March 21, 2004, Vol. VI, No. 6
Sannyasa in Modern Times
Q & A with Swami B. V. Tripurari
Although he included the story of Chota Haridas in his books, my guru felt no need to follow such an outdated standard himself or to impose it on any of his disciples who had taken sannyasa. He regularly talked with and at times even ate with women in the context of instructing them in the culture of Krsna consciousness.
Q. Some devotees are saying that your book Bhagavad-gita: Its Feeling and Philosophy plagiarizes Srila Sridhar Maharaja's edition of Bhagavad-gita called The Hidden Treasure of The Sweet Absolute. Do you have any comments?
A. My commentary on the Bhagavad-gita has been well received by religionists, scholars, and devotees alike; however, some devotees feel they have cause to accuse me of various types of wrongdoing in writing the book. The main accusation I hear is that I am guilty of impertinently overstepping my spiritual master simply because I wrote a commentary on the same scripture that he did. I address this concern in the preface of my book as well as in an interview that is published on my website.
In one case a devotee even went to the extreme of writing an article accusing me of inventing an entirely new philosophy in regards to the Gita because I pointed out places in the text where our acaryas have interpreted the verses in terms of Vraja bhakti. His concerns were addressed in an article that was written by one of our editors. It can be found here.
Now I hear that yet other devotees are accusing me of plagiarizing the edition of the Gita written by my siksa guru, Srila Sridhara Deva Goswami Maharaja. What I have found is that the majority of devotees making these kinds of complaints have not even read my edition of Bhagavad-gita. I think that those who say I am plagiarizing must not understand what the word means. Plagiarizing is coping what someone else has written and trying to present it as original. This I have not done anywhere in my book. It is neither plagiarism nor wrong to refer to what others have written as long as they are given proper credit.
In his edition of Bhagavad-gita, my siksa guru Srila Sridhara Maharaja did not comment on every verse. His commentary is centered mostly on verses 8 to 11 in chapter ten, which are known in Gaudiya Vaisnavism as the catuh-sloki, or four principal verses of the Gita. The devotees making this accusation must feel that I plagiarized only those sections that Srila Sridhara Maharaja commented on. Is drawing a connection to Vraja bhakti in the catuh sloki a plagiarism of Srila Sridhara Maharaja? Hardly, because Srila Sridhara Maharaja is not the first Gaudiya acarya to make such a connection. Visvanatha Cakravarti and Bhaktivinode Thakura wrote of this connection in their commentaries long before Srila Sridhara Maharaja discussed it in his Gita. Srila Prabhupada also connected Vraja bhakti to the Bhagavad-gita in many of his lectures and writings.
Did Srila Sridhara Maharaja plagiarize Visvanatha Cakravarti and Thakura Bhaktivinode when he wrote how the four seed verses of the Gita can be interpreted in terms of Vraja bhakti? Of course not. My commentary on these verses extensively quotes Pujyapada Sridhara Maharaja, and in doing so it points readers to his commentary. At the same time, my overall commentary seeks to lend further scriptural support to his comments on the catur sloki. One should actually compare the two before making such accusations.
In my book I quote not only Srila Sridhara Maharaja's edition of the Gita but Srila Prabhupada's edition as well. I also refer to other editions of the Gita, including those written by Bhaktivinode Thakura, Visvanatha Cakravarti, Baladeva Vidyabhusana, Ramanujacarya, Sridhara Swami, and Madhusudana Saraswati, an Adwaitin whose commentary is quoted numerous times in Visvanatha Cakravarti's edition of the Gita. I also include in my edition a number of statements on particular verses from Gaudiya acaryas who have not written entire commentaries on the Gita, such as Sri Jiva Goswami and Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura. In every case I give credit to the previous acarya when I quote what he has written.
By referring to all these great spiritual luminaries, I hoped to bring the devotional conclusions of the Gita to light from different angles of vision. I believe that by experiencing these acaryas varied emotions for the Gita, readers would themselves get more feeling for the text, and thus for Sri Krsna. Most devotees have already read the edition of my diksa guru, Srila
A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, a number of times. I hope that devotees will also read the edition of my siksa guru, Srila Sridhara Maharaja. By actually comparing his edition to my humble effort they will be able to answer the question of plagiarism for themselves, once and for all.
Q. I read your glorification of a prominent Iskcon sannyasi who passed away in the Dhama. You seemed to indicate that he went back to Godhead. I wouldn't have been surprised if these statements came from someone in Iskcon, but coming from a person like you, I am unable to reconcile them. It may be a social convention that one does not speak ill of the departed, but how can you make statements like that with any certainty?
A. I may have disagreements with some of my Godbrothers and Godsisters who are members of Iskcon, but that does not mean that I do not have affection for them and they for me. In regards to devotees who have passed away, I believe it is best to look optimistically at their departure and to remember all that was good in them and what they were aspiring for during and at the last stage of their life. I cannot say with any certainty whether or not any of my departed Godbrothers and Godsisters went back to Godhead in terms of their entering the nitya lila of Bhagavan Sri Krsna. However, I am certain that by dint of their devotion to Srila Prabhupada they are all on their way back to Godhead. Bhagavad-gita teaches that in devotional service there is no diminution, so wherever they are, they must be serving Krsna, and that is our ideal.
Furthermore, the scriptures say that those who serve with faith and pass away in a holy place like Vrndavana or Sri Mayapura dhama will be liberated. In terms of Gaudiya Vaisnavism, this means going back to Godhead. So, again, I think that it is not only best but backed from scripture to conjecture that the departure in the holy dhama of a Vaisnava who had served Srila Prabhupada as a sannyasi for thirty years is auspicious. If there is any error on my part, it is an error on the side of praise. It is not a sin to error on the side of praising a Vaisnava, whereas it is an offense to error on the side of criticism of a Vaisnava. Therefore, even though I have had disagreements with some of my Godbrothers and Godsisters, I still feel praise is appropriate for all devotees who are serving Srila Prabhupada here or in the hereafter.
Q. The story of Chota Haridasa speaks of how Sri Caitanya banished his devotee in order to maintain the sanctity of the sannyasa order. I do not understand how a spiritual mission can promote a story that supports misconceptions based on gender. Furthermore, there is no order of renunciate women in your religion, and they are not awarded the same, so how, may I ask, can you support this story?
A. Women renunciates are permitted in Gaudiya Vaisnavism. Many Gaudiya lineages offer a renounced status to women but don't refer to them as sannyasins. In fact, in most Gaudiya lineages neither men nor women renunciates are called sannyasins.
Chota Haridasa, a follower of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, was a renunciate who was found to be associating with an elderly woman in the context of begging rice. Sri Caitanya mahaprabhu objected to this behavior. Although Chota Haridasa's infraction was minor, if an infraction at all, Sri Caitanya made an example out of him to stress the point that a person who serves God in the capacity of a renunciate displeases God if he secretly deviates from his vow of renunciation. Such a person also runs the risk of ruining his reputation. This is the purport of the story, which is better understood if one is familiar with the culture in which the incident occurred. We are concerned with the lesson more than with the outdated culture in which it was expressed.
The story of Chota Haridasa is not meant to teach that in today's world renounced male devotees should relate with women devotees in the same way that ancient Indian culture mandated. That culture required renunciate males to adhere to a strict policy of avoiding women. Even talking with women for practical purposes was forbidden. In modern times some orders of sannyasa still try to observe such a policy, but for the most part Gaudiya Vaisnavism has made appropriate adjustments in this regard. For example, my guru was a sannyasi, yet he used to travel with a staff that included a female cook. Hardly anyone found this to be suspicious or objectionable given the present culture in which we live, whereas it would have been considered quite objectionable by almost all religious people living in India five hundred years ago.
Although he included the story of Chota Haridasa in his books, my guru felt no need to follow such an outdated standard himself or to impose it on any of his disciples who had taken sannyasa. He regularly talked with and at times even ate with women (disciples and others) in the context of instructing them in the culture of Krsna consciousness. He taught that the main duty of a sannyasi in modern times was to instruct others and cultivate one's own Krsna consciousness while observing celibacy. In general he told his disciples not to waste energy trying to follow every outdated rule and regulation.