One of the subjects I have been thinking a great deal about is identity and globalization. My identity in Vrindavan is that of a Vaishnava sadhaka living in the Dham. This identity has to fight against the demands of the ever-increasingly dominant modern, globalized culture.
Now there are two kinds of people living in Braj. The first are true blood Brijbasis, some going back many generations. Though there are many of these, the religious elites, the Gosais, are at the top of the hierarchy. But the traditions hold that all these Brijbasis are namasya, because they are most directly serving the Vrindavan lila. Times are changing, but they have been learning the game known as “Braj” for many generations. And many of them are now in the process of learning how to “be Braj” in the world.
Collectively also, the battle is on for an identity for Vrindavan. Brijbasis are not immune to external influences. But that is the meaning of Vrindavan being incarnate in the world. This is the 21st century, and Brijbasis of the 21st century are not going to be allowed to live in a bubble. My very presence here is a testimony to that fact.
Those who come to Vrindavan from outside, the second kind of Brajavasi, come carrying all their samskaras which lie under the hubris of knowing better than Brijbasis how to be a Brijbasi. That is not good for an immigrant. And that is what we are, immigrants. Refugees, even.
And of course there are others who come from outside who are serious sādhakas. And to be a serious sādhaka in Braj means to become or endeavor to become a Brajbasi.
Now, as a foreigner here in Braj-Vrindavan, I can feel quite acutely my foreignness. And indeed, that is the center of the problem, because my Westernness can be considered both a virtue and a flaw.
To start with, we have language. I often feel I am cursed by my strong samksaras — one of the most important of which is the “operating system” called the English language.
Language is the software by which we operate the rest of our human hardware, namely the brain. And it literally shapes everything about the way we see the world and life and meaning, with both universals and particulars and all the shades in between.
I find it somewhat difficult to be a Brijbasi. It is hard to say even what I mean by that. I have been thinking about the concept of Braja bhava sadhana. By that I do not so much mean actually following the local culture as it is today, as I do following the ideal Brijvasi mood of love for Krishna.
It is the idea of belonging to his land. To be a descendant by connection to the families of Krishna’s associates. The Brijvasis don’t have to aspire to a world where Krishna is everywhere, they are already living there. This mood can take anyone from anywhere, it transcends language and culture.
At the same time, it should be remembered that outsiders also MAKE Vrindavan what it is, by importing their own idealism, their own vision, into the dream of Vrindavan.
Who first implanted this dream here? Outsiders: Mahaprabhu, the Goswamis and their followers and the other great souls who came from all over the subcontinent to discover Vrindavan by the Yamuna — an unlikely, dusty, barely livable land on the edge of the Rajasthani desert, infested with bandits and local rulers who were little better than thugs.
They came to restore, as they saw it, a spiritual epicenter, an alternative reality, the abode of the Divine Couple, a place of ferment in the arts, attracting people from every corner of India to create a new Brij culture based in the divine romance of Radha and Krishna.
No social expression of any ideal is perfect, but the Love of God in the form of Radha and Shyam is the ruling dream of Braj.
Here I write in English — and that after exposing myself to English videos and texts of the rather popular kind — and am coming to feel more and more as though even the touch of the English language corrupts me, exposing me repeatedly to the products of that culture, which are so easily accessible through the internet.
And indeed it is a greatly powerful thing, this media-created world: it is possible for the interlocking global psyche to become obsessed with trivialities. That is, of course, the English-programmed world, the one that “rules the world.”
In India there are ample protections for a foreigner who does not want to take his India straight. And this is true for followers of Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada also, some of whom have lived insulated in the Dham for their entire adult lives and yet at best speak Hindi in the manner of a British housewife in the Raj dealing with the servants. This means, quite simply, that they have never submitted fully to Braj.
The English language is the most important of the obstacles to entering Braj. English is the world’s lingua franca, and a lingua franca is always the medium that favors the rulers. And therefore it sets the parameters for the normative understanding of the world.
Because of that, an English and Anglicized Indian can commiserate together about the horrors of poverty and the ubiquitousness of the garbage, widows and mistreatment of women, and so on, in great depth. In other words, when we speak English we adopt the “enlightened” world view that accompanies that language, which is the centerpiece of globalized culture.
Those who remain ensconced in their own language operating system, will, by definition, not have the same operating system as a Brijbasi. They will thereby never truly know the reality of life here, except judgmentally, externally, from the view of their conditioned sense of reality and the need to impose that standard on these “others.” How can you become a Brijbasi if you “otherize” them?
Now, the usual answer one expects to get are the familiar critiques of Gosais and Brahmins and sadhus, which go all the way back to the beginnings of the British presence days when Suttee and the treatment of women and about a hundred thousand other things were condemned by Baptist missionaries.
From the point of view of globalization, which is the daughter of the same forces that brought us imperialism, it is not hard to find negatives in Indian culture.
The dream of India we were invested in was that of its idealized golden ages: the tapovans of the rishis, the mud huts and rice fields of Bengal and Braj; the life of renounced babajis and simple villagers who share their bread with them. Some of it is still there, but is quickly being infected with smart phones and TV-dishes.
It is not easy to just abandon one’s cultural conditioning as the discipline of Braja vasa sadhana demands, and this is how we find that there are deep prejudices deep that prevent us from doing it.
In my own life, it happened a number of times the the doors of that world opened up to me, but I did not have the right kind of anthropological spirit to completely “go native,” even though in dress and behavior I was as far as one could possibly go from the norms of my birth destiny as a Canadian.
Had I stayed in Canada I would have been as a “normal person” doing something staid and satisfying like being a professor of something suitably arcane, pontificating on Hindu religious nationalism and its geopolitical implications or whatever and pretending that because I had learned a little of Indian languages and had even lived in India for a little while, that I was ever anything but an outsider there and that culturally I really belonged in the Anglosphere.
And, of course, there is a strong Indian samskara in me, stronger than for most Western Vaishnavas. I did spend all those years, living the life of a mendicant in Nabadwip and Vrindavan. I had the association of many great saints, knowingly or unknowingly. Even as an outsider, I had a great many significant experiences in my immersion adventure. And to say I did not go native would be partially wrong. Even to fail at going native leaves indelible marks.
English is for me, in a way, a kind of drug. It is the easy option. It is the fast food of thought consumption and production. For me, it still functions better as an OS than Bengali or Sanskrit. And yet, for a long time, I have pretended to be close to being able to function entirely in Bengali or Sanskrit. I do not think primarily in those languages. I do not spend time discussing matters, in writing or in conversation, in languages other than English. Perhaps I am too old now to think that I can find the continued energy to pursue this particular perfection.
This is the control language has over us.
Now, it must be emphasized: English is equipped with hubris. Because the English-using world, the Anglosphere, has a disproportionate influence on the world as a whole, it has become “normative,” meaning that the spectrum of ideas or presuppositions that are dominant in normative discourse now permeate most of the world’s other cultures also, whether or not those norms are natural to them.
By sheer persistence and the force of its mediatic and economic power, the values, goals and ethos of the Anglosphere penetrate and transform the local cultures also.
It is those kinds of entertainments, the idealization of certain lifestyles, etc., all of which can be subsumed in the mastery of the art of mesmerizing populations with this American formula of mind control, i.e., the creation of a normative reality and many sub-realities simply for the purpose of making you willingly participate in the consumer culture and spend your money. It is the fine-tuning of Maya through human creativity and industriousness.
These thoughts are of concern for me. What offense have I committed that I have so little taste, even after all these years, for the gifts of my acharyas?
I will continue my meditations on Braj Vasa sadhana in the pages of Vrindavan Today.