Apasampradayas: What can we learn from them? Part 1, the prakrta-sahajiyas
In one sense, the spiritual path is very forbearing, "there are no hard and fast rules" as Srila Prabhupada used to say. However, on the other hand, there are mistakes that can seriously hamper one's progress, and when applied to a group or community can even lead to the appearance of completely adulterated practices and philosophies.
We all know that Lord Caitanya appeared in the Bengal region five hundred years ago to inaugurate the sankirtana movement. He traveled around India and with the assistance of His numerous associates and devotees, inundated the sub-continent with love of Godhead. He entrusted to His most confidential servants, the six Goswamis, the mission of writing books about the Vaishnava philosophy, excavating the holy places in Vrindavana and giving continuity to the movement He inaugurated. After the six Goswamis, there was a succession of acaryas, like Krsnadasa Kaviraja, Narottama dasa Thakura, Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura and so on, that continued our line.
However, there was something else that happened in this period: the growth of numerous apasampradayas, that started to replace and suffocate the original movement. Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura identified thirteen different movements claiming to have inherited the mission initiated by Lord Caitanya, despite not nurturing true Vaishnava qualities. They are called aula, baula, kartabhaja, neda, daravesa, sani, sahajiya, sakhi bheki, smarta, jata-gosani, ativadi, cudadhari, and gauranga-nagari.
This is a subject that always intrigued me: how groups that were originally connected to Mahaprabhu's movement could end-up adopting such adulterated practices in a period of just a few centuries?
Before discussing about apasampradayas, we need to define what is a sampradaya.
A sampradaya is a school, a tradition or line of devotional service, practices, and principles that are transmitted from generation to generation through disciplic-succession (“sam” means “connected to” and “pradaya” means “source”). An apasampradaya is a corrupted sampradaya, a school that follows some concoction. Just like if we mix milk with some poison: The pure milk is transformed into something corrupted. It still may have some nutritional value, but by drinking it one is risking his life. Similarly, an apasampradaya may have some degree of philosophy and spiritual practice, but at the same time mixes it with perversions and deviations.
Srila Prabhupada spoke very strongly on this point during a lecture on CC Adi-lila 1.3 (Mayapur, 27 March 1975)
"Utpata, simply disturbance. Yata mat tata patha: “I can manufacture my own way.” This rascaldom has been condemned by Srila Rupa Gosvami. He says that harer bhaktih… You will find many so-called bhaktas crying, falling down on the ground. But immediately after, he is smoking bidi. So why this is going on? Because they do not follow the injunction of Srila Rupa Gosvami. Chanting, dancing very loudly, and after the performance is finished—I have seen it—”Can you give me a bidi?” You see? “My throat is now dried up.” So this is utpata. Srila Rupa Gosvami has described this kind of so-called devotional attitude is simply disturbance. They imitate. Imitate. Therefore Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura has condemned. There are so many apa-sampradaya going on in the name of Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s devotee. Who are they? Aula, baula, kartabhaja, neda, daravesa, sani, sahajiya, sakhibheki, smarta, jata-gosani. Then ativadi, cudadhari, gauranga-nagari, tota kahe ei tara sanga nahi kori: Tota Babaji, he says, “I do not associate with these classes of men.” So after disappearance of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, so many apa-sampradaya sprang up. So we should be very much careful that… Sampradaya means who are carefully following the Vedic principle."
So, what exactly are these apasampradayas? What are their practices and what can we learn from their mistakes?
One of the most well-known by devotees are the prakrta-sahajiyas, mentioned often by Srila Prabhupada. They try to follow spiritual life without accepting the principles and the proper process, taking it as something cheap. They want to speak about rasa-lila and other very confidential and esoteric subjects, but they don't want to go through anarta-nivriti, nor to follow regulated spiritual life. They normally justify their behavior on the basis of “love” and “spontaneous devotion”, giving the idea that rules and regulations are for neophytes. As a result, they frequently end up going into illicit sex, intoxication, and other questionable habits.
HG Hari-sauri Prabhu: We were in Vrindavan. Prabhupada was saying that those who are habituated to illicit sex are punishable, asat. “It is very very bad. And still, if somebody does like that he is punished”, he was saying. He is talking about people in Vrindavana. “This is going on, here illicit sex, the babajis, I’ve heard them saying, ‘Oh, what’s wrong there, it is love’. So they take like that, they take that ‘Oh, it’s gopis love’, they say that. “Oh, the gopis used to do that, they used to have illicit mixing and intermingling with Krsna. ‘So what’s the wrong?’ they will say. They get support from Krsna Lila. Such rogues they are, these sahajiyas”. (The Living Bhagavatam)
Sahajiyas desire to be elevated to the level of sakhis and gopis, but they are not so enthusiastic about avoiding bad habits or following basic rules and regulations or the proper devotional process. In essence, they confuse spiritual emotions with material lust, and therefore their hearing of the pastimes of Krsna with the gopis just increase their sensual attraction to the opposite sex, leading to illicit connections. Other pastimes, like Krsna in His different incarnations, Krsna killing the demons, etc. are not interesting to them. It's in this sense that is sometimes said that the confidential pastimes of Krsna can be dangerous for one with material desires, since there is a risk that one can misinterpret.
In his book "Deviant Vaisnava Sects", Suhotra Swami defines it in an interesting way: “Vaishnava, devotees of Lord Krsna, use the term prakrta-sahajiya to refer to persons who imitate the signs of prema, pure love for God, while still addicted to the low-class pleasures of illicit sex and intoxication. The sahajiyas imagine that they feel the divine emotions of Krsna and His dearest devotee, Srimati Radharani. Yet they don't understand that before we can savor the pleasure shared by Radha and Krsna, we must rid ourselves of lustful desires for sensual pleasure. The word sahaja means "easy." A prakrta-sahajiya wants the bliss of spiritual life without the struggle to attain it. And the word prakrta means "materialistic." Because the sahajiyas forgo the standard disciplines of bhakti-yoga, the divine love they apparently show never gets beyond material lust. The prakrta-sahajiyas mistake lust -the disease of the soul- for spiritual advancement. So instead of curing lust, they wind up cultivating it.”
The sahajiya community includes groups like the sakhi-bheki (where the men dress in saris and use make-up, in an attempt to imitate the gopis and attract Krsna) and cudadhari (where they dress like Krsna and try to imitate His pastimes with the first group). The sakhi-bheki think that by dressing like gopis they can attract Krsna, and similarly, the cudadhari think that by dressing like Krsna they can attract Radharani. Their philosophy is not based on love, but on enviousness. Instead of aspiring to serve the gopis or serving Krsna, they aspire to become the gopis, or become Krsna Himself. A sakhi-bheki can dress like Lalita sakhi, for example, and imagine that he became one with Lalita. Their philosophy is thus also contaminated by mayavada.
The sahajiyas used to be very common both in Vrindavana and in Mayapur, but their communities reduced in size after the times of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati. Most surviving groups now practice in private.
However, although the hardcore sahajiyas are now less visible, many aspects of their philosophy became widespread and survives now inside different vaishnava groups. Although it doesn't go so far as men dressed in saris imitating the rasa dance, it can easily become a subtle contamination that can be equally dangerous and hard to spot.
Another sect, prominent in Bengal, is the gauranga-nagari. Externally they appear to be regular Vaishnavas, using tilaka, doing kirtana, following a vegetarian diet, etc. There is, however, a notable sahajiya contamination in their philosophy. They are not interested in Lord Caitanya’s mood as a devotee. Instead, they try to impose the mood of Krsna, as an enjoyer on Mahaprabhu, and see themselves as enjoyed by Him. They try to depict Mahaprabhu as a debaucher who had affairs with different consorts and support their philosophy with stories of their own invention. This offensive way of worship comes from material lust and is condemned by our acaryas.
After the mayavadis, the sahajiyas are probably the most criticized group in Srila Prabhupada’s books, lectures, and conversations. This tendency of taking spiritual life cheaply, to mistake material sentiment for spiritual bhava, to impose our mundane lust into spiritual rasa and so on, tend to be common.
Sahajiyism is like a cancer that tends to appear in the Vaishnava society at different times and in different forms. What makes it dangerous is that it can start as something very subtle, and grow into more gross contaminations. It’s a formidable trap to the aspiring transcendentalist.