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Radical religion - In search of strong experiences

Jagat - Wed, 30 Jun 2004 22:35:57 +0530
I was watching the local university TV station, which was showing a colloquium on the French anti-sect laws passed last year. Unfortunately I did not catch the name of the speaker, a Québécois, who spoke strongly against the law as an imposition on the freedom of expression.

His main argument was that people exaggerate the negative effects of religious sects, or even the potential for such danger. One thing he said particularly stuck in my mind, perhaps because I have thought it often before, was the comparison he made with "extreme sports." People who join cults similarly tend to be people who are looking for powerful religious states that take them out of the ordinary realm of experience.

He had some statistics, sort of in the manuSyANAM sahasreSU mode, which I noted down but promptly lost. From memory, of those who take up a serious spiritual search, only about 4% go as far as joining a fringe religious group of any kind. Of those that join such groups, only 20% still remain in them after three years. However, of those who leave, about 85% remember their implication as being positive overall. These are very interesting statistics.

Other statistics were that there are about 1,000 such fringe religious groups in Quebec alone (population 6 million), but the largest, the Jehovah's Witnesses, numbers only 40,000. The Baptists (yes, we consider them fringey up here, like Mormons and Hare Krishnas! Practically everything but Catholics and mainline Protestant) are second with 20,000. But most, he said, are miniscule, numbering only a handful of people in each case.

I have mused before that Iskcon, as we know it, has had trouble finding its place because, on the one hand, at some point it obstructs the radical religious experience dimension of the aspirants, and at the same time it has tended to neglect the congregational aspect, i.e. finding a place for the less implicated, even though they may still have a favorable disposition to its fundamental ideas. It is slowly working these things out.

So where do we stand, here in the "Raganuga" camp? First of all, I put "Raganuga in quotation marks because it is clear that most of us are not "pure" raganuga bhaktas in the sense that someone living at Radha Kund might understand it. This has been made clear by the discussions with Advaita Dasji over the last few weeks, which seems to have led him to abandon us.

What marks most of us, I think, is the search for authenticity. This has led us away from forms of Gaudiya Vaishnavism that somehow don't seem authentic enough, despite their radical nature in comparison to customary forms of religion in the Western world. But I think that what I characterized as "the obstructing of radical religious experience" has a great deal to do with it. "If attaining Radha and Krishna and manjari bhava is what Rupa Goswami taught, then by God we'll go after that, if you don't mind!" sums up (or summed up) our attitude.

But having such an attitude has led some of us, me at least, to inquire further into the nature of authenticity itself. Perhaps such an intellectual quest may start too soon--should one not have a solid anchoring in religious experience first, in order to know what he or she is talking about? I tend to think so. This is why I find articles like this one by Kshamabuddhi, Academics vs. Achievers? Who is best?, reiterating oft-repeated anti-intellectual themes, to be misplaced. One's intellectual search does not negate or deny religious experience, but only attempts to understand it rationally. However impossible that may be, it must be attempted in order to communicate the goal and the means to that goal meaningfully to others.

The creation of a congregation lies somewhere in that 85% who leave within three years, or after five or ten years, or who find themselves banging their heads against new limitations after thirty or forty years of religious life. The intellectual safety net has to be created, new meanings have to be found, the religious experience needs to be repeatedly validated rationally, it has to be renewed by new forces, of which the intellectual is one of the most important.

evaM buddheH paraM buddhvA
saMstabhyAtmAnam AtmanA
jahi zatruM mahA bAho
kAma-rUpaM durAsadam

The study of 16th century texts is certainly helpful, especially in some very important areas--that of appartenance, for instance, which is a central element in identity. And, as I have said, identity is the sine qua non of being a Vaishnava. If you think "I am Krishna Das, or Radha Dasi" then you are, at least in your own mind, a Vaishnava. And no matter how others try to prove you are not ("No initiation, no guru, wrong sampradaya, wrong behavioral standards, wrong sadhana, too intellectual"), you will still be one.

sakRd eva prapanno yas
tavAsmIti ca yAcate
abhayaM sarvadA tasmai
dadAmy etad vrataM mama

My vow is this: “I give freedom from fear to anyone who throws himself at my feet and says just once, ”I am yours.”

tavAsmIti vadan vAcA
tathaiva manasA vidan
tat-sthAnam Azritas tanvA
modate zaraNAgataH

The surrendered soul lives happily, witnessing with his words ‘Lord, I am yours!’ and feeling so in his heart, and physically living in the Lord’s abode.

tavaivAsmi tavaivAsmi
na jIvAmi tvayA vinA
iti vijJAya devi tvaM
naya mAM caraNAntike

O Goddess! I am yours! I am yours alone! I cannot live without you. Now that you know this, give me a place by your feet.

This sense of belonging can only come through direct religious experience and the association of devotees, like-minded, affectionate people who exude spiritual knowledge and maturity.

The ego is admittedly there to trap us all, wherever we are, but we must push on. Seek to strengthen your identity as the servant of the Divine Couple by any means possible--through both experience and learning. But don't think that learning is necessarily restricted to the Bhagavatam and the Chaitanya Charitamrita.

Modern studies of religion are very revealling of what we are doing. They shed new light, ask new questions, raise new doubts, the resolution of which raises us to new stages of "radical amazement", as the Rabbi Herschel called it. ("Some are amazed at the things that they see, and some are amazed that they can see at all!")

Krishna Das challenges us (1.8.15):

zrI kRSNa caitanya dayA karoho vicAra
vicAra korile citte pAbe camatkAra

Just contemplate the blessings of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Dwell on them, and you will be radically amazed!

Moreover, he says (1.2.117).

siddhAnta boliyA citte nA koro alasa
ihA hoite kRSNe lAge sudRDha mAnasa

A siddhanta is not some worn, repeated dogma. It is the conclusion of a laborious train of thought. A synthesis, if you like, arising out of thoughtful consideration of various points of view.

So, this too is worship, and this too is service.

Gaura Haribol!