Vanity thought #1256. A few missing words

So, while talking about Kholāvecā Śrīdhara a few important points got left out. Let’s see if I can express them today. Third time’s a charm, as they say.

First, the history – I can’t seem to find the originals for most of our Śrīdhara folklore. Caitanya Caritāmṛta mentions him only once, as part of Lord Caitanya’s tree, and that’s all. Śrīla Prabhupāda gives a brief outline of his personality there and uses words like “Most probably he had a banana-tree garden and…”

If even that is under question, what can we know for sure about him at all? Śrīla Prabhupāda mentions several episodes from after Lord Caitanya conversion but those are rarely spoken about in our classes, they are less fertile than his pre-conversion pastimes. He gave a squash to Mother Sacī to cook or danced in jubilation during Lord Caitanya’s visit to Kazi, or regularly went to Jagannātha Purī. The story about Lord Caitanya drinking from his water pot is more instructive but we don’t talk about it as much as about his poverty and his spending fifty percent of income on worshiping the Ganges and about his conversations with the Lord regarding regularly supplying Him with banana products.

Besides Caitanya Caritāmṛta we have very few authoritative sources. There’s Caitanya Bhāgavata, of course, and then Caitanya Maṇgala and that’s all. As far as I can search, Kholāveca Śrīdhara is not mentioned there at all, so it’s only Caitanya Bhāgavata left. That’s where I got the story about him submitting himself to the demands of an arrogant and possibly dangerous brāhmaṇa, as Lord Caitanya looked the part then.

It must be said that most of that story has been known to us from the time immemorial – from before we had Caitanya Bhāgavata translated and widely read. So what’s our source?

Śrīla Prabhupāda, of course, but when he himself starts with “most probably” we need to pay attention to various interpolations we produce from there as if they are a real thing. Sure, we need to extract useful lessons, and those lessons are true regardless of whether they are based on facts or common folklore, but we should also be aware that we might be using Kholāvecā Śrīdhara’s name as a label for our own imagination.

Fifty percent spent on worshiping the Ganges is not mentioned there, for example. It’s in Prabhupādaś purpot in Caitanya Caritāmṛta so that’s good enough for us but it’s probably something we shouldn’t really insist on in case there are arguments about the exact number. The business plans offered to Śrīdhara are not mentioned there at all. Where do they come from? I don’t know. Caitanya Bhagavāta spends two dozen verses describing his banana conversation with Lord Caitanya but that’s all. It happened in his house, once, and there’s nothing about Lord Caitanya regularly hassling him at the market for a better price. The idea that worshiping Caṇḍī makes people rich is there but not as any kind of actual business proposition. No taking a year off, no hiring other people, nothing. Where did that come from? I don’t know.

Anyway, the episode with Lord Caitanya making impossible demands and Kholāvecā agreeing to them is there, so it’s legit, and that’s something that needs a little clarification.

As I said day before yesterday, Śrīdhara considered that giving away his products to impudent brāhmaṇa was in his best long term interest even if it happened by trickery or threat of force. He just wasn’t that attached to his income, whoever laid claim on it, it seems, had a very good chance of getting it.

We can say that it was Lord Caitanya’s time, things were different then, but that is not a good excuse. This attitude is described in the purport by Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī in more detail than in the text itself. What it means is that Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta considered it important and quite relevant less than a hundred years ago when brāhmaṇas were not in very high regard already.

I mean Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta spend decades fighting over the position of brāhmaṇas in the society, they nearly killed him for that, and here he is suggesting that people should give brāhmaṇas everything they ask for even if they cheat you out of it. Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta considered even vaiṣṇava brāhmaṇas and guru bogus, he had no problems with reinitiating their disciples and he certainly had no problems with his own disciples not giving them any money, he had his Gauḍīyā Maṭhas for that.

The way I see it, it wasn’t a commentary on social customs of half a millennium ago and even a hundred years ago these customs were unacceptable, but still Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta thought it’s important enough to mention – in relation to describing a character of a devotee. What he rejected himself for general public was considered extremely pure and attractive when displayed by devotees like Kholāvecā Śrīdhara.

Perhaps that’s how we should apply it to our lives, too. Submission to our authorities should become unconditional as we progress in our devotion. Nothing would be able to touch us then. In our current, state, however, we should naturally consider whether our authorities behave appropriately and whether their demands are reasonable.

I’m not about to start a revolution for total submission to GBC and I’m not about to argue for one. Yes, it would be better for everyone involved but if it’s a behavior displayed by pure souls of Śrīdhara’s caliber then we can’t demand it from everyone. I mean if becoming a pure devotee is a prerequisite then, if we got that, why would we worry about little things like dealing with GBC resolutions? I mean if we got a society full of pure devotees these matters would disappear from our minds completely anyway, it’s something we preoccupy ourselves only due to our impurities.

Another point about this episode is a lesson on blasphemy. After securing His banana supplies Lord Caitanya jokingly asked Śrīdhara what he thought about Him. “Tumi vipra, viṣṇu aṃśa,” Śrīdhara replied. “You are a brāhmaṇa and a portion of Lord Viṣṇu.” Lord Caitanya, however, told him that actually He wasn’t a son of a brāhmaṇa but a son of a gopā, a cowherd man. Śrīdhara just smiled, not being able to understand how true these words were.

Then Lord Caitanya said that actually He is the source of the glories of the Ganges, the object of Śrīdhara’a daily worship, according to our folklore. I think it would have been considered fairly blasphemous if said somewhere outside. I think quite a few Muslims would be rightfully upset if someone says he is the source of the sanctity of Mecca. It’s not a direct comparison, though, and Lord Caitanya didn’t make these claims in public, but still.

What did Śrīdhara answer? “Aren’t you afraid of insulting Ganga this way?” He then added that people supposed to grow up and mature but Lord Caitanya’s restlessness only doubled, and that was it. In short, he considered it a childish talk not worthy of actually replying to.

Imagine, though, for a moment, someone making similar claims publicly in the present day. We’d dismiss that person as another lunatic impostor, another self-declared incarnation. I’m not sure we would take offense at such nonsense and I’m not sure Muslims would react angrily, too. Some things are just too outrageous and too improbable to affect one’s faith so they will not cause anger.

This is another point – people get angry about things they are afraid might be true, things they do not want to admit the possibility of to themselves, and when it’s forced on them they become defensive. When westerners tell Muslims to take Muhammad cartoons easy they imply that their faith shouldn’t be affected by such silly things. There’s a grain of truth in this advice but also a heap of arrogance. Only atheists would consider pushing religious buttons until they find people’s weak spots and then capitalize on weaknesses. It’s just not cool. Our creeper of devotion needs to be protected, not trampled upon in jubilation.

But blasphemy aside – it only increases renunciation of Kholāvecā Śrīdhara who decided to give a major part of his income away to someone insulting his dear object of worship, just because he asked and because brāhmaṇas constitutionally are a “part of Viṣṇu”. Pure devotion does wonderful things to people, and probably looks like total madness to outsiders.

Or we could consider the whole episode as a pastime forced by Lord illusory energy and so it would have been impossible between Kholāvecā Śrīdhara and anybody else. If we take that as an explanation, though, the value of whatever lessons we can learn from it would greatly decreases, so, personally, I’m not in favor of it.

Vanity thought #1254. Vaishnava way

For a while now I’ve been stressing the need to accept our authorities for the sake of our own spiritual progress and I might have become repetitive in that. I notice it myself when my mind goes off on that quest again and so I sometimes restrain myself. I don’t want this message to become worn and dry, you can listen to exactly same words only so many times, after all. Having said that, today’s story deserves full consideration and it shows us something we don’t normally see in our conversation on the role of authorities.

It’s about Kholāvecā Śrīdhara, the famous banana trader who conquered the heart of Lord Caitanya with his unassuming devotion. His story is quite long and multifaceted one and can illustrate many devotional points so I don’t know where to start.

Well, he was very poor, that’s probably the main context to everything else that happened with him. He was a banana trader, that is he used to collect bananas, banana tree leaves, make cups from them, collect banana flowers, cut up banana tree trunks and, as usual in India, utilize every part of the tree. He also ate a lot of bananas, some say jokingly. Bananas are not a rare commodity in India and so Kholāvecā’s business didn’t have any particular selling points, he was just one dude out of many sitting at the local market.

He made no profit from his business whatsoever. His clothes were torn and the roof of his house had holes in it. “So what, the roof still keeps most of the water out”, he would reply. Lord Caitanya would tease him about his poverty but Śrīdhara would answer philosophically that time passes equally for everyone, kings in palaces and birds in trees. He had his food and some clothes to cover his body and so all his needs were looked after.

Half of his income he would spend on worshiping the Ganges. Some devotees tell a story how people would give him great financial advice to suspend his pūjā and invest profits in growing his business, hire a couple of guys to process more bananas and sell them for him. That way, after a year, he would have sufficient income to resume his Ganga offerings and would actually offer a lot more that he was offering now. He would reply that no one knows the future and so there’s no guarantee that he would resume his pūjā or that he would become sufficiently wealthy. I don’t want to talk about how we should donate money to the temples, not my point today.

Lord Caitanya offered another advice – stop worshiping Viṣṇu and start offering prayers to Caṇḍī, which is another name for Durgā. She was guaranteed to supply him with all wealth he desired while Viṣṇu was indifferent to his prayers.

There a great point here – the fact was that Lord Caitanya, just an impudent young scholar then, didn’t go to Śrīdhara to make jokes and hassle over bananas, He went there, almost everyday, because Kholāvecā Śrīdhara possessed devotion to the Lord which was far greater than all the material wealth in the world. In the face of all opulence of Navadvīpa Kholāvecā Śrīdhara had something no one else had and he wouldn’t exchange it for any amount of money. He had the unique comfort of not having any material desires and relishing only in the chanting of the Holy Name.

While people around him were agitated that he didn’t share in the same values as them and didn’t even try to lead “normal” life Śrīdhara was fully satisfied with just chanting and worshiping the Ganges. When he was offered various business plans he didn’t know he needed them or their results. He was probably simply inconvenienced by all these well-wishers and waited until he could get rid of them and resume his worship.

This is something we all need to learn, eventually, but it’s still not the point I have in mind today.

Lord Caitanya never gave him any respite and harassed him over his bananas at every opportunity, probably just to test the depth of his devotion. At what point would Śrīdhara start talking money instead of philosophy? Lord Caitanya never found out. He would come to Śrīdhara and demand whatever he wanted at half price, accusing Śrīdhara of running a racket there.

One time Lord Caitanya when to Śrīdhara’s house instead of the market and demanded a donation. He said that because Śrīdhara always appeared calm and satisfied he must have some hidden treasure somewhere, which was devotion, but at that time Lord Caitanya pretended not to value it. Anyway, when Śrīdhara said that all he has is some banana leaf cups there wasn’t anything worthy of giving Lord Caitanya. That didn’t go down very well with the Lord.

“Give me your cups and your leaves and your bananas and banana stalks – the whole lot!” Śrīdhara thought that young brāhmaṇa was very aggressive and unreasonable but here’s what he thought, according to Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī:

“Prabu has a very arrogant nature and it looks like he can even beat me up if I don’t give him what he wants. I don’t have anything valuable and even what I have has to be spent on worshiping the Ganges so I can’t give him anything free of cost.” That was his dilemma, and he solved in exemplary vaiṣṇava way:

“A brāhmaṇa is a representative of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, if I can help him it might awaken my good fortune. Therefore, even if he takes my stuff by trickery or by force, if it gives him benefit in some way I should consider it a success. He can come and take whatever he wants everyday for the rest of my life.”

Just think of it – he considered the situation of being abused by his authority and still reasoned that if he can bring some benefit to his superior then it would be his good fortune.

And he wasn’t talking about his spiritual authority, just a random brāhmaṇa off the street. As a representative of the Supreme Lord, Lord Caitanya sucked, he never offended devotees but he never seriously considered becoming a devotee himself either. As a brāhmaṇa he was unbearable. Actually, at that time devotees used to avoid him due to his arrogance and incessant challenges for debates. Did it stop Kholāvecā Śrīdhara from making a life long commitment to supply Lord Caitanya with all banana products he needed? Not at all. I stopped capitalizing “he” when referring to Lord Caitanya on purpose – he made a point not to behave like a Lord then.

So, vaiṣṇava should have no material interests whatsoever and always, always put his duties towards others above his own comfort. I could say that vaiṣṇava always relies on the Supreme Lord for his daily sustenance but it isn’t totally correct – he just doesn’t care about his sustenance, it’s not something that visits his mind at all. He is too busy worshiping that Lord to think about his own life, and there’s no amount of obligations that would force him to become egotistic again. He considers all these obligations as his service to the Lord and therefore they are all welcome. He doesn’t think “if I take this much I’ll be swamped”, it just doesn’t concern him.

I don’t know how to follow Kholāvecā Śrīdhara’s footsteps, he cannot be imitated, but I hope that by reflecting on his attitude some of it might penetrate my own heart, too.

At the end of the day, though, it all comes down to chanting. We must develop sufficient taste for chanting to completely forget all other considerations like Śrīdhara did. All his exemplary qualities were simply side-effects of his love for Kṛṣṇa, the Holy Name, and the Ganges.