THE HISTORY OF INDIC MONOTHEISM AND MODERN CHAITANYA VAISHNAVISM



Some Reflections 1

NEAL DELMONICO

AN ACADEMIC STUDY of the development of monotheism leading to the theology of Sri Chaitanya in the sixteenth century C.E. must be based on a historical and critical analysis of that theology's antecedents in Indic religious phenomena. Monotheism in India, which is unlike that of the Middle Eastern religions, developed slowly over thousands of years in the rich environment provided by a continuous and multifaceted civilization. One must be prepared to sift through over three thousand years of religious and intellectual history, with a huge and rich textual tradition, in order to trace the development of Indic monotheism into the specific forms it took in the sixteenth century. The roots of Indic monotheism can be followed back to the ancient Rig-Vedic vision of creation from the sacrifice of a giant, divine being (purusha) found in a famous hymn called the Purusha-shukta (10.90). That hymn, one of the latest of the Veda, is usually dated to around 1000 B.C.E. This idea of the primordial, dismembered giant gradually developed and transformed into the infinitely divisible, multipersonalitied conception of deity dominant in Hinduism today. A great many other lines of thought have contributed as well to the monotheism of Chaitanya's tradition: the Nyaya sehool's defense of theism from the Buddhist challenges, Kashmiri Shaivism's early development of the implications of tantric practice and thought, and the theistic explorations of the Shaiva Siddhanta tradition, to name just a few. A complete understanding would require a detailed examination not only of the main line of interpretation but also of those less direct lines of influence.

The academie way of looking at Indic theism is problematic for modem members of the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition who wish to see their deity, Krishna, and their scriptures, particularly the Bhagavata Purana, as etemal and unchanging. How can one bridge the gulf between these two points of view? There may be no easy solution for this problem. Nevertheless, it is certain that modem members of the Chaitanya tradition, both within ISKCON and beyond it, must resolve the challenge somehow if they wish to engage today' s intelligent and educated people in any kind of meaningful dialogue. The first step in the process is to articulate the distinctive Indic meaning of "monotheism."
Of course, it is always risky to apply terms developed and used in one set of religious traditions to another set with its own insights, history, and way of thinking and talking about religious matters. Such risk attaches especially to the use of the word "monotheism" in connection with the religious traditions of India. There is no comparable word or conception in any of the Indic languages. The idea of there being one and only one god would seem strange and even perverse to people nurtured in the rich, diverse, and densely populated religious world that has flourished in India for thousands of years. Even the terms that are used for the supreme god indicate a sense of the plurality of cosmic powers: God of gods (deva-deva), Lord of gods (devesha), master of the moving (jagannatha), the fortunate one (bhagavan), etc. Each of these indicates the singling out of one god from among many.
Thus on the surface Indic theism has more of the feel of the old biblical monolatry - the worship of one god among many as supreme - than of anything like monotheism. Nevertheless, the theism that developed in India is not a form of monolatry; nor does it fit the henotheism - the worship of one god at a time as supreme - that Max Muller invented to deseribe the early Vedic kind of theistic worship. 2 For Hindu theologians do not see all the various gods as separate and independent, but as different aspects or expansions of one supreme god. The best term for what happens to theism in India, therefore, is monotheism as long as one is willing to allow it enough plasticity to be molded by the Indic tradition into a form of monotheism unlike any other in the history of religions.

The extreme conservatism of the Indic traditions has continually sent Hindus back in times of challenge and change to their roots, which, because of the continuity of the civilization, have always been available to them. Although new influences have often exerted themselves during this long history, they were shaped and adapted to fit into the patterns of those ancient visions. Thus it is that an ancient vision of deity like that found in the purusha hymn could provide the fundamental structure on which the later forms of theistic belief and practice were built. The image of the primordial giant who was sacrificed to become the world and all beings in it was refracted in a number of ways to form the various types of religious belief found in India today. At one end of the spectrum are the monistic forms of belief represented by the nondualistic forms of Vedanta, in which all living beings are seen as digits of the one supreme, impersonal being called Brahman. Any sense of distinction among them is the resuIt of ignoranee. At the other extreme are the monotheistic forms of Vedanta, in which all beings are seen as tiny, separate offshoots of the supreme being - in this case, Vishnu - similar in nature but not in power, like so many tiny sparks shooting out of a fire. As that fire is capable of unlimited reduplication, so is the deity capable of expanding into unlimited forms eaeh equal to the others. Somewhere in the middle of the spectrum rests the theo-monism of Kashmiri Shaivism, which attributes an identity or personality to the deity - in this case, Shiva - but understands all living beings as projections or instances of that deity. All of these different adumbrations of the primordial giant have interesting histories. Some aspects of the purusha presented in that revelatory text of the Veda dropped out of the tradition over time - the sacrificial dismemberment, for instance- while others have survived intact or have been transformed into something new - the "three-quarters beyond," for example, or the meaning of the "thousand heads, eyes, and feet." One can traee these developments through the Upanishads, the Epics, the Puranas, and then as they split off into the various sectarian literatures.

Nevertheless, the long development of monotheism in India can be seen as originating in the old mysterious purusha. The problem for modem members of the Chaitanya tradition remains, however. How does one bridge the gulf between a historical-critical understanding of the primordial giant as mythopoetic and subject to long and gradual transformations into the deities of modem Hinduism, and the understanding of the Chaitanya devotee in which godhead - that is, Krishna specifically - and sacred text are eternal? One of the main challenges modern devotees must confront is that, from an academic perspective, the normative historical analysis of Indic traditions does not find a deity called Krishna anywhere in the oldest corpus of Vedie texts - the four Vedas, the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas, and the Upanishads. 3 And when Krishna finally fully emerges in the Puranic and Epic textual genre of the post-Vedic period, he is not the only being who pronounces himself the supreme absolute God; Shiva, Vishnu, and eventually Devi, the Goddess, also lay claim to this status in unambiguous terms in the texts associated with each of them. 4
On the basis of the above comments about the Indian tradition in general, one might suggest that the modem Krishna devotee follow the lead of his or her predecessors in the tradition and return to traditional sources. Once there, he or she may well find resources already in existence that might help resolve many of the modern questions and challenges, at least to the satisfaction of a person of faith. Modern devotees might find a useful line of thought, for instance, among the philosophers of Mimamsa, who argue that the Veda is eternal and yet was still revealed to certain sages at certain historically definable times. Just as a word is not created anew every time it is spoken, but exists as part of the language before and after its physical enunciation, so the Vedas are not created every time they are enunciated. Rather, they are merely manifested. This thesis is called the eternity of word thesis (shabda-nityata-vada) and rests on drawing a distinction between word (shabda) and sound (dhvani). Sound is only the means by which word is revealed. Word itself, revealed or unrevealed, is eternal. In the same way, one might argue that Krishna precedes and supersedes the particular, historically defined texts that act only as the vehicles of his self-revelation. In ways such as this, a historical reading of a tradition need not cripple a religious one. Be that as it may, it remains to be seen what strategics are adopted to confront the academic challenges outlined above, since engagement with the historical and text-critical methods of western scholarship still awaits most of the modern followers of Chaitanya Vaishnavism.

NOTES

1. Editors' note: Delmonico's original paper for this volume was an elaborate and comprehensive history of Indic monotheism with comparative glances at the Abrahamie traditions. Due to the considerable size and primary focus of that paper, however, and the constraints of this volume in these regards, Delmonico kindly agreed to withdraw that essay and submit in its stead this brief comment for this volume. The reader is referred to his Web site ( http://www.bhajankutir.net ) for the original essay containing a much more detailed discussion of Indic monotheism.
2. Muller coined the term "henotheism" to represent the religious attitudes he felt were exhibited in the Rig-Veda, where one god was worshipped as the supreme god of all for the duration of a hymn or rite, but then another god would be lauded as the supreme in another hymn or rite.
3. The possible exception to this is the reference in the Chandogya Upanishad (3.17.6) to Krishna, the son of Devaki, who is indeed Krishna's mother in the Bhagavata Purana. However, since this Krishna is connected with both a sage and esoteric practices not associated with the Krishna of the Puranas, there have been differences of opinions among scholars as to whether or not they refer to the same personality.
4. Moreover, in all other texts apart from the Bhagavata Purana and the Bhagavad Gita (and, at least according to some academic as well as traditional scholars from other sects, even in these most quintessential of Krishna-centered texts), Krishna is depicted as an incarnation of Vishnu, and thus a secondary or derivative manifestation of godhead, rather than the absolute source being.

Bryant & Ekstrand – The Hare Krishna Movement

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