Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Enthusiasts and philosophers

Looked over yesterday's post... Blogging gives you a license to be incoherent; no editors, you know. I also see that all this commentary is likely meaningless to the majority of western Krishna devotees. This means only a very small minority of that ever-declining number is even a potential audience for what I have to say. And yet, I have no other audience...

If enthusiasts are relatively scarce, so also are philosophers... Those with a philosophical bent are perturbed by traditional utterances even before the existence of alternative traditions is revealed to them. They find to be obscure what "everyone" takes for granted, or they do not see what reason there is to take it for granted, or they see further implications or plausible corollaries of what is believed. Whether their particular bent is critical or speculative usually determines whether they become resident sceptics or imaginative metaphysicians. In neither case are they content to remain entirely within the tradition: either they undermine that tradition or they seek to amplify and expand it. Whether their work receives any recognition depends on the mix of temperaments in their society, and its cultural situation. Sometimes they are doomed to find no sympathetic companion... [Stephen R.L. Clark, The Mysteries of Religion (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986) 12.]

It is true that "enthusiasts" are the minority in the long run, even within a movement of converts--manuṣyāṇāṁ sahasreṣu kaścid yatati siddhaye and all that. But as Clark also states, "Those who begin as enthusiasts for understanding may end up as lazily conventional." Oh well... There but for fortune...

Clark also makes a distinction between the "literalist" and "symbolist." The general Krishna devotee has been trained up as a literalist and there is little space for those who think symbolically. Symbolic interpretations are often, correctly, suspect for being reductionist and ultimately superficial. There is, however, a usefulness in thinking of religious phenomena in this way. Even if one is a literalist, it is worth looking at one's own tradition objectively, assessing it while bracketing, as far as possible, those aspects that are dependent on faith. It is often easier to do this with other people's faiths than one's own, the result being a lot of bad faith rhetoric due to the inability to recognize common ground.

I find it useful to know that besides being fallen demigods or fallen devotees from previous lives, or special souls sent by defunct gurus to help spread Chaitanya Mahaprabhu's movement throughout the world, those who came to Krishna consciousness showed particular sociological and psychological profiles. Even from a point of view of marketing, it makes sense to be aware of such things. When Prabhupada said, "Hippies are my best clients," he was making a marketing assessment. So why not follow those market researchers who take things much further?

Of course, the question arises, as it always does, what is product integrity and how far can one compromise for the sake of marketing? What is my interest, personally? Being a purist and an INTP type, I am personally more interested in "truth" than in sales, though I recognize that much truth can be learned even from the marketing approach. But to go from product research to sales means recognizing that a product is "ready for market" and knowing who will value it.

In my own personal case, I ask, "What is my product? What am I selling?" In the religious marketplace, one has to be able to answer, "What exactly does religion offer the ordinary person anyway? And how does this religion offer anything special that makes it worth marketing?" One has to be an enthusiast and be able to say convincingly, "This is unique and there is nothing like it anywhere else. My competitors cannot offer this or that." Too much analysis tends to make one a relativist: "To each their own poison." Why should this particular set of religious variables be anything more than a purely aesthetic choice?

When you get to that point, then you end up being restricted to interpreting to others who already share your aesthetic sense, and who furthermore have become freed somewhat from the literalist approach. I can talk with great enthusiasm to someone who already loves Radha and Krishna, but I find myself incapable of saying anything convincing to a person who has no interest in religion in general, or Vaishnavism in particular. I find it quite difficult to say something that a first-line preacher might say with conviction, along the lines of harer nāmaiva kevalam, kalau nāsty eva nāsty eva nāsty eva... and the like.

When you become too detached from the symbols themselves and attentive to underlying meanings, the tendency is to speak to seekers on their terms, advising them in a rather new-agey or pop-psychy manner; rather than saying, "Krishna is God. Chant the Holy Name. Surrender everything and worship Krishna," one will say, "Follow your heart. Look within. Seek God." The approach is namby-pamby rather than hard-line; shades of gray rather than black-or-white. "Find yourself" rather than "join us."

Clark says,
Part of what it is to be religious is to join with others in ceremonial and symbolic exercises, to share a perception of things as imbued with a certain sort of meaning. Someone who claimed to be 'religious' in a way that no one else could or should understand or share, who claimed a literally unique route to the appreciation of a divine reality no one else could grasp, would not easily be distinguished from an ordinary hobbyist: if 'my' God cannot be anyone else's, how is He God at all? (page 5)
If one's experience of the Divine has been deep and meaningful, then the need to share it in a direct and intense way is one of its most powerful byproducts. At one point I wrote somewhere that in our Vaishnava tradition there are different social levels of devotional performance, each with its own characteristic spiritual experience. There is individual performance--meditation on the mantra, smaraṇa, etc. There is also social performance--hearing Bhagavatam in the association of devotees, sankirtan, etc. To these, I add the "dual" performance: that of physical intimacy with another devotee. All three of these performances are connected. Though at different points in one's devotional career, different aspects of spiritual culture may take precedence, it is unlikely that any one of these on its own would remain strong without the backing of the others.

Radhe Radhe!

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