Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Pramāṇa: Reading between the lines

A big question that is frequently asked of me is about where I get the authority to say things, i.e., about my sources of knowledge, or pramāṇa. This is what we call epistemology: How do we know what we know?

Many devotees are appropriately very attached to the words of śāstra and their gurus. I have myself spent most of my life in a study of the Sanskrit and Bengali texts related to our school of thought out of a great respect for our acharyas, a respect that was instilled in me by Srila Prabhupada himself. As a result, I have long contemplated the value and meaning of these texts, along with my spiritual practices, and come to certain conclusions.

In the article linked to above, I simply wrote that I had no pramāṇas for my spiritual path, but this of course is not entirely true. I still need to know that what "I know" is real knowledge. So I do have a position on pramāṇas, which is as follows:

Pramāṇa is used in argumentation to verify one's position, to establish it, and then to convince others of it. So agreeing on pramāṇas is an important step in any debate, but in fact it is quite well known that there are many people, particularly those of an authoritarian bent, who have a remarkable ability to juxtapose contradictory beliefs uncritically; in other words, they are not really swayed by evidence in a rational way. Epistemology is not a particularly burning concern for them. To some extent we are all a mixture of rational and irrational tendencies, so a pure concern for truth ultimately falls down for what is convenient or pleasant. So an awareness of this tendency is necessary in any discussion of epistemology. In other words, we do not always want to know the truth.

In Indian philosophy, though the Naiyāyikas accept ten kinds of pramāṇa, others schools less, the Bhagavatam accepts four pramāṇas:  pratyakṣa, anumāna, aitihya and śabda. This last is also called āgama and āpta-vākya. Vaishnavas most often accept three, dropping aitihya, i.e., tradition or history, which is subsumed into the other categories, particularly revealed authority. This is all in Tattva-sandarbha and various other places, and common knowledge to most devotees. But the Yoga-sūtra quite correctly places pramāṇa ("correct knowledge") in the realm of vṛttis (1.7) or mental modifications, meaning that they are external to real spiritual experience.

In practical terms, we generally tend not to accept pramāṇas that do not jibe with our personal experience, until as such time as we are ready to do so. In the matter of practical physical reality, we tend to be more open to being convinced by authority and reasoning when our physical senses, etc., fail us (the "four defects"). This is because verification in this area is becoming more and more simple.

In spiritual life things are not always so simple, however. In the Vaishnava tradition, as in most other religions, there is a strong belief in revelation, scripture and the authority of the "realized soul" or guru, whose importance is also stressed in the scripture. But we are also told that sadhu, shastra and guru should have a harmonious understanding, a kind of difficult trifecta that gets harder and harder to realize as our situation becomes more and more individualized, in other words as we become spiritually more advance and individuated.

Those of an authoritarian bent in the Krishna consciousness movement tend to accept the unicity of these sources as a point of faith, even though in practical terms there are so many internal contradictions. For them the hermeneutical challenge becomes one of establishing consistency, something that may become quite a task. But certainly we must be able to distinguish between those things that are easily verifiable on the basis of direct perception and logical argument. The domain of revealed authority is, of necessity, an increasingly restricted circle.

Furthermore, the shastra and individual gurus have pointed out here and there that the scriptures themselves are nothing but the words of realized souls. What else is revelation? Revelation has to be revealed to someone through whom it comes into the world.

Of course, it is incumbent on us, as preachers (as it were) trying to convince others of the validity of our beliefs and practices, to make use of pratyakṣa and anumāna. No charismatic authority can establish any meaningful new direction without doing so. The playing field has changed since the 16th century (what to speak of earlier times). It is not adequate to call it "Kaliyuga" and condemn everything that today's enhanced or evolved pratyakṣa and anumāna have revealed to humanity. You cannot expect the more intelligent people to accept any external or ancient authority when it contradicts easily available evidence and common accepted wisdom.

This does not mean that our spiritual path is lost. Rather it means that we need to think about it in ways that make it sensible to ourselves and to other intelligent seekers. That is our task. I have said that the failures of the IGM are failures of prema, but they are also failures of the intellect. We need to learn the path of positive argumentation also. We cannot argue from the negative ("The modern consumerist ethic is a dead end") or even from a quasi-mystical experience ("I feel bliss when chanting Hare Krishna") to a positive: "The Bhāgavatam is literally true in its every word." Even the Bhāgavatam warns that the rishis and Krishna himself sometimes prefer indirect or misleading speech (parokṣa-vāda), and there are even plenty of texts in the great scripture that have apparent monistic conclusions that need to be interpreted in the light of guiding revelations.

Our capacity to argue from anumāna and even śabda (selectively quoting supporting passages, etc.) comes from our very own personal ṛṣi-pratyakṣa or vidvad-anubhava, i.e., the enhanced experience of spiritual truth that comes from our own practice, i.e, which is revealed to us by divine grace. And this process of selective quoting and logical argument (such as using Nyāya syllogisms and principle like sat-kārya-vāda) is exactly what Jiva Goswami is doing in his hermeneutic of the Bhāgavatam. At any rate, the word vidvad-anubhava appears numerous times in the Sandarbhas, with Sri Jiva calling it the "crest jewel of all evidence"   (sarva-pramāṇa-caya-cūḍāmai-bhūta, KṛṣṇaS 115) and "the king of kings of all evidence" (pramāṇa-cakravarti in Sarva-saṁvādinī to BhagS 1), etc.

Divine grace does not take the same form with everyone. This is important to understand. But if we have an idiosyncratic mystical understanding (it must be idiosyncratic!, i.e., individual) we may make attempts to universalize it by using the three kinds of pramāṇa to convince others. But we must be careful here: Are we attempting to legitimize our own -- doubtful -- stance in order to confirm our ego attachment to a particular belief system, or are we genuinely sharing something beneficial with those who are in need and towards whom we feel compassion?

In this matter we only have history to adjudicate. If we can convince others of the utility and effectiveness of our realizations, then our ideas (or "memes") will survive. If we can't, they will end up in the dustbin of history, a loser in the free market of ideas.

The Role of Charismatic Leadership

Max Weber, the famous German sociologist whose influence in the study of religion is widespread, wrote that religious authority is of three kinds: charismatic, traditional and rational-legalistic. Generally speaking, there will be a mix of these three in any religion, even though foundations and major changes most often come from a charismatic leader or saint, like Srila Prabhupada, who is seen as a direct source of revelation. But Srila Prabhupada also pointed to tradition (paramparā) and, less so, to his legal or bureaucratic qualifications, since he had not been named by the Gaudiya Math as the acharya or received any official status from them except for sannyas. As a matter of fact, the looseness of the legal status and sometimes the break with or critique of traditions -- such as Prabhupada of the Gaudiya Math -- often enhances the charismatic qualifications of a religious leader, and in this case it was true.

Most people in today's world are not willing to accept authoritative statements about the transcendent reality, and for good reason. There are too many conflicting statements, the authorities tend to act in ways that demean their authoritative status, but most of all, the authorities themselves tend to overstep the limits of their authority. This makes it difficult for many rational people to suspect charismatic leadership.

But the kind of charisma we are talking about here is not simply a big smile and a loving demeanor, though all that may be helpful. The capacity to offer a consistent, meaningful and rationally convincing explanation of the world and its spiritual purpose is an integral part of charismatic leadership. But charisma is primarily an aesthetic and emotional phenomenon, hence very relevant to our understanding of bhakti.

Another thing is that charismatic authority tends to declare independence from shastra and tradition, primarily because of the time and circumstance. Generally, the charismatic leader will say he is coming to give the same truth in some new form appropriate to time and place, like Krishna at the beginning of Gītā, chapter 4. Such a declaration, which must be made with appropriate logical argument and justifiable criticism of the break between the ideal and the real, can only be made by someone who is willing to dare renounce the established dharmas, as stated in Gītā 2.52-53 and 18.66.

In an important verse, the Mahābhārata says to follow the great souls, mahājano yena gataḥ sa panthāḥ, after one has become confused about the contradictory nature of the arguments of philosophers and the scriptures. In other words, following the charismatic authority, i.e., the carrier of new revelations or reformed understandings, stands above scriptures and purely logical argument as a sure way of progressing.

But the words of the charismatic figures are also notoriously full of contradiction. In the case of Srila Prabhupada, though his fundamental message was unequivocal, there are many cases of internal contradictions in his writings, in matters both religious and secular are in question. These include the famous "fall" from Vaikuntha (the origins of the jiva, which still stirs up controversy) as well as the relation of Vaishnavism to Hinduism, women, and even evolution. Followers then have to come and clean up the mess, so to speak, through the use of hermeneutics based in their own experience and rational understanding.

The authoritarian mindset wants simple, ready-made, black-and-white truth. Truth however is primarily situational, especially spiritual truth, which makes things a little more difficult. Moreover, Gītā 4.11 and BhP 3.9.11 are both major pillars of the Vaishnava (and Hindu) understanding. All these verses, as well as Gītā 7.21, recognize the form that God takes for His devotee an almost entirely subjective matter and that God even assists a person with impure or incomplete understanding follow a particular concept of God and religion that suits their qualifications.

The Nārada-pañcarātra also says:
maṇir yathā vibhāgena nīla-pītādibhir yutaḥ |
rūpa-bhedam avāpnoti dhyāna-bhedāt tathā vibhuḥ ||
Just as a crystal when in contact with different colors takes on a different appearance, so too, the Supreme Lord appears differently according to the particular method of meditation. (Cf. BhagS 39)
Again, the Gītā (2.39-53, 10.10-11, etc.), stresses the goal of directly and individually accessing the divine intelligence (buddhi-yoga), meaning that ultimately we have to understand that there is no other authority but ourselves and the God who sits in our hearts, i.e., our conscience. In other words, the authority of tradition, scripture, logic or the charismatic teacher has the greatest role in the beginning stages of spiritual life, particularly in determining the general direction one will take on his or her path (such as Gītā 4.34), but in the later stages, we will have to trust our own personal revelation.What is the meaning of God-realization itself if we do not have a personal revelation?

Practically speaking, this process starts to take place for most people when their gurus, their spiritual community and scriptural authorities disagree with their own direct experience and rational or moral understanding, even if they first try to avoid confronting such conflicts. We may be able to juggle the distortions up to a point, but in some cases, such as the Bhāgavatam's cosmology or the wild stories of Ugrasena's bodyguards, and creation myths, etc., most reasonable people come to the conclusion that the Bhāgavatam must be read figuratively or mythologically in order to be able to extract any significant meaning. The literal meaning is inadequate as an explanation.


This is where the discussion of hermeneutics comes in. Our acharyas also talk about abhidhā  (direct literal meaning), lakṣaṇā (indicative meaning) and vyañjanā-vṛttis (figurative meaning) in interpretation, even though officially the Gaudiya school follows Jiva Goswami (in Tattva-sandarbha), or Caitanya-caritāmṛta, where Mahaprabhu says that we only accept abhidhā in our scriptural interpretation. But even the acharyas recognize that this rule is untenable when we encounter both internal and external contradictions to direct experience or logical reasoning. Then we have to look beyond the literal to understand the meaning.

This is especially true when we deal with myth and symbol, which usually have multiple layers of meaning that are not extinguished by a purely literal understanding. As a matter of fact, the literal interpretation of myths and symbols is the most immature level of understanding and one who is locked into that gross (sthūla) dimension of interpretation is of necessity held back from subtler levels of realization.

The most important parts of our path are in our myths and symbols, and the history of any religious tradition is in its prioritization of certain myths and symbols over others. In a religious tradition like Hinduism, with its richness of such contents, a screening out, winnowing and weaning out of this mythological content becomes the essence of its evolution.

So we see that the Vaishnavism of the distant past -- even of the Gītā and Bhāgavatam -- and that of the 16th century are significantly different. The stories of Prahlad and Dhruva, though still surviving in the mythical world, become secondary, and of all the myths and symbols, the only ones that really count are Braj, Vrindavan and the Kunja. Again, of these three, the Kunja is the most important.

We accept this hierarchy on the insight and authority of Rupa Goswami. Generally speaking, hermeneutic consistency only comes when we accept certain statements as axiomatic (mahā-vākyas) or as guiding principles, paribhāṣā (aniyame niyama-kāriṇī, Cf. HNV 1.46, Kṛṣṇa-sandarbha 29). Some typical paribhāṣā statements established in the Sandarbhas are BhP 1.3.28 or 1.2.11, but in fact there are many, many more, especially when we move into the area of rasa-śāstra.

In my thinking, the words prema prayojana are such a major guiding principle.

It is somewhat interesting that the simple hermeneutic tool named above is the key to understanding. The literal meaning (abhidhā) is not always acceptable, and the indicative meaning (lakṣanā) is still gross. The example of the indicative meaning is "the cowherd village is on the Ganges." Now of course, no village can be on or in the water, so the meaning of "on" is revised to mean "nearby." But in the case of "her eyes are like a blooming lotus flower" no such secondary meaning is possible, so it must be understood metaphorically (vyañjanā).

Now what the poeticians, and Rupa Goswami after him, understood, is that there is no rasa in direct or secondary meanings, or at least whatever rasa is there is weak in comparison to that which is elucidated when we enter the realm of rasa. But, as Bharata Muni says, rasād ṛte na kaścid arthaḥ pravartate (Nāṭya-śāstra 5): "No substantive meaning is established without rasa."

When we talk about the three kinds of authority taught by Weber, also, we will see that charismatic leadership is based on rasa, even at the expense of logical reasoning or tradition. It is also rasa that distinguishes the vaidhī from the rāgānugā path (BRS 1.2.277). The vaidhī bhakta has a gross understanding of spirituality based on scriptural injunctions and their corollaries, as in the Karma Mīmāṁsā philosophy (codanā-lakṣaṇo’rtho dharmaḥ, Mīmāṁsā-sūtra 1.1.2). In other words śāstra (scriptural injunctions and prohibitions) and yukti (logical argumentation and reasoning) are both external impetuses for devotional actions; though a vaidhī bhakta believes in grace and thereby does not believe in the gross causal relationship between devotional acts and the promised results, he is nevertheless subtly infected by such thoughts. Therefore he is tied to the shastric words, like Arjuna at the beginning of the Gītā, and needs to find the way to go beyond the limitations that are placed by such injunctions.

Similarly, yukti or tarka, logical reasoning is clearly an intellectual (jñāna) admixture to bhakti. Uprooting the jñāna and karma admixtures is a necessary part of our spiritual progress in devotion, as the paribhāṣā verse of Bhaki-rasāmṛta-sindhu 1.1.11 makes perfectly clear.

For the rāgānugā devotee, the impetus is rasa alone. Rupa Goswami's philosophy of rasa (rasa-darśana), it should be noted, gives an indication of how to understand these things, and no one can experience rasa better than one who is well prepared (saṁskāra-yugalojjvalā, BRS 2.1.8), but ultimately bhakti-rasa is totally independent of śāstra and yukti. Therefore, though the vaidha-bhakta is a devotee, he is not entirely free of the effects of karma and jñāna. Though, as Rupa Goswami says, knowledge and renunciation may have some value in the beginnings of bhakti, but they are not actually bhakti themselves (BRS 1.2.248). This is the beginner's big handicap.

In the final analysis, then, one has to learn how to come to pure bhakti, and the only path is rasa. Therefore, for instance, Rupa Goswami highlights the difficulty here in this verse, which is truly worth contemplating:

siddhāntatas tv abhede’pi śrīśa-kṛṣṇa-svarūpayoḥ |
rasenotkṛṣyate kṛṣṇa-rūpam eṣā rasa-sthitiḥ ||
According to scripture and logical reasoning, there is no difference between Krishna and Narayana, i.e., both are God. Nevertheless, when looked at from the point of view of rasa, Krishna is superior, for his form is the ultimate resting place of rasa.
At any rate, hermeneutics is the art of finding guiding principles and significant fundamental insights, marginalizing certain kinds of statements while synthesizing contradictory passages, and then of reading between the lines. In my approach, I will use all the tools at my disposal to establish the conclusions that I have come to after more than forty years of research, study, and practice. We will see whether history has any sympathy for them.

Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur, as we have noted before in these pages, was a believer in hermeneutics and is interpreting the revealed knowledge according to time and place. Ultimately, this may be a more important tradition than the words that were written down in some distant time and place. Putting old wine into new bottles may surprise many an old bottle lover.

It may appear audacious to some that I would claim authority to be a vidvat who has some anubhava, but that is indeed my claim. If I cannot make that claim now that I have crossed over into senior citizenship, with a lifetime's experience of engagement with the texts and practices of this tradition, then what was the point of such an engagement. The Bhagavata says that just as one's hunger become satiated and one is nourished with each mouthful one takes, as one surrenders to the spiritual master and the Lord, one attains direct experience of the Lord (pareśānubhava). The process thus starts from the very beginning, one should hope that a lifetime's commitment will produce more than just trivial insights.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Neither attachment nor aversion is the ideal strategy

I have received a few private remarks, including the complaint that I seem to be obsessed with sexuality. Do I have no other subject that interests me? Of course, there are plenty of things that interest me, but my principal subject is prema. And because of Rupa Goswami's emphasis on the madhura-rasa, I have expanded my areas of interest to include the sexual, the spiritual and Sahajiyaism, which I understand as the natural way to prema.

One of the most often heard criticisms or comments is that I think that sex itself leads to prema. This is of course ridiculous. It is like saying that the reason kirtan is effective is only because of the music. If that were the case, every musician would be enlightened, which is certainly not the case. It is music when used in the service of the Holy Name, like clothes and decorations on the Deity, that it becomes spiritual. In the same way, in a mind that has been properly prepared, sahaja-sādhanā helps propel one into the realm of prema. But understand, sexuality alone, however powerful, is only one component in the complex of this sādhanā.

In the five kinds of prema or components that go into the mix of madhura-rasa, only one is the aspect of physical lovemaking. The other four are the characteristics that predominate in the śanta, dāsya, sakhya, and vātsalya relations. One who does not cultivate those characteristics of love cannot expect that simply engaging in sex one will achieve prema. Then, as the self-satisfied critics smirkingly say, "even the bonobos would have it."

But when has the good fortune to have a loving relationship with a devotee, the act of physical lovemaking serves as a most powerful sādhanā. It takes us right to the source of the problem, sex desire, and deals with it directly: it is therefore its solution.

You can look at sexuality either from the standpoint of attachment or aversion, both of which we see plenty. But neither attachment nor aversion is the ideal strategy, as the words of the scripture repeatedly emphasize.

So what is the median position?

According to the goal desired, that median position will be different. But the Sahajiya or general Vaishnava strategy is to understand and employ the sexual energy in the service of prema. Seen thus, one is detached from sexuality as a force to be feared or loved for its own sake. Of course, as a sādhanā it will be loved by the qualified sādhaka because of its effectiveness, in which case it is the appropriate use of rāga: it is called ānukūlyasya saṅkalpaḥ.

Those who reject sexuality as being inimical to spiritual life in general and bhakti in particular do not seem to have assessed it objectively for its usefulness. They simply deny its utility except for procreation, and as fortune would have it, they have plenty of scriptural evidence to support their position. But such scriptural strictures are meant to warn against the main problem that arises from the powerful force of sexual desire, which is excessive attachment (rāga) on a purely physical or mundane level, which is essentially rājasika or tāmasika, and therefore leads to both internal and external disruptions.

But its opposite number, dveṣa, is simply the reverse of rāga and so it too is rājasika or tāmasika, at best sāttvika, and therefore can neither be the solution to the problem of sexuality, nor answer the question, how is it to be used?

Attachment and hatred or fear are both inimical to the proper assessment of sexuality, or indeed any other universal factor that may or may not be beneficial to devotional service. Generally speaking, devotees (like nivṛtti-mārgīs in general) are more likely to think that something is bhakti or service if it has elements of austerity or renunciation. It is the principal of no pain, no gain. If you suffer, it must be good.

This rather strange guiding principle does not account for pleasure as a psychologically significant motivator. There are no sticks without carrots. For, without a carrot, a stick will have only the most limited effectiveness. You can get the donkey out of the carrot patch with a stick, but the donkey will only try to find another, better carrot patch.

The positive force that we envision is love, but not the love that is merely the opposite of hate. Prema is not on the level of the body, but on that of the soul. Those who cannot see the usefulness of sexuality as a means to prema-bhakti generally have an abhorrence of the act itself. They deny that it has other functions beside procreation. Indeed, the very fact that human sexuality goes far, far beyond procreation in its functions is one of the things that differentiates human beings from most other creatures. Any philosophy or religious practice that has an unrealistic understanding of the social and psychological functions of sexuality, in their subtle as well as gross manifestations, cannot help solve the problems that arise from it.

Where sexuality is concerned, of the two, attachment and revulsion, the former is a stronger and more powerful motivator than the latter. But for most of those who are revolted by it, this is primarily an intellectual position, not a visceral one. Nearly all transcendentalists are ambivalent about sexuality, in other words, fearful of its power and control over their will, and so try to counteract its influence by cultivating revulsion (bībhatsa-rasa) in the same spirit as some Buddhist sects by thinking of the horrors of the material body, and so on, disdaining the pleasure of sexuality and human love as illusory, ignorance and destructive of true spirituality.

Most of these spiritually inclined sadhakas hold that it is impossible to have a detached view of sexuality. One must cultivate disgust because that is the only remedy for this overwhelming attachment to the pleasure of sexual enjoyment and the material bondage to the world that follows.

But we take a position that glorifies love beyond liberation. We see the Yugala-sādhaka's experience of śṛṅgāra-rasa in the company of a loving devotee of Radha and Krishna, drenched in the chanting of the Holy Name, Yugala-nāma as the single most effective agent in attaining madhura-prema.

The ecstasies of lovemaking experienced in the depths of a Yugala-sādhanā are the unfailing barometer of one's advancement. These ecstasies spread to every other activity, especially Harināma-saṅkīrtana.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Probing the pramans with Prem Prayojan Prabhu

Probing the pramans with Prem Prayojan Prabhu,
one of the brightest lights on the Gaudiya Vaishnava horizon.

A short time ago, I met Prema Prayojan Prabhuji in the MVT restaurant. We have met several times before, and he even honored me with an invitation to address his congregation at Ananda Dham in Vrindavan last year.

The ostensible purpose for the meeting was to discuss certain aspects of shastra. Prema Prayojan has been following a train of thought about manjari-bhava and was asking some questions about the Mañjarī-svarūpa-nirūpaṇa of Kunja Bihari Dasji, which I translated way back in 1983 and copies of which are still floating about despite the fact that it has never been officially published. Prema Prayojan thinks that Kunja Bihari Dasji, probably based on Haridas Das's translation of the Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu, promoted the widespread (he believes) erroneous interpretation of bhāvollāsā rati as being equivalent to mañjarī-bhāva as well as an independent sthāyi bhāva distinct from the five major rasas that are described in the BRS.

Prema Prayojan was the one who pointed out to me a mistake I made in the translation of the bhāvollāsā rati verse, and a most embarrassing one it was indeed. Anyway, one makes mistakes... and this one is nearly thirty years old.

I suspected that Prema Prayojan had other motives for the meeting and so I was admittedly a little wary. Though I did not become a self-designated "Sahajiya" specifically to invite discord, the choice of title was something of an intentional challenge to received wisdom in the Gaudiya Math line, so for better or worse I have drawn a fairly big target on my forehead as the "anti-party." Thus I was a little curious about how the subject would come up, and somewhat on the defensive.

Prem Prayojan is a good scholar and, moreover, most enthusiastically presenting Srila Bhaktivedanta Narayan Maharaj's message of rasika-bhakti and service to Srimati Radharani. I have heard him speak a few times and I know his memory to be prodigious and his breadth of knowledge of the Six Goswamis' texts and Gaudiya Vaishnava siddhānta to be vast.

In his personal life, also, Prema Prayojan is an interesting phenomenon on the current world of international Gaudiya Vaishnavism. A few years ago, he took sannyas and was a prominent figure in Srila Bhaktivedanta Narayan Maharaj's sangha, even being spoken of as a potential successor, though still quite young. His knowledge of Sanskrit and Hindi made him the principal translator of his guru's books and his exposition of Gaudiya rasika-kathā made him one of the favored speakers in the sangha, if not a star in his own right.

In 2005, however, when Bhaktivedanta Tirtha Maharaj was accused of sexual abuse for the first time, it was followed by the familiar regime of denial and promises of reform. At least one of Narayan Maharaj's sannyasis left the sangha at that time either as a protest or an expression of disappointment in the adoption of such failed methods of dealing with such serious and legitimate accusations.

Although this was not Aranya Maharaj's specific reason for abandoning sannyas to get married, many indulged in the customary bit of Schadenfreude at the "fall down" of the high-and-mighty, and some outside the sangha took it as salutary testimony to the injudiciousness of speaking of madhura-rasa "to the unqualified." From what I gather, there were many other reasons for his decision to do so, including circumstantial fears surrounding sangha politics and a general discomfort with the sannyas culture in the Gaudiya Math. It is this latter standpoint that is of interest to us.

Prema Prayojan's decision to become a householder has had its repercussions, of course. The fact that he decided to continue on in his preaching activity, sticking to the formula he followed as a Gaudiya Math sannyasi, has been something of a bold step. For many in the Gaudiya Math, only a sannyasi is qualified to become a guru or a preacher. Householders are meant to earn money and support the math. In an attempt to change this culture in the math, Prema Prayojan has apparently been planning to consecrate mūrtis of Bhaktivinoda Thakur along with Bhagavati Devi, the mother of both Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur and Srila Lalita Prasad Thakur.

Bhaktivinoda Thakur surrounded by his family, ca. 1895.
I personally consider his intent to rehabilitate the grihastha ashram and to reestablish the legitimacy of householders becoming religious professionals to be noble and appropriate. Though there are a handful of senior ISKCON householder devotees who also are active preachers and initiating gurus, they are comparatively limited in numbers, power and prestige. And, of course, women are for all intents and purposes non-existent in the role of guru. Despite the well-known siddhantas and history to the contrary, most factions of worldwide Gaudiya Vaishnavism these days promote a uniquely celibate leadership.

I have been in favor of householder guruship for some time, based on the institutional models that would have prevailed in the sampradaya for the two or three centuries immediately following Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. At the same time, I wonder whether Prema Prayojan is on the right track in using Bhaktivinoda Thakur's orthodox example, or whether establishing that ideal will do anything to change existing Gaudiya Math culture and the prejudices that it supports.

Although remembering the stalwart example of Bhaktivinoda Thakur may warm congregational devotees to householders as guru, it should be remembered that Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati deliberately worked to establish the Daiva Varnashram system by reorienting it around a new form of Vaishnava sannyas. The shastra, Bhaktivinoda Thakur and Saraswati Thakur himself may well proclaim that householders who are "knowledgeable about Krishna tattva" are equally qualified to lead and initiate, but in practical fact, there is little or no action in this area in any Gaudiya Math. Indeed, it is fairly certain that Saraswati Thakur wished to replace the prevailing model of household gurus in Gaudiya Vaishnavism with the leadership of celibate monks. The fact that his revered father was a householder did not trouble him, though it is clear that he was troubled by the standards of other householder gurus in the Vaishnavism of his time.

Except for the possibility that householders may be rehabilitated for such service, Bhaktivinoda Thakur's model cannot really bring about a radical change in Gaudiya Math "Daiva Varnashram" ethos. Householder life in the classical varnashram model taught by Siddhanta Saraswati, is based on the same "better-to-marry-than-to-burn" and "sex-is-bad-celibacy-good" concept. Wherever such ideas hold sway, the same kinds of misogyny, double standards, and hypocrisy tend to follow. In this day and age, such ideas are progessively being marginalized.

Bhaktivinoda Thakur fulfilled his social role in an exemplary manner, even while leading an equally exemplary devotional life of Nam bhajan, scholarship and pracāra. This is dharma in its ideal form, no doubt, and its promotion cannot be anything but positive in this age of selfishness, debauchery and materialism, but at the same time it must be remembered that the Vaishnava dharma of rāgānugā bhakti is essentially antinomian. It requires sarva-dharmān parityājya, like the gopis', whose example is held high above all others.

We are ready to accept the argument that renouncing dharma is meaningless without qualification and character formed through a solid social structure and a basic individual discipline in dharma, but in our view, renouncing lower dharmas for the higher is the very way to transcendence, and Mahaprabhu's path of devotion was not so much concerned with dharmas, except to suggest minimally that everyone should lead an honest life. In the path of bhakti, devotion trumps duty.

Besides which, this basic kind of religiosity is being preached by various organizations - why should it preoccupy those who are preaching prema-dharma? And if devotee marriages are failing, is the injunction to be a good dutiful grihastha on the model of Bhaktivinoda Thakur really going to do the trick?

The tactic of using Bhaktivinoda Thakur as the exemplary householder, whatever good there is in it internally for the Gaudiya Math, is unlikely to be appreciated by the majority of those in the Western world who, for better or worse, hold to romantic notions of sexual love. But the romantic notion holds sway in the writings of the Six Goswamis, as well.

In Bhaktivinoda Thakur, we are still talking about the classical svakīya relation, as applied in the Indian marriage model, where marriage is strictly a social and dharmic rather than individual function. There are all kinds of conjugal partnerships and I think that we can accept the legitimacy of most of them, but Rupa Goswami glorified pārakīya for good reason.

We may well decry the sinfulness of the "love marriage," when the arranged marriage is one of the few Indian social conventions that still hasn't been brought down by the onslaught of globalization, but Rupa Goswami – or at least Jiva Goswami – actively argued in its favor. We cannot mask this promotion of the pārakīya ideal by relegating it exclusively to the Disneyworld of Braj and obscure theories of rasa.

We may argue all we like that Western romanticism leads inexorably to the collapse of all sexual morality, but whenever we argue against it in favor of dharma, we are inevitably led to take a position contrary to Rupa Goswami.

Indeed, the romantic or pārakīya concept does inevitably lead to untidiness in the realm of sexual love and appears to undermine dharma and the marriage institution itself, but in the search for Sacred Love, this is not held as a negative thing. We take it on faith that Love is above Dharma, in other words, Love is the highest dharma. Love that is subservient to other dharmas is ultimately weakened and compromised. And so, in the hierarchy of love, Rupa Goswami placed romantic sexual love at the top.

In other words, in terms of internal sādhanā, as well as social organization, we have to find a way to accommodate and sacralize the drive to find love in human relations, and to make that the basis of both. I think that the Bhagavati/Bhaktivinoda Thakur yugala will fall short in this respect.

Another problem I, as an adherent to the Sahajiya way of thinking, have with the use of Bhaktivinoda Thakur as a model for the ideal couple is that it favors the patriarchal social models, which I consider to be inimical to the exalted position of Radha, the Divine Feminine. In Hinduism, the male plays the role of guru, his wife that of subordinate and disciple. Though this division of sexual roles may be considered natural, and there is plenty of glorification of women and worship of the feminine in Hinduism, it is fundamentally a patriarchal society dominated by men. And women's version of dharma, strī-dharma, is one of the most stringent.

We may consider the worship of Radha to be a corrective – despite the immense possibility for critique of that narrative coming from the feminist perspective. But we do not consider the story of the Gīta-govinda and so on to be a parable for sexual power relations, as such, but as a parable for Love. And since we consider Love to be the highest of the arts, sciences, or religions, we tend to look at such power struggles in a different way.

At any rate, Love does not like inequality. Intimate love, sexual love, least of all. Inequality is the essence of aiśvarya. So any idealized model of sexual relationships must be careful not to promote this kind of inequality between the sexes.

I am promoting the Sahajiya concept of a yugala or dual guru tattva for Yugala sadhana, as well as the concept of mutual guruship within the relationship. I feel that there will be little progress in the matter of Sacred Love until we can reach the stage of ego (especially masculine ego) abatement, so that the flow of mercy and prema can really pick up momentum.


I decided to address  Bhaktivinoda Thakur and Bhagavati Devi as the ideal, mainly because I think it illustrates a significant contrast in approaches to issues of sexuality as imagined by Prema Prayojan and by myself. In what I expect was the real purpose of the conversation, towards the end of our time together, Prema Prayojan finally did ask me about scriptural "proofs" (pramāṇa) for my proposals about the role of sexuality on the bhakti path.

Of course, knowing Prema Prayojan's deftness with argument, I chose to simply admit that I had none. After all, there is no discussion or approval of or specifics to any esoteric sexo-yogic practices anywhere in the Goswami writings. So why argue where there is no argument? If anything, the anti-yoga stance would preclude any tantric posturing in the sampradaya. There is no reliable evidence that the Goswamis engaged in any such practices and I make no such claims.

Prema Prayojan looked quite astonished that I took this stance. He asked again and I said that one needs to read between the lines of Rupa Goswami's work and one would eventually be led to the same conclusions that I see with what looks like sva-prakāśa clarity.

This was met with further disbelief by Prema Prayojan, and I can well understand that. The Gaudiya Vaishnava sampradaya has an elaborate scriptural tradition based in the Bhāgavatam and the Vedānta, neither of which favor Tantric or Sahajiya approaches to sexuality. By "reading between the lines," I mean of course, that there is a subtle transformation of perception with regards to Radha and Krishna, whereby one comes to recognize the relation and relevance of their Divine and archetypal eros (navīna-madana) to the eros of worldly experience.

Some articles containing a few of the scriptural arguments that favor this understanding might be found here: The Path of Prema, Sex and Bhakti-yoga, Part I, Sex and Bhakti-yoga, Part II.

The Bhägavatam says that the very things that are causes of bondage (the senses) can be transformed through bhakti to become the causes of liberation, to which we add "prema". Krishna in the Gita makes a point of saying that He is Himself desire or (as usually interpreted) sexual desire (käma) when it is not contrary to the principle of religion (dharmäviruddha). The principle of religion is prema; the ultimate principle of religion is the abandoning all other dharmas for the sake of the highest prema, devotion to Radha and Krishna.

Further pramāṇas lie in the understanding of mādhurya as opposed to aiśvarya. The ultimate avatar of mādhurya is here, in the body, when we see the presence of Radha and Krishna in our own romantic life. How this can be done is fairly straightforward, and no text is more helpful in this endeavor than Ujjvala-nīlamaṇi. But who will see these things other than the one who is favorably disposed to understanding in this way? Certainly not one who has been inundated throughout their devotional career with propaganda of both a philosophical, personal and political nature.

Whether he believed in it or not, Rupa Goswami could not have spoken of sexual sādhana or Yugala Bhajan directly, mainly because of the limitations of his audience. Rupa Goswami was a Sanskritizer of vernacular traditions, as I have shown to some extent in my articles on the dāna-līlā. So he kept his discussions within the framework of socially approved discourse in poetics and literature.

If you say Rupa Goswami did not practice Sahaja bhajan, I will say we may never know, but we will still know what his focus was: divine romantic love.

If you say that you will not accept my "in-between-the-lines" version, and that Rupa Goswami was a literalist who did not accept any other understanding of bhakti than the literalist version we know, I will argue that I do not think so, or from the Unconscious, that Saraswati guided his pen to make Sahajiyaism the most natural interpretation of the Ujjvala-nīlamaṇi.

Or I might say that like the Puranic Shankara who incarnated to mislead the Mayavadis, Rupa deceived the moralists and the Mayavadis and steered them away from madhura-rasa bhajana.

Or I might say that Rupa Goswami had to leave the essence of his revelation to be fully exposed at a later date, the pramāṇas yet to be forthcoming.

For the pramāṇas are the result of the direct experience of the realized souls, the siddhas. It is here that the ultimate pramāṇa is to be found. If this doctrine bears fruit and stands the test of effectiveness in producing the experience and culture of prema – even for one person (perhaps I should say two) – then no amount of scriptural texts will be able to stand against it.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

The Yugala Bhajan formula

Here is the formula for Sahaja Bhajan.

upāsya-rūpaṁ yugalātmakaṁ vai
upāsakatvaṁ yugala-svarūpe |
upāsanā śrī-yugalābhidheyaṁ
tathopadeṣṭṛ-yugalena prāptam ||
  1. The worshipable object is the Divine Couple.
  2. The ideal worshiper of the Divine Couple is the sadhaka couple.
  3. The worship of the Divine Couple is based in the chanting of their Names.
  4. The Guru Tattva for this worship also takes the form of a Divine Couple.

This formula condenses most of the points that are made on this blog.

1. The worshipable object is the Divine Couple, Radha and Krishna.

Needless to say, this is repeated again and again here, most recently in the article Do Radha and Krishna really have nothing to do with human love? Radha and Krishna are the worshipable object of all the rasika sampradayas of Vrindavan, but little thought is given to the implications of the distinction that is made between the Dual form of God as represented by the Divine Couple and any other form of God in either male or female form.

Sahaja bhajan takes the position that the dual form of the Godhead as the worshipable object has inherent significance.

We do not worship Krishna as God, as such. We do not worship Radha as an appendage to Krishna, as his "shakti." We worship them as two "Moieties" as Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati liked to call them. One does not exist without the other. Radha is Krishna's guru and God, just as Krishna is her God and guru.

Godhood is not identified with the male or female genders. God is beyond gender. We must try to understand what is the meaning of a God with form as opposed to God without form. Form in this case means gender; it begins with gender. But a concept of God that identifies Deity prima facie with masculinity is incomplete, erroneous, and conditioned by a patriarchal concept of social hierarchies dominated by the male. It is this vision of Deity that we object to and feel can only be corrected by the cult of the Divine Couple.

2. The ideal worshiper of the Divine Couple is the sadhaka couple.

The implications of God as a Divine Couple can only be realized by a practicing sādhaka couple. It is here that most of the complications and difficulties about this sādhanā are raised. I have dealt with some of these issues and shall return to them again and again, but suffice it to say that the very concept of devotion as defined by "simultaneous oneness and difference" requires that the practitioner not strive for an independent, isolated and subjective spiritual experience (kaivalya), but one that is defined by a genuine intermingling or union with the Other, God, who is present not only in the Divinity manifest in word and symbol, but the Divinity as manifest in the pure soul appearing as the sādhana partner. This is the "internal" guru tattva as it expresses itself in the mutual relationship.

Although a man and woman practicing yugala sādhana may be at differing levels in terms of their spiritual achievement, when the contents of a sincere devotee's unconscious are projected onto another devotee in the phenomenon that we call "falling in love," and this is further purified by dispassionate self-examination and sādhana, etc., then it must be taken as axiomatic that guru-tattva in the matter of prema-sādhana is acting through that person, i.e., being revealed through the sādhana partner by the grace of Srimati Radharani.

It is very rare that any couple has matching and equal sentiment for one another in the beginning. The whole point of the sādhana itself is that one cultivates prema through a combined effort. This can only be achieved if one has faith in and discovers the presence of guru-tattva in the sādhana partner. The mutual guru relationship is the best sādhu-saṅga.

At any rate, if a single person wishes successfully cultivate the religion of prema, there are plenty of paths open to them. Most Vaishnava schools swear to celibacy and prescribe either individual and independent practices and social rituals to that end. We call this the "monadic approach" (kaivalya). We do not begrudge these sādhakas their faith or belief. We simply say that they have missed the point, and the opportunity that comes from the Dual concept of Divinity.

The subtle psychological truth manifest in the concept of mañjarī-bhāva or sakhī-bhāva plays an important role in Yugal bhajan, but by no means indicates that the monadic (kevala) approach is intended.

3. The worship of the Divine Couple is based in the chanting of their Name.

The prurient interest of most of those who inquire into Sahaja Bhajan is based on a curiosity about sexuality. Since we are talking about couples here, we are of course confronting the questions of sexuality head on, but we are making an important point here: that this is not about a purely mundane sexuality.

Over and over again I am told by the brave orthodoxy that kāma or material sexuality, etc., cannot lead to prema or pure spiritual love of God. We do not contest this. To make this point of agreement more clear, we are saying that we worship the Divine Couple through their names, Radhe Shyam.

The Holy Name precedes, accompanies and follows all other sādhanas. Whatever the Sahajiya does in terms of esoteric practices is fulfilled by the association of the Holy Name; the Holy Name accompanies, transforms and sacralizes all other practices, and the ultimate residue of the practice is the enlivening, the spiritual surcharging, the prāṇa-pratiṣṭhā, as it were, of the mantra and the Holy Name.

4. The Guru Tattva for this worship also takes the form of a Divine Couple.

This is perhaps the most radical of the ideas we are working with here. Since the Yugala Tattva contains the division of gender—Krishna and Radha representing the male and female, respectively—their complementarity and their fundamental unity, they cannot be represented by a Guru Tattva that does not take the same form.

There are several possible arguments that can be presented in opposition to this idea.

First of all, it is said that Radha and Krishna, God Himself, are beyond sexual differences. Sometimes it is even said that they are pre-pubescent and that there is no question of sexuality in them.Such an argument from asexuality just avoids the very essence of what Radha and Krishna symbolize and everything that they represent.We take their forms seriously: Radha is a female and Krishna a male and their relationship in madhura-rasa is an erotic one, with everything that it implies, including genital sexuality.

Others say that an individual man may take on the female identity as a gopi in Vrindavan, so where is the question of his maleness? It may also be said that the perfected sādhaka, male or female, finds an internal equilibrium of masculinity and feminity, as stated in yoga and tantra texts or in the Jungian goal of coniunctio oppositorum. We do not in principle oppose this concept, but when it comes to guru-tattva for those couples who wish to practice Yugala sādhana, we say that both genders must be represented.

If the Yugala follows the fundamental principle of mutual guruship (as described above in #2) then the guru-principle that manifests in the sādhaka as well as in the sādhikā must also be manifest in the guiding principle to new sādhaka couples who wish to learn the practice. This principle may have been de facto present in the past, historically, but the emphasis was usually given to the male partner who would have been named or identified as the guru, śikṣā-guru or dīkṣā-guru, his wife or partner playing a secondary or supporting role.

In every couple, there will be an individual dynamic, and of course different forms in which they find their equilibrium and conjunction, but the essence of what we are driving at here is the validation of the female principle as an equal and even primary force to the male. One needs to understand Radha-tattva as an explanation of female power, particular in the domain of love and the pleasure principle, and the role of the hlādinī śakti in the Radha-Krishna relation is no less real in the functioning of every male-female couple.

This then is the natural sequence and framework in which this sacred sādhana must operate. The goal is Yugal, the practitioners are a Yugal, therefore the guiding principle or guru-tattva must also be represented in a dual form.

In this sādhana, a man alone cannot speak for or guide a woman. Neither the male nor female represents objective reality on their own.

Moreover, as objectors regularly point out, this sādhana presents a potential danger -- real or imagined -- that needs to be guarded against. The idea of a practice of the cultivation of prema that has within it a sexual component could be easily exposed to exploitation by unscrupulous or misguided individuals who present themselves as preceptors. A bit of yogic training leading to control of seminal emissions can mislead one into thinking that he is a siddha and capable of bestowing prema on women disciples through the magic of his membrum virilis. And, of course, a similar mirror image could also be true, but this tendency is clearly more pronounced in the masculine gender, which usually appropriates the guru role and is more susceptible to falling down to its temptations.

It is partly to avoid all such confusions that I am taking a stand and saying that the guru-tattva must also be represented by a couple. But since sexuality is an integral part of the Yugala sādhanā, this stipulation is meant to further avoid the potential embarrassment of men directly or privately instructing women in sexual matters and vice versa.

In a siddha couple, the predominant roles played by each, male and female principles, i.e., their respective zones of guruship, will have been clarified through their personal experience of the sādhanā. They will thus, as a yugala, be able to provide initiation, proper guidance and an example to both individuals in a sādhaka partnership.

What this principle is about, clearly, is the apotheosis of the feminine in all aspects of the practice. Radha represents the feminine in the erotic relationship, and as we have said many times, the female is always the guardian of the gates of love. An advanced sādhikā will be intuitively and instinctively wise where the purity of love is concerned. The advanced sādhaka and sādhikā will have ripened mature awareness of the process, but the female principle, like Radha, stands as the ultimate guardian and arbiter of the purity of love.

Sahaja bhajana is yugala bhajana. But the Yugala itself is the apotheosis of the feminine. It is about the synthesis of maleness and femaleness, i.e., the complementary aspects of the couple, through prema. The human couple strives for the same mystic experience of unity in difference that characterizes Radha and Krishna, through identification with and service to that very Divine Couple, through the process of sacralization that is conducted through the Yugala name and the Kāma Gāyatrī mantra, etc., and by the combined grace of the Yugala Guru.

Radhe Radhe.