Book Review: O My Friend! O My Friend!

January 24th, 2010

When I first saw Babhru Dasa's O My Friend! O My Friend!, I was impressed with his overall scholarship and accommodating mood. Considering the sensitive nature of this matter, I appreciated the effort he made to respectfully acknowledge those points of view different from his own.

Yet after a more careful reading, I found myself having a more mixed reaction to his presentation. Although he did make a sincere attempt to be inclusive, I found arguments that I felt should have been tempered. For example, how could Babhru Prabhu – or anyone – argue that interest in the core sentiment of Gaudiya Vaisnavism – following in the footsteps of the gopis in madhurya-rasa – comes from outside Srila Prabhupada's line, and then strongly imply, in contrast, that only those who aspire for sakhya-bhava have gleaned their mood directly from Srila Prabhupada? I know of substantial, dedicated Vaisnavas who sincerely aspire to follow the internal mood of Sri Rupa solely as a result of their service to Srila Prabhupada. How can any of us speak for everyone?

Still, upon reading Babhru Prabhu's paper thoroughly, I realized that he has a strong case. At the very least, the ideological basis of his paper seems indisputable: he has successfully refuted the contention that the only internal mood Srila Prabhupada could have been in is madhurya-rasa.

However, I found myself not quite convinced of the conclusion he draws. I would like to discuss some of my concerns here and question the standards one should use to judge arguments on such topics. Especially, I would like to ask what the benefits of these discussions are and where they should be held.

First, some of the weaker arguments, which don't seem to serve the cause of Babhru Prabhu's otherwise good presentation:

The contention that Srila Prabhupada's aggressive mood in preaching is a sign of sakhya-rasa is a non-starter. Aggressiveness is not a sign of sakhya-rasa any more than it is a sign of madhurya-rasa. All of Srila Prabhupada's predecessors are members of the assembly of Lalita-sakhi, and their spiritual disposition in madhurya is known as “harsh”1. If, as Babhru Prabhu writes, “An acarya's inner life motivates his outreach,” and thus exceptionally forceful preaching indicates that one is in sakhya-rasa, then how to reconcile Srila Bhakisiddhanta's inner life in madhurya-rasa with his preaching style? His mode of outreach was so spirited and forceful that he was well known as the nrsimha-guru, a lion in his presentation.

As “disciple” generally means one who takes the mood of his guru, if anything, Srila Prabhupada's exceptionally strong mood in preaching simply reflects the temperament of his guru. If we insist that an acarya's outreach reflects his inner life, then as Srila Prabhupada shares the same mode of outreach as his teacher, it seems likely that he shares the same internal mood of devotion as well.

Another argument in the book focuses on Srila Prabhupada's family connection. Babhru Prabhu describes how Srila Sridhara Maharaja asked the devotees to consider Srila Prabhupada's family connection to Uddharana Thakura, one of the twelve gopas in gaura-lila, as an argument in support of sakhya-rasa. I didn't, however, see the merit of extending Maharaja's argument, especially when other significant family connections were ignored: Srila Prabhupada's father's ardent desire that his son become a servant of Srimati Radharani, and Srila Prabhupada's ancestral worship of Sri Sri Radha-Govinda, a deity he personally brought to Mayapur to serve (Mayapur is the dhama he considered his place of worship).

If we argue for Srila Prabhupada's inner mood on the basis of family connection, the evidence would seem stronger that he was inwardly the servant of Sri Radha, since at a young age he was lured, perhaps by that sentiment, to perform the Jagannatha Ratha-yatra. Ratha-yatra not only exemplifies the mood of Srimati Radharani but is a pastime Sri Caitanya specifically dwelled on to imbibe that mood.

In my personal opinion, neither an appeal to Srila Prabhupada's preaching mood nor to his family lineage is a persuasive argument in support of deciphering his inner life as particularly one of sakhya-bhava.

I also found difficult the excessive and assailable claims made when analyzing some of the personal testimonies that mentioned Srila Prabhupada's inner life (including his own testimony), such as “There is no logical reason for his concluding word ‘sakhya’ other than his personal preoccupation . . . ” (p. 27) or “It is virtually impossible to construe Prabhupada's responses and statements above in any other way than as an affirmation for his affinity for sakhya-rasa.” (p. 28) Even Srila Sridhara Maharaja graciously offers a possible way to read these statements otherwise: “That Srila Prabhupada may have held an affinity within [for madhurya-rasa], and owing to his empowerment by Lord Nityananda Prabhu, he showed an affinity for sakhya-rasa.” (p. 34)

If one accepts the tattva that the guru can exhibit a variety of moods for the instruction and inspiration of disciples whose own mood may be different from their guru's proclivity, as Srila Sridhara Maharaja indicates and as was noted in Babhru Prabhu's use of the Jaiva Dharma reference, then stringing together indications of Srila Prabhupada's inner mood is not conclusive in itself, especially since some of the examples given are ambiguous. For instance, Subala's recollection of Srila Prabhupada saying “I am a cowherd boy” is given as Srila Prabhupada's personal testimony that he is in sakhya-rasa. A careful reading of Subala's remembrance, however, reveals that Srila Prabhupada is not speaking about himself but making a third-person comment on how one would feel when one's relationship with Krsna is finally revealed within the heart. Subala's recollection:

Prabhupada said, “This is not done in our line. One must realize his relationship for himself. One cannot just jump ahead. When one is ripe and ready, it will be revealed from within … ‘I am a cowherd boy.’”

And certainly it would be very out of character for Srila Prabhupada to use his own spiritual experience as an example for public understanding.

Aside from commenting on Srila Prabhupada's bhava, Srila Sridhara Maharaja writes in reference to the premature attempt to understand one's eternal identity that “we should go to that plane and then deal with these things.” Of course, he is referring to the attempt by devotees to understand their own spiritual identities, but his caution can also apply to young disciples trying to understand or analyze the inner life of their spiritual master. We should be careful in how we gauge these recollections and analyses.

In light of this, I thought too much was made of Srila Prabhupada's silence when his disciples made playful or simple allusions to his relationship with Krsna, or even his response to the more serious opinions of his godbrothers. Why should he correct the innocent expression of a disciple's love, which may have reflected a budding depth in realization, even if that realization wasn't based on fact? And what necessity was there for him to object to his godbrothers' speculations that he was a nitya-siddha sakha? This is certainly different from his definitive responses when four of his sannyasi disciples were propagating that he was God, or when his young disciples established a club to discuss intimate topics about the gopis.

I wonder whether Srila Prabhupada would have been equally tolerant if his disciples had begun to see him as a gopi, as the madhurya conception has been historically misunderstood and exploited when discussed prematurely. Sakhya-rasa is obviously a more innocuous topic for conditioned souls.

In philosophical analysis there are main arguments and supporting ones. Supporting arguments are not meant to be the foundation of one's case. If they are weighty, however, they do lend strength to the main arguments and reinforce the conclusion. Babhru Prabhu has certainly provided a reasonable collection of supporting arguments. But the overall strength of his case must still depend on the power of his core arguments. From what I can see, there are two substantial arguments given in O My Friend! to prove that Srila Prabhupada was a cowherd boy: Srila Prabhupada's own statements, specifically the ninth stanza of his poem on the Jaladuta describing his aspiration to frolic in the forests of Vrindavana, and the opinion of such pure and learned Vaisnavas as Srila Sridhara Swami. Both arguments are strong.

The general tenor of the poem, especially its ninth stanza, does sound like an expression of the desire to be a cowherd boy. I am not sure, however, that the poem cannot be interpreted according to other meanings and moods. For example, the first stanza of that same poem says:

krsna taba punya habe bhai
e-punya koribe jabe radharani khusi
habe dhruva ati boli toma tai

“I emphatically say to you, O brothers: You will obtain your good fortune from the Supreme Lord Krsna only when Srimati Radharani becomes pleased with you.”

This certainly doesn't sound like sakhya-rasa. This stanza is especially significant in determining the sentiment of the poem as the above verse is repeated as the refrain and thus emphasized as the heart of what the author wants to say. Babhru Prabhu has translated the refrain differently. The scholars I consulted have confirmed that his translation (which follows) is more accurate than the standard one that has been used by the BBT, and presumably the one used during Srila Prabhupada's time. His translation states: “O Brother Krsna, you will attain all auspiciousness when Radharani is pleased.”

Although more accurate, still the verse remains puzzling. Why is Srila Prabhupada telling Krsna to seek Radha's blessings and placing Her in such a prominent position? Is that the mood of a cowherd boy, even a priyanarma-sakha? If we wish to see through this verse Srila Prabhupada's internal mood, the mood being expressed seems much more suited to the select group of gopis who favor Srimati Radharani over Krsna. It's worth noting that this mood is the special internal mood of Srila Prabhupada's spiritual lineage. The epithet “Brother” is an appropriate address for Krsna both for the cowherd boys and the gopis.

Babhru Prabhu's paper tries to reconcile Srila Prabhupada's many direct statements about his special affinity for Sri Radha by describing Srila Prabhupada's inner disposition as a priyanarma-sakha; that is, he is in the mood of Sri Krsna's most intimate friends – those who restrain their masculine natures and adopt the mood of sakhis as they try to unite the Divine Couple. I presume that even if the refrain could be irrefutably established as an expression of madhurya-rasa, Babhru Prabhu would reconcile the refrain with the rest of the poem by using this priyanarma-sakha idea. It is certainly an interesting concept and a feasible reconciliation of the variant expressions of Srila Prabhupada's inner devotion found throughout Srila Prabhupada's writings and conversations2. But there are other ways to explain the apparent dichotomies. I personally feel a more sound settlement would be to acknowledge that guru-tattva was working through Srila Prabhupada in his broad mission to accommodate and fully encourage souls of varying inner moods who came to the lotus feet of Sri Caitanya.

It is very difficult to argue with the opinion of Srila Sridhara Maharaja, especially since his ideas were brought to Srila Bhakti Pramod Puri Maharaja for confirmation. It should be noted, however, that Srila Sridhara Maharaja presented his view as an opinion and not as infallible testimony. He even suggested that there were other opinions worth considering. That said, Srila Sridhara Maharaja is an exalted Vaisnava, and his opinion, even if graciously accommodating alternative interpretations, is a product of exceptional philosophical understanding and years of personal association with Srila Prabhupada. His judgment alone is thus a strong argument that Srila Prabhupada is in sakhya-rasa.

Of course, there are other Vaisnavas, such as Srila Narayana Maharaja, who think otherwise. Because of the unfortunate and sometimes bitter conflict between Srila Narayana Maharaja's group and ISKCON and perhaps even other Gaudiya camps, his opinion often invokes strong or even polarizing reactions. The many who revere him accept as authoritative his statement that Srila Prabhupada followed the inner mood of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta. Those embroiled in the conflict, or those who hold him responsible for at least part of it, tend to judge his opinion otherwise. I think that his full life of service, deep study, and intense practice should be respected.

While we are discussing the opinions of influential Vaisnavas, it is interesting to note that our godbrother Srila Svarupa Damodara Maharaja had a wonderful personal revelation of gopi-bhava in the last days of his life. As far I know, his inspiration came exclusively from his service and association with Srila Prabhupada. I recommend that those who have not visited his samadhi at Radha-kunda do so. Posted there is the wonderful story of the inner mood of devotion he manifested before he left this world.

If we want to establish Srila Prabhupada's internal life on the basis of the opinions of revered Vaisnavas, I think the opinion of Srila Gaura Govinda Maharaja, a highly esteemed Vaisnava, must also be respected. His extraordinary preoccupation in the last moments of his life on the intimate pastimes of Radha and Krsna seem to reflect his own inner mood. He has expressed unquestionably that Srila Prabhupada was in madhurya-rasa.

So appealing to recognized Vaisnavas alone does not settle the issue. Their opinions often differ, and one's acceptance of a particular conclusion in this matter will naturally tend to lie simply with the Vaisnava in whom one has reposed one's allegiance and faith.

And perhaps this is why one should be cautious about making discussions like this public: they deal too closely with the sentiments of sincere devotees who have performed years of dedicated service and exemplary practice and who represent all sides of the issue. These devotees have apparently been inspired to see Srila Prabhupada in various ways. That their inspiration is not wrong Babhru Prabhu himself shows by citing the Jaiva Dharma. Worse than dealing publicly with private sentiments, such discussions easily become grounds for further disagreements among both individuals and groups, especially as followers will or are inclined to vigorously support the viewpoints of their teachers.

As far as I know, discussions about Srila Bhaktisiddhanta's inner mood were held in private among his disciples. With the exception of his indirect encouragement of a few innocent disciples on several occasions, Srila Prabhupada also tended to view such deliberations as basically unimportant – as merely intellectual and somewhat affected until his disciples had reached any substantial level of realization. It is this deeper spiritual realization that creates within a disciple the burning need to know his or her guru's spiritual position. Before that, the information is academic.

I very much appreciate that Babhru Prabhu took such pains to present the issue in a careful way. I also appreciate his reason for bringing the matter to a public forum: he perceives, somewhat accurately, that the opinion that Srila Prabhupada is in sakhya-rasa has historically been oppressed and those with that mood discouraged. Still, I doubt the benefit of continued discussions of this topic in a public forum. I even have mixed feelings about writing this response to his paper because it may help to perpetuate the discussion.

Since reading Babhru Prabhu's paper, I have read and thought of other arguments for Srila Prabhupada in both sakhya-rasa and madhurya-rasa. His Holiness Jayadvaita Swami recently passed a comment to a friend noting that in Srila Prabhupada's last days, he was specifically fond of gazing at the picture of Krsna and Balarama in his room. I have similar recollections. That Srila Prabhupada gravitated toward a particular meditation near the end of his life is certainly a strong argument for the nature of his inner life – as strong as any argument given so far.

So how to resolve the different contentions?

In a court of law two standards of evidence are generally recognized, preponderance of evidence and evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. I heard one esteemed godbrother propose that the evidence in Babhru Prabhu's paper takes us beyond a reasonable doubt – the higher standard of evidence. Given what I have indicated above, I would be hesitant to agree, especially because of the nature of spiritual reality, particularly guru-tattva, and how it manifests in this world. How many of us can make sense of the incident in Jaiva Dharma where the guru informs two disciples of their spiritual identities, telling one he is a follower of Subala and the other he is a follower of Lalita, and then manifesting to both of them accordingly? I suppose that the guru in that instance did not bother to resolve for his disciples the dichotomy of who he actually was – at least Bhaktivinoda Thakura doesn't indicate that he did.

So there is certainly room to assume that Srila Prabhupada may have followed the inner mood of madhurya-rasa that flows through our guru-parampara, especially because his whole lineage shared a madhurya temperament. This lineage point alone is a good reason to doubt that Srila Prabhupada was in sakhya-rasa.

And further substantial doubt is raised when we consider the following: that Srila Prabhupada's father repeatedly professed his desire for his son to be blessed to become a maidservant of Sri Radha; that Srila Prabhupada worshiped Sri Sri Radha-Govinda in childhood and subsequently established Their worship in Mayapur; that he was initiated into the gopi-bhava sannyasa mantra by Srila Bhakti Prajna Kesava Maharaja3; that he had a special relationship with the Caitanya-caritamrta4 both in the how he found solace in its pages while aboard the Jaladuta and his later decision to translate it; that he established his eternal residence at the Radha-Damodara temple at the feet of Sri Rupa – and the seat of the rasa dance; that he made many personal expressions that might have indicated something other than sakhya-rasa, including the following:

There is no harm in taking birth again and again. Our only desire should be to take birth under the care of a Vaisnava. Fortunately we had the opportunity to be born of a Vaisnava father who took care of us very nicely. He prayed to Srimati Radharani that in the future we would become a servant of the eternal consort of Sri Krsna. Thus somehow or other we are now engaged in that service.” (Cc., Antya 1.24)

Babhru Prabhu is not only a scholar but a gentleman. His paper is thus clearly in the mood of service to the Vaisnava community and written sensitively in the tenor of accommodation. In talking to several devotees, I see the encouragement they feel for thinking of Srila Prabhupada in these deeper ways; they appreciate the impetus the paper has given them for a richer inner awareness in their relationship with Srila Prabhupada. I pray that Babhru Prabhu and others see my response to his paper in that same mood of service.

Perhaps the best way to proceed in a discussion on this topic, now that Babhru Prabhu's well-reasoned paper has been made publicly available, is to follow the example of Vrajanatha and Vijaya Kumara from Jaiva Dharma, cited in his paper. Their story parallels ours in many ways, especially in terms of trying to establish Srila Prabhupada's spiritual identity and in giving freedom to his mature disciples' inner mood toward him. Like Srila Prabhupada, Vrajanatha's and Vijaya Kumara's spiritual master did not overtly reveal his inner mood of devotion to his disciples. From their years of exemplary practice, however, Vrajanatha and Vijaya Kumara were individually and directly inspired by their spiritual master both in their respective inner moods of devotion and in their perception of him, just as some of Srila Prabhupada's mature followers apparently have been. Most importantly, Vijaya Kumara and Vrajanatha lived together harmoniously despite the differences in their inner moods of devotion and their variant views of their spiritual master's identity. And they saw no need to either convince one another or establish their beliefs publicly.

 

1. The mood of Lalita is contrary and aggressive in conjugal love; it is called pragalbha, or “harsh.”

2. There is obviously some scope for projecting a devotee's inner ontological status externally onto his or her behavior, but there are also cautions about doing so. Rupa Kaviraja was specifically shunned by our predecessor acaryas for insisting that one's inner life should be overtly exhibited.

3. When Srila Prabhupada took sannyasa he received the traditional sannyasagopi-bhava” mantra. I was there in Vrindavana when a box of Srila Prabhupada's personal belongings was uncovered at Radha-Damodara temple, and I personally saw the handwritten “gopi-bhavasannyasa mantra that Srila Prabhupada had received from his sannyasa guru. There are interesting interpretations about how those with the inner mood of sakhya can interpret this mantra.

4. The Caitanya-caritamrta is almost exclusively an expression of the inner life of madhurya-rasa. It is noteworthy in this discussion, therefore, that Srila Prabhupada both brought it with him on the Jaladuta and later translated it into English rather than the Caitanya-bhagavata, which more strongly promotes the mood and life of Nityananda-Balarama and sakhya-rasa.

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