Service in separation

10 04 2020

Having been born into a Hispanic culture, bloody melodramatic imagery both draws and repulses me. Here I speak of the bloody crucifixes, the Virgin Mary with seven swords sticking out of her heart, and the intense emotions these images are meant to evoke. I had an odd formation, both official and informal, of living in Latin America and experiencing the role that this imagery plays in culture down there, both sacred and profane. Death and gore are to an extent revered, many an academic could write a series of well-cited papers about this. The only problem is that my own metaphysical inclinations have been consistently anti-corporeal.

The philosophical problems boil down to: Does suffering have redeeming power? Is pain therapeutic? Is blood sacred? Being in the midst of the Holy Triduum, I will never be able to shake these questions from my mind during these days, even if I have definitively come to my own conclusions. Added to all this is the rather intense Holy Week that Christians have to live through this year. Their churches are empty, the anticipation is muted, and the devout must experience the high holy days at home or on a screen. Many faithful used to regular access to the church and sacraments are acutely suffering during this time. I sympathize with them on many levels: though I am at best a lukewarm church-goer, I have a private prayer rule and I look forward to feasts breaking up the monotony of daily life. Most responsible mature adults understand that we can’t always be as outwardly observant as we would like, but still, this extraordinary circumstance is a difficult trial that the world must endure.

My focus here is the question: Is there such thing as spiritual pain? Or is the spiritual pure bliss? Can separation from God being something greater than His presence? The obvious answer from Catholic tradition would be to mention St. John of the Cross’s dark night of the soul. Though I haven’t really engaged with that concept in the last decade or so, I don’t think it touches on what I am talking about. I am speaking of separation as an inherently good thing, not as a means of purification to achieve deliverance from pain, spiritual, psychological or otherwise.

In the transcendental play of Krishna as told in the Srimad Bhagavatam, separation is considered to be higher than being in Krishna’s presence. The push and pull of the Divine Couple, Lord Krishna and Srimati Radharani, the head gopi and Krishna’s hladini shakti (pleasure potency), is the pillar around which the rest of existence dances. The gopis are the highest devotees of the Lord, their love is the most sublime imaginable, though it seems mundane to anyone else. What adds to the gopis’ love is that it’s not domesticated or predictable: it takes place in the forest, often late at night, outside the bounds of societal morality. So the rendez-vous could happen or it couldn’t. In the meantime, the gopis suffer under the burden of Krishna’s absence. Srila Prabhupada writes in his summary of the Tenth Canto of the Srimad Bhagavatam, Krishna: The Supreme Personality of Godhead:

The gopīs of Vṛndāvana were so attached to Kṛṣṇa that they were not satisfied simply with the rāsa dance at night. They wanted to associate with Him and enjoy His company during the daytime also. When Kṛṣṇa went to the forest with His cowherd boy friends and cows, the gopīs did not physically take part, but their hearts went with Him. And because their hearts went, they were able to enjoy His company through strong feelings of separation. To acquire this strong feeling of separation is the teaching of Lord Caitanya and His direct disciplic succession of Gosvāmīs. When we are not in physical contact with Kṛṣṇa, we can associate with Him like the gopīs, through feelings of separation. Kṛṣṇa’s transcendental form, qualities, pastimes, and entourage are all identical with Him. There are nine different kinds of devotional service. Devotional service to Kṛṣṇa in feelings of separation elevates the devotee to the highest perfectional level, to the level of the gopīs.

The best way to explain the love of Krishna isn’t through the standard explanations of the love of God. The love of the gopis is excessive, it’s young crazy love at a transcendental level. When Krishna is absent, all the gopis can do is obsess about Him. They talk about all of the things they love about Krishna: His stride, His flute playing, how He moves His eyebrows, etc. They play act as Krishna, they cry, they pout, they pretend to be rivals, and they fantasize. Their love is the opposite of sober, and it is at its apex when Krishna isn’t there. When Krishna leaves Vrindavan for Mathura, He sends His messenger Uddhava back to his hometown with a message for the gopis. Srimati Radharani ignores the messenger and talks instead to a bumblebee in amorous madness. Srila Prabhupada writes:

 Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī continued to speak to the black messenger of Kṛṣṇa: “Please do not talk anymore about Kṛṣṇa. It is better to talk about something else. We are already doomed, like the black-spotted she-deer in the forest who are enchanted by the sweet musical vibration of the hunter. In the same way, we have been enchanted by the sweet words of Kṛṣṇa, and by thinking of the rays of His toenails again and again, we are becoming more and more lusty for His association. Therefore, I request you not to talk of Kṛṣṇa anymore.”

These talks of Rādhārāṇī with the bumblebee messenger, including Her accusing Kṛṣṇa in so many ways and at the same time expressing Her inability to give up talking about Him, are signs of the topmost transcendental ecstasy, called mahā-bhāva. The ecstatic mahā-bhāva manifestation is possible only in the persons of Rādhārāṇī and Her associates. Great ācāryas like Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī and Viśvanātha Cakravartī Ṭhākura have analyzed these mahā-bhāva speeches of Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī and described their different varieties, such as udghūrṇā, or bewilderment, and jalpa-pratijalpa, or talking in different ways. These are the signs of ujjvala-rasa, or the brightest jewel of love of God.

In Kali Yuga, when Krishna comes to teach the Earth the chanting of the Holy Name, He comes as a compound avatar of Krishna in the mood of Srimati Radharani. As the acharyas tell, Krishna in Vrindavan was wondering why those around Him loved Him so much. So He took on the mood of Srimati Radharani to find out. The result was Sri Krishna Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, appearing in what is now West Bengal in 1486. Born as a misbehaving son of a brahmin family, Lord Chaintanya took on the golden complexion and intense longing for Krishna of Srimati Radharani. When He moved with His disciples to Jagannath Puri, He collapsed before Lord Jagannath in His temple. This is significant since Lord Chaitanya is Krishna in the mood of Srimati Radharani, whereas Lord Jagannath is Krishna in the mood of longing for Srimati Radharani and Vrindavan. It is two deep chasms of longing calling out to each other: abyssus abyssum invocat.

Lord Chaitanya embracing Lord Jagannath

In Krishna consciousness, there is a saying that vani is greater than vapu. Or rather, hearing the guru is better than being with the guru physically. Srila Prabhupada, for example, only met his guru, Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Gosvāmī Prabhupāda, a half dozen times, and he certainly wasn’t one of his “right hand” men. Nevertheless, only A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada carried out his spiritual master’s order to preach in the West and start the international Hare Krishna movement. During his time circumambulating the globe to spread the Holy Name of Krishna, Srila Prabhupada said that his guru was always with him even though he had left the Earth decades before. Srila Prabhupada still had his guru’s words in his heart and mind. He was still listening to his guru even though he was no longer present.

Suffering and abandonment are major themes of the three days preceding Easter. The candle at the traditional service of Tenebrae is hidden behind the altar before it is extinguished at the end of the ceremony. The altar is stripped bare and the tabernacle is emptied. The holy water fonts are missing their contents, the bells are silent after the Mass of Holy Thursday, and so on. For Christian believers, this is the time in which God is eclipsed though He is still there, and it is an act of faith to stay at the foot of the Cross and at the tomb until Easter morning.

This waiting is best embodied in the image of la Virgen de la Soledad, the Virgin of Solitude. I’m going to fall back on my memories of seminary in Latin America and point out that the Virgin Mary never doubted the Resurrection and never abandoned Our Lord like St. Peter and the rest of the Apostles. There was no sin or doubt in the Virgin’s heart at the foot of the Cross, but there was pain and separation. Indeed, as my professors indicated, her pain and separation were greater precisely because she was perfect (in Hare Krishna parlance, a pure devotee). Compared to our hard hearts, hers broke even though she believed her son and knew that the separation was only temporary. One or two days were like an eternity for her, not to mention having to witness her Son being tortured to death. So her suffering was more acute, to the point that she could put on her own lips the words of Scripture:

O vos omnes, qui transitis per viam, attendite et videte, si est dolor sicut dolor meus. (O you who walk on the path, listen and see, if your pain is like unto mine).

Even the other Marys, especially Mary Magdalene, had a mood akin to the gopis as they walked toward the tomb of their spiritual master on Eastern morning. When Mary Magdalene saw the empty tomb and spoke with a man she presumed to be the gardener, beside herself with grief she said: “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” I imagine her, likely a small woman, trying to drag a corpse to who knows where by herself. She was certainly not thinking straight. The veil then dropped from her eyes (yoga maya?) and she cried out to Jesus, but He offered her the famous Noli me tangere line:

Do not touch me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” (John 20:17)

Easter is a time of presence, but it is a temporary presence. The reality for the Christian remains separation at least on this side of the eschaton , but the presence of the Paraclete is still there in the heart of the believer who heeds Jesus’ words and keeps them.

So what is the answer to the question: Is separation better than presence? I guess the answer is: It depends. With the gopis, there is no question that their hearts are firmly focused on the Supreme Personality of Godhead, even when He is not before them personally. They obsess about Him, and they think of nothing else. With the Blessed Mother, she keeps all things of Jesus firmly in her heart. She can’t forget Jesus anymore than she could forget her own name. The same is true even with the women disciples at the tomb who preached to the Resurrection to the Apostles themselves. But what about us?

With us, there is no question that presence can be a crutch. We take advantage of things and they become routine. We get proud of our external practice. Our separation isn’t one of a pure devotee. We don’t miss the church or the temple just because we miss God, we also miss it because we’re afraid of what we are without the external practice. It’s hard to hear, but vani is better than vapu. Heeding the word of the Lord in separation is better than sitting right in front of Him much of the time. That is the essence of faith. And if we feel that it isn’t, it’s because we have to work on what’s important in ourselves: Solus cum Deo solo (Being alone with God alone). That’s God’s will for the world right now. Let us accept it.




One response

15 04 2020
David Collins

Wow! Great sermon – well, OK, I guess all the stuff about Krishna would have had some of the congregation screaming at you had you delivered it from the pulpit. : D

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