Exclusive talk with Paramahamsa Vishwananda – founder of international movement Bhakti Marga.
Topics covered: religion, spirituality, love, enlightenment, karma, dharma, changes in the world.
Interviewed by: Nenad Kobasić, December 2017, Croatia
PART 1: RELIGION – SPIRITUALITY – LOVE
Question (Q): You and your movement Bhakti Marga are part of Hindu religion and Vaishnava lineage. Do you consider yourself to be a religion or spiritual movement?
Paramahamsa Vishwananda (PV): Well, every spiritual movement has its background in religion. Without religion, the spiritual background would not stand. So, we can’t separate the two. The moment we say we are Vaishnavas, automatically we are Hindu. That doesn’t mean that we don’t respect everybody else, though. The Vaishnava philosophy is a philosophy of openness, because we know that God resides in everybody. In general Hindus have the same mentality: that our religion, which we call it ‘Sanatana Dharma’, is eternal religion. But what is eternal? When we look deeply, our soul is eternal. So, it’s a religion of the soul. And when we look, everything comes out from that. That openness, that awareness, God being close with the people, the Love of God…it’s mostly that.
And, yes, we are also a spiritual group which is also on the move, because the deepness of religion is spirituality. First everybody starts with a background, you need a base. For example, when you build a house, you need a base, no? Without the base, the house will not hold. So, the base of spirituality is religion, but we transcend the religion dogmatism. Due to fear, people hold upon and build up their small cocoon and this becomes their world. They don’t want to see outside and they don’t want to be broad-minded. But, when religion is deepened, then the awareness of God is revealed. When you have the awareness of God, then you can’t say, yes, you belong to one religion or the other. Religion itself transforms to spirituality. But it’s not separate. Spirituality is found within the deepness of religion itself.
Q: Your Swamis say that you are a reformer of the world of Vaishnavas and you are not restricting yourself with dogmas and traditions. What makes you a reformer and which dogmas and traditions are currently the most constricting for you?
PV: [laughing] No, actually, I would not call myself a reformer, because, look, I am very open-minded and I interpret the scriptures in a very modern way. I make it easy for everybody to understand because we have to go with the times. Something which was said in the 12th or 13th century we have to adapt to this time now. We come from the oldest form of Vaishnavism: the first lineage of Vaishnava, which is the Sri Sampradaya. Of course, the Sri Sampradaya in itself is very deep. But we have to see that Ramanujacharya reformed the whole thing according to his time. And it is the same now: we are adapting what he said to this time? We are adapting the Love of God to this time. That love doesn’t change. Even if it was 2000, 3000, 5000 years ago. It is still that love for God, that reminder which Lord Krishna gave to humanity, and that’s what it is: just a reminder.
Of course, because nowadays the people’s minds are different, and their minds are running towards other things, we have to speak the language of the people, so that they can understand. Otherwise they will say, ‘Yes, it’s not that what I am looking for’, without really understanding the deepness of it. So, when everything is explained in a proper way, then the understanding is there.
Q: You say and actively work on lessening the borders which are there between different Vaishnava Sampradayas. Who set them up, why are they there and also how they can be lessened?
PV: Like I said, Bhakti Marga is part of the Sri Sampradaya, the first Vaishnava lineage which was put in place by Ramanujacharya. We trace our lineage to Goddess Lakshmi. She is a founder of the Sri Sampradaya. That’s why the word ‘Sri’ is there. All the other Sampradayas which came afterwards came through different acharyas. There are only four Sampradayas. So, each Sampradaya comes from their own acharya, but their base is the same: that we are eternally the servants of God and that life is to attain His Grace only. And this is what we have to put deep in our minds.
Very often each one fights for supremacy. Each one thinks that, ‘We are the best’. Then I ask myself, “What kind of Vaishnava can say that: ‘We are the best’?” That’s what Krishna was emphasising. We have to surrender our minds so that when the mind is surrendered, pride and ego is not there. When anyone says we are the best, and yes, we fight for being the supremacy of things, where is humility? Bhagavan, in all His Leelas, He has shown that He is humble, and He doesn’t go around teaching people that He is Supreme. It is very important to be in one path and to honour one path. By honouring one path, you will be able to respect others. And this is what I would like: to unite in humility and love all the different paths, not only Vaishnavas, but all humanity should understand that we are all loving one God. We can call Him by many names, but He is Bhagavan Himself. He is the Supreme Lord, He is the Lord of the Universe, He is the Lord of everybody, and He is not bound by our politics. The only thing that can bind Him is what we have inside of us: that love. And this is my religion. This Love, is my religion. His Love.
Q: In Bhakti Marga there are Swamis and the other half Swaminis. One of them is also the head of an ashram. You allowed women to be Swaminis. It is, for sure, one of the dogmas you have broken and I bow myself to you.
PV: Actually, Swamini VishwaMohini, she is the head of Bhakti Marga in Vrindavan itself, which is the centre of Bhakti movement. This is where Lord Krishna Himself lived. When we look at Lord Krishna, He uplifted women. He protected women; He married 16000 women to protect them. He was always the protector of women.
Without women we would not be here. So, that respect must be there. And God has not said that women are excluded. When we look at the Vaishnava philosophy, women are placed first. Take the Sri Sampradaya itself: Maha Lakshmi is always first, and She is put first. Even the Gaudiya Sampradaya, they have Radharani first. So, why not? Why should there only be Swamis? Of course, we are the first ones to adapt the Sri Sampradaya to the role of Swamini in this tradition which dates thousands of years, and no one has said anything till now. Even the head of Sri Sampradaya, the Jeeyar Swami in Sri Rangam didn’t have any opposition, didn’t have any objection, and he found that it was very great and gave his blessing for that.
Q: What is your vision of Vaishnavism? And what makes it more suitable for our time?
PV: Why it is most suitable for this time? Because Vaishnavism is a path of bhakti, the path of devotion. And devotion is simple and easy, because devotion deals with the Love of God, the love between you and your Creator. And this is the language which everybody understands, the language of love, because everybody is looking for love. Whether you believe in God or whether you don’t believe in God, when there is love, everybody recognises that, not only humans, even animals. So, Vaishnava is a language of love, and that’s what makes it different. It’s not shallow. Because love is something deep. We have to understand what this love is. Because when you say love, even in Christianity, they say Love is God. Christ said it. We have to understand why He referred to Love as God: because Love is endless, there is nothing higher than Love and Love is ever-growing. It’s not like what humans understand of love. So, Vaishnavism holds upon that everlasting Love which is bliss itself. When the love that we know transforms into divine bliss, supreme bliss, it becomes endless.
Q: For yourself, you claim that you successfully connect Christianity and Hinduism. Considering that your rituals are mainly Hindu, in what way do you do that and do you have an answer and good will from Christian and Catholic sides? : I heard that in your ashram in Germany – I heard that there is…
PV: Yes, we have a chapel. We live in a Christian country here, and the background of the people is Christian. I don’t want them to forget about their rules of love. Even if all our rituals are Hindu, when we go deeper into the teaching of the Masters, the teaching of Christ, you will see that what Lord Krishna had taught 3000 years prior to Him is the same. Jesus was just reminding us about the Love of the Father. There are so many similarities in what Jesus taught to His disciples, and in what Lord Krishna taught. So, whenever – like Krishna Himself said, – whenever there is a decline in dharma, whenever there is somebody forgetting the true dharma of being a human being, which is to love, then He sends His saints, His sadhus, to remind humanity of that. So, what has Jesus said? He reminded people of the Love of God. So, it doesn’t matter what clothes He is wearing. Behind that is the same Lord.
Q: Can Christianity and Hinduism go together or what connects them both and what..?
PV: Look, if we look at it in a very narrow-minded way, no, it will never work. But if we look at it from the heart point of view and the understanding point of view, if we look at it from a point of humanity and really respect and love…this is very important, to learn to respect each other. It doesn’t matter which religion you belong to, but as long as you can respect each other for their beliefs and let them live their lives, then there could be peace. But if you play the game of, ‘I am better than you’ or ‘x, y, z’ is better than another, then ask yourself: is that what Krishna taught, is that what Jesus taught? No. They taught humanity to love each other; love in diversity, which means respect each other. When there is respect towards each other, then true love will be there. Then you will understand truly what Lord Krishna said and what Lord Jesus Christ said.
Q: : Isn’t every religion, at its core, the same?
PV: In its core, every religion wants to reach the same place, and all of them are a reminder of attaining the Grace of God.
NK: Why then is it that they cannot live in true peace with each other or at least in living together and tolerating each other?
PV: Because they can’t. They are fearful and they don’t understand each other. Different religious people don’t want to understand each other. When there is no understanding between people, you don’t need to be far away. Like in your own house, if you don’t have understanding between members of your family, there is no harmony. When one thinks that one is doing greater than the other, there is no harmony. So, as long as religious people look at it that way, there will be no harmony. It is only when the mind changes.
Each one is free to follow whoever they want. ‘I am happy in my religion, let me be!. ‘I am happy in my religion and I respect everybody. Everybody is looking for the same thing that I am looking for, but in a different way.’ Like you have different languages. Each person speaks a different language; do they fight with each other because of language? No, they don’t fight. There is a respect that each country has their own language. Why can’t that each religion believe that there are different religions? And each one is looking for God. And God is one! There are not 10 Gods. There is only one Supreme Lord Himself and we are all looking at Him from different angles, and from different points of view we express our love to Him differently, but He is one. That’s what religious people should understand: that there is only one God, not 10. Love Him the way you want.
This is what I love in Hinduism. There is this open-mindedness; we can love Him the way we want. There is no restriction of loving Him So, whatever feeling is in our heart, we love Him. We want to love Him as a beloved, we can love Him as a beloved. We want to love Him as God, the Supreme, we can love Him as a Supreme. If we want to love Him as a Father, He will be the Father. If we love Him as a Mother, He will be the Mother. So, it’s not restricted in how we love Him. We are restricted, but He is not. And He calls each one to become like Him, because in the core of who we are, we are His essence. We should not forget that we are a parcel of that divinity within ourselves. And that parcel of divinity sees things completely differently. The way our soul sees is different from what our mind sees. If we look at it from that angle, we are all family, a soul family.
Q: What is the biggest obstacle to not understanding and not accepting other religions?
PV: It’s the mind. Because one doesn’t want to be open-minded. It’s due to fear. The mind has so many fears. If you are at peace with yourself, it doesn’t matter, you don’t have any problems with anybody. But if you have fear, then you will have problems with everybody because you have problems with yourself. So, that fear is with oneself because you are so insecure in yourself. Your mind is insecure because your mind is running left and right. You don’t want to accept that insecurity in yourself, so what you do? You project it onto others. You know, like Jesus Himself said: Don’t judge, you shall not be judged. This is one of His teachings. But what do all the people do? The first thing that they don’t understand: they judge. They criticise. Well, that’s sad. [slight laugh] Because the Master Himself has taught, ‘Don’t judge, you shall not be judged’, and yet, everybody does whatever they want.
Q:How to transform conditioned love into unconditional, endless, eternal love?
PV: Like I said earlier, Love is eternal. Conditional love is when you expect something from others. Whatever you are doing, you are expecting something in return. Then, whenever there is an expectation, there will be sadness. So, unless you really transcend that limitation and really understand what love is, and really understand your goal, it’s important to have that aim and it is very important to have the sense of belonging. When you have an aim, meaning you have a path, you belong to a path. And that sense of belonging brings you to that goal. The path is the way.
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