Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Entertainment, religion and capitalism

I was thinking this morning in meditation about Marx's famous statement, "Religion is the opium of the people." His meaning was that religion is one of the tools elites use to distract the powerless from revolution. Promises of heaven and threats of hell are part of the system to preserve the status quo in the world. Making tolerance and other passive virtues into cultural values -- for the ruled, not the rulers -- is another element of that exercise in social control. Like Napoleon Bonaparte observed, "Religion [alone] is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich."

In so many ways, religion is just a kind of entertainment, an element in the "circuses" part of "bread and circuses."

Interestingly, Bharata Muni in the first chapter of Nāṭya-śāstra makes it clear that entertainment was originally conceived of as religious propaganda. The dramatic arts, which in Bharata include poetics as well as music and dance, are meant to communicate the Vedic message. It is the means of delivery for the Fifth Veda (pañcama-veda), which includes the Purānas and Itihāsas. (See Tattva-sandarbha 13, Chā.U. 7.1.2 is likely the first reference. So the is also considered to be the fifth Veda.

sarva-śāstrārtha-sampannaṁ sarva-śilpa-pravartakam |
nāṭyākhyaṁ pañcamaṁ vedaṁ setihāsaṁ karomy aham ||
I will now create the fifth Veda called the Nāṭya-śāstra, which will include the epics, contains the meaning of all the scriptures and is the ground for the creation of all the arts. (NS 1.15)
Later in the text, in the sūtra section, Bharata states that no meaning can be communicated without rasa (na hi rasād ṛte kaścid arthaḥ pravartate). We will see later in Madhusudana that emotions make the mind susceptible to receiving messages and have them imprinted there permanently. This psychological technique has been used by propagandists and advertisers since time immemorial.

Of course, the founders of Hindu civilization would never have thought that they were acting in the interests of entrenched power elites and social control of others, though that is the way that the world today tends to look at it. The cultivation of good qualities like humility, service attitude, and so on are considered by social reformers to have served that purpose of self-enslavement, rather than the cause of human happiness. Take for instance, how historians have viewed Prataparudra and the fall of the Orissan empire.

The secularization of human society means that entertainment, without losing its vocation as a tool for propaganda of various sorts -- there is no communication whatsoever that does not explicitly or implicitly promote some moral value (sambandha) and consequently give impetus to a particular course of action or behavior (abhidheya), even if that behavior is anarchy or antinomy -- has abandoned its religious dimension.

In a way, entertainment is akin to the dream state. Just as dreams process experience to consolidate functional personality, so it is for entertainment. In today's multi-mediatized world, one has a certain amount of freedom to choose the particular set of conditionings that one prefers to expose oneself too, but the grand center, in which the majority of the people find themselves, which is dominated by sports and porn, exposure to Truth is not generally prefered as a choice. Entertainment is gratification, and the message is the status quo.

Religion is meant to include everything, but, above all, be about happiness in this world and the next.

If you divide life into work and leisure, religion plays a role in both, if we understand religion (dharma) in the widest sense. Balance always has to be found, but if viewed as capitalist ruling elite propaganda, the idea is to get people to work as much as possible for as little as possible, and simultaneously to adopt the consumerist ethic: by spending they support the cycle that keeps them in bondage.

In the modern world, it has been found that promises of an afterlife in paradise are no longer effective, but if the illusion of worldly happiness can be created -- relative comfort, spending power, etc. -- people can be made to work like machines. The power of illusory satisfactions will dull their minds just as well as the hope for heaven ever could have in the hay-days of feudalism.

Interestingly, modern evangelical Christianity also has a very this-worldly concept of grace and promotes the same ethic, with a few (not that many, really) ethical reservations as the "prosperity Gospel." I doubt that this what Christ meant when he said, "I have come to give life and give it abundantly," but this mindset has been rather well ingrained in North American Christianity, along with the implicit stigmatization of the poor in a kind of karma-doctrine. Certainly, old style renunciation is not promoted.

Now, let us look at Vaishnavism in this optic. Seen globally, from its foundation in karma-yoga as in Gita 3, it sees work as inevitable and the necessity of everyone's making a contribution to the "sacrifice" (yajñārthāt karmaṇo'nyatra loko'yaṁ karma-bandhanaḥ), but it is all seen in the context of current qualification and ultimate liberation. Theories of innate egalitarianism have a bit of difficulty in dealing with different levels of merit.

But in the higher reaches of bhakti, when we start talking about rasa, we are talking purely about entertainment, because rasa becomes its own purpose, its own meaning, and not a vehicle for any other meaning, like karma or jñāna. It is more about entertainment than duty, in the sense that love and liberation are outside the realm of the cycle of work and reward, and therefore one who is absorbed in rasa is free from it. If it has any meaning at all, it is the pure state of grace known as Prema.

Those whose adhikāra is for vaidhī bhakti still are want to make work the primary principle, more about sacrifice than reward.  Though no one will deny that service is an essential element of bhakti, that they are parallel, the idea of the rules and regulations consciousness is that one has to do something in order to reap the benefits of devotion.

On the other hand, rāgānugā says, "Krishna is enjoying in Vrindavan. He does not have any work except pleasing Radharani. Like painting pictures with sandalwood paste on her breasts. Or painting red alaktaka on her feet. Or braiding her hair with garlands of juthi flowers. All play all the time. And even sexy play at that."

A rāgānugā Vaishnava has to become an entertainer by sharing that mental space with the world. He becomes a poet, a lover of music and language and drama, because the lila is the setting of rasa. Indeed, his own life is interpreted through the optic of rasa. Rasa is the state of the Absolute Truth with which our own mental alignment is the highest liberation of Prema bhakti.

If people are confused and afraid of rasa, it comes down to a suspicion of pleasure itself. And rightly so, as the desire for material pleasure (kāma) is the root of the material existence. Those who are exceedingly conscious of this, suspect that anything resembling pleasure cannot be the truth, due to their inherent incompatibility. Or at least that each speck of pleasure must be compensated for by the commensurate amount of sacrifice and askesis.

And this is why I think I am justified in my interpretation of Rupa Goswami's verse:

nivṛttānupayogitvād durūhatvād ayaṁ rasaḥ
rahasyatvāc ca saṁkṣipya vitatāṅgo vilikhyate ||
Even though the madhura-rasa is the most expansive of the subjects within the rasa theory, it is not appropriate for those people who have taken to the nivṛtti path alone. It is also difficult to understand and is mysterious by nature. Therefore I will only write of it in brief here. (BRS 3.5.2)

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