Sunday, July 19, 2009

Krishna's Purva Raga and Divine Helplessness

I am enjoying Gopala-vijaya more and more as I read it--and that is slowing me down. I still haven't been able to get through to the Dāna-līlā section because each little bit that I reads sets me off into a chain reaction of delight and realization.

Today, I was simply trying to get through chapter 34, where Radha and Krishna's pūrva-rāga is starting to get quite intense. Neither Radha nor Madhava are able to find peace as they contemplate each other in their minds. As much pleasure as it brings them to think of the other, it causes them an anguish that is thousands of times greater. Radha is boxed in by her in-laws and so unable to openly express anything of what she is undergoing to anyone. So powerful is her feeling, it seems as if a potter's furnace is burning inside her.

Krishna too is undergoing the exact same thing.

kāhnāi se khena hoite āna nāhi mane
dekhite se rādhā-maa dekhe vṛndāvane
From that moment on, Krishna was unable to think of anything else. Looking out on Vrindavan, he saw it all as nothing other than Radha. (34.4)
Though he has no business there, Krishna always seems to find himself walking to and fro in front of Ayana's house.

bāṁshīra saṅkete gīta āpanā jānāe
rādhā rūpa-nāma-guṇa tāhātesi gāe
By playing his flute, he let her know of his presence, the music carried on every note her beauty, her name and her qualities.
Krishna dresses in various charming ways in order to attract Radha, but is disappointed when he cannot see her. Radha herself, hearing Krishna wandering around outside her house, feels like a parakeet hopping around inside a cage. Everywhere she looks, there are senior in-laws surrounding her like the bars of a prison.

She tries various excuses to get out; some work and some don't. Fetching water (a nice lowly Cinderella-type task) is one that seems to work. She hefts the pitcher to her shoulder and goes outside alone in the hope of catching sight of Krishna. Still, when they do pass each other by, they can only look and that drives them crazier than ever.

Radha's various movements and gestures madden Krishna. Though her waist knot is already tied, she ties and unties it again and again. She smiles and covers her face with her dupatta. Shyly covering her breasts, she reveals her arms; all of these signs give Krishna some assurance that his feelings are being reciprocated. But they can't seem to progress past this stage.

antare ārati dohe sabe mukha-lāje
madhyastha bihane kabho nahe siddha kāje
loka-bhae beākula rādhikā kāhnāi
rādhikā calilī kānu rahe sei ṭhāi
hena mate kānu anubhaa nānā rase
dubala haiñā jāa dibase dibase
Both were filled with desire, but were too shy to let it be known. Without a go-between, such situations never bear fruit. Both Radha and Kanai were filled with anxiety due to their fear of public opinion; so when Radha walked away, Krishna remained frozen in that spot. In this way, Krishna experienced all kinds of emotions, and as each day passed, he felt himself progressively weakening. (34.18-20)
It is at this point that Krishna sees Barai after many days, and her sight makes him feel like a poor man who has just found a Kamadhenu, wish-fulfilling cow.

Though in principle this Krishna is the same as the one in Chandi Das, he is somehow more vulnerable, softer, more human. Chandi Das's Krishna really is the leather-jacketed punk, James Dean type. Devakinandan's Krishna is Spiderman.


Once again, the central theme to which I return again and again is evident here. But I think it is worth repeating. It is the human face of the Divine that interests the Vaishnavas in the Radha Krishna līlā. As in the verse by Umapati Dhar, which obviously had seeped into the veins of the Bengali Vaishnavas, and is quoted in Padyavali and Ujjvala-nilamani:

saṅketī-kṛta-kokilādi-ninadaṁ kaṁsa-dviṣaḥ kurvato
dvāronmocana-lola-śaṅkha-valaya-kvānaṁ muhuḥ śṛṇvataḥ
keyaṁ keyam iti pragalbha-jaratī-vākyena dūnātmano
rādhā-prāṅgana-koṇa-koli-viṭapi-kroḍe gatā śarvarī
Krishna imitates the sounds of a cuckoo sounds to signal his presence to Radha. She gets out of bed and tiptoes to the door, but as soon as she starts to unlatch the bolt, her conch-ivory bracelets tinkle. Krishna hears this sound with great expectation, but then he hears another sound: Jatila, Radha's wizened mother-in-law, guarding the chastity of her son's wife, wakes up and calls out, "Who's there? Who's there?" Krishna's heart immediately sinks. And this happened again, as Krishna passed the night in a corner of Radha's back yard, hiding in the hollow of a large kadamba tree. (UN 1.18)
There are several lessons I want to draw here and I probably don't have enough space here to do any of them justice. The first is that of aiśvarya and mādhurya: the idea of Krishna experiencing the loss of his power in order to experience rasa. I thought a relevant observation came up this last week, strangely enough in connection with the Sotomayor nomination.

Rick Salutin, one of my favorite columnists at the Globe&Mail, wrote an article about Sotomayor's infamous "wise Latina" comment. Here is the part I think resonates:
There was nothing racist implied by what [Sotomayor] said. It was not about being genetically Latina: it was about being experientially Latina. This includes poverty, deprivation, and discrimination. Anyone who grew up without that experience wouldn't be included by mere virtue of DNA. It is about having lived the life...

Note that she refers to the richness, not the harshness of that experience. It doesn't only embitter, it can enlarge. On a private level, most of us have been through things we'd never have chosen but -- if we handled them or just survived -- that enriched and improved us, put us more in touch with what it is to be human. In a way, it would have been a shame to miss them...

Speaking as a Jew, I think one reason North American Jews identify so powerfully with Israel is a sense that the soulfulness of past Jewish experience is missing in their generally comfortable lives. They'd never want to repeat the horror, but they miss the intensity. This is a familiar enough paradox.

... Perhaps what galls people like [a southern white senator], and made her back off, is not the claim that the Latina would make a better judge, but the chutzpah to say that she has had a richer life. Privileged people often share this sense, but don't expect to have their noses rubbed in it.
Now for me, there is an important message here that is found to some extent in the Christian idea of the "crucified God," and even more in Krishna, the "lovesick God." It strikes archetypal gold when we live the mythical life, but also when we hear about it.

But what is amazing here is the coincidence of the human with the Divine. The conceit of the Gaudiya Vaishnavas is that God makes his own life richer by experiencing it as a human. But the corrollary of that is that the human, in experiencing the fullness of human life, somehow becomes closer to the divine.

Now the bhakti path is about doing this; but it does not mean simply living a heroic human life, or merely experiencing human eros (as the critics of Sahajiyaism would claim), but deliberately experiencing them as sacred, somehow merging one's own experience into the Divine.

It is like the difference between a poet or artist and an ordinary man or woman. The common person experiences love or adventure, but it becomes trite because of the narrowness of his consciousness. By the expansion of consciousness through the culture of both experience and language, the poet makes it possible for even the common person to redefine his own experience as something transcendent. The lovers' special ("they're playing our") song or special movie somehow makes the commonplace, the personal, part of something much larger. And of course, there is the trite, popular culture that barely raises the level at all, but nevertheless plays to the same psychology.

The devotional culture, of on the one hand purifying the self as well as hearing and chanting Radha and Krishna's names, forms, qualities and pastimes, makes it possible to conceive of the sacred character of love. But without the individual experience, the song, the movie, the poem, remain empty. This is the basis for the general ambivalence about Radha and Krishna. I don't think the līlā really means much for most devotees.

The other day Bodhayan Maharaj said to me (repeating an old Gaudiya Math clichéd truism) that without sādhanā, the practitioner cannot enter into Radha and Krishna's līlā any more than a pre-pubescent child can experience sexual pleasure. Leaving aside any theoretical quibbles about child sexuality, let us say that there is an element of truth in it.

But my personal feeling is that it works the other way also. That without having directly had the experience of "the potter's furnace," one is seriously limited in one's ability to relish or even conceive of what is going on in Radha and Krishna līlā. It is the expert combination of the two realms of experience--the bhakti-yoga practice and culture with that of human love (and I must stress) in a sattvika relation, that rasa attains its full flowering.

In summary: Whether or not one is in a relationship, any capacity to relate deeply with Radha and Krishna līlā, in other words to experience rasa, is dependent on both the practice and culture of bhakti and the actual experience of human love.


This post is already getting long, but I am going to include one other thing. Recently someone referred to this blog as "all this esoteric wrangling," as though these discussions were somehow irrelevant to our practical spiritual life. I responded that to me, this is exploring the essence of our tradition. This is not at all irrelevant to the goal, which is to experience prema. There is no question of prema expanding to the social level unless it has been cultivated in the microcosm of individual experience.

Our biggest challenge is to make the myths of Radha and Krishna real and meaningful to people in the present day.


Jagat said...

Anyway, I am feeling divinely helpless today. Time for some vaidhi bhakti.

Jagat said...

Life is something of a crap shoot. No one really knows all the factors that go into a life--the underlying reasons for the decisions we make, what to speak of the situations we find ourselves in.

So much of what happens to us is luck, good or bad. Finding a guru, for instance. Finding a life partner, good friends or sadhu sanga. The kinds of jobs we find. Effort and intelligence, etc., are good and necessary, but daivam evAtra paJcamam.

And yet, what is interesting in all that is that we have no right to shake our fists at God or Fate. bhunjAna evAtma-kRRitaM vipAkam.

I think that I am a hopeless romantic. Radha-Krishna bhakti is a very romantic idea. I am not even sure what romantic means, but I think it is a basically optimistic view: that the world is fundamentally right, and that everything has its own beauty. And that we are here to appreciate and contribute to the increase of that beauty, and to help others perceive it.

Fatalism generally belongs to the classical world view. It is dark and defeatist, despite its truth. Romanticism is subject to manner of rational critique, and yet it simply seems a better way of approaching the world, if personal happiness is really the goal.

Sahajiyaism is essentially based in this kind of romantic view of the world. So I am going to pray to my God, chant his names, and keep on trucking to Goloka Vrindavan. Nitya dhama, nitya lila, that is my life.

Anonymous said...

Ah, you've never been so romantic when in India. All these sweet posts from Canada are taking our breath away. Thank you, thank you, thank you :-*