Haridasa Thakur and the critique of Abrahamic religion

3 05 2021

Having been born into Roman Catholicism, and having practiced it quite fervently as an adult, the question always looms as to what the role of Christianity is in Krishna consciousness. More ecumenical types want to make it seem that “it’s all good”: bhakti is bhakti, God is one and devotion to Him is also one. Others, however, refuse to be that conciliatory considering the Christian turning of a blind eye towards meat eating and other vices. In fact, my summary of Srila Prabhupada’s attitude on this matter is that he thought that Christianity was very close to Vaishnavism, except for the meat eating and his claims that Christians didn’t know the name of God. He was quite animate about these objections at times.

Yet if we look closely, Christianity was dealt with in Hare Krishna scripture. Well, not directly, but through the assessment of Islam particular in the writings describing gaura-lila: the life of Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. We have to remember that many of the major protagonists at this time had to deal directly with Muslims, up to learning their scriptures, perhaps even in Arabic itself. If we consider Islam as an outgrowth of Christianity, but perhaps with a slightly more impersonalist flavor, the early Gaudiya Vaishnavas were well-acquainted with it. One major figure was even an ex-Muslim, the namacharya Srila Haridasa Thakur.

Born into a Muslim family in what is now Bangladesh, Haridasa Thakur took to the chanting of the Holy Names of Krishna as a young man. As we all know by now, the normal punishment for apostasy in Islam is death, so he was flogged in dozens of marketplaces and, when his executioners thought that he had succumbed to the beatings, his limp body was thrown into the Ganges. Of course, he just looked dead, and the Lord revived him. After that, the local Muslims thought he must be some sort of holy man and left him alone. Later, Lord Chaitanya spoke to him about his persecution and stated that, as Haridasa was His pure devotee, He could not bear to see His servant punished like that, so He had taken the punishment on Himself. Lord Chaitanya then showed Haridasa His back, which was full of scars from the lashings.

In spite of all that, Haridasa Thakur had no ill will towards the religion of his birth. He thought that the Holy Name worked for everyone who heard It. Speaking of Muslims, Srila Haridasa states:

“ ‘Even a mleccha [meat eater] who is being killed by the tusk of a boar and who cries in distress again and again, “hā rāma, hā rāma” attains liberation. What then to speak of those who chant the holy name with veneration and faith?’ (CC Antya 3.56)

And further,

“The word ‘rāma’ consists of the two syllables ‘rā’ and ‘ma.’ These are unseparated and are decorated with the loving word ‘hā,’ meaning ‘O.’ “The letters of the holy name have so much spiritual potency that they act even when uttered improperly. (CC Antya 3.58-59)

I had the whimsical thought of whether the cosmos is now being held together merely by the inoffensive recitation of these syllables, either knowingly or unknowingly. Perhaps that isn’t far from the truth. But here again I want to turn to the treatment of Abrahmic religion itself (Islam or otherwise). Lord Chaitanya in the first part of the Chaitanya Charitamrita has a debate with a local Muslim ruler when there was a decree to end the devotees’ loud chanting parties. We won’t revisit that conversation here other than to point out that, again, the Supreme Lord calls out meat eating and the general confusion of the Muslim scriptures. Jumping ahead some centuries, Srila Prabhupada takes the entire Christian message specifically to task in his purport to the verse in the Madya-lila concerning the prayers of another devotee, Vasudeva Datta: “My dear Lord, let me suffer perpetually in a hellish condition, accepting all the sinful reactions of all living entities. Please finish their diseased material life.” (15.163) The purport is worth a long citation:

Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura gives the following commentary on this verse. In the Western countries, Christians believe that Lord Jesus Christ, their spiritual master, appeared in order to eradicate all the sins of his disciples. To this end, Lord Jesus Christ appeared and disappeared. Here, however, we find Śrī Vāsudeva Datta Ṭhākura and Śrīla Haridāsa Ṭhākura to be many millions of times more advanced than even Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ relieved only his followers from all sinful reactions, but Vāsudeva Datta is here prepared to accept the sins of everyone in the universe. So the comparative position of Vāsudeva Datta is millions of times better than that of Lord Jesus Christ. A Vaiṣṇava is so liberal that he is prepared to risk everything to rescue the conditioned souls from material existence. Śrīla Vāsudeva Datta Ṭhākura is universal love itself, for he was willing to sacrifice everything and fully engage in the service of the Supreme Lord.

For someone raised in the Catholic faith, this sort of thing is hard to hear. Those who taught us the rudiments of devotion believed that Jesus Christ was God, and that His claim to worship is absolute. We don’t want to think “bad things” about Jesus Christ. But what Srila Prabhupada is writing about here is correct, and deep down, even the most exalted Christian personalities know it. At this point my reflection will turn into something different: a strictly theological justification as to why I can no longer claim to be a Christian. I have not wanted to write something this explicit, as I think the whole idea is borderline offensive. Nevertheless, having mulled about it for months going on years, I think it is time to put the cards down on the table to show the hand I am playing.

In my mind the quote mentioned above takes me to the scene during the Last Supper where Jesus institutes the Eucharist (to use the theological jargon). As a catechetical re-cap, the Last Supper represents the immolation of Jesus on the Cross foreshadowed the night before it happened. It is a sacrifice in that first He presents the bread (“This is my body,”) and then the cup of wine (“This is the chalice of my blood.”) In the separation of the body and blood, we have a mystical immolation, the same as when any animal is sacrificed. The Christian belief is that the shedding of Jesus’ blood is the only sacrifice that takes away the sins of the world and thus reconciles humanity to God.

The minor detail here is that in all of the Gospels, when Jesus presents His immolated blood, He says the following:

This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. (Matthew 26:28)

This is a highly contentious phrasing, as it it was translated into the Catholic Mass in Latin, “Hic est enim calix sanguinis mei, qui pro vobis et pro multis effundetur…” The issue was with “pro multis”, for many. For people translating the Mass into English, “for many” didn’t sound right. It sounded exclusionary, as in, “yes, there might be a lot of people in the club, but you might not be in it.” So the experts for decades mistranslated the Latin phrase as “for all,” which seemed nicer and more inviting. Besides, so went the popular theological interpretation, that’s what Jesus really meant. It was only last decade that the Vatican cracked down and made the translators issue a text with the correct translation, “for you and for many.”

The elephant in the room in the Christian message as historically understood is that, in all likelihood, most people who have ever lived or will live will go to Hell for all eternity. Why else would Jesus say,” for many”? Why else would He say, “Many are called, but few are chosen”? (Matthew 22:14) Or: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.” (Matthew 7:13) I can be here all day coming up with quotes from the early Fathers of the Church backing up these scriptural sentiments, not least of those would be St. Augustine’s references to the massa damnata (the damned masses). Even when referencing how God’s mercy endures forever, what the Fathers were probably really referencing is how humanity is so fallen, depraved, and sinful that the fact that anyone is saved at all is an great exhibition of God’s infinite mercy. The idea that most of humanity except for maybe a small fraction was cast into Hell for all eternity, always suffering and separate from God, was an idea that most “good Christians” have been comfortable with for most of Church history. It’s only recently, when faith has diminished in the world significantly, that anyone has really taken issue with it.

One can object that Srila Prabhupada might be guilty of a bait and switch in contrasting the infinite mercy of the Vaishnava with the limited mercy of Lord Jesus. After all, for us not only are humans fallen, but also birds, demigods, amoebas, monkeys, ants, etc. etc. It looks like there are more fallen souls in the Vedic universe who are basically hopeless in terms of getting out of the cycle of birth and death any time soon. Not only that, but the hellscape of the material world never seems to end, and even if somehow everyone makes it out, more living entities take their place. That doesn’t seem particularly fair either. Is there no system in which everyone gets a “happy ending”?

From the purely material perspective, there is no satisfactory answer. As believers, we have to be honest about this. Who we think we are and what we think we want aren’t necessarily in the right here. We can want seemingly good things for very bad reasons because our perspective is off. In this case, the answer to the suffering of living entities is that they are already “liberated,” the problem is that they don’t know it. In other words, they are already Krishna conscious, they are already eternal servants of Krishna, but that knowledge is covered over by ignorance. The material world is an illusion, but in the sense that it is a stage that was set up and will be broken down at some point, and the role that we have convinced ourselves of being “so important” will also disappear. There is a saying that the cemetery is full of people who thought they were too important to be replaced. The material world is one big cemetery. Only we go on, but our fake identities don’t.

In that sense, “Heaven,” “Hell,” “punishment,” and “liberation,” are all secondary. The real “liberation” is coming back into the knowledge that we are servants of the Supreme Lord. Vāsudeva Datta is not commendable just because He would rather go to Hell for all eternity to relieve the suffering of other living entities, but more because, through delivering living entities from material suffering, they can realize what’s truly important, that is, devotional service to Krishna, or bhakti yoga. Bhakti yoga (Krishna consciousness) is not just the most important thing that exists in the material world, it’s the only thing that matters, the only thing that is eternal within it: bhakta and Bhagavan. The rest is just decay and rust. When we chant the glories of the Lord (sravanam kirtanam visnoh), we are not merely remembering that which is eternal, we are manifesting it in our very temporary and very flawed circumstances. As I like to say, it’s literally Krishna and Srimati Radharani dancing on our tongues.

So unlike in the Christian version of things, all of these living entities, plants, humans, animals, and demigods, were never “separate” from God in the first place. There is no need of reconciliation anymore than Krishna needs to reconcile Himself with Himself. “Salvation,” insofar as it is purely from the perspective of an individual living entity in a particular material body, is a selfish and silly concern. The Abrahmic idea that Krishna could create an eternal entity who will always be separate from Him and that He might have to throw into the rubbish bin of existence permanently is a completely foreign concept, if not to say an abhorrent one. Even the worm living in dung has Paramahtma seated in its heart. What more is there to ask for that is not already mostly there if dormant?

That’s not to say that there isn’t work to do: the missions of Lord Chaitanya and Srila Prabhupada, His general in our age, clearly indicate this. We all have to do out part. But there is a difference between the enthusiasm of the Hare Krishna and the erroneous urgency of the Christian missionary. Our God is not one of ultimatums. He gives the living entity the time she needs to come back to Him. If bhakti is the only thing that’s eternal, that means that it isn’t liquidated once we leave this particular body. Just as bad effects of our action might follow us life after life because of our karma, so do our attempts at devotional service. Bhakti doesn’t perish because it’s who we are. Even if we leave, we can always come back to it. That is because one is never unworthy to serve, one is never disqualified from chanting the Holy Name. Offenses might get you punished, one that’s bad enough might get you banished into the basement of existence for a very long time. But at some point, you come out, and through the mercy of the spiritual master, you begin cultivating that seedling of devotion again. It never goes away because it is who you are, in spite of how fallen you might become.

It’s never about our sinfulness, or unworthiness, or some sort of misconceived idea that we can “turn away from God”. It’s about the power of the Holy Name itself, the power of every aspect and characteristic of Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, in all of His splendor and attractiveness.

What is the Christian message for me, then? What do I think when I have to sing the Nicene Creed, which, to be honest, I do every week at this point. Let’s do a thought experiment. Imagine a big meeting room with the lights turned off. Grab a lot of pieces of cardboard or some other flimsy materials for walls, and erect a small structure in the middle of the room. Make sure that the structure is covered to the point that, from the inside, you have no view of the larger room. Then take a sleeping person and carry them into the smaller structure. When they wake up, ask them to describe the room. What they will describe is not the larger room they are actually in, but the smaller, less impressive structure in which they woke up. That is the Christian view of reality to me. It is a description of a very small room within the larger Vedic cosmos. It is full of weird errors and fuzzy concepts, but those who are within the small structure of Christianity are absolutely correct in what they see. They just don’t see the bigger picture, but honestly, especially with the increasing tendency towards universalism in some circles, I think they intuit what is really going on. The modern Christian knows that they need a bigger God than the God of the Bible. However, they are overly attached to the bodily concept of life to look elsewhere, and many lapse into non-belief or other destructive ideas.

The same sort of lack of reasoning is also responsible for the Christian acceptance of meat eating. Once I saw a documentary of a primitive tribe, I don’t remember where they were at this point, that thought that once a person was so sick that they lost the ability to speak, they were effectively dead. So the anthropologists were filming a person who may have had a fever or some sort of illness being buried alive, but they didn’t intervene because that was the tribe’s culture. The same is true of the standard Aristotelian reasoning behind animals not having souls, and therefore being no better than an inanimate object in terms of dignity. In the case of the indigenous person being buried alive, his power of speech was covered over by an illness. In the case of the jivas in plant and animal bodies, they are covered over by ignorance and enviousness from their karma in past lives. It is true that the life of a soul is the life of another (jivo jivasya jivanam), however, Krishna allows us to take the life of plants specifically to offer to Him so that we can consume the remnants of the food we offer to Him. However, we all know that animals openly manifest pain and fear, and in taking their flesh into ourselves, we are consuming their suffering. If this life is not all there is, but we are living one of many, we are just like that tribe burying alive the sick person who can’t speak, even if their condition is temporary. We are judging other limited entities based on an understanding devoid of true knowledge.

Worse, why would we want to portray God as a hunter and castigator of souls, an entity who has to scare His children so that they might behave? Why would we portray the human condition as absolutely devoid of God, taking into consideration the depravity of the age? Krishna has no enemies; even His enemies end up as His friends. He regards everyone equally, because what possibly can a minuscule living entity do to the Source and Creator of all? As much as I don’t like to bring up premises where the objection “correlation does not equal causation,” might be warranted, still, I can’t avoid thinking that secularism is the bastard child of Christianity: a religion where everyone starts devoid of God and one can only climb back into a divine life with the help of God’s arbitrary grace, which He can refuse (and usually refuses) to give. I admit that humans are depraved, especially in this iron age of quarrel and hypocrisy. But no one is so far gone that Krishna can’t pull her back out again. Why would God even be God at that point? Modern Christians are already trying to make God more like Krishna by coming up with excuses as to why the God of the Bible isn’t actually as cruel as He comes across in the text. Why not just cut out the extra step and surrender to Krishna, who is the God they actually want to believe in anyway?

Perhaps the limited number of the saved in traditional Christian thinking is indicative of its relative ineffectiveness to deliver fallen souls. The narrow gate may be too narrow, and Christian theologians are frantically trying to widen it. One can try to widen it in their own mind, however, in my case, I know Christian doctrine and history too well to sweep the parts that I don’t like under the rug. It may be my sentimental allegiance to Christian identity was never strong enough to overlook the flaws. I understand if that is not the case with others.

I write this not to try to convince anyone to cross confessional lines, as these are usually set both by force of habit, established convictions, and social pressures. That, and it’s possible (though very unconvincing in my opinion) to have a heavily Vaishnava-tinged view of Jesus and His Church, you just have to ignore a lot of “orthodox” Christianity as historically preached. For example, St. Therese claims that, as a little girl, she said that she wanted to go to Hell so she could be the only one there who loves God. Most Christians who get this far in this reflection will no doubt go on believing in the Christian church while constantly pushing their doubts or objections to the back of their minds, such as the fates of their unbelieving aunt, their friend who committed suicide, or their childhood pet (more on this in a future piece). Jesus has that much of pull with hundreds of millions of people, and thank Krishna He does.

Perhaps I should be clear that my apologetic effort here is more for those who object to my conversion to krsna bhakti. I would say to them that this is my way of confronting the issues that they have not resolved in their own practice of Christianity. Truth be told, I participate as much if not more in Christian worship now, but I do so as an aspiring Vaishnava, with no desire to go back to being an “orthodox” Christian. Indeed, I secretly wince when I am confronted with the “hellfire and brimstone” passages in Christian Scripture and tradition. I am glad that most others are also uncomfortable with these historic formulations. Part of me thinks that these others should be more intellectually consistent and look outside their comfort zone to pursue other answers. But if they want to try to stay on the straight and narrow of the authentic Christian path, that is fine by me as well.


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