Understanding rasa-lila 2- How Bhagavatam establishes para-dharma without trivializing apara-dharma
[Bhagavatam class on Srimad-Bhagavatam 10.29.18 at ISKCON, Denver, USA]
Transcribed by: Sadananda Prabhu
Understanding rasa-lila 2- How Bhagavatam establishes para-dharma without trivializing apara-dharma
Today we continue our discussion on the Rasa Lila. Yesterday I talked about how the inconceivable nature of the Rasa Lila can be understood by understanding how the supreme asraya becomes the asritaha; how one who is the shelter of all the existence takes shelter of Yoga-maya. Today we will be taking some verses from this Rasa Panchadhyaya, and I will deeply describe the story line in between, and then I will elaborate on the verses as well as the overall theme.
The verse that we discussed yesterday said, “On seeing the beautiful atmosphere of Sharad, when Krishna saw the flowers in the sky of autumn, he decided to perform pastimes with his gopi’s.” The subsequent verses describe how he plays his flute; and the sound of the flute is so attractive that the gopi’s drop everything and just come running towards him. It is described later in the Gopi Gita how the gopi’s left everything for Krishna. Though all the relatives of the gopi’s were forbidding them from going out, still the gopi’s somehow managed to find a way and reached Krishna. Krishna saw the beauty of the forest and he went deep into the forest, and there he started playing his flute. Krishna has different flutes that he uses for different people. He has a separate kind of flute which he plays to produce some different kind of music. This flute he uses for the cows and the calves. When the cows are grazing outside, Krishna plays the flute music, and then they come back. There is another flute that he has for the gopa’s. When the gopa’s are about to go out in the forest, Krishna comes out from his house and plays the flute, and they all know that they are now meant to go with Krishna, and they come out. And there is a special flute called murali which he uses for calling the gopi’s. When the gopi’s hear this, immediately they know that Krishna is calling them. And when Krishna calls, they just leave everything to go towards Krishna. And as they rush towards Krishna, they are unmindful of everything; they are unmindful even of the thorns that are below them. Many of them are barefoot. They are unmindful of the fact that they have things to do in their homes. They are unmindful even of the fact that they are not dressed so attractively or they are not dressed so properly. I saw a note somewhere. It said, “When a wife says that I will be ready in five minutes or a husband says that he is going to be home in five minutes; both mean the same thing. Neither of them is going to be ready in five minutes.” So, generally, if woman want to go for a special occasion, they take a lot of time to dress and adorn themselves so that they look their best. And here the gopi’s are naturally going towards Krishna who is their lover, but they are so attracted to Krishna that they become even unmindful of the basic sense of looking good. The Bhagavatam gives us this point and stresses that the gopi’s are not even dressed properly though they are naturally very attractive. But they don’t stop to adorn or decorate themselves. The Bhagavatam gives this as an example to illustrate or to indirectly point to the point that this is not mundane consciousness; or in other words, the gopi’s are not bodily conscious when they are going to Krishna. It is their heart that is called by Krishna. And of course, when we serve, we serve with our entire being: with our heart, our mind, our body, with our abilities, with our wealth etc. So, when there is love, we offer our entire being to the person whom we love. The gopi’s are so overwhelmingly attracted to Krishna that they just forget everything else and run toward him. And now when they are in front of Krishna, they see that the object for whom they have vowed to meet is there in front of them. Normally, if this was simply a romantic sequence in a movie, then the hero and heroin meet and they run towards each other and hug each other, but Krishna is actually acting very formally over here. Krishna has played the flute and sees all the gopi’s come over there and he is asking them, “What have you come here for? Is everything well in Vraja? Is there anything wrong in Vrindavana that you have come to inform me about me?” Krishna is not rude towards them, but he is formal towards them. He is saying, “Swagatam (Welcome) mahabhaga (O fortunate ones)!” [ We will come to that in the later part of the class.]
Then Krishna says, “What has pleased or attracted you to come here? Is everything in Vrindavan okay? And please tell me what made you come here?” Generally, in the traditional conservative societies’ woman are a little demure or shy and men are more outgoing. Men are person who woo and woman are the persons who are wooed. So, Krishna by asking this makes the gopi’s very shy. In the next verse it is mentioned that they start drawing lines on the ground with their toes. They feel too shy to answer Krishna and think, “Why is Krishna asking us such a question?” Afterwards, Krishna will say, “Actually this time of the night is not a very safe place for woman to be alone like this. Maybe because the night was so attractive that you wanted to see the beauty of Vrindavana. Now that you have seen the beauty of Vrindavan, please go back.” And as Krishna is speaking all this, he becomes very restless. And then Krishna goes on. First, he says how dangerous it is for the gopi’s to come out at this hour of the night. Then he says, “Sometimes something may be so attractive that you put the danger to the side and you go on to look at it. But now that you have seen it, please go back to the safety of your homes.” And still the gopi’s are reluctant, and then Krishna says, “Actually, for a woman her duty to her family, her brother, to her mother etc. is most important.” And Krishna actually gives a discourse on Sthri Dharma or on the duty of a woman, and how a woman should be chaste and responsible, and should take care of everything in the home. At one level it might just seem either very strange or outrageous because Krishna has himself called all the gopis and because of Krishna all the gopi’s left everything. And yet Krishna is giving them a discourse on how they should stay at home, and even if they have come, that they should go home. So, what is going on over here? Actually speaking, this conversation reflects an essential tension that runs towards the Bhagavatam. Normally tension occurs when there are two forces which are pulling in two different directions. Like, if we have a rubber band and we pull it in two different directions, then there is a tension in the string, and that tension is there because there are two opposite forces. If you have a string also, the string might just be hanging on the ground. If we pull the string, then there is some tension. Some tension is just useless. Say for example, if you pull a string a lot, that pulling of the string doesn’t do anything. It will just break the string, but there is some tension that is constructive. For example, if there is bow, and if in the bow a string is tied. Normally the string itself is tight, but before the arrow is shot with the bow the string is pulled backwards, and when the string is pulled backwards, at that time, that increases the tension. Now the two ends of the string are fixed, and when we pull back in between, then the tension in the string increases, and it is the tension of the string that gives power to the arrow. The greater the tension is in the string, the greater is the force with which the arrow will be shot forwards. Sometimes we may think that fighting with a mace or wrestling requires strength, but even archery requires a lot of strength, especially if you go to shoot the arrow over a long distance. And if you want the arrow to be shot with such force that it will penetrate into some object, it will require a great amount of strength. So, archery also requires strength of the arms. It is not just about the skill in hitting the target. The point I am making is that tension pushes things forwards. This example is to illustrate that there is difference between a contradiction and a paradox. A contradiction is when there are two opposite statements. They are like, when we have a string and we just pull it in two opposite directions, all that happens is that the string weakens and breaks. That is, if you make two contradictory statements, then they just contradict; but there is a contradiction and there is a paradox. In a paradox there are apparent contradictions, but actually a deeper truth is conveyed through the apparently contradictory statements in the paradox. So, paradox is not a contradiction. In the paradox it is the apparent contradiction that draws the attention, and that helps us to go towards deeper comprehension. If you just hear two opposite statements; say, if at the beginning of the class I make a statement, but at the end of the class if I make a statement which is just contradictory, then all that you might says is, “This person speaks incoherently.” So, if a contradiction comes at two distinct phases after some time-lag, then it may seem that these are two contradictory statements that are being made and this person is not coherent. But if two contradictory points come in the same statement, then we understand that the contradiction which is there is not accidental, but is intentional. Some might forget what I had said earlier, and then they may say something later, and that’s how they may contradict themselves. But if the same statement somebody is making for opposite points, then something deeper is being conveyed over there. Some example of paradoxes could be, “When a teacher is assessing the papers of a student, he may say that the least corrected papers are the most correct.” Now it is true if you think about it. The least corrected and the most corrected might seem contradictory at first glance, but the least corrected means that the teacher has not put a red mark anywhere. The least number of red marks that are there means that, everything that is there in the paper is correct. This is a statement which might seem contradictory, but there is deeper point which is being conveyed over there. Similarly, in a paradox the tension is like the tension in the strings of an arrow. There are two statements which are in a sense opposite, but there is some point which is to be conveyed, and that point is like the string being pulled backwards to push the arrow forwards. So, the understanding is deepened when we look at the paradox and understand what exactly is being conveyed by the tension in the statements. What is the tension that is there in the Bhagavatam over here? The tension here is that the Bhagavatam is talking about two levels of dharma: there is aparadharma and there is paradharma. Aparadharma is material religion. Material religion would mean that we do religion by which we can have material wellbeing in this world. Traditionally this is conceived of in four terms: dharma, artha, kama and moksha. Dharma refers to the various social, familial, national and legal rules that sustains the order in the society.
Dharma itself can have many different meanings, but Dharma here inclusively means not just religious rituals or religious morality or rules. It refers to everything that sustains order at the material level. That’s why Krishna in the first chapter of the Bhagavad-gita – Arjuna is very concerned about Kula dharma sanatanaha. He says, If the Kula dhama is destroyed, then the whole society will be plagued with irreligion. What is Kula dharma? Kula refers to dynasty. So, in a dynasty, traditionally now we have nuclear families. In the past there were joint families, and joint families provided a much bigger support system to people. Say, if there are two or three brothers who were in the same family and one brother somehow passed away, and then his children are there who have become almost like orphans. Then the other brother will take care of everyone and this family also because it is a part of the bigger family. So, Arjuna is telling over there, “If I fight in this war – then practically all the elders from both the sides and all the responsible breadwinners from both the sides have come over here, and if they are all killed, then who will protect the children and the women, who will make sure that the dharma is preserved?” So, Kuladharma refers to the set of responsibilities that make sure that the dynastic order goes on properly. Like that there are different dharmas for different contexts and people in different situations, and these dharmas are meant to preserve order in the society, and when this is there, the dharma leads to artha. If order is preserved in the society, then there can be fulfilment of material desires. Even if we have money and we go to the supermarket to purchase some things, but if there is no order in the society and if the economy is disrupted, then the channels of communication and transportation is disrupted. If the grains from the villages or the farms don’t come to the cities, then the whole order is not there and we will not be able to fulfill our desires. So, order leads to the fulfilment of desires. Order leads to the provision of the resources which are money and other things. That leads to artha, and artha leads to kama. Now there is this big hurricane that is coming in Carolina; when the hurricane Florence is coming, at that time, it is the normal duty of the government to look after things, but then there is a duty called apadharma which means emergency duty. That means, “How do we prepare when an emergency comes, how do we deal with it?” This is also at one level maintaining order which is dharma. When dharma is maintained, then artha and kama are taken care of. Artha is our financial resources for getting our desires to be fulfilled; this is called Kama. Here the word Kama is not used in a negative or restrictive sense of lust alone. Kama refers that all have desires, and fulfilling desires is itself not the problem. It is the obsession with the desire that is the problem. Often, we give the example that if we scratch and itch, then it will worsen the itch and will become more and more agitated. That means that if we indulge in our desire, the desires will become worse. Now that is definitely true, but it is not universally true. What do I mean by that? “If say, I get an itch in my face and I want to scratch it. When I get the urge, I can scratch the skin, and it is over. But when the skin already has a scratch, and then when we scratch it, it gets inflamed and agitated. So, it is not scratching; scratching may be distracting, but is not always damaging. But when the scratching of the skin is done on a diseased skin or scratching is done so much that the skin becomes diseased, then it is a problem. So, Kama is not itself a problem. It is duspurita kama which is the problem. Duspurit means insatiable desire. That is the problem. For example, if we go to the Govinda’s restaurant to have prasadam, we have almost twenty items every day. We will of course select what we want to have based on our preference. Sometimes our preference might be by health and sometimes it might be by taste. Now if we take food according to our taste, is that indulgence in desire? Well, we could say that it is indulgence, but it not destructive indulgence. It is prasad and we are taking it in a reasonable quantity which is perfectly fine. So, Kama or desire is not to be demonized. It is only disproportionate desire or obsessive desires that is bad. It is Kama which takes us against dharma, and that is the problem. When Kama makes us give up dharma, that’s when it becomes a problem.
When I do seminars in companies, at that time often people ask this question, “How do we know the difference between ambition and greed?” In today’s competitive environment if anybody has to survive, they have to have ambitious.” So, we see that ambition is driving force of business in today’s world. How is ambition differentiated from greed? It is when the ambition makes us cross over ethical boundaries, that is when it becomes greed. Ambition is natural and is also essential, but if because of ambition we start giving up ethics; that means that when our Kama makes us give up dharma, that is when it becomes Lobha. When the desire makes us give up dharma, then that is when it becomes lobha or greed. The point I am making over here is that dharma, artha and kama are the paradigms of the society in the Vedic culture, and the Bhagavatam assumes the existence of this in the society. And the Bhagavatam is not intending to disrupt or reject this. Till now I talked about dharma, artha and kama which are apara dharma. Apara dharma is important. It becomes a problem when it becomes a competitor to paradharma. Paradharma is service to Krishna. It is focusing on loving and serving Krishna, and practicing Bhakti towards Krishna, so that we can attain dharma or attain him, attain love for him and ultimately attain him. That is paradharma. So, we do call it as spiritual religion and material religion. Apara dharma is material religion; para dharma is spiritual religion. So, the Bhagavatam is taking us from apara dharma to para dharma. It is telling us that we have to focus completely on Krishna. Now if we see the life of Parikshit Maharaja, he lived a very dharmic life even when he was a king. He was as great devotee and he was ruling the kingdom according to the principles of dharma, but when he got the curse to die in seven days he gave up his apara dharma and focused entirely on para dharma. He just absorbed himself in hearing about Krishna and chanting about Krishna.
So, the tension in the Bhagavatam is – I talked about the essential tension in the Bhgavatam. That is, that there is a tension between apara and para dharma. Apara is material religion and para dharma is spiritual religion. So, Krishna through the Bhagavatam encourages us to take up Para dharma, but not by whimsically rejecting the para dharma. He wants us to take up spiritual religion, but not by whimsically, arbitrarily or abruptly rejecting material religion. And to highlight this point lets consider a contrast between this pastime and a pastime that happens about six chapters earlier. In the same tenth canto, the twenty-third chapter describes Krishna’s pastimes with the Brahmana patnis or with the wives of the Yajnik brahmanas. I won’t go into the whole story, but the yajnik brahmanas are performing a big yajna and Krishna’s cowherd friends go to them asking for food. But they neglect the cowherd boys and then Krishna tells his cowherd friends to go their wives, and the wives not only give food, but they actually bring the food with them. There also the setting is similar. The husbands want their wife to be with them because yajna has to be performed with the husband and wife together. But the Brahmana patni’s neglect their husbands and they rush to meet Krishna, and there also they have given up everything for Krishna, and when Krishna tells them to go back, they say, “We can’t go back O Krishna. We left everything to come and surrender to you. You telling us to go back is like the ocean telling the river that started from the mountain top and raced down to the ocean, to go back when it is about to meet the ocean. But Krishna at that time tells them, “Yes you have come to me and you have surrendered to me. Yes, I accept your surrender, and now I request you to continue this mood of surrender while going back to your eternal position. I am not asking you to go back to material life in material consciousness. Go back to material life in spiritual consciousness. You can serve me wherever you are, you can serve me by remembering me, by longing for my association and by inner absorption in me.” There actually Krishna tells the Brahmana patnis to do that and they do it, and here also Krishna tells the Gopi’s, “Why have you come here?” and he tells later, “You should go back.” And Krishna tells the gopi’s to go back but the gopi’s do not go back. That means here we see that there is aparadharma and there is para dharma; there is material religion and there is spiritual religion. So, in the case of the Yagnik brahmin patni’s, they give up their material religion to practice spiritual religion. That means that they neglect the restrictions that are imposed by their husbands on them and still they come towards Krishna. Krishna accepts their worship and their service, but tells them to go back and serve internally or serve through inner absorption; whereas when the gopi’s come to him, they also leave their family members and come to Krishna. And Krishna performs pastimes with them. That means, performing the worldly duties is aparadharma and performing the transcendental duties to service to Krishna is the paradharma. The Bhagavatam stresses paradharma as the ultimately purpose of life, but it does not trivialize apara dharma. It recognizes apara dharma to be also important. Later on, in this tenth canto it will be described how the pastime of the King Nriga who had been cursed by Brahmanas because he had displeased them as the charity that he had given had gone wrong. He gave many cows in charity to one brahmana, and he gave many cows in charity to another brahmana. But one cow from one side came to another side and both brahmanas got upset by that. The king said, “I will give you more cows. Just forget it.” But the brahmanas were still upset, and because he had displeased the brahmana, the brahmanas cursed him and he became a lizard. Now you may say, “The brahmana should be understanding. What difference does one cow make to them? And why do they have to curse like this? It was such a small mistake.” Now here, the Bhagavatam is demonstrating the inadequacy of apara-dharma. If in material consciousness we give charity, it is a very laudable thing to do. But something or the other will go wrong at the material level. That is one point that is illustrated. But you may say, “Ok, you want to illustrate this, but why that brahmana seem to behave in unreasonable ways?” We will see this theme again and again in the Bhagavatam that the Brahmanas often get angry and curse, and yet the Bhagavatam doesn’t criticize or condemn the brahmanas. The Bhagavatam says, “Those who are devoted to Krishna are greater than brahmans even if they are not born in a brahmana family.”
Prahlada Maharaja says, “Even if a brahmana is ornamented with all the twelve qualities, but if that brahmana does not have devotion to Lord Hari – the twelve qualities that the brahmana has are: he has knowledge, he has realization, he can perform yajnas nicely, recite mantras nicely, he can do all the priestly duties etc. But if the brahmana does not have devotion, then, even if a person is lowborn, but that person has devotion, then that person can deliver not only oneself, but even one’s descendants. One can deliver even one’s whole dynasty. So, the Bhagavatam does stress, “If there is a contrast between brahmanas and devotees or Vaisnavas, that the Vaisnavas are way greater than brahmanas.” But at the same time the Bhagavatam does not trivialize the brahmanas. That’s why we see that in the same pastime of Nriga, after it gets over, the Lord very strongly cautions his sons. Samba is his son who ran back on seeing the lizard in the well, and he informed the palace assembly, and then Krishna comes and rescues that lizard. And then Krishna tells the story of the past life of the lizard, and he gives a very strong instruction saying that, “Never offend brahmanas.” And Ballabhacharya especially explains in his commentary that this is a premonition that later on samba will be a part of the young people in the Yadu dynasty who offend the Brahmanas. Samba pretends to be like a pregnant woman and asks the Brahmanical sages, “Please tell us, is this child going to be a boy or a girl?” The sages get angry and they say, “You think that you are going to make fun with us?” and they curse. So, brahmana’s devotion and the Vaisnavas are glorified. Bhaktas are glorified in the Bhagavatam but the Brahmanas are not trivialized. Similarly, here Krishna is demonstrating and highlighting through these pastimes the glorious devotion of the gopi’s; that they are ready to give up everything for Krishna. At the same time although they are ready to give up everything for Krishna, Krishna sounds a cautionary note by telling, “You are meant to follow your duty.” So, in exceptional situations the apara dharma can be given up to follow the para dharma. In normal situations we do our apara dharma in a mood of devotion. So, some people may just leave their whole family and become devoted to the service of the Lord in the renounced order. But most people have their family, will have their careers, will have their jobs, and along with that they will serve Krishna. So, the para dharma doesn’t necessarily require giving up the apara dharma, but the para dharma can be perceived along with the apara dharma. So, we could say that there are three modes: tamo guna, satwa guna and rajo guna, and then there is suddwa satwa or transcendence. So, devotees are meant to operate at a transcendental level. Their devotion exists at a transcendental level. But at the same time while we are functioning in the world, it is good if we can come to satwa guna because if we are in satwa guna, which Prabhupada translates as the mode of goodness, we will become peaceful. In satwa guna there is regulation, order, balance, and there is morality, and that’s how we can function properly. So, in emergency situations, ordinary morality can be given up for spiritual morality, but in most situations that should not be done. For example, we have in the Caitanya Caritamrita that Sanatan Goswami is being imprisoned by Nawab Hussain Shah for no fault of his. His only fault was that he wanted to surrender to Lord Caitanya’s mission and the Nawab said, “No, you have to serve as my minister.” And Rupa Goswami slipped away but Sanatan Goswami was trapped. At that time Sanatan Goswami, who at that time had temporarily converted to Islam, told the jail keeper who was a Muslim, “Actually I wanted to renounce the world so that I can make a pilgrimage to mecca.” In Islam going to Mecca is considered to be a very pious activity. It is a life long aspiration for many Muslims to go at least once to Mecca. So, Sanatan Goswami said, “I want to at least go to Mecca once.” Then he said, “If somebody is able to go to Mecca, all those who help them in that pilgrimage also get the credit of going to Mecca. So, if you release me from jail, then you will also get the credit of having helped a person to do this pilgrimage.” Now the jailor knows that Santana Goswami has no intension of going to Mecca and that he is going to meet Caitanya Mahaprabhu who is source of all purity of all pure places. In a sense we could say that he is going to the supreme abode of holiness. So, he speaks that lie over there for pursuing the purpose of the ultimate truth. But that does not mean that a devotee can habitually speak lies. Normally we should speak truth. Otherwise, if we start habitually speaking lies for the sake of some higher service, then there will be no trust in the devotee community, and there will be no trust between devotees and outside people. Generally, outsiders who are not practicing bhakti will not appreciate Bhakti principles. However, they will appreciate our Satwa guni behavior. If they see that we are gentle, we are moderate, we are courteous and we are truthful, then they will think, “They are really nice and good people. I want to know what makes them like that.” So, in emergency situations the apara dharma can be given up to achieve the para dharma, but in most situations para dharma which is pure devotion to Krishna is to be practiced in harmony with one’s worldly vocations and with one’s worldly situations. Now what was the extraordinary nature of the gopi’s because of which they gave up apara dharma and took up para dharma? What is the nature of the extraordinary devotion of the gopi’s and what Krishna is teaching through this? We will discuss in our future sessions.
I will summarize:
I spoke about how the Bhagavatam has that essential tension between apara and para dharma. The Bhagavatam transcends apara dharma (material religion) to take us to para dharma which is spiritual religion, but the Bhagavatam doesn’t trivialize apara dharma. I started by talking about the difference between the paradox and the contradiction. Contradictions are like two forces in the rope or a string pulling in the opposite directions; paradox is like the tension in the bow string which gives force for the arrow to move forwards. Similarly, the paradox has contradictory points within it, but those contradictory points take us deeper to the understanding of a higher truth which is implicit within those seemingly contradictory statements. So, in the context of the rasa lila, the contradictory points are that Krishna himself has played the flute, and specifically the flute which is meant to call the Gopi’s. And he has called the gopi’s in the night and has called them so attractively and forcefully that they left everything to come to him, and yet that same Krishna is telling them, “Why have you come here? Is it to see the beauty of Vrindavan forest. If you seen the beauty, then go back now.” And he reminds them of the duty as ladies of the home. So, why is Krishna doing this. Krishna is doing this to illustrate that the rejection of dharma cannot be done trivially. We normally honor the limits of dharma, and occasionally and exceptionally the apara dharma can be given up to practice para dharma. So, apara dharma is dharma, artha and kama, leading ultimately to moksha.
There can be different kinds of religious, social, cultural and legal order which helps to maintain the balance in the society by which people can have financial resources and fulfill the desires. Kama itself is not bad; it is the Duspura Kama or the insatiable desire which is the problem. Scratching ordinary skin is not a big issue, but scratching diseased skin or scratching till the point when the skin become diseased is the problem. Ordinary fulfilling of desires becomes problematic if it makes one give up dharma. So, ambition become greed when it tramples ethical boundaries. Apara dharma maintains order in the society, and then Krishna stresses apara dharma. I discussed through the pastimes of the Yajnic brahmana patnis, who are the wives of the brahmanas, how they came to the forest giving up everything for Krishna, and how he accepted their surrender. But then Krishna told them to continue their service in their social position. And I talked about how the brahmanas are considered the highest among the traditional Vedic society, but the Bhagavatam stresses that devotees are far greater than brahmanas if the brahmanas are not devoted. At the same time, even if the brahmanas are not devoted, and even if the brahmanas are acting unreasonably, cursing on a slight provocation, still the brahmanas need to be respected. So, we could say brahmanas represent apara dharma and devotees represent the para dharma. Apara dharma is to be respected and not to be trivialized, but apara dharma need to be given up to follow para dharma.
Sanatan Goswami was normally very truthful and was of impeccable integrity, but when for surrendering to Lord Caitanya he had to speak a lie that he was going to Mecca, he did that. So, occasionally and exceptionally a devotee may give up apara dharma to practice para dharma, but normally a devotee practices material morality or satwaguni values while pursuing spiritual devotion.
Thank you very much.
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