Vaishnava Aparadha & The Path of Spiritual Caution
The Etymological development of the word aparadha is radhat arthat aradhanat- apagatah, which means "to be distanced from worship."
Offenses committed at the lotus feet of Vaishnavas, the Devotees, distance one from devotional service to the Supreme Lord. But in a higher sense it means to be removed from the service of Sri Radha. All divine service to Krishna is being conducted under her direction. To offend her servitors is to make one unfit for her divine service. The whole aim of Krishna consciousness is radha-dasyam, the divine service of Sri Radha, and offenses at the lotus feet of Vaishnavas make one unfit for such service.
The Lord is overly protective of his devotees (bhakta-vatsala ). He cannot tolerate any offenses against them. They have bhakti (devotion), and they can awaken it within us. Bhakti is the sole means to attract Krishna, who is a slave of devotion. The same is true of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. The Caitanya-Bhagavata states:
A person can attain the shelter of Mahaprabhu only by the grace of a higher Vaishnava. Religious practices and even chanting the Holy Name without devotion is useless.
Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Prabhupada writes in his commentary:
Without developing a spirit of service, chanting the Holy Name is vain. Real devotion can only be cultivated when one receives the blessings of an unalloyed devotee.
Bhakti means devotion. Vrndavana dasa Thakur says:
If a person commits an offense at the lotus feet of a Vaishnava, even though he may have received Krishna's mercy, he will never attain divine love, prema. (Chaitanya-bhagavata Madhya-lila 22.8)
Srila Prabhupada writes:
Even if one is a Vaishnava, if he commits offenses to the Holy Name, he becomes unfit to render pure devotion. Although it may appear that he is still being shown favor by the Lord as he continues to make a show of chanting without difficulty, the Lord is actually very displeased with him because of his antagonism toward devotees. Therefore, to give up nama-aparadha we must first give up sadhu-ninda or finding fault with devotees.
Regarding the phrase krsna krpa hoileo ("even though he may receive Krishna's mercy"), Srila Saraswati Thakur comments:
People may think that because an offender appears to continue to chant without difficulty, the Lord must still favor him, but they are wrong. The Lord is not even slightly moved by their sham devotion.
The author of Sri Caitanya-bhagavata, Vrndavana dasa Thakur, says that these statements are not his alone; they are the verdict of the Vedas. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur did not tolerate any disrespect towards genuine Vaishnavas. Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu also emphatically denounced any insults directed at Vaishnava devotees. To understand the seriousness of vaisnava-aparadha, offending devotees, one must grasp the multi-faceted, multi-dimensional nature of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Sri Krishna Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Mahaprabhu is the source of all incarnations in Kali-yuga and the savior of all souls. He is Krishna, the son of Maharaja Nanda, fully enriched with the mood and radiance of Sri Radha. Srila Krishnadasa Kaviraja Goswami offers prayers to all of these manifestations in the preface of Sri Caitanya-caritamarta:
vande gurun isa-bhaktan
tat-prakasams ca tac-chaktih
I offer my obeisances unto all the gurus, the devotees, the Lord's avataras, his expansions, his saktis (energies), and the primeval Lord Himself, Sri Krishna Chaitanya. (Caitanya-caritamrta, Adi-lila 1.1)
In the same way that Mahaprabhu is Krishna, he expands as Nityananda Prabhu (prakasa ), who is Balarama. Balarama's partial expansion is Sadasiva, Maha-Vishnu Avatara, whose counterpart in Chaitanya-lila is Advaita Acarya. What is left of Sri Radhika after Krishna has plundered her emotions and lustre is Sri Gadadhara Pundit. Sri Gadadhara and Svarupa Damodara are his sakti (energies). Bhakta means Srivasa Thakur who is Sri Narada Muni in Krishna-lila. Isa, Divinity means Mahaprabhu Himself. The complete conception of Divinity must include the predominating moiety and the predominated moeity. The slightest disregard to any one of these is equal to disregrading the Supreme Lord Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu Himself. There are two aspects to the guru principle: the siksa or instructing guru, and the diksa or initiating guru. Both are represented in Srivasa Thakura.
In the beginning of the second chapter of the Antya-lila of the Sri Caitanya-caritamrta, Srila Krishnadasa Kaviraja offers the following invocation:
vande ham sri-guroh
sri-gurun vaisnavams ca
saha-gana-raghunathan vitam tam sa jivam
sadvaitam savadhutam parijana-sahitam
(Caitanya-caritamrta, Madhya-lila 2.1)
I offer my obeisances unto the lotus feet of my Guru and to all the preceptors on the path of devotion. I offer my obeisances unto all the Vaishnavas and to Sri Rupa Goswami and his associates Raghunatha dasa, and Sri Jiva. I offer my obeisances to Advaita Acarya, Nityananda Avadhuta, Gadadhara Pundit, and to Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu with all his devotees, headed by Srivasa Thakura. I then offer my obeisances to the lotus feet of Sri Radha and Sri Krishna, and all the gopis headed by Lalita and Visakha. (Caitanya-caritamrta, Antya-lila 2. 1)
In the above invocatory prayers (mangala-carana ), the Vaishnavas are venerated. Kaviraja Goswami writes further:
Before beginning the narration of the pastimes of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, simply by meditating on Sri Guru, the Vaishnavas, and Divinity, I invoke their benediction. Such meditation destroys all detriments on the spiritual path, and helps one to fulfill all their desires.
We must note very carefully that the Vaishnavas have been included within the full conception of Divinity.
These writings describe the Vaishnava's extraordinary qualities, and the spiritual benefit resulting from serving them. There are also several warnings regarding the disastrous effects of vaisnava-aparadha.
The Caitanya-caritamrta, Madhya-lila 19.156 states:
If a devotee commits vaisnava-aparadha, his offense is like a mad elephant uprooting and trampling his creeper of devotion; afterwards the creeper's leaves dry up and become lifeless.
There are three categories of Vaishnavas: kanistha (neophyte), madhyama (intermediate), and uttama (advanced) described in the Caitanya-caritamrta. Kaviraja Goswami states that to gain shelter of a Vaishnava, it is imperative to first receive the mercy of Nityananda Prabhu:
All of the Vaishnavas who live in Vrndavana are absorbed in singing the all-auspicious name of Sri Krishna. Sri Mahaprabhu and Nityananda are their life and soul. They do not know anything but devotion to Sri Radha and Krishna. My shelter at the Vaishnavas' lotus feet has been granted only by the mercy of Nityananda Prabhu.
Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Prahhupada corroborates this fact:
All of the Vaishnavas living in the holy dhama of Sri Vrndavana are very fortunate souls. They have taken shelter in the Holy Name of Krishna. Sriman Mahaprabhu and Nityananda are their life and soul. They know nothing but the eternal service of Sri Radha and Sri Krishna.
Krishna's mercy descends only through the Vaishnavas.
Srila Bhaktivinode Thakura, a nitya-siddha (eternal associate) of the Lord, instructs the devotees to pray to Mahaprabhu. He says that we should seek shelter in the shade of a Vaishnava's lotus feet, shed tears of remorse with total humility, submitting to him the plight of our material existence, which is the result of turning away from Krishna. The Vaishnava is an ocean of compassion and feels the pain of others. When he pleads on our behalf to the Lord, Krishna responds and kindly accepts us as the followers of his favorites. Krishna's mercy descends only through the Vaishnavas.
There is Krishna and karsna. Krishna's mercy is embodied in pure devotees, who are known as karsna. The lotus feet of a Vaisnava guru represents the mercy of the Lord. Krishna is the priceless treasure enthroned in Sri Guru's heart. The Lord can easily give this treasure to those who are surrendered to his devotees. There is no other way to receive Krishna's grace than to serve and take shelter at the lotus feet of a Vaishnava. Sri Kaviraja Goswami discusses the importance of honoring the Vaishnava's remnants, using the example of Sri Kalidasa, the uncle of Raghunatha Dasa Goswami:
Taking the food remnants of Vaishnavas is so potent, it forced Mahaprabhu to give his mercy to Kalidasa. Don't hesitate-eat the Vaishnava's remnants, and you will fulfill your heart's desire.
Food offered to Krishna is called maha-prasadam. After maha-prasadam is taken by a devotee, his remnants are glorified as maha-maha-prasadam. The dust of a pure devotee's feet, the water of his foot bath, and his food remnants are three extremely potent spiritual substances. By honoring these three, one will be filled with ecstatic love for Krishna. All the scriptures declare this again and again. My dear devotees, please hear me: believe in these three and honor them in a mood of service, and you will achieve the purpose of your existence-ecstatic love of Krishna. This is the greatest mercy of Krishna, and Kalidasa is living proof.
In Kalyana-Kalpataru, Srila Bhaktivinode Thakur writes:
When will Mahaprabhu shower his mercy upon me so I may have shelter in the shade of the Vaishnava's lotus feet? I will humbly stand before the Vaishnava holding a straw between my teeth, weeping I will tell him of my miserable life, and I shall give up all self-deception. I will admit that my life is one never-ending misery and beg him to put an end to all of this. The kind Vaishnava will beg Sri Krishna with all his might, and Krishna, moved by the Vaishnava's sincerity, will shower his divine grace.
And in Saranagati, Srila Bhaktivinode Thakur writes:
O Vaishnava, you are an ocean of mercy. Please shower your compassion upon me. Give me the shade of your lotus feet and purify my polluted heart. I am following you, begging-Sri Krishna is yours-you have the power-give him to me!
Narottama dasa Thakura sings a similar song:
I am so sinful; how can I possibly serve the Lord? I have no love for my guru. I have no love for the devotees and I am constantly deluded. I am so absorbed in material life that I have forgotten who I am. The witch Maya is waiting to hang a noose around my neck. I have no power to resist her on my own. I am helpless without your mercy. I know that you never see the faults of anyone, so I'm begging you-please save me." (Prarthana )
Narottama's songs are filled with wonderful glorification of Vaishnavas. They are treasured by all devotees as priceless instructions for increasing one's devotion. From his childhood, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Prabhupada chose Narottama's songbook as his constant companion on the path of devotion. Vrndavana dasa Thakura considered himself to be the last direct servant of Nityananda Prabhu. He has glorified the Vaishnavas throughout his masterpiece Sri Caitanya-Bhagavata. In his introduction he writes:
I first offer my unlimited obeisances at the feet of Sri Krishna Chaitanya's dearest associates, the devotees. And then I pray to him, who appeared in Nabadwip and was also known as Visvambhara.
Sri Vrndavana dasa offers his humble obeisances unto Mahaprabhu's devotees, and then to Sri Mahaprabhu. He explains:
The Supreme Lord has boldly declared in all the scriptures that 'The worship of my devotees is higher than worshipping me.' By first glorifying the Vaishnavas, I am guaranteed success in writing my book. (This statement was made by Krishna to Uddhava in the Srimad-Bhagavatam.)
The next statement is from the Itihasa-Samuccaya :
If one wants God's mercy, he must first serve his devotees. Only this will satisfy the Lord; of this there is no doubt.
The following verse, from the Pausayana-Sruti, is quoted in Srila Madhvacarya's commentary on the Brahma-Sutra:
Worship the devotees, serve them, hear from them, and they will protect you.
The Mundaka-Upanisad states:
If you want the real treasure of liberation you must serve the Lord's pure devotee.
In his Govinda-Bhasya commentary, Baladeva Vidyabhusana quotes Srimad-Bhagavatam :
jnane prayasam-udapasya namanta eva
jivanti sanmukharitam bhavadlya-vartam
sthane sthitah sruti-gatam tanu-van-manobhir
ye prayas'o 'jita jito'py asi tais tri-lokyam
Brahma prayed to Krishna,
My dear Lord, those who have given up abstract thinking and armchair philosophizing, start hearing about you from devotees and begin divine service with their body, mind, and words. Although you are unconquerable and rarely attained, you are conquered by them.
In the Padma Purana, Shiva says to his wife Parvati:
O Goddess, higher than the worship of all the gods and goddesses is the worship of the Supreme Lord Vishnu. But higher still is the worship of everyone and everything that is dear to Him, including Ganga devi, Tulasi devi, the book Bhagavataand the devotee Bhagavata.
Vrndavana dasa cautions us against seeing Vaishnavas externally. Such superficial vision is condemned:
In order to teach us the absurdity of judging devotees externally according to race, color, family, or other considerations, the Supreme Lord arranged for Haridasa Thakura to take birth in the lowest section of society. All the scriptures emphasize that if a pure devotee appears even in the lowest social circumstances, he is still to be worshipped by everyone.
A Vaishnava may appear in any family or section of society, yet he is still the most elevated person by the decree of the scriptures.
God is the protector of all living entities, and he cannot tolerate insults and disrespect shown to his devotees. Extremely mindful of his dear devotee's well-being, he refuses to accept any worship from those who slight them. The Lord loves his devotees so much that he not only accepts food and gifts from them, but sometimes he even steals their offerings! Whereas he is repulsed by offerings from a non-devotees.
In one pastime, Krishna was very eager to eat plain chipped rice cooked by Vidura's wife, and ignored a royal feast set by Duryodhana. Similarly the Lord could not resist eating the few morsels of flat rice offered by Sudama. He told him:
O Brahmin! What wonderful things have you brought for me from your home? Even a small offering from a devotee is a grand feast for me, whereas a non devotee's feast cannot satisfy me in the least. Anything offered to me with love, I accept with love.
Sriman Mahaprabhu quotes from the Itihasa Samuccaya, recorded by Srila Krishnadasa Kaviraja:
A person may learn all the Vedas, but if he has no devotion, how can he be my devotee? Whereas if a person born into the lowest section of society has devotion, he is very dear to me. All respect must be given to such an elevated soul. His offerings must be accepted by all, for he is as much worthy of worship as I am.
Mahaprabhu also quotes Hari-bhakti-sudhodaya:
A Brahmin's sins are burnt to ashes by the powerful fire of krsna-bhakti. Whereas if a Vedic scholar is an atheist, he is derided. Anyone devoid of devotion may take birth in a great family or nation, have extensive knowledge of the scriptures, perform austerities, or chant Vedic mantras, but such things are like ornaments on a dead body. Only fools will be impressed.
When Mahaprabhu went to embrace Haridasa Thakura, with all humility Haridasa said to him:
My dear Lord, please do not touch me. I am most fallen, the lowest of men. Mahaprabhu replied: I want to touch you just to purify myself. You are so pure, it is as if at every moment you are bathing in all the sacred rivers, visiting all the holy places of pilgrimage, and performing every sacrifice, austerity, and charity imaginable. You are more exalted than any Brahmin or sannyasi.
The Lord then recited this sloka from the Srimad Bhagavatam:
One who always chants your Holy Name, even though born in the worst circumstances, is a saint. We can understand that he must have performed all austerities and sacrifices, bathed in all the holy rivers, and mastered the Vedas. Therefore he is a true Aryan (one who is pure).
In the Padma Purana, Uttara-khanda, it is declared:
When a person is admitted into Vishnu's family, he is called a Vaishnava. It has been said that of all people, the Vaishnava is certainly the most exalted.
The Dvaraka-Mahatmya states:
A person who is devoted to Janardana, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, is a saint even if he is born into a low-class family; whereas if a person is born into an aristocratic family of noble lineage and is not a devotee of the Lord, he is of bad blood.
Any association with non-Vaishnavas or with Brahmins who lack devotion is categorically denounced. The Padma Purana states:
The association of meat-eaters is strictly prohibited because their lifestyle goes against scriptural regulations; in the same manner, contact with a non-Vaishnava Brahmin must be avoided. Whereas a Vaishnava-one who is initiated and who is affectionate to the Lord and his devotees–even if born into a low-class family, is capable of purifying all three worlds.
Vrndavana dasa says that intimate association with non-Vaishnavas, regardless of their parentage, is suicidal. According to the Padma Purana,the characteristics of a Vaishnava are as follows:
One who is dedicated to worshipping Vishnu, who has received initiation into a Vishnu-mantra, is classified as a Vaishnava by spiritual preceptors; all others are non-Vaishnavas." (Hari-bhakti-vilasa 1.55)
Those who are simply born into a Brahmin family but are non-Vaishnavas, and who are inimical towards Vishnu and Vaishnavas, are condemned. Vrndavana dasa cries out against these namesake Brahmins, citing the Varaha Purana:
In Kali-yuga, demons will be born in smarta Brahmin families to harass and torture the righteous devotees of the Lord. The demons choose Kali-yuga to be born in, so they can torment those rare persons who adhere to the path enunciated by the Vedas (sruti ). They viciously attempt to disrupt the devotee's service to the Supreme Lord.
These Brahmin impostors view Vaishnavas who have a bad background with contempt. They scoff at their spiritual practices, or when they see them receive honor and respect, they vainly try to expose the Vaishnava's background, and other mundane trivialities. The Brhad Aranyaka Srutidescribes them, saying:
One who leaves the world fully understanding the Absolute Truth is honored as a Brahmin, but one who does not has wasted his life.
According to Sri Krishnadasa Kaviraja, not only should one not consider the form of God to be mundane, but the same is true of his devotees.As written by Srila Krishna-Dvaipayana Vyasadeva, the author of Srimad-Bhagavatam:
There is no greater blasphemy than to think that the body of Vishnu is material. And Mahaprabhu says: The Vaishnava's body is never mundane; it is supramundane, and supercharged with ecstasy. (Caitanya-caritamrta Adi-lila 7.155, Antya-lila 4.191)
The use of the term atmasama does not imply that pure devotees are equal to the Supreme Lord in every respect. The Supreme Lord is the only one who possesses transcendental qualities to an infinite degree. The jivacan only possess these qualities to a finite degree.
Mahaprabhu says: "The finite and the Infinite can never be considered equal, just as a tiny spark is never equal to a fire." The following verse is found in the Bhagavat Sandarbha and also in Sridhara Swami's commentary to the Srimad-Bhagavatam:
The Supreme Lord is the embodiment of etenality, knowledge, and bliss. Two of his multifarious spiritual energies are: hladini-sakti, the pleasure-giving potency, and samvit, perfect knowledge of the self and all other things, while the jivas are cocooned in ignorance, and deeply anchored in suffering.
Only by taking complete shelter of Sri Radhika and her serving group, the hladini sakti, can we realize our innate spiritual identity and service to the holy lotus feet of Sri Guru, Gauranga, and Krishna. Srila Krishnadasa Kaviraja explains further why a pure Vaishnava's body is aprakrta, or supramundane:
At the time of diksa (initiation), the devotee surrenders to Krishna with body and soul. In reciprocation, Krishna accepts him, elevating him, body and soul, to a status equal to his own. The Lord transforms the Vaishnava's body and makes it a repository of transcendental emotions." (Caitanya-caritamrta, Antya-lila 8. 192-193)
He then quotes the Srimad-Bhagavatam:
When people reject materialism and conduct their lives under my direction, they attain immortality. They become eligible to be with me and share spiritual emotions (rasa ) with me in their spiritual identity." (Srimad-Bhagavatam 11.29.34)
But what is meant by surrender, Srila Saraswati Prabhupada writes in his Anubhasya commentary:
Although one who has completely renounced the world (akincana ) and one who is completely sheltered in Krishna (saranagatah ) may appear to be the same externally, the devotee who has given up the world has also offered his soul. At the time of initiation, the devotee gives up material conceptions while he begins to understand sambandha-jnana, one's eternal relationship with God and those who are part of the family of God. When the devotee gives up the shelter of maya, he takes shelter of Krishna and is Krishnized. At this stage, the devotee's delusion as enjoyer of material pleasures dissipates, and his real self merges with his new identity as an eternal servant of Krishna. The devotee attains his spiritual body (sac cid ananda svarupa )and his eternal service to Krishna, serving him in his own transcendental form. The pure devotee's ecstatic service is an elevated stage of devotion which is often misinterpreted and misunderstood by those unacquainted with the science of devotion. For this kind of aparadha one is deprived of the shelter of a Vaishnava guru." (Anubhasya, Caitanya-caritamrta, Antya4.193)
Mahaprabhu taught everyone that a Vaishnava's transcendental body is unlike that of an ordinary person, or even an extraordinary person. The Lord did not view personalities like Haridasa Thakura, who took birth in a low-class family, or Sanatana Goswaml, whose body was diseased, or Vasudeva Vipra, who was suffering from acute leprosy, as social outcasts or disease ridden beggars. Instead he embraced them, proving that a pure devotee's body is never impure. The pure devotee's body is transcendental, infused with spiritual bliss, and best suited to serve Krishna. As the Lord himself says:
The worship of my devotees is the real worship of me. In fact it is higher than worshipping my very self. (Bhag. 11.19.21)
My dear devotees, please read and listen carefully to the divine stories and instructions that follow, and pray to the Supreme Lord and his devotees-the Vaishnavas-that we may always worship and adore them, and thereby enter The Heart of Krishna.