The cause of devotion in Gaudiya Vaisnava theology: devotion (bhakti) as the result of spontaneously (yadrcchaya) meeting a devotee (sadhu-sanga).

Author:Edelmann, Jonathan

Within the Vaisnava traditions, two central theological issues are the root cause of bhakti (devotion) and an individual's eligibility for it (adhikara). (1) Prior to the Gaudiya Vaisnavas, there was extensive investigation of questions such as: Why does one person feel bhakti for God and another not? and Are bhakti or liberation (moksa) accessible to people of any status, or are special qualifications needed? (2) Gaudiya Vaisnavas gave increasingly greater attention to these questions as the tradition spread throughout North India, and here I shall address them from the perspectives of Jiva Gosvamin (c. 1517-1608) and Visvanatha Cakravartin (fl. 1679- 1709), two prolific Sanskrit authors of the Gaudiya Vaisnava tradition. In this context, theology and philosophy represent efforts to demonstrate that particular doctrines, the centerpiece of which is their theology of bhakti, are expressed in the Bhagavata Purana (BhP), even when the text seems to support opposing doctrines. In some cases the opponent is Sridhara Svamin (c. 1300), author of an authoritative commentary on the BhP called the Bhavarthadipika (BD), (3) while in others it is an unspecified objector, or one who is yet to be identified. The purpose of this article is to reconstruct the historical development of their doctrine on the cause of bhakti, by which I mean their characterization of a catalytic event out of which feelings, emotions, ambitions, aims, and conceptions about devotion for the Lord emerge in an individual.

Gaudlya Vaisnava doctrine on the cause of bhakti revolves around an interpretation of the words yadrccha ("spontaneity") and sadhu-sanga ("interpersonal connection," "fellowship," "association," "meeting," with saints, devotees, etc.), both of which appear in BhP verses. (4) Basing his view on the work of Rupa Gosvamin, Jiva Gosvamin argued that the emergence of an unadulterated form of bhakti (or suddha-bhakti) necessarily requires meeting a devotee who already has bhakti and who creates in the non-devotee the conviction (sraddha) to begin the practice of bhakti. Visvanatha amplifies and adds nuance to Jiva's argument, highlighting the role played in the process by compassion and free will.

As argued below, their concept of the root cause of pure bhakti is twofold. The first element relates to an energetic necessity whereby the cause of bhakti is necessarily concomitant with the influence of the svarupa-sakti (the Lord's most intimate power) on a particular individual. This refers to the moment when the svarupa-sakti is activated for a particular soul, bringing with it specific psychological and cognitive results. The second element relates to a practical necessity, the moment when an individual spontaneously (yadrcchaya) encounters a devotee of Krsna (sadhu-sanga). This meeting does not require any prior qualifications, and neither is it predestined or pre-ordained by the Lord, the devotee, or the inherent nature of the soul. Although the two events--the activation of the Lord's intimate power and the meeting of a devotee--are coterminous, I shall examine them separately for the sake of a clearer interpretation of the theologies of Jiva and Visvanatha.


    Jiva Gosvamin (c. 1517-1608) (5) was the youngest and hence the last of the early Gaudiya Vaisnava theologians who lived in Vrndavana, India. Among the other key early thinkers in the region were Sanatana Gosvamin (c. 1465-1554), Rupa Gosvamin (c. 1470-1555), Gopalabhatta Gosvamin (c. 1500-1587), and Krsnadasa Kaviraja (sixteenth century). All of these were united in their devotion to Caitanya (1486-1533), the ecstatic saint who, as was argued by Krsnadasa Kaviraja in his Caitanyacaritamrta (CC), was an avatara (6) of Radha and Krsna descended to earth in a single, golden form. It seems likely that Jiva Gosvamin grew up in Kumarahatta (Bengal) and after marriage moved to Benares to study Nyaya and Vedanta. He later moved again, to Vrndavana, where he helped Rupa edit the Bhaktirasamrtasindhu (BhRAS), before writing many of his own learned works on the BhP and related theological topics.

    By the time Visvanatha Cakravartin (fl. 1679-1709) entered the discussion, approximately seventy years after the death of Jiva, the early Gaudiya theologians were well known in Bengal, Jaipur, and Mathura. (7) As is noted by Adrian Burton (2000: 44), when the King of Jaipur, Sawai Jai Singh II (1688-1743), sought opinions on the tradition, the panditas quoted Rupa, Sanatana, and Jiva Gosvamins. Born in Devagrama (Bengal), it is probable that Visvanatha studied at a nearby school (tol) devoted to teaching the early Gaudiya theologians, showing the extent of the influence of the Gosvamins in the region. (8) As the first Gaudiya theologian to grow up within the tradition, Visvanatha went on to write books and commentaries on early Gaudiya texts, quickly becoming a central authority on the work of the Vrndavana Gosvamins (Haberman 1988: 104). (9) After his studies in Bengal, Visvanatha moved to Vrndavana, and wrote extensively while remaining in the surrounding area until his death sometime after 1709.


    Gaudiya Vaisnavas invariably state that conviction (sraddha), which is often glossed as trust (visvasa), is a necessary step to begin ascending the ladder of divine love (bhakti-krama). (10) I think that they mean that sraddha is a belief that x path is worth pursuing and that sraddha provides the determination to persist on that x path, even when difficulties might arise. (11) For Jiva and Visvanatha, then, a key question centers on the cause of that sraddha.

    The frame-setting passage from Rupa Gosvamin's BhRAS 1.4.15-16, which presents the steps leading to the highest forms of love espoused in the Gaudiya tradition, is a good place to start in terms of answering this question. I have inserted numbers to demarcate the steps of the ladder (12) in Rupa's verses as interpreted by Jiva and Visvanatha:

    adau sraddha tatah sadhu-sango 'tha bhajana-kriya I tato 'nartha-nivrttih syat tato nistha rucis tatah II BhRAS 1.4.15 athasaktis tato bhavas tatah premabhyudancati I sadhakanam ayam premnah pradurbhave bhavet kramah II BhRAS 1.4.16 (13)

    This is the ladder through which prema (divine love) arises for practitioners: [1] at the beginning [of the practitioner's progress] (adau), there is [2] conviction (sraddha), and then [3] the meeting with saintly people (sadhu-sanga), which is followed by [4] the practice of worship (bhajanakriya), and then successively [5] the cessation of useless habits (anartha-nivrtti), [6] loyalty (nistha), [7] a taste (ruci), [8] genuine attachment (asakti), [9] emotion [for the Lord] (bhava), and finally the manifestation of [10] divine love (prema). (14)

    David Haberman (2003: 119) translates BhRAS 1.4.15ab literally: "The first [adau] stage of love for practitioners is faith (sraddha)." While he takes sraddha as the first stage, I have translated it as the second, thus establishing a distinction between adau and sraddha. This is because Jiva Gosvamin and Visvanatha, the foci of this article, interpret RQpa as saying that adau, or "at the beginning," is itself a meeting with saintly people, one which occurs before the "meeting with saintly people" of step [3], and one which creates the "conviction" (sraddha) of step [2]. Meeting a saint "at the beginning," or what I have numbered as step [1], is therefore a crucial and necessary meeting which creates the conviction (sraddha) of step [2]. This conviction, in turn, leads the practitioner to seek further meetings with saintly people, or step [3]. In other words, in step [1] you meet a devotee, in step [2] you develop the conviction that the path is valuable, and in step [3] you go to meet a devotee again. In fact steps [1] and [2] occur very near to each other in time, but for the purpose of this study it makes sense to distinguish them.

    The interpretation of Rupa sketched above is suggested by Jiva Gosvamin in his Durgamasangamani (DS) commentary on BhRAS 1.4.15-16, and Visvanatha follows him verbatim in his Bhaktisarapradarsini (BSP), a commentary on the BhRAS and the DS:

    tatra bahusv api kramesu satsu prayikam ekam kramam aha adav iti dvayena adau prathame sadhu-sanga-sastra-sravana-dvara sraddha tad-artham visvasah tatah prathamanantaram dvitiyah sadhu-sango bhajana-riti-siksa-nibandhanah ... (Damodara 1931: 117; Haridasa Dasa 1945: 160)

    Although there are many ladders, one general ladder is referred to here in two verses starting with adau. "At the beginning," adau, means that in the first instance there is conviction (sraddha), which is instigated by hearing scripture in the sanga of saintly people, and that is the meaning of trust. Then there is a second meeting with saintly people (sadhu-sango), which immediately follows the first and in which one is provided with instructions on methods of worship.

    In their interpretation of Rupa, conviction (sraddha) is only developed in and through a meeting with saintly people (sadhu-sanga) and in particular by hearing scripture from them. They take great exegetical license in their interpretation of the word adau, which simply means "at the beginning" or "at first," reading in it an interpersonal exchange, something not mentioned in the BhRAS itself, but this is something they must do because, as I show, their theology is that sraddha for bhakti can only come from outside the self, from sanga. (15)

    This enriched interpretation is further expanded by Visvanatha as fourteen steps. On BhP 1.2.21, a verse that states that upon seeing the Lord all doubts are removed, Visvanatha writes:

    satam krpa mahat-seva sraddha guru-padasrayah I bhajanesu sprha bhaktir anarthapagamas tatah II nistha rucir athasakti ratih prematha darsanam I harer madhuryanubhava ity arthah syus caturdasa II (KS 1965: 156)

    The aims of the fourteen-fold path are [1] compassion...

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