Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Ahimsa Heritage... Continued

After writing the first draft of the previous post, I was sitting in my room working. There was a group of Italians from Sarva Yoga in the ashram, and I was more or less aware that Swami Veda would be lecturing, but I was not intending to attend, as I have all this work I have to do.

Suddenly, though, I felt the pull that Swamiji was calling me. I am getting used to these subliminal messages, whether they are intentional from Swamiji or from anyone else, I don’t know, but I didn’t bother to question and immediately left for the meditation hall.

The lecture was in progress and Maharaj was talking very poetically about the Yoga tradition. He was placing the historical context into the universal context of infinite time and space. Usually we put ideas into historical context, but Swamiji was rightly reminding us that there was no first person, and that there will be no last person, to whom the revelation of the Infinite was made.

It is not that Yoga came into any religion, but rather that all religions were born of Yoga, in the sense that mystical revelation is the basis of all religion, not the human intellectual efforts to find solutions to the problems of life and society, etc. These are the problems that the mystical experience seeks to answer.

This is really what I was getting at in the article about the long term view. The “Abrahamic” religions pride themselves on their historicity, and no doubt they have a right to do so. But the linear concept of history is narrow and confining.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Madhva's Pramanas and Jiva Goswami

I have stated before that I do not think that there is a direct connection of the Gaudiya Sampradaya to Madhvacharya and the Tattvavadi Sampradaya of Vaishnavism.

Srila Jiva Goswami directly mentions Madhva in Section 28 of Tattva-sandarbha as his final paragraphs in discussing the sources he will use in composing his Sandarbhas. This section is often used by defenders, beginning with Baladeva, of the Madhva connection to the Gaudiya line.

Madhva's commentaries are stylistically unusual in that they consist mostly of verse citations and have little in the way of original prose statements, in the way that most other commentaries are written. And of course Madhva's citations have been a source of controversy since the very beginning. This is documented interestingly by Roque Mesquita's excellent study, Madhva's Unknown Literary Sources: Some Observations (Delhi: Aditi Prakashan, 2000).

Jiva says the following in Tattva-sandarbha 28 with regards to Madhva's pramans:
...Some of the verses quoted here I have not seen in their original texts, but have gleaned from citations in the Bhāgavata-tātparya, Bhārata-tātparya and Brahma-sūtra-bhāṣya and other works by the venerable Madhvacharya, the prolific preacher of the distinct Vaishnava philosophy of Tattva-vāda. In his line such disciples and grand-disciples such as Vijayadhvaja Tirtha and Vyasa Tirtha have appeared. Very famous in the South, they are most eminent scholars of the Vedic literature and its interpretation.
Just as an aside here, it is evident to me that Sri Jiva had read at least Madhva's commentary on the Brahma-sūtra as well as Mahābhārata-tātparya-nirṇaya, but I am less certain that he ever read the Bhāgavata-tātparya or the Gita commentary, since he does not seem to cite them at any instance in his discussion of the relevant verses. The same may be said for the Upanishad commentaries. I am looking forward to the day when all these texts are available on the Grantha Mandira and a more effective analysis can be made. To continue...
In Bharata-tatparya, Sri Madhvacharya states,

śāstrāntarāṇi saṁjānan vedāntasya prasādataḥ |
deśe deśe tathā granthān dṛṣṭvā caiva pṛthag-vidhān ||
yathā sa bhagavān vyāsaḥ sākṣān nārāyaṇaḥ prabhuḥ |
jagāda bhāratādyeṣu tathā vakṣye tad-īkṣayā ||
"Having understood other scriptures with the help of the Vedānta-sūtra and having looked at various kinds of scripture in different parts of the country, I shall give my explanation in accordance with what Sri Vyasadeva, who is none other than the Supreme Lord Narayana, has spoken in Mahābhārata and other works. In this description, I will be careful to adhere to his viewpoint. (Trans. Satya Narayan Das)
Jiva is clearly preparing a defense here for the use of these passages, controversies surrounding which were no doubt known to him. The impeccable ethical credentials of those who made use of these passages make the possibility of their falsification inconceivable. An argumentum ad hominem in reverse, as it were. The quotation from Madhva also indicates that he himself was promoting the belief that these were not his own compositions, but taken from existing texts that he had seen.

Satya Narayan himself supports this view in his commentary ("...[Madhva's] library had no equal... Unfortunately, it was destroyed by fire...", p. 147), even though he highlights the distinctiveness of the Gaudiya sampradaya.

Madhva's opponents were neither so ready to accept his pramāṇas on faith, nor bow to his unquestionable rectitude. He was criticized by an Advaita contemporary, Venkatanath, for inventing these texts in the following, withering passage:
There are other passages which are not found in acknowledged Vedas and smritis. Sinful people, because of their devotion to opinions that accord with their conduct, first interpolate them and then claim to find them in some Puranas that are not well known, or whose collections are lost, or whose beginnings and ends are not determined. These passages are not admitted in venerable assemblies distinguished for their meticulous study of express Vedic and other authoritative texts. (Śata-dūṣaṇī, 65, trans. Olivelle)
An even more direct criticism is found in the 16th century Appaya Dikshit's strongly titled Madhva-tantra-mukha-mardana ("A slap in the face of Madhva's system"):
Nevertheless, we reject the teaching of Madhva since in that system the clearcut boundaries of the Vedic teaching have been confused in a greater degree. For this reason he adduces everywhere spurious text passages in support of his teaching to the sheer commotion of the learned people, pointing out to the fivefold division of the Veda. (Shlokas 2-3)
Appaya Dikshit comments on these verses extensively, listing a large number of titles of unknown shrutis and smritis that are cited in Madhva's works. He there says, "In order to eliminate doubt of untrustworthiness implied in such quotations, [Madhva] proclaims aloud that he himself is the third avatar of Vayu after Hanuman and Bhima. As evidence, he cites a passage from an unknown smṛti work [namely Bhaviṣya-parvan]:

prathamo hanumān nāma dvitīyo bhīmasenakaḥ
pūrṇaprajñas tritīyas tu bhagavat-kārya-sādhakaḥ

The first avatar is Hanuman, the second is Bhimasena, and the third one is Purnaprajna, who accomplishes the work of the Lord.
Appaya Dikshit concludes that Madhva's claims "transgress in a high degree the boundaries of credibility" (p. 32 of Mesquita).

Mesquita is, however, not simply out to accuse Madhvacharya of interpolation. He says, " [Madhva's] self-understanding this very claim excludes once and for all that a forger is behind the unknown sources and that Vishnu himself is ultimately the author and proclaimer of them."

The question is certainly interesting, and brings back memories of the controversy surrounding Bhaktivinoda Thakur. In that discussion, besides pointing to the indisputable ethical probity of the Thakur, the point was raised that, in view of his special status as an inspired acharya, he could well have been made an instrument of Mahaprabhu's associates or the ancient rishis to write works in their name.

Mesquita uses the controversy and Madhva's own statements about his sources to inquire into the nature of revelation itself. And this is, of course, intimately connected to the concept of avatar.

In order to cut this discussion short, I would just like to observe that as I am going through the Bhagavat-sandarbha, it seems that it would be a worthwhile study to examine Jiva Goswami's use of Madhva's pramanas and to what extent they hold a significant place in the final shape of his philosophy. I was prompted to think about it when looking up an anodyne citation of an unnamed Shruti, avacanenaiva provaca, which is found in the purva-paksha to Sutra 1.1.5. (No one else, not even Baladeva, cites it!). Sri Jiva plucks the pramanas quoted there directly and uses them in his own introduction to SB 10.87.41, which deals with the same questions of the accessibility of the Supreme Truth to words.

But there are many other verses or prose texts that play an even more significant role. I cannot help mention one that is a personal favorite, from the unknown Māṭhara-śruti, quoted at the very end of Bhagavat-sandarbha as well as in Prīti-sandarbha 1:

bhaktir evainaṁ nayati
bhaktir evainaṁ darśayati
bhakti-vaśaḥ puruṣaḥ
bhaktir eva bhūyasī

Devotion leads the Supreme Lord. Devotion reveals Him. The Lord is under the thrall of bhakti. Therefore Bhakti is even greater than the Lord. (Discussed here)
This verse is unmatched in its glorification of the power of bhakti and leads us in a direct line to Srimati Radharani. It would be no doubt be instructive to see which other quotations can be found and to weigh the strength of their influence on the overall vision of Sri Jiva.

It is, of course, an interesting thing to observe, that at some point historically, a teacher like Rupa Goswami can make bold statements and appropriate the right to mediate revelation in his own name, more or less silently. Certainly where insights to the lila are concerned, no one quibbles about whether Rupa Goswami had a direct vision or not.

I think, however, that even with someone like Jiva Goswami, what to speak of Madhva, even the depth of engagement with the shastras ultimately leads to a point where one loosens the bonds to previous revelation and uses it as a trampoline to a realm that is guided by one's own insights.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Ahimsa Heritage

A number of different things coming together here, so I will try to pull them together as best I can.

(1) Just finished reading Lajja by Taslima Nasreen, in the Hindi translation.

The story here is really that of Muslim violence on Hindus in Bangla Desh, in all its historical manifestations from Partition in 1947 to 1992, when the Babri Masjid incident set off a series of communal clashes in India. This also gave Bangladeshi Muslims yet another opportunity to engage in a round of ethnic cleansing in their country.

The book is about a Hindu family that both loves their country and considers themselves non-religious, even atheistic. Despite their identification as Bengalis first and nothing else, they are forced into a communal identity by circumstances. In the end, despite a long-held determination to stick it out, in the faith that this was their country, they make the decision to leave. There is no longer any place for them in their own country. That is their "shame" (lajjA), and also the shame of the author, who spares no historical data to make it clear that communalism has become a way of life in Bangla Desh and that Hindus are second-class citizens whose lives and possessions hang on a thread and for whom opportunities of every sort are withheld.

The distinction between the deaths in Indian riots and the Bangladesh situation is made clear: At least in India there are two sides fighting each other; in Bangladesh it is entirely onesided. The legal difference is also trenchant: whatever the situation on the ground, India has preserved constitutional secularism, whereas by declaring itself an Islamic Republic, Bangladesh has legally placed those of every other religion into an inferior status. The Hindus are too frightened to stand up and protest, and cannot even present themselves in demonstrations calling for communal peace for fear of reprisal!

Suranjan, the book's main character, reacts to the accumulating sense of powerlessness, which includes his own sister's being abducted and murdered, by raping a young Muslim prostitute. Hate begets hate.

The response to this book in Bangla Desh, and even India, where the specter of communalism is always looming, has been shameful in itself. Bangladeshi Muslim leaders responded to the telling of truth by releasing a fatwah approving of her assassination, more or less in the way that Salman Rushdie was for the Satanic Verses. The result is that Nasreen has been wandering the world for the past 20 years in search of a home. She now lives in Kolkata. Her voice against Islamic fundamentalism--its treatment of woman and minorities, etc.--has only become more strident as the years go by, and even the Marxist government of West Bengal banned one of her books to appease the sensitivities of the Muslim minority, who find her entirely blasphemous.

(2) Swami Veda has asked me to go on his behalf to a conference on "Interfaith Understanding and World Peace" at Punjabi University in Patiala on March 2-4. Swamiji's latest book is called What is Right with the World; A Plan for Peace, which I am reading in preparation.

What is right with the world? Basically, Swamiji says that despite the history of violence, especially where religions are concerned, there is hope, since all religions share certain common values that have worked in the past to maintain peace and harmony even in pluralistic societies. Since history focuses principally on developments of political and economic power, and religion primarily as an adjunct to those developments, the forces that have served to establishing peace, non-violence, unity and harmony are ignored. We can learn from our mistakes, but we must also look for the success stories. In this respect, Swamiji is categorical: It is not just the religions that have been economically and politically successful that can contribute to this sharing of experience. In fact, it is often their "lack of history" that qualifies them in making such contributions.
It might be stated that there exists a vast treasury of many millennia of experience in the area of unifying the religions, a theoretical framework established by philosophers, saints and sages, on a didactic basis as well as in a spiritually experiential mode. In daily life, too, experiments have been successfully conducted by the common people in a practical and pragmatic realm, often independent of theories and theologies. (22)
Gandhiji also says something similar. In response to a question about the "historical evidence as to the success" of his non-violent method, Gandhi answered:
The force of love is the same as the force of the soul or truth. We have evidence of it working at every step. The universe would disappear without the existence of that force. But you ask for historical evidence. It is therefore necessary to know what history means. The Gujarati equivalent means, "It so happened." If that is the meaning of history, it is possible to give copious evidence. But if it means the doings of kings and emperors, there can be no such evidence of soul-force or passive resistance in such history. You cannot expect silver ore in a tin mine.

History, as we know it, is the record of the wars in the world, and so there is a proverb amongst Englishmen that a nation which has no history, that is, no wars, is a happy nation... If the story of the universe had commenced with wars, not a man would have been found alive today.... The fact that there are so many men still alive in the world shows that it is based not on the force of arms but on the force of truth or love. Therefore, the greatest and most unimpeachable evidence of the success of this force is to be found in the fact that, in spite of the wars of the world, it still lives on.

Thousands, indeed tens of thousands, depend for their existence on a very active working of this force. Little quarrels of millions of families in their daily lives disappear before the exercise of this force. Hundreds of nations live in peace. History does not and cannot take note of this fact. History is really a record of every interruption of the even working of the force of love or of the soul... Soul force, being natural, is not noted in history. (Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule, chap. XVII.)
Swami Veda does give historical examples, taken from the study of comparative religion, that show the common inspirations, borrowings, and so, but also from political history, where enlightened rulers like Ashok, Harshavardhana and Akbar supported mutual respect and exchanges between different religious and cultural streams, recognizing that such exchanges served the higher cause of humanity in ways that religious fundamentalism did not.

But even on a popular level, Swamiji gives many instances of Hindu and Muslim harmony or "conviviance" in India, such as that of the Dargah of a Sufi saint where simultaneous Hindu and Muslim rituals were being carried out.

All this does require some kind of intellectual framework, which may takes the form of complete atheism, a denial of all religious belief as negative. This obviously fails to take account of the positive contributions of religion. In chapter 6, Swamiji proposes the idea of "polymorphous monotheism" as an umbrella for all paths. He cites instances of multiple manifestations of God even in rigid monotheistic systems, such as the various different appearances of God as human, angel, pillar of light, etc., in the Jewish Bible, or the 99 names of Allah in the Quran, or the Trinity in Christianity.
There is hope that this kind of improved understanding of various doctrines will reduce the level of confrontation among religions. Tolerance would not be the right word for such an all-embracing view of life and belief systems. "Tolerating" someone does not always mean fully accepting that another's religion is as great as one's own. Even in interfaith gatherings, we do not often hear the followers of religions state, "Your religion is as great as mine." The followers of polymorphous monotheism, however, say "Your religion for you is as good as my religion is for me. Do continue to worship your divinity the way you have been taught to worship by your prophets and priests, and please accept that the way we worship has been taught by our incarnations and spiritual guides." This attitude would help solve many current problems of interreligious conflict. (p. 136)
Now, here we come head to head with the problem that has been demonstrated in part 1. It is this: You cannot make someone accept your point of view, and the problem here is that the so-called monotheistic or Abrahamic religions are the ones who will neither accept the Hindu argument about the equality of religions nor give up the sentiment that their revelation is exclusive and furthermore meant for everyone.

They all believe in a linear hierarchy of historical revelation and at least their fundamentalist factions have no respect for other points of view, which they take as being literally from the Devil. In terms of intellectual argument, there is little or nothing that can be done. So what is the solution?

Here, Swami Veda takes what is fundamentally the same position that Gandhi takes. The evolution of society begins with the spiritual evolution of the individual. Without the purification of the self in all dimensions, any attempts at collective progress are basically problematic.

And the second thing, I would say, is that you must take the long view. This is the hardest thing of all.

(3) In recent weeks, I have encountered on two occasions critiques of Gandhi which blame him for (a) the partition of India, and (b) the bloodbath that took place at the time of partition.

(a) The first of these is based on Gandhi’s support for the Khilafat Movement (1919-1924) as a gesture of fraternity with Indian Muslims, as well as to garner and mobilize their support for the independence movement. Even then, many Hindu religious and political leaders identified the Khilafat cause as Islamic fundamentalism based on a pan-Islamic agenda and that the Muslims were not acting in good faith.

For the Hindu nationalist, Indian nationalism was always primarily Hindu in nature and as soon as one identified as a true Muslim, they could no longer truly be Indian. Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the father of Pakistan, also apparently said at one time that India's partition began the day that the first Hindu converted to Islam.

From the Wikipedia page on the Khilafat Movement:
The Khilafat struggle evokes controversy and strong opinions. It is regarded as a political agitation based on a pan-Islamic, fundamentalist platform and being largely indifferent to the cause of Indian independence. Critics of the Khilafat see its alliance with the Congress as a marriage of convenience. Proponents of the Khilafat see it as a major milestone in improving Hindu-Muslim relations, while advocates of Pakistan and Muslim separatism see it as a major step towards establishing the separate Muslim state. The Ali brothers are regarded as founding-fathers of Pakistan, while Azad, Dr. Ansari and Hakim Ajmal Khan are widely celebrated as national heroes in India.
Whatever the consequences of the Khilafat Movement, I take it on faith that Gandhi was not seeking anything other than to follow what he considered to be the Truth at that time, and did not act purely out of political expediency. In one passage, Gandhi takes what I think would be universally condemned as an attitude today: what appears to be "compromising with terrorists."
My implicit faith in non-violence does mean yielding to minorities when they are really weak. The best way to weaken communalists is to yield to them. Resistance will only rouse their suspicion and strengthen their opposition. A Satyagrahi resists when there is threat of force behind obstruction. I know I do not carry the Congressmen in general with me in this what appears to me as a very sensible and practical point of view. But if we come to Swaraj through non-violent means, I know that this point of view will be accepted. (Young India, 2-7-31)
The ahimsa point of view, I think it may justifiably be argued, is the LONG view. You may not win the immediate battle or gain the results that you want in the short term, but the long term is that of true peace.

(b) The second was based on a Gandhi quote, “...every single Hindu should die at his post, but without retaliation” (Young India, 5 June 1924). Gandhi's idea was that, “The Mussulmans will then be shamed into doing the right thing in an incredibly short space of time... One has to dare to believe.” (The Essential Writings, Ed. Judith M. Brown, p. 206).

In general, there is a resistance amongst Hindu nationalism to the "effeminization" of Hinduism. I believe I may have talked about this before in relation to Bankim Chandra. There is a very deep sense amongst some Hindu nationalists that the lineage of Bankim, Vivekananda, Aurobindo, Chittaranjan Das, Subhash Chandra, etc., was one of recovering the heroic mood in Hindu culture. This was in particular, you could say, a Bengali problem. Sudipta Kaviraj talks about the appropriation of pan-Indian heroes--the Sikh gurus, the Maratha conquerors, etc.--to find representations of the masculine ideal that history failed to provide for the Bengali youth. Gandhi himself talked about the the conflicting models of the "Muslim bully" and the "Hindu coward."

Gandhi, very nobly, in my opinion, fought to establish the idea of the non-violent activist as a heroic model: the heroic model of the "soul-force" "truth-force" or "love-force" warrior, or karma-yogi. It may be criticized that Gandhi was trying to inflict an ideal of humanity on India and indeed the world that was far too elevated for its time. But that is precisely the point I am trying to make.

Because Gandhi is and always will be the father of the Indian nation, because his picture is printed on every denomination of Indian currency, his memory is, practically speaking, the greatest wealth that this nation possesses. What I mean is that his legacy is one of non-violence and not violence, a legacy of "love force" as an ideal, which means secularism, democracy, freedom, equality and all the ideals of progressive, multicultural nationhood will always have an uncompromising source of inspiration in Gandhi.

The counterexample is Pakistan. Now I am going to talk about the "bloodbath" and I wasn't there, and the historical account is split according to the versions of the two communities. This bloodbath began on one specific day, the National Day of Action, Aug. 16, 1946, declared by Mohammad Ali Jinnah. It was at this point that Jinnah made it clear that the Muslim League would not compromise with the Congress on the question of partition. Muslims simply could not live in a country that was majority Hindu. "If you want peace, we do not want war," he declared. "If you want war we accept your offer unhesitatingly. We will either have a divided India or a destroyed India."

Muslim revisionists say that Jinnah wanted to have peaceful demonstrations, but I personally think he made a calculated move, as the above quote shows, to undermine Gandhi's tenuously held non-violent movement. He was exercising "plausible deniability."

Reading the articles about this historical event is in itself is a plunge into the chthonic realm of unresolved resentments and hatreds. Finding a telling of this history that satisfies both the Muslim and Hindu nationalists will never happen.

Many Hindu nationalists believe that somehow things would have been better if Gandhi had been more violent. Jinnah knew that Gandhi's non-violence was tenuous, particularly in Bengal, where Subhash Chandra Bosu was the great nationalist hero and the violent model was being espoused more than anywhere else. He and his allies could not say it openly, and so current revisionists can pretend that he and the Bengali Muslim leader Suhrawardy were calling for peaceful protests. The fact remains that things finally settled things down only when Gandhi fasted and marched in Noakhali.

But today, when you read a book like Lajja, or when you look at the history of modern Pakistan, it is easy to become quickly convinced that the roots of the countries are producing different trees with different fruit. And that is all I am saying: What do you want for the future?

I agree with R. Jagannathan, who writes:
Partition prevented this deadlock from becoming the future of undivided India. It allowed Pakistan to experiment with its Muslim identity and India with its Hindu-dominated, but secular, ideology. Today it is more or less clear which approach is right. (Partition was Good)
You might well say that the Hindus of Bangladesh are victims of brutal oppression and discrimination. What has non-violence brought them? Does it not fill the heart with anger to see that there is a persistent ethnic cleansing (not even ethnic, but religious) going on there, as is so well documented in Lajja? Can anything be done?

It is admittedly an intractable situation. What has to be done is make clear its unacceptability, at the very least. And loud and consistent vocalization of such objections must be made.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Bhagavat-sandarbha, Shruti Stuti (2)

Now let us look at the second half of the verse:

ata RSayo dadhus tvayi mano-vacanAcaritaM
katham ayathA bhavanti bhuvi datta-padAni nRNAm

The immediately obvious translation here is that the Rishis place (dadhuH) in You (tvayi) their thoughts, deeds and actions. But both Sridhara and Jiva divide mano-vacana-Acaritam in a different way as, "the actions of the mind" and "the actions of the speech." Sridhara interprets the first to be the tAtparya, or inner sense, and the abhidhA, which in the overall context of the chapter means the direct meaning. In other words, this is about the actions of the Shrutis: the inner meaning applies to You (tvayi), the personal God, as do the meanings of the words themselves.

Now the last line is, according to Sridhara Swami the alankara (rhetorical device) known as nidarshana, to Jiva it is an arthantara-nyasa. There is also the alankara known as drishtanta, or example. The three are quite similar and it is a bit hard to differentiate them. The basic principle of the first two is that a seemingly unrelated topic is brought up that has some parallels with the subject under discussion. It can either act as a counterpoint, stating the contrary to the issue in question, or act in support of it.

Basically all alankaras are comparisons of some kind, though some may be highlighting the similarities (sadRzya-garbha) and some the differences (virodha-garbha).

It is a question:

katham ayathA bhavanti bhuvi datta-padAni nRNAm
How (katham) could the feet (padAni) of men (nRNAM) placed on the ground (bhuvi) become (bhavanti) otherwise (ayathA)?
Now what does that mean? Well it has to apply to the immediately previously line. So the thoughts and words of the Shrutis which are placed in Krishna are similar to the feet placed on the earth. Sridhar says, "Whether placed on earth, stones, bricks or whatever, they do not go away from the earth itself (i.e., all of these things are transformations of the earth), so similarly, when the Shrutis talk of something that is a transformation (vikAra), they are in fact ultimately establishing You, the cause of all and the Supreme Truth."

Jiva Goswami says,

Here men refers to all those walking on the earth. Whether they are able to see properly or not, how can the footsteps placed on the ground be unsure, i.e., how can they fall anywhere else but on the ground? Of course, they can only end up there. The intent is to say that therefore it does not matter how the Shrutis explain the Ultimate Truth, the end result will always end up in You alone.

So the difference between the two is fairly clear. Jiva Goswami is showing that the ultimate intent and the words of the shastra, even if it is not overtly evident, are always pointing to the Supreme Person.

Let us think about the verse as a whole for a minute. The Brahma-vadi position is that the clay that is the material cause of the universe is the essence of Brahman. The problem is that they for some reason don't take personality into account. Personality or personhood is part of the fact of existence. The other aspects of the Divine Truth--Brahman or Paramatma--do not fully account for personhood.

The example of clay is therefore somewhat misleading as it only seems to refer to an underlying ground of being and not to a supreme conscious being who is the source of our consciousness and personhood and who thus makes love between individuated consciousnesses a possibility, in particular love between the atomic individual and the supreme individual.

Or, put another way, if we accept Bhagavan as the Supreme Truth, then clearly all things must point to Him. Since Brahman is an integral part of Bhagavan, there is no need to "fear" impersonal interpretations. They do not contradict the Bhagavan aspect but are a necessary part of it. And that makes it possible to see the personal truth even when the apparent explanation is impersonal.

This is one of the great arguments about the Upanishads: some statements seem to refer to God as a person, and some seem to refer to God as impersonal. Which ones are more important? The Vaishnava does not deny the impersonal aspect as wrong or exclude it, whereas the Advaitavadi says that the personal God is only a part of the phenomenal universe and thus is only a reflection or a symbol of the Supreme Truth.

But moreover, in the overall context of whether Brahman can be described in words, the answer is that since God is the source of all things--thoughts and words--how can words fail to describe Him? In fact, whether they directly seem to describe Him or not, on a higher level of understanding, they all DO describe Him in some way.

In support, Jiva quotes two verses, which apparently apply to the two interpretation given above:
Both the jnana-yoga that is related to Me and the yoga characterized by devotion free from the gunas, have one purpose, which is indicated by the word Bhagavan. (SB 3.32.32)

Oh the wonder! All the names explain only this Lord. Just as all the flowing rivers heading towards the ocean enter into the ocean, similarly all these names only enter into or describe the Lord. (Shruti cited by Madhvacharya in his Vedanta-bhashya)
So here are the English translations of 10.87.15 as given in some different sources, offered without comment:
The wise recognize this known (seen and heard of) universe to be (no other than) Brahma (Yourself) because it is Brahma alone that remains (when all else is dissolved) and because it is from and into Brahma (the material cause) which remains unchanged, that the universe (its evolute) emanates and returns, even as the earthenware are evolved out of and disappear into clay. Hence (because of its being the material cause of and therefore comprising the entire universe), the Vedic texts have concluded as refering to You whatever is contemplated within the mind (that is, the import of words) and uttered with the tongue (viz., the names). How could the feet of men placed anywhere (on earth) be regarded as not placed on the earth (itself)? (Gita Press)
This perishable world is identified with the Supreme because Brahman is the ultimate foundation of all existence. It remains unchanged though all created things are generated from it and at last dissolved into it, just as clay is unchanged by the products made from it which again merge with it. Thus it is toward You alone that the Vedic sages direct all their thoughts, words, and acts. After all, how can the footsteps of men fail to touch the earth on which they live? (SB 10.87.15) BBT
This world is understood to be great Brahman because it remains unchanged though all created things are generated from it and at last dissolved into it, just as clay is unchanged by the products made from it and which again merge into it. Thus it is toward You alone that the Vedic sages direct all their thoughts, words, and acts. After all, how can the footsteps of men fail to touch the earth on which they live? (SB 10.87.15) Satya Narayan Das.
[They] know this which is perceived to be the Great, by virtue of its being the remainder, for, as with clay, there is [only an] appearance and disappearance of transformations [coming] from the untransformed. As a result, the Rishis have placed the actions of their mind and speech in You. How can the footsteps of men be go elsewhere when they are placed on firm ground?

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Some Bhagavat-sandarbha Notes: Shruti-stuti (1)

Slogging away on the Bhagavat-sandarbha. So many distractions it is hard to give the attention to this book that I am supposed to be giving it. I am currently working on the final leg of the journey through some of the most difficult passages of all. That is, the Shruti-stuti in chapter 87 of the Tenth Canto.

In section 87 of the Bhagavat-sandarbha (according to our new number system, Heaven forgive us), Sri Jiva takes us through a number of the verses that are in this Stuti, which without a doubt is one of the most important in the entire Bhagavatam. Why? Well, the Bhagavatam indicates in the very first verses and claims in several others to be the essence of the Vedānta or the Upanishads. The Shruti-stuti is one place where many of the most important texts of the Upanishads are referred to, sometimes directly, sometimes obliquely, and so give a fairly good idea of the Bhagavata author's interpretation of the Vedānta.

The verses themselves are mostly not very easy to understand and without Sridhar Swami's commentary would be quite hopeless for someone like myself, with only rudimentary Sanskrit skills, to decipher. Sridhar points out with unerring accuracy the Upanishadic references and pieces together the almost code-like text. Not that the other commentators necessarily agree with him. Sridhar can occasionally take what looks to be an advaita-vada interpretation and when he does, Jiva takes him on.

One of the things I am doing with the Bhagavat-sandarbha is that I am trying to deal with a very important problem in translating books of this sort: How do you avoid reading into a translation of a text the interpretations of the commentators? This becomes especially important when the verse is followed by another commentary, which may or may not agree with the one you have followed in your translation.

For example, in Kushakratha's translations of the Sandarbhas, he has chosen to unquestioningly use Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami's translations of the verses. Bhaktivedanta's translations are known to be full of interpretive adjustments and explanations.

If a translation already contains an explanation, it renders subsequent explanations problematic: If Jiva's commentary agrees with the explanation given in Prabhupada's translation, it renders the commentary superfluous. If it disagrees, then that is just confusing. In either case, it makes the purpose of the overall text unclear.

The Gita Press translation also very deliberately follows Sridhara Swami's interpretation, but includes any explanatory comments that he makes in brackets. Jiva Goswami may not use Sridhara and so the same problems mentioned above come up again.

We have to look at the Sanskrit verse and see it the way that Sridhar and Jiva saw it, and then understand why they felt it necessary to comment the way they did. The translation has to make both of these things clear. So this translation of Bhagavat-sandarbha will often have verse translations that are a bit on the too literal side, but will hopefully make the purpose of Jiva's comment and his overall argument clearer to the non-Sanskritist. It is quite a challenge to make it readable at the same time.

One example could be given from 10.87.2, where the word ātmane, following Sridhara, is rendered in the BBT version as "become elevated in future lives" and in the Gita Press edition as "enjoying the delights of various worlds."

Now, quite honestly, I doubt there are many Sanskrit scholars of any kind who would immediately read ātmane and think these things. So if you follow the interpretation right away in the verse translation, you are actually missing the point of why the tikas were written in the first place.

A closer look shows that Sridhara and Sri Jiva want the four reasons for the creation given in 10.87.2 to correspond to the four puruṣārthas. There is no reason to think this is an invalid assumption on their part, but it does leave the door open to other possibilities. We would have to look at the other, non-Sridhara connected, commentaries, like that of Vallabha, closely to see what they say. A difference of opinion here would be quite legitimate.

A prima facie reading of ātmane would be "for himself" or "for the self," and that is precisely why it requires interpretation, though the route that Sridhara Swami chose is unclear and would need research. Can such an interpretation be found anywhere else? It would need a thorough reading of Shankara, on whom Sridhara often relies, to find out whether this kind of gloss can be found anywhere in his writings. Jiva does in fact follow Sridhara here, quoting him directly. But when translating the original verse, I think that giving the immediately intelligible meaning and then treating the commentary as an interpretation of that meaning is the only appropriate way to go.

Sometimes this can present problems of its own. For instance, what if the commentary goes against the prima facie reading of the verse? How can that be made intelligible to the non-Sanskrit reader?

Let's take a look at 10.87.15. The context of the entire Veda-stuti begins with Maharaj Parikshit's question in 10.87.1. He asks, "How can the Vedas, functioning within the gunas, directly describe Brahman, which is indeterminable, free from the gunas, and transcendental to both causes and their effects?"

This is a big philosophical question, very important for Advaita-vada, and all the commentaries start with a discussion of words and their powers. These have been very nicely discussed by Satya Narayan Baba in his English commentary. But by the time you get to the actual stuti, which begins with 10.87.14, it is quite understandable if you have already lost the thread. Nevertheless, one should be reminded of it, and the first three verses (14-16) and the last (10.87.41), all of which are quoted in Bhagavat-sandarbha section 87, are directly answering this question.
This is verse 15:

bṛhad upalabdham etad avayanty avaśeṣatayā
yata udayāsta-mayau vikṛter mṛd ivāvikṛtāt
ata ṛṣayo dadhus tvayi mano-vacanācaritaṁ
katham ayathā bhavanti bhuvi datta-padāni nṛṇām

The inspiration for this verse comes from (1) the Chandogya Upanishad 3.14.1, sarvaṁ khalv idaṁ brahma taj-ja-lān iti śānta upāsīta: "All this is indeed Brahman, which is the source of its creation, maintenance and dissolution. Knowing this, a person should be peaceful and worship Him." and (2) Chandogya 6.1.4.

yathā somyaikena mṛt-piṇḍena
sarvaṁ mṛn-mayaṁ vijñātaṁ syād
vācārambhaṇaṁ vikāro nāma-dheyaṁ
mṛttikety eva satyam

In this passage, Shvetaketu is sent to study all the Vedic sciences and comes home after 24 years a little puffed up and proud of his learning. So his father asks him, "What is the one thing that upon being known, all other things are known? By knowing clay, one knows all the things that are made of clay. The modification is but a name based on words, and the clay alone is real."

Word for word in the first two lines of the Bhagavatam verse go like this: bṛhat = "the Great". All the commentaries agree that this means Brahman, but the question is whether that would be the immediately understood meaning by an ordinary reader, with a normal Sanskrit education. Even a cursory examination of the Bhagavatam reveals that the usage of bṛhat, which is fairly frequent, is exclusively used in the sense of "great." Though the meaning as brahman is a secondary one, it is legitimate. Still, we should translate it as "great," and not as Brahman. We can give it a capital to show that we know it has a greater meaning or implications.

Of course, the customary definition of Brahman is that it is "that which is the greatest and makes others great also" (bṛhattvāt bṛṁhaṇāc ca), so there is no reason to make a big deal about it. Nevertheless, the point I am trying to make is that attention is being brought to the fact of greatness, rather than Brahmahood.

Jiva will make a point like this when he says, "Although the 'Great' is here also shown to be the possessor of potencies, still only Brahman is being established, as the Bhagavan aspect has not been openly mentioned here. If all potencies were rejected, it would not be possible to establish Brahman, and moreover Brahman would become insignificant. So, only Brahman has been referred to here in this verse. Therefore, in this example, where only clay is mentioned, agency and so on are not attributed to Brahman."

Similarly in the Laghu-vaiṣṇava-toṣaṇī, Sri Jiva also says that the verse represents the words of those Shrutis who are embarrassed that some of their sister Shrutis had been so focused on the impersonal aspect of the Supreme. They use the word bṛhat to show that without the incorporating the personal aspect into the concept of the Supreme Truth, the greatness of Brahman is hampered.

upalabdham = Normally this word means "attained" or "understood." A problem is the word avayanti which follows and also means "understand, know." It makes no sense to have two words with the same meaning immediately following one another. Sridhara glosses as dṛṣṭam, meaning "seen." This is a common expression referring to the perceived, material universe. So Sridhara reads, "[They] understand this perceived [world] as the Great, or Brahman."

Jiva Goswami's solution is to stick the verb avayanti further down on the next line, as he wants to preserve the sense of understanding for upalabdha. We will look at that in the proper place, but in terms of straightforward translation, Sridhara is more direct here than Jiva. So, for the translation, I have to follow that immediately obvious meaning and let Jiva lead us by the hand and convince us of his version.

etat = "this." Everyone agrees that this means the world. Jiva glosses as sarvam, and in Laghu-vaiṣṇava-toṣaṇī also makes it clear that these first words are to be recognized as a paraphrase of the Mahā-vākya, sarvaṁ khalv idaṁ brahma.

avaśeṣatayā = "due to being that which remains." The immediate reference points are the om pūrṇam adaḥ pūrṇam... pūrṇam evāvaśiṣyate verse, or the Bhāgavata-catuḥślokī, yo'vaśiṣyeta so'smy aham: "After all is said and done, when all phenomena are gone, what remains is Brahman."

This reminds me a bit of the "God of the gaps" idea in Christianity. The idea there is that, God was traditionally used to explain everything, but with the onset of science in the modern world and the solving of so many of creation's mysteries, this role of God as an explanation of the inexplicable is in constant retreat and only serves to fill in those gaps where science has not yet found the answer.

I recently encountered the term "promissory materialism" from Ed May, a very congenial researcher into paranormal psychology, who seemed to think that things like consciousness and the creation of life, etc., will one day be solved by science, "just when we least think it possible."

Of course, to me this is ridiculous. There are some pretty huge gaps that need filling out there, starting with the very fact of existence, which makes all subsequent achievements entirely dependent and derivative. No one can be original in inventing new laws of nature, what to speak of existence itself. Nor can they really answer what is left after it all ends. That is stated here, avaśeṣatayā.

The word is being used as an argument. "Everything is Brahman, [they] know it due to its being that which remains."

yataḥ "Because." This word introduces the example derived from the second Upanishad quotation above. It could also mean "from whom," which could go with avikṛtāt, another ablative at the end of the line, "untransformed." But since all the commentaries favor the first sense given, explaining the meaning of avaśeṣatayā, we bow our heads in agreement.

udayāsta-mayau = "Of the nature of rising and setting." This looks like an adjective, but since there are no masculine nouns in the nominative dual around, we will have to take it as a simple periphrase of creation and dissolution. "Creation and dissolution." "Appearance and disappearance." This is also Sridhara's reading, utpatti-layau.

vikṛteḥ = "Of or from the transformation."

mṛd iva = "Like clay." (in the nominative, unfortunately) This brief mention should immediately ring bells for anyone who has studied Vedānta and would therefore be quite familiar with this argument. See also Vedānta-sutra 2.1.14, ff.

avikṛtāt = "from the untransformed."

Jiva puts avayanti with this part of the verse. His reading of the first two lines would thus be: "This world is known as Brahman, due to being that which remains. [They, the Srutis] know that the appearance and disappearance of the transformations comes from the untransformed, as is the case with clay." And he quotes yato vā imāni bhūtāni jāyante (Tai.U. 3.1.1) as just such evidence of the Srutis knowing it.

What is the subject of the verb avayanti? For some reason, Haridas Shastri introduces the demigods like Indra as the subject. This appears to be a misunderstanding of Sridhara's commentary. Jiva here says the Srutis. Sridhara does not weigh in. Sanatana says mad-vidhāḥ which would be the Srutis. Later in the third line, Jiva also equates ṛṣayaḥ with the Vedas, so I would think that the same subject carries over and should be read as "the Vedic seers." It may perhaps work best if we say, "Because they know this perceived creation to be the Great, due to its being what remains, as the appearance and disappearance of transformations come from the untransformed, as is the case with clay [and its transformations].... therefore the Vedic seers, etc."

Friday, February 05, 2010

Global Kirtan

Here are a couple of photos from the January 30 kirtan at Keshi Ghat. The high point for me certainly came with Shyam Das's kirtan after the arti ceremony itself. A very sophisticated and moving performance, done under the lights, with floating deepas speckling the darkness in the background. It felt like a campfire, but very intimate and very transcendental, with a small but enthusiastic group in the audience.

There were many participants, including a very enthusiastic kirtan led by Deenabandhuji. Another patented Ahindra kirtan. On the whole a very enjoyable day. Krishnadevata Dasi organized the global kirtan at more than 230 sites around the world.

Things are quieting down a bit, as expected, but I hope that the concern for Vrindavan's future will not abate.

Many people were walking through Keshi Ghat on parikrama, as this was one of the Kumbha Mela Shahi Snanas. Some of them stopped to listen and enjoy the kirtan.

Paramadvaiti Maharaj is the steadiest and most consistent voice for sanity in Gaudiya Vaishnavism, at least from the social and institutional standpoint. His disciples are committed, humble and enthusiastic. A great credit to him and I offer them all my obeisance.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

The walk to Keshi Ghat

Sometimes time really does seem to fly, and one barely knows where it went. Certainly on the trip to Vrindavan, two entire days were lost in traveling. May I never take the Utkal Express again.

Got into Vrindavan well after midnight. Was up late in the morning, but started off immediately for Keshi Ghat. As usual, it was a dreadful shock to see the garbage piled up in the old ghats, the running nalas overflowing onto the road, and general mess and neglect. You can see here and here that even in India, it does not have to be so. You can see pictures of the kind of situation that prevails on the Yamuna Vrindavan Heritage Alliance website. Just scroll down through this slideshow to get an idea.

On the way, I noticed that there was activity at one of the sewage treatment plants along the Parikrama Marga, so I stopped in to see what the story was. The engineer there told me first of all that the plant was functioning. I asked him whether the pipes that had been laid throughout the western part of the town came through to his plant and he said they would eventually, but that at present they did not get that far. Furthermore, since the pipes were inadequate to the task, being too small, the whole job would have to be done over again. Now this sounds to me like the most egregious bit of incompetence that I have ever heard of. A huge sum of money was given to do this bit of essential infrastructure work and due to corruption (I have no doubt whatsoever that this is the case) the money has been frittered away and the Vrindavan streets are left in complete disarray, resulting in regular accidents, broken axles and bent wheels on rickshaws, etc., etc.

The other day I took a rickshaw ride from Vrinda Kunj to Bhakti Dham, and on the way, the rickshaw's front wheel took a whack on a rugged piece of road, and the driver had to take a detour to the repairman. It cost him 40 Rs, exactly what I was paying him. That is the situation.

I regularly berate the rickshaw wallas, many of whom are Bengalis, for not demonstrating to the Municipal authorities to protest. Why don't they block the streets to call attention to the corruption and the mismanagement of these public works projects? They tell me this is not Marxist West Bengal, where the little man at least gets a voice. Here, no one listens to the lowest of the low, especially not if they come from out of state. Bengalis are not held in great esteem. Too bad that one who was, Nimai Mitra, the prominent local RSS leader, just died recently. He might have intervened.

Someone told me the laughing-in-my-beard story the other day about a rickshaw ride she had taken. They came to one of these dug up streets and she decided to get down to at least make it easier for the wallah to get over the hump. As they were going through the rocky patch, they passed a poor rickshaw driver who was struggling with a vehicle overflowing with no less than five well-endowed pilgrims from Delhi or somewhere. My friend started to berate the group asking them whether they had no consideration and could they not see what their driver was having to go through. Before the dumbstruck group could answer, the rickshaw's axle broke, the carriage overturned and the five chubby Indians fell into the muddy street.

It would have been a jolly good Schadenfreude laugh, except that the thoughtless privilegiés immediately started to blame the hapless rickshaw wallah for the disaster. Of course, he did not get paid and was stuck with the bill for repairs. Not a good day for him.

On my way to Vrindavan, I had the pleasure to accompany a group I encountered accidentally in the waiting room in Hardwar (our train was delayed 8 hours). Sankirtan Das, a Swiss devotee who has been living in China for the last 20 years and speaks fluent Chinese, was with a group of 10 people from a city outside Beijing, maybe Tongzhon. Sankirtan Dasji has written a book, which has also been translated into Chinese, called Bhakti Yoga Pilgrimage. He has been running tours like this for some time.

The leader of the group, a striking woman with the given name Kunti, is the owner of 15 (!) yoga centers in her town and most of the others in the group were teachers in those centers. They had spent a few days in Rishikesh, at Madhuvan, doing yoga and looking around.

The Chinese pilgrims were very sweet. Sankirtan told me they had spent part of the previous day in Hardwar doing kirtan at Harki Pauri, which had attracted a great deal of attention, as you can imagine. We also spent a few hours on the train doing kirtan. The man is true to his name.

Anyway, since many of the Chinese wear glasses, I was warning them about the Vrindavan monkeys. I told them about how the last time I had been with Paramadvaiti Maharaj in Vrindavan, out behind the Rangaji temple, a monkey had stolen his glasses and had simply mashed them to bits in full view of everyone.

It used to be that in Vrindavan there were only a few places where monkeys stole people's glasses. I have good experience of this. The main places were at Chir Ghat and in front of the Shahji Mandir near Loi Bazar and Radha Raman. There may have been other places, but those two I know about. At Shahji Mandir one time I was even in a rickshaw and a monkey flew past me, picking off my specs. The thing was that the monkeys and the local residents had a kind of symbiotic relationship. The monkey would steal the glasses, the Brajvasis would have chola and other goodies at the ready, they would offer the monkey a bribe, which the clever creature happily accepted, dropping the glasses. A local youth (as it was usually young men and kids who would be competing for the prize) would then offer them back to the owner and get a reward--50 to 100 rupees.

But in Paramadvaiti Maharaj's case, the monkey had somehow learned the first part of the lesson, "I monkey. Steal glasses." But had not learned the second part, "Get food. Drop glasses." The learned behavior is spreading through Vrindavan's monkey community, but the parampara has been broken in the course of time, kaleneha mahata yogo bhrashtaH parantapa.

Now I was to encounter the same situation. As I approached Chir Ghat, I began to think that it would be wise to take my specs off. But when your eyesight is as bad as mine, you tend to want to wait to the last moment. Perhaps all the construction that is there has driven the predatory beasts further afield, who knows, but I waited too long. A large monkey leaped past me, and with barely the sense of being touched, only the whiff of a breeze, my nose was naked.

And there was no one around to come to my rescue. No Brijbasis with biscuits for the beast. I ran to get biscuits and came back, blind as a bat and unable to even see where the evil creature had gone. Someone pointed him out, sitting atop a wall, meditatively crunching away at my ocular prosthesis. I threw him as many biscuits as I could, but the wicked beast looked at me with indifference. A crowd of his progeny danced around picking up the crumbs, and when I let down my hand in despair, another snatched the remaining biscuits from my hand. Such is the new treachery of these maleficent anthropoids. Don't call them mischievous, they are a menace.

And so, taking it that I had been delivered by Radharani herself from seeing the hulking skeleton of a half-moon bridge and the rest of the disasters that it had brought to the area, I walked on towards Keshi Ghat for the kirtan. I stopped just to talk to a few of the inactive construction workers who were hanging about. They said, "The work has only stopped temporarily. There is an nefarious rich lady in Keshi Ghat who is manipulating the powers-that-be to deprive us of our jobs, but our bosses have assured us it is only for one month."

So that's the situation. Katie Jo Walter and others are working very hard to get the court case on the 23rd prepared, thinking of all arguments that could come up and how to counter them. Let us keep on praying. Some people are thinking of doing another kirtan on that day, so I ask you to do so. It may not be as public and well-publicized as the Global Kirtan on the 30th, but do not forget this work. It is not something that can be done in one or two days. We need to keep on praying, chanting, asking Srimati Radharani to intervene so that we can build up our strength, chase away the destructive materialistic forces and recreate Vrindavan in a way that does an honor to our beloved Yugal Kishore.