Bhakti In The Jīva: Inherent Or Inherited? Part 8: Teaching Strategies And Historical Presentism

By Swāmī Bhakti Praṇaya Padmanābha

Additional articles in this series: Bhakti Comes from Bhakti; Bhakti, the Essence of the Svarūpa-Śakti; Is Rasa Totally Predetermined?; The Source Of Our Siddha-deha; Is There Scriptural Support in Favor of Inherence?; Nurture and Nature; The Origin of the Theory of Inherence; Teaching Strategies And Historical Presentism; How To Reach Siddhānta (Even Through Apasiddhānta)

In our previous articles, we have shown how the theory of inherence mainly began in the Gauḍīya sampradāya with Ṭhākura Bhaktivinoda. Before him, almost not a single ācārya suggested that bhakti is intrinsic to the soul’s constitution—as we have seen, quite the contrary. But we have also shown how the Ṭhākura and many of his successors not only stated the same but also at times established the exact opposite idea. Because siddhānta is not a cherry-picking exercise in the least, we are advised to harmonize any apparent contradiction and thus reach a proper conclusion. So since we have clearly established how and why bhakti cannot be inherent in the jīva in our first six articles of this series, the question remains as to why some of our previous ācāryas resorted to what may seem to be a relative technique—or, better put, a “teaching strategy.” Thus, we will try to solve this riddle in this article and the following two, starting from whom it all began—Ṭhākura Bhaktivinoda.

In trying to grasp the Ṭhākura’s intention in stating something apparently opposite to the Goswāmīs’ conclusions, we should first of all engage in the crucial exercise of traveling in time so as to further our insight regarding the specific situation and social dynamics during the time (both in India and abroad) of Bhaktivinoda (as well as Bhaktisiddhānta Saraswatī after him), and thus gain deeper understanding regarding the background of his presentation.1 If we do not dare engage in such a process, we will be guilty of historical presentism—trying to analyze the past exclusively from the lens of our present time, place, and circumstances.

So what was the specific situation that inspired Bhaktivinoda to be so novel and innovative in his broad and deep dissemination? Before turning to the world stage, let us begin with Vaiṣṇava society. Many so-called followers of Mahāprabhu emphasized that they, as blood descendants coming directly from one of Gaura’s associates, possessed the exclusive right and capacity to bestow upon anyone a genuine link to the sampradāya—that real bhakti was coming from their ranks alone. Thus, with the intention of counteracting this monopoly in the transmission of devotion, Ṭhākura Bhaktivinoda stressed at times that instead of being forced to receive bhakti from someone else, it was already inherent in us. Actually, even today most neo-Vedāntins and New Age spiritualists share the popular understanding that all knowledge and love is inherent within the soul, lying in a dormant state and reawakened by spiritual practice. Many modern motivational speakers (such as Tony Robbins, author of Awaken the Giant Within) actively promote this particular perspective. Since it creates a sense of independence and self-sufficiency, this proposal is highly appealing. In Bhaktivinoda’s times, this could be connected to the idea of the “self-made man” or “independent gentleman” so important in imperial Britain, as we will see.

Regarding the climate of the time in the world society, we could say that the Ṭhākura found it necessary to present a modified version of the Vaiṣṇava teachings to young Bengali intellectuals at the high noon of British political and ideological imperialism. A reasonable explanation for Bhaktivinoda’s resorting to this version is that up to the time of Baladeva Vidyābhūṣaṇa, the educational system in India had been traditional. But in the time of Bhaktivinoda, things changed considerably. In 1834, Lord Macaulay came to India and took charge of the educational system. By 1838 (the year of Bhaktivinoda’s appearance), he had instituted English-medium education throughout India, and many Indians learned to favor English over Sanskrit. Not only did they favor the language, but a good part of the educated class came to favor everything British. And this did not end with the language. English-medium education affected the mindset of the Indian population, especially its intelligentsia, toward which Bhaktivinoda pointed.2 By the time the Ṭhākura actively began his outreach, Anglicization of the Hindus was entrenched. Indeed, Bhaktivinoda himself was educated in this system and, by his own admission, was for years influenced by the specific trend of Western thought.3

One of the results of this shift was that it became difficult for people educated in the English medium to grasp the meaning of Sanskrit philosophical terms, such as anādi. Therefore, in his outreach, Bhaktivinoda, even in his Bengali writing, had to address the shift in taste, opinion, morals, and intellect of his compatriots. Thus he attempted to explain anādi to an audience that had essentially lost its moorings in pristine Vedic thought and that was ill-equipped to grasp the essentials of their own tradition unless presented in the guise of the rational, scientific method adopted from the British. His “fall from the taṭastha region” explanation was a result of such a stance—he tried to give a rational explanation to something that is actually beyond logic, since the jīvas do not fall from anywhere but are anādi-patita, fallen without beginning.4 But despite his efforts to present spiritual knowledge to the young educated Bengalis of his day, Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura was nonetheless confronted with a hostile intellectual climate. After drinking in from their British teachers the ideas of William Jones and other Western Orientalists, these young people were not at all inclined to give credence to what seemed to be old myths. Thus, Bhaktivinoda judiciously chose to give a partial picture of the truth that would introduce important spiritual ideas without invoking rejection due to deep-seated prejudices.

Hence, outreach is not always a simple matter of presenting the siddhānta. Experienced preachers in the field know this fact. Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura knew well the severe prejudice ingrained by the British—in the name of the rational, scientific method, they rejected out of hand the Vedic revelation as mythical accounts. Therefore, he sought to gain credibility for his outreach—by, for example, denying the literal reality of the descriptions of hells and heavens—to maximize the presentation of the philosophy. In other words, for outreach purposes, Bhaktivinoda minimized the sections of the Bhāgavata that could be too easily relegated to myth. Indeed, he went even further. In 1880 he published a treatise called Śrī Kṛṣṇa-saṁhitā, in which he put forth a reconstruction of Indian history similar to the one introduced by Sir William Jones to bring Hindu chronology into line with the Mosaic timetable of the Bible. This involved converting devas and Manus into human kings, and reducing their total span of history to a few thousand Earthly years—again, what we have here is a sensitive consideration of the capacity of the audience as well as the necessary corresponding adjustments in outreach.5 Now, what if upon the passing of Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura, his followers claim that his denial of hell and demotion of the demigods and Manus was his actual philosophy, and not a teaching strategy?

Swāmī B. V. Tripurāri says in this regard:

Our position on jīva-tattva is not based on one statement of Jīva Goswāmī. It is overwhelmingly supported by all śāstra and all ācāryas, including Baladeva Vidyābhūṣaṇa. And furthermore, we also find support for it in the writing of our Bhaktivinoda parivāra while also finding the opposite teaching therein as well. On the basis of these two types of statements, some people may choose to accept those statements supporting inherent bhakti but without considering their implications, thus being ultimately inconsistent, whereas the other position is wholly consistent, supported by the entirety of śāstra, all previous ācāryas, and also by some of the statements coming from our Bhaktivinoda parivāra.

Furthermore, our parivāra is characterized by its dynamism and innovation that has included a number of dissemination strategies. But it is also characterized by its introspection and willingness to critique itself, which may involve pointing out and distinguishing dissemination strategies whose shelf life has expired and differentiating them from siddhānta going forward. Those unwilling or incapable of doing so, who moreover seek to dismiss those who are willing and capable in this regard, run the risk of being members of our parivāra in name only. Such kaniṣṭha-adhikārīs should not pose as teachers. Their position and that of those that succumb to personal attacks is one that requires an enemy and on that basis is suspect—weak faith requires an enemy.6

Needless to say, not only did Bhaktivinoda adapt his presentation to the Western mindset he faced (both in India and abroad, since he projected his outreach in both directions), but his son Bhaktisiddhānta Saraswatī found himself still in a similar social climate during his own campaign, so he closely followed his father in this regard. And when Śrīla Prabhupāda landed in the United States, he had to make considerable adjustments since his audience was completely uneducated regarding Vedic sensibilities, both cultural and siddhāntic. Something similar happened with Śrīla Śrīdhara Mahārāja, who had to instruct many of Prabhupāda’s disciples, who were still quite inexperienced regarding the ultimate conclusions of our lineage, especially in unheard-of topics such as anādi-karma and bhakti’s noninherence. Considering the Christian DNA of most Westerners (and Westernized Indians), many of these topics (which implied circular rather than linear thinking, the idea that not everything is inside the soul, and so on) were way above the heads of most. Without being fully acquainted with complex topics such as śakti-tattva, prakāśa-tattva, and avatāra-tattva, people would understand them all in a simplistic and reductionist way, considering them mere old-school myths. Thus, we need to differentiate between the adjustments these great ācāryas made at times for totally genuine reasons and the ultimate Gauḍīya siddhānta, which still remains as such.

In this way, the utterances of guru and sādhu must be backed up or reconciled with the śāstra. If they are not reconcilable, then a secondary explanation for their statements must be sought. Otherwise, those statements cannot be accepted as siddhānta. In other words, we cannot allow spontaneous new ideas to appear in our siddhānta on the plea of their being the guru’s utterance (and therefore absolute) without seeking solid śāstric support for such conclusions. As Śrīla Prabhupāda nicely establishes in his purport to Bhagavad-gītā 17.15, “The process of speaking in spiritual circles is to say something upheld by the scriptures. One should at once quote from scriptural authority to back up what he is saying.” Hence, it is highly inconsistent to accept something from anyone as the siddhānta of our line if it has no support from the śāstra—we call this fanaticism. The proper way to verify a philosophical conclusion is to determine its conformity to guru, śāstra, and sādhu. And since without śāstra we cannot even know the proper definition of the other two, of the three, śāstra is thus supreme.7

We could say that śāstra is so powerful that it even rules over God: although Buddha is an incarnation of Bhagavān, his teachings are rejected by Gauḍīyas because they are not supported by the śāstra. ((It is mentioned in Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu 2.1.25 that one of the sixty-four qualities of Śrī Kṛṣṇa is that he is śāstra-cakṣuḥ—he sees through the eyes of scripture.)) Of course, while śāstra is the last word, we must not forget that it is understood through the medium of guru and sādhu. Thus, the process is not as simple as it appears, for without taking instruction in a bona fide paramparā, one will be lost in the “jungle of sounds” coming from the scripture—and śāstra itself confirms this fact over and over again.8 Still, even if we go along with the argument that the guru’s word is final no matter what the śāstra says, then we must accept that the guru also has his or her guru, who also had a guru. In this way, going back up the chain of succession, ultimately one will reach Kṛṣṇa, the original guru, from whom śāstra comes and who himself sticks to śāstra. So one is back where he or she started: with the śāstra as the ultimate pramāṇa. Therefore, one has to follow Kṛṣṇa, which means following his words, which are nothing but śāstra.

And instead of trying to understand our Goswāmī granthas only by studying Bhaktivinoda’s books, we should also be open to understanding the Ṭhākura through his own predecessor ācāryas and not independently of them. Instead of reading only contemporary ācāryas and trying to understand the previous ones through them, we should read both and learn to harmonize their statements. Certainly someone such as Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura would not be pleased to know that we are discarding the countless points presented by the Goswāmīs and other ācāryas and instead, as an exhibition of so-called loyalty, accepting only the Ṭhākura’s statements as definitive and absolute. In institutions throughout history, it is not uncommon for persons to create havoc by claiming greater faith in the words of the spiritual master or leader as well as a monopoly on the true meaning of his or her words. Typically, their method is to loudly assert undying faith in the leader. By so doing, anyone who dares to disagree with them is backed into a corner and placed under the shadow of doubt. This usually stems from a presumption that they have a monopoly on the leader’s true intention.

To follow someone such as Ṭhākura Bhaktivinoda, one has to know the real intention of his statements. For that, we need to consult śāstra and the Ṭhākura’s previous ācāryas. In the same way that we can know Bhaktivinoda through those who succeeded him and knew him personally, we can also know him by his previous ācāryas’ conclusions, which represent another (crucial) side of the Ṭhākura—since both approaches are valid, they should complement each other. Then we will clearly conclude that although the apparent idea of an inherent svarūpa originally started from Śrī Ṭhākura Bhaktivinoda, nevertheless, a careful study of what he wrote reveals that when he spoke in those terms, he actually referred to one’s potential to engage in bhakti, and not so much to a bhakti-svarūpa with seed-shaped hands and legs “buried” within the jīva.9

Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura never set foot in the West, but non-Vaiṣṇava Westerners were in India during his time. Bhaktisiddhānta Saraswatī did not visit the West either, but he sent his disciples there. In the case of Śrīla Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda, he did not send anyone there, but he himself went to visit this new world. Now, it behooves present and future (especially Western) generations, being now converted to Gauḍīya Vedānta, to investigate in detail the homeland of their tradition so that they can better grasp its roots and unique DNA, which, like it or not, may at times clash with a Western psychology and its deeply embedded Abrahamic sensibilities (such as linear time, the fall from grace, and so on), which may prevent them from fully accessing the siddhānta of the tradition and harmonizing “circumstantial recipes” presented by the expert “chefs” of the sampradāya. If an expert chef lacks some ingredient in a recipe, he or she (knowing the original recipe) will know how to replace it, while a neophyte one will not (because of ignoring the original recipe). Similarly, someone such as Ṭhākura Bhaktivinoda presented a circumstantial recipe while considering the available ingredients (the adhikāra of the audience at the time). But he had a clear purpose in mind—to properly nourish them with a sumptuous meal, as much as they were able to digest.

If Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura is to be considered the Seventh Goswāmī (a totally well-deserved title), then we must understand the reason for this designation—we must understand the Seventh Goswāmī in relation to the first Six, after whom he received this glorious label. Having established this context, we should also note that it is with Bhaktivinoda that Vaiṣṇavism’s interaction with the modern Western mind began, which necessarily led to certain relative considerations regarding how to present the message according to time, place, and circumstance. And although some may consider that talking about a “teaching strategy” in relation to the Ṭhākura minimizes or relativizes his absolute contribution, it actually implies a deeper appreciation of his genius and talent in delivering Kṛṣṇa Consciousness to very specific audiences, which is the hallmark of all great outreach.10

In this way, true membership within the Bhaktivinoda parivāra does not imply merely being chaste to the Ṭhākura’s teachings in the form of doing a literal copy and paste of whatever he has said without considering any contrary evidence (even within the work of Bhaktivinoda himself). Rather, it implies dynamically understanding the intention behind his words in the line of his own pūrva-ācāryas, separating the absolute from the relative, and continuing to adore and appreciate his contribution in those terms by engaging ourselves in such a dialogic exercise in our present times.11 Being a loyal member of any sampradāya does not mean carrying a membership card or whimsically quoting scriptural sections in a sectarian and fanatical way, but sensibly establishing each word of our guardians in its appropriate context, because a text without a context becomes a pretext.

In the next part of our series, we will further explore various well-known dissemination strategies coming not only from contemporary ācāryas but also from ancient ones as well as from the Bhāgavata and other scriptural sources, and how Gauḍīya siddhānta has often been conveyed (successfully) through the medium of its apparent nemesis—apasiddhānta.

Additional articles in this series: Bhakti Comes from Bhakti; Bhakti, the Essence of the Svarūpa-Śakti; Is Rasa Totally Predetermined?; The Source Of Our Siddha-deha; Is There Scriptural Support in Favor of Inherence?; Nurture and Nature; The Origin of the Theory of Inherence; Teaching Strategies And Historical Presentism; How To Reach Siddhānta (Even Through Apasiddhānta)

  1. For a detailed depiction of the unique times both Bhaktivinoda and Bhaktisiddhānta lived in, see Shukavak N. Dasa, Hindu Encounter with Modernity: Kedarnath Datta Bhaktivinoda, Vaiṣṇava Theologian (Los Angeles: Sanskrit Religions Institute, 1999) and Ferdinando Sardella, Modern Hindu Personalism: The History, Life, and Thought of Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013). []
  2. Although the Ṭhākura pointed toward the intelligentsia of his time, he also, at least in part, sought approval from more “traditional” Vaiṣṇava quarters. This is true in his early work Śrī Kṛṣṇa-saṁhitā (1879), but it becomes increasingly evident in later works. []
  3. This period of the Ṭhākura’s life is characterized by the emerging discourse of experience among the Hindu bhadraloka, influenced by developments in liberal Christian theological discourse as well as by exponents of natural religion. Experience and the “inherence” of knowledge seem to have been a general discursive motif in religious discourse among nineteenth-century intellectuals. []
  4. All ācāryas before Bhaktivinoda accepted the literal meaning of anādi in anādi-baddha or anādi-karma—bondage without any beginning—and did not elaborate much. But the Ṭhākura at times gave a novel explanation, saying that the jīvas fall from the taṭastha region, where they made the choice to serve māyā instead of Kṛṣṇa. This is novel because there is no taṭastha region whatsoever—taṭastha is what the jīva is constitutionally, and nothing else. Jīvas are taṭastha, and they are conditioned since anādi, no beginning. And even while in the conditioned state, they are still taṭastha. Hence, in essence, the Ṭhākura’s explanation is really no different from that given by the ācāryas preceding him: that the jīvas are conditioned without beginning. Yet it satisfies the mind that does not accept anādi-baddha at face value. []
  5. In the opening lines of the concluding section (upasaṃhāra) of his Kṛṣṇa-saṁhitā (Calcutta: Ishwar Chandra Vasu Company, 1879), Bhaktivinoda acknowledges the liminal ground on which he has been treading in authoring the text. He writes, “All principles have been discussed in their respective places in the verses of the saṁhitā, but that method which modern scholars use to discuss those principles has not been followed in this [portion of the] book; therefore I fear that many will reject the Kṛṣṇa-saṁhitā, considering it antiquated. I am in a dilemma. If I had composed the verses following the modern method, there is no doubt that ancient scholars would disregard the book. On account of this, being determined to satisfy people of both communities, I have composed the main section of the book [saṁhitā] according to the ancient method, and I have written the upakramaṇikā and upasaṃhāra according to the modern method” (168). []
  6. This is from a private conversation between Swāmī B. V. Tripurāri and Hari-Rādhācaraṇa dāsa. []
  7. For the supremacy of śāstra regarding the attainment of perfection, bliss, and the ultimate goal, see Bhagavad-gītā 16.23. In connection to this verse, Viśvanātha Cakravartī Ṭhākura comments in his conclusion to Rāga-vartma-candrikā (2.8), “Three groups of persons are reprehensible, (one of them being) those who perform sacrifices in disregard of the injunctions of the scriptures. Because they disregard the scriptures, such persons have repeatedly experienced, are experiencing, and in the future will experience many disturbances. It is pointless to discuss this any further.” []
  8. In this regard, see Mahābhārata, Vana Parva 313.117. []
  9. Interestingly, a clear change can be seen in time in Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura’s presentation of the Gauḍīya teachings, from being very “liberal” in the beginning to much more orthodox later on. This is of course connected to his trying to reach out more in the initial stages of his life and practice, and then later being more preoccupied with diving deeper into the ultimate essence of the tradition. For more on this, see Lucian Wong, “Universalising Inclusivism—and Its Limits: Bhaktivinod and the Experiential Turn,” Journal of South Asian Intellectual History 1, no. 2 (November 2018): 221–263. []
  10. This same point is emphasized by Viśvanātha Cakravartī, Jīva Goswāmī, and Sanātana Goswāmī at the beginning of their Bhāgavata commentaries, where the three of them profusely glorify Śrīdhara Swāmī, especially for his outreach technique in connection with his Advaitin audience. []
  11. At this point, it is important to note that not all members of the Bhaktivinoda parivāra actually follow the inherence theory; some embrace the Gauḍīya siddhānta of noninherence while understanding the theory as an outreach strategy. This includes not only renowned practitioners in the Bhaktivinoda parivāra but also most other Gauḍīya parivāras as well as other branches of Kṛṣṇa bhakti outside of Gauḍīya Vedānta. []

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