On allegory

24 06 2021

On one of my first visits to a Hare Krishna temple, I asked a senior devotee, “Why does Krishna play the flute?” I think I may have even asked what the flute “means”. I think I was digging for an answer like, “It has five holes representing the five senses,” or some other esoteric answer. Instead, the answer I was given was, “Because He likes it.” Krishna plays the flute because He likes playing the flute, He calls His cows with the flute, He enchants the gopis with it, and so on.

That’s not all, but it’s most of it. I just finished Sanatana Goswami’s Sri Brihad Bhagavatamrita and among the last reflections on the glories of Goloka Vrindavan, Krishna’s celestial abode, there is a passage about the gopis envying the flute since it is constantly absorbing the nectar from Krishna’s lips. There is even a praise of the reeds that gave the flute birth and the River Yamuna that nourished the flute to its maturity. This is no mere anthropomorphizing of an inanimate object: the flute, like all paraphernalia associated with Krishna is “alive,” or rather the entire spiritual world is sac-cid-ananda vigraha: an eternal body full of consciousness and bliss. Krishna’s flute is not an inert object, but is aware and receives great pleasure from such an intimate association with Krishna. And Krishna relishes the gopis’ jealousy towards the flute, as well as their fitful attempts to take it away from Him out of spite. So we can say there are three energies or shaktis working between the spiritual and material worlds: the internal potency which I have mentioned above in the spiritual world, the marginal potency (living souls stuck between the material and spiritual world), and the external potency (inert matter). That’s a very simplified description of reality in the Hare Krishna mind.

Western religious thinking inherited from Neoplatonism the idea that things must start with the simple from which they evolve into the complex, only to return to the simple. God is simple, God is not a composite, and God does not have a body. The idea comes from living organisms as we experience them. Humans as we see them start out small and simple in their mothers’ wombs, grow into complex persons as they emerge from womb into fully formed human beings, and then disintegrate back into something simple again at death. This cycle is echoed in the Neoplatonic One out of which proceeds all complex composite entities: bacteria, trees, dogs, humans, angels, demigods, etc. But as these are complex, they break down again and revert to a primordial soup of simplicity. The goal is to stop the cycle and ascend to a realm of pure simplicity, pure light, where there is no change and no division. In reality, this is just inverted materialism. You can’t get to an actual idea of the spiritual from this.

The actual transcendent is not “beyond words,” it is something that contains all words and is their origin. Philosophical concepts in Vaishnavism are not for the spiritual, but for carnal people. They’re a crutch for people still attached to the material form of life. It’s not that Krishna’s name, form, quality, pastimes, entourage, and paraphernalia are indicative of something more transcendent: they are the transcendent, and everything else in an allegory for them. Where did mathematics come from, or the music of the spheres in the ancient Pythagorean doctrines? From the rasa lila, Krishna’s amorous dance with the gopis. Krsna-lila is the reality, everything else is the distorted dream-like image which is the product both of our material desires and Krishna’s illusory energy (maya). The material world is the symbol: baby Krishna drinking from the breast of mother Yasoda is the reality.

The Srimad Bhagavatam thus has a lot of “weird” passages, but there is nothing really to read into them. Above is represented the slaying of the demon Putana by the newborn Krishna. Putana came in disguise as a normal beautiful woman to offer Krishna her poisoned breast to kill the child. Instead, baby Krishna sucked the life out of her and she reverted to her monstrous form: a gigantic demon seven miles tall. Seven miles? Seems pretty far out. But again, that is the eternal lila that is going on now in numerous material universes. There is nothing else to “grab onto,” there is no deeper allegorical meaning to it. Krishna’s body, abode, and pastimes are eternal, and ours are not. Our experiences of this world can’t offer us any particular clarity on this, because we’re basically in a nightmare, and there’s no sense trying to apply nightmare logic to the daytime world.

The goal of Krishna consciousness is to return us to our eternal relationship with Krishna, our identity that we have when we’re awake, and not the one we have nightmare after nightmare, material life after life. In Kali Yuga, the primary means to develop that relationship again, the yuga dharma, is harinam sankirtan, the loud and public chanting of the Lord’s names: Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare. This isn’t just the means to get “back to reality,” it is the only thing in this dream-state, this nightmare, that is real. Everything else is transitory and passing away, like a dream.





Again, on the Catholic 19th century

4 07 2020

It’s a bit strange that I continue to write on Catholic themes, considering my actual beliefs at this point. But I swim in a very Catholic milieu, and I still deal with the ghost of previous beliefs. So anything I state here should probably be taken with a grain of salt by actual believers, if not disregarded entirely. I don’t feel particularly bound by the rules of the contemporary Magisterial discourse for obvious reasons. I am merely commenting on the consistency and inner logic of various ideas from the perspective of a struggling God-conscious person. It’s an outsider-looking-in dynamic, but not so much from the the outside.

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A question

3 05 2020

Someone asked in the comments:

If anything, I’d just like to ask you a question (which you might have addressed in earlier entries, so sorry for redundancy): do you think Christianity necessarily leads to our secular age? In your engagement and critique of Christianity, you’ve always traced the “crisis” of the Catholic Church and Western spirituality to its roots, i.e., the materialism and laxity of today are almost the system developing naturally. Do you think that needs to be the case, or is there a way to avoid those pitfalls of Christianity while retaining the “core” (whatever that is)?

I stated recently that I don’t believe in smoking guns. Nothing leads inevitably to anything else. You’re not breaking into the mind of God and stealing its secrets. On the other hand, one can question the radical break between religion and secularism as it manifests itself in the life of the common person. At least at a very superficial level, we still have a god, we still have magic, and we still deal with forces we don’t understand. It’s just different is all. One reason why I gave up writing for a time other than just being really, really busy, was that my attempt to merge folk Catholicism and Neoplatonism hit a dead end at the beginning of last decade. I ran out of things to say, started some projects and jettisoned those as well, etc. Only recently have I developed the intellectual and moral clarity to say something again. I am not sure how long this will last. Read the rest of this entry »





God has no enemies

5 04 2020

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Lord Chaitanya threatening to castigate Jagai and Madhai with the Sudarshana Chakra

The Seventh Canto of the Srimad Bhagavatam is widely loved by devotees of Krishna because it tells the story of how five year old Prahlada Maharaja is saved from his father’s wrath by Nrsimhadeva, Krishna’s half-man, half-lion avatar. More on this in a future essay, but here I would like to describe the first chapter of the canto which Srila Prabhupada in his translation entitled, “The Supreme Lord is Equal to Everyone”. The reasoning of this chapter goes that, since the material world is merely the external energy of the Lord, it is both different and non-different (achintya bheda abheda) from Him, or to put it my own overly-simplistic terms, you can’t run from God because you sort of are God, like your finger is you but not quite. In Krishna consciousness, you can’t be totally Other from God, you can’t eternally separate yourself from Him because you’re never independent from Him. Read the rest of this entry »





Two minds

26 03 2020

Although in general I have thought Chesterton overrated, I appreciated and have recommended to friends his book, St. Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox. As I read it years and years ago, I remember only a few passages. This one, however, is the first one I think of when mentioning that book:

Siger of Brabant said this: the Church must be right theologically, but she can be wrong scientifically. There are two truths; the truth of the supernatural world, and the truth of the natural world, which contradicts the supernatural world. While we are being naturalists, we can suppose that Christianity is all nonsense; but then, when we remember that we are Christians, we must admit that Christianity is true even if it is nonsense. In other words, Siger of Brabant split the human head in two, like the blow in an old legend of battle; and declared that a man has two minds, with one of which he must entirely believe and with the other may utterly disbelieve. To many this would at least seem like a parody of Thomism. As a fact, it was the assassination of Thomism. It was not two ways of finding the same truth; it was an untruthful way of pretending that there are two truths. And it is extraordinarily interesting to note that this is the one occasion sentences, which is a thing like the tone of a man’s voice, is suddenly altered. He had never been angry with any of the enemies who disagreed with him. But these enemies had attempted the worst treachery: they had made him agree with them when the Dumb Ox really came out like a wild bull. When he stood up to answer Siger of Brabant, he was altogether transfigured, and the very style of his sentences, which is a thing like the tone of a man’s voice, is suddenly altered. He had never been angry with any of the enemies who disagreed with him. But these enemies had attempted the worst treachery:they had made him agree with them. Read the rest of this entry »





Luminous shadows

20 01 2020

As indicated previously, Thomism and I started off on the wrong foot when I was a teenager, when I tried to study it with the aim of getting a jump start on ecclesiastical studies. Instead I became enamored with modern philosophies that were more in sync with the times. I will admit, my inability to adequately engage with Scholastic philosophy was due to my intellectual isolation. I was in a small town, the local clergy didn’t particularly care for my piety (looking back, I can’t blame them), and Catholic conservatism looked substantially different back then than it did today. This was the time of John Paul II, and as much as modern Thomists try to reclaim him as one of their own, you would be hard pressed to try to jam that phenomenological square peg into the round Aristotelian hole. I am sure many graduate papers are being written trying to do just that, but I’m not going to bother here.

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My so-called Neo-Scholastic life

22 12 2019

In spite of philosophy having been an obsession for me since I was a teenager, I have only taken three philosophy classes in my life. In college, it was a Chicano Studies class that I needed to take for another reason, which was just awful. The other two classes were my first year of philosophy in seminary, and I failed both miserably. This was due to my ongoing distraction concerning my actual vocation, and also due to the structure of instruction itself. Lectures were often dry and just reading from notes, on the one hand, and tests were literally just “fill in these twelve lines” format. In other words, it was all about rote learning. There was no real deep explanation concerning what any of it meant: they just wanted to see if you “knew the answer”. Read the rest of this entry »





Dying

10 12 2019

One of the most convincing challenges to Western monotheist theodicy that I can think of is one I will term the “finitude of the good.” That is, how can people we love end up doing evil things, or on the “wrong side” of morality? This question poses itself starkly when a loved one dies “outside the faith”, or if they were not a particularly pleasant person, but may have been dear to us. This person did some good, they were not an absolute waste of humanity (people seldom are). The cliché of the serial killer’s mother protesting that he was a “good boy” once rings hollow to both his victims and decent people alike. Where did that good innocent smiling boy in the photograph go? What of any of the good acts he did? Do they merely magnify the turpitude of his later actions, as Catholic theology claims when the mystery of the world is laid bare at the Last Judgment? Are they the result of karma which keeps the spirit-soul in the cycle of birth and death as the Vedas and Puranas of India indicate? Or are love and kindness just a temporary illusion of synapses flashing in the brain as the atheists proclaim? Just chemicals sloshing around in the skull… Read the rest of this entry »





Windows

24 11 2019

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I have been an inconstant seeker of the transcendent. Part of this is due to vague childhood memories of beauty. There were my grandmother’s peacocks. There was the idyllic countryside where I grew up. And there was the church. The Catholic rites were updated over a decade before my birth, but old practices and vessels take a while to get rid of. The devotions of the elderly women never left. My grandmother continued to veil her weary and withered head with a mantilla. There was that old priest or two who chanted a chunk of the Mass in Latin. But most of all, there was the building itself. I grew up in old churches, and no matter how much they wanted to alter everything right away, renovations are costly and can’t be done overnight. In my childhood parish, it took a massive earthquake for them to finally get around to gutting the sanctuary. The actual damage, however, had already been done. The shadows of the past were already cast in my mind. Read the rest of this entry »





David Bentley Hart’s End of History

11 10 2019

When thinking of the problem of Hell, I recall one of the only sermons that I remember from my time in the Society of St. Pius X seminary. It was an anniversary Mass of one of the priests where he began stating that the one thing that motivated him to be a priest was the idea of Hell and that people go there. This was one of the only instances when Hell even entered into my religious considerations. As a teenage hanger-on at my mother’s Legion of Mary praesidium, I remember being recounted the vision of Hell shown to the children at Fatima in connection to that apparition’s message of penance. As with many modern people, Hell is sort of always in the background but never at the forefront of what I think concerning the meaning of human life. But for many, such as that priest, it is very much front and center of who they are as followers of Christ. Read the rest of this entry »