Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Krishna bhakti and community

I get regular mailings from the Pure Bhakti website of Narayan Maharaj's sangha. The last few days have been full of messages citing Narayan Maharaj's warnings about Ananta Das Baba. Today was the bouquet, as we say in French, as the headlined audio file was "Satsvarupa Goswami confirms Srila Narayan Maharaja saved him and others from Ananta Das Babaji."

So the Narayan Maharaj followers that were so condescending and critical of Satsvarupa and the other Iskcon leaders who flirted with defecting to their guru or taking instruction from him but then capitulated to institutional pressure, are now lionizing the very same man because "Narayan Maharaj saved him from Ananta Das Babaji," a fate worse than death for sure. Saved from what, exactly? Radha-dasya? Raganuga bhajan? Erotic adventures with Bengali widows in Radha Kund?

All this comes in the wake of the recent news that a sannyasi from Narayan Maharaj's sangha, Srila Vaishnava Maharaj, has gone to Ananta Das Baba in Radha Kund, taken siddha pranali and bhek from him, and adopted the life of a bhajananandi Vaishnava with the name Madhavananda Das Babaji Maharaj. This has been eliciting what looks like panicked reactions from his erstwhile colleagues. After all, most of them abandoned the ISKCON ship to jump on the Narayan Maharaj bandwagon, and now it seems that the next tidal flow is about to commence... this time to their detriment.

Narayan Maharaj opened the portals to the madhura-rasa soaked literature of the Goswamis and encouraged his disciples to delve into them. There is no turning back from this. Those who are keen to cultivate the madhura mood of bhajan that all our scriptures point to will now finally find themselves going to the source, namely Radha Kund.

Ananta Das Baba is nearing the end of an illustrious career as a disseminator of the teachings of Rupa and Raghunath Das Goswamis. He is now in his 80's and when I saw him last month, it was clear to me that he is suffering physically from various ailments, but nevertheless goes on with his lecturing and writing. He will not be with us for that much longer, but it seems that Radharani nicely arranged for him to survive until all the most charismatic senior Gaudiya Math leaders had disappeared and he was left as the only person with the stature that an ambitious sadhaka would approach for shelter as a spiritual guide. And, of course, I think that is a good thing.

Though there has been a steady trickle of Western Vaishnavas to Radha Kund and the "Sahajiya Babajis" -- there are at least 50 of them living there now. Many have gone there without leaving their IGM affiliation, some without even abandoning their narrow-minded and sectarian point of view. But now it seems almost inevitable that the kind of movement that took place in the past, first with the exodus from ISKCON to Shridhar Maharaj, then to Narayan Maharaj and -- to a lesser extent -- to several other senior Gaudiya Math acharyas and so on.

This had the effect of thinning out the Vaishnava community and, at least in the first instance, increasing the potential for sectarian rivalries. After all, ISKCON officially considers those ex-members who went to Narayan Maharaj, what to speak of any other teacher, to be apostates and a danger to their institution's fledgling aspirants' spiritual life. For both ISKCON and the Gaudiya Math, the real issue is one of preserving institutional integrity. Well, no one is going to wipe these Vaishnava sanghas off the face of the earth. They will continue to exist, as each serves its own function in Mahaprabhu's greater plan, but Madhavananda Maharaj's move hopefully means that the scope of available association and discourse will be widened.

But this in turn highlights the problem about the way that international Gaudiya Vaishnavism organizes itself communally. Let us face it: for the most part we are a dysfunctional bunch. Competition and protectionism on the basis of immature spirituality continue to prevail; such attitudes are even actively promoted by many of the Vaishnava leaders. Although it is to be hoped that those who finally reach Radha Kund will be the most mature, this also may be too much to hope for. Frankly, devotees need to understand that Krishna consciousness -- if it is really to be applied as a universal spiritual science -- has to outgrow this mentality and must do so before it is too late.

Esoteric and arcane spiritualism is by nature individualistic. When applied socially, it fragments. One has to be able to find a way to make nishtha, commitment and dedication to one's own practice, compatible with compassion and empathy for others and their experience. Your individual experience and the means you adopted to get there are not necessarily going to be meaningful to others. But your compassion and the virtues that arise from genuine spiritual advancement MUST be universal. And the communal culture must be oriented in THAT direction.

There is a lot of talk about Guru Tattva, and I have spent a lot of my life contemplating the questions that surround the kind of injunctions that demand the absolute loyalty and obedience to the Guru. But the kind of problems that arise when you create mostly artificial divisions and sectarian loyalties is that you undermine community. Everyone is constantly being tested against impossible criteria of ideological purity and the very essence of devotional association is destroyed.

Krishna says in the Gita that devotees rejoice in each other's association, hearing from each other and glorifying Krishna together. The process of spiritual life is one of discovery and sharing. It goes on at different levels of realization, but in the earlier stages, one seeks security and stablity of siddhanta as a way of establishing confidence in spiritual life. But this inevitably collapses under the weight of experience, or the "reality principle." When that happens, what is needed more than anything else is compassion.

I keep seeing that quote about Prabhupad building a house in which the whole world can live. Sorry, I have yet to see the evidence.

Progress in bhajan is progress in humanity. It means progress in empathy, because how can there be love without empathy or compassion? We need to cultivate a sense of community that does not disintegrate into sectarian infighting, but takes the position that prema is our goal and lets the trappings of institutional commitment not trump basic human values of kindness, helpfulness and commitment to truth and justice.

Let us leave the fledgling birds in their nests until they learn to fly. What I want to know is how will we create a social milieu suitable for grownups. The occasional wise comments on Facebook are no doubt helpful, like a glow worm gives hope in the night. But just as the glow worm is not the dawn, the desire for mature spiritual community is not going to be satisfied on line.Let us all become experts in prema. Let us learn the art of compassion, not in the name of converting others to our view, but in the name of ending human suffering.

Radhe Shyam.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

No Defense for Kripalu

Someone called my attention to a remark made on Gaudiya Repercussions by Brainiac, who has also posted to his blog, which I shall quote here:

Not sure the headline is truly reflective of Jagat's views since he directly said he wasn't defending Kripalu's abuses, but his comments are so equivocal that I don't blame anyone for thinking that way. I can't be the only one who thinks this, but it seems that Jagat should really stick to what he is good at: talking about rasa-shastra and such since he is an expert in that area. Every time he discusses something 'worldly', be it politics, science, religious abuses or even the weather, he seems to put his foot either in his mouth or in a big pile of doodoo. Sometimes I feel sorry for him because disagreement can be had in any area of discussion, but in this case I think he brought it on himself as his first statement was: "He was a great preacher of Radha's glories, of this there is no doubt."

I think it's hard to know anything of Kripalu without having heard more than a few whispers of his abuses, and this seems especially true for us in the West. Jagat knew what he was saying when he emphasized the successful preaching over acknowledging the controversies.

I have been thinking over my Facebook remark and subsequent discussion (see Brainiac's blog for the whole thing) and the great number of negative reactions it elicited and have come to feel that I made an error in judgment. I don't say this diplomatically, in the sense that I wish for people to have a favorable opinion of me, but because I think that there was something important missing in my original understanding. Sometimes outrage is not only appropriate but the only stance that is justifiable, and this is one of those cases.

In my original controversial comment, I was taking the broadest and most positive possible view of Kripalu's contribution, trying to find something good to say of him, as in the aftermath of his death I had been hearing such good things from several trustworthy people who had been impressed by his lectures, writings or displays of devotion. My general principle is that if you cannot say something nice, say nothing at all. In this case, however, it seems that remaining silent would have been the best course of action.

Even though I had some knowledge of Kripalu's reputation and actions (see here), I showed insufficient empathy for the experience of those women who were the objects of his sexual predation, in all the degrees to which he manifested it. There is a widespread tendency in many men to minimize the violence done to the sense of self that is inflicted by rape, in whatever degree of manifestation, and I fell prey to this blind spot, and that was a major failure of prema on my part.

Rape inflicts spiritual damage on its direct victims, but is also part of the complex by which prema-challenged men perpetuate the confinement of women into spiritually subordinate roles and demeans their humanity. This perpetuation is subtle and psychological because it may even be contradicted by a teacher's words. A disciple whose attention is confined to the words alone may be bewildered by their grandeur and eloquence or even spiritual magnificence: The desire for love haunts the greater part of humanity, so how great the betrayal when one misuses talk of love and spirituality to take advantage of others!

Kripalu's betrayal of Radharani was total and complete. Radha stands for true love, which is by nature exclusive and total, but he and others like him use these stories of ideal and spiritual love as a tawdry tool for sexual exploitation. Kripalu even believed that his sexual touch was equivalent to prema. The perpetuation of puruṣa-bhāva, or viṣaya-bhāva is the very antithesis of Radha bhajan.

By puruṣa-bhāva I mean the masculine sense of entitlement, i.e., the male psychological disposition to see only the masculine view of the world as normative; and by viṣaya-bhāva I mean the individual man's idea that he is the enjoyer and that women are merely an accoutrement to decorate his life with pleasure as a source of sexual pleasure, or sympathetic mothering when he is enfeebled by the vicissitudes of life. In its extreme state, this is the Madonna-whore complex that is the real obstacle to a man's attaining prema.

This is the depersonification or objectification of women for sense pleasure. It is the mistaken understanding that Kama IS Prema. When these characteristics are taken to the extreme they are considered to be asuric.

Kama is not Prema, that is the whole point of Radha bhajan and if someone teaching Radha bhajan makes THAT mistake, not simply philosophically, but behaviorally, then has he done a service, or a disservice? How has he furthered the cause of prema other than to purvey the symbols and teach a few rituals? Has he really preached the glories of Radharani or has he subverted the cause of prema?

The external characteristic of a guru is to teach, but the internal is that he knows his subject and has applied it fully. And in an experiential tradition, where the goal is defined as prema, the internal characteristic of the guru is that he knows and experiences prema.

The underlying question that confused me and led to my comment is: Can the purveying of misunderstood symbols and rituals that accord with a particular religious tradition in itself be a meaningful act? In other words, if someone like Kripalu preaches the name of Radharani or the glories of Radharani from the scriptures, will that in itself be a positive thing, even if in fact his behavior is the antithesis of prema?

Behavior reflects understanding. And a perverted understanding is what is communicated in paramparā from a defective source. Ultimately it is not the words that count, but the realization and its consequent behavior. And even if the words are beautiful, if the behavior contradicts them, then the communication is bound to be, like the shastras say, "Milk touched by the lips of a serpent."

A further question is, then, does this mean that the symbols are less important than their meaning? Can we have prema without Radha and Krishna? That is not really a question I can answer at this point, though I can definitely say that we cannot have Radha and Krishna without prema.

The less developed devotee feels reverence for the symbols but does not understand them fully. Furthermore, he feels under attack when those symbols are not treated with reverence by others. In the short run, the symbols take on more importance than their import, the spiritual experience they point to and the character transformations that they demand of them. This is the stage we are supposed to outgrow.

The articles I published about Kripalu on my blogs inspired many negative reactions from Kripalu’s supporters. I was hoping that my comment at the time of his death would at least encourage those people to continue on the path of seeking out Radharani and the prema-dharma that she stands for. But there is no prema without truth, and when Kripalu by his actions represents the fundamental anartha of depersonification of woman as a sexual object, then it is necessary for his disciples to come to terms with that fact if they want to progress. Therefore, in this case, truth was more important than stroking their egos through flattery or diplomacy.

I hope this sets the record straight. Jai Sri Radhe.