Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Jugupsā and Madhura-rati

I was thinking about a section of the Bhakti-rasayānam by Madhusudan Saraswati that made a big impression on me when I first read it so many years ago. Madhusudan says that the goal of spiritual practice to transform the mind by reshaping it into the image of God. How does one shape the mind? In this, Madhusudan’s insight into the efficaciousness of bhakti is remarkably modern: he says that the mind is like a piece of sealing wax that softens on being placed near a source of heat; when overwhelmed by an emotion, it takes on the shape of whatever happens to come into contact with it. Then, subsequently, when the emotion subsides, the mind is left marked with formative impressions, just as the wax is after cooling off. These impressions are called vāsanās or saṁskāras in Madhusudana's terminology.

We know that childhood experiences leave deep imprints on the subconscious that are indeed hard if not impossible to efface. These are the discoveries of depth psychology, which has its own methods of dealing with them in the attempt to find a "cure for the soul." Madhusudan, however, opens the door to understanding bhakti as a practical solution for the problems caused by these "sum-scars" as I like to call them.

Of course, in the Vaishnava vision of things, saṁskāras or vāsanās stretch across many lives; Rupa makes a point of saying that bhakti-rasa is experienced by devotees whose devotional conditioning (bhakti-saṁskāra) stretches across not only this life, but previous lives as well. No matter, the superiority of the bhakti process over other systems arises out of its effectiveness in effacing the negative conditioning of the subtle body--mind, intelligence and ahaṁkāra, as well as the citta, which I think might best be called the "unconscious." The difference between jnana and bhakti could be compared roughly to that which exists in modern psychology between the talking and behaviorist schools. The former are akin to jnana, in the sense that understanding the subtle causes, etc., of one's particular conditioning is primary, while bhakti is closer to behavioral therapies, which train the mind and senses to function in healthy ways even where there is an imperfect understanding of causes.

The bhakti process of transformation is thus practical. Madhusudana's choice of the word rasāyana, or alchemy, for the title of his book is a clear indication of this transformative power, which he explains in accordance with rasa theory. To Madhusudana, the essential feature of rasa is its ability to melt the mind. There are numerous verses in the Bhāgavatam that remind us of the kind of breakdown that devotees experience when chanting or hearing Krishna's names or glories. The point is that bhakti practices are meant to induce such states of breakdown whereby transcendental associations can be imprinted on the subtle body of the devotee. Evidently, no practice is more powerful than the chanting of the Holy Name, which can leave an indelible impression on the psyche. This is why Narada says,

na vai jano jātu kathañcanāvrajen
mukunda-sevy anyavad aṅga saṁsṛtim
smaran mukundāṅghry-upagūhanaṁ punar
vihātum icchen na rasa-graho janaḥ

A servant of Mukunda who has "caught the rasa" never experiences the material world in the same way that others do, for as he constantly remembers the taste of Mukunda's foot lotus nectar, he cannot bear to abandon those feet completely. (SB 1.5.17)
Ultimately, bhakti is truly holistic because it engages the human being at all levels of the mind and body in the task of attaining the prayojana, which is understood in terms of love. In other words, as with many other psychological systems, at least since the time of Freud, the ability of a human being to live healthily and holistically is seen as a function of his ability to love healthily. The particular viewpoint of the Vaishnava is, of course, that Krishna has to be the center of any such "cure."

The fundamental idea is that by fixing the mind on Krishna, the source of love, it takes on the shape of that love. The significance of the verses in Canto 7.1 that lead up to tasmāt kenāpy upāyena manaḥ kṛṣṇe niveśayet ("Fix the mind on Krishna by any means whatsoever.") lies here: Kamsa and other demons who thought of Krishna with fear or hate experienced a transformation of their inner being until it became "Krishna-shaped," but that was for all intents and purposes limited in value. They may have attained mukti, but that is a paltry attainment in comparison to the offerings of bhakti.

If one's God is an object of fear or hate, then what benefit does that bring? It is said that they were killed at the hands of God and attained sāyujyā mukti. This is an interesting analysis of a particular religious posture. To know that one is being killed by God, as was inevitable, is the ultimate relief for the God-hater. The same God, as the famous mallānām aśanir verse shows, is experienced in different ways, but the quality of that experience differs, and that difference is significant in ultimate ways.

Though the language differs somewhat, it might be considered an attempt to deepen a comprehension of the mechanics spoken of in Gita 2.59:

viṣayā vinivartante nirāhārasya dehinaḥ
rasa-varjaṁ raso'py asya paraṁ dṛṣṭvā nivartate
The sense objects may cease to trouble the embodied soul who refrains from enjoying them, but the taste also ceases in the person who has seen the Supreme Truth.

Jugupsā rati

In view of the above, I thought it might be interesting to discuss some aspects of jugupsā-rati, which leads to bībhatsā-rasa. Srila Prabhupada used to like quoting one verse that comes from the sthāyi-bhāva chapter of the Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu--and I may add that it made sufficient impression on me that I can still recite it from memory without difficulty nearly 30 years after leaving Iskcon:

yad-avadhi mama cetaḥ kṛṣṇa-pādāravinde
nava-nava-rasa-dhāmany udyataṁ rantum āsīt
tad-avadhi bata nārī-sangame smaryamāṇe
bhavati mukha-vikāraḥ suṣṭhu-niṣṭhīvanaṁ ca

Ever since my mind turned to cavorting in the light of ever new rasas at Krishna's lotus feet, as soon as I recall my past sexual adventures, my mouth turns in disgust and I have to spit.(BRS 2.5.72)
Sometimes this verse is attributed to Mukunda-mālā or some other work, but it is in fact Rupa's own. In his commentary, Vishwanath cites a similar sentiment from the Bhāgavatam--

viṇ-mūtra-pūye ramatāṁ kṛmīṇāṁ kiyad antaram

What is the difference between me, who takes pleasure in [sexual] contact with bodies made of skin, muscle, blood, nerves, fat, marrow, and bones, and the worms who relish disgusting things like rotting food, stool and urine? (SB 11.26.21)
Later, in his chapter on bībhatsā-rasa, Rupa gives another example that is quite similar to the earlier verse:

pāṇḍityaṁ rata-hiṇḍakādhvani gato yaḥ kāma-dīkṣā-vratī
kurvan pūrvam aśeṣa-ṣiḍga-nagarī-sāmrājya-caryām abhūt
citraṁ so’yam udīrayan hari-guṇān udbāṣpa-dṛṣṭir jano
dṛṣṭe strī-vadane vikūṇita-mukho viṣṭabhya niṣṭhīvati
Just look! This devotee was once a great student of the art of seduction. He was dedicated to the service of Kamadeva and had attained lordship over the unlimited realm of debauchery. How amazing it is to see him today, for now if this very same person sees a woman's face while singing Krishna's glories with tear-filled eyes, his face becomes disfigured and he spits. (BRS 4.7.3)
In BRS 4.7.2, Srila Rupa Goswami says that mainly bhaktas in the śānta mood take shelter of this rasa and are thus its ālambanas. Jiva there comments that the word śāntādyāḥ in this verse includes both the austere tapasvīs who are generally associated with the śānta-rasa and all others who have not attained closeness to the Supreme Lord (ādya-grahaṇāt aprāpta-bhagavat-sānnidhyāḥ sarva eva). These two restrictions are rather significant, because they indicate a kind of incompleteness in the primary rasa, name bhakti-rasa.

This is why Rupa Goswamipada concludes the chapter and the section on the gauṇa-rasas by making the significant statement that in fact there is only one bhakti rasa, which is based on the direct relationships with Krishna. This single rasa is then subdivided into five. In this optic, the other seven rasas, which are called secondary, function as vyabhicārīs rather than as full rasas in their own right. What is most exceptional about jugupsā-rati, however, is that it is the only sthāyi-bhāva of which Krishna cannot be the object.

This is underlined by the division of jugupsā into two--prāyikī ("generalized") and vivekajā ("born of discernment"). The examples given above are of the latter sort, whereas the kind of disgust of stool and other things, which has little at all to do with bhakti, is more generalized. In a world where there is no forgetfulness of Krishna, the latter has a place, but the former cannot arise. It is only those who are able to conceive of forgetfulness of Krishna who experience it.

This can be recognized in the sādhakas described by Krishna in the following verses of the Bhāgavatam--

jāta-śraddhā mat-kathāsu nirviṇṇaḥ sarva-karmasu
veda duḥkhātmakān kāmān parityāge’py anīśvaraḥ
tato bhajeta māṁ prītaḥ śraddhālur dṛḍha-niścayaḥ
juṣamāṇaś ca tān kāmān duḥkhodarkāṁś ca garhayan

One whose faith in my topics has arisen and who is indifferent to all works, who knows that material desires (kāma) are permeated with suffering, but is still unable to abandon them completely, should engage in my devotional service with love, faith and firm purpose, even as he tries to fulfill those desires while simultaneously condemning them for being the source of misery. (SB 11.20.27-28, Bhakti-sandarbha 172)
Vishwanath explains the latter part of the verse with the following description of the devotee in the above situation.

aho amī viṣaya-bhogā eva mamānartha-kāriṇo bhagavat-pada-prāpti-pratikūlāḥ,
yad ete bahuśo nāma-grāham api sa-śapatham api tyaktā api samaye bhoktavyā eva bhavantīti, "nindāmi ca pibāmi ca" iti nyāyena bhuñjānaḥ

Alas, these sense gratificatory activities bring about so much unwanted trouble and they are unfavorable to my real goal, which is to attain the Lord's lotus feet. And even though I have analyzed these desires, named them and sworn to give them up, from time to time it seems I must engage in them. I condemn them and drink them at the same time.
There may be a place for this kind of self-flagellation at an early stage of the self-purificatory process. We see it in certain places, in prayers of submission and humility. Nevertheless, the above statements by Sri Rupa and Jiva Goswamis indicate that this kind of consciousness of the conditioned state maintains rather than reduces the distance between the practitioner and the Lord. So, we must conclude that this is a characteristic of the vidhi-mārga and thus of limited usefulness to those on the path of rāga.


The reader will have remarked the familiar juxtaposition of the erotic with jugupsā in the above examples. But before we read too much into these condemnations of sexuality, we should take all the above caveats into consideration. I will make my argument here brief. To some extent I have already made it before when I spoke about the engagement of the senses, including the sex organs, as elements of bhakti practice.

My real purpose, however, is to place make a distinction between the actual sex activity and sexual love, which may be better served by the term "romantic love." Let me state it in the following way: The idea presented by Madhusudan Saraswati is that the bhakta seeks to imprint his mind with Krishna, producing an inner transformation. Madhusudan's argument is ultimately that only bhakti-rasa produces the most profound levels of transformation.

My suggestion, however, is that the human being undergoes the most radical "meltdown" when he falls in love. If at this time he is able to imprint the image of Radha and Krishna on his consciousness, he will spring easily and smoothly into Radha and Krishna consciousness. The jugupsā part of the equation comes in any non-devotional elements that interfere with the process. Recently there were reports of vegan woman who found the very idea of having sexual relations with carnivorous men to be disgusting. Similarly, for a devotee who is seeking entry into the transcendental pastimes of Radha and Krishna, the very idea of a lust-based relationship with a non devotee is repulsive.

On the other hand, the transformative potential of love between practicing devotees, aided by ritual and the appropriate consciousness, is extremely great.

What I am getting at is this: There is a two-way relation between the ideal and the real, represented by Radha-Krishna and the human couple respectively. As Vaishnavas we are essentialists rather than existentialists, even though as acintya-bhedābheda-vādins we recognize the validity of both standpoints. Modern existentialism, which is really the basis of radical agnostic individualism, is something of an adolescent game. Human experience informs our experience of the Divine; our experience of the Divine helps us to shape our human experience. The combination of the two is like light concentrated by repeated reflection between two mirrors.

If you say that human love is abhorrent and you fail to recognize its value in informing our experience of the Divine, you cut the heart out of Radha-Krishna worship.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Hindu Encounter with Modernity: Sahaja samadhi

Hindu Encounter with Modernity

As a result of thoughts expressed a few days ago on this blog, I decided to read through Shukavak's book again, from beginning to end this time, and review the points that he made there. I have mentioned this book many times and I would like to emphasize once again what an important contribution Shukavak has made to the future of the sampradaya by opening the door to this aspect of Bhaktivinoda's thought, which Bhaktivedanta, by inadvertance or by design, decided to omit from his own preaching.

I wrote in Bhaktivinoda Thakur's meat eating and Lalita Prasad Thakur that Bhaktivinoda Thakur made two most significant contributions: the first is the opening of a door to a modern approach to Gaudiya Vaishnava doctrine and history, the other is the wholehearted acceptance of the raganuga sadhana practices that are generally rejected by all branches of the Gaudiya Math.

Shukavak quotes several times a passage from the introduction to the Krishna-samhita, in which Bhaktivinoda Thakur states quite clearly that he hopes future scholars, or madhyamadhikari devotees, will continue the work that he has begun (see HEM, page 150):

যত দূর পারা গেল, ঘটনাসকলের ও গ্রন্থ আধুনিকমতে কাল নিরূপিত হইল। সারগ্রাহী জন গণ বাদনিসষ্ঠ নহেন, অতএব সদ্যুক্তি দ্বারা ইহার বিপরীত কোন বিষয় স্থির হইলেও তাহা আমাদের আদরণীয়। অতএব এতত্‌সিদ্ধান্ত সম্বন্ধে ভবিষ্যত পরমার্থবাদী বা বুদ্ধিমান অর্থবাদীদিগের নিকট হইতে অনেক আশা করা যায়।

As far as possible, I have determined the chronology of the major events and important books according to the modern perspective. A saragrahi, however, is not attached to a particular view, so if, in the future, any of my conclusions are refuted by better reasoning, then those new conclusions are worthy of my respect and consideration. Indeed, there is much hope that future spiritual seekers and intellectuals will improve upon this matter.

Though the specific context here is the historiography of ancient India, I believe that it applies to other areas in which Bhaktivinoda Thakur was interested, including the dialogue with other philosophies and religions. This is what I meant when I said that initiation was an entry into this dialogue centered about faith and the goals of faith as it manifests in this particular tradition.

For those who are not familiar by now with Shukavak's analysis of BVT, I will just mention a couple of the more salient points. Most of this I have been talking about previously, although I may not have used the same terms that Bhaktivinoda did.

Shukavak has emphasized three points, which are all very significant, as they go completely against the kind of fundamentalist tenacity to scriptural literalism that characterizes smuch of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, including those branches that claim allegiance to Bhaktivinoda Thakur.

  1. His acceptance of personal intuition or personal revelation, which he called sahaja-samadhi.

  2. Bhaktivinoda's interpretation of the three kinds of adhikara for devotion.

  3. His acceptance of the evolutionary or progressive model.

  4. His acceptance of symbolic interpretation of the scriptures and his theory of symbolism.

The sahaja-samadhi idea appears to be based in the idea of innate identity with Krishna. Obviously, Bhaktivinoda is orthodox in his acceptance of the jiva's distinction from Krishna, but I think he would argue against any idea that the jiva is not innately sac-cid-ananda; thus the jiva can intuit and recognize the truths of spiritual life on his own, without necessary recourse to other sources. This intuitive understanding is built on historical traditions, but ultimately it furnishes the capacity of a jiva to further the "progressive march" of knowledge to further stages beyond those already achieved in any specific school of thought. It is the Newtonian idea, "If I have seen farther than others, it is because I was standing on the shoulders of giants."

So the question here is whether the creative impulse really stands at the opposite extreme of the parampara model.

Anyway, I starting writing all this more than a month ago. It is now Sept. 21, but I am posting it anyway with the original date on it, even though it is unfinished. These are important ideas and will need further contemplation. I especially want to discuss the questions of symbolism.

Student paper about Bhaktivinoda Thakur

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Happy birthday, India!

Yesterday and today, many of the media have been devoting time to the 60th anniversary of Pakistan and India's independence. This morning BBC had a very nice report on partition, with sound clips of Gandhi and Nehru. Last night PBS had a very good report on the economic situation. The Globe and Mail had a nice op-ed piece highlighting the positives and negatives. I liked this article by Shashi Tharoor in the Guardian.

I haven't really got the time to get into the subject, except to say that I am feeling very Indian today. Happy Birthday, India! Many happy returns of the day.

स्वाधीनता दिवस के मुबाराक !

Monday, August 13, 2007

Ula Chandi temple

This is the old Ula Chandi temple at the Birnagar Dwadash Mandir. This building, along with another Durga temple and ten Shiva linga temples form the complex which became Lalita Prasad Thakur's bhajan ashram. His room was in the Durga temple, and Gaur Gadadhar are upstairs in the same building.

The temple complex would have been the site of rather elaborate goat and buffalo sacrifices for the annual pujas, as described by Bhaktivinoda Thakur in his autobiography.

The Chandi temple, built by the Mustauphis (Bhaktivinoda Thakur's mother's family) in probably the 18th century, fell out of use during the cholera epidemic that wasted the town of Ula in 1857 when Bhaktivinoda was 19 years old. The building has been used of late as a goshalla and a place for storing wood.

The photo is taken from Shukavak N. Dasa's book Hindu Encounter with Modernity, p. 32.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Hindi keyboard on blog

So it seems that there is a Hindi keyboard option on this blogger. Cool.

अरे मन वृंदा विपिन विहार
जद्यपि मिलै कोटी चिंतामणि, तदपि ना हाथ पसार
बिपिनराज सीमा के बाहर, हरी हू कौं न निहार
जै श्री भट्ट धूरी दूसरी तनु, इहि आसा उर थार

OK It's a little tricky, especially since it seems to be designed for modern Hindi, so some of the Braja forms have to be corrected. Well worth mastering though. Does not seem to believe in certain vowels, at least not on first selection what to speak of some of the other unfamiliar combos that are found in Braj. Short vowels also seem unfavored. It is pretty annoying to have to edit each word to correct the spelling.

भाग बडो वृन्दावन पायौ
जा रज कौं सुर नर मुनि बंछित, बिधि संकर सिर नायौ
बहुतक जुग या रज बिनु बीते, जन्म जन्म डहकायौ
सो रज अब कृपा करि दीनी, अभै निसान बजायौ
आइ मिल्यौ परिवार आपने, हरि हंसि कंठ लगायौ
श्यामा श्याम जू बिहरण दोऊ, सखी समाज मिलायौ
सोग संताप करू जिनि कोई, दाव भालू बनि आयौ
श्री रसिक बिहारी की गति पाई, धनि धनि लोक कहायौ

Very irritating, in fact. It does not seem to want to do short vowels, and refuses to recognize -au or -ai most of the time. The above is large size font, by the way. Normal size looks like this:

अरे मन वृंदा विपिन etc.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Success, Virtue, Courage, History

I wrote the last article in a rush of feeling. I have to admit, however, that there is a bit of rhetoric as well as truth-telling (parrhesia) in the post.

Philosophy of History

Making a comment like "history has decided" indicates a facile and yet sweeping generalization about History, with a capital H. It's a bit funny, because at the same time as the subject came up, I encountered an article by David Greenberg on Slate discussing George W. Bush's concept of history (George Bush, Hegelian). Simultaneously, I am proofreading a dissertation in which someone is attempting to analyze the Krishna consciousness movement using Michel Foucault's historical method, so I am getting a bit inundated with these theories.

In an article I wrote about charismatic renewal in Gaudiya Vaishnavism, published in Bryant and Ekstrand's book, I began by saying that India, with its strong avatar doctrines, would subscribe to Carlyle's famous idea that "history is nothing but the biographies of great men."

This was really a bit more of a hook than a real statement about the philosophy of history. To be more precise, God acts through great men, so that we call them avatars of various kinds, according to whatever typology we happen to be following: it is the divine will that is being exercised through various agents, from kings to creatures. This idea appears in the vibhuti yoga of the Gita (chapter 10) and is made fully clear in chapter 11, where Krishna tells Arjuna: "Time I am, destroyer of worlds... I have already killed everyone on the field of battle. Simply become my instrument."

The opposite extreme to Carlyle's idea in secular philosophy is that there are great forces at work--economic, social, religious, etc.--to which everyone is subject. Great men may affect their times, but they are also products of their times. But in either case of instrumentality--to God or to the forces of History--does this mean that their individuality does not play a dominant role?

This is indeed one big question that underlies questions of guru doctrine. When we say the guru is God, it is actually an offense to the guru as an individual human being to minimize the difficulties of the decision-making process that led to his becoming empowered, as it were. The Bible has Jacob's famous struggle with the angel, or Christ's temptation in the desert. The Buddha was tempted by Mara. Arjuna was in real torment on the battlefield of Kurukshetra; he had to hear from Krishna, weigh the various instructions that were nuanced according to his adhikara; understand his options, hierarchize them in accordance with his understanding of Krishna's will, then acquiesce and act.

When he chose to act, that action was furthermore something that needed to be confirmed at every moment. The assumption is, of course, that once he decided to fight, his training and discipline as a warrior--all the previous samskaras that had brought him to the situation where that particular decision had to be made--kicked in and he was free from the major existential crisis that faced him in the first chapter. Nevertheless, human life is full of existential crises or life crises, which usually come at certain life junctures--adolescence, early adulthood, mid-life, retirement, etc. Whether we are people of faith or not, these are the times, though not necessarily the only ones, when we feel particularly challenged by the Divine Will.

What I am saying, though, is that if we overly "deify" the Guru, we minimize his individual will to acquiesce to Krishna and let his mercy operate through him. At the same time, if we excessively idolize his individual manifestation, we may well miss the transcendental truth that comes through him.

In practical terms, then, when I think about Srila Prabhupada, for instance, I recognize both the power of his individual heroism in bringing Krishna consciousness to the West, of which I am a beneficiary, and also that he was a conduit for Krishna's mercy, thus making it possible for a whole range of Vaishnava sampradayas to become real options for Western seekers. I am on record as having said that all Vaishnavas in the West will be forever indebted to Srila Prabhupada, and as such are under an obligation to recognize that debt by harboring a stance of gratitude, which is the very basis of spiritual life and love. This does not, however, oblige anyone to (1) take up membership in the institutions he, his godbrothers or his guru founded, nor (2) to accept his or their word on siddhanta as final.

As I said in my previous blog, the Guru opens the door to Goloka, i.e., to Vaishnava sanga; Jiva Goswami clearly says that if he closes that door, he is to be served from a distance. In other words, this is a command you can ignore. Vaishnava sanga means the world where a certain dialogue is going on, namely the dialogue on who Krishna is, what prema is, and how to attain them. We all accept the broad lines, but the devil lies in the details, so hang on for all the manifestations of normal human society and politics--alliances, enmities, backstabbing, mutiny and propaganda wars. The real winners will be the ones who have the best answer to the question, "How do we get prema?"

The reason they will be winners is, of course, because they know how to get prema, and presumably they have experienced more than others, and finally because they know how to share it. They will thus have learned the secret to transcending all that other stuff. And, let's face it, though this success will not necessarily be found in externals, enough people are seeking prema that they will be attracted when genuine manifestations of prema appear.

Free will

In the last article I also said some things about Satsvarupa Maharaj. I made some remarks about courage and even went so far as to say that his physical problems may have something to do with this. This was rhetoric and not very kind. Of course, I admit to a courage deficit myself, and someone suggested to me that if there really were a connection between moral weakness and migraines, I should have been fully incapacitated by now. The connection is roughly equal to the one between success and virtue: there may well be one, but it is hardly necessary.

Nevertheless, the whole point I am trying to make, and which I believe Krishna is making in Gita 18.66, is that external rules and regulations are only guideposts to the moral law. They are general rules that in the final analysis cannot be taken as the final analysis. The final analysis is intensely personal.

AjJAyaiva guNAn doSAn
mayAdiSTAn api svakAn
dharmAn santyajya yaH sarvAn
mAM bhajet sa ca sattamaH

Knowing fully both their advantages and disadvantages, one should abandon all personal duties, even if ordained by me, and simply engage in my bhajan. Such a person is the most ethical of all.
So I would like to thank Satsvarupa Maharaj for his progressive ideas, when they have welled up in him. I wish for his sake, that he had fully trusted his inspiration to chant more when it came, to associate with Narayan Maharaj and hear prema-rasa katha from him when he had the chance, to experience the personal intimacy of a devotee's love when he was blessed with it, and to explore the meaning of sexuality in Krishna consciousness when the doubts niggled.

The doors he thought that Prabhupada had closed could not be opened for him by the Guru in his heart.

Anyway, I have my own problems, and so I won't blame or condemn him. We all tend to compromise at some point. It does not mean we cannot find happiness. Our adhikara is constantly being challenged by the hierarchy of concepts in the shastra. Total surrender is available to all, but failing that, surrender as much as you can.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Bhaktivinoda Thakur's Meat Eating and Lalita Prasad Thakur

When I see a discussion starting that deals with questions I was deeply involved in 10 or 20 years ago, or even more recently, I do not feel tempted to get involved again. One moves on, I guess.

Rocana Prabhu has recently published an editorial on the Sampradaya Sun wherein he struggles to make sense of Bhaktivinoda Thakur's avowal that he engaged in meat eating. In the context of this article, he makes a few disparaging comments about my diksha guru, Sri Lalita Prasad Thakur. It is unfortunate that there is no one but me to currently come to the defense of my guru, and for me to do so means exposing myself to involvement in disagreeable disputes, which is certainly not appealing to me. Nevertheless, it seems to me that I am under some obligation to say at least a few words.

Poor Rocana seems to have just discovered that Bhaktivinoda Thakur admitted eating meat and fish in his memoirs. He worries about "the potential this has to disturb the minds of many readers," who would consider such practices "abhorrent." This is in fact the realization that this admission plays havoc with his own idea of what it means to be a "nitya-siddha" or a "sampradaya acharya." Although he compliments Bhaktivinoda Thakur for his "extreme honesty," he does not seem to have grasped the real significance of such admissions.

Rocana bandies about with comparisons to Ramachandra and Bhima's meat-eating and how "they" are different from "us" and that therefore the same standards cannot apply. And woe be to those who compare their own sinful pasts to the comparatively less objectionable, historically forgivable actions of Bhaktivinoda Thakur.

But all this solves nothing and simply muddies the waters and reveals the general confusion about Guru Tattva that is rampant in the Krishna consciousness movement. A million quotes from Srila Prabhupada's books, unfortunately, do little to clarify the issue. Rather, they go on urging us to erase the human aspects of the Guru in order to see him as a God, and to sacrifice all capacity for individual self-realization in submission to the guru's orders and guru-created institutions.

I feel deeply that these kinds of exhortations have resulted in a huge imbalance in emphasis in the general understanding of Krishna consciousness. They diminish our humanity instead of lifting it to the heavens. How could this ever have been the intention of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu?

The importance of the human aspect of the Guru

Though I have, as mentioned above, already written about these issues, it is perhaps time to repeat myself again. Currently the Prema Prayojan site is closed temporarily, so I cannot not refer to the numerous times I have gone over the question. Indeed, the first time I publicly wrote on this subject was in letters to Rocana on his Garuda listserve, at the very beginning of my internet engagement with devotees. In connection with the Bhaktivinoda meat-eating question, I wrote on Audarya forums in 2003:

I think that we should be extremely indebted to Bhaktivinoda for having pierced the hagiographical balloon so that we can surmount the superficial understanding of guru-tattva and nitya-siddha and all the rest of the terms that we bandy about in order to blind ourselves to possible flaws in our guru vargas.

I have written about this before in relation to the controversy over the Prabhupada-lilamrita. How much more inspiring and glorious it is to have a human guru who has shown the way by struggling with the negative aspects of material entanglement and succeeding! This is, as far as I am concerned, a crucial point of transcending the kanishtha adhikari stage.

It is really the same question as that of guru omniscience and infallibility. There is much confused thinking on this issue... The arch-conservative and reactionary side tries to discredit the Sva-likhita-jivani itself. These people readily accept statements from this book when it suits their purposes, but refuse to accept those that contradict their idealized image of Bhaktivinoda Thakur. Even so, the SLJ is still the primary source of information on BVT's life as we know it--including Rupavilasa's book and all other Gaudiya Math publications on his life--with the appropriate expurgations, of course.

I take a much more liberal and, I believe, enlightened view that attempts to reconcile the humanity of the guru with his divinity rather than obliterate his humanity altogether in a cloud of mystification.

While I was thinking about whether I would write this article or not, I had the radio on and happened to hear an interview with Thomas Merton scholar Michael Higgins. Higgins spoke of the source of Merton's appeal and inspirational power as being anchored in his insistent search for truth and holiness. This comes out especially in the collection of diaries that he kept diligently and in which he spoke of things like a longstanding affair with a nurse and other "unsaintly" activities.

But rather than diminishing his stature, and I hope that this is abundantly clear, people's appreciation for Merton's true worth only grows, to the point that though he spoke emphatically and repeatedly against "the cult of personality", he has ironically become the subject of an entire Merton industry. Mahatma Gandhi, in his Experiments with Truth, had the same modern approach to saintliness.

None of this means that they are any the less saintly, but it is their saintly ambition, it is their honest, self-examined determination to attain the impossible goal of human perfection, that makes them admirable, and indeed worthy of being followed.

As an aside, Satsvarupa Maharaj has been, I believe, influenced by Thomas Merton to some extent and so he also approaches spiritual life quite openly. Without entering into a critique of the degree of personal honesty, mystical or theological profundity that goes into his writings, there is a certain modern sensibility that is beyond the comprehension of the ordinary devotees and their obsession with "nitya-siddhas."

My reproach of Satsvarupa is rather that he lacks courage and has made something of a career of retreating: He tempts fate by chanting extra rounds (Japa Notebook) and then retreats; he visits Narayan Maharaj, and then retreats; he has a sexual escapade, and then retreats; he decides to take face questions about sexuality head on, and then retreats--each time caving in to Iskcon criticism. No wonder the man is suffering so terribly from migraines!

If he could just once follow his instincts and break away from the terrible subjection to the Institution that holds him in its grip--a grip that is tattooed with the words "Iskcon acharya." With him, the problem is not so much a belief in the value of honest self-reflection as the lack of courage to follow through on his intuitions.

Recently I mentioned on these pages an interview with John Kain, who in a new book called A Rare and Precious Thing talks about a number of spiritual teachers in a variety of traditions. His opening statement was that all of these teachers have in "one way or another embraced the new paradigm." By this he meant that these spiritual masters made no attempt to pass themselves off as "nitya siddhas," but nevertheless had a powerful and lasting effect on their followers.

It is almost axiomatic to speak of today's spiritual leaders in Krishna consciousness as flawed. We have been so conditioned to accepting that the spiritual master must be a "realized soul", which we associate with some kind of unattainable superhuman status, that we end up absorbed in a kind of faultfinding exercise that makes us incapable of acknowledging even the considerable merits of another devotee except in the most begrudging manner.

Demonstrating that another person is imperfect is not a hard job: Ramachandra Puri showed us all that it is possible to find fault even with Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. So, is there any problem in finding fault with a sadhaka who confesses his imperfections? The question here is: From whom can we, as sadhakas ourselves, learn more? From the person who exhorts us to be impossibly perfect while pretending to conform to this same, entirely corrupting attitude, or from the one who sincerely admits his flaws and reveals his strategies, etc., in dealing with them?

Evidently, adopting this kind of strategy will result in a sanguine attitude, even a distrust, of personality cults of all kinds. George Orwell said "saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent" (in Reflections on Gandhi), especially if they set themselves up as such. Of course, I am the first to admit that the currents of hypocrisy run deep, and no public self-reflection is entirely void of manipulative goals.

Nevertheless, let it be stated as an axiom, which like all axioms will seem bland and obvious, that all people, including saints, are human beings. As such, they are subject to all the flaws of humanity--weakness and temptation, error and illusion. It is not freedom from humanity that a saint achieves, nor even the perfection of an ideal humanity; I would say rather that the saint is one who has consecrated himself to the pursuit of holiness and has made that ideal real to others. The acharya is someone who in the depths of his realization has found jewels that are of inestimable value to other humans who seek life's meaning in God.

Those who are addicted to the idea that "God speaks to the Acharya; his words are therefore the words of God himself," patati patata, are missing several huge points.

Lalita Prasada Thakur, my Prabhu

Of course, the paragraph in Rocana's article that really inspired me to write anything at all was the following:

We also have to keep in mind that the Svalikhita-jivani is actually a long letter written to his son, Lalita Prasada. As history tells it, in due course Lalita Prasada became a real adversary to Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati. In fact, he started a separate movement that is considered asiddhantic, and criticized Srila Bhaktisiddhanta extensively. So we should consider how that plays into our understanding this particular circumstance with Srila Bhaktivinoda's meat eating.

Who knows whether Srila Bhaktivinoda intended that his letter to his son be published and made into a book? He might also have been trying to send a direct message to Lalita Prasada, it's hard to tell. Svalikhita-jivani is certainly a very unusual, honest depiction of a great Sampradaya Acarya's early life. How Lalita Prasada - or any of us, for that matter - choose to interpret this information is of the utmost importance. After all, love is always tested. This candid written narrative might simply have been designed by the father as a test for the son. And as history shows, the son failed the test. Whether or not his publication of this autobiographical letter was part of the failure, we can't know.
This paragraph is so full of half-truths, misunderstandings and plain nonsense that it is hard to know where to begin. I have indeed already begun to do so above, as the root of the error is in Rocana's magical idea of the "Sampradaya Acharya." It is furthermore an unworthy and cynical attempt to deflect the problem onto a saintly person of whom Rocana knows nothing other than the parampara propaganda he now so condescendingly perpetuates.

Rocana's concept arose at least in part from reflection on the now generally well-known fact that Siddhanta Saraswati and Lalita Prasada Thakur were in profound disagreement on the issue of diksha, the position of Bhaktivinoda Thakur's diksha guru Bipin Bihari Goswami, raganuga bhakti practices, the nature of Gaudiya Vaishnava institutions, sannyasa, and many of Saraswati Thakur's innovations. I have written about these things at length and, I believe, with a certain amount of detachment. However, if we can draw one conclusion from the Sva-likhita-jivani, it is that Bipin Bihari Goswami played a significant role in Bhaktivinoda Thakur's life, something that is a bit of an inconvenient truth with most of Bhaktivinoda Thakur's putative followers.

And this lesson has a connection with the meat-eating issue. It is this: after taking initiation from his guru, Bhaktivinoda Thakur stopped all flesh consumption. Indeed, he highlights this as a miraculous result of being initiated. This in itself shows the Thakur's appreciation of a significant transformation in his life as a result of coming into connection with his guru. How does this square with those who are on the right side of history and have consigned Bipin Bihari Prabhu to the rubbish heap? This avowal by Bhaktivinoda Thakur on its own seems sufficient truth to me to discard Saraswati Thakur and to follow Lalita Prasad Thakur, everything else be damned!

Since Bhaktivinoda Thakur initiated Lalita Prasad and gave him the same pranali that he received from Bipin Bihari. We may well ask what kind of test he was giving Lalita Prasad in telling him these things about his guru and whether Lalita Prasad failed that test or not. Certainly, in my eyes, since he stayed on this earth long enough to pass this same pranali on to me when he was already 99 years old, he did not. Through all that time he did not swerve in his commitment or his determination to preserve Bhaktivinoda Thakur's heritage as he had received it. If Saraswati Thakur did not receive the same gifts from his guru, or received other ones, does this somehow put him on the right side of history? What kind of discourse about history is this anyway?

It is easy to buy into the fallacy that so-called success and virtue are the same thing when so clearly they are not. If there is anyone who should know this, it is Rocana himself, since he, as an outsider, is engaged in a discourse of resistance to a particular course of history. I am sure he thinks of himself on the side of truth and history, but one day, if Iskcon does not find itself on that rubbish heap, it will certainly throw him on it.

Rather than make rash comments about the fickle judgments of history, let us seek the truth. Orwell summarized the cynical ideological manipulation of history in 1984, "He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future." Fortunately for us, neither Rocana, nor Iskcon and the Gaudiya Math and their followers, yet have complete control over the Gaudiya Vaishnava world's present, whatever illusions they may have. Lalita Prasad Thakur will always be a hero of the resistance against those who have run roughshod over the history of the Gaudiya Vaishnava sampradaya.

Siddhanta and sadhana (Dogma and Ritual)

There are, if anything, two major contributions made by Bhaktivinoda Thakur to the history of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, two contributions that blissfully stand in apparent contradiction to one another.

The first of these, which we can place in the early part of his life, is the principal message of Shukavak's milestone marking book. It is his work as a rational analyst of Gaudiya Vaishnavism. It was as an inheritor of an aspect of the Enlightenment, someone who had read European philosophers and was able to come up with the concept of the saragrahi.

I cannot tell you how significant this concept is. Perhaps Rocana has a little inkling of it, but only to a point, because he cannot exercise his rational function when it comes to his so-called Sampradaya Acharyas. The whole point of being a saragrahi, however, is that it must be applied to one's gurus themselves. The sara element of the Guru is the Truth that he has been able to connect his disciple to. That Truth is not the management directions of Iskcon, or the final order of succession, or instructions about who to associate with and when. The sara is "Love Krishna and do whatever is necessary to attain that goal." He may say, "I have done such and such myself; these are my gurus, my tradition, this is what they have done to get there, but I am only the door. Pass through this door and into Goloka Vrindavan. Illuminated by this guiding light of identity as a servant of Krishna, take the world I give you."

The Chaitanya Charitamrita tells us that Krishna is the Guru. He appears in the form of the teacher and initiator, but he is also present in the heart. It is Krishna in the heart who says "yay" or "nay" to his presence externally. When the truth comes as a blinding light accompanied by the imperative to act in the service of Krishna, that is Guru. But this does not mean that your relationship with God in the Heart is finished. It simply means that the relation with the Soul of your soul is mediated through a particular cultural and literary tradition, a symbol system, a religious language, a history of ideas and archetypal models.

As such, we are not meant to blindly follow anyone or anything, but rather to enter into the discourse that centers around this tradition, a discourse that developed over the centuries and to which Bhaktivinoda Thakur, Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati and Bhaktivedanta Swami have all made significant contributions, but which none of them has thankfully terminated in some Fukiyamian "end of history."

The second aspect of Bhaktivinoda Thakur's contribution consists in his discovery, approval, acceptance and continuation of the essential element of Gaudiya Vaishnava teaching, namely manjari bhava. I had left this essay untouched for several days until I saw a pretentious little article by Rasarani Devi called Poor Bhagavat Das in which she mocks this practice and goal cherished by Bhaktivinoda Thakur and then passed on to his son, through whom it has come to a few other fortunate individuals.

I am afraid that the baby has gone out with the bathwater here--perhaps we should go looking on the rubbish heap of history for manjari bhava as well, for it seems that this is where these self-righteous judges of Gaudiya Vaishnava history, looking through their narrow prism, have placed it.