Wednesday, January 31, 2007

A Short History of Progress

Sitting here behind a desk, doing rather ordinary work on the computer for a tool and equipment rental company, I listen to the radio. Mostly I listen to either CBC or Radio-Canada. CBC has the advantage of being broadcast in four different time zones, so I can catch programs I miss, or even listen to them a second time.

Today, I heard an interview with Ronald Wright, author of A Short History of Progress. I heard the Massey Lectures he gave a couple of years ago and was pretty impressed by his thesis. Now that the environmental drumbeat has become audible and even the most recalcitrant deniers of global climate change seem suddenly to have found out that there is truth to these rumours, his voice is one of those that is well worth paying attention to.

Wright is a historian whose first area of study was the Mayan civilizations in Central America. Although he started out by analyzing the downfall of the pre-Columbian civilizations to imperialist forces, over the course of time, he came to recognize that some of the Mayan civilizations collapsed under their own weight at the very height of their development. Just when they were building their greatest architectural marvels, they were destroying their environment--chopping down their forests, urbanizing their farmland, devoting their energy to overconsumption and useless megaprojects. This pattern, he observed, has repeated itself over the course of human civilization, at every step: the success of hunting, he says, brought about the end of hunting as a way of life. The arrival of human beings into virgin territory inevitably resulted in the extinction of many species, starting with the largest and easiest to hunt.

Of course, this self-destructive phenomenon has never before attained the proportions it has today, and it seems that almost everything about modern civilization is built around the foolish idea that the wasteful lives of consumption can not only be maintained in the rich countries, but exported to the rest of the world. Now those unwashed who have been holding the signs on the streetcorners that say, "Repent, for the end is nigh!" are suddenly looked upon as prophets. I must have heard the words religion and conversion tied in to environmentalism ten times last week.

I was not going to bother posting this, but I just happened across a couple of articles about current Christianity, at least in its evangelical manifestation. In an article about the upcoming Superbowl, The Church of Football, Robert Lipsyte quotes the infamous leader of America's "Moral Majority" Jerry Falwell saying, "Jesus was no sissy. He was tough, he was a he-man. If he played football, you'd be slow getting up after he tackled you."

Falwell hoped, apparently, that someday Notre Dame and Liberty, his evangelical college, would meet for the national championship, thus showing the nation that "the Christians are here, we're not meek and we're not going to fall down in front of you. We're here to stay." In another brilliant statement quoted by Lipsyte, Falwell says, "If ever you adopt a philosophy that winning is not important, it's how you play the game, you cop out. This is America. If you're not a winner it's your own fault."

Out of this develops Lipsyte's thesis, which is that football is the "real" religion of America, which replaces "Love your neighbour" with Lombardi's "Winning is not everything, it's the only thing." Rajo-guna religion if there ever was such a thing!

In 1955, Will Herberg wrote a significant book, Protestant, Catholic, Jew, which greatly influenced the sociology of religion in the U.S.A. His argument was this: that in the USA, certain values had so imposed themselves on the society that they were accepted by all religious denominations. This consensus more or less rendered them indistinguishable from one another, or at least nothing more than variant forms of "Americanism." Peter L. Berger picked up on this in another influential book about the sociology of American religion called The Sacred Canopy: American values themselves are sacralized and mediated through secular rituals, and all religions have to compromise their claims to be the ultimate moral arbiters and bow to the symbols of the American nation. It would be dishonest to say that this does not happen anywhere, but the strength of it in the USA is powerfully evident to most visiting foreigners, even Canadians.

To make blanket statements about the religious groupings in the United States and political leanings is fraught with danger--as are all generalizations--but it is generally assumed that evangelical Christians support the right, even to extremes, while Catholics and Jews tend to be on the left. But what is interesting is the phenomenon of religious compromise and bandwagon jumping.

In a sense, this is inevitable, and we are all guilty in some way or another. We live in the world, and religion has the function of giving meaning and value to the lives we live. If our lives are dull and meaningless, religion will find a way of rationalizing that too as God's will. But religion also seeks power and success and piggybacks on that, too. Falwell's argument looks a lot to me like an evolved reaction to the critiques of Nietzsche and Bonhoeffer, about whom I said some things in the last post. Nietzsche laughed at Christians for their weak ways--imagine thinking that love was the solution to anything! "Be supermen!" He shouted at humanity, and got Christians thinking (again) that they should hold the strings of power. And so Falwell and his ilk are characterized by some as potential reincarnations of the Nazis in their desire to make the world fit for Christ's second coming. (See for instance Christianists on the March.)

And all this is tied in with consumerism and the consumer culture--the real religion of our age. Prabhupada said it, "Work hard and enjoy sense gratification." And the kapata religion justifies that: "Christ said he came to give life and give it more abundantly!" And just as every empire of the past had both its conquistadors and its padres, the American empire has its preachers of the consumerism gospel in outposts around the world.

Of course, I would not be doing justice to Christianity if I did not recognize the great many Christians of all denominations who recognize the vapidity of rampant consumerism, who recognize that God's giving man "dominion over the earth" did not mean that he was given freedom to rape it. Wright debunks the myth of native cultures living in harmony with Nature--many of them did not. But certainly the time has come to cast off the macho religion of world domination before it destroys us all.

We were taught in Krishna consciousness to live simply; it seems that life in the West trains us up to admire opulence and to feel like sinners if we do not become rich and ostentatiously parade our pecunia. This is a deep samskara. Gaura Keshava once said that in the West, we really have no choice but to transform our religion into one that justifies the "good life." A doctrine of austerity does not win converts in Svarga.

I personally don't believe that we all need to wear sackcloth or cover ourselves with vibhuti and live naked in the Himalayas, but it seems to me that the days of consumerism are nearing their end. Whatever religion we follow, we must adopt values that are commonsensical in the current situation--even those that have been pushed through by men and women of good will in every walk of life, whether atheist or belonging to another religion.


In the previous post, the question I was basically trying to answer was this : What is the relationship between the symbolic superstructure of a religion, i.e., its theology, ritual, etc., which I called “content,” and the essential religious experience?

I guess devotees may be a little surprised by my approach. Basically, my idea is this: By using an empirical approach to our own tradition, i.e., by looking at our tradition objectively, what meaningful interpretations can we find? I base this on the following item of faith: Since the very name of our doctrine is acintya-bhedābheda, a cornerstone of which is the reality of the world, we must be ready to extract meaningful conclusions from phenomena.

This will have three benefits: (1) It will give us a more mature attitude towards our own doctrines; (2) It will enrich our appreciation of our symbols; (3) It will increase comprehension of our concepts in certain circles.


Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Mantras and the Holy Name.

The third week’s readings were four in number, and shorter than the previous week. I have listed them at the end of this text.

I have to admit that I was surprised and pleased by the direction my readings took me this week. In the seminar on the Holy Name, one of the questions that came up was about the difference between mantra and the Holy Name. My students have been somewhat influenced by Devesh Soneji, the bright young professor who currently teaches most of the courses on Hinduism in the department. He specializes in a number of fields, including Bharatanatyam and Tantra, especially Sri Vidya, so he has given them a good background in the Tantric theory of mantras, yantras and so on.

The explanation I gave in class was based on the distinctions that I have admittedly acquired from Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati and Bhakti Rakshaka Sridhar Maharaj about the difference between the Bhagavata and Pancharatra approaches to spiritual practice. The former is far less ritualistic and more spontaneous than the latter. Nevertheless, we have seen that Jiva Goswami in the Bhakti-sandarbha (sections 283-286) defends the necessity of diksha and the rest of the Pancharatra practices as an intermediate step for self-purification. He says there that the rishis like Narada have seen the necessity for a purificatory process for the jivas and so they have added the bija, put the Name into the dative case and added certain ritually functional words like namaḥ, svāhā, etc. The function of these mantras might be said to create a certain formal distance between the sadhaka and his ishta and ritualize the primitive bhakti relationship of subordination and self-surrender, as disclosed in the esoteric meanings of the words such as namaḥ and svāhā.

In The Guru and His Grace, a diagram is given that nicely illustrates that the Holy Name precedes mantra [here misleadingly labelled as gāyatrī-mantra; I would prefer dīkṣā-mantra], accompanies it as a companion practice during the sadhana stage, but is jettisoned in favor of the Holy Name when one attains mantra-siddhi ("liberation" in the diagram). Besides the above reference to the Bhakti-sandarbha, the main evidence is the following couplet from Chaitanya Charitamrita:

kṛṣṇa mantra haite habe saṁsāra mocana
kṛṣṇa nāma haite pābe kṛṣṇera caraṇa
By chanting the Krishna-mantra one will be liberated from material existence. And by chanting Krishna’s Name, one will attain his lotus feet. (CC 1.7.73)
[Note: In the context in which this text is found, it is hard to argue that there is any distinction whatsoever being drawn between Krishna-mantra and Krishna-nama. Both words mean the mantra of the Holy Names and the repetition is rhetorical.]

When we speak of the Holy Name, we mean the names of Krishna in their most simple form, as found in the vocative case. They represent a primordial calling out directly to Krishna, without any formality whatsoever. Unlike the mantras, which require certain ritually appropriate context, the Holy Name can be chanted anywhere and at any time. It is the purest action of the soul and brings about the purest experience of an unmediated relationship with God.

Since this in itself is the most purifying of all acts, it may be asked why other mantras are needed. In reference to the previous discussion of the ecstatic experience, we may analyze this as follows:

I have stated before that the Holy Name (like the concept of God itself) has “no content.” This is what I mean by “unmediated.” It engenders a primitive state beyond language, like the cry of a baby for its mother. It is pure emotion and pure relation; unlike a prayer, it is without specific content. Nevertheless, it accumulates content, like any relationship, in the course of being used as a sadhana. Though a bhakti-sadhaka hearkens back again and again to the purity of the original, primordial experience as a kind of transcendent base for faith, he does not seek to annihilate the accumulated meaning that grows out of his practice. In fact, that is considered to be enriching. The distinction between the two is that of “being” and “becoming.” Bhakti implies a priori a bias towards eternal “becoming.” But when we say that the Holy Name is both the sadhana and the sadhya, we mean that we hold onto that primordial experience of the Divine coming from the Holy Name as a constant throughout our spiritual life, it is the seed out of which all meanings arise.

One of the things discussed previously in relationship to the ecstatic experience was that the similarity ecstatics of one tradition show to those of other traditions is greater than that shown to the orthodox of their very own tradition. The problem with this position, though Shiva nicely highlighted the validity of the observation, is that it implies that all mystic experiences are fundamentally the same and that the theological superstructure built around these experiences is simply a cultural artefact that needs to be deconstructed. This objection usually comes from theists (like R.C. Zaehner), who argue that this philosophy of the unicity of experience comes from nature mystics and pantheists who do not recognize the ultimacy or even distinctness of the theistic experience. In one, there is One; in the other, there is both One and another, i.e., one’s own distinct self who is conscious of the One and exists in relation to Him/Her/It. No doubt similarities between the two are there, but the difference is fundamental.

Now orthodoxies generally emphasize content—the symbolic superstructure and language, ritual and tradition that grows out of an awareness of the mystical relationship as had by seers, prophets, and acharyas, and is mediated by them to the spiritually less gifted. In the case of Harinam, the Holy Name brings about a preliminary shock of awareness in the predisposed soul of the existence of the transcendental Presence, and the divine and eternal relationship that exists between him and God. What I called the conversion experience can also be called the birth of śraddhā, ādau śraddhā.

What follows, however, is a progressive filling out of that experience with content through the association with devotees. Of course, there may be some hearing that precedes this birth of śraddhā, which might provide nourishment for the original faith experience, but the essence of that experience is mediated by the Holy Name itself. I would distinguish the primitive experience of the Holy Name from the mature experience as parallel to the understandings of sphota and rasa. Indeed, this same distinction can be found in the Chaitanya of Vrindavan Das and that of Krishnadas Kaviraj.

Frits Staal, one of the West's leading researchers into Vedic mantra and ritual, has theorized that mantra is a relic of archaic pre-linguistic sound patterns. From him, the meaning of mantras is for all intents and purposes irrelevant. For instance, Tantric mantras are known almost always by the number of syllables they are in length. Vedic mantras often use meaningless sounds called stobhas in order to fill out metric requirements or some other obscure purpose. Similarly, Tantric bija mantras have no lexical function. Staal compares mantras to the sounds a child makes before learning to speak, or to the songs of birds. "They are a remnant, a vestige, a rudiment of something that existed before language..." (in Mantra, pp.80-81)

They are comparable, says Staal, to the wings of a penguin which are used as flippers. That is, just as the wings of a bird evolved out of the fish's fins to become a tool for flight, in the case of the penguin they are used once again as fins. Similarly, language evolved out of mantra, but the mantras that use language perform the same kind of non-communicative, non-linguistic functions of the proto-mantra sounds.

As further evidence for his argument, Staal refers to the customarily stated purpose of mantras--namely to attain an ineffable mystic state beyond language. This state is likened to an archaic, pre-linguistic condition, a state that exists deep beneath the state of awareness steeped in language. Staal here finds confirmation in the Buddhist Madhyamika and Advaita Vedanta theories that find the liberated state deep within the actually existing psyche--it is not something that is not already existing. He cites the Buddhist text of Nagarjuna:

baddho na mucyate tāvad abaddho naiva mucyate
syātāṁ baddhe mucyamāne yugapad bandha-mokṣaṇe
No one in bondage is released, just as no one who is free is released; if someone in bondage were to be released, bondage and release would be simultaneous. (Mūla-mādhyamika-kārikā, 16.8)
Or Gaudapada's Agama-sastra (2.32):

na nirodho na cotpattir na baddho na ca sādhakaḥ
na mumukṣur na vai mukta ity eṣā paramārthatā
There is no destruction, no origination, no one in bondage, no one seeking perfection, no one desirous of release, no one really released. This is the highest truth.
And, of course, to this theories of the Satya Yuga and the ageless disciplic successions professing to the ancientness of the mantras can be added as further proof of the archaic origins of mantra.

Whatever the veracity of this fascinating theory, it resonates with what was stated above. In the Third Book of the Bhagavata, Kapila Deva, in his teachings to Devahuti, speaks about the child in the womb as having an awakening of God consciousness. Fascinatingly, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu's first sermon in Nabadwip after attaining "enlightenment" in Gaya, as described by Vrindavan Das, follows this exact theme.

How can we relate this particular theme in the Vaishnava understanding of human development and Staal's theory, or Freud's theory of mystical or religious experience as an expression of the yearning to return to the womb, where one supposes (as opposed to the Bhagavata) that one was in a state of blissful suspension. For Freud, this was clearly a regressive state, one of immaturity. Christian theologians struggled with this for quite a while, and there is still a general opinion amongst secularists that religion is a sign of infantilism or regression--a reluctance to throw off the psychological shackles of psychological dependence, an “escape from freedom” (in the words of Erich Fromm), or simply a refusal to “face reality.” For them, religion is just a more sophisticated version of magical or wishful thinking and in this way a throwback to a simpler, more primitive time.

No doubt, there are elements of truth in all this, especially in what the Bhagavata would call the kanishtha stage of religious life, when one coccoons oneself into a hermetically sealed ideological universe. Philosophers like Nietzsche and, later, even theologians like Bornhoeffer thought they could solve the problem by "killing God," as it were--at least that fantastic, fairy-tale, knight-on-a-white-horse savior God. For Nietzsche, one needed to become free from the God idea in order to become fully human; for Bornhoeffer, God wants to set us free in order that we may become fully human, i.e., fully like Him.

In our own tradition, it might be said that this very idea of psychologically mature religiosity is represented by the hierarchy of relationships; the idea of "independence from God" symbolically represented by this Padyavali verse:

śrutim apare smṛtim itare
bhārataṁ anye bhajantu bhava-bhītāḥ
aham iha nandaṁ vande
yasyālinde paraṁ brahma
Some may worship the God of the Upanishads,
some the One described in the Smritis, and
yet others may bow down to the God glorified
in the Mahabharata, shaking with the fears
of life and death in this material world.

But I will place my head at the feet
of Nanda Maharaj in whose back yard
the Supreme Brahman is crawling about
in the form of a baby boy.
(Raghupati Upadhyaya, Padyavali 126)
We agree with the Brahmavadis that the jiva is one with Brahman and always has been one with Brahman. But this inchoate state of oneness with Brahman, of mukti, is the warmth of the womb, a return to that primitive state of safety. It is not the maturity of true liberation which is expressed in love and everything that entails, the first principle of which is jagat satyam, the world is real. We don't want to escape from our human condition--after all, the whole point of saying that God took human form is to affirm its glories.

The mystic experience is at its very basis divided into two: in one the sense of unity is dominant, in the other the sense of relationship in unity is dominant. Both are pre-linguistic states, in the mood of Staal. It may even be said that the division into two is artificial, and that for whatever reason, one psychologically or philosophically becomes emotionally incapacitated and unable to accept the existence of the primordial Other. Even so, at the very best, the embryo-like state of liberation is one in which the "being" aspect of the soul is alone experienced, with consciousness itself being reduced to its most embryonic state (despite the use of terms like cit or cit-sattva). Bliss is there, for sure, but again, only in proportion to the degree of conscious awareness, which without relationship is minimal.

The push to evolve, the sense of becoming, for which being is only the backdrop, comes out of the sense of difference, the embracing of the world as real (jagat satyam) and not as false. It comes out of the dynamism of the dialectic of unity and separation. This is why the Holy Name is a mantra of an entirely different sort.

The implications of this for the controversy about whether the jiva fell from the spiritual world is evident: Assuming that the individual lifetime of a jiva is a microcosm of his endless cycle of repeated births and deaths, the condition in the womb is one of unmediated Krishna consciousness, but without content. In order for content to accrue, it is necessary to live. Hence, the necessity for creation.

This is also borne out in the visceral response to Staal’s theories as given by other theorists of Vedic mantra and language. Indeed, the various indigenous theories of mantra, like those of the Mimamsa philosophers and of the grammatician Bhatrihari, in whose Vakpadiya the highly influential sphota-vada is delineated. In the Nirukta, Yaska says,

yad gṛhītam avijñātaṁ nigadenaiva śabdyate
anagnāv iva śuṣkaidho na taj jvalati karhicit
What is merely vocalized without being understood, like dry wood without fire, never ignites. Nirukta 1.18)
Staal considers statements like these to be rationalizations arising out of a linguistic consciousness, but the desire for meaning is, for many, the essence of the religious impulse. A ritual that simply hearkened to a primitive state would not, on its own, provide satisfactory meaning.

All Indian theories of creation identify the Vedic sound with the creative act. Bhartrihari states that the mantra AUM is the root mantra out of which all other mantras arise. “This sacred syllable is held to have flashed forth into the heart of Brahman, while absorbed in deep meditation, and to have given birth to the Vedas, which contain all knowledge.” (Coward, in Mantra, p. 167)

Bhartrihari’s sphota theory begins from the point of identifying God as Shabda Brahman, or the totality of meaning. Each sentence we speak accumulates meaning, morpheme by morpheme, word by word, until it explodes into a flash of meaning. This flash is called sphota. A single sentence (vakya) contains a single flash of varying degrees of brightness, a maha-vakya accumulates a totality of meaning that is even weightier. The accumulation of all meanings through all time and space is God.

As much as God can be reduced to a syllable, it is AUM. AUM in itself may be meaningless lexically, but that is precisely the point: it is the nexus of all meanings. All mantras, to some degree or another, similarly profess to somehow or another be a channel to this totality of meaning.

I would say that the Holy Name opens the door to this same nexus of meaning as it is viewed personally, or relationally. The Name itself is infused with a power to access that meaning in a kind of spontaneous, unmediated sphoṭa. However, the accumulation of meanings that comes from life experience, association with saintly persons, from śravaṇa, manana and nididhyāsana of matters related to spiritual life, one comes to the experience of rasa, which I guess will be a subject of a later blog.

Hein, Norvin J. “Chaitanya’s Ecstasies and the Theology of the Holy Name.” JVS 2.2, Spring 1994.

Acyutänanda Däsa. “The Descent of the Holy Name: A Gaudiya Vaishnava Perspective,” JVS 2.2, Spring 1994. 27-34.

My article on “Sri Chaitanya’s Sikshastakam.” in JVS and my translation of the Mahamantra-vyakhya, easily available on the internet.

Alper, Harvey P. (ed.) Mantra. SUNY Press, 1988.

Coward, Harold and Goa, David. Mantra: Hearing the Divine in India. Anima Books, 1991.

Gonda, Jan. "The Indian Mantra," Oriens 16:244-297.

Sridhar, Bhakti Rakshaka. The Guru and His Grace.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Loyalty, fidelity, obedience and adherence

Plus ça change, plus ça reste pareil.

One thing I did not mention in speaking of the June McDaniel book, because it was not relevant then, is that I am quoted in it. The reason I mention it now is because now it has become relevant.

June McDaniel interviewed me in Nabadwip back in 1984. Nitai introduced us, as she was a fellow student of his at the University of Chicago. Evidently, she did not find speaking with me particularly fruitful as she only quoted the one statement, in which I say, "In the Western system, people try to invent things for themselves. In India, we try to follow previous people, to do what they did and get it down properly, the way that it was done before." (Page 19)

Maybe I was thinking of this verse:

etāṁ sa āsthāya parātma-niṣṭhām
adhyāsitāṁ pūrvatamair mahadbhiḥ
ahaṁ tariṣyāmi duranta-pāraṁ
tamo mukundāṅghri-niṣevayaiva
“Fixed in faith in the Supreme Soul
in whom dwelt the great souls of yore,
I shall cross over the boundless ocean of darkness
by serving only Mukunda's lotus feet.
(SB 11.23.57, CC 2.3.6)
This rare artefact from my own past now looks like a strange relic, a puzzle to be solved by my putative future biographer. A little more than a year after I spoke these words I was back in the West, embarking on an academic career, trying to "understand" my own experiences and those of the acharyas by following some kind of empirical method, i.e., specifically following Western models of understanding.

Recently I listened to a Rabindra Svarupa talk in which he refers to the following quote, taken from the editor's introduction to Mantra (ed. Harvey P. Alper, SUNY Press, 1989):
Most of us who study mantras critically--historians, philosophers, Sanskritists--take the Enlightenment consensus for granted. We do not believe in magic. Generally, we do not pray. If we do pray, we try to do so in a universalistic idiom. We do not ask openly for mundane, temporal goods. If we prayed for the latter and if our prayers were answered, many of us would be incredulous and deeply embarrassed. (page 3)
It seems ludicrous to think that these twain could possibly meet. In the first couple of classes, I found that even my PhD-level students, some of whom are from a Hindu background, seem a little weak in their knowledge of the history of the study of religion, even though that is a required undergraduate course. In other words, the names of Muller, Durkheim, Taylor, James, Weber, Otto, Freud, Jung, etc., do not immediately evoke in them the broad orientations towards interpreting religion that these authors represent. I told them that it is as much the duty of the person of faith to know what the philosophical challenges to his or her faith are as it is for the non-believer who studies religion to make an honest attempt at empathy for religious experience and phenomena. The true student of religion must at least make some sincere attempt to know both sides of the question, without prejudging the good faith in the arguments of both the dark and bright angels.

I have in my library a great book, meant for university students, called Critical Issues in Modern Religion (Prentice-Hall, 1973). The book summarizes various thinkers who have really affected Western attitudes to religion (Hume, Darwin, Freud, Marx, etc.), this "Enlightenment consensus," and the religious men and women--Christians for the most part, evidently (Bultmann, Niebuhr, Bonhoeffer, Tillich, Teilhard de Chardin, etc.)--whose response to those challenges have been influential. The fundamentalists evidently hate this stuff, but even they use archaeology and historical criticism, selectively no doubt, to enrich their understanding of the Bible, even if they pretend to be blind to the most devastating critiques of religion such as those made by Marx and Freud, or think they can dispose of Darwin with just a little more bluster.

One girl in my seminar expressed her belief ("I could never imagine") that the "Western way" would ever affect India because the religious culture is so deeply ingrained there. And she had taken a course on Hinduism in the British colonial period, so how she could have stated something like that I don't know. None of them knew, except most vaguely, what the Brahmo Samaj represented, either. At any rate: those who believe that there is anything at all that is not affected by history, past, present or future, is living in a bubble--which "history" itself will eventually burst.

What is the point of trying to understand religious phenomena objectively, like bees outside the jar of honey, so to speak? Well, the first reason is that the criticisms leveled at religion, religious believers, religious practices, etc., are often quite powerful and persuasive, as I have intimated. In other words, they have "truth value." Was Marx not at least partially correct when he said that religion acts as a powerful tool for social manipulation, indeed that all ideologies need to be critiqued for their economic utilitarianism? Just think of George Bush's desire to bring democracy to the Middle East: for whose consumption is this fairy tale meant, other than those Americans for whom the great myth of America is stronger than their ability to see their own plutocracy cynically profiting from their naiveté?

Anyway, I say all this without trying to explain what happened to me in the year and a half between making nice orthodox statements to June McDaniel and flying frantically over the ocean and trying to bury my samskara in the books of Western savants. Maybe it was a case of the many-pronged "mysterium tremendum" (kālo'smi, or "history") leaving me high and dry and without a home. But the reason I bring it all up again today is that I am evidently still able to repeat something akin to my above statement of obedience to the tradition when I hold fast to Rupa Goswami's goal of mañjarī bhāva, even though, God knows, I have critiqued it in so many ways--well maybe not so many, but in enough ways to still feel a vague panic when I think of what it entails: it is vairāgya more devastating than the void into which Timothy Leary told us to willingly fall.

Thinking of the Deity in sexual terms, whether it is sambhogecchāmayī or tad-bhāvecchātmikā,, is an attitude that is extremely vulnerable to all corners of the critical spectrum. The religious will go with you as far as metaphor or analogy will permit, no further; the non-believers will snicker at the foolish anthropomorphism and the projection of repressed sexuality. The ordinary worker bees of the world will fail to see the relevance: "What purpose does it serve?" And on and on we could go... At any rate, one has to search deeply within to see just how many veils of Maya cover the soul before coming to mañjarī bhāva.

Acintya-bhedābheda, or the inconceivable, infinite dialectic of the Divine, is the secret to understanding. No wonder Sridhar Maharaj liked Hegel. Shouldn't we all?

Anyway, though I will stop here today, I would like to repeat an old saw: It is the journey that is important; bliss is in the eternal journey toward God, the progressive revelation of self, Self and service.

Jaya mama Swamini Sri Radhe!

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Ecstasy, Madness, and Chaitanya Mahaprabhu

The second seminar was centered on Mahaprabhu's life. The readings were (1) Bhaktivedanta Swami's introduction to the Srimad Bhagavatam, (2) Adi 17 and Madhya 1 of Chaitanya Bhagavata, based on a version I found on the web and revised. (3) Then I found a version of the Jagai Madhai story from CBh translated by Tony Stewart (Religions of India in Practice, ed. Donald S. Lopez). I also gave an article by Joseph O'Connell in which he traces a particular incident from Chaitanya's life through the different biographies ("Historicity in the Biographies of Chaitanya", JVS 1.2), and finally the first chapter of June McDaniel's The Madness of the Saints.

In preparing for the course, I found that June McDaniel's introduction gave some very useful insights into the Chaitanya phenomenon. Her book is not really about Mahaprabhu, as such, but rather about ecstatic religion in Bengal, and though she begins with Mahaprabhu as the paradigmatic ecstatic, she gives numerous examples of other Bengali saints from various traditions, each with their own approach to "spiritual madness."

Some of the points she makes are:
  • Divine madness is not unique to Bengal. For instance, Plato in Phaedrus says that there are “two types of mania, one from human disease, the other from a divine state.”)
  • The gods themselves are mad in their inconsistency, destructive acts, delight in enjoyment and self absorption. These actions show their freedom, transcendence to the world, and indifference to order.
  • The devotional madman shows that he is totally absorbed in the divine, renounced, is somehow closely identified or participating in a particular deity, liberated, transcendent and not at home in the material world.
  • Some typical behaviors of such ecstatics are the hermit lifestyle, playing the outrageous trickster, acting like a lover in separation, etc.
  • Ecstatics, whatever their nominal affiliation, tend to act more like each other than the orthodox members of their own belief system.

McDaniel points out that every tradition seems to give warnings of false ecstasies, or pretenders who attempt to use the prevalence of faith in such ecstasy or divine madness as a sign of high spiritual attainment in order to further their personal ends. There is a kind of structural consistency in the hagiographies of Bengali ecstatics that includes a gradual differentiation of the symptoms of divine from material or clinical madness.

They generally have undergone tests by family, doctors, exorcists, etc. In the case of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Srivas Pandit, an authoritative figure among the Nabadwip Vaishnavas, declared his symptoms to be spiritual and without any material characteristics. Overall, McDaniel says, that “mystical states can be distinguished [from clinical madness] by the goal, adaptation to the social world and by creativity.”

When talking of Chaitanya, or even of other Bengali ecstatics, I find it significant that McDaniel cites the Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu and Ujjvala-nilamani in order to find an insider's theoretical explanation for these ecstasies. Now, just as in the West various kinds of hermeneutical tools and models have developed in order to interpret these ecstasies, Rupa Goswami had the brilliant insight to realize that these ecstatic religious experiences could be explained according to the categories found in the natya shastra. What is more, by using this way of explaining Mahaprabhu's ecstasies, he made them accessible to us, not just intellectually but experientially.

The point (for me) is that Mahaprabhu's ecstasies so impressed the Vaishnavas of Nabadwip that they took them as evidence of Mahaprabhu's being God. It could be said that his ecstasies confirmed the reality of Krishna to such an extent that Krishna became accessible to those who were in his presence.

In the next seminar, we will look at the Sanskrit grammarians' sphota-vada concept, which is an approach that most closely resembles Vaishnava views of the Holy Name. As a phoneme, word or sentence is to literature, so is sphota theory to rasa theory. In either case, however, a significant similarity remains: both are indicative of a sudden intense realization that has radically transformative effects on the consciousness. This transformative effect has its parallels in madness.

In her introduction, June McDaniel begins by contrasting ecstatic experiences and "ritual," making reference to debates in various traditions, such as the Chinese Ch'an Buddhism argument over sudden and gradual enlightenment. (The Northern Shen-hsiu school held that through meditation and discipline one could “gradually” attain enlightenment. The Southern Hui-neng school held that since enlightenment was completely transcendental, nothing could be done to attain it. It either came “suddenly,” causelessly, or not at all.

McDaniel could easily have referred to Luther's faith vs. works or the the south Indian Vaishnava "cat" and "monkey" debate. She chooses to give prominence to William James and his theory of lysis and crisis, gradual and abrupt or spontaneous conversion.

She repeats an interesting quote that James himself took from Wesley who, though believing that conversion could be had through a gradual process or suddenly, concluded that in more than 600 cases he had studied, he found none who had converted by the gradual method. James, I believe, identified the gradual process as one that would be followed by those born into a tradition, the abrupt process as one coming to those who converted from outside it.

Based on her study of these two approaches in Bengali traditions (including the Vaishnava), McDaniel gives the following characterisation of the gradual path:
  • The idea of a ladder to the deity.
  • Loyalty to lineage and tradition
  • Acceptance of hierarchy and authority
  • Ritual worship and practice
  • Faith and learning
  • Acceptance of dharma
  • Avoidance of siddhis and self-glorification
  • The path of scriptural injunctions.

The path of breakthrough is characterized as follows:
  • The divine is reached through a unpredictable visions and revelations
  • Ritual purity is irrelevant
  • Initiation and lineage do not necessarily determine experience (“jumping of gurus”)
  • Knowledge and ritual skill are not a factor, only bhava.

Though we may debate the extent to which Chaitanya personifies these traits, he is considered to be the paradigm of the “instant religious experience,” which in fact came in the form of the Holy Name--as he himself experienced it and as he shared that experience with others. McDaniel quotes Ramakrishna, who described the situation as “the fruit coming before the flower.”

From the above, we can see what is being talked about from a Gaudiya Vaishnavism perspective. There are actually two ways of looking at the contrast between the two, for on the one hand we find references to attaining perfection through sadhana (sadhana-siddha) and attaining perfection through the grace of a devotee or of God (kripa-siddha); and on the other, we have the idea of sadhana itself as a path of progression either based on "works" (vaidhi-bhakti) or on experience itself (raganuga-bhakti).

One big argument many of the readers here will be familiar with is the debate on causality--can vaidhi result in raganuga? Since Jiva Goswami recommends that the aspirant should practice a mixture of the two if not yet at the jata-rati stage, it would appear that he visualized some kind of symbiosis of the two. The goal of sadhana-bhakti (practice using the external senses) is to arrive at bhava-bhakti (inner feelings of love and devotion). Since raganuga bhakti is predicated on feelings themselves, it would appear that it has some of the characteristics of a "result." Furthermore, since many of the sadhanas (at least five) mentioned in the BRS are said to contain incredible potency to give prema itself, it would indeed seem that raganuga is a consequence of vaidhi bhakti.

Nevertheless, I would argue that there are certain differences that we must of necessity delineate, otherwise Rupa Goswami would have been more clear about such a causal relationship and would not have placed them as two parallel approaches to religious culture.

What has interested me for a long time is yet another description of the "progressive path" found in Rupa Goswami's adau sraddha verse, especially as contrasted with the idea that Chaitanya Mahaprabhu came to give prema, indeed gave prema before Nama, according to Krishnadas Kaviraj. How can we harmonize this apparent contrast of "sudden" and "gradual" attainments?

I have heard some people say that during Mahaprabhu's time, prema was given instantaneously, but after his departure, what he left was sadhana, or the gradual process, kindly delineated by the Six Goswamis. There are some nice verses in the Chaitanya-chandramrita that could be used to support this idea. Nevertheless, I again think that there is a certain inadequacy to such a clearly demarcated separation. The fact that there continue to be ecstatics, and even "sudden" ecstatics is a cause for pause.

But these are all extreme cases: the point is that to this day, in chanting the Holy Name, some degree or another of such ecstatic experience is not only possible, but necessary to the growth of faith. So I would like to say that the prema-Nama model still exists, because without prema, experienced first through the Holy Name, there would be no faith.

Nevertheless, I am drawing a distinction between the religious experience as one of "conversion" and as one of "full enlightenment," whatever that may be. The distinction, however, is not one of quality but of quantity. Through grace, through Krishna's name, the fortunate devotee gets a taste of the Divine reality. Since this taste is strong and inexplicable by conventional explanations, he gets faith. It is then this faith that impels the devotee to seek the source of the experience according to the authorities that appear to him to hold its secret. adau sraddha, tatah sadhu-sangah.

Now, what McDaniel and others call ritual, we generally call sadhana. Luther would have called it "works." She raises a couple of questions about the process of works, which we could also call "conventional" and the other, unconventional approach to spirituality, which seems to come from more powerful, subconscious forces that overwhelm a practitioner, often in direct contradiction to the very tradition in which he participates.

Freud considered ritual to be a defense mechanism against the rising of undesirable subconscious contents. Jung also thought that organized religion, in which spiritual experience is mediated by previously established symbols and rituals, is a process by which individuals buffer themselves against direct experience of the Soul. Rudolf Otto, whose book Das Heilig ("The Experience of the Holy") brought the words mysterium tremendum et fascinans into wide popular usage, was clear that the direct experience of the Holy was not necessarily a pleasant one. He even gives the example of Arjuna seeing the universal form in the Gita as a case in point. It is enough to drive one mad, you could say.

If we think about the above, we may well see that the gradual process may serve many purposes--social or psychological--but it exists in uneasy relationship with the more intensely personal, individualized and unconventional approach. McDaniel brings up the interesting point that religious ritual imitates the most intense experiences of the prophets. Furthermore, those who have had a confused primitive experience of ecstasy will tend to call on the most familiar theological framework in order to make sense of it. For them, experience is brought into line with and made to imitate ritual. Even in cases where some kind of mystical "vision quest" forms a part of the individual's initiation, there tends to be a conformism to culturally mediated symbols and their interpretation.

OK, that's a lot of stuff. Where does this take us? I think that anyone who has been following my blogs over the past little while will detect another version of the same theme: How can we reconcile the urge for individual experience with our need for society? The two are in obvious symbiosis, but how does that mutual relationship work to attain functional synthesis? We shall continue to explore this theme in the context of Gaudiya Vaishnavism and my "two wings on the bird" doctrine.

Most of all, what I came out of this reading with was a questioning of what the goal of spiritual life is. There is certainly a kind of madness in leaving socially defined roles to seek out goals that are other-worldly. In the eyes of the world, "what is night for the realized sage is day and what is day for the sage is night." How can one possibly reconcile them? I have to accept that if I want to attain prema, I will have to go crazy.

I recently looked at an old Gaudiya Discussions thread and found the following I wrote on June 8, 2004:

yāvān artha udapāne
sarvataḥ samplutodake
tāvān sarveṣu vedeṣu
brāhmaṇasya vijānataḥ
Whatever purposes are served by a small pond are achieved by the great reservoirs of water. Similarly, all the purposes of the Vedas are accomplished by one who knows God. [Gita 2.46]
The lesson here is that we have to establish what our own spiritual essence or goal is, and cultivate that directly. That is why Jiva says that the symptoms of the siddha are the practices of the sādhaka.

Sādhanas are not sādhanas, but anubhāvas. That is, they are not means to an end, but the end itself.

A lost memory just came back to me. Once, while in India, I went through a pretty crazy period and would go around chanting prema prayojan like a kind of mantra. Prema prayojan has a double meaning in Bengali: On the one hand it means "Love of God is the goal of life." On the other, it means, "We all need love."

This certainly does resume for me the essence of all our bhakti speculations and actions. As devotees we will never abandon the specifics of our religious symbols, but we must keep the essence solidly planted in our minds, written on our foreheads if you will. "All you need is love": prem prayojan!

pāvanaṁ bhagavad-yaśaḥ
mitho ratir mithas tuṣṭir
nivṛttir mitha ātmanaḥ
Devotees talk to each other about the glories of the Lord. In each other’s association, they find pleasure and satisfaction; they teach each other about how all their distresses can come to an end. (11.3.30)
smarantaḥ smārayantaś ca
mitho 'ghaugha-haraṁ harim
bhaktyā sañjātayā bhaktyā
bibhraty utpulakāṁ tanum

The devotees become absorbed in remembering Krishna who takes away all their sins, and reminding each other of him. From this devotional service in practice, they develop a higher devotion, which makes them ecstatic and makes the hairs on their bodies stand on end. (11.3.31)
kvacid rudanty acyuta-cintayā kvacid
dhasanti nandanti vadanty alaukikāḥ
nṛtyanti gāyanty anuśīlayanty ajaṁ
bhavanti tūṣṇīṁ param etya nirvṛtāḥ
Sometimes, as the devotees remember the infallible Lord, they begin to cry, sometimes they laugh and rejoice, and sometimes they speak strange and wonderful things. Sometimes they dance, sometimes they sing, and sometimes they quietly read and study about the Unborn, becoming silent as they are deeply immersed in ecstasy. (11.3.32)

A second home

Funny. The university environment is like another home to me. I was describing my feelings to the lecturer with whom I share this transitional office in terms similar to the ones I used when talking about my visit to the Iskcon temple not so long ago. I feel like I am bathing in something intellectual, spiritual, when I am here. I can feel the power of thousands of minds, which have been concentrated on the search for understanding, and since it is here in the department of religious studies, searching for understanding of God, or some aspect of God. You can feel it like a dose of strong coffee. It makes thinking and writing easier, in the way that movement is facilitated in space.

Monday, January 22, 2007

An autobiography in names

When I was born I was baptised Jan,
And for seven years that carried on.
I came to school where Jan was strange,
so thenceforth I was known as John.

Bhakta John at twenty, and shortly after,
I became Hiranyagarbha Das.
I was quite the “golden egghead” to some,
but “Hiranya garbage” to the mass.

I was “Brahmachari” for a while
Then became an “Adhikari”;
Then “Vanachari”, finally “Swami,”
but not “Goswami”—someone was wary.

Then Prabhupad left and so did I,
taking shelter of gopi bhav', the Ras.
Lalita Prasad gave the name I now use--
“Joy to the world,” Jagadananda Das.

At first I was Babaji, even Maharaj,
But that changed too, now I'm simply DAS.
I'm "Jagat" too, but I'm not "the world";
You're the world, and I your DASANUDAS.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

An overview of Bengali religious history prior to Sri Chaitanya


Bengal is situated in the delta of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra, which means that it is criss-crossed with wide rivers. It is probably the most humid part of the subcontinent, with the hilly Meghalaya region at the north being the wettest area in the entire world. This means that the delta was tropical rainforest until quite late in its history, filled with tigers, crocodiles and mosquitoes. The march of civilization is associated with deforestation, which has been ongoing even through to the present day. At present, only the peripheral areas, which are still hilly and less suitable for agriculture, remain wooded.

The implications of this historically are that Aryan civilization was slow in implanting itself in this area, leaving tribal and non-Aryan belief systems strong until relatively late, in comparison even to areas not so far to the West. The region to the north of Orissa and west of the Ganges plain, the present day provinces of Jharkhand and Chattisgarh, is still one of the least aryanized areas of India.

The Bhagirathi, the westernmost though of the Ganges (though not its largest), is generally considered to be the “genuine” Ganga throughout India, and its mouth is known as Ganga-sagara, immortalized in the Puranic tales of the descent of the Ganges. The areas surrounding the Bhagirathi can be considered the cradle of Bengali civilization, and this area south of the bifurcation of the Bhagirathi from the Padma, which flows into Bangladesh, was known as Gauda (perhaps derived from the word gud, which means molasses).

The city of Gauda near the current town of Maldah was the capital of many Bengali kings at various periods of its history, and the later Muslim kings also made their capital in that area.


Early texts stipulate that the lands of Anga (further to the east) and Banga (further to the south) were outside the pale of civilization and anyone visiting those lands became impure. However, the onward march of Brahmanism continued apace with the spread of Buddhism and Jainism in this area, with Buddhism appearing to have the upper hand for most of the first millennium.

Nevertheless, that certain kings found it useful to have brahmins in their land is shown by the famous importation of brahmins in 746 CE by the otherwise little-known king, Adishura. To this day, most brahmins in Bengal trace their descent from the five families that settled on his invitation, either in Rarha, on the west bank of the Bhagirathi, or Varendra, on the east.

Puranic religions

Vaishnavism, Shaivism and Shaktaism all have early histories in Bengal. In fact, the brahmin colonists were already largely "Hinduized." This means that their religion likely contained only a minimum of Vedic elements. Besides the usual ritualistic performances for the rites of passage, etc., brahmins likely took on priestly roles in the various temples that were established at this time.

Archeological evidence of Vaishnavism through this period shows it to be characterized by Pancharatric features:
1) Worship of Narayan as the principal form of God, with Vishnu and then Vasudeva in ascendancy.
2) Belief in the vyuha-vada (“theory of emanations”).
3) Increasing acceptance of the avatar concept, culminating in the popular Dasavatar idea.
4) Steady ascendancy of Krishna.

Shaivism and Shaktaism are both popular religions with numerous folk-features into which there is much ebb and flow with Buddhist tantra.


Buddhism received the greatest patronage from the most dominant Bengali dynasty, the Palas, who ruled empires of various extension from the 8th to the 11th centuries. The first king, Dharmapal, established some of the greatest Buddhist monasteries, such as Vikramashila in Bihar. Devapal and Ramapal were other great kings in this line. Under them, the viharas of Buddhist monks achieved “university” status, where Sanskrit culture of all traditions was preserved and studied. Bengali preachers were active in Tibet, Nepal and other Himalayan areas, as well as in the Indonesian archipelago, etc. Dipankar Srijnana is probably the most famous of these.

The Buddhism of the time was Mahayana, and this developed, no doubt with some returning Chinese Taoist influence, into the various Tantric traditions. Of these, the Vajrayana and the Sahajayana are particularly significant. These are progressively reactions to increased ritualism and formalism in religion. There arre a number of Siddhas (Luipa, Naropa, Kanhapa, etc.), who are venerated as Buddhists in Tibet and as yogis by the Nathas in India. Their writings (ca. 1000), the Caryacarya-gita, are considered the earliest examples of the Bengali language.

Despite the patronage given to Buddhism by some of the prominent dynasties of the first millennium (primarily the Palas, but also the Chandras, etc.), the kings did not withhold their largesse from the Hindus. It would seem that Buddhism, which traditionally took a position antithetical to socially purposeful religion, was in some ways insufficient as a state religion and needed supplementing by the various forms of Hinduism, which served this need. One may compare the situation in China, where Buddhism learned to live in symbiosis with Confucianism and Taoism.

The causes of the decline in Buddhism are a subject of much debate. Some say that there was a reaction to objectionable (viz. Tantric sexual) practices, but it is more likely that popular Buddhism became indistinguishable from Hinduism, the deities of both pantheons were identified with one another (e.g. Avalokitesvara = Shiva, Buddha was accepted as one of the ten avatars of Vishnu), the rituals related to mantra, yantra, puja, etc., were practically the same, only the names were changed. Educated Buddhist renunciates tended to be concentrated in the great monasteries, and eventually lost touch with the masses. With the decline of the Pal dynasty and the ascendancy of the Sena kings, who were Vaishnavas originally from Karnataka, Buddhism steadily lost its hold.

Religion under the Sena kings (11th to 12th centuries).

As already stated, the Senas were cultured Vaishnavas, and there are works in Sanskrit attributed to Ballal, Keshava and Lakshman Sen. Although Ballal was the first great king of the dynasty, it was Lakshman Sen who was the most famous ruler of the line. He is particularly known for having a highly cultured court scene in which “five jewels” flourished: Dhoyi, Umapati Dhara, Govardhan Acharya, Sarana, and finally Jayadeva, who wrote the Gita Govinda, one of the most influential poems on Radha and Krishna in India. Clearly showing folk and vernacular influences, this Sanskrit poem in 12 cantos had left a huge mark on all Vaishnava sects, especially that of Chaitanya. Some familiarity with this work is necessary in order to understand this religion.

The coming of Islam

Bakhtiar Khilji, a Turk, swept across eastern India at the turn of the 12th century, causing Lakshman Sen to flee his kingdom in 1202. He conquered large parts of Bengal and established Muslim dominance that would last until 1757.

There is little evidence that there were forced conversions of non-Muslims in Bengal. However, Muslim rulers did give patronage to Sufi preachers, who thus enjoyed a certain psychological and economic advantage. Some features of Islam that shared a common ethos with aspects of Bengali native religious tendencies were anti-casteism and simplification of ritual. Sufi practices that undoubtedly had an influence on Vaishnavism were communal singing (sama) and meditation using beads (dhikr). The Sufis also appeared to share a sympathy for ecstatic or experiential religion, such as is found in many of the Bengali religious groups, in particular Vaishnavism. The Persian legend of Layla and Majnun (the madman), which is often interpreted allegorically by Sufi mystics, also has parallels with the erotic themes of Krishna mythology.

Hinduism under Islam

Over time Hindus did play a role in the power structure, although generally a secondary one that came at great social cost. Whereas lower caste Bengalis of whatever religious culture may have found the Sufi preachers attractive, the Brahmins were appalled by their beef-eating and other mleccha habits. Those who cooperated with the Muslims lost their caste and were ostracized from Brahminical society. For the lower castes, this was not an issue, but for the upper castes it certainly was the source of a growing malaise. The orthodox Brahmins developed an attitude of inwardness and there was a movement towards a stricter approach to the various Smarta rituals.

On the other hand, it appears that Hindu culture was flourishing. Most likely by the 15th century, crossing over from Hindu to Muslim or vice versa was already quite a rare phenomenon. Nabadwip, where Chaitanya was born in 1486, was in competition with Mithila as the center of leaning in the eastern part of the subcontinent. Contemporaneous developments in the schools of Nyaya, Tantra and Smriti show that the Hindu society was very much alive and well, even it kept itself separate from the Muslims. [Vaishnava texts show limited familiarity with Muslim theological concepts and practices.]

On the level of popular religion also, it appears that there was an awakening of vernacular Bengali culture the 15th century. Bengali verse translations of the Mahabharata and Ramayana were written at this time and enjoyed great popularity, probably amongst ordinary folk of both communities. The Bhagavata Purana was translated more than once, in various forms: Maladhar Basu’s Sri Krishna Vijaya, Bhagavatacharya’s Prema-rasa-tarangini, the Gopala-vijaya, Chaturbhuja’s Sanskrit poem Hari-caritam all show that there was a great revival of interest in the Puranic version of Krishna’s life.

Another poem or collection of songs that would have been performed was the Sri Krishna Kirtan of Baru Chandi Das. More than one writer using the name Chandi Das seems to have lived in the 15th century. Baru Chandi Das’s Krishna is unique in the literature of the time—he truly embodies the boisterousness and carefree attitude of an uneducated village boy. The more refined writing of another Chandi Das, no doubt a proto-Vaishnava Sahajiya, clearly identifies his own loves with a washerwoman and those of Radha and Krishna. A third writer whose songs enjoyed great popularity at this time was the Maithili Vidyapati, whose descriptions of Radha and Krishna’s loves are strongly erotic in tone.

The Bhagavatam

It is probably safe to say that the educated Brahmin community tended to look down on the Vaishnavas as well as other non-Brahminic religions. The moral force of the Bhagavatam seems to have become manifest in the 15th century. Though this text was written near the end of the first millennium in South India, manuscript evidence shows that it spread through North India fairly slowly. The Gita Govinda and other texts with erotic themes are often thought to show the influence of the Bhagavata, but this is not necessarily true. Friedhelm Hardy opines that the Bhagavata was the first “ecstatic purana”, which he contrast with an earlier “intellectual bhakti.” Though it is true that ecstatic religion has a presence in this text, it is accompanied by a intellectual depth that is unmatched in any other Purana, including the Vishnu-purana, its most immediate antecedent. It appears to have crept into Northeast Indian consciousness as a result of a commentary by Sridhar Swami, a resident of Jagannath Puri in Orissa.

Chaitanya and his followers place the most importance on this text because with its sophisticated “advaita theism,” it legitimized the kind of ecstatic religion that is equated with obsessive love, or prema. Chaitanya, therefore, was born of a confluence of an erotic Radha Krishna tradition, deeply rooted since at least the 12th century, a primal belief in ecstasy as the highest religious mode, and the philosophical depth of the Bhagavata Purana.

Chaitanya’s Direct Disciplic Antecedents

This is an area of some controversy, which we will have occasion to look at later. The importance of the Guru was well established in the Tantra and Pancharatra traditions, where the idea of initiation is given prominence. The Sufis also placed a great deal of importance on the idea of murid, murshid and silsila. Chaitanya’s own guru was Ishwara Puri, whose spiritual father was Madhavendra Puri, who had a numbers of disciples in Bengal, many of whom gravitated to Chaitanya when he manifested himself as a leader of the community.

Puri is a dasa-nami or Shankarite sannyasa title. Chaitanya himself was ordained in the Bharati line, another such sannyasi. The strong influence of other elements of the Alvar tradition can be found in the few verses that Madhavendra left to posterity, indicating that these sannyasis were part of a new movement bringing a living Bhagavata tradition into the North.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Footnote to comments on Advaitaji's blog

I responded to a posting on Advaitaji's Madan Gopal site, where I made reference to a Bengali verse from Kunja Bihari Das Babaji Maharaj's Mañjarī-svarūpa-nirūpaṇa. Advaitaji, always wary of Jagat's every word, stated that this was sahajiyā-vāda. Of course, I have a hard time seeing any difference between orthodoxy and sahajiyaism, so maybe he was right. At any rate, I made a further comment which Advaita decided not to post. We had a little followup discussion on email, which Advaita thought of posting as a separate blog, but later had second thoughts about. Anyway, here is the brief posting that did not make it.
For an advanced sādhaka, as I said, even trivial phenomena are inducements to ecstatic feelings and experiences of rasa. Less advanced sādhakas are indeed asked to observe restrictions on their hearing and chanting, i.e., put a Radha and Krishna label on everything. This is the meaning of the verse Kunja Bihari Dasji quotes near the end of  Mañjarī-svarūpa-nirūpaṇa.
For a translation of the verse quoted in the previous post, look here: Gaudiya Discussions (in its hayday) The discussion before and after is rather nice also.

There are two approaches to love: that of the bhajanānandī and that of the goṣṭhy-ānandī. Here is the  bhajanānandī version:

bāhire nayan nā deo kokhon, 
bhāvākrānta citta nāhi jad-avadhi
je bhāve abhāva, hoibek bhāva, 
nāile bhāvābhāse hobe nā tad-buddhi

mahatera bhāva, bhābite bhābite, 
tad-āviṣṭe sarva hobe vismaraṇ
antar-bāhye tabe ekākāra habe, 
mahad-bhāve rasa hobe āsvādan

Do not look outside yourself at any time
until your mind is overcome by love;
For if you know nought but love’s reflection,
you will not see the divine object of love
in every thing existing.

When the loving moods of the great
are contemplated constantly,
this world is all forgotten.
Both within and without become one,
and then, like the great souls, you will get
a taste of sacred rapture.

These verses have had a very strong influence on my thinking about bhakti and the nature of the  bhajanānandī path.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Blogged up

I've got a couple of blogs backed up ("blogged up" -- it sounds rather constipational, doesn't it?). But I've been inordinately busy, especially as my course on Gaudiya Vaishnavism has started at McGill. Yesterday was the first day, and I admit that I felt it exhilarating to be in the situation of teaching a small group of graduate students. The course will require a lot of my surplus energy over the next couple of months, though I think that it might nourish my thoughts for this site as well. I will keep you posted.

Jai Radhe! Jagat.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Renunciation and Institutional Religion

Last night before going to bed, I spent some time reading the Sampradaya Sun, which is currently rehashing in great detail the scandals surrounding Kirtanananda and New Vrindavan. Besides the horrific big picture, there were many little details that burdened my heart, and not just those of the brutal murders.

One was the spectacle shown in two YouTube videos (linked in Navadvipacandra's article) where IRM activists bait Iskcon devotees at two different Rathayatra parades. They get the inevitable rise out of their prey, including, to his great shame, Ravindra Svarupa.

Then there is the picture of Srigalim, whose ugly history of child abuse is one of the most putrid in the terrifying squirming stench of human misery that is the Iskcon child abuse scandal. Apparently he is now working his own scam charity to the tune of 100,000 tax free dollars a year, building an ashram and offering spiritual guidance while advertising publicly for the soulmate who, sadly, still eludes him.

Then there are those “enemies” of New Vrindavan, the lawyer David Gold and his client and Zen teacher Richard Rose, who in their simplicity and steadfastness come across as likably human and even possessed of authentic wisdom. For example,

"There's two kinds of magic," Rose said. "White and black. White magic is what I call between-ness, and I recommend everyone learn how to use it. But there's black magic, too, and the Krishnites are dealing in it, whether they know it or not."


"By attracting certain types of entities. Different kinds of entities are attracted to different kinds of human acts. Entities gain energy from our actions--our expenditures of energy. Sex is the primary release of energy the entities feed on, and some feed on particular kinds of perversions. Keith Ham and his outfit are feeding the pederastic entities. Naturally these entities want to protect the Krishnites so they can continue to get fed."

Rose also went on to say, however, that these entities would eventually turn on the Krishnas and bring about their downfall. This, he said, was the price one inevitably paid for dealing with the dark side. I took some solace in thinking that the Krishnas might someday be on the short end of things, but in the meantime I was not comforted by the thought that "pederastic entities" were interfering with my personal life. .After the Absolute
I have to say, though, that I feel ambivalent about crusaders like Rocana and Navadvipacandra, not that I don't appreciate what they are doing. They remind me a bit of the IRM hecklers...

It was troubling reading and I slept poorly afterward. It gave me pause to rethink what I had posted earlier in the day. When I and others like Advaita left Iskcon, it was in part due to a feeling that there was insufficient internalization going on. Even though a regime of sixteen rounds a day was supposedly in effect, the emphasis everywhere was on externals. The spiritual path is a razor’s edge, so goes the well-known saying of the Katha Upanishad, and it certainly seemed to us that there was a lot of bloody slippage going on.

The other day I made a reference to the Bhagavata verse (7.13.8) quoted in Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu (1.2.113)—

na ziSyAn anubadhnIta granthAn naivAbhyased bahUn |
na vyAkhyAm upayuJjIta nArambhAn Arabhet kvacit ||
[A sannyasi] should not make disciples. He should not study too many books. He should not make a living from explaining the scriptures, nor should he ever begin any undertaking.
Sri Jiva says that this injunction, being as it is included in the general rules for devotional service, does not apply to sannyasis alone, but to all devotees, for they too follow the nivRtti-mArga.

Saraswati Thakur always turned this statement around by making it seem that a devotee takes the risk of ruining his own devotional advancement in order to benefit others. "One should be ready to go to hell to benefit others." There is certainly a force in community: different people's talents complement others', and working together gives individual strength and builds faith. Again, one may persuasively argue that if the goal is to fight the ego, a communal environment obliges one to "surrender" his ego.

For Rocana and the other reformers, the trouble all comes of not following the commands of Prabhupada. I have great respect for Rocana, who believes that proper management techniques could save Iskcon, rather than thinking that there is something in the institution itself that attracts the kind of dissimulation and falseness happening, again and again.

In my class the other day, I was talking about the geography of Bengal and the role that it played in its history. Buddhism probably came into Bengal at the same time or even earlier than Vedism. But we see that Vedism or Brahmanism or Hinduism made inroads in Bengal despite the strong presence of Buddhism there. Even the Pal kings, the last great royal patrons of Buddhism in India, still gave support to brahmins. This is probably in great part because Buddhism, being a religion with a primarily ascetic or world-renouncing ethic, was unable to sustain itself socially without having a functioning worldly religion against which to differentiate itself. A similar situation arose in China, where Buddhism coexisted with Taoism and Confucianism without really even trying to supplant them. The relationship was one of tension.

Dasgupta points out that one of the characteristics of Tantra, whether manifest in the Buddhist or the Hindu context, is to act as a kind of anti-authoritarian movement. Ironically, the Vajrayan and the Sahajayan rebelled against even the ritualism and formalism that entered into the Buddhist tantra. This spirit is perhaps best exemplified in later times by the writings of Kabir and the Sants, who are in a direct spiritual line from the Buddhist Siddhas and the Nath yogis, all of whom criticize the religious establishments in the midst of which they were living.

I guess what I am saying is that it is the natural stance of some to be conservative, and of others to be revolutionary; of some to be more conscious of the needs of the group, and of others to be individualistic. Since flaws, or dangers, are associated with each of these attitudes to spirituality, there will always be the need for the checks and balances that come from the other disposition. A social approach to religion will always need to be tempered by those who seek genuine mystical experience, the most individual posture that one can attain. On the other hand, all mystical experience must result in value for society in general and form the basis for human community. A perfect balance is impossible, for a society of elevated mystics cannot exist. However, there is perhaps a certain level of limited, temporary success that is achievable.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

The Act of Love

Since Anuradha wrote me, I thought I would answer a comment he wrote in response to my Thursday, August 17, 2006 blog. (This is being posted, even though it is incomplete).
Trying to make your own sex-life a spiritual experience is fine, but it is not yet "full surrender" and "selfless Devotion". Repeat,repeat...

I personally play soccer. Maybe Krishna likes it too. Maybe He wants to play with me one day. I don't know. But my soccer is not Krishna's soccer. I play for many selfish reasons and because testosterone is fueling my body. Therefor I regulate it. I play. I enjoy. But it is not part of my spiritual Quest.
I have to say that I found this to be a total misunderstanding of what I am coming to understand about the worship of Radha and Krishna.

In fact, I am not quite sure what philosophical position Anuradha is trying to defend here. I notice that Advaita continues to associate me with "immorality." Clearly Anuradha is making a certain concession here--that there is perhaps some spiritual dimension to sexuality, but one that belongs to a baser level than that of pure love of Godhead as we have been taught by Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati and Bhaktivedanta Swami.

But this misses the principal message that I am trying to communicate: Just as sexuality in its perverted form is the central aspect of mundane consciousness, in its pure form it is the central aspect of the Divine Realm. It is not a kind of enjoyable physical exercise, but an act that symbolically and spiritually, as well as physiologically, combines to bring the splintered individual ego into union with the Divine Realm. Though almost any material or sensual activity can in some way be dovetailed with bhakti to become bhakti, just as an iron rod immersed in fire takes on the properties of fire, none have the power or depth of the act of love.

This does not mean that every repetition of the sexual act is somehow equal to the height of spirituality--far from it. It would be perverse of me to say so, and this is why I find the accusation of immorality to be facile and perverse in itself. It is a shallow dogma that makes too radical a bifurcation between matter and spirit or God and man. It is the same kind of idea that turns Radha and Krishna into a sort of Barbie and Ken with airbrushed genitals, the one that says Radha and the gopis were only seven years old and so there was no question that the Rasa lila was anything other than a children's game. It is a refusal to accept Radha and Krishna lila at face value. The only reason that Radha and Krishna can be meaningful to us is because we have experience of human love, and this is an experience that we recognize as having value.

The difference in the the two approaches lies in the question: Can we think of Radha and Krishna symbolically, or is scriptural literal-mindedness our only option? The literal-minded are horrified at the possibility, and the implications, of thinking of Radha and Krishna as symbols of anything other than God and his energy, whatever that means. The horrifying implication for them is that bhakti itself would become meaningless. One becomes devoted to God and not to a symbol, or so we think.

In fact, God is, I have been saying, an "empty concept." This might also sound like pure heresy, or even Buddhism (!), but what I am getting at is this: God appears in various forms according to the level of spiritual insight of his devotees. As such, there is not much difference between ye yathā mām prapadyante or yad-yad-dhiyā or yādṛśī bhāvanā yasya, etc., and all these other famous verses that stress the multiple and responsive manifestations of God, and the Feuerbachian notion of projection, that has so contributed to psychological atheism over the past two centuries.

Jung once said, ""all statements about the God-image also apply to the empirical symbols of totality." ("The Self," in Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self, tr. R.F.C. Hull, p.31.) In other words, whenever we talk about God, we are talking about a concept that encompasses all things and incarnates our highest values. Our concept of God reflects a meta-narrative about the universe into which we can fit our own lives and give them meaning.

Sex is a troubled creature. For the Buddhists, Mara was the embodiment of evil and temptation, and just as Jesus had to resist 40 days of temptation from Satan in the desert, the Buddha had to resist the temptations of Mara before he could reach enlightenment: Sex and its "subtle forms," as we liked to say in Iskcon. But think, now: What is the difference between the via negativa (neti neti) and the positive approach of the Vaishnavas, who use expressions such as "perverted reflection" (as with Plato's cave, which Anuradha herself mentioned) to describe the relation of Maya to reality?

Some people have a great deal of difficulty with a personal God, or with a God "in human form," or with any kind of anthropomorphism at all. After all, we are only too familiar with the limitations of humanity, so how can we ascribe such a form to him, other than as a kind of sign of self-aggrandizement? But the Bible says, "God made man in his own image." And Jesus said, "Become perfect, even as the Father is perfect." And Kaviraj Goswami says "sarvottama nara-līlā."

What I postulate here is that we are being asked to seek a perfection that includes sexuality, that makes use of sexuality to seek a mystical union with the Divine Couple.
… it is clear from the above that all the esoteric schools of India are fundamentally based on the speculation on the two aspects in which the ultimate reality functions and manifests itself, and that the religious creed is based on the final aim of the attainment of a state of non-duality. It is to be noticed that this idea of unity of the esoteric systems implies no process of negation; it, on the other hand, implies a process of supreme position through a regressive process of transformation and trans-substantiation. It is for this reason that all the schools of Tantra speak of the final state where enjoyment and liberation have become one and the same. The process of āropa, which makes the ultimate union possible, is not peculiar to the Vaishnava Sahajiyas only, it is a process common to all the Tantric and Sahajiya schools, either Hindu or Buddhist. We shall see later on that this process of āropa implies no negation. It implies a change of perspective where the physical existence is not denied, but replaced by a permanent spiritual existence, where the gulf between the physical and the ontological is bridged over in an absolute existence. The Tantric Buddhists have also repeatedly emphasized that the final state is not a state of Nirvana, as it is not a state of Bhava (existence); but neither the Bhava nor the Nirvana is denied it. It is a state where Bhava and Nirvana become united together in the realization of the Absolute. (Obscure Religious Cults, xxxviii)

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Conventional and Social vs. Unconventional and Individualistic

After concluding my previous post, I thought it was a little ironic that I had to take refuge in Kierkegaard to confirm something that is stated with such vigor in the Upanishads, namely that God, or the life of faith, is known exclusively by the path of subjectivity, or by what the Indian system would call antarmukhatā or turning inward. And if any yoga system holds this to be more true than another, it is certainly that of bhakti, which opposes the empirical method of jñāna. yam evaiṣa vṛṇute tena labhyaḥ.

I tend to want to defend the intellectual effort as an act of devotion in itself, since I hold that all human faculties, especially one as fundamental as reason, must have a devotional function. This is what is meant by jñāna-yajña in Gita 18.70. Since desire is the essence of bhakti, the desire to understand God, the way He works and His will for me personally, is what the power of reason was meant for.

In terms of knowledge, it will always be inadequate, for one can never know “the whole picture,” and one has to make decisions on the basis of faith and intuition, however well informed one may think one is. The safe path of obedience to external authorities, tradition or received knowledge is ultimately alienating. When Krishna says sarva-dharmān parityājya, he means that all those external demands must be seen in the context of the intuitive impulse, which comes from Krishna.

When I saw Advaita's quotes of Satya Narayan on his blog today, I thought that I would reflect on it a little in the light of the above. Advaita is contemplating his uniqueness, perhaps isolation, among Western Vaishnavas as a member of the Advaita parivar. But this leads him to recall a dissertation that Satya Narayan Baba gave on the individualistic approach to attaining God.
Once a saint, after death, reached the abode of the Lord and was very surprised to see the Lord alone. So he asked: "How is it that you are alone? I thought there were so many sadhus, so many societies, religions--Muslim, Christianity, Judaism--so many religions and so many saintly people, so many priests and popes and acharyas.”

The Lord said: "I am alone and only one who is alone can come to Me. Those who are with a crowd they cannot reach Me because they remain entangled. So those people who have their big big temples and sects, they really don't want Me. If I went there people would worship Me and not them. For that reason, I am always alone. Nobody wants Me - they only want to exploit My name, but they don't want Me. That is why I am alone. But since you have not fallen into that trap, you have [been able to] come to Me. Only people like you can approach Me."

The idea is here that only when one has become fully devoted to the Lord can one approach Him. If one has any other desire then he cannot reach the Lord." (Caitanya Caritamrita CD1, lecture 2 31st-34th minute)

The point Satya Narayan Dasji is making is that desirelessness and aloneness are somehow inextricably connected. Such a discourse is very prevalent amongst the bhajanānandi Vaishnavas and one that we ourselves often repeated on leaving Iskcon and the Gaudiya Math, where service to the institution seemed to lead to a panoply of ills. It seemed that it was so easy to get distracted from the essentials of bhajan in a large society, what Rupa and the Bhagavata refer to as bahv-ārambha [Jiva and Vishwanath say "like temples and maths"] or "making many disciples," and advise against as detrimental to bhajan. We made a direct connection between the diksha question and this divergence from the pure bhajanānandi attitude.

Since then, however, I have come to respect Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati originality in promoting the goṣṭhyānandī ideal. One can see a parallel between this opposition of attitudes in the early Buddhist split between Sthavira-vada and Mahayana. We could easily argue that the first élan of the Chaitanya Movement was based on the conviction that through mercy, prema had already been given and it was only incumbent on his followers to adopt in faith a generous spirit of freely giving it to others, but some say that was the case only during Chaitanya's avatar, and that in the post-Chaitanya period, sadhana is needed. But what has long fascinated me in this is the contrast between religion's social role and its part in the individual quest for self-realization.

In his famous Putana article, Saraswati Thakur himself took an individualistic stance when he emphasized the “unconventional” nature of the Guru. One who makes compromises with social convention is ultimately giving priority to some personal motivation—his personal safety or security, his personal pleasure or reputation—rather than to the uncompromising demands of the Lord in the Heart. The scriptures are a guide. The guru is only a guide to achieving the awareness of these demands. Jiva and Bhaktivinoda Thakur tell us that the scriptures nothing more than the realizations of those who have entered into direct communion with God (vidvad-anubhava). Through the Guru and Shastra, i.e., through following a path to which we are particularly suited, we are to become unique gurus ourselves. This means that ultimately we have to express our individuality, which comes of our exclusive and unique relationship with God.

However, as I quoted Stephen Clark the other day, “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?"

In other words, if we become so individual that we have nothing to say or share with others, then it makes our religious experience suspect. Guru means teacher, so when Bhaktivinoda Thakur says tāi śiṣya tava, thākibo sarvadā, na loibo pūjā kāro ("I will always remain your disciple and never accept anyone's worship."), his purpose is to emphasize the humility, without which we can never be the recipients of divine instruction, he does not mean one should avoid the duty of charity that is imposed by divine realizations. The Mahayanists identified these two poles as those of wisdom (prajñā) and compassion (karuṇā). Wisdom is the achievement of direct experience of God, compassion is the joy of sharing it. Therefore, for the Mahayana Buddhists, the Bodhicitta, or true transcendent consciousness, resided in the union of these two forces.

Human beings are social. Religion is more than a personal experience, it is something that is shared. This is why Alfred North Whitehead's famous definition is so often called inadequate by the Christians: “Religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness. It runs through three stages, if it evolves to its final satisfaction. It is the transition from God the void to God the enemy, and from God the enemy to God the companion.” (Religion in the Making, 1926.)

Religion is an important basis for the deepest level of socialization. When Srivas Pandit was told that Nimai had become a Vaishnava, he whispered the blessing, asmākaṁ goṣṭhir vardhatām--“May our society grow!” What he meant was that he wished for the values that he held so deeply to be shared with others, and especially by one who had the virtues and talents of a Nimai Pandit.

Human societies, big or small, are created around shared values. Those who plunge into the depths of their inner being and come face to face with Divine Truth are obliged by the very structure of the heroic myth to come back with treasures for all humanity. Siddhi (success) is no success at all unless it can be communicated.

Religious systems create symbols, language and literature, an entire culture, around the divine realizations of saints; these symbols, language and literature make it possible for those who are connected to them to communicate among themselves as members of a single family. This impulse to seek association is profound and necessary, not the kind that results from superficial values. It leads to the potential for intimacy that can only come from sharing the deepest of values.

There is, however, a necessary middle point in this process. That is why I previously stated that sexuality is a necessary aspect of the devotional life: not a superficial sexuality divorced from the search for Self, but one that in itself symbolizes the union of wisdom and compassion: one that recognizes that Krishna wants the club to grow, not through wisdom alone, but through prema.

Sex is a sociological phenomenon; indeed, it is perhaps the most fundamental sociological phenomenon of all. Those who value individuality absolutely, mostly men, tend to shun sexuality or at least the personal commitment that is contingent on sexual relationships. They are afraid of the compromise to their individuality that comes from human love. For the same reason, others feel that the intimacy of sexual love is the very opposite of love for God; how can love of God be compatible with exclusive commitment to a mere jiva, especially one whose embodied existence threatens to plunge one into attachment and commitment to the body and all its extensions?

These arguments are contextual, with reference to the status of the sadhaka. It is indeed necessary for one to go through some kind of initiatory process in order to discover one's identity in relation to God. But that discovery of one's identity in love of God, which must be guarded and nurtured through individual sadhana throughout one's life, must nevertheless be expanded outward to benefit society and the world.

The second stage of sadhana, which in keeping with the sahajiya tradition I call the sādhaka stage (the former being the pravartaka stage), is a median stage between the individualistic and the communalistic approaches to spirituality. In fact, the fullness of individual spiritual realization must incorporate all three stages. As one progresses, the emphasis changes, though one never entirely gives up what went before.

To make the point another way: Seeing God is NOT the end of the spiritual process. After all, who ever sees God in full anyway? We only see aspects of God as he chooses to reveal them to us. There is a continuing dialectic process going on in our spiritual advancement, and "seeing God" is only a dialectic counterpoint that marks a synthesis. But the process is one that continues, for Krishna keeps disappearing from the Rasa dance and coming back eternally.