Escaping the material world

28 08 2019

Materialism is mistaking your own limited ideas of reality gathered from the senses for reality itself. In reading the Srimad Bhagavatam, Srila Prabhupada comments the following concerning contemplating the Universal Form of the Lord (virat rupa):

Some of them think that to hear about the pastimes of the Lord means to hear about His activities with the gopīs or about His pastimes like lifting the Govardhana Hill, and they have nothing to do with the Lord’s plenary expansions as the puruṣāvatāras and Their pastimes of the creation, maintenance or annihilation of the material worlds. But a pure devotee knows that there is no difference between the pastimes of the Lord, either in rāsa-līlā or in creation, maintenance or destruction of the material world. Rather, the descriptions of such activities of the Lord as the puruṣāvatāras are specifically meant for persons who are in the clutches of the external energy. Topics like the rāsa-līlā are meant for the liberated souls and not for the conditioned souls. The conditioned souls, therefore, must hear with appreciation and devotion the Lord’s pastimes in relationship with the external energy, and such acts are as good as the hearing of rāsa-līlā in the liberated stage. A conditioned soul should not imitate the activities of liberated souls. Lord Śrī Caitanya never indulged in hearing the rāsa-līlā with ordinary men.

In the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, the science of God, the first nine cantos prepare the ground for hearing the Tenth Canto. This will be further explained in the last chapter of this canto. In the Third Canto it will be more explicit. A pure devotee of the Lord, therefore, must begin reading or hearing Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam from the very beginning, and not from the Tenth Canto. We have several times been requested by some so-called devotees to take up the Tenth Canto immediately, but we have refrained from such an action because we wish to present Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam as the science of Godhead and not as a sensuous understanding for the conditioned souls. This is forbidden by such authorities as Śrī Brahmājī. By reading and hearing Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam as a scientific presentation, the conditioned souls will gradually be promoted to the higher status of transcendental knowledge after being freed from the illusory energy based on sense enjoyment.

In general, the subject of the Second Canto of the Srimad Bhagavatam is the virat-rupa or Universal Form of the Lord.  That is, Krsna unfolds from His various plenary expansions to finally manifest Himself in the material world (His external energy). Though distant in one sense, the Lord is still present in all parts of His creation. Srila Prabhupada says that this form of the Lord is more appropriate for ordinary men under the control of His external energy (yoga maya) to contemplate.  These more materialistic people (here, “conditioned souls”) can think of how various parts of the Lord’s universal Body represent various aspects of the created cosmos (His arms, His thighs, His face, the Sun and Moon are His eyes etc.) The Bhagavatam thus starts with this preliminary but plenary way of contemplating God, namely, reflecting on how the Lord acts in the created cosmos, and how even it is His body, though not His original one.

In many of his books, Srila Prabhupada seems to be shadow boxing with a specter of a heresy. The heretic that Prabhupada has in mind is the sahajiya. Without getting too deep into early modern Bengali religious history, sahajiyas were a Tantric sect that emerged in the aftermath of the appearance of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu that believed that the best way to be united with Krsna was to act like Krsna, specifically Krsna in His most sublime pastime: the rasa-lila. This is when the eight year old boy Krsna dances with the cowherd girls at night in the forest of Vrindavan, a definitely forbidden practice in most societies. Even married women left their husbands and children to go frolic with Krsna, in a sort of amorous madness that is well-known among those familiar with the lore of India. The idea is that Krsna (literally, the All-Attractive One) is irresistible, and the gopis risk everything to dance with Him.

The story is supposed to disturb on one level, but it is a stark instance of the old Roman saying: quod licet Iovi non licet bovi (what the gods can do, cattle may not do.) Krsna did a lot of “bad things” He wasn’t supposed to do especially in His pastimes in Vrindavan: He steals butter as a baby, He breaks things, He runs around with other people’s wives and so on. But He’s Bhagavan, and everyone else isn’t. One could say that He shows that He is the Lord of Rules by breaking them (though later in life He becomes an ideal king and family man.) This didn’t stop the Vaishnava heretics, the sahajiyas, from thinking that, because the rasa-lila is the summit of all other pastimes, imitating it would be the most excellent spiritual activity one could perform. I don’t have to elaborate what sort of shenanigans and scandals ensued in early modern Bengal and elsewhere. Bhativinoda Thakur, Srila Prabhupada’s spiritual “grandfather,” had his hands full trying to rehabilitate Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s legacy and Gaudiya Vaishnavism from its bad reputation as an excuse just to have orgies in the forest. Srila Prabhupada himself handily takes this heresy down with the quip that, once these imposters can lift Govardhan Hill with their left pinky, maybe then they can frolic late at night with the damsels in the forests of Vraja.

I find that this whole discussion within a “pagan” religion informs my longstanding frustration with the Catholicism of the last sixty years. The religion of Vatican II at times seems to want to give everyone everything, at once. Everyone can be a mystic (it’s easy!), every vocation in life is equally holy, ordinary laypeople with families can be theologians, and so on. The idea that some things are set apart, some things require a greater amount of spiritual maturity to understand, that maybe there are heights that others will reach that you won’t, all of these positions are considered to be under the shadow of evil clericalism, elitism, Jansenism, and whatever other horrible accusation some feel like throwing around. Because all are called to be saved, therefore everything is democratized always and forever.

Nowhere has this bothered me more than in the whole discussion of the theology of the body. I wrote about this topic over a decade ago now, and I haven’t really changed my mind about it. Aside from the obvious contention that John Paul II’s attempt to expand Humanae Vitae into a complete philosophical system doesn’t work (i.e. it doesn’t accomplish what it aims to do), the other problem is that it tries to downplay the problems with the sexual act in favor of an almost tantric understanding of salvation. The common sexual act (with the important caveat: in marriage) represents the mystical  of Christ with the Church, God and creation, etc. I am not going to debate whether these have a basis in the Christian Scriptures, as they conceivably do. What I more would like to indicate is that, when the rubber hits the road, the conjugal act as it exists in our current reality seems to have little to do with what St. Paul is talking about in the Epistle to the Ephesians, the Marriage Feast of the Lamb in the Apocalypse, or even the sensuous dialogue between lovers in the Song of Songs. And people thinking that it does causes more problems than it solves.

The relatively new acceptance of conjugal life into the thinking of the Catholic Church may be an attempt at inclusiveness of married people, but instead of drawing ordinary people up, it just dragged everyone down. Egalitarianism has a way of doing that sometimes. But the difference between Krsna consciousness and Catholic theology may have much to do with cosmology and arguably the concept of what God Himself is. Catholicism has to take the body seriously: in the Eucharist, in relics, and yes, even in the conjugal act. The body is the means of salvation, and the defeat of the early Docetist heresy definitively resolved this. Without a sense of your individual body being your identity, Krsna consciousness feels no such pressure. Catholicism also sees both earthly and heavenly creation as definitive and substantial, whereas in Krsna consciousness, the world is a prison, the physical body is a tumor and sense enjoyment is a farcical mockery of something infinitely more sublime. For Catholicism, material creation is a dilapidated but still august palace, whereas for the Krsna bhakta, the material creation is a mental hospital where you learn that personal enjoyment is lunacy and you are better off going back to serve the the Supreme Enjoyer (purusa) in the spiritual world, your actual home. The treatment regime of the hospital is just to give you what you want until you figure out that “what you want” is awful. For the Catholic ear, this smacks of Gnosticism or Manicheanism: of some evil god creating a terrible world where everything is deception. For Krsna consciousness, however, the medicine doesn’t stop being medicine because it’s bitter.

Getting back to the sahajiya, he thinks he can leapfrog into Krsna’s pastimes because he thinks his senses are ipso facto spiritual. But Krsna did not enjoy the company of the gopis with our senses, He enjoyed (and enjoys) the gopis with a transcendental body (sac-cid-ananda vigraha). His enjoyment has nothing to do with our enjoyment. Our enjoyment, especially sexual, is the same as that of pigs and dogs: there is nothing really transcendental about it in itself. One can use it to beget children to raise up in Krsna consciousness, but the actual physical act is at best a crutch you have to throw away eventually (as in St. Paul’s observation: “It is better to marry than to burn.”) It is only when we direct our senses into bhakti yoga (devotional service of the Lord), that they are ultimately redeemed. Our actual problem is that we want to enjoy instead of serve, but all enjoyment apart from devotional service to Krsna is futile and will be ultimately frustrated.

One can develop transcendental senses, senses that can see the body of the Lord as devotees sense Him, but it is only through devotional service and as a grace of the Lord. It is neither easy nor very common. Most people according to Prabhupada will view only God in the created cosmos, or as the cause of the created cosmos, or if they’re especially fallen, merely as death. Hearing the Bhagavad Gita and the Srimad Bhagavatam, one “climbs up” out of the base material senses back into the spiritual world through devotional service, which in the Kali Yuga is hearing and chanting the Holy Name of the Lord. But one has to start at the beginning, at the cosmic manifestation and creation, to one day make it out of the cycle of birth and death.

That was my long circumlocutious way to get to my own critique of Catholicism. Christianity has an ideological structural problem in that the goal of existence for the conditioned soul is still enjoyment. Let us remember the basic catechetical axiom that the purpose of the the human person is to “know, love, and serve God in this life and be happy with him in the next.” Though beatitude in the next life could be interpreted as a sort of service, the more “mystical” interpretation entails that one will be happy with God in that one will be united with Him (in the Christian East, they call this theosis or divinization).  This union isn’t complete to the point of ontological dissolution of the human person into God, but the thought remains that service is something we do in this life in order to be rewarded in the next. In Krsna consciousness, service is what we do in this life, in the next, and for all eternity.

The derivative problems that Christianity faces come from this incorrect idea on the role of devotional service to God. For the traditional Catholic theologian, the problem isn’t that the soul wants to enjoy, it’s that the soul has a disordered sense of enjoyment due to the mark of original sin. Actual enjoyment of food, sex, and other bodily pleasures were originally fine as they were initially created according to the correct nature that God gave us as embodied beings. One could say that everything in man’s original state was ordered to God, but to say that bodily pleasure and human enjoyment are intrinsically wrong after man had sinned smacks of devilish delusion. Thus, there is always a temptation in Christian theology to find some sort of deeper spiritual meaning in these earthy pastimes. From this tendency we can derive such questionable ideologies as John Paul II’s theology of the body or Hillaire Belloc’s idiotic quip:

Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,
There’s always laughter and good red wine.
At least I’ve always found it so.
Benedicamus Domino!

Here is the crux of my unease with Catholicism. In an attempt to “divinize” the material creation, it stays firmly within it. It binds itself to it and even vilifies any attempt to escape it as “Gnosticism” or worse. Sex is “inherently good”, so it was only a matter of time until someone thought that having sex (under certain conditions) is just as good as the celibate “life of the angels”. Eating is inherently good, so it was only a matter of time until Western Christianity gave up fasting entirely as anything but a faint glimmer of what it used to be. It was only a matter of time until eschatology was entirely transformed into politics, and so on. And with all of this the consecrated and monastic life would begin to disappear, and with it any initiatory idea of spiritual ascent embodied by the three ages of the interior life: the purgative, illuminative, and unitive.

Christianity, as a religion of Kali Yuga, instead of extricating its adherents from the power of maya, ends up embedding even its firmest adherents further into the mire. It is no wonder then that contemporary Christianity is bogged down especially in the developed world on issues of sex and procreation. By trying to ride the fierce beast of the flesh under the aegis of being “incarnational”, it can only tear itself apart for opposing the illusory external potency of the Lord, represented in traditional Hindu iconography by the goddess Durga, riding on a tiger, with weapons in her many hands ready to pull people back to the material world.

There are of course exceptions to this tendency. In my opinion, the Jansenists of early modern France might have had a premonition about the demise of an initiatory hierarchical religion in the West through the spread of moral laxity. Once one adopts an uncritical view of material existence, one tries to adapt spiritual things to them only to fail miserably. It is no wonder that atheism and agnosticism are so rampant. By constantly pointing downward in order to move upward, thinkers become frustrated to the point that they conclude that there is no spiritual existence at all. The result is that they spin their wheels because material existence is a prison, and their aspirations are always frustrated. The material world cannot be reformed or even transfigured. It can only be transcended.

I am not saying that every single Christian should become a Hare Krishna, or that Western systems of thought should just dissolve themselves entirely. These options are not at all feasible, nor will most pursue them. However, there used to be a greater pessimism toward the flesh that needs to be recuperated. Such a reversion would be difficult now due to the supposed advances in science, medicine, sanitation, and the ideology of humanism in general. But all of that is a trap: it can’t explain why we are here and why we die alone and unhappy. For in the end, matter is neither good nor evil: it is useful to get home, back to Godhead. It is useful for reminding us that we do not exist to enjoy, but to serve. If we don’t use matter in this way, we will come back, over and over, until we understand that this is not our home.



3 responses

31 08 2019

What you say about Catholicism here reminds me of a certain take on asceticism I’ve heard a lot. It’s something along the lines of, “Monks don’t give up sex and marriage and better food and all that because they’re bad; they give them up because they’re so good! Giving up something that’s bad wouldn’t be a way to return a gift to God; but recognizing the goodness of the gift that God gives us allows us to make a gift back to God by giving it up!”

This has always struck me as almost perfect in its unintelligibility. A monk gives up things because they’re impediments to the spiritual life, not because they’re so fantastic; and to spin it any other way is ridiculous.

I think a big factor that you don’t directly address is the difference between Catholicism, or any form of Christianity, and Gaudiya Vaishnavism, or any form of Hinduism, in their teachings on the afterlife. Hinduism, of course, believes in reincarnation, whereas Christianity doesn’t. I think that has an effect on all this. If you believe in reincarnation, then you can have a two-tiered system where it’s understood that only a renunciate can ultimately achieve liberation from the world of māyā, but that for those who can’t, it’s OK in the long run, because eventually, in some future life, they’ll be able to renounce the world, too. In the meantime, kāmā–pleasure–is all right. In fact, it’s considered a legitimate goal for those who aren’t spiritually advanced enough. Thus the relatively relaxed attitude towards sensuality in Hindu culture, which is right alongside the asceticism of the sadhus.

In Christianity, since you’re got only one shot, you can’t really teach that the spiritually mature become ascetics, and only these ascetics can be saved. That would be not only unfair, since it would force everyone to become monks, but it would mean the end of society, since there would be no more sex and thus no more children. Such a system wouldn’t work, anyway, as the Shakers proved. Given that, two things ensue:

One, you have to explain why monastics even exist and what their function is. In religions that teach reincarnation, they are obviously those who have developed over many lives and are now able to renounce the world. In Christianity, the most you get is that they are a more perfect level of Christians, or that they are sort of examples to the rest of us (no one ever explains how that actually works). Even if that’s true, though, why should anyone want to become a monk if they don’t have to for salvation?

Second, that puts the religion under pressure to cater to the preferences of the laity, who are not going to give up sex and good food and nice houses and so on. It took awhile for this to work its way out–in the Middle Ages, the assumption was that most laity were going to hell, anyway, and for those who weren’t they should just support the monks, go to confession, and shut up–but from the Reformation onward, and since Vatican II in the Catholic Church, we see the exact catering to the laity, laced with oohs! and ahs! about how groovy the material world is, that you discuss here.

Anyway, I’ve long said that dualism in Christianity is a feature, not a bug, as so many moderns want to paint it.

29 08 2019
Bernard Brandt

Well, Arturo, I do hope that you are not becoming a Harvey Kirschner.

Seriously, though, I think that there is indeed a point to using A.C. Bhaktivedanta’s spiritual point of view as a point of departure for a critique of Western Catholicism’s inveterate tendency toward Pelagianism. One would be certainly hard pressed to find such a critique within W.C.

For my part, I think that that tendency is borne out of W.C.’s love/hate relationship with monasticism. But one of the examples of that relationship can be found in Her clergy’s tendency to love monasticism so much as to make ALL clerics above the pay-grade of deacon to be celibate, and on the other hand, to turn a blind eye to the various forms of naughtiness of its clergy when they fall short of that high ideal.

While I believe that a corrective to W.C.s endemic Pelagianism could perhaps be found in Eastern Orthodoxy, with its inclusion of monasticism (and, for that matter, both the Apostolic Tradition and the Church Fathers), I would be foolish not to admit that you have been pointing out, for as long as I have been reading you (years now), the equal problems endemic within E.O.

And while I think that perhaps the best solution to the equal problems in both Churches would be for them to enter into union with one another, there is also the very real possibility that they would simply combine the worst aspects of both Churches. I am reminded of the exchange between Isadora Duncan and George Bernard Shaw: Duncan: “We should get married. Just imagine children with my body and your brains.” Shaw: “But what if they wind up with MY body and YOUR brains?”


29 08 2019

Idk, when the early Church wandered too far from its earlier ties to the Neoplatonic tradition is when things feel like they went downhill (so, what? Post-1054?) But that may just be my outside perspective.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: