Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Radha Kund 1945

Someone sent me this picture. After reading Madhavanandaji's latest blogs, it sure looks peaceful... like the way we idealized it. What is being lost? And can it be brought back? That which brought us to Radha Kund is that which is destroying it. Somewhat ironic.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Saturday, January 19, 2008

More thoughts on mantras, symbols and psyche

In the Padma Purāṇa there is a verse, which is unremarkable but nevertheless states basically something that I am trying to get at here.

aviditvā tu mantrārthaṁ siddhiṁ naivādhigacchati
na tu bhuktiṁ ca bhaktiṁ ca na ca muktiṁ varānane

Without knowing the meaning of the mantra, you cannot attain success. O Varanane, you cannot attain sense gratification, nor devotion, nor liberation. (6.226.93)

So what we are doing here is inquiring into the meaning of the mantra. If encountering the symbol directly is the same as direct perception (sākṣātkāra) of the Deity, then mining the symbol for its meaning is a part of that process of encounter: śravaṇam, mananam, nididhyāsanam, then darśanam. Hear, reflect, meditate deeply and you will see.

Saying the mantra as a prayer to God is not sufficiently meaningful. Yesterday someone came up to me after my Gita class and asked if Jehovah was the same as Krishna. I said no and he practically burst. I did not find myself particularly capable of expressing myself in a way he could understand, so I should probably have taken the peaceful way out and said, yes they are the same. But they aren’t, even from an Advaita perspective.

An Advaita-vādin should recognize that in transcendence there is a Supreme Reality called Brahman that is the same for everyone, but on the relative platform, people are worshiping Deities that reflect their conditioned states, their cultural backgrounds, etc. And, supposedly, as they become purified in their own spirituality path, they will eventually come to the platform of knowledge that is transcendental to all these Deity forms that are psychologically or culturally conditioned.


Lately I have been thinking about the so'ham (सोऽहम्) mantra some more, and I started to develop a three dimensional model of the psyche based on three axes. The fundamental idea in mantras like सोऽहम् and mahā-vākyas like tat tvam asi is the reconciliation of dualities. We can call this familiar idea "synthesis", samanvaya, or the coniunctio oppositorum. Some form of such reconciliation is the expressed goal of many spiritual schools, and is perhaps the unexpressed goal of the rest. Synthesis should not be confused with the elimination of duality; harmonization and eradication are not the same thing.

This idea of samanvaya exists in the bhakti path as much as it does on the path of yoga or jnana. Bhakti brings the devotee and the Lord into a relation of intimacy, a relationship that is demonstrated in the lives of all the great devotees, but of course is in its most elevated form in Radha.

Love is the conjunction of opposites without eliminating the individual parts; indeed, it may be said that love is the process of harmonizing a duality with the result that each moiety of that duality is enhanced.

What the three axes come down to are three kinds of love: Love of oneself, love of another, and love of God. These are the three axes of personal synthesis. All three axes are symbolized by Radha-Krishna. Their union is the (0,0.0) point on the triple axis. Radha represents love, Krishna represents transcendence. Love brings transcendence, or otherness into one's grasp. Bhaktir evainam nayati, etc.

The horizontal axis is internal, the harmonization of opposites in the personality. Usually when talking about harmonizing the opposites of the personality, we talk about left/right brain, male/female dimensions of the self, or just the conscious and unconscious selves. These can be represented variously by different archetypes, but for simplification we are using the principal duality represented by dominant and dominated aspects, which are masculine and female elements. This too is symbolized by Radha and Krishna. Their union, their dance, must be seen as the symbolic representation of inner harmony.

The vertical axis is love of God and that is symbolized primarily by the Rasa-lila. Most of the symbols of a vertical model of individual soul (jīva) and God (īśvara) are applicable here. Guru-tattva may also be included here. It represents the rising of the soul toward God and here Radha or gopi symbolizes the self moving towards self purification and attainment, elevation towards union with God.

The third axis is that of internal to external, or self to world. This is the plane on which one learns to love other human beings and where one learns to become one with the other on a personal level.

My idea here is that you need to harmonize all three axes to perfect life, and they are all to be cultivated more or less simultaneously. But different paths tend to emphasize one or the other. Some people emphasize the love of God without the two other dimensions and this is incomplete and even condemned. But the same problem arises when we try to do any of the harmonizations on their own without realizing the other dimensions of self-realization. I would say, though, that the safest route would start with love of God, because that is the only path that implies the two others, while the other two do not necessarily imply love of God, without which they are ultimately incomplete.

The so'ham mantra works on all three axes as well. But we have to understand that the apparent monism of this mantra and tat tvam asi, etc., is deceptive. 1 + 1 = 1, but 1 also = 1 + 1, etc.


I previously gave what was an incomplete list of interpretations of Radha, but no matter how long the list, two are closest to our hearts : that of prema-mayi and hlādinī śakti. We take it as our article of faith that the ānanda in sac-cid-ānanda is LOVE. So there is no real distinction to be made between prema and hlādinī. Knowledge is only the precursor to prema. Prema or bhakti, Jiva says is a kind of knowledge, but prema is the fruit of that knowledge.

I got this realization when reading the Bhagavat-sandarbha where Sri Jiva talks about the Brahman realization as being the first stage of realization of the Lord. Now, generally, the Brahmavādins pride themselves on having gone beyond the concept of a personal God through the process of reduction. We have seen on recent pages here (through responses from Anuradha and others) just how easy it is to do. All we have to basically is to find some flaw in the myths, etc., related to the symbols, and immediately we feel justified in reducing them to phenomena produced out of cultural or psychological conditions. And this is exactly what I was talking about when I said that it is like shooting fish in a barrel. At it is also what I am talking about when I say that we need to “purify the symbols.”

If we know what a symbol stands for, then we ignore or avoid accretions that come out of cultural or phenomenological conditions. Radharani stands for prema. Krishna is the Rasarāja. These are the principles of Radha and Krishna that have taken form in the way that they have come to us. If you don’t like the form, that is kind of too bad, because they have accumulated a lot of positive baggage as well as the negative that some are fond of pointing out. This is why I say you need to use your intuition as well as reason. You need to communicate with that part of your soul that once fell in love with the Divine Couple and with their incarnation as Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.

I should mention here that one of the things I have been saying now for at least 15 years, ever since I first started posting on the internet in user groups and the such, is the REASON why Chaitanya Mahaprabhu is considered an incarnation according to Gaudiya Vaishnavas. You have all heard that it is because he taught the Yuga Dharma. But this is external. The real reason he came was to fulfill three desires that he could not realize in his form as Krishna. He needed to adopt Radha’s mood, etc. So Chaitanya is seen by Gaudiya Vaishnavas as a combination of Radha and Krishna. It is more important to see Chaitanya as a combined form than as Krishna with Radha’s mood, even though he is in a male body. It is because, as such, he incarnates a principle and thereby becomes a symbol of transcendence. I hope that this is getting through to someone.

Other gurus are considered Brahman because they incarnate the principle of Brahman somehow, but that is banal and can be discarded as trivial, no matter how great the teacher. Because they do not become an independent and original symbol of transcendence, they are just appropriating a cliché. So what? But with Chaitanya, Rupa and Raghunath saw something that opened their eyes to God who could be understood according to the ideas of rasa, not just morals or other fundamentally negative characteristics.


As I have been explaining, it is necessary to understand the use of symbolism in the theistic concept of spirituality. God speaks to us through symbols; He appears to us in symbols. By saying this, we do not reduce God to the symbol, nor does it reduce the symbol to insignificance. In other words, if I say that Radha and Krishna represent various things, like the “male and female principle”, “God and the jiva/or bhakta”, “God and his energy” and so on, this does not mean that there is some inchoate male and female principle out there, or that God is ultimately formless and that the symbols are merely pointers that can be jettisoned when we understand their meaning. This is a natural tendency, but we must guard against it, for it is one-sided.

There are two dimensions of Vaishnava theism. One is the establishment of divine person, a theistic God transcendental to nature and to the Ground of Being, Brahman. The second stage is to know God in his variegatedness (vicitra-rūpādi-vikalpa-viśeṣa-viśiṣṭa). Now, as I never tire of pointing out, Rupa Goswami's genius was to use the theory of rasa to show how the concept of Krishna, the master of the madhura mood, is superior to all others. This argument is therefore the best proof of the superiority of Krishna, better than any Bhāgavata shloka.

Perhaps Rupa Goswami was sanguine about the possibilities of using scriptural sources to prove anything, and realized that he needed something more convincing than appeals to authority. Even Jiva Goswami himself, though he used the Bhāgavata Purāṇa to establish most of his theological ideas, was obliged to look elsewhere for some of its most important elements. Nevertheless, the Bhagavatam did provide many of the cornerstones of our understanding. And that is the familiar verse

yad-yad-dhiyā ta urugāya vibhāvayanti
tat-tad-vapuḥ praṇayase sad-anugrahāya

The point of confusion perhaps lies in the words kṛṣṇas tu bhagavān. It is hard not to have a gross understanding of the bhagavat-tattva when we hear statements like this. But if I try to explain things psychologically, you should not think that that diminishes Radha and Krishna’s independent reality.

Symbols become imbued with meaning and thus with power. That power is experienced pyschologically. And the more meaning they take on, the more multivalenced and the broader such meanings become, the more power they have--the more they capture our attention and the more they absorb our attention. If we understand God Himself to be a symbol (as Carl Jung does) of the Self, or of Perfection, that does not diminish God.

Literalists will always fear symbolic interpretations because they can’t see how God enters us through symbols.

All the problems of faith and doubt derive from the inability to see that the symbols ARE reality. Their life is the psyche. Unconsciousness of their simultaneous symbolic nature on the one hand and their psychic and spiritual substantiality on the other is the source of the problem. The solution is to see past the symbolism and yet recognize that the life of the symbol IS the life of God.

Symbols always have power, but that power is more benign when we understand the symbols. Knowing the symbols IS knowing God.

See also Shakti Tattva in Vedanta (June 23, 2004)

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Madhusudana Saraswati: Advaita-vada and Bhakti

From the point of view of the Indian jnani tradition, Madhusudana Saraswati has some interesting things to say on the complementarity of the different spiritual paths in his introduction to Gūḍhārtha-dīpikā, a commentary on the Bhagavad Gita.

Madhusudana is an interesting figure. The story goes that he was born in Bengal in 1490 AD (I suspect a bit later) in Faridpur, now in Bangla Desh. He went to meet Chaitanya in Nabadwip, but Mahaprabhu had already left Nabadwip by the time he got there. Madhusudana stayed in Nabadwip for a while, studying Nyāya, the speciality of the place, but remaining deeply devoted to Krishna. From there he went to Benares to further his studies. He became convinced of the Advaita philosophy, but remained a devotee at the same time. This devotional strand shows in his interpretations of the Gita, his commentary on the Bhagavatam, and other works like Bhakti-rasāyana.

As Atmaramananda Swami says in his introduction to the Adwaita Ashram edition of Gūḍhārtha-dīpikā, “…these intellectual pursuits, instead of making Madhusudana content with dry scholarship, increased his spiritual hunger.”

In the introduction to the Gita, Madhusudana proposes (perhaps for the first time—I do not see it in Ramanuja, Shankara or Sridhara Swami) the threefold division of the Gita into six-chapter sections dealing with karma, bhakti and jñāna respectively. This division was subsequently accepted in part by Vishwanath Chakravarti, and so it is known to us. Madhusudana’s original argument, though, is that karma on its own does not have sufficient power to lead the sādhaka to jñāna, and so bhakti is necessary to act as a bridge between the two.

First of all, Shankaracharya makes several points in his own introduction or upodghāṭa to the Gita that are quite interesting. Although I have looked at several translations and not seen it clearly brought out, there is a Vaishnava (Narayana/Vasudeva) slant to Shankara’s introduction that can be observed in three different places, at the beginning, middle and end. It begins with the words nārāyaṇaḥ paro’vyaktāt, which means that Narayan is beyond both the manifest and unmanifest forms of creation. In the middle, when he talks about Narayana incarnating as Krishna, the words he uses are basically those of Gita 4.6 (ajo’pi san, etc.).

But the most remarkable of Shankara’s statements comes at the end of the introduction. After explaining that the nivṛtti-lakṣaṇa-dharma of sannyāsa is the means and ātma-jñāna-niṣṭha the ultimate goal of the Gita’s teachings, and that the pravṛtti-lakṣaṇa-dharma about self-purification leading to that goal, Shankara concludes,

paramārtha-tattvaṁ ca vāsudevākhyaṁ para-brahmābhidheya-bhūtaṁ viśeṣato'bhivyañjayad viśiṣṭa-prayojana-sambandhābhidheyavad gītā-śāstram | yatas tad-artha-vijñānena samasta-puruṣārtha-siddhiḥ |

The Gita shastra, through its special (viśiṣṭa) object (prayojana), interrelations and stated signification, reveals especially that the supreme truth named Vasudeva is the Param Brahma and the object of knowledge delineated in it (abhidheya). From realized knowledge of this meaning, one achieves success in attaining all goals of human life.
Here the use of sambandha, abhidheya (= viṣaya), and prayojana are the standard terms that form a part of the anubandha-chatuṣṭaya, by which a book's purpose, etc., are outlined. (The fourth being adhikāra.)

Madhusudana considers himself to be a follower of Shankara, and his own series of 45 introductory verses can be seen as a commentary on Shankara’s upodghāṭa.

sa-hetukasya saṁsārasyātyantoparamātmakam |
paraṁ niśreyasaṁ gītā-śāstrasyoktaṁ prayojanam ||
sac-cid-ānanda-rūpaṁ tat pūrṇaṁ viṣṇoḥ paraṁ padam |

[Shankara said that] the purpose of the Gita is to attain the supreme good, which is defined as the complete cessation of saṁsāra and its causes. That goal is known as the supreme abode of Vishnu, the form of eternal life, consciousness and bliss. (2-3)

This statement resumes fairly well the entirety of Shankara’s commentary. There is no hint that he considers Vishnu’s param padam to be figurative, metaphorical, secondary, relative, functional, vyavahārika, gauṇa, or anything else but its direct and immediate meaning.

Let us now follow Madhusudan as he summarizes the teachings of the Gita, filling in a number of elements from it that have been skipped in Shankara’s own preface. The Veda, says Madhusudan, is divided into three kandas—karma, upasti and jñānam—and the Gita can be similarly divided into three parallel sections.

karma-niṣṭhā-jñāna-niṣṭhe kathite prathamāntyayoḥ ||
yataḥ samuccayo nāsti tayor ativirodhataḥ|
bhagavad-bhakti-niṣṭhā tu madhyame parikīrtitā ||

Commitment (niṣṭhā) to karma and jñāna are described in the first and last of these sections since there is no direct correlation between the two, as they are completely opposed to one another. Therefore commitment to bhakti to Bhagavan is glorified between them. (5-6)
ubhayānugatā sā hi sarva-vighnāpanodinī |
karma-miśrā ca śuddhā ca jñāna-miśrā ca sā tridhā ||7||

Bhakti follows both and rids each of all obstacles. It is of three kinds: mixed with karma, pure and mixed with jñāna. (7)
Shankara’s text did not specifically mention bhakti at all, though he did mention pravṛtti and nivṛtti. So here Madhusudan is trying to accommodate bhakti into this schema. This threefold division of bhakti could only have come from a Vaishnava sampradāya, but he is not specific about what he means. Nevertheless, from the context, it looks like he is saying that bhakti runs through the entire Gita, where it manifests as karma-miśra, pure, and jñāna-miśra respectively within the Gita's three divisions. The anuga in this verse would thus mean, the subject of bhakti follows through the discussion of the two other subjects.

The first six chapters explain the process of renouncing karmas, and the purification of knowledge of the tvam-padārtha, i.e., what is meant by “thou” in the statement “thou art That,” i.e., the individual soul. The second section, in which bhakti is described, is about learning what bhagavan, the supreme joy, i.e., the tat-padārtha, the “that” in “thou art That,” is all about. The third section explains the identity between the two, the “art” (asi).

Madhusudan then draws a more explicit outline of the Gita’s path of self-realization. It starts with the performance of niṣkāma-karma, the primary meaning of which is given as the renunciation of forbidden actions and those that are purely materialistic in purpose, but includes on the positive side duties of japa and praises of Lord Hari. Here we can see that since bhakti is a positive engagement of the senses, body and mind, it is within Shankara’s realm of pravṛtti-lakṣaṇa-dharma, albeit seen as one that has certain purificatory properties that distinguish it from karma per se, even the karma that renounces the fruits of action.

When the mind becomes progressively free of sin, it becomes capable of discrimination and distinguishing between what is eternal and what is not (nityānitya-viveka). When that becomes strong, one becomes detached from both this and future worlds, a state that is given the name vaśīkāra (the ability to control). Here it should be noted that Madhusudan is using a term that comes directly from the Yoga-sūtra (1.15). This is an important feature of his commentary in general, but it also has a bearing on his view of the role of bhakti, as we shall see.

When one has acquired the qualifications of mind and sense-control, etc., one becomes fixed in sannyāsa. Here again, Madhusudan touches base with Shankara, whose own description of the ultimate good or the complete cessation of saṁsāra and its causes is sannyāsa, for which he cites several passages from the Anugita (in Mahabharata 14) and Gita 18.66.

In this way, through the renunciation of all worldly things, a solid desire for liberation arises and one then takes the steps of approaching a guru and learning from him. In order to eradicate doubts, one should hear the Vedanta Sutra, etc.; all texts dealing with Vedanta philosophy are useful in this process. As this study matures one becomes fixed in nididhyāsana or profound meditation on the Truth. The whole of Yoga scripture is also used up (upakṣīṇa) at this stage.

When the disqualifications of the mind are even further reduced, one’s mind becomes fixed in the truth through hearing the mahāvākyas, through sound one attains direct knowledge called nirvikalpa. Ignorance or avidyā comes to cessation, knowledge of the truth arises, and with the dissipation of the coverings, error and doubt are also dissipated. All anārabdha-karmas are destroyed and no new karmas are created by the power of this knowledge of the truth.

Due to the influence of prārabdha-karmas, certain desires or vāsanas do not disappear, but due to the strength of self-control in the advanced renunciate, they are kept in check. This self-control (saṁyama) is composed of three parts: dhāraṇā, dhyāna and samādhi [the last three of the eight aṅgas of yoga, See YS 3.4]. Although the five yamas (YS 2.30) are prerequisite to this achievement, samādhi will be quickly attained through īśvara-praṇidhānāt (YS 1.23, 2.45). This reference to the Yoga-sūtra is to the element of bhakti; Although many translations of praṇidhāna are possible, Vyasa's gloss is bhakti-viśeṣāt.

At this stage, the mind is "destroyed" and the vāsanās are also eradicated, and when knowledge of Reality is practiced along with these two, one’s implantation as a jīvan-mukta is solid. This is why renunciation in knowledge (vidvat-sannyāsa) is mentioned in the Upanishads, so that whichever of these three elements is missing should be carefully worked on. [Note: Madhusudan uses the term vidvat-sannyāsa several times in the Gita 2.70, 3.1, 18.4, 18.14, etc., but I could not find a direct reference in Shruti or Shruti commentaries.]

At this point Madhusudan uses the terms sa-vikalpa and nirvikalpa-samādhi. It is at this stage that the former, which had already been attained, is replaced by the latter, in its three stages or bhūmis: in the first he can be awakened by others, in the second he can awaken himself, in the last, he remains ever absorbed. At this stage he can be called a Brahmin, the best of the expounders of Vedanta. He is said to be beyond the three gunas, is sthita-prajña, and a devotee of Vishnu! (Weren’t expecting that, were we?)

evaṁ-bhūto brāhmaṇaḥ syād variṣṭho brahma-vādinām |
guṇātītaḥ sthita-prajño viṣṇu-bhaktaś ca kathyate ||28||

Here Madhusudan uses many of the flash words from the tradition: He is beyond Varnashram, he is a living liberated soul (jīvanmukta), he takes pleasure in the self (ātma-rati). The scriptures have nothing to say to such a person because he is entirely fulfilled (kṛta-kṛtya).

At this point, in keeping with verses in the Upanishads like yasya deve parā bhaktiḥ, etc. (Sve.U. 6.23), devotion to Bhagavan in all circumstances with body, mind and words is appropriate. The verse from Svetasvatara is the first full quotation in this intro.

pūrva-bhūmau kṛtā bhaktir uttarāṁ bhūmim ānayet |
anyathā vighna-bāhulyāt phala-siddhiḥ sudurlabhā ||32||
The devotion that was performed at an earlier stage must now be brought to this higher stage. If not, because of the abundance of obstacles, success in attaining the fruit [of one’s sadhana] will be unlikely.
It still seems that although Madhusudan is treating bhakti as utilitarian at this elevated stage, it is nevertheless quite a novelty to see bhakti enter the picture again at the stage of nirvikalpa-samādhi. He goes on to quote Gita 6.44-45 about being born again and achieving the goal after many births and states that in cases where spiritual achievements are seen in someone as a result of previous lives’ saṁskāras, as though they fell like fruit from the sky, that these should not be questioned. They are the results of previous lifetimes of practice.

Then again, in verse 36, Madhusudan reiterates:

evaṁ prāg-bhūmi-siddhāv apy uttarottara-bhūmaye |
vidheyā bhagavad-bhaktis tāṁ vinā sā na siddhyati ||36||
jīvan-mukti-daśāyāṁ tu na bhakteḥ phala-kalpanā |
adveṣṭṛtvādivat teṣāṁ svabhāvo bhajanaṁ hareḥ ||37||
Although after each stage is attained, in order to obtain the subsequent level, bhagavad-bhakti is always prescribed, for without it success cannot be attained. Nevertheless, when one comes to the stage of jivan-mukti, no result for bhakti can be imagined. Just like the qualities of non-enmity are natural to the liberated soul, so too is the bhajan of Lord Hari.

And at this point, he quotes the famous ātmārāma verse from the Bhāgavatam, as though inheriting the tradition of Prakashananda Saraswati:

ātmārāmāś ca munayo nirgranthā apy urukrame |
kurvanty ahaitukīṁ bhaktim itthaṁ-bhūta-guṇo hariḥ ||

Sages who take pleasure in the self and who are freed from all bondage, still perform causeless devotional service to Urukrama, for such are the divine attributes of Lord Hari. (1.7.10)

And that is followed by the Gita 7.17: “Of these, the person in knowledge is most dear to me. He is always joined with me, for by his singular devotion, he differentiates himself from all the others.”

All these things have been taught in the Gita, and therefore I am most enthusiastic to explain it. This again mirrors Shankara’s words in his upodghāṭa, as do his description of the grief and bewilderment that are afflicting Arjuna.

So, there is certainly a lot of food for thought in this description, by a jnani, of a path leading to Krishna bhakti. It resembles very much the verse 18.55 which states that after becoming brahma-bhūta one can attain “the highest” devotion for Krishna.

I find it interesting because I believe that Madhusudan is on to something here. That whatever particular path you follow to attain ultimate devotion, there is a stage called brahma-bhūta that must be passed through. There are some doctrinal differences here and there in his schema, but I have brought it up here because of the ideas that preceded this interlude into Madhusudan.


Ontological argument, symbolism, etc., Part III

What I have been trying to get at in the previous two posts (Part I and Part II) is that the way we look at the relation of the symbol to God can be compared to the way that any phenomenon is looked at in relation to God.

In other words, where cause and effect relationships are debated, they are usually reduced to a kind of chicken-egg argument that can ultimately only be decided in favor of God.

Though this analysis of cause and effect will always be challenged (and often with good cause) by doubters, what we are trying to get at is the essence of the symbol, which will reveal something about the Godhead itself. This understanding of the essence of the symbol, intuited by believers, must nevertheless be purified by the Upanishadic process of śravaṇam, mananam and nididhyāsanam. That is the path to darśanam, direct seeing and understanding, sākṣātkāra.

If one asks, does the symbol not show, as the psychologists argue, something about material phenomena, especially the individual or collective psyche? The answer is that the multifarious meanings of a symbol simultaneously shed light on both, like the lamp on a door-ledge illuminates both inside and out (known as dehalī-dīpa-nyāya in Sanskrit).

Why should what it reveals about life not reveal something about Absolute Reality also? Does our conception of life not influence our ideas about reality and vice versa? And why should God Itself not contain the essence of all that is best about humanity? Isn’t that really what the God symbol is about? Isn’t this what the personalism of the Vaishnavas is supposed to lead us to?

To accept that the God symbol actually has something real to say about God, or that God communicates through symbols, or finally that God is not really distinct from these symbols, i.e., he is present in his symbols the way that Vaishnavas say God is present in his name or in his deity form, would be a significant admission from the agnostic.

On the other hand, for a Vaishnava to admit that the transcendent symbols of God also have something to say about us and the world is also significant, for it ties worldly phenomena to the divine in a way that appears to weaken any arguments about transcendence.

If, as it is sometimes held, Radha and Krishna’s loves are merely pointing to repressed sexual desires, or are a protest against the dominant sexual mores or in some other way reflect things about the Hindu sexuality of a particular historical period, or indeed about a particular sexual complex in the individual psyche, in other words, if it can be reduced to (i.e., it is nothing but) to that, then what is left for the believer? This is the objection.

Religious people naturally guard against such reductionism, but the inability to accept the validity of a symbolic interpretation of the gods, most especially the gods to which we are tied by faith and religious commitment, is a handicap to spiritual understanding rather than a sign of great niṣṭhā.

Even Vaishnava literalists always give a symbolic meaning to their Deities. What else is it when we say Krishna is Rasarāja or the transcendental Madana personified, or that “Radha is the personification of love” or Mahābhāva-svarūpinī?

Even saying that Krishna is God, or Mahaprabhu is God, are symbolic statements, since God Himself is a symbol of what is often a vague constellation of values, which may be quite culturally conditioned despite obligatory attempts to universalize them. Such efforts at universalization often end up banalizing the God-symbol, with cliches like “God is love,” etc. Nevertheless, without such an attempt to identify universal values, there could be no claim for any such God-ness of a God symbol; projecting culturally conditioned values would be a result of unconscious assumptions about their universality.

Take for example the multiple meanings ascribed to Radha. I posted comments a while back on the paper one of my students at McGill gave about Radha, in which she spoke of the evolution in ways of looking at Radha, from ordinary human to Supreme Goddess. Sharan Behari Goswami in his book on the sakhī-bhāva in Braj literature, also gives a resume of the different symbolic interpretations or vyākhyās of Radha, including both those given by secular and religious commentators. I will give the list here without much comment.
(1) Radha as ordinary woman, i.e., as a literary object of love.
(2) Radha as exemplary devotee of God. (See BhP 10.21.31)
(3) Radha as a metaphor for a particular celestial body (where Krishna is the moon, etc.)
(4) Radha as a metaphor for the kuṇḍalinī śakti (which is on abhisāra through the spinal chakras to reach Krishna in the thousand-petalled lotus in the cranium).
(5) Radha as an avatar of Shiva. (This is from a late upapurāṇa called the Mahābhāgavata Purāṇa).
(6) Radha as a symbol of the Prakriti of Sankhya philosophy.
(7) Radha as a manifestation of the goddess of the Shaktas, i.e., Shakti or Durga. (The reference is to Sammohana-tantra, quoted in Jiva’s commentary to Brahma-saṁhitā.)
(8) Radha as supreme goddess, creator of this universe, i.e. Maya Shakti.
(9) Radha as Krishna (God)’s pleasure potency (hlādinī śakti).
(10) Radha as personification of the love principle (prema-tattva)
Some of these interpretations are trivial, some interesting; some come directly to the point. In my response to this student’s paper, I expressed the opinion that the more aiśvarya is ascribed to the deity, the further we really are away from its true meaning. It is, in fact, a means to cover its symbolic reality. It is as though the numinosity of the symbol is so brilliant that we cover our eyes to avoid it. This is what Jung meant when he said that the function of religion is often to help people avoid spiritual experience. When we put something on a pedestal and outside the purview of any rational critique, then we are effectively putting its symbolic and spiritual value into limbo.

When we remove the necessity of interpreting a symbol for fear of reducing its divinity, we are in fact removing the very source of its power. We are trying to insulate the symbol from analysis, when it is precisely the complete rational investigation of the symbol that uncovers the profound powers that lie within it.

This is what Jung meant when he said that “religion” insulates us from religious experience. In the first place, it depersonalizes it and communalizes it, making the group the arbiter of meaning and not the individual, leading to a kind of common denominator of meaning that exalts institutional values over the personal.

And this is why kaniṣṭha religion is tamasic; it neither allows for other, natural symbolic interpretations to enter the rigid ones that are institutionally permitted, nor does it allow one to discover global perspectives by which we can find a place for all human phenomena in the process of self and God-realization.

Symbolic interpretations are sometimes condemned in Vaishnava circles by the label "ādhyātmika interpretation," but what is really being objected to is reductionist interpretation. Even the Vaishnava commentators and present-day literalists do not hesitate to call Radha hlādinī śakti, prema-svarūpā, mahā-bhāva-svarūpiṇī as intimated above, even though these words all carry within them the force of interpretive meaning rather than pure mythological literalism. Radha’s meaning is that she incarnates love, and that bhakti is pleasing to God, etc.

But again, if we only look in one direction, we miss part of the point. The candle is lighting both inside and out. A metaphor is only as good as one of its parts. If there were no value in the human experience of love, there would be no point in apotheosizing a personification of the ideal manifestation of that experience. So the symbol of God most definitely has something to say about the human experience as well. Anyone who denies this is governed by the statement paśyann api na paśyati, “sees but does not see.”

Trying to exclude the sexual meaning of Radha-Krishna symbolism is like trying to stop water from flowing downhill.

If we only approach that symbolism from one limited point, or if we exclude other interpretations because they take us to places we are uncomfortable going, then we are better off with another God-symbol. But it is precisely the most sexual aspects of Radha Krishna lila that provide us with the thickest layers of force.

So, just to summarize: There is a complementarity between creation and divine reality, not an absolute distinction. God communicates to us through symbols that are intelligible because they are grounded in our experience. These symbols are multidimensional and inherently dialectic in nature, thus making them potentially infinitely rich sources of meaning. The process of understanding God is thus both cumulative and unending, and comes through direct experience of these symbols. This is both an intuitive and a rational process.

Part I
Part II

Why I pray for Krishna to descend as Bhangi Bihari

My idea behind Krishna as “Bhangi Bihari” was only partly joking. In fact I am quite serious. Even though I realize that the use of the term may be considered offensive, insulting or politically incorrect, I used it because of its similarity to Banke Bihari. No other names for the sanitation workers, who now prefer to be called Valmikas, are as alliterative, so though I am changing most of the uses of the word "bhangi" in the article to either of the above, I am leaving the title as is with apologies to anyone who might be offended. I will not do it again.

There is a widespread cultural problem involved and to counter that, values have to be instilled by whatever means possible. My proposals here can be judged in relationship to the kind of myth and symbol-making procedures that I have been discussing in my last couple of posts, a theme that I intend to pursue further.

Let us put it this way: There are several values related to environmental and social issues that have not been adequately symbolized in Krishna devotion, or rather have not been adequately highlighted in Hinduism in general. Since these particular values have thus been marginalized, we need to highlight them by symbolic means, i.e., by bringing them into line with existing religious symbols. Let us list a few of these values.

(1) Sanitation workers are human beings, eligible for devotion, and Krishna is their God too

It may seem superfluous to say this, but Vaishnavism is generally seen as an egalitarian religious movement that does not discriminate against any particular caste, no matter how lowly in human estimation. By calling Krishna "Bhangi Bihari," we are acknowledging not only a relation, but a special one. Reasons for a special relationship will be cited further below. With regards to the egalitarian concept of Vaishnavism, numerous verses could be cited here, but just as a reminder, here are a couple:

kirāta hūṇāndhra pulinda pulkaśā
ābhīra śumbhā yavanāḥ khasādayaḥ
ye'nye ca pāpā yad apā
śudhyanti tasmai prabhaviṣṇave namaḥ
I beg to offer my respectful obeisances unto the Lord, the supreme power, by taking shelter of whose devotees, the Kiratas, Huns, Andhras, Pulindas, Pulkashas, Abhiras, Shumbhas, Yavanas, members of the Khasa races (Mongoloid), and others addicted to sinful acts can be purified. (SB 2.4.18)
yat-prahvaṇād yat-smaraṇād api kvacit
śvādo’pi sadyaḥ savanāya kalpate
kutaḥ punas te bhagavan nu darśanāt
Devahuti says to Kapiladeva, “O Lord, even a person born in an outcaste family of dog-eaters immediately becomes qualified to perform Vedic sacrifices simply by hearing, chanting, praying, paying obeisances, or remembering you. So what can we then say of the honors deserved by a person who has seen you face to face?” (Bhāg. 3.33.6)
aho bata śva paco 'to garīyān
yaj jihvāgre vartate nāma tubhyam
tepus tapas te juhuvuḥ sasnur āryā
brahmānūcur nāma gṛṇanti ye te
O my Lord, how can I glorify the person who chants your holy name? Even though this name touches only the tip of his tongue, and even though he may have been born of a low family like that of a dog eater, he immediately becomes most worshipable. Such people must be accepted as functional Brahmins despite their low birth because they must have engaged in all the religious activities that give the Brahmin his qualifications, such as penances and sacrifices according to Vedic rituals, taking his bath in all the holy places of pilgrimage, studying the Vedic literatures and following strict regulations in his personal life. Only after thoroughly perfecting these activities in previous lives would it be possible for him to chant the Holy Name in this lifetime. (SB 3.33.7)
Of course, in a way, even the above is somewhat insulting to sanitation workers, as it assumes that they are more sinful than other beings. The correct theological position is that all are spirit soul and deserving of the merciful attention of compassionate devotees on all levels of existence, material, social, personal and spiritual. So let us not perpetuate the ills that have been traditionally inflicted on them. Human degradation is perpetuated when we treat others as degraded.

The glory of Vaishnavism has never been fulfilled in this respect and one way to do so would be to promote the concept of a Krishna who comes among the Valmikas to share his mercy with them.

(2) The work that sanitation workers do needs to be validated

We need to validate the service that the sanitation workers do, to recognize that theirs is a noble calling, even though it has been inflicted on them by the rigors of a backward social system. The fact that some people of Indian background, who were brought up outside of India, are still affected by a distaste for the work that the cleaners do shows how deeply the problem is rooted in the Indian psyche. Do you really think that Krishna is affected by the horror Hindus have of cleaning toilets?

As the comments of another person so categorically showed, there is an undervaluation of the work that cleaners of human filth and waste do. Though they are cleaning others’ mess, no one else gives them any respect. Although all members of the Varnashram system are parts of the Divine Social Body, for some reason Hindu society wants to deny the role of these essential players. It is the old half a chicken story. You eat, so why do you pretend that you don’t have to defecate? It sometimes seem that people in India will attend to bodily functions pretty much everywhere, as long as it is not their own living room. So what is the only reason that they do not honor the sanitation workers? Their lack of respect for the sanitation worker comes from a disdain for the purpose they serve. And that in turn reflects on Indian people's attitude toward the environment in general.

Wouldn't it be nice if Valmikas were educated and trained as sanitation engineers, experts in the art and science of environmental management, installing toilets and teaching others about their proper use. And what about developing ecological and non wasteful systems of sewage management and treatment, to protect decreasing water resources? Isn’t it about time that this became a preeminent value in Indian society? Of course, unless the Valmikas' social status changed, they could not show leadership in anything.

The denigration and marginalization of the Valmikas comes down on them and makes them undervalue their own role in society. Can you imagine the kind of persistent undermining of self-worth that these people experience in their day-to-day existence? Gandhi called them Harijanas, Ambedkar converted them to Buddhism, they call them Dalits and so many other things, and yet the change in society is slow.

The transformation of Hindu environmentalism depends on the transformation of consciousness regarding the Valmikas, and of the transformation of the Valmikas’ consciousness. In other words, Valmika pride in who they are and what they do. That is part of what Bhangi Bihari is about. And what better place to do this than in Vraja?

3. Cleanliness and service to the environment are jobs for everyone, not just caste sweepers

Cleanliness and taking care of the environment is a job for everyone, not just the sanitation workers. We should all become sanitation workers for Krishna. The world is Krishna’s kunja and we should take care of it as though he were really coming there to meet Srimati Radharani. Cleaning the kunja is manjari seva. Why then do we condemn the act of serving the environment as though it made people untouchable?

We want to do mānasī sevā of sweeping Radharani’s kunj, but heaven forbid that we should pick up a broom and start sweeping the real Dham that is in this world, and that all the scriptures tell us is non-different from that one!

śrī-vṛndāvana-vandanāya satataṁ mūrdhāstu bahv-ādarī
jihvā vihvalatām upaitu satataṁ tat-sad-guṇotkīrtane |
hastau tan nava-kuñja-mārjana-vidhau pādau ca tatrāṭane
śrotre tan-mahima-śrutau dṛśi dṛśau nityaṁ smṛtau stān manaḥ ||
May my head always take great pleasure in bowing down to Sri Vrindavan Dham. May my tongue always be fervent about in singing its transcendent glories. May my hands be engaged in sweeping the new kunjas, my feet in walking there, my ears in hearing, my eyes in seeing, my mind in remembering its glories. (Vṛndāvana-mahimāmṛtam 7.48)
sva-hasta-racitāṁ priya-sukha-camatkṛta-prītaye
vicitra-paripāṭikāṁ kusuma-vāṭikām āsthitām |
vicitra-nava-kuñjakāvali-pariṣkriyādau ratāṁ
bhajāmy anuga-kiṅkarīm abhisṛtāṁ mudā rādhikām ||
I worship Srimati Radhika, after who after going out into the woods to meet Krishna, followed by her faithful kiṅkarīs, has prepared a flower bower in a wonderful and colorful way for the pleasure of her beloved by her own hand, and there waits, cleaning and decorating the beautiful new groves. (Vṛndāvana-mahimāmṛtam 14.78)
The assumption is that the manjaris are here helping Radha sweep and clean the kunja.

rādhā-mādhavayor yaśāṁsi satataṁ gāyaṁs tathā karṇayan
taj jīveṣu ca varṇayan sama-rasaiḥ sambhūya santarkayan |
kuñjaṁ kuñjam anārataṁ bahu pariṣkurvan mahā-bhāvato
dehādau kṛta-helano dayita he vṛndāṭavīm āvasa ||
O dear one, Constantly singing and hearing the praises of Radha and Madhava, describing the same to the creatures of Vrindavan, seeing them all with the same vision, going from kunja to kunja, cleaning without stop in ecstatic service mood, give up all thought of your body and reside in Vrindavan Dham. (Vṛndāvana-mahimāmṛtam 1.59)
kāścit kuñjān niravadhi pariṣkurvate śrī-vibhedair
grathanty anyā vividha-kusumair divya-mālyādikāni |
kāścid yuktyā vidadhati mudā divya-gandha-prakārān
kāścit kuñcanty ativara-paṭaṁ yatra rādhā-sudāsyaḥ ||
Some of Radha’s dasis are engaged constantly in cleaning the kunjas, others are grading the beauty of the flowers and making garlands and the such. Yet others are devotedly preparing scents and fragrances or folding clothes. (Vṛndāvana-mahimāmṛtam 6.75)
yat kiṅkarīṣu bahuśaḥ khalu kāku-vāṇī
nityaṁ parasya puruṣasya śikhaṇḍa-mauleḥ |
tasyāḥ kadā rasanidher vṛṣabhānujāyās
tat-keli-kuñja-bhuvanāṅgaṇa-mārjanī syām ||
When will I become a sweeper of the ocean of rasa Radharani’s keli kunja, where the peacock feathered Krishna, the supreme person, comes always to beg her kinkaris for mercy. (Rādhā-rasa-sudhā-nidhi 8)
The point being that because the kinkaris are sweeping the kunja, Krishna has to beg them to let him in and see Radha.

pāda-sparśa-rasotsavaṁ praṇatibhir govindam indīvara-
śyāmaṁ prārthayituṁ sumañjula-rahaḥ-kuñjāṁś ca sammārjitum|
ādātuṁ ca rasaika-dāyini tava preṣyā kadā syām aham ||
When will I be sent by you, O unique giver of the rasas, to appeal to the blue-lotus hued Govinda by falling at his feet and touching his feet, or to sweep the delighful hiddent kunjas, or to bring garlands, sandalwood, fragrances, flavorful tambula and sweet sherbet drinks for your pleasure. (Rādhā-rasa-sudhā-nidhi 61)
rādhā-mādhavayor vicitra-suratārambhe nikuñjodare
srasta-prastara-saṅgatair vapur alaṅkurve'ṅga-rāgaiḥ kadā |
tatraiva truṭitāḥ srajo nipatitāḥ sandhāya bhūyaḥ kadā
kaṇṭhe dhārayitāsmi mārjana-kṛte prātaḥ praviṣṭāsmy aham ||
When will the day come when I enter the kunja in the morning to sweep it, and pick up the decorations and garlands that fell to the floor when Radha and Madhava begin their festival of lovemaking, and decorate them with them again as well as with various unguents, and place around their necks again the garlands that broke and fell to the ground. (Rādhā-rasa-sudhā-nidhi 180)
Now the next verse is really quite interesting:

praṇālīṁ kīlālair bahubhir abhi saṅkṣālya madhurair
mudā saṁmārjya svair vivṛta-kaca-vṛndaiḥ priyatayā |
kadā bāhyāgāraṁ vara-parimalair dhūpa-nivahair
vidhāsye te devi pratidinam aho vāsitam aham ||
O Devi, when will the time come when I joyfully wash the drains with buckets of sweet water, sweeping them with my own hair out of love, and when will I daily make your toilet (bāhyāgāraṁ) fragrant with clouds of incense smoke. (Vilāpa-kusumāñjalī 18)
Interesting that there are toilets in the Nitya Dham. Well I guess this explains how the excretory organs are used in devotional service. This also reminds us of how Narottam Das accepted the role of a sweeper in the service of his guru.

There are probably others also. Basically I just did a search for sweeping. But let us not forget Prataparudra and Mahaprabhu's pleasure with him for cleaning the rath, and Mahaprabhu's own joyful pastime in cleaning Gundicha. We need to see beyond the specifics of the lila and extrapolate to a wider concept of the Gundicha and Radharani's kunja.

So let us not minimize the glories of Bhangi Bihari, or call it an insult to Krishna. Let us rather think of it as a lila in which Krishna accepts the lowest role in society in order to serve Radha by joining her kinkaris in cleaning the kunja.

Until the leaders of India's religious movements actually get out on the streets with brooms, side by side with the sanitation worker and help him pick up garbage, organize proper disposal sites, chastise those who scoff at the principles of the communal good by dirtying common spaces, and preach from their pulpits about these principles, the whole of Hindu religious practice is put into doubt.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Symbolism and the Ontological Argument, Part II

Literalist concepts of God were made to be mocked; they are for children. And even understood symbolically, many concepts of God are fraught with problems. In the present day world, crude literalist forms of Islam and fundamentalist Christianity are leading the charge to cause doubts in the minds of reasonable people about all forms of the religious life. And for good reason.

The purpose of the "God idea" or "God symbol" is to elevate humanity both as individuals and as social beings. If it appears to do the opposite, then what can this mean? Some defenders of religion say that it has done more good than bad, but since there is no way to measure such things it is quite easy to point out that plenty of pretty horrible evils have been wrought in the name of God and religion. Even if such a jaundiced view were to be true, on its own, it hardly functions as a decisive proof that religion does not have a positive function or that God does not exist.

Thinking of God Himself, first of all as a symbol, whose existence is in the psyche, is not a new idea, even though it has been refined by Carl Jung and his followers. The Vedantic idea of cit indicates that God, whether subjective or objective reality, is only experienced subjectively.

In modern thinking, this idea sprang into prominence in the 19th century with Ludwig Feuerbach coined the term “projection,” which was later used and popularized by Sigmund Freud and others. The implication is, like the response to the ontological argument, that the psychological need for a God may be felt, but it is illusory and the particular response to it, i.e., religious belief and practice, is false. The need is based in a host of purely natural causes, primarily the desire for love (or the sexual instinct), which has either not come to maturity (through the acceptance of reality) or been distorted or deformed by some traumatic experience.

On another level, individual life objectively lacks order, meaning or love, and yet human beings desire order, meaning, and love. Since the world can never fully provide satisfaction to all three desires when it comes to something as complex as human life, individuals and collectivities project a God to assure them that there is indeed order, meaning and love at the very basis of creation. Freud and his followers fearlessly identified this as an illusion, and boldly claimed that the need for such an illusion would eventually fall away with the maturation of humanity, in the same way that Marx believed the state would fall away in a communist society.

So far, history has not established which of these many illusions is the strongest.

Are order, meaning and love realities or illusions? To the extent that scientists have faith in order, we believe that there is one. So perhaps we project order onto our own lives, in spite of disasters like the airplane accidents or the senseless premature loss of loved ones. But if we see those elements of chaos as part of the overall order, then they are assimilated into that order and the venom is taken out of their fangs. So all religions have some defense of God to disculpate Him of evil, which is called theodicy.

Janma, mrityu, jara, vyadhi. Dukkam. They are there to remind us of the hierarchy of human needs and a host of other values. If the goal of existence was merely the fulfillment of our sensual appetites, then perhaps chaos would prevail over order. But religion and the God-ideal have taught humanity in every society that there are higher values than this. In my version of the ontological argument, the push to higher values, even if in a state of human maturity no longer requiring the overt symbolism of a God to be justified or heeded, still points to the existence of a higher truth, which for practical purpose we will designate by the word "God."

Sometimes societies or individuals have gotten overexcited by some ideals and imposed their own subjectively, historically conditioned vision of a higher value coercively, most often without giving any consideration to the possibility of relativism. It seems to me that warnings against such excesses have been there in most religions from the very beginning, but alas, not heeding warnings is part of human freedom.

Religion is a human phenomenon that is subject to the effects of the qualities of material nature: it can be godly or demoniac according to the character of the people who practice it. If we see the Ideal as a universal "God principle" and religion as the universal response to such an Ideal (whether acted upon or not), then God and religion are indeed universals.

So, let us begin with the God-symbol and ask ourselves, what is it essentially? Is it there only as a compensation for the inadequacy of our own existence? Is Marx’s famous dictum about religion being the "opium of the people" and the "cry of the forlorn" the only explanation for its existence?

Most of the traditional functions of God and religion have been usurped in the great forward march of civilization. As science becomes more and more capable of explaining phenomena, God is left only to fill in the gaps that the true believers in science feel it will inevitably explain one day. Religion as entertainment is replaced by television; religion performing a socializing function is replaced by football games and raves; religion as social work is replaced by the state and secular organizations.

Evolution in the idea of God

First of all, we have to accept the idea of evolution in the concept of God. Even if we accept that the insights of the founders of all religious schools were profound, universal and often unshakable in their power, we must recognize that whatever the purity and truth of such realizations, the ability of mankind to comprehend them has been spotty.

Nevertheless, the power of these religions to survive is not so much due to the mad molecule named “meme” as to the force of the symbols related to the ultimate ideals and meanings of mankind, namely their ability to vehicle and to express, whether in verbal or symbolic form, an ideal, or the ultimate goal of life for the human being.

And even if we do not accept that the founders of religious schools necessarily had a deeper insight into Truth—they may even have been catering to regressive forces in their societies—the symbols they introduced, either through their teachings or through the myths that they themselves embodied, [even in cases where such myths have no historical individual we can point to,] have taken on a life of their own and showed sufficient depth to allow richer, deeper meanings to be assimilated to it.

God does not change; God is infinite and infinite possibilities exist in God, but humankind’s understanding evolves as its basis for understanding grows and its power to reflect more widely grows with it.

So, there is evolution or the possibility of evolution in the understanding of what God is, and this is true for each sectarian exploration of God and the relationship that the individual has to God. From a purely material perspective this is a human adjustment on an ad hoc basis for the purpose of preserving a dubious concept. From the God’s eye view, this is humanity struggling to comprehend the revelations that God is constantly sending to it, primarily through the medium of the symbols in which God is present.

So there are two perspectives that appear to work counter to one another, but in fact these two approaches are complementary, for just as in any other field of knowledge, the science of God is also dialectical and progressive in nature.

On the one hand is the Upanishadic neti neti, the rationalists’ via negativa or deconstruction of the most vital and essential concept known to humanity, that of God. It tries to strip God of all idolatrous interpretation, all vestiges of projection and falseness.

On the other hand is the intuitive approach that recognizes God in the human, knows that the deepest symbol of Deity is to be found in what is best in humanity, in empathy, in love, in charity, in service, as well as in beauty, truth and other qualities that find their apex in their ideal human forms.

Now if someone were to say, “But the traditional sources of knowledge are most authoritative. These explain any symbols or myths in a decisive fashion. So what is all this talk about God ‘speaking to us’ through the symbols?”, to this my answer is: Yes, the discourses surrounding symbolic representations of God are indeed authoritative and to be respected because of the force they give to such symbols. But we should look at such things historically and remember that they can usually be placed in a context. For instance, Jiva’s Six Sandarbhas, at least the first four, are meant to bring us to one point—

sarvato'pi sāndrānanda-camatkāra-kāra-śrī-kṛṣṇa-prakāśe
śrī-vṛndāvane'pi paramādbhuta-prakāśaḥ
śrī-rādhayā yugalitas tu śrī-kṛṣṇa iti.
In the manifestation as Sri Krishna, which is more filled with intense wonder and joy than any other, and especially that Krishna who is most wonderfully manifest in Sri Vrindavan in the company of Srimati Radharani [is the supreme worshipable object].
And Jiva concludes the Kṛṣṇa-sandarbha with the following verse:

gaura-śyāma-rucojjvalābhir amalair akṣṇor vilāsotsavair
nṛtyantībhir aśeṣa-mādana-kalā-vaidagdhya-digdhātmabhiḥ
anyonya-priyatā-sudhā-parimala-stomonmadābhiḥ sadā
rādhā-mādhava-mādhurībhir abhitaś cittaṁ mamākrāmyatām
May my mind be overcome by the sweetness of Sri Sri Radha Madhava,
effulgent with the glow of gold and black,
dancing with the pure festive play of their eyes,
at its soul, the maddening mastery of the love arts,
always intoxicated with the intense nectarean fragrance
of their mutual love.
But what is going on here is a change in the symbolic language. Through the mercy of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, who himself incarnated the Divine Couple within himself, the sixteenth century in Hindu India saw a sort of “changing of the gods,” and Radha-Krishna became predominant. Sri Rupa and his followers were at the vanguard of this change, and even though there may be some debate about “who was first,” the Goswamis established the connecting link to the prior traditions that gave scriptural legitimacy to this bhajan. To the Nitya-vihārī sampradāyas like the Radha-vallabhis and Haridasis, this is so much wasted effort since it takes time away from the essence, but they are obliged to look for Sri Rupa’s when they try to establish their own theological legitimacy through argument and scriptural proofs.

But I digress: whatever the state of theological developments in the 16th century, we must recognize that all these discourses are secondary to the power of the symbol itself. God, in these symbolic representations, speaks to us directly. By hearing the voices of the past, God’s voice is made clearer, but the ultimate goal is to hear God’s voice directly. Bhagavat-sākṣātkāra begins with the sākṣātkāra of the symbol. Indeed there really is no difference. This will need to be explained.

Part III.
Part I

Symbolism and the Ontological Argument, Part I

The ontological proof for the existence of God takes many forms. For some philosophers it is strong, for others it is almost laughably weak. “Because the idea exists, the reality must exist” certainly does not seem tenable; it can be reduced to the form, “God exists because I wish Him to exist.” If we imagine the moon is made of green cheese or that pigs have wings, does that make it so? Just because I can imagine something does not make it real.

Of course, there is something more persuasive about the argument. For instance, if we hold that the search for God and meaning is inherent or instinctual, then the implication that this search must end somewhere seems more tenable. We feel hunger, for instance, and this implies food. We feel sexual desire and this implies some kind of necessary purpose, namely procreation. So since many of us need to find meaning in life, the implication is that there is a meaning. Many atheists insist that they feel absolutely no need for God, but it is harder for anyone to say that they can live without giving life some kind of meaning.

The existentialists argue that there is no inherent meaning to anyone’s existence and that we are therefore obliged to impose one. I hold that this is a circular argument that has no particular conclusion. My ability to impose meaning may indeed be a facility that is a part of the entire construct of meaning and the search for it.

There are some who say that there is no order in the universe; that it is fundamentally chaotic. Man imposes order and meaning in order to survive and to further his agenda. Indeed the appearance of meaning is a result of this imposition and is artificial. This is traceable to developments from Newtonian to Quantum physics, etc.

Newton’s ideas were based, as many scientists’ were, way back when, on a faith in the ultimate rationality of the universe, due to its being the product of God’s divine reason. Now that the need for a God has been jettisoned in humankind's explanations of the world, it seems that in some circles it has become fashionable to question the ultimate coherence of natural laws. But, again, even if it were possible to argue for the fundamental ultimate incoherence of nature, which I think is purely fatuous, we still have to answer whence comes the human brain’s capacity to impose order.

In fact, even those who do not believe in God still seem to accept instinctively that the universe operates according to laws that can be divined by the use of reason. That the universe operates consistently is axiomatic. The apple that fell from the tree and hit Newton on the head did not fly in the opposite direction on the full moon. But even if it had, there would have been a reason for that too, and that reason (had he found it) would not have existed purely in Newton’s brain.

Science is based on the faith that a reasonable explanation can be found for even the most unusual exceptions. So if Newtonian physics cannot explain phenomena on certain levels of experience, then another paradigm must be sought. Even chaos theory is an attempt to explain apparent randomness.

The idea that universal laws somehow point to the existence of a divine intelligence is, again, one of the traditionally more persuasive arguments put forth by Catholic theologians for the existence of God, even though philosophers have here too found rational holes.

All the rationalists’ objections to Aquinas’ and other Catholic theologians’ “proofs” for the existence of God come down to the objection, “Why should this series of facts necessarily point to a God?” If all causes have a cause, why should there be a Prime Cause called God? Why not just accept that there may be an infinite causal series with no beginning at all?

As a believer I am predisposed to accept all the arguments for the existence of God, from the cosmological to the teleological and including the ontological. But there are religions like Buddhism and Vedanta that say the universe and the conditioned state of the jivas is anādi, beginningless.

The concept of the relation between Creator and Creation in Vedanta is not exactly the same as in the Semitic religions. In a way, it attempts to strike a middle ground between the timelessness of God and the cosmos while attributing the organizing principle of the cosmos to its existence in God rather than to a specifically conscious creative act within time.

In the next section, I will turn to symbols and the idea that God communicates himself to us through them, since he cannot be grasped in any other way, and the limitation of literalist understandings of God.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

A couple of photos

This gives a fairly good idea of what the ashram's main portion looks like. Of course this is only a small part of the whole complex. Swami Veda's quarters, offices, library are upstairs to the left. The meditation hall is in the lower part of the same edifice, to the right. My office, which is in the manuscript room, is in the lower part of the building to the left. The structure on the right of this picture is the yajna shala. You can see the hills in the background.

This is the view outside my office, looking out over the cottages, where paying guests stay. The large buildings in the back are a dental college.

This picture is of me in my office, standing in front of the cabinets which house the manuscripts. I have a better picture of my office but I will have to add it later.

Sorry about the layout.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008


I received several warnings from devotee friends about coming here to Rishikesh, to stay in a "Mayavadi" ashram. We are generally very protective of our faith, down to its most arcane details, and the idea that it could be challenged is fearful. Over the years, I suppose my faith has suffered as many challenges as anyone's faith ever could have, and this may have inoculated me to the fear of Mayavada. Whether that is good or not remains to be seen.

Certainly I am using the opportunity given me here to look into yoga philosophy a little more seriously than I have in the past, but not with a view to "defeat" it. As a matter of fact, the "defeating" mode is not highly approved in the Gita.

The other night, I had supper with Swami Veda along with a number of his close disciples. The topics discussed were many. One thing that he said, perhaps in relation to the loss of innocence, was that it took him a long time to realize that not everyone was engaged in a search for God. I said I still found it hard to believe. He laughed and said, "You are young yet. Wait till you are my age!"

I mentioned the Guardian discussion page, which is populated mostly by enlightened, non-religious, and even virulently anti-religious people. And yet there are regular columns by apparently masochistic defenders of the various faiths and of religion in general. I opined that I often found myself siding with the atheists and agnostics in many of their arguments, but that I felt this was because religion also is subject to modes of nature and not always and necessarily a positive influence. Swamiji said that he once wrote a book called God. When he showed it to his guru, Swami Rama, he praised it effusively. Six months later, however, Swami Rama came out with a book of his own called Enlightenment Without God.

Of course, I am at the point where almost everything is negotiable except for the ultimate theistic nature of the Absolute Truth, which of course entails a great many other things, too. But in order to understand the transcendental nature of that truth, there is a critique of unenlightened theism that needs to be adopted. The simplistic Christian or Puranic statements that make the performance of external rituals or even inner conversion as synonymous with the highest attainments of spiritual perfection has the disastrous effect of making people think that kanishtha religion is somehow equal to uttama religion.

The abovementioned verses from the Gita seem relevant:

सर्वभूतेषु येनैकं भावमव्ययमीक्षते।
अविभक्तं विभक्तेषु तज् ज्ञानं विद्धि सात्त्विकम्॥२०॥
पृथक्त्वेन तु यज् ज्ञानं नानाभावान् पृथग्विधान्।
वेत्ति सर्वेषु भूतेषु तज् ज्ञानं विद्धि राजसम्॥२१॥
यत् तु कृत्स्नवदेकस्मिन् कार्ये सक्तम् अहैतुकम्।
अतत्त्वार्थवदल्पं च तत् तामसमुदाहृतम्॥२२॥

Knowledge in the mode of goodness is that which sees a single existence present in all things, undivided even where they are divided. Knowledge in the mode of passion is that which knows through their differences the distinct nature of the various spearated existences in all things. Knowledge in the mode of ignorance is incomplete and limited, being needlessly attached to only one effect as though it were everything.

Here is a comment on the above from Swami Veda's introduction to his translation of the Yoga-sutras:
One [approach to Indian philosophy] is that of a pedant bound to one of many philosophical schools who refutes the views of all others and challenges them to prove theirs right and his wrong. Most philosophers of the traditional schools fall into this category, having debated with all other schools for thousands of years. Modern Western and westernized Eastern scholars follow this trend and study each school of Indina philosophy in isolation. It is not intended here to engage in a dispute with them, because the separate schools of Indian philosophy have indeed dominated the philosophical arena for these millennia, each possessing its own closed system of internally consistent values, doctrines and logical development (pratitantra-siddhanta). However, according to Bhagavad-gita 18.22, this approach is darkened knowledge (tamasic jnana).

Another approach is the way of the savant whose primary interest is not in the logical categories only, but who seeks that wisdom from which all logic begins and to which it must ultimately lead. This is the way of reconciliation and resolution of conflicts (samAdhAna), which eventually clears the pathway to samadhi. Such a savant refuses to remain bound within a square or a cube. He must understand the internally consistent logic of the system within a given cube, no doubt, but he must also observe where the external walls of one cube touch those of another; he must then enter the other cube and understand the internally consistent logic of that cube also. Thus, when he has looked at all the interconnected cubes, he sees the whole picture which is based on one or more common principles shared by all (sarva-tantra-siddhanta). This is the way of active knowledge (rajasic jnana) as defined in Gita 18.21.

Vastly improved on the way of that wisdom seeking savant is the way of the wise man, a person of intuitive vision and inspiration, the yogi, who by first looking at the grand pattern sees all the squares and cubes, as well as the spirals, circles and other patterns. By understanding the grand pattern, the little geometric shapes and forms are fully and effortlessly understood. The Bhagavad-gita 18.20 says this is the way of pure, refined and luminous knowledge (sattvic jnana)

A Vaishnava theist might be anywhere on this spectrum. The theistic perspective has to accommodate the non-dual perspective, or it does not achieve that mysterious realm of achintya-bhedabheda.

I asked Swamiji about his affinity for East-Asian culture, which is reflected in the numerous artworks--paintings and statues--from Korea, China and Japan. He answered that he felt more at home there than in India, and in general he feels that people who come from Buddhistic-based cultures are more mindful than in India, where people are in a much more rajasic frame of consciousness.

Last night, again, Swamiji spoke to all the residents of the ashram in a general meeting. About two weeks ago, he talked to the second-year Gurukula students and gave them something of an improptu test about how to teach various yoga postures, diaphragmatic breathing, etc., and was not pleased with the results. So he ordained a ten day teacher training intensive to get everyone properly conscious of the basics.

Some Hindi-speaking student asked him what "centering" meant, as English-speaking instructors were always using the term, so last night Swamiji spoke on the subject of centering, which he related to the concept of mindfulness.

A yoga teacher, in order to be effective, he said, should be centered. Centering begins, he says by placing oneself in the ground of one's identity, whatever that happens to be. In general, as an aside, Swamiji usually talks about hatha yoga as a practice meant for people in the bodily consciousness and meant to facilitate or lead to raja-yoga meditation. So an important and oft-repeated lesson is that we must pick ourselves up from where we have fallen. "If you have fallen in the mud, you cannot pick yourself up from the marble floors of the Taj Mahal."

The centering process is comparable to the yogic concept of smriti-upasthana (sati-patthAna in Pali, Visuddha-magga, See Yoga-sutra 1.20. It intentness of self-observation beginning with the breath, which is the essence of the Buddhist practice of meditation. But it included the concept of mindfulness as usually associated with Zen, meaning attention to the tiniest matters of everyday life—tidiness, precision, cleanliness. Bhakti also requires this mindful attitude, because mindfulness is the essence of the service spirit.

From there he went on to talk about the positioning of the consciousness in the chakras when speaking. When teaching, he said, the consciousness should be in the heart and forehead centers. He went on to explain, giving examples from his own life, that this had made his speaking effective even in mundane situations, like dealing with bureaucrats, etc. The importance of the heart center for the speaker was that it made him intuitively tuned in to the needs of the audience, while the ajna chakra was about harnessing the intellectual faculties.

Although I have only given the sparsest of details from those conversations, they have given me a little more insight into why I am here. It is primarily to learn the lessons of mindfulness. I have always been aware of a flaw in my character that leads me to splinter my energies, dissipating them over a wide number of tasks rather than concentrating on one. I rarely leave a room without leaving something behind and having to return to get it. I may sometimes even have to do this two or three times before I can go on; sometimes I have to return after going a considerable distance when I realize there is something I have left behind, like a wallet, something that was supposed to be in the wallet. Now I have a cellular phone--just one more thing to leave in the pocket of yesterday’s shirt or on the window ledge. Right now I am looking for my beadbag, which I put down somewhere and is currently waiting there for me to retrieve it or until someone returns it to me.

These are just symptoms of a scattered mind. But it shows when I speak, also. I cannot give a lecture without wandering far, far from the original point to speak about things that are only tangentially relevant. Are they interesting? No doubt. Are they essential? Are they the result of a consciousness of what people need to know or hear? Are they the message that I wish to communicate? Do I myself communicate from a position of knowledge and self-groundedness?

When Swamiji was caricaturing the non-centered teacher of yoga, I saw myself in his flailing arms and jerky movements, even in the way I teach Sanskrit to beginners. Nevertheless, I can say that despite the above observations, I can feel that there has been an almost unconscious improvement in these areas, and becoming even more conscious of the need to work on them makes me mindful of another, unexpected reason that I am here in Rishikesh.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Sanskrit lessons

When I started the Sanskrit course, I decided to follow a personal inspiration in designing it. It is a bit more work to do it this way, but I wanted to carry out an idea that I had when I started writing the "learning Sanskrit through the Bhagavad-Gita" course, which never made it past the first chapter. The plan there was to go through the Gita verse by verse and just learn whatever grammar and vocabulary came up, as it came up.

Although I hope to go to the Gita as soon as I can, I have started by explaining the verses that are chanted here on a regular basis. I explain them word by word and teach whatever grammar, sandhi, etc., is needed to understand the verse. I figure that if you start with something that is already familiar and meaningful, make it more comprehensible to the student, that makes them feel comfortable and confident with regards to the subject matter.

I don’t know to what extent that is actually happening, but my students are certainly smiling a lot, so at least they are having fun.

Since I am not so much in control of what is being taught (that is being dictated to me by the grammar and other content of the verses), I have found myself teaching the passive construction, using the passive participle with the instrumental case. It is actually quite intelligent to do this, as several of the verses use this construction, and it is quite common overall, even though my students really have less command of English than those attending an English medium course should have.

I get to see them in other circumstances, like at meal times, when I can reinforce the lessons. At mealtime last night, I was quizzing one student as he was being served (is this a definition of student hell or what?), asking ओदनं केन दत्तम् ? किं दातव्यम् ? राहुलेन किं दत्तम् ? त्वया किं गृहीतम् ? "Who gave you rice? What should they give you? What did Rahul give you? What did you take? etc."

Anyway, for tomorrow, it will be interrogative pronouns. I will have my students memorize these verses from Moha-mudgara by Shankaracharya.

कस्त्वं कोऽहं कुत आयातः का मे जननी को मे तातः।
इति परिभावय सर्वमसारं विश्वं त्यक्त्वा स्वप्नविचारम्॥२३॥

kas tvaṁ ko’haṁ kuta āyātaḥ?
kā me jananī? ko me tātaḥ?

Who are you ? Who am I ? Where did I come from ?
Who is my mother ? Who is my father?
(I am leaving out the last two lines.)

का ते कान्ता कस्ते पुत्रः सम्सारोऽयमतीवविचित्रः।
कस्य त्वं कः कुत आयातः तत्त्वं चिन्तय तदिह भारत॥८॥

kā te kāntā kas te putraḥ
samsāro’yam atīva-vicitraḥ
kasya tvaṁ kaḥ kuta āyātaḥ
tattvaṁ cintaya tad iha bhārata 8

Who is your beloved (kāntā)? Who is your son (putra) ?
This samsara is really (atīva) incredible (vicitra).
Whose are you ? Who comes from where ?
O Bharata! Think (cintaya) about that (tat) truth (tattvam) here and now (iha).

वयसि गते कः कामविकारः शुष्के नीरे कः कासारः।
क्षीणे वित्ते कः परिवारो ज्ञाते तत्त्वे कः संसारः॥१०॥

vayasi gate kaḥ kāma-vikāraḥ
śuṣke nīre kaḥ kāsāraḥ
kṣīṇe vitte kaḥ parivāro
jnāte tattve kaḥ saṁsāraḥ 10

When you are old, what lusty transformation (is there)?
When the water is dried up, what is a pond?
When your money has run out, what is a family?
If you know the truth, what is samsara?

In other words, when you are old, what is the point of having desires? You can't act on them. Or, alternatively, you don't have any desires.

भज गोविन्दं भज गोविन्दं भज गोविन्दं मूढ़मते !!

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Sunday excursion

This morning we had a lengthened meditation session, 3 1/2 hours at one shot, with Swami Veda there for about half the time. Swami Veda said it was a penance for the Gurukula students for not learning their hatha yoga lessons well enough, or something like that. It was voluntary for the rest of us. I was fairly concentrated for about 2 1/2 hours, then I switched over to Harinam, which does not require quite the same kind of concentration. You can just scream out the Names in your mind and forget the rest.

I may have mentioned that there is one young man here, Suresh, who was formerly with Iskcon in Bombay. We talked a bit about the way japa is done in Iskcon and whether it was effective. My personal feeling is that no doubt the Holy Name has a beneficial effect, but Jiva Goswami says that the diksha mantras are there because we need to correct bad samskaras. To me, that means that the mantras are about a special kind of concentration that the facility of Harinam does not need, at least not in the beginning. Of course, it has always been my contention (following Rupa Goswami) that anAsaGga-bhajana, or bhajan done without mindfulness, will be fruitless. This is where the yoga in bhakti-yoga comes in.

I get the impression that many, even the most conscientious, are sloppy about japa, in the sense that they don't take the trouble to apply basic meditation principles that aid concentration. Most cannot sit for long, don't keep their backs straight, cannot remain still. In a pretense at an effort to concentrate, they shake their heads and bodies, or walk back and forth, often violently. The Yoga-sutra says that moving around in meditation is an anartha (1.31 angamejayatva, one of the elements of vikshepa). If it were a prema-vikara, that would be another thing, but it mostly isn't. I asked Suresh whether it was better in Radhanath's ashram, which has a reputation for dynamism and seriousness. He said, it's worse, they shake their heads like crazy because that's what Radhanath does.

A propos, it is hard not to be taken for an Iskcon devotee in India. After all, if you put tilak on and carry a beadbag (and I may be the only person in Rishikesh who wears a dhoti with a pleat or kach up the back), people automatically think you are from Iskcon. On the other hand, the kids here all say "hi" and "bye" to white skinned people, however they are dressed, and not "Hare Krishna" as in Vrindavan. (What a tragedy that Iskcon is undermining the tradition of saying "Jai Radhe!" there.) At any rate, I am rather used to this, for as a Canadian I have a bit of training in distinguishing myself from Americans, which is a similar art. Nevertheless, in the context here, where perhaps Swami Veda is looking to find some of Iskcon's secrets of success, I have found myself speaking admiringly of Prabhupada and trying to analyze some of those secrets.

To summarize briefly, Nilakanth, an American who is a longstanding resident (he is my neighbor) here was showing a few reservations about the progress of the Gurukula experiment. It may even be the same kinds of frustrations that the American devotees in Mayapur used to have with the Indians who joined. They did not seem to have the same kind of selfless and self-motivated commitment to the cause that we had. We perceived them as being more "along for the ride" than as fully committed participants ready to show the kind of leadership that we hoped from them. There were a few exceptions, but that was the overall impression and I think that this is what I was hearing here also.

The same thing was expressed about employees. Firing does not seem to be a culturally accepted option. My analysis was that employees in India, at least in this type of setting, consider themselves "clients" of the employer, whom they see as a "patron," much in the way a peasant would see himself in relation to a zamindar. This means that the relationship is rarely related to performance, nor can it really be terminated because of performance-related issues. Bhavananda used to steamroller through these unspoken traditions, and ultimately the fear he generated great effectiveness. Swami Veda, on the other hand, may have adopted the patron role, as many others like him do. Whether it is necessarily bad is another matter.

Swami Veda believes that the Himalayan yoga tradition preserved by Swami Rama is the genuine yoga tradition--one that focuses on deep mindfulness and meditation. He also wants to see this tradition taught widely for the greater good of all humanity. Ergo, the Gurukula, to train up teachers and indeed missionaries for the cause. I feel that it is an experiment in its beginning stages and it is too early to start wringing hands about results. The only way to really expose these students to the kinds of occidental character traits that are considered desirable is to make them spend time there.

To come back to my American friend, who had spent time in Bangalore and whose wife's family contains numerous ardent supporters of Iskcon, he feels that Iskcon is being impressively successful in some places in India: their temples are opulent, clean and quite well managed, with beautiful deities, and they impress a lot of people, and for good reason. He would like to know some of their secrets.


I walked into town in the afternoon as there are no classes on Sunday. I went a little further across town to the Lakshman Jhula area because I wanted to see the Krishna temple, called Madhuban. It is run by a Kirtanananda disciple of Indian origin, Bhakti Yoga Swami. And lo and behold, there was a banner crossing the street saying that Kirtanananda Swami has come to visit and is here right now. I toyed with the idea of going in to say hi, but nixed it. Nevertheless, I am wondering if there is some meaning to the coincidence, as I saw Kirtananda in New York in August. The temple is a Krishna Balaram mandir in miniature (minus the Russians), by which I mean it has the guest house, shops and stalls, etc., that commercial kind of mood. But it also has many of the above-mentioned positive features also.

On the whole, I don't care much for Rishikesh town. There is not nearly the kind of vibe you get in Vrindavan, where nearly everyone seems to be a devotee, even the shopkeepers and rickshaw wallas. Rishikesh is just your typical Indian town with tempos and trucks trying to run you down left and right. Garbage literally everywhere. I even went down to the Ganges in one spot, down a fairly long steep staircase that leads to a small Shiva temple and a bathing ghat at the bottom. The slope is covered with trees and the view across the Ganges is magnificent. Could have been a beautiful spot, but all the way down the hill on both sides of the stairs the slope is being used as a dumping ground. Unbelievable. There are billboards here and there saying to keep the Ganges clean, but no one gives a damn. It is pretty depressing. Nilakanth says that there is absolutely no public discourse on the subject--no public speeches, no outcry, no newspaper articles.

Last night also there was loud music blaring all night right nearby. It was pretty exceptional, and I thought that we were actually immune from that here. Far enough from the madding crowd in this town dedicated to tapasya and meditation. Sounded like they were doing karaoke. Kept me awake half the night. When I got up I thought I had slept in, my sleep had been so fitful. Ah well. Despite all that, I have no complaints, my friends.