A Krishna Lover’s Fascinating InsightsBy
Interview with Shyamdas by Hinduism Today, May 1986
Hinduism Today. Please tell us how you became involved so deeply in the Vallabhacharya Sampradaya.
Shyamdas: I went to India originally to meet a teacher, Neem Karoli Baba, who was the guru of Ram Dass. He resided in Vrindavan as well as in the Himalayas. So I went to Vrindavan to meet him and remained in the Vrindavan area, a 168-mile region which encompasses all the areas sacred to Lord Krishna. I eventually took initiation into the Pushti Marg Sampradaya about a year or two afterwards. I lived by the Govardhan Hill, which is the Hill which Lord Krishna held to ward off Indra’s rains for 7 days. There, I studied with various bhaktas and acharyas on Vaisnava Vedanta. I specialize in 16th century Vrajbhasha poetry, such as the poems of Surdas, who is very well-known. He is perhaps the Shakespeare of Hindi literature, like Jayadev is the Shakespeare of the Sanskrit devotional literature. Surdas is considered the sun of bhakti devotion, and Tulsidas, who wrote on Rama, would be considered the moon. So I studied the poems of Surdas and I have translated his life story and many of his poems, as well as those of a number of other poets.
I also studied Vedanta, particularly the Shuddhadvaita Vedanta of Vallabhacharya, which could be translated as “pure non-dualism.” Vaishnavism has four main schools: Nimbarka, Madhva, Ramanuja (often known as Sri Sampradaya) and the Vallabh sampradaya. Vallabh sampradaya’s pure non-dualism is different from Shankara’s interpretation of monism. It closely parallels Kashmiri Shaivism and perhaps other forms of Saivism as well, in that it is a real advaita philosophy that does not incorporate Shankaracharya’s theories of maya (the world being false). The world is true. But what could be false about the world is the way we see it. The world itself is true and is the manifestation of the Supreme Godhead…Vallabh sampradaya believes that everything is Krishna and nothing but Krishna.
Q: Who is your guru?
A: My guru is His Holiness Goswami Prathameshji, who heads the first seat of the Vallabh sampradaya. The Vallabh sampradaya has seven seats. He is very active in Hindu activities. He does a lot of teaching.
Vallabh sampradaya does not have a monk lineage per se. It is primarily a householder lineage. None of the teachers in Vallabh sampradaya are sannyasins. They are allgrihastha, householders. That is the way the lineage was set up, unlike the other Vaishnav sampradayas. Some of them are more oriented toward sannyas. The Iskcon lineage is more sannyas oriented.
Q: Do the goswamis wear orange?
A: No, no. White. It is an extremely Vedic sampradaya. According to the Vedic teachings, traditionally, householders are to be intiated by householder gurus, and sannyasis initiate sannyasis. The acharyas in Vallabh sampradaya observe homa and other Vedic rites as well. Of course bhakti is the main emphasis…Vallabh sampradaya has perhaps millions of followers. It is one of the largest Vaishnav sampradayas in India. It is not well known in the West. Its followers are all through Gujarat, and in London you will find thousands of Vallabh sampradaya Vaishnavas.
Vallabh sampradaya is not well-known in the West. There has not been much written in English on it. And what has been written by scholars who were neither initiated nor studied with the lineage, is often incorrect. Vallabh sampradaya is centered in the Lila-kirtan, which means singing of the divine pastimes of Sri Krishna in a classical Indian raga style. And Vallabh sampradaya is very oriented towards seva, the worship of the svarupa, or deity. In Vaishnavism there is no lineage that has such sublime worship. I would not call it temple worship, because the worship is supposed to be a private home worship, although there are temples. It is taught in Vallabh sampradaya that you should always worship Krishna. One of the ways is offering food and ornamentation, music and bhajan.
Q: Could you elaborate on your perception of Shri Adi Shankara’s impact on Hinduism, especially in the West.
A: Let me first say that I think Shankara was a genius. I don’t think there is any teacher, from Saivism to Vaishnavism, who has written as beautiful Sanskrit as Shankaracharya. He was a fantastic writer and a great teacher of what he was teaching. But if you want to view Shankara in the spirit of Vedic teachings, I think there is a problem. Number one, he is called “Buddha in disguise” by many of the earlier teachers, and this is correct. At the time Shankaracharya appeared in India, India was fairly Buddhist. Shankaracharya could not teach a true Vedic school, because Vedic school teaches of an atma or a soul. Buddhism does not have an atma concept, per se, and they don’t accept the soul existing within the body. Shankaracharya could not bring the theistic aspect of the Vedas directly back to the people, because they were too influenced by the teachings of Buddha. So what he did was bring in a teaching which was cloaked in Vedic terminology but mirrored Buddhist teachings. He brought in the pantheon of all the Hindu devas, but his teachings were essentially Buddhist. When Shankaracharya writes about Buddhism, he is unable to criticize it directly, because it parallels his own thinking too much. So he just says the whole school is too ridiculous to even comment on.
Shankaracharya’s theory of maya is not supported in the Upanishads. It’s not supported in the Brahma Sutras, and it’s not supported in the Vedas. It considers the world to be false, that this world is an illusion, a dream with no substance and in some way separate from God. This is not a Vedantic thought. Even Western scholars who have studied the Brahma Sutras, the teachings of Shankara and, let’s say one of the Vaishnav teachers, Ramanuja or Madhva, they would have to side with Ramanuja as being more true to the spirit of the Brahma Sutras.
Q: Why do you think Shankara’s teachings have been so popular in the West?
A: Perhaps because many of the Western practitioners who go into Eastern studies have had it with Western theology. They are either disenchanted with the heaven/hell duality of Christianity, and with the personal Godhead as a father figure who strikes terror in the hearts of those who sin against him. They are afraid of a God image, so they move toward something that is far away from it, which is Shankara. Shankara does give respect to all the different deities, to Krishna, Ram to Shiva. But to him, in the final analysis, they are mayic. They are illusion, and you must leave all of them and merge into the Ultimate Formlessness, which for him is the final state. This, I think has appealed to many Westerners because they didn’t want any sort of Godhead or God in between them and their final liberation of Ultimate Light or Nothingness. I think it’s also due to a lack of study of the true Vedic teachings, which do point to a personal theistic deity, if you are going through Saivite or Vaishnavite traditions. The teachers who have come from India have been predominantly influenced by the Shankaracharya teachings,…because Shankara had such a strong influence on the Indian teachings. He swept India. He was only 36 years old when he left, but he had left such an impression on the Indian mind that even today in India if you say the word Vedanta, people think that you are speaking about Shankara. They say, “Oh, he is a Vedanti,” which in certain circles means that he is a follower of Shankara, which is not correct. Vedanta means that which is the anta, the end, or final conclusion, of veda, knowledge.
The confusion which Shankara put into the world of this world being false means that Shankara’s teachings must also be false. So there are certain contradictions. He says the world is false, and he is Jagadguru, meaning guru of the world. This means he is guru of the false world. There are many, many problems when we look into the actual teachings of Shankaracharya, if you want to get into the subtleties of where Shankara faltered. If it is an illusion, where did the illusion come from? This has always been a great spirit of the Vaishnavas and the Shankaracharyas to have debates, which I think is good. I’ve published five or six books on the different aspects of Vallabh sampradaya, some historical, some having to do with this debate, which is a debate about the Ultimate Reality, as opposed to just squabbling about commonplace matters.
Q: Do you agree with the idea that Shankara overlaid his mayavadin philosophy onto the prevailing theistic religion?
A: Yes. Today if in fact you visit some of the Shankaracharya tents when you visit the Kumbha Mela, you’ll see that the Shankaracharya lineages have Rama and Krishna Lila, the plays in which children between 10 and 15 years of age enact the pastimes of Krishna. Shankaracharya has these. They ultimately have to go back into the whole Hindu trip of Krishna and Rama and Shiva and all the different pastimes, in order to try to attract followers into their fold, only to ultimately tell them that it’s all false. It’s wild, and that’s what most Westerners follow.
But then again, I think that the concept of Sanatana Dharma is so great that it allows for these things to occur…I may have said something about Shankaracharya, how I don’t personally agree with his interpretation, but I respect Shankaracharya…Contradictions can exist within truth, and no one has a turnkey formula. That is one of the most important concepts of Vedantic thought: that the person who says he knows, doesn’t know. And the person who says he doesn’t know, knows. Hinduism is perhaps the only religion in the world that has allowed an incarnation to establish a religion which is anti-Vedic in its actual teachings. What other religion would accept a teacher who taught against their own school? It is a mind-boggling religion if you try to look at it and say, ‘this is Hinduism.’ Hinduism is so broad that to study any particular school of Hinduism would take at least one lifetime and probably several. And to try to make broad, sweeping statements about Hinduism being this or that…Hinduism has the most theistic attitudes of any religion in the world, and it has attitudes that are almost atheistic, very abstract forms of yoga that don’t give importance to the Godhead and just give importance to deep contemplation and samadhi. It’s got everything in between. It has tantra. It has devotion. It has Goddess worship. It has sacrifice. It has a complete code of law. It’s a complete religious system that did not separate art, music, science, philosophy, medicine, from its actual main scriptures. Hence, you have all the different branches of the Vedas. It was not essentially a religion. It was a dharma.
Shankara accepted from the Vedas and the Upanishads only things which agreed with his teachings. This is Shankara’s style. He has taken only those passages. And he wouldn’t comment on the passages which didn’t agree. He had a system, and he said, “My interpretation is this, and I will only accept those Upanishads or slokas which fit into it.” Why didn’t he comment on Upanishads like Isa Upanishad? He couldn’t. Isa Upanishad was too much against his system. But he was still a fantastic personality.
What has impressed me so much with your work here in publishing Hinduism Today is that instead of trying to homogenize Hinduism as a kind of wishy-washy Shankaracharya-type monism that ultimately denies everything and accepts, to limited degrees, Ganesh and Krishna and Shiva, rather, you accept and promote the various bonafide lineages within the vast amphitheater of Hinduism, or what I would prefer to call Sanatana Dharma. That includes Saivism, the various forms of Vaishnavism, and the ways which Bhagavan, Brahman, has decided to reveal Himself to the various different types of souls that exist within the world. Each soul has a different eligibility. Each soul has a different way to express its relationship with God, and the beauty of Vedic dharma is that it has allowed for a very personal relationship with the Supreme. If you look in the Bhagavad, you see that so many types of people achieve God through so many different types of paths, whether it is kundalini yoga, bhakti yoga, whether it is worshipping God through a feeling of dasatva, servitude, whether it is a feeling of even worshipping God through hatred or jealousy. There are examples of people who hated God but achieved God through their hatred of Him, and people who were lusty after God or who were jealous of God. These attitudes were all accepted, and that is the beauty of Vedic dharma: it can embrace everything and can digest every philosophical concept without any sort of stomach ache, which is difficult to say for any other dharma in the world. That is the reason that I am so impressed with Sanatana dharma. I also think that while Vedic dharma is extremely broad, it is also one-pointed. That’s the place where people stumble, because they either become one-pointed and then become fundamentalists, or they become so broad that they miss out on all the different aspects of it.
Article copyright Himalayan Academy.