The seemingly ordinary activities of Lord Caitanya as a child
are entirely transcendental. Who would have thought that a child
at play could topple the bastions of monism and pantheism?
Continuing a special series of articles commemorating the five-hundredth anniversary of Lord Caitanya's appearance in Mayapur, West Bengal. By His life and teachings, He inaugurated the Hare Krsna movement.
One day shortly after He learned to walk Lord Caitanya was playing with other small neighborhood children when His mother, Srimati Sacidevi, brought Him a dish filled with rice and sweets. After asking her child to sit down and eat, mother Saci went about her household duties. But as soon as she left, Lord Caitanya began to eat dirt instead of the lovingly prepared food. Upon returning, mother Saci was greatly surprised. "What is this!" she exclaimed.
This was one of Lord Caitanya's childhood pastimes when He appeared on earth five hundred years ago. Yet at first hearing, it hardly seems to confirm Lord Caitanya as the same Supreme Personality of Godhead described in the ancient Vedic literature. The Bhagavad-gita does assert that to establish universal religious principles the Supreme Lord regularly appears within the material creation, playing the part of a human being. Thus, although He is the oldest of all, He exhibits many uncommon pastimes as a child.
But what's so uncommon or divine about eating dirt? Every one-year-old tends to think that anything visible is also edible. How is Lord Caitanya's dirt-eating any different? And how does it serve to establish universal religious principles? Let's return to the scene of the Lord's childhood misdemeanor and find out.
Upon being asked by mother Saci to account for His behavior, the Lord replied in a surprisingly philosophical way. "Why are you angry?" He said. "You gave Me dirt, so how am I to blame? Rice and sweets, or anything edible, is all but a transformation of dirt. You gave Me dirt and I ate dirt. Why do you object?" Lord Caitanya argued that since all food comes originally from the earth, it is but a transformation of dirt. So eating sweets or eating dirt, what's the difference?
Lord Caitanya's childish reply parodies the philosophy of monism espoused by the Mayavada philosophers, who hold that the one and only reality is all-pervading, eternal, undifferentiated spiritual existence, or Brahman. Thus, as the popular Mayavada slogan goes, "All is one." In other words, despite appearances, you and I are not separate individuals, but we are one in all respects with the impersonal Brahman. Or, to get right down to it, each of us is God-if we could only realize it. And this material universe with all its variety is, they say, false, an illusion.
In eating dirt Lord Caitanya was taking the "All is one" philosophy to its logical conclusion. "Dirt is illusion, and sweets are illusion," He was implying. "So what's the difference between eating dirt and eating sweets?"
Mother Saci was no pundit, yet her stern reply to Lord Caitanya shatters the foolish subterfuge of Mayavada scholars. "Who taught You this philosophy that justifies eating dirt?" she asked. "If everything is one, why do people in general eat not dirt but the food grains produced from the dirt?"
Thus mother Saci exposed the impracticality of Mayavada philosophy and showed the commonsense Vaisnava viewpoint. (A Vaisnava is a devotee of Lord Visnu, or Krsna.) "My dear boy," she said, "if we eat dirt transformed into grains, our body is nourished, and it becomes strong. But if we eat dirt in its crude state, the body becomes diseased instead of nourished, and thus it unfortunately is soon destroyed.
"In a waterpot, which is a transformation of dirt, I can bring water very easily. But if I poured water on a lump of dirt, the lump would soak up the water, and my labor would be useless."
Unlike the Mayavadis, Vaisnavas, as mother Saci explained, have a very practical, workable realization of spiritual truth. They accept that all is one, but only in the sense that everything is the energy of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. This material world, being His inferior energy, is one with Him. But the varieties within that energy, although temporary, are not illusion. And as for ourselves, we are eternal, individual manifestations of the Lord's superior, spiritual energy. Thus we are one with God in quality. But to argue, as the Mayavadis do, that we are all God would be a gross oversimplification.
The Vaisnava knows material varieties have practical value in devotional service to the Supreme Person. With a waterpot we can bring water to wash the Lord's temple, church, or mosque (or in mother Saci's case, to bathe the Lord Himself). And with rice and other foods we can prepare varieties of dishes, offer them to the Lord, and use the spiritualized remnants of those offerings to nourish our bodies and thus strengthen them for engaging in the unlimited variety of pure devotional activities.
Mayavadis, on the other hand, consider devotional service to be an occupation only for the ignorant. "Why serve God?" they say. "You are God." To them water, earth, food, our physical bodies, and all other material manifestations are illusion and therefore of no practical value. Since they see all form and personality as illusion, they consider the Supreme Lord Himself to be illusion. Everything is illusion, they claim, except their own idiot philosophy.
In the simple childish act of eating dirt and defending it Lord Caitanya parodied, and allowed His mother to defeat, a philosophical doctrine of monism that poses a serious threat to anyone of any religious faith who aspires for a loving relationship with God. Mayavada philosophy, Lord Caitanya would later teach, is worse than atheism, because in the guise of a spiritual teaching it denies the Supreme Personality of Godhead and the eternal value of devotion to Him.
All of Lord Caitanya's childhood pastimes have similar deep imports. When He was a little older, He would go to the nearby bank of the Ganges and tease the young girls assembled there. According to Vedic custom, girls ten to twelve years old worship Lord Siva, praying that in the future they'll have good husbands. Lord Siva is the powerful demigod in charge of the ultimate dissolution of the universe, yet he is also a peaceful devotee of the Personality of Godhead, Lord Krsna. So the girls on the bank of the Ganges were praying to Lord Siva for a husband who was, like him, both peaceful and powerful.
Lord Caitanya would sit down with the girls and interrupt their worship, snatching up the flower garlands, sandalwood pulp, fruits, and sweets they were offering to Lord Siva. "Worship Me," He demanded, "and I will give you good husbands and other benedictions. Lord Siva and his wife, the goddess Durga, are My menial servants."
In His youthful playfulness Lord Caitanya was making an important point. There is a misconception among some students of Eastern religions that the Vedic tradition is polytheistic and therefore that followers of the Krsna consciousness movement worship many gods. But this is not a fact. According to the Vedic literature, everyone is a servant of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Krsna. Within the universe, some of the Lord's most elevated servants have been empowered to look after the universal administration, and these powerful living entities are known as demigods. Lord Siva, as we have already mentioned, is in charge of destruction, Lord Brahma directs the creation, and millions of other demigods manage such universal resources as sunlight, water, fire, wind, and rain. The demigods are all great devotees of the Lord, working under His supervision. They are controllers, just as we are all to some degree, but they aren't equal to the supreme controller.
In the Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krsna asserts that those who worship the demigods have lost their intelligence. Although it is a fact that the demigods can award material benedictions to their worshipers Lord Siva, for example, can be worshiped for a good husband these benedictions must ultimately be sanctioned by Krsna Himself. So why not worship Krsna directly? That is the intelligent thing to do. That is what the Vedic literatures direct us to do, and that is what the Supreme Lord Himself was demanding, not only of the young girls on the bank of the Ganges, but of all of us.
All living entities, including the demigods, are part and parcel of Krsna, and therefore it is our constitutional position to serve and worship Him. By doing so, we gradually attain eternal, blissful life in Krsna's transcendental abode. That is a benediction even the demigods aspire for, and one they cannot award their own worshipers.
In comparison to the demigods, who control important aspects of the cosmic manifestation, human beings are insignificant and powerless, and therefore it is in one sense natural for men to worship demigods. We worship powerful and wealthy personalities even on this planet, so why not the demigods? But in comparison to Lord Krsna, even great demigods like Lord Siva are insignificant, since they derive all their power from Him. If you have only one dollar, a thousand dollars seems like a lot of money, but to a multimillionaire a thousand dollars is small change. Similarly, in comparison to Lord Krsna, the demigods, what to speak of powerful men on this planet, are small change.
So yes, followers of the Krsna consciousness movement believe in the demigods. and they offer the demigods due respect. In fact, they offer respect to all living beings, seeing them all as servants of Lord Krsna. But they worship and love only the Supreme Person, following His instructions in the Bhagavad-gitato give up all varieties of worship and just surrender to Him.
As with His pastime of eating dirt, Lord Caitanya, by teasing the young girls, established a religious principle that applies to everyone who desires to please the Supreme Lord and develop a loving relationship with Him. Lord Caitanya did not favor one religion over another; rather, He taught the eternal nonsectarian science of God realization. As the study of ordinary sciences is open to any person, regardless of his or her nationality or religious upbringing, so the science of Krsna consciousness taught by Lord Caitanya and His followers is open to anyone. And it can work for anyone. Two plus two equals four, no matter what your geographical, philosophical, or religious background.
Lord Caitanya is not, therefore, a sectarian figure. He is, as the Vedic literatures indicate, the Supreme Personality of Godhead playing the part of His own devotee, to teach us love of God. He is like the elementary-school teacher, who, to instruct new students, sits down with them and pretends to be learning to write the letters of the alphabet.
Perhaps the easiest way to understand the nonsectarian nature of Lord Caitanya's teachings is to examine His primary teaching, that the most effective way to worship God in this age of confusion and quarrel is to chant His holy names. Lord Caitanya especially chanted the Hare Krsna mantra, but He taught that all of the Lord's names mentioned in the world's great scriptures will have the same purifying and liberating effect on the sincere chanter. Who could object to such a sublime, nonsectarian instruction? Persons of any religious faith, even while executing their ordinary house-hold or business responsibilities, can perfect their human lives by constantly and steadfastly singing or chanting in devotion the particular names of God with which they are familiar.
As a child, Lord Caitanya managed to teach this foremost principle to His family and neighbors, even before He could crawl or walk. Like all children, He would cry and have to be given constant attention. The attention the Lord demanded, however, was a little unusual. No matter what His mother or the other ladies of the neighborhood did to appease Him, He would continue to cry until He heard the chanting of Krsna's names. As soon as the ladies chanted, He would quiet down and look upon them pleasingly with His beautiful eyes. Taking this clue, the ladies were constantly chanting and clapping their hands, making the Lord's house and the entire neighborhood the site of an ongoing festival of transcendental sounds like Lord Caitanya's neighbors, we can all take up the chanting of God's holy names and relish the Lord's pleasing glance upon us.