Bhaktivinoda introduced the idea of evolutionary or progressive thinking related to the Gaudiya religious system. He recognize that the modern sensibility presented a critique of aspects of Hindu beliefs that needed to be confronted and dealt with, otherwise Vaishnavism, i.e., the positive and uplifting aspects of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, would be lost.
There is something called a paradigm shift; or perhaps more accurately what Foucault would call an epistemic break. This means that there are tectonic shifts in the backgrounds of our lives--the knowledge universe, the interpretive universe, or if you like, the metanarratives in which we are all bathing. This means that there are general assumptions in every society that are held almost unconsciously, and every so often, there comes a revolutionary change in these fundamental assumptions. When that happens, everyone has to deal with it--politicians, religions, entertainers. Some try to catch the wave and be the first to take advantage of the change; others resist and refuse to accept the "new ways." Houses that were thought solid are suddenly revealed to built on a foundation of shifting sands.
The conservative sections of society that "were doing O.K." in the middle of one paradigm are suddenly left defending a rear-guard position when the world around them starts to move in other directions. Those who represent the new paradigm and those of the old usually end up exchanging insults. Basically, they cannot comprehend each other because they live in different worlds.
Nothing is more conservative than religion, especially kanistha religion. Why? Because they identify the solid foundation of essential truth with the superstructure of social relation schemes and specific rituals, or some literal interpretation of dogmas, symbols, and myths, etc. There are two approaches that relgious rebels can take, and Bhaktivinoda Thakur mentions them both in his booklet, The Bhagavata. These passages have now become thankfully well known to devotees everywhere, but we may review them again for everyone's continued edification:
Thought is progressive. The author's thought must have progress in the reader in the shape of correction or development. He is the best critic who can show the further development of an old thought; but a mere denouncer is the enemy of progress and consequently of nature. Progress certainly is the law of nature, and there must be corrections and developments with the progress of time. But progress means going further or rising higher. The shallow critic and the fruitless reader are the two great enemies of progress. We must shun them.
The true critic, on the other hand, advises us to preserve what we have already obtained, and to adjust our race from that point where we have arrived in the heat of our progress. He will never advise us to go back to the point whence we started, as he fully knows that in that case there will be a fruitless loss of our valuable time and labor. He will direct the adjustment of the angle of our race at the point where we are.
This is also the characteristic of the useful student. He will read an old author and will find out his exact position in the progress of thought. He will never propose to burn a book on the ground that it contains thoughts which are useless. No thought is useless. Thoughts are means by which we attain our objects. The reader who denounces a bad thought does not know that a bad road is even capable of improvement and conversion into a good one. One thought is a road leading to another. Thus, the reader will find that one thought, which is the object today, will be the means of a further object tomorrow. Thoughts will necessarily continue to be an endless series of means and objects in the progress of humanity.
There is little doubt that Bhaktivinoda Thakur and Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati were adjusting to the new paradigms that had entered the Indian atmosphere through exposure to modern ideas coming from Britain and Europe. This process is still going on, as indeed the knowledge universe is so fluid and changing that it is hard to know exactly how to deal with it all.
Of course, we in the West are discovering that some things are lost as others are gained when such tectonic shifts take place in human society. The basic disparity between inner and outer lives, between materialism and spirituality, is more and more being felt in the West. In today's Guardian there is an article called The Limits of Belief, in which Alex Stein talks about superficiality of most of the new atheists' critiques of religion. In fact, what they are criticizing is the kanishtha approach to religion, which madhyama and uttama adhikaris are also not particularly gung ho about.
Nevertheless, even we who belief most fundamentally in the teachings of our gurus are not ready to give up most of the gains that progress has brought us. For instance, most of us in the West take literacy for granted. In India, despite rapid gains in the last decades, still only 65% of people know how to read; amongst the older folks, that would be much less (Most recent census data). Many babajis in Radha Kund do not know how to read, what to speak of being as conversant with the Goswami literature as Pandit Baba Ananta Dasji. How can they be expected to deal with other, moden, sophisticated philosophical questions?
And this has negative effects on India's political life as well, as for instance in these recent examples where regressive attitudes on the part of religious groups translates into mobilization of malleable kanistha adhikaris into unwelcome and even aggressive actions: e.g. Report on Hindu god Rama withdrawn and Attacks on Taslima Nasreen.
Being literate, our relationship with Gaudiya Vaishnavism is extremely text-oriented--as Bhaktivinoda and Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati and Bhaktivedanta Swami all recognized. This would not have been the case when Nityananda was preaching Nama sankirtan, when literacy would have been very much restricted to male members of the upper castes—brahmins, kayasthas, vaidyas and maybe a handful of others. This is why, for instance, Haridas Das was often publishing Goswami books from just one or two handwritten manuscripts.
When Bhaktivinoda Thakur was arguing for the modern approach, he was responding as a modern man who was on guard against the baby being thrown out with the bathwater. In effect, this is what we are all doing, Iskcon, Gaudiya Math, or others, we are all somehow indebted to Bhaktivinoda Thakur and his ability to see that the Bhagavatam had insight that was eternal. Not only that, but that spiritually it made contributions that were valuable for all humankind.
Now when Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati came to Radha Kunda, he wanted to show his followers that these people were mostly (if not all) in fact kanishtha adhikaris, whose plunging into the deepest and most confidential parts of the Goswami literature had suddenly been cut off from its moorings by the changing paradigms of the world. A simple, "Because the shastra says so," no longer cut it.
There is validity in what Saraswati Thakur said. I have stated before that I do not reject Saraswati Thakur, but recognize the major contribution he has made to the dialogue that is the ongoing Chaitanya Gaudiya Vaishnava movement. However, as we quote Bhaktivinoda Thakur above: We must not throw out the gains of the past. The babajis have preserved and developed the Vrindavan method of bhajan, the literature and culture of madhura rasa and sakhi bhava. These things remain, whatever else we do with Krishna consciousness, no matter how important more basic methods of sankirtan are, the heart and soul of Chaitanya's revelation. And indeed of all the Vraja sampradayas.
It is the preservation and renewal of this revelation that is the essence of the modernist project in Vaishnavism. No doubt Saraswati Thakur played an important role in this ongoing project, but we must careful to distinguish his rhetoric from his historical goal.