In the sub-division Māthābhāṅga in West Bengal’s Kūchibihāra district there lived a gṛhastha Vaiṣṇava named Śrī Nitya-gaura dāsa Adhikārī, who was initiated into the kṛṣṇa-mantra by jagad-guru Śrīla Bhakti Prajñāna Keśava Gosvāmī Mahārāja. Once, when one of his family members died, he followed vaiṣṇava-sadācāra, the approved Vaiṣṇava custom, and did not observe the non-Vaiṣṇava smārta regulations concerning impurity. Instead, he went on reading and teaching bhakti literature, such as Śrī Caitanya-caritāmṛta, and chanting harināma. After twelve days, he invited the Vaiṣṇavas of the maṭha to his home.
At that time, following the injunctions of the vaiṣṇava-smṛti-śāstras, Hari-bhakti-vilāsa and Sat-kriyā-sāra-dīpikā, he offered the prasāda grain remnants of Viṣṇu to the soul of the deceased relative. He also requested the Vaiṣṇavas to perform the vaiṣṇava-homa for the sake of the ultimate transcendental auspiciousness of the deceased. Mahā-prasāda was then distributed to all the assembled Vaiṣṇavas.
The other members of his community, who were not Vaiṣṇavas, particularly emphasized the performance of śrāddha, a ceremony for the benefit of a deceased relative, according to the smārta conceptions of Raghunandana, prevalent in the smārta community of Bengal. They were not at all satisfied with Nitya-gaura Prabhu’s Vaiṣṇava śrāddha and boycotted the ceremony altogether. Despite this, Nitya-gaura Prabhu was so steadfast in vaiṣṇava-sadācāra that he neglected the orders and directives of the village society. The villagers then became extremely angry with him. They stopped the barber, the washerman and others from going to his house; they severed all social connections with him, like eating, drinking and meeting with him; and they even prohibited him from drawing water from the same well. Nitya-gaura Prabhu became acutely intimidated by this oppressive social harassment and sent a letter to Gurudeva, informing him how the community was atrociously tyrannizing him. At that time, Śrīla Gurudeva was at Śrī Uddhāraṇa Gauḍīya Maṭha in Chuṅchurā. As soon as he received the letter, he immediately wrote back. The essence of his reply is given here.
I have received your letter informing me of the outrageous transgressions committed by the smārta community. There is no need to be afraid in the slightest. The community in your village is utterly fallen, and they have no knowledge of what is referred to as asauca, or impure. They do not have any sādhu-saṅga, and consequently they do not have even the slightest understanding of proper etiquette given in śāstra. These people are constantly absorbed in nothing but the five ‘m’s’ – madya, māṁsa, matsya, mudrā and maithuna (wine, meat, fish, money and sex). They eat abominable foodstuffs like onion, garlic and eggs and they are always drinking tea and bhāṅga, and smoking tobacco and gāñjā. This means that they are low-class people immersed in the modes of passion and ignorance. Such people are in the majority these days; there are very few saintly people established in proper behaviour and knowledge of the fundamental truths. Since misbehaved, low-class people are in the majority, they commit atrocities against the moral minority. I will give a simple example to illustrate what I mean by this.
There was one village where everyone was addicted to gāñjā. There was no one – young, old, man or woman – who did not take it, with the sole exception of a small child in one particular family. This boy had abstained from gāñjā from an early age, and as soon as he smelled the rank fumes of gāñjā, he would flee far away from there. As he grew older, his mother and father, relatives and community members tried in various ways to make him smoke gāñjā, but he would never yield. His parents and all the villagers were struck with wonder to see this boy’s nature. In the end, they came to the conclusion that he must be afflicted by some terrible disease, and they called the village doctor to arrange for some compulsory medical treatment.
This is the deplorable condition of our village societies today. They cannot tolerate anyone performing bhagavad-bhajana and practising saintly behaviour. They inflict inhumane atrocities on those who do, and even expel them from the village. Such low-class people are in the majority, and that is why they commit various types of grievous offences against the moral minority.
Śrīla Gurudeva continued:
Nitya-gaura, are there no educated, well-behaved, persons in the mood of goodness in your village? If there are, then show them my letter. I am firmly convinced that the modes of passion and ignorance will always be defeated. Victory always belongs to the mode of goodness, even if it seems slow in coming. Demonic people may appear to be strong in the beginning, but they are defeated in the end. In ancient times, those who adhered to demonic ideologies were always defeated in the struggles between the demigods and the demons, in the war between Rāma and Rāvaṇa, and in the conflict between the Pāṇḍavas and the Kauravas. Hiraṇyakaśipu was immensely powerful but he could not stand before his five-year-old devotee son Prahlāda, and Bhagavān Nṛsiṁhadeva annihilated him in a second. Always chant harināma. You are always pure. Bhagavān Nṛsiṁhadeva will protect you.
You should always remember that the Vaiṣṇavas and devotees of Bhagavān are unfailingly pure. Impurity never touches them, even during birth and death. What to speak of Vaiṣṇavas, anyone who takes shelter of harināma is relieved of the reactions of all past, present and future sinful activities, even if they have murdered their parents, committed adultery or perpetrated the most grievous sins. It is quite clear in Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam that when the greatly sinful Ajāmila called out the name Nārāyaṇa at the time of death, he was calling his son. Therefore, this was nāmābhāsa, not śuddha-nāma. Even so, Ajāmila’s sinful reactions were all dispelled simply by the influence of this nāmābhāsa. Death retreated from him, and afterwards, when he chanted pure harināma in the association of saintly persons, he attained Vaikuṇṭha as his destination.
You are eternally pure, because you have taken shelter of harināma and you are always observing the limbs of bhakti. It is not necessary for you to observe any regulations at all for so-called impurity due to a death in the family. Those who are not initiated into the viṣṇu-mantra and who do not chant the name of Bhagavān are impure throughout their whole lives and observe lifelong impurity. They have no right to enter the temples of Hari.
The preaching of smārta Raghunandana’s smṛti (named Aṣṭāviṁśati-tattva) is limited only to Bengal. Throughout the rest of India, people use the vaiṣṇava-smṛtis called Hari-bhakti-vilāsa and Sat-kriyā-sāra-dīpika. These vaiṣṇava-smṛtis have been prevalent in Bihar, Orissa, Uttara Pradesh and elsewhere for approximately five hundred years. Aṣṭaviṁśati-tattva has only been popular for two hundred and fifty years.
There are many defects in Raghunandana’s smṛti. For instance, no one, even those who have taken birth in a brāhmaṇa family can ever be pure throughout their whole life.
According to Raghunandana, when anyone appears in a household of brāhmaṇas, seven generations of ancestors in the dynasties of both the mother and the father become untouchable for ten days. Similarly, seven generations of the dynasties of both the father and the mother, whether male or female, become untouchable for ten days when anyone dies. Now, the number of present-day descendants of ancestors from seven previous generations will be very large, and if any birth or death takes place in this vast population, then the complete dynasty is supposed to become untouchable. That means that if just thirty-six births or deaths occur in one year among this huge number of people, then their whole year will be spent in an impure condition. According to this doctrine, they can never be pure at any time in their lives and there are no means by which they can become purified again. If it supposed that they become purified by the recitation of mantras at the time of the śrāddha ceremony, then how do they become impure again? A brāhmaṇa daily chants the gāyātrī-mantra at the three junctions (sandhyas) of the day. Is the gāyātrī-mantra not capable of purifying him? Obviously, they have no faith in the potency of the mantra. Their conceptions are all erroneous and contrary to śāstra.
It is necessary to say something further on the subject of smārta-brāhmaṇas. One who knows the smṛti-śāstras is called smārta‚ as are his followers. There are two types of smṛti-śāstra: laukika, or worldly, and pāramārthika, or transcendental. The principal subject matter established by the Vedas, Upaniṣads and Purāṇas is bhagavad-bhakti, and those smṛti-śāstras that describe the rules and regulations of bhagavad-bhakti are called pāramārthika-smṛti. Those smṛti-śāstras which neglect this confidential purport of the Vedas and instead emphasize the rules and regulations for maintaining the gross social shackles are called laukika smṛti-śāstra.
Smṛti is basically one, but there are divisions of Smṛti because of the differences between those sages who are inclined to the service of Bhagavān and those sages who are averse. The brahminical nature of worldly brāhmaṇas who only follow laukika smṛtis is not perfect. Birth in a brāhmaṇa dynasty is not enough in itself, because one who performs no brahminical activities and has no brahminical qualities is not a brāhmaṇa, even if he happens to have taken birth in a dynasty of brāhmaṇas. One’s social caste – whether brāhmaṇa, non-brāhmaṇa or untouchable – is determined by one’s qualities and activities. This subject is completely clear in authoritative śāstras such as Gītā and Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam.
cātur-varṇyaṁ mayā sṛṣtaṁ
The fourfold system of varṇas was created by Me according to divisions of quality (guṇa) and work (karma).
yasya yal lakṣaṇaṁ proktaṁ
If one exhibits the characteristic symptoms of a brāhmaṇa, kṣatriya, vaiśya or śūdra, he should be accepted as a member of that varṇa, even if he has taken birth in another.
Now suppose someone performs a śrāddha ceremony by engaging a priest who may have taken birth in a dynasty of brāhmaṇas but who is averse to Bhagavān and has the temperament of a demon. Then that śrāddha ceremony will also be demonic. Can there be any doubt about this? The performance of such a śrāddha can bring no auspiciousness whatsoever to the soul of a deceased person. The atheistic villagers and laukika smārta-brāhmaṇas who are averse to Hari may follow this supposed observance of impurity. However, people who are initiated into the viṣṇu-mantra and who are established in vaiṣṇava-sadācāra will never follow it. You, your wife and your children are householders who are established in vaiṣṇava-sadācāra and initiated into the viṣṇu-mantra. Therefore you are always pure. You should never associate with fallen people, otherwise you will also become fallen. I never approve of heretical doctrines. That village community which is bereft of proper conduct is composed of common people, not the Supreme Lord. You should stay on the path of bhakti with very firm resolve and not be slightly fearful. There is another matter which should be properly understood. It is forbidden in all respects for pure Vaiṣṇavas to do kuśa-dhāraṇa and nāndīmukha-śrāddha. The meaning of the word śrāddha comes from śraddhā (faith) – śraddhā hetutvenāstyasya aṇ. The word śrāddha can only properly refer to those activities that are performed with śraddhā towards Hari, Guru and Vaiṣṇavas. According to the smārtas, everyone becomes a ghost in his next life, even those who are greatly dedicated to religion (dharmātmās) and have taken shelter of harināma. On the basis of this notion, smārta priests make everyone call out the mantra, “ete preta-tarpaṇa-kāle bhavanti iha – may the ghost be present here and accept this piṇḍa.” Here the belief is that although one’s mother or father or anyone else may have engaged in bhagavad-bhajana throughout their entire life and always have adhered to pure conduct, as soon as they died they became ghosts. Then at the time of śrāddha they are offered piṇḍa composed of meat, fish, burnt bananas and rice and they are addressed, “O pitṛdeva, you have become a ghost. May you accept this ghost-food and be satisfied.” Is this a qualified son’s expression of faith (śraddhā) in his qualified father? This is why Vaiṣṇavas boycott such ghostly śrāddha ceremonies.
You should also boycott a society that performs or makes one perform such ghost śrāddha. Show my letter to the members of your village community and tell them that we are prepared to debate on this subject anywhere in any religious assembly. If they want to debate, then we will always be ready to come to your village to discuss the scriptures.