Interview about Bhakta Bandhav

by | Feb 28, 2023 | Uncategorized | 0 comments

PART I – Śrī Rādhe Kuñja 

1. What does a typical day look like for a resident of Śrī Rādhe Kuñja? (i.e. wake at 3 am, etc.) 

Life in Śrī Rādhe Kunj is full of bhakti from morning to evening. We have stutis before maṅgala ārati that adjust according to the season and vratas. For example, we are singing the Brahmā Saṁhitā verses in the morning now, along with other prayers. In Kartik, we daily sing the full Govinda Dāmodara Stotram before maṅgala ārati, along with other prayers, like Rādhā Kṛpā Kaṭākṣa Stava Rājā and other astakams. 

Our dear Thakurajis are Śrī Śrī Rādhā Vinoda Bihārī, Lalitā Viśākhā, upstairs, and Śrī Pañca Tattva, on the floor below. So we perform full āratis on both floors four times a day (including Śayana ārati). We also daily perform Guru pūjā and Tulasī pūjā, after the morning class. 

There are many services that go on throughout the day. Cooking is a big part of that for us. Every day we serve thousands of Vrajavāsīs and guests in Rādhe Kunj, as well as around Vraja. So a lot of the Sevā revolves around preparing, distributing, and cleaning up after prasādam. 

Śrīpāda Premānanda Prabhu leads by example, himself daily cooking the lunch feast, assisted by the many devotee sevakas. Everything is done by the bhaktas, with no hired help. 

Ṭhākuraji sevā is also a big part of the temple activities. We daily perform full abhiṣeka, arcana, and śṛṅgāra for all the Deities, including the life size mūrtis of Śrīla Gurudeva, Śrīla Vāmana Gosvāmī Mahārāja, Param Gurudeva (Śrīla Bhakti Prajnana Keśava Gosvāmī Mahārāja) and Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Prabhupāda. 

Other services relate to temple maintenance and development, book publication and distribution, Tulasī sevā, Go-mata sevā, outreach, and so forth. 

The most important activities of the maṭha are kīrtan and hari-kathā. We therefore have kīrtan and hari-kathā going on throughout the day. Most days, we actually have six classes. Śrīla Gopananda Bon Mahārāja is giving morning and late afternoon classes, Śrīpāda Premānanda Prabhu is giving evening classes, Kṛṣṇa Kāruṇya Prabhu gives a class after breakfast, I have a class before midday ārati, and the ladies have their own kīrtan and class after lunch. Everyone attends the main classes, while the extra study classes are more specific groups of people interested in studying the topics we’re covering. When hari-kathā is not going on, then there is kīrtana. Everyday we have around ten hours of kīrtan in the temple throughout different times of the day, including a few hours of mahāmantra kīrtan.

2. What is your position in Śrī Rādhe Kuñja and how do you see your role in assisting other devotees’ sevā and bhajana?

I started and maintain the Bhakta Bandhav website and online presence. Along with that, my main service is book publication. We have published over 20 books in the last few years, and are striving to increase our production, by now starting to publish in multiple volumes all of our ongoing transcripts of Śrīla Gurudeva’s hari-kathā from his world tours and talks in India. 

I am also starting to branch out into different areas of outreach sevā beyond publications. For example, in the last couple months, I have started a Śrīla Gurudeva documentary with friends and godbrothers here. 

We are starting to do more programs around U.P., (pre coronavirus lockdown) including visiting and giving free bhakti books at colleges and universities. 

I started a Vaiṣṇava academy, called KRIPA, the Krishna Prema Academy. We have plans on developing that in line with the vision of Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura as presented in his article, Gaurāṅga Samāja. 

We also have future plans on developing Nama-hatta centers in line with Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura’s vision outlined in his book Śrī Godruma Kalpatavi. 

Along with these engagements, I serve in the temple with some sevā for the Vaiṣṇavas, and also perform śṛṅgāra and oversee the making of Ṭhākuraji’s outfits. 

It’s a very busy life! But fulfilling!

3. There is a strong brahmacārī presence in Śrī Rādhe Kuñja. What are the roles of the God-sisters and females in Śrī Rādhe Kuñja?

Our godsisters have a strong and wonderful presence in the ashram. To name a few things, they have their own kīrtan and kathā time in the temple during the afternoon, they serve in the kitchen, prepare Ṭhākuraji’s malas and outfits, and help transcribe Śrīla Gurudeva’s lectures.

a. Do females reside in the ashrama?

They have a separate building opposite the main Śrī Rādhe Kunj complex. It’s about four paces from the main entrance to Rādhe Kunj, so while it is a separate building, no one would say its not part of the ashram.

b. Is the responsibility for their protection and maintenance upheld by the temple?

All the devotees are looked after. There are leaders among the ladies who look after this area more directly, as is appropriate. Ultimately, everything is maintained by Hari, Guru, and Vaiṣṇavas. Śrīpāda Premānanda Prabhu provides medicine and care for everyone. I think everyone feels part of the family of Śrīla Gurudeva here. There are many full-time residents, and many who come and stay for some months of the year, but everyone is cared for equally.

4. You give very wonderful and realized classes. How would you encourage other devotees to also give classes?

Thank you. Our Guru-varga encourage the devotees to share and preach in their own words, from what they have heard from the ācāryas and granthas, and then reflected deeply upon. Especially Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura, Śrīla Svāmī Prabhupāda, and Śrīla Gurudeva come to mind as having instructed devotees to preach in their own words, from what they have realized in the course of hearing from bona fide Vaiṣṇavas.

a. What advice can you offer in learning tattva-siddhanta?

You can approach study merely as an intellectual exercise. However, while that is necessary to some degree, I’d recommend adding it to your bhakti sādhana as part of your daily routine and meditation. While chanting, for example, one can reflect on bhakti tattvas that one is studying.

b. How about śloka memorization?

There are different methods for śloka memorization. Integrating mnemonics can be helpful, such as ‘memory palaces’ and so forth. Ultimately, with verses, it usually comes down to memorizing by rote. We have methods for that, such as dividing the verse into parts, and memorizing the parts, then aggregating them and memorizing it all together. 

First, one will recite the first line five or ten times while looking at the words and meditating on the word-for-word meaning. Then one should continue saying the line out loud without looking at the text, rather, visualizing it in the mind. Next, one will say the line five or ten times (according to how easily it is for one to memorize personally) only in the mind by manasika-japa. One follows this method for each line of the verse, then combines two lines following the same procedure, then does the third and fourth line of the verse, until finally repeating the full verse with the same method. If one follows this method with concentration, within ten minutes a new verse can be memorized. Daily the verses should be revised for a few minutes at least for a few weeks. After they are thus memorized perfectly, verses can be revised every Ekādaśī or Pūrṇimā.

PART II – Journey in practice

5. Have you ever experienced any challenges or obstacles limiting your bhakti practice?

I think everyone probably goes through challenges and obstacles in their bhakti practice. We hear about these stages in books like Madhurya-kadambini. Even though there are general stages we all probably go through at some point or another, it is still a very personal struggle we must go through. Our Śrīla Gurudeva would say, “Never be hopeless.” So his hope for us and how he encouraged us strengthens our hope and determination in the path of bhakti.

a. Could you please share about them and how did you overcome them? 

Overcoming anarthas is a process that takes times and requires ‘staying on the battlefield’ to bring in a Bhagavad Gītā idea. We have to stay in the fight and not back down and run away from our problems and anarthas. I feel it helps to understand that the path of bhakti is so wonderful, that as Kṛṣṇa says in the Gītā (2.40), “Even a little performance of this bhakti-yoga or Sanātana-dharma frees one from the greatest fear.” Other paths such as those connected to karma or jñāna are more fraught with peril, because mistakes can lead to fall downs which are difficult to recover from, whereas in bhakti-yoga, Kṛṣṇa teaches that wherever practitioners leave off in the process of bhakti, they can in due course start it up from that same point without any loss, even if it is many lifetimes later.

6. We know that sādhu-saṅga is important, but often is not physically feasible for many of us, especially here in the West. What are some methods/ideas you have for those struggling in their bhakti practice? 

Śrīla Gurudeva teaches that, if one cannot be in the dhāma physically, one should absorb the mind in being in sādhu-saṅga in Vṛndāvana. Nowadays there are many opportunities to be in sādhu-saṅga digitally by watching or hearing hari-kathā, and more in more, Vaiṣṇavas are traveling around the world, so there are lots of opportunities for sādhu-saṅga in the West.

PART III – Complex

7. There is a push for more structure and organization in Śrīla Gurudeva’s worldwide saṅga, such as all Maṭhas coming under the banner of solidarity of Śrīla Gurudeva’s desired name, IPBYS. We understand that after the disappearance of an Ācārya, there is not only darkness, but separate groups which form and break off from the main branch established by Śrī Guru. We see this in the examples of Śrīla Parama Gurudeva, Śrīla Gurudeva, Śrīla Prabhupāda, and others. Is this natural and expected to see Śrī Rādhe Kuñja as a separate branch from IPBYS?

This is a complex topic. There are many important considerations to take into account. First of all, we strongly believe in unity in diversity. One understanding of why different groups naturally occur in due course of time, is that self-dependent groups centered on various Vaiṣṇavas all have unique specialties that could be diluted or lost if they are all merged into one group. I have heard that interpretation for why we find many different Gauḍīya Maṭha groups after the disappearance of Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Prabhupāda. The example is given of holy rivers. All the holy rivers have unique qualities and powers. When they are distinctly situated, those qualities are apparent. But when they are merged together, their individual qualities are no longer apparent. Now, ultimately, despite many branches with various names, we are all part of the ‘tree’ of the movement of Mahāprabhu’s Prema-dharma, which is itself connected to the Brahma-madhva-sampradaya. Śrīla Gurudeva would go so far as to say, “Prahlāda is a member of ISKCON. I am a member of ISKCON. All the pure Vaiṣṇavas are members of ISKCON.” So the ācāryas’ vision is from the viewpoint of the transcendental reality, not the material. 

On the material plane, organizations have a birth date, and are instituted in accordance with the laws of governments, which themselves are temporary manifestations appearing in brief moments of cosmic time. So if you look at our Vaiṣṇava societies from a material perspective, you can say, “They started at so and so time, with such and such members.” That is a temporary, material perspective. Yet we are part of Sanātana-dharma, the eternal religion of the soul, prema or bhakti. When the society is seen as a vehicle to serve that eternal dharma, then it can serve its purpose, which is helping to ferry the jīvas across the ocean of saṁsāra, to the eternal land of the soul, in Goloka Vṛndāvan. But if the material dimension of the society and its members lose the vision of serving the true Supreme Entity, and instead try to lord it over others without love, honor, and a sense of caring, rather with a mood of self-serving and exploitation, then the leaders of the society become like the Pūtanās described by Bhaktisiddhānta Prabhupāda, who devour the spiritual infants or neophytes rather than nurture and uplift them. I am not using this example to refer in any way to IPBYS or any other Vaiṣṇava society. It is just a general thing to keep in mind that while we may have different names in Vaiṣṇava societies, ultimately we are all connected to that same transcendental movement of Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu, and therefore we should be careful not to fall into sectarian thinking or party-spirit.

8. The Śrīla Gurudeva Centennial audio sevā team is busy cleaning up audio and transcribing lectures. Śrī Rādhe Kuñja also transcribes many lectures. Will both teams work/serve together in the future to this end to collectively and swiftly clean audio and transcribe lectures, or is it expected to see the same lectures transcribed twice from both teams to be published on their respective websites?

We look forward to working together. We have shared most of our transcripts already with Syamarani Didi and Vasanti Didi. Now, we are preparing a multi-volume series of Śrīla Gurudeva’s hari-kathā. We plan on publishing the volumes first as ebooks and printed books, to encourage people to actually get the full books. 

I definitely think there is potential for Śrīla Gurudeva’s followers and disciples to work together with a joint vision. Our sevā with Bhakta Bandhav is done with that intention. 

In a video recorded interview of Śrīla Gurudeva, which was later published in the Walking with a Saint books, Śrīla Gurudeva was asked about the name of the society. 

Yaśodānandana Prabhu told Gurudeva: 

“After a lot of feedback, response from devotees, and with your input, the name International Pure Bhakti Yoga Society, to be known as Pure Bhakti Yoga Society for short, was decided upon. Can you please confirm that this is your desire?” 

Śrīla Gurudeva responds: 

“Yes. So like ISKCON, like BHAKTI (the Bhakti Trust International). This should be preached everywhere. All should know that we are the Bhakti Trust.” 

So even in the only recorded interview with Śrīla Gurudeva about the name of his society, the answer is unclear. Śrīla Gurudeva said, “We are BHAKTI.” There was a committee that met many times over the years trying to decide upon a name. IPBYS was something chosen very close to the end of Śrīla Gurudeva’s pastimes and it was never officially established or incorporated in Śrīla Gurudeva’s time. This is not to take away from what IPBYS is doing. It is a wonderful initiative. It is just to say that Śrīla Gurudeva did not mandate that all his followers come under the banner of IPBYS. In India for example, there is the IGVT and the GVST, or the International Gauḍīya Vedānta Trust, and the Gauḍīya Vedānta Samītī Trust, and there is the Bhakti Trust International. In the West, the various groups of devotees also have their own trusts and group names, such as the Gangamatas. 

Suffice it to say, we are serving the mission of Śrīla Gurudeva to the best of our abilities, having adopted for the society the title given to him by Param Gurudeva, or Bhakta Bandhav, which itself is a name in scripture spoken by Śrī Kṛṣṇa to refer to Himself and the devotees: asmākam bāndhava bhakta bhaktānām bāndhava vayam – I am the dearmost friend of the devotees, and the devotees are My dearmost friends. Jagatām guravo bhakta bhaktānām guravo vayam. The devotees are the gurus of the world, and I am the guru of the devotees. 

Thus, for us, Bhakta Bandhav represents that Loving Reality Śrī Kṛṣṇa, in His eternal loving relation with the pure devotees, specifically, our beloved Śrīla Gurudeva, and Their munificent pastimes of delivering the living entities through the process of pure bhakti-yoga. This transcendental reality forms the basis of a Vaiṣṇava society in this world. Naturally, such a society of the devotees done under the guidance of the suddhavaisnavas, is a ‘Pure Bhakti Yoga Society’. 

With Bhakta Bandhav, as a society, we strive to connect it to the desired name of Śrīla Gurudeva, or BHAKTI, by calling it Bhakta Bandhav International (BHAKTi or BBI).

9. What would it take for Śrīla Gurudeva’s worldwide saṅga to be more cooperative and structured? 

I believe in order to work together harmoniously, one of the most important aspects is mutual respect. This is such an integral principle necessary for a Vaiṣṇava society. Naturally in a large international community or society, there will be many smaller groups and affiliations, and that was there even in Śrīla Gurudeva’s time. So for those smaller groups to work together as part of a larger entity, there must be respect and honor to one another. Mahāprabhu taught this on different occasions, for example, in the verse ‘kīrtanīyaḥ sadā hariḥ’ He taught that to be able to perform continuous kīrtan, which you could interpret as preaching or outreach, we must honor all others, without desiring honor for ourself—amāninā mānadena. And to be able to honor all others, we must be humbler than a blade of grass and more tolerant than a tree—tṛṇād api sunīcena taror api sahiṣṇunā. So, these qualities are essential for creating a harmonious Vaiṣṇava society.


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