2002 Defeating a Māyāvādī
Dear Śrīla Prabhupāda,
Please accept my humble obeisances in the dust of your lotus feet.
I meditate upon those glittering particles of dust, which, by the prayers of your true followers, have received the great fortune of always cushioning your lotus feet. How fortunate they are! May I also become a grain of this dust, forever united with your divine service?
On the occasion of your Vyāsa-pūjā, I would like to narrate an incident that took place last year. Knowing your fondness for trouncing Māyāvādīs, I am confident this story will bring you some pleasure. In fact, my hope is that I may reap the reward of your wide, unrestrained, and ever-beauteous smile.
* * *
In July, a well-known Hindu organization launched a worldwide yātrā on the grounds of Bhaktivedanta Manor. To preside over the function, they invited many spiritual leaders. To draw a crowd, they imported a popular bhajaneer. Most likely out of courtesy, they sent me an invitation.
When I saw the mīlange of spiritual dignitaries, I had second thoughts. On the stage were to be two yogis, a guru, a Śaṅkarācārya, and myself—compromising association! I inquired about the scheduled speeches and was assured I would have equal time. After consultation, I decided to make the best of the situation and participate.
Sheltering over ten thousands guests, the tent was the largest ever erected at the Manor. The guests received prasādam, chanted Hare Kṛṣṇa, and saw Śrī Śrī Rādhā-Gokulānanda. After all the dignitaries had arrived, the main speakers took their places onstage and the function began.
There is little value in detailing all the speeches. They included the standard fare of rambling rhetoric and humanistic cliches, punctuated with nationalistic slogans and calls for a cultural renaissance. Oh so drab! When my turn came, I spoke for twenty minutes on the meaning of sanātana-dharma. I emphasized that the brotherhood of man can take place only when we accept our common father, Śrī Kṛṣṇa, and serve Him by chanting His names.
Then, sitting beside me, the Śaṅkarācārya, a small chubby man my age, with an ignoble tendency to fidget, spoke, regularly alternating between Hindi and English.
In addition to eloquent servings of mish-mash common to the other speakers, His Holiness made philosophical points clearly targeted at his hosts—namely, the ISKCON devotees and, more specifically, Their Lordships Rādhā-Gokulānanda.
When, obviously for my benefit, he said in English, “It does not matter which name you give God, for all names are temporary,” I sat erect and chanted japa loud enough to distract him.
In response he diligently continued to churn the mish-mash, but true to form he returned to his Māyāvāda siddhānta to exclaim, “The names of God are immaterial, for above name and form is the formless eternal”
I chanted aloud “Hare Kṛṣṇa Hare Kṛṣṇa” as he said, “Brahman” and my voice rang through his microphone.
When the Śaṅkarācārya snarled at me, I glared at him. As I looked into his eyes, I understood the nature of his glance. It was a glance that caught me when we first met, a glance whose description then eluded me. But that glance was a mystery no more. I understood it in one word—evil.
This is what Caitanya Mahāprabhu meant when He said māyāvādi-bhāṣya śunile haya sarva-nāśa. I repeated the verse under my breath as the Śaṅkarācārya faced the audience.
I continued to chant japa loud enough for the Śaṅkarācārya to hear. Through his speech he made one more classical jab, describing the Ultimate as pure knowledge and the worship of Deities as a temporary means to Brahman. Then it was over. Thank the Lord!
By now my pulse was pounding, and there were still speeches and bhajans to sit through. I felt that you, Śrīla Prabhupāda, our Society, and of course Kṛṣṇa had been grievously offended. If I said nothing I would melt in shame.
As another Yogijī began his speech, I leant over the arm of my chair and smiled, “Swamijī!” The Śaṅkarācārya turned to face me.
“I have something to say.” He nodded. “In your talk there were some highly objectionable points. They were neither śāstric nor appropriate to say on our premises,” I said.
There we were, the Śaṅkarācārya and I, in the midst of soul-sedating speeches, engaged in an animated, unamplified debate, on a stage full of dignitaries, and in plain view of thousands. Later, devotees asked me, “Were you having an interfaith dialogue?” Hardly.
The Śaṅkarācārya replied, “What I have said is all right”
“No!” I interjected smiling, “In Kṛṣṇa’s temple you have said that Kṛṣṇa is a subordinate manifestation of Brahman. You said the Absolute Truth is, in reality, nirguṇa. That is both impolite and against the Vedic conclusion.”
His eyes opened wide at my challenge. Then, leaning closer, the Śaṅkarācārya said, “But Kṛṣṇa says, śāśvatasya ca dharmasya sukhasyaikāntikasya ca. The basis of happiness is the Ultimate—Brahman.”
As Yogijī (the current speaker) was making an animated speech, I had to speak loudly. “No! You are misrepresenting Kṛṣṇa. He first says, brahmaṇo hi pratiṣṭhāham. He says Brahman rests on Him. If one thing rests on another it is because it is subordinate and dependent. Likewise Brahman rests on Kṛṣṇa because it is subordinate to Kṛṣṇa, and it is Kṛṣṇa who is the Ultimate.”
The Śaṅkarācārya was taken aback. It appeared he did not expect me to know the verse he had quoted. “You do not understand” he said.
I interrupted him over thunderous applause for Yogijī (who knows what he had said?). “I understand pratiṣṭha,” I replied. “It means Brahman rests on Kṛṣṇa and is dependent on Him. There is no ambiguity in the meaning of the word. What other understanding is there? You tell me if you know better.”
The Śaṅkarācārya was clearly flustered by my assault. He smiled me away and said, “There is no defect in Brahman. It is perfect and complete. Oṁ pūrṇam adaḥ pūrṇam idaṁ pūrṇāt pūrṇam udacyate”
I completed the śloka, again to his surprise. Then I said, “It is perfect and complete, but behind Brahman is its source and rest—a person.”
He waved his hand to dismiss my argument. I looked out over a sea of faces. The guests were alternating between hearing Yogijī, who was now singing a bhajana, and observing my argument with the Śaṅkarācārya. It was a double performance.
The Śaṅkarācārya rambled through textbook jargon, “Personality, form, qualities—these are all temporary features of the complete, formless Truth. The person is not behind, but produced of Brahman”
I continued, “No, the person is the basis of Brahman. Hiraṇmayena pātreṇa satyasyāpihitaṁ mukham tat tvaṁ pūṣann apāvṛṇu satya-dharmāya dṛṣṭaye. Īśopaniṣad, which you quoted, says that Brahman should be removed to see the face, mukham, of the Ultimate. That face is the face of a person, Kṛṣṇa. One removes something inferior to reveal something superior. Thus, because Kṛṣṇa is the essence, Brahman is disposable.”
Even in this age of disposable everything, the Śaṅkarācārya was clearly disturbed to hear about the “disposable Brahman.”
Showing clear discomfort at my argument, he sidestepped it to quote (of all śāstra) the Bhāgavatam (and of all verses) “satyaṁ paraṁ dhīmahi.” He said, “Swamijī, Brahman is knowledge, truth—satyam—and it is Supreme—param.”
I was really disappointed at the Śaṅkarācārya’s repertoire of half-done ślokas. I fumed, “But who is paraṁ satyam? Vyāsadeva prays, oṁ namo bhagavate vāsudevāya. It is Vāsudeva, Kṛṣṇa. So meditate on Him, for He is the Supreme Truth. That is what paraṁ satyam means. Paraṁ satyam, the object of meditation (dhīmahi) at the end of the śloka, is the same bhāgavate vāsudevāya offered respects (namaḥ) at its beginning. That is Jaimini’s law.”
A round of applause for Yogijī’s completed bhajana filled the air, as my opponent abandoned śāstra for incongruous logic. Shaking with anger, his eyebrows furrowed, the Śaṅkarācārya said, “It is unnecessary to argue over apparent differences.”
Saying this he raised his arm and pointed to one of the overhead lights at stage right. As he did, the entire audience followed his gesture. Even Yogijī looked distracted as he continued to propound the glories of the motherland, the mother tongue, and one’s own mother.
The Śaṅkarācārya said, “That light is energy. But it is the energy of a flowing river now transformed into electricity. In the ultimate issue they are one. Everywhere there is one energy, which appears in different forms. Similarly Kṛṣṇa”
Having no taste for what was coming, I cut in, “But who designed the machinery which transforms the energy of a river into the energy of light?” I slapped my armrest to the surprise of some dignitaries in the first row. “They were engineers—people. People manipulate energy, not visa versa. Thus, in your example, Kṛṣṇa, the Supreme Person, manipulates Brahman to be the substratum of energy by which He creates and pervades this world, jagat.”
Much to the Śaṅkarācārya’s dismay, I continued to argue the example of the stage light. When I pointed to a spotlight at stage left, the audience turned right; in his retort the Śaṅkarācārya pointed to a spotlight at stage right, and the audience turned left. And so it went on.
Finally Yogijī finished his talk, and both I and the Śaṅkarācārya settled back in our seats. But there was one last thing to say. I smiled at him, “But Swamijī, you know what Ādi Śaṅkara said.”
While the MC was extolling the glories of the next speaker, the Śaṅkarācārya replied gruffly, “What is that?”
I said, “bhaja govindaṁ bhaja govindaṁ bhaja govindam,” and stopped.
He looked at me, and for a moment our eyes locked. It was more than the conflict of two men, more than a conflict of different schools of philosophy. It was the age-old clash of two classes of souls: those who try to justify their rebellion against Kṛṣṇa, and those who desire to rectify it.
Gazing into his eyes, speaking very audibly, I continued, “mūḍha-mate.”
The Śaṅkarācārya jerked—shocked. In a public assembly I had implied he was a mūḍha!
To soften the blow I continued, “prāpte sannihite kāla maraṇe na hi na hi rakṣati ḍukṛñ-karaṇe.”
He turned away. But I said nothing.
Perhaps I was guilty of inhospitality to a guest—an unfortunate transgression of etiquette. However, I did not want to tolerate grievous offenses to the Lord—a major spiritual transgression.
Sure enough, in a moment the Śaṅkarācārya leant over to me and said, “Excuse me, I must go to the toilet.” He rose with his escort of followers and reassured me, “I will be back. I will be back.”
But I knew he wouldn’t be back. The organizers were unsure why the Śaṅkarācārya left untimely in his Mercedes, retinue and all. They were puzzled, I was happy.
* * *
Dear Śrīla Prabhupāda! The dialogue I have given above is accurate. For obvious reasons I have avoided mentioning names.
Thank you, Śrīla Prabhupāda, for being the perfect teacher. You have taught us the perfect science of transcendence, you have taught us the arguments of those who oppose that science, and you have taught us how to refute those arguments.
While speaking to the Śaṅkarācārya, I felt so proud to be your disciple. I felt so confident that nothing he said could shake my faith. I knew that for every misconception he might put forward, you have given us a perfect retort. For you, the Absolute Truth was not a philosophical concept but your personal friend and loving associate.
That night, after the speeches had concluded, after the guests had departed, after the dignitaries had been dined, I sat before my Deities to review the debate with the Śaṅkarācārya. As you once said, “It was a good fight.” I looked at your picture: there was no doubt, you were pleased. I reveled in that wonderful feeling of absolute certainty, “Today I have pleased my spiritual master.”
May it always be so.