Thursday, December 21, 2006

Virtue and Wisdom

Immediately after finishing my last blog, I started thinking about this sentence: "Though material goals may not always be realistic, the goals of wisdom and virtue are available to all, whatever the specifics of one's life narrative."

This led me to the following realization: Virtue is the perfection of karma. Wisdom is the perfection of jnana. So why has bhakti, or better yet prema, not been mentioned? Evidently, the goal of piety (bhakti) is an "other worldly" goal, even though prema may be interpreted in a worldly fashion. However, prema in this sense may just as easily be seen as an aspect of virtue or wisdom.

If we understand virtue and wisdom in this way, then it is easy to see how one can be virtuous or wise without necessarily being pious. In other words, as the worldly moralists and philosophers never cease to point out, one need not believe in God in order to be virtuous or wise. On the other hand, we have seen all too clearly throughout history, that piety is no guarantee of either virtue or wisdom, even though that claim is often made for it. The Bhagavatam says, "yasyAsti bhaktir bhagavaty akiJcanA, etc." But even though the qualifier "akinchana" is found there, there is still no guarantee that someone who claims to have devotion to God as a priority will necessarily be good or wise by worldly standards. Indeed, most religions recognize this when they say things like, "Therefore the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men," or yA nizA sarva-bhUtAnAM tasyAM jAgarti saMyamI, etc.

The devotee's claim is that there is a wider perspective coming from faith that moves the goalposts of virtue. This is, however, a dangerous position from the point of view of moral philosophy. It leads to the kind of utilitarianism that skews the very idea of virtue. On the other hand, as a guide to personal life conduct, if one keeps in mind the idea of akinchana, or purity of purpose, then one should have faith that virtue and wisdom, and their benefits, will accrue to the person who makes prema the goal of life. And if the purpose is not pure, such as in the case of someone who engages in child sex abuse or stealing for personal comfort or aggrandizement, for instance, then there is no question of freedom from the laws that govern contraventions to the moral law. On the other hand, if one acts with pure intent, to the best of one's knowledge, even if one appears to contravene the moral law, he or she can hope for ultimate respite.

The problem, however, is in the objective scheme of things. The bhakti world view, having this otherworldly perspective, must still be required to be able to show objective benefits.

I rather like Rabindra Svarupa's argument, made in one of his seminars on Iskcon's reform movement, that before hearing from Prabhupada, devotees had never been given saintliness as a practical life goal. However, the problems arose, as in Subhananda's famous essay on leaving Iskcon, when after a certain time people began asking the question, "Where are all the pure devotees?"

If saintliness is written into your life narrative and you lose faith in this telos, then you turn to trivialities--labha, puja and pratishtha--as they present themselves. And this further subverts not only your own faith--you become a hypocrite--but undermines that of others. I think that this happens in great part because one neglects the values of virtue and wisdom in pursuing the goals of piety.

I like to think that the reason Prabhupada tried to establish some kind of social system for devotees was so that they would cultivate virtue and wisdom within it, not as prerequisites for devotion, but as a framework within which bhakti could do its work of giving virtue and wisdom fertile ground in which to grow.

Nevertheless, we have to seek out the higher perspective that comes from bhakti. This is related to the concepts of "convention" and "charisma" that have entered the sociology of religion vocabulary from the time of Weber. What is charisma but faith in one's personal revelation or the courage of insight? I once got in trouble with devotees for equating Prabhupada's charisma, or at least aspects of it, with chutzpah. But, in fact, the two are connected--otherwise it would have been difficult for us to swallow all the stuff we did along with the real substance of his message.

That, of course, is not an excuse for continuing to swallow that stuff--nor the stuff that other gurus peddle along with what may otherwise be their deep insights. Immature chutzpah will always be challenged and ultimately be sunk. The classic example is of the parricide who begs for mercy on the basis of being an orphan. That claim, once exposed to the intelligence of the (what's the noun for a doer of chutzpah?), will shatter his self-confidence. It is incumbent on us to find rational legitimacy for our grand epiphanies.

What I am getting at, I guess, is this: we must be wary of antinomianism, the license to contravene the moral law. It must be assumed that the moral law is given by God and that its contravention is abhorrent to Him. So what, then, is the position of prema? When Augustine says, "Love, and do as you will," he is in fact preaching the same doctrine that Chaitanya Mahaprabhu is when he says "prema prayojana." But we will need to dwell on this some more.

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I have been wanting to say something for a while. I have rather aggressively used the word "Sahajiya" in order to characterize the insight that I wish to promote. Though I have stated it before, I want to make it clear again that I am using this term to distinguish myself from certain aspects of modern Vaishnava orthodoxy, but not to identify myself with the caricature of Sahajiyaism that is current in the orthodoxy, even if that caricature may be based on facts.

We really need to analyze the concept of love and see what the position of human love is in relation to the concept of love for God. I will have to elucidate the problem that I hinted at just at the end of my previous post, namely the problem of "this-" and "other-worldliness." What are the implications for a devotee once this distinction has been erased through both philosophy and spiritual realization?

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