Friday, May 11, 2007

My students' papers: 1. Bhaktivinoda Thakur

I have been marking my students' papers. There were only three who made it to the end. I guess I was given a pretty easy ride for a university course. I think that the three were pleased with the course and since, on the whole, their papers were very good, I thought I would share a few excerpts here. Each of them cited passages, made comments, or had insights that were worth reflecting on. For privacy reasons I will only refer to them by their initials.

This posting was begun more than a week ago on May 2, showing just how my time deficit is affecting my ability to write. This also will account for the lack of a discernable train of thought.

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1. "Reason, Belief, Essence, Faith, or how Bhaktivinoda Thakur 'rationalized' the Spirit" by E.M.

EM has written an excellent paper, inspired primarily by readings from Shukavak's articles and his book on Bhaktivinoda Thakur. She had previously read other material on the effects of Orientalist thought on Indian religions, etc., and the material that she has excerpted from them is appropriate, relevant and useful.

The first part of her essay is based primarily on Richard King's Orientalism and Religion: Postcolonial Theory, India and the Mystic East, as well as Ronald Inden's "Orientalist Constructions of India" and Surendra Rao's "The 'Modern' in Modern Indian History." These works, following in the tradition established by Edward Said's extremely influential work on Orientalism (a term which I believe he coined), attempt to analyze the mechanics of Western interaction with India on a psychological level. The British, King says, approached India in primarily two different ways: "...the first, generally antagonistic and confident in European superiority; the second, generally affirmative, enthusiastic and suggestive of Indian superiority in certain key areas." (p.116).

EM's summary of this point is expressed in an amusing way: "The first, or the Anglicist argument, can be understood as primarily a critique of Indian thought as irrational, emotional, unsystematic, unwieldy, etc., while the second, or Romanticist argument, might be understood as a celebration of Indian thought as irrational, emotional, unsystematic, unwieldy, etc. The aspiration of the Anglicist was the Westernization of India thought, the Romanticist, the recognition and appropriation of what was seen as the mystical foundation of Indian religion, providing a stalwart defence against the deleterious effects of modernity."

On the whole, though, the former of these two attitudes clearly held the upper hand. I have myself tried to understand this phenomenon to a certain degree through the heuristic device of "masculinity" and "femininity," where the "irrational, emotional, unsystematic, unwieldy" are all seen as attributes of the latter. However, what is interesting is the degree to which both these outlooks on India were accepted by the Indian thinkers of the day. The other metaphor commonly used is that of “childish” (religious or magical) thinking and the (reality-based, scientific) thinking of the adult. Both metaphors have usefulness, within limits.

EM, still depending on the above writers, concludes quite rightly that, above all, the British managed to influence Indian intellectuals of their vision of Indian and world history, based on a paradigm of progress. EM: "In the context of enlightenment thinking, the British imposed upon the Indians a historical account of their own civilization, discounting traditional understandings as ahistorical and therefore irrational." (King)

No doubt, the early British perceptions of India and Hinduism were fraught with errors, perhaps none more so than the romantic idea that there was a pristine Aryan or Vedic age, exemplified by the Upanishads, when enlightened thinking actually existed in India, and that with the passage of time, the pure insights of that period became abased by an increasingly irrational (read non-Aryan) approach to life. Nevertheless, the fundamental concept of Western thinking, that time is linear and that there is an inexorable push in humanity towards evolution and historical progress, were readily accepted, and since the Indian intellectuals (not to mention the Muslims) were forced to accept that in many ways they had not evolved to the extent that the Europeans had, something had gone wrong in their approach: their evolution had been stilted.

In the Indian religious response to the Orientalist critique took different forms. The Brahmo Samaj's response "was to highlight those aspects of the Indian traditions that seemed to conform to a rational [as defined by the Europeans] understanding of the world, even if it was in need of a little refinement." The Ramakrishna movement, on the other hand, "would reject the rational in an effort to highlight the spiritual and universal essence of Hinduism." EM here states her thesis that "Bhaktivinoda would attempt to do both." This demonstrates, I guess, Bhaktivinoda's achintya-bhedabheda credentials.

Having given the historical context, EM turns to a summary of Bhaktivinoda’s life, based exclusively on information found in Shukavak's book. Naturally she has had to be selective, but I think that the selections she made were salient: Bhaktivinoda's aristocratic background, his subsequent impoverishment, his opportunities to get a Western education, his study of Western philosophy and Indian traditions in the company of many of the bright lights of the Calcutta intelligentsia, and not less significantly, his contacts with Christianity, primarily in its Unitarian form. "In Kedarnath's heart stirred the first desire for devotion through his study of Jesus Christ." BVT's subsequent sojourn in Orissa where he stayed with his paternal grandfather gave him an opportunity to reflect on what he had learned and come to some conclusions. In his autobiography, he said, "In particular, I was attracted by the devotion of Jesus." She here quotes Shukavak, "For Kedarnath, bhakti would provide the key to his synthesis of modernity and tradition."

Unfortunately, despite this mention of Bhaktivinoda’s attraction to bhakti through Christianity, EM has not mentioned the position of Christianity in the precise historical context she is dealing with. Christianity itself was caught up in a response to the Enlightenment and modernism; indeed, Christians today who interact with modernism are still conducting a rear guard defense as they retreat, while fundamentalists brazenly counterattack, much to their scientifically sensitive coreligionists' embarrassment.

Christianity has taken many forms, some of which were present in British India in the 19th century--from Carey's Baptists to the Unitarians. The relation of religious proselytism to imperialism is an interesting one throughout history: the two tend to work in tandem in a kind of "good cop, bad cop" routine. British Christians had already more or less purchased a certain aspect of the Enlightenment view, in particular that which placed Christianity at the pinnacle of evolutionary achievement where religion was concerned. In fact, they could argue that the linear and progressive view of history (rather than the cyclical view of most paganisms, including Hinduism) rested on the Judaeo-Christian concept of a God intervening in the world and mankind's working toward a teleos. The Christian Incarnation was seen as the personal entry of God into this evolutionary process and the establishment of Christ's kingdom its working out.

Islam also shares this linear concept of history, with the added conviction that Muhammad is the “seal of the Prophets,” a rather rigid concept when dealing with social change. Inasmuch as the last few centuries have seen a diminishing influence of Islam, the disconnect between their sense of belonging to a community that is in possession of the final step in human evolution and their current impotence is the cause of much of their belligerence. Hinduism has a concept of history and God's entry into history (yadA yadA and all that). This concept is frequently made use of when there is a necessity for accomodating new and revolutionary ideas, and certainly Bhaktivinoda made use of it when hearkening back to Chaitanya’s incarnation and the theological contributions made by his followers.

Thus Bhaktivinoda Thakur himself accepted the premise of progress, as in this telling quote from The Bhagavata, Its Philosophy, Ethics and Theology, "Progress certainly is the law of nature and there must be correction and developments with the progress of time." Bhaktivinoda, however, (rightly) felt that similar evolutionary developments had been taking place in India, particularly in the sphere of religion, which was India's specialty, its function in the world, so to speak. That function was to be found in the idea of rasa, which had reached its apogee in the movement of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. So, in effect, he was placing Chaitanya Mahaprabhu's appearance in the world as an alternative manifestation of the same evolutionary processes, within a somewhat different set of standards.

The idea of progressive thinking in itself is highly significant. I think that many of the people who read this blog will already be familiar with some of BVT's thinking on these matters. If not, they might do well to do a websearch of the term sara-grahi, read Shukavak's book, or Kundali's Our Mission series, or read some of my articles like An introduction to controversial issues in Gaudiya Vaishnavism, which admittedly offer only a small part of this argument.

After Bhaktivinoda discovered the Bhagavata Purana and Chaitanya Charitamrita, he was impressed by the theological depth of these works and his life changed course. EM rightly marvels that "it is perhaps remarkable that Bhaktivinoda embarked on this path at all..." as "Vaishnavism... represented one of the best examples of what was wrong with traditional Hinduism." BVT then began his life’s work of giving an interpretation of Chaitanya Vaishnavism that would “fuse reason and tradition.” EM here writes, "He was attempting to give the bhadraloka a way in to Gaudiya Vaishnavism in terms that would be compatible with the Orientalist critique that had so influenced their thinking."

As already intimated in her introduction, EM here follows Shukavak's analysis of the distinction BVT made between faith and belief, belief being preoccupied with the peripherals of a religion, faith with essences. Bhaktivinoda seems to have held, like the other Hindus of the time, that all religions were basically identical in essence, differing only in their peripheral elements.

Here it is worth commenting on the debate concerning the issues of modernism and interpretation as it exists in Iskcon, to the extent that it exists. The recently departed Suhotra Swami was one of the most outspoken critics of the modernist approach (let us call it the "Saragrahi approach"). If I recall correctly, he took BVT's attempts in this direction as nothing more than a means to an end (“a way in”) and not an argument for a methodological approach to Krishna consciousness itself. Indeed, if we look at BVT's spiritual career, we see that at a certain point, particularly from his retirement from government service, he showed an inclination to following the purely mystical practices of Gaudiya Vaishnavism and a disinclination to engage in these kinds of debates. However, I think it would be a mistake on this basis to disregard BVT's argumentation as sophistry meant to suck in misguided intellectuals to a fundamentalist view of the Vaishnava religion. Using a particular critical method means implicitly accepting compromises with an alternative way of thinking. Therefore it is my feeling that Suhotra’s fundamentalist viewpoint is diametrically opposed to the progressive approach BVT was supporting.

A tradition is something that develops around a fundamental insight. The insights of Rupa Goswami into the ecstatic appearance of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu is the basis of our philosophical and theological tradition. By accepting this principle, we are true followers of Bhaktivinoda Thakur. But to remain true followers of BVT, we must continue to show HOW this is true in the context of the challenges posed by progressive material society. In other words, the challenge is not to find ways to fold in on ourselves and to simply chant Hare Krishna and worship our deities and hope for the best, but to find ways of making bhakti to Radha and Krishna meaningful in the world in the current context.

Said's critique of Orientalism calls into question the presumptions the West make in its interpretation of the East, but without really providing a viable alternative. In fact, as is often the case, works like Orientalism tacitly accept a methodology that is mistakenly identified as occidental. For instance, one of the problems facing devotees in Iskcon is Prabhupada’s attempt to normalize the versions of universal history or world geography based on the Puranic accounts or world view. Any attempt to reestablish such a view is ultimately on the ability to convince others of their objective coherence and cohesiveness; it is fatuous to think that wide acceptance of such a view would be possible by first converting people to a particular faith, particularly which, as we have seen from practical experience, religious faith can be maintained quite apart from belief in the truth value of such historical details. This is indeed the conclusion that Bhaktivinoda Thakur reached.

This is one of the reasons why my attempts to harmonize Sahajiya and Orthodox thinking in Vaishnavism, which though it may be seen as diametrically opposed to Bhaktivinoda’s moral position, is to me in fact a continuation of his liberal intellectual position.

Society is changing; indeed, it has changed radically. We need a theology of sexuality that accomodates this reality and provides it with a viable spiritual channel within the context of our theology. These things need to be carefully thought out, using the guidance of our inspired sources, in the changing context of the modern world.

In conclusion, with regards to EM's paper, the only other criticism that I would offer at this point is that she does not attempt to evaluate BVT's contribution--its intellectual coherence, its potential for success, its limitations, etc. It is a lot to ask from a term paper, and I warned my students against making hasty judgments. Their primary responsibility was to get the facts straight. But one should always conclude a paper with at least some preliminary thoughts on the directions that your judgments are tending, the kinds of questions you need to ask and the information you will need to track down in order to be able to make attain these kinds of conclusions.


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