June 30th, 2007

Waves of Devotion


By Satyaraja Dasa (Steven J. Rosen)

In this world, there are three major oceans—the Indian, the Atlantic, and the Pacific. Similarly, for me, there are three oceanic books on the science of devotional service, books that clearly delineate the “waves of devotion” according to the teachings of Gaudiya Vaisnavism.

The first of these three books is Rupa Gosvami’s Bhakti-rasamrta-sindhu (“The Ocean-like Nectar of Devotional Relationship”), a sixteenth-century Sanskrit classic1 that analyzes the various stages of bhakti (devotion) as a methodical procedure resulting in love of God. Sri Rupa extends the metaphor of an ocean and its waves (used in the title and throughout the work) to include rasa (devotional relationship), which is envisioned as a liquid. Rasa is thus often defined as “juice,” “taste,” or “flavor,” poetically indicating that it is delectable or thirst quenching. The idea is that the spiritually thirsty can develop their relationship with the Supreme by drinking from its unlimited reservoir.

Krsna, or God, is seen as the akhila-rasa-amrta-murti, the perfect embodiment of all rasas. With this as its central theme, the Bhakti-rasamrta-sindhu explains how to develop all emotions in relation to Krsna, culminating in srngara-rasa, the mood of conjugal love, which was most perfectly embodied by the gopis (the divine cowherd girls of Vraja). Examples of how this is so is found throughout Sri Rupa’s work.

It is with this image of the spiritual realm as an ocean of bhakti, as an ocean of rasa, that Rupa Gosvami divides his seminal work into four parts (vibhagas) entitled Purva (East), Daksina (West), Pascima (South), and Uttara (North), respectively. Each of these parts is further divided into “waves” (laharis), to extend the figurative title of the work. Throughout the massive pages of this spiritual tome, Sri Rupa defines ritualistic devotion (vaidhi bhakti) and the rules and regulations that govern it—he enumerates the constituent parts of Krsna-worship, offenses to be avoided in this worship, the power of God’s name, and how to avoid sins against the name. The text also deals with passionate devotion (raganuga bhakti), explaining how to appropriately follow in the footsteps of one of God’s intimate associates, thereby developing love of God and returning to the spiritual world.

The second in our trilogy of books on bhakti is The Nectar of Devotion by His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. This book is a modern-day “summary study” of Rupa Gosvami’s work, relating in English (and now in many other languages) the essence of devotion as outlined by the medieval author. Prabhupada subtitles his work “The Complete Science of Bhakti-yoga.”

The last of the three books in question has recently been compiled by His Holiness Dhanurdhara Swami, a direct disciple of Srila Prabhupada and an avid student of both Bhakti-rasamrta-sindhu and The Nectar of Devotion. Dhanurdhara Swami’s work, entitled The Waves of Devotion: A Comprehensive Study of The Nectar of Devotion, makes the prior two masterworks more accessible to a Western audience. Utilizing clear, easy-to-understand charts and clarifying concepts that otherwise remain abstruse, the Swami serves both Rupa Gosvami and Srila Prabhupada in an indispensable way. For many, this work will function as an introduction to the prior two books—as a portal, if you will—into their meaning and substance.

According to the rich Vaisnava tradition from which these three works come, the human form of life is like a valuable boat, and the spiritual teacher is compared to a captain (guru-karnadharam) who guides the boat in plying across the ocean of nescience. The instructions of Krsna, God, in sacred texts such as the Bhagavad-gita, are like favorable breezes. One requires all these facilities—a human body, a spiritual master, and the word of God—to cross the material ocean of birth and death. A successful crossing, of course, leads one into yet another ocean—an ocean of devotional love, which is the focus of Rupa Gosvami’s work.

It is interesting that, as important as the Bhakti-rasamrta-sindhu is for the Vaisnava tradition, there is not one complete translation in the English language. Swami B. H. Bon Maharaja, who passed away in 1983, released an English version many years ago, but this was just a translation of the Purva-vibhaga which is less than a quarter of the entire work. David Haberman, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University, has completed his own translation of the text, but as of this writing it remains unpublished. Thus Srila Prabhupada’s summary study is the closest thing to a direct translation that currently exists.

Even when Haberman’s worthwhile translation is released, it will no doubt be true to the Sanskrit letter, but will it be true to the spirit of Rupa Gosvami’s work? Perhaps. But Prabhupada, as a scholar, practitioner (pure devotee), and a disciplic descendent of Rupa Gosvami himself, is a direct link to Sri Rupa’s thoughts and moods. So while some scholars may view Prabhupada’s work as merely that of a devotional “insider,” his insights more likely represent Rupa’s original intent. And many scholars are today appreciating his work in that light.

The direct access of a practitioner is also evident in Dhanurdhara Swami’s book. As a devotee in the line of Sri Rupa, he perceives aspects of the tradition only available to an insider, to someone who is emotionally involved. While it might be said that such closeness to the tradition obstructs the ability to see it objectively—and while there may be truth to this—the subjective experience affords a unique and intimate perspective. A devotee-scholar can penetrate Rupa Gosvami’s work in ways unavailable to one who is merely a scholar.

Prabhupada and his disciple, Dhanurdhara Swami, are not the first devotees to analyze Rupa’s classic work. Bhakti-rasamrta-sindhu has been the subject of several important commentaries. Jiva Gosvami, Rupa’s nephew and disciple, wrote one (Durgama-sangamani), as did Visvanatha Cakravarti (Bhakti-sara-pradarsini), a prominent mystic-poet in the tradition. A devotee named Mukunda Dasa (a disciple of Krsnadasa Kaviraja Gosvami) also wrote a detailed commentary (Artha-ratnalpa-dipika). In addition, Visvanatha Cakravarti wrote a condensed version of the work, called Bhakti-rasamrta-sindhu-bindu (or “A ‘Drop’ From the Ocean-like Nectar of Devotional Relationship”). This latter work has received attention in both scholarly and devotional worlds. One prominent example of each: Klaus K. Klostermaier published an academic translation of this work in The Journal of the American Oriental Society (Volume 94, Number I, January-March 1974) and Narayana Maharaja published a devotional one (Mathura: Gaudiya Vedanta Publications, 1996).

But Dhanurdhara Swami’s work is unique. His focus is squarely on The Nectar of Devotion, only going back to Sri Rupa’s earlier work when necessary and to later commentaries when they elucidate Prabhupada’s summary. Consequently, it is an ideal companion volume for Prabhupada’s work: one who attempts to navigate the complex waves of The Nectar of Devotion will find a much-needed compass in Dhanurdhara Swami’s book.

It must be pointed out, too, that Dhanurdhara Swami rectifies many misconceptions that have plagued learned readers of Prabhupada’s work. He points out that The Nectar of Devotion was transcribed and edited by well-meaning but uninformed devotees, when Prabhupada’s fledgling movement engaged young Westerners who knew little about Vaisnava tradition. The young disciples thus made many errors—mistakes that, while not effecting the overall spiritual message or potency of the book, caused confusion in terminology and concept. Dhanurdhara Swami cites many examples of this in the Introduction and in other chapters of the work.

Among the most serious of these faux pas involves the words raganuga and ragatmika, which the Swami discusses in Chapter Fifteen of this book. Reading The Nectar of Devotion, one might conclude that raganuga is a state of perfection wherein one is spontaneously absorbed in love of God. However, Dhanurdhara Swami points out that this definition is more appropriately applied to ragatmika—a term that is reserved for the eternally free associates of Krsna in the spiritual world. Raganuga, on the other hand, is a form of devotional practice (sadhana) and not a state of perfection. True, one practicing raganuga “follows in the wake” of the ragatmika devotees of the celestial kingdom, but they are practitioners, not perfected beings. It is also true that to follow such ragatmika devotees one has to be extremely advanced.

This confusion in terminology had consequences in the community of Vaisnavas. Sincere devotees interested in raganuga-bhakti (though not practicing it) were often branded sahajiyas (imitationists) because it was thought that they were identifying themselves with liberated beings.2 Dhanurdhara Swami shows that Prabhupada’s usage of the term raganuga in The Nectar of Devotion was non-technical, or even casual, and that Prabhupada himself, elsewhere in his massive literary output, correctly defines raganuga in its most strict sense.

Thus Dhanurdhara Swami’s book serves an essential purpose in contextualizing Prabhupada’s work and in elucidating the highly technical terminology found therein. At the end of his study, he includes four important sections: an appendix on significant Sanskrit terms found in Bhakti-rasamrta-sindhu; a section on the twelve rasas and their components; an elaboration on the texts of Bhakti-rasamrta-sindhu and how they correlate with The Nectar of Devotion; and copious endnotes. In all, this is a highly readable addition to the storehouse of Vaisnava literature, making use of both scholarship and devotion.

Finally, it should be pointed out that Rupa’s rich ocean metaphor can be extended in many ways. For Rupa, among other things already discussed, it allows him to poetically compare practitioners to great sea monsters (makara) who care nothing for the small rivers of liberation—they want only the great ocean of devotion (see BRS 1.1.4). The metaphor goes further: commentators on Rupa’s fifth verse say that he humbly asks for the ocean of bhakti-rasa to appear in his heart so that the sharp tongues of the mimamsakas (dry scholars and logicians), which are like the mythical underwater fire of the ocean (called the vadavadgni), may be dulled. They say that Rupa says this in anticipation of the opponents who might criticize his book. Along these lines, I would like to make a prayer for Dhanurdhara Swami’s work: May those who value this book, or even those who minimize it in any way and for any reason, be drenched in the ocean of divine love, and as a result, be carried away by the Waves of Devotion.

Footnotes1. According to Rupa Gosvami himself (in the last verses of Bhakti-rasamrta-sindhu), the book was completed in 1541.

2. This is not a comment on srila Prabhupada’s criticism of the Gopi-bhava Club, a criticism which, of course, was legitimate. However, if one shows interest in higher subjects in the way that is ordained by the acaryas, when one is ready to do so (which is again discerned by the acaryas) thenone should not be discouraged. Raganuga-bhakti is, after all, an un deniable part of the Gaudiya Vaisnava tradtion.

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