From thinking Krishna of having a questionable character to becoming His devotee: Bhaktivinoda Thakur’s journey
By Khonika Gope-Kumar
[Translated and abridged from the Bengali Book “Gauda Mandal Parikrama: The Holy Tirthas in Bangladesh” by Patita Uddharan Das Brahmacari. Publisher: Hare Krishna Publications, ISKCON Swamibag]
After the disappearance of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and His associates from the planet Earth, non-Vedic philosophies and customs propagated and practiced by pseudo sampradayas completely misled the common population, and Mahaprabhu’s preaching was almost lost. In such a dire situation, Srila Bhakti Vinod Thakur revived the philosophy of pure devotional service preached by Mahaprabhu.
Srila Bhakti Vinod Thakur was born in the Bengali year 1245 in the month of Bhadra on the 18th (September 2, 1838). His father Sri Ananda Chandra Dutta and mother Srimati Jagat Mohini Devi were extremely pious souls. His mother was the daughter of famous and wealthy Bengali landlord (Jamidar) Sri Iswar Chandra Moustafi. After Thakur’s birth, the astrologers predicted that he would become an erudite scholar and a prominent saintly figure in future. He was named Kedarnath Dutta.
At age five, Kedarnath started his studies at the house of his maternal grandfather. Kedarnath was an extraordinarily brilliant student. He started studying Astrology at the age of 9. Within a short span of time, he mastered Indian epics such as Ramayana and Mahabharata. In the following years, Kedarnath’s family faced a series of calamities. All his brothers died of cholera. His father also left the planet soon after. Kedarnath was only 11 years old at that time. The financial situation of his widowed mother worsened as his once wealthy maternal grandfather Ishwar Chandra incurred huge debts due to the oppressive Permanent Settlement Act and ended up bankrupt. Soon after, Iswar Chandra also died, leaving the entire responsibility for his troubled estate to young Kedarnath.
Kedarnath had a natural inclination to spirituality since his childhood. “What is this world?” “Who are we?” such questions used to arise in his inquisitive mind. The hardships in his life made him question the meaning of life even more and ponder over reasons for human sufferings. However, exposed to unconvincing religious views and customs, such as, various demigod worship, tantric practices, exorcism, and superstitions, Kedarnath found himself in a state of disappointment and philosophical confusion.
At the same time, back in his maternal grandfather’s village, Ula, he continued struggling to maintain the property inherited from his grandfather, which took a toll on his education. Finally, in 1852 his uncle (mesho, or the husband of his maternal aunt), Kashi Prasad Ghosh, a famous poet and newspaper editor, visited Ula and, impressed with the talented boy, convinced Jagat Mohini to send Kedarnath to Kolkata to further his studies. In November 1852, leaving his mother and sister behind in Ula, Kedarnath moved to Ghosh’s house on Bidan Street. Kedarnath stayed with Ghosh until 1858 and immersed himself in studying a wide range of Western philosophical, poetic, political, and religious texts. During that time, he furthered his literary pursuits as well. He started writing articles for newspapers and magazines. He became a favorite student of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, one of the most prominent literary and intellectual figures of the Bengal Renaissance. After reading the statement “God is formless” in Vidyasagar’s book “Bodhoday” (coming to the senses), Kedarnath asked Vidyasagar whether he has determined the form of God after seeing Him. Vidyasagar candidly accepted his ignorance about God.
To stay with his paternal Grandfather Rajballabha Dutta, he went to Govindpur along with his mother and wife after the Indian Rebellion (Sepoy Mutiny) of 1857. At that time motor vehicles have not yet been commercialized. Thus, the major mode of transportation was walking. His grandfather was very old. However, he was very devoted to the Lord. He used to drape Sannyasi clothes and spent most of his time in chanting. After midnight, he used to cook khichadi with his own hands and then eat. Once he was chanting in the noon, and Kedarnath met him after taking lunch. His grandfather then told him, “Do not stay in this province after my death. You will get a very reputed job at the age of 27. I bless that you will become a great Vaishnava.” Immediately after saying those words, he left his body. Kedarnath properly did the final rites of his grandfather.
Dire financial strain and obligations to maintain his young wife and aging mother caused Kedarnath to look for employment. He got a job of the Headmaster in Bhadrak High School by the recommendation of Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar. The salary was only 45 rupees. During his stay in Bhadrak, he wrote an English book named “Mathas of Orissa”. Before that, he visited the temple of Sakshi Gopal and other Tirthas in Bhubaneswar. During his stay in Bhadrak, his first son Annada Prasad was born in August 1860.
Next, he managed to get a job in an English medium high school in Medinipur. One day during a discussion with the Pundit in the school, Kedarnath got to know that Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was born in Bengal to distribute Krishna bhakti. From that day, he became eager to learn more about Mahaprabhu. However, at the time, Vaishnava scriptures were not readily available. In Medinipur, his wife fell seriously ill and subsequently died. He was only 23, his baby boy was only 10 months old. Furthermore, his aging mother had to be taken care of. Thus, he married again. His wife was Bhagvati Devi, the granddaughter of prominent personality Mr. Gangamoy Roy of Jakpur.
Kedarnath got the job of the head clerk of Chuyadanga Judge Court (in current Bangladesh) having a monthly salary of 150 Rupees. His first child with Bhagvati Devi, a daughter was born in 1864. During his stay in Chuyadanga, he sat for the law exam in Bardhaman and successfully passed the exam.
On February 9, 1866, he got three job offers. He took the position with the Registrar‘s office as a “Special Deputy Registrar of Assurances with Powers of a Deputy Magistrate and Deputy Collector” in Chhapra, Saran district of Bihar. He was 27 at that time. His grandfather’s prediction came to be true.
He became the magistrate of Dinajpur in March 1868. During that time, the Land lord of Dinajpur was Kamala Lochana Roy, who was descendent of Ramananda Basu, a celebrated devotee of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. A lot of Vaishnavas began to settle in the locality under Roy’s sponsorship. Kedarnath was quite impressed seeing that. He wrote in his autobiography,
“The Vaishnava dharma was strengthened because of Roy Kamala Lochana. A lot of exalted Vaishnavas and goswamis used to visit the place. Numerous Brahmana assemblies were organized with the patronage of rich people. A lot of gentlemen came to discuss Vaishnava philosophy with me. I became increasingly interested to know more about Vaishnava Dharma. I wrote to our agent Pratap Chandra Roy, and he sends me a copy of Srimad Bhagavatam with translation and Caitanya Caritamrita. My first reading of Caitanya Caritamrita created some faith in Caitanya.
On the second reading I understood that Caitanya was an unequaled Pundit, but l doubted how such a good scholar with so high a level of prema could recommend the worship of Krishna, who had such a questionable character. I was amazed, and I thought about this in detail. Afterwards, I humbly prayed to God, “O Lord, please give me the understanding to know the secret of this matter.” The mercy of God is without limit and so I soon understood. From then on I believed that Caitanya was God. I often spoke with many vairagis to understand Vaishnava dharma. From childhood the seeds of faith for Vaishnava dharma had been planted within my heart and now they had sprouted. I experienced anuraga (spiritual yearning) and day and night I read and thought about Krishna.”
In 1868, he wrote a book named “Caitanya Geeta” using the pen name “Saccidananda Premalankar”. Since then, he was known as Saccidananda. Previously, he used to regularly visit Brahma Society. After reading Caitanya Caritamrita, he completely stopped going to Bramha Society.
In the beginning of 1969, he delivered a speech in an assembly of numerous scholars and spiritualists. A few Englishmen also came to the meeting. The guests in the meeting were either Government officials or invited guests of Mr. Khajanchi, the chairman of the local assembly. During that time, there was a toxic rift between the followers of Brahma Samaj established by Raja Ramamohan Roy, and the orthodox Hindus. The conservative Hindus were trying to ostracize the Brahmas from the Hindu society. The Brahmas invited Thakur in the meeting. But, Thakur said that, “I am not a Brahma. I am the servant of the servant of Caitanya Mahaprabhu.” The lecture that he delivered in the meeting has been incorporated in his book “The Bhagavatam: Its Philosophy, Ethics, and Theology”. In his lecture he strongly critiqued communal separation and the bitter animosity between the orthodox Hindus and the Brahmas. He requested the Hindus to be more tolerant. Besides praising the contribution of Rama Mohan Roy, he also mentioned the pitfalls of Brahma Dharma. In his speech, Kedarantha gloried Bhagvatam and attempted to restore Bhagavatam to its preeminent position in Hindu philosophy.
His newly found inspiration in the teachings of Caitanya and Bhagavata made Kedarnath receive his next job transfer to Jagannath Puri as a blessing – Puri was Caitanya’s residence for most of his life, and the shelter of the principal Vaishnava shrine, the Temple of Jagannath. He used to visit the Jagannath Temple and places of Mahaprabhu’s pastimes every day. During that time, the commissioner of Orissa was Mr. Revenca. He was very affectionate towards Kedarnath.
Kedarnath Dutta served in Jagannath Puri temple for full five years. On February 6, 1874, Bimala Prasad (later known as Srila Bhakti Siddhanta Saraswati Thakur) was born as Kedarnath’s 6th child. As if Jagannath Dev gave him the child after being pleased with his service. Astrologers predicted that Bimala Prasad would become a great preacher in future. After a few months, Kedarnath sent his wife and children to Rana ghat by palanquins. After some time, in 1878, he was transferred to Narail, Bangladesh. He was very popular among the common people of Narail.
In 1882, he wrote the books “Krishna Samhita” and “Kalyan Kalpa Taru” during his tenure in Narail. He met a lot of Vaishnavas there. He considered Ram Charan Gayak, a Vaidya descendent, to be a pure devotee. During that time, he visited many holy places in Vrindavan. He met Srila Jagannath Das Babaji in the bhajan kutir of Sri Rupa Das Babaji. Jagannath Das Babaji gave a lot of instructions to Kedarnath. He then came back to work after his Vrindavan darshan. Lawyer Sarada Charan Mitra bought him a set of Srimad Bhagavatam with the commentary of Srila Biswanath Chakrabarty Thakur.
In his endeavors to restore the purity and influence of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, in 1883 Kedarnath began to publish a monthly magazine in Bengali, Sajjana-toshani (“The source of pleasure for devotees”) from Narail. He was next transferred to Jessore. But he caught a fever and eye infection there. Thus, he was able to manage a transfer to Barasat with the help of Commissioner Peacock. He was transferred to Mayapur in 1884.
In 1885, a Vaishnava depository was organized in Rama began house. In the year, he went on a pilgrimage with Bimala Prasad to Kulin Gram, Sapta Gram, etc. In 1886, he published a Bhagavad Gita with the commentary of Srila Biswanath Chakrabarty Thakur, along with his “Rasika Ranjan” translation. A Sanskrit commentary of Shikshastakam and “Sri Krishna Vijay” books were also published during the same time. To publish Vaishnava scriptures, he established a printing press, named “Chaitanya Yantra”.
In 1887, he searched for Chaitanya Upanishad in many places in Bengal. Chaitanya Upanishad is a part of the Atharva Veda, in which there are several pieces of evidence of Mahaprabhu being a Yuga Avatar. After much searching, he found a very ancient copy. During that time, he was given the title “Bhakti Vinod” by the Vaishnavas for his contribution in publishing and spreading devotional literature.
In 1886, Bhakti Vinoda Thakur attempted to retire from his government service and move to Vrindavan to pursue his devotional life. However, he had to go to Tarakeswar for some work and saw a dream in which Tarkeswar asked him, “What did you do about the work that is left in Sri Nabadwip Dham, which is just right next to your home?”
In 1887, Bhaktivinoda Thakur was transferred to Krishnanagar, 25 kilometers (16 mi) away from Nabadwip as a Deputy Magistrate. He used to think a lot about Nabadwip. Despite poor health, Thakur began to regularly visit Nabadwip to research places connected with Caitanya Mahaprabhu. Soon he came to a conclusion that the site purported by the local Brahmanas to be Mahaprabhu’s birthplace could not possibly be genuine. Determined to find the actual place of Mahaprabhu’s past but frustrated by the lack of reliable evidence and clues, one night he saw a mystical vision. He wrote in his bio,
“By 10 o’clock the night was very dark and cloudy. Across the Ganges, in a northern direction, I suddenly saw a large building flooded with golden light. I asked Kamala if he could see the building and he said that he could. But my friend Kerani Babu could see nothing. I was amazed. What could it be? In the morning I went back to the roof and looked carefully back across the Ganges. I saw that in the place where I had seen the building was a stand of palm trees. Inquiring about this area I was told that it was the remains of Lakshman Sen’s fort at Ballaldighi.”
Taking this as a clue, Thakur Bhaktivinoda conducted an investigation of the site by consulting old maps matched against scriptural and verbal accounts. He concluded that the village of Ballaldighi was formerly known as Mayapur, and later Miyapur. He confirmed Mayapur from Bhakti Ratnakara as the birth site of Mahaprabhu.
“Nabadwip moddhe Mayapur name sthan
Yathay jonmilen Gour Chandra Bhagavan”
“The supreme personality of Godhead as Gour Chandra was born in the village named Mayapur in Nabadwip” (Bhakti Ratnakara)
Thakur was very happy. He wrote and published a book called “Nabadwip Dham Mahatya” (the glories of Nabadwip). The engineer of Krishna Nagar, Mr. Dwarika made a map of Nabadwip. The map was also included in the book. Gradually, the glories of Mayapur started spreading.
At the end of 1888, he got the responsibility of Netrakona. While visiting Garo hill near Netrokona, he received a warm hospitality from the palace of Sushanga. He became particularly impressed by seeing the Hajong tribe’s attachment to Gaura and Gaura Kirtan. From Netrokona, he was transferred to Tangail and then to Bardhaman.
In 1890, Srila Jagannath Das Babaji came to visit Mayapur. Babaji Maharaj conferred upon Thakur the service of Sri Giridhari. As Thakur used to visit Puri quite often, in 1902, he made a house named “Bhakti Kuthi” near the Samadhi of Haridas Thakur. Noted Bengali journalist Sisir Kumar Ghosh was very respectful towards Thakur. He used to call him “the seventh Goswami”. The father of Sri Balaram Basu, Sri Radha Raman Basu used to visit Thakur quite frequently. Sri Rashik Mohan Vidhyabhushan, Sri Atul Krishna Goswami, among other prominent scholars also used to respect Thakur a lot. It is Thakur Bhakivinod who revived the river of devotional service in this planet once again.
Like Sri Govinda Das, Sri Jnan Das and Sri Narottam Das Thakur, he composed numerous Vaishnava bhajans. On 23 June 1914 (Bengali Ashad 9, 1321), on the disappearance day of Gadadhar Pandit, meditating on the pastimes of Gaura-Gadadhar, Thakur entered his eternal pastimes.