Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Strī-saṅgī eka asādhu

Madhavananda's second objection to Sahajiyaism is based in those numerous verses that I call misogynistic in character. Such verses tell us that there is nothing worse for a person's devotional life than the association of women. This is a question that needs to be explored in much depth and I will try to make a preliminary assessment of the subject.

My daughter visited recently. Among the little bits of bitterness that she served up in relation to her Iskcon experience was a reference to the Gita's verse:

māṁ hi pārtha vyapāśritya ye'pi syuḥ pāpa-yonayaḥ
striyo vaiśyās tathā śūdrās te'pi yānti parāṁ gatim

Those who take shelter of me fully, even those of sinful birth, women, merchants or common laborers, they too can attain the supreme destination. (9.32)
My daughter uttered the words "even women" with portentous disdain--women are considered inferior beings in the bhakti world view. They have, according to different sources, two, four, six or eight times as much lust as men. They are fire to men's butter; poor, helpless sādhakas will inevitably be swayed from the pureness of their spirituality by coming into even the vicinity of woman.

In my opinion, however, the Gita verse stands in absolute contradiction to all these premises. Bhakti has always been the most democratic of Hindu spiritual paths. To say that those who took up bhakti could circumvent the series of transmigrations that led to brahminhood and the necessary purity that would allow one to attain gnosis is and always has been the revolutionary element in the bhakti movement. Gaudiya Vaishnavism in general, and particularly the Gaudiya Math, has made much of this where it concerns shudras and vaishyas, but has neglected the revolutionary impact of the statement that women "too" can attain the highest reaches of spiritual perfection. Indeed, they may even be at an advantage.

I have already characterized the masculine approach to spiritual life as the "heroic" and the feminine approach as "erotic." Now I would like to take this insight a step further. Jnana, karma and yoga are essentially heroic paths. Bhakti, on the other hand, is essential feminine, or erotic. I am not really taking liberties with the word erotic, because it can legitimately be used to include all affects, which all ultimately seek love. Eros has been identified with love by all psychologists beginning with Freud, who do not really make a radical distinction between sexual love and other varieties. This is a significant point that necessitates deeper discussion, for it is, I believe, consistent with Vaishnava understanding.

One is always in dangerous territory when generalizing about male and female natures. In the Hindu system, particularly where deities come in pairs, and where it is said in one of the earliest upanishads that "the Supreme did not enjoy alone, and therefore he divided himself in two and became as a man and woman locked in embrace," the idea that male and female form a natural complement is as deeply entrenched as it is in Taoism. We are in a digital age where the power and reach of binary numbers has only begun to be fathomed. The universal division of creation into dualities of positive and negative charges is symbolized by the division of the human species into male and female. Indeed, this binarity [that sounds like a coinage, duality has a negative implication I'd like to avoid] is the source of the world's energetic movement. This is true whether we are speaking of simple electrons and protons or of infinitely more complex human males and females.

Those who see the world uniquely as a source of entanglement, as something false that must be transcended, are called monists. For them, liberty consists of eliminating all dualities. Little wonder that for them the association of woman is the sine qua non of saṁsāra, the perception of duality.

Bhakti is different in its approach on a number of levels. First of all, none of the Vaishnava acharyas says the world is false. It can be a source of suffering and entanglement when seen separately from the Divine Truth, but it is only false inasmuch as it is so seen. When we see Radha and Krishna as the symbol of the Supreme Truth, this is in effect validating the male-female relationship in this world, but that relationship, like everything else, must be brought into line with the Divine Truth and not be seen exclusively as monads bouncing off one another in the futile attempt to find fulfilment through sense gratification.

The beginning point then is to recognize that the word strī as used pejoratively [the etymology is "that which expands," i.e. increases on the one hand one's sensual pleasure in life, or increases one's entanglements through children, obligations, the ever-incremental search for sensual satisfactions on the other] is only applicable inasmuch as the devotional or spiritual commitment of one or the other is low.

A woman devotee or sādhikā should not be characterized as a woman, but as a devotee or sādhikā. The association of devotees is the most desirable thing for a person wishing to advance in spiritual life (sādhu-saṅga sādhu-saṅga sarva-śāstre kaya/ lava-mātra sādhu-saṅge sarva-siddhi haya), so how can the association of a devotee woman be a negative thing?

We have a great deal more to consider here. The first is the oft-repeated statement that Krishna is the only purusha, and in relation to him, all are prakriti. This statement is meant to imply that a soul's male or female identity is false, that the only identity is one of complementarity to Krishna. This statement is meant for those on the bhakti path in particular. It means that our affective relationship with God is the most important and meaningful part of our spiritual life. As such, the affective power of those souls who are in women's bodies are a model for those who are absorbed in the masculine, heroic mode. The male approach is essentially bahiraṅga; the female approach antaraṅga.

The gopis are meant to symbolize this approach to spiritual life. But we devotees are philosophical idealists, as are all Vedantins, and so we think that the Idea is primary, the Empirical World secondary. By this I mean that the symbol has a life of its own, beyond its symbolic meaning. Though internal, it becomes a real world which shapes and informs the external world we live in. Furthermore, we are called on to shape the world in ways that are consistent with the inner ideal. If the inner ideal is so radically different from our experience, then it becomes essentially meaningless.

Sādhu-saṅga, where it concerns the association of male and female sādhakas in this world, is the most powerful of all kinds of sādhu-saṅga. It incorporates all the aspects of bhakti association--

mac-cittā mad-gata-prāṇā
bodhayantaḥ parasparam
kathayantaś ca māṁ nityaṁ
tuṣyanti ca ramanti ca

With their minds engrossed in Me and their vital energies deeply involved in Me, they are ever contented and delighted by mutually conversing about Me and enlightening each other thereby. (10.9)
But above and beyond all this, it operates on a level of surcharged spirituality created by physical intimacy. This is the royal road to experiencing Radha and Krishna's raho-līlā.

The Ujjvala-nīlamaṇi (chapter 3) speaks of different kinds of gopis, including the sādhana-parāḥ, or gopis who attained perfection through previous lives of spiritual practice. There are several subcategories, including yauthikī and ayauthikī, "in groups" or "individual." The approach I am talking about can be called yauthika.

The male sādhaka (ayauthika) who wants to experience these lilas on his own must always be on guard against succumbing to material desire, because he has not been able to grasp the possibility that sexuality is something that can be used in experiencing the Divine, i.e., he has a tendency to phalgu-vairāgya due to vestiges of the monistic attitude. Therefore, Rupa Goswami says nivṛttānupayogitvāt, "better for renunciates not to hear about the madhura rasa" (BRS 3.5.1)

There are numerous pitfalls for those who do believe in spiritualizing sexuality, most of which have been enumerated in plenty by its detractors and we shall have to deal with these also in due course. This is not a call to wantonness and libertinage. It is a call to harnessing the most powerful psychic force known to humankind--the love between the sexes--in the spiritual quest.


No comments: