I left the story about Haridāsa Ṭhākura debating degraded brāhmaṇa before it even started – on discussing that brāhmaṇa’s motives. They weren’t pure, he was driven by envy of vaiṣṇavas and by materialistic pride. It wasn’t a spiritual debate that was meant to produce any meaningful result even if the brāhmaṇa tried to frame it that way.
The “debate” went roughly like this:
– The injunction is to chant in one’s mind, who told you to chant loudly?
– You all know the glories of the holy name, I can only repeat what I head from you – loud chanting is hundred times better
– How is it one hundred times better?
– There are these verses in the śāstra, plus loud chanting delivers all living organisms that hear it. One delivers only himself, another delivers thousands who hear him? Who is better among the two?
– Oh God, now even this ex-Muslim is a philosopher, who gave him the right? It’s Kali Yuga in action – outcasts teaching Vedas.
Then there was a concluding pledge – if what Haridāsa said wasn’t true the brāhmaṇa would personally cut off his nose and ears. I don’t get this part – what is so brāhmaṇical about this cruel and unusual punishment? Who was he – a brāhmaṇa or a butcher?
Haridāsa Ṭhākura didn’t say anything in return, just smiled and left, probably not wishing to keep the company of the offender. He was also constantly chanting the names of Lord Hari very loudly, as if to insist on his point. Then came the natural conclusion: “Within a few days, that wretched brāhmaṇa was attacked by smallpox and as a result his nose melted away and fell off.”
Śrīla Vṛndāvana Dāsa Ṭhākura and Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī made a lot of comments on the proceedings and these are the lessons we should take away from this episode, but let’s start with verses Haridāda Ṭhākura quoted in his support.
First was this unattributed quote: “uccaiḥ śata-guṇaṁ bhavet”. It means that if one loudly chants the holy names of the Lord he obtains one hundred times more benefit. The brāhmaṇa didn’t challenge Haridāsa for source but asked for supporting evidence to this statement. I don’t think he accepted it as a direct quote but rather as a verdict.
In reply Śrīla Haridāsa quoted last four lines of this full verse (SB 10.34.17):
brahma-daṇḍād vimukto ’haṁ
sadyas te ’cyuta darśanāt
yan-nāma gṛhṇann akhilān
śrotṝn ātmānam eva ca
sadyaḥ punāti kiṁ bhūyas
tasya spṛṣṭaḥ padā hi te
“O infallible one, I was immediately freed from the brāhmaṇas’ punishment simply by seeing You. Anyone who chants Your name purifies all who hear his chanting, as well as himself. How much more beneficial, then, is the touch of Your lotus feet?” This verse was spoken by a snake who tried to swallow Mahārāja Nanda but was liberated by the touch of Kṛṣṇa’s lotus feet
Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta examines this verse very closely and he exposes several valuable facts about chanting of the holy name. He translates part of that śloka as follows: “By once chanting the holy names of the Lord a person purifies himself and others”. Here “once chanting” shows that one does not need to have prior faith for the holy names to bring effect, it will work anyway. He sees it as a refutation of an understanding that until knowledge of one’s relationship with the Lord based on faith is awakened, there is no need to chant the holy names. On the contrary, “One can and should chant the names of the Lord while avoiding the ten offenses even during the four faithless situations of saṅketa (indirectly), parihāsa (jokingly), stobha (as musical entertainment), or hela (neglectfully).
This seems a bit contradictory to me – avoid ten offenses when saying the name neglectfully? The first three are okay – we often mention Kṛṣṇa’s names indirectly, ie while talking about something else. We can use them while joking, too, and certainly during kīrtanas. In all these cases we can and should avoid ten offenses, but the last one, neglectful chanting, escapes me. Maybe because inattentive chanting is not actually on the list of offenses, even if it causes most of them to happen as a result. It’s a separate topic I’d rather avoid here.
Next, Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta says that the verb gṛhṇan is used in present tense, “while chanting”, and it means that the names do not have to be even completed. Half the name would already brings effects while being chanted. In his words: “This means that one can and should chant the names of the Lord, even unclearly, improperly, and incompletely or partially.” I don’t think we should read it as an encouragement but rather as a warning that we should not dismiss such chanting as ineffectual, especially when judging others.
Next word is akhilān, “to all” in our Bhāgavatam translation, and it means that one’s chanting should not depend on his qualifications as they are required for activities like sacrifices or worshiping the deities. One can and should chant for the benefit of all immediately, no admittance tests necessary, and it will still work.
The use of the word sadyaḥ refutes the argument that chanting should depend on time. Sadyaḥ means immediately. Whenever one chants, it works.
The word śrotṛn, “the hearers”, indicates that the audience should hear the names, ie the chanting should be loud. The words eva ca here mean that both the chanter and the hearers will be purified by the name just as they are purified by the touch of Lord’s lotus feet.
Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī attributes this analysis to Śrī Sanātana and Śrī Jīva Gosvāmīs.
Haridāsa Ṭhākura then talked about benefits for birds, animals and insects – living beings who cannot chant themselves and therefore can only be saved by the mercy of others – an important consideration I never thought of before. They can’t chant themselves even if they wanted, their only chance is if I chant for them, and as spirit souls they are non-different from people I can engage in a discussion with, and they are probably less atheistic and less envious.
Then Haridāsa Ṭhākura gave a verse from Nāradīya Puraṇa:
ātmānam ca punāty uccair
japan śrotṛn punāti ca
“One who loudly chants the holy names of the Lord is a hundred times greater than one who silently chants, because those who chant silently purify only themselves, while those who chant loudly purify themselves as well as those who hear them.”
Śata here means a hundred, the previously quoted verse didn’t mention the number.
Then Śrīla Haridāsa Ṭhākura proceeded with explanations and reasons I mentioned in the outline – how one who saves more living entities is better than one who saves only himself, to which brāhmaṇa replied that Haridāsa was not in the position to teach Vedas, as I said before.
Both Vṛndāvana Dāsa Ṭhākura and Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī objected to this very strongly, probably because it was an important issue in those days. It’s not so important to us, though. The argument could still come up if we were to lecture real brāhmaṇas, which probably won’t happen. I’m sorry, but for me it’s the reason to turn by brains off and simply accept the conclusion – we should not accept that one is a brāhmaṇa simply on his seminal qualifications. One should undergo proper saṁskāras, of which in Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism there are twenty, five more than brāhmaṇas in south India. It’s all very technical for us, westerners, and we shouldn’t worry about that – who is a brāhmaṇa and who is not, or how to count our saṁskāras. We should be above such materialistic hierarchy and engage ourselves in humble chanting just like Haridāsa Ṭhākura did.
Important part that Haridāsa Ṭhākura simply presented his view and didn’t engage in tit-for-tat arguments with a person who was offensive towards the holy name and wasn’t going to change his stance. Our mission is not argue and quarrel but to chant and let others hear it.