Deus sub ratione Deitatis

26 07 2020
I love the frolicking Krishna' - The Hindu

In summer, I sleep badly. I have come to expect this from the humid swampy nights. In the last decade or so, summer has been both a time of rest and exhaustion, of trying to keep up with the time clock and suffering through periods of languid repose. There are long days and short nights, fits of furious activity and weeks when less gets done than expected. In this subtropical heat, I have to catch up on a lot of neglected reading. Time for this slips through my fingers quite easily. It is in this heavy air, amidst the buzzing of insects and continuous discomfort due to the climate, that I have to contemplate the higher things. It’s not ideal.

In my express sightseeing tour through the Srimad Bhagavatam, it is precisely at this time that I have come to the most significant stop in the whole scripture, and that is the description of the rasa-lila: Krishna’s dancing with the cowherd maidens of Vraja in the luminous autumn nights. In Gaudiya Vaishnavism, the socially inappropriate dancing of Krishna with the wives and daughters of Vrindavan is the highest manifestation of the love of God, and of God’s nature itself. Though it may be inappropriate for a relative neophyte to comment on the mystery of the rasa-lila, I am a man in middle age so I don’t think it will be any more appropriate later in life. As I have said elsewhere, I am probably about as wise as I will get in this lifetime.

Half-jokingly, I have thought of the idea of translating Srila Prabhupada’s books into Latin. And why not? They have been translated into dozens of other languages already, we might as well try to translate them into the dead ones too. One challenge that I have faced in reading his books is the rather poetic though slightly verbose phrase: The Supreme Personality of Godhead. Srila Prabhupada uses this term to translate a number of Sanskrit words for God, the most important of which is Bhagavan, roughly translated as “Blessed,” “Illustrious,” and “Divine”. In an apparently polytheistic religion as Hinduism where numerous entities receive the title of god (deva), a term is needed to indicate the Supreme Lord, and in Vaishnavism, this ends up being Bhagavan. Why then translate it as “Supreme Personality of Godhead”? Many schools of Vaishnavism are personalist, that is, they believe that the supreme reality is personal, or rather, a Person (purusha). This Person manifests Himself in many different forms in a variety of times, places, and circumstances. So employing the phrase, “Supreme Personality of Godhead,” indicates that this particular form is the original form (adi purusha). In the school of Lord Chaintanya Mahaprabhu, the Supreme Personality of Godhead is Krishna in Vrindavan. Goloka Vrindavan, the Celestial Planet of the Cows, is the highest heaven where God is most Himself.

It was only during my recent reading of Catholic philosopher Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange’s book, The Sense of Mystery, that I found a possible contender to translate the term “Supreme Personality of Godhead” into Latin. In speaking about the inner life of God as Trinity, the life that the creature cannot see or perhaps will never be able to see, Garrigou-Lagrange employs the Latin term, “Deus sub ratione Deitatis”. My Latin is extremely rusty as I haven’t really used it in over a decade. But as far as I can tell, that is a fairly close translation of “Supreme Personality of Godhead”. Literally, I think it would translate as “God as considered from the truth / reason of Godhead (Deitas)”. This is God at His most “God-ness”, not simply as Creator or cause of things outside of Himself. In Scholastic theology in particular, God is primarily known through His external actions in Creation and the sanctification of that Creation. Logically speaking, He can only be known apophatically, that is, through a continuous negation that asserts what He is not. God, however, is something, or rather, Someone. Who that Someone ultimately is, we cannot know entirely. In the Gaudiya understanding, Ananta Shesha, the Cosmic Snake who balances the universes on His millions of hoods and is Himself an emanation of God, sings continuously the glories of Bhagavan from all of His mouths, and never comes close to proclaiming all of them.

God is rasa

The Christian understanding is that God is love (agape). As in most advanced ancient languages, there was more than one word for what we call love. God is selfless and disinterested love, he is not eros, or pragma, or any love that would be unbecoming of the Supreme Being. In Vaishnavism, God is a rasa: mood, mellow, or taste. To better describe this and the rasa-lila further, I am depending on Dr. Graham Schweig’s book, Dance of Divine Love. I note here as well that Srila Prabhupada left this world before he had a chance to translate the rasa-lila episode, so I will have to do with the translation and commentary from one of his disciples. In addition to mood or taste, Schweig defines rasa as signifying the sap of the plant, the juice of the fruit, and also the vital essence of the thing. Overall, that which makes something appealing, or that draws us to it, is rasa. God is rasa both as the object (the Bhagavad Gita has Krishna saying that He is the taste of water), and also the enjoyer of rasa. Rasa further implies a relationship: in the scholastic distinctions of religious moods in Gaudiya Vaishnavism, one’s relationship with God can be defined as one of reverence, friendship, parental care, or conjugal love, in ascending order.

The goal of Krishna consciousness is not liberation from suffering, but of rediscovering and fostering one’s relationship with God according to one’s particular rasa or mellow, in the spirit of service. A jiva or spirit soul is eternally drawn to a particular relationship, and that is how one serves Krishna. This derives from the idea of personhood: a person as we know them has a variety of moods in which they can manifest. A man may not be the same at home with his family as he is in the office; he may not be the same in public as he is at a party, and so on. We all exist in relationship and within one of those moods or rasas. That is what determines our real spiritual body: eternal, full of knowledge and bliss. We all exist to serve God as being an object of His enjoyment in a particular rasa: we all have a role in the Divine Play that we are rebelling against in this material world, but perhaps one day we will return to it when we go back to Godhead. The highest relationship is what is manifested in the circle dance of the maids of Vrindavan: parakiya bhava or paramour love.

Analogia entis

Here we have to tread lightly. The mystery of Krishna dancing with the cowherd girls in the forests of Vrindavan is a case of quod licet Iovi non licet bovi: a Divine double standard that upholds morality rather than challenges it. For one thing, Krishna was a child when the rasa-lila took place, perhaps only eight years old. Another consideration is whether the gopis were married or not: some say yes, others no. In any case, the morality of the story is saved in one sense since the gopis run off to dance in the forest leaving their material doppelgangers in the village holding their places. While the dancing of an unmarried boy and the girls of Vrindavan could be considered scandalous, no one was really scandalized by it in the context of the story.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, Srila Prabhupada was very wary of discussing the rasa-lila, stating that it was only for rare and liberated souls. You can find many places in his writings and talks where he expresses a sentiment similar to this one:

Krishna’s rasa-lila should not be discussed in public meeting. It is most confidential. Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu never discussed. He discussed Krishna’s pastimes, lila with gopis, with His confidential, very confidential circle. Or those who are… Lord Caitanya had many thousands of followers, and He was not discussing even within these five persons, sri-krsna-caitanya prabhu-nityananda sri-advaita gadadhara srivasadi, Nityananda, Advaita, Gadadhara, Srivasa and Himself, these five persons. So when He was at Navadvipa, He was not discussing even with them, what to speak of others. He set up this example so that in future people may be very cautious. Because unless one understands what is Krishna, how he can understand Krishna’s pastime?

It is thus with trepidation that I continue here, trying to stick to broad theological categories only. The most important is that of the nature of pleasure or bliss itself (ananda). Personal enjoyment is at the center of Christian revelation. Perhaps this was not the case before, but even relatively unenlightened souls following St. John of the Cross and other mystical writers will talk about the nuptial union of God and the soul. For the Gaudiya Vaishnava, to speak of this even in the spiritual platform is cheap and a little blasphemous. At most, one can perhaps aspire to being the dust on the feet of the inhabitants of the celestial Vrindavan, and even then, one should be more inclined to follow one’s own spiritual master from universe to universe preaching Krishna consciousness. There is no real “enjoyment” involved outside of service in the afterlife. You aren’t “rewarded” in the hereafter, though the yoke is no doubt easier, and the burden lighter in the spiritual world.

Unlike in Thomist metaphysics, the jiva isn’t properly speaking substantia. She doesn’t have an ontological integrity demanded by Western metaphysics. The spirit soul is part and parcel of God, like a little flake of God that has fallen off and is covered by the dirt of maya. She thus has no independent existence properly speaking: she is simultaneously one and different from the Supreme Lord. The analogy follows that, if you water a tree by its roots, you nourish the whole tree. But if you water the leaves, or splash a bit of water on the bark, neither the bark nor the leaves are nourished. The same is true of the pursuit of pleasure and fulfillment outside of God. Krishna is where our real “root” is, otherwise we continue to dwindle like an unwatered plant. If we “water” Krishna, we give pleasure to Krishna, and serve Him, that is the only way we complete ourselves and find true repose. The building block of the material manifestation is false ego: the idea that we have an existence separate from God. Once we remove false ego, our material existence, though it has lasted billions of lifetimes and seen the passing of hundreds of universes, topples like a house of cards.

In that context, one couldn’t really fathom imitating the rasa-lila or thinking of it as something scandalous. There is no comparison between us and Krishna. If the goal of our existence is to give pleasure to Krishna, to “water” and cultivate our relationship with Krishna, we must look to the example of those who please Krishna the most: the gopis of Vrindavan. If love and sex are the greatest pleasures in the material world, and perhaps the best expression of what binds us here, it is because it is a warped and perverted reflection of the love between the cowherd girls and Krishna in the spiritual world. Thus, the rasa-lila isn’t “allegory”: lust masquerading as love down here is the allegory, and a very bad one.

Love makes you stupid

I recall an illness I once experienced very acutely riding a bus in north Oakland in the late 2000’s. My mind was absent and wandering. I had heart palpitations, I couldn’t think straight. I don’t know if I even ate that day. I probably got little done that afternoon, and would probably accomplish even less as the day went on. I was unhappy but giddy. I had no idea when I would be over it. And I knew the cure was far, far away. I hated the illness but didn’t want it to stop. It was swallowing my whole life, but somehow I didn’t mind. It was horrible and incredibly meaningful at the same time.

Of course, I was in love.

It was awful. And it wasn’t.

One safe topic we can discuss about the rasa-lila then, is how God Himself seeks to enjoy this rasa, how Krishna subjected Himself to His own illusory potency, Yogamaya, who covered Him over and gave Him all the insanity and jitters of one who is unfortunate enough to be in love. Of course, He receives this covering in a transcendental way that we can’t possibly fathom.

In his translation, Schweig says that Krishna, the “star” of the rasa-lila, fully takes refuge, “in Yogamaya‘s illusive powers”. I say “star” here, because the best way to explain this sublime mystery is as a theatrical play. In Vedic theology, when one speaks about God, one is speaking both of masculine and feminine aspects, with the feminine often taking the lead (Radha-Krishna, Sita-Rama, Lakshmi-Narayana, etc.) While Krishna is Bhagavan, masculine, the adi purusha (the “First Person” or even the “First Male”), He is always accompanied by His shakti, His energy, always Female, or perhaps the “Eternal Feminine” to steal a line from Goethe. Srimati Radharani, the principle gopi, is His hladini shakti, His pleasure potency, the apex of what gives Him all bliss. Yogamaya in the spiritual world is She who organizes and gives form to the drama. In some sense, if Krishna and Radha are the “stars” of the movie, Yogamaya is the director or the producer of the film. Since Krishna is God, Yogamaya makes Krishna “forget” His “real” position: that the gopis and indeed all of Goloka Vrindavan emanates from Him. Schweig quotes the acharyas saying that the rasa-lila is akin to a child playing with his own reflection. The gopis are merely a projection of Krishna’s pleasure potency, but it is Yogamaya, the controlling Goddess, who makes the play real, certainly more real and intense than we could possibly imagine. It is Yogamaya who binds Krishna to the gopis in a play of love.

Again, here I have to pull you down to this fallen Earth, because here Maya isn’t the organizer of our fantasy, but rather our jailer. Again, we aren’t Krishna. The Hermetic idea of “as above, so below” is true, but in a fairly distorted sense. In the material realm, Maya doesn’t organize our transcendental joy, but our wilful forgetfulness, manifesting itself in punishment, reward, and continued changing from one body to another. There is a celestial forgetting and a material forgetting, and the latter is the essence of our hellish existence. Maha-maya, or great Maya, is what keeps us bound in the cycle of temporary enjoyment and inevitable suffering, followed by death and rebirth. The inverse of the Supreme Personality of Godhead forgetting Himself and enjoying with the gopis is the jiva bound in the barking dog, or in the mute tree, or in the pleasure-seeking human intent on sliding further down the Great Chain of Material Being.

Those butterflies in the stomach that I experienced on that Bay Area bus weren’t some sort of iconic representation of madhurya-rasa in Goloka Vrindavan. If Yogamaya covers Krishna so that He can enjoy with the cowherd maidens, and thus experience and give a pleasure beyond our understanding, our lust veiled as romantic love just makes us stupid. It makes us think that we are the enjoyer, that the pleasure is ours to have, and it destroys us when our desire is inevitably frustrated. If I can gleam a little truth of what real love might be like from my own experience, that is wholly dependent of my ascending higher in bhakti, and realizing that the pleasure and insanity of true love aren’t really mine to have.

The Mandala that moves everything

Schweig in his own close reading describes what sort of dance the rasa-lila is. “The festival of the Rasa dance commenced with a circular formation of Gopis,” Schweig translates. This is the primordial mandala which in many traditions would indicate procession and return. Schweig writes:

The mandala of the rasa dance, however, is not made up of static or graphic geometric configurations. Rather, it is dynamic and ecstatic, its circle consisting of special souls dancing with the divinity, meditation upon which cultivates the innermost emotions of the heart.

In Vaishnavism, unlike Advaita Vedanta and other “mystical traditions,” it’s the Personal Who is the source of the Impersonal. Truth is a relationship, not a mathematical equation, a cold abstraction, or an ontological vacuum devoid of all qualities. In this case, the mesmerizing mandalas of later traditions, from Tibetan Buddhist maps of the cosmos to the rose windows in medieval cathedrals, spring from the dance in the round of the damsels of Vrindavan. Schweig adds:

Krishna’s flute music is seen as the ultimate source of the music of this world. According to both Jiva and Visvanatha, the singing of the cowherd maidens during the Rasa dance, inaugurated by Krishna’s flute, is origin of the sixteen thousand musical ragas.

The Mahamantra, the now famous chant of the Hare Krishna movement, is directly a reflection of the rasa-lila. In the Rasa dance, Krishna multiplies Himself so that each gopi has Him as a partner and thinks that He is dancing with her alone. Schweig explains:

The circuitous arrangement of the words of this mahamantra consists of an alternating pattern between an equal number of feminine (as hare) and masculine (as krsna – the transliterated form of the name Krishna – and as rama) names of the divine. The sacred thirty-two syllable mantra appears as follows: hare krsna / hare krsna / krsna krsna / hare hare / hare rama / hare rama / rama rama / hare hare. The patterned movement of eight pairs of feminine and masculine names of the divine can be observed in the mantra. Within four of the pairs (first, second fifth, and sixth) the feminine and masculine names appear alternately. In the other four pairs (the third, fourth, seventh, and eighth) two masculine names appear together in one pair, followed by two feminine names in the next pair. Thus the dancelike movement can be observed both within and between pairs. Additionally, the mantra begins and ends with the feminine names enclosing the masculine names, just as the Gopis engulf Krishna when they encircle him during the commencement of the Rasa dance. When practitioners recite the mantra over and over, the divine names form a circular pattern imitative of the exchange between the feminine and masculine partners of the Rasa dance. It can be seen, then, that the presence of the Rasa Mandala is archetypal in Vaishnava practices.

The rasa-lila is thus not just some random episode in the story of Krishna, who is supposedly another random historical figure with an amusing story. The Rasa dance is the origin of all things, the center of the lotus that expands ever outward into everything that is and could be. A devotee I know likes to say that, in reciting the Mahamantra, Krishna is dancing on your tongue. More accurately, from Schweig’s analysis, it is Radha and Krishna, and perhaps all of the gopis, dancing on your tongue, even if you are reciting it somewhat absentmindedly early in the morning.

The center of everything isn’t power, or sober majesty, or pious sentiment. It is dancing, singing, giggling, and caressing. The most intimate life of Godhead isn’t in a throne room where an Old Man sits surrounded by fearsome angels singing of His glory, but in a nocturnal dance in the forest where young forbidden love is unfolding and flourishing. And the greatest devotion to God isn’t some hushed pious affair in a cloister, but more akin to young girls fawning over a pop star, mad with love at his absence, consumed in a sea of emotions when he’s present. That is the ultimate reality. You and I might be fortunate enough to witness it one day.

Wild nights

I understand the draw of the autumn night. After a long humid summer, there are barely words to describe when the thickness of the air finally breaks. You can breath again. The air transforms back into air, and not some invisible soup entering through your nostrils and piercing the pores of your skin. It’s as if you return to things as they should be. The first “cold front” we get here is a personal holiday for me, a small victory of knowing that the sweltering days and muggy nights are now far off, like some bad dream that is dispelled by the first rays of the rising sun.

That’s about as far as the personal appeal of the rasa-lila goes for me, at least superficially. I have never been much of a dancer, and by “much,” I am implying not at all. I was a shy kid, which passes into being a very introverted adult. My romantic conquests have been few, my enjoyment of the opposite sex has been minimal. I don’t like crowds, I shrink away from loud noise. Clamoring in a forest late at night is not my personal paradise, at least not in this body. One of the things I value most is an early bedtime that allows me to rise fairly early, usually around three o’clock on my own, five if I am really “sleeping in”.

But in rising early now, that is when I start chanting japa, the continuous soft repetition of the Mahamantra to myself. Even if my own very impure and flawed way, that’s when the rasa-lila takes place on my tongue, for when Krishna dances, He is always dancing with Radha. In chanting japa, Srila Prabhupada only gave the instruction to chant and listen attentively. No mental images are appropriate, there are no breathing techniques, you can chant sitting or standing or walking around. In this Kali Yuga, the Real Presence of the Supreme Personality of Godhead is there in that sound.

As for the physical dancing, that is the kirtan, the other aspect of the only sacrifice in this age of Kali. In the raucous kirtan accompanied by orderly and chaste dancing, with Krishna’s flute being incarnated as a mridanga or drum, the spirit of the Rasa dance manifests itself in this age. Seeing the devotees dance is the only image we need to contemplate the rasa-lila. That was the intention of Lord Chaitanya, the Golden Avatar of Krishna who founded the Hare Krishna movement in our time. Here the lovers of God are trying to dance their way home, trying to dance their way out of these bodies of dust and decay in order to return to their original bodies where they can please Krishna for all eternity.

In that way, I understand my own aversion to mundane mirth and dancing as not necessarily a rejection of these things, but as a rejection of them as they exist in the material world. Though I am far from perfect and I am certainly not a saint, I understand the passion of youthful love and the play that surrounds it as hearkening to something sublime that I have not seen with these mortal eyes. I suppose I have always been holding out for that transcendent ecstasy, frustrated as most are when I have pursued other things thinking that they were the “real thing”. I am a romantic and a dreamer only because I know real love and joy are out there, and I am not giving up my search for them. I believe I have found them in the dance of Krishna and the gopis, but I have a long way to go before I am even remotely worthy of this Mystery.

At least I can take solace in knowing that I am not the only introvert who has dreamed of a nocturnal rendezvous that I am not inclined to take part in, but only contemplate from afar:

Wild nights – Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile – the winds –
To a Heart in port –

Done with the Compass –
Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden –
Ah – the Sea!
Might I but moor – tonight –
In thee!

-Emily Dickinson



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