Thursday, October 15, 2009

Summary of Dāna-keli-kaumudī Articles

Since I posted my introductory articles on Dāna-keli-kaumudī in a somewhat haphazard fashion, I thought I would just present a list of those articles in the order they were intended to be read. Some of these are dated back to September, so you may have missed them.

There may be a bit of crossover or lack of proper sequencing of ideas in the different posts, since they were all being written more or less simultaneously, so no doubt further editing will be necessary, but I probably won't do that work on line.

(1) Folk and Classical Elements in Dāna-keli-kaumudī. This introductory article is meant to highlight how Rupa Goswami's writings are the synthesis of folk and classical traditions, mediated by the Bhāgavata-purāṇa.

(2) A summary of the contents of Dāna-keli-kaumudī.. This structural analysis of the DKK is an attempt to isolate the classicizing portions, or at least to see what original contributions Rupa was making in his approach to the dāna-līlā.

(3) Verse 1 of the nāndī: kilakiñcita.

(4) Verse 2 of the nāndī: Anurāga. This article contains a commentary on verse 2 and some detailed analysis of the sthāyi-bhāva.

(5) Divine Madness, Pūrva-rāga and the Nitya-līlā. In this article, I continue the theme of "the paradox of play" that was brought up in the two previous articles, in particular how that relates to the theme of love and madness, parakīya-rasa, pūrva-rāga and the nitya-līlā.

(6)Rasa-rāja and Mahā-bhāva. In this article I have tried to show how Rupa Goswami's philosophy has evolved even further in Krishnadas Kaviraj's understanding, which has grown out of Rupa's rasa theory and the inspiration of Svarupa Damodar's vision of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Changing of the Gods

In an earlier post, Bankim Chandra and Sri Krishna Charitra, I started a discussion on a rather good book on Bankim by Sudipta Kaviraj, The Unhappy Consciousness. Kaviraj is a historian and political scientist who teaches and writes mostly on Indian and Bengali politics. He is an excellent writer--dense in ideas and insight, and eloquent in expression. I hardly expect to do justice to his work and will have to be selective in what I quote and what I discuss.

Kaviraj's primary interest is understandably Bankim Chandra's political thinking, but since Bankim was not actually a political actor, but a novelist and essayist, Kaviraj has done a great deal of thinking about literary theory, both Western and Eastern, in order to better understand his subject. The main theme is Bankim's imagining of history in the name of creating a vision of India.

What is primarily interesting to me, and us, in all likelihood, dear readers, is Bankim's reshaping of the character of Krishna. We have mentioned this in two earlier articles (this and this) and those will give you an idea of my earlier understanding of Bankim. For the most part Kaviraj bears me out and I don't think I need to change anything I have written there. But I think that he has still given me a great deal of food for thought and enriched my comprehension of my particular problem, which is the theology of Radha and Krishna.

So much of what Kaviraj says resonates with my own reading of Bengal’s 19th century cultural history, which has so much significance for us, because the transformations of Gaudiya Vaishnavaism that arose in that period through Bhaktivinoda Thakur are ultimately the source of our own involvement in this movement. But it is also because Chaitanya Mahaprabhu himself came from Bengal, and we thus have a profound interest in understanding these developments for the sake of our own engagement in this tradition.

Bankim saw the problem as one of reshaping or more accurately creating a Bengali and Indian national identity. As a colonized people, Bengalis were in a situation where there had never ever been a clear "national identity," at least not in the sense that it was understood by Europeans in the 19th century. Moreover, they had little in the way of a glorious historical past that they could point to. Furthermore, the Orientalist problem was in evidence: Western historians composed their account of the people of India, setting the parameters of the discourse in ways that legitimized their empire and gave the subordination of the defeated and subjected peoples a historical inevitability. What Bankim was doing in effect was recreating the history of the Bengali people, making a narrative in a way that would lead to a new national self image. He did this in essays on history and religion, but even more so in his historical fiction.

Since our principal interest here is in the person of Krishna, it has been particularly illuminating to see how Kaviraj's entire exercise mirrors my own attempt to understand what is going on in the writing of Rupa Goswami in his various works--both theoretical and literary. In fact, the very Sanskrit verse with which I ended my last post is paraphrased as the first sentence in Kaviraj's book: "In his work, an artist creates a world." Though Kaviraj finds this to be a particularly "modern" attempt on Bankim's part, in some ways, it was foreshadowed, at least tactically, by Rupa Goswami.

Indeed, one of the important points he makes early on in his discussion of Krishna Charitra is related to Indian attitudes to text, differentiating the Indian and European approaches. There are several points that he makes, one of which is related to authorship. Generally speaking, the recognition of individual authorship is considered an indispensible given in understanding any text in the West, whereas in India, objective truth was tied in with the effacement of ego of the author. This is why so many sacred texts are ascribed to mythological figures, anonymous, or ascribed to authors without biographies. This could be called the theory of the "transparent via media."

It would seem that the beginnings of a more modern approach to authorship began in Bengal with Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, about whom we know a great deal more than many earlier historical figures, and with him many of his important disciples. Rupa Goswami's life is recounted in the Chaitanya-charitamrita, and the author of that work is also present personally there, telling of his own conversion, inspiration and difficulties in writing the work. As such, both Rupa and Krishnadas were placed in a particular historical context and were self-consciously directing the debate on the nature of God and religion in their time.

It may be said that they were "transparently," ego-lessly transmitting a particular vision of the Divine, but like Bankim, Rupa was both writing theoretical and literary works to that end. Though inspired by Chaitanya, he and Krishnadas after him were aware that their vision was distinct from that of several other branches of the Chaitanya tree, what to speak of the general religious and philosophical schools of the day.

Now in my previous few posts I have been trying to show some of the main features of the transformation--theological and aesthetic--that Rupa was trying to bring about, the world that he was creating. What is interesting is that Bankim was consciously trying to undo Rupa Goswami's work, or at least trying to return to the Krishna that existed without Radha, before Radha became integral to the theistic structure of Vaishnavism. And what I see as necessary now, in the current context, is to return to Rupa Goswami and to understand his vision, which I believe in the context of the current age, post-Freud, post-sexual-revolution, will reclaim for many a sense of the sacred and infuse the symbols, rituals and traditions of Gaudiya Vaishnavism with new life.

When I first came to the West from India in 1985 and began a dedicated program of reading, I came across a book with the title Changing of the Gods by Naomi Goldenberg, an adherent of Wicca and fan of some of the leading lights of the Wiccan movement of the time. As with many other neo-Pagan thealogians, there was a great sense of gratitude to Carl Gustav Jung for having breathed life into their new polytheism with his archetypal theory of psychology.

Basically, what Jung did was to continue the Feuerbachian interpretation of God as a projection, but he saw them as projections coming from a deeper unconscious than even the one that is formed out of personal experience, as Freud did. The monotheistic Deity was seen as the central organizing principle of the Ego. This was fundamentally different from Freud’s view that God is an external projection that weakens the Ego by imposing itself on the individual consciousness. So the Freudian project was basically that of freeing oneself from God and the oppressive “Superego” whereas Jung saw the constellation of archetypes as arising from the “Collective Unconscious” and surrounding the ideal sense of Self, named God.

The concept of God as an individual or collective projection is the operative idea of all 19th century atheism, from Feuerbach, to Marx, to Durkheim, to Freud, and so many others, which essentially marginalized God altogether by seeing it as a product of inner unconscious forces being projected outward. If we were able to uncover the unconscious, i.e., make it conscious, then the fiction of a deity was no longer useful. And better for us to know the meaning of a symbol than to be governed by unconscious forces, often shadowy in nature, that lead us into destructive acts.

What Bankim was trying to do, according to Kaviraj, was consciously manipulating the concept of the deity. When speaking of Krishna, he was trying to establish a heroic and masculine role model. When he invented the form of the goddess Bharata Mata, he was consciously and deliberately creating a deity that at once resonated with eternal Indian symbols and also incarnated the Durkheimian deity, the representation of the collective which one at once worships and identifies with.

Where Krishna is concerned, Kaviraj argues that Krishna's life is itself a text that supports or validates the meaning of the Bhagavad-gita, his essential teaching. Therefore Krishna's life must exemplify that teaching, and anything that does not must be eliminated from the text. This is his hermeneutical criterion.

Interestingly, Bankim Chandra claims to accept the Bhagavata statement or mahā-vākyakṛṣṇas tu bhagavān svayam. But he makes the point that an avatar is, as Krishna himself states in Gita 3.22-24, an exemplar. If killing demons, etc., were all that were involved, his presence would be needed all the time. Bankim considered it extremely important to eliminate all the miraculous elements from Krishna's life, since there would no point in being an exemplar for humanity if he were superhuman. In this, does he not echo Krishnadas's arguments in the Charitamrita?

Kaviraj goes on to say that Bankim was engaged not simply in a debate with the Vaishnavas, but more importantly for him, with the Christians. He wanted to show that Krishna's this-worldly teaching and example were even more suitable as an ideal for human society than Christ's.

Interestingly, Kaviraj points out that Bankim's attitude to Radha was not so much dictated by an objection to the sexual elements. Indeed, an interesting aspect of his novels lies in the recurring problem of transgressiveness, which takes much the same form as Radha's problem with love outside of societal norms. In fact, one of Bankim's novels, Indira, even explores the very same structure as a recurring theme of Sanskrit drama, which I have called the archetypal royal Hindu myth, where a man unknowingly falls in love with his own wife, whose identity for some reason has become hidden. This basic theme is also replicated in Rupa Goswami's Lalita-mādhava.

But to Bankim, Radha is problematic for two principal reasons: One is that she supplants Krishna as the dominant party in the myth, and secondarily that she ceases over time to be an adequate role model qua woman. I will quote here at length:
What is important is that the later Krishna is reduced to a discursive nullity, little better than an excuse: his only artistic raison d'être seems to be that he is the remote but necessary object towards with Radha's passion, laments and her increasingly tragic sense of the world is directed. The great stream of pathos flows toward him, making him in a peculiar sense both essential and inessential... This is Krishna's reduction to silence, Krishna's increasing distance from this luxuriance of sorrow in this tragic discourse, perhaps because it is considered inappropriate to depict the lord of all creation unbecomingly broken by separation, and in an act of self-abasement.

In some ways the change in the figure of Radha is more paradoxical. She was absent from the Mahabharata story, but by the time of the Gita Govinda she has already become a central figure. Yet it would be seriously misleading to suggest that since in a sense she remains the central figure of the Krishna story from Jayadeva to Tagore's Bhanusimher Padavali, she remains the same Radha. Her transformation is no less drastic or astonishing.

When she is still narratively indistinct in the early Puranas, the narrators add spice to their stories by speaking of a particular gopi who is characterized as darpitā, too arrogant about her gift of extraordinary beauty, who does not stop from scolding, rebuking or bullying God Himself, because of the omnipotence of her gift. She is thus portrayed with a mixture of indulgence and rebuke, for the way she treats the lord of all creation is astonishingly immodest and wrong, but at the same time, in some subtle way, interesting, appropriate and beautiful. As her figure blooms into the later Radha, it is these aspects of her that are emphasized. She is seen as dṛptā, self-respecting, assertive, often, with good reason, abusive towards Krishna, māninī, kalahāntaritā. In these early texts she is hardly ever without strong self-respect, never representing an overpowering though picturesque weakness. After all, one must not forget she is the self of God and theologically no less imposing than the Lord Himself. Indeed, she is purer in a sense in which He is not, in the way in which the quality of redness must be considered purer than an object that is red.

Gradually, in the Bengali Vaishnava tradition, her nature changes in a strange manner. The change is so drastic that in the narrative the Vrindavan episode is gradually overshadowed by the part designated as māthura; it is a harder, deeper, more tragic separation, which bears a prefiguration of an eternal and unending alienation, unrelieved by realistic hopes of a reunion...

Later the figure of Radha from a metaphor of the joy of life becomes a figure for its sorrows, its perpetual longing for an unattainable eternally elusive happiness. By the time of the later Vaishnava poets like Jnanadasa we find her one-dimensional wailing figure, perpetually on the verge of separation and despair. When Tagore recreates the padavali form in our own times, she has practically merged into the tearful helplessness of middle class femininity. ... whose only recourse is death.

In his poetic incarnation she is more like the tyrannized Bengali middle-class widow than the forceful, proud, aggressive and above all joyous heroine who celebrates life through her resplendent sexuality, irrespective of social propriety, which covers a radiance on everything it touches -- herself, Krishna, nature, and the lives of distant audiences who can only hear that astonishing story retold by inadequate bards. (98-99)
According to Kaviraj, Radha is cast as the "ultimate victim" and Bankim wants to retrieve the positive view of womanhood that was present in the early Radha.

Whatever the truth of the above description of Radha's evolution, it seems that we are in a position to agree with Bankim on a depiction of Radha as the full energy of Krishna, equal to if not greater. In fact, it is hard for me to see any other Radha. I find it somewhat difficult to see the evolution that Kaviraj describes from purely texutal sources. From our survey of the Sri Krishna Kirtan and Dana-keli-kaumudi, we saw that Chandidas's Radha most closely fits the above description. Certainly the Radha of Lalita-madhava, despite her intense feelings of separation, comes out ahead in her heroic exclusive commitment to Vrindavan Krishna, refusing even his Dvaraka form. And the Radha of DKK is certainly the incarnation of self-confidence compared to her depiction in SKK.

Whatever Radha's depiction in 19th century padavali kirtan performances, the underlying theology of Gaudiya Vaishnavism did not change. As Kaviraj himself says, "A myth has movement, but a symbol has internal dynamism, though externally it may be static." This is why, Bankim could hold on to the Krishna image and extract what he liked from it while at the same time feeling it necessary to cut away elements of the myth that led away from his heroic, “this worldly” human ideal.

But I think we need to circumscribe the territory that can legitimately be designated the scope of the symbol, in particular where we speak of it as a model. Rupa Goswami took great pains to establish Radha's position theologically, and Krishnadas, as we saw in the last post (Rasa-raja and Maha-bhava) made it clear that the Yugala combined are the true object of the Gaudiya Vaishnava worship, placed above all other objects by the criterion of rasa. In other words, the Yugal Kishor are more than their individual parts, more than Radha as exemplary woman or Krishna as exemplary man.

How then are we to understand this symbol? What is the field of its applicability? This is a knotty question that needs to answered on many levels and I will only give a general direction here.

From a purely positivistic point of view, Radha and Krishna represent sexual union, which on the level of human psychology represents the most profound stratum of the subconscious. Not necessarily simply because there is a natural imperative to reproduction, but because we are born as products of such union, because human consciousness awakens in the midst of the interplay of emotionally powerful archetypes of mother and father. The harmonizing of these arcane halves of the subconscious is the work of not only practical maturity but the very stuff of spirituality. Though spirituality no doubt has many dimensions, love must be seen as the deepest seated and most primal. The relation of these psychic forces and the spirituality that is discovered in myth, symbol, ritual and theology is one that is complex and needs to be addressed.

For many devotees, any talk of symbol and metaphor is immediately suspect as Mayavada because it appears to reduce the Deity by attributing to him purely material causal factors. My personal feeling is that the apparent material causality is insufficient to explain the practical nature of spirituality. Though avataras, images of Deity and so on may be seen in exemplary terms, as Bankim attempted to do, I think that they serve in other ways and that the hierarchy of symbols--which are not necessarily in competition with one another--is based on their capacity to bring one to a deeper contact with one's transcendental self. That is something that is ineffable and, though one may be able to explain it away as mundane with some psychological doubletalk, it remains to the experiencer to know of its sacred and numinous character.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Rasa-rāja and Mahā-bhāva

I don’t think we can look at the vibhur api verse (DKK 2) without being subliminally reminded of a similar one from Govinda-līlāmṛta, also quoted in Caitanya-caritāmṛta. This verse, in the same meter and beginning with the same word, was almost surely written with the earlier one in mind. It should be noted that like many other classic poets, Kaviraj Goswami has done this in other cases. Compare, for example, GLA 10.14 to Kāvya-prakāśa 5.128. And Rupa Goswami’s own pastiches of classical verses, such as the priyaḥ so’yaṁ kṛṣṇaḥ verse (CC 2.1.76, Padyāvali 383), are well known. In such cases, it is always an intriguing exercise to treat the latter verse as a commentary on the former.

Kaviraj Goswami's verse goes like this:

vibhur atisukha-rūpaḥ sva-prakāśo'pi bhāvaḥ
kṣaṇam api rādhā-kṛṣṇayor yā ṛte svāḥ
pravahati rasa-puṣṭiṁ cid-vibhūtīr iveśaḥ
śrayati na padam āsāṁ kaḥ sakhīnāṁ rasajṣaḥ

Although the love of Radha and Krishna
is infinitely great, supremely joyful, and self-effulgent,
it never reaches the full expression of rasa
without the sakhis,
any more than the Supreme Lord does
without his spiritual potencies.
So what knower of rasa would not
take shelter of them?

(CC 2.8.205, GLA 10.17)
This verse has been of interest to me ever since I first heard it. It is quoted in the Rāmānanda-saṁvāda as a glorification of the necessity of taking shelter of the sakhis. Generally, the Govinda-līlāmṛta does not make many philosophical or theological statements, as it is a līlā-grantha. Here, however, is a theological statement about rasa-tattva and līlā-tattva that is quite unique. Such a statement cannot even be found in the works of Rupa Goswami, the master of devotional rasa theory.

God as Love

In BRS 2.1.59, Rupa Goswami shows that his measure of God is to be found in rasa. We have already shown a progression of sorts in the introductory portions of the DKK (summary of the DKK), but in this verse, Krishnadas goes even one step further than Sri Rupa.

Without the sakhis, Radha and Krishna's bhāva, even though it is all-pervading, full of joy and self-luminous (sat, ānanda, cit), does not fulfill its potential as rasa. And, by way of example, Krishnadas says that the Supreme Lord (here deliberately unnamed) similarly does not attain rasa-puṣṭi without his cid-vibhūti, or spiritual opulences. The adjectives that applied to bhāva (infinitely great, supremely joyful, and self-effulgent) also apply to īśa, and indeed would be more familiarly used in the context of the Vedantic descriptions of the Absolute.

The point of the example is both essential to Vaishnava theology and familiar: God, who by definition is complete, still "needs" his energies in order to fully manifest his completeness. God does not "need" the creation, since it is part of his very being, and yet he does, because only by exercising those energies does he fulfill the meaning of being God. Cit here means separated or differentiated consciousness, i.e., "an other." This includes not only the jiva, but the "separated Moiety" or "alienated Self of God," Radha.

If we follow strictly the structure of the simile in the verse, Radha and Krishna's bhāva is being compared to God, the sakhis to His spiritual energies. Clearly a transposition has taken place from the DKK verse we have just studied. There we observed in the two nāndī verses that the usual place of God or a god had been subtly replaced in verse 1 by a concrete or external manifestation of love (i.e., the kilakiñcita alaṅkāra/anubhāva), and in verse 2 by the sthāyi-bhāva called anurāga.

The divine attribute vibhu, which is common to both DKK 2 and the GLA verse above is in neither case being applied to a personal form of God, nor to Radha or Krishna individually, nor even to the Divine Couple taken together, but to their love itself. But whereas Rupa took Radha's love as the Absolute, Kaviraja Goswami here takes the mutual love of the Divine Couple as the highest truth.

I cannot help but think here of Sri Jiva Prabhu’s verse from Gopāla-campū, which makes a somewhat similar statement:

imau gaurī-śyāmau manasi viparītau bahir api
sphurat-tat-tad-vastrāv iti budha-janair niścitam idam
sa ko'py accha-premā vilasad-ubhaya-sphūrtikatayā
dadhan mūrti-bhāvaṁ pṛthag apṛthag apy āvirudabhūt

Wise persons have determined that though
these Two are of a black and golden hue respectively,
in their minds they are of the opposite colors;
so too, externally, are their clothes.
This is some pure, unblemished love,
which has become incarnate
taking on this form with a dual manifestation,
at once divided and a unity. (GC 1.15.2)
Radha and Krishna are absorbed in thought of each other, and thus their minds are golden and blackish in color due to this identification. Moreover, Krishna wears a golden cloth, Radha a dark blue dress. These are said to symbolize their absorption in thought of one another. But the conclusion of the verse is not about them per se. Rather Jiva says that some (ko’pi) unfathomable, undetermined Love has manifested in this dual form, a Divine Couple that is so intermingled that in a constantly expanding manner, internally and externally, they replicate each other.

Rasa-rāja and Mahābhāva

The common term in Kaviraja Goswami's simile is pravahati rasa-puṣṭim, "reaches the full expression of rasa." We know from the rasa-śāstra that bhāva develops into or becomes rasa, but how does this apply to īśa?

Though we stated above that īśa has deliberately been left unnamed, we should take it that a statement is being made about all concepts of God, up to and including Krishna, the rasa-rāja, and his cid-vibhūti, Srimati Radharani, who is the mahā-bhāva.

In a broader sense, the statement could be seen as an implicit reference to the guiding principle of the bhakti-rasa śāstra, the mahā-vākya from the Taittiriya Upanishad, raso vai saḥ: "Rasa is the Supreme Truth."

This supreme truth of rasa is prema. Though this is a principle rather than a person, we should not be afraid that this implies a kind of impersonalism. God is not just a person; God is also an idea and a principle, and only by understanding God as such do we get a full understanding of what God is. Love cannot exist without plurality or personhood, so any talk of symbol, metaphor or reduction to principles should not be misunderstood as Mayavada; it is achintya-bhedābheda.

Let us explore this a little further: The Taittiriya Upanishad says that the Supreme Truth is rasa, and whosoever attains rasa becomes happy (yaṁ hy evāyaṁ labdhvānandī bhavati). Thus, by definition, rasa is the object and the soul who attains rasa, the sādhaka, is the subject. The idea of subject (āśraya) and object (viṣaya) is an essential distinction in rasa theory. Rasa is an experience; one that is had by a subject.

In bhakti-rasa theory, the subject, the one experiencing love for the object, is of the greatest interest. In fact, it may be said that the object, God, is so multi-dimensional that he practically loses any semblance of individual truth, mirroring rather the individual devotee than being any clearly defined ding as sich. The closer we examine the development of bhakti-rasa theory, with its emphasis on sthāyi-bhāvas, the safer it is to say that it adheres to some version of the idea of “projection,” not in its reductive sense but as an affirmation of his glory. God becomes what his devotee makes of him. The character of the love defines the object. He is Rasa-rāja only because of Mahā-bhāva.

The Vaishnava philosophy, we shall see, ultimately synthesizes the problem of projection. We shall consider this question in another place, but let us, for the time being, just consider what the Vaishnava acharyas made of it.

Generally speaking, God is seen as one cause (vibhāva) of love: its object, which we have here identified with rasa itself. The devotee is the āśraya, or reservoir of loving feeling. Rupa talks about two basic kinds of āśraya--the sādhaka and the siddha or pārṣad; Radha is the supreme siddha. In the hierarchy of rasa, Krishna is the Rasa-rāja, the king of rasa—in the sense that there is no greater attainment than this form. That by which this form is attained is Mahā-bhāva, personified as Radha, the Mahā-bhāva-svarūpiṇī.

Rati and Kāma

To look at it another way, Krishna is also known as the Supreme Eros, the aprākṛta-navīna-madana. And since Kama’s wife is Rati, Radha can also be recognized as Rati.

Since Rati and Kama are somewhat multifaceted terms, we shall have to look a little more closely at them. Kāma is usually translated as desire, and most often as sexual desire. (As in BhP 10.90.48, vardhayan kāma-devam, or in the Gita). But when talking about Krishna as Kāmadeva, the term is being used differently: there Kāma-deva is described as attractive power: E.g. “as beautiful as a million Cupids” ( kandarpa-koṭi-kamanīya-viśeṣa-śobhā ). In other words, kāma is the attractive force that produces desire. The idea of Krishna as sākṣān manmatha-manmatha, "the very churner of the mind of him who churns minds," means that Krishna's attractive power is so great that any other force of attraction is rerouted towards himself.

The word rati is usually seen as the object of kāma: sexual desire leads to sexual intercourse. Therefore rati is the corrollary, object, wife or servant of kāma. On the other hand, rati is (as we have seen), also seen as a synonym of bhāva. Rati means attachment or love and, by the same token, kāma is the object to be attained. This is the sense of kāma in the goals of life or puruṣārthas, where it is classified as the third objective.

So when we speak of Krishna as Kama, it does not mean the desire itself, but the attractive object of desire, and rati does not mean the sexual act, but the act of loving and desiring that object. Nevertheless, since the two terms are almost interchangeable, we must remember and recognize the mutuality of love—lovers are ideally always both subject and object of their love.

In the same way, prema is seen both as subject experience and objective attainment. In fact, prema might be seen as the union of the two in an inseparable amalgam, since the attainment of spiritual perfection could be interpreted as the perfect desire perfectly fulfilled.

Desire/love Love object/attainment


Now, the above is fairly familiar territory, because we are seeing Krishna as the object and Radha as the subject. But in Krishnadas Kaviraj's verse, a new subjective element has been introduced: the sakhis. And since they are a new āśraya, the nature of the viṣaya has also changed. And, in this refined understanding, Krishna alone cannot be the Supreme Truth as rasa. On his own, in fact, he cannot be the object to be attained. Since rasa has no meaning without bhāva, the object to be attained is the combination of rasa and bhāva.

Now we can understand why Rupa Goswami breaks down madhura-rasa into two categories: sambhogeccha-mayī and tad-bhāveccha-mayī. The use of language here is right away interesting. The mystics who use the language of direct enjoyment—the Bilvamangalas, etc.—are being subtly criticized by the use of the word sambhoga, which is the term for sexual enjoyment. It implies a kāma in the usual ego-centered carnal sense and all that this entails.

This should not be misunderstood. Rupa Goswami discusses the matter in the section on rāgānugā bhakti, the sādhana for attaining madhura-rasa. It is, however, a subtle reference to one inherent problem in the entire question of spiritual life: the contradiction between the pleasure promised in spiritual life and desirelessness needed to attain it. Union with God (sambhoga) is the promise, but freedom from selfish desire is the necessary condition to fulfill it. The end of the first chapter of the Rasa-līlā in the Bhāgavata is also dealing with this problem.

Rupa Goswami tells us that the gopis' love for Krishna, even though taking a sensual form, is not kāma, but prema. Even so, he is hinting that this mood is for them, not for us, and that even to strive for it is somehow lesser. The expression tad-bhāvecchā, "desiring their mood," should be understood as a recognition that the bhāva, or Mahā-bhāva, since it is an integral part of the Absolute Truth as rasa, cannot be separated from it. And that therefore the mystical participation in that combined form of God as Love is a higher experience of rasa than any attempt to experience God partially by breaking of part of it, even if it should be named rasa-rāja.

In other words, rasa does not exist symbolically, externally, but in the union of desire with the desired object. That can only exist in the union of Rasarāja with Mahābhāva, where the Supreme Truth, eternally divided for the sake of experiencing Love, is combined in eternal union. Thus, the object, the viṣaya, ceases to be God as one or the other, but is the Divine Couple in eternal union.

This is, of course, the meaning behind Krishnadas Kaviraja's account of Ramananda Raya seeing Mahaprabhu as Rasa-rāja and Mahā-bhāva as being combined in one form (CC 2.8.281).

That eternal union, of course, has within it the appearance of separations, but these are all just waves in the ocean. Jiva has to make a leap from the theological intricacies that are spelled out in the Bhāgavata-purāṇa, to come to this conclusion in his concluding verse to Prīti-sandarbha:

ālībhiḥ paripālitaḥ pravalitaḥ sānandam ālokitaḥ
pratyāśaṁ sumanaḥ-phalodaya-vidhau sāmodam āmoditaḥ
vṛndāraṇya-bhuvi prakāśa-madhuraḥ sarvātiśāyi-śriyā
rādhā-mādhavayoḥ pramodayatu mām ullāsa-kalpa-drumaḥ
The girlfriends of Srimati Radharani carefully nurture the desire tree of Sri Sri Radha and Madhava’s jubilant pastimes in Vrindavan’s fertile soil, in constant expectation of seeing its beautiful flowers and fruits; they watch it develop and grow, and when those flowers and fruits appear, they are the ones to relish them. May that tree, by its unparalleled beauty, give pleasure to us also.
Sakhi as Poet

Now here we can see the process of displacement as it has taken place. It is about finding a place for the devotee when the personal God is not seen so much in terms of the devotee's one-on-one direct experience. Rather, in the way of the rasa theorists, it comes about through identification with Radha's devotion; it is something that is both ours and not ours.

Sudhir Das gives us an inkling of how this process went on historically:
In the songs of the Alwars or of the Virashaivas of Mira and Kabir, there is a personal and direct dialogue between god and devotee; their poems are poems of personal experience and emotion. In the Radha legend, the expression assumed a new form: now there emerged a new lyrical from where the participants are Radha and Krishna and the poet is the narrator of that experience. (Mad Lover, p.17)
The logical conclusion of this process is sakhī-bhāva. The sakhīs both expand Radha and Krishna’s pastime, and at the same time they enjoy it. The focus has changed not only from the immediate experience of the devotee with God in a loving relationship to one on Radha, but has continued to one on the Divine Couple, with the locus of identification being situated in the sakhis.

So we started with the mystic poet interacting directly with God and from there went to the poet writing about the locus of love and God, and then moved on to the [sādhaka] devotee poet writing about the [siddha] poets, i.e., the creators of the līlā and the tasters of the rasa, and the Divine Couple.

Krishnadas Kaviraj’s own text, for which the vibhur atisukha-rūpa- verse is given as evidence, runs as follows:

rādhā-kṛṣṇera līlā ei ati gūḍhatara
dāsya vātsalyādi bhāvera nā hoy gocara
sabe eka sakhī gaṇera iha adhikāra
sakhī hoite hoy ei līlāra vistara
sakhī binu ei līlāra puṣṭi nāhi hoy
sakhī līlā vistāriyā sakhī āsvādoy
sakhī vina ei līlāra anyera nāhi gati
sakhī-bhāve tāre jei kore anugati
rādhā kṛṣṇa kuñja seva sādhya sei pāya
sei sādhya pāite ara nāhiko upāya

These līlās of Radha and Krishna are most secret and hidden. They are outside the ken of devotees situated in the moods of servant, friend or guardian, what to speak of others. Only the sakhis have the right to enter here, for these pastimes expand out from the sakhis. Without the sakhis, these pastimes have no nourishment. The sakhis develop this līlā and they themselves relish it. Other than the sakhis, no one has a place in this līlā. Therefore, only one who follows in their footsteps, taking on their mood, can realize the ultimate goal of service to Radha and Krishna in the forest bowers of Vrindavan. There is no other procedure for achieving this goal.(CC 2.8.200-204)
What in essence is being said is that the sakhis are, in the same way that a poet is, the creators of this universe:

apāre kāvya-saṁsāre kavir ekaḥ prajāpatiḥ
yathāsmai rocate viśvaṁ tathedaṁ parivartate

In the limitless ocean that is the world of poetry, the poet is the one God, and it turns only for his pleasure. (Agni-purāṇa 3.9)
The devotee/poet is the creator of the rasa. The Divine Union goes on forever. Though this theory is already advanced from the very beginning of has its culmination in their union. Seen through the optic of this myth, the entire creation is an attempt to reexperience this union.

On many levels, this invites us to a Freudian analysis of myth, dreams and their relation to depth psychology. But we will have to look at the all-pervasive significance of sexual symbolism and its relationship to spirituality, particularly this form of spirituality, another day.

Spreading Krishna Consciousness

(Crossposted from the discusson on Facebook)

There has been movement both ways: Just as there were Goswamis and Babajis who went to the Gaudiya Math, they have come to Iskcon also. At the same time, there have been people going from Iskcon to various GMs, and from both to other Vaishnava groups.

svajātīyāśaye snigdhe sādhau saṅge svato vare. You have to feel that you are getting saintly association with whom you share the same spiritual goals, where you find affection and which is preferably conducive to advancement. In other words, on a higher level than yourself.

I left Iskcon primarily for both the first and third reasons... not because I was too proud of myself, as some people thought, but because I felt that no one there in 1979 had anything particularly useful to teach me about bhakti and this tradition. I was just remembering yesterday, when I went to the Iskcon temple to celebrate Rasa and the beginning of Urja-vrata, how on two occasions, shortly before leaving Iskcon, I had been impressed by seemingly random people I came in touch with.

In Hyderabad, of all places, an old man came to the temple and began talking to me with tears in his eyes about svarupera raghu. It was so intimate and affectionate, like a ripe fruit I needed to pick. And a little before that, in Shillong, I was giving a class on Chaitanya Charitamrita, when an old Vaishnava began talking on the kaṁsārir api saṁsāra- verse. What a delicious mouthwatering moment that was. Lobha.

Bhakti is a yoga path. No matter which angle you take on Gita 12.5 (kleśo’dhikataras), the teaching comes to the same thing: you have to go through the eye of a needle to get to God. That is the bhakti path. The jnana path is to become so diffuse that you disappear, but that is not exactly the same as prema.

Bhakti is about attraction. Our attraction was primarily aesthetic and the philosophy is pretty much just an explanation of the attraction. The explanation may have become inadequate for us, causing our faith to weaken. If so, we have to ask ourselves, is the attraction still there? If not, then perhaps we need to look elsewhere, to follow our living attraction, or as Joseph Campbell puts it, “follow our bliss.” But if our attraction still lies in Krishna, then that means we have to use our intellect to understand the deepest significance of that attraction and how it must be practically applied.

Krishna is the "transcendental Eros." The "all-attractive." In whichever direction he pulls, we must follow. But all glories to those who have recognized him in his yugala form with Srimati Radharani, and in his combined form as Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Jai Gaur. Jai Radhe!

Srila Prabhupada brought Krishna consciousness to the West. Most of those who are on this path, whether they have come through Iskcon or not, recognize the role of Prabhupada. Personally, I find I often have to bend over backwards to state this for Iskcon devotees whose demands for pledges of allegiance border on the neurotic.

But, let me ask, does anyone know the meaning of the word ucchiṣṭa? The guru's mercy is his leftovers. He does not do everything himself, but leaves stuff for those who follow to do to push the movement onward.

Times change, circumstances change, and we may be able to reach the people he didn't and perhaps could not nor would not. That is the duty of every devotee, whether they know it or not. And everyone, including Tim Lee, should honor all those who are pushing things forward. Every endeavor has some fault, and we have all fallen short of perfection, including no doubt Tim Lee himself. That does not mean that the flaws, failures or deficiencies are more important than the continued effort.

Push the movement on means :

(1) Do Bhajan. Prabhupada said thicken the milk. Do bhajan in the association of advanced devotees. If you think Tim Lee is an advanced devotee, then flock to him. If you think Narayan Maharaj or Ananta Das are advanced Vaishnavas, then flock to them. The institution is ultimately irrelevant; it is the individuals who are important. But for God's sake, shoot for our sampradaya's stated goals: Radha dasya and Prema.

(2) Study seriously. Learn about Gaudiya Vaishnavism. vidyā dadāti vinayam. Real knowledge leads to culture. It leads to understanding and generosity of spirit. And don't just read Prabhupada's books. Learn, learn, learn. Hear from different people. Understand what Mahaprabhu's intention was. Learn what Rupa Goswami's intention was. Learn about this world we live in and find out how Mahaprabhu's message fits.

And how about learning the original languages of our tradition so that you are not dependent on translations all the time? Translation is always an interpretation. What if you want to at least try to understand the original without commentary?

The more you learn, the more you will understand, the more cultured you will become, and the more capable you will become of serving this movement.

Which is what, exactly?

If bhakti is not helpful in advancing the human race, then what value does it have? And if the human race or we as individuals can do without it, then what use is it? If you think it has value, then go deep so that you can add to the value.

(3) Act according to your adhikāra. But respect everyone according to their adhikāra, from the sparrow trying to drink the ocean to the Garuda who can, from the squirrel to the Hanuman.

(4) LOVE. The goal is prema. And the secret of bhakti is that the end and the means are the same. Bhaktyā sañjātayā bhaktyā.

No one is going to be a Chaitanya, a Narottam, or a Prabhupada. But who knows what geniuses of bhakti are out there being born.

Jai Radhe!!

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Clever gopis

I have probably posted these verses somewhere before, but I don't know where, so I am just giving them again. These verses are found in Padyāvali, but the fact that most of them can be found in Sad-ukti-karṇāmṛtam shows that they date back to at least the 12th century.

aṅgulyā kaḥ kavāṭaṁ praharati kuṭile mādhavaḥ kiṁ vasanto
no cakrī kiṁ kulālo na hi dharaṇidharaḥ kiṁ dvijihvaḥ phaṇīndraḥ
nāhaṁ ghorāhi-mardī kim asi khaga-patir no hariḥ kiṁ kapīśo
rādhā-vāṇībhir itthaṁ prahasita-vadanaḥ pātu vaś cakra-pāṇiḥ

"Who's knocking on the door?"
"Don't be cunning, it's Madhava." "The spring?"
"No, Chakri." "What, a potter? What do I need with a potter?"
"No, it's Giridhari." "What, a two-tongued snake?"
"No I am not a snake. I am the destroyer of the terrible snakes."
"Then you must be Garuda, the eagle."
"No I am Hari." "A monkey, then?"
May Krishna, who holds the disk in his hand,
who was thus made to laugh by Radha's witty answers,
deliver us all from saṁsāra.

This is the original "knock knock joke." Madhava means both Krishna and the spring. Chakri means "he who holds the discus" and a potter (who turns the potter's wheel). Dharaṇīdhara means both the lifter of Govardhana and Ananta, thus the reference to a snake. "The destroyer of the snakes" refers to the killing of Aghasura or domination of Kaliya. Garuda is also known by this name. Hari has many meanings, but Radha takes it to mean monkey (kapīśa).

This verse is also found in the compilation Subhāṣitāvali, 130.

kas tvaṁ bho niśi keśavaḥ śirasijaiḥ kiṁ nāma garvāyase
bhadre śaurir ahaṁ guṇaiḥ pitṛ-gataiḥ putrasya kiṁ syād iha
cakrī candramukhi prayacchasi na me kuṇḍīṁ ghaṭīṁ dohanīm
itthaṁ gopa-vadhū-jitottaratayā hrīṇo hariḥ pātu vaḥ 282

"Who's there?" "Keshava."
"Are you so proud of your hair, then?"
"No, this is Sauri, the son of Vasudeva."
"Well, the qualities have all gone to the father
and I have no business with the son."
"O moon-face one, you don't understand, it's Chakri."
"Oh, you must be the potter who has come to deliver
a pitcher, a jug and a milking pail!"
Thus defeated in this exchange of words,
Hari blushed. May he deliver us all.

Keśa means hair.This verse is also quoted in the compilation Sad-ukti-karṇāmṛtam (1.56.3). Rupa Goswami credits the verse to Chakrapani, about whom no information can be given.

vāsaḥ samprati keśava kva bhavato mugdhekṣaṇe nanv idaṁ
vāsaṁ brūhi śaṭha prakāma-subhage tvad-gātra-saṁsargataḥ
yāminyām uṣitaḥ kva dhūrta vitanur muṣṇāti kiṁ yāminī
śaurir gopavadhūṁ chalaiḥ parihasann evaṁvidhaiḥ pātu vaḥ 283

"Where did you stay (vāsa) last night, Keshava?"
"My clothes (vāsa)? Why I am wearing them.
And did I tell you how enchanting your eyes are?"
"You rascal, explain where you have been (vāsa)."
"Explain my fragrance (vāsa)?
My beauty, this fragrant perfume
has come to me from touching you."
"You cheat! Where did you spend the night?"
"Stolen by the night? The night has no body;
how can it steal anything?"
May that Krishna,
who disarmed Radha with his witty replies,
deliver you from the suffering of saṁsāra.

This verse is quoted at BRS 2.1.83 where it is given as an example of Krishna's genius (or pratibhA) in being able to refute arguments. (See NOD 21, but note that Srila Prabhupada's version differs somewhat from the one given here. Here Krishna has missed his rendez-vous with Radha and is only coming to meet her the following morning. She wants to get answers and he is avoiding them. The last line is explained by the word break yāminyām uṣita (“Where did you pass the night?” or yāminyā muṣita (“Were you stolen by the night?”).

This verse is also quoted in Sad-ukti-karṇāmṛtam (1.56.4).

rādhe tvaṁ kupitā tvam eva kupitā ruṣṭāsi bhūmer yato
mātā tvaṁ jagatāṁ tvam eva jagatāṁ mātā na vijño’paraḥ
devi tvaṁ parihāsa-keli-kalahe’nantā tvam evety asau
smero vallava-sundarīm avanamac chauriḥ śriyaḥ vaḥ kriyāt 284

"Radha, are you angry (kupitā)?"
"No, you are the father of the world (ku-pitā)."
"Then you are the mother (mātā) of the universe."
"No, you are. For you alone know all things
and thus can know its measure (mātā)."
"My goddess, you have unlimited expertise
in argumentative joking." "And you, too."
Hearing this, Krishna smiled and
bowed his head to the milkmaid beauty;
may he bestow auspiciousness on you all.

This verse is also quoted in Sad-ukti-karṇāmṛtam (1.56.1). Rupa ascribes it to Harihara, while Sridhara in SKM ascribes it to Vakpati. Rupa has changed the verse slightly to make it an exchange between Radha and Krishna rather than Laksmi Narayan.

And before there is too much of a good thing and we all grow completely tired of this stuff, here are the other samples of this type of verse found in Sad-ukti-karṇāmṛtam:

ko'yaṁ dvāri hariḥ prayāhy upavanaṁ śākhāmṛgeṇātra kim
kṛṣṇo'haṁ dayite bibhemi sutarāṁ kṛṣṇaḥ kathaṁ vānaraḥ
mugdhe'haṁ madhusūdano vraja latāṁ tām eva puṣpānvitām
itthaṁ nirvacanīkṛto dayitayā hrīṇo hariḥ pātu vaḥ 285

"Who's that at the door?" "Hari."
"Go back to the forest. We don't need any monkeys around here."
"Darling, it's Krishna." "Ooh, that scares me even more,
I have never seen a black monkeys."
"Don't be silly, it's Madhusudana."
"A bumblebee? Then go back to
gathering honey in the flower garden!"
May that Krishna,
who was thus rendered speechless by his beloved Radha,
deliver you from the suffering of samsara.
This verse is also quoted in Sad-ukti-karṇāmṛtam (1.56.2). where it is ascribed to Subhankara.

These four verses are found in Padyāvali. Lee Siegel in his book on Indian humor draws attention to this kind of verse, calling them Sanskrit "knock knock" jokes. These are very much the kind of playfulness about language that marks Sanskrit humor and, in particular, Rupa Goswami's vision of Radha and Krishna's playful exchanges.

S. K. De decries the excessive sophistication of Rupa Goswamis' gopis, who seem to no longer simple cowherd girls. The contrast between his Radha and that of Manohara or Chandi Das, or even that of Jayadeva, is marked. In Rupa's language, Radha is ramya-vāk ("pleasing speech") and narma-paṇḍitā ("a sharp wit"); she can hold her own in repartee and even beat Krishna, the source of all knowledge, at this game. (64 arts)

Here are the verses from the Ujjvala-nīlamaṇi (4.27-29) that are examples of these particular qualities in Radha:

O pretty-faced Radhika,
What is this syllabled sweetness
That appears from your mouth?

Friend, because of it the cuckoo appears imperfect
And even nectar now means nothing.

"Are you the teacher of that flute, Krishna,
Or is that flute of yours the teacher here?
In either case, neither of you
seems to have anything better to do
than steal pious housewives' virtue."

"Be gracious, O Lord, augmenter of merit,
Of virtuous reputation, constantly cleansed
By the worship of Shiva in chaste girls' breasts,
I perform your rite of lustration.
To worship the sun I have bathed,
So don't touch, don't touch my body!"

Translations taken from "Radha: the quintessential gopi" by Neal Delmonico, JVS 5.4. pp. 127-8.

The two latter verses show different kinds of wit. The first is what is called aniścayānta-sandeha alaṅkāra, displaying apparent doubt in order to make a point.

The wit of the second verse is based on double meaning, as with the verses below, which Vishnu Das quotes in his commentary on the above verse. The second meaning here is mostly conveyed through tone of voice: "Be gracious, O Lord, destroyer of merit, of infamous reputation, constantly 'cleansed' by worshiping Shiva in married women's breasts, etc." (The rest is the same.)

Shiva in the breast refers to the usually breast-like shape of the Shiva linga. Of course, after making such a simultaneously sarcastic and flirtatious comment to Krishna, he naturally would respond, "Well, you are certainly a chaste girl, and I certainly cannot leave with such fine lingas as these unworshiped. So please allow me to show my devotion to this deity both externally with my hands, and internally with my heart." As he makes his move, however, Radharani stops him, saying, "No, don't touch me. We are single-minded devotees of the Sun God and it is against our religion to promote the worship of Shiva.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Sage under tree/Sage in the heavens

I painted these water colors in the summer of 1970, shortly before I became a devotee. There were more in the series, but I have only these two left. They were not thought out, but the product of an inner impulse, depicting the voyage of a seeker towards heaven. The sage riding a hammer-carrying horse into the sky. No idea what it meant, but the feeling of excitement, that I was headed into a glorious, colorful realm, was overpowering.

The immediately previous picture in the series was one of the sage walking on a path along a mountain value towards a fairy castle. In this last one, he is looking down at the mountains. I think the horse represents grace.

The color has unfortunately almost completely faded, and at different speeds, too.

The majority of seeds in nature die as seeds, and in human life, all natural men, all the timid, all the stupid and all the evil, remain in the starlit cavern of the fallen mind, hibernating in the dormant winter night of time. They are embryos of life only, infertile seeds, and die within the seed world. The possibility of life within them remains in its embryonic form of abstract ideas, shadows and dreams. Some of the dreams are troubled visions of the real world of awakened consciousness; others are the nightmares of paralyzing horror which all minds in a stupor of inertia are prey to. Here and there a seed puts out a tentative shoot into the real world, and when it does, it escapes from the darkness of burial into the light of immortality.

Such a seed, however, would only have begun its development, for the vegetable life is not the most highly organized form of life, because it is still bound to nature. The animal symbolizes a higher stage of development by breaking its navel string, and this earth-bound freedom of movement is represented in our present physical level.

The bird is not a higher form of imagination than we are, but its ability to fly symbolizes one, and men usually assign wings to to what they visualize as superior forms of human existence. In this symbolism, the corresponding image of nature would be neither the seed bed of the plant nor the suckling mother of the mammal, but the egg, which has been used as a symbol of the physical universe from the most ancient times.

Northrop Frye. Fearful Symmetry (Princeton, 1947). 347-348.

Who genuinely represents Chaitanya Mahaprabhu?

(Reprint. Originally posted on Gaudiya Discussions)

We have become rather accustomed to seeing much quibbling about who genuinely represents Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. There are many points of contention, but the great symbolic distinction is found in the differing concepts of disciplic succession.

It is my personal feeling that human experience is multi-faceted. Different historical situations give rise to different interpretations; different contexts to different responses. Is it not then possible that there is more than one way of looking at Chaitanya Vaishnavism? Furthermore, will not a more complete and nuanced view of Gaudiya Vaishnava history and doctrine not make those who hold Chaitanya Mahaprabhu dear more capable of adjusting to circumstances as they change?

Gaudiya Vaishnavism evolved over 350 years after the disappearance of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. As with every human phenomenon, it was born, grew and developed in response to the social situation in which it found itself. Without an understanding of context, our understanding is only partial. We make judgments based on our understanding or misunderstanding of context. This why Benedict Arnold can be a synonym of treachery to Americans while being a loyal hero to the British.

The victors write history, and so most people are left with only a one-sided understanding of it, in other words, myth. Victors promote their understanding of events, which places their successes in the light of inevitability and divine will. It is the duty of the historian to see through such an ideological understanding of how things happened.

Throughout most of the world, those in the line of Siddhanta Saraswati view their successes in preaching as the sign of their being the true inheritors of the mantle of Chaitanya and Sri Rupa Goswami. This is neither suprising nor, one might say, unjustified. However, the Gaudiya Math movement was born out of a polemic against the institutions of Gaudiya Vaishnavism as they existed at the beginning of the 20th century. The result is that most of those whose knowledge of Vaishnavism comes through the Gaudiya Math and its offshoots have a perception of its history that is colored by this polemic.

It is my feeling, however, that a broader understanding of Vaishnava history in its social context will lead to a more nuanced and appreciative view of the traditional Gaudiya Vaishnava world, a view that will benefit all.

Gaudiya Vaishnavism, as well as myriad other bhakti movements in India, took birth and first flourished in the Islamic period. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu appeared when Muslim rulers held the reins of power in East India and the Islamic religion was making great inroads throughout the region, primarily through effective proselytization by Sufi preachers. One who ignores this context will misunderstand much about Gaudiya Vaishnavism. Furthermore, one must also comprehend that Saraswati Thakur appeared, not necessarily when Vaishnavism had become degraded, but rather when the social and political context had fundamentally changed.

Though much could be and has been said about Hindu-Muslim relations, religious historian Joseph O’Connell gives the following assessment of the role Chaitanya Vaishnavism played in softening the edges of a situation that otherwise may well have been filled with tension, “One of the most fundamental sociological implications of the Chaitanya Vaishnava movement and ongoing community was its contribution to the socio-cultural integration of Hindu-Muslim Bengal.”

O’Connell argues that the religio-psychological aspects of Krishna devotion affected tbe basic social orientation of Chaitanya Vaishnavas and facilitated participation in the mixed and potentially conflicted relations of Hindus and Muslims in Bengal.

Of course, this is a much more complex matter that may be (and has been) discussed at length. My point is simply that the development of Gaudiya Vaishnavism prior to British colonial rule would be better seen in this context--not that it was just plodding along, but had achieved a great deal of success as a religious movement, spreading to all the corners of the Bengali-speaking world and even beyond it in Manipur and some other tribal areas, and developing sound institutions that worked in that environment.

With the arrival of the British, the social and cultural situation in Bengal changed radically. The modus vivendi of coexistence Hindus had developed over the centuries with Islam became irrelevant and a new one with Christianity (and nascent European secularism) had to be sought out. The situation was further complicated by the fact that Islam as a religion and culture had remained fairly static over the 223 years between the departure of Mahaprabhu and the British conquest, whereas the British were a dynamic race for whom Christianity was only one dimension of their identity. The real roots of British power lay in other areas of cultural superiority--namely, European rationalism.

This was not just rationalism in matters of religion, but extended to various other spheres. For instance, British military rationalism made it possible for a handful of regulars and British-trained sepoys to defeat Indian armies ten times their size. Here is the Abbé Dubois' assessment:

"The Moguls and Mahrattas, two rival powers who for a long while disputed the supremacy of India, placed on some occasions as many as 100,000 horses in the field. The Mahratta princes combined could have commanded as many as 300,000 horses. But they never knew how to utilize this unwieldy multitude to its full advantage, because they did not understand how to maneouvre it in a scientific manner. The lessons which the European invaders gave them time after time, for more than 300 years, seem hardly to have taught them to appreciate their mistakes. Even at the end of this long period, and when it was too late to mend matters, there was a vast inferiority in their tactics compared with those of their dreaded opponents. They never could be brought to understand the value of strict discipline, good tactical handling, orderly arrangements in marching and camping, and, in short, all the skilled dispositions by which it is possible to manoeuvre large bodies of troops without confusion. They thought their work was done when they had collected a miscellaneous horde of men, who marched to battle in a disorderly mass and fell upon the enemy without any method or concerted plan." (Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies, 674)

This European rationalism and efficiency extended to government administration, technology and a hundred other facets of life. Thus, whereas Hindus could look on Islam as "just another way" of religious life and even as culturally inferior, when it came to the British, the majority of the Hindu elite was forced to admit a much more widespread cultural inferiority. This can be seen to some extent even in the writing of Bhaktivinoda Thakur, but is especially obvious in Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya and other of his contemporaries. In this world of the 19th Bengali elites, the admiration of the British was closely accompanied by an attitude toward Chaitanya Vaishnavism that approached revulsion. One only needs to read the books of Ram Mohun Roy or Bankim Chandra, such as Ananda Math and Sri Krishna Charita, to get an idea of this development.

In part, this can be seen most simply in a language of discourse which contrasted British "masculinity" to Indian "femininity." This terminology was all-pervasive at the time wherever the British discussed their conquered peoples (and was indeed rather common to imperialist discourse everywhere). They customarily depreciated Hindus as being even more “effeminate” than the Muslims. Whatever we may think of such discourse today, it weighed heavily on the psyche of the Indian intellectuals of the time, who struggled with and railed against this typology. Bhaktivinoda Thakur's riposte was to use the analogy of the British as India’s “younger Aryan brothers” to whom the responsibilities of management could be handed while the more spiritually mature Indians tended to the cultivation of their spiritual life. Though this idea likely did not originate with Bhaktivinoda, variations on it do represent a significant undercurrent in Hindu nationalism.

Bankim Chandra attempted to rationalize the understanding of Krishna by following the historical method used by Renan and other European scholars to discover the “historical Jesus.” The “historical Krishna,” according to Bankim, was covered by two mythological layers. The outermost layer was the Krishna of the Bhagavata who played with the gopis. This, Bankim argued, was a later, entirely fictional accretion to the original historical personality of Krishna. He blamed the popularity of what he considered to be a purely mythological figure on Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, and argued that it was responsible for the effeminization of the Bengali people. Though Bankim avowed that the Vaishnavism taught by Chaitanya may have been of benefit to a few highly elevated souls, he claimed that its unfortunate misuse had misled the majority into a degraded life of debauchery.

Bankim's second mythological layer was the warrior hero of the Mahabharata and incarnation of Vishnu. The historical Krishna, the teacher of the Bhagavad-gita, though cut down by Bankim to purely human proportions, was defended as not only historically real, but as perhaps the greatest person in Indian history, truly worthy of the title "avatar."

Through this kind of argumentation, Bankim and others gradually transformed the debate to a justification of a revised version of Hinduism. Pure, pristine Hinduism could never have been like this! To them, it was a heroic and philosophically profound religion, not one permeated with and distorted by sexual imagery.

This idea was very influential and took many forms, the early culmination of which was the Ramakrishna Mission. Like the Brahmo Samaj before it, the Ramakrishna Mission was a movement with a Hindu core, but one that had adopted certain Western institutional forms and principles. Vivekananda clearly stood against the Hinduism of the day, as did many others like Dayananda, etc., who all believed that the essence of Hinduism was pure and holy, but had only become decadent.

Let us admit that this perception of decadence was in great part possible only because of the mirror that the British--both Orientalist and Christian--held up before these reformists.

We must look at both Bhaktivinoda Thakur and Siddhanta Saraswati in their time and place. No one likes to hear that Saraswati Thakur took a page out of Vivekananda's book, but this is in fact what he was doing. He saw the Vaishnava society of his time to be hopelessly decadent on many levels. Its householder acharya core was (according to him) engaged in religious life purely as a business and acted like any other self-interested elite. This was part and parcel of the contemporary critique of the caste system--which though age-old consituted a fundamental (and still does) Western critique of Hindu society. I recommend reading what I have called Saraswati Thakur's Manifesto--"Brahmana o Vaishnava"--for one of the earliest available expressions of his views on this issue.

Like the British secularists, Christians, Vivekananda and Bhaktivinoda before him, Saraswati criticized the renunciates for being disengaged from any social role and thus acting as a drain on the society and economy, begging to make a living but contributing little or nothing in return. Indeed, many of them were living practically as householders and yet still maintaining the trappings of renunciation and expecting the rewards that accompanied that status.

Finally, Saraswati Thakur saw the rise of Sahajiyaism as a particularly distasteful consequence of the overemphasis of Gaudiya Vaishnavism on Radha and Krishna's dalliances. Though Chaitanya Vaishnavism had an impressive theological core, the end result was elaborately explained as being Radha and Krishna's love affairs. The long-lived and resilient Sahajiya tradition, which was born in Buddhist times, had adapted very effectively to this doctrine. Thus, in the minds of many British and Christians, Vaishnavism was associated with sexual immorality. They took no account of the yogic aspects of the Sahajiya tradition (or dismissed it as distasteful), but only its self-evident immorality.

Furthermore, this was Victorian England, whose mastery of the world was attributed to its discipline and that, in turn, to its sexual self-control. These things were not lost on the Hindu reformers, nor on Saraswati Thakur.

All of Saraswati Thakur's reforms can be seen in the light of these three fundamental criticisms of traditional Vaishnava society. His preaching was often harsh, but it struck a chord with many who felt that his voice was one that led to a rationalization and modernization of Chaitanya Vaishnavism. Saraswati even broke entirely with the disciplic succession system of the caste Goswamis, calling it a "Pancharatrika" system.

By emphasizing what he called the "Bhagavati" aspects of Vaishnavism, he effectively undercut the traditional spiritual leadership of its diksha monopoly. By criticizing the siddha-pranali system, he undercut the Sahajiyas and brought the emphasis of Krishna consciousness to the intellectual and away from the affective and away from the easily misunderstood aspects of Radha Krishna lila. By taking a novel form of sannyas, he established a new Vaishnava social order and institutional system, thus sidestepping the disreputable Vaishnava renunciates of the day.

There were many reasons that Saraswati Thakur felt incapable of reforming Gaudiya Vaishnavism from within the system, so he broke away. But break away he did, let us make no mistake. I repeat this again for all those in the Gaudiya Math and Iskcon who still try to establish some kind of diksha relationship between the various members of their Parampara system. Saraswati Thakur created a new, Bhagavati parampara, whose basis is not Pancharatrika initiation.

I personally cannot criticize any of these reforming moves on the part of Saraswati Thakur. They were appropriate according to time and place and I honor them. Indeed, we must accept the historical effectiveness of his rationalizations of Gaudiya Vaishnavism and acknowledge that without them, it would have been unlikely that the chanting of the Holy Name could have spread around the world so rapidly.

But we are left with a number of what I think are important questions:

Did the Vaishnava system that existed prior to Siddhanta Saraswati have NO redeeming features? This is very important, as the firm belief of the Gaudiya Math and Iskcon today seems to be that ex ecclesia nullum salus--anyone outside this tradition has no chance of salvation. Admittedly, those outside the Gaudiya Math tend to think the same way about those inside. This is where the parampara question takes on particular significance.

In fact, there are other, objective criteria by which one can measure a person's spiritual acumen, and the reliance on external signs like initiation for legitimacy is only superficially helpful. In this case, however, initiation means more than the possibility of perfection, it means the adoption of external rites and rituals, external modes of dress and other kinds of cultural distinction. The traditional Gaudiya Vaishnavas have a 500-year-old culture that has to a great extent been jettisoned by the Gaudiya Math. For example, the songs and aratis of Bhaktivinoda Thakur are sung to the almost total exclusion of the great Mahajans of Vaishnava padavali like Govinda Das, Jnana Das, and Lochan Das, etc. Are we to say that one is better than the other? Can even the Gaudiya Math suggest that Bhaktivinoda supplants or supersedes these predecessors common to the Gaudiya Vaishnava heritage?

In effect, with one or two exceptions, what the Gaudiya Math has done is to nullify the historical development of Gaudiya Vaishnavism as being entirely without value and basically, all wrong. I believe that this is an excessively black and white way of looking at things, as well as being fundamentally wrong. It even goes beyond wrong and affects the basic principle of Vaishnava good manners. Historically, the Gaudiya Vaishnava system in place in the context of the late 19th century Raj may have been wrong for the time and place and necessitated reforms, but does that mean it was wrong for the mid-18th century, for example? Or, that it may not have some validity even today, in the beginning of the 21st century?

Whatever Vaishnavism exists in the Gaudiya Math has, ultimately, come through the grace of those who preserved it over the 350 years that preceded Bhaktivinoda Thakur, not the least of whom was Bipin Bihari Goswami, his guru. Is it surprising, then, that some feel that the callous disregard of the rich contributions that all these Vaishnavas made to the preservation and development of Gaudiya Vaishnava culture is "guror avajna"? Minaketan Ramdas rejected Krishna Das's brother for honoring Chaitanya while dishonoring Nityananda Prabhu. He called it "ardha kukkuti nyaya." Similarly, to accept Gaudiya Vaishnavism but to reject the contributions made over the centuries by the so-called Sahajiyas, Babajis and Jati Goswamis is looking at only half of the hen—and perhaps not even the good half at that.

The Gaudiya Math recognizes Vishwanath Chakravarti Thakur, Baladeva Vidyabhushan, Jagannath Das Babaji, Narahari Das, and other traditional Vaishnavas. Apparently they think that these members of their "disciplic succession" arose in a vacuum, that they were not surrounded by and a product of the exact kinds of people that it condemns as apasampradayas.

Babajis, Jati Goswamis, Sahajiyas have all become confounded into one amorphous mass. In fact, there is no monolithic Vaishnava world outside the Gaudiya Math. There are manifold subsects following numerous individual gurus each of whose adhikara differs. Why should one be miserly about honoring anyone who worships Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and Radha Krishna, who chants the Holy Names, studies the Bhagavatam, or lives in the Holy Dham?

I call on all Vaishnavas to be hearty in their approbation at the achievements of those they have become in the habit of criticizing. There is no one representative of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, but many representatives, each of whom is developing his or her vision of Mahaprabhu according to the time and circumstances. Let us not blind ourselves to history, or pervert history in order to achieve our own ideological goals, but look at the history of our tradition objectively and work to perfect ourselves and our movement on that basis.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Bankim Chandra and Krishna Charita

I have been reading a very interesting book, The Unhappy Consciousness by Sudipta Kaviraj, an Indian political historian from Bengal.(Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995). In fact, I have only been reading and rereading the book's third chapter which is called "The Myth of Praxis: Construction of the Figure of Krishna in the Krishna-charitra."

Now I know that I have mentioned Bankim Chandra and his reevaluation of Krishna's life before. Bankim was Bhaktivinoda Thakur's slightly younger contemporary and though he became far more influential in India than the Thakur, they shared one common interest: the direction of religion in Bengal and India and Krishna's place in it. Bhaktivinoda wrote Krishna-samhita in 1880 and Bankim wrote Krishna-charitra in 1886. It is hard to imagine that there was not some common link between these two books, though again, Bankim's influence was more widespread, with Aurobindo and Vivekananda being at least two major figures who were influenced by his views. Even today, with the worldwide spread of Krishna consciousness that Bhaktivinoda Thakur set into motion, it is safe to say that in the land of his origin, he is not seen as much more than a sectarian thinker, and Chaitanya Vaishnavism still occupies a somewhat marginal position in wider Bengali society. This was quite obvious to me the last time I visited Calcutta.

Shukavak N. Das's book about Bhaktivinoda Thakur's adhunika vada is something that has come up directly or indirectly over the years and is still an obvious point of contention in IGM circles, and as this article by Krishna-kirti shows, even accredited devotee academics find it a particularly difficult stumbling block. But on reading this article by Prof. Kaviraj, I have come to see that my own way of thinking has in some significant ways come to meet Bankim's, who seems to have been asking the same questions as Bhaktivinoda, but going more deeply into many of them. I say this even though in principle I find that he may have been hampered by an inadequate understanding of Rupa Goswami's philosophy--as is Prof. Kaviraj himself. The problem Bankim was really addressing was "What kind of religion does Bengal need today?"

Prof. Kaviraj has revisited Bankim Chandra's particular point of view, not only summarizing and analyzing his reasoning and underlying purpose, but also supplying a great deal of context and depth of comprehension. It is helping me to clarify where I stand in relation to many of the metaphysical questions related to issues like God, avatar and Krishna.

This article is very rich in content and it will be difficult to summarize its 33 pages concisely, so I heartily recommend everyone read it in full. As I have said before, I feel particularly connected to Bhaktivinoda Thakur's two-edged project: one of establishing a rational base for Krishna bhakti, and second to make Radha-dasya the single goal of my religious life. I read Krishna-samhita in Bengali many years ago, but its significance was lost on me until I read Shukavak's book. Similarly, I read Krishna-charita in Bengali many years ago, but Prof. Kaviraj's article has made it much clearer to me the extent of Bankim Chandra's argument--with the help of a hundred years of hindsight.

This is the end of my preamble. I decided to just post a section of an article I wrote a long time ago when I first started my B.A. in religious studies that summarizes a kind of general formative idea about Bankim that I've had up until now. It still pretty much stands, and for those not familiar, it will give a basis to understanding Bankim's argument and the discussion of Kaviraj's essay a little more fully.


First European travellers to India had an extremely negative opinion of Vaishnavism. Nineteenth century British descriptions of Vaishnava sahajiya gurus in the yearly festival at Ghosh Para (near present day Kalyani in Nadia) distastefully paint a picture of them surrounded by bands of admiring females. The association of sexuality with religion in any form was anathema to 19th century Protestantism and it was not long before this revulsion found a counterpart in Bengal. Ram Mohan Ray, the father of the Bengal Renaissance, found absolutely nothing redeeming about Vaishnavism, which he considered to be a corruption of the true Upanishadic religion, perceived by him to be a type of Unitarianism. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, on the other hand, attempted to reform Vaishnavism by salvaging the reputation of the much maligned avatara and speaker of the Bhagavad gita, Krishna.

The work in which Bankim discussed the personality of Krishna and which had a great impact was Sri Krishna charita. In writing this book, Bankim’s goal was similar to that of his contemporary, Syed Amir Ali, an apologist to the world of probing, prying Western Orientalists who were calumniating the character of the Prophet. Two of the most damaging criticisms levied at both Muhammad and Krishna were that they did not preach Christian non violence and that their sexual mores were questionable, neither of them being monogamous. Both the Qur’an and the Gita condone the principle of the holy war, jihad and dharma yuddha respectively. It is important to remember that in the struggle for Indian independence there could be no better ideological tool for nationalists than such a doctrine and so both apologists justified it without reservation. On the other hand, the apparent sensuality of these religious founders (in contrast to the example of Christ) was an apparent paradox which needed some explaining away.

Bankim in particular sought to do so by a guarded exercise of demythologization: using the critical method of the Orientalists, he peeled away the mythological layers to discover three distinct Krishnas. The outermost layer was the Krishna of the Bhagavata who played with the gopis, whom Bankim argued was a later, fictional accretion to the original historical personality of Krishna. The popularity of this purely mythological Krishna was to be blamed on Chaitanya. Bankim detested the effeminacy which had overcome the Vaishnavas in their following of the purely mythical Krishna; especially distasteful to him was that aspect of Tantric sahajiyaism which promoted a type of devotional quietism centred around a sexual ritual based on the characters of Krishna and his consort Radha. Though he avowed that the Vaishnavism taught by Chaitanya may have been of benefit to a few highly elevated souls, its misuses brought one into a degraded type of debauchery. The other Krishnas were another mythologized figure, the warrior hero of the Mahabharata and incarnation of Vishnu, and the historical Krishna, who though cut down to human proportions, was defended not only as being historically real, but as perhaps the greatest person in Indian history.

Bankim followed the positivist influence of Comte in recognizing the people’s need for gods and, in his desire to reshape Hinduism into a new nationalistic religion, he reenlisted the ‘real’ Krishna for the generalship of the new battle for cultural identity. This was the political figure, the Krishna of Kurukshetra, a much more heroic ideal who responded most perfectly to this concept of the type of god necessary to meet the needs of the age, a symbol more fit to shape the Hindu character than the other Krishna of Vrindavana, the dhira lalita so beloved of Chaitanya; this, in spite of the warrior Krishna’s being considered a lower form of the Supreme in Chaitanyaite theology. Bankim felt that the humbling of the Bengali race as a viable political force was due simply to the vitiation of the original, heroic religion that Krishna had preached. Thus, though Bankim’s ultimate conclusion was that the historical Krishna is not as important as the philosophy which goes in his name, as the original speaker of that philosophy, the founder of that ‘beautiful religion which is against the Mimansakas “this superior religion’, he was worthy of the appellation avatara.
Like Syed Amir Ali with his revamped Islamic pride in a Prophet who was also a man of the world, Bankim took pride in Krishna’s political achievements. He felt Buddha and Jesus to be less worthy of reverence precisely because they were renouncers and thus misleaders.

As a result of this this worldly attitude, Bankim did not care much for Ramakrishna Paramahamsa either, though he was interested enough in him to pay him a visit on at least one occasion. He considered Ramakrishna to be in the same class as the other saànyasins and therefore felt that his preaching was detrimental, leading people to follow an otherworldly, mystical path which did not meet the needs of the hour.

Ramakrishna’s disciple, Vivekananda, on the other hand, followed Bankim’s lead in calling out for the Kurukshetra Krishna and Aurobindo also, recognizing the call, naturally followed. This heroic call to a this worldly renunciation was often interpreted as a call to the rajo guna, a call to action. The devotional elaborations of all the varying otherworldly mystics, whether yogi or Vaishnava, were all considered to lead to the tamo guna, the mode of ignorance or lethargy, despite their heady claims of higher levels of consciousness. Aurobindo paraphrases Vivekananda in the following call to revolution: "We need the mode of passion! We need the heroes of the work force in this country! Let them float in the forceful currents of Nature. On that account, even if sin should befall us, it will be a thousand times better than this ignorant lassitude of tamo guna."

It is not surprising, therefore, when we find that Aurobindo credits Bankim Chandra for being the one who "first gave to the Gita this new sense of a Gospel of Duty."

The revival of the karma yoga ideal was perhaps a natural development in a society coming under the influence of an imperial Western culture in the heady days of early industrialism with faith in its work ethic ideology at an apex. At any rate, the Hindu reformation Weltanschauung of the 19th century was decidedly against the erotic love symbolism of Chaitanya Vaishnavism.
This essay then went into a further discussion of the influences that this discourse had on Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati and the Gaudiya Math, and subsequently on Iskcon. The basic premise is that Bankim successfully changed the terms of a discourse and moved the doctrinal center to a place away from the "erotic" to the "heroic."

I have another old essay from Gaudya Discussions that I will repost, "Who Genuinely Represents Chaitanya Mahaprabhu?" for the record and for anyone interested in pursuing these matters and for background.