Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Higher Education, the Humanities and the Neoliberal Agenda

A good friend of mine in the academic world reported recently that he has been cut back to a session lecturer with only two courses per semester. He is looking for ways to make up the difference in lost income, but it is clearly a huge disruption in his life. It will be challenging and I hope the best for him, but this is by now getting to be a pretty old story in the academic world, especially in the humanities.

This is the new world order, the way that the bean counters of the neo-liberal ruling classes have ordained that everyone should live -- in as much insecurity as possible. I myself experienced something similar after I finished my doctorate and was unable to find work in the academic field in Canada or the U.S.A. One can only wait so long, and the universities have long discovered that tenure and tenure track positions are more expensive than temps and grad students. When I was 43, I finally recognized that I did not have the time to wait; I had to make a decision and luckily I found a source of income that was able to keep me and my family going for a few years.

It is easy to see the ostensible logic for all the cutting back. It is always money, isn't it? I had already seen the process at work at SOAS in London, where the Indology department was slowly but surely being gutted and an influx of Japanese money financing a huge increase in Japanese studies and programs catering to Japanese students. This was during that country's economic ascendancy. Who knows what is happening now?

Something similar had happened at the University of Toronto, and when I got there in 1992 for my post-doc, the once flourishing Sanskrit department built under A. K. Warder had been liquidated and the one remaining Sanskrit scholar was hidden away in the East Asia department for some reason.

But economics is only one way of assessing value. There seems to be a more insidious agenda, one that devalues the humanities as a whole. Today, I was sent a link to an article about the situation of humanities education in Pakistan, by Dr Syed Nomanul Haq. The subheadline was, "There does not exist a single histor­ian under the age of 80 now in Pakist­an who can read Sanskr­it."

Pakistan is a country of more than 100 million people, which moreover was the probable home of Panini, the great grammarian of the Sanskrit language. The country itself is a part of the cultural environment of South Asia, but the reason for this disinterest in Pakistan's non-Islamic past does not arise out of religious narrow-mindedness, or at least not primarily, not according to Haq. After all, he says that even knowledge of Persian, Arabic, even of Urdu, is being lost. He places the blame on "scientism."

What is scientism as opposed to science? It is a malady that has three types of interrelated essential symptoms: logical, epistemological and political. Logically, scientism presupposes that all disciplines of human knowledge, when sufficiently purified and developed, will reduce to the ‘hard’ sciences, such as physics or biology. This reductionism thereby denies any logical independence to the humanities.

The second type of symptom of scientism is related to the first — it creates an epistemological hierarchy wherein the ‘hard’ sciences are found at the highest rungs and humanistic studies somewhere at the lowest. An art critic or a historian or a sociologist must emulate and strive to approximate as closely as possible biologists and physicists and astronomers — but not vice versa.
The political purpose, or what we refer to as the neo-liberal agenda, is the prioritizing and valuing of science, which Haq says has been conflated with technology, as an ostensible solution to economic self-sufficiency. What is now becoming evident, however, is the real cost.

What the cost is to a developing nation like Pakistan or India, where the problem -- being global -- is also being felt is one thing. The root of this cultural disease, which is neoliberalism, is the reduction of all things to dollar signs. It is the mad and destructive philosophy of economic development that has taken over the world and is in every respect undermining human society as a collective project. Its prophets are Ayn Rand, Maggie Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and Alan Greenspan; its ethos dominates the current direction of world history. It is an ethos that falsely promotes the myth of the individual and "rugged individualism" in order to undermine any sense of communal solidarity of human for human. It is the humanities that awaken this awareness.

This is a topic that concerns scholars of the humanities everywhere. The topic coincidentally is under discussion in the Religions in South Asia group of the American Academy of Religion, where one professor after another chimes in to lament the situation at their university. One comment ascerbically painted a picture of the effects of the university-as-business corporation model as follows:

As academic standards continued to fall at the private institution where I taught, in tandem with the steady rise of tuition thereby accommodating the super-rich, as the numbers of middle class origin students had already declined to the point of no way affordable, the business model took over. Result: Too many students viewed the college as a mere playground to pass the time for four years (or less), and us faculty as their employees, expected to entertain them and indulge their whims.

Well-earned non-passes had become occasions for threatened parental lawsuits. Deans supported full tuition payers against proven plagiarism. The institution, albeit with savvy window dressing wrapped in ponderous educational abstractions, became a department store for high-priced degrees.

Depressing that this model has achieved such a vast distribution...
So education becomes a privilege reserved for the 1%, for whom it is in fact an irrelevancy. The comedian George Carlin, in his most famous rant, pinpoints the underlying raison d'etre for all these development:

They don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well informed, well educated people capable of critical thinking. They’re not interested in that. That doesn’t help them. That's against their interests.... They want obedient workers. Obedient workers, people who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork. And just dumb enough to passively accept all these increasingly shitty jobs with the lower pay, the longer hours, the reduced benefits, the end of overtime and vanishing pension that disappears the minute you go to collect it...

Perhaps more than anyone at the moment writing specifically about this subject is Henry Giroux, professor of communication at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. His newest book is called The Neoliberal War on Higher Education, in which he says in a scholarly way and with plentiful footnotes pretty much exactly what George Carlin says more directly and with much saltier language.

Critical learning has been replaced with mastering test-taking, memorizing facts, and learning how not to question knowledge or authority. Pedagogies that unsettle common sense, make power accountable, and connect classroom knowledge to larger civic issues have become dangerous at all levels of schooling. This method of rote pedagogy, heavily enforced by mainstream educational reformists, is, as Zygmunt Bauman notes, "the most effective prescription for grinding communication to a halt and for [robbing] it of the presumption and expectation of meaningfulness and sense." These radical reformers are also attempting to restructure how higher education is organized. In doing so, they are putting in place modes of governance that mimic corporate structures by increasing the power of administrators at the expense of faculty, reducing faculty to a mostly temporary and low-wage workforce, and reducing students to customers—ripe for being trained for low-skilled jobs and at-risk for incurring large student loans.
The entire linked article is worth going through.

Someone may wonder why I am writing about this. The fact is that religion and the humanities are connected. "The scientific study of religion" means that we hold that the religious urge is an integral and natural part of the human psyche. It is universal throughout humanity, even though in modern society it is increasingly hidden as its grosser manifestations become an embarrassment to refined intelligence.

But it is a part of the human phenomenon, and psychology, anthropology, sociology and all the rest of the humanities are engaged in shedding light on the purpose, role and form of religion. Indeed, the humanities are concerned more than anything about the meaning and quality of life, which is the primary purpose of religion. Although it is generally understood that economics are a part of life, it is as true now as it ever was that money is NOT everything. And it is the humanities that teaches us to find those values.

It could even be claimed that religion is the one subject that englobes all the humanities. We give the name "God" to that which is the ultimate value or purpose of life, the puruṣārtha. Those who are adherents of particular religious faiths need to support the multipronged approach to the humanities, especially those who have pretensions to "spiritual science" if they wish to see their own religion survive.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Chandrabati: Tragic love in old Bengal

Gaura Nitai the other night.

I generally have secondary reading material lying around, stuff that is meant more for entertainment and distraction than anything else. Nevertheless, I generally speaking keep an open mind and betwixt and between I also don't mind cross-fertilizing my brain with books that often fall into my hands serendipitously. Bizarre as that may seem.

I remember once when I was living in Nabadwip and I was invited to a small village on the Katwa-Burdwan medium-gauge line. It was not a particularly prosperous village. I had several friends on that line, including Shambhu Narayan Ghoshal, one of the most colorful personalities in the Vaishnava world I ever met. Srikhanda and Jajigram are on that line, close to Katwa, but these villages were further.

The bhakta who invited me was once an ordinary man, but then he cured a couple of people in the village -- brahmins, and he wasn't one -- of leprosy, by chanting the Holy Name. Then he had become a pakka Vaishnava, even though he was not a deeply learned person. Nevertheless, when I came to his village, I happened to be reading a novel by Tara Shankar, one of West Bengal's most famous writers. He could not quite believe it, "Apnar mon anya-dike jay na? Bhoy korchen na? You aren't afraid your mind will get diverted from God?"

I remember how much insight I was getting into the real world of modern life in Calcutta through that book. But the reading of the novel itself grew out of a necessity to situate myself in this world, this palimpsest of a world -- India -- of which I was clutching to one part, which had become for me the central core of that world. And just like one thing cannot exist without its setting, I needed to at least see a little of that surrounding backdrop to understand that central core. One without the other seemed like a point adrift in space.

Once I was on the train from Howrah to Nabadwip, and in one of the early stations, a young hawker selling muri-masla was giving his spiel, "I have a B.Sc. and I can't get a job, so here I am, your over-qualified muri-masla guy!"

Tara Shankar described a similar young graduate whose life consisted of studying general knowledge questions so he could compete in mass public examinations, where a hundred thousand people like himself aspired for five or ten jobs. In one dramatic scene, after unsuccessfully undergoing one more humiliation of the sort, he berates a well-dressed young, gainful-employed man and starts asking him pointless questions of general knowledge, "What is the capital of Burkina Faso? Who wrote Cry the Beloved Country? What is the average temperature of Outer Mongolia? You don't know? Why do you have a job and I not?" That was Bengal in the economic doldrums of the 60s.

India is the context of bhakti, and India is legion. So bhakti in India has thousands of reference points. Our little corner of bhakti has three centers, and each of those is a world unto itself -- Nabadwip, Puri and Braj. And those three worlds are nestled within other worlds, each a snapshot of manifestations of the one human story. And within which is situated my story. The "Krishna-East" story of my life, if you like.

* * * * *

The two books I read are complementary and yet quite different. One takes place in the pre-British time in Mymensingh district on the north central part of Bangla Desh. The other is about Draupadi, but I will talk about that one later.

The first is Śāṅkh Sindūr (written in Hindi, शांख सिन्दूर) by Ramanath Tripathi, and translated into English as "Conch-Bangles and Vermilion." Unfortunately, I read this in the rather inadequate English translation. An attestation on the back cover acclaims it as "one of the greatest post-Independence Hindi novels."

The book was written in 1973, not long after the war of East Pakistan, which was characterized by genocidal anti-Hindu pogroms in Bangla Desh, perpetrated mostly by the West Pakistani soldiers, who automatically considered all Hindus part of the rebel side. They slaughtered them mercilessly, causing a mass exodus to India in the north and west, which ultimately led Indira Gandhi to intervene by declaring war. The tremendous tectonic shifts set in motion by Indian independence once again sent tremors through the world in new waves of horror, and once again with Muslims taking a leading role in the butchery.

When I first came to India in 1975, the residual traces on West Bengal -- Nabadwip is just fifty kilometers from the Bangla Desh border -- were very much in evidence, in the train stations and wherever else the refugees gathered, including our Iskcon temple.

Though "Conch Bangles" has no immediate relation to the times in which it was written, it is not hard to detect the trauma of the Bangla Desh independence struggle infusing the creative urge that produced it. Tripathi is a Hindu from the Doab heartland. His main life's work has been to retell the stories of the Rāmāyaṇa, which has appeared in a multitude of reincarnations in the vernaculars of India. It is probably by doing research on the Rāmāyaṇa that he came across Chandrabati's story in the first place, for she was the first woman to write the story of Sita and Rama in Bengal.

Chandrabati's story had become the stuff of legend, sung in ballads and especially given a full account in Nayanchand's Candrabatīra Carita. It is thus to be expected that there will be Muslim villains. Nevertheless, if Tripathi is to be believed, he created more Muslim characters for his novel in order to show some nuance to the village society of rural Bengal in the 17th century -- rather than just the faceless, nameless, dreaded Kazi -- nevertheless, General Tikka Khan, the Butcher of Bangla Desh, has his doppelganger in this story.

Her dates are uncertain, but it seems that the pre-British period (i.e. 17th century) is most likely. 16th seems I'll have to get myself a copy in the original Bengali and check it out.

The real reason I got interested in this story is because it is a tragic love story; but one that reflects a sad reality, another chapter in Hindu-Muslim relations. Tripathi, like every author, has played with the themes to make the story his own, perhaps making unreliable historical assumptions, but on the whole there is an air of authenticity to the writing, sparse novella style though it may be, and the ambience that he creates.

Chandrabati's father was Vanshi Das Bhattacharji, a wandering minstrel, a brahmin who sang Manasā Maṅgala, stories about the snake goddess, Manasā. In a country where death by snakebite is a common occurrence, a goddess who rules the snakes is one you want on your side. The maṅgala genre of songs served as both entertainment and religious proselytization. Moreover, Chandrabati wrote one pālā, i.e., the telling of stories through song, about how Vanshi Das converted a bloodthirsty dacoit, Kenaram, with his glorifications of the goddess Manasā.

Kali Ghat school, 19th century.
A brahmin boy from a neighboring village, Jayachandra, is enchanted by Chandrabati and even though they are still young, he writes poems to her based in the traditions of Sanskrit and Bengali love poetry. And she to him. Her family likes him, he is intelligent and enthusiastic. She likes him: he is handsome and romantic. And when Chandrabati comes of marriageable age, ghaṭakas (matchmakers) come and, to everyone's joy, arrange for the two to be married.

But Jayachandra lives some distance away, and he is also getting lustier by the day. One day, he is sitting in a tree near the women's bathing ghat and there sees a beautiful girl with her wet sari glued to her body, her breasts exposed. And he starts to also woo her with poems written on palm leaves left for her at the ghat. Sometimes he would play a flute from a hidden spot, awakening her curiosity, but stopping before she could discover him.

What he does not realize at first is that the girl, Ashamani, is Muslim. But, in Tripathi's version (apparently the original characterizes her as "the daughter of the Kazi"), she is the daughter of a Muslim, Fakir Chand, whose grandfather was born a Brahmin but forcibly converted. The man is barely a Muslim at all, and the doctrines he espouses sound more like those of the Bauls, who have both Hindu and Muslim manifestations. He plays the ektara and makes fun of religious fanaticism and the narrowness of vision of both Muslims and Hindus, though his sympathies lie with the more gentle Hindu people.

Ashamani's cousin Abdullah works for the Kazi as a kind of religious enforcer. He has "real Muslim blood"; his Bengali is mixed with more Persian and Arabic. He terrorizes Hindus and Muslims alike. The orthodox Muslims are wary of people like Ashamani's father, and on guard against any behaviors that are not according to the Sharia. There is a running joke that South Asian Muslims decide their behavioral rules by first finding out what Hindus do, and then do the opposite. But it has been a recurring feature of Islamic history in this part of the world, to first convert and then gradually enforce a tightening of social discipline.

Fakir Chand says to his nephew, ""

Abdullah and his gang are forever setting fire to villages, raping and pillaging and so on, for whatever apostasies they can find or imagine: Muslims who along with the Koran listen to stories of Sita and Rama, who sing songs of Hindu-Muslim unity.

One day, Abdullah finds one of Jayachandra's poems to Ashamani and takes the opportunity to forcibly convert him to Islam and make him marry the girl. And, in a great dramatic flourish, this happens on the very day that Jayachandra was to be wed to Chandra. The humiliation is so great that even though other suitors immediately come forth willing to take her as their wife, Chandra decides to remain unmarried and dedicate herself to writing her "woman's" Rāmāyaṇa.

Jayachandra on the other hand, finds himself in a predicament where his personal culture and education as a brahmin are all despised and held in contempt in his new surroundings... except for his father-in-law, who is also an afficionado of Meghadūta and Gīta-govinda. But they are a kind of tenuous and fearful underground, constantly wary of being discovered. In the circumstances, Jayachandra's relationship with Ashamani quickly starts to sour. She is attracted to her powerful and cruel cousin and Jaya even suspects her of sleeping with him. Eventually, the situation becomes so desperate for him that he begins writing to Chandrabati. Not because he expects to be able to ever repair what has been broken, but only to ask forgiveness for his foolish error.
I mistook a venomous snake for a garland
and I draped it round my neck.
I drank poison, mistaking it for nectar.
I took the haunted sheora tree for holy basil,
I worshiped it. In air and water I only find poison.
Only once I crave to see your charming eyes,
to hear your honey voice. Only once to wash
your delicate red feet with my tears.
One last time I wish to see you, after which
I can leave the world in peace.

He goes to Chandrabati's village, but as a pure Hindu she refuses to meet with him, for he is now tainted and untouchable, though she hears his message as he speaks from outside the walls of the temple where she is writing her book. In hopeless despair, Jayachandra drowns himself in the Phuleshwari River. Chandra, too, as she is washing the temple to purify it of the Muslim's touch, faints and in her grief gives up the ghost. Amongst her possessions are found the conch bangles that Jayachandra had sent her on the day they were to be married, as well as the three manuscripts, including the unfinished Rāmāyaṇa.

* * * * *

The flute-playing of a lusty boy while girls are bathing is a recognizable trope for anyone who knows anything about Krishna. Although Tripathi describes the exchange of poetry and Jayachandra's wooing of both Chandrabati and Ashamani in sweet romantic terms, we know the former relation is pure, the latter one of lust. But the social situation is such, worse even than that of feuding Montagues and Capulets, that even the slightest error is fatal. Once the line has been crossed and one ceases to be a Hindu, there is no going back. It is easy to become a Muslim, impossible to escape being one. It is impossible to become a Hindu, and once it is gone, it is impossible to recover. "Flowers, once used, cannot be offered to the deity."

One Muslim asks Vanshidas about how he could become a Hindu again, and he is told that the only way is to become a Vaishnava, a "Pirali Brahmin." I had never heard this term before. The story that Tripathi tells is exactly that of Subuddhi Raya as told in Chaitanya Charitamrita, though the Wikipedia article does not make reference to that incident. So eventually, he goes to Vrindavan to become free of the social bondage of his community, and when things deteriorate further, Ashamani also decides to follow him.

Tripathi tells the story well, though it is written without elaborate description. It is evocative of the Bengal of green rice fields, clear rivers, cow dung and bamboo villages nestled amongst mango trees, and a Hinduism that is characterized as a romantic and poetic culture. But this idyllic natural world is simultaneously and incommodiously juxtaposed to the dangers of bandits like Kenaram and fanatics like Abdullah, both equally merciless and capricious. Burning villages and floating corpses seem to be a recurring nightmare in the midst of Bengal's beautiful panoramas.

In response to Abdullah's reprimand when he hears him singing a Baul song, Fakir Chand says,
Look, son, this is the land of Bengal, not Arabia. Here we have palm trees, but also areca and plantain, jackfruit and hijala too. Coconut trees raise their heads, topped by garlands of juice filled nuts. We have fragrant flowered mango trees filled with cooing koils. Here the earth is juicy, and so are the ideas. Here there are neither barren deserts nor a life philosophy thirsty for blood and water. Like our sweet fruits, our religions and creeds are also sweet. If the Koran is popular, then so is the Purana. If we have Allahji, so too we have Ramaji.
Abdullah calls him senile and reminds him that his protection is the thin line that keeps at bay the threat of repercussions.

As with all tragic love stories, Fate is the ruler. But here, at least, Jayachandra is the architect of his own misfortune: Lust is the villain. But the moral is that there really is no forgiveness for infidelity in the quest for pure love. There is only one Radha, and she will -- in fact -- only give Krishna one second chance.

And the perilous condition of Hindus in Bangla Desh continues unabated: "Do Hindus have a future in Bangal Desh? See also on this blog, The Ahimsa Heritage and More thoughts on Islam and Bangla Desh,

Monday, April 28, 2014

Worklife Resumes

My attention span seems to last approximately three minutes since GN left. But slowly my center is returning. The warm weather is back and the baking heat is to my liking. I like walking outside to the corner store barefoot, in just a babaji sarong.

Like many men, I use work as an escape from life. I have actually countless escapes from life. I am a real fire gazer. But that is the true grace of being alone, is that you can seek out a fire in which to gaze and find the Glory of God therein.

Of late I have been working on Kṛṣṇa-sandarbha and, for the past few days, Tattva-sandarbha. We are hustling to complete the Jiva Institute editions. Satya Narayan Dasji has now found a generous donor who is willing to subsidize the entire project, so a new, revised and updated edition of the Tattva-sandarbha will be published along with Bhagavat-sandarbha, which is the first of the books that I helped with. 

Paramātma-sandarbha is currently in the able hands of the third member of our team, Navadvipa Das, and is well on its way to completion. Babaji recently finished writing his updated commentary on the Kṛṣṇa-sandarbha and I have been working on the Sanskrit text and translation, as I did with the previous two volumes.

Hopefully, KS will not present as many complications as the previous ones, by which I mean, learning complications. Certainly there are some spots where Sri Jiva engages in a little enthusiastic flurry of pāṇḍitya, citing examples from mīmāṁsā and especially nyāya, wherever he needs it to make a point, and then switches back to his more straightforward themes. And my retention is terrible, so it is good that Satya Narayan is ahead of me on the curve here. Way ahead, to be honest. I have been spending too much time reading about moon-faces and shy, sidelong, coquettish glances.

I am still trying to complete my education. I was joking with Babaji about how, when I finished my BA and did not know where I was going exactly, I took and passed the exams for the Canadian Civil Service and was invited for an interview at the old post office building on the corner of St.Antoine and Atwater.

The government people had set up a kind of real-life bureaucratic meeting. We were given a sheaf of papers dealing with various municipal projects and the problems involved, and then we were placed in a meeting situation with other candidates and told to come to decisions about all these issues facing the "town." Meanwhile, we were being observed on CC cameras by the interviewing team.

That day we were given assessments, at least I got mine, which was very nice of them to do. Instant feedback, rate you and tell you the reasons you messed up. "Come again next year and try again!" The main reason I was refused was because I kept trying to put decisions off, sending things back to committee for more study and so on. I would have been a real nightmare as a bureaucrat in any department. I'll pass the buck every time and wait for something besides shit to fall.

Anyway... in the meanstwhile...

The Yoga-sūtra work looks like more of a challenge and I am still acclimatizing myself to the subjects and language of that commentarial tradition. There is a big difference between Yoga-taraṅgiṇī and this, the word yoga is in both, but the preoccupations are quite different, as practice and theory.

Swamiji has been ambitiously attacking this monumental project of collating all the commentaries of Yoga-sūtra into one compendium and then analyzing and pronouncing on the different interpretations from his own insight. The combination of knowledge and practice that Swamiji has is rare. Unfortunately, his health is steadily deteriorating, but he is determined to finish this life's project -- he is currently on the Third Pada -- and wants me to help him. Heaven help me!!

But as already intimated, I have decided for some insane reason that I also want to "complete my education." I also feel indebted to Swamiji for numerous reasons, about which I will write one day, and so I consider this a guru-sevā. Just as I do my service to Satya Narayan Dasji, whose service is to Sri Jiva Goswami.

Both in their own way serve their paramparās. It is my honor to do my little bit, which seems rather insignificant from my point of view. But if they feel it is of any service, I am pleased to serve the traditions and receive my blessings in those respective paramparās.

This is the meaning of freedom -- to be able to serve the Guru. To be able to follow one's dharma. To be able to do the most selfish act in the world, to do what one loves, whereby one can learn, and have it appreciated by others. What is a greater grace than that?

* * * * *

Sanjay Shastri posted this verse on his Facebook wall a few days back.

स्तुवन्ति श्रान्तास्याः क्षितिपतिमभूतैरपि गुणैः
प्रवाचः कार्पण्याद्यदवितथवाचोऽपि पुरुषाः |
प्रभावस्तृष्णायाः स खलु सकलः स्यादितरथा
निरीहाणामीशस्तृणमिव तिरस्कारविषयः ||

stuvanti śrāntāsyāḥ kṣitipatim abhūtair api guṇaiḥ
pravācaḥ kārpaṇyād yad avitatha-vāco'pi puruṣāḥ |
prabhāvas tṛṣṇāyāḥ sa khalu sakalaḥ syād itarathā
nirīhāṇām īśas tṛṇam iva tiraskāra-viṣayaḥ ||

That even men of true speech become timid chatterboxes and extol with weary tongues the king [their bosses] with empty virtues is surely a complete influence of desire. For otherwise, for people free of desire, a lord is as worthless as a straw.
I figured Shastriji is struggling with a job situation. Anyway, it reminded me of the following old favorite of mine, taken by Sri Rupa from a work I don't know called Aparādha-bhañjana. It is also quoted in Caitanya-caritāmṛta:

कामादीनां कति न कतिधा पालिता दुर्निदेशा-
स्तेषां जाता मयि न करुणा न त्रपा नोपशान्तिः |
उत्सृज्यैतानथ यदुपते साम्प्रतं लब्धबुद्धि-
स्त्वामायातः शरणमभयं मां नियुङ्क्ष्यात्मदास्ये ||

kāmādīnāṁ kati na katidhā pālitā durnideśās
teṣāṁ jātā mayi na karuṇā na trapā nopaśāntiḥ
utsṛjyaitān atha yadupate sāmprataṁ labdha-buddhis
tvām āyātaḥ śaraṇam abhayaṁ māṁ niyuṅkṣyātma-dāsye

I carried out so many evil orders given me by my wicked masters, lust, anger, greed, bewilderment, intoxicaton and envy, that I have lost count. Yet these masters have never taken pity on me despite my faithful service. And I am so shameless that the faintest desire for devotional service has never once manifested in my heart. Be that as it may, O Lord of the Yadus, I have finally come to my senses today and I throw of my shackles to take shelter of your fearless lotus feet -- please engage me in your personal service. (BRS 3.2.25, CC 2.22.16)
Which, when you think of it, is a royal "up yours!"

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Radha Kund, West Bengal pushkarinis

Just came back from Radha Kund. I had an absolutely ecstatic bath, I even swam across and back. The water is clear and cleaner than I have seen in a long time, despite the flowers floating everywhere. Sure miss those turtles though.

This will give you an idea. This photo picked from Himalayan Tramp blog.

It brought back old memories of pukurs in West Bengal. I used to get up at four or earlier when I lived in Nabadwip, and I would walk the empty and ill-lit streets to Rani Ghat, which in those days was still nothing more than a stretch of beach. I would sing prayers all the way there and back, and even though the current was strong and it was dark, I would usually swim a little.

But when I went somewhere, to give path or to go on pilgrimage, if the village had a pukur, it was always a glorious opportunity. I made friends with a Gosai, a descendant of one of Nityananda's associates, Parameshwari Thakur. And his village of Antpur was really a magnificent old Bengali village, barely touched by the modern world, with slowly crumbling red brick zamindar mansions.  But with a fantastic coconut and tal lined pukur.

But that wasn't as good as the one at the house he had in Hooghly, which is where he really lived, because he was an accountant by trade in Howrah somewhere. He would have been completely lost to the Vaishnava tradition if it wasn't for the Nitai Gaur Radhe Shyam devotees. He invited me a few times on the occasion of Parameshwari Thakur's annual festival, since I knew him through Hridayananda Dasji who would sing the suchak kirtan and lead the 24-hour nam yajna.

At the house in Hooghly, you could step a few feet outside the door and dive into a crystal clear lake filled with lotus flowers and surrounded by tagore bushes dropping their copious white stars into the water. It must have been the hot season when I was there, because I must have bathed three or four times a day.

And what to speak of the pukur at Ekachakra! Padma dighi, long and narrow. I would get up in the brahma muhurta and go practically running the hundred meters or so to dive in and exhaust myself doing the butterfly and breaststrokes. You got to keep moving or the fish come and nibble...

And then there was that year I spent Karttik at Tin Kori Baba's ashram at Radha Kund, just a tumbledown brick hut, really. Baba was downstairs and a bunch of us were crowded into a freezing drafty second floor room.

I couldn't help myself. I would get up cold and shivering, and I had to take my bath in the Kund. I would go, teeth chattering down the steps and stand alone in the dark, jumping up and down doing jumping jacks to warm myself up, and then I would just dive into Shri Kund, so disrespectful, so lacking in devotion! No wonder Radharani won't let me stay there!

Today the sun was bright and it is the hot season in full swing. I arrived at ten o'clock and the Kund was full of boys playing! They were jumping off Jahnava's baithak and shouting like the kids in a municipal swimming pool on a hot holiday in Canada. I couldn't help myself. For the first time in what seems like years, I swam across and back, rolled and floated in the sun.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Bengal I

My next door neighbor here in Vrindavan was a woman named Krishna Kumari Dasi, a disciple of Srila Prabhupada’s who had had a pretty rough life in ISKCON, to say the least. At any rate I wrote about this place on Vrindavan Today a couple of years ago. LINK.

As it so happens, things change and right now, the garden stands empty... Akhiladhar has gone to St. Petersburg with his wife to settle visa issues and to collect money to develop the property. He wants to create a separate venue with guest house for Russian devotees.

gave me the key and so the last couple of nights I have been going there to do a little kirtan. The dominant feature there is the rather full sized figures of Gaura Nitai standing in front of the Yamuna, with Madan Mohan temple in the background. But as I sing the Gaura arati of Bhaktivinoda Thakur, the river sure looks like the Ganga to me.

The statues were made by Akhiladhar, though he told me he was not an artist... I had to laugh at the uncanny resemblance Gaura and Nitai had for Krishna Kumari herself. What emotional currents flow beneath the waves of our lives...

Picture from 2011.

The surroundings were all thatched roofed structures. Actually, such imagination... The whole thing reminded me a bit of Gadadhar Pran and the Nabadwip of his imagination. I had a momentary fear as I lit the incense that the whole miniscule Bengali village would go up in flames.

* * * * *

A few weeks ago, I was at the Jiva Institute when I met Ishan Gaura Das, a British devotee who lives in Denmark. He has written a number of books on various subjects. He researched the parampara, he told me, and decided that he wanted to have a connection with Bhaktivinoda Thakur through Lalita Prasad Thakur and he asked me if I had a godbrother at Radha Kund, as he had heard. So, yes, Harigopal Dasji Maharaj, our old Bhakta Das, who has been living there in Gaur Dham Colony in Radha Kund for the past 30 years, in a small plot of land. He leads the babaji lifestyle, took vesh from Ananta Dasji, and just does bhajan, daily parikrama of Govardhan for the past 30 years. So I gave Ishan Gaura a little map of Gaur Dham and off he went.

A few days later, he came back and told me that he had taken initiation from Harigopal Dasji. He had simply gone to him and told him he wanted to have this connection. And off he went back to Denmark.

A few days after that, Harigopal phoned me and told me what he had said before: Bhaktivinoda Thakur’s birthplace is falling apart and if something is not done, the place will be lost or destroyed. The Gaudiya Math and ISKCON are hovering around like vultures, and Lalita Prasad Thakur’s legacy will have no one to carry it on. The committee of the Bhaktivinoda Goshthi has appealed to him as the only disciple, it would seem, with any kind of stature, to please come to Dwadash Mandir and help to give it some life.

Of course, life means money, which is not really a babaji’s business, and Harigopal may have a little property there, but he is a pretty genuinely renounced Vaishnava, as far as I can tell. But now that he has a disciple, he is thinking how to serve the Guru Pat. He asked me to go with him to Bengal for the annual meeting of the committee in Birnagar, and with Ishana Gaura’s help he wants to start building a boundary wall to protect the Dwadash Mandir property. At any rate, on May 22, I will be going to Bengal for the first time in ages.

I wrote that I do not know whether or not I can do anything in service, or even if my presence will be welcomed. But it is time that I served my Guru with humility.

* * * * *

When Ramdas conceived of the Garden of Gratitude, he did so with the spirit of Bengal. It was a dream that Prabhupad made real: It was the world of Gaura-Nitai. The Garden has seats and footprints of many of Mahaprabhu's intimate associates. It is the world of Gaudiya devotion in an ideal form, one that has had trouble keeping its life. The aesthetics of the garden, the physical mood has been created, but it is empty, and to survive it will need a three-storey guest house, for which some of these mud and thatch cottages will be destroyed.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Krishna West/East

"Krishna West" is a VERY big deal. What I see is that Western devotees want to appropriate Krishna bhakti, make it their own. It is as though they are saying, "Indians did okay up until now. Now it is our turn." Like every other good idea, Westerners want to make it better.

After all, the West rules the world and has imposed its ways on India, the giant sloth, for 250 years now. What will be left of Vrindavan when it has been westernized completely? Will Krishna leave Vrindavan for New Vrindavan? Is Krishna really so localized that he must stay here and bend with the times?

I am a leader of Krishna West, figuratively speaking, and who is more Krishna East than me? Hell, ISKCON was not Indian enough for me. But I am not worried about whether dhotis look like diapers -- I spend most of my frigging days walking around in nothing more than a kaupin -- I have been trying to figure out what the hell this whole Hare Krishna business is about anyway, what to speak of God and religion, human life, enlightenment and love. Krishna consciousness is my field, my kshetra. Something is good there. What are the working ingredients? Can they be isolated? Or is there a version of Krishna bhakti that is an infallible recipe, a natural Gestalt, where a single ingredient which if isolated will only change the effect it has in combination with other things? Is it a medicine for a specific disease? Or is it something that if subjected to objective scrutiny dissipates like morning mist, its mysteries those of a placebo?

I did a parikrama the other day and stopped in at Rajendra Dasji's ashram, the Muluk Peeth just near Vamshi Vat. He is celebrating his annual festival in celebration of Muluk Das, a 16th century saint of the Ramanandi tradition who established his seat in Vrindavan. Rajendra Dasji is one of Vrindavan's current leaders and most respected Bhagavata speakers, and he is conducting the festivities with the appropriate shaan.

Rasa lila was going on in the large satsang hall, with Ram Swaroop's group on stage. They were in great form. Ram Swaroop was singing with such verve and joy. He must be in his mid-70s, but his voice had immense power, and his group is top notch.

I presumptuously found an empty place behind Rajendra Dasji himself. He was sitting in his vyasasan near the stage right in front of Ram Swaroop. I sat on a chowki that was meant for the sound team, but had been miraculously left empty. I realized later it was because sitting there put one in a higher position than the acharya who was sitting in front of it, though separated by a pillar. But being a stupid Westerner, I sat there without thinking of these things.

The kids did the peacock dance, with all the jhankis or tableaux. They did things like lift Krishna onto their shoulders, with almost acrobatic flourish, who then danced and flapped the peacock feather tails, more like wings. I thought, they're letting the boys be boys! When the dance finished, they returned to the yoga peeth position: Radha and Krishna on the simhasan with the eight sakhis on either side.

Ram Swaroop's lila-mandal has two newbies. The youngest boy could not be more than four years old. He was sitting next to Krishna's swaroop, adorning the simhasan by Radha's side. But this little boy, who believe me was deathly cute and obviously reveling in the newness of the whole shebang, noticed me and turned to Krishna and told him, and they both looked at me and laughed. The little kid had noticed the Saheb in the audience. I was pleased to be noticed by Krishna himself and I smiled back.

A few months ago, a woman devotee acquaintance was describing a rasa lila performance she had seen at Jai Singh Ghera. She couldn't stay, she said, because it was too strange for her to see adolescent boys with cracking voices and stubbornly burgeoning facial hair, dancing in the dress of women. Isn't that weird? Naturally, this thought has occurred to me, and indeed does it not always occur?

And I thought about the young boy... It was clear that this child was held in great affection by the other members of the troupe. Is it possible to look at this situation and not wonder if the occasion for abuse is glowering? I cut my teeth on this issue in ISKCON when the child abuse scandal was looming; I jumped ship partly because I did not want to be there when it happened. I had seen that it was insidious and I had no solutions. Certainly, "Chant Hare Krishna and be happy" was not cutting it back then. At least not then and there. Not fast enough. My solution was to get out and go deeper into the older tradition, but you cannot escape the universal underbelly of human nature.

I just wrote on my Facebook status, "Achintya means it is time for tears." Is that an Eastern statement or a Western one?  When the babus frowned on the sahajiyas, there is nothing they hated more than their girly-man tears. And a Westerner who stumbles into a nam kirtan in Nabadwip will find the histrionics tasteless, a show, a strange cultural aberration where people caterwaul, fake tears, and pretend to feel ecstatic love for God. 

The only person I know who has pushed Krishna East as far as it can possibly go is my godbrother Gadadhar Pran. He is still pining for someone to share his vision, his world, his Nabadwip Dham, his Gauranga. Tears come readily to him; they are part of his role. He has taking "acting as a way of salvation" to the extreme. But his vision is too alien for those who have to live in a world where getting into a car while it is snowing and driving downtown to earn a crust of bread is the quotidien reality.

The woman devotee I referred to above is not a newcomer to Krishna bhakti. She has more than passing understanding of the texts and theories of raganuga bhakti, and she has close association with a very public Western Vaishnava. Her commitment is to the Braj mood, and yet this representation of Krishna lila did not match her ideal concept as it had been mediated to her and which had become her own world of sacred love.

On stage, the gopis are troubled by the sound of Krishna's flute and discussing amongst themselves what to do about the disturbance. We cannot cook or do housework, they say, the flute messes with their minds. The wildly moustachioed and turbaned jester, Madhumangal, wearing beads and namavalis everywhere, comes on stage and, after a slapstick argument with Lalita, sells his soul to the gopis for some sweets by agreeing to help steal Krishna's flute.

Does not every devotee recreate his or her Vrindavan? If you were born and brought up in the West, did you not imbibe certain "equipment" with which you view the world and Vrindavan? Krishna Kirti is right when he says this, but even he is forced to use this equipment, and to be influenced by the using of it, no matter how hard he tries to be or create something else.

So whether someone points out that another is a "consequentialist" or finds some other monniker to identify his deviations and their causes, the Real Thing ultimately has to be a principle, in our case, Prema. And the lila of Radha and Krishna become revealed differently to different people, and the myths and lilas become living reality to people as they are. But the lila is only meaningful if it effectively communicates prema. Can it?

In our line, of course, how can we NOT look to Radha and Krishna, and to Vrindavan? But is our Radha-Krishna that of Ram Swaroop's Rasa Mandali?

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

The embarassment of love

It seems that the hardest thing to do in this sahajiya approach (forgive me for continuing to use this word, but I am currently stuck with it and have been unable to find an alternative) is to measure one's success.

The only measure I have at the present is "emotional intensity." This is not happiness or sadness but union or separation, which are both sides of the same coin.

When the object of love becomes coterminus with the Supreme Truth, then the happiness and distress arising from that love is constant and unrelenting. It seems to be mostly suffering, peppered with occasional bursts of extreme ecstasy. In other words, it appears to be an exacerbated version of the material experience itself. In other words, illusion.

Yoga and jnana cannot help. Knowing it is all illusion is part of the unrelenting dynamic of love. Concentration on the object of love is too painful. Like the verse says of Radha, her yoga is to stop thinking of Krishna.

It is too painful to love and too embarrassing to admit love, because love is always full of confusion.
How can anyone choose a path like that? One that promises peace and delivers poison? And then you look closer and see that nobody promised you peace, either.

I recently commented to a friend that I have been engaged in a process of deliberate self-inflicted autism. I have embraced madness. What is the benefit to the world in that? Isn't sanity what we seek? How can you teach something that promises the opposite of what everyone wants?

Sunday, April 06, 2014

The sustainability of relations

Your theory is irrelevant, in my view, where it does not offer a solution to the problem of sustainability in relationships. You insist that this is achieved through incorporating yoga in the routine, but I disagree that it needs even consideration at this stage of the commitment of two bhaktas. Body is not the first priority in our tradition.
Let me say that I think that this sādhana is at least potentially a solution to the sustainability of relationships. Prema Prayojan Dasji's model of sādhana in a couple, i.e. where the husband and wife participate as companions in bhajan of Radha and Krishna, is pretty much right on.

But I certainly don't think that any relationship can be sustainable if there is not a third point to the triangle, which is the Sacred, which in our case as Vaishnavas means Radha and Krishna. Without that external focus of the Divine Ideal, how can there be sustainability? Even the Catholics say the family that prays together stays together.

But the concept I am trying to present is direct, in that it focuses the mind of the sādhana partners on Radha and Krishna in the state of purest love. In other words, the sādhaka partners focus the mind together, i.e., simultaneously, in śravaṇa, kīrtana and smaraṇa, the three primary practices of bhakti. In my opinion, this culture should be done in seclusion and not simultaneously as members of a crowd.

Just as an individual should practise seclusion and learn to meditate and chant, etc., at least part of each day by him or herself, in order to quieten the mind, so should the bhajan of the couple be done in seclusion. The capacity to do bhajan in individual solitude should be considered a necessary PRE-requisite to attempting Yugal Bhajan. Doing Yugal Bhajan without a solid grounding in individual sādhana -- over and above community practices -- is an impossibility. This is why we make a distinction between the pravartaka and sādhaka stages, the singular and the dual.

By the same token, without the kind of sexual and psychological stability, harmony -- and indeed love -- that comes from the combined energies of a loving man and woman who are cultivating bhakti-sādhana together, I think that preaching activities will fail on the level of community aspect, at least where sustainable communities are the goal.

And it goes without saying that they are, if Krishna consciousness in any form is to thrive.

With regards to yoga. Even before I went to Rishikesh, I had incorporated many kinds of yoga practice, most particularly since I had been a babaji in Nabadwip when I was chanting one or more lakhs every day. I gradually changed my way of doing things so that I could sit more solidly and improve my japa and smaraṇa. So this is not something that I have just added recently. But I will admit that staying in Rishikesh gave me a lot of opportunity to improve my understanding of much of yoga theory and mechanics, which has really been very good for me personally.

Since smaraṇa is the pran or life of bhajan, it would seem to me that anything that is favorable to smaraṇa would be favorable to Krishna bhakti and Radha dasya.

Sorry this is getting long, but I would like to add a little more, since I think the yoga question may have something to do with the elements of seminal retention or orgasmic control. Some people may find this a bit too esoteric, but I consider it just the normal way of establishing control over the sexual machinery in the body. This makes both "separation" and "union" untroubled by physical lust. Because this aspect of spiritual practice is not generally discussed in orthodox circles, who restrict themselves to directly bhakti (svarūpa-siddha) practices, we call it deha-sādhana. But let this not be a source of confusion.

All yoga methods, including bhakti, begin from the external and move to the internal, from the most gross level of the body and then to the mind, śarīram ādyaṁ khalu dharma-sādhanam. Certainly the Gita does start with the body. Its first six chapters describe a gradual spiritual culture that proceeds from the gross to the subtle. There Krishna first tells us that we are not the body so at least we preliminarily get the proper orientation, the sambandha. But no one is expected to "get it" right away and therefore there is a necessity for sādhana, the abhidheya. Then at the beginning of the sixth chapter (6.3), Krishna makes it clear that we have to proceed from mastering the body to mastering the mind, and from there to awareness of the Self and God.

Bhakti is also the same. Vaidhī bhakti is predominantly about external sādhanas, rāgānuga is manaḥ-pradhāna. That is why there is a little bit of disagreement about the necessity for vaidhī bhakti as a prerequisite for rāgānuga. So a mixed sādhana is recommended for even those who wish to attempt even rāgānuga. But one of Rupa Goswami's basic definitions of bhakti is that it is "serving the master of the senses through using the senses," hṛṣīkeṇa hṛṣīkeśa-sevanam. The senses include the mind, which is the eleventh sense. But the inner aspect of bhakti is feeling (sādhya-bhāvāḥ), not just awareness. (BRS 1.2.2)

The sexual element in the Yugala-sādhana is nothing more than an attempt to engage this particular sense in a way that is beneficial (anukūla) to the goals of bhakti. This is actually a most brilliant discovery. When a devotee sādhaka and sādhikā, whose attraction to one another is primarily based in their shared interest in Radha Krishna, whose love for one another is based in recognizing the love they each have for the Divine Couple, who are committed to helping each other purify themselves in an honest attempt to become free from their personal psychological obstacles or anarthas, engage in the act of lovemaking, there cannot be anything that is detrimental (pratikūla) to bhajan.

I recommend chanting the name of Radha and Krishna while making love so that the pleasurable experience of such sādhakas' union, the most intimate sādhu-saṅga, who pour the love of their soul for the Divine Couple into their union, doing śravaṇa-kīrtana of the Holy Name while in the ecstasy of this most intimate union will make smaraṇa of the Divine Couple a real and living fact of life. Who would wish to give up this kind of intense spiritual intimacy (sādhu-saṅga)?

I really cannot understand why anyone would have an objection.