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 former, in principle, accepts the unavoidability of the bodily identity, accepts its imposed obligations as dharma, and enjoins one 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 is 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
Ahangrahopasana and Aropa IV.
Other articles mentioning āropa.