Bhaktivinoda Thakur and the Novel Form: Prema Pradipa

I have been in Birnagar for a couple of months now, acclimatizing myself to the environment, which has been quite edifying. This is the first time since 1982 or something that I have stayed in my guru's ashram, and this is the longest time that I have ever lived here. In general, I find that my spiritual life is always progressing, but being in the presence of my Guru's spirit has been especially beneficial.

I am not only getting the opportunity to give classes on Bhakti Sandarbha every day, but have also been getting calls from people in the area to come to speak. On Janmashtami I will be giving talks to devotees in Badkulla, which lies about halfway between Birnagar and Krishnanagar, and in Aramghata, a small village east of here where there is a private ashram associated with one of the Gaudiya Math's many branches.

Harigopal Dasji, as I have mentioned, is putting a lot of energy into fixing up Dwadash Mandir. Although I have some nostalgia for the old world, pre-civilization... well at least pre- a lot of things that are taken for granted now... I think it was time for all those dangling ad hoc electric wires and decades-old cobwebs to finally be removed. There is still a lot of detritus that needs to go, but many positive changes have been made. I think the most successful so far is the marble floor on the verandah.

I have been taking something of a break from Bhakti Sandarbha, doing what intelligent people apparently do, i.e., procrastinating. I must be very intelligent indeed, since my life seems to be one long procrastination and this may be an area in which I have truly attained some expertise. The other day while in Mayapur I went to the Chaitanya Math and picked up a number of books by Bhaktivinoda Thakur that I didn't have and brought them back here with the intention of studying his work a little more completely. One of the books was Krishna Samhita, about which I am currently doing some mananam and will be posting something hopefully in a few days.

Another one I picked up was Prema-pradīpa, the 72 pages of which I read in a single day. This was the Thakur's first foray into trying to teach Vaishnava philosophy in a work that has been given a novel form. The other foray was, of course, Jaiva Dharma. Bhaktivinoda was living in the years of the Bengal Renaissance, one of the features of which was the introduction of the prose novel. Though there were several early attempts, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya was the first to really popularize the form. Since Bankim was a senior member of the civil service, like Bhaktivinoda, it was rather natural that he should attempt to do something in this vein.

Raja of Tripura, Birchandra Manikya
In the introduction to the printed edition (1887), the Thakur says that many youths were benefited by reading the book, which was serialized in Sajjana Toshani magazine. Furthermore, its printing was being funded entirely by the Raja of Tripura, Birchandra Manikya, and was going to be discussed in his assembly of scholars.

In the Thakur's two attempts at the didactic novel, there is not much difference stylistically : both are lengthy philosophical discourses interspersed with a thin narrative that has little dramatic tension centered on the spiritual development of the main characters. In fact, they are almost Puranic in that way: the shell story seems barely of any importance at all. Almost, but not quite.  Here and there the narrative catches hold and one becomes interested in the characters, but the general lack of personality development and dramatic tension makes the novel format almost moot. The characters nevertheless do furnish a bit of an example for the effects of the teachings and how they are transformed through their sadhana.

The Prema-pradīpa starts in Braj with Hari Das meeting his old friend Prema Das in Keshi Ghat after a long time of not seeing each other. They decide to go together to Govardhan, where they want to have the association of a great scholar and authority of the Vaishnava community, Pandit Baba. On their way, they sing the following song:

আমার হৃত্-কমলে, বামে হেলে, দাঁড়িয়ে বাজাও বাঁশরী ॥১॥
এসো নিত্য ধামে, বিনোদ ঠামে, লয়ে বামে কিশোরী  ॥২॥
দেখে যুগল নয়ন, যুগল মিলন, দর্শন সফল করি ॥৩॥
পরে শ্যাম পীতধড়া, মোহন চুড়া, নটবর বেশ ধরি ॥৪॥
দিলে চরণ তরি, বংশীধারী, অকুল সাগর যাই তরি ॥৫॥
আমার মন বাসনা, কাল সোণা পুরাও হে কৃপা করি ॥৬॥
আমার মৃত দেহে, মৃত রসনাও বলে হে হরি হরি ॥৭॥

āmāra hṛt-kamale, bāme hele, dāɱḏiẏe bājāo bāɱśarī ||1||
eso nitya dhāme, binoda ṭhāme, laẏe bāme kiśorī ||2||
dekhe yugala naẏana, yugala milana, darśana saphala kari ||3||
pare śyāma pīta dhaḏā, mohana cuḏā, naṭabara beśa dhari ||4||
dile caraṇa tari, baṁśīdhārī, akula sāgara yāi tari ||5||
āmāra mana bāsanā, kāla soṇā purāo he kṛpā kari ||6||
āmāra mṛta dehe, mṛta rasanāo bale he hari hari ||7||
Oh, Krishna! Come into the lotus of my heart and remain their with your left-leaning stance, playing your flute, with your sweet attitude, Kishori Rai standing by your side. Seeing the Divine Couple together, my two eyes will achieve their purpose. Shyam wears his yellow cloth and an echanting crown, appearing like a dancer on stage. Oh wielder of the flute, give me your feet as a boat so I can cross over this unlimited ocean. Fulfill my desire Oh blackish Krishna and golden Radha! Be merciful and enter my dead body, so my dead tongue will chant the names, Hari Hari!
Bhaktivinoda Thakur likes to describe devotional ecstasies, as in one of his beautiful songs recently published here. "Dancing with arms raised as they sang, they became so intoxicated with the kirtan that they were not conscious of night's breaking into dawn. When their song and dance finally quietened, the two babajis saw the sun's rays rising over the eastern side of Govardhan."

Such descriptions are interspersed in the book's narrative and there are several other songs, including ones by Rupa Goswami and Narottam Das. There is even one Baul song that could have used a bit of explanation. There is little direct engagement or assessment of Baul doctrines other than to say that they are not acceptable to orthodox Vaishnavas. It seems that the Thakur left some strands of his intended plot unexplored.

The second chapter leaves our two blissful babajis and concentrates on the assembly of devotees surrounding Pandit Babaji and we are introduced to Yogi Baba. This Yogi Baba is a Vaishnava renunciate who was previously a yogi and still feels that yoga practices are useful for devotees. This was interesting for me, as I also feel like that. Pandit Babaji takes what we would see as the classical Vaishnava position, but acknowledges that pratyāhāra did benefit him. He had not been able to control his mind and fix it on līlā-smaraṇa because of the material associations it conjured up, so he turned to this yogānga for help. Pandit Babaji discusses the relation between ruci or rasa and external sense control. He suspects that Yogi Babaji did not really have a strong taste for the līlā due to inadequate association. Had he been a little more fortunate, he would not have found it necessary.

In the next chapter, Yogi Babaji has three visitors from Kolkata, one (Mullick Babu) who has an interest in yoga and two young men from the Brahmo Samaj who are accompanying him and actually are missionaries who are there with the intention of preaching against the worship of deities. So although the issue of yoga continues to be discussed, and indeed, Yogi Babaji spends some time in the next chapter teaching haṭha-yoga from Gheraṇḍa-saṁhitā and Śiva-saṁhitā, quoting numerous verses, which impresses the young Brahmo men, who on the other hand are reluctant to engage in any of the idolatry of the Vaishnava sect. Yogi Baba says that he started out learning haṭha, but then turned to rāja-yoga because he found the haṭha-yoga practices too external and time consuming. This is where again he stresses the importance of pratyāhāra in conquering the attractions of the senses.

Mullick Babu, however, immediately has faith in Yogi Babaji and begins to dress like a Vaishnava, even putting on tilaka, etc. The two young men are reluctant to go all the way, but at least they abandon their leather shoes and modern Western dress. They face the fact that they have been exposed to anti-Vaishnava rhetoric and have never had a real idea of its philosophy.

As they slowly become convinced by the doctrines of Yogi Babaji, they write to the Brahmo Samaj home office in Kolkata expressing their doubts about some of the positions held by the Samaj. The young men later receive a response from their Acharya who lambastes them for their falling prey to backwards ideas of the reviled debauched Vaishnavas. Bhaktivinoda Thakur does not spend too much time rebutting this letter, which is perhaps unfortunate if his intention was to combat the Brahmo ideas. However, his basic point can be taken that the Brahmos were devotional in their general outlook even though they did not accept the form and special characteristics of the Supreme, especially not as Krishna. He argues that devotion is the truest form of religion and that such devotion can only reach its fulfillment by accepting God's form, etc. After this, he then turns to a rather general but dense discussion of bhakti-rasa in the last part of the book.

There is one interesting scene where one of the young men encounters an older woman, Bhavataringini Dasi, who has been living in the ashram of Pandit Baba and is teaching the Bhagavatam to other ladies who are there. The two men are impressed that, like in the Brahmo Samaj, a woman has been educated and given this kind of teaching role. He later learns that she is his own father's sister (Pishima), who left home when he was still a boy. In their conversation, she admits to him that if he had not been interested in the Vaishnava life, she would never have revealed her identity to him.

In the end, then, the two Brahmos are completely converted to Krishna devotion, but Mullick Mahashay remains in his cottage practicing kumbhaka and is not able to enter fully into the bhakti-rasa.

That is a very brief summary of what is, after all, only a 72-page book. As I look at it, it is easy to see that there is an important development in the argument and that there is indeed a plot. The summaries of haṭha-yoga and rasa are too broad and technical, listing categories directly from the respective shastras without much background or detail. How does it help to know the names of the haṭha-yoga kriyās or to be overwhelmed with the details of all aspects of rasa-shastra unless some life is breathed into them?

It is a little unsavory to make a critique of my Parama Gurudeva's work here. In many of his books, Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur has attempted to give a broad summary or overview of the sophisticated Vaishnava doctrines, which as this book also makes clear, was lacking at the time -- Mahāprabhura Śikṣā, Caitanya-śikṣāmṛta, Daśa-mūla-sikṣā, Jaiva Dharma. Other books like Datta-kaustubha, Āmnāya-sūtra, Tattva-sūtra, Kṛṣṇa-saṁhitā are more broadly philosophical in nature and although based in Gaudiya concepts, debate with ideas from other schools of philosophical thought, both Western and Eastern. The most devotional works are his songs and original stotras. The novel form gave him an opportunity to give dynamism to these various strands of the Thakur's approach to bhakti in his own time and place by contextualizing the teachings.

Nowadays, I suppose that he could have just linked to the various subjects that he was talking about rather than attempt to give a broad overview each time. In the end, then, from our current standpoint, the novel comes over as a little dry and didactic. More character development and a realistic approach to their personalities and process of conversion would have made it more interesting and created a bit more rasa, which is, after all, the actual purpose of the "novel" form. The book is most effective (as is Jaiva Dharma) in depicting an ideal Vaishnava renunciate life of complete absorption in and commitment to bhakti.

Nevertheless, looking back on the various strands that are brought up, it is clear that the format, in which the Thakur was after all a pioneer, has a lot of potential even though perhaps not entirely fulfilled by his efforts. The purpose of didactic fiction is best fulfilled when it is a little more subtle and the characters are presented realistically. The maxim "show, don't tell" is one used to make the aesthetics the means whereby the message is transmitted, as befits Bharata Muni's statement, "Meaning is not communicated unless there is aesthetic delight" (na rasād ṛte kaścid arthaḥ pravartate). If this genre could be exploited in the modern world, it could no doubt be an effective way of communicating devotional ideas and mood to the world. The Legend of Bagger Vance, which was also made into a film, might be considered a kind of modern prototype.

In the meantime, the current verses from the Bhakti Sandarbha (Anu 48) seem appropriate:

karmāśayaṁ grathitam udgrathayanti santaḥ |
tadvan na rikta-matayo yatayopi ruddha-
sroto-gaṇās tam araṇaṁ bhaja vāsudevam ||
O King, saintly people cut the knot of karma by devotion to the petal-like toes of Bhagavān’s lotus feet. However, the sannyāsīs, who are devoid of bhakti, although controlling all their senses, are not able to cut the knot of karma so easily. Therefore, you should take shelter of Bhagavān Vāsudeva. (4.22.37)
kṛcchro mahān iha bhavārṇavam aplaveśāṁ
ṣaḍ-varga-nakram asukhena titīrṣayanti |
tat tvaṁ harer bhagavato bhajanīyam aṅghriṁ
kṛtvoḍupaṁ vyasanam uttara dustarārṇam ||
Those who desire to cross the ocean of birth and death, which is infested with the crocodiles of the mind and five senses, yet who are without a boat in the form of the shelter of Bhagavān, undergo great tribulation by undertaking difficult means, such as yoga. But by adopting the worshipable feet of Bhagavān Hari as your boat, you may easily cross over this insurmountable ocean of misery. (4.22.38)


Prem Prakash said…
I don't know enough about Bhaktivinoda Thakur's life to understand where he got such extensive understanding of hatha and raja yoga. Are you aware of these biographical details?
Jagadananda Das said…
Radhe Radhe, Prem Prakashji. I was going to write something a bit longer on this subject. The short answer is, judging from this book, that he had probably read those three works: Hatha-yoga-pradipika, Gheranda-samhita, and Shiva Samhita. If I am not mistaken, S.C. Bosu had printed his translations at around that time and this means that the Sanskrit editions were available. I have also seen the latter two works quoted in Sahajiya works from that period, so it is clear that these works were around and being discussed. The Mullick character in the book also reveals that there were educated people, Babus, who were taking yoga practice seriously.

All three of these works, however, maybe give a somewhat distorted idea of what a hatha-yoga practice would look like, though one would likely dabble with most of the kriyas, etc., learn their practical utility and then either reserving them for times of necessity or integrating them into one's practice. But to think that they had to do everything is a mistake.

I do get the impression that Bhaktivinoda Thakur also experimented a bit with it, but came to his conclusions without adventuring too far into the practices. This is clear from his summary. I may be wrong and should probably read again before making such judgments.

Another thing is that Bhaktivinoda Thakur does not get into the Bauls, just touching on them with a brief interlude in which he presents the Bauls in a rather pleasant aspect. There is a film called Moner Manush in Bengali which rather nicely idealizes the life of Lalan Fakir, which gives a nice romantic vision of Baul life.

Now Bauls are not exactly hatha yogis, but they have kinship and do follow many of the practices related to raising the kundalini, for want of a better expression. So whether Bhaktivinoda was going to deal with those questions and decided to abort is something that we can speculate on. He wrote a number of songs in the Baul style that are put downs of some Baul and Sahajiya practices. But it is not clear that he made the connect between these hatha-yoga texts and those of the Sahajiyas.

In my opinion, pratyahara is not the only or even the most useful practice for a bhakti-yogi. I think that hatha-yoga or ashtanga-yoga are useful to a very high level of bhakti practice, primarily because they foster ekagrata, single-pointed concentration. Smarana ("remembering") is one of the main devotional practices, our acharyas describe it as leading to [bhakti]-Samadhi, so any of the means for Samadhi in Ashtanga can be applied to bhakti, why not?

Are they favorable or unfavorable? In my opinion, again, I think they can be extremely valuable. The benefits of hatha-yoga and raja-yoga are too numerous and far reaching to be ignored, and if applied judiciously can be of extreme service to the cause of bhakti.

Hatha yoga helps you to be a more complete human being. And if this is applied to bhakti-sadhana, it can make your practice that much more effective.

Prem Prakash said…
Thank you for the response. The more I learn about Bhaktivinode Thakur, the more I appreciate the multi-dimensional nature of his genius. I use the "genius" term deliberately.
I trust you know I agree with you regarding the inherent benefits of hatha and ashtanga yoga. It seems the only deleterious impact they can have on a bhakta is if he uses them for selfish goals or personal pride. Considering how easily many folks use bhakti itself for selfish gain and prideful identity, I'm not sure it's accurate to consider the tools found in the yoga darshanas inherently a threat.

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