The Place of the Hidden Moon: Erotic Mysticism (Expanded)

Click to order from AmazonThe Place of the Hidden Moon: Erotic Mysticism in the Vaishnava-sahajiya Cult of Bengal, by Edward C. Dimock, Jr.


In her 1989 foreword, Wendy Doniger says:

This is the most reliable and indeed altogether the best book I know on all of the many Indological subjects with which it deals, some of them major topics in Indian religion: the life of the saint Chaitanya, the tradition of the mad Baul singers, the aesthetic theory of rasa, the bhakti tradition of the love of God, the doctrines of Tantrism, the origins of the figure of Radha, and the worship of Krishna. But the elegance and humor are there too, and these are the qualities that make this book the best book I know on spiritual and carnal love (or sacred and profane love) in general, on love in union and love in separation, on the difference between poetic and doctrinal attitudes  to sexual love, and between European and Indian attitudes to sexual love, spiritual love, and the love of God.

Edward Dimock explains:

As Elder Olson says, symbols ‘cause us to entertain ideas remote from, or totally outside of, ordinary experience, by the extension of ideas we already possess.’ The image of human love is, in Olson’s terms, a ‘natural symbol’; for what more apt image could there be in all human experience to express transcendent joy and the silent, unknown place of St. John? Or what more apt image could there be to express the longing of the soul for God than that of the longing of the human lover for the beloved? Or what more apt image to express religious rapture than that of sexual pleasure? (4)

This is the beauty of the symbolism of Radha-Krishna, the Divine Couple, being the highest, purest representation of God-dess. They represent the perfection of erotic love based on classical Indian aesthetics. These aesthetic principles aid the Indian mind’s entrance into Radha-Krishna’s eternal dalliance. However, many of these principles become stumbling blocks for the Western mind. Besides the foreign language, costumes, customs and mannerisms, the acceptance of adulterous love as better than married love is repugnant, even to most modern Indians. It also leads to unwanted social consequences when devotees try to act out this model in their own lives.

The idea of entering into an erotic loving relationship with God-dess is most appealing. The followers of Chaitanya created a compelling mythos in this regard. I humbly rework that mythos so that Radha-Krishna may be seen and accepted as a universal symbol for God-dess in the 21st century.

In Bernard’s image, the soul “desires” to be united with the Christ, and this statement emphasizes that the two are separate. It is this aspect of the image which is most usual to Christian, and I might add to orthodox Vaishnava, poets, although the pain of separation always suggests the joy of union. For love in separation is pure love, spiritual love. How this view came to prevail in Christian poetry is of considerable interest and relevance.

It is De Rougemont’s opinion that, “the condemnation of the flesh, which is now viewed by some as characteristically Christian, is in fact of Manichaean and heretical origin.” (5)

To the orthodox Vaishnavas, as to the troubadours, it is the very longing, the intense desire itself, that is the end; the longing is an act of worship, pleasurable in itself, and giving pleasure to Krishna. . . .

But the sexual image is double edged. It may also be read as suggesting that the ultimate experience of the divine is not in longing for union, but in union itself, that this ultimate experience is the pleasure, raised to the nth degree, of human sexual union. (14)

This longing for union with God-dess is also common to Christian and Sufi mystics. So long as we are in this world, our primary relationship to God-dess is mostly one of separation based on our existential situation. But, the longing for union is almost as sweet and intense as the union itself, and it is what propels us to that union.

According to some texts, man and woman have in them both the divine Krishna and Radha: a woman is female because she has in her a preponderance of Radha; a man is man because he is mostly Krishna. Love between man and woman thus reduplicates in microcosm the love of Radha and Krishna, a love that had both phases, separation and union. (15)

This makes sense from a number of perspectives–spiritual, psychological, social, familial, personal. When a loving couple unites in love, it manifests the love of God-dess and is a foretaste of spiritual bliss. God-dess is within us and indeed is our very self. When we unite the male and female parts of our psyche, we become whole and holy, another taste of bliss. Granting equal status to men and women as partial manifestations of God-dess could help alleviate gender discrimination and dominance. Seeing everyone as a manifestation of God-dess, whom we are in a loving relationship with, could go a long way toward increasing peace and justice in the world.

Separation of lovers and the longing involved in it are called viraha in both Sahajiya and orthodox traditions, and to both, viraha is the way of salvation. For the more intense is viraha, the greater is prema. (17)

Though Radha was a symbol, the poets found in her a real woman also, and their poetry about her love is warm and personal. On the basis of the simple stories of the Bhagavata, the poets built the story of a complicated affair, with all the jealousies and pain, the pique and joy, the angers and satisfactions of human love. (p 20)

The character of Radha was developed according to the aesthetic principles of medieval drama and poetry. They did an excellent job; however, today it is a bit dated and culturally bound. I hate to say it, but much of it seems overly melodramatic and not the kind of relationship I want to be in with God-dess. Just as Shakespeare wrote wonderful plays, still I often prefer a contemporary movie. I present Radha-Krishna in a contemporary Western manner because this mythos has so much to offer, just as Shakespeare’s plays have been adapted as wonderful contemporary movies to reach today’s audience.

That Chaitanya was a religious leader of no ordinary power is quite clear. The revival he inspired encompassed the greater part of the populations of those areas now known as Bengal (both East Pakistan and West Bengal), Orissa, Assam, and Bihar. But the greatest and most inspiring of leaders is perhaps doomed to failure in a climate hostile or indifferent to his ideas and qualities. The time in which Chaitanya lived was ripe. (26)

Very little can be learned of Chaitanya’s early childhood from the writings of the time; stories about him are so interwoven with those of Krishna’s childhood that it is impossible to separate fact from fancy. . . . It is claimed by his biographers that he was a brilliant scholar. Whether or not this is pious exaggeration will probably never be known, for he has left us no writings . . . (30)

He [Chaitanya] died in 1533. The manner of his death is not known. Some say that he was absorbed into the great image of Jagannath, others that he walked into the sea. The least orthodox biography, and probably the most factual one, says that he injured his foot during his frenzied dancing and died from an infection. (31)

The term sahaja literally means ‘easy’ or ‘natural’ and in this meaning the term is applied to a system of worship and belief in which the natural qualities of the senses should be used, not denied or suppressed. (35)

This is what attracts me to the philosophy, these general principles. Universalist Radha-Krishnaism is both easy and natural. Why not model our life here on the eternal life we envision for ourselves, and why not envision an eternal life that can be a model for the life we live here and now. As Joseph Campbell said, eternity is a dimension of here and now. Why not sacramentalize our life here in a holistic, life affirming manner?

Both Tantrics and Sahajiyas believe that man is a microcosm, a miniature universe, both believe in Unity as the guiding principle of this universe, that all duality, even that of the sexes, is falsehood and delusion and that cosmic unity is regained, or represented, by man and woman in sexual union. Both believe in certain types of mental and physical control as the means by which man can know his true nature and relate the human and the divine within himself; both believe that there should be no caste division among worshippers; both are humanistic, and begin with the analysis of the nature of man, and see as the end of man the gaining of the “natural state,” the sahaja, the state of ultimate and blissful unity. (35-36)

Krishna the supreme God of the Vaishnavas is indwelling in man as the divine principle. The nature of Krishna is love and the giving of joy; it is this in man’s nature that is to be realized and experienced. (37)

This reasoning offers a simple and elegant theological rationale. I would reword it as: Radha-Krishna the supreme God-dess indwells in all as the divine principle. The nature of God-dess is love and the giving of joy; it is this in our nature that is to be realized and experienced.

Dimock clearly explains,

the Sahajiyas did not adopt the Vaishnava theology until after it had been developed by the Gosvamins of Vrindavana under the inspiration of Chaitanya. The possibility remains of pre-Chaitanya Sahajiya doctrine influencing both the thought of the Gosvamins and Bengali thought about Chaitanya himself. . . .

Those who have no particular religious ax to grind can hold to a theory of mutual influence: that some of the ideas and concepts, like that of the dual incarnation of Chaitanya, were probably shaped by the already long-existing Sahajiya and re-adopted by the later Vaishnava-sahajiyas after their implications had been worked out by the orthodox theologians; and that, on the other hand, Vaishnavism lent to the Sahajiya the whole of its theological structure . . . (38-39)

The works of the great and irreproachable pillars of Vaishnava orthodoxy, the Gosvamins of Vrindavana, are full of allusions to and quotations from the Tantras and Agamas. In short, there is ample evidence of contact between the Tantric and Vaishnava schools before and during the time of Chaitanya. (43)

That Nityananda was an Avadhuta is unquestionable; he is called so in many places throughout the biographical literature. The Avadhutas (the “pure ones”), says Bagchi were a branch growing from the trunk of Mahayana Buddhism, others being the Natha, Sahajiya, and Baul sects. (47)

Whether because he had affiliation with left-hand Tantric or Sahajiya schools or for some other reason, Nityananda was looked upon a little askance by his companions and contemporaries in Chaitanya’s movement. (50)

What is clear is that historical circumstances were right for Chaitanya to have been influenced by the Sahajiya movement, though he himself was not a Sahajiya. Secondly and more important, two of his companions [Nityanand and Ramanand] were Sahajiyas and were in a position to bring together, both socially and doctrinally, the Sahajiya stream with that of Chaitanya’s Vaishnavism. (67)

Dimock quotes S.K. De,

Each of Chaitanya’s associates and devotees appears to have developed a considerable community of disciples of his own, and taught the cult of bhakti according to the light which each had received in his own way from the Master. (71)

In the early days of the movement, there was a diversity of views and styles of devotion among the various groups with no real coordination between them. The Chaitanya Charitamrita is the text that unified the various groups, but not as an organized religion. It is unfortunate that Chaitanyaism was introduced to the West as an organized religion with rigid beliefs and regimented practices which discouraged personal innovation and interpretation. Universalist Radha-Krishnaism offers an alternative which encourages personalization.

Dimock offers many other informative insights, but I will leave it to the reader to pursue in the book itself. Some of his assertions are controversial, and we may never know just what the historical truth is. Meanwhile, Place of the Hidden Moon certainly helps broaden our understanding of Radha-Krishna devotion.

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