Saturday, September 19, 2009

Archetype and Avatara

I was sent by a link on Facebook to a live lecture by Niranjana Swami in Russia. The main theme was a retelling of the Prabhupada story. It was an embellishment of the Prabhupada myth: Old man goes to foreign land and in the face of multiple obstacles spreads God's message.

His story shows how mythology works and grows: A man in a temple saw an old sannyasi crying in front of deities of Gaura Nitai and asked him why he was crying. The old sannyasi answered, "I have been ordered by my guru maharaj to preach the yuga dharma of Harinam sankirtan in the Western countries. This is an impossible task and so I am crying, praying to Gaura Nitai to bless me and allow me to fulfill this mission. I am leaving tomorrow."

Many years later, the devotees were selling Back to Godheads in India, and this man inquired from them what they were doing. They showed him the picture of Prabhupad on the cover and this man immediately recognized him as the saint who was crying in the temple on that day.

This embellishment of the myth is archetypal in itself. Now I have talked about Prabhupada's life as archetypical or mythical before, but as I was listening to Niranjana Swami's retelling, a few further thoughts came to my mind.

An avatar is said to be a descent of the divine into phenomena. We experience such a descent not so much through actual events, though these are of course real and objectively detectable in various ways, such as the creation of a mass movement, temples, books, economic activity, etc. But the root of all these other manifestations is actually rasa. Rasa is of various types, but where God or saints is involved, we have bhakti rasa and their manifestation is in religious movements.

Let me first say this, a point of difference from most rasa manifestations, but which is mentioned by Sisir Kumar Das in his book The Mad Lover. He traces the ecstatic bhakta in Indian medieval religious poetry and observes that in the earlier stratum, the principal feature of the poetry is direct devotional utterances of the poet to the Lord, even though such devotion may have been expressed in the various rasas. In other words, the essential feature of the poetry is the poet's direct relationship with God.

In later poetry, the poet stands outside the lila and the emotion is expressed descriptively, in the utterances of the characters in that lila, principally, Radha. Now this is something that I have also observed and I think it is an essential development in the understanding of Rupa Goswami's rasa theory, which by extension is our entrance point into Manjari Bhava. It is a kind of "law of displacement" that, nevertheless, must be kept under some form of control.

This means that the bhakta has a direct relationship of devotion to God, expressed in prayer and other direct devotional acts like calling out the name of God, surrendering, accepting him as savior, provider and protector, etc. These "direct" manifestations of devotion are highly valued in most religions and are a source of direct experience, no doubt. From the rasa point of view, one becomes the central actor in the drama of devotional progress, the path to God.

The second, displaced feature, is also manifested in sravana, kirtan, smarana, etc., in which God and the Perfected devotess are players, and the the sadhaka is the observer. We can call the first the "service mode" and the second the "observer mode." From the point of view of theology, the first appears to be the more genuine manifestation of bhakti, but in the Bhagavata school, the latter is given a very high value. Indeed, the two are inseparable. The manjaris are serving the lila of the Divine Couple, but their reward is to observe it. It is their mystical experience.

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