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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Reconstructing tradition

Reconstructing tradition
By Rebecca Manring
Book Review

This review will coincide nicely with the annual Śītānāth Utsava, the festival commemmorating Śrī Advaita Prabhu's advent day, which commenced today in Sādhu Bābā’s āshram. When a friend offered to send me a copy of this book about Advaita Ācārya, my Pran Purush, I hesitated accepting the offer, as I had very bad experiences in the past with non-devotee intellectuals giving their regarded opinion on transcendental matters. The book was said to contain many details about the social and sectarean standing of Advaita Prabhu, though, so I could not resist. Now I'm glad that I accepted the offer because, though it is a non-devotee work, Mrs. Manring has done a more thorough reading of the Advaita-books than I was able to do.

In the introduction Mrs. Manring claims that Advaita Prakāśa was not written by Īśān Nāgar in 1568, but in the late 19th century by a descendent of Advaita Prabhu, Acyuta Caran Caudhuri Tattvanidhi. Oddly, whenever she quotes Advaita Prakāśa afterwards, she does ascribe it to Īśān Nāgar. The claim that Advaita Prakāśa is not written by Īśān is made by the mundane scholar B.B. Majumdar, though, who tried to reconcile differences between the book and the Caitanya Caritāmṛta (this has been dealt with in my essay 'In defense of the Advaita Vaṁśa' on my website). Mrs. Manring writes: 'Majumdar was operating from a historical positivist approach, that is, from the presupposition that the biographies were historical documents. This led him to believe that conflicting narrative accounts must represent deviations from truth." 

On page 125 Mrs. Manring reviews the Advaita Prakāśa and reiterates it is written by Īśān. The Bengali publisher Satishcandra Mitra, when he republished it in 1926, also vowed it was an authentic scripture, written by an eye-witness of Advaita Prabhu’s līlā for over 50 years, and it was written long before Caitanya Caritāmṛta. At the end of the book Mrs. Manring argues that the fact that Īśān Nagar’s name is not mentioned in major granthas like Caitanya Caritāmṛta may be because he was just a domestic servant and not a public figure, or a big preaching ācārya etc. Mrs. Manring notes that, though many books have been written about Advaita Prabhu, they are very rare, many of them destroyed by germs, India's heavy climate and sheer neglect. I noticed that because, apart from Advaita Prakāśa, which is widely available, I failed to get any book about Advaita Prabhu anywhere in India. Mrs. Manring suggests that the books on Advaita Prabhu were not quoted by other Vaiṣṇava ācāryas mostly because of their lack of availability.

Mrs. Manring sees Haricaraṇa's Advaita Mangal as presenting a rasa-continuum, with Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa first appearing as Sītā and Advaita and then later as Śrīman Mahāprabhu. She also sees an evolution of rasa in Gaura-līlā's historical sequence - Advaita (the first to appear) as Aiśvarya (which actually is not a rasa) Haridās Ṭhākur as Dāsya, Nityānanda as Sakhya, Sītā devī as Vātsalya and finally Mahāprabhu Himself as Mādhurya. This is interesting, but whether that was Haricaran Ṭhākur's intention or not is another question. It certainly is not explained like this by any major Gauḍīya ācārya.

Proudly I read on page 14 that, unlike other branches of the Gauḍīya Sampradāya, the Advaita Parivāra did not yield to the influence of the British Christians that made itself felt in Bengal in the 19th century (when a non devotee uses the word ‘orthodox’ my ears prick up and I get all interested, because it means something actually genuine is coming up!) Vijay Kṛṣṇa Gosvāmī, Sādhu Bābā's great-grand-uncle and great hero, was originally influenced by the neo-Christian Brāhma Samāj, but later returned to his Vaiṣṇava roots and settled in Śāntipur. He was a rock in the turbulent waters of colonial India.

On page 40 Mrs. Manring writes: “Nityānanda, the avadhūta, was a wild-eyed iconoclast with no respect for social convention. His devotion took a very different form than did Advaita's and he garnered, and still has, a tremendous following. Advaita was a caste-sensitive brāhmana, always careful to observe the relevant rules and the first stage of the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava movement the presence of an established and elderly scholar in the midst provided the group with some respectability. The loud ecstatic kīrtan processions Caitanya led through the streets of Navadvīpa....hardly seemed models of priestly decorum." Later, Mrs. Manring concedes: “However, it seems unlikely that a young Caitanya,.......lost in religious ecstasy........would have conceived the idea of of including his parents' elderly friend in his sankīrtan simply for political expedience."

Of course, at the time, including the honorable Advaita in the group might have socially benefited Mahāprabhu’s movement, whether it was done deliberately or not. Mrs. Manring's claim that only or especially Advaita Prabhu's followers are promoting orthodox brāhmanism, is inaccurate, however. In my essay 'Who is a brāhmin, Guru and Sannyāsī' I have provided ample evidence that Nityānanda Prabhu and Mahāprabhu Himself also held up the same standard.

There are quite a few inaccuracies in Mrs. Manring's book - in chapter 1 she contradicts herself by first saying that there are a disproportionate number of biographies of Advaita - compared to Nityānanda, but at the end of that chapter she says that there is so little about Advaita in Gauḍīya literature, and she opens chapter 2 by claiming that Haricaraṇa's Advaita Mangal is regarded in the Gauḍīya tradition as the authoritative biography of Advaita Ācārya, while in fact it is the least accepted of all the biographies.

Advaita Maṅgal describes how Vijay Puri, an elderly Godbrother of Mādhavendra Puri, and Śītānāth's maternal uncle, is sent to Navagrām by Madangopāl Himself to seek out the bhakta avatāra (Advaita) there. He appears to the newborn Advaita and tells him that Kṛṣṇa bhakti is not available anywhere, and that Madangopāl is waiting for Him in the bushes of Vṛndāvana. (Things I clearly overlooked when I studied Advaita Mangal to compose my book about Śītānāth) When Śītānāth arrives in Vṛndāvana in his youth, ten Vrajavāsī women alert Him of the whereabouts of Madangopāl one morning, and, after the unearthing of Madangopāl, Śītānāth teaches the local Vrajavāsīs of the supremacy of parakīya bhāva. He then proceeds in telling them in all detail how Paurṇamāsī initiated Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa into the kāma gāyatrī and how their pūrva rāga pastimes took place. Returning to Śāntipur, Advaita becomes a famous Guru who one day announces that Mādhavendra Purīpād appeared to Him in a dream and told Him he would come to Śāntipur the very same day if He summons him with an offering of rice balls. And events transpire just as Advaita had dreamed - Gurudeva appears in Śāntipur and gives him dīkṣā. A challenging scholar (Digvijayi) comes to town and, after being defeated by Śītānāth, is the first one to call him 'Advaita'.

I remember when I wrote the book I found the different books about Śītānāth rather hard to harmonize both in sequence and in mood - especially Advaita Mangal was hard for me to understand, but it appeals a bit more to me now. Haricharan claims to have been educated in Advaita's pastimes by Śrīnāth Ācārya, possibly Śrīnāth Cakravartī, the disciple of Śītānāth and Guru of Kavi Karṇapur.

When Advaita roared during his worship of mother Gaṅgā, performing tapasyā, the Apsarās came to disturb His penance, and eventually took Him to Swarg. When Indra there told Brahmā about Śītānātha's tapasyā, Brahmā decided to join Him in the Sankīrtan movement and took human birth there too (as Haridās Ṭhākur). Śyāmdās, who arranged and instigated Advaita Prabhu's marriage, also built Him a huge mansion with women's quarters.

Advaita Prabhu's tapasya and cries of love not only caused the descent of Śrīman Mahāprabhu, but also of all his eternal associates, like Śacī-mātā and Jagannātha Miśra, the Lord's parents.

Haricaraṇā Ṭhākur then narrates a story to show the non-difference between Śrīman Mahāprabhu and Śītānāth's eldest son Acyuta. After the two boys had gone swimming Acyuta had drunk all the milk meant for both the boys and Sītā devī slapped him for it, leaving a big mark. When the boys sit down to eat the mark is still there and Sītā devī asks Gaura who made the mark on His cheek. Gaura replies: "You did! Acyuta drank the milk and you hit him! Acyuta and I are non-different!" Mrs. Manring rounds out her description of Advaita Maṅgal by narrating how Sītā devī assumes as many forms as there are guests while serving a feast and suggesting that Śītānāth's refusal to any more accept the obeisances of young Nimāi is a part of an evolution from aiśvarya to mādhurya, which is not an uninteresting proposal actually.

In Advaita Maṅgal Advaita Prabhu shows a four-armed form to the Digvijayī, Haridās, Śyāmdās and twice to Gaurī dās. It becomes a lot more understandable now why Sādhu Bābā also gave me this book to translate when he first asked me to preach Śītānāth's glories in the west. It still does contain a lot of controversies, so I suppose Bābā expected me to select the interesting and credible parts from it only. I hope I did. Haricaraṇa’s equating Śītānāth with Śrī Kṛṣṇa Himself remains, of course, far-fetched; perhaps something just to read over and turn a blind eye to; it could be seen as an extreme glorification perhaps.

(To be continued......)

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