A Saint’s angelic everlasting vision for Manipur – Remembering H.H. Bhaktisvarupa Damodara Swami at his birthplace
By Jaganmohini devi dasi
On Dec. 2nd, 2019, disciples and well-wishers of H.H Bhaktisvarupa Damodara Swami Sripada Maharaj around the globe will be celebrating his 82nd vyasa puja. On this most auspicious occasion, for the pleasure of all Vaishnava community, we are pleased to present a glimpse of the saintly qualities that he demonstrated during his youth days at his birthplace and his broad angelic vision to fulfil Srila Prabhupada’s dreams for Manipur.
Manipur state, as many are aware, is located in the easternmost part of India where the first sunshine in India falls on its hills. It is situated in high altitude protected by nine rows of mountains which are the tail ends of the Himalayan Mountains. With its picturesque landscape comprising mountains, valleys, lakes like Loktak filled with colored Lotus flowers and cool weather, Manipur was called the Switzerland of India by the first PM of India, while the Vaishnavas of Manipur call it as the Vrindavan of East.
On the historic aspect, it was one of the princely states during the British Empire. The Second World War had ended in Manipur when the Japanese army was completely defeated by the British army. This historic place is a monument today which is visited by tourists. Though Manipur appears as a small state in the world map, but its connection with the Second World War is well-known. This war naturally resulted in varied calamities. Later, after its merger with India, there was prolonged unrest. Consequently, for several decades, Manipur faced disturbances, especially on the socio-economic front.
On the spiritual aspect, it is recorded in SB that it was a Vaishnava Kingdom. Here, Srila Prabhupada has described in his purport of S.B. 9.22.32, about Manipur or sacred land of jewels and its glorious past aristocratic Vaishnava culture with its existence under kings since Pandavas ruled, 5000 years ago. However, Manipuris adopted the Gaudiya Vaishnava culture in the 18th century when the great saintly king or rajarishi King Bhagyachandra(grand-disciple of Srila Narottama Das Thakura) ruled Manipur. He established the famous Sri Sri Radha Govindji temple and the Rasa Lila dance-drama culture directly under the instructions and guidance of Lord Krishna or Sri Govindji Himself.
But gradually the age of Kali affected the Vaishnava culture and spirit. Over a period of time, social unrest and indigenous non-Vaishnava culture began shaping the thoughts, lifestyle, and culture of the people of Manipur particularly the younger generation. Thus Vaishnavism is identified more as an ethnic culture contrary to what is stated in scriptures.
Two centuries later, to revive back this Vaishnava culture, the most merciful Lord, sent Srila Sripada Maharaj to this sacred land of jewels. It is rightly said, saints are not made but have appeared or sent by God Himself to demonstrate God’s divine qualities and attract distressed humanity towards divinity and His mission. Thus the circumstances they are placed during their earlier phase of life give sufficient signals to mankind about the purpose of their descent. Srila Sripada Maharaj’s past life is just an example. Even today he is fondly remembered at his birthplace (Toubul village) for his fine saintly qualities like patience, tolerance, gratitude, generosity, forbearance, courage, determination, respect for superiors – all of which he simultaneously demonstrated during several occasions in his childhood and youth days especially in the midst of hardships and difficulties that he had to constantly face.
During our recent visits to Manipur we were fortunate to associate with Maharaj’s maternal aunt who is almost his age. They lived in the same house after Maharaj at his early age of seven years was separated from his father. At our request, she recalled his upbringing and very affectionately displaying sentiments filled with joy and sorrow, narrated them to us.
We are presenting below only a drop from her long narration on Maharaj’s pastimes.
<< At the outset, she conveyed to us that since childhood, young Damodara (Maharaj's name who was fondly called as Damu) had to undergo so much of hardships that he saw only sufferings in his life and very little of joy. It seems, soon after World War 2, as the family was trying to settle in a relocated place, young Damodara lost his father to typhoid. So, he did not see much of his father nor his mother as she was remarried and thus he was left alone though for a short period he stayed with his uncle who was already in financial burden. >>
(.. If one delves into existing problems faced by Manipur state today, one can only visualize how tough, living would have been in Manipur during those days when Maharaj was left alone.)
<< Though young Damodara loved to study, sadly he had to struggle a lot to continue his studies. For his basic maintenance and livelihood, he had to work on the field for several hours and take care of the cows too. He used to be disturbed and disappointed as he could not get financial support as well as encouragement for his studies. There were times when he had to choose between his studies and working on the field for a small morsel of a meal. Sometimes he lived for a whole day with two pieces of cake as there was no income from field produce and so nothing was available to eat for some days. He used to starve during those days. Occasionally this aunt gave him 25paise which gave so much joy to young Damodara that he would tell his aunt that he will go to a shop and buy something for eating. A time soon arrived when his uncle's financial condition became so weak, that he was struggling to pay even the medical expenses of his daughter who was seriously ill. He indicated to Maharaj very unpleasantly that it was beyond their reach to maintain and that the young Damodara must work for his meal and signalled to discontinue his studies. Although only a child, young Damodara though he felt hurt, could see his uncle’s helpless economic situation and not wanting to be a burden on anyone Damodara desired he should be allowed to live alone. This compelled young Damodara to begin his fieldwork soon after midnight, very early in the morning around 3:00 am, so that during the day he could do some study. Thus he began a new routine with practically no resting time. In the same vicinity lived Shri Kerani Singh, who was a close colleague of young Damodara's primary school teacher. Shri Kerani Singh used to hear every day some noise in the cowshed early morning. He wondered if there was an animal or a thief and decided to check one day with a torchlight. Suddenly he saw Damu(young Damodara). And when young Damodara saw him coming, the former pretended to show as if he was collecting some cow dung. Soon, they came face to face and Shri Kerani Singh asked young Damodara to narrate the whole episode as he became concerned as to why young Damodara could not study when he was supposed to study and what was bothering him. He informed young Damodara that the former was not only his well-wisher but also like an elder brother and hence requested young Damodara to express openly. He wanted to know, why young Damodara was coming after midnight and that, since how long had he been coming like this, and why he had to sacrifice his studies to do this work and he further asked if anybody insulted young Damodara. At this point, Maharaj's aunt revealed to us that as such, young Damodara during his school days had been so tolerant and forbearing that he would remain calm, not cry or even complain when somebody hurts him. But during this occasion when questioned by Shri Kerani, young Damodara opened up his heart about his living environment and subsequently shed tears feeling utter helplessness. (She told us it was the first time they heard of tears from young Damodara). At that very moment, Shri Kerani exhibited his large heart and showered compassion over young Damodara. He told him, "I will take care of you. You stay with me.. I will take care of you for your studies… I will send you to the proper place for higher studies like Kolkata." Young Damodara became so happy that he informed his aunt he could continue his studies and so immediately since that time he started staying with Shri Kerani. This indeed became an important turning point of young Damodara's life. Soon, the time arrived and he got an opportunity to pursue higher studies at Kolkata. But Shri Kerani could not completely finance, so it was decided that young Damodara sell the small piece of land which was left by his father for his daily maintenance. However, at that time it fetched only a meagre amount and it was not sufficient for his studies. The loving personality that young Damodara was, many came forward and provided modest monetary help to support his studies. They gave money in small denominations like Rs. 10, Rs. 30, Rs. 50 etc. Young Damodara felt so indebted that in a notebook he wrote down the names along with the amount donated. Later after completing his higher studies at Kolkata where he earned some money, he returned to his village to thank his superiors who supported him and as an expression of gratitude he gave them more money for their needs. Those who had supported with Rs. 10, he gave them Rs.30, those who had supported with Rs. 30, he gave them Rs. 50, those who had given him Rs. 50, he gifted them Rs.80 and so on. But they were not willing to accept and asked young Damodara that why he was returning the money and that too with interest. They requested young Damodara not to return their money. To which young Damodara replied, 'please don’t mind… this is for my own good… I will have peace.... But this is nothing. I want to do more and more.' As he was planning for further studies or some govt job, he told them, "When I come back, I will bring back more money… I want to do so many things for all of you." Soon he had to leave and he was not in his village for a very long time but when he returned he kept up his promise. For all his providers, especially teachers he bought land for some, he made a house for some, he gave money to some and other varied support...>>
Here we noted that young Damodara was not affiliated to any spiritual organizations, nor he had met Srila Prabhupada when he returned back from Kolkata and was leaving for the United States for higher studies, still, he promised that in future he would purchase land and provide more to help the community. He was determined that whatever he may earn in his life; he would give back to the community and help them. The point is, though he experienced severe poverty and hardships still the generosity, compassion, gratitude which he demonstrated without even having an affiliation to any spiritual or religious organization speaks for itself that a true servant of God had appeared for a special purpose. Besides, his aunt also conveyed to us that he was so much devoted to Krishna, but he did not express it to anyone but kept it within himself.
Later, recognizing Lord’s plan, Srila Prabhupada completely empowered Srila Sripada Maharaj for Manipur’s cause. He told him,
“Now Manipur, make a very enlightened state. I have got very good respect for your state because Arjuna is there, Arjuna’s son…I wanted to go only for this reason that you take it very seriously, make a centre of Scientific Vaishnava Culture……send missionary all over the world, bonafide scientific system of religion…… Your scientific presentations should be accompanied by a cultural troupe”
To earnestly fulfil Srila Prabhupada’s dream, Srila Sripada Maharaj envisioned the University of Bhagavata Culture(UBC) and accordingly drafted a complete blueprint in the acquired land as per its requirements.
In this regard Srila Sripada Maharaj said,
“Prabhupada used this word scientific……Prabhupada left many instructions to me regarding how to make Manipur a Vaishnava state; so following Prabhupada’s instructions we are trying to establish the University of Bhagavat Culture. According to the instructions of Prabhupada, the purpose of building a temple is actually to impart education to the people therefore this place is specifically designed as an educational centre. Therefore it is called as ‘University of Bhagavat Culture’ with the temple Sri Sri Radha Krishnachandra manimandir, the jewelled temple being the center piece.”
Srila Sripada Maharaj would say that he followed the spirit of Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura, and so he would appreciate a harmonious co-existence of different cultures and their worship of the same one God. Hence, as Manipur has some influence of oriental culture like Tibet, Burma, and Thailand, Maharaj had expressed that the mani mandir should also reflect it. Accordingly, he designed it as an international mixture of different cultures. He remarked that it is a mixture of traditional Vedic temple and oriental culture with temple domes appearing like pagoda and some looks of Cathedrals. He had emphasized that education plays a very important role and these cultural schools and these other regular subjects form an important part of his mission in Manipur.
On the mixture of the culture, he had also said,
“The Japanese have a very nice culture of drumming called Taiko, Taiko drumming. I want to include the maha-mantra with this drumming, the intermixing of cultures from around the world with hari-nama.”
Thus he conceived a very broad University that would give benefits to the entire North-Eastern States and around the world. Within the university, he planned the best international library called Vedavyasa international library besides several other schools.
Regarding this library he told one of his servants,
“So we will have one very big library at the University of Bhagavata Culture in Manipur. It will be the biggest library among the Seven Sister States of North East India. It shall be called the Vedavyasa International library ….. It will contain all of Srila Prabhupada’s books, all our Bhaktivedanta Institute’s publications, all the acharyas books, all different scientific and philosophical books, including western, oriental, and even, yes, Mayavada philosophy…because, after all, the sincere soul, seeker, can be content only when he has found this achintya-bhedabheda-tattva, actually philosophy cannot evolve any further… and here he finds the Ultimate Supreme Absolute Truth.. ..”
In this regard, in BI’s Sa-vijnanam journal vol.1 issue, in his scientific commentary on the first aphorism of Vedanta Sutra (athatho Brahma jijnasa), Maharaj says, “In this philosophy- achintya-bhedabheda-tattva, a synthesis can be made of the school of advaita vedanta (impersonal aspect of God) and the school of dvaita vedanta or vaishnava vedanta (personality aspect of God and existence of the separate identity of individual living entity as well as of God)”
Somehow by the will of the Lord, Srila Prabhupada could not visit Manipur because of ill health. But he desired all cooperate in the Manipur mission.
In one conversation he said,
“Let us cooperate….for the last five thousand years at least their name is in the Bhagavatam”
H.G. Vanamali das, one of the most senior servants of Srila Sripada Maharaj from Manipur recalled his first meeting with Srila Prabhupada in Bombay. He said he was requested by Srila Prabhupada to ‘assist Svarupa Damodara’ in his Manipur mission.
Thus Srila Prabhupada completely empowered Maharaj to devise a suitable plan to revive the scientific Vaishnav culture of Manipur.
Moreover, Srila Prabhupada had always expressed his confidence in Srila Sripada Maharaj’s multifaceted approach in presenting Krishna Consciousness amongst the choicest audience.
It was with profound gratitude he once affectionately expressed to Srila Sripada Maharaj,
“…So if I would not have students like you they would have taken me as crazy man…”
Hence it was Srila Prabhupada’s desire that all devotees/leaders cooperate especially those from Manipur, past, present, and future completely assist and cooperate with Srila Sripada Maharaj’s vision to revive Scientific Vaishnava Culture of Manipur. And the University of Bhagavat Culture is the broad vision of Srila Sripada Maharaj with a temple in its centre to fulfil the dreams of Srila Prabhupada.
Today all Manipuri Vaishnavas are very grateful to their Vaishnava saints like Srila Bhagyachandra and Srila Sripada Maharaj whose angelic influence has enabled to keep up Manipuri Vaishnavism culture alive today, though Vaishnavas are seen here more as an ethnic group. But time factor cannot be ignored. Every ethnic group today has to put up with diverse challenges for its continuity in any country. And the same challenge remains even for Manipuri Vaishnavism. The non-Vaishnava indigenous culture with a strong inclination towards oriental outlook is gaining ground and thus drawing many younger generations towards it. In addition, intermittent socio-economic unrest is also prompting the intellectual youth to migrate outside Manipur for better future prospects.
Hence, it is the need of the hour, that at Manipur, their Vaishnava culture is redefined to uncover its deserved identity as Srila Prabhupada desired that is beyond mere temple based culture and routines. It is here the University of Bhagavata Culture(UBC) as envisioned by H.H. Bhaktisvarupa Damodara Swami Sripada Maharaj is making a difference.
His notion of building an inclusive University with the philosophy of achintya-bhedabheda-tattva projected in contemporary format accommodating varied cultures of Manipur all flavored with scientific principles of Vaishnavism and in addition disseminating appropriate education to serve the social causes of Manipur is the only surest hope to sustain Vaishnavism practice, culture, and theology in Manipur. The scope of such university is not restricted to Manipur alone, but as Srila Prabhupada desired, it will facilitate exporting this scientific culture to the rest of the globe.
On the whole, when one reflects thoughtfully on the special attention that Srila Prabhupada gave to Maharaj and also on Maharaj’s multifaceted personality, in particular;
— The immense compassion, generosity and gratitude that Maharaj demonstrated to the Manipuri community since his struggling youth days
— The timely societal and spiritual seva (besides the assurance to do more) that Maharaj offered to several community people in his state and outside before and after his significant contributions to several organizations across the globe
— The empowerment that Maharaj received from Srila Prabhupada to revive Scientific Vaishnava culture in Manipur
— The example that Maharaj set and thereby demonstrated to several devotees in the Hare Krishna community in matters of developing relationships with great thought leaders of the world in science, art, culture, peace amongst others through first-class dialogue and positive engagements and also for organizing seminars, conferences, etc in academic campuses using a contemporary, non-fanatic and educational format
— The instruction that Maharaj received from Srila Prabhupada to write a scientific commentary on Vedanta Sutra (under SP’s direct guidance) and thereby, Maharaj becoming the first saint in Gaudiya Vaishnava community to be empowered for this seva.
Therefore, it is rightly befitting to fulfill H.H. Bhaktisvarupa Damodara Swami Sripada Maharaj’s angelic vision of the University of Bhagavata Culture to revive the inclusive scientific Vaishnava culture of Manipur completely as per his plan for the pleasure of his beloved guru Srila Prabhupada.
All glories to H.H. Bhaktisvarupa Damodara Swami
All glories to Srila Prabhupada.
All glories to Sri Guru and Sri Gauranga
your insignificant servant and sister
To associate with the pure devotee of the Lord and serve him with great attachment will give one unlimited blessings…….H.H. Bhaktisvarupa Damodara Swami Srila Sripada
The ecstasy of separation from the spiritual master is even greater ecstasy than meeting him ………..Srila Prabhupada letter to Jadurani
Things that are very difficult to do become easy to execute if one somehow or other simply remembers Lord Caitanya Mahäprabhu. But if one does not remember Him, even easy things become very difficult. To this Lord Caitanya Mahäprabhu I offer my respectful obeisances….Cc. Adi. 14.1