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Thursday, February 05, 2009

Reconstructing tradition (4)

This is the 4th and final part of my book review of Mrs. Rebecca Manring's book 'Reconstructing tradition', dealing with the life of Śrī Advaita Prabhu.

Next, a controversy is discussed about the maternity of Kṛṣṇa Miśra Goswāmī – it seems only Advaita Prakāśa (though it is my family’s main digest) claims that he is the son of Sītā-devi (but given for adoption to Śrī-devī), while all other biographies of Advaita Prabhu seem to claim he is the only son of Śrī-devī. This may require some further investigation. Mrs. Manring suggests that Īśāna wrote this because ‘The son of a secondary wife like Śrī-devī usually is considered to have a less legitimate claim to inheritance than his half-brothers by the chief wife. Only householders can inherit, however, and four of Advaita’s six sons had chosen monastic lives.’ From Advaita Prakāśa it’s clear that, of the two only gṛhastha-sons of Advaita, Kṛṣṇa Miśra inherited the deity worship and Balarām Miśra inherited financially. Mrs. Manring: “That second son (Kṛṣṇa Miśra), according to Advaita Prakāśa, though generally recognized as the only son of Śrī-devī, is actually the son of Lakṣmī (Sītā) and Mahāviṣṇu. Śrī-devī, generally understood to be Kṛṣṇa Miśra's mother, is identified with Lakṣmī only secondarily, by association with her sister Sītā, who, Īśāna had already told us, was found in a lotus in a marsh by her father when she was a child. That is, Sītā IS the goddess Lakṣmī.  Obviously the torchbearer of Advaita Acarya’s lineage is Sītā-Lakṣmī, not the more obscure Śrī-devī. Īśāna needs to make Sītā Kṛṣṇa Miśra’s mother….to help bolster his position that Advaita Ācārya was actually the most significant member of Navadvīpa Līlā.” I find this largely unfounded speculation, especially the last assumption.

Finally, Premavilāsa, Advaita Prakāśa and Narottam Vilās all indicate that mother and sons were initially at odds but eventually reconciled. Ramākānta Cakravartī suggests that Advaita Ācārya’s following split into at least three rival groups following the leader’s death – one led by Sītā, one by Acyuta and the third by the younger sons and Kāmadeva. According to the Prem-vilāsa and the Sītā Caritra the rift between Sītā-devī and Kṛṣṇa Miśra as mended through the efforts of Īśāna and Jānu at a kīrtan-festival. Mrs. Manring suggests that Raghunāth and Dol Govinda, Kṛṣṇa Miśra's two sons, were named reincarnations of Gaura-Nitāi in an attempt to reunite the sampradāya. Mrs. Manring also suggests they appeared to console Advaita Prabhu, who suffered the pangs of separation from Gaura-Nitāi so much.

Goswāmīs in Śāntipur insist that Sītā devi fought against the tendency among Sītānātha’s followers (which, if true, could have only been associates of her own children) to elevate Advaita Prabhu to the position of the Supreme Lord himself, thereby bypassing Śrīman Mahāprabhu.

A golden saying in this book I find ‘The saint is a human being, but one possessed of superhuman qualities” (p.219)

In the epilogue Mrs. Manring quotes a Bengali devotee saying (rightly) about the many contradictions between the biographies: ‘There is no way of knowing which one is right or wrong. Scholars of the tradition seem to have no more interest than the academic in establishing the accuracy of one account and the error of all the others. Rather they viewed each text as its author’s paean to Advaita Ācārya, testimonies to the devotion of their creators.” Personally I would follow what the Guru has told me and what makes obvious sense. On the age of the biographies, Mrs. Manring says that ‘the grammar of the middle Bengali of the Advaita Maṅgal, Advaita Prakāśa and the Sītā Carita appears to be consistent with the grammar of the language of the late 16th century……”, though “a good modern scholar of Bengali could certainly reproduce the earlier forms of the language in his own compositions…..scribes have been known to ‘correct’ texts as they copied them.” The old system of hand-copying texts of course left room for both error and interpolation, but there’s no reason to believe that the bulk of books like Advaita Prakāśa especially is not genuine biography. Nowhere in this book is a death-blow given to either sceptics or believers of the biographies. On p. 242 Mrs. Manring again suggests the Advaita Prakāśa could have been written around 1896 only, but if that were so, whence all the details about Advaita Prabhu’s life – how could they have been known so many centuries later? Mrs. Manring writes (p.243): “Acyuta-caran (Chaudhari) writes in his introduction to the Balya lila sutra that after Advaita’s death his then-elderly former household servant Īśāna Dās went to Lāuḍa to propound Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism and write a book about Advaita’s life at Sītā Devī’s request. Īśāna took (apparently the sole exemplar of) the BLS along with him far to the east to use as a reference for details of the early portions of Advaita’s life that he himself had not witnessed. Thus….the BLS remained hidden in Lāuḍa until it came to his (Acyuta Caran’s) attention in the late 19th century.” On page 248 Mrs. Manring reminds us that Lāuḍa (NE Bangladesh) was and is a remote place, so most devotees had simply never heard of the Bālya Līlā Sūtra.

At the end of the day, it is the faith and devotion that counts. Opponents of the Gauḍīya Maṭh do not believe that Prem Vivarta was written by Jagadānanda Pandit but by Bhaktivinode or his followers, while opponents of the traditional Vaiṣṇavas claim that Advaita Prakāśa is not genuine. Ultimately it is the devotional boost one gets from such books that counts, not the scholarly and historical nitty-gritty (though I insist that the unique detail and quantity of the Advaita Prakāśa-narrations establish it as a genuine scripture).

Apart from a unique insight in rare books on Advaita Prabhu, Mrs. Manring also treats us on a report of her field trip to the actual birthplace of Sītānāth, in Sylhet (Śrī Haṭṭa, NE Bangladesh), towards the end of the book (p.230), at the base of the distant mountains of India’s Meghālaya. Apparently the place is lost and the village of Navagrām is now divided by one of the many constantly shifting rivers of the Bengali delta, though there is still a small temple at the birthplace where service is going on (at least in 1994). The place is just a small village with mud- and cow dung huts near a bamboo jungle and a beach – it sounds like the same rustic sweetness as rural Vraja. It is extremely hard to find and to reach and no Vaiṣṇava pilgrims go there. Some simple worship is still going on there, though, and the locals have not forgotten Prabhu Sītānāth. Earlier, Mrs. Manring described Sītānāth’s home in Śāntipur, Bāblā, as ‘no longer on the riverbank, but a small tributary still flows next to it. The place is especially beautiful, with mango- and other trees hanging very low and small boys herding their cows and goats around them. One almost expects to see Kṛṣṇa Himself dance out from behind one of the trees, playing His flute.” Yours truly can confirm the place is as beautiful – I was there once in October 2003.

On page 247, Mrs. Manring defends Advaita Prakāśa against doubts raised by her colleague B.B. Majumdar, that it has so many detailed birth dates, while this is not the custom in Vaiṣṇava hagiography, and that, therefore, it could be a later work than is claimed. Mrs. Manring: “However, the culture displays an intense interest in dates for ritual and astrological purposes, so, while an abundance of dates in an Indian text may be unusual, it is not entirely surprising that an influential family would keep track of the dates of birth of its sons. The AP purports to have been written at the request of Sītā Devī some thirty years after Caitanya’s death…five years after Advaita’s death, by which time concern of succession and legitimacy were beginning to arise within the Gaudiya Vaiṣṇava community. The dates, especially of the births of Advaita Ācārya’s sons, would have helped to establish rights of sectarian succession. Other texts in the Advaita corpus also mention dates……Although, as Majumdar points out, this interest in historical precision is unusual in South Asia, it seems to have been important to members of Advaita’s branch of the community.”

This article is now also posted on at the link-tab ‘Articles’


  1. Thanks for the detailed review of the book. You have done a good job.

  2. Radhe


    Great stuff. Thanks a lot.

    R. Manring has done a great service to the GV community by writing this book and putting Advaita Acharya’s rightful place in the bhakti movement.

    However, if I’m allowed to nit pick. Let me make some comments.

    I’d say Manring was consistent in her book when she writes on the claim the Advaita Prakash was not written by Ishan Nagar but by a descendent of Advaita Prabhu, Acyuta Caran Caudhuri Tattvanidhi in the late 19th century:

    Majumdar was operating from a historical positivist approach, that is, from the presupposition that the biographies were historical documents. This led him to believe that conflicting narrative accounts must represent deviations from truth."

    Her consistency is further supported when she writes about accretion in hagiographies:

    “Gaudiya Vaishnavas often view such textual accretions not as extraneous padding and certainly not as anything suspect, but as further elaboration of the truth contained in a given work. This elaboration may include exaggaration or even downright creative license to make the author’s point about the stature and status of his protagonist. Such textual accretions are not regarded as dishonest but as reflections of the author’s wholehearted devotion to his subject. Further, the actual author stands to accrue some karmic benefit by contributing to the good reputation of his subject – and by doing so in a way that is clearly not designed to garner that author any fame or other benefit.”


    You write in the review: I applaud this but would like to add the condition of rasabhasa and viruddha siddhanta to it – additions and elaborations are allright as long as they do not contain bogus philosophies or perverted flavours.

    This statements of yours sound like you subscribe to historical positivism approach as positivisn ignores the role of the 'observer' in the constitution of social reality.

    You might be well to consider whether regarding Advaita Prakash you DO or DO NOT subscribe to positivism. If you DO then maybe you might consider that Majumdar was right in claiming it was not written by Ishan and some of the narratives there do not connect/match/reconcile with the narratives in Chaitanya Charitamrita.

    I guess my point here is your consistency. And our unbiased search for "truth".

    You write: On p. 242 Mrs. Manring again suggests the Advaita Prakash could have been written around 1896 only, but if that were so, whence all the details about Advaita Prabhu’s life – how could they have been known so many centuries later?

    I am not here to make judgement on who is the real author of A. P. I have not seen the commentary of Majumdar. What I have read is the bits of your reply to the the review of A. P. by a disciple of Narashinga Maharaj. I’m just teasing out some of the points in your review.

    Considering the social and economic situations in West Bengal are now and what it might be more than 500 years ago, I tend to believe that people there especially in the middle ages period depend very much on oral tradition in passing down narratives.

    About Nagali and Jangali sex change, I don’t really know what to think of it to be honest.

    But then again I will not hinge my faith on these sorts of account.

  3. Malati,
    1. Poetic license does not make a story untrue. I will discuss that in my next blog, which should be coming up today. My refutation of Swami Giri's critique on AP stands, and is not contradicted by my statements in this blog at all, as I hope you will understand if you read my take on lila in the upcoming blog.

    2. I did not quote the entire 251-page book in the blog, so trust me that Mrs. Manring does often quote AP as being written by Ishan Nagara. Acyuta Charan Chaudhuri found the book in a library in Sylhet or Dhaka, cant remember, but it doesnt matter, and the manuscript was dated 1780. So that old it is at least and therefore definitely not written by Acyutacarana.

  4. Great job Adavaitadas! Thanks for taking the time to write this four part review. I found it very interesting and informative.

    Ha Prabhu Sitanath!