Brihad Mridanga

Who doesn’t know this famous explanation?

My Guru Mahārāja used to say that this press is bṛhad-mṛdaṅga. Bṛhat means bigger, at large, bigger mṛdaṅga, bigger. Just like we are playing mṛdaṅga. This mṛdaṅga can be vibrated in the neighboring quarter, but our mṛdaṅga, Back to Godhead, that will go far, far away. So therefore this press was considered by my Guru Mahārāja as bṛhad-mṛdaṅga.

June 11, 1969, New Virndavan

Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati even had printing press installed in the temple room, though after his departure it was sold. I couldn’t find any pictures of it but the one below supposed to show the press on which Srila Prabhupada’s Delhi Bhagavatams were printed. It doesn’t look like it belongs to a temple room but still – Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati founded printing press before founding any temples. It’s the beating heart of our movement.

“Books are the basis”, Srila Prabhupada also taught us. So publishing books is called Brihad Mridanga and even if ISKCON for some reason ceases to exist a new organization will inevitably rise up based on the same books, which will be the law for the next ten thousand years. What more needs to be said? Quite a lot, actually.

Printed books are on their way out and in a few years or decades there won’t be any actual law books left – everything would go digital. Even paper money is on its way out – I remember reading news from Sweden where some shops refuse to accept cash because it’s such a backward way of payment. Where does it leave us with our “big mridanga”? Should we all go digital as well? Here is where we need to rethink the concept, I believe.

In the quote above only one principle is announced directly: “… our mṛdaṅga, Back to Godhead, that will go far, far away.” Other foundational aspects of it were implied and they should not be forgotten, for they are the same for any form of preaching at any time in history. Let’s see how “Brihad Mridanga” itself worked in those days.

India was ruled by the British who were big on technology and printing was one of their magical inventions. Actually, printing press was invented even before Lord Caitanya but it became “Brihad Mridanga” only when Bhaktivinoda Thakur got to play on it. So here is one foundational principle – it should be used by pure devotees. Srila Prabhupada didn’t need to mention it in that lecture and Back To Godheads devotees were publishing then were considered as fully transcendental literature.

Coming back to the press itself – people were genuinely impressed by the technology and automatically offered any printing material greater value than to talking sadhus. Anybody can talk and talk is cheap, but one who has the ability and power to get himself printed must automatically be considered as being on a higher platform. His words matter, his words have weight, his words have value.

When we combine the two – pure devotees producing books that become automatically revered by ordinary people we have perfect conditions for their words to actually sink in and change people’s hearts. Lord Caitanya took sannyasa for the same reason – so that people started treating Him as an authority rather than a neighborhood boy who went crazy after some gopi girls.

Respect itself isn’t enough – people had to pay for the books and magazines, which means they had to make a sacrifice and give away something very very dear to them – their money. When you pay for what you read or hear you naturally want to extract the most value out of it in return, which means you have to really pay attention and hope that the words actually work and change your life for the better. In the case of Lord Caitanya – sannyasis must have been fed. It was customary to give something to a sadhu as gratitude for his teachings, for reminding people of their dharma.

Srila Prabhupada’s experiences with Back To Godhead provide a valuable lesson here. At first it was great – printed, up to day, interesting topics, but eventually, as Indian society evolved, the value of periodical press, which has to be read once and then discarded, declined. Somebody told this to Srila Prabhupada directly – no one cares for you two paisa papers (I don’t know exact cost), if you want to be taken seriously you should give them a book. And that’s how Srila Prabhupada decided to translate Srimad Bhagavatam.

In other words, printed or not, but the value of what we offer should be sufficiently high for it to be taken seriously, and I mean monetary value here. Transcendental value is not going to be appreciated right away by the general mass of people but it obviously should be there, too – see the first principle I mentioned above.

Let’s look at transitioning to digital now. This can be of two kinds – selling ebooks and preaching on the internet. Both have been tried by our devotees. Ebooks are there and Vaisesika’s people even produced a manual on how to distribute them, but I haven’t heard stories of success with it yet. Possibly because Vaisesika still focuses on distributed actual Bhagavatams, which deserves a separate consideration.

One of his arguments is that once the novelty of ebooks, Kindles, and tablets wears off people return to paper again. He gives statistics which confirm this trend. Ten years ago they proudly announced that they were selling more ebooks but by the end of the decade 80% of sold books were still printed on paper. One reason is that people who were supposed to embrace this digital revolution were not into books at all – their attention span is too short and they can’t read lines longer than “Kaboom” in their “graphic novels”. On the other hand, people who still read books like to hold them in their hands and flip their actual pages instead of pressing buttons.

In any case, even if printed book market shrinks it doesn’t really concern us – we sell only about half a million books a year and this number has little to do with popularity of books. Maybe example of Vivaldi browser can demonstrate it better. People behind Vivaldi counted their numbers and discovered that they only need two million or so of daily users to create the browser they think is the best. They don’t care about market share, they only wanted to make the browser they like for people who would appreciate it, and two million, and maybe only one million in the beginning, was all they needed.

This should make us look at book distribution from a different perspective, too – we have the books that we think are the best and we need to find people who share our opinion, and, historically, this number hovers around half a million books a year.

So Vaisesika’s answer to digital challenge is, basically, that we still have enough people who buy paper and are limited only by our abilities, so why worry?

This is for selling ebooks, now let’s look at “preaching on the internet”, which now includes all kinds of media, social networks, podcasting etc. The variety is great, but it’s still “internet” as far as people of my generation are concerned. One important feature of it is that it’s free, and another is that you can’t trust anything on the internet. This is directly opposite of the two foundational principles I discussed above – our “products” should be seen as valuable and trustworthy.

Moreover, the abundance of free content on the internet has grown into the realization that it’s us, the consumers, who are the product. We read/watch/listen to some stuff and the records of our consumption are sold to Google, Facebook, and others. In this way the value shifts from the product offered to us, to the act of our agreeing to look at it. We have the power. We can tweet about it, we can give it high or low rating, we can start social campaigns, we can bring down brands and entire companies. We are the power!

You absolutely can’t preach to people like that. It should not be even tried when they are in this mood, and it would be offensive to he Holy Name.

The subject of trust is also tricky – people have become so partisan and opinionated that they do not trust anything from certain sources and they make their minds about it rather fast. If your articles have been published by NYTimes or The Guardian there will be millions of people who won’t listen to a word you say, and it works the same for the opposing camp, too. What’s your standing on vaccination? Half the public won’t accept it whatever it is. Okay, maybe you can avoid talking about Covid, but then there are so many other triggers that can cause a full meltdown so you can’t possibly account for them all.

Devotees were attacked and killed in Bangladesh recently, less than two weeks ago, and we already have “protect Hindu minorities” and “we are not Hindus” camps in our society. Let me repeat that – two camps in our own society, what to speak of the rest of the world. Whatever we say on whatever topic, chances are somebody will get triggered by it.

How to navigate these systemic problems of “internet preaching”? No one knows, but it’s definitely not about platforms and choice of medium – we need people to act according to the above mentioned principles first – respect, trust, and value. Value also includes commitment – it should be high enough for people to invest sufficient time and energy for the message to take hold.

This was about the method of communication, but we should not forget that the message should come from pure devotees, which is not a concern when selling Prabhupada’s books but becomes important for “internet preaching”, and that the recipients should be ready, too. After all, Srila Prabhupada spent decades trying to preach to Indians and they just wouldn’t listen. I suspect even to this day Indians support ISKCON for reasons other than pure devotion.

What does it all say for the prospects of our Brihad Mridanga? Well, I can repeat what I said earlier – printing press was invented even before Lord Caitanya and it tool several hundred years before all the other components fell into place – pure devotees, intelligent and perceptive audience, relationships of respect, creation of trust, and creation of value, and these all should be on the mass scale. It’s not a question of technology or connectivity at all. It’s not that we can just replace that printing press in the picture by the latest model and all will be alright again. We have to address the underlying principles first.

ISKCON BABYLON

I think we have more in common than it appears at first. Babylon is a Biblical city where they built a Tower of Babel. I would say that’s how historians interpret it in terms familiar to them but it could be just their angle on what is unquestionably implied already – Babylon was an organization.

When an organization builds a place for its members it would be called “city”, but you can’t have a city without having organization first. Two-three thousand years from now ISKCON Mayapur could also be seen as an ancient city and it would be so recorded in local chronicles, too – it doesn’t have any special name, it’s “ISKCON” for everybody living in the area, it’s a place, and it soon will be the size of a city.

The name “Babylon” comes from the local language for “Gate of God” and ISKCON is undeniably positions itself as the gateway to the spiritual world, too. Some argue that people can get there bypassing ISKCON but I would question that, it’s a different topic, however, let’s not go into it right now.

So we have two distinctive characteristics that are matching already – a spiritual organization that purports to transfer its members to the Kingdom of God. And then there was the Tower.

The account is recorded in Genesis 11, but there are so many translations there I have no idea which one is the best. The top of this tower was supposed to be in heaven, or reach heaven. And they wanted a name for themselves, too, so that they could be distinguished from the rest of the world. Like “Hare Krishnas”. We don’t say that the top of TOVP will be in heaven or reach Goloka, but we certainly hope that our “top” devotees will have full realization of their spiritual identity and reach Krishna’s personal association. We also have an organization that supports this progress to the top. It might not be an actual tower, but we use other words like “ladder” and “pyramid” so if the future historians come across them they might think we actually tried to built a pyramid reaching Vaikuntha.

Regardless, the meaning is the same – we have a structure that allows people at the bottom progress upwards and reach the top. We are proud of providing this structure, it’s our self-identification and the essence of our existence – preaching. We also want a “house for the whole world to live in” – how’s that not a tower? Okay, it isn’t a tower yet, not at the moment, where we assume that all our members are spiritually equal, all are deserving equal services and equal respect, but it’s a temporary vision and there is a great battle against this equality going on as we speak. In the end it WILL be a tower – some people and some sections of our society will be seen as being higher and some as lower. No one can resist varnasrama forever, it will assert itself because it’s the will of the Lord for how people should be organized in this world. The point is the same – we take people from mleccha and yavana background and we aim to promote them to the highest levels of bhakti, and, hopefully, to direct perception of the Lord. That’s what the tower does, too.

God’s reaction in the Bible, however, is not at all encouraging. There is no direct explanation given but God somehow didn’t want all these people in His heaven. His first words were already about how to squash this effort, not about why. In our ISKCON language it’s about rooting out sahajiya tendencies – only the purest of the pure can actually reach Krishna, not the sahajiyas, not the ones who take it very cheaply. For sahajiyas there is no entrance into spiritual realm whatsoever. They shall not pass.

Quoted from Gauidya:

The disease of prākṛta-sahajiyā-ism is very widespread. In a form that devours everything, takes various shapes, and steals the mind, it wanders throughout the universe, increasing the covering of those jīvas captured by a seemingly natural tendency to reject Kṛṣṇa, and by severe offenses to Vaiṣṇavas, it causes further degradation of the bound jīvas and uprooting of their devotional creeper.

Gauḍīya 11.409

In other words, while the endeavor for spiritual perfection is legitimate and there need to be a structure supporting one’s progress, unless there are guards in place to weed out less than perfect aspirants the Tower cannot be allowed to reach its destination. How did God go about that in the Bible?

The Tower of Babel episode is cited as an ancient explanation of appearance of many languages and that’s how it can be seen by historians, too, but that is the result, not the process, not God’s solution. His solution was to “confound their language”, which we can safely take as “ruin their common understanding”. Once people stopped thinking in the same way their cooperation stopped and so did the construction. Who has failed to notice the same scenario playing out in ISKCON right now, too?

Do I need to mention all the contentious issues of today? I hope not. What I did notice only recently, however, is that we began to understand the same passages very differently and become very sure in our interpretations as being right and the only possible. I don’t want to give examples of this happening in real life, but I have seen devotees from opposing camps literally unable to understand what they were talking about. A quote from the Bhagavad Gita purport is appropriate in this regard:

In the mode of goodness, one can see things in the right position, one can hear things in the right position, and…

BG 14.11, purport

We have reached the point where levels of our conditioning (or levels of purity, if you look from the other end) are so different that we can’t see and hear in the same way. Whether it leads to creation of a different language is only a question of time, I’d say. In the greater society they have already created a different language to explain themselves and I, like many others, have to rely on google to understand their newly minted vocabulary. Which I immediately forget, so it doesn’t really help.

So, with so many parallels between ISKCON and Babylon, is the fate of Babel Tower is our destiny, too? I hope not, and I’m afraid so at the same time. The current project of making topmost levels of spiritual advancement being easily accessible to all is surely going to fail and it is failing already.

Last year I signed up for a virtual Kartik parikrama and I had my fill of “Imagine you are immersing yourself in the waters of Radha Kunda. Imagine the …” stories for the rest of my life. Never again. People who indulge in these narrations and assume any of it is real will eventually get tired of them, too. It’s only a matter of time, and the fact that there is a large part of our society that thinks it’s a kind of sahajiya that needs to be rejected is a testament that God’s plan for Babylon is at work in ISKCON, too. In another example some incensed members recently called for boycotting fundraising for TOVP, the project which was supposed to unite all the people of the world around it, not just all the devotees.

That’s a negative projection, but I also hope that ISKCON will survive as an organization supporting the progress of its qualified members towards the highest destination. I myself need this. I need books, I need temples, I need devotees going to the temples and holding festivals and engaging in daily Krishna katha so that it then appears on Youtube. I need devotees buying books so that other devotees can write and publish them, or at least write blog articles and post things on Facebook. This won’t be happening without audience and audience means ISKCON should create and nurture it, for no other organization will. I don’t know about reaching heaven, but we all need to make steps up the ladder, and for that the ladder must exist and provide solid support.

I thought I would end here but there is another aspect to any organization – it stifles individuals. What some see as support others see as oppression. Or it might be an evolving view of one and the same person – as support in the beginning and as an impediment later on. So another kind of experience might be noticed, too – we are wondering around this huge structure, with all its staircases, lifts, and escalators, and people hurrying here and there busy with their own progress, and we keep looking for anyone who is still alive, whose spirit is still alive, who doesn’t hold grudges, who doesn’t fight the oppressors and who doesn’t lead revolutions, but knows his way around the place and can show us wonderful things hidden here and there, or who can bring us to the higher floors and open our eyes to the wonderful vistas available there. Meeting such a person would be a blessing, so we will keep looking.

And another thing – please don’t turn our kirtans into elevator musak. That would make it into a part of the tower, not live expression of the soul we are looking for here.

Bedrock of Rasa

Krishna spoke a lot of bogus philosophy when trying to convince His father to worship Govardhan instead of Indra, but he also slipped in a couple of slokas that are true and free from deception. Here is one of them:

na naḥ purojanapadā
na grāmā na gṛhā vayam
vanaukasas tāta nityaṁ
vana-śaila-nivāsinaḥ

SB 10.24.24

I won’t copy the translation, please try to look at Sanskrit and let the meaning come to you, it’s an easy verse to parse.

Second “nah” in “na nah” means not “no” but “us”. “Puro” means “city” and “janapada” means suburbs. Okay, it’s not how it’s translated but close – areas developed (padah) by humans (jana). Second line is obvious – “na grama” means we do not live in the villages, “na griha” means we do not have houses, “vayam” means “we” again. Third line then tells us where they DO live – “vana” is forest, of course, and “okasah” means “residents of”. “Nityam” means forever, “nivasinah” means “where we live”, and we live in “vana-saila” – forests and hills. So here is the verse again, look at it and let it come to you:

na naḥ purojanapadā
na grāmā na gṛhā vayam
vanaukasas tāta nityaṁ
vana-śaila-nivāsinaḥ

Earlier in this chapter Krishna addressed Nanda Maharaja as “pita” – father, but in this verse he uses a much closer, much less official term “tata”. So He turns to His father as close as He can, speaking in the most endearing way, and He lays down the foundation of their family – we do not live in cities or any developed areas, we do not live in villages and we don’t build houses for ourselves. We are people of hills and forests and we will stay this way forever. There is only us and nature, and civilization does not intrude into our lives.

A couple of verses earlier Krishna was speaking of the dharma of vaishyas and he listed four occupations:

kṛṣi-vāṇijya-go-rakṣā kusīdaṁ

SB 10.24.21

We know these things – krishi (agriculture), vanijya (trade), with only kusidam being new and it’s translated as “banking”. Krishna says in that verse that their family, however, was doing only go-raksa – protecting the cows. Trading and banking would tie them to people, and agriculture would tie them to one place – to tilling the land, to gardening etc, and we have seen that they were not interested in that – they were strictly the people of nature.

“Go” means cow and it also means the same as English “go”. Cows are animals that wonder around, looking for things to eat. Senses are called “go” for the same reason – they are naturally attracted to consuming their objects. It’s the same “go” as in the word for the universe – jagat – something that always gives birth to something new and in this way always moves forward. This is what “following the nature” means, too – the nature always brings forth one thing or another, cows and senses naturally follow, and Krishna protects them and brings them satisfaction as “Govinda”.

Why is civilization excluded? I’d say it’s because “nature” is dumb, in a sense that living beings that support it (“dharyate jagat” from BG 7.5) are too conditioned to spoil it with their own ideas. Nature follows the Lord, especially in Vrindavana, without abusing its free will. It’s a perfect example of “mama vartmanuvartante” from BG 4.11. Whatever comes down as a good idea from the spiritual world is fulfilled by nature here perfectly. It’s the humans that screw things up, relatively speaking – because people also do vartmanuvartante.

Now I have an explanation why I was always suspicious of agriculture and gardening, too. On one hand it brings people closer to nature, but on the other hand it lets people override God’s design for it and shape it in their own ways, which are not at all better. I was stunned by this realization once, ages ago, when I was asked to comment on a lawn. Lawns definitely look nice and are pleasure to walk on, but they lack this natural spontaneity, the wilderness that sets in when humans are not around. Lawns have only one type of grass but if you leave the same patch unattended for a month and all kinds of plants and creatures will take shelter there and transform it in unpredictable ways, always in competition and cooperation with each other. It’s not as pretty but a lot more inclusive, a lot more supporting, and a lot more forgiving environment than a lawn. Lawns are not places of love but forests are. In forests every creature is loved and every creature overflows with love for the world, too. Not exactly for the world but with honest and earnest appreciation for whatever opportunities are given. No twig and no leave would ever turn its face away from the chance to grow and shine forth. Only people can do that. Nature embraces life, people control and often deny it, and therefore Krishna follows nature.

Let’s go back to that verse again – Krishna declares what is most important for their lives. It’s connection to nature, the commitment to follow it, wherever it takes them. Vraja is not a place, it’s a style of life. An outlook on the world where you are not tied down to anything but to progress. An attitude where you never say “but we have to stay here” when the opportunity presents itself. I need a little clarification here.

We know nature is cyclical, that there are seasons and in winter everything goes to sleep. There are bigger cycles, too, however, and it’s very obvious when nature comes in touch with people. At first it brings forth fruits and honey and grass for the cows but eventually forest resources becomes depleted and that’s when Vraja has to get a move on and find a new place where nature is fresh and bountiful again while the old place is given a rest and recharges itself. This was the reason given for moving from Gokula to Vrindavan in Hari Vamsa. The old place, Gokula, became depleted, too many cows ate too much grass, too many people collected too many fruits, nuts, and honey. It had to be given a rest. It also attracted wolves, Hari Vamsa says. Bhagavatam doesn’t talk about this but it does say that city people started noticing it – Kamsa’s demons discovered where it was and raided it several times, and that was also a reason to move on, away from civilization.

So here it is, Krishna’s sweet sweet description of their lives: “There is only you and me, Tata, our cows, and the forest, and that’s all we ever need”. Why did I call it “bedrock of rasa”? Because all rasas find nourishment in this arrangement. Gopis meet Krishna in the forest. Cowherd boys can’t wait to get away from their homes and spend time with Krishna in the forest. Nanda Maharaja, as the protector of the realm, rules over forest and cows and makes sure Krishna is alright – this is the object of his vatsalya, too. Also, in the chapter about the autumn in Vrindavana the reason for giving this description is that because nature in autumn automatically produces sringara rasa in both Krishna and the gopis and so Sukadeva Goswami had to describe it to set the mood as the narration changed its course, setting its sights on rasa lila.

As I said earlier – nature is surcharged with love and nature accepts everything, which are distinctive characteristics of madhurya. Neither in nature nor in madhurya can a devotee say “I’m sorry, I can’t do that”. Mother Yasoda and cowherd boys excuse themselves from conjugal pastimes but there is absolutely nothing gopis won’t do for Krishna. They can bathe Him and they can play sports with Him, maybe not as well as Yasoda or Sudama, but they would never say “no, it’s not for us”. Similarly, no one ever says “no” in nature. Every shrub has a right to express itself. It might not be accommodated because of competition for sunlight and such, but it would never say “No, I don’t want to grow”.

In this way the forests of Vrindavana are on the lowest stage of devotion by one count – in santa rasa, as they say (though everything in permeated with madhurya there and so pure santa rasa doesn’t exist). But from another perspective the nature gives impetus to sringara and sringara becomes totally dependent on it. Thus, if we start counting from sringara and go down we will get to nature’s santa but then santa would link to sringara again, completing the circle.

I intentionally inserted a couple of Sanskrit words in the previous paragraph to make it sound theoretical. Let the theorists proceed in that direction if they want. The main point is that talking about gopi-bhava is theoretical without seeing it in the nature around us. Granted, it’s not Vrindvana, but nature is still nature and all the rasas are still there, either as seeds or as reflections, and nature is available to us – we all can go out and embrace it. I think it would be a much better and much more useful exercise than sitting around talking about gopi bhava. If one can’t see it nature he won’t see it in these conversations either.

Screenshot of a twig from Maturity

On Gopi-Gita

I guess I’m on a streak now – running into “gopi-bhava club”-like challenges at every step. There is a new video out and in there devotees present a long list of arguments why discussion of Gopi Gita and similar topics should not be shunned in our community. There was one particular argument that I can’t wrap my head around. At first I wanted to leave it alone but it stuck in my head somehow, and then there were other arguments, too, and so I decided to make it into a post.

All the participating devotees are highly respectable in our community, known not for sentimentalism but for deep philosophical understanding of the sastra. I don’t know anyone who thinks they are in any way deviant. All are very popular, too, and so I expect many would rise to their defense regardless. Nevertheless, here is a line that puzzles me:

.. if we can discuss Netflix, if we can discuss politics, if we can discuss entertainment, if we can discuss sports, if we can discuss gossip, if we can discuss the faults of others, and so many other things, what’s wrong in discussing in the right mood, context from the right source in “anugatya” – under guidance – the beautiful wonderful commentaries and the wonderful conclusions of krishna’s dealings with his associates…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wNpt2U3ZzW0&t=842s

Technically, quoted words themselves don’t call for discussing Gopi Gita and similar topics but in the context of the conversation it’s how it was understood by everybody. Later I’ll talk about “anugatya” as well, but for now let’s look at the logic of this argument, which goes like this – “because we can discuss all kinds of mundane topics there is nothing wrong in discussing Gopi Gita.” How does it make sense? Where does it say that indulgence in mundane topics makes one qualified to discuss rasa-lila? It’s absurd, because the opposite is true – as long as we find interest in discussing mundane things we are disqualified from rasa-katha.

Maybe I misunderstood it? Maybe what the speaker meant was that we can discuss all these things in the light of proper siddhanta, discuss them as connected to Krishna. Like when devotees discussed Matrix twenty years ago or Life of Pi ten years later, or how they discuss abortion, or liberal vs conservative divide, or the role of demoniac forces in ruling the world, or Covid vaccinations… More often than not it descends into chaos and infighting, which should also disqualify us from rasa-katha. Moreover, the inclusion of gossip and faults of others on this list makes me think that it’s not what the speaker had in mind, that he really meant us indulging in discussion of the latest Netflix movies.

Even if he did mean proper, Krishna conscious discussion of these topics – how’s that a qualification for rasa-katha? Rasa lila is incomparable to any of the events of this world, so qualification to discuss one category of things does not automatically mean we are qualified to discuss another category. Either way, the argument is deeply faulty, and the fact that it went unnoticed, unchallenged, and mentioned later on should be a clear warning that something is not right with this discussion.

For fairness sake, I should mention that later on Netflix discussions were also mentioned as the opposite of reading Srila Prabhupada’s descriptions of rasa lila, so it’s not a shared understanding, at least on the surface, before we start thinking about what was actually said.

There were many more pro-gopi-gita arguments presented but I found none of them convincing. Most of them are in the “asked and answered” category – they were presented to Srila Prabhupada during that gopi-bhava club incident and he already rejected them. Just because it’s in CC or KB doesn’t mean it should become the focus of our attention. Just because we sing Jaya Radha Madhava and Tulasi arati song doesn’t mean rasa-katha should become the focus of our attention either. It does not mean we should NOT be discussing rasa lila either, but it should be done properly, on which everyone agrees. It’s the exact meaning of “properly” that is contested.

I would insist on a simple rule – follow Srila Prabhupada. He translated those parts, he commented on them, he mentioned them in his lectures, but 99% of the time he talked about something else. Or did he?

There is a famous anecdote of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati taking his Gaudiya Math followers, at the time when GM was on the up and up, to the first Vraja mandala parikrama, to Radha Kunda, and specifically to that small dividing strip between Radha and Syama Kundas, and there, at the most rasa filled place in the entire universe, he started lecturing on upanishads. Radha Kunda babajis were flabbergasted, needless to say. “Where is rasa katha? How dares he speak on upanishads in this place? They are so… pedestrian by comparison with rasa katha!” Srila Bhaktisiddhanta, however, was unflustered by this criticism. He retorted, instead, that those who do not hear rasa-katha in every verse of upanishads have no ears to hear actual rasa-katha either. “Neophytes, the whole bunch of them,” he dismissed his critics.

Again, for fairness sake, one of the speakers made this argument one of the central points of his talk – we should learn to see rasa lila played out before our very eyes. The night is being presented to us as nescience of Kali yuga, gopis running away from their husbands is presented to us as the necessity to comply with society’s obligations even as we don’t consider ourselves under the jurisdiction of material laws. Krishna’s dance is the dance of a harinama party or a dance of sankirtana devotees as they waltz from one person to another. Gopi’s pride in their attainment of Krishna has been experienced by every sankirtana devotee, too, as well as Krishna’s disappearance and a sense of desolation when we discover we are stripped of all powers to distribute books. It’s all there – in what Srila Prabhupada has already given us and what doesn’t look like conjugal pastimes in any way. And rasa lila shouldn’t look like conjugal engagements either – we all know that already.

So, to many times repeated argument “How else can we discover the real rasa, the real juice, the real siddhanta?” the answer is the same – follow Srila Prabhupada. He somehow managed. Big component of this answer is also that ALL spiritual topics are relishable. It was also contained in Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati retort to his critics – learn to actually relish the seemingly mundane topics, like “you are not your body”.

It’s not enough to repeat it over and over again and it’s not enough to remember it at all times – one should actually live like he is not his body, every moment of his life. Then it becomes relishable. “Not your body” is also only one part of the statement – another part is that there is also “you” and with concept of “I am” comes realization of one’s spiritual identity, which is inseparable from rasa-lila. And if you, in your spiritual form, are not a participant or a facilitator and not connected to it in any obvious way – there is little use in discussing it in your conditioned state either. There must be plenty of other purely spiritual topics which are directly relevant to you and which will resonate with you on a level rasa katha never would. Anyway, the point is that “you” in “you are not your body” points to a genuine spiritual identity, whatever it is, and therefore it’s fully relishable.

I recently saw someone casually dismiss “you are not your body” as the lowest form of preaching but I can’t agree. It might appear so when you don’t mean what you say and people don’t get the actual import of it either, but if it so happens that they get a glimpse of “you are not of this world and Krishna is calling for YOU” reality it’s the best preaching you could possibly do.

The point is that if we set our sights on rasa-katha but do not have proper appreciation for less spiritually exalted topics then it means we have no qualifications to hear rasa-lila.

Another point is that rasa-lila is actually very simple. You read it once and you’ll know all about it. Krishna called, gopis answered, they came, He tested them, they danced, they got proud, He disappeared, they went looking for Him, they found out that He loves Radha the most, but He disappeared on her, too. Add to this a simple idea that love in separation gives a more intense experience and you are all set. What else is there to know? The actual rasa, of course, but it has to be experienced, not discussed by people who don’t have it. Without rasa it becomes a village melodrama. We can hear more details of it, discuss subplots, better understand the characters, but it would still be a village melodrama.

We can say that every melodrama is a reflection of the real rasa-lila in the spiritual world and we can argue that by studying the reflection we can understand the real thing, but it’s not how it works. It works in the opposite direction – by knowing Krishna we can see everything as a reflection, not that by looking at reflections we can see Krishna. It’s not the process as was given to us by our acharyas. They did not tell us to go around learning things, and that one day, by us looking and learning at things of this world Krishna would manifest Himself, too. Recently I heard how one might argue that to better understand gopis we should study women, their traits, their character, their femininity, how they interact with males and with each other, and how they would react if their chosen male has many love interests at the same time, and what is the best way to learn this if not through practice, which is called prakrita-sahajiya in our parlance. The point is that sahajiya starts not with someone dancing with women to spot a reflection of Krishna lila but with the idea that Krishna can be attained by observing objects of this world.

Let me put it another way – illusion is seeing objects of this world as disconnected from Krishna, but to see them connected to Krishna we should see Krishna first – without Him the connection cannot be called a connection. So first we have to see Krishna. How? We have a given method – chanting, sankirtana, service etc. By the mercy of the guru Krishna WILL manifest Himself through these things, and only then, after knowing Krishna to whatever degree He chooses to reveal Himself, we can start seeing that all the other objects of this world are connected to Him, too. We will see Him in everything and everything in Him.

The alternative is to see many different things, try to find their roots, their connections, and these connections will appear as a bunch of strings with one end tied to the objects and the other end hanging loose. We can then create or choose a form that is supposedly ties all the other ends and we can call this form “Krishna”, but it won’t be Him. It will be a “male character who likes to flirt” or something like that – a combination of already known material forms and qualities with zero spiritual significance. Eventually we will get bored with this form and move on to something else. Because our interest in any material forms or their combinations must pass and be replaced.

There are other ways to discuss gopi gita, like appreciating how every line begins with a syllable which is then repeated after the cesura (a pause in Sanskrit meters). In other words, we can learn to appreciate the poetry. I guess it won’t hurt, but it won’t bring Krishna and gopis alive in our consciousness either. We would still be studying it as if it was a melodrama, but this time with a better script. I’m not saying it’s not helpful and should not be appreciated. It should definitely be appreciated, but when gopis themselves appear in our hearts it will be appreciated so much more. Why do they want to repeat these syllables? Does the repetition show their insistence? Does it show their desperation? Maybe it does, but “desperation” as we know it is also a material quality.

This is not exactly true – as we chant Hare Krishna we should definitely have the experience of Krishna not being present and calling for His attention. We know how that feels and we repeat ourselves plenty. Forget first syllable after cesura, we repeat Hare eight times in one mantra, but there is a catch – we must actually mean it. Only then we can begin to understand how gopis felt alone in the forest. And only begin to understand. Their desperation was after the full night of rasa-dance, our desperation is after whatever little we know about Him, which is incomparably small, but at least it’s from the same category.

You see where I’m going with this – we can’t understand rasa-lila before we understand Hare Krishna, it won’t happen. One might object, however – by studying rasa-lila we can add emotion to our japa and we should chant Hare Krishna feelingly, so what’s wrong? “Fake it till you make it”, which is the basic principle behind vaidhi-sadhana. My answer is the same as with following vidhis – it’s not the same thing, not even remotely. This is stated right in the principle itself – “fake”. But it could still be helpful, couldn’t it? It could, and this brings me back to “anugatya” from the original quote – we should follow vidhis given to us by our gurus, otherwise our practice will remain fake forever.

You would need a guru who trains you in rasa-lila, in rasa-katha, who takes responsibility for actually getting you there. Where do you find such a guru? One thing first, however – it wasn’t Srila Prabhupada. His instructions were not to indulge in these topics but concentrate on what the Lord reveals to us instead – preaching, chanting, harinamas etc. If we want some other ways to attain it we should find some other gurus. Thankfully, in this world there is a guru for everyone, and many of them are very respectable vaishnavas, acharyas in their own right, even eternally liberated souls who came here to save us. At least that’s what other people say. But they are not Srila Prabhupada, so use at your own risk. This whole thing with searching for a guru who would teach me what I want is fishy, however. Muhyanti yat surayah, as Bhagavatam says – unless we follow disciplic succession we won’t get anywhere as even the best sages will be bewildered by the Lord. They would look “sagely” to us but what is the value of our own judgment? We can’t tell a liberated soul from a skillful pretender either, but even if we did take shelter of a genuinely liberated person – he is not Prabhupada. For some it might not matter much but I’m writing this for those who would prefer to remain with Srila Prabhupada no matter what.

There is another argument against gopi-bhava talks – the story of dvija patnis from a few chapters earlier. They came to Krishna, they declared their love for Him, He knew they loved Him all alone, too, and yet He still didn’t accept them the way He did with the gopis and He told them to go back and follow their prescribed sadhana. He specifically said – you won’t develop love for Me by hanging around, you will develop it by staying where you are and absorbing your minds in thinking of Me. Sanatana Goswami explains in one purport – it’s because their bodies were dependent on their karma and such bodies have no place in Lord’s presence, they have to be given up first. Gopis bodies were categorically different. What about us? Who should we take our clues from in these two stories? I think the answer is obvious.

We might have the best intentions and the best arguments but our path to Krishna’s heart should be charted by Him and by our gurus, not by ourselves. Personally, I would trust Srila Prabhupada that by avoiding indulgence in rasa-katha we won’t miss anything as long as we stick to chanting, to his books, and to his service. If there is an appearance of anything better outside I would, by default, consider it as a mirage. Tejo-vari … amrisa, as that same Bhagavatam verse says. It is by chanting, preaching etc that real gopis will come to life in the verses of rasa-lila. Gradually, step by step, little by little – however way Krishna decides to reveal them to us.

PS. It took me several days to complete this post and some things skipped my mind in the process. One often cited pro-gopi-bhava argument is that hearing rasa-katha would free the person from lust. Sukadeva Goswami declares it in the last verse of the five chapter description of rasa-lila, SB 10.33.39. In response to this I’d still say – follow Srila Prabhupada. In Krishna Book Srila Prabhupada dedicated two and half paragraphs to a commentary on this verse (KB 33). It’s not forgotten and not ignored, but 99% of the time Srila Prabhupada still talked about something else. In these paragraphs Srila Prabhupada also stresses the necessity to hear it from a proper guru, which means from someone following in Srila Prabhupada’s footsteps, and 99% of the time Srila Prabhupada talked about something else. What Srila Prabhupada didn’t say in these paragraphs is that we should read and re-read these chapters over and over again on our own, or discuss them among each other. Everybody occasionally makes references to rasa-lila but in the video was advocating for something else.

Another argument, from my side, is that rasa-lila is not a external event, but even if it was we process external events by looking at their reflections in our minds and so unless we are liberated and free from lust ourselves we won’t get a proper reflection of rasa-lila in our consciousness, it won’t be a real thing, and so what’s the point of discussing this shadow of the actual pastime? Therefore we are told to hear it from a guru who would create a proper conception of it for us and purify our minds in the process.

Alternatively, I would go with what I described in the post earlier – we should concentrate on our actual spiritual progress and then gradually recognize elements of rasa-lila in our actual spiritual experiences. In other words, we should study rasa-lila by studying ourselves in relation to Krishna. Otherwise all the words of the pastime will be translated by our minds into experiences of the mundane world, which is what the speakers of rasa-katha already do quite a lot by using analogies such as “it’s like…” or “imagine if…” I would say that if we ever use such analogies they should relate to actual spiritual experiences, relate to our actual services, be it preaching or chanting or reading or whatever. Then we would easily see why 99% of the time we would not have a relevant reference, and so let’s leave it at that for now.

This is perhaps my last word on the topic – the amount of rasa katha we can digest should be regulated by our own limitations, not by quotes or examples of others. As we make progress we should realize how limited we are, which means we should realize how we are disqualified from hearing rasa-lila. From this angle, any talk promoting rasa-katha sounds more like self-promotion, though it’s probably not what the speakers in this video thought there were doing.