Sunday, September 09, 2007

Some quotes about sakhī-bhāva

Since this blog is really a personal notebook, I thought I would copy some quotes that I found in the Hindi book, Kåñëa bhakti kāvya meà sakhī bhāva by Sharan Bihari Goswami (1966). In the introduction, he quotes three early European scholars opinions of sakhī bhāva. It is hard, out of context, to know what else these scholars said, or if they had any further information about those who practised devotion in the mood of the gopis, as it seems that the term sakhī bhāva is being confused with what we know as sakhī bhekhī. The author appears to think that the Haridāsī sect of Vrindavan, the principal subject of his book, is specifically being discussed. This might just be a confusion of names, as the Haridāsīs are known as the Sakhībhāvas.

In A Sketch of the Religious Sects of the Hindus (1862, page 177), Prof. H. H. Wilson wrote:

Sakhī-bhāvas. This sect is another ramification of those which adopt Radha and Krishan for the objects of their worship and may be regarded as more particularly springing from the last named stock, the Radha Vallabhis. As Radha is their preferential and exclusive divinity, their devotion to this personification of the shakti of Krishna is ridiculously and disgustingly expressed. In order to convey the idea of being as it were her followers and friends, a character obviously incompatible with the difference of sex, they assume the female garb and adopt not only the dress and ornaments, but the manners and occupations of women. The preposterous nature of this assumption is too apparent, even to Hindu superstition, to be regarded with any sort of respect by the community, and accordingly the Sakhi Bhavas are of little repute and very few in number. They occasionally lead a mendicant life, but are rarely met with. It is said that the only place where they are to be found in any number is Jaipur. There are a few in Benares and a few in Bengal.

A. Barth writes in the Hindu Religions of India (trans. from German by Rev. J. Wood, 1891, p. 236):

Such, moreover are the Radhavallabhis, who date from the end of the 16th century and worship Krishna, so far as he is the lover of Radha, and the Sakhibhavas, "those who identify themselves with the friend (fem.)", that is to say, with Radha, who have adopted the costume, manners and occupations of women. These last two sects are in reality Vaishnavite Shaktas among whom we must also rank a great many individuals and even entire communities of the Chaitanya, the Vallabhacharya and the Ramanandis, like the Shaivite Shaktas, they have observances of the left hand, which they keep secret.

A. G. Grierson wrote in the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics (Vol. XI, p. 97)

The Sakhibhavas are a branch of the Radhavallabhis, small in numbers and of little importance. They carry to an extreme the worship of Radha, Krishna's mistress, whom they look upon as his Shakti or energic power. The man assumes the character of Radha's sakhis or girlfriends and to enforce the idea of change of sex, assume female garb with all women's manners and customs, even pretending to be subject to the catamania. Their aim is to be accepted as genuine sakhis in a future life, and thus to enjoy a share of Krishna's favours. They are of ill repute and do not show themselves in public. According to Wilson, they are to be found in Jaipur and Benares and also in Bengal. Some of them are also wandering mendicants. They appear to have been numerous in the 17th century.

The above three quotes are like the three synoptic gospels, perpetuating basically the same information in different words. The above, misinformed as it may be, is still about a specific group, or more likely, some individual behaviors that were never institutionalized by any group, except perhaps amongst hijras. At least Sharan Bihari Goswami makes this argument and I would tend to agree with him. However, the noted Indian scholar R.G. Bhandarkar, in his famous Vaishnavism, Shaivism and other Minor Religious Systems (the title itself indicates considerable bias) draws some conclusions that go wider than some isolated odd behaviors:

The Debasement of Vaishnavism: The worship of Radha, more prominently even than that of Krishna, has given rise to a sect, the members of which assume the garb of women, with all their ordinary manners and affect to be subject even to their monthly sickness. Their appearance and acts are so disgusting that they do not show themselves very much in public and their number is small. Their goal is the realization of the position of female companions and attendants of Radha, and hence probably assume the name Sakhibhavas (literally, the condition of companions). They deserve notice here only to show that when the female element is idolised and made the object of special worship, such disgusting corruptions must ensue. The worship of Durga in the form of Tripura Sundari has led to the same result. (1913, page 86)

Sharan Bihari Goswami makes it clear that, first of all, Swami Haridas was never a Radhavallabhi and that there is no such custom of dressing as women amongst his followers. So as a description of him and his followers, the above statements are hopelessly misleading and somewhat sensationalistic. But the real interesting conclusion made by Bhandarkar, that the worship of the "feminine element" leads to "disgusting corruptions" is an indication of the Victorian Zeitgeist that has vitiated a clear understanding of bhakti in the spirit of the gopis and continues to cloud it to this day.

First of all, there will always be a certain percentage of homosexuals and transvestites in any society. Their have traditionally been prejudices against such people, who "deviate from the natural law," in almost every society. Clearly the Vaishnava theology of sakhī-bhāva gave room to such individuals to express themselves and find a place of some respect in a wider community than their own. Modern society is a lot more open to varieties of sexual orientation, and though it is possible that there will always be a percentage of society who consider these things to be disgusting corruptions, there is a great deal more acceptance now than even a generation or two ago.

But what I find most objectionable in Bhandarkar's statement is the assumption that the "manly man" ideal represents the finest achievement of human society. Hegel thought that history had come to its culmination in early 19th century Prussia, where the trains all ran on time and everyone marched in a straight line. That evolutionary line led to the first and second world wars and can be found in the world's fascisms, aggressive and subtle forms of which are still very much alive today.

Masculine fear of the feminine is as old as Samson and Delilah, if not Adam and Eve. Though the romantic concept of the feminine inspiring and bringing out the best in men is superior, it still implies innate masculine superiority. This is primarily because men are externally oriented, even when talking about or discussing things of the spirit, and so operate in an environment where things are counted, quantified, and measured externally. Even when all the world's scriptures tell them that this is futile, they are programmed to function in this way.

I realize that already I am getting bogged down in my own debatable preconceived notions, where the ideal and the real get all mixed up. The masculine orientation is all about the "real." But in this case, I would say with all transcendentalists, that the real is the internal world, the world of the spirit, which is the realm of the feminine. This is why Francis Newman said that even if one was the most manly of men, to approach God he had to adopt a feminine posture. This is the essential inspiration at the basis of sakhī-bhāva.


krishnadasa said...

As far as I know the image of a female as a metaphor for a soul is very old and it can probably be found in all major religions of the world. I have once come across the information that it is present in Judaism. In the West it was made popular by Bernhard von Clairvaux (12th century). Eckhart, who was the most famous mystic of the Middle Ages, also used this analogy. According to Eckhart woman is the most sublime word one can use to designate the soul.(Wip ist daz edelste wort, daz man der sele zuo gesprochen mac).

Jagat said...

Thank you for that nice quote from Eckhart, Krishnadasji. Actually, in the literature of the monotheistic traditions, such thinking goes back at least as far as the Song of Songs. Early Church Fathers commented on these verses and usually made the equation Church = wife, Christ = husband.

But the involvement of sexuality with religion probably goes back to the very beginnings of mankind, where concerns for fertility resulted in various kinds of religious phenomena. The Rigvedic culture of sacrifice (for example) also presents some elements of the such fertility rites, like symbolic copulation with the gods, etc. In Mesopotamian temple culture, there was "temple prostitution", which manifested in India also in the Devadasis, something that has excited a great deal of scholarly interest as the Devadasis are on the verge of extinction. (Here in Montreal, Leslie Orr and Devesh Soneji have both written dissertations on aspects of Devadasis.)

The complexity of the issue arises out of the idea of metaphor itself. I have an old post that I have been working on, in which I am discussing Bhaktivinoda Thakur's understanding of metaphor and symbol. But here, let me say that since sexuality is seen as an attribute of conditioned life, applying such attributes to God is uncomfortable for many philosophically minded transcendentalists. For monotheists, this is the culmination of idolatry, which becomes practically synonymous with fornication and adultry. Bhandarkar's comments are indicative of this. Even Vaishnavas themselves have become uncomfortable with the idea of divine sexuality and have to insist that it is something diametrically opposed to material sexuality.

This, for me, is the crux of the problem. There is something in the experience of sexual love that is pure; were it not so, there would be no meaning to its use as a metaphor for the relation of the jiva to God. The Sanskrit poeticians use suchi ("pure") as a synonym for madhura-rasa, as well as ujjvala ("brilliant"), both of which are very positive words. What is going on here is the distillation of the romantic (for want of a better word) element of sexual love (i.e. prema) from the purely reproductive (which is one end of the kama complex). This refinement is going on in the Song of Songs also and in the evolution of its exegesis and indeed in all the metaphorical uses of the idea. Prema can thus become identified with nivritti and kama with pravritti.

But metaphors tend to work both ways, the signifier (the "experienced" or "existential") informing the signified ("ideal" or "essential"), and vice versa. In other words, the distilled, positive core of the human element informs the understanding of the Divine, but then this idealized conception comes back and informs and shapes the understanding of real human relations. This cannot be avoided, because the two are symbiotically connected, like a an object and its reflection. (Though there is always a debate about which is which... with the empiricists believing it to be a no-brainer not worthy of debate.)

My whole point in this blog is to say: You can't have the eggs without the chicken. You can't have the signified without the signifier, for you are passing to the signified through the signifier. As soon as you accept the reality of the signified, you cannot cut it off from the signifier.

Understanding Radha and Krishna is more than theory based on an idealized conception of human love. It is directly related to the profound and existential experience of human love.

Anyway, this is the basic issue that I am trying to get to the bottom of and will continue to discuss on this blog. I have some more quotes from early scholars coming up.

Thank you once again for your feedback.

krishnadasa said...

I am loking forward to your discussion of Bhaktivinoda Thakur's understanding of metaphor and symbol.

I am also curious about the issue you are solving because I have been thinking about similar things. However, my own thoughts still need some time to develop and mature. Maybe one day I will be able to say something relevant. In the meantime, thanks for the food for thought.

Jagat said...

The essence of Bhaktivinoda's idea will already be familiar. I hinted at it in the parenthetical sentence, "Though there is always a debate about which is which... with the empiricists believing it to be a no-brainer not worthy of debate."

Bhaktivinoda Thakur takes the opposite view. He takes the pure essentialist position and says that the archetype is the true reality (vastavam vastu). His reality is independent (svarAT) and other realities depend on him. Metaphor is thus possible because the distilled, pure essence has real existence.