Culture, Sadhana and Inner Transformation
23rd of November, 2006 - 3:25
A friend recently inquired about religion and cultural taints, the universality of Gauranga's path and related topics. The following are some thoughts I jotted together to gloss the themes involved:

• Religion and sadhana
• Culture and identity transformation
• Preaching and conversion
11th of November, 2006 - 17:50
Why Learn Bengali
7th of November, 2006 - 10:55
Tests of Tolerance
1st of November, 2006 - 13:27

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Culture, Sadhana and Inner Transformation
Posted: 23rd of November, 2006 - 3:25
A friend inquired (read) about religion and cultural taints, the universality of Gauranga's path and related topics. The following are some thoughts I jotted together to gloss the themes involved.

Religion and sadhana

There is a good deal of difference between the two that deserves to be understood. While religion, or dharma as we often know it, tends to be relatively static in nature, consisting of day-to-day religious practices that integrate as a part of one's lifestyle and generally stabilize into a single, permanent ongoing situation, sadhana is progressive: it moves and evolves, it calls for changes when adopted.

While many flavors of religiosity can undoubtedly be derived from Gauranga Mahaprabhu's gift, whenever the core concept of ongoing sadhana is neglected, the fullness, the full richness of our tradition, is compromized. "Full sadhana", the daily practice of the accomplished saints of the past, is something that calls for extensive commitment and compromizes the status quo of any extant lifestyle in any culture or society, Western or Indian all the same.

That is not to say there wouldn't be any merit in partial or adjusted engagement. The sadhanas we are exposed to, when learned and employed under proper guidance, yield tremendous power even if taken in minute quantities with faith. However, the nature of the path is such that it leads you onward and forward, into further commitment and closer to "full engagement". Full engagement is a point of wholesome, selfless commitment of all one's acts and thoughts in Hari's service and contemplation. Progress towards the ideal inherently features the need for personal change; the shift of emphasis from self-centered to service-centered implies a change in both attitudes and activities.

Culture and identity transformation

The final ideal of Gauranga's religion is the attainment of pristine love and perfect service for God. This perfection – as our God-concept is profoundly specific and personal – takes place in a particular scenario. Krishna, the charming youngster roaming about the pastures of Vraja, drawing the gopis' near with the ballad of his flute – the source of the Great Vishnu and all avatars, the carefree causer of all creation – revels in a realm that, its divine splendor and wonders aside, corresponds in its basic aspects to a particular period of our earthly history.

The object of our sadhana is to partake of services in that divine realm in the identity of a companion of his, as a a follower of the milk-maids of Vraja. The core of all sadhanas is the assimilation of this identity within one's heart, the contemplation of feelings and services flowing thereof within the core of one's being. As such, a natural attraction for cultural particulars will arise in the sadhaka – within and without he yearns to see the same, he longs for the god's world and delights in all things serving as reminders thereof. As such, the cultural stamp in our tradition is as deep as it is inherent, and that indeed features as a part of its beauty.

Then, despite the core practices of Gauranga's religion being universal in application – chanting of God's names, and so forth – they soon, and naturally, awaken particular cultural attractions within the practitioner, for they awaken his charm for the highest divine abode in the sweet form of the cowherd village of Vraja.

Preaching and conversion

It is then evident from what's been said that Gaudiya Vaisnavism at its core is a deeply mystical path. It has not to do with proselytizing and conversions as the word religion might perhaps suggest; it has to do with profound personal growth and transformation. So being, transformations are effected from person to person, from saints to aspirants, as a matter of natural flow of good-will in reciprocation to clarity of wishes and tender nature. The core of our practice and feeling can only be bestowed to a cultivated heart.

As for the process of cultivation and preparation for the ultimate, evidently initial introductions to the practice of bhakti are called for. As noted, offering variants of Gauranga's religion adjusted for the masses is an ongoing process and far from having found established and well-working avenues. This is evident from the fact that even among those of us of Western birth or dwelling who have come and directly acquainted ourselves with the highest ideals, a sense of wholesome community is lacking – in part in want of committed leadership with a vision, in part in want of receptivity for the same.

Concluding a piece of writing that was perhaps inconclusive – even if it shed some light on the reasons for being inconclusive! – I personally feel that if Gauranga's path were transmutated into a "universal" form where none would feel a threshold for embarking on it, it would have lost a great deal of its essence and its charm. That said, I do not feel that universalizing as a matter of working for the welfare of the peoples is a negative undertaking as such, as long as the relation to the roots – roots, from which the elixir of prayojana flows – is not severed. The successful symbiosis or respectful co-existence of universalized and classical forms of practice is then a whole other horse to tame.
Posted: 11th of November, 2006 - 17:50
Mahat-kripa, the mercy of the great, is the magic ingredient often amiss in our sadhana-endeavors. The special trick that opens doors, breaks barriers and makes things work – the power descending from the divine world into our midst – the current of electricity animating us, the yielder of clarity and force that bestow depth and meaning to bhajana.

So we hear in Caitanya-caritamrita: mahat-kṛpā vinā kona karme bhakti naya / kṛṣṇa-bhakti dūre rahu, saṁsāra nahe kṣaya // — "Without the great's mercy, no deed is for bhakti's sake; Say nothing of Krishna-bhakti! – even samsara will not break!"

What, then, does this astonishing mahat-kripa practically mean? Vaisnava Pada Dasji touched this point very aptly in a Bhagavata-class during the month of Niyama-seva, narrating the story of Narada's service to the saints during Caturmasya in his previous incarnation as a maidservant's child. The kripa is not a mystery touch, a puzzling statement or the emittance of a radiant halo – though it can be all of that as well – as much as it is the saint's āpana-karā: His accepting one as his own, his adopting a responsibility over one's journey from here to the further shore of the devotion's ocean. And not a responsibility as a matter of formality: A very tangible duty in overseeing another's progress, guiding and teaching with patience, giving of one's own when another lacks the power to grow on his own.

The accomplished company of saints, in Rupa Gosvami's words, is sajātīyāśaye snigdhe sādhau saṅgaḥ svato vare – Company of those saints, who share the same devotional disposition, who are more advanced than oneself, and who are affectionate towards oneself. Without that affection, a strong relationship, a bonding of souls in bhagavat-seva, will not come about. From that affection our good fortune is molded, and that affection invites great attachment to the saint's feet from the blessed recipient's heart as well. Sri Narada speaks (BhP 1.5.23ff):

tasyaivaṁ me ’nuraktasya praśritasya hatainasaḥ /
śraddadhānasya bālasya dāntasyānucarasya ca //

"So I grew attached to them, humble in my demeanour and free of evils; With faith, as a boy I subdued myself and followed their instructions."

So indeed the dynamic of kripa comes to flourish with anucarana, the faithful and earnest following of instructions. The word kṛpā, it is sometimes said, means kare pāoā, "to attain by doing", indicating the reciprocal progressive nature of the mercy-flow. If there is no anucarana in the wake of an initial bestowal of kripa, if one does not become anugata, a committed follower, the precious opportunity is squandered. Many are the stories of the lives of mahatmas where laymen came to seek for their asirvada, a saint's blessing, and instead of witnessing the showing of a traditional asirvada-mudra, an upraised right palm, they received a series of instructions on forsaking the mundane and conducting oneself in the way of a devoted sadhaka!

Then, in seeking sadhu-sanga, seek the company of those blessed souls who are inclined to deliver you, to practically guide you from the mundane mire to the marvels of saksat-seva, one step at a time onwards on the path of bhakti-sadhana. Embrace their anugatya and let your budding devotional pursuit be transformed into all it deserves to be.
Why Learn Bengali
Posted: 7th of November, 2006 - 10:55
In my studies of Bengali language, I have eventually come to a point of near seamless communication with Bengalis, a point where I understand most of what is spoken and am able to express what I wish to without wobbling or excessive detours. Vocabulary, of course, has room for infinite addition and the usage of more complex sentence structures needs to be assimilated. So far so good, what has the gain been?

I'll start with a statement and follow with more nuanced reasoning. Every Gaudiya Vaisnava should know some Bengali. If they did, it would help them tremendously in their devotional lives. Now, does bhakti depend on the mastery of a particular language? Not as such, no more than it depends on having two eyes to see, and so forth. However the said facilities are rather helpful.

Now, the major gains thus far.

Knowing the script, you won't ever have to wait for me to translate the yearly Panjika again!
1. Increased facility for sadhu-sanga. With the exception of the very old generation of Bengalis who did their studies closer to the British Era and kept up the use of the language, Bengalis do not know English particularly well. Knowing their language lets you interact and integrate into the broader devotee community, observe their ways, learn their customs, hear their discussions and learn of what they advice. It also seems to endearen you to them a great deal, as observed again yesterday at an Adhivasa-kirtana at Pandit Advaita Das Babaji's samadhi, where it seems there was no end to people who wished to speak a bit with the Bangla-speaking videshi.

2. Ability to relish poetry. The Gaudiya Vaisnava tradition has a vast wealth of poetic heritage, thousands and thousands of songs have been written by medieval and more recent padakavis. Understanding each and every word, and being able to follow the akhors (poetic ornaments) added in by kirtaniyas, opens awide a door to relishing the songs' devotional emotion and gaining entrance into the world depicted therein; something one can only dream of without knowing the language.

3. Access to original works. Only so much jaya-jaya can be said for even the best of translations, and most of what's on the market falls a good deal short of the standard. Imagine not having to depend on the translatory interpretations of others and having the facility to check, at any time, what is actually being said in the work you read. Now, this obviously also applies for Sanskrit, which is a whole other horse to tame, but access to Bengali translations of Sanskrit works is also helpful.

4. Getting things done. While in Vraja knowledge of Hindi would be the asset to have, a lot of people also know Bengali, and even if they don't, they'll likely follow more of what you said in Bengali than in English. Also, at Radha-kunda roughly 10% of the population are Bengalis.

In the weeks and months to come, I will also be looking at compiling some helpful study materials — as much as an aspect of my own studies as for others. Theme-divided vocabularies specific to the context a Western Gaudiya Vaisnava will find himself or herself at, summaries of basic grammar, and so forth. If you are interested in participating, please let me know!

Please also read: Forum for Language Studies
Tests of Tolerance
Posted: 1st of November, 2006 - 13:27
My friend Advaitadas features some of the obstacles one comes to face while visiting Vraja in his today's blog, especially at this time of the year when it's very crowded – and especially now with the local election campaigns in progress. Quoting:

I suppose that going to Radhakund is all about passing the test of tolerance – blasting loud music (Ram-nam, mayoral elections, Bollywood), pert kids, monkeys tearing your clean clothes off the line, no water due to a broken pump ...

This isn't dhyana-bhumi (a land of meditation) either - how can you meditate when you are caught between two gangs of big monkeys, ready to tear each other apart? This country is just about tolerating the intolerable.

While last year's Niyama-seva was a dance on roses for the most part, this year I share much of Advaita Da's experiences. While last year was all about increasing bhakti-sadhana, this year seems to have been primarily about burning clutter off the heart's walls in a great many ways, tests of tolerance, fortitude and determination have featured quite prominently. Sanatana Baba tells me that prarabdha catches up with a sadhaka who is about to make his exit from worldly existence – one switches to fast digestion to do away with anything jarring the progress. There's a dramatic story about a certain mahatma whom the personality of prarabdha followed for three lifetimes to get its due, and finally got its chance after the mahatma gave his consent – but I'll save that for a later time.

Noise pollution. One of the greatest triers of patience, especially for a person coming from an environment and culture where sound, and noise in particular, are looked at with a very different attitude. This month of Niyama-seva is full of sounds, a cacophony of loudspeakers blasting from all directions. Even at Gaura Dham Colony where we live at, we sometimes hear up to four simultaneous loudcasts blasting their holy message across the village. And yes, the mundane has gained foothold as well – Bollywood is there, certainly, and now the local elections.

There is now a certain bulky lady wanting to be elected for the Govardhan-Radhakund Panchayat chairman. Her symbol for elections is "Tala-Chabi", "lock and key" – everyone has one, "pleT-kap" (plate and cup), bus, train and so forth. The symbols had me puzzled for a moment, I find the convention rather amusing. This good lady's election campaign features loudspeakers blasting out na-na-na-naaa, taa-laa-chaa-bii day and night. I'm glad I had the good sense to bring with me a pair of heavy duty ear protectors. When I shut the windows and put them on, I can hear hardly anything. Who said you can't have a heaven on earth? Momentary silence has had me floating on waves of ambrosia. Dadu Maharaja asked me whether elections go on like this in our country as well. "People who make noise like this would be put behind the bars, rather than elected as chairmen and ladies," I told. "Very good," he shared the sentiment.

As much as Niyama-seva is fulfilling with the tapasya and some added aspects of sadhana, I am eager to get back to a normal, peaceful routine where practice of smarana is more of a feasible reality. Those who have practiced and formed strong habits can take just about anything, but unfortunately just yet I'm a far cry from that. Sound practice of lila-smarana calls for a quiet and solitary environment with extended stretches of time to be spent with the holy name, sitting still, praying, full of focus and heart-felt longings. Even those of us, who are presently unable to mold their lives to facilitate such on a permanent basis, ought to take retreats off the routine to form impressions in the heart and to create habits that carry us through the rough terrain. But on we all walk, facing our due tests. Tests that make us grow.

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