Waves of Devotion by Dhanurdhara Swami

This is an old article from Gaudiya Discussions. The original date of writing appears to be somewhere around 2004. I posted it here in 2015, but am backdating it to an earlier time.

Waves of Devotion by Dhanurdhara Swami (Bhagavat Books, 2000)

About a year or so ago, I was sent a copy of Dhanurdhara Swami’s book Waves of Devotion and asked to review it. I held back for reasons that will be clear, but I think it is time for me to say what I think.

The first impression is good. The book has a nice cover with a picture of Rupa and Sanatan Goswamis on it, is printed on good quality paper and the text is nicely laid out.

Waves of Devotion is meant to be a companion volume to A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami’s Nectar of Devotion, which most devotees know is his translation of Rupa Goswami’s Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu. Dhanurdhara Maharaj takes pains in his introduction to defend himself against any possibility of criticism that he has tried to supersede the acharya: “Everything is in Prabhupada’s books, which are complete in and of themselves... However due to our own deficiencies in devotion and scholarship, we sometimes have difficulty understanding them deeply.” He thus defines his own attempt as simply trying to understand his spiritual master’s work more deeply by setting it in the context of a more profound understanding of Vaishnava philosophy.

Dhanurdhara Maharaja recognizes that there may be mistakes in the NOD, but stresses that these were the result of the early editors’ misunderstandings. He compares the situation to that of the Bhagavad Gita, which as we know has undergone many controversial changes as a result of an examination of the original tapes and transcripts, which were found to differ considerable in both language and spirit from the published edition, sometimes with not inconsiderable philosophical consequences. Maharaja laments that the original tapes and transcripts of the Nectar of Devotion made by Srila Prabhupada were never found, but that he did use the original Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu and its commentaries to augment his interpretation and understanding of NOD, and that this book is the fruit of his efforts. By making such comparisons, he was able to discover many clear mistakes, often resulting from transcriptional errors.

This effort to more deeply understand the Gaudiya Vaishnava legacy Srila Prabhupada was attempting to represent is laudable. It forms what might be considered only the beginning of a great project of critically examining Srila Prabhupada's corpus of writings.

Satyaraj Dasji gives an example in his foreword of one error the Maharaja has taken pains to point out. It is the confusion surrounding the terms rāgānugā and rāgātmikā, which has caused those of us in the rāgānugā line no end of hair-tearing frustration in discussions with devoted Iskconites. Satyaraja writes:
Among the most serious of these faux pas involves the words rāgānugā and rāgātmikā, which the Swami discusses in Chapter Fifteen of this book. Reading The Nectar of Devotion, one might conclude that rāgānugā is a state of perfection wherein one is spontaneously absorbed in love of God. However, Dhanurdhara Swami points out that this definition is more appropriately applied to rāgātmikā -- a term that is reserved for the eternally free associates of Krishna in the spiritually world. rāgānugā, on the other hand, is a form of devotional practice (sadhana) and is not a state of perfection. True, one practicing rāgānugā “follows in the wake” of the rāgātmikā devotees of the celestial kingdom, but they are practitioners, not perfected beings. It is also true that to follow such rāgātmikā devotees, one has to be extremely advanced.

This confusion in terminology had consequences in the community of Vaishnavas. Sincere devotees interested in rāgānugā bhakti (though not practicing it) were often branded Sahajiyas (imitationists) because it was thought that they were identifying themselves with liberated beings. (page iv)
Other positive features of Waves of Devotion are the concordance the author gives to the original Sanskrit text (which could nevertheless have been done in even greater detail), and the specifying of Sanskrit terms where none have been given in NOD. All this makes it easier to find what in NOD is supposed to be a translation of what in BRS.

Perhaps Dhanurdhar Swami's most valuable contribution is in the numerous charts that pictorially represent the various categories under discussion, along with their divisions and subdivisions, thus making it easier to quickly grasp the structure of the composition.

Nevertheless, I believe that Dhanurdhara’s work is nothing more than a very ginger step at both rectifying the mistakes found in the NOD and in reaching a deeper understanding of the Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu. Even though we acknowledge that the editorial problems outlined by Dhanurdhara Swami are doubtless one of the causes of erroneous understanding entering NOD, a closer examination of the book and comparisons to the original BRS quickly reveal that the problems with this work are much more extensive.

It is my belief that Srila Prabhupada undertook the work of present the Nectar of Devotion primarily out of an interest in the first section, which outlines the principles of sādhanā-bhakti. At the same time, he wanted to give his disciples some glimpses of the rasas of pure devotional life, as he had also done in The Krishna Book. But it is clear that these later portions of the Nectar of Devotion are seriously deficient, and appear to have been done hurriedly without a great deal of reflection or scholarship. The reader is left at best with a number of vignettes of Krishna’s pastimes, but only a partial insight into Rupa Goswami's seminal contribution to Gaudiya Vaishnava understanding of the Divine.

Dhanurdhara Maharaja, with only a superficial knowledge of Sanskrit and Bengali, seems to have been entirely unequipped to discover these errors or to rectify them. Indeed, it seems that the Swami has not really approached the NOD critically at all.

There are principally three kinds of errors in the Nectar of Devotion:
  1. Omissions. Srila Prabhupada does not always translate the kārikās (the verses that define terms or make specific philosophical points), and even when he does, often does not seem to make any attempt to understand the substantial points that are being made therein. He has also omitted many of the examples.
  2. Incorrect translations of both kārikās and example verses.
  3. Incorrect explanations of examples.
I could present many samples of these. One taken more or less at random is the following (2.4.155-156) describing the twenty-seventh vyabhicāri-bhāva, augryam, which Prabhupada translates as “violence” in Nectar of Devotion, chapter 30. First of all, the translation “violence” itself does violence to the meaning. Violence is not an emotion or an attitude, and augryam is better translated as “fierceness, ferociousness.”

(1) Omission. Non-translation of a kārikā:

aparādha-durukty-ādi- jātaṁ caṇḍatvam ugratā |
vadha-bandha-śiraḥ-kampa-bhartsanottāḍanādi-kṛt ||

The kārikā has not been translated at all, despite not being a particularly difficult challenge. Its absence is damaging because it serves an important purpose in preserving the work’s overall structure for the reader, keeping him or her oriented. The kārikā here, as with all the other ones describing the vyabhicāris includes (1) the causes or particular situations that give rise to this emotional response; (2) a definition or synonym, in this case caNDatvam, and (3) associated moods and activities (anubhāvas). The examples that follow will be based on the causes of the particular vyabhicāri and the commentaries will usually point out the anubhāva.

In this particular case Dhanurdhara has helped only by offering “ferocity” as a supplementary definition for augryam, but without critically commenting on "violence" (p.209).

(2) Incorrect translation:

sphurati mayi bhujaṅgī-garbha-viśraṁsi-kīrtau
viracayati mad-īśe kilbiṣaṁ kāliyo'pi |
huta-bhuji bata kuryāṁ jāṭhare vauṣaḍ enaṁ
sapadi danuja-hantuḥ kintu roṣād bibhemi ||

Prabhupada’s translation:
“When Krishna was fighting with the Kaliya snake by dancing on his heads, Kaliya bit Krishna on the leg. At that time Garuda became infuriated and began to murmur, “(i) Krishna is so powerful that simply by His thundering voice (ii) the wives of Kaliya have had miscarriages. (iii) Because my Lord has been insulted by this snake, (iv) I wish to devour him immediately, but I cannot do so in the presence of my Lord, because He may become angry with me.”
This is not, in fact, a translation at all, but a kind of general summary, that not only contains errors, but glosses over certain particularities of the verse, particularly in the third line (iv).
Garuda says: "(i) My reputation is such that simply hearing of me causes (ii) female snakes to miscarry, (iii) yet here in my presence this Kaliya does violence to my Lord. (iv) I would offer this serpent to the sacrificial fire of my belly, but I fear Krishna's anger, for he is the killer of demons."
A comparison of these two translations will quickly show that the first one is misleading in places. One may think it is not particularly important, but as a scholar of Sanskrit, I personally find it quite disturbing--a translation is supposed to faithfully represent the original.

Nevertheless, had this been the only such example, it would perhaps be forgivable, but such instances are repeated over and over again. The cumulative affect of such errors vitiates the overall value of the document.

(3) Incorrect explanations.

Prabhupada explains the above verse as being “an instance of eagerness to act in ecstatic love as a result of dishonor to Krishna,” though this is clearly an example of augryam. There is no mention of “violence” here, nor has Dhanurdhara deemed it necessary to rectify this rather obvious error. We are left with an almost total incomprehension of what Rupa Goswami intended.

In fact Dhanurdhara confines his comments on NOD chapters 29-31, which covers BRS 2.4 on vyabhicāri-bhāvas to a few short pages.

Another random search shows that verse 2.4.97 has been given in NOD as an example of moha rather than mriti; verses 2.4.101-104 seem to have been dropped entirely; 2.4.105 is hopelessly disconnected from the meaning of the original; and in 2.4.106 śrama is defined as “a dislike of excessive labor”!

One may rightly conclude that if these relatively simple matters are rife with error, then what of the more serious philosophical issues, the building blocks of Rupa’s rasa theory, for instance? Let us take a look at the concluding verses of the southern wave of the Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu

vyatītya bhāvanā-vartma
yaś camatkāra-bhāra-bhūḥ |
hṛdi sattvojjvale bāḍhaṁ
svadate sa raso mataḥ ||
Rasa is the taste, filled with a weighty sense of wonderment, that is relished in the heart effulgent with pure being (sattva), by one who has transcended the path of thought. (BRS 2.5.132)
This verse cannot really be separated from the one that follows it, as Jiva and the other commentators specify that the two verses are meant to clarify the distinction between bhāva (or rati) and rasa, the relationship between which is essential to the understanding of either one.

bhāvanāyāḥ pade yas tu
bhāvyate gāḍha-saṁskāraiś
citte bhāvaḥ sa kathyate
Bhāva is that which exists in the realm of thought ( bhāvanāyāḥ pade) and is dwelt upon in the mind of the intelligent person, whose intelligence is exclusively fixed [on this goal], and [is made possible] through a set of deep conditionings.(BRS 2.5.133)
Jiva Goswami clarifies this distinction by comparing it to that of dhyāna (bhāva) and samādhi (rasa). Jiva specifies here that sattva in the first verse is the cause of bhāva, refering to BRS 1.3.1 ( śuddha-sattva-viśeṣātmā ). According to Mukunda, bhāva is the main cause of rasa, and deep conditioning ( gāḍha-saṁskāra ) is the cause of bhāva.

Vishwanath says: “Through the combination of the various ingredients, one first encounters bhäva (bhāva-sākṣātkāra), this develops into the actual appropriation of the bhāva (bhāva-svarUpa). This in turn, with the conjunction of the various ingredients, results in the encounter with rasa (rasa-sākṣātkāra). These two verses clarify the distinction between rati and rasa. When one goes beyond reflecting on the various ingredients of rasa, the vibhāvas, etc., and simply relishes them, that is called rasa. Such rasa is described as camatkāra-bhāra-bhūḥ , meaning that it produces a type of wondrousness that is not found in mere reflection. So bhāva is experienced on the mental platform, when one reflects on the various ingredients. On the level of the encounter with rasa (rasa-sākṣātkāra), one does not experience the various ingredients independently of one another. This means that the encounter with bhāva (bhāva-sākṣātkāra) is less profound than that with rasa (rasa-sākṣātkāra)."

Though these commentaries show that there is clearly a great deal to digest here, Srila Prabhupada has summarized these verses with the following brief words: “When one transcends the status of ecstatic love and becomes situated on the platform of pure goodness, one is understood to have cleansed the heart of all material contamination. In that pure stage of life, one can taste this nectar, and this tasting capacity is technically called rasa, or transcendental mood.” (NOD, p. 281).

“Transcends the status of ecstatic love” is frankly a disastrous mistranslation of vyatītya bhāvanā-vartma. Dhanurdhara has unfortunately not been able to shine any light on this, merely prefacing Prabhupada’s translation with the anodyne comment: “Only in bhāva-bhakti can one actually relish rasa.”

I am sure that Waves of Devotion will be of help to the ordinary Iskcon devotee. Dhanurdhara Swami has tried to do something about some of the problems encountered in reading NOD, but has not, in my opinion, gone nearly far enough. He has certainly ameliorated the situation in some respects, but is handicapped by two distinct disadvantages: a lack of knowledge of Sanskrit and the rasa-shastra tradition in which Rupa Goswami is coming, and by an unwillingness to challenge Srila Prabhupada's treatment of Rupa's text.

In the first of these, he is not alone, as it seems that despite rasa being the cornerstone of Rupa Goswami’s understanding of the Vaishnava experience, not many in the Gaudiya Math tradition have made a serious attempt to understand what it means or how it works. In the latter, he reveals one of Iskcon's principal weaknesses. Idolatry of the guru leads to intellectual ossification. If the guru has opened the door to Rupa Goswami, will he then stand in the doorway and prevent you from going through? Let us not be afraid of exploring Rupa Goswami in depth, without being prevented by a fear of contradicting Srila Prabhupada's interpretation, or by the obligation to accept even his mistaken translations or understandings as divine inspiration.

Dhanurdhara Maharaj's response to my review:

Thank you for sending me Jagadananda's book review of Waves of Devotion. Yes, I am not a scholar and any attempt I make in that field will be rife with deficiencies. I'm satisfied, however, that I made The NOD and BRS much more accessible and that it serves the spirit of Srila Rupa Goswami's mission. In the introduction I call for a scholarly word-for-word translation, acknowledge that Srila Prabhupada's objectives for NOD were in a sense minimal, and offer Waves as a humble attempt to broaden devotees understanding of the subject. I admit Srila Prabhupada deliberately omitted tens of verse. I wonder if Jagadananda actually read my book. That he couldn't appreciate it for what it admittedly was and perhaps even acknowledge its clarity of presentation on the basic tenets of the subject just gives the impression that he was looking for an excuse to express a pet peeve, perhaps Srila Prabhupada's and ISKCON's apparent lack of scholarship.

Frankly I'm surprised as a scholar that he missed the difficulty of my task, to augment one of Srila Prabhupada's main texts for the ISKCON audience, which includes a substantial right-wing.

I'm also surprised that he missed in the intro my explanation of Srila Prabhupada's objective in writing NOD which makes it quite unfair to nit-pick his scholarship: "The Nectar of Devotion is specifically presented for persons who are now engaged in the Krishna conscious movement."

Yes, I hestitate to lambaste Srila Prabhupada's work. It's not that I am just his disciple, but I am a Vaishnava who feels forced to acknowledge Srila Prabhupada's empowerment by Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. I thus deal with him carefully. Who am I? Is that "intellectual ossification" or the spirit of our guru varg?

Let's see what Sri Narada says:

"On the other hand, that literature which is full of descriptions of the transcendental glories of the name, fame, forms, pastimes, etc., of the unlimited Supreme Lord is a different creation, full of transcendental words directed toward bringing about a revolution in the impious lives of this world's misdirected civilization. Such transcendental literatures, even though imperfectly composed, are heard, sung and accepted by purified men who are thoroughly honest."
I suggest that instead of his narrow academic approach that lacks reasonable generosity Jagadananda take note of Srila Prabhupada's spirit as cited in the purport to this text:
"Our presenting this matter in adequate language, especially a foreign language, will certainly fail, and there will be so many literary discrepancies despite our honest attempt to present it in the proper way. But we are sure that with all our faults in this connection the seriousness of the subject matter will be taken into consideration, and the leaders of society will still accept this due to its being an honest attempt to glorify the Almighty God."
It’s ironic. I oppose anti-intellectualism in ISKCON. But which is worse, that or dry scholarship with an agenda?

Dhanurdhara Swami


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