The lecture I was talking about day before yesterday didn’t end with eulogizing compassion, there was more to it and it was a good stuff. I didn’t like it, personally, but that’s just my reaction to this particular style of dramatics.
I love a good story as much as anyone else and probably even more because I once had professional interest in story telling. I love dramatic effects, I love artistic license, it’s a true art. Art, however, is subjective. This particular style sounds way over the top for me and it grinds my ears. Why? I have a foggy image of an explanation that I think is more objective than simply blaming it on my personal tastes.
There are things we grow out of. We know how exciting they might still be to other people, especially children, but they just don’t touch our hearts anymore. I love cats but I avoid cat videos with their “aww” moments. Just the other day a neighborhood cat dragged a piece of a freshly slain bird across my porch and I watched it tearing into it like a little tiger. I’m sure that back home he is as lovely as he can be and everyone strokes him and cuddles him and everything, but what I saw was the reality of animal existence – it’s all about killing and enjoying power.
I, for some reason, don’t like baby videos either just as everyone else around me is an avid fan of some two year old internet sensation. “Grow out of it, will you!” I want to scream but no one would listen. The new season of a popular TV singing contest The Voice is in full swing but I don’t understand what is so fascinating about it. I’ve watched a couple of presentations, they all feel so staged with “artists” deliberately playing underdogs to the audience and begging to pity them for their sob stories. They are not “artists”, they are people who sing and that’s all, they can’t write any songs themselves. Similarly, no one calls nameless Chinese dudes who churned out thousands of copies of famous paintings sold by devotees as “artists”, that’s not what “art” means, but I digress.
My point was that dramatic effects look like very cheap tricks when they don’t work and leave a very bad aftertaste that can spoil the entire presentation, which would be a shame if it was a story about the Lord or His devotees. In this case it was.
Stories from Śrīmad Bhagavatam are full of transcendental nectar that doesn’t need any embellishments. We want to “improve” them only because we can’t taste the real thing, can’t transmit the nectar to the listeners, and so decide to decorate them with unnecessary details that we think would better suit particular conditioning of our audience instead.
This brings me to todays’ subject – the story that was told in that class had more layers underneath it that left me wondering. It was about Devānanda Paṇḍita (short version here – CC Adi 10.77) and it was brought in to illustrate the devastating power of offenses against devotees, iirc. Devānanda Paṇḍita once offended Śrīvāsa Ṭhākura and therefore didn’t get Kṛṣṇa premā when Lord Caitanya was freely distributing it to everyone. Eventually he got to serve Vakreśvara Paṇḍita and Lord Caitanya has forgiven him. The speaker, however, spend ten minutes on a prelude that had nothing to do with Devānanda and created so much drama out of it I could hardly listen, but back to my second thoughts on the story itself.
Devanānda is described as a learned and austere brāhmaṇa without any interests in material life. He spent his days reciting Śrīmad Bhāgavatam but his interpretations were impersonal, Lord Caitanya didn’t like it at all and once wanted to grab Devanānda’s Bhāgavatam and tear it apart. One time He ran into Devanānda and recollected the offense against Śrīvāsa Ṭhākura.
What happened was that Śrīvāsa Ṭhākura visited Devanānda’s lecture and listening to Bhāgavatam made him cry and faint. Devanānda’s disciples couldn’t understand the emotions of a pure devotee and unceremoniously carried him out of the house and into the street. I’ll get back to this a bit later.
My first “second thought” here was “Wait, how could Śrīvāsa Ṭhākura relish impersonal presentation of the Bhāgavatam?” In these situations we are told to close our ears and run away precisely for the reason we might like māyāvādī explanations. Here, however, Śrīvāsa Ṭhākura completely ignored Devanānda’s interpretation and heard only praises to the Lord and to pure devotional service that weren’t even in the lecture itself.
From this episode it appears that it is possible to hear nectar coming from māyāvādīs lips even if the danger is still there. A real devotee listening to Bhāgavatam won’t even notice misrepresentations of it, he’d be too focused on its real content to pay attention to anything else. That is a sign of a true paramahaṁsa who can’t see anything but the Lord everywhere around him and distills pure nectar from unlikeliest of places.
When Lord Caitanya harshly rebuked Devanānda, however, he took it very seriously, like a real brāhmaṇa, and he worked very hard to rectify his behavior. Eventually he got a chance to serve Vakreśvara Paṇḍita and he took it. Vakreśvara once led a very sweet and ecstatic kīrtana that attracted a lot of people and he was so absorbed in it that he didn’t see the danger of the crowd pushing and closing in on him. That’s when Devanānda got a stick and drove the crowd back, to keep the safe space around Vakreśvara.
Later, when Lord Caitanya stopped in Kuliyā, he saw Devanānda again and praised him for his service to Vakreśvara. This service canceled his previous offense against Śrīvāsa and Devanānda finally received the mercy of Mahāprabhu.
Here’s my second “second thought” – “How come Devanānda offended one devotee but was forgiven for serving somebody else?” This is not how we are told to deal with our offenses. It’s not like Devanānda couldn’t find Śrīvāsa and beg forgiveness from him directly. Just think about it – somebody offends you then sucks up to another devotee and doesn’t feel he owes you anything. That’s not how it’s supposed to work, at least in our understanding of what offense and forgiveness means. It worked with Devanānda, however. Why?
Maybe because his offense wasn’t against Śrīvāsa Ṭhākura personally. It wasn’t him who threw Śrīvāsa out of the assembly, his fault was that he didn’t stopped it. Perhaps he didn’t even know it was Śrīvāsa and so his offense was against manifestation of devotion in general. When he saw bhakti manifest in Vakreśvara he understood its value and served it, thus rectifying his offense.
Maybe there’s another explanation, but in any case, when delivering Devanānda Lord Caitanya gave important instructions on how one can rectify his aparādhas:
If a person who unwittingly commits blasphemy stops blaspheming others and instead praises Lord Vishnu and the Vaishnavas, then that person will destroy all his sins. That is the right way to destroy them.
This translation is awful but I can’t find any better, sorry. It doesn’t mean that one doesn’t have to seek forgiveness of a particular devotee but it provides a way out for numerous offenses we commit unknowingly. If we don’t know what we did wrong we are not condemned forever, we just have to increase our service to the Lord and His devotees and hope that our greater appreciation will destroy our sins. I don’t think we can take it as a substitute for an apology we KNOW we should be offering.
Finally, with all these troubles falling on Devanānda Paṇḍita’s head and especially his impersonal interpretation of the Bhāgavatam I was surprised to learn that he is actually an eternally liberated soul and eternal Kṛṣṇa’s associate, even His senior. In Kṛṣṇa līlā he was one of the brāhmaṇas who recited Vedic literatures in Nanda Mahārāja’s house. Go figure – impersonalists in Goloka, who would have thought?
I guess the lesson we can extract from this is that in Kṛṣṇa’s kingdom there’s a place for everyone. We, however, as followers of Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī, should stick to the norms set by our ācāryas. We are not servants of everybody there, we are servants of our particular group of Kṛṣṇa’s devotees and if our predecessors found impersonalism unacceptable then so should we, come hell of high water. A drop of mercy from our guru cannot be substituted by an ocean of blessings from everyone else.