Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Two Rasa Lilas, Again

I got into a bit of a debate with Sachin Gupta, a devoted follower of Vivekananda and Hindu nationalist, on Facebook. He posted a review of Wendy Doniger's book History of the Hindus, which reiterated criticisms that sensitive Hindus have had about her work almost since the beginning.

Fair enough. She has attracted a lot of attention ever since she wrote Shiva, the Erotic Ascetic for raking up every juicy bit of erotica she can find in the Puranic mythologies. There is a lot of defensiveness amongst some Hindu nationalists who resent it when scholars point out the sexual nature of much of Hindu symbolism and mythology.

My intention here is not to defend Doniger in what she says, as the accusations leveled against her ("Doniger's is not a prayerful, thoughtful approach, but a whimsical, frivolous approach to both the mundane as well as the esoteric.") in all likelihood do have some merit; nevertheless, to totally deny the explicit sexuality of much of the content of Puranic mythology and iconography, etc., is to be deliberately obtuse.

There are two basic points to be made here. The first is that the Puranas and epics are a copious body of literature. There are so many stories that mutually contradict each other. These stories about God in mythical form are written by human beings and may in some respects be inadequate metaphorically. After all, why must every one of the puranas, for instance, be accepted as especially insightful about the highest nature of transcendence?

Often enough they are blatant manipulation of different social groups by brahmins, of women by men, and so on. They may have been simply stories meant to titillate and amuse. And they may just as well be more revealing about a particular human psychological or sociological phenomenon within the larger landscape of religious thought in India than of some deep eternal or philosophical truth.

Why do some people feel it necessary to defend every bit of the Indian literary tradition in order to save their faith in Hinduism?

But Sachin responds to me in the following spirit, which I give here for the amusement of any readers, and to which I will respond with my second and more important point:
You are Wendy Freudian Doniger's das. I don't think you are Krishna devotee. You have shown it earlier too with many of your foot-in-mouth comments. Is for you Krishna a Casanova and playboy, seducing other women? And Jayadeva's Gita Govinda porn and sexual literature? Is this your understanding of Krishna? Have you never heard of allegoric meaning? It portrays the divine ecstatic love of the soul for the Supreme Soul through that of Radha as embodied soul longing for Supreme Soul, Krishna. The truth behind is hidden from the profane mind and intellect!
Now this is the typical argument: These sexual escapades of the gods are meant to be metaphorical in some way. Admittedly, in many cases that is true, particularly where the Bhagavata Rasa-lila is concerned. But to plead metaphor in every instance is in fact an obfuscation.

Simply calling these stories allegories is to only see half of the picture. The literal depiction of sexuality as a purushartha has to be given its due, and the depiction of the highest gods, whether it is Shiva or Krishna, as sexual beings is an essential part of the discourse on spirituality AND sexuality in India. So Doniger's attempt to understand these tales in sexual terms, even Freudian terms, is a legitimate exercise.

Both these elements are there and their juxtaposition needs to be understood. One is not there to the exclusion of the other. If one says that the linga and yoni are representative of Shiva and Shakti, the Great God, then one is saying, in effect, that sexuality itself is in some way representative of God.

I doubt that Sachin has ever read Gita Govinda and is simply repeating what he has heard others say about it. This is the usual technique of putting something on a pedestal and honoring it from a healthy distance, bracketing instead of investigating. Where in Jayadeva's Gita Govinda can you find any hint of an allegorical attitude to the story? One would expect something --anything -- but there is nothing, not even in the commentaries.

We must therefore take it as a depiction of what could be called "archetypal humanity." It is not mystical, but a celebration of human love and sexuality projected onto the Divinity as the archetypal manifestation of such relations. Since the 19th century, the attempt in Bengal has consistently been to portray Vaishnavism as a humanism: sarvopari manushya sattva, tar upari nai. That is the position of Rabindranath Tagore, Aurobindo, and even Vivekananda, even as they look askance on the sexual aspects of the lila and bracket it as an allegory or as irrelevant to contemporary circumstances.

Even now I am looking at the new Asiatic Society reprint of the 1924 Kalna Chaitanya Charitamrita where Ramakanta Chakrabarty writes in his foreword:
[First,] Chaitanya and his followers attached great importance to human life. It is said that of all the sports of Krishna, the best were those in which he accomplished as a Man, and that the human shape of a milkman (sic) was his essential form. This is certainly a glorification of humanity, in which there is no difference between God and Man.
I am saying that this is the current BENGALI view of Chaitanyaism. And yet they have found it necessary to wipe out any sexuality from Krishna, when madhura rasa is the very essence of the humanity of Krishna. Not madhura rasa as debauchery, but as the fullest and purest manifestation of love.

The trouble is in reconciling this Gita-govinda Rasa-lila with the Bhagavata version, which is more overtly metaphorical, even though, strangely enough, there is a deep resistance on the part of Gaudiya Vaishnavas to state this. No commentary, from Sridhara to Vishwanath, says explicitly, "This is an allegory of the soul and Supersoul." Sanatan Goswami even says directly that he rejects the adhyatmika or allegorical explanation.

So Ramakanta Chakrabarty's next sentence, which is also correct, still makes a confusing jumble out of what Vaishnavism is.
The second concept is bhakti, or the principle of devotion, a truly civilizational ideal, in which untruth, unseemly behavior, sex, gluttony and rustic manners have no place.
In both the allegorical interpretation (where the upameya still validates the upama) and the literal interpretation (where the presence of sexuality in the divinity is seen as a literal manifestation of God's experience of the best that life offers in the association of his hladini shakti), the sexual element, particularly in its parakiya manifestation, is placed at the pinnacle of human emotional experience.

Now it is this parakiya rasa that causes so much trouble, the "rustic" (gramya) element that has "no place" in bhakti.

This is where the real problem arises. I could go into great detail, but it is not enough to just point to Victorian English mores and blame them. It is in the very nature of the patriarchal vision of male-female relations in India.

India has the social institution of prajapatya-vivaha, which is arranged marriage meant to serve a social function of family continuance. Osho says, rather dourly, that Hindus may play lip service to love, but the custom has always been that the moment a boy and girl fall in love, their families do everything they can to destroy it. What Bengali girl of past generations has not been married to a man she did not love when she had already developed feelings of love for another? It is taken as an inevitable rite of passage.

And yet, when the Vaishnavas pointed to natural love as being the best, they were condemned for being debauched and pornographic. Are we not to assume it has only been accepted as true because of the dominant society's successful propaganda?

I recently heard a report from a lady in Vrindavan, who has been living there amongst the local community for many years and has come to know the sexual behaviors of the local people quite well. It is not pretty: Basically she informed that widespread homosexuality is the norm. The separation of men from women before marriage means that both seek satisfaction from their own sex, and even after marriage this tends to continue because there is so little mutual understanding. Needless to say, this kind of "prison homosexuality" does not lead to real social cohesion.

If I say that all human failure is a failure of love, it is nowhere more apparent than there where we most directly seek love, in our sexual relations. As such, the models provided in both Rasa-lilas are important for holistic spiritual development.


Steve Bohlert said...

Very well put Jagat. Thank you for that clear, erudite explaination which is in line with my own thinking and teaching.

shiva said...

First you claim there is no "allegorical attitude" (whatever that is supposed to mean) in Gita-Govinda or mentioned by commentators).

All GG commentaries that I have read (4 or 5 by religious scholars) have claimed the GG to be an allegory for "the longing of the human soul for connection with the divine" in it's showing of Radha's pain of separation from Krishna. With Radha represent the individual soul and Krishna representing God. As far as I understand that is a very typical response to the story by scholars and Hindus.

I have another allegorical interpretation -- Where Krishna represents the individual soul, and God is represented by Radha. Radha's pain of separation from Krishna (as the archtype of the perfect male soul) is showing God's innger most bhava. Which is why it was exalted by Mahaprabhu.

Then you claim:

"We must therefore take it as a depiction of what could be called "archetypal humanity." It is not mystical, but a celebration of human love and sexuality projected onto the Divinity as the archetypal manifestation of such relations."

Isn't that an allegorical interpretation? Why "must" it only be taken as you suggest? The GG is not really a literal archetype of the divinity of Radha Krishna, it can't be. The GG is all about the pain of Radha's separation from Krishna. The truth is that they are never separated since they are one soul in two bodies, the same actual person. So any type of teaching by realized or empowered writers which explores their separation -- has to be allegorical.

Jagat said...

What I mean is that the text itself does not say that it is an allegory according to the interpretation given by you and these other scholars. Indeed, most Western scholars do not say that it is an allegory, though they may note that modern Hindu interpreters say this. But even Narayan Maharaj's new edition does not say that, but reads it literally as a lila of the divine personalities, without any symbolic interpretation.

My interpretation of GG is also not allegorical, but direct or literal. Since the experience of separation and union in love is a human experience.

You have to understand the difference between the two depictions of Rasa-lila and then synthesize them to get the full understanding.

The Bhagavatam Rasa-lila, as soon as you take away the literal interpretation clearly stands for God and the jiva. This interpretation works fairly consistently and is confirmed in other works like Gautamiya-tantra, etc. The key is the singularity of Krishna and the infinite plurality of gopis.

Furthermore, Krishna is in total control of the Bhagavatam rasa-lila, by leaving the gopis at the end of 10.29, by leaving the selected gopi in 10.30, by returning when it pleases him in 10.32, by explaining how and why he comes and goes, etc., at the end of 10.32, and in the descriptions and explanations of the Rasa-lila found throughout 10.33. The Bhagavatam is totally Krishna-centric.

Later in the Bhagavatam, of course, the glories of the gopis are more fully explained, but that glory requires later descriptive texts, especially the Goswamis to elucidate.

The Gita Govinda on the other hand is about Krishna's total dependence on Radha as the hladini shakti. It is Radha-centric.

You cannot whimsically make Krishna into the jiva and Radha into ishwara. That is contrary to both the Bhagavatam and the Gita Govinda. Radha is shakti, Krishna is shaktiman. It is the subtleties of that relationship that is being explored by both texts.

But the two lilas have implication for sadhana as well, inasmuch as the archetypal description in GG permits us to go from a purely unequal relation with God, where the mood of madhurya is mixed by the fact of inequality, to one where one participates in the divine nature of love through seeing the divine play in the human.

Archetypal understanding works both ways: you see the pure, ideal essence of human love in the lila of the Divine Couple and that informs your human relationships of love. The culture of love thus works by constant mutual "informing." The understanding of the Supreme Truth as Divine Couple informs our experience of human love, and the experience of human love informs our understanding of the Supreme Truth as Divine Couple.

This is not an intellectual exercise of symbol interpretation, but the intellectual or intuitive substratum of a very effective spiritual practice.

So, the external Rasa-lila is the Bhagavatam, the internal Rasa-lila is depicted in the Gita Govinda. The proper stance to take in relationship to both Rasas is that of a manjari--i.e., a participant (or servant) observer. This can be most perfectly summed up in the words participation mystique.

shiva said...

I think it's contradictory for you to claim your interpretation of GG isn't allegorical since you make it clear you think of it in archetypal terms.

As for the rest of your comments - what do you base your views upon? Experience or speculation? Do you have experience of rasa-lila so that you can present your interpretation in such a mode of absolute certainty as if you are simply relating that which you know to be truth? No offesne to Jagat since I consider you to be a kindred spirit and like a brother, but I know the answer, but I also wonder why such an intelligent person as yourself can be so blind to your own hubris when it comes to your belief that you KNOW everything about rasa-lila, when it is obvious you have zero experience of such a transcendental reality? If I were you, I would look at my experience before presenting myself as THE authority I have never once exeprienced. With love, L-O-V-E.

Zvonimir said...

So, the external Rasa-lila is the Bhagavatam, the internal Rasa-lila is depicted in the Gita Govinda. The proper stance to take in relationship to both Rasas is that of a manjari--i.e., a participant (or servant) observer. This can be most perfectly summed up in the words participation mystique.

This is the perfect example that it's the observer who creates that possibility. Sastra and traditional teaching believe Radha-Krishna exist always, and have their independent existence from us. But actually that's a scenario impossible and makes the whole philosophy futile and hopeless, like it already is. That's a fundamental flaw in teaching as we know it.

But in modern jargon, if an observer were not there, that lila wouldn't exist, Radha and Krishna too. So it's manjari that creates the lila, and moves it forward. It's through manjari that Radha and Krishna realise their potential. They're inseparable, observer and her reality, and one whole. Now the more complex problem -- what actually are manjari, Radha and Krishna then in this view, as we have approached them in a deterministic, top-down way so far?

A new approach makes so much more sense, in fact. Observer effect is a much better explanation how something like mere existence that has infinite unconcretized possibilities (traditional brahman) transforms through concretized consciousness about it ("localised" aspect of existence, paramatma) into a realised self-conscious potential (bhagavan). Only through manjari Radha-Krishna experience newly achieved potential of existence.

This much better explains simultaneous oneness and difference as well, for an observer seems to be separate from the object of experience, but it's an illusion; they're one because it's one inseparable reality that experiences itself. And reality becomes reality only through the observer effect -- through observation of itself.

Jagat said...

You always come back to this, Shiva, and it is a little tiresome. If all you can say is, "This is true because I experience it this way, and everything you say is not true because that is not the way I experience it," that is not a very credible approach.

My experience is consistent with the teachings of Rupa Goswami as I understand him. That is the best I can do.

shiva said...

Well, I just think that sometimes you make pronouncements as if you know for a fact what you are talking about, when it is obviously you are basing your views on your subjective vision of the written word, rather than a place of direct experience of the reality your propose yourself as an expert on.

You may claim to be some type of scholar on some books you have read, that is perfectly fine. But to claim that the transcendental reality they attempt to reveal is also what you are of a master of, is simply hubris, unless you have experience of that reality -- regardless of what I may believe about my own interpretation or experience. Is it not?

For you to claim you *know* the highest reality is 'like this or that' is simply not true. You 'believe' it to be a certain way, but until you are living that reality it is impossible for you to know if what you believe is actually true.

You who choose to lead must follow
But if you fall you fall alone
If you should stand then who's to guide you?
If I knew the way I would take you home

- Robert Hunter

Jagat said...

Sorry, Shiva. You are a funny man. Good luck.

ID said...

My goodness, Shiva, stop attacking people. You can not know for sure what their experience is. After all, people, sometimes, just want to pull your leg.
As far as sexuality in lila, it is real, and it exists before us and after us, so I tend to disagree with Zvonimir's observation that there is no lila without manjaris. It is enhanced by them, but main characters are Radha-Krishna.
Also, I do not think that sexuality in lila is projection of human experience, it is rather spiritual experience of Radha-Krishna explained for the benefit of those on raganunga path. I am yet to find a statement in the scriptures which will equate human sexuality with prema.

Zvonimir said...

As far as sexuality in lila, it is real, and it exists before us and after us, so I tend to disagree with Zvonimir's observation that there is no lila without manjaris. It is enhanced by them, but main characters are Radha-Krishna.

To paraphrase a physicist: Reality is not just the physical world; it's the relationship of the mind with the physical world that creates the perception of reality. There is no reality without a perception of reality. Would you be here, exist in a physical form, if no one observed you? In a real sense, the answer is no.

When practitioners believe Radha and Krishna exist independently and are separated from them (ie, Radha and Krishna can do things no one witnesses), it's just that -- it is belief, they believe that, and they cannot confirm their belief using any mean. It's impossible to prove it. Why? Because in reality, that is illusion, or maya. It is not some imaginary, omnipresent fluid force that theatrically deceives us, but that force or illusion is coming from within -- practitioners create that maya, or the illusion of separation. They live in it. They deny themselves of the experience to witness the lila, to experience God.

It is also denial of the core values of the acintya bhedabheda philosophy. God, or Radha Krishna, is not separated from us, and mutual experience of God through us and us through God that confirms our mutual existence is a connection, and proof, that makes that philosophy valid and so sublime.

To put it bluntly, without witnesses, Radha Krishna make no sense. What you got then is Sankara's nirguna brahman, but even that cannot be confirmed because there's no one to witness it and even think about it.

dr.jaya said...

...God, or Radha Krishna, is not separated from us, and mutual experience of God through us and us through God that confirms our mutual existence is a connection, and proof, that makes that philosophy valid and so sublime.

To bring the sublime into the mundane is the greatest challenge there is.
- Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan
Alchemical Wisdom

ID said...


We are not creators of illusion, neither of Mahamaya, nor Yogamaya, these are RadhaKrishna's energies. We are marginal energy who can either be under the sway of one of above mentioned energies. Mind is also, as explained by scriptures, part of the material elements, but subtle one, so the physicists statement seems to bury itself.
If you do not observe your mother while she is carrying you in her womb that does not mean she does not exist. Krishna is the shelter of all and everything. I can not comprehend your statement that without being observed by somebody Radha Krishna make no sense. That is for Them to decide, not us.
In reality, as you explain, we are not separated from Them and due to Radha Krishna's desires there will be countless wonderful ways to serve Them.

Rasik Alchemy said...

''To bring the sublime into the mundane is the greatest challenge there is''
- Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan
Alchemical Wisdom

Dr. Jaya,

"To take earth and turn it into gold may be easy, but to take gold and turn it into earth - this indeed is difficult".

-- Zen Koan

Zvonimir said...

.. We are not creators of illusion, neither of Mahamaya, nor Yogamaya, these are RadhaKrishna's energies. We are marginal energy who can either be under the sway ...

Issues here are our two different vocabularies and traditional preconceptions you bring forth into conversation, but which you cannot and won't translate into modern world's vocabulary or experience. That is quite a common problem.

With certain traditional preconceptions on what God is, then some ideas on maya, maha maya, self, etc. you assert a certain level of pre-conclusions and resulting dualisms that cannot be absorbed with acintya bhedabheda philosophy, not even in the slightest sense, and as such it become superfluous.

At least I'm using modern vocabulary and an approach trying to examine what the results are, not pre-concluding them. To your arguments acintya bhedabheda is not inherent, but is just a superfluous attachment to a millennia of traditional preconceptions on God and self, with no real purpose but to battle with other ideas (advaita) and thus introduce more confusion and (of course) allegiance to clan's colours. However, in mine example it naturally follows without all those pre-requirements and has wider consequences because it's inherent.

You also separate self and reality from the very observation of reality, and also separate idea of God from all of that, making this world and the experience in it just a minor, negligible decoration in the eternal lila. Although all you can perceive comes from this experience. So it's ultimately a belief, which you cannot confirm with anything but citation from scripture, conducted through certain understanding of the metaphors. Finally, you even refuse to try to understand that old metaphor to be able to translate it and confirm into your own experience.

Thus it remains just a belief and when faced with strong belief, no good amount of proofs can be enough, unfortunately. That's why it's impossible to talk to devotees because their belief deflector shields are raised immediately.

It's like Ptolemy and Newton arguing because first is taking Aristotelian notions literally and the other is trying to show him the validity of laws of motion through proofs, not mere beliefs.

Please be scientific for a moment. Why that happens? Because of the mixed up timeline and storyline. In traditional view everything is inside one pre-rational bag. Did Krishna bhakti exist 100,000 year ago on Earth? You'll say it was, but you cannot confirm it apart from citing fantastic metaphors and legends from scripture written much, much later. Was Bhagavatam written 5,000 years ago? You'll say it was, neglecting it was written just a thousand years ago. Will Radha and Krishna exist even when all the humanity cease to exist on this planet due to some catastrophe, war or disease? You'd say yes, but I say it's impossible because when people die, there's no one left to experience and think about anything.

ID said...


I have to agree with you on mostly everything and except the last paragraph where you put answers into my mouth and you are dead wrong on all of them except one: I think Radha Krishna exist eternally, with mankind being alive or not.

halley said...

jagat ji , you said ---

"Since the 19th century, the attempt in Bengal has consistently been to portray Vaishnavism as a humanism: sarvopari manushya sattva, tar upari nai"

this is so very true . it can be felt in movies like nader nimai , nilachale mahaprabhu and bhagavan sri krishna chaitanya .

although i dont object it . krishner vansi baaje vrindavane , jaar jemon kaan se temni sone .


and i would also agree with you , that our ancient literatures often contained sexual imagery which was very often not just symbolic representations !

it is due to later day victorian morals that we sometimes tend to overlook that fact .

debarya said...

I came across this purely by accident & enjoyed myself reading this blog & the comments. I think all has a point and a position from their own perspective. Just that what precedes & what follows, what is speculative & what is experience/intuition is a bit jumbled up. And it happens when we use finite words to grasp the absolute. But I thank all of you for such a fruitful discussion and request you to carry on like this. Moreover I would like to see all of your views about Tantrik Sahajiya Vashnavites & their difference with the Gaudiya Vaishnavites in the same issue. Regards.

Jagat said...

I have written about two rasa dances and their intersecting or conflicting symbolisms. Though there is no literature supporting a reversing of Krishna’s and Radha’s roles, there is no reason to eliminate that possibility. The end result would be the same, Radha AND Krishna in the center. I resisted this idea for a long time due to normal androcentric tendencies.

The reason it is not done is due to reverence for the feminine ideal of love, not for any human reality. But I think that where love is concerned, reverence for the feminine is legitimate.