Notes on my visit to Assam
Sapatgram (Feb. 22-28, 2018)
Sapatgram, Assam, which is the home stomping ground of Pagal Baba or Lilananda Thakur, the one who built the imposing white temple on the Mathura Road in 1977. According to the very sparse details I was able to get from a book published at his ashram, he saw that though Vrindavan was on the road from Delhi to Agra, people just went right past it and never came to look at Krishna's abode. So he got his Marwari followers to fork out the money for that imposing structure. Basically this is all the information his biography contains:
About one year before India's division in August 1947, Pagal Baba moved to Assam where he organized Akhand Kirtan in Sapatgram village (Dist. Dhubri). Before long, his hut turned into a big ashram and as he used to get lost in the fervor of Harinam Sankirtan, he was nicknamed “Pagal Baba” by his followers. That ashram is called Shanti Dham.
Thereafter, he set up another Ashram at Borjhar (Dist. Darang) and stories of his magical red handkerchief (lal rumaal) whose touch resulted in miraculous cures of the sick spread far and wide, attracting many followers from Guwahati, Kolkata and other places, including many Marwari business people from the northeast.
Pagal Baba arrived in Vrindaban in 1964. He set up the Lila Kunj Ashram and Rashbehari Mandir in Gyan Gudri, near the Jamuna river, and there too starting akhand Harinam Kirtan and Daridra Narayan Seva.
A few years later, he embarked on construction of a marble temple, nine storied high, on the main road to Mathura. He thought that people traveling to and from Agra to Delhi passed by the immortal abode of Krishna's leela gardens without even knowing of its presence. It was his conviction that this magnificent temple ("Lila Dham") would in due course of time attract more people than the Taj Mahal.
Baba Sri also wanted to build a big modern hospital adjacent to his temple. He thought that both that could help people be cured of both bodily and spiritual ailments. He initiated work on the project in 1978 itself, but it came to a sudden halt when he attained Mahasamadhi in July 1980. The marble temple was finished in 1977 but the hospital project is still unfinished.
Pagal Baba did not believe in preaching; so he never gave any sermons. He believed in the sadhana of Hari Naam and food distribution (anna-dana).Pagal Baba was a striking figure, his body covered in strong Advaita parivar tilak and stamps of the Holy Name covering the rest of his torso. Nearly every Hindu home and business in Sapatgram has Pagal Baba's picture, and the town's college is adjacent to the ashram and named after him. The ashram itself is quite charming, with numerous small temples and guesthouses. It seemed that there were not many devotees living there, however. My impression from the book on his life was that most of his name and fame resulted from the miraculous cures. His teachings were fairly ordinary: wives should honor their husbands, etc. I was told that no one there initiates any more. Nobody knows his guru-parampara. The result is that there is no real continuation of his tradition, other than the chanting of akhanda Nam, which was being done by one lone figure when I visited. I also find that the Vrindavan temple, though imposing externally, does not show much spiritual vigor. Annual festivals still go on in his name, however, and there are many people in the region that continue to honor him.
Sapatgram is a medium sized village of about 20,000, just off the main railway line from Guwahati to points west and south. Tamal Da, who brought me here, has been coming to this area from Nabadwip for decades, first as a mridanga player in lila kirtan groups and then as an agent of lila and nam kirtan groups. His network of devotee friends in this area is very wide. He persuaded me to come by saying, "These people are great devotees; they will love you and you will love them."
Like Pagal Baba, most of the residents of the village are Bengali refugees from East Pakistan, fleeing in the different pogroms that have reduced the Hindu population of Bangla Desh. There are also a large number of Muslims, perhaps half the population, though the market is predominantly Bengali Hindu. Assamese and tribals are barely present.
My first talk in Sapatpur was to a couple of hundred people. I was pretty happy with the talk, which is quite unusual, as I am rarely satisfied with my "performances." I focused on two of Raghunath Das Goswami’s verses:
nijatve gauḍīyān jagati parigṛhya prabhur imān
hare kṛṣṇety evaṁ gaṇana-vidhinā kīrtayata bhoḥ |
iti prāyāṁ śikṣāṁ caraṇa-madhupebhyaḥ paridiśan
śacī-sūnuḥ kiṁ me nayana-saraṇīṁ yāsyati padam ||
In this world, the Lord accepted these residents of Bengal as his very own and nearly always instructed those who were like bees at his lotus feet to loudly sing the Hare Krishna maha mantra by the counting method. Oh when will that son of Sachi again come into the path of my vision? (Śacī-sūnv-aṣṭakam 5)
[Although I wanted to emphasize the first line, I may observe here that this verse is a strong evidence that Mahaprabhu did indeed instruct his disciples to chant Hare Krishna while counting (kariyā nirbandha). The word prāyāṁ indicates that when Bengali devotees came to see Mahaprabhu in Puri (which lila Raghunath Das is describing), he would instruct them in this way, i.e., to chant loudly but counting. People might say that one can also chant without counting, but I believe the other case is stronger. Otherwise why not say japata instead of kīrtayata ?]
apāyayan mām anabhīpsum andham |
kṛpāmbudhir yaḥ para-duḥkha-duḥkhī
sanātanaṁ taṁ prabhum āśrayāmi ||
I take shelter of my Prabhu Sanatan Goswami, an ocean of mercy who suffers to see the suffering of others, who made me drink down the juice of bhakti accompanied with renunciation, even though I was ignorant and without any desire for it. (Vilāpa-kusumāñjali 6)
After the lecture, I came down and danced to the kirtan, eventually managing to induce a group of children and a few adults to join me. Then after the kirtan, I would be swarmed by both men and women who are socialized to touch the Bhagavata speaker's feet. I was feeling rather joyful and so began to embrace everyone, especially the children, who came back each day even more enthusiastic to get a hug. I also made a point of hugging the widows, who also seemed quite grateful for it.
My main subject was the ninth chapter of the Adi Lila of Chaitanya Charitamrita, which describes the Chaitanya prema-kalpa-taru. On no day during the entire week did I stick to my plan. Somehow or another people were able to follow. I kept returning to the same theme from Chaitanya Charitamrita to a small crowd of about 200 with others listening on the mike. It was the first time I was really tested in this way and on the whole it went well, within the expected limitations. In other words, I am reasonably confident that I will be able to communicate with a Bengali audience and be understood.
The chapter starts with a very interesting verse:
mālākāraḥ svayaṁ kṛṣṇaḥ premāmara-taruḥ svayam |
dātā bhoktā tat-phalānāṁ yas taṁ caitanyam āśraye ||
I take refuge in Sri Krishna Chaitanya, who is Krishna himself the gardener, who is himself the immortal tree of Love, as well as the donor and taster of the fruits of that tree. (CC 1.9.6)
The chapter starts its description with the roots of the tree, i.e., Madhavendra Puri and others who preceded Mahaprabhu and showed the first signs of ecstatic prema that would fully manifest during Chaitanya's avatara lila.
pākila ye prema phala amṛta madhura
bilāya caitanya mālī nāhi laya mūla
trijagate yata āche dhana ratna maṇi
eka phalera mūlya kari tāhā nāhi gaṇi
māge bā nā māge keha pātra bā apātra
ihāra bicāra nāhi jāne diba mātra
añjali añjali bhari phele caturdiśe
daridre kudāñā khāya mālākāra hāse
Once the fruits of love had ripened, as sweet as the nectary of immortality, Chaitanya the gardener began to distribute them freely, not taking anything in exchange. (26) Even if one were to gather all the wealth, the jewels and precious stones from throughout the three worlds, I do not think that it would equal even one of those fruits in value. (27) He took no consideration of whether someone asked for it or not, whether someone was deserving or not, he only knew, "I must give." (28) Filling his cupped hands with these fruits, he threw them in every direction. Seeing the poor folk gather them up and eat them, the gardener laughed with glee. (29)
mālākāra kahe śuna vṛkṣa paribāra
mūla śākhā upaśākhā yateka prakāra
alaukika bṛkṣa kare sarbendriya karma
sthāvara haiyā dhare jaṅgamera dharma
e bṛkṣera aṅga haya saba sacetana
bāḍhiyā byāpila sabe sakala bhubana
The gardener said, "Listen, listen, my tree family, all of you, whether the main branches or the secondary branches, whatever you happen to be. This amazing tree can perform the functions of all the sense, and though a tree ordinarily has no ability to move, this one has the capacity of a moving creature. All the parts of this tree are conscious, and so they grew and expanded until they filled the entire universe. (30-32)
ekalā mālākāra āmi kāhāṅ kāhāṅ jāba
ekalā vā kata phala pāḍiyā bilāba
ekalā uṭhāñā dite haya pariśrama
keha pāya keha nā pāya rahe mane bhrama
ata eva āmi ājñā diluṅ sabākāre
jāhāṅ tāhāṅ prema phala deha jāre tāre
I am the lone gardener, so to how many different places can I go? And how many fruits can I pick and give away on my own? It is extremely tiring to gather up the fruits and distribute them all by myself; and it is distressing to know that some people get the fruit and others do not. And so I order every one of you to distribute these fruits of love to everyone wherever you go. (CC 1.9.34-6)
bhārata-bhūmite haila manuṣya janma yāra
janma sārthaka kari kara para-upakāra
One who has taken a human birth in the land of India [Bharatavarsha] should make his life successful and work for the benefit of all other people. (CC 1.9.41)
etāvaj janma-sāphalyaṁ dehinām iha dehiṣu
prāṇair arthair dhiyā vācā śreya ācaraṇaṁ sadā
This then is the measure of success in life: that with one's life airs, wealth, brains and words, one acts always for the benefit of other embodied souls. (10.22.35)
prāṇinām upakārāya yad eveha paratra ca
karmaṇā manasā vācā tad eva matimān bhajet
An intelligent person acts only for the benefit of other living beings, whether in this life and in the next, with actions, thoughts and words. (Vishnu Purana 3.12.45)
mālī manuṣya āmāra nāhi rājya dhana
phala phula diyā kari puṇya upārjana
mālī haiyā bṛkṣa hailāma ei to icchāte
sarba prāṇīra upakāra haya bṛkṣa haite
I am only a humble gardener and I have no kingdom or wealth. I simply give out my fruits and flowers and that way I earn some merit. Though I am the gardener, I became this tree out of my own desire. This is because all living beings are benefited by trees.
aho eṣāṁ varaṁ janma sarva-prāṇy-upajīvinām
sujanasyeva yeṣāṁ vai vimukhā yānti nārthinaḥ
Ah, but these trees have attained the best of births, for they are the givers of life to all other creatures. They turn no one away, just as a generous pious soul never turns away those who come begging. (10.22.33)
This has always been one of my favorite chapters in the Chaitanya Charitamrita. And of course, the key verse (1.9.41) was often quoted by Prabhupada, Since Mahaprabhu "adopted" the people of Bengal, I thought that I would honor them. I said, I am only offering the Ganga water back to the Ganga. This is your own hidden wealth, make the most of it.
I like the metaphor in each of its four aspects. Mahaprabhu is the gardener, as well as the tree, as well as the enjoyer and the giver of the fruits. Similarly, since everyone who becomes connected to this divine tree automatically becomes a part of the "family of the tree." And therefore is expected to take on the dharma of the tree, which is really nothing other than the dharma of the gardener himself. So, looking at the whole exercise of me going to Assam, etc., it really is meant as a way of living up to my participation in this immortal tree's existence.
The comparison is also inevitable to another verse where a similar metaphor is used, this time in relation to Krishna lila, also by Kaviraj Goswami:
Just as the moon enlivens the lilies, so Krishna is the bright moon who enlivens the lily-like hearts of the residents of Vrindavan. His pleasure-giving potency is personified in Radha, who is like a creeper whose fruits are prema. Her girlfriends are like the unlimited branches, leaves and flowers which expand out from her self and are thus equal to her. For this reason, when that winding creeper of love is watered with the heavenly potion of Krishna’s sporting activities, then the leaves and flowers, the sakhis, find hundreds of times more pleasure than if they were themselves to be sprinkled. This seems quite normal. (GLA 10.16, CC 2.8.210)I have discussed this verse several times before. I did not go into the esoteric matters in my classes.
Another feature of the week in Sapatgram was the house visits. I must have gone to at least 20 houses and met with the families, seeing their lives up close. There is no doubt that the people whose houses I visited are pious. Many have built temples on their property, if they can afford it. Some of them are quite big. Nearly everyone has a big Kali image as well as Krishna deities. I don't think it will ever be possible to break Bengalis' habit of worshiping Kali or eating fish. In each house I went to I made a point of singing Bhaktivinoda Thakur's Nam Tahal song. In some places I was asked to give another class for the people who gathered there.
As I was ruminating in the previous post, a more organized approach to preaching will be necessary in order to activate new devotees and to organize the present and given them direction. I will probably be heading back east in the summer. Hari Gopal Das wants to go to Bangla Desh. His main interest is in getting the fragments of the Bhaktivinoda Goshthi, disciples of Prabhu's disciples like Sachinandan Bhakti Prabhu, Bhakta Ma and others, motivated to keep the Dwadash Mandir alive.
Most of the people I saw are at best moderately well off. Perhaps Pagal Baba's Marwaris are rich, but I haven't yet performed any miracles... But I am interested in the project. Being an Iskcon alumnus, I still have some ideas about preaching that are practical, like theirs. The publication of books is a part of it. We will see how it develops.
Jai Radhe, Jai Gaur-Gadadhar!