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The life of Maharaj ji Purushottam Goswami

blog-0534822001418078428.jpgPurushottam Goswami Maharaj ji is the current doyen of the lineage of priests—now encompassing forty-two families—serving Radharaman in one of the original temples of Vrindavan founded by the Six Goswamis in the sixteenth century, and his birth in this lineage was an essential prerequisite for his vocation. He inherited from his father a network of devotees who had over time supported his family. He was also born with intelligence, abundant energy, and a good voice. His achievements have been built on these gifts but are, above all, evidence of his self-discipline and his creativity, grounded in his unswerving pursuit of service to the deity.

Born in 1919, Maharaj ji’s earliest years were spent in Radharaman Ghera, the walled compound enclosing about thirty tightly packed, two-story houses around the temple of Radharaman. His father was a respected guru who followed the family tradition of serving Radharaman and giving spiritual counsel to disciples, although his talent was in singing, not in giving public discourses. His own father, Maharaj ji’s grandfather, had been a renowned scholar of the Bhagavata Purana and a teacher.

Maharaj ji’s father enjoyed the income from property in Patna, given by a devotee, and he divided his time between Patna, Varanasi (where the family had long been established), and Vrindavan. He was a wrestler and loved the pleasures of food and company; by his lifestyle he attracted the sobriquet Raja ji, or King, which made it all the more natural to address his learned son as Maharaj ji.

Maharaj ji’s father had one daughter and no sons by his first wife. When it became clear that she would not bear any sons to continue the lineage, she took the initiative in arranging for him to marry a second time. His second wife bore him two daughters and three sons. Maharaj ji’s father died suddenly and peacefully, presumably of a heart attack, when he was about thirty-nine, leaving six children, the third child and oldest boy being Purushottam (now Maharaj ji), eight years old.

Education and career as Bhagavata speaker

Maharaj ji attended school in Vrindavan until he was eighteen, when he went to Varanasi. The family had had connections with Varanasi for some three hundred years; among those connections was a family of devotees living about five miles from the city, who gave the young man a place to live. The renowned scholar Sarvabhauma Goswami Damodara Lal Shastri—a Radharaman Goswami of Maharaj ji’s grandfather’s generation—was living there, and Maharaj ji attached himself to the service of this great man. He used to get up before dawn to eat breakfast and walk or take a rickshaw to the old man’s house, arriving there by eight in the morning. He stayed, serving his teacher, until midnight and, it is said, did not eat again until he had left his guru’s house.

At first, he was not taught directly. The old man refused to teach him, saying “don’t come here, go to some school, you are wasting your time here.” Maharaj ji persisted, pulling the chain of the cloth ceiling fan over his teacher all day long in the hot weather, listening as others were being taught, and walking home late at night. Finally, having proved his determination, he was accepted as a student.

Purushottam Goswami young

For their living, the Goswamis of the Radharaman temple have always, until very recent times, been supported entirely by the offerings of devotees. In the twentieth century, they began to widen their circle of supporters by giving public discourses on the Bhagavata Purana, thereby attracting more followers.

Shortly after Maharaj ji’s father died, the family in Vrindavan was robbed of all its property and possessions by a trusted family retainer and left destitute. So, as soon as possible the young man began his own career along the traditional lines, and he turned out to be a natural preacher. The network of the family’s devotees and supporters all over the country invited him to give discourses, and he was in great demand. Out of respect, he refused all requests to preach in Varanasi, however, so long as his own guru was alive. He was with his guru for twelve years until the latter’s death in 1949, living some of this time in Vrindavan but most of the time apart from his family, studying, practicing his devotion, and giving discourses.

When he was nineteen, Maharaj ji married, and soon thereafter, wishing to follow the example of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, he shaved his head and vowed never to wear a sewn garment. From this age onward, he always dressed in vivid orange—understood to be a shade of Krishna’s yellow, not a shade of the traditional ocher or saffron of the renunciant. Although he remained a householder, he set himself a strict regimen of discipline and study, through which he developed his understanding of devotion to the deity and ability to practice it. One practice, for example, was to read aloud (or under the breath) the entire Bhagavata Purana in a week, in one or at most two sessions each day, for a total of six or seven hours a day (saptāha-pārāyaṇa). This must be done in a state of purity, and one cannot eat, drink, or use the toilet while doing the reading. When undertaken in the midst of an already full and busy life, it requires considerable endurance and self-discipline.

Man Singh, the dacoit

There is a story of Maharaj ji’s powers over himself and others that dates to this period. One evening, when he was twenty-one years old—his oldest child was six months old—when Maharaj ji returned home from evening worship at Radharaman temple, he found two men waiting at the door of his house. They said they came from a village near Gwalior and wanted to take Maharaj ji with them to do a seven-day Bhagavata discourse at the Hanuman temple there. The priest of that temple had heard that this young man gave excellent discourses and was urgently inviting him to come. Maharaj ji objected that he was already scheduled to give a discourse somewhere else, but they asked, who should have priority, some businessman or Hanuman? Maharaj ji, of course, said that Hanuman should, so he agreed to go along with them the next day. Maharaj ji’s mother tried to intervene, saying that he should not go with complete strangers, but the men promised his safety, and he went with them.

The next morning Maharaj ji left, taking with him for company and assistance the lean and elderly family retainer Sharma ji. They went by bus to a remote village near Gwalior, where there was a Hanuman temple served by a couple of sadhus. A small crowd attended his discourse the first day, but the crowd grew each day, attracting people from villages all around the area.

On the last day, a few people came there with some camels, and said to Maharaj ji, “O pandit, you have to come with us, now.” Maharaj ji objected, saying that he was already behind in his obligations. But the men insisted, saying, “No one ever says no to us—though because you are a pandit, we are handling you lightly.” Maharaj ji asked the sadhu, “What is this? You promised me safety.” “Yes,” said the sadhu, “I can get you safely to the bus stop or the railway station, but these people will be able to get you there or anywhere else.” “Who are they?” asked Maharaj ji. “I cannot say,” said the sadhu. So Maharaj ji resigned himself to going, and Sharma went with him, although the old man was sick with fear and developed uncontrollable diarrhea.

So the next morning, Maharaj ji got on one camel, the half-dead Sharma on another, and they were blindfolded and led for hours through the ravines of the Chambal River—a region notorious as the hideout of robber bands. When they reached their destination, another village, they were housed with a brahman family, and the discourse started peacefully. Everything seemed quiet, but no one would talk to them or socialize.

On the fifth day of the discourse, when Maharaj ji was out early in the morning for his ablutions, he happened to meet his host, the brahman, in a secluded place. He asked him quietly why he kept two guns in his room: “What ablutions do you make with guns?” The brahman replied, “Don’t you know? This is Raja Man Singh’s village, and no one asks questions.”

Man Singh was a famous robber chief, a sort of Robin Hood figure, known for robbing the rich to give to the poor. Maharaj ji asked, “Which one is Man Singh?” The brahman said, “That quiet man in his fifties who sits on a blanket, wearing tulasi [holy basil wood] beads. He brought you here when he heard reports of your discourse at the Hanuman temple. We are all sepoys of the raja, that is why the guns. But there is no question of your own security. Your safety is assured.”

On the last day of the discourse, there was a huge feast for villagers from miles around. Thousands came, all day long. Maharaj ji ate nothing, and every gift that was offered to him he gave away.

The next day Maharaj ji and Sharma were given four horses and told, “These horses will lead you to the road at the edge of our kingdom. When they stop, you get off, and they will return to the village.” So Maharaj ji rode on one horse, Sharma on another, and the Bhagavata Purana and their baggage on the other two. When the horses stopped at a road, they got down, having no idea where they were. The road was deserted, but after a long time, at dusk, a bus came along. It was not going to stop, as this was bandits’ territory, but Maharaj ji threw himself in front of it. The driver stopped and asked where he was going. Maharaj ji asked where the bus was going; he, of course, would go anywhere. (Sharma, meanwhile, was desperately trying to climb on, and the frightened passengers were trying just as hard to keep him off.) “Agra,” said the driver. Greatly relieved, Maharaj ji climbed aboard—fortunately, the bus driver was convinced of his honesty—and they rode to Agra and then home.

The form of discourse Maharaj ji delivered to Hanuman and then to Man Singh was the saptāha kathā, a seven-day series of discourses on the Bhagavata Purana. These customarily last two and a half to three hours at a time, twice a day. They are generally sponsored by businessmen as acts of religious devotion and as a means of supporting—and listening to—a guru to whom they look for guidance. The daytime kathās tend, naturally, to be attended chiefly by women and retired men, but the evening ones are attended by younger men as well. Maharaj ji was much sought after to give these discourses because he spoke in ordinary language and was talented in dramatizing the stories he used as the basis of his homilies. In following his vocation, Maharaj ji was above all energetic in drawing on and reinvigorating traditional forms of preaching. Like all successful preachers, he applied the message of the texts to the problems of his listeners in a vivid way; in addition, he had a good singing voice and was especially gifted at using song and poetry to enliven his discourses. Using snatches of song and poetry to punctuate a discourse was a traditional technique, but Maharaj ji considerably expanded the musical element in his discourses. This has now become a style used by other preachers as well.

In presenting his message, Maharaj ji regularly invoked an atmosphere of celebration among his listeners. The Bhagavata Purana declares itself to be an embodiment of Krishna himself, so celebrating the Bhagavata and celebrating Krishna are the same.3 Celebration could take many forms. One kind of event, for example, involved gathering 108 pandits (108 is an auspicious number) who would chant the entire text together for seven days. Their chanting would take place every morning, and in the evenings Maharaj ji would lead public meetings on religious and social issues—a traditional form of teaching in which he was highly skilled.

The audiences for Maharaj ji’s discourses varied from a few dozen friends gathered at a private house to an audience of several hundred or even a couple of thousand for the public meetings. Maharaj ji’s growing popularity brought not only listeners but also frequently devotees who took initiation (diksha) from him, and most of his long-time devotees were first attracted to him when they heard him speak as a young man. But despite the growing demand for him to speak in public and lend his presence to inaugural and celebratory events, he fiercely defended his belief that teaching the sacred texts (shastras) should be done for neither fame nor profit. To do so, he is fond of saying, is a “failure of talent.” His followers feel that in this, as in everything else, he speaks what he believes and acts as he speaks.

To the skeptical outsider, the question of finances is somewhat less clear cut. A brahman cannot, by custom, ask for donations—and yet his supporters must be aware of what is needed. Maharaj ji is not a wealthy man, and until the 1990s the family lived extremely simply (though in this decade they have built a large new house in Jaisingh Ghera, with an eye to sons approaching marriageable age). Some of his activities are definitely done on a fee-for-service basis, as we shall see. He must pay the bills associated with the celebrations he plans and orchestrates; cooks, decorators, and musicians must be paid, even though their chief motivation is also devotion. The cows that were kept within the ashram until very recently had to be fed—and this cost more than feeding the family and staff. We shall see that although he is not “famous,” his wide circle of devotees and friends do support him and enable him to pursue his goals of serving his deity.

Maharaj ji’s beliefs are deeply rooted in his study of the texts and commentaries of the Vaishnava tradition. In addition to the Bhagavata Purana, the texts written by the Six Goswamis under the guidance of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu are the foundation of Chaitanyaite teaching.4 In the 1940s, aware of the need for good editions of the Chaitanya literature, Maharaj ji collaborated with Sri Puridasa to edit and publish nearly seventy volumes of the Goswamis’ works, which remain the standard references for scholars of the tradition. These publications were not only well printed and bound but also so carefully edited and proofread that, it is said, there is not a single printer’s error. The books were distributed by him free of cost to libraries and scholars, and sometimes he also bore the shipping costs. Sacred texts, he believes, are not to be sold.

Krishna Janma Sthan

In the mid-1960s, Maharaj ji became aware that the birthplace of Krishna in Mathura, a few miles from Vrindavan, was a neglected, dilapidated site. The temple that once stood there had been destroyed by Aurangzeb’s forces, and only a platform remained, with an underground cell. Maharaj ji had the cell excavated and began going there himself every morning at 6:00, driving himself in a car; there, each day, he read the chapter in the Bhagavata Purana describing Krishna’s birth (X.3) and gave a discourse on the subject. Local people, including dignitaries, began attending, and soon a movement was afoot to restore the site. In 1968, Maharaj ji joined Hanuman Prasad Poddar, the legendary editor of the Gita Press (which publishes the Bhagavata Purana and other texts for sale very cheaply), in laying the cornerstone for the main temple now there.

Rasa-lila

Maharaj ji’s musical inclinations led him to work intensively with the form of theater called rasa-lila. Rasa-lilas, as we have seen, were first presented outside the temples of Vrindavan in the eighteenth century, in Jaisingh Ghera. These musical dramas combine a prologue of poetic celebration of Krishna, enlivened by sedate dancing, with a dramatized episode from one of the stories from Krishna’s childhood.5 They may be performed at any time but are especially current during the six weeks of the monsoon. This is the season of the annual pilgrimage around Vraja, the vana-yātrā (which Chaitanyaite Vaishnavas do in three weeks; others may take more or less time), when all the sites of Krishna’s lilas are visited. At many of the sites a rasa-lila is staged, so the pilgrims can see and experience the lilas more fully.6 A cycle of rasa-lilas is also performed at Jaisingh Ghera for six weeks during the monsoon season. Over the years, Maharaj ji has worked with various rasa-lila troupes to improve their performances, guiding the performers through both the literature and the techniques, and always innovating.

In the 1940s, collaborating with Baba Premananda, he started a variation on this theatrical form called the Chaitanya lila or Gauranga lila. Here the stories presented in the second half, though structured like the Krishna rasa-lilas, are from Chaitanya’s life. Although there was a tradition in Bengal of dramatic recitations of stories from the life of Chaitanya, the Goswamis believe this was the first time his life was enacted in Braj bhasha, the major regional dialect of Hindi. In 1983, Maharaj ji took the rasa-lila troupe he had been working with on a grand tour of Western Europe for the first time. He again led the troupe to France for the Festival of India in 1986.

The other major dramatic innovation of Maharaj ji was the aṣṭayāma līlā. For each of the aṣṭayāma līlā (twenty-four hours or more of stage time), Maharaj ji writes the script, chooses music, oversees the creation of sets and costumes, and selects and trains the performers. In 1989, a day in the life of Chaitanya was presented as equivalent to a day in the life of Krishna, and in 1992 and 1996 aṣṭayāma līlās of Krishna himself were staged.

Over the years, Maharaj ji became increasingly involved on the managing committees of various religious and educational institutions, and in 1972 he founded the Sri Chaitanya Prema Samsthan, housed in Jaisingh Ghera, as an umbrella for his own activities in the fields of scholarship, art, music, and drama. In addition to sponsoring rasa-lilas, the Samsthan has supported a revival of the traditional dhrupada style of music, which is closely related to the rasa-lila, through a school and for many years an annual festival. Traditional arts of Vraja—dance, costumes, flower art, and silver crafting, among others—have been supported and encouraged by the Samsthan. An audio and video archive has been established to document these activities, and a library of books and documents on Vraja and the Vaishnava traditions has been assembled. Small groups of Vaishnava scholars regularly gather at Jaisingh Ghera for ongoing study and discussion of sacred texts.

Another field in which Maharaj ji has considerable expertise is ayurvedic medicine. Traditional medicines are part of every family’s stock of knowledge, but Maharaj ji has carried his study beyond the basics. He studied for a while with an old man in Varanasi, a south Indian vaidya (master of ayurvedic medicine). When this man died, Maharaj ji spent much time with Baba Pyari Mohan Das, a retired revolutionary rumored to have had British blood on his hands turned vaidya, who lived in Tatiasthana, a peaceful rural area on the south side of Vrindavan that is still home to Vaishnava renunciants of the Haridasi sect. These days Maharaj ji continues to collect and prepare his own herbs for a variety of remedies and is known especially for his cure for bloody hemorrhoids.

Maharaj ji’s sons

Maharaj ji’s position as a religious leader was made possible by his birth into the Radharaman Goswami lineage, though his own study and attainments were what propelled him into a role of leadership. It is a position that in a similar sense will be inherited by his sons and grandsons. All his children, boys and girls, were educated in Varanasi. His elder son, Shrivatsa, did his undergraduate studies at Banaras Hindu University and continued as a graduate student in philosophy there under the guidance of Professor T.R.V. Murti. Murti was a renowned philosopher, and Maharaj ji personally asked him to be his son’s teaching guru. Shrivatsa became like a member of Murti’s family and retains close ties to them.

Although most of the curriculum in philosophy at the university consisted of Western philosophy, Murti declared that his aim was that Shrivatsa should become a first-rate scholar of Vaishnava studies, and he himself read deeply in the field to prepare himself as teacher. Shrivatsa had done much of the work on his dissertation on Jiva Goswami, the one of the Six Goswamis who was most responsible for laying the philosophical foundations of Chaitanyaite Vaisnavism, when he left for Harvard to take up a year’s fellowship at the Center for the Study of World Religions. On his return, Shrivatsa joined his father in touring the length and breadth of the country and took on other responsibilities at Jaisingh Ghera, and the dissertation was never completed. But Shrivatsa continues his studies, and he lectures and writes frequently for both Indian and international audiences. In 1993, he began giving seven-day Bhagavata discourses. Most of his time, however, is taken up with the management of the ashram, planning and making arrangements for the innumerable rituals, celebrations, and other activities; overseeing the constant building projects within the ashram; counseling devotees, and cultivating the network of supporters, friends, and contacts with whose help the ashram flourishes. He frequently draws on his knowledge of vāstu śāstra, the science of building location and arrangement, in advising those who come to him with problems. His special interest is the cause of environmental protection and renewal in Vraja.

Maharaj ji’s younger son, Venu Gopal, after studying Sanskrit, philosophy, and astrology in Varanasi and Pune, went on to study for many years with the renowned musician Pandit Jasraj. He is unmarried and travels extensively with a group of musicians from Vrindavan, giving seven-day discourses that are enhanced with devotional music and song. Maharaj ji’s sons thus carry on their inherited position, but within the pattern of “being a Goswami” they have developed their own interests and talents. Each has been successful in attracting a circle of supporters, circles that somewhat but not entirely overlap with Maharaj ji’s. Shrivatsa’s own two sons have completed college and done graduate work in archaeology and philosophy, respectively, in Pune. They have received initiation in the Radharaman temple and have thus entered that lineage, but the way in which they will take up their work, using their individual gifts and opportunities, remains to be seen.

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