Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Loyalty, fidelity, obedience and adherence

Plus ça change, plus ça reste pareil.

One thing I did not mention in speaking of the June McDaniel book, because it was not relevant then, is that I am quoted in it. The reason I mention it now is because now it has become relevant.

June McDaniel interviewed me in Nabadwip back in 1984. Nitai introduced us, as she was a fellow student of his at the University of Chicago. Evidently, she did not find speaking with me particularly fruitful as she only quoted the one statement, in which I say, "In the Western system, people try to invent things for themselves. In India, we try to follow previous people, to do what they did and get it down properly, the way that it was done before." (Page 19)

Maybe I was thinking of this verse:

etāṁ sa āsthāya parātma-niṣṭhām
adhyāsitāṁ pūrvatamair mahadbhiḥ
ahaṁ tariṣyāmi duranta-pāraṁ
tamo mukundāṅghri-niṣevayaiva
“Fixed in faith in the Supreme Soul
in whom dwelt the great souls of yore,
I shall cross over the boundless ocean of darkness
by serving only Mukunda's lotus feet.
(SB 11.23.57, CC 2.3.6)
This rare artefact from my own past now looks like a strange relic, a puzzle to be solved by my putative future biographer. A little more than a year after I spoke these words I was back in the West, embarking on an academic career, trying to "understand" my own experiences and those of the acharyas by following some kind of empirical method, i.e., specifically following Western models of understanding.

Recently I listened to a Rabindra Svarupa talk in which he refers to the following quote, taken from the editor's introduction to Mantra (ed. Harvey P. Alper, SUNY Press, 1989):
Most of us who study mantras critically--historians, philosophers, Sanskritists--take the Enlightenment consensus for granted. We do not believe in magic. Generally, we do not pray. If we do pray, we try to do so in a universalistic idiom. We do not ask openly for mundane, temporal goods. If we prayed for the latter and if our prayers were answered, many of us would be incredulous and deeply embarrassed. (page 3)
It seems ludicrous to think that these twain could possibly meet. In the first couple of classes, I found that even my PhD-level students, some of whom are from a Hindu background, seem a little weak in their knowledge of the history of the study of religion, even though that is a required undergraduate course. In other words, the names of Muller, Durkheim, Taylor, James, Weber, Otto, Freud, Jung, etc., do not immediately evoke in them the broad orientations towards interpreting religion that these authors represent. I told them that it is as much the duty of the person of faith to know what the philosophical challenges to his or her faith are as it is for the non-believer who studies religion to make an honest attempt at empathy for religious experience and phenomena. The true student of religion must at least make some sincere attempt to know both sides of the question, without prejudging the good faith in the arguments of both the dark and bright angels.

I have in my library a great book, meant for university students, called Critical Issues in Modern Religion (Prentice-Hall, 1973). The book summarizes various thinkers who have really affected Western attitudes to religion (Hume, Darwin, Freud, Marx, etc.), this "Enlightenment consensus," and the religious men and women--Christians for the most part, evidently (Bultmann, Niebuhr, Bonhoeffer, Tillich, Teilhard de Chardin, etc.)--whose response to those challenges have been influential. The fundamentalists evidently hate this stuff, but even they use archaeology and historical criticism, selectively no doubt, to enrich their understanding of the Bible, even if they pretend to be blind to the most devastating critiques of religion such as those made by Marx and Freud, or think they can dispose of Darwin with just a little more bluster.

One girl in my seminar expressed her belief ("I could never imagine") that the "Western way" would ever affect India because the religious culture is so deeply ingrained there. And she had taken a course on Hinduism in the British colonial period, so how she could have stated something like that I don't know. None of them knew, except most vaguely, what the Brahmo Samaj represented, either. At any rate: those who believe that there is anything at all that is not affected by history, past, present or future, is living in a bubble--which "history" itself will eventually burst.

What is the point of trying to understand religious phenomena objectively, like bees outside the jar of honey, so to speak? Well, the first reason is that the criticisms leveled at religion, religious believers, religious practices, etc., are often quite powerful and persuasive, as I have intimated. In other words, they have "truth value." Was Marx not at least partially correct when he said that religion acts as a powerful tool for social manipulation, indeed that all ideologies need to be critiqued for their economic utilitarianism? Just think of George Bush's desire to bring democracy to the Middle East: for whose consumption is this fairy tale meant, other than those Americans for whom the great myth of America is stronger than their ability to see their own plutocracy cynically profiting from their naiveté?

Anyway, I say all this without trying to explain what happened to me in the year and a half between making nice orthodox statements to June McDaniel and flying frantically over the ocean and trying to bury my samskara in the books of Western savants. Maybe it was a case of the many-pronged "mysterium tremendum" (kālo'smi, or "history") leaving me high and dry and without a home. But the reason I bring it all up again today is that I am evidently still able to repeat something akin to my above statement of obedience to the tradition when I hold fast to Rupa Goswami's goal of mañjarī bhāva, even though, God knows, I have critiqued it in so many ways--well maybe not so many, but in enough ways to still feel a vague panic when I think of what it entails: it is vairāgya more devastating than the void into which Timothy Leary told us to willingly fall.

Thinking of the Deity in sexual terms, whether it is sambhogecchāmayī or tad-bhāvecchātmikā,, is an attitude that is extremely vulnerable to all corners of the critical spectrum. The religious will go with you as far as metaphor or analogy will permit, no further; the non-believers will snicker at the foolish anthropomorphism and the projection of repressed sexuality. The ordinary worker bees of the world will fail to see the relevance: "What purpose does it serve?" And on and on we could go... At any rate, one has to search deeply within to see just how many veils of Maya cover the soul before coming to mañjarī bhāva.

Acintya-bhedābheda, or the inconceivable, infinite dialectic of the Divine, is the secret to understanding. No wonder Sridhar Maharaj liked Hegel. Shouldn't we all?

Anyway, though I will stop here today, I would like to repeat an old saw: It is the journey that is important; bliss is in the eternal journey toward God, the progressive revelation of self, Self and service.

Jaya mama Swamini Sri Radhe!


multisubj yb said...

One can attain vairagya (renunciation) by constantly remembering the seven verses of Sankaracharya

anuradha said...

I like this kind of insights. I am beginning to understand some of the objections that some of my close relatives (mostly doctors and professors in different fields) have against my religion and religion in general.
Most of them are atheïsts, but they follow a logic that is not easy to beat. They almost immediatelly closed books with disgust written by AC Bhaktivedanta Swami that I used to give them to explain what my wonderfull faith was about.
How could they be so disgusted with what I found (and still do find) so wonderfull ?

My uncle now does more or less appreciate a book I gave him from Shridar Maharaja. He says he doesn't agree still, but likes the tone.

Better still then giving a book written by someone else is to use my own words. For that though I need to be acquainted with all reasonnable critiques that do excist, not to be judgmental and not dogmatic.
This experiences shakes my faith a little, but makes it more real also.

Jagat said...

Thank you Anuradha. I stopped feeling like a preacher a long time ago. That is my quandary. I similarly feel great joy and beauty in so much of Krishna bhakti, and for this I am thankful to Srila Prabhupada. At one time, the literal approach was not a great handicap because we accepted the experience of chanting, darshan, prasad, basics of the philosophy, and general temple culture and atmosphere innocently, at face value.

However, the overly literal approach soon becomes a handicap. For me, it was the Bhagavata cosmology that first challenged my Western education. I think Siddhanta Saraswati and Sridhar Maharaj were a little more sophisticated in this respect. At any rate, I have been saying from the very beginning that we have to be able to separate the essence of Krishna consciousness from the peripherals, which is not always easy.

The hardest part comes at the very core of our beliefs: Krishna himself as God. Since we are not advaitins, we cannot relativize our nishtha for Radha and Krishna. They are not just symbols of something going on in this world, in our own consciousness, which serve in some way the achievement of a higher state where they serve no further purpose. Nevertheless, we need to be philosophical about Radha and Krishna, and about the other divine figures to whom we offer our devotion.

We do not, therefore, need to reject the symbolic significance of Radha and Krishna. God is a transcendental Truth, but his truth is manifest within phenomena. Indeed, if it were not, we would not be able to access it at all, i.e., it would be meaningless to us. Because God is about the highest meaning (I like Tillich's expression "ultimate concern"), it must have a connection to the world that we experience.

This is why I make the connection that I do between Radha and Krishna and human sexuality. If Radha and Krishna were playing soccer, I might have agreed with you a few weeks ago. Of course, Krishna IS playing soccer, or something like that, with the cowherd boys, so I don't reject that perception of the transcendental in any kind of play...

Of course, there are going to be problems with the symbolic interpretation, especially if we reject the signifier for the signified. If sex or sexual love were everything there was to say about spirituality, then there would certainly be no need for all this religious superstructure of symbols. That is why I say that we cannot restrict Radha and Krishna to a symbolic meaning, but have to treat them as objects of bhakti in the way that our acharyas have.

The example of the asvattha tree given in the Gita and the Upanishad is very appropriate in this regard. It is through the interplay of oneness and difference that we escape the fundamentalisms of both belief and unbelief.

anuradha said...

The honest attempt to harmonize the symbolic (the lesson within the story) with the literal (the story as a representation of factual events), is not what I understand to be sahajyavada.

Then why is it that this is by some understood to be similar?

I also do not see risk of becoming an imitator of spiritual emotions, I do not possess yet, by contemplating any possible relevance of the spiritual record (Bhagavata) to my private life.

My soccer analogy was meant to describe a passionate, time consuming and addictive activity of mine, that is more or less harmless, but doesn't have any real relevance to reaching my most important goal, prema prayojan. I seperate these two passions of mine, without feeling to much of a hypocrite or religious 'schizo'.
If you have the time you may comment on this.

anuradha said...

I mean....
I would be happy if you could comment on this

Jagat said...

Jai Radhe, Anuradha!

1) In answer to your first question: There are many different concepts of what sahajiyaism is. I cannot say to what extent my vision is the same as some traditional views. Let us just say that there are many sahajiyaisms. Now let us say that as far as "honest attempts" to know the truth are concerned, we should extend the benefit of the doubt to all and judge everyone as best we can. Since most of us are familiar with sahajiya-vada through its critics, who are naturally tempted to accuse sahajiyas of dishonesty and bad faith, it is natural that you should find it unnatural to equate honesty with sahajiyaism.

If I have decided to call myself a sahajiya, it is only because an honest attempt to understand as fully as I can the theology, history and _experience_ of Chaitanya bhakti has led me to this.

In the second part of your first question, you mention another element of the critique of sahajiyaism, a somewhat different type, which is the question of "imitation." Sahaja means "natural." We have often hear speak of this problem of imitation. Of course, I don't know that this is exclusively a sahajiya problem, but one that runs rampant through spirituality everywhere.

Spirituality is an internal achievement. We are all externally oriented and so we tend to look for external "proofs" of our long, hard work to find spirituality. This desire for concrete compensation for our efforts is the basic source of "imitation," which is nothing more than another word for hypocrisy.

On the other hand, genuine emotion is the most fundamental characteristic of the jiva, along with being and consciousness. When we approve the idea of a God who is human, who loves and suffers in separation, we are in effect, giving justification, validating, approving, or legitimizing our human emotions. If we did not see the relationship between the two, we would be indifferent to our God; he would become meaningless. His meaningfulness resides in the empathetic reciprocity between him and ourselves.

This is important to understand. It makes the experience of rasa a two-way street. On the one hand, we hear and chant about Krishna's pastimes, etc.; on the other, we see that the entire gamut of human experience is a reflection of his experience. In a sense, God is living out his experience in the entire panoply of human experience, because his experience is infinite, and there is an infinity of experience being lived in his creation. The difference between a devotee and a non-devotee is that the former lives _in relation_ to Krishna, while the latter lives in relation to something else, whatever that might be.

So the absolute dichotomy between spiritual and material emotions is somewhat false.

Furthermore, a point I have made before and will continue to make, is that once we experience "conversion", we are already caught up in the flow of transcendental emotions. What we experience at that moment is prema, in whatever degree of lucidity or effulgence. Conversion means a fundamental change of orientation; rather than living exclusively for oneself, one orients towards the Soul of the soul and more and more our emotions are experienced in relation to this real object of our love. These are never false or imitation; the only danger is that we try to trade them in for something else, like profit, adoration or prestige, or for "women" and wealth.

Jagat said...

With regards to your second question about the soccer analogy. I recognize what you are saying about it being "a passionate, time consuming and addictive activity" with only limited relevance to the most important goal of prema. As my previous answer showed, I do not make such an absolute distinction between the material and spiritual experience and I think that this is very important to understand. That is why I conceded that Krishna is playing with the cowherd boys, winning and losing, exerting exhilarating energy and effort, and experiencing simultaneously the pleasures of companionship with his friends. So, in a sense, prema is being generated in the course of this activity also. Were it not so, would human beings invest so much emotional energy in their sports teams and heroes? In the hierarchy of bhagavans (possessors of six opulences) are not the Woods, Federers, and Beckhams of this world reflecting something of the glory of God?

My real point, though, was that in the hierarchy of prema, madhura rasa is above all others. It contains much much more potential for both dovetailing and direct sadhana than any other common human activity. I say this even while recognizing that the pitfall potential is great.