Svalikhita Jivani The Autobiography of Bhaktivinoda Thakur How It Came to Light in the West and It’s Significance

In the summer of 1985 a package arrived in the mail. At the time, I was living in New Vrindavan, a Krishna community in West Virginia, and I was contemplating a topic for a PhD dissertation. In those days it was common for devotees to live within the protection of an urban temple or a rural religious community to practice a devotional life without the distractions of the outside world. As for me, I’d always had one foot in both worlds, which made my life unnecessarily difficult. To make matters worse my outside world was the world of modern academics, the very antithesis to the world of devotion. I was caught between tradition and modernity.

The package contained a photocopy of what appeared to be a published book in Bengali script. I recognized the script because I knew Devanagari, the Sanskrit script, but I could not read Bengali. There was a stamp with the date 1916 on the book showing it was from the Indian Office Library in London. The mail came from a colleague, Mr. Abhiram Das. This is all the information I had.

I showed this work to a Bengali devotee who immediately read the title as Svalikhita Jivani by Kedarnath Datta and told me it was a letter to Lalita Prasad, dated April 4, 1896. I immediately knew this must be the autobiography of Bhaktivinoda Thakur, the founder of modern Caitanya Vaishnavism and the great grandfather of the Hare Krishna movement. I had heard that such a an autobiography existed, but I had never seen a copy, nor did I know anyone who had seen it. This might be a valuable find.

Soon a group of close friends gathered, and with the help of this Bengali devotee, we started to read through the Jivani page by page. We met each evening, and the following two weeks became a time of tremendous excitement and discovery. This Jivani was taking us not only on an adventure into the history of nineteenth century Bengal, a time of intense cross cultural interaction between traditional Bengali culture and British modernism, but also into mind of one of Bengal’s intellectual elite, the bhadralok, as he grappled with the issues of religion, secularism and modernity. We were learning how this interaction played out in deeply personal terms in the life of Bhaktivinoda Thakur. Everyone in that room identified with Bhaktivinoda because we too struggled with these same issues. This autobiography was giving us a wealth of insight into our own lives.

Bhaktivinoda was born Kedarnath Datta in West Bengal in 1838 and grew up in the small village of Ula about 100 km north of Calcutta. He worked for the British Raj as a magistrate in the provincial judicial system. He also became a prominent religious leader in the Caitanya Vaishnava Tradition and is credited with being the great grandfather of the Krishna Consciousness movement. He married his first wife at age 12. She was just 6 years old. This was common in those days. Some years later this first wife passed away and he remarried. Between his two wives he had a large family of 14 children, 8 sons and 6 daughters. His autobiography, Svalikhita Jivani, was written as a long letter to his 10th son, Lalita Prasad. Knowing this fact alone told us why the Jivani had never been seen within the Krishna Consiciousness movement. There, the lineage runs through Bhaktivinoda’s 7th son, Bimal Prasad, who later became Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, the guru to the founder of the Krishna Consciousness Movement. These two descendent lines from Bhaktivinoda, through his sons, Bimal Prasad and Lalita Prasad, were not on speaking terms. They bickered over ownership of ancestral property, religious practice and theology. We knew we had a controversial book on our hands. Controversy often leads to good things.

As we gradually entered Bhaktivinoda’s world it became apparent we had left the realm of hagiography. We were now seeing directly through the eyes of Kedarnath as he told his life story to his son expressing all the doubts and joys and fears of any human being. We were young devotees and had never been accustomed to reading the lives of our religious leaders in such non devotional and ‘unsanitized’ terms. It was quite a shock. Bhaktivinoda was giving us a unique opportunity to step into a new way of seeing.

The story covered Kedarnath’s life from his birth up until the time of his retirement in 1896. We were riveted. This was a fascinating account of his childhood growing up in rural Bengal being in the family of a wealthy zamindar, landowner. It described his young life swimming and fishing in the local ponds and creeks. He especially loved the grand Durga pujas hosted by his maternal grandfather and other families of Ula and surrounding villages. There was even fierce competition to see which family could put on the grandest event. He gives us elaborate descriptions of the household decorations, the rituals, the dance, the foods, the music, and even of the sacrifice of the buffaloes and goats, all told in joyous terms. These were the good times.

But there were hard times as well.

The Jivani describes the devastating plagues of cholera that swept through the countryside including his fear and despair as members of his own family including his sister and his wife who succumbed to the ravages of cholera. He includes graphic descriptions of the bodies left in the street waiting for disposal pickup. These were sad times indeed. He provides a first hand description and commentary of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 and how his region of West Bengal was affected by the fighting and suspension of civil rights. We hear how the telegraph, gas-lighting and steam trains first appeared in Kolkata. These are things we take for granted, but in his day such modern inventions radically changed life. It is fascinating to read of his excitement as he describes the effects of these modern marvels. I realize now the telegraph alone was more life changing in his day than the internet is today in ours. Not only were Eastern and Western cultures interacting in those days, but radical technological developments were creating huge changes in both traditional Bengali culture and British European culture, not unlike our own times. The world was becoming flat.

As a boy Bhaktivinoda faced harsh treatment from his teachers in the village schools. Afterwards he moved to the home of his famous uncle, Kashiprasad Ghosh, an accomplished poet and commentator, for higher education. Yet he was so homesick in urban Kolkata he had to return home for a spell. One of his teachers was the famous Ishwar Chandra Vidysagar. Kesbub Chandra Sen and Michael Madhusudan Datta were two of his classmates. They later became prominent members of the bhadralok.

For us it was surprising to learn how Bhaktivinoda had deep religious doubts and skepticism. As a youth he challenged the local Hindu priests and even mocked their image worship. He preferred Christianity and described his interaction with various Christian ministers, particularly the American Unitarian ministers. Bhaktivinoda was deeply touched by Christian devotions towards Jesus, which he freely admits eventually brought him to Hindu bhakti in the form of Caitanya Vaishnavism. In later years we see the influence of Christian devotion throughout his writings. I have no doubt that we, as Western devotees, were able to identify with Bhaktivinoda’s devotional sentiments precisely because they had these Christian undertones. He was speaking to us.

Cholera sadly took the life of Bhaktivinoda’s first wife, his child-bride, with whom he had his first son. Soon he remarried through help of his uncle who arranged the marriage. This turned out to be a long and fruitful relationship. With his new wife he had 13 more children! There is a description of the birth of each child. Some of his children had health problems. One even suffered from mental illness, which caused continuing problems for many decades. He candidly tells us how he grew up eating meat and why he eventually became a vegetarian, and how at certain times of his life he was tempted to go back to eating fish for health reasons. As we listened we began taking bets whether or not he would go back to eating meat. As young devotees this was highly controversial information. One of our greatest gurus was a meat eater? He never did.

Bhaktivinoda invested and saved money to purchase his first house, a “fix-it-upper” in Kolkata, and he personally made the improvements, which ultimately became the family home. He christened this home ‘Bhakti Bhavan’, Devotion House. Later he purchased homes and rented property and eventually bought land and built his retirement home near Navadwip. Again we were shocked. A religious teacher in our line could engage in this type of worldly activity? He had more than one marriage and even a child who suffered mental illness? To us Bhaktivinoda sounded more American than Hindu! He describes the details of some of his controversial court cases and the threats and struggles he went through to see his rulings enforced. In those days a magistrate was terribly exposed to brides, intimidation and even bodily threats. Throughout his life Bhaktivinoda was always supportive of the British and proud of his position in their administration. By Indian standards he had a good income, which continued to improve as he advanced through the civil service and reached higher and higher pay grades. He eventually retired with a generous pension, which supported his preaching work in later life.

In his professional career Bhaktivinoda had relationships with many famous personalities of the Bengal Renaissance including Debendranath Tagore and even the later and most famous Ravindranath Tagore. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee was a colleague at work. He had friendships with Lal Bihari De, Protap Mazumdar as well as many important British missionaries including the reverends Alexander Duff and Charles Dall. We have already mentioned Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Michael Madhusudan Dutt and the Brahmo Samaj leader, Keshab Chandra Sen. Bhaktivinoda was well connected!

It was not until Bhaktivinoda was into his 40s that he began his conversion to Caitanya Vaishnavism. This seemed surprising late in life. All of us had taken that course in our late teens and twenties. He soon took initiation into that tradition and started a journal Sajjana Toshani, and even began a ministry throughout the rural areas of West Bengal. He developed a unique form of preaching, which he called Nama Hatta, the “marketplace of God’s name”. This would be something like today’s “Harvest Crusade”. He was no doubt influenced by Christian missionaries and their techniques to reach the people. Bhaktivinoda raised money to build a temple to Chaitanya. It is interesting to see the names of people who made donations for this project, which included many prominent British donors.

The Jivani ends with sad descriptions of Bhaktivinoda’s extensive health problems as he grew older, especially the fevers, the paralysis and the stomach issues that kept him bed ridden for months at a time.

For the handful of us, who listened to this autobiography, our devotional paths were forever altered. Here we were, young devotees, seeing through the eyes of one of our great teachers and seeing the world in very practical and human terms. Even though the Jivani was written to a son, born more than a 100 years before, it seemed as if he was talking directly to our time and our place. Prior to this our devotional careers had been conditioned by hagiography. In my own world as a practitioner, a devotee following the dictates of guru and following the discipline of temple life, and at the same time interacting with the modern secular world I was feeling great conflict and even guilt. None of my devoted colleagues could help me in my struggle for they were all living on the inside. Yet here I was, for the first time, seeing one of our own gurus giving a revealing, personal and intimate view of his life as a magistrate, a father and man confronting modernity, yet at the same time cultivating and following an evolving devotional life seemingly without contradiction. I had found my mentor. I knew that I had found one of the building blocks for my dissertation.

Autobiography is rare within Indian-Hindu literature. Much of my training had been in Sanskrit literature, kavya, and I had never come across a single autobiography. There are distinct differences between the Indian and the Western mind and autobiography is something for which there is no category within the Indian mindset. Autobiography is largely a Western invention and no doubt it has to do the importance placed on the individual within much of Western culture. In India individual identity is not as important as collective identity, the identity within one’s greater group, the family, the jat, the caste, and so forth. Individuality and, therefore, autobiography are given much less importance. There is little doubt that Bhaktivinoda’s presentation of an autobiography flows from his Westernization, which came with the advent of Europeans, particularly the British, and the affect they had on the Bengali elite, the bhadralok. To find my first autobiography penned by one in my own line, discussing a topic that deeply touched my heart, was a major find. My colleague, Mr. Abhiram Das, whom I hardly knew had given me the greatest gift.

Svalikhita Jivani is an immensely important work for both the historian as well as for the devotional practitioner, particularly those coming to Caitanya Vaisnavism from a Western culture. Autobiography is rare in Hindu culture. Svalikhita Jivani therefore provides a unique look into 19th century Bengali society through the eyes of a critical observer and a wealth of historical information about an important time in British-Indians relations, the Bengal Renaissance. For the practitioner it presents Bhaktivinoda as not only a modern person, but as a transcultural personality, a person able co-exist successfully along side both modern British culture and traditional Bengali Hindu culture. Bhaktivinoda comes to Caitanya Vaisnavism from the position of an outsider and so we, as his Western followers, can easily identify with him. And he does so at a time of extreme cultural and technological change, not unlike our own time.

Bhaktivinoda was more a part of my world than my own guru, who founded the Hare Krishna movement and who lived during my time and actually came to America. My guru was more a part of medieval Vaishnava culture than my modern American world. He consistently repeated Vaishnava tradition irrespective of how contrary it seemed to modern views and he made no attempt to rationalize Vaishnava tradition. Bhaktivinoda did just the opposite. For example Bhaktivinoda applied a rational analysis to the dating of the Bhagavata Purana, a devotional text foundational to Caitanya Vaisnavism. In his Krishna Samhita he dates this Purana to about 1000 A.D. This is completely contrary to orthodox Vaishnava teaching. He comes to this conclusion based on a critical analysis of internal evidence within the Bhagavata itself and the archeological research of other scholars. My guru never accepted such an approach and certainly not such a conclusion. He strictly taught the traditional view that the Bhagavata Purana was a work of 5000 years.

Now that the Jivani had been read it was necessary to verify the text, which meant a to trip to London and West Bengal. In London I went to the Indian Office Library where the stamp on the photocopy indicated the book was located. In those days without an internet or any kind of online access one often had to physically go to the various places to find the books and do the research. Within a few months I had come to the Indian office Library in London and to my sheer delight found the actual published book of Svalikhita Jivani. Unless one has done this kind of research it is difficult to convey the excitement of traveling across the world and actually finding the information you’re looking for. My photocopy had two missing pages and a few places of corrupted text so I had copies of those missing pages and the corrupted pages made.

While at the Indian Office Library the card catalog indicated four other books under the name, Kedarnath Datta. This was a surprise. I found British Mahatmya (1903), described as the glorification of British rule in India, Priyambada (1857), a romantic novel, Deva Dasa (1909), a story about a religious life and Bañcaka Charita (1863), a novel about a swindler. Were these works from the pen our Kedarnath Datta? It is not known, yet it would be interesting to find out. I would not be surprised if these works are indeed the writings of our Bhaktivinoda even though they all seem to be of non Vaishnava subject matter. In his early days Bhaktivinoda had a strong secular orientation, so it is quite possible he did indeed experiment with these non devotional forms of writing including romance. We know he did write the Poriade, which was a historical work about Alexander the Great and King Porus.

After London my next stop was the government archives of West Bengal to find Bhaktivinoda’s work records. Again to my delight their collection held a complete listing of the locations where he was stationed throughout his career and his work assignments including his furloughs. When I compared this official information to the information found in his autobiography I found a 95% match. Everything in the Jivani matched the official published record except for a few months of furloughed vacation time. The official record in the archives of West Bengal even showed another Kedartha Datta, who also worked in a similar capacity to our Kedarnath. In further field research I was not able to find any other references to this individual or any writings that this individual might have penned. Yet the possibility exists this Kedarnath may be the source of the works I found in the Indian Office Library. Again more research should be done in this area. It would be interesting to learn just how ‘secular’ our Bhaktivinoda had been in this early days. I also learned that in the archives of West Bengal the actual hand written records of Kedarnath Datta exist for the various judicial rulings he made over his long career. Unfortunately I was not able to access this information as it required Indian citizenship and special access privileges. This is an area of research which should be pursued by someone who can attain these access privileges.

My next stop was to the maternal home of Bhaktivinoda’s family in the village of Birnagar, which was called Ula in the Jivani. During the cholera epidemic of 1857 this village was destroyed. It took 45 years before Ula was rebuilt and christened, Birnagar. My goal was to find the actual handwritten manuscript of the Svalikhita Jivani.

Gaining access to these kinds of things can never be obtained in India without connections. In those days I went to India with the help of my Australian friend, Gaura Keshava, who was on good speaking terms with another American devotee, Gadadhar Pran who lived in Navadwip a village not far from Birnagar. To this day within the West Bengal Vaishnava community there are tremendous rivalries between the different groups including the followers Bhaktivinoda. The Hare Krishna Movement, which was my lineage through Bhaktivinoda’s 7 son Bimal Prasad, was completely at odds with the line of descendants coming from Lalita Prasada, the 10th son of Bhaktivinoda. Lalita Prasad, of course, was the son to whom Bhaktivinoda wrote his Jivani. My colleague Gadadhar Pran had connections to the descendants of Lalita Prasada where the original hand penned manuscript of the autobiography was said to be kept. So with the good help of these connections I was able to gain access to Bhaktivinoda’s maternal family’s home in Birnagar. The estate was called Dwadash Mandir. Happily I was welcomed onto this estate by the custodian, Bhakta Ma, who she was wonderfully accommodating and gave me full access to the original handwritten manuscript of the Jivani. This was like striking gold! It was the best possible outcome for my trip across the world to India. I was able to photograph this manuscript.

I wanted to compare the hand writing of the Jivani with hand writing from other known sources to see if the Svalikhita Jivani was actually penned from the hand of Bhaktivinoda. There had been allegations that Lalita Prasad had written the letter himself or had tampered with it so the book held in the India Office had been changed from the original handwritten manuscript. In Birnagar at Dwadash Mandir I found the original manuscript along with its marginalia, and when I compared the hand writing from other proven handwriting sources of Bhaktivinoda there is no doubt they matched. There were no major differences between the handwritten manuscript and the published book. The marginalia on the handwritten manuscript matched the handwriting of the actual text and most of the marginalia has been incorporated into the published text.

While I was in Birnagar, in conversation with local people, I heard rumors that Bhaktivinoda had another descendent line said to be south of Kolkata near Khargpur at a place called Shauri Prapanna Ashrama. I subsequently traveled to that area and found the Shauri Prapanna Ashrama, a religious retreat, founded by one of Bhaktivinoda’s disciples, Bhaktitirtha Thakur. They allowed me to photograph the guru lineage from their main altar. It was fascinating to see the picture of Bhaktivinoda in this completely separate line of gurus. They even gave me a book in Bengali outlining the history and teachings of this lineage. Hopefully one day someone will do research into this line to see how it compares in terms of theology and religious practice to other lines coming from Bhaktivinoda. It would be a fascinating study.

After this trip to India the real work was to assimilate this information and put it together as my doctoral dissertation. With the assistance of the late Joseph O’Connell at the University of Toronto I began this work. In the end it was published as a book, Hindu Encounter with Modernity. Svalikhita Jivani became one of the building blocks of this study. Hindu Encounter with Modernity was a study of the life of Kedarnath Datta, a member of Bengal’s cultural elite, the bhadralok and how he became Bhaktivinoda Thakur, a religious leader during the Bengal Renaissance and how Caitanya Vaishnavism began to change under his influence as a modern reformer. But even more importantly it was about my struggle as a Western devotee to enter the world of Hindu devotionalism and at the same time maintain relevance in my modern Western world. Hindu Encounter with Modernity was the completion of my spiritual, intellectual, and emotional conversion, my normalization, into this world of Hindu devotion. Svalikhita Jivani was my pathway into that new world.

The Past, two views

It’s hard to believe the mess Russia has made of things. They successfully concluded the Winter Olympics in Sochi and were sitting on a gold mine of public relations. Yet within a week they began to squander it. First, they annexed the Crimea, held sham elections, and promptly got sanctions targeted against themselves. They even managed to get themselves rejected from the G8. Would they stop there? No! They started messing around in eastern Ukraine and managed to get even more sanctions. Their best trick of all was to supply a bunch of militia amateurs with high tech surface-to-air missiles who in turn mistakenly shot down a commercial airliner. God almighty! That got the whole world involved. Then to top it off Russia refused to intervene to allow the world to mourn and recover it’s dead with dignity. The world has been horrified by the actions of Russia. No doubt more sanctions are coming. Way to go Russia! You’ve managed to squander all your public relations in just a few months. You’ve turned yourself into a pariah just like the old Soviet days.

Thomas Friedman has nailed it with a wisdom that applies globally as well as individually. How does one move ahead in life? You can either bury the future with the past or you can bury the past with the future. Are you going to be backward looking or forward-looking? Russia should be opening relations with Europe and other parts of the world, not forcing itself into isolation. Russia should be attracting trade and commerce. Not driving it out of the country. Russia sits on a gold mine of tourism. They should be developing it, yet they make tourists feel unwelcome. They insist on dwelling on the past and continue to control their past Soviet satellites. Russia should be encouraging Ukraine to expand and grow and develop relations with the world, instead they are trying to dominate and control it claiming they have an historical right to it. Russia is the most backward looking place I’ve ever visited.

Ukraine, Its worth

Ukraine, It’s Worth

As I write, Russia is engaging in a military and propaganda campaign to annex parts of Ukraine, and no doubt, the whole of Ukraine if it can possibly get away with it. Not only is Ukraine in jeopardy, but so are many of the old soviet satellites. Russia, of course, thinks it is acting in its best interest by creating buffer zones against the West and reclaiming its former glory and regions of traditional influence. But in so doing, Russia is separating itself from the rest of Europe and even from much of the world. Yet most significantly Russia is alienating itself from the 21st century, where territorial control is far less important than are relationships. In the long term Russia’s prosperity will come from interacting with Europe and the rest of the world as a friend and reliable partner in trade, commerce and culture, and not in claiming dominance over pieces of land and thereby alienating itself from its neighbors. What Russia is doing is reverting to a 20th century policy of land grab and domination by force and intimidation. Such a policy did not work in the 20th century and will certainly not work in the 21st-century. It will only condemn Russia to economic stagnation because it will force it to remain a resource selling economy instead of developing into a diverse trading economy. It’s easy to sell natural resources, but it takes a trading environment and openness to the world to create a an international business economy. Mr Putin may be giving a display of former grandeur to its people for the moment—he runs high in the popularity polls—yet ultimately he is disempowering his citizens.

Fast forward two months, elections have taken place, a new Ukraine president has been elected, and Ukraine was signed a trade deal with the EU. Russia is still threatening parts of eastern Ukraine by proxy, suppling armaments to Russian sympathizes in Ukraine, but has largely pulled its military back. So the immediate crisis seems to be over for now at least. I would not, however, be surprise see this thing come back with a vengeance.

So was this adventure worth it?

The trade deal which sparked the whole affaire was signed. The public relation coup that Russia gained after the Olympics was squandered, trade sanctions have been imposed on Russia, the Russian economy took a major and long term hit. The ruble lost value. Europe is moving to reduce its dependence on Russian gas. The American gas industry has gained by suppling that need. NATO has breathed new life. Russia’s smaller neighbors are scrambling to sign pacts with NATO and negotiate trade deals with the EU of their own. Russia got itself kicked out of the G8. And oh yeah, Russian now owns the Crimean which it already had use of and could have continued to rent. And Putin is a hero in Russia. Good show. And all this for a group of people simply wanting to sign a trade deal to improve their lot in life? Russia should be doing the same thing!

The Return of Winter, Mr Putin’s Back

Today I watched excerpts of Mr. Putin’s speech regarding a recent referendum in the Crimea and his signing a document to reclaim Crimea as part of the Russian Federation. An article in the New York Times read as follows: “Mr. Putin claimed Crimea as part of Russia Tuesday, reversing what he described as an historic mistake made by the Soviet Union 60 years ago and brushing aside international condemnation that would leave Russia isolated for years to come.”

We are now watching a similar Russian agitation taking place in the eastern part of Ukraine. As in Crimea, unidentified paramilitary bands have taken over government installations defying the Ukraine government while many thousands of Russian troops perform maneuvers just across Ukraine’s border. Naturally, Mr. Putin is denying any involvement, yet he says Russia is ready to take action to protect ethnic Russians living in Ukraine. In the meantime the Russian ruble is falling in value, foreign capital is leaving Russia, international investments are halting, the Russian credit rating has been downgraded to just one point above junk status, Russia has been rejected from the G8, US and European sanctions are being applied, and the world is looking on Russia as a pariah state. Does Russian care? Not in the least.

The New York Times got it right. Russia does not care about isolation, in fact it seems to revels in it. For the sake of reclaiming its perceived Motherland, Russia is more than willing to sacrifice it’s relations with the rest of the world, and even the prosperity of its citizenry. It astounds me that the average Russian is willing to accept this. Mr. Putin’s popularity has never been higher. It means nothing that 13 of the 15 countries on the United Nations Security Council voted to condemn Russia. It was only Russia that voted in its own favor. Even China, who usually supports Russia, failed to vote on the side of Russia. Even though the world views Russia’s annexation of the Crimea as illegal, and will no doubt condemn Russia if something similar happens in the eastern part of Ukraine, Russia will not care.

Russia has a very different view of its own self interest.

Growing up during the Cold War and having now visited Russia, watching Mr. Putin and the many delegates all dressed in formal attire, seated in an exquisitely beautiful hall—no doubt in one of the Czar’s palaces—Russia is no longer distant and theoretical, but real and compelling. I even have Russian friends. I have become a Russian watcher of sorts.

Russians are nationalists in a way that no North American can possibly understand, and they are more than willing to pay the price of isolation, world condemnation, and decreased prosperity for the sake of Motherland, which ultimately translates into security. Driving by a park in St. Petersburg on my recent trip, our Russian guide described how millions of Russians had died in the siege of Leningrad, and how this park had been used as a cemetery and crematorium. She recounted how one and a half million people had died in less than 900 days! These are inconceivable numbers, and I clearly heard a deep emotion in my tour guide’s voice and on the faces of my fellow Russian travelers as we passed by. We were passing sacred ground. Since the days of Napoleon Russians have bought their land in blood, and naturally they have an intense need to feel their borders are as deep and secure as possible. As Jews never want to see the Holocaust repeated, so Russia never wants to see itself the victim of invasion from the West again. Russians see the whole of Ukraine as theirs, and if they can get away with it, will take it all at almost any cost. It is their buffer zone and traditional sphere of influence. A North American can never understand the concept of Motherland that absolutely pervades and defines the identity of Russia. Yet as the world moves towards globalization and as nation-states and national borders become less important in a “flattened world” this new reality is a foreign and threatening concept to many Russians.

Yet I still continue to think Russia should be moving towards the European Union and not putting up fences further separating itself from the rest of the world. Increasing relations is the way to prosperity even for a resource economy like Russian. My Russian friends find this view impossible. Given its history it’s going to take Russia decades before it can truly move out of the 19th and 20th centuries.

What is taking place in Ukraine today is turning the world’s clock back. Russia has just breathed new life into NATO, a 20th century relic. States like Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, and Hungary, all formerly within the Soviet orbit, now feel anxiety they could be next. And indeed they may well be. NATO will be their saving grace. Ideally, we should be seeing less NATO, not more of it. Unfortunately, the speech we just heard Mr. Putin give reinvokes the Cold War. NATO is going nowhere soon. No doubt more sanctions will be levied by the United States and Western Europe, and there will be reprisals from Russia. Visas will become more difficult to obtain. Russia will become just a little more unfriendly as you enter, and the life of the average Russian will become even more grim. In spite of this Mr. Putin is enjoying increased popularity. He is defending the Motherland and the honor of Russia.

Hinduism and Science by Shukavak N Das

In many ways the relationship between science and religion can be determined by how the members of a particular religion view scripture. And as might be expected, within Hinduism, there are conservative Hindu views, modern liberal views and everything in between. Conservative Hindus accept the Vedas as the direct revelation of God and therefore inerrant. Whatever is stated in the Vedas, even if it is contrary to reason, sense perception and modern science, must be accepted. This is religious fundamentalism. On the other hand, there are
Hindus who admit the Vedas contain much that is spiritual, yet they also think the Vedas are not infallible and so those parts of the Vedas that contradict reason or science can be rejected. This is religious liberalism, and it involves a high degree of rationalism and secularization. And finally there are Hindus, the mass majority of whom, accept the Vedas contain divine revelation, but think such revelation is not free of errors because the Vedas have been written and interpreted by human beings who are flawed and conditioned by their place history. Consequently, those parts of the Vedas that seem out of step with reason and proven science are not to be rejected, but must be reinterpreted in a way that conforms to reason and, ultimately, science. All three of these approaches fall within the realm of what, in theology, is called hermeneutics or the interpretation of sacred writings. Indeed, all religions have adherents who subscribe to one of these basic modes of scriptural interpretation and therefore their views towards science follows one of these three general modes.

Here is an example of how an important Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, might regard modern science. There is a chapter of the Gita entitled, Saankhya Yoga. The word “sankhya” means “counting,” “enumeration,” or “analysis.” In the Gita there is a simple form of “analysis” that classifies matter into eight constituent elements: earth, water, fire, air, space, mind, intelligence and ego. This is essentially a periodic table and an excellent example of early science or what used to be called natural philosophy. Even before the Gita, Hindu thinkers had taken this theme of “counting” and developed it into one of the six traditional philosophies of ancient India called Saankhya. From the perspective of Bhagavad Gita, it is fair to say that modern science is simply a highly detailed analysis of matter and so, in this sense, there is no conflict between the Gita and science. Modern science is simply more of what ancient Hindu thinkers had been doing for millennia, but where the Gita would disagree with modern science is that modern science does not go far enough in its analysis of reality. Vedic “science” is not simply about the mere analysis of matter, but it also includes the analysis soul and God. In other words, it includes metaphysical reality as well as physical reality. The sankhya of the Gita, therefore includes an analysis of physical reality as well as a spiritual reality. At present, modern science only accepts physical reality as its domain of study, but the call from the Gita is that ordinary science should also explore the metaphysical dimensions of life and so become a complete form of sankhya. But an objection can be made that science does not need to include such metaphysical issues as the soul and God because philosophy and theology already do this. I think the answer from the Gita would be that physical reality and spiritual reality are ultimately inseparable, and therefore, any study of one that omits the presence of the other will create a false or incomplete body of knowledge. Therefore even such non physical sciences as psychology, biology, or the medical sciences must include at least the premise that at the heart of reality there is a spiritual foundation, and even though we may not be equipped to see it at this point, it is there nonetheless and must be accounted for.

This simple example illustrates how, from a Hindu perspective, religion and science are related, but of course, most modern scientists, at present, would be hard pressed to include metaphysics within their scientific perspective and methodology. From a Hindu perspective, modern science is a legitimate, but incomplete, step towards knowing and understanding reality. From a modern scientific perspective, Hinduism goes too far in its assumption of what constitutes the foundations of reality and the means of knowing this reality. The relationship between Hinduism and science is, therefore, mixed. On the one hand, the basic approach of science can be accepted, but when it comes to the acceptance of metaphysical elements of reality the Gita and the Vedas embrace these principles as essential to the pursuit of truth. Current science cannot.

Consequently it is fair to say that the Hindu view of science is not that it is wrong, but that it only offers a limited view of reality. Until science is able to open itself to the exploration of metaphysical reality, it will remain incapable of understanding the full nature of reality. In general, the middle and liberal sides of Hinduism are favorable and open to science. The conservative sides of Hinduism, however, will remain closed to science. Interestingly, I see the gradual acceptance of a metaphysical view of reality by modern science an increasing possibility as more work is done in “cutting edge” areas of research like quantum mechanics, particle and string theories, cosmology and other areas that seems to point to answers that go beyond the common mechanistic view of the universe. It will be exciting to watch and see where these new theories lead.
There is another relationship between science and religion that is current, but which, in my opinion, is a wrong attempt to link Hinduism and modern science. This is the attempt to read into the Rig Veda and other Hindu religious texts allegorical renderings that contain so called secret or vague references to modern ideas such as particle theory or quantum mechanics. I have seen interpretations by modern Hindus that attempt to show how modern particle theory was known at the time of the Rig Veda, and how this knowledge was secretly inserted into the text of the Vedas. I have seen attempts by modern Hindus to rationalize and reinterpret Puranic cosmology, which holds a geocentric view of the universe and describes the sun as closer to the earth than the moon, to name just a few differences, in terms of modern astronomy. As we have mentioned, from a Hindu perspective, there is no problem in exploring the possible religious implications of quantum mechanics, string theory or any other modern scientific theory that may open the way for modern science to explore a metaphysical view of the universe, but to read such theories back into the pages of the Vedas in order to justify faith or with so called Hindu nationalistic (Hindu-tva) motivations is not science at all. I caution my readers to be aware of such extreme reinterpretations of sacred writing.

World Trading Blocks, Where is Russia?

What is occurring in Ukraine is indeed a loss for Russian’s world vision and self esteem. After all Ukraine was part of the ancient Kievan Rus state. The Crimea, an autonomous region within Ukraine, was gifted by the Soviet Union to the Ukraine in 1954 under Nikita Khrushchev. Yet, it was an internal transfer, never meant as a gift to a separate country. Ukraine, no doubt, is the crown jewel in the Russian empire. And of course, Mr Putin’s actions to take the Crimea by any means before it’s too late is based on this history and Russia’s need for year round access to the sea.

Yet there is something much greater at stake.

All this history, albeit important, is secondary. Mr. Putin is no doubt driving Ukraine away from Russian influence and perhaps into the world’s lap. In the end this may be Russia’s greatest gift to its former region, but more importantly he is driving Russia away from the world. This is very bad. He is doing exactly the opposite of what needs to be done. Russia itself should be joining the European Union along with Ukraine!! Without partnership in the European Union Russia is isolated. It’s a small country with only 145 million people, not much bigger than Japan! That’s tiny by today’s standards. And like the family farm in today’s world, a small country cannot prosper alone. It must be integrated into the world economy.

Look at what is occurring in the world today: North America is coming together; Europe is coming together. China and East Asia are coming together. South America is forming a trading block, and I’m sure one day much of Africa will also come together. And each of these separate trading blocks are interacting. China and the US, two enemies, have the largest trading relationship in the world! Where is Russia in all of this? Let us face it, even the ‘criminals’ in the Ukraine, who have by Russian calculation engineered this revolt, know where they need to be in the 21st century. They see no future with Russia. And they are right. Russia needs Europe and the rest of the world if it is to prosper. Blocking the Ukraine from joining the EU and seizing the Crimea is old world thinking. It’s last century’s strategy.

Mr. Putin is desperately wrong on this one and Russia will loose. Fighting over land is a dangerous mistake. Fighting for trade relations and free flow of capital is where Russia needs to put its energy. Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore are tiny countries with hardly any natural resources, yet they are prosperous modern countries with a standard of living far beyond most of the world, even the US. Why? Because they trade with the world and they interact with the world and they are part of the world economy. Russia has not even implemented the world trade agreement. What trading block is Russia going to join? China? South Asia? South America? This is unrealistic. Peter the Great knew Europe was where Russia had to be. It’s natural. It was true in his day and it’s true today.

Sadly Mr. Putin is driving Russia away from the rest of the world and back into the isolation of Soviet times. This is bad news for the average Russian.



What has Russia Gained?

Riverside CA
Just three weeks ago Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federation successfully completed the winter Olympics in Sochi. The price tag was enormous, yet in spite of some facility glitches, and the threat of devastating terrorism, it was a success. The games were completed, and no one was blown up. As every country does during the Olympics, Russia successfully showed its swagger to the world. Congratulations Mr Putin!

But now look at what is happening just down the road in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin has invaded the Crimea, a small part of the Ukraine that has an historic connection to the Russian homeland and a 60% Russian population, which he says gives him the obligation to protect these Ukraine citizens. Under pressure from Russia, Viktor Yanukovych, the recently ousted president of the Ukraine, tried to pull back from an impending agreement that would have tightened the ties between Ukraine and the European Union. Canceling the deal unleashed a bloody revolt that saw him and his government ousted from the country. With the collapse of Mr. Yanukovych’s government Mr. Putin invaded Ukraine, but in so doing Russia has violated international law. It has invaded a sovereign nation. Now the world is looking at Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federation with revulsion and suspicion. The benefits of Sochi have effectively been wiped out. Today the Russian Federation doesn’t look much different than its former incarnation, the Soviet Union. Is the Cold War restarting? In the end Russia may indeed keep the Crimea; the rest of Ukraine will move towards the European Union, and in time it will likely recover economically and become a prosperous country like Lithuania or Latvia. Russia will be left behind being the same old Russia. Mr. Putin, is it worth it?

I grew up in Canada with a somewhat similar situation in Quebec. During the 1970s and 80s a civil war almost occurred when Quebec, a French speaking part of Canada, tried to secede from the rest of Canada. Thankfully war was averted when Quebec was given special status and allowed to keep its French identity. English-speaking Canada even agreed to learn French, myself included. In other words, we worked it out, found a viable solution, and avoided war, and today Quebec is a prosperous province within Canada. Indeed, the whole country is prosperous. My point is there are ways of dealing with these problems without resorting to a brute grab for land and control.

Yet there is an even more important lesson. What was actually important is that Quebec and the rest of Canada forged the necessary legal, financial, business and trade relations conducive to prosperity irrespective of whether Quebec and Canada stayed together. They were forward looking and created a formula that preserved cultural identity and ensured economic prosperity. A similar thing is underway in Europe. It is called the European Union. Europe was destroyed by two major wars in the last century and yet today Europe has become one of the most prosperous parts of the world. All members of the European Union have preserved their cultural, language and ethnic traditions, yet they have banded together with the necessary legal, financial, business and trade relations conducive to prosperity. None of this is easy and today both Europe and Canada are still challenged by what they have done, but overall it has been successful. In both cases a way was found to maintain the ethnic and regional identities while allowing for free flow of trade and commerce. I can board a plane tonight and be anywhere in Europe tomorrow without an advance visa. I can travel everywhere using just one currency. A similar same thing is beginning to occur between Canada, the United States and Mexico. These three distinct countries have agreed to the North American Trade Agreement to allow for the freer flow of trade and commerce between themselves. It’s a pact for mutual prosperity and while it’s not as developed as the European Union agreement, it is a step in the right direction. We need more of this, not less.

Russia should be following the lead of Ukraine and itself join the European Union! Instead the Russian Federation under Mr. Putin is putting up more barriers to restrict trade and commerce. I visited Russia last year and as soon you enter Russia your credit cards and email accounts immediately deactivate. You have to call each one and tell them you are legitimately there. They automatically assume fraud. The reason is Russia has not implemented something as simple and basic as the World Trade Agreement. Why do I need an advance visa to enter Russia? Why can’t it be the same as going to France or Italy with just an arrival entry visa. Why was my passport confiscated the moment I passed through customs in St. Petersburg because I was carrying a camera in my checked baggage. I felt unwelcome the minute I arrived. I came as a tourist to appreciate the country and to spend money. Why did I feel I was moving back into Soviet times? Why is the Russian Federation not even on par with places like India and Brazil, not to mention Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia, Canada, the United States, the UK, Israel and all of Western Europe. This is the modern world and this is the world Ukraine wants to become a part of. And so should Russia. Unfortunately Russia is still a closed authoritarian society that lives in fear of the rest of the world.

But I also know Russia has the potential of Canada, and even more. Both countries have cold miserable climates, both countries have massive resources, yet Russia has a history that appeals to tourism, something Canada cannot even begin to approach. Why is Canada inconceivably more prosperous than Russia? The reason is Canada has been forward looking whereas Russia has been and continues to be backward looking. Canada intelligently solved its Quebec problem. The Russian leadership needs to change the direction of its outlook; it needs to stop worrying over owning pieces of land and start thinking what are those things necessary to promote trade, commerce and prosperity between itself and the rest the world. What has Mr. Putin gained by making a land grab in the Crimea? Just business as usual.

I would like to return to Russia, but I know it’s going to be more difficult to obtain a visa. There will probably be more barriers and more unfriendliness. If you want to to do something as basic as send an iPad to a friend in Moscow you will be told by FedEx, UPS and DHL they cannot deliver packages to private individuals in Russia. They will tell you it is a restriction of the Russian government. Mr. Putin, is it really worth it?




Leaving Norham for New Vrindavan

January 1983
It is difficult to remember the details of these past times. They were dark days. Kama Nagari was regularly going to West Virginia. Sometimes she would take the children and sometimes she would leave them back. She was developing relationships in New Vrindavan and she was hell bent on moving to New Vrindavan with or without me. For sure she was making plans that did not include me. In those days it was difficult to understand how to act. There were no boundaries between family, business, and community. It was one big sea of trouble and turmoil. Looking back on it now I see the importance of what I was actually doing in terms of developing the community. The concept of buying a town to solve zoning problems, making individual families personally responsible for themselves and the idea of spiritual capitalism instead of spiritual communism was radical. I was doing it, yet I couldn’t fully appreciate it. All I could see was my marriage and my family collapsing all around me. There was little space to see a bigger picture. Once I decided it was impossible to prevent Kama Nagari from moving I was forced to decide whether to stay or to go. In the end I decided to move to West Virginia to keep the family together. I opted for family instead of community. No doubt that was the responsible choice, yet from another perspective it was a mistake. I wanted the chance to demonstrate the model of spiritual capitalism, which had the potential to help a lot of people. Given the time to mature it would have done a lot for Krishna consciousness in Canada and throughout the world. But this was not to be. Once I decided to leave for West Virginia it was the beginning of the end of the Norham community. It was a great loss, and even to this day there are regrets. I left down a lot of people.

My final months in Canada are still a blurred to me. I don’t remember how things went once we decided to leave. I went down to West Virginia and consulted with Bhaktipad, and together we decided it was best for me to leave. He offered me a house and a position in New Vrindavan. That helped a lot! It gave me focus and hope. I had a direction and a place to go. Having a private house in New Vrindavan was no easy matter. Few devotees had such luxuries and here was I was being offered such a thing at the outset without any local seniority. I was also offered the position of headmaster of the school. Again, that was a high position in terms of the local community. It was also something appealing to me. I had no innate taste for business. It was a side road that I had fallen into. Scholarship and education were my true interests. So here was an opportunity to develop a school system. It was appealing in the extreme. Together these were the factors that contributed to my decision to leave Canada.

From the passing of one thing comes the birth of something new. Once the Canadian temples knew I was leaving, they understood it would be the end of Bhaktipada’s interest in their zones. Devotees arrived from all parts of Canada. I remember the temple presidents from Montréal, Toronto and even as far away as Vancouver, along with the local GBC converging on our temple community in Norham. They made plans how to develop the community. I remember moving our temple deities into the church building. I remember Marvin Tucker moving into the rented building in Campbelford along the Trent River. I remember television and newspaper people talking to various devotees in the streets of Warkworth. The word was spreading in the local community that the Hare Krishnas were moving into the area. The local community did not like this at all! During most of this time Kama Nagari and the family were in West Virginia. I was alone in Canada. It was unbelievably painful. I was embroiled in a political struggle between New Vrindavan and the Canadian temples. There were unbelievable business pressures. I felt completely alone. While this was going on I was planning my exit strategy. I went to Peterborough, the local city and filed for bankruptcy. I did this with the help of Kanina. You can’t imagine how ashamed I was. I felt this was the most despicable thing. Bankruptcy and divorce were the two worst possible things, and here I was stepping voluntarily into the first. And I didn’t even have to! My bank was offering me all kinds of encouragement and credit. But it was the only way I could think of to get out of this situation. And I knew that divorce was not faraway. These were dark days indeed.

Two devotees, Rochan and Vyapaka, were planning to take over the sewing business of Marvin Tucker. But I didn’t want to turn it over to them. The business was in a rented building along the Trent River in Campbelford. I had a terrible concern they wouldn’t look after it nicely and the people in Toronto, my mentors who had lent us our sewing machines, would end up losing that equipment. So I had Gaudiya secretly one evening remove those machines and return them to Toronto. I remember Vyapaka and myself almost coming to blows over this. I remember having no money and being in our house the last days with no heat while the copper pipes were freezing and bursting. It was a savagely cold winter. Kanina and I stayed in one bedroom of the house with just an electric space heater. I tried to make arrangements to move our cows to West Virginia, which involved working with the departments of agriculture in both Canada and United States. It involved expensive vet bills and weeks of quarantine, so in the end I gave up and left without the cows. Gaura Nitai, a Scottish devotee and my neighbor across the ravine took them. I remember having a step van, a kind of delivery vehicle, which I eventually used to drive down from Canada to West Virginia. I remember crossing into the United States at Niagara Falls. I’m not sure how long the community lasted once I had left. I know Kanina came to New Vrindavan not long afterwards. I heard that Gaura Gopal ended up taking the community deities. As a Bhaktipada disciple he refused to turn them over to the Canadian devotees. He considered the Canadian devotees to be blasphemous. I also heard someone burned down the church in the middle of the night. Arson was suspected. No more slippers were ever made. And out of the hundred or so Devotees who were there at our community’s peak, none are there now. I don’t know when, but the community completely collapsed. It was a horrible mess and personal defeat for me. I regret the whole affair.

It is unfortunate there no photos of our temple-church or even our deities or devotees from these days. This was all in the days before digital photography. Besides I had no interest in taking pictures during this time. A great pity. Here’s one photo of Kama Nagari and myself and how we looked in those days. This is us standing in front of our greenhouse.


From Manhattan to Manhattan


I worked a noon-time wedding on Manhattan Beach in California with the emerald green Pacific Ocean, glorious palm trees, and sailboats in the background. It’s hard to imagine a more beautiful backdrop for a wedding. A few hours later I boarded a flight to Newark, New Jersey and by noon the next day I was performing another wedding on the other side of the country looking at Manhattan New York from the shores of New Jersey. Again the view was spectacular! To look down the Hudson River and see the Empire State Building and then directly across to see the Manhattan skyline and then up the Hudson to see the Statue of Liberty was fabulous. During the wedding a plethora of boats—pleasure yachts, police boats, barges, and tour cruisers—went up and down the Hudson. For me, as a tourist, it was beyond belief. This was my weekend, from Manhattan Beach in California to the Manhattan skyline of New York City. What great job I have!


American Talk Radio

September 21, 2011 Chicago

Walking down Michigan Avenue in Chicago I came upon radio station WGN 720 AM. This is a major talk radio station in Chicago and it’s situated at the front of the Chicago Tribune building on the banks of the Chicago River across from the Trump Towers. Prime real estate to be sure! What was interesting about this station is that the broadcasting was being done completely in view of the street behind a huge glass window so you can see the programming live. There were three men sitting facing each other in a triangular situation, all other headgear performing a live show.

So what is American talk radio? Very simply, it’s white, fat, bald guys sitting around a table talking with big mouths. Certainly these guys would be on television if they had the looks for it, but since they don’t they are relegated to talk radio. This is American talk radio.