Sunday, February 15, 2009

The heroic mood

Dear friends,

First of all, my apologies for the lengthy silence. Silence is something of a fetish around this ashram, though I am publicly teased for being a rather noisy fellow around here. I am learning, though.

So, do I have anything at all to say?

Well, in general terms: I am still a Vaishnava, but I am, moreover, an acintya-bhedābheda-vādī. The more I study any text of any kind, I realize that my philosophical position holds squarely to both the personal as the surface of spiritual life and the impersonal as the unifying underlying ground of that life. This has ramifications everywhere, and it only becomes stronger with my sādhanā.

But, of course, I have become identified with my Sahajiyaism, and I think that most or at least many people who read on this site are inquisitive about that. But it must be made clear that my Sahajiyaism is based on a solid philosophical and theological basis--many of the points which I have already raised and indeed which are familiar to the orthodox practitioners of Gaudiya Vaishnavism. For instance: This world is real. My Sahajiyaism grows directly out of that insight.

Furthermore, I am reading the Bhagavad-gītā yet again. Actually, I try to get away from the Gītā, but the Gītā keeps calling me back. A siren song?

Actually, if I had to say everything that I have read or thought about over the past couple of months, I would have to write for a long time. One of the things I did recently was read Vivekananda's biography. Although it is rather well known that Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati in many ways modeled his movement after the Ramkrishna Mission, and many of these elements are easy to remark: For instance, the giving of sannyasa and sacred threads to non-Brahmins and other elements of a renewed Varnashram system were all originally implemented by Vivekananda.(*)

But what needs to be recognized by modern Vaishnavas is how Vivekananda reintroduced the concept of heroic spirit into Hinduism and how that influenced Saraswati Thakur. Even now, the "consumers" in the marketplace of religion happen to be primarily female, especially in India. It was very important for Vivekananda to find a way to engage young men to his mission and he did so by appealing to their masculine heroic spirit. Siddhanta Saraswati basically did the same thing, even though their philosophical underpinnings were different. And this appeal to vīra-rasa was based by him on the same principle that Vivekananda did: service to humanity.

Although Vivekananda once said disgustedly of the Vaishnava dictum: jīve dayā nāme ruci, "It should be jīve sevā!! Who are we to give mercy to the jivas, who are all the multifarious forms of God?" To him, advaita-vāda means seeing God everywhere in all creatures and serving them. This was how he saw bhakti: as service in accordance with the need as it was presented by God in the present moment, through the needs of human society. Saraswati Thakur saw it as giving the greatest good, bhakti to Krishna, to people devoid of it. Anyway, without getting into the details of the differences between Gaudiya Math and Ramkrishna Mission, it is useful to remark on the similarities.

In this, it is useful to remark on another development of the time, which is the interpretations of the Gītā--from Bankim Chatterjee, to Vivekananda, to Balgangadhar Tilak, Aurobindo, and Jagdish Chandra Ghosh--the general trend was to find an integral yoga interpretation of the Gītā that gave emphasis to Karma Yoga. In fact, this interpretation owes a lot to the Vaishnava or Bhāgavata understanding, because most of these people have a nuanced view of Shankara's monism and accept the truth of the world and the reality of God's presence in it.

For them, however, the aspects of bhakti that in our tradition we take for granted--like deity worship--are peripheral. The goal is to serve God in human form. Therefore, we see in the general trend and current popular wisdom in Bengal, especially, an emphasis on "humanism" which sees Chaitanya Vaishnavism as a step in an evolutionary process that was eventually supplanted by a truer humanism in mānava-sevā or nara-nārāyaṇa-sevā (the ever unfairly mocked daridra-nārāyaṇa-sevā).

In the Gītā and Bhāgavata, they emphasize verses like 6.29-32 and in the Bhāgavatam, 3.29.21-25, which ends on the following note:

arcādāv arcayet tāvad īśvaraṁ māṁ sva-karma-krit |
yāvan na veda sva-hrdi sarva-bhūteṣv avasthitam ||
One should perform his allotted duties and worship me in my deity form only as long as he does not recognize my presence in his own heart and in all creatures.
Anyway, this is an important perspective for anyone to keep in mind on the bhakti path. Of course, it is nothing new here, but it is important enough to keep in the back of the mind when discussing advancing on the bhakti path.

Needless to say, Vivekananda and the Ramkrishna Mission would have opposed anyone who was engaged in nirjana-bhajana, as the need for the day was to engage in social services. For Vivekananda, unless India was on a platform where all Indians were fed and educated, and therefore capable of the kind of fine thinking that makes the higher reaches of spiritual culture possible, it was indecent, inhuman and irreligious for anyone to seek personal liberation. It is no accident that Jagdish Chandra Ghosh quotes a verse from Prahlada Maharaj that we heard many times from Bhaktivedanta Swami:

prāyeṇa deva munayo sva-vimukti-kāmā
maunaṁ caranti vijane na parārtha-nishthāḥ
naitān vihāya kripaṇān vimumukṣa eko
nānyaṁ tvad asya śaraṇaṁ bhramato'nupaśye |
Most transcendentalists are interested in their own liberation and so they seek remote places to practice their vows of silence. They are not interested in the welfare of others. I, however, do not want liberation for myself alone, leaving these miserable creatures who are wandering about in saṁsāra behind. Wandering about, I see no other salvation for them but you. (7.9.44)

Part of Vivekananda's mythology is that he was told by Ramkrishna that he would not achieve nirvikalpa -samādhi until he had finished this missionary work and it was time for him to leave his body. This, of course, is how his short life is understood by his devotees.

But to go on to the Gaudiya Math. Bhakti Prajnan Keshava Maharaja and Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati were both lionized by their descendants this week, and in so doing, their followers were reminded of what lion-like preachers they were--crushing the Mayavadis, crushing the Sahajiyas, smashing mountains of heresy left and right like Banasuras.

I was in Vrindavan recently and I picked up a copy of a small book published by Bhakti Gaurava Nrisingha Maharaj, Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati's Prākṛta-rasa-śata-dūṣaṇī, or "One Hundred Condemnations of Material Rasa." I went through it and certain Nrisingha Maharaj has done a creditable job of presenting the text. His commentary is lucid and literate, and shows conversancy with a wide range of Gaudiya Vaishnava literature. Nrisingha Maharaj styles himself, as is well known, as a bhakti-rakṣaka ("guardian of pure devotion") and takes his own lionesque name quite seriously. "The pollution of prākṛta-rasa has now crossed the borders of India and found its way to foreign lands." (B.V. Giri's preface.)

At any rate, I don't want to get into a detailed debate with the arguments in the book. In fact, there are no arguments. There is only one: Bhakti-rasa can only be experienced after going through the steps of sādhanā-bhakti delineated in śāstra. Rasa is experience after attaining rati, and rati comes after one has gone through the various stages starting with śraddhā, etc. Lila can only be appreciated after one has gone through the stages of smaraṇa starting with Name, then rupa and guna. If one tries to "jump ahead" (Ah yes, I remember those words!) then one inevitably makes a mess of things. Similarly, sambandha must be understood before abhidheya, and abhidheya before prayojana. One should not put the cart before the horse, or pick the fruit on a tree before it has ripened, etc.

The main work of a sadhaka is to get rid of his anarthas, by which he will gradually become eligible for higher things, and vaidhī bhakti is the principal tool for such cleansing. Rāgānugā sādhanā depends on a certain amount of preparatory work, otherwise things like ekādaśa-bhāva will be wasted and indeed have a negative effect. Such things come from internal revelation and the guru is only there to assist [Nrisingha Maharaj quotes a letter from Saraswati Thakur to a disciple to this effect], but the spiritual master does not push his disciples into rāgānugā sādhanās or mañjarī-bhāva sādhanā. "He does not place thorns on the path of sādhanā." (54) Certainly such matters are not to be spoken of in the public arena, not even by those who have reached the higher stages of rāgānugā bhakti, but only in the company of close rasika associates.

All these ideas are, of course, familiar to anyone who has encountered the subject and I am merely summarizing them, hopefully doing them justice. In principle, I am not violently against them, but my vision has changed considerably over the years and I see the matter unfolding in my own experience in a rather different way.

First of all, Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati is constantly making a strong distinction between the jaḍa, or unconscious, dull or lifeless matter, and the spiritual rasa of Radha and Krishna's lila. His great concern is that one must understand the spiritual nature of the latter. He is constantly telling us not to confuse the material with the spiritual. Since anarthas are equated predominantly with sexuality, it is clear that the problem lies here. As long as one has material sex desire, there is no possibility of even contemplating Radha and Krishna--for instance, as they lie locked in embrace in the kunja at the ending of the night.

And this is where we start to think that something is seriously wrong with Bhaktisiddhanta's philosophy. But our objection is more than a question of wording alone. We have been told that IGM's success is the token of its acharyas' empowerment, and we really have no argument with that. But at the same time, we have seen the limits of IGM's reach into the West. Recently, Gurukripa Prabhu wrote several articles on the Sampradaya Sun in which he described the ISKCON situation rather succinctly. At one point he laments, "Nobody knows who we are any more!"

The reason for that lies not in some fabulous nostalgia for the days of Prabhupada's presence, but in the inherent incapacity of Krishna conscious philosophy to adapt to the modern day and to be meaningful for people in the West, whose mindset cannot grasp what is essentially a medieval approach to spiritual life. All spiritualities must learn the language of their age if they are to survive. Krishna consciousness will not do so until we make a whole lot of adjustments, and the principal area where such adjustments are to come is in the realm of sexuality and women. For me, the lila of Radha and Krishna is not some remote thing that has no relevance for us in this world until and only if we become perfect brahmacharis, otherwise something "abominable" will happen.

For me, the symbolism of Radha and Krishna means:

(1) That human sexual love is a locus of the sacred. This has implications that can only really be understood by someone who is engaged in cultivating the sacred character of human love. Radha and Krishna's love would have no meaning to us at all if there were no reality to the phenomenon of love in this world.

(2) India is steeped in a self-conflicted tradition of patriarchy and misogyny in which women are secondary creatures. The image of Radha is a direct refutation of this supreme error, which pervades the śāstras and is at the very basis of Gaudiya Math thinking. The rejection of womanly association is not a condition for spiritual life; it may rather be said it is a condition for it. Women are naturally disposed to bhakti, men to jñāna and karma. Bhakti is inherently more important than either jñāna or karma. How can a man expect to advance in bhakti unless he understands this?

I therefore laugh when I read Bhakti Promode Puri Maharaj's comment: "...Mañjarī pretenders will not attain the aprākṛta svarūpa (spiritual form) of a gopi or mañjarī in the next life, rather they will be born in the world again as mundane females." (quoted in Nrisingha Maharaj's purport to verse 13 of Prākṛta, etc.).

If they are devotees, then what harm has there been? Better that we should become devotee women than dry renunciates. Men and women are complementary and it makes sense that we should work together for spiritual life.

(3) Human sexual love is the most profoundly rooted aspect of our consciousness. Unless we confront it directly, learning to dovetail it in devotional service, there is no hope of "conquering" it. In fact, there is no hope of conquering it at all. The heroic brahmacharis and sannyasis may run, but they can't hide.

(4) The Bhagavad-gītā's arguments for karma-yoga and against sannyāsa and jñāna are not just about the work ethic, but apply just as directly to human sexuality. In other words, the word karma and yoga apply as much to the so-called pleasurable activities as they do to the difficult ones. Work (karma) means all sensual activities, both of the knowledge acquiring and working sense.

On the whole, I am not particularly worried about the "survival" nor the "spreading" of Krishna consciousness in the world. Que sera sera. Mahaprabhu will take care of that by inspiring everyone from within in whatever way necessary. What I know is that Krishna consciousness is surviving and spreading in me, and that may or may not lead to further things.

Ultimately, heroism and the erotic mood have to be harmonized. A bird needs both wings to fly. Actually, the word "romantic" encompasses both. That is the basic meaning of the two pastimes of Chaitanya, where one has a male svarūpa in one lila and a female svarūpa in the other:

caitanya-līlā -- amṛta-pūra, kṛṣṇa-līlā -- sukarpūra,
duhe mili' haya sumādhurya
sādhu-guru-prasāde, tāhā yei āsvāde,
sei jāne mādhurya-prācurya
The pastimes of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu are like nectar, and the pastimes of Lord Krishna are like camphor. When one mixes these, they taste very sweet. By the mercy of the pure devotees, whoever tastes them can understand the depths of that sweetness. (CC 2.25.277, BBT)
hetha sri-chaitanya pabo, setha radha-krishna.

Radhe Radhe!

(*) See page 232-5 of Vivekananda Charita by Satyendranath Majumdar (Hindi edn., Nagpur: Ramkrishna Math, 20th edn. 2005).
"We are neither Hindus nor Vedantins. Our religion is called 'Touch, don't touch.' Our temple is the kitchen. Our cooking utensils are our worshipable deities and our mantra is 'Don't touch, don't touch!' We must get rid of this social defect as soon as possible, and that can only be done by following the liberal spirit of the Upanishads." (232)
On Ramkrishna's appearance day in 1898, Vivekananda announced that he would give the sacred thread to all of Ramkrishna's and his disciples who were not born in the Brahmin caste. [He himself was not a brahmin, but belonged to the same jati as Bhaktivinoda, a Datta kayastha.] This is what he said on that occasion:
All of Ramkrishna's devotees are brahmins. The Veda says that brahmins, kshatriyas and vaishyas are all eligible to undergo the rituals bestowing the sacred thread. At present, in the absence of such a samskara, they are vratyas. Today is Ramkrishna's birthday. On this auspicious occasion, these people will today take up either vaishya-hood or kshatriya-hood, according to their qualifications. Over the course of time, they should aspire to become brahmins." (234)
The vision is a little different, but basically an attempt at reforming the Varnashram concept.

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