Sunday, September 16, 2018

The double incarnation

The author of this book, the late Swami Tapasyananda, was a senior monk of the Ramakrishna Mission, the Hindu group formed by Swami Vivekananda in 1897. Tapasyananda's work on Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu is an excerpt from a larger book, “Bhakti Schools of Vedanta”. The chapter on Caitanya (often spelled Chaitanya) is relatively interesting and surprisingly non-polemical, considering the fact that the author belongs to a different Hindu tradition.

Sri Caitanya (1486-1533) was a Hindu revivalist from West Bengal who spent most of his life in Puri in Orissa. At the time, West Bengal was under Muslim control, while Orissa was an independent Hindu kingdom. Caitanya is considered to be the founder of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, a sub-branch of the Vaishnava tradition within Hinduism (Vaishnavas are devotees of Vishnu or one of his avatars). In the modern West, the most well known group of Gaudiya Vaishnavas is the Hare Krishna movement (ISKCON), the members of which often gather at public places to praise Lord Krishna. ISKCON seems to lack the esoteric-mystical element of the tradition, however (except in theory), perhaps because its founder A C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada found it too advanced (or too dangerous) to impart to Westerners.

Judging by the biographical chapters, Caitanya was a mystic, ecstatic and “mad saint” whose entire life was devoted to Bhakti (loving devotion). He wrote very little, or perhaps nothing, and the more philosophical side of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, known as Acietya-Bhedabheda, was developed by his scholarly disciples based in Vrindavana in Uttar Pradesh (then under Mughal control). “Regular” Vaishnavas regard Krishna as an earthly incarnation of the god Vishnu, considered to be the Supreme Personality of the Godhead. Caitanya inverted the relationship, and argued that Krishna was the Supreme Personality, while Vishnu was simply one partial aspect or emanation from Krishna. This is not an entirely academic difference, Vishnu being a cosmic being, while Krishna is portrayed as a human-like person with whom devotees sing, dance and celebrate. Indeed, the relation between Krishna and his human devotees is often depicted in erotic terms, with Krishna madly sought after by a group of women known as the Gopis, chief of whom is Radha. Indeed, Radha is portrayed as Krishna's illicit lover! Thus, Caitanya's devotionalism was a far cry from the serene ritualism and scholarly pursuits of “official” Vaishnavas. The mad saint seems to have disturbed the peace on more than one occasion, often gathering large crowds in the process. To his followers, Caitanya was a double incarnation of Krishna and Radha in one body. Krishna had returned to Earth as his own perfect devotee. This explains why the tales of Caitanya's childhood are similar to those of Krishna's childhood (and presumably just as mythological).

The philosophy of the Caitanya movement, Acietya-Bhedabheda, is similar to Vishishtadvaita Vedanta (Qualified Non-Dualism). God is a person, while the world is both part of God and distinct from God in panentheist fashion. However, there are also certain differences with Vishishtadvaita. Acietya-Bhedabheda gives more emphasis to faith, revelation and divine mystery. No philosophy can *really* explain how God can be both one and many simultaneously. This is something we know through scriptural revelation (and perhaps the witness of mystics). In Gaudiya Vaishnavism, the jivas (souls or monads) are created perfect. Some remain within Krishna's orbit, while others turn away and become ensnared in the material world. Thus, there seems to be a “fall” in this system. My impression of Vishishtadvaita is that the jivas according to that system are created imperfect and already ensnared in the material world. Another prominent trait of Gaudiya theology is its peculiar literalism. God (Krishna) *really is* a blue-skinned cowherd boy with a flute, eternally dancing with his mistress Radha and the Gopis in a lush forest. Salvation for the jivas consist in becoming one of the Gopis and hence experience Krishna's and Radha's eternal love-play! This part of the system is the one most hard to swallow: why in heaven's name would God's true form be that of a human? Are humans that important?

Krishna's supreme essence is that of Bliss. However, Bliss cannot experience itself, just as sugar cannot taste itself. Therefore, Krishna emanates a special energy or shakti through which he partakes of himself. This energy is personified as Radha. In one sense, Krishna and Radha are two different personages, but in another sense, they are one – which presumably explains why Caitanya was seen as an avatar of both. In a previous review, I wondered why Ramanuja said so little about God's love for humanity. Caitanya's followers talk about love all the time, but it's mostly the devotees' love for Krishna, although we sometimes learn that Krishna responds by loving the devotees. But does Krishna love the sinners already before they turn towards him and his celestial play?

One problem with Tapasyananda's book is that he never places Caitanya in a robust historical context. Why did the revivalist movement emerge at this particular point in time? What social forces did it represent? What political forces were in motion? The author mentions speculations that Caitanya was assassinated by temple priests in Puri, jealous of his influence over the Orissan king. This surely indicates that more was going on than a mystical double incarnation! I also wonder why Caitanya's disciples left Orissa and moved to territory controlled by the Mughal emperor Akbar the Great. Once again, something was up.

Overall, however, I found “Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu: His Life, Religion and Philosophy” to be very interesting. Philosophically inclined readers should note, though, that the purely philosophical section is the shortest. Most “philosophy” is really a description of Bhakti (loving devotion), and most of the book is a part-legendary biography of the revivalist leader. Some of his exploits are very hard to believe – I admit that this man was either a very advanced ecstatic or else barking mad! The modern Hare Krishnas look like pale moderates in comparison.

Five stars.

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