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"Describing Transcendental Personalities"

by Jahnava devi
March 02, 2005

During the first year I was fortunate enough to take shelter of Srila Prabhupada and his Krsna Consciousness movement, I had occasion to read two uniquely different pieces of literature. One was the Lilamrta by Satsvarupa das, which was my first exposure to the detailed story of Srila Prabhupada’s life. While I’d had the benefit of hearing many stories from my husband, Rocana, the Lilamrta conveyed Srila Prabhupada’s background to me in granular detail.

The other book was a great work of Vaisnava literature, the biography of Sri Jahnava Devi and Sri Nityananda Prabhu, taken from Sri Sri Bhakti-ratnakara by Narahari Cakravarti Thakura. Never before had I read a biographical story told in such a transcendentally sweet and reverent way. While all the names of the personalities and places were completely unfamiliar to me, the mood of Narahari Thakura’s writing left a permanent and indelible mark on my consciousness. The writer’s complete devotion and adoration, his humility, and the painstaking care he took in describing these exalted personalities was so present in the story that I longed to read more.

While the details of Srila Prabhupada’s Lilamrta biography were very interesting, I found that my mind was attracted to his story in a different way than I’d experienced in reading Jahnava Ma and Sri Nityananda’s pastimes. I was more eager to ask questions about why Srila Prabhupada did certain things, what he was thinking, why he didn’t do something in a different way or at a different time or place. Having previously consumed books like “Autobiography of a Yogi”, my mind naturally wanted to fill-in the practical details of a story that was fairly understandable and familiar to me.

I would not – could not – have asked such questions about the pastimes of Nityananda Prabhu. It wasn’t simply that I was unfamiliar with the cultural milieu within which these pastimes had taken place. It was primarily because the writer’s mood had clearly established for me a sense of awe and reverence. Narahari Cakravarti conveyed a great sense of the mystery that surrounds the manifestation and pastimes of such exalted spiritual personalities. It never occurred to me to ask why Sri Nityananda hadn’t gone east instead of west… or why Srimati Jahnava hadn’t said ‘this’ instead of ‘that’. The author had firmly established the notion that an unrealized person like myself would be foolish to try and work out the reasons behind their lila activities. While I couldn’t have explained myself back then, in retrospect I understand today what motivated my reactions to this lofty literature.

As for my early reading of the Lilamrta, it wasn’t until a year or so later that I began to understand the impression it had left on me. This began to sink in when I read various critiques of the Lilamrta, which offered many examples of the unfortunate mood of mundane familiarity present throughout the book. A short time later, I gave the Lilamrta to a friend I’d been preaching to. After reading it, she came back to me with comments and questions that were clearly the result of her having come to wrong, and somewhat offensive, conclusions about the personality Srila Prabhupada.

I realized that I had fallen victim to the Lilamrta’s language and mood, and had come away with several incorrect impressions and assumptions. I was very fortunate to have a husband who was able to discuss with me and help me to get straight in my mind the differences between what I’d read in Lilamrta, and who the transcendental personality, Srila Prabhupada, actually was in comparison.

As I read the latest Blog discussion on advanced association, and the dialog about the underlying assumptions behind Rocana’s Sampradaya Acarya position, I’m reminded of my early conversations with him on this subject. Yesterday, I re-read portions of the biography of Jahnava and Nityananda Prabhus, and again appreciated the mood of these transcendental passages:

    Sri Isvari (Srimati Jahnava) Arrives in Mathura:

    “Keeping Isvari before them, everyone then left, and in the greatest ecstatic bliss they entered Vrindavan. Seeing the beautiful splendor of Vrindavan, Isvari’s condition was such that I am incapable of describing it. They decided to go first to the residence of Sri Jiva at Radha-Damodar’s temple, and Jahnava Isvari proceeded there with her entourage. The manner in which they all became completely pervaded with boundless joy while situated at that place could not be portrayed with mere words. And who could understand the activities of the Vaisnavas who were engaged in the service of the deities Sri Govinda, Gopinath and Madan-Mohan in Vrindavan?”

    Sri Jahnava Devi Goes to Sri Radha-Kunda and Meets with Sri Ragunath das Goswami:

    “When everyone assembled in Vrindavan for Isvari’s darshan, they informed her of Sri Das Goswami’s condition. Who has the shakti to speak of the internal moods that occurred when Sri Jahnava Isvari heard about him?”

    Sri Isvari Has an Amazing Vision at Sri Radha-Kunda:

    (178) Once at midday, by the bank of the Kunda, Jahnava heard the sound of a flute, and she lost all her composure. She beheld a mischievous prank that could not be seen by the others; some learned person in the future will elaborate on all these enchanting topics.

In each of these examples, Sri Narahari Cakravarti makes a point of stating that Jahnava Ma’s pastimes are indescribable and shrouded in mystery to all but the most advanced. He suggests that one more learned than he will write the truth of these encounters someday in the future.

Following is an interesting excerpt from the biography of Sri Nityananda's pastimes:

    Sri Nityananda Decides to Leave Home:

    Nityananda Prabhu’s mind was perfectly calm and unagitated; taking leave of his father and mother, he left home and traveled with the sannyasi. In this way, he was able to extricate himself from his home life. This is a most astonishing pastime – who is the intelligent person that could possibly understand all these activities of his?

The above passage stands in painful contrast to the following quotes from Lilamrta, which describe Srila Prabhupada’s departure from family life:

    "Srila Prabhupada's obligation to his wife and children and his attempts to develop a business career in a pharmaceutical industry may appear inconsistent with a single-minded determination to spread Krsna consciousness, yet his earnestness in pursuing these responsibilities, and the way Providence finally extricated him from them, proved important in his essential lifetime of preparation."
    Lilamrta I, p. xviii

The Lilamrta claims that Srila Prabhupada was so attached to family life, that he had to become artificially settled in detachment:
    "His spiritual emotions were so turbulent that he wasn't thinking of going to Jhansi. He wanted to take a train to...ANYWHERE."
    Lilamrta I, p. 163

And more painfully still, the following:
    "Of course, there could be a compatible balance between family service and devotional service. Bhaktivinode Thakura had described two simultaneous obligations: bodily and spiritual. Social status, mental development, cleanliness, nourishment, and the struggle for existence were all bodily obligations; the activities of devotional service to Krsna were spiritual. And the two should run parallel to one another. In Bhaktivinode's life, his family was a source of spiritual encouragement, and he used his social position to advance in preaching. But Abhaya's experience had been different; the two paths seemed to be at war, each threatening the other's existence. He felt himself operating somewhat like the materialists he had criticized in his writings, absorbed in the struggle for existence with insufficient time for self-realization."
    Ibid., p. 120

The above quotes are good illustrations of the differences in writing style that distinguish a bona fide work of Vaisnava biographical literature from a mundane work. When considering the import of these differences in style and mood, we should remember the old adage: you never have a second chance to make a first impression. The trouble with impressions is that they’re not inherently true. They’re just personal, interpretive ‘fact’. What a neophyte is likely to extrapolate from the kinds of descriptions given in the Lilamrta may be anything but the truth about Srila Prabhupada.

Highly advanced personalities like Krsna das Kaviraj, Sri Narahari Cakravarti and so many other illustrious Vaisnava writers carefully cultivate a sense of mystery, or a recognition of the unknown, in passages like those quoted above. Presumably this literary device is used in part to discourage readers from sliding down into interpretative truth. Many examples of this style of writing are found in Caitanya-caritamrta, throughout descriptions of Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s pastimes. While we know that Srila Prabhupada is not God, how can we question the correctness of maintaining the same reverent mood when discussing the pastimes of the Lord’s pure devotees?

Today, devotees often write assertively factual statements describing Srila Prabhupada’s moods, thoughts, intentions and actions. I assume that many of these authors realize their own level of advancement compared to advanced individuals like Narahari Thakura, and they sincerely believe that somehow or other, Srila Prabhupada’s potency will shine through and the reader will get the truth of it even if their writing is tinged with a conditioned, mundane mood. We can have no doubt of Srila Prabhupada’s potency in this regard. Unfortunately, neophyte devotees like myself who read these statements may get only the surface of the story – the mundane veneer presented by the writer. We are then left with the burden of slowly peeling off the veneer to get to the truth below. We would be so much more fortunate to have the benefit of a bona fide version of Srila Prabhupada’s pastimes. We should all pray for the appearance of one like Narahari Thakura, who will be up to the task. May it happen in our lifetime.

your servant,


Replies: 1 Comment

"Everything that Srila Prabhupada did was mysterious. No one could understand the mind of Srila Prabhupada. Although near the end of life, He suddenly left the trancendental place of the Lord's pastimes on Earth, Vrindavan dhama, and, travelling to many communities around the world, gathered thousands of devotees into Mahaprabhu's ecstatic Sankirtan movement.

Posted by ras @ 03/23/2005 08:05 AM PST