Thursday, May 22, 2014

Editors, rasa, and the art of writing

Bhakti Abhaya Ashram posted an article on editing the other day,  How to Edit? Swamiji,formerly Babhru Das, has a background and training in English education on the college level, have been leading him to ponder this matter, and clearly the linguistic professionalization of Tripurari Maharaj's sangha is a result of his work.

Since I do a fair bit of editing, I read it with interest. In my editing work, I have traditionally been pretty timid. That probably has something to do with the field I work in. I work very gingerly where scholars like Swami Veda Bharati and Satya Narayan Dasji are concerned. I prefer to take the approach of a student who is trying to understand, and then simply try to improve the English and improve the clarity. Being somewhat slow on the uptake, wider-ranging advice usually comes rather too late to be any good. But this work is in translation and commentary, scholarly and scripturally based writing, which has a bias to the conservative.

It is not rather than the kind of writing that I am trying to personally envision for myself, which is really, when you come right down to it, pretty confused and altogether scattered in terms of coherence.

And that is probably why, where my own writing is concerned, I could really use an editor. But alas I cannot afford to hire one, and so far no one has shown that kind of interest. On the one hand,
the problem may be that I am not ready to submit myself to the kind of in-depth critique that is being eulogized in this article.  But even the opposite -- just a little hand-holding -- would sometimes be welcome.

I think what the writer craves is for someone to really understand the thought processes that are at work and seeking form in the creative act of writing. Since writing is essentially an act communication, the writer cannot completely work out those thought processes without interacting directly with his or her audience. And the editor incarnates that audience. In its purest form, it would be an act of devotion and discipleship. He could even be said to be the samaṣṭi disciple. 

The good editor would be the one who follows finds the writer's thought processes worthwhile (and of course in the professional world, this might not be an option), which depending on the nature of the writing, could be seen as a fascinating level of intimacy in the most ideal world, where communication means communion and is seen as a sacred union of consciousness.

If the book or literary work is to be one of spiritual communication, then the communion of editor and writer is a kind of "first communion." In the "plural", i.e., when the work is mediated to a larger audience (
vyaṣṭi), there is a formation of community. But any breakthrough to community has to begin with the one-on-one communion of the dual.

Of course I am speaking in ideal terms, my job description for an editor. Someone who wants to know what it is you want to say and helps you say it better.

In my own case, I can see that there is a laziness involved also. I want someone else to do the work... I mean, I realize that I have a work ethic problem, but at the same time, the ideal editor would be almost a shadow self who would help break through the blockages and help the current of creativity keep flowing.

It is a rather unrealistic expectation. I imagine that in the commercial world it is rather "what sells" that is the editor's expertise. But that kind of writer will find that kind of editor. 

What is attractive writing?

What is attractive writing and what is the purpose of it? As devotees, is the marshaling of scriptural evidence for one or another point of dogma what really turns us on? Why were Prabhupada's writings effective for us, and why do they not seem to be as effective now? There are hundreds of possibilities or ways of answering this question.

But rather than weighing the merits and demerits of the writing itself, I will just pick one possibility. To be persuasive writing must be personal. There has to be communication, and that communication must be profound. The more personal, the more profound.

The personal means rasa. When you are touched by a piece of writing, that means there has been a transmission of rasa. And rasa means that "meaning" has been communicated in a compact and explosive manner, as in the Sanskrit sphoṭa theory.

Rasa has to be experienced as personal. A particular experience, not my own, becomes my own through the word. And because of the sheer complexity of human personality, one sphoṭa, or explosion of rasa-meaning, communicates vastly more information than the sum total of the actual expressed meanings that are directly deduced from the written words themselves.

This is because our emotions are huge complexes of experience that are assessed each time we venture out into the world of the senses, and which are constantly being shaped and revised as a result of what we experience.

So what is it we want to touch? Can we simply tell people they are not the body? It is a simple statement. We can say, this is the way it is, and tell a Puranic story or two to back it up. But a story that is interesting or cute or even an object of scholarly curiosity gets to the level of bhāva, not rasa.

Can we then tell stories of Radha and Krishna's madhura rasa, just because that is "supposed to be" where the rasa is? And if Rupa Goswami says it,  it must be true? And for many people it is, on the whole a very small group, but if you are a Hare Krishna, then that is where you sort of figure you are supposed to end up if you want rasa.

I won't delve into that one here. My position is that though Krishna says, "I am rasa," the Upanishad says "Rasa is He." There is a world of difference in the two statements. But I am curious to know what good devotee writers have to say about the practical applications of rasa theory with regard to preaching. 

Faith and Rasa

You cannot put faith before the experience of rasa. Rasa is the cause of faith. Now the question is, what rasa leads to what faith? And what faith is it exactly that we want? Can it be divorced from the mythological realm?

Seen from the point of view of rasa, what is the objection to the re-editing of Prabhupada's books, is that in the impressionable minds of those devotees who were disciples of Prabhupada, the language itself conveyed a particular rasa that became imprinted on their minds as the fundamental samskāra of their Krishna consciousness.

When that is changed, someone else's -- the editor's -- rasa has entered the picture. It does not matter if the new language is more accurate, or even if it appeals better to a new person who is a little more philosophically or Sanskritically aware than we were in our innocent days. The problem is that it does not have the same flavor, the same rasa that they felt when they heard those particular words in that particular order, and which then produced faith in them.

And that new voice comes between them and Prabhupada himself. It is the imposition of another personality, whoever it is, and they cannot trust any other voice but Prabhupada's. That the voice was someone else's even then, the editor who did the first reworking and reshaping of Prabhupada's language, it does not matter. For them it was Prabhupada's own voice.

They want that specific rasa of their early Krishna consciousness. The good old days. The same dream they had then, still having it. Progress or not, we will not debate here. But it is worth inquiring into it on the principle that old wine must be put into new bottles.

A writer will create his own rasa. The important thing is that it be authentic and meaningful... to someone, anyone, somewhere. And that only happens if you can touch YOUR universal reality.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Wake up call.

It seems, strangely enough, that as we grow older, the less fearless we become. Should a lifelong sadhaka not be more ready and willing to risk or even embrace death, to take risks for Truth, Love and Justice?

Perhaps we become more fearful because we discipline ourselves all our lives to crave security. Especially if you have been a parent you habituate yourself to creating an environment where everything is stable and secure, as best you possibly can. And you often have to struggle very hard to do so. When you finally get to retirement age, you are often so exhausted with it all that you just want to rest, or like the shastra says, finally do a little bhajan, or just sit back and enjoy the fruits of your work, or just go on tranquilly in your own way.

Ah what dreams the world will only rarely permit!

* * * * *

A day or two ago, I posted the following on Facebook:
Last night I had a minor bicycle accident. I swerved to miss an oncoming tempo as I turned the corner at Chaitanya Vihar and Burja Road, and I fell into an uncovered drain, which has been sitting there for more than two years, inviting precisely the kind of accident that happened. Three pairs of anonymous hands pulled me out. 
Luckily damages are minimal, but I have bruised ribs that are going to be painful for some time to come, elbows, knees and ankles scratched up. It took me fifteen minutes to come back to external awareness. Moreover, my yoga training in breath control proved to be of great practical use at this moment. 
I can't tell you how many times I have had premonitions of this happening. That hole is such an obvious danger. So as I went flying into it, it was almost like déjà-vu. I don't think I felt any emotional shock at all, though the physical shock required a few minutes of deep samadhi to recover from. I had a small bicycle accident.
When I put this information on the internet, my sister commented, "Wake up call!"

I am actually very fortunate in my life to have had very little in the way of real traumas. I am in pretty good health for my age; I still have the stupid overconfidence of a teenager.

But in the period following this event, I was reminded over and over again how fortunate I have been in terms of health and welfare. On the very day I posted my little personal news item on Facebook, Raghunath Giuffre, an old Dallas Gurukula student who now lives in Hawaii, recounted a horrific story of being beaten by a deranged tenant in a building he rents out. Luckily, his injuries were not life threatening, but nevertheless extensive enough to be quite grim.

Then, just a few days later, I met Sadhu Das, who only a few weeks earlier had been mercilessly thrashed by some thugs in Mayapur. He was saved from the point of death by expert doctors. A great deal of plastic surgery was required to repair his face, but he looked fully recovered except for a few scars. He generally seemed in good spirits, even though the affair had left him with a debt of Rs. 80 lakhs (US$ 120K).

Indeed, it seemed that in the wake of my little mishap I met a great number of people who had had sudden, unexpected close brushes with death. My misery was small indeed! But even hearing from others of their experiences is like a chorus to my own little wake up call.

When I came to India, seven years ago, I did so in a spirit of complete surrender. I was ready to "live under a bridge" so to speak.

I have to confess that it was my own selfish desire for liberation from the entanglements I was so enmeshed in, from the deep dissatisfactions with the way my life was going at the time, Nevertheless, I certainly felt liberated, in some way restored to my svarupa. Whether as a bhakta, or as a yogi, I was somehow back in India, where for reasons unfathomable to me, I belonged.

This time, in 2007, I still benefited from the protections of a wealthy ashram catering to Western practitioners, making the staying in India very much an insular experience, like a spiritual Club Med. It was quite comparable to the very first time that I came to India (1975) and stayed in Iskcon Mayapur.

But in those still early Iskcon days, we lived in the insular world of the Western Hare Krishnas in India. Prabhupada's intention was that Westerners should filter India through him alone, and in those days Mayapur had its own mood with a distinct flavor of the heroic pioneer out on the frontier. Occasionally it seemed to me that we were that far off from the mentality of the British Raj, getting things done in a backward nation, among the corrupt and thieving lying natives. Gung ho! White man's burden and all that!

In Rishikesh the mood was much more Westernized than that, and thereby even more isolated from India. The Western "yogis" come for meditation, but they are not about to give up their identity as whoever they happen to be in their Western context, nor do they feel it to be necessary. They live in a bubble, but it is the bubble of their European or American identity. They pay for the privilege.

In either case, bubbles. Other universes, other dimensions, new created dimensions in the teeming cacaphony that is India of the here and now.

So in both cases I was being protected from the "real" India by an environment that mediated India to me by first tendering a particular sanitized or idealized version which was guarded carefully behind guarded walls. In the bubble.

But this had benefits. It meant that my merging into India society (in my first phase in India) could be done slowly, descending down the slow slope into the multiple different worlds that constitute "real" India. I could do it without losing my starry eyed faith in the grandeur of ancient India and its grand myths of yoga and God-realization.

I could do this primarily because I was not attached to any woman. When I returned to the West and made an attempt at marriage, I adopted the conventional European style to which my parents were accustomed, not excessively romantic, functional... ultimately alienating, I lived a life of such compromise to my sense of ideal self, rightly or wrongly conceived, that I had to leave it behind.

And when I left that world, the fabricated artificial dream of middle-class America, I was almost obliged to do so from a position of absolute severance, a kind of cerebral hygiene. But also from the spiritual position of vairagya, of complete renunciation. I gave up expectations and also, more terribly in the eyes of the world, my responsibilities.

So now I live like a retired single person; no one depends on me other than those who pay me to do their work. Fortunately, they are very tolerant of me, for I make certain not to treat my work like a business.

There are moments, however, of financial shortfall, or reminders of mortality, that thrust one into worldly awareness and call into question one's expectations. And what should one expect if one lives like a retired person when one literally has nothing? No financial cushion, no sponsors, no donors, no protectors, no possessions whatsoever. Yet, by some grace of the Lord, whenever I wanted to do bhajan, I always could. All facilities were given. Why not just go on living this way even with the inevitable lurking just over the horizon?

The fact is that I have lived more or less like a retired person all my life. This is why any attempts I made at being a householder have been such failures. A hermit, or a sannyasi in the old fashioned concept, a yogi, whatever, would live in insouciant dependence on the grace of God, or at least that was the ideal. And the householder must learn to live like that also, but it is rare that he can, for he has responsibilities.

In the West we talk about a social safety net, and even now, the temptation is great to return to Canada to at least benefit from whatever pension the government gives out to seniors, for the little security it provides. And of course universal health care means another kind of freedom from worry.

Now in a few days, I will get my real wake up call when I go to Canada for the first time in several years. More changed than ever, but still basically a sannyasi, or in other words, still a penniless bum.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Varnashrama and Society as we know it

As I reflect on the Yājñasenī book, I have also been thinking to some extent about kṣatrīya-dharma, which is of course the principal theme of the book as a whole. The Mahābhārata is about polity. The largest section, the Bhīṣma-parva, is almost wholly concerned with guidance for rulers. And, after all, kṣatrīyas run the place, the politicians and so on, and they have a real influence on the way people live. Even Krishna, the avatar who has come especially to reestablish dharma, to vanquish the wicked and bring succor to the dispossessed and devoted, is a kṣatrīya.

So what is the kṣatrīya ethic?

Once upon a time, a long long time ago, Srila Prabhupada took a walk with his disciples here in Vrindavan and suddenly said, "We must start a Varnashram college." And he began to explain his concept of varnashram dharma and the ideal way of forming community, in microcosmic settings, close to the land, simple living and high thinking.

So, it was decided, as things were usually decided quickly in those days; if Prabhupada wanted it, someone was there to get it done. So word percolated to Dallas, the Gurukula, and the powers-that-be, the GBC and whoever else--I never asked about the chain of command, and I was sent to New Vrindavan with the four oldest boys in the Dallas Gurukula. There we were to live in a house, which they used to call Prabhupada's house because he had stayed there, just down the road from Madhuvan and where they built the palace.

Anyway, I got to thinking about varnashram then, and indeed, it was in the air. There were a couple of ex-Green Berets (or so they claimed) who had become devotees, and my assistant was also a Vietnam veteran. A kind of military ethos descended for a little while on the whole of New Vrindavan, a kind of generalized paranoia was instituted and this paramilitary gang started giving talks on self-defense and so on. The spirit infused even me and my ex-Marine assistant and we would do things like march the kids, however many we happened to have, left-right left-right, in-step all the way to Madhuvan for arati, chanting Hare-Krishna, Hare-Krishna to keep time.

The system we followed at the grandiosely named Varnashram College was to have classes in the morning, then send the boys out in the afternoon to different parts of New Vrindavan to learn useful skills. I still don't know if they actually learned anything. I was too glad of the afternoons off to pay much attention.

That summer Prabhupada came to NV and he was, as usual, surrounded by leaders like Bali Mardan, whom I remember particularly on that day. We were actually sitting on the lawn outside Prabhupada's house at the time. I was confused about varnashram dharma. Prabhupada had said we should divide our group into four basic categories according to propensity and work, and that is what was going on. I was a teacher, therefore a Brahmin. But Prabhupada had always emphasized that we were devotees, Vaishnavas, who were "more than Brahmins," who only adopted the roles of the four varnas in order to set example for the rest of society.

Me reading to Prabhupada with other devotees and students.

I don't exactly remember what my question was, but it had to be repeated for Prabhupada, and Bali Mardan did so in a way that I found deliberately distorting, in order to get a rise from Prabhupada and in order for him to project that he was in the know about what Prabhupada thought, with a little twist of "what a fool this lowly disciple is for asking such an obvious question" thrown in for measure." And so Prabhupada gave the customary response that devotees were above the varnas. But that did not answer my question about how we were supposed to organize ourselves, even in a small community, as varnas.

At any rate, varnashram has not preoccupied me much since then. Mahaprabhu said, "Give up varnashram and just do bhajan," so I stopped giving it much thought. I just assumed I had a brahminical nature, for what it is worth, and decided to follow my nature.

But a couple of years ago, I read Osho's commentaries to the third and fourth chapters of the Gita and was impressed by one particular insight he made about the varnas. He associated brahmins with shudras and kshatriyas with vaishyas. He said that an incomplete brahmin is more likely to become a shudra, whereas an incomplete kshatriya will tend to become a vaishya.

Prabhupada used to say, I believe, that America was ruled by vaishyas and the USSR by shudras. Which is dead right. And he was also right to say that the brahmins, or intellectuals, themselves guided by higher spiritual principles, should guide society. Osho added the insight that brahmins and shudras are natural allies, as in Lenin's alliance of the intelligentsia and the working class.

The alliance of the kshatriya and vaishya classes is too obvious to require much discussion. But the intelligentsia generally favor egalitarian ideas, while the alliance of power and money pushes towards fascism and militarism. The corruption of the intelligentsia and working class, in their effort to establish equality, is in bureaucratic Byzantism.

In democracies, the natural tendency of the power elites is to divide the working classes who dominate numerically. Anyone who works for a paycheck, even if he may think of himself as an intellectual or as a business person, is working class.

When other are in charge, brahmins are dangerous because they seek the truth. Kshatriyas and vaishya are not interested in the truth, so much. Of course, they are interested in truths related to their area of competence, but the whole truth is really a brahminical preoccupation. It is a way of thinking. Brahmins think in terms of ultimate purpose, kshatriyas power, vaishyas money. Shudras, doing a good job.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Memories of Birnagar Dwadash Mandir

Tonight I am back here in Vrindavan. It is very interesting for me to observe this differences in worlds as I constantly go back and forth between Rishikesh and Vrindavan, the two places where I have spent most of the last nearly seven years.

Now, in a few days, I will go to my guru's home. I am barely able to imagine what it will be like. It really will be the first time in ages. I went once a few years ago, in a rented car with Gadadhar Pran. It was a very unsatisfactory visit in that there was little closeness between the two of us white foreigners and the people living at the mandir. This time I go in the company of my godbrother, Harigopal Dasji.

Thirty years ago, I knew Harigopal as Bhakta Das when I first went to Birnagar. There were three young men staying in the ashram; Badol, Madhav and Bhakta Das. Though Madhusudan and I only stayed there a few times for an extended period of time, we developed friendships with all three of them. But Bhakta Das was always curious and friendly, and he helped us negotiate the difficulties of being in an ashram dominated by two old women. Especially two old women who considered us moochers.

And they weren't far wrong. We were babajis. We were moochers. We never brought dakshina. We thought our seva was to do bhajan and to be students and learn. And Prabhu encouraged us, told us to go for it. But we never overstayed our welcome.

The atmosphere was definitely different from what we had been used to in Iskcon and the Gaudiya Math. There was a time warp feel to it. As though we had stepped back another further dimension into this reality of the parampara. An otherworldiness, in an eccentric place where an eccentric old man sat and chanted japa all day long, living and feeding his little family with his government pension. An old man, 100 years old with no teeth, who spluttered and spat each time he spoke, often needing an interpreter to make himself understood.

We would sit in his room and Bhavani, an older disciple from Midnapore, a school teacher, would read from some of Prabhu's unpublished writings. Would that I had known Bengali well enough then to remember all the details. But we got our history lesson, as we had hoped we would. And we got our ticket for this other world, this next layer of the palimpsest. The world of Vaishnavism before the Gaudiya Math brought it into the 20th century and gave it a new shape and color and ethos.

I did not realize how much affection Bhakta Das had for me until this time when I went to see him at Radha Kund. He had taken vesh from Ananta Dasji, not long after Madhusudan and I had both been defrocked by the playful hand of the Player. He has been living there for almost thirty years. I have to confess that I was a little surprised when I heard he had become a babaji, because somehow I had never seen that serious side of him.

I spent a day with him recently and he is pretty much your old school, genuine bhajananandi babaji. He is very simple, both in lifestyle and in behavior. It was quite strange for me to feel so much camaraderie after all these years. A great simplicity is required for this babaji life. To maintain the same rhythm, the same pace day in day out, focusing the mind in one direction only, that of bhajan. Taking joy in the daily routine of japa, bathing in the Kund, kirtan, cleaning, deity worship, cooking, reading Chaitanya Charitamrita, doing Govardhan parikrama.

Living in that renounced community, once a kind of Mount Athos, though not so much anymore. But still keeping to himself, for a community of hermits is still a community, and the people are still hermits. Simple, and I should add, not like me. Which is why he is still there and I am still not.

And now these current developments are taking place. Rather important ones, if you will.

Birnagar, the birthplace of Bhaktivinoda Thakur, was a deserted and desolate place in the 40's when Lalita Prasad Thakur first came to establish himself there. This had once been the site of a prosperous zamindari, but at some time when Bhaktivinoda Thakur was still young and living elsewhere, it was struck with an epidemic of smallpox or cholera, and pretty much decimated and abandoned. Bhaktivinoda wrote a poem about it in English, one of his earliest literary works.

Prabhu reclaimed the property which is where Bhaktivinoda Thakur was born and eventually made this his primary place of residence. Unfortunately I have no dates for all these things yet. When he came, the 12 temples -- one to Kali, one to Durga, and ten Shiva lingas -- and which date back to the time when Ula was a thriving village, had all been long abandoned and were in a fairly advanced state of disintegration. So with his limited means as a government bureaucrat and later living on his pension, he renovated according to his taste and according to his needs.

The Kali mandir was never used except as a goshalla or storage place, because it had been used to slaughter goats in sacrifice, so it was considered unusable. It was altogether outside the walled compound, which was formed by the ten Shiva temples with the Durga temple to the right as you came in. The Durga temple had been made into the main building. Upstairs was made into a temple for Gaur Gadadhar and Prabhu lived underneath the temple. There was a spiral staircase going up the side to get you to the temple, and there was enough space to allow for twenty or thirty people or more to have kirtan. The building had been restuccoed and whitewashed in a light blue color.

The Shiva temples, two rows of five facing each other, were left empty but for one and that courtyard would just be used for drying clothes, or fruits and vegetables, or poppers, or some other preparation at which Masi Ma and Bhakta Ma labored all day long. The kitchen and dining room were after that, past which we, Madhusudan and I, and probably the other men, dared not trespass.

Behind the compound, to the north, there is a fruit orchard, with mangoes and jackfruit, and all kinds of edible roots and leaf plants, ginger and tumeric. This orchard, in fruit season would always become, and still is, the prey of youths who seem to become ever more impolite with each generation.

But there is still a pukur, where the birthplace of Bhaktivinoda Thakur is and Prabhu's samadhi. There is a fair bit of arable land also. But what is missing is a protective wall.

Like everywhere else in India, development or growth is going on unabated in West Bengal. What was once a deserted area now is practically a suburb of Kolkata. It is on the suburban railroad corridor from Sealdah to Krishnanagar. On the western side of the Ganges or here Bhagirathi and then Hooghly rivers, the electrified lines now reach as far as Nabdwip if not further. So both banks are becoming increasingly urbanized.

Birnagar lies on that line, second station after Krishnagar. The pressure on the property is becoming quite heavy. Encroachment, squatting, greedy eyes of speculators, and so on, what to speak of theft and other kinds of insecurities that come with the influx of urbanization.

So Bhakta Das wants to build a wall. I am just going along for the ride because it is Harigopalji's wish. He is going to officially be made president of the Bhaktivinoda Goshthi in Birnagar and he is going try to save the place. Bhaktivinoda Thakur has sent him a disciple, an Englishman he has named Radha Charan Das, who has kindly said he is willing to cover enough of the costs that the work can at least be be begun.

This could be characterized as a concession to the Kali Yuga. And we confess, we did not go looking for the Kali Yuga, it came to us, by the divine arrangement. It is all a question of doing something ourselves to protect Bhaktivinoda Thakur's birthplace or leaving it up to ISKCON or the Gaudiya Math to make an international destination out of it?

It may be to Prabhu's everlasting credit that he had few rich disciples. He was not persuaded to take money, except perhaps for feasts and special events when all would chip in. He lived on his pension pretty much. So he had no great ambition to turn this into anything more than a place where people would honor Bhaktivinoda Thakur in a way that recalled him and his mood.

When there, either Madhusudan and I together or alone, we would go on Nam Tahal, i.e., kirtan in the streets of the village. We would go to at least three houses each to beg people to chant the holy name. bolo krishna bhaja krishna koro krishna shikha. It was always most fun when we did this with another godbrother, Sachinandan Dasji.

Sachinandan was one of Prabhu's most prominent disciples. He was tall, very tall for a Bengali. He had a golden complexion and a magic smile. He worked in a post office in Calcutta, but in those days, Calcutta offices had a lot of tolerance for crazy spiritual sadhu types. If someone was a sadhu, they were thankful they had a sadhu in their office. He pretty much made his own schedule, and if there was a Vaishnava event somewhere, he would take a day off.

Anyway, Sachinandan was an unsuccessful worldly man. His own father had been a babaji in Vrindavan who "returned" to Bengal, got married and lived in a village in Hooghly. Sachinandan's father had also been an "old school" Braj type babaji, and so Sachinandan had it instilled in him from childhood. His specialty was kirtan, and I say that he even influenced ISKCON kirtan through Guru Kripa to some extent. He would close his eyes and dance, especially uddanda, jumping straight up and down. His kirtans were, as we used to say, ecstatic.

If Sachinandan was at the mandir, he would go out with us. He did Nam Tahal in Calcutta as well. We would walk, usually just two, three or four of us, chanting Hare Krishna, and in between sing Bhaktivinoda Thakur's street kirtan songs, like Radha Krishna Bol Bol Bol, Bol o re sabai. Or Gay Gaura madhura svare. And we would go chanting Hare Krishna through the village, taking a different route each day, but we only went to houses where we knew that the people were pious and would come out and pay pranams, would listen to the kirtan and even join in, and would do a Hari lut, throwing puffed sugar (batasa) in the air over our heads.

We all loved Sachinandan. Later on, after Prabhu left, I used to go with Sachinandan to programs. He had disciples in various suburban areas along the Ganges corridor. I went once with him to his home village. We still had to walk on rutted walkways and on the dykes in the rice fields. We always used to have a gathering of Prabhu’s disciples and grand disciples at Panihati for the cheer dahi mahotsava. There would always be so many little groups like ours, doing their own thing, singing their own kirtans and sharing their mangoes and jackfruit and bananas. Bathing in the Ganga in the midst of the joyful noise. The best of all the Bengali Vaishnava festivals I ever attended. Later he came to Radha Kund, became a bit demented in later life, died there and his samadhi is kept by some of his disciples in Gaur Dham Colony.

Anyway, I went off a huge tangent there. So thinking of going back to my guru's ashram is provoking so many memories, even of things like the ashoka tree, and the custard apple tree, the stark room where I stayed, the birds. A lot of scents and sounds are coming back, which I already know will mostly be lost to everything except my memory. It was, I think, just like Jaiva Dharma.

It is rather ironic that the best pictures of Prabhu are this series where he is seen conversing with Srila Prabhupada.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Answers to Questions about Sahajiyasim

I want to say something about the impression that people have that I am always talking about sex. Perhaps it is because I have been open about the subject in a way that others have not been that has created this impression. Women are ready to talk about misogyny, but fail to recognize that ambivalence and confusion about sexuality itself are an important contributing factor in misogyny, and a spiritually viable response is needed to assimilate sexuality into our culture of the sacred.

There are many people who feel uncomfortable with any mention whatever of sexuality, and tell me to emphasize love. After all, our tradition has always hidden direct references to sex and dressed it up in Radha Krishna's "love dalliances" or whatever. I think that a little direct talk is not only useful but necessary. That does not make me a sex maniac or a lusty old womanizer. Indeed, most people in the modern  materialistic view of sexual liberation would find me a fusty conservative indeed.

There appears to be something about the things I say that escapes people -- so many are incapable of nuance. They hear the word sex and assume a great deal about me personally as a result. This is why I find myself returning to the subject again and again, repeating the same basic ideas again and again. Perhaps I am wrong to do so.

At any rate, here are some accumulated comments from recent Facebook discussions that were prompted by the
article The problems of identity, real and imposed.


I use the term sahajiyā in my own way. I have appropriated the term to express something about the way that the spiritual path of devotion works, or in my view is meant to work. It contains themes that are present in all historical sahajiyā traditions, but I don't think anyone has thought about it with the same degree of sophistication as I have. Forgive my hubris.

The essence of it lies in the transition from the beginner stage to the middle stage of spiritual progress. Bhakti means love. Loving the deity in Goloka, in the temple, or in your heart, even, is the first stage of bhakti. In the second stage one becomes aware of the sacred presence of God in the other human being. In the final stage, the presence of God is perceived universally, or more practically, in community. All three levels are true and not mutually exclusive, but complementary. What is gained in the first stage is not lost, simply ripened or matured or deepened.

(1) Are you saying that sahajiyāism is closer to the original Gaudiya tradition?

There is a confusion here that arises out of the misuse of the word sahajiyā by IGM (Iskcon-Gaudiya Math). They include the orthodox babajis of Radha Kund in the scope of sahajiyāism. So when I use the term "sahajiyā Babajis," I am only appropriating a slur.

In IGM, prākṛta-sahajiyā (a term that perhaps Siddhanta Saraswati himself coined) is a blanket condemnation of all who believe that sexuality has a spiritual function. It is meant as a slur, since it assumes, a priori, that any sexuality whatsoever is bad and automatically a spiritual negative.

The true sahajiyā simply says, "Gender differentiation is basic to the human situation. Sexuality is a natural proclivity and should be used in the process of understanding and perfecting prema. There is no meaning to Radha and Krishna if there is no such thing as love in this world. Our love makes Radha and Krishna real, and Radha and Krishna transform our love into the supreme sacred reality."

(2) What do you mean by meditation on one's svarūpa?

Here we are talking about the orthodox system of endeavoring to meditate directly on Krishna lila and one's role within it, usually as a mañjarī. What I am interested in here is unpacking the symbolic meaning of this role.

So when I say conscious and unconscious in this regard I am referring to the whole constellation of material motivations that might play a role in anyone's seeking such an identity, and looking for the "real" therein.

If this meditation is not understood in relation to our actual psychological makeup, and if it does not relate to the reality of our lives as human beings, it is false consciousness and needs to be deconstructed.

Krishna bhakti of the first stage (pravartaka, i.e., what everyone understands to be bhakti, both vaidhī and rāgānugā), i.e., the direct intuited knowledge of God within oneself as well as in the superstructures of religious bhakti (temple worship, Harinam, practices etc.) are all enhanced by passage into the second stage. But something new is added.

3) Are you saying that this svarūpa can be granted for real, or do you think it is merely an intermediary step, that brings us towards Krishna bhakti as exemplified by the sentiment, "Whoever I am, Shyama, I am yours, I am doing the best that I can."

That is an interesting question and might only be answered when one reaches the end of the journey. I personally see all of it included in all of it, sarvaṁ sarvātmakam. The important thing to me, and the angle of vision I take, is that prema has to be the goal. And the means has to contain the goal within it. A process that separates or isolates you from the world cannot really be the goal of bhakti. This is not the kaivalya of yoga, the separation of prakṛti and puruṣa, but a proper understanding of their union in love, in multiple dimensions, i.e., singular, dual and plural.

It is only because I decided to focus on the word prema in all its manifestations that I have come to my conclusions. If anything, the mañjarī-deha is the form of love. So they are or should be mutually enhancing. But something like the mañjarī form, meditated on because it is the tradition or because someone said it was the "highest thing" etc., is probably going to cause confusion in the mind of the practitioner. In this I have come to agree with Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati. Nevertheless, the fact that our sampradāya points to this as the highest thing needs to be dealt with in an honest and direct way.

Is it not an imposition for someone in a man's body to adopt the identity of a prepubescent girl? Unless some real life psychological purpose (one that is not pathological) can be found to justify such a transformation, with a real foundation in natural archetypes can be found whereby one's spiritual motivations can be aligned with a true sense of identity, meditation on a mañjarī-svarūpa is going to be difficult, because unnatural.

So I see this again as a distinction between the path of renunciation and the path of action. The former is about theory, the latter about practice, because unless there is practice, i.e., prema in the world, merely preserving the tradition is an exercise in dry conservation.

To give a more direct answer to the question, though. Surrender in ignorance is a first step, though the very nature of bhakti is to preserve ambiguity throughout as a necessary aspect of lila. But love clarifies one's relation with God, and rāgānugā bhakti means to become defined more clearly in the rasas for which one has the deepest taste. But because of the ever ambiguous, ever uncertain, ever evolving and infinite nature of bhakti, all steps are interim.

4) Gaudiya Vaishnavism proper, doesn't allow for the sublimation of our unconscious drives in this way, and requires something true to emerge and be given to us, something that is like a preexisting spiritual identity.

Well, since the renunciate model is the normative approach both in the orthodox and the GM divisions of GV, they accept the general orthodox wariness of sexuality. But grihasthas will obviously meet in some form or another an awareness of the relation between this-worldly erotic love and Radha Krishna lila. And if they are properly prepared, both in character and awareness, then they should be able to avoid the pitfalls associated with making such a relation conscious and to use it for a higher sublimation.

5) You are saying the challenge of that is that one can give up, if one has to wait so long, one can fall off into the alley this way also, into a sense of I am Brahman and that's it?

Certainly, if one feels that the imposition of a mañjarī identity is false, i.e., has no relation or relevance to life as lived, then one will see it only as a means to an end. Once its inherent falseness is exposed, it is to be given up. So yes that is a kind of danger that nevertheless must be faced with confidence, since we accept both identity and difference.

The only way around this is to accept the reality of universal archetypes and their functioning, and to understand the relation of our Vaishnava pantheon to that naturally existing psychological reality.

Some related points can be found here. I hope that is somewhat helpful.


The problem was and is still that the reality of the male-female complementarity, and all the things that go with it or support it, like the concept of shakti, etc., are not considered relevant to life in the world, or at least are not discussed openly as a matter of sādhanā. No thought is given to the practical matter of sexual attraction in this world and how it is to be harnessed and used as an element of spiritual culture, and in particular the culture of madhura rasa.

The IGM follows the renunciate model, which holds that sexuality is the basis of material entanglement; sex desire is bondage. Even though the scriptures say that a grihastha can be a devotee equal to a renunciate, the fact is that marriage is only looked at as a concession to a frailty. "It is better to marry than to burn" is the way St. Paul put it. The grihastha is expected to adopt the renunciate world view, and this then leads to all the misogyny and depreciation of the role of women and sexuality in spiritual life.

Masculine prejudice and misogyny lead to caricatures like the one a critic recently offered, where he characterizes the entire idea of spiritual or sacred love as a misappropriation for the purpose of bhakti to satisfying base carnal urges. This is the hammer with which the orthodoxy always beats the heads of the sahajiyās. It is not entirely incorrect, because that danger is there. But a true sahajiyā recognizes that licentiousness (strī-saṅga) is not the same as the devotional association of a spiritual partner in love (satī-saṅga).

The prominence of Radha in our tradition is not without relevance to an understanding of the workings of love in this world. The very fact that we use a symbol for God that visibly incorporates the feminine, and even prioritizes it, is an affirmation of the primary value of femininity, which is love.

Therefore, any version of Gaudiya Vaishnavism that does not accept this principle AND applies it practically as a part of its sādhanā, will have difficulty progressing to the stage of genuine community. And if you follow my logic, you will se that it is a no-brainer.

Can you present any shastric evidence to validate your advice? Where is this found in the writings of the foundational Goswamis of the Gaudiya cult?

One has to understand that pramāṇas are something that can be chosen selectively and then used as a guide to understanding the rest of a text or corpus of texts. Just like BhP 1.2.11 and 1.3.28 guide the Gaudiya Vaishnava understanding of the Bhāgavatam as mahā-vākyas or paribhāshās. This means that one should organize one’s understanding of other injunctions or prohibitions in the light of such overriding principles.

So, similarly, there are certain philosophical concepts, of which the "truth of the world" as opposed to the jagan mithyā of Shankara is the most important.

Once we accept that personhood, which includes gender distinction, is inherent in the very structure of reality, then we have to deal with the implications of such a discovery. The big mistake is to think there is no love in the world, to reduce every human interaction to lust and greed. Surely we are better than that, even if we fail in the attempt.
āmayo yaś ca bhūtānām jāyate yena suvrata
tad eva hy āmayaṁ dravyaṁ na punāti cikitsitam
O good soul, does not a thing, applied therapeutically, cure a disease which was caused by that very same thing?" (1.5.33)

Everything is an emanation from the Supreme Spirit, and by His inconceivable power He can convert spirit into matter and matter into spirit. Therefore a material thing (so-called) is at once turned into a spiritual force by the great will of the Lord. The necessary condition for such a change is to employ so-called matter in the service of the spirit. That is the way to treat our material diseases and elevate ourselves to the spiritual plane where there is no misery, no lamentation and no fear. When everything is thus employed in the service of the Lord, we can experience that there is nothing except the Supreme Brahman. The Vedic mantra that “everything is Brahman” is thus realized by us. [A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami's translation and purport]

Surely something as important to human psychology as sexual love fits somewhere into "everything."
More here: Sex and Bhakti Yoga

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The problems of identity, real and superimposed

The starting point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is "knowing thyself" as a product of the historical process to date, which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory.... Therefore it is imperative at the outset to compile such an inventory. (Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, quoted in E.W.Said, Orientalism, p. 25.)
We all need to be deeply conscious of our own prejudices. But we should recognize that this is also part of the spiritual path, at an even deeper level than Gramsci's appeal to historical processes.

Gramsci is talking about critiquing political ideology, but we can recognize within it the imperative to the highest self-realization. In Upanishadic terms, this is knowing avidyā along with vidyā, i.e., knowing avidyā means to have taken Gramsci's inventory and said, neti. Vidyā is to know your true identity or svarūpa. The two processes are to be conducted simultaneously.

Now, the question is, what is our svarūpa? Is there even such a thing as a true, fixed and unchanging identity? Can it be possible? And if we accept a place in Vrindavan as being our svarūpa, how can we pretend that we are not imposing something on the self rather than revealing an innate reality?

Perhaps such a svarūpa is also a conscious decision that we select on the basis of unconscious forces and which we then voluntarily impose on ourselves, guiding the evolution of our personality towards a particular kind of imagined perfection, in the innocent faith that God will give us what we want.

The superimposition of one thing on another is called āropa or adhyāropa. Rupa Goswami directly uses the word in the section of Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu (1.2.305) in relation to rāgānugā bhakti.
The same word is used by kevalādvaita-vādins to explain the superimposition of the false identity of difference and multiplicity on Truth, like the superimposition of snakeness on a rope. This false identity, also called upādhi, must be removed. The Vaishnava idea is that the siddha-deha is not an imposition or upādhi, but the real identity, which one chooses and creates imaginatively.

So there is a fundamental difference in these two approaches, but they are complementary. The difference is that a Krishna bhakti sādhaka removes the false, but retains a consciously chosen identity imposed both on body and mind. The kevalādvaita-vādin, in principle, accepts the unavoidability of the bodily identity, as well as its imposed obligations as dharma, and attempts thereby to purify himself in order to attain a position of no-self or a merged-into-Brahman state where any individual identity is obliterated.

Now a similar distinction is present even within the Gaudiya sampradāya.

The first holds that one superimposes on one's current, conditioned identity, two new ones. One identity is that of the sādhaka-deha, the other that of the siddha-deha. By superimposing these identities, externally of the body, internally with the mind, by "play acting" as it were, one enters into the pre-prepared universe created by Rupa Goswami, his predecessors and followers, i.e., the Vaishnava tradition.

The other school holds that there is a true identity that will be spontaneously revealed by washing the false one away through the chanting of the holy name and other vidhi bhakti practices. They hold that there is no necessity for a conscious āropa of the siddha-deha. Indeed āropa of any kind, especially done prematurely, is de facto artificial and will only cause mental disturbance and confusion.

Now these two positions are those of the "Sahajiya Babajis" and the Gaudiya Math respectively. There is some debate about which siddhānta is closer to that of the pristine sampradāya, but on the whole, the tradition points to the former, while the latter arises as a response to problems that have arisen from the first and stands on guard against its dangers. Therefore the two approaches are complementary, the first as method, the second as qualification.

Now to get closer to the point. The kind of self critique that we must exercise includes a critique of the very thing we are seeking, whether we are engaged in conscious or tacit superimposition of identity. If one superimposes an identity (and whether you like it or not, that is what we all do when we convert to another religion, to some extent or another), then there is usually a process of rejection, like that of a transplant: the old identity resists what seems an artificial imposition; at the very least it wants to soften the blow of the demands that the clash of identities creates.

By the way, this is a natural process that goes on all the time, both consciously and unconsciously. If it stops, we stagnate as human beings. We are simply pointing out how it is used consciously in rāgānugā bhakti sādhana.

Hence it is important to understand the distinction between the sādhaka and siddha dehas through critiquing them both, honestly and somewhat ruthlessly.

Even if you accept on external authority (i.e., guru) that the superimposition is Reality, i.e., you really are a mañjarī, then you must still investigate the interrelation of the wish-fulfillment fantasy of the Yugal Kishore to your psychological reality here and now in order to grasp its Truth.

There are of course other identities than that of the mañjarī, and perhaps the IGM approach by taking away the "obligation" to be a mañjarī is avoiding the limitations or narrowness that such an exclusive or esoteric -- and for many, dubious -- spiritual culture imposes. We should allow for variety, because it is the tendency of individuals to have different identity desires and attractions. But that cannot change the fact that our sampradāya does have this annoying predilection for the superiority of madhura rasa and, frankly, it cannot be circumvented. Moreover, it has additional implications that the various forms of vaidhi bhakti, etc., do not touch.

For, does it not require us to inquire into the nature of sexuality and gender identity, not only in the realm of myth and fantasy, but also on the level of our real conditioning? Will the myth on its own (i.e., simply hearing and chanting about Radha and Krishna lila) solve the problem of sexuality, or does it impose additional practical obligations of self examination and actual understanding of the meaning of the processes or sādhanas involved?

The risk, of course, is that once one opens oneself to this kind of critique of both self and tradition one may become unable to justify any superimposition whatsoever, including those of a siddha-deha. In other words, move towards a rejection of the reality of any identity whatsoever.

Some recent blogs in which some of these issues are raised.

Language and Mental Worlds

Sanskrit, Self-realization and Krishna West

Some older:

Ahangrahopasana and Aropa IV.

Other articles mentioning āropa.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Yājñasenī (2): Beautiful women and lusty men

Publicity poster for the latest TV series based on Mahābhārata, with Pooja Sharma in the role of Draupadi.
Pratibha Ray writes in her introduction that she was inspired to write the book after a real life experience. A woman she knew, whose name was also Kṛṣṇā (Draupadi's real name, "Draupadi" is a patronymic) returned to her parents' house after being deserted by her abusive drunkard husband. At first her well-wishers hoped she would be able to remarry, but the backward looking family and community of which she was a part would not allow it. So she went to Germany where a brother was living, got into a college and there fell in love with and married another man. This action on her part was condemned by many of her relatives, one of whom (a man, obviously) made the statement, "So just like her namesake Kṛṣṇā in the Mahābhārata was not satisfied with having five husbands, and still lusted for Krishna and even Karna, so she is not satisfied with just one husband. Where will it end?"

Pratibha Ray was insulted, she recounts, not so much for the sake of her acquaintance, as in this dark age it is to be expected that there will always be narrow-minded people making nasty comments, but more for the original Draupadi, whose story she felt had been completely misunderstood and misrepresented in this man's statement. It was then that she decided to paint a sympathetic portrait of Draupadi, one meant to highlight the challenges of womanhood that her life illustrates, and her contribution to dharma. For the central theme and purpose of the Mahābhārata is understanding dharma.

Raya states that Draupadi's love for Krishna is "spiritual love," using the English to translate dehātīta-prema-sambandha, "a relation of love that transcends the body" and sakhā-sakhī-sambandha,"relation of friend to friend." She says that Krishna is the central character in the Mahābhārata, and the portrayal of her relation to Krishna is an interesting one, to which I shall return.

In my obsession with Vrindavan, I have never given all that much attention to the Mahābhārata, nor to the Krishna of Dwaraka, but it should be remembered that this is the "original Krishna" in purely chronological terms. This is Vāsudeva, the friend of Arjuna, the protector of the Pandavas and of Draupadi, the speaker of the Gita. So there are rasas here that are in need of investigation. We do not really have examples of friendship (sakhya-rasa) as such between men and women in Rupa Goswami's tradition.
Pratibha Ray in her youth.

But the principal theme of the book, to which we will return again and again, and which Raya states immediately in the introduction is that Draupadi, like beautiful women throughout history, was objectified, repeatedly insulted and humiliated by lusty men (kāmāndha-puruṣa). Nevertheless, her humiliations were unequaled, for in her situation -- having five husbands -- she was repeatedly treated as nothing better than a prostitute; after all, if she slept with five men, what was to stop her from sleeping with every other man who desired her?

And this is indeed the principal theme that is repeated throughout the story. Boiled down to its essence, the role or dharma of kshatriyas is to protect womanhood.

Raya indicates that in nearly every case her story is based on the original Mahābhārata, but that she has also drawn on Sarala Das's Oriya version of the epic, as well as taking some creative license of her own. On a few occasions, I found myself running to the original to check up on a particular narration and discovered some of these original interpretations, many of which seem to have been added to highlight Draupadi's compassionate nature. But I did not and cannot make an in-depth analysis of these variants, though I may have occasion to mention one or two when I went and looked it up. I am not a scholar of the epic, nor have I looked into the scholarship that the flurry of modern versions of Draupadi's story in Indian literature, film or television has excited. So whatever I say here is going to be impressionistic rather than scholarly.

It should be noted in passing that though Vyasadeva's Mahābhārata is an imposing book with supposedly 100,000 verses, the main themes, i.e., the story of the Pandavas and Kauravas and the events leading up to the Kurukshetra battle are dispensed with in the first few parvas. The same is true here: Pratibha Raya is concerned primarily with the main drama seen from Draupadi's point of view and not the hundreds of peripheral substories or lengthy didactic interludes. And it is no doubt reasonable to say that the story itself is the essence of the Mahābhārata; in other words, the intent of the epic should be sought in the story itself rather than in its many additions and interpolations.

In that vein, I have often thought that the Mahābhārata abounds with tantalizing symbols, which I cannot profess to have found analyzed satisfactorily, though no doubt someone somewhere has made an attempt. The number five has numerous correlations, most tempting one being, of course, the five senses which surround the mind. Making a correlation of the mind to the feminine, the senses to the masculine, would in itself be an extremely evocative and thought-provoking concept. Draupadi's ability to keep all her five husbands happy could be seen, in general terms, as having this meaning.

Indeed, in one section later in the book, there is a conversation between Krishna's wife Satyabhama (the only one of the 16,108 who makes an appearance) and Draupadi, where the former laments that she is unable to manage Krishna, and how does Draupadi manage to keep five husbands under control and willing to please her at every turn? The answer she gives will probably not be pleasing to feminists, who will find the traditional answers of satī strī-dharma inadequate, but that is another area in which Pratibha Raya's angle of vision is interesting. The issue throughout is the protection of woman; like a Helen of Troy, or like Sita Devi, a woman is the cause of war. Draupadi 's humiliation is the central event that pushes the plot of the Mahābhārata.

On another level, each of the five brothers is described as a different personality. This might be seen as a metaphor for the woman's range in dealing with various aspects of a man's character. Yudhishthir is peace-loving, fixed on duty, detached to the point of indifference. But Draupadi saves her worst criticisms for him, for his failure to carry out justice in order to avoid conflict or simply to "follow the rules." Bhima is somewhat crude and uncouth, outspoken and unforgiving when wronged, but dependable as an aggressive and vindictive protector. Arjuna is the one Draupadi really loves: he is not only a hero, but a poet and lover of the arts; but he is often absent, too absorbed in his work of mastering the martial arts. Somewhat afraid of love and the five husbands situation in which he finds himself. Nakula loves astrology and music, while Sahadeva is especially devoted to animals, cows and horses above all. They are secondary characters for the most part.

Draupadi arising from the sacrificial fire.
Of the occasions when Draupadi is insulted, the worst is no doubt the famous scene where Duhshasan drags her by the hair into the all-male court. She is menstruating and so dressed in a single piece of cloth, but in front of her five husbands, whose heads are hanging in shame, he pulls on her cloth. Though her purity and her prayers save her at that moment, Bhima cries out that he will not rest until he has drunk Duhshasan's blood and Draupadi herself says she will not braid her hair again until she has bathed in it. So, in effect, it is the humiliation of Draupadi that stands at the very center of the epic.

And these humiliations are repeated. Not only by the Kauravas themselves, all of whom have a deep seated resentment towards the Pandavas because of Arjuna's victory at Draupadi's svayaṁvara, but because she is one of the symbols of their rivals' superiority and opulence.
I will end here today and try to continue tomorrow. Please forgive the somewhat disjointed presentation. Radhe Shyam.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Language and mental worlds

I am still not finished thinking about language and the way that it shapes the brain. I think that the way the brain is shaped in early life by language is practically impossible to really change. Even though we have some power to control the way our brains develop as we grow older, there are too many things, practically hard-wired, to completely change.

The only hope we really have is that there are common features to humanity itself, and that the archetypal forces that govern humanity are universal. This means that the kind of aspirations that lead to a life of spiritual culture, of interiority and faith in love as a guiding principle of life, are not the property of one civilization or another, but lie in the pre-linguistic fabric of our being.

Yesterday when I wrote about "American testosterone" and an Anglophone sense of universal cultural superiority, which is not without its racist undertones, I was talking about certain ego givens of the first disciples in this Hare Krishna movement, who led it and gave it shape as much as Prabhupada did. And this happened with Prabhupada's complete complicity, from his intuited understanding that this was the best way to make the most of the energy that those young Americans had bursting inside themselves and had just been waiting for a purpose in which to direct it.

And just like one uses a needle to withdraw a thorn, he sent them to India to prepare for the rājasika and tāmasika invasion of India in the 21st century. And may it go on. The Hare Krishna movement is, like it or not -- whether you consider it a wave of fanaticism and backward looking ignorance or a corruption of true religion and spirituality -- it is a backlash against this world that human beings have created, whatever it is and whatever it is becoming.

Marx was wrong when he said religion is the sigh of the oppressed. Perhaps it is at some times, but at others it is an angry howl of protest: What is this society and what is it making me become? Why do I have to sell my soul so totally just for survival and sexual stimulation? Can we please have an alternative that does not go and get sucked into that abyss of vapid materialism?

So I say let them build their 700 foot Burj Kalipha to Krishna in Vrindavan, and their Hare Krishna St. Peter's Basilica in Mayapur: let them try to fight the asuras, let the games commence.

But that is just the confluence, where the turbulent waters of present and past clash like the Jalangi and Ganga in Nabadwip. Where does this river flow?  Can we get to the clear waters and actually see what lies at the bottom? Can we find the purity and light that will change the tide of demonic civilization that washes over us?

Recently, a friend from Mumbai brought me as a gift two Hindi paperbacks in the crime thriller genre, both by popular authors use marketing and fan-based networking to sell their pulp. My friend, who shall remain nameless, was inspired to help me learn "Bombay Hindi," or Bollywood Hindi, which I confess I do not know well. I can sit in a Hindi Bhāgavata lecture and get most of it, but in a Bollywood film my eyes glaze over most of the time. Thinking that increasing my range in Hindi would be worthwhile, I decided to read the books and underline words to improve my vocabulary of Bombay gangster slang and that particular mix of Hindi with Urdu and English that characterizes modern Hindustani.

Whatever. Again, here was the association of a particular linguistic genre, of which Hindi is a particularly good example, where the use of words from one source or another become part of the medium, the palate with which is painted a particular world, cops and robbers, movie stars and would-be screen writers, scantily dressed beauties with dubious morals -- Bollywood on newsprint in other words. And frankly, it is a horrible world with practically no redeeming features. Like would-be Elmore Leonards, these paperback writers reveal the monsters of the age of Kali with heroes who are barely heroic at all. A nightmare, really, that somehow shines a light on the minds and hopes of modern urban adolescents (please don't tell me women read this stuff!)

The only point of learning this language is to go to the place that these writers have created. It means entering their mercenary minds and following the fantasies they know they can sell the products of this ever more anxious society, to tempt and titillate, and consciously or not, to motivate their readers to participate with them in the maelstrom of materialism.

Whatever the hell that is, it is not the India that we bought into as starry eyed teenagers ourselves. It is the very antithesis of it And what is more, what must be remembered, is that the forces of materialism in India do not care for the substance of the old and irrelevant India. They would gladly kill it off altogether, tear it all down, and cover it with concrete and high rises, if only it did not mean a loss of potential tourist revenue.

We cannot go back to a world of Himalayan caves and thatched-roof hermitages in riverside forests -- at least not until we are forced to do so by some mocking Fate whenever it decides to give our civilization a jolly good smacking around, when Mother Earth decides the demons are just getting too heavy and prays to God for a Noah's flood or some other cataclysm to put a merciful end to our hubris. What we can do is look for other ways to direct our consciousness to a more sane way of interacting with the universe.

And the way Vaishnavas do that is through words, by contemplating the deeds of the Lord:

yathā yathātmā parimṛjyate'sau
tathā tathā paśyati vastu sūkṣmaṁ
cakṣur yathaivāñjana-samprayuktam
As the self is cleansed by hearing and telling my holy stories, so is one able to see subtle things, as does the eye that has been treated with collyrium. (SB 11.14.26)
Of course, the jñāna path also begins with śravaṇam, hearing philosophical truths. But also thereby assimilating a world view. It is called propaganda, and one can voluntarily submit oneself to propaganda without being a fool. I accept this as my world, or at least as the base of my world, the world I want, and in accordance with this ideal I will create my world.

It cannot be recreated "as it was", for it never was. Nor can it ever be realized, because dreams and fantasies are always dreams and fantasies, only the wishful and magical background to the world of birth, old-age, disease and death, to the world of struggle and desire and defeat, where gods are always battling demons, and cosmic forces of light clash with those of darkness. But wishful though it may be, thinking informs and transforms our reality.

Language is one part of that, but it would probably take, as Prabhupada said, 3000 years of bloody hard work to make Sanskrit a spoken language again. In the meantime, like the scavengers we are, we pick in the rubble of history and literature for worthwhile objects that we can maybe polish off and put to some good use. 

So I think with that we can maybe go back to Draupadi and the Mahābhārata for some more meditation on then and now, fantasy and reality.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Sanskrit, self-realization and Krishna West

Yesterday I wrote about a book that I just finished today, the Sanskrit translation of an Oriya novel, Yājñasenī. I read through the 450 pages from beginning to end pretty much without stopping, which was an exciting new experience for me. After all, I have been studying Sanskrit for a long time, and it was a joy to be able to become absorbed in a book almost as though the language had finally become completely natural to me.

It seems, though, that a lot of what I do these days makes me reflect on the whole "Krishna West" debate. Yesterday, I spoke in favor of opening Sanskrit to foreign influences through translation. Though this may still be a good idea, it may be worth considering the view that perhaps keeping the Sanskritic tradition hermetically sealed in an India of the past may also be one.

Now learning Sanskrit is something that I did quite spontaneously without really giving it a great deal of thought, and the paths to learning it were opened to me in the Hare Krishna movement. When I came to India it became an even more natural process to devote myself to learning it, and then Bengali and later Hindi, which I saw as accessories to Sanskrit. But all this impetus came from Srila Prabhupada. He sold us not just on a process of yoga, but on an entire culture. And for me, learning these specific languages was an integral part of the thirst to know that culture.

Although it was important for Prabhupada to insist on the transcendental nature of Krishna bhakti, and he often denied being a "Hindu," he definitely considered a particular orthodox Hindu view of the world to be normative: one that glorifies the Vedas and their corollary scriptures, the culture in which they were produced, and thereby the language(s) that mediate both.

Since for me it was almost a spontaneous response to investigate what those exotic letters stood for and how those words combined into the meanings that were presented as a translation, I found myself puzzled why such a small percentage of my godbrothers and sisters lacked the same curiosity, especially those living in India. I still find the general disinterest in learning foreign languages of any kind a curious characteristic of Anglophones, which to me stems to a great extent from their conditioned identity and the implicit assumptions of cultural superiority that it bears. And indeed, I feel that this same assumption lies latent within the Krishna West concept itself.

Despite his absolute faith in "Vedic" culture, Prabhupada was not altogether encouraging when it came to making his disciples Sanskrit scholars. I think this was mostly a practical matter: He knew his time was limited and he did not want to encourage people to sit around and read all day. In his great push to spread Krishna consciousness, He wanted all that good American testosterone engaged in practical matters, getting as much done as quickly as possible while he was still alive. If I remember correctly, he once conducted some kind of experiment / demonstration where he had disciples read and study his books all day, and within a few days everyone was going crazy, ants in the kaupina type of thing. Rather than take this as a criticism of his writing, he attributed it to the lack of qualification of his students.

Perhaps Prabhupada's most famous statement about learning Sanskrit was,
...a little learning is dangerous, especially for the Westerners. I am practically seeing that as soon as they begin to learn a little Sanskrit immediately they feel that they have become more than their guru and then the policy is kill guru and be killed himself. (from a letter to Dixit das on 18 Sep 1976)
As a general principle, Prabhupada clearly felt that Sanskrit as a language is simply transmitting ideas or thoughts and that these can be transferred from one linguistic idiom to another.
Formerly they used to speak in Sanskrit. Therefore it is recorded in Sanskrit language. It can be transferred to any language. The thoughts are there. That is real point. ... The real thing is the thought, not the language. But in Sanskrit language you’ll find very, very high thoughts. That is because it is very old language.... If you have grasped the thought, then you can express it in any language. But if you cannot grasp the thought, then you cannot express. ... we have to receive the thoughts as it is by the paramparä system. (Room Conversation April 22, 1976, Melbourne)
Why do you take the trouble of learning Sanskrit? ... Engage them in sankirtan movement which is being pushed by this Krishna consciousness movement and they will be purified. They don’t require to learn Sanskrit even. Let them chant Hare Krishna and they will be purified. And if you want to teach them Sanskrit, it will take three thousand years. (laughter)

The Vedic mantras are received not by learning Sanskrit, but by hearing from the authorized person. Therefore it is called śruti. ... So now they’re being translated into English. So it doesn’t matter whether it is in Sanskrit or English, one has to learn it by hearing from the proper person.
śravaṇaṁ kīrtanaṁ viṣṇoḥ. Hear and chant about Viṣṇu. That is wanted. ... This will not save you. If you have become a Sanskrit scholar, that will not save you.
na hi na hi rakṣati ḍukṛñ-karaṇe
bhaja govindaṁ bhaja govindaṁ
bhaja govindaṁ mūḍha-mate.

So this, they are thinking by learning Sanskrit they will become perfect. In the Bhagavad-gītā I don’t find that “You learn Sanskrit, then you become perfect.” “You surrender unto Me, then you become perfect.” That is wanted. If you learn Sanskrit, there is no harm, but it is not the only condition that “You have to learn Sanskrit, then you will be able.” (June 28, 1976, Vrindavan)
I think that this is an indicative sample of the kinds of things Prabhupada had to say about Sanskrit learning. The guiding principle is that Sanskrit is simply a language that conveys ideas, which can be conveyed in any language. The medium, in other words, is not the message.

Now on a very basic level this is no doubt true, and it is indeed an important principle, because the bhakti movement has always been about democratizing the religious process and protesting the claims of special brahminical privilege, which was based in great part on their monopoly of the Sanskrit language. And this idea is pretty much accepted as a principle in Hinduism generally nowadays. For instance, Ramana Maharshi held,
The Self is realized by absorbing the mind into the heart so the inherent blissful nature of existence and consciousness shines forth. For a self-realized sage, the mind is not real. When the mind disappears, so does Sanskrit or any other language, the culture one is born into as well as any and all conditioning and identification.The whole universe appears as a shadow of the Self, so what can be said of a particular language, culture, etc.? These are shadows of even shadows. (Is learning Sanskrit required for self realization?)
But any devotee will immediately see the theological problems inherent here. Vaishnavas believe in a real spiritual world with forms, actions, and speech. And this speech takes place in a language of some sort. And since the forms, etc., of that world are presumably Sanskrit or at least Sanskritic, learning these languages becomes not an indirect sādhana, but a direct one. sādhane bhābibe jāhā siddha dehe pābe tāhā. Language is not peripheral to identity, but essential to it.

David Haberman coined the phrase, "acting as a way of salvation" to describe the rāgānugā bhakti taught in our sampradāya as a culture of the inner life. But even though Prabhupada discouraged the kinds of "Stanislawskian" practices of the rāgānugā bhaktas, he was already doing something similar by having his disciples dress a certain way, live a certain way, sing songs and read from books written in a specialized sacred language, whether Sanskrit or Bengali.

But learning a few songs or verses is not the same as changing your thought processes themselves. Even from a non-devotional point of view, the role of language in changing thought processes is indicated by Ramamurti Mishra
You cannot change the human mind, but you can change its contents. When mental contents change, then our hearts automatically become the divine center of unity. Here, by “change” I mean transformation of the mind through Sanskrit, because Sanskrit is the cosmic language, the language of unity. Sanskrit is the mother of all languages. It is the divine language with power to unite the whole world. 
Jiva Goswami argues in the actual words of the Bhagavatam as being revelation, not just the ideas but the words, or form, that they take. Just like Krishna would not be acceptable in another form or playing a harmonium instead of a flute, the language is not fungible.

I have the good fortune of working with Satya Narayan Dasji on Jiva Goswami's Sandarbhas. He has made it his life's ambition to "enter" Jiva Goswami's mind as completely as possible. To do that, he (or I or anyone) needs to know what Jiva knew: whether Vedanta, Nyaya, or any other branch of knowledge that he would have mastered. Because he was the acharya, our Goswamis are the root acharyas, and if we want unmediated access to them, we should learn their language.

In Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu, Rupa Goswami talks about having prāktanī and ādhunikī saṁskāras before one comes to the state of appreciating bhakti-rasa. It has always been a principle of Indian thought, from Buddha and his countless births before attaining Buddhahood, and the Jains with their similar stories, that spiritual emancipation takes lifetimes to achieve. Indeed, the Gita tells us that only after many lifetimes does one finally attain the understanding that God is all things, explaining how one progresses from one life to the next, taking his spiritual saṁskāras with him as he goes.

The other day Satya Narayan Dasji was joking that if anyone really wants Krishna, he or she is going to have to come East.  Is that brahminical elitism? Or is it a part of the ensemble of what is meant by desiring Krishna?

Krishna is part of a world, a world that is very strange and different from the modern West. When Prabhupada came, he offered us this alternative world, one where munis and rishis live in the forest, and miracle working sadhus and yogis are the norm, where God interacts with human beings and dances and sings with them in their language, the language of the place of his incarnation.

So it is more than just an idea or a thought that is involved. It is a change of the personality, adopting more than just an external way of life, but an entirely new frame of reference, brought about by language. Is it possible? Not for most people, but that is why for those who are embarking on this spiritual path, mediation is necessary.

In discussing Krishna West, I have said two or three times that our bodies are the sādhaka-deha, and as such they are real. One cannot change the circumstances into which one was born, but when one takes up the task of sādhanā, one starts to cultivate the siddha-deha, and there is no getting around the fact that that siddha-deha is Indian and living in a mythical India. Cultivation of the spiritual body is enhanced by the parallel transformation of sādhaka-deha. I would suggest that learning Sanskrit is more than peripheral to this process.

But of course, that will frighten off most people. So probably best to not mention it too loud.