Tuesday, June 05, 2012

The Holy Name, Personal Mysticism and Possession

This is a combination of four articles that were posted on Gaudiya Discussions from April 10, 2004. Since I am engaged in a bit of reminiscence, this fits in right about here.

I. Ritual and Structure: The meaningful organization of symbols

One thing I learned about in the phenomenology of religion course during my university days was to look for structures in religious rituals. As I have stated many times, religious symbols are inexhaustible sources of meaning. They should contain all the elements of a dialectic within them, so that each completion of the dialectic circle results in a deepening of perception of one's ultimate religious concern.

A great religion generally has a little something for everybody--a saint, a demigod, a little myth or legend, a theological interpretation. These all expand out of the great central constellation of myths. A religion's rituals generally recapitulate these myths communally, so that they are reinforced by their performance. The congregation enters the sacred space and time of the ritual and relives the sacred truth.

A great example of this is the Roman Catholic mass, which is magnificently structured around the meaning of the passion and resurrection of Christ. I won't go into the meanings of these structures, but I can tell you that every time I participate in the mass, I am impressed by the tightness of its structure, the deliberate introduction of various elements at its various stages, designed as a whole, intentionally meant to lead the congregation step by step through various stages to the climax in the taking of the sacrament, the participation in the Body of Christ.

The structural integrity of the mass has made it possible, indeed practically a duty, of every great Western composer to set it to music.

In 1984 had the good fortune to live the Rathayatra experience with Hridayananda Das Babaji and his disciple Birachandra Das Babaji. Hridayananda was a disciple of Ramdas Babaji of Nitai Gaur Radhe Shyam fame. Some of you may know that Ramdas Baba's guru played an important role in reviving Gaudiya Vaishnava traditions in Jagannath Puri in the late 19th century. Most notably, he reestablished the practice of Gundicha Marjan and gained permission from the then King of Puri to allow Vaishnavas from Bengal to reenact Chaitanya's lila in his honor. The King had the foresight to permit this, and to this day, the disciples from the Jhanjh Pitha Math along with those from the Radha Kanta Math join together in inaugurating the Gundicha Marjan by singing the Chaitanya Charitamrita in kirtan.

As a Mleccha, I was not permitted to participate in this particular pastime. However, I did follow the entire course of the festival as it is conducted by the members of the Jhanjh Pitha Math. It is, in fact, a seven-day reenactment of the Rathayatra lila, containing various elements from the lilas of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. On the first day, the Bengali devotees come in kirtan down the Puri main road, while the Orissan devotees come from the Radha Kanta Math singing their kirtan. The two groups meet in front of the Lion's Gate and sing the Oriya-Gaudiya milan kirtan from the Chaitanya Charitamrita.

The next day is called Raghaver Jhali kirtan. The Bengali devotees go in procession from Jhanjh Pitha to the Gambhira where they present gifts to Mahaprabhu. Ramdas's disciples make a point of inviting representatives of the great Vaishnava dynasties to represent their forefathers in this lila. Though not every family is personally represented, the descendants of Raghava Pandit are always there to give the Lord the bags of goodies that Damayanti made annually when he was alive.

The following day is kirtan at Tota Gopinath. This day is based on the Chaitanya Bhagavata, when Nityananda comes with a bag of rice to give to Gadadhar, who is only able to cook a dish of tamarind leaves. But his devotion attracts Mahaprabhu who joins his two dear associates uninvited.

The next day is Gundicha and then Rathayatra follows on the next, with the familiar themes being played out. Ramdas Baba's disciples carry on his tradition (for it was he who developed these traditions in their fullness) by mining these lilas for their emotional effect through the use of "akhars", where the lead singer improvises on the themes found in the original text. Ramdas Baba's akhars have actually been printed in several volumes so that his disciples and now grand-disciples can continue to perform these kirtans as he did.

Needless to say, this is a powerful use of kirtan, lila, ritual, sacred time/space, etc., to reinforce especially devotion to Mahaprabhu, deepening the attachment to the meanings of his lila and tattva.

In another article I am planning for this space in the next few days, I will talk about the Holy Name as an essentially contentless religious form. I will explain that there in more detail, but what I mean is that one has to bring meanings to the Holy Name; they are not ready made. This can be very significant if one makes use of it, but if one does not, the chanting quickly becomes diffuse and centrifugal in movement rather than centripetal. This is the very opposite of the kind of tightly structured ritual that I am talking about here.

The Nitai Gaur Radhe Shyam people have a way of doing kirtan that structures their chanting of the Holy Name. When engaged in a 24-hour kirtan, they will often sing one hymn while the response will be their Holy Names, which in any case is much more symbolic in character than the Maha Mantra. Think about it--the NGRS mantra is full of meaning that requires intellectual exercise every time it is repeated: Nitai - Gaura -Radhe - Shyam -- each word is clear in its meaning; the relations between the names are full of equations and contrasts, that in turn raise questions, even strident objections.

Though the above tightly structure ritual around the Rathayatra, building up to the main event in which the central "meaning" of Chaitanya lila, as manifest in the yaḥ kaumāra-haraḥ verse is revealed and relished, this is a single event that is not necessarily repeated ritually on a regular occasion.

Most traditional Gaudiya Vaishnavas, including the NGRS people, have a regular ritual on the Ekadasi day. This too is a three-day ritual which has, to my knowledge, been ignored by the Gaudiya Math, and certainly in Iskcon.

Ekadasi begins with a specific kirtan from the Chaitanya Bhagavata that recalls Mahaprabhu's observances. Other than this, however, the structure is loose--hearing and chanting not following any specific guidelines.

On the other hand, 24-hour kirtans or Vaishnava mahotsavas, have a much stronger structure: The evening before, one has Adhivasa kirtan, in which one sings the welcome to the guests, once again reenacting the events at Srivasangan, welcoming the various associates of Mahaprabhu, garlanding them, etc. The ritual of consecrating the festival Deity (Pancha Tattva) in the waterpot, etc., then takes place. The kirtan begins the next morning at dawn after arati, and continues through to the following dawn. The next morning, there is usually a nagar kirtan, after which everyone returns to the consecrated spot and sings a special series of kirtans, ending with "Hari Haraye namah" and "dadhi mangal." This is followed by the feast and then vidaya kirtan, sending everyone on their way.

These rituals are fairly loose in their structure and though they have traditionally reinforced Vaishnava community, anyone who has participated in such activities knows that they can be somewhat anarchic and lacking solemnity.

I have been wondering about whether there is a place for a tighter structure that would fit the needs of a Sunday-feast type gathering. My immediate impression is that the Iskcon ritual is very loose and does not contain the kind of symbolic strength that I am talking about. I will continue this train of thought soon. Look to this spot.

II. Notes for a ritual based on the Rasa Lila

One of the most moving experiences I had while living in Nabadwip took place on a certain Rasa Purnima.

I heard that a special kirtan was to take place at midnight in the field across from Atal Bihari Das Babaji’s ashram in Rani Ghat. Atal Bihari Das is probably the most visible Sahajiya Vaishnava (I believe they called themselves Kalachandis) in Nabadwip. His most famous disciple is the kirtaniya Radharani Dasi, who has been described by Donna Wulff in a 1985 article.* (*“Images and Roles of Women in Bengali Padavali Kirtan” Bengal Vaishnavism, Orientalism, Society and the Arts, ed. J.T. O’Connell, Ann Arbor: Asian Studies Center, Michigan State U.)

I did not particularly care for Atal Bihari, perhaps simply because I found him physically unattractive—he is a squat man with a powerful build and a large round head, covered with acne scars. He speaks with a strong Mymensingh accent, which was barely comprehensible to me when I went to see him on one occasion. But evidently, he attracted a considerable following and put on many grand festivals each year, especially a lila kirtan program that went on for several days.

At any rate, I did not make it my habit to visit Sahajiya Vaishnavas. On this occasion, however, I was told that it would be worth going because it was to be a special Rasa Lila kirtan. There was actually a significant choice to make, as the Rasa kirtan sung by Sri Jiva Goswami at Shrivas Angan was also a very special treat. That usually lasted all night, but I left early for Rani Ghat where another kirtan was already in progress. A good one, too, as I recall, with a couple of very good women singers.

As Donna Wulff’s article points out, women are generally given a higher status amongst the Sahajiyas than they are in orthodox circles. It is very rare that there mixed Harinam sampradayas are invited to regular Nama Yajnas, though women Pala (Lila) kirtan singers are fairly common. This may be because of the kind of intimacy that Name kirtan singers have with their audiences, as I described earlier.

Then the Rasa Lila kirtan began. This one was quite different from anything I had ever seen, and it may have been something entirely novel for all that I know. The participants in the kirtan play – all women -- were dressed as Vraja gopis, enacted the entire Rasa lila through the Holy Name, without using any other words. They used some of the familiar tunes from the Rasa Lila kirtans, including the famous Govinda Das pada that always introduces Rasa kirtan—

śarada canda pavana manda, vipine bharala kusuma gandha,
phulla-mallikā mālatī yūthī, matta-madhukara bhoraṇī |
herañ rāti aichana bhāti, śyāma mohana madane māti,
muralī gāna pañcama tān, kulavatī cita coraṇī |
śunata gopī prema ropī, manahi manahi āpanā soṅpi |
tāhi calata yāhi bolata, muralīka kala lolanī |
The soft breeze blows
while the full autumn moon glorifies the sky;
the forests are filled with the scents of various flowers;
the bees are maddened by the many
blossoming mallika, malati and yuthi flowers. 
Seeing such a beautiful effulgent night,
Shyamasundara is overcome by feelings of romance
and begins to blow on his flute,
in the sweet key of the fifth note of the scale;
the thief of the faithful wives’ minds.
Hearing it, the gopis immediately fall in love with him
and mentally offer him their entire selves;
they start on their way to meet him,
absorbed in the beautiful music of the flute.
This is still top of the charts in padavali kirtan, in my opinion.

Anyway, the kirtaniyas followed the full cycle of the Rasa lila over a two hour period, going through the classical framework of the story—attraction, examination, union, separation, union and ecstasy, expressing the emotions through the music and the Holy Name. One male was present, playing the part of Krishna, and he too sang the Maha Mantra, but the emphasis was certainly on those playing the gopis’ roles.

There were no sadhus there, except for a few noted Sahajiya babas. Since the story was known, the rasa was concentrated in the voices. I remember the women’s tremendously emotional voices; it was powerful and the effect on the audience was tremendous. When the Rasa dance came at the end, the joy was ebullient. It was a fabulous event.

Notable was the participation of women, not only as singers but as audience members, where my previous experience of such kirtans had been very much male-dominated affairs. Men and women sat together rather than in segregated parts of the congregation.

Now, after this rather lengthy, though admittedly light, treatment of various experiences in Gaudiya Vaishnava practice, let me return to my original point of departure: symbolism and ritual structure. The following portion is the most audacious part of this article and at the same time the least well thought out. But I will go ahead and write out my notes.

Since circumstance has been taking me to Catholic masses more often than the Krishna temple (My son goes to a choir school here in Montreal.), I have had much opportunity to reflect on the things that the Catholic Church does right in terms of rites and rituals. The temple of Krishna is where my heart is, but I am also painfully aware of the many weaknesses that are present in the way its rituals, etc., are structured, particularly at the Sunday feast.

The Sunday feast, is of course, an adaptation to the North American milieu. Such things do not exist in India. But the seven-day week with one day set aside for religious services is so deeply ingrained in Western culture that is was a natural and useful adaptation when Iskcon came into existence.

Customarily, the program consists of kirtan, lecture, arati and feast. For introducing strangers to the temple and the basics of Krishna consciousness, this seems to have been an adequate approach, but in the course of time, attendance at temple feasts has more and more become a regular congregation who participate in the kirtan and maybe listen to the lecture, then take prasadam and leave. Newcomers are in a minority.

There are several problems that seem to have gone unnoticed in the Iskcon way of doing things. What is arati, for instance? The arati is basically a yoga-pitha meditation and celebration. Even in the Gaudiya Math, they sing both Gaura and Yugala arati, not just the Gaura arati. This is really something that should be changed, but of course, since Prabhupada did not institute it, it will never happen. Kirtan should be separated from arati, which really goes on too long.

But I digress. The real thing I wanted to suggest is that the entire event is symbolically inefficient. Though I haven’t entirely thought the matter through at this point..

In our discussion of the Passion of Christ, I proposed that the Rasa Lila was our central story. I think that a liturgy based on the Rasa Lila would remind us on a regular basis of the central tenets of the faith. Each point could be condensed down to more fundamental theological points. Each section would consist of specific kirtans and recited prayers. This needs work…

#1. Gaura-candrika.

The Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition calls for a setting of the scene with a meditation on Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.

#2 The gopis hear the flute

God is all-attractive. The heart is drawn to transcendence. We are eternal servants of God; that is our natural constitutional position.

#3 The first test.

Krishna refuses them; Gopis argue; Krishna accepts them. The nature of the material world as an obstacle to spiritual life.

#4 Gopis become proud. Krishna abandons them.

Divyonmada. The first dark night of the soul.

Encounter with Radha/Guru; association, surrender, humility.

#5 Gopi-gita

Second dark night. Sadhana bhakti. (Prayer, bhajan)

#6 Krishna returns

Union. Direct service. Yoga-pith, arati.

#6 Krishna answers the gopis’ questions.


#7 Rasa-lila.

Final kirtan, arati, concluding prayers.

#8 Prasad, of course.

III. The Holy Name and Personalist Mysticism

Nabadwip can be a noisy town, as many places in India are; regulations are weak and people celebrating weddings or other special occasions often tie a loudspeaker to the longest piece of bamboo they can find and spread the gift of cinema music, often crackling with static, to all and sundry throughout the day and night.

If such a party was taking place close to my home, the din would often be unbearable for someone like myself, who eagerly sought silence, especially in the final hours of darkness. However, out of a sense of fair play, I always felt reluctant to protest, for some of my most joyful moments came in those same dead hours, when the lonely sound of a small group of kirtaniyas engaged in a 24-hour marathon of chanting the Holy Name would waft over the sleeping town like a baby’s blanket spread by its tired mother.

I used to go to the kirtans, big and small. I went to the seven-day Harinam at the Nabadwip Cloth Market (Kapurer Hat) building, which was in my neigborhood. Nabadwip, if you did not know it, is a fairly big center for handloom cloth. Many East Bengal refugees were handloom workers who after fleeing their homes chose Nabadwip and Swaroop Ganj as their place of residence because of the deep attachment they had for Mahaprabhu and his Holy Name. Thus handloom is the town’s main industry and as a way of annually showing thanks, the managers of the Kapur Hat make a point of having the biggest and most ostentatious kirtan with the best professional groups from Calcutta.

It took me a few years outside of the Iskcon orbit before I overcame my prejudices against the Holy Name in some of the forms it takes in Bengal—sometimes crass and commercial, sometimes vulgar and sentimental, it is everything they say it is. Sometimes the singers of these kirtans have teeth red with betel nut condiments; they often have long hair that is shiny with mustard oil. They smoke bidis and, who knows, quite possibly engage in all kinds of debauchery. Their credentials as sadhus are suspect in the eyes of those for whom spiritual life is condensed into four regulative principles. It took some time before I discovered other dimensions of the Holy Name.

The Gaudiya Math often criticizes listening to such kirtans. Not only do they insist that unless one is morally perfect, the Holy Name is really namaparadh, but they challenge the very form of the public kirtan. They argue that participation is essential and simply listening to kirtan is insufficient. Sravanam alone is an inadequate response to the Holy Name, and one must also engage in kirtanam; after all kirtan is the yuga-dharma. Besides which, there has long been a line of criticism (found in Islam also) that the music itself can serve as a distraction that takes away from absorption in the Holy Names; the goal of entertainment takes priority over religious communion. Over the course of time, I found these criticisms to be weak and hollow.

I developed a great respect for these musicians because I felt that they worshiped the Holy Name with their God-given talents. One must worship the Ganges with Ganges water. The talents we have were meant to be used in the service of God, so one who uses his talents for chanting the Holy Name, whatever else he does with his life, must be given a certain amount of credit. Why should I, with my unmusical, untrained voice, be asked to sing with these great musicians, who have practiced their craft for so long? When alone or with my peers, no doubt one can take pleasure in singing the Holy Name, but one does not ask a cripple to run with Jesse Owens.

Life is full of choices and fateful accidents. One who ends up making his living by chanting the Holy Name in public is a fortunate creature. I am not playing the innocent--corruption and hypocrisy in the name of religion is as all-pervading as the material nature, but I am in favor of accentuating the positive.

Besides which, I observed on many occasions that the audience made a great difference to the kirtan. Numbers certainly enhanced the electricity of a performance. But the principal difference I observed came from the quality. When there were advanced sadhakas or nama-rasikas in the audience, this naturally elicited a certain reaction from the chanters, namely veneration and humility. Humility is the single most important mental framework necessary to chanting the Holy Name. This would open the heart of the singer and let the Holy Name enter it. That way he would transcend personal ego and the Holy Name would truly become incarnate on the pathway of the music.

tuṇḍe tāṇḍavini ratiṁ vitanute tuṇḍāvali-labdhaye
karṇa-kroda-kaḍambini ghaṭayate karṇārbudebhyaḥ spṛhām
cetaḥ-prāṅgaṇa-saṅgini vijayate sarvendriyānāṁ kṛtiṁ
no jāne janitā kiyadbhir amṛtaiḥ kṛṣṇeti varṇa-dvayī
“I do not know out of how much nectar
has gone into the making of the two syllables of Krishna’s name--
dancing madly on my tongue,
they awaken in me the desire to possess many mouths;
as they sprout in my ears, they give me the hope
that I may one day have millions of ears;
and as they enter into the garden of my heart
they overcome the activities of every one of my senses,
and leave me inert!”
(Vidagdha-mādhava 1.15)

At the same time, in some cases, it was definitely the kirtaniyas who were the masters and the audience the disciples. The former were distributing mercy, the latter receiving. Perhaps I was proud, I don’t know, but I had become so accustomed to seeing singers in small groups buckle up and get serious when I came into an audience that I was rather surprised the first time I first encountered the opposite.

This took place somewhere else, I can’t remember exactly where. Somewhere else in Nadia, but not a big center, a Harinam at somebody’s house marking a special occasion. I was sitting in the audience, in a small group, certainly less than a hundred. As I was a foreigner and dressed as a sadhu, I had immediately been given a front row seat in the very intimate arena. The sheer closeness of the people did not bother me that much, even though it was not something I relished that much.

My status won me special attention from the singers, who on this occasion included a prominent middle-aged man who had obvious presence and was the leader of the group. He was classically Sahajiya in appearance—long shoulder-length hair, solidly stout in build, dark skinned, swarthy enough to be clearly a member of one of the lower classes of Bengali society. Thin, finely painted tilak on his brow. His teeth were sufficiently red to indicate a pan habit. Nevertheless, it was fully clear that he enjoyed considerable stature amongst his fellows.

When it came his turn to sing, he followed a customary ritual of directing his singing to one person--me. He began by paying obeisances, which I returned. He then looked me directly in the eyes. It was as though we were entering another world. It was magnificent--the Holy Name was a contentless prayer that nevertheless contained everything. It went beyond words to encapsulate everything that was in the depths of the heart--the pain, the misery, the hopelessness of the conditioned state in this world. It was a shared emotion--not just his, indeed more mine than his--that he explored for me in the presence of God in his Holy Name.

One full Maha Mantra took several minutes to complete, filling a cycle of emotional prayer. As it came to a conclusion with one last "Hare", the singer took me in his arms and embraced me while the mridangas and other instruments crested. In that moment I felt -- please don’t laugh -- the kundalini shakti rising in a way that I had never felt before. An explosion of light rising up my spine and crashing in my brain. It was not emotion, but light.

The singer then paid his obeisances again and the next singer then took over.

This incident really whetted my appetite for this kind of experience. Certainly it opened my eyes to a new way of looking at the Holy Name and what is meant by "congregational" chanting.

The experience that I had had previously emphasized the individual and his relation with God through calling the Holy Name. The Holy Name is essentially contentless. It is the cry of the soul to God. Though the chanting certainly goes through a variety of modes and attitudes, its essence is the stark nakedness of the soul before God.

But Maya and the ego are complex cheaters, and no doubt there is no field of human endeavor in which they do not come to play their dirty tricks. But we have two eyes to give us perspective, and anyone who stays comfortable in a single mode of acting or understanding is easier prey for Maya than one who subjects himself to other modes, or human contact.

Later on, when I came to university I read Martin Buber and was moved by his personalist theology, which he called "I – Thou." It seemed that this reflected in part my Harinam experience, indeed, that this was what the Harinam experience I had had encapsulated.

A very brief summary of my interpretation of "I-Thou" is this: God is a person. Therefore the essence of religious experience is that of personality, the highest aspect of the creation. God’s presence is found in consciousness everywhere; indeed, the direct experience of personality is a kind of mystic communion with God. Generally speaking, it is the human tendency to objectify people in "I-It" relations. This makes all evil possible. An awareness of God’s presence in the "Other" is the essence of theistic mystic experience--and not a kind of "I-It" relationship, where God is objectified and reduced to a commodity.

Prior to the above experience, congregational chanting had taken the form of a fortifying parallel experience rather than a face to face encounter. We were soldiers marching side by side in battalions, rather than looking into the eyes of the Other and encountering the Divine.

This is the how music and the word join together to transcend each other in the Holy Name. Music carries emotion; words carry content. But the content of words can block as much as they open doorways. I remember as a teenager at the Catholic mass rebelling at the Credo--"the resurrection of the flesh." I could not believe that this body would rise again after it has become old and decayed. The words of this prayer bogged me down. In the Holy Name, there is no credo. It is the soul before God in his nakedness. The only obstacle is the reluctance to look another person in the eyes.

IV. Sankirtan and the Religion of Possession

In my last two articles, Ritual and Structure and The Holy Name and Personalist Mysticism, I discussed several personal experiences of traditional Gaudiya Vaishnava practice.

In the first of these, I discussed some manifestations of the highly structured, content-full kind of religious ritual that is found in Gaudiya Vaishnavism, while in the other, I discussed the practice of the Holy Name, which I argued does not have the same kind of specific content. These are two extremes of a particular continuum that I would like to continue to explore.

I mentioned that kirtan performers often direct their singing to one member of the audience, which is I believe a technique of performers of all kinds. By making that connection with a particularly receptive listener, the performer’s own connection to his material is deepened and other members of the audience are in turn affected. These are all aspects of the magic of rasa.

Sometimes, the effects can be surprising. I remember one case at Madan Gopal Goswami’s house during his annual festival commemorating his great-grandmother’s departure [she was his grandfather, Pran Gopal Goswami’s guru], he was holding kirtan. A man who was related to one of the Goswami’s disciples happened to be present, even though he had never previously shown any interest in devotional life. Over the course of the day and night of constant chanting, something snapped in this gentleman, a middle-class Calcutta babu, and he started rolling on the ground, crying and calling out, holding on to the kirtaniyas’ feet and in general making a very shocking display of himself, completely forgetting all decorum.

Throughout all this, the kirtaniyas themselves did not act as though there was anything particularly unusual about the event, and though respectful, were somewhat blasé. The crowd itself did not applaud or jeer, but took his transports in stride. Afterwards, the dishevelled ecstatic seemed rather embarrassed by it all, even a little ashamed, though I don’t think anyone reproached him at all. There was no reason to believe that he was trying to make a deliberate spectacle of himself in order to enhance his prestige or reputation, as such things would have been anathema to the kind of civilized society he belonged to. I know that he took initiation, but to what degree was he permanently transformed by these events? This I cannot say, but clearly something transformative had happened: he had been invaded by the Holy Name and had undergone some kind of radical conversion.

The Gaudiya Math, which has a high concern for respectability, and looks down their noses on discomfiting displays of this sort in exactly the way that Episcopalians (High Church Anglicans) do at charismatic Pentecostals speaking in tongues or southern Baptists being saved at a revival. Indeed, such displays of ecstatic religion do appear somewhat primeval to “civilized man,” a throwback to some kind of atavistic possession religion. Furthermore, it can be argued, as I.M. Lewis does in his seminal anthropological study, Ecstatic Religion, that this kind of religious phenomenon is usually found in socially marginal groups.

This makes sense historically, when we examine the beginnings of the Krishna consciousness movement. However, such manifestations are precisely what early Gaudiya Vaishnavism was all about. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was an ecstatic; Nityananda was an ecstatic and he used ecstatic chanting of the Holy Name as the tool sine qua non for converting others.

akrodha paramānanda nityānanda rāya
abhimāna śūnya nitāi nagare beṛāya
The glorious Lord Nityananda knows no anger, for He is the personification of supreme transcendental bliss. Completely free from false pride, he wanders through the town.
adhama patita jīver dvāre dvāre giyā
hari-nāma mahā-mantra dena bilāiyā
Going from door to door to the houses of the most fallen and wretched souls, he freely distributes the gift of the great mantra of the Lord’s holy names.
jāre dekhe tāre kohe dante tṛṇa dhori'
āmāre kiniyā loho bolo gaura-hari
Holding straw between his teeth, he exclaims to each and everyone: “Please purchase me by chanting the names of Lord Gaurahari!”
eto boli' nityānanda bhūme gaṛi’ jāya
sonāra parvata jeno dhūlāte loṭāya
Having said this, Nityananda Prabhu rolls about on the ground, like a golden mountain tumbling in the dust.
heno avatāre jār rati nā janmilo
locana bole sei pāpī elo āra gelo
Lochan Das says, “One who has not developed affection for an avatar like Lord Nityananda is a sinner who is born and dies without any purpose.”
Those who know the history of Gaudiya Vaishnavism will be aware that a certain tension existed between the followers of Nityananda, whose approach may be likened to the formless kind of direct experience that is characteristic of the Holy Name, while the Goswamis had an approach that took more classical form. The leftist reaction to traditional Hindu forms in the 20th century tended to see Nityananda’s version of Vaishnavism as a popular religion emancipating marginalized lower castes and givine them dignity in a Hindu society that had no real place for them. The Goswamis, on the other hand, were Brahmins who were elitists—they elaborated a complex theology in the Sanskrit language. They revived Smriti rituals, and though they paid lip service to Pancharatra-type egalitarianism, they ultimately supported Brahminical caste domination.

This is a rather superficial view. Not so long ago I wrote on these forums:
The Goswamis are prominent for giving shape to Lord Chaitanya’s movement. He himself gave it its spiritual impetus, others spread the chanting of the Holy Name, etc., but any religion needs dogma, theology, ritual, a sacred calendar, holy lands, etc. The six Goswamis developed these aspects of the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition.
Without these developments, the lack of substantial content in the Holy Name would have resulted in a far-too-diffuse ecstatic movement that quickly lost its moorings.

Some may have objected to my use of the word “contentlessness” in relation to the Holy Name. Obviously that is something of an exaggeration. Within the cultural context of Bengali Hinduism, the Holy Name is God, writ large, and all who hear it know that it is a call to conversion and personal transformation. Though this was and always will be the point of departure for this religion, it cannot be the end point. It finds content in the subjectivity of the experiencer, and will therefore be restricted by the capacity of the experiencer to understand his own experience.

It was up to Rupa Goswami to explain what was going on in Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, and what was the meaning of the Holy Name.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Vrindavan heat stirs up old bhajan memories

With Malati Lata Dasi on Govardhan Parikrama in 2005. This is the Dauji temple in Puchari  where I stayed in 1980. It is now a Nimbarki ashram and being well taken care of.

A few days ago I was on a bit of a roll... and it stirred up so many memories of my life in Nabadwip and Braj in the early 80s. In my kaupin, the sweat rolling down my chest as I chanted japa, the heat reminded me of the way my summer days back then were spent sitting, almost entirely inactive except for chanting, meditating and studying. I was feeling a bit of appreciation for the immobilizing heat. It seems to push you inward... not such a bad thing, on the whole, despite all the prejudices and pressures to externalize, externalize, externalize.

After reading Ramdas's book, I was thinking about his idea of laminar flows... that material and spiritual activities are separate and parallel streams that do not really affect one another, existing side by side, ebbing and flowing to their own rhythms. Ramdas's thesis, that we should allow bhakti to take the lead and not think that we can force it by our own ego-dominated discipline, struck a bit of a chord.

The South-Indian Shri Vaishnava school is famous for its "cat" and "monkey" schools of devotion. The kitten allows itself to be carried around by the mother cat in total surrender, while the baby monkey has to at least hang on to the mother for dear life as she jumps around from branch to branch. Ramdas' vision of bhakti seems to follow the kitten school, while most of us, to some degree or another, think that we are the doers, even when all we are doing is hanging on for dear life.

Perhaps that is what happened, as the heat has made it difficult to sustain any kind of discipline over the past few days. The enthusiasm that overcame me just a few days ago wilted suddenly. It seems that I have been afflicted with something akin to narcolepsy. I will be working or meditating and then be overcome by a precipitous need to lie down and drift off into a lengthy nap.

For most of the time in Nabadwip, I recall getting up regularly in the early hours and scurrying off to the Ganges, usually energetically chanting a host of memorized stanzas and ashtakas, bathing in the holy river before dawn and coming back with a clay jug of Ganges water for all our cooking and drinking needs. Harinam, puja, house cleaning, cooking, begging for food if necessary, studying. Our days were very disciplined and classical bhajananandi lives.

It was a lot more desolate and quiet 25 years beforehand. These photos were taken by Madhavananda.
I spent three months in Puchari in 1980, which was a significant moment in my life. Tough, too. I thought I would become a real babaji. In those days, of course, there was no paved road on the Parikrama except for the Radha Kund-Govardhan section passing in front of Kusum Sarovar. Puchari itself was isolated. There were only two or three ashrams.

My godbrother Radha Charan Dasji lived right next door in an old deserted chatri that has become totally deserted and a refuse tip. When he was there, it was such a nicely tended garden for vegetables and flowers. His bhajan kutir was really ideal, so clean and beautiful. The chatri had four sides and I believe a different baba stayed in each one, but his was the best because he took care of the outside. Very few babas did things like garden, which made him a bit of an odd man out. He had been there so long that he was a familiar and well-liked face to most of the villagers in quite a wide area, probably because he did garden. The villagers were always ready to help him out, but the other Gaudiya babas seemed to think that he was not a "real" bhajananandi, for some reason. Now he is gone, not even a picture. No memorials. No disciples. Just another mahatma merged into the Braj raj.

Radha Charan Dasji arranged for me to stay at the Dauji temple. There was an old baba who did the seva there and he wanted a vacation or something, so he was quite happy to let me be the pujari for Dauji and Revati for the three months. My being a foreigner did not even enter into the discussion.

My idea was to spend chaturmasya there, with Karttik at Radha Kund. My food came from madhukari, which basically meant going door to door and getting pieces of roti, often the thick black barley or red millet based country-style bread of the Brijbasi farmers, and only if lucky some vegetable. I remember going for days without anything but the bread and the occasional green chili.

This made me increase my daily walk for madhukari to further and further villages. Jatipura was the biggest nearby town and I would sometimes get a little something interesting there... but it was still a tough bit of austerity, no doubt. One day I was doing madhukari in the small Puchari settlement and I went down a back alley. The Brijbasi living there came out so excited. He had roti and sweet rice to give me. I can still remember him saying, "This is the opulence of Radharani." To me, I was still foreign enough to think that the offering was pretty humble, but I remember the spirit in which it was given. Life was certainly different in out-of-the-way Braj villages of the time.

Usually if there was some utsava in Govardhan, Govinda Kund or Radha Kund, some babaji would invite the other bhajananandis who were dispersed in the outlying areas, so that was always welcome, even though these feasts were often humble affairs. Malpoa, a runny and overly spiced vegetable, and some laddus. After a few weeks, we really began yearning for Bengali rice, dal and veg.

When Madhusudan and I came to Braj that time, it was with a bit of determination to really become immersed in the bhajananandi spirit. We had been together for five or six months in Nabadwip, following our schedule with determination, but living in close contact with each other on a daily basis became wearying and we had started to annoy each other pretty badly. This was a pattern that we followed for the next few years. On this occasion, we both decided to get on the train to Mathura, even though we had no money for fare, and just try it somewhere else.

When we got off the train in Mathura, we split and went separate ways. I headed straight for Puchari, I don't remember where he went at first, but after a month or so, he ended up finding a place to stay in a village on the Rajasthan side about five kilometers from Puchari itself. There he had his own adventures with the local people. The most notable thing I remember was an Indra puja that the locals held for rain. It was a big affair that lasted for days. On the last day, I went there to see what was going on and watched as the sky filled with huge black clouds that would have reminded anyone of Krishna himself. It looked like the yajna would have its miraculous denouement in a thunderstorm, but the clouds passed over and soon it was as sunny as ever. Anyone who knows the Bhagavata would surely have gotten a chuckle out of that.

At the Dauji temple, it would get hot. I would just close the doors (no windows) and do japa the best I could. I got malaria and spent many a day lying there alone, shaking with fever and nobody to look in on me except for Radha Charan, who dropped in once or twice to make sure I had water. During one of those fever sessions I had a vision of Bhaktivinoda Thakur and Lalita Prasad Thakur. I don't remember it all that clearly, but basically Bhaktivinoda Thakur just came to tell me that he was taking Lalita Prasad back home and not to worry, they would take care of me. Despite the sad news, it was a sweet moment for me and I got better quickly after that.

Sitting in Puchari, I got to see many of the annual Braj parikramas come through. Thousands of Gujaratis from the Vallabha sampradaya, the Kathia Baba gang of wild sadhus. The Gujaratis were especially attractive to those with a thirst for pranami. I got kicked out of my home for that day. Who knows who the real owners of the Dauji temple were? They transformed my room, which believe me, was as empty as a Himalayan cave, into "Shyam Dasji's baithak." To collect money from the pilgrims, they made it a spot where some great saint had done his bhajan in the past. In those days, they still had those two and three paisa coins. All the pilgrims would have these tiny denomination coins and would sprinkle them everywhere. I had to sit out at the front gate and chant japa as the parikrama of several thousand pilgrims stormed through. I also got a sprinkling of coins!

Those three months were pretty formative. All the times I did Govardhan Parikrama. Sitting by Apsara Kund, Airtavata Kund, Surabhi Kund, Govinda Kund, watching the monkeys and peacocks. Basically wearing nothing but a scrap of cloth, often just a kaupin and nothing else.

I didn't really associate with anyone. The main thing was to be alone and do bhajan. I only had the Bhagavata, Chaitanya Charitamrita, my Stava-kalpa-druma, and O.B.L. Kapoor's Braj ke bhakta, books that are still with me and the backbone of my library--in fact, my only real library, one that I can carry in a bag with me wherever I go.

Still, the overriding memory is of the hunger and the desire for some variety in food. When the time for Annakuta came, then just up the road near Surabhi Kund they would have a huge chappanna bhoga. There is an old building, still there, which remains deserted all year, but when Annakuta comes, it suddenly becomes a beehive of activity with hundreds of cooks and devotees who prepare so much food, the idea being to cover the entire side of Govardhan with offerings. I can remember waiting hungrily and watching the opulent offerings and hoping to get some remnants, for a milk sweet or something special and different.

Nabadwip was better for us. We would go begging in the market or door to door. Being foreigners, we got special treatment. In Braj, out in the boondocks, strangely enough, there was no "special treatment." But in Nabadwip, even the vegetable sellers in the market were willing to give a potato or two, a handful of shak or chunk of pumpkin. We could get a week's supply of rice in an hour or less. I like going door to door, chanting some bhajan like "Parama Karuna" and waiting for the householders to give me a thimbleful or fistful of rice. Often I was embarrassed to accept, the people were so poor. And yet they would give.

Those are all the externals. The internal part was just sitting and chanting the Holy Names. That was an entirely different stream, running separately, which still flows. I feel it here in Vrindavan, connected up as though there had never been an interruption.

When I finally left India five years later to set off on a new adventure, this time in my supposedly home country, I did so in the full faith that nothing would be lost and that whatever small riches of bhajan I had accumulated in those few short years would be available to me whenever I sought them out. In a way, I had forgotten that. The Vrindavan heat helped me to remember.

It is true. So, I say, don't underestimate those who stay in Radha Kund or the Holy Dham for their entire lives. They are all accumulating immortal bhakti points, far more than anything I was ever able to do.

So the point I am just remembering, friends, is this:

pratyavāyo na vidyate
svalpam apy asya dharmasya
trāyate mahato bhayāt
In this undertaking there is no failure; there are no disappointments or losses; just a tiny bit of bhajan saves one from great fear. (Gita 2.40). 
Radhe Shyam.

Natural Bhakti: Bhakti without fear – the lost science of attraction (Rati).

A small book I have had lying around for a few months was given to me by the author, Ramdas, Ronald Engert, whom I met at the Munger temple in Vrindavan. He is a jovial 50-year-old German devotee from Berlin. He has been publishing a good quality magazine in German on spiritual topics, called Tattva Viveka and has also been making forays into other kinds of publishing. He is trained in religious studies, and although engaging in bhakti since 1989, was only formally initiated by Bhaktivedanta Narayan Maharaj in 2003. Currently, he is a leading supporter of Bhaktivedanta Sadhu Maharaj in central Europe, and the numerous German-speaking devotees at the Munger temple from Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, are a testament to Sadhu Maharaj's laid back approach, which Ramdas is also promoting.

The book, which he told me has met with considerable criticism from conservative ISKCON ranks, is called Natural Bhakti: Bhakti without fear – the lost science of attraction (Rati). He has already published a second English edition and there is of course a German one.

After he gave me a copy, I read a few pages and then ran into him again, and said, rather flippantly, I would guess, that “This is pretty much what we were saying in 1979 when we left ISKCON.”

He took it rather goodnaturedly, perhaps since.neither of us knew the other or of the other. Since going through the 135-page book, I was both pleased to acknowledge that his argument was somewhat different and in some ways more sophisticated that the one I would have given in 1979, but at the same time it gave me the opportunity to clearly see the next logical step after this.

The thesis of the book is simple. It is an attempt to distinguish between rāgānugā and vaidhi bhakti approaches and to propose emphasizing the latter rather than the former approach. Ramdas places the emphasis on the attractive qualities of bhakti and laments the misunderstanding that has led to putting so much emphasis on the so-called “four regulative principles.”

The emphasis on prerequisites to any kind of bhakti, what to speak of rāgānugā bhakti is Ramdas’s main concern. This means, on the whole, that Krishna bhakti, "the most precious jewel of spiritual existence, does not attract more people?” (9)

Just briefly observing Ramdas's work in publication and obviously close relationship with the movers and shakers and conference makers in the science/meditation/yoga/philosophy scene in Berlin, in other words, the modern new age seekers, and has a great deal of criticism to make about devotees, whether from ISKCON or any other sangha. He says that there is a world of difference between modern Western culture, which devotees tend to grossly underestimate, and the Indian culture of the 16th century. His approach, then, is to try to make an integral attempt to set modern human findings in psychology, etc., in alignment with the eternal truths of the Gaudiya sampradaya. (17)

His principal point is not that Vaishnavism is intellectually unacceptable to modern intelligent Western people, but that the rigid and repressive structures found in the modern manifestations of Krishna consciousness, are.

We are used to a high degree of freedom and emancipation. Over the course of our history, we have gradually led the individual out of its stifling immaturity of thought and choice. The age of enlightenment, in which we have been living [for the last] 300 years, is only concerned with this point, to realize that individual person, free from paternalism and mythical anxiety. (20) Often we don’t see how high people in the West have developed their consciousness and how intelligent they are. (26-27)
Western people are rational and free. They have left behind the immaturity prevalent in religion’s earlier days. On the other hand.

The devotees are in most cases very young and don’t have much life-experience or knowledge. As soon as they come to the association of devotees, they tend to cut off all their intellectual and mental connections to forms of knowledge other than that of the Vedic literature. They don’t endeavor at all to prove their convictions or relate their philosophy to other philosophies and opinions, and if necessary reconcile both sides. This leads to a strange indifference towards the experiences and the wisdom of mankind. (119)
Ramdas returns again and again to a critique of the repressive-authoritarian structure of the western bhakti movement, as well as its fundamentalism, which he defines and refutes as follows:

The practice of fundamentalism, which adheres to the literal expression of scripture and denies one’s own consideration as blasphemy cannot be appropriate for a modern intelligent person, moreover it cannot provide a spiritual experience. It should be possible to validate statements by means of one’s own intelligence and especially one’s own experience. Every statement should be proved for its truthfulness in order to be integrated into one’s own experience and realization.(33)
Though Ramdas is obviously loathe to criticize A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada for setting this mentality into motion, he finds that the basic misinterpretation entered the movement with the emphasis on the "four regulative principles." Since vaidhī bhakti emphasizes practicing devotional service in a regulated fashion, or sādhana, the translation of sādhana as rules and regulations had the unfortunate effect of leading devotees to overemphasize the need for self-purification through a negative process, an understanding that was very much external and material, rather than through the pure and simple process of attraction to Hari-kathā and other devotional practices.

Though the Narayan Maharaj sangha has somewhat softened in their critique of the ISKCON approach to bhakti, this is pretty much what one would have heard from the early days of his preaching. No doubt it was recognized that Western culture lacks renunciation. (22), but nevertheless, on the whole,

[Prabhupada's] role in bringing bhakti to the West afforded the introduction of the aiśvarya aspect…(13) the introduction of aiśvarya-bhāva in dāsya-rasa by means of vaidhī bhakti. (14)
The end result is that regulative principles have been absolutized as a prerequisite for bhakti. They are identified with bhakti. This has a negative effect on the experience of rasa in the devotee's own spiritual development. Devotees end up "giving up the path of bhakti-yoga because they cannot bear the psychic suffering that comes from being condemned as impure, dirty, guilty, sinful, or unqualified." (23)

Ramdas argues that most devotees do not trust their emotions, which they suppress by mental regulation and control of the mind and senses. Longtime devotees tend to become “mentally-operating people who are isolated from their emotions” and whose chanting becomes a “robotic ritual” (25)

This emphasis on purity rather than attraction to the joyful and positive aspects of the devotional path is an a ntiquated paradigm (35), which follows the general pattern of religion in the middle ages. It is what Ramdas calls "mythical religion." He calls for a positive and natural approach to the emotions. " Emotions, our feelings, give us energy. Psychologists explain that a good feeling strengthens the body and mind and satisfies the person, makes him or her calm and peaceful and gives energy to act and to receive." (53)

It is here that Ramdas makes a distinction between religion and spirituality: the former is transcendental, nirguṇa, the latter sattva-guṇa. Religion is discipline of the ego, spirituality is transformation of the ego. "When the ego is transformed, when it has become Radha-dasi, there is no more question of discipline, just as a child who has matured into a healthy adult no longer requires it."

Without spiritual experience, there is no spiritual path, but merely religion. Religion works without spiritual experience, it is only based on external instructions and orders, for instance conventional issues, catechisms, codices, rules, etc. (101)
Here Ramdas makes some reference to Freud's psychic model, which we have just been talking about here not so long ago. He points to the neurotic nature of repressive religious attitudes and suggests that a healthier option integrating the Super Ego (the conscience) and It (emotions) to create a harmonic personality. " Since there isn’t any distinction between good and evil in the ultimate sense, the liberation of the emotions into their full state of purity in bhakti, requires at first the acceptance of all emotions, whether material or spiritual." (55) Rāgānugā bhakti leads to is the end of neurotic schism, the end of splitting into two worlds. (99)

The entire argument comes down to this. Bhakti is not material. One has to engage in bhakti from the conditioned state in the beginning. Bhakti and material propensities exist side by side in the practitioner, but as one becomes attracted by the joys and attractions of the devotional practices, the material tendencies are displaced by bhakti. Bhakti only comes from bhakti, bhaktyā sañjātayā bhaktyā, and not from the practice of renunciation.

Vaidhi is just external imitation of rāgānugā and as such it has no control over it. One should start right away with this approach and deemphasize the prohibitions against other activities. With progress in bhakti, the attraction to sinful actions will automatically drop away. There is no need to make any prerequisite for devotion. Rāgānugā bhakti can be performed from the very beginning of devotional life in an intermittent, interrupted, responsive, wavelike way. This would mean to develop bhakti through feeling, from the very beginning, even if the performance is not yet perfect. (97)

In his experience, Ramdas says, Rāgānugā bhakti has two advantages that are felt from the very beginning,
... on the one hand, the marvelous experience of spontaneous bhāva for Radha Krishna and, on the other hand, the ability to speak to everyone about Krishna, without ideology. There is no need of defense or ideological combat, and practically everyone can listen to this kathā, even an atheist, what to speak of a mayavadi or follower of another religion. (98)
The book concludes with a number of citations from Bhaktivedanta Narayan Maharaj's commentary on Upadeśāmṛta, in which much is made of the last verse of the Rasa-lila, the hearing of which is said to remove the disease of lust from the devotee's heart.

Hopefully, I have done justice to Ramdas's presentation. It is always difficult to present a thesis in a completely accurate way in a short space. I would of course recommend this text to anyone in Narayan Maharaj's sangha, especially those who have come to it through ISKCON, and if anyone in ISKCON can be tempted to cross the boundaries of the Index, onto which this has surely be placed, could no doubt profit from reading it.

In the beginning I said that these are things that my friends and I were saying in 1979 and 1980 when we left ISKCON and went to join Lalita Prasad Thakur, in the sense that we were also arguing against the idea that rāgānugā bhakti is reserved only for those who have been purified by the performance of vaidhi bhakti as was the prevalent doctrine in ISKCON at the time. Ramdas has concentrated on this point and has quite successfully debunked this position. If one is attracted, i.e., if one has lobha, then one should not allow any logical arguments or scriptural fearmongering to stop one's progress. So on this matter we are in perfect accord.

The difficulty is, of course, where this all leads to. Ramdas, despite citing Freud, does not place much emphasis on the question of sexuality. Indeed, it seems he is more worried about coffee, cigarettes or the occasional alcoholic beverage. But the whole basis for the rāgānugā bhakti fearmongering in ISKCON and the Gaudiya Math is the danger of "mistaking Radha and Krishna's pure transcendental loving pastimes as material." In other words, there is a great fear in these circles that hearing and chanting about Radha and Krishna will have the effect of encouraging that scourge of spirituality, namely sex desire, and lead to Sahajiyaism.

So the absence of the discussion of sexuality itself with reference to the devotional process is a desideratum. In fact, it is the inevitable next step.

Another thing about the Freudian model that Ramdas has not explored is the relation of Super Ego to the patriarchal image of God. This is then rejected, as it should be, but it is not clear what God-concept is replacing it. If the point is to simple have a balanced psychic metabolism, this seems rather less than what the acharyas were aiming for, namely prem. Certainly, there is some comprehension: Ramdas feels that the transcendental energy of bhakti must be allowed to shine on the devotee without his own illusory ego-control, which is fomented by the heroic attempt to conquer the senses:
Prema, bhakti is the actor, even for Radha and Krishna. The highest form of bhakti is not to chant, but to be chanted, is not to dance but to be danced. This is the ultimate attitude of the devotee. The flood of prema overcomes him. He is not the actor. (94)
But a mere balance of Super-Ego and Id is far from describing the state of consciousness of the premi bhakta. Is the dominance of the feminine, as Freud would have it, a surrender to the Id? Clearly, we need to look to Jung for help here. The point is really that once we have understood that a particular God-concept corresponds to an intra-psychic model, then we must proceed and inquire into what psychic models are being followed in the next God-concept. We cannot stop after one without examining the next one in line.

Moreover, as we have discovered over the course of time, pointing out the problem of fundamentalism is simply not enough. To do away with the simplistic literal approach requires a sophisticated reinterpretation of the texts and dealing with many questions of theology that, as yet, even the most intellectually involved devotees are reluctant to face. One either accepts or rejects Krishna consciousness on the basis of its literal or historical truth. Both devotees and their critics seem to be caught in this dualism of truth based in historical fact.

If we are to make use of modern philosophy, science and psychology to help us understand, explain and progress on the path to prema, we have a lot more to do than simply read ancient texts and study history. We need to come up with a scientific paradigm: an explanation that is universally applicable and empirically verifiable. What Ramdas is essentially saying is that the vidhi model has failed. Now we must try the rāgānugā model. I am somewhat skeptical that rāgānugā on its own will be much more than another step on the ladder and not a complete answer in itself, but it is certainly a step forward.

At any rate, I would like to thank Ramdas for his effort and look forward to his future contributions.