Sunday, December 27, 2009

Stop the Yamuna Bridge

On Dec. 25, a few hundred persons, mostly from Vrindavan’s religious community, including many foreigners from several maths and ashrams, gathered at Vrindavan’s Keshi Ghat to protest the building of a bridge.

This bridge, which loops around the ancient redstone ghat, will permit car traffic to make the full tour of Vrindavan, turning the Parikrama Marg into a Ring Road.

Even ten years ago, the Parikrama Marg was still mostly a sandy trail that circled the hallowed central portion of Vrindavan, the site of so many temples—Banke Bihari, Radha Vallabh, Radha Damodar, Govindaji.

Hundreds of barefoot pilgrims from dawn to dusk quietly followed the 14 kilometer trail, reciting their japa or singing God’s names, or simply walking in meditative silence. Some even covered the length lying prostrate on the ground.

But the success of many Vaishnava preachers, Bhagavata pathaks and bhajan singers has drawn a steadily increasing flow of the faithful from around the world and, more to the point, from Delhi, to the sacred home of Krishna’s play with Radha.

And, to accommodate the ubiquitous automobile, more and more of the Parikrama Marg has been paved. Parking lots increasingly line the sides of the road and block the view to the green fields and the Yamuna, which stretch out on the southern side.

No pilgrim can now make the sacred circumambulation without being repeatedly honked at by contemptuous chauffeurs. The one remaining ghat in Vrindavan, Keshi Ghat, where daily Yamuna arati is held, was the single part of the parikrama that was vehicle free.

But now, Mathura-Vrindavan Development Authority, which sees the prosperity of Vrindavan as linked to the automobile, has decided to destroy what is left of this sacred tradition by building a flyover type bypass to link the two ends of the circumambulation path.

The view of the holy river will now be obstructed by an ugly concrete structure, the peace broken once and for all by the sounds of racing cars and beeping buses.

But there seems to be no bridge crossing the divide that separates the environmentalists and traditional religious community of Vrindavan from the government and development agents, who are clearly living in different worlds.

In their high-minded arrogance, the latter did not even see fit to consult those who have guarded these traditions for the last half-millennium or those who have come there to make Vrindavan their spiritual home before they started work on the project.

So PWD Chief Engineer C.D. Rai calls the Goswamis and saints “vested land owning interests” when they make objections, and Mathura-Vrindavan Development Authority Vice Chairman R.K. Singh scoffs that they “neither understand development nor the environment.”

What is clear is that the issue of the sacred has been completely ignored by the development authorities. If Vrindavan has become attractive to tourists, it is only because of the promise it holds out of an encounter with the sacred, and such an encounter requires something quite different from a rapidity of access to goods and services. It needs space for contemplation.

Recently in Delhi, I noticed a billboard in the Jahangirpuri metro station. The poster on display there had a quote from the famous American scholar of myth and religion, Joseph Campbell, which immediately attracted my attention: “Your sacred space,” it said, “is where you can find yourself again and again.”

But, in the true spirit of desecration, these words had been turned into a sales pitch: “This space is where people can find your company and products again and again.”

So this is what it has come to: the sacred places are now for sale to the highest bidder, a hook to pull in the patsies. But if you cut off the branch on which you are sitting, then where will you sit?

Indians are still proud of their ancient heritage and the attraction it holds for foreigners. On Independence Day, 1947, Sri Aurobindo addressed the new nation on the radio:

“The spiritual gift of India to the world has already begun,” he said. “India's spirituality is entering Europe and America in an ever increasing measure. That movement will grow; amid the disasters of the time more and more eyes are turning towards her with hope, and there is even an increasing resort not only to her teachings, but to her psychic and spiritual practice.”

But this spirituality is fast becoming a joke. Amidst the noise, accumulations of dirt and plastic bags, the polluted holy rivers, and the haphazard and insensitive development, it is becoming harder and harder to find the fulfilment of that hope.

It is time for all the sacred places in India, from Vrindavan and Varanasi to Rishikesh and Srirangam, to immediately be declared heritage sites by the state and central governments. Let them too be developed for tourism, but only one that takes into account the thirst for spirituality that brings pilgrims there.

They should not be treated as playgrounds for jejune city dwellers, with nothing on offer but more tired old theme parks, shopping centers and traffic jams.

J.K. Brzezinski

Raganuga Bhakti and the Yamuna Bridge to Nowhere

The following comment came to me today:

Vrinda-van "itself" is nowadays already a forest of buildings.... Vrinda-van is in reality a magical forest, one can get into ONLY by the magic of raganuga sadhan. This is where I want to get.

If somebody would have so much punya, to get from Krishna the blessing to turn the forest of buildings into the forest of Vrinda, with all the wonderful trees, latas, flowers, birds and animals, then Krishna will be forced to do it....

We may sit under a tree, overwhelmed by those uddipanas and... as Gaura in the form of Sri Caitanya taught, we may go through the magic of raganuga sadhan, far from the any other thoughts in the lila.

"The villagers" don't live in that forest, Vrinda-van, but in a village, which is outside of it. That Vrinda-van was lost long ago and what comes after its demise is just a natural consequence.

This is an interesting comment and is quite often heard. And really, it hits at the very root of the problem in more ways than one. I will leave aside most of my thoughts on the question and just state some of the basics of Gaudiya Vaishnava philosophy, which raganuga bhaktas sometimes forget.

We are not Mayavadis, as everyone no doubt knows. Now the essence of Mayavada is to say, "This world is false, only Brahman is real." Vaishnavas don't say that: They say, God is real and so his energies, which are part of him, are also real. Therefore Jagat Satyam.

This is why Prabhupada's translation of the Gita is revolutionary. He starts from this point and does not distinguish karma from bhakti. In every one of Prabhupada's purports, he always reminds us that karma means service to Krishna.

This does not sit well with most people who see karma and bhakti as a progression towards jnana. But essentially, he is correct. It is a question of perception. When Arjuna came to his senses and was situated in knowledge, he ceased to see the world as a field of action separate from his relationship with Krishna.

Now, the Bhagavad Gita is not enriched with devotional mellows quite in the way that the entire bhakti movement evolved, but essentially that message has not changed. Hrishikena Hrishikesha sevanam. There is no separation of the lila from the action of this world.

If we cannot connect the lila to our everyday actions in every way, if we cannot infuse our everyday actions with the love of the Divine Couple, if we cannot live in the kunja when we are walking, talking, eating, sleeping, mating and defending, then our bhajan is futile.

Now this is indeed a challenge, and so I don't say like Bhaktisiddhanta or Vivekananda that you stop your bhajan and act in the world. Bahire nayan na deo kokhon, bhavakranta chitta nahi jad avadhi ("Do not turn your eyes outward until your mind is overcome with love.") You have to infuse your mind and senses with bhava and until then, it may be necessary to remain inward looking. But this is essentially a kanishtha stance. The madhyama bhakta and uttama bhakta have attained several degrees of ability to interact with the world without losing their focus, their center, or their prema. In fact, their consciousness has developed to the point that interaction with the world is an act of devotion in itself. Because they don't see it separate from the Divine Couple.

The siddhi of the siddhas is the model for the sadhana of the sadhakas, it is said. The Goswamis served the dham in order to make it a model, a kind of heaven on earth, a kingdom of God, where even those who were not alive in the love of Radha and Krishna could still be inspired by the land and its residents to remember them and to become infused with that spirit of love.

If their project, Vrindavan, fails, that is OUR failure also. Of course, there are competing visions of what Vrindavan is, but one thing is certain, the materialistic model of development at the cost of smarana, at the cost of kirtan, at the cost of shravana and all the bhakti angas, at the cost of rasa-asvadana, is not just the failure of the Vrajavasis, it is the failure of every bhakta on this earth.

If you become passive and sit back and take the "que sera sera" approach, then you are complicit in the failure of Mahaprabhu's prema dharma. This is a new test, my friends. Thousands of devotees around the world have taken up the Holy Name and come flocking to the Dham. For years they have felt mixed emotions--on the one hand seeing the beauty of Radha-vallabha, Radha-ramana, Radha-gopinath and all the other forms of the Divine Couple manifest there, and on the other hand seeing the neglect and poverty of the environment, slowly deteriorating on the other.

But if you are a devotee, you have five services that are most powerful. Chanting the Name, hearing the madhura-lila, serving the Form, associating with the Devotee, and living in the Dham. Only living in the Dham makes it possible to fulfill all these conditions equally. Serving the Dham is serving all of these most important angas of bhakti. Therefore Rupa Goswami calls it his upadesha sara.

But serving the Dham means more than rolling in the dust. Besides what dust will you roll in when they pave it all over? The manjaris sweep the kunj to make it fit for Radha and Krishna's lila, so that is our task now. We must sweep the kunj and make it fit for the Divine Couple, and for the devotees.

There is a great need for Raganuga bhaktas to understand this. They have been infused with a grace that not all devotees have even glimpsed from a distance. This grace will give them the strength to lead and to persevere and not to succumb to pessimism.

This too is a kind of Kuru-kshetre, a field of action, a Dharma-kshetra, a field of duty. If we are truly lovers of the Divine Couple, we will do what is necessary. And right now that means stopping this travesty of a development project. And in the long run, it means changing Vrindavan from a forest of buildings, as you put it, and turning it into a garden.

Lord knows it will not be easy. But a Raganuga bhakti is special because he has inner vision. He has seen that garden with his eyes, moistened by the salve of love, by his tears. The siddha, as you may know from the example of Chakleshwar Siddha Krishna Das Baba, is one who can manifest the vision of his smaran in the external world. Krishna Das dropped a bottle of perfume in his smaran and the devotees by the Manasa Ganga smelled the sweet fragrance for days.

Success is to be able to transform an inner vision into an external reality. To make one's inner vision visible to others. The mundane successes of the developers are a petty siddhi. To realize the vision of Vrindavan as the playground of the Lord and Lady of Love, now that is a real siddhi.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Transcendence and Society

Mahattama Rahla wrote:

Also we have to consider that some of that uncleanliness was brought by outsiders too, we are part of the problem, so let's resolve it......

This is something that several people have already mentioned. There is nothing surprising and I have already spoken about it to some extent in one of my earlier posts.

The thing is that money spent on cleaning, etc., is generally considered to be a loss on the books. You cannot see any income being generated by cleaning your own toilet, for instance.

For the most part, Vrindavan has happily let NGOs like "Friends of Vrindavan" etc., try to do the work in this area, or planting trees or whatever. They may make one-off gifts of money, but they are not serious, longterm, diligent efforts.

In fact, you cannot depend on the private sector to do these things; they are public sector tasks. But India is living the libertarian dream of entrepreneurial anarchy. Money that can be spent on construction, etc., means liberal lining of pockets of politicians, bureaucrats and developers. Where is the money in street sweeping and garbage disposal ?

The NGO's must be supported, of course, as long as the public sector does not step up, but the necessity of strong municipal action must be emphasized. It is hard to do because everyone thinks taxes are an imposition instead of a way of contributing to the common good. A rich man in India would rather build a temple or contribute to some pious works in the traditional manner than give to "corrupt bureaucratic institutions." These problems run deep, and the culture needs to be changed on so many levels.

What I see as the core problem, though, is attitude. Changing attitudes toward the sacred, the common good, etc., are things that must enter into everyone's preaching and the education programs. This will require a bit of a change in attitude on the part of the sectarian religious organizations, which are accustomed to seeing the welfare of their own organization as the ultimate good for society as a whole. This selfish attitude, of course, contributes to the general distrust of religion and to the ineffectuality of their overall preaching.

What is the difference between sadhus or householder gurus living in comfortable ashrams or temples doing bhajan and a rich person living in his mansion engaged in sense gratification? From the outside looking in, little or none. Those devotees looking at this matter from the Western point of view will have to adjust their thinking a little.

The good that comes from a religious institution, where society as a whole is considered, is not in its specific religious or spiritual doctrines, but simply in its power to break people's attachments to selfish, egocentric or body-centric interests and to make them capable of sacrificing for the greater good. Such a greater good must be broader than the narrow interests of the organization itself. To the extent that such attitudes become generalized in society and institutionalized in government itself, the greater the success of the religious movements from the social point of view.

In other words, to use as an example: Iskcon or any other group cannot think that its "good deeds" are merely tools to rope welfare minded people into its network of donors and supporters. The overriding necessity is to work cooperatively with others who support the same causes. If you are only thinking "Me-first" then what good will come of it? The actual causes, like cleaning Vrindavan or protecting it from uncontrolled development, will be vitiated by the dispersal of energies.

True selflessness must extend even beyond the "mission" and into the society. In other words, though the mission may seek some form of transcendence, its social function is to increase the mode of goodness.

The Language of Aparadha and Demonization

The first calls to blow up the Yamuna "Half-Moon" Bridge have already come out. It made me realize that the picture used on that poster was a total mistake. The language of "aparadha" that was used there and in the current discourse is not really the right way to approach publicizing this issue.

Most people do not understand what offenses are, and they have little or no idea of the sacred or why Vrindavan and the Yamuna are sacred. We do not really want to associate the preservation of Vrindavan's sacred heritage with militant Hindu nationalism and the kinds of things that happened in the Babri Masjid fiasco.

To characterize the people involved in making the bridge as demons is also wrongheaded. That makes it into a demons-demigods fight, which is not what it is. Always attribute the best motivations to your enemy: they are thinking of the development of this bridge as a way of improving the lives of the Brajavasis by increasing the flow of tourist traffic as well as goods and services to the community. This is of course totally misguided, but we must be able to show clearly why and how.

The core of Vrindavan town must be preserved as far as possible. It must be cleaned and improved. The outer parts of the town, like Raman Reti and beyond, are beyond salvation. But the ancient core of the town from Madan Mohan to Tattiya Sthan must be preserved and upgraded. Not by making it open to more traffic, but by making it clean and attractive. By increasing green space--bringing more water into Seva Kunj and Nidhivan would be a good idea. But other spaces that are filled with rubble or garbage should be cleaned up. Money needs to be invested in institutions like schools, etc., in the inner town area, so they do not look so neglected.

In other words, an alternative idea of development has to be put forward, one which recognizes Vrindavan's value as a sacred space. Anger is good as a motivator, but we have to be careful that it does not simply increase friction and unnecessary enmity. No doubt, there ARE demonicac, self-centered interests on the other side, but making that the issue will simply muddy the waters and turn it into the wrong kind of battle.

We need to fight with ideas. If people are not listening, it is because the right people are not talking the right language or loudly enough. Start by convincing a local resident in Braj. Tell them the money would be better spent on improving living conditions and quality of life for the people of Braj.

If Braj is clean and the people are being taken care of, it will become more and more attractive. If the poor people see that they too have an investment in the well-being of the community as a whole, that will make them active participants in the community life. These are the kinds of things that need to be fostered. Not violent revolution.

More Ranting about the Sitch

I created a Facebook group Stop the Yamuna Bridge this morning after getting a little riled up by this latest slap in the face to those who love the Dham. Advaitaji wrote me, making the same general point that Osho did in the comments to my previous post. So I just continue my general rant here.

Advaita:
Jagat, I became member of your club but I must make a note here that some individuals and big institutions that participate in the protests are themselves very guilty of destroying the environment of Vraja elsewhere with posh ashrams and temples and guest houses. The protests may be hijacked by such orgs that want to just lobby for more followers in this way...

First of all, let me say that this is not my "club." I just set up this Facebook group in the hope that it would be useful for communication. If the people interested in this issue make use of it, it might make developments and actions more widely known and make it possible for more people to be mobilized for demonstrations and protests at short notice.

But of course you are correct that many of the ashrams and leaders are complicit in the development because they too are profiting from it. Their donors come by car, will stay in their ashram or guesthouse, and so on. So these spiritual leaders tend to become compromised by such arrangements. But if you think about it, it is rather like the global warming situation. There comes a time when it becomes so very clear that things are so urgent that it requires a rearrangement of everyone's priorities.

The spiritual leaders of India must become the environmental leaders also. The essence in all this lies in reviving the concept of the sacred. If we say "God is everywhere" it is the same as saying God is nowhere. If we say "everything is sacred" it is not long before nothing is sacred. And I am afraid that this is the situation in India today.

We start by defining the sacred, by designating the sacred. Sometimes it is something that cannot be explained, but if Vrindavan is sacred, we must learn what that means. Times change and the way we relate to the world and the sacred places must of necessity be adjusted. But if we don't make that adjustment, we are in danger of losing everything.

So those who hanker for the Braj of 500 years ago, or even 50 or 20 years ago will have to recognize that they will likely never have that again. But those who are building their luxury hotel ashrams, catering to the dhana-durmadandhan (kasmAd bhajanti kavayo dhana-durmadAndhAn?), they will also have to revise their priorities and start thinking about what the French call the "collectivity."

India, because of its fractured, splintered caste system, has murdered its sense of collectivity... just like the world as a whole in the face of global warming. Nobody wants to give up their "acquis," or accumulated gains, for the sake of the general good. It is like the famous "prisoner's quandary," we play playing chicken with the world's destiny--should we sell each other out or act altruistically in our common interest?

Clearly, the situation in India has reached a state where practically no one will act for the common good. There is no sense of the public space as there was traditionally in Europe, with the village or town square. Everything is behind walls, behind gates, everyone is hiding from the Red Death, while outside, even the poor are so disenfranchised and so condemned in their self-awareness that they will not even pick up a broom or a shovel to clean the filth from an area five inches from the perimeter of their own tiny fragmented place.

As I passed Raiwala on my way to Rishikesh the other day, I saw the overflowing drain passing under the fruit stalls. The owner sat in his plastic chair barely inches from it, sipping his tea, totally unconcerned.

Caste consciousness has made cleanliness a sin. So how can godliness be close by? Some think themselves pure because they clean their anuses with clay and water three times after bathing, and their left hand 10 times and their right hand seven, but they have to hire someone they barely consider human to clean the toilet. So do you think this benighted Epsilon will do a good job? His revenge is in leaving the toilet only half clean, the cobwebs hanging on the ceiling, the dirt hidden under the rug. Or in sweeping the garbage into a pile in the middle of the street where the rickshaws and automobiles will spread it around again like a fan.

If cleaning is shameful or a sin, will anything ever become clean? If there is no sense of the common good, will there every be humanity? What is the use of one isolated saint if there is no society? And what is the use of an isolated sect if they are only to be saved behind their protective walls while the rest of society floats away in a fetid open sewer?

Friday, December 25, 2009

Yamuna Bridge



I just found about this event, which takes place today, in only an hour's time. Unfortunately, though right minded, it sounds to me like too little too late. Millions have already been invested by business and government interests in this project and I doubt that a few idealistic lovers of Vrindavan will be able to do much at this late date. I have heard that construction has already begun. I already wrote about this back in 2005, so everyone has known about it for at least four years. But the idea in India right now, the Zeitgeist, is that development, development, development will solve all problems.

The same thing is going on in Rishikesh, but perhaps not quite to the same extent--partly because of the protection that has been extended to the northern side of the Ganges, but the south side is an ever increasing mess.

The sad truth is that the very qualities of the Dham that make it attractive are being destroyed by virtue of so many people being attracted. A victim of its own success, as it were. This is not understood ANYWHERE in India, it seems. I just saw an article in India Today about Mount Abu, where at least they are trying to put a halt on new construction in order to preserve something of the sacred character of the place.

In Delhi recently, on my way to a conference at the Bhogilal Leherchand Institute of Indology, I noticed a billboard in the Jahangirpuri metro station. Since this part of the line is fairly new, all the advertising spots have not yet been sold. The poster showing there had a quote from Joseph Campbell which immediately attracted my attention: "Your sacred space is where you can find yourself again and again.” But, true to desecrators everywhere, this was turned into a sales pitch: "This space is available for people to find your company and your products again and again."

So this is what it has come to: the sacred places are for sale to the highest bidder. But if you cut off the branch on which you are sitting, then where will you sit?

On the same trip, I was in Noida talking to a young IT worker, who seems to be doing very well in the new economy. His brother is doing a PhD in Benares on Kashmiri Shaivism. When I saw him last, he said that he liked Shaivism because of its virile assertion that we are all god. I had to laugh because this is precisely the disease that affects not just India, but the entire world.

In Osho's book "Nari aur Kranti," probably written quite some time ago, he talks about the necessity for giving women and the feminine equal status to males as an absolute necessity for the world. Men have been given free reign for the last 5000 years to create a history of wars and exploitation. And women, unfortunately, have bought into it. But now, the history of the world has come to the point where we can destroy ourselves over and over again. With atom bombs. And now, even more pressingly, with our development, development, development to environmental destruction.

It is all rajo guna at best. But it is really tamo guna because it is not creative, but destructive. Indeed, this mindless development is tamo guna because as soon as something is built, it is immediately neglected. The Delhi Metro has been open for one month in Noida and it still looks spanking clean. No one spits, pisses or throws plastic bags on the tracks, but I looked up and saw Delhi's desert dust gathering on the metal struts. What are the chances it will ever be cleaned? Perhaps between now and the Commonwealth Games next year, a concerted effort will be made to keep things looking at least faintly "first world," and then the Delhi Metro will revert to India.

Without sattva-guna, what is the point of development? Sattva-guna is the domain of preservation. One person told me that in America, most lottery winners end up bankrupt after a few years. A researcher found out that the reason was because no one calculated the cost of preserving the things they purchase. If you buy a 10 million $ home, it costs hundreds of thousands per year to maintain, to keep it beautiful, to preserve its value. These people spent their winnings on the beautiful home, but after a while, found it impossible to keep.

The developers line their pockets building their fancy projects but where is the profit in preserving something? It is only a negative on the books. And so India is filled with half-built, half-tumbledown temples and palaces. Private interests can keep isolated oases of beauty behind high walls where only the monkeys can wreak occasional havoc, but the public spaces are occupied by the gods of Neglect, NIMBY and Who Gives a Damn?

Robyn Beeche told me that the Friends of Vrindavan and others tried to stop the paving of the Parikrama Marg way back when that was the immediate danger. They even lay down on the road when the bulldozers came. But to no avail. The Vrindavan municipal council had received some federal money for development and influential council members had connections with contractors. So a few ecologically minded tree huggers did not stand a chance. They will not stand a chance this time either.

There are still enough dehati pilgrims who will faithfully do japa and kirtan on the Parikrama Marg even while being honked repeatedly into external consciousness by careless visitors from Delhi who are in a big rush to... do what, exactly? Soon there will be, I expect, shopping malls, water parks, maybe even a goddamned Krishna theme park Disney World, a Krishna statue higher than the Eiffel Tower, a curse and a pox on all these ideas, which will only bring even more bahirmukhas in their SUVs to do parikrama the easy way. To completely miss the point.

And all you sadhus who think that the way forward is to build big big skyscraper temples, have you forgotten that Vraj is Madhurya Dham? If you want Aishwarya, go and destroy Dwarka for God's sake!

Until the Brijvasi business interests come to understand where their bread is really buttered, they will do everything they can to destroy their environment. Until the Swamis and Goswamis of Vrindavan recognize that Vrindavan's sacred character needs to be preserved, even at the cost of their immediate prosperity, there is no hope.

Close Vrindavan to car traffic. Create open spaces around temples. Make Vrindavan clean and green and keep it that way. Vrindavan's real wealth is in the sattva-guna, without which there is no transcendence and without which it will be turned into just another version of hell.

Jai Radhe!

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The Hope for Vrindavan and Prema

I have been working for some time on Harilal Vyasa’s monumental commentary to Rādhā-rasa-sudhā-nidhi. About 170 verses of the 270 total have been completed. There will be two files in all cut exactly in half. Apparently Vyasa took a four year hiatus before doing the second half of the work. One feature that is more noticeable in the second half is the addition of many more verses from Vṛndāvana-mahimāmṛta.

Three simple verses from Harilal Vyasa's conclusion to the Rasa-kulyā commentary:


yatra yatra janur me syāt tatra tatra sadā tvayi |
prītir nirargalā bhūyān prārthaye bhūri-bhūriśaḥ ||23||
śrīmad-vṛndāvane vāsaṁ dehi dehi vaneśvari |
yadi naitādṛśaṁ bhāgyaṁ mā kurv āśā-vināśanam ||24||
āśā-nāśaṁ sarva-nāśam āśaiva paramaṁ dhanam |
nārake'pi janur me'stu tvad-vanāśā vased dhṛdi ||25||

I pray profusely, O Radhe, that wherever I take my next birth, I should always have unbound love for you.

O Queen of Vrindavan, please grant me residence in glorious Vrindavan. And if you do not bestow such fortune, then at least don't destroy my hopes.

Loss of hope is total perdition; hope is the most valuable treasure of all. Even if I should be born in hell, let me keep the hope of being in your forest alive in my heart.
Reminds me of this one, quoted as the introduction to Mañjarī-svarūpa-nirūpaṇa by Kunja-bihari Dasji:


yasya sphūrti-lavāṅkureṇa laghunāpy antar munīnāṁ manaḥ
spṛṣṭaṁ mokṣa-sukhād virajyati jhaṭity āsvādyamānād api
premṇas tasya mukunda sāhasitayā śaknotu kaḥ prārthane
bhūyāj janmani janmani pracayinī kintu spṛhāpy atra me

O Mukunda, giver of liberation!
Who in the world is there with the courage
to pray for the gift of sacred love,
of which even the slightest manifestation,
when brushing against the minds of the great sages,
makes them forget the happiness of liberation?

My prayer therefore to you is this:
that I should simply desire for such prema,
and that this desire should increase forever,
in this world, birth after birth.

(Rupa Goswami, Aṣṭādaśa-chandaḥ, Vastra-haraṇa, 2)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Vaiyasaki in Rishikesh


Renowned kirtaniya Vaiyasaki Das came to Rishikesh for a few days in November. We hadn't seen each other for many years and he actually did not know me as Jagadananda, but in my former incarnation as Hiranyagarbha. Vaiyasaki had been in Toronto in the early 70's, where he joined a little after me. We later knew each other in Mayapur as he was part of the India BBT party, which he left to spend three years in Bangladesh.

I had been writing to him in somewhat excited anticipation of his arrival here, but he did not really know who I was. As he is a world-wide figure, chanting and doing kirtan in every corner of the globe, he is probably used to that kind of thing. If you look at the Facebook pages of him and his wife Kaisori, you will get an idea of their jet-setting ways.

He has been invited to Rishikesh several times by the disciples of Swami Rama, since, as the story goes, when Swami Rama heard Vaiyasaki's 1983 recording, "Transcendence," he was quite impressed. He told his disciple Ragani Beugel that this proved it was possible for a Western person to chant authentic kirtan and that she should take inspiration from his achievement. Ragani has gone on to become a well-known kirtan singer in her own right and Vaiyasaki is a regularly featured performer at the annual Maha-samadhi festival of Swami Rama at the HIHT in Dehradun and again at Sadhana Mandir in Rishikesh.

I went to see Vaiyasaki and Kaisori at Sadhana Mandir, but we actually met along the Ganga promenade. After talking for a while, he asked me if I knew Hiranyagarbha, which is when I had to tell him that I was indeed that person. He got a kick out of it and "remembered" a couple of stories about me. Since I had no recollection of either, neither may be true. Or, rather, the second one is most certainly nonsensebut so was somewhat instructive when it comes to understanding the way apocryphal tales come into the world.

The first was that he saw me packing on the very day I left Iskcon in 1979. According to him, he came up to me and asked me what I was doing. I apparently answered, "Prabhupada said work now, samadhi later. Well I want samadhi now." This I can believe, as it is something I may well have said at that time. I was in favor of following Rupa Goswami's upadesha-sara then, as I am now.

But then he said that he met me some years later in Nabadwip and asked me about what I was doing after initiation by Lalita Prasad Thakur. I apparently told him that I had been given the identity of a peacock in Vrindavan and was doing bhajan with this nitya svarupa. Now, this is, of course, completely impossible. I neither could nor would ever have said anything of the sort. A story like this was also told of Hrishikeshananda Das, but I have it directly from him that in his case too it was a bit of propaganda coming from people who had no understanding of raganuga bhakti. So, how did Vaiyasaki come to believe that he had actually heard it directly from me? Strange...

At any rate, I was happy to have the company of a devotee and spent an enjoyable hour or two with them discussing various things about the past and present. He has written a thickish book about the Radha Damodar travelling party and Vishnujan Swami, who was a great inspiration to him, as he was for so many others.

Vaiyasaki spent his teenage years in Winnipeg and was a contemporary of Randy Bachman and other members of a rock and roll band called the Guess Who, which had a few huge world-wide hits back in the 60's and 70's. He had his own rock band at the time, but that was interrupted when he became a devotee. (He is actually five or six years older than I am.) He said to me, "I think of Randy and those people and they are really just doing the same things they were doing back then. While I am having the time of my life travelling the world and spreading the chanting of the Holy Name. I would not trade places in a million years."

In the 1970's, with book distribution being the vogue in Iskcon, Vaiyasaki became involved with the library party in India. After a stint in Thailand, he suggested that the party make a tour of Bangladesh. There was some resistance, as Bangladesh was and still is a very poor country. They finally agreed, however, and that changed Vaiyasaki's life. One day, he was crossing a river in a ferry launch somewhere with a group of musicians, kirtaniyas who were going to join a Harinam festival somewhere. He was fascinated by them without really knowing why, and when they got off the boat, rather than continue on to his real destination, he jumped off and followed them and getting completely absorbed in the Holy Name for several days. After that, he spent the next three years with Iskcon in Bangladesh, learning the local style of kirtan.

Now kirtan seems to have become a bit of a fad, and so many people within and without Iskcon are recording devotional music, both in traditional and novel styles. Vaiyasaki keeps principally to his traditional Bengali style and on his latest album even sings Hare Krishna kirtan in the very tune that he first learned from the Bangladeshi kirtaniyas in the 1970's.

I was asked to introduce him at the HIHT on November 13. Vaiyasaki asked the audience whether they would prefer a concert-style performance or to participate in the chanting. He also did this at the second concert he gave at Sadhana Mandir. The Swami Rama bhaktas prefered participation and at both concerts were quite aroused by the chanting. On the second evening, Vaiyasaki even gave me a mike to be his back up vocal (I have to include a smiley here, :)) and so I had a lot of fun, too.

Vaiyasaki occasionally introduces philosophical points in his presentation, without being too aggressive for an audience that is of a different background than Vaishnavism. He talks to yogis about cultivating the heart chakra through kirtan and things like that.

Overall, it is easy to be impressed by Vaiyasaki's achievements. He has been persistent in developing his art and Iskcon has given him that opportunity. Now, he still is invited by Iskcon and other people to various places and a wide variety of audiences around the world and can do so independently. He has done more than anyone to introduce and develop the Bengali style of kirtan to Iskcon and the world. So I offer him a sincere "Jai Gaura Haribol!"

Friday, November 13, 2009

Universalist Radha-Krishnaism

Subal  Das-Steve Bohlert
Steve Bohlert, otherwise known as Subal Das Goswami, is a friend and a senior Godbrother, having taking initiation from Lalita Prasad Thakur several years before I did. Since his life trajectory and mine have some interesting parallels, I feel a great affinity and friendship for him. Some time ago he sent me a book that he has written, Universalist Radha Krishnaism: A Spirituality of Liberty, Truth and Love, published by Sky River Press.

My intention was to review the book then, but for whatever reason, I have been amiss in so doing, which is more than just a minor oversight. This book is sufficiently important that its wide dissemination amongst devotees is a desideratum. Indeed, with the book Subal sent an ebullient review written by former ISKCON public relations officer and author, Nori Muster, which shows that it can answer at least some of the doubts and fulfill the desires of erstwhile devotees who are seeking to use their religious experiences to grow after becoming dissatisfied with their ISKCON experience. Another review has also been posted more recently by Scottsdale Arizona religious studies professor Michael Valle on Facebook.

Subal has an interesting history... and the Krishna Consciousness Movement has been around long enough for most of us early birds to have had interesting histories by now. One of Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada's earliest disciples who broke open several regions for ISKCON, Subal also spent three years in India, during which time he encountered Srila Lalita Prasad Thakur and was initiated into the raganuga-bhakti path.

Though he continued in ISKCON for a while thereafter, he eventually left and went to the prestigious Graduate Theological Union in Berkely, California, where he picked up a Master of Divinity degree. This led to ordination in the United Church of Christ, a liberal denomination in the Reformed tradition.

Eventually, Subal's Vaishnavism sprang back to the fore in his consciousness and he became convinced that it was necessary to attempt to synthesize his experiences. In his book he mentions that his personal history as a Vaishnava have always been a part of his identity, and it was even welcomed and appreciated by his mentors and teachers at the GTU and in the liberal tradition where he became a pastor. Nevertheless, his studies and life in the liberal Christian milieu have enriched his understanding of spirituality, which he has now applied to the Gaudiya tradition. The ways he does so may not please everyone, but he certainly makes a valuable contribution to the discourse and his work will be, as Nori Muster puts it, like "a cooling breeze on a hot day" for many.

My own experience mirrors Subal's in many ways. I spent a longer time in ISKCON than he, and more time in India studying and practicing the Gaudiya tradition into which Lalita Prasad Thakur had initiated me, though I also came into contact with the Gaudiya Sahajiya traditions during this nearly eleven-year period. But I also returned to a Western university setting with the intention of objectively studying my personal experiences and contextualizing it through critical methods of study. Nevertheless, my area of research at the Ph.D. level was rooted in the Sanskrit tradition rather than theology. Whereas Subal's gestation period was spent in the Christian ministry, I eked out a living primarily as a translator and editor. Nevertheless, despite our completely separate paths, somewhat different orientation, linguistic and cultural commitments, we have an amazing amount of common ground, no doubt due to our similar backgrounds in Krishna bhakti and the sharing of certain universal liberal values.

Liberal Christian influences

I have often said to devotees that they have the tendency to criticize Christianity, usually using straw man arguments and rarely appealing to the best in progressive Christian thought, whether it is its social activism,  serious interaction with modern philosophical thought, deconstruction of mythology and the like. Like most fundamentalists, they feel that liberal Christianity is excessively rational and incompatible with true religious experience.

The fact is that experiential Christianity has been in contact with scientific and modern philosophical thought far longer than any other religious tradition, and though it sometimes seems that they have been playing defense, those of integrity recognize that the only moral approach is to accept Truth wherever it is found. They recognize that even as they bow to well-founded critiques of their own church's history, myths and traditions, they can still find legitimacy in their own spiritual experience, and the meaning and moral force that it gives them. Thus, anyone who has struggled with such critiques, regardless of which tradition they swear allegiance to -- Hindu, Buddhist or Muslim -- can still learn something from Tillich, Bornhoeffer, Barth, Teilhard de Chardin, Niebuhr, and many others.

This is of course the basis of the universalism in "Universalist Radha-Krishnaism." Devotion to the Divine Couple is only one religion amongst many, with things to teach as well as to learn to the worldwide community of faith.  An arrogant sense of privilege in any religion will ultimately lead to rotting from within, no matter how much short term success it may claim. So Radha-Krishna devotion should be ecumenical, in the true spirit of interfaith dialogue and participation in the progressive evolution of human society as a whole.

The liberal approach is multifaceted, but it begins with a healthy relativism that has long been known in Hinduism, but is rejected by zealous sectarians or those who are politically motivated. Such people are the bane of progressive spirituality.

Subal has very correctly stated that Bhaktivinoda Thakur is a great inspiration to anyone who seeks to reform or move the Gaudiya tradition forward, and he cites many of the Thakur's most famous passages supporting this idea. In particular, he adopts, as do I, the term "essence seeker" (sāra-grāhī) as a by-word for this progressive approach and as a stance against the regressive literalism that is prevalent in ISKCON and much of the Hindu world.

Subal further equates the progressive theological position with "process theology," which he says  forms a "fabulous combination" with Chaitanyaism (p.40). He was impressed by how his own church was constantly reforming itself and realized that this kind of dynamism needs to be applied to the movement started by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. As in Christianity, there is of course a strong resistance to such reform in the Krishna consciousness movement, as the Truth is seen as an unchanging complete whole that was given at one time in its entirety by a historical Master, rather than one that is constantly revealing Itself through history.

In many of my own writings on this blog and elsewhere, I have tried to show how this has never been the case, that the traditions of India have undergone constant change through debate and interaction with each other. There is no reason to think that we, as modern Vaishnavas with a totally different experience of life, will not transform Vaishnavism -- whether we intend to or not. ISKCON, in order to preserve its institutional integrity, is obliged to enforce loyalty to Srila Prabhupada's doctrinal vision, which severely hampers its ability to manoeuver. As is often the case, most of the original thinking about Radha Krishna devotion will come from outside institutional Vaishnavism, and Subal's contribution is an important and welcome one.

Second Naiveté, Reenchantment

Some of the terms Subal borrows from liberal theology are very useful. One is "hermeneutical leap", which is the leap of insight that comes when old beliefs are given apparently radical new interpretations that widen their scope and potential for meaning.

Another, taken from his Old Testament professor at GTU, Marvin Chaney, is "second naiveté", used to describe the renewed zest one feels for deconstructed historical, theological or mythological themes when they have been reinvigorated by a broader understanding. This indicates the richness of the renewed faith that comes when we make accept the challenge of doubt in the dialectic of faith, rather than trying to crush it with false zealotry.

Disenchantment comes from the loss of a spiritual point of view due to an excess of rationalism. For many, this is dealt with by a retreat into the shell of fundamentalism or hypocrisy when the intellectual challenges become too strong. For others it results in a crisis of faith that leads to total rejection of a specific faith or of any faith at all.

Those who accept the challenge of doubt and investigate religion and their own religious experiences as an objective phenomena in all their aspects—mythological, theological, philosophical, anthropological, psychological, sociological, etc.—often find that their faith takes on a new enlivened form, if their samskara (the faith based on the original religious experience) is strong enough. One then interacts with God through his symbolic manifestations with much the same innocence and love that he or she did when they were entirely new and presented themselves in all their original mystic splendor. In that state, he makes genuine further progress internally.

This is what the Bhagavata infers in 3.7.17 when it talks about going beyond intelligence. You cannot hide from reason and, if you try to suppress it, you run the risk of hypocrisy and all the ugliness it entails. Facing reason means undertaking a dark night of the soul, but the rewards are so much greater, because the nature of evolved faith is so much sweeter and satisfying than the futile struggle to remain true to received dogmas.

One of the problems I see in the whole "enlightenment" and rationalist discourse is that it is essentially a desacralizing movement. In my own experience, certain conditions of extreme innocence and rejection of the so-called "rational" social order were necessary in order for me to even chant Hare Krishna and discover the sacred in the first place. Jiva Goswami talks about ruci-pradhāna and vicāra-pradhāna devotees, while making it very clear that [despite clearly being in the latter category himself] that those who can move directly into the path of sacred experience are more fortunate, for the vicāra-pradhāna devotee will only have to return there when his faith has been renewed. The trouble is that the genuine simplicity of a ruci-pradhāna devotee who never interacts with rational doubt is extremely rare.

In view of my own pilgrimage, I agree that by developing a more sophisticated understanding of religious experience, we make it possible to deepen it and communicate it to a wider audience. But an overly sophisticated attitude may also make it difficult to enter into direct communion with symbols like Radha-Krishna that are God's way of revealing himself to us. 

Christianity has the advantage in some ways of having dealt with modernity and its sophisticated secular critiques of religion of for a longer time than India. In many ways, India is still fighting the rearguard, trying to defend the literal word of God, however confused, hyperbolic and self-contradictory it may be. Bhaktivinoda Thakur clearly stated that the "word of God" is the words of inspired men, rishis or seers. It is sad that the progressive tendencies of Bhaktivinoda Thakur have been overrun by a regression to old-style fundamentalism.

I have pondered over the question of whether the narrow vision of the kaniṣṭha vaiṣṇava serves some necessary function in the development of one's devotional life. But the great problem of the kaniṣṭha is that he has little understanding of what the psychological changes and real difficulties there are in stepping up to the madhyama level. Because there are so many precious preconceived notions and cherished ideas that must be jettisoned, there is a great deal of fear that must be overcome.

The sad fact is that kaniṣṭha vaiṣṇavas are the kinds of religious people who start wars and pogroms. They are also the ones who are susceptible to the greatest hypocrisies because they do not face the existential challenges of doubt and so become empty internally even as they exploit the credibility of the neophytes they surround themselves with for personal gain.

One of those great fears is that of Māyāvāda. Subal has done a great service by introducing or naming the Vaishnava concept of deity as panentheism. For those who have not studied comparative religion, this term will mean nothing. But it really is the best English language term for Mahaprabhu’s acintya-bhedābheda, because while recognizing the personal nature of the God and our relationship with him, it gives full importance to the his immanence and identity with us.

How this plays out in practical terms is of course something that I am deeply interested in, because it completely changes the nature of our sadhana.

Cultural Directions

One of the areas in which Subal is attempting to make headway is "establishing an indigenous Radha-Krishna devotional culture" (116). As stated above, I think it presents the broad outlines of the direction we want to go, and though culturally, just in the way of our spiritual development, we are in slightly different frames of mind, the grand strokes of his vision are fairly close to mine.

Both Subal and I are, let us say, "deviants" from the tradition. We have both consciously and willingly allowed ourselves to be influenced by thinkers from outside the tradition, and this makes us suspect when when we claim to defend it. I often find myself in the odd position of defending the tradition or even ISKCON while simultaneously seeming to be arguing against what so many identify as its core beliefs!

Now, where did Lalita Prasad Prabhu really stand on these issues? As far as I can see, most of his present-day disciples are so influenced by the Gaudiya Math, since the GM is the main publisher of Bhaktivinode Thakur's books, that they mostly don't understand (who does or did?) Bhaktivinode Thakur's innovative and modernizing tendencies. Since it seems that Bhaktivinode Thakur himself came into a second naiveté at a certain point in his life, he was able to drop his concerns with philosophy and modernism and concentrate on bhajana; thus to them he appears to be a traditionalist.

This is where everyone is wrong. Bhaktivinode was practicing, but not necessarily simply accepting things at face value. A century down the road from Bhaktivinode [his 100th disappearance day is in 2014], the kinds of secular criticisms of fundamentalism are so much stronger, but at the same time, the synthetic position which both defends against the excesses of literalism and pinpoints the essence of the spiritual search have also become so much more sophisticated. This is the area that Subal feels Vaishnavas need to enter if they are truly to understand Bhaktivinode Thakur and Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu's gifts to the world.

Natural Vaishnavism

Subal uses the word "natural Vaishnavism" or "natural devotion" to refer to rāgānugā bhakti. "Natural" is clearly a translation of the word sahaja, so we must inquire into the appropriateness of his usage of the term.

Bhaktivinode Thakur himself used the term with some frequency, but I question whether he intended it as a translation of rāgānugā bhakti or that he was following the long tradition of sahaja in Buddhism or Sant Mat or indeed in Vaishnava Sahajiyaism.

This word has such a long tradition in Indian thought, particularly in (a) Buddhism (Sahaja-yana) and (b) in the Sants like Kabir and Raidas, as well as in (c) post Chaitanya Vaishnava Sahajiyaism, that it seems almost aberrant that BVT would choose to use it. We need to go back and do a thorough study of his use of the word to see exactly how he meant it in every single instance. But it is clear to me at least that there is a convergence of these expressions.

Subal also takes this natural Vaishnavism to imply a position against renunciation, which he feels leads to aberrations on the path. At the same time he advocates for enjoying the things of the world within reason and with detachment, just as Chaitanya Mahaprabhu instructed Raghunath Das during his householder life. Indeed, Subal asks whether God may not ask at the time of death whether we have "enjoyed life enough".

When describing the sadhana of Universalist Radha-Krishnaism, he frequently repeats that one is to follow in the footsteps of the residents of Vrindavan, Krishna's eternal associates, as exemplars or ideal human beings. This is, of course, the traditional rāgānugā position, but later in his book, he (influenced it seems by Dimock's Place of the Hidden Moon) takes a more directly Vaishnava sahajiya position in which Radha and Krishna's love itself becomes the "natural" path.

There are some articles by Joseph O'Connell rebutting Dimock's contention that Gaudiya Vaishnavism has been sahajiya from its earliest times, and both these scholars certainly bring out some of the historical uses of the term. But the crux of the matter comes is the place of sexuality in the sacred life. I am becoming more and more adamant that the rejection of or deep ambivalence about sexuality is not only the target of sahaja, but is also the fundamental problem that vitiates the impersonalism-permeated spirituality of India and by extension its social life and individual personal development.

In many ways, Rajneesh (Osho) is much closer to my way of thinking--even as a non-devotional spiritual leader --than the devotees who reject woman and sexuality as the principal obstacles to their spiritual advancement. But, of course, for those in the ISKCON/Gaudiya Math tradition, the word sahaja ("natural") implies some kind of antinomian, id-directed and thus immature sensuality. That is not the case; it is simply the redirection of the most powerful forces in the psyche towards spiritual culture and prema.

We use the symbolic vocabulary of Radha, Krishna, Vrindavan and the gopis, to train our minds and then through mantra come into harmony with our partners on a deep level of inwardness, so that the experience of love pervades our being and radiates outwards. Though the celibate lifestyle may mean the outward redirection of sexual energies into other kinds of service, sublimation has its limits -- as Freud so rightly pointed out.

Not only that, but I believe it is not what the Vaishnava tradition, with its overriding sensual nature, is about. We are not an ascetic tradition, at least not in its external flaunting of sannyāsa, celibacy, misogynistic world view, etc.

But the question here is, obviously, can we hold the above beliefs and still claim to be followers of Bhaktivinoda Thakur? Where did the Thakur stand on these matters? He clearly was not a Sahajiya in the traditional sense as found in the Bengali culture of his time. He was a Victorian and, let us face it, influenced by the British culture of that epoque. I think that as an educated and sophisticated aristocrat of the period, he would have been repulsed by the uneducated and unsophisticated Sahajiyaism that was rampant in the underclasses of Bengal.

But it is clear that undergirding this uneducated and unsophisticated Sahajiyaism in practice, there is a very sophisticated and philosophically defensible system of understanding. Can we connect the Thakur's understanding of sahaja to this "despicable" target of so much of his and Bhaktisiddhanta's preaching?

Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur and his followers opposed the "immature" acceptance of the rāgānugā-bhakti path because they felt it would lead to the above kind of antinomian aberration. I favor rāgānugā, as it seems does Subal, precisely because it favors the reformation of sexuality. It is about transforming kāma into prema. It is about reforming the id-controlled ego into a love-permeated ego. We need to reread Bhaktivinoda Thakur to see if he had any glimmers of this perception.

But, like Subal, I think that my conclusion is not dependent on what Bhaktivinoda Thakur did or did not believe, do or  practice, but what we have ourselves concluded is the right course and appropriate sādhana, which we feel ultimately stands in consonance with the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition as presented by the Goswamis of Vrindavan. I have already defended that position on these pages and will continue to do so in the future, with ever increasing commitment and conviction.

The last verse of the Rāsa-līlā says that by hearing these erotic pastimes of Krishna the sensual desires of the conditioned soul, the disease that vitiates human life, kāma, is cured. How on earth is that supposed to happen? No one seems to have a clue. Everyone simply assumes it means that you become a celibate monk.

This "otherworldiness" or underlying assumption of the falseness of this world is the essence of the monistic impersonal ideas of Māyāvāda. And unless we recognize the dual nature of femininity and masculinity, learn that their unity is a potential dual-nondual miracle of spiritual felicity, we will always be misdirected into the anti-love concept of Māyāvāda.

So, in a sense, we may have a difficult time claiming direct, literal adherence to Bhaktivinoda Thakur's beliefs. We can only say, as I think Subal does, that we have taken the ball he passed to us and are running with it. If this is where it takes us, through our sādhana and our long years of reflection, then we must not deny our inner inspiration, but embrace it and pursue its implications, and experiment with the practices, and learn through experience about its consequences, its limitations, its joys and sorrows.

Social Involvement

Besides these approaches to one's own textual tradition, Subal takes another page from liberal Christianity in its orientation to social involvement. If the world is real, as is a fundamental element of the Vaishnava doctrine, and if compassion is an essential characteristic of the devotee, then surely social involvement should be a part of the broad scope of a religious movement's activities.

There is no doubt that Subal's is an important brick in the wall of religious discourse about Vaishnavism. Many of the things that he says are those I have been saying repeatedly. His great contribution, of course, is that he has gone out on a limb and attempted to make a coherent and systematic presentation of Radha-Krishnaism according to his vision. This means, of course, that he has set himself up for criticism, but that kind of courage he has shown is what is needed to push the discourse further.

I really hope that all of the friends I have here, especially those who are disenchanted from the enchanted world of Krishna consciousness, but still have a lingering taste for something, they are not quite sure what, of the Krishna conscious experience (See Bhagavata 1.5.19), it will help get their juices flowing and their intelligence focused on what exactly it was or is that they are still holding on to. Or what, as I think Subal shows both from his personal life and intellectual evolution, what they need to hold on to.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Hari-bhakti-sudhodaya :: Five best verses

Hari-bhakti-sudhodaya is purported to belong to the Narada Purana, but this is spurious. It cannot be found in any edition of that Purana and so was likely a later work that tried to hitch a ride on the NarP. Nothing unusual about that.

Ramnarayan Vidyaratna, the editor and translator who under the sponsorship of Maharaja Manindra Chandra Nandy of Cossim Bazaar (1860-1929) brought to light hundreds of previously unpublished works of the Gaudiya sampradaya (the Murshidabad editions), was the first to publish this work. He based it on three manuscripts, two of which came from Agartala in Tripura, the easternmost part of Bengali speaking India. This seems to confirm that the work was probably written in Bengal and its circulation was limited to this part of the subcontinent.

It was recently reprinted by the Sanskrit Book Depot in Kolkata, without any change or editing. Madhavananda Dasji of Bhubaneswar made PDF files of the recent reprint available to me, and so I am working on a GGM edition. There are a number of obvious mistakes which as far as possible we will correct for the online digital file.

It has 20 chapters and 1415 verses. The apparent contradiction in verse numbers may come from the way of counting verses according to syllables (a verse = 32 syllables, therefore a 44-syllable verse counts as 1.38 verses) rather than indicating missing portions.

Of the 20 chapters, 10 are devoted to Prahlada and two to Dhruva. The book begins in Naimisharanya with the same cast of characters found in the Bhagavatam, only Narada is the guest speaker. His tale begins with an account of Parikshit's last days. The book concludes with a chapter describing the glories of tulasi, the ashvattha tree and the Vaishnavas, another on yoga and the final chapter glorifying bhakti-yoga.

Rupa Goswami, Jiva Goswami and Krishnadas Kaviraj quote several verses from this book in their works. There are a number of verses quoted in Hari-bhakti-vilasa as well, but not all of them can be found in this edition of HBS. Many of these verse are very strongly supportive of pure devotion and the association of devotees, and always made me curious about the work.

For the pleasure of the devotees, I am giving my top five Hari-bhakti-sudhodaya verses, with a little bit of commentary:



(1)

यस्य यत्सङ्गतिः पुंसो मणिवत् स्यात् स तद्गुणः ।
स्वकुलर्द्ध्यै ततो धीमान् स्वयूथानेव संश्रयेत् ॥

yasya yat-sangatiḥ puṁso
maṇivat syāt sa tad-guṇaḥ
sva-kula-rddhyai tato dhīmān
sva-yūthān eva saṁśrayet

Like a mirror, a person takes on the qualities of those with whom he comes in contact. One who is intelligent should therefore seek the company of those who have the same ideals in order to develop their good qualities in himself. (HBS 8.51, BRS 1.2.229).
Though Rupa Goswami quotes this in support of sat-sanga, Hiranyakashipu originally spoke it to Prahlada to advise him not to associate with devotees. The word sva-kula actually means "one's own family," indicating a sectarian kind of consciousness. It reminds me of when Srivas Pandit heard that Niimai had become a Vaishnava, he said, "May our congregation go on increasing." But Rupa Goswami's usage is correct. Congregations are there so that we can cultivate our own values in common with like-minded people. Our kula is not our material family, nation or guild, but those with whom we share common values. When our values become clear and refined, we naturally seek those with whom they can be shared and developed. It may have a negative aspect or a positive one, so one should be careful.

There is a "spiritualistic" tendency in modern society that sees spirituality as so individual that any grouping around spiritual values is "religion" and therefore suspect. But this is not true. Human beings need association at every level of their spiritual development. And such spiritual development can never be devoid of spiritual language and symbolism which may differ from those used by other equally advanced spiritual individuals. One may be a poet in Russian or Chinese. This does not mean one will be a poet in Swahili.



(2)

भगवद्भक्तिहीनस्य जातिः शास्त्रं जपस् तपः ।
अप्राणस्यैव देहस्य मण्डनं लोकरञ्जनम् ॥

bhagavad-bhakti-hīnasya
jātiḥ śāstraṁ japas tapaḥ
aprāṇasyaiva dehasya
maṇḍanaṁ loka-rañjanam

One may possess high birth and learning; and he may meditate on his mantra and perform austerities. Nevertheless, if he is devoid of devotion to the Lord, these things are as useless as beautiful decorations on a dead body. (HBS 3.11, CC 2.19.75)
This is one of those unequivocal statements about bhakti that makes non-devotees feel uncomfortable about sectarian leanings. Devotees can indeed be sectarian, especially when the truth of such a statement first dawns on them. But in fact, statements about the uselessness of a life without spiritual realization are rife in all transcendental literature. What is the point of living like a cat or dog, with only material survival or pleasure as the goal? This body is a lump of dead flesh, the animating spirit is what is of true value. We must learn how to "add value" to what is truly of importance. Otherwise, it is all useless decoration of a lifeless body.



(3)

अक्ष्णोः फलं त्वादृशदर्शनं हि तन्वाः फलं त्वादृशगात्रसङ्गः ।
जिह्वाफलं त्वादृशकीर्तनं हि सुदुर्लभा भागवता हि लोके ॥

akṣṇoḥ phalaṁ tvādṛśa-darśanaṁ hi
tanvāḥ phalaṁ tvādṛśa-gātra-saṅgaḥ |
jihvā-phalaṁ tvādṛśa-kīrtanaṁ hi
sudurlabhā bhāgavatā hi loke ||

The goal of the eyes is to see someone like you; the goal of the skin is to embrace the body of one such as you. The goal of the tongue is to sing the glories of one such as you, for great devotees of the Lord are rare in this world. (HBS 13.2, HBV 10.287, C 2.20.61)
This verse is spoken by the Earth Goddess to Prahlada Maharaj. She had just finished catching him when Hiranyakashipu had the poor boy thrown off the palace roof.

I really like this verse and have quoted it several times on my blog. Let us just say that it is one of the most delightful glorifications of sadhu-sanga that I know of. Indeed, the glorification of devotional association is one of the primary features of the entire book. This could easily have been my number one.



(4)

स्थानाभिलाषी तपसि स्थितो’हं
त्वां प्राप्तवान् देवमुनीन्द्रगुह्यम् ।
काचं विचिन्वन्न् अपि दिव्यरत्नं
स्वामिन् कृतार्थो स्मि वरं न याचे ॥

sthānābhilāṣī tapasi sthito'haṁ
tvāṁ prāptavān deva-munīndra-guhyam |
kācaṁ vicinvann api divya-ratnaṁ
svāmin kṛtārtho smi varaṁ na yāce ||

“O my Lord, I took up the practice of penance and austerities out of a wish to become a great ruler. Now that I have attained you, who remain hidden to even great demigods, saintly persons and kings, I feel like someone who had been searching for fragments of glass but has found instead a most valuable jewel. I am now so fulfilled that there is no benediction left for me to request.” (HBS 7.28; quoted at CC 2.22.42 and 2.24.213).
This verse is spoken by Dhruva after experiencing direct realization of Vishnu and realizing the insignificance of his previous desires. So here you have devotion as superior to artha and kama.



(5)

त्वत्साक्षात्करणाह्लादविशुद्धाब्धिस्थितस्य मे |
सुखानि गोष्पदायन्ते ब्राह्माण्य् अपि जगद्गुरो ||

tvat-sākṣāt-karaṇāhlāda-
viśuddhābdhi-sthitasya me |
sukhāni goṣpadāyante
brāhmāṇy api jagad-guro ||

O Lord ! O guide to the world! For one like me, who is completely merged in the pure ocean of bliss that comes from seeing you directly, the pleasures of Brahman realization appear to be as tiny as a cow’s hoofprint. (HBS 14.36, BRS 1.1.39, CC 1.7.97)
Another delightful verse, quoted by Rupa Goswami to support the idea that bhakti is mokṣa-laghutā-kṛt, capable of making even liberation seem insignificant.




The HBS evidently teaches pure bhakti to Vishnu, so is of limited usefulness to ekanta Radha-Krishna bhaktas, but nevertheless, these glorifications of devotional association and pure devotion are very valuable and attractive, showing why this book was held in high esteem by Rupa and his followers.

There are some other verses from the HBS quoted in Hari-bhakti-vilasa, but I have not been able to find them all. Maybe this edition is incomplete.


Thursday, October 15, 2009

Summary of Dāna-keli-kaumudī Articles

Since I posted my introductory articles on Dāna-keli-kaumudī in a somewhat haphazard fashion, I thought I would just present a list of those articles in the order they were intended to be read. Some of these are dated back to September, so you may have missed them.

There may be a bit of crossover or lack of proper sequencing of ideas in the different posts, since they were all being written more or less simultaneously, so no doubt further editing will be necessary, but I probably won't do that work on line.

(1) Folk and Classical Elements in Dāna-keli-kaumudī. This introductory article is meant to highlight how Rupa Goswami's writings are the synthesis of folk and classical traditions, mediated by the Bhāgavata-purāṇa.

(2) A summary of the contents of Dāna-keli-kaumudī.. This structural analysis of the DKK is an attempt to isolate the classicizing portions, or at least to see what original contributions Rupa was making in his approach to the dāna-līlā.

(3) Verse 1 of the nāndī: kilakiñcita.

(4) Verse 2 of the nāndī: Anurāga. This article contains a commentary on verse 2 and some detailed analysis of the sthāyi-bhāva.

(5) Divine Madness, Pūrva-rāga and the Nitya-līlā. In this article, I continue the theme of "the paradox of play" that was brought up in the two previous articles, in particular how that relates to the theme of love and madness, parakīya-rasa, pūrva-rāga and the nitya-līlā.

(6)Rasa-rāja and Mahā-bhāva. In this article I have tried to show how Rupa Goswami's philosophy has evolved even further in Krishnadas Kaviraj's understanding, which has grown out of Rupa's rasa theory and the inspiration of Svarupa Damodar's vision of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Changing of the Gods


In an earlier post, Bankim Chandra and Sri Krishna Charitra, I started a discussion on a rather good book on Bankim by Sudipta Kaviraj, The Unhappy Consciousness. Kaviraj is a historian and political scientist who teaches and writes mostly on Indian and Bengali politics. He is an excellent writer--dense in ideas and insight, and eloquent in expression. I hardly expect to do justice to his work and will have to be selective in what I quote and what I discuss.

Kaviraj's primary interest is understandably Bankim Chandra's political thinking, but since Bankim was not actually a political actor, but a novelist and essayist, Kaviraj has done a great deal of thinking about literary theory, both Western and Eastern, in order to better understand his subject. The main theme is Bankim's imagining of history in the name of creating a vision of India.

What is primarily interesting to me, and us, in all likelihood, dear readers, is Bankim's reshaping of the character of Krishna. We have mentioned this in two earlier articles (this and this) and those will give you an idea of my earlier understanding of Bankim. For the most part Kaviraj bears me out and I don't think I need to change anything I have written there. But I think that he has still given me a great deal of food for thought and enriched my comprehension of my particular problem, which is the theology of Radha and Krishna.

So much of what Kaviraj says resonates with my own reading of Bengal’s 19th century cultural history, which has so much significance for us, because the transformations of Gaudiya Vaishnavaism that arose in that period through Bhaktivinoda Thakur are ultimately the source of our own involvement in this movement. But it is also because Chaitanya Mahaprabhu himself came from Bengal, and we thus have a profound interest in understanding these developments for the sake of our own engagement in this tradition.

Bankim saw the problem as one of reshaping or more accurately creating a Bengali and Indian national identity. As a colonized people, Bengalis were in a situation where there had never ever been a clear "national identity," at least not in the sense that it was understood by Europeans in the 19th century. Moreover, they had little in the way of a glorious historical past that they could point to. Furthermore, the Orientalist problem was in evidence: Western historians composed their account of the people of India, setting the parameters of the discourse in ways that legitimized their empire and gave the subordination of the defeated and subjected peoples a historical inevitability. What Bankim was doing in effect was recreating the history of the Bengali people, making a narrative in a way that would lead to a new national self image. He did this in essays on history and religion, but even more so in his historical fiction.

Since our principal interest here is in the person of Krishna, it has been particularly illuminating to see how Kaviraj's entire exercise mirrors my own attempt to understand what is going on in the writing of Rupa Goswami in his various works--both theoretical and literary. In fact, the very Sanskrit verse with which I ended my last post is paraphrased as the first sentence in Kaviraj's book: "In his work, an artist creates a world." Though Kaviraj finds this to be a particularly "modern" attempt on Bankim's part, in some ways, it was foreshadowed, at least tactically, by Rupa Goswami.

Indeed, one of the important points he makes early on in his discussion of Krishna Charitra is related to Indian attitudes to text, differentiating the Indian and European approaches. There are several points that he makes, one of which is related to authorship. Generally speaking, the recognition of individual authorship is considered an indispensible given in understanding any text in the West, whereas in India, objective truth was tied in with the effacement of ego of the author. This is why so many sacred texts are ascribed to mythological figures, anonymous, or ascribed to authors without biographies. This could be called the theory of the "transparent via media."

It would seem that the beginnings of a more modern approach to authorship began in Bengal with Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, about whom we know a great deal more than many earlier historical figures, and with him many of his important disciples. Rupa Goswami's life is recounted in the Chaitanya-charitamrita, and the author of that work is also present personally there, telling of his own conversion, inspiration and difficulties in writing the work. As such, both Rupa and Krishnadas were placed in a particular historical context and were self-consciously directing the debate on the nature of God and religion in their time.

It may be said that they were "transparently," ego-lessly transmitting a particular vision of the Divine, but like Bankim, Rupa was both writing theoretical and literary works to that end. Though inspired by Chaitanya, he and Krishnadas after him were aware that their vision was distinct from that of several other branches of the Chaitanya tree, what to speak of the general religious and philosophical schools of the day.

Now in my previous few posts I have been trying to show some of the main features of the transformation--theological and aesthetic--that Rupa was trying to bring about, the world that he was creating. What is interesting is that Bankim was consciously trying to undo Rupa Goswami's work, or at least trying to return to the Krishna that existed without Radha, before Radha became integral to the theistic structure of Vaishnavism. And what I see as necessary now, in the current context, is to return to Rupa Goswami and to understand his vision, which I believe in the context of the current age, post-Freud, post-sexual-revolution, will reclaim for many a sense of the sacred and infuse the symbols, rituals and traditions of Gaudiya Vaishnavism with new life.

When I first came to the West from India in 1985 and began a dedicated program of reading, I came across a book with the title Changing of the Gods by Naomi Goldenberg, an adherent of Wicca and fan of some of the leading lights of the Wiccan movement of the time. As with many other neo-Pagan thealogians, there was a great sense of gratitude to Carl Gustav Jung for having breathed life into their new polytheism with his archetypal theory of psychology.

Basically, what Jung did was to continue the Feuerbachian interpretation of God as a projection, but he saw them as projections coming from a deeper unconscious than even the one that is formed out of personal experience, as Freud did. The monotheistic Deity was seen as the central organizing principle of the Ego. This was fundamentally different from Freud’s view that God is an external projection that weakens the Ego by imposing itself on the individual consciousness. So the Freudian project was basically that of freeing oneself from God and the oppressive “Superego” whereas Jung saw the constellation of archetypes as arising from the “Collective Unconscious” and surrounding the ideal sense of Self, named God.

The concept of God as an individual or collective projection is the operative idea of all 19th century atheism, from Feuerbach, to Marx, to Durkheim, to Freud, and so many others, which essentially marginalized God altogether by seeing it as a product of inner unconscious forces being projected outward. If we were able to uncover the unconscious, i.e., make it conscious, then the fiction of a deity was no longer useful. And better for us to know the meaning of a symbol than to be governed by unconscious forces, often shadowy in nature, that lead us into destructive acts.

What Bankim was trying to do, according to Kaviraj, was consciously manipulating the concept of the deity. When speaking of Krishna, he was trying to establish a heroic and masculine role model. When he invented the form of the goddess Bharata Mata, he was consciously and deliberately creating a deity that at once resonated with eternal Indian symbols and also incarnated the Durkheimian deity, the representation of the collective which one at once worships and identifies with.

Where Krishna is concerned, Kaviraj argues that Krishna's life is itself a text that supports or validates the meaning of the Bhagavad-gita, his essential teaching. Therefore Krishna's life must exemplify that teaching, and anything that does not must be eliminated from the text. This is his hermeneutical criterion.

Interestingly, Bankim Chandra claims to accept the Bhagavata statement or mahā-vākyakṛṣṇas tu bhagavān svayam. But he makes the point that an avatar is, as Krishna himself states in Gita 3.22-24, an exemplar. If killing demons, etc., were all that were involved, his presence would be needed all the time. Bankim considered it extremely important to eliminate all the miraculous elements from Krishna's life, since there would no point in being an exemplar for humanity if he were superhuman. In this, does he not echo Krishnadas's arguments in the Charitamrita?

Kaviraj goes on to say that Bankim was engaged not simply in a debate with the Vaishnavas, but more importantly for him, with the Christians. He wanted to show that Krishna's this-worldly teaching and example were even more suitable as an ideal for human society than Christ's.

Interestingly, Kaviraj points out that Bankim's attitude to Radha was not so much dictated by an objection to the sexual elements. Indeed, an interesting aspect of his novels lies in the recurring problem of transgressiveness, which takes much the same form as Radha's problem with love outside of societal norms. In fact, one of Bankim's novels, Indira, even explores the very same structure as a recurring theme of Sanskrit drama, which I have called the archetypal royal Hindu myth, where a man unknowingly falls in love with his own wife, whose identity for some reason has become hidden. This basic theme is also replicated in Rupa Goswami's Lalita-mādhava.

But to Bankim, Radha is problematic for two principal reasons: One is that she supplants Krishna as the dominant party in the myth, and secondarily that she ceases over time to be an adequate role model qua woman. I will quote here at length:
What is important is that the later Krishna is reduced to a discursive nullity, little better than an excuse: his only artistic raison d'être seems to be that he is the remote but necessary object towards with Radha's passion, laments and her increasingly tragic sense of the world is directed. The great stream of pathos flows toward him, making him in a peculiar sense both essential and inessential... This is Krishna's reduction to silence, Krishna's increasing distance from this luxuriance of sorrow in this tragic discourse, perhaps because it is considered inappropriate to depict the lord of all creation unbecomingly broken by separation, and in an act of self-abasement.

In some ways the change in the figure of Radha is more paradoxical. She was absent from the Mahabharata story, but by the time of the Gita Govinda she has already become a central figure. Yet it would be seriously misleading to suggest that since in a sense she remains the central figure of the Krishna story from Jayadeva to Tagore's Bhanusimher Padavali, she remains the same Radha. Her transformation is no less drastic or astonishing.

When she is still narratively indistinct in the early Puranas, the narrators add spice to their stories by speaking of a particular gopi who is characterized as darpitā, too arrogant about her gift of extraordinary beauty, who does not stop from scolding, rebuking or bullying God Himself, because of the omnipotence of her gift. She is thus portrayed with a mixture of indulgence and rebuke, for the way she treats the lord of all creation is astonishingly immodest and wrong, but at the same time, in some subtle way, interesting, appropriate and beautiful. As her figure blooms into the later Radha, it is these aspects of her that are emphasized. She is seen as dṛptā, self-respecting, assertive, often, with good reason, abusive towards Krishna, māninī, kalahāntaritā. In these early texts she is hardly ever without strong self-respect, never representing an overpowering though picturesque weakness. After all, one must not forget she is the self of God and theologically no less imposing than the Lord Himself. Indeed, she is purer in a sense in which He is not, in the way in which the quality of redness must be considered purer than an object that is red.

Gradually, in the Bengali Vaishnava tradition, her nature changes in a strange manner. The change is so drastic that in the narrative the Vrindavan episode is gradually overshadowed by the part designated as māthura; it is a harder, deeper, more tragic separation, which bears a prefiguration of an eternal and unending alienation, unrelieved by realistic hopes of a reunion...

Later the figure of Radha from a metaphor of the joy of life becomes a figure for its sorrows, its perpetual longing for an unattainable eternally elusive happiness. By the time of the later Vaishnava poets like Jnanadasa we find her one-dimensional wailing figure, perpetually on the verge of separation and despair. When Tagore recreates the padavali form in our own times, she has practically merged into the tearful helplessness of middle class femininity. ... whose only recourse is death.

In his poetic incarnation she is more like the tyrannized Bengali middle-class widow than the forceful, proud, aggressive and above all joyous heroine who celebrates life through her resplendent sexuality, irrespective of social propriety, which covers a radiance on everything it touches -- herself, Krishna, nature, and the lives of distant audiences who can only hear that astonishing story retold by inadequate bards. (98-99)
According to Kaviraj, Radha is cast as the "ultimate victim" and Bankim wants to retrieve the positive view of womanhood that was present in the early Radha.

Whatever the truth of the above description of Radha's evolution, it seems that we are in a position to agree with Bankim on a depiction of Radha as the full energy of Krishna, equal to if not greater. In fact, it is hard for me to see any other Radha. I find it somewhat difficult to see the evolution that Kaviraj describes from purely texutal sources. From our survey of the Sri Krishna Kirtan and Dana-keli-kaumudi, we saw that Chandidas's Radha most closely fits the above description. Certainly the Radha of Lalita-madhava, despite her intense feelings of separation, comes out ahead in her heroic exclusive commitment to Vrindavan Krishna, refusing even his Dvaraka form. And the Radha of DKK is certainly the incarnation of self-confidence compared to her depiction in SKK.

Whatever Radha's depiction in 19th century padavali kirtan performances, the underlying theology of Gaudiya Vaishnavism did not change. As Kaviraj himself says, "A myth has movement, but a symbol has internal dynamism, though externally it may be static." This is why, Bankim could hold on to the Krishna image and extract what he liked from it while at the same time feeling it necessary to cut away elements of the myth that led away from his heroic, “this worldly” human ideal.

But I think we need to circumscribe the territory that can legitimately be designated the scope of the symbol, in particular where we speak of it as a model. Rupa Goswami took great pains to establish Radha's position theologically, and Krishnadas, as we saw in the last post (Rasa-raja and Maha-bhava) made it clear that the Yugala combined are the true object of the Gaudiya Vaishnava worship, placed above all other objects by the criterion of rasa. In other words, the Yugal Kishor are more than their individual parts, more than Radha as exemplary woman or Krishna as exemplary man.

How then are we to understand this symbol? What is the field of its applicability? This is a knotty question that needs to answered on many levels and I will only give a general direction here.

From a purely positivistic point of view, Radha and Krishna represent sexual union, which on the level of human psychology represents the most profound stratum of the subconscious. Not necessarily simply because there is a natural imperative to reproduction, but because we are born as products of such union, because human consciousness awakens in the midst of the interplay of emotionally powerful archetypes of mother and father. The harmonizing of these arcane halves of the subconscious is the work of not only practical maturity but the very stuff of spirituality. Though spirituality no doubt has many dimensions, love must be seen as the deepest seated and most primal. The relation of these psychic forces and the spirituality that is discovered in myth, symbol, ritual and theology is one that is complex and needs to be addressed.

For many devotees, any talk of symbol and metaphor is immediately suspect as Mayavada because it appears to reduce the Deity by attributing to him purely material causal factors. My personal feeling is that the apparent material causality is insufficient to explain the practical nature of spirituality. Though avataras, images of Deity and so on may be seen in exemplary terms, as Bankim attempted to do, I think that they serve in other ways and that the hierarchy of symbols--which are not necessarily in competition with one another--is based on their capacity to bring one to a deeper contact with one's transcendental self. That is something that is ineffable and, though one may be able to explain it away as mundane with some psychological doubletalk, it remains to the experiencer to know of its sacred and numinous character.