Dr. Shri Satyanaraya Dasa Babaji is a Vaishnava scholar and practitioner of the Gaudiya Vaishnava Sampradaya and is based in Vrindavan, Uttar Pradesh. He is the founder, Jiva Institute of Vedic Studies that promotes Vedic culture, philosophy and Ayurveda through education.
Widely published in international journals, he is the author of fifteen books including the recent widely acclaimed Sanskrit Non-translatables.
Dr. Dasa is visiting professor at the State University of New Jersey, Rutgers, and the American Hindu University. He was honoured by the former President late Dr. Shri Pranab Mukherjee for his extraordinary contribution towards presenting Vedic culture across the world.
Hindu post is honoured to present thus free- wheeling interview with this dharmic warrior.
You have a very interesting personal journey. Your impeccable academic credentials as an IITian. How did you transition to Vedanta?
I was born in a pious, religious family in a village near Faridabad in Haryana, where we didn’t even have electricity those days! My parents were Vaishnavas. However, while growing up, I never got an opportunity to study Vedanta philosophy and Shastras as I had a conventional modern education. I completed my graduation and post graduation from IIT Delhi. I then went to Miami, Florida, USA, to work as an engineer with Burroughs Corporation.
But once I went there, I thought, now what? I had had the best education, held a great job, had come to a place where people hanker to come—the land of freedom and plenty. However, I was dissatisfied, discontented. Is this the life? Do I live the rest of my life just working and making money? I became disenchanted. And I also realized that while people in the US look externally happy, healthy and led opulent lifestyles, they nevertheless lacked loving relationships. For someone like me who grew up in a close knit family in a village, I knew how meaningful a community-centric lifestyle could be. I then understood that our sanskriti is so deep that it has the answers to the problems of the materialist West. That’s why I decided to study our sanskriti.
I started looking for some spiritual organizations in the US. There weren’t many, those days. In 1981, I gave up my job and joined the ISKCON temple in Detroit.
What was the call, the yearning that made you do this?
I did not feel attracted to the materialistic way of living and did not find fulfillment. I decided to pursue a spiritual life and one of the organizations that appealed to me was ISKCON. I then returned to our country in 1983 and went to Tirupati where I joined the small ISKCON centre as an active member. I had a great yearning to learn shastra and I did so with a teacher from SV University, Tirupati, to study the Lagu siddhanta kaumudi.
In 1987, I shifted to Vrindavan, where ISKCON had a gurukula. I taught Sanskrit to the young students. Although I did not know enough Sanskrit, I knew enough to teach the young students! At the same time, I was pursing my studies in the shastras. And that was the time I came in contact with a very great learned saint and scholar Sri Haridas Shastri Maharaj (who was a master of the sad darshanas and the Gaudiya Vaishnava philosophy) from whom I took deeksha later on. I was his student for 25 years.
At the same time, I found another teacher, Sri Shyama Saran Swami, a nyayacharya from the Nimbarka sampradaya, with whom I studied nyaya and Nimbarka’s philosophy.
Why did you leave ISKCON?
While teaching at the ISKCON gurukula, I was also studying the important books of the Gaudiya Vaishnava sampradaya with my gurus. While studying the Krishna sandarbha of Sri Jiva Goswami, I understood the prevailing difference of opinion regarding the jivatma and paramatma. In ISKCON, we believe that the jivatma had fallen down from Mahavaikunta, the abode of Sri Krishna and that’s how we are here.
However, Sri Jiva Goswami never says anything like this. And then I understood that no other Vaishnava acharya says we fall down from there! In fact, in the Bhagavad Gita, Sri Krishna says, “No one falls from my abode.”
Some devotees asked me to teach the sandarbha. And when this point came up specifically, I then explained what Sri Jiva Goswami has said. People at ISKCON opposed my statement which was against the prevailing opinion in ISKCON.
At the same time, I was translating the first sandarbha, which was to be published by the Bhakti Vedanta Trust, the publishing house of ISKCON. But because of this controversy this generated considerable debate. I was called to the ISKCON General Body Council Meeting where I was questioned for my views. I explained to them what our acharyas say and highlighted that none of them say that we fall down from Vaikunta. I asked them that if we fall down from Vaikunta, what is the difference between Swarga and Vaikunta?
In the Bhagavad Gita, Sri Krishna says that when one’s punya is over, one comes back from swarga to mritya loka. But once you go to Vaikunta, you don’t come back! That’s an eternal place where there is no maya and no material gunas. So, there is no possibility of anyone falling down from there!
Doesn’t this fall from Vaikunta sound Abrahamic?
Yes. Therefore, when this controversy arose, I wrote the book Not a leaf falls in Vaikunta. Swami Prabhupada, the founder of ISKCON, has preached this point of falling down. But in many books and in many places, he also writes, ‘nobody falls.’ I then explained that he adopted the ‘falling down’ thesis because he was preaching to people in the West, mostly from an Abrahamic background, with the Genesis story of Adam, Eve and the Forbidden Fruit. He might have used it for preaching purposes; but it is certainly not our siddhanta. However, They were not able to digest this, and hence I left ISKCON.
When did you set up the Jiva Institute of Vedic Studies?
I left ISKCON in 1997 and thereafter established the Jiva Institute of Vedic Studies, named after Sri Jiva Goswami, in Vrindavan. It promotes Vedic culture, philosophy and Ayurveda through education. However, our focus is to propagate the knowledge of our sampradaya.
In Gaudiya Vaishnavism, great stress is laid on kirtan and doing japa and especially, in the past 50-60 years, not much emphasis is placed on the study of shastras. My Guru Maharaj wished that I undertake the commitment to protect the knowledge I had studied with him as there were not many who were interested in teaching and not many interested in learning! He guided me in establishing the institute, which I decided to dedicate to him. Shri Jiva Goswami was an erudite scholar, like Sri Vedanta Desika in Sri Vaishnavism.
What is the difference between Gaudiya Vaishnavism and Sri Vaishnavism, the branch of Vaishnavism practiced in Dakshin Bharat?
A major difference is that the philosophy of Gaudiya Vaishnavism is based on the Shrimad Bhagavata Puranam, whereas Sri Vaishnavism is based on the Vishnu Purana. Sri Ramanujacharya, the exponent of Sri Vaishnavism, as far as I know, does not refer to the Bhagavatam anywhere in his writings. The distinction there comes from the fact that according to the Bhagavatam, Sri Krishna is the One Bhagavan (Swayam Bhagavan) and He is the Source (avatari) of all avatars. Generally, followers of Hindu dharma believe that all avatars belong to Vishnu. Another major difference is that Gaudiya sampradaya worships the madhurya or the tender aspect of Sri Krishna, while Sri Vaishnavism worships the aishwarya or the opulent aspects. That’s why in Gaudiya temples you will see Sri Krishna with the flute and not the chakra because that is the vaibhava.
Both streams of Vaishnavism celebrate the union between the feminine (Radha/Lakshmi) and masculine principle (Krishna/Narayana). However, the Radha-Krishna relationship is a parakiya or unmarried relationship in contrast to the svakiya or married relationship symbolized by Lakshmi and Narayana. Svakiya relationships are protocol-based; their love cannot go beyond the protocol unlike a parakiya relationship where the love is infinite and unbounded; a love that transcends the arya dharma or the dharma of relationship between a woman and man sanctified by marriage. So, in gaudiya sampradaya, moksha is not the ultimate purushartha or life goal. We have the pancham purushartha (fifth purushartha) , which is prema (love), which is beyond all dharma. Because when you have moksha as the purushartha you are fixated on the moksha and not on the worship-able. Here, we say we don’t want anything from Him, except love. Our idea of Bhakti is loving service to Sri Krishna and his devotees.
The crown jewel sloka of the Bhagavad Gita: sarva dharman parityajya maam ekam sharanam vraja, we interpret to mean a transcendence of arya dharma! This is the highest principle enshrined in the Bhagavatam by Veda Vyasa after he had written all his other works.
Can you tell us specifically, what was your role and contribution in the making and writing of the book Sanskrit Non-Translatables in fleshing out the concepts and ideas and contextualizing it in our sampradaya?
My role was to provide a nuanced perspective of why a particular Sanskrit word is non-translatable, explain the nuances and deeper meanings of the Sanskrit word. Many Sanskrit words when translated in English, do not carry the essence. It is lost, deformed or mistranslated. It originally started off as a video series and we now have 54 clips of Shri Rajiv Malhotra and me in a discussion.
The current dharmic eco system is facing multiple challenges. How do you think we can address it and reclaim our dharmic narrative from the Western gaze?
This is not possible unless we build an awareness and knowledge of our shastras and are rooted in our sampradaya. Because our sanskriti is rooted in jnana. It is based on reality. It is not somebody’s statement, delivered by a messiah or prophet. It is knowledge directly flowing from Bhagavan. We have to study it. We cannot be compatible with others if we didn’t study our own roots. Then, what happens is that in the name of compatibility we say that all dharmas are the same (Sarva dharma sama bhava)!
If there is only one dharma, this doesn’t arise at all! Whether you are a Hindu, Christian or Muslim, the dharma of the atma is the same! Bhagavan is only One; its human beings who have made divisions. And the Knowledge which he gives is also only One! Its like the Law of Gravitation is the same for everybody! So, dharma is a universal law. And that universal law is given in our Vedic scriptures. During this time, other religions did not exist. Therefore, the Bhagavad Gita is for human beings! But now, people think it is a book just of Hindus! Dharma does not depend on my belief; just as gravity does not. If I don’t believe it and I jump from the roof, I will still fall down and break my body!
This is a universal truth and if we want to protect it, we must study it. But the problem is that we people in Bharat do not study and hence are susceptible to being easily influenced by others! Even those in the spiritual path do not study! I live in Vrindavan which has hundreds of ashramas and temples. But people don’t study. If you ask them about their school of philosophy, they don’t know! They may know the superficial aspects but not the deeper side. For example, they do not know how we are distinct from other religions!
People foolishly believe that our religion is the cause of our poverty. I too believed that while at IIT! That was how it was propagated by people who know nothing about our dharma. And a lie repeated often becomes the truth!
What are some of the challenges facing Hindu Dharma today?
The biggest challenge is that other forces are trying to break it. Christianity has been rejected in their own land (Europe and North America). But the church is powerful with plenty of money (people have to pay tax to the church) and so they come to South Asia which has a history of poverty because of past historical mistakes and they try to convert people forcibly to Christianity through their agenda-driven mission of establishing schools and hospitals. Besides all mainstream institutions such as media, judiciary, politics and entertainment is controlled or influenced by the Church. This is how followers of Hindu dharma are being targeted and unfortunately, they don’t realize this. Many Hindu dharma followers have themselves become de-rooted, deracinated and pseudo liberal-secular. On the other hand, there are people who believe that no matter what happens, sanatana dharma will persist as is. This again is foolishness.
Dharmo rakshati rakshitah. If you don’t protect dharma, how will it protect you?
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