Today we celebrated the festival and feast of Sri Nityananda Prabhu, the incarnation of Balarama and the closest associate of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. He is always portrayed dressed in blue, standing or dancing at the Lord’s right side. Lord Nityananda appeared in this world 14 years before Lord Chaitanya in a small village known as Ekachakra, now located in Bangladesh. He travelled all over India as a youth and met his eternal brother in Mayapura when the sankirtan movement was just beginning, around the year 1506.
Devotees pray to Nityananda because the grace of Lord Chaitanya is not fully achieved without him. Therefore, all over the world, wherever there are followers of Krishna, there will be the deities of Chaitanya and Nityananda, known as Gaura-Nitai.
I spent the morning with Hridayananda Das Goswami who delivered the festival lecture. He is visiting at the moment and has been speaking at universities. He is uniquely qualified to speak about Vaishnava philosophy in learned assemblies. Coming to ISKCON in 1969, he took sannyasa in 1972, becoming a GBC for parts of USA and for Brazil. He is fluent in Spanish and Italian as well as his native English. He studied Sanskrit and headed up the team that produced the remaining six volumes of the Srimad Bhagavatam after Srila Prabhupada passed away in 1977. After this, he took up academic life, gaining a Sanskrit and Indian studies PhD in 1996 at the prestigious Harvard University.
His classes are humorous and witty, but only as much as is needed to get across a point. Often he will take a Sanskrit word and dissect its meaning and usage, bringing to the listeners a refreshing understanding of a philosophical point. After four decades of both ISKCON participation and observation, Hridayananda Das Goswami never fails to point out any misapplications of philosophy in the movement’s contemporary culture.
Our post-breakfast discussions concern the important difference between Vaishnava culture, which is based on eternal truths, and Indian culture, which is based on sattvik living but in a particular climate and society. After we’d discussed this for some time, and its manifestations within our western devotee community, I repeat a challenge that had been made to me by another academic: that worship of deities in temples is also merely a manifestation of ‘Indian’ culture and its ongoing usefulness for communicating to a western audience should therefore be re-examined.
The Goswami scoffs at this and begins a long history of image worship throughout the world, including that within Judaism, Christianity and even Islam. He says that according to his research the main exception is in Protestant Christianity, a phenomenon of a mere 500 years, (a short period for a Vaishnava)
At midday I leave for London, for another check-up at Charing Cross Hospital. This time, now that I am some weeks removed from the operation, Dr. Agarwal takes time to explain the details of my condition, showing me pictures of both the ultrasound scan and the MRI scan. If my prostate gland activity has not reduced by now I will return for a biopsy to check whether there is any cancer in that doughnut-shaped organ. I give copious blood and urine samples – I am so generous these days – and return home in the evening.