Monthly Archives: January 2009

A Fable

nuremberg-chronicles-danceofdeath

News reaches the world that the troubled inhabitants of Lokastan have begun to perish in steadily increasing numbers from a contagion. The disease organism is reportedly so virulent that all exposed fall ill and nearly all the ill die.

By rare good fortune, researchers quickly hit upon a cure. This compound, taken regularly, also promises to render the uninfected immune. Soon, brave rescue workers enter Lokastan in force to treat as many as possible as quickly as possible.

High hopes for a prompt end to the plague are swiftly dashed. The disease turns out to have an unusual feature that trumps all favorable factors.

The organism begins its systematic destruction of the body almost immediately upon infection. At the same time, passing unchecked through the blood-brain barrier, it takes possession of the mind of the afflicted. The victims, now mortally ill, develop a delusional mentality: They become convinced that their disease is nature’s own remedy for all that troubles body, mind, and spirit.

(Pathogens that manipulate the mind of hosts are known to the researchers. They think of Toxoplasma gondii, the parasite that alters the brains of rodents so that they are attracted to—rather than repelled by—the cats that eat them.)

In the infected brains of the Lokastanis, a remarkably altered chemistry masks their disintegration with a sense of profound well-being. In this way the very agent of their destruction makes the victims certain that they are becoming, for the first time, deeply sound and healthy. They come to cherish the pathogen itself, for they are sure it transmutes them to an unprecedented level of well-being. To the doomed, their future is bright.

In their delusion, they deliberately—even systematically—infect others.

For this reason, their rescuers are greeted with hostility and suspicion. In rare moments of lucidity, the afflicted may believe the truth their deliverers reveal to them, but such moments are short lived. For the most part, the healers find themselves locked in a contest—even combat—with those who most need their help.

In the end stage of the disease, the afflicted often return to a terminal lucidity. The reason for this cruel disenchantment is in dispute. Some researchers argue it takes place simply because sheer reality overwhelms delusion; others believe that the pathogen itself efficiently cuts off production of the masking agents. And in many cases delusion goes on increasing until the end.

The medical workers and researchers work hard at developing ways of dispelling the delusions of the afflicted, but it has proven to be slow and difficult work.

The cure must be taken in graduated doses over a period of time, and those under treatment are for some time susceptible to relapse.

It remains an arduous touch-and-go effort.

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“God”?

What the punctuation in the title indicates:

Quotation marks: Draping the word God in quotation marks indicates that we are first concerned with the signifier, not the signified. (Compare these two sentences: I am interested in God. I am interested in “God.”)

Question mark: The mark of interrogation backstopping “God” points us next to questions concerning the concept or idea of God. What does it mean? Aren’t there many different meanings? Isn’t the meaning often vague or ambiguous?

The mark directs us further to questions concerning the existence of God. Is there any real entity denoted by the word God? Is there any way to conclusively answer this question?

A Lesson in Vedānta

The conception of God and the conception of Absolute Truth are not on the same level. The Śrīmad Bhāgavatam hits on the target of the Absolute Truth. The conception of God indicates the controller, whereas the conception of the Absolute Truth indicates the summum bonum or the ultimate source of all energies. There is no difference of opinion about the personal feature of God as the controller because a controller cannot be impersonal. . . .  Because there are different controllers for different managerial positions, there may be many small gods . . . with various specific powers, but the Absolute Truth is one without a second. This Śrīmad Bhāgavatam designates the Absolute Truth or the summum bonum as the param satyam.

The author of Śrīmad Bhāgavatam, Śrīla Vyāsadeva, first offers his respectful obeisances unto the param satyam (Absolute Truth), and because the param satyam is the ultimate source of all energies, the param satyam is the Supreme Person. The gods or the controllers are undoubtedly persons, but the param satyam from whom the gods derive powers of control is the Supreme Person. The Sanskrit word īśvara (controller) conveys the import of God, but the Supreme Person is called the parameśvara, or the supreme īśvara. The Supreme Person, or parameśvara, is the supreme conscious personality, and because He does not derive any power from any other source, He is supremely independent.

—Śrīla Prabhupāda, Introduction to Śrīmad Bhāgavatam

Where does everything come from?
Everything comes either from something or from nothing.

When the answer is nothing, it sometimes turns out to be a very special, hyper-potent kind of nothing. Not just nothing but Nothing. In other words, a unique kind of something (after all).

When the answer is nothing, it sometimes turns out to be a special inscrutable something, beyond all possible modes of understanding or investigation. Nothing is really a “No Trespassing” sign. (Or: “You don’t belong in the physics department; you should go to the religion department.”)

When the answer is nothing, it sometimes turns out that the “everything” that (seemingly) comes from it is really nothing also. Nothing makes no things: No problem!

Vedānta settles for something. A special unique something: param satyam or brahman “the ultimate source of all energies.”janmādyasya yataḥ (Vedānta-sūtra 1.1.2)

In the Upaniṣads, this ultimate source is described as so complete or full (purṇam) that however much is taken away from it, it remains complete.

By contrast, I am not purṇa. I am a dependent, contingent being. I require regular supplies—each day so much food, water, air, light, heat, and so on. If I trace back the supply chain I will reach (according to the Vedas) the empowered universal supply agents, the devas—lords of the sun, moon, wind, rain, soil, and so on.  As they distribute, their own stores becomes depleted, and they themselves need resupply.  Following back the chain of dependence, we reach finally a singular and unique being who produces endless supplies and who never needs resupply, remaining full. This the self-sustaining sustainer of all others is the param satyam.

(Think of the param satyam as something like a hotel with infinite rooms, all occupied—purṇa, “No Vacancy.” At noon, the guest occupying Room 1 checks out. As he leaves, the bellboy blows a whistle. All the rooms’ doors open: The guest in Room 2 moves into Room 1, the guest in Room 3 moves to Room 2, and so on, ad infinitum. Thus, even though a guest checked out, the hotel remains full. It will remain full if ten, a hundred, a thousand , a million, or even an infinite number of guests check out.)

This is the “concept of the Absolute Truth,” that from which everything comes. It differs from the concept of īśvara or “god.” Īśvara means a controller. In that sense, even local controllers—the CEOs of SEPTA, PECO and Comcast, the president of the University of Pennsylvania, the mayor of Philadelphia, the governor of Pennsylvania, and so on—are all minor īśvaras, teeny gods with miniscule controlling power. And, according to the Vedas, there are superior gods who administer the universe—not petty bureaucrats but mighty cosmocrats.

Whatever we see here, in the effect, must also be there, in the ultimate cause. The param satyam has produced myriad personal controllers.  Therefore the ultimate personal controller, the parameśvara, is in the Absolute Truth itself. The Upaniṣads describe the param satyam as simultaneously personal and impersonal.

Prabhupāda coined the phrase “Supreme Personality of Godhead” to express more accurately the concept of Kṛṣṇa. The word “god” by itself is, strictly speaking, inadequate. A “god” is a being that may or may not exist. “Godhead” however, denotes the Absolute Truth, param brahman, the uncreated, self-sustaining origin of everything.  “Personality of Godhead” denotes the personal feature of the unlimited Godhead. The one Personality of Godhead exists simultaneously in many transcendent forms—Kṛṣṇa, Rāma, Nṛsimha, Nārayaṇa, Vāmaṇa and so on.

Some argue that the limitless nature of the Absoute Truth precludes personhood, since personhood or individuality entails limits and boundaries. They forget to consider that it would also be a limitation to exclude personhood. There must be somehow pesonality without limitation. For this reason, Vedic thought understands the one Personality of Godhead to be ananta rūpam, expanded in unlimited forms simultaneously.

Among all these forms, Kṛṣṇa is particularly denoted “the Supreme Personality of Godhead.”

One last consideration: Should I find myself wondering whether the Personality of Godhead exists or not, then I should understand that I do not grasp the concept of the Absoute Truth. I am thinking of Godhead as if it were simply one more contingent, dependent being: like me, or my laptop, or my city. My Dell laptop exists, but it might not; Ravīndra Svarūpa dāsa exists, but might very well not; this City of Brotherly Love exists but might not have. My current controllers—Mayor Nutter, Governor Rendell, President Obama, Lord Indra, Lord Brahmā—are all there, but might not have been. But the final controller, the Personality of Godhead, the ultimate source of all energies, exists in a different way from all these other beings. He exists so fully or truly that he has not even the possibility of not existing.

If we simply understand the concept of the Absolute Truth, we must recognize that its mode of existence—existing without even the possibility of not existing—is different from ours.

(Perhaps some readers have recognized in the last paragraphs a version of “the ontological argument for the existence of God.” This argument has generated much controversy, yet it seems to me that Prabhupāda’s distinction between the concepts of God and of the Absolute Truth clairfies the argument and helps resolve some of the controversy. When one understands the argument as dealing with the concept of Godhead or Absolute Truth, rather than the concept of God, its particular force becomes more evident, at least to me. To me, there are sound and persuasive arguments that there must be an Absoute Truth, and that the Absolute Truth must be a person. I’ve outlined them above. That the person is blue-complexioned, flute-playing, peacock-feather-wearing Kṛṣṇa—or any expansions—cannot be shown by reason and logic. Only pareśānubhava, direct perception of the Lord, will disclose these concrete particulars. On the other hand, if one studies the Supreme Personality of Godhead as encountered by Nārada, Vyāsa, Uddhava, Caitanya, and so on, one can say: “This is our idea of the supreme person. Can anyone offer a description of any greater?”)

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Lord Caitanya and the Renaissance of Devotion, Part 2

Kṛṣṇa’s appearance as Lord Caitanya is really Kṛṣṇa’s own tribute and testament to the overwhelming attractiveness of pure devotional service and, especially, of His pure devotee. Moreover, when Kṛṣṇa assumes the features of His own greatest devotee, He has, in fact, a particular devotee in mind: His highest and most intimate devotee. Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī.

You may have seen paintings that depict Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa together; Lord Kṛṣṇa appears as a beautiful young man with a dark-blue complexion that glows like a newly formed rain cloud illuminated within by lightning. Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī is an equally beautiful young girl; Her complexion is lustrous like molten gold. Kṛṣṇa plays on His flute, and Rādhārāṇī, Her hand resting lightly on Kṛṣṇa’s shoulder, listens in enchantment. It is clear from Their posture and from the way They glance at each other that They are deeply in love.

Westerners often misunderstand Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa. An earlier, puritanical generation was appalled at the notion that God should have a consort and enter into a conjugal relationship. Nowadays, one encounters people from a younger generation who are very much “into” sex and are delighted to think that God is too. Both groups radically misunderstand Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa, because both share in a common error: that the relationship between Rādhārāṇī and Kṛṣṇa is like a mundane sexual relationship.

Male and female and the attraction between them are found in this world only because sexual polarity and attraction exist originally in God, in Rādhā-Kṛṣṇa. As above, so here below. But there is a difference also. Worldly sexual relationships are merely perverted reflections of the original and transcendental conjugal relationship between Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa, which is pure and spiritual and devoid of any tinge of lust. As long as Our materially besmirched minds are conditioned by worldly desire, we are unable to conceive of the immaculate love between Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa. We project our own unwholesome relationships and unholy loves onto God. This is surely a mistake. A person can understand the conjugal love of Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa as it is only if he himself becomes free from lust. Lord Caitanya was able to make an unprecedented disclosure of the confidential relationship between Rādhārāṇī and Kṛṣṇa because He also taught the chanting of Hare Kṛṣṇa, which destroys lust and other material impurities with unrivaled efficacy.

We can understand the position of Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī by means of the ideas of “potency” (śakti) and the “potent” (śaktimān), that is, of power or energy, on the one hand, and of the possessor of the power, the energetic source, on the other. To use an illustration, fire is the potent, and heat and light are the fire’s potency. But the supremely potent, the ultimate source of all energies, is Kṛṣṇa; everything else, material or spiritual, is His potency, emanating from Him as heat and light emanate from a fire. (Heat and light are potency in relation to the potent fire; fire, potency in relation to the potent sun; the sun, potency in relation to Kṛṣṇa, the supremely potent.) The entire content of what is can be exhaustively described as Kṛṣṇa and His energies.

Three of Kṛṣṇa’s multitudinous potencies are prominent. One of them manifests the whole material world; another, the innumerable spiritual souls. The third—called the internal potency—manifests the transcendental kingdom of God. This internal potency has three further subdivisions. By one of these transcendental potencies, Kṛṣṇa maintains His existence and that of the eternal kingdom of God; by another, He knows Himself and causes others to know Him. And by the third internal potency He enjoys transcendental bliss and causes His devotees to feel bliss.

This internal potency of bliss, called hlādinīśakti, is Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī. As the embodiment of Kṛṣṇa’s transcendental pleasure-giving potency, Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī is Kṛṣṇa’s most perfect devotee; She lives only for satisfying Him with Her pure devotional love. All devotional service falls under the auspices of Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī, and only by Her mercy and care are the devotees able to please Her beloved Kṛṣṇa. She is the ideal devotee, the exemplar of unconditioned love.

Kṛṣṇa and Rādhā are simultaneously one and yet different, just as a fire and its light are one and yet different at the same time. Thus, although Rādhārāṇī and Kṛṣṇa are one in Their identity, They have separated Themselves eternally. Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa together exemplify the simultaneous oneness and difference of the Supreme Personality of Godhead and His energy, constituting the whole of the Absolute Truth. Thus they illustrate the most profound metaphysical principle.

Rādhārāṇī and Kṛṣṇa show that the ultimate nature of God contains internal varieties, and Their endless reciprocation of love is the basis of an internal transcendental dynamic by which Kṛṣṇa is eternally increasing in beauty and bliss. Although Rādhā has no desire for her own enjoyment, when She sees Kṛṣṇa, Her joy increases without bound. Because Her joy increases, Her sweetness and beauty also increase. When Kṛṣṇa sees Rādhā becoming more and more beautiful, His joy also becomes greater, making His beauty and His sweetness grow. When Rādhā sees that She has pleased Kṛṣṇa, She becomes overjoyed, and as Her joy multiplies, She becomes even more beautiful and sweet. This again increases Kṛṣṇa’s own joy, beauty, and sweetness. . . . And so the reciprocation goes on and on, without limit or end.

The name Kṛṣṇa means “all-attractive,” and knowing the reciprocation of ever-increasing love between Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa allows us to appreciate how attractive God is—much more attractive than anything in this world. When God is misconceived as static and without variegatedness, it makes the material world seem more interesting and alluring by comparison. Just this sort of static conception was borrowed by Christian philosophers from Aristotle and enshrined in medieval theology; and this is one reason why the Renaissance turned to the material world for a sense of promise, adventure, and expanding possibilities. For God was philosophically understood as actus purus, which meant that He was everything that He could ever be; He was entirely static, a kind of crystalized, frozen perfection.

It was thought that if God possesses the fullness of infinite perfection, then the divine perfection would be at an absolute maximum and could not increase. But Kṛṣṇadāsa Kavirāja says that although God is at the fullness of perfection, He still does increase. The apparent paradox may be easier to accept if you consider a similar “paradox” discovered by modern mathematicians in their investigation of the properties of infinite sets. Let us consider, for example, a hotel with infinite rooms, all of which are occupied. Although the hotel is full, you can always add more guests—in fact, an infinite number of guests. Let us imagine that the desk clerk wants to check in a new guest. He blows a whistle, and all the doors open. The occupant of room 1 moves to room 2, of 2 to room 3, . . . and so on, ad infinitum. The new guest enters the now-empty room 1. Similarly, even though an infinite number of guests check out of the hotel, it will retain full occupancy. The Īśopaniṣad makes a similar point about the Supreme Personality of Godhead: He is so complete that even though countless energies emanate from Him, He remains complete and wholly undiminished. And although Kṛṣṇa is full and complete, yet, through His loving reciprocation with Rādhā, He eternally increases without limit.

Lord Caitanya also embodies another phase in the transcendental psychology of the loving reciprocation between Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa. We have already seen how Kṛṣṇa is ceaselessly fascinated and attracted by Rādhā. He finds Her love for Him equally amazing. Its selfless purity and its intensity fill Him with wonder. Kṛṣṇadāsa Kavirāja tells us that Kṛṣṇa thinks to Himself, “Whatever pleasure I get from tasting My love for Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī, She tastes ten million times more than Me by Her love.” Kṛṣṇa is the supreme enjoyer, but He realizes that Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī, by Her love for Him, enjoys even more bliss than He does. Thus Kṛṣṇa becomes eager to experience for Himself the flavor of Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī’s love for Him.

Kṛṣṇa’s beauty and sweetness are so limitless that they attract the whole universe. Kṛṣṇadāsa Kavirāja says: “The beauty of Kṛṣṇa has one natural strength: it thrills the hearts of all men and women, beginning with Lord Kṛṣṇa Himself. All minds are attracted by hearing his sweet voice and flute, or by seeing His beauty. Even Lord Kṛṣṇa Himself makes efforts to taste that sweetness.” But the one who relishes Kṛṣṇa’s beauty and sweetness the most is Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī. Her immaculate love is like a flawless mirror, and in that mirror Kṛṣṇa’s own beauty and sweetness shine with ever greater brightness. Thus Kṛṣṇa desires to experience His own attractiveness in the way that Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī does.

For these reasons, then, Kṛṣṇa desires to take the position of Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī. That desire is eternally fulfilled in the person of Lord Caitanya. In His form as Lord Caitanya, Kṛṣṇa assumes the golden complexion and the devotional feelings of Rādhā, and tastes for Himself the unlimited bliss of devotional service.

Kṛṣṇadāsa Kavirāja sets down two verses in which he summarizes the nature of Lord Caitanya: “The loving affairs of Śrī Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa are transcendental manifestations of the Lord’s internal pleasure-giving potency. Although Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa are one in Their identity, They separated Themselves eternally. Now these two transcendental identities have again united in the form of Śrī Kṛṣṇa Caitanya. I bow down to Him, who has manifested Himself with the sentiment and complexion of Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī although He is Kṛṣṇa Himself. Desiring to understand the glory of Rādhārāṇī’s love, the wonderful qualities in Him that She alone relishes through Her love, and the happiness She feels when She realizes the sweetness of His love, the Supreme Lord Hari, richly endowed with Her emotions, appeared from the womb of Śrīmatī Śacīdevī, as the moon appeared from the ocean.”

The three transcendental personalities of Rādhā, Kṛṣṇa, and Caitanya together manifest the eternal dialectics of divine love, the timeless dynamics of the ever-expanding ocean of transcendental bliss. Lord Caitanya descended to flood the world with that ocean of love by distributing to everyone the chanting of the names of God. Simply by chanting Hare Kṛṣṇa, anyone can enter into that limitless ocean of the nectar of devotion.

Lord Caitanya inaugurated a bhakti renaissance and turned people’s vision to God at the same time that the Renaissance in Europe turned people’s vision to man and the world. Men like da Vinci, fascinated by the marvelous and cunning complexities of material nature, began to delve into her secrets with an insatiable curiosity and were rewarded with discovery. At the same time, as if in counterbalance, Lord Caitanya, through the renaissance of bhakti, gave to the world an unprecedented view into the inner dynamics of infinite love in the all-attractive Supreme Personality of Godhead. Just as men of the Renaissance tried to open up the world and unlock the secrets of nature, Lord Caitanya and His associates opened up the kingdom of God and unlocked the secrets of love of God.

To the people of the Renaissance, the world and man seemed imbued with limitless possibility and promise. Western civilization to the present day has been following up on that vision, and it becomes more and more apparent that the world and man have not lived up to their promise. The Renaissance shift of vision from God to man and matter has cut people off from any transcendent source of meaning and value, and the resultant relativism and nihilism—the ripened fruit of the Renaissance—have released demonic energies that have devastated the earth in our time. And there is more to come.

Therefore, Lord Caitanya’s appearance was most timely. The civilization born in Europe during the Renaissance has grown to straddle the earth. But there has been a most fortunate counterflux, as the saìkértana movement of Lord Caitanya has also spread over the globe, in fulfillment of Lord Caitanya’s own prophecy. By showing how Kṛṣṇa is supremely loving and all-attractive, and by making Kṛṣṇa easily accessible through the chanting of His names. Lord Caitanya has made it possible for us to shift our vision back to God once more. This is necessary. Man and the world cannot answer to the demand we have placed upon them. Only Kṛṣṇa and His transcendental kingdom, where He eternally revels in pastimes of love, can do that. This alone is the realm that is rich with infinite promise, beckoning to us with limitless possibilities.

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