A Post-Modern Revisioning of Radha Krishna Devotion

Ben Reist, my reformed theology professor, said “If a little Buddha rubs off on Jesus, and a little Jesus rubs off on Buddha, so much the better for both of them.” As an eclectic universalist, I firmly believe in the cross pollination of religions as a means of coming to a higher understanding of truth. The number of books available in English and the amount of information on the internet about all sorts of religion and spirituality presents an unparalleled opportunity to create a much broader understanding of God-dess and the means to God-dess. We must realize that all language and human understanding is inadequate. We can never really fully comprehend God-dess, but rather attain glimpses through grace. Each religious/spiritual path contains its own particular view of God-dess from the perspective of their culturally derived realizations.

“Bhaktivinoda envisioned the modern religious thinker as a saragrahi, one able to transcend the limitations of his own religious culture and appreciate the spiritual essence of other religious traditions.”1 My long periods of immersion in Chaitanya Vaishnavism and Christianity as an ordained religious leader along with study and practice of other traditions certainly qualifies me in this regard.

When we go beyond sectarian understandings and take the best of each tradition, we cannot but benefit. The world is so divided, and yet, we are so close. So much of the violence we see has at least religious overtones, and religion seems to divide more than unite. We cannot afford to live like this any longer. We have to learn to see the unifying essentials of all faiths, realizing God-dess is One and we are one family of God-dess.
I use the term God-dess to recognize that the Ground of All Being is both masculine and feminine, the Divine Couple, Radha Krishna whom I choose to worship, and yet, not to limit it to Radha Krishna while not limiting it to the patriarchal image God invokes either. It is also less familiar than the term God and frees us to create new images of God-dess.
My grand-guru Srila Bhaktivinode Thakur, was influenced by Christian and Unitarian thinking, and was a nineteenth century advocate of using the comparative and rational techniques of British orientalism. He saw the progressive revelation of truth. He states, “Essential truth is of two types: original form (svarupam) and in relation to the people who will receive it (sambandikam).”2

This relates to the study of exegesis and hermeneutics, the process of using scholarly techniques to understand what a scriptural passage meant in its earliest setting for the original intended audience, and then using an interpretive process to derive its meaning for the audience being addressed today.

Bhaktivinode realized that there are essential truths in the scriptures, but that they need to be reinterpreted for every new generation, especially when the persons receiving that truth are of a different cultural and religious background. So, maintaining the essential truth of a passage, one applies it differently today than one would have say 500 years ago or even yesterday or from one audience to the next. Each audience calls for a particular, unique performance of the truth according to its understandings and needs. Everyone is at a different stage of spiritual development. Therefore, they need a different word of truth. Martin Luther said, “That may be the word of God for you, but it’s not for me.”

India, especially Vrindaban, is extremely conducive to developing love of Radha Krishna. There is a tremendous amount of cultural support for spiritual life in general, which is quite different from what we find in the West. Radha Krishna devotion is a product of Indian spiritual culture developed over millennia. To most Westerners, it seems quite foreign. Yet some of us are able to bridge the spiritual, cultural divide and appreciate its essential spiritual truths. Some Westerners have even adopted Indian lifestyles and attempt to follow the practices as much like Indians as possible. Such persons also tend to be literalistic, fundamentalists in their perspective. Others, like myself, relish the spiritual essence, live a more Western lifestyle and try to adopt the teachings to Western culture in order to reach a broader audience and not create unnecessary social and cultural disruption.

Bhaktivinode also said, “Progress certainly is the law of nature and there must be corrections and developments with the progress of time.”3 According to process theology, everything is in process, including God-dess who is beyond our understanding and yet our collective and individual understanding of God-dess develops over time. If faith does not grow and develop, it stagnates and dies. Unfortunately, many devotees consider their guru to be a super-human being who has taught an unadulterated, perfect vision of God and the spiritual world that must be transmitted without change regardless of changes in circumstance and understanding. Thus they ask us to believe the unbelievable. They also tend to place the guru on such a high pedestal that no one can ever equal him (these gurus tend to be male) or be qualified to critique his teachings.

Yet Bhaktivinode says, “Liberty then is the principle, which we must consider as the most valuable gift of God. We must not allow ourselves to be led by those who lived and thought before us. We must think for ourselves and try to get further truths which are still undiscovered. In the Bhagavat we have been advised to take the spirit of the shastras and not the words. The Bhagavat is, therefore, a religion of liberty, unmixed truth, and absolute love.”4 I take this seriously, think for myself and read widely. I am not afraid to disagree with Swamiji, Bhaktivinode or even Chaitanya when I see a better path for myself.
In Hindu Encounter with Modernity, a scholarly biography of Srila Bhaktivinode, Shukavak N. Dasa concludes that “if Chaitanya Vaishnavism is going to have a lasting position and positive impact on the West, then it must intellectually move beyond the literalism by which it entered the West and begin to develop new forms of intellectual expressions and perspectives that are a part of the Western intellectual and academic traditions. Bhaktivinoda’s work provides the basis for such a development.”

This is a mission I have been working on for over thirty years. I shed most of the Indian cultural externals of Vaishnavism and maintained the spiritual essence. “Bhaktivinoda’s separation of the phenomenal and the transcendent, along with his implicit distinction between religious faith and belief”5 frees me to experiment with the task of creating a lifestyle where by Westerners can utilize the spiritual practices of Chaitanya Vaishnavism without having to become alienated from Western culture or pursue the life of a renunciate.

“Bhaktivinoda recognized the need for spiritual and cultural adaptation…Bhaktivinoda’s life…provides an excellent example of responsible worldly engagement and Vaisnava practice….If Chaitanya Vaishnavism is to become indigenous to the modern and even Western world, then it must…adapt to conditions of modernity and to the West..”6 It is up to Western devotees of Radha Krishna to make this happen. We should not be imitating Indian dress, social orders, customs and antiquated belief systems.

Bhaktivinoda “approached the transcendent through religious faith rooted in sahaja-samadi, innate religious intuition.”7 This is also my mode of operation. It allows freedom and creativity in the religious realm for new revelations of spiritual truth that are not bound by the past.

“Chaitanya Vaishnavism as it now exists in the West is largely disconnected from the tradition of raganuga-bhakti-sadhana, and for this reason is somewhat alienated from the esoteric depths and spiritual inspiration of its parent movement.” I was initiated into thi
s path of spontaneous devotional service to Radha Krishna by Bhaktivinode’s son and disciple, Lalita Prasad Thakur. This frees me from being overly dependent on rules and regulations that seem to preoccupy so many devotees while enabling me to experience the esoteric spiritual aspects of devotion. Thus, I live a modern, Western life conducive to my spiritual growth. This is what I offer others as well.

I shall now attempt to delineate some of the differences between my understanding and that of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami and his followers using five important questions from The God We Never Knew: Beyond Dogmatic Religion to a More Authentic Contemporary Faith by Marcus Borg as an outline.

1. “Is the religious life focused on this life or the next (and if both, then in what proportion)?”

The way Radha Krishna devotion was introduced to the West was with an emphasis on the next life. My initiating guru, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami (Swamiji), said to me, “You have had so many lifetimes of sense gratification. Why not make an experiment and sacrifice this one life for Krishna and see what is the result?” The understanding he taught us was that this life was of no importance except for the realization of Krishna. Love, wealth, family, prestige, happiness, comfort, etc. are of no importance. All that was important was to follow the guru’s instructions, all the rules and regulations of devotional life he taught us and develop love of Krishna.

I was a twenty year old hippie living in Haight Ashbury when I became his disciple. At the time, I could not imagine living past thirty. I was a serious spiritual seeker willing to do whatever it took to become enlightened. I was living with a young woman, she became his disciple too and he married us. However, Swamiji held up the ideal of being a celibate renunciate as the best lifestyle and discouraged sex within marriage even except for procreation. This led to the breakup of our marriage and my entry into the renounced order of life.

I spent three years in India and considered living there permanently. However, even as a renunciate, I was pressed to do fund-raising and temple construction. My siddha pranali guru, Lalita Prasad Thakur told me to go back to the West and preach. I was invited to go to the Honolulu temple where I would just have to do my devotional practices and preach. I went and got a big new temple donated by the Ford Foundation through Alfred Ford. Swamiji then ordered me to Fiji to start a temple. I had been out of management for sometime and was deep into my spiritual practices. Being thrown back into management and politics was not conducive to my spiritual practices. When I was around 28 I started thinking, “What if I do live a long time. Am I going to go on like this?” I had to make a decision. I went into the hill country for a week to discern a course of action. This led me to return to Honolulu and resign from ISKCON, along with other leaders, my reason being that ISKCON was corrupt and no longer conducive to either my spiritual growth or as a preaching platform. I could no longer recommend that persons follow Swamiji or live in his temples.

I did not lose faith in Radha Krishna however, and since 1974, I have lived a Western lifestyle, giving up most of the cultural externals of the devotional practices as well as the rules and regulations I had been so bound by. I continue to practice the spontaneous style of devotion Lalita Prasad taught me.

At some point I thought, “There must be more of a purpose to this life life than just trying to escape from this material plane to a spiritual plane. There has to be a reason why I’m here no matter how hard I try to transcend. There is work to be done on this plane and lessons to be learned along the way.

The Vedic tradition has a strong emphasis on celibacy and renunciation. There is a basic negative world view. However, there are strands that are more life affirming. Bhaktivinode was a college educated, Assistant District Magistrate and British Indian civil servant most of his life with a wife and fourteen children. Sri Chaitanya said, “Enjoy the material world in a befitting way but do not become attached to it. Within your heart, you should keep yourself very faithful, but externally you may behave like an ordinary person. Thus, Krishna will soon be very pleased and deliver you from the clutches of illusion.”8   It is the internal faithfulness, not external practices that is most important. This passage serves as a model for me.

I have faith in God-dess, Radha Krishna, not in a particular set of dogmas and doctrines, rules and regulations I learned from someone else. The particulars of belief may change over time, and sometimes I choose not to believe in anything so that I may simply see what is. As Bhaktivinode pointed out, belief and faith are different. It is steady faith that is important.

After Chaitanya took vows of renunciation and moved to Puri, he sent Nityananda Prabhu who accompanied him to Puri back to Bengal with instructions to marry so that persons would not think it necessary to be a renunciate in order to serve Radha Krishna. Nityananda married two sisters, one of whom, Sri Jahnava Thakurani is the founder of my line of disciplic succession.

Renounced priests are considered to be the pinnacle of the Vedic social order. However, that social order does not exist in the West. Swamiji introduced it here and his followers try to follow it, but there was no way I could continue living as a renunciate here in the U.S. without the institutional support of ISKCON. Therefore I am married, and while living a fairly renounced life compared to most Americans, I am very much in the world and enjoy the simple pleasures of life to their fullest with no guilt.

Christianity is much more incarnational in its approach to spirituality seeing acts of love and compassion in this world as an important part of the way. I benefited greatly by my involvement in the church for about twenty years. Adopting the professional standards of progressive Christian clergy has allowed me to find a balance between the immanent and transcendent, this world and the next. If we cannot be loving to persons here, how can we love Radha Krishna. If we do not love ourselves, how can we love others? How can we appreciate the next life if we do not appreciate this one?

Chaitanya’s philosophy is “inconcievably one and different.” Unfortunately Swamiji emphasized the difference between the material and spiritual worlds with a dualistic view. I prefer to see the spiritual world as interpenetrating the material world and when we develop spiritual vision, we can see that and act spiritually within this world. That is more life affirming and less dualistic. Is this God-dess given life really meant to just be rejected?

2. Is it about meeting God’s requirements, whether they are many or few? Or about living by grace in a place beyond the dynamic of requirements.

Swamiji taught us that we had to meet many requirements in order to finally be saved by grace because no matter how much we tried we could not attain the spiritual world by our own efforts. He often said, “By the mercy of the spiritual master one receives the benediction of Krishna. Without the grace of the spiritual master, one cannot make any advancement.” Which meant that we had to stay on his good side and do what he told us to do or we were doomed. His requirements covered everything from eating, to passing stool, how we wore our hair, bathing, sex life, etc.. With me, it was also things like raise money and build a skyscraper in Vrindaban, or go to Fiji and start a temple. “It is my order. You must do it.”

After years of studying Swamiji’s books as well as what little writings by Bhaktivinode in English were available at the time, I began to have inklings that there was more to this than just following a bunch of rules and regulations. When I went to Vrindaban, my suspicions were confirmed. I
found out about the path of spontaneous devotional service following in the mood of the residents of the spiritual Vrindaban. This is the natural next stage of devotional practice which following the rules and regulations is supposed to lead to.

However, Swamiji discouraged us from even thinking that we were qualified to follow our heart’s natural spiritual inclinations. We needed to just follow his instructions without question and not read other books than his or go to other teachers. This was not acceptable to me, so I continued to pursue the teachings I was looking for. I secretly went to Lalita Prasad Thakur, the son and disciple of Bhaktivinode Thakur, and he explained everything to me. Bhaktivinode practiced spontaneous devotion, and that is what he taught. His other son, Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati, made many changes and his disciple, Swamiji, changed things even more.

Since 1974, I have been following the path of spontaneous devotion. and not following rules and regulations. I followed rules and regulations for eight years under Swamiji; they did their job, my heart was opened. Whatever spiritual practices I follow, I do so because I want to. I realize that I truly am incapable of effecting my own salvation and am totally dependent on the grace of Radha Krishna which I know is there for me unconditionally.

Krishna says, “All of Me, namely My actual eternal form and My transcendental existence, color, qualities and activities–let all be awakened within you by factual realization, out of My causeless mercy.”9 And, “Abandon all kinds of religion and surrender to me alone. I will free you from all sinful reactions. Do not fear.”10

Bhaktivinode wrote, “The practioners realize that Krishna alone is the object of remembrance, and that He should never be forgotten. They understand that all rules–positive or negative–follow this principle of always remembering and never forgetting the Lord.”11 Also, “When devotees attain the stage of desireless practice in devotion, they can give up dependence on the rules and regulations…When one becomes attached to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, his natural inclination to love is fully absorbed in thoughts of the Lord.”12

3. Does it lead to a preoccupation with our own salvation and goodness (or lack thereof)? Or to liberation from self-preoccupation?

Swamiji’s followers seem extremely preoccupied with their own salvation, following a strict regimen of practices throughout the day. Since the standards are set so high and are so strict and life denying, most feel guilty for not being better devotees. There just is not the cultural support in the West for this sort of lifestyle. Some manage to live up to the standards well enough to feel they attained a higher level of goodness and purity, but then there is still the problem of maintaining that level through strict practice so they do not back slide or fall down as they call it.

Following the spontaneous path, I do not aspire for goodness per se or worry about my salvation. I figure whatever I do is good and God-dess will make up any deficiency. I do sometimes become preoccupied with attaining a mystical spiritual vision right now. Mostly, I try to be of service by sharing my teachings with others and working for peace, justice and the environment.

4. Does it result in an emphasis on righteousness and boundary drawing? Or is the emphasis on compassion and an inclusive social (and even ecological) vision?

My experience in ISKCON, where rules and regulations were the standard, showed a very insular us and them mindset. A purity system, similar to the Jewish purity codes Jesus rejected, was instituted. Interaction with non-devotees was for the purpose of either conversion to the true religion or to relieve them of their funds for the propagation of the true religion. Many of the leaders had an attitude of “chew ‘em up and spit ‘em out” towards devotees who became burned out and/or disillusioned and left the movement. Fresh recruits were readily available in those days. I and others who left with me in protest of the exploitation of devotees within the movement went from being leading devotees to being labeled demons.

Swamiji said we were dogs before we met him, and if we left we would become dogs again. He had a very negative view of Western society. He believed he was bringing real civilization to the West. By creating a strict, Indian lifestyle among his followers he separated them from the rest of society by beliefs, dress, hairstyles, diet and just about every other aspect of life. In this way, he essentially created a cult.

Following the path of spontaneous devotion, I feel I am one of the people in the global community, and I feel moved to work on a systemic level to relieve the suffering of others. I have worked for peace, a living wage for all, an end to poverty, gay rights, holistic health care, alternative energy development, bio-regionalism, protection of the environment and other causes. Rather than setting myself apart from others, I recognize our common humanity and oneness with all things. God-dess unites all.

5. Is it about believing in a supernatural being “out there” or about being in relationship with a sacred reality “right here”?

Radha Krishna are believed to live eternally on a spiritual planet, named Goloka, beyond this material universe. Their lives there are described in elaborate detail including their appearance, dress, associates, pastimes, foods, etc.. Now there are many books available in English describing these things. I read a number of them and find some thoroughly delightful, while some portions I find disturbing due to dysfunctional behavioral descriptions based on ancient Indian social customs and aesthetics. It is this distinctly Indian cultural imprint throughout that makes it difficult for me to accept as a purely literal description of the spiritual world as many devotees manage to do.

Frankly, how can anyone know just what the spiritual world is like or just what God-dess looks like and does? How can words ever adequately describe such things. They are metaphors, myths and symbols that point to that which is beyond human comprehension. This does not mean that they are without meaning and value, but we should not mistake the pointing finger for the moon it is pointing at.

Many devotees would argue that these things were revealed when Radha Krishna incarnated on earth 5,000 years ago and were accurately recorded and handed down through the disciplic succession. Also, Sri Chaitanya and his followers revealed these truths even further only five hundred years ago. I studied how the myth of Jesus was created and developed over the ages. I have seen how A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami has been mythologized. I also studied myth in general and ancient history enough to understand the basics and the limits of human knowledge. A religious, mystical experience is one thing. When it is put into written words, it is something else. I also know that the disciplic succession of Bhaktivedanta Swami is not what it is said to be. He and his guru deviated from the teachings of Bhaktivinode Thakur who they claim as their predessor.

On the other hand, one need not believe in a spiritual world that is “out there.” It is also right here, pervading everything in a different dimension. We can relate to the immanent presence of God-dess right here. When we begin a personal relationship with God-dess in our daily lives, we become self-realized through grace and are able to feel the presence. We do not have to simply believe in God-dess but can know for ourselves. Yet all our knowing is just a glimmer of God-dess’ glory. Do we believe in God-dess or do we believe in a particular set of dogmas, doctrines and writings in old books?

Yet those old books also contain descriptions of a sacred realilty that is “right here.”

“There is no truth superior to me. All rests on me, as pearls strung on a thread.
I am the taste of water, the light of the sun and moon, I am the syllable Om in the Vedas, the sound in ether and ability in human beings. I am the original fragrance of the earth, the radiance in fire. I am the life of all ascetics. I am the seed of all beings, the intelligence of the intelligent, and the power of the powerful. I am the strength of the strong, free of passion and desire, and I am desire that accords with the spirit. The states of goodness, passion, and darkness come from me, and are within me, though I am not in them.”13

“Sri Krishna said, ‘My dear cowherd girls, please know that separation of ourselves is impossible at any time, at any place, or under any circumstances, because I am the all pervading Lord. Just as the elements, earth, water, fire, air and ether, are present in all created things, so I am present within everyone.”14

These passages are not much emphasized, but they and others present a more immanent spiritual presence that we can more readily relate to.

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