Tuesday, May 22, 2007

My students' papers: 2. Radha


2. "Radha: Mistress, Mother, Mediatrix" by Su..

Su. is the most advanced student in the class, as she is now working towards a PhD, and it shows in her thorough research, sophisticated writing style and scholarly presentation. Her doctoral dissertation is to be based on Vallabhacharya's Bhagavata commentaries. I don't know exactly what part of Vallabha she intends to cover, but she evidently realizes the importance of understanding Radha in the historical context. Her desire to make a thorough inquire into the subject is clear and the research for this paper covers most of the significant secondary literature that has come out of the past three decades of Western scholarship on the subject.

The stated goal of her paper is to contrast the Gaudiya Vaishnava vision of Radha with the one found in the Brahma-vaivarta Purana and to show how she ultimately functions in both as Mother to the devotees and Mediatrix between them and God, despite the somewhat different theological explanations found in the two textual sources. Moreover, she posits this in a historical context, with the most "human" Radha being the earliest, the most "divine", i.e., Radha the Mother Goddess, at the end of this tentative evolutionary development.

Her paper begins with a rhetorical flourish summarizing the various interpretations that have been applied to Radha: "Is she the heroine of erotic medieval poetry? Is she a simple gopi pining over Krishna? Is she Krishna's mistress, his wife or his shakti? Is she an archetypal bhakta, an object of bhakti, or even the mediator of Krishna bhakti and grace? Is she human or divine? Is she all these or none? It appears that although Radha may be known of, she is not really known... in a sigh of exasperation, one is obliged to concur with Yarina Liston's assertion that there is no one way to portray a Radha as the Radha."

Su. then gives a brief overview of the historical development of the Radha figure in Indian literature. She begins with the pre-Chaitanya period. In the first part of this historical overview, she shows that Radha began as a simple cowherdess in the earliest Prakrit literature, and that this human identity gradually becomes transformed. She identifies the Gita Govinda as the point where Radha becomes divine--"Jayadeva not only portrays Radha and Krishna as a 'dual-divinity', but accords Radha with a symbolic function, where she serves as a model of the human soul longing for the divine." It is hard to believe that this is Su.'s own realization, even though she has given no attribution for a source. It would indeed be difficult to find proof of either of these assertions in the Gita Govinda itself, which has more similarities to the pastoral images of Hala or other Prakrit works. Indeed, though the first canto of the GG openly identifies Krishna as the source of all incarnations, which previously would have been attributed to Vishnu-Narayan, there is practically speaking no overt implication of such an identity in the work itself. As to Radha's being a model of the human soul, that is entirely absent. These assertions could be made about the Bhagavatam, and that is why I personally make a distinction between these two "lilas."

Indeed, the tension between the two differing conceptions is to a great extent what gives Radha her symbolic power. Any symbol that can be easily reduced to a simplistic one-to-one correspondence--Radha = Jiva, Krishna = God; or Radha = female principle, Krishna = male principle--becomes too one-dimensional and loses its force. Life is a mystery, and God is the symbolic personification of that mystery. The complementarity of the Bhagavatam to the Gita Govinda lies in their diametrically opposed symbolisms, both of which are given the overlay of divine mystery. If one uses the Bhagavatam story to force an interpretation on the Gita Govinda, one will do it an injustice.

Su. delays her discussion of the Bhagavatam and the "chief gopi" mentioned there, as the identification of this gopi as Radha is first found in the Gaudiya commentaries on the Rasa Lila. I would agree with this chronology, as I stated in the article about Pre-Chaitanya religious history. The Chaitanyaites used a Vaishnava theology to give Radha a place, not a Shakta theology.

After paying lip service to the vernacular literature, in some of which Radha is identified with Lakshmi and begins to receive the epithet Devi, Su. then correctly pinpoints the "late medieval" period as a time when Radha surpasses Lakshmi, just as Krishna does Narayan. Here she specifies, "In the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition, Radha even comes to be accepted as Krishna's very shakti, specifically his hladini shakti (his power of bliss or pleasure-producing potency), and in later texts such as the Radha-tantra and the Padma and Brahma-vaivarta Puranas, Radha is raised to the status of a goddess, though not an independent goddess like Durga."

The concept of hladini shakti dates to the Vishnu Purana and is a derivative of the attempt to understand the nature of a personal God in relation to the ideas of sat, chit and ananda. The nascent shakti theory of the Svetasvatara Upanishad (parAsya zaktir vividhaiva zrUyate svAbhAvikI jJAna-bala-kriyA ca) is expanded on in several places in the Vishnu Purana. The idea of shakti's personification as a female partner is no doubt the raison-d'être of this development, working again in the same kind of tension of symbol to philosophical concept refered to above. At any rate, the elevation of Radha and Krishna to a status above Lakshmi and Narayan does not have so much to do with the tacking on of designations of "shakti" or "devi", which would have happened anyway, but has everything to do with the character of their activities. What is going on here is the apotheosis of human sexual love or, perhaps, a way to channel the tendency to apotheosize human love into a more orthodox conception.

Su.'s statement that after Chaitanya one gets the first evidence of Radha and Krishna worshiped as a "paired image or yugala murti" is no doubt true. Here she says, "Radha is central to Gaudiya theology and praxis, where God is not conceived of as a single male principle, but as a divine couple, Radha-Krishna." Now entering into le vif du sujet, Su. summarizes the contrasting BVP vision as "a subtle yet intentional transformation of the figure of Radha from symbolizing the human soul longing for the divine to serving as a 'revelation of feminine cosmic and redemptive power' (C. Mackenzie Brown 1986: 61). As John Stratton Hawley writes in his preface to The Divine Consort, through Radha's theological transformation, 'she finally becomes what she can never be as a lover: a mother, indeed Mother of the world.' (1986, xiv)."

At this point, Su. makes the argument that in spite of the various images of Radha found in different contexts, in GV "she still serves a mediating function. That is, because she is understood as the divine lover of Krishna in the GV tradition, Radha is accepted as the model of how all devotees should approach the divine. In this context she mediates between individuals and Krishna by inspiring bhakti for him in the devotees and also by allowing devotees to vicariously experience the rasa of her and Krishna's lilas. In the BVP, Radha is portrayed as Krishna's wife and as the mother of the world. Here she mediates between devotees -- who are essentially her children -- and Krishna by bestowing her grace and allowing devotees to gain access to Krishna and his heavenly realm of Goloka." The difference between these mediating functions is that in the former she does so because of her transcendental love for Krishna, whereas in the latter it is due to her ontological status as goddess.

I find this argument tantalizing and it certainly merits consideration. I suppose the first question is, "What is meant by mediation?" In the first instance, the personalist theologies give great importance to the necessity of the personal intervention necessary to bridge the gulf between sinful and forgetful humanity and the pure, untouched Divinity. In all such cases, however, the mediator participates in both realms. The Guru is "as good as God" because he can bridge the divide between these two realms.

On another level, all religious symbols mediate between the individual and a higher truth; it may even be said that since God Himself is ineffable, any conceptualization of Him is a symbol or a means to attaining him. So in that sense, no matter what form or theological content are present within a symbol, it always acts as a mediator.

On the other hand, where symbols are seen in contexts of hierarchical relationship to one another, one lower level symbol can be seen as mediating to another, higher one. Certainly, we see that this kind of thinking is prevalent in raganuga bhakti, for the seva sadhaka-rupena verse says that one follows one of Krishna's intimate associates. The concept of guru also follows this principle. In the Gaudiya Math, in particular, the guru is identified with Radha as a manifestation of the asraya-vigraha or embodiment of prema. Here the idea of mediation is quite clear.

It is important to note that as in many mystical traditions, a distinction is made in Gaudiya Vaishnavism between the conditioned and the transcendental state: the goal of mediation is to come to the point of direct, personal experience of transcendence. The mediation that is necessary in the sinful or imperfect state would have no meaning in the state of perfection, or what Bhaktivinoda would have called svarupa-siddhi. I say this, of course, in full consciousness that relations in the transcendental state in the Gaudiya conception continue to have apparently mediating functions. But if Radha and Krishna are the transcendental objective, then how can they be mediators? Or is it possible for them to be both mediators (asraya) and the objects of transcendental experience (rasa or prema)? It seems to me that this is what Sri Rupa Goswami intended.

In the context of a discussion of the parakiya-svakiya controversy, Su. quotes Neal Delmonico, who says that the question of Radha's marital status is a non-issue because Radha is, "not a metaphor for anything, but an object of worship and a power for worship." Su. goes on paraphrasing Delmonico, who "insists that Rupa never said that one should, or is even capable of, loving Krishna like Radha. The transcendent quality of Radha's love for Krishna is not one that can or should be imitated. It is perhaps for this reason, as Wulff affirms, that practitioners have chosen to assume in their devotion the role of a friend or servant (such as a manjari) of Radha to assist her and 'thereby enjoy vicariously the bliss of their union with Krishna.' (Encyclopedia of Religion 2005, 7954) That is, one comes to experience bhakti-rasa not by experiencing Krishna himself, but by rapturously witnessing Radha and Krishna perform their lilas."

The word "vicarious" has a somewhat negative connotation, it implies substitition of artifice for reality. Watching a film or reading a book about mountain climbing gives one a vicarious experience of mountain climbing, not the real thing. This is an issue that has been discussed previously on these pages. In fact, we plead mystery here: Participation in a symbolic universe is direct experience, even if it appears secondary. Indeed, Rupa's presentation of rasa theory, an aesthetic theory based on the validity of vicarious experience, hints that the symbolic framework through which one experiences phenomena is necessary and more enriching than unmediated experience.

Su. then shows how Rupa in his plays continues to mix the human and divine aspects of Radha. Following Donna Wulff, she here concludes:

What is important to not here is that although Radha is depicted as having "transcendental" qualities and as being an object of devotion, her claim to divinity does not lie in her ontological status, but in the purity and intensity of her love towards Krishna. A love that cannot necessarily be imitated, but can only be inspirational. As Wulff reminds us, "the absolute for Rupa is not a metaphysical principle, but an emotion... Radha, as love embodied, is thus the supreme avenue of religions realization." ("Radha: Consort and Conqueror of Krishna" in Devi: Goddesses of India. (eds. J.S. Hawley and Donna W. Wulff. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. 123).

Having concluded her survey of the Gaudiya visions of Radha, Su. turns to the Brahma Vaivarta Purana, which has been admirably studied by C. Mackenzie Brown. Brown points out that BVP reworks and reinterprets the Radha Krishna legend, "which results in the transfiguration of Radha from the human mistress of Krishna dallying amorously in the earthly paradise of Vraja to the heavenly queen sporting in the celestial realm of Goloka." There is a deliberate attempt to assimilate the feminine terminology familiar to Shaktism, such as maya, prakriti and shakti to the figure of Radha. And finally Radha is presented in her soteriological role as the mediator of divine love and compassion.

For readers of these pages, it would no doubt be useful to cite some of the summaries of the cosmology of the BVP, for it is quite different from that found in the Gaudiya Vaishnava school. The latter is truer to the Pancharatra tradition, whereas the BVP seems closer to Tantric ideas. At any rate, the BVP dispenses with the theory of emanations that is central to the Pancharatra (i.e., all those Vishnus expanding out of each other), and begins from the splitting of the primordial purush into male and female moieties (to borrow Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati's useful term). So far, so good. This concept does indeed find favor amongst Gaudiya writers even where they follow the Pancharatra line. Here, however, after the split, we have the idea of the Purusha impregnating Prakriti as found in Gita 14.2 or in the Brahma-Samhita (where the emanation idea is combined with it and Shiva impregnates Prakriti).

Like the Upanishadic narration, Krishna in the beginning was alone and desirous of creating. He thus divided himself into two, himself and Radha. For as long as the lifetime of Brahma, Krishna and Radha engaged in sexual activity. Radha's perspirattion as a result of her exhaustion from the copulative act formed the cosmic waters which support the universe, from her labored breathing arose the cosmic wind which supports everything, etc. At last fatigued, Krishna released his seed into Radha's womb, who then gave birth to a golden egg, the supreme abode or receptacle of the universe.

For the BVP, Radha and Krishna's earthly lila is merely an interlude in their majestic pastimes in the supreme Goloka. In a very significant passage in the BVP, Radha and Krishna's marriage is described. This establishes clearly her role as divine shakti.

According to Brown, although prakriti, as the "material cause of the universe" was personified, feminized and essentially apotheosized long before the time of BVP, prakriti had never been "personalized" like it is here, namely endowed with a significant personality and individuality. (God as Mother: A Feminine Theology in India. Vermont: Claude Stark and Co., 1974: 120).

Radha's role as mother of the universe is elaborated on in other myths recounted in the BVP, such as the birth of Maha Virat. Radha's role as mediator, as giver of bhakti and prema, etc., is also underscored throughout.

Regarding liberation, it seems that BVP presents two ideas, that of "mergence": "which is revealed by the process of Prakriti Radha's, and thus all of creation's, divisional manifestation from and reabsorption back into Krishna, and that of becoming an attendant of the Lord, which is revealed by the process of "copulative cosmogony," where Radha and Krishna become the parents of the world.

It is, of course, the latter understanding of liberation that differs quite drastically from traditional, or at least from Gaudiya Vaisnava understandings of moksha. According to Brown, these differences easily harmonize with Radha and Krishna's relationship with each other and thus the world. That is, the Gaudiya Vaishnva understanding of moksha, where one assumes the role of an inhabitant of Vraja who nurtures and even participates in Radha and Krishna's amorous lilas, adheres with Radha's relation to Krishna as his parakiya lover and symbol of the human soul longing for the divine. In this context, moreover, it is the madhurya bhava that is cultivated and most cherished by the devotees. As the Divine Mother, however, Radha no longer serves as a model for how a devotee should approach Krishna, but rather bestows her grace upon her devotees, who are essentially her children. Furthermore, the proper attitude towards one's parents is that of respect and service, namely dasya-bhava, and not madhurya bhava. As Brown illustrates, "it is primarily her maternal aspect, as mediatrix between father and children, that is of direct importance to man, providing him with the necessary grace to become a servant of Krishna. (op.cit. 196)

Su. has clearly exceeded all expectations for a term paper. It might be interesting to take the maternal/mediatrix elements and evaluate them in terms of the rasa theories of Rupa. There are hints that she has considered these matters and certainly was more than I could expect in this paper. What is interesting, however, in view of the evolutionary model that has been followed, is that there is no sampradaya that I know of that follows the BVP version or accepts it as canonical or as the principal basis of its theology or ritual. Wulff's assessment that Radha represents "love embodied" and that "the absolute for Rupa is not a metaphysical principle but an emotion," i.e. maha-bhava. It is perhaps natural or necessary that the concept of Krishna as Rasaraja and Radha as Mahabhava had to be translated into a novel cosmological scheme. But if Radha and Krishna point to anything, it is the supremacy of Love, which is both means and end. Bhaktya sanjataya bhaktya bibhraty utpulakam tanum. Whether or not the BVP is ultimately true to this essential realization of the Radha traditions is one that warrants further analysis. On the whole, though, if we can take Su.'s summary of Brown's analysis of the BVP to be accurate, it seems to have, in great part, lost that spirit of madhurya and swamped it with an unhealthy dollop of aisvarya that diminishes Radha's appeal. Let Durga and Lakshmi play the role of Jagan-mata, Radha sports in eternal forgetfulness of these lesser manifestations of herself. Like Krishna, her supremacy is manifested in such forgetfulness.