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.


I acknowledge Prabhupad's emphasis on vaidhi in his written and spoken statements. For whatever reason, he chose to emphasize it. But there was always another stream. For instance, the stream of raganuga issued from his personal presence. Let's not even consider his words at this point. Rather, I remember his facial expressions, the inflections of his speech, the movements of his hands. No quotes to rely on here - no numbered dictates - just a feeling. And as you say, that feeling is what it's all about. There were words, too - "Bhakti is transmitted from bhakta to bhakta, heart to heart." He said that. I don't know if it's recorded anywhere. So, in the immense ocean of Prabhupad swam many different kinds of fish. Near the surface there were the vaidhi fish. In the subtle depths, far beneath the range of our logical nets and hooks, swam an enormous raganuga fish with powers to awaken its counterpart within us. That deep influence is what attracted people to him. I agree with your criticisms of the institution he founded. As for myself, I've set aside Prabhupad's statements on politics, economics, science, sociology, and other aspects of material culture (and sadly even his hopes for Iskcon), to derive inspiration from his spontaneous outpourings of love of God. That stream of love has irrigated a natural garden of devotion within me, cultivated from my own indigenous soil.
Jagadananda Das said…
Adwaitaji informs me that he has also commented on this book, back in 2007!
Ram das said…
Dear Jagadananda Das,
thank you very much for your objective and/or appreciating comment. You matched some of the main points of my book and your additional proposals are very helpful for me, absolutely correct and constructive.
You are right with the point of sexuality. At that time I didn't focus on this, but it is crucial. I have written a paper about this after the appearance of the vigraha of my Radharani in my life this year in Vrindavan. But it is too intimate and personal in order to expose it to people who are still fear- and guiltdriven. But I can say: there is no condemnation or falling at all.
I will be very happy to advance in our joint research and pray to my ista to give me the opportunity to do this. Radhe Radhe.
Ram das said…
My dear Daniel,

what you are writing about Srila Prabhupada is very inspiring for me. I was to young to meet him personally. This confirms to me that he had the rasa and the bhava. Anyway it could not be not like that.
His task was to preach isvarya-bhava and vaidhi-bhakti. First we have to understand that Krishna is God. Than we may be able to reach to madhurya-bhava and raganuga-bhakti what means to understand that Krishna is not God, but our friend, child or beloved. To develop mameta, myness. to love without awe and reverence, but not out of ignorance but out of sambandha.
Sometimes I feel Prabhupadas task like as it was an austerity for him to avoid rasik-bhakti in order to prepare the ground and to cut a breakthrough into the djungle of western materialism.
I have written some objections in my book concerning the four regulative principles. But I can tell you, my sambandha with Srila Prabhupada became stronger since then. I personally feel that he knows about all these things and wellcomes devotees who have the courage to evolve his teachings, not seeing them like carved into stone but as a vivid process of life force.
Let us celebrate the revelation of bhakti in the West as an never ending and ever increasing ecstasy.
Ram das
Unknown said…
This book sounds well written and inspiring. I look forward to reading it. I feel that this emphasis on rules and regulations must have been trend driven and also understood by whatever language or way of speaking that devotees may have used at the time. Personally, when I was an iskcon bhakta, I was told the principles were "regulative principles of freedom," meaning they set you free if you follow them, and not that they bind you to anything in any way. I think that statement may have come from Prabhupada but I am not sure.

Jagat, I am wondering what is your concise concept on sexuality with regards to raganuga. How does it tally with statements of the goswamis or anyone else in the line. I have read some smatterings of your writings on the topic but I am not yet clear. I am looking for something really short and to the point. I am asking this because the topic you bring up is not yet in any conflict with what I understand that Gaudiya teachers are teaching. I mean that there are practices for bramacharis and there are practices for grihastas. So I am not aware that sex is so forbidden, but maybe I am unaware of any actual teachings.

Recently on one forum, some text of Krishna das Kaviraj was posted. It is the Necklace of Immortality. It is filled with sexual reference and visualizations and so on. So what am I missing. It must be something because I am not sure why sexuality is in question at all.
Satya devi dasi said…
A slight correction.

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.

I think you mean to say the opposite of this: emphasizing the *former* rather than the "latter" approach.

No need to post this. Radhe Radhe.

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