Rashomon: A Few Words on Perspective
By Satyaraja Dasa (Steven J. Rosen)
I wanted to write a few words in appreciation of Jai Nitai’s brilliant article on the Dhanurdhara Swami case. I think his analysis shows insight into the facts, and even Badri will be hard pressed to respond.
Still, there are many who will disagree with Jai Nitai, viewing his presentation as “a matter of opinion” or as coming from “a particular angle of vision.” This, again, is the phenomenon to which I alluded in my second article on this website, in which I said that truth is many-sided.
As I travel around the country (mainly the West Coast, where I recently attended the Los Angeles Ratha-yatra and will soon arrive for the one in San Francisco), I am faced with numerous devotees who both praised and denigrated my Dhanurdhar Swami articles. Some are aghast that I defend a person who is (in the present tense, or so they unconsciously claim) a “child abuser.” They gather from this that I find him totally innocent and that I do not empathize with the plight of his victims. Others applaud my efforts, thanking me for pointing out that Maharaja has paid his dues — he admits to several infractions (though none of them approach the horrendous accusations leveled against him in recent days), and has, up until now, submitted to the GBC for rectification.
But all of this, in a sense, is ancient history. Dhanurdhar Swami has already been squeezed out of ISKCON. Another exceptional Godbrother bites the dust, as they say. He will, without question, go on with his service to his spiritual master — a sannyasi, preaching, chanting, and inspiring others.
But he finds it somewhat difficult to work in an institution that, on the one hand, foists sanctions upon him and then, on the other, does nothing to support him when baseless accusations rear their ugly heads again and again.
Let me stop here: There is no point in rehashing the same old material, since I have dealt with this already in previous articles, and so has Laksmi-nrisimha Prabhu, Visnu-gada Prabhu, and several others, not least Jai Nitai. What I want to do here is to briefly revisit the point I made to Badri in my second article — that truth is many-sided. Indeed, this point was brought home to me by the many devotees alluded to above, who I spoke to before, during, and after the West Coast Ratha-yatra festival: Again, some analyze the case and feel that Maharaja should be strung up by his brahmana thread; others, looking at the same evidence, feel that while he has clearly done wrong, he should be shown compassion and allowed to go on in his capacity as a leading Vaishnava.
These diverse perspectives, by people viewing the same evidence, reminds me of an old movie. And while I am not suggesting that any mundane flick could possibly unravel this complicated episode of ISKCON history, there is something to be learned here.
The Rashomon Effect
In 1950, Akira Kurosawa gave the world “Rashomon,” his now classic film about perspective and the relative nature of observed reality. In the guise of a Japanese crime drama, Kurosawa offers us both philosophical and psychological food for thought. And while such cerebral food is certainly not prasadam, it embodies components that will be useful to devotees worldwide, especially in light of the Dhanurdhar Swami case.
Rashomon goes like this: In 12th century Japan, a samurai and his wife are attacked by the notorious bandit Tajomaru; the wife is brutally raped and the samurai ends up dead. The incident is reported to authorities by four witnesses, each from their own point of view. The wife also explains her story, which conflicts with the others. After a complex series of events, Tajomaru is captured and is put on trial, but his story naturally differs from the earlier retellings of what had happened. Each version is so completely different, in fact, that a psychic is brought in to allow the murdered man to give his own testimony — and he, of course, tells yet another completely different story. Finally, a woodcutter who found the body reveals that he saw the whole thing. But, lo and behold — his version is again completely different from the others. Rashomon leaves its viewers with certain obvious questions: Who is telling the truth? In fact, what is truth?
The movie’s premise is pertinent, focusing, as it does, on the virtual impossibility of arriving at one unified sense of reality when there are numerous conflicting witness accounts. The “truth,” it soon becomes evident, is many-sided. In fact, to fully understand what’s going on, Rashomon teaches, one MUST learn to see reality from many sides, for while concrete, solid things do in fact happen, they are always perceived in particular ways, by particular individuals, with particular conditioning and expectations.
In English and other languages, “Rashomon” is now a by-word for any situation wherein the truth of an event becomes difficult to verify, especially when there is more than one eye witness. In psychological circles, the film gives its name to the Rashomon Effect, which is, basically, the subjectivity of perception on recollection, by which observers of an event are able to produce substantially different but equally plausible accounts of it.
While Absolute Truth, of course, is never subject to such relative considerations, all perceptions in the world of matter, unfortunately, are.
The Vedic Conclusion
Everyone has asked the following question, at least in some form: “How can I be certain that what I believe to be true is actually true?” Vedic philosophy arrives at such certitude through pramana, “evidence,” which refers to sources of knowledge that are held to be valid. In our Gaudiya Sampradaya, there are basically three pramanas: pratyaksa (direct perception), anumana (logical argument) and sabda (scriptural testimony). Of these, sabda is considered infallable, while pratyaksa and anumana are merely supportive. Therefore, when a devotee of Krishna is asked about the certainty of his or her beliefs, she usually answers by quoting authority: guru (the spiritual master), sastra (the Vedic scriptures) and sadhu (other devotees respected for their realization of the teachings of guru and sastra).
But where does this leave us in the Dhanurdhar swami case? We do not have recourse to ultimate pramanas, like the guru or the sastra. What then are we to do? In other words, our view of the case is subjective, at best.
No doubt something happened in Vrindavan — children were in fact horribly abused — and so I don’t want to take the above philosophy too far. Really, the Rashomon Effect has certain limitations. In Vaishnava jargon, we would simply say that the senses are limited and imperfect. Therefore, it is difficult to be certain about any material phenomenon — things are often not what they seem. This is how we would read the Rashomon idea.
Still, certain facts can be known for sure. As Badri said, children were abused in the Vrindavan Gurukula. No question. And Dhanurdhar Swami was involved in the abuse. No question. But the Rashomon Effect tells us that there are legitimate questions even in the midst of the unquestionable. For example, just how much of the abuse actually came from Dhanurdhar Swami? Who was really responsible for the more serious forms of abuse, which certainly went on, not only in Vrindavan but throughout the movement.
Jai Nitai’s article should make us ask these questions like never before, for it shows that much of the myth surrounding Dhanurdhar Swami’s involvement is just that: myth. And if Rashomon teaches us anything, it is that there are many-sides to any story.
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