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Religions of South Asia 2.2 (2008) 195-214


ISSN (print) 1751-2689 ISSN (online) 1751-2697

A Caitanya Vaiṣṇava Response to the Nineteenth-century Bengal Renaissance Movement According to the Works of Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura

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ABSTRACT: Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura (1838–1914) was both a Bhadraloka and a Cait- anya Vaiṣṇava reformer. Consequently, he played a unique role in the nineteenth- century Bengal Renaissance movement. This paper first briefly analyses Western impact on nineteenth-century Bengal and the responses to it from the Bhad- ralokas and the traditionalists, in terms of their attitude to six points, namely 1) ethics/morality, 2) monotheism, 3) the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, 4) image worship, 5) the caste system, and 6) the status of women. Then the paper examines Bhaktivinoda’s unique contribution in relation to the above-mentioned six issues.

KEYWORDS: Bengal Renaissance, Bhadraloka, Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura, Caitanya Vaiṣṇavism.


My argument in this article is that Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura (1838–1914), the nineteenth-century Caitanya Vaiṣṇava reformer, occupied a unique position among the figures that comprised the Bengal Renaissance Movement because he was both a traditionalist and a reformer. The profound Western influence brought about through the British pres- ence in India after 1757 produced the polarity between reformers and tradi- tionalists among the native people in Bengal during the nineteenth century. on the one hand, the British occupation fostered an intellectual elite of natives called the Bhadralokas. They were typically well educated and English speaking, occupying governmental positions. they sought to reform the reli- gio-social aspects of traditional popular Hinduism since they were exposed to the Western-Christian critique of it. on the other hand, the masses that were relatively free from the Western influence adhered to tradition, and resisted the Bhadralokas’ reform movements. Bhaktivinoda was a traditionalist because he supported a traditional Purāṇic Hinduism, namely Caitanya Vaiṣṇavism. At the same time he was a



reformer, since the way he defended his tradition reflected a certain mental- ity that was typical among the Bhadralokas. In this article, I will use the concept ‘Renaissance’ as an analytical tool, as suggested by David Kopf (Kopf 1969: 280–89), rather than the word indicating specific contents of the Renaissance of Europe. According to Kopf, the clas- sicistic preoccupation with a golden age is the common factor of all renais- sances, both European and non-European. he points out that the attempt to reconstruct a golden age of a classical past functions as a justification for rejecting the current tradition and provides a reason for modernization. the immediate past (the Middle Ages) is rejected by the authority of the remote past (the Classical Ages). In the Indian context, the Bhadralokas sought to reform Hinduism by rejecting the Purāṇic tradition (the immediate past) by the authority of the Vedas/the Upaniṣads (the remote past). In this article, I will limit my study of the Hindu response to the Western influence roughly to the Bengal area during the nineteenth century. 1 In order to examine the uniqueness of Bhaktivinoda’s response to the nine- teenth-century Bengal Renaissance Movement, I will first analyze the elements of the Western influence in terms of the British orientalists, the Christian missionaries, and the British government. Secondly, I will analyze the Bhad- raloka as well as traditional responses to the Western influence, in terms of their attitude to six points, namely (1) ethics/morality, (2) monotheism, (3) the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, (4) image worship, (5) the caste system, and (6) the status of women. Finally, I will analyze Bhaktivinoda’s attitudes to these six points as his responses both to the Western influence and the Hindu reactions.


British Orientalists

British Orientalists, influenced by the Enlightenment and the Romantic view of India, esteemed Vedic/Upaniṣadic Hinduism as the pure form of religion. At the same time, they rejected popular Purāṇic tradition as a corruption of the pristine Vedic/Upaniṣadic past (Halbfass 1988: 197). This contrast made by the Orientalists had a decisive impact on the Bhadralokas’ perception of hindu tradition, motivating them to reconstruct the ideal form of the tradi- tion based on the Vedic/Upaniṣadic texts, which was ethically and intellectu- ally compatible with Christianity.

1. I am aware that, by limiting my study to the area of Bengal, I am cutting some of the impor- tant thinkers during the nineteenth century in India. Probably the most prominent one outside Bengal was Dayānanda Sarasvatī (1824–83), the founder of the Ārya Samāj. Also, Francis X. Clooney, SJ in his recent Fin de Siècle lecture at university of oxford in May, 2004, pointed out the importance of two thinkers from South India, namely J. M. Nallaswami Pillai (1864–1920) and Alkondavilli Govindacharya.

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Christian Missionaries


The predominant view of Christian missionaries in nineteenth-century Bengal towards Hindu tradition was one of disparagement. Consequently, compared to the Orientalists, the missionaries were not so familiar with the rich textual tradition of ‘higher’ Hinduism. Thus, their critique of Hindu tradition was based on what was practised rather than its ideas. This critical view of Hindu practice, together with their theological exclusivism, led the missionaries to engage in radical social-religious reforms.

the British Government

The attitude of the British Government to the Hindu tradition was similar to that of the missionaries. Apart from their Christian sense of superiority to paganism, the British officers were chauvinistic. Being proud of the pros- perity of the British Empire, they took a condescending attitude toward the hindus. Again, based on their observation of popular hindu practices, they rejected the Purāṇic tradition as irrational and immoral, and deserving to be abolished. At the same time, they tried to improve Bengali society through English education and social-religious reform.



For the Bhadraloka response, I will refer to the leaders of the Brahmo Samāj, namely Ram Mohan Roy, debendranath tagore, or Keshub Chandra Sen, depending on who typified the reformer tendency most clearly. To represent the traditionalist position, I will refer to Ramakrishna. I employ him as a tra- ditionalist because he was virtually free from Western impact, and therefore offered an indigenous response to the Bengal Renaissance. The ethical influence of Christianity upon the Bhadralokas was exempli- fied in Ram Mohan Roy, ‘the father of modern India’ (Lipner 2001: 15). For him, the first step to re-construct an ethically defensible Hinduism was to reject popular Purāṇic worship as morally unacceptable. As a second step, Roy tried to re-interpret hinduism in the light of the high morality of the Vedic scriptures such as the Vedas, the Upaniṣads, and the Vedāntic texts (p. 15). Roy’s motivation was to show that the Vedic/Upaniṣadic texts did not contain immoral religious activities. In contrast, Ramakrishna accepted the evolved whole of Hindu tradition, and did not differentiate the ‘pure’ Vedic/Upaniṣadic Hinduism from the ‘degraded’ Purāṇic and Tantric tradition. As a result, he did not think that the

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ethical reform of the tradition was necessary. His emphasis was on personal realization of god, and according to him, all paths lead to the same goal. therefore, even left-hand tantra 2 practices were acceptable as long as the practitioner could realize god.


Again, following the Orientalists, the Bhadralokas claimed that the true Hinduism found in the Vedic/Upaniṣadic texts was actually monotheism, and rejected the polytheistic Purāṇic tradition as a later degradation. In this regard, although their reconstructed Hindu tradition was largely based on Śaṅkara’s Advaita Vedānta, it should be observed that their concept of brahman was theistic/dualistic rather than monistic (Halbfass 1988: 208). Ramakrishna clearly contrasted with the Bhadralokas in his view of ultimate reality. Whereas the Bhadralokas maintained monotheistic dualism, Ramakrishna accepted monism based on his religious experience. Where the Bhadralokas rejected the polytheistic worship of the Purāṇic deities, he accepted the Purāṇic deities as manifestations of saguṇa-brahman. For Ramakrishna, all faiths led to the same goal, nirguṇa-brahman, and Purāṇic/ Tantric traditions were as valid as Christianity and other religions. Conse- quently, he did not see any necessity for reform.

the Bhāgavata Purāṇa

Due to Western influence, the Bhadraloka reformers rejected the Bhāgavata as superstitious, polytheistic, and idolatrous. Roy attacked the Bhāgavata in terms of its authority and its ascription to god of a particular name and form. Roy’s discussion typically exhibited the ‘Renaissance-mentality’ in that he attacked the validity of the Bhāgavata (immediate past, Purāṇic tradition) with the authority of Advaita Vedānta (remote past, Vedic/ Upaniṣadic tradition). In contrast to the Bhadralokas, Ramakrishna not only accepted the Bhāgavata, but highly praised the gopīs’ 3 love for Kṛṣṇa described in it. For Ramakrishna, the most important thing is the realization of god, or brahman, and any paths were accepted as long as they fostered the cause. He criticized the Bhadralokas’ rejection of the Bhāgavata. When Bankim Chandra, one of the prominent Bhadralokas, wrote kṛṣṇacarita accepting only the Kṛṣṇa of the Bhagavad Gītā and rejecting the Kṛṣṇa of the Bhāgavata, Ramakrishna said, ‘Who can really be a Hindu who accepts Kṛṣṇa but not the Gopīs?’ (Halbfass 1988: 244).


Left-hand tantra involves extramarital sexual intercourse as a spiritual practice.


Cowherd girls in Vṛndāvana.

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image Worship


Ram Mohan Roy’s strong rejection of image worship reflected the Semitic reli- gions’ condemnation of idolatry as well as their egalitarian view of humanity. Although Śaṅkara’s Advaita philosophy does accommodate the worship of God with form (saguṇa-brahman) for spiritually less-qualified people, Roy argues that the worship without image must be practised by all. According to Halbfass, Roy’s egalitarian claim that everyone should adhere to the higher worship of formless brahman violates Śaṅkara’s doctrine of qualification (adhikāra), an essentially hierarchical view of human nature (Halbfass 1988:


Contrary to Roy, Ramakrishna fully accepted the pedagogical accommoda- tion of image worship in Śaṅkara’s system. For Ramakrishna, the most impor- tant thing is to develop love of God, and whatever means—including image worship—that serve that end should be accepted. Thus he fully accepted the notion of adhikāra, the idea that people adopt different practices according to their spiritual qualification.

the Caste System

the Bhadralokas accepted the Western egalitarian critique of the caste system, and they sought social reform. Keshub Chandra Sen, coming from a non-brāhmaṇa family, was probably the most active in this regard. Being influ- enced by missionaries, he was convinced that social reform was the duty of every theist (Farquhar 1919: 42). he advocated complete abolition of the caste system, and promoted inter-caste marriage. Ramakrishna was not at all interested in social reform. He saw it as ‘just one form of attachment to the world, and a lack of freedom for the divine’ (Halbfass 1988: 227). Meeting with Keshub and the Brāhmos, Ramakrishna taught that the realization of God must take precedence over all different kinds of philanthropic activities (Ramakrishna 1984: 142).

the Status of Women

The Bhadraloka reformers were against practices such as satī, child marriage, and polygamy. Roy’s arguments against satī reflected Christian egalitarianism. Pro-satī advocates claimed that a widow should be burnt with her deceased husband because women are less virtuous by nature, and therefore, they are prone to be misled without their husband. Roy argued against these advo- cates’ view of the nature of women. Observing the wives of kulīna brāhmaṇas virtuously enduring their deprived situation, Roy claimed that women are as

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virtuous as men, if not more (Roy 1947: 127). This egalitarian view of women was a result of his interaction with the Serampore missionaries (Farquhar 1919: 33). his agitation against satī saw its fruition in Lord Bentinck’s order in 1829, forbidding its practice (p. 33). As in the case of the caste system, Keshub was the most active among the Brahmo leaders regarding the status of women. His biggest accomplishment in this regard was legalizing the Brāhmo Marriage Act in 1872, in which he legalized widow marriage and inter-caste marriage, and established a new form of marriage which excluded child marriage and polygamy. 4 Ramakrishna, in contrast, saw women as the object of male lust that had to be renounced in order to attain the realization of God. However, as we have seen, he was not interested in social reform. Ramakrishna frequently used the expression ‘women and gold’, indicating that lust and greed were obstacles to be removed (Ramakrishna 1984: 288). His view of women was spiritually oriented and did not seem to recognize that there were any social dimensions to the issue.


the Life of Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura 5

Bhaktivinoda’s life may be largely divided into two periods: in the first half of his life he was a typical Bhadraloka, and later he became a traditionalist. Until the age of 30, Bhaktivinoda’s life was a classical example of a Bhad- raloka. Born in 1838 as Kedarnath Dutt, he grew up as a son of a rich kāyastha family. He started his English learning at the age of five and at 14 he left his village and moved to Calcutta. He stayed with his maternal uncle Kashi Prasad ghosh, the editor of an English journal popular among the Bhadralokas. Bhak- tivinoda continued his education at the hindu College and became an asso- ciate of prominent Bhadralokas such as Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Keshub Chandra Sen, Michael Madhusudan datta, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, and Sisir Kumar Ghosh. He was 18 when he left Calcutta and took up teaching jobs in rural Orissa and Bengal. He acquired a government post when he was 28, and two years later he became a deputy magistrate. He retired aged 56. His Bhadraloka life saw a dramatic change at the age of 30, when he read the Bhāgavata and Caitanya-caritāmṛta. 6 He immediately became a follower of the Caitanya tradition. Beginning with his famous speech ‘The Bhagavat: Its

4. Farquhar writes that the 1872 Act abolished child marriage and polygamy (1919: 49). However, the Act did not attempt to do this, and only established a new form of marriage with its own rules (Killingley 2003: 521).

5. For a detailed account, see Dasa 1999, Chs 2–4.

6. A hagiography of Kṛṣṇa Caitanya (1486–1533), the inaugurator of Caitanya Vaiṣṇavism.

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Philosophy, Ethics and Its Theology’, which was given when he was 31, he actively promoted the Caitanya tradition in public. He was officially initiated into the tradition 12 years later by Bipin Bihari Goswami, and was given the title ‘Bhaktivinoda’ at the age of 48. While remaining as a householder and as a governmental servant, Bhaktivinoda wrote, edited, translated, and pub- lished more than 100 books on Caitanya Vaiṣṇavism until his death in 1914. His major works include five theological works: Śrī kṛṣṇa-saṃhitā (1880), Caitanya-śikṣāmṛta (1886) Jaiva-dharma (1893), Hari-nāma-cintāmani (1900), tattva- sūtra (1893) and tattva-viveka (1893).

Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura’s Response

As a Bhadraloka follower of the Caitanya tradition, Bhaktivinoda sought to establish the authenticity of the tradition against criticism made by the West- erners and the Bhadraloka reformers, which resulted in his unique response to the six issues we have discussed above.

Ethics/Morality Bhaktivinoda was unique in his response to the Christian moral critique of the Purāṇic tradition. He was a traditionalist in a sense that he supported Purāṇic tradition. At the same time, he was also a reformer because, like other Bhadraloka leaders, he did try to ‘purify’ the tradition by rejecting ethically unacceptable religious practices. Bhaktivinoda defended the Caitanya tradition, which is based on the Bhāgavata, claiming that immoral practices were a result of misinterpretation of the tradition, and in theory there was nothing that supported corrupt prac- tices in the tradition. Thus, regarding the so-called immoral behavior of Kṛṣṇa described in the Bhāgavata, Bhaktivinoda emphasized that conjugal relation between Kṛṣṇa and the gopīs in the Bhāgavata must be differentiated from the relations between men and women in the material world. In the eighth chapter of Jaiva-dharma, Bhaktivinoda explains the difference between spiritual rasa 7 described in the Bhāgavata and mundane rasa in the material world. According to Bhaktivinoda, there are three levels of rasa: (1) Vaikuṇṭha (spiritual) rasa—which is on the level of spirit, and based on the rela- tionship between the soul and Kṛṣṇa; (2) Svargīya (heavenly) rasa—which is on the level of emotions in the mind, exemplified in the emotional attachment between men and women; (3) Pārthiva (material) rasa—which is on the level of material senses, based on the relation between senses and sense objects (Ṭhākura 1995a: 67). In the constitutional state, human beings are pure spirit souls without material mind and body (p. 65). Therefore, the original rasa is the

7. The term ‘rasa’ means the taste arising from the contact between the enjoyer and the object of enjoyment.

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one happening on the level of the soul, and other rasas on the level of emotion and material senses are simply reflections of the original spiritual rasa. Bhak- tivinoda says that the Bhāgavata describes Vaikuṇṭha-rasa only, which is about the spiritual attraction between Kṛṣṇa, God, and individual souls. It must be differentiated from Svargīya-rasa and Pārthiva rasa, which are about emotional and physical attachment between male and female. Therefore, Bhaktivinoda was strongly opposed to the idea that the Bhāgavata promotes immoral activi- ties between men and women:

[H]ow is it possible that a spiritualist of the school of Vyāsa teaching the best principles of theism in the whole of the Bhāgavata…could have forced upon the belief of men that the sensual connection between men with certain females is the highest object of worship! This is impossible, dear critic! Vyāsa could not have taught the common vairāgī to set up an ākhaḍā (a place of worship) with a number of females! Vyāsa, who could teach us repeatedly in the whole of Bhāgavata that sensual pleasures are momentary like the pleasures of rubbing the itching hand and that man’s highest duty is to have spiritual love with God, could never have prescribed the worship of pleasures.

(Ṭhākura 1999: 277)

After explaining the theoretical ‘purity’ of the Bhāgavata, Bhaktivinoda, in his attempt to re-construct ‘pure’ Vaiṣṇavism, rejected popular religious and spiritual practices that were ethically unacceptable to the Bhadralokas and the Westerners. Thus he showed his reformer mentality. First, Bhaktivinoda differentiated self-claimed Vaiṣṇavas into orthodox and heretics. He then identified groups that practised sexual rituals as heretical, and rejected them as non-Vaiṣṇava (avaiṣṇava) (Fuller 2003: 192–93):

Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu considered Himself a member of the Madhva-samp- radāya. We therefore belong to that sect. The philosophies of the bāulas, sāins, neḍās, daraveśas, karttābhajās, and atibāḍis [attibaris] are those of nondevotees [avaiṣṇava]. their instructions and activities are most incoherent. Many people lose respect in Vaiṣṇavism by discussing their philosophies. Actually Vaiṣṇavism cannot be held responsible for the defects of all those hypocrites. (Ṭhākura 1995a: 45)

Indeed, when Bhaktivinoda was in Orissa, as a deputy magistrate, he im- prisoned the leaders of heretic Vaiṣṇavas called attibaris who were accused of abusing the wives of others (Ṭhākura 1871: 17–19). According to Jason D. Fuller, as a result of his differentiating orthodox from unorthodox, ‘Bhak- tivinoda effectively excluded maybe three-quarters or more of the professed Vaiṣṇava population from the ranks of true “Vaiṣṇavas” ’ (Fuller 2003: 193). As one of the Bhadralokas, Bhaktivinoda was clearly aware of the Christian moral critique of Caitanya tradition, and did try to ‘purify’ it by rejecting mor- ally unacceptable practices. Bhaktivinoda’s attempt to re-construct the ‘pure’ form of tradition and his rejection of unethical practices of popular tradition reflected the reform

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tendency of the Bhadralokas. In this sense, he was different from Ramakrishna who accepted even antinomian left-hand Tantric practices for the sake of spiritual realization. At the same time, he was also different from other Bhad- ralokas in that he saw the ‘pure’ form of tradition in the Purāṇic texts, espe- cially the Bhāgavata.

Monotheism Regarding the issue of monotheism, Bhaktivinoda made an interesting case by claiming hierarchical inclusivism based on Kṛṣṇa-monotheism. He was clearly aware of the Christian critiques of Hindu tradition, and like reform- ers, advocated monotheism, denouncing the monistic conclusions of Advaita philosophy. he claimed the superiority of his tradition over Christianity and other religions too. But unlike reformers, the only true God for him was Kṛṣṇa of the Bhāgavata, not the nirguṇa brahman of Advaita Vedānta. Indeed, Bhak- tivinoda claimed Kṛṣṇa is parabrahman, the basis of, and therefore higher than nirguṇa brahman. Also, instead of rejecting Purāṇic deities entirely like the reformers did, Bhaktivinoda accepted them as lesser manifestations of Kṛṣṇa. In this respect, he may be described as a traditionalist. At the same time, however, the way Bhaktivinoda accommodated the deities differed from the view of Ramakrishna in that the former made a hierarchy among the deities whereas the latter did not. In this regard, Bhaktivinoda’s acceptance of the traditional hierarchical view of human nature should be noted since he thought people worshipped different deities according to their spiritual qualification (adhikāra) In the following part, I will first describe Bhaktivinoda’s absolute claim for the Caitanya Vaiṣṇava tradition. I will then examine how he arranged different traditions—both Indian and non-Indian—in a hierarchy in relation to Kṛṣṇa-monotheism. Finally, I will look at Bhaktivinoda’s view on Advaita Vedānta and Christianity since these two traditions played significant roles during the Bengal Renaissance. In his work tattva-viveka (Ṭhākura 1995b), Bhaktivinoda claims the absolute value of the Caitanya tradition, and explains its relation to other traditions based on an epistemological argument. According to Bhaktivinoda, there are two types of logic: miśra-yukti (impure logic) and śuddha-yukti (pure logic). Miśra-yukti is applicable only for attaining knowledge regarding the material world, but spiritual knowledge can be gained only through śuddha-yukti. According to Bhaktivinoda, knowledge in general is attained through sense perception (pratyakṣa) and inference (anumāna), based on logic or reasoning. When a soul is self-realized and free from matter, it possesses correct spiritual knowledge gained through spiritual senses and spiritual logic. However, when it falls down to the material world, the soul is given a subtle material body, which consists of mind (manas), intelligence (buddhi), and ego (ahaṃkāra), and a gross material body, which consists of the five material elements. Once the soul is imprisoned in its body, it starts accumulating information of the

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external material world through material senses. Then, it attains knowledge by analysing accumulated data with material logic (miśra-yukti). However,

since this knowledge is based on material sense perception and material logic,

it is unfit for attaining spiritual knowledge.

Bhaktivinoda explains that a variety of religious traditions arise when human beings try to seek the ultimate truth based on material sense percep- tion and material logic. Since they are imperfect by nature, these traditions can never be flawless. However, when human beings attain spiritual sense and spiritual logic, they understand that there exists one perfect path and all other traditions are lesser manifestations of it. Bhaktivinoda then identifies that one perfect tradition with Caitanya Vaiṣṇavism, claiming that it is perfect because it is not based on miśra-yukti but on the Bhāgavata, which is the manifestation of śuddha-yukti, or spiritual perception of the great sage Vyāsa. In this regard, he says, ‘Of all the names and forms of the Lord current in the world, the form of Bhagavān men- tioned in Śrīmad Bhāgavatam [the Bhāgavata] is the most pure. That is why the Paramahaṃsa-saṃhitā [the highest text] is known as the Bhāgavata’ (Ṭhākura 1998: 184).

Now, let us observe more closely Bhaktivinoda’s view of other traditions in relation to Caitanya Vaiṣṇavism. Bhaktivinoda explains that Vaiṣṇava- dharma 8 manifests in different ways depending on the spiritual qualifica-

tion (adhikāra) of people. thus, in Śrī kṛṣṇa-saṃhitā, Bhaktivinoda describes

a hierarchal manifestation of religions, starting from the worship of Kālī/

Durgā and culminating in the worship of Kṛṣṇa of the Bhāgavata in mādhurya- rasa (Ṭhākura 1998: 7). First, he describes hierarchy among Śākta-dharma, Saura-dharma, Gāṇapatya- dharma, Śaiva-dharma, and Vaiṣṇava-dharma. the description of each dharma

is as follows:


Śākta-dharma—the preliminary stage. The followers enquire about


the truth of the material world and worship the goddess Durgā since she is the predominating deity of the material world. This dharma is dominated by the quality (guṇa) of ignorance (tamas) Saura-dharma—the followers realize the superiority of heat over


dull matter and worship the sun god Sūrya as the source of heat. this dharma is dominated by the quality of ignorance and passion (tamas-rajas) Gāṇapatya-dharma—the followers realize that animal conscious-


ness is to be superior to heat and worship Gaṇeśa. This dharma is dominated by the quality of passion (rajas) Śaiva-dharma—the followers realize the superiority of human con- sciousness over animal consciousness and worship Śiva as the

8. I am using the terms religion, philosophy, and dharma interchangeably.

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pure-consciousness of living entities. this dharma is dominated by the quality of goodness-passion (sattva-rajas) (5) Vaiṣṇava-dharma—the followers realize the existence of the supreme consciousness that is beyond human consciousness and worship Viṣṇu as the supreme consciousness. This dharma is dominated by the quality of pure-goodness (śuddha-sattva).

Here we may point out that Bhaktivinoda accommodates the Purāṇic deities in a hierarchical way. Bhaktivinoda adds to this hierarchy that Buddhism, Jainism and Advaita Vedānta are similar to Śaiva-dharma, and Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are similar to Vaiṣṇava-dharma. After describing the development from Śākta- dharma to Vaiṣṇava-dharma, Bhaktivinoda goes on to describe the hierarchy within Vaiṣṇava-dharma. According to Bhaktivinoda, there are two types of worship of Viṣṇu: the worship of Nārāyaṇa and the worship of Kṛṣṇa. In the worship of Nārāyaṇa, the Lord’s majestic (aiśvarya) aspect is prevalent. there- fore, the jīvas’ relations with the Lord are limited to either passive adoration (śānta) or servitude (dāsya-rasa). In the worship of Kṛṣṇa, however, the Lord’s sweetness (mādhurya) is prevalent. Therefore, five kinds of relation with the Lord, namely, passive adoration (śānta), servitude (dāsya), friendship (sakhya), parental love (vātsalya), and conjugal love (mādhurya), are available to the soul (Ṭhākura 1998: 55). Since there is more variety to the exchanges one can experience with Kṛṣṇa, the worship of Kṛṣṇa is considered higher than that of Nārāyaṇa. Finally, Bhaktivinoda describes the hierarchy among the above-mentioned five kinds of rasas. Among them, śānta-rasa is the lowest and mādhurya-rasa is the highest. Bhaktivinoda refers to representatives for each rasa: śānta- rasa—the four kumāras, Nārada, and Śiva; dāsya-rasaHanumān and Moses; sakhya-rasaUddhava, arjuna, and Mohammed; vātsalya-rasaNanda, Yaśodā, and Jesus Christ; mādhurya-rasaRādhā and Krishna Caitanya. Interestingly, among five rasas, Bhaktivinoda classifies Judaism (Moses) as dāsya-rasa, Islam (Muhammad) as sakhya-rasa, and Christianity (Jesus Christ) as vātsalya-rasa. Then he predicts that since whatever rasa is first found in India then goes to the West, mādhurya-rasa, the highest rasa exhibited by Caitanya, will also spread to the West in the future (Ṭhākura 1998: 55). Thus, Bhaktivinoda sees the worship of Kṛṣṇa in mādhurya-rasa as the highest, and at the same time, other varieties of traditions as lesser manifestations of it. 9 Among religions and philosophies mentioned so far, Śaṅkara’s Vedānta and Christianity were particularly influential among the Bhadralokas. There- fore, we will now examine how Bhaktivinoda claimed the superiority of his tradition over these traditions. It may be observed that Bhaktivinoda’s view on Śaṅkara’s philosophy shares some similarities with the reformers’ view in that both re-interpret

9. Here, Bhaktivinoda was using Rūpa Gosvāmī’s rasa theory (haberman 2003).

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it in a dualistic way, which is more convenient for claiming theism. In short, Bhaktivinoda claims that Śaṅkara actually accepts theistic dualism, and that the monistic conclusion (māyāvāda) usually attributed to him is indeed a later degradation. According to Bhaktivinoda, the true purpose of Śaṅkara’s philosophy was to revive the authority of the vedas by replacing the voidism (śūnyavāda) of Buddhism with the brahmavāda of Advaita philosophy (Ṭhākura 2001: 23). Bhaktivinoda says that since other teachers could build Vaiṣṇava-dharma on the foundation laid by Śaṅkara, Śaṅkara can be seen as the pioneer of Vaiṣṇava- dharma. He claims that Śaṅkara described the oneness of the souls and God in the sense that they are both spirit, distinct from the matter, but that he never accepted the ontological identity between them. However, the modern Advaitins misconstrued its meaning and claimed the ontological oneness of spiritual entities (p. 25). According to Bhaktivinoda, this idea of ontological oneness of all cannot be accepted as an authentic conclusion, since it denies the eternality of love of God, rejecting distinctions between the lover, the beloved, and the process of love (p. 23). Furthermore, Bhaktivinoda asserts that even if we see some validity in the monistic philosophy of Advaitins, nirguṇa brahman cannot be accepted as the ultimate conclusion. In this regard, based on the Bhāgavata 1.2.11 10 that explains the relation between nirguṇa brahman, paramātman, and bhagavān, Bhaktivinoda says that actually bhagavān is parabrahman and the basis of nirguṇa brahman and paramātman (Ṭhākura 2001: 65). Although Bhaktivinoda does not entirely dismiss Advaita philosophy, he certainly sees it as a lesser manifestation of his own tradition. Bhaktivinoda’s view of Christianity also reveals his hierarchical under- standing of religions. In his short essay ‘To Love God’, Bhaktivinoda explains a teaching of Jesus, ‘Love God with all thy heart, with all thy mind, with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and love man as thy brother’ from Caitanya Vaiṣṇava perspective, and claims the superiority of the Caitanya tradition over Christianity. Bhaktivinoda explains Christ’s above precept in terms of the rasa theory. He says that first, when a soul learns to love God with his heart, he attains śānta-rasa. Second, when he learns to love God with his mind, he attains dāsya-rasa. Third, when he learns to love God with his soul, he attains sakhya- rasa. According to Bhaktivinoda, to love God with all one’s strength means to actively work for God, which is a general description of devotion (bhakti). Finally, at the fourth stage, when the soul learns to love all men as brothers and god as their common Father, he reaches vātsalya-rasa (Ṭhākura 1871: 9). In this way, Bhaktivinoda describes how Christianity proceeds from śānta- rasa to vātsalya-rasa. However, Bhaktivinoda points out that Christianity does


vadanti tat tattva-vidas tattvaṃ yaj jñānam advayam | brahmeti paramātmeti bhagavān ity śabdyate ||

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not discuss mādhurya-rasa, which is the highest among all the rasas and which

is beyond the reach of ordinary theists (Ṭhākura 1871: 9). Thus, he claims the

superiority of Caitanya Vaiṣṇavism over Christianity, although he sees these two as very similar in nature.

thus, regarding theological issues, Bhaktivinoda exhibits a reformer men- tality in that he claims the validity of hindu monotheism over Christian mono- theism and rejects the monistic conclusion. At the same time, he also shows

a traditionalist mentality in that he accepts the hierarchal view of human nature and accommodates the Purāṇic deities.

the Bhāgavata Purāṇa Bhaktivinoda showed a unique attitude toward the Bhāgavata, exhibiting both reformer and traditionalist tendencies. He was a traditionalist as he defended the Bhāgavata and criticized reformers for rejecting it. At the same time, he was also a reformer. He tried to accommodate modern empirical scholarship by adjusting the literal interpretation of scriptural information on the phe- nomenal world, and thereby sought to present the Caitanya tradition in a way more intelligible to the Western-influenced Bhadralokas. Based on an evolutionary view of humanity, Bhaktivinoda accuses the Bhadraloka reformers who entirely dismiss the Purāṇic tradition. For Bhak- tivinoda, the Purāṇic tradition of his day is not a result of a degraded Vedic culture, but is a culmination of human progress. therefore, Bhaktivinoda claims that a true reformer should develop the present tradition rather than reject it:

He is the best critic, who can show the further development of an old thought; but a mere denouncer is the enemy of progress and consequently of Nature. “Begin anew,” says the critic, because the old masonry does not answer at present. Let the old author be buried because his time is gone. These are shallow expressions… The true critic, on the other hand, advises us to preserve what we have already obtained, and to adjust our race from that point where we have arrived in the heat of our progress… The great reformers will always assert that they have come out not to destroy the old law, but to fulfil it… The Bhāgavata…has suffered from the imprudent conduct of useless readers and stupid critics.

(Ṭhākura 1999: 260–61).

As an example of ‘mere denouncer’, Bhaktivinoda attacks Ram Mohan Roy:

Rammohun Roy, the founder of the sect of Brahmonism, did not think it worth his while to study this ornament of the religious library [the Bhāgavata]…but then, to speak the truth, he would have done much more if he had commenced his work of reformation from the point where the last reformer in India [Caitanya] left it… His thought, mighty though it was, unfortunately branched like the Ranigunj line of the railway, from the barren station of Śaṅkarācārya, and did not attempt to be an extension from the delhi terminus of the great Bhāgavata expounder of Nadia [Caitanya].

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(Ṭhākura 1999: 261–62)



Bhaktivinoda clearly rejects the reformers’ ‘Renaissance-mentality’—their ‘return-to-the-Vedic-past’ programme—because it goes against the evolu- tion of human progress. For Bhaktivinoda, tradition is to be developed and adjusted, not to be denounced. Bhaktivinoda’s attempt to adjust and develop the tradition can be observed in his Śrī kṛṣṇa-saṃhitā. In this work Bhaktivinoda tries to make the Caitanya tradition more accessible to the Bhadralokas by presenting scriptural infor- mation about the phenomenal world in such a way that it fits contemporary empirical scholarship:

To Bhaktivinoda, matters of phenomenal knowledge (i.e., Puranic history and cosmology) are particularly amenable to rational analysis, even if transcendence (i.e., Krishna, bhakti, etc.) is not… [In] Krishna-samhita, thousands of yuga-cycles of Prajapatis and Manus are compressed to conform to an Indian history of some 6,000 years complete with migrating Aryans, and Mogul and British rule. The same time frame is linked to a progressive intellectual history encompassing all major texts, assigning the Bhagavata, for example to an anonymous ninth-century dra- vidian origin. Krishna and his abode’s supremacy are rationally established, his incarnations tied to human evolution, his lila framed within a discussion of the limitations of human language, and his destruction of demons related metaphori- cally to the removal of corresponding obstacles to devotion. (herzig and valpey 2004: 419)

Indeed, in the conclusion of his work, Bhaktivinoda shows his concern for ‘modern’ readers (the Bhadralokas):

We have covered all relevant topics in the verses of this saṃhitā, but we have not used the method that modern scholars use in considering those topics. therefore

I fear that many people will reject Śrī kṛṣṇa-saṃhitā as an old-fashioned book. I am in dilemma. If I would have used the modern process when I composed the

verses, then the ancient scholars would have certainly disregarded the book. For this reason, I have composed the main book according to the ancient method, and

I have written the Introduction and Conclusion according to the modern. In this way, I have tried to satisfy both classes of people.

(Ṭhākura 1998: 161)

Bhaktivinoda is unique because unlike other Bhadraloka reformers, he does not share the ‘Renaissance-mentality’, and supports the Bhāgavata. But at the same time, he differs from Ramakrishna in that he was aware of modern rational empirical critiques of the Purāṇic texts and tries to accommodate them by adjusting his scriptural interpretation.

image Worship Defending the validity of image worship, Bhaktivinoda’s response in this regard was entirely traditional. However, his understanding of image worship differed from that of Ramakrishna in that Bhaktivinoda adhered to the dualism of Madhva Vedānta whereas Ramakrishna followed the monism of

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Śaṅkara Vedānta. Indeed, following Madhva, Bhaktivinoda strongly rejected Advaitin understanding of image worship. In the eleventh chapter of Jaiva-dharma, Bhaktivinoda explains that the worship of the eternal form of God is not idolatry since an image (mūrti) is not the matter with an imaginary shape but God Himself manifested in the material elements. According to Bhaktivinoda, Kṛṣṇa is God who possesses six kinds of quali- ties in full (opulent, powerful, auspicious, beautiful, knowledgeable, and unattached) (Ṭhākura 2001: 264), and His quality as all-powerful includes His inconceivable potency (acintya-śakti) through which He manifests His eternal spiritual form (sac-cid-ānanda-vigraha). In this regard, Bhaktivinoda refutes Roy’s argument, 11 explaining that regardless of his omnipresence, god can have a form due to his inconceivable potency (p. 264). having established that god has an eternal spiritual form, Bhaktivi- noda explains the logic of God’s manifestation as a temple image in this material world, employing the concept of adhikāra. According to Bhaktivi- noda, the eternal form of God is first revealed to the heart of saintly people (mahājanas) and then reflected to the material world (Ṭhākura 2001: 267). thus the nature of the form of the image is completely spiritual, and not at all material. However, people see the image differently according to their spiritual qualification (adhikāra). thus advanced devotees (uttama-adhikārīs) always conceive the image as spiritual and fully conscious (cinmaya), middle- class devotees (madhyama-adhikārīs) as endowed with perception and aware- ness (manomaya), and neophytes (kaniṣṭha-adhikārīs) as material (jaḍamaya) (p. 267). According to Bhaktivinoda, image worship is especially beneficial to the neophytes who cannot perceive God directly. Without having the image, they are forced to meditate on an imaginary form of god in their mind, which is material, and thus commit a subtle form of idolatry. Bhaktivi- noda says that the worship of the image is the foundation of religion for all humanity because it provides an opportunity to worship the actual form of God (Ṭhākura 2001: 266). For the neophyte follower, the image may look like an idol. However, by making spiritual advancement through image worship, a devotee can eventually perceive the eternal spiritual form of God directly. Now, Bhaktivinoda clearly distinguishes the worship of the eternal form of god in the Caitanya tradition from the pañcopāsana system of Advaita Vedānta, which is employed by Ramakrishna. As we have seen, Advaita Vedānta does accommodate the worship of deities as saguṇa-brahman, the lower manifestation of nirguṇa-brahman. In this system, the forms of deities are temporal, ultimately dissolving into formless brahman. According to Bhaktivinoda, this worship of temporal forms of saguṇa-brahman

11. Roy claimed that god cannot have any form due to his omnipresent nature.

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should be differentiated from the worship of Kṛṣṇa because Kṛṣṇa is parabrah- man, the basis of nirguṇa brahman, and his form is eternal. 12 Indeed, Bhaktivinoda rejects the worship based on Advaita Vedānta as idolatry. For Bhaktivinoda, the forms of deities in pañcopāsana system are not real images but idols because their forms are only the imagination of the mind and not the eternal form of parabrahman, Kṛṣṇa. Bhaktivinoda also points out that even the meditation on the formless brahman in the mind is material since one is merely imagining the all-pervading brahman in the form of the sky, which is material. It is limited in time too (only for the duration of one’s meditation) (Ṭhākura 2001: 270). Therefore, Bhaktivinoda concludes that whether a practitioner worships images in the pañcopāsana system or worships the formless brahman, he is bound to commit idolatry as long as he follows Advaita Vedānta and rejects the eternal form of God. Although Bhaktivinoda was a traditionalist regarding image worship, his position clearly differed from that of Ramakrishna owing to their two differ- ent theological backgrounds.

the Caste System Regarding the caste system, Bhaktivinoda’s stance was rather traditional in that he supported the varṇāśrama system, the traditional hierarchal social system based on texts such as Manu-smṛti, and emphasized spiritual realiza- tion more than social reform. At the same time, however, he was aware of the Bhadraloka critique, and thus attacked the caste system. Bhaktivinoda accepts the varṇāśrama system because it is designed in such a way that people can make gradual spiritual advancement to the ultimate goal of life, love of Kṛṣṇa (prema):

In order to maintain social order, the Āryans divided society into four castes and four social orders [varṇāśrama]. If the social system is protected, then good associa- tion and discussion will nourish people’s spiritual lives. Therefore, the varṇāśrama system should be accepted in all respects. By this arrangement, it becomes possible to gradually attain love for Kṛṣṇa. The main purpose of this arrangement is to cul- tivate spiritual life, love for Kṛṣṇa.

(Ṭhākura 2003: 263)

According to Bhaktivinoda, anyone can perform devotional service to Kṛṣṇa, and thereby develop spiritual qualification (adhikāra) regardless of one’s varṇa. 13 However, this universal availability of bhakti does not lead Bhaktivi- noda to reject the varṇāśrama-dharma system. Bhaktivinoda says that a devotee should not violate it because the qualification for performing spiritual activi-

12. Hierarchy from the lower to the higher stage according to Bhaktivinoda: saguṇa brahman (the temporal form) nirguṇa brahman (formless) parabrahman / bhagavān (the eternal form).

13. the four divisions of class in the varṇāśrama system, namely, brāhmaṇa, kṣatriya, vaiśya, and śūdra.

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ties (paramārthika) has nothing to do with material qualification (vyāvahārika). A person who has attained spiritual qualification does not necessarily qualify himself materially (Ṭhākura 2001: 112). Therefore, as long as he is staying in society as a gṛhastha, he should follow the norm of the society (varṇāśrama- dharma). This means, for instance, that at the societal level, a non-brahmaṇa Vaiṣṇava should remain subordinate to a non-Vaiṣṇava brahmaṇa, even though the former is spiritually more qualified than the latter (pp. 112–32). Although he supports the varṇāśrama system, he criticizes the modern caste system as a perversion of the original varṇāśrama system. According to Bhaktivinoda, the varṇas of people should be decided according to their quality (guṇa) and not by their birth (jāti). 14 he explains that the system col- lapsed due to the degradation of the brāhmaṇas and other leaders of the society who decided the varṇas of the children in their community (Ṭhākura 1998:

174–75). In fact, opposing the current caste system, he rejects ‘the wearing of the sacred thread by Brahmanas as a sign of superiority’ (Hopkins 1989:

49), which reminds us of the Bhadraloka reformers such as Debendranath and Keshub. thus, Bhaktivinoda exhibited both traditionalist and reformer aspects by supporting the varṇāśrama system and rejecting the contemporary caste system. Ultimately, however, his stance was close to Ramakrishna—a tradi- tionalist—in that his emphasis was on spiritual realization and he was not involved in social reform. thus, Shukavak dasa describes:

Bhaktivinoda’s practice of Caitanya’s teachings was far more spiritual and less socially and politically activist. Bhaktivinoda and Sisir Kumar 15 jointly edited a Vaiṣṇava periodical entitled Viṣṇu-priyā-patrikā, until Bhaktivinoda withdrew on the grounds that his esteemed friend was mixing too many secular and topical issues into the journal.

(dasa 1999: 5)

the Status of Women As in the case of the caste system, Bhaktivinoda’s stance in this regard was primarily traditional. Yet, again, as a Bhadraloka, he was concerned about the deprived status of women. Bhaktivinoda’s spiritually oriented, and therefore traditional view of women can be observed in his instruction regarding association (saṅga) with women (strī). Like Ramakrishna, Bhaktivinoda sees women as the object of lust, which is to be renounced for the sake of spiritual advancement. In this respect, Bhaktivinoda repeatedly prohibits practitioners to associate with women (strī-saṅga) and with non-devotees (avaiṣṇava) who are attached to women (strī-saṅgīs):

14. Cf. Bhagavad-gītā 4.13: cātur-varṇyaṃ mayā sṛṣṭaṃ guṇa-karma-vibhāgaśaḥ | tasya kartāram api māṃ viddhy akartāram avyayam ||

15. A famous Bhadraloka journalist.

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When there is no marital relationship and one converses with a women with evil intentions, it is called strī-saṅga. Such saṅga is sinful and is detrimental to devo- tional service.

Those who are attached to associating with women are called strī-saṅgīs. the materialists who are fond of gold and women, the sahajiyās, bāuls, sāins, and other so-called religiously minded persons who are greedy for women, as well as the woman-loving tāntrics, are all examples of strī-saṅgīs. the main point is that any men who are attached to womanly association are strī-saṅgīs. By all means the Vaiṣṇavas should give up the company of such stri-saṅgīs. This is Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu’s order.

(Ṭhākura 2002: 211–12)

Similar to Ramakrishna, here Bhaktivinoda also says that ‘women’ and ‘gold’, signifying lust and greed, have to be renounced because they hinder devotional service. thus Bhaktivinoda displays a spiritual approach to the issue of women. At the same time, however, Bhaktivinoda also shares the more socially- oriented Bhadraloka view of the issue. In his English essay ‘The Marriage System of Bengal’, Bhaktivinoda opposes child marriage and polygamy. According to Bhaktivinoda, marriage should be celebrated after a girl’s puberty:

Marriage among the Hindus in former times was generally celebrated after the age of puberty. Unless a girl arrived at maturity, she was not entitled to marry; for says, the hindu Shastra [scripture], a girl should not take a husband until she can appre- ciate her duties to him. verily, a girl cannot face an idea of her duties and obliga- tion to her lord, unless she arrives at a mature age.

(Ṭhākura 1871: 46–47)

Also, like Ram Mohan Roy, Bhaktivinoda points out the evil of polygamy prac- tised by the kulīna brāhmaṇas:

Polygamy is the bane of native society—a curse that enslaves many of the softer sex. the Kulina Brahmanas are inseparable companions of polygamy. In their society, it is as firmly advocated as is American slavery in the Southern States. The Kulina women are no better off than the African black. But an African black has many advocates around: he has a voice in the “Anti-Slavery League,” whilst a Kulina Brahmani has no zealous friend to tell of her sorrows and relieve them… the Legislature ought to hear the cries of the people as far as their interest is con- cerned. Reform in everything is sought for and as the first movement, we desire the removal of polygamy by an enactment.

(Ṭhākura 1871: 52)

Here, it is clearly shown that Bhaktivinoda shares with the Bhadraloka reformers a more socially-oriented understanding of the exploited situation of women.

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Even though he was a deputy magistrate, however, Bhaktivinoda did not join the Bhadralokas’ anti-polygamy/anti-child-marriage movement. Again, as we have seen in his dealing with the caste system, Bhaktivinoda ulti- mately took a spiritually-oriented traditionalist stance regarding the status of women.


In this article, we have examined a unique stance taken by Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura, a Caitanya Vaiṣṇava reformer, in the context of the nineteenth-cen- tury Bengal Renaissance movement. Bhaktivinoda was unique because he was a reformer and a traditionalist simultaneously. Let us summarize Bhaktivinoda’s views briefly, according to six points we have examined above (p. 196). Bhaktivinoda was a reformer because he: tried to reconstruct Hindu tradi- tion which was ethically and theologically comparable with or even superior to Christianity (1 and 2); adjusted scriptural interpretation in accordance with modern scholarship (3); recognized the need for social reform (5 and 6). At the same time, he was also a traditionalist because he: defended Purāṇic tradition, its texts as well as practices (1 through 4); showed a hierarchical view of human nature (2, 4, and 5); taught the primacy of spiritual realization over social reform (5 and 6). In the light of the above, it is clear that Bhak- tivinoda makes an interesting case among the figures of nineteenth-century Bengal.

KIyoKAzu oKItA is a doctoral candidate at the Faculty of theology, univer- sity of Oxford. His doctoral research focuses on Baladeva Vidyābhūṣaṇa’s phi- losophy and its relation to other Vedāntic schools. He holds a BA in Religious Studies from International Christian University (Tokyo) and a Master’s degree in the Study of Religion from oxford. Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, 13-15 Magdalen St, Oxford OX1 3AE; kiyokazu.


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