Ritual and Structure
One thing I learned about in the phenomenology of religion course during my university days was to look for structures in religious rituals. As I have stated many times, religious symbols are inexhaustible sources of meaning. They should contain all the elements of a dialectic within them, so that each completion of the dialectic circle results in a deepening of perception of one's ultimate religious concern.
A great religion generally has a little something for everybody--a saint, a demigod, a little myth or legend, a theological interpretation. These all expand out of the great central constellation of myths. A religion's rituals generally recapitulate these myths communally, so that they are reinforced by their performance. The congregation enters the sacred space and time of the ritual and relives the sacred truth.
A great example of this is the Roman Catholic mass, which is magnificently structured around the meaning of the passion and resurrection of Christ. I won't go into the meanings of these structures, but I can tell you that every time I participate in the mass, I am impressed by the tightness of its structure, the deliberate introduction of various elements at its various stages, designed as a whole, intentionally meant to lead the congregation step by step through various stages to the climax in the taking of the sacrament, the participation in the Body of Christ.
The structural integrity of the mass has made it possible, indeed practically a duty, of every great Western composer to set it to music.
Recently Brajajana was here with his good wife and I got to talking about the Rathayatra. In 1984 had the good fortune to live the Rathayatra experience with Hridayananda Das Babaji and his disciple Birachandra Das Babaji. Hridayananda was a disciple of Ramdas Babaji of Nitai Gaur Radhe Shyam fame. Some of you may know that Ramdas Baba's guru played an important role in reviving Gaudiya Vaishnava traditions in Jagannath Puri in the late 19th century. Most notably, he reestablished the practice of Gundicha Marjan and gained permission from the then King of Puri to allow Vaishnavas from Bengal to reenact Chaitanya's lila in his honor. The King had the foresight to permit this, and to this day, the disciples from the Jhanjh Pitha Math along with those from the Radha Kanta Math join together in inaugurating the Gundicha Marjan by singing the Chaitanya Charitamrita in kirtan.
As a Mleccha, I was not permitted to participate in this particular pastime. However, I did follow the entire course of the festival as it is conducted by the members of the Jhanjh Pitha Math. It is, in fact, a seven-day reenactment of the Rathayatra lila, containing various elements from the lilas of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. On the first day, the Bengali devotees come in kirtan down the Puri main road, while the Orissan devotees come from the Radha Kanta Math singing their kirtan. The two groups meet in front of the Lion's Gate and sing the Oriya-Gaudiya milan kirtan from the Chaitanya Charitamrita.
The next day is called Raghaver Jhali kirtan. The Bengali devotees go in procession from Jhanjh Pitha to the Gambhira where they present gifts to Mahaprabhu. Ramdas's disciples make a point of inviting representatives of the great Vaishnava dynasties to represent their forefathers in this lila. Though not every family is personally represented, the descendants of Raghava Pandit are always there to give the Lord the bags of goodies that Damayanti made annually when he was alive.
The following day is kirtan at Tota Gopinath. This day is based on the Chaitanya Bhagavata, when Nityananda comes with a bag of rice to give to Gadadhar, who is only able to cook a dish of tamarind leaves. But his devotion attracts Mahaprabhu who joins his two dear associates uninvited.
The next day is Gundicha and then Rathayatra follows on the next, with the familiar themes being played out. Ramdas Baba's disciples carry on his tradition (for it was he who developed these traditions in their fullness) by mining these lilas for their emotional effect through the use of "akhars", where the lead singer improvises on the themes found in the original text. Ramdas Baba's akhars have actually been printed in several volumes so that his disciples and now grand-disciples can continue to perform these kirtans as he did.
Needless to say, this is a powerful use of kirtan, lila, ritual, sacred time/space, etc., to reinforce especially devotion to Mahaprabhu, deepening the attachment to the meanings of his lila and tattva.
In another article I am planning for this space in the next few days, I will talk about the Holy Name as an essentially contentless religious form. I will explain that there in more detail, but what I mean is that one has to bring meanings to the Holy Name; they are not ready made. This can be very significant if one makes use of it, but if one does not, the chanting quickly becomes diffuse and centripetal in movement rather than centrifugal. This is the very opposite of the kind of tightly structured ritual that I am talking about here.
The Nitai Gaur Radhe Shyam people have a way of doing kirtan that structures their chanting of the Holy Name. When engaged in a 24-hour kirtan, they will often sing one hymn while the response will be their Holy Names, which in any case is much more symbolic in character than the Maha Mantra. Think about it--the NGRS mantra is full of meaning that requires intellectual exercise every time it is repeated: Nitai - Gaura -Radhe - Shyam -- each word is clear in its meaning; the relations between the names are full of equations and contrasts, that in turn raise questions, even strident objections.
Though the above tightly structure ritual around the Rathayatra, building up to the main event in which the central "meaning" of Chaitanya lila, as manifest in the yaH kaumAra-haraH verse is revealed and relished, this is a single event that is not necessarily repeated ritually on a regular occasion.
Most traditional Gaudiya Vaishnavas, including the NGRS people, have a regular ritual on the Ekadasi day. This too is a three-day ritual which has, to my knowledge, been ignored by the Gaudiya Math, and certainly in Iskcon.
Ekadasi begins with a specific kirtan from the Chaitanya Bhagavata that recalls Mahaprabhu's observances. Other than this, however, the structure is loose--hearing and chanting not following any specific guidelines.
On the other hand, 24-hour kirtans or Vaishnava mahotsavas, have a much stronger structure: The evening before, one has Adhivasa kirtan, in which one sings the welcome to the guests, once again reenacting the events at Srivasangan, welcoming the various associates of Mahaprabhu, garlanding them, etc. The ritual of consecrating the festival Deity (Pancha Tattva) in the waterpot, etc., then takes place. The kirtan begins the next morning at dawn after arati, and continues through to the following dawn. The next morning, there is usually a nagar kirtan, after which everyone returns to the consecrated spot and sings a special series of kirtans, ending with "Hari Haraye namah" and "dadhi mangal." This is followed by the feast and then vidaya kirtan, sending everyone on their way.
These rituals are fairly loose in their structure and though they have traditionally reinforced Vaishnava community, anyone who has participated in such activities knows that they can be somewhat anarchic and lacking solemnity.
I have been wondering about whether there is a place for a tighter structure that would fit the needs of a Sunday-feast type gathering. My immediate impression is that the Iskcon ritual is very loose and does not contain the kind of symbolic strength that I am talking about. I will continue this train of thought soon. Look to this spot.