|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 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.