Krishna Dasa’s Review of Universalist Radha-Krishnaism

Monday, August 8, 2011

Review of Steve Bohlert’s Universalist Radha-Krishnaism

There are books which are the result of a life-long engagement with a subject. They impress us by the depth of experience and the profundity of thought. Steve Bohlert’s Universalist Radha-Krishnaism is such a book. It is an outcome of the author’s thirty-five year long spiritual quest. The book is a personal account of his spiritual practice and journey which started as a leading disciple of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (his diksa-name is Subal das Goswami), continued with initiation into the practice of raganuga bhakti by Lalita Prasad, a deep study of Christian theology and the work as a pastor, and culminated in developing the concept of Universalist Radha-Krishnaism.

Steve Bohlert’s book touches upon the most important problems of being a devotee of Radha-Krishna in the twenty-first century. The cult of Radha-Krishna originated in medieval India. But now we live in the twenty-first century, in a world in which one cannot ignore the cultural and scientific developments of the West (and of the whole world, of course) if one cares for one’s intellectual honesty. Steve Bohlert’s parama guru, Bhaktivinode Thakur, recognized the challenge Western world presented to Indian culture. He was ready to accept the Western critical scholarship and science, abandoned the literalist interpretation of Indian mythology, and developed his own approach to Indian scriptures in general and Gaudiya Vaishnava texts in particular. ‘Progress is the law of nature and there must be corrections and developments with the progress of time’, says Bhaktivinode in The Bhagavat, Its Philosophy, Ethics and Theology. Bohlert notices that Bhaktivinode understood that revelation is not completed, that it is ever-evolving, and finds a similar idea, called process theology, in contemporary Christianity, and argues that the follower of Chaitanya can benefit from it.

Western philosophers have dwelt upon issues which ancient and medieval Indian thinkers did not pursue to the same extant and in the same manner. One of such issues is epistemology. The achievements of Western epistemology have tremendous importance for our understanding of Gaudiya Vaishnava texts. From present perspective one cannot interpret them literally, although the tradition does. It is therefore evident that sastra must attain a different epistemic value. However, a symbolic interpretation, which is a possible alternative left, represents a threat to its infallibility and authority. Bohlert writes: ‘The scripture writers wrote to the best of their knowledge and ability at the time. We do not think they tried to deceive anyone—however, if we find discrepancies in their words, we can use scientific and philosophical methods to understand why such things occurred.’ (p. 110) Sastra, he mentions elsewhere, ‘contains a great mine of spiritual wisdom developed over millennia by a highly spiritual civilization. Yet does this make it all objectively real? No, it does not. Does it contain a wealth of relevant spiritual insights? Yes, it does.’ (p. 69)

The question then is how to deal with Gaudiya texts after their deconstruction. Bohlert suggests developing a “second naïveté,” which is a term proposed by French philosopher Paul Ricœur, but in the book it is attributed to Marvin Chaney, his professor at  the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley. The idea of second naïveté sounds appealing, but unfortunately does not solve the most important problem of ontology. As Bohlert acknowledges, ‘[t]he existence of God cannot be conclusively proved or disproved […] it comes down to faith […] (p. 76). The epistemological crisis leaves us no other option than faith. Or in other words, one has to make a choice. Bohlert even speaks of ‘the chosen path’ (p. 73). In the glossary, he mentions Pascal’s Wager, i.e. the argument that even if the existence of God could not be proved, one should wager as though God exists, because the benefits of believing in Got outweigh the possible loss. Bohlert, however, does not elaborate on the idea anywhere in the book. What significance can Pascal’s Wager have for devotees of Radha-Krishna? The goal of Gaudiya Vaishnavism is to attain uttama bhakti, which is defined by Rupa Goswami in Bhakti Rasamrita Sindhu (1.1.11) as anyAbhilASita-zUnyam jJAna-karmAdy-anAvRtam anukUlyena kRSNAnuzIlanam, i.e. bhakti should be devoid of all desire other than to serve Krishna. One is supposed to give up all other desires including the desire for liberation (mukti). So there is nothing to get from bhakti. If this is the case, is there any use of Pascal’s Wager? Apparently not. But Bohlert seems to suggest an answer to the question why worship Radha-Krishna. Through the book he propagates raganuga bhakti, or natural devotion, as he calls it, which does not depend on scriptural injunctions but on raga, hankering. Raga itself appears in the heart of the devotee by the mercy of God or an anuragi devotee. As Katha Upanishad (1.2.23) says: yam eSaiva vRNute tena lAbhyaH, ‘He whom the Self chooses, by him the Self can be gained.’ There is apparently nothing we can do. Should this be the way out of the crisis? With this question, however, I have gone further than Bohlert himself argues.

Bohlert addresses many other important questions: renunciation and enjoyment; the dialogue between science and religion (for example, the acceptance of evolution theory); and the practice of raganuga bhakti, which would be more suited for the people of the twenty-first century (for example, he imagines Radha-Krishna as twenty years old cowherd girl and boy, participating in the village community life at day and enjoying in a forest love cottage at night). Bohlert elaborates on these and other issues with varying degree of consistency and depth. Some issues are left unexplained or only suggested. Some are controversial. But, be it as it may, throughout the book one can feel the power of his experience and intuition. It is a sincere, courageous and thought-provoking account of a spiritual journey.

KRISHNA DASA: a Western-educated intellectual and an initiate in Gaudiya Vaishnava Sampradaya trying to understand God, the world, one’s own existence, and their mutual relationships. From his brahmajijnasa, a blog dedicated to the understanding of the ground reality.


One Response to “Krishna Dasa’s Review of Universalist Radha-Krishnaism”

  1. I raise the issue of Pascal’s Wager on page 76 saying: “Agnostics could do well by acting and believing in God-dess because there is nothing to lose and everything to gain following the logic of Pascal’s Wager. We act as if we believe until real belief develops. This is the beginning of devotion . . .”

    Universalist Radha-Krishnaism is addressed to seekers more than those practicing selfless devotion. Rather than emphasizing selflessness, I emphasize seeing our best self interest in devotion to Radha-Krishna that benefits us in both this life and the next. Although practitioners do not seek personal enjoyment, it is an integral part of their devotion. How can one be in an amorous relationship with Radha-Krishna and not enjoy it?