Notes from my travels in Bengal (Kolkata, Nabadwip, Birnagar, Purulia, Medinipur)
[This is one of those posts that was messed with several times and is therefore a bit confused. Maph koro.]
Time has been going by quickly and the last few days I did not have a computer so I was not able to keep in touch with my Facebook friends. I haven’t been taking photos either. Finally I broke down and bought a new computer in Nabadwip and hopefully this one will cause me less misery than my previous HP’s. The store in Nabadwip just had the one laptop, an HP. I am currently posting from Sapatgram in Assam where I am speaking for a week’s worth of time. Supposedly Bhagavatam, but I decided to do Gaura katha instead.
So… my latest adventures in Bengal.
Kolkata Bagh Bazaar Gaudiya Math
First I went to Kolkata Bagh Bazaar Gaudiya Math where I spent rather longer than expected considering I only was to speak one evening for fifteen minutes. And I don't think I even used my fifteen minutes. The subject confused me and I did not have a paper prepared like the other speakers, all of whom were distinguished Sanskrit professors and the like. The subject was something along the lines, "What was Mahaprabhu's greatest contribution to world peace?" I had to say that I wanted to know where was the peace? Look at the great disruptions in the history of India, in the Gaudiya Math itself, what to speak of Mahaprabhu himself! What was he doing when he was showing these shocking manifestations of ecstasy that would horrify any of us if we saw it in another or if it happened to ourselves. So I said I was having trouble with the question. I had to summarize quickly with short theodicy and then I ran off. Of course, nobody took up the question, and just read from their papers.
I guess the event that was the most amusing was when I went to the Ganges ghat and saw Paramdwaiti Maharaj with his disciples, cleaning the ghat. My voice was totally hoarse, but I thought I would try a video rant in Bengali. It did not turn out that great, but Soumen just happened to have come visit me and so I asked him to do it. And he did a creditable job, all things considered, everything being impromptu. He kind of made it a bit more about me than Paramadwaiti Maharaj as I had wanted, but whatever.
I just watched it again and it's kind of fun. I laughed at the end. You can tell though, that I enjoyed the Gaudiya Mission kirtan. It was rather good most of the time. They are a pretty good team when it comes to kirtan. Actually, as part of my fifteen minutes of fame I did my best to compliment them after observing them for two or three days or whatever it was by then. It was indeed interesting to spend time in the first big Gaudiya Math temple, the building that was fought over... It still feels a lot like 1933 there, even with the big Chaitanya Museum they are building. So I thank Hrishikesh Maharaj who was my principal host there. Jai Mahaprabhu!
One of the speakers whom I met at the event was Nabanarayan Bandyopadhyaya, a professor of Vedic knowledge at Rabindra Bharati University. He told me that the next day was an event in Nabadwip, a gathering of all the traditional scholars at the Sanskrit College, where I briefly studied in 1981. I thought it would be nice to reestablish my connections with a community that I had known back in the day and so I scooted to Mayapur and stayed with Gadadhar one night and then the next day went across the river and found my way to the meeting, but arrived late.
On arriving near the Sanskrit College I saw Bhagwat Kishor Goswami on the road with a number of followers. I had been watching him on YouTube as a part of my preparation for coming to Bengal. Research. Checking out the competition. He knew who I was because he had heard about me from Nisheeth Kumar Goswami, who was his vidya guru. Nisheeth Gosai is from the Vishnupriya Vamsha. Now 75, he is still the doyen of Sanskrit and Vaishnava shastra teachers in Nabadwip. Prabhupadas Nritya Gopal and Prema Gopal Goswamis were both his students.
When I first came to live with Madhusudan at Gokulananda Ghat in Nabadwip in 1980, another Godbrother, Doctor Babu (with the fabulous name of Shashanka Shekhar Balniyogi) took the two of us to Nisheeth's house in the evenings through the dark streets. Nabadwip only got a couple of hours of electricity in those days. Nisheeth was teaching Sanskrit at a high-school in Samudragarh and he would take the train home, bathe and do some puja and then sit down to read Govinda-lilamrita under a hurricane lantern with a handful of listeners, the most devoted of whom was his adoring mother. Although a handsome and somewhat debonair man, he never married.
First Bhagwat Kishor Goswami took me inside the meeting area where a number of the participants were still milling around. He took me first to see Gorachand Bhattacharya, whom I had had some adventures with back in around 1983 - we went to Gaya on a mission to [unsuccessfully] retrieve the place where Ishwar Puri had supposedly initiated Nimai Pandit, which changed the course of his life. Ground zero, really.
I used to listen to go to Govinda Bari and listen to Gorachand's Bhagavata path. He gently held both my hands and looked me in the face for a long warm moment and said, "We had no idea where you were, what had happened to you. We did not know whether you were dead or alive!" I truly have not been adept in maintaining these old friendships.
Bhagwat Kishore Goswami then arranged for me to be taken to see Nisheeth Prabhu, who had not come due to stomach flue. When I entered his room and paid my obeisances, he did not waste any time with pleasantries or reminiscences. He immediately started giving me a Nyaya explanation of the repetition in the verse radha vrinda-vane vane. There being three possible reasons for vipsa, all of which were necessitated by Radha's presence in the forest of Vrindavan. Of course I could barely follow the argument; maybe if I look up that sutra I could reconstruct the argument. I was, however, thinking of how nice it would have been to have studied with someone who took so much pleasure in knowledge.
I reminded him of the first verse I had heard him explain from Govinda-lilamrita. Still remember it vividly, him holding the book up close to the dim hurricane lamp and wrapped in seeming endless chadars in the winter chill.
spṛśati yadi mukundo rādhikāṁ tat-sakhīnāṁ
bhavati vapuṣi kampa-sveda-romāñca-bāṣpam |
adhara-madhu mudāsyāś cet pibaty eṣa yatnād
bhavati bata tad āsāṁ mattatā citram etat ||
If Mukunda touches Radha, it is on her sakhis'
bodies that appear trembling, sweating, horripilation and tears.
And if he should joyfully and with great care
drink the nectar from her lips,
it is they who become intoxicated.
This is indeed a marvel to behold.(GLA 11.137)
Yes, asangati alankar, he said. But that was all he had time for as he started to feel stomach cramps. Our meeting had to be cut short.
From there I went to Birnagar, where I spent one night. I got to speak to the handful of local devotees who come to the temple. I enjoy that because I feel that I can speak openly and explain things without having to concentrate on the entertainment factor. Which is or is not a good thing. Anyway, I speak whatever comes to mind anyway. I am constantly trying to improve my control over the Bengali language so that I can make my own understanding clear.
The next day Harigopal Das Babaji Maharaj took me to Purulia, after which we went to a couple of places in Medinipur district before returning to Dwadash Mandir.
Purulia was a bit of a disappointment and nothing much came of it. We stayed at the house of a Mr. Mukherjee, a retired engineer who now lives alone there in Purulia. He is originally from one of the big families that dominated early Birnagar (see the rather unexpectedly detailed Wiki article) and so we were hoping that he would be eager to help us in some way, but not much came of it, at least not at this time.
Vaishnavism is pretty hidden in Purulia, though I know that there are many devotees here. We visited a small Gaudiya Math called “Govinda Math” which has a couple of branches up there in the northwest of Bengal. I don’t doubt that there is a lot of untapped potential there.
Interlude : Reflecting on this after returning to Vrindavan:
The main purpose of this trip was to figure out how to expand our preaching potential from Birnagar. Later, in Mayapur, Gadadhar told an anecdote about Prabhupada Madan Gopal Goswami, who was our friend in Nabadwip. Madan Gopal Prabhu told him to preach, and Gadadhar said, "So many people are preaching, but who is doing bhajan?" Which is the point of his "another side of Bhaktivinoda Thakur." And indeed it seems a little strange that Hari Gopal, who has been in Radha Kund for more than 30 years is suddenly running around basically looking for money for the temple.
It is easy to be suspicious of motives. My idea is that to follow Bhaktivinoda Thakur means that at least you have to preach in your corner. It is a human need to share. And if we have found something good here, then some attempt to share is necessary. My motto on this trip was:
avirata avikal, tava guna kalakal, jeno gai satera samaje
May I constantly, flawlessly, sing your delightful qualities in the assembly of the saintly.
This is the goal for which I truly endeavor. And I wish to do it in Bengali to an assembly of Bengalis, in the language of Mahaprabhu.
As things progressed throughout the one month trip, it is clear that some practical ideas are going to have to be applied. We were hoping Mr. Mukherjee would have arranged a program. But to do a program, you really need to do the kinds of things that any publicist does. We also need books. We need to do kirtan or Nam Tahal. Bhaktivinoda Thakur asked as almost the final prayer in his famous song, "When will that day be mine?" for the empathy for fellow creatures that would give the strength to go into the streets and ask people to chant the Holy Name.
We need to have an inspiring and relevant message. I think that what would need to be done, at the very least, is to revive Bhaktivinoda Thakur's Nama Hatta, as used to exist when Prabhu was younger and which continued even afterwards for sometimes. Jayapataka Swami has recreated his version of the Nam Hatta with great effectiveness throughout most of eastern India. It is Bhaktivinoda Thakur's method, so we should try applying it. More about this later.
We cut short our stay there and headed for Panskura in West Medinipur. Near to Panskura there is a small village which is home to several disciples of Bhakta Ma (Srimati Usha Devi Bhakti Matrika) who was the acharya of the Bhaktivinoda Thakur birthplace from 1980 to ca. 2006. Then for a few years Vamsi Das was running the show, and then the Goshthi’s samiti members called on Hari Gopal Dasji to come and take over after being more than thirty years in Radha Kund.
There are five brothers and other relatives who live in separate houses in the village. Madan Mohan is the youngest brother and runs a brick business. But they put me a bit to shame as they all know Bhaktivinoda Thakur’s songs much better than I do.
Then we went to Kola Ghat, which is a big flower cultivating area and famous garland makers. In the morning there is a bit flower market near the train station with flowers going up and down the east coast.
We stayed with Sandip Das Adhikari, who is the disciple of another of Lalita Prasad Thakur’s disciples, Sudhanshu Das Bhaktivilas, who was quite a strong Bhagavata speaker, very well known in Medinipur district. A two volume biography and collection of his lectures has been put out by the Sauri Prapannashram, which is another important branch of the Bhaktivinoda tree, started by Bhakti Tirtha Prabhu, who was one of the Thakur’s closest disciples.
Sandip Prabhu, whom we previously knew only by his Facebook alias of Nittanando Goswami, is also a Bhagavata speaker with a little ashram called Bhagavata Bhakti Bhavan. He proudly shows us a light display over the front entrance that says “Sri Radhe.” He has many disciples and followers living near to the ashram. Many of them came to see Harigopal and me. That evening Sandip Prabhu arranged for us to go to a Vaishnava festival of kirtan and path that was going on in a nearby village and arranged for both Harigopal and me to speak for ten or fifteen minutes after the regular speaker had finished.
Medinipur in general seems to me to have a greater number of visible Vaishnavas who wear tilak and so on. The Gaudiya Math is active there, and of course Iskcon is everywhere. I noticed that many of the devotees have their little book on the Nama Hatta. The Bhaktivinoda Goshthi published all of Bhaktivinoda Thakur’s writings on the Nama Hatta, which needs to be redone.
As a matter of fact, I am immersed in publishing projects that need funding (hint, hint) -- my own, Gadadhar Pran’s and several things that I want to do from Dwadash Mandir, both in Bengali and in English. Bhaktivinoda Thakur’s original writings on the Nama Hatta would make a good handbook for bhaktas. If ever I can break away from all the other stuff...
Before I knew it, it was time to head back to Birnagar so that I could catch the Kamrup Express with Tamal Da to go to Assam after one evening giving class at Dwadash Mandir, still getting my tongue into shape.
On the way to the train station, while crossing the Ganga we encountered the very energetic Prem Prayojan and fifty or sixty of his followers who were heading to Nabadwip to visit Dhameshwar and Jagannath Das Babaji’s samadhi.