A Ruler’s Quandary

Complexity: 
Easy

In the sixteenth century, the Muslim governor of Bengal loses two of his best men to the recently founded Hare Krishna movement.

Nawab Hussain Shah, who ruled Bengal from A.D. 1509 to 1532, had two expert and trusted ministers in the brothers Dabhir Kas and Sakara Mallik. The Nawab had recruited the brothers from the aristocratic Karnatic brahmana community, given them Muslim names, and taken satisfaction in seeing them shed Hindu ways and adopt Muslim dress and customs. In taking charge of the government secretariat and freeing the Nawab from the more cumbersome duties of his administration, Dabhir Kas and Sakara Mallik became his confidantes and two of the wealthiest and most influential men in Bengal.

Bengal’s Hindu community took a dim view of the brothers’ achievements. Muslims were not merely low- caste or outcaste, Hindu leaders proclaimed; they were meat- eaters and cow-killers. Rubbing shoulders with them in the slightest, even accidentally, clearly called for censure and ostracism. Because Dabhir Kas and Sakara Mallik, as they now called themselves, had accepted employment from the Nawab, they practically demanded their own excommunication. No other punishment fit their crime.

Finding no way to placate their critics and regain their status as respectable Hindus, the brothers in great humility and distress wrote several confidential letters to Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu at Jagannatha Puri, requesting His guidance. Lord Chaitanya promised to come resolve their spiritual difficulties, and in 1513, on His way to visit the holy land of Vrindavana, He arrived at Ramakeli, the brothers’ exquisite home village on the bank of the Ganges at the border of Bengal.

Great crowds of people joined Lord Chaitanya chanting Hare Krishna and dancing through the streets of Ramakeli, alarming Muslim and Hindu leaders alike and prompting them to wonder what had occasioned the Lord’s visit. Nawab Hussain Shah, while appreciating Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu as a Hindu prophet and ordering local officials to leave Him alone, appeared to be on a short fuse. And to many Hindu leaders, Lord Chaitanya was a prophet only in the loosest sense, one fomenting a revolution against the brahminical caste system. There were Muslims and other untouchables chanting and dancing in those noisy crowds, and even the inner circle of the Lord’s Hare Krishna movement included at least one member, Haridasa Thakura, born in a family of cow-killing Muslims.

Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s devotees and friends in Ramakeli, sensing tension in the air, feared for His safety. Honoring their loving pleas, and appearing inconvenienced by the crowds that followed His every step, the Lord postponed His Vrindavana pilgrimage and returned to Puri, leaving both Nawab Hussain Shah and Hindu leaders to their sighs of relief as life returned to normal.

The Brothers Resign

Or apparently normal. For only a matter of months later news shook Bengal that Dabhir Kas and Sakara Mallik, the Nawab’s right-hand men, had more or less vanished. Dabhir Kas had abruptly resigned his post, filled two large boats with his accumulated earnings in gold coins, and given away nearly all of it to relatives and religious charities at a place called Bakla Candradvipa.

Sakara Mallik too had requested permission to resign, and when the Nawab refused, had instead submitted sick reports and stayed home. Because Hussain Shah was planning an invasion of the neighboring state of Orissa, he was in no mood to allow Sakara Mallik to neglect the home front. Suspicious of the sick reports, the Nawab showed up at Sakara’s house and found him in good health and happily studying the scripture Srimad-Bhagavatam, no doubt under the influence of the Hindu prophet Chaitanya.

The temperamental ruler first tried coaxing Sakara back to work with friendly words. When that failed, he slapped him in jail and marched off to conquer the feudal princes of Orissa. In the Shah’s absence Sakara escaped and, according to the jailkeeper, drowned in the Ganges, dragged under by his prison chains.

But the drowning was a ruse. Sakara had bribed the jailkeeper with ten thousand gold coins Dabhir Kas had set aside for emergencies. The two brothers had slipped away to join Lord Chaitanya, who sent them to Vrindavana. Reliable sources confirmed too that during Lord Chaitanya’s recent visit to Ramakeli, the brothers, disguising themselves and crossing town in the dead of night to avoid the Nawab’s detection, had met with the Lord.

“Everyone is asking why I have come to this village of Ramakeli,” the Lord had told them. “I have come just to see you two brothers.”

Lord Chaitanya had initiated them into His Hare Krishna movement, changing their names to Rupa and Sanatana. So now Dabhir Kas and Sakara Mallik were known as Rupa Goswami and Sanatana Goswami. They had left wealth, family, friends, and practically unlimited spheres of influence in their homeland, and they had permanently set aside any thought of returning to regular Hindu society, all to serve Lord Chaitanya in a remote holy place.

Reports filtered back from Vrindavana that the brothers had shaved their heads, marked their foreheads with tilaka clay, and discarded the silken, bejeweled finery of their government days to wear torn cloth. With no fixed residence, they were living beneath trees, one night under one tree and the next night under another. They were begging a little food, eating only some dry bread and chickpeas, and sleeping hardly at all. Through these willing hardships they happily chanted the holy names of Krishna, dancing in great jubilation throughout Vrindavana. Finding the opportunity to employ their considerable erudition to scrutinize the world’s revealed scriptures (they were fluent in Persian, Arabic, and Sanskrit), they were writing books to establish eternal, universal religious principles.

Back home, Muslim and Hindu alike wondered how the brothers could even talk of religion. Dabhir Kas and Sakara Mallik had first lost their status as Hindus, then offended Hussain Shah as well. Weren’t they aware that no religious person would take them seriously? And how long could these wealthy, aristocratic gentlemen survive as humble mendicants after their lives of luxury and prestige? Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s cult might temporarily attract those shaken by the crises of youth or middle age, and certainly the brothers had been traumatized by losing their Hindu birthright, but nothing could ultimately replace the identity everyone centers on the traditions of home, family, country, and career. As time wore on, Dabhir and Sakara would inevitably return to lives as stable, upwardly mobile professionals.

Yet as the years passed, Dabhir Kas and Sakara Mallik stayed in Vrindavana, joyfully writing and preaching for Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s mission. Competition for position at the Nawab’s secretariat had begun at the first hint of the brothers’ resignations, with Sakara Mallik’s former post as head of the secretariat finally going to an undersecretary named Purandhara Khan. As further reminders of the brothers’ absence, hundreds and thousands of followers of Lord Chaitanya were appearing in every town and village in Bengal and throughout India. Wherever Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu had traveled, His devotees filled bustling marketplaces with their loud singing, greeted travelers at busy intersections and begged them to chant the holy names of Krishna, and in many ways reminiscent of Dabhir and Sakara, or Rupa and Sanatana, gave their lives to the Hare Krishna movement.

Ask these Hare Krishna devotees how Rupa and Sanatana were doing, and they would have the latest word on the brothers’ activities in Vrindavana. “Rupa and Sanatana Goswamis have received the causeless mercy of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu,” these nonenvious followers might typically say with pride. “Deeply attracted by the transcendental qualities of the Lord, the brothers are exact replicas of Lord Chaitanya and are very, very dear to Him. Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu has empowered them to spread the transcendental news of Krishna’s pastimes. Rupa and Sanatana very carefully follow the principles enunciated by the Lord, constantly thinking of Lord Chaitanya and His mission. Srila Rupa Goswami, Sanatana Goswami, and their nephew Jiva Goswami, as well as practically all of their family members, live in Vrindavana and publish important books on devotional service to Krishna. What is impossible for persons who have been granted the Lord’s mercy?”

Rupa and Sanatana, once the pride of the Nawab’s cabinet, the envy of their Muslim under-workers, and the objects of scorn from caste-conscious Hindus, were now leaders in the Hare Krishna movement. Because true spiritual life is without envy, their leadership made them the objects of love and honor for all the great stalwart devotees of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.

The Nawab’s Realization

Nawab Hussain Shah had to resign himself at last to the loss of his two talented ministers. Watching with wonder and apprehension as the Hare Krishna movement spread to every corner of his realm, he had occasion to remember his days with Rupa and Sana-tana. In Ramakeli during Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s visit, the Nawab had privately questioned Dabhir Kas, the future Rupa Goswami, about the Lord. Dabhir Kas had replied, “The Supreme Personality of Godhead, who gave you this kingdom and whom you accept as a prophet, has taken birth in your country. By His blessings, you will attain victory everywhere.”

“But why are you questioning me?” he had continued. “As king, you are the representative of God. What does your heart tell you about Lord Chaitanya?”

“I consider Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu to be the Supreme Lord, the Personality of Godhead,” the Nawab had answered. “There is no doubt about it.”

But Hussain Shah had mixed feelings. He had acknowledged Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu both as the Supreme Lord and as a troublesome holy man. Hussain Shah was after all a ruler and a politician, and Lord Chaitanya, Personality of Godhead or not, had created a significant upheaval in his kingdom. What had the Lord said to cause two talented ministers to leave their lucrative posts and join the Hare Krishna movement? What had caused so many others to follow the brothers’ example, chanting the holy names of Krishna and dancing in the streets?

What, in short, had been the teachings of Lord Chaitanya to Rupa and Sanatana?

(Next issue: “Lord Chaitanya’s Teachings to Rupa Goswami.”)