By Tanmaya Krsna Dasa
My trip to India this month was rather hectic. I landed in Mumbai, and soon after, dashed off to Indore to meet my aging relatives and many cousins. Less than 24 hours after reaching Indore, I boarded the Hazrat Nizamuddin train to Mathura. I was determined to visit Jiva Institute on this trip, even though I was only going to spend a day and a half there.
Listening to my fellow passengers’ conversation on the train about spirituality brought back memories of my own search for an authentic spiritual path. Being an average Indian, I had been largely ignorant of śāstric knowledge. Like many Indians who seek spiritual experiences these days, I too had endured a false start through joining a religious organization.
In the last few decades, India has seen the rise of organizations that exist for the main purpose of recruiting members and continuing their enterprise, which involves building large temples, swelling the ranks of their followers, and engaging in charity. Because the modern mind is impressed easily by numbers (large temples, devotees, books, etc.), even discriminating minds may fall prey to such organizations. Religious preaching in India is aggressive, and I recall seeing brahmacaris in saffron visiting my university regularly when I was a student in India. (I stayed out of the canteen when they came!) Unfortunately, I succumbed later.
Religious organizations in modern India are effective, whether they be churches or Hindu organizations, because they have an eager audience. Modern preachers may be well-educated and able to impress the audience with their language skills, degrees, a broad (but shallow) understanding of philosophy and theology, and seemingly logical but superficial answers to questions. These preachers also know the weaknesses of modern Indians who are frequently clueless about authentic traditions.
Indian spiritual seekers, on the other hand, may be educated, tech savvy, and smart. For them, as it was for me, spiritual seeking is essentially a self-study course involving reading books and listening to different speakers on a given topic. Unfortunately, I found that my understanding of scriptures remained foggy and uncertain and so did my practice despite years of trying. It was like trying to drive a car in the rain without wipers. One can make out some shapes outside but there is hardly any definition to the shapes. Another problem with this approach is that one tends to understand the scripture through one’s own mental filters, interprets them in one’s own way, and then misses out on the true meaning.
The value of a śāstric education
Jiva institute’s raison d’être is the teaching of Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava theology as established by the founders of the school, Śrī Rūpa Gosvāmī and Śrī Jiva Gosvāmī. Its Bhakti Tirtha course has been ongoing for four years, with courses on śāstra taught by Sri Satyanarayana dasa Babaji. I was fortunate to have found this course online and have been enrolled as a student ever since. Listening to Babaji’s courses has brought an entire world of ancient Indian tradition to me. I have finally found a teacher who truly knows his subject. Babaji’s command over Sanskrit is impeccable and he has truly plumbed the depths of the rather esoteric Gauḍīya tradition. He has systematically studied the Sandarbhas from his illustrious teacher, Śrī Haridāsa Śāstrī Mahārājajī. It is amazing that the Sandarbhas, which are the very foundation of Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism, are studied by so few followers of the Gauḍīya school. Jiva Institute is probably the only place in the world today where the Sandarbhas are the focus in teaching Gauḍīya theology.
To even begin to understand the Sandarbhas, one requires knowledge of the broader context in which they were written. In his writings, Śrī Jiva Gosvāmī frequently uses concepts and terminology from Nyāya, Sāṅkhya, Purva-mimaṁsa and the Yoga-sūtras. Therefore, Babaji has embarked on an ambitious program to teach all these different branches of knowledge. This has been a real blessing for me. Previously I used to be tentative about the meaning of even basic words like bhakti, māyā, citta, ahaṅkāra, avidyā, prema, and so on. What I have found through Babaji’s teachings is that Indian scriptures are precise. Every term is defined, and these definitions are challenged by the writers for any defects. Everything is classified, sub-divided into categories, and things are further made clear with examples. The branches of Nyāya, Sāṅkhya, and so on are critical to actually understand the meaning of such basic terms. Without definitions, one’s understanding remains fuzzy and uncertain. Babaji’s approach has allowed my steps along the spiritual path to become grounded in the certainty of śāstra.
Arrival at Jiva
I had not slept all night as my train pulled into the station. The waiting driver took me through the empty streets of Mathura, pointing out a few landmarks in the cold fog. Both Mathura and Vrindavan resemble any ordinary Indian town. I felt at home, more so than in Mumbai, and definitely more so than in the West!
Pulling up to Jiva Institute, we were met with locked green gates and a sleeping watchman. It took some time to wake him up, then he ushered me sleepily into a room. The room had hot water and comfortable beds, a welcome respite from the bitter cold. In India, the cold seeps through the bones as heaters are a rarity and they tend to be inefficient. I greedily took a hot shower and then disappeared under the thick blankets.
Every morning at 9:30 AM, Babaji leads a kīrtana in the temple at Jiva Institute. I went there dressed in dhotī-kurta and tilaka and met Babaji outside the temple room. Several devotees were present including Malati Manjari didi, who has served at Jiva Institute for a long time. We crowded into the temple room and I allowed myself to soak in the slow and mellifluous kīrtana. Babaji leads kīrtana every day there, singing the same tune and the same collection of prayers. It was slow, meditative, and happy! I reflected on how I could not get this experience anywhere else in the world.
Then it was time for breakfast, which I partook with Babaji’s disciple and Vedic psychologist, Joshika. I knew Joshika from the retreats Babaji has held every year in Camp Nawakwa in the USA. Joshika showed me her nicely furnished apartment which also serves as her office, from which she works with online clients. We chatted for a while, and then it was time to attend class.
Understanding śāstra is not a lost cause
I have been hearing Babaji’s lectures regularly for the last three years. The depth of his lectures and the consistency of his answers to questions has impressed me. Despite having heard from countless speakers and despite my own self-study, I had always assumed that the Bhāgavata would forever remain impenetrable for me, given its complexity and the fact that the context in which it was written is lost now. But Babaji’s lectures on the Sandarbhas have given me the hope that understanding śāstra is not a lost cause!
I eagerly piled into the basement classroom of the Jiva Institute and sat next to another student. Most students were not Indian, and yet here they were, ready for another lecture from Babaji. Many of them had jobs back home in the West and had adjusted their schedules to spend precious time at Jiva Institute. I marvelled at this. Who wants to leave home and go to a foreign country, sacrificing their career, unless they truly understood and appreciate the importance of learning? It was equally amazing that despite the fact that Jiva Institute is in Vrindavan, which is crawling these days with Indian devotees, there were few if any Indian students at Jiva Institute.
Babaji sat on a raised platform in front of a low green table that he has had since his teaching days at the Bhaktivedanta Swami Gurukula in Vrindavan. The walls behind him were covered with large paintings of revered figures – Gadādhara Paṇḍita teaching the scriptures, a photograph of Mahārājajī’s guru, and so on.
Definition of Happiness
Babaji lectured first on Paramātma Sandarbha, and then on the Sāṅkhya Kārikā of Īśvara Kṛṣṇa. Students asked questions freely, which was made easier by tossing a microphone embedded inside a large rubber ball! I asked him a question when Babaji presented a definition of happiness from Sāṅkhya:
“When a sense transmits a sensation that feels good (anukūla vedaniyam), then the person is said to experience happiness (sukham).”
I asked him if this definition had the defect of anyonya-āśraya – a term I had learnt from his lectures, which roughly means ‘the defect of circular reasoning’. He challenged me to explain how there was a defect. My point was that we needed to define the term ‘good’ to have a complete definition. If we ask someone to define the term ‘good’, they would likely say that it was that which made them feel happy. The definition would then be circular.
Babaji explained that a feeling is subjective and does not need to be further defined. We first feel good, and then happiness follows as a result. Everyone knows when they feel good or not upon having an experience. Therefore, there was no defect in the definition.
This is just one example of countless questions I and others have posed to Babaji. His answer is always unwavering and precise and today was no exception. I felt good and then happy!
Joining Sanskrit lessons
After class, I joined Malati didi in her apartment for lunch. Next, I met Babaji in his room, and he tossed a blanket, shawl, and cap toward me as I was shivering! One can talk to Babaji for hours, because he is wickedly smart, and is knowledgeable about all kinds of topics. As our conversation meandered, I had to remind myself that I was speaking to a modern giant of the Gauḍīya tradition, a modern equal, at least in my mind, of Śrī Jiva Gosvāmī himself. One is liable to forget this when chatting with Babaji.
After our conversation, I rushed off for Jagadanandaji’s advanced Sanskrit class. The class was small in size, but it was nice to finally see him in action after listening to his voice on the recorded classes. He was bundled up because of the cold, but his voice carried the same infectious enthusiasm for Sanskrit that it always does. He is reading the Bṛhad Bhāgavatamṛta these days in class and it was fun. Unfortunately, I had to cut my attendance short because I then rushed off to meet another Sanskrit teacher, Balarama Acarya. He is a young Bengali Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava who has been engaged by Babaji to teach Sanskrit at Jiva Institute. I have been taking online lessons from him on Hari Nāmamṛta Vyākaraṇa, inspired by Willi, a German student at Jiva Institute who also studies with him.
Feeling good and then happy
After having a long discussion with another devotee residing at Jiva Institute, I retired for the night. I had planned to be at breakfast and then kīrtana the next day, but I woke up at 10:30 AM, having slept twelve hours straight! The lack of sleep on the train and also the jet lag contributed to knock me out. I rushed to class and made it just in time as Babaji began reciting oṁ ajñāna-timirāndhasya. As always, the classes sparkled with new content that I had never before heard. I asked a few more questions which were answered to my satisfaction, and then it was time for lunch with my fellow Bhakti Tirtha students.
Afterwards, it was on to another meeting with Babaji and finally, it was time to leave. I paid my dues for room and board to Anuragaji, said goodbye to Jaya didi and was then ready to go. As we drove off, I reflected on my experience. I concluded that for reasons I could not explain, my stay at Jiva Institute had made me happy – happier than I had been in a long time. As Babaji had explained in the Sāṅkhya class, you first feel good and then you feel happy. I felt happy. But this happiness brought its own sadness, for I knew I was not going to feel like this again until my next visit!
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