Saturday, June 16, 2018

5. Confessions: A profession of love and respect for Babaji

This is Part 5 of a series called "Confession and the Authentic Self."

1. Prologue.
2. Setting the scene. The saga of the Paundraka Vrindavan Today.
3. Staking out the high ground. The frequentations of swans and crows.
4. Confession, a religious act. A concealed provocation.



I won't give too much of a preamble here. As stated below, this article appeared after negative material about Babaji started appearing on the other website.

I felt that the only way to counteract the negativity was by speaking what I saw as positives. I know that when I read this, it is not full of glorification of Babaji's external achievements or of dramatic hagiography. His disciples can do that. I thought it was more important to say why I decided to serve here in the Jiva Institute and the nature of my relationship with Babaji. How I see him as a human being.

Babaji is younger than me, and he took to bhakti at a later time than me. But these are externals that are less important in every way than other kinds of qualifications that I look for in sadhu-sanga. So the following is really a meditation on friendship or maitri more than anything.




Jai Sri Radhe! Some days have gone by since the advent of the Paundraka Vrindavan Today and its attempts to bring some indignity on members of the editorial board of Vrindavan Today. I have spoken a bit about these things here and here.

Although there is little doubt that it was a painful episode in Babaji's life that led to his writing his letter of confession, but it is more the so painful that some individuals have adopted the attitude of baddha-vairitā and declared him their enemy, thinking that he is someone who must be brought down.

But look! In an exchange of letters with Babaji, he wrote as a conclusion,
Yes, dear Jagat, let us not come to their level. Let people decide for themselves. We stick to our seva. And if people do not like us that is fine with us. There will always be people who will hate us. Moreover, we are not some maha-bhagavatas. We have defects and others will surely point them out. So we need not be disturbed.
Even without communicating, please observe how remarkably similar Babaji's thoughts were to those of Shrivatsa Goswami I posted yesterday. It seems that on this point at least, the VT editors are agreed.

Nevertheless, it pains me to see an attempt to vilify an exemplary scholar and representative of the Vaishnava faith and an admirable human being, for whom I have come to feel a deep and abiding sense of respect and friendship. It thus behooves me to glorify him in order that the brilliance of his commitment to the teachings of Jiva Goswami not be covered by the shadows of the petty jealousy of his inferiors.

jihvā-phalaṁ tvādṛśa-kīrtanaṁ hi sudurlabhā bhāgavatā hi loke ||

The perfection of the tongue is to sing the glories of one such as you,
for great devotees of the Lord are truly rare in this world.
(Hari-bhakti-sudhodaya 13.2)



The first thing I would like to say about Mahanta Maharaj is that he loves knowledge. He is as curious an intellectual as any I have ever known, with a far reaching intelligence that only few human beings on this earth are blessed with.

He has an engineering degree from IIT, a law degree, as well as a PhD in Sanskrit. But his real education came in the traditional form.

Even while still a Gurukul teacher in ISKCON, already respected there for his knowledge of Sanskrit and so on, Babaji was going daily, without fail, for classes with Haridas Shastri, who was without dispute the most learned Gaudiya scholar in the whole of Braja Mandal.

And he did so faithfully, in the classical manner of disciple and guru, persisting for twelve years in uninterrupted guru-sevā and going through the entire Six Sandarbhas, the core theological text of the Gaudiya Vaishnava sampradāya, which is an ordering and explaining of the entire Bhāgavata that has no equal in any other philosophical school.

It was this love for Jiva Goswami and the Bhāgavata that Haridas Shastri instilled in him that has animated Satyanarayana Dasa Babaji through his life. It is the seed that has become the Jiva Institute.

Anyone who thinks that there is some separate purpose of the Jiva Institute from the will of Haridas Shastri Maharaj to spread and glorify the teachings of Jiva Goswami is not paying attention.





After Shastri Maharaj started to age, he became more interested in serving the cows than in teaching students, and Babaji -- who by this time was Shastri Maharaj's mantra and vesh disciple -- continued his studies in the same, traditional manner.

Once, in the early days of my association with the Jiva Institute, I remarked Babaji getting on the motorcycle with Pandit and going off somewhere. Since Babaji had just returned from a trip to America the previous day, I was curious and made inquiries. It turned out he was going to see Shyama Sharan Nyayacharya. Nothing could have impressed me more about Babaji's commitment to the association of senior learned saints. I felt it because I recognizes it as something that somehow had not been bequeathed to me in this lifetime, to have such eka-niṣṭhā bhakti, love, for Guru, and such closeness to him. And it was also a shining example of, avyartha-kālatvam.

Sri Shyama Sharana Nyayacharya Maharaj
 I wrote a bit about that kind of traditional education that very few people have time for any more. I reflected on this on my personal blog when Shyama Sharan Maharaj merged with the dust of Vrindavan. I felt great regret that in this lifetime I had never really had the fortune, or the devotion and strength of purpose, or the faith in guru that must have possessed Babaji in the case of both these teachers.

Please read that article, at least the first part, to also get an idea of Satyanarayana Dasaji Maharaj's commitment to the dissemination of Sanskrit knowledge.

As a result of seeing Babaji's devotion to his guru, and my own lamentable lack of guru bhakti, I realized that Srimati Radharani was giving me the opportunity to work with the foremost expert on the Sandarbhas who at the same time was knowledgeable in English and willing to share that with the world. And he was asking my help and participation in the project.

I will not go off into the story of my own relationship with Jiva Goswami, but let me say that I felt my own studies incomplete since I had never studied the Sandarbhas in the exhaustive way that Babaji had done with Haridas Shastri. After I had started editing the Bhagavat-sandarbha, I realized that I was losing a lot of time by not taking advantage of Babaji's direct presence.

At that point I went to him and said that the only way I would be of any use on this project is if I took the position of a student in relation to him. As a result he graciously read through the Bhagavat Sandarbha together with me. And I recall that it was one of the most joyful experiences of my life when we came to the conclusion of the text together, reading the Sanskrit text, the revised translation and Babaji's commentary.

Unfortunately it is unlikely that such joys will ever again be mine, as Babaji and I both become busier and busier with our various projects. But in my life of learning about Guru Tattva, this is one of the ways that Satyanarayana Dasa Babaji Maharaj has been my guru.



Yesterday the Babajis from Radha Kund who were here mostly to administer the Sanskrit test left, and suddenly Jiva is quiet again.

Babaji and Ananda Gopal Shastri of Radha Kund in 2014
One of the Radha Kund Babas, Prabodhananda Das Babaji, is from Jagannath Puri, from a priestly family. He is initiated from the Gambhira and has big Vakreshwar Pandit tilak to prove it. He is a jolly fellow, but also a very serious student of the shastras. At any rate, I teased him a little bit asking why he was in Radha Kund and not Puri. Surely there were pandits in Puri? He turned and vehemently stated that there is currently no scholar in the Gaudiya Vaishnava world equal to Ananda Gopal Shastri Maharaj.

Ananda Gopal Maharaj lives simply in a humble kutir in Radha Kund, where despite his age he still runs the tol, the Chaitanya Siksha Sansthan, which is connected to the Jiva Institute. He is also a teacher in that same traditional mold, with an emphasis on Vedānta and Sarva-saṁvādinī. His multi-volume edition of Govinda-bhāṣya and recently a translation of Sarva-saṁvādinī in Hindi were published by Satyanarayana Dasaji.

Ananda Gopal Maharaj is known to be a prickly character. His personality can be abrasive. He is a straight talker especially when it comes to siddhānta. Yet no one doubts for a moment his lifelong devotion to the Vaishnava shastras.

But I want to talk about the first time I saw Shastri Maharaj at the Jiva Institute during the Jiva Goswami's annual advent celebration, an occasion when the students from the Radha Kund school come to Vrindavan and join with the Vrindavan students in celebrating Sri Jiva Goswami. On that occasion, Ananda Gopala Maharaj stood up and spoke with tears in his eyes about how when he was suffering a heart attack, Babaji immediately had him taken to the Kailas Hospital in Noida and promised him that he would spend whatever amount it took to have him taken care of. With a choking voice he said, "I owe Babaji my life."

Since I was newly associating with Babaji, I got a thrill to hear the Pandit speak of his compassion and generosity. I thought, this is a man I can trust. Here is a man who is worthy of friendship, whose association is worth pursuing. No one can achieve great things alone. Those who know how to make good friends are the ones who achieve the most. Did Babaji not translate Hitopadesha?



Let me say another thing.

I wrote an article several years ago about the guru/disciple relationship and how it resembles that between employer and employee. In my life, whenever I had the association of people I revered, beginning with Srila Prabhupada, my own guru Sri Lalita Prasad Thakur, Ananta Das Babaji, even my Western academic gurus like Joseph O'Connell and Clifford Wright, and then Swami Veda Bharati and now Babaji Maharaj, I have always kept a certain respectful distance.

Once I understood the purpose of the relationship, i.e., what I was there to learn from them, I was always careful to observe their actions closely, but without judgment. When one works with detachment, things are revealed that do not come to those who have some objective to gain.

I am wary of those who hover aggressively around the guru, so busy like a child that needs to be constantly noticed. There is a kind of friendship that does not always necessitate confirmation in minor things.

Friends pursue their individual and common purpose in trust, and the loftier their goals, the deeper the friendship becomes. Maitri is, in my opinion, one of the greatest of the missing arts. I learned some things from C.S. Lewis' Four Loves about the nature of friendship, about the way that non-competitive common interest defines friendship, but I also learned about it in practical ways from Babaji Maharaj.

The essence of friendship is trust, vishrambha. Friendship is like the centerpiece of the flower of prema, without which its higher reaches are unattainable. I wrote a little story about an event that took place a couple of years ago that inspired me to reflect a bit more about the practical aspects of friendship.

Babaji being greeted by Swami Vishwananda in Germany.
This story is about sectarian prejudice and Vishwananda Swami of the Bhakti Marg movement, who now has an ashram just a few meters away from the Jiva Institute.

It is through Babaji and his freedom from fear and prejudice that Swamiji has made the Vrindavan bhāva central to the teachings he gives his disciples and followers. Babaji is not judgmental.

Almost everyone from the traditional sampradayas of Vrindavan, in particular the Gaudiyas, and even more the western Gaudiyas, all recoil from Vishwananda Swamiji as "unbonafide" and a charlatan. And of course they were able to find scurrilous material on the web to support their contention that he is a cheater and asat-sanga.

I also felt some anxiety and spoke many things to Babaji asking him whether in the long run he did not run the risk of being tainted by Swamiji's association. Babaji agreed with everything, in a way, but said that he saw something in Swamiji that the rest of us did not.

I think that there are many who fear charisma, which Swamiji has to the point of its being a trascendent power. There are those who watch, but fear to go too close out of fear they might be engulfed by it, bewitched. Babaji has his own charismatic power, and does not have that fear.

It was thus that Vishwananda Maharaj became a regular visitor, with his disciples, to Vrindavan. Thanks to Babaji's open heart and welcoming of Swamiji that Swamiji was moved to open his entirely new branch of the bhakti spirit and make a home in Vrindavan Dham.

Some of Vishwananda's students have also become inspired to study Sanskrit and so on at Jiva. Many of them are regular attendees at Babaji's classes. Most important of all, they are getting the dust of the Dham and breathing the same air as all the Brijvasis. How is this not good? How did I ever doubt it?

The lesson I learned about friendship is this: I am a fallen soul with unlimited flaws, and people will undoubtedly be there to point them out. But if Babaji is one's friend, he will be a loyal friend. He is always a guṇa-grāhī, strict in his own path, but generous to those on others.

Even if someone is his enemy, if he sees that this person is doing service to the paramparā, he will support him.



What more can I say of the glories of Satyanarayana Dasa Babaji? What do I know and what can I truly see?

But let me say one more thing. When Babaji left ISKCON in the midst of a theological controversy after more than a decade of service, he was followed by a considerable number of Western devotees who took his side.

As the Jiva Institute became established, more and more of these bhaktas would come to stay there, mostly to hear Babaji's Bhāgavatam classes. But Babaji's program was to take them every day to Haridas Niwas in Kalidaha, the "goshala," where they would engage in several hours of go-sevā. Babaji himself in his childhood village had cows and he is an expert in all kinds of tasks related to go-sevā, including milking.

Many of these devotees became initiated disciples of Shastriji Maharaj, but that was the formality. Out of humility, Babaji offered all those who came to him to his own guru. But they were his to take care of and inspire. It is a great irony in recent days that those who are the most vociferous in exposing Babaji's flaws to the world were themselves brought to the shelter of Shastri Maharaj by Babaji.

Prof. Edwin Bryant of Rutgers University
lecturing at Jiva Institute in 2016.
Some of those who admired Babaji and followed him to Haridas Shastri were Navadvipa Dasa and Edwin Bryant. Navadvipa is still working on the Sandarbhas project with Babaji.

Edwin, Advaita Das, is a professor of Hinduism at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He has gone on to be a highly respected scholar of Yoga, Hinduism, the Bhāgavatam, and now the Gītā, contracting with major publishing houses in the United States. His translation and commentary on the Yoga Sutras, which is more bhakti oriented than any previous edition, is now the most popular edition in the United States. He is a much sought for lecturer in yoga studios around the USA.

Last year Advaitaji was in Vrindavan for an extended stay. He was working on his new Gītā project and taught a course on Yoga Sutra at the Jiva Institute, a celebrity guest lecturer, but did so only after putting in several hours cleaning the goshala, shoveling manure and cutting grass for fodder. Here he was showing the Vaishnava character: Though a world famous author and scholar, he was serving Go Mata in his guru's ashram in Vrindavan.

This was Haridas Shastri's spirit of humble sevā, but it had been channeled to him through Babaji.



These are just some small things that I have observed in Babaji. They may not seem grandiose or miraculous to others, but even these small things make my heart well up in emotion when I think of them. By his grace, I have had the good fortune to spend some of the best years of my life in service to the mission of the Jiva Institute, to furthering Sanskrit education, and to the deep study and dissemination of the Goswami shastras.

I consider Babaji's support for the Vrindavan Today project a kindness on his part. There are many other things that I am still inspired to complete in this lifetime, and Babaji is a source for that, without any doubt. I was recently feeling a bit puzzled at how I would manage to do everything that I had started, but Babaji just said, "We all have many things to do." So it is, may Babaji continue to inspire me and others in his love for the Sanskrit language and traditional scholarship, and for the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition, and for Vrindavan Dham. Jai Sri Radhe. Jai Gaura Gadadhara!
doṣān pareṣāṁ hi guṇeṣu sādhavo
gṛhṇanti kecin na bhavādṛśo dvija |
guṇāṁś ca phalgūn bahulī-kariṣṇavo
mahattamās teṣv avidad bhavān agham ||
 
Oh Brahmin! A man like you can simply find fault in the qualities of others. Lord Śiva, however, not only finds no faults with others’ qualities, but if someone has even a little good quality, he magnifies it greatly. Unfortunately, you have found fault with such a great soul. (4.4.12) 
nāścaryam etad yad asatsu sarvadā
mahad-vinindā kuṇapātma-vādiṣu |
serṣyaṁ mahāpūruṣa-pāda-pāṁsubhir
nirasta-tejaḥsu tad eva śobhanam ||
 
It is not so surprising that those who have accepted the transient material body as the self engage constantly in deriding great souls. Such people are diminished in power by the dust of the feet of great personalities, and that alone is good and proper. (4.4.13) 
[meaning that the great souls themselves take no action against their detractors, but the dust of their feet, their innate spiritual power and the Supreme Lord's protection, mean that the consequences of aparadha always befall those who speak calumny of those who are dear to the Lord.]

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