The Three Kinds of Bhakta and Symbolic Understanding

A lot of the recent posts, along with their responses, having been dealing with the questions related to the place of Krishna consciousness in the modern world. Subal, Anuradha and Krishnadas, amongst others, have all said something in relation to this matter.

Since this is an ongoing and open-ended dialogue, I am not going to try to answer everything all at once. And, unfortunately, since much of my livelihood comes from contract work, I am suddenly constrained by the arrival of a fairly hefty contract with a short deadline.

I really wanted to respond to Anuradha's last comment, most of which I could agree with. As far as the question of initial conversion to GV, this is one of the things that I have been tossing around, as you may have noticed. I have placed a question mark on whether my own path of getting to where I am is "the only way" of getting here (as if that were a worthwhile goal!). But, obviously, I would not really know anything about this until I myself make converts.

I recently cited Dayananda Dasji, who said that people who write or translate for other devotees are appealing to the “low hanging fruit,” i.e., by addressing the devotee community rather than taking up the more difficult task of attracting new recruits. And by new recruits, he did not mean committed brahmacharis, but community members. He has reverted to what he feels is the real inspiration of the yuga dharma, i.e., the saṅkīrtana-yajṣa, the sacrifice of going out and sharing the good news. Certainly those who do this are to be recognized and honored.

But I think that this period of reflection in the movement is good and necessary; it is all a part of what Prabhupada called "thickening the milk." Nevertheless, it is true that while engaged in such reflection, it may not be quite as easy to evangelize those more distant fruit. In ISKCON we used to hear that the uttama bhakta "comes down" to the madhyam level to preach. But it may well be that uttamas and madhyamas come down to the kaniṣṭha level to preach. For a kaniṣṭha bhakta, thickening the milk basically means becoming a bigger and better kaniṣṭha.

There is a kind of qualitative break between kaniṣṭha and madhyama, just as there is between madhyama and uttama, as much as there is between vaidhī and rāgānugā bhakti. One does not just grow automatically into the other. Consciously or unconsciously, there has to be a break with the previous state to go on to the next.

Generally, kaniṣṭhas will try to convince others to join their group of kaniṣṭhas. Madhyamas will try to convince kaniṣṭhas to join their madhyama mindset. Uttamas are the only ones who will really be able to speak to them all from the point of view of Truth. Though inside their particular tradition, they are not advocates of specifically that tradition to anyone but the person who wants to learn from them. The effect of a kanistha adhikari's preaching can be powerful, despite its limitations; the effects of a madhyama bhakta's preaching to kaniṣṭhas is troubling and to non-devotees pretty ineffective. At least until they get to the more advanced stage of madhyama bhakta.

One way of understanding it is to understand the three adhikaras as points on the dialectical triangle. The kanistha represents the unadorned thesis, the madhyama antithesis, and the uttama synthesis. This is why the following verse also applies to the three adhikāras--

yaś ca mūḍhatamo loke yaś ca jñānāt paraṁ gataḥ
tau ubhau sukham edhete, kliśyaty antarito janaḥ

The biggest fool and the one who has gone beyond knowledge both experience happiness. The one in between suffers.

It might seem strong to associate the kanishtha with foolishness, but it is in the character of the kanishtha to avoid potential sources of doubt, since he or she is characterized by komala sraddha. Thus they tend to avoid madhyama bhakta association, because it is disruptive to the simple faith they are trying to protect. The dilemma of the madhyama bhakta is whether or not to disrupt them, since foolish kaniṣṭhas can, in their ignorance, cause a lot of trouble.

Each level has its own gurus (indeed they must). For kaniṣṭhas, it is often the biggest kanishtha who is guru. This can be disastrous. The madhyamas also have their big madhyamas for gurus. Only the uttama is guru to all, sometimes recognized, but not necessarily understood by all.

The other day I heard a spiritual teacher on the radio saying that he was living in an ashram when a friend came to visit him. This friend was simple and not highly educated, but a straightforward man. The ashram dweller started trying to explain to this old friend about what he and his wife were doing and the purpose of their lives in the ashram. When it was over, the old friend stared at him with a bewildered look and said, "If you can't make your ideas simple enough for an idiot like me to understand them, then either you don't understand them yourselves, or you are bullshitting."

This was, in a sense, a recognition that synthesis is a process going on at every level. There has to be a level of truth, i.e., of genuineness, realization or conviction, for any statement to have effect, i.e., to have an infectious quality.

So, the long and complex process of asking questions about the purpose of life has to ultimately come down to simple answers. This is called Ockham's Razor, which crudely defined is that the simplest answer is most likely the correct one. In KC, the simple answers are (1) jīver svarūpa hoy kṛṣṇa nitya dās, (2) bhaktir eva bhūyasī; (3) premān pumartho mahān. (And of course those answers are given in Sanskrit, which in itself is a complicating procedure.)

To translate: (1) We are eternal servants of God. (2) Devotion to God is the most powerful means of knowing God directly. (3) Love of God is the ultimate goal.

Anuradha states that he could probably get as far as selling the above message, but he has trouble making it to God = Krishna. And that is true. It is a bit of a hard sell to the so-called educated. Most of the creative people in the world, such as Blake and Tolstoy, recognized that education is a problem as often as it is a solution. The very three points stated above are all essentially intuitive and not rational. Nevertheless, the point Anuradha is making is about symbolism. And this is indeed one of the core problems that Bhaktivinoda Thakur addressed. And it is one that we also need to address coherently.

A symbol generally means something simple that stands in the place of something else, something more complex. Language is itself a set of symbols, as words stand for things, and new vocabulary enters a language to express more and more complex ideas, or to represent entire sets of arguments. The word bhakti itself, for example, has a long history beginning with an etymology and then taking on a life of its own as discourses in India surrounding the word adhere to it and give it further depth and complexity. A sudden change in the episteme may kill a word as it becomes associated with politically incorrect meanings, etc.

Now the question is the extent to which religious symbols, which are meant to evoke a devotional response, are universal or are limited in their usefulness. For example, an argument often heard in India is something like "A rose by any name would smell as sweet." Water is always water whether you call it jala, pani or agua. īçvara allāh tere nām sab ko san-mati de bhagavān. Now theists in general have been taught to hate these kinds of statements because of the specificity of their own symbol systems. A Christian may theoretically agree with a Muslim or a Vaishnava that their God is the same God, but they all believe in the specific qualities of their particular symbol system surrounding the Deity, and usually believe in the superiority of that specific symbolism.

Now, even in the Bhagavatam, we have an indication that the uttama bhakta somehow transcends the symbol system. He transcends it in the sense that he has direct experience of the incarnate meaning of the symbols; it does not mean, however, that he or she gives it up.


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