Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Lament for the Impervious (from April 2004)

This article was written over several days in April 2004. I am republishing it mainly for the two UN verses that are quoted further down, as the subject of Chandravali came up in a Facebook conversation yesterday. It is always a curiosity to read old articles. Some interesting points, but the main thing I wanted was the verses from UN near the bottom.



The other day I was inspired to telephone an old Iskcon acquaintance who is an accomplished classical musician and composer. I thought I could sell him the idea of composing a work based on the rāsa-līlā according to the way I see its structure. Unfortunately, this devotee, who is now committed to the Ritvik camp, was very negative, even hostile.

Barely had the words rāsa-līlā come out of my mouth than my friend said, "We don't consider ourselves advanced enough to discuss such things." I made a few attempts to pierce the thick defensive wall he had thrown up, but he said, "We have made a decision to only listen to our spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada, and no one else."

Srila Prabhupada may have written about the rāsa-līlā in the Krishna book, but it was not just the subject matter that was a problem, it was obviously me. My reputation as the "Great Guru-Tyagi and Offender to Srila Prabhupada" apparently still hangs over me like Joe Bftsplx's cloud.

It felt tragic to me then, but I did not immediately realize how it had affected me. I reflected on it all day, and later, in the afternoon, when I went for a japa walk in the spring sunshine, I realized that I had encountered fear and not recognized it.

Now I like this particular devotee--I consider him a good man and a loyal devotee of Srila Prabhupada; he is a talented musician who has shown occasional inspiration and even brilliance in his composition. Somehow, I had the illusion that as a musician he would be an ally in the desire to understand and appreciate rasa . Hearing of our exchange, my [ex-]wife quickly disabused me of that. "Sometimes musicians are the most narrow-minded of people--think Wagner," she said.

But those are the errors we make in the throes of enthusiasm. When I first took shelter of Lalita Prasad Thakur, I was so inflated with the beauty and logic of it all that I took my message to the Mayapur Chandrodaya Mandir--only to run into a gatekeeper who had specific orders to keep me out. The hostility was palpable and a bucket of ice water doused my ardor. It took me some time to overcome my crusading spirit, to recognize that walls don't come down by hammering on them if there is someone on the other side putting two bricks up for every one you think you have knocked down. It's not our business to knock down other people's walls, anyway.

On the internet, we sometimes engage in these debates, but there is not much point in that either. But at least there is distance--we can even laugh at the foolishness of other people's stupidity, anger or narrow-mindedness. We have the time to look at the words on the screen and to compose clever ripostes or diatribes. We have the time to think about psychology and tactics.

But personal encounters on philosophical matters are something that at least I personally have long avoided with Iskcon people. What happened on this particular day? I guess I am not as immune to transports of zeal as I thought. Perhaps I thought that as soon as he heard the words rāsa-līlā he would embrace me like Lord Chaitanya embracing Prataparudra and ecstatically repeating

tava kathāmṛtaṁ tapta-jīvanaṁ
kavibhir īḍitaṁ kalmaṣāpaham
śravaṇa-maṅgalaṁ śrīmad-ātataṁ
bhuvi gṛṇanti ye bhūridā janāḥ
Nectarean discussions about you give life to those who suffer,
like water to those who thirst in the desert;
sung by poets, they destroy all of one’s sins.
They are auspiciousness for the ears,
and they bring the fortune of love for you.
Those who are the most munificent of benefactors
distribute these wonderful words throughout the world.
(SB 10.31.9)
Live on illusion!

But this was a reminder of the gulf that exists between our approach to devotional life and that of Iskcon and especially the Ritviks. Some in the Gaudiya Math insist that Raganuga bhakti is the birthright of everyone in the line of Saraswati Thakur, but the walls that these devotees have built to protect themselves from the dangers of Hari kathā are the walls of vidhi bhakti. And no matter how many lifetimes they perform vidhi bhakti, unless those walls come down, nā pābe vraje vrajendra-nandana. It makes me sad, as I think of the beautiful verse that begins the Tenth Canto:

nivṛtta-tarṣair upagīyamānād
bhavauṣadhāc chrotamanobhirāmāt
ka uttama-śloka-guṇānuvādāt
pumān virajyeta vinā paśughnāt
The virtues of the Lord
who is glorified in the greatest poetry
are sung by those who know no thirst for material pleasure;
it is the medicine for the material disease
and is a joy to hear for all.
Who then will care nothing for them?
Only the soul-killers. (BhP 10.1.3)
Who taught these bhaktas of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu to become soul-killers?

--o)0(o--

My use of the words “soul-killers” provoked the following reaction from another devoted friend:
[Jagat] declares that only the likes of him and the rāgānugā camp have any acquaintance with spontaneous devotional service. Indeed, it is this kind of sectarianism and extreme prejudice and bigotry that isolates the siddha-praṇāli camp into a sect of prejudiced, arrogant and self-righteous fanatics. Therefore, if you are not in the siddha-praṇāli camp, according to Jagat, you are a "killer of the soul."

...My God, is his ego so damn sensitive that over a little snub from an ISKCON type he has to start name calling and referring to them as "killers of the soul"?
These words taken from the Bhāgavatam are indeed strong. I am not very enthusiastic about hyperbole and I don't usually use it, as it nearly always leads to misunderstanding, but they do seem to me applicable, in a figurative kind of way. My main purpose was simply to reflect on the different approaches to devotional life. In the same vein, I said elsewhere,
Yesterday, when I was feeling hurt about [this devotee's] reaction to me, I ended up feeling better when I justified his reaction in my mind by calling it fear. But whatever his motivation, it was admittedly hard for me to feel respect for his guru-niṣṭhā. That was wrong. After all, respecting other people's adhikāra is the same thing as respecting them.

The universe is large, the jivas are countless. All are somewhere on the spectrum and Sri Guru appears to them all in some form or another. Though we may say it is all kapaṭa-dharma ("cheating religion"), that is partly unfair. Some have the saṁskāra to understand the yugala-rasa, some don't. Rupa Goswami himself says you need both prāktanī and ādhunikī saṁskāra (BRS 2.1.6). So, far from being something we should condemn, guru-niṣṭhā is full of merit.
But this does not change the fact that there are different strokes for different folks. Krishna is so kind that he accepts the service of all his devotees, but different devotees naturally see their own ways of doing things as superior to those of others.

In the ninth chapter of the Ujjvala-nīlamaṇi, Rupa Goswami gives a nice example of an indirect exchange between Radha and Chandravali, in which they use rather strong language to show the difference in their attitudes.

The following verse spoken by Radha has a double meaning running throughout, based on the pun on Chandravali's name ("many moons"). I'll just give the put-down part, with a rather liberal translation--

yā madhyastha-padena saṅkulatarā śuddhā prakṛtyā jaḍā
vaidagdhī-nalinī-nimīlana-paṭur doṣāntarollāsinī
āśāyāḥ sphuraṇaṁ harer janayituṁ yuktātra candrāvalī
sāpi syād iti locayan sakhi janaḥ kaḥ soḍhum īṣṭe kṣitau
Chandravali has an ambiguous attitude; she tries to cover all bases; her approach to love is simple-minded; I think she is naturally dumb. She makes the lotus of expertise in pleasing a man wither up and die, and what is more, she delights in these flaws. And yet, somehow she is being engaged in trying to bring life to Krishna’s hopes! Sakhi, is there anyone in this world who can stand for this? (UN 9.48)
And Chandravali's answer to that (speaking to a sakhi who is telling her to be more like Radha), using a parallel metaphor, is:

ṣoḍaśyās tvam uḍor vimuñca sahasā nāmāpi vāmāśaye
tasyā durvinayair muner api manaḥ śāntātmanaḥ kupyati |
dhig goṣṭhendra-sute samasta-guṇināṁ maulau vrajābhyarcite
pādānte patite’pi naiva kurute bhrū-kṣepam apy atra yā
Stop trying to persuade me to be meaner to Krishna! And don’t even mention the name of that other gopi, what to speak of comparing her to the full moon with all its sixteen phases. Her wicked behavior would drive even a tranquil-hearted monk to anger. Fie on her! The prince of Gokula, the most virtuous of the virtuous, who is worshiped by all the people of Vraja, falls down at her feet, and yet she won’t even give him the time of day! (9.49)
So these are the different moods in Vraja, but we should be able to extrapolate and recognize that there is honor in following one’s own nature in serving God, and though we may feel differently, we do respect that basic inspiration.

The other day I was translating the Muktā-carita, and I came across this passage which gave me a little trouble, but reading the ninth chapter of Ujjvala-nīlamaṇi clarified it for me.

vaidagdhyāvaidagdhyayor avicāreṇaiva 
yatra kutrāpi sarvatra pravṛttir iti doṣaḥ | 
sāralyādhikyena uttamānuttamāvicāreṇaiva vaiṣamyaṁ vinā 
sarvatra samatayā pravṛttir iti mahān guṇaḥ | |

Tungavidya accuses Krishna of being “mixed with both virtues and faults.” When asked what those virtues and faults are, she answers somewhat ambiguously, “Getting involved with all women without making a judgement of whether they are clever and dexterous in the ways of love is a fault. On the other hand, his involvement with all women without discriminating between superior or inferior out of his natural simplicity is a great attribute."

The point is that Krishna is kind to all, he is equal to all. He accepts everyone’s service, whether done with expertise or not. He is equal to all, regardless of their individual qualifications. Such egalitarianism is one of the Almighty God's great attributes. He is not impressed by a person's external achievements or failures. He responds to devotion. And yet, Tungavidya teases Krishna precisely because he accepts the devotion of those who don’t understand the highest mood that is incarnate in Radharani. (Notice the use of the word vidagdha in both the Ujjvala-nīlamaṇi 9.47 and Muktā-carita passage.)

And yet, Rupa Goswami, still in the ninth chapter of Ujjvala-nīlamaṇi, explains that these different attitudes are the source of pleasure for Krishna.

saṁmohanasya kandarpa-vṛndebhyo’py agha-vidviṣaḥ
mūrto narma-priya-sakhaḥ śṛṅgāro vartate vraje
kṣipen mitho vijātīya-bhāvayor eṣa pakṣayoḥ
īrṣyādīn sva-parivārān yoge sva-preṣṭha-tuṣṭaye

ata eva hi viśleṣe snehas tāsāṁ prakāśate ||
One of the intimate friends of the enemy of Aghasura, who is more enchanting than all the gods of love, is śṛṅgāra-rasa, who has taken human form and lives in Vraja. Envy and these other conflicting states of mind are his expansions. He is the one who thrusts the various gopis into these conflicting states of mind for the sake of his dear Krishna's satisfaction. Therefore when the gopis are separated from Krishna, they feel affection for each other. (9.42-43)
The example he gives is taken from Lalita-mādhava (3.39). After Krishna has left for Mathura, Radha and her friends search Vrindavan in disbelief, convinced that he is still hiding there somewhere. At Govardhan, Radha catches sight of her reflection in a pond and, thinking it to be Chandravali, appeals to her in the following words:

sāndraiḥ sundari vṛndaśo hari-pariṣvaṅgair idaṁ maṅgalaṁ
dṛṣṭaṁ te hata-rādhayāṅgam anayā diṣṭyādya candrāvali
drāg enāṁ nihitena kaṇṭham abhitaḥ śīrṇena kaṁsa-dviṣaḥ
karṇottaṁsa-sugandhinā nija-bhuja-dvandvena sandhukṣaya
O Chandravali! How fortunate I am to see you! Up to now, it has been a most inauspicious day. How many times Krishna held you tightly in his arms. Quickly, water my thirsty soul by wrapping your arms, which still carry the fragrance of Krishna's flower ear ornaments, around my neck. (9.44)
Yesterday, in the rather different world of Canadian politics, a situation came up that reminded me of this. Svend Robinson, a sitting member of our most left-wing party, who has always played the very public gadfly and defended issues that range from Palestinian rights to gay rights to the right to die, got into trouble in a shoplifting incident and resigned from the House.

The reaction from the Prime Minister was not one, as you might expect, of glee at the humbling of such an outspoken troublemaker, but good wishes that he recover from his lapsus so that he could come back and serve the Canadian people. This generous response recognizes that Mr. Robinson, though his approach may be at polar opposites to those of the PM, still shares one fundamental common interest--service to the interests of all Canadians. So when we encounter conflicts, it is always a good idea to take a little bit of distance from the cut and thrust of debate and remember that we’re all in this together.

Nevertheless, we will not give up our niṣṭhā simply to try to please others. Krishnadas Kaviraj would not have gone to so much trouble to establish the superiority of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s gift to the world. He would not have said,

jār jei bhāva se māne sarvottama
taṭastha hoiyā vicarile āche taratama
Though everyone thinks his own mood is the best, one who is impartial can see which is truly superior or inferior.
And we know which side he came down on:

anarpita-carīṁ cirāt karuṇayāvatīrṇaḥ kalau
samarpayitum unnatojjvala-rasāṁ sva-bhakti-śriyam
hariḥ puraṭa-sundara-dyuti-kadamba-sandīpitaḥ
sadā hṛdaya-kandare sphuratu vaḥ śacī-nandanaḥ
The Lord has never at any time given the treasure of devotional love, this most elevated, effulgent taste of sacred rapture. Nevertheless, out of His mercy, He has incarnated in this age of quarrel in a golden form to distribute that treasure freely to the world. May Lord Chaitanya, the son of Sachi, dwell in the cave of your heart like a lion forever. (Vidagdha-madhava 1.4)
So though we bow our heads to every creature in the world, all of whom knowingly or unknowingly strive to serve God or humanity, we feel a special distress when devotees of Mahaprabhu miss the point. If that leads us occasionally to strong words, please forgive us.


Jai Radhe!


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