Monday, March 29, 2010

More Thoughts on Islam and Bangla Desh

I was recently directed to a website called Political Islam, run by Kenneth Roberts, who is very definitely in the "Clash of Civilizations" mode. This has inspired a few thoughts emanating from my experience at the Patiala conference and the things I was thinking about then (Taking the Long Term View, The Ahimsa Heritage).

While in Patiala, I met Kazi Nurul Islam, the founder and head of the Department of Religions at the University of Dhaka. Prof. Islam actually has a Ph.D. in Hindu Philosophy, which he got from Benares Hindu University. His wife (whom I did not meet) also studied there, so they form a rather unique couple. The number of Bangladeshi Muslims with these kinds of credentials are very few. And, indeed, departments of comparative religion are a rarity anywhere in the Muslim world.

During the course of the three days, since we were both staying in the same university guest house, I had the occasion to talk several times with Prof. Islam; and as we have a good mutual friend, Prof. Joseph O'Connell, and as I speak a little Bengali, we were able to create a bit of common ground for discussion. Since I had been reading Taslima Nasreen's Lajja, I thought I would just discuss it with this uniquely liberal and doubtlessly sincere Muslim, and get his feedback.

The instant I mentioned Nasreen's name, however, Prof. Islam reacted viscerally. His first response was to condemn her morality. Though no specifics were mentioned, his primary reaction was to attack her personal character. When I objected that surely her personal morality had no bearing on the truth of her account itself, he said that these things had been taken out of context and he went on to defend Bangladesh's human rights record. But, I asked, did these things happen or not? Yes, but ever since Nasreen had written this book, she had brought disrepute on Bangladesh. The negative stories were circulating and the positive aspects of relations between religious groups in Bangladesh were never highlighted.

This was the essence of our conversation, which I did not pursue, as the issue had clearly touched a nerve and I did not wish to provoke him further. I was merely fact finding. But though it had been short, I found our talk very instructive.

Prof. Islam gave the inaugural address ("World Peace through Interreligious Dialogue"), a very pious talk in which he called for empathy and mutual understanding between religions. I will just quote his opening sentence:
Though all the religions of the world teach love, preach sympathy for others and encourage man to exercise utmost self-restraint and have most profoundly been a source of inspiration for the highest good of mankind, the world today is torn by conflicts, enmity and religious hatred. In this predicament, a lasting and peaceful society is impossible unless different faiths are understood in their proper perspectives.
He goes on to express pious hopes--the need for "warm hearts," changing from an "Age of Monologue to the Age of Dialogue" and so on. He there goes into a discussion of the meaning of "deep dialogue," for which he outlined seven elements:
  • In dialogue one must be ready to learn from partners,
  • Dialogue cannot be one-sided, it has to be both-sided,
  • Participants must be true to the ideals of dialogue,
  • Participants must come with an open mind,
  • Dialogue must take place only between equals,
  • Dialogue should take place only on the basis of mutual trust,
  • Participants must be ready to be self-critical and accept genuine criticisms from others.
The paper was peppered with quotes from Ramakrishna, Max Muller, Raimundo Panikkar, and various other thinkers on interfaith dialogue. So what is there to complain about? Like so my other complaints, it was mostly about what was not said. And that is the problem of mutual trust.

So, entirely against my liberal inclinations, I have to admit that I have a big problem with Islam. In his introductory sentence, Prof. Islam said that "all religions teach love and peace," but my suspicion is that, in the case of Islam, this is just not true.

The situation in Bangladesh described by Nasreen is not atypical for Islam. If the population there is only 10% Hindu now, rather than 30% it was a century ago, it is the onus of the Muslim population to explain the exodus.

If anything, we should perhaps fault Nasreen for not presenting the plight of Hindu minorities there in the context of worldwide Islam. In fact, though the term is no longer used, the Hindus of Bangladesh are treated as dhimmis, and throughout Moslem history, the dhimmis in all Muslim-majority countries have been second-class citizens, subject to the whims of the majority, with no legal redress.

Kenneth Roberts's indictment of political Islam here resonates with Lajja most uncomfortably:
In some Islamic countries, particularly when the country felt powerful, it was more tolerant towards the dhimmis. A dhimmi could even rise to a decent level of power within government, but that could all vanish overnight. The treatment of the dhimmi was shown in Coptic Egypt. (the Copts were the original Egyptians.) A dhimmi could have his tongue removed if he spoke Coptic in front of an Islamic government official. The dhimmi was always persecuted and was never really an equal.

When the Egyptian military tried to conquer the Byzantine Christians, but lost a battle, back in Egypt the Muslim rioted against the Christians. Christians would be killed because riots were one of the favorite ways to punish the dhimmi. When Smyrna--the last of the seven churches of Asia--was destroyed in 1922, it was not done with the military and bulldozers. No, rioting Muslims did it. Riots are a form of jihad. The dhimmi could always be persecuted, not only in the courts of law, but a riot could destroy an entire section of a city.
Since Hindus and Muslims both speak the same language in Bangladesh, the use of certain words, like pani instead of jala, or Muslim greetings instead of namaskar, etc., all become surrogates for this kind of differentiation. But what rang really true was the description of riots as a tool for persecution, which paralleled the situation in Bangadesh completely. Moreover, the humiliation of the kafir, the gradual, persistent grinding down of self-respect, until conversion becomes the only option--all these are vividly described by Nasreen.

Roberts shows that all these characteristics of the Bangladesh situation are not specific to it, but prevail and have prevailed in all Muslim-dominated countries throughout history, whether Egypt, Turkey or Pakistan, in which all traces of pre-Islamic cultures have for all intents and purposes been entirely wiped out. His point is this: that is exactly what Islam is about.

That was what Mohammad himself did. His dying words, "Let there not be a single Jew or Christian in Arabia." And his followers carried out his will. He himself massacred the Jews of Medina. Since Mohammad's personal example is the essence of Islam, it is hard to see that there is any other way of changing the Islamic mindset other than through a total transformation of the religion. But I have little hope of that.

My personal feelings about Islam were solidified in my university days when I did a little bit of research into the life of Mohammad and Islamic history. I too observed most of the things that Kenneth Roberts talks about, particularly the sharp difference between the Mohammad of Mecca and the one of Medina, and the difference between the Quranic passages coming from each of the two situations.

When Mohammad was banished from Mecca and came to Medina, he came face to face with a large and prosperous Jewish community. In Mecca, he had been promoting himself as a prophet in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, but the Jews in Medina would have none of it. They recognized that he had distorted the Biblical stories beyond recognition. Mohammad, before he realized that the only way to rid himself of the problem was to just wipe them out completely, first tried to establish his credentials by promoting a severe form of Talonic law that had long since softened in this Jewish outpost. Do you stone adulterers? Do you cut off the hands of thieves? If you don't follow the Mosaic law, then what kind of Jews are you? Look at me, I do all of that. If you do not recognize me as Allah's prophet, you shall be destroyed.

Islam has a great attachment to its Prophet, to its beginnings. There is no pristine Islam in which love and peace were taught. Roberts is quite right: the prophetic teachings of Mecca were one thing, but the political career of Mohammad in Medina is the real beginnings of Islam, and that is the same as the beginning of Jihad. Peace (dar al-islam) can only come when a country is 100% Muslim. Love is only for Muslim to Muslim. There is no equality of any kafir with a Muslim; the kafir is less than human. That is the teaching of Islam.

Thus when the Muslim president of the Indian National Congress said of Gandhi that no matter how saintly he was, he had to consider even the most immoral Muslim to be better than him, he was not saying anything other than what is the normal, traditional Islamic position. (Can't find the exact reference, sorry.)

In my own talk at Patiala, I talked about tamasic religion. There is no doubt in my mind that Islam is the most tamasic of the major religions on the earth today. It has a Sufi component that displays some of the characteristics of universalism and tolerance, but the dominant Islamic orthodoxy is one that is addicted to intolerance and feeds on the basest elements of the human psyche, and that attitude springs from the Prophet himself and nowhere else.

How Islam can be separated from the example of Mohammad is an uncrackable nut. You would have to separate Islam from all its foundations, and that is obviously not going to happen anytime soon. But when Christopher Hitchens says, "God is NOT great," if he means this God, we have to agree. The God of the tamasic man is, by definition, a false God.

During the meetings, I may have already mentioned, when Sufi scholar Sirajul Islam made some efforts to find possible lights of hope in the black firmament of Islamic intolerance (or as Kenneth Roberts puts it, when speaking of Andalus, "specks of gold, not a gold mine"), he was immediately challenged by the Sikhs present there. I thought that Siraj should be commended for making the effort, for the task is certainly daunting. But the task is doubly daunting for the fact that Muslims may use any conciliatory statements as bait in a bait-and-switch. They will never be able to be Muslims and repudiate the violence and intolerance of the Prophet himself. The duplicity of taqia, the right to dissimulate to further the cause of the faith, is the basis of mistrust.

So where does that leave the Gandhians, or those who believe, hopefully, that through goodness, love and patience, eventually even Muslims will accept a brotherhood of man, in all its variety, instead of an Islamic umma engulfing the globe?

It is said that the Muslims feel that history is on their side and so are patient, able to wait out the kafirs in their quest for world domination. I have to say, no, it is not: the only history that is on the side of ignorance is that of self-destruction. I stand by the Gandhian ideal. The Muslims are not the less human for their misguided doctrine of Jihad. Gandhi was right to say that we must constantly appeal to their better side, to the side that, despite all the indoctrination, knows that the goals of universal love, peace, empathy are what everyone really seeks.

To Prof. Islam, I can only say, may there be a thousand more like you. If you can make your fellows believe that their religion is one of love and peace, and act upon it, then you are truly a saint and a prophet.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Dana-lila and the Apotheosis of Love

This is the paper I presented in New Delhi on March 10, 2010, at the Jawarhalal Nehru University Centre for Historical Studies conference named "Devotion and Dissent in Indian History."

Introduction: Symbol as Dissent

Generally speaking, when talking about the relationship of religion to revolution, we are talking about some relationship of the ideal values inculcated in religious movements and their relationship to social justice.

In this paper, I would rather like to discuss the relationship between such values as represented by the religious symbol of Radha and Krishna and what it can tell us of sexuality and sexual relationships, including the status of women.

I am adopting a Jungian view of religious symbols as products of the collective unconscious, by which I mean that they spring from a non-verbal fountain of ideas, and have sustained power to provide meaning and a sense of the sacred. As such, they may produce a huge theological and hermeneutical superstructure around them, even as they continue to function dialectically on a subliminal level. In some cases, these interpretive superstructures may in fact be deliberately misleading rather than giving a natural explanation of the symbols themselves. Nevertheless, by virtue of being invested with sacred character by the tradition, as long as they live, they continuously invite new interpretation, debate and critique.

By way of example, I may cite Lee Siegel, who in his book Laughing Matters introduces his subject by telling of how a guide showed him artwork on the ceiling and walls of a chatri in some Indian royal residence. The theme was that of Krishna’s erotic dalliances with the gopis, and the pictures were more than suggestive. The guide, a little embarrassed, immediately began to give an orthodox, metaphorical interpretation of the artwork: “This represents the relation of the individual soul to God,” he stammered. The author gave him a quizzical, silent look, then the two of them looked again at the erotic art. After a few moments’ pause, the two of them spontaneously burst into peals of laughter at the sheer absurdity of his theological excursus.

Though they are no doubt a legitimate part of the dialectic surrounding such imagae, these allegorical interpretations taken on their own are patently absurd. Nevertheless, the essential nature of Radha and Krishna’s erotic affairs, it is always emphasized by votaries, is to be characterized as prema or love, and never sensual desire, kāma or lust. In other words, one should not be misled by the sexuality, though externally it may appear similar to lust, it is in fact love.

Now this attitude or concept of a pure eroticism, or a love that incorporates sexuality but simultaneously transcends it and reaches spiritual heights, is in fact what is familiarly known in the West as romantic love. In India, however, the idea of romantic love never managed to find general social approval and has thus always been a subversive and somewhat dangerous act of rebellion. Indian society continues to this day to prefer the arranged marital system, which is known technically as prājāpātya or the joining of man and woman for the sake of procreation, or furthering the species. In this respect, relations between the sexes have been and still are for the most part, very strictly regulated and controlled by parents and family members.

Though “love marriage,” known in the past as gāndharva-vivāha, is becoming more frequent today, it has always been circumscribed in Indian society. Generally speaking, the objection to such marriages has always been that youths are too impetuous to choose a partner wisely, as adolescents are under the influence of excessive kāma (or hormones), and therefore any choice they make is likely to come from that rather than the judicious weighing of numerous rational factors. And so, the considerations of the family in economic, social status, and other matters, are not likely to be met in the case of such love connections.

Lakshmi and Narayan are the symbols of the prājāpātya marriage. In the Hindu marriage ceremony, this divine couple is invoked and the bride and groom are identified with them. The wife is said to be the goddess of fortune being brought into the household. And on the whole, no small success may be conceded to such a system. Indeed, it is one institution in which Hindus take pride, often pointing to high rates of divorce in the West as proof of the superiority of the arranged marriage.

However, the symbol of Radha and Krishna is a strong reminder that there was, in some circles at least, a reaction to and rejection of this social convention. The gap between the realities of arranged marriage and the inner romantic aspirations are illustrated in a Bengali proverb that says: “How I cherished to be married to Krishna! But my husband turned out to be neither Vishnu nor Krishna, but the grandson of Firinga, the buffoon weaver!”

Though Radha and Krishna are a manifestation of the Divine Syzygy, with all the implications inherent in this Jungian archetype, they are more than simply the external projection of repressed ideas of romantic love, and the theological and philosophical superstructures around them contribute to their depth, richness and endurance as symbols. Nevertheless, they clearly cannot be understood completely without an analysis of the the idealization of love in general and erotic love in particular.

Seen in this way, the figures of Radha and Krishna become a symbol of the protest against the conventional system of marriage, and an enduring one besides. I am personally sympathetic to the romantic ideal as an expression of humanistic values. If it cannot be openly expressed, then it must find an outlet somewhere. Furthermore, the very existence of that symbolic representation means that it will continue to exercise an effect, whether it does so openly or subversively.

There are of course, other important aspects and implications of the Radha-Krishna symbol, but we will not, in this brief presentation, deal with them.

Sanskritization as Dissent

The above premise is in fact only an underlying presupposition to what I see as a dialogue within the conceptualization of this romantic ideal. The presupposition is that the Radha-Krishna symbol, as an ideal expression of human love, had to preserve its sacred nature and therefore be protected from overly mortal characterization, as we shall attempt to show.

I would like to take an evolutionary point of view that holds that human ideals, and this means religious ideals more than any other, point to ideal humanity, and that this evolution, though subverted by the various manifestations of the “lower nature,” however we choose to define it, is nevertheless undergoing a constant purification. Dissent arises when those ideals are inadequately expressed or hypocritically espoused.

Generally, however, since the discussion of devotion and dissent generally centers around the political area, and in India particularly with regard to caste issues, sympathies naturally lie with the disenfranchised; hegemonical brahminical power and ideologies are inevitably seen as the culprit. This especially manifests in the critique of ideas of purity and institutionalized social inequality.

Thus when such “dissent” comes from the dominant social group, it is often seen negatively as surreptitious reassertion of dominance rather than an appropriate response to an inferior vision or execution of human opportunities. Now there is no doubt a critique to be made of power groups, but it is of a different sort, a failure of charity for the most part; even so, the success of what is called its hegemonic world view, of concepts of purity, etc., must in part be attributed to its persuasiveness. Purity, it must be remembered, is also a moving target, and its ossification in caste structures is artificial and false, and a perversion of the concept. Purity should rather be seen as analogous to truth, that is, an ever-receding ideal that is constantly striven for.

I will here hold that an understanding of the Radha-Krishna symbol, being designated as the highest form of the sacred, points to a particular conception of the ideal of romantic love, and that in the writing of Rupa Goswami, discomfort with the expression of that ideal in contemporary vernacular, popular literature resulted in a his devising new expressions of it.

Baru Chandidas: Śrī-kṛṣṇa-kīrtana

In the case of the Krishna mythological themes, of course, we have a long history of folk elements being coopted into the highbrow or Sanskritic culture and a reverse movement of Sanskritic sophistication being reincorporated into folk depictions of those themes. In the particular case of the dāna-līlā, it is my contention that the version of Chandidas, which is the earliest extant recounting of the theme in Bengali literature, was found wanting as an expression of romantic love and was thus superseded, at first by another Bengali version, the Gopāla-vijaya (GV) by Daivakinandan Singh, and then by Rupa Goswami’s Sanskrit version in Dāna-keli-kaumudī (DKK), which in turn influenced the renewed version of the theme which then was reintroduced in Bengali through mahājanas like Govinda Das and Jnana Das. There are, of course, other versions, but I will restrict this discussion principally to Badu Chandidas’s Śrī-kṛṣṇa-kīrtana (SKK), GV and DKK.

Almost everything about Badu Chandidas’s Śrī-kṛṣṇa-kīrtana (SKK) is in dispute: its date, its title, its author and its value. We will ignore most of these and simply accept the conventional wisdom that it does indeed predate the advent of Chaitanya, or at least his apparition as a prominent religious leader in 1510. I furthermore hold that SKK is likely representative of the Krishna myth cycle as it was popular in the vernacular prior to the sanitizing or sanskritizing influence of the Bhāgavata-purāṇa.

It must be noted here that in one sense, SKK has been retrieved from the dustbin of history and is thus of interest as an archeological rather than a living specimen. It is, of course, improper to attribute a moral value to inexorable time—why some things survive and others don’t—but in this case I am going to be bold and say that the Krishna in SKK ceased to appeal to audiences whose sensibilities had been transformed by the theological and aesthetic refinements introduced by the Bhāgavata-purāṇa and subsequently by Rupa Goswami. This does not mean that from our vantage point in the 21st century, the same aesthetic will apply. Indeed, while discussing criticisms of the erotic character of SKK, in the introduction to her translation of SKK, Klaiman says,
...raciness and eroticism in themselves constitute no reason for excluding a writing from the Bengal Vaishnava tradition. Nor does the subjective factor of taste, for DKK suffers from a shortness of this quality. SKK is composed in the vernacular, an idiom that, if not always elegant, carries with it a quality of vivacious honesty. DKK, on the other hand, is composed in the sacred language, Sanskrit, an idiom ill-suited to the content of the work, which reads pedantically in consequence. If the two pieces are objectively judged and compared for tastefulness of composition and literary excellence, SKK should emerge as the clear superior.
While recognizing that there is some merit in this statement, we will try to give a different idea of why the SKK lost its appeal and was superseded, in the context of what has already been said.

The Dāna-khaṇḍa in SKK

SKK has 14 chapters, of which the Dāna-khaṇḍa is the third. Chandidas begins his story by summarily describing the puranic rationale for Krishna’s appearance in the Janma-khaṇḍa, based on the accounts of Hari-vaàśa and Viṣṇu-purāṇa, but not in the Bhāgavata. Indeed, since this particular myth demonstrates the primacy of Viṣṇu-Nārāyaṇa over Krishna and Balaram, it is not held in great affection by the acharyas of the Gaudiya school.

Chandidas ends the chapter by introducing Radha as Lakshmi, Krishna’s eternal consort, and also the character known as Barai, or “Granny,” the only other active individual role in the drama.

In the second chapter, Krishna sees Radha and tries to win her over with a gift of pan (tāmbūla), which he asks the complicit Barai to bring her. Barai readily accepts the challenge, saying Radha is no pious and chaste Sita. But Radha surprises her by having nothing of it, crushing the tambula underfoot. When Barai continues to plead Krishna’s cause, citing his divinity, Radha is shocked:
I have a husband at home, who is fine in all respects,
and physically good looking besides.
What business do I have starting up a love affair
with a cowkeeper from the house of Nanda?
Here, Barai comes out with a defense of Krishna's divinity:
If one remembers this god, all sins are forgiven;
just seeing him you get liberation.
If you make your love for this god increase
then you will attain the abode of Vishnu.
Radha is scandalized. How can anyone attain the abode of Vishnu by having an affair with a paramour? She not only refuses the gift haughtily, pleading her married state and her age—she is only eleven years old—but slaps Barai on the cheek in adamant refusal.

At this point we encounter the first incident that jars the sensibilities of readers who have come through the Gaudiya tradition: Barai’s reaction. Though “Granny” has been entrusted with Radha’s care, she here suddenly becomes vindictive. She returns to Krishna and tells him how his gift and she herself have been slighted, and Krishna agrees that Radha has wronged a messenger, like Ravana insulted Hanuman. The two of them then plot revenge: Radha’s seduction is to be an act of spite, not of love. It is here that Barai and Krishna plan the taking of the toll. This sets the stage for the rest of the entire SKK: to the very end Krishna never forgets the insult of Radha’s refusal of his love offering.

This brings us to the third chapter, Dāna-khaṇḍa. This is by far the longest chapter in the book, which is an immediate indication of the popularity of this theme. Of the 415 extant songs in the SKK, about a quarter are in the Dāna-khaṇḍa section. Moreover, since the theme of the refused gift and the subsequent blocking of Radha’s passage and extorting sexual favors are mentioned several times over the rest of SKK, one is led to surmise that this specific lila is somehow the centerpiece of the book as a whole.

The basic premise of the Dāna-khaṇḍa is that as Barai is taking Radha and her friends to the Mathura market to sell their wares, Krishna stops them and demands the payment of exorbitant fees for the right to continue on their way.

Throughout, however, Krishna lets Radha know that what he really wants is to be intimate with her. He makes professions of undying love, glorifies Radha’s beauty, ascribes prohibitively high values for her taxable wares, and then does the same for each of her bodily features and tries to tax them, and even threatens her with violence if she does not succumb. Ultimately, the price he really wants to extract is her acquiescence to his sexual overtures.

In the course of this, Krishna bullies her by pulling on her clothes, breaking her earthenware yogurt pots, eating the milk products meant for sale. He repeatedly tries to browbeat Radha into accepting him as Gaya’s Gadadhar, Prayag’s Madhava, Narayan, Madhusudana, Deva Vanamali, and other names. He mentions having appeared as several avatars, but most of all he tries to impress upon Radha that they were husband and wife in a previous life and that she is his, and not the wife of some cowherd named Aihan.

Their exchange can be typically characterized as follows:
Krishna: “If you give in to me, you will get divine blessings. If not, well, watch out.”

Radha: “What blessings can you give? You are nothing but an uneducated cowherd, and it shows. I know you as Nandanandan, my nephew, actually. You want to have sex with someone else’s wife and so you are here playing at being a toll-collector. If anyone is in trouble, it is you. Wait till Kamsa finds out. Wait till Aihan, my heroic and pious husband, finds out. You are going to get a good drubbing.”

Krishna: “You are Padma and I am Padmanabha. In a previous life we were married.”

Radha: “What nonsense. Anyway, even if we were married in a previous life, what does that have to do with the present? We are not married in this life, and it would be a great scandal if anything happened between us.”
Krishna brings up the claim that Aihan is impotent, though Radha defends his good qualities in numerous places, including his heroism. Every time she tries to thwart Krishna’s advances by threatening repercussions from Aihan or even Kamsa, however, Krishna simply brushes it off. "I dealt with Putana when I was a baby, I lifted Govardhan. In a previous life I did Ravana in, so do you think I will have any problem dealing with your Aihan or even Kamsa?"

In her repartees, it is Radha’s refusal to accept Krishna’s claims of divine glory (aiśvarya) and her debunking of them that are the principal source of amusement. Indeed, these claims appear to be nothing more than an attempt by Krishna to abuse his power: He is not just representing the king and taking advantage of his position to coerce an innocent woman into granting him sexual favors, but is using a claim of divine status to do the same thing.

We can easily see how those who had adopted the Bhāgavata viewpoint would feel uncomfortable at this depiction of Krishna’s aggressive approach. Certainly from our cultural vantage point, we would call it sexual harassment, or even child abuse, since Radha several times states that she is not of an age where she can either give or enjoy sexual pleasure.

The dāna-līlā is clearly meant to be humorous. I expect that such kinds of abuse of power would have been a fact of life for many women in the audience, especially those from lower castes faced with precisely this kind of situation [and which is likely a reality even today]. Perhaps Chandidas is making a caricature of this kind of misbehavior, in an almost Tartuffian way. Since the performance was meant to amuse, and both men and women would have to be entertained, a certain suspension of disbelief would have been necessary. But when Radha does give in in the end, it is only because she has been forced to do so and not because she believes that Krishna is God, nor that her relationship is an eternal reality. And it certainly is not because of a sentiment of true love.

On the other hand, we have to assume that, in a country where the Gita Govinda would have been firmly established culturally, the audience would have been in on it, and have accepted on faith that this is indeed God’s lila. “I have appeared,” Kahnai says, “only to enjoy with you.”

An awareness of the distinction of human and divine would legitimize the behavior only in Krishna’s case, as indeed is found in the verses with which the Bhāgavata concludes the Rāsa-lila. But these warnings to follow the devotee’s attitude instead of Krishna’s are an attempt to redirect what would be the normal psychological tendency of an audience. Women would have identified with Radha, there is little doubt of that. Would men have identified with Krishna? And if so, to what extent? Would they have been sympathetic? Would they have recognized his behavior as the childish infatuation of a randy rustic adolescent, and hardly heroic, what to speak of being admired or emulated?

When Radha finally gives in, Chandidas gives a description of their lovemaking that takes only one verse--saṅkṣipta-sambhoga indeed. It is followed, however, by a bit of strange behavior from Krishna. Instead of treating Radha with affectionate adoration, or indeed any kind of romanticism, he deprives her of all her jewelry and sends her home without it. The reason for this is that he does not trust her to submit to him again, and the jewelry serves as leverage for further intimidation.

I remember the first time I read SKK and how this apparent callousness here and in subsequent descriptions was the most strikingly disturbing feature of Chandidas’s Krishna. If Krishna is God in Chandidas’s poem, then the paradoxes of his behavior, such as those found in the Mahābhārata and elsewhere, and which are indeed highlighted wherever Krishna’s character is depicted, have been expressed to such an extreme that there is practically nothing redeeming about him.

Later, almost at the end of the book in the 11th chapter, Bāṇa-khaṇḍa, even when Radha has become much more favorable to Krishna, though without entirely giving herself up to him, Krishna himself seems strangely unchanged and heartless, or at the very least, childish and immature. And when Radha makes the unforgivable transgression of complaining to Krishna’s mother about his behavior, and he decides to take advantage of his power to shoot Cupid’s arrows at her, it still does not seem like an act of love, but rather one of punishment.
She has made a laughing stock of me throughout Gokula. I will pierce her essence with the arrows of Cupid... I even thought that I would take her life, but only hold back on your account.
And Barai in that chapter also eggs Krishna on saying, “Take her life. She is not afraid of you. Let her pray for mercy.” When Radha is pierced by the arrows and lies unconscious on the ground, Barai has a change of heart. She pleads that she was only joking, while Krishna is overwhelmed with remorse.

But only temporarily, it would seem, for in the final chapter of SKK, which unfortunately is incomplete, Krishna’s abandonment of Radha is not at all softened by any regret, even in the face of poignant descriptions of Radha’s pains of separation, described by Chandidas at the height of his poetic art. His resentment of the original insult is still an open wound, and he shows no mercy at her plight.

It is hopefully clear, then, from even this brief summary, why there is such ambivalence about SKK amongst modern Bengali critics, what to speak of followers of the Gaudiya Vaishnava religion. Shankariprasad Bosu writes in Madhya-yuger kobi o kābya: "Whatever is good about the SKK is dominated by Radha. But he in whose name the song is sung, Krishna, is the reservoir of all faults. Whatever bad has been said about Śrī Kṛṣṇa-kīrtana is a result of this depiction of Krishna’s personality."

This contrast between the purity of Radha’s love and the fickleness of the object of her love are thematically consistent with the Radha-Krishna cycle, even that of the Bhāgavatam, where it is imbued with a theological significance. But for Chandidas, the performance of his poem is not presented as a devotional act. And the secular character of the poem results in the “overhumanization” of Krishna’s character to the point that it leads to a desecration of the ideal of pure love itself. It is not the eroticism or the pārakīya nature of the love that is being objected to, but the inadequate expression of that love.

On the other hand, it might justifiably said that the moral of the story is a confirmation of the fundamental social view of marriage. “Don’t fall in love, especially not with a paramour if you are married. It only results in tragedy.”

Gopāla-vijaya by Daivakīnandana Singh

Space here does not permit us to take a thorough look at a book, a maṅgala-kāvya called Gopāla-vijaya, written by Daivakinandan Kavishekhara. It is interesting for several reasons, one being that it represents something of a transition from SKK to DKK, not only in the telling of the dāna-keli, but in its general depiction of Krishna. Historically, it is of some significance that he appears to come from the same village as Rupa.

Daivakinandan’s dāna-līlā is much shorter than Chandidas’s and much less repetitious. It has only seven chapters. Daivakinandan’s heart clearly lies in the stories that Chandidas tells, but he tells them differently. Though writing in the same vernacular as Chandidas, he is already on the way to “classicizing” them according to the Bhāgavata theology and the concept of good taste as found in classical Sanskrit literature.

Barai, Radha and Krishna are all depicted differently. The key element, I think, is that Radha is described as having an attraction for Krishna even before the dāna incident takes place. The dāna-līlā is presented in more classical pūrva-rāga (love in the phase of preliminary attraction) fashion. In particular, the woman’s attraction is described prior to the man’s. This makes sense from a moral point of view also, since the man traditionally holds coercive power—as shown above in relation to the SKK account.

Krishna’s attractiveness, barely mentioned at all in the SKK, is here, as in the Bhāgavata, of primary importance.
One gopi said, "What God created the family, for which reason I am deprived of this jewel (Krishna) who is present before me?" Another said, "Whatever people say, I don't care. I will not abandon Krishna's feet, even by mistake." Another said, "In this lifetime, I will perform austerities so that I can become his ankle bells in my next life, and remain holding his feet all the time." (GV 29.32-34)
Krishna and Radha’s interactions are more clearly flirtatious (Bengali dhāmāli) and do not have the cloud of dangerous aggression looming over them. Flirtation is play, and without the underlying element of intimidation. Any undercurrents of anger and resentment as motivations in the relationship are left out. Radha and Krishna have become idealized and iconic, without losing their playful nature.


The above summary of GK applies also to Rupa Goswami’s Dāna-keli-kaumudī (DKK). DKK is a bhānikā (one-act play) written in Sanskrit, and Rupa has added an original, subtle and sophisticated theological framework to what is fundamentally the same theme.

This framework is apparent in the nandī of two invocatory verses. Both these verses are subsequently quoted in Caitanya-caritāmṛta, which gives us a clue as to their significance and help us determine how Rupa Goswami’s approach to the dāna-līlā differs from that of his predecessors. Some of these differences will appear completely predictable, others not.

Both nāndī verses share one common feature. They differ from the usual kinds of invocatory prayers in that no particular god is being addressed, invoked or supplicated.

In the first verse, Rupa Goswami adapts a longstanding description of the dramaticians by describing the kila-kiñcita bhāva of Radha, the flurry of conflicting emotions that overwhelms Radha when she is unexpectedly stopped on the road by the one she secretly loves.
Radha’s eyes are a kila-kiñcita bouquet of flowers:
blossoming with a repressed smile,
teardrops clinging like dew to the base of her eyelash petals;
slightly reddening around the edges;
overflowing with the sap of amusement,
or contracting like buds.

May these eyes of Radha,
made more beautiful by their flashing sweet pupils
as she is blocked on the path by Madhava,
bring you all good fortune.
There is much to be said about this verse, but the principal observation is that Radha, the principal seat of love, is being given primacy; the second is that it is the momentary expression of that love that is made the source of the benediction.

Vaishnavas see this prema as the supreme goal or the “fifth goal” of human life. What we should note here from the very beginning is that this benediction is not coming from Krishna, nor even specifically from Radha as a powerful deity, but from her love, which is manifested in the form of this flurry of conflicting emotions.

In terms of foreshadowing the content of the play itself (vastu-nirdeśa), this verse shows that the point of the Dana-keli-kaumudi is not as much the lila itself, the blocking of Radha on the path to Govinda Kund, but the divine moment, the snapshot of Radha experiencing this particular moment of blissful turmoil.

This is an immediate sign that the DKK is distinct from Chandidas's SKK. Of course we don't have the SKK's introductory or concluding verses, but we would expect some recurring benedictory themes emanating to the audience, or even blessings at the beginning or end of the chapters. That is simply not there. For Chandidas, as already stated, this hearing of Krishna’s lila is not a religious act. For Daivakinandan, it is. He concludes each chapter with some blessing that will come from hearing the lila, but the source of such blessings is still Narayan, the supreme divinity, to whom he offers his prayers and obeisances.

It would appear then, both from this verse and the next, that we get verification of Donna Wulff's statement that “the absolute for Rupa is not a metaphysical principle, but an emotion... Radha, as love embodied, is thus the supreme avenue of religious realization.”

This is the second verse, which describes Radha’s anurāga.
Though all-pervading, it increases at every moment;
There is nothing as serious, yet it is always lighthearted;
Full of twists and turns, yet always straight and pure:
Ever glorious is Radha’s love for the enemy of Mura.
Here, as in the first verse, where Radha’s anubhāva known as kila-kiñcita was singled out as the source of blessings, here the sthāyī bhāva of anurāga has been singled out for a declaration of victory. Anurāga is one particular base point in a hierarchy of loving attitudes, defined by Rupa himself in the Ujjvala-nīlamaṇi as follows:
When rāga becomes ever newer and makes the beloved seem always newer and newer, though he is constantly being experienced, it is called anurāga. (UN 14.126)
The word jayati marks the second verse as a namaskāra type of nāndī, while also showing signs of the vastu-nirdeśa. But whereas the first verse specified a particular moment of the play and its general premise, the second describes the underlying type of love that is displayed by Radha in this play. It should be noted that anurāga is particularly relevant to the pūrva-rāga, the locus par excellence of romantic love.

There is, moreover, a further playful hint at the paradoxical character of Radha and Krishna’s sacred love. Just as the kila-kiñcita manifestation was the result of contradictory emotions clashing, the state of love known as anurāga is characterized by inner contradictions.

This verse plays a significant role in Krishnadas Kaviraj’s explanation of Chaitanya’s incarnation in the Caitanya-caritāmṛta. He there says that just as the Supreme Truth is the place where all contradictions are resolved, so too is Radha’s love is the place where numerous paradoxes are resolved. This is indeed a significant element in the Vedantic definition of the Divinity, the embodiment of all paradox. In the synthetic philosophy of the Gaudiyas, the multiplicity of God’s creation, a necessity for the sake of experiencing love, is at the same time paradoxical, since it appears to disrupt his essential unity. The contrast between the plurality of the creation and this ideal, underlying state of primal and unbreakable unity, is the paradox of play. Both are simultaneously necessary for the creation of rasa.

As Krishna is all-pervading (vibhu), so is Radha’s love. The word vibhu is a term that is generally used only in reference to the Supreme Absolute Truth, for by definition that alone can be all-pervading. But since Radha is Krishna’s energy, she is not different from him. Wherever she is, there is Krishna. Wherever Krishna is, there she is. Radha is not different from Love or from her love for Krishna. Though this verse does not explicitly refer to this ontological unity of Radha and Krishna, this underlying foundation of the acintya-bhedābheda doctrine should be seen as informing the entire concept of the paradox of play or lila.

The subject matter of the Dāna-keli-kaumudī is thus Radha’s love, her anurāga, and the dāna-līlā is simply the occasion for that love to be manifested.

The prastāvanā portion of the play also makes the above theological backdrop clear.
The banter and love-quarrels
of the son of Nanda and Srimati Radharani
would stun the swans on entering their ears
and turn them away from even the purest nectar.
And it does the same to the paramahamsas,
making them indifferent to the joys of Brahman realization.
In the play itself, when Radha and Krishna see each other, they both describe the beauty of their respective love object and their feelings in reaction to it. Here again, Rupa Goswami has followed the classical model by zeroing in on the nāyikā first and the nāyaka only second. Even though Krishna, through Radha’s description as the object of her love, is clearly the viṣaya, his attraction and love for her must also be told, still verses about Radha’s feelings far outnumber those describing Krishna’s.

Thus, by the time it comes to the contentious arguments between Radha and Krishna, we are far better prepared than we were in either Chandidas or Daivakinandan, where the simple identification of Krishna is as an avatar. The reason is that we already know fully how deeply Radha loves Krishna. There is a mutuality of love. Furthermore, there is an awareness in the audience that though technically this is a pūrva-rāga circumstance, in fact, Radha and Krishna are self-consciously eternal partners. In human terms, this could be seen as the sense of destiny that all lovers feel.

If we can remark a development in the three versions of the Radha-Krishna story we are looking at, SKK, GV and DKK, we can observe a progression in Radha’s complicity with Krishna. For Chandidas, Radha is genuinely unwilling to surrender to Krishna at first and she only warms to him gradually. In DKK, what is stressed is Radha’s love for Krishna as an eternal given.


What I have tried to show is that whereas Chandidas in his SKK has concentrated on telling an entertaining story based on Krishna’s dubious character, he has at the same time clearly drawn a picture of male mistreatment of women, both in Krishna’s aggressive courtship of Radha and later abandonment. Daivakinandan has taken steps to purify this image, but Rupa Goswami has most determinedly attempted to completely recuperate Krishna’s character in DKK. This, of course, is not independent of his other, theoretical works like Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu and Ujjvala-nīlamaṇi, and DKK ultimately has to be understood in reference to those works.

Nevertheless, by framing the story of the dāna-līlā as a much more innocent flirtatiousness in the context of sacred symbols, Rupa Goswami has, in a sense, legitimized the process of falling in love as a valid and even sacramental act. He thus gives it a dimension that is not raw and untamed, and we could say, illustrative of kāma, as that found in Chandidas. As such, he has not only recuperated the image of Krishna as a divine person, but also that of erotic love as a sacred act between human beings.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Sleazy sadhus

In Patiala and Delhi, I had a TV in my room and so I checked out what was going on in the 24-hour news cycle world. There were two major scandals in the last couple of weeks involving Indian sadhus, gurus and what-have-you, whom they call by the generic name "babas". At least they seem to have given up the term "God-men" which was a longstanding favorite of theirs I particularly hate. (I seem to be wrong about that.)

There was even a little juicy video to play over and over again, what to speak of other clips of the babas dancing ecstatically. One TV station even played that up by juxtaposing the dancing guru with a belly dancer to make him look even more idiotic. The anchor man very sincerely said, "We are doing this as a public service as so many people put their faith in babas and they need to know who is genuine and who is not."

Then Baba Ramdeva went on record in calling for the death penalty (!) for bogus babas, saying they are giving genuine sadhus a bad name. This was followed by TV footage of some other sadhus in Haridwar saying, "Well, that might be going a little far. Life imprisonment is a better option."

This is part of Ramdeva Baba's nationalistic theme, which a great many of the sannyasis support. He calls his movement Bharata Svabhimana, or Indian national pride. Here is one of his posters in Hardwar, saying, "Corrupt and treacherous people engage in depraved activities, in the name of doing business foreign companies loot our national wealth and make us poor. We have to stop this looting and make our country great." Now apparently he also wants to get involved in the political process.

The two scandals appear to be somewhat different. The first, Nithyananda, is a handsome young fellow, a lifelong brahmachari, with a lot of charisma. He has a beautiful movie star disciple. It looks like this one was just waiting to happen.

The second, involving this sleazy character Bhimananda, looks like it is just waiting for Arvind Adiga to write a novel about it. You can read about him in the first link above. What I find interesting about him is that he made his name as a votary of Shirdi Sai Baba, whose rise and domination of the Hindu religious scene in north India is nothing short of phenomenal. This seems to coincide with the new middle-class prosperity and is no doubt the subject of much academic research.

Though Shirdi Sai Baba is worshiped by Hindus, I believe he more clearly falls into the category of Sufi saints or pirs. There is a whole North Indian tradition of worship at the tombs (dargah) of dead Sufi saints, which is syncretic in nature and even dominated by Hindus. The practice has been periodically criticized and condemned by orthodox Islam. It is popular for the same reason saint worship has been in the Christian world: people go seeking intercession in cases of material need. They pray, perform some small ritual (in Bengal, people leave clay figurines on the tombs) and then leave without really challenging their identity as Hindus.

In the conference at JNU, we heard from one good research scholar who talked about the resurgence of such dargahs in Punjab. He showed pictures of several of these newly refurbished places, saying that it was in fact a return to the kind of syncretic Hindu-Muslim culture that existed in the pre-Partition period.

The point I would really like to make here is this. The scandals surrounding fallen saints really comes from the ancient association in the minds of many Hindus of celibacy with magical power. The fact is that a great many people approach gurus and sants with the hope of getting material blessings, and it is their requirement that he be siddha. The siddhi is the ability to grant them their wishes. If he can perform miracles, like those of a Satya Sai Baba, then that gives him a free pass. But if not, the minimum requirement is that he (or she) must at least be celibate.

As soon as such a sadhu ceases to be celibate, they feel the contract has been broken. The contract is very simple: "We adore you, give you money and prestige. You get big temples and ashrams. All you have to do, basically, is be celibate. Of course, you do all the religious stuff, too, but everything hinges on you keeping your kaupin tight. In return, we get some satisfaction from doing good and pious deeds and also, hopefully, our material wishes fulfilled." If the sadhu gets involved in sex, then that means this hope is dashed; the desires cannot be fulfilled because it is impossible that he should have any mystic power.

The element of hypocrisy enters the picture, too. But that is secondary. No one will say, "You should have told us, we would have understood." They would not have understood. There would have been no Nithyananda without him wearing saffron.

But I think that Ramdev and the rest are missing the point. The point is, as Prabhupada used to say, that we live in a society of the cheaters and the cheated. A sucker is born every minute, and the basis of suckerhood is wanting and needing something and hoping for miracles to give them an easy route to fulfilment.

That is clear from the Bhimananda case. The man appears to clearly have entered the sadhu game as a money-making scheme and did quite well from the look of it. How he managed to run a prostitution ring with a highly placed clientele at the same time as he played the game of a sadhu is a bit of a mystery. Clearly he is a talented conman. But if he did not have a host of gullible people willing to part with their cash, he would not have gotten anywhere.

Moreover, the problem is as much with the system as with the people. Nithyananda, I would say, is a bit of an innocent victim of the system, but well on the road to cynical exploitation of it--as his response to the video clearly indicates, and as that lazy posture in front of the TV in the video indicates. Bhimananda is a guy who played the system. You can hang all the fake sadhus you want, but there is an endless assembly line turning out fallen sadhus, vairagis and (aptly named) fakirs. Making threatening gestures like calling for the death penalty is not going to stem the tide.

And this is precisely where the problem lies. Making people's hearts harder is not going to change anything, because everything is hinging on a false premise: no one else can do your brahmacharya for you.

Most of India is still in the grips of a magical concept of religion. And too many of the people in positions of religious leadership cater to that mindset.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Taking the Long-term View

satya-vrataṁ satya-paraṁ tri-satyaṁ
satyasya yoniṁ nihitaṁ ca satye
satyasya satyam ṛta-satya-netraṁ
satyātmakaṁ tvāṁ śaraṇaṁ prapannāḥ
We take shelter of You, whose very essence is truth: You, who are true to your vow, who value the truth above all, who are the unchanging truth that pervades past, present and future. You are the womb of truth; You are hidden in all truth; You are the very Truth that makes all truth true. You are the eye of truth in the cosmic law. (BhP 10.2.26)
First I would like to thank the organizers of the conference, in particular Jodh Singh and Paramvir Singh, and Jaspreet Kaur Sandhu, but everyone else also. It has been a most enjoyable and gratifying experience to be so warmly received as a guest here at Punjabi University, Patiala.

Furthermore, I would like to thank all the speakers who shared their thoughts on this important topic. I will not be able to list them all for fear of putting some first and some later. Suffice it to say that I have been a gainer by hearing them all, attentively or inattentively, simply by imbibing their spirit. In particular, I am grateful for having the opportunity to get a better understanding of the Sikh point of view. I must say, though, that this morning’s session looked particularly lively and I feel that I missed a lot by not knowing more than a few words of Punjabi.

On behalf of Mahamandaleshwar Swami Sri Veda Bharati, I therefore extend an invitation to all of you to come at some time to Swami Ram Sadhak Gram in Rishikesh so that you can experience the peace of meditation in a sacred environment. This is the only way we can adequately return a fraction of the kindnesses you have extended to us.

I would further like to encourage the various departments of Punjabi University to go on with this kind of endeavor. Improved interreligious dialogue is nowhere more needed than in a multilinguistic, multicultural and multifaith nation like India, and the study of comparative religion and the bringing together of different voices from the various communities is a progressive step that can only have auspicious results.

Like all human phenomena, religion grows, matures and becomes more productive as a result of interaction with those who are different. One defines oneself through recognizing the similarities and differences with others. All learning comes through this process, anvaya-vyatirekābhyām.

(1) May Truth be ever victorious

I would now like to make a few comments on my experience of this conference. I will speak as a religious person from both the perspective of my own tradition and my experience as an academic student of religion. The famous verse I quoted at the beginning of this talk is taken from the Bhāgavata Purāna and I think it would have been appreciated by Mohandas Gandhi, the father of this nation.

Indeed, on his inspiration, India’s national motto is taken from the Upanishads, the wonderful mahā-vākya, satyam eva jayate. “Only truth is victorious.”

satyam eva jayate nānṛtaṁ
satyena panthā vitato deva-yānaḥ
yenākramanty ṛṣayo hy āpta-kāmā
yatra tat satyasya paramaṁ nidhānam

Truth alone is victorious, and never falsehood. Through truth evolves the path leading to divinity. The seers transcended by following this path, attaining all desires, arriving there where Truth resides in all its fullness. (Mundaka Upanishad 3.1.6)
And it is from this point of view that I would like to make my comments.

(2) Faith: The essential standpoint of religion is that of optimism.

In the endeavor of achieving world peace, if we are not optimistic, then everything is lost. Religious faith means taking an optimistic attitude to human life. Or it should be. Whether this is expressed through a belief in the ultimate beneficence of God or the transformability of human nature, the end result is to state that life is worth living and that an ideal society can be achieved.

Any religion that is pessimistic about human nature, about the purpose of life or the destiny of humankind, individually or collectively, is not true religion. And I make this remark here: Whether the religion is “this-worldly” or “other-worldly” in its orientation, it is making an optimistic statement about the ultimate ends and goals of human existence, even if it may be pessimistic about the results of what it ascertains as being wrong ways of living.

One source of that optimistim is the belief that we are all one. The position of the believer is that everyone, atheist or believer, is in the same truth matrix, if you like. kim atad vastu rūpyatām? What is there that lies outside of God?

In the view of the Bhagavad-gita, this means that every sincere seeker of truth, even one who has lost his way, is still somewhere, somehow connected to God.

ye yathā māṁ prapadyante
tāṁs tathaiva bhajāmy aham
mama vartmānuvartante
manuṣyāḥ pārtha sarvaśaḥ
I reward all beings in accordance to the way that they surrender to Me. Everyone follows My path in all respects. (Gita 4.11)
Now when we engage in religious dialogue, this indicates that there is a certain faith that all those who have traditionally sought the truth through the different religious paths have had insight to this Truth, even if they may have lost their way from time to time due to the pressures of what a Christian would call their fallen condition or propensity for sin, or the Hindu would call the gunas or Maya, and someone else might call “the Deceiver.”

Dr. Chahal talked about “the failure of religion,” but I think that most of us gathered here would say that to talk of the failure of religion is erroneous. The failure is one of humanity under the influence of subjection to the material nature, and not of Truth itself. It is a failure to see the Truth, not a failure of Truth. And all endeavors know countless failures on their way to success. And each small success – of any kind – is a step towards the Truth.

As such, we are, in a sense, believing that the various paths of religion have found or provided answers to the problems of human life, having had not one or two, but many successes in their search for the Truth; and what we seek to do in dialogue is to share notes in order to create a common front against those forces that deny the religious or spiritual approach wholesale.

Here, too, we are faced with the basic challenge of being able to demonstrate, by our success in this endeavor, the validity of our basic premise. If we cannot find a modus vivendi amongst ourselves, we undermine the very premise of the religious or spiritual approach to life in general.

(3) Separating the Essence from the Ephemeral

As a result of the last 300 years of history, since the European “enlightenment," modern rationality has been steadily deconstructing God and religion. The result is that religion's traditional place in many areas has slowly been eroded.

So much so that one Christian theologian coined the phrase “God of the gaps” to indicate that God was less and less capable of serving as an explanation for anything, or as a solution for any problems in life, and had even ceased serving as a source of entertainment! As such, religion had retreated into those few areas that science could not explain, and for most people, the big questions of where life comes from and what it is for become less and less important as the immediate needs and stresses of life become more prominent. This receding domain of the Divine is a matter of concern to many, but need it be?

The deconstruction of religion by sociologists, psychologists, students of comparative religion or the history of religions, etc., are all serving the cause of religion by helping us to separate its essential elements from the non-essential. This is the ongoing process of the via negativa, which is the rational obverse of the intuitive path provided by faith and revelation. These could also be called the paths of parā and aparā vidyā mentioned in the Upanishads (Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad, 1.1.4, etc.). The Bhāgavata also says,

etāvad eva jijñāsyaṁ
yat syāt sarvatra sarvadā
Someone who is inquisitive about the truth of the Self should inquire through both direct (anvaya) and indirect (vyatireka) processes as far as this, the Truth that exists always and everywhere. (BhP 2.9.36)
Looking for the God of the gaps is actually a desirable procedure, because what it is really about is finding the God of the essences.

(4) Truth and Science

Dr. Chahal, again, spoke of a compatibility of Sikhism with the scientific outlook. I have heard representatives of most religions make this claim at one time or another. They do so in the hope avoiding accusations of irrationality.

A small distinction needs to be made between the function of religion and the function of science, both of which seek to know truth. In this it may be said that religion and science share a common goal. Stephen Hawking, the famous physicist and cosmologist, though an avowed atheist, talks about “knowing the mind of God.”

What this indicates is that science also has a kind of faith. It is a faith in the rationality of the universe, the intelligibility of its laws, and also, ultimately, in its integrity as a whole. In other words, a oneness to which we all belong.

When the Upanishads claim that understanding God means understanding everything, yasmin vijñāte sarvam evaṁ vijñātaṁ bhavati, that does not mean that one can learn quantum mechanics by sitting in a cave and praying or meditating. But on the other hand, the scientist who knows quantum mechanics has still – admittedly even to him – only seen the barest fragment of God’s splendor.

Nowadays scientists talk about a “theory of everything,” a global understanding of the laws of nature. Very optimistic too, they also talk about “anticipatory materialism,” as though they expect that the empirical endeavor will soon (!) achieve a comprehensive understanding of all things, to the point of creating life and so on. This is, of course, hubris on the one hand and a basic misunderstanding of the very concept of infinity on the other - infinity itself being a scientific concept.

We need not discuss this here, but let us say that science is essentially, as Dr. Chahal quoted Einstein, lame unless it has the insights of faith. On the other hand, if religion without science is blind, the dialogue with science has and will put pressure on religion to examine its fundamentally held cosmological beliefs, etc., which are often mythological in nature, and revise their attitudes towards them. Do they have the resources to do so?

Science has the power to establish a common world view about most phenomena, or at least to change the nature of the discussion about these phenomena. Where competing mythologies do battle, science can arbitrate.

At the very least, the onus is on the religious systems to find a way to make religious beliefs and practices accessible and meaningful to people who have been educated in the scientific world view.

(5) Religion as a science (or art) of life

By the same token, in the social sciences, there is an even stronger critique of religion that has far-reaching ramifications for the understanding of the functions of religion and spirituality, both for society and the individual. Here, science is not simply a challenge to religion because of its explanatory power, it is also a challenge in its prescription for the good life.

This kind of dialogue was hinted at by Dr. Swaraj Singh when he pointed to the necessity for dialog with atheist philosophers. Here again, the search for truth is the common trait.

The prominent contemporary guru from Bangalore, Ravi Shankar, talks about the “art of living.” Psychologists, social scientists, political theorists, etc., also strive for prescriptions for the good life without resorting to religion specifically as a necessary factor in that life. They may recognize some para-religious features—a sense of purpose, belief, optimism, even rituals, etc.—but will try to cultivate these independently of specifically religious ritual or belief.

The challenge here is that those who are religiously oriented often say, as we have heard several times here, that science is capable of improving the material quality of life, but not of curing the spiritual malaise. In this respect, I would say, science has not yet given up the fight.

And the fact of the matter is that in many respects, the changing way of life in modern societies, which is characterized by increased education, prosperity and health, increased freedom of choice, independence, the capacity to experiment with life in ways that would have been unthinkable in the traditional societies where most religions had their origin and development, have unquestionably increased the overall happiness quotient for most people.

This is not to diminish the basic truth of most spiritual paths, which draw a distinction between spiritual and material happiness. That the spiritual search can add further value to the degree of happiness is something that we hold to be self-evident. But the freedom to choose or discover one’s own path through personal investigation and experimentation is a sine qua non of the modern approach to life. We may blame this freedom for bringing new stresses, but it is not only necessary for real human growth, it is in its very self a most important source of happiness.

So the question here is this: What are we really trying to do when we talk about "saving religion"? Oftentimes, I think, people are really talking about conserving traditional morality and social order, the preservation of traditions that have outlived their usefulness, and so on. In particular, this often seems to mean that traditional sexual moralities and the keeping of women in their place are the very baseline on which religious leaders define their battle with modernity.

Whether this is a worthwhile battle, whether sexual morality is the essence of religious life, is something that needs to be decided, partly through this kind of dialogue, but certainly it is one that must be engaged in with great humility and awareness of the last century of progress in the social emancipation of women. And it must be done with the full participation of women themselves. And I thank Deepali Bhanot for drawing our attention to these issues and the importance of full equality being given to women's voices in the entire project of interfaith dialogue.

We are all engaged in experiments with Truth. The self-examination required here is about how different religious approaches are affected by these kinds of social changes and whether it is possible to adapt to them. But the core of the question is whether we, as religious people, are furthering the cause of happiness or subverting it. If religions are not making people happier, or as said earlier, at least giving them optimism and courage in the struggle for life, then it is failing in its primary mission.

(6) The possibility of evolution.

Although it is not possible to go into a discussion of the manifold findings in the history of religions, one thing that simply has to be stated is that religions also change. Like any living organism, they adapt or die. Hinduism, in its long history, has undergone such startling transformations that it is hard to see how anyone can claim a single, unchanging Vedic revelation. But, by the same token, there has been monumental historical change in most religions, major or minor. These changes arise from contact with opposing forces. Some of those forces, specific to the modern world, which are being faced by all religions, have been named above.

(a) What do we do when there is a conflict between truths?

Are the elements there in our religion by which we can make the jump to new ideas or not? Most religions nowadays want to make the claim that they are compatible with science, but when there is a conflict between these truths and those of our historical revelation, can we reinterpret our texts and traditions, abandoning those aspects of our sacred revelation or revered tradition that are undesirable in the light of a revised world view?

And what if one religion has a better insight into the truth than we do? Do we have the collective humility to accept that this is the case, that one insight into the divine truth may be more accurately expressed in one doctrine than in another? Can a Christian say, “Mohammad actually said this better than Christ?” Or a Muslim the reverse?

The Prophet Mohammad said that if the truth be in China, seek it out. Manu says,

śraddadhānaḥ śubhāṁ
vidyām ādadītāvarād api
viṣād apy amṛtaṁ grāhyam
amedhyād api kāñcanam
The person of faith seeks beneficial knowledge even from an inferior, just as one should take the nectar from poison and gold from a filthy place. (Manu 2.238)
The point being that if one has faith, he does not fear the source of truth, but learns to recognize it wherever it is found.

(b) We need to face the controversial issues.

In the course of the colloquium, we heard some people express the opinion that the peace process comes from stressing common values alone, and that we should avoid contentious issues as far as possible. However, as stated above, anvaya-vyatirekābhyām, we need to face contentious issues squarely and analyze their character exhaustively.

It has been said that real peace comes through understanding. But we must in fact start with faith, namely we must begin from the point of view of peace. This was the point of meditating in silence together. We must seek out the transcendental common ground each and every time that we sit down to strive for mutual understanding, for attempting to understand means immediately descending into the world of names and forms, and therefore conflict. We must make every effort to strengthen our direct experience of spiritual unity before we attack the world of names and forms.

This leads to the manifestations of spiritual maturity like fearlessness and empathy. Fearlessness was pointed out several times by speakers stressing Guru Nanak’s personal contribution to the art of dialogue. We must be fearless when talking to those of other faiths: dvitīyād vai bhayaṁ bhavati (Bṛhad-āraṇyaka 1.4.2), “Fear comes from the perception of duality or 'other-ness'.”

Experience of and faith in the underlying oneness of God and creation also leads us to a recognition of our capacity to empathize with the other, the indispensable element in all dialogue, as Prof. Kazi Nurul Islam so correctly pointed out.

But all such faith quickly disappears in practical circumstances when we are challenged, physically, verbally or psychologically. This is where difficulties arise. But that is precisely why we must face the controversial interests, to test the universality of our own beliefs. Understanding comes from an exercise of reason, without which faith becomes undermined and weakened.

(c) The need to widen the discussion.

In connection with the above, it is necessary to say the following: Separating the political from the religious is a practical impossibility. As already stated, when we depart from the pure realm of Truth, we enter into that of names and forms. We enter into the world of action, and therefore conflict.

Politics is sometimes called “the art of the possible.” Getting things done in this world is politics. The greater good often means inconvenience for the individual. Since religions exist in the world of humankind, politics are inevitable. Thus even building a temple, church or mosque can be - and factually always is on some level - a political act.

In other words, we cannot say, “That has nothing to do with religion, it is just politics.” Sure, religious identities may be manipulated for political reasons, but our identities are nevertheless connected with religion, i.e., our cherished symbols of the highest ideals and values.

By saying this, I am not approving of the kinds of reactions that rise to the surface in cases like that of the Satanic Verses, or to scholarly works by Wendy Doniger that give openly sexual interpretations of Hindu deities, but it is a recognition that this is an area that requires utmost sensitivity and empathy.

On the other hand, often our own subservience to emotion in such cases is a sign of an insufficient depth of our own understanding, or of the inadequate resolution of subconscious fears. Do attacks on our symbols for the truth justify our divergence from the character of saintliness and truth these symbols presumably impose on us?

Facing the difficult issues therefore means widening the frame of discussion. In this, a Punjabi university with a specific mandate to preserve and study the heritage of this land, the Sikh point of view is naturally emphasized. But if we are primarily speaking to ourselves, then the objective of interfaith dialogue is defeated.

Even so, if we do talk to ourselves only, we should still not only stress the positive points, but be self-analytical and reflective, even confessional. It is important to stress the positive elements, but if we only do that, we risk falling into the trap of collective identity ahankara. Ahankara is a most subtle element. A man may seem humble and reasonable enough among his own kith and kin, but when faced with the “other,” the foreign and strange, he becomes defensive and even violent.

Our failures are as important to recognize as our successes. It is not enough to say, “Our failure is due to failing to recognize our own essence, i.e., our own pristine belief system.” Often it is hard to separate popular understanding of the essence from the transient. And, of course, it is even worse to simply blame the protagonists as if they embodied all evil. There is little to be gained, in terms of our overriding commitment to Truth, in playing the righteous martyr.

Looking to instances from real life political, especially recent, history, and engaging in dialogue with those who are or have been protagonists or antagonists in such conflicts, especially those holding contradictory views, and who we may even suspect of not being sincere interlocutors, is a necessary sign of good faith and good will. Where is the dialogue with someone who only says what I want to hear?

(7) The necessity of practical and direct experience

We have been talking above of knowledge, and I think it is necessary here to talk about the Bhagavad-gita’s insight into the different kinds of knowledge, particularly as they impact on the matter of dialogue.

One of the most important aspects of the Gita’s teachings, discussed in several of its chapters, is the defining of different kinds of activity, faith or belief, according to the three guṇas. The tamo-guṇa is destructive, the rajo-guṇa creative, and the sattva-guṇa stabilizing. Though general principles about these guṇas are described succinctly in the 14th chapter, there are further precisions, especially in the 17th and 18th chapters, that provide a great deal of substance for reflection.

With regard to knowledge, Krishna says:
That knowledge by which one sees the all-in-all in a single manifestation, to which one is unreasonably attached, which is meager and bereft of clear understanding, is called tāmasika. (18.22)

The knowledge by which one knows the various categories of nature in all things, seeing them as divided and different, is said to be rājasika. (18.21)

That knowledge by which one sees a single irreduceable essence in all things, which is undivided despite the appearance of division, is said to be in the mode of sattva. (18.20)
These attitudes are furthermore reflected in the way we react and deal with others. The religious person with a predominantly tāmasika psychology will be unable to understand or evaluate the ideas coming from an unfamiliar source. The rājasika person will be able to evaluate them, but is attached to grading them as superior or inferior, etc.

The Bhāgavata-purāṇa further makes it quite clear that these categories apply universally to the practice of all religions. The transformation of the devotee is from the narrow and exclusive focus on God in the ritually sacred to the experience of the Divine in all things. It repeatedly condemns the bhinna-dṛk, the “separatist,” as being on a lower level of experience and understanding. In terms of actions, in the materially afflicted modes of religiosity, the tendency to contaminate all dealings with destructive attitudes or personal motivations is unavoidable.

Furthermore, these attitudes apply both to the religious and the scientific person. But if we are to seek a general approach, we must say that the truly positive and fruitful perspective is that of the sāttvika person, especially where dialogue is concerned. Moreover, like cool air mixing with the warm, the presence of sāttvika persons transforms the very atmosphere and the passions of the less spiritual, further increasing the likelihood of fruitful dialogue.

As such, the following conclusion can be made, based on the aforesaid considerations: Our fundamental faith position must be sāttvika, for as soon as we enter into the realm of names and forms, we will immediately be challenged by the rājasika and tāmasika aspects of our personalities. And everyone in this world must admit to the admixture of these qualities in their own character as a fact of existence.

The only way to resolve this quandary when we are in the dialogue situation is to strengthen the sāttvika tendencies through the practical application of silent meditation techniques. Through such meditation, we quieten the rājasika and tāmasika tendencies of the mind and body and make it possible to experience at least a reflection of the underlying divine nature. Silence is important, inasmuch as prayer or other verbally or physically expressed prayers or rituals immediately awaken intellectual resistances from the rajo- and tamo-gunas.

The stronger this common experience is, the easier it becomes to withstand the challenges that arise when faced with conflicting experiences or expressions of the religious life. Moreover, the experience of silence brings new insight and perceptiveness into one’s own traditional expressions and forms, making it possible for creativity in interfaith and intercultural understanding.

This is why we exhort everyone who is engaging in any kind of dialogue to begin and end with a guided practice of meditation that promotes the direct experience of unity, beyond sentimental and pious expressions

(8) Taking the Long Term View

Gandhi often said that it would only take a few genuine satyagrahis to accomplish the miracle of Indian independence. But what is most interesting about Gandhi is that he never truly considered Indian independence as the goal of his Satyagraha Movement. He saw Indian independence as a kind of truth statement, a necessity in the inevitable march towards Truth. But he never considered it something to be attained at the cost of truth, or love, which he considered to be practically speaking interchangeable.

Today, there are many in India who reject Gandhi because they feel that he failed to achieve so many of his stated goals, and that some of his methods also appear to have ended in results contrary to his aims—Partition being just one of them. The thing is that Gandhi was a true follower of the Gita and he recognized that the means and the goals one achieves are directly related. The meaning of the mūla-sūtra of karma-yoga, which calls on us to act with detachment to the results (Gita 2.47) means simply that, in principle, no matter how noble our intentions we should never compromise the ethical character of the means we adopt if we hope to obtain a result that has long term integrity. Gandhiji said,
The means may be likened to a seed, the end to a tree; and there is just the same inviolable connection between the means and the end as there is between the seed and the tree. I am not likely to obtain the result flowing from the worship of God by laying myself prostrate before Satan. If, therefore, anyone were to say, "I want to worship God; it does not matter that I do so by means of Satan," it would be set down as ignorant folly. We reap exactly as we sow. (Hind Swaraj, chapter 16)
The fact is that we are all short-termists. That is the very definition of the conditioned state. We naturally want peace, love and happiness and a perfect world. But these are what I call a “vanishing point,” i.e., an ideal that appears like the horizon on the limits of consciousness, something that we continue eternally to approach, but never really attain. And yet we still want these goals without paying their real cost.

For instance, it is clear to most of us that destroying the enemy without never results in peace within. In fact, our enemies tend only to return in other forms, especially if they represent the Truth, or if they are falsehoods that are still present in ourselves. The truest peace process only comes through the expansion of inner peace.

Religion in the service of short term goals – at any level – is never religion, at least not sāttvika religion. Because God is infinite, because the Truth is unfathomable, I called the long-term goal of religion a vanishing point. But that does not make it the less valid. We do not say that science is invalid because it has yet to answer all the questions that need answering. In fact, every scientist knows that one answer begets many more questions. We may never consider religion or spirituality a failure as it is the ongoing experiment of human life, the human project in its totality.

To think in the short term is a failure to understand the magnitude of the task. To understand the totality of Truth is not something that can be achieved in one day, one lifetime or one generation. It is the task that humanity in its entirety undertakes, by its very humanity, for as long as it exists, This is precisely why the adventure must be seen in the long term.

So let us do our bit to furthering the cause, principally by taking the guidance of our gurus in the cause of Divine Truth and Love. And I think that in the case of India, whose motto pays homage to Gandhi’s commitment to Truth and Love, we are blessed to be beholden to that vision. Let us honor that commitment by following it, no matter what our individual path of faith. Thank you.


Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Conference at Panjabi University, Patiala

This is just a short post. I am in Patiala, Punjab. Only about 220 kilometers from Haridwar. Swami Veda sent me to speak on his behalf at a conference on interfaith dialogue and world peace. Actually this is a subject dear to Swamiji's heart, as he is a great believer in the essential unity of religions.

I had been preparing a talk, which one day you will see on this blog, backdated. Suffice it to say that I did not say ANYTHING that I had written.

In fact, the context gave me something of an opportunity to merge two of my identities... The previous speakers gave pretty standard scholarly talks on the necessity of dialogue and how it can be done.

After my mangalacharan (a great move, by the way, it nicely sets the mood), I began by speaking about Swami Veda's being a cosponsor of the event, through.the Center for Meditation and Interfaith Studies, one of the many institutions under the Ahymsin umbrella.

I talked about his new book (which is being discussed on that as yet unpublished post) and the Sufi-Yogi dialogue that was held in Rishikesh last month, while I was in Keshi Ghat dancing.

After that I spoke about my background as a member of the Gaudiya Vaishnava sampradaya and the apparent conflict that this identity has with the advaita-vada of Swami Veda Bharati. I noted that the process of dialogue in Hinduism had been going on for a thousand years at least, if not more, and that the conflict between the theistic and non-theistic religions had been conducted within the Hindu universe for all that time. So, it gave us some experience of the different parameters of the debate that was now being universalized.

I quoted Bhagavata 1.2.11, vadanti tat tattva-vidas, etc. The same one, non-dual truth is known as Brahman to some, as Bhagavan to others.

But I said that I had come to the conclusion that we are obliged to accept the via negativa, i.e., the negation of all material upadhis, if we even want to understand the individual, personal way that God is manifesting to us. If we experience God according to the revelation of a particular school without the experience Brahman realization, the revelation itself will be touched by the upadhis.

And I quoted Gita 18.55. You become brahma-bhuta, then you obtain para bhakti.

Then I led Swami's patented one-fits-all meditation and said, like him, that this is the starting point of all religious dialogue, the experiential sense of oneness. I did it a bit hastily as I have not the habit of doing that in public and had to keep it short, but afterwards several people came and expressed a kind of amazement about the experience. I was myself pretty surprised.

At any rate, I am good with it. You chant Hare Krishna and immediately you have to explain the newness and the difference, i.e., overcome resistance. You tell people to meditate on the name of God according to their own tradition, and you can lead them into a deeper state of consciousness where they feel a sense of universal unity. Then they are automatically predisposed to transcend rational argument and a positive emotional feeling. It is only the beginning, but this is the only point where both the nirgun and sagun aspects can be harmonized.

A bit jumbled here, but that is what I done today. I will be here a couple more days, then I go to another conference at JNU in Delhi. That should be interesting. I will try to find the time to comment on the people I meet here, probably over on Jagat Jindagi.