Conversion: Self-surrender, Deliverance and Transformation
O godly Vaishnavas, I make this confession (nivedana). I am very low (adhama), an evil-doer (durAcAra). Into the cruel sea of transmigration (saMsAra) Fate (vidhi) has plunged me. Grab me by the hair and rescue (kara pära) me. Fate (vidhi) is very powerful. It pays no heed to duty (dharma) and knowledge (jnAna) but ever binds in the snares of action (karma). I see no sign of rescue (taraNa). All I see is suffering (kleza). In pain and without master (anAtha) I weep, as lust and anger, greed and confusion, intoxication and pretence (abhimAna) each pulls in its own way, so that my mind wanders like a blind man not knowing the right path (supatha) from the wrong one (utpatha). I have not held fast to true ideas (sat mata). My mind has sunk into falsity (asat). I have not placed my hope at your feet. Narottam Das says “I fear what I see and hear. Have mercy (kRpA) and make me your own servant (nija däsa).”The judgment or admission that a person can be changed fundamentally amounts to an explicit affirmation by Chaitanya Vaishnavas that persons can and should break out of certain stereotypical self-images ascribed to them by their caste, sex and occupation. It also implies that one’s ethical and behavioural patterns can be changed—with implications for one’s social relationships. Against the traditional Brahminical view that character is determined basically by the quality of one’s birth, the Chaitanya Vaishnavas affirm the desirability and relative ease of basic change of character through divine mercy or grace. They are confident that such grace, often mediated through a saintly Vaishnava, can neutralize accumulated karma. They thus maintain on religious grounds the principle of malleability in personal identity and character, and, by implication, in social relationships as well.
The Chaitanya Vaishnavas, surprisingly perhaps, glorify the present age, the Kali Yuga, the era of God’s intimate self-manifestation as Chaitanya, as the era of potentially universal and easy deliverance from sin and rebirth. They declare that the normative order, or fundamental religious duty (dharma), of the present age is loving devotion to Krishna, as expressed initially in song, dance and recital of his names. Though sharing the common Indian assumption of a beginningless series of births, Chaitanya Vaishnavas live with a certain excitement and activeness in the belief that one’s current human birth is a wonderful, though fleeting, opportunity to change the course of one’s destiny, to put an end to mundane rebirths and redeaths, to do so by realizing one’s true nature as a servant of Krishna.
It is interesting to note that Chaitanya Vaishnavas, when they speak in these terms, put a strong emphasis on divine initiative, stessing benevolent divine concern (kRpA, “mercy”; prasAda, “grace,” etc.) as well as effective divine intervention (nistAra, “rescue”; uddhAra, “lifting up”). Individual responsibility is still affirmed and considered necessary, but it is the divine initiative, coming either directly from Krishna or, more commonly, through a devout Vaishnava, that is primary and ultimately effective. Indeed, an essential aspect of the Vaishnava conception of conversion or “uplift” is precisely giving up the pretence that one is one’s own master or one’s own ultimate refuge.
Accompanying the realization that one is ultimately a servant of Krishna comes the insight that whatever else one may be, biologically, psychologically or socially, is but a pretence (abhimAna), the playing out of roles, which may in some cases serve the purpose of cultivating devotion, but as often do not. In the experience of conversion, or rescue, the ordinary Vaishnava sees that one’s position in the world, whatever its apparent prestige or shame, is ultimately unimportant. Not only are crassly mundane things like making money irrelevant to the religious quest, but so are such traditionally revered matters as being a well-born Brahmin. This does not amount to a radical antinomian interpretation of self-realization as a servant of Krishna, as the discussion of Vaishnava accommodation below will show. What it does mean is that at a basic level of one’s personality there should snap or dissolve both the ambitions and the frustrations which reflect deep commitments to such artificial external standards as, for instance, those that the orthodox Brahminical system of values can impose.
This Vaishnava critique of the relativity of roles or pretences (abhimAnas) would seem to be especially congenial to any Hindus of high caste—and their immediate families and kin—participating in political, administrative or commercial enterprises in contact with so-called impure parties. In Chaitanya’s time, this would often include Muslims, usually referred to as Yavanas or Mlecchas. In colonial times it would include Europeans, to whom the same somewhat pejorative terms could apply. Since both one’s worldly enterprises and one’s sensitivity to the Brahminical views on ritual purity are seen to reflect mere roles or pretences (abhimänas), the tensions between the two begin to lose significance. What really counts is to realize that one’s true identity, from which one’s genuine goals and duties in life flow, is to be a devout servant of Krishna. One’s genuine task in life, accordingly, is the cultivation of devout service to Krishna, whatever may be the historical, occupational or other situation in which the devotee finds him or herself.
Ethos and Ethics
Among the virtues most stressed in formation of ideal devotional character are humility, helpful service, non-violence, curtailment of sensual indulgence, bringing an accommodating attitude to situations of potential conflict, relativizing mundane social roles as constructs of maya, “illusion,” which here does not mean “non-existence” as it so often does in Indian usage, but deceptiveness, seductiveness, or inauthenticity. Of all the virtues, humility, non-violence and control of sensual appetites are fundamental to the formation of personal morality according to Chaitanya Vaishnava ethics. Other virtues may be seen as reinforcing these. For example, Chaitanya Vaishnava accounts of conversions often feature the transformation of an unreformed sinner who is arrogant, violent, addicted to sex, meat and alcohol, into a fledgling devotee who eschews all of this. The traditional reputation of committed and even many nominal Vaishnavas for abstention from alcohol and meat attests to the overall effectiveness of these particular prohibitions and need not be elaborated upon here. The importance of sexual propriety to typical orthodox Chaitanya Vaishnavas, celibate and married, has been obscured somewhat by confusion with the socially transgressive rituals of Tantric Vaishnava Sahajiyas, the ambiguous image of the Jati Vaishnavas, and the ostensibly erotic symbolism of Radha Krishna song and story. It is probable, however, that unlike some marginal groups and certain nominal Vaishnavas of means who are reputed to exploit Vaishnava women dependent upon them, mainline Chaitanya Vaishnavas typically restrict their sexual experience within sanctioned bounds.
The humility of the Vaishnavas is proverbial, even to the extent of their being satirized in Bengali literature and theatre. It springs from the realization of a person that one is essentially a servant, a servant of Krishna. It finds its immediate expression in relations with fellow Vaishnavas, giving respect and even devotion to whom is said to be more dear to Krishna than respect and devotion to Krishna himself. Since the Vaishnavas believe that Krishna is within every living being’s soul as inner ruler and enjoyer, there is good reason to treat with humble respect even the most unimpressive (in mundane terms) of humans, whether Vaishnava or not. A classic expression of positive valuation of humility and forbearance is the verse in Sanskrit attributed to Chaitanya and endlessly repeated:
Hari is ever to be celebrated by one who is humbler than grass, as forbearing as a tree, bestowing praise though himself praiseworthy.The willingness of Vaishnavas to find a positive meaning in overlooking insult and arrogance by others should have especial value in defusing potentially inflammatory or demoralizing incidents where disparity of caste, status or communal affiliation is a factor. A habitual attitude of humility and service—especially when dignified by the example of Vaishnavas noted for their devotion, learning and prestige—should facilitate positive social intercourse in all sorts of problematic and fractious situations. If law may be called a blunt instrument of social integration, humility are service are subtler ones.
The non-violence of the Vaishnavas, apart from being an extension of their humble willingness to serve, is a corollary of their central doctrinal affirmation that the religious duty, the dharma, of the present age is prema bhakti, loving devotion with the accent on “loving.” In the much cited episode of the conversion of the drunken brothers, Jagai and Madhai, it is reported that Chaitanya was on the verge of destroying the pair for having injured the saintly Nityananda, when the latter and other Vaishnavas interceded. They pointed out that since loving devotion is the purpose of Chaitanya’s descent and not the killing of demons, as might have been required of previous divine descents intended to uphold other systems of dharma, condign punishment of the rascals was not called for. They, like so many persons in the present age, would be won over to loving devotion by love. And so, we are told, they were.
As we have seen, the Chaitanya Vaishnavas give the highest priority in their conception of loving devotion to Krishna’s amorous sports in the idyllic transcendent realm of Goloka. There the mood of “sweetness” (madhurya) predominates over the mood of dominance and power (aisvarya). Throughout his infancy and childhood, and later in his youthful sports of love, Krishna manifests his sweet and gentle aspect and hides his awesome divine power, the sight of which would intimidate his devotees and sweethearts. Meditation that visualizes Krishna in his amorous sports is more properly the concern of the advanced devotee rather than of the ordinary neophyte or lay devotee. However, the songs and symbolism expressing this “sweet” mood of loving devotion were widely diffused even among the general Bengali populace. This mode of Chaitanya Vaishnava piety cannot but have left its imprint on the ordinary Vaishnava as well, reinforcing an ethos of affective sensibility and an ethic of non-violence and mutuality. It is also very likely that vast numbers of Bengalis who were not Vaishnava, but were exposed repeatedly to Vaishnava music, song, visual art and story, were also influenced to some extent to appreciate the Vaishnava ethos and ethic. In this context, it is noteworthy that there were many poets with Muslim names who chose to compose songs on the Radha Krishna theme, to say nothing of Hindu composers who were not themselves Vaishnava doing the same.
The ethics and ethos of Chaitanya Vaishnava devotion, and the literature and arts that express it, clearly were such as to give positive endorsement of tolerance, sensitivity, mutuality and non-violence. Conversely, there is very little in Chaitanya Vaishnava devotional teachings and literature that would encourage assertiveness, confrontation or violence. There is, of course, the incident, recounted with evident approval by Chaitanya’s biographers, of a massive demonstration against Chand Qazi of Nabadwip when he opposed a public sankirtan procession. By one account, the demonstators actually entered the Qazi’s compound and vandalized his trees. Other accounts, however, are less confrontational and all agree that there was an amicable resolution allowing the Vaishnavas to proceed with their processions. There is even a popular tradition that the Qazi himself became a devotee inwardly, though outwardly remaining Muslim.
There remains, of course, the Vaishnava principle that Krishna may be angry with those who offend a Vaishnava, as illustrated in the story of Jagai and Madhai. This is a principle that could be exploited in the direction of violence and retaliation for injury or insult to fellow Vaishnavas. But the authoritative example of Chaitanya and his associates in the Jagai-Madhai affair, as in the trial and scourging of Haridas and in what few other examples of harassment of Vaishnavas are to be found in the biographical and hagiographical texts, is that prema bhakti and reconcilition take precedence over hostility and retaliation. The overwhelming message of the Chaitanya Vaishnava literature is that in the current era of Chaitanya’s influence violent confrontation for religious matters can and should be avoided by devotees of Krishna Chaitanya.
Just as there is virtually no explicit Chaitanya Vaishnava endorsement of militancy and dominance, even for the cause of Krishna bhakti, neither is there any glorification of martyrdom in the cause of religion. I do not know of a single case of a celebrated saint dying as a martyr during the pre-colonial history of the Chaitanya Vaishnavas. Any tense moments recorded in Chaitanya Vaishnava biography and hagiography, including the beating of Hari Das until he appeared to be dead, have very satisfactory non-mortal outcomes. Presumably the Muslim rulers recognized the Vaishnavas’ antipathy to violence and confrontation so long as their freedom to worship Krishna was not threatened, and responded by granting the Vaishnavas leave to take out public sankirtan processions, providing safe conducts, employing them in strategic positions etc. The Chaitanya Vaishnavas’ commitment to non-violence and humility and their preference for a spirituality of “sweetness” (madhurya) almost certainly served to defuse Hindu-Muslim confrontations, as several episodes of such confrontations memorialized in the Vaishnava literature testify. It also seems highly likely that within the narrower orbit of Hindu society in pre-colonial Bengal comparable mollification of inter-group confrontations and other potentially disruptive conflicts was facilitated through the influence of Chaitanya Vaishnava ethics and ethos.