domingo, 4 de julio de 2010

A God Who Doesn’t Dance - A Response to Criticisms of Lord Krishna’s Rasa Lila

A God Who Doesn’t Dance

A Response to Criticisms of Lord Krishna’s Rasa Lila

Premananda Dasa (Paul Swinford)

Please join me in a meditation on dance. Srila Prabhupada said that the speech and body movement of the transcendental world are poetic and lyrical. ‘Every word is a song; every step a dance’ [Brahma-Samhita: 56]. Chanting and dancing are essential elements of our teachings and practices. Chanting and dancing are the keys to the heart of our beloved Lord Krishna. The Lord says that the name of a person who once chants His name enters His heart. And, it is in dance that Krishna simultaneously reveals His greatest charm, beauty, compassion, and sweetness.

For example, the first of Krishna’s pastimes that we celebrate during Kartika (Oct-Nov) is rasa lila, the great circle dance in the forests of Vraja between Krishna and the young gopis (cowherd damsels) on the first full moon night of autumn. Next to Bhagavad-gita, the rasa lila is probably Krishna’s most misunderstood pastime. Both are frequently taken out of context. People with little understanding of the Vedic diplomatic code, and the divine sweetness of rasa often paint the Lord as a bloodthirsty warmonger, or a lusty adulterer.

I cannot think of two pastimes of the Lord I’ve had to defend more often. I have had to explain the moral and diplomatic circumstances surrounding the Kuruksetra battle to American Ivy League college students who fear the use of religion as justification for inter-communal or international conflict. And I’ve had to explain to mature members of the Indian community that the rasa lila is an invitation to a plane of mystical intimacy, a plane of divine love beyond human morality. That it is the rasa lila that makes Lord Krishna supreme and unique, that sets Him apart from His Vishnu avatars. That indeed the rasa lila marks such avataras as servants of Krishna who relish facilitating the Lord’s Vrindavana pastimes.

Some time ago, I received an e-mail from an Indian gentleman who had read an essay posted on our temple web site regarding the rasa lila. He began by quoting a paragraph that I had written:

"Many moralists accuse Krishna of adultery - dancing with other men's wives late at night in the forest. Such people do not understand that Krishna is not a human being. Therefore, He is not obligated to abide by human morality."

He respectfully submitted his concerns: “There is one problem with this argument in that Krishna being the Supreme Bhagavan has no duties assigned to HIM, yet HE engaged in various duties to ‘set an example’ to the people. This leads me to believe that the Lord would never engage in activities that set an amoral precedent.”

“This leads me to question the veracity of the conjugal relationship between Radha and Krishna. I have read that Radha is not mentioned in many of the texts and scriptures that describe the activities of the Lord. This is a folklore of romanticist poets to stir public imagination and interest.”

What this gentleman expresses is the tension between moral religion and divine love. Because there are few dependable sources of values and ethics left in our society, many people turn to religion to find them. They believe that religion derives its utility and power from its moral agency. This is why I encounter resistance to the rasa lila among Indian people in particular. It is understandable and to a degree praiseworthy. Many educated and cultured people are inclined to the mode of goodness. Consequently, they are attracted to dharma, responsibility, and morality.

There is a deficiency in the mode of goodness, however, and I believe that this deficiency contributes to confusion about rasa lila. In the mode of goodness, a person becomes conditioned by the happiness that is derived from knowledge and moral religion. As a result, that conditioning causes them to think that morality is the last word in spirituality.

The rasa lila does not exemplify moralistic religion. It is the pinnacle of pure theism, the highest expression of love of Godhead. Advocates of moral religion criticize rasa lila as immoral, ungodly behavior. They believe that social roles should be distinct, clear and obeyed under all circumstances. God, they assert, exists to set an example of how humans should behave at all times.

So, let’s examine the logical consequences of this position. Social roles should be distinct, clear and obeyed at all times. In the case of God then, God should always act like God. He should not act in an ungodly fashion.

Therefore, God should always act as the Master of all beings because He is categorically superior to us in all respects. He should never act as a son of Nanda and Yasoda, barely toddling under the weight of Nanda’s sandals perched upon His head as He brings the shoes to His father. He should never playfully steal butter and yogurt and give it to the monkeys. And He should never dance like a little puppet to entertain Yasoda and her friends as they clap and sing His names. He’s God after all. He’s the father of all living beings and He is completely self-sufficient. He is not a jester. These childhood pastimes are ungodly.

And what is Krishna doing frolicking with the cowherd boys in the fields of Vraja? Why is He dancing in imitation of the peacocks in the woods, delighting the other boys who squeal with laughter? Doesn’t He know this is ungodly behavior? After all, He’s God. No one is His equal, so why is He playing like a friend to these boys? Friendship is based on equality, and none of the boys can hold a candle to Him!

And this business of dancing with the gopis, we’ll have none of this infidelity!

If we take moralistic religion to its logical conclusion, what kind of God is left? A God with no sweetness. A God with no vulnerability. A God with no playfulness. A God who doesn’t dance.

The rasa lila that we celebrate during the month of Kartika is not subject to the rules of moral religion. Krishna tells us as much (Cc, Adi 4.17-33). The pastimes of Vrindavana are based on pure theism, love of Krishna that is not motivated by awe or reverence of His divinity but is enthralled by His character, His sweetness:

“All the universe is filled with the conception of My majesty, but love weakened by that sense of majesty does not satisfy Me. If one regards Me as the Supreme Lord and himself as a subordinate, I do not become subservient to his love, nor can it control Me. In whatever transcendental mellow My devotee worships Me, I reciprocate with him. That is My natural behavior. ‘In whatever way My devotees surrender unto Me, I reward them accordingly. Everyone follows My path in all respects, O son of Prtha.’ If one cherishes pure loving devotion to Me, thinking of Me as his son, his friend or his beloved, regarding himself as great and considering Me his equal or inferior, I become subordinate to him. Devotional service rendered to Me by the living beings revives their eternal life. ‘O My dear damsels of Vraja, your affection for Me is your good fortune, for it is the only means by which you have obtained My favor.’ Mother sometimes binds Me as her son. She nourishes and protects Me, thinking Me utterly helpless. My friends climb on My shoulders in pure friendship, saying, ‘What kind of big man are You? You and I are equal.’ If My beloved consort reproaches Me in a sulky mood, that steals My mind from the reverent hymns of the Vedas. Taking these pure devotees with Me, I shall descend and sport in various wonderful ways, unknown even in Vaikuntha. I shall broadcast such pastimes by which even I am amazed. The influence of yogamäyä will inspire the gopés with the sentiment that I am their paramour. Pure attachment will unite us even at the expense of moral and religious duties [dharma]. Destiny will sometimes bring us together and sometimes separate us. I shall taste the essence of all these rasas, and in this way I shall favor all the devotees. Then, by hearing about the pure love of the residents of Vraja, devotees will worship Me on the path of spontaneous love, abandoning all rituals of religiosity and fruitive activity.”

Advocates of moral religion are welcome to worship a God who does not dance. Then they can be Christians, or Jews, or Moslems. Or worship Vishnu and learn to love God as their master or father, but they are not entitled to criticize the dharma of those attracted by the sweetness and intimacy of Krishna. It is indeed irreligious, immoral and ungodly to criticize the dharma of others (Srila Bhaktivinode Thakur, Sri Krishna Samhita).

Many people worship Rama, but criticize Krishna believing Him to be an adulterer. This is an example of moralistic religion determining which Deity to accept and which to reject. People of this persuasion admire Rama because He descended to demonstrate the perfect execution of dharma. Rama’s moral code was clear – the dharma sastras and the Vedas. Followers of Rama admire His nobility, intelligence, loyalty, and morality.

But how do these people account for Lord Ramacandra’s contribution to what they view as the delinquency of the rasa lila? During Rama’s exile in Dandakaranya forest, a group of sages approached Him. The sight of the Lord spontaneously inspired feelings of intimate divine love in the hearts of these renounced and wise saints. Lord Rama admitted that, as a follower of the Vedas He could not fulfill their desires. He was already married to Sita Devi.

He assured the sages, however, that in His next appearance as Lord Krishna, they would take birth, as gopis and He would then fulfill this deepest, purest desire of their hearts. Rama is the emblem of dharma, how could He tolerate, what to speak of facilitate, immorality? Clearly, there are higher principles at play in the dance between Krishna and the gopis.

Lord Krishna does not lack a moral compass. But His is unique, surpassing even that of His Vishnu manifestations. The exchanges of love in Vishnu lila are typically more reserved, more formal. Distinctions are maintained. The jivas serve the Lord in the spirit of awe and reverence. Reverence means that there is some fear involved. The servant does not wish to displease the all-powerful Master. The Lord is friendly with some of His servants, but they are always mindful of His superiority. There is no egalitarianism. And the Lord has one wife, The Goddess Lakshmi Devi. No one else comes near.

As stated in Bhagavad-gita 4.11, Lord Krishna’s moral compass is tuned in a different direction: True Love, in all its forms. “As they surrender unto Me, I reward them accordingly. Everyone follows My path in all respects.”

Lord Rama doesn’t say this. Nor does Matsya Avatara nor Varaha. Only Krishna. Indeed, Krishna descends to inspire love beyond formality. Krishna allows us to fall in love with His sweetness. Sukadeva Gosvami explains (SB10.29.14), “O King, the Supreme Lord is inexhaustible and immeasurable, and He is untouched by the material modes because He is their controller. His personal appearance in this world is meant for bestowing the highest benefit on humanity.”

The highest benefit for humanity is not morality, it is pure and intimate love of God. The Lord’s first twelve years of pastimes in Vrindavana demonstrate this ultimate purpose. Let us not neglect the fact that after Krishna left Vraja, He meticulously executed Vedic dharma.

The tension between moral religion and pure theism is not lost on Krishna or the gopis in the prelude to the rasa lila. The Lord played His flute in the forest, captivating the hearts of the gopis, who dropped whatever they were doing, ignoring their husbands, brothers and fathers as they rushed into the dark night.

Krishna greeted the gopis with a lecture on public safety and Vedic morality: “This night is quite frightening, and frightening creatures are lurking about. Return to Vraja. This is not a proper place for women. Not finding you at home, your mothers, fathers, sons, brothers and husbands are certainly searching for you. Don’t cause anxiety for your family members. Now you have seen this Vrindavana forest, full of flowers and resplendent with the light of the full moon. You have seen the beauty of the trees, with their leaves trembling in the gentle breeze coming from the Yamunä. So now go back to the cowherd village. Don’t delay. O chaste ladies, serve your husbands and children and calves.”

Then, however, Krishna spoke on the basis of theism, asserting His divinity and the appropriateness of the gopis’ heeding the call of God: “On the other hand, perhaps you have come here out of your great love for Me, which has taken control of your hearts. This is of course quite commendable on your part, since all living entities possess natural affection for Me. The highest religious duty for a woman is to sincerely serve her husband, behave well toward her husband’s family and take good care of her children. Women who desire a good destination in the next life should never abandon a husband who has not fallen from his religious standards… For a woman from a respectable family, petty adulterous affairs are always condemned. They bar her from heaven, ruin her reputation and bring her difficulty and fear. Transcendental love for Me arises by the devotional processes of hearing about Me, seeing My Deity form, meditating on Me and faithfully chanting My glories. The same result is not achieved by mere physical proximity. So please go back to your homes.”

The gopis responded by demonstrating that they are the greatest sages. For them, this was the moment to demonstrate their exclusive commitment to the laws of divine love, rather than the rules of moral religion: “Give up all varieties of religion and simply surrender to Me. I will protect you from all sinful reactions do not fear.”

The gopis responded, “Our dear Krishna, as an expert in religion You have advised us that the proper religious duty for women is to faithfully serve their husbands, children and other relatives. We agree that this principle is valid, but actually this service should be rendered to You. After all, O Lord, You are the dearmost friend of all embodied souls. You are their most intimate relative and indeed their very Self. Expert transcendentalists always direct their affection toward You because they recognize You as their true Self and eternal beloved. What use do we have for these husbands, children and relatives of ours, who simply give us trouble? Therefore, O supreme controller, grant us Your mercy. O lotus-eyed one, please do not cut down our long-cherished hope to have Your association.”

As Arjuna had his moment of complete surrender at Kuruksetra, the gopis, on this night, in the forest of Vrindavana demonstrated their unique form of total dedication to the pleasure of the Supreme Lord. Arjuna's surrender was that of a friend and servant. The gopis' surrender was that of lovers.

As stated by Lord Siva in the Vishnu Purana, the ultimate principle of spirituality is to always remember the Lord and never forget Him. The gopis always thought of Krishna as their husband. That is why they performed the month-long Katyayani Vrata. The Lord told them that He would fulfill their desires – in spirit if not letter – and that is the rasa lila. The rasa lila is an example of pure theism. If we try to measure it by the standard of moral religion, we will completely misunderstand its purpose, and our own invitation to join in Krishna’s dance of love.

Krishna’s dancing in Vrindavana enlivens His intimate friends, His parents and lovers. He also dances for the benefit of the fallen and the ungodly. The Lord danced on the heads of the Kaliya serpent. Typically, the Lord killed demons who interfered in His Vraja pastimes. Kaliya had poisoned the Yamuna River, slaying the cowherd boys who stopped to drink its waters.

Krishna jumped into the Yamuna to confront Kaliya. He mounted the serpent, dancing from head to head of the viper. Krishna’s dancing was artistic, but His feet crushed Kaliya’s skulls. With the serpent near death, Kaliya’s pious wives, who were all great devotees of the Lord, approached Him and prayed for the Lord to be merciful to them and release their husband. The Lord was satisfied with their appeal. He spared Kaliya, who was revived. Humbled, He offered prayers to the Lord with a purified heart.

This dance of compassion continues today. Upon his arrival in the U.S., Srila Prabhupada prayed at Commonwealth Pier to deliver the people of the West, whose hearts were poisoned with illusion, anger, fear, envy, and greed. He asked the Lord to give him the ability to speak for our understanding, and the energy to inspire us to dance:

O spiritual master of all the worlds! I can simply repeat Your message, so if You like You can make my power of speaking suitable for their understanding. Only by Your causeless mercy will my words become pure. I am sure that when this transcendental message penetrates their hearts they will certainly feel engladdened and thus become liberated from all unhappy conditions of life. O Lord, I am just like a puppet in Your hands. So if You have brought me here to dance, then make me dance, make me dance, O Lord, make me dance as You like.

Srila Prabhupada taught us to chant in glorification of the Lord and to dance gracefully and elegantly for His pleasure (SB 4.29.63 purport):

There is an English proverb that says, “The face is the index of the mind.” If one is angry, his anger is immediately expressed in his face. Similarly, other mental states are reflected by the actions of the gross body. In other words, the activities of the gross body are reactions of the mental condition. The mind’s activities are thinking, feeling and willing. The willing portion of the mind is manifest by the activities of the body. The conclusion is that by the activities of the body and senses, we can understand the condition of the mind. The condition of the mind is affected by past activities in the past body. When the mind is joined with a particular sense, it immediately becomes manifest in a certain way. For instance, when there is anger in the mind, the tongue vibrates so many maledictions. Similarly, when the mind’s anger is expressed through the hand, there is fighting. When it is expressed through the leg, there is kicking. There are so many ways in which the subtle activities of the mind are expressed through the various senses. The mind of a person in Krishna consciousness also acts in a similar way. The tongue chants Hare Krishna, the mahä-mantra, the hands are raised in ecstasy, and the legs dance in Krishna consciousness. These symptoms are technically called asta-sattvika-vikara. Sattvika-vikara is transformation of the mental condition in goodness or sometimes transcendental ecstasy.

Though we may be impure like Kaliya, we may nonetheless serve the Lord’s pastimes of dancing by chanting His names. Srila Prabhupada said, “Just like when you chant Krishna, Hare Krishna, actually the fact is Krishna is dancing on your tongue by sound vibration.”

Krishna is the God of love and the Lord of the dance. Worship of Krishna is not dry. Yes, we have ethics and morals to follow. Unless we raise our behavior and conscience to the mode of goodness, we cannot seriously ponder or speak about spirituality. But we can rise to the occasion through practice. And practice in Kali-yuga is nama-sankirtana, glorification of the Holy Names. Of the all names of the Lord we can chant for purification, the Hare Krishna maha-mantra is specified in the Kali-santarana Upanisad as the most effective.

In kirtan and japa, the Lord and His devotees invite us to dance with Him. His hand is outstretched before us, inviting us to dance. This is not the time to worry if He has invited others to dance. It is Krishna’s nature to invite everyone to dance simultaneously. And He is capable of giving each of us individual attention. He is God, but He lets us lead. Each of us is special to Him, while at the same time, all of us are important. This is His kindness, His compassion, His sweetness, His beauty. He can dance as a small child to entertain Yasoda and her friends as they clap and sing His names. He can amuse the cowherd boys by imitating the dancing peacocks of the forest. He can capture the hearts of the gopis in the rasa lila who seek nothing else but to dedicate the entirety of their being for His pleasure. And He can dance on our tongues as we stand and sway before Him in kirtan, inspiring our hearts, blessing us with a deep attraction to His Names.

Krishna’s hand is outstretched before us, inviting us to His eternal dance of divine love. Don’t be suspicious, don’t be selective. Don’t think that Krishna’s dancing is all right in some circumstances, but His dancing in another circumstance is wrong. Krishna dances, and He dances in all His relationships. He will dance His way into our hearts in accordance with our desires, and we must allow Him to dance into the hearts of others in accordance with their heartfelt dedication.

Don’t be a prude or a wallflower. We keep our distance from Krishna at our own peril. It is His hand alone that can save us from the cycle of birth and death. We are at the moment drowning in anxiety, pain and confusion. Krishna doesn’t yank us out of ocean of birth and death and throw us down on the deck of a life raft. No, Krishna has style. He smiles and offers us His hand, “Won’t you dance?” He asks.

Honoring the rasa lila give us inspiration and conviction to understand something special about Lord Krishna and His devotees; to give us the inspiration and conviction to understand that we are also being invited to dance with the Lord in Vrindavana; and to give us the inspiration and conviction to leave our mortal binds behind, because, as poet David Whyte (“The TrueLove”) so insightfully explains:

after all this struggle
and all these years
you don’t want to any more,
you’ve simply had enough
of drowning,
and you want to live and you
want to love and you will
walk across any territory
and any darkness,
however fluid and however
dangerous, to take the
one hand you know
belongs in yours.

( Premananda dasa, a disciple of HH Niranjana Swami joined ISKCON in 1992. He has served in a number of capacities, including Congregational Director and Co-President of an ISKCON center. He has written extensively on the principles of Gaudiya missiology, Vaishnava prayer, and the avataras.)

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