Thursday, February 07, 2008

Bhagavat-sandarbha readings

I have been working on Satya Narayana Dasji's translation of Bhagavat-sandarbha with erratic assiduity over the past month. I haven't been getting as much done as I would like, as on occasion I reach bottlenecks, or passages in which I cannot understand how the translation relates to the original. Previous editing work has proved to be a major impediment and I have found it more useful to use Satya Narayanji's original work, which is for the most part correct, simple and straightforward.

Let it be said right away that Satya Narayanji is, as many already recognize, a Gaudiya scholar without equal anywhere in the English-speaking world. As the name of his institute clearly shows, he has committed himself to interpreting and disseminating the teachings of Jiva Goswami, and nowhere is this more evident than in those works that are most philosophical in nature.

In this, his work is independent and original, in the sense that he is not simply translating his own guru's version of Bhagavat-sandarbha or anyone else's. He is commenting on the text, making use of his own vast knowledge of the methods of Sanskrit argumentation as well as the six systems of Indian philosophy and their later interpreters. Thus there is no shortage of very useful references to Nyaya, Sankhya, Yoga, Purva Mimamsa, etc., where the categories used by those systems helps to understand Jiva's argument. This is the milieu within which Jiva was operating, and with which he would have been deeply familiar.

It is quite apparent that understanding the Bhagavat-sandarbha without the kind of background knowledge that Satya Narayan possesses is pure wishful thinking. Nowhere is that more obvious in the attempts that a previous editor made to fulfill his mandate, which was was simply to clean up the English and make it presentable.

So what am I doing, besides cleaning up the mess? Well, principally, I am trying to make the text consistent and coherent. The way that Jiva writes the Sandarbhas is very methodical. He develops his argument on the basis of shlokas from the Bhāgavatam, supporting them with texts from other scriptures, etc. Basically, the anucchedas (sections) of the Sandarbhas are units of commentary surrounding these key Bhāgavata verses. But since they are usually structured as commentary, the work of translation has to approach the original verse free from assumptions that are taken from Jiva's commentaries. It will make more sense if we say, "the word 'honey' in the verse means 'sugar'" if we have translated the word as honey in the first place, and not as sugar. Anyhow, I am trying to do my best I can to make this invaluable work as nicely presented both for scholars and lay people.




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One of the things that I notice in reading Bhagavat-sandarbha, and about which I am still reserving judgment, is the sophistication of the argumentation, which is based on far more than simply quotation bullying, and the seemingly literalist attitude towards mythology.

Nevertheless, in terms of my own philosophy, I have found a couple of points to be particularly provoking. What follows is purely my own thinking and has nothing to do with Satya Narayan or anyone else.

Jiva starts the Bhagavat-sandarbha by quoting BhP 1.2.11, the vadanti verse, which is the Bhāgavata's point of theological departure and is definitely genius. When I was in Vrindavan before coming here, Satya Narayan Dasji gave a lecture in which he laughingly summarized the verse's meaning: "There is only one non-dual consciousness, which is called Brahman, Paramatma or Bhagavan according to the level of understanding of the transcendentalists."

Certainly the passage in Sanskrit right near the beginning is a most poetic summary of that point, given here with the current version of the translation:

तदेकमेवाखण्डानन्दस्वरूपं तत्त्वं थूत्कृत-पारमेष्ठ्यादिकानन्द-समुदयानां परमहंसानां साधनवशात् तादात्म्यमापन्ने सत्यामपि तदीय-स्वरूप-शक्ति-वैचित्र्यां तद्ग्रहणासामर्थ्ये चेतसि यथा सामान्यतो लक्षितं, तथैव स्फुरद्वा तद्वदेवाविविक्त-शक्ति-शक्तिमत्ता-भेदतया प्रतिपद्यमानं वा ब्रह्मेति शब्द्यते।

When those transcendentalists (paramahamsas) who have rejected all material pleasures even up to the happiness available to Lord Brahma, and who by ardent practice have realized their identity with the Absolute Reality, which is indivisible and blissful in nature, but whose hearts are unable to perceive the variegatedness displayed by Its internal potencies, experience It in an unspecific way, just as they sought It, in other words, when It is defined without any distinction between energies and Energetic, then the Absolute Truth is called Brahman.

अथ तदेकं तत्त्वं स्वरूपभूतयैव शक्त्या कमपि विशेषं धर्तुं परासामपि शक्तीनां मूलाश्रयरूपं तदनुभावानन्दसन्दोहान्तर्भावित-तादृशब्रह्मानन्दानां भागवत-परमहंसानां तथानुभवैक-साधकतम-तदीय-स्वरूपानन्द-शक्ति-विशेषात्मक-भक्ति-भावितेषु अन्तर्बहिरपीन्द्रियेषु परिस्फुरद्वा तद्वद्विविक्त-तादृश-शक्ति-शक्तिमत्ताभेदेन प्रतिपद्यमानं वा भगवान् इति शब्द्यते।

And that very same Absolute Truth is named Bhagavān, when as the resting place of all other transcendental energies, It takes on some specific characteristics by the power of Its internal potency and becomes revealed to the senses, both internal and external, of the devotee transcendentalists (bhāgavata-paramahamsas), for whom the entire universe has been colored by the bliss of such experience, whose senses have been imbued with devotion, itself a specific part of the internal pleasure potency and the only efficient means of giving them this realization, in other words, when it is thus defined according to the distinction made between energies and Energetic.
That is still a bit awkward, as these long Sanskrit sentences can become in translation when it is done as literally as possible.

As good Hindus, start from the principle that God is not limited to one particular form, and that he appears to different people according to their particular subjective attitude. God as an "objective" reality is purely a philosophical being; as a subjective reality, he is living in infinite different forms.


4 comments:

Anonymous said...

I have a question: for Jagat or any of his distinguished guests.

I like the explanation about how the transcendentalists perceive the Absolute Truth as Brahman, Paramatma, or Bhagavan according to their realization. [Keyword being = realization].


Now I want to ask you something and I would like to know what people REALLY think. Not what is the official GV spiel or party line, but just what do YOU think, vis-a-vis your life experience.

Perhaps can think of it as: "the Vedas are eternally being revealed". Thus what the Vedas reveal to the post-modern Gen XYZ/ Millenium Generation person and/or Baby Boomer Western college-educated person might be different than what they reveal to the Depression era person, versus the Victorian era person, versus the Medieval person, versus the post-modern person who likes to dress up and re-enact Medieval Times.

Basically tell me what you think. Okay: the form of the Divine is revealed or concealed according to the person's level of realization.



But people, come on, tell me and tell me the truth: SHOULD we be encouraging people to visualize certain Bhagavan forms when they have so many anarthas? Wouldn't it just be better to have them work on the Yamas and Niyamas [restraints and practices] and be a good person first?


What I am wondering about is do you think that it is good to encourage every Tom, Dick, and Harry in the world to focus on hari-katha? Before they have even gotten to Brahman realization or Saccidananda realization or a basic high school education?


And I don't mean get there by spiritual steroids, i.e. drugs,
I mean once they are established into Brahman on their own and are coming in and out of it everyday.


Well just wondering what you think. I understand the basic concept, but do you think that more harm than good can be done if you share this hari-katha with people who don't know right from wrong, and/or who are children under the age of twelve [according to Piaget, humans cannot do abstract reasoning before then]?


Like what do you think are the perfect guidelines to be followed? When should people get into the Bhagavan aspect of the meditation?


Do you think that actually it should be more safe-guarded and not distributed at airports and put into the trash cans? That it should remain more secret?

Then perhaps you wouldn't have minors acting out the pastimes of Radha and Krsna leading to a 80 to 90% divorce rate in the GV population, higher than the mainstream population? Because if you get a crush on someone then you think it is "Divine"?


Also, how does anyone know really if these pastimes or lilas of Bhagavan are really accurate? I am not being facetious.

For example, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes said that when some of the world's oral storytelling was codified into literature, it was re-arranged by men so that the conclusions are actually the OPPOSITE lessons that would protect women.


For example in her book "Women Who Run With the Wolves", she gives explanations of stories from many cultures in which the story was actually a cautionary tale for women what to be careful about as they mature. Like the genre of slave songs that had a secret code
that only the slaves understood.


Well when you think about "Women are the Niggers of the World" [Yoko Ono] then it makes sense.


For example: the story of Radha and Krsna actually exists in China, Vietnam, Japan, Korea, and Cambodia? But the ending is totally different.

The story is more of a cautionary tale against following your heart and not going with what will best help the family, society, and the social order. It is a cautionary tale against profligate behavior and sensuality, warning that over-indulgence in it leads to doom.


So is interesting to me that the GV version was picked up by the hippies and celebrated. But Johnny Rotten said we should never trust a hippie. Because "free love" was just an excuse by the hippie men to exploit the hippie women. "Awh, you won't have sex with me? Then you aren't being free."

And the Indian version is used in a society that views women as socially dead once their husband dies, so they are stripped of all their money, then rounded up and sent to live in Vrndavana [source: Deepa Mehta film "Water"].

So meditating on having an imaginary lover would kind of anesthetize them to the stress.


Anyway, please, I am being serious. Because there are signposts in the Vedas [Rig Veda, Nada Bindu Upanishad] and Upanishads [Yoga Tattva Upanishad of the Krishna Yajur Veda] as to whether or not you have had Brahman realization or not. A person can self-assess and self-monitor how often it's occuring.

But do you think it is a good idea to have people focus on the Bhagavan aspects?

For example I think the focus on your choice of Istha Devata can be helpful in times of crisis, and to prepare for the transition of this world, plus just the general ups and downs in life.

Because a large body of anecdotal evidence has shown that whatever cultural template people focus on in life, then that is what they "see" in NDEs.

And there is some scientific precedent that meditation has validity in helping people to relax [Dr Herbert Benson has documented positive physiological changes in people who pray or meditate, similar to athletes being in the zone].

Plus the human brain does seem to be pre-wired to anesthetize itself in times of stress, that can be established by science. People will see and hear things under duress that we don't normally.

So I think there can be some positive applications but like any benefic thing, it can be misused. What do you think? Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Sorry to distract from your nice essay Jagat, but I wanted to say that Advaitadas is a censoring liar. One of his latest entries is about how he met Dhanurdhara Swami in Vrindavan and gave away some of his books to him. I made a comment that I couldn't believe that he would charge vaishnavas for his books and yet give them away for free to notorious child abusers. He didn't publish my comment and replied in such a way that completely twisted the point of my comment, turning it around on me and supporting Dhanurdhara Swami. I wrote another comment (which again he didn't publish) asking him to answer my questions about giving away books for free and not give me a lecture about Dhanurdhara which he hasn't responded.

Advaitadas is a dishonest and censorious liar and cannot answer a question to save his life. He will charge vaishnavas money for his books and rudely answer back to critical questions to some of his ideas, but he will give free books to child abusers because they are likely to take "raganuga bhakti". He makes me sick.

shiva said...

"Now I want to ask you something and I would like to know what people REALLY think. Not what is the official GV spiel or party line, but just what do YOU think, vis-a-vis your life experience."

>>>You can't separate the two in many if not most bhaktas. What they "REALLY think" for most bhaktas is that the sastras are divine, and that their own "life experience" has brought them to accept the sastra as divine. So to most bhaktas the "official" story or "party line" is absolute truth if it can be proven to be in accord with sastra. For most bhaktas the sastra tells them that they are to accept the sastric version and relinquish any vision which cannot be made in accord with the sastric vision. So, what most bhaktas will "REALLY believe" is what the sastra tells them to believe, or what someone can influence them to believe is in accord with sastra.

"Perhaps can think of it as: "the Vedas are eternally being revealed". Thus what the Vedas reveal to the post-modern Gen XYZ/ Millenium Generation person and/or Baby Boomer Western college-educated person might be different than what they reveal to the Depression era person, versus the Victorian era person, versus the Medieval person, versus the post-modern person who likes to dress up and re-enact Medieval Times."

>>>The real message of the vedas is always the same. How that message is relayed to a person may change depending on time, place, circumstance, but the message is the message, if it's not the message of the vedas, then it's not the message of the vedas. If someone lives on Moonbase Alpha in the year 2120, and another lives in Kihei, Maui in the year 2008, and another lives in Berkeley, California in 1968, and another lives in Rishikesh, India in 1492, it doesn't matter what their lives are like, if they are all average human beings then they will understand the message of the vedas according to their individual capacity. Where and when they live may affect how they receive the vedic message, but not if they can understand the vedic message. The message doesn't change, it's just revealed in different ways.

"Basically tell me what you think. Okay: the form of the Divine is revealed or concealed according to the person's level of realization."

>>>A person will have faith in a type of divinity according to realization e.g. brahman, paramatma, bhagavan, but the "form" of the divine may be revealed anyways to a person who won't necessarily have faith in that or those forms as being real or of ultimate relevance. Just like in India there are pictures or posters of deities everywhere, so those forms are supposedly revealed forms of the divine. You may not believe in that philosophy, but you will see those forms anyways. According to the vision of a bhakta those forms are divine, they are real and eternal forms of god, and they are being revealed throughout indian history in art and temple worship. Whether or not people believe those forms are divine, real, and eternal, they are still revealed, they are still seen by non believers.

"But people, come on, tell me and tell me the truth: SHOULD we be encouraging people to visualize certain Bhagavan forms when they have so many anarthas?"

>>>If you don't want to tell people about Bhagavan, there are still going to be countless organizations and people who will do it based upon their theological outlook, which itself is generally based upon the teachings of their gurus and their interpretation of sastra. So whether bhakti, as it is and has been presented to the public is something people "should" do, well, that is going to ultimately come down to the will of god and people's destiny. If you want to make some philosophical challenge to those traditions then you will have to convince them by citing what they consider to be authoritative. Since those traditions have lasted so long, with countless scholars going over scriptural minutiae their whole lives, if they were making a major theological mistake in the tradition of preaching bhakti to the masses, then that whould have been a major philosophical point of contention for a long time now. Since that hasn't happened, I would say it's not going to happen in the future.


"Wouldn't it just be better to have them work on the Yamas and Niyamas [restraints and practices] and be a good person first?"

>>>You would have to convince people to do those practices. If you are talking about the teachings that are found in the countless hatha-raja-kundalini-etc yoga academies and traditions, since they are usually either part of an advaita vedanta tradition or advocating some form of advaita vedanta, then your question is moot because they don't believe that bhakti is some higher teaching, they believe it is a lower teaching. If you mean something else, then you would have to figure out how to teach what you want to teach. There are countless new age and self help gurus trying to do just that. most people are not going to be able to pull that off to any great degree.


"What I am wondering about is do you think that it is good to encourage every Tom, Dick, and Harry in the world to focus on hari-katha? Before they have even gotten to Brahman realization or Saccidananda realization or a basic high school education?"

>>>The bhakti traditions base their preaching technique according to their respective gurus interpretations of sastra. If you want to challenge them you have to do so on their playing field. They could care less about any other type of critique. Like I already said, you can try, but you won't succeed i.e. after such a long time it's never been a bone of contention, so it's probably never going to be.

"And I don't mean get there by spiritual steroids, i.e. drugs,
I mean once they are established into Brahman on their own and are coming in and out of it everyday."

>>>I don't know what you mean by "established into Brahman". My understanding is that in the context of that verse Brahman is refering more to a certain vision of the vedic message, then a specific type of experience. The verse seems to me to be distinguishing the 3 major paths of vedanta - that of the jnanis who teach about brahman, that of the yogis who teach about finding the lord in the heart, and that of the bhaktis who teach about bhagavan. Or that verse can also be seen as teaching about the 3 basic aspects of god. I don't think a case can be made where the sastra teaches that someone first has to "experience brahman" and then "experience paramatma" before moving on to bhakti.

"Well just wondering what you think. I understand the basic concept, but do you think that more harm than good can be done if you share this hari-katha with people who don't know right from wrong, and/or who are children under the age of twelve [according to Piaget, humans cannot do abstract reasoning before then]

...yada yada yada...

So I think there can be some positive applications but like any benefic thing, it can be misused. What do you think? Thanks!?"

>>>You can't win this fight against the Indian bhakti traditions. You may win over a few people to your way of thinking, but then what? Start your own cult? Like I said already, there are countless people trying to do just that, new age gurus, self help gurus, etc, all trying to convince people to follow their new-and-improved brand of spirituality. Most people can't pull it off because they are either not charismatic enough, not a good enough speaker or writer, or without enough money to market themselves effectively.

Anonymous said...

"You can't win this fight against the Indian bhakti traditions."

Traditions are an attempt at expressing something which lies beyond, Indian bhakti traditions being no exception. They are not necessarily an enemy to be fought, but rather a window from which transcendence may continue to shine through. It may be that one tradition is replaced by another, but no single tradition can utimately be a final Grand Tradition For All Times. Traditions only serve their localized purposes if practiced alongside with the principle of faith which, as expressed by Bhaktivinode Thakur and many other such hard working theologians, is basically the oposite of belief. Belief constricts, faith releases, but they don't have to necessarily exclude one another. Rather, belief must serve faith. And in doing so, belief may be altered, on even discarded. Utility is the principle, said Bhaktivedanta Swami, clearly referring to the principle of the precedence of faith. Form is to serve substance, and as such it is not only justified but welcomed. But not the other way around.