Non-sectarian Radha Krishna Devotion

Srila Bhaktivinode Thakur, my grand guru, is a shining example to me as I read his writings and see how he dealt with the spiritual issues of his day. He remains relevant and an inspiration to me and other progressive thinkers. I just re-read the opening pages to his Sri Krishna Samhita, written in 1880, the year he was initiated by Bipin Bihari Goswami and the year my gurudev, Srila Lalita Prasad Thakur was born to Bhaktivinode and his wife Bhagavati Devi.

In the preface, he says, “If one considers history and time according to reason and argument, there will be great benefit for India. By this, one can also hope to make gradual advancement on the path towards the ultimate goal of life. If reason and argument is combined with ancient beliefs, then all the accumulated moss of misconceptions will be destroyed, and in due course of time the odor of infamy will be eradicated from the people of India; then their knowledge will regain its health.”

Bhaktivinode was a British college educated, Deputy Magistrate in the Indian civil service under British rule. He was impressed with the British and Western thought in general. Yet he was most enamored with Sri Chaitanya and devotion to Radha Krishna after previously dismissing devotional practices as simple, emotional religion for the common, uneducated person. Many of Bhaktivinode’s peers had also rejected the devotional path which they viewed as backwards. In this book, Bhaktivinode appeals to thinking persons to reconsider the Srimad Bhagavatam, which teaches devotion to Krishna, in light of what he has to say.

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 various scriptures. He does this in the introduction coming up with much more recent dating than that accepted by those taking a more literalistic, fundamentalist approach. This is part of the post-modern, scholarly, text critical approach I also use.

Bhaktivinode thought this would be good for India and for personal spiritual advancement. He wanted to combine a scholarly, critical approach to faith like progressive Christians have been so successful at doing. This is the type of education I received in seminary and which I now apply to Radha Krishna devotion. There was resistance to this approach in Bhaktivinode’s day, and there is still resistance today, even in the West among persons who claim to be Bhaktivinode’s followers. Bhaktivinode and many of his peers felt traditional devotion needed to be subjected to intellectual scrutiny in order to free it from “misconceptions” and make it acceptable to modern, Western educated persons. I feel the same way.

“Everyone has the right to discuss spiritual topics. Yet people are divided into three categories according to their qualifications. Those who do not possess independent power of discrimination are in the first category and are called neophytes, or those with soft faith. They have no alternative to faith. If they do not accept whatever the compilers of the scriptures write as the order of the Lord, then they fall down. They are qualified only for understanding the gross meanings of the science of Krishna; they have no qualification for understanding the subtle meanings. Until they gradually advance by good association and instruction, they should try to advance under the shelter of faith.” (p 2)

Unfortunately, this is the level of most devotional teaching and practice today. Most devotees accept a literalistic reading of scripture and do not see the human hand(s) involved in writing them as part of a developing spiritual tradition in order to meet the needs of their times and circumstances. They cannot think in any other way or their fragile faith will be destroyed.

“Those who have not yet succeeded in connecting faith with argument are second grade persons, or madhyama-adhikaris.” (pp 2-3) These are the persons who have some faith and intellectual insight but are not able to integrate the two. This is like integrating the right and left brains. Such persons are plagued by doubts and struggle greatly with their faith.

“And those who are expert in connecting these two are perfect in all respects. They are able to attain perfection by utilizing material resources in their independent endeavors. They are called topmost persons, or uttama-adhikaris.” (p 3)

When one is able to become a whole, integrated person, utilizing faith and reason, right and left brain, body, mind, spirit, one becomes perfect. One is then able to see things rightly. It is possible to thoroughly examine and analyze one’s faith, remove out dated beliefs and practices, and then put it back together again in a manner that is even more perfect. This is what Bhaktivinode and I have done and are calling for others to attempt.

“But the rules and regulations received through disciplic succession regarding the goal and the method of achieving it are changed in due course of time according to the mentality and locale of the people. A rule that is followed by one society is not necessarily accepted in another society. That is why one community is different from another…Amongst uttama-adhikaris…there is no trace of sectarianism.” (p 4)

Bhaktivinode saw devotion as a progressive, process that needed to be adapted to time and circumstances. He did not have a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all mentality. Truth is not static. It is dynamic. There is not one truth, but many truths. There is not one way, but many ways. He was a non-sectarian, universalist who saw things pluralistically. Therefore, I have founded the Universalist Church of Radha Krishna to carry on these teachings of Bhaktivinode in the West.

He continues, “it should be understood that both asslike and swanlike people are found amongst the kanistha-adhikaris and madhyama-adhikaris. I do not expect that asslike people will accept this book with respect. If neophytes and madhyama-adhikaris become completely indifferent in regard to the contradictions found in various practices and try to advance further, then they become swanlike persons. Then they are our respectable and dear friends…But swanlike Vaishnavas are nonsectarian and, therefore, rare.” (p 6)

My writings and practices have also met with disrespect from the asslike devotees who cannot understand my message and reject it because it is different from what they are used to. If we could set aside our sectarian differences and focus on the common ground which unites us, we could all be friends and spiritually advance together. I have not found many of such persons to work with and do not expect to have large numbers of followers, which is not even desirable. Instead, I welcome a few sincere souls to study with me.

“The religious principles taught by Mohammed and Jesus Christ are similar to the religious principles taught by Vaishnava sects.” (p 8) This is why I have been attracted to Sufism and Christianity and incorporate many Christian principles into the teachings and practices of the Universalist Church of Radha Krishna.

“This is a scientific consideration of truths regarding religious principles. Those who consider their own religious principles as real dharma and others religious principles as irreligion or subreligion are unable to ascertain the truth due to being influenced by prejudice. Actually religious principles followed by people in general are different only due to the different qualifications of the practitioners, but the constitutional religious principles of all living entities are one. It is not proper for swanlike persons to reject the religious principles that people in general follow according to their situation. Therefore, with due respect to the religious principles followed by people in general, we will now discuss the living entities’ constitutional reli
gious principles. Satvata-dharma, or nonsectarian Vaishnava-dharma, is the living entities constitutional, or eternal, religious principles.” (Ibid.)

Love is the answer. All who love God, creation and all beings are my sisters and brothers. I have worked ecumenically with persons from many Christian traditions as well as with persons of many other faiths. We have all grown and benefited by our interactions. It is unfortunate that most devotees of Radha Krishna seem to be of a sectarian nature and unwilling to work cooperatively for the good of all. We need to learn to see ourselves as part of God-dess’ family as brothers and sisters in the human family and as part of creation. This will solve all of our problems through mutual cooperation. I hope you will be part of the solution.

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