Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Madhusudan Saraswati and Bhakti

I am occasionally asked to speak on bhakti here at Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama. Interestingly, Swami Veda has been giving daily classes on the Gita's sthita-prajña-lakṣaṇam (i.e. 2.54-72), using Shankara and Madhusudan Saraswati's commentaries. One open secret here in this tradition is that Swami Rama himself was (or claimed to be) a reincarnation of this Madhusudan.

Madhusudan Saraswati was an interesting personality whose scholarship was so multifaceted that there were few areas of traditional knowledge that he had not mastered. According to the information at hand, his forefathers escaped north India in the 12th century after the Muslim conquest and began by settling in Nabadwip. Later they moved to Faridpur in present-day Bangladesh. Madhusudan became renounced early in life and went to Benares to study Mimamsa.

Some traditions have it that he first went to Nabadwip to study Navya-nyaya and there imbibed bhakti in the Chaitanyaite tradition. He was born after Chaitanya Mahaprabhu's disappearance, but there are nevertheless some clues in his writing that he went to Jagannath Puri, following what would have been the pilgrimage route taken by many young Bengali seekers of that day. In his Vedānta-kalpa-latikā, he describes himself as bhagavatā nīlācala-nāyakena nārāyaṇenānugṛhītaḥ, "blessed by Lord Narayan, the master of the Blue Mountain [i.e. Jagannath Puri]."

When in Delhi not too long ago, I had the good fortune of meeting and hearing the Udasin m onk Gurusharanananda Swami, one of the more popular sadhus living in the Braj area (from Gokul Raman Reti). He spoke with great gusto, like many others these days initiated in some form of non-Vaishnava sects, on devotion to Krishna. He told a story of Madhusudan Saraswati that I had never heard before, which is no doubt apocryphal, but I will still try to reproduce it here:

Once Madhusudan Saraswati, at the time the undisputed guru of all jnanis in Varanasi, was holding court at the Gopal Math in Chausatti Ghat.


[told with great dramatic flare by Gurusharananandaji] Sitting on his high seat, Madhusudan was giving a discourse on finer points of philosophy, when in walked an unknown avadhut. Walking straight up the center aisle, looking neither left or right, the avadhut came and sat down on the empty vyasasan reserved for honorable guests. Such guests would normally be invited by Madhusudan himself, but the avadhut waited for no such invitation. A hush fell over the throngs of sannyasis and brahmacharis at the show of lèse-majesté!

Madhusudan also fell quiet, and in that moment of silence, the avadhut spoke. "Madhusudan!" Again, a shocked silence fell over the crowd. How arrogant! Who dared address the great Madhusudan Saraswati without the preamble of "Shripad" or some other honorific? But again, the avadhut declaimed in a stentorian and commanding voice, "Madhusudan!"

Madhusudan humbly acknowledged the avadhut, signalling to the now-agitated audience to sit still and let the stranger have his say. The avadhut said, "Madhusudan, with all your knowledge, do you still take pleasure in defeating someone in debate? Does that give you pride?"

The emperor of sannyasis bowed his head silently, and then admitted the truth of the accusation.

"And do you feel distress when you do not find the perfect argument with which to counter someone else's argument in debate?"

Again, Saraswati acquiesced. And then the avadhuta told him to go and take initiation in the Krishna mantra, for until he had overcome his ahankara, all his knowledge was worthless.

The story goes on of how Madhusudana had to intensely do purascharan of the mantra three times before attaining siddhi, but when he finally did, it was to a vision of Krishna, playing his flute. And this is how he came to write his famous verse,
vaṁśī-vibhūṣita-karān nava-nīradābhāt
pītāmbarād aruṇa-bimba-phalādharauṣṭhāt |
pūrṇendu-sundara-mukhād aravinda-netrāt
kṛṣṇāt paraṁ kim api tattvam ahaṁ na jāne ||

With a flute adorning his hand, the color of a new cloud, dressed in a yellow cloth and with lips as red as dawn or the bimba fruit, with a face as beautiful as the full moon and eyes like lotuses, I know of no truth higher than Krishna.

Some people thus attribute the following verse to Madhusudan:
advaita-vīthī-pathikair upāsyāḥ
svānanda-siṁhāsana-labdha-dīkṣāḥ |
śaṭhena kenāpi vayaṁ haṭhena
dāsī-kṛtā gopa-vadhū-viṭena ||

I was worshiped by those on the path of monistic knowledge and had attained access to the seat of svarūpānanda, the bliss of my own being. And yet, I was forcibly kidnapped by some rascal paramour of the cowherds’ wives, who turned me into his servant.
The verse is found in Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu (3.1.44) where it is attributed to Bilvamangala, so it surely predates Madhusudana. Nevertheless, as you can see, it nicely fits the above story.

Madhusudana's philosophy is obviously very expansive and subtle, but I would just like to examine a couple of other verses of his. The first is found at the beginning of the commentary to the 13th chapter of the Gita.
dhyānābhyāsa-vaśīkṛtena manasā tan nirguṇaṁ niṣkriyaṁ
jyotiḥ kiṁ ca, na yogino yadi paraṁ paśyanti paśyantu te |
asmākaṁ tu tad eva locana-camatkārāya bhūyāc ciraṁ
kālindī-pulineṣu yat kim api tan nīlaṁ maho dhāvati ||

If the yogis see the supreme truth as qualityless, inactive and light alone through their minds controlled by the practice of meditation, so be it. Let them see what they see. For us, however, may that divine blue light who wanders by the banks of the Yamuna always dazzle our eyes with his beauty.
This is a very sweet verse, written in a style that has several predecessors in books like Padyāvali or Kṛṣṇa-karṇāmṛta. But, as I wrote here before, it appears that Madhusudan Saraswati did not get Radha. But let us at least give him credit for "getting" Krishna.

I wonder if Madhusudan had read Prabodhananda. The style of the above verse with the nīla-mahaḥ theme is also found in Kṛṣṇa-karṇāmṛta, but it is a favored trop of Prabodhananda also, especially in the Vṛndāvana-mahimāmṛta, where he always talks about the pīta- nīlaṁ mahaḥ.

See also Padyāvali 102 (Haridas):
alaṁ tri-diva-vārtayā kim iti sārvabhauma-śriyā
vidūratara-vartinī bhavatu mokṣa-lakṣmīr api |
kalinda-giri-nandinī-taṭa-nikuñja-puñjodare
mano harati kevalaṁ nava-tamāla-nīlaṁ mahaḥ ||102||

Enough of the talk of heaven,
of what use is the power of an emperor?
Let even the beatitude of moksha be kept far away.
That effulgence (mahaḥ), dark (nīla) like a fresh tamala
in the bowers on the bank of the river Yamuna --
that alone captivates my heart.
And from Vṛndāvana-mahimāmṛta (3.30):
brahmānanda-mayasya nirmalatamasyāntar mahā-jyotiṣo
jyotir bhāgavataṁ cakāsti kim api svānanda-sārojjvalam |
tasyāpy adbhutam antar asamorddhvāścarya-mādhurya-bhūr
vṛndāraṇyam iha dvayaṁ bhaja sakhe tad gaura-nīlaṁ mahaḥ ||

Within the supremely flawless great light
of spiritual ecstasy,
shines the light of the personal God,
which is bright with the essence of his own joy.
Wonderfully, deep within that light
is Vrinda’s forest, made of unequalled, wondrous sweetness.
Oh friend! Worship the pair of luminaries (mahaḥ),
gold and blue (gaura-nīlaṁ), who dwell there.
This one is Rādhā-rasa-sudhā-nidhi:
madāruṇa-vilocanaṁ kanaka-darpakāmocanaṁ
mahā-praṇaya-mādhurī-rasa-vilāsa-nityotsukam |
lasan-nava-vayaḥ-śriyā lalita-bhaṅgi-līlā-mayaṁ
hṛdā tad aham udvahe kim api hema-gauraṁ mahaḥ ||

With all my heart I meditate on that golden colored effulgence, which robs gold itself of its pride, which has eyes red with the intoxication of love, always eager to engage in the sweet pastimes of intense lovemaking, whose movements are graceful and adorned with the beauty of her freshly coming of age. (RRSN 195)
The other trope that will be familiar in Madhusudan Saraswati's verse is that insouciance expressed in the words paśyanti paśyantu. "If that's what they see, let them see it." This kind of verse is very common in the Padyāvali and seems to be the mood of pre-Chaitanya Vaishnava poets. "OK, you guys don't get it. Well I don't give a damn. I am just going to meditate on my blue light, and let me give you a hint why... It is just plain juicier."

A small example is this anonymous verse from Padyāvali (58):
jñānāvalambakāḥ kecit
kecit karmāvalambakāḥ |
vayaṁ tu hari-dāsānāṁ
pāda-trāṇāvalambakāḥ ||58||

"Some are followers of the jnana path, others follow that of karma. We however [vayaṁ tu, comp. asmākaṁ tu in Madhusudan Saraswati’s verse] are simply the followers of the footsteps of the servants of Hari."
Here the pun, which does not translate so well, is on avalambaka. It can mean follower or carrier. So "we are simply the carriers of the servants of Hari's shoes."

A better example, Padyāvali 77, attributed to Kaviratna and quoted in BRS 3.2.28.
dhyānātītaṁ kim api paramaṁ ye tu jānanti tattvaṁ
teṣām āstāṁ hṛdaya-kuhare śuddha-cinmātra ātmā |
asmākaṁ tu prakṛti-madhuraḥ smera-vaktrāravindo
megha-śyāmaḥ kanaka-paridhiḥ paṅkajākṣo’yam ātmā ||77||

Some people are aware of a supreme state
that exists beyond the reaches of meditation;
within the depths of their hearts,
they perceive the existence of a soul of pure consciousness.

Our soul, however, (asmākaṁ tu)
is black like a monsoon cloud
possesses a sweet nature
and has a smile on his beautiful lotus face.(P 77)
tvaṁ bhaja hiraṇyagarbhaṁ
tvam api haraṁ tvaṁ ca tat-paraṁ brahma |
vinihita-kṛṣṇānandām
ahaṁ tu vṛndāṭavīṁ vande ||125||

You worship Hiranyagarbha Brahma, and you Shiva, and you can worship the supreme impersonal Brahman. I, on the other hand, will worship Vrindavan, where the bliss of Krishna is safeguarded. (Padyāvali 125, anonymous)
śrutim apare smṛtim itare
bhāratam anye bhajantu bhava-bhītāḥ
aham iha nandaṁ vande
yasyālinde paraṁ brahma ||

Let others, who fear material existence,
study the Vedas, Smṛti or Mahābhārata
I, however, shall worship Nanda Mahārāja,
in whose courtyard crawls the Supreme Brahman.
(Padyāvali 126, Raghupati Upadhyaya. Also quoted in Chaitanya Charitamrita 2.19.96)
Here is another trope that Madhusudan Saraswati follows in the Padyāvali-Karṇāmṛta tradition. It is the use of the indefinite pronoun kaschit (“someone”) to describe Krishna. It is in the same kind of self-deprecation in the face of the advaita-dominated religious discourse.
pada-nakha-niviṣṭa-mūrtibhir ekādaśatām ivāvahann iṣṭām |
yaṁ samupāste giriśas taṁ vande nanda-mandire kaṁcit ||

I worship that someone who is in the home of Nanda, whom Shiva worships, thinking that he is fortunate to be able to worship him in all his eleven Rudra forms when he sees his own reflection in his toenails. (mangala verse to commentary on Bhakti-rasāyana, verse 1.1.)
In a similar situation in Kṛṣṇa-karṇāmṛta, the use of such a vague pronoun is explained as follows: atirahasyatvāt sarvopaniṣad-ādi-nigūḍhatvād vā tan-nāmāgrahaṇam | "Since Krishna is so hidden in all the Upanishads and other shastras, he is such a great secret. Therefore Bilvamangala does not speak his name in this verse, but refers to him only as 'some effulgence' (kiṁcana dhāma).” ( Kṛṣṇa-vallabhā commentary to Kṛṣṇa-karṇāmṛta 11. According to Kaviraj Goswami on the same verse, it expresses Krishna’s ineffability (anirvacanIyatā).

That Madhusudan Saraswati adopts this language is rather revelatory, since anyone who argues that he presents bhakti as a means to jñāna alone will be hard pressed to explain them. He is not, never could be, a dvaita-vādī. His most famous book Advaita-siddhi is a polemic against Vyasa Tirtha of the Madhva sampradaya. (Some people would have him be four generations prior to Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in the Madhva line, even though he lived until well after Mahaprabhu's disappearance!) But this does not make him a "mayavadi" in the classical sense.

Rather, it seems that Madhusudan Saraswati was in some respects at least, true to a bhedābheda doctrine, one that rigorously demands the equal and simiultaneous truth of both oneness and difference. Polemics that stress the difference may be OK, but without a solid sense of identity, there can be no transcendence or love. Bhakti that is overly dualistic in orientation remains mired in what the Bhāgavatam calls pṛthag-dṛk.

Too few devotees contemplate the description of the uttama bhagavata in the Eleventh Canto. This is the exact same kind of verse that is found in the Ishopanishad and other Upanishads, including the Gitopanishad:
sarva-bhūteṣu yaḥ paśyed
bhagavad-bhāvam ātmanaḥ
bhūtāni bhagavaty ātmany
eṣa bhāgavatottamaḥ
The superlative devotee is one who sees his own nature or mood of the Lord (bhāva) in all created manifestations, and sees all created manifestations in the Lord, who is himself.You can play with these words if you like, but they are clear: in the divine world, the Supreme Truth takes a form according to your subjective disposition, and that disposition colors your vision of everything. Nothing loses its individual nature, but it is always identical with the Supreme Truth, as you see It. Identity AND difference.