In one of my last conversations with Swami Veda earlier this year, before we both left India, I said that the biggest problem with the bhakti-marga is that it is so anchored in cultural specifics. Mayavada relegates all such cultural specifics to a dustbin called Maya.
And on one level, so do I. I came to the conclusion some time ago that the only irreducible element that a philosophically inclined devotee could come to was the ultimate distinction of the jivatma and Paramatma. God is a person and so is the jiva. This fundamental duality in the Oneness is the proverbial line in the sand for the Vaishnava.
Now I don't think everyone understands me in terms of the evolution of both culture and the interpretation of symbols. I realize that some find it hard to separate the idea of Radha and Krishna from the culture in which it arose. Historically, I see this symbol as an anti-misogyny statement coming from deep within that culture itself, its collective unconscious if you will. By saying that Radha is, in the most important ways, superior to Krishna, an important even radical statement in the ongoing understanding of humanity. One of the purposes of this blog is to unravel and examine this sacred symbol with respect and not with facile reductionism.
So the question of mysogyny or sexual politics is only part of the story. What we, as transcendentalists, are really concerned about is the nature of spiritual experience. Just as love itself transcends the individuals who are "in love", even transcending their own sexuality, Radha and Krishna, in becoming One in Love, transcend maleness and femaleness. This is an integral part of the entire mystical and religious experience of Vaishnavism.
But the oneness of that experience, which can never be forgotten and is the substratum of the devotee's every move and thought, does not deny the reality of various aspects of God's energetic creation.
Now God's energetic creation is divided into two basic halves. One is called Mahamaya, the other Yogamaya. Both are Maya in the sense that they are expedients or media for experience. In fact, without them, the idea of experience, consciousness, love, etc., all that is valuable and meaningful, become lost.
All these things are in a state of constant individual and collective evolution. Only the symbol itself is transcendental. Radha and Krishna, stripped of every cultural manifestation, as simply the Divine Syzygy, the point where Unity and Duality merge, can assimilate all cultural manifestations, wherever the sacred is seen in this particular locus of human experience.
But let me say it again, we are talking here about a particular experience, which is devotional, mystical and transcendental. It is not a social statement or philosophy. It may inform our personal dealings and social philosophy, as the experience of and fundamental idea of love are transformative, but certainly the cultural accidents through which these experiences and ideas are conducted are not in themselves absolute.
That being said, we are human beings, not disembodied monads. Whether monists or dualists, we have to account for both the transcendent oneness and the variegatedness of the material world. As such we have language, words and thoughts that though unable to reach "It" are nevertheless indispensible to our humanity and thus our ability to strive for "It."
I often try to compare language to religious symbolism, just as Ramakrishna Paramahamsa did. "Water is always water, no matter whether we call it pAni or jala." "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." But whereas this simile is usually used to stress the oneness, and correctly so, it does not deny the fact that we are anchored in our own linguistic and symbolic universes. This is especially true when spiritual experience is understood in terms of rasa.
The personal God is by definition experienced through plurality and through rasa. Language and phenomena are the springboards to rasa. The yogis and jnanis who think that they experience rasa by shutting out language and phenomenal experience seem misguided to the Vaishnava.
Radha and Krishna resonate with me personally because of my own particular life path, my gurus, my commitment, my experiences of transcendence that have been mediated through Radha and Krishna and the traditions that view them as absolute. You may tell me that chanting the Hesychiastic prayer of the Russian Pilgrim is just as good as chanting Hare Krishna, but for me, that can never be the case. I would even argue that on an absolute level it is not the case, though I will admit to a certain unity of purpose and a unity of the underlying substratum.
When I chant the Mahamantra, I see Radha sitting under a kadamba tree remembering the moment that Krishna first kissed her, first touched her, first put his arms around her. I enter Radha and participate with her in that experience, which for me is the essence of mystical union.
I could never separate that experience of mystical union from the medium in which it arises, any more than a scientist doing a particular experiment could separate the results of that experiment from the way he achieved it.
Of course, you may say that once you understand the result, you can change the technical process, and in a sense, humanity has been doing that throughout its history. However, being a simple and singularly unintelligent human being, I have decided to stick with one path--and to be distrustful of those who think they can combine paths or be dilettantes and experience them all. I think you can only go deeply into Transcendence through intelligent commitment to one single path. Love is Krishna committing to Radha, Rupa Manjari committing to the Divine Couple (with a special leaning to Radha), etc.; it cannot be had in dilettantism.
Now here is perhaps where I differ most from traditionalists. Traditionalists are most often conservative. They do indeed have difficulty differentiating the finger from the moon. But those who have plunged deep into the ocean of spiritual realization see the "moon" in a unique way, and are able to advance humanity's collective understanding of the Supreme Truth. The Truth hasn't changed, but the perception of it has evolved, both individually and collectively.
This change can take place because the cultural milieu has changed. Culture is the collective expression of ideals. As the ideals change, the collective expressions change. As those change, the collective idea of what is ideal in humanity also evolves. Certain symbols, however, like that of the Divine Couple, are resilient and are in themselves symbolic of that process.
In other words, society changes and with it our understanding of the Ideal. But Radha and Krishna as a symbol, continue to be an inexhaustible source of meaning that informs the evolution of human culture. You have to be able to see Radha and Krishna in these transcendent terms or else you will get lost in the traps of cultural faultfinding.
The acharyas are the ones who have been able to push the ball of evolutionary understanding of the Divine Truth (which of course is bigger than any individual's experience of it) from their vantage point in the phenomenal universe.
The evolutionary process is one in which we recognize the valuable, that which is truest to the Ideal, and reject the dross, the hate, etc.
What I am doing with the Dana-lila here is to try to analyze a moment in this evolutionary process, where Radha and Krishna are undergoing a fundamental reinterpretation. A before and after moment, as it were.
Image of OM Radha Krishna taken from Exotic India.