The Education of Human Emotions

Srila Prabhupada as Spiritual Educator

Klaus K. Klostermaier

In this year of Srila Prabhupada's Cententary, we are very pleased to present this analysis and appreciation of his mission by Prof. Klostermaier, who met Prabhupada in Vrindavan in the days before he came to the West. Having seen Prabhupada in the context of Vaisnava-Vrindavan and the mission of the Caitanya movement, he is eminently well-qualified to comment on the significance to the Vaisnava tradition that the message of sankirtan, with all its emotional expression, has been brought to the West.� Prof. Klostermaier presents Prabhupada as a missionary who did not compromise the tradition he came to represent, but who accepted spiritual leadership in the face of 'materialism, consumerism and hedonism'.

I cannot recall the exact day in late 1962 when I met Swami Bhaktivedanta for the first time, but I distinctly remember the place. Swami Bon Maharaj, the Rector of the Institute of Oriental Philosophy in Vrindavan, called me to his office to introduce his gurubhai and to tell him about my background and position at the Institute. I was then around thirty and Swami Bhaktivedanta appeared to me a venerable senior sadhu who was spending the eve of his life in Krsna's Holy City, like so many others.� Since my own office was adjacent to Swami Bon's, whenever he came to visit his gurubhai, Swami Bhaktivedanta would stop by for a chat. He told me about his personal background and about his project to translate the entire Bhagavata Puranam into English in a multi-volume high-quality edition. The first volume was ready and I admired the beautiful production, which by then was exceptional in Indian publishing. He undertook many trips to Delhi to meet with his publishers and he invited me several times to his modest quarters in Damodar Mandir. In my diary I noted on 10 May 1964 that Swami Bhaktivedanta had shown me the second volume of his Bhagavatam translation. We somehow came to talk about the Rama Rajya Parisad, with which he seemed to sympathise. He told me that he wanted to see God established as 'perfect dictator'.� He abhorred Communism because of its atheistic ideology. I do not know whether he talked with Swami Bon about his intended mission to America, and I cannot recall that he ever mentioned it to me. When Swami Bon commented in my presence on the impossibility of raising enough funds for the planned Bhagavatam edition, he certainly spoke out of experience, since he had time and again attempted to elicit donations from friends and well-wishers to keep his institute going.

Swami Bon Maharaj had himself been a missionary of Gaudiya Vaisnavism in India and abroad.� He often reminisced about the exhibition he had organised in Madras and the extended trips he had undertaken to England, Germany, the USA, Japan and Burma to found centres and to preach the message of Caitanya. Swami Bon was a powerful speaker and he had a good singing voice. Much of his biography is contained in several contributions to a 1955 publication Swami Bon Maharaj, edited by Shri Tamalkrishna Dasa at the occasion of Swami Bon's fifty-fifth birthday.[1] There is also a poetic autobiographical booklet The Search.[2] In another autobiographical booklet entitled The Founder of the Institute of Oriental Philosophy[3] he enumerates all the places he visited and in which he gave lectures.

While Swami Bon Maharaj largely tried to imitate Western intellectual approaches to religion, expecting in the process to convince Westerners of the superiority of Gaudiya Vaisnavism, Swami Bhaktivedanta, probably without being overtly conscious of it, remained firmly within practical Indian traditional religiosity and thus helped to focus the contemporary Western search for emotional fulfilment. To do this, he drew on the living resources of the Gaudiya Vaisnava tradition, utilising emotions as instruments to reach personal fulfilment. For those who were wildly experimenting with consciousness-changing drugs inducing short-lived chemically-produced 'highs', he offered a systematic teaching on emotions and a beautiful liturgy to reach a 'transcendental high', to 'stay high for ever' and to become permanently 'God-conscious'.�

A recent issue of TIME magazine carried a feature article which suggested use of an 'EQ' instead of an 'IQ' as the measure of a person's true worth. The 'E' stands for 'Emotion' (especially the control of emotions and emotional maturity). Slowly the ancient wisdom is dawning (even in modern psychology) that emotions, far from being irrelevant and marginal in a person's life, are central and of utmost importance.� Emotions can no longer be dismissed as 'vague', 'subjective', 'fleeting' states of mind without relevance for the 'real world'. Western mainstream religions throughout the past few centuries had tried to rationalise their traditions, to repress emotions and to conduct services like business meetings. Swami Bhaktivedanta went against this whole notion of a religion reduced to unemotional moralising and pragmatic fund-collecting for good causes. He preached a religion that was not afraid of emotions. His religion was full-blooded and demanded full engagement of the whole person.

Swami Bhaktivedanta wanted to mould people according to his own ideal of a God-centred life, and an astonishing number responded. While it emerged in the years to come that full commitment did not mean the same for all, it did include for all mind and body, thoughts and feelings, rituals and emotions. Krsna as the akhila rasamrta murti demands a response from all human faculties and that is what Gaudiya Vaisnavism is all about. While the importance of the emotional dimension in religion had certainly to be argued in the context of mainstream modern Western notions of religion, it has surprisingly also recently become a major issue in India, as Krsna Caitanya's The Betrayal of Krsna shows.

Krsna Caitanya's provocative The Betrayal of Krsna raises many fundamental issues with regard to Hinduism as a whole as well as to many of its sampradayas.[4] �The larger concern ― not to be taken up here ― is the assumption of an original, normative Krsna religion, a 'fundamental' Hinduism, from which later developments strayed. The more limited issue that will be addressed here is the characterisation of Bengal Vaisnavism (Chapter XII) as one of the lamentable perversions of an originally austere religion under the influence of eroticism gone wild. He correctly points out that Bengal Vaisnava literature is enthusiastic to the point of sounding orgiastic. He mentions terms like divonmada, premonada and preme pagal which designate states of 'madness' as seen from the standpoint of the average law abiding citizen. He contrasts this state of mind with his conviction that profound sobriety is needed for true religious experience both for a deep musing on the design of existence and for accepting imperatives for oneself in the light of that design (449). He also complains about the 'noise, literally and metaphorically', which that kind of religion creates, and refers to historic instances of bans imposed on nagara kirtans by the civil authorities.

What Krsna Caitanya says is true of a great many people, but not of all. There are apparently people who are extroverted, gregarious and noise-loving, in religion. However much one might personally prefer to meditate and quietly reflect on the meaning of life, one has to realise that the majority of our contemporaries have other preferences. Should they be shut out from religion? India is famous for showing a great tolerance for differences in religion, allowing a great variety of religions to co-exist side by side.�

From the standpoint of a tradition like Gaudiya Vaisnavism, one could also question the validity of the statement that 'profound sobriety' is the most suitable mood for religion to develop in. Why not exuberance, enthusiasm, intoxication? From the standpoint of the divonmada the 'deep musing on the design of existence' may be a very inadequate response to the revelation of the divine perceived as life, love and bliss. We obviously have a dilemma we cannot solve to everybody's satisfaction. Historically, also in India, ecstatic praise and festive abandon may have preceded quiet reflection and meditation as 'religion'. It is a more likely source of community-bonding and foundation of organised religious activity.

No doubt Krsna Caitanya is right to point out the ever present danger of debasing religion.� However, religion can be and has been debased in more than one way. While emotions may have gone wrong many times in the context of religion, so has reason: the meticulously planned elimination of dissenters, the deadening formalisation of rituals and beliefs, the ice-cold logic of inquisitors, are as much a violation of the true spirit of religion as debauchery and abandon are. In short, no case can be made against Bengal Vaisnavism on the grounds that its basis is aesthetics rather than rational metaphysics, and one would have to judge it by standards other than those of a probably unduly rationalised 'original austere Krsna religion, as Krsna Caitanya seems to see it.

While disagreeing with Krsna Caitanya on some of the evaluations of developments within the bhakti tradition, I nevertheless welcome his attitude of honest self-criticism concerning Indian culture as a whole. 'We have,' he says in one place, 'along with some of the loftiest perceptions of mankind, some of the most misguided philosophising too in our tradition ... ' (p. 469)� I also agree with him when he says that 'we are lost if we do not recognise that there is a lot of tripe in our tradition masquerading as lofty philosophy and reject it outright." (p. 470).�

Krsna Caitanya emphasises the 'pathological excitability' of the founder of Gaudiya Vaisnavism evidenced by his going into a trance at the sight of a peacock and imagining himself in the presence of Krsna at the sound of a flute. Founders of religions often carry features that are 'abnormal' and whose imitation by a large number of followers would create the impression of mental disorder.� Nobody who accepts Buddha as ideal would try to imitate the years of extreme penances that preceded his enlightenment. The average Christian would not think it necessary to literally die on a cross in order to qualify as follower of Jesus. And Muslims are not expected to either parallel the prophetic gift of Mohammed or to imitate each of his actions in real life. Gaudiya Vaisnavas, as we know, were able to found viable communities and to lead humanly fulfilling lives. Their enthusiastic love for Krsna has made them accomplish much by way of building temples, celebrating feasts and creating a rich literature that bespeaks their emotionalism but is otherwise not reprehensible. The emotional, enthusiastic, 'noisy' Krsna-bhakti that Prabhupada brought to the West is not a betrayal of Krsna but a development of the ancient tradition which is suitable for our time.

Centuries of rationalism that have shaped the modern West, have led to an atrophy of emotions in the official representatives of our culture on the one hand and a total debasement of popular culture on the other, where emotions were allowed to deteriorate into animal instincts unbridled by any human disciplines. Science, which dominated intellectual life for the past several generations, eliminated on principle everything that was not 'fact' and that did not follow the logic of its own rationality. Erwin Schrodinger, a Nobel prize winning physicist, once remarked that 'science is ghastly silent about all and sundry that is really near to our heart, that really matters to us. It cannot tell us about red and blue, bitter and sweet, beautiful and ugly, good or bad, God and eternity. Science sometimes pretends to answer questions in these domains, but the answers are often so silly that we are not inclined to take them seriously.'

Obviously, if we continue considering red and blue, bitter and sweet, beautiful and ugly, good and bad, God and eternity, important 'real' life issues, we need approaches other than rationality and science.� Bengal Vaisnavism is one such approach that seems to have worked for fairly large groups of people who were able to realise God the Beautiful. Platonic tradition, too, recognises beauty as an essential aspect of reality, on a level with truth and goodness. The only way to perceive beauty is through feelings, not through rationality. Ideally, the sense of beauty would be integrated into a perception of good and a vision of truth. In reality the balance is usually imperfect and one of these areas is more pronounced to the detriment of the others. Each age also has its typical blind-spot. An overly rationalist age shows a deficiency in wisdom and sensibility. An overemphasis on sentiment will result in an underemphasis on practical reason and ethical consideration.

The 'theologising' of the rasas is comparable to the 'humanising' of animal drives: while humans eat, drink and mate, as animals do, in humans these functions become 'humane', i.e. a means of expressing something higher than satisfaction of physical needs (the symbolism of the 'Last Supper' or of the 'Symposium' goes far beyond calorie-intake and metabolism). Similarly, while love, anger and fear are universal 'secular' human emotions, in a religious convert they are expressions of transcendent experience (the symbolism of intra-divine love and of the 'dark night of the soul' again far transcends suggestions of sexual union or dread of darkness).

Caitanya might not have succeeded in any other age than the one in which he actually lived. The Hare Krishna Movement probably needed exactly the circumstances which Swami Bhaktivedanta found in the New York of the early seventies to develop. Earlier attempts somewhere else to win followers did not succeed. Bengal Vaisnavism is a response to the needs of a particular time and place; other times and other places may demand other responses. But the indisputable fact is that emotions can not be suppressed for ever and eliminated in the process of creating a human civilisation.

The suspicion towards emotions, as representing rationality gone wrong, is endemic in mainstream Western culture. It is shared even by its declared rebels and dissenters. Take Jean Paul Sartre, for example, who had this to say, 'It is constitutive for an emotion that it ascribes something to an object, that infinitely transcends the object. There really is a universe of feelings ... We should speak of the 'universe of feelings in the same way as we speak of the universe of dreams or the 'world of insanity.'

Emotions not only have a reality of their own, but also a logic of their own. It would be self-contradictory to attempt to develop a rational theory of emotional culture: experience alone will be the guide to an emotional systematics. The Gosvamis of the Bengal Vaisnava tradition have provided it in their works, especially Rupa Gosvami in his Bhaktirasamrtasindhu and Ujjvalanilamadi, and Jiva Gosvami in his commentary Locanarocanya. These works come from an 'insider', not only in the sense that he belonged to the Gaudiya Vaisnava tradition, but also in the sense that emotions are looked at from inside rather than 'objectively'. Active participation in, and identification with, the emotions described characterises this approach.

Recognising the 'secular' scale of emotions established by Indian literary and artistic tradition as reflecting 'real-life emotions', the Gosvamis, overpowered by their own experience of ecstatic God-love, inject into it the essence of religiosity. Humans have always identified the ultimate, be it of thought, of power, of virtue, of reality with the divine ― the ultimate experience of blissful emotion is no different.� We have to trust the geniuses of emotion in their own field as much as we trust the geniuses of science or the geniuses of literature in their respective domains. Neither is interchangeable or collapsible into something else. In either sphere we touch something irreducibly human.

One of the frequently heard criticisms levelled at Gaudiya Vaisnavism is that it is lacking an ethic and is also unable to provide a foundation for one. It is correct to observe that the absence of rational systematics would not allow for any kind of philosophical ethic nor would the deity as conceived by them be the source of ethical commands along either the Dharmasastra or the Biblical decalogue. However, the sixty-four elements of worship contain an implicit canon of virtues and vices identified with relation to seva, the central concern of this religion. Thus the Bhaktirasamrtasindhu identifies ten positive precepts for followers of Gaudiya Vaisnavism, paralleled by ten prohibitions. Furthermore, it mentions thirty-two offences against worship. While largely ritualistic, they nevertheless express an 'ethic' and shape the behaviour of the devotee. Like other advanced spiritual teachings it appears to presuppose basic ethics rather than inculcate them and to concentrate on the development of higher dimensions of spirituality. In their everyday lives, Bengal Vaisnavas observe the same basic morality as everybody else and, if anything, show a higher sensitivity in interpersonal relationships, due probably to their intense devotional practice. Swami Bhaktivedanta began his mission in New York by committing his disciples to a basic ethic: not to take drugs, not to eat meat, not to indulge in illicit sex and not to gamble.

The point most often highlighted by the opponents of Bengal Vaisnavism throughout the ages is the exaltation of the parakiya relationship between Krsna and Radha, the divine couple. While there is some difficulty in rationalising that point in their faith, it should be understood that no teacher of that school ever suggested that devotees should imitate this 'mystery' on the mundane level. Practices like the ones that were publicised and condemned in the celebrated Maharaja case, involving members of the Vallabha sampradaya, have been perceived as unorthodox in every sense. Caitanya and his followers have always insisted on the transcendent nature of Krsna lila (in a way parallel to the transcendent nature of the inter-trinitarian Father-Son relationship proposed by Christian theologians).

It was the Bengal Vaisnavism that Swami Bhaktivedanta brought to New York in 1966  and not the Advaita Vedanta which Swami Vivekananda had preached in 1893  that appealed to a generation of Americans sickened by a diet of drugs and sex.[5] God appeared to the hippies and junkies in the form of Krsna and Radha, of kirtans and Ratha-yatras, of temple-worship and joyous noises.

There is a great need today for the specific contribution which Caitanya and his followers made to the culture of their day and age, the education of the senses and the emotions in an artistic as well as a religious sense. Caitanya brought beauty and art to religion and he directed the emotions beyond the merely material objects of enjoyment. To a culture that identified religion uniquely with renunciation, and which condemned all forms of enjoyment as entanglement in samsara, Caitanya announced the message that God was Love, God was Joy, God was Life. To a culture that identified happiness unthinkingly with sense-gratification, self-indulgence and everything that money can buy, Srila Prabhupada preached the transcendental bliss of a God-conscious life. A world in which this God is present in bodily form can not be all bad, all illusion or entrapment. For Swami Bhaktivedanta it was more important to find God in the world than to leave the world in order to find liberation. Instead of writing off the senses merely as doors to hell and to hold sense-objects responsible for all the misery of life, Caitanya (and thus Swami Bhaktivedanta) saw them as doors to heaven and as instruments for spiritual development.

Everything can be exaggerated, and every exaggeration perverts the meaning of an idea or practice. Also emotionalism can be overdone and history has shown that 'love' can degenerate, and that depraved minds can read into religious mysteries a meaning that offends all sense of propriety and decency. However, that is the risk that is unavoidably present as soon as we deal with something humanly meaningful. We need checks and controls, both from within and from without, to make sure that an ideal stays an ideal. Indian literary theory has the principle of aucitya ('appropriateness'), which demands that a statement not only fit into the context of the specific work in which it appears but also into the overall culture, and into general human concerns. This principle has to be applied to religion too. Notwithstanding the unchanging nature of the divine in itself, its expression in human terms and its appropriation in a particular culture require an appropriate medium that is capable of conveying the message to a particular audience.

Gaudiya Vaisnavism can be seen as an 'escape', no doubt. It arose at a time when the condition of most Hindus in India was just about hopeless and when the majority felt powerless to change anything. In such a situation Caitanya and his associates 'escaped' to God into a religion highly charged with feeling and emotion. It had elements of the basic human instincts in it; it used erotic / sexual imagery, movement and dance that lead to a frenzy, it was noisy and went public. Compared to both the traditional smarta way of life and the more contemplative forms of bhakti it was disruptive. Its success had to do with the frustrations that people felt and that could not be dealt with by more 'proper' ways of behaviour.� 'Strong stuff' is required in such situations. Today's alienated and disaffected youth could hardly be impressed by calls to duty and examples of meekness as shown by mediaeval Christian saints. In contrast to the emotion-charged pop-culture of today (in which a surprisingly strong religious element can be found too), which quite often leads to acts of violence and vandalism and in general is destructive and resentful, the emotion-charged movement initiated by Caitanya lead to the creation of a new culture: a whole new town, Vrindavan, owes its (re-)construction and its continued existence to it, with all its artistic temples, images, its rasa-lilas and its pilgrimages, its poetry and its music. In our own time the enthusiasm created by Srila Prabhupada similarly led to the construction of beautiful temples in many countries of the world, the establishing of new communities and a literary culture of its own: the very opposite to the destructive trend so widespread in our present Western culture.

Gaudiya Vaisnavism arose largely in reaction to the dry 'logic-chopping' of the pandits that represented the 'official religion'. People have a heart and when they remember God they want to worship rather than analyse theological language in order to find personal growth and fulfilment. The emotive / affective part of humans is more basic than the analytic / rational and hardly repressible. Affects and emotions are, on the whole, a truer guide to right living than mere rational analysis. They also create a more genuine bond both between humans across cultural and linguistic boundaries, and between different species. They provide a more real connection with the universe as a whole than other human faculties.

To point to Western parallels may not be wholly out of place. Plato and the whole Platonic tradition, which had such a pervasive influence on Western culture, strongly emphasised not only 'Eros' as a moving force but placed the 'good' as the highest being / value, accessible more through the 'heart' than the 'head'. The Platonists and Neo-Platonists, including the Christian ones, taught a 'way of the heart' through which humans could see the ultimate. Augustine coined the famous phrase Ama et fac quod vis ― 'Love and do what you want, convinced that love would not go wrong'. While the word 'love' has been, and continues to be, much misused for all kinds of things, there would be few humans who could not discern the 'real thing' from the wrongly labelled ones.[6]

Beauty plays a major role in Gaudiya Vaisnavism. Caitanya must have possessed an artistic personality, one that was overwhelmed by a sense of beauty, and one that responded to beauty in a total way. Also, Srila Prabhupada had a highly developed sense of aesthetics. Although virtually penniless, he insisted on making his Bhagavatam publication a thing of beauty. His devotees, although personally committed to leading austere and simple lives, have created palaces for God and do not hesitate to surround the deity with luxury. A person can quite literally be obsessed by beauty, and a response to beauty perceived or imagined has something elementary about it. It cannot be fully rationalised; it cannot be fully controlled and it overrides all other considerations. Beauty is its own justification; it does not require an intellectual or a moral reason to exist. People who pursue beauty often appear somewhat odd to those who are lacking that elementary sense: they do things, or behave in ways, that would be considered irrational, even immoral, by the more sober-minded. Caitanya and his close followers apparently belonged to this group of people. It is hard to judge them from any 'ordinary' standard. They appeared crazy to some of their contemporaries; they made noise, they disturbed the peace of ordinary citizens, they used a language that offended the moral sensibilities of many. They were quite literally divyonmada, crazy about God in a way that went far beyond the normal bhakti tradition.

The materialism, consumerism and hedonism of many of our contemporaries is an incontrovertible fact and to negatively contrast our age with that of a more restrained, disciplined, austere character will not do much good. Austerity in itself is not necessarily a virtue and poverty as such is not necessarily desirable.� Nor is enjoyment of life a vice, or being happy a sign of lacking religiosity. If, as theistic religions East and West maintain, everything is either a creation or an emanation of the Deity, then everything must have a divine dimension, and everything must be able to serve as an instrument to reach God. This must be especially true of central human realities and experiences, such as feelings and emotions.

The tenderness with which Gaudiya Vaisnavas meet their God often translates into great compassion and friendliness towards humans and animals. The focusing of all the powers of heart and soul on the embodiment of love should make them forget the petty quarrels and jealousies that normally fill the days of people whose focus in life is their own dear self and its comforts. Caitanya's symphony of feelings performed by religious artists like Srila Prabhupada may, like Mozart's music, belong to a very different age, an age that is irretrievably gone. But, like Mozart's music again, while inimitable and unique as far as the origin and setting goes, it still is capable of stirring human hearts and minds in our age and time. It may not solve any of our mundane problems, but it transposes those able to perceive it, into a world of joy and meaning.


[1] V.T. University, Vrindavan, U.P.

[2] Published by the author, Vrindavan, 1945.

[3] Vrindavan, n.d. (1967).

[4] Krsna Caitanya, The Betrayal of Krsna: Vicissitudes of a Great Myth. Clarion Books: New Delhi, 1991.

[5] See Larry Shinn, 'The Maturation of the Hare Krishnas in America', in ISKCON Communications Journal, No. 3 (January-June 1994), pp. 25-36.

[6] See my 'Hrdayavidya' in Journal of Ecumenical Studies 9/4 (1972), pp. 750-4.