Ever Unfolding Spiritual Truth and Practice
I recently finished reading Hindu Encounter with Modernity and found it most affirming of the spiritual path I have been following these many years.
Shukavak N. Dasa concludes that “if Chaitanya Vaishnavism is going to have a lasting position and positive impact on the West, then it must intellectually move beyond the literalism by which it entered the West and begin to develop new forms of intellectual expressions and perspectives that are a part of the Western intellectual and academic traditions. Bhaktivinoda’s work provides the basis for such a development.”
This is a mission I have been working on for thirty years. I have shed most of the Indian cultural externals of Vaishnavism and maintained the spiritual essence. *“Bhaktivinoda’s separation of the phenomenal and the transcendent, along with his implicit distinction between religious faith and belief” frees me to experiment with the task of creating a lifestyle where by Westerners can utilize the spiritual practices of Chaitanya Vaishnavism without having to become alienated from Western culture or pursue the life of a renunciate. “Bhaktivinoda recognized the need for spiritual and cultural adaptation.”
This need was driven home to me very clearly. Followers of Narayana Maharaja stayed at the inn in Hilo, Hawaii for a week where my wife and I just spent three weeks. They came for a week-long festival with him. I had some good conversations with one of them. At the urging of the devotees and my wife, I went to the final night of their meetings last night. While I was greeted warmly by devotees who know me from the past, I was not able to sit through much of the program. I just couldn’t stand to listen to the rhetoric or take part in the gushing adoration of “Gurudeva,” which seems very much like a personality cult to me. It doesn’t seem healthy for a bunch of Westerners to use a 83 year old Indian renunciate as their role model. Also having the guru more prominent than the deities doesn’t seem right. I guess part of it is sort of a protestant/Catholic split. I see a more humble, less elevated role for the guru. “Bhaktivinoda’s life…provides an excellent example of responsible worldly engagement and Vaisnava practice.”
“If Chaitanya Vaishnavism is to become indigenous to the modern and even Western world, then it must…adapt to conditions of modernity and to the West.” This may take some generations and much experimentation.
“Bhaktivinoda envisioned the modern religious thinker as a saragrahi, one able to transcend the limitations of his own religious culture and appreciate the spiritual essence of other religious traditions.” My long periods of immersion in Chaitanya Vaishnavism and Christianity as an ordained religious leader along with extensive study and practice of other traditions certainly qualifies me in this regard.
Bhaktivinoda “approached the transcendent through religious faith rooted in sahaja-samadi, innate religious intuition.” This is also my mode of operation. It allows freedom and creativity in the religious realm for new revelations of spiritual truth that are not bound by the past.
“Chaitanya Vaishnavism as it now exists in the West is largely disconnected from the tradition of raganuga-bhakti-sadhana, and for this reason is somewhat alienated from the esoteric depths and spiritual inspiration of its parent movement.” I was initiated into this path of spontaneous devotional service to Radha and Krishna by Bhaktivinoda’s son and disciple, Lalita Prasad Thakur. This frees me from being overly dependent on rules and regulations that seem to so preoccupy so many devotees while being able to experience the esoteric spiritual realms of devotion. Thus, I live a modern, Western life conducive to my spiritual growth. This is what I offer others as well.
The purpose of this post is to enable discussion on the indiginization of Gaudiya Vaishnavism in the West. Let us honor those who came before and the rich tradition we draw from but let it not bind us so that we are unable to make our own contribution to the tradition. Srila Bhaktivinoda certainly opened the door for this endeavor.
* All quotes Shukavak N. Dasa, Hindu Encounter with Modernity