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A Meeting in Varanasi, Part 2

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In visiting Varanasi, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu chose a city that had historically played a key role in the gradual unveiling of Vedanta, the perfection of knowledge.

Early in the year 1514, Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was staying at the home of Chandrashekara Vaidya in Varanasi, India, then a great center of learning. Lord Chaitanya's associates heard that one of the chief scholars of Varanasi, a sannyasi named Prakashananda Sarasvati, was complaining to his followers that Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, or Sri Krishna Chaitanya, as He was known, was a sentimenalist who engaged in chanting the names of the Lord rather than in studying Vedanta, the proper duty of a sannyasi. Greatly disturbed by Prakashananda Sarasvati's criticism, Sri Chaitanya's associates were pleased when the Lord accepted an invitation for lunch at the home of a brahmana. Prakashananda Sarasvati and his followers would also be there, so Prakashananda Sarasvati could see for himself the ideal character of Sri Krishna Chaitanya.

The day after accepting the brahmana's invitation to lunch with Prakashananda Sarasvati, Lord Chaitanya took His noon bath at Pancanada-ghat as usual, silently chanted the Gayatri mantra, and set off on foot for the brahmana's house. He walked barefoot, as customary for a sannyasi, and wore simple saffron cloth. His head was cleanly shaven, He had marked His forehead with tilaka (clay), and as He walked He chanted the Hare Krishna maha-mantra: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. 'O Lord Krishna, O energy of the Lord! Please engage me in Your loving devotional service.'

Lord Chaitanya wanted to freely distribute the highest knowledge of devotional service to Krishna, knowledge available through the chanting of Krishna's holy names. In visiting Varanasi He had chosen a city that had historically played a key role in the gradual unveiling of Vedanta, the perfection of knowledge. Two thousand years earlier Lord Buddha had given His first sermon only six miles away at Saranatha, where there are still many Buddhist stupas and where many followers of the Buddhist philosophy live. And Sripada Sankaracharya, the incarnation of Lord Siva who toppled Buddhism from its dominant position in India, had come to Varanasi in A.D. 695, shortly after taking sannyasa at the age of eight. After four years at Badarikasrama in the Himalayas, where he wrote his famous commentary on the Vedanta-sutra, Sankaracharya returned to Varanasi, which remains a stronghold for his followers and for the worship of Lord Siva.

From the transcendental perspective of Lord Sri Krishna Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and His associates, the teachings of Lord Buddha and those of Sankaracharya, though superficially at odds, are pieces of a well-planned evolution in spiritual realization, as close to each other philosophically as Saranatha and Varanasi on the map. Lord Buddha is an incarnation of the Supreme Lord, and Lord Siva's teachings as Sankaracharya were directly ordered by the Supreme Lord. Thus there is a unified purpose to their missions.

To prevent belligerent misuse of scripture by zealots, Lord Buddha as an emergency measure had rejected the Vedas and denied the existence of God and the eternal soul. He maintained that life and consciousness are products of matter. Stressing the misery and impermanence of material life, Buddha proposed only a void after death and infused His followers with tolerance, detachment, simplicity, and nonviolence. By tactical use of atheism, in other words, He replaced zealotry with the stirrings of intelligent, civilized behavior.

Sankaracharya's Strategy

Building upon Lord Buddha's foundation of intelligent detachment, Sankaracharya brought back the Vedas and with them knowledge of God as the supreme soul. But since Sankaracharya was confronting a long tradition of Buddhist atheism, he avoided fully revealing the Vedic conclusion that the Absolute Truth is the Supreme Person, Lord Krishna, and that we are all Krishna's eternal individual parts and servants. Creating indirect meanings for the Vedic texts, Sankaracharya instead asserted, for the upliftment of his materialistic Buddhist audiences, that consciousness and all living symptoms originate not in matter but in Brahman, the supreme, eternal, all-pervading soul.

Brahman is blissful, omniscient, and impersonal, but acquires, when in contact with maya, the illusory material energy, a temporary existence characterized by misery, ignorance, and individuality. The life and consciousness animating our temporary material bodies are eternal, Sankaracharya taught, but both our individuality and our concepts of God as the supreme individual are illusory products of Brahman's contact with matter. When we are free from matter, we lose our miserable individuality and become one with the blissful Supreme, just as the air in an empty pot becomes one with the sky when the pot is broken. In other words, we are all Brahman, or God, the Supreme Soul. We have just forgotten.

Sankaracharya's offering of impersonal oneness is a partial revelation of Vedanta that awakens voidists to eternal consciousness without upsetting their atheistic demeanor. Thinking oneself God is at least as atheistic as denying He exists. But Sankar-acharya's followers paid a heavy price philosophically for accepting this impersonal pitch. In one breath they must say that we are all the Supreme, and in the next they must imply that the Supreme, since it can be conquered by illusion, is not Supreme. Asserting that the Supreme is overcome by illusion or forgetfulness, they inadvertantly propose that illusion, or maya, is supreme.

Lord Sri Krishna Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and His associates therefore refer to the bewildered followers of Sankaracharya and to all 'you are God' philosophers by using the derogatory term Mayavadi, or 'one who accepts illusion as the highest truth.' The Buddhists too are Mayavadis, because they believe that maya, the temporary material nature, generates individual consciousness and the living symptoms. Although the Buddhists do not accept an eternal all-pervading soul, they essentially agree with the Sankarites that matter is superior to the living force.

Lord Sri Krishna Chaitanya Mahaprabhu intended to deliver the entire world from these two kinds of Mayavadis, represented by the Buddhists of Saranatha and the impersonalist Sankarites of Varanasi. As part of that mission, He was on His way to lunch with Prakashananda Sarasvati, current chief of the Varanasi Mayavadis. By Lord Krishna's will elements of Vedanta had been available through the teachings of Lord Buddha and Sripada Sankaracharya. But for a long time Lord Krishna had not bestowed upon the inhabitants of the world the full import of Vedanta. Lord Chaitanya is Krishna Himself appearing in the role of His own devotee, and while we cannot know His exact thoughts or plan as He made His way through Varanasi's ancient streets, we do have a broader record of His thinking. Srila Krishnadasa Kaviraja Gosvami, one of Lord Chaitanya's principal biographers, explains:

Lord Krishna enjoys His transcendental pastimes [on earth] as long as He wishes, and then He disappears. After disappearing, however, He thinks thus:
'For a long time I have not bestowed unalloyed loving service to Me upon the inhabitants of the world. Without such loving attachment, the existence of the material world is useless. I shall personally inaugurate the religion of the age'nama sankirtana, the congregational chanting of the holy name. I shall accept the role of a devotee, and I shall teach devotional service by practicing it Myself. In the company of My devotees I shall appear on earth and perform various colorful pastimes.'
Thinking thus, the Personality of Godhead, Sri Krishna Himself, descended at Navadvipa early in the Age of Kali.

'Sri Chaitanya-caritamrita,
Adi-lila 3.13-30

The Lord Attracts the Sannyasis

Lord Chaitanya had a large and well-built body, a complexion like molten gold, and a face as beautiful as the moon. Arriving at the brahmana’s house and seeing that all the sannyasis of Varanasi had gathered there, He humbly bowed to them and, as was customary, went to wash His feet before entering the assembly. Then, instead of joining the other sannyasis, who had taken seats according to title and rank, Lord Chaitanya sat on the ground near the washing area, His transcendental body glowing with the effulgence of millions of suns.

Unsettled by the Lord’s humility and attracted by the brilliant illumination of His body, the entire assembly rose to receive Him. Prakashananda Sarasvati stepped forward and, mistaking the Lord’s meekness for bereavement, spoke to Him with affection and concern.

“Please come here, Your Holiness,” Prakashananda requested. “Why do You sit in that filthy place' What has caused Your lamentation'”

“Oh, I belong to an inferior order of sannyasis,” Lord Chaitanya replied. “Therefore I am not qualified to sit with you. Let Me sit down here.”

In the line of Sripada Sankaracharya ten titles are awarded to sannyasis, with Sarasvati, Tirtha,and Ashrama being the most coveted. Chaitanya is an inferior, brahmacari title, a name for a student or servant of a Bharati sannyasi. When Nimai Pandita had first approached Kesava Bharati in Katwa, He had received the name Sri Krishna Chaitanya Brahmacari. After accepting the sannyasa order from Keshava Bharati, it would have been the traditional course for Sri Krishna Chaitanya to accept the Bharati title Himself. Instead the Lord kept the name Chaitanya to show that we are eternally servants of our spiritual masters and God. Mayavadis think that by earning a sannyasa title they become God, the supreme authority, and therefore need serve no one. While speaking respectfully to Prakashananda and other Mayavadis, Lord Chaitanya was teaching by example that if titles or degrees spawn such arrogance it is better to keep your undergraduate designation.

Surprised to see Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu reluctant to join the other sannyasis, Prakashananda Sarasvati caught Him by the hand and seated Him with great respect in the midst of the assembly.

“Well, sir, I think Your name is Sri Krishna Chaitanya,” Prakashananda said, “and I understand that You belong to our sect. You are living here in Varanasi. Why don’t You mix with us' You are a sannyasi. You are supposed to engage Your time simply in Vedanta study. But we see that You are always chanting, dancing, and playing on musical instruments. Why' These things are for emotional and sentimental people. By Your effulgence it appears to us that You are just like Narayana, the Supreme Person, but Your low-class behavior speaks otherwise.”

Putting his foot into his mouth in a genteel scholarly manner, Prakashananda Sarasvati challenged Lord Chaitanya, the author of Vedanta, to account for neglecting His studies. What to speak of neglect, it is the Lord’s position to determine who is a qualified candidate for admission to the study of Vedanta philosophy. To kindly inform Prakashananda of the qualifications he would need, Lord Sri Krishna Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Vedanta’s dean of admissions, replied:

“My dear sir, I may inform you that My spiritual master considered Me a great fool and told Me I had no qualification to study Vedanta. He kindly gave Me the chanting of Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. My spiritual master told Me, ‘Go on chanting this Krishna mantra, and it will make You perfect in understanding Vedanta.’ ”

The Lord had already demonstrated three times the importance of humility: by offering obeisances to the entire assembly of sannyasis, by taking a seat near the washing area, and by retaining the name Chaitanya. In His Sikshashtaka verses Lord Chaitanya writes that one should always feel lower than straw in the street, more tolerant than a tree, devoid of all sense of false prestige, and ready to offer all respect to others. Only in such a humble state of mind, Lord Chaitanya taught, can one constantly savor Vedanta philosophy or the holy names of God. Now the Lord, the spiritual master of everyone, was showing Prakashananda by His own example that the test of genuine humility is whether one can submit oneself as an ignorant fool before a qualified spiritual master. That is the Lord’s entrance exam for the study of Vedanta.

The Importance of Disciplic Succession

Qualified spiritual masters are those who have themselves heard submissively from a bona fide teacher in a disciplic succession descending from the Lord Himself, and who have carefully followed their spiritual master’s orders. Without receiving knowledge through disciplic succession, one can never fully understand either one’s eternal self or God, the supreme self, since both are beyond the limited and faulty jurisdiction of our material senses, minds, and intellects. Research with our defective material faculties distorts even our understanding of material subjects, so that our “knowledge,” full of mistakes, always requires revision. This shifting nature of materialistic knowledge provokes in ordinary researchers a state of frustration that makes the conception of an ultimate void, Buddhist or otherwise, look very attractive.

Lord Krishna therefore provides, in the form of the Vedas, libraries of conclusive writings in all branches of knowledge, both material and spiritual, and entrusts each branch to learned scholars to carry through the ages in a disciplic succession. According to Vedic historians, all knowledge, however embellished or distorted by empirics, has its origin in the Vedas. His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada writes: “Any knowledge you accept is veda, for the teachings of the Vedas are the original knowledge. There are no branches of knowledge, either mundane or transcendental, which do not belong to the original text of the Vedas. They have simply been developed into different branches. They were originally rendered by great, respectable and learned professors. In other words, the Vedic knowledge, broken into different branches by disciplic successions, has been distributed all over the world. No one, therefore, can claim independent knowledge beyond the Vedas.”

In reestablishing the primal position of the Vedic knowledge, Sankaracharya had given the voidists of his time access to preliminary spiritual understanding. But in imagining indirect, impersonal meanings to the Vedanta- sutra to attract his voidist audiences, Sankaracharya had concealed the principle of disciplic succession and opened the door for use of our same defective, material faculties in the study of Vedanta.

Mayavadis accept the Vedas as the source of transcendental knowledge, but at Sankaracharya’s behest they proudly think they can grasp Vedanta-sutra by their own intellectual efforts without referring to recognized experts in the Vedic tradition. This is a dangerous attitude even in material fields. Anyone, for example, can read books at a medical library, but without training under experienced surgeons, you cannot try your hand in an operating room without creating havoc. The Mayavadis have created havoc in the sphere of Vedanta, and have thereby polluted every field of knowledge.