Vanity thought #861. Govindam adi purusham

I think this is by far our most presentable prayer. Of course Hare Krishna is our signature mantra but it also comes loaded with people’s preconceptions when they hear it. Anything from cult to nostalgic memories, everyone’s got an opinion already. Govindam adi purusham, however, is clean.

George Harrison’s arrangement is decidedly non-Indian, words are not in English, they don’t sound like any language people know but they are sung by English speaking people so there’s no association with any particular accent and there’s no particular culture to attach this sound to. It’s clean, not to mention it’s beautiful, and that’s why I think it’s our most presentable prayer.

Being so culture neutral it can pop up in unexpected places, like as a soundtrack to figure skating routine a few years ago. On my phone I set it as a ringtone for some special calls or alarms and when it goes off in public I’m often being asked what tune it is, its beauty being so difficult to dismiss.

For devotees it’s also associated with the most special moments in our sadhana – Deity greetings. Everyone primes himself up for these couple of minutes and mouths out the words as the song fills the temple room and tears well up in almost everybody’s eyes. No other moment is so emotionally charged as this. Well, in my opinion anyway.

Having said that, it’s not without controversy. For starters, the music was written by George Harrison, not much of a devotee at that time. Certainly he was very kind and generous to Srila Prabhupada and our movement but he wasn’t following principles or chanting sixteen rounds. He has never been initiated, too.

The singing is by a woman, which is no big deal these days but we’ve never read about women singers in Lord Chaitanya’s parties. At one point devotees from some temple sent a question to Srila Prabhupada asking if it’s appropriate for them, as brahmacharies, to listen to woman’s singing. It was serious matter for them and it was delivered to Srila Prabhupada in person through a messenger. He, of course, had none of it. If it was good for Krishna Balarama temple in Vrindavana then it was good for any other temple, too, he said, it was a standard for all Deity greetings in ISKCON and there would be no changes. This singing is transcendental, I don’t know anyone who is agitated by it.

Similarly, the question about George Harrison not being initiated is a pedantic one. He was recognized as a devotee by Srila Prabhupada and so he became a part of Krishna’s family, as per meaning of dikṣa I discussed in this post. Name and beads do not make one into a devotee, it’s just a formality, a ritual, a part of sadhana bhakti. Being accepted as a devotee by a vaishnava is all that matters.

Another question is about the content of the prayers themselves. Strictly speaking, it’s a kind of rasabhasa – no one in Vrindavan worships Krishna as the original purusha, there’s no such rasa among devotees of Vraja.

The answer to this is that it is not sung by a devotee in Vrindavan, it is sung by an outsider looking in – Lord Brahma. He is the leader of our sampradaya and so his particular mellow of the worship to the Lord sets the mood for the rest of us – outsiders looking in, very rupanuga like, never feeling themselves qualified to render service directly. There are stories of Lord Shiva sneaking into the rasa dance but we never hear anything like this about Lord Brahma, in our sampradaya we don’t strive to be so close to the Lord, we are servants of the servants of the servants, humbly offering whatever we can from our designated position, which is exactly where Krishna wants us.

This, however, also means that we are not worshiping Govinda of Vraja, despite saying the prayers ourselves, not directly anyway. There are glorious descriptions of Krishna and His abode in that Brahma Samhita but I often found them meaningless. I have no clue what a land made of spiritual gemstones look like. I find our local gems rather disappointing and I can’t tell them from pieces of colored glass, I think I can imagine an entire land made of such gems but it would look weird and not impressive at all.

I can try to imagine what millions of surabhi cows look like but then there was one occasion where Srila Prabhupada in all seriousness declared cows as not beautiful. So, millions of rather dull looking, clumsy animals? Means nothing to me.

We often dismiss Islam as having an impersonal concept of God but there’s something to say for their idea that image of God cannot be described in ordinary language or drawn by ordinary hands. It isn’t their particular idea either, it’s the argument of Shankarites, too – whenever we try to assign personal features to God we limit Him by our own perceptions. I don’t know what should be exact language here – personal features of Krishna exists whether we describe Him or not but when we do try to describe God we always do it through the prism of our experience, so the charge against us is reasonable.

We can say that our renditions are authorized because they follow authoritative descriptions given by personalities who HAVE seen Krishna, like the ones from Brahma Samhita. We can say that our renditions are authoritative because they’ve been approved by Srila Prabhupada, too. Saying that, however, does not remove the touch of our conditioning.

In my own perception Deities are usually okay but maybe that’s because they are made by people whose cultural biases I don’t recognize. Drawings by westerners, however, always remind me of someone else. We tend to draw Krishna as complying with our own cultural standards of beauty or attractiveness.

These two images, for example, are apparently correct and they present Krishna as He is described in our books but the one done in manga style reminds of all the pathos of Japanese cartoons while the other looks like a cross between Krishna and Maugli (not the Disney one) with a touch of fascination with Twilight and vampires.

In modern parlance we can say that Krishna is sexy and I guess this is what “sexy” looks like to modern women.

I might be completely off in my judgment here but I can say it with certainty – I don’t worship Govinda that looks like this. Which one I worship? I don’t know, that’s why I’m saying that descriptions in Brahma Samhita are meaningless to me.

Even Deities usually take some time to get used to, and some will never look truly beautiful to me. It doesn’t mean that it’s Krishna’s fault for not presenting Himself properly and not being all attractive because here is the crux – Deity greetings are not for us to look at Krishna, it’s for Krishna to look at us. If we do not appreciate His beauty it’s our fault, it’s us who come contaminated and pre-conditioned and unable to appreciate His attractiveness.

Krishna is not the Lord of Kali Yuga, He never aims to captivate the hearts of demons and materialists, He is only interested in loving exchanges with His dearmost devotees. We can’t demand the same sweetness extended to us, we are outside the circle, looking in.

For the foreseeable future this could be out “eternal” position so we better get used to it.

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