Saturday, September 12, 2009

Bhakti and Culture

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.


Asian Fetish said...

"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."............

This is a bunch of bukwas. The vada of maya may relegate all cultural baggage to the rubbish bin, but the vadis themselves do not!

Let Swami Veda throw his oh so very Indian lal kapda into the rubbish bin and don the dress of Lady Gaga (!

Let all the functions that take place in the ashrams not follow any Indian protocol whatsoever. Let there be co-ed rooms in the dormitories. Let the brahmacharis of the ashram learn/teach Kama Sutra by living example with voyeurs gazing on and taking notes. Let them face Mecca 5 times per day and pray to Allah, in the name of the Prophet, peace be upon him.

Come on! Mayavadis/yogis/vairagis and "avadhutas" are just as much mired in Bharatiya Sanskriti as Mystery is mired in his method (!

It's naive to think otherwise.

You can take the Indian out of India but you can't take India out of the Indian!

Rubbish bin, my *ss!


Jagat said...

You misunderstood the point, which I said to him, not he to me. This is again a philosophical point. But they maintain traditional forms (to some extent) in the realm of sadhana. But it is easier for them to say that all roads lead to the top of the mountain than for the devotee.

Even you, who so boldly said, "Go do something else" don't really believe that worshiping the Kaaba is the same as worshiping Radha and Krishna.

The Mayavadis say, at least in theory, that the sadhya is the same for everyone. We don't. We may accept that there are some universal similarities in religion and we can all learn from each other, and we have to learn to share with each other, but we never give up the exclusive nature of our sadhya-tattva.


It seems to me that the problem of religious literalism is a problem that pops up again and again in every discussions trying to make sense of Gaudiya Vaishnavism in the present world. And you made a very bold statement in the article when you relegated "all such cultural specifics to a dustbin called Maya". The traditional acharyas clearly subscribed to some form of literalism, and even Bhaktivinoda Thakur, who is one of the guru's in your line and who rejected simple religious literalism, ascribed some reality to what you call cultural specifics. For BVT, the variegated world of maya was a distorted reflection of the variegated spiritual world. The "cultural specifics" in the material world have, according to him, their "pure" counterparts in the spiritual world. He might have taken recourse to this theory because seeing cultural specifics simply as maya can lead to the denial of variegatedness in the transcendental realm.

You try to explain or retain the symbolism of Radha Krishna Lila by Jungian archetype theory which does not make any link between the material world and the transcendental world as BVT's theory does. I agree that it has some explanatory power. However, this view requires a different view of rasa theory as that of the Goswamis. You see the cultural specifics just as an alambana for meditation or the experience of rasa. The Goswamis saw rasa as a transformation of sthayi-bhava which is based on samskaras (non-material bhakti samskaras). Your theory requires that rasa and bhava are different. Rati etc. will become viseshanas of rasa, the viseshya. Rati etc. will actually become an avarana of consciousness. This is basically a Mayavada theory.

This is just a couple of thoughts that came to my mind when I was reading your article.

Asian Fetish said...

Jagat, of course performing Islamic sadhana is not going to result in Radha-palya-dasi-bhava. As we think in sadhan, so we achieve in siddhi. That's the LoA (Law of Attraction). However, whatever is the sadhya for a Muslim, she will attain that through her own particular sadhan. Our sadhyas are different, and thus our sadhans are different as well, yet all will attain their specific sadhyas, whatever they may be.

Again, gopi-bhav is not Universal, nor meant for everyone.

My point was, the last people on Earth to talk about throwing culture in the rubbish bin are Indian Swamis. They wouldn't know crap from Christmas about renouncing their culture.

On the otherhand, western adherents to V'ism know a lot about it, because we've all had to renounce major aspects of culture to partake, and if we've lived in India, we've practically had to be culturally reborn. Therefore if you want to talk about culture, renouncing it, etc, talk to us.

Anonymous said...

"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."

If Radha-as-a-symbol arose out of a necessity for counteracting misogyny, then the more reason for such a symbol to remain allien to Western cultures: Misogyny has a collective maladie has been realtively minor in the West compared to Asia and the Middle East. How are we Westerners to relate to liberation if we have never been as captive? It becomes an ethnic curiosity for us, at best. So, as far as an ongoing understanding of humanity, I think its possible that, quite by an ironic turn of fate, the West has more to teach the East than the other way around. Our Goddesses are not political symbols but symbols of strategy for advanced collectiveness. But of course, this only means that such Goddesses are in fact aspects of the Great Goddess. Only we need to have Indian Culture to assimilate that. And soon.

Jagat said...

I am finding it hard to keep up, guys.

Jagat said...

Anyway, to Asian Fetish, let me say one thing. Don't confuse theory with practice.

Jagat said...

There seems to be a little bit of confusion about the dustbin of Maya comment. I do not hold that view myself. I am a Vaishnava and I believe strongly that the material world is real, though temporary. Maya means taking temporary phenomena as having ultimate value. They have only reflected value. I am in perfect accord with Bhaktivinoda Thakur here.

I will have to think about your other points a little, Krishnadasji.

Anonymous said...

Okay now I get it.


For some strange reason I just found a copy of Women Who Love Too Much. It has been re-released.

She kind of dumbs down the curriculum, but basically tells her clients there are two forms of love according to the Greeks: Eros and Agape. [Actually there is more than that: Philos, too].

The description she gives for Eros matches the leelas of Radha-Krsna almost play-by-play. There is suffering and lots of it. She said that "passion" means "to suffer".
It's like an obsession.

She said that in Western culture, people are "taught" [via popular culture plus a sort of haphazard method of non-teaching by one's elders] that if a couple engages in Eros, then the result will be Agape.

She also said that most fairy tales also perpetuate this equation: IF engage in Eros, THEN Agape will be the long-term result.

But she feels that they are two different things, so you wind up with two different results.

Anyway now I understand how you meditate. You don't think too much about what leads up to it.

And recent neuro-research confirms that if people think about romantic things, the same part of the brain fires as if they had actually been doing the romantic things. By thinking of romantic things, basically one floods the brain with oxytocin, epinepherine, and dopamine.

And, is alot safer to just think
about than to do it. I guess is like offering one's thoughts to the Divine.


Gosh I read another interesting thing. A Chinese poet born in 1957 said that in his opinion all poetry is actually the most spiritual thing that there is. He said it is like direct experience of the Divine.

He felt that all religious systems were based on trying to make a codified institution out of the purity of poetry. But he felt the most pure thing is to just read the poetry directly.

Perhaps that is why some people are drawn to your blog of poetry translations: direct experience of the Divine.

He felt that you connect with God, nature, the cosmos, and all living things when you read poetry!

Anonymous said...

The poet's name is Li-Young Lee. American poet born in Jakarta, Indonesia to Chinese parents on Aug 19, 1957.

There is a page in Wikipedia on him.

He's like a modern transcendentalist poet. Winner of numerous awards for his poetry.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jagat,

I was wondering if you ever heard of a site called


You can preserve your original writings on that site for free and forever [well until the Maha Pralaya].

I know you are putting alot of energy into your work and sometimes the artiste is not appreciated in his/her lifetime.

But if you gradually start putting all of your books, translations, and writings onto scribd, might be a way of preserving all your hard work and/or gaining a wider audience.