The Hindus who visit our Krishna temples perceive ISKCON as an orthodox movement, appreciating the traditional temple service and how beautifully the altars are maintained. Many of our western friends might appreciate the Krishna movement differently: as a modern and relevant movement that advocates vegetarianism, honors the Earth, and offers meditation through joyous singing and dancing.
One might say Vaisnavism is the most stable and orthodox of all the Vedic traditions. Everyone knows how at the dawn of creation, a lotus flower grew from Lord Vishnu’s navel, and upon opening gave birth to the four-headed Lord Brahma, Brahma was the first Jiva and the empowered creator of our universe. From his mouths emanated the Vedas, the ancient teachings. This spiritual linage came to be known as the Brahma Madhva Vaisnava Sampradaya.
Vaisnavism means to worship the Supreme Lord Sri Krishna (Vishnu) exclusively, and not just worship Him as another deity in the pantheon of Vedic demigods, the controllers of universal affairs. In the Bhagavad Gita, 4th Chapter, Sri Krishna explains how time and again He appears in different ages to reestablish the understanding of the atma (the soul) and the paramatma (the Lord Within the Heart), along with the abiding principles of Dharma.
This tradition was continued throughout the three ages: the Satya, Treta, and Dvapara Yugas. But in this present age, the Kali-yuga, the Vaisnava teachers, gradually revealed a more intimate mood of devotion to God. In the Kali-yuga the Vaisnava tradition becomes more accessible than at any time in the other yugas, even more than the time Lord Krishna Himself appeared on the planet to speak the Bhagavad Gita over 5000 years ago, at the end of the Dvapara-yuga. Then, Krishna again, as Caitanya Mahaprabhu, appeared 500 years ago to radicalize the Vaisnava Movement by presenting sankirtana, the chanting of the Holy Names in the mood of bhakti (devotion to the Lord). This is the process of liberation, the Yuga Dharma, in this age of Kali. Thus, the conditioned souls break the cycle of birth and death and enter into the divine mellows of the Supreme Lord Sri Krishna in His eternal abode.
Caitanya is a transcendental revolutionary Who has no interest in limiting the process of liberation simply to an exclusive few. In this age of Kali everything is contaminated: the water we drink, the air we breathe, as well as our minds and thinking process. No one is qualified to enter the spiritual mellows. But Krsnadas Kaviraja in his history on the life of Caitanya (Caitanya Caritamrita Adi 7:23) declares:
“In distributing love of Godhead, Caitanya Mahāprabhu and His associates did not consider who was a fit candidate and who was `not, nor where such distribution should or should not take place. They made no conditions. Wherever they got the opportunity, the members of the Pañca-tattva distributed love of Godhead.” The author continues in Adi 7:25, “The flood of love of Godhead swelled in all directions, and thus young men, old men, women, and children were all immersed in that inundation.”
At the time, Caitanya’s Movement was dismissed as heretical. He brought people from different castes and different traditions together to chant the Holy Names: Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare/ Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare. The caste brahmanas were furious and complained to the local Muslim magistrate. Caitanya, they explained, was making the sacred names of God available to the unqualified masses and that He was simply a madman usurping a sacred tradition for His own ends.
After He began His Sankirtana Movement, Caitanya contradicted His own God-center philosophy. Interestingly enough, He accepted initiation into the Sankaracarya sannyasa order, the main linage of the impersonalists and mayavadis (begun circa 9th century). Caitanya’s reasoning for this act was to gain the respect of this popular linage, as well as of the public in general.
Caitanya also introduced the philosophy of acintya bheda bheda tattva – that we are all inconceivably one with God and at the same time unique individuals meant to develop a loving relationship (bhakti yoga) with the Lord. He linked together the philosophies of the Vaisnavas and that of the impersonalists. He also proclaimed the Muslim-born Haridas Thakor as the Nama Acarya, the Master of the Holy Name. While these were actually in harmony with the Vaisnava teachings, these inclusions of Caitanya were at the same time a seemingly radical departure from the overall Vedic tradition. And also, Caitanya predicted that the chanting of Hare Krishna would eventually spread all over the world, to every town and village.
Now, this linage expanded into the Brahma Madhva Gaudiya Vaisnava Sampradaya. Gaudiya meaning Caitanya and the Bengali Vaisnavas He inspired. And even more, Lord Caitanya affirmed the Brahma Gaudiya connection when He discovered the surviving fifth chapter of the Brahma Samhita in an ancient temple in South Indian.
Over 150 years later, amid challenges against the Gaudiya Vaisnava sect, Baladeva Vidyabhushana represented the Gaudiya Vaisnavas at a conference in Jaipur to establish that theirs was indeed a bona fide movement. But by the mid 19th century, however, this outsider movement of Gaudiya Vaisnavas had practically fallen into obscurity. The British colonialists in India were busy undermining the Vedic tradition. The Bhagavat Purana, one of the most important Sanskrit literatures of the Vaisnavas, was denigrated by the British as childish mythology and fables.
But Bhaktivinode Thakur, a British educated Indian and a court magistrate of their government rose up to defend Vaisnavism by writing numerous books, poems, and songs to reestablish and advance the path of bhakti. In the early 20th century, his son Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati spoke out against the perverted Hindu caste system, and this act warranted a threat to his life. Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati was probably the first holy man to ride in a car, and at times was also seen wearing a British overcoat gifted to him. These were certainly radical enough that other saintly persons wouldn’t even think of such things, and especially at that time when Gandhi urged his own followers to burn their British made clothing. Indeed, Caitanya’s Vaisnava Movement was quite un-orthodox.
Bhakisiddhanta Saraswati asked one of his disciples to bring Caitanya’s movement to the West, and present the message of Bhagavad Gita and the Vaisnava teachings in the English speaking world. That person was A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Swami Prabhupada arrived in American in 1965 in his seventieth year, practically penniless, having begged a ride on a freighter. He founded ISKCON on a shoestring. He also did something no one else did before him; even though his students were born outside of India in the countries of meat eaters, and outside the Hindu system, still, he initiated them as brahmanas; and not only the men but women as well. Some Hindus were outraged, and yet many were amazed and delighted with what Swami Prabhupada had accomplished.
In 1973 Prabhupada defiantly addressed his critics in one passage in his books:
“Sometimes jealous persons criticize the Krsna Consciousness movement because it engages equally both boys and girls in distributing love of Godhead. Not knowing that boys and girls in countries like Europe and America mix very freely, these fools and rascals criticize the boys and girls in Kṛṣṇa Consciousness for intermingling. . . . . . . However, since both the boys and the girls are being trained to become preachers, those girls are not ordinary girls but are as good as their brothers who are preaching Kṛṣṇa Consciousness. Therefore, to engage both boys and girls in fully transcendental activities is a policy intended to spread the Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement. . . . . . . . Therefore, what we are doing is perfect by the grace of Lord Caitanya Mahāprabhu, for it is He who proposed to invent a way to capture those who strayed from Kṛṣṇa consciousness.” Caitanya Caritamrita, Adi 7 – 31 & 32, Purport
Today, his disciples and grand-disciples are active in Prabhupada’s mission and distribute the many books he translated and published. Prabhupada’s story is a rags to riches success story that we so much love in America. But Prabhupada’s success was not for himself, but was his humble offering to his guru and to the Supreme Lord Sri Krishna. Prabhupada spent the last ten years traveling around the world fourteen times, fulfilling the 500 year old prophecy of Caitanya Mahaprabhu.
Today, Hindus worship regularly at the ISKCON temples, and interested westerners visit and engage in the movement as well. The Vaisnava tradition, it seems, can be a contradiction in terms: an orthodox movement, or a movement with modern-day sensibilities? Or, could it be both?
Sankirtana Das , a disciple of Swami Prabhupada, is a longtime resident of New Vrindaban Community and an award-winning author and storyteller. His most recent book, Hanuman’s Quest, is acclaimed by scholars and has received a Storytelling World Resource Honors. For more info about his work visit www.Mahabharata-Project.com
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