The Kingdom not of this world

28 08 2021

I listened to the Honest Man’s podcast’s recent episode, Vedic Pornography, with special guest Madhavananda Das, a senior Hare Krishna devotee who lives in Jagannath Puri, India. The topic of the podcast was specifically on the role that erotic art plays in the temple architecture of India. However, that is peripheral to what I want to talk about here. Specifically I would like to discuss Madhavananda Prabhu’s point concerning the Linga Purana. As a quick summary, the Puranas are Hindu scriptures that generally tell of divine and human histories, often from the point of view of a particular god. I have referred extensively on this blog to the Bhagavata Purana or Srimad Bhagavatam, which tells the story of Krishna and related avatars. While the Srimad Bhagavatam states that Krishna or Vishnu is the supreme Deity, other puranas state that their respective subjects are the supreme Deities. So the Devi Purana thus thinks that Durga or Devi is the Supreme Goddess out of who emerges all other manifestations of divinity. The Linga Purana is one of the puranas devoted to Lord Shiva, and not only does it state that Shiva is the Supreme Deity, but also that Vishnu doesn’t even exist. He is merely a dream of Shiva.

The great Gaudiya theologian Jiva Goswami in his Tattva Sandharba, among others, is not perturbed by these discrepancies. And neither are the interlocutors on the podcast for that matter. Madhavananda Prabhu explains the Hare Krishna interpretation of how even Vedic scriptures can indicate things that are not necessarily true to support devotion to a particular ishtha-deva. Further, as I heard it explained elsewhere, the major puranas are divided according to the type of person who reads them. The Shiva and Linga Puranas, for example, are for those in the mode of ignorance (tamas): people drawn to meat-eating, sex, and other base things. Other puranas might appeal to those in the mode of passion (rajas), such as the Brahma Purana or other puranas devoted to the demigods who might help one gain legitimate but still material benefits. Finally, the Srimad Bhagavatam and Vishnu Purana are read by those in the mood of goodness (sattva): people who seek devotion to the Supreme Lord for its own sake.

Thus, the “truth” in all these puranas is received according to the mode of the receiver (here invoking the medieval Scholastic axiom: quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur.) For someone obsessed with sex, or money, or impersonal liberation, Shiva is the Supreme God, and Vishnu, the presiding Deity over the mode of goodness, might as well be a dream. When discussing this with a more senior devotee, he stated:

This is what it means to me – Vishnu is just a dream of Siva. Because in this world Vishnu doesn’t exist – He is transcendental, meaning unresponsive to and unreachable by senses. In that sense Vishnu is like a dream – exists, but not real, not in what we think is reality.

Alright, but if that’s true, where does Vishnu actually exist? This relates to another point addressed in the podcast. Madhavananda Prabhu recounted how Srila Prabhupada asked his disciples what was better: a devotee of Kali who sacrifices goats and eats the flesh, or a vegetarian Christian. Prabhupada’s answer was that the Shakta devotee of Kali is better because he is tied into the Vedic system and will no doubt hear the names of Krishna, Lord Ramachandra, etc. This point reminded me of my readings of Indologist Alain Danielou, brother of the famous Cardinal Jean, who was an initiated Tantric but sworn anticlerical atheist. For him, Shiva was an impersonal force, the drive of all material energy to reproduce itself and thrive. Honestly, this is not far from the understanding of many orthodox Saivites. Danielou would indeed say that Vishnu is a “dream” of Shiva, in the sense that all “spiritual” realities are merely fever dreams of matter: chemicals sloshing about in the head, synapses firing and misfiring, and hallucinations here and there. At most, “Divinity” is something inherent in matter and not at all transcendent, perhaps ever a mystery but not “above” us.

So here I would have to diverge a bit from Srila Prabhupada and state that Christian personalism may be in many instances superior to a Vedic impersonalism. What good is knowing who Krishna is if you end up an atheist, and think that I am God, this rock is God, Vishnu is God, etc? It’s all in the end transitory illusion, a hiccup in the unconscious tumult of material flux. It may be that thinking of Jesus as the Only-Begotten Son and Word of God is inferior to this Hindu atheism, but can it not be argued that at this point you’re just scraping the bottom of the barrel?

The speakers in the podcast infer a similar point when talking about karma-kanda, a system of punishment and reward described in the Vedas and related literature. The Vedas assign certain rituals and behaviors that can either take one up into the heavens or lead one down into the deepest hells should one fail to observe them. When one speaks of “Heaven” in Hinduism, one has to ask, “which one?” The issue is that in mainstream Hinduism, there is often the idea of getting out of the cycle of birth and death (samsara), but often it is mixed into the idea of reward for good actions and punishment for bad ones. For the Vaishnava, all of these are still material destinies: the real liberation is to get out of the material cycle entirely, beyond punishment and reward for fruitive action. This is where devotional service comes in, or bhakti yoga, and the only one who can award this ultimate liberation is He who is above the modes of material nature: Bhagavan – the Supreme Personality of Godhead. And for us Hare Krishnas that is, of course, Krishna. The abode of Vishnu / Narayana / Krishna is above the three modes of material nature, the cycle of birth and death, and all inferior material heavens. This is Vaikuntha, or Goloka Vrindavan, depending on one’s inclinations.

So along with Christianity and other Abrahmic religions, Gaudiya Vaishnavas express a longing for a “Kingdom not of this world” (John 18:36). While I would argue that Western monotheistic religions are still too carnal and obsessed with mechanisms of punishment and reward, the idea that this world is not the final goal of religious action seems to be something that is shared between Christianity, Islam, etc. and Krishna consciousness. We should want nothing but the love of God, for it alone is eternal in this valley of tears.


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2 responses

29 08 2021
Iamblichus

To be fair, ISKCON devotees don’t consider themselves Hindus. We’re like the Mormons of Hinduism.

28 08 2021
Scriba Dei

These are some very controversial beliefs, for a Hindu. Only abt 10% of Hindus are devotees of Vishnu (as per pew ressearch), Shiva is at 40+%. 60% of Hindus are not vegetarians. Dismissing all these people as worshippers of demigods, in the mode of passion or ignorance is unlikely to make you many friends in India. Though I suppose i now understand why ISKON is so controversial among the Indians I’ve talked to.

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