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Sankirtan And The Religion Of Possession -

Jagat - Sat, 10 Apr 2004 23:28:11 +0530

Please excuse the hasty nature of the writing. I am trying to get these thoughts down and will revise before posting on my own site.

Sankirtan and the Religion of Possession

In my last two articles, Ritual and Structure and The Holy Name and Personalist Mysticism, I discussed several personal experiences of traditional Gaudiya Vaishnava practice.

In the first of these, I discussed some manifestations of the highly structured, content-full kind of religious ritual that is found in Gaudiya Vaishnavism, while in the other, I discussed the practice of the Holy Name, which I argued does not have the same kind of specific content. These are two extremes of a particular continuum that I would like to continue to explore.

I mentioned that kirtan performers often direct their singing to one member of the audience, which is I believe a technique of performers of all kinds. By making that connection with a particularly receptive listener, the performer’s own connection to his material is deepened and other members of the audience are in turn affected. These are all aspects of the magic of rasa.

Sometimes, the effects can be surprising. I remember one case at Madan Gopal Goswami’s house during his annual festival commemorating his great-grandmother’s departure [she was his grandfather, Pran Gopal Goswami’s guru], he was holding kirtan. A man who was related to one of the Goswami’s disciples happened to be present, even though he had never previously shown any interest in devotional life. Over the course of the day and night of constant chanting, something snapped in this gentleman, a middle-class Calcutta babu, and he started rolling on the ground, crying and calling out, holding on to the kirtaniyas’ feet and in general making a very shocking display of himself, completely forgetting all decorum.

Throughout all this, the kirtaniyas themselves did not act as though there was anything particularly unusual about the event, and though respectful, were somewhat blasé. The crowd itself did not applaud or jeer, but took his transports in stride. Afterwards, the dishevelled ecstatic seemed rather embarrassed by it all, even a little ashamed, though I don’t think anyone reproached him at all. There was no reason to believe that he was trying to make a deliberate spectacle of himself in order to enhance his prestige or reputation, as such things would have been anathema to the kind of civilized society he belonged to. I know that he took initiation, but to what degree was he permanently transformed by these events? This I cannot say, but clearly something transformative had happened: he had been invaded by the Holy Name and had undergone some kind of radical conversion.

The Gaudiya Math, which has a high concern for respectability, and looks down their noses on discomfiting displays of this sort in exactly the way that Episcopalians (High Church Anglicans) do at charismatic Pentecostals speaking in tongues or southern Baptists being saved at a revival. Indeed, such displays of ecstatic religion do appear somewhat primeval to “civilized man,” a throwback to some kind of atavistic possession religion. Furthermore, it can be argued, as I.M. Lewis does in his seminal anthropological study, Ecstatic Religion, that this kind of religious phenomenon is usually found in socially marginal groups.

This makes sense historically, when we examine the beginnings of the Krishna consciousness movement. However, such manifestations are precisely what early Gaudiya Vaishnavism was all about. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was an ecstatic; Nityananda was an ecstatic and he used ecstatic chanting of the Holy Name as the tool sine qua non for converting others.

akrodha paramAnanda nityAnanda rAya
abhimAna zUnya nitAi nagare beRAya
The glorious Lord Nityananda knows no anger, for He is the personification of supreme transcendental bliss. Completely free from false pride, he wanders through the town.
adhama patita jéver dvAre dvAre giyA
hari-nAma mahA-mantra dena bilAiyA
Going from door to door to the houses of the most fallen and wretched souls, he freely distributes the gift of the great mantra of the Lord’s holy names.
jAre dekhe tAre kohe dante tRNa dhori'
AmAre kiniyA loho bolo gaura-hari
Holding straw between his teeth, he exclaims to each and everyone: “Please purchase me by chanting the names of Lord Gaurahari!”
eto boli' nityAnanda bhUme gaRi’ jAya
sonAra parvata jeno dhUlAte loTAya
Having said this, Nityananda Prabhu rolls about on the ground, like a golden mountain tumbling in the dust.
heno avatAre jAr rati nA janmilo
locana bole sei pApI elo Ara gelo
Lochan Das says, “One who has not developed affection for an avatar like Lord Nityananda is a sinner who is born and dies without any purpose.”
Those who know the history of Gaudiya Vaishnavism will be aware that a certain tension existed between the followers of Nityananda, whose approach may be likened to the formless kind of direct experience that is characteristic of the Holy Name, while the Goswamis had an approach that took more classical form. The leftist reaction to traditional Hindu forms in the 20th century tended to see Nityananda’s version of Vaishnavism as a popular religion emancipating marginalized lower castes and givine them dignity in a Hindu society that had no real place for them. The Goswamis, on the other hand, were Brahmins who were elitists—they elaborated a complex theology in the Sanskrit language. They revived Smriti rituals, and though they paid lip service to Pancharatra-type egalitarianism, they ultimately supported Brahminical caste domination.

This is a rather superficial view. Not so long ago I wrote on these forums:
The Goswamis are prominent for giving shape to Lord Chaitanya's movement. He himself gave it its spiritual impetus, others spread the chanting of the Holy Name, etc., but any religion needs dogma, theology, ritual, a sacred calendar, holy lands, etc. The six Goswamis developed these aspects of the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition.
Without these developments, the lack of substantial content in the Holy Name would have resulted in a far-too-diffuse ecstatic movement that quickly lost its moorings.

Some may have objected to my use of the word “contentlessness” in relation to the Holy Name. Obviously that is something of an exaggeration. Within the cultural context of Bengali Hinduism, the Holy Name is God, writ large, and all who hear it know that it is a call to conversion and personal transformation. Though this was and always will be the point of departure for this religion, it cannot be the end point. It finds content in the subjectivity of the experiencer, and will therefore be restricted by the capacity of the experiencer to understand his own experience.

It was up to Rupa Goswami to explain what was going on in Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, and what was the meaning of the Holy Name.