Once again, I must begin by apologizing for entering such a delicate subject matter as the apparent failings of a guru, but I think that it is something that merits honest discussion. I would ask that those who have reservations about me personally first read my “personal preamble”, even though I realize the prejudices that certain quarters hold against me are unshakeable. As one devotee wrote to me some time ago,
[Our disagreement] is neither a matter of argument or narrowmindedness, but one of love and trust. We simply love and trust our guru varga and have distrust and not much love for you since you have rejected them. Krishna chose to reside with Vidura rather than stay in Sisupala's palace. He would not even eat the meal offered to him by Duryodhan. He could not accept the grand feast of the envious Kaurava, however opulent, because in his heart he harbored ill will toward the Pandavas, who Krishna said "were his heart."
What can I say to this in response to this, except that I understand it, regrettable though I find it to be?
Nevertheless, I must thank all the devotees who have responded to my article. Nearly everyone has been dignified and gentlemanly in their response. In view of the emotional nature of the subject matter, I would like to express my appreciation for the tone of the debate.
My manner of presentationThose who do read my “personal preamble” and other articles I have written may find it odd that I should speak so strongly against Vaishnava aparadha. After all, in their eyes I am the one on trial for making offensive suggestions about their gurus. Indeed, some of my best friends and well-wishers have gently suggested to me that in my original statements about Bhaktivinode Thakur, I could have been more diplomatic in my language. For example, one such dear friend wrote,
You have good intentions, but I think you would become a better force for change if your comments were couched in a more reverential tone, one that I believe is appropriate when discussing the activities of great personalities and the doctrines espoused by them. This is especially so when dealing with the vast majority of Gaudiyas who are followers of Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati and Bhaktivinode Thakur in discussions involving their insights. They are the object of love and affection for these people, including myself. And in my estimation they should be to some extent for you as well. It seems to me that you could have easily brought up the question of Bhaktivinode Thakur's possible authorship of those books in a manner that no one would have objected to.
I also understand this principle very clearly, and have indeed said the same thing many times to others. Anyone who looks at my original article will see that I did make an attempt to avoid irreverent language, but, as another friend reminded me, one cannot disguise an accusation as overt as mine, no matter how diplomatically expressed. When reduced to its crudest form, I have called Bhaktivinode (as paraphrased by others) “a liar and a cheat.” Out of reverence for Srila Bhaktivinode Thakur, I would never use such vulgar language; I tried hard to contextualize my contention in the broader picture of what was certainly an model life. I consider Bhaktivinode Thakur an exemplar of the ideal householder life and my guru varga, and this is precisely why the subject is one that is of vital importance to me and, I believe, others in whose lives the Thakur has played such an important role.
Another friend similarly wrote,
The manner that you have [made these accusations] is not acceptable scholarship and reeks of personal opinion. Where a scholar might ask carefully worded questions within a circle of educated and faithful equals, you draw conclusions, state them as facts, and publish them on public forums where they can be read by beginners without sufficient faith to see past them, or to even have informed discretionary intelligence. To me, this is not scholarship, but an attack on our sampradaya and its acharyas. Obviously, I am not the only one who has come to this conclusion. I have to simply ask, what kind of service to Mahaprabhu is that?
To be honest, I suspect that the writer of this letter has not read my articles, but only the excerpts taken out of context by Narasingha Maharaj and a few exchanges on public forums like Istagosthi, for he also writes, “I expected these to be very scholarly, impartial and objective questioning of dates, authorship, etc., without judgment and with an interest in positive resolution and conclusion.”
This comment also shows some unfamiliarity with academic discourse. After investigating certain matters and studying the facts, one comes to conclusions and forms an opinion on them. Once one has come to such a conclusion, one will not necessarily repeat the reasoning that led to it every single time. This may give the misimpression that someone is speaking off the top of his head, but after jumping through the hoops of academic life to attain a doctorate, one is rewarded with a sort of license to be opinionated. Not to be right, mind you, but at least to say what one thinks and have it taken seriously. If someone does not agree with what I say, he or she is perfectly welcome to challenge it and oblige me to defend my position by showing opposing evidence. This is the nature of debate. If I cannot defend myself, then I am prepared to admit the error of my ways in good grace. I think this is also a Vaishnava-like way of doing things and I try to hold myself to it. In the particular case of the “three books,” I believe I have met the requirements of impartial and objective questioning, without prejudgment. As far as an interest in coming to a postive resolution, that is the purpose of this article.
Nevertheless, if anyone finds my tone offensive, I beg forgiveness and ask such persons to see my questioning not as a hostile challenge meant to tear down the edifice of their faith, but as a positive challenge to deepen their spiritual understanding through the dialectic of faith. (See ”Service to Krishna is our ultimate concern.”)
The faith of neophytesAs to the objection that I endanger the “faith of neophytes,” I agree that entering into such discussions may cause problems for some. Though I stated my doubts publicly, I am not deliberately aiming my questions at the weak, but to the strong. Perhaps I underestimate my reach, but was under the impression that until certain parties decided to widen the audience for these issues, they were being discussed within a relatively small circle.
This and the many other controversial issues that I have raised do not have their origin with me. My feeling is that they are already “out there”; whether I write about them or not will not make them go away. Those who have come to Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s path of devotion will come across them sooner or later, just as they will come into contact with various other challenges to their faith. Indeed, they are likely to meet with far more virulent detractors of the Gaudiya Math, Vaishnavism, or even God and religion itself than this relatively benign questioner.
As I have said before, my ultimate goal is to find some kind of synthesis by which all Vaishnavas can live with the truth and still get along with each other. I also hope to build “a tolerance for controversy," whereby disagreement on certain issues does not become a matter of life and death. I thus do not agree with Sudhir Maharaj's domino theory whereby if one article of faith goes, everything falls apart. Even if in some cases I have only presented the "antithesis," it makes it possible for Gaudiya Math intellectuals to formulate a response. I hold that facile responses, i.e., simple restatements of the "thesis" (“This is what you must believe.”) are inadequate (as the quote from Bhaktivinode Thakur below clearly shows). We must remember that we are being watched.
There are different kinds of neophytes. Some, less inclined to the intellectual search, will accept the words of authority without question. Others, who are possessed of a more inquisitive spirit, will try to resolve apparent contradictions. It is the duty of those who have gone ahead to face these questions and answer them honestly for their benefit. Just because someone is a “neophyte” does not mean he is a fool. Even a neophyte may recognize a bluff when he sees it.
Scholarship and Divine RevelationIn his article, Scholarship vs Divine Revelation, His Grace Narasingha Maharaj suggests that scholarship itself is futile and that scholars, by definition, have no spiritual insights and are only “licking the outside of the bottle.” Their only motivation is personal aggrandizement and the desire to be recognized as authorities on things about which they have no true understanding. Narasingha Maharaj repeats this argument in various ways, “Divine Revelation is a subjective experience and unless one is steadfast under the shelter (asraya) of guru, Divine Revelation does not descend.”
This standard argument is often encountered by persons like myself, regardless of the religious school, who make an investigation of cherished religious dogmas. I take it as nothing more than an excuse for circumventing the issues in question and, sadly, as a thinly disguised argumentum ad hominem.
Though I personally make no claims to great spiritual insight, we should remember that it is not always easy to recognize the spiritual achievements of another. There are thus ample warnings in the scriptures and the oral traditions against making judgments of this kind. We need look no further than the example of Bhaktivinode Thakur himself, who gave discourses on the Bhagavatam in Jagannath Puri before he was initiated. He was not wearing the external “uniform” of a devotee and so was criticized by some Vaishnavas in the renounced order, who later begged forgiveness for their error. Siddhanta Saraswati also warned that Vamsi Das Babaji was a highly advanced Vaishnava, but that even his own disciples would not necessarily recognize it. Indeed, Saraswati Thakur himself acted in ways that broke with the Vaishnava traditions of his time and he was not “recognized” by all.
Though one may think I say this purely in my own personal defence, perhaps to insinuate that my own spiritual qualifications are being underestimated, my argument in fact is more general than this: Since we are warned about not being hasty in judging another’s spiritual qualifications, we must respond to challenges coming from rational argument on their own merit. If you encounter someone who challenges your beliefs, is the only response in your intellectual arsenal to call his spiritual merit into question? If so, you are likely bluffing, revealing not only that you are unable to answer the questions to his satisfaction, but probably not even your own.
It is furthermore very important to note that we must not cheapen revelation by insisting that even matters easily accessible to direct experience (pratyaksha) and rational inference (anumana) can only be understood through divine intervention. Revelation is defined as “the disclosure of knowledge by divine or supernatural agency.” Though on one level, it is no overstatement to say it is a divine gift to be able to see a pen on the table, we should avoid trivializing the term revelation by overuse.
Lately I have seen the following quote from Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur being used to defend the kind of sectarian attitude that pretends “revelation” can be used to stifle frank and open discussion:
Those who are unwilling to show any duplicity, who wish to be frank and straightforward, or in other words to exercise unambiguously the function of the soul, such really sincere persons are called sectarian and orthodox by those who practice duplicity. We will cultivate the society only of those who are straightforward. We will not keep company with any person who is not so. We must by all means avoid bad company. We are advised to keep at a distance of a hundred cubits from animals of the horned species. We should observe the same caution in regard to all insincere persons.
Far from being a defense of sectarianism, however, this is a challenge to the duplicitous. It is clear that Saraswati Thakur demanded honesty above all. Responding to difficult challenges with mere bluster is not a sign of sincerity.
In the case at hand, it is not outside the purview of reason to investigate whether the three books in question were or not written by someone other than those in whose name they were published. There is no need for a recourse to revelation on the basic question, nor in responding to the challenge to faith that may result from such an inquiry.
Reason is not opposed to devotionIt must be made clear that the use of reason is not opposed to the goals of devotion. I will readily admit that reason alone, without grace, is barren. However, the many citations from the Bhagavatam and elsewhere that state this are not meant to stifle rational discourse. A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami himself clearly said, “Blind following is condemned.” Jiva Goswami states in his commentary to the words jnana-karmady-anavritam that this does not refer to the search for knowledge in the furtherance of devotion. Why then is there such a strong contingent of devotees who are ready to rain opprobrium on anyone who makes use of his God-given powers of reason?
I will not belabor the point here, but only cite the following passage from Bhaktivinode Thakur’s own The Bhagavata: Its Philosophy, Its Ethics, and Its Theology. I have highlighted statements that I think we should all reflect upon.
…most readers are mere repositories of facts and statements made by other people. But this is not study. The student is to read the facts with a view to create, and not with the object of fruitless retention. Students, like satellites, should reflect whatever light they receive from authors and not imprison the facts and thoughts just as the Magistrates imprison the convicts in the jail.
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.
"Begin anew," says the critic, "because the old masonry does not answer at present. Let the old author be buried because his time is gone." These are shallow expressions. 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.
Now, if we are to follow our foolish critic, we are to go back to our former terminus and make a new race, and when we have run half the race another critic of his stamp will cry out: "Begin anew, because the wrong road has been taken!" In this way our stupid critics will never allow us to go over the whole road and see what is in the other terminus. Thus 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 the 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 a 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.
The Bhagavata, like all religious works and philosophical performances and writings of great men, has suffered from the imprudent conduct of useless readers and stupid critics. The former have done so much injury to the work that they have surpassed the latter in their evil consequence.
Men of brilliant thoughts have passed by the work in quest for truth and philosophy, but the prejudice which they imbibed from its useless readers and their conduct prevented them from making a candid investigation.
Two more principles characterize the Bhagavata—liberty and progress of the soul throughout eternity. The Bhagavata teaches us that God gives us truth as He gave it to Vyasa: when we earnestly seek for it.
Truth is eternal and unexhausted. The soul receives a revelation when it is anxious for it. The souls of the great thinkers of the bygone ages, who now live spiritually, often approach our enquiring spirit and assist it in its development. Thus Vyasa was assisted by Narada and Brahma. Our Shastras, or in other words, books of thought, do not contain all we could get from the infinite Father.
No book is without its errors. God’s revelation is absolute truth, but it is scarcely received and preserved in its natural purity. We have been advised in the 14th Chapter of the 11th Skandha of the Bhagavata to believe that truth when revealed is absolute, but it gets the tincture of the nature of the receiver in course of time and is converted into error by continual exchange of hands from age to age. New revelations, therefore, are continually necessary in order to keep truth in its original purity. We are thus warned to be careful in our studies of old authors, however wise they are reputed to be.
Here we have full liberty to reject the wrong idea, which is not sanctioned by the peace of conscience. Vyasa was not satisfied with what he collected in the Vedas, arranged in the Puranas, and composed in the Mahabharata. The peace of his conscience did not sanction his labors. It told him from within, "No, Vyasa! You cannot rest contented with the erroneous picture of truth which was necessarily presented to you by the sages of bygone days. You must yourself knock at the door of the inexhaustible store of truth from which the former sages drew their wealth. Go, go up to the fountainhead of truth, where no pilgrim meets with disappointment of any kind."
Vyasa did it and obtained what he wanted. We have all been advised to do so. Liberty then is the principle which we must consider as the most valuable gift of God. We must not allow ourselves to be led by those who lived and thought before us. We must think for ourselves and try to get further truths which are still undiscovered. In the Bhagavata we have been advised to take the spirit of the Shastras and not the words. The Bhagavata is therefore a religion of liberty, unmixed truth, and absolute love.
The other characteristic is progress. Liberty certainly is the father of all progress. Holy liberty is the cause of progress upwards and upwards in eternity and endless activity of love. Liberty abused causes degradation, and the Vaishnava must always carefully use this high and beautiful gift of God.
This illuminating passage by Bhaktivinode Thakur should be borne in mind by all those who claim to be his followers. I shall refrain from commenting on it, as Kundali Das has done so with éclat in the preface to the fourth volume of his Our Mission series. I furthermore heartily recommend Kundali Das’s work, in which he gives a penetrating critique of fundamentalism as it has manifested in Iskcon specifically, but which is by extension applicable to anti-rational religiosity wherever it appears.
Suffice it to say that nowhere in the above passage does Bhaktivinode Thakur place sectarian limitations on the use of reason, but rather insists on its liberty, even from the constraints of previous thinkers, no matter how wise. Since thought is progressive, it behooves every one of us who has accepted the basic principles of devotional life—service to the Supreme Truth—to face the difficult questions and answer them in ways that are satisfying to our own conscience. Stifling questions because of attachment to what are often irrational beliefs is not a solution that will win the most converts, nor the most desirable ones. Furthermore, such an attitude will be as alienating to the neophyte as the questions themselves.
The guru is not omniscientIf we are to use our own reason, then what is the meaning of statements in scripture that tell us to seek the guidance of a spiritual master or place absolute faith in his words? As I have been reminded by Narasingha Maharaj, to see our spiritual master as an ordinary man results in all our learning becoming in vain, like the bath of an elephant. These are very serious scriptural instructions. If someone puffed up with education contravenes the words of the spiritual master, will he not meet with destruction? Is it not better then to remain ignorant?
Yet, in the above passage, we see that this is not the path Bhaktivinode Thakur prescribes. He does not exonerate us of the duty to use our reason, even though “the souls of the great thinkers of the bygone ages, who now live spiritually, often approach our enquiring spirit and assist it in its development.”
I am not denying the centrality of the guru to spiritual life. As even Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen further, it is because I stood on the shoulders of giants.” Even so, if thought is to be progressive, it may sometimes appear that as we climb onto our gurus’ shoulders to see further, we are stepping on them. This is not in fact the case.
The divine status of the guru is a subjective perception that comes because he opens our eyes to our constitutional position as a servant of Krishna, because he instructs us in the overarching process that is to make up his spiritual life, and because he points us to the ultimate goal of our life. In other words, the spiritual master reveals to us the sambandha, abhidheya and prayojana-tattvas. This does not mean that he is omniscient, omnipotent or infallible. Any ascription of infallibility is in fact an exhortation to remain true to the spiritual principles he has given us, which should guide us in our own progress towards God.
When the scriptures say the spiritual master is God, it does not mean that he is God in the same sense that Krishna is God. This is why Vishwanath sings kintu prabhor yaḥ priya eva—“The scriptures tell us he is God and this is confirmed by the saints, but he is [in fact a finite soul who is] very dear to God.” His God-ness comes from being a window to God, not from being God in every sense of the word. We have been clearly warned that such an idea is as much a heresy as thinking of the guru as an ordinary man.
The attainment of personal wisdom means being able to discriminate between the human and divine aspects of the spiritual master. In his expose on fundamentalism in Iskcon, Hari Krishna Das has also discussed the fundamental fallacy of guru omniscience. He writes,
What then is the role and position of a guru? In many respects the role of the guru corresponds, in my opinion, to the role of revealed knowledge--providing the basic philosophical paradigms to human society. The guru is to provide insight into the existential truths of life, including such topics as the origin of life, the existence of God, the meaning of good and evil, the meaning of life and death according to the principles of reincarnation and karma, the ultimate meaning and destiny of life, and the position of the living entity as eternal servant of Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Furthermore he must provide practical tools, or a way of life including certain basic directions, by which practical goals can be accomplished.
On the other hand, the guru is not omniscient, and as such he is not required to be expert in all spheres of knowledge related to the material world. Although he should be well-versed in philosophy and should have a general understanding of scientific knowledge, he does not have to be an authority in science, nor does he have to be an expert in organising and managing human society from a social, economic or political standpoint. Most importantly, the affairs of the world should be run by those who are trained and expert in doing so--not in contradiction to spiritual principles, however, but in harmony with them.
In other words, the guru is not the source of all knowledge as such, but the source of all meaning.
There is an important psychological truth revealed in the person of the guru. In the psychological language of Jung, the guru personifies the archetype of wisdom in the subconscious. Whatever terms we use to express the idea, the external manifestation of an archetype is a significant event in one’s spiritual life -- a revelation. This is why Siddhanta Saraswati was perfectly right when he said that the encounter with the spiritual master cannot generally be had through mere formality or even conscious intellectual endeavor. It must be an epiphany in order to be a true and meaningful archetypal experience.
The early stages of relation to the spiritual master are often akin to a kind of possession. This is sometimes called “archetypal possession” and is similar in many ways to falling in love. The disciple may feel his own individuality practically washing away as he becomes totally absorbed in the person of the guru. Though such an experience is an extremely meaningful event on the path to self-realization, one must also grow beyond it. The goal of self-realization is not to become a clone of the guru, but to become a thinking, feeling individual in full realization of his own potential. In order to attain this stage, one must see the symbiosis of man and God that is the guru. Because he is God, he remains eternally the reminder of that moment of epiphany—the symbol of the moment we realized our destiny was to know and find God.
And yet, in order to realize our true selfness, we must in a sense become free of the guru, just as we become free of our parents. This freedom from the guru is, as Bhaktivinode states above, not the shallow critic’s rejection, but the liberty and progress inherent in the Bhagavata religion. One truly serves the guru by building on what he has given, by putting the old wine he gives in our own new bottles. The guru wants us to become ourselves, to fully realize our potential as individuated servants of God.
In Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati’s language, this is seeing the guru everywhere. In order to become guru, one must come to see the guru everywhere. The spiritual master, locked up in his human form (vyasti guru), is only the starting point for this process. To see the guru everywhere (samasti guru), we must be able to see past the limitations placed on him by his humanity. This is why we are told not to be distracted by apparent bodily defects, diseases—nor by his mistakes or even his moral failings.
This means the internalization of the guru, who as caittya guru is also present in our conscience and in our reason—for it is he who grants intelligence. When Krishna says dadāmi buddhi-yogaṁ taṁ yena mām upayanti te he is refering to this. When we recite the Gayatri mantra, dhiyo yo naḥ pracodayāt, it is a prayer for divine guidance -- to be given the intelligence that will deepen our faith.
Proposed solutions to the “three books” problemWith this lengthy preamble, let us now turn to the actual purpose of this article. How are we to deal with the challenge to our faith caused by this matter of the three dubious books?
In the several responses I have received to my article, I have seen three basic arguments. The first of these is outright denial. Since I have not as yet seen anything that effectively answers the points I raised in “An analysis of three suspicious texts”, I shall not return to that issue here. The other two approaches are to justify or defend such actions as legitimate, either from the point of view of means or motivation.
The first of these defenses is to suggest that Jagadananda Pandit and Prabodhananda Saraswati wrote the books through Bhaktivinode Thakur, which was possible as a result of his mystical power and pure devotion. One respected devotee expressed this position in the following words:
The world of spiritual realizations is full of mysteries. In other words, sometimes some transcendentally mystical subjective experience can overshadow the usual objective side. Even if, for the sake of argument, it is supposed that Bhaktivinode Thakur did write these two books, it might well be that he strongly felt they were not his own, but actually written by Jagadananda Pandit and Prabodhananda Saraswati respectively through him, in order to fulfil a divine purpose. So, he naturally wanted to give exceptional credibility to them. Though from the objective historical ground it is to be defined as an act of counterfeiting, yet, from the exceptional ground of subjective realization through revelation, it cannot be called counterfeiting, but rather a fact realized through revelation.
In principle, I would have no objection to this argument. At the same time, I answered this objection in my original article, where I contrasted these works with Navadvīpa-dhāma-māhātmya, Harināma-cintāmaṇi, Jaiva-dharma and other books by the Thakur. There I said,
Had Navadvīpa-dhāma-māhātmya been written in Puranic Sanskrit two or three hundred years earlier, it may have been insinuated into the Skanda Purana or Padma Purana and achieved canonical status. As it is, the Thakur decided to publish it in Bengali and in his own name. This could only mean that he was either sufficiently confident of his own position as a “realized Vaishnava” who could claim to have mystic visions of this sort and be believed, or that he never intended for it to be taken literally as history, but as a fanciful work in glorification of Mahaprabhu.
The Vaishnavas no doubt believe that in some dimension or alternate reality these events were not only possible, but are historically true, even if they were not necessarily so in our universe. In this sense, we can compare it to his other works like Harināma-cintāmaṇi, which Bhaktivinode Thakur wrote as a conversation between Haridas Thakur and Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in Jagannath Puri, or Jaiva Dharma, which includes characters like Gopal Guru Goswami and Dhyana Chandra – a kind of historical fiction, as it were. There is a certain literary license that has been taken here and is not problematic as long as we recognize the genre.
So, my objection is not with the “inspiration,” which the Thakur may well have felt he received from Jagadananda or Prabodhananda, but in that he made no such clarification. He deliberately stated (in at least two of the three cases) that these publications were based on genuine manuscripts that had recently been discovered, thus dissimulating his own involvement in their composition.
A further problem arises from the deliberate purpose found in these works to promote doctrines that were dear to the Thakur. It seems clear that his intention was indeed to enlist the names of these reliable authorities in their support. How can we be sure that these were indeed the opinions of these authors? Clearly, if a disciple of Sai Baba were to “discover” an ancient upanishad that not only predicts Sai Baba’s advent, but depicts him in terms that are remarkably similar to the discoverer’s personal perception of him, it would not be accepted by any devotee. The situation here cannot be seen any differently.
The end justifies the meansThis brings us to the second proposed solution, which exonerates Bhaktivinode Thakur through a consideration of his motives.
If anybody calls Bhaktivinode Thakur’s motives into question, then he should know that even if he had a motive, it was a good one which he sincerely and respectfully believed to be spiritually beneficial for all who want to serve Sriman Mahaprabhu. So rather than receiving disgraceful blame or being accused of cheating or lying, a pure devotee like Thakur Bhaktivinode deserves spiritual respect. Let it be known that all the acts of a spiritual personality cannot be fully understood from a worldly historical viewpoint. The above explanation is not just to intellectually justify, but to point out towards some truth in the light of proper analysis and assessment of Thakur Bhaktivinode.
Another, rather more emotional, expression of the same idea came from another devotee —
Bhaktivinode was lily white. Even Krishna performs what would be considered devious or crooked behavior. Whatever Bhaktivinode has done that might appear to be a blemish was done in the service of the ultimate good. I think that qualifies as "lily white.” That is what pada-padma means. It means that his feet are transcendental like a lotus that sits above the water. To ascribe devious, dark and sinister qualities to Bhaktivinode and say that he was not lily white is sacrilege to Vaishnava siddhanta. Bhaktivinode was lily white. Only cripple-minded persons who think they understand the mind and motives of Bhaktivinode describe his as "not lily white".
Once again, I am not entirely averse to this line of thought, but I cannot accept it in its entirety. What we have here is antinomianism, the heretical doctrine that one justified by faith in Christ (or some other spiritual qualification) is exempt from the obligations of the moral law. In view of the Gaudiya Math’s spirited condemnation of immoral practices in the Vaishnava world, one would think that it would be the first to resist this kind of thinking.
It is true that there are strands of antinomianism present in both Hindu and Christian philosophy. In Hinduism, the idea that the perfected soul stands above the moral law is the very definition of liberation. Krishna says, “Give up your attachment to all moral laws (sarva-dharmAn parityajya) and surrender unto Me.” In other words, God is the fountainhead of all morality. By surrendering to Him, one sees the purpose of the moral law, which exists ultimately to serve Him. The Christian version, as expressed by St. Augustine, is particularly beautiful: “Love, and do as you will.” One who incarnates God’s love cannot act against the underlying purpose of the moral law.
Srila Prabhupada (A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami) used the expression favorably several times, especially in connection with book distribution.
The end justifies the means. The means are not very important. We have to judge by what is the end. (Letter to Sri Govinda, 74-12-06)
When a businessman goes to please somebody, he wants the money for himself. That is the difference. But when we go to please somebody, to get some money, our ultimate aim is to please Krishna, the Absolute Truth. Therefore, even if the means adopted is a relative truth, it becomes Absolute Truth. The end justifies the means… Just like Krishna advised Arjuna, "Go and tell Dronacharya that his son is dead," even though his son was not dead. This was not the truth, but because Krishna was pleased by that action -- Krishna is the Absolute Truth -- even that lying was also absolute. (JAMES.SYA)
We want that book selling must be increased as much as possible. This we want. It is the same principle as when a child must be made to take his medicine. It does not matter if the father has to lie to him to get him to do it, because as soon as the child takes the medicine he will be benefitted. The end justifies the means. The end is that everyone should have a book about Krishna. It does not matter how that is achieved. If someone takes a book about Krishna, that justifies everything. This is the principle. (Room conversation, Honolulu, 75-05-05)
There are furthermore concrete instances in Vaishnava history of persons who stole to serve the deity. Tirumangai Alvar plundered people with a gang of robbers to raise funds to build the Sri Rangam temple. He and his companions even stole a golden image of Buddha from Nagapatnam, melted the idol and used the proceeds to this end. The Sri Vaishnavas take this to be an instance where the end justified the means.
This is all fine in theory. However, it is clear that there is an inherent danger in any doctrine that absolutely subjugates the means to the end. The most fundamental opposition to such a doctrine is that no evil can truly lead to good. Just as one cannot build a good house out of bad materials, you ultimately defeat your own purpose when using bad means, even if the end is good. When a person claiming saintliness takes refuge in dishonesty in order to further what are objectively seen as sectarian ends, does he not undermine his own moral authority? The Catholic catechism says: “No lie can be lawful or innocent, and no motive, however good, can excuse a lie, for a lie is always evil and sinful in itself.”
We have seen the consequences of Iskcon’s no holds barred book distribution and money collection activities. Did the building of a “golden temple” justify the loss of reputation that the Hare Krishna movement has undergone as a result of the means taken to build it? Was the banning of the Hare Krishna movement from Japan for years and years a just tradeoff for the building of the Krishna Balaram temple?
Sadly, I do not doubt that there are some who will answer yes to these questions. Some businessmen use temples as dumping grounds for “black” money, to purify ill-gotten gains, assuage their own conscience and avoid bad karma. This is one reason that many renunciates traditionally kept clear of temple prasad, even in Vrindavan.
Another strong objection against the antinomian theory is the great possibility of its abuse. Illusion is very strong and it is easy for those in positions of authority to think themselves beyond the moral law, even though they are clearly motivated by selfish interests. The roots of the expression “the end justifies the means” are found in Machiavelli’s The Prince, where he argues in favor of political expedience. In the game of power politics or war, the only criterion is success and anything that contributes to success is thought to be justified, but in the realms of religion or moral philosophy, it is vital to discriminate between expediency and moral justification. It is altogether too easy to point again to the history of Iskcon, where those who took the title of acharya felt that they could flaunt basic moral principles as if they had become gods.
The conclusion, then, is a familiar one: even if one is beyond the moral law, one should act morally, if only to set example—yad yad ācarati śreṣṭhas. This is the meaning of the oft-heard statement that an uttama adhikari (who is beyond the moral law) “comes down” to the madhyama stage (where the moral law must be followed) in order to preach. In other words, though the liberated soul is beyond good and evil, the preacher must be solidly identified with good.
This is why, if anything, a preacher must be doubly vigilant to follow more strictly than others. This was true in Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s time, so why not in this skeptical age when religion is already associated in many minds more with evil than good?
sannyāsīra alpa-chidra sarva loke gāya
A spot of ink on a white cloth cannot be concealed; and everyone loves to gossip about a monk’s tiniest flaws.It is true that life is complex and that one may be faced with choices that are less than clear cut and have to weigh the lesser of two evils in order to attain an end that is not altogether satisfactory. In fact, as the Gita says, no action is entirely free from some negative consequences. The footsteps of a saintly man walking towards a holy purpose may still destroy an anthill or crush an insect. But the unintentional consequences of a benign act gone wrong are not what is at issue. The end can only justify the means if it can be shown that there is absolute necessity; in other words, where one is constrained to make a choice between two evils—e.g., allowing the baby to die so the mother can live (or vice versa). In the particular case under discussion, it do not believe it can be shown that the three books served an absolutely necessary purpose—i.e., that Bhaktivinode Thakur’s preaching work would have been aversely affected had he acknowledged his own authorship.
Furthermore, if it ever is necessary to break the moral law for a higher purpose, then one is morally obliged to not only justify one’s decision, but to ask forgiveness for the relative harm caused by making it.
On the whole, in this case, the "end justifies the means" line of argument is self-defeating. It is for this reason that my little article has caused such a furor. It is not because I am a scholar only viewing things from the exterior, but because I am asking whether Bhaktivinode Thakur, in this case, lived up to his own standards or to our expectations of him. If we admit that Bhaktivinode wrote these books and ascribed them to ancient authors with even the best of motives, it still invalidates their authority, and thus ultimately undermines whatever purpose they were meant to serve.
In my original article, I considered this point:
…in his enthusiasm to see Mahaprabhu’s birthplace be glorified and become a center of pilgrimage – as it has indeed become – the Thakur took a chance with his personal reputation and that of his religion. He succeeded in making Mayapur a magnet for pilgrims from around the world. His disciples, grand-disciples and great-grand-disciples have succeeded in creating an environment that is quite extraordinary. Nevertheless, one cannot help but wonder at the masi-bindu that stains his otherwise sparkling white cloth. Can we not expect people to ask the question that naturally arises: How can a religion that needs lies to spread its message make any claims to be the truth?
Some have found this statement the most objectionable of all that I wrote, and yet I must stand by it.
Resolving the quandarySo, does this mean that we are to condemn Bhaktivinode Thakur and to reject him entirely? Absolutely not! The first offense to the Holy Name is perfectly clear on this point—one should not blaspheme the one through whom the glories of the Holy Name have come. Can any one deny that through Bhaktivinode Thakur’s mercy we have received the Holy Name?
Krishna clearly states that we are not to condemn a pure devotee for defects of character:
bhajate mām ananya-bhāk
sādhur eva sa mantavyaḥ
samyag vyavasito hi saḥ
Even if a person of very bad behavior worships me with undivided devotion, he is to be thought of as saintly, for he has the proper resolution.
I furthermore agree with the two objections cited above insomuch as I believe that Bhaktivinode Thakur acted out of sincere motivations, to see Chaitanya Mahaprabhu glorified and not for personal aggrandizement or profit. He may also have felt his inspiration was genuine.
Even so, I do not think that it is proper for us to condone this act through some sophistry. A great and powerful Vaishnava may also make mistakes, as all endeavor is covered by flaws like fire is covered by smoke. Nevertheless, it is a great mistake to think that a disciple is obliged to accept the smoke with the fire. A great and powerful Vaishnava may even consciously dissimulate ignorance and do things that are morally wrong. This is also smoke that covers the fire. In such cases, we must learn to forgive the sinner, if not condoning the sin.
As such I am essentially in agreement with Narasingha Maharaj, who says the following:
There are indeed many defects in this material world. Certainly the material bodies of all living beings are defective. Even the pure devotee has to pass stool. However, because the pure devotee is fully surrendered to the lotus feet of the Supreme Lord all his apparent defects are ignored and the Supreme Lord accepts him as His very own. Indeed, the Supreme Lord even embraces the so-called material body (even diseased body) of his pure devotee. Such was the case with Sanatana Gosvami who was embraced by Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu.
I personally do not make an absolute distinction between bodily defects and mental, intellectual or even moral ones--within reason.
Where a guru's mistakes are inadvertent, unintentional or exceptional, they are forgivable. Where they are intentional, arise out of selfish motives and are persistent, we must call into question the authority of such a guru.
It is proper to make demands of Vaishnavas to live up to the very high ideals that are ours intuitively, or that they themselves claim to adhere to from their scriptures; but our intercourse with devotees is meaningless unless we are able to see beyond any lapses that may arise.
While writing this article, another issue connected to Bhaktivinode Thakur arose on an internet forum. One devotee was astonished to hear that the Thakur confessed in his Sva-likhita-jīvanī that he had had trouble giving up eating meat and fish until quite late in his career. Believing the Thakur to be a nitya siddha, this devotee felt troubled. Most devotees had no difficulty defending Bhaktivinode, as they rightly recognized that it was a mere spot on the moon of his devotional life. In other words, the principle of forgiveness is at work there: we forgive our predecessor acharya, even though we know that he may have acted at one time in ways that were not acceptable to the high standards we expect of him.
In fact, we should be extremely indebted to Bhaktivinode Thakur for having pierced the hagiographical balloon in his autobiography so that we can surmount the superficial understanding of guru tattva and nitya siddha and all the rest of the terms that we bandy about in order to blind ourselves to possible flaws in our guru varga. How much more inspiring and glorious it is to have a human guru who has shown the way by struggling with the negative aspects of material entanglement and succeeding!
Another ethical quandaryBefore finishing, I am obliged to return to an issue that is very much at the crux of the problem. My readers must remember the context of my original remarks. I was discussing the relationship between Bhaktivinode Thakur and his spiritual master, Bipin Bihari Goswami. There are several paradoxes that need fathoming in this little bit of history.
Narasingha Maharaj and others have made much of the guru-disciple relationship as the guarantor of divine revelation. In my original article, I pointed out many examples to show the fidelity of Bhaktivinode to his spiritual master Bipin Bihari Goswami. At the end of the Bhāgavatārka-marīci-mālā, the Thakur even acknowledges exactly such a debt to his spiritual master:
How I got the inspiration to compile this book is a divine mystery. At first I felt it improper on my part to disclose this, as it might lead to spiritual conceit. But subsequently, I realized that it would slight my spiritual master, which might be an obstacle on the path of my spiritual progress. Therefore, without any shame I record the following: While under the benediction of my Guru, Sri Bipin Bihari Goswami, who belons to the great heritage of Thakur Vamsivadananda, a faithful follower of my Lord Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, I would read Srimad Bhagavatam. One day, while I was deeply penetrating Srimad Bhagavatam, I had a vision of Sri Swarup Damodar, the right-hand personal adherent of Mahaprabhu. He instructed me to compile the slokas of Srimad Bhagavatam in accordance with the principles of sambandha, abhidheya, and prayojan, as laid down by Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. In this way, that book would be easily understood, extremely interesting, and absolutely delightful to the loving devotees of the Lord. Sri Swarup Damodar Prabhu further guided me by giving a wonderful explanation of the first sloka of Srimad Bhagavatam, and also showed me how to explain the slokas in light of Gaudiya Vaishnava philosophy. Therefore, under the direction of Swarup Damodar Prabhu I, Bhaktivinode, humbly compiled this book. With the utmost humility and sincerity, I crave the blessings of the readers, as well as the listeners, of this holiest of holy books.
I bring this matter up again because of Narasingha Maharaja’s contention that one can only attain divine revelation by remaining under the guidance of the spiritual master. Yet he fails to appreciate this clear acknowledgement of debt by Bhaktivinode Thakur, and instead openly calls Bipin Bihari Goswami a Sahajiya and attempts in other ways to diminish him.
My request to such people is only that they grant the same kind of respect to Bipin Bihari Goswami as they would to any other guru-varga. Even if they believe he has committed errors of siddhanta or sad-achara, he still merits our veneration and forgiveness.
Bipin Bihari worked together with Bhaktivinode and the two had a mutually fruitful relationship throughout more than thirty years of preaching, etc. We have also seen from the Bhaktivinode quotation above that he was not one to reject the past, but to build on it: “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.” Their relationship is no doubt going on beyond this world and whatever imperfections existed in it are being purified there. The fact remains that the spirit of devotion, the knowledge of sambandha, etc., have come to us as a result of Bhaktivinode’s living relationship with his guru. If we appreciate Bhaktivinode Thakur, we must, if we are honest, bow down before Bipin Bihari Goswami. To not accept him is like accepting only half a hen.
ardha kukkuṭī nyāya tomāra pramāṇa
kiṁ vā doṅhā nā māniñā hao ta pāṣaṇḍa
eke māni āre nā māni ei mata bhaṇḍa
To have faith in one while disrespecting the other is as logical as only taking the half of a hen that lays the eggs. Better you should be an atheist and deny the divinity of both rather than a hypocrite who believes in one and not the other.” (Chaitanya Charitamrita 1.5.175-7)
Therefore, distasteful as it may seem to us, if Bipin Bihari Goswami chose to chastize his disciple—and even reject him—on account of what he felt to be acts of dishonesty, we must take this into serious consideration when discussing this particular matter.
Nevertheless, this leaves those who accept Bipin Bihari Goswami as the guru of Bhaktivinode with another problem—what is the meaning of their disciplic connection if this relationship was disrupted by such a rejection? How should one coming in Bhaktivinode's line feel as a result of the apparent break in the lineage coming from Bipin Bihari's displeasure with the Thakur's actions?
In answer to this, I can only say that if there are unresolved issues between them, then surely they are being resolved in some other universe. It is not our place to resolve them on their behalf. In the meantime, we are confident that Bhaktivinode Thakur has given us so much that despite this blemish we do not despise him for it. Nor do we believe that his guru truly despised him, but rather posthumously warned him and his followers that falsehood has no place in the spiritual endeavor. Militancy in religion is bad enough in itself; when bolstered by falsehood, it becomes doubly bad. Let us be forewarned.
Finally, I believe it is wrong for those coming later in a disciplic line to perpetuate the grudges that their gurus may have held. This is very much my point. A good example of this is given by Bhakti Rakshak Sridhar Maharaj himself, who spoke generously and forgivingly of his godbrother Ananta Vasudeva. Let us not fall into the trap of judging who is "bigger" or "better" amongst our gurus, as though we could weigh and measure those who have inspired us to serve Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Let us simply ask to humbly carry their torch, as best we can, and even better, if need be.
In conclusion, I would ask my readers to recall Bhaktivinode Thakur's words. “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.” If I have said anything that is bad or wrong, may they please improve it and convert it into something good.