Monday, July 09, 2007

Comedy and Tragedy

As usual, these days, I memorize and meditate on verses by the acharyas as I bicycle into work or engage in other tasks that require only a minimal supply of mental energy.

One verse today was the following from Padyavali (205), which is also quoted in Ujjvala-nilamani (1.18).

sanketi-krita-kokilädi-ninadam kamsa-dvishah kurvato
dväronmocana-lola-shankha-valaya-kvänam muhuh shrinvatah
keyam keyam iti pragalbha-jarati-väkyena dünätmano
rädhä-prängana-kona-koli-vitapi-krode gatä sharvari

In three steps, we get a progressive picture of Krishna: He is imitating cuckoo sounds to signal his presence. To whom? To Radha, who gets out of bed and tiptoes to the door, but as soon as she starts to unlatch the bolt, her conch-ivory bracelets tinkle. Krishna hears this sound in great expectation, but then he hears another: Jatila, Radha's wizened mother-in-law, guarding the chastity of her bouma, wakes up and calls out, "Who's there? Who's there?" And Krishna's heart immediately sinks. We are led to believe that this happens more than once, for Krishna passes the night there in Radha's back yard, hiding in the hollow of a large tree that stands in one of its corners.

There are not a great many extant verses attributed to Umapati Dhar, who is mentioned by Jayadeva in somewhat derogatory terms. However, it seems to me that Umapati has been more radical than even Jayadeva in his humanizing of the Deity, especially in this concept of the upapati, or paramour. In another verse, he writes about Krishna in Dvaraka, making love to Rukmini when he is suddenly overpowered by the thought of Srimati Radharani (Padyavali 371, UN 14.184). It is as though her love is coming and smacking him in the head while he goes on with whatever that Dvaraka business is all about. "Make your mind and Vrindavan one," says Radha's love! (mane vane eka kari mano)

I have written before about the implications of such a concept of God, but it's an important enough theme to return to repeatedly, as everything kind of hinges on it. The Christians humanized their God by making him susceptible to suffering and death, which contradiction or mystery is the very mystical center of their faith. The Krishna conception sees God's humanity in his willing susceptibility to desire. God, as Jesus, accepts a human body and is subject to temptation and death, according to the Christian trinitarian theology. Krishna also "accepts" a human body (mAnuSIm tanum Azritya) and engages in such lilas that will cause our minds to become fixed on him (bhajate tAdRzIH krIDAH yAH zrutvA tat-paro bhavet).

What is that lila? It is one in which the famous body/soul distinction is made. Though Krishna is repeatedly said to not be subject to such distinctions in the way that ordinary living beings are, in fact, he subjects himself to the experience of this duality, for he wants something that he cannot get. The "omnipotence of mind" means that one never feels separate or distinct from his limitless imagination; realization of the wish is instantaneous, instant gratification of desire. There is no intermediate step of finding the sense object, acquiring it, then effectively bringing it into contact with the senses, and then dealing with the consequences of the action (indigestion, venereal disease, unwanted children, troublesome psychological profiles, vengeful partners, etc., etc.).

But Krishna accepts the separation between desire and object. Some people say that the words tat-paro bhavet in the Bhagavatam mean that he just simulates the human situation in order to attract our minds to a higher truth, but how can that be? We are told that there is no higher truth than Krishna. We can either accept that or reject it, but if we accept it, then we must also accept that the lila is supremely meaningful in this very element.

This humanizing of God is a signpost to an extremely profound and complex phenomenon, which might be called the beginning of modernity or of humanism (sarvopari manushya sattva, tar upari nai). There is, of course, a "God's eye view" of Krishna's pastimes, which he himself explains in his teachings to the gopis, on several occasions (purve uddhaver dvare, ebe sakshat amare, jnana yoga korile upadesh): from that point of view, there is no separation of Krishna from the gopis. There is a dimension in which no one is ever apart, any more than the jiva is ever apart from God. There is no death, there is no fear (bhayam dvitiyabhinivesatah syat). But if that is all there is, there is no rasa, either.

I just heard a Scottish writer, Andrew O'Hagan, quote Samuel Johnson, "No thing is too small for such a small thing as man." His point was that all good writing is in fact an apology for human frailty. He means modern writing, where the fact that "all have fallen short of the glory of God" is understood to be the root of rasa. For there can be no rasa without identification, and there can be no identification if the hero or heroine lack full human dimension. [However, the vision of transcendence beyond the human frailty is what distinguishes rasa from rasabhasa.] The purely black and white view of the world, which is often associated with the religious outlook, is actually the enemy of rasa. It might be the friend of ideology or the friend of zealotry, but it is not the friend of love.

O'Hagan was appearing on an Australian Broadcasting program, "The Spirit of Things," Faith, Love and Sex, which started with the hostess saying saying "Sex and religion have been irresistible enemies since time immemorial." The two guests on the program have recently written novels that deal with issues of religion and sexuality in different ways. I particularly found some of O'Hagan's comments to be powerful.

O'Hagan's novel is about a homosexual priest who crosses the line into pedophilia. His purpose is to look at this man as a real human being and not as a lightning rod for whipping up emotional frenzy. One of the things that he wants to show is that there is a deep, perhaps indivisible connection between spirituality and sensuality, faith and strong feeling, of devotion and intimacy. However, the Church itself consistently denies this connection between devotion and sexual intimacy and can thus never look at it head on, in an intelligent or dispassionate way. And, of course, as I have been saying repeatedly, this goes in spades for Krishna bhakti.

What is clear, however, is that just as religion has declared, on many occasions throughout history, that sex is the enemy, it has also been used to create divisions, to create enmity and hate, far more often than love. It is when we divorce the concept of love from the concreteness of human relations and fix ourselves exclusively on this ethereal, disembodied kind of love for the God we can't see, that we lose the sense of deep human intimacy and then, by some default mechanism, are channeled into hate, which disguises itself as an arrogant and aggressive form of "love" in order to justify itself.

Let us be clear about the goal of religion and spirituality: It is prema and nothing else. Love for Krishna comes through hearing and chanting, but ultimately it is not through Nrisingha-lila or other stories of omnipotence, but through the stories of human vulnerability and love.

This is not an apologia for unlimited or uncontrolled sexuality: that does not solve the problem of intimacy or love, in fact it clearly makes it worse. Religion would never successfully sell its goods if there was no dissatisfaction with untrammeled sensuality. The point is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

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The title of O'Hagan's book is taken from a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson called Be near me. He read this poem with great feeling, and so I thought I would just copy and paste it here. But if you click on the above link, you will find his moving recital of it in there somewhere.

Be near me when my light is low,
When the blood creeps, and the nerves prick
And tingle; and the heart is sick,
And all the wheels of Being slow.

Be near me when the sensuous frame
Is rack’d with pangs that conquer trust;
And Time, a maniac scattering dust,
And Life, a Fury slinging flame.

Be near me when my faith is dry,
And men the flies of latter spring,
That lay their eggs, and sting and sing
And weave their petty cells and die.

Be near me when I fade away,
To point the term of human strife,
And on the low dark verge of life
The twilight of eternal day.

By the way, these links to ABC will unfortunately break in a month's time.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post. I enjoyed it. I downloaded the linked file for later listening.

Haricarana

Anonymous said...

A wonderful piece of writing Jagat!