Some modern Caitanya bhakti sects emphasize preaching as the most important duty of a devotee. Preaching in this context carries the meaning of proselytizing, that is, attempting to convert people to become followers of the bhakti path.
This is typically accomplished by selling books to others, by offering them free food, by inviting them to temples with lavishly and beautifully decorated deities, by having smiling devotees dance and sing in crowded streets, by inviting people to ‘house programs’, by seeking donations for temples from business owners, and sometimes by just striking up an empathic conversation.
Rupa Goswami did not include preaching in the limbs of bhakti
An examination of Rupa Goswami’s teachings shows that preaching to others is not included as a limb of bhakti for the sādhaka. The goal of uttamā bhakti is uttamā bhakti, and the means to achieve it are Rupa Goswami’s limbs of bhakti. While the absence of preaching in these limbs does not mean that preaching is forbidden, it does mean that Rupa Goswami, the person who understood Sri Caitanya’s purpose, did not consider preaching as part of a sādhaka’s sādhanā.
Śrī Caitanya did not instruct sādhakas to preach.
A typical justification for preaching is the example of Śrī Caitanya. For example, during his travels in South India, Sri Caitanya at one point told a brahmin he met,
“yāre dekha, tāre kaha ‘kṛṣṇa’-upadeśa āmāra ājñāya guru hañā tāra’ ei deśa” – speak Kṛṣṇa’s instructions to whoever you see. Be a guru by my order, and liberate this place.
But there is no indication that the brahmin was playing the part of a sādhaka. This is not a general instruction by Śrī Caitanya to sādhakas, otherwise, Rupa Goswami would have included it as a limb of bhakti.
That preaching is not Śrī Caitanya’s main mission is obvious from the fact that Rupa and Jiva Goswami, and the numerous devotees that followed them including Visvanatha Cakravarti, for hundreds of years, did not attempt to proselytize or make ‘tens of thousands of disciples’ (which is the stated goal for many modern gurus).
Preaching is inconsistent with Kṛṣṇa’s instructions for a sādhaka
Kṛṣṇa rejects mass preaching in the Bhagavad-gītā. In the eighteenth chapter, He instructs Arjuna, who is playing the role of a sādhaka, to become a devotee and to surrender to Him. In the immediate next verse, Kṛṣṇa says,
This confidential knowledge should never be revealed by you to a person who is not prepared to undergo spiritual discipline, or to one who is devoid of devotion, or to one who is not whole-heartedly inquisitive, or to one who is envious of me. (BG 18.67)
The vast majority of the general public is not interested in becoming Kṛṣṇa’s devotee. And in the following verse, Kṛṣṇa says,
One who imparts this supreme secret wisdom to My devotees, thus executing supreme devotion to Me, comes to Me alone. There is no doubt about it. (BG 18.68)
Many consider proselytizing efforts on the streets a public nuisance. Verse 18.68 shows that the knowledge of bhakti has to be imparted to bhaktas alone. If there are people genuinely interested in bhakti due to past saṁskāras, they will be drawn to the bhakti path on their own. This principle is explained in the context of yoga in the sixth chapter of the Bhagavad-gītā by Kṛṣṇa himself.
Preaching can be an aparādha
In the Padma Purāṇa, there are clear instructions that it is an aparādha to instruct someone who does not have śraddhā in bhakti, or to someone who is not interesting in hearing about bhakti. Many people get irritated by public shows of bhakti, efforts to proselytize, or manipulative efforts to sell books. Many recipients of books simply toss them in the trash. Preaching breeds disrespect in them for Kṛṣṇa which is something every devotee ought to avoid.
Previously, knowledge of bhakti was confined to a small group of people, and a small number of books which were mainly in Sanskrit. The preaching mentality has opened up this knowledge to everyone without providing proper context or methods of interpretation and without personal guidance. It has now become a major headache to counter the widespread misinterpretations and misconceptions of bhakti.
The fact is that Caitanya Vaiṣṇavism was historically never a proselytizing religion; even its founders- Jiva and Rupa Goswami, did not attempt such things. Imitating Śrī Caitanya’s ‘preaching’ is not a good idea for a sādhaka. Adhering to the limbs of bhakti, on the other hand, is a very good idea. The goal of uttamā bhakti is uttamā bhakti, not preaching to others.
Preaching fulfills a psychological need
Preaching fulfills the following psychological need. It is much more fulfilling for a preacher when a large number of people follow his or her path. Increasing the ranks of people in one’s group makes one feel secure in one’s own path. The preacher feels satisfied in having ‘saved’ another soul. Finally, the number of conversions a preacher brings about brings value, respect and (at least in some cases) financial security also. Unfortunately, none of these items fit the goals and/or definitions of uttamā bhakti.
People love to point out how preaching has helped spread (a version of) bhakti and made it available to so many people who have taken it up.
The question, though, is whether those who took up the preacher’s version of bhakti achieved the results of uttama bhakti. The uttama bhakti path, if properly practiced, makes people happy.
Many preachers try to alienate people from society by creating a deep distrust for anything outside of the preacher’s path. This causes psychological scars which distorts the personality. Preachers attempt to control the thoughts of their flock by instilling fear of ideas and concepts that contradict their preaching.
The question is- did people become better persons as a result of taking up the bhakti process preached to them, or did they become distrusting, paranoid unhappy folk that are afraid to question, afraid to learn new things, unable to improve and afraid to step out of the preacher’s party line?
Are people today proud and happy to be part of the path propagated by preachers, or are they ashamed to admit it in public owing to the many unsavory scandals and outrageous views that are prevalent in some modern sects, caused by misinterpretations of bhakti texts?
Uttama bhakti is for normal people. Preaching can and has driven them away, or made them abnormal. A cloud now hangs over the future of the Caitanya Vaiṣṇava tradition.