Arcana as Yoga in Gaudiya Vaishnavism

jagannath-festivalBy Krishna Kshetra dasa (Kenneth Valpey)

There are interesting parallels between the classical eightfold Yoga system delineated in the Yoga-sutras of Patanjali and the bhakti-yoga system delineated in the Bhagavad-gita and Bhagavata Purana, both traditionally attributed to Krishna-Dvaipayana Vyasa. Yet at least as striking as the similarities are the differences between the two systems, both in their philosophical underpinnings and in their practices. In this context, the integrative character of bhakti, whereby the bipolar features of yoga and worship1 come together, is especially worthy of consideration.

The most visible, and at the same time most formalized, practice of the bhakti-yoga system is called arcana, involving carefully prescribed ritual practices which together constitute worship of images, known as arca-vigrahas or arca-murtis. In this paper I wish to briefly outline these practices as they reflect the stages of yoga practice in classical Yoga, and to touch on how the philosophical understanding of God as the absolute in the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition of bhakti brings a fundamentally different understanding to the word yoga than is found in the classical Yoga system.

The philosophy and process of arcana, or formal worship of images, is delineated for Vaishnavas—worshipers of Vishnu as the Supreme—in a collection of texts known as Pancaratra. Though generally considered of relatively recent origin,2 the tradition itself identifies them as canonical, carrying equal validity with the original four Vedic Samhitas, yet conveying greater import for the present degraded age of Kali. Even more important for Gaudiya Vaishnavas is the Bhagavata Purana, which includes significant elements of Pancaratra ideas, one of which is the acceptance of the physical image as worshipable.  In the Eleventh Skandha of the Bhagavata Purana, Krishna explains to his friend Uddhava:

In worshipping the temple deity, my dear Uddhava, bathing and decoration are most pleasing [offerings]. [For the deity traced] on sacred ground, tattva-vinyasa is most dear. Oblations of sesame and barley soaked in ghee are the preferred offering to the sacrificial fire, whereas abhyarhanam is preferred for the sun. [One should worship me] in [the form of water] by [offering] water, etc.  Whatever is offered to me with faith by my devotee—even [if only] water—is most dear [to me].3 Translation of verses by Howard Resnik. XI.27.16-17: snanalankaranam prestham arcayam eva tuddhava / sthandile tattva-vinyaso vahnav ajya-plutam havih // surye cabhyarhanam presthaṁ salile saliladibhih / sraddhayopahrtam prestham bhaktena mama vary api.

The bhakta, or devotional yogin, has faith (sraddha) that the image he or she serves is thoroughly equivalent to, or “nondifferent” from, the transcendent supreme being aspired for by means of the perfecting of devotional practice. But I shall spare the reader an elaboration on this important subject to proceed with an overview of the practices involved in arcana as related to the stages of yoga.4

YAMA AND NIYAMA: In the first two practices of astanga-yoga—the exercise of five types of restraint (yama) and five types of discipline (niyama)—there is a perfect homology with the bhakti systems in general and arcana process in particular. This might not come as a surprise to one familiar with Mircea Eliade’s observation that the restraints “can be recognized by all systems of ethics and realized by an apprentice yogin as well as by any pure and upright man.5 Nonetheless, one will note a clear distinction in this matter between bhakti as practiced by Vaishnavas (whereby the Pancaratra literature is sometimes referred to as sattvika-tantra, or tantra based on pure, illuminated practices), and the “left-handed” (vama-marga) tantra involving indulgences rather than restraints.6

In arcana practice, the day begins very early with a series of purifications meant to place one in a condition for approaching the Lord. Such striving for purity takes place in a framework of self-regulation considered in Vaishnava literature as prerequisite to acceptance by a guru for instruction in devotional practices.7 Thus, for example, where Vyasa, the Yogasutra commentator, puts emphasis on ahimsa as central to the practice of yama.8

The Vaishnava would concur; the basis of the Vaishnava’s claim to the practice of non-violence is to refrain from eating animal flesh. Similarly the strict Vaishnava sadhaka (practitioner) conscientiously refrains from other activities of sense indulgence: in addition to refraining from meat eating, he or she avoids all intoxicating substances, all sexual activity (unless one is a householder, in which case procreational sex may be practiced), and all forms of gambling. [Editor’s note: The practices outlined here, as stated, refer specifically to the organization that the author is a part of.]

ASANA: The astanga-yogin practices asana to establish stability, for which he may practice “uncomfortable and even unbearable” postures until he gains perfection in them, recognizable when the “effort to attain [them] disappear[s].9

In arcana, the main daily practice of worship takes place in a sitting position, with legs crossed as in much of yoga practice. However the bhakta is for most of the time of worship quite active in a variety of absorbing engagements. Less concerned with a “complete suspension of attention to the presence of one’s own body,”10 the bhakta looks to be reasonably comfortable for the business at hand, having first offered formal respect to Ananta-sesa and other expansions of the supreme being who are considered to be supporters of the earth.

The activities included in arcana are not restricted to sitting. When the main worship is concluded by the individual sadhaka, public worship begins, usually standing, with the singing of kirtana, dancing, and playing of musical instruments for the pleasure of the deity.

PRANAYAMA:  Whereas yoga practitioners may spend considerable time in the practice of breath control as a technique to prepare the body and mind for further “refusals,”11 Pancaratra literature prescribes a minimal practice which takes but a few minutes, as an aspect of citta-suddhi, or preliminary purification of the consciousness. Bhuta-suddhi, also prescribed in various tantra traditions, is a related process of conscious disintegration and reintegration of the bodily elements ultimately meant to help identify oneself as a spiritual being catagorically different from the ephemeral material body. The control of breath in arcana becomes more generally a vehicle for devotional uttering of the mantras associated with the worshipable image: Visual absorbtion in the form of the image is complemented with recitations which serve as concrete means of opening communication with the worshipable personage.

PRATYAHARA: The “ability to free sense activity from the domination of external objects”12 is accomplished in arcana practice by a “positive engagement” of the senses. According to the Bhagavad-gita, since as living beings we cannot refrain from acting at any moment, one should perform action (karma) with the organs of action (karmendriyaih) as karma-yoga, or in a spirit of detached regulation for a higher purpose.13 The higher purpose is to offer service with devotion to the supreme being who, being sentient as is the yogin, enjoys the offerings presented to the arca-vigraha much as one might enjoy gifts received from an affectionate friend. The “domination of external objects” is overcome by thinking and acting in such a way as to see all sense objects as potentially enjoyable not by oneself but by the supreme, or bhagavan, who is present in the arca-murti. Thus arcana is the formal means of practicing or playing out this mode of understanding. Krishna summarizes this mode of practice in the Bhagavad-gita:  “He who with devotion offers me a leaf, a flower, a fruit or water, that devout offering of the pure-minded one I accept.14

DHARANA:   Patanjali’s sixth stage of yoga, defined as “fixation of thought on a single point,”15 is generally accomplished by concentrating the mind on a particular location of one’s own body-the navel, the lotus of the heart, or the tip of the nose. In arcana it is the object of worship, the Lord, upon whom one concentrates. The bhakta asserts that this process is incomparably easier than artificial attempts of the yogin to fix the mind on something innately uninteresting like the navel! In the beginning of the Twelfth Chapter of Bhagavad-gita Krishna shows unequivical preference for devotional practice over meditation focused on spiritual existence beyond the senses or the unmanifest. Hence devotional ritual in the arcana process emphasizes focusing attention on the arca-murti.

After having purified oneself in preparation for approaching the Lord (abhigamana) and collecting appropriate items for worship such as pure water, fruits and flowers (upadana), one can procede with the third of five aspects of worship (pancanga-puja), called yoga.16 Yoga as a formal subdivision of arcana encompasses certain practices already mentioned, such as bhuta-suddhi, but it also covers what would be the seventh phase in the Yoga system of Patanjali, namely dhyana, or meditation.

DHYANA: Before the worship of the image with physical paraphernalia begins, the bhakta engages in meditation on the form of the object of worship, following a description contained in a dhyana-mantra appropriate for the form of the image being worshiped. Such descriptions typically portray Vishnu displaying his divine opulence — his dress, ornaments, and four symbols, namely the wheel of fire, conch, club and lotus flower.  The bhakti literature also gives further details to help the worshiper to become fully absorbed in the worshipable form. In the Bhagavata Purana, after describing Vishnu’s bodily features from the feet to the head, Kapila urges one to meditate on Vishnu’s beautiful eyes, smile, and even laughter:

One should meditate within the hollow of his body [the heart] on the laughter of Vishnu, which is the refuge of meditation.  His laughter [reveals] a row of fine jasmin-like teeth made rosy by the abundance of light from His lower lip. With a dedicated mind, with tender devotion, one should not desire anything separate [from this].17

Here we may note the emphasis on the ease with which success can be attained, by virtue of the attractive quality of the object of meditation.  After the more passive dhyana the process continues with manasa-puja, in which the worshiper mentally performs all of the activities of worship which he or she will soon perform externally.  In its more advanced form, such exercise becomes a prelude to full absorbtion in awareness of oneself as a participant in the lila, or pastimes, of the Lord in the transcendent realm.

Before proceeding with a discussion of the final stage in classical Yoga and its parallel in arcana, a remark about the specific nature of bhakti may be appropriate. Just as in Yoga the practitioner strives constantly for a fundamental transformation of existence culminating in liberation, or mokṣa, the bhakta similarly strives for transformation. But whereas the yogin strives by his or her own effort, relying on the acquired power of tapas, or austerity, the bhakta strives for the divine grace of the Lord, the object of  worship, based on the fundamental principle of reciprocation.  The relationship based on bhakti acts similtaneously in two ways:  First, it acts to root out the ahaṁkara principle from the bhakta’s heart-the principle of selfish orientation which perpetuates the notion of independent agency-enabling one to act in harmony with the divinity. Second, as O.B.L Kapoor writes, bhakti “energizes [the Lord’s] mercy and releases the forces of redemption,”18 making the Lord attentive to, and even submissive to, his bhakta and the particular mood or bhāva in which the bhakta is inclined to approach the Lord.  To understand this distinctive feature of bhakti is crucial to an understanding of samadhi as it pertains to devotional activity such as arcana.

SAMADHI:   After long and arduous discipline in practice of the previous seven stages, the yogin may be fortunate to attain full samadhi, a state of absorption which defies description particularly because no relation to an Absolute, either personal or impersonal, is affirmed.19 In thorough contrast is the state of absorption attained by the bhakta-a dynamic state in association with bhagavān, the personal (and, for Vaishnavas , primary) feature of the Absolute. In the context of arcana, this dynamic between sevaka and sevya, or servant and served, is exemplified by Sri Caitanya, whose ecstatic dancing before the deity of Jagannatha in Puri is documented in the late sixteenth century work Sri Caitanya Caritamrta of Krishnadasa Kaviraja Goswami.  During the yearly public procession of the massive Jagannatha, Subhadra, and Baladeva murtis, Sri Caitanya, whom the Gaudiya Vaishnavas consider to be Krishna himself incarnate, would manifest a variety of ecstatic symptoms while dancing in the midst of his followers and associates:

When Caitanya Mahaprabhu danced and jumped high, eight wonderful transformations indicative of divine ecstasy were seen in his body. All these symptoms were visible simultaneously. His skin erupted with goose pimples, and the hairs of his body stood on end. His body resembled the simuli [silk cotton tree], all covered with thorns. Indeed, the people became afraid just to see his teeth chatter, and they even thought that his teeth would fall out. Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s whole body flowed with perspiration and at the same time oozed blood. He made the sounds “jaja gaga, jaja gaga” in a voice choked with ecstasy. Tears came forcefully from the eyes of the Lord, as if from a syringe, and all the people surrounding him became wet.20

Pancaratra literature prescribes chanting and dancing before the murti as the conclusion of the ritual of worship, the process of arcana. In his chanting and dancing before the Jagannatha deity, Sri Caitanya demonstrated by his very public ecstasies the highly esoteric theology of bhava, or the complete absorption of consciousness in active service to the Lord:  The culmination of what may seem mere ritual is, in its most perfect performance, the opportunity to enter into intimate association with God on the timeless platform of lila.

To explore the relationship between devotional ecstasy and yogic “enstasy” it behooves us to consider also the relationship of the former with shamanic ecstasy. Mircea Eliade, in his discussions on the relation of shamanism and Yoga, compares the ecstasy of the shaman with the “enstasy” of the yogin. While the former is characterized by a “desperate effort to attain the ‘condition of a spirit’ to accomplish ecstatic flight,” the latter is characterized by “perfect autonomy,” or withdrawal within to a state of liberation, as a jivan-mukta, or a soul liberated in this life.21 As one might expect, a sharp contrast between shamanic ecstasy and devotional ecstasy also exists, as June Daniels has noted in her book The Madness of the Saints: Ecstatic Religion in Bengal.  Referring to Mircea Eliade’s definition of ecstasy, namely “to stand outside” or “to be outside,” she emphasizes that devotional ecstasy is “a radical alteration of perception, emotion, or personality which brings the person closer to what he regards as the sacred … The ecstatic often passes through a stage of disintegration, but ultimately experiences an integration that brings parts of the self, or the self and the Divine, into a closer relationship or union.22 Whereas ecstasy of the shaman “manifests the separation of the soul” and thus “anticipates the experience of death,” that of the bhakta involves a supraconsciousness in which all of the senses are surcharged or infused with awareness of the worshipable object, the Lord.

Like the yogin, the bhakta in the perfectional stage attains jivan-mukti.  Yet the bhakta considers liberation secondary to the much more significant attainment of uninterrupted service to bhagavan.  In the Bhagavata Purana Kapila highlights this point:

By the attractive forms of the Lord, with His noble sports, smiling glances, and pleasing words, one’s mind and life air are taken away [such that] one attains devotion without [conscious] desire [and thus] gains My subtle abode.23

In the devotional rituals of arcana there are several points of resonance with the eightfold practice of classical Yoga, yet both the practice and the goal of devotional arcana stand in sharp contrast to those of Yoga.  For the Gausiya Vaishnavas , following the guidelines of Bhagavata Purana, arcana is only one of nine processes by which bhakti is practiced; in fact arcana ritual is considered subordinate and dependent upon the two primary activities of sravana and kirtana, or hearing and chanting about the names, forms, qualities and pastimes of the Lord.24 Still, for Gaudiya Vaishnavas , as for other Vaishnava traditions, arcana persists as a viable and potent means of attaining the link with the supreme of which Kṛṣṇa speaks in the Bhagavad-gita:

On me your mind, on me your loving service, for me your sacrifice, to me be your prostrations: now that you have thus integrated self, your striving bent on me, to me you will [surely] come.25

For the Gaudiya Vaishnava bhakta, it is being absorbed in Krishna and coming to Krishna which constitutes yoga, whereby the sense of “joining” which yoga implies is understood as the process of joining oneself with the supreme Self in a relationship of service.  The bhakta bases his understanding of yoga as a process of joining oneself with the supreme on Kṛṣṇa’s claim at the end of Chapter Six of the Bhagavad-gita:

But of all yogis, the man of faith who loves-and-honours me, his inmost self absorbed in me—he is the most fully integrated: this do I believe.26

Thus whereas the yogin is above all seeking liberation from the miseries of material existence, the bhakta seeks to be actively absorbed in positive relationship to his or her object of worship, the supreme divine being.  In the Gausiya Vaishnava tradition, Sri Caitanya provides the ideal model for such active absorbtion, and his demonstration of ecstasy in service to the Jagannatha deity exemplied the perfection of Vaishnava yogic practice in the context of arcana.

Krishna Kshetra Das (Kenneth Valpey) has been practicing bhakti-yoga since 1972. He is a Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies (Oxford, UK; www.ochs.org.uk) and a Visiting Scholar at Chinese University of Hong Kong, where he teaches courses on Indian religions and culture.

  1. Ninian Smart, Doctrine and Argument in Indian Philosophy, London: George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., 1964. 144. []
  2. “Pancaratra,” The Perennial Dictionary of World Religions, ed. Keith Crim, New York: Harper and Row, 1989. []
  3. Bhagavata Purana of Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa with Sanskrit Commentary Bhavartha-bodhini of Sridhara Swamin, ed. Prof. J.L. Shastri. (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1988.) []
  4. Ramanuja, whose philosophy regarding arcana is for the most part taken up by the Gaudiya Vaishnavas , stressed the divine nature of the arca-murti in his Vedarthasamgraha. See John Braisted Carman, The Theology of Ramanuja: An Essay on Interreligious Understanding, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 167 – 171. []
  5. Mircea Eliade, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969) 50. []
  6. “Pancaratra,” “Tantrism,” The Perennial Dictionary of World Religions, ed. Keith Crim, (New York: Harper and Row, 1989.) []
  7. Gopala Bhatta Goswami, Haribhaktivilasa 1.62., trans. Kusakratha dasa. (Los Angeles: The Krishna Library, 1992). Vol. 153, p. 40. []
  8. Mircea Eliade, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969) 49. []
  9. ibid., 53. Eliade may very well have personally experienced the pain of a novice attempting to perform asanas while he was in India learning about yoga! []
  10. ibid., 53. []
  11. ibid., p. 55. []
  12. ibid., p. 68. []
  13. Swami Vireswarananda, Srimad Bhagavad-gita, (Madras: Sri Ramakrishna Math, nd.) 87. []
  14. ibid,. 278. IX.26: patram puspam phalam toyam yo me bhaktya prayacchati // tad aham bhakty-upahrtam asnami prayatatmanah. []
  15. Mircea Eliade, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969) 70. []
  16. Kenneth Valpey, ed., Pancaratra Pradipa: Illumination of Pancaratra, (Mayapur, India: ISKCON-GBC Press, 1994). Vol. I, 21-22. []
  17. Bhagavata Purana III.28.33, trans. of verse by Howard Resnik. dhyanayanam prahasitam bahuladharostha- / bhasarunayita-tanu-dvija-kunda-pankti // dhyayet svadeha-kuhare ‘vasitasya visnor / bhaktyardrayarpita-mana na prhag didrkset. []
  18. O.B.L Kapoor, The Philosophy and Religion of Sri Caitanya, (Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1977) 183. []
  19. Ninian Smart, Doctrine and Argument in Indian Philosophy, (London: George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., 1964.) 131. []
  20. A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda, Sri Caitanya-Caritamrta of Kṛṣṇadāsa Kaviraja Goswami, (Los Angeles: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1975.) Madhya-līlā 13.101 – 105. vol. 5 of Madhya-lila, 163-16. []
  21. Mircea Eliade, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969) 339-340. []
  22. June McDaniel, The Madness of the Saints: Ecstatic Religion in Bengal, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989) 2. []
  23. Bhagavata Purana III.25.36. trans. Howard Resnik. tair darsaniyavayavair udara- / vilasa-haseksita-vama-suktaih // hrtatmano hrta-pranams ca bhaktir / anicchato me gatim anvim prayunkte. []
  24. A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Srimad Bhagavatam, (Los Angeles: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1987) Vol. VII.1, p. 255 – 257. []
  25. R.C. Zaehner, The Bhagavad-gita with a Commentary Based on the Original Sources, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973) 286. IX.34: man-mana bhava mad-bhakto mad-yaji mam namaskuru // mām evaisyasi yuktvaivam atmanam mat-parayanah. []
  26. ibid., p. 242. VI.47: yoginam api sarvesam mad-gatenantar-atmana // sraddhavan bhajate yo mam sa me yuktatamo mataḥ. []


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One Response to Arcana as Yoga in Gaudiya Vaishnavism

  1. I found this interesting. Do you see any correlation, prabhu, with the nine stages of bhakti as well? The preliminaries of sraddha, sadhu sanga and bhajana kriya compared with yama, niyama and asana; the cleansing of anarthas compared with pranayama; the fixation of nishtha compared with pratyahara; most notably the increasing taste and concentration of ruci and ashaktha correlating with dharana and dhyana; and finally the stages of increasing love described in bhava compared to samadhi? I would venture prema to be beyond all these as the topmost platform, since samadhi in eightfold yoga is still subject to falldown and Maharaja Bharata an example of falldown from bhava.

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