Saturday, June 10, 2017

Madhavadeva’s Nama Ghosa: a Landmark Text

The chief literary oeuvre of Madhavadeva (1489-1596 CE), the foremost exponent of the sole-refuge (eka sarana) school in the post-Sankaradeva period, is the Nama Ghosa (The Proclamation of Pure Devotion). This text, which enjoys canonical status among the adherents of this school, is based primarily on the Bhagavata Purana. It celebrates the pure, joy-filled devotion (bhajana) to Krishna, the supreme spiritual personality (parama purusa, paramatma), forsaking all ‘materialness’ (krishata, in the author’s own words) engendered by the jiva’s default allegiance to primal matter. Madhavadeva has internalized the message of the Bhagavata—its call-to-action as well as its philosophical rationale—with the aid of the lucid commentary of Sridhara Svami and supplemented it further with apt translations from the other primary texts of the Vedantic-puranic tradition such as the Bhagavad Gita.
Madhavadeva’s Nama Ghosa (NG) is a landmark ‘essence-text’ in the history of spiritual thought in India not only because its author shows extreme courage for his time to boldly assert the supremacy of pure devotion over the path of microcosmic emulations technically referred to as karma, but also due to the revolutionary impact of some of its pronouncements on society. Spiritual and social reforms go hand in hand in Madhavadeva. This made the preaching of the eka-sarana faith also very much a social movement. In the modern period, some scholars have glossed over this important social aspect. In their view, Sankaradeva and Madhavadeva sought merely to establish equality for all on the spiritual plane without seeking to disturb the status quo in the social order. This is a mistake of epic proportions.
The society of the time was organized into a hierarchy on the basis of a system of varna and asrama which laid down separate ‘ordained duties’ (dharmas) for the different categories and castes. This was essentially born of a philosophy of bheda or difference which saw man as a part of matter (prakriti) rather than as a spiritual personality. It sought to emulate the material ‘personalities’—the sensory and motor units in particular—of the microcosm.
However, the philosophy of pure devotion championed by Madhavadeva in the NG, which runs counter to such a philosophy of difference, is that of intrinsic equality. Here, man is an amsa, a (tiny) part, as it were, of God. Madhavadeva says, “You are eternal, unstained, Narayana. We too are your amsas” [v. 273]. In fact, here, the very doing of pure bhakti is predicated on the existence of a transcendental society in which all members are essentially of one kind; all are purusas or pure personalities. They are by nature immutable (unlike matter) and, hence, not subject to placement at different levels on a material scale. Therefore, the bhaktic philosophy envisages a kind of society which is modeled on Vaikuntha, the transcendental society, in which the governing ideal is one of equality. In the NG, we find perhaps the most clear and emphatic rejection of caste in the entire corpus of Sankaradeva-ite literature: noho jana ami cari jati, cario asrami noho ati [v. 670]. “Know that we are no member of the four castes nor do we adhere to the system of four asramas”.
The embracing of such a philosophy and its widespread dissemination among the masses automatically put the conception of the ‘dharmic’ society at peril and in threat of diminution, if not eventual extinction. For caste, it now was logically concluded, could be sustained only in the state of ignorance (avidya, maya) in which there is the identification of the self with matter. The NG thus contains the framework of a unique philosophical rejection of caste based on the contradictions between two opposite ideologies.
Many a page in the history of medieval Assam is riddled with instances of persecution of the leaders of the Sankaradeva movement. It is in consequence of the preaching of the idea that was carried in germ form by the NG. There was a nexus of religion and politics in this period with the preservation of dharmic ideals weighing heavily on the decisions of the rulers.
For scholars and students of religion, the NG offers, on reflection, several instructive lessons. It challenges the traditional and rote interpretation of a religion. It points to the pitfalls of stereotyping and opens up the mind to newer possibilities. The idea of ‘two Hinduisms’, one mutually opposed to the other, is perhaps unimaginable to some, even more so in a scenario where we are keen to present a religion as a monolith. Yet, as we saw above, that is precisely the impression one gets on studying the NG. Left to themselves, the dharmic one would retain the caste-system and the truly bhaktic one would abolish it. Madhavadeva clearly says [v. 599] that the doing of karmas is antithetical (birodhi) to the singing of the Lord’s glories. Does not such a word-selection fly in the face of the conventional understanding in which the path of karma is seen to be supplementary or even a prerequisite to bhakti? How can such irreconcilable differences be explained? Madhavadeva’s NG forces us to raise these interesting questions.
The fact is that, as with any religion, there have always been two contradictory currents of thought operating within Hinduism. The first is that of the status quoist; the second, that of the reformer. The reformer always challenges the misinterpretation of the former. The reformer’s prime strategy is that of engaging with the orthodoxy through a dialogue (samvada). In the dialogic strategy of the Gita, for instance, the dharmic side is represented by Arjuna and the bhaktic one, by Krishna. It would seem that Madhavadeva’s NG has no dialogue but there is the author and the reader (or listener)! It is through this dialogic strategy that the individual and social consciousness is sought to be sublimated. The final verdict of Krishna in the Gita [18.66]: “Forsake all dharmas, O Arjuna” (sarva dharman parityajya), may be understood in the context of this dialogue between two opposing ideologies.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Determining the Universe of Discourse: The Prerequisite of Meaningful Translation

The natural protocol within the scholarly community when it comes to translating key terms of passages (in any source language e.g. Sanskrit, Assamese) is first to associate them with their commonly held meanings and then proceed to replace them with their most appropriate English (or target language) equivalents. And this is how it should be because in no other way can we be assured of the fidelity of the translation. The resulting translation is very faithful and literal.
But if our primary obsession is not with the literal meaning of the words but rather with the meaning that their authors wished them to convey—or, rather, really wished them to convey—then there would be an additional layer of protocol that a translator would need to incorporate. Before associating them with their commonly held meanings, the translator must seek to identify the universe of discourse. He must know which universe to enter. In no other field perhaps this extended protocol applies with so much imperativeness as in the field of Puranic literature. No other field is so cryptic, no other so coded. Unless the translator—and here, we talk about the seeker of meaning rather than the literal translator—succeeds at the outset in determining the sense in which a term (or a set of words) is being used, he will never be able to grasp. Proceeding straightway to associating the terms with their common meanings would not be okay because there is no guarantee that these meanings would be in line with their implied meanings. Even the scholars of former times may have committed the same mistake. Therefore, before a real translation that lays bare the real meaning of words takes place, one must expend time and energy—and from personal experience, I would say that this can be considerable— in trying to determine the universe of discourse. The real translator must be ready to do this; otherwise, the translation may only be literal but bereft of meaning.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Deciphering the Microcosmic Code of the Vedanta and the Purana: Why is it Necessary

It is essential that we decipher the microcosmic code of the Vedanta and the Purana if we desire to understand the rationale behind sole-refuge (eka sarana). It is essential because without knowing what the different personalities and entities really represent—and, as an extension, what their functions really are—one cannot hope to perceive the difference between the dharmic religion of microcosmic emulation and the bhaktic path of pure devotion; the diametrically opposite nature of these two paths will not be known. Most importantly, in such a scenario, one will not know the difference between a minuscule-part (amsa) manifestation of primal matter (prakrti) and a minuscule-part (amsa) manifestation  of God (Isvara), which is critical (from an adherent's point of view) to obtaining release from prakrti. It is only in ignorance (avidya, ajnana, maya) that the pure personality (purusa) does the worship of prakrti and its evolutes; only in the state of ignorance he thinks himself to be a part of primal matter and considers himself one of the material entities of the microcosm—mind, senses, organs, vital airs, etc.—which are now his friends and family-members, as it were!
It is this false apprehension and non-discrimination that forms the basis of his entrapment in the cycle of births and deaths (samsara). The spiritual purusa, instead of knowing himself to be the ksetrajna, the ‘knower of the field,’ thinks himself as wholly material and follows internally the ‘religion’ (dharma) of the material units and serves the powerful material microcosmic units, the ‘gods’ (devas), ‘sages’ (rsis), etc. who are, in truth, none else but the powerful sensory and motor entities of the microcosm. Externally, this takes the form of emulation; of certain ‘ordained’ acts (karmas) which imitate his internal microcosmic activities. It is the sum-total of these microcosmic emulations that have come to be collectively known as ‘dharmas.’ These dharmas are also referred to as ‘vidhi kinkara dharmas’ on account of their microcosmic origin and roots.
The term ‘vidhi kinkara’ means ‘mind-ordained;’ ‘vidhi’ is an epithet for Brahma, the personified material mind (referred to in this discussion as simply the ‘mind’). As these dharmas are aimed to simulate the material processes of the body, specifically the sensory-motor neural processes which are overseen, as it were, by the brain—the material ‘mind’ or vidhi—, they are known as vidhi kinkara (mind-ordained).
Such a system of dharma can be sustained only in ignorance (avidya, maya).
Only when purusa is in ignorance regarding his true self; only when he does not know himself to be a purely non-material (spiritual) entity—a part (amsa), as it were, of Isvara—can such a dharma be sustained. It is only for this reason that the supreme verdict of the Gita, which encapsulates its entire teaching in a single utterance, is:
sarva dharman parityajya mamekam saranam vraja.
‘Forsaking completely all these dharmas, take sole-refuge (eka sarana) in me alone.’
Further, pursuing such a course of microcosmic material emulation would prove wholly ruinous, spiritually, for the practitioner. ‘Propitiating’ material entities will sink the purusa further into prakrti. Instead of serving as a means to release, such a path will only lead to the entrapment of purusa. 
In summary, the whole set of vidhi kinkara dharmas are for the kinkaras (subjects, slaves) of vidhi—of Brahma, the microcosmic mind. It is for those individuals that are a servant or a slave of vidhi. These are for the material entities of the body that are subordinate to the mind. This dharma, therefore, is simply incompatible with the philosophy of one who has known himself to be a part of Isvara (and not of prakrti); as a wholly spiritual personality (purusa, atman) that is ontologically superior to and different in kind from the unconscious material entities of prakrti. It is only when one is in ignorance that one performs these acts (karmas) on account of non-discrimination (which results in identifying oneself with the mind and the body, thus becoming a slave, kinkara, of the mind, vidhi). The vidhi kinkara dharmic system is diametrically opposite to the bhaktic path of pure devotion.
In this manner, we see how the great philosophy and meaning of the Gita (and indeed of the Vedanta and the Purana) would not be understood, let alone appreciated, if the microcosm and its constituent elements and ‘personalities’ are first not understood. We have, in order to decipher the meaning of the Vedanta and the Purana—and the Purana is here regarded as the continuum of the Vedanta—, first decipher the microcosmic code contained within these texts. As a preliminary, we have to know what personalities like Brahma represent; we have to know what the devas and the rsis represent and also the real internal—microcosmic—meaning of words such as ‘yajna.’ Only when we have entered into the world of the microcosm will our intellect open up to a deeper comprehension of meaning.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

'Causarum Cognitio:' Parama Karana Narayana

Causarum Cognitio (‘Seek Knowledge of Causes’).

The philosophers sought to know the supreme cause or the cause of all causes (parama karana). What is that entity from which all other entities derived meaning; what is that supreme entity—is it time, is it material nature, is it vital air, is it mind or is it some other entity,  even greater and ontologically even higher? Madhavadeva says in his Nama Ghosa, ‘parama karana narayana;’ the supreme pure personality who is the shelter of all beings and indeed, of all categories of existence, is the cause of all causes.
Now, as Krsna or Narayana is the cause of all causes, if one does not know Him, then, in a certain sense, one cannot be said to really know anything (as all causes emanate from Him). On a similar line, if one knows Krsna, the cause of all causes, then one may be termed as knowing everything.
As Krsna is the ultimate cause, He is represented in each of the material realms—manomaya, pranamaya, etc.—as personally handling and interacting with each of the material entities; although, in reality, He may not do so literally but may do so only from the point of view of ultimate cause—as the highest entity in the ladder of cause and effect.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Understanding of Krsna in Sankaradeva

The Krsna of Sankaradeva (and Madhavadeva) wandering through Vraja looking for butter is not the Krsna of Gujarat but, rather, Paramatma, the supreme spiritual personality, in the setting of the microcosm, on the lookout, as it were, for the product of the senses. Krsna is God Himself in His capacity as the “cowherd” of the senses. It is this paramatmic understanding of God that allowed the “nirguna” poets like Kabir and even Muslim poets—who were from traditions other than the Vedantic-puranic one—to immerse themselves in the love of Hari and Krsna. This is because Krsna is the transcendent Supreme Spirit (Brahman)—Allah or the Lord Himself— in His role of the ‘Preserver of the Senses’ (Go-pala).

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The Microcosmic Vision of Sankaradeva

The 15th century in Assam is remarkable for the rise of a unique school of devotion to Krsna (Krishna) that came to be known as the eka sarana (sole-refuge) school. And in the writings of its founder as well as foremost exponent Sankaradeva (1449-1568 CE), we obtain a glimpse of a microcosmic reality that is exciting and which promises to alter our understanding of the foundational texts of Hinduism in radical new ways.
The philosophy of Sankaradeva is a very real philosophy. Here, unlike in some other philosophies, the ‘world’ or the creation is not figmental or a product of one’s imagination. The objects of the senses, as also the senses themselves, are real and products of an undifferentiated mass of material substance known as prakrti, a term which may be translated into English as ‘primal matter’ or ‘Ur-matter’. The pure personalities (purusas), due to non-devotion to God, become forgetful of their own spiritual nature, and fall into this prakrti and become dead and extremely matter-like (jada). God,  who is the supreme purusa, out of His own grace (krpa), then has to rescue the fallen purusas by actuating primal matter to evolve out of itself a microcosm—a body, a psycho-physical frame, equipped with all the necessary senses and organs—which will enable the purusa (now known as jiva or organism) to re-train his consciousness. It is this story of the evolution of the microcosm that forms the cornerstone of the Bhagavata Purana, the text that Sankaradeva chooses as his primary source.
Contrary to popular perception, the story of Krsna in the Purana—and in Sankaradeva, as a corollary,—is not one of an ‘epic hero’ or a historical personality of ancient India but, rather, the ‘story’ of the supreme, immanent pure personality (Paramatma) within the microcosm. Krsna is God Himself seen through the prism of the human body. The seer-devotees of the Vedanta have re-visualized the image of the transcendent Brahman as the immanent Lord; as a child, as it were, stealing the product of the senses! Here, one must remark on a very eye-catching feature of the Sankaradeva movement and it is this that there never has been a centrality of an external geographic conception of a Mathura or a Gokula in the lives of its saints and leading personalities. There is thus an intense paramatmic flavor in all of the Sankaradevite literature.
The mind of the Vedantic seer- devotees erupted in joy on seeing this most wondrous microcosm engineered by the Lord and animated by just a tiny part of His infinite spiritual power. And absorbed in the bliss of the Lord's love, they began to translate, or rather, translocate, the topographical entities of the external world into this inner ‘world’. As a result, what we have in the Bhagavata is a microcosmic narrative woven together with the metaphor of the external world. The material evolution of the (theistic) Samkhya philosophy is set within a ontogenic framework. Science—embryology, to be precise,—philosophy and poetics thus come together in one irresistible combination.
As a side-note, Sankaradeva never viewed the texts such as the Puranas and the Mahabharata as historical texts. This is also a tremendous lesson for today’s interpreters. In the Caturbbimsati Avatara section of his Kirttana, Sankaradeva says that as Vyasa saw that the people had become ‘of extremely dull intellect’, he decided to compose the Puranas. This clearly indicates that these are philosophico-scientific texts containing abstruse concepts and scenarios in a ‘storified’ form.
Now, in order to appreciate fully this microcosmic vision of Sankaradeva—its full philosophical import as well as its practical implication—we have also to consider the strategy of personification that is adopted in the Puranic universe of discourse. There seems to be, as soon as we enter the puranic realm, a sudden profusion of personalities—kings and warriors, devas, asuras, mythical creatures, apsarases, rsis, etc. An overwhelming majority of these characters are the personified forms of the various evolutes of primal matter.
At the grossest level, we have the internal organs residing in the cavities of the nether region of the body; these are known as the bhutas or daityas. Diametrically opposite to these in point of nature, in the ‘heavenly’ or cerebral regions, are the subtle neural entities known as the devas. They are the controllers of the sense organs such as the eyes, the ears, etc. which are likened to sages (rsis) as they remain engaged in ‘knowing’ or acquiring sense-data. Creatures such as Garuda and Hanumana represent the vital airs (pranas). Further, we have two very special entities that are represented by the figures of Brahma and Siva. Brahma is the personification of the microcosmic mind while Siva is kala (‘time’). Kala is an agent of differentiation of the material substance (sakti). It is specially connected to the bhutas or the internal organs. Finally, primal matter itself is personified as Laksmi.     
Apart from these basic categories, there exist numerous organic classes and sub-classes such as the glands, muscles, ligaments, sensors and nerves which may also be personified. There is also, as mentioned above, a microcosmic geography:  venous rivers, arterial trees, neuronal forests, cartilaginous mountains, etc. As we can see, the bewildering material variety within the human body lends itself excellently to personification.   
There are sufficient hints in the writings of Sankaradeva and his disciple and successor Madhavadeva regarding these mappings. In his rendering of the 3rd book of the Bhagavata entitled Anadi Patana (Cosmogenesis), Sankaradeva says that all the signs of the universe are ‘within this very body’. He mentions that the location of all the devas is the body. His rendering also clearly brings out the material nature of the mind and the devas. Similarly, in the verses of the Nama Ghosa (Namanvaya section), Madhavadeva explains that as the Lord has entered into the category of the indriyas, He is referred to as ‘Hrsikesa’ by all exemplar-devotees. Further, he says, ‘by the term go (cow) is meant the sensory receptors’ (go pade beda indriyaka buli). And, as the Lord preserves these, He is known as ‘Gopala’.
To conclude, given this microcosmic background, it is not difficult to understand why Sankaradeva should exhort the jivas to take refuge solely in Krsna. This is because, among all the entities, only Krsna is conscious personality, the others being mere personifications of matter. The jivas too are essentially conscious and spiritual and ontologically superior to matter. Therefore, it behoves them to do pure devotion only to Krsna, shunning all forms of worship that are a mere emulation of the microcosmic material processes.