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Review: Bhakti Blossoms

Submitted by on October 16, 2017 – 12:33 am3 Comments

By Ananda-mayi dasi

Bhakti Blossoms, a new anthology of contemporary Vaishnavi poetry edited by Krishna Kanta dasi, offers readers the opportunity to hear from a wide range of female practitioners—feminine and masculine, newcomers and lifelong sadhakas—from a number of Gaudiya groups. The book is intended to serve as a form of sanga, a gathering of spiritual practitioners that facilitates the development of faith. It is also intended to ameliorate the perceived quieting of the female perspective within Vaishnava literature that some practitioners experience as troubling.

While it’s true that within every religion—as within every mind identified with material nature—sexism divides the apparently devout, it’s also true that within every religion, saints unite even the sinners among us.

The feminine is by nature subservient, perceptive, patient, and intuitive. Rather than speaking as soon as she perceives a concept, she nurtures her perceptions and waits for the proper season to coax them to sprout from the fertile soil of her mind and bear fruit in the larger world. She is often quiet, and therefore often spoken for. She doesn’t readily publish herself, which could account, in part, for the perception that the feminine perspective is more difficult to trace out in literature as a whole, and in Vaishnava literature in particular, as Graham Schweig suggests in his forward to Bhakti Blossoms.

Not every woman identifies as primarily feminine at every moment, though most are treated as such and sometimes abused as a result, both within the walls of religious institutions and within the minds that build the walls. While our righteous, dharmic masculinity honors the feminine, our animalistic masculinity dominates and subsumes her. Books like Bhakti Blossoms aimed at broadcasting the feminine’s naturally quiet voice won’t release women and men from this prison of their mutual making, but they might allow both parties more comfort during their stay.

I hope, though, that this comfort doesn’t come at the cost of alienating men who identify with feminine consciousness. If we are to allow the feminine to speak with her full voice, then we must allow every voice she inhabits to speak. This includes men who know her to be an intrinsic part of their human experience. Though Bhakti Blossoms was conceptualized as an anthology of poetry written by Vaishnavis, perhaps it could have offered a more complete presentation of bhakti through the lens of the feminine by including poems written by male practitioners in feminine consciousness.

It’s also my hope that, in the name of comfort or for the purpose of preaching, philosophical inaccuracies need not be propounded. Bhakti Blossoms makes frequent reference to Srimati Radahrani and the gopis of Vrindavana as examples of leading Vaishnavis and female gurus. While this surface-level angle on our tradition’s theology might draw potential practitioners, it might rob uninformed readers of the opportunity to glimpse our theology’s real wealth, the deep veins of gold hidden below the Vrajavasis’ apparently female skin. For, as we know, Srimati Radharani and all those with whom she associates are neither male nor female; rather, they are sadhus—saints—whose wholly spiritual forms transcend material designations. Perhaps those looking for the guidance of female sadhus and guru figures within Gaudiya Vaishnavism could look to our sadhana siddhas, our saints who perfected their practice while embodied in female form. We have many examples, Srimati devi in sakya rasa and Ganga Mata Goswamini, to name a couple.

But fortunately, Bhakti Blossoms offers more than a microphone for the feminine voice. When spiritual practitioners gather in sanga, they unite for a purpose: to make progress toward their shared spiritual goal. If they perceive the need to amend matters that disturb the mind, such as sexism, then in service of their spiritual goal they address whatever is troubling them. We might call this horizontal growth, development within material nature that facilitates sadhana, or spiritual practice. Though horizontal growth is helpful, it is only useful in the context of sanga when it facilitates vertical development, upward progress toward a spiritual goal.

Certainly, sincere readers of Bhakti Blossoms will cultivate their faith as they serve the Vaishnavis by honoring the devotion in their offerings. It’s my hope, and doubtless the hope of the saintly Vaishnavis who have allowed us to glimpse their hearts of devotion, that readers will be led by their sincerity to seek guidance from the source of these poems: the sadhus whose bhakti is blossoming and bearing the fruit from which all practitioners are fed.

Our scriptures teach that this is the best way to make spiritual progress, and therefore the intended result of efforts at sanga like Bhakti Blossoms. Indeed, we serve every practitioner simultaneously when we seek guidance from our tradition’s sadhus, as they unite us all on the ground of siddhanta, conclusive knowledge, and teach us by their example that we are neither female nor male; rather, we are consciousness itself.

Sanga is intended for radical progress, progress from material to spiritual life. With this intention at heart, I hope that Bhakti Blossoms will be followed by more publications produced by Vaishnavis that seek to highlight practitioners, female and male, who exemplify our tradition’s siddhanta. Then, on the ground of truth, we can unite meaningfully in sanga—women and men, feminine and masculine—and rise up to meet ourselves and one another, perhaps for the first time, as we really are.

3 Comments »

  • Dear Ananda Mayi Prabhu,
    What an elaborate, well thought-out review! Your critical thinking and superior writing skills shine here.

    I was surprised you took so much time to critique such a humble offering as if it were a piece of scripture. And I’m saddened that you spent the majority of time reviewing the book’s premise without a critique about the simple offerings of the 108 women who participated. After all, this is an anthology.

    The book’s title Bhakti Blossoms says many things and as a poet I’m confident you can flesh that out. Particularly, I’m thinking about blossoms. A blossom is the beginning of a flowering. It’s delicate and easy to damage. In the book, I heard the hearts of the women and am concerned your words can hurt them. You didn’t give your Godsisters feedback on their offerings, instead you focused on what you don’t like about the premise. I was disheartened by this since all sparks of devotion ought to be fanned.
    Many of the Vaishnavis who submitted a piece did so with fear. They have been in an institution that disempowers them, silences their voices, and prohibits them from certain services. You’re fortunate, living as you do within a mature sanga, not to experience how debilitating a negative, or restrictive, environment can be for those who need active seva to nurture their Bhakti path.

    Your point about including the feminine wherever it appears is well-taken. It is often discussed in circles where I’ve heard, and participated in, conversations (for decades now) by thoughtful devotees like you. It’s also true that those who embody the feminine while in a male body will not be alienated because the editor chose to gather her sisters for the anthology. Presenting that as a possible concern seems out of place.

    I take exception to the claim that it is apa-siddhantic and a surface-level angle of vision to see Srimati Radhika and the gopis as our gurus.

    Here’s just one out of many references. Srila Sridhar Maharaja writes, “Swami Maharaja [Srila Prabhupada] has clearly written that his guru is Radharani, it is there. Krsna, Radharani will be pleased if you help me in this campaign. Is it not written there, e-punya koribe jabe radharani khusi habe dhruva ati boli toma tai. So he has admitted that his guru is Radharani. So we aspire after the service of Radharani, under the direction of Sri Rupa and other devotees, not committing any wrong.”

    We don’t deny the position of guru in our lives and the importance of accepting and serving him or her, but we certainly don’t say that Srimati Radharani is not our guru! It is the very sadhus you encourage us to follow who point us to Radharani as the supreme guru, of even Krsna.

    Also problematic is the statement that Srimati Radharani is neither male or female. Of course, I know what you mean, but Srimati Radharani is, nonetheless, the paradigmatic female. So what is the harm in pointing that out? It is a unique, sweet, even glorious, feature of Gaudiya Vaishnavism.

    As I read, I sometimes wondered who you were writing for. If not all, most of, the writers featured in Bhakti Blossoms have gurus whom they serve with devotion. So there is no issue here that they are missing the importance of guru in their lives. And most of them are serious Gaudiya sadhakas who know the fine points of theology you are concerned to protect.

    What was the writing like? What did you feel when you heard from Vaishnavis you share a path with? What do you think about the publication – the first of its kind – that extends beyond contrived boundaries of sangas and welcomed contributors from everywhere? What a feminine thing to do and it took females to do it! Did you find any of the poems or essays edifying in the least? Was the book well designed and presented?

    Besides that I would have enjoyed to hear your answers to these questions, in my mind, in this review, you may have missed an opportunity to glorify your sincere Godsisters.

    I loved your ending call for unity in the last paragraph. Beautifully stated and heartfelt! Thank you.

    • Ananda-mayi dasi

      Pranada: Thank you for your comments. I’ll do my best to address your concerns.

      As you pointed out, the real gold in this book is the sincerity of the devotees who contributed their poems. Unfortunately, the poems are presented in a framework of counterfeit theology. If we dress a feminist up in a sari, can we call her a saint because of her outfit? Better to let her wear blue jeans and tell us how she really feels. The book would have served as a valuable contribution if it had been framed as it was honestly conceived—as a platform for women who have been abused in the institutional setting of our religion. Perhaps the book could have been introduced by an essay about the abuse that’s taken place. Coming from within the institution itself, that could have been quite interesting. Then, the poems, which are praiseworthy in their sincerity, could have stood within a solidly supportive structure, further edified by empathetic readers.

      Unfortunately, the book is framed instead in a problematic approach to Gaudiya Vedanta. Though, as you point out, there are many instances in our scriptures and commentaries in which Srimati Radharani is described as a guru and identified as the paradigmatic female, it’s the backdrop on which these descriptions are painted that illuminates their truth. Generally, scriptures that glorify Srimati Radharani’s human-like qualities, such as her apparent gender, do so only after identifying her theological position. From the perspective of bhava, Srimati Radharani is a woman; however, without tattva, we will misunderstand bhava. Similarly, without Sri Caitanya, we will misunderstand Srimati Radharani.

      What’s more, when we make statements about Srimati Radharani’s form, qualities, and pastimes in order to promote a material cause, however important, this constitutes an abuse of the siddhanta. Should we publish an anthology of poetry by black males, who are also marginalized, because Krsna is a black male? Leveraging Srimati Radharani’s apparent womanhood to counter sexism will not help women; rather, it will create misunderstandings that could inhibit their spiritual progress. In Encounters with Divinity, Srila Sridhara Maharaja cautions us about this potential pitfall:

      “It will be difficult for women because a similar, perverted thing will try to occupy the position of the genuine. It is a more dangerous position. Apparently it may seem that it will be easy because those that lack privilege receive more grace. But we should be cautious in our analysis not to mistake the womanly nature of the mundane world for the womanhood of the spiritual domain” (p. 238, emphasis mine).

      Even if we acknowledge the spiritual nature of Srimati Radharani’s female form by using terms like “divine feminine,” have we really acknowledged her divinity when we employ her female body for material gain? When we speak about her femininity to assuage the female ego, have we really spoken about her at all? The woman depicted on the backdrop of our feminist agenda is not the same woman appearing on the backdrop of siddhanta in the hearts of our saints.

      Srila Prabhupada’s prayer referenced in your comment is arising out of bhava, grounded in tattva. When Srila Sridhara Maharaja implores us to follow him in seeking Srimati Radharani’s blessing as a guru, it seems safe to assume that he intends for us to follow Srila Prabhupada according to our eligibility. It is our work as disciples to trace out the tattva underlying his bhava by examining his life and his teachings, both of which exemplify the truth of Gaudiya Vedanta living in Sri Caitanya. By the grace of Sri Caitanya, we can pray to understand the theoretical truth about Radha-Krsna.

      The book as a whole will be critiqued on these grounds, since this is the framework in which it’s presented. I hope, though, that the poems themselves will not be dismissed along with the book’s premise. They represent an important moment for Gaudiya practitioners, female and male, all over the world—a moment in which the silence of institutional abuse has been broken. Since abuse thrives only in silence, this is truly a victory. I hope that as women continue to speak, and as we continue to listen, we can work together to mend the edifice of our institution and make a shelter for all sincere sadhakas.

  • Prema-bhakti

    Thank you Ananda-mayi for a brilliant review as well as a thoughtful explanation of your review and its emphasis.

    I wanted to mention here that Ananda-mayi is a monastic living and studying under the guidance of her guru. As co-editor of the Harmonist, I felt she was the most appropriate candidate to review such an anthology having an extensive background in literature, as well as being learned, a writer and editor. Her lifestyle is also exemplary as she sets an example for women who may feel inspired to lead a life of renunciation, which is often only viewed as suited for men. That said, she is also from a newer generation of devotees as well as growing up a few decades after many of the contributors to the “Bhakti Blossoms” project. I appreciate her fresh and vibrant as well as solidly sastric blend of perspective on gender and consciousness which gives new language and directive and which seems to deflate to some degree the outdated terms of “feminine” and “masculine”, a dichotomy which holds very little relevance in current discussions of gender and roles. Such terms are fading out of existence in the secular spectrum of discourse and as Ananda points out, never quite works when speaking in terms of tattva either.

    I do however applaud all of the “Bhakti Blossom” contributors, who strive to express their personal journeys and who partake in such honest discussions in pursuit of truth.

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