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.


Jagat said...

That is really an infinitesimal portion. I will have to do another post on this when I get the time.


I would like to comment on some minor points in your article:

1. You wrote:

"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.

This is not a modern idea at all. Actually it is very Indian. Already Anandavardhana says in his Dhvanyaloka (3.41 vRtti):

apAre kAvyasaMsAre kavir ekaH prajApatiH
yathAsmai rocate vizvaM tathedaM parivartate

I would also like to remind you of the opening verse of Mammata's Kavya Prakash:

niyati-kRta-niyama-rahitAM hlAdaikamayImananyaparatantrAm
navarasarucitAM nirmitimAdadhatI bhAratI kaver jayati

Apart from that the concept of pratibha is closely related to this problem. Abhinavagupta, for example, defines pratibha as apUrva-vastu-nirmANa-kSamA.

2. You wrote:

"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 not true. Anonymous authorship of texts or "effacement of ego of the author" or whatever we call it was common in Middle Ages in Europe. It flourished during the Renaissance as well. It actually exists in cultures all over the world, almost in all times.

Jagat said...

Actually I quoted that very same verse in the other post refered to (Rasa-raja, etc.). And I was quite aware of both the points you made.

Kaviraj argues the point better than I could, and makes the caveats that you refer to, but I think his general point is acceptable. If there is a cutoff point, however, I would say that the medieval bhakti movements do represent something of a change in direction.

Jagat said...

What motivated me to write on this particular point was that the transparent via media idea was something that was drummed into us in Iskcon, and even now it is a rather prominent idea in the whole discussion of guru-tattva in GV circles.

The idea is that "the Supreme Absolute Truth" is unchanging and that therefore preaching is only a question of tactics. One is a "letter deliverer" putting "old wine in new bottles" and so on.

The real task of the guru is the same as that of the poet: to create a world, both a world of the imagination and a transformed world (i.e., community) in the here and now.

I know this sounds very existentialist, but few people really seem to know how to stop being mere repeaters of words.

This prohibition on creativity held me personally back for many years. At least I had the good fortune to explore Gaudiya Vaishnavism in its many forms in its original environment, got good association, etc., so that I had a better historical awareness and had a wider base of experience than most devotees. This has served me well, on the whole.

Jai Radhe!

P.S. Thanks for noticing. When I write on more meaty matters I generally get few responses. It is very helpful to get feedback from a scholar like yourself.

Anonymous said...

So much of the research and information you have shared recently in the past dozen or so posts is so full of details and significance on so many different levels of human endeavor.

You appear to be channeling Goddess Sarasvati and Ananta deva in providing very valuable contributions to advance human understanding.

Radhe Radhe

Anonymous said...

"The concept of God as an individual or collective projection is the operative idea of all 19th century atheism..."

It is also the operative idea of raganuga bhakti.


I am wondering whether you know Edwin Gerow's article Language and Symbol in Indian Semiotics published in: Philosophy East and West, Vol. 34, No. 3. (Jul., 1984), pp. 245-260. It is a very interesting comparative study of the concept of symbol in Indian theories of language and in Peirce. He gives some argument why the concept of symbol is so undeveloped in Indian semiotics.

Jagat said...

Sorry, I haven't read anything about Gerow. That's my problem... neither a scholar nor a devotee.


Gerow is worth reading if one is interested in sahitya sastra.

Jagat said...

No doubt Gerow has important things to say. Without knowing any of them, I want to say this: When we use terms like "rasa-raja" "maha-bhava" "hladini-shakti" "svayam bhagavan", those are all, by their very nature, symbolic statements, or rather interpretative statements of symbols.

Some devotees refuse to isolate the symbolic meaning from the symbol. That is alright, because God communicates to us through these symbolic forms. But to enter the symbol more completely, we must understand how our acharyas interpreted them.

In the 21st century, the capacity to interpret symbols has been greatly augmented, in particular by the study of psychology, structural anthropology, etc.

The main fear is that by reductionism we will lose the essence of devotion and faith. We really need to cast this fear aside. We do not diminish Radha and Krishna by interpretation, because the symbols are axiomatically pure and whole.

The other fear is that something will be lost, mainly culturally. Symbolic meanings tend to transcend specifics--linguistic, cultural, etc. The meaning is seen as the esoteric essence and the symbol itself as a mere pointer to that meaning.

Tillich argued against that kind of thinking, and I agree with him. Speaking as a man of faith, I believe that God enters the symbols and invests them with divine power. Like Harinam.

The purpose of the meaning then is to support the symbol--in the way that Rupa Goswami would have been intending when he identified Radha as the embodiment of the hladini-shakti.

This is why contemplation on the meaning of the Holy Name is a necessary aspect of chanting. Use the repetition of the Holy Name as a shovel to dig deeply into its deepest, deepest sense.

Anon said...

The purpose of the meaning then is to support the symbol--in the way that Rupa Goswami would have been intending when he identified Radha as the embodiment of the hladini-shakti.

It's true in Rupa's case, but in our case today, you have to reinterpret both Radha and hladini-shakti, because they're both symbols now. As you move from one culture to another, from one time to another, reinterpretation must be done. Otherwise you drown yourself in literalism and detach yourself from the symbol -- a tendency which eventually ends up in fundamentalism.

Anonymous said...


Thanks so much for this post. You have clarified and elucidated, in a scholarly way, something I have been "Wh-h-hat?" about for years.

It did seem to me that many of the narratives about Radha, especially how some of the stories end, indeed do portray her as "the ultimate tragic figure".

Radhe Radhe

dr.jaya said...

"...indeed do portray her as "the ultimate tragic figure".
Still She is well known as 'Aahladini Shakti' - Supreme Pleasure Potency of the Lord!
"...pUrNAnanda mayo 'pi yad rasa lavA ' 'svAdena dhanyAyate
taddhAma sphuTa campakacchaviciraM rAdhA 'bhidhaM pAtu vaH"