By Purushottama Nitai Dasa
While we must not imitate this great devotee’s extreme measure in the battle against lust, we can learn from his determination.
During our devotional journey, we spiritual practitioners encounter many challenges that may make us believe that attaining love of God is an impossible feat. But studying the lives of great devotees fills our life with hope by assuring us that determined devotion always attracts Krishna’s attention. Bilvamangala Thakura is one celebrated devotee whose life teaches us that Krishna’s love for us is unconditional; He overlooks all our past transgressions and is ever ready to shower His affection on us.
Bilvamangala’s Deadly Lust
Bilvamangala Thakura was a wealthy South Indian brahmana from a cultured family, but he got attracted to a prostitute named Chintamani. The attraction soon became attachment. When we get attached to worldly enjoyment, we lose our intelligence and subsequently our dignity. For Bilvamangala the fire of lust was so intense that he was not at all moved when his father died; in fact, standing near the funeral pyre, he was engrossed in thought of Chintamani. The body of his dead father did not bring tears to his eyes, but his eyes were eager to see Chintamani’s beauty.
Overwhelmed with the desire to be with her, he ran from the funeral pyre towards her house. Chintamani lived on the other side of a river, and thunder, lightning, and heavy rain had created chaos and flooding. Unable to find a boat to ferry him across, Bilvamangala jumped into the deadly river, risking his life. Struggling to survive, he desperately grabbed on to a floating object – which happened to be a human corpse. Using it as a support, he crossed the river.
Chintamani Rebukes Bilvamangala
Chintamani’s gate was locked, so he decided to climb over the wall. He saw what seemed to be a rope hanging on the wall, but it turned out to be a snake. Still, blinded by lust, he grabbed it, made it over the wall, and knocked at Chintamani’s door.
Rebuking him, Chintamani said, “What a shame that you have so much attraction for my body of flesh, bones, blood, mucus, stool, and other obnoxious substances. This body rots every day and ultimately becomes food for worms. Your attraction to this temporary body is not going to do you any good. But if you could get the same attachment to Krishna, then your life would be successful. That attachment would deliver you from all the miseries of material existence and give you an opportunity to join Krishna in His eternal abode. You would achieve eternal happiness.”
Love for Krishna Awakens
Chintamani’s rebuke made Bilvamangala realize he was wasting his precious human birth by pursuing the ephemeral pleasure of this world. He was grateful to Chintamani for the sage advice, and he decided to devote his life to serving Krishna.
Srila Prabhupada explains that Bilvamangala Thakura in his previous life had been elevated to bhava, the stage of devotion just prior to prema–bhakti, the highest platform of devotional service, but he fell down from that exalted state. Because of his devotion to the Supreme Lord, however, in his next life he was born into a rich brahmana family, but sadly he became attached to a prostitute. Then, at the right moment, his spiritual master spoke through Chintamani to make him realize the ultimate truth.
Sometime after his transformation, Bilvamangala decided to go to Vrindavan. Old habits die hard, and sinful tendencies are not so easy to give up. Bilvamangala’s weakness was lust, and so maya, the illusory energy of the Supreme Lord, attacked him again in the form of a woman.
On his way to Vrindavan, he was captivated by the beauty of a woman he saw. Impelled by lust, he followed her to her house. When he knocked at the door, the woman’s husband, a wealthy merchant, answered. Having learned from his wife that a man had been following her, the merchant still invited him in and asked what service he could offer. Bilvamangala Thakura asked to be left alone with his wife, and the merchant obliged.
Alone with her in the room, Bilvamangala asked, “Mother, can I have your hairpin?”
He took the hairpin and, to the woman’s utter shock, gouged both his eyes. Falling at the feet of the couple, he begged for forgiveness.
Bilvamangala Thakura blinded himself to make sure that for the rest of his life he would avoid enticement by never seeing a woman. He took an extreme step, but we can learn from this extraordinary and frightful incident the necessity of reining in our senses. The example is not to be emulated; neither the scriptures nor the acharyas recommend that anyone take such an extreme step. But the holy books and the holy sages continuously remind us that the senses are very strong and unless controlled they can destroy our devotional life, just as a mad elephant destroys a beautiful garden.
We all are afflicted with the disease of material consciousness, and the scriptures prescribe treatment for our ailment. To get the right vision, a person suffering from a cataract does not have to get his eyes plucked out but just has to remove the cataract. Similarly, our senses are currently afflicted with material disease, and the best solution is to treat the disease and spiritualize the senses through the medicine of the holy name.
Srila Prabhupada writes, “If one wants to enjoy real sense enjoyment, then one must get free of the entanglement of material existence. In spiritual life we can enjoy sense enjoyment which has no end. The difference between material and spiritual enjoyment is that material enjoyment is limited. Even if a man engages in material sex enjoyment, he cannot enjoy it for long. But when the sex enjoyment is given up, then one can enter spiritual life, which is unending.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 3.20.35, Purport)
In Vrindavan with Krishna
Although physically blind, Bilvamangala Thakura was now spiritually awakened. Life’s experience had taught him that lust can never be satiated. Rather, this disease worsens as soon as one gives in to lusty desires and thoughts.
Bilvamangala then proceeded to Vrindavan without delay. He was so sincere in his devotion that he used every moment in worshiping the Supreme Lord. His genuine devotion attracted Krishna, who as a cowherd boy would come to meet him regularly, carrying a glass of milk for him. Bilvamangala Thakura did not know that the Supreme Lord was personally coming to see him. They would speak with each other for hours. Once when Krishna played His flute, Bilvamangala Thakura was captivated by it and wanted to embrace Krishna. Krishna playfully escaped his embrace.
The great devotee of the Lord said, “You can escape from my hold but not from my heart.”
Bilvamangala Thakura’s heart had previously been flooded with lusty desires, but with determined devotion he had cleansed his heart and enthroned Krishna there. He wrote Krishna-karnamrita, which glorifies Srimati Radharani and beautifully reveals the esoteric relationship between Krishna and Radha. Lord Chaitanya found this book during His South India trip and loved to hear its recitation regularly.
Srila Prabhupada writes, “He [Bilvamangala Thakura] intensely desired to enter into the eternal pastimes of the Lord, and he lived at Vrindavana for seven hundred years in the vicinity of Brahma-kunda, a still-existing bathing tank in Vrindavana. The history of Bilvamangala Thakura is given in a book called Sri-vallabha-digvijaya. He appeared in the eighth century of the Saka Era in the province of Dravida and was the chief disciple of Vishnu Svami. In a list of temples and monasteries kept in Sankaracharya’s monastery in Dvaraka, Bilvamangala is mentioned as the founder of the Dvarakadhisha temple there.” (Chaitanya-caritamrta, Adi 1.57, Purport)
The Supreme Destination
Although Bilvamangala Thakura’s past wasn’t glorious, Krishna wasn’t bothered by that. Often a person caught doing something abominable is condemned and abandoned. But Krishna is magnanimous, forgiving, and uninterested in unearthing our previous sins. As soon as He sees that our intentions are pure and we are genuinely striving to purify our life, He is eager to accept us and take us back to the spiritual world.
In Bhagavad-gita 16.21–22, Krishna tells Arjuna that lust is a gateway to hell and those who can escape from it attain the supreme destination. Lust binds us to this material world, but love for the Lord liberates us. Bilvamangala Thakura was able to achieve Krishna only after his heart was thoroughly cleansed of all lusty desires. To attain love of Krishna, therefore, we must guard ourselves against the onslaught of lust and not succumb to its allure.