The Tao of Krishna Consciousness

This article was first posted on Audarya Forums, 07-02-2001, and I have reposted it once or twice with minor alterations. Since there is currently some interest in the themes that have been touched on in it, I thought I would make it available again, since I do not believe that it is available on-line anywhere at the moment. I have made some small changes in the concluding section.

Part I

I was recently censured by someone on the Dharma Mela list in the following words:

"This is so very Western to have this fear of anger, and emotions in general, Jagat. ... Maybe it's time you did shed some of that hard skull and get a bit thinner skinned. What do you think? I would love to see a softening in your heart, and see that shining devotee emerge. Enough dryness. Sorry if this offends anyone but why pussyfoot around it?"

Even though I have some sympathy for this assessment of my character, it got me thinking, as I have long thought about the dialectic nature of opposites like East/West, masculine/feminine and emotional/rational, etc.

We all know Prabhupada's famous dictum, "Religion without philosophy is sentiment, or sometimes fanaticism, while philosophy without religion is mental speculation." [Probably originating with someone else, Einstein perhaps? "Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind."]

This statement indicates to me that the Krishna consciousness movement seeks a balance between the intellectual and emotional aspects of our being, to bring them into harmony. Let us call this the “Tao of Krishna consciousness” -- finding the happy medium between the emotional yin and the intellectual yang. In Jungian terms we can call this the coniunctio oppositorum, the alchemical goal of "harmonization of opposites."

All organisms seek equilibrium or homeostasis. They do this automatically, as a part of our nature. If we are hungry, we eat. If we feel sex desire, we act to meet that need. Every creature acts according to this law, but human beings apparently feel more profound dislocation resulting from psychic imbalances not encountered in other living entities.

These psychic imbalances can be the result of culture and family upbringing, or they may be extensions of our physical being. The understanding of what to do with the imbalances may become so disjointed that some persons may kill or rape in order to find equilibrium, even though this obviously does not result in the kind of spiritual felicity that is the ultimate goal, conscious or unconscious, of every action.

We must face many kinds of dualities. The principal one that we are familiar with is usually called mind/body in the West, or spirit/matter in the East. This duality is often expressed symbolically as a male/female dualism. Such a distinction is not altogether artificial, as members of both sexes will attest: "Men are from Mars and women from Venus." There are general lines of strength and weakness in men and women that run roughly parallel to the intellect-emotion duality.

Of course, as there is nothing pure in the world, there is no such thing as a "pure" male, nor a "pure" female, so we should be wary of judging men or women on the basis of what is, after all, a primarily symbolic identification.

This language has been used historically in many relations where dominance has played a role. The Hindus, for example, were considered effeminate by both their Muslim and British conquerors. The Hindus also became complicit in this. It is not here that a detailed history of the "effeminate Hindoo" can be summarized, but suffice it to say that the same kind of discourse was found in many other cultures where a conqueror established his own cultural and intellectual superiority by attributing masculine qualities to himself, and female attributes to the conquered people.

The conquered are an emotional, colorful, people with quaint customs, but lacking the masculine qualities of discipline and rationality and thus eminently suited to the salutary benefits of rule by a more advanced, masculine, spiritual race. One of the frequent attributes given to the “effeminate” people is excessive attachment to sexuality and domesticity.

The dominated peoples usually respond with the claim that they are more "spiritual" and "less materialistic" than their conquerors. Indeed, the identification of spirituality, especially mysticism, with femininity has also been made by strongly masculine cultures, especially in the 19th century, where religious practices that were not specifically this-worldly were seen as effeminate.

Now my thesis here is that bhakti is basically a "female" spiritual practice. Jnana, karma and yoga are masculine practices, ones in which the spirit exercises domination over matter through pure intellect or force of character. Bhakti is feminine (it is the only practice that has a feminine noun). It is characterized by dependence on the supreme soul, and in its more advanced forms is emotional, and in its extreme forms even asks us to take on female characteristics.

To use a Christian example, Francis Newman is often quoted as having said, "If thy soul is to go on into higher spiritual blessedness, it must become a woman; yes, however manly thou may be among men."

In Hinduism, of course, the most radical form of bhakti is expressed in the idea that "Krishna is the only male, and all others are female." Taken to the extreme, this is known as manjari bhava.

Part II

In the above section, I have used the word "radical" and "extreme" deliberately. These terms are diametrically opposed to the concept of equilibrium that we used to begin this article. Fanaticism, as we have seen from Prabhupada's dictum, is an extension of sentiment, or emotionalism. There are other kinds of radicalism -- such as the radical attempts to rationalize society in Communism.

So, in fact, there are masculine and female types of extremism and both the masculine and feminine seek to reestablish balance where the opposite extreme has gone too far. Indeed, the Taoist idea is that extremes precede the integration of the opposite. The Taoist wheel states what is an obvious truth, that there are constant cycles in which balance and extremism follow on one another. Rajo-guna conquers Tamo-guna. Then Tamo-guna conquers Rajo-guna. Sometimes, Sattva guna arises -- then we find equilibrium.

Now, just as individuals can become imbalanced, or sick, there is no reason to believe that entire societies cannot also become "sick" in the same way. When they do, we usually find that forces arise to redress the balance. Since entire societies are conditioned in much the same way that individuals are, the idea of what constitutes balance will differ. Left and right wings, liberal and conservative forces, compete to establish their respective views of what constitutes a proper balance.

In India in the 19th century, as alluded to above, Hindu society was identified by the British ruler as a dominated and thus effeminate people. There was some truth to this and proof of it can be found in the history of the bhakti movement, in which Hindu society accepted a vision that idealized the feminine over the masculine. This was a development that took place during the Islamic period and may indeed be seen as a reaction to and implicit criticism of the dominant, hyper-masculine Islamic theism. This was also perhaps possible because Islam had its own subculture of romantic mysticism.

The arrival of the British, however, resulted in the arising of a new dynamic. The British catalyzed a different reaction in Hindu society by successfully shaming it for its lack of cohesiveness and rationality. Hindu society began to accept the British critique of itself as a society in need of testosterone.

Bhaktivinoda Thakur and Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati form a part of the Hindu reform scene of the 19th century and its aftermath. We have to look at them in their historical context, otherwise the very meaning of preaching according to time and place becomes lost. The question that I am asking here is, "What balance were they seeking to redress and how does that fit into the historical picture of bhakti?"

Both these acharyas were very intellectual in their approach to Krishna consciousness. They were critical of both monism and Sahajiyaism, which they considered the manifestations of the two extremes. Certainly they thought (as everyone does) that they had found a balanced point of view. They were redressing the imbalances created in society, particularly those created by the presence of modernizing Europeans on the one hand and decadent Hindu society on the other. Not surprisingly, modernizing Hindus found the Gaudiya Math too mystical, while traditional Gaudiya Vaishnavas found them too intellectual or "jnani."

Now where does Krishna consciousness fit on the intellectual/emotional spectrum in Western society? Specifically, where did it fit into the American society in which it found the soil to sprout?

A great deal of literature has grown up around the rise of new religious movements (NRM) in the 60's and 70's. American history seems to go through cycles of about 20 years between influxes of NRMs. At any rate, the NRMs of the 70s are not separable from the hippie movement. Just remember: they chanted Hare Krishna in "Hair"!

The hippie movement was a major statement against the "work ethic" that dominated American society. It was a reaction to war, which was seen as an extension of the same. It was also a statement against the excessive rationalism of modern society. The hippies rebelled against the "reality principle." Clearly, then, the hippie movement fell into the female/emotional side of the yin-yang spectrum. Long hair on men seems to be an appropriate symbol of this and indeed was often seen by "rednecks" as a direct sign of effemininity.

Though it took a much more austere path, the early Krishna consciousness movement in the West was imbued with the rebellious spirit of hippiedom and could not have existed without it. It was always suspicious of "karmi society," its name for the Establishment.

On the other hand, it never really knew what to do with sympathetic voices within the Establishment, which recognized that there was a very real need for spirituality being answered by movements like ISKCON. This was a sign of the movement's immaturity and, by extension, its deliberate and rebellious irrationality.

Preaching means the ability to encounter opposing opinions. If one cannot understand intuitively and emotionally the background of opposing ideas, then one cannot encounter them and "defeat" them. I put "defeat" in quotation marks because I think the term lacks dignity.

Part III

If religion is about sentiment, it is also about taste. There are many imponderables where our choices in religion are concerned. These are certainly not all entirely philosophically based. Most theistic religions talk about serving God, dedicating one's life to His service, etc., but the ways in which they conceive of that service is different. The choice of Krishna consciousness as a religion was essentially an aesthetic one -- it was born out of a taste for prasad, an appreciation of the beauty of the deities and Krishna, the Holy Name and sadhu sanga, as much as on anything philosophical -- even the shaved heads, dress and lifestyle were points of attraction, much as they may have been abhorred by the "straight" people.

It is also true that even philosophy is practically speaking never divorced from feeling. This is why ever since Marx, philosophers have constantly been "deconstructing" ideologies. Belief systems have social and psychological bases - we believe what we want to believe, no matter how sophisticated our rationalizations.

Thus even "the philosophy" for devotees is charged with an attraction to aesthetic elements -- the battlefield of Kurukshetra, Krishna on the chariot with Arjuna, the magnificence of the Vishwarupa, the exoticism of the Sanskrit terminology, the form of Jagannath and his Rathayatra, the Divine Couple Radha and Krishna, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu's life, etc.

As such, though it seems trite when sociologists say that people who join the Krishna conscious movement have a predisposition to Indian culture, it is nevertheless a truism. This aesthetic tendency or predisposition is fortified by the cultural experience of participation in the movement.

Now, all true religion or search for mystic experience also requires self-deconstruction, which is what all talk of reducing ego (or "transcending idolatry") is about. Self-understanding is the beginning point of spiritual life. To understand what we are, we must also understand what we are not, though a personalist will begin from the premise that he or she is something and not nothing.

"Neti neti" is deconstruction in its original form, but pure philosophy is essentially negative and tends to reduce variegatedness. They leave one with the tendency to relativize cultural particularities. This makes conversion particularly difficult, because conversion usually means adopting new cultural forms, even in cases less radical than Krishna consciousness. Conversion is essentially an emotional act.

This is why followers of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda in the West were "armchair philosophers." They had no need to adopt any Hindu cultural values because their philosophy told them that any kind of cultural attachment -- forms and names -- was relative and therefore inconsequential. To a certain extent, the same applies to Buddhism, though similar emotional factors and cultural features also play a big role in the rise of Buddhism in the West.

It is important to recognize this non-rational element in the conversion experience. We as Vaishnavas may vehemently deny that Krishna's form and name are like all the rest, but this argument is faith-based, not rational. When questions such as that of Chaitanya's validity as an avatar according to scripture are raised, for example, we see that devotees find themselves in a quandary. They have been told scriptural proof is a necessity, so what are they to do when there is none, except for a few dubious references from the Bhagavata and a barrel of manufactured evidence that would be thrown out of any court? The counterfeit evidence has the further bad effect of making us distrust the good faith and ethics of its manufacturers. Yet we continue to believe anyway. This is another example of the heart leading the head; another example of the contradictions of faith. But I digress.

So, the two components of religion and philosophy are like the body and soul of religious practice. The problem is that in their pure forms they are mutually destructive. Just like the body and soul need to find a modus vivendi that makes life livable, reason and religion need to find harmonious unity.

Part IV

The above considerations also call into question cultural differences in Krishna consciousness. This question has been raised recently: Can our adopted culture overcome the deep-rooted culture of birth and upbringing?

As mentioned above, Buddhism in its purest form deconstructs totally to the point of negating all attributes, and so it has had a great deal of success in implanting itself in the Western context. So much so, that there is much talk of "American" Buddhism -- which though it borrows from its Zen and Tibetan roots, is growing organically into something totally new in its western soil.

Is the same thing possible for Krishna consciousness? If our "philosophy" is so strongly contextualized, then how can it cut itself off from its cultural springboard?

This discussion itself is a very Westernized approach to Krishna consciousness. It is certainly not the kind of discourse we would expect to find in traditional Vaishnava circles. I am taking my experience as a Vaishnava and subjecting it to analysis according to tools developed by Western intelligentsia. In other words, something organic is going on. I, as a Western individual, am interacting with Vaishnavism to produce something that has not yet been seen before in either East or West.

I do not know whether the question of organic union of East and West has been formulated seriously in Iskcon in these terms or not, but Iskcon is definitely moving in the direction of an occidentalized if not Americanized version of Krishna consciousness, simply by virtue of having cut itself off from other Gaudiya Vaishnava influences. The GBC body is the final rule-maker, and it is dominated by Westerners (or Westernized Indians), who remain so whether they are conscious of the fact or not, despite their Indian dress.

Let us say that the Westernization is not altogether unwelcome, as Prabhupada himself intimated. But is "American" Vaishnavism a Western soul in an Indian body or an Indian soul in a Western body?

I know that Tripurari Maharaj is seriously considering this question, and he does so with a great deal of self-awareness, though he is no doubt fully conscious of the fine thread that has to be trod when dealing with his compatriots. Any Westernization of Vaishnavism will be considered dangerous innovation by the most conservative class of Vaishnava.

A Westernized Vaishnavism will have to begin with a dynamic concept of revelation. It will also have to be able to find a creative hermeneutic that will allow itself to keep its legitimacy through some form of faithfulness to Vaishnava tradition.

Part V

Now I am sorry to have left so many strands of thought leading in different directions. And certainly this philosophical excursus will not satisfy the criticism with which I began this article. Those who write such criticisms already find me too dry for their taste and would like to see me become a little more emotional and soft-hearted.

I started by saying that we naturally seek balance, yet that sometimes the organism takes extremist steps to find balance. This is often overcompensation. I gave the example of the sociopath who kills or rapes. Though the act of conversion is not nearly as radical an act as that of the sociopath, it is nevertheless pretty radical, especially when it takes the form it does in Krishna consciousness.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. As a matter of fact, it is possible to argue that extreme steps are often a necessary prerequisite to religious experience, which can be defined as an encounter with the "totally other." If we leave our predispositions and preconceptions entirely untouched, how can we create the type of contrast that puts us face to face with the Divine?

In the case of Krishna consciousness, there were many other positive things that came out of our experience that do not strictly fall into any particular category -- religious or cultural. They are simply human.

Nevertheless, I suggest to you that for us, the entire ISKCON experience was something of an overcompensation. Even for the most mystical individuals, it is rare that after undertaking the mystical journey, the saint does not make the "return journey" to the "world" after finding his own inner harmony, which he then imparts to his society.

Since the mystical search is always a kind of overcompensation, the pendulum needs to swing back in the other direction until it finds equilibrium.

One kind of imbalance is in the overly emotional character of our religion. In our own rigorous efforts at self-understanding, we must be able to understand the irrational (or aesthetic, sentimental, emotional, in short "feminine") motivations in our taking up certain religious practices. Too many people in ISKCON or the Gaudiya Math think that their actions are based entirely on rational considerations and they are unable to synthesize these aspects of their psyche and create a false masculine rationality that sucks the life out of their spirituality, individually and collectively.This is manifest most brazenly in exclusivistic claims. The exclusivism or fanaticism of Prabhupada's dictum arises not from sentiment, but from unsynthesized sentiment, the unrecognized feminine that cannot speak its name (so to speak!).

The false intellectual overcompensation in the Krishna Consciousness movement compromises compassion and the other "feminine" qualities. It is in part a product of religious institutionalization and the need for rationalization, bureaucratic structures and the consequent politics -- all playgrounds of the masculine that have ruined many a good religion in the past. But if we look back to our hippie roots, we will see that the desire to humanize our lives through personalizing them, through creating non-traditional communities based on love and common purpose, are also at the very root of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu's movement itself. The search for and valorization of the feminine is the essence of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu's revelation.


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