Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Do Radha and Krishna really have nothing to do with human love?

An oft-repeated error of orthodox Vaishnavas is that the the love of Radha and Krishna has "nothing to do" with the romantic love of human experience, especially not where parakiya-rasa is being considered. I say that it would take only the blindest and most deluded observer to say such a thing. The Gaudiya Math and ISKCON have deliberately obfuscated the connection between Krishna's madhura lila and our human experience to promote the pan-Indian belief in sannyas that arises from the Buddhist and Shankarite schools.

As I often say, the entire corpus of Rupa Goswami's work is meant to demonstrate the superlative position of madhura rasa. But any such hierarchy of rasa must be based in real human experience. Ideals have a relation to reality; they are meaningless without them.

You need to see the madhura lila of Radha and Krishna as an object lesson in how to deal with sexual desire, not how to destroy it. Through worshiping Radha and Krishna we become aware of the possibility of realizing the ideal, which is the spiritual union of lovers in the mood of Vrindavan.

We see the world as what we ourselves are, rather than seeing it as it is. From my vantage point, ISKCON and the Gaudiya Math, indeed Indian spirituality in general, is possessed by a fundamental ambivalence about sexuality. And yet, the Vaishnavas have made the Divine Couple, Radha and Krishna, whose union is the result of purely erotic attraction and not dharma, the symbol of the highest love.

This is either, as Freud would have it, repressed sexual desire manifesting itself unconsciously in the spiritual symbolism of the Vaishnava sect, or it is a conscious glorification of madhura-rasa, as known in human experience and idealized in art and symbol. The idea that the world of Radha and Krishna has nothing to do with the aspirations of the human being for loving intimacy with another human person is the breeding ground for all the sexual hypocrisy that runs rife in the ISKCON-GM world.

I suggest that we all study Rupa Goswami in the light of conscious revelation rather than false renunciation and asexual idealism.

Though Rupa Goswami has given the basic sādhanā in his books with this intent, there is clearly a great deal that is unstated. Thus there are so many misconceptions.

What Rupa Goswami has stressed is rasa. Krishna consciousness makes one capable of tasting rasa, because, as the Upanishad says, rasa is the locus of the Supreme. This is, no doubt, only one of multiple definitions of the Supreme, but is the one with which most Vaishnava sampradayas prefer to work.

Rasa has two dimensions, one is the basic understanding that comes from the Sanskrit poetic tradition in India, the second is Rupa Goswami's adaptation of it for bhakti. The latter cannot be understood without the former.

In order to understand the relation between Rupa Goswami's adaptation and his contemporary (but constantly evolving) rasika tradition, it is important to understand the concept of bhava or rati. The basic premise of the material rasa-śāstra is that we possess natural (archetypal) moods that are awakened through hearing (etc.) of literature or other artistic products (i.e., "entertainments"). These are said to be eight in number. These instinctual moods make it possible for us to identify with universals that are mediated through characters in such a play or novel, etc.

In other worlds, we hear about Ram and identify with Ram in his epic struggles with Ravana. Or with Arjuna and the Pandavas, etc. The most powerful of these identifications generally occurs with the erotic mood, whether it is the grossest tāmasika levels of pornography or the most transcendent of sattvika love poetry. This points to sexual desire as the most fundamental elements of human psychology.

It is my sincere belief is that we need, as Vaishnava doctrine advises, to find a way to adapt this fundamental human problem in sacralized ways so that it enhances our bhakti rather than being seen as a purely animal corruption of the flesh that must be uprooted. That is what Rupa Goswami is really talking about.

The idea of fundamental or instinctive identification is adapted by Rupa. He says that we need to purify our nature and transform our natural inclinations so that they produce a different kind of rasa.

This different kind of rasa is transcendental and devotional. It is connected to Radha and Krishna. Rupa Goswami’s philosophy does not deny the “material” rasas, but simply converts them, finding the ideal essence of each of them. There is no meaning to parenthood or sexual relations in the spiritual world, as spirit has no need of physical reproduction. The essence of these relationships is the quality of love that they embody.

The process of developing bhāva or Krishna-rati (the two words divided here by Rupa, the former a purely bhakti term, the latter coming from the poetic tradition) has both components (i.e., related to the spiritual essence and the so-called material forms). In the earlier stages, we reform the mind by inundating it with the archetypal universe represented by Braj, in which Radha and Krishna and their erotic love takes the central place. In the middle stage we apply this transformed psychology to our own lives, as type related to idea or archetype.

This identification has multiple levels. Although on one level, it appears to be the hated ahaṁgrahopāsanā, on higher levels it takes the form of Radha-sakhya. Ahaṁgrahopāsanā should be understood as the capacity to identify with Radha-Krishna lila, without which no rasa can be experienced. This is the abheda aspect of acintya-bhedābheda. The sakhi-bhāva or mañjarī-bhāva is the essentially devotional stance that represents the bhedaAhaṁgrahopāsanā is clearly not looked upon favorably in the Vaishnava philosophical view, but not from the point of view of rasa, where it should be seen as essentially the same as sādhāranīkaraṇa.

This latter understanding is a bit mysterious, but essential to the practice. Without taking on the feminine vantage point, no man can understand love. Therefore simply engaging in sexual acts in the masculine identity is not in itself bhakti. It might carry some secondary spiritual benefits as tantra, etc., but that is not prema.

Devotees often reduce love between devotees as mere "mundane attraction." Devotees who fall in love with one another need to make their love an integral part of their devotional practice. Then it is no longer mundane, but becomes the very inspiration for devotion. Love between devotees makes Radha and Krishna real. It makes their lila a living thing, being lived in your own experience.

This is the real art of sādhanā.

Monday, January 07, 2013


One of the most exotic and exuberant streams flowing from the spring of Sri Chaitanya and his followers is that of the Bauls, who are broadly classifiable as Sahajiyas and thus treated as a heterodox or apasampradaya sect by the mainstream followers of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.

At various times over the past century, the Bauls have sprung into prominence in Bengal and further afield, without ever really penetrating the public consciousness. They remain, as Shashi Bhushan Dasgupta classified them, an "obscure religious cult." This despite the support they received from no less a figure than Rabindranath Tagore, whom Dasgupta even calls "the greatest of the Bauls of Bengal." [Obscure Religious Cults, 187).

In recent times, prominent members of the tradition such as Purna Das, Kisan Das, and Paban Das Baul have attracted some public attention, primarily as folk singers in the world music and fusion genres, rather than as a specific religious school. Some scholarly interest has taken researchers from the West to the Baul centers of Bengal to investigate their beliefs and customs, perhaps precisely because of their heterodoxy and the more sensational of their practices.

So it was with some interest that I read Mimlu Sen's memoir, Baulsphere. This is the story of Ms. Sen's entry into the world of the Bauls, by way of her attraction for their music and her love affair with Paban Das Baul, currently one of the major international performers and exponents of Baul music and culture.

Born into a wealthy upper-caste Bengali family, Ms. Sen had a strong rebellious streak that took her as a teenager from political and social action in the poorer parts of India to France, where she spent many years. Her political activism at the height of the Naxalite period in the early 70's even led to a one-year stint in a Bengali women's prison.

During her time in Paris, she came into contact with the talented and charismatic Paban Das for the first time. When she returned to Kolkata some time later, she soon found herself traveling in the most unlikely company of the Bauls through the villages and countryside of West Bengal. Most unlikely because the world of rural and suburban poverty inhabited by Paban Das and his milieu is totally different from the ones she has known – those of the big cities of India and Europe.

Now there are a lot of Bengali poets and artists in the bhadralok world who sympathize with the freewheeling Baul culture, but there are fundamental barriers that exist between the world of the urbanized and educated elites of Kolkata and the mostly illiterate and poverty-stricken strata of society that is the world of the Bauls. But Sen's sympathies lie with the Baul critique of the world of middle and upper class Bengali values, especially with the comparative freedom that exists, in theory at least, for the women of the sect. At one point she laments the compromises that even the Bauls have made to the traditional patriarchal values of the greater society, while elsewhere exulting in the presence of strong female figures like the woman guru Gaurima.

In particular, she remarks on the problems related to the social divisions in several places, particularly after she and Paban Das go in the early 80s to live in Shantiniketan where Tagore had started his experiment in bringing the bhadralok and Baul communities together:

My first impression of this town was that it had an atmosphere of sterility. Emaciated old people lived here, shuttered in their dilapidated bungalows and wrapped in memories of the transient glory Tagore had given it. Their withdrawal from reality was indicative of a shrinking of the arteries of rasa. Tagore had lauded a lifestyle close to nature and espoused the philosophy of Baul poets and philosophers, but how could he teach sensual life and the concepts of democracy to the caste-conscious, puritanical bhadralok society which had taken over the administration of the university.

Tagore had created the Paus Mela, a multicultural and multidimensional fair, with the idea of creating a bridge between the indigenous popular living arts of the local region and the cultures of the West... Tagore had hoped that these projects would spiral upwards into a fecund and rich communion between city and village. In half a century, that spiral had been straightened out and reduced to a conformist straight line, separating the world of the babu from the world of the Baul. If only Tagore could have foreseen that the destiny of a place like Shantiniketan after his death would finally be determined not by the individuals he had drawn there through his personal magnetism, but by the continued impoverishment of the village and forest world that surrounded it, a hardening of caste attitudes and total obliteration of the sensual and imaginary life of its women. The poets' dreams faded out with his life.

Mimlu notes that the Baul tradition appears to be endangered, though it is debatable whether there has been any real change over the centuries. The poor and lower classes have always been engaged in a struggle for existences, which inevitably leads to the vitiation of values in exchange for survival. All religions have always railed against the sell-outs. But whether it is singing for your supper while doing madhukari door to door or busking in the Katwa local, or adding mundane folksongs to your repertoire to widen your audience, the danger of watering down is always there. But the real crisis is in the changing times and the relevance of Baul philosophy and religion to the world.

Sen's unique position, of course, resulted in her being able to help Paban Das and other Bauls connect with the educated and artistic community of Kolkata, as well as to bring his art to the Western world. In her company (and that of her children) Paban Das, who was completely illiterate, himself starts to learn to read – even though many of his confreres in the tradition protest, as the Vedic brahmins once did, that to learn to read would result in a loss of the power that exists in a uniquely oral transmission. But that is only the beginning of a cross-cultural merge between the two that continues to give equal footing to both continuing participating in the Baul cultural circuit as well as the attempts at penetrating the international market.

But Ms. Sen's incursion into Paban Das's world and her resulting attempt to bridge the two, either by attempting to save the endangered tradition by modernizing it, or by "selling it" to the modern world, seems to be somewhat vitiated by her secular approach to the Baul tradition. From the very beginning, her principal attraction is to the music and the freewheeling antisocial mood of the Bauls, as well as the poetry of their songs. Perhaps it was her leftist sympathies for the downtrodden, which she took to a level of practical application that is certainly rare in the world... But my question is about the specifically religious and practical insights of the Baul religion, which gives the impetus to all its music and poetry. Can the one flourish without the other?

Mimlu is not a historian, but her replicating the oral accounts of Baul history is of some interest, even though they differ considerably from the textual traditions we have received. These are too numerous, but we will refrain from enumerating them as this will distract from what I really want this summary, which is the spiritual aspects of Baul dharma that she mentions.

Though Ms. Sen brings up the matter of sexual sadhana several times in the book, she does not seem to be particularly invested either in it or in Baulism as a religion. She makes a bit of fun at the expense of a Baul guru who impregnates a Swedish disciple, saying "so much for retaining semen"! But in fact Paban has not been initiated in the practice when he meets her and has to send the curious Westerners who approach him elsewhere.

At the time of her initiation she says that she does not believe in God, and Hari Goshain pacifies her by saying,

jā dekhibo nā nija nayane
tā biśvāsa koribo nā gurura bacane

"If I cannot see it with my own eyes,
I will not believe it, even on the guru's word."

In a way Hari Goshain's teachings are modern: He interprets the Gita and Mahabharata allegorically. He makes an interesting division between anumāna panthis, those who only conjecture about what is divine, and the vartamāna panthis "who created divine life themselves."

Hari Goshain whispered the mantra into her right ear and Ma Goshain into her left, and in the opposite ears of Paban Das.

One thing that is obvious to me from reading this is that Bauls can be considered a branch of Sahajiyaism. The external forms have taken a bit of different direction, as the Sahajiyas tend to engage in lila and nama kirtan, whereas the Bauls have their own style of songs, and there may be other philosophical differences also – Mimlu Sen mentions a controversy with the "Chintamani" sect, which "who indulge in sexual promiscuity," [associated indiscriminately with the orthodox Vaishnava Goshains of Nadia] but initiation is in the Vaishnava Kama Gayatri mantra. Mimlu calls it the beej mantra, and even describes it as "indispensible in the practice of hatha yoga" [!]) with the power to transform the senses. But at the time of the initiation ceremony, which she describes in some detail, the initiating guru Hari Goshai gives a detailed breakdown of this mantra.

Mimlu Sen renders the Kama Gayatri in a butchered form (kling sling kama devaya bidaha pusha binaya dhimohi tanna tanga prachodayang), but for the purpose of our readers, we have reconstituted it in its proper form.
  • klīṁ = ka, la, ṅg, candra, bindu. [The third part of the mantra should be ī, as in the usual breakdown of the bīja]
  • ka = Krishna.
  • la = Radha
  • ī = āhlādinī [she who desires to be caressed]
  • candra = the divine beauty of lovers
  • bindu = Vrindavan, the garden of love.
  • In the Baul Kama Gayatri, there are five characters and five forms. (?)
  • = from this sound is born the seed of knowledge
  • ma = Know for certain that Madana is the origin of ma.
  • de = (do) He who sings do in dohās, tames Krishna, surrendering his body [I suspect that deha was intended, drinks rasa.
  • = (written rā, probably bā for bāhu, arm) lift up your arms, embrace at the sound of [ra] kiss the intangible couple again and again.
  • ya = [written aw as the antaḥstha ya] Rādhikā's soul opens up at this sound. Radha knows what Krishna desires.
  • vi = at this sound awakens the sensuous incantative body, which none can apprehend except through the eyes of Sri Rupa.
  • dma = at this sound take pride and drink the rasa; he who is always steeped in rasa attains knowledge
  • he = at this sound, the golden love of Radha awakens; Krishna savors it, nurturing this love
  • pu = at this sound, he whose body flowers in the luxury of union, as with an arrogant prostitute, is a great man.
  • ṣpa = at this sound, the heart of Radhika, full of flowers, blooms the blossom with the flavor of Krishna.
  • = at this sound, the bhava Krishna, whose love is unchanging, judges the space of good and evil
  • ṇā = at this sound, the actor becomes the rasa Krishna, nurturing and tasting the goddess Radha
  • ya = a strange sound, the essence of the knowledge of the material world; tasting the feminine, Krishna becomes marvelous.
  • dhī = at this sound, slowly and steadily the two fluids rise to two orifices and are tasted in the body
  • ma = at this sound, the great element is interiorised within the body at the moment of sexual union.
  • hi = at this sound, the cinnamon colored ancient rasa will rise and the actress [nāyikā] will mercifully reveal her secret to the actor [nāyaka]
  • ta = at this sound, the actress becomes conscious; if she can hold herself, she becomes enlightened.
  • nno = at this sound, the new Radha is imbued with new knowledge, with new rasa, new love and so a new body.
  • na = at this sound, the two bodies become pliant and soft; if they are disciplined, the couple will encounter the light.
  • ṅgaḥ = at this sound, he who masters the body will attain the results desired in all his pilgrimages.
  • pra = at this sound, he whose heart is happy will attain the priceless element.
  • co = at this sound, the devoteed waits like a chataka bird waits for rain, calling the name day and night one-mindedly.
  • da = at this sound, address yourself to the element desired. He who is one-minded can attain it.
  • = at this sound, the mysterious element is the essence of all mankind. He who can master it conquers death.
  • t = at this sound, the half-moon of the mysterious element is mastered. Look, Shiva has it on his forehead.

The initiation had a profound impact of both Paban and Mimlu, who writes that "despite my scepticism it sealed our love in an intangible bond." However, she does not elaborate on the transformation that it may or may not have had spiritually on them both. Ultimately she admits that the two of them placed more importance on the poetry and songs more than the religious or physical practices, which she says are optional.

I would question this assessment. The Baul music is not entertainment, but a method of sacred communication that has its roots in sankirtan. The poetry, whatever else it may be, specifically intends to communicate a spiritual message. And that is the basis of the poetic and musical tradition, without which it has no standing. But the great discovery of Sahajiyaism is the role of spiritual sadhanas in enhancing the life of love. To some extent, the external ritual alone carried out that function for them, but the real purpose of any initiation is to "initiate," to induct one into a spiritual practice, without which one remains on the level of anumāna, rather than the vartamāna.