Does the Chaitanya Vaishnava Movement Reinforce

Or Resist Hindu Communal Politics?

Joseph T. O'Connell

NB. The footnotes for this article are linked to a separate footnote page.

Introduction - Objectives, orientation, rationale
One basic, but, I think, as yet unanswered, question that hovers over the current upsurge of Hindu fundamentalism and communal politics in India is: do traditional forms of Hindu religion on the whole reinforce this upsurge or tend to resist or retard it; or, perhaps, do they have no perceptible impact at all?

Alternatively, and more precisely, one may ask, do the diverse types and denominations (sampradayas) of traditional Hindu religion relate to the Hindu communal upsurge in much the same way, or in differential fashion? And, if differentially, how so? These are not purely academic questions, especially for those who may be anxious over the waxing of communal Hindu religio-political nationalism, but uncertain where to look for effective alternatives.

I do not want to get into here the semantic and conceptual problems of defining Hindu and Hinduism, which could take us far afield.1 This paper focuses, not on Hinduism or Hindutva (the ideologically driven notion of religio-socio-political "Hinduness"). Rather, it examines the religious self-understanding and socio-political orientation of one devotional (bhakti) movement or denomination (sampradaya) within the far wider Hindu religio-cultural and social world, the Chaitanya Vaishnavas (also known as Gaudiya Vaishnavas). Analogous studies might well be done for other bhakti movements, as well as for other sampradayas shaping traditional Hindu religious life. Interestingly, the religious self-understanding of Chaitanya Vaishnavas traditionally has tended not to emphasise the category Hindu, though most devotees, if asked, would consider themselves in some sense Hindu.

 The sketches drawn in this essay of Chaitanya Vaishnava bhakti and of the traditional devotees' typical orientation to socio-political affairs are matters on which I feel reasonably confident. However, I am less confident in estimating how strongly that traditional pattern of Chaitanya bhakti and socio-political orientation is maintaining itself in contemporary India and abroad. I am even less confident in predicting how Chaitanya Vaishnavas will, in the face of continuing controversy, resolve the tensions between fidelity to their distinctive kind of devotion to Krishna and the demands of Hindu fundamentalism and communal politics. Hence, this essay is exploratory rather than conclusive.

In this essay I provide a schematic sketch of Chaitanya Vaishnava devotion (bhakti) and its basic relationship to socio-political affairs. I also consider how this kind of religious commitment, especially if intensified through systematic religious discipline (sadhana), might be expected in theory to reinforce, resist or ignore Hindu fundamentalism and communalism. I then offer my own anecdotal observations and those of another scholar, Klaus Klostermaier, on how in practice Chaitanya Vaishnavas appear to be reacting to recent communal Hindu religio-political initiatives. Finally, I suggest some directions in which further inquiry on these points might go.

Even if the typical response of Chaitanya Vaishnavas to Hindu fundamentalism and communalism can be determined, this need not at all imply that bhakti movements generally (nor all other Vaishnava or even Krishnaite Vaishnava bhakti movements) would relate to Hindu fundamentalism and communal politics in the same way. Further empirical research on Chaitanya Vaishnavas' current socio-political performance, what to speak of that of other Hindu denominations, is much to be desired. I would hope, however, that the ways by which I have analysed Chaitanya Vaishnava bhakti, its distinctive mode of religious community, and how this mode of Vaishnava community relates to Hindu communalism might lend themselves to parallel studies of different bhakti movements and other traditional and more recent Hindu religious sampradayas.

Schematic Outline of Chaitanya Vaishnava Bhakti and its Basic Relationship to Social and Political Affairs
Basic religious orientation of Chaitanya Vaishnavas
The religious orientation of Chaitanya Vaishnavas is very well documented and readily accessible; it need only be highlighted here.2 The Bengali Brahmin ecstatic saint known as Chaitanya (1486-1533) is held by his devotees to be the divine Lord Krishna in the form of perfect human devotee. Specifically, Chaitanya is understood to be Krishna in human form, having taken on the persona of the divine mistress Radha, the ultimate exemplar of loving devotion (prema-bhakti) to Krishna. This loving devotion (prema-bhakti), his devotees hold, constitutes the yuga-dharma, the normative mode of religious practice for the current age, the Kali-yuga. This dharma of loving devotion supersedes in excellence and relativises (though it may not invalidate altogether) other forms of dharma, including certain kinds of Vedic and other Brahminical dharmas. This new dharma teaches that every soul is in essence, even if not behaving so in practice, a dependent servant (and at least potentially a devotee) of Lord Krishna.

Chaitanya Vaishnavas put special stress on the idyllic pastimes (lilas) of Krishna - as baby, little boy and amorous youth - rather than on Krishna the powerful adult warrior/statesman or almighty Lord of Vaikuntha heaven. This distinctive mode of devotion, featuring the gentler, more playful winsome and loving Krishna, is called madhurya (sweetness, delicacy, affection). It permeates the dedicated Chaitanya Vaishnavas' devotional life and affects their orientation to socio-political affairs also.

In congregational gatherings, Chaitanya Vaishnavas are urged to be accommodating, helpful, affectionate with one another. Their ethos advocates humility and non-violence towards humans generally, not just fellow Vaishnavas, and even to animals; they eschew blood sacrifice and the eating of meat. Their festivals, even for the deceased, are joyful affairs (mahotsavas): singing, dancing, decorating images, feasting . . . celebrating with one another the delightful and beautiful pastimes (lilas) and aspects of Krishna with his eternal companions. Similarly, in private prayer and meditation, Chaitanya Vaishnavas cultivate madhurya, as they visualise and savour the sweetness, beauty and loveableness of Krishna engaged in his pastimes.

The heroic events among Krishna's repertoire of sports - including conquest of demons while He Himself is a mere child - they also acknowledge, but do not dwell upon. These glimpses of His lordly power, or aishvarya, remain just that: glimpses, not central foci for celebration and meditation. For, according to Chaitanya Vaishnavas, to allow power, or, to dominate one's devotional life would create distance between Lord and devotee, would overshadow intimacy by awe, would replace delightful spontaneity with dutiful formality . . . which, the devotees say, is far less pleasing to and devotee both.

Basic Socio-political Orientation of Chaitanya Vaishnava Bhakti
Chaitanya Vaishnavas, like so many communities of devotees, maintain a heightened state of affectionate, relatively egalitarian solidarity and ethos with fellow devotees, especially in congregational gatherings. (The notion of communitas, as developed by Victor Turner following Van Gennep, has considerable explanatory value in describing the character of in-group religious attitudes and practices among Chaitanya Vaishnava devotees.) The historical community, or communion, of devotees embraces men and women, brahmanas,sudras and sinners, as well as, in principle, persons outside Hindu society altogether, provided they experience devotion to Krishna.

In the wider socio-political realm, however, as in marriage, business and politics, that special solidarity and ethos may give way to more structured, functional, impersonal relationships, even in dealings with fellow devotees. Chaitanya Vaishnavas typically differentiates the realm of devotional activities from the realm of practical affairs, and they do not (except for a minority of recluses and mendicants) cut themselves off from mundane activities. They are not sectarian, but denominational. That is to say, they constitute a voluntary community, or communion, of persons whose primary religious concern is devotion to Krishna-Chaitanya, but who are expected to behave responsibly in their respective historical socio-political situations.

Certain authoritative Chaitanya Vaishnava writers appealed to the principle of lokasangraha (holding the world together/maintaining the general welfare), a principle also enunciated in the Bhagavad-gita, by way of explaining how to participate responsibly in the environing mundane world without fundamentally violating one's basic commitment to krishna-bhakti. Rather than occasion unnecessary difficulties and distractions, Vaishnavas should put up with less than ideal conditions in the mundane, or laukika, sphere. The Chaitanyaite interpretation of lokasangraha justifies participating in public affairs, even under Muslim regimes (as well as under the British colonial and independent Indian regimes). Chaitanya Vaishnavas may also accede to many Brahmanic ritual-social customs even though these may be judged to be devoid of sacral legitimation in and of themselves. However, if governmental or Brahmanic or other interests were to interfere seriously with their exercise of krishna-bhakti, then devotees would be expected to object and seek redress, preferably through discreet, negotiated settlements.3

A number of Chaitanya's prominent contemporary devotees held important posts in the Muslim regime of the day, either at court or in the revenue collection throughout Bengal. At least one highly placed devotee in Husain Shah's court, Sanatana Goswami, the Sarkar Mallik, resigned rather than participate in an anticipated attack on Orissa, which would have meant devastation of temples there. Many prominent Chaitanya Vaishnavas were comfortable working for the successor British colonial regime.

One matter of principle, however, on which Chaitanya Vaishnavas are expected not to even 'go through the motions' of Brahmanic customs was prayashcitta, a class of purificatory/atonement rituals. As only Krishna can break the bonds of karma, they insist, doing prayashcitta would imply lack of faith in Krishna. On the other hand, various samskaras, life-cycle rituals, could be performed according to Brahmanic or other customary norms.

My reading of Chaitanya Vaishnava socio-political practice and theory is that it implies acceptance of a religiously plural society, with a broad zone of mundane activity that is neutral in religious terms, neither sacred as deriving from any special revelation, nor an abomination for not so deriving. Devotees are expected to act intelligently and responsibly - discerning the demands of lokasangraha (the general welfare) - in whatever social, economic or political situations they find themselves. What they expect of the mundane, or 'secular', realm, is that it function effectively in its various operational sectors; and, of course, that it not violate the free exercise of krishna-bhakti, in public or in private. Within such a laukika, or secular, realm, it was taken for granted that other religious communions too would practice their own modes of religious life, even though more or less lacking in explicit devotion to Krishna.

Application of this basic relationship to recent Hindu fundamentalism and communalism
What does this sketch of Chaitanya Vaishnava bhakti and its socio-political orientation suggest about how devotees might respond to contemporary Hindu fundamentalism and Hindu religio-communal politics?

1. To begin with, consider the focus of Chaitanya Vaishnavas' faith. They are committed in faith to devotion to one personal Lord Krishna, not to Hinduism, Hindutva or the land of Bharata. Moreover, for them the religiously valued community is the trans-temporal communion of Krishna devotees, not a pan-Hindu community or Hindu national state. Rama though revered by them as a lesser manifestation of Krishna, has never been a central focus of Chaitanya Vaishnava piety. Treating Rama as the arch-symbol of Hindu nationalism and the focal point of agitational communal politics is altogether alien to Chaitanya Vaishnava tradition.

2. Consider also the distinctive quality of religious experience cherished by Chaitanya Vaishnavas. To them it is loving devotional feelings and moods, bhavas and rasas, not socio-political interests and enthusiasms, that are at the core of religious life. Krishna is Himself rasaraja, the king of devotional mood; Radha, his beloved, is maha-bhava, the great (amorous) feeling. The whole thrust of Chaitanya Vaishnava literature, collective activities and private religious discipline (sadhana) is to evoke, focus properly, purify and enhance the whole gamut of traditional devotional-aesthetic experiences. To do this effectively, they drew from Sanskrit dramaturgy and poetics, propagated their own rich devotional literature, and institutionalised a complex network of mechanisms designed to foster krishna-bhakti-rasa, permeated by madhurya: sweetness, gentleness, love.

Furthermore, Chaitanya Vaishnavas conspicuously 'failed' - 'declined' might be more accurate - to transform their flexible devotional movement into a structured organisation, refused to define simplistic boundaries as to who is or is not 'within' the movement. They did not allow their devotional communion to become identified with a socico-political power. After the passing of Chaitanya they declined to designate a central leader or governing body-such as might become the focus of power struggles which could rupture solidarity and shatter the mood of bhakti-rasa within the communion of devotees.

Much of current Hindu fundamentalist rhetoric, by contrast, seems bent upon stirring up old resentments and generating new frustration and hostility. Whereas humility and accommodation are virtues in the eyes of traditional Chaitanya Vaishnavas, to Hindu fundamentalists such attitudes bespeak weakness and degradation. Whereas the Chaitanya Vaishnavas systematically avoid what might transform their devotional communion into an ethnic community or mundane religio-political force, Hindu fundamentalists strive to do just that: to weld Hindu religious sentiments into a powerful communal political force leading to a national religio-ethnic state. Whereas Chaitanya Vaishnavas cherish the special refinement and richness of texture of their distinctive mode of loving devotion to Krishna (and to fellow devotees, human and transcendent), Hindu fundamentalists endeavour to supplant the plethora of such sampradaya-specific pieties with a least common denominator commitment to Hindutva (vaguely symbolised by Rama) and to the Hindu nation, Bharata.

3. Further disparities between Chaitanya Vaishnavas and Hindu fundamentalists might be noted, but let us now consider certain points of commonality, or aspects of Chaitanya Vaishnava mentality which might lend themselves to reinterpretation more favourable to Hindu fundamentalism and communal politics.

  1. For one thing, there has long been a Vaishnava conviction that those who molest Vaishnavas deserve the harshest of treatment: the Lord will not pardon one who has molested a Vaishnava-unless the offended Vaishnava first forgives the wrong-doer. In traditional Chaitanya Vaishnava literature, however, this theme is usually illustrated by episodes in which it is reconciliation that results from conflict, not retribution; for, they say, did not Krishna come as Chaitanya to propagate the dharma of loving devotion? Still this theme conceivably could be seized upon and reworked to motivate hostility to secularists, Muslims, Christians or any other hypothetical enemies of Vaishnavas.
  2. Then again, the underlying identity of Rama and Krishna might be stressed to gain sympathy of Krishna devotees, especially nominal devotees, whose knowledge of the finer points of krishna-bhakti is shallow, and whose numbers very likely are growing as modernity wears away traditional knowledge and sensibilities.
  3. There is always the crass, or should we say practical, matter of short- and long-term economic advantage and influence which might well induce Vaishnavas of some prominence to be with the winners, if they were to see the tide turning in favour of Hindu communalist politics. Even Vaishnava leaders who might have misgivings about Hindu fundamentalism and communal agitations might judge that the institutions they represent would be more generously treated by an explicitly Hindu government. And they might be wary of inviting reprisals, if they were known to have opposed an eventually triumphant communalist Hindu religio-political cause.
  4. Perhaps the one aspect of Chaitanya Vaishnavas' bhakti in relation to socio-political affairs that could most facilitate Hindu fundamentalist/communalist initiatives is their traditional preference to not become active in political matters explicitly and publicly as Chaitanya Vaishnavas. This tendency could render devotees less inclined to detect and assess the threats posed by fundamentalist and communalist Hinduism - not only to the secular state in India but to the future of their own cherished mode of loving devotion (prema-bhakti). It could also mean that those Chaitanya Vaishnava spokesmen, if any, who would see trouble in the waxing of the Hindutva cause might find it difficult to make their concerns known promptly and effectively among fellow devotees, not accustomed to think of confrontational politics as pertinent to bhakti.

But at this point let us leave this schematic and somewhat idealised account of krishna-bhakti as related to Hindutva in theory, and shift to the fragmentary accounts of two observers of what is actually going on among Chaitanya Vaishnavas in response to Hindu communalism. As will be obvious, these accounts point up the need for more systematic and extensive inquiries, if anything like a definitive answer is to be given to the question of whether this devotional movement (or any other) tends to reinforce, resist or ignore the communalist Hindu religio-political cause.

Recent Observations on Chaitanya Vaishnava Response to Hindu Fundamentalism and Communalism
General comments
The following remarks derive largely from my own observations during visits to India in October to December 1990 and May to August 1992 and from a published report by Klaus Klostermaier of a visit by him to India in January-February 1992. Most of the time of my visits passed in West Bengal, where the Left Front Government until then had been quite effective in containing communal politics and violence. For instance, in November 1984, when Delhi and some other north Indian cities were the scenes of massacres of Sikhs in reprisal for the assassination of Prime Minister Gandhi, West Bengal quickly snuffed out incipient anti-Sikh violence. Again in the days leading up to the October 1990 aborted attack on the mosque at Ayodhya, there were Hindu-Muslim solidarity marches by left parties, such as those I witnessed in Bolpur near Santiniketan. But, after the December 1992 razing of the mosque at Ayodhya, even West Bengal was not immune to widespread communal violence.

The focus of my visits, however, was the spiritual exercises, or sadhana, of the Chaitanya Vaishnavas, a topic that did not directly relate to Hindu communal politics. Klaus Klostermaier, on the other hand, in his visit to Uttar Pradesh, was directly concerned to document the changes in Hindu religion, especially the politicisation, in the three decades since his own residence at Vrindavana in 1962-64. I also passed a month at Vrindavana in 1990 (and some days again in 1992), situated in Uttar Pradesh, the state most affected by Ayodhya-related agitations and communal violence. Our visits and projects, though not strictly analogous, were closely enough related to allow for some broad comparison.

Vrindavana (and West Bengal) as observed by the author
My own impressions during both visits was that among the Chaitanya Vaishnavas with whom I was in contact there was very little active involvement in Hindu communal activities. Not one of the dozens of public Vaishnava pujas, discourses, kirtans, processions, festivals etc. that I attended so much as alluded pro or con to the Ayodhya struggle, Hindu-Muslim relations, or Hindu communal politics. Only once while I was at Vrindavana in the month after the Ayodhya debacle of 1990 did I hear a loudspeaker supporting the Rama-janma-bhumi (birthplace of Rama) cause, but after fifteen minutes it stopped and was not heard again. Though Hindi and English newspapers available in Vrindavana were carrying quite sensationalist reports and pictures of communal violence, there were relatively few Hindu communalist graffiti to be seen, and little or no evidence of incidents or demonstrations of a communal sort in the town (though the paucity of Muslim residents in Vrindavana would in any event minimise the local pretexts and targets for such things).

I recall quite vividly the day I attended the closing session of Bhagavata Path discourses in nearby Mathura, delivered to an audience of upwards of five thousand outside the Krishna-janma-bhumi (birthplace) temple. Not fifty feet from this new temple (erected since my first Vrindavana visit in 1965) stands a comparably large mosque said to have been erected on the site of Krishna's birth. I attended - in the company of a Gujarati Hindu pilgrim I had met in Vrindavana - with some anxiousness, as it was only a month or so after the October 30, 1990 attack on the mosque at Ayodhya. That Babri Masjid at Ayodhya is alleged by Hindu communalists to have been constructed at the putative birthplace of Rama, using materials from a hypothetical pre-existing Hindu temple on the site. At Ayodhya a number of rioters had attained 'martyrdom' for the Hindu communal cause. The mosque at Mathura, which also may well incorporate materials from pre-existing Hindu, Jain and/or Buddhist edifices is looked upon by some Hindu fundamentalists as next only to 'Babur's Mosque' at Ayodhya as an offence to Hindu religion and self-respect and thus as another prime target for demolition.

My observations at Mathura are fragmentary, as I was present for only the last few hours of a multi-day series of talks. But, while I was there, neither the concluding points of the lecturer nor the closing formal remarks of the organisers made any obvious reference to the Ayodhya struggle or other aspects of the Hindu political agenda that I could notice. The themes were typical Vaishnava ones that I had heard drawn out of the Bhagavata Purana since coming first to India nearly thirty years before. Among the thousands of devotees present, there was no overt sign of awareness of, or hostility toward, the large mosque adjacent to the temple. Police were few, but adequate. There were no slogans, banners or signs hostile to Muslims generally, to the mosque in particular, nor even extolling Hindutva or the Hindu communal agenda. Interestingly, one of the dignitaries present was of the Dalmia family (some of whom had contributed handsomely to the temple at Mathura, and some of whom are prominent in Vishva Hindu Parishad activities). The bookstore in the temple complex - to which I made two subsequent visits for purchase of books on sadhana -offered a variety of Hindu texts, including some on Rama and the Ramayana, but did not seem to be displaying provocative Hindu communalist material.

Is it not striking that barely a month after the Ayodhya debacle, while communal violence was still flaring up elsewhere in Uttar Pradesh, so large and peaceable a Vaishnava assembly could take place virtually in the shadow of the mosque at the Krishna-janma-bhumi, and yet not even allude to the old mosque's presence? Does this perhaps suggest that, where Vaishnava (and perhaps other forms of) religiosity is amply experienced and expressed, there is no deeply felt need to save Hinduism from Muslim or secular threat, nor to restore a Hindu self-respect which had not been felt as lost? One might also suspect that those who plan the strategy for popular agitations and orchestrate riots would think twice about unleashing upon Mathura a potentially destructive campaign to 'liberate' Krishna's birthplace. Mathura as far more real estate and commercial interests that would be at risk, as well as more religio-cultural involvements by prominent Hindus, I would estimate, than did far-off Ayodhya, a more expendable field of battle.

At no time during my Vrindavana visit did any Vaishnava sadhu or layman with whom I was discussing Vaishnava practices bring up on his own initiative such matters as the Ayodhya struggle and the need to protect Hinduism, or express antagonism against Muslims and Indian secularism. But, as my project was to learn about Vaishnava sadhana, this is perhaps not surprising. But even in conversations overheard on the pilgrimage train to Puri or in the slack periods of the day while staying at ashrams and other Vaishnava institutions, these issues hardly surfaced. Perhaps some of the same individuals, if sequestered with persons they knew and trusted, or if gossiping at work or leisure over tea, would have talked a different, more political or communal line than when on pilgrimage or at an ashram, I cannot say. But if they did harbour Hindu communalist concerns, they did so in a mentally compartmentalised way, neither integrating such concerns into their explicitly devotional life, so far as I could see, nor trying to draw inspiration or legitimation for communal Hindu agitations from krishna-bhakti.

On the few occasions when I did turn discussion to the current communal strive, the most common reaction was to lament it and write it off as 'politics'. Some of my interlocutors, however, confided that Muslims had indeed been getting favoured treatment and that it was hard to be Hindu publicly even in India. On one occasion at Vrindavana, I did inquire of the secretary of an elderly babaji his views on the Ayodhya struggle. Without noticeable rancour, he said that the Muslims had done destructive things in the past and were presently being favoured - precisely the themes upon which the Hindu communalists harp and which can be used to stimulate and condone violence. In his case, I did not detect any interest in pursuing the communal agenda: the one practical project he was committed to was distribution of his guru's many devotional publications.

By and large, I did not detect among Vaishnavas much sympathy for Muslims as a threatened minority, even when communal violence was being wreaked disproportionately against Muslims in the fall of 1990. That Muslims were in fact disproportionately the victims may not have been common knowledge. Neither the secular governing interests (sensitive to foreign perceptions and anxious to avoid yet more reprisals that are violent) nor communal Hindu interests (intent upon painting Muslims as the villains) were keen to highlight the extent of Muslim victimisation. On the other hand, I did not detect among the Vaishnavas I was associating with much real anger aimed at Muslims, or at secular interests for that matter. Nor did my interlocutors express any sense of religious duty, least of all any Vaishnava imperative, to mobilise Hindu communal interests against Muslim or secular threats. There simply did not seem to be much concern or urgency over the whole communal upheaval in the Chaitanya Vaishnava ashrams I visited in West Bengal and Vrindavana during my last two trips to India.

Among Chaitanya Vaishnavas, especially those in Bengal, the overall impression I received was that what they considered important religiously, that is, krishna-bhakti, was somehow insulated from whatever was going on in the turbulent world of Hindi belt politics and religio-political agitation.4 Pursuit of krishna-bhakti typically seems to have fostered a tendency among those especially devoted to turn away from the allurements and the pain of the mundane world to seek the bliss of Krishna's pastimes. One may, as a devout Vaishnava, retire or go on pilgrimage to Vrindavana to leave behind such worldly distractions. But counter-balancing this tendency are other Vaishnava norms to the effect that one must not shirk one's duties, that one should not rush into celibacy, and so on. The pertinent ideal norms for the Vaishnava devotee-citizen are ambivalent and call for responsible decision.

Chaitanya Vaishnavas' practice and discourse in the early 1990s continued to be conducted within the basic symbolic patterns of krishna-bhakti and the devotional communion. Krishna-Chaitanya bhakti as such is highly distinctive and refined in its symbolism and terminology and approved repertoire of devotional feelings. Little of this traditional refinement and delicacy of feeling can be found in what we are seeing of current Hindu communal religio-political agitation. I have yet to encounter in written form, in public discourse or private communication anything resembling a serious theological (better 'ideological') reinterpretation of the specific symbols and teachings of the Chaitanya Vaishnava tradition designed as an explicit legitimation of Hindutva (ideological 'Hinduness') and the communalist Hindu religio-political campaign. This does not mean that there will not be (or may not be already in existence but unknown to me) such ideological reinterpretations of Chaitanya Vaishnava myths, symbols, doctrines and denominational history in the interests of Hindutva. But such reinterpretations of Chaitanya Vaishnava thought, if they do eventually come to the fore, will be doing so in the wake of, not the vanguard of, the communalist campaign for Hindutva.

Vrindavana as observed by Klaus Klostermaier
By contrast, Klaus Klostermaier, reporting on his visit to India in January-February 1992 for research on religious change, encountered what he considers evidence of a shift toward Hindu communal politics even among Chaitanya Vaishnavas in Vrindavana and the surrounding Vraj area.5 His report is part of a three year research project on 'History of Vaishnavism in Uttar Pradesh since 1947.' He observes Hindu communalist Vaishnavas and others are overlooking the differences between sampradayas in favour of pan-Hindu political action.6

Klostermaier, it may be noted, also uses the term 'denominational' in referring to traditional sampradayas, but with denotation and connotation markedly different from what I, following sociologists Ernst Troeltsch and Talcott Parsons, am using for 'denomination'. For Klostermaier, the denomination is intolerant, intent upon imposing its position on others: 'Denominational religions likewise have predominantly partisan interests; they want to see their particular doctrines adopted, their sectarian expressions of religion imposed upon people, their numbers of followers increased.'7 'Denomination', as the sociologists I am following in this regard use the term, means a religious group, the membership of which is voluntary (at least in principle), and which group (in contrast with a 'church') does not claim to control the social and economic-political life of the region in which it is present, nor does it (in contrast with a 'sect') urge its members to withdraw from social and economic-political activities of the region.

Klostermaier also notes that the ideal of the sannyasi as withdrawn from mundane life is being replaced by one which places the sannyasi in the forefront of even the political dimension of the Hindu jagaran, 'Hindu awakening'. He notes in particular how Vivekananda and Gandhi are seen as prototypes for this modern merging of asceticism and religion with politics, though in ways different from how Gandhi, if not Vivekananda, would have done it. Alluding to the non-violence and humility traditionally attributed to Vaishnavas, he writes pointedly: 'A rather radical rethinking and readaptation may be necessary in the context of Vaishnavism.' 8 That such a 'radical re-thinking and re-adaptation' might indeed be required reinforces my hypothesis that bhakti movements, especially Vaishnava ones, may be so different in values from the Hindutva cause as to provide resistance to the spread of Hindu communalism - unless, of course, they give up their distinctiveness, in effect cease to be the kinds of devotional sampradayas that have been till now. Klostermaier makes the following observations:

Objectively speaking, the rhetoric of today's RSS is much more restrained as compared to that of 'guru' Golwalkar and 'Vir' Savarkar. . . To the credit of RSS and VHP representatives whom I met, it must be said that they are intelligent, upright and purposeful persons. They know their Indian history, they have a keen eye for the ills under which India is suffering, they have a strong commitment to the well-being of India . . . Whether one likes it or not, there is no doubt that most of Indian culture is Hindu culture . . . A society has no doubt the right to defend its own culture . . .
And here we have to sound a warning note. If Hinduism becomes intolerant it will lose its own soul and be little more than an ideology, an instrument in the hands of unscrupulous politicians . . . Religion instead of acting as the independent arbiter of public life, the conscience of a people, will be part and parcel of the oppressive system itself and will sell its soul for the sake of power.9

Klostermaier, it should be noted, does not make explicit how extensive is the base of empirical evidence on which he is generalising; nor is it altogether clear whether his more general observations apply equally to Vrindavana and Uttar Pradesh as a whole. His Vrindavana evidence per se cited in the article in question focuses on two individuals and their immediate associates: the late Swami B. H. Bon Maharaj, founder head of the Institute of Oriental Philosophy, at whose ashram Klostermaier lived in 1962-64; and Padmanabha Goswami, currently a hereditary priest at he Radharamana temple.

Swami Bon, whom I also met several times between 1965 and 1978, was an East Bengali Brahmin disciple of Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, founder of the revivalist Gaudiya Math (and thus a guru-brother of Swami A. C. Bhaktivedanta, founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness [ISKCON]). He was a talented and strong-willed man, a disciplined ascetic, an articulate intellectual keen to see Vaishnava theology at the forefront of modern religious thought in India and worldwide.10 Swami Bon's main scholarly publication, done with the aid of another scholar, was an English translation of the first quarter of Rupa Goswami's Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu, with paraphrases of several commentaries.

When the Gaudiya Math ruptured upon the death of its founder, Swami Bon joined none of the hostile factions, but settled at Vrindavana, where he eventually built his own ashram with Krishna temple and a samadhi temple for himself. He also ran a school for boys at Nandagram, not far from Vrindavana. He had wanted to found a Vaishnava (not Hindu, it may be noted) Theological University at Vrindavana, but his vision was cut down to the size of a small college under the University of Agra. It was called the Institute of Oriental Philosophy, however, as it included a small, not very productive, post-graduate research section.

I stayed briefly at Swami Bon's ashram twice in 1965-67 and again in 1975. He once stayed at our home in Toronto for a few days in the mid 1970's. We last met during Gaura-Purnima (Holi) at Sri Mayapur, West Bengal in 1978, not long before his death. His Toronto visit was part of a North America tour to generate support for his last grand project: a Vrindavana-based institute for advanced studies in religion, replete with endowed chairs for distinguished scholars of various religions. Like some of his other more ambitious schemes, it did not come to fruition.

Swami Bon, though he had spent several years of voluntary austerity in an underground cell, had a public and even political side to him. He once served as president of an all-India sadhus association, and even stood (unsuccessfully) as a Lok Sabha (parliament) candidate of the Ram Rajya Parisad, a Hindu party headed by a Vaishnava ascetic, Swami Karpatri. According to Klostermaier, there were in the early 1960s several members of the Hindu nationalist RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh/ National Volunteer Corps) on the staff of the Institute of Oriental Philosophy, but he does not say that Swami Bon was ever an RSS man. 11 Klostermaier recalls how Swami Bon used to rant against the 'atheism' of the Nehru Government-perhaps reflecting disappointment that his envisioned Vaishnava Theological University was being thwarted, a theme I too recall him voicing.

Klostermaier's other example of Hindu communal politics among Vrindavana Vaishnavas is Padmanabha Goswami, one of a large lineage of hereditary priests of the Radharamana temple. These Goswamis are descendants of the priest deputed by one of Chaitanya's learned disciples, Gopala Bhatta, to serve his consecrated Krishna murti (image) named Radharamana. I do not recall having met or heard of Padmanabha Goswami and do not know how much he maintains the devotional and cultural traditions of a Chaitanya Vaishnava Goswami. When asked by Klostermaier in 1992 about the RSS in Vrindavana, Padmanabha was initially 'taken aback'; but then he took Klostermaier into his confidence. He told him that 'he himself was the local RSS chief, an active member of the Vishva Hindu Parishad . . . and that he was also involved with the Bharatiya Janata Party, which had recently organised the Ramitula Yatra, during which he (Padmanabha) had been arrested and then released on Government orders.' 12 Padmanabha showed Klostermaier documents and publications of the Hindu communalist organisations, briefed him on coming events in India and abroad, and had him address a meeting of RSS and VHP members.

Subsequently, Padmanabha took Klostermaier to meet Swami Vamadeva, founder of the Akhil Bharatiya Sant Samiti, and Swami Muktananda, the current Secretary General of the Samiti. Swami Vamadeva is of a Dasnami order, often considered theological adversaries by Vaishnavas like the Chaitanyaites. This prompted Klostermaier to observe:

While the more conservative among the Vaishnavas in Vrindaban consider the increasing influx of 'Mayavadis' as unwelcome and objectionable, people like Padmanabha Goswami . . . appreciate the strong political leadership provided by men like Vamadeva and Muktananda, their eloquence on behalf of the Hindu cause, and their unequivocal hostility towards the 'secular' government.13

Comparative Assessment and Suggestions for Further Inquiry
What then is really going on among Chaitanya Vaishnavas in Vrindavana, their main centre outside Bengal? Are they generally becoming Hindu communalists? Or are 'the conservatives among them' (those for whom religion still means krishna-bhakti in the distinctive Chaitanya Vaishnava mode) retaining their influence and the integrity of their kind of bhakti? Klostermaier's portrayal of 'the new dharma of Braj' suggests that there is indeed a major shift going on in Braj, from traditional to modern, from apolitical to political, from specifically Vaishnava to generically Hindu, from non-violent accommodation to violent confrontation. This may or may not be the case, but persuasive empirical evidence of such a shift is yet to be supplied.

Apart from Padmanabha Goswami, the only Chaitanya Vaishnava of any prominence at Vrindavana identified by Klostermaier as involved in Hindu communal politics, namely Swami Bon, has been dead for fifteen years; and the high point of his involvement was back in the 1950s. Thereafter it was theology and comparative religious philosophy that he was promoting, not religio-political theology and partisan politics. Moreover, it was specifically Chaitanya Vaishnava theology that was at the centre of his theological-cum-philosophical projects, not generic Hinduism, let alone ideological Hindutva. Swami Bon could as well be characterised as moving away from religious politics and communal Hinduism for the last thirty years of his life, though he still wished to see Vaishnava and other modes of religious life more prominent in Indian and world affairs. The Swami remained critical of incompetence, corruption and 'atheism' in high places. But I find it difficult to imagine him condoning the vulgarity and barbarism of recent Hindu communal political agitations.

We have as yet no adequate evidence of trends within the Vrindavana Vaishnava population, though one may suspect that trends toward greater Hindu communalism, so evident elsewhere in Uttar Pradesh, are at work in Vrindavana itself, especially among the many individuals who are there by birth, rather than by devotional choice. But this too remains conjecture in the absence of empirical study. However, it does seem to me to be both interesting and important-on theoretical as well as practical grounds - to ask whether the concentration of Vaishnava devotees of Krishna (from the Chaitanya sampradaya and several others) at Vrindavana correlates with greater reinforcement of or more resistance to Hindu communalism (or shows no significant difference) when compared with other towns of comparable size in Uttar Pradesh, but without such a concentration of traditional religious personnel and institutional resources.

It might also be informative to compare the respective attitudes toward Hindu communal politics in towns or cities held to be especially sacred respectively by each of several different Hindu denominations or sampradayas. If it could be determined that Vrindavana, or any other towns where the 'density' or 'intensity' of a bhakti movement is very high, has a significantly greater resistance to Hindu communalism, it might point to an as yet under-appreciated and under-utilised source of resilience on the part of traditional Hindu socio-cultural and religious system, with its pluralistic, accommodating, even 'secular' (in sense proposed earlier in this essay) characteristics. If the correlation should prove to be otherwise, so also, of course, would the implications be otherwise.

Finally, to generalise the issue, it would seem to me to be useful to do a study of those 'religious' individuals and institutions most prominent in the Vishva Hindu Parishad (and any other Hindu communalist organisations) to determine just what is the distribution of Hindu sampradayas to be found therein. How representative of, and influential in, the respective sampradayas are the individuals who are (or appear to be) representing the sampradayas in these communal organisations? Does the representation of sampradayas as found in such Hindu communalist organisations more or less reflect the distribution of sampradayas in the country (or region) as a whole? If not, what are the correlations between particular sampradayas and participation in Hindu communalist organisations? If any striking correlations, high or low, of particular sampradayas with participation in the communalist organisations emerge, then these cases might be selected for more intensive study to discover why there is such unusual involvement or non-involvement in (or overt opposition to) Hindu communal politics. Whatever may be the case with other traditional bhakti sampradayas, it would be very surprising to me if, upon more thorough scrutiny, the Chaitanya Vaishnavas were to emerge as at all prominent in the current surge of Hindu communal politics. On the other hand, whether they have (or are likely to) put up serious resistance to that surge is another question, one well worth further inquiry.

This article was originally published
in the '
Journal of Vaishnava Studies', Vol. 5, No.1
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The Alchemical Body

Author: David Gordon White
Publisher: The University of Chicago Press Ltd., London, 1996
ISBN: 0-226-89497-5 (cloth)

The Alchemical Body excavates and centres within its Indian context the lost tradition of the medieval Siddhas. Working from a body of previously unexplored alchemical sources, David Gordon White demonstrates for the first time that the medieval disciplines of Hindu alchemy and hatha-yoga were practised by the same people, and that they can only be understood when viewed together.  White opens the way to a new and more comprehensive understanding of medieval Indian mysticism, within the broader context of South Asian Hinduism, Jainism and Islam.


Themes and Issues in Hinduism

(A volume in the World Religions: Themes and Issues series)
edited by Paul Bowen
Publisher: Cassel (London and Washington)
First published 1998
ISBN 0-304-33850-8 hardback
ISBN 0-304-33851-6 paperback

This book offers useful insights into the complex and internally diverse realm of Hinduism. It is intended to acquaint the reader with themes and issues that, while of relevance to all religious traditions and systems, contribute to an understanding of the abstract nature of Hinduism as a whole. Beginning with Hindu religious understandings of the human condition, the chapters are arranged so as to form a thematic survey and overview of Hindu religious beliefs and practices. The themes of morality and ethics, the role of women in Hinduism, the Hindu religious construction of nature, and issues such as mythology, the status of texts, forms of worship, and sacred time and place can be systematically considered; or, alternatively, focus can fall upon those topics that are of particular personal interest. Readers should find this book a wide-ranging and balanced introduction to Hinduism's inner diversity.

Written for students of comparative religion and the general reader, and drawing on the chapters originally edited by Jean Holm and John Bowker in the Themes in Religious Studies series, the volumes in World Religions: Themes and Issues explore core themes from the perspective of the particular religious tradition under study.


Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: The Ten Mahavidyas

Author: David Kinsley
Publisher: University of California Press Ltd., London, 1997
ISBN: 0-52020498-0 (cloth)
ISBN: 0-520-20499-9 (pbk)

What is one to make of a group of goddesses that includes a goddess who cuts her own head off, a goddess who sits on a corpse while pulling the tongue of a demon, or a goddess who prefers sex with corpses? Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine deals with a group of ten Hindu Mahavidyas, who embody habits, attributes or identities usually considered repulsive or socially subversive.  It is within the context of tantric worship that devotees seek to identify themselves with these forbidding goddesses.  The Mahavidyas seem to function as 'awakeners' - symbols that help to project one's consciousness beyond the socially acceptable or predictable.

Kinsley not only describes the eccentric qualities of each of these goddesses but seeks to interpret the Mahavidyas as a group and to explain their importance for understanding Tantra and the Hindu tradition.


Hinduism for Our Times

Author: Arvind Sharma
Publisher: Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1996
ISBN: 0-195-63749-6

No religion ever remains static: it affects and is in turn affected by material reality.  It is the creative tension embodied in this dynamic which makes the world of religion, rich with possibilities.

This book examines the contours of this creative tension in the context of Hinduism in our own times. For Hinduism, a religion of unknown antiquity is also, in several ways, surprisingly modern. Hinduism for Our Times is an attempt to raise this dimension of Hinduism to an unprecedented level of self-awareness.  Thus the choices that Hindus must make in the context of modernisation and globalisation become conscious as opposed to random choices, choices which will place Hinduism at the cutting edge of the contemporary world instead of consigning it to the periphery.  This book will appeal to all those interested in giving religion a modern agenda.


A Hare Krishna at Southern Methodist University

Author: Tamala Krsna Goswami
Publisher: Pundits Press, Dallas
ISBN 0-9643485-2-7

A Hare Krishna at Southern Methodist University is a collection of award-winning essays mapping the convergence of East and West by Hare Krsna leader Tamala Krsna Goswami. Readers are invited to enter the world of a unique spiritual pioneer, who in reality is the seeker in all of us.

Essays include:
  • Destiny of the Soul
  • From Faith to Reason
  • The Perils of Succession
  • Rights of Passage Revisited
  • A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Nirvana
  • What It's Like to Live Now
  • Six Myths of our Time
  • Our Ecological Crisis
  • I Have My Doubts