Found in Sanga, Sanga 2005.

Q. The late Joseph Campbell was the first person I heard tell of Krishna, but he taught that the images used in myths are metaphorical and should not be taken literally. He used the word myth in referring to the world’s spiritual, religious, and scientific explanations of reality and did not imply a negative connotation with the word. Rather he emphasized the need to understand the essential truth within religious myth, whether it was from Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, or other traditions, and apply it in our heart. How does your understanding of Krishna differ from his?

A. Joseph Cambell’s perspective has helped many people bridge the gap between Eastern and Western religion by encouraging them to appreciate the universal truth found within all spiritual traditions. However, we differ from Campbell in that we do not equate Krishna-lila with the myths of other traditions. We do not think that Krishna-lila is simply a metaphor from which to draw universal truth. Krishna-lila is full of metaphorical truth, but this is not all that it consists of. The lilas are an ontological reality, the highest reality. For that matter, I do not think that other traditions think of their myths in the way we think of Krishna-lila (with a view to live in them eternally), nor are any other cultural or religious myths as charming, detailed, or profound as Krishna-lila. Krishna-lila is in a class of its own, as it should be. Campbell has not entirely missed this, for Indian mythology was his personal favorite. However, he was not familiar with Vaisnava theology and had a distinct leaning toward the so-called perennial philosophy of Advaita Vedanta.

The idea that Krishna is God is considerably more well thought out than what we find in Greek and other mythology. The theological and philosophical underpinning of the lila is considerable to say the least. I do not believe that there is any comparison that can be made with other religious mythology. If one insists that an advaitic approach to Krishna lila is more rational, this is a subject for a lively debate that would no doubt embarrass most Advaitins and also shed light on many of Advaita Vedanta’s own logical inconsistencies.

Q. I am attracted to Vaisnavism but question the need to incorporate into my life certain aspects of Hindu culture, as that culture has many practices that don’t seem quite right to me. How can I ascertain what aspects of Hindu culture will be helpful to me spiritually?

A. As a general principle one should try to take the best from Eastern and Western culture and apply it to one’s life. It is natural that one influenced by an Indian-based spiritual tradition will develop affinity for certain aspects of Hindu socio-religious culture. However, not every aspect of Hindu culture is spiritual. Many Hindu social customs are simply ethnic traditions, some are the result of outside influences, and some are even based on superstition. None of these have much to do with essential spirituality. Therefore, if a particular aspect of Indian culture makes you feel uncomfortable, then by all means inquire from an advanced devotee as to whether it has any actual bearing on Vaisnava spiritual practice.

Essential spiritual practices such as chanting Krishna nama are not based on one becoming a member of any particular culture. In fact the culture of Krishna bhakti (Krishnanusilanam), centered on the chanting of Krishna nama, is a spiritual culture unto itself. Krishnanusilanam can be incorporated into any ethnic culture or lifestyle.

Q. Do souls have any personal characteristics that can be realized by practicing intellectual self-examination?

A. By self-examination alone one cannot realize one’s full spiritual potential. Self-examination is no doubt part of the culture of Krishna-bhakti, but unto itself it cannot enable one to realize one’s spiritual personality. Through self-examination one can understand that the mental sense of self, which is nothing more than a product of the mind’s reaction to sensual input, is not enduring and by that gain negative impetus to pursue Krishna-bhakti. However, realizing one’s spiritual personality is only possible through grace, which in Vaisnavism is derived from hearing, chanting, and remembering the pastimes of Sri Krishna, under the guidance of an advanced devotee.

Q. What is the relationship between soul and the mind?

A. The mind is a manifestation of subtle matter and in this sense is different from the brain. However, being matter it is also different from the soul. The “soul” (a Christian term) is consciousness, as opposed to matter. Consciousness is the experiencer and matter is that which is experienced. In this context consciousness is not the mind’s conscious awareness, rather it is life, sometimes referred to as cit, or knowledge, being a unit of will. Vaisnavas believe that every unit of consciousness has the potential to enter into an eternal relationship with Krishna, whose affairs (Krishna-lila) are governed by his personal energy or nature (svarupa sakti). In the culture of Krishna-bhakti, the individual soul gradually comes under the influence of this svarupa sakti, and as it does the influence of Krishna’s illusory energy (maya sakti) is diminished proportionately. This takes some time, but when one comes completely under the influence of Krishna’s svarupa sakti, one’s spiritual personality is awakened and one enters the eternal lila of Sri Krishna.

Q. I heard that Caitanya Mahaprabhu came to distribute love of Krishna like that possessed by the handmaids of Radha (manjari bhava). Do all Gaudiya Vaisnavas ultimately develop this type of love for Krishna?

A. Sriman Mahaprabhu said:

dasya, sakhya, vatsalya, srngara-cari rasa cari bhavera bhakta yata krishna tara vasa

“Servitude, friendship, parental affection, and conjugal love are the four transcendental mellows. By the devotees who cherish these four mellows, Lord Krishna is subdued.”

yuga-dharma pravartaimu nama-sankirtana cari bhava-bhakti diya nacamu bhuvana

“I shall personally inaugurate the religion of the age—nama-sankirtana, the congregational chanting of the holy name. I shall make the world dance in ecstasy, realizing the four mellows of loving devotional service.”

Mahaprabhu opened the doors to Vrindavana, which is all about the sentiments by which Krishna is conquered. The chief of these sentiments is Radha’s love for Krishna, which is what Vrindavana is all about. Still, the Vrindavana lila requires the other three sentiments (servitude, friendship, and parental affection) in order for it to take place. So all four are important and one may be spiritually attracted to any of them. At the same time, Radha’s love for Krishna is the most transcendentally comprehensive, meaning that it pleases Krishna the most and thus affords her the extraordinary experience of madana mahabhava, the highest ecstasy of spiritual love. It is this bhava that Krishna appearing as Sri Caitanya wants to taste.

Because Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu is our ideal, it is natural that most devotees will desire to taste the particular sentiment of love that he experienced. However, this is not always the case, and as I mentioned, the other three bhavas of Vraja are also important supports for this mahabhava. So while most Gaudiya acaryas relish Radha’s love in the culture of manjari-bhava as handmaids of Radha, there are some exceptions.

Q. What is dharma in the context of Gaudiya Vaisnavism?

A. In general dharma refers to living a live of virtue above all else. All human activities are rooted in desire, which basically is the attempt to attain pleasure and to avoid pain. The scripture divides human desire into three categories: first, the desire for sense pleasure (kama), which while never fully satisfying nonetheless drives one to pursue the same sensual experience again and again. Second, the desire for material acquisition, wealth, honor, power, security, and so on (artha), which is progressive in that it does not mandate meaningless repetition, but rather the drive to realize consistently greater goals that afford one some sense of accomplishment. Third, the desire for virtue, good character, righteousness, and so on (dharma), which is more progressive still and brings a sense of contentment and clear insight as to the nature of the world. According to Bhagavad-gita, these three kinds of desires are products of the influence of the three gunas, or modes of material nature, manifesting in the human psyche. These modes, known as tamas (ignorance), rajas (passion), and sattva (goodness), correspond respectively to kama (pleasure), artha (power), and dharma (virtue). All three involve the perceived necessity to become something: to be gratified, to be powerful, or to be virtuous.

Bhagavad-gita says that being virtuous is higher than the other goals because it allows one to glimpse the fact that a life based on the perceived need to become something obscures that which we already are. This aspect of a virtuous life alone makes it valuable and superior to aspirations for pleasure and power, which under the influence of virtue are seen to have limited value. Thus the truly virtuous, dharmic ego is the potential bridge to transcendence of the material false ego, which is based on the perceived need to be something. Crossing that bridge with the energy of spiritual practice leads to moksa (liberation)—freedom from necessity. Arriving here we have no need to become something because we realize that we already are something far greater than anything the limited human experience can afford. From the realm of the experienced (matter), we enter the realm of the experiencer (consciousness) and there find our true self.

However, in the view of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, dharma also appears within transcendence. He calls this prema-dharma, or the fifth goal of life, and says that this goal is beyond dharma, artha, kama, and moksa. Prema means love. Sri Caitanya advocated the transcendental virtue of love of Krishna. In prema-dharma the pleasure sought through sense enjoyment (kama), the pursuit of security and power that was previously sought through material gain (artha), and the knowledge derived from a life of virtue (dharma), are overwhelmed by the realization of eternal existence in Krishna-lila (sandhini), transcendental knowledge of one’s relationship with him (samvit), and the bliss of that relationship (hladhini), the byproduct of which is moksa. While moksa contains eternal life (sat), transcendental knowledge (cit), and bliss (ananda), Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s conception of sandhini, samvit, and hladhini in prema-dharma contain these and much more. Prema-dharma overpowers the Absolute, the giver of moksa, who by the force of the devotees’ prema, appears to the devotees as their friend or lover—Madana Gopala Krishna.

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