Q. The Mahabharata states that hunting, drinking, gambling, and the enjoyment of women are the four vices of kings, and that these evils deprive a man of prosperity. The text also glorifies Arjuna and his brothers (the Pandavas), who at one time or another were involved with these acts, including adultery as in the case of Arjuna and Ulupi. How are we to understand this contradiction?
A. The Mahabharata teaches both socio-religiosity and pure devotion. Morality falls under the heading of socio-religiosity, or dharma, and the divine pastimes (lila) of Bhagavan Sri Krishna are the heart and soul of pure devotion. Dharma and devotion are not one and the same, but ideally following one’s dharma leads to the cultivation of devotion. The apex of devotional experience is found in Krishna lila, which is transcendental to the laws of dharma. Thus Krishna says in the Bhagavad-gita (18.66), sarva-dharman parityajya mam ekam saranam vraja: “Forgo dharma and take exclusive refuge in me.”
The Pandavas exemplify the ideal of taking exclusive refuge in Krishna. They are members of his eternal entourage, and Krishna and his entourage should not be considered by ordinary standards. Indeed, Krishna warns us as such in the Bhagavad-gita (9.11) when he proclaims, “Fools deride me when I descend in this humanlike form. They do not know my transcendental nature and my supreme dominion over all that exists.”
In the narration of Krishna lila found in the Mahabharata, the Pandavas are not directly playing the roles of saints or teachers. Rather, they are members of the royal class who are fully surrendered to Krishna. The Pandava’s bhava (spiritual emotion) is their true glory, over and above any chivalry and heroism told of them in the epic. However, those who actually understand the Mahabharata know that given the Pandavas’ position in society, they conducted themselves in an exemplary manner overall as role models for the royalty of their times. In their era, rules of dharma were quite complex, but suffice to say that indiscretions such as hunting, gambling, and even extramarital affairs were expected and somewhat excusable for royalty. As for hunting, there was a place for that among the martial classes (ksatriyas), while there was no place whatsoever for factory animal slaughter as is widespread today.
If every king conducted himself like the noble Arjuna, there would arguably have been no decline in monarchy, in spite of Arjuna’s extramarital affair that notably he had no personal interest in. Remember that it is the desire to enjoy in an exploitive manner that is the heart of spiritually counterproductive life. In this case Arjuna had no personal desire to unite with Ulupi, nor was she an earthly being. Furthermore, she found a way to insure that Arjuna would not incur any sinful reaction by acquiescing to her desire. Such circumstances are indeed extraordinary and by no means should be interpreted as a license for inappropriate sexual relations on the part of common people, what to speak of sadhakas, those trying to adhere to a life of disciplined spiritual practice.
The same holds true for Yudhisthira, the leader of the Pandavas, who by force of circumstance found himself in a gambling match. The Mahabharata tells us that when Yudhisthira lost his wife Draupadi in the gambling match, the winner tried to publicly disrobe her. Draupadi, who was steeped in sakhya bhava, held on to her sari with one hand and called out the name of her dearmost friend, Govinda, with her other hand raised. As her sari unraveled, in desperation she let go of it and her feeble attempt to remain robed. At that time, with two hands in the air, she called out, “Govinda, Govinda,” depending completely on Krishna. It was then that Krishna appeared, invisible to others, and gave her an ever-expanding length of sari, illustrating that there was obviously an underlying divine will behind Yudhisthira’s apparent disrespect for his wife, who otherwise drew the highest regard from all of the Pandavas. Thus Draupadi’s involvement takes the gambling match to a higher level, arranged as it was to emphasize the efficacy of nama kirtana in saranagati (surrender). In this way, if we are to ask how Yudhisthira, the son of Dharma, could wager and lose his wife in a gambling match, we must also ask how Draupadi could have a sari of unlimited length.
Note that the Pandavas displayed a standard for human royalty that Krishna in his incarnation as Sri Ramacandra transcended. Sri Rama did not gamble, vowed to marry only once, etc. The idea here is that Ramacandra, being God, set a standard no ordinary human king would be able to follow; the Pandavas, being human, set a standard human royalty could conceivably follow, one that afforded them allowances that their subjects were not always afforded. Again, their example is not a precedent for misbehavior by sadhakas.
Royalty is now a thing of the past. What was it like to be a king or prince in India thousands of years ago? We cannot accurately answer that question, thus we should not impose today’s standards and sensibilities on members of that bygone culture. Ultimately, scripture compensated by ordering ksatriyas, if need be, to give their lives in protecting the public and otherwise atone for their excesses by performing sacrifices, building temples and public works, and in general serving humanity.
So while we certainly venerate the royal Pandavas, we as sadhakas do not look to them for standards of behavior. Rather we look to the disciples of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu in guru parampara, particularly the Six Goswamis of Vrindavana, for our devotional standards and way of life. The Pandavas, however, do set an example of love for Krishna that we have much to learn from, and Sri Sanatana Goswami details this in his Brihad-bhagavatamrta.
Q. How does friendly affection (sakhya bhava) for Krishna fit into the practice of Gaudiya Vaisnavism?
A. The basis of Gaudiya Vaisnavism is the example and instructions of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, as relayed to us by his intimate associates and their principal disciples, particularly Krishnadasa Kaviraja and the Six Goswamis of Vrindavana. Their literature informs us that while Mahaprabhu revered all genuine devotees of Krishna, he was essentially concerned with Vraja bhakti, devotion to Krishna in the mood of the residents of Vrindavana. Thus Gaudiya Vaisnavas attracted to the mood of sakhya rasa follow the ideal of the cowherd boys of Vrindavana, most commonly that of the priyanarma sakhas, who are friends of Krishna involved in his romantic life. These devotees experience sakhya-bhava mixed with gopi-bhava, and here the emphasis is on assisting group leaders (yuthesvaras) such as Krishna’s intimate friends Madhumangala and Subala, both of whom have unlimited assistants as well as gopi group leaders (yuthesvaris).
With regard to the conjugal element of sakhya bhava, each priyanarma group leader (yuthesvara) serves Radha-Krishna under the direction of a gopi group leader (yuthesvari). In our sampradaya the female group leader emphasized most is Lalita-sakhi. She is qualified to be an independent group leader, who competes for Krishna’s attention, but chooses to subordinate herself to Radha. Thus she is a yuthesvari not in the sense that gopis serve her by trying to attract Krishna’s attention to her, but rather she leads the manjaris, such as Rupa manjari (who in Caitanya lila is none other than Rupa Goswami), in service to Sri Radha. She also acts as a group leader for some of Krishna’s friends who assist him in his romantic affairs with Radha. In this regard she is the yuthesvari of Madhumangala. Visakha gopi, whose position is similar to Lalita, is also emphasized in our sampradaya. She acts as the female group leader of Ujjvala , while Radha herself is the female group leader of Subala and his associates.
Unlike devotees in sakhya rasa who are not influenced by conjugal love, the priyanarma sakha’s bhava extends in transcendental excellence and intimacy beyond the reach of vatsalya-bhava and up to mahabhava, although falling just short of the extreme of mahabhava experienced by Sri Radha’s manjaris. As mentioned in Brhad-bhagavatamrta, these friends of Krishna take more pleasure in receiving the order of Radha and her group than they do in receiving the direct order of Krishna. They tend to take Krishna side in his love quarrels with the gopis, unless they are alone with Krishna, at which time they tend to speak on behalf of their yuthesvari. They also deliver secret messages to Krishna, whispering in his ear, and deliver Krishna’s messages to the gopis.
In general, “indirect is better than direct” might be a good way to describe the Gaudiya position on Vraja-bhakti. We aspire to follow in the footsteps of Krishna’s eternal associates—to follow their bhava as it begins to appear to us in the person of Sri Guru. Thus we place emphasis on Sri Guru. In fact, guru-bhakti is more pleasing to Krishna than Krishna-bhakti. One cannot serve Krishna without honoring the guru, but if one makes serving Krishna an aspect of serving Sri Guru rather than making the service of the guru an aspect of serving Krishna, such an approach is more pleasing to Sri Krishna. This is the opinion of Sri Jiva Goswami mentioned in his Bhakti-sandarbha.