A Meeting in Varanasi, Part 3

Complexity: 
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Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu points out Sankaracharya’s error in contradicting Vyasadeva.

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 Saraswati, was complaining to his followers that Chaitanya Mahaprabhu 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 Saraswati’s criticism, Sri Chaitanya’s associates were pleased when the Lord accepted an invitation for lunch at the home of the brahmana. Prakashananda Saraswati and his followers would also be there, so Prakashananda Saraswati could see for himself the ideal character of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.

Lord Chaitanya’s meeting with Prakashananda began with Prakashananda’s asking the Lord why He chanted Hare Krishna. Lord Chaitanya replied that He was doing so on the order of His spiritual master.

Lord Sri Krishna Chaitanya Mahaprabhu stressed to Prakashananda the importance of chanting the holy names under the guidance of a qualified spiritual master. The chanting of Hare Krishna cleanses Mayavada (impersonalist) pollution from the heart and mind and gives the chanter a taste of the nectar of devotional service to Krishna. Lord Chaitanya’s process of sankirtana, the chanting of the Lord’s names, is thus the most direct method for understanding Vedanta and the only method recommended for the present age, known as the Age of Quarrel. A disciple who hears the transcendental vibration of Hare Krishna from a spiritual master in disciplic succession and tries to chant with sincerity achieves the goal of Vedanta study: service to the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Perceiving the eternal happiness of love of God through devotional service, the disciple is naturally inclined to chant and dance, not caring for public opinion.

“I never chanted and danced to make an artificial show,” Lord Chaitanya explained to Prakashananda. “I dance and chant because I firmly believe in the words of my spiritual master. Compared to the ocean of transcendental bliss tasted by chanting the Hare Krishna mantra, the pleasure derived from the impersonal Brahman realization touted by Sankaracarya is like the shallow water in a canal.”

Seated around Lord Chaitanya at the brahmana’s house, the Mayavadis were moved by His words. Their minds changed and they spoke pleasingly.

“Dear Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu,” they began, “what You have said is true. Only a fortunate person attains love of Godhead. We have no objection to Your being a great devotee of Lord Krishna. But why do You avoid discussion of the Vedanta-sutra? What is the fault in it?”

While the Mayavadis appreciated Lord Chaitanya’s description of Krishna sankirtana as superior to the pleasure of impersonal Brahman realization, they were still under the impression that Vedanta-sutra was synonymous with Sankaracarya’s commentary on Vedanta- sutra, known as Sariraka-bhashya. There are in fact many definitive commentaries on the Vedanta- sutra written by great devotional scholars. The original commentary is Srimad-Bhagavatam, written by Srila Vyasadeva Himself, the author of Vedanta-sutra. Foreseeing the havoc created by perverted Mayavada commentaries, Vyasadeva compiled His own commentary. The Mayavadis recognize none of the devotional commentaries, and Sankaracarya even faulted Vyasadeva’s compilation of the Vedanta-sutra itself. So although Lord Chaitanya had been commenting on Vedanta all along, the assembled sannyasis requested Him to comment specifically on the verses of the Vedanta-sutra in relation to the Sariraka-bhashya.

“To tell You the truth,” the Mayavadi sannyasis continued, “we are greatly pleased to hear Your words and behold Your extraordinary beauty. We see that You are just like Narayana, God Himself. Whatever You say, we shall be very glad to hear patiently.”

Contradicting Vyasadeva

With the Mayavadis eager to listen, the Lord began by indicating that Sankaracarya had no business correcting Srila Vyasadeva.

“Vedanta philosophy,” He said, “consists of words spoken by the Supreme Personality of Godhead in His literary incarnation as Srila Vyasadeva. The four material defects do not exist in the words of the Supreme Lord.”

The four defects of an ordinary person are (1) he must make mistakes, (2) he must fall into illusion, (3) he must have a tendency to cheat, and (4) his senses must be imperfect. These defects make our own knowledge unreliable, and their absence makes the Vedas authoritative. If we cannot accept, at least theoretically, that as an incarnation of God Vyasadeva is above the four defects, then there is no reason to give special attention to His Vedanta-sutra or any of the Vedic books. Certainly Sankaracarya, whose very mission was to reestablish the Vedic authority, weakened his position by correcting Vyasadeva. It is the Buddhists he was working to reform who believe that the Vedas were compiled by ordinary defective beings. Sankaracarya contradicted Vyasadeva only because the Vedas are clearly theistic and personal, something Sankaracarya’s Buddhist audiences would not have been able to swallow.

“Sankaracarya has misled the world,” Lord Chaitanya explained, “by commenting that Vyasadeva was mistaken. Thus he has raised great opposition to theism throughout the world.”

What, according to Sankaracarya, was Vyasadeva’s big mistake? The Vedanta-sutra begins by defining God or the Absolute Truth as the changeless origin of everything, the cause of all causes. Janmady asya yatah. That’s fine, the Mayavadis think. The Absolute is the origin of consciousness, of life, of spirit, the origin of everything eternal and real. But the Mayavadis balk at Vyasadeva’s assertion that the material creation also emanates from God. The material creation, with all its oceans, mountains, creatures, planets, and atomic and subatomic particles, is infinite, varied, and complete. If all this stuff is the energy of God, they reason, then He has either greatly depleted Himself in its creation, or has transformed Himself into the creation. In either case the changeless Absolute would have changed, making it a relative, illusory thing, like the material world itself. Vyasadeva, the literary incarnation of God, was therefore obviously mistaken, the Mayavadis contend, in saying that the universe is composed of the energies of the Supreme.

To rectify God’s mistake, the Mayavadis say that the material world is false. Brahma satyam jagan mithya. Brahman, or eternal spirit, is truth, while the temporary material world is untruth. It is an unreal dream. It does not exist and so does not need to be accounted for. We ignorantly mistake the material universe as real just as in the dark we might mistake a rope for a snake. Absolutely everything here is illusion, the Mayavadis believe, with the one tiny exception of their own words.

Cut off from authorized disciplic succession, the Mayavadis are victims of their defective material reasoning. Material things change or dissipate as they give off energy. Your gas tank and your bank balance reduce to nothing as you spend money and drive your car. The original tree disappears as it is sawed into lumber and further transformed into furniture and houses. But the Absolute Truth, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krishna, is not material. The Upanishads describe Him as a transcendental person with unlimited, inexhaustible energies. Because He is infinite and complete, His creations, such as the phenomenal material world, are also infinite and complete.

om purnam adah purnam idam
purnat purnam udacyate
purnasya purnam adaya
purnam evavashishyate

“The Personality of Godhead is perfect and complete, and because He is completely perfect, all emanations from Him, such as this phenomenal material world, are perfectly equipped as complete wholes. Whatever is produced of the Complete Whole is also complete in itself. Because He is the Complete Whole, even though so many complete units emanate from Him, He remains the complete balance.”

Despite the vastness of His creations, Lord Krishna remains complete and unchanged. As a businessman spreads his limited financial and managerial assets to run a corporation, so the Supreme expands His unlimited potencies to create the material and spiritual worlds. That is what it means to say that God is omnipotent. The unlimited and inconceivable potencies of the Supreme is the central point of the Vaishnava, or personalist, philosophy taught by Lord Sri Krishna Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.

Like spirit, the material universe is also true, because it is composed of the energies of the Supreme Truth. This world is not false, as the Mayavadis say. Although temporary and in flux, the universe is real. We are eternal spiritual individuals, distinct from our temporary bodies, and part of Krishna’s superior spiritual energy. The material elements that make up our bodies and the rest of the universe are part of Krishna’s material energy. Nothing but these two categories of Krishna’s energy, spiritual and material, make up the universe. Both energies, both the rope and the snake, to use the Mayavadi example, are real. It is mistaking one for the other that is false. It is false to mistake our selves for our bodies, as the gross materialists do, because the bodies are temporary vehicles for our eternal selves. And it is false to think of our individuality as a product of the soul’s contact with the body, as the Mayavadis do, because we are eternally individual parts of the supreme individual, the Supreme Brahman, Krishna.

The Psychology of the Mayavadi

“In all the Vedic sutras [codes] and books, Lord Krishna is to be understood,” Lord Chaitanya explained to the assembled Mayavadis. “To prove their philosophy, the followers of Sankaracarya have covered the real meaning of the Vedas with indirect explanations based on their imaginative powers.”

Mayavadis, or materialists trying to imagine an eternal blissful life, have had a tough time in the material world. Things here are temporary and full of misery. Suffering comes from our own bodies and minds, from the forces of nature, and especially from other people, including loved ones. People here are full of faults and even the most picture-perfect storybook love affair must realistically end in old age, disease, and death. All the endless varieties of personalities and situations produce tiny bits of pleasure on a background of pain. So when we turn our imaginative powers to spiritual life, we imagine that it must be a life without people and without variety. We find comfort in the idea of losing our individuality and merging with an eternal impersonal spirit. No personality. No variety. No suffering.

A patient long suffering from a painful physical disease sometimes asks a doctor to end his life. He wants to destroy the disease, but out of hopelessness he thinks killing the body is the only solution. In the same way, because our material personalities give us pain, we want to commit spiritual suicide by ending our personalities, and the Mayavadis, the Dr. Kevorkians of spiritual life, are here to help with their imaginative impersonal interpretations of Vedanta.

Lord Chaitanya admonished the Kevorkian Vedantists of Varanasi.

“Brahman,” He said, “is the Supreme Personality of Godhead. He is the reservoir of ultimate truth and absolute knowledge.”

Won Over by the Lord

Prakashananda and the other Mayavadis had always vigorously rejected such an explanation of Vedanta, but here was the Personality of Godhead Himself sitting before them and directly exhibiting His unlimited potencies, in particular His humility, His extraordinary beauty, His truthfulness, and His transcendental knowledge. Lord Chaitanya explained each sutra of the Vedanta-sutra in terms of devotion to Krishna, with the former Mayavadis pleased to hear everything He said. Before lunch they happily joined the Lord in the formerly scandalous activity of chanting Hare Krishna. Then, seating the Lord in their midst, they took their meal together.

After this incident, word spread that Prakashananda Saraswati and the other Mayavadis of Varanasi had embraced Lord Chaitanya’s path of chanting the holy names. Many scholars and curious people would come to see the Lord where He was staying. As all of them could not crowd into Chandrashekhara’s house, they used to line the streets as Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu daily made His way to the temples of Vishvanatha and Bindhu Madhava.

One day shortly after the luncheon meeting, Prakashananda and his disciples joined a tumultuous crowd chanting and dancing with Lord Chaitanya in the courtyard of the Bindhu Madhava temple. Noticing Prakashananda, the Lord stopped the chanting to greet him affectionately, and at Prakashananda’s request they had further talks on the Vedanta-sutra. Not long after that, Lord Chaitanya returned to His headquarters in Jagannatha Puri, where He remained from then on.

Today in Varanasi there is a big banyan tree near the temple of Bindhu Madhava, the same tree in whose shade Lord Chaitanya used to rest after lunch. The old temple of Bindhu Madhava was dismantled by Emperor Aurangzeb and replaced by a mosque, but a new temple was built nearby. There is no sign of the houses of Chandrashekhara or Tapana Mishra, where Lord Chaitanya stayed, nor any sign of the fortunate and humble sannyasi Prakashananda Saraswati, who discussed Vedanta with the Supreme Brahman over lunch.