Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Concept of Acintya-bheda-abheda

Lord Caitanya Mahāprabhu’s Acintya-bhedābheda-tattva philosophy aims at a reconciliation of the different scriptural statements on the nature of the Absolute. According to the Gauḍīya understanding, the previous ācāryas played a role in preparing the ground for the philosophy of love of Godhead to fructify. When Śaṅkara appeared, India was taken by Buddhist concepts, in which there was no room even for accepting the existence of God. Through the propagation of Advaita-vāda, once again the Vedic scriptures became the authority and the goal was Brahman. Rāmānuja preached that Lord Nārāyaṇa is the Supreme Brahman, and thus revived the concept that God is eternally a person. Madhva staunchly defended the differences between God and the individual soul. In this way, there was a progression towards the acceptance of personalism that made society ready to adopt the philosophy proposed by Lord Caitanya. In spite of several divergences regarding philosophical conclusions, Lord Caitanya showed respect to all the four Vaiṣṇava sampradāyas, since they all agree that to please Lord Kṛṣṇa is the perfection of life, and in this mood gladly accepted from each of them two specific instructions:

madhva haite sāradvaya kariba grahaṇa eka haya kevala-advaita nirasana

kṛṣṇa-mūrti nitya jāni’tāṁhāra sevana sei ta’dvitīya sāra jāna mahājana

rāmānuja haite anni lai dvi sara ananya-bhakati, bhaktajana-seva āra

viṣṇu haite dui sāra kariba svikāra tadīya sarvasva-bhāva, rāgamārga āra

toma haite laba āmi dui mahāsāra ekānta rādhikāśraya gopī-bhāva āra

(Navadvipa-Mahātmyam, Parikrama-khaṇḍa)

“Later, when I begin the sankīrtana movement, I myself will preach using the essence of the philosophies of the four of you. From Madhva I will receive two items: his complete defeat of the Māyāvādi philosophy and his service to the mūrti of Kṛṣṇa, accepting it as an eternal spiritual being. From Rāmānuja I will accept two teachings: the concept of bhakti unpolluted by karma or jṣāna and service to the devotees. From Viṣṇusvāmī’s teaching I will accept two elements: the sentiment of exclusive dependence on Kṛṣṇa and the path of rāga-bhakti. And from Nimbārka I will receive two great principles: the necessity of taking shelter of Rādhā and the high esteem for the gopīs love of Kṛṣṇa.”


 Either if one accepts the theory of total unity between Brahman and the jīvas, or their eternal separated existence, there is a partial and imperfect conclusion, failing to fulfil even the very definition of the word ‘absolute.’ Nor can both views be rejected if we desire to reach an explanation that satisfies reason and is corroborated by śāstra. If one says that they are one and the same, then the Supreme would also share all the faults that the living entities display; and if one says they are totally different, then there would be a violation of all the passages in which non-duality is stated. The synthesis of the Gauḍīya Vedānta is to accept the energetic and His energy as eternally related and simultaneously one and different. This kind of relation is inconceivable from the material point of view, therefore the term ‘acintya,’ indicating that we cannot expect to fully comprehend this kind of relation by means of our imperfect and limited senses, mind and reasoning power. We can, however, use these as a means to verify how indeed the nature of the Supreme Personality of Godhead and His energies is far beyond our grasp, just like by observing the stars at night we can understand they are far from our reach. From another perspective, this philosophy cannot be understood except by those who are surrendered souls unto the lotus feet of the Lord, who fully develop spiritual senses and intellect to apprehend spiritual knowledge, as the Lord proclaims:

teṣāṁ satata-yuktānāṁ bhajatāṁ prīti-pūrvakam

dadāmi buddhi-yogaṁ taṁ yena mām upayānti te

(Bhagavad-gītā, 10.10)

“To those who are constantly devoted to serving Me with love, I give the understanding by which they can come to Me.”


A simple example to demonstrate the bhedābheda relation is the sun and its light. It is common sense that the sun is intrinsically related to its rays, and these are dependent upon it. Thus, in this sense they are one and the same. But at the same time, we can also understand that the sun rays are not the sun itself. When in the morning we see the sunlight coming through the window we might say that the sun is inside the house, while factually we mean to say that the sun’s rays are coming inside, for otherwise it would be a dumb affirmation. Similarly, Lord Kṛṣṇa and His energies also interact intrinsically and still are distinct. Jīva Gosvāmī explains this concept in the following words:


ekam eva tat parama-tattvaṁ svābhāvikācintya-śaktyā sarvadaiva svarūpa-tad-rūpa-vaibhava-jīva-pradhāna-rūpeṇa caturdhāvatiṣṭhate sūryāntarmaṇḍalastha-teja iva maṇḍala-tad-bahir-gata-raśmi-tat-prattichavi-rūpeṇa. (…) durghaṭa-ghaṭakatvaṁ hy acintyatvam (Bhagavat-sandarbha, 16)


“The Supreme Absolute Truth is only one, and by dint of its inherent inconceivable potency, it is eternally manifest in four aspects, as: (1) His original form (svarūpa); (2) the expansions of His form (tad-rūpa-vaibhava); (3) the living entities (jīvas); and (4) material nature (pradhāna). These are compared to the potency within the sun globe which is manifest as the globe, the rays in it, and their reflection. Inconceivability is that which makes the impossible possible”


Baladeva Vidyābhūṣana explains that this potency of the Lord is responsible for solving all the scriptural statements that seem to give contradictory information about God:

acintya-śaktir astīśe yoga-śabdena cocyate

virodha-bhaṣjikā sā syād iti tattva-vidāṁ matam

“The Supreme Lord is endowed with an inconceivable potency that removes all contradiction, and which is expressed by the word yoga. This is the opinion of those who know the truth.”


 Some of these contradictory qualities are that even though He Himself is transcendental knowledge, He still has a body, and even though He is one, He is also many. The Supreme Personality of Godhead is simultaneously all-pervading and of a small size. These opposite features can be reconciled when we accept the concept of acintyā. The Lord says:


apāṇi-pādo ‘ham acintya-śaktiḥ (Kaivalya Upaniṣad, 21)


“Although I have no hands or feet, I still have inconceivable potencies.”


The smṛti also confirms:


ātmeśvaro ‘tarkya-sahasra-śaktiḥ (Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, 3.33.3)


“My dear Lord, You are self-determined and are the Supreme Personality of Godhead for all living entities. For them You created this material manifestation, and although You are one, Your diverse energies can act multifariously. This is inconceivable to us.”


Some may validly argue: if it is inconceivable, why do you write so many books about it? Here are a few points to answer that:


1) As said above, the acintyā concept is meant to indicate that the Lord’s powers are beyond the human capacity of understanding, which does not mean that we cannot appreciate them at all, but rather that we should never underestimate the limitlessness of anything displayed by Him, His forms, His pastimes, His names, etc.


2) The Lord can be partially comprehended by spiritual senses and mind when He becomes pleased with His devotee. Otherwise, by no amount of material skill can the mundane mind and senses progress towards understanding Him.


3) Lord Caitanya personally demonstrated by His instructions that particularly in Kali-yuga no one will have the required capacity to properly understand the conclusions of the Brahma-sūtras by dint of intellectual efforts. Once, the great scholar Prakaśānanda Sarasvatī inquired from Lord Caitanya: “You are a sannyāsī, so how is it that instead of spending your time studying Vedānta you simply chant and dance?” In reply, the Lord said:

prabhu kahe—śuna, śrīpāda, ihāra kāraṇa

guru more mūrkha dekhi’ karila śāsana

“My dear sir, kindly hear the reason. My spiritual master considered Me a fool, and therefore he chastised Me.”

mūrkha tumi, tomāra nāhika vedāntādhikāra

‘kṛṣṇa-mantra’ japa sadā,—ei mantra-sāra

(Caitanya Caritāmṛta Ādi 7.72)

 “‘You are a fool,’ he said. ‘You are not qualified to study Vedānta philosophy, and therefore You must always chant the holy name of Kṛṣṇa. This is the essence of all mantras, or Vedic hymns’.”


Lord Caitanya, playing the role of a perfect devotee, showed by this pastime how unqualified people erroneously take to the study of Vedānta on the basis of so-called scholarship. He obviously was not any fool, but rather from His youthful days He was known as the greatest scholar in Nadia, which was in those days one of the main centers of learning in India. Lord Caitanya meant that the real purpose behind Vedānta is to bring one to the point of loving Kṛṣṇa and chanting His Holy Names, but if one just spends his life in dry speculations– neti, neti, this is not Brahman, that is not Brahman- then he is simply missing the point. On the other hand, if one directly takes to the process of bhakti, without going through all these philosophical intricacies, that is a much better course of action and much easier for people in general. Therefore, the conclusion is that knowledge about Kṛṣṇa is inconceivable for those who don’t take to the process of bhakti but want to understand Him on the strength of grammatical knowledge and academic scriptural studies.


4) There will always be a class of learned scholars, and to please them it is required to present the acintyā-bhedābheda-tattva philosophy with all reason and argument to prove that this system is not based on someone’s opinion but on the clear statements of the śruti and smṛti. It is a tradition among the orthodox schools to have a dialectical way to present each premise and refute any possible objection. Without these philosophical resources, no system would be taken seriously by any learned person. On this basis, the ācāryas extensively try to explain this system in so many ways, because since we are speaking of Lord Kṛṣṇa’s powers, it should be understood that although they are ultimately acintyā, there is so much positive information about Him that can make one appreciate His glories, and the amount of this information is also unlimited.


5) The devotees of Kṛṣṇa know very well that His power is infinite and incomprehensible, and that just increases their taste to hear more and more about them. Those who write or speak about Him relish immensely, and those who read or hear about Him also relish immensely, as the sages at Naimiṣāraṇya expressed:

vayaṁ tu na vitṛpyāma uttama-ślok-vikrame

yac-chṛṇvatāṁ rasa-jṣānāṁ svādu svādu pade pade

(Bhāgavatam, 1.1.19)

“We never tire of hearing the transcendental pastimes of the Personality of Godhead, who is glorified by hymns and prayers. Those who have developed a taste for transcendental relationships with Him relish hearing of His pastimes at every moment.”

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Defending my Ph.D. thesis

Yesterday, 11th of November, 2009, I defended my thesis in front of a board of eight doctors of the Sanskrit Faculty, among which were the principal, Dr. R.C.Panda, and the Head of the Department of Dharmagama, Dr. K. Jha, along with several research scholars and undergraduate students. For one hour, I presented some of the main points of my work and replied to the questions and challenges they put. It was a bit ambitious to present it in spoken Sanskrit, as I’ve been out of shape, but they appreciated it very much, since no student dares to do so. The whole thing was filmed, but the audio quality is poor and the noise from the construction downstairs is annoying…

1. I started by reading out my mangalacarana and explaining its meaning. Dr. A. Singh objected that the meaning was clear and there was no need to explain anything, and then Dr. Jha intervened saying that I was making relevant points about my parampara and philosophy and therefore should carry on.

2. When I stated that God is to be known by the Vedas, they questioned the basis for taking this kind of evidence. I replied that for those who are ‘astikas’, the authority of the Vedas is beyond doubt, but not for the ‘nastikas’, and therefore the approach to deal with this topic must be different in each case. They preferred not to stick to the ‘nastika’ argument and let me go ahead.

3. I made the point that God being real, the world must be real too. Dr. Jha asked how the world can be real if it is manifested by maya, to which I replied that maya is also real. I was describing ‘jivesu taratamyam’ (the gradation among the living entities) and they played with my words by calling Dr. Jivesh, who was working in the next room, and then asked me what would be his gradation…

4. At last, the director of the Faculty, Dr. Panda, arrived. Dr. A. Singh took the opportunity to express how glad they are to have such a student. That made me blush...

5. Dr. Rohatam inquired about the nature of the incarnations of the Lord, and Dr. Jha asked about the relation between suddha-sattva and the material modes.

6. They got on my case after I stated that Srimad Bhagavatam is the supreme pramana. I referred to the Tattva-sandarbha and made a few points, but they couldn’t swallow it…When I asked back what was the difficulty in accepting the supremacy of the Bhagavatam, Dr. Panda kindly remarked that they were there to assess the integrity of my research work, not Lord Caitanya’s doctrine, and finished the case. I invited those who objected for a debate later on ;-) In the end, Dr. Caturvedi asked what is the meaning of Vrndavana, why Radharani is called Lord Krishna’s heart, and who is Tulasi :-)

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Pastimes of Saksi Gopala

The deity is an absolutely beautiful tri-bhanga, murali-dhara form, about 6 feet tall

The Appearance of Lord Saksi Gopala

After Lord Krishna’s departure from this world, the Pandavas decided to retire from state affairs and give up all worldly connections to set an example for future generations. Maharaja Yuddhisthira appointed Pariksit, the son of Abhimanyu, to rule Hastinapura, and Vajranabha, the son of Aniruddha, to rule Mathura. Due to their family relation, they grew up as close friends and in all respects honored the glory of the Kuru and Yadu dynasties. It was the desire of Vajranabha to install deities of Lord Krishna, His great-grandfather, in several places around Mathura, but he never had the opportunity to see Him. His friend Pariksit had seen Him only when he was still in the womb of His mother, Uttara. Thus, she was the only person who could accurately give details about the features of the Lord. According to her directions, Vajranabha carved several deities using a special kind of black stone called ‘vajra,’ which is said to be imperishable, strong like diamond. First, he carved three deities and asked Uttara if they resemble the Lord. Upon seeing Govindaji, she said that the face was perfect; upon seeing Gopinatha, she said that the navel was the same; and upon seeing Madana-mohana, she said that His feet were very similar. Afterwards, Vajranabha carved Harideva, Kesavaji, Baladeva, Nathaji, and Gopala, Who later would become well-known as Saksi Gopala. Besides these, he also carved four deities of Lord Siva and four devis: Ganga, Vrnda, Yogamaya and Durga, and then installed all these sixteen deities in different places in Vraja-mandala.

The original Govinda, Gopinatha and Madana-mohana

According to Your Faith

Gopala’s temple became very popular and people from all over India used to visit it. It used to be situated in front of an ancient Hanuman temple in the area where the temple of Govindaji was built in the 16th century. It is difficult to say in which century the following incidents took place, but probably it was before the Christian era, when historical facts were hardly ever registered with specific dates. Once upon a time, a young brahmana and an old brahmana from a village in the Vidyanagara district, a city nowadays situated in Andhra Pradesh, decided to go on a pilgrimage to Vrndavana. Somehow they met on the way and the young brahmana was constantly rendering all kinds of services to the old man. After many days of travelling, they arrived in Vrndavana and went to visit Lord Gopala’s temple. They were both delighted by His beauty and spent the day there. The old man was feeling very much indebted by all the service he was receiving from the boy and decided to reciprocate by offering his daughter in marriage to him. Upon hearing such a proposal, the boy replied that he belonged to a poor and uneducated family, while the old brahmana belonged to an aristocratic and learned family, therefore such marriage should not happen. The old man insisted, and the boy again argued that even if he is so determined to give his daughter, the other relatives will certainly object. The old man kept on insisting and at last, the boy proposed that if he really desires this marriage, then he should promise before Lord Gopala. They both went before the deity and the old brahmana declared that he would definitely marry his daughter to the boy. After visiting all places in Vrndavana, they set back to Vidyanagara.

When the old man arrived home, he told his relatives everything, but they became hysterical after hearing about the marriage settlement. They threatened to commit suicide if he gives the girl to a poor man. Meanwhile, the young brahmana was wondering why it was taking so long for the old man to fulfill his promise. He went to his house and questioned him about the matter. The old man’s son intervened and put him to run. The boy went to the central market and called the attention of the people around and told them all that had happened. The local people then called the old brahmana to settle the issue. Upon being interrogated, the old man just said that he could not remember exactly what he had said. His son came along and said that the boy had actually stolen his father and given intoxicants to him, and now was making stories to get his daughter in marriage. He demanded a witness to corroborate his claims. The boy replied that he did have a witness: Lord Gopala. The old man’s son happened to be an atheist, therefore he boldly declared that if Gopala would go there to bear testimony, they would certainly give the girl’s hand. The boy was a staunch devotee, and having full faith in the Lord, he set back to Vrndavana. He arrived at the temple and reported everything to Gopalaji. The deity then told him that there was no reason to worry and that the boy should just go back and He would appear there to help him. The boy argued that people would not believe unless the deity Himself would come with him. Lord Gopala asked the boy how could a deity possibly walk, and the boy replied that if a deity can speak, then why would He not walk? In this way, Lord Gopala agreed to accompany His devotee under the condition that he should not look backwards. He would walk just behind him and the boy would know it by the sound of His ankle bells. In case he violated this condition, the Lord would not move forward anymore. So they both started to South India.

They travelled for a hundred days, and when they reached the border of the village, the boy could not hear the tinkling of the ankle bells. Being anxious, he turned back and saw the Lord smiling at him. The Lord ordered him to go and tell everyone that He had arrived and was waiting for them. When all the villagers saw the Lord they were astonished. At last, Gopalaji gave testimony and the brahmana couple was duly married.

The main gate of the temple

The structure was meant to be a miniature of the Jagannatha temple

Again Following His Devotee

The king of that region soon heard the whole story, went to visit Lord Gopala, and immediately gave orders to build a temple on the spot. Many centuries passed until Purusottama Deva was born in 1466. He later became the king of Odisha and was known as a great devotee of Lord Jagannatha, having introduced the practice of sweeping the path before the Lord’s chariot during His ratha-yatra. After assuming the throne, he desired to marry the daughter of the king of Vidyanagara, but the king flatly refused and said that he would not marry his daughter to a sweeper. Taking this as a great insult to himself and to Lord Jagannatha, Purusottama Deva promptly gathered his army and attacked Vidyanagara. On that occasion, however, he was defeated and came back to Odisha humiliated. He went before Lord Jagannatha and pleaded His help to save his honor. On that night, Lord Jagannatha appeared in his dream and promised that on the next battle He Himself and His brother Balarama would fight in the king’s camp. Again he set with his army. Meanwhile, a lady was passing on the road with her pots for selling yogurt in the market when she saw two very handsome young men: one had a black complexion and rode a white horse, and the other had a white complexion and rode a black horse. The two young men, dressed in fine silken clothes and expensive ornaments, resembled demigods. They stopped and asked the lady to drink some yogurt. The lady was happy to feed them, but when it was time to pay, the two boys said: “We have no money here. Our brother, the King, is coming on this way very soon. Take this ring and show it to the King and he will pay you.” Soon afterwards, the lady met King Purushottama Deva, who was coming in front of his army and approached him, asking for payment for the yogurt. The King was amazed at the story, but when he saw the ring the boys had given her, he had no more doubts: it was indeed one of the jewels from Jagannatha’s treasure. The King felt this occurrence as a special blessing of Jagannatha, Who wanted to reassure him of victory. In this way, after defeating the opponents, Purusottama Deva returned to Cuttack, the capital of Odisha in those days, carrying with him the princess and the deity of Lord Saksi Gopala.

Saksi Gopala stayed in Cuttack for several years, until the king decided to move to Puri, and thus Gopala went along and was given a place inside Jagannatha mandir. Somehow, He could not adjust to the timings of the offerings there, and in a dream told the king that He wanted to move away from there. The king built a temple about 20 km from Puri, and since then Lord Gopala stays there, in a village called Saksi Gopala.

The Garuda-stambha

Disclaimer: none of the above pictures were taken by me. They were downloaded from the internet.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Music and the Heart

But who has ever heard of a happy end?

         Once a neighbor came to visit me in the university hostel when I happened to be watching a violin concerto. Interestingly, he asked me if playing the violin would make one a better person, to which I promptly replied that rather than improving the formation of one’s character and values, it often spoils both. With due respect to the exceptions, in years of conservatory and after that, most of the musicians I have met, seen or heard of fit into one or more of these categories: arrogant, puffed-up, over-temperamental, mentally unbalanced, drunkard, debauchee, or as a matter of fact, stupid. Many even fit into all these simultaneously, in spite of admirable expertise. Anywhere in the world, musicians as a class are looked upon with airs of suspicion and disdain. This makes me wonder if from music any good quality accrues at all…  In defiance of my view, I have met a certain number of musicians who seem to be quite convinced about the innumerable attributes that are magnified or generated by music, up to the point of projecting even a religious dimension to it or looking at it in a deified way. This view, however, is usually subjective, sentimental and based on a romantic view of reality rather than facts and tangible evidence. Indeed, it seems to be a perception induced by the quick and intense response that music can produce in some individuals who are particularly receptive to it. Now, if someone says that ice cream tastes great, I might agree, but if from its heavenly flavor one starts advocating that its consumption leads to the development of lofty qualities and divinity, I would say, “Hold on!” As it is said in logic: ‘phalena pariciyate,’ we can judge by the result.


            Do I mean to say that music and ice cream are similar? In a certain way, since each of our senses is bound to a particular sense object. There is no means to prove that a gourmet is feeling less pleasure through palatable dishes than a musician through music, for in that case food represents the same for the tongue as music does for the ears. Similarly, a painter is inclined to appreciate form and color in a very refined way and thus gratify the mind through the eyes. How could the mere contact of the senses and their objects degrade or elevate someone? That is dependent on the individual’s mentality and interaction with the modes of nature. Usually, most people are just pushed by their own karma to act or find pleasure in a specific way, either in goodness, passion or ignorance. In the case of these last two, without much critical and deliberate attitude towards their own living principles, supposing they have any at all.


            As this is a world of relativity, the interactions of the modes create an unlimited gradation of nuances between unlimited ways of thinking and acting. Thus, art is also conditioned by nature and it is moulded according to time, place, circumstance and individual. From the time of creation, art is present in all human societies, either so-called civilized or so-called uncivilized, from the most barbarian groups up to the highly intellectual ones.  Much more than the technical ability required, the development of musical complexities in the form of harmony, counterpoint, etc., evinces the refinement of thought and expression reached at a certain stage. It is quite obvious to me that some people don’t respond to music at all, just as some don’t respond to poetry, philosophy, etc., while others will respond according to their idiosyncrasy, cultural background, sensibility, taste, etc.  In this way, we can comparatively classify music according to distinct parameters in terms of the modes of nature, the level of structural development, and the class of people who appreciate it.


            One of the interesting features of the extremely opposite interaction of the modes of nature is the way they clash. For example, for a person fond of Baroque music, with its very refined harmonic principles, instrumental technique and ornamentation, most contemporary pop music might sound revolting. This may sound snobby, but compared to the musicality of an accomplished musician expert in the European music of the 18th and 19th centuries, the most renowned pop stars display the musicality of an ass. On the other hand, for those fond of pop music, classical music may sound boring. The same as everything else, just like a vegetarian could vomit simply by thinking of what a meat-eater eats, while the latter thinks vegetarian food is tasteless. Ironically, each of the modes leads one to think that whatever one does or thinks is the right thing… The point I am making here is how relative values might be and how our tendencies are conditioned in a particular way by nature via social, cultural, environmental, familiar, and religious factors to the point that all our habits and tastes are more or less a reflection of them, and if we speak of a scale of values existent for everything in life, we will be situated either up or down depending on the referential point we accept. Even this referential point is also usually dependent on those factors, though. In this way, both autonomy and heteronomy play important roles in the formation of one’s cultural and intellectual assets, but ultimately what determines one’s steady progress is a deliberate and selective absorption of the elements acquired through both, provided one has a clear conception of the aims to be attained and their means.


Music in Ancient Greece and India


            Notwithstanding so many weird ideas, the philosophical concepts taught by Socrates and later elaborated by Plato and others resemble so much those based on the Vedas that it would be possible to draw several parallels between both. Therefore, it is no surprise that factually the view Plato and Aristotle hold about music matches considerably that presented by the śāstras. Socrates and Plato conceived perfection as belonging to a perfect, ideal world, from which everything in this world is but a shadow or reflection. The different artistic representations are merely an attempt to express the original, ideal beauty that characterizes the ideal world. Thus, music for them was a means to approach sublime beauty and perfection through divine inspiration. However, they were aware of the powerful effects music exerts on man’s consciousness and therefore were very cautious regarding its application. For Socrates, ethics was an essential principle to be observed by those aspiring for moral and intellectual advancement, while any lenience towards hedonism meant corruption. Bearing this view, Plato and Aristotle clearly defined how restricted music should be in an ideal society. They particularly condemned purely instrumental music as an unnecessary act of self-amusement and egotism, while the chanting of instructive songs, dramatic performances, prayers and hymns was encouraged as being conducive to divinity. On this basis, they supported musical education from the very childhood as an important element in the formation of one’s character. Plato believed musical training to be a very potent tool for building one’s mind. Therefore, he instigated the search for a particular combination of melody, harmony and rhythm that would produce brave men. He holds love for beauty to be the supreme purpose of music, but made it clear that merely by music it is not possible to attain superior knowledge or the ultimate good.


            The Greeks were convinced that the various musical modes exert different effects on the mind, and hence they were selective regarding their specific usages. In his Politics, Aristotle describes that the Mixolydian mode makes men sad and grave; the Dorian mode produces a moderate temperament; the Phrygian mode inspires enthusiasm, etc. Plato, in his Republic, hints that the Ionian mode generates indolence and torpor, and the Lydian mode is to be given up by ladies who want to preserve their honor and by men who value their manliness. Aristotle further affirms that by indulging in mundane music one may develop a pervert mentality. Upon having a teleological reflection on music, Aristotle was more concerned with its pragmatic dimension than with the metaphysical one, since he viewed music as a means of education and intellectual entertainment required to refresh the mind in leisure hours, for he believed that being a pleasure of superior order, it would satisfy a man’s needs and prevent him from taking recourse to vulgar forms of pleasure. Quite noble.


            Similarly, in India, the Vedic tradition conferred to music a distinct but restricted scope. Arts are referred to in texts supplementary to the Vedas, usually called Upavedas, such as the Gāndharva Veda, and in the artha-śāstras, which deal with several activities required in human society.  The chanting of the Sāma Veda mantras was a preeminent activity exclusively done by the priestly order, while instrumental music played an important role in entertaining the deities in the temples as well as the royalty, being performed mostly by śūdras.  Apart from these, the dharma-śāstras clearly prohibit brāhmaṇas and brahmacārīs to indulge in music. Describing the duties of a snātaka, or one who completed his studies, the Viṣṇu-smṛti (71.70) states that he must not dance or sing mundane songs. Manu (2.178) is very specific when stating the duties of a brahmacārī:


abhyaṅga-mañjanaṁ cākṣṇor-upānac-chatradhāraṇam |

kāmaṁ krodhaṁ ca lobhaṁ ca nartanaṁ gītavādanam ||

“A celibate student should refrain from anointing his body with oil, applying collyrium to his eyes, from the use of shoes and of an umbrella, from lust, anger, covetousness, dancing, singing, and playing musical instruments.”


And about a snātaka, Manu (4.64) says:


na nṛtyed atha vā gāyen na vāditrāṇi vādayeta

“Let him not dance, nor sing, nor play musical instruments.”


Although the kṣatriyas are allowed some concessions, they are warned:


mṛgayā akṣo divāsvapnaḥ parivādaḥ striyo madaḥ |

tauryatrikaṁ vṛthāṭyā ca kāmajo daśako gaṇaḥ || Manu 7.47


“Hunting, gambling, sleeping during the day, slandering,  women, intoxication, dancing, singing, playing music, and useless travel are the tenfold  vices springing from lust.”


Within the context, it was particularly advised to the kings that these vices lead to loss of wealth and virtue, since they had more facilities to engage in the above activities than the other classes, but the tone clearly hints that anyone should be aware of any of these items. I cannot testify to the other nine, but I can promptly relate music to the concept of vice, as it produces psychological dependency, emotional upheaval, obsession, hankering, etc. Its proportion can extend to limits known only to those who have gone through it. Practically, one may become thoroughly haunted by music, breathe music, eat music, drink music, feel it running in the blood, hear it inside the mind twenty-four hours a day, awaken or asleep, see music in the ten directions, make music one’s religion, hardly think of anything else, be ready to live or die for it. This condition can indeed last for a lifetime or more, and I wouldn’t blame those who can’t help but call it love. I believe this to be the common state shared by any true musician, in contrast to those who simply developed a superficial skill or appreciation, but I doubt it can be learnt or imitated.


            If the stricture is so regarding students and kṣatriyas, naturally much more rigour is expected from those in the vānaprastha and sannyāsa āśramas:


grāmya-gītaṁ na śṛṇuyād

yatir vana-caraḥ kvacit

śikṣeta hariṇād baddhān

mṛgayor gīta-mohitāt

“A saintly person dwelling in the forest in the renounced order of life should never listen to mundane songs or music. Rather, a saintly person should carefully study the example of the deer, who is bewildered by the sweet music of the hunter's horn and is thus captured and killed.”


>>> Ref. VedaBase => SB 11.8.17


Thus, we can conclude that the only āśrama in which the enjoyment of secular music was allowed was the gṛhastha-āśrama, and that only in the case of the kṣatriyas, vaiśyas and śūdras. The reasons for such restrictions are more or less self-evident for those with a minimum comprehension of what the whole śruti and smṛti are about. After all, the Greeks were quite to the point, as we shall see below.



How can music degrade?


            To properly understand scriptural statements, it is required to apply accurate exegetical principles in given contextual instances, but the general way to look through Vedic culture and all the rules and regulations comprised in it is to have in mind that literally everything must be aimed at reaching the ultimate goal of life, love of God. Therefore, any means to promote this cause are emphasized, while even the most accomplished deeds not directly related to it are discarded as useless:


dharmaḥ svanuṣṭhitaḥ puṁsāṁ

viṣvaksena-kathāsu yaḥ

notpādayed yadi ratiṁ

śrama eva hi kevalam


“The occupational activities a man performs according to his own position are only so much useless labor if they do not provoke attraction for the message of the Personality of Godhead.”


>>> Ref. VedaBase => SB 1.2.8


On this basis, we can classify music in two categories: that which leads to God realization, and that which does not. By the influence of the modes of nature, we understand that music can also be divided according to goodness, passion and ignorance. Only the mode of goodness is conducive to spiritual advancement, for passion and ignorance are opposite to it and are direct means of degradation. The distinctions between them can be clearly defined in terms of the results produced:


karmaṇaḥ sukṛtasyāhuḥ

sāttvikaṁ nirmalaṁ phalam

rajasas tu phalaṁ duḥkham

ajñānaṁ tamasaḥ phalam


“The result of pious action is pure and is said to be in the mode of goodness. But action done in the mode of passion results in misery, and action performed in the mode of ignorance results in foolishness.”


>>> Ref. VedaBase => Bg 14.16


As expected in the age of Kali, most of what common people call music is totally under the lower modes, and the result is visible. Factually, it is notorious how certain musical genders are directly connected with intoxication and promiscuity, or are their very propellers.  Being so, it is somewhat clear that one must abide by the scriptural injunctions if he desires to prevent the Phoenix of previous samskāras from taking off, as well as the formation of undesirable new ones.


            So, we are left with the music in goodness, but still, that would lead to two implications: Is this really in goodness? If so, can one take it to one’s heart’s content without any risk? The first consideration in this regard is that another feature of Kali-yuga is the inexistence of uncontaminated goodness in nearly everything, just like even the air and the water are contaminated in most places, and despite their original properties in a pure state, they can be thoroughly harmful. As far as I have seen, only Baroque music and Indian classical ragas offer instances that could eventually fit in the mode of goodness to some extent. But even in those cases, I would take into consideration several factors, such as the mental disposition of the composer and the performer. I would totally disregard the case of any piece that leads to any kind of emotional excitement, as this obviously characterizes passion. Ironically, emotional response is usually intended by the composer, the performer and the audience. Indeed, in the classical and romantic periods, the composers displayed eminence in conducting the public through intense emotional trips, from laughter to flowing tears.  If we could isolate some genuine pieces in the mode of goodness, then what harm there could be? In spite of its superiority over the lower modes, goodness is still a material mode, and especially in the case of those who perform or compose music, the great danger it offers is increasing the bodily identification through pride and self-conceit, which are factually demoniac qualities, while the soul has nothing to do with the activities performed by the body:    


prakṛteḥ kriyamāṇāni

guṇaiḥ karmāṇi sarvaśaḥ


kartāham iti manyate


“The spirit soul bewildered by the influence of false ego thinks himself the doer of activities that are in actuality carried out by the three modes of material nature.”


>>> Ref. VedaBase => Bg 3.27


For the general public, sense enjoyment in goodness is still sense enjoyment, and the senses are by nature ever demanding and never satiated. Looking for happiness through sensual repletion is one of the most utopian hopes, and history has seen many an Epicurean system rise and succumb.  When King Bali offered to Lord Vāmanadeva anything He might desire within the universe, the Lord replied:


śrī-bhagavān uvāca

yāvanto viṣayāḥ preṣṭhās

tri-lokyām ajitendriyam

na śaknuvanti te sarve

pratipūrayituṁ nṛpa


“The Personality of Godhead said: O my dear King, even the entirety of whatever there may be within the three worlds to satisfy one's senses cannot satisfy a person whose senses are uncontrolled.”


>>> Ref. VedaBase => SB 8.19.21



            To make it short, even a pinch of attraction for anything in this world will make us accept another material body. A grown-up man’s play with a musical instrument is not necessarily less childish or more meaningful than a kid’s play with toys, and to think otherwise is a superimposition. If one thinks it is worth to go again through the pains of birth, disease, old age and death just to try to enjoy music, then good luck, but just remark that no amount of musical talent can assure one the chance to get another human body in the next life.


How can music elevate?


            So, should one conclude that music is very bad and we should give it up altogether? Wrong conclusion, for simply rejecting everything is an immature renouncement, which resembles more voidism than what is positively taught in the śāstras, as defined by Rūpa Gosvāmī:


anāsaktasya viṣayān yathārham upayuñjataḥ

nirbandhaḥ kṛṣṇa-sambandhe yuktaṁ vairāgyam ucyate

prāpañcikatayā buddhyā hari-sambandhi-vastunaḥ

mumukṣubhiḥ parityāgo vairāgyaṁ phalgu kathyate


"When one is not attached to anything, but at the same time accepts everything in relation to Kṛṣṇa for His service, his renouncement is called complete. On the other hand, one who, desiring liberation, rejects everything without knowledge of its relationship to Kṛṣṇa is not complete in his renunciation." (Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu 1.2.255-256)


Sharing the qualities of God in a minute proportion, the soul is constitutionally eternally blissful, and this implies eternal and unlimited varieties of rāsa. It is clear that the desire for art is inherent in the soul and that the supreme purpose of all artistic manifestations is to increment the rasas between Lord Kṛṣṇa and the soul. We understand from the scriptures that the material vibration propagated in the ether is but an imitation of the original, spiritual vibration emanating from the spiritual world. Therefore, even in this material world, which is the abode of all miseries and the stage for all abominations, we can hear music that transports the mind to a dimension diametrically opposed to anything else perceived in external life. I fully agree with all those who express how music transpires the divine. I think of the Common Practice Period music as the acme of the expression of beauty possible in this world as conceived by the Greeks. A thousand times while listening to the music of Bach or Mozart, I thought how Fausto went a long way in the search for the fugacious moment simply because he did not hear this, and I wished that time stop.  The loftiness of their music can compare to that of the ocean or the stars, and I can’t help but see God’s hand behind it. In the case of those who don’t, I can just say that they have a huge deficit of pious activities:


yad yad vibhūtimat sattvaṁ

śrīmad ūrjitam eva vā

tat tad evāvagaccha tvaṁ

mama tejo-'ṁśa-sambhavam


“Know that all opulent, beautiful and glorious creations spring from but a spark of My splendor.”


>>> Ref. VedaBase => Bg 10.41


This made me realize that if we got this kind of musical sublimity here, how much more God must have reserved for Himself and those in the spiritual world! Nevertheless, I would not magnify this process, for it is still quite an indirect, impersonal, diluted way to look at God, and one may very easily miss the path. The attempt to fly with music may well be another Icarus dream.  It is better to go for the real thing than to run after the shadow. When music is used to glorify the Supreme Lord along with selected verses from the śruti and smṛti and choice poetry composed by the ācāryas, that is much beyond the mode of goodness and is called transcendental. I would say that the musical gender here is secondary, being subordinate to the Lord’s Holy Names and therefore purified by Them. Still, I feel compelled to think that classical bhajan is the standard and the ideal. This is the very apotheosis of music, which can factually clean one’s heart from all unwanted things, give one all desired objects and propitiate Lord Kṛṣṇa, Who is the supreme artist, the original musician and the source of all artistic inspiration, and therefore, the ultimate beneficiary of all artistic offerings. 


             But what about those who are still attached to mundane music? One of the advantages of the process of Kṛṣṇa consciousness is engaging one from whatever position one might be situated in. Although secular music is not encouraged in the scriptures, it is also not directly condemned as an abominable activity, and therefore nothing prevents one from performing music as an offering to Kṛṣṇa, as He states:


yat karoṣi yad aśnāsi

yaj juhoṣi dadāsi yat

yat tapasyasi kaunteya

tat kuruṣva mad-arpaṇam


“Whatever you do, whatever you eat, whatever you offer or give away, and whatever austerities you perform— do that, O son of Kuntī, as an offering to Me.”


>>> Ref. VedaBase => Bg 9.27


The main criterion in bhakti is the sincerity of purpose, for the Lord is seated in everyone’s heart and there is no way to deceive Him. Even if a performance is motivated by the desire for prestige, money and personal gratification, it can be offered to Kṛṣṇa, but better to be honest in admitting these shortcomings and earnestly pray to get rid of them so that we can become purified from all material contamination and thus progress towards Him. Whatever benefit or pleasure one obtains from music, whether real or apparent, is directly or indirectly emanating from God, and since He is the One seated in everyone’s heart, only He can positively transform and purify one’s heart based on one’s activities and purposes. Music can only be indeed purifying and permanently rewarding when part of the process of surrendering unto God, but we have to bear in mind that full surrender means to do whatever He wants from us, rather than what we want. If we become receptive to His wish, we will eventually realize that He might have reserved for us things much better than those desired by us through selfish musical enterprises.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Vaisnava Epistemology- The Pramanas

Paramatma in the heart of all is the original source of all knowledge and therefore the ultimate object of knowledge

Pratyaksa, anumana and sabda are the Pramanas

Everything that one acquires in life comes by a specific means, and this is also true regarding knowledge. The pramāṇas are a means not only for acquiring knowledge but also for verifying its validity or invalidity. In simple words, Keśava Miśra gives the following definitions in his Tarka-bhāṣā (1.2-4):

pramā-karaṇaṁ pramāṇam, atra pramāṇaṁ lakṣyaṁ, pramā-karaṇaṁ lakṣaṇam


“Pramāṇa is the proper means for acquiring correct cognition, pramā. Here the means is the object to be defined, and its being the instrument of such cognition is its attribute.”


Then, what is pramā, valid knowledge or correct cognition?


yāthārthānubhavaḥ pramā


“Pramā is the perception or apprehension of an object as it really is.”


To summarize it— an object of knowledge, prameya, can be proved by a valid means of evidence, pramāṇa, thus resulting in valid knowledge, pramā. Different schools of philosophy accept or reject different pramāṇas to support their views. Here is a brief overview:


Pratyakṣa— Direct sense perception. The contact of the five senses— eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin, with their respective objects— form, sound, smell, taste and touch, produce a kind of knowledge that is taken as real by the sentient being. However, its reliability is subjective, doubtful, and in many circumstances proved wrong. Under certain conditions, sense perception can be hampered and mislead one into an erroneous apprehension. For example, the form of objects in a dim place can create a misperception of their identity. One cannot see an object that is too far, such as a bird flying very high, nor too near, such as the eyelids, nor too small, such as the atom. Nor can one see the stars and planets during the day due to the rays of the sun. Nor can one see how in milk there is the potential for turning into curd. Under the influence of some disease or due to mental agitation, one may have a distorted perception, just as a jaundice patient sees white objects as yellowish and tastes sugar as bitter. Still, atheistic philosophers like Cārvāka accept only pratyakṣa as a source of knowledge. The very proposal of a system that rejects other pramāṇas is ludicrous, for even daily life would be impractical if we were to completely reject inference and verbal testimony. Therefore, Cārvāka is mocked by the following verse:


cārvāka tava cārvāṅgīṁ jārato vīkṣa garbhiṇīm

pratyakṣa-mātra-viśvāso ghana-śvāsaṁ kim ujjhasi


“Hey, Cārvāka, who believes only in direct perception! Why are you sighing heavily after seeing your beautiful wife pregnant by a paramour?”


Moreover, spiritual knowledge is totally beyond the range of the material senses, as stated in the Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu (Pūrva-vibhāga 2.234):


ataḥ śrī-kṛṣṇa-nāmādi na bhaved grāhyam indriyaiḥ


“Therefore material senses cannot appreciate Kṛṣṇa’s holy name, form, qualities and pastimes.”


Anumāna— Inference. The knowledge of an object, the major term, by means of the analysis of another object, the middle term, is called inference. For instance, by the perception of smoke, the middle term, one may conclude the presence of fire, the major term. But inference is also not thoroughly unfailing, for in the given example we see that when a fire is put out by water, smoke keeps on coming out for some time. Inference is an essential element in logic, but as far as Brahman is concerned, it is stated in the Kaṭha Upaniṣad (1.2.9):


naiṣā tarkeṇa matir apaneyā


 “This knowledge cannot be attained by logic.”


In the Brahmā-sūtra (2.1.11):


tarkāpratiṣṭhānād api,


“Because logic is not conclusive.”


In the Mahā-bhārata (6.6.11), it is said:


acintyāḥ khalu ye bhāvā na tāṁs tarkeṇa yojayet


“Transcendental things are certainly inconceivable. One cannot approach them by logic.”


Since the other pramāṇas, with the exception of śabda, are directly or indirectly dependent on pratyakṣa or anumāna, and since these are themselves inefficient, their capacity to lead to valid knowledge is also compromised. The validity of the knowledge gathered by either pratyakṣa or anumāna can be verified by taking to another pramāṇa to corroborate it. Jīva Gosvāmī illustrates this point by presenting a quite unusual situation: suppose under a particular climatic condition, such as in the middle of fog or smoke, one has the impression of seeing a head flying. For a moment, he might doubt what his eyes are seeing, but if at that time a voice from the sky states: “Listen, this is really a head flying,” then even the most unexpected sense perception has to be trusted…


Ārṣa— Words spoken by the sages. However, it is well known that the sages disagree among themselves, as the Mahā-bhārata (Vana-parva 313.117) says: nāsāv ṛṣir yasya mataṁ na bhinnam: “One is not considered a philosopher if his opinion does not differ from the opinions of other philosophers.”


Upamāna— Comparison. An unknown object can be identified based on the description of a similar object that is known. Just like one who has never seen a buffalo may be able to identify it after hearing the description of a cow. Here it is required that one must have seen a buffalo through direct sense perception and the other must infer the identity of a buffalo upon seeing one. Therefore, some do not consider upamāna to be a different pramāṇa.


Arthāpatti— When the cause of an irrevocable fact is not visible but can be guessed on the basis of evident symptoms, such a deduction is called arthāpatti. For example, a fat person who is never seen eating during the day must presumably eat at night, even though unseen by others, for it is a fact that without eating, nobody can remain fat. Thus, this is considered another form of inference.


Abhāva— Non-existence. By the non-perception of an object, one gets knowledge about its absence in a particular place and time. Some consider this just a negative aspect of direct sense perception, for it is totally dependent on it.


Sambhava— Inclusion. By means of inclusion, we understand how something is contained within a group or amount, just as within a hundred people there must be ten people. This is also a simple way of inference.


Aitihya— Historical evidence. A fact that is known by the public and is passed from generation to generation, although its original source is unknown, is called aitihya. Some consider this another form of pratyakṣa, for there must be an original person who witnessed the events happen. Then again, the authenticity of the information will depend on the integrity of such a person and those who transmitted it.


Ceṣṭā— Gestures. One can transmit or acquire knowledge by gestures such as the movements of the fingers or the head.


Śabda— Super-human (apauruṣeya) verbal testimony. Even ordinary verbal testimony is accepted in common affairs as evidence for facts that are beyond one’s experience. For instance, the acknowledgement of one’s father based on the statement of the mother. The Vedas are the real means for understanding Brahman, as stated in the śruti:


nāvedavin manute taṁ bṛhantam (Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa, 3.12.7)


“One who does not know the Vedas does not know the Supreme.”


aupaniṣadaṁ puruṣaṁ pṛcchāmi (Bṛhad-āraṇyaka Upaniṣad, 3.9.26)


“I am asking you about the Supreme Person taught in the Upaniṣads.”


And the Vedānta-sūtra (1.1.3; 2.1.27) prescribes:




 “Because the Supreme Lord should be understood through the sacred scriptures.”


śrutes tu śabda-mūlatvāt


“Because the scriptures are the only basis of knowledge about the Supreme Lord.”


The smṛti corroborates:


yatra cādyaḥ pumān āste bhagavān śabda-gocaraḥ

sattvaṁ viṣṭabhya virajaṁ svānāṁ no mṛḍayan vṛṣaḥ

(Bhāgavatam, 3.15.15)


“In the Vaikuṇṭha planets is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Who is the original person and Who can be understood through the Vedic literature. He is full of the uncontaminated mode of goodness, with no place for passion or ignorance. He contributes religious progress for the devotees.”


Being of super-human origin, the Vedas are free from the four human defects: (1) bhrama (error), or the tendency to take the real for the unreal or the unreal for the real, such as a rope for a snake, etc.; (2) pramāda, mistakes arising from carelessness or inattention; (3) karaṇāpaṭava, limitations of the senses, which result in erroneous perceptions; and (4) vipralipsā, the desire to deceive. The Vedas are said to be eternal, emanated from the Supreme Being, and thus not subjected to human frailties. As stated in the scriptures:


vācā virūpa nityayā (Ṛg Veda, 8.75.6)


“O Lord Who has multiple forms, please inspire us to glorify You with the eternal words of the Vedas.”


anādi-nidhanā nityā vāg utsṛṣṭā svayambhuvā

ādau veda-mayī divyā yataḥ sarvāḥ pravṛttayaḥ

(Mahā-bhārata, 12.224.55)


“In the beginning of creation, the Supreme Lord emitted the eternal, beginningless, endless, and transcendental words in the form of the Vedas, from which all other scriptures have come.”


pitṛ-deva-manuṣyāṇāṁ vedaś cakṣus taveśvara

śreyas tv anupalabdhe ‘rthe sādhya-sādhanayor api

(Bhāgavatam, 11.20.4)


“My dear Lord, in order to understand those things beyond direct experience—such as spiritual liberation or attainment of heaven and other material enjoyments beyond our present capacity—and in general to understand the means and end of all things, the forefathers, demigods and human beings must consult the Vedic literatures, which are Your own laws, for these constitute the highest evidence and revelation.”


Therefore, Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism accepts only three kinds of evidence, as corroborated by the smṛti:


pratyakṣaṁ cānumānaṁ ca śāstraṁ ca vividhāgamam

trayaṁ suviditaṁ kāryaṁ dharma-śuddhim abhīpsatā

(Manu-saṁhitā, 12.105)


“One who desires to attain a clear understanding of dharma should be well conversant with these three— direct perception, inference, and the various sacred scriptures.”


śrutiḥ pratyakṣam aitihyam anumānaṁ catuṣṭayam (Bhāgavatam, 11.19.17)


“The Vedas, direct perception, tradition, and inference— these are the four kinds of evidence.”


Here pratyakṣa and anumāna are subordinated to śabda and never independent of it, due to the above-mentioned reasons.

Now, it may be argued that śabda refers exclusively to the śruti— the four Saṁhitās, the Upaniṣads, the Brāhmaṇas, and the Āraṇyakas. In reply to this charge, in his Tattva Sandarbha, Jīva Gosvāmī extensively elaborated on the authenticity of the smṛti, particularly of Śrīmad-Bhāgavata Mahā-purāṇa. He says that the non-difference of the Vedas and the Itihāsa-Purāṇa, on the grounds of the Itihāsa-Purāṇa being as apauruṣeya as the Ṛg Veda and other Vedas, is implied in this passage of the Mādhyandina-śruti:


evaṁ vā are ‘sya mahato bhūtasya niḥśvasitam etad yad ṛg-vedo yajur-vedaḥ sāma-vedo ‘tharvāṅgirasa itihāsaḥ purāṇam (Bṛhad-āraṇyaka Up., 2.4.10)


 “Thus indeed the breath of this Supreme Being constitutes the Ṛg Veda, Yajur Veda, Sāma Veda, Atharvāṅgirasa Veda, Itihāsa, and Purāṇa”


In this way, Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism accepts pratyakṣa, anumāna and śabda as means for obtaining valid knowledge but particularly emphasizes that śabda is the only consistent means for spiritual enlightenment. Here, however, there are several conditions under which śabda can progressively fructify, such as detachment and experienced knowledge, which in their turn are all interdependent, being the natural result of the practical application of the instructions received from the scriptures.