Saturday, August 14, 2010

The sloth stirs

It really is time to get this beast shaking again. Over the past few months I have not been doing much original writing. I had a few translation jobs that preoccupied me, and it would have been quite possible to comment publicly on that work. In fact, two different projects were directly connected with Ishopanishad, and I lectured on the Ishopanishad for a month at Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama. There was definitely material that would have been of interest to my readers in that and now I am rather sorry that I did not take the trouble to publish my notes. Perhaps we can do it later. (He said with a sigh.)

One of the reasons I did not of course is that this blog has a somewhat specialized purpose, unclear as that may seem, and I would like to stick to that, rather than enter into an arcane discussion of the meaning of an ancient Upanishad. Though, since part of my work involved reading A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami's totally idiosyncratic interpretation of that work, it might have been worth looking at. Astu.

We are not out of the woods, yet, however. Currently I am working on editing Swami Veda Bharati's original first volume of the Yoga Sutra, which is a pretty solid, though somewhat formidable, piece of scholarship. Of the four padas of YS, the first seems to be the most important, and I will try to share some of the material as it becomes specifically relevant to my interests.

Activity in Vrindavan 

I am here in Vrindavan, and as I remarked the other day, I lost my computer with a sufficient amount of data lost to be worthy of lamentation. My camera also went, which is also something of a disaster as I was taking a lot of pictures, especially of Vrindavan. Luckily I posted some before it happened (Vrindavan-Mathura, August 2010).But of course much more would have already been in the camera when it parted. And it will likely be some time before I can replace it.

My principal purpose in being in Vrindavan is to get the Vrindavan Today news site working. Up until now, I have been preparing the ground as it were, but the loss of the computer was a big setback... at least of a couple of days. The basic idea of the website is this:

Vrindavan is in a bit of a crisis. The increased prosperity in the Delhi regiion, which extends as far as Agra, means a huge increase in the number of motor vehicles and traffic to Vrindavan. In one sense, it is good, as it means more wealth for the town and its people. But the materialistic approach to economic growth, if left unchecked, can be a cancer and may indeed destroy the essence of this spiritual town.

I won't go into detail here, but the flyover that was to be constructed over the Yamuna, circling around Keshi Ghat, is a perfect example of wrongheaded thinking. We are still not entirely out of the woods on that one, as the Parikrama Marg, originally the spontaneous creation of pilgrims honoring the holy dham by meditatively circumambulating it, is being turned into a ring road. But the negative impact of all these projects is not understood, either by the government or by the local residents. And those who do understand are scattered and disorganized.

In fact, it is sad to say, but the Vrindavan community of temple owners, ashrams and spiritual organizations, has literally no central institution of any kind to deal with these kinds of problems. No global forum to discuss and develop a common vision for the town and to advocate for it yet exists. The BVHA (Braja Vrindavan Heritage Alliance) is moving forward in this direction, at a snail's pace, but something IS happening. The BVHA has already had several successes, especially with Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in court regarding stopping the flyover and the cutting of trees in the road-widening activity, as well as the projected greening of Kishor Van.

The problems in creating such a forum are many. The main one is that most people are concerned with their own particular field of activity and cannot be stirred to projects that involve others. The concept of civic awareness is still not fully developed. There are historical reasons for this, but it is a constant battle in all societies: the forces of individual interest are always pitted against community interest, and without proper organization community interests can be easily steamrollers by the politically and financially powerful.

Another important thing is to have balance and not allow the domination of any one group. The BVHA cannot become any one person or group's show, thereby alienating other players. We have already had trouble with this issue at this stage, since we are still few and some, like Shrivatsa Goswami, Paramadvaiti Maharaj and Jagannath Poddar, have shown leadership, and each of them has his own base, interests and sphere of influence. This means proceeding with caution.

At any rate, the Vrindavan Today project has the purpose of making Vrindavan and Braj current events -- spiritual, cultural, and developmental -- available to the world on the net and creating common avenues of activism. This is another of the many ways I have been keeping busy while neglecting this site over the past several months.

Iskcon

I am staying at the Jiva Institute while in Vrindavan. Jiva is close enough to Iskcon that the magnetic attraction of that place has called me to it on a couple of occasions now. It is either the number one or number two (after Banke Bihari) attraction in Vrindavan. Now is the Jhulan season, which is one of the busiest times of the year in Braj and thousands of people go through the temple every single day.

But I have to confess that Iskcon's success is not an accident and from the looks of it has the potential to grow tremendously in the future. I do not think there is anything like it, perhaps in the entire world. There must be at least 100 young Indian men, who are committed to the brahmachari life. They follow a rather gruelling communal schedule when compared to most other ashrams--from mangal arati at 4 to breakfast at 9 before starting a regular day of seva. And these young men, though from a wide range of backgrounds, include a large number of modern, urban, educated individuals. Some very highly qualified. Certainly, the Iskcon style of kirtan and dancing etc. are something quite unique in Indian religious life. What to speak of the deity worship, which has clearly had a huge impact on modern Indian temple culture already.

Religious art is another area where Iskcon's influence has been huge, especially here in Vrindavan, where almost everyone steals Iskcon artists' work for their own billboards, books and posters.

I heard several classes at Iskcon in both English and Hindi and the quality of discourse, though entirely traditional, is at a much higher standard than it has been in the past. A wide number of authors are writing and publishing and being sold, both at the Iskcon temple and in town, indicating that the intellectual activity of the society is animated and febrile. This augurs well for the future. As Iskcon puts the structural problems of the past fully behind it, becomes increasingly self-confident, it seems inevitable that a certain degree of intellectual freedom will follow. It may be just as possible that it will follow a Roman Catholic model, but the liberal democratic background of the Western backbone of Iskcon, its lack of strong centralization, and the centrifugal forces of the guru institution will make such intellectual freedom inevitable.

Of course, in all this, it is hard not to be honest and admit that I am also an "Iskcon intellectual." I used to joke that I am to Iskcon as yogurt is to milk. It has fundamentally altered and can never go back to what it was. Nevertheless, its influence on my life is also fundamental, as much as yogurt is still milk. We could go on with the permutations and combinations of the entire Indian tradition, of which Iskcon is just another chapter, but my sources are there and my thought develops out of it. And just as Iskcon's Western influences, though not always apparent in its words, are nevertheless a major part of its ethos, its discipline and institutional force, those influences are a part of what I also bring to the evolution of Vaishnava thought.

To summarize: Iskcon is a vibrant and energetic organization. Vaishnava culture throughout India and especially in Vrindavan is benefiting from its energy. In one way of the other, it is at the center of developments in the Vaishnava world. This is a fact as much for me as it is for others, whether they like it or not.

Me

A couple of other things came out of my last couple of days of computer difficulty. One is that though a few people responded to my requests for help in finding a replacement for my lost machine, in general, the response was feeble. This is not a lament, but a recognition that the work I have done has not made much of an impression. At least, despite the nearly 5000 people who joined the Save Yamuna Save Vrndavan facebook site, only two or three saw fit to even sympathize with the situation, what to speak of offering help. Of course, several people did come forth, but let's be honest, not many.

On the other hand, I became aware of the relative notoriety of this blog. On the one hand, the Prem Prayojan Hindi newsblog and the BVHAlliance blogspot have not yet hit the radar, which is a bit of a shame, and the Gaudiya Grantha Mandir, which has been in even greater doldrums than this site, is still attracting a certain number of visits and Google searches. However, this site attracts quite a few more visitors than any of them. This was something of a surprise to me.

I have never bothered to install hit counters or get analytics installed. Maybe it is time.

So, even though there is not much feedback here at the present moment, it is food for thought, in terms of where my energies should be devoted and the necessity of creating a personal website that structures the essentials of my philosophy and practice and presents it in a digestible way.

One thing B.V. Madhava, the Iskcon sannyasi who gave Bhagavatam class yesterday said that struck me was the 20-80 rule. You accomplish 80% of everything you do in 20% of the time. As you grow older, your capacities diminish, so you have to concentrate on the 20% of important stuff and cut back on the rest. Whatever the truth of that statement, it certainly is true that my time is running out. Let us say that I am in the last quarter of my life and I have not yet done, basically, anything of substance.

So let's see if the local Maharani will help out and give me the concentration and energy to do everything that [I think] she wants of me.

Radhe Radhe!

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

It seems to me you left out a very important element in your comment here regarding Iskcon: even if the institution seems to expand in many fronts, its core is still unwell. And if the heart is not healthy, its a matter of time life will expire. Indeed this is absolutely so in our, the Gaudiya proposition.

Gaudiya religion is all about sadhu sanga. Isckon has closed itself to outside sangha systematically, to the point that it has instituted offensive treatment of sadhus rather than making the leap of faith and accepting sangha - the very essence of bhakti.

I think your comment of Iskcon going the way of the Catholic Church is the one inadvertent reference you made in the matter here then. A Freudian slip of sorts, for sure.

Jagat said...

I feel that the world is a marvelously complex place where we all are struggling to find ourselves and likeminded companions in which to develop.

Iskcon has undoubtedly got many defects as a human organization, as does the Catholic Church. Voltaire once said that the perfect is the enemy of the good, in the sense that when we insist only on faultlessness then we become unable to accept the hard work of compromise and cooperation that leads to incremental improvements in ourselves and in our societies.

Iskcon or the Catholic Church--or any other sangha--has to set certain boundaries in order to be able to function. In fact, you or I may and in fact do disagree on the nature of those ideological and institutional boundaries. That is why we cannot ever be a part of Iskcon or the Catholic Church.

Nevertheless, it is not impossible to evaluate their activities as a whole and appreciate the positive even while holding oneself at a distance.

Anonymous said...

I can't believe you attempt to justify Isckon's apasidhanta (which can very well be a result of its institutionalized aparadha) as "setting of boundaries so to function".

Especially considering that just on your next post you respond to a flagrant display of the shortage of sidhanta in Iskcon: Iskconites are not even properly informed of the gradations in the various manifestations or moods of Krishna, a "very specific sidhanta" according to you, and don't even know what was their founder acarya's teaching on it!

Appreciate the positive is one thing, excusing the unexcusable is, well, unexcusably silly.