Ecstasy, Madness, and Chaitanya Mahaprabhu

The second seminar was centered on Mahaprabhu's life. The readings were (1) Bhaktivedanta Swami's introduction to the Srimad Bhagavatam, (2) Adi 17 and Madhya 1 of Chaitanya Bhagavata, based on a version I found on the web and revised. (3) Then I found a version of the Jagai Madhai story from CBh translated by Tony Stewart (Religions of India in Practice, ed. Donald S. Lopez). I also gave an article by Joseph O'Connell in which he traces a particular incident from Chaitanya's life through the different biographies ("Historicity in the Biographies of Chaitanya", JVS 1.2), and finally the first chapter of June McDaniel's The Madness of the Saints.

In preparing for the course, I found that June McDaniel's introduction gave some very useful insights into the Chaitanya phenomenon. Her book is not really about Mahaprabhu, as such, but rather about ecstatic religion in Bengal, and though she begins with Mahaprabhu as the paradigmatic ecstatic, she gives numerous examples of other Bengali saints from various traditions, each with their own approach to "spiritual madness."

Some of the points she makes are:
  • Divine madness is not unique to Bengal. For instance, Plato in Phaedrus says that there are “two types of mania, one from human disease, the other from a divine state.”)
  • The gods themselves are mad in their inconsistency, destructive acts, delight in enjoyment and self absorption. These actions show their freedom, transcendence to the world, and indifference to order.
  • The devotional madman shows that he is totally absorbed in the divine, renounced, is somehow closely identified or participating in a particular deity, liberated, transcendent and not at home in the material world.
  • Some typical behaviors of such ecstatics are the hermit lifestyle, playing the outrageous trickster, acting like a lover in separation, etc.
  • Ecstatics, whatever their nominal affiliation, tend to act more like each other than the orthodox members of their own belief system.

McDaniel points out that every tradition seems to give warnings of false ecstasies, or pretenders who attempt to use the prevalence of faith in such ecstasy or divine madness as a sign of high spiritual attainment in order to further their personal ends. There is a kind of structural consistency in the hagiographies of Bengali ecstatics that includes a gradual differentiation of the symptoms of divine from material or clinical madness.

They generally have undergone tests by family, doctors, exorcists, etc. In the case of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Srivas Pandit, an authoritative figure among the Nabadwip Vaishnavas, declared his symptoms to be spiritual and without any material characteristics. Overall, McDaniel says, that “mystical states can be distinguished [from clinical madness] by the goal, adaptation to the social world and by creativity.”

When talking of Chaitanya, or even of other Bengali ecstatics, I find it significant that McDaniel cites the Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu and Ujjvala-nilamani in order to find an insider's theoretical explanation for these ecstasies. Now, just as in the West various kinds of hermeneutical tools and models have developed in order to interpret these ecstasies, Rupa Goswami had the brilliant insight to realize that these ecstatic religious experiences could be explained according to the categories found in the natya shastra. What is more, by using this way of explaining Mahaprabhu's ecstasies, he made them accessible to us, not just intellectually but experientially.

The point (for me) is that Mahaprabhu's ecstasies so impressed the Vaishnavas of Nabadwip that they took them as evidence of Mahaprabhu's being God. It could be said that his ecstasies confirmed the reality of Krishna to such an extent that Krishna became accessible to those who were in his presence.

In the next seminar, we will look at the Sanskrit grammarians' sphota-vada concept, which is an approach that most closely resembles Vaishnava views of the Holy Name. As a phoneme, word or sentence is to literature, so is sphota theory to rasa theory. In either case, however, a significant similarity remains: both are indicative of a sudden intense realization that has radically transformative effects on the consciousness. This transformative effect has its parallels in madness.

In her introduction, June McDaniel begins by contrasting ecstatic experiences and "ritual," making reference to debates in various traditions, such as the Chinese Ch'an Buddhism argument over sudden and gradual enlightenment. (The Northern Shen-hsiu school held that through meditation and discipline one could “gradually” attain enlightenment. The Southern Hui-neng school held that since enlightenment was completely transcendental, nothing could be done to attain it. It either came “suddenly,” causelessly, or not at all.

McDaniel could easily have referred to Luther's faith vs. works or the the south Indian Vaishnava "cat" and "monkey" debate. She chooses to give prominence to William James and his theory of lysis and crisis, gradual and abrupt or spontaneous conversion.

She repeats an interesting quote that James himself took from Wesley who, though believing that conversion could be had through a gradual process or suddenly, concluded that in more than 600 cases he had studied, he found none who had converted by the gradual method. James, I believe, identified the gradual process as one that would be followed by those born into a tradition, the abrupt process as one coming to those who converted from outside it.

Based on her study of these two approaches in Bengali traditions (including the Vaishnava), McDaniel gives the following characterisation of the gradual path:
  • The idea of a ladder to the deity.
  • Loyalty to lineage and tradition
  • Acceptance of hierarchy and authority
  • Ritual worship and practice
  • Faith and learning
  • Acceptance of dharma
  • Avoidance of siddhis and self-glorification
  • The path of scriptural injunctions.

The path of breakthrough is characterized as follows:
  • The divine is reached through a unpredictable visions and revelations
  • Ritual purity is irrelevant
  • Initiation and lineage do not necessarily determine experience (“jumping of gurus”)
  • Knowledge and ritual skill are not a factor, only bhava.

Though we may debate the extent to which Chaitanya personifies these traits, he is considered to be the paradigm of the “instant religious experience,” which in fact came in the form of the Holy Name--as he himself experienced it and as he shared that experience with others. McDaniel quotes Ramakrishna, who described the situation as “the fruit coming before the flower.”

From the above, we can see what is being talked about from a Gaudiya Vaishnavism perspective. There are actually two ways of looking at the contrast between the two, for on the one hand we find references to attaining perfection through sadhana (sadhana-siddha) and attaining perfection through the grace of a devotee or of God (kripa-siddha); and on the other, we have the idea of sadhana itself as a path of progression either based on "works" (vaidhi-bhakti) or on experience itself (raganuga-bhakti).

One big argument many of the readers here will be familiar with is the debate on causality--can vaidhi result in raganuga? Since Jiva Goswami recommends that the aspirant should practice a mixture of the two if not yet at the jata-rati stage, it would appear that he visualized some kind of symbiosis of the two. The goal of sadhana-bhakti (practice using the external senses) is to arrive at bhava-bhakti (inner feelings of love and devotion). Since raganuga bhakti is predicated on feelings themselves, it would appear that it has some of the characteristics of a "result." Furthermore, since many of the sadhanas (at least five) mentioned in the BRS are said to contain incredible potency to give prema itself, it would indeed seem that raganuga is a consequence of vaidhi bhakti.

Nevertheless, I would argue that there are certain differences that we must of necessity delineate, otherwise Rupa Goswami would have been more clear about such a causal relationship and would not have placed them as two parallel approaches to religious culture.

What has interested me for a long time is yet another description of the "progressive path" found in Rupa Goswami's adau sraddha verse, especially as contrasted with the idea that Chaitanya Mahaprabhu came to give prema, indeed gave prema before Nama, according to Krishnadas Kaviraj. How can we harmonize this apparent contrast of "sudden" and "gradual" attainments?

I have heard some people say that during Mahaprabhu's time, prema was given instantaneously, but after his departure, what he left was sadhana, or the gradual process, kindly delineated by the Six Goswamis. There are some nice verses in the Chaitanya-chandramrita that could be used to support this idea. Nevertheless, I again think that there is a certain inadequacy to such a clearly demarcated separation. The fact that there continue to be ecstatics, and even "sudden" ecstatics is a cause for pause.

But these are all extreme cases: the point is that to this day, in chanting the Holy Name, some degree or another of such ecstatic experience is not only possible, but necessary to the growth of faith. So I would like to say that the prema-Nama model still exists, because without prema, experienced first through the Holy Name, there would be no faith.

Nevertheless, I am drawing a distinction between the religious experience as one of "conversion" and as one of "full enlightenment," whatever that may be. The distinction, however, is not one of quality but of quantity. Through grace, through Krishna's name, the fortunate devotee gets a taste of the Divine reality. Since this taste is strong and inexplicable by conventional explanations, he gets faith. It is then this faith that impels the devotee to seek the source of the experience according to the authorities that appear to him to hold its secret. adau sraddha, tatah sadhu-sangah.

Now, what McDaniel and others call ritual, we generally call sadhana. Luther would have called it "works." She raises a couple of questions about the process of works, which we could also call "conventional" and the other, unconventional approach to spirituality, which seems to come from more powerful, subconscious forces that overwhelm a practitioner, often in direct contradiction to the very tradition in which he participates.

Freud considered ritual to be a defense mechanism against the rising of undesirable subconscious contents. Jung also thought that organized religion, in which spiritual experience is mediated by previously established symbols and rituals, is a process by which individuals buffer themselves against direct experience of the Soul. Rudolf Otto, whose book Das Heilig ("The Experience of the Holy") brought the words mysterium tremendum et fascinans into wide popular usage, was clear that the direct experience of the Holy was not necessarily a pleasant one. He even gives the example of Arjuna seeing the universal form in the Gita as a case in point. It is enough to drive one mad, you could say.

If we think about the above, we may well see that the gradual process may serve many purposes--social or psychological--but it exists in uneasy relationship with the more intensely personal, individualized and unconventional approach. McDaniel brings up the interesting point that religious ritual imitates the most intense experiences of the prophets. Furthermore, those who have had a confused primitive experience of ecstasy will tend to call on the most familiar theological framework in order to make sense of it. For them, experience is brought into line with and made to imitate ritual. Even in cases where some kind of mystical "vision quest" forms a part of the individual's initiation, there tends to be a conformism to culturally mediated symbols and their interpretation.

OK, that's a lot of stuff. Where does this take us? I think that anyone who has been following my blogs over the past little while will detect another version of the same theme: How can we reconcile the urge for individual experience with our need for society? The two are in obvious symbiosis, but how does that mutual relationship work to attain functional synthesis? We shall continue to explore this theme in the context of Gaudiya Vaishnavism and my "two wings on the bird" doctrine.

Most of all, what I came out of this reading with was a questioning of what the goal of spiritual life is. There is certainly a kind of madness in leaving socially defined roles to seek out goals that are other-worldly. In the eyes of the world, "what is night for the realized sage is day and what is day for the sage is night." How can one possibly reconcile them? I have to accept that if I want to attain prema, I will have to go crazy.

I recently looked at an old Gaudiya Discussions thread and found the following I wrote on June 8, 2004:

yāvān artha udapāne
sarvataḥ samplutodake
tāvān sarveṣu vedeṣu
brāhmaṇasya vijānataḥ
Whatever purposes are served by a small pond are achieved by the great reservoirs of water. Similarly, all the purposes of the Vedas are accomplished by one who knows God. [Gita 2.46]
The lesson here is that we have to establish what our own spiritual essence or goal is, and cultivate that directly. That is why Jiva says that the symptoms of the siddha are the practices of the sādhaka.

Sādhanas are not sādhanas, but anubhāvas. That is, they are not means to an end, but the end itself.

A lost memory just came back to me. Once, while in India, I went through a pretty crazy period and would go around chanting prema prayojan like a kind of mantra. Prema prayojan has a double meaning in Bengali: On the one hand it means "Love of God is the goal of life." On the other, it means, "We all need love."

This certainly does resume for me the essence of all our bhakti speculations and actions. As devotees we will never abandon the specifics of our religious symbols, but we must keep the essence solidly planted in our minds, written on our foreheads if you will. "All you need is love": prem prayojan!

pāvanaṁ bhagavad-yaśaḥ
mitho ratir mithas tuṣṭir
nivṛttir mitha ātmanaḥ
Devotees talk to each other about the glories of the Lord. In each other’s association, they find pleasure and satisfaction; they teach each other about how all their distresses can come to an end. (11.3.30)
smarantaḥ smārayantaś ca
mitho 'ghaugha-haraṁ harim
bhaktyā sañjātayā bhaktyā
bibhraty utpulakāṁ tanum

The devotees become absorbed in remembering Krishna who takes away all their sins, and reminding each other of him. From this devotional service in practice, they develop a higher devotion, which makes them ecstatic and makes the hairs on their bodies stand on end. (11.3.31)
kvacid rudanty acyuta-cintayā kvacid
dhasanti nandanti vadanty alaukikāḥ
nṛtyanti gāyanty anuśīlayanty ajaṁ
bhavanti tūṣṇīṁ param etya nirvṛtāḥ
Sometimes, as the devotees remember the infallible Lord, they begin to cry, sometimes they laugh and rejoice, and sometimes they speak strange and wonderful things. Sometimes they dance, sometimes they sing, and sometimes they quietly read and study about the Unborn, becoming silent as they are deeply immersed in ecstasy. (11.3.32)


Vraja said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ecstasy may take people away from realities, a la drugs.
Anonymous said…
With due respect, Shiva dasji

The length of your experience and your very graphic descriptions made me conclude that: either you were more elevated than Arjuna or you (as a “peyote user”) had dumped a huge quantity of dopamine into your brain

Maybe if we use Meth, also known as ice, P, crystal , which is considered the most destructive drug to hit modern society then maybe we can overshadow your feat by being Krishna Himself, walking along the beach of Waikiki.

My problem with some devotees, is that, they are hoping for an experience, any experience to validate the reality of God.

The acharyas of GV have laid down the path to Krshna, why don’t we just try to follow their “proposal”?

Maybe the reality of God can be found by having a job, cleaning the toilet, paying our taxes, chanting on our japa, eating prasadam, reading His nitya lila and going to bed.

Maybe you have opened your third eye to reality, I don’t know, but you did not mention if you ever took initiation.

Jaya Sri Radhe
Vraja said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jagadananda Das said…
Interesting post, Shiva, and interesting responses. One of the purposes of the article itself was to show that mystic experiences tend to be (1) unique and (2) unsettling. I think that your letter and the two responses to it show a little how that works.

What I mean “unsettling” is that since religious experiences do not always conform to prearranged patterns, they tend to create controversy. On the one hand, their usefulness for the "real" world is challenged--which is the popular Western bias. On the other hand, their authenticity is questioned due to non-conformity to established dogmas. One of the interesting (and perhaps debatable) statements in McDaniel’s article was that mystics of different traditions tend to resemble each other more than they resemble the orthodox of their own tradition.

In our individualized age, there tends to be a bias towards idiosyncratic experience, one that is uniquely one's own--more or less as Carl Jung proposed (I think this was spoken of in the article as well: Carl Jung felt we should seek out our own "versions" of the archetypes rather than accepting culturally mediated symbols, as being more direct and genuine and therefore more true, and leading to genuine individuation.)

So anyone who like you differs in fundamental respects from a tradition as a result of your own powerful experiences, risks alienation from the community you once belonged to. This is fine, you could say, as after all the liberated soul in the Upanishads is sometimes described as a bull walking through a village--without a care for what anyone thinks, in a word.

I will not dismiss your experiences because they have been drug-induced. It is not the way you get somewhere so much as the place you end up; drugs may not be the most reliable way of making the journey. For someone with a lot of accumulated vestiges, the hallucinogenic experience can indeed be frightening. But that is in part what we have been saying mystic experience can be, such as in Arjuna's case. The problem really arises when the imperatives (vocation, calling) that is normally associated with such an experience are unheeded and one turns to a dependence on psychedelics as a substitute for genuine evolution.

My point here, as I have been saying in this blog, there is something inadequate about a totally idiosyncratic doctrine, as the social dimension of spirituality depends on shared experience. Shared religious experience cannot be purely physical or intellectual complicity, but goes beyond that to a deep level of communication based on common meanings and ultimate concerns.

Of course, it is not beyond the individual mystic to create a community around himself, based on his own ability to share the meaningfulness of his experiences, especially through ritual activities of one kind or another. You are very eloquent and intelligent, and I don't put it past you to achieve some success in this direction. After all, there are countless individuals out there, "selling" their wares in the marketplace of religious experience, and they can exist because there are buyers. [I use the terms buyer and seller without any negative connotation.]

One Jungian Wiccan named Naomi Goldenberg wrote a book called "The Changing of the Gods" that I found particularly interesting many years ago when I first read it. Hindus, like her, like the idea of multiple, even totally individualized or subjectively realized, forms or concepts of God. Total dogmatic decentralization. She adopts the idea that Wicca is about "facilitation" of individual realization or individuation in the Jungian mode. Facilitation means that it is more about means than the end. So her idea is that Wiccan ritual is really about awakening awareness of the operative archetypes in one's own psyche rather than trying to adjust one's own consciousness to fit a form that is mediated through a particular tradition. Thus, for her, community is based on rituals of this sort, which are nevertheless, I suppose, held together by a kind of theology based on paganism and Jungian neo-Platonism.

Though I think Jung's ideas are very useful, on the whole (and I have said this before), I tend to be more of a Gaudiya Vaishnava traditionalist, even as I recognize that no two people could ever have the same God, even if they are both in the same disciplic succession. Of course, Krishna may impose himself on me in the way you say he has imposed himself on you, and lead me into directions that are totally alien to my tradition. Some people will say this has already happened, and that it wasn't Krishna that did it!

Anyway, thanks for sharing your story. I wanted to say that I am not sure that your analysis of gradual and sudden conversion is exactly what the various scholars were talking about, but it is certainly valid and kind of fits into what I have been saying about spiritual life being a never-ending dialectic, that does not really have this sudden "enlightenment" moment that lasts forever. Enlightenment moments certainly last as deep samskaras, but they do not mean that the cycle of separation and union does not resume again. At least, not in the Vaishnava conception of things.
Vraja said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jagadananda Das said…
Dear Shivaji,

I pretty much agree with your analysis of esoteric and exoteric approaches.

As to your persistent critique of the cherished goal of Rupa and Raghunath Goswamis--well, first of all, I agree that work is needed in understanding what is going on here. Some kind of rationale has to be found to plum the depths of meaning in their religious experience. After all, Rupa and Raghunath are the principal acharyas of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, so we have to respect their vision.

There is no reason to think that what Rupa and Raghunath are talking about (tad-bhaveccha-mayi) is in any way less than the sambhogeccha-mayi mood. If they argue it is superior, we should, I feel, as recipients of their mercy, grant them the benefit of the doubt and try to find out not only the "what" and "how" of manjari bhava, but the "why" and "wherefrom". Perhaps you have an esoteric interpretation of manjari bhava that turns it into "not-manjari-bhava", but that is not truly anything but a rejection of it.
Vraja said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Popular posts from this blog

"RadhaKrishn" TV serial under fire

Getting to asana siddhi

What is sthayi-bhava?