Compassion and Bhakti-rasa, Part III

A Vaishnava guru is characterized by compassion:

nigrahānugrahe śakto homa-mantra-parāyaṇaḥ |
ūhāpoha-prakāra-jñaḥ śuddhātmā yaḥ kṛpālayaḥ |
ity-ādi-lakṣaṇair yukto guruḥ syād garimā-nidhiḥ ||
The guru, the treasure-house of depth, has the following qualities: he is capable of both showing mercy and chastising, i.e., recognizing both the qualities and defaults of the disciple and either rewarding or punishing him; he is dedicated to ritual activity and mantra-japa; he knows the process of argumentation and establishing rightful conclusions. He is moreover a pure soul and the abode of compassion.(HBV 1.41)
I suppose that depending on your world view, you will have a different concept of compassion. It starts with God or the state of perfection. In Vedanta, the state of perfection is bliss without any touch of illusion. Illusion means suffering. Therefore suffering is existentially not real. It is only subjective, due to ignorance, like the person who sees a rope and takes it for a snake. He suffers from fear, but to become free of that fear, he needs to be released from his ignorance.

Similarly, birth, old age, disease and death, separation from one’s true blissful nature are all illusion. This is where the Bhagavad Gita, for instance, begins.

For one who is situated in his “true nature” (svarūpāvasthānam) there can be little or no awareness of one’s own sufferings, past present or future. The Vaishnava opinion is that God Himself, in Himself, does not feel the sufferings of the illusioned souls because he is completely absorbed in his own bliss. Nor is he, in this aspect of his being, directly involved in the act of material creation, etc., which are the source of suffering and misery.

Yoga-sutra 1.24 defines God not by his acts of creation, etc., but by this characteristic, which confuses some people about whether the God spoken of in YS is even God at all! kleśa-karma-vipākāśayair aparmṛṣṭaḥ puruṣa-viśeṣa īśvaraḥ || “That special spiritual being who is unaffected by the conditioned state and its consequences is īśvara.”

This is why it is said that the devotees are para-duḥkha-duḥkhī, either because they still have memory of suffering, or because they are on the path of transcendence to suffering, and therefore they have empathy and can feel compassion.

Now generally it is not thought that someone who ignores others’ suffering is a “good thing.” We see in the world that rich people not only are incapable of understanding the suffering of others, but even blame them (usually citing laziness or some other personality default) for their suffering. This in itself would not be so bad if they did not then act in ways that increase others’ suffering. For those who are ignorant, this same fault is projected onto God, and onto those who are absorbed in love of God.

Nevertheless, the question arises: Is compassion possible for someone who is not truly happy himself. Is it possible to be compassionate out of anger or disgust? Is there a difference in the compassion of a sadhu and that of a material welfare worker? Feed the hungry, clothing the naked… these are acts of compassion, but they do not strike at the roots of suffering, which is ignorance. And if one is oneself in ignorance, empathy often is misplaced and manipulated by others, who use that element of goodness to achieve other ends. Think of Afghanistan and the condition of Muslim women under the Taliban and how that was manipulated by propagandists to make people enthusiastic about that war.

The compassion that arises out of experiencing or awareness of the highest bliss, which is prema, is bound to be of a different quality and nature from such “material welfare work,” though by no means opposed to it.

We are in the world and so we are aware of suffering and the causes of suffering, and we stand in opposition to them. But we do it in the knowledge that the core of being and knowledge to be pure unadulterated bliss, then the highest compassion is to share that. The best way of sharing it is to reveal it to others and to allow others to partake of one’s own blissful state of being.

Thus we have the concept of “descent” or avatāra. God Himself, though situated in his own bliss or glory, comes into the world to create awareness of the possibility of being freed from ignorance and to join him in that state. But the siddhānta of Vaishnava theology is that in the highest manifestations of the descent, God merely reveals that state of bliss without exhortations or teachings. He shows that and lets it be observed, and through the process of observation, awareness of the possibility of bliss enters into the faith-consciousness of the faithless. When faith arises, the possibility of extricating oneself from the material condition and misery becomes possible.

This is considered to be the highest compassion. Be happy and teach others how to be happy.
Compassion is thus usually placed in the middle rung of spiritual life, not only in the Bhāgavatam, but in Yoga-sūtra also:

īśvare tad-adhīneṣu bāliśeṣu dviṣatsu ca |
prema-maitrī-kṛpopekṣā yaḥ karoti sa madhyamaḥ ||
One who behaves with love towards God, friendship to those who depend on the Lord, with compassion to those who are innocent, and indifference to those who hate the Lord, is on the second level of devotional life. (SB 11.2.46)
The word innocent is defined in the commentary as "those who don't know about bhakti and are indifferent to it." (bāliśeṣu tad-bhaktim ajānatsu udāsīneṣu kṛpām ) and Prahlad is cited as an example:

śoce tato vimukha-cetasa indriyārthā
māyā-sukhāya bharam udvahato vimūḍhān |
I only lament for those fools whose minds are turned away from you and who carry the heavy load of labor in this world in order to enjoy illusory happiness. (SB 7.9.42)
bhāvanātaś citta-prasādanam ||33||

“Cultivation of friendship to the happy, compassion for the miserable, pleasure at pious work and indifference to impiety lead to peace of mind.” (YS 1.33)

These are called parikarmas in Yoga, and in Buddhism where these same modes of behavior are called brahma-vihāras.

The commentaries there say that through desiring to remove the distress of the miserable as though they were one's own ends the mind's tendency to do ill to others. (duḥkhiteṣu ca karuṇām ātmanīva parasmin duḥkha-prahāṇecchāṁ bhāvayataḥ parāpakāra-cikīrṣā-kālūṣyaṁ cetaso nivartate |)
“Let this compassion be practised towards all those who are in pain, whether they are friend or foe.”

This compassion is central to the middle section of devotional practice, which we call the sadhaka stage. The reason for this is that empathy is the baseline of love and one cannot really cultivate the higher stages of love without it. Swami Vivekananda was not wrong when he called attention to the Bhagavatam verse by Kapila to speak of "Daridra Narayana":

ahaṁ sarveṣu bhūteṣu bhūtātmāvasthitaḥ sadā |
tam avajñāya māṁ martyaḥ kurute'rcā-viḍambanam||
yo māṁ sarveṣu bhūteṣu santam ātmānam īśvaram|
hitvārcāṁ bhajate mauḍhyād bhasmany eva juhoti saḥ||
I am ever situated as the Supreme Indwelling Self in all living beings. If a mortal being disregards me, yet worships my deity form, his worship is simply a mockery. One who disregards me, Bhagavān, the Supreme Soul existing in all beings, and worships the deity out of foolishness, is no better than one who pours oblations into ashes. (3.29.21-22)
For myself, the highest compassion comes as a result of the most complete realization. But clearly the cultivation of empathy and compassion through various acts is a part of the rasa complex, since it is one of the rasas. We will address this in another post.


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