Here I go again. Stop me if you have heard all this before.
I heard through a grapevine that a particular GM sannyasi said that lovemaking between devotees is not one of the 64 angas of devotion, and so could never be considered a valid practice for Gaudiya Vaishnavas.
I hold that loving intimacy with another devotee can indeed be considered an important anga of bhakti in the cultivation of madhura rasa.
Sadhu-sanga is a bhakti anga, and touching the devotee is an element of sadhu-sanga. But it is not the touching in itself, it is the accompanying feelings of love. Bhakti is of two kinds, that practiced externally and that practiced internally. The former is supposed to lead to the latter.
Bhakti means feeling, cultivating feeling. If making physical love did not have the potential to create and aid in the cultivation of such feeling, I would say, OK, you are right, it has no possible role in bhakti yoga. But the very concept of madhura rasa depends on the presumption that it does. Even to the point of nitya vihara, where that is the ONE thing that Radha and Krishna do.
The bifurcation of material and spiritual in this matter has always been artificial. The analogy of eating is still most appropriate. We don't say that the devotees eat in the spiritual world because they need food to survive. The pleasurable, sensual aspects of eating are associated with loving feelings--the love that is associated with preparing the food, watching the loved one enjoy it, relishing the taste afterwards, while remembering the pleasure of the loved one, so that the food has participated in his (her) being. The act of enjoying prasad, consumption of food that has from beginning to end been infused with loving consciousness, goes far, far beyond the mere sensual pleasure of enjoying fine taste or filling an empty and growling stomach (even though appreciation of these two things on their own can have an effect on certain dimensions of devotional development through feelings of gratitude, etc.); it is an act that stimulates and deepens devotional responses, i.e., feeling of love for the object of devotion.
Smarana is not mechanical remembering for its own sake. Remembering that is not accompanied by an emotional impact, i.e., by a personal implication and responsive commitment, is empty. This is the fundamental difference between vidhi and raga bhakti. The former sees the shell of the activity, whereas the latter sees its inner, emotional essence. Because of this, the raganuga bhakta can proceed in reverse, by analogy, i.e., from the emotion itself to the object of emotion. Since there is only one real object of love, Krishna, all emotion is, in a sense, to be dovetailed into love for him. Clearly, this cannot be done without a certain amount of psychological preparation, or to make it more clear, you can't love Krishna without loving Krishna. Bhaktya sanjataya bhaktya. But once you have had the taste and become committed (nishtha) to the Divine Couple, everything becomes transformed and you really can't see anything except in the optic of Divine Love.
Bhakta sanga is the most powerful devotional activity, not because of some mechanical quid pro quo of hearing and chanting. Its power is in the emotional dimension that is evoked. If the operative feelings of admiration, emulation, friendship, and protectiveness were sufficient in themselves, in other words, if feelings of admiration, the desire to emulate and serve a common purpose with the devotee, feelings of friendship, practicing the six kinds of exchanges, etc., i.e,, engaging in the first four of the five kinds of relationship with devotees were sufficient to the purpose, then I would say, "Fine." But all of this neglects the crucial question of how we cultivate madhura rasa. We need bhakta association for that too, don't we?
The problem is that the cultural tradition we belong to has not adequately or openly analyzed these questions, leaving most devotees unable to isolate the inner life of eros from its physical aspects in the way that I have done with the act of eating. And so we say, it is not a bhakti anga. This is just short-sighted and, quite frankly, a huge lacuna in our understanding of not only bhakti, but of human life and nature--on which bhakti is meant to shed light. We have separated bhakti from the human experience, and that is a mistake.