Atreyee Majumder interviews Sukanya Sarbadhikary, the author of Place of Devotion: Siting and Experiencing Divinity in Bengal-Vaishnavism (UC Press, 2015). The book concerns the practice of Gaudiya-Vaishnavism in the tradition of Krishna-workship. It especially focuses on various intuitive and cognitive capacities that are cultivated by devotees to lend their bodies and immediate surroundings to come to life as the sacred geography of Vrindaban – the site of union between Krishna and his lover Radha. The author teaches sociology at Presidency University, Kolkata.
AM: In many ways, your book Place of Devotion is an ethnography of the mind. You describe a range of mental acts that have clear physical states, and hence, refute the mind-body dualism. You use the term mind-as-place (p.75). Can you say more about this geographicity of the mind that pervades the book?
SS: I would think that the book tries to think of states that merge the mind and body. But yes, for clarity, I also develop distinct ideas of the mind-as-place and body-as-place in separate chapters. There are two qualities of the mind which I do not develop enough in the book, and which impact the different practices and functions discussed throughout. They are: the simple sounding but most complex idea of concentration, which has the immediate quality of making apparent (in this case, senses of placeness); and the critical faculty of intuition, which bridges the distances between body and mind in imagination, sonic sensibilities, and yogic perception.
AM: Can you say a bit more about making apparent and the ‘critical faculty of intuition’? I know that in the book, these faculties are used to make Vrindaban present in one’s body and everyday surroundings. But how do they stand in abstraction?
SS: I extend ideas of imagination developed by Edward Casey, when I try to think about its apodictic, eidetic capacities of manifesting reality. And I am mostly influenced by Merleau-Ponty in thinking about intuition as a mid-ground between cognition and perception. Simply, intuition as a process of making apparent establishes an immediate sensory relation between the process of thought and the object of thinking.
AM: You describe a range of diverse practices of babajis, goswamis, sahajiyas – sub-sects within the larger Gaudiya Vaishnav community. Some of these practitioners describe their body as the sacred geography of Vrindaban – ei dehei Vrindaban – they say (pp.22, 35). They called this place gupta vrindaban– secret or veiled Vrindaban. Can you explain for our audience this notion of secrecy or veiledness? Why is the secrecy necessary?
SS: Bengal-Vaishnava practitioners of deha-sadhana or body-disciplines have historically been most marginalized and disparaged. So for practical purposes they maintain secrecy to avoid publicness of their esoteric practices. However, there is a more positive and aesthetic dimension to veiledness. All Vaishnavas feel that their highly sophisticated scriptures, practices, and experiences need much elevation of understanding and sensitivity, to be able to appreciate. Thus they argue that their devotion remains veiled till one receives divine or guru kripa (grace). Finally, unless initially veiled from uncultivated minds and bodies, the rigour of devotional discipline cannot manifest ‘sweetest pleasures’ (madhurya rasa) of devotion.
AM: I enjoyed the section on manjari sadhana very much – describing the guru-driven practice of erasure of the ego and adoption of adolescent, feminine personae. Can you say what effect this would have on the relationship with divinity (where divinity is constantly invented as a playful, sexual being)?
SS: Practitioners argue that their ego-effacement enables their constant service towards Krishna and Radha, without any personal expectation. This in turn leads to exponential pleasures of the deity-couple, which is the devotee’s only desire. They further argue that a very young girl is best able to embody this state of perfected selfless devotion, not only because she is subservient, but more critically because she has the highest sensory potential of intuiting desire without personalizing it. This most complex phenomenon is expressed through the use of the term ‘manjari’, meaning bud: the state which is yet-to-blossom, but with fullest potential in all senses.
AM: What do the Gaudiyas think of other forms of Krishna – famously the one that preaches Dharma and holy war vide the Gita? These do not seem to appear in the shapes and forms of Krishna-invention in the mind-hearts of the Gaudiya devotees? What about other Vishnu avatars?
SS: All forms of Vishnu of course are respected by Bengal-Vaishnavas, and the Gita is a very important text, discussed during morning and evening temple sermons etc. It is especially venerated by ISKCON devotees. However, for other Bengal-Vaishnavas, ecstatic varieties of devotion, and the cultivation of most sophisticated sensory disciplines are much more important faculties. Texts which are exemplary for them are the Bhagavata Purana, Bhaktirasamrta Sindhu, Ujjvala Nilamanai, Chaitanya Charitamrta etc: texts renowned for discussions of emotional states and complex affective classifications of spiritual ecstasy.
AM: But texts seem to occupy a secondary place in the worship practice regimes that you describe in the book, am I right? Can you say how textual worship is intertwined in these regimes of bodily and intuitive practice?
SS: In the book, I do not talk about the textual tradition or practices, simply because that itself is a book-length project, and there are many important works addressing these. But texts are most critical to Bengal-Vaishnavism. Indeed, manjari sadhana develops as a discursive tradition constructed within and responding to emotive classifications and stages discussed in the various texts. David L. Haberman’s book (1988) is instructive in understanding this. Sahajiya Vaishnavism, although an oral tradition, also refers to these textual terms and categories critically. Glen A. Hayes’s works are very important with respect to these understandings. The ISKCON has a most vibrant culture of reading and discussing texts both individually and in temple collectives. And the highly sophisticated kirtan tradition is also amply textualised, and there are innumerable compendiums of centuries of these song and rhythm compositions.
AM: You talk a bit in the book your own negotiation and acceptance of these learnt emotions and the intuitive techniques as you went about witnessing them. How did writing this book change you and your internal perception of divinity – Krishna or otherwise?
SS: This is not an easy question to answer. The least I can say is that the fieldwork for this book and writing it has impacted me irreversibly. I hope I am now better able to understand people’s experiences of divinity, not only in their direct manifestations of puja, scriptures, or rituals, but also in their many subtle aspects of thought, sensation, intuition, and imagination.
AM: You talk about achintya bhedabhed (p.3: monism, non-difference existing simultaneously with difference/extension) through the sameness of Radha and Krishna can be understood. Can you unpack achintya bhedabhed for us a little more? The simultaneity of difference and non-difference, to my mind, would not require the elaborate enactment of personified dignity. But, it does for the Gaudiya devotee. Can you say why and how?
SS: A dualist would think of god and devotee as essentially separate. A monist would think that the devotee, if able to realize perfection, is indistinct from divinity. Achintya-bhed-abhed (Unthinkable-distinction-between-sameness-and-difference) is a most complex theology which imagines Radha (the perfect devotee and lover) as a part of Krishna himself, and as also separate. If god is alone, there is no diversity of experience, and he does not derive bliss. So he creates his own lover. But the specificity of the theology is such that Radha is able to love him in a way and to extents that confound him. Her love surpasses his imagination. So he wishes to understand the nature of this love. This is not possible until he is born with her in the same body. Thus in Bengal-Vaishnava theology, the saint, Chaitanya, is considered as the dual incarnation of Radha-Krishna: the two born in the same body to understand and experience the best form of devotional passion.
I discuss the complex overlaps between theology and phenomenology in a recent article published in the Modern Asian Studies.
AM: You show us how the self merging with the character of Radha makes worship of Krishna possible. But Radha is also a deity, right? How does this merging of the devotee and the deity work in maintaining or blurring the human-god divide?
SS: The devotional self does not merge with Radha. Radha is the best model of devotion towards Krishna. The practitioner desires to be able to embody her intense passions, knowing fully well that her fullest state (mahabhava) can only be approached, never fully inhabited. It is the constant striving however, which defines devotion. The best way to be able to embody this is to cultivate subservience towards the greatest model of passionate subservience (Radha). So in a complex way, what is forged is a chain of intense subservience towards Krishna, with Radha at its top, and devotees placed in distinct guru-lineages in relation to it.
AM: What would a book like yours have to say in the cacophony of presentist anthropology that concerns itself with issues and problems of the contemporary as we know through newspapers – war, disease, poverty and so on?
SS: Aesthetics, understood in a broad sense, I feel, binds a lot of contemporary concerns. And the interface of theology and affect helps us sensitise ourselves to aesthetics in the most nuanced manner possible. Passion, affect, and aesthetics govern the capitalist everyday in subtlest ways. We live in new theological orders. Presentism, is tied to aesthetics and theology in invisible but palpable ways. So studying devotional affect seriously can only strengthen our sensitivity to contemporary concerns of disaster, suffering, and emancipation.
AM: What are the challenges of doing an ethnography of a soundscape where people cannot directly narrate their experience of immersion in these sonic landscapes in interviews?
SS: You will be surprised, but people can narrativize their experiences, especially devotional/sensory experiences, even most refined affects, much more than we would imagine. Often these narratives are deeply metaphorical, however. It is through an equally sensitive intuitive process of metaphorical appreciation that one is able to apprehend what people experience. And when they do not narrativize their experiences, it is intense participation and imagination which helps us hone our senses and writing skills.
I am thinking of these processes in much more depth, now that I have started new work on devotional instruments and sonic metaphysics. I hope I shall be able to answer this question in much better and clarified ways, in my new work.
AM: What then is ‘experience’ according to you, the author of an ethnography of imagination?
SS: Experience, as I am trying to understand, is the interface between perception, cognition, and intuition on the one hand; and the intersubjective space between the narrator of a state of being and one trying to apprehend or inhabit it. Thus, a philosophical anthropology of experience straddles the cognitive and sensory worlds people construct, and their relations with the ethnographer.
Atreyee is an anthropologist and writer. Her anthropological research on time and space in the milieu of industrial decline has been published in various academic journals and in her book Time, Space, and Capital in India (Routledge, 2018). She has written book and fil reviews in popular venues like Scroll, EPW and The Ladiesfinger, and is now learning to write fiction