Reasons to Get Along

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Some remarkable correlations between the lives and philosophies of Srila Prabhupada and Sri Ramanujacharya.

This is Kali-yuga, the age of quarrel, when even good people are looking for a fight. Yet Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the yuga-avatara (the incarnation for this age), looked for reasons to get along rather than reasons to argue. Emphasizing our natural fellowship in God, He took on Kali’s divisive influence without affronting even a blade of grass. His corresponding peace process was a philosophy of inconceivable oneness in difference – achintya-bhedabheda-tattva – a mandate for self-respect and not megalomania, freedom and not anarchy, individuality and not alienation.

Srila Prabhupada was Mahaprabhu’s main man, Gaudiya Vaishnavism’s most illustrious ambassador, and everybody’s ever well-wisher. In 1965 he left his spiritual oasis, crossed the Atlantic, and wound up on skid-row. The ultimate legal alien. A Vaikuntha-man in New York. From there, he galvanized the International Society for Krishna Consciousness to (as the Society's incorporation papers read) "achieve real unity and peace in the world" and "teach and encourage the sankirtana movement." Prabhupada showed that achintya-bhedabheda was not only a unity of ideas; it was a unity of people.

This article acclaims Prabhupada’s mission from a Sri Vaishnava viewpoint. When Kevala-advaitins (Mayavadis) were bullying everyone by saying that bhakti was okay for the intellectually challenged but impersonalism was for real men, Prabhupada riposted: No. India’s greatest thinkers have adored Krishna as the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Consequently, he did not just inspire thoughtful or disillusioned Westerners; he championed all Vaishnavas. We all owe him gratitude.

But why should Sri Ramanujacharya, Sri Vaishnavism’s greatest philosopher, interest Gaudiya Vaishnavas themselves?

Because Prabhupada liked him.

Prabhupada was totally devoted to Krishna. Prabhupada’s books, which explain and safeguard Krishna’s teachings, are complete in themselves. There is no need to look any further. And yet within his chaste purports, Prabhupada cites Ramanujacharya’s tradition over a hundred times. Also, Prabhupada had helped producePrapanna-jivanamrita, an anthology replete with Sri Vaishnava quotations. Two of Sri Vaishnavism’s classic poems, Mukunda-mala and Stotra-ratna, were among Prabhupada’s favorites. He sang them to himself and in public.

Similar Lives

Prabhupada definitely had a soft spot for Ramanujacharya. Their congruent lives indicate why.

Both had an unconventional schooling that foretold their awaiting missions. Ramanujacharya’s parents were Krishna devotees yet had him taught by a renowned Mayavadi. While other children were playing marbles, Ramanuja was rehearsing the arguments that would later leave Mayavada in tatters.

Similarly, though Prabhupada’s father wanted Abhay to remain a devout follower of Radharani, he did not send Abhay to a traditional gurukula, but to a British college. Home was practically a medieval temple, yet Abhay was being tutored by the Empire. He studied Shakespeare and Keats and developed a fluency and love for the global language – English. Krishna had it all planned.

From childhood, both had friendship circles broader than normal. Teenager Ramanuja empathized with tribals and later saluted a "lower-caste" as his mentor. Similarly, Abhay mingled cordially with Calcutta’s many religious and racial communities.

Both endured incompatible wives before renouncing marriage to make the world their family.

Each had little time with his guru, but the moments were decisive. One glimpse and Yamunacharya knew that Ramanuja would look after Sri Vaishnavism. Likewise, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati intuited immediately that Abhay Caran would fulfill Mahaprabhu’s global mission.

For both Ramanujacharya and Prabhupada, genius was not for winning arguments, but friends – bringing people to Krishna. To attract the masses both stretched the mores.

Ramanujacharya’s outreach transcended caste, communal, and gender boundaries. When temple priests scolded the common people to stay out, Ramanujacharya said, "Please come in." Hitherto, the erudite had rejected all but spartan savants; Ramanujacharya taught any newcomer. He marveled at a young woman’s scholarship, adopted a Turkish princess, and had a pious homeless woman enshrined. Ramanujacharya had the love and courage to initiate outsiders into the Sri Vaishnava aristocracy.

Prabhupada too was the people’s champion. Class, race, or sophistication was immaterial. As Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami writes in Srila Prabhupada-lilamrita (Chapter 20), "Never mind whatever sinful things they were doing, these people were perfect candidates for Krishna consciousness. Tompkins Square Park was Krishna's plan; it was also part of the earth, and these people were members of the human race."

Prabhupada did not see mlecchas (persons considered uncivilized by Vedic standards), but only spiritual potential, and whatever a born brahmana could do, they could do – better too. His Western disciples would take Vedic culture into modernity and beyond. He empowered women to worship deities, recite confidential mantras, lead kirtanas, record albums, manage temples, and give lectures.

These initiatives irked the orthodoxy. Ramanujacharya faced jealous persecution, and Prabhupada’s godbrothers neglected him. As Prabhupada’s movement flourished, their neglect sometimes degenerated into uncomplicated envy. Evil Duryodhanas are easily faced, but when even Bhishmas fight you, it is demoralizing and difficult to stay focused on your duty. Both Ramanujacharya and Prabhupada did. Gloriously.

Both were "green." Ramanujacharya promoted the universe as God’s body, clarified that He incarnates in all species for their welfare, and always fitted temples into the countryside. Similarly, Prabhupada’s eco-friendly farming communities exemplified a simple, more natural way of life. He emphasized God’s love for all creatures, and consequently humankind’s responsibility towards them.

blockquote class="extract">You have seen Krishna’s picture. He’s embracing the calf also, and He’s embracing Radharani. Not that He’s simply attached to Radharani and the gopis. He’s attached to everyone, every living entity. Therefore Krishna is the best friend of everyone. (Lecture, 16 October 1972)

These were the empathies, revolutions, and risks of forthcoming preachers, not reticent gnostics. Ramanujacharya and Prabhupada did not rest in cozy holy places. They traveled till exhausted. As a cow’s milk is not for herself, so too their every excellence was for saving others.

Philosophical Kinship

Their similar lives reflected their congruent philosophies.

Vaishnavism is timeless. Yet by the eighth century she was suffocating under the miasma of Kevala-adwaita (Mayavada). This doctrine alleges that ultimate reality is a Thing without form, qualities, or personality. Creation is an illusion, and liberation is realizing total identity with the impersonal absolute (aham brahmasmi).

Ramanujacharya (eleventh century) faced the whole "I am the Brahman" psychosis head on and said: Get real. The soul is not the center of the spiritual universe; God is. Our oneness with God lies in our essence – in our servitude and love – not in absolute equality.

What followed was Vedanta’s heavyweight clash, the rumble in the scriptural jungle. First Ramanujacharya meticulously summarized Kevala-adwaita, and then he refuted it. His conclusions remain foundational:

(a) Ultimate reality is neither impersonal nor formless. He is the Supreme Person, with a body, immaculate excellences, and devoid of blemish.

(b) God is Narayana; all things exist in Him and He in them. He is the material and efficient cause of everything, which He ubiquitously ensouls ( antaryami).

(c) His indwelling presence sustains and rationalizes the plurality of souls. Matter, time, and space too are real, and the cosmic cycles are His majestic sport. The infinite One enjoys both being the many finites and transcending them.

(d) The Lord cannot be attained through knowledge (jnana) or works (karma). Surrender (sharanagati) evokes His salvific grace. To know God, love God (ananya-bhakti).

(e) The soul never equates to God. Even liberated souls are His servants. Nevertheless, God shares everything and keeps everyone happy.

(f) As body is to soul (sharira-shariri bhava), servant is to master (shesha-sheshi bhava), and protected is to protector (rakshya-rakshaka bhava), just so we are inseparable fractions of His glory (mama tejah amsha sambhavam). Thus individuality and variety ( vishishta) coexist within the one (adwaita) Supreme Person, i.e. vishishta-adwaita.

Ramanujacharya and other stalwart Vaishnava acharyas such as Vishnusvami (eighth century), Nimbarkacharya (twelfth century), and Madhvacharya (thirteenth century) do occasionally differ. But all concur resolutely that God is a person and we are His eternal servants.

A mellow new wave comes with Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (fifteenth century). Consolidating and amplifying preceding truths, His achintya-bhedabheda-tattva celebrates diversity while highlighting harmony in God. This applies to the souls, universes, peace, happiness. Prabhupada clarifies:

The varieties are one and at the same time different. This is the philosophy of achintya-bhedabheda-tattva. The conclusion given in Brahma-samhita is this:

ishvarah paramah krishnah
sach-chid-ananda-vigrahah
anadir adir govindah
sarva-karana-karanam

“Krishna, known as Govinda, is the supreme controller. He has an eternal, blissful, spiritual body. He is the origin of all. He has no other origin, for He is the prime cause of all causes.” Because the Lord is the supreme cause, everything is one with Him, but when we consider varieties, we find that one thing is different from another. (Srimad-Bhagavatam 7.9.31, Purport)

Bhagavad-gita [15.7]: mamaivamsho ... jiva-bhutah – the living entities are part and parcel of God. So we are one with God, since we have God's qualities in minute degree. But God is the master, and we are always subordinate. Eko bahunam yo vidadhati kaman: we are protected, we are maintained, we are predominated. (Civilization and Transcendence, Chapter 11)

The brahmandas, the universes, exist during the duration of a breath of the Supreme Lord. . . . Thus they are also within the womb of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Maha-Vishnu. Nothing, therefore, is separate from the Supreme Lord. (Srimad-Bhagavatam 7.3.32, Purport)

Achintya-bhedabheda, simultaneous oneness and difference. The living entity cannot enjoy life in opposition to the Supreme Lord; he has to dovetail his activities with the Lord by practicing bhakti-yoga. (Srimad-Bhagavatam 3.29.35, Purport)

Clearly, vishishta-adwaita (variety within the one) and achintya-bhedabheda (simultaneous oneness and difference) are akin. Mahaprabhu Himself gave Ramanujacharya both an esoteric preview of His mission and approval of vishishta-adwaita. Further, He regarded the Sri Vaishnava principles of ananya-bhakti (exclusive devotion) and bhagavata sheshatva (service to the devotees) as especially meritorious. (See Bhaktivinoda Thakura's Navadvipa-dhama-mahatmya.) So trusted is the relationship, that Prabhupada used vishishta-adwaita to explain the divinity of Mahaprabhu as Krishna, the embodiment of oneness in diversity. Prabhupada cherished the affinity.

Culturally also, Sri and Gaudiya Vaishnavism match. In home or temple, deity worship defines the milieu – what Krishna likes, devotees like. Hence diet, morals, routines, music, dress, art, literature, festivals, and pilgrimage places are shared. Mantra meditation pulsates through both communities. Ramanujacharya enjoined constant utterance of the esoteric dvayam mantra, and Mahaprabhu evangelized the Hare Krishna maha-mantra. Both incantations emphasize that service is life’s singular goal, achieved through the mediation of the Lord’s beloved consort (either as Sri Mahalakshmi or Srimati Radharani). Her recommendation is guaranteed (via the disciplic succession) through fidelity to one’s own guru. Where the shepherd, there the flock. Hence in both traditions service to the guru naturally extends to the entire community.

The Srimad-Bhagavatam lauds the heartlands of Sri Vaishnavism. In Mahaprabhu’s time, a small community of Sri Vaishnavas lived genially in Navadvip, and He always found Sri Vaishnavas most agreeable. Indeed apart from Navadvip, Jagannatha Puri, and Vrinadvan, Sri Rangam was the only place where Mahaprabhu stayed for long. Prabhupada appreciated South India’s traditional values, learning, and devotion.

Limits to Tolerance, No Limits to Love

With so many reasons to get along, Sri and Gaudiya Vaishnavism also share a singular antagonist. Ramanujacharya saw impersonal monism (Kevala-adwaita/Mayavada) as the public enemy number one. Better gross materialism than "liberated" impersonalism. Atheism and hedonism deny or ignore God, and so are silly and unfortunate; Mayavada tries to usurp His position, making it worse than everything else. Gaudiya Vaishnavism concurs. Mayavada is the definition of offensiveness (mayavadi krishne aparadhi). The Mayavadis propaganda spoils everything (mayavadi-bhashya shunile haya sarva-nasha ). Wherever Chaitanya Mahaprabhu preached, everybody immediately liked Him – except Mayavadis.

When even God cannot escape its envy, we must be clear on what is so bad about Mayavada. Ramanujacharya’s critique is very technical. The Gaudiya tradition astutely employs the term mayavada to easily name, shame, and explain Kevala-adwaita’s hidden agenda. Kevala-adwaita’s contention (vada) is that under illusion (maya), the impersonal absolute mirages as a personal God, individual souls, and the physical world. Reversing the tape, Mayavada would have God collapse back into emptiness while we leapfrog over the illusion of God back into the original Thing. With no God and no devotee, devotion becomes meaningless, and only nebulous bliss remains.

Mayavada’s slander could but be hurtful to a pure devotee like Prabhupada, who knows Krishna personally. They love each other and share their thoughts, possessions, and indeed their lives. Thus, Mayavada is nauseating – the Supreme Personality of Godhead becomes an impersonal Thing. Mayavada is ungrateful – all the Lord’s salvific incarnations and pastimes reduce to mere allegories. Mayavada is arrogant – its megalomaniacal campaign seeks parity with God. Mayavada is not just another faith – it destroys devotion and ends all true religion.

Mayavada’s pogrom will destroy you too. Ramanujacharya clarifies at Bhagavad-gita 2.12 that personality and individuality are eternal, cherishable, and divine gifts. Prabhupada specifically mentions him when emphasizing the same point. Conversely, Mayavada’s proposal that God is not a person would mean that (sharing of Its nature) neither are we. By denying Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, we deny our own personality and life itself.

In reality, Krishna wants to enjoy with us all His flavors of love. He is there for everyone, but Mayavadis incorrigibly alienate themselves from His salvific grace. Theologically, Mayavada is attempted murder; personally, it is spiritual suicide. Consequently, Mayavadis endanger others and themselves. If you really love a Mayavadi, get him off the impersonalist wagon. Stern love. You don’t sympathize with an alcoholic by pouring him another drink; you break the bottle to save the boozer. Love the Mayavadi by shattering his annihilating Mayavada; hate the sin but not the sinner.

In the town of Melukote, Ramanujacharya not only wrote his critique of Mayavada but also engaged Advaitins in the devotional community. Similarly, for all his scathing criticism, Prabhupada was sensitive, humble, and kind towards Mayavadis. Landing in America, Prabhupada befriended Swami Ramamurti Mishra. This retired medic was not just a yoga instructor; he was an ordained Mayavadi minister. Yet when Swami Ramamurti Mishra was ill, Prabhupada tended, cooked for, and fed his ideological nemesis. Dr. Mishra: "His Holiness Prabhupada Bhaktivedanta Goswamiji really knocked me down with love. He was really an incarnation of love. . . . He saved my life."

Correspondingly, throughout ISKCON centers globally, Mayavadis might be lambasted in the lecture only to be affectionately and sumptuously fed at the love feast to follow – and invited to come back soon. Ultimately, it is not how sweetly you talk, but how you treat people that really matters. There were clear limits to Prabhupada’s ideological tolerance, but there was no limit to his love.

The Yuga Dharma

As ardently as both Sri and Gaudiya Vaishnavism combat Mayavada’s moribund and escapist doctrines, so too Vaishnavism is refreshingly world-affirming. Both Sri and Gaudiya Vaishnavism value life, pluralism, and modernity.

In Kali-yuga, discord becomes increasingly normal. Nations fight nations, and within one nation religions clash. In the same religion sects brawl, and within sects are warring factions. Happy families are increasingly rare, and schizophrenia and multiple personality are increasing. Insightful people from different cultures are terrified by what is trending in Kali-yuga. As the poet W. B. Yeats wrote,

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world . . .

Still, both vishishta-adwaita and achintya-bhedabheda heartily face life’s opposites: an infinite God and His finite creatures, a flawless heaven and a corrupted earth, a faithful Master with prodigal servants, vivacious spirit trapped in insentient matter, and a yearning for eternal pleasure in a temporal world full of pain. Both philosophies urge us to resist Kali’s disruptive and depressing tendencies by remembering the unifying, rampant, and triumphant force of divine love – the falconer will never abandon the falcon, things will never fall apart, the center will always hold. Both unity and diversity are an eternal fact because God keeps everything together.

Vishishta-adwaita sanctifies all creation as a coherent body with God as its central Soul. Similarly, achintya-bhedabheda always chooses harmony over exclusion. Whether it is (seemingly) contradictory scriptural texts, alternative moods and modes of worship, or social, gender, or lifestyle diversities, both vishishta-adwaita and achintya-bhedabheda emphasize the deepest transcendental unity in God. Even Mayavadis, the ultimate anti-socials, are allowed to enjoy the perversity of their solitary confinement. There is room for all in God.

While Ramanujacharya is Sri Vaishnavism’s unifying theologian, Nam-alvar is her bard of hope. He is foremost among those pure devotees of Vishnu prophesized to be born in South India. Nam-alvar came but days after Krishna left this world, and this left him traumatized. Nonetheless he sees the early days of dark Kali-yuga as a golden era of opportunity. Modern people are going from bad to worse, but their perversity cannot prohibit God’s grace; astonishingly, His mercy is quickened. The reprobates will be given a break. "Triumph!" Nam-alvar roars. ‘Swept away are pain and hell as globally people will chant, leap, and dance. International minstrels will conquer Kali with music. Serve them, all you lovers of God!" (Tiruvaimoli 5.2.1–10) Later, Periya-alvar prayed that people everywhere, in cities and the countryside, would feel the chorus "Surrender to Narayana." His daughter, Sri Andal, gathered all her girlfriends to praise Krishna’s holy names, and King Kulashekhara implored the citizens of the world to do likewise.

Gaudiya Vaishnavism reveals that Krishna Himself incarnated as Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and prophesied a pivotal and global future for the holy names. Every town and village will resound with the chanting of God’s names; in the age of Kali there is no other way. Mahaprabhu’s sankirtana yajna reminds us not to obsess about our own salvation but to be a blessing to the world. Robustly and all together, take it to the streets: God is Narayana, who resides in all beings and in whom all beings reside, and He is Krishna, the all-attractive centripetal force who holds everyone together. Prabhupada encapsulated Vaishnavism’s cohesive form and function brilliantly: “Everything is part and parcel of Krishna.”

Krishna consciousness recognizes the world as a divine confederation. The love of the world is fickle and selfish; Krishna’s transcendental amour is unconditional. Soul to soul, Krishna is not liberal – He is promiscuous. He will if you will. Even if you don’t believe in Him, He won’t stop believing in you. Krishna is the only friend who will always be there. Since Krishna is friendly to all, we too should wish everybody well. Srila Prabhupada encouraged all devotees to be this world’s true and effective peacemakers. In Dharma: The Way of Transcendence, he writes, "'Here is a spirit soul,' he thinks, 'part and parcel of Krishna.' That kind of vision is the basis of universal brotherhood. . . . Then there will be love, brotherhood, equality, and fraternity."

Krishna is everybody’s reason to get along. What to speak of the need of the hour, Krishna consciousness is the savior for the age. Krishna consciousness begins with chanting Krishna’s names and blossoms in doing things His way and not ours. “Hallowed be Thy name, Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in Heaven”: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.

About the Author: 

Srirangapriya Ramanujadasan

Srirangapriya Ramanujadasan, who lives in England, studied under traditional Sri Vaishnava teachers. He lectures at schools, universities, and interfaith forums from a Hindu (particularly Vaishnava) perspective. While orthodox Sri Vaishnavas, his family members love and respect Srila Prabhupada and ISKCON, which they regard as the global and authentic voice of all Vaishnavas and sanatana-dharma.