Wednesday, June 27, 2007

My Students' Papers: The Vaishnava Sahajiya Tradition

3. "The Vaishnava Sahajiya Tradition within the Tantric Paradigm" by SS.

SS was the youngest student of the three and the only undergraduate. She had also taken the fewest courses in religious studies and so was much less familiar with many of the basic heuristic concepts or comparative methodology. She was also, as I learned, a little overstretched with greater than average course load. As such, I expected less from her than I did from the others. Nevertheless, I was quite pleased with her paper. I am measuring these things on what I get from it. It seems to me that there is so much knowledge out there that anyone who is even reasonable perceptive and makes a modicum of effort should be able to find an original and interesting viewpoint to present.

What I liked best about this paper was SS’s decision to follow S.C. Banerji’s schema of the eight characteristic features of Tantrism and to examine to what extent they were valid for Vaishnava Sahajiyaism. These eight are:

(1) A stress on the guru-disciple relationship and the necessity of initiation
(2) The unification of male and female principles in sexual ritual
(3) The use of mantras, chakras and yoga practice
(4) Engagement with the material world and the senses.
(5) The acceptance of the deha-tattva.
(6) Inclusiveness and universality, i.e., inclusion of women, outcastes and other marginalized social groups.
(7) Subversion of societal norms and an emphasis on secrecy.
(8) Humanism and an informal approach to God.

I have copied these as given without any critical thought.

(1) A stress on the guru-disciple relationship and the necessity of initiation
SS passes over this point without too much analysis. This principle is one that is common to Tantra and Pancharatra and has, through the latter, been assimilated into the wider Vaishnava tradition. What SS failed to observe here is the Sahajiyas' special dual guru system, or unique interpretation of the diksha and siksha gurus.

Clearly some Sahajiyas knew that their beliefs and practices subverted the orthodox system. As such, it seems rather odd that they would first require initiation into an orthodox line from a diksha guru before then taking siksha from another guru whose teachings would be anathema to the orthodox. At first appearance, this appears to confirm the kind of parasitism Sahajiyas are sometimes accused of—the Sahajiyas are hitchhiking on the back of orthodoxy. It certainly calls into question their attitude toward the diksha guru, making it something of a relative conception, or a purely social function.

The classical idea of the siksha guru as one who gives hands-on teaching of the general precepts furnished by the diksha guru certainly seems more logical. In a way diksha can be defined as providing legitimate entry into the society of practitioners, the broad lines of practice and goals being delimited by the diksha guru himself. If one merely uses the diksha system as a way of achieving putative social legitimacy while then giving emphasis to an entirely different set of practices, this first initiation becomes rather superfluous.

From this point of view, the Sahajiya siksha guru becomes something of an alternate diksha guru. Since these siksha gurus give mantras, an alternate cosmogony, alternate spiritual goals, an alternate disciplic succession, it is hard to see how the word siksha is used in relation to diksha, or why indeed they consider the first, orthodox initiation to have any importance at all. It is thus no surprise that this requirement is dispensed with in practice and the diksha and siksha guru functions are merged.

The Sahajiya justification for this dual guru system comes primarily from the concepts of pravartaka and sadhaka stages, where the former refers to the orthodox approach, the latter, to the Tantric practices, which are complementary to it. My point in all this is that if the latter ceases to be complementary, i.e., if it supersedes or contradicts the teachings that are familiar in the orthodox system, or if it fails to deepen insight into those teachings, then it can justifiably be designated an entity that is entirely separate and distinct. In the branching out of various Sahajiya sects, it is clear that this separation has taken place, and the Bauls and other “apasampradayas”, even though they may continue to offer special status to Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, consider themselves entirely independent from Gaudiya Vaishnavism, and indeed have developed a critique of orthodox doctrines and institutions that is trenchant and uncompromising.

Even so, historically, Sahajiyas have always considered themselves to be directly related to the Vrindavan Goswami school through Krishna Das Kaviraj. They feel that their understanding is enshrined in the Chaitanya Charitamrita, though not necessarily explicitly. The question I would like to ask, then, is whether Sahajiya and Orthodox views are mutually exclusive or whether they are compatible and complementary. The supplementary question is whether Sahajiya practices, in whole or in part, are compatible with Orthodox practice. If it can be shown that they are in both instances compatible and complementary, then the siksha guru once again takes on his true role or deepening the understanding and the methods of realizing the sambandha, abhidheya and prayojana set out by the diksha guru. As in the orthodox conception of the siksha guru, there is no need for the two to be different individuals, nor would it be necessary to renounce a diksha guru who is rightly situated in the orthodox conception in order to take up the complementary practices enjoined by the siksha guru, even if the orthodox guru himself opposed them.

The above statement may seem somewhat radical when looked at in the optic of Guru Tattva as currently understood in Western Vaishnavism, where a great deal is invested in the person of the diksha guru. The negative result of this is a tradition analogous to serial monogamy practiced by disciples who jump from one guru to the next with alacrity. Jiva Goswami, however, acknowledges that a disciple may be obliged to worship his diksha guru "from afar" if he impedes one’s attempts to enter into a profounder understanding through wider association with devotees, i.e. siksha gurus. Jiva’s advice is not accompanied by an injunction to renounce such a diksha guru, which is only given when the guru has become inimical to devotees. Of course, there are several conditions in which one can make a change of gurus, but that is not a discussion for this particular article.

Rather than wait until this entire review is finished, I will post point by point.


Anonymous said...


When you say, "I have copied these as given without any critical thought" are you referring to the list of 8? I guess it's not clear whether or not you're quoting your student's points. And if so, where.

- NMd

Jagat said...

Yes, I was refering to the eight, which it was and still is my intention to discuss one by one, as they provide a useful tool for dissecting the differences between orthodoxy, tantrism, sahajiyaism, as well as for defining where I stand.

But, as time is short, my spirit is not free, and my mind and heart troubled, I am unable to do all I wish.