Vanity thought #1604. Bubbling over

Earlier this week there were weird reports coming from India about the ruling party there opposing construction of ISKCON temple in Purī. I mean news articles like this, which is batshit crazy. It’s a rich story, thought, with context and background and prediction and what not.

First of all, they are talking about us building another Jagannātha temple there, which isn’t the case at all. I don’t think our leaders would even do such a thing, for a million of reasons, and there’s a story clarifying the situation here. It might not be enough to correct the public perception, however.

Yesterday I said that the internet is basically garbage and it’s stories like this that prove to me over and over again that it is indeed so. Maybe these publications also print actual newspapers but they also strive to make themselves visible online. That’s where people get their news these days, that’s where publishers can build readership and engage their customers, that’s why they are putting up all kinds of click-bait, provocative stories. They want people respond emotionally and come back for the same rush of adrenaline again and again. It’s not about news, it’s about hooking people up and milking google for advertising money.

Elsewhere I read about a four year old study of Facebook users and it found that prejudiced people tend to hang out together and deepen their biases. Facebook is helping them by feeding them the stories it knows they would like and so they slowly built their own communities that become completely disconnected from reality and drifting farther and farther away from mainstream views. These people just can’t help themselves, they take shelter in in their addiction to news and public comment and they need to feed their cravings.

Another aspect of this story is the proposed temple itself. I don’t know anything about it beyond what I saw on the internet but I seriously doubt that anyone in ISKCON would even contemplate to build a rival Jagannātha temple there. Are they going to have a rival Ratha-yātrā? We are followers of Rūpa and Sanatana Gosvāmīs who were not allowed to go inside the temple. We are followers of Haridāsa Ṭhākura who wasn’t allowed in either. Śrīla Prabhupāda didn’t go inside in solidarity with his disciples, too. We have a long tradition in this regard and accepted our fate in the early days of our movement. Building our own Jagannātha temple there to spite the original would be an unimaginably bad taste, we are not that crazy. Yet.

Also, look at who campaigns against this non-existing plan to build a second Jagannātha temple – the Śaṅkarācārya’s Maṭha in Purī. Afaik, they have always opposed ISKCON devotees being allowed inside even though Odisha’s King is generally in favor of letting us in. The King is not the king of the temple, however, his opinion doesn’t matter much when it comes to religious matters. I’m not saying they should lift the ban on non-Hindus being allowed to enter but Purī advaitins are clearly taking it too far. Spouting the same kind of venom and being cited along with headless politicians is not an image becoming to supposed jñāna yogis. Don’t they have better things to contemplate than nonfactual stories and blaming people for something they didn’t do? How much spiritual advancement could be there for those engaged in this politicking?

Having said that, I wouldn’t put it past our devotees to mention the possibility of installing a Jagannātha deity in our new temple. I don’t think it would be a unique deity in Purī, it’s not like the Lord refuses to manifest Himself in any other image in his dhāma. Only perverted minds would construe this as rivalry with the original and it shouldn’t be an issue but there are people out there who love gossiping and blowing things our of proportion, minds and tongues are hard to control in Kali Yuga. It’s sad to see that this disease affected what I supposed were strict advaitins there. I’m not trying to condemn then but I’ve spent quite a few posts arguing that there’s no true spirituality left outside our tradition, everybody else gets gradually swallowed by Kali.

And then there’s this prediction that one day Russians would come and steal Lord Jagannātha from Purī temple and take Him away. I’ve heard many references to it but only one “complete” theory of what is expected to happen. I suppose people there are instinctively afraid of any threats of this nature even if they might not have a clear understanding of how it could be even possible.

The prediction as I heard it is probably only a recent variation on the original and it says that one day Russians would come into the temple, take the deity away, put Him on the train, but fail to leave the state. The train would be stopped not far from Purī and the deity would be either returned or find a new temple to stay there, I don’t remember exactly, so Russian plan would be only half successful.

I don’t know what to make of it. Russia is thousands and thousands kilometers away from Purī and Hare Kṛṣṇas are not particularly welcome to build temples there. They still haven’t got one in Moscow and only a couple of years ago there was a story on Dandavats that they had just opened the very first Rādhā-Kṛṣṇa temple in the whole of the country. Having the facilities to host the original Jagannātha, who is very big, btw, and serve Him His favorite food sixty four times a day in Russia is unthinkable.

Besides, Lord Jagannātha’s residence is a political matter, it’s not just a random Indian deity. It’s impossible to imagine a situation where foreigners, even as generally friendly to India as Russians, would be allowed to overrun one of the most popular temples in the whole country. It would signal a complete breakdown of law and order and complete disintegration of Indian society. If that ever happens then residence of Lord Jagannātha wouldn’t be the priority for anyone but His dedicated servants, who have all the right, nay even a duty to prepare for all contingencies. If their protocol calls for sabotaging a train if that ever happens then so be it. Perhaps, Russians would be taking Lord Jagannātha to Māyāpur, that is possible once we get TOVP and supporting infrastructure, but it’s all super speculative.

At the end of the day, anything can happen in the material world, especially if we look at longer time frames, not the next year or the next decade. Whatever happens, however, is absolutely always under control of the Lord. No Russians can take Him away without His permission and no Indians can lose Him without offending Him in some way or another. Still, Russians might make plans, Indian politicians might make plans, advaitins might stir the pot, but it’s Lord’s servants duty to look after His welfare at all times. They have this service and it’s the purpose of their lives, they have to do it even if sometimes imperfectly and with offenses, it’s not an excuse for them to stop caring. We cannot condemn them for doing their jobs however crazy it might appear. They have their purpose in life, what’s ours? I hope it’s not walking around and telling everyone how superior we are.

Vanity thought #701. Just as I thought…

A week or so ago I wrote about complaints against Indian devotees bringing in outside influences in ISKCON. Then I wrote that Western devotees aren’t principally better because they bring Western influences into our Bhagavatam classes. A few days ago I saw the proof with my own eyes.

It was class by a Western devotee who, during the course of a lecture, realized that he is not up to date with current Indian “spiritual” practices. He was a bit surprised at himself for that but quickly found an explanation – when in India he never ventures outside ISKCON temples. I’m sure the mataji who complained about non bona fide stories was glad to hear that.

I thought to myself – this is the proper way to visit India. Just stick to ISKCON properties and ISKCON association. This is a very senior devotee with several decades of practice and he might even be on some GBC committee now. I’m not saying I want the same kind of position within ISKCON or the same level of recognition, I’m saying it would be a very good idea to follow in his footsteps regardless of rewards.

Unfortunately, only a couple of minutes later, just after I was contemplating his exemplary behavior, he slipped and committed the mistake I earlier ascribed to Westerners. This time it wasn’t about some wonderful invention or social practice, it was about Shakespeare. Somehow the connection was made and the devotee felt his listeners were not up to scratch on Western classics so he gave a synopsis of an entire play. It didn’t even properly illustrated his point and it took most of the remaining time.

When he finally finished with it he realized it was too late and issued apologies for not telling about Lord Jagannath as was requested by temple authorities. His excuse that we can hear about Jagannath pastimes some other time from some other speakers didn’t really cut the mustard, so to speak. This is what our Bhagavatam classes are for – to hear about Lord’s plays, not Shakespeare’s.

Don’t take me wrong – I do not blame that devotee in the slightest degree, I have no reason to doubt his devotion, dedication, or purity. It was a natural thing to do – we all have to act according to our nature, and when we act according to our nature we have to somehow connect it to Krishna. He connected his story, and it was an explanation of Prabhupada’s quote from the play. Srila Prabhupada knew the background and so did the person he quoted it to but many of us don’t, so an explanation is not out of place.

What I’m getting at is that unless we have a messenger straight from the spiritual world we can’t expect people to avoid following their nature and sharing their experiences. As long as they connect them to Krishna I don’t see a problem. In fact one of the reasons behind this very blog is to try and connect thoughts that occupy my mind for most of the day with Krishna.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t but we should never stop trying and we should never blame other devotees for their apparent failures.

He couldn’t have said what he said without permission of the Lord, and if Krishna is okay with it, who am I to complain?

There’s no other way to become a devotee than through deep, heart-felt appreciation for other vaishnavas’ service. Everything else we see in their behavior is like foam on the surface of the Ganges, just ignore it.

Vanity thought #700. Jagannatha Swami

Week long Ratha Yatra festival is coming to close and I still haven’t selected “the best pastime” to write about. Maybe I’m approaching this all wrong, though. Maybe there isn’t the best pastime, maybe each pastime is the best in its own way, especially for those to whom they were revealed.

I don’t think there’s any proper research on this but I think Lord Jagannatha and His brother and sister are the most playful Deities in the world. Any devotee can recollect some special moments with the Deities but when the time comes to tell those stories, Lord Jagannatha appears to be always in a lead.

I heard there’s a whole book dedicated to pastimes of Lord Jagannatha of Rajpur, and devotees in Mayapur can tell stories about their Jagannatha Deities, too. Our Jananivasa Prabhu was apparently converted by going to Ratha Yatra in India and by being thrust into touching Lady Subhadra’s feet with his head. I’m not sure I’m recalling it correctly, though.

For us, followers of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Lord Jagannatha will always be special. Yes, we usually put Sri Sri Radha Krishna on our altars but without Lord Jagannatha ISKCON wouldn’t be the same, too. Our most popular programs are annual Ratha Yatras held all over the world and out of all our Deities it’s Lord Jagannatha who goes out and blesses thousands and thousands of people. He is our best sankirtana leader ever.

We can say that Lord Chaitanya is a patron of sankirtana and some devotees feel special protection from Lord Nityananda when they are out there on the streets but let’s not forget that the goal of sankirtana is to obtain the mercy of Krishna, ie Jagannatha. Meaning that when Jagannatha comes out and spreads His smile all over the world – this is what our sankirtana is for.

I also like His title, swami, which means someone who is in control. Goswami is someone who is in control of his senses but Jagannatha Swami is in control of the entire universe and as such He is everyone’s master, no one is rejected. Demons, atheists, mlecchas – He is the supreme well-wisher and patron of everyone. No matter what we do, how low can we go, He will never ever abandon us. That is Krishna in His most magnificent form.

There’s no competition with Lord Chaitanya here because Mahaprabhu played the role of a devotee, and a devotee of Lord Jagannatha at that. There’s something to be learned from the fact that Lord Chaitanya spent only a few weeks in Vrindavana but eighteen years in Jagannatha Puri. I figure we should consider Puri the supreme dhama until we achieve liberation and get indicted into Krishna’s pastimes, at which point we’d appreciate Vrindavana better. For the conditioned souls, however, there’s no place more merciful than the Puri Dhama. Again, without competition with Lord Chaitanya and Mayapur.

I wish I had some personal stories connected with Lord Jagannatha but I have nothing of notice, except I always felt something special about being in Puri, something like being on Vaikuntha, if you ignore routine twitches of body and mind. It’s as if daily life there does not matter at all and everyone bathes in the spiritual bliss of Vaikuntha all the time.

I’ve never seen Lord Jagannatha in Puri, never been to Ratha Yatra there but somehow I never felt excluded either. Lord’s presence there can be felt everywhere even when He is not looking at you with His bid round eyes. He is the master there, He is the Swami.

As for stories, perhaps the most memorable one is from devotee from Australia named Amogha. He had a difficult period in his life and one day he decided to leave the temple. He offered his obeisances to the Deities and to Srila Prabhupada, he explained his reasons for leaving, and he opened the door to step outside when the deep baritone voice called him: “Don’t go, Amogha.”. It was coming from the altar of Lord Jagannatha, or maybe it was Baladeva, impossible to say.

Speaking of Baladeva – in the stories He is usually the one who beats people up for their offenses, and sometimes even the Lady Subhadra cheers Him on. All three of them take such deep personal interest in the lives of their devotees, they never let someone to go away and carry their karma with them for god knows how many lifetimes, they always personally interfere and bring their devotees back to their senses, back to being devotees.

They will not let this universe get away from Them, from Their mercy, and we can never appreciate that enough.

Vanity thought #694. A fight over Jagannath

As usual, it takes me a few days to respond to major festivals and I was getting my head around Ratha Yatra when I caught the end of a Mayapur lecture. An Indian devotee was telling some story about Lord Jagannath that I didn’t hear the beginning of and so I didn’t really listen, but when the question time came some mataji confronted him about it.

I don’t know that devotee’s name and I don’t know who the mataji was but her voice reminded me of one of our guru candidates and that added a new perspective to her objections.

Her complaint could be summarized as follows – the story didn’t come from Srila Prabhupada and GBC recently issued a resolution about telling only what we’ve learned from Prabhupada in Bhagavatam classes, that that the story could be totally untrue and it could also be misleading for our devotees because it advocated some unusual Deity service practices, something about not taking a bath and brushing your teeth while cooking.

For the audience it came out totally unexpected and several male devotees tried to help address her concerns but that didn’t seem to pacify her and there was a little back and forth that ended to nobody’s satisfaction and brought the class to an abrupt end. Devotee giving the lecture handled it graciously and with humility but argument-wise it was not settled.

Here are my two cents.

First of all, I don’t think recent GBC paper on the position of Srila Prabhupada should be interpreted so strictly. Majority of our devotees have never ever seen Prabhupada and it’s impossible to stop them from bringing their own life experiences into our classes, no number of resolutions can stop people from talking about what they see and hear.

Secondly, the anecdote might not have come from Prabhupada but it also wasn’t about the story itself, the point was about Lord Jagannath valuing spontaneous, pure devotion over following rules and regulations. Prabhupada had stressed this many many times and so the purpose of the story and the impact of the story were completely legitimate.

Of course it doesn’t mean we can make up anything we want as long as it sounds okay but at the end of the day – does it really matter what happened in real life?

Imagine you have found a witness, took his testimony, and now you think you know everything. Well, what if you asked someone like Amogha about Lord Chaitanya’s austerity or Padmavati about Brijabaisis care about Krishna? Amogha was Sarvabhauma Bhattacharya’s son-in-law who criticized the Lord for eating too much and almost got himself killed, and Padmavati was Kamsa’s mother who never warmed up to neither Krishna nor his family.

My point is that who you hear the story from is more important than knowing the facts because hearing from a devotee you will increase your own devotion while facts are facts, they just elicit mental reactions that depend on your background and emotional state.

So, if what we hear is a story about Lord’s affection for His pure devotees from another devotee’s mouth it doesn’t matter what the facts are – if we hear it in a proper state of mind the story would affect our hearts in a way that is impossible by hearing just facts.

This is to answer the accusation that the story might not be even true.

There’s an axillary point to this – not every story we heard from Prabhupada was true, too. He told us many anecdotes from Bengali folklore and their origins are questionable but we don’t stress ourselves out over those – as long as they contain spiritual lessons and come from Prabhupada’s mouth it doesn’t matter if they are factual, and hearing them from Prabhupada doesn’t make them factual either.

The point about possible negative effect is without merit, too – we all know that Lord Jagannath is not worshiped according to our pancharatrica system and He has a very special relationship with his servitors. Even Sanatana Goswami once fell into the same trap – trying to judge Lord’s devotees by smriti standards and got rebuked by the Deity itself. We know who to follow in our deity worship and no story can override our established standards. This would have been very easy to clarify if the devotee giving the lecture wasn’t caught off-guard.

Actually, that point was addressed fairly satisfactory, it’s the accusation of not following Srila Prabhupada and brining outside influences in that wasn’t answered in full. I’m afraid it has some real basis behind it and I can see where it was coming from.

Everyone who took the mike seemed to protect the devotee giving the class and I also naturally took his side but, at the same time, I tend to drift off when devotees, especially Indian ones, start talking about spiritual lessons they have learned elsewhere. Nothing racist, but Western devotees usually don’t have other sources of Vedic wisdom while every Indian has heard these lessons in spades, starting from childhood.

One local Indian restaurant has all its walls plastered with motivational stickers drawn from Bhagavad Gita verses. With some effort they could be even accepted as more or less correct but they are clearly not coming from the devotees and so leave a bad taste.

When I hear similar borrowings in Bhagavatam classes it leaves a similar bad taste, too. Yes, factually those statements and lessons are correct, but I’d prefer to hear them as they come down OUR parampara, not from some questionable outside sources who inevitably contaminate the message with their non-devotional attitudes.

I know it sounds very sectarian but we have nothing to learn even from bona fide Vaishnava sampradayas because they don’t accept Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. We don’t disagree with them on their interpretation of Gita, for example, but that is as far as our cooperation goes. We still prefer to hear explanation of Gita verses from someone who is brought up in the line of selfless devotion in the highest rasa, in the line of Rupa Goswami.

As I argued yesterday – one word from such a devotee is worth million times more than pretty arguments found anywhere else in the universe.

Perhaps the mataji chose a wrong target because the devotee giving a lecture wasn’t the best example of such deviations and, imo, didn’t deserve being confronted in the open like that, but I think the mataji has a valid point nevertheless.

Just checked Mayapur TV archives and the class is already there – by Krishna Svarupa Prabhu for July 11. I don’t know if I’ll have time to listen to it in full from the start but I think what I just wrote above still stands. If there will be any corrections I’ll add them later.

Vanity thought #421. Pros and cons of perfectionism

It seems like a no brainer – we should perform our service to the best of our ability and always strive to improve it, we can’t be sloppy.

When writing a blog we can put more effort in proof-reading it, for example. To me it’s a big deal, if I publish a post without spending a few more minutes checking for mistakes it’s like I don’t really care how Krishna will enjoy it, I just want to get out of here as fast as possible. That’s not the way to serve the Lord, or anyone else for that matter.

There’s however, another side to perfectionism – Krishna is known to accept the mood of the devotee, not the actual offerings. It’s a sad fact of life that non-devotees generally make the best stuff, but Krishna won’t even look at it because it’s not offered with love and devotion. So why do we have to concentrate on making things better when it’s not things that we are offering, it’s our hearts?

The answer to this, of course, is that we try to chop carrots in perfect cubes because that’s what our hearts tell us to do, for Krishna. We don’t want to create perfect things for the sake of perfection itself, we concentrate on making efforts towards perfection and that’s what we really offer to the Lord.

Initially our offerings might be clearly substandard but pretty soon we notice that we are getting better at preparing them, and once we develop our skills it seems unthinkable not to employ them in order to make the better offerings.

We learn how to do better things from other devotees and once we heard from them it seems unthinkable not offer improvements to Krishna. Sometimes we make mistakes and someone had to teach us how to do things properly, it seems unthinkable not to correct ourselves.

To illustrate this we might consider an example of a guy who mispronounces someone’s name. A lot of non Americans would have trouble getting something like “Cheyenne” correctly but the girl would know they are talking about her anyway. It might go on for some time until she explains to everybody once and for all that it’s “shy-an”. After that using all possible phonic readings would be embarrassing, wouldn’t it?

Same should be with our service – initially Krishna might accept our mistakes but once we know the right way we should quickly abandon erroneous ways, or it will mean there’s something wrong with out attitude.

This, however, has another side, too. For Krishna there are no errors in our offerings, we might get our Sanskrit completely wrong or put too much salt in our food, He doesn’t care about these things. It is quite possible that He gets used to be served such “imperfect” offerings and it becomes integral part of our relations with Him, especially in the form of a Deity.

When we suddenly change our ways He might get surprises: “Who are you? Where’s that devotee whose idiosyncrasies I come to love so much? He was so cute when he pronounces Hare in his own way. I miss him so much, I don’t want any changes.”

It might seem far fetched but there are plenty of examples where Krishna accepts some non-standard seva and He won’t have it any other way. Lord Jagannatha is, perhaps, the prime example. He takes service only from sabar people, originally a forest tribe, not even brahmanas. They don’t follow Pancharatrika rules and their personal habits are not up to our ISKCON standards, yet Lord Jagannatha will not let anyone else to serve Him, there are periods when no one is even allowed to see Him but His dear daitas, He doesn’t need any changes, He likes service from His “imperfect” sabars as it is.

Or one could remember Vamsidasa Babaji, I doubt His Deities, never mind how abused they might have appeared to our eyes, wanted Vamsidas to uphold proper Pancharatra standards.

We can say – this is a temporary material platform, the way I cook at home might be pleasing to the Lord but it doesn’t mean I can’t change my cooking at the temple kitchen. I don’t have to sing the same tunes in the kirtan all the time either. Things here pass, it’s not our original nature, we might have our peculiar ways of serving the Lord but we can’t hold on to them forever.

To answer this I would again point at sabars and Vamsidasa Babaji, whose appearance in this world was as temporary as anybody else’s but who didn’t have to change anything in the way he served his Deities.

If we manage to connect our service with Krishna – that’s already the stage of perfection, it simply can’t get any better than this, it can’t be improved by increasing standards or eliminating errors.

Of course only very few of us a lucky enough to achieve that level but we should always assume the best about service of other devotees. As far as we are concerned – Krishna accept everything from them and enjoys it very much. Our own service – hardly ever, only by the grace of the guru, but we should never think this way about other vaishnavas and so should be very careful with our advice how they can “improve” their service.

Vanity thought #276. Bhaktivinoda Thakur. Puri Bliss.

Testing Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur’s faith and devotion by pitching him against impostors with yogic powers was probably the only uncomfortable moment during his stay there. Everything else was pure bliss.

Remember how the only thing he brought with him when he was assigned to Puri were sets of Srimad Bhagavatam and Chaitanya Charitamrita? He put them to good use.

He had learned Sanskrit earlier but wasn’t very good at it. In Puri he got himself a tutor to help him study Bhagavatam. There were also two friends who studied with him but soon they were left behind. Yesterday I wasn’t sure if he originally brought Sridhara Swami’s commentary with him but this was the edition he read in Puri. After Bhagavatam he devoured lots of other Gaudiya vaishnava literature like Sat Sandarbha and Bhakti Rasamrita Sindhu and lots of other works by Six Goswamis and their followers. He even read Govinda Bhashya – Gaudiya commentary on Vedanta written by Baladeva Vidyabhushana.

Not only did he study those books, he learned Sanskrit well enough to start writing books of his own. His first Sanskrit book was Datta-kaustubha and while in Puri he also started work on his famous Krishna Samhita.

Simply studying and writing wasn’t enough, he had to go and practice his understanding by preaching.

Everyday he would go to Jagannath Temple and hold discussion about vaishnavism. He avoided groups of mayavadis that also gathered there, he said that their blasphemy towards the Lord was unbearable for him to hear. He started his own community, by the place where Lord Chaitanya left imprints of His feet (how appropriate!) Eventually more and more people joined in and he had become a famous preacher of the Bhagavatam. His worldly scholarship paid off again as he was able to quickly pick up on philosophy he was only vaguely familiar with only few years ago.

He also held regular discussions in the place of Ramananda Raya’s bhajan. Many vaishnava pundits came to hear him talk there.

His success was noted and some people were not very happy, initially. There was one renounced devotee, a babaji, by the name Raghunatha Dasa, who thought that Kedarnath didn’t look like a real vaishnava – he wore neither tilaka nor kanthi-mala – tulasi beads worn around the neck.

It was like a replay of the episode between Gadadhara Pundit and Pundarika Vidyanidhi from Lord Chaitanya’s lila. When Gadadhara Pundit, a member of the Panca Tattva, saw Pundarika Vidyanidhi for the first time he thought he met an ordinary self absorbed sense enjoyer but then he observed transcendental transformations in Pundarika Vidyanidhi as soon as he heard verses about Krishna from the Bhagavatam. Gadadhara Pundit realized his mistake and begged not only forgiveness from Pundarika Vidyanidhi but also asked to be accepted as his disciple.

Well, this case was very similar – Raghunatha Das was a great devotee himself but at first he didn’t recognize Kedarnath’s greatness. We commit similar mistakes all the time, in Raghunatha Das case, however, Lord Jagannath Himself appeared in his dream and told him to beg forgiveness from Bhaktivinoda Thakur. We don’t get this kind of mercy, if we criticize vaishnavas even in our minds we get doomed. Actually Raghunath Das was first afflicted with a severe illness, too, but later the Lord came through and revealed him the cause of his misfortune and told him how to rectify it.

Raghunath Das immediately went to see Bhaktivinoda Thakur and begged his forgiveness. Unlike the case with Gadadhara Pundit, though, it was Kedarnath who asked to be accepted as a disciple.

It went down like this – Bhaktivinoda Thakur accepted that he wasn’t wearing the signs of vaishnavas but he said that it was because he didn’t have a guru, Krishna hadn’t sent him one yet, and without guru’s blessings he would look like a fraud wearing tilaka and kanthi mala. He already had japa mala and that was enough for him ATM, he said. It’s in this context that he asked for Raghunath Das shelter. It wan’t formal, though, the proper initiation was still a few years away. Still, Bhaktivinoda Thakur had probably learned a lot from association with Raghunath Das.

Raghunath Babaji wasn’t the only exalted vaishnava who Bhaktivinoda Thakur respected very much. At that time in Puri lived another great devotee, Swarupa Babaji, who, btw, later became an associate of Gaurakishora Dasa Babaji. Swarupa Babaji lived near bhajan kutir of Sanatana Goswami and many devotees came there for the kirtans, bhajans, and readings from vaishnava books.

Swarupa Babaji spent whole day doing his solitary bhajan and came out only after sunset to engage in congregational chanting of the Holy Name. Devotees would bring him Jagannatha prasadam and he took very little, only what was necessary for his body maintenance. After that he would ask someone to read books about Lord Chaitanya, and then, around 10 PM, he would retire to his kutir for further bhajan. In the middle of the night he would go to the ocean for a bath. Bhaktivinoda Thakur says he went for a bath so late because he didn’t want to give people a chance to serve him, but he needed the service indeed – he was blind in both eyes! As Bhaktivinoda Thakur says: “Only Lord Chaitanya knows how he found his way to the ocean all by himself.”

This is the kind of association that anyone could only dream of and Bhaktivinoda Thakur took full advantage of the opportunity.

As I said, he became a very respectable member of the vaishnava community. His service to the government also didn’t go unnoticed and he became a magistrate. He was actually in charge of maintaining the temple itself and organizing all the festivals, as far as the government was involved.

He was very dear to the Englishmen in charge but his relations with the locals were not very smooth. Once he even put down the king of Orissa in his place when the raja unceremoniously broke into a devotee’s assembly in the temple compounds. Bhaktivinoda Thakur rightly told the king that he rules only on the outside, inside the temple there’s only one Lord – Jagannath, and raja was in no position to show any disrespect towards Jagannath’s devotees.

His relationship with the king was a complicated one. First of all, it was the king’s library that supplied many of the books Bhaktivinoda Thakur was reading. Then there was that incident in the temple. At first the raja offered his apologies and the matter would have been forgotten but next time he got caught embezzling temple’s money and was sentenced by Kedarnath to pay for Lord Jagannath services from his own pocket, Lord Jagannath eats fifty two times a day and the expenditures were very taxing even on the king himself. Eventually the raja became very upset with Kedarnath, so envious that he decided to kill him.

Kedarnath was too prominent a man in Puri society that simply hiring hitmen wasn’t a very wise idea, the king decided to turn to brahmanas instead, he hired a team of fifty and ordered a series of massive fire sacrifices lasting for thirty days with the sole intent of killing Bhaktivinoda Thakur. On the last day, when the curse was supposed to finally unleash its power, the King’s only son died instead. Talk about backfiring.

It wasn’t a big deal for Bhaktivinoda Thakur, though, he was too absorbed in the bliss of his daily sadhana to notice. King’s episode deserved only a bare mention in Svalikhita Jivani but in those days other devotees started memorizing his pastimes and so now we have far more detailed accounts.

It was also in Puri that Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati was born and all his samskaras – first grains, first solid food etc were performed with Jagannath’s prasadam. In fact that was the time that Bhaktivinoda Thakur and his family ate nothing but Lord Jagannatha’s prasadam. When he entered the temple for his daily service someone would always give him a bowl of dahl there, without tasting that dahl Bhaktivinoda Thakur could not be satisfied.

All in all, it was a period of pure bliss, but as with all periods it had to come to an end. Kedarnath was transferred back to the vicinity of Calcutta and that’s a story for another day.

Oh, one more thing – while dealing with Besikisen and other impostors Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur had to learn a lot about their philosophy and, by extension, he also learned about all kinds of deviations practiced by many different groups there. The fight for the purity of Lord Chaitanya’s movement was practically born there and then. But that is also a story for another day.

Vanity thought #197. Dreaming of Jagannath.

The other day I was walking around, chanting, and daydreaming.

It is a sign of an advancement in devotional service to desire to live in holy places so I had myself a solid excuse to imagine living in Mayapur, Vrindavan, or Jagannatha Puri.

A real devotee would simply want to be there, a real devotee puts his full faith in Krishna and he doesn’t take any obstacles on his devotional path seriously because he knows they are all insignificant comparing to his Lord and Master.

I was thinking of visas and passports and residence permits and such, couldn’t help it, couldn’t imitate a mood of a real devotee, which is a good thing, I guess.

Mayapur, especially ISKCON temple there, looks like a squeaky clean place, governance wise. Unless you are properly invited and all your paperwork in order you just can’t stay there, I thought. Maybe I am wrong but that is my impression.

One must be fully embraced and accepted by Lord Chaitanya’s servants and associates to reside there, it’s by invitation only, or so I think.

Vrindavan is a pretty loose place comparing to that. Anyone is welcome there. Maybe not everyone but there seems to be a lot more options to sneak in. I don’t know about the town itself but Govardhan sounds like a place for any kind of renunciate to feel at home and I seriously doubt the police run regular checks on all the people there.

This is where I got myself in a bit of a twist. As a white person I would stand out as a sore thumb unless I hang out with other white people. It will be years before I can pass as one of the local whites.

If I ever decide to go native there the first thing that would confront me is my past – every white person arrives from somewhere, has a life back home, has a government and consulates to help, has family to send money, has a return ticket, and has a two month visa.

Forty years ago HH Radhanath Swami entered India on foot with only twenty six cents to his name and a passport. Now you need to get a visa first, however easy the process is, it proves that you DO have a place to go back to.

That’s why I can’t imagine myself just going to Vrindavan to chant for the rest of my life. White people like me are just visitors, playing devotees for a short while.

I’m sure there are ways to get around all these obstacles but the main one is in my heart, I know I’m just a pretender, I know all my dreams of Vrindavan are nonsense.

Then I thought of Jagannatha Puri. Jagannath has always held a special place in my consciousness. The very first festival that I ever attended was Ratha Yatra, from there I tailed the devotees and found the temple.

The first place in India I ever visited was Puri, not counting Calcutta.

We arrived late in the afternoon and found a place to stay in some Math, it was very close to the ocean so we went for a bath/swim first. After the ablutions were settled for the temple, except no one in our group had any idea where it was. We thought we had to follow the beachfront and soon we’d see the way, but we went in the opposite direction.

We walked and walked and walked, it was twilight already and it looked like we were leaving the town altogether. Then I turned back and there I saw the marvelous domes and the Nilachacra and the flag. It was nearly dark around us but the temple, very far away by then, was brightly lit and the contrast reminded me of material and spiritual worlds.

We almost ran then, I don’t remember the rest of the evening but I can’t forget my fist impression of the temple.

Then we visited Tota Gopinath and Siddha Bakul and the house of Sarvabhauma Bhattacharya and we walked to the Gundicha temple and it is all blurry now. I’ve been to those places many times since but today I discovered I can’t locate them on Google maps anymore.

What I remember most clearly, though, is the all pervasive feeling of being on Vaikuntha. All the troubles always seem non-existent in Puri, daily life is just a dream there, underneath the dark, sun baked skin of local people there are four armed forms of Vainkuntha residents visible to demigods.

Somehow or other I’ve never been so out of touch with reality anywhere else. In Mayapur I always felt like I had to toe the line, in Vrindavan I couldn’t shake the desire to buy cheap dhotis and incense and have my palm read. In Puri I didn’t want anything from this world at all.

I’ve tried browsing the market there and I’ve tried scoring cheap prasadam but it didn’t take. It was like trying to run on the bottom of the ocean, wearing deep diver’s suit and boots.

I don’t know if Jagannath would ever welcome me there, I doubt so. For Lord Chaitanya and His associates it was their destination after the Lord took sannyasa. For Haridasa Thakur, on the other hand, it was special only in the sense he wasn’t allowed to see the Lord.

He could see Lord Chaitanya everyday, though, and he could see the Lord in the sound of Holy Names. I don’t have even that, and maybe it’s a good thing.

The other day I lighted up an incense and I had no one in particular to offer it to except the image of Jagannath on my japa bag. Suddenly my heart melted and I had no power to complain about Jagannath excluding us from seeing Him. He is still the sweetest Lord in the whole universe. If He wants us to stay outside and wait, it’s His merciful order and it’s very sweet to carry out.

The best part about Puri is that it’s reachable by sea. I’m not in my best years but I’m still pretty good in the water and if someone dropped me in the sea in sight of the Puri temple I’m sure I can easily make it to the shore. That way I would avoid all this nonsensical visa business and I would have no return tickets and no money to save for the rainy days, I would have no phone or a camera or a wallet or a watch. I would have only wet clothes and I would surrender all my future to the will of the merciful Lord Jagannath.

Sweet dream, huh?

Before I go to bed I want to break with my tradition and include an image in my blog.

Personally, I never thought Jagannath would be so big. Look at Him, He is huge, and He’s got a nose. I’ve never seen noses on our ISKCON Jagannathas.

Well, with Him being so big and with a nose, I don’t mind staying outside at all – He is so intimidating, and yet so liberating at the same time.

Jaya Jagannath! I hope I’ll have read dreams about Him, too, it’s time now.