Universalist Radha-Krishnaism a review by Jagadananda Das

Steve Bohlert, otherwise known as Subal Das Goswami, is a friend and a senior Godbrother, having taking initiation from Lalita Prasad Thakur several years before I did. Since his life trajectory and mine have some interesting parallels, I feel a great affinity and friendship for him. Some time ago he sent me a book that he has written, Universalist Radha Krishnaism: A Spirituality of Liberty, Truth and Love, published by Sky River Press.

My intention was to review the book then, but for whatever reason, I have been amiss in so doing, which is more than just a minor oversight. This book is sufficiently important that its wide dissemination amongst devotees is a desideratum. Indeed, with the book Subal sent an ebullient review written by former ISKCON public relations officer and author, Nori Muster, which shows that it can answer at least some of the doubts and fulfill the desires of erstwhile devotees who are seeking to use their religious experiences to grow after becoming dissatisfied with their ISKCON experience. Another review has also been posted more recently by Scottsdale Arizona religious studies professor Michael Valle on Facebook.

Subal has an interesting history… and the Krishna Consciousness Movement has been around long enough for most of us early birds to have had interesting histories by now. One of Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada’s earliest disciples who broke open several regions for ISKCON, Subal also spent three years in India, during which time he encountered Srila Lalita Prasad Thakur and was initiated into the raganuga-bhakti path.

Though he continued in ISKCON for a while thereafter, he eventually left and went to the prestigious Graduate Theological Union (GTU)in Berkeley, California, where he picked up a Master of Divinity degree. This led to ordination in the United Church of Christ, a liberal denomination in the Reformed tradition.

Eventually, Subal’s Vaishnavism sprang back to the fore in his consciousness and he became convinced that it was necessary to attempt to synthesize his experiences. In his book he mentions that his personal history as a Vaishnava has always been a part of his identity, and it was even welcomed and appreciated by his mentors and teachers at the GTU and in the liberal tradition where he became a pastor. Nevertheless, his studies and life in the liberal Christian milieu have enriched his understanding of spirituality, which he has now applied to the Gaudiya tradition. The ways he does so may not please everyone, but he certainly makes a valuable contribution to the discourse and his work will be, as Nori Muster puts it, like “a cooling breeze on a hot day” for many.

My own experience mirrors Subal’s in many ways. I spent a longer time in ISKCON than he, and more time in India studying and practicing the Gaudiya tradition into which Lalita Prasad Thakur had initiated me, though I also came into contact with the Gaudiya Sahajiya traditions during this nearly eleven-year period. But I also returned to a Western university setting with the intention of objectively studying my personal experiences and contextualizing it through critical methods of study. Nevertheless, my area of research at the Ph.D. level was rooted in the Sanskrit tradition rather than theology. Whereas Subal’s gestation period was spent in the Christian ministry, I eked out a living primarily as a translator and editor. Nevertheless, despite our completely separate paths, somewhat different orientation, linguistic and cultural commitments, we have an amazing amount of common ground, no doubt due to our similar backgrounds in Krishna bhakti and the sharing of certain universal liberal values.

Liberal Christian influences

I have often said to devotees that they have the tendency to criticize Christianity, usually using straw man arguments and rarely appealing to the best in progressive Christian thought, whether it is its social activism,  serious interaction with modern philosophical thought, deconstruction of mythology and the like. Like most fundamentalists, they feel that liberal Christianity is excessively rational and incompatible with true religious experience.

The fact is that experiential Christianity has been in contact with scientific and modern philosophical thought far longer than any other religious tradition, and though it sometimes seems that they have been playing defense, those of integrity recognize that the only moral approach is to accept Truth wherever it is found. They recognize that even as they bow to well-founded critiques of their own church’s history, myths and traditions, they can still find legitimacy in their own spiritual experience, and the meaning and moral force that it gives them. Thus, anyone who has struggled with such critiques, regardless of which tradition they swear allegiance to — Hindu, Buddhist or Muslim — can still learn something from Tillich, Bonhoeffer, Barth, Teilhard de Chardin, Niebuhr, and many others.

This is of course the basis of the universalism in “Universalist Radha-Krishnaism.” Devotion to the Divine Couple is only one religion amongst many, with things to teach as well as to learn to the worldwide community of faith. An arrogant sense of privilege in any religion will ultimately lead to rotting from within, no matter how much short term success it may claim. So Radha-Krishna devotion should be ecumenical, in the true spirit of interfaith dialogue and participation in the progressive evolution of human society as a whole.

The liberal approach is multifaceted, but it begins with a healthy relativism that has long been known in Hinduism, but is rejected by zealous sectarians or those who are politically motivated. Such people are the bane of progressive spirituality.

Subal has very correctly stated that Bhaktivinoda Thakur is a great inspiration to anyone who seeks to reform or move the Gaudiya tradition forward, and he cites many of the Thakur’s most famous passages supporting this idea. In particular, he adopts, as do I, the term “essence seeker” (sāra-grāhī) as by-word for this progressive approach and as a stance against the regressive literalism that is prevalent in ISKCON and much of the Hindu world.

Subal further equates the progressive theological position with “process theology,” which he says  forms a “fabulous combination” with Chaitanyaism (p.40). He was impressed by how his own church was constantly reforming itself and realized that this kind of dynamism needs to be applied to the movement started by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. As in Christianity, there is of course a strong resistance to such reform in the Krishna consciousness movement, as the Truth is seen as an unchanging complete whole that was given at one time by a historical Master, rather than one that is constantly revealing Itself through history.

In many of my own writings on my blog and elsewhere, I have tried to show how this has never been the case, that the traditions of India have undergone constant change through debate and interaction with each other. There is no reason to think that we, as modern Vaishnavas with a totally different experience of life, will not transform Vaishnavism — whether we intend to or not. ISKCON, in order to preserve its institutional integrity, is obliged to enforce loyalty to Srila Prabhupada’s doctrinal vision, which severely hampers its ability to maneuver. As is often the case, most of the original thinking will come from outside of ISKCON, and I think Subal’s contribution is an important and welcome one.

Second Naivete, Reenchantment

Some of the terms Subal borrows from liberal theology are very useful. One is “hermeneutical leap”, which is the leap of insight that comes when old beliefs are given apparently radical new interpretations that widen their scope and potential for meaning.

Another, taken from his Old Testament professor at GTU, Marvin Chaney, is “second naivete”, used to describe the renewed zest one feels for deconstructed historical, theological or mythological themes when they have been reinvigorated by a broader understanding. This indicates the richness of the renewed faith that comes when we accept the challenge of doubt in the dialectic of faith, rather than trying to crush it with false zealotry.

Disenchantment comes from the loss of a spiritual point of view due to an excess of rationalism. For many, this is dealt with by either a retreat into the shell of fundamentalism or hypocrisy when the challenges become too strong. For others it results in a crisis of faith that leads to total rejection of a specific faith or of any faith at all.

Those who accept the challenge of doubt and investigate religion and their own religious experiences as an objective phenomena in all their aspects—mythological, theological, philosophical, anthropological, psychological, sociological, etc.—often find that their faith takes on a new enlivened form, if their samskara (the faith based on the original religious experience) is strong enough. One then interacts with God through his symbolic manifestations with much the same innocence and love that he or she did when they were entirely new and presented themselves in all their original mystic splendor. In that state, he makes genuine further progress internally.

This is what the Bhagavata infers in 3.7.17 when it talks about going beyond intelligence. You cannot hide from reason and, if you try to suppress it, you run the risk of hypocrisy and all the ugliness it entails. Facing reason means undertaking a dark night of the soul, but the rewards are so much greater, because the nature of evolved faith is so much sweeter and satisfying than the struggle to remain true to received dogmas.

One of the problems I see in the whole “enlightenment” and rationalist discourse is that it is essentially a desacralizing movement. In my own experience, certain conditions of extreme innocence and rejection of so-called “rational” social order were necessary in order for me to even chant Hare Krishna and discover the sacred in the first place. Jiva Goswami talks about ruchi-pradhana and vichara-pradhana devotees, while making it very clear that [despite clearly being in the latter category himself] that those who can move directly into the path of sacred experience are more fortunate, for the vichara-pradhana devotee will only have to return there when his faith has been renewed. The trouble is that the genuine simplicity of a ruchi-pradhana devotee who never interacts with rational doubt is extremely rare.

In view of my own pilgrimage, I agree that by developing a more sophisticated understanding of religious experience, we make it possible to deepen it and communicate it to a wider audience. But an overly sophisticated attitude may also make it difficult to enter into direct communion with symbols like Radha-Krishna that are God’s way of revealing himself to us.

Christianity has the advantage in some ways of dealing with modernity and its sophisticated secular critiques of religion for a longer time than India. In many ways, India is still fighting the rearguard, trying to defend the literal word of God, however confused, hyperbolic and self-contradictory it may be. Bhaktivinoda Thakur clearly stated that the “word of God” is the words of inspired men, rishis or seers. It is sad that the progressive tendencies of Bhaktivinoda Thakur have been overrun by a regression to old-style fundamentalism.

I have pondered over the question of whether the narrow vision of the kanishtha adhikari serves some necessary function in the development of one’s devotional life. But the great problem of the kanishtha is that he has little understanding of what psychological changes and real difficulties there are in stepping up to the madhyama level. Because there are so many precious preconceived notions and cherished ideas that must be jettisoned, there is a great deal of fear that must be overcome.

The sad fact is that kanishthas are the kinds of religious people who start wars and pogroms. They are also the ones who are susceptible to the greatest hypocrisies because they do not face the existential challenges of doubt and so become empty internally while continuing to exploit the credibility of the neophytes they surround themselves with for personal gain.

One of those great fears is that of Mayavada. Subal has done a great service by introducing or naming the Vaishnava concept of deity as panentheism. For those who have not studied comparative religion, this term will mean nothing. But it really is the best English language term for Mahaprabhu’s achintya-bhedabheda, because while recognizing the personal nature of the God and our relationship with him, it gives full importance to his immanence and identity with us.

How this plays out in practical terms is of course something that I am deeply interested in, because it completely changes the nature of our sadhana.

Cultural Directions

One of the areas in which Subal is attempting to make headway is “establishing an indigenous Radha-Krishna devotional culture” (116). As stated above, I think it presents the broad outlines of the direction we want to go, and though culturally, just in the way of our spiritual development, we are in slightly different frames of mind, the grand strokes of his vision are fairly close to mine.

Both Subal and I are, let us say, deviants from the tradition. We have both consciously and willingly allowed ourselves to be influenced by thinkers outside the tradition, and this makes us suspect when we claim to defend it. I often find myself in the odd position of defending the tradition or even ISKCON while simultaneously seeming to be arguing against what so many identify as its core beliefs!

Now, where did Lalita Prasad Prabhu really stand on these issues? As far as I can see, most of his present-day disciples are so influenced by the Gaudiya Math, since the GM is the main publisher of Bhaktivinode Thakur’s books, and mostly don’t understand (who does or did?) Bhaktivinode Thakur’s innovative and modernizing tendencies. Since it seems that Bhaktivinode Thakur himself came into a second naiveté at a certain point in his life, he was able to drop his concerns with philosophy and modernism and concentrate on bhajan; thus to them he appears to be a traditionalist.

This is where everyone is wrong. Bhaktivinode was practicing, but not necessarily simply accepting things at face value. A century down the road from Bhaktivinode (his 100th disappearance day is in 2014), the kinds of secular criticisms of fundamentalism are so much stronger and the synthetic position which both defends against the excesses of literalism and pinpoints the essence of the spiritual search have become so much more sophisticated.

Natural Vaishnavism

Subal uses the word “natural Vaishnavism” or “natural devotion” to refer to rāgānugā bhakti. “Natural” is clearly a translation of the word sahaja, so we must inquire into the appropriateness of his usage of the term.

Bhaktivinode Thakur himself used the term with some frequency, but I question whether he intended it as a translation of rāgānugā bhakti or that he was following the long tradition of sahaja in Buddhism or Sant Mat or indeed in Vaishnava Sahajiyaism.

This word has such a long tradition in Indian thought, particularly in (a) Buddhism (Sahaja-yana) and (b) in the Sants like Kabir and Raidas, as well as in (c) post Chaitanya Vaishnava Sahajiyaism, that it seems almost aberrant that BVT would choose to use it. We need to go back and do a thorough study of his use of the word to see exactly how he meant it in every single instance. But it is clear to me at least that there is a convergence of these expressions.

Subal also takes this natural Vaishnavism to imply a position against renunciation, which he feels leads to ***. At the same time he advocates for enjoying the things of the world within reason and with detachment, just as Chaitanya Mahaprabhu instructed Raghunath Das during his householder life. Indeed, Subal asks whether God may not ask at the time of death whether we have “enjoyed enough”.

When describing the sadhana of Universalist Radha-Krishnaism, he frequently repeats that one is to follow in the footsteps of the residents of Vrindavan, Krishna’s eternal associates, as exemplars or ideal human beings.

Later in his book, Subal (influenced it seems by Dimock’s Place of the Hidden Moon) takes a more directly Vaishnava sahajiya position.

There are some articles by Joseph O’Connell rebutting Dimock, and both certainly bring out some of the historical uses of the term. But I think there is very little understanding. It is here that the crux of the matter comes. Sexuality. I am becoming more and more adamant that the rejection of or deep ambivalence about sexuality is not only the target of “sahaja”, but is also the fundamental problem that vitiates the Mayavada-permeated spirituality of India and thus its social life and individual personal development.

In many ways, Rajneesh (Osho) is much closer to my way of thinking–even as a non devotional thinker –than the devotees who reject woman and sexuality as the principal obstacles to their spiritual advancement. But, of course, for those in the ISKCON/Gaudiya Math tradition, the word sahaja (“natural”) implies some kind of antinomian, id-directed and thus immature sensuality. That is not the case; it is simply the redirection of the most powerful forces in the psyche towards spiritual culture and prema.

We use the symbolic vocabulary of Radha, Krishna, Vrindavan and the gopis, to train our minds and then through mantra come into harmony with our partners on a deep level of inwardness, so that the experience of love pervades our being and radiates outwards. Though the celibate lifestyle may mean the outward redirection of sexual energies into other kinds of service, as Freud so rightly pointed out, sublimation has its limits.

Not only that, I believe, but it is not what the Vaishnava tradition, with its overriding sensual nature, is about. We are NOT an ascetic tradition, at least not in its external flaunting of sannyas, celibacy, misogynistic world view, etc.

But the question here is, obviously, can we hold the above beliefs and still claim to be followers of Bhaktivinoda Thakur? Where did the Thakur stand on these matters? He clearly was not a Sahajiya in the traditional sense as found in the Bengali culture of his time. He was a Victorian and, let us face it, influenced by the British culture of that époque. I think that as an educated and sophisticated aristocrat of the period, he would have been repulsed by the uneducated and unsophisticated Sahajiyaism that was rampant in the underclasses of Bengal.

But it is clear that undergirding this uneducated and unsophisticated Sahajiyaism in practice, there is a very sophisticated and philosophical defensible system of understanding. Can we connect the Thakur’s understanding of sahaja to this “despicable” target of so much of his and Bhaktisiddhanta’s preaching?

Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur and his followers opposed rāgānugā-bhakti itself because they felt it would lead to the above kind of aberration. I favor rāgānugā, as it seems does Subal, precisely because it favors this reformation of sexuality. It is about transforming kama into prema. It is about reforming the id-controlled ego into a love-permeated ego. We need to reread Bhaktivinoda Thakur to see if he had any glimmers of this perception.

But, like Subal, I think that my conclusion is not based on what Bhaktivinoda Thakur did or did not believe, do or  practice, but what we have concluded is the right course and appropriate sadhana, which ultimately stands in consonance with the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition as presented by the Goswamis of Vrindavan. I have already defended that position on these pages [his blog] and will continue to do so in the future, with ever increasing commitment and conviction.

The last verse of the Rasa-lila says that by hearing these erotic pastimes of Krishna the sensual desires of the conditioned soul, the disease that vitiates human life, kama, is cured. How on earth is that supposed to happen? No one seems to have a clue. Everyone simply assumes it means that you become a celibate monk.

This “otherworldiness” or underlying assumption of the falseness of this world is the essence of Mayavada. And unless we recognize the dual nature of femininity and masculinity, learn that their unity is a potential dual-nondual miracle of spiritual felicity, we will always be misdirected into the anti-love concept of Mayavada.

So in a sense we may have a difficult time claiming direct adherence to Bhaktivinoda Thakur’s beliefs. We can only say as I think Subal does, that we have taken the ball he passed to us and are running with it. If this is where it takes us, through our sadhana and our long years of reflection, then we must not deny our inner inspiration, but embrace it and pursue its implications, and experiment with the practices, and learn through experience about its consequences, its limitations, its joys and sorrows.

Social Involvement

Besides these approaches to one’s own textual tradition, Subal takes another page from liberal Christianity an orientation to social involvement. If the world is real, as is a fundamental element of the Vaishnava doctrine, and if compassion is an essential characteristic of the devotee, then surely social involvement should be a part of the broad scope of a religious movement’s activities.

There is no doubt that Subal’s is an important brick in the wall of religious discourse about Vaishnavism. Many of the things that he says are those I have been saying repeatedly. His great contribution, of course, is that he has gone out on a limb and attempted to make a coherent and systematic presentation of Radha-Krishna according to his vision. This means of course that he has set himself up for criticism, but that kind of courage is what is needed to push the discourse further.

I really hope that all of the friends I have here, especially those who are disenchanted from the enchanted world of Krishna consciousness, but still have a lingering taste for something, they are not quite sure what, of the Krishna conscious experience (See Bhagavata 1.5.19), it will help get their juices flowing and their intelligence focused on what exactly it was or is that they are still holding on to. Or what, as I think Subal shows both from his personal life and intellectual evolution, what they need to hold on to.

by Jagadananda Das from his blog Jagat

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