Ravindra Svarupa Dasa
Let me begin with a little recent history. In the fall of 1965, a small and fragile-looking Bengali monk, the saffron robes of a sannyasi wound about him, disembarked from a nondescript Indian freighter out of Calcutta onto the wharves of Manhattan. He was quite alone; he had observed his seventieth birthday at sea, and his assets, beyond a parcel of personal items, consisted of the cash equivalent of seven dollars and a trunk packed with crudely printed volumes of the first canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam, the Sanskrit devotional classic he had begun translating into English and publishing at his own expense during the ten years preceding this improbable journey.
Abhay Charanaravinda Bhaktivedanta Swami, later known to his followers as Srila Prabhupada, found himself-providentially, they say-at the right place and the right time. Celebrated as the "downtown" Swami of the Lower East Side in the annus mirabilis of 1966, he swiftly attracted admirers and then followers largely from the counterculture's explorers of the outer limits. He accommodated as little as possible to the consuetude of modern America.* It is a measure of the cultural distance his disciples had to travel that they had to drop out not once but twice: from "straight" society into the counterculture, from counterculture into the organisation prolepticly named the International Society for Krsna Consciousness (ISKCON).
But "reversal is the movement of the Tao". In going farther out, Prabhupada's followers found themselves coming back in: they shaved their heads close, rose daily before dawn to chant and pray, abstained from the flesh of animals, gave up the use of licit and illicit drugs, and even in wedlock avoided sex. Having gone farther out than the far-out, they became straighter than the straight.
In time, Prabhupada's students began to grasp that they had joined a formidable religious establishment in its own right, that Prabhupada was grooming them painstakingly to become heirs to an ancient and venerable spiritual tradition, and scrupulous fidelity to its teachings and practices was of central importance to Prabhupada. He himself was simply a conduit; he claimed to act as nothing more than the servant of his guru, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, who had in turn been the servant of his guru, Gaura Kisora dasa Babaji, who similarly had served Bhaktivinoda Thaktura, and so on. In the introduction to Bhagavad-gita As It Is Prabhupada listed a historical succession of spiritual teachers, going back to Krsna Himself.* This list was Prabhupada's credentials, the source of his teaching authority.
Thus, even though the International Society for Krsna Consciousness emerged as a radical novelty and still finds itself in the situation of a "new religious movement", it is actually a contemporary of a branch of one of the four long-established Vaishnava traditions of India, a branch bearing the formal title of the Brahma-Madhva-Gaudiya sampradaya. This tradition or community (sampradaya) traced itself back in historic times to the great Vaishnava theologian and religious leader Madhva (1238-1317), then more recently through Caitanya Mahaprabhu (1486-1533), who reformed and revitalised the tradition in Bengal (hence Gaudiya, from Gauda-desa, an old name for Bengal).*
The historical tendency of Vaishnavism has been the increasing enfranchisement of spiritually disenfranchised people. The traditional teachings of "Hinduism" hold that only men born into priestly (brahman) or occasionally royal (ksatriya) families can directly attain liberation. But the Vaishnava traditions teach that the Lord responds to sincere bhakti, devotional service, with a grace that destroys all the impediments produced by bad karma. Thus Krsna says in Bhagavad-gita that by taking shelter of him, women, merchants, and labourers-all traditionally considered ineligible for liberation-can attain the "supreme destination" (9.32). Srimad-Bhagavatam goes even further, saying that devotional service will elevate even dog-eaters-that is, untouchables-to the highest position in Aryan culture and render them qualified to perform Vedic sacrifices (3.33.6-7). (These verses were spoken by Devahuti, who, like Queen Kunti, is one of the great women devotees in the Bhagavatam whose words are scripture.) Another Bhagavatam verse (2.4.18) names various untouchable communities-Europeans, Turks, Arabs, Chinese, and some assorted tribal peoples-and says that these and those even more sinful can be saved by "taking shelter of one who has taken shelter of the Lord."
Putting these texts into practice, Caitanya Mahaprabhu shocked the rigid and exclusive Hindu society of his time; he propagated devotional service everywhere, indiscriminately, and he offered both respect and high positions of leadership to followers like Thakura Haridasa, a Muslim by birth, and Rupa and Sanatana Goswami, brahmans who had lost caste by serving in the Muslim government of Bengal. When Srila Prabhupada later came to America and put the sacred thread of brahman over the shoulders of foreigners, he simply implemented something already part of the tradition; he was on firm scriptural grounds, and he eventually succeeded in getting his actions accepted back home.* In spite of the cultural boundaries he had to cross, Prabhupada endeavoured greatly to maintain the integrity and continuity of the tradition. Thomas Hopkins, an authority on Vaishnavism who happened to encounter ISKCON in its very first days, found the eventual completeness of Prabhupada's transmission remarkable-although Hopkins understands Prabhupada's achievement in quite different terms from those who actually accepted what Prabhupada brought. Hopkins says: "What became evident was that Bhaktivedanta Swami did, in fact, have a plan which he was gradually implementing-a plan that involved bringing more and more of the authentic tradition over from India and putting it in place in the American, or Western, movement. He made his students more and more familiar with the philosophy. This I was expecting . What I did not expect, and what really surprised and pleased me, was the degree to which the ritual tradition was also brought over and put into place. That's something that no other movement has succeeded in doing, nor even really tried to do: transplanting a traditional Hindu ritual structure into a Hindu religious movement in America."*
With all the exotic trappings of "a traditional Hindu ritual structure" thus in place, ISKCON appears to many to be heavily freighted with culturally conditioned forms and hence to exemplify sectarianism with a vengeance. It stands in contrast to advaita vedanta, that earlier Indian export, whose philosophical abstractions and non-devotional orientation make it appear universal, nonsectarian, and free from adventitious cultural and historical accretions. Yet even after Prabhupada had everything in place, the Western youth who joined ISKCON never thought of themselves as "converting" to something called "Hinduism" or as participating in "a traditional Hindu ritual structure". The majority of them, I would say, had explored Eastern mysticism and had some familiarity with, and even commitment to, the ideas of advaita vedanta, yet they did not think that in adopting ISKCON's practices they were plunging into the historically conditioned forms of a particular religious sect. Indeed, they usually did not think of themselves as practising something called "a religion" at all. Prabhupada managed quite compellingly to convey an altogether different vision. He did not function on a platform in which he saw himself as practising some particular "religion" over and against other "religions". His outlook was different, which was hard for some people-reporters, perhaps, most of all-to grasp. I witnessed a revealing interchange in the early seventies. Prabhupada had finished an arrival press conference at Kennedy airport and, trailed by an entourage of disciples, was heading down a long concourse toward the exit, when a tardy television reporter came running up frantically, a huffing cameraman in tow. Thrusting a microphone in Prabhupada's face, the reporter gasped out: "How does your group differ from other Buddhists?" Looking the reporter in the eye, Prabhupada said, "We have nothing to do with this Hinduism or Buddhism. We are teaching the truth, and if you are truthful, you will accept it."
Flustered and bewildered, the reporter tried to get his question across to Prabhupada, but in vain. He did not know he had encountered the famous elusiveness of spiritual teachers. As Northrop Frye has pointed out, such teachers have their reasons for refusing to answer questions: "To answer a question … is to consolidate the mental level on which the question is asked."*
Prabhupada did not operate on the mental level in which the word "religion" refers to a collection of particular historical faiths-Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam etc. These denominations were of no relevance. To Prabhupada, "religion" was dharma, not some faith. He often explained that the root meaning of dharma is "that which sustains one's existence".* Dharma thus denotes the essential nature of something: the dharma of sugar is to be sweet, of fire to be hot. And, Prabhupada taught, it is the dharma, the essential nature, of each living entity, each soul, to render service to the Supreme Soul. It is our innate and natural activity. Thus, religion in the sense of dharma denotes a particular faith, which begins and ends in time, and which one can adopt or abandon at will.
Dharma has a further important implication: religion cannot denote some specialised activity partitioned off from one's life. It cannot rightly mean, in fact, precisely what it has come to mean only in modern times, as Wilfred Cantwell Smith has so well shown: an addendum to human life, an extra appendage to our ordinary activities.* Dharma allows no separation between our religion and our life. This pre-modern concept of religion gives ISKCON that all-absorbing and self-contained character that disturbs so many. ISKCON has no place among the religions of modernity that orbit the huge planetary mass of Western secular culture like so many satellites. Rather, ISKCON is a complete alternative culture, a spiritual culture aimed at the total sacralisation of human life, without remainder.
According to Gaudiya Vaisnava teachings, that complete realisation of dharma is attained only in pure bhakti, pure devotional service to the Lord. A central text for our discussion here occurs early on in Srimad-Bhagavatam. A group of sages, gathered in the holy place of Naimisaranya to perform sacrifices, placed a number of questions before the great authority Suta Gosvami. Among them was this (1.1.11): "There are many varieties of scriptures, and in all of them there are many prescribed duties, which can be learned only after many years of study in their various divisions. Therefore, O sage, please select the essence of all these scriptures and explain it for the good of all living beings, that by such instructions their hearts may be fully satisfied."*
Suta Gosvami answers (1.2.6): "The supreme occupation (dharma) for all humanity is that by which men can attain to loving devotional service unto the transcendent Lord. Such devotional service must be unmotivated and uninterrupted to completely satisfy the self."
The para dharma, the supreme religion or occupation, which is the essential instruction of all scripture, is defined as bhakti, loving devotional service to the Lord. It is intended for all humanity without restriction. Further, the specific standard of that bhakti is delineated: it must be unmotivated, that is, performed without any consideration of material or even spiritual return, and it must be uninterrupted, that is, every activity of life must be done so as to be service to God. The criterion for accepting or rejecting any particular historical faith, then, is simply how much it inculcates pure bhakti. Bhakti is the original, natural, and innate activity of the soul, and to be engaged in uncovering that activity is not a matter of allegiance to this or that faith but of rediscovering one's true self. God ceaselessly acts throughout the creation to help conditioned souls recover their real selves. God descends repeatedly, Bhagavad-gita says (4.7-8), in age after age, whenever dharma goes into decline and ungodly people prevail. In each case, his mission is to re-establish dharma, to protect the godly, and to disclose to the world something of himself. In commenting on 4.7, Prabhupada writes: "Each and every avatara, or incarnation of the Lord, has a particular mission, and they are all described in the revealed scriptures. No one should be accepted as an avatara unless he is referred to by scriptures. It is not a fact that the Lord appears only on Indian soil. He can manifest Himself anywhere and everywhere, and whenever He desires to appear. In each and every incarnation, He speaks as much about religion as can be understood by the particular people under their particular circumstances. But His mission is the same-to lead people to God consciousness and obedience to the principles of religion. Sometimes He descends personally, and sometimes He sends His bona fide representative in the form of His son, or servant, or Himself in some disguised form."* A little further on (4.11), Krsna adds: "As all surrender unto Me, I reward (bhajami) them accordingly. Everyone follows My path in all respects."
This statement grants no particular tradition exclusive franchise on truth: "Everyone follows My path in all respects." But neither does it indiscriminately endorse any and all forms of religiosity. Instead, it offers a principle by which one can discriminate among (or within) them: "As all surrender unto Me, I reward them according." The word bhajami, translated here as "I reward", has many implications. It is formed from the verbal root bhaj, meaning to distribute or share. Bhakti is formed from the same root, and bhajami also means to serve in love, or to worship. Here Krsna has stated a principle of equitable divine reciprocation. In proportion to the degree of our surrender to him, he "rewards" us-he gives or distributes himself-reveals himself-even so far as to enter into reciprocal relationships so intimate that "worship" is an accurate reading of bhajami. The nature of pure bhakti has been further elucidated by the analysis of Rupa Gosvami, a direct disciple of Caitanya Mahaprabhu and one of the "Six Gosvamis of Vrindavan" , whose writings established Gaudiya Vaisnava doctrine. Rupa Gosvami says that pure devotion (bhaktir uttama) means service rendered to Krsna in a favourable way that is free from all extraneous desires and from all taint of karma, acts done with a view towards enjoying the results, and jnana, philosophical speculation leading toward monistic self-deification.*
In the traditional Indian context, karma and jnana refer to specific forms of religious life. ("Religious", that is, to us today; to those so engaged, it was just life.) Karma indicates the discharge of the cycle of duties prescribed in the Vedas, especially the performance of Vedic ritualistic sacrifices (yajna); the result of the correct execution of these acts was future enjoyment of the goods of life, in this birth and those to come. Karma is this-worldly; elevation through karma to the heavens of the demigods brings a vastly superior and prolonged enjoyment of the senses, although it finally ends. The culture of karma in India reached its apotheosis in the school of the karma-mimamsa, which held that the yajna in itself had the power to bring about the desired ends; it compels even the gods. Jnana, by contrast, indicates the pursuit of liberation-release from all karma-through the renunciation of all desires, the cessation of all activities, and the total absorption of the intellect in a radical theology of negation, thereby achieving dissolution of individual identity in a mystical union with an undifferentiated absolute spirit. Jnana is radically other-worldly: this world is rejected as false, unreal, or non-existent, something with which the absolute spirit has no causal or ontological relation at all. At least this is the case in the advaita vedanta propagated by the ninth-century thinker Sankara, in whom the culture of jnana finds its most complete "Hindu" exposition. It is clear that the platform of jnana arises in a reaction against karma; bhakti in turn seeks to go beyond both. What becomes interesting is the way the relation of these three exhibits the progressive dialectical pattern of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. The level of karma embodies worldly action and absorption in material name and form; jnana antithetically turns away from the world and action in it to seek liberation into a transcendence conceived as the negation of all name and form. Bhakti sublimates and synthesises features of both. On the platform of bhakti, there is "inaction in action" (akarmani karma, Bg. 4.18), that is to say, activities performed purely as an offering to God. Since the devotee acts wholly under the will of God, God is the doer, and the deed produces no karmic reaction, good or bad; from a material point of view, nothing has happened. In bhakti the world, with its panoply of sense objects, is neither to be enjoyed as in karma, nor rejected as in jnana, but used entirely in the service of God, who is its actual possessor and controller. And in bhakti the Absolute discloses, in addition to the undifferentiated impersonal aspect encountered in jnana, a further, personal feature which, although having no material name and form, possesses spiritual or transcendental names, forms, attributes, and relations. According to Vaishnava teaching, the undifferentiated spiritual light apprehended by the jnanis is the effulgence emanating from the transcendental personality of the Godhead. From the Vaisnava point of view, then, jnana represents the penultimate, not the ultimate, platform of spiritual realisation. The incompleteness of jnana is shown by the way it remains bound to the previous platform of karma. Negations depend on that which they negate for their meaning; therefore negations alone cannot escape relativity and attain the Absolute. Nor can the transcendent unity be properly understood as the mere opposite of diversity: that absolute unity cannot exclude but must include variegatedness and diversity. The paradigm of karma, jnana, and bhakti as representing three phases or moments in a dialectic of spiritual development has application beyond the particular forms of Indian religious life that exemplify them. All three of them are generically human, and can be seen instantiated in various ways in many cultures, embodied in numerous religions and ideologies. Certainly, the major religious traditions have all these three strands of karma, jnana, and bhakti woven through them.* For example, every religion has an abundance of believers whose practice is directed primarily toward satisfying their material desires, and who think of the divine much more as a means than as an end. People on this platform avoid dealing with the true God of bhakti, who makes unconditional and ultimate claims; often they explicitly traffic with a pantheon of specialised, lesser divinities, like spirits, saints, and devatas, who are not as formidable and are potentially more pliable and controllable.
Jnana is nearly as widespread as karma, a fact causing some of its advocates to name it "the perennial philosophy". As a generic phase of human spiritual development, we would expect to find it breaking out all over. It is not even surprising, then, to find strong expressions of jnana in predominantly theistic traditions like Christianity and Islam. There we find often enough rigorous expositions of the theology of negation (apophatic theology or the via negativa), as well as the regular emergence of mystic like Meister Eckhart or al-Hallaj (who even indulge in expressions of self-deification). The platform of jnana is most obvious to us in "religious" contexts, such as the Elastic criticism of the Homeric gods or the Buddhist revolt against the cult of Vedic yajna. But the paradigm is also exemplified in "secular" ideological developments. For example, the historical movement we call the Enlightenment can be understood as a powerful example of the culture of karma. The aim of karma is to attain material well-being by gaining control over natural processes. This was certainly at the heart of Enlightenment ideology: the central article of faith held that Newton's success in physics could and should be programmatically extended until all of nature-especially human nature in its psychological, social and political manifestations-became subjected to rational ("scientific") manipulation and control. The reaction came quickly, and the stage of jnana became manifest in the form of the counter-Enlightenment (and then matured into the Romantic movement), with its exultation of intuition, holism, organicism, mysticism, etc. *
The struggle between Enlightenment and counter-Enlightenment ideologies continues to shape the cultural dynamics of the West. The counterculture of the sixties was simply a re-emergence of the original counter-Enlightenment, whose spirit had not been squashed by years of rational scientific and social progress. The emergence of the counterculture surprised and dismayed those who thought they had succeeded in establishing the method of empirical science as the only valid means of knowledge and in dismissing whatever was inaccessible to it as devoid of existence or significance. And the counterculture continues strongly today as the "New Age Movement" or the "Aquarian Conspiracy".
RELIGION AS A CONFESSION RELIGION AS A WAY TO GOD
RELIGION AS THE NATURE OF THE SELF
Surrender to God LOVE OF GOD
DIFFERENTIATION Beyond Confession
The karma-jnana-bhakti progression makes the emergence of ISKCON within the counterculture intelligible. As Prabhupada's "double-dropouts" abandoned "straight" society for the counterculture and then the counterculture for ISKCON, they lived that dialectic spiritual progression, each "dropping out" conveying them, so to speak, across a hyphen. Prabhupada's presentation of bhakti as the fulfillment of this progression and his critiques of karma and jnana, were full of personal resonances for most who became his disciples. He was telling them the truth. Thus, they did not "convert" to a "religion"-the terms are alien, the categories inapplicable-therefore they do not see people outside of ISKCON as practising "another religion". "All people are following My path," as Krsna said, and that path progresses through various manifestations of karma, jnana and bhakti. People are distributed on different places along that path; some are hardly moving; others are going forward rapidly. In principle, any person, whether within or without ISKCON, confessing or not confessing a religion, is to be evaluated simply as an individual and by the same criterion that one evaluates oneself-by proximity to pure bhakti.
Yet it may be objected that ISKCON is, after all, a "proselytising", "missionary" organisation. Don't we in ISKCON actively seek converts, and doesn't that activity imply our own conviction of institutional superiority? ISKCON hopes to each people that pure devotional service is the highest aim of life and to provide the means for practising it. The positive influence it can exercise can be of two kinds: people may become ISKCON members and practise devotional service, or people may realise the nature and importance of pure bhakti and seek to practise it within another historical tradition. Bhakti is taught in many traditions, but so far I have not encountered in any but the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition the lucid, analytical reflection on spiritual experience which so precisely defines bhakti and isolates it from the elements of karma and jnana, as well as the explicit and consistent effort to inculcate such purified bhakti. My own conviction is that many Christians, for example, could benefit from this analysis, but they would not have to cease being Christians to do so. Rather, they could mine the resources of their own tradition to pursue pure bhakti, thereby becoming more devoted and spiritually advanced Christians. For, even in many devotional traditions, the theology of negation has compromised and vitiated bhakti. The God one worships may be a person, but the God one thinks about becomes progressively evacuated of all personal features by a resort to abstraction and negation. The influence of jnana in theology checks and baffles the natural development of real bhakti. While bhakti impels us to praise God without ceasing, jnana tells us silence alone is valid and chokes the voice of praise and prayer. Jnana presupposes that language originates here, in our traffic with the objects of this world, and it has no competence to deal with transcendence. When we extend it to speak of the divine, it snaps like an over-stretched rubber band. Such ideas are theological commonplaces, but from the point of view of bhakti, they are wrong. Bhakti understands that the language conveying the names, forms, attributes, activities, etc. of the transcendent person does not originate in this world. The origin of everything is God, and the original use of language is to praise, glorify, and offer prayer to God. Service to God is the proper and original use of everything. Forgetting God, we pervert that language to traffic with sense objects in this world. But when God reveals himself and has that revelation conveyed in and through inspired language, language is restored to its original use. It is transcendental speech, and it must be taken with ultimate seriousness. And is it therefore to be taken-as everyone always worries-"literally"? Rupa Goswami answers this question by saying that our materially contaminated mind and senses cannot comprehend the transcendental quality of the names, attributes, and so on of the Lord. Only when our senses-beginning with the tongue-have become purified by being engaged in devotional service, can they grasp the Lord's names, attributes, etc.*
Thus, the language that describes God is to be understood literally, but in our conditioned state-with our mind and senses saturated with lust, greed, and anger-we are unable to understand the literal meaning. Yet even though our mundane meanings are perverted and distorted, the language remains real and valid. And even though we cannot grasp the language we use, we must use it unceasingly, for the use purifies our minds and senses so that we will come to understand fully what we speak. Through "nonsectarian" arguments like this, ISKCON seeks to help encourage and foster the development of pure bhakti in any tradition. Yet many will fear that such fostering of bhakti is precisely the thing which will most injure the ecumenical spirit. For the negative theology of jnana has been widely promoted as the key to inter-religious harmony and even unity, while bhakti, with its conceptually specific object of devotion, is often held responsible for sectarian exclusivity and hostility. The claim on behalf of negative theology has perhaps been most strongly advanced by the proponents of advaita vedanta (often still presented as normative "Hinduism"). But we should consider that advaita vedanta "solves" the problem of religious pluralism and diversity by the expedient of wiping it out of the ontology. Only so long as the Absolute is an object of nescience, Sankara says, do the categories of devotee, object of devotion, and the like apply to it.*
When knowledge arises, these and all other distinctions and differences disappear, for all are unreal and due to ignorance alone. Modern advocates of this position tend to combine Sankarite metaphysics with recent types of social and cultural relativism, leading them indiscriminately to accept practically all forms of religious life as equally valid. For what reason is there to discriminate invidiously among illusions? Everything is embraced with open arms, but precisely because everything is ultimately rejected right across the board. Unlike jnana, bhakti does not devalue individuality, diversity, and relativity as such. Indeed, they are found here in this world because they exist in the origin. For bhakti, God, the individual souls, and the relations between God and the souls are all eternally, irreducibly, and ultimately real. God sustains ongoing, ever-developing loving relationships. He discloses himself in different ways, according to the nature of the relationship. "As they surrender to Me, I reward them accordingly": the "as" in this verse refers not just to differences in degree of surrender and revelation, but also to differences in kind. In other words, diversity and relativity in religion is not necessarily due to accidental material conditions; it comes from transcendence itself. Person-hood is a social condition; it is made of relationships. We come to be the persons we are out our personal relations: each relation teases into manifestation an aspect of ourselves that would otherwise remain unknown. So it is with God, who engages in innumerable relationships. The relations we can sustain before we begin to sacrifice internal coherence are limited; but God can, in principle, combine unlimited self-integration with unlimited relations. Each relationship reveals more of the supreme personality of the Godhead. In this way, the personalistic theology of bhakti recognises positive spiritual value in religious diversity. To affirm genuine religious experiences wherever they do occur, it is hardly necessary to supersede devotion with speculation and a personal with an impersonal Absolute. We need not propagate ontologies of emptiness to be liberal, broad-minded, and tolerant. If the sectarian intolerance of some devotional communities is actually a consequence of their personalism, then it is owing to too little rather than too much of it. ISKCON thus offers a vision of inter-religious unity and harmony on the platform of bhakti. There are, of course, other traditions like the non-theistic advaita vedanta that also tend to systematically subordinate bhakti to jnana-most notably the Buddhist traditions. One may object that the view presented here is distinctly inimical to such traditions and is therefore not as liberal-minded as one might like. On the other hand, a view that systematically relegates God, the devotee, and their relationship to the realm of illusion might in turn be considered hostile to bhakti. Vaishnava theology, at any rate, accepts that the absolute truth has an impersonal feature as well as a personal feature, so the spiritual achievement of those engaged in various kinds of jnana is not written off as a delusion. It is only when people on the basis of such experience propagate philosophies hostile to the Supreme Person that ISKCON devotees raise objections. Certainly, ISKCON's ecumenical theology of bhakti does not end all disagreements. But at the least it achieves this: it recognises no real difference between intra and inter-religious discussion, debate, or dialogue. We may disagree and argue, but, still, it is in the family.
This article is based on a lecture delivered at Conference on Religious Education for Dialogue at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, April 1989.
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ICJ 1.1: Contemporary Theological Trends in the Hare Krsna Movement: A Theology of Religions