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 mediates 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 in 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 must 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.


ItsOkToKnow said...

"I found myself puzzled why such a small percentage of my godbrothers and sisters lacked the same curiosity, especially those living in India."

- I believe you means to say "possessed" not "lacked".

"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."

- I agree and have noticed it in myself, but I feel that it has a lot do with relevance. Language for practical communications is highly relevant. Europeans who travel have a richer context for learning various languages. Such Anglophiles do not understand how speaking / reading a native language connects one to the mood of the culture (at a point in time), nor do they have much need to slow down long enough to appreciate another language.

"And indeed, I feel that this same assumption lies latent within the Krishna West concept itself."

- This would be at least partly true if KW manifests only as an English-speaking alternative. However, there is evidence that HH Hridayananda Goswami Maharaja is already implementing his vision in Latin America (he speaks Portuguese and Spanish fluently). On the other hand, the willingness to change bhajans from Bengali or Sanskrit into a native language misses a huge aspect of mood, which language conveys. It is not merely the translation (to English or Spanish) itself that may be lacking, but the inability to peer into the mood of the Vaisnava Acaryas who paved the way for us.

Jagadananda Das said...

Right about "lacked" and "possessed". I will change.

Jagadananda Das said...

It is an awkward problem for me, because on the one hand I want to be liberal and say that this path is open to everyone, and indeed it is.

I made the effort to learn the languages -- to whatever extent of mastery -- so I am biased as to what is necessary culturally, etc., and I feel it to be a bit of a trap in itself.

After all, most people do think their own cultural values are superior, even _after_ conversion to something that is as culturally self-superior as the Hindu. They think they can do it better.

And inevitably they screw it up. Or maybe not. I don't know.

Jorge Dominguez said...

I currently attend Hare Krishna services at the ISHKON Centre in El Salvador. Previously, I attended services at the ISHKON Centre in Honolulu, Hawaii. I have read that Prabhupada said that the Hare Krishna movement is not Hindu but universal. But at the weekend services, in practice the services feels Hindu. Most people dressed like Hindus, and it does not bother me as long as I am not forced to do the same. But I find it annoying that too much time is wasted in forcing people to learn sanskrit. Most people that visit the temple never come back, they get turned off by too much theory and no practical actions. No doubt very few people attend the Hare Krishna temples both in El Salvador and Hawaii. Although I am not a Mormon, I find them much more practical. Instead of forcing the English language when they go as missionaries, they learn the language from the foreign culture!!!! In Paraguay, Mormons speak guarani language, which is not even Spanish, but what the native Paraguayans speak.