Religion & Philosophy

As vast as the space here around us is this space within the heart, and within it are contained both the earth and the sky, both fire and wind, both the sun and the moon, both lightening and stars. What belongs here to this space around us, as well as what does not - all that is contained within it (the heart).


  - Chāndogya-Upaniṣad 8.3 


This is one the earliest Hindu teaching of the integral unity of reality. The microcosm and macrocosm are one.  

Bhakti Series

Rupa Gosvami: The Bhakta who Transformed Bhakti into Bhakti Rasa

Manish Maheshwari
| 11 mins read
In the 16th century something remarkable happened in a small verdant region of Northern India: the city of Kṛṣṇa’s youth, Vrindavan, finally emerged into Hindu consciousness. Bhakti found its most sensuous and passionate manifestation in the Braj region. The greatest poet saints of India— Vallabhācharya, Swami Haridās, Harirāmvyās, Hit Harivaṃś, Sūrdās—rekindled and revitalized the devotional worship of Kṛṣṇa in Vrindavan, which until then was largely a sparsely populated forested region. The bewildering variety of Kṛṣṇa sects—Puṣṭimārga, Haridāsis, Caitanyas, Nimbārkas, and many others now extinct—made the region of Braj the focus of their activities and devotion. Caitanya Mahāprabhu, who was born in Bengal and spent most of his life in Puri, sent his five chosen disciples (called Gosvāmī) to Vrindavan to reclaim and resacralize the spiritual geography of the Braj region. The recovery and revival of Vrindavan as the seat of Kṛṣṇa worship was, arguably, a response to the retreat of Hinduism in much of medieval North India.  One of the chosen disciples of Caitanya was the great bhakta, Rūpa Gosvāmī.  A classically trained saint-scholar, he composed a dazzling array of works on aesthetics, theology, and Sanskrit drama. He, along with his brother Sanātana Gosvāmī and nephew Jīva Gosvāmī, provided an intellectual foundation to the still-fledgling Caitanya Vaiṣṇava movement. His two most important works on aesthetics—Bhaktirasāmṛtasindhu and its sequel Ujjwalanīlamaṇi—together form an expansive treatise on bhakti as a rasa.  He radically transformed the rasa theory into the Vaiṣṇava rasaśāstra.Rūpa Gosvāmī was operating in an era when the nature of bhakti had become very intense and personalized. Caitanya personified this intensification of bhakti. He had an extraordinary capacity for emotion and for evoking emotion in others. He, along with his devotees, would loudly chant the name of Kṛṣṇa and start singing and dancing until tears welled up in his eyes. This emotional fervour was further enhanced by the use of musical instruments such as drums and cymbals. This group singing and dancing (saṃkīrtana), upon reaching a crescendo, “worked upon the emotion as well as on the senses (of devotees), and produced ecstatic thrills and copious perspiration, wild fits, trembling and weeping……until they brought an exhaustion and unconsciousness, ending in mystical trances.”[fn1]         Such a form of bhakti, however, is not an indiscriminate emotion but the result of an intentional method and a committed engagement to realize the Kṛṣṇa consciousness.[fn2] For the Gauḍīyas, and for the other schools of Hinduism, the ultimate reality is a play, a līlā of Kṛṣṇa. The Braj-līlā is the highest form of play and the rāslīlā is the culmination of all rasas that an actor can experience in the play. Imagining himself as an actor (or a character) in this līlā of Vrindavan, Caitanya would assume the role of Radha, and take on the intentional mood of virahabhakti (devotion in absence), enacting it with remarkable depth and intensity. This kind of bhakti values the tremendous power of emotion because intense emotion on a chosen object produces intense concentration which bridges the gulf between the subject and the object, bringing about the mystic union with the divine.[fn3] Rūpa Gosvāmī, a disciple of Caitanya, theorized and systematized this form of devotion into a conceptual framework that could then be adapted by other devotees who did not have direct access to Caitanya. Rūpa Gosvāmī’s remarkable insight was that if the world is a līlā of the Lord and we are all actors in this drama, then the entire tradition of rasa aesthetics of the Nātyaśāstra, which incidentally also developed in the context of the drama, can then be employed to delineate the various emotional moods of the devotees who participate in this cosmic līlā. In this schematic, religion becomes a drama, the devotee an actor and his religious emotions a rasa. Rūpa Gosvāmī conceives of bhakti in a 3-level hierarchy from lower to higher form: sādhanā bhakti, bhāva bhakti, and prema bhakti. Sādhana-bhakti is further divided into Vaidhi bhakti and rāgānugā bhakti. Vaidhi bhakti is done according to the rules and regulations prescribed in the śāstras. As the name suggests, this bhakti is done according to convention (vidhi). However, passionate souls are beyond the laws of convention and their bhakti derives from their inner selves, which leads us to rāgānugā bhakti. Rāga means a natural, deep and inseparable absorption in Kṛṣṇa. It consists of devoted meditation or recollection of Kṛṣṇa by adopting a particular bhāva (Rādha bhāva, sakhi bhāva, vātsalya bhāva etc) to achieve the same emotional state that the actual characters as depicted in the Bhāgavata had in the divine life of Kṛṣṇa. The bhaktas participate in the divine drama of Kṛṣṇa by mentally assuming the role of Kṛṣṇa’s lovers, parents, friends, relatives, messenger, and servants. This requires immense concentration as the devotee’s entire subjectivity is ‘reincarnated’ when entering the mental world of the Kṛṣṇa-līlā. A devotee can assume any role according to their natural temperament but they can never assume the role of the object of bhakti, Kṛṣṇa. The experience of love requires an object and a subject.Once this practice becomes advanced enough, the devotee enters the stage of bhāva bhakti. It is the sattva-dominated state of mind, when the ‘heart melts’ and the supreme emotion of Kṛṣṇa-love is generated. Rūpa Gosvāmī declares that this supreme bhāva of religious experience is a very rare state that arises either through the rāgānugā sādhanā or directly through the grace of Kṛṣṇa. The final state, when this supreme bhāva becomes further intensified is called prema bhakti. This is the Rasa state, higher than the liberation of the yogis! This rasa is experienced differently according to the type of bhaktas or the type of bhāva that the bhaktas assume. The primary bhakti rasas are śanta, prita, sakhi, vātsalya, and madhura. These rasas correspond to the five kinds of character that the devotee adopts while entering the līlā – ascetic, servants, friends, parents, and lover. But of all the five major forms of bhakti rasa, the supreme amongst them is the madhura rasa because it is based on the bhāva of the most intense and the highest of love - the love of Vrindavan gopis for Kṛṣṇa. It is the ultimate perfection among all the perfect primary rasas. Gosvāmī writes an entire treatise, Ujjwalanīlamaṇi, to expound and elaborate on the madhura rasa.  Madhura rasa, says Rūpa, is different from sṛṇgāra rasa, which is at the mundane level of sensuous enjoyment of objects, while madhura rasa is “the enjoyment of the inseparable fusion of the Lord with the beloved through various stages of intense pangs of separation, longing, and entreaties for protection, vision, acceptance, union, and identification.”[fn4]Attaining the state of rasa is the culmination of bhakti. Transcending one's subjectivity by taking on a certain bhāva is a prerequisite for success in this sādhana. Rasa cannot be savoured if the devotee is at a distance or at the removed position of the audience. For instance, to generate this inner emotion of vātsalya rati the devotees, through sādhana, must mentally transform themselves into mother Yaśodā as depicted in the Bhāgavata Purāṇa. The spiritual distance between the Yaśodā of the Bhāgavata and the devotee must collapse for the vātsalya rasa to be experienced.Therefore, it is only through a drama that bhakti attains fruition. In a drama, the devotee channels his deep emotions through a certain predefined character. This emotion becomes intensified as it is controlled and directed, through a proper technique, towards a particular object, rather than dissipated away through unrestrained outburst. An uncontrolled emotional bhakti will lead to nervous exhaustion rather than liberation. To conclude, there is only one drama, the greatest and the eternal drama of Kṛṣṇa, and there is only one source of rasa, Kṛṣṇa. Inside this līlā, every emotion of a devotee is a rasa. This conceptualization of religion as an aesthetic action by Rūpa Gosvāmī so completely transformed our understanding of bhakti that it can now only be understood in terms of rasa. The terminology has become so common that even today, outside of academia, rasa is understood in terms of bhakti rather than secular literature. Rūpa Gosvāmī’s seminal contribution to bhakti traditions deserves wider audience rather than being confined to Vaiṣṇava theology. 
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You should give with faith, and never without faith. You should give with dignity. You should give with modesty. You should give with trepidation. You should give with comprehension.  


- Taittiriya Upanishad 1.11