Sambandha II: Sakhis, Vrindavan

Radha-Krishna Yoga Peeth, ceiling painting at Nimbarka Peeth (Salemabad, RJ)

Gaudiya Vaishnava sambandha is expressed by the four terms Krishna, Radha, sakhis and Vrindavan, which are all different aspects of love. In the previous article, we spoke about Radha and Krishna. In this one, the primary subject will be the sakhis and Vrindavan.

What in other schools is generally called jīva-tattva, we call sakhī-tattva. That is to say that the Sahajiya vision of the liberated or true condition of the living entity is to be a sakhī of Radha and Krishna in Vrindavan.

From an external vantage point, this is expressed by Krishnadas Kaviraj in the following words,

jīvera svarūpa haya nitya kṛṣṇa dāsa
kṛṣṇa taṭastha śakti bhedābheda-prakāśa
The constitutional position of the living entity is to be a servant of God. The jīva is Krishna's marginal potency, [his own self] manifested as one and different [from him]. (CC 2.20.108)
This statement is theologically correct. But since we have established the primacy of the divine feminine, we express it as "the natural constitutional position of the jīva is to be Radha's dasi, sakhi or manjari."

What is essential to understand, however, is the nature of the oneness and difference of the jiva from Radha.

The jiva is a part of shakti-tattva

In Advaita Vedanta, the jiva is identified with Brahman and any separate individuality is considered to be illusory; the identity of Shakti and Shaktiman results in the absolute loss of self in cosmic consciousness. In the yoga system, the jiva is called purusha (male) in relation to prakriti (female). This is true in the material universe, but that is the whole problem. The jiva's "purusha-nature" or maleness, i.e., the illusory idea of dominating and enjoying material nature is the source of bondage. But the correct view according to Vaishnava doctrine is that in relation to God, the jiva is shakti or prakriti, as stated in the Bhagavad Gita:

apareyam itas tv anyāṁ prakṛtiṁ viddhi me parām
jīva-bhūtāṁ mahābāho yayedaṁ dhāryate jagat
mamaivāṁśo jīva-loke jīva-bhūtaḥ sanātanaḥ
manaḥ-ṣaṣṭānīndriyāṇi prakṛti-sthāni karṣati
Other than this, you should know that there is another, higher prakriti which is made up of the jivas and by which this world is held in place. [Gita 7.4]

In this world of living creatures, the creatures [themselves] are my eternal parts. They drag along [like a ball and chain (Vishwanath)] the mind and senses situated in the material nature. [Gita 15.7]
Even though we call it "marginal," i.e., "in between" purusha-hood and prakriti-hood, the jiva is factually shakti nevertheless. In other words, the essential femininity of the jiva in relation to the Supreme Purusha is its true position. Its oneness with the Whole comes due to the fact that it has been expanded by the Whole from the Whole for the sake of experiencing love and rasa.

From this vantage point, the Supreme Truth experiences life from an infinity of individual perspectives as the jivas travel the road from the purusha illusion to the reality of prakriti-hood, a state characterized by pleasure-giving service and love.

Since Radha is the original, primal and complete manifestation of Energy or Prakriti, we express this prakriti-hood as identity in difference with her.

Therefore, Shrila Krishnadas Kaviraj Goswami has very nicely stated the siddhānta in the Govinda-līlāmṛta:

sakhyaḥ śrī-rādhikāyā vraja-kumuda-vidhor hlādinī-nāma-śakteḥ
sārāṁśa-prema-vallyāḥ kiśalaya-dala- puṣpādi-tulyāḥ sva-tulyāḥ
siktāyāṁ kṛṣṇa-līlāmṛta-rasa-nicayair ullasantyām amuṣyāṁ
jātollāsāḥ sva-sekāc chata-guṇam adhikaṁ santi yat tan na citram
Radha’s girlfriends are the twigs, branches, fruits, etc., of the vine of the essence of love, Radha herself, who is the pleasure-giving potency of the Moon of the lilies of Vraja (Krishna); they are equal to even her. Considering this, it is not so strange that when she is watered with the nectar of the pastimes of Krishna and becomes overjoyed, her girlfriends are a hundred times more pleased than they would have been by being themselves watered.
In order to understand this, we will have to understand Rupa Goswami's rasa-tattva. In fact, this is the point to which Rupa Goswami's teachings are meant to take us.

Sakhī-bhāva and rasa


The Upanishadic mahā-vākya for all rasika Vaishnavas is raso vai saḥ, yaṁ hy evāyaṁ labdhvānandī bhavati, "The Supreme Truth is rasa ("taste"), attaining which one becomes joyful."

Unfortunately, the theological import of Rupa Goswami's rasa theory is generally poorly understood by most Vaishnavas, even those who are quite aware of the terminology, etc. The familiar or conventional relation of worshiper to Worshipable does not perfectly fit the understanding of rasa, since rasa requires a diminution of aiśvarya-bhāva and an increase in mādhurya-bhāva.

Mādhurya means reducing the distinction and distance between God and human and an increase of identity and intimacy. This reaches its pinnacle in the madhura-rasa, where the level of identity and intimacy reaches the absolute state.

Madhusudana Saraswati has nicely expressed this in a verse of Bhakti-rasāyana

tasyaivāhaṁ mamaivāsau sa evāham iti tridhā
bhagavac-charaṇatvaṁ syāt sādhanābhyāsa-pākataḥ
"I am his," "He is mine," and "I am he" – these are the three levels of śaraṇāgati or "surrender" experienced through the intensification and maturation of one's devotional practice.
This state "I am he" should not be misunderstood as total loss of identity or merging of one's individuality into that of God (brahma-sāyujya or bhagavat-sāyujya). It is, nevertheless, a form of absolute identity existing simultaneously with true individual and separate consciousness, within which the two other stages of surrender also remain present.

Rasa theory is meant to explain the mechanics of oneness and difference in the liberated state. It is also the essential process of experiencing the Divine in the world of relativity, in other words, in the process of sādhana, in hearing, chanting and smaraṇa, the process of mystical participation in the Divine Play.

How does this happen? There are many articles on this blog in which we have tried to explore this mechanism and the workings of rasa, but if we were to sum it up, it would be in the words, "participant-observer."

In the rasa theory of Rupa Goswami, the devotee is equivalent to the audience at a play. The Players are Radha and Krishna and the other eternal associates. This being an "audience" should not be mistaken as a passive role. This is why we use the term "participant-observer."

Both participant and observer roles are described in Raghunath Das Goswami's verse:

tāmbūlārpaṇa-pāda-mardana-payo-dānābhisārādibhir
vṛndāraṇya-maheśvarīṁ priyatayā yās toṣayanti priyāḥ
prāṇa-preṣṭha-sakhī-kulād api kilāsaṅkocitā bhūmikāḥ
kelī-bhūmiṣu rūpa-mañjarī-mukhās tā dāsikāḥ saṁśraye
I take shelter of the handmaidens of the Queen of Vrindavan,
led by Sri Rupa Manjari, who lovingly satisfy her
by offering betel nut and other condiments,
massaging her feet, bringing fragrant water
and arranging her trysts with her gallant.
They have thus become most dear to her
and so are allowed to enter the scene
of the Divine Couple’s most intimate affairs
without the slightest discomfiture,
a reward not given even to her dearest friends.
(Vraja-vilāsa-stava, 38)
For most people coming to the Rasika Vaishnava path, the first big problem is this idea of the manjaris (the prefered Gaudiya term for servant/girlfriend) being observers. They can understand the concept of service, i.e., "doing something", but how can passive observation, i.e., simply watching Radha and Krishna's lovemaking, be considered bhakti? Even the idea of sexual intimacy with the Supreme seems to be more intuitive, and those millennial traditions in other religions and Vaishnavism seem to have favored such an attitude, whether looked at purely allegorically or literally.

But the Gaudiya tradition has always emphasized the superiority of manjari bhava: identity with and service to Radha, the embodiment of Supreme Love and Pleasure-giving Potency. We must take this doctrine seriously and understand its meaning. All the acharyas have constantly emphasized the superiority of this stance to the sambhogecchāmayī mood of those who enjoy direct contact with Krishna. This can only be understood if one comprehends the concept of sādhāraṇī-karaṇa or the process of natural and unconscious identification, which is the key element to rasa theory.

I will talk about this a little more in the next article, where I will discuss several aspects of sādhana.

Vrindavan: The World

It is well known to all that the world is temporary and full of various kinds of distress, duḥkhālayam aśāśvatam. Death and the other miseries of life are the basic problems to which all action, what to speak of religion, philosophy or spiritual practice, is a response.

The fundamental Vedantic response is to say that suffering is not essential to the Truth, which is being, consciousness and bliss or love. But any such statement about the inherent and absolute purity or goodness of the Divine Being, no matter how phrased in theological terms, immediately elicits questions about the existence of a creation that is filled with misery. Disease, poverty, death, ignorance, senility, human cruelty, natural disasters, etc., are all real enough – how can they be explained in a way that is satisfactory to one who intuits the Truth as essentially joyful and good?

The overwhelming character of human misery and the absolute finality of Death need some kind of response other than denial if one is not to simple collapse in despair. The only possible life-sustaining response is optimism or faith, and optimism is always religious, no matter what expression it takes – even atheistic. Optimism may be succinctly expressed in the words: "[My] life has meaning."

The challenge is to find a way to express that meaning that is not shallow or infantile, one that resonates with reason and rationally.

The world conceived as Vrindavan can be stated as follows: The world is God's playground in which love is tested and given the opportunity to manifest and evolve in myriad forms. Love requires adversity; indeed, from the point of view of rasa theory, the more adversity the better:

loka-dvayāt svajanataḥ parataḥ svato vā
prāṇa-priyād api sumeru-samā yadi syuḥ
kleśās tad apy atibalI sahasā vijitya
premaiva tān harir ibhān iva puṣṭim eti
As a strong lion defeats many elephants
and then becomes nourished
and strengthened by feeding on them,
so too does sacred love, when exceedingly great,
conquer all obstacles before it,
whether they come from this world or the next,
from enemies or from family members,
from one’s own body or the things connected to it,
or even from that dearest one
who is the object of the love itself.

Even if such obstacles should be as vast
as the immeasurable Mount Meru,
sacred love [prema] will conquer them and,
having conquered,
become stronger and more vital. (Prema-sampuṭikā, 54.)

Vrindavan, the holy domain of Radha and Krishna, is the archetypal ideal world, the sacred reality where love truly has conquered all. As with all ideals, it is one that is unrealizable in this world, shining from an ever receding horizon, but nevertheless remaining the beacon, the "kingdom of God", the Rāma-rājya that shines its light on our minds and hearts and shows us the path to perfection. It is God's inner world which throws this world into relief and gives it its meaning.

The phenomenal world cannot exist without the backdrop of the divine abode, just as life itself cannot truly exist without being given meaning or without experiencing love. The key to recognizing this Truth begins with the awareness and practice of Vrindavan's sacred nature through its microcosmic manifestation in the phenomenal Vrindavan.

Though Vrindavan is factually unrealizable in this world as a universal reality, the inner truth of Vrindavan is progressively realizable subjectively through the multileveled sādhana of bhakti yoga, which by its transformative character results in love-activism and the creation of human community.

Sant cleaning the grounds at Tatia Sthan, Vrindavan.