Is bhakti a transcendent religion, or is it anchored in time and place? In other words, is it delimited by historical and cultural factors, which by definition would make it material?
Recently I said that the purpose of Gaudiya Vaishnava sadhana appears to be "entering" the eternal pastimes of Radha and Krishna, and Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. And that this required our identifying with the historical, linguistic and cultural circumstances into which their lilas transpired. One of my friends objected that this jeopardized Gaudiya Vaishnavism’s claims to universality and demonstrated a cultural chauvinism -- i.e., ahankara -- that diminished the transcendent glory of this religion. Indeed, for those in the West who on the whole find many defects in the Indian culture, past, present or future, it seems a travesty to be chained to a culture that, in the end, they do not admire all that much.
I apologized to my friend that I had been unable to resolve the conundrum. And he kindly answered that he thought if anyone could do it, it would be me. Indeed, I have churned the question over in my mind and taken different positions at different times, primarily as I tried to take the universalist and transcendent side. My usual approach has been to search out and stress the symbolic meanings, thus detaching the message of the lila from its vehicle. But, this is, in my view, the jnana aspect of bhakti. The bhakti part requires the forms, names, dhamas, and lilas as they manifested in history and in myth. Without them, there is no rasa. Here, in fact, lies the entirety of the achintya-bhedabheda conundrum.
The tasting of rasa is the means to prema, and prema is the means to tasting rasa.
The goal of Gaudiya Vaishnavism is Prema. The lilas of Radha-Krishna and Chaitanya Mahaprabhu are the means for attaining Prema. In other words, entering those lilas is the sadhana for prema. Prema is a universal quality that can be realized through different methods, and part of the process for attaining the goal is to meditate (in the sense of mananam) on both the process and and the goal. Such meditation requires understanding both the universality of prema as a concept integral to the human experience everywhere, as well as its manifestation in the particular, i.e., the lilas of the incarnations that form the basis of our spiritual culture or sadhana. Wherever we stand in our own here and now, our spiritual here and now is in those idealized manifestations of a culture that has its basis in Prema, is permeated with Prema, and through Prema shows its fulfillment.
In Vrindavan, in the Jiva Institute where I am right now, I am in a bit of a mixed culture. Most of the visitors here, Babaji's admirers, are from the West, and Babaji himself has made a conscious decision to preach to devotees from the West, now spending several months a year traveling to Europe, South Africa and the United States to speak to audiences there, building up a clientele of interested foreigners. In fact, the success of his concept is evidenced by the group of some 35-40 students coming here from the abovementioned places. They will be staying six months, some even committing to the ambitious five-year program of study, in which learning Sanskrit, even conversational Sanskrit, is a major objective.
In Rishikesh also, though I was teaching Sanskrit and living in an ashram in India, in many ways it was designed for the Western practitioner of yoga. Swamiji, like Babaji, was quite aware that too much "Indianness" was not necessarily a plus, and indeed I have heard both these great men speak in both positive and negative terms about their fellow countrymen, as well as having positive sentiments about many aspects of the Western personality. (If I can speak so broadly of the European-American civilization.)
From a purely objective point of view, the historical state of the Indian civilization, either that of the Krishna cycle, or closer to us historically, the Bengal of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, are not presented as times when human civilization had reached its pinnacle. Rather, positive and negative elements are presented. Indeed, the presence of demonic elements in the worlds of Krishna and Chaitanya are rife and contextualized as either happening just prior to the onset of the most degraded age of Kali, or in its midst. But when we talk about the nitya-lila, we are talking about extracting an ideal essence that is apparent in the lives of these two (or one) Divinities. And that ideal essence is one that has percolated from the Indian mind and out of the languages and literature of the subcontinent. For us, that means primarily Sanskrit, Bengali, and Braj Bhasha (not so much Hindi). And, it is also the ideal essence that has acted on the characters of a few rare souls who have exemplified the character of a “devotee”, that imaginary creature who is glorified as one who is exclusively devoted to the Source of Love, who blames no one, and who knows the secrets of entering that ideal essence of Love.
In Bengal, I was in places that would not strike the Western mind as ideal. But when I speak on the Chaitanya Charitamrita in Bengali, these people enter that world with a naturalness that the Western mind cannot. Besides which, the Western mind seems almost congenitally incapable of entering that realm without asking for some scientific proof, or absolute logical consistency, or something else that ideal essences don’t provide. So, I am going to go full throttle on this experiment: To become an eternal participant in the lila, first enter the bhauma lila of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu by attaching yourself to one of his families, try to find the most authentic manifestation of that ideal essence and enter into it.
I was just listening to a video I made a few months ago and in the introductory portion I say really want I want to say here. It comes down to language. You need to enter the language to really understand the mind of a Rupa Goswami or a Jiva Goswami or a Govinda Das.
No matter how well translated, a translation is always a kind of treason to the original. This is nowhere more true really than in this sadhana, where the goal is actually to transform the mind into one that is suitable to enter the lila. Yes, if you understand the underlying symbolism, etc., which can be transmitted through the translation you can apply that knowledge, and even get some of the rasa, but if you are avid for the rasa and want the full taste, your work is cut out for you.