Thursday, June 28, 2007

Hamsaduta verse

I was enjoying this verse as I bicycled into work this morning.

kritākṛṣṭi-krīḍaṁ kim api tava rūpaṁ mama sakhī
sakṛt dṛṣṭvā dūrād ahita-hita-bodhojjhita-matiḥ
hatā seyaṁ premānalam anu viśanti sarabhasaṁ
pataṅgīvātmānam murahara muhur dāhitavatī

My girlfriend Radha saw your form
as it played some kind of attracting game.
She saw it just once from afar,
but immediately lost all sense
of what is beneficial and what is not.
That benighted girl immediately rushed
into the fire of love, like a moth,
and there, O Murahara, she repeatedly
immolated herself.

Lalita spoke this verse to the swan, giving it to him as a message to be spoken to Krishna. This is the glorification of Krishna's rupa. But it emphasizes some important aspects of Krishna's character and the character of prema.

Student papers, continued.

(2) The unification of male and female principles in sexual ritual

SS has given a great deal of emphasis on this second item. Evidently this is the subject that attracts the most interest from students and dilettantes alike. Here it is stated that Radha and Krishna have been appropriated as replacements for Shiva and Shakti: “…supreme bliss (maha-sukha) is said to arise from their union. This blissful unity forms the foundational basis for nearly all Tantric religion.” Here SS says, “… this state of blissful union is conceived of through the worship of Krishna, who is seen as the supreme power of the universe. While Krishna occupies a central place in the tradition, unlike in the Gaudiya system, the focus is more on his abstract cosmic principle rather than his mythological principle (Glen Alexander Hayes, “The Vaishnava Sahajiya Traditions of Medieval Bengal.” in Religions of India in Practice, 333).

As noted in the article related to Su.'s paper on Radha, Donna Wulff has astutely observed that “the absolute for Rupa is not a metaphysical principle, but an emotion... Radha, as love embodied, is thus the supreme avenue of religions realization.” Here too, “love embodied” (maha-bhava-svarupini) is an abstract principle that though not distinct from the mythology is still the rational basis of the lila.

Similarly, in the Gita Govinda verse,

विश्वेषामनुरञ्जनेन जनयन्नानन्दमिन्दिवर-
श्रेणिश्यामलकोमलैरुपनयन्नंगैरनंगोत्सवम् ।
स्वच्छन्दं व्रजसुन्दरीभिरभितः प्रत्यंगमालिंगितः
शृंगारः सखि मूर्तिमानिव मधौ मुग्धो हरिः क्रीडति ॥

Krishna is described as being “like the embodiment of erotic love.” Here the mythological element of Krishna’s dancing with the gopis is couched in a simile, so where exactly does the distinction between "mythology" and "cosmic principle" come in?

What I am getting here is that there is no conception of God that is not symbolic in nature. God is automatically a metaphysical concept infused with all kinds of specific elements related to morality, ethics, identity, etc. Whatever God is ontologically, i.e., whether he exists or not in reality, he exists as a psychological reality in the minds of believers and even non-believers. A person who denies God is in reality denying a particular concept of God. A clever goal-post mover, who successfully adjusts his definitions may be able to convince even an atheist of His truth. After all, what is Brahman other than a defined-down God?

When a Christopher Hitchens says "God is not great," he is merely saying that a particular conception of God is not great. As such, he actually enters the great theological traditions that refine our understanding of what God's greatness is. The problem about religion in general is people don't get beyond the superficial specifics. The effort to understand the meaning of existence and the highest ideals of humanity becomes confined to adherence to a particular sect, cultural specifics, names and forms. The ultimate point is not that we have to jettison the cultural specifics of a particular tradition, but unless we enrich our appreciation of those symbols and language by mining them for their meaning, they ultimately become hollowed out. We defend the symbols, the rules and rituals that surround them, for their own sake, even unto the death.

So, the sexual symbolism of the Radha-Krishna concept of God is something that begs profound analysis. It points to more than one set of meanings, and one cannot deny any one interpretation absolutely. One has to be aware of all implications that a particular symbol system carries within it.


SS elaborates on the Sahajiya interpretation of Radha and Krishna lila by raising their terminology of rupa and svarupa. Again she refers to Hayes. "Men and women are seen as having both a physical form or rupa, where they exist as ordinary humans, and they also possess a true, essential form, svarupa, where they exist as these powerful principles."

I have some trouble with this and would say that here we have truly deviated from the orthodox siddhanta. It is perhaps an understandable mistake, but this is precisely where the orthodox have a problem with Sahajiya conceptions, or where they say that a man "thinks he has become Krishna, and a woman thinks she has become Radha." This is, in the orthodox conception, patently false.

The true meaning of rupa roughly corresponds to "type" and svarupa to "archetype." Now if we see Radha and Krishna as the archetypal female and male, which even the most orthodox Vaishnava is obliged to do (after all, what does govindam adi-purusam mean?), then we are in a position where we are in apparent contradiction with the model of Radha as the archetypal devotee vis-à-vis the Supreme Lord. In the latter, maleness and femaleness are symbolic of the relation between ishwara and the jiva, in the former, the implications are completely different. How can the two be complementary? However, I propose that they are.

I have already gone through some of this before. We are, once again, talking about the two Rasa lilas and achintya-bhedabheda. There is a delicate balance between the two. However, a vision of spiritual practice that is based exclusively on sexual mechanics, on such things as reversing the flow of bodily fluids, etc., entirely misses the point of Radha and Krishna, or at least misplaces the emphasis that is intended in Radha-Krishna bhakti. This is why I was so glad to see Su. quote Wulff as saying that for Rupa the supreme truth is an emotion.

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.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Clash Within

A very nice interview with Martha Nussbaum: The Clash within - Islam and Hinduism in India, on Australian national radio.

Martha Nussbaum: Yes, I think Gandhi was a tremendous genius of human perception. He understood that often when violence breaks out it's all about men, in particular, being eager to show their manliness by showing that they can bash others, and what he tried to convey--and did successfully convey as long as he lived--to his followers, was that being a real man doesn't mean learning how to bash others, it means learning to stand up with nothing but your naked human dignity around you and endure, if you have to, the blows of others.

Stephen Crittenden: The British novelist Martin Amis has described contemporary Islam as "quivering with male sexual insecurity." You in a way, show that exactly the same process has been operating in Hindu India.

Martha Nussbaum: Yes, and I think it was compounded in this case by the fact that the British really despised the male sexual self-image of Hinduism. They thought that this idea of gods as sensuous, as playful, Krishna lounging around playing his flute, longing for Radha, that all this was contemptible, and that real men ought to be much more tough and aggressive. And, in fact, I talk about a novel of Rabindranath Tagore in which he imagined his Hindu nationalist hero wishing that he was able to rape the woman that he loves and finds he can't do it, and he blames this on his Hindu heritage. He says that he can hear this Hindu flute music in his head and wishes that he could hear instead the music of a British military band. So it's that kind of longing to replace the traditional kind of sensuousness and playfulness with something much more aggressive that proves so dangerous in this case.

On the same program, two interviews about Christianity in the Muslim world. In particular, the insights of an Egyptian Catholic priest, Kahil Samir, S.J., who makes some of the most intelligent observations I have yet heard.

Stephen Crittenden: Well you say in fact that if the Qur'an comes into conflict with human rights, we have no choice, we cannot remain silent, we have to criticise the Qur'an.

Kahil Samir: Right. And I say the same for the Bible. If starting from the Bible, especially from the Old Testament... well you find a lot of things in contradiction with human rights. I must say human rights are the basics. Now I'm not in contradiction with myself. How, I say, I have to interpret the Qur'an for instance, or the Holy Bible, is according to the human rights, starting from equality of persons, man, woman, rich and poor, and so on, Muslims and Christians and atheists, and everybody, putting common ground to humanity. This is the only way to live together. Now Muslims, activists, radical activists, they feel this is totally unacceptable, because [they say] the best document for a society is the Qur'an, because the best religion, as they read in the Qur'an, but they misinterpret it, the best community says the Qur'an, you are the best community.

Both these discussions touch on that same point of religious maturity. The former is overall optimistic despite the somewhat bleak phenomenon of Hindu nationalism in India, the latter, pessimistic.

Thursday, June 14, 2007


Some may recall that a couple of years ago I caused a bit of a tempest in a teapot by arguing that Bhaktivinoda Thakur himself composed the Prema-vivarta and attributed it to Jagadananda Pandit. A couple of days ago, Tripurari Maharaj sent me the following exchange between Aksayananda Swami and B.R. Sridhar Maharaj, which I quote here:

Aksayananda Swami: Prema Vivarta was written by Bhaktivinode, somebody told, not Jagadananda.

Sridhara Maharaja: I told. If we can think out that the teachings of Sri Caitanyadeva is the highest, full-fledged theism as told by Prabhupada several times, and Bhagavat is the highest development, then that has got reality, that is true, that cannot but be true. Whatever is felt, any more, any single division, that is generally bonafide. That is the only truth. That the revealed truth means that thousands and thousands of years back it was revealed in some rishi or so and that cannot be, the revelation cannot come at present, I don't think like that. Any time the revelation may come to support this highest form of theism, whatever the revelation. I also told that this Jaiva Dharma, it is fictitious, but I think that these things actually must have been true, found in the creation. When it has come in the consciousness of Bhaktivinode Thakura, it is not contradictory. It is floating and sometimes appearing and sometimes disappearing. It is all eternal truth, in this way.

Tripurari Maharaj comments: "It is not that clear, but he is saying that he also concluded at some point that BVT wrote Prema Vivarta, although he sees it as revelation." (It does seem clear enough, since BRS immediately agrees, "I said.")

In my response to the kerfuffle that followed my original article, I dealt with this particular argument (See The Implications of our Gurus' moral failings, scroll down to "Proposed solutions to the “three books” problem"), but at least it is nice to see that the basic premise, i.e., that BVT did himself put pen to paper and produce the Prema Vivarta, was not unacceptable to B.R. Sridhar Maharaj.