Thoughts on a lesson in sakhya
This is a post that has been somewhat long in coming, but I think that it needs to be done and said publicly. A few weeks ago I posted on this blog an article about Vishwananda Swami, the founder and acharya of Bhakti Marg.
I had my doubts about posting it and knew almost immediately that I was headed for trouble. When I talked to Satyanarayana Dasaji, shortly after which I removed the article, he said to me in an exasperated tone,
प्रयोजनमनुद्दिश्य मन्दोऽपि न प्रवर्ततेSo what was my purpose in writing such an article?
prayojanam anuddiśya mando'pi na pravartate
Even a fool does not undertake an action without having some purpose to fulfill.
Well, I have to admit, that I had not really thought it out carefully. For one thing, I just wanted to write something. I was going through a somewhat dry period and I felt that I really should write anything at all.And since Swami Vishwananda had been around, I decided to write about what I had seen and thought and heard.
But my article, being written in a journalistic style, was rather shallow. A critic would say, justifiably, that I had "phoned it in."
I have reposted it in an edited form, for which I hope no one will be offended, as I still think that it was worth thinking about this friendship, and indeed how friendship works. And for that I have to thank Satyanarayanaji especially, but also Vishwananda Swami.
Now the thing that really struck me in all this was the idea of friendship. Satyanarayana Dasaji has proven his friendship to me on a couple of occasions, as well as his character, i.e., his character of friendship. For example, I was very impressed by Ananda Gopal Das Shastri's testimonial to me about how when he had a heart condition and needed an operation, Babaji took full responsibility for costs and so on. Ananda Gopal Dasji nearly broke down when he spoke of the extent to which he felt indebted to Babaji. They of course had become friends through their common love of Vaishnava shastra, the Sanskrit language and the Goswamis.
Not long before Vishwananda came to Jiva this time, a Western devotee came to Satyanarayana Dasaji and spoke ill of me, reciting a litany of semi-truths and a number of downright interesting lies of the type that easily could become tasty fodder for the gossip mill. Whatever the case, Babaji sent that person packing, backing me up fully.
The point is, of course, that Babaji could very easily think that being associated with me is damaging to his reputation. Already before the above incident someone came and told him that I was preaching Sahajiyaism and illicit sex 24-7 and that my participation in the Sandarbhas work would be disastrous, as nobody would go near them on account of my association with the project. Babaji had a clear answer for him also, "Nobody cares for my books in ISKCON or the Gaudiya Math. I am on their blacklist, so what should I worry about what they think? They already think the worst!"
And, to be honest, that is exactly what Babaji told me here also. I had been thinking as though ISKCON and orthodoxy and everyone else who is bound by sectarian rules matters. Babaji clearly said Vishwananda is his friend and that stands above the rules made by institutions and sects.
And Vishwananda Swami shows that this is mutual. A few months ago he came with a number of his disciples from Europe and Africa to participate in Babaji's Mahanta inauguration. His disciples were an important part of that very festive celebration, especially in providing enthusiastic kirtans for several hours. Vishwananda Maharaj himself sat quietly without drawing any attention to himself.
When I say "I phoned it in" I really mean it. I had ample opportunity to talk to Vishwanandaji and address any concerns I or anyone else might have had. I could have stated my intent to write something to Babaji. That might have made a decent article. But instead, I wrote like an outsider and that was a mistake of friendship. If you decide to make public statements about your friends, you had better be doubly careful if the friendship is meaningful to you. It is what you call a conflict of interest.
I was still working another angle... the scandalous. It was based on an attitude of distrust. But my mistake was not to think, "The friend of my friend is my friend."
Now some people, with that journalistic spirit, the digging-up-the-dirt spirit, could have done a number on Vishwananda. It is almost impossible nowadays for even the slightest dirt to remain a secret. My Lord, I am surprised that there is no page dedicated to revealing my sins, true and imagined to the world.
The most popular article on this blog is one I wrote about Kripalu, which was in the vein of an exposé as well as a philosophical interrogation into the issues it raised. Not long after I wrote this Vishwananda article, I received a call from an Indian friend of mine who happens to be a disciple of Kripaluji. A very learned gentleman with remarkable openness. Of course, we had talked about these issues before.
And the two verses came up, as they must, in such discussions.
api cet sudurācāro bhajate mām ananya-bhāk |
sādhur eva sa mantavyaḥ samyag vyavasito hi saḥ ||
kṣipraṁ bhavati dharmātmā śaśvac-chāntiṁ nigacchati |
kaunteya pratijānīhi na me bhaktaḥ praṇaśyati ||
Even if a person of very bad behavior worships me with undivided devotion, he is to be thought of as saintly, for he has the proper resolution. He quickly becomes righteous and attains everlasting peace. O son of Kunti, let it be known that my devotee never perishes. (Gita 9.31)
satāṁ nindā nāmnaḥ paramam aparādhaṁ vitanute
yataḥ khyātiṁ yātaṁ katham u sahate tad‑vigarhām |
To blaspheme the saintly is a supreme offense to the Holy Name,
for how will the Name tolerate insults to those who spread Its glories?
I have been thinking that we don't really approach the "offense" question correctly. Maybe the verses themselves emphasize a negative rather than a positive. But the point is that those people who establish the path and who bring people onto it are doing a positive service. That is, unless you think that religion itself is the source of all evil -- as many people today do. I think that it is better for people to come to the devotional path, even if it is imperfectly taught or exemplified. And those who manage to do so are worth more than those, however pure, who choose to criticize them.
But the fact of the matter is that a devotee who eschews gossip and mundane talk has to give up journalism. The journalist is always tempted to highlight the negative as he appeals to those who seek the "truth", and as we know, the truth is always a skeleton in the closet. And search long enough, you can always find some dirt, true or imagined.
I made an attempt at journalism with Vrindavan Today. My concept then was not to start a Vrindavan smut rag or gossip sheet. But it is hard to avoid that kind of thing when you are engaged in journalism. And from the very beginning that Vrindavan Today, whatever its brilliance as an idea, it was not my real calling. I want to be a real Vaishnava.
It is my greatest good fortune that at this time in my life I have the opportunity to work in security and comfort for people of quality like Satyanarayana Dasaji and Swami Veda Bharati.
I would like to do more independent teaching and preaching, and perhaps one day I will. But in the meantime, I will try to learn what it means to be a friend. And try to become someone whose heart has no place or time for gossip (nindādi-śūnya-hṛdam).