Hold Your Breath or Embrace the Process: The Bhakti and Moksha Feast of Rama, Rhada, and Ramprasad
In March of 2002, “vengeful Hindu mobs burned Muslim homes” and ended up killing over three hundred people in Gujarat, India (Dugger 1). In 2002 Muslims launched a terrorist attack on a Hindu train traveling to Ayodha; Hindus responded with retaliatory riots. These Muslim attacks on the Hindu train, however, were retaliatory in themselves; because Muslims were responding the demolition of a “16th century mosque that was razed by Hindus in 1992” (Dugger 1). This ping-pong game of back-and-forth retaliatory destruction has become detrimental to both religions by destroying the presence of safety as well as sanctified temples and buildings. Is it possible that such violent outbursts could be prevented with a greater emphasis on dharma and, more specifically, bhakti in the Hinduism faith?
The etymology of bhakti is derived from the word “bhaj”, meaning to share, or to be devoted, to love” (Eck 103). In other words, it is the devotional sharing of love to a God, or “the heart’s attitude toward devotion and love toward the lord” (Eck 103). The Bhagavad Gita and the Ramayana have their differences; the Bhagavad Gita is commonly considered to be more of a Machiavellian-like text, emphasizing power and schisms, while the Ramayana emphasizes dharma, duty, virtue and family. Even though they were written over two millennia ago, both these texts play a monumental role in defining the mythology, stories, history, and lessons of bhakti today.
The key message of bhaktiyoga in the Bhagavad Gita is that one must practice the devotion and the love without expecting or having attachment to the fruits of honoring Krishna. Lord Krishna reminds us that “no effort in this world is lost or wasted; a fragment of sacred duty saves you from great fear” (Miller 35). If interpreted as a reference to bhakti, this would mean that the very intention of performing the sacred duty of bhakti, , even if it is a mere “fragment”, would liberate one from their fears. This liberation from doubt and uncertainty through the act of bhakti is precisely what happens to Rhada in his love for Krishna, which will be discussed later.
In the Fifth teaching of the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna asks Krishna if actions are better than discipline and Lord Krishna responds, “renunciation and discipline in action both effect good beyond measure; but of the two, discipline in action surpasses renunciation of action” (Miller 57). Because “renunciation is difficult to attain without discipline,” discipline is vital to the process of acquiring renunciation, and without discipline, eliminating one’s hates and problems via renunciation would be impossible (58). This type of discipline is strongly associated with the devotional discipline of bhakti. According to Krishna, discipline – whether it be discipline of bhakti or dharma – becomes a tool that arms the practitioner, so they can “subdue the self, master his senses, unite himself with the self of all creatures” (Miller 58). Bhakti can dissolve ego, give control of the senses, and make one recognize universality. Both discipline and renunciation, when combined with bhakti, have tremendous significance in shaping the relationship between God and man in the Bhagavad Gita.
At the end of the Ramayana, it was bhakti that made the face of even the most demonic foe, Ravana, become “aglow with a new quality” (Narayan 159). By the time Rama fires the Brahmasthra weapon, Ravana’s layers of “dross, the anger, conceit, cruelty, lust and egotism, which had encrusted his real self” had already been chipped and chiseled away by Rama’s arrows (Narayan 159). After the brittle coating of debauchery and the cracked crust of deceit had been destroyed, Ravana’s “personality came through in its pristine form – of one who was devout and capable of tremendous attainments” (Narayan 159). These incredible attainments and devotional-bhakti were concealed behind the external, grimy crust of malevolence, but the intense devotion had always been there. Because of his patience and insight, Rama was able to see through Ravana’s deceitful malign and recognize his wickedness simply as a sham. Rama saw that deep down, beneath those vile layers, he was a bhakta. Rama was able to have compassion for Ravana and have faith that even those most immoral enemy would be good because Rama, being the ideal king, husband, and man, possessed patience and faith for every human. It’s extremely fortunate that Rama did reach out with his compassion and hang in there because Ravana, the person who maliciously captured Sita, had cultivated bhakti from meditating on Rama and from that devotion, he, indeed, did prove to be good: “his face shone with serenity and peace” (159). Once again, devotion transformed malign into clarity in the Ramayana.
The mythology and lessons of the Ramayana Bhagavad Gita tell us all about the interpretations and usages of bhakti, but one still needs to understand how bhakti is an evolving concept in Hinduism. Juergensmeyer discusses how bhakti was one of the variables that has constantly evolved within the Hinduism faith. He discusses that the devotional-love movements of bhakti were pioneered by “North Indian poet-saints of the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries and by South Indian bards who lived centuries before” (Juergensmeyer 82). Bhakti-devotion to a deity is seen in many different forms, and is something that has adapted and changed throughout time. One of the most interesting portrayals bhakti-devotion is in Radha’s relationship with Krishna, and Ramprasad’s with Kali.
While Ramprasad and Rhada both experience suffering associated from being separated from their respective gods, they each have incredibly distinct and unique interpretations of this experience of samsara, and, consequentially, vastly different perspectives of moksha. In the poetry of “Praise of Krishna”, it is obvious that Radha, like Ramprasad, suffers. Radha is clearly plagued by snakes, darkness, night, and the times when his “feet were muddy and burning where thorns had scratched them” (Dimock 21). However, unlike Ramprasad, Radha recognizes the suffering of samsara as a stepping-stone, and is part of the process, to moksha. It is evident that Radha has this awareness that samsara continues into moksha, when he says, “but I had the hope of seeing [Krishna], none of it mattered, and now my terror seems far away” (Dimock 21). Radha’s fear literally dissolves as his love and trust in Krishna becomes salvation itself. People say that “hope makes a good breakfast but a bad supper,” but here, hope has resilience and it endures. His hope not only pulls and motivates Radha through the suffering of the material word, but his faith actually liberates him so that “all [his] anger is gone” (Dimock 50). In a sense, his bhakti to Krishna delivers him to the “far shore of this sea of conflict” (Dimock 46).
With Rhada’s love and bhakti for Krishna, he doesn’t even have to hold his breath. Instead, he simply transcends suffering altogether by embracing the process and discovering liberation through suffering, and then reunites with Krishna in the trysting place. Radha’s interpretation of the juxtaposition of moksha and samsara insinuates a transiency; samsara is part of the process of liberation. He believes that suffering, if interpreted correctly, can actually become moksha – being almost liberation “disguised as pain or suffering”. This does not imply that all pain or suffering is fallacious or non-existent, but that, with the right interpretational twist, a person can transcend that real suffering and transform it into a freedom.
Ramprasad, and his relationship with the Mother, Kali, however, is not as lucid as Radha’s, and he is deluded by Maya, while being overwhelmed with an emotional angst throughout the poetry of Grace and Mercy in her Wild Hair. Ramprasad says,
“About maya this is the strangest of all – those trapped in it scurry every which way. Those free of it rest contented. ‘I’m this. This is mine.’ Idiot thoughts. O mind, you imagined all that stuff was real and carelelessly entangled the heart!” (Nathan 38).
Clearly, Ramprasad recognizes and is affected by these illusions that entangle him in tormenting problems.
Throughout the poems, the reader is positioned at a unique vantage point to witness Ramprasad being affected by these illusions. From this “omniscient crow’s nest”, the reader, endowed with an outside perspective, can observe can observe Ramprasad being deluded by maya, even though he may not know he is experiencing an illusion. An example of an unclear, deluded moment was when Ramprasad says, “I’m sweating like the slave of an evil spirit” (Nathan 12). Later, he says, “Mind – no one’s anything to anyone” (Nathan 13). These are not exactly lucid thoughts. Instead, they seem to be quite obfuscated – thoughts reminiscent of being deluded by illusion.
Additionally, Ramprasad’s poetry is strongly emotional as opposed to being divine. In some parts of the poem it appears to be just a common, everyday conversation between a bickering, needy adolescent and his occasionally nude mother. There is an interesting inconsistency between the grand reverence of Kali by all the other gods and the simplicity and plainness of Ramprasad’s request for Kali’s affection. To the Gods, Kali’s very “name is the only freedom,” but Ramprasad, at times, simply just thinks of her as a mother (Nathan 6). While Ramprasad recognizes Kali’s divinity and omniscience, he clearly is more interested in simple love and affection, or at the least, recognition from his mother.
Ramprasad has the power to vindicate himself because he, in part, has created his own imprisonment. The bulk of his imprisonment is based on his inability to be at peace with mind, Maya, and material possessions. Ramprasad has allowed his mind to deplete his essence: “mind, you gambled and lost everything so how do I move now?” (Nathan 22). Furthermore, in his discussion of Maya, he asks, “who am I? Who is mine? Who else is real?” showing that his inability to relinquish Maya has demolished his identity. Finally, he is consumed by material possessions when he talks about beauty living “in a pleasure house” and being “lured” into the world” (Nathan 8). Ramprasad experiences bouts of disparity and lack of clarity, but he also can be incredible wise and illuminated at times, too.
Amongst being partially deluded at times, one can witness him flickering in and out of awareness with crystal-clear alacrity. Towards the end of the poems, he eliminates the “wine of desire” and “begging door to door” (Nathan 47). Clearly, the curtains of moksha open for split second, and Ramprasad mitigates some of the habits that entangle him in suffering. He is, at times, no doubt deluded by mind and illusions, but he experiences incredible awareness and displays the capacity to truly free himself. During those times of illumination, he knows what to do and executes it with incredible tenacity. He is aware of the deception of illusions and even says, “I’m not going to be fooled anymore” (Nathan 47). Additionally, he’s aware and is “light of the passions that almost sank me in the poisoned well” (Nathan 47). Ramprasad makes his relationship with Kali extremely bleak and full of despair, but he is aware of his possession of knowledge and knows how to truly utilize his mind to liberate him “into the saving waters” (Nathan 65).
The poetry of Kali is not about Ramprasad’s trials and tribulations, but rather his respect of Kali and struggle to free himself from being overly self-conscious. When Ramprasad describes his mother running around naked, he is at first, offended: “Why are you naked again? Good grief, haven’t you any shame…don’t you have any clothes” (Nathan 40). But even though he may have initially taking offense, Ramprasad is captivated by Kali's ability to obliterate being overly self-conscious. In her nakedness she has a tremendous presence of self-confidence that makes her “necklace gleam,” so that “even Shiva fears [Kali] when [she’s] like this” (Nathan 40). While Ramprasad often awe-struck with admiration for Kali’s demolition of inhibition and doubt, he is not jealous. Ramprasad still considers Kali to be close to him, and simply has maternal respect for the deity.
Rhada recognizes the contingency of samsara into moksha, while Ramprasad detrimentally sees both concepts as separate entities. Rhada, unlike Ramprasad, would see the samsara of “being born in 8 million forms” as part of the liberation process (Nathan 8). However, Ramprasad does have moments of illumination and respect for Kali, even though he primarily interprets interactions with Kali as snares of entrapment or the prolongation of suffering. Ramprasad looks at the prolongation of distance between he and Kali as suffering, but Rhada deals with the prolongation as something that will make the union with Krishna, all the more spectacular and freeing. This is kind of similar to the concept of fasting. One can interpret fasting the “Ramprasad-way” -- as suffering, starvation, and torment -- or the “Rhada way”-- as something that makes the final feast so much more enjoyable because of the building anticipation. The latter method allows one to not only enjoy, but to respect the fasting process (or the duration of time away from God), and through that appreciation, generate liberation.
In his discussion of new patterns in Hindu traditions involving bhakti, Ted Solomon talks about a shift in the methodology of Brahmin practitioners. Solomon writes, “Orthodox Brahmins traditionally committed to the paths of ritual observance and of knowledge are turning to the path of devotion” (Solomon 32). Even the most converntional Brahmins, typically gravitating to the knowledge-based path, are realizing the significance for the poignant path of love and devotion. They do not abandon their traditions nor discard knowledge, but embrace a more wholistic pursuit involving the essentiality of bhakti. Embracing more paths of bhakti, as opposed to solely paths of knowledge impact culture as well: “modern cultural performances, such as concerts, ballet, and dance-drama, ‘gain their deepest significance for Indians and expressions of devotion’” (Solomon 32). So even today, the practice of bhakti is shifting and undergoing altercations within the different varnas, just as it was shifting around the 1600s with the North Indian poet-saints. Hopefully, with greater attention to the scriptures and the detailed duty of dharma and compassion derived from bhakti, there will cease to be episodes of violence like the 1992 riots. Furthermore, instead of a neutral position, simply one of cessation of violence, hopefully more people will practice bhakti and embrace the ideals of Rama and the appreciations of Rhada to not simply find liberation, but to have faith, despite outward appearances, in the intrinsic goodness all people.
Dimock, Edward C. & Levertov, Denise. In Praise of Krishna. London: U of Chicago P,
Poetry of Radha and Krishna.
Dugger, Celia. “Hindu Rioters Kill 60 Muslims in India”. The New York Times. March
Discussion of violence and riots in India between Hindus and Muslims.
Eck, Diana. Darsan: Seeing the Divine Image in India. 3rd ed. New York: Columbia U P,
Interesting interpretations of seeing the divine deity image, darsan.
Juergensmeyer, Mark. The New Cold War? : Religious Nationalism Confronts the
Secular State. Comparative Studies in Religion and Society; 5. Berkeley, Berkeley U P, 1994.
Discussion of violence in religious political groups and the role of bhakti in developing Hinduism.
Miller, Barbara. The Bhagavad Gita. Trans. Barbara Miller. New York: Bantam, 1986.
The Full text of the Gita.
Narayan, R. K. The Ramayana. Trans. R. K. Narayan. New York: Penguin Books, 1972.
The translation of the Ramayana.
Nathan, Leonard & Seely, Clinton. Grace and Mercy in her Wild Hair. Prescott: Homh
Ramprasad’s relationship with Kali in poetry.
Solomon, Ted. “Early Vaisnava Bhakti and Its Autochthonous Heritage.” History of
Religions. Chicago. Chicago U P, 1970. p. 32-38
Interesting discussion of new images of bhakti in Brahmin culture.