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.