Vaisnava-ninda: Who is a Vaisnava? Part 1

bvt booksBy Srila Bhaktivinode Thakur. Translated from Sri Gaudiya Patrika, Year 7, Issue 10 by the Rays of The Harmonist team. Published in English for the first time in Rays of The Harmonist No. 20, Kartika, 2009. Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

The Result of Blaspheming a Vaisnava

Among all the different types of offences a jiva (living being) can possibly commit, no offence is more severe than blaspheming a Vaisnava. It is therefore essential to contemplate the meaning of vaisnava-ninda according to the scriptures. It is written in the Skanda Purana:

nindam kurvanti ye mudha, vaisnavanam mahatmanam
patanti pitrbhih sardham, maha-raurava-samjnite
hanti nindati vai dvesti, vaisnavan nabhinandati
krudhyate yati no harsam, darsane patanani sat

That foolish person who criticizes an exalted Vaisnava falls down to the hell known as Maharaurava, along with his forefathers. Whoever (1) kills a Vaisnava, (2) blasphemes him, (3) feels malice toward him, (4) does not properly greet him upon seeing him, (5) becomes angry with him or (6) does not feel joy upon seeing him, certainly becomes degraded as a result of these six types of misconduct.

It is written in Srimad Bhagavatam, 10.74.40:

nindam bhagavatah srnvams, tat-parasya janasya va
tato napaiti yah so ’pi, yaty adhah sukrtac cyutah

A person, who does not promptly leave that place where blasphemy of Bhagavan or his dedicated devotee, the Vaisnava, is perpetrated, becomes bereft of all his previously accumulated spiritual merit (sukrti) and meets with degradation.

Different Categories of Jivas and Appropriate Conduct with Each

Having thus been forewarned about vaisnava-ninda, it is absolutely imperative to first ascertain what specifically designates one a Vaisnava, and then determine which acts result in vaisnava-aparadha (offences to Vaisnavas). All jivas fit into one of four categories: (1) ordinary jivas; (2) religious jivas; (3) brahmanas and those jivas who resemble Vaisnavas (vaisnavapraya jivas); and (4) vaisnava-jivas.

With the wisdom that Sri Krsna resides in the heart of all jivas, one should honor every living being. A deeper respect should naturally be shown to the religious jiva, and, beyond this, it is imperative to feel even deeper honor for the brahmana-jiva and the vaisnava-praya jiva. But above all, it is enjoined that one must worship and serve the lotus feet of a vaisnava-jiva.

If one fails to offer respect to the common jiva, special respect to the religious jiva, and befitting honor to the brahmana and vaisnava-praya jivas, then one incurs sin (papa). However, to disrespect or dishonor a vaisnava-jiva is actually an aparadha (an offence against divinity). There is no form of sin that cannot be destroyed by performing ordinary penances, but an aparadha committed against a Vaisnava is not easily eradicated. Sins affect the gross and subtle material bodies, whereas an aparadha specifically affects the jiva’s quest to establish himself in his constitutional position as a pure spirit soul, causing him to fall from his path. Therefore, those who wish to perform loving worship of the Supreme Lord (bhagavad-bhajana) must diligently protect themselves from committing aparadha.

Three Types of Vaisnavas According to Srimad-Bhagavatam: Kanistha, Madhyama and Uttama

In Srimad Bhagavatam, 11.2.47, three specific categories of Vaisnavas are described in the following three verses:

The neophyte or kanistha Vaisnava:

arcayam eva haraye, pujam yah sraddhayehate
na tad-bhaktesu canyesu, sa bhaktah prakrtah smrtah

He who engages in worshiping the deity as Bhagavan Sri Hari, with ordinary faith received through some lineage of worldly teachers, but who does not engage in worshiping Sri Hari’s devotee is a kanistha Vaisnava or a neophyte Vaisnava. In other words, he is just beginning to enter into understanding the science of bhakti.

The specific difference between worldly, traditional faith and faith based on the revealed scriptures (sastriya-sraddha) is that the former arises from mere conventional, worldly education, whereas in the latter, namely sastriya-sraddha, faith in the Vaisnavas arises from deep conviction in the words of the scriptures and is based on the evidence presented therein. It is only with the advent of sastriya-sraddha that the jiva becomes a madhyama Vaisnava, or intermediate Vaisnava.

Until sastriya-sraddha has arisen, the obligation of a sadhaka (a devotee in the stage of practice) to perform karma does not wane. In this regard, Sriman Mahaprabhu has said

suddha-vaisnava nahe, kintu vaisnavera praya

Such persons are not pure Vaisnavas, but they resemble Vaisnavas.

Solely by genuine association with true Vaisnavas, the kanistha Vaisnava, who is a vaisnava-praya jiva, can become a suddha Vaisnava (pure Vaisnava).

The intermediate or madhyama Vaisnava:

isvare tad-adhinesu, balisesu dvisatsu ca
prema-maitri-krpopeksa, yah karoti sa madhyamah

He who offers his love to the Supreme Lord, Sri Bhagavan; remains a sincere friend to all Vaisnavas; shows mercy to the innocent;1 and, through the most appropriate use of indifference, tolerance or even complete avoidance, neglects those who are envious of Bhagavan and the Vaisnavas, is a madhyama Vaisnava.Srimad Bhagavatam, 11.2.46

In this way, the madhyama Vaisnava even shows fitting mercy to the envious, seeing them as ignorant. Only the madhyama Vaisnava is actually qualified to serve the Vaisnavas.

Since the kanistha Vaisnavas do not engage in such service, they cannot be called Vaisnavas; rather, they are known as vaisnava-praya (those who resemble Vaisnavas).

The topmost, or uttama Vaisnava:

sarva-bhutesu yah pasyed, bhagavad-bhavam atmanah
bhutani bhagavaty atmany, esa bhagavatottamah

He who experiences the revelation of his own cherished form of Bhagavan in the hearts of all jivas, including his own; who experiences that all jivas, their very existence resting in Bhagavan, are fully surrendered to that same Supreme Absolute Reality; and who perceives everyone in the whole world as a Vaisnava, is known as an uttama Vaisnava (topmost Vaisnava). Such a Vaisnava does not see the difference between a Vaisnava and a non-Vaisnava.Srimad Bhagavatam, 11.2.45

Three Classifications of Vaisnavas According to the Teachings of Sriman Mahaprabhu: Vaisnava, Vaisnava-tara and Vaisnava-tama

The only conclusion to be drawn then is that when those who were in the kanistha stage attain faith in the scriptures (sastriya-sraddha) and hence become eligible to serve the Vaisnavas, they are thereafter described simply as Vaisnava (having vaisnava qualities) until the time when they attain the other qualities characteristic of a madhyama Vaisnava. Correspondingly, madhyama Vaisnavas are described as vaisnava-tara (having vaisnava qualities to a profound degree) while uttama Vaisnavas alone, the topmost Vaisnavas, are described as vaisnava-tama (having qualities to the superlative degree).2

It is necessary to deliberate upon the way in which Sriman Mahaprabhu introduces us to these three types of Vaisnavas:

One who is vaisnava :

ataeva yanra mukhe eka krsna-nama, sei ta’ vaisnava, kariha tanhara sammana

One who chants the name of Krsna3 even once is vaisnava (possessed of vaisnava qualities). Therefore, you should show all respect to him.Caitanya Caritamrta, Madhya 15.111

One who is vaisnava-tara:

‘krsna’-nama nirantara yanhara vadane, sei se vaisnavatara, bhaja tanhara carane

One who incessantly chants Krsna’s name is vaisnava-tara (possessed of vaisnava qualities to a profound degree) and one should render service to his lotus feet.Caitanya Caritamrta, Madhya 16.72

One who is vaisnava-tama:

yanhara darsane mukhe aise krsna-nama, tanhare janiha tumi ‘vaisnava-pradhana’
krama kari’ kahe prabhu ‘vaisnava’-laksana-‘vaisnava’, ‘vaisnavatara’, ara ‘vaisnavatama’

One who inspires others to chant krsna-nama merely by being visible to them is vaisnava-tama (possessed of vaisnava qualities to the superlative degree) and is the topmost Vaisnava.Caitanya Caritamrta, Madhya 16.72

Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu thus explained the different grades of Vaisnavas in sequence—those who are vaisnava, those who are vaisnava-tara and those who are vaisnava-tama—in accordance with the symptoms they each exhibit.

According to these teachings of Sriman Mahaprabhu, one who merely utters krsna-nama is eligible to be described as a Vaisnava. Among the kanistha bhaktas, those who are described as vaisnava-praya (resembling Vaisnavas), or else vaisnava-abhasa (the semblance of a Vaisnava) only chant namabhasa (a semblance of the holy name). They do not chant suddha-nama (the absolutely pure holy name). However, those who are, in fact, able to chant suddha-nama, even once, have vaisnava qualities and are suddha Vaisnavas; those who incessantly chant suddha-nama are vaisnava-tara (possessed of Vaisnava qualities to a profound degree); and those who cause others to chant krsna-nama merely by being visible to them, are vaisnava-tama (possessed of Vaisnava qualities to the superlative degree).

  1. This refers to the vaisnava-praya jivas, or those living entities that resemble Vaisnavas but are not yet conversant with the science of bhakti. []
  2. The word vaisnava is here being used as an adjective, as in “having vaisnava qualities”, and the affixes tara and tama modify that adjective to the intensified and superlative degrees respectively. []
  3. In this article the term krsna-nama, or “the holy name of Krsna”, refers to suddha-nama – as distinct from nama-aparadha (offensive chanting of the holy name) and nama-abhasa (a semblance of chanting the holy name). Suddha-nama is directly Krsna himself in the absolutely pure, transcendental form of his holy name. []

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4 Responses to Vaisnava-ninda: Who is a Vaisnava? Part 1

  1. Abhaya Krsna Dasa

    What’s amazing to me is how even though it is so clearly stated that this is the sin of sins, So many feel confidently justified to risk this offense on someone they often have never seen. In fact even if they have seen seemingly bad qualities in a vaishnava I don’t know how they would want to risk thinking such things. Better to just offer respect everywhere I think.

  2. Yes, it is a grave offense to offend vaisnvas. Yet if one becomes too sentimental in their dealings and lacks fine discrimination there are also problems that arise as a result. We can often witness these two extremes in many sangas, freely criticizing and sentimental praise. They seem to go hand in hand.

    The real thing is to develop sambandha jnana based in strong faith in sastra. This will give us the discrimination to stay progressive on our paths without falling into such pitfalls. What I appreciate about this article is that although very conservative in some respects it lends balance to the over the top sentiment many devotees are prone to.

  3. Being disrespectful and critical of others tends to be the symptom of the mode of passion, even when there is a good excuse for such criticism and lack of respect. We can always convey our disapproval or constructive criticism in a civil and respectful manner. A person in the mode of goodness will first see the good side of others and out of natural humility and respect will refrain from disrespecting others. Teachers should be in the mode of goodness (brahminical nature) so they always act in a respectful way and thus their pupils/disciples will learn to act properly as well.

  4. I agree with you for the most part. We should always respect others. Although there are times when a sadhu may react to a situation strongly and from a certain point of view it may appear as an indication of the mode of passion yet actually indicates what he or she may have felt was appropriate for the particular time and place.

    Yet, what I think BVT is addressing by his analysis (and there are actually two more parts to this article we will be publishing shortly which may clarify things more) is Vaisnava-tattva, with an emphasis on a very analytical approach to the topic. I do not think that overshadows, the worldly sense of respect which you mention.

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