Is bhakti inherent in the jīva or not? Did all of our ācāryas agree on this particularly complex topic? How to deal with apparently contradictory viewpoints in this regard? Some arguments in favor of bhakti’s inherence have recently come to my attention, most of which revolve around some of my statements about this topic as well as the role of Jāmātṛ Muni in Jīva Goswāmī’s ontology of the ātmā and Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura’s own presentation. In trying to address these points and for the sake of conciseness, throughout this chapter, I will refer to the main exposer of these arguments—as well as whoever may agree with his conclusions—simply as “the pūrvapakṣī.”1
However, first I would like to contextualize my presentation by reminding my readers that any genuine Gauḍīya debate—like the one I am trying to participate in throughout this series—is not actually a popularity contest orchestrated with political intentions, nor has it anything to do with highly engineered public presentations to rally the masses. Although it may be easier to paint enemies than to be intellectually honest, Gauḍīya debate is precisely the latter—a progressive conversation to be engaged in from a consensual platform of a universally accepted scriptural canon. In other words, we are expected to ascertain Gauḍīya siddhānta by taking shelter in that which is deemed as the ultimate pramāṇa for all Gauḍīyas without exception, and not by merely referring to certain statements exclusively related to one’s specific parivāra or even other sampradāyas—as the pūrvapakṣī attempts to do, trying to justify inherence through the lens of another Vaiṣṇava school. That is in itself a separate conversation, one that needs to take place after having first established the ultimate Gauḍīya siddhānta and which will address whatever one’s ācāryas have said in the spirit of properly honoring, understanding, and reconciling their words with the ultimate śāstra-pramāṇa for the entire Gauḍīya sampradāya: Śrīmad Bhāgavatam and Goswāmī grantha.2
Unfortunately, the initial part of the pūrvapakṣī’s presentation closely resembles the principle of ad hominem, where an argument mostly tries to decry its presenter and whoever may agree with his position through different intimations, rather than dealing with the actual points presented by him. In this connection, it has been said that I am inferring that Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura’s presentation is apasiddhāntic, discontinuous from the Gauḍīya tradition, and in stark contradiction with Śrīla Jīva Goswāmī. This has created a false dichotomy in the Gauḍīya community. The pūrvapakṣī continues by saying that those who dare to think like that actually represent a threat to the whole sampradāya and thus Bhaktivinoda’s legacy needs to be protected from such people. I do not consider any of my statements to fit the above description. Thus, in a prayerful attempt to remain impartial and dispassionate while trying to ascertain our Gauḍīya siddhānta, I will next reply to the main implications in each of these allegations.
To begin with, I do not propose that stalwarts like Ṭhākura Bhaktivinoda or Śrīla A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda—the two main ācāryas quoted by the pūrvapakṣī in this connection—are in contradiction with Jīva Goswāmī. I have only spoken in terms of apparent contradictions. Thus, when declaring that a false dichotomy was created by “pitting Śrī Jīva against Ṭhākura Bhaktivinoda and asking the reader to choose between one of the two,” the pūrvapakṣī is actually creating a false dichotomy himself since my statements have never put them against each other. Rather, I try to “bring them closer,” by presenting different ways of appreciating the Ṭhākura’s presentation in alignment with Jīva Goswāmī’s ultimate intention.
The pūrvapakṣī has also said that “we should study the books of Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura, rather than trying to show that they are full of contradictions.” While I totally agree with this postulate, when applied in connection to statements I have made his statement represents yet another unfounded dichotomy: if the result of thoroughly studying the books of our contemporary ācāryas is that some of their statements show themselves in clear need of harmonization—as it happened when I studied their works—then such a healthy exercise has nothing to do with trying to prove how those books are “full of contradictions.” Therefore, the pūrvapakṣī’s statement is an exaggerated public accusation of something that has never been used in my presentation. Interestingly enough, after emphasizing that “contradictions do not exist in the writing of our ācāryas,” the pūrvapakṣī says that he agrees that there may be some preaching strategies, but not in the case of bhakti in the jīva. This is a contradiction in itself, which I will unpack next.
Tightly bound up with the inherence issue, we find two well-known examples regarding outreach techniques in connection to the apparent fall of the jīva. At least overtly, these two examples contradict śāstra’s ultimate siddhanta. They are Śrīla Prabhupāda’s statement that we fell from the spiritual world3 and Ṭhākura Bhaktivinoda’s presentation about falling from a taṭastha region.4 We must first note that the pūrvapakṣī repeatedly stated that he embraces the concept of anādi, or beginningless conditioning, but this is a notion that clearly goes against the apparent statements by Śrīla Prabhupāda and Ṭhākura Bhaktivinoda. The pūrvapakṣī even declared that Śrī Bhaktivinoda never disputed the idea of anādi, which, as I will demonstrate in my forthcoming book, is not precisely the case. Although the Ṭhākura indeed spoke in terms of anādi at times, he also mentioned the possibility of falling from a taṭastha region. Indeed, in his Śrī Kṛṣṇa-saṁhitā 2.41 he even suggested that we fell from Vaikuṇṭha! Thus, he clearly said different things at times. But when asked about why Ṭhākura Bhaktivinoda spoke about a fall from a taṭastha region, the pūrvapakṣī said, “I have not looked at it in detail. I can say that some Vaiṣṇavas say that Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura is just trying to explain it in a way that is simple, and not to get too hung up on it. . . . I think it is only one phrase, one sentence in Jaiva-dharma, perhaps it is found elsewhere as well, but it is not something I have studied.” Apart from not fully addressing—or studying—this important connected topic, while dismissing the question by saying that “it is only one phrase,” ironically the pūrvapakṣī seriously contradicts himself again since, as we will see, he will eventually try to make his main case on the basis of not even “only one phrase,” but one word—śeṣatva.5
Another claim made by the pūrvapakṣī was that discussion of these topics will create further division in the Gauḍīya community. Although this may happen in some unprepared cases, to not engage in proper devotional discussion and claim that siddhānta should just be only taken from one’s chosen sources—instead of the consensual Gauḍīya canon—is a far more troublesome viewpoint. Indeed, many of the same arguments employed by the pūrvapakṣī, which I will analyze next, can be easily applied to the fall of the jīva. In other words, many of the reasons the pūrvapakṣī gives for why our present topic should not be taken as a preaching strategy could be easily used for discussing the fall of the jīva, always circling back to whose interpretation do we accept. Since a topic such as the fall of the jīva has already caused many schisms and thus can no longer be avoided, the mere possibility of a further division should not be a reason to avoid discussing bhakti in the jīva in a mature and śāstric way. Indeed, the personal experience for those who have embraced this healthy challenge has not been exposure to the terrible consequences of aparādha to Śrī Bhaktivinoda and others—consequences which would be relatively easy to detect. Rather their śāstriya-śraddhā in the Bhaktivinoda parivāra has increased exponentially.
The pūrvapakṣī has also said that to suggest that some of our ācāryas resorted at times to outreach techniques—an idea he actually accepted as plausible—is tantamount to downplaying and relativizing them. But he contradicted himself again by saying that Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura’s philosophical zenith was reached in his Jaiva-dharma, and that we can see a clear transition in the Ṭhākura’s works before and after dīkṣā. Both statements imply some form of improvement and refinement in the thought of the Ṭhākura.
Thus the following question naturally arises: How does the suggestion of an outreach technique downplay our ācāryas but the suggestion that they went through different transitions or developed their theological thought constitutes protection of their legacy? I have tried to show in my previous presentations and forthcoming book how these two options are possible without any form of mutual downplaying, therefore, here again, the pūrvapakṣī is creating a false and avoidable dichotomy.
Similarly, when speaking about how to deal with siddhānta, the pūrvapakṣī explained the famous “siddhānta baliyā citte…” verse in a relatively unusual and personal way. He mentioned that its actual meaning is that we should not be lazy “just because it is siddhanta.” Then he said that this is one of the most misused verses because people interpret it wrongly by considering that it speaks about not being lazy in discussing siddhānta, but actually “that is not at all what it says.” While his novel interpretation may be grammatically possible on some level, his claim that the most classical interpretations of this verse are wrong goes directly against how most of our pūrva-ācāryas have understood it—we should not be lazy in dealing with siddhānta.6
For example, Śrīla Prabhupāda comments on it by saying, “One should be particularly careful to understand the truth about Kṛṣṇa. If because of laziness one does not come to know Kṛṣṇa conclusively, one will be misguided about the cult of devotion. . . . Conclusive discussion about Śrī Kṛṣṇa and His potencies is absolutely necessary. . . . other false devotees think that studying books of the previous ācāryas is unadvisable, like studying dry empiric philosophies. But Śrīla Jīva Gosvāmī, following the previous ācāryas, has inculcated the conclusions of the scriptures in the six theses called the Ṣaṭ-sandarbhas. False devotees who have very little knowledge of such conclusions fail to achieve pure devotion for want of zeal in accepting the favorable directions for devotional service given by self-realized devotees. Such false devotees are like impersonalists, who also consider devotional service no better than ordinary fruitive actions.” Similarly, Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Saraswatī comments, “Hearing siddhānta is necessary, and those who do not know siddhānta will misidentify who is a jātā-ruci-bhakta. If siddhānta that is favorable for bhakti is considered unfavorable, then one will fall away from Kṛṣṇa bhakti.”
In a similar vein, the gist of Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura’s commentary is that “some people who seek bhakti may think the siddhānta presented by Kavirāja Goswāmī in this section is not a limb of bhakti and thus be lazy about trying to carefully understand it, but this is not good, and rather by understanding sambandha-jñāna the mind becomes firmly fixed on Kṛṣṇa. Sat-siddhānta is the basis of śuddha-bhakti.” Finally, Viśvanātha Cakravartī Ṭhākura comments on this verse7 by saying, “Regarding siddhānta, do not be lazy in mind out of fear of tarka [logic] and so forth. Avoid unfavorableness [the unfavorable form of tarka that can occur in discussion of siddhānta] and seek only favorable siddhānta. As the mind becomes most firmly fixed on Kṛṣṇa only by hearing siddhānta, so through this siddhānta one learns the greatness of Caitanya. Then, because of [this] knowledge of [his] greatness, the mind becomes firmly fixed on him. Knowledge of [his] greatness comes through siddhānta, and from that comes firm fixity of mind. Thus, hearing siddhānta is necessary.”
In other words, the pūrvapakṣī feels the need to protect the sampradāya from some supposed detractors that caricature our contemporary ācāryas, but he himself has implied that all of the above ācāryas were mistaken while commenting on this most important verse with the same focus in mind—do not be lazy in properly discussing siddhānta.
As I mentioned above and will develop later in this series, a significant part of this conversation has to do with protecting the integrity of our guru-varga. To do this we go to our guru-varga itself, beginning with our śāstra-gurus and seeing what they have said on this topic. Then we try to harmonize whatever seems to have been said to the contrary. In other words, to suggest that there has been a circumstantial adjustment in connection to this topic—one of my three main hypotheses presented in my forthcoming book8 I have less conviction about at the present moment—does not necessarily go against protecting the integrity of our guru-varga or even attacking it, as some may suggest. Indeed, by using this type of language we may be indirectly creating an unreal sense of enmity in connection to whatever may challenge our faith—and this in the name of preserving the sampradāya. In fact, proper recognition of the many circumstantial adjustments present even in śāstra will be part of not only acquiring further integrity but recognizing such integrity in others as well.
In this connection, the pūrvapakṣī shared that “he stands against a general erosion in the culture of faith in our more recent ācāryas.” We totally agree although the practical application of this idea may take different forms. While we should fully support siddhāntic engagement for the exclusive purpose of nourishing our saṅga and śraddhā, if someone feels that something is disturbing their faith, there is a possibility that it may be actually challenging their faith. And, in certain stages, our faith needs to be challenged in order to grow. If we are not “sacredly disturbed” by this exercise and are thus invited to think deeply about revelation, we may be falling into an area of complacency—complacent faith—where we end up accepting a whole series of absolutized dogmas, and whoever endorses those notions may be seen as a nourisher, although he may be actually keeping us in a toxic comfort zone. In these cases, we need to rethink in deeper ways by properly resorting to revelation, since our faith is to be nourished by śāstra—śāstriya-śraddhā. However, if proper quoting of śāstra disturbs someone’s faith, then that will speak more about his own lack of śāstriya-śraddhā than about the so-called disturber.
1 The term pūrvapakṣa refers to an opposing view, while a pūrvapakṣī is the one who presents the pūrvapakṣa. In this series, I will resort to the main points Simon Haas—the principal pūrvapakṣī in this case—has shared in two public online presentations, Is Bhakti Inherent in the Soul? Defending Bhaktivinoda Thakura’s Legacy and Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura – Bhakti & the Nature of the Soul. [↩]
2 For more on this, see chapter 1 of my forthcoming book, Inherent or Inherited? Bhakti in the Jīva According to Gauḍīya Vedānta. [↩]
3 One example of this could be found in his purport to Śrīmad Bhagavatam 4.28.53. In diametrical opposition to this, Śrīla Prabhupāda declares that no one falls from Vaikuṇṭha in his purports to Śrīmad Bhagavatam 3.15.48, 3.16.26, 3.16.29, 5.11.12, 7.1.35, and 7.13.6, among others. [↩]
4 In chapter 15 of his Jaiva-dharma, Śrī Bhaktivinoda declared that this idea was presented by him as a non-literal tool to conceive of something that is difficult to comprehend. [↩]
5 For more on śeṣatva, see part 5 of this series. [↩]
6 The verse under discussion is Caitanya-caritāmṛta 1.2.117. [↩]
7 This commentary is actually attributed to Śrī Viśvanātha. [↩]
8 The other two are connected to the possibility of translational issues and Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura’s own theological unfolding. [↩]
This article originally appeared on The Harmonist