Saturday, August 31, 2013

Vrindavan palimpsest: Guru, Grace and Gratitude

Since my visa extension was refused I have been undergoing something of a revisiting of my devotional past--visiting the seven temples, seeing an old Nabadwip friend at Gokulananda. Then on Thursday going to Iskcon for Vyasa Puja. It has been a bit like a palimpsest -- scraping off layers to see what was there below. So going to Iskcon represents the beginnings of my life as a Vaishnava, and since for better or worse I am still in this game, Srila Prabhupada remains my guru.

I heard several teary-eyed testimonials read by Brahmananda Prabhu from a published volume, as well as others given by a number of other Prabhupada disciples who were present. They recounted many stories of amazing achievements by young and inexperienced Prabhupada disciples, such as Gunarnava Das, who somehow during Prabhupada's presence were endowed with almost superhuman capabilities to achieve tasks like the building of the Vrindavan temple. Indeed, it is almost impossible for anyone who lived through those times not to be at least a little in awe of what transpired in those few short years -- whatever the aftermath.

I myself did not get the opportunity to say anything, not due to any objections but I had to leave in the middle and only came back in after the offerings had finished. Just as well, because usually I am not comfortable in these circumstances: how to speak my own truth without creating discord or misunderstanding is not always easy. Because of my particular situation I often find myself in the position of having to explain my understanding of guru-tattva. Have I not rejected Srila Prabhupada? And so on.

As I said the other day, I don't do hagiography so well. Or at least I think the best hagiography comes when we best see the reality, which then does not really need to be embellished out of a need to protect the weak devotee's faith. Indeed artificial embellishments in our day and age tend to have the reverse effect on those with a modicum of critical skills.

Recently on Facebook there has been a rehash of some of Prabhupada's more controversial statements about women and rape, which of course tends to result in quite heated quarrels. For a great number of people, these statements are so shocking and so opposed to conventional modern thinking that they cannot even discuss them without visceral negative reactions. And for such reasons, many have rejected Prabhupada completely.

A few weeks ago, when I was in Rishikesh with Swami Veda Bharati, the question came up about having many gurus. He said that the guru will only be one. One may have many instructors, he said, but the Guru is only one. I know from my now fairly long association with Swami Veda that he means his guru Swami Rama, and not some Guru Principle.

I remember when I was reading about the public scandals surrounding Swami Rama, which seem to have forced him to leave America and later Nepal, I came across an article in which Swami Veda, then Pandit Usharbudh Arya, was interviewed about the issue. Although, as to be expected, the investigative reporter was a little aggressive and Dr. Arya was perhaps taken by surprise and was somewhat on the defensive, he answered, "How can I reject my own father?"

I was a little touched by his reply. Although I confess that because of hearing such stories about Swami Rama, it is practically impossible for me to feel too much faith in him, despite having spent the greater part of the last six years in the Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama environment, and even though through Swami Veda I have received much of Swami Rama's legacy. But the guru is a father, you cannot reject a father even if he commits some transgression. One's being a father is not dependent on his making or not making transgressions but on a simple biological act. Similarly, the Guru is guru not because of any material deeds good or bad, but because he created a real connection to a particular spiritual ideal and practice.

The guru opens the channels of grace; he literally gives life. So to reject the guru means to reject the life that he has given. And many people do so rather hastily in my opinion, much to their own spiritual detriment.

My personal criterion comes from the verse by Raghunath Das Goswami:
nāma-śreṣṭhaṁ manum api śacī-putram atra svarūpaṁ
rūpaṁ tasyāgrajam uru-purim māthurīṁ goṣṭha-vāṭīm
rādhā-kuṇḍaṁ giri-varam aho rādhikā-mādhavāśāṁ
prāpto yasya prathita-kṛpayā śrī-guruṁ taṁ nato’smi
I bow my head again and again to the holy preceptor, through whose most celebrated mercy I have received the best of all names, the initiation mantra, Sri Sachinandan Mahaprabhu, Svarupa, Rupa and his older brother Sanatan, the extensive dominions of Mathurapuri, a dwelling place in the pasturing grounds [of Krishna], Radha Kund, the chief of all mountains, Sri Govardhan, and most pointedly of all, the hope of attaining the lotus feet of Sri Radha Madhava.

Nearly all of those connections -- from the Holy Name to the hope for attaining the service of Radha and Krishna -- come to me from Srila Prabhupada. Every one of them still vibrates for me. So if I have to say that I have a guru, it can be no other than he. Anything I have done subsequent to leaving ISKCON has simply been to understand, supplement, correct, and perfect what he gave.

Bhakti is the path of Grace and Gratitude.The Guru embodies Grace and is therefore the principal object of gratitude. When we find fault with the guru, the flow of grace stops. Not because the guru is necessarily supremely competent and as highly advanced as one originally thought, but because the Grace that came through the Guru WAS and IS real, and is part of the eternal stream of grace that continues in all time and place.

As long as that grace takes the form of Radha and Krishna in my life, the Yugal Kishor, I can never reject Srila Prabhupada, even though I can and must revise or deepen my understanding of the siddhantas and the methods of attaining the goal of prema. If I did not do that, it would be just like the scientist who is being told not to make any new discoveries because Newton had already said everything that was needed to know. We live in a progressive universe, we have great amounts of information and more is coming all the time; studying religion and our own religious experience phenomenologically -- not purely apologetically -- is a necessary part of being a disciple.

There is no way to find the guru within without first recognizing and appreciating that grace comes from without. No matter how individualistic we may wish to become, that truth does not change.

Seeing a guru's mistake without finding fault is just being free of the duality of attachment and aversion. I expect the guru to be perfect because I have a psychological need for such perfection outside myself. And so when the guru disappoints me, I become angry (krodha) and confused (sammoha) in the classical fashion. Then I forget whatever grace he did give (smṛti-bhraṁśa) and thus my intelligence is lost (buddhi-nāśa).

The main error here is that I have not really seen the guru's grace for what it is, and instead mistook something else to be his grace: his institution, or the position I have within that institution, his charisma or his power to give boons, the ego-expansion that comes from my having a big deal guru, etc. If we recognize the grace, then we will pursue the perfection that it points to. And that is what I have tried in my own way to do.

Grace does not come from an impersonal source. Meaning that because we are persons, grace means something personal to us. And that can only be meaningful if it comes from a Person. That is why even in ignorance, we have a natural tendency to project personality onto the cosmos. This is not actually wrong, even though it might cause confusion, but pretending that "learning from the cosmos" is an impersonal process does not really make any sense.

It is the "grace" part that is the Guru. You have to be able to recognize exactly what the grace was. The need to exercise our discriminatory powers is not to be ignored. Fidelity to the guru in fact means fidelity to the Grace, not to anything else. And the gratitude one feels may be expressed differently according to the way one experiences that grace. Sometimes one is obliged to remain "at a distance," as Jiva Goswami puts it, in order to pursue the companionship of advanced sādhakas and rasikas. In my case, the restrictions against pursuing rāgānugā bhakti were what made me break out of ISKCON and take shelter of Lalita Prasad Thakur. The last few days have shown me just how enriched my life has become as a result of taking that step.

I see the old-time ISKCON devotees who have remained within the institution's confines and I believe in their sincerity and dedication, and moreover I believe in the spiritual progress that they have made and I respect all their tremendous achievements. But at the same time I can see how their submission to Prabhupada's fear that ISKCON's preaching mission would be ruined if they started getting too interested in rāgānugā bhajana, though justifiable in the sense that they seek to follow the Guru's order without deviation, has in fact held them back.

Such orders were clearly intended to keep the institution functioning. An institution needs to have rules and limits. A big institution might even find some flexibilities, but generally speaking, the rules have to be well defined, i.e., it has to be made clear what the institution's defining attributes are. But no matter what the definition is, it will always restrict the number of people who qualify for it. If you are independent, then you are not so restricted -- which may or may not be a good thing, depending on your adhikāra. But Chaitanya Mahaprabhu himself said to Damodar Pandit:
tomā sama nirapekṣa nāhi mora gaṇe
nirapekṣa nahile dharma nā jāya rakṣaṇe

Amongst my associates, no one is as indifferent to social pressure (nirapekṣa) as you. Religious principles can only be defended by someone who is free from external influence (nirapekṣa). (Chaitanya Charitamrita 3.3.23)
There is a saying, "It's easy for a man not to understand something when his salary depends on him not understanding it." This is the situation for someone who places himself the confines of an institution. In other words, not nirapekṣa.

So, my philosophy is this: The Guru IS the Grace, and the Grace IS the Guru. People who see the physical manifestation or even the specific verbal instructions, etc., as the Guru rather than seeing guru-tattva in the flow of grace -- which by all means needs to continue -- then that is a kind of idolatry. Spiritual life must be progressive, and to be progressive one must of necessity be independent.

So going to ISKCON represents the beginnings of my life as a Vaishnava, and since for better or worse I am still in this game, Srila Prabhupada remains my guru.

2 comments:

Radhika Devi said...

Excellent point of view: excellent dues where dues are due!

Radhika Devi said...

....as you remain the disciple of Srila Prabhupada, you also maintain your position as my godbrother..parivaar ki jai!