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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Reconstructing tradition (3)

Reconstructing tradition Part 3-
A common misunderstanding among worldly scholars is that there was some kind of feud between Nityānanda Prabhu and Advaita Prabhu. Mrs. Manring shares this opinion, writing that Īśāna Nāgar “….throughout this episode…puts seemingly mean-spirited words in Nityānanda’s mouth and conciliation in Advaita’s”. However, in ch.15 and 16 I can find only one such exchange in each, neither of them showing any other exchange than one of mutual love. The Bengali text of Advaita Prakāśa rather speaks of Advaita’s Premera Roṣa (loving anger). Throughout the manifest pastimes of Mahāprabhu Nitāi and Sītānātha were confirmed the best of friends, it is clear from all the scriptures on Mahāprabhu.

Another common misunderstanding among the scholars, Mrs. Manring included (she suggests so several times in this book), is that Advaita Prabhu was an actual advaita-vādī (non-dualist), although it is said in all the devotional scriptures that He only preached advaita-vāda or jñāna vāda to get a loving punishment from Mahāprabhu. Apparently the academics see this as a devotional embellishment of the actual truth instead of an actual devotional truth. In her description of the passing away of Nityānanda, at the end of Advaita Prakāśa, Mrs. Manring blunders again by suggesting that Vīrabhadra was humiliated by having to serve the leaders of Nityānanda’s group during the viraha utsava. She calls it a ‘subtle attack’ (by Īśāna on the Nityānanda followers), perhaps not understanding that in Vaiṣṇavism service is a privilege and not a humiliation. Her idea is contradicted almost immediately hereafter by the narration of Vīrabhadra Prabhu asking initiation from Advaita Prabhu, and Advaita sending him back to his own mother, Jāhnavā, for dīkṣā instead.

Mrs. Manring also accuses Īśāna Nāgara of making Advaita instead of Mahāprabhu the instigator of the bhakti cult but this is not fair – in all other scriptures, like Caitanya Bhāgavat and Caitanya Caritāmṛta, Advaita is also described as being an active bhakti-preacher before Mahāprabhu’s advent – if He were not so, why would He even have bothered to invoke Mahāprabhu’s advent in the first place? Her claim that some, like Īśāna, have presented Advaita Prabhu as superior to Mahāprabhu in every sense needs to be seen in the context of bhāvollāsa, wherein a devotee develops greater love for an associate of the Lord than for the Lord itself. Several times in her book, Mrs. Manring suggests there is a kind of gender discrimination in that mostly males are allowed to do mañjarī practises, but this is pertinently untrue.

A new controversy for me is the Śrī Advaita Abhiśāpa, ‘Śrī Advaita’s curse’, a booklet written by one Kiran-chand Daraveśa (sounds sahajīya to me), saying that Advaita Prabhu cursed Mahāprabhu for not staying in Nadiya after taking sannyāsa and thus hurting his loved ones. He would have to be born again to satisfy Advaita’s desire for his company. Because He spent 10 days at His (Advaita’s) place after taking sannyāsa in Katwa He would get a ten-generation grace period, and then He (Mahāprabhu) would have to take birth in Advaita’s family. This is a prediction of the advent of Vijay Kṛṣṇa Gosvami, who was born in Advaita Prabhu’s 10th generation. Mahāprabhu, according to this booklet, graciously accepts the curse, saying He can never be without Nityānanda and Advaita and that He will appear in a large form wearing dreadlocks (exactly fitting Vijaya’s description). This story does not appear in any other scripture and could be understood as a glorification of Vijay Kṛṣṇa Gosvami only.

About amplification or ‘accretion’ of the hagiographies, Mrs. Manring writes (p. 200) something interesting:

“Gaudiya Vaiṣṇavas often view such textual accretions not as extraneous padding and certainly not as anything suspect, but as further elaboration of the truth contained in a given work. This elaboration may include exaggeration or even downright creative license to make the author’s point about the stature and status of his protagonist. Such textual accretions are not regarded as dishonest but as reflections of the author’s wholehearted devotion to his subject. Further, the actual author stands to accrue some karmic benefit by contributing to the good reputation of his subject – and by doing so in a way that is clearly not designed to garner that author any fame or other benefit.”

I applaud this but would like to add the condition of rasābhāsa and viruddha siddhānta to it – additions and elaborations are all right as long as they do not contain bogus philosophies or perverted flavors.

Next Mrs. Manring starts reviewing Sītā Caritra, by Lokanath Das (not the famous Lokanath Gosvami), which is intriguing, because I searched for this booklet for long in India without ever finding it. It is filled with anecdotes rather than with a chronological biography, and is a newer text, since it mentions Caitanya Caritāmṛta. In chapter 2 of this booklet Sītā Devī crosses the river to Navadvīpa to visit the newborn Nimāi. She casts a spell over mother Śacī so that she can speak with the baby out of his mother’s hearing. The baby reaches out to Sītā, calling out ‘Rādhā!’ Sītā immediately understands that the infant is actually Kṛṣṇa, but also that he thinks he is in a different time and place, back in the cowherd village of Gokula. Sītā tells Him that she is not Rādhā but the brahmin wife of Advaita, and that He (Kṛṣṇa) is now born in Navadvīpa with a golden body….Nimāi then claims that Sītā is Yogamāyā who precedes Him in each birth (which is more on the mark). Sītā protests, reiterating that she is not the divine Rādhā but simply someone who wants to serve Rādhā’s feet. Chapter three deals with Nimāi’s studies at Advaita’s school and chapter 4 deals with the relationship between Nimāi and Acyuta, Adwaita’s eldest son. Here the story in Advaita Prakāśa is repeated, that Acyuta eats some food which had been meant for offering to Nimāi, but instead of bananas (as in Advaita Prakāśa) here it is cream. In chapter 5 Nimāi leaves Advaita’s home after completing His studies there, and Kṛṣṇa Mishra announces that Nimāi will eventually take sannyāsa and who will be His sannyāsa Guru. Chapter 6 describes how Mahāprabhu, after His disappearance, appears to Sītā Devī and consoles Her. Chapter 7 deals with Nandinī and Jangalī, Sītā-devī’s two male disciples who had a mystical gender change to qualify for dīkṣā from Her. Sakhī-bhekhī-groups try to incorporate Sītā and Advaita into their group by quoting this instance as proof that they are doing the right thing, but of course this is just a special pastime and a special mercy of Sītā devi upon Nandaram and Yajnesvara, men who would otherwise not qualify as Her disciples. It does not set a standard or create a precedent; indeed the practise of cross-dressing has never again occurred in Advaita Prabhu’s lineage. Mrs. Manring writes (p. 204): “When Sītā reminds the pair of the gender requirement for discipleship, the two disappear, returning a short time later dressed as cowherd girls, with braided hair, anklets, bangles, skirts and bodices. They announce that the practise of Rādhā-mantra has affected a sex-change in them. To prove that they are no longer male they disrobe and Sītā sees that they are, indeed, female. So great was their devotion to Her that they were ready to give up their male gender for Her.”

Chapters 7 and 8 are controversial because they conflict with the teachings of Sādhu Bābā that we did not receive Rādhā- Gaura- or Guru-mantras from Advaita Prabhu, while in these chapters Sītā devī is described as bestowing them upon Nandarām and Yajñesvara. Whether this was an exceptional situation, an interpolation or just falsehood that invalidates (this part of) the book is unclear. Later on in the book, perhaps somewhere in chapter 12, a very young girl gives birth to a boy of which she says it is Nandinī’s son, which is strange since Nandinī is supposed to have had a mystical gender change. Afterwards, the boy is never mentioned again, nor is this mysterious story to be found in any other biography of Sītā and Advaita.
In the final chapter of the Sītā Carita we learn of Jaṅgalī’s similar, though even more puzzling experiences. “The local governor… has come to investigate the reports he has heard about this strange woman. Jangali warns the governor that if he touches her he will die. He ignores the warning and commands his attendant to remove the woman’s garment. Jaṅgalī prays to Sītā and then, no matter how much cloth the attendant unwinds from her body, still more remains. Jaṅgalī, good disciple that she is, keeps her mind focused on Sītā’s feet and Sītā, in the form of Jaṅgalī’s garment, protects her disciple… Jaṅgalī’s death-curse then takes effect on the governor – blood flowed from his mouth and his strength drained out of him. He fell to his feet and begged forgiveness and even asks his erstwhile victim to punish him.” Mrs Manring here suggests the governor is a European but I fail to see how this could be, since the British only arrived in India some 200 years later. The final chapter of Sītā Caritra is really undermining its credibility as it apparently gives credence to superstitious myths on the Sundarbans and its ‘protecting deities’ Dakhin Ray and Boner Bibi, that protect travellers against ferocious tigers in the forest. In the story Dakhin teams up with his Muslim enemy Boro Khan Gazi with an army of fakirs to test Jangali and Sītā is supposed to be Devī who rides a tiger (that much is true). Of course this final chapter may have been added to the book later by others. Three chapters are dedicated to Īśāna, who sees Kṛṣṇa in baby Nimāi and wonders what his (Īśāna’s) role could be in Gaura līlā, since Kṛṣṇa had Himself brought all His friends and relatives along to Bengal. Īśāna explains that in Kṛṣṇa-līlā he had been Radhika’s maternal grandmother (Mukherā), who somehow got entangled with all of Kṛṣṇa’s naughty pastimes with the gopīs. Then, when Nimāi takes sannyāsa, he asks Īśāna to take care of His elderly mother and His young wife. So I suppose this is the other Īśāna, the personal servant of Śacī-mātā, and not the servant of Advaita Prabhu. It’s confusing really – were there two Īśānas in Advaita Prabhu’s household then, the servant of Śacī-mātā as well as the Īśāna adopted earlier by Advaita Prabhu, who wrote the Advaita Prakāśa? Or is there only one? Anyway, according to this account, Śacī-mātā and Viṣṇupriyā pass away shortly after Mahāprabhu and Īśāna then turns to Advaita Prabhu and offers his services to Him. He gets ‘bugs’, possibly lice, on his head, that start feeding on his blood, and very much like the leper Vāsudeva, places each of them back on his head if they fall off, afraid they will run out of food. Out of compassion Sītā Devī then places her hand on his head, making all the bugs instantly disappear.
In the following chapter (11) Advaita’s family travels to Nīlāmbara’s house for a celebration with the entire Vaiṣṇava community. Four disciples, including Īśāna and his friend Jānu Rāy, carry Sītā in a palanquin on their shoulders. Jānu wants the two to carry Sītā by themselves so they can get all the credit and Īśāna agrees, though he knows they should not do this. Jānu thinks he will one day be rewarded for the pious deed, but Sītā understands what is going on, gets out of the palanquin, rebukes him and rejects him ‘for contemplating God’s awesome majesty instead of having a more personal relationship with the divine’ (?). Sītā says Jānu’s family will always remain attached to karma kāṇḍa and never achieve pure bhakti. Mrs. Manring suggests that Sītā’s order to Īśāna to marry (again, which Īśāna is this?) is perhaps like a punitive order. As a last act, Īśāna reconciles Kṛṣṇa Miśra with his mother (although the cause of their conflict is not mentioned).

(to be continued........)

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