Saturday, March 28, 2009

Śrī-kṛṣṇa-kīrtana and the Bhāgavatam

Some observations: I remember the first time I read Śrī-kṛṣṇa-kīrtana, I immediately sensed the discomfort that Gaudiya Vaishnavas post-Rupa Goswami would have felt with some aspects of the story. But I also recognized what they would have liked, and that is really what this whole reading of the book is about.

Here are some preliminary observations: First of all, Rupa Goswami states in Ujjvala-nīlamaṇi that the pūrva-rāga of the nāyikā is usually described first. Here it is Krishna who is overcome with desire and Radha who resists. In Vidagdha-mādhava, for instance, it is Radha who is affected and she sends sakhīs to Krishna, who refuses her. This gives an opportunity to describe Radha's disillusionment and distress... the intensity of her love.

In the second chapter we will learn that Radha is only 11 years old. We don't know how old Krishna is, but he sounds like a real brat, with very little redeeming about his character. He is full of lust and when he gets turned down, he starts thinking up a plot to do what sounds pretty much like rape. Not only that, but Baḍāi is sounding pretty problematic ethically herself: she not only wants to induce her granddaughter into an immoral relationship, but is vengeful when Radha tells responds negatively.

Krishna may be God in Chandi Das's poem, but it does not look much more than a formality so far, a kind of pretext with which to browbeat Radha into surrendering her virtue. And indeed we will see this theme recur in later chapters also.

So what to make of it? Well, one point that I have been trying to make throughout my "career" is that Radha and Krishna, as a Divine Couple, have gone through many different metamorphoses, and that we, as devotees, have to "purify" that concept in keeping with the highest ideals of love.

Chandi Das is particularly raw in his descriptions, and, as I already said, his version clearly lost popularity with the rising of the post-Chaitanya Mahajanas. One thing that seems clear, as Basanta Ranjan Ray says in his introduction, this Chandi Das is not a Sahajiya. Sahajiyaism requires an apotheosis of love itself, and such an apotheosis is dependent on a veneration of the symbols of that love, Radha and Krishna. Chandi Das is simply telling an entertaining story, and Radha and Krishna are the vehicle for it.

Some of the songs, taken out of context, could be seen as worthy of Mahaprabhu's Gabhira līlā, and much ink has been spilled arguing the pros and cons of whether this was the Chandidas that Mahaprabhu venerated and enjoyed. But it is a little harder to see him enjoying the entire poem, as it is. But that is something that we can also consider when we go through the work: Radha's viraha is the most moving chapter of the work, and we all know the role that viraha played in Chaitanya's lila. And many of the other features of Krishna's character are universal in Chandidas and the rest of the popular literature.

Of course, it may be argued that any love story apotheosizes love, elevates it into some kind of divine entity, and I think that the possibilities for this were recognized by Chandi Das and also by the Vaishnavas of his day; they simply felt that he had not realized them and that they needed to be reworked. The inspiration to do so came from the Bhāgavatam.

It is a little difficult to know when the Bhāgavatam actually became known in Northern and Northeastern India. My suspicion is that it was relatively late, although I cannot prove it. There are several reasons that spring to mind (off the top of my head):
  • Sridhar's Sad-ukti-karṇāmṛta has one Bhāgavatam verse (12.13.1) in it, but it is ascribed to someone else.
  • A Bengali lexicon of the period has no references to Bhāgavatam, though it quotes from many other purāṇas.
  • It seems doubtful that the Gīta-govinda was directly influenced by the BhP.
  • A manuscript in Vidyapati's own hand is the oldest MS of the BhP in Northeastern India.
  • The first Bengali translation is Śrī-Kṛṣṇa-vijaya, which dates to 1472 CE.
  • Numerous other Bengali translations of the BhP start to appear in the late 15th and early 16th centuries (Gopāla-vijaya, Prema-taraṅgiṇī, etc.)
  • Numerous commentaries from Bengal only start appearing on the inspiration of Chaitanya, even though it is evident that the book was being popularized with a monistic interpretation in centers like Nabadwip.
  • Sridhara's commentary from the early/mid 15th century appears to be at the root of this popularization.
So if it is the case that Chandi Das was building on a folk tradition with elements from the older purāṇas (Harivaṁśa and Viṣṇupurāṇa, in particular), then it seems natural that the impact of the Bhāgavatam and the purification tendency would have been felt.

Another possibility is that some parts of the Bhāgavatam would have been known--without necessarily the kind of theological sophistication that the Goswamis brought to the discussion. Or, that the original story elements of the Bhāgavatam (which in all likelihood are older than the Bhāgavatam anyway) had spread before the arrival of the book itself. Even so, we see from the translations, etc., like the abovementioned Śrī-Kṛṣṇa-vijaya, Gopāla-vijaya, and Kṛṣṇa-prema-taraṅgiṇī, that the main interest was not in the philosophical aspects of the BhP, but in its accounts of Krishna’s activities in Vrindavan. Even the portions dealing with previous incarnations are only dealt with in Prema-taraṅgiṇī, and that briefly in comparison.

So, as we look at the combination of factors that go into the evolution of the Bengali Vaishnava tradition, we see that the principal elements are :
  1. The development of an original folk tradition that contains a number of non-Purāṇic themes. Though some of these appear to have existed in the court of Lakshman Sen, which would make an interesting subject for analysis). These themes are most enthusiastically expressed by Chandi Das in Śrī-kṛṣṇa-kīrtana.
  2. The Bhāgavatam, if it was known for a long time before Chaitanya, was mostly a source of interest popularly for its stories of Krishna. But these stories are quite different from those told by the folk tradition. Even the themes unique to the Bhāgavatam which have some apparent similarity in Chandi Das, such as the stealing of clothes (vastra-haraṇa), etc., are told in completely different ways. This also applies to other, older Purāṇic accounts like the chastising of Kāliya.
  3. Philosophical portions of the Bhāgavatam (as is evident from the famous Devananda Pandit incident recounted in Vrindavan Das’s Caitanya-bhāgavata leaned to a non-devotional interpretation.
  4. Chaitanya’s appearance led to an emphasis on the philosophical and theological portions of the Bhāgavatam, stressing the devotional elements (śrīmad-bhāgavataṁ pramāṇam amalam). This influenced the recounting of the stories in this light. Whereas Chandi Das was primarily concerned with entertaining the public through the frail curtain of Krishna’s adventures, Chaitanya and his followers were deadly serious about the devotional goal (premān pumartho mahān. Chaitanya’s interest in the Dhruva and Prahlada stories (as mentioned in Caitanya-bhāgavata and as popularized also in the Hari-bhakti-sudhodaya, a non-Bhāgavata based telling of these two Viṣṇu-purāṇa originating stories) is further evidence of the widening theological seriousness of Vaishnavism of Chaitanya.
  5. However, though the Bhāgavatam provides some fodder for the rasika interpretation of Krishna-līlā, most of Rupa Goswami’s original contributions are based on the secular poetic and dramatic tradition, as are many of the themes found in his poetic works. 
  6. Sahajiyaism needs to have a serious, sacred vision of love and sexuality to be meaningful. It does not seem that either Chandi Das or the Bhāgavatam on their own could provide this.
OK. That is all for now.

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