Friday, June 13, 2014

What does it mean to be in parampara?

I would find it quite normal if someone who read the last post were puzzled by what seems like a tremendous change in my direction. After all, the famous Sahajiya and “mundane scholar,” Jagadananda Das could hardly at this point represent the great Bhaktivinoda Thakur, nor his son Lalita Prasad Thakur, and yet that is precisely what I am setting out to do. Well, not exactly, let us say that I intend to serve them.

After all these years, all these changes, to return to a situation from what is now a quite distant past, and one that would look quite unpromising to most people, strikes even me as a bit strange.

The decision to commit to Lalita Prasad Thakur’s bhajan sthali itself caught me a bit by surprise. Maybe not quite as great as it seems at first glance, but nevertheless I think it requires some explanation. This is probably going to take more than one post.

Part of my decision comes as a result of my slowly maturing understanding of Guru-tattva, which is indeed a grand and fascinating manifestation of God's grace. I have been wanting to tell some stories about that, but due to having too many gurus, I have not yet been able to. But where Dwadash Mandir is concerned, it is a step towards a kind of retirement, a fourth stage of life as it were. It is time for me to assimilate all my gurus into the Samaṣṭi Guru, and the only place for me to do that is in the place where I am most connected to the Samaṣṭi Guru.

Even before leaving for Birnagar, I was well aware that I was reaching a juncture (Wake up call). I had been thinking about my future direction, and after my trip to my guru's ashram I decided to take the alternative that was offered to me there. Harigopal Dasji has asked me, the Bhaktivinoda Goshthi welcomed me, and local devotees also showed their desire to have me stay there. They showed trust and affection, I also felt that I could work with Harigopal Dasji, but of course we will have to be clear about who and what we are. I do not intend to go falsely into this new engagement, so I will make some things clear.

(a) What does Disciplic Succession Mean?

First of all, I come in the disciplic line from Bhaktivinoda Thakur, I am not Bhaktivinoda Thakur himself. I come in the disciplic line from Lalita Prasad Thakur, I am not Lalita Prasad Thakur himself, nor was Lalita Prasad Thakur himself Bhaktivinoda Thakur. And so on.

They were each themselves, and I too am myself. And my way of viewing Vaishnavism and the world of religions and spiritual practices in which it has a place are going to be different from theirs. We live in history and times do indeed change.

I take it that Bhaktivinoda Thakur attempted to reconcile his religious ideas with the philosophical and scientific knowledge of his time. This is the example we emulate. But the day before I left for Birnagar, my friend Jayadharma Das observed:
It amazes me that we time and again turn to Bhaktivinode Thakur, specifically 'The Bhagavat: Its Philosophy, Its Ethics, and Its Theology' (1869) and 'Sri Krishna Samhita' (1880) as examples of a 'modern' way to approach and present Vaishnavism. Whilst these works are no doubt wonderful, they are very much of their time (!) We no longer live under the reign of Queen Victoria, and (hopefully) our knowledge of theology, science, and ethics are better informed than in those ignorant, ignoble and hypocritical times...
Of course, those two works are not defined by specific details, but by a particular attitude of confidence towards the Truth. The great weakness of religion is that too many of its adherence are afraid of the truth. Bhaktivinoda Thakur, as a man of faith, believed along with Newton and the first scientists, that the Truth will only reveal the glory of God. There can be no contradiction. This, as a general attitude of faith, is liberating, though in Bhaktivinoda, coming as it does in the early waves of the intersection of East and West, is only a first step into the adventures of modernity in the land of uncertainty.

As an example of the problem when one has a particular directive, i.e., to read "progressively" as Bhaktivinoda Thakur advises us to read the Bhagavatam, I recount the following: While in Birnagar a few days ago, I picked up a new reprint of the old Sajjana-toṣaṇī magazines from 1894. The first page I opened it to has an article called Darśana-śāstra (“Philosophical Schools”) in which the Thakur boldly states:
In ancient Greece also, those very same six philosophical schools were revered. Modern research by the Prussian scholar Garbbe (?) has established that Aristotle was the disciple of Gautama, the founder of Nyāya, Theles followed the Vaiśeṣika school of Kaṇāda, Socrates was a follower of the school of Jaimini’s Mīmāṁsā, Plato was a disciple of Vyāsa, the teacher of Vedānta, Pythagoras followed Kapila and the Sāṁkhya school, and Xeno was the disciple of Patanjali’s Yoga school. Exactly when all these Greek philosophers came to India to study these scriptures is something that will be learned in the course of time. We should try to find out who their direct teachers’ names were. But one thing all sensitive scholars are agreed upon is that all the different fields of knowledge in the West have their origins in India.
And on the article goes, speculating that Egyptians learned the art of making mummies from Indian gurus, and so on. Such things would easily be relegated to the dustbin of ideas, though there are still circles in India where such kinds of thinking are still pursued. In the late 19th century it was a common thing for educated Indians to look upon their past with a grandiose nationalistic spirit, one that was also clearly conveyed in Prabhupada’s books. Bhaktivinoda Thakur here expresses great confidence that this greatness will be revealed at some time.

This example may be an insignificant one, but if we are intelligent, then we be, like Bhaktivinoda Thakur himself exhorted us to be, sāra-grāhī students, supplementing revelation with other sources of knowledge, and then, much as he himself did, try to find a place for Vaishnavism in the contemporary scheme of knowledge.

Why should one even want to do that, one may ask. After all, why make the finding of a place for Vaishnavism an a priori in one’s search for knowledge? Will we not fall prey to the very logical fallacies that are on display here: the accepting of questionable evidence to support a fairly weak hypothesis, which is that India is the unique source of everything great and glorious in humanity? And which in turn has its purpose of buttressing a nationalistic identity that has been weakened by conquest and subjugation?

At any rate, even if we reproach Bhaktivinoda Thakur on this, we still have to accept that he agreed to undertake the challenge of confronting the Western world view or views of his time. And the direct result of that is that we are here, Westerners influenced by his world view.

There are various ways of dealing with a problem like the contradictions illustrated above, i.e., a principle of progressiveness in thought, the other a factoid that is of dubious merit as a historical truth. On the one hand we can deny the validity of anything that comes from Bhaktivinoda's pen as the relic of an ignorant time and place.

But Bhaktivinoda himself spoke of the kind of rejection of heritage that leads fools to deny and reject the old in this way. A child grows to be the product of the first infusions of knowledge, and so too the human race. And just as when we grow, we put away “the things of a child,” so too does humanity as a whole. And I believe that religion is not one of those childish things, but it does have childish forms that have to be thrown on the dustheap. We prefer to examine the phenomenon of religion objectively and discover what function it serves so that human societies have kept it around for millennia.

But why? Because we have received the bhakti-latā-bīja. We have received the seed and now we must grow it in the context where we find ourselves. The point is that paramparā does not mean homogeneity of thought, it means the nurturing, growth and fructification of the bhakti-latā-bīja. We intend to be sāra-grāhīs. And that is how we really preserve the heritage of Bhaktivinoda Thakur.

So Jayadharma is right: We have a prescription to think progressively, but find ourselves stuck in a world view that finds us adhering to strange literal beliefs instead of discovering the universals that our particular religious system extols and the kind of culminating spiritual experience of prema that it prescribes as the ultimate purpose of human life. It is good to know the kind of discourse that was going on in the British period in India to see how that both influenced the spreading of the Chaitanya Movement, but also to see how it is holding it back.

At least that is my story and I am sticking to it. I represent Bhaktivinoda Thakur because I further his mission in attempting to understand the meaning and purpose of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu's religion in the context, as best I can, of the present day. And, I do so with the faith that came to me through Bhaktivinoda Thakur in the form of the bhakti-latā-bīja, which I received in two installments, one from Bhaktivedanta Swami and Siddhanta Saraswati, and the other from Lalita Prasad Thakur.

With this, I humbly submit that disagreements over whether Bhaktivinoda Thakur was infallible and everything he said to be taken as infallible scripture, and whether such an approach to him is the primary measure of adherence to his disciplic succession, are to be set aside.

[I rather broadened my topic unexpectedly here. More to come.]


Anonymous said...

namaskar.. What is Samasti guru? I have googled it but not really found the meaning

Jagadananda Das said...

The basic meaning of samashti and vyashti are "collective" and "individual."

The passage in Bhakti-sandarbha 286 is significant.

There is an individual guru who comes to us in different personal forms, but behind all individual gurus, there is God, who is the samashti guru.