Q. What role does detachment play in the culture of bhakti?
A. From the devotional point of view, detachment brings people closer to one another, as it is the first stage of real love devoid of exploitation. Detachment that arises from the association of devotees develops into positive spiritual attachment to the path of divine love (bhakti) and eventually into attachment to the perfect object of love, Sri Krishna. As material attachment forms the basis of one’s external identity as a father, mother, Indian, American, and so forth; similarly, spiritual attachment to Sri Krishna forms the basis of our spiritual identity. In the context of bhakti, detachment transforms into divine attachment to Sri Krishna, with whom we will eventually associate with in his eternal pastimes (Krishna lila) as a cowherd resident of Vrindavana.
In the jnana-marga, one advances by detachment (vairagya), but in the bhakti-marga one advances by association (sanga), and this association naturally fosters detachment for anything that is unfavorable for bhakti. Such practical detachment has been called yukta-vairagya by Sri Rupa Goswami.
Q. I am at a loss to explain how Krishna’s pastimes with the cowherd maidens of Vrindavana are totally spiritual. Can you help me?
A. You can explain to people that the greatest mystics, saints, and theologians of Hinduism, such as Sri Caitanya, Ramanuja, Sankara, and a host of others, have told us that the relationship between Krishna and the gopi milkmaidens, depicted in art and written about in the sacred texts, is purely spiritual. They make this proclamation because the gopis are premier examples of souls who have given themselves heart and soul to Sri Krishna (God) and have no desire other than to serve him. Sacrificing one’s life in service to God is the essence of spirituality, regardless of which spiritual path one may identify with.
In Srimad-Bhagavatam, the sage Sukadeva elaborates on this by explaining that all souls are manifestations of Krishna’s energy (sakti). As energy is related to the energetic, similarly all souls are eternally related to the Supreme Soul in loving service. Simply put, the pastimes of Krishna are the divine drama in which enlightened souls play various roles in their interaction with a playful and loving Supreme Being. This drama constitutes a life of selfless love in which the Absolute, Sri Krishna, and his devotees forever taste sacred aesthetic rapture (rasananda).
In this regard, Taittiriya Upanisad states that Brahman (the Absolute) is rasa, and that in knowing Brahman as such one tastes rasa in eternity, raso vai sah rasam hy evayam labdhvanandi bhavati. The idea is that when the Absolute is understood as the fountainhead of rasa and approached through bhakti, it is realized as Sri Krishna, interacting with his devotees in divine play (lila). This realization involves “tasting rasa,” which is the essence of lila. Thus Taittiriya Upanisad (7.1) declares: “When one understands the Personality of God, the reservoir of pleasure, Krishna, one actually becomes transcendentally blissful.”
Q. In Gaudiya Vaisnavism we are taught that every soul has its own particular relationship with God and that among these, romantic love of Krishna (madhurya-rasa) is the highest. If this were true wouldn’t it be disappointing for a soul upon liberation to discover that its innate relationship with Krishna is something other than madhurya-rasa, such as dasya-rasa (servitorship) or sahkya-rasa (friendship)?
A. The material world is made up of individual units of consciousness (baddha-jivas) and matter. Both these energies emanate from Mahavisnu. The opportunity for the baddha-jivas to attain eternal service to Bhagavan (God) is made available through various lineages, or guru-paramparas. Some lineages lead to dasya-prema in Vaikuntha, the abode of majesty, while others lead to gopi-/gopa-prema of Goloka, the abode of madhurya (sweetness). Some jivas will be attracted to one guru-parampara and others to another guru-parampara. Some sadhus attribute this attraction purely to the nature of association one is exposed to, while others attribute it as well to the desire of Bhagavan to accept service in different ways. In any case, each jiva is fully satisfied with the particular type of prema it attains. In divine love there is no question of being disappointed.
The Possibility of Changing Rasa
Q. According to Vedic literature the myriad of material universes are inhabited by an unfathomable number of souls. My question is how many of these souls can actually have service in Vrindavana with Krishna? For example, how many devotees can actually serve under Krishna’s mother Yasoda? Is it possible for millions of souls to be serving one Mother Yasoda, or does she expand herself into unlimited forms like Krishna does to receive service? What about Vrindavana, the land of Krishna? Does Vrindavana expand into many Vrindavanas? How is it possible for so many souls to have an eternal place in Vrindavana, or is the number of souls who serve there actually limited?
A. One definition of the Sanskrit word “maya” is “to measure.” Our material tendency consists of trying to measure the infinite, to bring everything within the fist of our intellect. With the help of modern science, this tendency has been that much more deeply ingrained in the consciousness of human society. Such is the nature of the cosmic karmic season of Kali (Kali-yuga).
Despite its achievements, modern science, characterized as it is by the controlled experiment, has succeeded foremost in alienating humanity from its intuitive sense that life is purposeful. Its counterintuitive worldview of naturalism eclipses life’s transcendent purpose, a purpose larger than the natural world itself. In its attempt to measure and control the world, it offers no hope for knowing anything that lies beyond its limited focus. While science may improve our lives quantitatively, it does little to improve the intrinsic quality of our lives to make us better people.
Although we may not realize it, most of us are strongly conditioned by this mentality of measurement. Indeed, even spiritual practitioners exhibit it when trying to conceive of ultimate reality. Therefore, when contemplating the transcendent abodes of God described in scripture, such as Vaikuntha, the realm of Visnu, and Vrindavana, the realm of Krishna, we should think in terms of quality, not quantity. The effulgence of God known as Brahman may appear to be ultimate in its expanse, while Vaikuntha and Vrindavana may appear to be limited to a particular geographical area. However, looking deeper we find something more in these transcendental abodes of Bhagavan. In terms of affection we see Vaikuntha as more unlimited than Brahman, and Vrindavana as even more unlimited than Vaikuntha. How is this so? The answer is that intensified love requires the specificity of these abodes that is absent in Brahman. Thus the distances between Brahman, Vaikuntha, and Vrindavana are measured not in kilometers but in terms of intimate love (rasananda).
Try to think of the quality of love when thinking about Vrindavana, for love transcends space. If you love another, the two of you can live happily in the hollow of a tree, and at the loss of such love the whole world will appear unaccommodating. Love is all-accommodating and Vrindavana is all about intimate love. In Vrindavana, Mother Yasoda is so full of affection for Krishna that she can serve as the role model for an unlimited number of souls and engage their motherly sentiment in his service. In Vrindavana, every cowherd boy thinks that Krishna loves him the most, and every one of them is correct.
Even your own subjective realm of experience is unlimited in comparison to the objective world around you. You can measure your own house, but can anyone objectively and comprehensively measure the quality of the happiness you experience living in it? Science cannot even define happiness. So how can science measure it? If anyone can lay claim to being able to measure happiness it is the Gaudiya Vaisnavas. They have defined happiness as spiritual bliss—ananda— distinguishing it from the misery of material attachment that poses for happiness. Then they have evaluated ananda on the basis of rasa. How much rasa does one’s ananda afford? This is the question that they ask as they declare Krishna the king of love/ananda and his abode of intimate love, Vrindavana, the greatest spiritual expanse.