Bhaktivinoda Thakur

Bhaktivinoda Thakur
A close-up portrait of an old man with grey hair and thick wooden necklace beads
Bhaktivinoda Thakur ca.1910
Kedarnath Datta

(1838-09-02)2 September 1838
Died23 June 1914(1914-06-23) (aged 75)
  • Shaymani Devi (m. 1849–1861)
  • Bhagavati Devi (m. 1861–1914)
ChildrenBhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, Lalita Prasad, twelve other children
SectGaudiya Vaishnavism
RelativesNarottama Dasa (distant ancestor), Kashiprasad Ghosh (maternal uncle)
SignatureClose-up on Bengali words handwritten with angular, jaunty letters
PhilosophyAchintya Bheda Abheda
Religious career
GuruBipin Bihari Goswami, Jagannatha Dasa Babaji
Literary worksKrishna-samhita, Caitanya-siksamrita, Jaiva-dharma, Svalikhita-jivani. See bibliography
HonorsBhaktivinoda, "the seventh goswami"
"Many obstacles are a good sign" (from Svalikhita-jivani)

Bhaktivinoda Thakur (Bengali pronunciation: [bʱɔktibinodo tʰakur] (About this soundlisten)), also written Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura) (2 September 1838 – 23 June 1914), born Kedarnath Datta (Kedarnath Datta, Bengali: [kedɔrnɔtʰ dɔtto]), was a Hindu philosopher, guru and spiritual reformer of Gaudiya Vaishnavism[3] who effected its resurgence in India in late 19th and early 20th century[4][5] and was hailed by contemporary scholars as the most influential Gaudiya Vaishnava leader of his time.[6] He is also credited, along with his son Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, with pioneering the propagation of Gaudiya Vaishnavism in the West and its eventual global spread.[7]

Kedarnath Datta was born on 2 September 1838 in the town of Birnagar, Bengal Presidency, in a traditional Hindu family of wealthy Bengali landlords. After a village schooling, he continued his education at Hindu College in Calcutta, where he acquainted himself with contemporary Western philosophy and theology. There he became a close associate of prominent literary and intellectual figures of the Bengal Renaissance, such as Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, and Sisir Kumar Ghosh. At 18, he began a teaching career in rural areas of Bengal and Orissa until he became an employee with the British Raj in the Judicial Service, from which he retired in 1894 as District Magistrate.

Kedarnath Datta belonged to the kayastha community of Bengali intellectual gentry that lived during the Bengal Renaissance and attempted to rationalise their traditional Hindu beliefs and customs.[4] In his youth he spent much time researching and comparing various religious and philosophical systems, both Indian and Western, with a view of finding among them a comprehensive, authentic and intellectually satisfying path. He tackled the task of reconciling Western reason and traditional belief by dividing religion into the phenomenal and the transcendent, thus accommodating both modern critical analysis and Hindu mysticism in his writings. Kedarnath's spiritual quest finally led him at the age of 29 to become a follower of Caitanya Mahaprabhu (1486–1533). He dedicated himself to a deep study and committed practice of Caitanya's teachings, soon emerging as a reputed leader within the Caitanya Vaishnava movement in Bengal.[5] He edited and published over 100 books on Vaishnavism, including major theological treatises such as Krishna-samhita (1880), Caitanya-sikshamrita (1886) Jaiva-dharma (1893), Tattva-sutra (1893), Tattva-viveka (1893), and Hari-nama-cintamani (1900). Between 1881 and 1909, Kedarnath also published a monthly journal in Bengali entitled Sajjana-toshani ("The source of pleasure for devotees"), which he used as the prime means for propagating Caitanya's teachings among the bhadralok.[8] In 1886, in recognition of his prolific theological, philosophical and literary contributions, the local Gaudiya Vaishnava community conferred upon Kedarnath Datta the honorific title of Bhaktivinoda.[5]

In his later years Bhaktivinoda founded and conducted nama-hatta – a travelling preaching program that spread theology and practice of Caitanya throughout rural and urban Bengal, by means of discourses, printed materials and Bengali songs of his own composition. He also opposed what he saw as apasampradayas, or numerous distortions of the original Caitanya teachings. He is credited with the rediscovery of the lost site of Caitanya's birth, in Mayapur near Nabadwip, which he commemorated with a prominent temple.[9]

Bhaktivinoda Thakur pioneered the spread of Caitanya's teachings in the West,[4] sending in 1880 copies of his works to Ralph Waldo Emerson in the United States and to Reinhold Rost in Europe. In 1896 another publication of Bhaktivinoda, a book in English entitled Srimad-Gaurangalila-Smaranamangala, or Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, His life and Precepts was sent to several academics and libraries in Canada, Britain and Australia.[10]

The revival of Gaudiya Vaishnavism effected by Bhaktivinoda spawned one of India's most dynamic preaching missions of the early 20th century, the Gaudiya Matha, headed by his son and spiritual heir, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati.[11] Bhaktisiddhanta's disciple A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami (1896–1977) continued his guru's Western mission when in 1966 in the United States he founded ISKCON, or the Hare Krishna movement, which then spread Gaudiya Vaishnavism globally.

Bhaktivinoda wrote an autobiographical account titled Svalikhita-jivani that spanned the period from his birth in 1838 until retirement in 1894. He died in Calcutta on 23 June 1914 at age 75. His remains were interred near Mayapur, West Bengal.

Bengali renaissance and the bhadralok

Kedarnath's birth in 1838 occurred during the period of the history of Bengal marked by the emergence and rising influence of the bhadralok community.[12] The bhadralok, literally "gentle or respectable people",[13] was a newly born privileged class of Bengalis, largely Hindus, who served the British administration in occupations requiring Western education, and proficiency in English and other languages.[4][14] Exposed to and influenced by the Western values of the British, including the latter's often condescending attitude towards cultural and religious traditions of India, the bhadralok themselves started calling into question and reassessing the tenets of their own religion and customs.[15] Their attempts to rationalise and modernise Hinduism in order to reconcile it with the Western outlook eventually gave rise to a historical period called the Bengali Renaissance, championed by such prominent reformists as Rammohan Roy[16] and Swami Vivekananda.[17][18] This trend gradually led to a widespread perception, both in India and in the West, of modern Hinduism as being equivalent to Advaita Vedanta, a conception of the divine as devoid of form and individuality that was hailed by its proponents as the "perennial philosophy"[19] and "the mother of religions".[20] As a result, the other schools of Hinduism, including bhakti, were gradually relegated in the minds of the Bengali Hindu middle-class to obscurity, and often seen as a "reactionary and fossilized jumble of empty rituals and idolatrous practices."[18][20]