The Vaishnavas die to live, and living try
To spread the Holy Name around!
Kedarnath Datta, who would later come to be known as Bhaktivinoda Thakur, was born at Ula, a very prosperous village in the Nadia district of Bengal, on September 2, 1838 to an aristocratic family who owned Govindapur (the present site of Fort Williams in Calcutta). His childhood was spent in the home of his maternal grandfather. At the age of fourteen he began to study under one of the literary luminaries of the time, Kashi Prasad Ghosh, the editor of the Hindu Intelligencer. The paper was famous for its literary appeal, and the editor attracted many writers eager to learn from him the correct usage of the English language. Within a short time Kedarnath was contributing articles to both the Intelligence and the Literary Gazette, another newspaper of the day. By the time he was eighteen he had
composed two books of an epic poem, The Poriade, which he intended to complete in twelve volumes. The first of these books can be found at the British Museum in London.
During his stay with Kashi Prasad, Kedarnath became well known for his great talent at debate and often exchanged ideas on spiritual and literary subjects with eminent men of the day, such as Devendranath Tagore and others, who found
great value in their discussions.
In 1860 Kedarnath published a pamphlet entitled The Maths of Orissa, after visiting all the major maths (temples) in the state of Orissa. In it he mentions a piece of land that had been handed down to him from his ancestors: “I have a small village, Chotimangalpur, in the country of Cuttack, of which I am the proprietor. In that village is a religious house, to which was granted, by my predecessors, a holding of rent-free land. The head of the institution gave up entirely entertaining such men as chanced to seek shelter on a rainy night. This came to my notice; and I administered a severe threat to the head of the house, warning him that his lands would be cruelly resumed if, in the future, complaints of inhospitality were
brought to my knowledge.”
Although Kedarnath began his life as a schoolteacher, by 1866 he had accepted a position with the government as a Deputy Magistrate and was appointed Deputy Magistrate of Dinajpur. It was in Dinajpur that Kedarnath first came in contact
with Vaishnavism, which had been prevalent under the patronage of Raya Seheb Kamala Lochana. This great Zamindar of Dinajpur was a descendant of Ramananda Vasu, an ardent follower of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Having become acquainted with many of the Vaishnavas there, Kedarnath secured copies of the Chaitanya Charitamrita and a Bengali translation of the Srimad Bhagavatam
After reading the Chaitanya Charitamrita for the first time, Kedarnath formed a very high opinion of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and thus began to regard Him as God. In association with the Vaishnavas of Dinajpur, he took to serious study of Mahaprabhu’s teachings. He made a comparative study of Vaishnavism with reference to other religions by studying the literature of Brahmoism, Christianity, and Islam, but found the perfect consummation of his own thought in Vaishnavism. Now Kedarnath became a full-fledged Vaishnava. He became so fixed in the principles found in the Bhagavatam that he delivered a powerful lecture on the subject in 1869, which attracted the attention of thousands and was later
published as a small booklet, The Bhagavat.
Some years later, Kedarnath was transferred to a town called Champaran. There a brahma-daitya (a type of ghost) inhabited a great banyan tree while being worshiped by many degraded people. One day the father of a famous scholar came to Kedarnath for alms, at which time Kedarnath at once employed him in reading the Bhagavatam under the shade of the banyan tree which was inhabited by the ghost. After one month the Bhagavatam was completed, at which point the tree crashed to the ground, causing the ghost’s permanent disappearance. Everyone was thankful for this act except a few dishonest persons who were worshiping the ghost.
After living in Champaran for only a few months, Kedarnath was transferred to Jagannath Puri accompanied by his family. He also brought with him his two favorite books Sri Chaitanya Charitamrita and the Srimad Bhagavatam. He was happy to be posted at Puri where his object of worship, Sri Chaitanya, had lived for many years. The government commissioner was very pleased to have him in his division, and asked him to watch the affairs of the temple of Jagannath on behalf of the government. It was through Kedarnath’s exertions that many malpractices were checked and the time for offering foods to the Deity was regulated to its extreme punctuality.
Kedarnath was especially entrusted to quell a rise against the government by a person named Bisikisena, who declared himself to be an incarnation of Maha-Vishnu. During the course of his investigation, Kedarnath found him to be a hoax and a culprit and charged him with transgressing government injunctions. After his trial the fellow was sentenced to imprisonment for a year and a half, but he died after a short time in jail. This man was possessed of unnatural powers, but as they were not the outcome of spiritual practices, he had to submit to Kedarnath. Bisikisena was held in dread by the common people. Everyone warned Kedarnath not to admonish him, even for the sake of justice, in view of the serious consequences that the yogi would inflict. Although Kedarnath was not a man of ostentation and did not generally allow people to know his true qualities and spiritual strength, he easily cut down the ungodly power of the impostor. With the fall of Bisikisena there arose a pretender named Balarama in another village, and there were also other so-called incarnations of God, but their plans were similarly frustrated.
Living in Jagannath Puri, Kedarnath’s devotion to Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu grew very intense. He appointed a pandit named Gopinath to assist him in his study of the Bhagavatam with its commentary by Sridhar Swami. Hariharadas and
Markandeya Mahapatra, who had studied nyaya (logic) and Vedanta in Nabadwip and Benares (two great centers of learning), began to study the Bhagavatam along with him.
Having learned Sanskrit grammar and literature under the great Isvara Chandra Vidyasagara, Dwijendranath Tagore, and others during his school days in Calcutta, Kedarnath continued to study the language. Many of the Vaishnava literatures such as the Srimad Bhagavatam were originally composed in Sanskrit text, and his knowledge of the language allowed him access to those great works. After finishing the Bhagavatam, he went on to study the works of Jiva Goswami and Rupa Goswami which he obtained from the library of the Raja of Puri.
Now he had mastered the philosophy of Vaishnavism and completed a book of his own in Sanskrit entitled Datta Kaustubha. He also began writing Sri Krishna Samhita, another book in Sanskrit, which later became famous. He wrote many other works during this period and began a class in which he taught the Bhagavatam. He stayed in Puri for five years, during which time all the Vaishnava leaders became impressed with his learning and devotion to the precepts of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.
From Puri he was transferred to different places in Bengal, and in 1878 he was stationed in Narail, in the District of Jessore. Here he became very popular as a Vaishnava Magistrate, and many kirtana groups would come to entertain him with their songs. From here he published Sri Krishna Samhita in 1889, and it soon received praise throughout India. Sir Reinhold Rest of the India Office in London expressed an opinion that seems to characterize the works of Kedarnath:
By presenting Krishna’s character and His worship in a more sublime and transcendent light than has hitherto been the custom to regard Him in, you have rendered an essential service to your co-religionists.
While living in Narail, Kedarnath was initiated by Sri Vipin Vihari Goswami, and he adopted all the Vaishnava practices in their strictest form. He now resolved to interest the educated people in the principles of Gaudiya Vaishnavism as it was taught by Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. With this in mind, he began publishing a Bengali monthly called Sajjana Toshani (The Satisfaction of Pure Devotees), the first Vaishnava newspaper.
After staying for three years in Narail, he made a pilgrimage to various holy places. In Vrindavan he encountered a band of dacoits known as Kanjharas. These powerful bandits terrorized the roads surrounding the holy city, making it a practice to attack innocent pilgrims. Kedarnath brought this news to the government and after many months of struggle removed the bandits from Vrindavan forever.
From this time on, he preached extensively in large gatherings, explaining all the precepts of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s sankirtana movement. In recognition of his vast learning and devotion, the Vaishnava community conferred upon Kedarnath the title ‘Bhaktivinoda.’
It was also in Vrindavan that he met Srila Jagannath Das Babaji, the head of the Gaudiya Vaishnavas, who subsequently became the religious guide of Bhaktivinoda Thakur and helped him in his missionary activities. At this point Bhaktivinoda Thakur decided to take up the preaching of Vaishnavism in earnest, and he founded a printing press known as the Vaishnava Depository.
When he was commanded by his God in a dream to render service to Sri Nabadwip Dham, the birthplace of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Srila Bhaktivinoda applied for a transfer to Krishnanagar, which is a short distance away from Nabadwip. In December of 1887 his transfer request was granted.
Srila Bhaktivinoda was very happy to move to Krishnanagar, having gone with the hope of discovering the exact birth site of his beloved Deity, Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. While living in Puri he had acquired two books that would help him in his archaeological investigation. One of the books was the Bhakti-ratnakara of Narahari Chakravarti, and the other was a book authored by Paramananda Das. One night, while on the roof of his residence in Nabadwip during his deep meditation on the birthplace of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, he had a vision of a luminous building toward the northeast.
The next morning, he went to the vicinity of the place that had appeared to him. During his investigation he came to know of a place that was being adored by some of the local residents as the true birth site of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. They pointed out an extensive mound covered with Tulasi plants and informed him that this was the actual site of the house where Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu had appeared. At last succeeding in his attempt, he became extremely joyful. That same year Srila Bhaktivinoda composed and published his famous Navadwipa Dham Mahatmya in glorification of every place within the circumference of Nabadwip.
In 1890 Bhaktivinoda Thakur established Sri Nabadwip Dham Pracharini Sabha, with the ruling prince of Tripura as its president. The purpose of the Sabha was to arrange for the proper maintenance of the temple and worship of the Deities there. Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur was so devoted to this project that he was willing to go door to door himself, if necessary, to solicit contributions for the cause. The Amrita Bazaar Patrika noted the event with the following statement:
Babu Kedarnath Dutt, the distinguished Deputy Magistrate, who has just retired from the service, is one of the most active members. Indeed, Babu Kedarnath Dutt has been deputed by the committee to raise subscription in Calcutta and elsewhere and is determined to go from house to house, if necessary, and beg a rupee from each Hindu gentleman for the noble purpose. If Babu Kedarnath Dutt, therefore, really sticks to his resolution of going round with a bag in hand, we hope no Hindu gentleman whose house may be honoured by the presence of such a devout bhakta as Babu Kedarnath will send him away without contributing his mite, however humble it may be.
During his lifetime Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur wrote, edited, and published over 100 books in Sanskrit, Bengali, Hindi, Urdu, Persian, and English. Some of his
more prominent works include: The Maths of Orissa, The Bhagavat (speech), Sri Krishna Samhita, Chaitanya Shikshamrita, Navadwip Dham Mahatmya, Sri Bhagavat-arka Marichi-mala, and commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita, Chaitanyopanishad, Ishopanishad and Sri Chaitanya Charitamrita.
Prior to the time of Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur, principles of Vaishnavism were unknown outside of India. In 1896, however, Bhaktivinoda Thakur sent a copy of
Sri Gauranga Lila-Smarana Mangala Stotram to the West, where it found its way into the library of McGill University in Canada. During the same years that Emerson and Thoreau were yearning for Vedic wisdom, the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of London (of which Bhaktivinoda Thakur was a member) made the following remarks:
Under the title of Sri Gauranga Lila-Smarana Mangala Stotram, the well-known
Vaishnava Sri Kedarnath Bhaktivinoda, M.R.A.S., has published a poem in Sanskrit on the life and teachings of Chaitanya. It is accompanied by a commentary, also in Sanskrit, in which the subject further elucidated is preceded by an introduction of sixty-three pages in English, Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu: His life and Precepts, in which the doctrines taught by Chaitanya are set out in somewhat full detail. This position,
and more especially as against
Shankara and the Advaita Vedantists, is explained at length. The little volume will add to our knowledge of this remarkable reformer, and we express our thanks to Bhaktivinoda for giving it to us in English and Sanskrit, rather than in Bengali, in which language it must necessarily have remained a closed book to European students of the religious life of India.
The work of preaching the Holy Name was also in full swing, and it spread fast
into the distant corners of the globe. The Sri Gauranga Lila-Smarana Mangala Stotram, with preface in English containing the life and precepts of Sri Chaitanya, came out from Bhaktivinoda’s pen soon after the discovery of Lord Chaitanya’s birthplace
and found its place in all the learned institutions of both hemispheres.
The more the names of Lord Chaitanya and Lord Krishna spread, the merrier Bhaktivinoda Thakur became. He thereafter made annotations of Sri Brahma Samhita, Sri Krishna Karnamrita, Sri Hari Nama Chintamani, and Bhajana Rahasya. He also edited, with commentary, Srimad Bhagavat-arka Marici-mala, which contains all the most prominent shlokas of the Srimad Bhagavatam pertaining to the Vaishnava philosophy.
Bhaktivinoda Thakur’s pen never tired, and it produced many other Vaishnava philosophical works. He would begin his writings very late at night, after
completing his government work, and stay up until one or two o’clock in the morning composing songs and literatures. Most of his works appeared in the
Sajjana Toshani magazine. He was equally engaged in writing and in preaching the
Holy Name in many districts of Bengal. His personal appearances in villages had marvelous effects on the people. To maintain the center at Nadia he built a house
at Sri Godrumadwip which is called Sri Svananda-sukhada-kunja. Here in this abode the preaching of the Holy Name continued in full swing.
In the beginning of the twentieth century he moved to live at Puri and built a house on the beachfront. Many honest souls sought his blessings and readily obtained them. Though he was leading the life of a renuniciate, he could not avoid the men of all description who constantly visited him. All of them received oceans of spiritual training, instructions and blessings. In 1910 he completely withdrew from the world and remained in a perfect state of samadhi, or full concentration on the eternal pastimes of the Lord. In 1910 he passed on to the blissful realm of Goloka on the day which is observed as the disappearance day of Sri Gadadhara.
A stanza written on the samadhi site of Haridas Thakur by Srila Bhaktivinoda sometime in 1871 explains the influence a Vaishnava carries in this world, even after his departure:
Alas for those who spend their days
In festive mirth and joy:
The dazzling, deadly, liquid forms
Their hearts fore’er employ.
The shining bottles charm their eyes
And draw their heart’s embrace;
The slaves of wine can never rise
From what we call disgrace.
Was man intended to be
A brute in work and heart’?
Should man, the Lord of all around,
From common sense depart’?
Man’s glory is in common sense
Dictating us thy grace;
That man is made to live and love
The beauteous Heaven’s embrace.
The flesh is not our own alas;
The mortal frame a chain;
The soul confined for former wrongs
Should try to rise again.
Why then this childish play in that
Which cannot be our own;
Which falls within a hundred years
As if a rose ablown.
Our life is but a rosy hue
To go ere long to naught;
The soul alone would last fore’er
With good or evil fraught.
How deep the thought of times to bet
How grave the aspect looks,
And wrap, in awe become,
Oh, I When reading Nature’s books.
Man’s life to him a problem dark
A screen both left and right;
No soul hath come to tell us what
Exists beyond our sight.
But then a voice, how deep and soft
Within ourselves is left;
Man! Man! Thou art immortal soul
Thee Death can never melt.
For thee thy Sire on High has kept
A store of bliss above,
To end of time, thou art
Oh, His Who wants but purest love.
Oh Love, Thy power and spell benign
Now melt my soul to God;
How can my earthly words describe
That feeling soft and broad.
Enjoyment, sorrow, what but lots
To which the flesh is heir;
The soul that sleeps alone concludes
In them it hath a share.
And then, my friends, no more enjoy
Nor weep for all below;
The women, wine, and flesh of beasts
No love on thee bestow.
But thine to love thy brother man
And give thyself to God,
And God doth know your wages fair
This fact is true and broad.
Forget the past that sleeps and ne’er
The future dream at all;
But act in times that are with thee And progress thee shall call.
But tell me not in reasoning cold,
The soul is made alone
By earth’s mechanic lifeless rules
And to destruction prone.
My God who gave us life and all
Alone the soul can kill,
Or give it all the joys above
His promise to fulfill.
So push thy onward march, 0 soul.
Against an evil deed
That stands with soldiers Hate and Lust
A hero be indeed.
Maintain thy post in spirit world
As firmly as you can;
Let never matter push thee down
0 stand heroic man!
0 Saragrahi Vaishnava soul,
Thou art an angel fair;
Lead, lead me on to Vrindaban
And spirit’s power declare.
There rests my soul from matter free
Upon my Lover’s arms
Eternal peace and spirits love
Are all my chanting charms.