Globalization and the Dham (Part III)

Crowds in the narrow alleyways trying to get darshan of Bihariji.
  • Part I of this three part series. [Introduction, Places of Pilgrimage: Tirtha, Kshetra and Dham, Vaishnava criticisms of tīrtha-yātrā, Braj/Vrindavan is a dhāma]
  • Part II of this three part series. [How a Gaudiya Vaishnava performs pilgrimage to the Dham, The eternal glory of residence in the Dham]
  • Part III: Sattva-guṇa and Nirguṇa, Globalization and the Dham, Can a culture truly be translated?

Sattva-guṇa and Nirguṇa

At this point it is necessary to say a word or two about faith in the Dham and the Vaishnava dogma that the Dham is beyond the qualities of nature (nirguṇa, rather than saguṇa, or under the control of the material qualities of sattva, rajas and tamas). [Bhakti Sandarbha (152-159)]

According to the Gītā and Sāṅkhya philosophy, everything in this world is just the interplay of these three qualities. How can something like Vrindavan, which is clearly being influenced by the material world that surround it, the saṁskāras of saṁsāra, be considered transcendental to the guṇas? The relevant verse here is the following from the Eleventh Canto, where Krishna says:

vanaṁ tu sāttviko vāso grāmo rājasa ucyate

tāmasaṁ dyuta-sadanaṁ man-niketaṁ tu nirguṇam

The forest is a sāttvika residence,
that related to a village is said to be rājasika;
the gambling den is a tāmasika dwelling,
but my abode is beyond the guṇas. (SB 11.25.25)
This verse says that the urban setting, living in society with many people around, is the basic element of a rājasa environment. In the world today, there is a great urbanization going on, especially in India, and Vrindavan is caught right in the middle of it. It lies directly in the path of fire, between Delhi and Agra.

With each passing day, more and more people throng to Vrindavan. The crowds on special festival days and weekends are greater, and this is indeed the will of the powers that be: more people coming, more people spending following the common wisdom that urbanization and economic development (artha) are the route to all that is good.

This is called rajo-guṇa, and in its wake will inevitably come the call to cater to the tastes of the faithless who come from afar armed only with dumb curiosity, without any spiritual motivation. And such people (and even those who profess to be of purer goals) will allow and even promote the four principal vices -- animal flesh, alcohol, prostitution and gambling. The argument will be that these are democratic rights that must be defended in a secular state. And there will of course be an economic argument to support such things because some people will profit handsomely. This is called tamo-guṇa.

The idea of the “human sanctuary” is perhaps best expressed by Prahlad’s response to his father’s question about what was the best thing that he had learned,

tat sādhu manye'sura-varya dehināṁ
sadā samudvigna-dhiyām asad-grahāt
hitvātma-pātaṁ gṛham andha-kūpaṁ
vanaṁ gato yad dharim āśrayeta
I think the best thing, O best of the demons, for all embodied beings, who are constantly agitated in mind due to accepting this temporary body as the self, is for them to give up their attachment to the family, which like a blind well is the cause of their downfall and bondage. They should then go into the forest and take exclusive shelter of Lord Hari. (Śrīmad Bhāgavatam 7.5.5)
Some here gloss forest (vanam) to mean vṛndāvanam. In ideal terms Vrindavan means combining the transcendental power of the Dham with the culture of sattva. In the sattva-guṇa the full power of the Dham can be perceived more directly by the sādhaka.

But in the current situation, the transcendental qualities of the Dham are covered by rajas and tamas. One who cultivates sattva will find it hard not to be disturbed by the madness in the narrow streets of Vrindavan or the other towns of Braj like Govardhan or Barsana. Since the model for economic growth is based on the automobile, even though the constant honking and jockeying for space when there is so little of it completely destroys the ideal ambiance of Vrindavan. Our aim has to be to preserve as much sattva as we possibly can so that people who come can fully perceive the spiritual bliss of this abode of bhakti.

Though it is frustrating to see this craziness, we still hold to the basic theological tenet that Vrindavan is beyond the qualities of nature, nirguṇa. You may say, "How is that possible? If it is not sattva, how can it be conducive to spiritual culture?"

The idea is fundamental: bhakti is not dependent on sattva. In this crazy world, sattva is at a premium. But the Dham is transcendental and a true Vaishnava would understand it and experience the śuddha-sattva, even in the midst of the madness.

In Vrindavan, despite the apparent rajasika hustle and bustle, it is possible to participate in numerous devotional activities without much effort. Bhāgavata saptāhas, bhajana programs, temple programs, etc. are all constantly going on, especially during the various festive seasons, of which there are many.

The Gītā also states that it is through bhakti that one overcomes the qualities or knots of material nature.

māṁ ca yo'vyabhicāreṇa bhakti-yogena sevate
sa guṇān samatītyaitān brahma-bhūyāya kalpate
A person who serves me alone through unswerving devotion, completely transcends these guṇas of nature and becomes qualified to realize Brahman. (Gītā 14.26)
A person practicing bhakti but situated in the guṇas will still benefit from the bhakti.

naṣṭa-prāyeṣv abhadreṣu nityaṁ bhāgavata-sevayā
bhagavaty uttama-śloke bhaktir bhavati naiṣṭhikī
tadā rajas-tamo-bhāvāḥ kāma-lobhādayaś ca ye
ceta etair anāviddhaṁ sthitaṁ sattve prasīdati
When all these sins are practically destroyed through constant hearing of the Bhāgavatam and serving the devotees, then one comes to the stage of steadfast devotion to the Supreme Lord, who is glorified in the best of poetry. At this point, the lust and greed that are produced by the material nature’s modes of passion and ignorance, such as lust, desire and hankering, no longer disrupt the devotee’s consciousness. Thus established in sattva, he becomes contented. (1.2.18-19)
Furthermore, the Dham has vastu-śakti, meaning that its power is independent of belief. Though the Dham appears to be within the material nature, it is not. The effect of the Dham is to take someone from wherever they are situated within the guṇas and brings them to bhakti. Therefore bhakti can appear to be in rajas, tamas or sattva, and still penetrate to the essence of the soul. From our position in the guṇas, we can still get a perception of that transcendent reality.

Vrindavan’s transformative power is thus spoken of by Prabodhananda as follows:

vṛndāṭavī sahaja-vīta-samasta-doṣā doṣākarān api guṇākaratāṁ nayantī |
Vrindavan is naturally free of all flaws;
it transforms those who are reservoirs of faults
into reservoirs of virtue. (VMA 1.39)
So one must think of it as a kind of social experiment. If a large number of people are attracted here for tourism or even “pilgrimage light,” is it possible that they can be transformed by the presence of devotional activities, even if they are mixed with rajas and tamas? It is, in effect, a testing of the Vaishnava’s axiomatic truth that the Dham is independent in its spiritual power (vastu-śakti).

Prabodhananda further explains in his commentary to Gopāla-tāpanī Upaniṣad 2.32:

yathā hi vai sarasi padmaṁ tiṣṭhati tathā bhūmyāṁ tiṣṭhati
Just as a lotus flower sits on a pool of water, so is [this Gopāla Purī, i.e., Mathura Mandala] situated on this earth. (2.33)
Even though there is contact with the material sphere, it remains untouched and unaffected (apracyuti) due to the inconceivable potencies it possesses. There is no contact with the material faults. Wherever such faults appear, it should be understood to be a flaw of one’s perception. In Mathura there is no contact with the ignorance that results in the inability to attain Krishna, rather one there finds the association of the qualified. In Mathura, other than direct offences, no evil consequence arises out of ordinary sinful actions such as telling untruths. Even if they should arise, they are quickly destroyed by the pious effects of living in the dhāma.

Nevertheless, since the purest perception of transcendence comes when one is situated in sattva, the devotee tries to situate himself in sattva. Similarly, the devotees should collectively try to situate the Dham in the sattva-guṇa for the greatest effect. This should also be where a government that has a faith in the spiritual power of the Dham places its efforts.

Though Vrindavan has become an urban environment that may never again be ideal for creating a “human sanctuary,” such sanctuaries should be promoted in other parts of Braj.

Globalization and the Dham

The question of Dhāma-vāsa sādhanā or Braja-bhāva sādhanā as a transformation of the identity, internal and external, is especially acute for foreign converts to Vaishnavism. They are handicapped by their conditioning, one of the most important of which is the "operating system" called the English language.

If one wishes to cultivate the identity of a Brijbasi, to begin with we do not even know what a Brijbasi is. This identity does not so much mean following the local culture as it is today – which is being transformed by external influences as to lose any meaning, nor in fact following the historical culture that -- as it is following the ideal Brijbasi mood of love for Krishna which can be a source of evolution, accepting external influences. The essential part of the transformation of the identity is the idea of belonging to Krishna’s land. This is natural for even the Brijbasis of today, who don't have to aspire to a world where Krishna is everywhere, they are already living there.

The extent to which one is conditioned by language is very important and it is a complex question. Is it possible for the Braj culture to be mediated in a language as foreign as English or Russian (since Russian-speakers now seem to form the largest block of foreign visitors to the Dham)? Whether one thinks that the culture mediated through those languages presents an authentic vision of Braj or not, or whether those individuals are actually engaged in a genuine culture of Braja vāsa, the fact is that they think they do. And one way or another, by simple residing there, they are affected by the dominant local culture to which they offer their fealty. Furthermore, they will be affected by the Dhama’s vastu-śakti whatever their previous conditioning.

The government would probably prefer that foreigners simply come and spend their money and leave. It is unlikely that they want an immigrant community of foreigners, whose contribution to the economy is questionable. But the fact is that in the long run, a permanent community of foreign Vaishnavas that adheres to the spiritual standards of Braja-vāsa, is probably the best guarantee of an increased influx of foreigners, much in the same way that the permanent community of Bengalis and other Indian communities are an important aspect of the attraction that Bengalis or Gujaratis, etc., feel for the Dham and which keeps them coming again and again. Furthermore, the Hindu nationalist government should likely think that in a globalized world, the presence of foreign converts who deepen their culture of an identity sadhana would further its cause.

Furthermore, the presence of Indianized Western Vaishnavas acts as a kind of brake on globalization. Instead of having one-way influence of the West on India, this shows the reverse influence.
In a very real sense, outsiders help to make Vrindavan what it is by importing their portion of the dream. Who implanted the ruling dream of Braj dream of prema-bhakti here, Love of God in the form of Radha and Shyam? It was outsiders: Mahaprabhu, the Goswamis and their followers and the great discoverers of Vrindavan by the Yamuna -- an unlikely, dusty, barely livable land on the edge of the Rajasthani desert, infested with bandits and local rulers who were little better than thugs. That process is simply continuing to this day.

India has always been a compartmentalized world. Caste keeps communities separated. Bengalis, to mention one group, continue to be a community apart from mainstream Braja life, even though they participate in the economy in various ways. Though most of them speak Hindi, they remain a community apart, separated by their own culture and language. Other foreign-language communities will similarly develop their own devotional culture in their own tongues – as is already happening – and this has a cross-fertilizing and enriching aspect as can already be seen, and this should be encouraged in whatever way possible.

Can a culture truly be translated?

Having said the above, it is my feeling that as much as foreigners are able to integrate with the local community, the better it will be for everyone.

Certainly for me, in my quest for authenticity, it was necessary to be steeped in the languages of the Vaishnava culture – Sanskrit, Bengali and Brajabhasha – but for most foreign converts that is not the case at all. They are dependent on translations and have developed something of a hybrid language or languages, based on the mother tongue with additions from the above original languages of the culture.

It may never be possible to completely abandon one’s linguistic conditioning, in particular that of the Anglosphere, which has a disproportionate influence on the world as a whole. The ideas and culture of the Angloshpere has become "normative," meaning that the spectrum of ideas that are dominant in it permeate most of the other cultures as well, despite the attenuation created by their own linguistic and cultural environments. But gradually, by sheer force of its mediatic and economic power, the values, goals and ethos of the Anglosphere penetrate and transform local cultures everywhere. Its principal effect is consumerism, which results in the exacerbation of rajas and tamas. The success of Braja-vāsa-sādhanā depends to a great extent on one’s ability to enter into the mood of Braj through its literary and cultural products.

The work of those who reside in Vrindavan is to make the Dham manifest. They do so by perfecting their bhajan at whatever their level of understanding or the strength of their devotion. The innermost circle may be the least visible -- those who practice devotion in hiding. Others may preach or engage in welfare work or in cleaning, it does not matter as long as they work to make Radha and Krishna's abode into a living and breathing reality, inwardly and outwardly into God's own playground, to make it manifest to as many people as possible.


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