Celebrating Vaishnava Unity in Diversity

by Sripad B.V. Bhagavat Goswami

August 2009

During a recent world tour from Florida, Texas, California, Hong Kong, Malaysia and India to Italy, England and France, I have been able to participate in festivals, kirtans and classes with various Gaudiya Vaishnava associations, including ISKCON.

In Malaysia disciples of Srila B.V. Narayan Maharaj in Johur Baru carried Deities of Lord Jagannatha, Lord Baladeva and Lady Subhadra on a cart for the Sobha Yatra festival. Devotees from the nearby ISKCON center brought a full-size Srila Prabhupada murti on another cart, together with a portrait of Srila Narayan Maharaja. We went all around the neighborhood with the colorful and exciting carts, accompanied by a Chinese Dragon team (it was close to the day of the Chinese New Year). Malaysians of all cultures came out and greeted us, gave gifts, performed aratik, and in general had a wonderful time in spite of the rain. Both Vaishnava parties were completely happy, and we celebrated our unity in diversity as two branches of the same Gaudiya Vaishnava family.

In the ashram he founded in Sridham Mayapura I glorified my dear godbrother Srila Gaura Govinda Maharaja on his disappearance day. I sang Guru-puja and talked for an hour on the pastimes and glories of the great saint that I had been so fortunately allowed to intimately associate with for three years.

In Vrndavana I sang Guru-puja for Srila Prabhupada and glorified the purports of his Bhagavad-gita As It Is that evening in class. At Bhaktivedanta Manor my friend Ananta-shakti prabhu arranged a plate of Mahaprasad from the noon aratik, and I reconnected with old friends like Krpamoya and Tattvavit prabhus. In Soho Street I had a nice Lunch at the Govinda's Restaurant, where they asked me to lead the noon aratik.

In Rome I stayed at Srila Bhakti Vaibhava Puri Maharaja's temple with his disciples. Srila Prabhupada had told me and Gaura Govinda Maharaja in 1977 to preach together with his godbrother Srila Puri Maharaja, and we did. I went to Berhampur and did programs with him, and he came to Bhubaneshwara and did programs with us. He was a great friend of Srila Prabhupada's, and I felt honored to stay with his disciples. I was asked to lead the morning mangal aratik and Guru- puja and to give class. They added a picture of Srila Narayana Maharaja beside Srila Prabhupada's murti and Srila Bhakti Vaibhava Puri Maharaja's picture. This temple sang different songs then we sing in either Narayana Maharaja's sanga or in ISKCON for Mangal Aratik, so I sang their songs. After I sang Sri Guru Carana-padma, I sang the pranam-mantras and glories of Srila Prabhupada, of Srila Bhakti Vaibhava Puri Maharaja and of Srila Narayana Maharaja.

In Hong Kong an independently wealthy lady sponsored a Rathayatra parade and festival in a theater on Rathayatra day. At the request of Chandrashekhar prabhu, the ISKCON GBC for Hong Kong, ISKCON's Narasimha Maharaja and I took turns leading kirtan, after which we shared lunch (prepared by one of Narayan Maharaja's disciples) and caught up on old times from London and Calcutta. After other devotees had spoken, Chandrashekhar das spoke clearly and simply for the entire audience about the pastimes of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu and on the inner meanings of the Rathayatra pastimes. Nanda prabhu, the temple president of Narayan Maharaja's local sanga, spoke in Chinese and then gave the microphone to me. I spoke about how Srila Prabhupada was responsible for spreading the glories of Rathayatra all over the world and glorified Sriman Jayananda prabhu who had assisted him in this pastime. Then I led the concluding kirtan, which everyone joined in.

Presently I am at the ISKCON Juhu Beach temple, where my old godbrother Bhima prabhu is zonal secretary. This place is especially dear to me because most of my association with Srila Prabhupada was in this temple as it was being developed. I have been giving classes, leading kirtans and having a wonderful time. The devotees all have an enthusiastic service attitude that is refreshing and enlivening.

Wherever I go to I honor the particular way in which the founder- acharya of that branch of our Gaudiya Vaishnava sampradaya has established worship. I do not impose anything from another branch of the sampradaya. Each branch has its own flavor; I honor that flavor and savor it. After all, variety is the spice of life. To me this is the beauty of our sampradaya; it has so many variations on a theme; and we can celebrate the unity of our Gaudiya Vaishnava family while honoring the diversity it manifests. The Caitanya-Caritamrta explains that the devotees from Bengal were different from those in Orissa and that both were glorified and glorious.

When I was at Srila Bhakti Vaibhava Puri Maharaja's temple his disciples asked me what they should do now that their Guru Maharaja had departed. I said you can take siksha from any sadhu, but you should continue in the mood of your Guru Maharaja and take shelter of his successors. A devotee from an ISKCON temple said he could not decide, among many devotees, whom to take initiation from. He asked me whether to look outside ISKCON for initiation. I told him there were many qualified persons in ISKCON who can give Hari-nama and diksha. I named a few and told him to take diksha from one of them; he could also take siksha from any other sadhu he was attracted to. Siksha is as powerful as diksha and is very valuable for our spiritual life's advancement. Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur took diksha from Bipin Bihari Goswami but accepted siksha from Jagannatha das Babaji, whom he revered equally to his diksha guru.

I believe Srila Prabhupada, Srila Narayan Maharaja and all their predecessor acharyas share this sentiment of celebrating the unity in diversity of Gaudiya Vaishnavism. Unfortunately, not all of their followers do, and there is friction when there need be none. This is not the first time there have been groups of Gaudiya Vaishnavas separated from each other over misunderstandings and a failure to celebrate unity in diversity. During the time of Srila Narottam Das Thakura several branches disputed the real siddhanta and legacy of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu. Some even argued about who constituted the Pancha Tattva.

Srila Narottam das Thakura wanted to resolve the disagreements so that Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu's mission could be spread unrestrictedly and unlimitedly. He called a meeting of all the Vaishnavas in Kheturi to discuss everything and do kirtan together.

At the commencement of the festival Narottam das Thakura led a beautiful and ecstatic Hari-nama Sankirtana. Although the members of the Pancha Tattava had already departed this world, They began to manifest Themselves in front of all the Vaishnavas by dancing and chanting in ecstasy. You can imagine what Jahnavi Mata and Birbhadra, the wife and son of Lord Nityananda, felt like when they saw Him, when Acyutananda saw his father Advaita Acarya and when others saw their siksha- and diksha-gurus in the different members of the Pancha Tattva.

The festival was a complete success, uniting all the Gaudiya Vaishnavas in purpose and siddhanta and establishing the Caitanya-Caritamrta as the authorized biography of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu. Unfortunately, things gradually dissolved, and it fell to Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur to resurrect and re-establish a unified Gaudiya Vaishnava siddhanta.

Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur had firm faith that the prediction of Lord Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu would come to fruition: “My name will be preached in all the countries and towns throughout the world.” To accomplish this he engaged himself tirelessly praying, writing, preaching and organizing Hari-nama sankirtan and other preaching activities.

One of his most important achievements was finding the original holy birthplace of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu. Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur made this a rallying point for the Gaudiya Vaishnavas of his day and for future sankirtan missions from all over the world. Remembering that Narottam das Thakur had organized the Kheturi festival to unify Gaudiya Vaishnavas, Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur brought together all the followers of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu at the Lord's birthplace on Gaura Purnima, March 21, 1895, installing Deities of Lord Sri Caitanya and His consort Srimati Vishnupriya with a ceremony and festival at the newly constructed temple. Thousands of devotees were at this festival from various Gaudiya Vaisnava groups, and many remarked that such a gathering had not taken place in the 450 years since Narottam das Thakur's famous Kheturi festival. Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur had brought them all together to remind them that their real purpose was to cooperatively preach Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu's mission and spread the sankirtan movement worldwide.

The next year, 1896, Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur began planting the seeds of preaching in the western world by responding to the entreaties of the famous poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, who had lamented that he could not read the Thakur's Sri Krishna Samhita in Sanskrit. Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur sent him his newly completed Sri Gauranga-lila-smarana-stotram. This book contained 104 Sanskrit verses but was prefaced by an introduction in English called “Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu: His Life and Precepts.” This introduction summarized the Sanskrit verses, explaining in concise, nectarean terms the life and teachings of the Lord as found in Sri Caitanya-Bhagavata and Sri Caitanya-Caritamrta. It was sent to universities and intellectuals in different parts of the world, including McGill University in Montreal, Canada, with the conviction that this English introduction was something that Westerners could read and benefit from.

Having begun the preaching of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu's mission in the western world, Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur continued praying for the day when this preaching would develop into a worldwide movement that would embrace and liberate everyone in the world. These prayers of Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur were predictions in which he had boldly unfolded his vision of the future in a Sajjana-Tosani article more than ten years earlier, in 1885:

“Lord Caitanya did not advent Himself to liberate only a few men of India. Rather, His main objective was to emancipate all living entities of all countries throughout the entire universe and preach the Eternal Religion. Lord Caitanya says in the Caitanya-Bhagavata: ‘In every town, country and village, My name will be sung.’ There is no doubt that this unquestionable order will come to pass.... Very soon the unparalleled path of Harinama- sankirtan will be propagated all over the world. Already we are seeing the symptoms....” (He goes on to describe the Salvation Army band marching through the streets of the western world as the first strains of sankirtan in the west.)

The article continues: “Oh for that day when the fortunate English, French, Russian, German and American people will take up banners, mrdangas and kartalas and raise kirtana through their streets and towns. When will that day come? Oh for the day when the fair-skinned men from their side will raise up the chanting of jaya sacinandana, jaya sacinandana, kijaya and join with the Bengali devotees. When will that day be?”

Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur continued with his prediction: “On such a day they will say, ‘Our dear brothers, we have taken shelter of the ocean of Lord Caitanya's love; kindly embrace us’.” Some will say that this has already happened, but if you read the rest of the prediction you will see that it may have happened on the surface but has not taken place deep within our hearts and souls.

He continues: “That day will witness the holy transcendental ecstasy of the Vaisnava dharma to be the only dharma, and all sects and religions will flow like rivers into the ocean of Vaisnava dharma. Oh when will that day come?” Elsewhere he repeats the same prediction a little differently: “Oh when will that day come, when pure and transcendental Vaisnava prema will be the only religion of all souls and all tiny, sectarian religions will meet in the unlimited and universal religion of Vaishnavism, as rivers merge into the great ocean? O when will that day come?”

Another prediction by Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur on the future unity of the world's religions is given in Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu: His Life and Precepts, pages 68-69, as follows: “The dharma preached by Caitanya Mahaprabhu is universal and not exclusive.... The principle of kirtan as the future church of the world invites all classes of men, without distinction of caste or clan, to the highest cultivation of the spirit. This church, it appears, will spread worldwide and replace all sectarian churches, which exclude outsiders from the precincts of the mosque, church, or temple.”

Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur once wrote an article which announces with absolute conviction the unquestioned manifestation of the final prophecy just mentioned, while admonishing those who would not participate in its fulfilment:

“Thakur Bhaktivinoda has predicted the consummation of religious unity of the world by the appearance of the only universal church which bears the eternal designation of the Brahma Sampradaya. He has given mankind the blessed assurance that all Theistic churches will shortly merge in the one eternal spiritual community by the grace of the Supreme Lord Shree Krishna Chaitanya. The spiritual community is not circumscribed by the conditions of time and space, race and nationality.

“Mankind had been looking forward to this far-off Divine Event through the long ages. Thakur Bhaktivinoda has made the conception available in its practicable spiritual form to the open-minded empiricist who is prepared to undergo the process of enlightenment. The keystone of the arch has been laid, which will afford the needed shelter to all awakened animation under its ample, encircling arms. Those who would thoughtlessly allow their hollow pride of race, pseudo-knowledge or pseudo-virtue to stand in the way of this long- hoped-for consummation, would have to thank only themselves for not being incorporated in the spiritual society of all pure souls.”

On the last day of his manifest pastimes on this planet Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur said, among other things: “The stream which flows from Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur will never be dammed up. Remember this, and vow to double your efforts to fulfill Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur's desires.”

When Srila Prabhupada was asked about Bhaktivinoda Thakur's statement that he had not finished his work, Srila Prabhupada replied: “Then let us finish it. He is Vaishnava; he is all-powerful. He could have done it, but he left it for us to finish, so we should finish it.”

Unfortunately, many devotees from different sangas do not share this vision of unity in diversity. They insist that their particular guru or institution is the only authorized avenue for spiritual advancement. Due to hollow pride, insecurities and weaknesses in their practice of bhakti they feel good about themselves when they criticize others who lack the association of their particular gurudeva or institution.

This attitude does not finish the work of Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur; it obstructs it. We disciples of His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada have a responsibility to fulfill the order of our spiritual master and finish the work that Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur started: to bring about the fulfilment of the prophecy that all Gaudiya Vaishnavas will embrace in Vaishnava Prema, creating a Vaishnava Dharma that is so attractive that all other religions will flow into it like rivers into the ocean. Failure to do so will place us among those who would thoughtlessly let hollow pride obstruct the consummation of society for all pure souls, and hence we will forfeit a place in it.

Some may say that we need another Srila Narottam das Thakura or Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur to make this manifest. However, I feel that we already have the order from Srila Prabhupada: if we work together to fulfil the order, it will happen. We disciples of Srila Prabhupada have been empowered by him to make this manifest by his order. Just like everything else he accomplished, he did so by empowering his disciples. Srila Prabhupada himself was empowered to fulfil the order of his Guru Maharaja long after his Guru Maharaja departed form this manifest plane. Now it is up to us to build a consensus amongst all Gaudiya Vaishnavas to fulfil this prophecy.

Once Srila Prabhupada wrote a letter saying that Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu predicted: “In every town and village My name will be heard” “Now,” Srila Prabhupada said, “I have started this worldwide mission, and some of you are helping me, so you will also get some credit. However, even if all of you were to leave me tomorrow, still it would happen; only someone else would get the credit.”

Based on Tattva-siddhanta I am certain that Srila Bhaktivinoda's predictions must be fulfilled. However, who will get the credit? Srila Prabhupada has made the arrangements. He has placed his disciples everywhere. They are serving in or connected to just about every Gaudiya Sanga. Srila Prabhupada's books are influencing everyone. The present Acharyas of two different Gaudiya Mathas started with and still regularly study Srila Prabhupada's books. Acharyas and Vaishnavas in all the other Gaudiya Mathas read Srila Prabhupada's books. He has given us the order and has spread his influence everywhere; we need only take up the order with the same conviction, determination, patience, humility and love that he himself displayed in fulfilling the order of his Guru Maharaja.

Can we become humble enough to celebrate the unity in diversity of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, see all the sangas as different limbs of Lord Caitanya's body, embrace each other in Vaishnava Prema and, by doing so, create a Vaishnava dharma so attractive that all will enter into it? Will we go down in history as the generation that passed up the golden opportunity to fulfil this order of Srila Prabhupada and these prophecies of Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur, or will future generations mark this time as the beginning of a new era in Gaudiya Vaishnava history inspired by the tireless, humble, patient and loving efforts of the disciples of Srila A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada? Will future generations remember us as the ones who kept everyone apart or as those who built the consensus that brought everyone together?

I ask all who are Srila Prabhupada's disciples and followers: how do you want to be remembered in the annals of Gaudiya Vaishnavism? This prophecy will be fulfilled. Will we as Srila Prabhupada's disciples let the opportunity pass to another generation, or will we follow in his footsteps and fulfil the order?

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