A Public Address By Satyaraja Dasa (Steven J. Rosen)
At The Ayurvedic Student Center of New York
Thank you for inviting me to speak at your conference on healing and well being. As many of you know, I am a person who focuses primarily on spiritual health, and this has been the subject of my literary career. But, of course, like all of you, I recognize the body’s central role in my day-to-day spiritual activities, and that proper bodily care is fundamental to the spiritual quest. After all, if one doesn’t properly care for one’s bodily vehicle, it becomes increasingly difficult to perform even basic spiritual practices. This is not to say that it is impossible to chant, pray, and so on, even in compromised health. But it is certainly an asset to have a sound body and mind. In fact, this is why the sages of ancient India practiced yoga — to enhance their psycho-physical condition. And then they used their enhanced bodily vehicle in pursuit of the spirit.
Ayurveda – as you all know – was conceived and developed with a similar strategy in mind. Its purpose is to allow us to function at optimum level, so that we might use our God-given body in the Lord’s divine service. So, first, let me outline my understanding of Ayurveda, if you will, and then explore how it relates to my own tradition of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, better known to most of you as the Hare Krishna movement. I should begin by pointing out that my teacher, His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, while a supporter of Ayurveda, used to say that, “The Ayurveda-shastra recommends, aushadhi chintayet vishnum: ‘Even while taking medicine, one should remember Vishnu [Krishna],’ because the medicine is not all-in-all — and Lord Vishnu is the real protector.” So, from our point of view, Ayurveda is a significant form of holistic medicine, but it is our secondary form of shelter. That is to say, we depend first and foremost on God. Ayurveda treatment, for us, is necessarily a secondary concern.
What is Ayurveda?
For those of you who don’t already know – I was told that some of you are here for the first time –Ayurveda is perhaps the oldest system of natural healing in the world, predating even the Chinese system of medicine. The word Ayurveda is Sanskrit and is generally understood to mean “the knowledge of life” (veda = knowledge; ayu = life). But I would re-translate it as “the knowledge of longevity.” I would do so because the sages of ancient India were extremely careful to distinguish between life, a spiritual phenomenon, and longevity, a term that refers to the proper maintenance of the material body. Here, too, resonance with Hare Krishna philosophy is immediately apparent: The distinction between body and self is fundamental to Vaishnava thought.
Though death and disease present an ongoing dilemma for all humans, encased as we are in a material body, we nonetheless search for practical and effective methods of bodily maintenance. Like everyone else, people on the spiritual path look for this as well. The difference is that aspiring spiritual seekers want to maintain and care for their bodies in ways that do not compromise or infringe on their spiritual practices. The achievement of these dual and interdependent goals is the purpose of Ayurveda, which makes it more than an ordinary medical science. It elucidates not only the healthiest interaction of body and mind but also prescribes guidelines for realizing the relationship between these two and the eternal spirit within each of us. It is thus totally holistic.
While the science of Ayurveda was put into written form about fifty centuries ago, as part of the Vedic literature, it has an oral tradition that dates back even further. Truth be told, modern practitioners of the science are more indebted to medieval encyclopedias — such as the Charak Samhita and the Shushruta Samhita (named after their respective authors) — than to the original Vedic texts. Still, these works are based on knowledge found in the Vedas, and discuss in detail such subjects as pediatrics, obstetrics, gynecology, internal medicine, otolaryngology and plastic surgery. Modern scientists are still in awe at the depth and clarity of Ayurvedic information; it is a mystery that such a complex system was conceived so long ago.
An understanding of the Tridosha theory is central to an understanding of Ayurveda. The doshas are dynamic forces within the body and mind whose interactions produce the psychosomatic entity of a given person. The doshas are called Vata, Pitta, and Kapha — Sanskrit words that refer, respectively, to activity and motion, heat and energy, and structure and density. On the most gross platform, Vata, Pitta, and Kapha also refer to air, bile, and mucus. These three interact with the seven dhatus, or tissues — those derived from digested food, blood, muscle, fat, bone, bone marrow, and reproductive tissue.
Through our daily activities, the doshas and dhatus, which are interdependent, are constantly moved into a state of disequilibrium, and this is what causes disease. Proper equilibrium and, consequently, health can only be regained by considerations of diet, climate, season, physical activity and mental discipline. Ayurveda deals with these things as a minute science. Its methods are mainly preventive (rather than waiting for disease to begin and attempting to cure it when it may already be too late). But the system also includes effective approaches to rejuvenation and the healing of established diseases.
Ayurveda and Rasa
That should serve as sufficient background. But what I want to show you here is something I suspect you’ve never considered in relation to Ayurveda – and that’s how it interrelates with Gaudiya Vaisnavism. Bear with me here. According to Ayurveda, there are six types of tastes, or rasas, and each taste has a different effect on digestion. A rasa can be light or heavy, moist or dry. Light tastes are easier to digest, but the heavy ones require more energy for the body to assimilate. Now, the six tastes run as follows: bitter, sour, salty, pungent, astringent, and sweet. According to Ayurveda, it is advisable to include foods in one’s diet that contain all six rasas because, properly combined, these six create dietary balance. Excessive consumption of any of these could result in adverse effects.
Interestingly, in Krishna consciousness, our conception of God includes a similar phenomenon. We say that God is a person, Krishna, and that He relishes not just one or two but all different kinds of relationships. Basically, there are five categories of relationship that one may have with the Lord – one can relate to Him in a neutral mood, as a servant, as a friend, in a nurturing capacity, say, as a parent, or as a lover, and we will elaborate on these in due course. But what I want to say here is this: The sweetest of these relationships is known as madhurya (which actually means, “sweet”) – this is the relationship of conjugal love. So just as sweetness is one of the rasas, or tastes, in Ayurveda, it is also one of the rasas, or relationships, one may have with Krishna. The same word – rasa — is used in these two different ways. And just as all rasas play their role in Ayurveda, so, too, does Krishna want more than just the relationship of conjugal love, madhurya – He wants diverse kinds of relationships, as we want diverse kinds of relationships with Him.
Originally, the term rasa meant “sap,” “juice,” or “essence,” and by extension “flavor,” “enjoyment,” and “taste,” as in Ayurvedic texts. It was used in the early Upanishads to mean “essence” and here it was associated with the highest reality. The Taittiriya Upanishad, for example, claims: “Verily he (the soul) is rasa. And he becomes joyful only after obtaining rasa.” The implications at this point, though, are still vague — there are schools of Indian thought that confuse the Supreme Soul, God, with the individual soul, you and I.
Next, the word, rasa, was used in aesthetics and dramaturgy, like in the Natya Shastra of the legendary sage Bharata. Within this context the term rasa is best translated as “dramatic sentiment,” or “aesthetic enjoyment.” Bharata and others, such as Abhinavagupta, developed this rasa idea into a science, reasoning that if one can experience various emotions by living, by participating in day-to-day life, these same sentiments could be recreated by dramatic performance, evoking the same moods and emotions as they do in real life.
Now, in the sixteenth century, Rupa Goswami, one of the early theologians of our Hare Krishna tradition, took this rasa theory further still, using the already existing concepts and terminology of rasa to articulate love for Krishna. He learned the dynamics of this system from Lord Chaitanya Himself – who was none other than Radha and Krishna in one combined form. Chaitanya, in fact, was the ultimate Deity descended from the spiritual world to explain the path of self-realization most effective in our current age of quarrel and hypocrisy. So, Rupa Goswami learned the essence of the rasa idea from Him, and then he used the terminology of the earlier dramatic theorists and aestheticians to articulate it to the people of his day. In other words, he spiritualized an already existing conception of interpersonal exchange – he took the terminology of dramatic performance and applied it to the ultimate drama, one’s relationship with God. Sri Rupa explained that the only real drama, or the only drama worth pursuing, is our interaction with Krishna, and, to this end, he elaborated on already existing rasa terminology, adapting it or embellishing it when he deemed necessary.
Although Sri Rupa discusses various types of spiritual rasa, it is important to understand that for him true rasa must be rooted in love for Krishna (krishna-rati). Acknowledging the different kinds of devotees and the multiplicity of relationships one may have with God, he devised a brilliant methodology for articulating these different kinds of love. Though love is one, he writes, it is experienced as many because of the different types of people who experience it. Accordingly, Rupa divides rasas into “primary” and “secondary.” There are five primary ones and each are understood to be direct forms of rati, or “love” for Krishna. The secondary ones are seven in number, and they correspond to the classical rasas of dramatic theory.
The five forms of primary rasa – as I said, these are the rasas of being neutral, servile, friendly, parental, and conjugal — are presented in terms of a hierarchy, with the last, the conjugal rasa, clearly being the most desirable. The criterion of hierarchical judgment here is the intensity of emotion, and the fact that each higher rasa contains certain elements of the ones that come before it. Ultimately, however, all rasas are equal, or absolute, in the sense that they are all spiritual — Krishna relishes them all, just as the body relishes all six tastes in Ayurvedic medicine.
But let’s look at the rasas more closely, from the ground up. Rupa Goswami explains them at length in his book, the Bhakti-rasamrta-sindhu, and Srila Prabhupada has summarized these teachings in his own book, The Nectar of Devotion. To begin, the neutral or peaceful (shanta) devotees are those who have achieved tranquillity in their service to God, manifesting out of their love for Krishna. Rupa describes their emotional experience (bhava) as being similar to the joy of the yogis, except that the yogis seek to realize the self (atman), whereas the object of those in santa-rasa is the Lord (Bhagavan). Taking cautious steps up the hierarchical ladder, the next type of devotional rasa is that of being a servant (prita-bhakti-rasa), which, Rupa writes, is based on a type of love that is colored by profound respect. In this rasa Krishna is in the mood of a superior or perhaps or protective elder, and the devotees who partake of this rasa relate to Him as servants or younger relatives. Since this type of relationship is limited by deference for the Lord, with an awareness of His power and lordship, it bows down to the following types of love, which are more intimate.
Next comes a type of transcendental friendship or companionship (preyo-bhakti-rasa, also known as sakhya-rasa), whose overarching characteristic is a sense of equality. In this relationship, Krishna manifests as the devotee’s friend — the devotees who experience this rasa are completely unrestrained in their interaction with the Lord, enjoying an intimate familiarity with Him. Here we see a more or less equal status between Krishna and His devotee – by Krishna’s will, of course. Certainly, if He didn’t allow it, it couldn’t be. But His trust for such devotees is so complete, that He grants them a position equal to His own.
After this, Sri Rupa describes the devotee who relishes parental affection (vatsala-bhakti-rasa). For such persons, Krishna appears as a child in need of nurturing and concern. The devotee in this rasa is an elder who feels the need to protect young Krishna, caring for Him with the intensity of a loving guardian. Since Krishna is here the recipient of kindness and protection, his majestic power is concealed, leading to greater intimacy. Krishna’s parents in the spiritual world, Devaki and Vasudeva, and also Yashoda and Nanda, are considered the highest prototypes for this kind of devotee. Vatsalya-rasa, Rupa tells us, has a feature that separates it from the prior three: it expects nothing in return — it is not compromised when not reciprocated. Rupa thus recognizes a certain selflessness in this kind of love. In fact, he says, the total and unremitting sense of giving in this kind of love is hinted at in the material world – a truly loving parent, even here, asks for nothing in return.
The supreme devotional rasa, leading to the highest type of religious experience, is conjugal love (madhura-bhakti-rasa), which is based on the mood of amorous affection. So important is this sentiment – so intricate is this aspect of devotional science – that Rupa saw fit to author an entirely separate volume, the Ujjvala-nilamani, focusing on this highest rasa. Here, Krishna is the supreme lover, a relationship with God merely hinted at in Christian mysticism and in other great traditions of the world. Rupa explains it as the acme of spiritual perfection, without a tinge of lust, its mundane counterpart. He describes the gopis of Vraja, Krishna’s cowherd girlfriends, as the most exalted of all devotees – for they fully embody this madhurya-rasa. Sri Radha, daughter of Vrishabhanu, is described as the most successful of the gopis, as Her very name suggests. It means “She who pleases Krishna best.” Indeed, She is His very Self, so intimate is their love. The distinctive feature of this madhurya-rasa is that it is not diminished by any circumstances – it is totally selfless, even moreso than the nearly perfect love that a parent has for her needy dependents. It is clear from Rupa’s work that this rasa encompasses the strengths of all the other forms of love, making it the rasa par excellence.
In conclusion, Rupa Goswami, following Sri Caitanya and the time-honored Vedic tradition that came before him, gave the world a theological system that accommodates all possible relationships with God. I say this in full awareness that a complete life of interpersonal exchange would include more than the five basic rasas mentioned above: Within the secondary relationships mentioned earlier, for example, there is even chivalry and ghastly modes of interaction, indicating that Krishna, at times, likes competition and rivalry – the inner life of God, let it be said, is complete and wants for nothing.
It must be reiterated here that devotees of Krishna are more concerned with the soul than with the body, and while embracing Ayurvedic principles for bodily care, they look to the Bhagavad-gita and the Srimad Bhagavatam – and to the teachings of Rupa Goswami — for spiritual advancement and guidance in life. But if I have conveyed here a few ideas about Vaishnava thought and its value in spiritual well being, I will have hopefully added something to your understanding of Ayurveda in its original spiritual context. That’s all I can ask. Thank you very much.