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The Later Life Of Srila Bhakti Hriday Bon Maharaj
BY BHRGUMUNI DASA
INDIA, Jul 10 (VNN) — The later life of Srila Bhakti Hriday Bon Maharaj (1901-1982)
Amongst all of the
disciples of Prabhupada Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, Bon (Vana) Maharaj was perhaps the one who underwent the most
austerity. In 1941, at the chaotic time of the second world war, he went to Varanasi. Varanasi is well-known as Lord
Shiva's place, but Bon Maharaj knew that Shiva is the best of the Vaishnavas. Not only that, Shiva is the protector of
Vrindavan, and further, of the Rasa dance. To get his blessings, Bon Maharaj stayed in a boat on the Ganges at the
Shivalay Ghat. Here he offered a thousand bel-leaves to Shiva daily and lectured from the Chaitanya-charitamrita and
Shrimad Bhagavatam every morning and evening. Finally Shiva appeared to him and fulfilled his desire: he got the
permission to live in Vrindavan.
Bon Maharaj immediately went to Vrindavan. By the Lord's desire, after only a few days he managed to acquire a little
land on the Madan Mohan Ghera, quite near the new Madan Mohan temple. The place was ideal: this road is no ordinary
road, but the path Shri Radhika takes when she goes to meet Shri Krishna in the morning. He asked a friend to construct
a small house for him on the new property. Meanwhile, Bon Maharaj went North.
For some reason, Bon Maharaj did not yet feel ready to live in Vrindavan. He wanted to purify himself first by visiting
the holy places of pilgrimage in the Himalayas. His deeds show us what an elevated thing it is to live in Vrindavan dham.
It is not for everyone. As Bhaktisiddhanta used to say, you cannot by a train ticket to Vrindavan.
Bon Maharaj took the train to Haridwar. From there he continued on foot. He took four vows to keep during his
pilgrimage: to not speak to any man, to sleep on the bare floor or on the ground, to live only on milk, fruits and nuts,
and to chant the Holy Name with every step he took. He returned after more than two months after visiting all the holy
places: physically completely exhausted but spiritually enlivened. He later wrote a book about his trip, Baikunther
Pathe, On the Way to Vaikuntha, in which he describes some of his experiences. At Yamunotri, for example, he had the
darshan of Yamuna Devi herself. Unfortunately this important book has so far not been translated into English. If
someone did that, it would without a doubt be a great service to the Vaishnava world.
Via Varanasi, Bon Maharaj returned to Vrindavan to finally settle down there. A house had meanwhile been built for him,
his Bhajan Kutir. It has later been enlarged, but at that time it consisted of only a few rooms. The most important room
was an underground cell of maybe eight or nine square metres. This became Bon Maharaj's residence for the next four
years. During this time, 1943-1946, he very rarely left the room or spoke to anyone except his Lordships, Sri Sri
Radha-Govinda. He used to spend the whole day down in the room, chanting, singing and dancing before Radha and Krishna.
In the evening he would give his servant Narayan Das a note listing the ingredients he needed for his meal. After
getting them, he would cook and then take prasadam.
To facilitate this life of deep meditation and austerity, Bon Maharaj accepted Babaji-initiation from Advaita Das Babaji
of Govardhan. Advaita Das Babaji (whose samadhi is located near Sanatana Goswami's Bhajan Kutir on the banks of the
Manasa Ganga) was a a deeply realised Godbrother of Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur. He gave Bon Maharaj the name Vrindaban
Das Babaji. During this time, Bon Maharaj also wrote a number of beautiful songs. They were later published under the
name "Biraha Bedana", "The Pain of Separation". In these songs one can get a glimpse into his inner life. As is the
custom, he also reveals some aspects of his own spiritual nature and that of his spiritual preceptors.
Where did he learn these things? I have heard different things from different devotees. Some of his disciples say that
Prabhupada Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati personally communicated them to him while he was still physically present, others
that Prabhupada appeared to him in a vision in the Govinda temple, and yet others that he got a vision during his
pilgrimage in the Himalayas. Probably he did not say much about this confidential topic even to his disciples. However
the case, he wrote down what he had learnt and showed it to Advaita Das Babaji, who confirmed that this indeed was his
true spiritual form.
After years of intense devotion in seclusion, in 1946 he was awarded a new vision: that his mission was to spread the
glory of Vrindavan by establishing a Vaishnava university. He put all his energy to the task, even taking the radical
step to revert to the sannyasa-status he had once given up, realising that it was necessary for extensive preaching. The
history of the Institute of Oriental Philosophy falls outside the scope of this article, but a quotation from Sripad
Radhanath Swami Maharaj, who spent some time with him in the beginning of the seventies, gives the idea behind it:
"It was a very strong part of his life, he really wanted it to be an offering to Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakur.
He told me that the idea of the school was to bring scholars from all over the world to Vrindavan and feel the
atmosphere of Vrindavan and understand the teachings of the Goswamis. It was his offering to Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati."
(Interview, Vrindavan 1.11.1998)
Meanwhile, Bon Maharaj did not give up his inner spiritual life. In front of his Bhajan Kutir he planted a flower garden
where he would sit and chant. In his song Phula-bagane (In the Flowergarden) he describes how he would sit there and
wait for the divine couple to pass by so that he could offer the most beautiful flowers at their feet. He would also
meditate on Krishna dancing under a tamal tree in the garden. The garden has since had to give place to the new temple
for Radha-Govinda and to his samadhi, but the tamal tree is still there.
Disciples also started coming, not great masses, but one at a time. From the late sixties also a few Westerners came.
Conditions in the Bhajan Kutir were (and still are) very simple. All energy was put to the worship of Radha-Govinda,
attending the aratis, studying the scriptures and chanting the Name. "It was a sadhana for going back to Godhead", as
one Western disciple told me. Bon Maharaj's regime was strict. His disciple Lalit Krishna Das remembers:
"There was one N.N. Brahmacari. He was a good singer. Once it seems he misbehaved or talked with somebody [a young
girl]. Immediately [Bon Maharaj] called for him and just took that yajopavita and asked him to get out of the ashram.
Such was his strong feeling regarding the character-building of the brahmacari." (Interview, Madras 28.11.1998)
However, it was a strictness motivated by love, not by frustration. Bon Maharaj could also be very kind and loving, as
many disciples have testified. Gopananda Bon Maharaj, the present acharya of the Bhajan Kutir once accompanied Bon
Maharaj and some disciples on pilgrimage. As always, he served as the cook. One night they reached their destination
very late in the evening. There was a pouring rain, so Gopesh Brahmacari (as he was known then) had difficulties to get
the fire going. It was very late when the meal was finally ready. The other pilgrims complained and Bon Maharaj severely
chastised Gopesh. "Why have you taken such a long time cooking? Are you trying to kill all these people?" Gopesh kept
quiet, but was surprised, sorrowful and angry. After all, it was not his fault that they arrived so late or that the
weather was so bad. He lay awake all night struggling with his thoughts. Should he just leave? He didn't have to take
such words! But what would they say when he returned alone? And moreover, if he left, who would cook for Guru Maharaj?
Thinking like this, he stayed on and next evening cooked especially nicely. Gopesh also served the prasada, as usually.
All the pilgrims ate heartily and asked for more and more. When everyone had eaten, Bon Maharaj asked Gopesh to also
take something. Gopesh just kept quiet, eyes downcast. Bon Maharaj repeated his order, and when Gopesh still would not
eat, he demanded to know what was going on. Gopesh quietly replied that there was no food left. The other pilgrims had
eaten everything. Bon Maharaj's heart melted seeing the selfless devotion of his disciple, and reprimanded the others
for their selfishness. In this way, Bon Maharaj demonstrated the greatness of his disciple to everyone. In the Bhajan
Kutir, one of the main festivals of the year was Rasa-purnima, the fullmoon of Karttika, the time of Krishna's autumnal
Rasa-dance. Radhanath Swami:
"I remember it was Rasa-purnima, Sarad-purnima. That was a very special night, we were looking forward to it for a long
time, everyone was telling me what a wonderful festival it would be. In the garden in front of the temple, where his
samadhi is now, used to be a tulsi-garden, so many tulsi-trees, and in the courtyard between the tulsi-garden and the
temple they made a beautiful little simhasana out of flowers for Radha-Govinda. They brought the Deities out, they
brought the main Deities out and put them in that garden. It was beautifully decorated with so many flowers. Then they
brought so many sweetmeats as an offering. It was in the night, in the moonlight, the full-moonlight, crystal clear, no
clouds in the sky I remember. We were sitting in the moonlight with the Deities of Radha-Govinda, the full moon was
glimmering off Radha-Govindaji's beautiful transcendental forms. It was just the devotees of the ashram, there may have
been about fifteen devotees in the ashram, brahmacaris. Bon Maharaj played harmonium and sang for several hours,
beautiful bhajans for Radha and Krishna. It was the only time I ever heard him sing. It was very sweet, it was very
moving, it melted my heart very much, singing so sweetly before Radha and Krishna in the moonlight in Vrindavan."
(Interview, Vrindavan 1.11.1998)
Bon Maharaj's followers still celebrate this festival very sweetly at the Bhajan Kutir. At that time, a standard feature
is reading Bon Maharaj's lenghty poem "Brajadhame", "In Vraja Dham", where he describes the early morning pastimes of
Sri Sri Radha Govinda, the pastimes he was especially attracted to.
Outwardly, Bon Maharaj was always very calm and tranquil, in the eyes of some even majestical. He had great
self-confidence, not out of false ego, but out of the deep conviction he had in the super-excellence of Gaudiya
Vaishnavism. From a material point of view, many of his greater plans never fructified, but he knew that what counts is
the sincere desire and endeavour of the devotee. The result is up to Krishna. Some of his godbrothers could not
understand him, but almost all respected him as a self-realised saint. Godbrothers such as Sripad Bhakti Pramod Puri
Maharaj, Sripad Akican Krishna Dasa Babaji Maharaj and Sripad Bhakti Kumud Santa Maharaj saw him as their shiksha-guru.
Also many of the great Gaudiya saints of Vrindavan outside the Gaudiya Maths, such as Sri Haribhakta Dasa Shastri, Sri
Kripasindhu Dasa Babaji and Sri Vinodbihari Goswami had great respect for him.
In his final years, Bon Maharaj was again drawn out into large scale preaching. After the death of Guruprestha Srila
Bhakti Vilasa Tirtha Maharaj in 1976, the acharya of Chaitanya Math (the largest of the fractions of the original
Gaudiya Math), Bon Maharaj was elected the next acharya. Between 1978 and 1980 he travelled widely and initiated a great
number of disciples. At the same time, he developed his own Bhajan Kutir. He had little interest in starting a whole
movement of his own, but his disciples pushed him to accept their donations. Apart from the Bhajan Kutir, he opened
three other temples, in Hingalgaj on the border to Bangladesh, South Calcutta and Nandagram. The Radha-Govinda Trust was
created to manage these temples. During a preaching tour in the South in 1979, Bon Maharaj collapsed and was brought to
the hospital. He had had a heart attack. During two months his condition was critical. He recovered somewhat, but did
not regain his usual energy. He spent some time in Calcutta taking treatment in the house of his disciple Prantosh Basu,
but when he thought he had recovered sufficiently he immediately returned to Vrindavan. There were things to do at the
Institute, and Vrindavan was the place where he wanted to spend his last days.
For he knew that his time was up. With the summer heat of 1982 he lost his last energy. He stopped eating altogether and
for over a month took only a few drops of charanamrita daily. At the end of June his condition was so bad that the
residents of the Bhajan Kutir called all the disciples to come to Vrindavan. Many came, and when the end was nearing, it
was decided that there would be uninterrupted kirtana in the temple between the fifth and seventh July. Dr. Tapodhir
Krishna Dastidar writes:
"Our hearts laden with anguish and anxiety, we spent all day taking part by rotation in the Kirtan which somehow
continued even after the expiry of the midday of July 7. In the evening when a few of us were singing sadly Kirtan
before the ashram Deities, we were hastily summened from the Natmandir by Swami Rasikananda Maharaj and requested to
gather round Gurudev's bedside. While ceaselessly chanting the "Hare Krishna" Mahamantra over and over again, we watched
helplessly as Gurudev's chest slowly heaved up and down with every intake and exhalation of breath. All the while, even
in his semi-comatose condition, his tongue was rythmically chanting the Holy Name of Krishna. Swami Keshavananda Maharaj
was feeling Gurudev's pulse all the time. The end, as already stated, came at 9.04 p.m. om July 7, 1982. The last giant
amongst the best exponents of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, His Holiness Swami Bhakti Hriday Bon Maharaj left his mortal coils to
join the company of the Supreme Godhead's Eternal Associates. We shall never see the like of him again." (Supreme
Divinity and Sad-Guru. Mitras, Calcutta 1988. Pp. 83-84)
As soon as the news spread, many devotees came to pay their final respects to this great siddha disciple of
Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati. Some say they could feel a distinct smell of sandalwood coming from the body, others remarked
at how peaceful and pure he looked. In the morning, Bon Maharaj was taken on the traditional parikrama to the seven main
temples of Vrindavan. When leaving the Bhajan Kutir, he suddenly opened his eyes, and when returning, he closed them.
His leading disciples performed the last rituals, placing him in samadhi under the temple constructed for that purpose
in advance. His disciples were torn with grief, but grateful for having had the chance to have known him, hear him and
Because of my sinfulness, I never had the chance to even see him in his physical form, but through his wonderful books
and especially through his disciples, I have been able to get a glimpse into his greatness. This year it is one hundred
years since his birth, and today is the anniversary of his glorious disappearance. According to the desire of the
present acharya of Radha-Govinda Trust, Sripad Gopananda Bon Maharaj, perhaps the greatest fruit of that extraordinary
forest of devotion known as Bhakti Hrdaya Bon Maharaj, I have written this for my personal purification and for the
interest of the devotees. May all the disciples of Prabhupada Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati be eternally glorified!
radha-madhava-pada-padma-rasikam rupanugam sarvada shri-chaitanya-matanusara-caritam prajam parivrajakam nirdishte
rasa-raja-hrt-dayitaya kuje vasantam muda shrimantam pranato 'smi bhakti-hridayam bhaktya vanakhyam gurum
"Who relishes the lotus feet of Radha-Madhava, always follows Rupa, teaches the doctrine of Sri Caitanya, the wise
preacher happily living in the grove of She who is dearest to the heart of the King of Rasas- With devotion I bow to
that guru called Srimad Bhakti Hridaya Vana."
ramaniya-nivasam shri- radha-govindayoh sada poshtaram bhakti-vallinam gopananda-vanam bhaje
"Always a delightful abode for Sri Radha and Govinda, nourishing the creepers of devotion: I worship the forest that
gives bliss to the cowherds." Helsinki, 5.7.2001
Desiring the mercy of the Vaishnavas,