What is Bhaktivinoda Thakura’s contribution to our tradition?
Edited By: HG Murlidhar Prabhu
Question: Can you briefly explain the contribution of Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur in our sampradaya?
Answer: Bhaktivinoda Thakur’s contribution is immense, even immeasurable and it can be analysed in various ways. To gain some small understanding of its oceanic depth and breadth, I will focus on two aspects – external representation of the tradition and the internal reformation of the tradition.
Srila Bhaktivinod Thakur lived at a time that is known within historical circles as a period of great intellectual ferment in Indian history. That was the time when the British started consolidating their rule in India by trying to reform Indian culture. And as the Indian intellectuals of those times started trying to find a way between the tradition which they had inherited and the tradition which had come into their lives, which means the Indian tradition and the European tradition; they tried to find a way to negotiate through both of them and that led to a lot of changes, and it is during that period, the late 19th Century and the early 20th Century, that the foundations of what we today call as modern Hinduism, were laid.
So most of the Indian spiritual teachers at his time, tried to arrive at a reconciliation by turning towards impersonalism and humanitarianism. So as compared to the subtle and not so subtle attacks of Christianity, which was the religion of the British, many Indians tried to defend and respond by showing how Hinduism also had humanitarian tendencies like Christianity had, and it is more superior because it is more intellectually evolved. The idea was that, since Christians said that there is only one God the Hindus said that there is only God and we are all God; the Christians were criticizing that you Hindus worship many Gods, but there is only one God; hence the impersonalist’s idea is that there is not only one God but there is only God and we are all that God and that everything is God. So this was the kind of atmosphere in which Bhakti Vinoda Thakur presented Gaudiya Vaishnavism.
He presented the teachings of Bhakti yoga in unadulterated way, in uncompromising way, at the same time he presented them in a sensitive and appealing manner by which the intellectually elite as well as the common masses of his times were attracted.
For the intellectually elite, he wrote sophisticated books like Jaiva Dharma and Chaitanya Siksamrita. These two are probably among his most important books in which he presents the philosophy of Bhakti Yoga and specifically of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, quite comprehensively for people to grasp; and for the common people he wrote his songs, the vaishnava songs which of course can be appreciated even by the intellectuals, but especially for the common people he wrote in very simple Bengali language. There were popular songs, devotional songs of his time which were there in the culture but most of them were sahajiyak. Sahajiyak means, they focused on prematurely intruding into the past times of the Lord without emphasizing the need for basic purification. So Bhakti Vinoda Thakur used the same meters, the same styles, the same tunes as the popular songs of the Baulas, those who were considered to be affected by divine madness, but were often still quite materially contaminated. And while using those tunes, Bhakti Vinoda Thakur presented the philosophical teachings with the right mood of humility and glorification of the Lord and begging for his mercy. So in this way, for both the common people as well as the intellectuals, Bhakti Vinoda Thakur did appropriate representation of the tradition, so that it became appealing for them.
Internally also Bhakti Vinoda Thakur reformed the tradition; reformed doesn’t mean he changed any of the core philosophical content, but he ensured that the obstacles to its pure transmission that were there inside, were side-lined. At his time the caste Goswamis had appropriated upon themselves monopoly for propagating Gaudiya Vaishnavism by saying that they alone could initiate anyone and apart from them no one had the right to initiate. Some of these caste Goswamis were no doubt pure, leading lives dedicated to Lord Chaitanya, but many of them had become materialistic and they were interested in gaining prestige and money from their followers, the lay Gaudiya Vaishnavas. They were not really leading exemplary lives of devotion, but they were sensual and materialistic and they had become the obstacles for spreading Krishna Consciousness.
Basically at that time, the Gaudiya Vaishnavas were in three broad categories:
(a) there were the common people who were attracted to Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and would sing Gaur Nitai and Hare Krishna and various songs, but they had no philosophical understanding and they were contaminated by Sahajayik tendency.
(b) Along with the above there were these caste Goswamis, who were the official centres of power for Gaudiya Vaishnavism, but they were interested more in material aggrandizement than in sharing the spiritual wisdom and the culture.
(c) And then there were the renunciates, the Babaji’s, whose lives were too other worldly; some of them were genuine and many of them were sahajiyak; but they were so disconnected from the world that they were not doing anything to propagate Gaudiya Vaishnavism.
It was in such a scenario that Bhakti Vinoda Thakur, who actually was an outsider, in the sense that he had been born in the shakta family and he had become a member of the Bhadraloka, the intellectually elite, who were working with the British government and many of whom were quite alienated from their native culture. Thus Bhakti Vinoda Thakur was an outsider but by his sincere study of Gaudiya Vaishnavism and by his diligent practice, he actually understood the essence of Gaudiya Vaishnavism; of course he is an eternally liberated soul and in that sense he always knew the essence, but in the manifest lila the way it was revealed, he understood the essence and wanted to re-present the essence to the world.
In order to have the authority for speaking about Gaudiya Vaishnavism he took initiation from the caste Goswamis from Bipin Bihari Goswami and then he derived great inspiration from Jagannath Das Babaji, who actually was for all practical purposes his primary instructing spiritual master. Either way Bhakti Vinoda Thakur was well educated, not just in English language but in the main contemporary and western schools of thought, because he was respectable in the mainstream society due to having an important government position, because he had been initiated by the caste Goswamis, and because he had himself seriously studied and practiced the tenets of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, so he knew their essence, he was in a very appropriate position to bring about the inner transformation of the tradition. It was through him that,
the caste Goswamis’ monopoly of Gaudiya Vaishnavism was dislodged. And that’s how the Gaudiya Vaishnavism was freed to be shared with everyone. And Srila Bhakti Siddhanta Sarasvati Thakur carried that on by establishing Gaudiya Math which initiated people from all walks of life, and not only initiated but also envisioned sharing Gaudiya Vaishnavism with the world and took the first steps by sending disciples to England and Europe and Germany. And Srila Prabhupada carried that historical train of events to their fusion by sharing Krishna Consciousness all over the world.
Srila Prabhupada said that Bhakti Vinod Thakur is the father of the modern Krishna Consciousness movement and that he is so, in these two ways:
(a) by the external representation he did by which even intellectually sophisticated people as well as the gullible common people would find something truly meaningful, attractive and transformational in Gaudiya Vaishnavism, and
(b) internally by breaking the monopoly of the Gaudiya Vaishnavism on the strongholds of power and thereby letting the current of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s mercy to not be choked anymore within the narrow confines of status of Bengali sub-sects, but letting it break free for people all over Bengal & all over Orissa during his times and finally through his vision, through his successors Bhakti Vinoda Thakur and Srila Prabhupada to let it go all over the world.
Srila Bhakti Vinoda Thakur Ki jai.
Thank you very much.