a soul surrendered unto You. Please instruct me.
11  
9 12
10 2.13 13 2.13

 

n

 

11 As the embodied soul continually passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth, and then to old age; similarly, the soul also passes into another body at death. The self-realized soul is not bewildered by such a change.

 

n

 

14 As the embodied soul continually passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. The self-realized soul is not bewildered by such a change.
15  
12 16
13 2.14 17 2.14

 

n

 

14 O son of Kunti, the nonpermanent appearance of heat and cold, happiness and distress, and their disappearance in due course, are like the appearance and disappearance of winter and summer seasons. They arise from sense perception, O scion of Bharata, and one must learn to tolerate them without being disturbed.

 

n

 

18 O son of Kuntī, the nonpermanent appearance of happiness and distress, and their disappearance in due course, are like the appearance and disappearance of winter and summer seasons. They arise from sense perception, O scion of Bharata, and one must learn to tolerate them without being disturbed.
19  
15 20
16 2.17 21 2.17

 

n

 

17 That which pervades the entire body is indestructible. No one is able to destroy the imperishable soul.

 

n

 

22 Know that which pervades the entire body is indestructible. No one is able to destroy the imperishable soul.
23  
18 24
19 2.20 25 2.20

 

n

 

20 For the soul there is never birth or death. Nor, having once been, does he ever cease to be. He is unborn, eternal, ever-existing, undying, and primeval. He is not slain when the body is slain.

 

n

 

26 For the soul there is never birth nor death. Nor, having once been, does he ever cease to be. He is unborn, eternal, ever-existing, undying and primeval. He is not slain when the body is slain.
27  
21 28
22 2.44 29 2.44

 

n

 

23 In the minds of those who are too attached to sense enjoyment and material opulence, and who are bewildered by such things, the resolute determination for devotional service to the Lord does not take place.

 

n

 

30 In the minds of those who are too attached to sense enjoyment and material opulence, and who are bewildered by such things, the resolute determination of devotional service to the Supreme Lord does not take place.
31  
24 32
25 3.9 33 3.9

 

n

 

26 Work done as a sacrifice for Vishnu has to be performed, otherwise work binds one of this material world. Therefore, O son of Kunti, perform prescribed duties for His satisfaction, and in that way you will always remain unattached and free from bondage.

 

n

 

34 Work done as a sacrifice for Viṣṇu has to be performed, otherwise work binds one to this material world. Therefore, O son of Kuntī, perform your prescribed duties for His satisfaction, and in that way you will always remain unattached and free from bondage.
35  
27 36
28 3.13 37 3.13

 

n

 

29 The devotees of the Lord are released from all sins because they eat food which is offered first for sacrifice. Others, who prepare food for personal sense enjoyment, verily eat only sin.

 

n

 

38 The devotees of the Lord are released from all kinds of sins because they eat food which is offered first for sacrifice. Others, who prepare food for personal sense enjoyment, verily eat only sin.
39  
30 40
31 3.14 41 3.14

 

n

 

32 All living bodies subsist on food grains; food grains are produced from rains, rains come from performance of sacrifice, and sacrifice is born of man’s work.

 

n

 

42 All living bodies subsist on food grains, which are produced from rain. Rains are produced by performance of yajña [sacrifice], and yajña is born of prescribed duties.
43  
33 44
34 3.21 45 3.21

 

n

 

35 Whatever action is performed by a great man, common men will follow in his footsteps. And whatever standards he sets by exemplary acts, all the world pursues.

 

n

 

46 Whatever action is performed by a great man, common men follow in his footsteps. And whatever standards he sets by exemplary acts, all the world pursues.
47  
36 48
37 4.7 49 4.7

 

n

 

38 Whenever and wherever there is a decline in religious practice, O descendant of Bharata, and a predominant rise of irreligionat that time I descend My Self.

 

n

 

50 Whenever and wherever there is a decline in religious practice, O descendant of Bharata, and a predominant rise of irreligionat that time I descend Myself.
51  
39 52
40 4.11 53 4.11

 

n

 

41 All of themas they surrender unto MeI reward accordingly. Everyone follows My path in all respects, O son of Pritha.

 

n

 

54 All of themas they surrender unto MeI reward accordingly. Everyone follows My path in all respects, O son of Pthā.
55  
42 56
43 4.13 57 4.13

 

n

 

44 According to the three modes of material Nature and the work ascribed to them, the corresponding four divisions of human society were created by Me. And, although I am the Creator of this system, you should know that I am yet the non-doer, being unchangeable.

 

n

 

58 According to the three modes of material nature and the work ascribed to them, the four divisions of human society were created by Me. And, although I am the creator of this system, you should know that I am yet the non-doer, being unchangeable.
59  
45 60
46 5.18 61 5.18

 

n

 

47 The humble sage sees with equal vision a learned and gentle Brahmin, a cow, an elephant, a dog, and a dog-eater (outcaste).

 

n

 

62 The humble sage, by virtue of true knowledge, sees with equal vision a learned and gentle brāhmaṇa, a cow, an elephant, a dog and a dog-eater [outcaste].
63  
48 64
49 6.20-23 65 6.20-23

 

n

 

50 The state of perfection is called trance, or Samadhi, when one’s mind is completely restrained from material mental activities by practice of Yoga. This is characterized by one’s ability to see the Self by the pure mind, and to relish and rejoice in the Self. In that joyous state, one is situated in boundless transcendental happiness and enjoys himself through transcendental senses. Established thus, one never departs from the truth, and upon gaining this he thinks there is no greater gain. Being situated in such a position, one is never shaken, even in the midst of the greatest difficulty. This, indeed, is actual freedom from all miseries arising from material contact. This Yoga is to be practiced with determination and an undaunted heart.

 

n

 

66 The stage of perfection is called trance, or samādhi, when one’s mind is completely restrained from material mental activities by practice of yoga. This is characterized by one’s ability to see the self by the pure mind and to relish and rejoice in the self. In that joyous state, one is situated in boundless transcendental happiness and enjoys himself through transcendental senses. Established thus, one never departs from the truth, and upon gaining this he thinks there is no greater gain. Being situated in such a position, one is never shaken, even in the midst of greatest difficulty. This indeed is actual freedom from all miseries arising from material contact.
67  
51 68
52 6.41 69 6.41

 

n

 

53 The unsuccessful yogi, after many, many years of enjoyment on the planets of the pious living entities, is born into the family of righteous people, or into a family of rich aristocracy;

 

n

 

70 The unsuccessful yogī, after many, many years of enjoyment on the planets of the pious living entities, is born into a family of righteous people, or into a family of rich aristocracy.
71  
54 72
55 7.5 73 7.5

 

n

 

56 Besides this inferior nature, O mighty Arjuna, there is a superior energy of Mine which are all living entities who are struggling with material Nature and who sustain the universe.

 

n

 

74 Besides this inferior nature, O mighty-armed Arjuna, there is a superior energy of Mine, which are all living entities who are struggling with material nature and are sustaining the universe.
75  
57 76
58 7.13 77 7.13

 

n

 

59 Deluded by the three modes (goodness, passion, and ignorance), the whole world does not know Me Who am above them and inexhaustible.

 

n

 

78 Deluded by the three modes [goodness, passion and ignorance], the whole world does not know Me who am above the modes and inexhaustible.
79  
60 80
61 7.15 81 7.15

 

n

 

62 Those miscreants who are grossly foolish, lowest among Mankind, whose knowledge is stolen by illusion, and who are of the atheistic nature of demons, do not surrender unto Me.

 

n

 

82 Those miscreants who are grossly foolish, lowest among mankind, whose knowledge is stolen by illusion, and who partake of the atheistic nature of demons, do not surrender unto Me.
83  
63 84
64 7.23 85 7.23

 

n

 

65 Men of small intelligence worship the demigods, and their fruits are limited and temporary. Those who worship the demigods go to the planets of the demigods, but My devotees reach My Supreme Abode.

 

n

 

86 Men of small intelligence worship the demigods, and their fruits are limited and temporary. Those who worship the demigods go to the planets of the demigods, but My devotees ultimately reach My supreme planet.
87  
66 88
67 7.26 89 7.26

 

n

 

68 O Arjuna, as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, I know everything which has happened in the past, all that is happening in the present, and all things that are yet to come. I also know all living entities; but Me no one knows.

 

n

 

90 O Arjuna, as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, I know everything that has happened in the past, all that is happening in the present, and all things that are yet to come. I also know all living entities; but Me no one knows.
91  
69 92
70 8.6 93 8.6

 

n

 

71 In whatever condition one quits his present body, in his next life he will attain to that state of being without fail.

 

n

 

94 Whatever state of being one remembers when he quits his body, that state he will attain without fail.
95  
72 96
73 8.7 97 8.7

 

n

 

74 Therefore, Arjuna, you should always think of Me, and at the same time you should continue your prescribed duty and fight. With your mind and activities always fixed on Me, and everything engaged in Me, you will attain to Me without any doubt.

 

n

 

98 Therefore, Arjuna, you should always think of Me in the form of Kṛṣṇa and at the same time carry out your prescribed duty of fighting. With your activities dedicated to Me and your mind and intelligence fixed on Me, you will attain Me without doubt.
99  
75 100
76 8.15 101 8.15

 

n

 

77 The great Mahatmas, yogis in devotion, after achieving Me never come back to this temporary world, so full of miseries, because they attain to the highest perfection.

 

n

 

102 After attaining Me, the great souls, who are yogīs in devotion, never return to this temporary world, which is full of miseries, because they have attained the highest perfection.
103  
78 104
79 8.16 105 8.16

 

n

 

80 From the highest planet in the material world, down to the lowest, all are places of misery, where repeated birth and death take place. But one who attains to My Abode, O son of Kunti, never takes birth again.

 

n

 

106 From the highest planet in the material world down to the lowest, all are places of misery wherein repeated birth and death take place. But one who attains to My abode, O son of Kuntī, never takes birth again.
107  
81 108
82 8.19 109 8.19

 

n

 

83 Again and again the day comes, and this host of beings is active; and again the night falls, O Partha, and this host is helplessly dissolved.

 

n

 

110 Again and again the day comes, and this host of beings is active; and again the night falls, O Pārtha, and they are helplessly dissolved.
111  
84 112
85 8.20 113 8.20

 

n

 

86 There is another, eternal Nature, which is transcendental to this manifested and non-manifested matter. It is supreme and is never annihilated. When all in this world is annihilated, that part remains as it is.

 

n

 

114 Yet there is another nature, which is eternal and is transcendental to this manifested and unmanifested matter. It is supreme and is never annihilated. When all in this world is annihilated, that part remains as it is.
115  
87 116
88 9.2 117 9.2

 

n

 

89 This knowledge is the king of education, the most secret of all secrets. It is the purest knowledge, and because it gives direct perception of the self by realization, it is the perfection of religion. It is everlasting, and joyfully performed.

 

n

 

118 This knowledge is the king of education, the most secret of all secrets. It is the purest knowledge, and because it gives direct perception of the self by realization, it is the perfection of religion. It is everlasting, and it is joyfully performed.
119  
90 120
91 9.3 121 9.3

 

n

 

92 Those who are not faithful on the path of devotional service, O Killer of the enemies, cannot achieve Me. Therefore, they come back to birth and death in this material world.

 

n

 

122 Those who are not faithful on the path of devotional service cannot attain Me, O conqueror of foes, but return to birth and death in this material world.
123  
93 124
94 9.4 125 9.4

 

n

 

95 In My transcendental Form I pervade all this creation. All things are resting in Me, but I am not in them.

 

n

 

126 By Me, in My unmanifested form, this entire universe is pervaded. All beings are in Me, but I am not in them.
127  
96 128
97 9.10 129 9.10

 

n

 

98 This material Nature is working under My direction, O son of Kunti, producing all the moving and unmoving beings; and by its rule this manifestation is created and annihilated again and again.

 

n

 

130 This material nature is working under My direction, O son of Kuntī, and it is producing all moving and unmoving beings. By its rule this manifestation is created and annihilated again and again.
131  
99 132
100 9.11 133 9.11

 

n

 

101 The foolish mock at Me, at My descending like a human being. They do not know My transcendental Nature, and My Supreme dominion over all that be.

 

n

 

134 Fools deride Me when I descend in the human form. They do not know My transcendental nature and My supreme dominion over all that be.
135  
102 136
103 9.14 137 9.14

 

n

 

104 They are always engaged in chanting My glories. Endeavoring with great determination, offering homage unto Me, they worship Me with devotion.

 

n

 

138 Always chanting My glories, endeavoring with great determination, bowing down before Me, these great souls perpetually worship Me with devotion.
139  
105 140
106 9.22 141 9.22

 

n

 

107 But those who devote themselves steadfastly to Me, meditating on My transcendental Form, receive all bounties and securities from Me.

 

n

 

142 But those who worship Me with devotion, meditating on My transcendental form-to them I carry what they lack and preserve what they have.
143  
108 144
109 9.25 145 9.25

 

n

 

110 Those who worship the demigods will take birth among the demigods; those who worship ghosts and spirits will take birth among such beings, and those who worship Me will live with Me.

 

n

 

146 Those who worship the demigods will take birth among the demigods; those who worship ghosts and spirits will take birth among such beings; those who worship ancestors go to the ancestors; and those who worship Me will live with Me.
147  
111 148
112 9.29 149 9.29

 

n

 

113 No one is envied by Me, neither am I partial to anyone. I am equal to all; yet whoever renders service unto Me in devotion is a friend, is in Me; and I am a Friend to him.

 

n

 

150 I envy no one, nor am I partial to anyone. I am equal to all. But whoever renders service unto Me in devotion is a friend, is in Me, and I am also a friend to him.
151  
114 152
115 9.30 153 9.30

 

n

 

116 One who is engaged in devotional service, despite the most abominable action, is to be considered saintly because he is rightly situated.

 

n

 

154 Even if one commits the most abominable actions, if he is engaged in devotional service, he is to be considered saintly because he is properly situated.
155  
117 156
118 9.31 157 9.31

 

n

 

119 Very shortly does he become righteous, and attain to lasting peace. O son of Kunti, it is My promise that My devotee will never perish.

 

n

 

158 He quickly becomes righteous and attains lasting peace. O son of Kuntī, declare it boldly that My devotee never perishes.
159  
120 160
121 9.32 161 9.32

 

n

 

122 O son of Pritha, anyone who will take shelter in Me, whether a woman, or a merchant, or born in a low family, can yet approach the Supreme Destination.

 

n

 

162 O son of Pthā, those who take shelter in Me, though they be of lower birth—women, vaiśyas [merchants], as well as śūdras [workers]—can approach the supreme destination.
163  
123 164
124 10.8 165 10.8

 

n

 

125 I am the source of everything; from Me the entire creation flows. Knowing this, the wise worship Me with all their hearts.

 

n

 

166 I am the source of all spiritual and material worlds. Everything emanates from Me. The wise who know this perfectly engage in My devotional service and worship Me with all their hearts.
167  
126 168
127 10.42 169 10.42

 

n

 

128 But what need is there, Arjuna, for all this detailed knowledge? With a single fragment of Myself I pervade and support these entire universes.

 

n

 

170 But what need is there, Arjuna, for all this detailed knowledge? With a single fragment of Myself I pervade and support this entire universe.
171  
129 172
130 12.5 173 12.5

 

n

 

131 For those whose minds are attached to the non-manifested, impersonal Feature of the Supreme, advancement is very troublesome. To make progress in that unmanifested discipline is always difficult for those who are embodied.

 

n

 

174 For those whose minds are attached to the unmanifested, impersonal feature of the Supreme, advancement is very troublesome. To make progrese in that discipline is always difficult for those who are embodied.
175  
132 176
133 13.3 177 13.3

 

n

 

134 Now please hear My brief description of this field of activity, and how it is constituted; what its changes are; whence it is produced; who that knower of the field of activities is, and what his influences are.

 

n

 

178 O scion of Bharata, you should understand that I am also the knower in all bodies, and to understand this body and its owner is called knowledge. That is My opinion.
179  
135 180
136 13.22 181 13.22

 

n

 

137 The living entity in material Nature thus follows the ways of life, enjoying the three modes of Nature. This is due to his association with that material Nature. And so he meets with good and evil among the various species.

 

n

 

182 The living entity in material nature thus follows the ways of life, enjoying the three modes of nature. This is due to his association with that material nature. Thus he meets with good and evil amongst various species.
183  
138 184
139 13.8-12 185 13.8-12

 

n

 

140 Humility, pricelessness, nonviolence, tolerance, simplicity, approaching a bona fide spiritual master, cleanliness, steadfastness, self-control, renunciation of the objects of sensegratification, being without false ego, alertness for the wrong, birth, death, old age and disease, detachment toward children, wisdom and wholesomeness, equilibrium of the mind and devotion to the service of the Lord, the aspiration to live in a solitary place, detachment from the general mass of people, accepting the importance of self-realization, philosophical search for the Absolute Truthall these are an aggregate called knowledge, and besides this, whatever there may be, is ignorance.

 

n

 

186 Humility, pridelessness, nonviolence, tolerance, simplicity, approaching a bona fide spiritual master, cleanliness, steadiness and self-control; renunciation of the objects of sense gratification, absence of false ego, the perception of the evil of birth, death, old age and disease; nonattachment to children, wife, home and the rest, and evenmindedness amid pleasant and unpleasant events; constant and unalloyed devotion to Me, resorting to solitary places, detachment from the general mass of people; accepting the importance of self-realization, and philosophical search for the Absolute Truthall these I thus declare to be knowledge, and what is contrary to these is ignorance.
187  
141 188
142 14.18 189 14.18

 

n

 

143 Those situated in the mode of goodness gradually go upward to the higher planets; those in the mode of passion live on earthlike planets; and those in ignorance go down to the hellish worlds.

 

n

 

190 Those situated in the mode of goodness gradually go upward to the higher planets; those in the mode of passion live on the earthly planets; and those in the mode of ignorance go down to the hellish worlds.
191  
144 192
145 14.26 193 14.26

 

n

 

146 One who is engaged in full devotional service, unfailing in all circumstances, at once transcends the modes of material Nature, and thus comes to the level of Brahman.

 

n

 

194 One who engages in full devotional service, who does not fall down in any circumstance, at once transcends the modes of material nature and thus comes to the level of Brahman.
195  
147 196
148 15.6 197 15.6

 

n

 

149 That Abode of Mine is not illumined by the sun or moon, nor by electricity. And anyone who reaches It never comes back to this material world.

 

n

 

198 That abode of Mine is not illumined by the sun or moon, nor by electricity. One who reaches it never returns to this material world.
199  
150 200
151 15.7 201 15.7

 

n

 

152 The living entities in this conditional world are My fragmental parts, and they are eternal. But due to conditioned life, they are struggling very hard with the six senses, which include the mind.

 

n

 

202 The living entities in this conditioned world are My eternal, fragmental parts. Due to conditioned life, they are struggling very hard with the six senses, which include the mind.
203  
153 204
154 15.15 205 15.15

 

n

 

155 I am seated in everyone’s heart, and from Me come remembrance, knowledge, and forgetfulness. By all the Vedas I am to be known; and I am the Compiler of Vedanta; and I know Veda as it is.

 

n

 

206 I am seated in everyone’s heart, and from Me come remembrance, knowledge and forgetfulness. By all the Vedas am I to be known; indeed I am the compiler of Vedānta, and I am the knower of the Vedas.
207  
156 208
157 16.7 209 16.7

 

n

 

158 Those who are of demoniac quality do not know what is to be done and what is not to be done in propriety. They are unclean, neither do they know how to behave, nor is there any truth in them.

 

n

 

210 Those who are demoniac do not know what is to be done and what is not to be done. Neither cleanliness nor proper behavior nor truth is found in them.
211  
159 212
160 16.8 213 16.8

 

n

 

161 They say that this world is unreal, that there is neither any foundation, nor any God in control. It is produced of sex desire; and has no other cause than lust.

 

n

 

214 They say that this world is unreal, that there is no foundation and that there is no God in control. It is produced of sex desire, and has no cause other than lust.
215  
162 216
163 16.19 217 16.19

 

n

 

164 Envious, mischievous, the lowest of Mankind, these do I ever put back into the ocean of material existence, into various demoniac species of life.

 

n

 

218 Those who are envious and mischievous, who are the lowest among men, are cast by Me into the ocean of material existence, into various demoniac species of life.
219  
165 220
166 16.23 221 16.23

 

n

 

167 Anyone, therefore, who acts whimsically, without caring for the regulations of the scriptures, can never have perfection in his life, nor happiness, nor the Supreme destination.

 

n

 

222 But he who discards scriptural injunctions and acts according to his own whims attains neither perfection, nor happiness, nor the supreme destination.
223  
168 224
169 18.44 225 18.44

 

n

 

170 Farming, raising cattle, and business are the qualities of work for the Vaisyas, and for the Sudras there is labor and service to others.

 

n

 

226 Farming, cow protection and business are the qualities of work for the vaiśyas, and for the śūdras there is labor and service to others.
227  
171 228
172 18.46 229 18.46

 

n

 

173 By worship of the Lord, Who is the Source of all beings, all-pervading, man can become perfect, doing his work.

 

n

 

230 By worship of the Lord, who is the source of all beings and who is all-pervading, man can, in the performance of his own duty, attain perfection.
231  
174 232
175 18.54 233 18.54

 

n

 

176 One who is thus transcendentally situated at once realizes the Supreme Brahman. He never laments, or desires to have anything; he is equally disposed to every living entity. And in that state he achieves pure devotional service unto Me.

 

n

 

234 One who is thus transcendentally situated at once realizes the Supreme Brahman. He never laments nor desires to have anything; he is equally disposed toward every living entity. In that state he attains pure devotional service unto Me.
235  
177 236
178 18.65 237 18.65

 

n

 

179 Always think of Me. Become My devotee. Worship Me, and offer your homage unto Me. The result is that you will come to Me without fail. I promise you this, because you are My very dear friend.

 

n

 

238 Always think of Me and become My devotee. Worship Me and offer your homage unto Me. Thus you will come to Me without fail. I promise you this because you are My very dear friend.
239  
180 240
181 18.66 241 18.66

 

n

 

182 Give up all varieties of religiousness, and just surrender unto Me; and in return I shall protect you from all sinful reactions. Therefore, you have nothing to fear.

 

n

 

242 Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reaction. Do not fear.
243  
183 244
184 18.68 245 18.68

 

n

 

185 For anyone who explains this supreme secret to the devotees, devotional service is guaranteed, and at the end he will come back to Me.

 

n

 

246 For one who explains the supreme secret to the devotees, devotional service is guaranteed, and at the end he will come back to Me.
247  
186 248
187 18.73 249 18.73

 

t

 

188 Arjuna said: My dear Krishna, O Infallible One, my illusion is now gone. I have regained my memory by Your mercy, and now I am fixed without any doubt, prepared to act according to Your instructions.

 

t

 

250 Arjuna said, My dear Kṛṣṇa, O infallible one, my illusion is now gone. I have regained my memory by Your mercy, and I am now firm and free from doubt and am prepared to act according to Your instructions.
251  
189 252
190 253

Mystery of initiation

The following is a thread of quotes and ideas which ties together several aspects of approaching a guru and taking initiation. It’s by no means complete, but if one insists on a different understanding it should be kept in mind that quotes given here should also be accommodated and not excluded as impossible. They exist and we have to deal with them.

Let’s start with the most basic definition of a guru given by Srila Prabhupada, as recollected by Hari Sauri Prabhu from a morning walk on December 20, 1975:

If there is no need of guru,” Prabhupada said sharply, “why are they writing books to tell people? As soon as you tell someone something, that is guru.

From Hari Sauri’s Transcendental Diary, Vol 1

Actual transcript differs in wording but it conveys the same idea and there’s really nothing strange about it. That’s how we get mother as the first guru, and then how things like trees, pigeons, and pythons can also become guru, not to forget the prostitutes (SB 11.7-8). The principle is very simple – every time we learn something, there is a guru. There’s a guru who teaches you to write, there’s a guru who teaches you to tie your shoes, play mridanga, cook, and so on.

When talking about ISKCON, however, we clearly mean something more specific, something related to purely spiritual instructions. Here we can start with the often quoted Upanishadic verse: tad-vijñānārthaṁ sa gurum evābhigacchet. That’s the guru we are talking about. The second line tells us about qualities of such guru: śrotriyaṁ brahma-niṣṭham, and it tells us something about the disciple as well: samit-pāṇiḥ – bring firewood, which immediately brings the question: “What are you going to do with that?” and then from possible answers we can figure out the dynamic of guru-disciple relationships. Previous line says something more about qualification of a disciple but that’s before he tries to approach a guru.

In Bhagavad Gita Krishna is a lot less cryptic and He gives us three components: praṇipātena, paripraśnena, and sevayā, and they form the basis of our understanding, thanks to Srila Prabhupada repeating them over and over again. One must surrender, one must inquire, and one must serve  his guru. Srila Prabhupada himself attributed his success to unwavering commitment to fulfilling the order of his spiritual master to preach to English speaking audience, and then Prabhupada’s disciples made it their life goal to further expand this mission to cover the whole world. Being part of this mission is what defines ISKCON as opposed to members of various other branches of Gaudiya tree. That’s where we want to be – in Srila Prabhupada’s mission, and that’s also the goal of our surrender to guru and Krishna. There’s nothing more we could possibly want, though there are plenty of lesser goals for us to settle. Would one be comfortable enjoying Krishna’s company in Goloka while Srila Prabhupada continues the battle for lost souls in one material universe after another?

This could lead to a potentially uncomfortable discussion but let’s get back to the main topic – we still haven’t heard anything about initiation yet. Well, let’s take this quote from Srila Prabhupada, describing his own initiation process:

So anyway, from 1922 to 1933 practically I was not initiated, but I got the impression of preaching Caitanya Mahāprabhu’s cult. That I was thinking. And that was the initiation by my Guru Mahārāja. Then officially I was initiated in 1933…

From, Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Disappearance Day Lecture, Hyderabad, December 10, 1976

It appears he considered the moment guru’s order was given and accepted to be the moment of his initiation, though not official yet. One might say it’s just one quote to stress one point, but look at the next one and see how serious Srila Prabhupada was about this understanding of initiation:

Student:: I came to New York from Detroit with a recommendation from Bhagavān dāsa to be initiated. I have my letter with me.

Śrīla Prabhupāda: You’ll be initiated. Any one of you—when you agree to follow the regulative principles and you are recommended by our men, then you can also be initiated. Initiation is a formality. First of all you have to decide whether you will abide by the rules and regulations and become Kṛṣṇa conscious. That is your consideration. You have to decide for yourself whether you are going to take this Kṛṣṇa consciousness seriously. That is your decision. Initiation is a formality. If you are serious, that is real initiation. If you have understood this Kṛṣṇa philosophy and if you have decided that you will take Kṛṣṇa consciousness seriously and preach the philosophy to others, that is your initiation. My touch is simply a formality. It is your determination. That is initiation.

From a conversation published in Back To Godhead

I don’t know how to double bold the last three sentences – real initiation happens in the heart of the disciple when he becomes determined to accept Krishna consciousness seriously. This is not a mere recollection, these are instructions given to devotees just as they were about to be initiated themselves. Srila Prabhupada fully meant it there.

Another quote in a similar vein:

So you take the bhakti-latā-bīja from the spiritual master—that is called initiation—and develop it by pouring water of hearing and chanting. Then it will grow.

From lecture on The Nectar of Devotion, October 29, 1972, Vṛndāvana

Note that one has to “take” the seed of devotion to become initiated. One might say that in order to take the seed it must be offered first and this offering of the seed happens during initiation procedure, but it would mean that the same words about Krishna consciousness spoken prior to the ritual do not carry the seed of devotion in them, which is obviously absurd. The offering is always there, from the very first moment of meeting with guru, and initiation happens when the disciple takes it. Of course some gurus do not always speak of Krishna in public and keep the “good stuff” for private conversations, but Srila Prabhupada was not one of them. Any book you open, any class you hear – the seed of devotion is always there, ready to be accepted and ready to grow. Just take the advice to your heart and that will be your initiation – that’s what Srila Prabhupada was saying there. There’s further clarification in this quote:

chanting Hare Krishna is our main business, that is real initiation. And as you are all following my instruction, in that matter, the initiator is already there. Now the next initiation will be performed as a ceremony officially, of course that ceremony has value because the name, Holy Name, will be delivered to the student from the disciplic succession, it has got value, but in spite of that, as you are going on chanting, please go on with this business sincerely and Krishna willing, I may be coming to you very soon.

From letter to: Tamala Krsna, 19 August, 1968

Here Srila Prabhupada first tells his prospective disciples (from the context it’s clear he didn’t mean already initiated Tamal Krishna) that real initiation is chanting of Hare Krishna mantra, but then he adds that the formality of initiation ceremony still has value because at that moment they would hear the Holy Name from the disciplic succession. This could mean that so far the disciples had heard the mantra from fellow devotees and hearing it from Srila Prabhupada himself would carry more potency, not that the Holy Name heard from Srila Prabhupada before initiation ritual is less potent. Still, the importance of “official” and “formality” initiation is undeniable and one should not forsake the ceremony when one eventually gets the chance. That would be silly, just as if Krishna appeared in front of one’s very eyes and asked for an apple, but the devotee replied that in Kali yuga Krishna should be satisfied only with chanting.

Let’s not forget how Srila Prabhupada pushed for initiations in the summer of 1966 when the devotees had only started developing their faith. It’s wasn’t a formality back then, certainly not for Srila Prabhupada himself and he, apparently, hoped that the ritual would make his disciples more serious. Some did, others didn’t and drifted away, which, again, stresses the most important part of initiation – it should be accepted in one’s heart.

Now we come to the subject of the first initiation and it was the only initiation our devotees knew for almost two years, until brahman initiation was conducted in May 1968. Up to this day anyone who receives this first initiation is considered as “initiated devotee” in ISKCON, but that wasn’t the case in Gaudiya Math where this ritual was known as harināma-pradāna  and devotee was then called harināmaāśrita  as opposed to dīkṣā and dīkṣita – what is known to us as second initiation now. Only after that dīkṣā a devotee would be considered a fully fledged disciple of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati, not before. That was general understanding widely shared by all GM devotees, but there was one occasion where Srila Bhaktisiddhanta disagreed, perhaps to curb the pride of some dīkṣita disciples, but nevertheless:

The dīkṣita are inferior to the harināma-āśrita. They don’t believe that the name and the named are nondifferent. For them deity worship is required.” He then quoted Lord Caitanya’s statements ihā haite sarva-siddhi haibe sabāra (The holy name alone gives all perfection) and dīkṣā puraścaryā-vidhi apekṣā nā kare (With the holy name, one need not undergo initiation or puraścaryā observances, as with other mantras).

From Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Vaibhava by Bhakti Vikasa Swami

The passage in the book continues to establish the main point here – chanting of the Hare Krishna alone is sufficient and perfect, but some devotees require help of deity worship and, correspondingly, dīkṣā initiation:

Indeed, to some disciples he never awarded dīkṣā, deeming harināma alone sufficient for their spiritual progress. And he stated, “The success of dīkṣā is inclination for harināma. Whoever remains fixed in chanting inoffensively should be understood to have undergone dīkṣā and all other proceedings.

From Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Vaibhava by Bhakti Vikasa Swami

Speaking of ISKCON’s first brahman initiation, this is how Hansadutta Prabhu remembers it:

“After the first Brahmin initiation ceremony (Boston 1968), I asked Prabhupada, “What is the significance of this Brahmin Initiation?” Prabhupada gestured dismissively and said, “It is not very important. My Guru Maharaja introduced this ceremony of Brahmin initiation, because in his time SMARTA BRAHMINS (caste conscious) were deriding Vaishnavas as not being qualified Brahmins, because they were not born into Brahmin families and had received no second initiation. So to counteract their belittling attitude towards the Vaishnava community, he introduced this policy, but it is not very important. One can become perfectly Krishna conscious simply by first initiation, Hare Nama initiation. Nothing else is required. It is a formality to satisfy the SMARTA BRAHMINS – CASTE CONSCIOUS community.

About an hour later, still not being completely satisfied, I again approached Prabhupada and asked him, “What is the meaning of this Gayatri mantra? What does it do?” Again Prabhupada’s reply was quite casual and dismissive. He said, “IT IS A LITTLE AUXILIARY TO THE MAHA MANTRA. IT IS NOT VERY IMPORTANT, but it helps in chanting Hare Krishna. The main thing is chanting HARE KRISHNA. That is the main thing. So Gayatri mantra, it is a little helpful, but chanting Hare Krishna is sufficient. It is the main thing.”

Source

One might question veracity of Hansadutta’s recollection, but it seems completely in line with how Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati explained the same point above. Similar understanding is expressed in this letter:

Srila Prabhupada explained the difference between first and second initiation as follows: “Why do you believe in rumors, that first initiation is not so important as second? I have already said that it is equally important, but you say rumor. Actually first initiation is more important. You can go without second initiation; if the first initiation is executed very thoroughly that is sufficient. First initiation stands strong. The spiritual master accepts the disciple’s sinful reactions upon giving first initiation. The Vedic system was to give the sacred thread at the first initiation. We are following Pancaratriki. Vedic initiation was given to a person born to a brahmana. That is not possible in this age. Therefore he has to be prepared by Hari Nam initiation and then second initiation. He is given a chance. Therefore others protest that I am giving initiation: He is not born of a brahmana, how can he be initiated?

From letter to Satswarupa complied by Tamal Krishna Goswami, August 7, 1977

The following letter mentions many of the points above and puts them together:

Regarding your questions, second initiation is real initiation. First initiation is the preliminary, just to make him prepared, just like primary and secondary education. The first initiation gives him chance to become purified, and when he is actually purified then he is recognized as a brahmana and that means real initiation. The eternal bond between disciple and spiritual master begins from the first day he hears. Just like my spiritual master. In 1922 he said in our first meeting, you are educated boys, why don’t you preach this cult. That was the beginning, now it is coming to fact. Therefore the relationship began from that day.

From letter to Jadurani,  4 September, 1972

Notice how at first Srila Prabhupada seems to contradict the other quotes about first initiation but then comes around to the same thing – real initiation happens on the first day disciple hears, and then rituals need to be performed in a certain (and inviolable) order as the disciple gradually purifies his consciousness.

What about our previous acharyas? What did initiation mean to them? Rupa and Sanatana Goswamis received their names from Lord Caitanya, they received the Holy Name from Him, they received instructions, they received orders, they surrendered, they inquired, they took up the assigned mission, and yet they were not considered initiated disciples in a sense they did not get dīkṣā. Or look at the description of initiation of Ramacandra Kaviraja (of ramacandra sanga mage fame) by Srinivas Acharya:

Ramacandra spent the night in a brahmanas house, thinking deeply about Srinivasa Prabhu. In the morning he came running to Srinivasa and fell at his feet crying loudly. Overwhelmed with emotion, he begged the blessings of Prabhu. Srinivasa lovingly lifted him from the ground and embraced him warmly. Sri Acarya emotionally confessed that they had a long-deeped rooted relationship and were meeting again after a long separation. Thus Srnivasa gave Krsnanama in his ear and sang Radha Krsna lila to him. He also assisted him in the study of Vaisnava literatures, and blessed him to become an earnest lover and devotee of Lord Krsna. Srinivasa told Ramacandra about the glories of Narottama Thakura, and instructed him to go to meet him in Vrndavana. Thus, in due course of time, Narottama and Ramacandra became such good friends that people considered them like one soul.

From Sri Karnananda by Yadunandana Acharya, chapter 1

All three of praṇipātena, paripraśnena, and sevayā were evidently present and Srinivas Acharya unquestionably became a guru  of Ramacandra Kaviraja, but it wasn’t a dīkṣā  according to Pañcarātrika rules. Speaking of which – Jiva Goswami raises the subject of pañcarātrika dīkṣā  in Bhakti Sandarbha when it comes to the necessity of worshiping the deity – an important aṅga of devotional service, but not as important as guru-pādāśraya, which always stands first.

Now will be considered worship of the Lord (arcana), which begins with the invitation (avahana) to the Lord to appear. If one has faith in the path of worship, one should take shelter of a bona fide spiritual master and ask questions of him. This is described in these words of Srimad Bhagavatam (11.3.48); “Having obtained the mercy of his spiritual master, who reveals to the disciple the injunctions of Vedic scriptures, the devotee should worship the Supreme Personality of Godhead in the particular personal form of the Lord the devotee finds most attractive.

Although in the opinion of Srimad-Bhagavatam the path of worshipping the Deity, as it is described in the Pancaratras and other scriptures, is not compulsory, and without engaging in Deity worship one may attain the final goal of life by engaging in even only one of the nine processes of devotional service, processes that begin with surrender, nevertheless, in the opinion of they who follow the path of Narada Muni and other great sages, by accepting initiation from a bona fide spiritual master one attains a relationship with the Supreme Personality of Godhead, a relationship established through the feet of one’s spiritual master, and when one is thus initiated, the process of Deity worship is compulsory.

Therefore in the Agama-sastra it is said; “Diksa is the process by which one can awaken his transcendental knowledge and vanquish all reactions caused by sinful activity. A person expert in the study of the revealed scriptures know this process as diksa.

“It is the duty of every human being to surrender to a bona fide spiritual master. Giving him everything; body, mind and intelligence, one must take a Vaisnava initiation from him.” / “Therefore one should offer respects to guru, offer him everything and accept vaishnava mantra according to the rules while taking diksha” [alternative translation by Bhanu Swami]

The words “divyam jnanam” (transcendental knowledge) here refers to the descriptions of the Lord’s transcendental form in sacred mantras. Chanting those mantras establishes a relationship with the Supreme Lord. This is explained in the Padma Purana, Uttara-khanda’s description of the eight-syllable mantra. Thus for wealthy householders the path of Deity worship is most important.

From Bhakti Sandarbha by Jiva Goswami, Anuccheda 283, 16-20

I’ve bolded “Lord’s transcedental form in sacred mantras” above because it’s something different from “generic” Hare Krishna mantra. Dīkṣā mantras describe specific forms of the Lord and specific relationships with them and, therefore, have special values. Gopa Kumara in Brihad Bhagavatamrita received one such mantra and chanting of this mantra took him all through various places and planets in the universe until it finally delivered him to Krishna’s personal company. It’s not a trivial thing. BUT, please also look at the last bolded sentence – dīkṣā is meant for wealthy householders so that they could engage in deity worship.

This Bhakti Sandarbha passage, and I apologize for how lengthy it was, gives us a clue to understanding how Bhāgavata marga and Pañcarātrika-vidhi relate to each other in relation to initiation, taking shelter of the guru, chanting the Holy Name, and taking dīkṣā. They are all necessary components and they help each other, but among the two Bhāgavata marga is superior, which is confirmed in the next Anuccheda:

…It may therefore be questioned why there is a necessity for further spiritual activities in devotional service for one who engages in the chanting of the holy name of the Lord.

The answer is that although it is correct that one who fully engages in chanting the holy name need not depend upon the process of initiation, generally a devotee is addicted to many abominable material habits due to material contamination from his previous life. In order to get quick relief from all these contaminations, it is required that one engage in the worship of the Lord in the temple. The worship of the Deity in the temple is essential to reduce one’s restlessness due to the contaminations of conditional life. Thus Narada in his pancaratriki vidhi, and other great sages have sometimes stressed that since every conditioned soul has a bodily concept of life aimed at sense enjoyment the rules and regulations for worshipping the Deity in the temple are essential.

From Bhakti Sandarbha by Jiva Goswami, Anuccheda 284, 1-2

We’ve just heard the same explanation in the above quoted letter to Jadurani – initiation rituals and accompanying deity worship help one to purify his consciousness, but [pure] chanting itself does not depend on initiation.

This was taught by Lord Caitanya Himself:

Upon hearing this, Satyarāja said, “How can I recognize a Vaiṣṇava? Please let me know what a Vaiṣṇava is. What are his common symptoms?”

Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu replied, “Whoever chants the holy name of Kṛṣṇa just once is worshipable and is the topmost human being.
Simply by chanting the holy name of Kṛṣṇa once, a person is relieved from all the reactions of a sinful life. One can complete the nine processes of devotional service simply by chanting the holy name.
One does not have to undergo initiation or execute the activities required before initiation. One simply has to vibrate the holy name with his lips. Thus even a man in the lowest class [caṇḍāla] can be delivered.
By chanting the holy name of the Lord, one dissolves his entanglement in material activities. After this, one becomes very much attracted to Kṛṣṇa, and thus dormant love for Kṛṣṇa is awakened….

Caitanya Caritamrita, Madhya 15.10.105-109

But when instructing Sanatana Goswami in the matters of regulated devotional service, Lord Caitanya put dīkṣā right after guru-pādāśraya:

guru-pādāśraya, dīkṣā, gurura sevana
sad-dharma-śikṣā-pṛcchā, sādhu-mārgānugamana

“On the path of regulative devotional service, one must observe the following items: (1) One must accept a bona fide spiritual master. (2) One must accept initiation from him. (3) One must serve him. (4) One must receive instructions from the spiritual master and make inquiries in order to learn devotional service. (5) One must follow in the footsteps of the previous ācāryas and follow the directions given by the spiritual master.

Caitanya Caritamrita, Madhya 22.115

Thus, dīkṣā should not be avoided, but it isn’t central to success in developing love of God, which depends on chanting of the Holy Name. Perhaps a story of a devotee, Sitalasayi Prabhu, who by all accounts achieved perfection of regulative devotional service as outlined in the quote above, can illustrate this point. For the last fifteen years he reduced his sleep to two-three hours a day, spending the rest of the night chanting extra rounds of japa. During the day he was a regular temple devotee (sankirtana leader, actually) and did everything that was expected of him. Eventually his health deteriorated and he couldn’t perform active service anymore so he dedicated himself to chanting three lakhs of names per day, though no one was counting. He stuck to this vrata until his very last days, even when his body refused to cooperate completely, as you can see in this short video. He left this world in Vrindavana in May 2018.

Youtube video – warning, we don’t usually see devotees or even people in general  in this condition, it can be unsettling.

The beginning of his devotional life was standard for many of ISKCON devotees at the time – he lost interest in material life, got Srila Prabhupada’s book, Easy Journey To Other Planets in his case, surrendered his life to Krishna, and started chanting the holy name – just as Lord Caitanya described above. Then he understood the necessity of accepting a spiritual master and began his search. He understood that book distribution was at the core of Srila Prabhupada’s mission and looked for initiating gurus who put sankirtana first and foremost. He settled on two of them and tried to approach them personally. One was simply too busy and had too many disciples to hope for any meaningful personal relationship while the other was easily approachable and personally appreciative and that sealed the deal. He took shelter of this guru, received pranama mantras, went through the waiting period, got duly initiated according to ISKCON standards, received instructions regarding his service and carried them out to the best of his ability. In other words, he closely followed the sequence for executing regulative devotional service given by Lord Caitanya and somehow he also attained an unprecedented taste for chanting of the holy name, which is the symptom of success on the path of Bhāgavata marga. Did his dīkṣā help? Certainly, but dīkṣā mantras and deity worship did not play a prominent role in his life. The relationship between Srila Prabhupada’s books, initiating gurus, and disciples is an interesting topic but is outside the scope of this article.

One interesting thing that could be added is that, historically, dīkṣā mantras in ISKCON have never taken center stage even during second initiation. It was always known as “Brahman initiation”, during which one would get a Gayatri Mantra. This is how Srila Prabhupada described it in his answers to Hansadutta above and there are countless references in Vedabase Folio where it’s identified similarly, most often speaking of *the* Gayatri mantra with no mention of the other six mantras, which actually constitute pañcarātrika-dīkṣā, though they were included on all “Gayatri tapes” used by hundreds if not thousands of devotees. Just as an example – please consider this famous letter to Vaikunthanatha Prabhu often cited as a precedent of women giving Gayatri mantra, which isn’t a correct understanding of what was going on, but ignore that aspect for a moment:

Even though you have had no gayatri mantra, still you are more than brahmana. I am enclosing herewith your sacred thread, duly chanted on by me. Gayatri mantra is as follows:

[TAKEN OUT]

Ask your wife to chant this mantra and you hear it and if possible hold a fire ceremony as you have seen during your marriage and get this sacred thread on your body. Saradia, or any twice-initiated devotee, may perform the ceremony.

From Letter to Vaikunthanatha and Saradia, April 4, 1974

“Taken out” part is present there since the first edition of Prabhupada’s letters, so we don’t know which mantra(s) were there exactly, but what I find curious is that Srila Prabhupada refers to “this mantra” here – in singular, apparently not giving any consideration to the other mantras that were supposed to be included. Moreover, he talks about brahmana, not pañcarātrika initiation as necessary for deity worship – the reason these instructions were given in the first place. Vaikunthanatha and his wife were far away from any other devotees and they needed to establish a temple but Vaikunthanatha wasn’t qualified to serve deities so Srila Prabhupada told him to receive second initiation via his wife, Saradiya, and the key part of that initiation was Gayatri mantra, not the dīkṣā mantras specifically meant for deity worship, as we learned above from Jiva Goswami.

I’m pointing this out to demonstrate the scope of applying Pañcarātrika-dīkṣā rules to ISKCON – historically, it has not been very great. It can’t be ignored, it was always present in how we organized our deity worship and initiation ceremonies, but it’s never been given the central defining role in the same way Bhāgavata marga features in our practices, and in the definition of initiation and our understanding of guru-pādāśraya.

It doesn’t mean that Pañcarātrika-viddhi is an alien subject that often simply gets in the way. Fundamental principles of Pañcarātrika-dīkṣā  deserve careful consideration in this regard. In fact, Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur once wrote an article specifically dedicated to this process of pañca saṃskāra which constitutes full pañcarātrika-dīkṣā. If we go through five of these items word by word and check how they are described in Pañcarātrika literature it would appear that our initiations have little resemblance to the process – we don’t brand out bodies with hot iron, we don’t wait to put tilakas until the initiation, we chant Hare Krishna mantra from the very first day, too, we don’t get any special mantras until the second initiation, and we don’t aim towards deity worship. I mean that the last step in pañca saṃskāras is yāga – literally the deity worship, but for the vast majority of devotees in Srila Prabhupada’s time deity worship was done only by a few designated pujaris and everyone else was out in the streets preaching or distributing books. No one had ever thought that unless he became a pujari his devotional service would not bring desired results.

On the other hand, essential elements of our initiation are not present in Pañcarātrika-dīkṣā – we give a vow to chant 16 rounds, we give a vow to follow four regulative principles, we receive japa beads from the guru, and we also get a right to wear three threads of kanthi-mala, but that is kind of secondary. Vows and beads – these two have always been the most important. Thousands of devotees received their beads in mail, but everyone always got them, so initiations were completed even without actual guru’s presence, which makes another supporting argument that the ritual is a formality and actual initiation happens in the heart of the disciple when he agrees to accept his guru’s words.

Of course we shouldn’t forget unique ISKCON context – Srila Prabhupada was ready to initiate every sincere soul. This context is not always present and sometimes devotees had to beg the guru repeatedly to accept them. Narottama Das Thakur and Lokanatha Goswami is a prominent case, as well as Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati and Srila Gaurakishora Dasa Babaji. It should be noted that this latter case is not accepted as genuine initiation by some “traditional Gaudiyas” on the grounds that not all aspects of “traditional” initiation have been carried out when Gaurakishora Dasa Babaji finally consented to accept Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati as a disciple, but we can only laugh at their literal application of the rules where they can’t see forest for the trees.

Nevertheless, in the second part of his article, Bhaktivinoda Thakur delves deep into the meaning of each of the saṃskāras and demonstrates to us how they do not deviate in any way from the praṇipātena, paripraśnena, and sevayā principles given in Bhagavad Gita, and from his elaboration we can understand  how they rather expand on the understanding of these principles. He goes through each of them and shows how they manifest in our traditional Gaudiya practices even as they manifest differently in Pañcarātrika literature. The first one, tāpa, is described as a voluntary atonement taken by the disciple for his previous years of material life. The guru observes the disciple for one year to see that his dedication to the process is, indeed, serious. The same could be achieved by observing eagerness of a disciple to be branded forever by hot iron as still practiced by vaishnavas in South India. The second step, ūrdhva-puṇḍra, is described as a counterbalance to the renunciation of tāpa where, instead of giving a disciple a list of forbidden things guru gives him an elevating path forward, his new relationship as a servant of Krishna, which what tilaka marks signify in Pañcarātrika process. I encourage the reader to complete the list by reading the original article called “Panca Samskara — The Process of Initiation”, it’s enlightening. The point is –  Pañcarātrika-dīkṣā is not entirely alien to our initiation, but it should be seen as a particular extension of the same underlying principles where, as I demonstrated above, real initiation happens when a disciple takes guru’s instructions to his heart.

Once again, this is the point when actual dīkṣā happens and when a person gets divine knowledge, gets relief from his previous karma, and gets protection of the Lord. To illustrate this point let me tell a story of Sarabha Prabhu, which I heard in a class recently. He grew up in Bosnia Herzegovina and found Bhagavad Gita in a house of his friend. He became a devotee, stopped all illicit activities and started chanting sixteen rounds a day. Eventually he got to the point where he had to go and find other devotees. The problem was that Balkan wars were raging at the time and the only temples were in Croatia, so he decided to walk there on foot. Everybody said this was the craziest idea ever, but he recited the line he learned from the books – if Krishna wants to protects someone then he cannot be killed. He got a bag with essentials, his beads, and set out through the war zone. In one desolated village he heard a familiar click-clack of an automatic weapon, turned towards the sound, and saw a muzzle of a Kalashnikov releasing a volley of rounds in his direction. Bullets were bouncing of the rocks to the left and right but none hit him. He ran for his life, never forgetting to chant the mantra. On another occasion he was pinned down inside an abandoned house and had a barrel of a gun pressed against his face. He kept chanting, soldiers demanded him to stop but he didn’t. Eventually they shot him point blank but the bullet somehow hit his bag, ricocheted off the wall, and almost hit one of the soldiers themselves. They decided not to shoot in close quarters anymore and instead took him for questioning. All he told them was that he was going to a temple and then he kept chanting. They checked his ID but now he was shaved up and didn’t look anything like in the picture. In the middle of the night one of the militants approached him and said that he knew his family and that he knew he had a Serbian mother, which was almost like a death sentence at the time. Sarabha didn’t stop chanting and instead showed him a picture of Krishna he kept on him. Upon seeing the beautiful form of the Lord the militant’s heart immediately softened and he retreated without causing any more trouble. Next morning they agreed to drive him to the Croatian border but said he had to deal with three checkpoints on the way himself. Miraculously, he passed all three and no one ever asked for his papers, they just looked at his shaved head and how he was chanting and waived him through. Next day he was offering fruit to the Lord in a public park – Panca Tattva picture and food on the bench, Sarabha himself kneeling on the ground. A police patrol happened to pass by at this very moment and they asked him what he was doing. Sarabha had seen everything by then and he confidently told them to wait until he finishes. That really threw them off and, confused by his audacity, they patiently waited. When he explained his situation they checked his papers, concluded that he had no right to be there, and decided to send him back to the same checkpoints again. As they were driving, Sarabha remembered that now he had prasadam and so he offered it to the policemen, they accepted it, and immediately decided to drop the idea of strictly following rules and regulations and drove him back to the city. Eventually, he found a way to cross the border, met the devotees, got initiated and everything.

Who can honestly say that before initiation he didn’t get recognition and protection from the Lord? Obviously, his real initiation had happened very early in his devotional life when he decided to surrender himself to Krishna. This, accidentally, reminds me of another aspect of our initiation – it’s considered the beginning of one’s relationship with the guru, it’s the start of one’s devotional life. Traditional mantra initiations, on the contrary, often become the end of guru-disciple relationship. After getting the mantras the disciple can and should start deity worship on his own and so there’s no reason for him to serve his guru anymore, pretty much in the same way we don’t go back to school to learn ABCs but always respect our first teachers anyway. Relationships with our Bhāgavata marga gurus, by contrast, are eternal, which is explained by sevayā part from Bhagavad Gita and by Srila Prabhupada’s personal example.

I guess I need to write another article to present a “full theory of initiation” where all the above points can co-exist and support each other without contradicting all our known legitimate practices. I call it “theory” not in the sense of scientific theories where people don’t know the conclusion but as an admittance that full knowledge of all aspects of guru-tattva and guru-disciple relationships is impossible for an embodied being. We select some of these aspects as the most important to us and hope it will be enough to please our gurus. Our bottom line, for example, is chanting sixteen rounds and following four regulative principles. Everything else might go totally wrong in our lives and we might misunderstand all kinds of things but as long as we stick to these two foundational principles we should be safe – on the strength of Srila Prabhupada’s promise and his firm conviction that Krishna will take care. Even more fundamental than that is “harer nama eva kevalam” – even the strength to follow regulative principles depends on the mercy of the Holy Name. It’s in this sense that I call everything else a “theory”. Only the Holy Name carries substance in this age and everything else is dependent on it, and can and will go wrong.

Nevertheless, I believe it’s entirely possible to construct a compelling theory of initiations based on the above mentioned quotes, and when this theory is clear one could address all sorts of questions and doubts. Ritviks and FDG are two most obvious topics of interest here. The backbone of this theory should be Bhāgavata marga acceptance of guru to attain spiritual knowledge, and Pañcarātrika-dīkṣā and Gaudiya Math and ISKCON initiations should be seen as local and contextual applications. They might appear different but they share the same root in Bhāgavata marga and this root presents “unity in diversity” in this case.  Ultimately, only success on Bhāgavata marga counts for us as Srila Prabhupada’s followers and it’s be the degree of this success that all other practices should be judged by. Now is not the time to start this discussion, though, and so I shall stop here.

PS. Many of the quotes used in this article were originally collected by Bhanu Swami for his 2018 presentation on ambiguities in ISKCON diksha.

FDG precedent – what would others say and more

GM guests at FDG Vyasa Puja

In the center of this picture is one Jayasri Devi, an initiating female guru and an acharya of Sri Guru Prapanna society, and she is surrounded by sannyasis and brahmacharis from Gaudiya Vedanta Samiti, Sri Gopinath Gaudiya Math, and Sri Chaitanya Gaudiya Math. They came to celebrate her Vyasa Puja festival earlier this year. So, does that mean that FDG are perfectly acceptable in Gaudiya Math? That is probably not the right question to ask, but we can definitely take a mental note just in case these same devotees raise objections to FDG practice in ISKCON. Let’s look at the background for this occasion and, hopefully, learn a thing or two about how it came about and how the world works in general.

It all started with PatitPavan Prabhu, a young disciple of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati. He was not the same person as Patita Pavana Brahmachari who later became Bhakti Kevala Audulomi Swami. This PatitPavan joined as a child and got initiated at a tender age of eight. He grew up preaching under the wings of senior devotees and his service took him all over India. That’s how he met women who aspired to become fully engaged devotees but lacked social opportunities to practice and that’s how he got the idea to put Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati’s vision of Sri Vishnupriya Palli into practice. He got an approval from the devotee we know as Ananta Vasudeva Prabhu but after Ananta Vasudeva left Gaudiya Math PatitPavan also drifted away and eventually established Sri Guru Prapanna Ashram all by himself. It didn’t receive a warm welcome from the community, but women flocked there, engaged in service, and accepted him as their guru. The organization has half a dozen ashrams now and PatitPavan is worshiped there as a founder acharya pretty much in the same way we worship Srila Prabhupada.

PatitPavan Abhishek

PatitPavan, or Srila Prabhuji, or Srila Patitpavan Goswami Thakur has left this world in 1991 and several years later his foremost disciple, Jayasri Devi, accepted the position of an acharya, meaning she started initiating new members herself. We can argue that it’s ashastric but we also have to acknowledge that these female devotees have no other choice. They are not part of Gaudiya Math, they can’t go and take initiation from some male gurus they have never met before in their lives, and anyway they have developed spiritual affinity with the community they grew up in. Of course they get initiated there.

In his vision of Sri Vishnupirya Pallii Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati didn’t specify how initiation of new members should be conducted so they were on their own. Maybe if this Sri Guru Prapanna Ashram wasn’t so isolated from the start these female devotees could happily take initiation from male gurus, but in their case it didn’t happen and they did the best they could under the circumstances.

Another contentious issue here is sannyasa. PatitPavan himself started giving sannyasa to women in his ashram and now they continue the practice:

Female Sannyasa Ritual

This sounds definitely ashastric, but they dug up their supporting quotes for it and no one can stop them anyway. I suggest we look at other aspects of sannyasa here, namely the social one. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati reintroduced sannyasa into Gaudiya Vaishnavism to raise social profile of his preachers. It was considered a sort of climb down from the paramahamsa position expected from genuine followers of Caitanya Mahaprabhu because sannyasa is a position within varnashrama. Our ISKCON equivalent of such social sannyasa could be “battlefield commission”, the term coined by Srila Prabhupada, according to Dhristadyumna Prabhu’s memories in Vedabase Folio. It means that certain positions in the society (on the battlefield) need to be filled for it to function. Recently departed Pushta Krishna Prabhu received his sannyasa only fourteen months after his fist initiation, at the age of twenty two. Somebody had to lead the preaching effort and leaders needed to be given distinguishing ranks. Sannyasis didn’t get only maha prasadam, they were expected to commandeer devotees and organize massive preaching programs. Without this title no one would listen to them, so the social need was there.

Similarly, in this Sri Guru Prapanna organization they have the need to distinguish senior, accomplished members from the newcomers. It’s unfortunate they decided to call it “sannyasa” but the need for some kind of higher rank is there and it needs to be filled. We can’t argue against it, even if “female sannyasi” sounds completely bogus.

Speaking of which, have a quick look at this video. You don’t need to know the language – it’s a popular Russian cartoon song and a small group of people goofing around, trying to sing and dance. The sign at the top say that it’s a “Festival of Psychology for the Third Millennium”. Two of the “performers” appearing there are legitimate ISKCON sannyasis.

So we have our sannyasis doing that and the “bogus” female sannyasis doing this:

Female Sannyasis worshiping the deity
I’m reasonably sure they never go and sing Bollywood songs for the paying public at various self-help retreats. Which of the two practices should be declared a deviation and stomped out before it can take root in a vaishnava society? Should our sannyasis be an example for these women, or their sannyasis for ours? I don’t think there’s an easy answer to that.

All in all, their situation is very different from our ISKCON. Our women are not isolated, we probably don’t even have brahmacharini’s ashrams anymore and it’s not clear if there’s a need for our own version of Sri Vishnupriya Palli. In any case, female devotees joining it would probably have two-three decades of devotional service and all the initiations they could get already. But these women don’t have any of that and so they need gurus, and the only one available is a female. Should she be recognized?

It appears in the beginning no one in Gaudiya Math recognized this Sri Guru Prapanna ashram but after twenty five years under female leadership it’s probably a good time to acknowledge that these are genuine devotees who are not going away and who are not doing it for self-aggrandizement. Their core group has been doing it for forty seven years now so it’s not a new thing that can fold any day. They ARE genuine vaishnavis and they do, apparently, get competent instructions from their female acharya. This should be respected.

One could argue that their mantras are illegitimate because their diksha is against Pancaratric principles. That maybe so, but our main mantra we all rely on – Hare Krishna, doesn’t need diksha initiation and our main deities – Sri Sri Gaura Nitai, are also kind enough to accept worship from otherwise unqualified people if it’s done sincerely. These women do it with the best mantras they have, we do it with the best of ours.

I heard how our Jahnavi Harrison in her interviews gives so much credit to a few weeks of her association with Mother Yamuna Devi. She, of course, didn’t receive initiation from Mother Yamuna, but she got so much inspiration from her. She felt the actual presence of Krishna Consciousness in Mother Yamuna, it wasn’t a theoretical thing which needed to be proved with quotes, it was real. She saw the light or, as we sing, it was a case of “divya jnan hride prokasito”. Incidentally, it’s also one of the key definitions of diksha – when divya jnana is revealed in the heart of a disciple. We don’t call it initiation but that’s what it was, and it came from a woman. I hope Jahnavi Mataji doesn’t object to me saying so. Anyway, no rituals were performed, no panca-samskaras, no names given, no mantras, no vows, and no titles, but this kind of spiritual connection is, indeed, real and eternal.

In case somebody is skeptical about Mother Jahnavi – an unmarried female performing for thousands of people and all that, but listen to her calling out “Govinda Damodara Madhaveti” in her most famous song and I don’t think anyone can say that there’s no genuine devotion there:

Lately we have become so embroiled in passionate, but ultimately dry arguments over what is right and what is wrong that we might miss the flow of actual devotion which is, indeed, like a river, and it’s supposed to melt our hearts and wash away our pride of being correct and victorious in debates.

 

 

On defense of FDG resolution

A couple of days ago one Russian devotee who is a “GBC Deputy”, which means he serves in some sort of an advisory role, gave a long talk answering various concerns regarding recent GBC resolution authorizing Female Diksha Gurus. He was present during that meeting, translating for a Russian GBC member, and, incidentally, he gives vote tally as 16+9+4, meaning there were almost twice as many “yes” votes as there were “nos”. Anyway, this devotee has presented the most comprehensive explanation for this resolution so far. Most likely his arguments will be included in the promised “milestones leading to this decision”. Still, it’s not an official position so whatever deficiencies are there in his talk, they might not be present in actual GBC explanations.

The arguments below are not meant for GBC bashing, they are meant for deeper understanding of the issue. They are not meant as a call to action and I do not propose any alternatives. It’s meant for sambandha, not for abhidheya, nor for prayojana. In the talk this devotee also warned about this from the start – those who are looking merely for more reasons to “defeat GBC” should skip it altogether.

I’m not going to comment on this talk minute by minute either but start with what I think is the most important point. By important I mean the point which allows us to understand not only GBC position but to reconcile it with the position of FDG opponents – because they must have forked at some point before which there was unity, and I think I found it. In the video it’s about 29:30 minute mark and it’s the definition of diksha itself. It relies on CC Adi 1.35 and CC Antya 4.192

In short, it means that a devotee meets many siksha gurus and, after carefully listening to them, selects one guru who speaks to his heart and in whose words he can see Krishna. By speaking sabda-brahman this one special guru reveals Krishna himself, and so a devotee surrenders to him completely, seeing him as no different from God. This act not only cements their existing relationships, where all the doubts of mundanity are finally removed, but also signifies the beginning of the new stage where disciple’s body, mind, and soul belong to his guru – atma-samarpanam.

When this happens I don’t think any arguments will matter at all – this kind of revelation is self-evident, and I don’t think any FDG opponent will object here. If we look at it in light of Bharadvaja Samhita, then there’s a concluding text (1.44) in a series related to FDG and it says that those who are pratyakṣitātma-nāthānāṁ are not subjected to regulations covering women, shudras, etc. The exact meaning of pratyakṣitātma-nāthānāṁ is disputable, but everyone agrees it has something to do with direct perception of the Absolute. The diksha definition of GBC goes even further than that – not only the guru has this perception but at the moment of diksha this direct perception develops in the heart of the disciple, too. In other words, it totally satisfies Bharadvaja Samhita requirements.

The opponents, however, do not mean this kind of diksha in their arguments, and I have serious questions whether our actual ISKCON initiation practices reach that lofty goal either. In the zonal acharya days one could be initiated by anyone, I mean anyone who is put in charge of your geographical location, and it was all the same – all the gurus preached the same things, gave the same lectures, and presented Srila Prabhupada in one unified voice. There was nothing magic happening during those initiations either, no actual revelation of the full glory of the holy name. For this reason our whole guru system is often criticized like, for example, in this Aindra’s video. His presentation is a bit unusual, but I don’t know who can disagree with his argument that unless one has the necessary purity in his bhajan there’s no question of giving a pure name to a disciple, and if one has this purity then what does it matter if he is in a male or a female body? In other words, by arguing about bodily differences we miss the most important thing – purity of the shuddha nam. If one doesn’t have it, it can’t be fixed by passing resolutions. And, conversely, when it’s present no resolution can stop it either.

In recent years, maybe decades even, there have appeared voices nudging us to re-calibrate our diksha vs siksha preferences. The society grows, gurus are few and far in between, all the good ones have thousands of disciples already, and there’s no question for a new initiate to develop any kind of personal relationships with any of them to make an informed choice, and there’s no hope of developing such relationships after initiation either. Every guru can give a solid class, with all the quotes and dramatic pauses in all the right places. Quite often they give the same class in different temples and polish it to perfection – what can the prospective disciple learn from it? Does his guru have any character faults? How does he deal with those? How does he deal with anger? How does he deal with upsets and inconveniences? All you have is these classes which by now the guru can give in his sleep, if it comes to that.  So, there’s a push to recognize local siksha gurus, to recognize devotees who actually guide people in their spiritual life day in and day out, helping them deal with their problems, giving them little boosts of inspiration, sheltering and protecting them from troubles – all the things necessary to nurture someone’s tender creeper of devotion. Alternatively,  more devotees can be allowed to give diksha, considering that nothing magical is expected to happen anyway. But here’s the problem, though – if there’s no actual revelation of the holy name in the heart of the disciple at the moment of diksha, then GBC selected definition does not apply to our everyday practices.

That’s where Bharadvaja Samhita’s warning about not taking diksha from women, shudras, fallen persons etc fits very nicely – if we make diksha an institutional formality, then it’s a different kind of initiation and it’s subject to a different set of rules. In Caitanya Caritamrita Srila Prabhupada describes maybe half a dozen different “initiations”. Look through all the search results here. Sometimes Srila Prabhupada talks about two different kinds of initiations even in the same purport. Sometimes he says that for chanting the pure name initiation is not required at all. In this case it still means someone should give you the holy name first, which is a kind of initiation, but what is not required is a pancaratrika process of getting a new name and a brahman thread etc.

Having spent a bit of time on thinking in terms of Sankhya, I think we are making a mistake of not recognizing the distinctions between different kinds of diksha, and then not understanding of how they all fit together – which are more important, which are less, and then we make a mistake of not recognizing which kind of diksha is applicable to which situation or which Prabhupada quote to use where.

This is all there really is to it at the moment – it’s the source of all our disagreements. The kind of diksha GBC is talking about is appropriate for Bhagavata parampara, but they want to institutionalize it for diksha parampara. Both are required, but requirements are not the same. One is wholly spiritual in nature, the other one is social. Just like in Vedic or Hindu society – everyone should get diksha, everyone should get upanayana when the age comes, there’s social pressure to be initiated, too, and one does not require supergurus for that kind of initiation. The fact that the resolution put in social requirements for FDG – minimum age limit and family/temple protection, is evidence that here we are talking about social function which depends on social conditions. Bhagavata parampara diksha, on the other hand, does not depend on any conditions, including gender, and it does not require any change in social status. No need change of names, no big temple yajnas, nothing. In some cases it could even fall under Hari Bhakti Vilasa’s prescription to hide one’s ishta devata, one’s guru, and one’s mantra. If we try to mix the two different kinds together we are bound to run into all kinds of problems.

Back to the talk – this is one of my big concerns with it – they read into quotes what is in their heads already. Just take the first quote in GBC resolution, from this Vyasa Puja address, second paragraph from the bottom. Yes, it does say “men and women” and “become spiritual master”, but “become spiritual master” was repeated ten times in that class and Srila Prabhupada gave many many examples of what he meant by it and none of them had anything to do with the right to initiate.

Devotee giving the talk accused the opponents of relying on “Yes, Prabhupada said that, but what he actually meant was…” argument. Well, I don’t know about opponents, but this is an example of Srila Prabhupada asking us to humbly approach people, praise them, and then beg them to forget everything they know and take instructions of Lord Caitanya instead. That’s how we should “become spiritual master” and that’s what “follow the principle” refers to in GBC quote, but then the resolution defender says that what Prabhupada actually meant is gender parity in giving initiations. Really?

Or take the famous “Those possessing the title of Bhaktivedanta will be allowed to initiate disciples” from this letter to Hansadutta. The bulk of that paragraph is about examinations, books studies, titles awarded and so on, but from one sentence which wouldn’t be noticed if it was missing, we conclude that it set Prabhupada’s vision for gender equality in giving diksha. It has never been repeated again and I suspect no one knew of this vision until many years after Srila Prabhupada’s departure when it was included in Vedabase Folio. And so it becomes the case of “in the letter Srila Prabhupada talked about exams, but what he actually meant was…”

Or take the second quote in GBC resolution, duly mentioned in the talk, too: “The word guru is equally applicable to the vartma-pradarśaka-guru, śikṣā-guru and dīkṣā-guru.” It’s from the purport to the kiba vipra kiba ‘nyasi verse where guru means a person who knows science of Krishna. Yes, this person can perform the role of all three of these kinds of guru, “but what Prabhupada actually meant was that vartma-pradarśaka-guru can give diksha, too.” No, it doesn’t mean that at all. Bilvanmangala Thakur’s vartma-pradarśaka-guru was a prostitute, and just because some “working girl” can give you directions to the temple it doesn’t make her potential diksha guru as well.

Even more worrying is the general understanding expressed over and over again – Srila Prabhupada always wished that his female disciples were initiating people on par with men. Over the course of my life I’ve spent some time reading Srila Prabhupada’s books, I’ve listened to his lectures, I’ve read his letters, I’ve read his biographies, I’ve listened to people telling stories about their time with him, but I’ve never heard any indication that he meant gender parity in giving diksha. I might be wrong, of course, but when they say his every quote proves exactly that and anyone who disagrees actually disagrees with Prabhupada I don’t know how to accept this argument. The fact remains that not a single time he said anything about women devotees giving diksha on par with men. Never. And yet we are told “but what he actually meant is exactly that”. I want to understand this logic, but so far it escapes me. I mean I can’t find a rational explanation behind it. I have no problem imagining an explanation where devotees get carried away and become blinded, but I don’t want to think that about vaishnavas.

Accusing the opposition of applying this argument doesn’t seem to be fair, especially when you yourself indulge plenty.

Then there’s an objection to characterizing FDG agenda as being influenced by feminism and to using that word itself when addressing pro-FDG devotees. Okay, maybe it’s better to refrain from using such labels, and maybe there’s no such thing as “feminist lobby”, but let’s not pretend that feminism has no influence on how devotees think about FDG issue whatsoever. As I mentioned, when we start treating diksha as a social formality which does not necessarily require revealing Krishna in one’s heart, the opposition has the right to say that this is not about spiritual equality anymore, but about social equality between sexes, ie feminism.

There’s a She Can Become Guru video where many devotees and scholars present many arguments for FDG, and equality between genders is one recurring theme there. It literally starts with words “The crown jewel of discrimination against women in ISKCON is the refusal of the GBC to allow them to initiate disciples” – how’s that not feminism? Why is it “discrimination against” instead of plain discrimination based on qualities, shastra etc? That first speech ends with saying that there’s no doubt inequality in having gurus turns people off our organization. How’s that not a pressure from people desiring gender equality, ie feminists? Then there’s one young woman who is ashamed to tell her friends that in her religion there are no women gurus. Where does this shame come from if not from orienting oneself relative to feminist values?

One could say “it’s just one video”, but it has roughly five times more views than the most popular “controversial” videos by Bhakti Vikasa Swami and eight times more views than FDG resolution posted on dandavats. Therefore I can’t accept the argument that there’s no feminist influence on these issues in our society. Maybe not among GBC members themselves and not in their meetings, but it is definitely felt everywhere else.

Let’s not forget that Srila Prabhupada’s concessions to his female disciples concerning second initiations, brahmacharini ashrams etc was solely due to prevailing social conditions at the time, and those conditions were dictated by feminist norms taking over American society. It’s not that he wanted to introduce those in his League of Devotees in Jhansi. Our devotee girls were born into a feminist society and absorbed its values when growing up. In other often quoted purport he writes: “…one cannot suddenly change a community’s social customs”, which means the pressure to deal with feminism was felt even by him. But now we say we are immune to it while there are often repeated calls to stay in tune with modern times or risk becoming irrelevant. Doesn’t compute. “I’m not a feminist, I just want gender parity and justice for women’s suffering.”

In the talk that devotee said that there’s no way Srila Prabhupada could have been swayed by feminism, that all the revolutionary changes he introduced, sending his unmarried female disciples to solicit donations or sell books, could not have been made under pressure from his equality seeking disciples. But how to explain Mother Govinda’s account of the first ever brahmana initiation when she sulked and pouted and refused to attend because girls were not included, and how Srila Prabhupada eventually agreed to hold a second initiation for the girls the next day? That’s ISKCON classic and an example of women devotees strong-arming Prabhupada, how can we deny it happened? Or how to explain an episode told by Prabhupada’s servant, I don’t remember if it was Srutakirti or Nanda Kumar, but one devotee asked Srila Prabhupada for permission to divorce his wife and it was granted! The servant later asked Srila Prabhupada why he went against his usual instructions against it. “He would have divorced with or without my permission, but now at least he is not guilty of disobeying guru’s order,” Prabhupada replied. So I don’t buy the argument that Srila Prabhupada was completely immune to our requests for social liberties and that he meant all the revolutionary changes right from the start. These objections don’t matter in the big picture of FDG discussion, but I thought these were unacceptable arguments in defense of GBC decision.

Back to the main topic – I’m really alarmed how so many devotees read diksha gender parity into his quotes. As I already said, not once he mentioned it explicitly whereas he made countless other statements regarding duties of women or treating guru as male by default. To me this interpretation of Prabhupada’s words looks like an invention, and while pro-FDG devotees do not treat it as such, the speaker quickly ran into a problem here – because he discovered that Srila Prabhupada didn’t leave us any language to describe these female guru related terms. “Female guru” by itself is nonsense – the word “guru” is masculine gender and feminine form should be “gurvi”, with long “i” at the end. Good luck finding Srila Prabhupada or anyone else using this word in our tradition. Gurudevi, anyone? Is it grammatically correct? Then the speaker turned to fellow Gaudiya Vaishnavas where female gurus were very common in at least some lineages, and said that there they were addressed as Thakurani. Or Goswamini… And I think that was the point where he realized he better stop because this takes us into caste goswami practices which Srila Prabhupada and Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati before him opposed without any reservations.

About inventions – once you invent something you will find there are faults in it which need to be fixed and so you have to invent a patch, which will create more problems in turn – and that’s how the living entity gets entangled in the chain of actions and reactions. It wasn’t specified what weakness was found there in FDG, but I suspect something was felt so that additional constraints where introduced – minimum age of 55 and family protection. It wasn’t spelled out, and the devotee presenting it avoided the topic, as a brahmachari should, but are we talking about female hormonal levels here? Are we talking about “don’t worry about her, she’s just on her period”? It’s an important consideration, but since when it had to be factored when choosing a guru? Especially according to the earlier given definition. The guru should be free from all these things, otherwise there’s no question of possessing the pure name, nor of possessing science of Krishna, which had to be realized. Same argument goes for requirement of family protection. The guru should be niskincanasya and he should depend solely on Krishna, not on the mercy of a son-in-law or something. To be fair, the resolution mentions protection of vaishnava sanga, too, and the speaker mentioned that even male gurus depend on such protection, but if we compare it to a stable family situation then it’s not the same thing. We should depend on mercy, not on the accommodations for material bodies. Once again, there’s a mix of purely spiritual and social functions here. Not to mention that Srila Prabhupada wouldn’t qualify himself. Nor, if we are looking at FDG precedents, Gangamata Goswamini, who left protection of her family very early in her life.

We have plenty examples of devotees who were sent out to preach without any material support whatsoever, to foreign and sometimes dangerous countries, and later on many of them became gurus in our society. It’s possible, it was a expected in our early history, and it’s a requirement stated many many times in shastra. But now we have to select gurus from among the materially well-off devotees? Where does this come from, spiritually speaking? Is it defensible in any way? I’d say – yes, if we treat diksha as a social function under rules of varnashrama where everybody had to get it when they reach a certain age.

There’s another accusation leveled against anti-FDG arguments – that they don’t rely on Srila Prabhupada for their support. Not true. Take the book “Masters and Mothers” by Bhakti Vikasa Swami which is based entirely on Srila Prabhupada’s quotes and which had to be unbanned partly for this reason – it was like banning Srila Prabhupada himself. A lot of anti-FDG arguments can be sourced from there. Statements about women’s duties are plentiful in Srila Prabhupada’s works, too, and so are statements implying that gurus are male, like in “second birth is made possible by the spiritual father” in SB 4.12.48 or “Under the guidance of the spiritual master, the spiritual father, one can return home, back to Godhead” in SB 6.16.6. Or this passage from a lecture in 1968:

    But those who are twice-born… That means once born by the father and mother, and the second birth is the spiritual father and Vedic knowledge. Once born by this material bodily father and mother, and the second birth is Vedic knowledge, the mother, and the spiritual master, the father. So that is second birth.

Incidentally, this [public] lecture was given just a couple of months before that [private] letter to Hansadutta, which FDG proponents take as a statement of Prabhupada’s actual intentions.

Of course there’s only one statement explicitly concerning female qualifications for giving diksha, too – that of “Suniti, being a woman”, but the speaker didn’t have time to address it as promised. I wonder how it will be reconciled in the promised GBC paper. Even when the opponents cite from Manu Samhita they do so on the strength of Srila Prabhupada’s numerous references to it and his instructions to treat it as a law book on dharma. Anyway, I find this argument, that opponents don’t rely on Prabhupada, to be unacceptable, too. It doesn’t meant that in my opinion the victory should go to anti-FDG devotees, but it’s not a fair characterization of their position and I expected better.

There was another argument from tradition – the lineage of Haridas Shastri, who was called the greatest Gaudiya scholar of the 20th century. I hope no one will dispute that, but he appeared in the line from Gadadhara Pandit where, according to him, ALL initiations were done by women. He himself didn’t get one from his mother because she passed away before he came of age. Once again, Srila Prabhupada never said anything good about those caste goswami practices. In 2013 SAC issued a paper where they presented a count of numerous female gurus in half a dozen lineages they examined. I can’t repeat their research, but in the line of Bhaktivinoda Thakura there appears a string of three female gurus and what I do know is that the last one of them gave diksha to her son, who then gave diksha to Vipina Bihari Goswami, who gave diksha to Bhaktivinoda Thakur. I suspect that all three of these female gurus where simply mothers and daughters. I heard that this count of female gurus didn’t factor in the resolution, but I think it should have – because it establishes not only the precedent, but also consequences of having FDG. One important result being that no one remembers they existed, so why bother again? Srila Sridhar Swami knew about them and mentioned their example in “Dead Mantra” chapter of his book on guru tattva. Should we be impressed by this historic precedent? I don’t think so.

Speaking of 2013 SAC paper. The speaker mentioned it as acceptable evidence and he also mentioned Mukunda Datta Prabhu as a trusted devotee who worked on this research, but Mukunda Datta resigned from working on that paper, very tactfully and without assigning any blame, but he made it clear that, in plain words, the outcome of that research had been fixed beforehand and no one was really interested in what he had to contribute. The paper itself is not listed on the official GBC website, but, apparently, its arguments live on, though they shouldn’t. Again, I expected better.

Then there was treatment of Bharadvaja Samhita. First time it was dismissed as “never heard before” but towards the end of the talk the speaker explained why they didn’t accept arguments against FDG based on it. There was some medieval commentator on it, Saryu Prasad Mishra, and on the crucial verse regarding women there he said that the same conditions should be applied to brahmanas as well. It would take me too much time to clarify this issue, but it was something like “self-realized person is not constrained by considerations of birth”, which leaves a kind of loophole for women to become gurus, and the commentator added “brahmanas should be self-realized as well”. This has been discussed a while ago already, this is all that I remember, sorry. I thought it was a misinterpretation on the part of GBC Sanskrit scholar who discovered it – the commentator’s statement was meant to stress the importance of self-realization, not to rewrite the slokas themselves. It’s a noble sentiment glorifying the ideal, but not an actual requirement stated in the text.

In another verse Bharadvaja Samhita says that one should not choose a guru who has more material attachments than oneself – meaning that total and absolute purity was not expected and deficiencies in prospective guru’s realizations had to be considered as well. An aspiring disciple cannot see absolute purity anyway, he can only conclude that he sees something “better than myself”.

In any case, I don’t think Bharadvaja Samhita was given a fair hearing. First of all, half of the anti-FDG presentation based on it was about general description of diksha and about proving that our process, given to us by Srila Prabhupada, complies with all the essential principles of it. Secondly, it demonstrates a clear connection between demands of purity and resulting rituals. It’s not a set of mindless commands like “wave the lamp three times”. It bridges the gap between “Bhagavat diksha” and “Pancaratrica diksha” and demonstrates how the principles of the first manifests as rituals of the second. I also know of Sanat Kumara Samhita, also part of Narada Pandaratra, which does the same thing but doesn’t mention women. In other words, by carefully studying these texts we can learn how Bhagavat and Diksha paramparas are but two different aspects of the same reality. This should help us figure out their commonalities, special features, relevant applications and so on. Earlier I mentioned this difference already, and studying Pancaratra texts should help us to learn about their commonalities as well. It’s sad that this was given a miss.

To sum it all up – there’s nothing wrong with FDG when we go by the given definition of diksha, but I’m afraid we are trying to apply it in the wrong place – as a societal function governed by an institution with somewhat different goals in mind. To solve this problem we should study the shades of meaning of diksha first and then proceed on the basis of that. I can’t do it in this article, sorry, but I think I do get the gist of it. I also don’t think that the speaker was entirely honest or maybe not knowledgeable enough, which is a milder accusation, when describing the process and motivations behind this decision. I think it’s far better to deal with feminists influences in our common psyche than deny that they even exist. I also don’t want to see lumping pro-FDG devotees with feminists and gays, and with characterization of anti-FDG devotees as narrow-minded fools and wife beaters I heard elsewhere. I’m actually against this dual vision altogether. I believe it should disappear once we honestly focus our attention on Srila Prabhupada’s instruction and then another type of vision, one that of harmony in diversity, will take over our consciousness.

PS. I apologize for not using diacritic marks consistently for transcription of Sanskrit words.

What ISKCON is for

In a recent Bhagavatam class in Mayapur an influential speaker asked for an answer from the audience – what do devotees expect from ISKCON in the future? What do we tell people when they ask us – what are you expecting in return after dedicating your life to ISKCON? No one volunteered an answer and the speaker joked that they all must be pure devotees. Then he adapted a famous JFK quote – “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”. Then he moved on giving a reason why nothing should be expected from such a young society yet.

This was a short moment in the class, which was focused on approaching ISKCON in the mood of vatsalya. If it’s supposed to live for ten thousand years then ISKCON must be only a six month old baby now, for example. This makes sense – we are not mature as a society yet. We don’t know how to take care even of ourselves, let alone of our aging and ailing members. Plus the category “ISKCON member” has expanded enormously in recent years so as to render the original question moot anyway. Still, I want to reflect on this answer.

Everybody in this world wants shelter, safety, and assurances in his life, even devotees. We want to know that whatever it is we are doing is going to bring us some auspicious results, feeling protected and taken care of is one of them, perhaps the most primal one. This is, interestingly, is a big part of a definition of “dharma” – it’s not only duties, but also that which sustains  – from the root “dhara”. I think it’s impossible to separate duties from results here, both must be there. Sometimes results are not obvious, sometimes our duties seem to bring only ruin, like in the case of Bali Maharaja who lost his kingdom, as was predicted by Sukracharya whose advice he neglected. Lord Ramacandra had to insist on performing His various duties even when results were extremely inauspicious at the first glance. Still, He persevered and in the end everything worked out alright. In any case, dharma implies reciprocation, otherwise it’s meaningless.

Now, let’s consider devotees’ reaction to the news that ISKCON is not going to provide maintenance or sustenance in one’s old age. One way or another people WILL find another source. In the West it generally means making a career and building a retirement nest. Possibly investing in various retirement funds, buying a property in Mayapur or Vrindavan etc etc. In this situation serving in ISKCON becomes a hobby – an activity done in one’s spare time with spare resources. In India it might mean building up a family and supporting it by any means necessary. If you have five children and tewnty five grandchildren then someone will surely give you a place to sleep and whatever little food you require in old age. A mature devotee, on the other hand, might find his personal connection with the Lord that gives him confidence and protection. We all should always feel helpless and totally dependent on the Lord and there are may ways we can find this shelter. It could be the holy name, it could be association with other devotees, it could worshiping their deity, it could be reading Srila Prabhupada’s books, it could be listening to his lectures (very popular choice nowadays). Once this activity is found the devotee will naturally start developing it and dedicating more and more time to it. Service in ISKCON then might become something like a distraction from what actually nourishes one’s soul.

No one can count how many times Srila Prabhupada talked about reciprocation with the Lord in one’s service. If there’s no reciprocation then we are not dealing with Krishna in any of His forms. So, if ISKCON doesn’t offer this reciprocation by design, then what it’s for? What or who does it represent?

However I look at this answer, it just doesn’t look good. And let’s not forget thousands of disaffected devotees who will unleash their own torrent of complaints about feeling forgotten and abandoned after giving ISKCON best years of their lives. Or what about Srila Prabhupada’s vision of varnashrama? It’s a community of people completely dependent on one another, there’s no such thing as “don’t expect anything in return for all your hard work” there. This answer seems like a total no go, a non-starter, yet I believe still there’s hope to make it right.

One way is to take the example of the gopis – they didn’t ask for any reciprocation and Krishna Himself declared that He is unable to repay them anyway, so He left bhakti itself as a fully sufficient and fully satisfying result of their service. This is also reflected in the last verse from Sikshashtaka – no reciprocation is required. For this category of devotees the answer is totally acceptable and very inspiring. How many nitya siddha gopis we are hoping to find in our ranks, however? What about all other rasas devotees exchange with the Lord, including vatsalya itself? One needs to have resources to look at Krishna as one’s dependent and where are these resources suppose to come from? This, again, turns ISKCON into a hobby of sorts – you make money somewhere else and then use it to nurture the organization. Could also be described as karma yoga.

I guess karma yoga approach is totally fine, but then it becomes unacceptable to gopi like devotees I discussed above. Pure devotional service should be free from all karma and jnana, as we know. We can’t turn ISKCON into a karma yoga project without undermining its core identity, and this jnana-karmadyanavritam prescription is for everyone, including aspiring karma-yogis themselves.

Let’s circle back to “mature devotees” from above. They have found their relationship with Krishna in one form or another and this means they start to see the rest of the world as part of that relationship. Job is there to buy stuff for the deity, family is there to cook for the deity and so on. When this vision of the world fully develops, ISKCON is going to take a central part in it, but it might not function as was expected in the beginning. It might be like Vishnu accepts sacrifices through fire, which acts like the tongue of the Lord. Similarly, ISKCON provides for so many life nourishing ingredients – books, lectures, seminars, festivals, temples, devotees – everything we know comes from or at least through ISKCON. In this way ISKCON is indispensable even if it doesn’t provide sustenance. Lord’s limbs can perform actions of other sense organs as well so sometimes even ISKCON can guarantee one’s retirement, but that is not strictly necessary.

In the beginning we tend to think that ISKCON is Krishna and outside world is maya. It’s true, but this maya outside does not have independent existence and it’s her service to provide nurture and protection to devotees’ bodies. It’s the same ONE Krishna who stands on the altar, dances on your tongue when you chant, and gives you a bed and protection from elements. It’s like we all need to go to the toilet every now and then but we don’t insist that all our toilet facilities must be provided by ISKCON. It’s not what it’s meant for.

There’s yet another consideration. These days ISKCON processes a large amount of money and thousands and thousands of devotee work-hours. Surely somebody somewhere gets at least some benefits of that. Why is it some can expect a slice of this pie and others cannot? Doesn’t it look like ISKCON belongs to some but not to others? I think it does, but that is also not the reason for resentment. God will always have a lot of hangers on, people who milk His mercy for their own benefits. I’m afraid it’s impossible to avoid them altogether and someone somewhere will always be skimming off the service you and everyone else offers. So be it. We do not depend on them and we do not care for their little schemes. They cannot take away from whatever we offer with *pure* hearts (an important condition), and they cannot take away anything from whatever the Lord offers in reciprocation. They are not in control of our destiny or our karma – unless we engage in “karma-yoga”, of course – then there are no guarantees of anything. In karma yoga we should have no claims on results, though, so even if they steal everything it should not bother us – it’s just that the Lord has decided to distribute the results in this particular way.

I think this is a fundamentally better way to look at whatever improprieties GBC is accused of, for example, but also at the whole organizational structure – because “ISKCON” means different things to different people. Some can talk about it in terms of management, others come to hear Krishna Katha and sing in kirtans. Some can see the properties, others see the deities. All these visions are true in their own way. Ultimately, the only thing that unities us is our loyalty to Srila Prabhupada as our Founder-Acharya. Everything beyond that is extraneous and a subject to potential disagreements. We just have to make sure that these disagreements do not matter to us more than the fundamental principle of loyalty to Srila Prabhupada.

Staying Still

When discussing Bhagavad Gita we often hear rhetorical questions like “Can you stop breathing for five minutes? Can you stop thinking for five minutes?” They make perfect sense in the context of the need to engage one’s senses etc etc. This post is not about that.

I would rather argue that “staying still for five minutes” is an oxymoron because “five minutes” in itself is a measurement of change, it’s not a measurement of stillness. This, of course, goes back to fundamental understanding of what time is – it’s a force of change. It’s a force that compels the three gunas to move forward and change the state of the world, of the universe, of each particular atom, and of each particular being. Even in everyday parlance we understand that time is never still. When we say “five minutes” we mean movement of a minute hand on the clock or the number of CPU cycles on electronic clocks, translated into minutes and seconds. Something somewhere has to change in order for us to notice that it’s been five minutes already. It cannot be a measurement of stillness, it will always be a measurement of movement.

Having said that, we understand the meaning of “sit still for five minutes”, so how does it fit? What does it mean exactly. Keeping one’s breath, for example, means that our hearts keeps pumping blood, our cells keep consuming oxygen, our eyes keep tracking the watch, our thoughts race about the brain, our intelligence is busy weighing between “enough” or “a few seconds more”  decisions, whether any of it even makes sense, whether “mind over matter” is a real thing and so on. In fact, it would appear that we get ourselves even busier than usual. Of course we would stop any physical activity to conserve oxygen, but it would take many years of yoga practice to stop our minds from racing around and judging our performance.

The reference to yoga should get us closer to the meaning of “still” because, when perfected, one does not only stop breathing but also stops thinking, and when no bodily activities are going on his heart also stops pumping blood. If the yogi is not looking at the watch then time literally stops – for him. Those observing him would still count minutes and hours, of course. In our scriptures we have many examples of such yogis staying in trance for thousands and thousands of years, with no one watching. There are many of them still in meditation with no one even aware of their existence.

“But time is still going on,” one might object. “Yes – for you. Not for the yogi himself.” In the examples from scriptures we also learn that these yogis often have some goal in mind and so they keep measuring their position in relation to that goal. In ashtanga yoga, for example, there are series of steps – eight, in fact, as the name itself tells us – and so yogi progresses from one step to another and he knows where he is. This means that he has his internal notion of change and, therefore, subjected to his internal flow of time. From the outside perspective he has long stopped breathing and no changes are any longer visible. Internally, however, the yogi might decide to take a tour of the universe before going into final samadhi. At this point he will be visiting the Sun and the Moon and the Mount Meru and observing all the beings living there and their conditions and how they control movements of humans on Earth. And we’d call all of it internal and subjective and keep looking at our clocks – because we think our clocks are the objective reality. Meanwhile, the yogi will see subtle changes that will force us to abandon the observations in a few months from now and how these subtle changes gradually propagate through our “objective reality” and eventually force us to abandon the experiment. And we won’t believe a word of what he says when he returns to our world. To give an example – the yogi might notice political change in the air that will eventually force the lab management to divert funds elsewhere, like to preserving the climate.

Still, there are also examples of yogis who keep track of external changes, especially the demoniac ones, I guess. They know how much power they have accrued at any given moment, they know how long they have to stand on one leg to get to the next stage. They know whether they will have to stop breathing or whether they should allow ants to build a colony out of their bodies. They keep track, but it might not be measured in minutes but in years and decades. If we look closely around us also can notice that some changes take longer than the others, like the seasons or the movement of the second hand on the clock. We usually don’t even look at it and so do not measure our lives in seconds. We rather say “fifteen minutes ago” and even in that case we round the minutes to fives and zeros. A yogi, I would guess, can also keep track only of season changes, not even the days, and so he can be said to “sit still for five minutes” even though he doesn’t know when five minutes start and end. It’s just not a part of his reality. In the same way we don’t count our time by heartbeats. We know they are there, we can count then when we want, but usually we have no idea.

In other words, to sit still for five minutes we have to shift our consciousness from events observable in five minutes frame to changes that take considerably longer. As people get older they sometimes reflect back on their lives and, if we tied it to recorded events, measure it in decades instead. “I got married and then divorced” easily can cover a decade or two. If pressed he might produce minute details of that marriage but nowhere close to five minute intervals, and this ability to zoom in goes away with age, too. “Now I’m just waiting to die” is also a change that can take many many years.

We can apply this principle without waiting to get old, we just have to organize our priorities in proper order. One can measure his life by the time it takes to finish Srimad Bhagavatam, for example – if it’s the only meaningful devotional service he renders. Or one can measure his life by Ratha Yatras if he spends several months preparing for one. We just have to find some engagement for ourselves and focus on it, with the rest our lives simply folding into serving this one big purpose. “I will build a temple” is one such commitment and it usually takes a lot of time to achieve and it keeps oneself busy all the time. Who will even notice “five minutes” when absorbed in such a way?

That could be a nice spiritual solution but it won’t qualify as being still by objective observers. Okay, but it’s not a big deal. We can shift our consciousness deep within ourselves instead and focus on the Lord within our hearts. There will be progress in these pastimes but externally we would be very still by all accounts. Achieving this stage is not easy, of course, and even impossible – considering that bhakti is independent and cannot be obtained by our own efforts, but when it’s granted then stillness becomes the new normal. This has happened to devotees even in our observable and recorded history. Just recently Babhru Prabhu published a book about Akincana Dasa Babaji, Srila Prabhupada’s godborther who was very close to ISKCON. In that book, judging by previews, there were times when Akincana Babaji simply checked out of the external world. There are other examples as well, even with Srila Prabhupada himself, though no one checked the watch few times it happened in public. There were others.

The fully satisfying and achievable answer, however, would be – engage yourself in Krishna’s service completely and then you won’t notice how the time flies, never mind what people with the clocks say about your activities. That would be a real samadhi, as we can learn from even the most cursory reading of Bhagavad Gita. This way we circled back to the beginning of this article but, hopefully, learned something new in the process.

Srimad Bhagavatam and Science, according to Rasaraja Prabhu

Rasaraja Prabhu is a long running director of Bhaktivedanta Institute in Mumbai and recently I’ve listened to a couple of his presentations on the topic of Bhagavatam, science, and philosophy. Since they are repetitive I think I got the gist of how it goes. It’s not pretty, I’m afraid, but I want to record it somewhere for posterity, so here it goes.

He starts by saying that he worked on this for forty years and the knowledge he developed is actually not his by Lord Caitanya’s. That’s a radically different “mangalacarana”, where devotees usually declare their personal incompetence and beg for mercy in order to complete their work. Anyway, since it’s Lord Caitanya’s knowledge we are lucky to receive it, right? Nope. Rasaraja Prabhu says that the world is nor ready for it and so even if he tries to explain it, we won’t understand, but when time comes we’ll understand everything without explanations. Why would we even need Rasaraja Prabhu then? Anyway, he obtained it, we don’t have it, and he won’t tell us what it is – because it’s Lord Caitanya’s. That’s the first time I see this kind of mercy from Mahaprabhu. He might be right, for all I know, but it definitely sounds as fishy as snake oil, pardon my mixed metaphors. I guess he means it like when the world had to wait for ISKCON to manifest itself, which makes sense. Did Srila Prabhupada go around telling people they are not ready and so he won’t tell them of Lord Caitanya’s message though?

Next he engages the audience and asks for simple definitions of Krishna Conscious philosophy. “We are souls, Krishna is God, He is the cause of all causes” – that type of thing. Then he smashes them all by declaring that they are not philosophical but theological statements. Things we believe – not philosophy. Then he spends time explaining the difference and citing examples, which brings us to actual definition of philosophy and science, which he took from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the gold standard of philosophical repositories on the internet. This is a good time to tell the audience that he is mentioned on that site as well, that he has a standing there, he is an entity, and so what he says about it is good, solid knowledge and we can trust him. Humility, anyone? Not in this Bhagavatam class.

He quotes definition of science that goes roughly like this: “Observations of patterns in empirical reality and explaining them through the language of mathematics”. From here follows predictive power and technology. Cool, but why do we have to comply with patterns observed in empirical reality? Why do we have to compete with that? What concern is it to us? Why do we have to follow science on this? Anticipating this question he goes on to describe glories of modern science as was taught to us by Srila Prabhupada. What? Didn’t Srila Prabhupada routinely used words like “rascals” when talking about scientists? Sure, but here comes more audience shaming – that language was actually addressed to us, not to scientists.

There’s an example given – a thief is seen walking out of the house. You ask him: “What you were doing there?” He answers “I left my shoes inside”, and you let it go. When policemen interviews you he blames you for being an idiot and believing this explanation, and that’s how we should see Prabhupada’s strong words about science, too – he was blaming us for believing them. It was us who were being stupid.

I don’t know about this. Maybe it happened here and there, but it’s certainly not a definitive presentation of Srila Prabhupada’s views on science. Then we hear more about scientists’ superior knowledge and qualities. They don’t believe in their own theories, for example. They know that they are only provisional and will be replaced by something else. Okay, sounds good in theory, but in practice they are VERY defensive about their turf and they would rather die then change their minds about something. No one likes realizing he has been wrong and wasted decades of his life on a wrong theory, scientists are no exception. I’m afraid Rasaraja Prabhu might not be an exception either.

Anyway, glorification of science culminates in a quote from Srila Prabhupada that they actually attain realization of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Pretty tall claim, totally inconsistent with everything else said in Bhagavatam about the value of bhakti, but it is made and is supported by a quote. Here’s the full paragraph, though – let’s see if you can come to the same conclusion (CC Adi 6.14-15):

“Since materialistic philosophers and scientists are too much engaged with their imperfect senses, naturally they conclude that the living force is a product of a material combination. But the actual fact is just the opposite. Matter is a product of spirit. According to the Bhagavad-gītā, the supreme spirit, the Personality of Godhead, is the source of all energies. When one advances in research work by studying a limited substance within the limits of space and time one is amazed by the various wonderful cosmic manifestations, and naturally one goes on hypnotically accepting the path of research work or the inductive method. Through the deductive way of understanding, however, one accepts the Supreme Absolute Person, the Personality of Godhead, as the cause of all causes, who is full with diverse energies and who is neither impersonal nor void. The impersonal manifestation of the Supreme Person is another display of His energy. Therefore the conclusion that matter is the original cause of creation is completely different from the real truth. The material manifestation is caused by the glance of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, who is inconceivably potent. Material nature is electrified by the supreme authority, and the conditioned soul, within the limits of time and space, is trapped by awe of the material manifestation. In other words, the Supreme Personality of Godhead is actually realized in the vision of a material philosopher and scientist through the manifestations of His material energy. For one who does not understand the power of the Supreme Personality of Godhead or His diverse energies because of not knowing the relationship between the source of the energies and the energies themselves, there is always a chance of error, which is known as vivarta. As long as materialistic scientists and philosophers do not come to the right conclusion, certainly they will hover above the material field, bereft of proper understanding of the Absolute Truth.”

Quoted sentence is: “the Supreme Personality of Godhead is actually realized in the vision of a material philosopher and scientist through the manifestations of His material energy”. I don’t think it means what it looks like outside the context, though.

Other questionable claim is that we cannot know philosophy of Bhagavatam unless we know philosophy of the outside world. This is supported by various “vidya avidya ca” quotes from shastra, but, once again, it doesn’t usually mean we have to go and get degrees in philosophy or mathematics in order to understand Srimad Bhagavatam. To be fair, Rasaraja Prabhu also warns us from understanding it that way – instead of going to universities we should learn science from him, where else? He’s the sole guardian for now.

There’s more shaming throughout the class, more suspicious quotes, all demonstrating that we don’t know anything, including what we think we know, but he is the one who has figured it out. One demonstration is “cause of all causes” definition. “What does ’cause’ mean?” The audience replies “Reason”, but that is simply replacing one word with another. Fair enough. Then he goes into logical explanations of “if A then B” and possible variations of it. Then says that there are forty different kinds of causes listed on Stanford’s site. “Why are you wet?” – “It’s raining” – “Why is your friend not wet?” – “Because he has a raincoat” – “Why do you not have a raincoat?” – “I forgot”. So the cause of being wet is forgetfulness. Very enlightening. The audience is shamed enough that no one dares to say “cause of all causes” means all these permutations are covered. There are also various causes listed in our literature, with Sanskrit terms and translations into words like “efficient” and “material”. We are not complete fools about it, we just need to brush up on definitions.

The presentation is subtitled “Green Glass” and it’s another major thread that goes all throughout. It refers to a blind person getting green glass to finally start seeing the world. His vision is somewhat restored, but the world is not actually green and he needs to update his power of sight to see it as it is. Similarly, we receive some rudimentary spiritual knowledge but it’s covered and filtered and cannot be accepted as real truth. More shaming of the audience follows. Whatever we say is dismissed as “green glass” vision, what can you answer to that? It’s like talking to a kid who repeats everything you say just for the fun of it. In a Bhagavatam class you aren’t allowed to say much anyway, just sit and listen to this titan of thought.

We get quotes from Nobel Prize laureates praising his work, we get mentions of his papers being studied at Ivy League universities, and so it goes and goes.

He sort of acknowledges that Bhagavatam itself is enough for attaining spiritual knowledge, but explains that material knowledge would still have to come first. I haven’t traced the quote yet, but Srila Prabhupada once said, allegedly, that our spiritual advancement begins with material knowledge. Okay, maybe – you need to know the language and how books work, but there are no requirements other than that. What is that mysterious thing that we are still missing?

Twice it was practically the first question from the audience. “You said that this, this, and that understanding of this quote is wrong, but could you tell us what is the right understanding?” I couldn’t believe the answer, but it was repeated twice: “For that you have to write me a check for the institute I’m establishing.” Where else do you have to pay to hear an answer in a Bhagavatam classes? As a sign of mercy he then gives a totally forgettable long winded preview of his “scientific” answer, and then launches into a promotional speech about this Institute of Semantic Meaning in Science, Technology, and Engineering or some such. Technology is mentioned because otherwise no Indian would enroll, I guess. Main problem of this Institute is that BBT does not want to sponsor it, they need “scientific preaching”, which, as we learn, is a phrase Srila Prabhupada never used, and therefore we go about it all wrong, and he got it right.

The presentation concludes with more declarations of Lord Caitanya’s will behind all this work, and how it is non-different from Mahaprabhu Himself. For now Rasaraja Prabhu is the sole guardian of this secret knowledge and all he waits for is Mahaprabhu’s blessing to spread it all over the world. Anyone who doesn’t want to wait has to pay. Period.

That is not to say that he doesn’t make any good points during his talk. He does. I, personally, liked the argument that “There’s a chair over there” and “There’s a pain in my knee” are statements from the same category according to Bhagavatam. In modern science, on the other hand, pain is subjective and chair is objective – they are categorically different. I like the argument that only Krishna exists and all others, meaning demigods in that particular case, are products of illusion with no existence of their own. The world as a hallucination is also a good point to consider. Nevertheless, I’ve never seen anyone so boastful and so indulgent in belittling others in Bhagavatam classes. He is clearly a dedicated devotee who will never leave his service to the Lord and for that he deserves utmost respect, but I would caution anyone attempting to learn either Bhagavatam or philosophy of it from such a speaker.

I wouldn’t challenge him on quantum mechanics, of course, but everything else he touched on in these presentations is highly debatable and, I think, is fairly easy to demonstrate as nonsensical. He just ambushes the audience and people do not have time to digest, check the sources, and reply. And they are being shamed for their stupidity and lack of humility all the time, too – who will dare to object under these conditions? It really feels like he is peddling snake oil there.

About disappearing swans…

A few days ago Youtube suggested me a video, a song, with “Hare Krishna” in the title, so I checked it out. I’ve written about another song by the same singer here already and I’m fairly familiar with his earlier music, but this turned out to be new to me. I knew he used to sing “Hare Krishna” in concerts but I haven’t seen it on any records.

The reason might be because it’s from a movie that came out after I joined so I never watched it and didn’t know it existed, until now. At first I thought it was too sugary but as I listened to the lyrics I thought it deserves to be explained and shared, not that I can really explain it with my meager intelligence.

We’ve had a fair share of famous singers using Hare Krishna in their records, starting with George Harrison. Boy George was a poster boy for a while, too, but there’s one notable difference with this Russian “B.G.” – his songs have always been very cryptic, like sutras. Btw, I’ll use “BG” to spare English readers from parsing his full Slavic name. In the previously covered song I saw appearance of Lord Caitanya, for example. Second appearance, to be precise – because that’s what Hare Krishna movement is – Lord Caitanya’s entrance into lives of those who were not fortunate enough to have lived in India five hundred years ago. I don’t know if anyone else can understand that song this way, no one on the internet, afaik, but I insist that this is a legitimate interpretation. Just reflect on the meaning of that line from Bhaktivinoda Thakura – “all the people of the world are patiently waiting for the time when Lord Caitanya’s party comes to their door.” Just think about it’s meaning, let it sink into our hearts, and I’m sure you’ll see Mahaprabhu everywhere, too.

Anyway, back to this song. It appeared at the end of the movie, I haven’t watched the whole thing but from the plot descriptions it looks like a weird spy story. The song is timed in such a way that “Hare Krishna” comes exactly when the credits starts to roll – a reward for those who really pay attention, just like the Holy Name itself. The movie begins with another cryptic song about “Blue Janitor”, which I knew by heart in those days, but I never thought that it was about Krishna before I read our books. “Janitor” is simply an urban substitution for “cowherd boy”, function is the same. Perhaps it deserves another post. The video I post here is an extended version and singer’s voice is much much older than back in 1991.



In this song Christians can definitely hear about Christ – lyrics open with the prayer for “vanished swan” which disappeared into darkness. Russian case inflections make it suggestive that the speaker prays *for* this swan, or *about* this swan, which kinda blows Christian interpretation – who are we to pray *for* Jesus? We can pray *to* him, but not for him, right?

Then comes the refrain – “let the saints give us protection”. Just think about this prayer at the end of each verse – how often do we appeal to the help of the parampara at the end of whatever it is we have to say? How often do we realize that we are completely dependent on our predecessor acharyas? How often to we reflect on the meaning of “rupanugas”?

Typically, our prayers start and end with Srila Prabhupada, but his strength didn’t come from nowhere – he spent years of sleepless nights praying at the Rupa Goswami’s samadhi for help and guidance, weeping alone in the darkness. Srila Prabhupada’s mercy wasn’t “causeless” in this sense – he fully prayed for it, pardon the pun.

So, who do we pray for when we embark on any new adventure? “Let the saints offer us protection”. Saints, not the Lord. Who are we to appeal to the Lord directly? If He ever listens to us it’s only because of the mercy of the sampradaya.

Second verse is fully encrypted, 256 RSA key. If in the first verse “swan” can easily be identified as JC, the second verse talks about “sleeping trees”. What are they? Who are they referring to? It’s like passages from Rig Veda that can be easily translated but their meaning is still incomprehensible. And there are passages there that haven’t been properly translated yet – it’s still just a word soup to Sanskritologists. So, I don’t know what Christians make of it, but to me “sleeping trees” are us, ordinary people who haven’t been awakened to our real lives yet. Spiritually speaking, we are senseless like trees, even though we can move about in the material world. This translation makes sense to me.

Second line talks about wind that doesn’t touch their dreams, or can’t touch their dreams, or won’t touch their dreams. How to parse this prayer? What I see is Lord’s mercy which is still being withdrawn from us. His lilas are ever growing but they don’t touch our miserable, tree-like existence. They don’t cross into our lives, they can’t cross down here, and they won’t. But if we pray for it… That’s what we do with chanting Hare Krishna, after all. We beg the Name to descend into our lives and wake us up from our dreams. But it won’t – not until we make ourselves ready. In the Bible there’s a line in this regard: “many be called, but few chosen”. Unless we are chosen, we are like sleeping trees. Chosen – it means the final word belongs to the Lord, it’s not up to us.

Lord’s mercy is unlimited, but it won’t come into the heart filled with anarthas. So by constantly chanting, mantra after mantra, round after round, day after day, year after year, we slowly chisel away all the accumulated dirt in our hearts and hope that one day we’ll become worthy of Lord’s mercy. Therefore we pray for the “wind” that normally doesn’t disturb these sleeping trees. “Wind”, btw, is the property of air, it’s what brings movement, brings change into the world. It purifies and liberates and lifts us up. It’s a very appropriate prayer whichever way you look at it, and it ends with the appeal to the saints to extend their protection.

Next verse reminds us that in front of the Lord we can’t offer any excuses. We can’t blame anyone else, we can’t pass our faults as someone else’s. We can’t be dishonest. This is a very important point – the Lord resides in that corner of our hearts where we are absolutely honest. How often we ourselves go there? Not very, right? But that’s where the Lord dwells. But what to do about our faults? Next line tells us – “you yourself is a justification enough”. What??? How can this bag of envy and cheating and lust be a justification for anything? We can’t process it in our ISKCON realm of four regulative principles, for example. We can’t contemplate a situation where the Lord would accept one’s committing sinful activities and forgive one for that. It’s our red line – four regs or out. Nevertheless it’s the truth – our existence is justification it itself to appear before the Lord and become accepted. How so?

The easy answer lies in “tat te ‘nukampāṁ su-samīkṣamāṇo” verse from Bhagavatam which says that for a devotee absolutely every situation, even an unfavorable one, is a blessing from the Lord. The point is that whatever the Lord arranges for us, even if detestable by everybody else’s standards, is His loving and caring arrangement for our purification and benefit. When seeing it this way, as a matter between oneself and the Lord and without trying to impress others, one can appreciate the body and its karma given to us as a justification in itself to invite the Lord into our hearts, or rather to reveal Himself. With this vision one automatically gives up propensity to lie and hide his sins – there are no sins between us and the Lord, only His unlimited mercy and our lack of appreciation for it.

Next line further elaborates on this condition of the heart – one stands before the Lord without “bread in his hands”. In Russia honorable guests are greeted with a loaf of freshly baked bread (and a serving of salt), but once we open our hearts to the Lord we realize we have nothing to offer to Him. We own nothing in this world and so we feel totally unqualified to receive Him. There are lots of personalities in Srimad Bhagavatam who attained Lord’s mercy but we are not one of them. Narada Muni discovered that every one of the otherwise celebrated devotees has this attitude of being unqualified and undeserving of Lord’s mercy in Brihad Bhagavatamrita.

Another feature of the soul in this humble position given in this line is that one has “no guiding star” in his life. To anyone else we can say that we follow this person or that person, this idea or that idea, prefer iPhones or Androids, liberals or conservatives, but in front of the Lord we have no one else to follow and no places to go, no other destinations. The song informs us that at this moment one feels himself infinitely alone. I suppose because the world and everyone else in it just fades away and disappears from view. Who are you going to turn to when you are standing before the Lord? No one else is there. Alternatively, the “star” in this verse can refer to stars pinned on the chests of brave soldiers and generals, feathers in one’s cap, so to speak. Makes sense as well.

And then, after a couple of minutes of the flute solo (this flute like instrument really carries the entire song), comes the last verse which repeats the line about “vanished swan” but this time it says that He disappeared only to come back to us again, and this time refrain has changed to “saints HAVE given us mercy”. This turn makes the song into an outpouring of vipralambha, the pain of being separated from the Lord, not just lecturing on things. Without deeply feeling Lord’s absence one cannot possibly cry for the Holy Name. Harinama IS the cry of the soul separated from the Lord, it’s not the sound of someone content with his life. It doesn’t happen to people who still think they own things, have positions, reputations, interests, goals, “guiding stars” etc. It’s only when we distance ourselves from these worldly things that we can turn our attention to the Lord and utter His name with love and devotion. Let the saints extend us their mercy so that we can actually do that.

After processing all this I decided to change my first impression as “sugary” of the Hare Krishna chant that follows this verse. It might appear sugary due to lack of chanting practice by the singer, but its foundation is solid.

There are many other things I want to appreciate about this song. How the word “prayer” appears only twice in five minutes but every line is tied to it grammatically – because of Russian inflections of verbs and nouns. I guess that’s what it feels like when translating Sanskrit – there simply are no tools in the English language to convey all the nuances and poetic beauty they produce. That is not to say that English poetry is somehow deficient, but it’s different, and it means that it expresses certain feelings but not the ones found in Sanskrit, or in this case in Russian. They are beautiful in their own way, but different. Just like there’s no equivalent for the sweet beat of mridanga. Lord’s madhurya needs appropriate instruments to be expressed, it can’t be done with whatever drum you can find, you can’t express it fully without mridanga.

Did I mention that the movie with this song came out in 1991, which means it was recorded even earlier? Possibly at the time when Russians had only underground Bhagavad Gitas or, maybe, first imported Teachings of Lord Caitanya and Isopanishads at most. How did BG get this deep insight into our philosophy? For one thing, it’s not really unique and is common to all religious paths, Christianity included (but not to all Christians, naturally). Come to think of it, their anticipation of the second coming IS love in separation, though they don’t normally talk about it this way.

In this connection we can remember the story of Narada Muni who experienced a brief appearance by the Lord and then spent the rest of his life longing for Him. It was certainly love in separation, and we can see similar examples of echoes of the original separation of the gopis in Vraja everywhere. It reverberates through the entire world, manifesting itself here and there, and it takes real appreciation for it to spot it in everyday events. At this point I don’t mind whether it comes from our devotees or from people like this BG. We should feel forever indebted to whoever brings it to us – amanina manadena. How else can we expect to chant the Holy Name? Only by seeing His mercy in every soul, every object, every phenomena coming into our experience.

Hare Krishna

Sanskrit-Thai transliteration issues

This post is meant to elicit feedback, please leave comments below if you think something in this article is factually incorrect.

Common problems

Without going too far into history, Thai alphabet is part of a Brahmic family of scripts and as such, like Devanagari itself, was originally perfectly equipped for writing down Sanskrit. Many modern Thai words have Sanskrit origins, too. With time, however, correct pronunciation has been lost even though spelling in many cases remained the same. Pronunciation standards were not maintained and rather the way the common people say these words became official, and so modern Thai has many rules to regulate this “corruption”, for the lack of a better word.

In Hindi, for example, people drop final “a” so that Bharata becomes Bharat and Prabhupada becomes Prabhupad. Modern Thai goes further than that. Take Thai word for Lord Indra – พระอินทร์. First part is “Pra”, which is a honorific and doesn’t concern us here. “Indra” itself is อินทร์ – it has all the letters “i”, “n”, “d/t”, and “r”, but if you drop final “a” saying “Intr” becomes impossible so “tr” is dropped as well and pronunciation becomes just “In” – Pra In. In some cases full pronunciation is retained, however, like part of the official Thai name for Bangkok is “Mahintara”, which is basically “Mahindra”. In this case “dra/tra” is retained but a vowel is inserted in the middle to make pronunciation easier – “intara”. Sometimes it’s spelled “Inthara” – there are resorts and hotels with this name (to be fair, there’s also “Ramintra”).

Thus there are many cases where letters are part of the word but are silent and there are rules for when they are read aloud and when not.

Another way of simplification concerns final consonants – whatever consonant appears at the end of the word it must make one of the eight permitted sounds. Thus words ending in “r” actually end in “n” and words ending in “s” actually end in “t”. Sometimes, to an English speaker, this affects letters in the middle of words, too, like letter ล – “l” in the middle of ชลบุรี becomes “n” – ChoNburi. There are rules to govern these changes as well.

Implicit vowels – one of the first things to learn when reading Devanagari, are present in Thai but their pronunciation is not fixed. Depending on the position in the word they become “a” or “o”. In the word ถนน – which is written as “th-n-n” implicit vowels are read as thAnOn. There are rules to govern these changes, too.

Another major area is consonant clusters. In Sanskrit there are hundreds and possibly thousands of them but in Thai there are only fourteen. Any combination outside of these fourteen requires inserting a vowel, similar to “Intara” above. Every school child is taught English nowadays but without sufficient training and discipline even common words like “school” and “spa” (there’s spa on every street corner in Bangkok now) are pronounced as “sa-kool” and “sa-pa”. This rule isn’t fixed, however – proper pronunciation of fashionable words is a sign of social status so many Thais will say “blueberry” perfectly, but those who don’t care enough would still say “baluberry”. So, the rule for inserting “a” is there but it’s not applied when there’s a need for trying to sound like a foreigner. In any case, consonant clusters transliterated from Sanskrit need to indicate that they are, indeed, clusters and that inherent vowels need to be dropped.

In some cases Thai consonants become silent precisely because they are part of clusters that are difficult to say, notably in ศร combination which is important to us because it’s part of “Sri”. Second letter, ร, becomes silent and so words like Srinakarin are pronounced Sinakarin. Full Thai spelling is ศรีนครินทร์ – Srinakarindra, and “Sinakarin” is what is left of it after all the rules are applied.

Finally, and this is probably the biggest and the most obvious issue – some Sanskrit sounds have been totally lost. Five of them are in the “Gha .. Bha” group of Sanskrit letters, and there are no Thai sounds for ś and ṣ either. As there’s no Thai “sh” for Krishna, Thai speakers say “s” instead – Krisana (-sana because “sn” is not an allowed consonant cluster). These missing sounds need to be taught – how to make them, how to position one’s mouth, what they should sound like etc. This isn’t an issue with transliteration per se – because letters for these sounds still exists, but we need to teach people how to make totally new sounds and we need to include these techniques in our pronunciation guide.

Good news is that “sh” is common in English and so Thai people are very familiar with it already. Nobody has been a better teacher than “Share” button on Facebook. Otherwise, Thai pronunciation of “share” and “chair” is about the same – with soft “ch”.

A few words need to be said about “ch” as well – there appears to be confusion among Thai speakers whether letter จ should be written as “ch” in English (and so as “ca” in Caitanya). Bangkok’s most famous market is Chatuchak and it’s written like this on every map and in every travel guide, but when abbreviating many would write it as JJ market instead. “JJ Market” is also the name of a huge mall they built there. One English language newspaper in Thailand would write someone’s name as Chakrit but another would write Jakrit instead. However, all agree that Thai ruling dynasty should be spelled Chakri – not Jakri. I mention this because original Thai letters for “ca” and “ja” have been swapped from the time of Sanskrit and any possible confusion needs to be cleared.

Thai language also doesn’t have “v” and so “va” is pronounced as “wa”. In some cases this “wa”, which is technically a consonant, will be made into an official part of a diphthong – there are rules for that. As as result, “deva” will be read as “dewa” (or actually as “thewa” because of d-th sound shift). Words with “sva” will be read as “sawa” – because of v-w and insertion of “a” between “sv”.

When devising transliteration scheme we should keep in mind not only how to reverse all these rules but remember that many of the rules were often introduced specifically to accommodate wishes of common people. In effect, we have to go against what people want. Here’s a list of what needs to be accounted for:

  • teach production of new sounds
  • insist on pronunciation of consonant clusters
  • insist on pronunciation of correct final consonants when these sounds are not allowed in Thai
  • indicate correct vowel when a Thai speaker would instinctively read differently

We should also decide how strict we need to be with enforcing all these new rules. BBT standard for transliteration into English has been “100% accuracy” from the start and with so many ISKCON devotees studying Sanskrit it’s not going to be relaxed. In real life, however, English speaking devotees make no differentiation between na-ṅa-ña-ṇa, ta-ṭa, and da-ḍa groups of Sanskrit letters, for example. At most, they are aware of ś and ṣ but only vaguely about a and ā or u and ū. What seems important is “bha” type of sounds because every ISKCON devotee can make them and they form the core of our most common words like “bhakti”, “Bhagavan”, and “Prabhupada”. So, we need to decide which of these sounds and rules should be a priority and introduced forcefully.

Acceptance by Thai public is another area we should pay attention to. It can be of two kinds – impressions of people on the street and opinions of authorities when people ask for clarification. They are rarely the same, though eventually authoritative opinions prevail over initial public reaction. If the authorities (academics or influential monks in our case) do not approve of our selected method we will be allowed public space to preach whatever we want and even collect our own following but we will never be accepted as a genuine article by people who actually control Thai society. That will be ironic because these people spill gallons of blood to preserve old Vedic traditions against onslaught of modernization and new ideas. This is an important subject outside the scope of this article, but despite being known as a Buddhist country, Thai Royal court is governed by “Hindu” rules, Royal ceremonies are performed by caste Brahmins, and King’s main duty is to govern the country according to rules of “Dharmarajya”, making Thailand into a de facto last Hindu/Vedic kingdom in the world. These are the same principles that are promoted very heavily in our books so we should not be seen as a corrupting influence instead.

One final word – solutions to each of these challenges should include appropriate markup in the transliterated text and this could create an additional problem. I don’t think we can say that we’ve done a good job if our transliteration method cannot be used on digital devices like phones and computers and devotees cannot possibly type “Prabhupada” into their Facebook posts. Just imagine the outcry if every time English speaking devotees would try to type “Prabhupada said” and it would look like garbage on their screens or the screens of their recipients. They will quickly find a way around it and stop using our proposed transliteration. Then we will have no control if their workarounds are correct or how it affects their pronunciation. These days hardly anyone reads printed books and there’s little use for transliteration scheme that is good only for paper but is useless for computers, phones, and the internet. Our English transliteration is already affected by this problem, for example.

In the next section I’ll give an overview of several possible transliteration schemes.

Pali Sanskrit

This method is the preserved writing scheme for the original Pali and Sanskrit and I will refer to is as PS.

Pros – 100% accuracy, official status and therefore full compliance with ISO standards and full support on all digital platforms.
Cons – reading rule is different from modern Thai, over a dozen letters sound differently from modern Thai, and so the text looks unintelligible to a reader without pronunciation guide.

As I mentioned earlier, originally Thai script was meant to write down Sanskrit perfectly. Over the time, however, pronunciation of many letters have changed and now many of original Sanskrit letters duplicate more common modern ones. This has made them obsolete even though they are still part of Thai alphabet and are taught to children in schools. Thai name for Bhagavad Gita, for example, is kept almost unchanged – ภควัต-คีตา now vs ภควทฺ-คีตา in PS, it still uses ภ letter in front but now instead of original “bha” sound it makes “pha”, and original ค is now not “ga” but “kha”, making it “Phakhawat” (ทฺ-d from PS was replaced by ต-t). Same holds for the word “Krishna” itself. In modern Thai it’s กฤษณะ and in PS it’s กฺฤษฺณ – all the core letters are the same but their pronunciation has changed (to “Krisana”).

Looking at the list of problems to overcome – first is the “new sounds” – in PS original Sanskrit sounds are there, part of the alphabet, and they can be found in a variety of sources, starting from Wikipedia, but many Thai Sanskritologists reportedly do not use them when speaking. In this transliteration scheme new sounds need to be taught in the way they were pronounced before. Techniques for adding “h” sound to “b” to make “bha”, for example, need to be invented and explained in the pronunciation guide and people need to be reminded which old letters they apply to.

The other three issues are dealt with automatically because PS does not recognize modern Thai rules at all. Take consonant clusters, for example – in Sanskrit they are indicated by ligatures merging two consonants together and there are hundreds of these unique combinations. No keyboard, however, can have so many letters. What people actually do is use “virama” extensively instead. When two consonants are meant to be merged “virama” is put between them and then it’s up to the font to display a correct ligature. In the first words of Bhagavad Gita – “Dhritarashtra uvaca”, there’s a consonant cluster ś-ṭ-r. It is typed as (using Devanagari symbols, of course) ś – virama – ṭ -virama – r. The font then merges these three into one ligature.

In PS it works the same way. Virama in Thai is Pinthu, a little dot underneath the consonant, but consonants do not need to be merged and so no ligatures need to be learned. That śṭra combination is typed as ษ-Pinthu-ฏ-Pinthu-ร. Pinthu is not displayed on its own so I didn’t type it here, but it is shown underneath and it becomes “ษฺฏฺร”. Here’s with a bigger font ษฺฏฺร

In PS letters sound always the same, there are no changes for any reasons applied in modern Thai and inherent vowel is always “a” so Thai rules for occasionally changing it to “o” are not applied either.

Consider example of the word “mantra” – มนฺตฺร (used more for something like “incantation” or “prayer”, for regular “mantra” there’s shorter version of the same word). Let’s try to read it. First is ม-m, there’s no Pinthu, so “ma”. Second is นฺ-n with Pinthu, so just “n” – “ma-n”. Then ตฺ-t with Pinthu, so “t” – ma-n-t. Finally there’s ร-r, no Pinthu, so “ra”. And now we have ma-n-t-ra.

What I demonstrated here is the only reading rule and pretty short one at that, but it needs to be taught. Without it people won’t know what to make out of the text. They know about existence of Pinthu in principle but not how it is used in PS. Good news is that people can google how to read Pali Sanskrit and there are plenty of pages explaining it. Bad news is that the way people parse their own language into words is very difficult to change and even if there’s only one rule to learn ignoring all the old ones is going to be difficult, plus there are about a dozen letters where sounds are different, too. Thai letter ช – cha, for example, is very very common but in PS it makes sound “ja” instead of “cha” and memorizing this change requires effort.

Switch to using PS also needs to be indicated in the text. In our English books most of the Sanskrit is put in italics but not always. There are plenty of Sanskrit words that appear as part of the normal text, usually proper names. Readers recognize them by the use of diacritics and if there are no diacritics, like in “Veda” or “yoga”, the words are still read the same way. In PS, however, there are only two symbols that could be considered as equivalent of English “diacritics” (Pinthu and Nikhahit – anusvara in oṁ) to indicate that reading rules have changed and without them the same word could be pronounced very differently. Even something as simple as “yoga” won’t have an expected “a” at the end and would look like a misspelling to a Thai reader – unless there’s indication that PS reading rule should be applied.

Good news is that we can use italics for all PS words, even in verse translations (where italics are never used in our English books). The bad news is that italics cannot be copy-pasted between many apps. Facebook does not allow them, for example, and none of the messenger apps like Line, Whatsapp, or Viber support them. Good news is that simply surrounding words with spaces would indicate to Thai readers that there’s something special about them (spaces are not used between words in Thai, only between sentences).

Regarding accuracy – it will become similar to English. All the information necessary for perfect pronunciation is there and it’s up to individuals if they want to differentiate between sounds like n, ṇ, and ñ in speech and writing. Even better than English – all the symbols needed for typing PS are on standard Thai keyboard and so Thai devotees will quickly learn and indicate the difference between “varnashrama” and “varṇāśrama” – the difference which is often lost on English speakers.

Regarding acceptance by the public – no academic could ever say that PS deviates from the tradition and for many of them it would probably be even closer to tradition that their own stands. General public will find it, at least at first, as cumbersome, but this is also their opinion of “Rajasap” – language used in the Royal court, which is so high class and  flowery that it’s incomprehensible to ordinary people. It is still accepted out of deep respect for the institution and it is not expected to change to suit the common taste. In this sense, we can argue that Bhagavad Gita should be no less respectable and deserve an effort to read it.

Modern Pali

There’s no widely known term for it but it’s the way Buddhist Pali texts are recorded in Thai and then used by monks and laymen for chanting prayers on all ceremonial occasions. It tries to address the same problems as we have with transliterating Sanskrit and it generates the same kind of conflicts – what’s correct? what’s better for the people? shouldn’t it be made easier? how strict should we be? etc. The situation there roughly as follows. The ideal is Pali Sanskrit I described above but it is deemed to be too difficult  and is hardly followed. Google search gives ten times more results for “Modern Pali” spelling of popular prayers than for their “Pali Sanskrit” spellings.

However, when I searched google for the first line of Tipitaka, the main Pali Buddhist text, number of results was roughly the same for PS and modern spelling. Interestingly, the same situation exists for our common prayers as well: “nama oṃ viṣṇu-pādāya” gives 500 results and “nama om vishnu padaya” gives 50,000 while properly transliterated ślokas from Bhagavad Gita easily outnumber their versions typed without diacritics. That is to say – scriptures are preserved in their correct form but common usage isn’t, and this demonstrates importance of the ability to use transliteration in our own typing. I bet not many devotees can answer whether correct spelling of “sh” in Vishnu is “ś” or “ṣ” because they have never had to type it themselves.

Anyway, top results for “Tipitaka” are sites that usually offer alternative transliterations for the readers and Pali Sanskrit is always there among the choices.

Pali is studied by every monk wishing to advance in the hierarchy – it’s part of their “bhakti-shastri”, so to speak, but old (and so correct) pronunciation is not part of the exam so very few monks pay attention to it even if it’s the same textbooks written by the same Prince Vajirananavarorasa who institutionalized Thai Buddhism. There are also two “advanced” Pali courses which are far superior in content and demand correct pronunciation but completing them does not give one any social advantages like adding a special honorific to one’s name or rights to royal cremation so even fewer monks take them. When Westerners transliterate these Thai Pali texts into English they invariably use correct pronunciation and invariably note that Thais themselves do not read them correctly. It’s a known issue.

Here’s an example from Wikipedia, I won’t post Thai script, only transliteration of how it would be read. First line in Pali Sanskrit, second in modern Pali:

arahaṃ sammāsambuddho bhagavā
arahang sammasamphuttho phakhawa

The advantage of the second line is that every Thai speaker can read it right away without any training but it looks very different from the original. “Bha” has been replaced with “pha”, “d” and “dh” with “t” and “th”, “ṃ” with “ng”, but what is not immediately obvious is that long “ā” has been lost, too, and become short “a” instead.

Here’s another common prayer, this time I’ll post only Thai:

นโม ตสฺส ภควโต อรหโต สมฺมาสมฺพุทฺธสฺส
นะโม ตัสสะ ภะคะวะโต อะระหะโต สัมมาสัมพุทธัสสะ

Second, modern Pali version, has a lot of “ะ” which force the explicit “a” vowel and that’s how they solve one of the problems.

Consonant clusters are not as common in Pali as they are in Sanskrit but “sva” I mentioned earlier is very very popular and pronounced as “sawa” even if written correctly.

Pali has the advantage of being primarily oral and, more importantly, inviolable as language of liturgy, so monks can force what they think is correct pronunciation regardless of Thai rules, while people will learn to read it as they first heard it. Every Thai household has a book, a brochure, or a leaflet with these prayers somewhere around and they read them just as they heard the monks recite them.

I haven’t seen any enthusiasm among devotees for adapting these method, however. Nor will it sound anything close to what the rest of ISKCON devotees would expect.

Some new alternative

Our existing Bhagavad Gita is the obvious example here but the process would be the same anyway. New sounds (bha, sha etc) need to be taught and need to be indicated in the transliterated text. In English diacritic marks are used in printed books but almost never when devotees write or type themselves. So, if we introduce some new markings not easily available people won’t use them. In English it results in no difference between na and ṇa or śa and ṣa – it’s always na and sha, but in Thai there will be no difference between bha and pha and that wouldn’t sound right to an average ISKCON ear so new markings need to be not only taught in the pronunciation guide but also be usable.

For consonant clusters – Thai language has a character called Yamakkan to indicate beginning of the cluster but it is not included in common keyboard layouts and so impossible to use. The idea was that Pinthu, which is on every Thai keyboard, serves the purpose just as well.

I don’t know how correct pronunciation of final consonants can be enforced or indicated. One would just have to state in the pronunciation guide the rule that their sound never changes and hope people don’t forget to follow it while otherwise reading the text in their familiar way.

Inherent vowels can be made explicit and there are ways to achieve it in ordinary Thai, one of them is adding “ะ” after every consonant like the example above.

Here’s my analysis of the transliteration method in the existing Bhagavad Gita:

New sounds – bha, gha etc are taken care of by adding Pinthu or Nikkhahit above or below the consonant – wherever there’s space left. Ś and ṣ are not represented, however, and soft “ch” is used instead. Thus, the word “cakṣur” has the same ช for both “c” and “ṣ” – ชัคชุร. Same “cha” – ช is used in Kṛṣṇa as well whereas Thai word for Kṛṣṇa has “s” sound (but correct Pali Sanskrit ษ letter). “Va” vs “wa” is not mentioned.

Because Nikkhahit is being used to indicate “h” in “bha” group of sounds there’s no letter to indicate “ṁ” left so it’s simple “m” instead.

Consonant clusters are not indicated (partly because Pinthu has also been used for adding “h” to “bha” instead of its usual role) and so people would, reportedly, read kṣetre in dharmakṣetre as “ka-shetre”, or even “ka-chetre”.

Final consonants are not enforced so the word “cakṣur” would be read as “chakachun” (but with softer “ch” than in English).

Final ‘ḥ” is indicated by “ฮ”, which appears to be correct, but without giving the rule about its pronunciation it would be read as “ho” so that we have “māmakāhO pāṇḍavāś caiva” or “mucyante sarva-kilbiṣaihO”. It’s never used in this way in Thai but “ho” would be the expected sound at the end of words.

Inherent vowels are indicated properly – “man-manā” is มัน-มะนา. The way they are indicated differs for the first and second “a”, however. Long “ā” at the end is indicated by “า” so that’s been taken care of, too.

Regarding acceptance by the public – the first issue people notice is that spelling of “Krishna” is different from Thai, both modern or Pali Sanskrit (which have almost no difference between them). When someone asked about it on Pantip.com, the largest discussion board in Thailand, the answer was that Thai language still uses original Sanskrit but in our Bhagavad Gita it’s a transliteration from English – which is not the effect our books are supposed to produce. Beyond that, it needs to be investigated how an inquisitive Thai person will read transliterated ślokas after reading the supplied pronunciation guide (which explains only the production of “bha” sounds and not much else). Thai devotees have grown fond of this method, however, and do not see the need for any changes.

The prospects of adopting this method for the internet are bleak – because Pinthu and Nikkhahit are used in a way different from ISO standard for Thai language and any parsing software treats these combinations as invalid typing errors. How it displays these errors varies by exact combination and digital platform. On one end of the spectrum Chrome hides them all, on the other end iPhones and Apple software almost always  display them as clear errors. Typing these combinations is impossible on iPhones, possible on Android, and tricky on Windows – to produce “Prabhupada” one would need to type “PrabUHpada” and so enter symbols that go above and below “b” in a reversed order. They would still display as errors on iPhones, though. This is regardless of fonts or of whether it’s a website, an app, or an e-book – it’s considered an error on the level of the text parser itself.

Another consideration is that if we propose a new, non-traditional transliteration method people won’t be able to read our text online if they don’t have access to printed pronunciation guide. Traditional methods, on the other hand, everyone can google on the internet.

Finally, my personal opinion is that we should present 100% accurate Sanskrit transliteration and then leave it to people to raise their own pronunciation to this standard if they want.to. Robbing them of the opportunity to ever read Sanskrit correctly seems unfair. This has been done in English and it’s even easier to implement in Thai because it’s already present in the language itself. Not preserving 100% accuracy would also go against the spirit of “as it is” in the name of our Bhagavad Gita.