Reality, Religion, and Passion

Reality, Religion, and Passion: Indian and Western Approaches in Hans-Georg Gadamer and Rupa Gosvami by Jessica Frazier, 2009, Lexington Books.

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This is one of the most difficult books I have read in a long time due to my lack of a strong background in Western philosophy, and its use of unfamiliar technical philosophical jargon and describing the position of one philosopher using the positions of several other unfamiliar philosophers (especially the first half which deals with Gadamer). It seems to be aimed at an academic audience. Yet I feel it was worth the effort for the insights gained by looking at Rupa Goswami’s teachings in a new light. What are they? Let me explain using some brief excerpts since Jessica Frazier’s language says it better than my paraphrases would.

Philosophically understood, “realism” goes beyond simple thought about reality; it entails self-critical reflection on the very notion of realness. The conditions for realism and a realist debate arise where a thinker or circle of thinkers begin to suspect the possibility of something that is “more” real–even “ultimately” real, above and beyond the self-evident, everyday reality that is merely “there.” (8)
Jessica Frazier mentions “the Socratic virtue of remaining intellectually ‘on the move’ in accordance with the exigencies of context” (33), which is certainly a virtue I practice wholeheartedly–as in venturing into this book.
She says, “it is Gadamer’s Aristotelian affirmation of teleological identity-in-change that will be shown to share important insights with Rupa Gosvami’s cornerstone concept of rasa” (50).
Gadamer picks up on Plato’s Parmenidean portrayal of all things, identities, or unities as being ambiguously one and many, existing and not existing as such simultaneously, pointing to the same ambivalence championed as a solution to the problem of the One and the Many by those Hindu philosophers who “maintain that both identity and difference are true of the relation between the one and the many. (50)
Plato’s principles of the One and the Two seem to abstractly represent Radha-Krishna in his system. Frazier says,
We do not merely have the option of applying a spirit of passion to Being, nor is passion merely interwoven into the Being’s phenomenal fabric; our passions, understood as teleologies, correspond to the teleological essence of all forms and things. This is true for Gadamer much in the way that the world for Rupa Gosvami is explained as form (rupa and prakriti) proliferating through the “dialectical dynamic of love.” (67)
Through the language that Gadamer employs, and through its “fundamental” and “transcendental” character, this model of Being as the flux of unified and divided forms is subtly but surely apotheosised in Gadamer’s philosophy. Here, as in the case of various post-Vedantic schools that arose in India, a holistic, fundamental analysis of existence based on the evidence of sheer phenomena, yields a view of reality that must eschew radical dualism, and locate foundational and divine value in the finite, immanent world.
The fundamental structure of Being as “[ontologically] One and [ontically] Many is what Gadamer discovers in Leibniz in the idea that the monad is itself a universe, reflecting the world within itself. (68)
Universalist Radha-Krishnaism embraces the idea of locating “foundational and divine value in the finite, immanent world” as well as in the transcendental spiritual world. We also see the individual as a microcosm of the macrocosm. Everything is present within us as well as without. While Frazier sees Gadamer and Rupa espousing forms of pantheism, I present similar conclusions using panentheism. I see Frazier’s insights as complementary to my own in an area that has been stagnating due to lack of fresh input.
Frazier continues,
In Gadamer’s case, the implication is that non-finite absolute transcendence is a powerful religious ideal, but a false one, whereas Being as ubiquitous form, energy, telos, indeterminacy, meaning, beauty, and spirit–these are ideals into which we should be happy to assimilate our own identities. It has been written of Rupa Gosvami’s conception of the divine that it is really a “concentrated form of Being”–on a sufficiently attentive hermeneutic reading, the same might be said with regard to Gadamer. (76)
The same might also be said with regard to me.
Rupa Gosvami’s synthesis of Samkhya and Vedanta philosophies yields a metaphysics in which apparent substances such as physical matter are themselves only forms of the one true ultimate substance that is the divine (brahman or Krishna). . . . some of the source texts of Rupa Gosvami’s tradition, such as the Brahmavaivarta Purana, play with the possibility that the proliferation of forms have a more foundational existence than the apparent ubiquity of substance. (80)
Rupa Gosvami never had to defend the idea that consciousness is universally and necessarily present, as it is a tenet discussed and recommended by some of India’s earliest and most authoritative philosophical texts. (81)
Gadamer’s universality of play is universal at all loci in Being and across all micro- and macro-cosmic levels in precisely the same way that the Platonic One and the Many, Hegelian dialectic, and the Caitanya Vaisnava doctrine of “inconceivable difference and non-difference” are universal–since as we will see, they are features of the same logical-phenomenological insight. (81-2)
Frazier explains that Gadamer’s “affirmation of the concerns and character of human experience is shared by Rupa Gosvami, and is crucial to what he sees as a fulfillment of our (human shaped) reality. (99)” She further says, “Rupa Gosvami champions the same passivity–in being saved we become the vehicles of an over-riding passion that is knit into the fabric of reality. We merely ‘incarnate’ the passions of which reality consists. (104)” She continues:
both Gadamer and Rupa Gosvami, who riddles his treatises with verse quotations, draw on poetic examples–to draw us into the proper attitude of engagement, vitality, and listening to everyday life, and to enthuse us into an aesthetic state of immersion and self-forgetting. (110)
Rupa Gosvami’s worldview, which is widely claimed to constitute a dualistic theism, in fact, also formulates truths about the fundamental constitution of reality as form, motion, and teleology, and takes it as the ground of a eudaimonian ethics not merely of self-augmenting vitality, but of focused and intensifying passions. (113)
Frazier says, “Rupa was part of a very well established tradition of what Lipner succinctly calls ‘philosophical theologians.’ (125)” I continue that tradition which she describes as follows:
Rupa Gosvami not only incorporated the work of his predecessors within the philosophical and Vaisnava devotional traditions, as shown by the textual references woven throughout his major works, he also explicitly courted dialogue and friendly debate, harvesting the best insight of contemporary debate on reality and its translation into ethical terms. (133)
Rupa Gosvami was one of those many philosophically sensitive thinkers of his generation who was led to combine religious and philosophical modes of reasoning in sophisticated ways. . . .
In the Gaudiya Vaisnava tradition, . . . the synthesis of passion and reason was a central dynamic in the self-determination of the movement as a philosophically refined branch of bhakti. (136)
As in all “realist” soteriologies of the kind we are examining, including those of Gadamer and Rupa Gosvami, the ultimate human aim is to realise both in thought and action, our true natures as part of Being as a whole. (144)
Rupa lived in a multicultural, multireligious, geographically and socially mobile society in which his own experience had proved scholarship to be a valuable economic, social, and spiritual currency. He was an Indian “Renaissance man,” and in his hands the philosophy of religion was judiciously tempered both by the rigorous demands of contemporary logic on the one hand, and by a devotional readership on the other. . . .
In the same way in which Gadamer is a eudaimonian realist and optimist about ontology and ethics, so too is Rupa Gosvami. . . . Rupa Gosvami’s Hindu optimism stakes out a further postmodern possibility for realist belief, not as a Derridean waiting, nor an uncommitted Gadamerian vitality, but as a transformative, all-consuming passion. (152)
Rupa Gosvami’s bhakti philosophy incorporates the fruits of India’s own “Enlightenment scepticism” into a realistic worldview that draws added strength from the very factors that have had a demoralising influence on religious belief and realism in the West. (159)
He [Rupa] synthesises influences from a wide range of Indian textual sources, schools, disciplines, and religious orientations, while modifying and honing this mixture through extensive discursive engagement with other thinkers of his time. He distilled contemporary theological sources into a newly systematic, consistent, and comprehensive position by means of his own unique analysis of the nature of the divine, and the ultimate goals of human life. (160)
Rupa Gosvami’s earlier writings show that the prolific religious movement that had grown around Krishna already preoccupied his thoughts, and many of the ingredients of his later theological and philosophical thought predate the meeting with Caitanya. (161)
the world view that Rupa inherits combines this emphasis on embodiment, and its implicit humanist affirmation of the conditions of embodied personhood that define human life in the world (often explicitly contrasted with the ascetic practices of renouncers), with its philosophical resources. (162)
While Rupa and his sources were indeed practitioners in the process of (re)creating traditions, they were also syncretic, systematic, and philosophically discerning about their range of influences, and distinctively individualistic in the cast of their theologising. (165)
Rupa Gosvami’s philosophical position grew from Nyaya logical methods, and an engagement with the formal realist paradigms of Vedanta and Samkhya ideas that were prevalent in the Bhagavata Purana and a natural part of current philosophical-theological debate. (166)
As Shrivatsa Gosvami argues, contradicting Steve Rosen’s interpretation, acintybhedabheda is not merely a “supra-rational” concept, but in fact has a firm rational basis in the sophisticated ontological analysis that runs throughout the tradition. (168)
On the Caitanya Vaisnava model, sat-cit-ananda is rather a universal, infinite interrrelational plurality of which we are a part. . . . by Being we always mean consciousness, that consciousness by definition consists of contents in flux following a diachronic intentional structure that relationality is a universal and necessary feature of Being. (172)
The dynamic quality of Being is well established in the model of the divine as ultimate reality. Yet in most cases this necessarily shifting, transient, apparently “non-absolute” facet of the divine is relegated to a secondary status relative to the true, changing agent of change. Yet the Caitanya tradition, following the lead of the Bhagavata Purana, does not accept the thorough-going character of this separation; rather the form, quality, and movement of the world are the true essence of Krishna, as they are the true way to realising the divine ultimate reality. Rupa in particular presses this point through rhetorical strategies in his language and through his depiction of the sense-obsessed gopis as spiritual exemplars. This is precisely the kind of emphatically metaphysical point that is repeatedly obscured in translations of Rupa Gosvami’s works. Hence lines that are filled with philosophical terminology . . . lose their philosophical context when translated according to different interpretative priorities.  (173)
This is a typical mode of expression for Rupa, multifaceted and neatly mixing what we might call theological, metaphysical, and poetic discourses. It is in this way that his philosophy has to be teased out of his writings. (174)
Like every deity, but perhaps preeminently so, Krishna is not only considered to be a divine personality, but is in addition a thematisation of the philosophy of the divine, and also a meta-discourse on the nature of the bhakti mode of worship itself–psychologically, theologically, sociologically, and, of course, metaphysically. (181)
We have seen that Rupa’s main idea, the ontological and soteriological importance of rasa, is a way of enacting the essence of Being. . . . The progressive, dialectically structured movements of love, and of an aesthetic love of love, are intended to be a quantitative and qualitative augmentation of Being itself. (182)
Everywhere, in Caitanya Vaisnava literature as in its practice, the marks of a type of pantheism are evident. God does not dwell in objects as an obscured hermetic essence–purely purusa, “spirit” seeking to escape the impurities of prakrti, “matter,” “form”–but rather is enacted, augmented, and instantiated in the dialectical movement that is the existence of each entity. (189)
Krishna is entranced by his own divinity dialectically coming to light in the world. In the Uddhava Sandesa he is portrayed as the exemplary devotee, as full of weakness, excitement, and imaginal yearning as are his consorts and worshipers. Much is made of the theological twist whereby Krishna becomes the devotee to Radha’s deity. But we must see this too as yet another manifestation of his essential nature–dialectically taken up into the fundamental ontology of rasa. (190)
In a more dualistic context we would say that rasa is why the world was created, but here we can say that it is what the world is. We can understand rasa as the eternal third term of all dialectic, a concept of synthesis and relation personified by Radha. As this third term of the dialectic, love itself transcends Krishna as lover and object of love, and takes priority, which is why the haladini shakti, his power of enjoyment, is said to be his true nature. (191)
For Rupa, religious belief is on a continuum with our everyday truths and processes of reasoning, because it is derived from transcendental metaphysical truths that pervade them. . . .
Rupa Gosvami’s works stand within a discourse of radical questioning, which has centuries of precedent and arguably a greater range and depth of interrogation in India than in the tempest of modern Western debates. (194)
As is so widely noted, Krishna’s role in this theology is almost diametrically opposed to his message in the Bhagavad Gita, in which he features as the paradigmatic advocate of order, duty, and detachment. (200)
Here we have an image of a god who does indeed need and desire; who “flounders” rather than acts; who is involved essentially and purposefully in the world order, caught up by phenomena rather than merely on display in them. His actions are serious. He is fettered and conditioned by his love. Above all, he is helplessly engaged in a loving activity in separation from his beloved that is intrinsically unsatisfying. And these experiences, as Rupa Gosvami’s literature shows, are mirrored in those of humanity. (206)
Rupa’s texts form a post-sceptical, dialogical discourse in that they allow those who suffer to voice the theological doubts of the reader who sees little to celebrate in a world consisting of attachment to elusive, finite, and situationally circumscribed phenomenal objects: a life of necessary dissatisfaction. But in so doing they intuitively demand a justification or theodicy of the suffering caused by this religious mode that he so eloquently champions. (208)
In Rupa’s literary portrayals of viraha, separation is not primarily a theological gap that must be bridged by some soteriological device such as grace. It is an ontological mode of particular being, and a mode of general Being. (213)
Radha, who has theological connections with prakriti and Krishna’s power of creation, suffers her separation from Krishna as a sort of sublimation of creation’s continuous birthpangs–a pain in which we all share. She is herself a symbol of realist approaches to the world, for what she does (as devotional exemplar) is never separate from what she is (as the ultimate truth of existence). (215-16)
Rupa is concerned that we become galvanised, and he is clear that those who feel less than profound passion in their everyday activities are treading a lower path. (220)
Having dealt with the Caitanya bhakti, Vedic, and Vaisnava reasons for Radha’s importance, he [Rupa] shifts into the discourse of puranic Samkhya by pointing out that as the hladini-shakti, she is the best and the truest form of all the great shaktis of Krishna. Here he is restating explicitly what has been said previously in the text and elsewhere in his works: all powers or energies are really the power of hlad–enjoyment, gladness, exhilaration, and delight. (225-6)
Here is one of Jessica Frazier’s most important insights which corresponds to my own and which I feel is very important for the revitalization of Radha-Krishna devotion in the contemporary Western context:
Thus it is important to note the theological point embedded in the devotional exaltation of enjoyment–it is not that enjoyment is the best way to worship Krishna, nor that it is his most characteristic quality, nor even that it is his best. It is that he himself is the quality of enjoyment. Only in enjoyment, in experiencing or “tasting’ him, can we both be and see him.
If Being is enjoyment then we can enjoy as much as we like, wherever and whenever we like, indiscriminately and without prejudice as to the object of our desire. But if it is also attachment, directedness, telos, then this too must be exemplified in an appropriate attitude to our object(s) of desire. (226-7)
She further explains:
In many respects, while this study aims to draw limited but instructive parallels between Rupa Gosvami’s and Gadamer’s positions, it often seems that Rupa Gosvami’s insights are the more critically modern of the two; his optimism resonates with that of many of Gadamer’s contemporaries and successors. He displays an eagerness to affirm the validity and importance–indeed, the ontological importance–of emotion as our epistemological guide to the centrality of value in ontology. (230)
Again and again, this study has used the term “realism” in the sense of a perspective that locates the highest value, and the foundation for all other knowledge and action, in the correct apprehension of ultimate reality. Here we see a religious expression that is too easily identified as “devotional” without acknowledging the concurrent “philosophical” dimension of such religiosity. Krishna speaks simultaneously as deity and ultimate reality. (233)
Radha is an exemplary model of Tillich’s classic definition: “Religion is the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern, a concern which qualifies all other concerns as preliminary and which itself contains the answer to the question of the meaning of our life.” Rupa describes the experience of being impassioned and possessed by a religious ”reality,” reminding us of a neglected cornerstone of realist religious experience. (234)
Frazier concludes:
Radha’s reason then is a “passionate reason” leading her to choose, on rational as well as purely involuntary, instinctive, and psychological grounds, to be guided by her passions. Her courageous choice to abandon freedom, a blank plain on which no values can be found, for an unending pilgrimage through the rich topography of the passions, is the “choice” that Being has already made, and it is a path that, for Rupa, it is our most fitting destiny to follow. (236)
It shows us that truth is not elsewhere, eluding capture by our falsifiable beliefs and metaphors. Rather, it dwells in our existence and must be captured according to our own particular, problematic, phenomenal way of knowing and acting. (243)
Indian philosophy has, from its earliest periods and throughout its history, incorporated sophisticated arguments for varieties of scepticism, nihilism, and relativism. Recognition of this rights a longstanding prejudice regarding the supposed credulity and lack of complexity in Indian thought. . . . Rupa Gosvami was part of a fruitful contemporary dialogue exploring particularly sophisticated, self-reflective versions of these debates, and his theology is founded on a particularly rigorous understanding of the wholesale finitude, relativity, ontological unity, mutual constitution, relationality, and innately teleological, prejudicial, or passionate character of Being. (244)
I hope this summary through highlights from the book encourages my philosophically minded friends to continue the discussion initiated by Jessica Frazier, a welcome fresh, new voice in the field of Chaitanyaism. It is available here from
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2 Responses to “Reality, Religion, and Passion”

  1. Zvonimir Tosic says:

    Thank you for posting this Steve. Jessica has made many wonderful insights in her book. At times she’s overly optimistic in her conclusions, and perhaps stretches the conclusions; I sincerely doubt something she proposes could’ve been imagined and comprehended back then in Rupa’s time. If that was true, we’d been able to see a thesis like this one long ago and things going different directions. But we’re only doing it now, and is not easy at all.
    However, she could’ve said all that using much simpler language and metaphors, though. Philosophy is life, and is not that difficult to explain the crux of it in simpler words. However, it’s inspiring. We need more books in this genre.

  2. I agree. It is good to find allies in the struggle.