Published on November 1st, 2021 | by Harmonist staff0
Jāmātṛ Muni’s Influence in Ṭhākura Bhaktivinoda and Śrīla Jīva Goswāmī – Part 2: Can Nitya-siddhas Speak Relative Statements and Not be Downplayed for That?
By Swāmī Bhakti Praṇaya Padmanābha
Additional articles in this series: The Difference Between Disturbing and Nourishing One’s Faith; Can Nitya-siddhas Speak Relative Statements and Not be Downplayed for That?; The Notion of Prīti in the Śrī Sampradāya; Are We to Read our Ācāryas According to the Sources They Quote?; Ascertaining the Meaning of Śeṣatva; The Case for Teleological Inherence
One of the underlying reasons for the type of psychology depicted in my previous article is the belief that every single ācārya in our lineage must necessarily be a nitya-siddha, or an eternally liberated soul who has directly descended from the spiritual world. This thinking carries the subtle implication that everything a nitya-siddha says must be always absolutely true and correct. But this apparent exhibition of strong faith in our guru-varga may reveal a lack of capacity in dealing with statements that may put our faith to the test, which can cause us to be overridden by an emotional disposition and use evasive mechanisms. To put it simply: while a kaniṣṭha’s perspective on faith will contemplate śāstra through the lens of his emotions, a madhyama will analyze his emotions through the lens of śāstra—and the uttama’s emotions are in themselves śāstra. Let’s next further unpack this complex underlying phenomenon.
As a matter of fact, the notion of the guru always being a nitya-siddha does not constitute our Gauḍīya siddhānta but speaks of a blurry and hazy concept not fully unpacked by those who claim such a possibility. What do we actually mean by nitya-siddha? What are the assumptions we make when we invoke such a term? One may feel the urge to make one’s guru a nitya-siddha and then extend that template to everyone else in one’s lineage, but this is not necessarily the actual reality. Indeed, after describing the attributes of a topmost spiritual master in his Bhakti Sandarbha 203, Śrīla Jīva Goswāmī says, “Because a guru of this caliber may not be available, some people accept many teachers, desiring to learn the fundamentals of logical analysis and the philosophical distinctions between different wisdom schools.” Thus, he hints at the possibility of the guru not being a nitya-siddha in every case. By making this point I do not intend to downplay anyone’s actual standing or deny the possibility of some gurus actually being nitya-siddhas. But it is important for us to understand that this is not an absolute rule in every single case. A guru can be a nitya-siddha, but he can also be a sādhana-siddha or even an advanced madhyama-sādhaka.1 And this should not be a problem for any of us.
For the sake of further insight, let’s for a moment hypothetically imagine that someone like Ṭhākura Bhaktivinoda was a sādhana-siddha—as he depicted himself—and not a nitya-siddha. How do we feel when contemplating such a possibility? If we feel uncomfortable and consider this a serious problem, then we have a problem because we are creating a false sense of hierarchy in the realm of siddhas. As Śrīla Prabhupāda is said to have once declared when asked about who was superior among these two types of siddhas, “The important word here is siddha!” Thus, there is no need to forcibly position all ācāryas as nitya-siddhas in an attempt to make them more of what they already are, but, indeed, we could benefit enormously by contemplating the possibility that some of them may not be nitya-siddhas. For example, by studying Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura’s sincere expressions in his unique songs, we can find deep hope in our personal journey, instead of just dismissing them by saying, “He wrote them for us, but he was not actually feeling those things, since he is a nitya-siddha.” While he indeed was, we cannot deny the fact that he really felt those things himself. Is Bilvamaṅgala Ṭhākura less of a siddha because of his background with the prostitute Cintāmaṇi? Is Prahlāda less of a siddha due to his activities in his previous life? If properly addressed, such examples have the potential to fully inspire us in our progressive journey as sādhakas, so there is no need at all to reject them.
However, it is possible that some subconscious bias may still force us to feel the necessity for an ācārya to be the highest possible personality, this generally according to what we understand as the highest. This is similar to the idea that all ācāryas must be drenched in mādhurya-rasa to be fully authentic because if they are in a “lower” rasa, this may represent a problem. And indeed, this represents a problem, but only for us, in the form of rasism—being racist in the context of rasa. Therefore, although it may seem a totally separate topic, it is highly possible that this kind of underlying background may be intimately connected to the need to prove how everything Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura said was perfect, and then forcibly—and problematically—trying to explain whatever the Six Goswāmīs said in such a way that it may fit our purpose, so our faith remains reassured but unchallenged.2
We may convince ourselves and others about our strong śraddhā due to not allowing for the possibility of our ācāryas having presented something relative at times. And we may claim that those who dare to do so are possessed of weak faith, or even something worse than that. But such a viewpoint could actually be a very tender faith which feels the need to absolutize even the relative, because it does not have enough strength to deal with the realm of paradox. On the other hand, a more mature form of śraddhā is open for these things to happen and has the capacity to accommodate such challenging statements without being diminished in its conviction, but growing exponentially.
As with most of our actions, subconscious influences generally define many of the things we do or say without ourselves even being aware of these influences. Could it be that the pūrvapakṣī’s3 resistance to bhakti not being inherent in the jīva, is a resistance to the possibility of accepting that some of our ācāryas may have at times said something that is not absolute? This could be drawn from his main emphases on the point that Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura is a nitya-siddha. While I do not disagree with such a notion, the context in which it has been repeatedly placed was to imply that whatever the Ṭhākura said must be perfect in every sense. And, therefore, Śrī Bhaktivinoda could have never said something different from siddhānta or contradicted himself by saying different things in different places. But as we have already seen, at least overtly, certain things that the Ṭhākura and his successors have said—for example, that bhakti is inherent and also that it is not—cannot be both absolutized simultaneously without experiencing some form of conflict.4 Thus, deep reconciliation is still required.
To protect and worship the legacy of Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura means to study it comprehensively, as Śrī Kṛṣṇa himself says in Bhagavad-gītā 18.70, “Those who study this conversation worship me through their intelligence.” This is my humble pursuit, which attempts to honor and protect the Ṭhākura’s legacy not through an absolutistic glorification which does not fully acknowledge every conceptual puzzle and tries to solve them, but by properly understanding and reconciling any apparent contradiction in the light of our original Gauḍīya siddhānta.
We consider Śrī Ṭhākura Bhaktivinoda the Seventh Goswāmī, which implies that he is to be understood on the basis of what the first six said. The Ṭhākura’s authority is derived from the Six Goswāmīs, and not vice versa. Why? Because the founding ācāryas and śāstra-gurus of the Gauḍīya sampradaya are the Six Goswāmīs, not Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura. This in no way downplays the Ṭhākura’s role but, understood in its proper context, represents praise that he himself will find extremely pleasing. Similarly, by saying, for example, that Śrīla Prabhupāda is not the founder ācārya of the Gauḍīya sampradaya we are not lessening his position in any way, but presenting an objective fact in our attempt to connect him with his own lineage. He is the founder ācārya of ISKCON, which is one of many branches in the Gauḍīya sampradāya. If this is not enough for us and we thus feel the need to make some of our ācāryas even “bigger,” then we may fall into what could be termed ācāryaism.5
Basically, ācāryaism refers to the stance in which one specific ācārya—especially contemporary—is the be-all and end-all of all ācāryas, to the point that we no longer feel the need to resort to the sampradāya and founding ācāryas he represents, since that particular ācārya is seen as the sampradāya incarnated. Such a viewpoint is not at all healthy for the development of any sādhaka, since there is an absolute need to take nourishment from the entire sampradāya. However, the pūrvapakṣī has hinted at this notion of ācāryaism by prominently concentrating his main arguments not on the foundational canon of the Gauḍīya sampradāya but almost exclusively—as we will see from the next section onwards—in more contemporary ācāryas. Even more problematic is his focus on other Vaiṣṇava sampradāyas. An example of this is his introduction to this subject, where he said that the topic of bhakti in the jīva is a central pillar in Śrī Bhaktivinoda’s presentation as well as that of other ācāryas after him, especially Śrīla Prabhupāda. Interestingly, he never mentioned that such a topic is equally important for the founding ācāryas of the sampradāya, who unanimously pointed in the direction of noninherence.
It is through this spirit of ācāryaism that the pūrvapakṣī has conflated whether bhakti is inherent or not with possible reasons for Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura’s presentation, although one thing is not synonymous with the other at all. As already explained, that is a separate conversation. However, the pūrvapakṣī clearly avoided speaking about whether rasa or siddha-deha is inherent by arguing that these topics constitute a separate conversation. But he tried to fuse into one single conversation two different topics that actually require two different conversations—whether bhakti or prema is inherent in the jīva, and why Ṭhākura Bhaktivinoda and others seemed to have said otherwise at times.
Any Gauḍīya representative should be able to establish the siddhānta of bhakti in the jīva independently of the reasons why the Ṭhākura or others occasionally made their particular presentation. An example could be given in this regard: If I am discussing with Vaiṣṇavas from another sampradāya about whether bhakti is inherent or not, I do not need to explain to them why Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura said what he said at times. The way to establish this siddhānta is to first go to our śāstra-gurus and then view other’s statements in the light of the Goswāmī grantha. We should not force a superficial interpretation of the Goswāmīs’ conclusions by limitedly resorting to some statements of our contemporary Gauḍīya ācāryas. And further, to also bring in other sampradāyas confuses the conversation and deflects our focus from what is important to us and our sampradaya, as we will see in the next article.
For more on Swāmī B. P. Padmanābha’s forthcoming book Inherent or Inherited? Bhakti in the Jīva According to Gauḍīya Vedānta, see http://www.bhaktiinthejiva.com/ and http://www.facebook.com/bhaktiinthejiva.
- This notion is not only supported by Śrī Jīva Goswāmī, but by contemporary ācāryas such as Śrīla A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda, Śrīla B. R. Śrīdhara Deva Goswāmī, and Śrīla B. V. Nārāyaṇa Mahārāja, among others. [↩]
- Another similar example would be to think that since Śrīla Prabhupāda at times said we fell from the spiritual world, then whatever śāstra has said to the contrary should be forcibly viewed in accordance to Prabhupāda’s statements, and not vice versa. [↩]
- The term pūrvapakṣa refers to an opposing view, while a pūrvapakṣī is the one who presents the pūrvapakṣa. [↩]
- For more on this, see part 6 of this series. [↩]
- I thank Dulāl Candra dāsa for coining and sharing this term. [↩]