12 August 2004
Crucifixion of the Logos
My "Search and Destroy" of Chapter 5 of
Hindu Encounter with Modernity
by Shukavak N. Dasa
Hindu Encounter with Modernity was published five years ago. I purchased a volume at that time but only got through about half of it. No, it is no coincidence that the chapter I am dealing with today is midway through the book. It was after I read this portion that I stopped reading more.
A few days ago I came across this statement--
Waves of Devotion, along with Sukavaka's Hindu Encounter were potentially the most effective books that circulated widely within ISKCON for the past few years.
--which was posted to a website that attracts self-proclaimed Gaudiya Vaisnava intellectuals, many of whom are former members of ISKCON. I could not make out what the writer of this post exactly intended by the word "effective." Someone else on that site asked him to explain that, but he did not answer to the point. My guess is, he means something like "effective in provoking the kind of mental speculation that could lead the ISKCON readers of Hindu Encounter with Modernity to become like us", i.e. to become self-proclaimed Gaudiya Vaisnava intellectuals formerly of ISKCON. After reading this post, I decided to go back and write something about Hindu Encounter with Modernity, in particular Chapter 5 which I believe is the most "effective" of the whole book (again, "effective" according to the outlook of those who flock to the website I am referring to).
Let me establish right away why I titled this essay Crucifixion of the Logos. On the same website I found praise of Mel Gibson's recent blockbuster movie The Passion of the Christ. You see, not only are the participants of the site self-proclaimed intellectuals, they are self-proclaimed raganuga-bhaktas. In the discerning opinion of some of the leaders of this flock of intellectual Gaudiyas, Mel Gibson's film succeeds in immersing its audience in divine sakhya-rasa. Well, well, well. I found irony in the fact that St. John (shown in the film following Jesus's torturous way up to Golgotha) declares in his Gospel of the New Testament that Jesus is the logos (the Word of God) incarnate. The Passion of the Christ is about one thing: how the intellectuals of Jerusalem, the scribes and the Pharisees, conspired to have the word of God incarnate scourged and hung to die upon the cross.
Let us see what this has to do with Chapter 5 of Hindu Encounter with Modernity.
The chapter, covering pages 119 to 151, is entitled "Reason and Religious Faith". It is divided into sections with headings like "A Crisis in Faith", "The Rationalism of Bankim Candra", "Bhaktivinoda and British Orientalism", "Three Kinds of Spiritual Seekers", and "Two Modes of Religious Understanding". The focus of the chapter is a work by Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura called Sri Krsna-samhita, which he wrote in 1879. Shukavak N. Dasa explains that Srila Bhaktivinoda wrote this book for the bhadraloka, the educated class of Bengal which in the nineteenth century was steeped in rationalism and thus was disinclined to a simple, faithful approach to religious topics. The Thakura's purpose was to explain Krsna to the bhadraloka according to adhunika-vada, "the modern approach" which incorporated ideas from British Orientalism (the forerunner of what is known today as Indology).
My comment at this point is that Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura undertook a very grave mission of mercy in writing Sri Krsna-samhita. His transcendental son, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, used to say, Vaisnava saralata atva, "the essence of a Vaisnava is simplicity." The bhadraloka of the nineteenth century had strayed very far from that essence. Sadhu guru mahajana patita-pavana kapata-pavava noi, it is said: "The sadhus, the spiritual master, and great personalities like Lords Gaura-Nitai, come to deliver the fallen, yet they are not deliverers of crooked (kapatya) persons." The word kapatya is an opposite of the word saralata (simple). Thus it means "to make unnecessarily complicated." In this way the bhadraloka of Bhaktivinoda Thakura's time had become worse than fallen. Due to imbibing foreign ideas, these sophisticated upper-class Bengalis had become too crooked in their thinking. Anything religious, any item of simple faith, they felt obliged to deconstruct and reassemble according to the zigs and the zags of prevailing rationalist-materialist speculations. It was beneath their station, so they believed, to simply accept religion "as it is." That was for the villagers to do, not the sophisticates. Seeing the bhakdraloka so shut off from the mercy of Caitanya Mahaprabhu, Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura compassionately composed his Sri Krsna-samhita for their deliverance.
On page 136 of Chapter 5, Shukavak summarizes:
In other words, Bhaktivinoda is saying: My fellow bhadraloka, your minds are trained to accept the conclusions of rational analysis fashioned with the tools of modern scholarship, so we shall employ these tools to examine our religious traditions.
On page 128 he characterizes rational analysis a crude tool. On page 140 he points out that by today's scholarly standards the historiography Bhaktivinoda Thakura used to make the Hindu religious tradition seem rational to the bhadraloka is completely out of date.
So far I have no objection.
But then in the section subheaded "Two Modes of Religious Understanding", Shukavak trots out an argument that the adhunika-vada (the modern approach) is to be employed today.
The Krsna-samhita is as much a statement about the relationship between reason and religious faith as it is a study of the life of Sri Krsna and a summary of India's religious history. It is Bhaktivinoda's unique blend of these components that gives his synthesis of modernity and tradition its extraordinary utility even today, perhaps also beyond the realm of Caitanya Vaisnavism.
[From page 146; I have italicized the phrase "its extraordinary utility..." to emphasize the author's intent.]
If ever there was one, this is a logical non sequitur. It is admitted that 125 years ago Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura wrote a book he aimed at a specific section of people. Obviously, this section of people is no longer with us. Nor is the specific form of rationalism still with us that this section embraced. Rational analysis in general is admitted to be a crude tool. Yet suddenly--tah dah!--the synthesis of modern rationalism and ancient tradition is proclaimed to have extraordinary utility even today.
Is it that Shukavak can say this because he is a learned disciple of Srila Prabhupada who took the trouble to earn a PhD at a Western university?
Although one may be well versed in the transcendental science, one should be careful about the offense of maryada-vyatikrama, or impertinently surpassing a greater personality. According to scriptural injunction one should be very careful of transgressing the law of maryada-vyatikrama because by so doing one loses his duration of life, his opulence, fame and piety and the blessings of all the world.
The offense so described is relavent here for the reason that unless Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura can be shown to have specifically requested his disciples, grand-disciples, and great-grand-disciples to synthesize modernity with scriptural tradition, then one who claims he is authorized to do so by the Thakura's writings is being impertinent. Certainly we get from Srila Prabhupada no green light for adjusting sastra to the theories of modern scholarship. But Prabhupada, in the opinion of the intellectual crowd, is way too conservative.
So then let's take a step back in the parampara, to Srila Bhaktisiddhanata Sarasvati Thakura. From birth he was trained in Krsna consciousness by Srila Bhaktivinoda. About those who synthesize modern theories with the sastric tradition, he has this to say.
The writings of Thakura Bhaktivinoda provided the golden bridge by which the mental speculationists can safely cross the raging waters of fruitless empiric controversies that trouble the peace of those who choose to trust in their guidance for finding the truth. As soon as the sympathetic reader is in position to appreciate the sterling quality of Thakura Bhaktivinoda's philosophy, the entire vista of the revealed literature of the world will automatically open out to his reclaimed vision.
There have, however, already arisen serious misunderstandings regarding the proper interpretation of the life and teachings of Srila Thakura Bhaktivinoda. Those who suppose they understand the meaning of his message without securing the guiding grace of the acharya are disposed to unduly favor the method of empiric study of his writings. There are persons who have got by heart almost everything that he wrote without being able to catch the least particle of his meaning. Such study cannot benefit those who are not prepared to act up to the instructions lucidly conveyed by his words. There is no honest chance of missing the warnings of Thakura Bhaktivinoda. Those, therefore, who are misled by the perusal of his writings are led astray by their own obstinate perversity in sticking to the empiric course which they prefer to cherish against his explicit warnings. Let these unfortunate persons look more carefully into their own hearts for the cause of their misfortunes.
[For the entire essay of Srila Sarasvati Thakura, see In2-MeC 20 June]
Shukavak argues his conviction on pages 140-142. He is authorized by Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura to pursue the rational-empirical approach to sastra. "In fact, on two separate occasions he [Bhaktivinoda] encourages subsequent intellectuals to continue the study of Vedic history and geography using the adhunika-vada." Two untranslated Bengali citations are given in a footnote.
Wow. With these two Bengali sentences, we see the Thakura as, like, reaching across space and time, and right over the guru-parampara in between, to a Western-educated devotee of year 2004, authorizing him or her to engage in (I quote Shukavak on page 145) "human speculation and interpretation."
Of course, we have to take careful note that this allowance from the Thakura is specifically for intellectuals. Well, how do you know if you are an intellectual? Don't worry. It doesn't seem to be too difficult a thing to join the club. Consider again the self-proclaimed intellectuals on that website I referred to earlier. From the stories some of these fellows tell about themselves, it seems that to realize oneself an intellectual, one needs only to abandon the order of one's guru (even if the guru is Srila Prabhupada) and to go shopping for whatever "truths" can be gleaned from different sadhus (and so-called sadhus) of different traditions, from different texts--both scriptural and academic--and from different kinds of speculation: rational, empirical, historical, academic, hypnagogic, hallucinogenic, whatever floats your boat, man. Yeah, to be an intellectual, main thing is you gotta be different (nasau muni yasya matam na bhinnam).
You know--you gotta be like the bhadraloka in Bhaktivinoda's time.
Ergo, the same bhadraloka Srila Bhaktivinoda was trying to save by writing Sri Krsna-samhita, he wants devotees of the present time to become like. Yes indeed, the Thakura wants you to be puffed-up from the vantage point of material knowledge, and to look down from there upon the simple faith of the ordinary "village devotees", those who don't have the vision and gumption to be different. On pages 140-142 of Chapter 5, Shukavak describes an encounter he had with a devotee, his own Godbrother I suppose, who was pained to hear Shukavak's arguments. Shukavak classifies this devotee as a komala-sraddha, a neophyte with tender faith.
Neat formula for becoming advanced, right? Say something outrageous in the assembly of devotees: "Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura stated the Bhagavatam may only be 1000 years old, not 5000 years as the Bhagavatam itself claims" or "the Thakura adapted the Dasavataras to Darwin's theory of evolution" or "modern science has disproved the Bhagavatam atomic theory" or "even though Srila Prabhupada disapproved it, I have authorization from Bhaktivinoda Thakura to speculate in these ways." Then when devotees react by questioning "how I could make such a presentation" and by accusing you "of disturbing the spiritual peace" (to cite two of Shukavak's own phrases from page 141), you can prance and preen, glorying in the satisfaction of having proved yourself more sophisticated than the rabble.
To be fair to Shukavak, he does say that there is paramartha (transcendental) knowledge in the sastra that is not subject to human revision. It's just the history and geography of the sastra that are legitimate targets of rational scrutiny. But in an instant the mind come up with problems that call into question where such a dividing line ought to be drawn. Some people argue, for example, that the Krsna of the geographic region of Vrndavana is a historically different person from the Krsna of the geographic Mathura, and that the Krsna of Dvaraka is yet a third personality.
If that is so, then is the Bhagavad-gita really a bona fide scripture, since it was spoken by a different Krsna from Vrndavana Krsna?
Where does temporal knowledge (of history and geography) end and eternal spiritual knowledge begin?
Oh, that we have to discuss. And that's why intellectuals are important--to help us keep these discussions going ad infinitum.
That we take part in this discussions ad infinitum is, according to Shukavak, the true test of our religious faith. In a footnote on page 149, he writes:
The distinction between religious faith and belief can also be shown to exist outside the religious field. In philosophy, for example, it is not what a philosopher believes that makes him a philosopher, but rather the individual's faith in philosophy, out of which the beliefs, the particular philosophies, are produced and sustained. The same can be said about science. A person is a scientist because of his faith in science, in the spirit of science, and not because of his beliefs in the particular theorems, which unquestionably come and go.
Ergo, a devotee is a devotee because of his abiding faith in the spirit of bhakti, whatever outward form it may take from moment to moment. A devotee is not a devotee because of his belief or participation in any particular item or practice of bhakti. Such particularities unquestionably come and go.
"Gee Mom, that sounds like Mayavadi philosophy to me!"
"Hush, Junior, you're just a child. You can't understand these things!"
Shukavak's claim is that his model of what bhakti really is can be applied in other fields. OK, let's see how it would work in household life. Husband to wife: "Dear, I believe in marriage. Therefore I am a husband. It has nothing to do with you in particular. You are my wife right now, true, but tomorrow you could go. That wouldn't change my faith in the ongoing institution of marriage." Wife to husband: "Well, if that's the way you feel, then the ongoing institution of marriage can fix your dinner tonight."
Like, maybe the intellectuals will one day conclude from their discussions that the Bhagavad-gita is a myth. OK, but if you are a real devotee you will go on having faith in something Krsna taught, maybe not that particular text, but whatever text the intellectuals deem valid at the moment.
This is supposed to be reasonable?
Actually, what Shukadeva writes about philosophers and scientists as being faithful servants of the professional fields of philosophy and science can quickly be shown to be garbage. That is especially seen to be so when the revolutionaries of these fields are brought under consideration. Karl Marx is certainly an influential philosopher. But as a revolutionary who broke with the ongoing discussions of other philosophers, he famously asserted, "Philosophers have tried to explain the world. The point is to change it." Einstein, a revolutionary scientist, asserted, "I don't believe in mathematics." Einstein was well-known for not much caring if his discoveries were approved by the discussions of the scientific establishment. Until his theory of relativity triumphed over classical physics, he was an outcaste.
Take careful note that Shukavak is arguing from his own personal bias, which is that of the professional acadamician. Such fellows keep faith in the professions of being philosophers, scientists and religious scholars because that's how they earn their bread. Is it these fellows who make a difference in history? Hardly.
It's the revolutionaries who break with plodding tradition that change history. Of course, at this point I am only talking of famous philosophers and scientists, people still in mundane consciousness. When we turn to religion, we find the biggest revolutionaries are the transcendentalists. Like Lord Jesus Christ.
Christ was certainly no professional religionist. He was not interested in the ongoing discussions of the professional religionists of his time, the scribes and Pharisees of Jerusalem. One of the big issues of their discussions was the coming of the awaited Messiah. At the time the scribes and the Pharisees judged Jesus, he plainly and simply--without resorting to historical and other rational justifications--declared himself the Messiah, the word of God made flesh. For this he was voted by the intellectuals to be crucified.
I'm not running down intellectuals here, i.e. people who are thoughtful. I am a thoughtful person myself. But when intellectual people adopt a bias like scepticism, empiricism or rationalism, and from that mundane standpoint try to analyze the eternal truth, they become dangerous. More so when they sit together on a panel of power and influence and cast votes. They really do think that their collegial process of discussion and voting ensures justice. But the world-shaking events in Jerusalem some 2000 years ago amply demonstrated that a panel of bent-headed intellectuals is quite capable of making a collossal error of judgement.
Christ had already walked upon water, fed the multitudes with only two loaves, healed the sick with his touch, cast devils out of the insane, and raised the dead. It was the most despicable kind of arrogance for the scribes and Pharisees, who had no power to perform such wondrous feats (in fact, being rationalists, they didn't even believe they could be done), to judge Jesus under their petty rules of reasoning, historiography and other such wooden concepts born of wooden heads and hearts.
Today's would-be Gaudiya intellectuals, who seek in Bhaktivinoda Thakura a justification for their crucifixion of sastra on the cross of dead, wooden reasoning, have no power to perform even a fraction of the wonderful service to Sri Gauranga Mahaprabhu that the Thakura did. Create a movement of pure sankirtana that attracted the leaders of society? "Sorry, no can do." Write dozens of books and hundreds of songs of pure devotion to Krsna? "Sorry, no can do." Establish temples at important sites of the Lord's pastimes? "Sorry, no can do." Raise a pure devotee son to carry on the mission of Krsna consciousness to the whole world? "Sorry, no can do." Interpret scripture in a novel way--"Yes! YES! That we can do!"--wait! in order to usher jaded pseudo-intellectuals beyond their anti-religious prejudices to the exclusive shelter of the lotus feet of Krsna?
"Well, the first part about interpreting scripture in a novel way sounded good. Let's forget about the rest."
These fellows can't make a difference in the world. They are not revolutionaries, they are simply timeclock-punching wage-earners. Yet want to interpret sastra differently, as per their useless, impotent speculations, as if that was revolutionary. Challenge them and they often morph into the tragic persona of a persecuted saint. "Christ you know it ain't easy," sang John Lennon about those who criticized his outrageous behavior before the public eye, "you know how hard it can be. The way things are goin', They're gonna crucify me!"
But I won't call these guys sudras. Prabhupada already did that:
The title Ph.D. can also be interpreted as Plough Department, a title meant for the tillers in the paddy field. The attempt of the tillers in the paddy field to understand the cosmic manifestation and the cause behind such wonderful work can be compared to the endeavor of the frog in the well to calculate the measurement of the Pacific Ocean.
tac chraddadhana munayo jnana-vairagya-yuktaya
pasyanty atmani catmana bhaktya sruta-grhitaya
The seriously inquisitive student or sage, well equipped with knowledge and detachment, realizes that Absolute Truth by rendering devotional service in terms of what he has heard from the Vedanta-sruti.
Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura:
Translation: The sages, or the chanters of the holy name (kirtan-kari-gon), endowed with firm faith in the transcendental truth, who have, by hearing from the scriptures, accumulated auspicious activities (sukrti) and attained the knowledge of the relationships (sambandha), and who are free from enjoying or renouncing the sense objects can, as a result of their service, constantly see in their pure hearts this Absolute Truth in the form of Paramatma.
Explanation: When the sages become fixed in bhakti in the form of faith in the transcendental worship of the Lord, brought about by refraining from studies of what is Brahman as well as renouncing the instant enjoyment of the fruits of one's activities or, in other words, giving up everything which is not connected with Krsna - which are concomitant factors of devotion to the Lord -, and when they thus take to devotional service based on hearing and reject any reasoning that is not supported by hearing, then they can see both Paramatma and Brahman in the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
Those who are without bhakti and follow the path of logic and reasoning, cannot see Paramatma and Brahman in the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Because of their lack of bhakti they are lacking in knowledge and renunciation and they have no faith. Therefore they are Mayavadis. Where there is a lack of knowledge and renunciation, there is unsteadiness and no faith in the service to the Supreme Person. The process of serving the worshipable object is a path based on hearing. Situated on this path of bhakti, the pure living entity knows himself to be a devotee of the Lord, and he is constantly serving the Lord in his heart. The heart of a nondevotee is just a ground downtrodden by the enjoyments of the external world. The devotee's heart is a site of the eternal variegated pastimes of Krsna in Vrndavana. The nondevotee's heart is full of thoughts about the perishable or ever-changing external world. Since it is bound by the enjoyment of sense objects or of perishable truths, there is no faith there in one's own eternal form (svarupa) dedicated to serving the Lord. Karmis and Mayavadis, being devoid of the knowledge of the Absolute Truth, are busy with enjoying or renouncing; one can see many kinds of nondevotees attached to sense enjoyment or giving it up. They are deprived of the eternal mellows of exchanges between the servant and the served. These can be understood by the disciple who has achieved the mercy of his spiritual master, a devotee on the path based on hearing, engaged in chanting the holy name, whereas the mundane nondevotees, bewildered by the false ego, will never understand them.
[Translated by Punya-palaka Prabhu of ISKCON Prague]
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