Divine Madness

namo gaura-kishoraya sakshad-vairagya- murtaye
vipralambha-rasambhode padambujaya te namah

“I offer my respectful obeisances unto Gaura-kishora Dasa Babaji Maharaja, who is renunciation personified. He is always merged in a feeling of separation and intense love of Krishna.”

His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder-acarya of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, comes in a long line of spiritual teachers. While all of these masters lived extraordinary lives, the most unconventional is probably that of Gaura- kishora Dasa Babaji Maharaja, the spiritual master of Prabhupada’s teacher, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura.

Gaura-kishora Dasa Babaji appeared in the early 1830s in the village of Vagyana, Faridapura district, East Bengal (currently Bangladesh).* The son of a merchant, young Vamshidasa (later Gaura-kishora Dasa Babaji Maharaja) married early and lived a conventional life for more than twenty years, working as a grain broker. But as time passed he found himself looking for something more in life, and his passion for spiritual truth increased each year.

After his wife passed away, Vamshidasa left his business and went to Vrindavana, the land of Lord Krishna. Here he hoped to find spiritual fulfillment under the tutelage of great religious masters. He soon found himself studying under various self-realized souls and developing a deep appreciation for Gaudiya Vaishnava siddhanta, or Krishna conscious philosophical truths as presented by Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. He gradually became known as a prominent practitioner, for he uncompromisingly lived according to Vaishnava teachings.

After some years of intense practice, Vamshidasa approached Srila Bhagavata Dasa Babaji, one of the foremost disciples of Srila Jagannatha Dasa Babaji Maharaja—the leading Krishna conscious teacher of his time—and accepted from him the exalted initiation of Vaishnava Babaji. This initiation demanded total commitment to high standards of renunciation and austerity, with the singular goal of developing love of God.

Excelling in this practice, Gaura-kishora Dasa Babaji Maharaja became completely renounced, residing under trees in diverse parts of the Vrindavana landscape and depending on God alone for his sustenance.

Living in Vrindavana for some thirty years as a wandering ascetic, he left only to travel periodically to other holy places in northern and western India. He also regularly made pilgrimage to Gaura-mandala (the area of Navadvipa, West Bengal), where Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the dual incarnation of Radha and Krishna, exhibited His earthly manifestation some five hundred years ago. When visiting Jagannatha Puri, in Orissa, Gaura-kishora Dasa Babaji associated with Srila Svarupa Dasa Babaji Maharaja, a renowned devotee who exhibited symptoms of ecstatic love for Krishna. Srila Svarupa Dasa Babaji’s activities were recounted in the autobiography of Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura, whom Gaura-kishora Dasa Babaji also met during his travels to east India. He developed a deep and abiding relationship with Bhaktivinoda, whom he saw as his guru.

Spiritual Perfection

Srila Gaura-kishora Dasa Babaji became famous among the great devotees of Vrindavana and was awarded the exalted title Bhajananandi, which refers to one who has achieved ultimate bliss and accomplishment in solitary meditation.

While Srila Gaura-kishora clearly deserved such an honor, others at that time engaged in solitary “meditation” merely to avoid being identified as the frauds they were. To check such deception and insincerity, great teachers recommended the path of the Goshthyanandi: congregational chanting and preaching, or sharing one’s spiritual life with others.

Srila Gaura-kishora spoke out strongly against pseudo-renunciants, or less qualified “Bhajananandis.” He was entirely removed from cheating inclinations and performed his pure devotional practices alone, in a profound mood of devotional ecstasy. His integrity was unassailable.

In 1897, when he was in his sixties, Srila Gaura-kishora moved to Navadvipa, relishing its spiritual identity with Krishna’s holy land. In Navadvipa, as in Vrindavana, he lived by begging alms from householders. For cooking, he collected dry wood from the roadside, and for drinking and washing, he used earthen pots discarded by villagers near the river Ganges. To clothe himself he went to the shore of the holy river to collect and wash discarded cloth that had been used to cover corpses at the cremation grounds. As his biographer Haridasa Dasa says, “It was him and God. And little else.”

Srila Gaura-kishora exhibited the highest standard of devotion to God, Krishna, and because of his exemplary character he was recognized as the greatest among the great devotees. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, his only disciple, has written:

Many learned and educated persons came into contact with Srila Gaura-kishora Prabhu, yet they could not realize his true identity. This is indeed the mystic opulence of the devotees of Lord Krishna. Only they can recognize true devotion. Many people came to consult with Srila Gaura-kishora Prabhu about their insignificant, worldly desires. He would always try to help them, but his suggestions were usually the cause of their disappointment, for he was relentless in his attempt to get them to go further, to transcend their attached and compromised level of existence.

Many, too, accepted the Babaji dress and acted as devotees of the Lord, but actually they were impostors, far away from being real sadhus. Srila Gaura-kishora never accepted such a false way of life; his sincerity was apparent in itself. His loving attitude was such that even when he obtained a very opulent offering, his renunciation predominated. He preferred a simple life in connection with God.
Srila Gaura-kishora was equal to all. He never displayed any distaste for those persons who were inimical to him, nor did he manifest any special affection for those very dear to him. He often said, “In this material world I am all alone in my service to Lord Krishna. Still, I offer all respects to others—everyone is worshipable by me.”

In 1908, Srila Gaura-kishora lost his physical vision. When his eyesight started deteriorating, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati requested him to go to Calcutta for treatment. Bhaktivinoda Thakura, too, for the same reason, repeatedly asked him to go there. But he was uninterested. “As long as I can see Krishna in my heart of hearts, I do not need an eye doctor.”

The Joy Of Raw Eggplant

Babaji Maharaja became renowned as the brightest gem among spiritual practitioners, but it was not always easy to understand his actions. He sometimes wore his begging bowl as a hat, worshiped in an outhouse, and beat with an umbrella those who wanted initiation from him. (In his humility, he could not entertain requests to be anyone’s spiritual authority.) He often roamed about naked or with his loincloth half tied.

His behavior was considered especially unusual in Navadvipa, where many conservative priests and intellectuals resided at the time. His state of love of God bordered on divine madness, and yet his ecstatic symptoms could be corroborated by Vaishnava scriptures. Learned authorities were able to ascertain that his seemingly eccentric behavior was in fact symptoms of the highest stage of love of God.

Sometimes, while in these exalted states, Babaji Maharaja found distasteful foods to be just like nectar. Oblivious to the external world, he would offer such food to Krishna and then relish the remnants. For example, he would eat raw rice or other grains lightly soaked in water or in Ganges mud.

One day he picked up an unripe eggplant from the market and sat down at the base of a jhao tree at Baganbari. He cut the eggplant into pieces and dipped them into Ganges water and put a tulasi leaf on them. He offered them to his ishta-devata [personal deity] and sang a song of offering: Bhaja Patita Uddharana, Sri Gaura Hari—“O Lord Caitanya, please accept the worship of this fallen soul.” He then said to his Deity, “I don’t know the right method of cooking this, but please eat a little of this food.”
As soon as he said this, his voice became choked, and his body turned bright red and began to swell, while tears flowed from his eyes in streams, soaking his face and chest. Seeing these signs of love, Lalita-didi [a close friend] was amazed. When the transcendental emotions subsided nearly an hour later, he again sang a song. Putting his deity to sleep, he ate the unripe eggplant. His face showed expressions of great pleasure and happiness, more intense than one would make if tasting panchamrita [a sweet drink, considered a delicacy].”

—From Sri Sri Gaudiya Vaishnava Jivana, by Haridasa Dasa

Srila Gaura-kishora would dance along the roadside, calling out, “Jaya Radhe!” (“All glories to Radha, Krishna’s beloved.”), and the local people would think he was mad. The religious experts knew better, though. Little boys would run along behind him, and he would play with them. When he saw a boy who had a dark complexion, he would think of him as Krishna, and a light-skinned boy would become Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.

He often fell into trances, madly calling out the names of Krishna with great love. Once, he shouted, “Ha Krishna Chaitanya! Ha Krishna Chaitanya!” over and over. Vaishnavas in the vicinity heard him screaming these words hour after hour. They thought that unless they could change his mood, or otherwise stop him from shouting these divine names, he would hurt himself—his throat would become torn and bloody. Several of the assembled devotees shouted names of God that reflected other aspects of His divine nature. This distracted Srila Gaura-kishora, changing his spiritual mood, and his screaming subsided.

At times Babaji Maharaja would worship with Bhaktivinoda Thakura at the birthplace of Lord Chaitanya, which had recently been discovered by Bhaktivinoda and restored with images of Lord Chaitanya and his wife Vishnupriya. The two unparalleled devotees would sing and dance before these deities, and their bodies would undergo the eight sattvika bhavas, or the ecstatic symptoms outlined in scripture that appear only in the most accomplished devotees.

A Word Of Caution

Like Krishna’s gopis (cowherd girlfriends) and other supremely advanced devotees, Srila Gaura-kishora had inborn devotional love, and its spontaneous nature was shown in his ashastriya behavior—behavior that goes beyond scriptures or ordinary conventions. In his own life, he disregarded many Vaishnava rules about purity and proper worship techniques. And yet he strongly recommended pure behavior and standard techniques for others. How might this be understood?

Srila Gaura-kishora was clearly not ordinary. For most people, standard religious rules and regulations serve a purpose, gradually bringing one to transcendence and heartfelt spontaneity. At this point, one can rise beyond conventions and the constrictions of neophyte practice. But unless one is totally absorbed in the Absolute—and this is exceedingly rare—one must assume that one’s own spiritual level is still wanting, only to be enhanced by the instructions of a self-realized soul and by constant practice.

Srila Gaura-kishora constantly meditated on Radha and Krishna in the mood of divine love, and this of course is what distinguished him from ordinary souls. Consequently, while Srila Gaura-kishora should most definitely be appreciated, he should not be emulated. Unless one is on a spiritually advanced platform, one should not attempt to act like Babaji Maharaja. Unless one reaches his level of spiritual absorption, one should not reach for an unripe eggplant. Srila Prabhupada writes in Sri Caitanya-caritamrita (Madhya 7.29): “There are many instances of devotional service rendered by previous acharyas who did not care about social behavior when intensely absorbed in love for Krishna. Unfortunately, as long as we are within this material world, we must observe social customs to avoid criticism by the general populace. This is Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s desire.”

Vaishnava tradition asserts that practitioners should follow the example of Srila Gaura-kishora Dasa Babaji’s essential Krishna consciousness and not the particulars of his approach. In other words, he should be followed but not imitated. The distinction between following and imitating is brought out by Srila Rupa Gosvami, who uses the Sanskrit terms anukarini (“one who imitates”) and anusharini (“one who follows”). In Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu (1.2.294-296) he asks practitioners to follow the essential example of the great souls and not imitate their external behavior. This instruction certainly applies to how we should respond to the behavior of Babaji Maharaja.

The Final Instruction

One day at sunrise, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta left Navadvipa for the nearby mud hut where Srila Gaura-kishora was staying. He knew that his master would soon depart. That day, November 16, 1915, Srila Gaura-kishora entered the eternal pastimes of the Lord.

The head priests of Navadvipa’s temples and ashrams argued among themselves about where Srila Gaura-kishora’s remains would be interred. There was an ulterior motive behind the dispute: the contending parties felt that establishing Srila Gaura-kishora’s tomb at their particular ashram or temple would popularize it and thus put them in a position to earn considerable money from tourists. But Srila Bhaktisiddhanta, Gaura-kishora Dasa Babaji’s only disciple, opposed their illegitimate attempts, and in his outspoken way, exposed their materialistic intentions.

Still, they challenged him in a public debate, claiming that they were advanced sannyasis while Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati was still only a young man. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta replied in a voice like thunder:

I am the sole disciple of Paramahamsa Babaji Maharaja. Even though I have not yet accepted sannyasa, I am a celibate brahmacari, and by the grace of Babaji Maharaja I am not a hypocritical renunciant secretly addicted to abominable habits, as most of you are.

If there is someone here who is a renunciant of truly stainless character, then he can come forward and arrange for the much desired tomb. I have no objection to that. Anyone who within the last one year, or six months, three months, one month, or even three days has not indulged in illicit association with the opposite sex will be able to touch this spiritually blissful body. If anyone else touches it, he will be cursed forever.

—From Babaji Maharaja, by Karnamrita Dasa Adhikari

The police commissioner had come to the debate expecting a riot. When he heard Srila Bhaktisiddhanta’s words, he asked, “How will the evidence for this be produced?”

Srila Bhaktisiddhanta replied, “I will take them at their word.”

Sensing Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati’s seriousness and strength of purpose, the pseudo spiritualists backed off. One by one they slowly turned and walked away in defeat. The police commissioner was dumbfounded.

On the following day, November 17, 1915, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati laid the body of his guru to rest on a newly formed sandbar of the Ganges at Kuliya-gram. The spot was near a place where Srila Gaura-kishora loved to chant the names of Krishna. Srila Gaura-kishora had reached the highest levels of love of God, and his disciple, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati, vowed to give his disciples that same love.