We often look back at the great saints and Masters of history and point to them as embodiments of orthodox tradition. But we forget that what made them great was not how they rigidly conformed to the principles of religion, but rather how they were able to use these existing principles and produce a grander, more profound movement. With the depth of their realisation, they were able to navigate and craft out new concepts which moved the masses of their time to a higher spiritual plane.
If we look at Sri Ramanuja Acharya (1017-1137), He appeared during a period where Vaishnava Bhakti traditions were being eclipsed by impersonalist ideas. Through compelling argument, He disproved them and, in doing so, united the philosophical Vedic revelation with the sublime devotional hymns of the Tamil Alvar saints and with the Pancharatra form of Vaishnava worship. His appearance brought about a radical systematisation which set devotion to Narayana on a firm foundation. Along with Ramanuja’s incessant preaching, debating and travelling, His immense compassion was shown when He openly revealed the sacred ashtakshara mantra – Om Namo Narayanaya. His historic appearance unlocked the gates of Vaikuntha to one and all.
If we look at Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486-1533), He was initiated by Ishwara Puri from the Madhva Sampradaya, but despite this, He spawned a whole new Bhakti philosophy through the Goswamis. He delivered the holy Name of the Lord and introduced a contemporary culture centred around His dynamic Sankirtan movement. Mahaprabhu left little teaching behind, but His incarnation graphically illustrated to the world the ecstatic, transcendent relationship of Radha and Krishna.
BHAKTI MARGA: A UNITING OF VAISHNAVA SECTS
Fast forward to our current time, and in the picturesque countryside of Germany, we have Paramahamsa Vishwananda. Known as Guruji or Gurudev to His devotees, He attracts thousands from all over the world to take part in what is a growing Vaishnava movement.
The Bhakti Marga foundation He has set up is rooted in the philosophy of Ramanuja and the Sri Sampradaya. The Vedic hymns and modes of worship are all dedicated to the Lord as Sriman Narayana. At the same time, this has been seamlessly blended with the intimate bhakti of North India. The glory of Radha and the gopis is constantly emphasised. Under one roof we have a unique fusion between the Vaishnavism of Sri Rangam and Vrindavan.
But there are other aspects which have also been brought in: the worship of Chaithanya and devotion to Panduranga are frequently expressed. There is a strong emphasis on the great Varkari saints such as Tukaram and Dnyaneshwar, as well as other personalities like Meerabai. But perhaps the most unique of all is the introduction of Atma Kriya Yoga. Originating from Mahavatar Babaji, this practice involves meditation, mantra, pranayama and mudra. The amalgamation of Kriya Yoga techniques with orthodox bhakti practices such as kirtan and puja create a powerful and transformative mode of worship.
With this in mind, one can see that Paramahamsa Vishwananda is creating an unprecedented tradition that brings together different elements to draw out the essence of Vaishnavism.
PARAMAHAMSA VISHWANANDA: NOT JUST A PHILOSOPHER BUT AN EXPERIENCE
While this is in every sense a Vaishnava movement, there is one sustaining force that makes all these parts work in perfect synergy: Guru Bhakti. There are many Hindu denominations which place a high emphasis on the Guru; for Bhakti Marga however, it is the most defining feature. The devotees who have gathered have rarely come seeking a new religious path. Instead, almost everyone who takes up initiation and serves has done so because of a transformative experience with Guruji. But what exactly qualifies as a transformative experience?
When you meet a personality who is able to physically respond to your deepest thoughts and desires, you know you have encountered an individual who can respond to prayers. When you meet someone who is able to inform and prepare you for future events, you know you have met someone who is master of time and space. When you follow someone who is able to identify and destroy your fantasy and ego, you know you are with someone who cares not for your praise but only your advancement. When you see someone who tirelessly works to uplift you, you are with someone who embodies unconditional love. When someone’s mere presence removes worldly attraction and awakens a longing for God, you know you have met a true Master.
This is by no means the full story. But it is these kinds of repeated, consistent experiences which have laid the foundation for this path.
Paramahamsa Vishwananda is not just somebody who has read scripture and learnt commentaries, nor is He simply a wise individual who leads by example. He is a personality who embodies the very goal being sought. He delivers an awakening of the Divine that cannot be ignored. It is this awakening that causes individuals to take Him as an authority in their lives. Through this connection with Him, they are brought to the Feet of the Lord. By His grace and guidance, devotees are able to plough the depths of a devotional relationship with God. As this relationship intensifies, it in turn strengthens a connection back with Guruji. Bhakti to the Lord brings bhakti to the Guru. The two are placed on exactly the same platform. The divinity of one reveals the divinity of the other.
RECONCILING VAIN DOGMA AND DELUSIONAL FANTASY
In any tradition there is a natural tension: conservative dogma versus progressive ideas. The former seeks to rigidly follow every rule and doctrine regardless of the context, while the latter looks to abandon the restrictions of scripture and embrace new ones. The danger of dogma is that we retreat into a philosophical prison. Everything becomes about chapter and verse. The path to Love becomes a cerebral exercise dictated by the letter of the law. But the danger of being excessively progressive is that we stray into fantasy. We have no anchor, and so we can become swept away by delusional ungrounded concepts. We lose track of who we are and what qualifies as divine experience.
Under Guruji this issue gets solved. When tradition is coupled with a Master who truly knows, the devotee draws a balance between knowledge and experience. Knowledge becomes a tool which grounds and steadies direct experience with the Guru.
Large spiritual organisations can often fall into the trap of endlessly discoursing about the Lord. They can rigorously practice their sadhana and quote scripture at length. Divine Love is portrayed as a realistic goal, but despite this, there is a struggle to pinpoint any individual who has directly experienced the philosophy firsthand. There is no one to validate the message. As a result, the love of God becomes more of a rumour than a reality. Without the presence of an individual who truly knows the Lord, we can end up writing cheques that cannot be cashed and promising treasures that nobody has.
When this happens, we no longer have a movement that delivers the Grace of God, we have a spiritual culture which at best provides some focus, enjoyment and peace of mind; or at worst lures one into egoistically believing they have the only way to the Lord.
Guruji is one who truly knows and truly is. This is the experience of thousands of individuals from all walks of life. Because of this, devotees tangibly have God amongst them. They have living divinity and living grace – it is this that brings the possibility of real transformation. The security of having Guruji’s presence means that devotees have the freedom to go deep into their tradition. Knowledge and scripture becomes interpreted through the lens of Guru Bhakti: the Leelas of the Lord become recognisable through experiences with Guruji. For the devotees, Guruji is the divinity that keeps them true and sincere. He is the one that transforms philosophy into reality.
We live in a time where secularism, rationality and atheism are growing trends. Hindu scripture and the words of previous acharyas by themselves no longer hold the same authority in a world context. If Vaishnavism and devotional traditions are to flourish, then a new approach is called for. People are increasingly averse to rigid religious ideals, and at the same time, there is an epidemic of nihilistic depression. People are yearning for purpose, meaning and love. To those who sincerely want to know if God exists, to those who truly want to walk a path that will take them beyond, Paramahamsa Vishwananda is the Master of our times who delivers exactly that.