Friday, October 14, 2011

Charisma and legitimacy in Vaishnava sampradayas

Ashudhir Dev was the guru of Haridas, as proven in Nija-mata-siddhānta, not his father. The same is hinted (Dhvani!) in the Bhaktamāla. The hereditary Bankebihariji Gussains from Sharan Behari Goswami onwards, preach the contrary yet they have never been able to come up with hard evidence. SBG’s work does not even bear credibility in this regard. The reverend Amolakram Shastri, the Sadhus of Tatiya Sthan, the Beriwala family, etc., all are Haridasis but they offer their respect to the entire Guruparampara (i.e. Nimbarki until Swami Haridas).

I could do with some enlightenment if anyone has more on the subject. That is, only if it ventures into credibility, beyond for example, the old-scholars-tale that the Haridasis were seeking to legitimize themselves (in the old days) by claiming allegiance with the Nimbarkis. (from a private correspondent).

The Tatia Sthan (Lalita Prakashan) edition of Kelimāl includes a section called sampradāya-vandanā-stuti, which is headed with the following verse:

śrīmad-dhaṁsa-samarambhāṁ sanakādika-madhyamām |
śrī-nārada-yutāṁ śuddhāṁ nimbārka-paribṛṁhitām |
asmad-ācārya-paryantāṁ vande guru-paramparām ||

One will quickly recognize this as the stock-in-trade homage to disciplic successions that are used by many lines. It can be looked at as either an abbreviation to avoid having to name everyone in a long list, or a tacit recognition that no such list exists. In either case, I would hazard a guess that it is a later accretion.

The problem is that Swami Haridas himself does not speak of guru-tattva, as far as I can see. He mentions Asudhira in two sakhis, but never of any tradition. As far as I can seen none of his own disciples or successors like Pitambar, Bhagavat Rasik, Biharin, Jamuna Das, etc., mention any succession.

On the other hand, Lalita Kisori Deva does make the connection, giving full descriptions of the Nimbarka acharyas, but he is already quite a way down the line historically. Yet, most of the vanis in the Haridasi line have nothing to say about these previous acharyas and there is little or no discussion or reverence for anyone prior to Swami Haridas.

The situation seems analogous to the Gaudiya sampradāya's relationship to the Madhva line.

In these and other cases, it appears that many of the 16th century charismatic founders did not feel the need to profess allegiance to any existing lines, but their descendants later were forced to seek legitimacy by connecting to one or the other of the existing lines. This came into being as the "four sampradāya doctrine." As far as I can see, though, this only became an issue in the late 17th or early 18th centuries.

In some cases, like the Radha-vallabhis, there was resistance to this imperative to seek legitimacy: "We don't need to belong to any succession because our founder received direct mercy from Radha." Interestingly enough, though, Hit Dasji seems to have sought legitimacy for the Radha Vallabha sampradāya with some success. I think if you are around long enough, such criticisms of illegitimacy gradually fade away. Survival is the biggest key.

That thought also occurred to me yesterday when I heard Rangili Sharan Maharaj, a disciple of Kripalu, speak. Very nicely quoting Rādhā-sudhā-nidhi verses. Much as it may cause distress to see charismatic figures flaunt socially acceptable behaviors or accepted customs and traditions, if you can build a beautiful marble temple and have a few charismatic disciples, you can leave a legacy that in a century or two has "legitimacy" and must be dealt with as such.

And, to a great extent, there appears to be some justification for such an attitude. A century or two from now, some sincere follower of Kripalu with innocent faith and intense sadhana may become very advanced, irrespective of the evidence of dubious behaviors Kripaluji has bequeathed to future historians.

A similar example can be seen in the Mormon church in the USA. One of the main candidates for the Republican presidential candidacy nomination is a Mormon. Now the other "Christian" candidates are being asked whether he is a Christian. Such a question surely sticks in the craw of the Christians much in the same way as it does for a Gaudiya to accept the truth of Harivams's hagiographies, or for a Nimbarki to accept the independence of Swami Haridas. How can there be any truth when some lie is at the very root of the tradition?

On the other hand, how can anyone resist the push to religious relativism? Whatever you believe is valid, because [the implication goes] all religious beliefs are equally fantastic, i.e., based in the fantastical revelations of some charismatic [and thence untrustworthy] founder. Can a person living in glass houses throw stones at others? How can anyone objectively verify any claims of truth about the divinity of their chosen revelations? As soon as we do so, we are open to accusations of blind belief and fanaticism.

Today, everyone was praising Hit Dasji for "not having a sectarian bone in his body." Without realizing, of course, that he is the one that is the outsider who is served by such relativism. Once outsiders become insiders, however, it is no surprise if they show great enthusiasm for excluding others.

Just like the Gaudiyas, once they had managed to establish their credentials, dubious as they are, of adherence to the Madhva tradition, they became among the most enthusiastic proponents of the four sampradāya doctrine. On the other hand, the Ramanuja line is pretty secure in their status as the oldest and most "legitimate" of the sampradāyas. They don't need any "four sampradāya doctrine."

It is certainly becoming harder and harder in the modern age, with the historical and information resources at hand, to claim legitimacy on the basis of tradition. Indeed, Max Weber is somewhat disparaging of it as "institutional charisma" or a purely bureaucratic legitimacy. Legitimacy based on spiritual gifts such as siddhis is more and more desired, especially in India, despite the pretty poor track record of self-appointed gurus with claims of special revelations or divine status.

I am personally in favor of honoring traditions, even when one expresses some original direction. But it seems that in general, historically, despite the strength of the guru doctrine in Hinduism, there has always been a greater tolerance for purely charismatic authority, and traditions sink or swim on the basis of the legacy that such charismatic founders and their most gifted heirs leave.

The real debate should not really be in the legitimacy or an individual or a tradition, but in the effectiveness and cogency of doctrines and practices. But of course, a "tradition" should mean that there is a body of doctrines and practices with a proven track record. This gives them a strength and resilience that is difficult for charismatic newcomers to equal.

But I am mostly suspicious of those who lack gratitude, and feel it will ultimately infect their spiritual descendants for all time. This means that all paths are valid, but only up to a point. In the interests of truth, at some point one has, with all due respect, to honestly and objectively subject all truth claims to the microscope.