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(C) 1995 by Richard S. Brown
All rights reserved.
Click to learn more about Paramahansa Tridandi Swami B.H. Bon Maharaj

Q&A: Tridandi Swami B.H. Bon Maharaj

By Richard Shaw Brown

Q&A About Tridandi Swami Bhakti Hridaya Vana Maharaj (Part 1) Questions about Tridandi Swami Bhakti Hridaya Vana Maharaj from various devotees:

1. Towards the end of HH Vana Maharaja's preaching in Europe some mis-understanding arose between him and BSSP. In his "My first year in England" he writes that it was because some godbrothers (Ananta Vasudeva?) became envious of his success and spoke badly about him to BSSP, while HH Sridhar Maharaja writes that it was because of different ideas about how the preaching in the west should be done. Did he ever tell you more about this?

A1: Srila Vana Maharaj did tell me about this but he never mentioned who were the offenders. He NEVER even once mentioned the name of Ananta Vasudeva during the 6.5 years I lived with him in Vraja. In fact, he never ever criticized any of his Godbrothers. But he did speak about that envious misunderstanding. Before being sent to U.K. by Prabhupada he had already become the most successful and high-class preacher of all the Gaudiya Math. He established "theistic exhibitions" for Prabhupada in Calcutta and Dacca which drew 100,000 people daily; representing Prabhupada he delivered thousands of Hari katha lectures all over India, including before the highest levels of Western academic society , and he even explained the philosophy of Prabhupada at Calcutta's Royal Albert Hall; in England he preached Krsna Consciousness on the highest levels even up to the King of England; for Prabhupada he established different Gaudiya Math ashrams, such as the center in Madras. He became the most famous of Prabhupada's sannyasi disciples. This seems to have caused some of his Godbrothers to become envious of him. It is too bad but not impossible to understand.

When he went to preach in U.K. it was during the British Raj, when Indians weren't even allowed to walk on the same street as their British masters. It was also during the GREAT DEPRESSION when nobody was giving any donations, especially to a Hindu Swami, who was considered inferior to the British. So to survive Vana Maharaj received a few hundred rupees from Prabhupada. Some of his envious Godbrothers, whose names were never mentioned, complained to Prabhupada that Vana Maharaj was taking money from them and he was getting "puffed up" because he had met H.M. The King of England, what to speak of lesser VIPs.

So finally Prabhupada called Srila Vana Maharaj to come back to Calcutta where he received a enormous hero's welcome. At this point Vana Maharaj was the MOST FAMOUS of all Prabhupada's disciples, and this drove some Godbrothers crazy with jealousy. Vana Maharaj never mentioned any names but he did say that some of his Godbrothers had poisoned the mind of Prabhupada against him. Feeling very hurt by Prabhupada's sharp words Vana Maharaj stayed away from Gaudiya Matha for a while during the time that Prabhupada returned to nitya-lila. Feeling that he had not squared things with Prabhupada before the untimely passing, he was told by expert devotee Brahmins that his offense (if you can call it that) could only be forgiven after the death of Prabhupada if he stayed fasting on a bamboo raft in the middle of the Ganges for 30 days. According to confidential sources Swami Vana Maharaj carried out this austerity before proceeding to the Himalayas for years of sever tapasya and bhajan.

2. After the passing of BSSP Vana Maharaja was made a GBC and voted for Kunja-Vihari Prabhu as the next Acarya (8 were for Ananta Vasudev, 5 for Kunja-Vihari). Later he distanced himself also from Kunja-Vihari. Why?

A2: Vana Maharaj told me in horrible detail about the breakup in the Gaudiya Math. But he never mentioned any one's name except his dear friend B.V. Tirtha Maharaj (Kunja Vihari who took sannyasi from a picture of Prabhupada). It was clear to me that Vana Maharaj had great love and respect for Tirtha Maharaj whom he often said was the dearest disciple of Prabhupada. He would only mention the names of his Godbrothers when he would be praising them for their great service and high qualities.

I traveled on several trips with Vana Maharaj to meet his intimate Godbrothers like Tirtha Maharaj and Sridhar Maharaj in Bengal. I saw their love and respect for him and visa versa. I also saw his leading Godbrothers come to visit him at his bhajan kutir in Vrndavana. Whenever we would visit them or they would visit us I was happy to see how the different disciples of Vana Maharaj and his Godbrothers were like a very happy family. The concept of "my Guru Maharaj is better than yours" just didn't exist at all. The different devotees mixed happily and loved and respected each other as well as their different Gurudeva's.

The unfortunate fact is that Prabhupada never formed any so-called GBC nor elected any successor. He could have elected a successor or he could have advised them to all go their separate ways and be gurus in their own capacity (as was the case). Nobody was a GBC and there was never any such name or group. But the senior disciples did vote regarding who would control the many properties of Prabhupada's institution. I never heard about the voting results except that the devotees were split and litigation had been going on for many years.

I heard the ghastly details of the fighting from Vana Maharaj who, being an intellectual and a peaceful high-born Brahmin by birth, was completely appalled. Even though he had great respect and love for B.V. Tirtha Maharaj he was so disgusted by the low-class events (like devotees of one group smearing human stool on the others and even bloody murders). Vana Maharaj was an eye-witness to these terrible events, but Srila Bhakti Vedanta Swami (Srila Prabhupada) was never around nor an active member of any Gaudiya Math. Therefore HDG's knowledge of these events was 2nd hand. Still it became obvious that all the leading disciples had to go their own separate ways and in turn become Guru's running their own missions (Just like our Srila Prabhupada finally did). I saw with my own eyes the love between Vana Maharaj, Tirtha Maharaj, and his other leading Godbrothers; love that was deep and strong. Especially strong was the relationship between Vana Maharaj and Tirtha Maharaj. Vana Maharaj had so many stories of praise for Tirtha Maharaj that I also became in awe of him and I still am.

3. Who was his first sannyasa-disciple? Krsnananda Vana? Did ACBSP adopt the custom of "passing on" the sannyasa-name (Swami) from Vana Maharaja, who of course also did that, or was it the other way around?

A3: I think Srila Vana Maharaj's first Sannyasi disciple was Swami Madhavananda Vana who was a very old Brahmin living there while I was in Vrindavan. He spoke some English and was very kind to teach me the etiquette (Vaisnavatva). During this time he must have been about 80 years old and I'm sure that he was older than Swami Vana Maharaj himself. Sripad Madhava Maharaj entered nitya-lila in 1973. Krsnananda Vana was also a senior sannyasi but not the first.

Of course it was Swami Vana Maharaj who started the system of awarding his sannyasa title, Vana, to his sannyasi's even before our Srila Prabhupada took sannyasa. Vana Maharaj absolutely was the first to set this sannyasa standard. He was the 3rd Sannyasa disciple of BSSP in 1924 at the age of 24 and was one of the first ten sannyasi's who received the main 10 Sannyasa names like Vana, Bharati, Sagar, Aranya, Parvat, Giri, Sarasvati, etc.

4. What was Vana Maharaja's sadhana during the years you spent with him? Did he ever reveal details of his internal sadhana? In your writings about him on the net you mentioned seeing him in bhava on several occasions. Could you elaborate on this? All the sattvika-bhavas?

A4: I personally lived with him full-time for six and a half years in Vrndavana (68-73) and I never once saw him break any rules nor show any signs of being fallen in any way. In my opinion Vana Maharaj is a siddha-purusha eternally serving under his masters (Lalita Sakhi, Rupa & Rati, Kamala-manjari & Kamala-Nayana-manjari) in Sri Goloka-dhama "nitya-lila." You are also welcome to ask the opinion of Radhanath Maharaj at Bombay ISKCON about the exalted character of Vana Maharaj.

I saw Srila Vana Maharaj shed tears of joy and sadness on many occasions, such as the time he told me about Prabhupada's deep love for Kunja Behari Das (later to become B.V. Tirtha Maharaj). For example, around 1970 I was told a detailed story by Swami Vana Maharaj who was an eye-witness. On several occasions Srila Vana Maharaj became choked with emotion while relating this story. HDG Tridandi Swami Bhakti Sudho Ashram Maharaj told me that this is a well known incident in the life of Paramahansa Srimad Bhakti Siddhanta Saraswati Prabhupada.

Once while residing in the Calcutta Gaudiya Matha, Srila Sarasvati Thakura was deathly ill and bed-ridden. In the room serving him were some of his leading sannyasi's including Srila Vana Maharaj. The devotees were at their wits end how to help, and so they finally pleaded with their Gurudeva asking him what to do to relieve his suffering.

Finally the great Prabhupada opened his eyes and begged them in a choked voice to please bring Kunja Dha (Kunja Vihari Dasa). At that time Kunja Dha was working at the Calcutta post office to help raise money for his Gurudeva's preaching. In fact, it was Kunja Dha who met Srila Saraswati Thakura while he was a bhajan-anandi and had just completed his chanting vows, and helped him to come out and start preaching. He also helped Srila Saraswati Thakura carry the corpse of Srila Gaura Kishore Das Babaji Maharaj to the current samadhi in Mayapura.

A devotee was sent to bring Kunja Dha, who immediately left his duties at the post office and returned to the Math. As soon as Kunja Dha entered the sick room of Srila Saraswati Thakura, the great Acarya sat up with opened arms. Kunja Dha ran into the arms of his Gurudeva who embraced him tightly. The other devotees (including Vana Maharaj) were astounded to see the face of their Lion Guru resting on the shoulder of Kunja Dha with profuse tears pouring from his eyes onto the body of Kunja Vihari Das. And Kunja Vihari Prabhu was also weeping and trembling as he hugged his great master. This tearful embrace lasted what seemed like a long time. And after that Srila Saraswati Thakura was better.

NOTE: This is one of the reasons why many devotees sided with Kunja Vihari Das (HDG Srila Bhakti Vilas Tirtha Maharaj) after the matter of successor was left unresolved on the disappearance of Srila Saraswati Prabhupada; and it is important to note that out of the two groups taking sides, viz., Tirtha Maharaj V/s Ananta Vasudeva, it was Ananta Vasudeva who fell down, leaving Srila Tirtha Maharaj as the bona fide and fixed up successor in control of Sri Yoga pith and the Gaudiya Matha head-quarters in Mayapura, and most other places in India.

In fact Tirtha Maharaj was the main manager of the Gaudiya Mission from it's very beginning and up until his own departure. It is easy to see (although spiritually disturbing) why some of his Godbrothers were envious and jealous of him. After Tirtha Maharaj's disappearance, Srila Sraman Maharaj became Acarya of this bona fide and original Gaudiya Mission; and after Sraman Maharaj left this world, Srila Bhakti Hrdaya Vana (Bon) Maharaj (the 3rd sannyasi disciple of Srila Sarasvati Thakura and one of his biggest preachers during that time) was requested to become Acarya of the Gaudiya Mission, which he was until his disappearance around 1980.

On other occasions I witnessed Srila Vana Maharaj choked with deep emotion, such as during Vraja-Mandala Parikrama while explaining the lilas of different holy sites, and on the many occasions of Prabhupada's appearance or disappearance when Srila Vana Maharaj would lead kirtana in the temple. He would play the harmonium and he had a very strong and beautiful voice. On most of these occasions it was obvious to me that Vana Maharaj was trying to keep his feelings under control.

Personally I don't consider "weeping" or emotions to be proof of self-realization, because even I some times feel that way , and yet I am certain that I'm NOT self-realized nor even a good devotee.

5. In Biraha Bedana Vana Maharaja discloses the truth about his spiritual form, name, etc. This is of course keeping with the tradition of Narottama das Thakura, Bhaktivinode, etc., but did envious people object? (I am asking this because I am certain that even if anyone did that nowadays the critics would come down on him like hawks.)

A5: Some may have, although Srila Vana Maharaj never said so nor mentioned anyone.

6. Who were his closest friends in the Gaudiya world? I know he and Krsnadas Babaji were very close. OBL Kapoor said he didn't think Vana M. had any real friends, but that doesn't seem to be true.

A6: First I would like to say that Adi-Kesava Das (Dr. OBL Kapoor) was a fringie (in Iskcon-speak) who was not part of the inner circle of Prabhupada's disciples. OBL Kapoor hardly even knew Prabhupada, and he is not qualified to speak disrespectfully about Vana Maharaj nor any of his vastly senior Godbrothers. Just like our Srila Prabhupada, OBL Kapoor was an outsider who was not privy to what was going on within the Gaudiya Math. He is dead wrong in his statement that Vana Maharaj had no friends and I consider that to be an offensive and unqualified statement.

Srila Krsnadas Babaji Maharaj lived half of every year with Vana Maharaj and Tridandi Swami B.S. Ashram Maharaj also stayed with Vana Maharaj every year. In fact the great bhajan-anandi paramahamsa Krsnadas Babaji Maharaj was BEST FRIENDS with Srila Vana Maharaj. Whenever Vana Maharaj's Godbrothers came to Vraja they would always come to meet with him and their relationships were very intimate.

7. Why did you take initiation from him? There seems to be at least two versions: he tricked you (P. Lilamrta), or that you asked him (one devotee).

A7: I was given "Hari-Nam" initiation and named Hrsikesa das during the summer of 1967. I told Swamiji about my U.S. Army draft fugitive status and false passport and he advised me to join him in Vrndavana. After a harrowing escape via England I made my journey, penniless and alone, to India. When I reached Sri Radha-Damodhar Mandira in Vrindavan I was told by an old Goswami with thick glasses who spoke a little English that, "Swamiji has returned to America." He advised me to take shelter of Swamiji's Godbrother named Swami Bhakti Hridaya Vana (Bon) Maharaj.

When I arrived at Swami Vana Maharaj's Gaudiya Matha ashram (Bhajan-kutir), he also was absent for one month. But I was allowed to stay provided I was careful with all the rules. If I would step on any devotee's shadow they would bathe. I was a mlettcha, a "sahib." The Gaudiya Matha devotees thought correctly that I was a stupid, dirty, untrained, rude, low-life (former) cow-eater incapable of understanding the sublime teachings of Lord Caitanya.

When Swami Vana finally returned, I told him I was a (Hari-Nam) disciple of Swamiji, and I also told him about my fugitive status. He said I was welcome to stay and practice Krsna consciousness, but I must learn all the Vaisnavatva (Vaisnava etiquette) and join all the ceremonies.

I wrote a letter to America telling Swamiji about my situation. I never received a reply but was told by Vana Maharaj that news had come to him saying that I should stay with him and study. Thereafter, I never again heard any news from Swamiji. Years later, when I confronted Swami Vana about ACBSP's letter to me, he replied that he didn't give it to me because he wanted to protect me from the bad Iskcon association which mixed men and women in ashram life and did things wrong.

But within a few months I did receive a letter from the U.S. Embassy in Delhi addressed to my devotee name at Swami Vana's ashram. The letter was an order for me to surrender for deportation to face U.S. Army desertion charges. With trembling hands I took the letter to Vana Maharaj, who advised me to burn it and then go do parikrama of Govardhana Hill.

By the grace of Krsna no police came to Vraja and I immersed myself in spiritual life. I had a private tutor in Srila Vana Maharaj for six years and met many of his Godbrothers and their disciples in different Gaudiya Math's both in Vraja as well as while traveling with Vana Maharaj to Bengal.

During my first 3 years in Vraja I was not allowed to have Diksha or wear an upanayana. Bon Maharaj told me it would displease the Vrajavasi's to see a mlettcha born foreigner proudly showing off Brahmin status. But in 1971, when Vana Maharaj advised me to take Tridanda-Bikshu sannyasa, Krsnadas Babaji Maharaj was sitting there encouraging me. Bon Maharaj asked Babaji Maharaj what my Bikshu name should be and Babaji Maharaj immediately said, "Lalitananda!" So I was initiated as a sannyasi AND given Gayatri-Diksha at the same time.

When I returned to our Srila Prabhupada in Mayapura, 1973, I asked him to again give me diksa; he asked me (tumi jani na?) "Don't you already know it?" I replied, "yes Gurudev, I know it" (from Srila Vana Maharaj). Prabhupada replied, "Tik achi!" (then that is OK). And that was that.

So ACBSP never gave me Gayatri Diksha. HDG clearly said that I already knew the mantras (including the bona fide sannyasa mantra, which is different from the incorrect mantra chanted by most Iskcon sannyasis) and that I did not need to hear or be initiated in Diksha again. Prabhupada said to just continue chanting the Gayatri I received from Vana Maharaj.

Therefore Vana Maharaj never "stole" me because I belong to Krsna, not only one single manifestation of Guru tattva. It didn't matter this group or that group. I was desperate and I begged Vana Maharaj to guide my spiritual life. My Iskcon Godbrothers called me a traitor, and I was surprised at that after having sincerely practiced Krsna consciousness in Vraja Dham at the feet of ACBSP's own life-long senior Godbrother. This is material duality and nonsense! In the event I became polluted by Iskcon devotees which caused me to adopt the mundane fault-finding party-line of ISKCON; and become a prakrta-kanistha offender full of misery at having traded the sweet shelter of Srila Vana Maharaj and the feet of Lord Caitanya for life in an out-cast American personality cult.

8. Why did you leave him? After you left he printed a manifesto stating that you "suddenly rebelled" and left without any explanation, but the hint was that you were afraid of the American authorities.

The reason I left Vana Maharaj was because I became polluted by the mundane association of ISKCON devotees, who convinced me that Vana Maharaj (and all Gaudiya Matha devotees) were no good. It was my bad karma, but also the greatest spiritual mistake of my life leaving the sweet shelter of my Shiksa & Diksa Guru Srila Bhakti Hrdaya Vana Maharaj; and since returning to ISKCON I found everything different from the bona fide Gaudiya Math system of Srila Param-Gurudev. The whole taste is completely different.

Ever since returning to ISKCON in late 1973 I was stunned to see the ill-consciousness and bad behavior of ISKCON devotees. Going from Gaudiya Math to ISKCON was worse than falling down. The devotees were NOT trained in Gaudiya thinking, Vaisnavatva (etiquette), puja, nor achar. They even sang the Maha-mantra wrong and made many mistakes such as bowing during the prema-dhavani prayers. The only goal was $$$. Even though ACBSP knew that I was a fugitive with no passport, still he wanted me to go and collect money in Amritsar. That (laxmi-points) was the be all and end all of Iskcon life. It was such a shock. It went against everything I had learned for six years from Caitanya-caritamrita, Bhakti-rasamrta-sindhu, etc., in the association of REAL devotees.

I watched in horror as an ISKCON sannyasi used his feet to kick other devotees during kirtana in front of the Deities (to make them dance); to see the puja standard performed incorrectly; to see men and women living in Ashram life together like cats and dogs; to witness the complete lack of knowledge and Vaisnavatva; and to see the mundane attitude of all these total kanistha beginners who were more like fanatic Jesus-freaks than a group of humble devotees. It was such BAD association. Everyone was running in circles like headless-chickens chasing after material goals in the worst way. It was personality-cult communism with ACBSP (in his 'old man' vapu) as the center, not Krsna.

Since then I lost respect for Iskcon people; it was obvious that they didn't understand Gaudiya-dharma prayojan, and they were dead-set against taking any help from or showing respect to Gaudiya Math devotees nor Prabhupada's still living great Godbrothers. They were so sure that they were already liberated and all-perfect. But I knew, clearly, that just the opposite was the truth. A perfect example is the zonal acarya guru worship I had to endure in L.A. before the "something-pad" fell down completely, leaving hundreds or even thousands of individual jivatma's with their faith completely shattered and their lives up-side-down. It was and still is disgusting to me. I take "svarupa-siddhi" to mean self-realization. These untrained fools were bad-mouthing all of Prabhupada's great Godbrothers and Sri Gaudiya Math, while kissing the ass of rich karmis just to get those all-important "laxmi points."

9. Did he ever tell stories from his years in Europe? Could you relate some?

A9: There were some stories like the time he and his Godbrother were in England having dinner with some VIP's. They were discussing philosophy when one of the proud Englishmen said, "but Swamiji, I am not afraid of death!" Just then Vana Maharaj's Godbrother grabbed a sharp knife, ran around the table and roughly put the blade to the gentleman's throat. Of course the Englishman was visibly terrified and the point was well taken.

There is another occasion when Vana Maharaj was asked by Lord Zetland if he could be made a Brahmin. When Srila Vana Maharaj told him the requirements he replied, "impossible!" Our Srila Prabhupada often tells this story but he never says who his Godbrother was. There are lots of other stories in Swami Vana's book, My First Year In England, which you mentioned.

10. Did he keep contact with any of his friends from Europe in the thirties, like Sara de Laredo, Sydney Hall (?), etc.? Are any of them still alive?

A10: I do not know. I never pried into Vana Maharaj's private life. I only knew something if he told me. Even I lived with Srila Krsnadas Babaji Maharaj for 6 years but never inquired about his past. Only the present had any meaning to me then.

11. Finally, if you could write down some personal memories about him, how he behaved with you and his other disciples, "lilas", or something like that I would be most thankful. When I spoke with Gopananda Vana and others they usually spoke only in a "theoretical" way. Only some "human" details did I get. Radhanatha Maharaja also supplied me with some.

A11: I do not wish to say more at this time. Iskcon's offensive devotees are not qualified to hear about the life of Srila Vana Maharaj. But I will say that Gopesh Prabhu (now Gopananda Vana), who was Srila Vana Maharaj's cook, was the most expert, dexterous, renounced, humble, sweet, dedicated, knowledgeable, and sincere devotee I have ever met. He was a complete expert in ALL aspects of Gaudiya Matha life including puja, kirtana, cooking, etiquette, and whatever else you can think of. He is the best devotee I have ever met in my entire life. Second to none!

12. Do you have any pictures, letters, etc., that you would be willing to let me copy and use?

A12: Yes, I have a b/w photo of his 70th birthday. I'll get it scanned and e-mail to you if you do not already have it.

To be continued in part 2