Sunday, March 31, 2013

Service to Radha Krishna is our Ultimate Concern

This article was first sent on the short-lived Garuda list serve run by Rocana Dasa, most probably in 1997. It was available on line on the Wise Wisdoms site for a while, but was taken down. On rereading, I find it still relevant.




Reason and scriptural interpretation

We are human beings endowed with reason, with which we try to make sense of our experiences in life and learn from them. In Krishna consciousness we have been indoctrinated to mistrust reason and even our direct experience to the benefit of authority-based learning. The argument is, of course, cogent: You cannot invent your own language, and there is no point in reinventing the wheel, and if we wish to see far, it is advisable to stand on the shoulders of giants.

But even when standing on the shoulder of a giant, it is with our own eyes that we see and with our own brains that we process the sensory or extrasensory information our eyes give us. Thus, where scripture is concerned, we state the following:
  • Certain aspects of scripture when understood literally are not in conformity with reason.
  • To understand them in non-literal ways we must have recourse to reason.
  • As such, reason takes the upper hand.
Revelation (scripture or the words of the guru) thus becomes the raw material upon which to exercise the powers of reason, much as a petrie dish of mold was the raw material for Banting.

Now, before proceeding, we must say a word or two about bracketing or suspending judgment. This is usually applied when we do not immediately understand a particular piece of information that does not coincide with our experience. If I do not understand something that is touted as authoritative information, it is true that I may put off the attempt to understand it until later. Thereafter, whenever confronted with this piece of information, it gets classified as a "mystery" and ceases to be a source of trouble.

This procedure, though fundamentally emotional, also requires a certain amount of applied use of brain power, as one chooses one's priorities and then rationalizes them.

A member of the Hitler Youth, for instance, might have been enthusiastic and eager for National Socialism. When it came to gassing Jews, he may have decided to suspend judgment due to an a priori faith in Hitler's plan for a greater Germany, as well as pressure to conform to the prevailing ethos. This might be construed as an unfortunate, mistaken prioritization.

Such bracketing is often related to the urgency or immediacy of a question. For us devotees, how urgent is the question of the Fifth Canto cosmology? Likely, its urgency differs for different people. Certainly, the prime reason that most people become members of a movement like Krishna consciousness is not because they are seeking scientific insight into the workings of the cosmos. I assume that most of us were and are fairly satisfied with the nine-planets-revolving-around-the-sun-version, and not many of us are in a position to debate the issue intelligently.

Certainly very few of us would be able to intelligently defend a literal interpretation of the Fifth Canto to an audience of astronomers or physicists. Presumably, our priority in the Krishna consciousness movement was and is primarily to achieve Krishna consciousness, or service to Krishna, and in order to do so, knowledge of the exact outlay of the cosmos is peripheral, whatever meanings it may have for astrophysicists. Therefore, it is logical for us to bracket this section of the scripture, holding off any attempt to understand it.

In a preaching or evangelical movement, however, it is necessary to ask whether peripheral elements of the scripture might not interfere with the essential elements. If we say to someone, “Scripture is infallible and 100% true and you must accept the scriptural version or you cannot attain Krishna consciousness; suspend all disbelief and take a leap of faith! Krishna consciousness means not only service to Krishna but acceptance of Bhagavata cosmology," we are clearly shooting ourselves in the foot. We must ask whether we can afford to take such a counter-productive position.

Faith and Ultimate Concern

There is nothing new about the faith-reason debate; it has been going on ever since there was such a thing as belief and questioning of beliefs. Paul Tillich, one of the most important Protestant theologians of the 20th century, held that belief and faith are not the same thing. This is a great insight that has been very influential in liberal Protestant circles and I find it useful also in making an analysis of Krishna consciousness. Faith is defined by Tillich as “ultimate concern."

We are all familiar with Krishna Das’s definition of faith:

śraddhā-śabda kahe viśvāsa sudṛḍha niścaya
kṛṣṇa-bhakti kaile sarva-karma kṛta haya
The word śraddhā refers to a firm and confident belief that by engaging in devotion to Krishna alone, all of one’s duties will be fulfilled. (CC 2.22.62)
In this verse, Krishna Das is clearly identifying faith with belief. If, however, we look at it more closely, it does not say that one should believe in any particular myth or specific item of theological dogma, but in the truly essential point, that if we make the supreme personal God and service to Him our primary concern in life, our secondary concerns will be taken care of. Analogous to "Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all things shall be added you." (Matthew 6.33)

Similarly, each devotee should analyze his own faith by asking himself, first of all, not “What do I believe?”, but “What is my ultimate concern?" This can most likely be reduced to a few short sentences and these are likely those which are the most repeated when he or she preaches, or those which moved him when he first heard the Krishna conscious philosophy. Kundali Prabhu is to be thanked for his extremely rich collection of quotes from various sources that show how our ultimate concerns in Krishna consciousness are shared with members of various other religious groups. Prabhupada himself said that we should seek an alliance with other theists. He told us that Krishna consciousness was non-sectarian. This means that we should seek common features with other religions rather than stressing accidental differences. As acintya-bhedābheda-vādins, we should be able to find this fairly easy...

Assessing our Ultimate Concern

Now Tillich says that mythology is the language of faith, but that myths do not have to be literally believed to be the vehicles for faith, all they need to do is to adequately express the ultimate concern of the faithful. Here we return to the story of Prahlada, in which I find that many devotees profess unconditional literal belief and which Kundali Prabhu has been the first to agree with me in saying that the important thing is the moral of the story, not the story itself.

The Prahlad myth beautifully expresses a number of particular “ultimate concerns," as I summarized in my previous post. That is why the story is meaningful for us, and not because it is a historical event. It is an expression of faith, but it is not necessary for us to believe it literally.

Now, we are admittedly on dangerous territory here, because the closer myth and symbol approximate our ultimate concerns, the more (again I am using Tillichian language) the symbols participate in the reality of the ultimate concern. A sign on the street which says “Pont Jacques Cartier, un kilomètre" (to use an example from my own surroundings) does not share in the reality of the Jacques Cartier bridge. A cross, however, does participate in the reality of faith of the Christian, as do Radha and Krishna as the representations of our ultimate concern.

Ask yourself, what is the symbol of the ultimate concern for you? Here are some choices:
  1. The cosmology of the Fifth Canto
  2. Nrisinghadeva, the half-lion, half man incarnation
  3. the Matsya incarnation
  4. Ramachandra
  5. Jesus Christ
  6. Prabhupada (and I hope that you will all be able to see that for everyone to whom Prabhupada is a guru, that he has taken on mythic proportions, i.e., he is more than his historical truth, he is a symbol of spiritual realization. This is true of all gurus, this is why we speak of the samaṣṭi-guru and vyaṣṭi-guru. The former, according to Sri Jiva, is the incarnation of Krishna who sits at his right-hand side in the Yoga-pitha, while the vyaṣṭi-guru is the human manifestation appearing in this world.)
  7. Krishna, the speaker of the Bhagavad Gita
  8. Vishnu, the Lord of Vaikuntha
  9. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu
  10. Radha and Krishna
Of course, we may find that we want more than one answer. There is nothing wrong with that, so it might be better to think in terms of reordering the list in terms of the degree to which the various symbols express your concept of what is most important in your spiritual life.

A yogi might indeed find (1) the best answer. There may be one or two devotees out there for whom (2) or (3) are significant answers, but (3) is especially unlikely. At (4) we are likely getting warmer; if you answered (5) you are probably in the wrong religion. If you answered (6) you are in the right place, but you must ask yourself, what was Prabhupada himself pointing at? The same goes for (9) Chaitanya, whom we may recall is symbolically understood as a combined form of Radha and Krishna. If you answered (7) you are undoubtedly a serious person and worthy of spiritual life. You may even be the best of the lot, and you likely have a lot in common with those who chose (8). If you answered unhesitatingly, (10), then you are a real Gaudiya Vaishnava, proceed directly to Radha Kund (unfortunately impossible to do without collecting $200 first).

However, the problem does not end here. We still have to analyze and understand what Radha and Krishna mean as a symbol. In other words, symbolic differences are meaningful. They are not a question of taste alone, or signs all pointing to exactly the same thing. Prabhupad once said (and I speak from memory) that devotees accept Krishna as both a symbol and as a reality. That is no doubt true, though I approach the matter from the back end. I am concerned here with what they mean as a symbol and how the symbol informs our experience of the reality.

For example: the gopis running to the sound of the flute, abandoning all worldly duties, can be restated as a symbol of the abandonment of all relative truths before the supreme attractiveness of the highest truth. The story likely resonates with us precisely because of this symbolic meaning, in ways that various stories about demon-killings, from Arishtasura to the Zebra demon, don't. Even Bhaktivinoda Thakur felt it necessary to look for symbolisms in all these demons in order to bestow some substance on them, since for the most part even literary substance is not particularly manifest.

But I digress: there is much more to this particular myth, that of the gopis, and that is why it is the centerpiece of Gaudiya Vaishnavism.

What is the meaning of Radha's supremacy? Why Radha and not Arjuna? And yes, despite whatever Prabhupada may have said on the subject of gopi bhava, we do place Radha above Arjuna. I don't see Arjuna on many altars around Iskcon--though I am still wondering about Radha-Parthasarathi in Delhi. What the heck is Radha doing on Arjuna's chariot, anyway?

My question is, what do Radha and Krishna mean, symbolically? Why do they have force as symbols of ultimate concern? Why should they be prioritized and perhaps more interestingly, why are they NOT prioritized in the faith of most of those who claim to be Gaudiya Vaishnavas? Since Radha and Krishna are the symbolic expression of our ultimate concern, we must try to understand what exactly it is that they express. If they fail to express our true ultimate concern (perhaps Parthasarathi or Ramachandra do that), then we should adjust our beliefs and practices accordingly.

What exactly do we mean by ultimate concern?

What exactly do we mean by ultimate concern? I think that Kundali Prabhu's efforts to scour the world of psychology and self-help literature is an interesting departure from the customary Iskcon practice because he has recognized that (at least for him) the ultimate concern is self-realization, the attainment of full powers as an individual, not only for the sake of service to the Supreme, but because that is in itself service to the Supreme. He is ready to use any means at his disposal to achieve that end. If the knowledge is not to be found in Iskcon (as is, regrettably, the case), then he is ready to go elsewhere. (And all blessings to those who go to Narayan Maharaj or anywhere else. As the Prophet Mohammad said, “If the truth be in China, go to seek it out.")

So how do Radha and Krishna symbolize this fulfilment in a better way than Arjuna and Krishna or Ramachandra, or any other of the symbols that Vaishnavism has in such rich quantities?

This is I think the most important question to answer if we wish to find our orientation in Gaudiya Vaishnavism. It is primarily to find such an orientation that we take a spiritual master, for the Bhagavatam clearly says:

tasmād guruṁ prapadyeta
jijñāsuḥ śreya uttamam
śābde pare ca niṣṇātaṁ
brahmaṇy upaśamāśrayam
One who is inquisitive about the ultimate good in life should approach a spiritual master who has thoroughly understood the purport of the scriptures, is fixed in divine realization and has attained peace from the sense impulses. (11.3.21)
It is a myth, not a mandate, a fable not a logic, and symbol rather than a reason by which men are moved.

In fact, the importance of myths for the most rational of humans should not be underestimated. This is the purpose of my refering to Tillich here. Myth is the language of faith. Symbols are its vocabulary. Jungian psychology teaches that symbols have archetypal functions in our subconscious. Jungian analytical psychologists try to flush out the personal myth that each of us is living. We are all living our own life story, the movie of our lives, like the kid playing hockey with himself who does the play-by-play of Gretzky scoring a goal. That is the nature of human consciousness, that we are not only living life, but modeling it and commenting on it as we go along. The most successful individuals are those whose personal myth is the most clearly envisioned.

An archetypal life like that of Prabhupad serves as a model for anyone, even a non-devotee, because it plays out in such a wonderfully mythical way. From the command of his spiritual master that stayed with him through to the end of his life which he had spent preparing to carry out, to the amazing achievement of almost miraculous success. Who could fail to be amazed? I would say that Prabhupad likely had this personal myth played out in his mind. The point is that we could all do the same thing if our vision was as clear.

But although we can see this rationally, it is not likely to be reason alone that moves a man to such achievements. It is myth, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. There is an irrational element of humanity and religion fits into that element. That is deliberate, and many devotees are deliberately and exclusively committed to this particular aspect of religion. I and many others have been through periods when we tried to live like this and ultimately ran into difficulty. Rather than hate ourselves for it and choose materialism as an alternative, we have sought to use reason to balance out this kind of faith. What we look for is a middle way.

In order to do that, we must, as Tillich puts it, “break the myths." Because of the power of symbols, a myth doesn't necessarily lose its power to transform even after we have transcended its superficial “historical" truth. This is because of symbols' power to express a multiplicity of meanings simultaneously and because of their wordless power to convey our ultimate concern, like an atom that concentrates so much energy completely out of proportion to its size.

How do symbols and myths lose their power?

Symbols and myths lose their life when they cease to express ultimate concerns. Thus Isis and Osiris lost their symbolic power when they ceased to be meaningful in the Christian Roman empire and when some of their roles were usurped by Christian symbols. For instance, if all the people in the Krishna consciousness movement suddenly decided to accept the Freudian viewpoint (as expressed by Carstairs) and see Krishna as “a thinly disguised father figure as a homosexual lover," then it is likely that Krishna as a symbol of the ultimate concern would quickly die an ignomious death. That Krishna as a symbol of ultimate concern is deeper than that gives it life.

When we say that Krishna is God, this is unfortunately only the beginning of the answer. In effect, all we are doing when we say that is confirming that Krishna is symbolic of our ultimate concern. I asked above which of ten different versions of Krishna or Krishna approximations you would consider to most effectively express the ultimate concern to you and why.

It is not enough to say that I want to serve God, we must analyze what that means in our personal myth. What do we see ourselves becoming? Wearing silks and sitting on a throne, eating rich vegetarian foods? Sitting in meditation having visions of Radha and Krishna? Living a humble householder life touching the people around us with love and caring?

So I would say that we need both myth and reasons, symbols and logic, to effectively emulate Prabhupad in our own way.

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