Chota Haridas and Judas Iscariot

16 02 2021
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Studying Krishna consciousness for me is all about contrasts. Writing about it is an exercise in explaining these contrasts in as few words as possible. With the story of Chota Haridas, there is an immediate comparison to Judas Iscariot in the New Testament, except that God Incarnate (in this case, Lord Chaitanya) doesn’t get betrayed nor is He handed over to His enemies to be killed, and so on. The real comparison lies in the question: What happens when one of your followers, someone very intimate to your mission, “falls down”? Is there redemption after that and, if so, what does it mean?

I should back up and clarify that I am reading the multi-volume biography of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the Chaitanya Charitamrita. Lord Chaitanya or “the Golden Avatar” was on the Earth in the last decades of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, and lived in what is now India preaching the chanting of the Holy Names of God (the Hare Krishna mahamantra). For His followers, Lord Chaitanya is an incarnation of Krishna, or rather, the incarnation of Krishna in this Iron Age of hypocrisy and quarrel (Kali Yuga). Lord Chaitanya came to teach humanity about the love of God, for He is not merely an incarnation of Krishna, but also an dual incarnation of Krishna and His Divine Consort, Srimati Radharani. He is a personality who encompasses Srimati Radharani’s longing for Krishna in the mood of separation. This sublime manifestation contrasts with the degradation of Kali Yuga, where people are so abject that the chanting the divine names is the only appropriate sacrifice to be delivered from the cycle of birth and death.

Lord Chaitanya amassed a large number of followers, many of them intimate sharers in His pastimes. Among them was a young man named Junior or Chota Haridas (to distinguish him from another notable Haridas). At this point, Lord Chaitanya had taken sannyasa or the renounced order of life. He took his monastic vows so seriously that He did not allow a woman to get within fifty feet of where He was. One day, Chota Haridas was sent to acquire rice from a devotee woman, but when Lord Chaitanya was advised of this, He stated to His followers that He did not want to see Chota Haridas ever again. Many of the followers tried to intervene on the young man’s behalf, stating that Lord Chaitanya should show mercy. In response, Lord Chaitanya threatened to get up and leave that place. His followers then stopped insisting, and within a year, Chota Haridas decided to take the only path open to him for redemption: he drowned himself at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers in Prayag.

Afterwards, Chota Haridas visited Lord Chaitanya in the body of a gandharva or angelic being, and sang for Him. In that way, Lord Chaitanya welcomed Chota Haridas back into His presence. According to one devotee who I am stealing many of these observations from, a gandharva can be in the presence of women, so his singing was then acceptable to the Lord. Even though Chota Haridas committed suicide, he was in a sense redeemed and taken back into the favor of the Lord.

When I first heard this story, I thought that it was kind of tragic and a bit unfair. In the telling of it, it’s never clear what Chota Haridas did that was so objectionable. He was on a holy errand, the woman he was interacting with was of spotless character, and nothing seems to have happened that would have raised any suspicions. Srila Prabhupada in his purports to this episode states that Lord Chaitanya was making an example of Chota Haridas, namely, that since he was a renunciate, the highest standards needed to be maintained. If those standards were slackened even a little bit, the whole bottom would fall out of the movement. This is indeed what happened after the disappearance of Lord Chaintanya: Gaudiya Vaishnavism ended up with the reputation of a dissolute sex cult until Bhaktivinoda Thakura came and tried to restore the original vision in the 19th century. Lord Chaintaya could not stand the idea of hypocrisy: of using religion as an excuse to gratify one’s senses and base desires. Thus, the harsh and perhaps slightly asymmetrical punishment of Junior Haridas.

My Catholic mind can’t help but draw comparisons with the plight of Judas Iscariot, though the similarities are few. The catalyst of Judas’s downfall was greed, and his fate was far less ambiguous than that of Chota Haridas. Even when Judas betrays him, Jesus still calls him “friend,” perhaps as an invitation to repent of his betrayal. But of course, Judas also committed suicide by hanging as a means to “redeem” himself, though the Christian Scripture is pretty explicit that this was a selfish act that led to his damnation:

While I was with them in the world, I kept them in thy name: those that thou gavest me I have kept, and none of them is lost, but the son of perdition; that the scripture might be fulfilled. (John 17:12)

In the fate of Chota Haridas and also Judas, we are confronted with questions of theodicy, namely the necessity of evil so that some good might come of it. In the case of Judas, Christian salvation history needs a villain, even if God only permits the evil to happen and is not the direct cause of it. Writers such as Jorge Luis Borges have contributed blasphemous speculations concerning the necessity of evil so that good might result in the unfolding of the Christian mystery. Is Christian salvation completely dependent on at least one man going to Hell for all eternity so that some might be saved? With the ordeal of Chota Haridas, it’s less clear what the transgression was. Citing the other blog post here, that devotee indicates that perhaps it was Lord Chaitanya’s mere discomfort at the idea that he was seen with a woman that made Him reject Chota Haridas. It was not wrongdoing, but the mere optics of potential wrongdoing that led to the chastisement of Chota Haridas.

To my yavana mind, of course, that seems rather unfair. Even if someone is doing right, and everything is above board, one can still get kicked to the curb. My Western Christian mind still clings to the idea that wrongs in the material world are actual wrongs, and they are to some extent. Animals slaughtered for meat can’t just rest assured that they suffer no real harm because they’re not the body. The fact that they have bodies is the evil in itself, and their losing that body does not change the fact that they still have to continue to take one. Only devotional service in the human form of life can change that. However, the first step in devotional service is to realize that we are not this body, but we still have to utilize it in the Lord’s service.

In that sense, Lord Chaintanya wanted Chota Haridas to give up that body and enter into a body where he could serve the Lord better. Devotees later in this lila also hear Chota Haridas’s disembodied voice, and they conclude that he became a ghost: the most common karmic reaction for a suicide. However, Lord Chaintanya disagrees with them. Even in his chastisement, Chota Haridas served the Lord. Judas in his afterlife is not doing that, and can’t according to Christian theology.

Part of me is becoming okay with the fact that Christianity tells a “better story” than Vedic religion. That might seem blasphemous for me to say, but there is far more pathos, far more catharsis in Jesus encountering Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane than anything that I have read so far in Vedic literature. In the Passion play of Jesus, betrayal is actual betrayal, pain is pain, the body actually dies, and the tears of despair are real. But then again, so is the triumph of Easter morning, and so is the condemnation of Judas. Just like the soldiers who gamble over the cloak of the crucified Jesus, all of existence is a roll of the dice: some win, others lose. It’s a zero sum game. We identify with it on such a strong emotional level precisely because that seems to be our condition in the bodily form of life: there are winners and losers, there is tragedy, there is death, and it all feels very, very real.

With that mind, the chastisement of Junior Haridas is high tragedy, and somewhat arbitrary. We can go with our mind’s eye to the junction between the two rivers where a young man drowned himself, and see the foreboding and trembling that such an action could cause an ordinary person. We can smell the wet air, we can wonder what the weather was like, and we can make a whole bustling mise-en-scène in our head. We could weep for a life cut short, for the seeming unfairness of it all, at the capricious nature of fate… but then we are missing the point. None of that ever goes anywhere; none of that ends well. Again, in that scenario, there are winners and losers, followers and opponents, and right and wrong answers. It’s black and white. But that’s not who we are. When the soul itself is immortal, a part of God never to be destroyed, even the hint of tragedy can never be more than a daydream. That’s a hard pill to swallow, but the real goal of life is not easy. It’s simple, but not easy.

Truth be told, I have been preparing for the anti-drama of Krishna consciousness since my Neoplatonic days. Try being a fan of Plotinus or Marsilio Ficino and also a fan of bloody Baroque spirituality: it’s a non-starter. If the purpose of all divine revelation is didactic and never punitive, then even Chota Haridas’s chastisement makes sense on one level. It still may not sit well with us, it’s shocking to some extent. But the only alternative is to stipulate that evil is real and eternal, and that there are winners and losers, angels and devils, and I am not prepared to do that. I haven’t been for a while. Even if the path looks crooked, all paths lead to Krishna. Eventually.


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2 responses

11 03 2021
Iamblichus

It’s more a story to be marveled at than imitated, though at least one suspected case happened in the Hare Krishna movement similar to this one, but no one knows for sure.

10 03 2021
jonchapple

I never understood the Haridas story. A sannyasi can’t be around women, fine – but he can’t be around anyone who’s been around women? What? Why? Who says? And surely that includes just about everyone who’s ever lived…

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