Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Radha in the Gita?

From a discussion on the Religion in South India list of the AAR:

Steve Rosen:

Perusing Graham Schweig's new Gita translation (Harper San Francisco, 2007), I noticed a reading of 2.72 that is quite unique, one that should give those with a Vaisnava leaning -- and particularly a Gaudiya Vaisnava leaning --reason to rejoice.
The verse is familiar. It begins esa brahmi sthitih partha . . . Most people translate the first portion as meaning "this fixed state of Brahman," as Zaehner would have it, or some, perhaps, leave it untranslated, saying it refers to a cryptic state known as Brahmi-sthitih, which, of course, doesn't tell us much.
Graham, however, notes the powerfully feminine presence in the verse, so much so that he translates this section as saying, "this state of the feminine energy of Brahman." It is a powerful reading, one that acknowledges the "Feminine Brahman" emerging in this verse. Gaudiya Vaisnavas will see a suggestion of Radha here, or, at least, Krsna's feminine power, perhaps a form of yogamaya. That being said, not ONE of the traditional Gaudiya commentators bring out this almost inescapable understanding of the Sanskrit. Yet brahmi, as cited here, indeed carries this feminine sense, particularly as the word is juxtaposed with the other feminine gendered words of this sloka. I wonder -- What do our RISA comrades think about this, and is Graham going too far in his translation?

As you can imagine, the idea did not meet with much approval. Martin Gansten of Lund University responded:

That being said, not ONE of the traditional Gaudiya commentators bring out this almost inescapable understanding of the Sanskrit.

Hardly surprising, as a real understanding of the Sanskrit precludes any such interpretation ('the feminine energy of brahman'). It is not so much inescapable as indefensible. There is no such concept as the 'energy of brahman' anywhere in the Bhagavadgita.

Yet brahmi, as cited here, indeed carries this feminine sense, particularly as the word is juxtaposed with the other feminine gendered words of this sloka.

Brahmi is in the feminine *because* it is an adjective defining the noun sthiti 'state', which (like all action nouns/abstract nouns in -ti) is grammatically feminine. Adjectives always conform to nouns. There seems to be no reason to suppose that this 'brahmic state' (brahmi sthitih) achieved by desirelessness and characterized by peace means anything different from the 'nirvana of brahman' (brahma-nirvana) or the 'becoming brahman' (brahma-bhuya) described elsewhere in the text in much the same terms.

Graham responds,

Without going into any lengthy discussion here, the feminine dimensions of the Bhagavad Gita's teachings, I believe, have been unappreciated. It is obvious how the Sanskrit is normally taken here: eSA brAhmI sthiti, as you've stated. Indeed, there is nothing new in this. Not only is my translation not corroborated by any other passage directly in the BG, as you have stated, but then there is no phrase like this to be found in any other verse in the BG. In fact, Krishna could have spoken this phrase with the same words but in the neuter gender, and not the feminine. Why? This unique phrase of the BG deserved an unique treatment, and thus my translation.

Martin Gansten:

Perhaps it is the (near-)lack of grammatical gender in English which leads you to over-interpret this phrase. If a Sanskrit author speaks of his wife as dâra (masculine) or kalatra (neuter), there is no reason to suppose that he considers her mannish or sexless. It is far more likely that the word simply fits the metrical requirements and/or is stylistically appealing for some reason, such as avoiding repetition. Grammatical gender is normally quite beside the point.

Furthermore, if we examine the contents rather than the grammatical form of the verse, we find nothing to justify the contention that it is unique. Its message is repeated over and over again in the Gita, with a certain pleasing variation of expression.

If the feminine word sthiti is to be subjected to this 'monstrous exegesis' (to borrow a phrase from C.S. Lewis), then I suppose you will do the same when it appears in 6.33 ('This yoga ... I do not see how it could be maintained by steadfast feminine energy') or 17.27 ('Feminine energy in sacrifice, penance and charity is called sat')?

But on a more serious note, it is not just the over-interpretation of grammatical gender that I find objectionable, but even more so the gratuitous introduction of the word 'energy', which will lead readers' minds to the Tantric concept of shakti and which is alien to the Gita. It would be highly questionable as an attempt at interpretation; as a translation, it is simply wrong.

Dayananda Prabhu offers the following analysis and devotional interpretation:

In the latter half of the second chapter, Krishna refers extensively to prajna and buddhi, both of which are feminine. In fact, one can argue that his references to prajna are responses to the prajna or paramita prajna (transcendental wisdom) of the vaibhasikas, later the Buddhists. His esa brahmi-sthitih verse concludes his refutation of vaibhasika prajna, finalizes his presentation of buddhi-yoga as pragmatic prajna, and deftly establishes prajna or buddhi to be associated with brahman, which is, of course, the Upanisadic or Vedantic perspective. 

Nevertheless, as devotees of Radha, you and Graham are inclined to view esa brahmi-sthitih as the feminine energy of the Lord, and that may indeed be an internal reading, much like Krishnadasa Kaviraja’s reading of Mahaprabhu’s reasons to appear in the world. One internal reason was His prema-lobha (intense desire for love), and His external reason was to inaugurate yuga-dharma, sankirtana. Thus, moving ahead quickly, Krishna or Mahaprabhu’s devotee can obtain vijnana (internal realization) of this feminine aspect via the external performance of sankirtana. In other words, Krishna indicates that the processes of sankhya and paramita prajna are impractical, and one can achieve their advertised results via buddhi-yoga which is expressed through karma-yoga and which is practiced in this age by performing the yajna of sankirtana.


Anonymous said...

I think it is a nice sentiment on Graham Schweig's, I think it is a move that is quite similar to the one's I've seen by other ISKCON leaders (or quasi leaders like Dhanurdhar). They like to dip into the esoteric lilas, or hint, or imply, or insinuate that they have some knowledge or experience of these things. Now while this may be ok were the of a raganuga or traditional Vaishnav line, they are not. And according to the teachers of their line (Bhaktivinoda), it is said that one will not preach about these topics to those not on the level to understand or receive these teachings. Thus it becomes quite obvious to me that the mention of these superior topics is nothing but a ploy for profit, adoration, fame, and distinction. Because in the ultimate sense it just gives the naive masses the subtle message that 'these guys are really advanced'. I find it saddening.

I suppose one could launch into a discussion of the evolution of ISKCON and what topics are appropriate for whom...?

jijaji said...

Yea sure Radha in the Rig Veda too!


Jagat said...

There was a lot more to this discussion, and I shall post it as soon as I get a chance. I ended up kind of agreeing. Keep tuned to this station...

anuradha said...

This topic keeps me busy as well.
When I read The Gita, most translations (I do not know Sanskrit) I have available clearly direct at justifying our particular belief structure (and that not only in the commentaries on the verses).

Is Sanskrit a language that can be explained in so many ways ?
Or were the verses composed vaguely on purpose to fit into a certain metrum ?
It came to my attention that most people who jump into vedic literature come out of the vedic pool as impersonalists based on the very same verses we see as proof for Gods personal aspect.

The basis for my acceptance of Gods' Personhood is natural intuition and love for my teachers, not so much scripture actually. Scripture and the overly vaisnava inspired translations would make me doubt it actually, if my intuïtive faith in God The Person wouldn't be so strong.

We had a discussion earlier about the historic value and symbolic value of scripture. Historically speaking from the scientific point of view we have to conclude that vedic culture started teaching bhakti late and we find revelations about Radharani to be of even later date.
To artificially construct proof based on one letter doesn't increase my faith. It does just the opposite.
All these predictions in Scripture seem to be so clear to many, like Mahaprabhu appearing in the Srimad Bhagavatam. But actually you need to believe in Mahaprabhu already beforehand to be able to read it in such a way. Or be charmed by the beauty of it, like me. I want it to be true so badly, that I just believe it. Just like with Srimati Radharani.

What do you make of it ?

Anonymous said...

I have a sort of a refugee topic here in need of a place. I see it as an important enough discussion to at least be given a fair chance of public view.

The topic was started at Advaitadas blog's where he makes a reference to a women's right movement within vaishnavism.
Below is my response to that reference. Advaitadas chose not to post my comment, explaining, in his words, "that it is bound to raise unnecessary controversy". He invited me to discuss privately, but it is my strong opinion that, albeit controversy may ensue, this discussion is very much needed in the open.

Advaitadas: "This idea (Krsna in a female form enjoying many male lovers) may be coming from a women's rights movement, who want equal rights to Krishna, the 'male' God. Needless to say, there is no evidence for this."

There is no evidence of Krsna being female so to enjoy with unlimited male lovers.

And there is no evidence of a women's rights movement among vaisnavas either.

The only women's right movement known to exist is the movement for equality between men and women in the secular world. The idea of equality in the spiritual realm has not reached the secular women's right movement.

The speculation of Krsna being a female with many male lovers could have come from a man or men's mind(s) just as well.

Why, in our faith, does the female aspect of God (Radha, Laksmi, Sita) come first?

And this being the fact, why in the secular world women enjoy a better, more dignifying status than in the aspiring/practicing vaisnava world? Shouldn't vaisnava practices follow the ideal?

I my opinion, if we are going to refer to "a" women's rights movement vis a vis vaisnavism at all, the above questions are a fair and reasonable place to start.

(thanks for the opportunity here)

Jagat said...

Listen, this is one of the things that I am saying in general. I am just now proofreading/correcting a thesis by a former Iskcon devotee who is using Foucaultian analysis to understand KC history.

Foucault follows that tradition of historical critique that analyses subtexts: Discourses, especially religious discourses, often are taken on face value when they really have important implications for the individual and society.

Now what I have been saying quite loudly, much to the opposition of people in the KCM, including folks like Advaita, is that the entire mythological superstructure of Radha and Krishna cannot be separated from its implications about human relations.

The hierarchy of rasas, for instance, discussed on Advaita's blog today, has implications for male-female relations in the world.

Now, what this means in practical fact is that many of the romantic ideas about human love current in the West, most of which we specifically rejected and were told to reject when we came to Iskcon due to the emphasis on a radical body/soul dualism, are in fact what the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition was really aiming at.

Even the old Christian marriage ceremony talks about human marriage as a metaphor for Christ's relationship with the Church; in India, newlyweds are routinely compared to Lakshmi and Narayan, so I don't understand why the concept of aropa has become so heinous in our tradition.

The ideal of Radha and Krishna as parakiya nayikas, as I have explained before, has the double meaning of (1) the higher truth of bhakti over worldly duties and responsibilities, and (2) the higher truth of human love over other other, formal relations.

Seen in this light, the svakiya position of Jiva Goswami is simply affirming that parakiya love, if true and pure, ultimately must be understood as svakiya, suddha-svakiya, if you like. The theological superstructure has its basis in and is simultaneously a commentary on the human relation.

In the historical social circumstances of Chaitanya's time, the divide between the ideal world of Goloka Vrindavan and the formal circumstances of Bengali society (as it was evolving in the Hindu-Muslim context) was very real. The result was, quite naturally, that those with a vested interest in maintaining a social status quo, the orthodoxy, and those who read Radha and Krishna as a commentary on human love relations, the sahajiyas, would become opponents with a lot of mutual distrust.

Our position vis-à-vis sexual politics in Western society today has come about due to a variety of factors, mostly secular developments, though there was definitely a romantic movement that started in medieval times which recognized the spiritual dimension of love. What Radha-Krishna worship shows us is a way to directly combine this romantic dimension of human love with the culture of devotion to God.

The ramifications of this with regards to "a woman's movement" are not altogether clear, though we can find clues. What I have been consistently emphasizing is that Radha is superior to Krishna through the power of her love. The concept of manjari bhava also means that even the male sadhaka values and cultivates the feminine qualities of love over and above even the masculine qualities of heroism. Chaitanya lila teaches us that women, as participants in that lila, must also cultivate the qualities of spiritual heroism (nAyam AtmA bala-hInena labhyaH). What this means, basically, is that vira-rasa is in the service of the madhura.

Women should seek empowerment through recognition of this dual nature in themselves, but recognizing the hierarchy that places love above all. An unbalanced masculine-dominated ethos will not accomplish the spiritual goals of human civilization, which are goals meant for both men and women.

So, to conclude this brief comment on the state of affairs: Gaudiya Vaishnavism values idealized feminine values over the masculine; the masculine exists in service to the feminine, which reverses traditional social values. Since these are idealized conceptions of masculinity and femininity, we cannot apply them directly to real men and women, but they function as a guide for spiritual development as well as a guide for human relations.

Anonymous said...

Jagat said: "Women should seek empowerment through recognition of this dual nature in themselves, but recognizing the hierarchy that places love above all."

Good advice. Real too if came from a woman...

Anonymous said...

And what about Caitanya Mahaprabhu in Bhagavad-gita?