Apasampradayas: what are they and what can we learn from them? Part 3, ativadis, bauls and others
Another apasampradaya mentioned by Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura is the ativadi. This sect was started by a man called Jagannatha dasa at the time of Mahaprabhu. Initially, he was a follower of Haridasa Thakura, but later he broke connection with him and started spreading his own ideas. He created his own version of the Srimad-Bhagavatam with five new chapters that he wrote himself, told his followers to chant the second part of the maha-mantra before the first, and so on.
Once, he arrogantly directly approached Lord Caitanya, wanting to recite his version of the Bhagavatam, bypassing Swarupa Damodara and other associates who would screen visitors, preventing people with strange ideas from disturbing the Lord. To avoid him, Lord Caitanya said, "A fallen soul like Me is not worthy enough to hear the Bhagavatam composed by an author like you”. Jagannatha dasa then declared that Lord Caitanya was Krsna and he was Radharani. The Lord replied: "Sir, you have become too great (ativadi). An insignificant and fallen soul like Me can have nothing to do with you”. Blinded by his ego, Jagannatha dasa took the chastisement of the Lord as praise and continued spreading his ideas. Later he was imprisoned by Prataparudra Maharaja for indecent behavior in connection with his dealings with women, but his sect continued.
The ativadi became prominent in Orissa because of the popularity of the translations of the Srimad-Bhagavatam and Bhagavad-Gita in the Oriya language written by Jagannatha dasa amongst the lower classes. The ativadi claim to be Vaishnavas but they are actually opposed to Vaishnava principles. While worshipping Lord Jagannatha, they accept the mayavada conclusion that God is ultimately impersonal and that they will merge into Him when liberated. They mix loosely with women, use intoxicants like ganja and opium, exploit their influence for political means, and so on. They claim to have a better understanding of the scriptures than Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu and His associates. Some are ascetics that start claiming to be incarnations after gaining a few mystical powers.
When Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura was serving as deputy magistrate in Jagannatha Puri, in the early 1870s, he had to deal with many disturbances caused by followers of this sect, that were very numerous in Orissa at that time. There was a lot of political agitation and even cases of false proclaimed incarnations, that were exploiting their followers. In his autobiography, he wrote:
“This atibari group is secretive and extends throughout Bengal as do the Bauls. This sect has many forged books wherein it is written that Chaitanya will reappear. In this group there are some wicked people who imitate Sri Chaitanya, Brahma, Baladeva, or Krishna. One person, known as Bisakishan, a scoundrel who had obtained a little yogic power, was celebrated as Mahavishnu Himself. He had started to establish a Temple at Chatira Krosa within the jungle near Saradaipur with the help of his followers.”
The ascetic Bisakisen, was a dramatic example. While claiming to be an incarnation of Maha-Vishnu, he was using his mystic powers to impress his followers and to seduce married ladies. He even tried to kill Bhaktivinoda Thakura using his powers after he was imprisoned by his order. In a dramatic event, after the yogi was sentenced, a British medical officer had the idea of cutting his hair, having read that yogis often store their power in the hair. This made Bisakisen lose his powers and collapse, which finally convinced his followers that he was not an incarnation of God. Falling into disgrace, he eventually killed himself by drinking poison while in prison.
The ativadi illustrates our tendency to become proud, thus contaminating our devotional service. Everyone in this material world is proud, even a dog or hog is proud of his position. This is just another symptom of our material fever. As soon as we get a little bit of learning, or seniority, or any other small opulence, our material fever may return if we are not careful. If we start to cultivate pride instead of humility and meekness, we may end up being evicted from the association of true Vaishnavas. We may then find our sanga amongst similarly arrogant persons, start to criticize sincere devotees, and thus open our path to complete ruination.
Another group is the kartabhaja. In our Vaishnava philosophy, we see the guru as representative of Krsna, and thus worthy of the same respect and worship as Krsna Himself. Not only the guru is the bonafide representative and recipient of Krsna’s mercy, but he conveys the same message given by the Lord, transmitted through disciplic succession. In other words, we accept the guru as good as God, but not as God. The kartabhaja, on the other hand, proclaims that the guru is God incarnated. For them, nobody is worshipable except the guru. If they chant the name “Krsna”, it is because they believe that their guru is Krsna, an idea derived from mayavada philosophy. Even if the guru performs immoral acts, still his activities are seen as divine.
A similar idea was propagated inside ISKCON for a short period, culminating in the incident of 1970 in the Janmastami festival of New Vrindaban. A small group of sannyasis were propagating that Srila Prabhupada was actually Krsna Himself and that he had left to India because they themselves and the other disciples failed to recognize it. This new philosophy was refuted by members of the newly formed GBC with quotes from the books. Srila Prabhupada was in Japan at the time and became very disturbed by the news of the incident, explaining that this is mayavada philosophy.
“Coughing intermittently and speaking with physical discomfort, Prabhupada explained the Mayavadis' dangerous misconceptions. The impersonalists held a cheap, mundane view of the guru, the guru's worship, and the guru's instructions. If one says that the guru is God and God is not a person, then it follows logically that the guru has no eternal personal relationship with his disciples. Ultimately the disciple will become equal to the guru, or in other words he will realize that he, too, is God.
Arguing from the Vedic scripture, Prabhupada refuted the Mayavadis' claims. The individual souls, he said, are Krsna's eternal servants, and this master-servant relationship is eternal. Service to Krsna, therefore, is spiritual activity. Only by serving the guru, however, can a disciple fully revive his eternal relationship with Krsna. The Vedic literature gives paramount importance to serving the spiritual master. He is the representative of God, the direct, manifest link to God. No one can approach God but through him. Lord Krsna says, "Those who are directly My devotees are actually not My devotees. But those who are devotees of My servant (the spiritual master) are factually My devotees."
For hours Prabhupada drilled his disciples. He would pose a Mayavada argument, then ask his disciples to defeat it. If they failed, he would defeat it himself. He stressed that the relationship between the spiritual master and disciple was eternal-not because the guru was Krsna, but because he was the confidential servant of Krsna, eternally. A bona fide spiritual master never says that he is Krsna or that Krsna is impersonal.” (Srila Prabhupada lilamrta, vol. 4, ch. 31)
Another source of apasampradayas and apasidhantas is syncretism: the mixing of Vaishnava philosophy with other philosophies and practices, like Buddhism, mayavada, tantric practices, etc. Five of the other apasampradayas enumerated by Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura fall into this category.
The neda-nidi for example, follow a mixture of tantric Buddhism and Vaishnavism. It started when Sri Virabadra Prabhu converted a group of tantric Buddhists to Vaishnavism. He made them chant the maha-mantra and adopt general Vaishnava habits, and, to counteract their practice of tantric sex with different partners, he got them married. Soon, however, many started to fall down into their old practices, concocting a mixture of impersonal philosophy, tantric sex, and Vaishnavism.
The most disturbing example, however, are the bauls, that follow a mixture of tantra, mayavada, sufism and sahajiyism. The bauls can be divided into four sub-groups: aula, baula, sani and daravesa. The first are householders, the second are wandering artists that chant enigmatic songs in Bengali and play popular instruments, while the third and fourth are mendicants. It is interesting to note that Srila Prabhupada translated the word daravesa as “hippie” (CC Madhya 20.70), summarizing their appearance and behavior.
They have roots in the sahajayana community, a much older line, that mixes tantric yoga and buddhist philosophy. The bauls appeared from the mixing with islamic mysticism and other influences. Over the centuries, they assimilated and perverted different aspects of Vaishnava culture, giving birth to the final concoction. Another mutation is that they abandoned their ritualist roots and adopted tantric sex as their main practice. Their idea is that one can awaken his inner bliss through bodily union of male and female. This fixation in the material body and the acceptance of material lust as spiritual rasa is a trace similar to other sahajiya groups, but in the bauls the degradation reaches an extreme.
Different from the neda-nidi, that restrict their tantric practices to the wife, the bauls use “sadikas” that are frequently exchanged, and their practices go up to the consumption of human stool and urine. With the excuse of practicing a spiritual process, they live an unregulated lifestyle of drugs, illicit sex, and degradation. While they don’t present themselves as Vaishnavas, they claim to represent the true spirit of Mahaprabhu’s movement and enjoy a certain degree of influence over the general public, including in the west, where a few of them became famous artists.
These last examples can be taken as a warning about another tendency that we may have: to keep our previous concocted ideas and mix them with Vaishnavism, instead of giving them up and fully embracing the process of Krsna consciousness given to us by Srila Prabhupada. In other words, we have the tendency of changing Krsna consciousness to fit our mentality, instead of changing our mentality to fit Krsna consciousness. Because of this, so many speculations were introduced in our movement over the last decades, creating chaos and confusion, and this continues to this day.
This is a subject described in detail in the Book “Apasampradayas, deviation of the disciplic succession” by HH Suhotra Swami, and in the book “Sri Bhaktisiddhanta Vaibhava” by HH Bhakti Vikasa Swami. These where my main sources of information in compiling this series.