Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Grantha Mandir

Madhavanandaji has finally sprung back into action on the GGM, which has being lying without any input from me or anyone else in over a year. That has not stopped people from downloading texts to the tune of nearly 400,000, not including the archive. There are a large number of changes and updates that need to be made. I am looking forward to seeing this project get some life back into it.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

My students' papers: 2. Radha


2. "Radha: Mistress, Mother, Mediatrix" by Su..

Su. is the most advanced student in the class, as she is now working towards a PhD, and it shows in her thorough research, sophisticated writing style and scholarly presentation. Her doctoral dissertation is to be based on Vallabhacharya's Bhagavata commentaries. I don't know exactly what part of Vallabha she intends to cover, but she evidently realizes the importance of understanding Radha in the historical context. Her desire to make a thorough inquire into the subject is clear and the research for this paper covers most of the significant secondary literature that has come out of the past three decades of Western scholarship on the subject.

The stated goal of her paper is to contrast the Gaudiya Vaishnava vision of Radha with the one found in the Brahma-vaivarta Purana and to show how she ultimately functions in both as Mother to the devotees and Mediatrix between them and God, despite the somewhat different theological explanations found in the two textual sources. Moreover, she posits this in a historical context, with the most "human" Radha being the earliest, the most "divine", i.e., Radha the Mother Goddess, at the end of this tentative evolutionary development.

Her paper begins with a rhetorical flourish summarizing the various interpretations that have been applied to Radha: "Is she the heroine of erotic medieval poetry? Is she a simple gopi pining over Krishna? Is she Krishna's mistress, his wife or his shakti? Is she an archetypal bhakta, an object of bhakti, or even the mediator of Krishna bhakti and grace? Is she human or divine? Is she all these or none? It appears that although Radha may be known of, she is not really known... in a sigh of exasperation, one is obliged to concur with Yarina Liston's assertion that there is no one way to portray a Radha as the Radha."

Su. then gives a brief overview of the historical development of the Radha figure in Indian literature. She begins with the pre-Chaitanya period. In the first part of this historical overview, she shows that Radha began as a simple cowherdess in the earliest Prakrit literature, and that this human identity gradually becomes transformed. She identifies the Gita Govinda as the point where Radha becomes divine--"Jayadeva not only portrays Radha and Krishna as a 'dual-divinity', but accords Radha with a symbolic function, where she serves as a model of the human soul longing for the divine." It is hard to believe that this is Su.'s own realization, even though she has given no attribution for a source. It would indeed be difficult to find proof of either of these assertions in the Gita Govinda itself, which has more similarities to the pastoral images of Hala or other Prakrit works. Indeed, though the first canto of the GG openly identifies Krishna as the source of all incarnations, which previously would have been attributed to Vishnu-Narayan, there is practically speaking no overt implication of such an identity in the work itself. As to Radha's being a model of the human soul, that is entirely absent. These assertions could be made about the Bhagavatam, and that is why I personally make a distinction between these two "lilas."

Indeed, the tension between the two differing conceptions is to a great extent what gives Radha her symbolic power. Any symbol that can be easily reduced to a simplistic one-to-one correspondence--Radha = Jiva, Krishna = God; or Radha = female principle, Krishna = male principle--becomes too one-dimensional and loses its force. Life is a mystery, and God is the symbolic personification of that mystery. The complementarity of the Bhagavatam to the Gita Govinda lies in their diametrically opposed symbolisms, both of which are given the overlay of divine mystery. If one uses the Bhagavatam story to force an interpretation on the Gita Govinda, one will do it an injustice.

Su. delays her discussion of the Bhagavatam and the "chief gopi" mentioned there, as the identification of this gopi as Radha is first found in the Gaudiya commentaries on the Rasa Lila. I would agree with this chronology, as I stated in the article about Pre-Chaitanya religious history. The Chaitanyaites used a Vaishnava theology to give Radha a place, not a Shakta theology.

After paying lip service to the vernacular literature, in some of which Radha is identified with Lakshmi and begins to receive the epithet Devi, Su. then correctly pinpoints the "late medieval" period as a time when Radha surpasses Lakshmi, just as Krishna does Narayan. Here she specifies, "In the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition, Radha even comes to be accepted as Krishna's very shakti, specifically his hladini shakti (his power of bliss or pleasure-producing potency), and in later texts such as the Radha-tantra and the Padma and Brahma-vaivarta Puranas, Radha is raised to the status of a goddess, though not an independent goddess like Durga."

The concept of hladini shakti dates to the Vishnu Purana and is a derivative of the attempt to understand the nature of a personal God in relation to the ideas of sat, chit and ananda. The nascent shakti theory of the Svetasvatara Upanishad (parAsya zaktir vividhaiva zrUyate svAbhAvikI jJAna-bala-kriyA ca) is expanded on in several places in the Vishnu Purana. The idea of shakti's personification as a female partner is no doubt the raison-d'être of this development, working again in the same kind of tension of symbol to philosophical concept refered to above. At any rate, the elevation of Radha and Krishna to a status above Lakshmi and Narayan does not have so much to do with the tacking on of designations of "shakti" or "devi", which would have happened anyway, but has everything to do with the character of their activities. What is going on here is the apotheosis of human sexual love or, perhaps, a way to channel the tendency to apotheosize human love into a more orthodox conception.

Su.'s statement that after Chaitanya one gets the first evidence of Radha and Krishna worshiped as a "paired image or yugala murti" is no doubt true. Here she says, "Radha is central to Gaudiya theology and praxis, where God is not conceived of as a single male principle, but as a divine couple, Radha-Krishna." Now entering into le vif du sujet, Su. summarizes the contrasting BVP vision as "a subtle yet intentional transformation of the figure of Radha from symbolizing the human soul longing for the divine to serving as a 'revelation of feminine cosmic and redemptive power' (C. Mackenzie Brown 1986: 61). As John Stratton Hawley writes in his preface to The Divine Consort, through Radha's theological transformation, 'she finally becomes what she can never be as a lover: a mother, indeed Mother of the world.' (1986, xiv)."

At this point, Su. makes the argument that in spite of the various images of Radha found in different contexts, in GV "she still serves a mediating function. That is, because she is understood as the divine lover of Krishna in the GV tradition, Radha is accepted as the model of how all devotees should approach the divine. In this context she mediates between individuals and Krishna by inspiring bhakti for him in the devotees and also by allowing devotees to vicariously experience the rasa of her and Krishna's lilas. In the BVP, Radha is portrayed as Krishna's wife and as the mother of the world. Here she mediates between devotees -- who are essentially her children -- and Krishna by bestowing her grace and allowing devotees to gain access to Krishna and his heavenly realm of Goloka." The difference between these mediating functions is that in the former she does so because of her transcendental love for Krishna, whereas in the latter it is due to her ontological status as goddess.

I find this argument tantalizing and it certainly merits consideration. I suppose the first question is, "What is meant by mediation?" In the first instance, the personalist theologies give great importance to the necessity of the personal intervention necessary to bridge the gulf between sinful and forgetful humanity and the pure, untouched Divinity. In all such cases, however, the mediator participates in both realms. The Guru is "as good as God" because he can bridge the divide between these two realms.

On another level, all religious symbols mediate between the individual and a higher truth; it may even be said that since God Himself is ineffable, any conceptualization of Him is a symbol or a means to attaining him. So in that sense, no matter what form or theological content are present within a symbol, it always acts as a mediator.

On the other hand, where symbols are seen in contexts of hierarchical relationship to one another, one lower level symbol can be seen as mediating to another, higher one. Certainly, we see that this kind of thinking is prevalent in raganuga bhakti, for the seva sadhaka-rupena verse says that one follows one of Krishna's intimate associates. The concept of guru also follows this principle. In the Gaudiya Math, in particular, the guru is identified with Radha as a manifestation of the asraya-vigraha or embodiment of prema. Here the idea of mediation is quite clear.

It is important to note that as in many mystical traditions, a distinction is made in Gaudiya Vaishnavism between the conditioned and the transcendental state: the goal of mediation is to come to the point of direct, personal experience of transcendence. The mediation that is necessary in the sinful or imperfect state would have no meaning in the state of perfection, or what Bhaktivinoda would have called svarupa-siddhi. I say this, of course, in full consciousness that relations in the transcendental state in the Gaudiya conception continue to have apparently mediating functions. But if Radha and Krishna are the transcendental objective, then how can they be mediators? Or is it possible for them to be both mediators (asraya) and the objects of transcendental experience (rasa or prema)? It seems to me that this is what Sri Rupa Goswami intended.

In the context of a discussion of the parakiya-svakiya controversy, Su. quotes Neal Delmonico, who says that the question of Radha's marital status is a non-issue because Radha is, "not a metaphor for anything, but an object of worship and a power for worship." Su. goes on paraphrasing Delmonico, who "insists that Rupa never said that one should, or is even capable of, loving Krishna like Radha. The transcendent quality of Radha's love for Krishna is not one that can or should be imitated. It is perhaps for this reason, as Wulff affirms, that practitioners have chosen to assume in their devotion the role of a friend or servant (such as a manjari) of Radha to assist her and 'thereby enjoy vicariously the bliss of their union with Krishna.' (Encyclopedia of Religion 2005, 7954) That is, one comes to experience bhakti-rasa not by experiencing Krishna himself, but by rapturously witnessing Radha and Krishna perform their lilas."

The word "vicarious" has a somewhat negative connotation, it implies substitition of artifice for reality. Watching a film or reading a book about mountain climbing gives one a vicarious experience of mountain climbing, not the real thing. This is an issue that has been discussed previously on these pages. In fact, we plead mystery here: Participation in a symbolic universe is direct experience, even if it appears secondary. Indeed, Rupa's presentation of rasa theory, an aesthetic theory based on the validity of vicarious experience, hints that the symbolic framework through which one experiences phenomena is necessary and more enriching than unmediated experience.

Su. then shows how Rupa in his plays continues to mix the human and divine aspects of Radha. Following Donna Wulff, she here concludes:

What is important to not here is that although Radha is depicted as having "transcendental" qualities and as being an object of devotion, her claim to divinity does not lie in her ontological status, but in the purity and intensity of her love towards Krishna. A love that cannot necessarily be imitated, but can only be inspirational. As Wulff reminds us, "the absolute for Rupa is not a metaphysical principle, but an emotion... Radha, as love embodied, is thus the supreme avenue of religions realization." ("Radha: Consort and Conqueror of Krishna" in Devi: Goddesses of India. (eds. J.S. Hawley and Donna W. Wulff. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. 123).

Having concluded her survey of the Gaudiya visions of Radha, Su. turns to the Brahma Vaivarta Purana, which has been admirably studied by C. Mackenzie Brown. Brown points out that BVP reworks and reinterprets the Radha Krishna legend, "which results in the transfiguration of Radha from the human mistress of Krishna dallying amorously in the earthly paradise of Vraja to the heavenly queen sporting in the celestial realm of Goloka." There is a deliberate attempt to assimilate the feminine terminology familiar to Shaktism, such as maya, prakriti and shakti to the figure of Radha. And finally Radha is presented in her soteriological role as the mediator of divine love and compassion.

For readers of these pages, it would no doubt be useful to cite some of the summaries of the cosmology of the BVP, for it is quite different from that found in the Gaudiya Vaishnava school. The latter is truer to the Pancharatra tradition, whereas the BVP seems closer to Tantric ideas. At any rate, the BVP dispenses with the theory of emanations that is central to the Pancharatra (i.e., all those Vishnus expanding out of each other), and begins from the splitting of the primordial purush into male and female moieties (to borrow Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati's useful term). So far, so good. This concept does indeed find favor amongst Gaudiya writers even where they follow the Pancharatra line. Here, however, after the split, we have the idea of the Purusha impregnating Prakriti as found in Gita 14.2 or in the Brahma-Samhita (where the emanation idea is combined with it and Shiva impregnates Prakriti).

Like the Upanishadic narration, Krishna in the beginning was alone and desirous of creating. He thus divided himself into two, himself and Radha. For as long as the lifetime of Brahma, Krishna and Radha engaged in sexual activity. Radha's perspirattion as a result of her exhaustion from the copulative act formed the cosmic waters which support the universe, from her labored breathing arose the cosmic wind which supports everything, etc. At last fatigued, Krishna released his seed into Radha's womb, who then gave birth to a golden egg, the supreme abode or receptacle of the universe.

For the BVP, Radha and Krishna's earthly lila is merely an interlude in their majestic pastimes in the supreme Goloka. In a very significant passage in the BVP, Radha and Krishna's marriage is described. This establishes clearly her role as divine shakti.

According to Brown, although prakriti, as the "material cause of the universe" was personified, feminized and essentially apotheosized long before the time of BVP, prakriti had never been "personalized" like it is here, namely endowed with a significant personality and individuality. (God as Mother: A Feminine Theology in India. Vermont: Claude Stark and Co., 1974: 120).

Radha's role as mother of the universe is elaborated on in other myths recounted in the BVP, such as the birth of Maha Virat. Radha's role as mediator, as giver of bhakti and prema, etc., is also underscored throughout.

Regarding liberation, it seems that BVP presents two ideas, that of "mergence": "which is revealed by the process of Prakriti Radha's, and thus all of creation's, divisional manifestation from and reabsorption back into Krishna, and that of becoming an attendant of the Lord, which is revealed by the process of "copulative cosmogony," where Radha and Krishna become the parents of the world.

It is, of course, the latter understanding of liberation that differs quite drastically from traditional, or at least from Gaudiya Vaisnava understandings of moksha. According to Brown, these differences easily harmonize with Radha and Krishna's relationship with each other and thus the world. That is, the Gaudiya Vaishnva understanding of moksha, where one assumes the role of an inhabitant of Vraja who nurtures and even participates in Radha and Krishna's amorous lilas, adheres with Radha's relation to Krishna as his parakiya lover and symbol of the human soul longing for the divine. In this context, moreover, it is the madhurya bhava that is cultivated and most cherished by the devotees. As the Divine Mother, however, Radha no longer serves as a model for how a devotee should approach Krishna, but rather bestows her grace upon her devotees, who are essentially her children. Furthermore, the proper attitude towards one's parents is that of respect and service, namely dasya-bhava, and not madhurya bhava. As Brown illustrates, "it is primarily her maternal aspect, as mediatrix between father and children, that is of direct importance to man, providing him with the necessary grace to become a servant of Krishna. (op.cit. 196)

Su. has clearly exceeded all expectations for a term paper. It might be interesting to take the maternal/mediatrix elements and evaluate them in terms of the rasa theories of Rupa. There are hints that she has considered these matters and certainly was more than I could expect in this paper. What is interesting, however, in view of the evolutionary model that has been followed, is that there is no sampradaya that I know of that follows the BVP version or accepts it as canonical or as the principal basis of its theology or ritual. Wulff's assessment that Radha represents "love embodied" and that "the absolute for Rupa is not a metaphysical principle but an emotion," i.e. maha-bhava. It is perhaps natural or necessary that the concept of Krishna as Rasaraja and Radha as Mahabhava had to be translated into a novel cosmological scheme. But if Radha and Krishna point to anything, it is the supremacy of Love, which is both means and end. Bhaktya sanjataya bhaktya bibhraty utpulakam tanum. Whether or not the BVP is ultimately true to this essential realization of the Radha traditions is one that warrants further analysis. On the whole, though, if we can take Su.'s summary of Brown's analysis of the BVP to be accurate, it seems to have, in great part, lost that spirit of madhurya and swamped it with an unhealthy dollop of aisvarya that diminishes Radha's appeal. Let Durga and Lakshmi play the role of Jagan-mata, Radha sports in eternal forgetfulness of these lesser manifestations of herself. Like Krishna, her supremacy is manifested in such forgetfulness.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

I just had to blog this

I am reading Eric Berne's Beyond Games and Scripts, as I believe I already mentioned earlier. I can't help quoting the following passage, as it makes me think of George Bush and wrong religion in general.

I'm OK, you're not OK. I'm a prince, you're a frog. This is the "get rid of" position. These are the people who play "Blemish" as a pastime, a game, or a deadly procedure. They are the ones who sneer at their spouses, send their children to juvenile hall, and fire their friends and retainers. They start crusades and sometimes war, and sit in groups finding fault with their real or imagined inferiors or enemies. This is the "arrogant" position, at worst a killer's, and at best a meddler's, for people who make it their business to help the "not-OK others" with things they don't want to be helped with. But for the most part it is a position of mediocrities and clinically it is paranoid. (p. 193)


Monday, May 14, 2007

Neo-atheism

In the context of the discussion on modernity and Bhaktivinoda Thakur, I had the following notes that were not included. These are more or less disorganized.

...It should be noted that the general response of liberal Christianity has been to identify religion most generally with the search for meaning (See Terry Eagleton, The Meaning of Life). The influence of modernism, however, has been such as to "demystify" the religious tendency: the experience of God and the experience of the world have somehow become indistinct. In other words (in the Christian way of expressing it), since God created the world as an expression of his own desire, (or in the Hindu way of expressing it) the world is a manifestation of Himself or His energies, that therefore the highest value in life can be found in this world--in its pleasures and pains, in the life experience itself. In the hierarchy of values, of course, justice, love and compassion stand at the forefront, and to act in accordance with these values is to be close to God. Devotion to God himself as distinct from these values is either considered unnecessary or tacked on as a mere afterthought--"Thank you, God, for these gifts, etc." For moral atheists, there is no need for God; for the this-worldly theists, God has receded into the background.

In our Gaudiya Vaishnava world view, this is called aropa-siddha bhakti, or karma-misra bhakti, and is at best an incomplete expression of devotion, inasmuch as it is does not look for a definition of the self beyond this body. Indeed, Christians (and Muslims) traditionally believe in a resurrection of the body, which means the immortality of identifying with it, and along with it the pleasures associated with it. Since the devotional concept of a heaven where angels play harps and sing God's praises for eternity (a Vaikuntha concept of the divine abode) is no longer seen as particularly attractive, and a God who requires such adulation as somewhat unworthy, most people prefer the few short years of their human existence and the pleasures it affords over the necessity of making sacrifices for such dubious pleasures. In the debate between Hitchens and Sharpton (See link below), Hitchens even compares such a heaven to North Korea: a place where there is no freedom of thought and everyone is obliged to mindlessly praise the faultless leader!

This sudden resurgence of atheistic literature (the one instigated by Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, et al. See e.g., Aggressive Atheists by Margaret Bunting, Amongst the Disbelievers by Daniel Lazare, The Nature of Belief Debate on ABC Radio, Debate between Al Sharpton and Christopher Hitchens) is a result of the current predominance of religious culture in inciting violence in the world, particularly amongst Muslims, but also an important section of fundamentalist Christianity. The Hare Krishna Movement has shown that it can go either way. I am glad that Bhaktivinoda Thakur gave us the progressive option, in that we do not have to adhere slavishly to the letter of any law.

In my opinion, believers and non-believers are engaged in an eternal debate. Believers are subjected to a constant criticism of their faith, and like all rational beings, they must take these matters seriously. This is why Bhaktivinoda Thakur makes the distinction between komala and madhyama sraddhas, where the second level of faith is the process of incorporating doubt.

I was just listening to Rochan Prabhu talk on one of his "Prabhu podcasts" about his belief in freedom of speech being a "Brahminical principle" and his insistence that even new devotees should be given more autonomy in their religious life. Here I am in complete agreement with him. Any possibility of Vaikuntha becoming North Korea must be avoided at all costs. Spiritual life is about realizing the fullness of our individuality and our unique relationship with God; sadhu sanga is about a voluntary association of like-minded individuals who speak the same spiritual language, whose game or dance with God is made up of the same steps.

Taking a guru is about finding someone to teach you that dance. We hate mind control so much in the West, but in fact our options are limited. They are limited from even before our birth by our genes, by our forefathers, by our language and nationality. They are limited by our upbringing, by the character, personality and fortunes of our parents, by our association, our siblings, our companions. They are limited by our education, our teachers, by history and fate. So how much control can we ever expect to exercise over our minds and thoughts? But just as we wish to learn Kungfu by going to a Sensei, or learn ballet by going to the appropriate teacher, and thus learn how to make the right physical moves, we go to the guru to learn how to make the appropriate mind moves, to dance our minds toward Krishna in bhakti.

The basic problem of atheism is that it provides no meaning; meaning is something that has to be self-created or self-induced by individual will. Believing in God on its own does not necessarily help, as all the meanings provided by belief are susceptible to being punctured if they become a vehicle for exclusionism, excessive self-abasement, or other psychological ills. The truest meaning provided by belief in God is that this world is ultimately good and that we are all meant to add to its goodness through identification with him. Atheists who reject God because God seems a little too much like Kim Il Jong have just met the wrong believers.

But, sadly, God sometimes does resemble Kim Il Jong. This is because he responds to the desires of his believers, and some really are hoping to become eternal slaves of a Great Dictator. If this were not so, how could so many in this world willingly accept such a state? This is why we believe in a God-hierarchy, along with the Gnostics and other emanationists, that "the God of this world", or the Demiurge, or some less perfect manifestation of the God-concept, is only a partial conception of the Deity.

Friday, May 11, 2007

My students' papers: 1. Bhaktivinoda Thakur

I have been marking my students' papers. There were only three who made it to the end. I guess I was given a pretty easy ride for a university course. I think that the three were pleased with the course and since, on the whole, their papers were very good, I thought I would share a few excerpts here. Each of them cited passages, made comments, or had insights that were worth reflecting on. For privacy reasons I will only refer to them by their initials.

This posting was begun more than a week ago on May 2, showing just how my time deficit is affecting my ability to write. This also will account for the lack of a discernable train of thought.

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1. "Reason, Belief, Essence, Faith, or how Bhaktivinoda Thakur 'rationalized' the Spirit" by E.M.

EM has written an excellent paper, inspired primarily by readings from Shukavak's articles and his book on Bhaktivinoda Thakur. She had previously read other material on the effects of Orientalist thought on Indian religions, etc., and the material that she has excerpted from them is appropriate, relevant and useful.

The first part of her essay is based primarily on Richard King's Orientalism and Religion: Postcolonial Theory, India and the Mystic East, as well as Ronald Inden's "Orientalist Constructions of India" and Surendra Rao's "The 'Modern' in Modern Indian History." These works, following in the tradition established by Edward Said's extremely influential work on Orientalism (a term which I believe he coined), attempt to analyze the mechanics of Western interaction with India on a psychological level. The British, King says, approached India in primarily two different ways: "...the first, generally antagonistic and confident in European superiority; the second, generally affirmative, enthusiastic and suggestive of Indian superiority in certain key areas." (p.116).

EM's summary of this point is expressed in an amusing way: "The first, or the Anglicist argument, can be understood as primarily a critique of Indian thought as irrational, emotional, unsystematic, unwieldy, etc., while the second, or Romanticist argument, might be understood as a celebration of Indian thought as irrational, emotional, unsystematic, unwieldy, etc. The aspiration of the Anglicist was the Westernization of India thought, the Romanticist, the recognition and appropriation of what was seen as the mystical foundation of Indian religion, providing a stalwart defence against the deleterious effects of modernity."

On the whole, though, the former of these two attitudes clearly held the upper hand. I have myself tried to understand this phenomenon to a certain degree through the heuristic device of "masculinity" and "femininity," where the "irrational, emotional, unsystematic, unwieldy" are all seen as attributes of the latter. However, what is interesting is the degree to which both these outlooks on India were accepted by the Indian thinkers of the day. The other metaphor commonly used is that of “childish” (religious or magical) thinking and the (reality-based, scientific) thinking of the adult. Both metaphors have usefulness, within limits.

EM, still depending on the above writers, concludes quite rightly that, above all, the British managed to influence Indian intellectuals of their vision of Indian and world history, based on a paradigm of progress. EM: "In the context of enlightenment thinking, the British imposed upon the Indians a historical account of their own civilization, discounting traditional understandings as ahistorical and therefore irrational." (King)

No doubt, the early British perceptions of India and Hinduism were fraught with errors, perhaps none more so than the romantic idea that there was a pristine Aryan or Vedic age, exemplified by the Upanishads, when enlightened thinking actually existed in India, and that with the passage of time, the pure insights of that period became abased by an increasingly irrational (read non-Aryan) approach to life. Nevertheless, the fundamental concept of Western thinking, that time is linear and that there is an inexorable push in humanity towards evolution and historical progress, were readily accepted, and since the Indian intellectuals (not to mention the Muslims) were forced to accept that in many ways they had not evolved to the extent that the Europeans had, something had gone wrong in their approach: their evolution had been stilted.

In the Indian religious response to the Orientalist critique took different forms. The Brahmo Samaj's response "was to highlight those aspects of the Indian traditions that seemed to conform to a rational [as defined by the Europeans] understanding of the world, even if it was in need of a little refinement." The Ramakrishna movement, on the other hand, "would reject the rational in an effort to highlight the spiritual and universal essence of Hinduism." EM here states her thesis that "Bhaktivinoda would attempt to do both." This demonstrates, I guess, Bhaktivinoda's achintya-bhedabheda credentials.

Having given the historical context, EM turns to a summary of Bhaktivinoda’s life, based exclusively on information found in Shukavak's book. Naturally she has had to be selective, but I think that the selections she made were salient: Bhaktivinoda's aristocratic background, his subsequent impoverishment, his opportunities to get a Western education, his study of Western philosophy and Indian traditions in the company of many of the bright lights of the Calcutta intelligentsia, and not less significantly, his contacts with Christianity, primarily in its Unitarian form. "In Kedarnath's heart stirred the first desire for devotion through his study of Jesus Christ." BVT's subsequent sojourn in Orissa where he stayed with his paternal grandfather gave him an opportunity to reflect on what he had learned and come to some conclusions. In his autobiography, he said, "In particular, I was attracted by the devotion of Jesus." She here quotes Shukavak, "For Kedarnath, bhakti would provide the key to his synthesis of modernity and tradition."

Unfortunately, despite this mention of Bhaktivinoda’s attraction to bhakti through Christianity, EM has not mentioned the position of Christianity in the precise historical context she is dealing with. Christianity itself was caught up in a response to the Enlightenment and modernism; indeed, Christians today who interact with modernism are still conducting a rear guard defense as they retreat, while fundamentalists brazenly counterattack, much to their scientifically sensitive coreligionists' embarrassment.

Christianity has taken many forms, some of which were present in British India in the 19th century--from Carey's Baptists to the Unitarians. The relation of religious proselytism to imperialism is an interesting one throughout history: the two tend to work in tandem in a kind of "good cop, bad cop" routine. British Christians had already more or less purchased a certain aspect of the Enlightenment view, in particular that which placed Christianity at the pinnacle of evolutionary achievement where religion was concerned. In fact, they could argue that the linear and progressive view of history (rather than the cyclical view of most paganisms, including Hinduism) rested on the Judaeo-Christian concept of a God intervening in the world and mankind's working toward a teleos. The Christian Incarnation was seen as the personal entry of God into this evolutionary process and the establishment of Christ's kingdom its working out.

Islam also shares this linear concept of history, with the added conviction that Muhammad is the “seal of the Prophets,” a rather rigid concept when dealing with social change. Inasmuch as the last few centuries have seen a diminishing influence of Islam, the disconnect between their sense of belonging to a community that is in possession of the final step in human evolution and their current impotence is the cause of much of their belligerence. Hinduism has a concept of history and God's entry into history (yadA yadA and all that). This concept is frequently made use of when there is a necessity for accomodating new and revolutionary ideas, and certainly Bhaktivinoda made use of it when hearkening back to Chaitanya’s incarnation and the theological contributions made by his followers.

Thus Bhaktivinoda Thakur himself accepted the premise of progress, as in this telling quote from The Bhagavata, Its Philosophy, Ethics and Theology, "Progress certainly is the law of nature and there must be correction and developments with the progress of time." Bhaktivinoda, however, (rightly) felt that similar evolutionary developments had been taking place in India, particularly in the sphere of religion, which was India's specialty, its function in the world, so to speak. That function was to be found in the idea of rasa, which had reached its apogee in the movement of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. So, in effect, he was placing Chaitanya Mahaprabhu's appearance in the world as an alternative manifestation of the same evolutionary processes, within a somewhat different set of standards.

The idea of progressive thinking in itself is highly significant. I think that many of the people who read this blog will already be familiar with some of BVT's thinking on these matters. If not, they might do well to do a websearch of the term sara-grahi, read Shukavak's book, or Kundali's Our Mission series, or read some of my articles like An introduction to controversial issues in Gaudiya Vaishnavism, which admittedly offer only a small part of this argument.

After Bhaktivinoda discovered the Bhagavata Purana and Chaitanya Charitamrita, he was impressed by the theological depth of these works and his life changed course. EM rightly marvels that "it is perhaps remarkable that Bhaktivinoda embarked on this path at all..." as "Vaishnavism... represented one of the best examples of what was wrong with traditional Hinduism." BVT then began his life’s work of giving an interpretation of Chaitanya Vaishnavism that would “fuse reason and tradition.” EM here writes, "He was attempting to give the bhadraloka a way in to Gaudiya Vaishnavism in terms that would be compatible with the Orientalist critique that had so influenced their thinking."

As already intimated in her introduction, EM here follows Shukavak's analysis of the distinction BVT made between faith and belief, belief being preoccupied with the peripherals of a religion, faith with essences. Bhaktivinoda seems to have held, like the other Hindus of the time, that all religions were basically identical in essence, differing only in their peripheral elements.

Here it is worth commenting on the debate concerning the issues of modernism and interpretation as it exists in Iskcon, to the extent that it exists. The recently departed Suhotra Swami was one of the most outspoken critics of the modernist approach (let us call it the "Saragrahi approach"). If I recall correctly, he took BVT's attempts in this direction as nothing more than a means to an end (“a way in”) and not an argument for a methodological approach to Krishna consciousness itself. Indeed, if we look at BVT's spiritual career, we see that at a certain point, particularly from his retirement from government service, he showed an inclination to following the purely mystical practices of Gaudiya Vaishnavism and a disinclination to engage in these kinds of debates. However, I think it would be a mistake on this basis to disregard BVT's argumentation as sophistry meant to suck in misguided intellectuals to a fundamentalist view of the Vaishnava religion. Using a particular critical method means implicitly accepting compromises with an alternative way of thinking. Therefore it is my feeling that Suhotra’s fundamentalist viewpoint is diametrically opposed to the progressive approach BVT was supporting.

A tradition is something that develops around a fundamental insight. The insights of Rupa Goswami into the ecstatic appearance of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu is the basis of our philosophical and theological tradition. By accepting this principle, we are true followers of Bhaktivinoda Thakur. But to remain true followers of BVT, we must continue to show HOW this is true in the context of the challenges posed by progressive material society. In other words, the challenge is not to find ways to fold in on ourselves and to simply chant Hare Krishna and worship our deities and hope for the best, but to find ways of making bhakti to Radha and Krishna meaningful in the world in the current context.

Said's critique of Orientalism calls into question the presumptions the West make in its interpretation of the East, but without really providing a viable alternative. In fact, as is often the case, works like Orientalism tacitly accept a methodology that is mistakenly identified as occidental. For instance, one of the problems facing devotees in Iskcon is Prabhupada’s attempt to normalize the versions of universal history or world geography based on the Puranic accounts or world view. Any attempt to reestablish such a view is ultimately on the ability to convince others of their objective coherence and cohesiveness; it is fatuous to think that wide acceptance of such a view would be possible by first converting people to a particular faith, particularly which, as we have seen from practical experience, religious faith can be maintained quite apart from belief in the truth value of such historical details. This is indeed the conclusion that Bhaktivinoda Thakur reached.

This is one of the reasons why my attempts to harmonize Sahajiya and Orthodox thinking in Vaishnavism, which though it may be seen as diametrically opposed to Bhaktivinoda’s moral position, is to me in fact a continuation of his liberal intellectual position.

Society is changing; indeed, it has changed radically. We need a theology of sexuality that accomodates this reality and provides it with a viable spiritual channel within the context of our theology. These things need to be carefully thought out, using the guidance of our inspired sources, in the changing context of the modern world.

In conclusion, with regards to EM's paper, the only other criticism that I would offer at this point is that she does not attempt to evaluate BVT's contribution--its intellectual coherence, its potential for success, its limitations, etc. It is a lot to ask from a term paper, and I warned my students against making hasty judgments. Their primary responsibility was to get the facts straight. But one should always conclude a paper with at least some preliminary thoughts on the directions that your judgments are tending, the kinds of questions you need to ask and the information you will need to track down in order to be able to make attain these kinds of conclusions.


Tuesday, May 08, 2007

PCMR Concert at McGill University

I have to mention that last night my son's choir (PCMR or Les Petits Chanteurs du Mont-Royal, "Canada's Answer to the Vienna Boys Choir") sang with the McGill Chamber Orchestra at Pollock Hall in downtown Montreal. It was, for me, the best concert that I had heard them give in the eight years my son has been with them.

After singing Bruckner and Vivier's Jesu erbarme dich a capella, the MCO came on stage with the conductor Boris Brott and they started Vivaldi's Gloria. The acoustics were so good and the choir so together, it was better than any recording I have ever heard of this famous choral work. The boy soprano and alto soloists were very good--in all these years, I have never heard Gilbert Patenaude give this much solo responsibility to any of the boys, so I assume that they are very special.

The encore was Mozart's Ave Verum Corpus, which once again was crystal clear and absolutely perfect in harmony and sound quality. It turned out we were sitting next to the conductor's wife and she herself told us how moving she found it. Anyway, for a musical ignoramus like myself, I am incapable of giving any critical comment except to say that I enjoyed the concert, so it was certainly encouraging to hear her confirm our enthusiasm.

After the concert, we spoke with a few of the other parents of those who have survived the full eight years with the Petits Chanteurs. Customary attrition over the eight years is about 50%, with this group it was only 33. They will soon be starting new adventures. Every year, a few of them go on into music related studies, as will Pavel, who will be doing doing a double major in piano and life sciences at Collège Brébeuf.

In a few days, the boys will be giving the main concert of the year, which is a fundraiser for the tournée in Austria this summer. Québec's national folksinger, or poet laureate, or national treasure, Gilles Vigneault will be "participating", meaning that he will be reciting some of his poems and perhaps singing a few songs with the choir. The concert itself will be a recital of Vigneault's songs as arranged for choir by Gilbert Patenaude. So if anyone is in the Montreal area, here's the invitation.

Monday, May 07, 2007

30th anniversary of Iskcon Montreal's Radha Manohar

I am backblogged a bit. For a person whose life is going nowhere, I don't have much time. Previously I would at least get a little reading done on the bus before I went home and did a little eating and sleeping. Like they say up here: "Métro, boulot, dodo."

Anyway, I did want to say that I went to the Montréal temple on Sunday to participate in the 30th anniversary celebrations of the installation of Radha Manohar. Festivities had been going on since Friday, with the honored participation of three former presidents: Sripati Das, Uttamasloka Das and Visvakarma Das. It was a great pleasure to see them all. It was easy to see the charisma that these three early preachers of Krishna consciousness in central Canada possessed, something conspicuous by its absence in the present. We were really just missing Rochan and Jagadish... and I guess Jayapataka Swami, who was one of the first both here in Montreal and in Toronto. But he had already left before things really started getting going.

I have to admit that I failed the indifference test. It is not good to put yourself in a situation where you will be disrespected, and that is what I do when I go to the Iskcon temple here in Montreal. I was not personally invited, and that is perhaps understandable, as I was never much involved with the temple here. Nevertheless, as one of seniormost people in the audience, I should have been asked to at least say a few words. So I felt that pinching in the heart that made me a little less than warm when greeted by certain members of the temple community. More proof, for those looking (as if it is necessary), that I am NOT spiritually advanced.