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 #275. Bhaktivinoda Thakur. Puri and punishment of Bisakisen.

Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur spent about two years in Dinajpur during which he had a daughter and a death of a new born son. By some unfortunate circumstance his father-in-law died at exactly the same time and Bhaktivioda Thakur chose to withhold this sad news from his wife for a few days to spare her even more grief. I don’t know if that would have been possible in modern age, we can tell people white lies for their benefit but we not something like this – death of a father. This is the kind of news that has to be told right away, this is our default setting – people are supposed to be mentally strong to absorb something like this, in fact we believe that telling them unpleasant news makes them stronger, though they obviously need to mobilize more energy to deal with the situation. It wasn’t an easy choice back then, too, I believe, but it worked without any serious consequences for the family, his wife survived through one big unhappiness just fine. Later in Dinajpur she gave birth to a baby girl and all was forgotten.

There were also examinations, with mixed results, long vacations and some more progress in government service. There were also a few months spent in a place called Champarn but none of that seems important now. What’s important is that Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur was given a position in Jagannatha Puri.

His newly born daughter wasn’t old enough to travel yet so Bhaktivinoda Thakur didn’t take his family with him, instead he took Srimad Bhagavatam and Chaitanya Charitamrita. Of all the things in his household he thought that those two books were most important. It’s like “what would you take with you if you were on a deserted island?” question. Bhaktivinoda Thakur, or Kedar Nath, as he was known at that time, chose books about devotion.

Puri wasn’t a deserted island either. First habit he started there was to daily visit the temple. He would see the Lord Jagannatha and remember how Lord Chaitanya visited Him, too, and that made him very happy. There were vaishnavas everywhere and he immensely enjoyed their association.

Puri, of course, is the place where he overpowered a local mystic pretending to be an incarnation of Vishnu. Every story about Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur mentions this episode and the way I remember it was that none of the mystics curses worked on Bhaktivinoda Thakur and the power of Srimad Bhagavatam. I remember how it was rendered in the Abhai Charan TV series – mystic was cursing and Bhaktivinoda Thakur was reading Bhagavatam. This is how I remember it from my first days with devotees, too.

Svalikhita Jivani gives a slightly different account, to say the least, there was no mysticism involved and no mentions of the power of Bhagavatam or bhakti at all. Mataji Nalini Kanta’s book has quite a few more details and adds a touch of spiritualism that is missing from autobiography, I believe Bhaktivinoda Thakur excluded it intentionally, out of his humility. This was also the time when Bhaktivinoda Thakur became famous in vaishnava circles and so his life had started being documented by others.

Anyway, that mystic was an Atibari, a break away sect of followers of Lord Chaitanya. Their founder gave up pure devotion and took shelter of mayavadis and was rejected by Mahaprabhu Himself. Atibaris wrote their own books about Chaitanya and had some weird ideas, one of them being people pretending to be Gods. There was Krishna, Balarama, Lord Chaitanya, and one dude who claimed to be Mahavishnu. That dude’s name was Bisakisen, with alternative spellings.

He had some yogic powers and that attracted a large number of followers, he did miracles for them – cure diseased persons, read people’s minds etc etc. What got government’s attention was a complaint from a local brahmana community that Bisakisen was spoiling their women under the pretext of rasa dance. Bhaktivinoda Thakur was sent to investigate.

He went to the yogi’s place accompanied by a few collegues, among them an Englishman, and a few soldiers for protection. They heard Bisakisen speak and they determined that he was posing a genuine threat to peace and the British government. Bisakisen was scheduled to manifest a four armed form of Vishnu, kill all the infidels and free entire India from the British rule.

In Seventh Goswami there’s a description of their dialogue, how Bisakisen tried to prove to Bhaktivinoda Thakur that he indeed was Vishnu by displaying his powers – telling Kedar Nath his entire lifestory, healing wounds and curing sick people on the spot and issuing threats. Bhaktivinoda Thakur wasn’t moved, just gravely offended that the impostor declared the Deity of Jagannath an ordinary slab of wood. Something had to be done. Next time Bhaktivinoda Thakur formed a posse and went to Bisakisen with the intention to arrest him.

This time he took a hundred policemen with him but Bisakisen wasn’t about to give up easily, he started shooting fire out of his hair and his eyes and policemen got scared. Bhaktivinoda Thakur wasn’t afraid, though, he continued trying to convince Bisakisen to give up his ambitions and accept that he was not God. Bisakisen didn’t want to go to Puri himself so they ordered a bullock cart to transport him. Bisakisen was arguing until the very end but eventually realized that he had no power to stop being arrested and led away by force, not in Bhaktivinoda Thakur’s presence.

Next was the turn of Brahma and Shiva who didn’t argue at all but blamed everything on their ringleader, Vishnu, naturally.

During the trial Bisakisen didn’t eat or drink anything and he was sending some curses Bhaktivinoda’s way. His seven year old daughter came down with a fever and it took many many doctors to cure her but it eventually happened. Bhaktivinoda Thakur believed that Lord would protect him and his family and was resolute in his determination to bring Bisakisen to justice. Even when his wife pleaded with him for the sake of their children he was unmoved.

Next day Bisakisen reminded Kedarnath about the calamity he sent to his house and promised to attack the judge directly. On the last day of trial Kedarnath came down with a severe chest pain and had to be carried to court in a palanquin but he saw the trial through, having full faith that Krishna would protect him no matter what.

Bisakisen was sentenced to a year and half in jail and immediately after the sentencing, just as constables were about to take Bisakisen away, an English medical doctor who had some knowledge of how yoga works, jumped up and cut off Bisakisen’s hair with a large pair of scissors. As soon as Bisakisen had lost his locks he lost his powers, too, and, exhausted, fell on the floor. That had made a big impression on his followers who finally realized he was a fraud all along, a typical yogi, not God by any stretch. Bisakisen eventually poisoned himself in jail and died.

This whole story looks like a big test for Kedarnath, a test of his faith and devotion in Krishna and the result showed that it wasn’t lacking in any sense. Think of it – only two-three years earlier he was eating meat and now he withstood an onslaught of mystical curses on himself and the family. We’ve been eating prasadam for decades but in many cases we would demand Krishna to spare us from any inconvenience to prove his care. Bhaktivinoda Thakur nearly died, his daughter nearly died, yet he hadn’t thought for a minute that Krishna had deserted him. His standard of proof was very different from mine, he thought that as long as he could perform his duties it was proof of Krishna’s protection already. Never mind he had to be carried to court, that was his personal inconvenience.

To a devotee personal inconvenience is not a sign of being forgotten by Krishna. A devotee doesn’t think that “I will protect you” promise from the Gita refers to his personal comfort but rather to success of his service to Krishna, because that’s what a devotee is really interested in. If one puts personal safety before the safety of his mission he is probably not a devotee and so doesn’t qualify for Krishna’s protection.

This should have great practical application next time I get in trouble and need Krishna’s help. I must not ask for help for myself, I can only believe that Krishna provides help for his mission, anything more than that is the product of my imagination and my selfishness.

How to put it better – real devotees care only about their service and in reciprocation Krishna assures them that execution of his service will never face any obstacles. Obstacles to one’s own well-being don’t count and a real devotee never counts them either. In any situation Krishna will always provide a way to serve Him and that’s what Krishna guarantees, nothing more than that. A devotee would not be interested in anything more than that anyway so there’s no contradiction. You want more – you are not a devotee, not covered by Krishna’s insurance.

After passing this test Kedarnath Dutt’s career as a vaishnava really took off, but that’s the matter for another day.