Bhaktivinoda Thakur

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Bhaktivinoda Thakur
Bengali: ভক্তিৱিনোদ ঠাকুর
A close-up portrait of an old man with grey hair and thick wooden necklace beads
Bhaktivinoda Thakur ca.1910
Born Kedarnath Datta
(1838-09-02)2 September 1838
Birnagar, British India
Died 23 June 1914(1914-06-23) (aged 75)
Calcutta, Indian Empire
Nationality Indian
  • Shaymani Devi (m. 1849–61)
  • Bhagavati Devi (m. 1861–1914)
Children Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, Lalita Prasad, twelve other children
Relatives Narottama Dasa (distant ancestor), Kashiprasad Ghosh (maternal uncle)
Titles/honours Bhaktivinoda, "the seventh goswami"[1][2]
Guru Bipin Bihari Goswami, Jagannatha Dasa Babaji[3][1]
Philosophy Vedanta: acintya bheda-abheda
Literary works Krishna-samhita, Caitanya-siksamrita, Jaiva-dharma, Svalikhita-jivani. See bibliography
Quotation "Many obstacles are a good sign" (from Svalikhita-jivani)
Signature 200px

Bhaktivinoda Thakur (Bengali pronunciation: [bʱɔktibinod̪o t̪ʰakur]), also written Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura (Bengali: ভক্তিবিনোদ ঠাকুর) (2 September 1838 – 23 June 1914), born Kedarnath Datta (Kedarnath Datta, Bengali: [kedɔrnɔt̪ʰ d̪ɔt̪t̪o]), was a prominent thinker of Bengali Renaissance and a leading philosopher, savant and spiritual reformer of Gaudiya Vaishnavism[6] who effected its resurgence in India in late 19th and early 20th century[7][8] and was hailed by contemporary scholars as the most influential Gaudiya Vaisnava leader of his time.[9] He is also credited, along with his son Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, with pioneering the propagation of Gaudiya Vaisnavism in the West and its eventual global spread.[10][11][12][13]

Kedarnath Datta was born on 2 September 1838 in the village of Birnagar (Bengal) in a traditional Hindu family of wealthy Bengali landlords.[7] After receiving village schooling, Kedarnath continued his education at Hindu College in Calcutta, where he acquainted himself with contemporary Western philosophy and theology.[7] There he became a close associate of prominent literary and intellectual figures of Bengali Renaissance of the time, such as Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, and Sisir Kumar Ghosh. At eighteen, Kedarnath commenced a teaching career in rural areas of Bengal and Orissa until he became a employee with the British government in the Judicial Service, from which he retired in 1894 as District Magistrate.[7]

In accordance with upper-class Hindu customs, in 1850 at the age of eleven Kedarnath Datta was married. After his wife, Shaymani, gave birth to Kedarnath's first son and soon died of illness, Kedarnath married again and had thirteen children with his second wife, Bhagavati Devi. One of their sons, Bimala Prasad, born in 1874, later became known as Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, a prominent Gaudiya Vaisnava spiritual leader and the founder of the Gaudiya Math.[14]

Kedarnath Datta belonged to the bhadralok community of Bengali intellectual gentry that lived during the Bengal Renaissance and attempted to rationalize their traditional Hindu beliefs and customs.[7] In his youth Kedarnath spent considerable time researching and comparing various religious and philosophical systems, both Indian and Western, with a view of finding among them a comprehensive, authentic and intellectually satisfying path. He tackled the task of reconciling Western reason and traditional belief by dividing religion into the phenomenal and the transcendent, thus successfully accommodating both modern critical analysis and Hindu mysticism in his writings. Kedarnath's spiritual quest finally led him at the age of twenty nine to becoming a follower of Caitanya Mahaprabhu (1486–1533).[8] He dedicated himself to a deep study and committed practice of Caitanya's teachings, soon emerging as a reputed leader within the Caitanya Vaishnava movement in Bengal.[8] He edited and published over one hundred books on Vaishnavism, including such major theological treatises as Krishna-samhita (1880), Caitanya-sikshamrita (1886) Jaiva-dharma (1893), Tattva-sutra (1893), Tattva-viveka (1893), and Hari-nama-cintamani (1900).[15] Between 1881 and 1909, Kedarnath also published a monthly journal in Bengali entitled Sajjana-toshani ("The source of pleasure for devotees"), which he used as the prime means for propagating Caitanya's teachings among the bhadralok.[16] In 1886, in recognition of his prolific theological, philosophical and literary contributions, the local Gaudiya Vaishnava community conferred upon Kedarnath Datta the honorific title Bhaktivinoda.[8]

In his later years Bhaktivinoda founded and conducted nama-hatta – a traveling preaching program that spread theology and practice of Caitanya throughout rural and urban Bengal, by means of discourses, printed materials and Bengali songs of his own composition. Bhaktivinoda also took upon himself the task of opposing what he saw as apasampradayas, or numerous distortions of the original Caitanya teachings. He is also credited with the rediscovery of the lost site of Caitanya's birth in Mayapur near Nabadwip, which he commemorated with a prominent temple.[17]

Bhaktivinoda Thakur pioneered the spread of Caitanya's teachings in the West,[7] sending in 1880 copies of his works to Ralph Waldo Emerson in the United States and to Reinhold Rost in Europe. In 1896 another publication of Bhaktivinoda, a book in English entitled Srimad-Gaurangalila-Smaranamangala, or Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, His life and Precepts was sent to several academics and libraries in Canada, Britain and Australia.[18]

The revival of Gaudiya Vaisnavism effected by Bhaktivinoda spawned one of India's most dynamic preaching missions of the early 20th century, the Gaudiya Matha, headed by his son and spiritual heir, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati.[19] Bhaktisiddhanta's disciple A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami (1896–1977) continued his guru's Western mission when in 1966 in the United States he founded ISKCON, or the Hare Krishna movement, which then spread Gaudiya Vaisnavism globally. [19][10][11][12][13]

On the request of his son Lalita Prasad, Bhaktivinoda wrote a detailed autobiographical account titled Svalikhita-jivani that spanned most of his life from his birth in 1838 until retirement in 1894 and was published by Lalita Prasad in 1916, after Bhaktivinoda's demise. Kedarnath Datta Bhaktivinoda died in Calcutta on 23 June 1914 at age 75. His remains were interred near Mayapur, West Bengal.[20]

Bengali renaissance and the bhadralok

Kedarnath's birth in 1838 occurred during the period of the history of Bengal marked by the emergence and rising influence of the bhadralok community.[21] The bhadralok, literally "gentle or respectable people",[22] was a newly born privileged class of Bengalis, largely Hindus, who served the British administration in occupations requiring Western education, and proficiency in English and other languages.[7][23] Exposed to and influenced by the Western values of the British, including the latter's often condescending attitude towards cultural and religious traditions of India, the bhadralok themselves started calling into question and reassessing the tenets of their own religion and customs.[24] Their attempts to rationalize and modernize Hinduism in order to reconcile it with the Western outlook eventually gave rise to a historical period called the Bengali Renaissance, championed by such prominent reformists as Rammohan Roy[25] and Swami Vivekananda.[26][27] This trend gradually led to a widespread perception, both in India and in the West, of modern Hinduism as being equivalent to Advaita Vedanta, a conception of the divine as devoid of form and individuality that was hailed by its proponents as the "perennial philosophy"[28] and "the mother of religions".[29] As a result, the other schools of Hinduism, including bhakti, were gradually relegated in the minds of the Bengali Hindu middle-class to obscurity, and often seen as a "reactionary and fossilized jumble of empty rituals and idolatrous practices."[27][29]

Early period (1838–1858): student

Birth and childhood

Bhaktivinoda Thakur's memorial at his birthplace in Birnagar, West Bengal
A tomb-like structure covered in while tiles with Bengali script at the entrance
A shrine at the actual site of birth

Kedarnath was born on 2 September 1838 in the village of Ula (presently Birnagar) in Bengal, some 100 km north of modern-day Calcutta.[30] Both his father Ananda Chandra Datta and mother Jagat Mohini Devi hailed from affluent kayastha families.[31] From the time of Caitanya Mahaprabhu (1486–1533), the paternal Datta lineage were mostly Vaisnavas and counted among their ranks Raja Krishnananda, an associate of Nityananda Prabhu. Kedarnath's mother Jagan Mohini Devi (born Mitra) was a descendant of Rameshwar Mitra, a prominent zamindar (landowner) of the 18th century.[32] In his autobiography Svalikhita-jivani Kedaranath refers to his father Anand Chandra as a "straightforward, clean, religious man"[33] and describes his mother as "a sober woman possessed of many unique qualities".[34]

Kedarnath was born as the third out of six children of Anand Chandra and Jagat Mohini, preceded by older brothers Abhaykali (died before Kedarnath's birth) and Kaliprasanna, and followed by three younger siblings: sister Hemlata and brothers Haridas and Gauridas.[7][33] Homely as a baby, Kedarnath evoked particular affection of his mother who prayed for his survival.[30]

Prior to his birth, financial circumstances had forced his parents to relocate from Calcutta to Ula, where he was born and grew up in the palace of his maternal grandfather, Ishwar Chandra Mustauphi, a prosperous landowner famed for his generosity.[33] Kedarnath fondly recalls his early childhood as free from anxiety and need, and full of festivities and joy:

However, soon his carefree childhood days were over when, at the age of five, Kedarnath had to commence education. Ula's was a typical village school with rough, intimidating teachers and reciprocally rowdy pupils. Later, when an English school opened in Ula, young Kedarnath showed such keen interest in the English language, attending the classes during lunch, that the French headmaster of the school convinced Anand Chandra to let the boy study under their tutelage.[7][37] At the age of seven Kadarnath was transferred to another English school in Krishnanagar where he continued his studies. These English classes were Kedarnath's first exposure to the European culture and would prove pivotal for his future literary and philosophical pursuits.[37]

The entrance to Kedamath Datta's matemal home in Birnagar (Ula), West Bengal under renovation. 2014

In the following years Kedarnath's family faced a series of increasingly difficult calamities. First all three of his brothers succumbed to cholera one after another, soon followed by their father Anand Chandra.[38] The financial situation of his widowed mother also gradually worsened as his maternal grandfather Ishwar Chandra incurred huge debts due to the oppressive Permanent Settlement Act and ended up bankrupt.[38] In 1850, when Kedarnath was twelve, in accordance with the upper-class Hindu customs Jagat Mohini married him to a five-year-old Shaymani Mitra of Ranaghat, hoping to sever Kedarnath's connection with the ill fate of his own family with the good karma of the in-laws.[39] Soon after the wedding Ishwar Chandra died, leaving the entire responsibility for his troubled estate on the widow with two young children.[40] Kedarnath recalls:

These hardships made young Kedarnath question the meaning of life and ponder over reasons for human sufferings. He felt unconvinced by conventional explanations and started doubting the reality of the many Hindu gods and goddesses worshiped in village temples.[41] Exposed to contradictory views ranging from religious beliefs to tantric practices, exorcism, superstitions and avid atheism, Kedarnath found himself in a state of disappointment and philosophical confusion.[41] It was at that time that an encounter with a simple old woman who advised him to chant the name of Rama that unexpectedly made a profound impact on him, placing the seed of Vaisnava faith in his heart that he maintained throughout his life.[42]

New challenges and responsibilities soon made Kedarnath visit Calcutta for the first time. The trip, albeit short and unpleasant, further developed Kedarnath's curiosity for European life and customs. Back to Ula he continued struggling to maintain the property inherited from his grandfather, which took a toll on his education. Finally, in 1852 his maternal uncle Kashiprasad Ghosh, a famous poet and newspaper editor, visited Ula and, impressed with the talented boy, convinced Jagat Mohini to send Kedarnath to Calcutta to further his studies. In November 1852, leaving his mother and sister behind in Ula, Kedarnath moved to the house of Kashiprasad Ghosh on Bidan Street in the middle of Calcutta.[43]

Education in Calcutta

Upon his arrival in metropolitan Calcutta, Kedarnath found himself in a milieu entirely different from his former rustic life. The second most important city of the British Empire after London, Calcutta accommodated cultures and languages from every major part of the world and was a hub of Western education and secular intellectualism on par with any European capital.[44] A graduate of the prestigious Hindu College of Calcutta, his maternal uncle Kashiprasad Ghosh was a champion of Westernization, editor of the English language Hindu Intelligencer journal that propagated the ideas of the bhadralok, and a patriotic poet praised even by the British Fraser's Magazine as an "amazingly clever… Hindoo poet [and] a very excellent and worthy young fellow".[45]

The large house of Kashiprasad Ghosh, located in the heart of Calcutta, was adjacent to several Christian missionaries' homes, Krishna Mohan Banerjee's church, Queen's College, and Bethune School for women.[46] For the next six years, from 1852 till 1858, that Kedarnath stayed with Kashiprasad Ghosh, he became steeped in the lifestyle of the bhadralok and immersed in studying a wide range of Western philosophical, poetic, political, and religious text.[46] Kadarnath entered the Hindu Charitable Institute[7] where he studied from 1852 till 1856 and met one of the leading bhadralok Hindu intellectuals of the time, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar (1820–1891), who became his tutor, mentor, and a lifelong friend.[47]

While excelling in his studies, especially in the English language and writing, Kedarnath started writing his own poems and articles.[48] Exposed to and influenced by the views of the famous acquaintances of Kashiprasad who frequented his home: Kristo Das Pal, Shambhu Mukhopadhyay, Baneshwar Vidyalankar and others – Kedarnath started regularly contributing to the Hindu Intelligencer journal of his uncle, critiquing contemporary social and political issues from a bhadrlok viewpoint.[49] Eventually Kedarnath felt confident enough in his studies and in 1856 enrolled in the Hindu College, Calcutta's leading school, where for the next two years he continued his studies under Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar in the company of remarkable classmates such as Keshub Chandra Sen, Nabagopal Mitra, as well as the elder brothers of Rabindranath Tagore: Satyendranath, and Ganendranath.[50] Becoming increasingly involved in the intellectual values of the bhadralok community, Kedarnath along with his classmates started taking public speaking lessons from a famous British parliamentarian and abolitionist George Thompson (1804–1878).[50] At the same time Kedarnath published his first major literary work, a historical poem titled The Poriade in two volumes that earned him both a name as a poet and some income.[51] At the same time, Kedarnath's health deteriorated due to poor drinking water and challenging environment of Calcutta, and he made regular visit to his mother and sister in Ula for recovery and convalescence.[52] However, when in 1856[53][lower-alpha 1] a violent outbreak of cholera wiped out the whole village of Ula, killing his sister Hemlata and barely sparing his mother, Kedarnath took her along with his grandmother to Calcutta for good.[54] The devastation of Ula marked a turning point in Kedarnath's attitude to life. He writes:

Finding himself disoriented, he sought shelter and solace in his friendship with the Tagore brothers .[56] There he overcame his crisis and started moving towards a religious rather than social and political outlook on life.[56] Along with Dvijendranath Tagore, Kedarnath started studying Sanskrit and theological writings of such authors as Kant, Goethe, Hegel, Swedenborg, Hume, Voltaire, and Schopenhauer, as well as the books of Brahmo Samaj that rekindled his interest in Hinduism.[57] At the same time, Kedarnath daily met with Charles Dall, a Unitarian minister from the American Unitarian Association of Boston posted to Calcutta for propagating Unitarian ideas among the educated Bengalis. Under Dall's guidance, Kedarnath studied the Bible and the Unitarian writings of Channing, Emerson, Parker and others.[58] While developing a fascination for the liberalism of Unitarian religious teachings, the young Kedarnath also studied the Qur'an.[59]

However, soon financial hardships caught up with him and, due to dire financial strain and obligations to maintain his young wife and aging mother, Kedarnath started looking for employment.[60] But finding a well-paid job in Calcutta – especially a job compatible with his high ethical values[lower-alpha 2] – for him was nearly impossible.[62] After a few unsuccessful stints as a teacher and incurring a large debt, Kedarnath along with his mother and wife accepted the invitation of Rajballabh, his paternal grandfather in Orissa, and in the spring of 1858 left for the Orissan village of Chutimangal.[61][63]

Middle period (1858–1874): working years

Teaching in Orissa (1858–1866)

After moving in 1858 along with his family to Chutimangal, Orissa, Kedarnath Datta was able to begin his career as an English teacher – first at the local village school, and then, after passing a qualification examination, at a more prestigious school in Cuttack.[7][64] As early as in 1860, Kedarnath already served as the headmaster of a school in Bhadrak.[64] His financial situation considerably improved, allowing him to dedicate more time to studying, writing and lecturing.[64] This established Kedarnath as a prominent intellectual and cultural voice of the local bhadralok community, and soon a following of his own formed, consisting of students attracted by his discourses and personal tutorship on religious and philosophical topics.[65]

In August 1860 his first son, Annada Datta, was born, followed by the death of his young wife ten months later.[66] Widowed and with an infant on his hands at twenty-three, Kedarnath soon married Bhagavati Devi, a daughter of Gangamoy Roy of Jakpore, who would become his lifelong companion and the mother of his other thirteen children.[67][68][lower-alpha 3] After a short tenure at a lucrative position as the head clerk at the Bardhaman revenue collector's office, Kedarnath felt morally compromised as well as insecure with the position of a rent collector, settling for a less profitable but more agreeable occupation as a clerk elsewhere.[68][72]

These external events as well as the internal conflict between morality and need moved Kedarnath towards a deeper introspection in search for a more personal and ethically appealing concept of God as accepted in Christianity and Vaisnavism.[73][74][75] Marking this period of his life is Kedarnath's growing interest in Gaudiya Vaisnavism and particularly in the persona and teachings of Caitanya Mahaprabhu (1486–1533).[76] Kedarnath tried to acquire a copy of Caitanya Caritamrita and the Bhagavata Purana, principal scriptures for Gaudiya Vaisnavas, but failed.[73][76] However, his kindled interest in Caitanya's teaching and example of love for Krishna, the personal form of God, coupled with Caitanya's grace and ethical integrity became the decisive moment in his life and mission.[77]

This period was also marked with Kedarnath's budding literary gift. Taking advantage of the tranquility of his new clerical job, he composed Bengali poems Vijanagrama and Sannyasi, lauded for their poetic elegance and novel meter that incorporated the style of Milton and Byron into Bengali verse.[72] He also authored an article on Vaisnavism as well as a book Our Wants.[78]

As Bhagavati Devi gave birth to Kedarnath's second child, daughter Saudhamani (1864), the need to secure a more stable income for his growing family made Kedarnath seek a job with the British government.[79][80]

Government service (1866–1893)

An Indian man in mid-50s dressed in an official-looking overcoat and cap
Kedarnath Datta in official magistrate dress, late 1880s

In February 1866 Kedarnath Datta received, with a friend's help, a 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.[81][82] In colonial Bengal, a job at the executive government service, staffed mostly by the bhadralok (except for the topmost management tier occupied by the British), was the most coveted achievement that ensured one's financial security, social status and protected retirement.[83][82] During the next twenty-eight years, Kedarnath rose through the ranks of civil service from sixth grade to second grade, which entailed wealth, respect and authority.[84][80][lower-alpha 4] Kedarnath gradually established himself with the British authorities as a trustworthy, responsible and efficient officer and a man of integrity.[85] The course of his government service took him and his growing family to almost twenty different locations in Bihar, Bengal, and Orissa, [86][87] which allowed him to study different cultures, languages and religions. He also soon revealed himself as a linguistic savant, within a short time learning Urdu and Persian that were required for his government duties.[88] He also mastered Sanskrit for his Vaisnava pursuits, enough to be able to read the Bhagavata Purana with traditional commentaries and to write his own Sanskrit poetry.[89]

While Kedarnath's health suffered from prolonged bouts of fever and colitis,[lower-alpha 5] he took advantage of the paid sick leave to visit Mathura and Vrindavana – sacred places for Gaudiya Vaisnavas.[90][91]

His interest in Caitanya Vaisnavism grew, and after eight years of searching for a copy of Caitanya's biography Caitanya Caritamrita by Krishnadasa Kaviraja and a translation of Bhagavata Purana, he could finally find these books in 1868.[92][93] As Kedarnath started poring over the Vaisnava classics, he became increasingly appreciative of philosophical sophistication and ethical purity of Caitanya's teaching, but struggled to reconcile it with the prevalent perception of Krishna, Caitanya's worshipable God described in the Bhagavata Purana, as "basically a wrong-doer".[92] As he kept pondering over the dilemma, he came to a conclusion that both faith and reason have their respective, mutually complimentary places in religious experience, and neither can be ousted from it altogether.[73][92] Kedarnath describes the transformation he went through while reading the long sought-after scripture:

Accepting Caitanya as the final goal of his intellectual and spiritual quest, Kedarnath soon started delivering public lectures on his teachings, culminating in his famous speech The Bhagavat: Its Philosophy, Ethics and Theology – his first public announcement of the newly found religious allegiance.[73][94] In The Bhagavat, delivered in masterful English but directed at both the Western cultural conquest and the bhadralok it influenced,[73][16] Kedarantha attempted to reconcile modern thought and Vaisnava orthodoxy and to restore the Bhagavata to its preeminent position in Hindu philosophy.[73][94] 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 Vaisnava shrine, the Temple of Jagannath.[95]

Service in Puri (1870–1875)

Following the annexation of the state of Orissa by Britain in 1803, the British force commander in India, Marquess Wellesley ordered by decree "the utmost degree of accuracy and vigilance" in protecting the security of the ancient Jagannath temple and in respecting religious sentiments of its worshipers.[96] The policy was strictly followed, to the point that the British army escorted Hindu religious processions.[97] However, under the pressure of Christian missionaries both in India and in Britain, in 1863 this policy was lifted, entrusting the temple management entirely to the care of the local brahmanas, which soon led to its deterioration.[97]

When Kedarnath was posted to Puri in 1870, he was already known for his honesty and integrity, and was consequently given the charge to oversee law and order in the busy pilgrimage site, as well as providing thousands of pilgrims with food, accommodation, and medical assistance on festival occasions.[98] The government also deputed Kedarnath as a law enforcement officer to thwart the Atibadis, a heterodox Vaisnava sect that conspired to overthrow the British and was led by a self-proclaimed avatar Bishkishan – task that Kedarnath successfully accomplished.[99][100]

However, while busy with governmental assignments, Kedarnath dedicated his off-duty time to nurturing the newly acquired inspiration with Gaudiya Vaisnavism.[101] He started mastering his Sanskrit under the tutelage of local pandits and absorbed himself in intense study of Caitanya Caritamrita, Bhagavata Purana with commentaries by Shridhara Svami, as well as seminal philosophical treatises of the Gaudiya Vaisnava canon such as the Sat Sandarbhas by Jiva Goswami (c.1513–1598) Bhakti-rasamrta-sindhu by Rupa Goswami (1489–1564) and Baladeva Vidyabhushana's (−1768) Govinda Bhashya commentary on the Brahma Sutras.[73][102][101] Kedarnath also started searching for authentic Gaudiya Vaisnava manuscripts and writing prolifically on the subject of Gaudiya Vaisnavism, authoring and publishing Datta-kaustubha and a number of Sanskrit verses, and commenced a major literary work of his life, Krishna-samhita.[101]

A young Bengali boy looking forward
Kedarnath Datta's seventh child Bimala Prasad, age 7 (1881)

Soon Kedarnath formed a society called Bhagavat Samsad consisting of the local bhadralok, who were eager listen to his intellectually stimulating and insightful exposition of Gaudiya Vaisnavism.[101][89] This brought him at odds with the local pandit, who criticized him for lecturing on Vaisnava topics while lacking a proper Vaisnava initiation, or diksha, the tilak markings, and other devotional insignia.[103][104][lower-alpha 6] Even though Kedarnath was already following Gaudiya Vaisnava spiritual discipline like harinama-japa, or chanting the Hare Krishna mantra on beads,[lower-alpha 7] their opposition prompted Kedarnath to seriously aspire for finding a diksha-guru and taking initiation from him.[103]

While Kedarnath Datta was able to favorably influence many bhadraloks hitherto skeptical towards Gaudiya Vaisnavism of Caitanya, he felt in need of assistance.[105] A hagiographic account has it that one night the Deity of Jagannath personally spoke to Kedarnath in a dream: "I didn't bring you to Puri to execute legal matters, but to establish Vaishnava siddhanta." Kedarnath replied, "Your teachings have been significantly [sic] depreciated, and I lack the power to restore them. Much of my life has passed and I am otherwise engaged, so please send somebody from Your personal staff so that I can start this movement". Jagannath then requested Kedarnath to pray for an assistant to the image of the Goddess Bimala Devi worshiped in the Jagannath temple.[106] When his wife gave birth to a new child, Kedarnath linked the event to the divinatory dream and named his son Bimala Prasad ('"the mercy of Bimala Devi").[107] The same account mentions that at his birth, the child's umbilical cord was looped around his body like a sacred brahmana thread (upavita) that left a permanent mark on the skin, as if foretelling his future role as religious leader.[108] In the early 1880s, Kedarnath Datta, out of desire to foster the child's budding interest in spirituality, initiated him into harinama-japa.[109] At the age of nine Bimala Prasad memorized the seven hundred verses of the Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit.[109] From his early childhood Bimala Prasad demonstrated a sense of strict moral behavior, a sharp intelligence, and an eidetic memory.[110][111] He gained a reputation for remembering passages from a book on a single reading, and soon learned enough to compose his own poetry in Sanskrit.[112] Bimala Prasad later became known as Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, the founder of the Gaudiya Math whose disciple A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami[113] turned Gaudiya Vaisnavism into a global movement as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON).[10][11][12][13] Bhaktisiddhanta's biographers write that even up to his last days Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati could verbatim recall passages from books that he had read in his childhood, earning the epithet "living encyclopedia".[114][111]

By the end Kedarnath's tenure in Puri his family already had seven children, and his oldest daughter, Saudamani, 10, had to be married – which, according to upper-class Hindu customs, had to take place in Bengal.[113] Kedarnath took a three-month privileged leave from his duties and in November 1874 went with his family to Bengal.[113]

Later period (1874–1914): Writing and preaching

A group photograph of a large Indian family seated in rows around an old grey-haired man.

After leaving Puri for Bengal, Kedarnath Datta decided to establish his growing family at a permanent home in Calcutta, called by him "Bhakti Bhavan", which afforded him more freedom in his traveling, studies and writing.[116]

In 1880 Kedarnath Datta and his wife accepted diksha (initiation) into Gaudiya Vaisnavism from Bipin Bihari Goswami (1848–1919), a hereditary descendant from one of Caitanya's associates, Vamsivadana Thakur, which formalized his commitment to the Gaudiya Vaisnava sampradaya.[3][117] Later he developed a strong spiritual connection with a renowned Gaudiya Vaisnava ascetic Jagannatha Dasa Babaji (1776–1894), who became his principal spiritual mentor.[118][119][1]

In 1885 Kedarnath Datta formed the Vishva Vaishnava Raj Sabha ("Royal World Vaisnava Association") composed of leading Bengali Vaishnavas and established at his own house the Vaishnava Depository, a library and a printing press for systematically presenting Gaudiya Vaishnavism by publishing canonical devotional texts, often with his translations and commentaries, as well as his own original writing.[18][120][121] In his endeavors to restore the purity and influence of Gaudiya Vaisnavism,[7] in 1881 Bhaktivinoda began a monthly magazine in Bengali, Sajjana-toshani ("The source of pleasure for devotees"), in which he serialized many of his books and published essays of the history and philosophy of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, along with book reviews, poetry, and novels.[120][122] In January 1886, in recognition of Kedarnath's significant role in reviving Vaishnavism through his literary and spiritual achievements, the local Gaudiya Vaisnava leaders including his guru Bipin Bihari Goswami conferred upon him the honorific title Bhaktivinoda; from that time on he was known as Kedarnath Datta Bhaktivinoda, or Bhakivinoda Thakur.[123][124][120][1]

A face close-up of a marble statue of a man with wooden beads and white cloth around the neck.
Bhaktivinoda's shrine in Mayapur

On 4 October 1894, at the age of fifty-six, Bhaktivinoda Thakur finally retired from government service and moved with his family to Mayapur to focus on his devotional practice, writing and preaching.[125] In 1908 Bhaktivinoda formally adopted the lifestyle and practice of a babaji (Vaisnava recluse) at his house in Calcutta, absorbed in chanting the Hare Krishna mantra until his death on 23 June 1914.[20][9] His remains in a silver urn were interred at his house in Surabhi-kunj.[20]

Major works

From 1874 till his departure in 1914 Bhaktivinoda wrote profusely, both philosophical works in Sanskrit and English that appealed to the bhadralok intelligentsia, and devotional songs (bhajans) in simple Bengali that conveyed the same message to the masses.[126] His bibliography counts over one hundred works, including his translations of canonical Gaudiya Vaisnava texts, often with his own commentaries, as well as poems, devotional song books, and essays[127][126] – an achievement his biographers attribute not for the least part to his industrious and highly organized nature.[128][lower-alpha 8]

Krishna-samhita published in 1879 was Bhaktivinoda's first major work.[129][15] Composed in Sanskrit and Bengali, the book was intended as a response to severe and often slanderous criticism of Krishna by Christian missionaries, Brahmo Samaj, and Westernized bhadralok for what they saw as his immoral, licentious behavior incompatible with his divine status in Hinduism.[129] The critics drew upon the perceived moral lapses in Krishna's character to further their propaganda against Hinduism and Vaisnavism, challenging their very ethical foundation.[129] In defense of the tenets of Vaisnavism, Bhaktivinoda's Krishna-samhita employed the same rational tools of its opponents, complete with contemporary archeological and historical data and theological thought, to establish Krishna's pastimes as transcendent (aprakrita) manifestations of morality.[130] In particular, he applied what he termed adhunika-vada ("contemporary thinking") – his methodology of correlating the phenomenal discourse of the scripture with the observable reality.[16] The book evoked an intense and highly polarized response, with some praising its intellectual novelty and traditionalism while others, on the contrary, condemning it for what they saw as deviations from the orthodox Vaisnava hermeneutics.[131] Bhaktivinoda recalls:

Unabated by the criticism, Bhaktivinoda saw Krishna-samhita as an adequate presentation of the Gaudiya Vaisnava thought even to a Western mind, and in 1880 sent copies of the book to leading intellectuals of Europe and America.[132] Soon Bhaktivinoda received a favorable response from an eminent Sanskrit scholar in London Reinhold Rost, and a courteous acknowledgement of the gift from Ralph Waldo Emerson.[133] This became the very first foray of Caitanya's theology into the Western world.[132]

In 1886 Bhaktivinoda published his another important and, probably, most famous work Caitanya-siksamrita, which summarizes the teachings of Caitanya and includes Bhaktivinoda's own socio-religious analysis.[134][135] Along with it came his own Bengali translation of the Bhagavad Gita with commentaries by Visvanatha Chakravarti (ca.1626–1708), Amnaya-sutra, Vaisnava-siddhanta-mala, Prema-pradipa, his own Sanskrit commentaries on Caitanya-upanisad and Caitanya Mahaprabhu's Siksastakam as well as two parts of Caitanya-caritamrita with his own commentary entitled Amrita-pravaha-bhashya ["A commentary that showers nectar"].[134]

A faded sepia photograph of an old man with neck beads on a deteriorated paper page.
A page with angular Bengali handwriting and a square diagram.
(left) Bhaktivinoda Thakur's photo with autograph and (right) the first page of his original Svalikhita-jivani. (1896)

In Jaiva-dharma, another key piece of Thakur's writing, published in 1893,[136] Bhaktivinoda employs the fictional style of a novel to create an ideal, even utopian Vaisnava realm that serves as a backdrop to philosophical and esoteric truths unfolding in a series of conversations between the book's characters and guiding their devotional transformations.[137] Jaiva-dharma is considered one of the most important books in the Gaudiya Vaisnava lineage of Bhaktivinoda, translated into many languages and printed in thousands of copies.[138]

On the request of his son Lalita Prasad, in 1896 Bhaktivinoda wrote an extensive and compellingly detailed autobiography called Svalikhita-jivani that covered fifty-six years of his life from birth up until that time.[139][140] Recounting his life's episodes with astonishing candor, Bhaktivinoda portrayed his path as full of financial struggle, health issues, internal doubts and insecurity, and deep introspection that gradually led him, sometimes in convoluted ways, to the deliberate and mature decision of accepting Caitanya Mahaprabhu's and his teachings as Bhaktivinoda's final goal.[139] Bhaktivinoda does not display much concern for how this candid autobiographical account would reflect on his status as an established Gaudiya Vaisnava spiritual leader with a large following in the eyes of thousands of his intellectual bhadralok disciples.[139] In this context it is especially telling that Bhaktivinoda in Svalikhita-jivani never refers to himself as feeling or displaying any special spiritual acumen, saintlihood, powers, or charisma – anything worthy of veneration.[141] Rather, this extremely honest, almost self-deprecating narrative portrays Bhaktivinoda as a genuinely, exceptionally humble and modest man, serving as the best exemplar and foundation of the teaching he dedicated his later life to spreading.[142] The book was published by Lalita Prasad in 1916 after Bhaktivinoda's passing.[143]

Bhaktivinoda also contributed significantly to the development of Vaisnava music and song in the 19th century.[144] He composed many devotional songs, or bhajans, mostly in Bengali and occasionally in Sanskrit, that were compiled into collections, such as Kalyana-kalpataru (1881), Saranagati (1893) and Gitavali (1893).[5] Conveying the essence of Gaudiya Vaisnava teachings in simple language, many of his songs are to this day widely popular in Bengal and across the world.[145][146]

Discovery of Caitanya's birthplace

File:Yogapith, Mayapur.jpg
The temple at Caitanya Mahaprabhu's birthplace in Mayapur established by Bhaktivinoda Thakur.

In 1886 Bhaktivinoda attempted to retire from his government service and move to Vrindavan to pursue his devotional life there.[147] However, he saw a dream in which Caitanya ordered him to go to Nabadwip instead.[148] After some difficulty , in 1887 Bhaktivinoda was transferred to Krishnanagar, a district center twenty-five kilometers away from Nabadwip, famous as the birthplace of Caitanya Mahaprabhu.[149] Despite poor health, Bhaktivinoda finally managed to start regularly visiting Nabadwip to research places connected with Caitanya.[150] Soon he came to a conclusion that the site purported by the local brahmanas to be Caitanya's birthplace could not possibly be genuine.[151] Determined to find the actual place of Caitanya's pastimes but frustrated by the lack of reliable evidence and clues, one night he saw a mystical vision:[152]

Taking this as a clue, Bhaktivinoda conducted a thorough, painstaking investigation of the site, by consulting old geographical maps matched against scriptural and verbal accounts, and eventually came to a conclusion that the village of Ballaldighi was formerly known as Mayapur, confirmed in Bhakti-ratnakara as the actual birth site of Caitanya.[153] He soon acquired a property in Surabhi-kunj near Mayapur to oversee the temple construction at Caitanya's birthplace.[17] For this purpose he organized, via Sajjana-tosani and special festivals, as well as personal acqualitances, a massive and hugely successful fundraising effort among the people of Bengal and beyond.[154] Noted Bengali journalist Sisir Kumar Ghosh (1840–1911) commended Bhaktivinoda for the discovery and hailed him as "the seventh goswami" – a reference to the Six Goswamis, renowned medieval Gaudiya Vaisnava ascetics and close associates of Caitanya who had authored many of the school's theological texts and discovered places of Krishna's pastimes in Vrindavan.[155]


A two-storey pink-and-yellow building with a sign in Bengali and English
Bhaktivinoda Thakur's house at Surabhi-kunj (Mayapur) that served as the headquarters of his nama-hatta preaching.

Kedarnath started a traveling preaching program in Bengali and Orissan villages that he called nama-hatta, or "the market-place of the name [of Krishna]".[156] Modeled after the circuit court system, his nama-hatta groups included kirtana parties, distribution of prasada (food offered to Krishna), and lecturers on the teachings of Gaudiya Vaisnavism, traveling from village to village as far as Vrindavan in a organized and systematic way.[157] Bhaktivinoda's nama-hatta program was a big success, widely popularizing the teachings of Caitanya in masses as well as attracting a following of high-class patrons.[158][159] By the beginning of the 20th century Bhaktivinoda established over five hundred nama-hattas across Bengal.[160]

Opposing Vaisnava heterodoxy

Prior to Bhaktivinoda's active literary and preaching endeavors, an organized Gaudiya Vaisnava sampradaya (lineage) was virtually nonexistent, as was a single, overarching Gaudiya Vaisnava canon in a codified form.[161] Therefore, in the absence of such theological and organizational commonality, claims of affiliation with Gaudiya Vaisnavism by individuals and groups were either tenuous, superficial, or unverifiable.[161] Bhaktivinoda Thakur attempted to restore the once strong and unified Caitanya's movement from the motley assortment of sects that it came to be towards the end of the 19th century, choosing his Sajjjana-tosani magazine as the means for this task.[162] Through his articles dealing with the process of initiation and sadhana, through translations of Vaisnava scriptures, and his through commentaries on contemporary issues from a Vaisnava perspective, Bhaktivinoda was gradually establishing, both in the minds of his large audience and in writing,[lower-alpha 9] the foundation for Gaudiya Vaisnava orthodoxy and orthopraxy, or what a Vaisnava is and isn't.[163]

Gradually Bhaktivinoda directed criticism at various heterodox Vaisnava groups abound in Bengal that he identified and termed "a-Vaisnava" (non-Vaisnava) and apasampradayas ("deviant lineages"): Aul, Baul, Saina, Darvesa, Sahajiya, smarta brahmanas, etc.[164][165] Of them, the Vaisnava spin-off groups that presented sexual promiscuity to be a spiritual practice became the target of choice for Bhaktivinoda's especially pointed attacks.[166] A more tacit but nothing short of uncompromising philosophical assault was directed at the influential jati-gosais (caste goswamis) and smarta brahmanas who claimed exclusive right to conduct initiations into Gaudiya Vaisnavism on the basis of their hereditary affiliation with it and denied eligibility to do so to non-brahmana Vaisnavas. [165][167][168][169] Bhaktivinoda's contention with them was brewing for many years until it came to a head when he, already seriously ill, delegated his son Bhaktisiddhanta to the famous Brāhmaṇa o Vaiṣṇava (Brahmana and Vaishnava) debate that took place in 1911 in Balighai, Midnapore and turned into Bhaktisiddhanta's and Bhaktivinoda's triumph.[168][170]

Reaching out to the West

Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, His life and Precepts, the book sent by Bhaktivinoda to the West in 1896.

Although his Krishna-samhita made it into the hands of some leading intellectuals of the West, a book in Sanskrit had very few readers there.[171] Despite this obstacle, in 1882 Bhaktivinoda stated in his Sajjana-toshani magazine a coveted vision of universalism and brotherhood across borders and races:

Bhaktivinoda did not stop short of making practical efforts to implement his vision. In 1896 he published and sent to several academic addressees in the West a book entitled Srimad-Gaurangalila- Smaranamangala, or Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, His life and Precepts[18][173][lower-alpha 10] that portrayed Chaitanya Mahaprabhu as a champion of "universal brotherhood and intellectual freedom":

Bhaktivinoda adapted his message to the Western mind by borrowing popular Christian expressions such as "universal fraternity", "cultivation of the spirit", "preach", and "church" and deliberately using them in a Hindu context.[174] Copies of Shri Chaitanya, His Life and Precepts were sent to Western scholars across the British Empire, and landed, among others, in academic libraries at McGill University in Montreal, at the University of Sydney in Australia and at the Royal Asiatic Society of London. The book also made its way to prominent scholars such as Oxford Sanskritist Monier Monier-Williams and earned a favorable review in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society.[172][173]

Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati editing an article. ca.1930s

Bhaktivinoda's son who by that time came to be known as Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati inherited the vision of spreading the message of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in the West from his father. This inspiration was bequeathed to Bhaktisiddhanta in a letter that he received from Bhaktivinoda in 1910 – just four years prior to his death:

In the 1930s the Gaudiya Math founded by Bhaktisiddhanta sent its missionaries to Europe, but remained largely unsuccessful it is Western outreach efforts, until in 1966 Bhaktisiddhanta's disciple A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami (1896–1977) founded in New York City the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON).[178][179] Modeled after the original Gaudiya Math and emulating its emphasis on dynamic mission and spiritual practice, ISKCON soon popularized Chaitanya Vaishnavism on a global scale, becoming a world's leading proponent of Hindu bhakti personalism.[179][180][181]


  1. Other sources give 1857 as the year of the epidemic, but that contradicts the age of 17 cited by Bhaktivinoda in Svalikhita-jivani
  2. Biographers cite a instance when Kedarnath quit a well-paid job that involved bargain due to feeling discomfort with having to "cheat the whole seller for profit".[61][62]
  3. Kedarnath Datta's fourteen children are:
    with Shaymani: (1) Annada Prasad, son (1860);
    with Bhagavati Devi: (1) Saudamani, daughter (1864); (2) Kadambani, daughter (1867); (3) son died early, name unknown (1868); (4) Radhika Prasad, son (1870); (5) Kamala Prasad, son (1872); (6) Bimala Prasad, son (1874); (7) Barada Prasad, son (1877); (8) Biraja Prasad, son (1878); (9) Lalita Prasad, son (1880); (10) Krishna Vinodini, daughter (1884); (11) Shyam Sarojini, daughter (1886); (12) Hari Pramodini, daughter (1888); (13) Shailaja Prasad, son (1891).[69][70][71]
  4. Kedarnath Datta in Svalikhita-jivani confesses to the discomfort of holding the position of authority that made his subordinates ingratiate themselves to him, out of fear and intimidation, by gifts and singing.[80]
  5. In Svalikhita-jivani Kedarnath frankly attributes his chronic intestinal disorders to the non-vegetarian diet that followed up until his initiation in 1880, even while already practicing Vaisnavism that strictly prohibits meat-eating.[88][85]
  6. Kedarnath accepts this criticism as fair in his autobiography.[104]
  7. with the only exception of his still non-vegetarian diet that he admits to following until his initiation in 1880
  8. Bhaktivinoda would go to sleep at 19:30–20:00 but would rise at 22:00pm, light his oil lamp and write for six hours until 4:00 in the morning. He would then take a 30-minute nap, get up at 4:30 and chanted harinama-japa of the Hare Krishna mantra on beads. From 7:00 until 9:30 in the morning he would deal correspondence, study and receive visitors. From 10:00 until 17:00, with a break between 13:00–14:00 he would sit in court, hearing up to fifty cases a day and writing a detailed judgment for each. He would then get home, bathe, take a mean or rice, bread and milk, rest at 19:30–20:00 and resume his writing routine at 22:00.[128]
  9. Many Bhaktivinoda's books appeared first serialized in Sajjana-tosani before being printed in single volumes.[163]
  10. The book was also published under slightly varied titles, such as Shri Chaitanya, His Life and Precepts.
  11. The same bequest to Bhaktisiddhanta was made as the last will of his mother and Bhaktivinoda's widow Bhagavati Devi prior to her passing in 1920.[176]
  12. The original letter was never recovered; however, Bhaktisiddhanta quoted these instructions by Bhaktivinoda, apparently considering them as seminal for his mission, in a 1926 letter thus:[177]
    1. Persons who claim worldly prestige and futile glory fail to attain the true position of nobleness, because they argue that Vaishnavas are born in a low position as a result of [previous] sinful actions, which means that they commit offenses (aparadha). You should know that, as a remedy, the practice of varnashrama, which you have recently taken up, is a genuine Vaishnava service (seva).
    2. It is because of lack of promulgation of the pure conclusions of bhakti (shuddha bhaktisiddhanta) that . . . among men and women of the sahajiya groups, ativadis, and other lines (sampradaya) devious practices are welcomed as bhakti. You should always critique those views, which are opposed to the conclusions of the sacred texts, by missionary work and sincere practice of the conclusions of bhakti.
    3. Arrange to begin a pilgrimage (parikrama) in and around Nabadwip as soon as possible. Through this activity alone, anyone in the world may attain Krishna bhakti. Take adequate care so that service in Mayapur continues, and grows brighter day by day. Real seva in Mayapur will be possible by setting up a printing press, distributing bhakti literature (bhakti-grantha), and nama-hatta (devotional centers for the recitation of the sacred names of God), not by solitary practice (bhajana). You should not hamper seva in Mayapur and the mission (pracara) by indulging in solitary bhajana.
    4. When I shall not be here anymore...[remember that] seva in Mayapur is a highly revered service. Take special care of it; this is my special instruction to you.
    5. I had a sincere desire to draw attention to the significance of pure (shuddha) bhakti through books such as Shrimad Bhagavatam, Sat-sandarbha, Vedanta-darshana, etc. You should go on and take charge of that task. Mayapur will develop if a center of devotional learning (vidyapitha) is created there.
    6. Never bother to acquire knowledge or funds for your personal consumption; collect them only for the purpose of serving the divine; avoid bad company for the sake of money or self-interest.


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See also


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