Monday, June 27, 2011

Is a Universalist Radha-Krishnaist community possible or desirable?

I recently posted a review of Universalist Radha-Krishnaism, which led to personal discussions with the author and others. Without divulging the content of those discussions, I would like to share some thoughts.



It seems to me that one of the purposes of religion is community creation. For many sociologists and anthropologists, of course, that is the primary purpose of religion.

It has now become the habit of those who are individualists to say they seek “spirituality” and make a strong distinction between the social forms of religiosity and the personal.

I believe this is a false dichotomy, as society is made up of individuals, and a society of strong individuals is a strong society. But all societies need commonalities, otherwise there is no community. We should perhaps distinguish between society, with which an individual may have only tenuous identification, and community, where such identifications are much stronger. Society is larger, community more intimate. One finds only peripheral meaning in the former, greater meaning in the latter.

Human beings are social animals. They crave intimacy with other human beings, they crave friendship, they crave community where people are cared for unconditionally. They also crave the realization of their own individuality, no doubt, but on its own, the “monad” or kaivalya self-contained unit style of individualism is a hollow achievement.

The dialectic of individual and society is certainly one of the most important processes that goes on for any human being or community, and in the larger world of today, individuals are constantly splitting off from one social organism to either float free and undetected in the overarching society of norms and values (usually unconscious), where meanings are relativized to a frankly deeply alienating level, or to other smaller social organisms where meanings are held more intensely. Often such smaller social groupings can be collectively alienated, as with cults or fringe political parties.

Alienation has various outcomes. One extreme is, of course, the madness of the man who flies a Cessna into a government office building or goes on a shooting spree. The alienation of a more stable, spiritually inclined person is one of education, reflection, self-examination, of self-discovery. Of sādhanā. Of finding God in one’s own silence.

But the force of such self-discovery, in a healthy soul, always has the transcendent caveat that when you come out of the cave, down from the mountain, you bring a message for humanity. That you have something meaningful to say to others. That the discoveries you have made are communicable. Alienation is not a natural state of the soul. Alienation is but a motivation to seek meaning, truth and community.

Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati, in his poem, Mon, Tumi kisera Vaishnava? (“What kind of Vaishnava are you, O mind”) famously criticized the reclusive anchorite for being an egoist seeking gain, or prestige or public adulation instead of genuine insight. But he was himself visionary enough to recognize that institutions have a weight that easily stifles the full development of the individual by its innate pressure to conformity. In one famous essay, Pūtanā, Saraswati warns against the mechanisms by which religious corporations and their bureaucratic leaders are co-opted by the material energy.

But this is a dialectic that is constantly looking for synthesis. There is no individual who is not conditioned by inherited language, beliefs, and symbol systems. The quest for self realization is the quest for personal synthesis (“psycho-synthesis”), one in which the inherited beliefs must be challenged through education, reason and rigorous self-examination (śravaṇaṁ, mananaṁ, nididhyāsanaṁ), after which the vision of the self (ātma-darśanam) is achieved.

This is, ultimately, simply the achievement of meaning. But all meanings are not equal. A person who has made a rigorous quest and attempted a larger synthesis may well achieve something approaching atomic fusion, in which an explosion of energies expands outward from his realization. In other words, he or she discovers meanings that, in the particular social circumstances from which he or she has emerged, stretch far beyond the narrow confines of their own life.

Meaning is necessary for personal survival. The more significant seeker is one whose meanings lead to the survival of communities or whole societies.

My own feeling is that today’s larger society is by virtue of its sheer size both atomizing and alienating. The Western individualistic ethos is on the whole appropriate, but at the same time destabilizing. It has led to a mass of alienated individuals whose banal meanings are mediated through television sitcoms and other mass entertainments, or who create strange communities based on shared hatreds. On the whole, the individualism of Western society is artificial and illusory.

In fact, because individualism is an attempt to move away from inherited meanings, it is rational and negative (neti neti) in character. Bhakti, being love, is social. This is why bhakti is often thought of as religion rather than yoga, which is identified with spirituality. But bhakti recognizes the need for the positive expression of values and the limitations of the via negativa. Love always requires the commonality of values, so you cannot really talk of love without religion. Religion here being shared meanings or ultimate concerns, usually mediated through symbol and ritual.

This is why for me, the love of a man and a woman, seen as sacred and the principal vehicle for spiritual sādhanā, has to have the framework of Radha Krishna’s nikuñja-līlā and nitya-vihāra. But the idea of Vrindavan and the sakhis, the two other aspects of the fourfold truth of Radha and Krishna, means sacred place and sacred community. Without that framework, individual self-discovery and the mutual self-discovery inherent in the love of a sādhanā partner, are difficult if not impossible to achieve.

Of course, I am not specifically refering to Radha and Krishna bhakti here, since parallel frameworks will be operative in any religious community. Nevertheless, I feel, as I believe the author of Universalist Radha Krishnaism does, that the Divine Couple (“God-dess” if you will) is a symbolic manifestation of the Truth that recognizes the vital mediating role of the Couple between the individual and society. The dual that mediates between the singular and the plural.

Of course, we are always returning to the drawing board. So any mature society requires reflective individuals who constantly repeat the process of education, reflection and meditation to renew their vision. The same holds for the mature couple who will grow through the same process in the midst of their sādhanā of love.

But this is possible within the framework of fundamental faith, of an ultimate concern that is contained within a symbol system, by definition immovable and constant, which holds within itself the very dialectic itself.

Radha and Krishna are precisely such a symbol.

Worship of Radha and Krishna that does not recognize the symbolism of the dual is a house divided against itself, where the symbols and their interpretation are at odds. Similarly, a worship of Radha and Krishna that is purely eremetic in character and does not recognize the necessity of community creation is also unbalanced. Through honest self-discovery, love, and the persistence of communication to the appropriate audience, the creation of community is both desirable and inevitable.

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