I am rushing a bit to get this out, so the writing is somewhat careless. I will try to revise this series of articles and publish it together on my site as soon as possible.
Notes for a ritual based on the Rasa Lila
One of the most moving experiences I had while living in Nabadwip took place on a certain Rasa Purnima.
I heard that a special kirtan was to take place at midnight in the field across from Atal Bihari Das Babaji’s ashram in Rani Ghat. Atal Bihari Das is probably the most visible Sahajiya Vaishnava (I believe they called themselves Kalachandis) in Nabadwip. His most famous disciple is the kirtaniya Radharani Dasi, who has been described by Donna Wulff in a 1985 article.*
*“Images and Roles of Women in Bengali Padavali Kirtan” Bengal Vaishnavism, Orientalism, Society and the Arts, ed. J.T. O’Connell, Ann Arbor: Asian Studies Center, Michigan State U.
I did not particularly care for Atal Bihari, perhaps simply because I found him physically unattractive—he is a squat man with a powerful build and a large round head, covered with acne scars. He speaks with a strong Mymensingh accent, which was barely comprehensible to me when I went to see him on one occasion. But evidently, he attracted a considerable following and put on many grand festivals each year, especially a lila kirtan program that went on for several days.
At any rate, I did not make it my habit to visit Sahajiya Vaishnavas. On this occasion, however, I was told that it would be worth going because it was to be a special Rasa Lila kirtan. There was actually a significant choice to make, as the Rasa kirtan sung by Sri Jiva Goswami at Srivas Angan was also a very special treat. That usually lasted all night, but I left early for Rani Ghat where another kirtan was already in progress. A good one, too, as I recall, with a couple of very good women singers.
As Donna Wulff’s article points out, women are generally given a higher status amongst the Sahajiyas than they are in orthodox circles. It is very rare that there mixed Harinam sampradayas are invited to regular Nama Yajnas, though women Pala (Lila) kirtan singers are fairly common. This may be because of the kind of intimacy that Name kirtan singers have with their audiences, as I described earlier.
Then the Rasa Lila kirtan began. This one was quite different from anything I had ever seen, and it may have been something entirely novel for all that I know. The participants in the kirtan play – all women -- were dressed as Vraja gopis, enacted the entire Rasa lila through the Holy Name, without using any other words. They used some of the familiar tunes from the Rasa Lila kirtans, including the famous Govinda Das pada that always introduces Rasa kirtan—
phulla-mallikA mAlatI yUthI, matta-madhukara bhoraNI |
heraJ rAti aichana bhAti, zyAma mohana madane mAti,
muralI gAna paJcama tAn, kulavatI cita coraNI |
zunata gopI prema ropI, manahi manahi ApanA soGpi |
tAhi calata yAhi bolata, muralIka kala lolanI |
The soft breeze blowsThis is still top of the charts in padavali kirtan, in my opinion.
while the full autumn moon glorifies the sky;
the forests are filled with the scents of various flowers;
the bees are maddened by the many
blossoming mallika, malati and yuthi flowers.
Seeing such a beautiful effulgent night,
Shyamasundara is overcome by feelings of romance
and begins to blow on his flute,
in the sweet key of the fifth note of the scale;
the thief of the faithful wives’ minds.
Hearing it, the gopis immediately fall in love with him
and mentally offer him their entire selves;
they start on their way to meet him,
absorbed in the beautiful music of the flute.
Anyway, the kirtaniyas followed the full cycle of the Rasa lila over a two hour period, going through the classical framework of the story—attraction, examination, union, separation, union and ecstasy, expressing the emotions through the music and the Holy Name. One male was present, playing the part of Krishna, and he too sang the Maha Mantra, but the emphasis was certainly on those playing the gopis’ roles.
There were no sadhus there, except for a few noted Sahajiya babas. Since the story was known, the rasa was concentrated in the voices. I remember the women’s tremendously emotional voices; it was powerful and the effect on the audience was tremendous. When the Rasa dance came at the end, the joy was ebullient. It was a fabulous event.
Notable was the participation of women, not only as singers but as audience members, where my previous experience of such kirtans had been very much male-dominated affairs. Men and women sat together rather than in segregated parts of the congregation.
Now, after this rather lengthy, though admittedly light, treatment of various experiences in Gaudiya Vaishnava practice, let me return to my original point of departure: symbolism and ritual structure. The following portion is the most audacious part of this article and at the same time the least well thought out. But I will go ahead and write out my notes.
Now I am going to mention Iskcon. So perhaps these comments belong in another forum... Those who have are afraid of offenses may skip the next bit...
Since circumstance has been taking me to Catholic masses more often than the Krishna temple (My son goes to a choir school here in Montreal.), I have had much opportunity to reflect on the things that the Catholic Church does right in terms of rites and rituals. The temple of Krishna is where my heart is, but I am also painfully aware of the many weaknesses that are present in the way its rituals, etc., are structured, particularly at the Sunday feast.
The Sunday feast, is of course, an adaptation to the North American milieu. Such things do not exist in India. But the seven-day week with one day set aside for religious services is so deeply ingrained in Western culture that is was a natural and useful adaptation when Iskcon came into existence.
Customarily, the program consists of kirtan, lecture, arati and feast. For introducing strangers to the temple and the basics of Krishna consciousness, this seems to have been an adequate approach, but in the course of time, attendance at temple feasts has more and more become a regular congregation who participate in the kirtan and maybe listen to the lecture, then take prasadam and leave. Newcomers are in a minority.
There are several problems that seem to have gone unnoticed in the Iskcon way of doing things. What is arati, for instance? The arati is basically a yoga-pitha meditation and celebration. Even in the Gaudiya Math, they sing both Gaura and Yugala arati, not just the Gaura arati. This is really something that should be changed, but of course, since Prabhupada did not institute it, it will never happen. Kirtan should be separated from arati, which really goes on too long.
But I digress. The real point I want to make is that the entire event is symbolically inefficient. Though I haven’t really thought it through at this point..
In our discussion of the Passion of Christ, I proposed that the Rasa Lila was our central story. I think that a liturgy based on the Rasa Lila would remind on a regular basis of the central tenets of the faith. Each point could be condensed down to more fundamental theological points. Each section would consist of specific kirtans and recited prayers. This needs work…
The Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition calls for a setting of the scene with a meditation on Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.
#2 The gopis hear the flute
==> God is all-attractive. The heart is drawn to transcendence. We are eternal servants of God; that is our natural constitutional position.
#3 The first test.
==> Krishna refuses them; Gopis argue; Krishna accepts them. The nature of the material world as an obstacle to spiritual life.
#4 Gopis become proud. Krishna abandons them.
==> Divyonmada. The first dark night of the soul.
==> Encounter with Radha/Guru ==> association, surrender, humility.
==> Second dark night. Sadhana bhakti. (Prayer, bhajan)
#6 Krishna returns
==> Union. Direct service. Yoga-pith, arati.
#6 Krishna answers the gopis’ questions.
==> Final kirtan, concluding prayers.
#8 Prasad, of course.