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)

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