Synthesizing opposites: The dialectics of Braja-vasa

Since the English calendar and Bengali calendar coincide fairly closely, our annual festival in Birnagar is coming to a close on the same day as last year. As a result, as I opened my computer after taking the feast marking the final day of the week-long celebration, with the tumult of the villagers being served maha-prasad in the background, I was greeted with this “Facebook memory” from last year.
Interesting post-festival kind of lull, feeling the post-vibes and finding them interesting. Gave class on Bhakti Sandarbha to a few experienced members of the Bhaktivinoda Goshthi family, a bit outside their habitual range, but very nice nevertheless. It is going to be interesting to reconcile all the different worlds I have my feet in. I say this because I am speaking principally to my English-speaking friends, but you ALL belong to a very different world from that of the particular Bengali subgroup known as the Bhaktivinoda Goshthi.

It might possibly be one of those East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet things... or at least they meet in me. Besides, I have always considered synthesis to be the essence of human life. From mother and father we inherit two worlds and for the rest of our lives the poles take different forms and we keep trying to synthesize them. Our world is mediated to us through a two-sided brain that needs to find harmony. Indeed, I have been talking for a long time about the oneness of Radha and Krishna as symbolizing this synthesis of duality, with their maleness and femaleness as being the principal – symbolic or real – duality. 

That is where I went with the Bhakti Sandarbha class –
gaura-śyāma-rucojjvalābhir amalair akṣṇor vilāsotsavair
nṛtyantībhir aśeṣa-mādana-kalā-vaidagdhya-digdhātmabhiḥ |
anyonya-priyatā-sudhā-parimala-stomonmadābhiḥ sadā
rādhā-mādhava-mādhurībhir abhitaś cittaṁ mamākrāmyatām ||
"Let my heart be ever overpowered from all sides by the sweetness of Sri Sri Radha and Madhava who have the golden and blackish brilliance, manifesting the pure, festival of the movements of their eyes dancing, who are completely soaked in the expertise of the art of amorous activities, and who are supremely delighted by the fragrance of the ambrosia of mutual love." (See more here)
Radha and Krishna, or the Divine Couple, or Krishna in the association of his primary potency, Radha. This is the sambandha of the Gaudiya Vaishnava. In my view, Jiva Goswami spreads his net wide, but this is the fish he wants to catch.

The first version of Radha and Krishna's sweetness is its bright effulgence, like Brahman. Prabodhananda Saraswati also likes this trope, and it is popular in all sampradayas. Black and white light, united; night and day, the moon and the sun -- the coolness of the moon with the warmth and illumination of the sun, the union of opposites merged in the brilliant light of the ujjvala-rasa.

This union is the highest union of all. It is an internal affair. Learn this synthesis, and all other syntheses will follow. It is, of course, the most confidential knowledge.
The reason I bring it up here is because it serendipitously or synchronicitously coincides with my current situation, where I am attempting to write an article under considerable pressure -- it feels to me -- for JVS about Vrindavan as a tirtha. As a result of that I have been more or less ignoring the general activities of the festival (which has this year fallen on the same date as Janmashtami, to add to the general hullabaloo) and going through the editorials I have written there about Braja-vasa-sadhana and Vrindavana-mahimamrita (which explains why I have been cross-posting some of those verses here.

So the subject of the article, as it has slowly developed, is that of Braja-vasa-sadhana, which is a specific form of what I also call "the sadhana of identity" and my specific problem as a foreigner engaged in this practice. Some articles where I have touched on this subject already can be found here and here.

To summarize for the sake of clarifying my own thoughts.

The essence of rāgānugābhakti is the sādhanaof identity. Jiva Goswami says in Bhakti Sandarbha (304)that if one simply knows oneself to be a servant of Krishna, then other sādhanas are superfluous. In other words, if one's ego, one's I-am-ness, is stabilized in knowledge of his relation to Krishna, then one has for all intents and purposes achieved the goal.

This is how Vaishnavism in general differs from the gnostic kinds of realization, where adding a predicate of any sort to "I am" is considered false, even if that predicate is "a servant of Krishna." Indeed it is the very specificity of the name, form and personality of Krishna that highlights the nature of the culture of identity as a specific spiritual practice.

"I am" without a predicate is Brahma-jñāna, "I am a servant of God" where God is still conceptualized in terms of the God of this world, is Paramātma-jñāna. Neither of these are strong and stable because they do not give real alternatives to one's material identity. A brahma-jñānī by default functions in terms of his material identity. A paramātma-jñānī or karma-yogī similarly has to function in terms of his material identity. Though they claim transcendence, it is an artificial transcendence attained through feigned indifference to the material identity. This is why the Bhāgavatam can state:

ye’nye’ravindākṣa vimukta-māninas
tvayy asta-bhāvād aviśuddha-buddhayaḥ
āruhya kṛcchreṇa paraṁ padaṁ tataḥ
patanty adho’nādṛta-yuṣmad-aṅghrayaḥ
O lotus-eyed Lord, others [the followers of the path of pure knowledge, unmixed with devotion] who consider themselves liberated but whose minds are impure due to a lack of devotion to you, fall down from the high position they have attained with great difficulty due to having disregarded your lotus feet. (SB 10.2.32)
Only in bhakti, where one knows oneself to have a transcendent identity in Bhagavān's world -- a body, a personality, a relation to the specific form of God that one desires to attain, the iṣṭa-devatā, does one definitively solve the problem of identity.

So, if one understands that the sādhana is one of identity, directly attacking the root of the problem, the aham, not by denying it as with the asmitā concept in Yoga, but by accepting the truth of its inherent reality in the self and simply redefining its predicate to reflect that truth.

If we understand this, then it becomes easier to understand this important verse in reference to rāgānugā bhakti.

sevā sādhaka-rūpeṇa siddha-rūpeṇa cātra hi
tad-bhāva-lipsunā kāryā vraja-lokānusārataḥ
The devotee desiring intensely to attain the rāgātmikā mood of one or the other Vrajavāsī associates of Krishna should engage in the practices of devotional service here alone [i.e., in the bhauma Vrindavan] in his external body as a practitioner and internally in his spiritual body, in both cases following in the footsteps of the residents of Braj. (Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu 1.2.295; CC 2.22.158)
So though we usually think of rāgānugā sādhana in terms of the inner siddha-deha, the culture of the identity as asādhakais also an essential part of the process. And that too requires living in Braj (vraja-lokānusārataḥ)

kṛṣṇaṁ smaran janaṁ cāsya preṣṭhaṁ nija-samīhitam |
tat-tat-kathā-rataś cāsau kuryād vāsaṁ vraje sadā ||
One should live forever in Braj, remembering Krishna and the most beloved associates who surround him and remaining absorbed in hearing and chanting about them.
Generally speaking, the Gaudiyas follow Narottam Das in understanding that the sādhaka-deha is connected to Chaitanya (hethāya caitanya mile sethā rādhā-kṛṣṇa,Prārthanā 40.4) in implicit recognition that one's identity as asādhakais also a kind of siddha-deha. This has led to a bit of confusion on the part of devotees in the line as to the nature of the eternal līlā of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu [See Gadadhar Pran's explanation of three siddha-dehas, two of which are in Golok Nabadwip, one being that of a sādhaka, the other of a Gauranga Nagari.]

So what I am getting at in this concept of Braja-vāsa sādhanais that this a sophisicated culture of identity. The insistence of the acharyas like Rupa Goswami that one reside in Braj is not to be scoffed at, even though Jiva Goswami and other acharyas have accepted that if one cannot live physically in the Dham, one should do so mentally. But this can only be seen as a preparatory stage, much in the way that serving the guru at a distance cannot substitute for the direct education and discipline that one gets when in close proximity to the teacher.

The Dham imposes itself on the aspiring Brijbasi. If one accepts the dogma of the acharyas, that the visible Braj-Vrindavan is not in any way different from the Braj-Vrindavan to which we aspire in the nitya-līlā.

Now the question of course is about who is a Brijbasi. That may not seem like an altogether difficult question for a Gaudiya Vaishnava, since the above-quoted verses clearly stress following therāgātmika devotee, and Rupa Goswami's "essence of instruction" in Upadeśāmṛta also says tad-anurāgi-janānugāmī, and it is obvious that one would not but that does not fully answer what the relation of a sādhaka is with the ordinary residents of Braj, who are glorified so highly by devotees of the this-world Dham like Raghunath Das or Prabodhananda Saraswati.

I will leave this discussion here for now, but the obvious question is about the nature ofBraja-vāsa sādhanain relation to the Dham as it is, as it appears to the mortal eye, and the residents of the Dham as they are. If we read Prabodhananda or Raghunath Das, there is no question that they are recommending this practice for someone who is in the last stages of practice, who is completely renounced and ready to ignore the worldly situation and go entirely inward. I think that there is a bit more to it than that. I think that one has to cultivate the sense of belongingto the bhauma Vrindavan in the real-world situation, and this is indeed what I have been saying, but it needs a little bit more clarification.

In the light of the above, it will not be difficult to understand the importance of the siddha-praṇāli, where a relationship is established (sambandha-viśeṣa) with Chaitanya in the external dikshā-paramparā, along with the internal relationship in the siddha-deha. More on this later.


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