During that entire time I was engaged in various kinds of intellectual processes, as well as a kind of unconscious processing, in which I underwent a reevaluation of my previous experiences and so on.
Of course I never subscribed to another religion. Even so, when my son was born, I made the rather fateful decision to have him brought up Catholic. Looking back on it now, whatever reasons I gave for that decision at the time, it would seem that subconsciously it was a prediction that I would not stay with my family. That is rather a harsh conclusion to come to, but it is the only one that makes sense. Externally, I did not have the faith or knowledge of how to manage my family’s religious life, which is truly sad. The fact is that despite a certain nostalgia for certain aspects of my devotional career, I could not organize a structure for raising a child that would have nurtured his faith. And so, like so many people in our alienated age, I abdicated responsibility and let school and church handle it. As it is, my son has had a little more structure in that respect than most people in today’s agnostic society. Heaven forbid that he becomes a priest!
In the previous post I wrote that Madhavananda followed the trajectory that goes from Iskcon to Gaudiya Math to the Babajis. The problem is that there is no framework now, nor was there any in 1985, for finding a sangha that provides a non-kanishtha view of Gaudiya Vaishnavism. So the only option for people like me was to go look for answers in the world of academic research. My friend Madhusudan, who preceded me to Lalita Prasad Thakur, also had the same kind of quick intelligence that Madhava has, and he burned through all these groups until he thought he had found their historical, psychological and metaphysical core, and found it empty. He also is now living, I believe, the life of an academic.
I went to university and started studying comparative religion, trying to see where they were at, trying to understand what was universal and what was essential about Krishna consciousness. Ever since I came back and started communicating with devotees this has been my main point: we have to find out what is universal and what is essential about Krishna consciousness in order for it to be considered a mature religion.
Most religions with long histories split into liberal and conservative factions. The conservative factions hold onto outdated visions, the liberals often compromise excessively with the forces of mundane progress. Far from being a sign of conflict, such debates are a sign of good religious health (as long as there is civility, of course). Such a dynamic needs to be developed in Krishna consciousness. As it is, the conservatives have the upper hand everywhere, even in Iskcon (which was supposed to be a medium for presenting KC to the Western world), and there is no scope for an exegesis of Gaudiya Vaishnava goals and practices that is truly coherent in the modern context.
This problem is not a new one. In Bengal, from the time of the Renaissance, the greatest and most admired thinkers and reformers like Bankim Chandra, Rabindranath, and Vivekananda, etc., looked at Chaitanya Mahaprabhu with admiration, but they had none for Vaishnavas. If you read Ramakrishna Kathamrita, for instance, you see that the one Vaishnava character is constantly arguing with Ramakrishna Paramahamsa from a very superficial, sectarian point of view. Each of these persons thought, in their own way, that they had discovered the essence of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s dharma but that they had no need for the tradition itself, its worship or its ishta.
Bhaktivinoda Thakur was exceptional in that he had a vision of Gaudiya Vaishnavism that seemed to go beyond these kinds of strictly sectarian perspectives and sought to explain Gaudiya Vaishnava theology in broader terms. But he only began the work, which has unfortunately been left to stagnate somewhat by adherents and practitioners. Let us say the world has moved on in the nearly 100 years since the Thakur left us and there is a lot of catching up to do.
The question now is what can we do now? Where do we find a mature vision of Krishna consciousness: one that goes beyond mere dogmatism, literalism, sectarianism and fundamentalism, all the things that are characteristic of kanishtha adhikari religion?
Leaving the kanishtha stage is symptomized by a period of intense doubt. The kanishtha vision holds that all doubt is wrong; worse, it is a symptom of aparadha. One who has doubts is suspected of being an offender, for he has stopped believing. "He never really had a taste," etc. But in actual fact, what doubt does is it leads us away from a superficial faith based on literal, dogmatic, fundamentalist and sectarian belief.
Doubt can be a symptom of transition from a superficial kind of kanishtha adhikari faith to a higher level of understanding, a faith that can truly be called nishtha. Thus anartha nivritti does not simply mean getting rid of bad physical habits, but also a purification of the understanding. As long as people are thinking of Krishna as something finite, their understanding will not be adequate.
All devotees are personalists, but kanishthas resist the universalist or essentialist approach to understanding Krishna. They say, “That is precisely the point isn’t it, that Krishna reduces himself to a personal deity for us and that this unique relationship with Krishna is all we need. If you have devotion for Krishna the cowherd boy, or Radha and Krishna, then what is the need of a universal concept? This is mere jnana and corrupts and dilutes devotion.”
That is precisely what I think is wrong. That is why I am talking a lot these days about kanishtha, madhyama and uttama. The uttama stage of universal understanding has to precede the true personal concept. If the understanding of God’s personality is on the kanishtha level, then it is not at all the same thing as when one has the universal understanding of Radha Krishna as the all-pervading divine. Furthermore, this experience must be had through the world in which we are living.
If you are closing your eyes to the world and only seeing Radha and Krishna within and not seeing them without, you will always be closing your eyes, doing nirjana bhajan. In this matter, Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati was ultimately right.
This does not mean that I am accepting Bhaktisiddhanta’s criticism whole hog, nor am I condemning the kanishtha understanding as entirely flawed. It is a necessary step on the spiritual path, but it is only the first one. It is never abandoned, but assimilated into a higher synthesis. That is why I am trying to promote the description of the kanishtha devotee as a “pravartaka.”
Reshaping the conscious and subconscious minds (one's samskaras) through worship, ritual, mythologies, etc., is what one does on the pravartaka stage. The madhyama or genuine sadhaka stage comes when you encounter the divine in other people, when you recognize that the Divine, Radha and Krishna, are the universal principle of Love and you cultivate that.
In other words, in the madhyama position you take a somewhat opposite position from that found in the kanishtha stage. It is the antithesis to the kanishtha thesis. The thesis is that Radha and Krishna are the personal God, they are out there and we are trying to get to them. “I will do sadhana and bhajan and they will reveal themselves to me, or they will send a flower airplane and transport me to Goloka Vrindavan.” In this vision Radha Krishna are seen as the original and everything here as the perverted reflection. The antithesis is that Radha and Krishna are symbols of the idealized manifestations of love in this world. When one synthesizes both these points of view in achintya-bhedabheda, then knowing Radha Krishna in truth becomes a possibility.
This is not just an intellectual process, but a change in sadhana orientation.
Though the essence of the kanishtha position, the thesis, is true, without the antithesis you will never come to a synthesis. If you just go with the thesis and don’t try to face the inherent contradictions and purify them, your Radha and Krishna will just be a kind of idol worship.
I am thinking of that nervous, frantic and panicky way of reading Radha Krishna lila that is the norm in much of the Iskcon and Gaudiya Math “gopi-bhava clubs.” Ramakanta Chakravarty, the author of a very valuable book on Bengali Vaishnavism, basically dismissed lila kirtan and Bhagavata katha as nothing more than nice stories for entertainment and amusement, just stories reflecting on marital relations or loving affairs in this world.
We resist this interpretation, but when it comes to this area of the lila, we don’t know how to read it otherwise. Even if we say this is God and this is his lila, we have no understanding, we do not know what to do with it. Krishna hides in a box or dresses as a woman and sneaks into Radharani’s house and makes love to her. People are kind of snickering and yes it is a funny story, but what is it supposed to convey in terms of spiritual meaning? And how long can I meditate on such things in svarasiki bhajan before it becomes tired and empty?
Now the antithesis is as old as time. The Buddhists, Mayavadis and all the scientists, philosophers and psychologists are basically saying the same thing: gods are projections of the human mind. But even though these intelligent people are addressing a real problem, their fundamentally negative approach leads us all to an impasse. Their limited solutions don’t touch the fundamental problem of human life, which is discovering our eternal relationship with the personal God.
The kanishthas recognize this limitation, but their response is merely to blame such people for raising their questions. Even one of the most learned devotee scholars I know answered my question on the point of projection by saying that God and his eternal lila most perfectly correspond to the historical moment in India when Krishna appeared.
That unfortunately is not an adequate way of looking at it, as far as I can see. A less absolutist understanding is necessary. If we happen to envision that particular lila as being the one that we want to participate in, as the one in which we find the personal God, then it is as much a product of our own mental processes as it is of God’s own realm of infinite possibility.
To go through this dialectical process of synthesis, we have to understand Radha and Krishna in symbolic terms first. This means translating the symbols, the lilas or myths, etc., into universal principles of meaning, and then how they are to be experienced in this world through love, friendships and service.
What ultimately brought me back to Krishna consciousness was the deep samskara that I had received in my kanishtha adhikari career. That is why I am saying about Madhavananda that he will always be a Vaishnava in Buddhist clothing, no matter how he tries to deny it. Let’s face it, he has been doing this for so many years, since he was twelve or thirteen years old, and he took it to the very deepest levels that were available to him in the world as we know it, and he did so with complete faith and with total abandon, so he has a very deep samskara. You cannot just do that and then suddenly change religions in a huff. I am sorry, but his is all posturing.
I keep coming back to and saying to people, the very fact that the first time you chanted Hare Krishna you had a perception that there was something there, you had a taste of prema, a vision, your eyes opened. It wasn’t something easily definable, but you believed that it was significant and worthy of pursuit. It was not the fifth canto of the Bhagavatam, the cosmology or bhugola-tattva, that convinced you to become a devotee. No one became a devotee because they were convinced by the third canto’s science and its descriptions of time and creation. And indeed we can bracket all this science no matter how much we want or claim to believe the Bhagavatam as literal truth.
What convinced us was the prema that we felt in the Holy Name. That is what kept us going even in the moments of doubt on the kanishtha adhikari level. That helped us overlook all the faults we perceived in the philosophy, the sangha, the Ishta himself. We had something solid at the heart of our experience that was keeping our faith alive, namely the chanting, the sangha, the aesthetics, etc. In moments of doubt, during crises of faith, people talk about a lack of reciprocation, a lack of results (aha, modern pragmatism rears its persistent head!), but the reciprocation was there, and it is precisely because of this reciprocation that we have a deep samskara, a very deep samskara that ultimately exerts its force, sooner or later, in this lifetime or the next.
Knowing this, one should not neglect or disrespect one’s own samskara. Self-knowledge means knowing where one comes from and both the conscious and subconscious elements that have brought one to where one is.
If you are intelligent, mull it over and try to come to a mature understanding of what is there and respond to the questions that are hurled at you from every side, from within and without. We know what those questions are but we tend to resist facing them head on when on the kanishtha level. But more than that, we need an alternative approach to Krishna consciousness that can provide shelter to those who have exhausted the existing possibilities and found them wanting.
In my earlier post, I said that we have a duty when we reach this point of exhaustion to serve the essence. Love is the goal, but love grows out of love. The love that we felt in the first moments, the love for the ideal that Chaitanya Mahaprabhu somehow instilled in us—even if it is absent in the world around us—should be served out of love for him, for it. It is a debt. At some point we need to stop being children and start being adults. At some point we need to stop depending on the perfect guru without and start listening to the personal guru within and become leaders, not followers. Like Bhaktivinoda Thakur says, it is foolish to abandon the past, even where that past is one’s own, instead of building on it.
But of course, that is impossible if you don't have the answers.