The Lotus Face of the Lion Guru

By Nitaisundara dasa

Sometimes, when speaking on the conclusions of bhakti-vedanta, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura Prabhupada is said to have been pounding his fist against the table, raising his voice, and his face would flush red. Once, seeing the color come into his face, Srila Sridhara Maharaja thought to himself, “Now I understand; this is what the sastra means when it speaks of a lotus face.”

Followers of the Gaudiya-Saraswat Sampradaya all over the world have come to know of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati as the simha-guru (lion-guru), the naisthiki brahmacari who swore off mangos for his entire life after a small childhood blunder of eating the bhoga of the deity; he who at times practiced caturmasya eating only havisya—unseasoned, unsalted rice and lentils eaten from the ground with hands behind the back; he who fearlessly and relentlessly challenged the distortions of the teachings of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, regardless of the opposition that came. These are but a few of the practices that make us revel in awe of that great soul. What perhaps is not highlighted enough is the fact that all of these things were born out of the tender heart that underpins all the actions of an uttama-bhakta.

Sometimes a distinction is made between the overtly liberal and accommodating presentation of Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura and the relatively more rigid methods of his son, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta. Such a distinction is understandable, but it is far from the full story. More than anyone else, Bhaktisiddhanta imbibed the essential teachings of Bhaktivinoda, as well as his desire to see Gaudiya Vaishnavism presented to the rest of the world and to the intelligent members of society in particular. It was in keeping with these compassionate yearnings that Bhaktisiddhanta stood tall and, as Srila Sridhara Maharaja once put it, “declared totalitarian war on maya.” Bhaktisiddhanta would sometimes say that “to wake up one sleeping soul, to make one conditioned soul aware of his real identity, one should be willing to give gallons of blood.” This was his so-called warfare; he was willing to shed his own blood to serve the opposition; it was not an effort to shed the opposition’s blood in order to conquer it. Sri Caitanya-caritamrta declares, “Bhaye visa jvala haya, bhitare ananda maya, krsna premara adbhuta carita: the wonderful characteristic of love of Krishna is such that although on the outside it may appear unpleasant, internally, one who possesses it is completely filled with spiritual ecstasy.” It was this ecstasy and its natural longing to share itself that filled Bhaktisiddhanta’s heart with compassion and flexibility.

Internal tenderness aside, when we look at the measures that Bhaktisiddhanta actually took in the context of his mission, we can rightly say that in some ways he was even more accommodating than Bhaktivinoda. While Bhaktivinoda made many broad and universal statements in his teachings, Bhaktisiddhanta gave form to those conceptions and in so doing led Gaudiya Vaishnavism into uncharted territory. His had to be a flexibility in practice. This is not to say that Bhaktivinoda’s essential understanding did not translate into his life, it most certainly did, but in formally trying to bring Gaudiya Vaishnavism to the world, Bhaktisiddhanta’s need for adjusting details around essential principles became magnified manifold. The ground-breaking measures he took in service to this truth are more a testament to his powerful character than any forceful mood he displayed while doing it. His tenacity was evident in his printing books and newspapers, engaging with British officials, sending his students to the Western world, erecting marble temples in big cities, dressing his sannyasis in priestly garb complete with leather shoes, and the list goes on. These are the actions of a bhakta unwaveringly rooted in siddhanta and unhesitatingly prepared to bend or break with tradition if he thought such an action could bring people closer to Mahaprabhu, for truly understanding the jewel that is the prema-bhakti marga, how could one be unwilling to stretch in order to share it? Furthermore, the bhakti required to appropriately adjust details of Gaudiya Vaishnavism is many times greater than the bhakti required to maintain the status quo, what to speak of berate others with it, a feat which is more often evidence of undeveloped devotion.

This suppleness is the example we see set by our acaryas, one of constant assessment and reassessment to determine how best to inject bhakti into the environment around them. It is a task which they take on tirelessly, although it is grueling and, in one sense, never met with completion. This is their affection and those who have had the good fortune of close contact with their guru have seen the palpable nature of this affection on a personal level.

We can see that Prabhupada Bhaktisiddhanta was revolutionary, and yet just one generation later we find Prabhupada Bhaktivedanta establishing different guidelines, which many of his contemporaries saw as deviations from his own guru. It is undeniable that Srila Prabhupada’s mission was different in many ways, yet his followers know him to be fully surrendered to the vision of the Bhaktivinoda parivara. What then must that vision be? It cannot be one that is bound to a certain style of dress, or specific mannerisms, or the perpetuation of every detail and quirk of a culture that is far from exclusively Vedic in the first place. It cannot even be adherence to what have been termed the “four regulative principles,” for we find differences in those even between Bhaktisiddhanta and Srila Prabhupada and occasions where both of them were willing to break with these mandates. In all of these rules, from those as primary as our diet to those as peripheral as how one ties their sikha, the primary vision was that of enabling jivas to cultivate pure love for Rasaraja Sri Krishna.

As sadhakas and servants of the sankirtan of Mahaprabhu, we must strive to live according to the knowledge that following the guru-parampara means cultivating a compassionate heart filled with devotion unencumbered by ulterior motives. This is the entirety of our path and all else can be seen as relative to this. For most of us, it would be an improvement to simply be able to follow the external guidelines given to us by our predecessors, but nonetheless, we must bear in mind that the extent to which those behaviors constitute bhakti will be determined by the development of a corresponding internal element—something more than mere renunciation, the number of counter-beads moved, or our best calculated attempts to emulate the zeal of the lion-guru. Bhakti is the supreme secret (raja-guhyam) in part because it is supremely subtle. It involves merely changing our angle of vision. Our deepest lessons gleaned from our acaryas’ lives will be those that keep this subtlety in mind and push us to move closer to them in our internal development, not only in the pitch of our roar.

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8 Responses to The Lotus Face of the Lion Guru

  1. Thank you so much for this wonderful and insightful glorification of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakur.

  2. Very inspiring and well thought-out article!

    vajrad api kathorani mrduni kusumad api
    lokottaranam cetamsi ko nu vijnatum isvarah

    “The hearts of those above common behavior are sometimes harder than a thunderbolt and sometimes softer than a flower. How can one accommodate such contradictions in great personalities?” (Uttara-rama-carita)

  3. It is interesting to note that Srila Sridhara Maharaja did not copy his guru’s ‘chopping style’ in preaching, despite an obvious appreciation of such a presentation. Many people nowadays are not impressed by fist pounding spiritualists (or as they say: ‘Bible thumpers’) and those who are impressed by such preaching often turn into narrow minded sectarian fanatics.

    • I agree, Kula-pavana prabhu.

      On the other end of the spectrum some people become very hasty to toss out the “chopping style,” which is fine in terms of their personal actions, but I think we should not misunderstand those acaryas that have employed it.

      • Understanding the acharyas that employed the ‘chopping style’ is obviously complex. BSST used that style in a particular cultural setting and had a lot of success as a result. To some extent such a style might be helpful to create a strong sense of identity (and mission) among the guru’s followers – ‘us’ versus ‘them’. That can be seen among SP disciples as well. However, the ‘chopping style’ is rarely effective in the present day Western society as a convincing presentation of spirituality. Even my own children do not like this style of presentation in our books. The radical days of 1960’s and 70’s are over, with people generally preferring a more nuanced approach. Nowadays there is also much more familiarity with the Eastern thought in the western society, resulting in a more discriminating audience. Still, true spirituality and wisdom are very much in demand today. So if you have these two things in abundance, the audience may tolerate your forceful cutting style and still benefit from the general message you are trying to get across.

        • The one idea I would like to add is that I think what is often attractive about the chopping style is its definitiveness: “This is how it is, period.” Such stability is attractive to people in general because it is comforting. Many people are taught that when they become a Gaudiya they now know everything there is to know. I think this general tendency of attraction to comforting stability is still dominant, but the form of that stability has changed. What I mean is that the same stability can be found within a broad-minded approach as opposed to a “chopping” one. This is the SBNR (“spiritual but religious”) phenomenon. There can be an artificial air of “seeing the Absolute everywhere” that is in reality not nuanced at all, its just not as sectarian as the chopping technique. A nuanced approach will always be less popular, whether it is contending with an aggressive presentation or a gentle one. We can see this within the international Gaudiya world and certainly when we look to other recent Eastern gurus. The big eastern spiritualists are always pretty accommadating, but many of them fall short of being nuanced, in my opinion.

          • There can also be very real air of “seeing the Absolute everywhere” in other traditions… and a very real lack of genuine spiritual substance which substitutes the chopping method for actually being able to see the truth.

            I agree that getting definite ‘black or white’ answers from a guru is comforting to many disciples. Too bad so many of these people never move past black and white, insisting that this is what their guru was all about.

            There are traps all around us… 😉

  4. Atma Prasad Krishna das

    A very excellent and thought provoking article. Thank you so much.

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