Chakra Discussions

No Vraja-bhakti in Bhagavad-gita? -- A response to Danavir Goswami

by Babhru das

Posted October 30, 2003

[ Part I | Part II | Part III]

Proper mood

The introduction of Tripurari Maharaja's Gita also shows that far from the spirit of "one-upmanship" and ambition to use the Gita as a cover for his own philosophy, Tripurari Maharaja undertook his commentary in a mood of service to the previous acharyas. There he writes,

"Perhaps Gaudiya commentators appear to go out on a limb more than anywhere else when they find Vraja Krishna speaking in the Gita. According to Gaudiya theology, the dhira-prasanta Krishna of the Gita is not preoccupied with Vraja and the love of the gopis. As much as the dhira-lalita Krishna of Vraja is in no mood for a Upanisadic discourse, dhira-prasanta Krishna of Dwaraka is not typically in the mood of Vraja-bhakti."

As Danavir Maharaja's article demonstrates, it is easy for someone to question how the Gaudiyas find Vraja Krishna in the Gita. Although previous commentators have drawn this connection, they do not give philosophical support for it in their commentaries. Tripurari Maharaja therefore gives philosophical, scriptural, and historical support for their interpretations by cross referencing the entire corpus of Gaudiya scripture, citing scriptures such as Brihad-bhagavatamrita, Padyavali, and so on, wherein Dwarakesha Krishna is found to be thinking of his Vraja-lila with the gopis. He effectively locates Krishna in the context of his entire lila in a way that sheds light on the fact that in spite of his being on the battlefield, it is clear that his battlefield lila is not entirely divorced from his pastoral lila. All of this is done with great care and attention in consideration of tattva and rasa vicara.

Writing a Commentary on a book one's guru has commented on

Danavir Maharaja's charge of impertinence may be examined from another angle as well. I know he is not alone in questioning the need for -- even the propriety of -- Tripurari Maharaja's effort to present another edition of Bhagavad-gita, when Srila Prabhupada's Bhagavad-gita As It Is is clearly a definitive Gaudiya edition of Bhagavad-gita. However, the history of our sampradaya shows that commenting on scriptures your own guru has commented on is neither uncommon nor unseemly. Although Sanatana Gosvami wrote a commentary on Srimad-Bhagavatam, his student Jiva Goswami wrote a different one. Srila Visvanatha Chakravarti Thakura wrote a commentary on Bhagavad-gita; his student Baladeva Vidyabhushana also wrote one later. Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura wrote a Bengali commentary on Sri Chaitanya-caritamrita, as did Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati. Later, Srila Prabhupada wrote his own English commentary rather than simply translate either of theirs.

A conversation with Srila Prabhupada, recounted in Bhurijana das's overview of the Bhagavad-gita, demonstrates the fallacy that there should be no more commentaries on the Bhagavad-gita:

Once, however, when asked what he would translate after the Srimad-Bhagavatam, Srila Prabhupada responded, "Oh, maybe Jiva Gosvami's Sat-sandarbha or Vedanta-sutra -- there are so many -- or Bhagavad-gita." A devotee spoke up, "Srila Prabhupada, you've already done the Bhagavad-gita." Srila Prabhupada replied, "We did Bhagavad-gita, but there are so many commentaries. Srila Ramanujacharya, Srila Madhvacharya -- everyone has given his Gita. We could do many Gitas, not just one." (Incident related by Pradyumna das on a "Memories of Srila Prabhupada" video)

Tripurari Maharaja writes in his introduction that his book developed out of an intense immersion in study of Bhagavad-gita. As his appreciation for this scripture grew, so did his desire to share that with others. He did not write this book to show up our spiritual master. Rather, it grew organically out of that deep study. If the book encourages surrender in devotional service, how is it impertinent to publish it? Further, Tripurari Maharaja writes in the preface that he drew inspiration from the very first words that Srila Prabhupada spoke to him: "One who explains this supreme secret to my devotees engages in the highest devotion to me."

In the morning walk in which Srila Prabhupada spoke these words, he later encourages everyone to write and distribute books. Someone replied, "We are simply your puppets, Srila Prabhupada. You're giving us the books." Not satisfied, Srila Prabhupada said, "No. We are all puppets of Krishna. I am also a puppet. This is disciplic succession." It is clear from this that Srila Prabhupada wanted his disciples to write books as puppets of Krishna. Three other quotes of Srila Prabhupada echo this sentiment, in which the guru likes to see his disciple do as he has done, if not do more, to further the distribution of Krishna consciousness:

Similarly, if one is true to Gaura-Nitai's service in the disciplic succession, he can even excel Nityananda Prabhu's service. This is the process of disciplic succession. Nityananda Prabhu delivered Jagai and Madhai, but a servant of Nityananda Prabhu, by His grace, can deliver many thousands of Jagai's and Madhai's. That is the special benediction of the disciplic succession.

When a disciple becomes perfect in spiritual advancement, the spiritual master feels very, very happy, that "I am a nonsense, but this boy, he has followed my instruction and he has achieved the success. That is my success." This is the spiritual master's ambition. Just like a father. This is the relationship.

The Vedic fruit which is mature and ripe in knowledge is spoken through the lips of Srila Sukadeva Gosvami, who is compared to the parrot not for his ability to recite the Bhagavatam exactly as he heard it from his learned father, but for his ability to present the work in a manner that would appeal to all classes of men. (purport to Bhag. 1.1.3)

The last quotation is especially important. Are we to take only the four original verses of the Bhagavatam? Only those spoken by Sukadeva? Those retold by Suta Goswami? No, with each edition, the fruit of the Bhagavatam becomes sweeter. This is disciplic succession. As Srila Prabhupada says later in the purport, the fruit is not dropped all of a sudden from Goloka Vrindavana, but rather it comes down carefully through the chain of disciplic succession. Tripurari Maharaja is not the first disciple of Srila Prabhupada to churn the nectar of Bhagavad-gita As It Is and present his realization in this form of a new commentary. At least two other disciples have done so before him, one of whom finds references in the Gita to the gopis. As Krishna is unlimited, how can any edition be the final word on the topic? As the Caitanya-caritamrita says, "If Ganesa, Lord Siva's son and the expert scribe of the demigods, tried for millions of millennia to fully describe one day of the Lord's pastimes, he would be unable to find their limit."

As stated previously, Tripurari Maharaja did not see his edition as an attempt to "surpass the exalted acharyas of disciplic succession by declaring its new imaginative Vraja-bhakti interpretation of Bhagavad-gita to be deeper and higher than the accepted understanding." Rather, he sought to serve the disciplic succession by taking the remnants that they left out of their mercy -- he gathered drops of the nectar of Vraja-bhakti that these acharyas relished and put into their commentaries and expanded on them to reveal their ramifications. This concept is explained by Srila Prabhupada in the following conversation with Visnujana Swami:

Visnujana: Srila Prabhupada, what did Bhaktivinoda Thakura mean when he said, "I am going, my work unfinished"? When Bhaktivinoda Thakura stated that he was leaving this planet with his work unfinished?

Prabhupada: Then let us finish. We are descendant of Bhaktivinoda Thakura. So he kept unfinished so that we shall get the chance to finish it. That is his mercy. He could have finished immediately. He is Vaishnava, he is all-powerful. But he gave us chance that "You foolish people, you all also work." That is his mercy. So we should pray to Bhaktivinoda Thakura, "We are your grandchildren, great-grandchildren, so we have got some right to beg some mercy from you. The grandchildren get some indulgence from the grandfather. So I pray like that." It is Bhaktivinoda Thakura's mercy. . . . So we should always pray to Bhaktivinoda Thakura to be merciful upon us so that we can execute his unfinished task. . . . And never we should think, "What Bhaktivinoda Thakura could not finish, I have finished." Don't think like that. It is not like that.

The last attitude, "What Bhaktivinoda Thakura could not finish, I have finished," is the mood that Vallabhacharya showed in regard to his Bhagavatam commentary: "It is better than that of Sridhara Swami." As Danavir Maharaja has stated, this mood was not tolerated by Mahaprabhu and therefore the commentary was rejected. But where does Tripurari Maharaja show this mood? Where does he say that his understanding is higher, better? Nowhere. Rather he says that he means to serve the previous acharyas by bringing together their statements in various books in support of the contention that Vraja-bhakti can be found in the Gita.

Gita opportunism

In this and other sections of his article, Danavir Goswami attacks the very motive of Tripurari Maharaja, identifying him with "ambitious, unqualified persons" who write commentaries on the Gita as "a cover for promoting their own philosophies." Certainly there are people who are so motivated, taking advantage of the Gita's popularity to promote something other than what the Gita teaches.

Quoting Prabhupada, Danavir Goswami cites a number of examples. However, all of the examples are of those whose Gita commentaries do not reach a Vaishnava conclusion. Swami Tripurari's edition promotes the Gaudiya Vaishnava conclusion that devotional service to Radha-Krishna in Vrindavana is ultimately what the Gita stresses. How can this be considered a cover for promoting one's own philosophy or "smoking ganja through another man's hand to avoid the discoloration and bad smell adhering to one's own hand"?

Srila Prabhupada writes that the one who is qualified to write a commentary on the Gita must have "full confidence in the previous acharyas." Swami Tripurari's edition cites the previous acharyas throughout, and in his introduction he defers to them and explains that he is writing to give further support to their conclusions. Srila Prabhupada also says that one qualified to write a commentary "must realize the subject matter so nicely that he can present the matter for the particular time and circumstance in a suitable manner." Implicit in these statements is the idea that the Gita can be represented as time goes on in consideration of time and circumstances.

Swami Tripurari's edition is written in contemporary language and in consideration of the fact that Gaudiya commentaries on the Gita have been criticized for "screwing out an obscure meaning." Scholars have criticized Prabhupada's Gita in particular because it takes every verse to be an advocacy for the teachings of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, who came to this world to give Vraja-bhakti. But Danavir Goswami asks, "Since the Gaudiya commentary has already been written in the form of Bhagavad-gita As It Is, what need is there for another?"

Maryada vyatikrama: Impertinent over-stepping

Danavir Goswami defines this term as "impertinently attempting to surpass a greater personality," and claims that this is what Swami Tripurari has done: "The new Vraja Gita version seeks to surpass the exalted acharyas of the disciplic succession." He says that Tripurari Maharaja has slighted Prabhupada's edition in particular and oversteps all the previous acharyas "who never ventured to describe Bhagavad-gita in terms of Vraja-bhakti." As has already been amply demonstrated in this article, many of the previous acharyas have explained that the essence of the Gita is about Vraja-bhakti. Swami Tripurari, rather than overstepping them, has given support to their conclusions.

Danavir Goswami says that a writer should never feel himself qualified to go beyond the realization of his predecessors. No doubt this is true, but this does not mean that successor acharyas do not shed more light on a text. Indeed, there is no point of writing a commentary on a text unless one has something more to offer than what is in previous commentaries. Given the nature of the subject, there is always more to be said. Thus the mere fact that something new is found in a Gita commentary does not render its author an offender of his predecessors. If the author thinks that his contribution is possible only by the grace of his predecessors, then his commentary is an example of their mercy working through him. This is clearly the tenor of Swami Tripurari's commentary.

Srila Prabhupada's caution about maryada vyatikrama speaks explicitly about flaunting one's learning in the presence of one's guru. After the departure of one's guru, it is incumbent upon the disciple to offer all that he has learned to his guru in the form of representing that knowledge in consideration of time, circumstances, and realization. As Srila Prabhupada liked to stress, Rama took pleasure in Hanuman's leap to Lanka, while he himself had to go by bridge. Srila Prabhupada has cited this example to illustrate that the guru takes pleasure in seeing the disciple do more than himself, while the disciple appropriately thinks that whatever he does is by the grace of his guru. Nonetheless, Swami Tripurari never claims to have done more than Srila Prabhupada. Therefore there is no question of applying the term maryada vyatikrama to him.

In this section Danavir Goswami misquotes Swami Tripurari when he says that his commentary announces that besides the general meaning of the Gita's verse, the verses have "an esoteric meaning relative to Krishna's devotees in Vraja and the gopis in particular." In fact, Swami Tripurari says this only in relation to the chatur sloki of the Gita, and his explanation of these slokas is full of quotations from previous acharyas.

Lastly, Danavir Goswami claims that the offense of maryada vaytikrama is "especially prominent in the Vraja Gita's word meanings, translation, and commentary." One might ask where else would it be? That aside, Danavir Goswami seems to be saying that because the word meanings, translation, and commentary are different from Srila Prabhupada's, this in itself is powerful evidence for maryada vyatikrama, a claim that clearly demonstrates Danavir Goswami's misunderstanding of the term.

Sahajiya

Danavir Goswami says that the Bhagavad-gita is the preliminary study of spiritual life, and thus any attempt to remake it into a discussion about the gopis of Vrindavana is the work of sahajiyas. Although it is true that the Gita is for the most part a preliminary study of spiritual life, Gaudiya acharyas, including Srila Prabhupada, have cited its verses again and again in such a way that it is clear that they also hear Krishna speaking something more than entry-level spiritual instructions. For example, in his purports to Sri Chaitanya-caritamrita, Srila Prabhupada explains Bg. 18.66 to be Krishna speaking about the standard of the gopis' love. Elsewhere he says, "this is the typical explanation."

Other Gaudiya acharyas have done this as well, especially with regard to the chatuh-sloki, the Gita's essence. In doing so, they are implicitly saying that on a deeper level they can hear Krishna speaking about Vraja in the Gita. Even an ordinary person can speak one meaning to the general public and another meaning to an inner circle with the same sentence. Certainly Krishna can and does do the same throughout scripture. Srila Prabhupada stresses that verses should not be understood by only one angle of vision:

"I am very much stressing nowadays that my students shall increase their reading of my books and try to understand them from different angles of vision. Each sloka can be seen from many, many angles of vision, so become practiced in seeing things like this" (Letter to Tribhuvanatha, Los Angeles, 16 June, 1972).

Hardly does Swami Tripurari "deceptively reject the true Bhagavad-gita and replace it with a concocted interpretation of rasa-lila." This certainly sounds frightening, but it exists only in Danavir Goswami's mind. He feels that Swami Tripurari's edition "may be the most dangerous attempt of sahajiyaism to date because it uses the authoritative Vedic literature, Bhagavad-gita, to substantiate its unauthorized, notorious misconceptions." Again, those 'misconceptions' are that there are different levels of meaning to be found in the verses of the Gita, and some of them can be understood to be speaking of the highest ideal of the devotional service exhibited by the inhabitants of Vrindavana.

Danavir Goswami's claim is that because Swami Tripurari's commentary is saturated with talk of the gopis, its actual message is drowned out. Thus it fulfills the sahajiya criterion of aversion to the Bhagavad-gita. However, this is not the experience of the many ISKCON leaders who have actually read the book, as the quotations cited later in this article illustrate; nor is it the experience of the many devotees who are not members of ISKCON; nor is the book saturated with talk of the gopis.

Danavir Goswami claims that Swami Tripurari's edition "invents what Krishna is thinking and transmits this as if it were higher esoteric realizations." What he fails to understand, however, is that in most instances "what Krishna is thinking" is based on what Visvanatha Chakravarti and Baladeva Vidyabhusana have already stated in their commentaries. It is also quite possible that in positing what Krishna is thinking, the author is sharing his own realization with his readers or the way in which the text affects him personally. As long as this insight falls within the parameters of Gaudiya Vaishnava philosophy, it is an ornament rather than a fault. It is hardly an example of sahajiyaism.

[ Part I | Part II | Part III]