Clarifying what is and what is not criticism of Vaisnavas.

By Srila Bhakti Vinod Thakur

Translated from the original Bengali first published in Sri Sajjana-tosani,
Volume 5, Issues 2, 3, and 5, in May, June, and August of 1893.

Amongst all the offences that a soul can commit, there is no offence more severe than criticism of a Vaisnava. Therefore, discussing criticism of a Vaisnava according to the scriptures is necessary. In the Skanda-purana, it is written:

nindam kurvanti ye mudha vaisnavanam mahatmanam
patanti pitrbhih sarddham maharaurava samjnite
hanti nindanti vai dvesti vaisnavan nabhinandati
krudhyate yati no harsam darsane patanani sat

A foolish person who criticises a great Vaisnava falls into the hell known as Maharaurava along with their forefathers. There are six deplorable acts that are causes of falling down. One who (1) kills a Vaisnava, (2) criticises a Vaisnava, (3) envies a Vaisnava, or, upon seeing a Vaisnava, (4) does not offer respect, (5) becomes angry, or (6) feels displeased, will fall down.

It is written in the Bhagavat:

nindam bhagavatah srnvams tat-parasya janasya va
tato napaiti yah so ’pi yaty adhah sukrtach chyutah

One who does not leave a place where the Lord or the Vaisnavas are being criticised looses all of their sukrti

[spiritual fortune] and falls down.

When we are to be this careful about criticism of a Vaisnava, then it is extremely necessary to first define a Vaisnava and clarify by which acts offences to a Vaisnava are made.

Dividing all souls into four groups is necessary. These are the four groups of souls: (1) ordinary souls, (2) pious souls, (3) brahmans and Vaisnava-prayas [those who are ‘nearly Vaisnavas’], and (4) Vaisnavas. Every soul is an abode of Sri Krishna—with this conception we should respect all souls. Amongst them, giving some special respect to pious souls is necessary. Honouring brahmans and Vaisnava-prayas is our duty, and serving the feet of Vaisnavas is most essential. If one does not respect souls, does not specially respect pious souls, or does not honour brahmans and Vaisnava-prayas, one commits sin (papa), but if one disrespects or dishonours a Vaisnava, one commits offence (aparadh). Sins are removed by ordinary atonement, but offences do not easily go away. Sins are attached to the gross and subtle bodies; offences are a special type of fault: they are attached to the soul itself. Therefore, those who desire to serve the Lord are especially apprehensive about offences.

Through the three verses of Srimad Bhagavat written below, a Vaisnava has been defined according three divisions: a Vaisnava, a superior Vaisnava [Vaisnava-tara], and a superlative Vaisnava [Vaisnava-tama].

A beginner Vaisnava [kanistha Vaisnava]:

archayam eva haraye pujam yah sraddhayehate
na tad-bhaktesu chanyesu sa bhaktah prakrtah smrtah

One who worships the Deity of the Lord with faith acquired from cultural tradition but does not worship the devotees of the Lord is a beginner Vaisnava, that is, they are just entering the practice of devotion. The difference between faith developed through tradition and faith based on scripture is that faith developed through tradition only arises from cultural education. From faith based on scripture [sastriya sraddha], faith in Vaisnavas develops through deep conviction in the statements of the scriptures and the scriptures’ authority. Only when faith based on scripture develops does a soul become an intermediate stage Vaisnava [madhyam-adhikari]. Until it develops, a practitioner’s engagement in material activities [karmadhikar] does not end. Sriman Mahaprabhu spoke about such practitioners in this way:

suddha vaisnava nahe vaisnava praya

[“They are not pure Vaisnavas; they are Vaisnava-prayas [‘nearly Vaisnavas’].”]

When beginner Vaisnavas, that is, Vaisnava-prayas, associate with genuine sadhus, they can become pure Vaisnavas.

An intermediate Vaisnava [madhyam Vaisnava]:

isvare tad-adhinesu balisesu dvisatsu cha
prema-maitri-krpopeksa yah karoti sa madhyamah

One who loves the Lord, forms friendship with Vaisnavas, acts kindly to the unknowing—Vaisnava-prayas, souls who are unaware of the nature of devotion, and ignores those who are inimical to the Lord and the Vaisnavas (remains indifferent to, tolerates, or avoids such persons according to the situation, and, with this mentality, also acts kindly towards the inimical or unknowing as appropriate) is an intermediate Vaisnava. Only intermediate Vaisnavas are qualified to serve Vaisnavas, as beginner Vaisnavas do not do this (and are thus known as Vaisnava-prayas; they are not called Vaisnavas).

An advanced Vaisnava [uttam Vaisnava]:

sarva-bhutesu yah pasyed bhagavad-bhavam atmanah
bhutani bhagavaty atmany esa bhagavatottamah

One who sees the presence of their beloved Lord in all beings and within their heart perceives all beings as manifestations of the Lord, that is, sees the whole world as a Vaisnava sheltered by the Lord, is an advanced Vaisnava. Such Vaisnavas see no distinction between Vaisnavas and non-Vaisnavas.

Through these verses it has become clear that until they develop the other characteristics of an intermediate Vaisnava, even those amongst the beginner class who have developed faith based on scripture and become qualified to serve Vaisnavas are beginner Vaisnavas, that is, ‘Vaisnavas’. An intermediate Vaisnava is a superior Vaisnava [‘Vaisnava-tara’]. An advanced Vaisnava is a superlative Vaisnava [‘Vaisnava-tama’]. In this regard, the way in which Sriman Mahaprabhu demonstrated these three classes of Vaisnavas is noteworthy.

ataeva yara mukhe eka krsna-nama
sei ta’ vaisnava, kariha tahara sammana
krsna-nama nirantara yahara vadane
sei vaisnava-srestha, bhaja tahara charane
yahara darsane mukhe aise krsna-nama
tahare janiha tumi ‘vaisnava-pradhana’
krama kari’ kahe prabhu ‘vaisnava’-laksana
‘vaisnava’, ‘vaisnavatara’, ara ‘vaisnavatama’

[“‘One in whose mouth the Name of Krishna has once appeared is a Vaisnava; honour them. One in whose mouth the Name of Krishna always appears is a superior Vaisnava; serve their feet. Know one by whose presence the Name of Krishna appears in the mouths of other souls to be a superlative Vaisnava.’ In a gradation, the Lord described the qualifications of Vaisnavas: a Vaisnava, a superior Vaisnava, and a superlative Vaisnava.”]

According to the advice of Sriman Mahaprabhu, simply by pronouncing the Name of Krishna one becomes a Vaisnava. Those amongst the beginner class who have been shown to be Vaisnava-prayas, that is, a semblance of Vaisnava [Vaisnavabhas], pronounce only a semblance of the Name (Namabhas); they do not pronounce the Name [Sriman Mahaprabhu does not consider them actual Vaisnavas]. One who can once pronounce the pure Name is a pure Vaisnava. One who constantly pronounces the pure Name is a superior Vaisnava. One, by seeing whom the Name of Krishna comes into the mouth, is a superlative Vaisnava. It is also noteworthy in this regard that becoming a pure Vaisnava does not depend on initiation or other rites. Initiation means accepting a mantra suitable for worshipping the Deity of the Lord to become a Vaisnava-praya. For the Name, such initiation is not necessary, as per the statements of the Lord:

prabhu kahe, “yara mukhe suni ekabara
krsna-nama, pujya sei, srestha sabakara
eka krsna-name kare sarva-papa ksaya
nava-vidha bhakti purna nama haite haya
diksa-purascharya-vidhi apeksa na kare
jihva-sparse a-chandala sabare uddhare
anusanga-phale kare samsarera ksaya
ataeva yara mukhe eka krsna-nama
sei vaisnava kari tara parama sammana”

[“The Lord said, ‘One from whose mouth I once hear the Name of Krishna is worshippable. They are the best of all. Once pronouncing the Name of Krishna destroys all sin. Through the Name, the nine processes of devotion are perfected. The Name does not depend on initiation or preparatory rites. Just by touching the tongue, the Name delivers everyone, even untouchables. Incidentally, the Name destroys one’s entanglement in the world. The Name attracts the heart and awakens divine love for Krishna; therefore, one in whose mouth the Name of Krishna has once appeared is a Vaisnava. I offer them the greatest honour.’”]

There is no scope here to discuss the difference between the Name and a semblance of the Name (Namabhas). At another time, I will discuss this matter in depth. In this regard, I can say this much: if the Name is pronounced with faith based on scripture, that is, pure surrender, then the Name appears. The ‘Name’ that is connected with desirousness of other ends or covered by knowledge, action, yoga, renunciation, and so on, is a semblance of the Name. Even though results up to liberation arise from a semblance of the Name, the pure Name—not a semblance of the Name—is pronounced by the mouth of the Vaisnava. The Name pronounced with knowledge of the Name’s nature, understanding of the Name being nondifferent from the Named [the Lord], and perception of the soul’s spiritual senses as the source of the Name, is alone the Name. Those on whose tongue one such Name appears are Vaisnavas. As the Name appears, all active and inactive sin is destroyed. As soon as the Name arises, divine love arises.

A Vaisnava, by nature, is endowed with all qualities and free from all faults.

sarva mahaguna-gana vaisnava-sarire
krsna-bhakte krsnera guna sakali sanchare
vidhi-dharma chhadi’ bhaje krsnera charana
nisiddha papachare tara kabhu nahe mana
ajnane va haya yadi ‘papa’ upasthita
krsna tare suddha kare, na karaya prayaschitta
ahimsa-yama-niyamadi bule krsna-bhakta-sanga
asat-sanga-tyaga ei vaisnava-achara
‘stri-sangi’—eka asadhu, ‘krsnabhakta’ ara

[“All great qualities are present in the body of a devotee. Krishna instills all of His qualities in His devotees. One who disregards Vedic regulations and serves Krishna’s feet never has any inclination towards forbidden, sinful behaviour. If, unknowlingly or otherwise, they happen to sin, Krishna purifies them and does not make them perform atonement. Nonviolence, self-control, dutifulness, and so on, naturally accompany a devotee of Krishna. Avoiding bad association is proper Vaisnava behaviour. There are two types of bad association: persons attached to the opposite sex and non-devotees of Krishna.”]

From the day that one Name of Krishna appears on the tongue, a soul’s taste for sin no longer remains. Let alone taste for sin, even taste for piety does not remain. Vaisnavas, superior Vaisnavas, and superlative Vaisnavas are all pure, faultless, and sinless. If inclination towards sin is seen in someone, then they cannot be counted as a Vaisnava. Taste for sin and piety does not remain even within beginner Vaisnavas. One who has become a pure Vaisnava has no faults. Therefore, they are beyond criticism. One who criticises such a Vaisnava simply imposes false accusations [on them].

Wicked people can enviously discuss three aspects of a Vaisnava. One of their subjects of discussion is the faults a Vaisnava had prior to the awakening of pure devotion. When pure devotion arises, all faults are quickly destroyed. Secondly, wicked people discuss the faults that remain during the time that passes as a Vaisnava’s faults are being destroyed. The third subject of discussion for wicked people is this: although pure Vaisnavas have no desire to commit faults, sometimes by chance some forbidden behaviour occurs. Such faults do not last long in a Vaisnava. Still, wicked people discuss such faults and fall down as a result of criticising a Vaisnava. Therefore, in Nama-tattva-ratna-mala, this explanatory verse is seen:

prag bhakter udayad dosah ksayavasista eva cha
daivotpannas cha bhaktanam naivalochyah kadachana
sad uddesyam rta yas tu mrsapavadam eva cha
dosan alochayaty eva sa sadhu-nindako ’dhamah

O readers! Without a good intention, never discuss any of the faults a Vaisnava had prior to the arising of their devotion. Never criticise a Vaisnava for the decaying remnants of their previous faults either, as Sri Krishna said in Bhagavad-gita:

api chet suduracharo bhajate mam ananya-bhak
sadhur eva sa mantavyah samyag vyavasito hi sah
ksipram bhavati dharmatma sasvach-chhantim nigachchhati
kaunteya pratijanihi na me bhaktah pranasyati

[“Even those who are extremely misbehaved must be regarded as virtuous if they serve Me with exclusive devotion because their ideal is perfect. They quickly become righteous and attain permanent peace. O Arjuna, declare that My devotee is never vanquished.”]

All of the almost natural, very sinful behaviour that comes from before the awakening of devotion is reduced day by day and destroyed within a short time by the power of devotion. If one discusses such behaviour without a good intention, they make the offence of criticising a Vaisnava. Even upon seeing an inadvertent fault arising by chance, do not criticise a Vaisnava.

In this connection, Karabhajan has said:

sva-pada-mulam bhajatah priyasya
tyaktanya-bhavasya harih paresah
vikarma yach chotpatitam kathanchid
dhunoti sarvam hrdi sannivistah

If, without a good intention, one discusses faults arising by chance [within a Vaisnava], one makes the offence of criticising a Vaisnava. The main point is that if one makes false accusations about a Vaisnava or discusses the three previously mentioned types of faults, one makes offences to the Name. When this happens, the Name does not manifest, and if the Name does not manifest, then one cannot become a Vaisnava.

In this regard, an argument can arise: apart from the three types of faults mentioned, should one discuss other faults of a Vaisnava or not? The answer is this: no other fault can occur apart from the three types of faults of a Vaisnava mentioned. Those who have faults apart from the three types of faults mentioned have not been described in the scriptures as Vaisnavas. In this regard, the point to consider is that without a good intention, one should not discuss the faults of any soul. Criticising a Vaisnava is an offence. Criticising any other soul is a sin. One who is a Vaisnava has no taste for any such sin.

Discussing the faults of others with a good intention has not been condemned in the scriptures. There are three types of good intentions. If a discussion of a person’s sins is meant for their welfare, then such discussion is auspicious. If a sinner’s sins are discussed as an endeavour for the welfare of the world, then such discussion is considered an auspicious activity. If such discussion is an endeavour for one’s own welfare, then that is also virtuous; it is not faulty. With such good intentions, the previous activities of Valmiki, Jagai and Madhai, and other historical examples are always sinlessly discussed. If a disciple prays to their Guru to define a Vaisnava, then the Guru, with the desire to benefit the disciple and the world, says those whose behaviour is improper are non-Vaisnavas and defines those whose behaviour is proper as Vaisnavas. By avoiding wicked religious pretenders with the desire to take shelter at the feet of a proper Vaisnava, one does not make criticism of sadhus or an offence to Vaisnavas. Even if discussion of particular persons arises on this subject, it cannot be faulty. These are all examples of good intentions.

O readers, think very carefully about this deep subject, and conclude that you must honour true Vaisnavas and avoid the association of the improper. If one criticises a true Vaisnava, the Name will not appear in the heart. Therefore, in the Bhagavat, it has been taught:

tato duhsangam utsrjya satsu sajjeta buddhiman
santa evasya chhindanti mano-vyasangam uktibhih

For all these reasons, the intelligent avoid bad association and associate with the sadhus. This is because the sadhus, with their proper advice, cut away the mind’s unfavourable attachments—affinity for inappropriate things and the suffering produced by it.

Do not think that even if we serve a non-sadhu considering them a sadhu we will attain the result of serving a sadhu. The service of a sadhu is necessary especially for the previously mentioned persons of the intermediate stage, as beginners do not serve sadhus and those who are advanced have no conception of a distinction between sadhus and non-sadhus. You are all in the intermediate stage, and therefore you are duty-bound to search for a sadhu, form a friendship with them, and be kind or indifferent to non-sadhus. If you disregard your own level of qualification, you will be at fault. This is the Bhagavat’s instruction about faults and qualities:

sve sve ’dhikare ya nistha sa gunah parikirtitah
viparyayas tu dosah syad ubhayor esa nischayah

Even without knowing it, if you associate with non-sadhus, you become an offender of devotion, as in the Bhagavat:

sango yah samsrter hetur asatsu vihito ’dhiya
sa eva sadhusu krto nihsangatvaya kalpate

Bad association is the cause of bondage, that is, fall down, even when it happens unknowingly, that is, while being unable to understand it as a result of misconception. If such unknowing association occurs with sadhus, however, one easily gets liberation.

The advanced devotees’ vision of sadhus everywhere [seeing everyone as a sadhu], the greatness of which has been glorified in Bhakta-mala, Prapannamrta, and other devotional books, should not be practised by intermediate Vaisnavas. If one goes to practise it, one quickly falls into the fault of practising without proper qualification [anadhikar-charcha]. May the pure devotees kindly judge whether we have discussed all of this with a good intention.

Summary

The six types of offences to a Vaisnava:

  1. Killing a Vaisnava
  2. Criticising a Vaisnava
  3. Envying a Vaisnava
    Upon meeting a Vaisnava:
  4. Not greeting them
  5. Becoming angry with them
  6. Not feeling happy

The four types of souls:

  1. Ordinary souls
  2. Pious souls
  3. Brahmans and those who are nearly Vaisnavas
  4. Vaisnavas

Three types of faults of a Vaisnava (that should not be discussed):

  1. Faults prior to practising devotion
  2. Faults being removed by devotional practice
  3. Faults arising by chance

Three types of good intentions that bring about auspicious discussion of faults:

  1. The welfare of the person with the fault
  2. The welfare of the world in general
  3. The welfare of one’s self

Verses

nindam kurvanti ye mudha vaisnavanam mahatmanam
patanti pitrbhih sarddham maharaurava samjnite
hanti nindanti vai dvesti vaisnavan nabhinandati
krudhyate yati no harsam darsane patanani sat
(Skanda-purana)

“Fools who criticise great Vaisnavas fall down into the hell know as Maharaurava along with their forefathers. Six acts result in falling down: killing a Vaisnava, (2) criticising them, (3) envying them, (4) not greeting them, (5) showing anger towards them, and (6) not feeling happy upon seeing them.”

nindam bhagavatah srnvams tat-parasya janasya va
tato napaiti yah so ’pi yaty adhah sukrtach chyutah
(Srimad Bhagavatam: 10.74.40)

“One who upon hearing criticism of the Lord or the Vaisnavas—the souls who have dedicated their lives to Him—does not leave the place, looses all of one’s sukrti and falls down.”

archayam eva haraye pujam yah sraddhayehate
na tad-bhaktesu chanyesu sa bhaktah prakrtah smrtah
(Srimad Bhagavatam: 11.2.47)

“One who faithfully worships the Deity of the Lord but not His devotees or other souls is a neophyte devotee.”

isvare tad-adhinesu balisesu dvisatsu cha
prema-maitri-krpopeksa yah karoti sa madhyamah
(Srimad Bhagavatam: 11.2.46)

“One who loves the Lord, forms friendships with the devotees, acts kindly to the ignorant, and ignores the envious, is an intermediate devotee.”

sarva-bhutesu yah pasyed bhagavad-bhavam atmanah
bhutani bhagavaty atmany esa bhagavatottamah
(Srimad Bhagavatam: 11.2.45)

“One who sees the presence of the Supreme Lord within all beings and the presence of all beings within the Supreme Lord is an advanced devotee.”

prag bhakter udayad dosah ksayavasista eva cha
daivotpannas cha bhaktanam naivalochyah kadachana
sad uddesyam rta yas tu mrsapavadam eva cha
dosan alochayaty eva sa sadhu-nindako ’dhamah
(Nama-tattva-ratna-mala)

“Faults prior to the appearance of devotion, residual faults, and faults that arise by chance, should never be discussed. One who discusses such faults without a good intention or makes false accusations is a criticiser of sadhus and most fallen.”

sva-pada-mulam bhajatah priyasya
tyaktanya-bhavasya harih paresah
vikarma yach chotpatitam kathanchid
dhunoti sarvam hrdi sannivistah
(Srimad Bhagavatam: 11.5.42)

“The Supreme Lord, who resides in the hearts of His dear devotees who give up all other concerns and serve His feet, rectifies any sins they happen to commit.”

tato duhsangam utsrjya satsu sajjeta buddhiman
santa evasya chhindanti mano-vyasangam uktibhih
(Srimad Bhagavatam: 11.26.26)

“An intelligent soul should leave bad association and associate with sadhus. With their instructions, the sadhus cut away all of one’s unfavourable mental attachments.”

sango yah samsrter hetur asatsu vihito ’dhiya
sa eva sadhusu krto nihsangatvaya kalpate
(Srimad Bhagavatam: 3.23.55)

“Associating ignorantly with nondevotees is the cause of bondage, yet with devotees, it leads to liberation.”

sve sve ’dhikare ya niṣṭha sa guṇaḥ parikirtitaḥ
viparyayas tu doṣaḥ syad ubhayor eṣa nischayaḥ
(Srimad Bhagavatam: 11.21.1)

“Steadiness in one’s own position is a virtue; the opposite is a fault. The two—virtue and fault—are determined in this way (to practise according to one’s qualification is virtuous; to practise in a manner one is unqualified for is faulty).”

About the Author:

Srila Bhakti Vinod Thakur is the foremost pioneer of progressive modern Gaudiya Vaisnavism. Scholarly and systematic yet compassionate, loving, and joyful, Srila Bhakti Vinod Thakur has succeeded in spreading the divine love brought to the world by Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu all over the world through his prolific literature, profound forethought, and devout followers. For more information on Srila Bhakti Vinod Thakur, please visit his biography page.
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