Universalist Radha-Krishnaism–An Axial Perspective

Rereading The Great Transformation: The Beginning of our Religious Traditions by Karen Armstrong, I saw an affinity between Universalist Radha-Krishnaism and those great ancient traditions. She writes about what “Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age because it was pivotal to the spiritual development of humanity. From about 900 to 200 BCE, in four distinct regions, the great world traditions that have continued to nourish humanity came into being: Confucianism and Daoism in China; Hinduism and Buddhism in India; monotheism in Israel; and philosophical rationalism in Greece. (xii)” Universalist Radha-Krishnaism is an eclectic spiritual path that draws inspiration from these deep ancient wellsprings of spirituality. I shall point out some important correspondences.

The Axial sages and I believe people should not “take any religious teaching on faith or at second hand. It was essential to question everything and to test any teaching empirically, against your personal experience. (xiii)” It does not matter as much what you believe as how you act and thereby change on a profound level. Living a compassionate life is the way to realize the divine. “All the sages preached a spirituality of empathy and compassion; they insisted that people must abandon their egotism and greed, their violence and unkindness. (xiv)” Everyone and everything is a manifestation of the divine endowed with sacred rights that we need to respect.

Followers of the Way of Natural Devotion live engaged in the world working on local and global issues for the common good. We act with kindness and generosity to relieve suffering and spread love. Love of neighbor and love of God-dess go hand-in-hand. God-dess is the ground of being and essence of all things–not a distant high god disinterested in the human predicament. Our life is an imperfect reflection of life in the spiritual world, and devotional practitioners work to increase the harmony between them. We combine the Axial vision of universal concern with the best insights of today in a dynamic spiritual unfolding of our inner and outward being.

“Renouncers were among the first to achieve the internalization of religion that was one of the hallmarks of the Axial Age. (123)” When I was a renouncer, I learned the practice of natural devotion as an internal process independent of external practice. It can be practiced in any circumstance, but some are more conducive than others. I see no reason to be a renouncer. I believe in living in the world, but not being of it–just passing through.

“In the Upanishads, a group of mystics embarked on the peaceful conquest of inner space. This marked a major step forward in religious history. (125)” I believe Radha-Krishna, Braj, and everything else exist in my consciousness. By leading a contemplative life and going within, spiritual realization takes place on an intuitive level.

“Now, the Chandogya Upanishad made this single syllable stand for all sound and for the entire cosmos. Om was the essence of everything that existed–of the sun, moon, and stars. It was the brahman in form of sound, the vital power that held everything together: ‘As all leaves are held together by a stalk, so all speech is held together by Om. Verily, the whole world is nothing but Om.’ (126)” Om is the primary mantra I chant internally as an ongoing spiritual focus.

“But life was changing, and this meant that some people needed to find a spirituality to meet their altered circumstances. (127)” This was true in the seventh century BCE just as it is true today. Universalist Radha-Krishnaism presents an Axial based spirituality relevant to the twenty-first century.

“The new ideas may originally have been developed by Brahmin priests, but kshatriyas and kings also took part in the debates and discussions, as did women–notably Gargi Vacaknavi an Mitreyi, Yajnavalkya’s wife. Both women seem to have been accepted by the other contestants in the brahmodya, and their contributions were included by the editors as a matter of course. (128)” Universalist Radha-Krishnaism accepts women as equal to men. We are followers of the great Jahnava Thakurani who founded our line.

“Like all the Upanishadic sages, Yajnavalkya was convinced that there was, as it were, an immortal spark at the core of the human person, which participated–was of the same nature as–the immortal brahman that sustained and gave life to the entire cosmos. This was a discovery of immense importance and it would become a central insight in every major religious tradition. The ultimate reality was an immanent presence in every single human being. (128)” Natural devotion leads to the direct realization of that spiritual spark in direct relation to God-dess.

“By disciplined introspection, the sages of the Axial Age were awakening to the vast reaches of selfhood that lay beneath the surface of their minds. They were becoming fully ‘self-conscious.’ (130)” Natural devotion is an introspective process to realize the self in relationship with Radha-Krishna. “Enlightened persons would discover within themselves the means of rising above the world; they would experience transcendence by plumbing the mysteries of their own nature. (131)”

“Samkhya was really a development of the traditional, archetypal vision of the perennial philosophy. People had always yearned to lose themselves in a celestial model, but Samkhya told them that this was not an external reality but existed within. They would not find the absolute by imitating a god, but by awakening to their most authentic self. The archetype did not exist in a remote, mythical realm but was inherent in the individual. (194)”

The practice of natural devotion is an internal process of entering the archetypal world of Braj where we interact with Radha-Krishna and their friends as one of them. The identity assumed in that world should conform to the practitioner’s authentic individual spiritual self and unique way of pleasing Radha-Krishna.

“In pranayama . . . the yogin learned to breathe more and more slowly. His aim was to pause for as long as possible between exhalation and inhalation, . . . . His heart rate slowed down . . . ; and yet, once he had become adept at pranayama, he experienced a new kind of life. This controlled respiration . . . has been shown to have physical and neurological effects. It produces a sensation of calm, harmony, and equanimity, said to be comparable to the effect of music. There was a feeling of grandeur, expansiveness, and nobility–a sense of presence. (197-8)” I practice this type of breathing and get similar results, which combined with chanting Om, other mantras, and/or remembering Radha-Krishna’s pastimes produce a good meditative state.

“Yogins were convinced that they were simply developing the natural capacity of the human person. . . . They had discovered a new dimension of their humanity. This transcendence was not an encounter with an external deity ‘out there,’ but a descent into the depths of their own being. (198)” Similarly, natural devotion is an innate capacity capable of taking us to the spiritual realm of Radha-Krishna within and delivering us there eternally when we die to this life.

Nibbana was thus found within each person’s inner being, and was an entirely natural state. It was a still center that gave meaning to life. People who lost touch with this quiet place within could fall apart, but once they had learned to access this oasis of calm, they were no longer driven hither and yon by conflicting fears and desires, and discovered a strength that came from being correctly centered, beyond the reach of selfishness. (281)” I found such a still place within myself and that is where I live. I encourage my students to find such a place within themselves. Try to stay centered there, and if you stray simply return and practice stilling the mind.

“The search for a place apart, separate from the world, and yet wondrously within it, that is impartial, utterly fair, calm, and that fills us with a confidence that, against all odds, there is value in our lives, was what many people in the Axial Age sought when they looked for God, brahman, or nibbana. (287)” Many contemporary people seek the same things, and Universalist Radha-Krishnaism offers a practical way to attain them.

“The brahman, Uddalaka explained, was the sap that was in every part of the tree and gave it life. It was, therefore, the atman of the tree, as it was the atman of every single human being; all things shared the same essence. But most people did not understand this. (135)” Today, most people still do not understand this. God-dess is all in all. Everything is of the same essence and to be respected as parts of the divine. The well being of the individual is connected to the well being of all.

“A religious revolution was afoot. People who felt excluded from the abstruse mysticism of the Upanishads and the world-renouncing ascetics were beginning to create a spirituality that suited their way of life. They wanted to participate in the insights of the Axial Age, but needed a less abstract and more emotive religion.  So they developed the notion of bhakti (‘devotion’) to a deity who loved and cared for his worshipers. The central act of bhakti was self-surrender. (361)”

A religious revolution has been taking place in my lifetime too. I rode its cutting-edge experiencing its transformation, which taught me to create the innovative Universalist Radha-Krishnaism, which presents Radha-Krishna devotion adjusted for contemporary Western seekers’ consciousness and lifestyle. It balances a rational theological framework with emotive devotion to produce a holistic spirituality. When practitioners surrender their lives to Radha-Krishna, the Divine Couple lovingly guide the devotee to them.

“Krishna had the difficult job of countering the arguments of the Jains, the Buddhists, and those ascetics who believed that all worldly action was incompatible with liberation. But this meant that the vast majority had no hope of salvation. Arjuna had put his finger on a major flaw of the Indian Axial Age. Krishna wanted him to consider the problem from a different perspective, but instead of proposing a wholly new teaching that canceled out the other schools, he attempted a new synthesis of the old spiritual disciplines with the new concept of bhakti. (363)”

I similarly use the building blocks of various old spiritualities to create a new synthesis for the common lay person who has to work in the world and deal with its corruption without being corrupted. Natural devotion is compatible with a busy modern lifestyle as well as a quiet contemplative one. Different stages of life place different necessities upon us. Natural devotion can be adapted to any situation and is meant to be gradually developed throughout life. Practitioners learn to act without egocentric selfishness but with complete self-surrender to Radha-Krishna and do everything for their pleasure.

“Later, during the Axial Age, hermits would retire to the forest to pioneer the spiritual realm. (17)” Seven years ago, I left an activist urban ministry and retired to the Hawaiian rainforest to live a hermitic life–a longtime goal of mine. It aids me in developing and practicing Universalist Radha-Krishnaism. However, natural devotion can be practiced anywhere. My life has ebbed and flowed between city and country.

“Others wanted nothing whatever to do with this brave new world and retired to the forests. Hermits had been opting out of city life for some time; Confucius had met some of these anchorites, who had ridiculed his attempts to reform society. These solitaries were nothing like the renouncers of India. They simply wanted a quiet life. Some took the high moral ground, however, speaking in a ‘critical and disparaging’ way about the current state of affairs. (290)”

When Bush was reelected in 2004, I saw fascism growing and economic collapse approaching. I feel the U.S. government has become unresponsive to the voice of the people and is unreformable. I still keep informed of national and world issues and work on local issues where we had some small successes. I find being a married hermit living in our pleasant jungle home engaged with the local community while reaching out to the wider community on the internet most conducive to my devotional practice at this time. In the secluded comfort of my home without need of artificial renunciation or austerities, I create my eternal spiritual identity in Braj as I reimagine it.

“Zhuangzi’s enlightenment was different from the Buddha’s; it did not seem to have happened once and for all time. He could not walk around in a perpetual trance; there were times when he had to analyze things and make distinctions in order to function in normal life. Sometimes he was ‘with Heaven,’ and at other times he was ‘one with humanity.’ But at the heart of his life, he felt at peace with the Way, the ‘root’ or ‘seed’ from which all things grow and the axis around which they revolved. (301)” I feel this description could also apply to me. I lived a full life with twists and turns, ups and downs, but always remained true to myself and the way of natural devotion. I am at peace with myself and God-dess.

“Mencius believed that human nature was basically good–that it inclined to ren spontaneously. . . . Mencius argued that it was as natural for us to behave morally as it was for our bodies to develop into a mature human form. We could stunt both our physical and moral growth by bad habits, but the instinctive tendency toward goodness remained. (303)” I believe humans are born good in the image of Radha-Krishna, but due to genetics, karma, family and social conditions, etc., people’s nature often becomes distorted. They join with other misguided ego driven people to destroy the natural goodness of earth and the life it nurtures. However, the individual spirit always remains pure and good. Natural devotion is a purification process for the spirit to restore its innate goodness. Unfortunately, most people are not inclined to serious spiritual renewal.

“The Golden Rule was crucial. This was the virtue that made the junzi truly humane, and brought the individual into a mystical relationship with the entire universe. ‘All the ten thousand things are there in me,’ Mencius said in one of his most important instructions. ‘There is no greater joy for me than to find, on self-examination, that I am true to myself. Try your best to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself, and you will find that this is the shortest way to benevolence [ren].’ By behaving as though other people were as important as yourself, you could experience an ecstatic unity with all things. (306)” This is integral to Axial paths and Universalist Radha-Krishnaism.

“In placing the Way at the center of his vision, Laozi emphasized the fluidity of the spiritual life; the goal was hidden and inaccessible, and the path always had a fresh twist or turn, constantly urged us further, at the same time as it receded into the distance. (343)” I similarly call my path the Way of Natural Devotion because we cannot blindly follow those who went before us, but are called to find our own way based on our unique innate inclinations and circumstance.

“The Chinese had absorbed an important lesson of the Axial Age. They knew that no school could possibly have the monopoly on truth, because the dao was transcendent and indescribable. (371)” I use a pluralistic, relativistic approach to truth for this reason. It gives me a broad universalist perspective rather than a narrow sectarian one. I embrace truth wherever I can find it, and as you can see, it forms a gestalt.

“The Chinese understood that nobody had the last word on truth; no orthodoxy, however august, could claim anybody’s entire allegiance. Respect for others’ opinions was more important than achieving a single, infallible vision. . . . It is generally acknowledged that each faith has its proper sphere–an Axial attitude that is sorely needed in our own time. (372-3)”

“[I]n his writing he [Plato] also preserved the ancient methods of oral transmission, which recognized that truth could not be imparted by a simple recitation of facts, but demanded intuition, aesthetic insight, and imagination as well as empirical observation and disciplined logic. (315)” I agree and use these talents in the development and practice of Universalist Radha-Krishnaism.

“A form or idea was an archetype, the original pattern that gave each particular entity its distinctive shape and condition. Plato’s philosophical notion can be seen as a rationalized and internalized expression of the ancient perennial philosophy in which every earthly object or experience has its counterpart in the divine sphere. This perception had been crucial to pre-Axial religion, so Plato’s idea of a world of absolutes that were imperfectly represented in the mundane sphere would have seemed less strange to his contemporaries than to a modern reader. The forms manifested themselves in the world of time, but they were superior, numinous, and timeless. They gave shape to our lives but transcended them. (316)” I employ this type of thought to understand the relationship between Braj, Radha-Krishna, this world, and us. Karl Jung and Joseph Campbell also developed these ideas in the modern era.

“The realm of the forms was thus primary, and our material world was secondary and derivative, just as, in the perennial philosophy, the celestial sphere was superior and more enduring than the mundane. The forms had an intensity of reality that transitory phenomena could not possess. When we glimpsed the form that was imperfectly revealed in a person, an action, or an object, we saw its hidden essence and encountered a level of being that was more authentic than its earthly manifestation. (317)”

This agrees with Universalist Radha-Krishnaism and my devotional practice. For example, I see a beautiful young woman, and I think, “Ah! There’s Radha.” I read the dawn meditation on Radha-Krishna’s pastimes then walk around the neighborhood in the early morning light thinking I am with them in Braj as I mentally chant mantras. My inner and outer lives harmonize and complement one another.

“Each soul (psyche) had been born many times, Plato’s Socrates explained, ‘and has seen all things here and in the underworld. There is nothing which it has not learned, so it is in no way surprising that it can recollect the things it knew before, both about virtue and other things . . . because searching and learning are, as a whole, recollection.’ (318)” I had glimpses of past lives and feel I have been born many times. I think I spent the first twenty-nine years of my life relearning what I knew in my past life and the next thirty-seven years learning and doing the things of this life.

“Plato shared the conviction of many Axial philosophers that there was a dimension of reality that transcended our normal experience but that was accessible to us and natural to our humanity. (318)” This transcendental realm is Radha-Krishna’s Braj, and Universalist Radha-Krishnaism teaches practitioners how to get there naturally.

“Plato made Socrates describe the quest as a love affair that grasped the seeker’s entire being, until he achieved an ekstasis that took him beyond normal perception. (318)” This is completely harmonious with the way of natural devotion where the seeker becomes a lover of Radha-Krishna and experiences transcendental bliss.

I agree with “the main thrust of the Axial Age, which has insisted that the ultimate reality was ineffable, indescribable, and incomprehensible–and yet something that human beings could experience, though not by reason. (330)” The ultimate must necessarily be incomprehensible to us who are minute parts of an infinite One who encompasses all things and is more than the sum of its parts. I accept provisional, working hypotheses knowing that when I leave this mortal body, and meet God-dess face-to-face, he-she will be more than I ever imagined. One of the benefits of drinking from varied faith streams is to get a broader non-sectarian view of the divine.

“Axial faiths share an ideal of sympathy, respect, and universal concern. The sages were all living in violent societies like our own. What they created was a spiritual technology that utilized natural human energies to counter this aggression. (390)” Universalist Radha-Krishnaism shares these ideals and encourages practitioners to be role models and activists working for the common good with others. The diverse spiritual paths need to unite to transform the way people relate and eliminate the use of violence and coercion. Only a spiritual transformation that encompasses a major paradigm shift by most people can change the perpetual cycle of violence that is destroying the earth.

“The fact that they all came up with such profoundly similar solutions by so many different routes suggests that they had indeed discovered something important about the way human beings worked. (391)” There is abundant evidence to support the validity of the spiritual quest despite the objections of materialistic atheists. There is an inborn spiritual yearning in people that various paths developed the means for satisfying, which have been tested over millennia. I spent my life traveling those paths and present their spiritual kernel in Universalist Radha-Krishnaism.

“The Axial sages were not timid about questioning fundamental assumptions, and as we face the problems of our time, we need to have a mind that is constantly open to new ideas. (396)” I questioned the fundamentals of my beliefs retaining those with lasting value and leaving the rest. If someone can show me my assumption is wrong, I’ll gladly consider their alternative and adjust accordingly. My students best approach natural devotion with open minds unbound by previous limiting conceptions. Universalist Radha-Krishnaism is new–not simply a rehash of the old.

“We now have to develop a global consciousness, because, whether we like it or not, we live in one world. Even though our problem is different from that of the Axial sages, they can still help us. They did not jettison the insights of the old religion, but deepened and extended them. In the same way, we should develop the insights of the Axial Age. (397)” This is the aim of my writings and teachings.

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