By Swati Chopra
Srila Bhakti Ballabh Tirtha Goswami Maharaj is one of the foremost teachers in the tradition of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu today. Like the legendary singing saint, he is immersed in Krishna bhakti and teaches the path of transcendental love
The Vaishnava path of bhakti lays great importance on the observance of a lifestyle that weaves awareness of Krishna and his instructions in every aspect of daily living. Rather than being restrictive, these guidelines are means that enable the devotee to make life choices that are aware, compassionate and motivated by his or her devotion for Krishna.
Arca-vigraha (Krishna`s form): Vaishnavism emphasises the concept of form as being a priori. This plays a major role in the methods of worship. Inside a Vaishnava temple or home you will find deity forms of Krishna that are prayed to. Those who look with bhakti can clearly see the Supremely Spiritual Entity residing within what appears to be, to the materialist, mere stone or metal.
Prasadam: This is the offering of foodstuffs or other items to the Supreme Lord with devotion. Vaishnavas do not accept anything until it has first been offered to the Deity. Before foodstuffs are offered to the Lord, they are referred to as bhoga (enjoyment). After He has tasted them, they become prasadam or ‘mercy’. The food has become blessed or sanctified, and we can make spiritual progress by partaking of Lord Krishna’s remnants. Since everything belongs to God, our very souls belong to Him, so we should always offer the results of all endeavours to Him. In this way, our minds will become purified and Krishna will reveal Himself from within our hearts.
Ahimsa: Nonviolence is one of the qualities of a devotee of Krishna and this is why Vaishnavas are vegetarian. Krishna does not sanction eating the flesh of animals or eggs since He is the well-wisher of all living entities. Material existence implies feeding off one another in order to survive. Vegetables are certainly sentient; however, most plants are not destroyed by taking their fruit and so on.
Sadhana: Vaishnavas mark their bodies in twelve places (the most visible being the forehead and nose) with sandalwood mixed with a clay from a tirtha (holy place) associated with Krishna. These markings, collectively known as tilaka, are of a distinctive character. A ‘U’-shape descends down the forehead into a leaf shape on the bridge of the nose. The ‘U’ symbolises Vishnu, and the leaf is tulsi. Krishna is requested to enter into each of these marks by uttering His names while touching each mark. Devotees also wear tulsi malas, and tulsi leaves figure prominently in offerings.
Shaucha: Purity of both mind and body is essential. One should always be freshly bathed (Vaishnavas generally bathe two to three times daily, and then immediately apply tilaka). Vaishnavas also observe four regulative principles to develop purity: vegetarianism, no gambling, no intoxicants, and no sexual relations outside of marriage.
Japa and sankirtana (chanting names of Krishna): Sankirtana is congregational chanting of the Holy Name. Chanting is possibly the most visible activity of a bonafide Vaishnava. Repeating the mahamantra quietly, individually, on a rosary of 108 beads, is known as japa. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu prescribed a fixed number of ‘rounds’ of chanting on the rosary to be performed daily.
Festivals: There are many days throughout the year held to be special in the mind of a Vaishnava, such as the appearance and disappearance days of gurus, Janmashtami, Gaura-Purnima (Chaitanya’s appearance day), Ratha-yatra (chariot procession of Jagannath), Govardhana-puja (celebrating the lifting of a mountain by child Krishna) and Ekadasi (fasting days twice a month).
Names and dress: All Vaishnava names signify Krishna or His intimate associates. Thus when one hears the name of a Vaishnava, one knowingly or unknowingly remembers Krishna. These names are followed by the appellations dasa (masculine) or dasi (feminine), which mean ‘the servant of’. Householder male devotees wear white, while those who are leading a celibate life, either as students (brahmachari) or as sanyasis wear saffron clothing. However external appearances are secondary to that which lies within the heart. One should not imitate a bhakta by adopting outer trappings without shraddha (faith in Krishna).
The most enduring image in popular culture of 15th century bhakti saint Chaitanya Mahaprabhu is of him dancing on the streets of his native Bengal, surrounded by a motley group of followers, lost in Krishna-prem. Visually, this image conveys important aspects of Mahaprabhu’s work—his unconditional offer of access to Krishna bhakti to all irrespective of caste or creed, and his emphasis on devotional love as the supreme spiritual path. And of course, the rasa of bhakti, expressed in the uninhibited and unselfconscious singing, dancing and chanting of ‘Hare Krishna’. That Mahaprabhu had been a scholar with a formidable reputation for his understanding of nuances of philosophy, makes his realisation of a mystical, non-intellectual connection with the Divine all the more remarkable.
Mahaprabhu’s legacy of love has found expression in modern times through international bhakti movements like Iskcon, and the work of the various Gaudiya Maths that trace their guru parampara to him. Mahaprabhu’s followers are known as Vaishnava Gaudiyas, and the community includes anyone drawn to Krishna in devotion, provided they are willing to adhere to community rules such as switching to a sattvic lifestyle. The Chaitanya Gaudiya Math, headquartered at Mahaprabhu’s birthplace in Mayapur in West Bengal, is part of this now worldwide community. Its current head, Srila Bhakti Ballabh Tirtha Goswami Maharaj, is a bright-eyed 80-year-old sanyasi who talks of spirituality sans moksha, and the transcendence of true love. Excerpts from an interview he gave in Delhi, where he was leading month-long Kartik Vrata celebrations:
What is the most important aspect of the path of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu?
The philosophy of transcendental divine love that is all-embracing. All are accommodated in this path; there are no restrictions of caste or religion. It is universal, and is not restricted to India alone. Anybody can practise it, provided they accept the rules and regulations of worshipping the Supreme Lord.
What do you mean by ‘transcendental’ divine love?
Well, earlier I used to say ‘divine love’. Teaching in the West, I realised the term was open to misinterpretation as man-woman love. What we have for Supreme Lord Krishna is transcendental divine love, which then translates into actual love for all.
How can love for Krishna automatically translate into love for all?
Because we all come from the Supreme Lord Himself. We have all come out of Krishna, we are all in Krishna, we are maintained by Krishna, we should remain for Krishna. If you realise this connection, then you can have love for all. Then you cease to form barriers of class or nationality, which come into being due to separate centres of interest. This separation causes conflict. For instance, if I draw a circle with one centre, and you draw another circle with a different centre, there will be a clash where they intersect. But if there is one centre, you can draw as many circles as you want, big and small, around it, and there will be no conflict. Similarly, if our target is love for God, there will be no crossing of paths between us. Some may realise this love in a greater way, others in a smaller way, but there will be harmony.
What is the essence of bhakti?
To realise the true path of bhakti, we have to cleanse ourselves of the ego. For as long as we are bound by the ego, conflicting centres of interest are maintained, and we are unable to truly worship the Supreme Lord. To get rid of the ego, you need the company of sadhus, those who have realised their love for the Supreme Lord, Krishna. Bhakti is the cure for human afflictions, like anger and greed, for loving Krishna means loving all His parts, which include all beings. After all, if I love him (gestures to a devotee), I cannot bear to hurt any part of him. As the English saying goes, ‘love me, love my dog’. So if I love Krishna, how can I bear to hurt any part of Him? And how can I divide his creation into this or that, into Hindu, Muslim, or Christian? These divisions are manifestations of our ego, which is false. Actually we are all parts of Sri Krishna, everybody comes from the same source.
You believe in Krishna, but others may have their own ideas about God.
There is no difference between Allah and Krishna. But there is difference of taste. For instance, in the worship of Krishna, there is scope for reverential friendship with the Lord; in the case of Ram, there is vatsalya (parental love). An all-encompassing bhakti is possible only in the case of Krishna, although ontologically, Krishna and Ram are the same. When the king is in his court, he is majestic; with his wife and children he is different, and with his friends, he might be different yet again. Behaviour and dress might be different, but the person is the same. The Supreme Lord cannot be more than one; He is absolute and infinite. This (points to an object before him) is not outside the Supreme Lord. Even a particle of dust cannot be outside the Absolute.
What is the supreme goal of the bhakta according to you?
Love for Krishna. Actually, this love is always present, but it remains hidden. For instance, a magnet naturally attracts iron. But if the iron becomes coated with rust, there is no attraction. Once you remove the rust, the natural connection between the two is restored. Similarly, we accumulate all kinds of evil in our mind that block our natural affinity to Krishna. Once these defilements are removed, we run towards Krishna. There is a natural love for Krishna within us at all times.
Loving Krishna means loving all His parts, which include all beings. So if I love Krishna, how can I bear to hurt any part of Him? And how can I divide his creation into this or that into Hindu, Muslim, or Christian?
Is there some stage where the devotee becomes one with his Lord?
If you merge with the Lord, how will you experience waves of ananda (bliss)? Brahmananda (bliss of union with Absolute) is fine, but Krishna bhakti is like an ocean where one is constantly awash in waves of bliss.
Scriptures hold up moksha as the ultimate aim of human life.
The word moksha is such that it cannot describe any ultimate state. If one is released from an undesirable state, such as the cycle of birth and death, then what? There has to be some desirable state to move on to. That state is ananda, which accompanies Krishna bhakti. Forming relationships with human beings leads to suffering; but the relationship with Krishna is one of eternal joy. If you love a human child, sooner or later he will grow up and go away. But if you love Krishna as a small child, he will forever remain so for you.
What has been your own relationship with Krishna?
My relationship? I have not got any realisation. What attracted me was the persona of my guru, Sri Bhakti Dayita Madhava Goswami Maharaj, and I have tried to act as per his instructions. But I am at a lower stage. I have understanding of the highest stage, which is contact with Krishna and drowning in the ocean of ananda. I am trying to move towards that. My guru had reached that stage, and he had the power to help others experience that ananda too.
Most world religions have their own concept of God. How does your concept of Krishna compare with others’?
If you forcibly convert others, or use the name of God for political purposes, that is not true religion. Fanaticism and killing in the name of God is also not religion. Behave with all living beings with love, as you would with God. That is the only religion.
What sort of a response does the bhakta anticipate from the deity?
The shuddha bhakta, true devotee, has no desire but the service of Krishna. There are no desires for his own self, not even for darshan. Krishna is the maintainer, the protector, and the owner of my body. My physical body has come from His external potency, and the atma has come from Him too. He is the owner of all I am and have. I might forget this and commit offences, and therefore condemn myself to this prison for successive births.
Do you think an excessive emphasis on rituals has obfuscated the true spirit of bhakti?
Bhakti cannot be confused with rituals and ordinary worship. The shuddha bhakta is sincere in his devotion to Krishna, and is constantly engaged in His seva (service). This can happen in any society in the world. If you are really serving Krishna, you will be inwardly calm and serene.
The Vaishnava belief system relies greatly on the concept of avatars. Don’t you think it is time for Krishna to reappear?
Krishna is only fulfilling our desires for worldly enjoyment. When a small child demands something, the mother might refuse once or twice. But when the child begins to weep, the mother gives in unwillingly due to her great love for the child. Krishna wants all to come to him, but they want to enjoy this world. So He has created the 84,00,000 species that our scriptures talk of, to enable us to experience the world at all levels. Existing in the form of these species, we cannot be close to Krishna. So the choice is ours—whether to be close to Krishna, or to pass through the various stages of engagement with the world. Human beings have the discretionary power to make this choice.
Vedantins regard the Bhagavad Gita as pointing the way to union with the formless Absolute, while bhaktas like you see it as a bhakti scripture. Please explain.
As per individual capacity of recipients, Krishna has given teachings of the paths of karma, jnana, yoga and bhakti in the Gita. The highest and last stage is bhakti, where one takes absolute shelter in Krishna. When Arjuna declined to fight in Kurukshetra, Krishna told him to act out his designated karma in His (Krishna’s) refuge. Once Krishna, the master, has willed something, who is Arjuna to decline? All might not be competent to follow the bhakti marga, with its emphasis on pure devotion, and so other paths have been suggested. But the supreme command is for all to take shelter in Krishna.
Bhakti marga stresses ideals of love and seva. How to attain these in our daily lives?
Among all living creatures, only human beings can worship Krishna, but only as per their competence. By their deeds, knowingly or unknowingly, they serve Krishna. So if we serve others, a beneficial impact is formed on the soul, which leads to greater devotion and inclination to worship. We have to reap the fruits of our actions. The Supreme is impartial. Nobody can bribe Him. So many people go to the temple and ask the Lord for material gains. They are not there for Krishna’s grace. However, if you have sincerity of worship, your presence will be beneficial for all.
You have been teaching in the West since 1997. Do you think a uniquely Indian path like bhakti has been successfully adopted there?
Let me recount an incident. When Swami Maharaj (Iskcon founder Srila Bhaktivedanta Prabhupad) returned to India with his western disciples, he met my guru, who was his godbrother. They all sat down to chant. Gurudev saw that the western devotees had hitched their mala to their feet. He asked Swami Maharaj to instruct them to rectify this. Maharaj answered that giving too many dos and don’ts would only confuse the devotees. They had already made many changes and adopted a Vaishnava lifestyle, and Maharaj said he would wait for the right time and give them instructions gradually. Being strict would lead to confusion. We must understand that they (western devotees) have lived according to a different way of thinking. Their devotion for Krishna must be met with gentle instruction and encouragement.
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