Wednesday, December 27, 2006

A visit to the temple

My friend Shalagram Prabhu, who is about the most yogic of all the bhaktas I know, once told me that there is some debate amongst the yogis about which chakra is the most important, with some claiming precedence for the heart chakra over the more familiarly lauded sahasrara.

I have a strong tendency to associate mental speculation with spirituality. So, I tried to counteract that tendency today by meditating on the heart chakra while chanting japa. I was just trying to concentrate on the feeling of love and spreading it outward. Seeing my heart as the heart of a gopi.

{Oh my God! I’ve gone New Age! I feel a gag reaction setting in... Such things are best kept private...}

...but this really is what I have been intellectually moving toward. I repent that I never became a kirtaniya. Like a crab with an overdeveloped claw, I was obliged by my nature to cultivate a single part of my faculties, and have thus been deprived of wholeness due to that distortion. And this is why I say that one must seek out balance in the Other, for it is only given to the rarest individuals to find it within themselves.

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I went last night to the temple for the first time in at least a fortnight. The temple room was empty and the tape of Prabhupada that usually loops round and round came to a stop only a few minutes after I arrived. So I could sit in still silence for an hour of meditation. I sat next to Prabhupada and had something of a conversation with him, as I often do. Of course, I told him that I intended to go ahead in my own stubborn way, despite his objections... But I thanked him for the powerful atmosphere; I felt extremely conscious that over the years thousands of devotees have cried out the names of Krishna in this hall, and those prayers have seeped into the walls and penetrated them until the bricks could be said to be made of Harinam. The floor itself exudes Harinam like the lava oozing from a subterranean fire. I thanked Prabhupada for this.

After japa, I chanted the second chapter of the Gita, because I have been feeling it was time to revisit this book again, which has been such an important part of my life. It is a thing that is seen differently each time one approaches it. The Gita is, I have decided, about decision. But as Kierkegaard says, decisions in the matter of everlasting happiness cannot be made objectively. Matters of ultimate concern are always anchored in the subjective and reason will always bring us to doubt and approximations only.

My personal question has become multidimensional now, something of a twisted ball of yarn. In a recent post, I was asking the question, "What is my message?" My purpose was to inquire into whether I had discovered something so high and glorious that it would warrant rejecting the relative and mundane existence to which I am tied. If I am to reject the dharmas to which I find myself committed, then I must go to a higher dharma. If I am to make some kind of leap of faith, I must at least be able to argue the following: the obligations I leave behind, indeed, the suffering that I cause, will be compensated by a greater good. This is the rational argument that I am unfortunately obliged by my nature to try to answer. And, what we must guard against is the possibility of rationalization.

The basis for Hindu ethics lies in one word--ahimsa. Do not do injury to others. But, this principle can be deceptive. The Gita itself is a call to battle; Krishna calls on Arjuna to overcome "petty weakness of heart" (kshudram hridaya-daurbalyam), "impotence" (klaibyam), generally treating his carefully argued reluctance to do battle as unbecoming a warrior (naitat tvayy upapadyate).

It is quite reasonable to ask what is the difference between Krishna's attempts to persuade Arjuna to behave in a worthy manner and Heinrich Himmler telling his SS minions to fight the tendency to human sympathy and "stick it out" in the extermination of the Jews? No doubt, we have to judge the merits of the end result. Krishna tells Arjuna that his is a "dharma-yuddha." What a loaded phrase! Do we here in the West have any sympathy for those who proclaim Jihad, which is, after all, simply the Arabic version of dharma-yuddha? However inspired by their God the Jihadis may be, we who are deprived of their faith, see it as something that must be resisted with all the conviction of anyone who would resist evil. What child of the 60's does not remember Bob Dylan's caustic repetition of the refrain "with God on our side"? Should we not be cynical about this claim, wherever it rears its head?

In a little book called Ahimsa: Non-violence in the Indian Tradition (London: Rider and Company, 1976), Unto Tähtinen makes a distinction between "Vedic" ahimsa, which permits "sacrificial" violence, and "ascetic" (namely Jain and Buddhist) ahimsa, which allows no such exceptions. Prabhupada was clearly a proponent of Vedic ahimsa and often criticized Gandhi, who believed deeply in the ascetic kind of non-violence. But even the Jains and Buddhists admitted on occasion that intent makes the essential difference in the import of violent acts.

Krishna's argument begins with an attempt to change the framework of the discussion by insisting that our real identities are distinct from the bodies, so that dying and killing are a kind of illusion. If the suffering one causes another is not related to his essence, then the injury one does is, in a sense, not real. In fact, later exponents tell us that Krishna gave liberation to those he killed, and something similar takes place when a devotee, following the purpose of the Lord, takes someone's life.

In a dharma-yuddha, one is simply acting in harmony with rita (Rta), the universal order, of which death and dying are an integral part of that order, under the governance of Time. And, since life itself unavoidably involves violence to others (jIvo jIvasya jIvanam), if we acquiesce to the role that God intends for us, then no negative result or sin accrues from the violence so caused.

Arjuna, however, is not convinced that his fight is clearly on the side of right. He argues precisely that political power is not a worthwhile aim. "Let Duryodhana and the others have it!" he says generously. We assume, on faith, that the Pandavas would be worthier rulers than Duryodhan, but does Krishna actually say that anywhere in the Gita? He simply says that he is "Time" and that his will is unfolding in this particular way, and that Arjuna should be his agent. This is a kind of fatalistic attitude that causes a profound ethical malaise. George W. Bush in his deepest conviction fights against the "Axis of Evil" to establish the Divine Good of democracy, while Bin Laden in his war against the "Great Satan" believes with absolute conviction that he fights on the side of God? Are their actions, for all their conviction, nothing more than than those of puppets in the hands of Time, diminishing the "burden of the Earth"?

If fighting is what we are meant to do, then fight we must and hanged be the ahankar. "Ours is not to question why, ours is but to do and die." God's plans are obscure and we can only know what somehow we are impelled to do, according to the best understanding of the moral law. So Heinrich Himmler argued that the affront to conscience and human goodness that he asked his lieutenants to engage in was an unfortunate necessity to rid the world of the Jewish scourge. Had he argued that the Jews were spirit souls who were never born and never died and that no one truly kills or is killed, and if he had invoked God's name, does that mean they would have incurred no sin? The events of the Second War have had a profound influence on human thinking: no one buys that line any more.

A sociopath has no conscience; how can we say that being without a conscience is the clue to happiness? Is that what Krishna is telling Arjuna: "Shut off your conscience and kill. You will not be affected by the evil of your acts. Say they are done in my name and your conscience will be salved!"? Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Bin Laden, the Grand Inquisitioner--every one of them had their "higher" purpose that made it possible to justify their evil acts, their himsa. So, why am I looking for a higher purpose to similarly justify an apparent evil, minor though it may be in comparison to these Gargantuas of Gehenna?

Indeed, my "mission" can only be resumed in something that objectively looks like something selfish. On the most charitable level, it is related to my own spiritual or self-fulfilment. In my mind I argue that I need to correct a series of mistakes I made along the line in my life: I abandoned the company of devotees. I lost my faith and allowed myself to be surrounded by forgetfulness of Radha and Krishna. Now I say, "Prema prayojana"; that is very nice, but do not all religions say the same? Are my Christian and Catholic brothers and sisters not saying the same? And do they not say, love those here and now, who are beside you and in need of you? And do not the Gita and Bhagavata say the same? Why go looking for God in far away places when you and I know that he is present here, present in the hearts of those whom God has given into your care? What mission can be greater than this? And are you not doomed to fail any mission proclaiming love when you fail in this first small step? The great journeys start with little steps; if you trip here, missing the universal principle of love, then how will dressing yourself in the trappings of a sectarian religion, quoting Sanskrit texts and engaging in esoteric rituals help you or anyone else?

I cannot tell you how my heart hungers for Vrindavan, how it hungers to be freed from this barren world of blank walls and unceasing, sterile entertainments. I am in a bubble of Radha-Krishna, unable to find anyone to share them. It is not enough to find some nourishment in a few minutes of spiritual infusion in the temple, I need to be fully absorbed in that world. If I have to admit that I am the most kanishtha of kanishtha adhikaris, if I must renounce forever any pretensions to guru, if I must save myself first, then let me run to this salvation even if I have to leave others behind to flounder in the shipwreck that I have been unable to forestall. It is a great shame; such a shame, indeed, that I still cannot admit that I should not have failed in this first small duty, and want to run off to start again somewhere else.

My sister said to me this week, quoting one of those banal snippets of popular wisdom, "The real heroes are those who get up every day and live their lives." Peter Anon said, "The highest sacrifice is to sacrifice your own spirituality to render service." How depressing these words are to me now.

In my frantic, haphazard readings of the past few weeks, I came across Kierkegaard's Concluding Unscientific Postscript. I cannot find a single quote that adequately pinpoints what I get out of this article, nor do I feel entirely convinced by him, but I felt a distinct glimmer of hope on reading it. In the spirit of our tradition, Kierkegaard rejects "objective" attempts to know truth, which will only ever reach approximation. Those who would realize Christianity's promise of eternal happiness, who have an "infinite interest" in this goal, must recognize that it is found exclusively in subjectivity. And, "since all decisiveness... inheres in subjectivity, it is essential that every trace of an objective issue should be eliminated. If any such trace remains, it is at once a sign that the subject seeks to shirk something of the pain and crisis of the decision..."

"The existing individual who chooses the subjective way apprehends instantly the entire dialectical difficulty involved in having to uses some time, perhaps a long time, in finding God objectively; and he feels this dialectical difficulty in all its painfulness, because every moment is wasted in which he does not have God. That very instant he has God, not by virtue of any objective deliberation, but by virtue of the infinite passion of inwardness." "Subjectivity culminates in passion."

In Rupa Goswami's description of the degrees of advancement, nowhere is knowledge mentioned. One advances in the intensity of one's subjective experience of the relationship with God. And the Bhagavata says that if you run on this path of "infinite passion," even with your eyes closed, you shall neither trip nor fall. And yet the dharma vyadha Mrigari stepped around the ants, avoiding doing them any injury, even as he rushed towards his guru.

Ah, but I am weary of my inability to know God's will, but worse, of my inability to rush off with my eyes closed.

Enthusiasts and philosophers

Looked over yesterday's post... Blogging gives you a license to be incoherent; no editors, you know. I also see that all this commentary is likely meaningless to the majority of western Krishna devotees. This means only a very small minority of that ever-declining number is even a potential audience for what I have to say. And yet, I have no other audience...

If enthusiasts are relatively scarce, so also are philosophers... Those with a philosophical bent are perturbed by traditional utterances even before the existence of alternative traditions is revealed to them. They find to be obscure what "everyone" takes for granted, or they do not see what reason there is to take it for granted, or they see further implications or plausible corollaries of what is believed. Whether their particular bent is critical or speculative usually determines whether they become resident sceptics or imaginative metaphysicians. In neither case are they content to remain entirely within the tradition: either they undermine that tradition or they seek to amplify and expand it. Whether their work receives any recognition depends on the mix of temperaments in their society, and its cultural situation. Sometimes they are doomed to find no sympathetic companion... [Stephen R.L. Clark, The Mysteries of Religion (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986) 12.]

It is true that "enthusiasts" are the minority in the long run, even within a movement of converts--manuṣyāṇāṁ sahasreṣu kaścid yatati siddhaye and all that. But as Clark also states, "Those who begin as enthusiasts for understanding may end up as lazily conventional." Oh well... There but for fortune...

Clark also makes a distinction between the "literalist" and "symbolist." The general Krishna devotee has been trained up as a literalist and there is little space for those who think symbolically. Symbolic interpretations are often, correctly, suspect for being reductionist and ultimately superficial. There is, however, a usefulness in thinking of religious phenomena in this way. Even if one is a literalist, it is worth looking at one's own tradition objectively, assessing it while bracketing, as far as possible, those aspects that are dependent on faith. It is often easier to do this with other people's faiths than one's own, the result being a lot of bad faith rhetoric due to the inability to recognize common ground.

I find it useful to know that besides being fallen demigods or fallen devotees from previous lives, or special souls sent by defunct gurus to help spread Chaitanya Mahaprabhu's movement throughout the world, those who came to Krishna consciousness showed particular sociological and psychological profiles. Even from a point of view of marketing, it makes sense to be aware of such things. When Prabhupada said, "Hippies are my best clients," he was making a marketing assessment. So why not follow those market researchers who take things much further?

Of course, the question arises, as it always does, what is product integrity and how far can one compromise for the sake of marketing? What is my interest, personally? Being a purist and an INTP type, I am personally more interested in "truth" than in sales, though I recognize that much truth can be learned even from the marketing approach. But to go from product research to sales means recognizing that a product is "ready for market" and knowing who will value it.

In my own personal case, I ask, "What is my product? What am I selling?" In the religious marketplace, one has to be able to answer, "What exactly does religion offer the ordinary person anyway? And how does this religion offer anything special that makes it worth marketing?" One has to be an enthusiast and be able to say convincingly, "This is unique and there is nothing like it anywhere else. My competitors cannot offer this or that." Too much analysis tends to make one a relativist: "To each their own poison." Why should this particular set of religious variables be anything more than a purely aesthetic choice?

When you get to that point, then you end up being restricted to interpreting to others who already share your aesthetic sense, and who furthermore have become freed somewhat from the literalist approach. I can talk with great enthusiasm to someone who already loves Radha and Krishna, but I find myself incapable of saying anything convincing to a person who has no interest in religion in general, or Vaishnavism in particular. I find it quite difficult to say something that a first-line preacher might say with conviction, along the lines of harer nāmaiva kevalam, kalau nāsty eva nāsty eva nāsty eva... and the like.

When you become too detached from the symbols themselves and attentive to underlying meanings, the tendency is to speak to seekers on their terms, advising them in a rather new-agey or pop-psychy manner; rather than saying, "Krishna is God. Chant the Holy Name. Surrender everything and worship Krishna," one will say, "Follow your heart. Look within. Seek God." The approach is namby-pamby rather than hard-line; shades of gray rather than black-or-white. "Find yourself" rather than "join us."

Clark says,
Part of what it is to be religious is to join with others in ceremonial and symbolic exercises, to share a perception of things as imbued with a certain sort of meaning. Someone who claimed to be 'religious' in a way that no one else could or should understand or share, who claimed a literally unique route to the appreciation of a divine reality no one else could grasp, would not easily be distinguished from an ordinary hobbyist: if 'my' God cannot be anyone else's, how is He God at all? (page 5)
If one's experience of the Divine has been deep and meaningful, then the need to share it in a direct and intense way is one of its most powerful byproducts. At one point I wrote somewhere that in our Vaishnava tradition there are different social levels of devotional performance, each with its own characteristic spiritual experience. There is individual performance--meditation on the mantra, smaraṇa, etc. There is also social performance--hearing Bhagavatam in the association of devotees, sankirtan, etc. To these, I add the "dual" performance: that of physical intimacy with another devotee. All three of these performances are connected. Though at different points in one's devotional career, different aspects of spiritual culture may take precedence, it is unlikely that any one of these on its own would remain strong without the backing of the others.

Radhe Radhe!

Monday, December 25, 2006

The schema of three cultures

Some notes that I jotted down in the bus after completing the last post. First, the schema of three cultures.
  1. the conative (i.e. the will) → karma → virtue
  2. the cognitive (i.e. the reason) → jnana → wisdom
  3. the affective (i.e. the emotions) → bhakti (piety) → love
Just as adherence to duty does not necessarily result in virtue, the culture of knowledge does not necessarily result in wisdom, the culture of piety does not necessarily result in love.

In Western society, a romantic version of human love has become the dominant ideal expression of the affects. The hippie philosophy of love was a colossal failure, precisely because, even as the chivalrous romantics knew, human love requires spiritual refinement. The love of those who are not virtuous is often a sick, sorrowful thing. Just as sex has manifestations in the three modes of nature, so too does love.

Even so, the original romantic vision is that one is made virtuous by love. In the context of bhakti, this is also how the Vaishnavas see things: No separate culture of the will or of reason is necessary in the culture of love; the results of these other cultures, namely virtue and wisdom, are produced as byproducts of love.

But when piety is misdirected into sense gratification and its cohorts of profit, adoration, and prestige, it does not produce real virtue or wisdom, but only their facsmile. That is known as hypocrisy.

Dharma (duty or law) is the essence of karma. However, duty exists in wisdom and it also exists in love. The reason that raganuga is highly thought of, and the reason that it is a truer manifestation of bhakti, is that it is based neither in reason (yukti), nor in the will (zAstra).

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Edwin Bryant, in his conclusion to the compilation The Hare Krishna Movement, states that Prabhupada’s biggest error was in trying to establish the Varnashram system. I would like to refine that judgment and say that his fundamental insight—namely that the Krishna consciousness movement needed a more coherent and broader based social framework--was correct, but that it was an error to think that such a framework could be borrowed wholesale from the idealized Indian system. Indeed, the possibility exists to find a way of fitting into the very world we live in without Amish-like farm communities, but certain adjustments have to be made.

I keep coming back to the beginnings of my third stage of Krishna consciousness (the first being Iskcon, the second being a traditional “raganuga” Vaishnava, the third being my taking an intellectual distance from the tradition altogether, a stage which I am nearing the end of). When I left India, I took up householder life, but I made a huge mistake in not importing into it any of the external manifestations, i.e. rituals, of bhakti. I think that this was likely due to my all-or-nothing background and training.

I had a sense that I was to “return to the world,” but I did not really know what I was doing. I greatly underestimated the importance of ritual in even the most microcosmic level of society, which is the human couple, and then in the family.

Hinduism, of which Vaishnavism is a branch, seems to persistently negate the family, which is rather strange considering the deep and persistent networks of extended family and jati in India. Perhaps all these warnings against attachment and so on are a necessary antidote to the excesses that family attachments can create, especially in the absence of a transcendental Pole Star by which to steer. Human beings simply do not exist in a vacuum in even the best situation. We are not free-floating monads, but atoms meant to be formed into molecules. The Hindu system seems to state (in the way of the Jains) that true individuation, true liberation, can only had in isolation.

When I say that Krishna consciousness must have a worldly understanding, I am arguing pragmatically: There must be a practical message in Krishna consciousness for human survival. When I speak of human survival, I am talking in the basest, most fundamental sense. This is not always overlooked--for instance, we often heard Iskcon devotees argue that they saved the hippies from destructive drug habits, etc.--but in general, it is not something that is thought about scientifically. I was pleased to hear Joseph O’Connell's argument that Gaudiya Vaishnavism served a pragmatic social functions in post-Chaitanya Bengal by smoothing Hindu-Muslim and intercaste relations through the teaching of humility, different attitudes to purity and caste, etc. I think he was right about this, and I think we need to try to understand the pragmatic aspects of Krishna consciousness in the here-and-now. In a sense, to divest it of any spiritual meaning and try to see what material (psychological and social) purpose it might have.

In the 19th century an interesting religious phenomenon appeared in Yankee New England, the Shakers. The Shakers (who got their name from their ecstatic ceremonies) believed that all sexuality should be shunned absolutely. They had small but successful communities, but they expected to and did die out. A religious movement that does not have an effective system of reproduction and continuance in place dies out.

In the Krishna consciousness context, we were, much like the early Christians, in particular the Gnostics, saddled with an extreme other-worldly vision of spiritual perfection. This is perhaps a necessary step for a new religious grouping, but any religious system that does not have an affirming vision of sexuality is doomed. I am stating for all to hear that Krishna consciousness has a very highly affirming place for sexuality. Indeed, in the context of the feudal, property-based marriage system of traditional India, it had a revolutionary message. It made the radical proposition that we can trust the feelings and that spontaneous love between a man and woman can produce a higher standard of human achievement than a purely rational order based on duty relations. In India, this was subversive then, and is even subversive now. Indeed, because it is still subversive, a distorted Western concept of love and sexuality has come to take its place, with the concomitant conflation of Tantra with pornography or libertinism.

Sexuality is a sociological phenomenon. It creates real social links, not only within the context of married relations, but even in unmarried relations as well. Where formal marriage relations are based on religion alone, i.e. dharma or karma, law or virtue, however, there is an inevitable tendency to become destabilized. On the other hand, the fear of destabilization that comes from a purely individualistic and hedonistic attitude to sexuality is also justifiable. Nevertheless, a civilization that sees the telos of sexual love to be found in its disappearance can only be inherently unstable, or highly restricted in its reach.

I suppose I could further complicate this discussion by talking about means of production, etc., and steps to a certain modernization of society, but that will have to wait for another time. For the time being, I am simply trying to make the point that true sexual culture is one that combines sexuality with spirituality, that harnesses the energy of human sexual love and channels it into the search for and devotion to the Divine. This in turn generates the love that is needed for the creation and preservation of the family. But none of this can be achieved without ritual; that is a truth I have learned the hard way.

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What is guru? Coming back to an old topic and putting it in the context of statements I made in a previous post: The guru is he who provides the meta-narrative and one's place within it. As I said, the telos given by the guru is that of saintliness, which can be virtue-oriented, wisdom-oriented, or love-oriented. These are all visions of saintliness, and one chooses a guru according to one's faith, which is a product of one's situation within the modes of nature.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Diksha Mantra

Om.
Sriji!
Purushottam!

O Krishna !
You pull me with this mantra
like a baby calf led by the nose,
like a deer enchanted by the hunter’s flute.
I come to you.

O Govinda !
You invade me with your mantra
you cling to me like a second skin
you weigh down my senses
with unbearable expectations.

You are in the Veda and in the cows,
You are in the world and in my senses.
You are in the mantra,
and still I must search for you.

O Gopijana ! O Radha ! O sakhis !
You flutter on every side of the mantra
like petals, effulgent and infinite.
You stand in the heart of the mantra
like pistils, golden guardians of the mead.

You are my gurus, I follow you,
I join you in your song, I sing this mantra.
It is you. It is yours.

O Vallabha! Beloved !
Beloved of the gopis,
Beloved of every soul !
Beloved of my soul!
You have come, O enchanter of Eros,
to tell me you have always been here,
present in the mantra.

Svaha!
I have reached the eighteenth syllable,
The charama shloka:
I throw my soul into the circle of flames,
the Rasa mandala of the mantra.

I have reached the fifth segment,
the final chapter, the brahma muhurta;
the dance is over and I must go home,
I must await again the call of your flute.


Saturday, December 23, 2006

Like leaves to the ground

I.

sadā rādhā-kṛṣṇocchalad-atula-khelā-sthala-yujaṁ
vrajaṁ santyajyaitad yuga-virahito’pi truṭim api |
punar dvārāvatyāṁ yadu-patim api prauḍha-vibhavaiḥ
sphurantaṁ tad-vācāpi ca na hi calāmīkṣitum api ||


Even if I am separated
from my beloved Lord and Lady
for an eon,
I will not abandon this land of Braj,
the site of their overflowing, unequalled play,
even for a moment.

No, I will not leave,
not even if the Lord of Dwarka,
with all his bloated opulences,
invites me himself.

I will not go
to even see what he looks like.

I won't.

II.



gatonmādai rādhā sphurati hariṇā śliṣṭa-hṛdayā
sphuṭaṁ dvārāvatyām iti yadi śṛṇomi śruti-taṭe |
tadāhaṁ tatraivoddhata-mati patāmi vraja-purāt
samuḍḍīya svāntādhika-gati-khagendrād api javāt ||

But yes, should I ever get wind
that Radha has completely lost her mind
and departed for Dwarka town,
and I hear rumors that she
is clinging fast to Krishna's chest,

in less than a moment I'll make up my mind,
I'll fly from Braj to join her,
traveling faster even than Garuda,
faster than the wind,
faster than the speed of mind.


III.

Once,
the burden of separation became so heavy
that Radha fled the confines of Braj
where even the Yamuna's black waters
had become like molten tar.

But when she came dressed in rags
to the gates of Dwarka,
the Prince could spare not even one
of his sixteen thousand forms
to see her.

That is the power of the queens,
who think such kindnesses
will help Radha find peace
in forgetfulness.

IV.

And Krishna's words,
shouted from the palace tower
as Radha became tiny in the distance,

"I swear, there are only
a few more demons to destroy,
only a bit of Bhumi's burden
remains to be removed,"

fluttered like leaves to the ground
in the breezeless air.


Sanskrit verses from Raghunath Das Goswami, Svayam-sankalpa-stotram).

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Virtue and Wisdom

Immediately after finishing my last blog, I started thinking about this sentence: "Though material goals may not always be realistic, the goals of wisdom and virtue are available to all, whatever the specifics of one's life narrative."

This led me to the following realization: Virtue is the perfection of karma. Wisdom is the perfection of jnana. So why has bhakti, or better yet prema, not been mentioned? Evidently, the goal of piety (bhakti) is an "other worldly" goal, even though prema may be interpreted in a worldly fashion. However, prema in this sense may just as easily be seen as an aspect of virtue or wisdom.

If we understand virtue and wisdom in this way, then it is easy to see how one can be virtuous or wise without necessarily being pious. In other words, as the worldly moralists and philosophers never cease to point out, one need not believe in God in order to be virtuous or wise. On the other hand, we have seen all too clearly throughout history, that piety is no guarantee of either virtue or wisdom, even though that claim is often made for it. The Bhagavatam says, "yasyAsti bhaktir bhagavaty akiJcanA, etc." But even though the qualifier "akinchana" is found there, there is still no guarantee that someone who claims to have devotion to God as a priority will necessarily be good or wise by worldly standards. Indeed, most religions recognize this when they say things like, "Therefore the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men," or yA nizA sarva-bhUtAnAM tasyAM jAgarti saMyamI, etc.

The devotee's claim is that there is a wider perspective coming from faith that moves the goalposts of virtue. This is, however, a dangerous position from the point of view of moral philosophy. It leads to the kind of utilitarianism that skews the very idea of virtue. On the other hand, as a guide to personal life conduct, if one keeps in mind the idea of akinchana, or purity of purpose, then one should have faith that virtue and wisdom, and their benefits, will accrue to the person who makes prema the goal of life. And if the purpose is not pure, such as in the case of someone who engages in child sex abuse or stealing for personal comfort or aggrandizement, for instance, then there is no question of freedom from the laws that govern contraventions to the moral law. On the other hand, if one acts with pure intent, to the best of one's knowledge, even if one appears to contravene the moral law, he or she can hope for ultimate respite.

The problem, however, is in the objective scheme of things. The bhakti world view, having this otherworldly perspective, must still be required to be able to show objective benefits.

I rather like Rabindra Svarupa's argument, made in one of his seminars on Iskcon's reform movement, that before hearing from Prabhupada, devotees had never been given saintliness as a practical life goal. However, the problems arose, as in Subhananda's famous essay on leaving Iskcon, when after a certain time people began asking the question, "Where are all the pure devotees?"

If saintliness is written into your life narrative and you lose faith in this telos, then you turn to trivialities--labha, puja and pratishtha--as they present themselves. And this further subverts not only your own faith--you become a hypocrite--but undermines that of others. I think that this happens in great part because one neglects the values of virtue and wisdom in pursuing the goals of piety.

I like to think that the reason Prabhupada tried to establish some kind of social system for devotees was so that they would cultivate virtue and wisdom within it, not as prerequisites for devotion, but as a framework within which bhakti could do its work of giving virtue and wisdom fertile ground in which to grow.

Nevertheless, we have to seek out the higher perspective that comes from bhakti. This is related to the concepts of "convention" and "charisma" that have entered the sociology of religion vocabulary from the time of Weber. What is charisma but faith in one's personal revelation or the courage of insight? I once got in trouble with devotees for equating Prabhupada's charisma, or at least aspects of it, with chutzpah. But, in fact, the two are connected--otherwise it would have been difficult for us to swallow all the stuff we did along with the real substance of his message.

That, of course, is not an excuse for continuing to swallow that stuff--nor the stuff that other gurus peddle along with what may otherwise be their deep insights. Immature chutzpah will always be challenged and ultimately be sunk. The classic example is of the parricide who begs for mercy on the basis of being an orphan. That claim, once exposed to the intelligence of the (what's the noun for a doer of chutzpah?), will shatter his self-confidence. It is incumbent on us to find rational legitimacy for our grand epiphanies.

What I am getting at, I guess, is this: we must be wary of antinomianism, the license to contravene the moral law. It must be assumed that the moral law is given by God and that its contravention is abhorrent to Him. So what, then, is the position of prema? When Augustine says, "Love, and do as you will," he is in fact preaching the same doctrine that Chaitanya Mahaprabhu is when he says "prema prayojana." But we will need to dwell on this some more.

==================

I have been wanting to say something for a while. I have rather aggressively used the word "Sahajiya" in order to characterize the insight that I wish to promote. Though I have stated it before, I want to make it clear again that I am using this term to distinguish myself from certain aspects of modern Vaishnava orthodoxy, but not to identify myself with the caricature of Sahajiyaism that is current in the orthodoxy, even if that caricature may be based on facts.

We really need to analyze the concept of love and see what the position of human love is in relation to the concept of love for God. I will have to elucidate the problem that I hinted at just at the end of my previous post, namely the problem of "this-" and "other-worldliness." What are the implications for a devotee once this distinction has been erased through both philosophy and spiritual realization?

Monday, December 18, 2006

Narrative and Identity

A few weeks ago, I believe I mentioned that I had started rereading Vice and Virtue in Everyday Life, a collection of readings in ethics edited by Fred and Christina Sommers (Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1997). I have been finding almost every single article to be useful to some degree or another.

It seems that a commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita taking into account all the various moral philosophers would make an interesting text. After all, the essential question of all ethics is, like Arjuna asked, "What should I do?" Arjuna's situation is meant to illustrate a most fundamental ethical quandary and a particular solution is offered, one that would be interesting to examine, verse by verse, in the light of developments in philosophical ethics. No doubt, someone has done it.

The latest article I have gone through is an excerpt from Alasdair Macintyre's After Virtue (University of Notre Dame Press, 1984). The article comes in chapter four, titled "Virtue." The topic being debated by the different authors anthologized here is "Is it more important to be virtuous or to follow one's duty?"

The premise is that the ancients, from Aristotle to Augustine, viewed being virtuous as the sine qua non of happiness. It is what you are rather than what you do that is primary, because you may act morally without being a genuinely virtuous person, but if you are virtuous, you will act appropriately according to time and circumstance. Kantianism, which stresses duty, is seen as inadequate by those who see the logic in this position. There is of course a counter-position: Virtue may ultimately be definable only in terms of universal ethical principles.

Anyway, what I liked in Macintyre's argument was how he tied his moral arguments in with a literary critical approach much like that of Northrop Frye and, nowadays, Margaret Atwood. It is also very Jungian and as such something that has influenced me before. Macintyre gives some fresh insight into this perspective.

Basically, his argument goes like this: The Aristotelian approach to ethics, in which the culture of virtue or character takes precedence over legalistic approach to universal ethical rules, can be legitimated only if we have a certain unity of character. Modern society tends to fragment us, compartmentalize our lives: We are, literally, different people when at work, in our leisure moments, or in various other specific life-circumstances. When Harvey Cox argues for "the secular city," for instance, he is taking the position that such fragmentation is only superficial and ultimately facilitates a deeper personal integration.

Macintyre says that "narrative" is the way that we integrate our personalities. You are, in effect, your story. There has to be some connection between all those different "individuals" that we are in the moment to moment circumstances of our lives (work, play, family, etc., as well as what we are socially, historically, etc.). Macintyre uses the example of the "Prisoner of the Chateau If" and the "Count of Monte Cristo," as a single person in need of a narrative connection to join such widely disparate characters and situation. In my own life, to make it personal, I could say the person who is sitting in this office, stealing work time to write this blog, and the Babaji in India more than 20 years ago, are in similar need of a connecting narrative--How? Why? Whither?

Macintyre uses the concept of telos, or goal, to name the controlling element in a narrative, the place to which it all is moving. In other words, each of us has a particular unifying concept of ourselves based on an all-encompassing narrative that is meant to go somewhere. The teleological argument for the existence of God assumes that the metanarrative encompassing the creation, maintenance and destruction of the universe itself has some ultimate telos. Like the Sanskrit word artha, it is what gives it all meaning. Our individual lives, as narrative, must fit somewhere into the metanarrative in order to be imbued with meaning.

Most people obviously don't think like this, or at least, not with any great profundity. Even so, these two narratives, consciously or unconsciously, are operational in everyone's life. The anomie or alienation that we suffer in life comes when there is a disconnect in our personal narrative. What is the story of my life? ke āmi ? kene āmāya jāre tāpa-traya ? ("Who am I? And why am I suffering?") Though materialistic goals like wealth, glory and sense enjoyment may not always be realistic, the goals of wisdom and virtue are available to all, whatever the specifics of one's life narrative. In fact, the worldly goals are ultimately trivial, and only those of wisdom and virtue worthy. In other words, by making those our goals, that is the way our story truly fits into the divine one, the individual and the cosmic telos are harmonized.

In Krishna consciousness, we learned to answer the question "Who am I?", "I am the eternal servant of Krishna." But what does that mean? For the kanishtha bhakta, dressing up in a certain way and engaging in certain ritual practices is primary. Such things are, of course, helpful even if they are only externals. They are not without importance, because you have to frame yourself somehow. But the underlying meta-narrative here is this: "God is not here. This world is false. I must separate myself from this world in order to find God."

Narrative and Identity

A few weeks ago, I believe I mentioned that I had started rereading Vice and Virtue in Everyday Life, a collection of readings in ethics edited by Fred and Christina Sommers (Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1997). I have been finding almost every single article to be useful to some degree or another.

It seems that a commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita taking into account all the various moral philosophers would make an interesting text. After all, the essential question of all ethics is, like Arjuna asked, "What should I do?" Arjuna's situation is meant to illustrate a most fundamental ethical quandary and a particular solution is offered, one that would be interesting to examine, verse by verse, in the light of developments in philosophical ethics. No doubt, someone has done it.

The latest article I have gone through is an excerpt from Alasdair Macintyre's After Virtue (University of Notre Dame Press, 1984). The article comes in chapter four, titled "Virtue." The topic being debated by the different authors anthologized here is "Is it more important to be virtuous or to follow one's duty?"

The premise is that the ancients, from Aristotle to Augustine, viewed being virtuous as the sine qua non of happiness. It is what you are rather than what you do that is primary, because you may act morally without being a genuinely virtuous person, but if you are virtuous, you will act appropriately according to time and circumstance. Kantianism, which stresses duty, is seen as inadequate by those who see the logic in this position. There is of course a counter-position: Virtue may ultimately be definable only in terms of universal ethical principles.

Anyway, what I liked in Macintyre's argument was how he tied his moral arguments in with a literary critical approach much like that of Northrop Frye and, nowadays, Margaret Atwood. It is also very Jungian and as such something that has influenced me before. Macintyre gives some fresh insight into this perspective.

Basically, his argument goes like this: The Aristotelian approach to ethics, in which the culture of virtue or character takes precedence over legalistic approach to universal ethical rules, can be legitimated only if we have a certain unity of character. Modern society tends to fragment us, compartmentalize our lives: We are, literally, different people when at work, in our leisure moments, or in various other specific life-circumstances. When Harvey Cox argues for "the secular city," for instance, he is taking the position that such fragmentation is only superficial and ultimately facilitates a deeper personal integration.

Macintyre says that "narrative" is the way that we integrate our personalities. You are, in effect, your story. There has to be some connection between all those different "individuals" that we are in the moment to moment circumstances of our lives (work, play, family, etc., as well as what we are socially, historically, etc.). Macintyre uses the example of the "Prisoner of the Chateau If" and the "Count of Monte Cristo," as a single person in need of a narrative connection to join such widely disparate characters and situation. In my own life, to make it personal, I could say the person who is sitting in this office, stealing work time to write this blog, and the Babaji in India more than 20 years ago, are in similar need of a connecting narrative--How? Why? Whither?

Macintyre uses the concept of telos, or goal, to name the controlling element in a narrative, the place to which it all is moving. In other words, each of us has a particular unifying concept of ourselves based on an all-encompassing narrative that is meant to go somewhere. The teleological argument for the existence of God assumes that the metanarrative encompassing the creation, maintenance and destruction of the universe itself has some ultimate telos. Like the Sanskrit word artha, it is what gives it all meaning. Our individual lives, as narrative, must fit somewhere into the metanarrative in order to be imbued with meaning.

Most people obviously don't think like this, or at least, not with any great profundity. Even so, these two narratives, consciously or unconsciously, are operational in everyone's life. The anomie or alienation that we suffer in life comes when there is a disconnect in our personal narrative. What is the story of my life? ke āmi ? kene āmāya jāre tāpa-traya ? ("Who am I? And why am I suffering?") Though materialistic goals like wealth, glory and sense enjoyment may not always be realistic, the goals of wisdom and virtue are available to all, whatever the specifics of one's life narrative. In fact, the worldly goals are ultimately trivial, and only those of wisdom and virtue worthy. In other words, by making those our goals, that is the way our story truly fits into the divine one, the individual and the cosmic telos are harmonized.

In Krishna consciousness, we learned to answer the question "Who am I?", "I am the eternal servant of Krishna." But what does that mean? For the kanishtha bhakta, dressing up in a certain way and engaging in certain ritual practices is primary. Such things are, of course, helpful even if they are only externals. They are not without importance, because you have to frame yourself somehow. But the underlying meta-narrative here is this: "God is not here. This world is false. I must separate myself from this world in order to find God."

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

My personality type

Ah, time. Such a commodity...

I spent today on the McGill campus, scouring the libraries for materials on Gaudiya Vaishnavism, in preparation for my course. Doing a lot of photocopying but I still haven't found the combination of materials that I am looking for. I was horrified to see how many of the books still had traces of my previous readings--unforgivable ethical lapses like highlight marker underlinings, indignant exclamation marks and the like.

One book that I picked up was that old favorite of mine, the Hare Krishna Personality Type, which was so striking when I first read it. It is strongly based on the Meyer-Briggs Personality Inventory, which divides the world into basically 16 personality types. One of the things that was so astonishing about this research was that it showed an overwhelming preponderence of two personality types in the Iskcon of the early 1980's: ISTJ and ESTJ (Introverted/Extroverted Sensing Thinking Judging). You can look these up on Google; there are many summaries available.

Extroverted STJs are practical, realistic, and matter-of-fact, with a natural head for business or mechanics. Though they are not interested in subjects they see no use for, they can apply themselves when necessary. They like to organize and run activities. ESTJs make good administrators, especially if they remember to consider others' feelings and points of view, which they often miss. (WIKIPEDIA, see also ESTJ)

Introverted STJs are often called inspectors. They have a keen sense of right and wrong, especially in their area of interest and/or responsibility. They are noted for devotion to duty. Punctuality is a watchword of the ISTJ. The secretary, clerk, or business(wo)man by whom others set their clocks is likely to be an ISTJ. (http://typelogic.com/istj.html) See also ISTJ.

Both of these descriptions will immediately, I think, conjure up images of the Iskcon leader and footsoldier respectively. But K-P put the accent on the sensory orientation (the "S"), which though originally meaning a kind of "concrete" orientation to information ("just the facts, ma'am"), they take to mean a preoccupation with the body and senses. They see this as a source of internal conflict ("You are not this body.") and consequent ambivalence to sense gratification.

I don't have the book before me, but I would like to go back to it one more time and just see what their analysis of these two types is, as I think it differs somewhat from the above. No doubt there have been numerous changes to methods of collecting and analysing such information over the past 20 years. I just read somewhere that the MBTI may one day become as ubiquitous as one's blood type.

Whatever the case may be, I believe that these personality types are probably quite fluid. I remember distinctly thinking when I first read this book 20 years ago that I may have been an ISTJ at one time, but that I had "matured", at least progressed from the description that K-P gave of this personality type. In recent years I have taken the test more than once and have had both INFP and INTP results. In my current situation, my tendency to be T-(thinking)-dominant over F (feeling) seems to be a disadvantage rather than an advantage. It feels like the INTP tendency to want to have all the ducks in a row before acting can be really immobilizing. A little bit of passionate spontaneity rather than stultifying open-ended analysis would perhaps be desirable. Furthermore, the INFP character, the desire to actively do good is stronger than the "observer" attitude that the INTP takes. An INTP seems to be a passive nerd type, whereas the INFP is more genuinely spiritual. My personal story wants me to be an INFP, but I am stuck in an INTP rut.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Five good things

I heard that people who get into the "three good things" end up finding way more than three good things each day. I think I am afraid to think of the good things because I want one thing so much more than anything else.

But I am going to accept my situation and wait for "Divine Intervention." It's nothing new: I've been reciting Mahaprabhu's words to Raghunath Das--krame krame pay lok bhava-sindhu-kul--for a long time. I am confident that Mahaprabhu has more waiting for me than sitting in this office. My mother-in-law recites that old proverb, "Il n'y a pas de sot métier, il n'y a que de sottes gens." Not that I consider this a métier, but wallowing does not behoove me, as I said.

In a bit of serendipity, one of the customer service people downstairs came up today carrying Daniel Coleman's latest book, Social Intelligence. In talking to the people working the floor, I have found that one is a jazz musician, another is a city planner from Algeria, one is a young man who wants to become a firefighter. Philippe looks like he is in his late thirties, but wants to go back to university to study psychology because he has been so influenced by Coleman's theory of emotional intelligence. Though he has not yet shared his personal story with me, Philippe did tell me that he wants to work in suicide prevention, which he thinks can be helped through getting people to recognize and express their emotions.

Funnily enough, the very morning after having this conversation a few days ago, I happened to hear Coleman interviewed on the radio. This nourished another exchange the next day with Philippe. Then yesterday morning, I was very moved by another interview I heard on the local Catholic radio station with Andrée Ruffo, a retired juvenile court judge who is now trying to reform the child welfare system. She had many stories, some of which she told with such feeling and conviction that tears welled up in my eyes. This is not such an infrequent occurrence, and happens usually I am impressed by individuals who have demonstrated extraordinary commitment to meaningful goals.

At any rate, I consider it serendipitous that Philippe handed me this book today and so I will take time out to give it a look-see.

Actually, I am like most people of this era--I am overloaded with information. Radio, newspapers, internet... I need to take a page out of Auguste Comte's book and practice intellectual hygiene.

To just follow through on the introspection that follows some of the above: I am happiest when I am preaching, speaking on the subject about which I am most conversant, namely this religion that was taught by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Whenever the occasion arises, I find joy and hopefully those who listen also get some pleasure and inspiration. And yet, I rarely speak. The primary reason for this is that I am passive: I await “divine intervention.” And perhaps, like so many others, I am unable to recognize divine intervention when it comes, though I can follow up on a trivial case of synchronicity like the one I described above. Who knows—perhaps not so trivial, that is waiting to be discovered…

What I do know is that I have long abandoned the aggressive evangelical approach that we embraced in our younger Iskcon days. Do I have the same kind of simple faith message such as the one my Catholic fellow employee Bruno expounded to me the other day? Believe me, I appreciate simplicity, but I have taken a complex side road through history and theology, with that overinundation of information, related or not, that creates the thick overlay of trees that sometimes makes the forest difficult to perceive.

I am wary of both over simplicity and over complexity. Certainly my Krishna consciousness has travelled a long way from “Krishna is God. Chant Hare Krishna and your life will be sublime,” even though I could see myself repeating those lines to someone. But I would find it hard to preach in a setting like that of Iskcon, where anything but the grossest anthropomorphism is current. What to speak of all the other Prabhupadaisms that Iskcon stores in its closets. What I am getting at is my message. My raison d’être. What has my delving in so many books accomplished when it comes to Krishna? I know that it has served me in some way, but what good has it done anyone else?

I am still stuck, practically speaking, behind the principal objection to Sahajiyaism, which as it turns out, is exactly the same argument that faces the one who calls on us to renounce all dharmas.

Anyway, five good things for today:

  • There is still a Krishna temple standing in Montreal.
  • There is good prasad at the Iskcon temple.
  • Hare Krishna radio.
  • Srila Prabhupada, for all the ridiculous things he said.
  • Philippe bringing me the Daniel Coleman book.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Three good things and wallowing

A few days ago, the following story was making the rounds in the newspapers and the internet: Researchers seek routes to a happier life. The theory is that happiness or distress are all in the mind, a concept that will be familiar to Hindus. The tactic these psychologists have "discovered" is that by consciously meditating on three good things that happened to one at the end of each day, one accentuates the positive and becomes genuinely happier over the course of time.

This is, of course, the idea of self-satisfaction. One should be happy with one's lot--after all, was it not God or Destiny that put us here, and should we not cultivate santosh, or contentedness? And is it not a sign of spiritual poverty to be discontent? A hungry man experiences satisfaction, pleasure and the elimination of hunger as he eats, so does the devotee experience the corresponding bhakti (devotion), paresanubhava (direct experience of God) and viraktir anyatra (indifference elsewhere). And is it not said that devotion is ahaituki and apratihata--above material causes and unimpeded by material obstacles? So why not cultivate satisfaction? Is that not what "faith" is all about--the confidence that Krishna is our protector and provider?

The Lord is my shepherd;
I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me to water in places of repose;
He guides me in right paths
as befits His name.

Though I walk through a valley of deepest darkness,
I fear no harm, for You are with me;
Your rod and your staff-they comfort me.
You spread a table for me in full view of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
my drink is abundant.

Only goodness and steadfast love shall pursue me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
for many long years.


As for me, I am living in this Western world, where hunger is virtually non-existent. It is a cold country, but my home is cozy. It is a land where there are no wars or upheavals. My health is good. My wife loves me in spite of my miserable nature and the lack of reward, and my son is growing up tall, strong and intelligent. Let me count my blessings!

So what is this that thrusts me into a paroxysm of dissatisfaction? Is there something about this damned path I have taken that drives me to perpetual lamentation? zUnyAyitaM jagat sarvam ! It seems appropriate, now that I think of it: "Jagat has turned into a Complete Nothing."

One of my coworkers, a committed Catholic practitioner, came into my office today and gave me a spiritual pep-talk, just out of the blue. Perhaps my expression and body language are more revealing than I think. "God is standing just on the other side of the door. Open the door and you will see he has always been there with you, ready to embrace you in His arms."

I don't want to hear that everything is as God wants it. I know that already. I know that my own profound Catholic samskar tells me, along with Kant, that this is a cross I have to bear. But right now, it feels like pain without any gain.

I know there is more than one hard-hearted Hindu out there who will look at me and say that I deserve to suffer. Why should I not? I have abandoned Srila Prabhupada. I have defended Sahajiyaism and I refuse to recant. And even though I say it is because I must follow my ashram dharma, I do so begrudgingly, without the joy and love that are essential elements of success in dharma. Why mention anything more than this? For my sins and offenses, surely I should have expected all this--to be further from Vrindavan, further from the association of devotees, further from bhakti than I ever have been. Further from the exemplary life, further from the ability to exercise charity, due to an extreme poverty of the spirit.

When I first came back from India, I stayed in Manhattan for a few months, living with my sister. Once we went to eat in a vegetarian restaurant. At the next table was a beautiful woman whom I recognized as the model whose face was on a billboard just near my sister's apartment. Somehow we started talking and I told her about the life I had been living. I was, like many blooped devotees, very self-conscious about the life I had lived in the Krishna-conscious movement, and so I came across rather negatively. This woman, in true New Yorker fashion, berated me, "Either accept it and make something of it, or move on." She had no tolerance for my moping, and indeed, it does not behoove me any more than it did Arjuna.

=====

Actually, I did have a very encouraging blessing this last week. Ashok Aklujkar sent a very generous donation to the Gaudiya Grantha Mandir. This means that we will be able to start making improvements in the site very soon. Madhavananda will be taking care of the work in his customarily expert way. But I have no time to work on it. Can you not see why I rage?

=====

Reminds me all of this beautiful verse by Sanatan Prabhu--

na premA zravaNAdi-bhaktir api vA
yogo’thavA vaiSNavo
jnAnaM vA zubha-karma vA kiyad aho
saj-jAtir apy asti vA |
hInArthAdhika-sAdhake tvayi tathApy
acchedya-mUlA satI
he gopI-jana-vallabha ! vyathayate
hA hA mad-Azaiva mAm ||

I have no prema.
Nor do I engage in hearing and chanting,
the practices that lead to prema.
I have not the self-discipline befitting a Vaishnava.
Nor do I have wisdom, nor, alas, pious works.
I am not even of good birth.

O Gopijanavallabha!
You are said to bring fulfilment
to those who are most unworthy,
yet the hope for your mercy,
which is pure and holy,
and so deeply rooted within me that I cannot cut it out,
brings me nothing but pain.


===========

So I read that over. "Wallowing" is the only word for it. Sorry for inflicting that on the Vaishnava world! Are there any Vaishnavas out there being inflicted? It seems unlikely...

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Delivering papers after a storm

So much happens in a day, much of which would make fascinating blogging material. Anything is grist for a writer's or philosopher's mill, even for putative ones. For the past six months I have been delivering newspapers in the early morning hours. For not having performed mangal arati for years, I now spend my Brahma muhurtas throwing the latest prajalpa onto people's porches.

Yesterday was the first bit of real winter weather--freezing rain and violent winds. Observing the many Tempos (temporary winter car shelters) that had been blown away, the broken branches and collapsed trees or TV antennas (there are still a few of those around), I thought that there were plenty of interesting observations to make. But I will stick to my obsession...

Kant himself said that a philosopher is to be judged by the extent to which he lives his philosophy. I have already stated that I am not living by mine, and yet I cannot give it up. This means that I have feet of clay, or feet in cement, as I wrote in my poem. That makes pretty much everything I say moot.

Yesterday, I noticed that my wife had bought a scented candle in a glass that had an epigram caligraphied onto it in various languages: "Suis la voie de tes rêves et ton âme connaîtra la paix." "Sigue la senda de tus sueños, y tu alma encontrarà la paz." "Folge dem weg Deiner Traüme, so finder Deine Seele den Frieden." "Follow your dreams and your soul will find peace."

If you were to reduce the interpretation of the Gita I gave in a previous post to its barest banal bits, it would be this: "Follow your heart."

But this, of course, is one of those popular truisms that is only practicable to a certain extent. Kant's categorical imperative, which states that we should act only if the principle behind our action could be seen as a universally applicable law, means that there are obstacles to following the heart, if one is a moral person. If following one's heart is the whole of morality, then the rational universe collapses.

Friday, December 01, 2006

A little bit about my son

Here it is Friday, already, and I never mentioned the concert I went to last Sunday. My son is now in his last year of high school and he has been singing with Les Petits Chanteurs de Mont-Royal since fourth grade. This is a choir that is associated with one of Montreal's most prominent landmarks, St. Joseph's Oratory. This large church, which adorns the hill that gives Montreal its name, can be seen from 50 kilometers away on a clear day. It is a strange sensation to have this kind of direct association with such a prominent landmark. As a result of his participation in this choir, Pavel has been able to go to one of the oldest and most prestigious private schools in the city, Collège Notre-Dame, which is just across the street from the Oratory. The picture that I posted here would be what my son sees every day when he steps out of the front door of his school.

Last Sunday, he and the rest of the boys in the choir participated in a concert of Mozart's Requiem at another of Montreal's historic churches, La Basilique Notre-Dame. There were several other choirs involved and l'Orchestre philharmonique du Nouveau Monde under the animated direction of Michel Brousseau. Notre Dame is a fairly extraordinary church both inside and out, as you can see from this photo.


Every year, the boys sing here, as they will again in two weeks for their annual Christmas concert. I just wanted to speak proudly of my son, which I do not do often enough, especially as he is going through his truculent adolescent period. Nevertheless, he has stuck it out with the choir for the past 8 years, and has gained a lot from the experience, musically, culturally and socially. And it was a great delight to hear the Requiem being sung richly by more than 200 voices, including his.

.............

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Kant and Moving Goalposts

There are several questions left open here.

When I was reading Kant and his critics, I could not help but be reminded of Walter Kaufmann's comments on the Gita, in which he objected to the overwhelming pre-eminence of duty for its own sake, excluding all other rewards, which he found a dry and empty approach to life.

Kant also seems to think that if it doesn't hurt, if one doesn't find it a struggle to fight one's instincts in order to obey the categorical imperative of moral duty, then it is of no inherent value. Righteousness is its own reward. Kant does not hold out any transcendental joys, no heaven as compensation, but only a kind of sense of rational justification that comes to one who follows this impersonal categorical imperative. Neither does Kant think much of sentimental human motivation, i.e., love, as a rationale for moral action, for these things belong to the realm of the passions.

Of course, the Upanishads, in the bhūma-vidyā section of Bṛhad-āraṇyaka, state unequivocally the utilitarian principle that happiness is the motivator behind all action. And that therefore we should seek our "enlightened self interest", to again use a phrase from the same school of thought, which is bhūma-sukham, the greatest pleasure. Or, as the Bhāgavatam states: na te viduḥ svārtha-gatiṁ hi viṣṇum, "The foolish do not know that Vishnu is their ultimate self-interest."

We have returned again and again to the statements about the ultimate identity of Self and self (achintya-bheda/abheda): by serving the interests of the Supreme Self, we not only serve our own personal interests, but those of the entire universe. This cannot be proved empirically, but only intuitively, i.e., it has to be taken on faith.

These are fairly Randian, right-wing ideas for me to be espousing, considering that I am a life-long lefty, and still tend to heavily sympathize with the Left. When Thatcher says, "There is no such thing as society: there are individual men and women, and there are families," I cannot help but feel instinctively that she has gone too far. [See this article, which defends Thatcher.] Why bother to include families (or community) if she cannot include the rest of human society? Vasudhaiva kutumbakam, as it were.

The Vaishnava claim is that egoism is common to all. Progressive consciousness sees the widening of self-identification to progressively include various levels of ego-centered consciousness (oral, anal, genital), mental, intellectual, family, community, society, nation, humanity, all creatures, the universe and finally God Himself. yathā taror mūla-niṣecanena... These are all degrees of enlightened self-interest.

The problem with God, philosophically, is that it can be seen as an "empty" concept. Although believers feel God to embody the categorical imperative, we can all project culturally or individually conditioned prejudices onto God. This is a common enough psychological occurrence, and the numerous religions with conflicting values or even the changing values within a particular tradition's history are proof enough of this. In the context of religious apologetics, such an awareness is a great guard against fundamentalism, but it forces us to use reason to examine the values that may have been identified as eternal in particular times and circumstances.

In other words, "God" is a moving goalpost. But don't think that the Gita is not aware of this. As a matter of fact, its acknowledgement of the dialectic of the Absolute and the relative is one of its glorious features. The Gita tells us that we follow socially imposed moral imperatives until our moral sense and self-awareness are sufficiently elevated to bring us to individualization, at which point we are capable of making immediate moral judgements in harmony with the Divine Will. This is the meaning of sarva-dharmān parityājya mām ekaṁ śaraṇaṁ vraja. Becoming free of social conditioning, which has the code-word of varṇāśrama in Hinduism, is the key to moral independence. However, as I mentioned parenthetically in a previous post, it does not mean that one acts contrary to one's socially-conditioned nature. Krishna says that even a wise person acts according to his nature.

So varṇa is about nature, but āśrama is about adhikāra.

=============


When I say "God is a moving goalpost", that does not mean that I am reducing Radha and Krishna, or Chaitanya Mahaprabhu to a psychological construct. First of all, I do consider the choice of iṣṭa-devatā to be a profound step in one's spiritual life. Those who are spiritual dilettantes are not thought much of by Rupa Goswami, nor by me. The choice of iṣṭa-devatā is a crucial step: it is the principal feature of dīkṣā (it is the meaning of divyaṁ jñānam). It is a revelation of self, of our personal psychology, as well as of our profoundest spiritual needs.

The theology of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, and I am principally speaking of Rupa Goswami here, is the first step to understanding the deeper meaning of this choice. Nevertheless, it is important to know that God reveals himself to each of us in a particular way: the Infinite lets himself be known to us, according to our adhikara, so that we can marvel in his glories.

Therefore, Rupa (and other Hindus) will not debate the authenticity of the different forms of God, but it does hierarchize them, it evaluates them, relativizes them. The God of varṇāśrama is bāhya āge koho āra. But the process of hierarchization and relativization implies higher and lower values. The Gita tells us that there are three modes of nature and that a certain kind of faith is true to each of these modes. The Bhagavatam introduces the concept of transcendence, and this is what all this discussion is really about.



Sunday, November 26, 2006

An answer to the letter from a devotee

Dear friend,

First of all, I want to express my sympathies to you for all you have gone through. Moreover, I would like to thank you, since it is clear to me that you were deeply affected by something I have written and wanted to share your experience with me. I was very moved. I will try not to disgrace myself by writing platitudes.

Who can count the ways, subtle and gross, in which Maya makes us suffer? Suffering is always personal, and reducing it to headers like adhibhautika, adhidaivika and adhyatmika or other categories seems to be of little help in unveiling its mysteries. But the miseries that come to us through nature, other creatures, or our own mind and body all contain, through the workings of the illusory potency, a mystification of agency.

Suffering comes to us through personal and impersonal agencies, just as do love and happiness, but the true and ultimate cause lies beyond them. All psychologists will tell you that forgiveness is an important step in healing, and forgiveness comes more easily when we realize that everyone is ultimately innocent of their crimes. They are merely agents, dealing out to us the cards that we are to play in this great game of karma.

The thing that we want to do more than anything is not to continue being unconscious agents ourselves, but we remain in the game by reacting to the reactions, as it were; we continue to participate in this ultimately unsatisfying dance. This is called samsara-chakra, the ever-turning wheel. What we must become are conscious agents of God's love, knowledge and works.

There are no doubt similarities between your situation and mine, or my situation and your father's. I cannot know your father's truest motivation for abandoning you, but we must all ask ourselves the question of where, in the final analysis, our responsibilities lie. Is there one morality for all, a one-size-fits-all universal morality to which we must always adhere? And to what extent do extenuating circumstances make breaking such universal laws or dharmas permissible? Can there be a hierarchy of dharmas?

Was it permissible, for instance, for your father to abandon his responsibilities to you and your mother for the sake of some higher purpose, known only to himself and to God? That is something that we can never really know. Humans judge according to laws based on purported universal principles and are often blind or deaf to motivations or fundamental good will.

You feel that you have been irreparably harmed. Personally, I don't believe that is the case. No doubt, the absence of love and guidance that a father could have given you in your formative years presents a great obstacle for your personal and spiritual development, but that is all it is--an obstacle, one that you were destined to face and, believe me, one that is not insurmountable. Perhaps you would never have had the same attitude to love, nor to your own son, if this had not happened to you. In the long run, your experience, no matter how painful, will have given you a richer understanding of life.

This is not a repudiation of or accommodation with evil. It is my faith in the ultimately benign nature of God and the creation, a faith that is needed for us to experience life most fully. This is rasa, for it provides the template for a story of triumph over adversity.

All that being said, I think we have to examine what our scriptures say about dharma and try to see what it means in this context. You were right to say that dharma is intrinsically related to karma. Our psycho-social makeup is the result of our karmas, and our dharma is dictated by this nature--even by, as the verse that I was meditating on last time said, our desires. The varnashram concept indicates that one's dharmas inevitably change even within a single lifetime--that is what is meant by ashram. But the Vaishnava dharma tries to put things into a higher perspective yet.

It is not that Vaishnava dharma rejects the kinds of moral imperatives that arise from social orientation and the familiar networks of obligations and duties that keep the social contract alive and make human goodness possible. Rather, it tries to establish a higher principle that places all other duties and obligations into perspective. This, however, does not make the values or the morality inherent in human society inoperative. Rather, it provides them with a rationale, and thereby offers a means to perfecting them.

Vaishnava theology begins from a very individualistic and subjective idealist premise. This is, in fact, the source of its revolutionary nature, which can lead to a host of problems from the standpoint of worldly morality. I alluded to this when I said that my entering household life (for the second time, quite different from the first) was in great part motivated by a feeling that it was necessary to acknowledge "worldly" concerns, which in our Iskcon experience had been neglected to the great detriment of the movement, despite Prabhupada's attempts to find solutions through establishing a Varnashram-type social system. However, the absolutist, non-compromising, what I see as kanishtha, understanding and attitude of Iskcon led to myriad abuses, the traumatic effects of which will be with Iskcon for as long as it exists, as much as the traumatic effects of your childhood has shaped and will continue to affect you. [Reading through Bryant and Ekstrand's collection of articles again showed me that: so many of those articles leave you trembling and heartsick.]

You comment that your father was a "romantic." Krishna consciousness, as most mysticisms, is very romantic. It is quite different in that sense from religion. I was just rereading Immanuel Kant's Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals in order to try to deepen my thinking on the issues of morality that are being brought up here. Kant presents a few basic concepts that are useful. Here is one: "The imperative of duty may be expressed thus: Act as if the maxim of your action were to become, by your will, a universal law of nature."

In other words, if you do something, you must test its moral validity by and its categoric nature by asking whether it is contingent, that is, whether it is contingent on circumstances or ends. When you write, "However, I know that a certain cowherd boy would see me sink into Maya and abandon Him utterly if I were to leave my family and my responsibilities to them," you are, in effect, saying that you find this moral imperative, the duty of staying and caring for your family, to be a universal principle, which by extension is applicable to all. This is your faith, and yo yac-chraddhaH sa eva sah. If I did not agree with you that there is a potent rationale behind this, I would not still be where I am, nor would I be able to empathize with you.

Another of Kant's dictums was extremely familiar, and I think shows the extent to which his ideas have penetrated into the very marrow of Occidental thinking on morality. It also can be seen as an influence on Buber, whose writing was mentioned earlier in this Blog. "...the practical imperative will be as follows: So act as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as a means only."

This statement, which might be considered a rephrasing of the Golden Rule, sets an almost impossibly high benchmark for morality. But it shows the danger of religious thinking in which priority of service to God is used to trump basic humanity. ["God uses the good. The bad use God."] This is the characteristic of fanaticism and fundamentalism, which I will need not elaborate on it. Suffice it to say that many of us who lived through an Iskcon experience can recall unsentimental dealings with individuals who were in some way crushed under the wheels of the higher purpose preaching steamroller.

My point is not to criticize or condemn Iskcon. I am simply restating something that is well known--we are all formed by our experiences, and those of us who by Prabhupada's grace came to love Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and the Divine Couple also had many other formative lessons, which will affect us as much as your childhood affected you.

Nevertheless, I must return to the ultimate principle of sarva-dharmAn parityAjya mAm ekaM zaraNaM vraja and ask how this transcendental injunction jives with the worldly ones of duty to family and society. I already said that, according to the Hindu vision, dharma is and must be individual. This means that no matter how hard-wired we may be with universal principles of morality [Scientists are looking for a morality gene, I heard on a quite interesting report on the subject on the Australian Broadcasting System yesterday.], individual circumstances will inevitably challenge those principles. Sometimes to test our integrity as moral beings, and sometimes to test our integrity as individuals.

[In Arjuna's case, the external manifestation of mam ekam saranam vraja was exactly the same as acting according to social, psycho-physical, etc., imperatives. It was his consciousness that was different.]

This, then, is where adhikara comes in. Varnashram is an adhikara-based system in which one progressively and naturally transcends conditional and contingent duties to face that one duty that comes to us all--facing death, the most individual act of all.


This answer has already gotten rather long-winded, and I am afraid that I am not very close to fully answering what I see as the question here: Can it ever be right to abandon immediate worldly obligations for the sake of some higher purpose? Can the higher purpose be an illusion as much as the duties in which we find ourselves embroiled, even entangled?

In much Hindu discourse, family life, etc., are seen as the products of egotistical desires, or kama, and therefore always relative. The claim of individualistic, romantic, mystical religion, is that by attaining the greatest good individually, we automatically do the highest good for all.

To get back to the concrete here. I see bhakti as a process of cultivating love. Human love is both a revelation of God's love and an indication of our duty toward God. Hence the words "Where lies our kama, there lies our dharma." Vaishnava consciousness means cultivating prema through kama. The "worldly" way of applying the bhakti vision is to cultivate those loving relationships that have been given to us in tandem with the bhakti-yoga processes in order to create a dialectic that generates ever increasing prema.

This is why I am most troubled by your admission that your wife and your family circumstances are not devotional. Though this may not, at this particular juncture, be overwhelmingly pratikula or damaging for spiritual progress, I am afraid that it may eventually leave you increasingly alienated from your own being and your own calling, your own path.

I have been working with the idea of kama leading to dharma, but of course, we are more familiar with the concept of kama as the primary obstacle to dharma. (Which Kant would agree with.) Though pure kama is intrinsic to the jiva, the ignorance that covers self-knowledge makes it hard for us to see our real duties clearly. This leads to choices that have contingent and conditional empire over us. The obligations that result from such choices will ultimately become so alienating that we have no choice but to abandon them. An alienated person will only bring misery to those he should love and to whom he should bring joy. A sadhaka must be a sadhaka and cannot expect to be a siddha.

But, as I hope I have made clear, moving out of such conditions is very much a question of adhikara. To return to Kantian terms: We have to be able to see clearly the higher good that comes out of abandoning one thing for another. Until that comes, you are quite right, Krishna will send you back to complete the lesson you were meant to learn, which in this case is to love.

sthira hoiya ghare jao, na hao batul /
krame krame pay loka bhava-sindhu kul //

And, of course, in anukula circumstances, there is no need at all for tyaga. The problem comes when circumstances are so alienating that one is under obligation to save oneself first at the risk of going under with everyone else.

So thank you, my dear friend, for provoking in me an attempt to go deeper into this huge question of moral philosophy. I doubt that I have done the question adequate justice, but I found it a useful beginning.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Letter from a devotee

I received the following letter from a young devotee, which rather nicely illustrates the conflict. I will reserve comment for now, but I want to stress that the question has complex aspects, which I would like to continue discussing.

Radhe Radhe!
My father abandoned our family when I was only 5. It was an agony for him to stay. He was an artist - a musician, a bard in the classical sense. His muse and his heart demanded that he flee the family home and seek his fortune on the wide open road. Quite the romantic!

To this day I remain so fundamentally damaged from being abandoned by him that it infuses every aspect of my life. There is no situation so mundane, trivial, or grand that it escapes the filter of the absent father.

Dharma dictates various karmas. These karmas are unique to each person. Dharma is mysterious and hard to fathom. By following dharma one does not escape pain in this life nor karma in the next. It is simply done because it is dharma.

The pain and psychological wounds that I carry because my father broke dharma to pursue his highest heart's desire will never be forgotten in this body. I hold them in my heart and my son will feel them also. He is two. I can feel the scars in my heart when our two hearts rub up against each other. Does that make sense?

My wife is not a Vaishnava. My family are not Vaishnavas. I have no support for sadhana. I dream every day about leaving everything to live with the sanga. Anywhere at all. Just to live with the sadhaka samaja. This desire will only get worse with time. However, I know that a certain cowherd boy would see me sink into Maya and abandon Him utterly if I were to leave my family and my responsibilities to them.

I was once told a story of a disciple of Papa Ram Das. She was told that her 13-year-old child was dying of fever and calling for her in his final hours. She begged her guru to absolve her of the duty of going to see him. She said, "Baba, all over the world children are being born and dying. What does this have to do with me? Please let me never leave you."

This used to be somewhat inspiring to me. That one could so lose their my-sense and ahankar that they could let their only child die alone and in agony, abandoned in their final hour by the only human truly responsible for them, due to having created their body and raising them. Now, I spit on her memory and all those who revere it.

When I become a perfect sadhaka, then maybe I will have the adhikar for leaving all responsibilities and running to Krishna's charan. Until then, it is better that I burn in separation and fulfill my dharma in the filthy samsara of home life than run away to Vraj and take my samsara there. When I am chanting 64 rounds in secret while my family sleeps, relishing smaran when people think I am dozing, and feeling real humility and not the mocking pose that I feel now, then I will go.

I think I wrote this to give you the perspective of a child who has lost a parent to the parent's dream. Your situation I am sure is quite different. Maybe I used this opportunity to think out loud and wasted your time. Please accept my most sincere apologies and feel free not to post this or delete it later. You are my senior and are owed my pranaams and respect.

Joy Nitai! Joy Gaur!


Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Whatever a man desires, that for him is his duty

I need to explain more what I mean by dharma. This is a continuing meditation on my own poem. When I reposted it, by some coincidence I reread the post I made about the Gita verse kāmo'smi bhāratarshabha. I was struck by the words from the Mahabharata (14.13.9-10)--

In this world, men do not commend a man whose very self is desire, and yet there can be no progress (pravritti) without desire, for the gift of alms, the study of the Veda, ascetic practice, and the Vedic sacrificial acts are all motivated by desire. Whoever knowingly undertakes a religious vow, performs sacrifice or any other religious duty, or engages in the spiritual exercise of meditation without desire does all this in vain. Whatever a man desires, that is to him his duty (dharma). It cannot be sound to curb one's duty.

"Whatever a man desires, that is to him his duty."

This describes, of course, the idea of Berüf or vocation. Prabhupada once said, "Find Krishna in the direction of your service." Or, find Krishna in the direction of your desires. We generally see dharma in terms of the unpleasantness that must be overcome. And of course, even when trying to fulfill a desire, there are challenges that must be overcome. Tests. But one who is faithful to God is faithful to his original inspiration or desire, recognizing ultimately that it comes from God.

There are subtleties related to the modes of nature or the purity of desire, but the whole point of the Gita is to show that one's desire indicates his level of qualification or adhikara. He says, when someone chooses to worship a particular demigod (to fulfill a particular desire) that he strengthens the person's faith in that god. Why? So that he can come to a knowledge of that particular (partial) manifestation of God. And he continues doing so until he comes to an awareness that prema is the prayojana.

The obligations that are imposed upon us by society, nation, family, our inner gods and demons, our "Superego" are the dharmic obstacles that are placed upon us. These are often harder to give up than adharma, precisely because we associate the duties related to this body with religion.

Of course, this is a huge debate in religion itself--and something to which we originally objected. Gaudiya Vaishnavism _is_ mystical. It is about cultivating direct experience of God--bhagavat-sākṣātkāra--the true price of which is sarva-dharmān parityājya.

So what is this obsession with "worldly religion"? Which, I may add, also has a connection to my Sahajiyaism. Ah... This shall have to wait. I have surely been down this road before... It starts with "This world is real."