Review: Bhakti Blossoms
Published on October 16th, 2017 | by Harmonist staff33
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.