Philosophy of History
Making a comment like "history has decided" indicates a facile and yet sweeping generalization about History, with a capital H. It's a bit funny, because at the same time as the subject came up, I encountered an article by David Greenberg on Slate discussing George W. Bush's concept of history (George Bush, Hegelian). Simultaneously, I am proofreading a dissertation in which someone is attempting to analyze the Krishna consciousness movement using Michel Foucault's historical method, so I am getting a bit inundated with these theories.
In an article I wrote about charismatic renewal in Gaudiya Vaishnavism, published in Bryant and Ekstrand's book, I began by saying that India, with its strong avatar doctrines, would subscribe to Carlyle's famous idea that "history is nothing but the biographies of great men."
This was really a bit more of a hook than a real statement about the philosophy of history. To be more precise, God acts through great men, so that we call them avatars of various kinds, according to whatever typology we happen to be following: it is the divine will that is being exercised through various agents, from kings to creatures. This idea appears in the vibhuti yoga of the Gita (chapter 10) and is made fully clear in chapter 11, where Krishna tells Arjuna: "Time I am, destroyer of worlds... I have already killed everyone on the field of battle. Simply become my instrument."
The opposite extreme to Carlyle's idea in secular philosophy is that there are great forces at work--economic, social, religious, etc.--to which everyone is subject. Great men may affect their times, but they are also products of their times. But in either case of instrumentality--to God or to the forces of History--does this mean that their individuality does not play a dominant role?
This is indeed one big question that underlies questions of guru doctrine. When we say the guru is God, it is actually an offense to the guru as an individual human being to minimize the difficulties of the decision-making process that led to his becoming empowered, as it were. The Bible has Jacob's famous struggle with the angel, or Christ's temptation in the desert. The Buddha was tempted by Mara. Arjuna was in real torment on the battlefield of Kurukshetra; he had to hear from Krishna, weigh the various instructions that were nuanced according to his adhikara; understand his options, hierarchize them in accordance with his understanding of Krishna's will, then acquiesce and act.
When he chose to act, that action was furthermore something that needed to be confirmed at every moment. The assumption is, of course, that once he decided to fight, his training and discipline as a warrior--all the previous samskaras that had brought him to the situation where that particular decision had to be made--kicked in and he was free from the major existential crisis that faced him in the first chapter. Nevertheless, human life is full of existential crises or life crises, which usually come at certain life junctures--adolescence, early adulthood, mid-life, retirement, etc. Whether we are people of faith or not, these are the times, though not necessarily the only ones, when we feel particularly challenged by the Divine Will.
What I am saying, though, is that if we overly "deify" the Guru, we minimize his individual will to acquiesce to Krishna and let his mercy operate through him. At the same time, if we excessively idolize his individual manifestation, we may well miss the transcendental truth that comes through him.
In practical terms, then, when I think about Srila Prabhupada, for instance, I recognize both the power of his individual heroism in bringing Krishna consciousness to the West, of which I am a beneficiary, and also that he was a conduit for Krishna's mercy, thus making it possible for a whole range of Vaishnava sampradayas to become real options for Western seekers. I am on record as having said that all Vaishnavas in the West will be forever indebted to Srila Prabhupada, and as such are under an obligation to recognize that debt by harboring a stance of gratitude, which is the very basis of spiritual life and love. This does not, however, oblige anyone to (1) take up membership in the institutions he, his godbrothers or his guru founded, nor (2) to accept his or their word on siddhanta as final.
As I said in my previous blog, the Guru opens the door to Goloka, i.e., to Vaishnava sanga; Jiva Goswami clearly says that if he closes that door, he is to be served from a distance. In other words, this is a command you can ignore. Vaishnava sanga means the world where a certain dialogue is going on, namely the dialogue on who Krishna is, what prema is, and how to attain them. We all accept the broad lines, but the devil lies in the details, so hang on for all the manifestations of normal human society and politics--alliances, enmities, backstabbing, mutiny and propaganda wars. The real winners will be the ones who have the best answer to the question, "How do we get prema?"
The reason they will be winners is, of course, because they know how to get prema, and presumably they have experienced more than others, and finally because they know how to share it. They will thus have learned the secret to transcending all that other stuff. And, let's face it, though this success will not necessarily be found in externals, enough people are seeking prema that they will be attracted when genuine manifestations of prema appear.
In the last article I also said some things about Satsvarupa Maharaj. I made some remarks about courage and even went so far as to say that his physical problems may have something to do with this. This was rhetoric and not very kind. Of course, I admit to a courage deficit myself, and someone suggested to me that if there really were a connection between moral weakness and migraines, I should have been fully incapacitated by now. The connection is roughly equal to the one between success and virtue: there may well be one, but it is hardly necessary.
Nevertheless, the whole point I am trying to make, and which I believe Krishna is making in Gita 18.66, is that external rules and regulations are only guideposts to the moral law. They are general rules that in the final analysis cannot be taken as the final analysis. The final analysis is intensely personal.
mayAdiSTAn api svakAn
dharmAn santyajya yaH sarvAn
mAM bhajet sa ca sattamaH
Knowing fully both their advantages and disadvantages, one should abandon all personal duties, even if ordained by me, and simply engage in my bhajan. Such a person is the most ethical of all.So I would like to thank Satsvarupa Maharaj for his progressive ideas, when they have welled up in him. I wish for his sake, that he had fully trusted his inspiration to chant more when it came, to associate with Narayan Maharaj and hear prema-rasa katha from him when he had the chance, to experience the personal intimacy of a devotee's love when he was blessed with it, and to explore the meaning of sexuality in Krishna consciousness when the doubts niggled.
The doors he thought that Prabhupada had closed could not be opened for him by the Guru in his heart.
Anyway, I have my own problems, and so I won't blame or condemn him. We all tend to compromise at some point. It does not mean we cannot find happiness. Our adhikara is constantly being challenged by the hierarchy of concepts in the shastra. Total surrender is available to all, but failing that, surrender as much as you can.