Our Roots – Bhaktivinode Thakur

Bhaktivinode Thakur (1838-1914), our grand teacher, was a unique man among Indian scholars in tradition of Radha-Krishnna devotion. Unlike many others, he was influenced by Christian Unitarian thought and advocated for using the scholarly techniques of British Orientalists to disseminate truth. He saw the revelation of truth as progressive.

Paragraph

Born of a wealthy family in 1838, Bhaktivinode grew up in a traditional Hindu household of rural Bengal. In his youth he moved to Calcutta where he was English-educated. He became an associate of the Tagore family, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar and Keshub Chadra Sen.

Bhaktivinode’s life straddled contemporary Bengali society and ancestral Hindu culture. One was modern, analytical world that demamned rational thought. The other was the traditional world of Hindu faith and piety.

In his late twenties Bhaktivinode Thakur discovred his Eastern Saviour, Krishna Chaitanya (1486-1533). He eventually became a theologian and leader within the Chaitanya Vaishnava movement of Bengal. Bhaktivinode made a lifelong study of Hindu philosophy, theology and literature. He wrote and edited almost a hundred books in Bengali, Sanskrit and English.(1)

Paragraph

Bhaktivinode Thakur realized that there are essential truths in the scriptures, but they need to be reinterpreted for every new generation, especially when the persons receiving that truth are of a different cultural and religious background from the originating culture. So, maintaining the essential truth of a passage, we apply it differently today than we would have say 500 years ago, or even yesterday, or from one audience to the next. Each audience calls for a particular, unique performance of the truth according to its understandings and needs. Everyone is at a different stage of spiritual experience. Therefore, they need a different word of truth. As Martin Luther said, “That may be the word of God for you, but it’s not for me.”

This relates to exegesis and hermeneutics, the process of using scholarly techniques to understand what a scriptural passage meant in its earliest setting for the original intended audience, and then using an interpretive process to derive its meaning for the audience being addressed today.

Bhaktivinode wrote, “Progress certainly is the law of nature and there must be corrections and developments with the progress of time.” (Bhagavat 5) According to process theology, everything is in process, including God-dess, who is beyond our understanding, and yet, our collective and individual understanding of God-dess develops over time. If faith does not grow and develop, it stagnates and dies.

Bhaktivinode Thakur further says, “Liberty then is the principle, which we must consider as the most valuable gift of God. We must not allow ourselves to be led by those who lived and thought before us. We must think for ourselves and try to get further truths which are still undiscovered. In the … Bhagavata we have been advised to take the spirit of the sastras [scriptures] and not the words. The Bhagavata is, therefore, a religion of liberty, unmixed truth, and absolute love.”

Paragraph

Bhaktivinode Thakur -- Our grand teacherBhaktivinode was a nineteenth-century, British-educated magistrate. He was trained to hear the testimony, view the evidence, and draw a conclusion regarding the truth of the matter. He approached spiritual truth the same way, studying various religions and philosophies, both Eastern and Western.

He concluded the teachings of the Bhagavat were the best, but he also found errors in it and the writings of its most revered commentators. He trusted himself, his intelligence, and natural intuition to guide him. He sometimes broke with tradition and took controversial stands.

He experienced the full influence of nineteenth century rationalism, along with Christian and Unitarian thought. As an essence seeker, he concerned himself with eternal spiritual truths rather than their external manifestations. He presented the teachings of Krishna Chaitanya in a new way to Western educated intellectuals of his day, something we’re seriously missing even today.

Bhaktivinode separated the received tradition, which is subject to analysis, criticism, and change, from the transcendent reality, which he saw is beyond our logic, intellect, and language. He understood the distinction between religious faith and belief, thereby freeing us to create a lifestyle and philosophy that allows Westerners to use the spiritual practices of Chaitanyaism without unnecessary alienation from Western culture and thought. Of course, many of us on the spiritual path are probably alienated from Western culture and religion to a degree naturally, and that is why we seek an eternal spiritual home.

Bhaktivinode Thakur recognized the need for the tradition’s spiritual and cultural adaptation to time, place, and audience. He identified with modern religious thinkers, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, as fellow universalist essence seekers, able to transcend the limitations of their own spiritual culture and value the essence of other spiritual traditions.

Furthermore, he approached the divine through faith rooted in innate spiritual intuition, which allows freedom and creativity for new revelations of spiritual truth by the inner teacher — Cosmic Consciousness.

Today we live a contemporary Western lifestyle conducive to spiritual growth. Universalist Radha-Krishnaism offers the updated essence of traditional, esoteric Chaitanyaism. Our grand teacher is indeed a shining example and inspiration to progressive thinkers in the way he dealt with the spiritual issues of his day.

Paragraph

Bhaktivinode Thakur (then still called Kedarnath Datta) wrote his seminal work Krishna Samhita in 1880. That same year Bipin Bihari Goswami (his devotional teacher) initiated him into natural devotional practice and the year Lalita Prasad Thakur (our devotional teacher) was born to Bhaktivinode and his wife Bhagavati Devi.

In the preface of the book he described the benefits of using a logical, intellectual method to study history and the concept of time. He advocated a critical analytical approach to old beliefs to free them from layers of misconceptions and bring India to a healthier spiritual state.

Bhaktivinode Thakur received a modern English college education. He served as a Deputy Magistrate in the Indian civil service under British rule, which he strongly supported. While European philosophical and theological thought influenced his thinking, he was most taken with Krishna Chaitanya and devotion to Radha-Krishna (although in his young days he dismissed such devotion as simple, emotional religion for the common, uneducated person). Many of Bhaktivinode’s peers similarly rejected the devotional path, which they viewed as backwards.

In Krishna Samhita, Bhaktivinode appeals to thinking persons to reconsider the Bhagavata Purana, which teaches devotion to Krishna, using modern critical interpretation like the British Orientalists. Considering “history and time according to reason and argument” means using the tools of modern, scholarly research to date historical events and the writing of scriptures, as well as their interpretation. For example, following a scholarly examination of the evidence, he concluded that the Bhagavata was written about a 1,000 years ago, while tradition says it was written 5,000 years ago. We use a similar scholarly critical approach to develop Universalist Radha-Krishnaism.

It’s interesting to note that his ideas go completely against the kind of fundamentalist tenacity to scriptural literalism that characterizes much of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, including those branches that claim allegiance to him. For example, they still accept a pre-rational, traditional notion that scriptures were written 5,000 years ago, and never acknowledge(2):

  1. His acceptance of personal intuition or personal revelation, which he called sahaja-samadhi.
  2. His acceptance of the evolutionary or progressive model.
  3. His acceptance of symbolic interpretation of the scriptures and his theory of symbolism.

Paragraph

Bhaktivinode Thakur saw a scholarly critical approach to faith as good for India and for personal spiritual advancement. Progressive Christians model this well. Universalist Radha-Krishnaism apply it to Radha-Krishna devotion. Bhaktivinode and many of his peers felt traditional devotion needed intellectual scrutiny to free it from “misconceptions” and “whirlpools of illusion” to make it acceptable to modern, well educated persons. We feel the same way and continue his work.

When we become whole, integrated persons, using faith and reason, right and left cerebral hemispheres, body, mind, and spirit, we become perfect and see things rightly. We may thoroughly examine and analyze our faith, remove outdated beliefs and practices, and put it back together even more superbly. Bhaktivinode and Paul Tillich clearly separated faith and belief.

Bhaktivinode saw the necessity of adapting the rules and regulations passed on by the disciplic succession to develop devotion according to the needs of the audience. This is especially true as we move from one society to another. This produces regional differences, which need not be viewed as sectarianism.

Bhaktivinode Thakur saw devotion as a progressive process that needs to adapt to time and circumstance. He did not have a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all mentality. Truth is not static–it is quite dynamic. There is not one Truth, but many truths. There is not one way, but many ways. He saw things pluralistically, from a nonsectarian universalist perspective. Universalist Radha-Krishnaism: A Spirituality of Liberty, Truth, and Love carries on the teachings of Bhaktivinode Thakur in the West.
_____
(1) Shukavak N Dasa, Hindu Encounter with Modernity, Sri, Los Angeles 1999
(2) Hindu Encounter with Modernity by Shukavak N Dasa, a book review by Jagadananda das