The Divine Character of Bhaktivinoda Thakura

The Divine Character of Bhaktivinoda Thakura
By Stephen Knapp

In his Sri Caitanya-shiksamrita he predicted a day when people of all nations, castes, creeds and colors would come under the banners of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu and dance together hand in hand in the universal church of the chanting of the Holy Name of God. He believed strongly that the sankirtana movement of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu would bring eternal peace and harmony to the whole world and for this reason he stressed the preaching of Sri Caitanya’s teachings, particularly through the medium of the English language in the world today.

By studying the character, life and literary works of a great Vaishnava acharya, one can derive deep understanding of how to lead one’s life in such a way that devotion to God becomes manifest in the heart. Although in the beginning of Thakura Bhaktivinoda’s life he seemed to display the activities of an ordinary mortal man, one should not wrongly think him to be so, for he is the dearly beloved associate of the Supreme Personality of Godhead Sri Krishna and it was by the Lord’s divine wish that he appeared on this mundane plane of existence, for the spiritual reformation of fallen humanity of the nineteenth century was in a miserable plight. There were so many off-shoots from the main stem of religion, each sect preaching its own philosophy, that people were thrown into utter confusion and did not know what the pure religion was. It then became a necessity for a leader to save the good souls who were hankering for their real welfare. To quench their thirst a bhakta-avatara was badly needed and that avatara appeared in the form of Thakura Bhaktivinoda. His religious disposition was observed from his very childhood and as he grew older he studied all the religious books of the world and appreciated the doctrines preached by Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu as the most sublime of all and the surest path to lead the fallen souls to the feet of God. The enlightened and cultured men of the present age have now learned to honor this most sublime philosophy which the Thakura brought to light and which would have lain buried in darkness, had he not opened their eyes.

Thakura Bhaktivinoda clearly displayed all the qualities of a pure Vaishnava and this was seen in his eagerness to always be engaged in the service of the Lord without wasting a moment. It was once remarked in 1916 by the judge of the Calcutta High Court, Sarada Carana Mitra: “I knew Thakura Bhaktivinoda intimately as a friend and a relation. Even under pressure of official work as a Magistrate in charge of a heavy sub-division he could always find time for devotional contemplation and work, and whenever I met him, our talk would turn in a few moments to the subject of bhakti and dvaitadvaita-vada and the saintly work that lay before him. Service of God is the only thing he longed for and service under the government, however honorable, was to him a clog.”

If we examine Bhaktivinoda Thakura’s daily schedule while he was staying in Jagannatha Puri we will be able to see how he was never idle and was always engaged in the service of the Lord. Between 7:30 PM and 8:00 PM the Thakura would take rest and would rise from bed just before 10:00 PM. At that time he would light his oil lamp and begin to write books up to 4:00 AM. Then he would take a little more rest and would rise just before 4:30 AM for washing his hands and face and at that time he would sit down and chant on his beads. He never showed his japa-mala to anyone and he would chant unlimited number of rounds daily. Around 7:00 AM he would dispose of all correspondence and at 7:30 he would read various highly philosophical religious books. At 8:30 if anyone came to see him they could meet him then. If no one came he would continue to read up until 9:30 during which time he would walk on the veranda of the house and think of different religious questions and solve them in his mind. Sometimes he would solve them out loud as if he were preaching to someone. From 9:30 AM to 9:45 he would take a little rest and at 9:45 he would take his morning bath and breakfast, which consisted of half a quart of milk, a couple of chapattis and some fruit. At 9:55 he would put his office dress on and go to the court in his carriage.

As a Magistrate he would wear a coat and pants. On his neck he wore six strands of double size Tulasi beads. He was very strong in his court decisions. He would decide them immediately. None could stand before him and he did not allow any humbug in his court. He would do his business and go. He would go to the court wearing those pants, his big coat, his neck beads and tilaka on his forehead. He would shave his head monthly and he never cared what anyone thought.

At 10:00 AM court would begin and he would hear between thirty to fifty cases. He would finish by 1:00 PM.

Bhaktivinoda’s capacity for work was astounding to the lawyers and Englishmen. What other Magistrates would finish in thirty to forty-five minutes, he would finish in five minutes and he would also write the judgment in detail within one or two minutes. The Englishmen over him were stunned at how he could perform this much work in such a short amount of time. They all became envious and tried to discourage him. At 1:00 PM he would come home and clean himself and become refreshed. Before 2:00 PM he would again be in the office. At 5:00 PM he would come home and take some Sanskrit religious books and dictate them in Bengali to someone. After this he would take his evening bath and meal which consisted of a little rice, a couple of chapattis and a half-quart of milk.

Bhaktivinoda worked with a pocket watch so everything he did was done on time. In this way we can see how Bhaktivinoda was always eager for the service of the Lord and was always engaged in that service despite his family and official responsibilities.

As for his quality of being charitable, it was never heard that any brahmana ever went away from his home disheartened and he who once called on him was sure to be seen meeting him again with a smiling face. He equally befriended the other castes, and especially when he preached Harinam everyone however high or low he might have been, in society or in wealth was nearest and dearest to him. He had practically no enemy in the world as he did not cherish any kind of animosity against others. Rather those who tried to be his enemy out of jealousy or with a view of thwarting him from his spiritual path were in the long run ashamed of their conduct and in most cases begged for his pardon which was never refused. His universal brotherhood made him the friend of all and he was ever eager for procuring the greatest welfare for the people of this world. Whoever once came in contact with him, could not but go without having obtained some good to himself. Thakura Bhaktivinoda was never proud and his amiable disposition was a characteristic feature in his life. He never uttered a word to anybody which could wound their feelings. He did not chastise anyone unless and until he was perfectly confident that he had a right over him to do so for his welfare, and on the other hand he who received a warning from him always thought himself gratified. He had not the least shadow of vanity and was totally devoid of a quarreling habit. He was honored and respected throughout the length and breadth of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. His profound knowledge of philosophy endeared him to all educated men and his devout bhakti made him the friend both of the highest and lowest classes of people.

In his official capacity he was always taken into confidence by the superior officers of the government, as he was himself well conversant with the policy of government. He had witnessed the hard days of the mutiny and while in office, he assisted the government in quelling all sorts of unprincipled disturbances. The Government of Bengal also on more than once occasion wanted to vest him with honors and titles, but he humbly declined the same each time, on the ground that such honors would, instead of doing good, stand against his holy mission.
From his very infancy till his last day he was a great advocate of truth and never allowed his associates to deviate from the path of duty, which he himself observed with more than strict accuracy. He avoided companies whenever he had the least suspicion of evil motives in them. He had to encounter unpleasantness on many occasions in the execution of public duty under the government, by refusing to accept any present from any person. Similar difficulties he had to face in refusing unjust requests from persons who were very dear to him. He was above corruption. Bhaktivinoda never supported the least shadow of immorality and he never crossed the threshold of any place which he knew to be immoral. He had great dislike for theatres as these were places where public women were brought in to take part in the play. He knew that common people, who cared little for religion and who spent their days carelessly and uselessly, were apt to go astray in the broad wilderness of the world if he himself refrained from showing them the proper way by his own example. Example is better than precept and so his absolute distaste for anything immoral helped many sincere souls to open their eyes and also persons already in confusion to correct themselves. When the well-known Girisha Chandra Ghosa came to request Thakura Bhaktivinoda to preside over the gathering on the opening day of his new play, ‘Caitanya Lila’, he had to politely decline the offer. Thakura Bhaktivinoda was a complete abstainer from any kind of worldly pleasure and would not even chew a betel. He completely avoided the luxuries that are everyday enjoyed by ordinary men. He had for himself very little want and led a most simple life throughout his career. The word ‘debt’ was, as it were, unknown to him for he was very prompt in making payments. He was always true to his word and punctuality was at all times specially observed by him. He always showed a brave front and was never a coward. He never performed any dishonest work in business and whatever he did he did openly for the good of his fellowmen. In this way we may understand that he possessed a spotless character.

Thakura Bhaktivinoda had a fine mode of delivering speeches and his lectures were so greatly attractive that he could keep the audience, whatever be their number, absolutely dumb-founded. His speeches were all very fluent and argumentative from the philosophical point of view and he had a nice way of joining the link of their subject matter. He was an expert linguist and knew English, Latin, Urdu, Persian, and Oriya besides Bengali and Sanskrit. He had also a taste for history and a keen habit of research. This habit made him a voracious reader of all the Puranas and Vedic Shastras as well as the writings of numerous authors of repute in Europe, both of ancient and modern. He was a member of the Royal Asiatic Society of London. He had thoroughly gone through the scriptures of foreign countries, such as the Bible and Koran, and he could easily cite any passage occurring in those books whenever there was occasion to do so. His nature was to leave no stone unturned in mastering whatever subject he took up and he did his duty in that respect to the fullest extent. The works he has left to the world are most precious and will no doubt supply materials for the improvement of many thinkers for centuries to come.
Thakura Bhaktivinoda was a great author and poet and has left for us about one-hundred books of transcendental knowledge. From the age of twelve and thirteen when he wrote Hara-katha and Shumbha-Nishumbha-yuddha till his last days before us, his pen was never idle and many a night saw him engaged in his library after he had performed a hard laborious midday duty in the court. He wrote hundreds and hundreds of poems and gave those songs to his disciples who would put them to music and sing them. All knowledge of Vaishnava philosophy can be found in them.

The Vaishnava community has received from his beautiful lotus hands many wonderful books on Lord Caitanya’s precepts. His famous work Jaiva Dharma, a Bengali novel which teaches Vaishnava philosophy in the form of various discourses, up to the present day has remained very easily readable and relishable for all classes of devotees, learned scholars and even fools and laymen. Bhaktivinoda’s Bhagavatarka-marichi-mala, which is the butter produced from churning the vast milk ocean of Srimad-Bhagavatam, has bestowed much good upon the serious student of the Bhagavatam. His explanations and Bengali translations of Krishna-karnamrita, Brahma-samhita and others have obtained a place in the hearts of all Vaishnava readers. His Harinam-cintamani and Bhajana-rahasya are eternally worshipable for all pure devotees. His Sri Caitanya-siksamrita and Sri Krishna-samhita stand as divine classics in the history of Bengali Vaishnava literature and his books of poetry and songs, such as Sharanagati, Gitavali, Gitamala, and Kalyana-kalpataru, will always be chanted and sung by those pure souls devoted to nama-bhajana or service to the Holy Name. It is our fervent hope that some day all the works of Thakura Bhaktivinoda may be made available to English speaking people for their eternal spiritual well-being.

Thakura Bhaktivinoda’s mission in this world was fulfilled by his starting the Nama Hatta at Nadia through which he distributed religious pamphlets and preached the name of Hari at every house in Bengal. At every step of his life he displayed a transparent godliness that can be observed by studying his life and writings. In his writings he has taught the difference between a true spiritualist and a pseudo one in order to thwart the vain attempts of the many pseudo devotees at that time who dressed as Vaishnava mendicants just to fill their bellies.

Consequently because of this the intelligentsia of India began to recognize the truth of his preaching and the beauty of Sri Caitanya’s doctrines. He was thus recognized as the God-sent pioneer of the movement of unalloyed devotion to Godhead. He taught the people of India the true teachings of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu both by precept and example. He always stressed that the jiva soul cannot realize himself or God unless he wholeheartedly surrenders himself to the lotus feet of a genuine spiritual master and listens to his words. Bhaktivinoda has taught us true renunciation by engaging all things in this world in the service of the Creator. He radically opposed the caste system where one is socially judged by his birth and he taught very explicitly that one should be judged by his actions and personal qualities and not by mere birth or family lineage. He also strongly protested against both elevationsim and Salvationism as being anti-devotional, that mere belief in such concepts took the place of attaining the real devotional mood necessary for spiritual development. Thus he made a tremendous effort both in his powerful writings and personal preaching effort to reform the growing materialistic mentality of the people at that time. He taught that men should live their lives according to the principles laid down in the Srimad-Bhagavatam and practice the chanting of the Holy Name of the Lord.

Thakura Bhativinoda showed through his clear and lucid writings that the solution to all contending theories, isms, sectarian dogmas and doctrines could be found in the teachings of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu. With an open and liberal mind, he opened the door of comparative religion and philosophical study and thus showed the universal applicability and scientific, religious, and philosophical basis of the teachings of Sri Caitanya. In this way the Thakura lifted the spiritual cataract on the religious vision of the people of Bengal by his many writings, which were both revolutionary and endowed with the quality of sweet reasonableness. He preached that the universal religion and common function of all souls is devotional service to the Supreme Lord Krishna and ‘Back to Home, Back to Godhead’ ‘was the motto he taught and practiced throughout his life.

In his Sri Caitanya-shiksamrita he predicted a day when people of all nations, castes, creeds and colors would come under the banners of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu and dance together hand in hand in the universal church of the chanting of the Holy Name of God. He believed strongly that the sankirtana movement of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu would bring eternal peace and harmony to the whole world and for this reason he stressed the preaching of Sri Caitanya’s teachings, particularly through the medium of the English language in the world today.

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