Rocana Prabhu has recently published an editorial on the Sampradaya Sun wherein he struggles to make sense of Bhaktivinoda Thakur's avowal that he engaged in meat eating. In the context of this article, he makes a few disparaging comments about my diksha guru, Sri Lalita Prasad Thakur. It is unfortunate that there is no one but me to currently come to the defense of my guru, and for me to do so means exposing myself to involvement in disagreeable disputes, which is certainly not appealing to me. Nevertheless, it seems to me that I am under some obligation to say at least a few words.
Poor Rocana seems to have just discovered that Bhaktivinoda Thakur admitted eating meat and fish in his memoirs. He worries about "the potential this has to disturb the minds of many readers," who would consider such practices "abhorrent." This is in fact the realization that this admission plays havoc with his own idea of what it means to be a "nitya-siddha" or a "sampradaya acharya." Although he compliments Bhaktivinoda Thakur for his "extreme honesty," he does not seem to have grasped the real significance of such admissions.
Rocana bandies about with comparisons to Ramachandra and Bhima's meat-eating and how "they" are different from "us" and that therefore the same standards cannot apply. And woe be to those who compare their own sinful pasts to the comparatively less objectionable, historically forgivable actions of Bhaktivinoda Thakur.
But all this solves nothing and simply muddies the waters and reveals the general confusion about Guru Tattva that is rampant in the Krishna consciousness movement. A million quotes from Srila Prabhupada's books, unfortunately, do little to clarify the issue. Rather, they go on urging us to erase the human aspects of the Guru in order to see him as a God, and to sacrifice all capacity for individual self-realization in submission to the guru's orders and guru-created institutions.
I feel deeply that these kinds of exhortations have resulted in a huge imbalance in emphasis in the general understanding of Krishna consciousness. They diminish our humanity instead of lifting it to the heavens. How could this ever have been the intention of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu?
The importance of the human aspect of the Guru
Though I have, as mentioned above, already written about these issues, it is perhaps time to repeat myself again. Currently the Prema Prayojan site is closed temporarily, so I cannot not refer to the numerous times I have gone over the question. Indeed, the first time I publicly wrote on this subject was in letters to Rocana on his Garuda listserve, at the very beginning of my internet engagement with devotees. In connection with the Bhaktivinoda meat-eating question, I wrote on Audarya forums in 2003:
I think that we should be extremely indebted to Bhaktivinoda for having pierced the hagiographical balloon so that we can surmount the superficial understanding of guru-tattva and nitya-siddha and all the rest of the terms that we bandy about in order to blind ourselves to possible flaws in our guru vargas.
I have written about this before in relation to the controversy over the Prabhupada-lilamrita. How much more inspiring and glorious it is to have a human guru who has shown the way by struggling with the negative aspects of material entanglement and succeeding! This is, as far as I am concerned, a crucial point of transcending the kanishtha adhikari stage.
It is really the same question as that of guru omniscience and infallibility. There is much confused thinking on this issue... The arch-conservative and reactionary side tries to discredit the Sva-likhita-jivani itself. These people readily accept statements from this book when it suits their purposes, but refuse to accept those that contradict their idealized image of Bhaktivinoda Thakur. Even so, the SLJ is still the primary source of information on BVT's life as we know it--including Rupavilasa's book and all other Gaudiya Math publications on his life--with the appropriate expurgations, of course.
I take a much more liberal and, I believe, enlightened view that attempts to reconcile the humanity of the guru with his divinity rather than obliterate his humanity altogether in a cloud of mystification.
While I was thinking about whether I would write this article or not, I had the radio on and happened to hear an interview with Thomas Merton scholar Michael Higgins. Higgins spoke of the source of Merton's appeal and inspirational power as being anchored in his insistent search for truth and holiness. This comes out especially in the collection of diaries that he kept diligently and in which he spoke of things like a longstanding affair with a nurse and other "unsaintly" activities.
But rather than diminishing his stature, and I hope that this is abundantly clear, people's appreciation for Merton's true worth only grows, to the point that though he spoke emphatically and repeatedly against "the cult of personality", he has ironically become the subject of an entire Merton industry. Mahatma Gandhi, in his Experiments with Truth, had the same modern approach to saintliness.
None of this means that they are any the less saintly, but it is their saintly ambition, it is their honest, self-examined determination to attain the impossible goal of human perfection, that makes them admirable, and indeed worthy of being followed.
As an aside, Satsvarupa Maharaj has been, I believe, influenced by Thomas Merton to some extent and so he also approaches spiritual life quite openly. Without entering into a critique of the degree of personal honesty, mystical or theological profundity that goes into his writings, there is a certain modern sensibility that is beyond the comprehension of the ordinary devotees and their obsession with "nitya-siddhas."
My reproach of Satsvarupa is rather that he lacks courage and has made something of a career of retreating: He tempts fate by chanting extra rounds (Japa Notebook) and then retreats; he visits Narayan Maharaj, and then retreats; he has a sexual escapade, and then retreats; he decides to take face questions about sexuality head on, and then retreats--each time caving in to Iskcon criticism. No wonder the man is suffering so terribly from migraines!
If he could just once follow his instincts and break away from the terrible subjection to the Institution that holds him in its grip--a grip that is tattooed with the words "Iskcon acharya." With him, the problem is not so much a belief in the value of honest self-reflection as the lack of courage to follow through on his intuitions.
Recently I mentioned on these pages an interview with John Kain, who in a new book called A Rare and Precious Thing talks about a number of spiritual teachers in a variety of traditions. His opening statement was that all of these teachers have in "one way or another embraced the new paradigm." By this he meant that these spiritual masters made no attempt to pass themselves off as "nitya siddhas," but nevertheless had a powerful and lasting effect on their followers.
It is almost axiomatic to speak of today's spiritual leaders in Krishna consciousness as flawed. We have been so conditioned to accepting that the spiritual master must be a "realized soul", which we associate with some kind of unattainable superhuman status, that we end up absorbed in a kind of faultfinding exercise that makes us incapable of acknowledging even the considerable merits of another devotee except in the most begrudging manner.
Demonstrating that another person is imperfect is not a hard job: Ramachandra Puri showed us all that it is possible to find fault even with Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. So, is there any problem in finding fault with a sadhaka who confesses his imperfections? The question here is: From whom can we, as sadhakas ourselves, learn more? From the person who exhorts us to be impossibly perfect while pretending to conform to this same, entirely corrupting attitude, or from the one who sincerely admits his flaws and reveals his strategies, etc., in dealing with them?
Evidently, adopting this kind of strategy will result in a sanguine attitude, even a distrust, of personality cults of all kinds. George Orwell said "saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent" (in Reflections on Gandhi), especially if they set themselves up as such. Of course, I am the first to admit that the currents of hypocrisy run deep, and no public self-reflection is entirely void of manipulative goals.
Nevertheless, let it be stated as an axiom, which like all axioms will seem bland and obvious, that all people, including saints, are human beings. As such, they are subject to all the flaws of humanity--weakness and temptation, error and illusion. It is not freedom from humanity that a saint achieves, nor even the perfection of an ideal humanity; I would say rather that the saint is one who has consecrated himself to the pursuit of holiness and has made that ideal real to others. The acharya is someone who in the depths of his realization has found jewels that are of inestimable value to other humans who seek life's meaning in God.
Those who are addicted to the idea that "God speaks to the Acharya; his words are therefore the words of God himself," patati patata, are missing several huge points.
Lalita Prasada Thakur, my Prabhu
Of course, the paragraph in Rocana's article that really inspired me to write anything at all was the following:
We also have to keep in mind that the Svalikhita-jivani is actually a long letter written to his son, Lalita Prasada. As history tells it, in due course Lalita Prasada became a real adversary to Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati. In fact, he started a separate movement that is considered asiddhantic, and criticized Srila Bhaktisiddhanta extensively. So we should consider how that plays into our understanding this particular circumstance with Srila Bhaktivinoda's meat eating.This paragraph is so full of half-truths, misunderstandings and plain nonsense that it is hard to know where to begin. I have indeed already begun to do so above, as the root of the error is in Rocana's magical idea of the "Sampradaya Acharya." It is furthermore an unworthy and cynical attempt to deflect the problem onto a saintly person of whom Rocana knows nothing other than the parampara propaganda he now so condescendingly perpetuates.
Who knows whether Srila Bhaktivinoda intended that his letter to his son be published and made into a book? He might also have been trying to send a direct message to Lalita Prasada, it's hard to tell. Svalikhita-jivani is certainly a very unusual, honest depiction of a great Sampradaya Acarya's early life. How Lalita Prasada - or any of us, for that matter - choose to interpret this information is of the utmost importance. After all, love is always tested. This candid written narrative might simply have been designed by the father as a test for the son. And as history shows, the son failed the test. Whether or not his publication of this autobiographical letter was part of the failure, we can't know.
Rocana's concept arose at least in part from reflection on the now generally well-known fact that Siddhanta Saraswati and Lalita Prasada Thakur were in profound disagreement on the issue of diksha, the position of Bhaktivinoda Thakur's diksha guru Bipin Bihari Goswami, raganuga bhakti practices, the nature of Gaudiya Vaishnava institutions, sannyasa, and many of Saraswati Thakur's innovations. I have written about these things at length and, I believe, with a certain amount of detachment. However, if we can draw one conclusion from the Sva-likhita-jivani, it is that Bipin Bihari Goswami played a significant role in Bhaktivinoda Thakur's life, something that is a bit of an inconvenient truth with most of Bhaktivinoda Thakur's putative followers.
And this lesson has a connection with the meat-eating issue. It is this: after taking initiation from his guru, Bhaktivinoda Thakur stopped all flesh consumption. Indeed, he highlights this as a miraculous result of being initiated. This in itself shows the Thakur's appreciation of a significant transformation in his life as a result of coming into connection with his guru. How does this square with those who are on the right side of history and have consigned Bipin Bihari Prabhu to the rubbish heap? This avowal by Bhaktivinoda Thakur on its own seems sufficient truth to me to discard Saraswati Thakur and to follow Lalita Prasad Thakur, everything else be damned!
Since Bhaktivinoda Thakur initiated Lalita Prasad and gave him the same pranali that he received from Bipin Bihari. We may well ask what kind of test he was giving Lalita Prasad in telling him these things about his guru and whether Lalita Prasad failed that test or not. Certainly, in my eyes, since he stayed on this earth long enough to pass this same pranali on to me when he was already 99 years old, he did not. Through all that time he did not swerve in his commitment or his determination to preserve Bhaktivinoda Thakur's heritage as he had received it. If Saraswati Thakur did not receive the same gifts from his guru, or received other ones, does this somehow put him on the right side of history? What kind of discourse about history is this anyway?
It is easy to buy into the fallacy that so-called success and virtue are the same thing when so clearly they are not. If there is anyone who should know this, it is Rocana himself, since he, as an outsider, is engaged in a discourse of resistance to a particular course of history. I am sure he thinks of himself on the side of truth and history, but one day, if Iskcon does not find itself on that rubbish heap, it will certainly throw him on it.
Rather than make rash comments about the fickle judgments of history, let us seek the truth. Orwell summarized the cynical ideological manipulation of history in 1984, "He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future." Fortunately for us, neither Rocana, nor Iskcon and the Gaudiya Math and their followers, yet have complete control over the Gaudiya Vaishnava world's present, whatever illusions they may have. Lalita Prasad Thakur will always be a hero of the resistance against those who have run roughshod over the history of the Gaudiya Vaishnava sampradaya.
Siddhanta and sadhana (Dogma and Ritual)
There are, if anything, two major contributions made by Bhaktivinoda Thakur to the history of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, two contributions that blissfully stand in apparent contradiction to one another.
The first of these, which we can place in the early part of his life, is the principal message of Shukavak's milestone marking book. It is his work as a rational analyst of Gaudiya Vaishnavism. It was as an inheritor of an aspect of the Enlightenment, someone who had read European philosophers and was able to come up with the concept of the saragrahi.
I cannot tell you how significant this concept is. Perhaps Rocana has a little inkling of it, but only to a point, because he cannot exercise his rational function when it comes to his so-called Sampradaya Acharyas. The whole point of being a saragrahi, however, is that it must be applied to one's gurus themselves. The sara element of the Guru is the Truth that he has been able to connect his disciple to. That Truth is not the management directions of Iskcon, or the final order of succession, or instructions about who to associate with and when. The sara is "Love Krishna and do whatever is necessary to attain that goal." He may say, "I have done such and such myself; these are my gurus, my tradition, this is what they have done to get there, but I am only the door. Pass through this door and into Goloka Vrindavan. Illuminated by this guiding light of identity as a servant of Krishna, take the world I give you."
The Chaitanya Charitamrita tells us that Krishna is the Guru. He appears in the form of the teacher and initiator, but he is also present in the heart. It is Krishna in the heart who says "yay" or "nay" to his presence externally. When the truth comes as a blinding light accompanied by the imperative to act in the service of Krishna, that is Guru. But this does not mean that your relationship with God in the Heart is finished. It simply means that the relation with the Soul of your soul is mediated through a particular cultural and literary tradition, a symbol system, a religious language, a history of ideas and archetypal models.
As such, we are not meant to blindly follow anyone or anything, but rather to enter into the discourse that centers around this tradition, a discourse that developed over the centuries and to which Bhaktivinoda Thakur, Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati and Bhaktivedanta Swami have all made significant contributions, but which none of them has thankfully terminated in some Fukiyamian "end of history."
The second aspect of Bhaktivinoda Thakur's contribution consists in his discovery, approval, acceptance and continuation of the essential element of Gaudiya Vaishnava teaching, namely manjari bhava. I had left this essay untouched for several days until I saw a pretentious little article by Rasarani Devi called Poor Bhagavat Das in which she mocks this practice and goal cherished by Bhaktivinoda Thakur and then passed on to his son, through whom it has come to a few other fortunate individuals.
I am afraid that the baby has gone out with the bathwater here--perhaps we should go looking on the rubbish heap of history for manjari bhava as well, for it seems that this is where these self-righteous judges of Gaudiya Vaishnava history, looking through their narrow prism, have placed it.