Friday, March 14, 2014

Krishna West and Shame

One of ISKCON's senior acharya Hridayananda Dasa Goswami, who has been teaching at the prestigious Berkeley Theological Union for many years, has been promoting a movement within the movement called "Krishna West." His proposal has met with controversy, especially since the GBC at its annual Mayapur meetings effectively "quarantined" him. Rank and file members of the movement have been commenting copiously on the meaning of Hridayananda's proposals, which primarily center around issues of the distinctive Hare Krishna dress, showing that he has definitely struck a nerve.

Hridayananda vehemently protests that he remains true to the teachings of Srila Prabhupada without compromise and that he is using the issue of dress to make Krishna consciousness more palatable to a wider range of people whose prejudices are awakened by strange appearances. In other words, he claims that he is using the dress issue as a kind of subterfuge to bypass people's bias in order to preach pure Krishna bhakti. Nevertheless, though he presents his proposals in this way, his arguments clearly go beyond dress: they subvert the very concept of "Vedic culture" that the founder of ISKCON promoted in his disciples, almost completely marginalizing its very Indianness or the meaning and significance of its Indian origins.

Recently I have been reading Thomas Scheff's "Microsociology," In attempting to answer the riddle and role of social bonding, he pinpoints shame and pride as constant and natural dynamic in the individual as he or she responds to social acceptance by feeling "pride" and to rejection, however subtle, with "shame."

One of Scheff's primary insights is that this microcosmic dynamic,
constantly taking place subliminally in all interpersonal relationships from infancy through life, manifests in groups as well as in individuals. In India, this is apparent in the ways that jatis would take up the mission of Sanskritization in order to elevate their status within the highly structured world of caste. In the USA, a similar mechanism led to a kind of homogenization of religions, where in the interest of belonging to the wider American culture fundamental differences between religious traditions were marginalized and a kind of "national religion" with a common ethic was tacitly given overarching authority.

Scheff points out that human beings are fundamentally social, with both positive and negative possibilities. He uses the term "engulfed" to describe those who submerge themselves into a particular social group or community at the cost of their individuality, such as in a cult, whereas those who are cut off from society are "isolated." This latter characteristic is also referred to by terms such as anomie and alienation.

In the 1960's, when Krishna consciousness first came to America, there was a wave of  alienation amongst youth that manifested as the hippie counterculture. The failure of hippiedom to provide answers left a group of isolated individuals -- who were thus doubly alienated -- to further seek a meaningful alternative, which was provided by adherence to the new group, Hare Krishnas.

In the beginning, Prabhupada pushed these young social dropouts towards an alternative concept of human life and meaning, and his followers eagerly embraced the Vaishnava "dress code" as a symbol of their rejection of both the dominant "work ethic" establishment as well as the confusion and seemingly directionless libertanism of hippie-ism. The dress was a proud and externally visible symbol of that act of rejection and our acceptance of a different lifestyle paradigm.

Other than for the most committed members of the Krishna conscious movement, Western dress is already the de facto norm for most devotees (West or East) in daily life. It thus seems to me that unease with wider, fundamental aspects of the religion is the unspoken undercurrent for which dress is a synecdoche.

The underlying worry is that Hridayananda is capitulating to modern Western rationality and this is where the real danger is perceived by many bhaktas. The question is whether or not Krishna West is a betrayal of Srila Prabhupada's fundamental rejection of the post-Enlightenment scientific consensus and its cultural manifestations in the great spreading Blob of modern civilization. Following Scheff's analysis of this fundamental social dynamic, we can look at the entire phenomenon as rooted in a generalized sense of shame.

After Prabhupada left, our original sense of pride and omnipotence slowly began to dwindle. We became increasingly ashamed at our numerous collective failures to realize the promises that were made in terms of personal and social leadership and our ability to effect significant change in the broader society, especially in the "advanced" Western societies. This failure was not a result of dress code choices, but in our inability to recognize the relation of modern societies to religion and the depths of the critiques of religion that have been made over the last 250 years in the West, and to respond to them meaningfully.

The secular juggernaut opposes simplistic and fundamentalist religion, a distaste that is constantly being renewed with quite credible arguments, many of which fall directly on our ears and apply to our own lived experience. The dissonance between our professed beliefs and lifestyle and the necessity to function in the world where we live grows.

Moreover, the greater portion of the society has a colossal indifference to the kind of spirituality we profess, and Western society is so constructed to make it easier to melt passively into this indifference than to take a stand for a recondite and foreign religion.

The overall result has been a sensitivity to our separatedness from mainstream society and its dominant class attitudes to the very differences we had once eagerly embraced and been so proud of. We once laughed at critics who told us to get a job, but eventually we found out that doing the pick and living off welfare were not only not spiritually rewarding but alienated us even further from the mainstream of our own birth cultures -- a triple alienation if you will.

We gradually began to notice that there were things that Western civilization seemed to do better than us; and then we further saw that the adopted India of our dreams seemed itself unable to resist the pressure of this secular world civilization, and when exposed to our direct experience rather than idealistic mythologies, it too lost its magical hold over us. What to speak of the generalized European cultures.

And this renewed sense of alienation from our spiritual tradition and the India of our dreams, as well as from our birth societies, has only increased with the passage of time.

Western media made fun of devotees because of their choice to differentiate themselves radically from the mainstream, in act and appearance, but gradually devotees internalized the mockery. We became increasingly ashamed as it became harder and harder to idealize our own character and accomplishments. Or, for that matter, to justify ourselves coherently to intelligent inquiry. Bombast and chutzpah only get you so far.

This shame, as Scheff noticed, is repressed. It is unspoken. It creates a corporate or communal sense of isolation that manifests itself internally in aggressive fundamentalism and obscurantism on the one hand, and an intense longing for acceptance by mainstream society on the other. "We are just like you," we want to say, where before we said, "We are different" and reveled in it.

So what is the solution? Hridayananda Maharaj has himself encouraged his disciples to pursue the scholarly vocation and (I have heard) even says that he thinks devotee intellectuals, trained by Western academics, will "save" the movement. My own faith in this proposal is tempered by the very fact that for most academics, the sacred lies in the exercise of rationality alone, something that enlightened members of their class themselves recognize as a flaw, since rationality is not the principal element in human behavior (to say the least).

Perhaps this rationality can be engaged in as a means to support bhakti, and certainly no religion can stand forever on the basis of ritual combined with irrational belief alone, but this also means facing off directly with doubt, meeting the challenges head on.

Wrestling with doubt does not inevitably lead to faith, but it certainly does require a change in perspective in order for the wrestler to come to terms with his or her beliefs.

The future of Krishna consciousness, if it has one, does indeed lie in an improved rational understanding of our symbols qua symbols, our myths as myths, and in the capacity of this rational understanding of our tradition to effect personal change in our own lives, i.e., in the practical application of an evolving understanding of the actual "scientific" truths of our religious approach. This requires an ability to extract universal meanings and apply them socially and personally. Current scientific findings in relevant fields can thus be used as support for establishing the meanings of Krishna bhakti and its scriptural traditions, etc.

The practical approach is not in one's isolated individuality alone, as those who promote spirituality often testify. It even more importantly requires the mastery of an enlightened and loving approach to personal relations with other members of our tradition, and in the consequent creation of effective communities based in the culture of prema.

It is my feeling that it is impossible to proceed in Krishna consciousness without radically rejecting the worldly point of view. At the same time, I do not believe that Krishna consciousness can be properly understood without a comprehension of human phenomena, i.e., without an analysis of our own spirituality and religion as a human phenomenon and subject to the laws of nature.

The Upanishad says that one must cultivate vidyā and avidyā side by side in order to properly negotiate our way forward in distinguishing the two and searching out the essence of our spirituality. But the dynamics described above make me suspicious that the arguments expressed in the debate over dress will result in interpretations of Krishna bhakti that due to acceptance of modern Western prejudices will not be capable of adequately describing it.





I have not studied Hridayananda Goswami's thought exhaustively, but I was told that he created a slogan, "West is real, East is best."  I doubt that he did, but the words provoked a little thought in me.
It is true that the West for Westerners is the working reality (vyāvahārika satya). How can we ever be free of the facts of our birth and existence in this world, no matter how much we run? And since we philosophically accept the world as "real," that means that as serious sādhakas we accept the reality of our situation; it is to be understood as real and possessing direct meaning for us, material and spiritual.

When we adopted the ideal of  "East is best," we were making a radical choice. The "East" here is clearly not the chaotic living India, but a romantic spiritual East presented us by Hindu preachers from Vivekananda to Yoganananda and finally to Prabhupada. 

It does not have to have existed historically in its ideal form to be real because it is only a dream, a human dream of spiritual perfection that was still alive because it was communicated to us by Srila Prabhupada himself. That made it real mentally and became the inner guide by which we set about transforming our living reality, internal and external.

As such, the West can be seen as giving us our sādhaka-deha, while the East gave us our siddha-deha.

But even on this level there are multiple Easts and Wests, so which ones do we choose? Which sādhaka-deha? Which siddha-deha? And how does the one affect the other? These are open questions that require more debate and introspection than the rather symbolic ones surrounding dress alone.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Bhoga and Tyaga

The other day I saw an orange robed sannyāsī in Vrindavan, tall and strong looking, fit and wearing bright new cloth. He was about 55, with salt and pepper hair. His face was lined and extremely grave.
And then I looked at the other sannyāsīs I saw sleeping by the Parikrama Marg, beggars, at best living in jhopris, shuffling along the road to the next khattri for kitcherie. And I thought, "They are MEANT to look mean and miserable. They are meant to frighten you. They are meant to be the bogey man."

A sannyāsī is serious stuff. He denies the world.

Just think of Vyasadeva appearing to Ambika and Ambalika to sire the royal children of the ironically named Vichitravirya ("Wondrous Virility"). One queen was so frightened at Vyasa's ascetic appearance that she closed her eyes and gave birth to a blind Dhritarashtra, and the other to an albino because she was white with fright.

If a sannyāsī does not frighten you, he is not a real sannyāsī, and it is not too unlikely that he may be a bhogi in disguise.

Because the biggest problem is to compromise bhoga with tyāga. There is a path of bhoga that learns to incorporate tyāga in order to be fully bhoga. And there is a tyāga that learns to incorporate or discover bhoga within itself. But if you are compromised within yourself about which path is yours, you will always be embattled and get neither.

Not this world or the next, whereas you could have both.

In either path, ekāgratā is the common feature--single-minded adherence to the goal. And so both are very serious. That is why they are both yogas. But the path of tyāga is what Krishna was referring to when he said kleśo'dhikataras teṣām avyaktāsakta-cetasām. The vyakta here being the world itself.

Tyāga can be rough stuff, and to us that is obvious, because it is indirect, not sahaja. It fights the natural tendency to seek love in the vyakta. Therefore sannyāsa is really meant only for one who has the natural tendency for renunciation, only a minute portion of the populace.


The path of bhoga, the real Vaishnava path, carried to its ultimate conclusion, is most truly called prema. It accepts the reality of this world and its potential for prema as the true locus of the sacred. The other world is the backdrop against which this world is transformed into a world of love, Vrindavan.

Of course, being embattled is part of the great adventure (līlā) to create such a world.