Jiva Goswami spends several sections of the Bhakti Sandarbha (152-159) explaining that bhakti is free of the material qualities. In this discussion, he also mentions the holy dham and so I wish to discuss the nirguṇa nature of the Dham here.
When I started Vrindavan Today, I was imbued with a nostalgia for the Braj-Vrindavan of yore, which looked lost under the influence of India’s economic development.
At the same time, I was aware of an apparently insurmountable Vaishnava dogma: The Holy Dham is not within the material qualities of nature. So we have to understand what that means.
What does it mean that bhakti is not within the guṇas? When everything in this world, according to the Gita and Sankhya philosophy, is just the interplay of these qualities. How can something, like Vrindavan, which is clearly being influenced by the Maya saṁskāras that surround it, the saṁskāras of saṁsāra, be considered transcendental to the guṇas?
The relevant verse here is the following from the Eleventh Canto, where Krishna says:
The forest is a sāttvika residence,
that related to a village is said to be rājasika;
the gambling den is a tāmasika dwelling,
but my abode is beyond the guṇas. (SB 11.25.25)
It got me thinking in the following way: The existing visible Vrindavan appears to be deeply entrenched in the modes of passion and ignorance. This verse says that the urban setting, the living with many people around, in society, that is the basic element in the rājasa life setting. In the world today, there is a great urbanization going on, especially in India, and Vrindavan is caught right in the middle of it. It lies directly in the path of fire, between Delhi and Agra.
With each passing day, more and more people throng to Vrindavan. The crowds on special festival days and weekends are greater, and this is indeed the will of the powers that be: more people coming, more people spending: Urbanization and economic development (artha) and are the route to all that is good.
This is called rajo-guṇa, and in its wake will inevitably come the call to cater to the tastes of the faithless who come from afar with dumb curiosity, without spiritual motivation. And such people (and even those who profess to be of purer goals) will allow and even promote the four principle vices of the Kali-yuga — animal flesh, alcohol, prostitution and gambling. The argument will be that these are democratic rights that must be defended in a secular state. And that there will of course be an economic argument to support such things because some people will profit handsomely. This is called tamo-guṇa.
From the very beginning on Vrindavan Today we have been flailing impotently at all this, for we still hanker for the days of the sattva-guṇa, when the influence of Kali was not quite so great. Days that we have seen and remember well. My principal guiding idea has been that Vrindavan is for the bhajananandi Vaishnavas, and I still believe that. The problem is that we have still not found a collective vision that uses this as its guiding principle, and with every passing day, it becomes a less believable proposition that this might happen.
On Nrisingha Chaturdasi in Barsana I read from Prahlada Charita and we heard the famous reply that Prahlad gave to his father’s question, “What is the best thing you have learned up until now?” Prahlad answers,
sadā samudvigna-dhiyām asad-grahāt
hitvātma-pātaṁ gṛham andha-kūpaṁ
vanaṁ gato yad dharim āśrayeta
I think the best thing, O best of the demons, for all embodied beings, who are constantly agitated in mind due to accepting this temporary body as the self, is for them to give up their attachment to the family, which like a blind well is the cause of their downfall and bondage. They should then go into the forest and take exclusive shelter of Lord Hari. This is what I think the best thing. (Śrīmad Bhāgavatam 7.5.5)
Shyamsundar Parashar seems to be quoting someone when he glosses vanam here as vṛndāvanam, but that is really what Vrindavan is in ideal terms: the combining of the transcendental power of the Dham with the culture of sattva. In the sattva guna the full power of the Dham can be perceived more directly by the sādhaka. And this indeed is the essence of instruction, according to Rupa Goswami also, and indeed all the rasika bhaktas of Braj Dham.
But it is hard for someone who is already on the platform of sattva not to be disturbed by the madness in the narrow streets of this town. Since the model for economic growth is based on the automobile, it seems unlikely that anyone is going to turn off the traffic tomorrow, though if there is anyone sane in this vikāsa-crazy Mathura district, they will understand how this constant honking and jockeying for space when there is so little of it, completely destroys the ideal ambience of Vrindavan. Our aim has to be to preserve as much sattva as we possible can so that people who come can perceive the spiritual bliss of this abode of bhakti.
Despite this, though it is frustrating to see this craziness, we still hold to the basic theological tenet that Vrindavan is beyond the qualities of nature, nirguṇa. You may say, “How is that possible? It is not sattva, so how can it be conducive to bhajan?” Prahlada’s verse above says, just go to the forest, away from the madding crowd, and there, away from the hurley burley of the masses, you meditate on the Supreme Truth and attain the peace that passeth all understanding
The idea is fundamental: bhakti is not dependent on sattva. In this crazy world, sattva is at a premium. I mean, sattva is quite a rare thing. But it is transcendental. I think perhaps only a nirguṇa Vaishnava would understand it, and experience the śuddha-sattva, even in the middle of the vortex.
As a matter of fact, as I was dancing around the Bhakti Sandarbha, I found the above verse quoted in an unexpected place, Krama Sandarbha to 1.6.22. This is from the story of Narada’s previous life, where Narada had gotten a vision of Krishna and then Krishna disappeared, leaving him this message:
avipakva-kaṣāyāṇāṁ durdarśo’haṁ kuyoginām ||
Alas, you are unfit to see me in this life because it is impossible for me to be seen by failed yogis who have not yet fully shed their impurities. (1.6.22)
Though Srila Jiva Goswami and other commentators usually are hesitant to call Narada a “failed yogi,” prefering to stress that this was done to increase his hankering to see Krishna again, Jiva does explain in Krama Sandarbha what the impurity was:
“The impurity spoken of here is to the sattva guna, meaning his obstinacy for things like residence in the forest.” And Sri Jiva quotes 11.25.25 above. The conclusion being that rather than live in the Dham, the place directly associated with Krishna, the place where he actually resides, Narada chose to stay in the forest, thinking that it was more conducive to this kind of devotional, spiritual achievement that he, as a bhakta, sought.
We have been trained by the Bhagavad Gita to think in terms of the three guṇas and of the superiority of sattva. When we see manifestations that are not sattva, we become disturbed and think, a religion that is not sāttvika according to the Bhagavad Gita is somehow counter to religion. This is where the problem of dharma comes into question. Or the Gita’s threefold karma, akarma and vikarma division. The Gita also states that through bhakti one overcomes the qualities or knots of material nature.
sa guṇān samatītyaitān brahma-bhūyāya kalpate
A person who serves me alone through unswerving devotion, completely transcends these guṇas of nature and becomes qualified to realize Brahman. (Gītā 14.26)
So Krishna in the Bhāgavatam speaks the eight verses 11.25.22-29 precisely as a corrective measure and to supplement the account of the Gita.
When I wrote this article, I had just returned to Vrindavan town after six days in Barsana where I really had a great time staying at Binode Bihari Baba’s ashram. Back in Vrindavan, I went for a walkabout in town. A route I once followed regularly — through Moti Jheel and then to Banke Bihari through Dussayat, then Radha Vallabha and then Seva Kunj to Radha Damodar.
I was in a relaxed mood — more relaxed than I have been in some time I realized — I stopped at the first Bhagavata path that I encountered at the Gheesa Maharaj ashram in Moti Jheel and listened to the story of Vyasa’s dejection, Narada’s instructions to Vyasa and Vyasa’s writing of the Bhāgavata and appointing his son Shukadeva to transmit its teaching. I would have like to have heard a bit more about Vyasa’s vision, but the speaker was trying to entertain rather than go into deep philosophical inquiry. Still, I got a lot of joy from hearing the Bhāgavata kathā. Śravaṇam.
tad eva śaśvan manaso mahotsavam
tad eva śokārṇava-śoṣaṇaṁ nṛṇāṁ
Those words describing the glories of the all-famous Personality of Godhead are attractive, relishable and ever fresh. Indeed, such words are a perpetual festival for the mind, and they dry up the ocean of misery. (SB 12.12.50)
In Bihariji’s temple the cooling scent of rajnigandha pervaded the temple. The devotees were plentiful and the temple was filled with the constant buzz of individual devotions — people saying prayers, presenting their newborns to the Deity, women dressed up in their Sunday best, the stout Gosais sitting at strategic positions around the campus ready to take donations, others murmuring stotras, others staring silently, others surging forward when a couple of young prince priests sprinkle the crowd with cooling water, a khaki uniformed guard whistling. Darśanam.
In Radha Vallabha I came in time for Samaj. Hit Harivams’s utsava is underway and the special hymns are sung each evening. I sat down and stayed for the whole thing until Thakurji’s shayan arati. The crowd here is smaller, but it also had a family party atmosphere, devotees meeting and greeting, but the core group of thirty or forty devotees sitting through to the end of the Samaj, which was a lengthy description of the beauty of the Divine Couple from their feet to their crown, not missing a single detail and with chorus “Look, just look, look O my life! Look at this amazing joyful scene! What a grand celebration!” Kīrtanam.
In front of the mandap, a middle aged man dressed as a bride, in bright pink and veiled, covered in decorations and bangles, moved in a steady twirling motion for as long as the kirtan continued.
I got to Radha Damodar and of course I did not get darshan of Damodar, but I did visit our acharyas. What a wonder — Sri Rupa, Sri Jiva and Sri Kaviraj Goswami in one place. Smaraṇam.
Dhanyatidhanya Vrindavan Dham!
So all this — my question about nirguna Vrindavan was answered.
The Dham is independent in its power. Though it appears to be within the material nature, it is not. Therefore bhakti can appear to be in rajas, tamas or sattva, and still penetrate to the essence of the soul. What blocks bhakti is offense. From our position in the gunas, we can still get a perception of that transcendent reality. A person practicing bhakti, but situated in the gunas will still benefit from the bhakti.
In the same way, the Dham itself does not operate by the same rules as the material world. This perception is a matter of faith, but the belief is that the Dham has vastu-śakti, meaning that its power is independent of belief. The effect of the Dham is to take someone from wherever they are situated within the gunas and brings them to bhakti.
When all these sins are practically destroyed through constant hearing of the Srimad Bhagavatam and serving the devotees, then one comes to the stage of steadfast devotion to the Supreme Lord, who is glorified in the best of poetry. (1.2.18)
At this point, the lust and greed that are produced by the material nature’s modes of passion and ignorance, such as lust, desire and hankering, no longer disrupt the devotee’s consciousness. Thus established in goodness, he becomes contented. (1.2.19)
So to conclude, since our general subject these days is faith, here is what Krishna says about faith in 11.25:
Faith concerned with the existence of the self is sāttvika, faith in worldly duties is rājasika, faith in irreligious deeds is tāmasika, but faith in my worship is nirguṇa. (SB 11.25.27)
Anyway, since the purest perception of transcendence comes when one is situated in sattva, the devotee tries to situate himself in sattva. Similarly, we should try to situate the Dham in the sattva guna.
One has to see the nirguṇa in the guṇas, in the devotees, and especially in the Dham. There is a rājasika nirguṇa, a tāmasika nirguṇa, a sāttvika nirguṇa, and I suppose a nirguṇa nirguṇa.
It just means that bhakti transforms rajas and tamas into sattva. That process seems incredibly slow and it is barely perceptible except occasionally, as a reward to the sādhaka who is genuinely serious about his practice. It is even harder to perceive on the grander levels of human society, in this case the community of Vrindavan, which is getting such a big influx of rajas.
But even in the midst of that rajas, there is bhakti. Not the bhakti dependent on the individual spiritual integrity of any individual teacher or practitioner alone, but on the power of the Dham itself. The Dham acts through the guṇas with its attracting power.