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Discussions specifically related with the various aspects of practice of bhakti-sadhana in Gaudiya Vaishnavism.

Liturgy Discussion - Rituals Imposed or Gradual Change

nabadip - Mon, 12 Apr 2004 18:41:11 +0530
Jagat's editorial concludes

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…

#1. Gaura-candrika.

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.

#5 Gopi-gita

==> Second dark night. Sadhana bhakti. (Prayer, bhajan)

#6 Krishna returns

==> Union. Direct service. Yoga-pith, arati.

#6 Krishna answers the gopis’ questions.

==> Homily.

#7 Rasa-lila.

==> Final kirtan, concluding prayers.

#8 Prasad, of course.

Joy Nitai.

First le me congratulate to Jagat about his very insightful editorials. They always bring new light, and show the diversity of experiences in the Gaudiya world, as well as the ones in a mature Gaudiya's world.

Liturgy is concerned with varying practices in temples and churches which after a while got standardized. In the original Greek liturgy meant any public execution of a duty done in front of others as a service. In the Roman Catholic Church the present liturgy of the Holy Mass developed out of spontaneous actions, not prescribed or pre-structured ones, yet they did follow a certain sequence, since the aim was the re-enactment of the last supper. There is a main division between the spoken section (reading and sermon) and the consecretion and partaking/distribution of the sanctified. The free flow of public actions (liturgy) lasted several centuries, and only little by little became ritualized. When bread was broken, the hands got soiled, so they needed to be washed. Today this is ritualized, hands do not get soiled anymore. The symbolic structure along the lines of significant prayers was introduced by the Church fathers several centuries into the History of the Roman Church and the development of what is now the Holy Mass. As said earlier, in another thread, it happened along the lines of the esotericism of the secrets of alchemy, which lead from the impure to the pure, and the transsubstancialisation and divinisation of a base matter. In other words, deep secrets were taken and incorporated into structure, symbols and sequence of the daily repeatable liturgy, just as Jagat is proposing to discuss here.

At this point it would be meaningful to discuss how the liturgy of an arati has developed. Was and is it done as a manasi seva, where the mind completes the lacking context of the ritual actions? Did certain activities fill a function at another time? (I have heard one explanation that the waving of lights might have been done to give the darshan of the Thakurs to the public in a dark temple, a utilitarian side to the offering...) Interesting is the parallel of the sanctification of light and water which then is offered/sprinkled over participants.

Clearly the waving of chamara and fan is ritualized into a high degree of symbolical abstraction, while the burning of incence is remaining on the concrete side of giving scent and purification of the air. Similarly with flower. Offering of water and waving of cloth seems in the middle in terms of an imagined scale of abstraction.

The question arises to what degree the arati is canonized, standardized into an unchangeable form.

What is missing in the arati situation is the interaction between the officiating priest and the participants. The interaction is only highly abstracted in the form of waving offered items at them, and offering the results of the puja (light and water). This seems to be so, because in the situation in India, arati is often a lonely affair of the pujari, with an occasional visitor or two sounding a bell, or singing a song.

In a more meaningful setting it should be possible to introduce other forms as Jagat proposes.

As far as the sequence of a Sunday feast is concerned, I have seen two different variations in the two temples I visited in the past year. The one in Atlanta, Georgia has first a Tulasi puja (clearly with the intention of a practical involvement of the participants), then a short arati, then the lecture, another arati, and then the prasad. In Zürich, Switzerland, where the temple is crowded by Tamilian refugees from Sri Lanka, South Indian practices have been introduced, such as offering the crown on the head of everyone as a blessing, and the decoration of the altar with all the goodies brought by the guests, fruits and other things, which are then distributed to everyone as prasad. They also included at times a homa, giving everyone a handful of grains to be thrown little by little into the fire along with some "vedic" chants. Whatever the rightfulness of these actions may be, it shows an adaptability to the circumstances of a particular concrete temple situation. The main meaningful focus of the changes is the increased partizipation of everyone present. In an environment where teachings are diffuse, this incorporation of homa and South Indian rituals seems adequate. This is just an example of a "creative" expansion of the language of ritual in the sequence of a Sunday Feast.

I think whatever new development is looked at, interactive participation should be a key-element, and more place for spontaneous, not already ritualized offerings, should be given.

Joy Nitai.
Jagat - Mon, 12 Apr 2004 19:53:42 +0530
As you no doubt recognize, Nabadipji, my article was written hurriedly and needs thorough revision. It is nice to have the discussion boards to post something like this--even when there is no immediate response, I can look at something more critically just by knowing that other people out there might be reading it.

Yesterday I was at a family gathering at my in-laws, but I took a printout of what I had written and looked at it carefully. I had already thought of some of the things you mention.

A quick note of things that I feel need revision or explanation:

(1) The idea of distinguishing nitya and naimittika rituals; more clarification is needed of the examples I gave and what I am extracting as significant.

(2) The problem of the "mass" analogy: problems with the mass vis-à-vis other kinds of Christian celebrations: Further clarification of formal vs. charismatic/spontaneous approaches.

(4) Why the rasa-lila? I'll have to go more into the theology of this. For instance, the Rathayatra lila could arguably serve as the basis. There are probably other major themese that could compete. But I really think that the Rasa lila is more symbolically full and compact.

(5) A more detailed consideration of the "Sunday feast" idea. I agree that too much rigidity is not wanted. That's why the kirtan is at the end, representing the spontaneous joy of the rasa dance. It is the culmination, the reward. Nevertheless, I feel that certain portions of the overall programme should be more formulaic, with specific prayers, hymns, etc., in both Sanskrit and English, so that visitors would be able to participate and meditate on recurring themes that would lead them to deeper understanding, feelings of increased reverence and inspiration every time they were repeated.

The fundamental idea is this: Each Sunday feast should be thought of as answering the call of Krishna's flute and end with dancing the circle dance with Radha and Krishna at the center.

On another note, I was inspired to telephone Mahavirya Das, an Iskcon acquaintance who is an accomplished classical musician and composer. I thought I could sell him the idea of composing a work based on the Rasa lila as I saw its structure. He was unfortunately very negative, even hostile. He's a Ritvik. What a tragedy...

Anyway, the idea is out there. If any musician wants to think about working on this idea with me, contact me here or by PM. I am thinking classical with strong Indian themes. Some of the melodies mentioned by me (zarada canda pavana manda) might be available on recording, and certainly they should be used, so anyone interested should be willing to do the necessary musical research.

Unfortunately, I am a musical ignoramus.
jijaji - Mon, 12 Apr 2004 20:57:31 +0530
I like that idea, circle dance has attracted many people from various spiritual backgrounds, sufi, native american, shivates and some vaishnavas, and some of these gatherings are quite big.
I have been to circle dance where 'Govinda Jaya Jaya' was chanted but the Rasa Lila-smaranam concept is indeed a good one.