Reflecting on the meaning of “nirvisesa-sunyavadi-pascatya”
By Sitalatma Das
Part of our ISKCON folklore is a story of early devotees wondering who were those māyāvādīs Śrīla Prabhupāda always rallied against – because no one knew any particular māyāvādī at the time, and then it hit them – they (we) are the māyāvādīs! Not by our professed ideology but by our attitudes and by the quality of our relationships, which were often very impersonal in nature. A lot of Bhāgavatam classes were spent on uncovering impersonalism in our lives afterwards. Otherwise a question arises – why would Śrīla Prabhupāda travel to the western countries to fight māyāvāda? All the māyāvādīs were back in India, poisoning Indian society from within, why go fight them in the West? Or we can equate “nirviśeṣa śūnyavādi” with western atheism but Srila Prabhupāda attacked atheism separately from attacking impersonalism. Or we can say that nirviśeṣa, śūnyavādi, and pālscātya deśa are three different, not necessary overlapping categories. There are so many ways we can understand Śrīla Prabhupāda’s praṇāma mantras. I want to offer another explanation of this mantra and demonstrate its ultimate consistency and truthfulness.
Cardinal directions, like the west, in Vedic science are deeply meaningful but that meaning is not directly obvious. Thankfully, in the 4th Canto of Śrīmad Bhāgavatam Nārada Muni tells a parable of King Purañjana mentioning how different bodily gates lead out in different directions. Similarly, Lord Caitanya told Sanātana Goswāmī a parable of an astrologer giving advice in which direction one must dig for which treasure (CC. Madhya 20). In the purports Śrīla Prabhupāda gives us enough clues to understand these Vedic directions. East is where the knowledge is (or treasure in Lord Caitanya’s parable) while West is the direction of impersonalism. South is for karma and North is for mystic yoga. We can treat Vedic culture as gradually evolving in a part of the already existing natural world and then dismiss everything as geographic coincidences, but as students of Śrīmad Bhāgavatam we’d better see the universe as manifesting **from** different grades of Vedic knowledge, planet by planet and continent by continent, beginning with Lord Brahmā’s efforts.
What makes western civilization remarkable is its success in science, success in providing a broad range of scientific theories to explain almost all observable phenomena and provide the society with benefits derived from that knowledge. In this sense science has become a shelter for modern civilization and has fully supplanted religion as the foundation of western society – it dictates morals, guides economics, and supplies daily necessities and all kinds of pleasures as well. It has fully become “dharma” in the sense of “that which sustains”. And it is not coincidental that western science is impersonal at its very core – as Vedic science predicts above – West and whatever grows in that direction is a place of impersonalism. Today this impersonal science strives to erase all traces of subjectivity (meaning personalism), and it seeks universal laws which apply in every context regardless of one’s personal perspective. All pre-western descriptions of nature were personalistic – everything in nature had souls, even trees, mountains and rivers. There were deities everywhere and they all needed to be propitiated through personal service and sacrifices. Historically, it was Christianity first that fought against this “paganism”, but then science put a solid, rational foundation under this drive and made all manifestations of personal subjectivity illegal.
By seeking universal laws which apply everywhere equally western science cemented itself as deeply impersonal because in the world governed by gods and spirits they all had their domains where they enforced their rules and so all laws were local. There was no universality before western science. Typically, a man can walk up to any mountain but no one can walk up to Lord Śiva’s Kailāsa where men are not allowed, for example. For his own mountain Lord Śiva has his own laws. The laws of nature for Rakṣas and Yakṣas are different from laws for humans – they can fly, change their appearance at will, and do all kinds of magic, but we cannot. Western science declares this impossible because all true laws must be universal and no personal domain can be an exception. Personal laws and personal domains are simply not allowed in western understanding of nature.
In this way western science is a consistent and determined implementation of impersonal view of the world devoid of God, and so is the entire western civilization that is built upon it. It is nirviśeṣa and pāścātya – impersonalist and western, just as praṇāma mantra says.
What it means for us is that we should be cognizant of this underlying impersonalism and learn to notice it in our own worldviews. We all subconsciously embrace existence of “objective reality”, for example, without giving much thought to what this “objectivity” really means in Vedic science. Reality does look objective to us, but we can also say that as humans we are part of the same domain and so we can only share our subjective experiences within that common domain. Agreeing with each other doesn’t make our observations objective and observed similarities do not make our reality truly objective either, it just means that our personal perspectives are not that different from one another. Someone higher up the chain, like Manu, can change these perspectives for the entire humanity for thousands and millions of generations at once and so they will all agree on something different from what we agree upon now. And what to speak of Kṛṣṇa, who doesn’t play by the same rules at all. And then Bhāgavatam and Mahābhārata are full of descriptions of beings who do not live by our laws and so they experience the world in very different ways. In science these contradictory experiences are dismissed as mythology because objective reality is one and what is impossible for us should be impossible anywhere and for anyone. Even as devotees we don’t know yet how to properly deal with all these divergent personal realities. We have the same sādhana rules for all, for example, and we shudder at the thought that some devotees might progress by not attending maṇgala arati. We’d rather standardize everything we possibly can, which is the opposite of personalism, So, imposing same sādhana on everyone is impersonalism, but at the same time we realize that this standardization is absolutely required for the society to function. How to reconcile? How much impersonalism is permissible or necessary? Why? Should everything be open to personal views and interpretations or must be there ground rules for all? This requires a lot of consideration and deep understanding of hierarchies and our places on the tree of the universe and even on the tree of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s followers.
There’s yet another, deeper meaning to Vedic directions and it stems from the very duality of this world where what is indicated by “this” is not what is indicated by “that”, and so “this” and “that” cannot point to the same thing. When Lord Caitanya, unconstrained by this duality, tried to express Absolute Truth terms of this world He simply called it “acintya”. We have no reference here for the logic where “this” and “that” are one and the same and yet also different. We cannot understand it on the basis of our observations because difference between objects is fundamental to our perceptions and all our experiences. If something is white it can’t be black, for example, and there’s no logic that can argue that white is in black and black is in white. Even when we look at Chinese Yin-Yang symbol we see a circle of black in the white area, not that there’s literally black in white. In any case, the point is that to know something here we also need to know what it is not, know how “this” is not “that”, ie we need to know that crows are not white, for example – that’s one trait by which we can tell them from other birds. Similarly, every object here has a use and to know what it’s for we also need to know how not to use it, and this is how directions are manifested from two pairs of opposites – from what things are and what they aren’t, and from how they can and cannot be used.
Proper definition of an object (or concept, or any idea), means first gaining knowledge of what it is, which is “East”. Proper use of the object manifests South. In the earlier mentioned scheme South was for performing karmic activities, which is what “proper use” means, too. Opposite the East is the knowledge of what the object is not, and opposite of South is the knowledge of how not to use it. Mystic yoga is about refraining from karmic activities and so designating North as the land of yoga is appropriate. Designating West as a direction where we say what things are not – neti-neti – is a signature of impersonalism, too. So the two schemes perfectly overlap here. Ideally, we take knowledge (“East”), examine it, and start peeling away false assumptions about it. In this way we refine our understanding of the idea and so “West” is necessary for complete knowledge, as well as “South” (proper use) and “North” (misuse). In this way we must complete the circle to attain full understanding, and this is where Śrīla Prabhupada’s arrival in the West makes perfect sense as well.
I think it’s obvious that development of western civilization is also a story of negations. They (we – I’m also a child of western thought) negated everything, starting maybe from rising against authority of the Pope, then we went against Biblical descriptions of the world altogether, then we fought to overthrow superstitions and dogmas, then we fought to overthrow kings and empires – our whole history is an endless fight against authorities. We always have something to negate. Whatever idea or concept comes to establish itself, in no time we find faults with it. In this way we, as westerners, are eternal revolutionaries. Even as devotees when we went to India people there immediately noticed that we were very eager to dismiss things and traditions that they held sacred. It’s in our western blood – we find impurities everywhere and we purge them. This approach was very unusual for the Indians of the “South” where they are more concerned with how people can derive benefits from whatever idea they come across rather than dismiss anything completely. Naturally, in their “southern” religion of Hinduism everything goes and everything has a place and value for someone and nothing is rejected altogether.
Another example of such nihilistic “westerness” is the life of a brāhmaṇa from the first chapter of the second part of Bṛhad Bhāgavatāmṛta. Somehow his family got a new idea of a good life and moved from Mathura to Assam in the East (direction of new values). He grew up there but lost his brahminical qualities. Then, in his dream, his worshipable deity gave him a mantra and by chanting it his heart gradually became purified. Under the influence of the mantra he lost interest in his old life and, appropriately, moved west. He first arrived at Ganga Sagara where he found people busy practicing karma kanda rituals. He was very impressed by their knowledge and organization. Everything looked very developed there, and so he tried to become like them, but under the influence of the mantra he still wasn’t satisfied so he moved farther west. He arrived in Varanasi and became fascinated by renunciates seeking liberation there. Still dissatisfied, he moved farther west to Prayag where he found people worshiping Lord Viṣṇu. The deity of Lord Mādhava, presiding over Prayāg-tīrtha, closely resembled the deity of brāhmaṇa’s mantra, but still He didn’t bring him satisfaction and the Lord Mādhava directed the brāhmaṇa farther west to Mathura. Maybe it’s a coincidence but it’s an uncanny one – constant dissatisfaction with the state of things constantly pushed him in a western direction. When he returned to Mathura, the original point of his journey, he met Gopa Kumāra who elevated his life and his spiritual practice to a qualitatively new level, thus completing the circle.
Śrīla Prabhupāda’s vision of a perfect candidate for receiving Krishna Consciousness was very simple: “Krsna consciousness is for those who have come to detest this material world.” (“Topmost Yoga System” Ch 3). That’s why his message was very welcome in the hippie communities in the US who, at the time, had come to the point of detesting prevailing materialistic culture. And yet it was simultaneously lost on those who went “North” and dedicated their lives to destructive practices of “sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll” which sprang from this defiance. Some of these people were reformed by Śrīla Prabhupāda but many could not be saved. His message also didn’t penetrate the ranks of those Americans who firmly believed in their way of life and didn’t see the need for any changes – the ideological “southerners”.
There is another point to the Vedic science of directions – it’s not just a circle but more of a spiral with high and low points on it, too. If East is a high starting point of knowledge (or sattva) then South is a descend into rajas, and West is tamas. If there’s any hope of saving the situation then the West is also a breaking point from where one can continue to a level down and accept outcomes of “sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll” as the new platform of lower grade East/sattva/knowledge for the next cycle, or western nihilism can give rise to uplifting practices which will elevate us to a platform of higher knowledge (which, in time, we will try to corrupt again). This is what Śrīla Prabhupāda did for his western disciples – he gave them knowledge and practices which appeared to the general society as opposites of their ideas of truth and karmic pursuits, but these practices were undoubtedly uplifting whereas those who didn’t take Prabhupada’s offer slid down into hellish outcomes of drug addiction.
As much as we glorify Śrīla Prabhupāda as a jagat-guru we have to also acknowledge the fact that it was the nihilistic west that was the most fertile soil for his preaching while karma admiring Indians didn’t see any value in it until we brought money and built very impressive temples there. We can also acknowledge the fact that Śrīla Prabhupāda didn’t leave us a lot of detailed information about what to do with our lives after he saved us. He wanted to institute varṇāśrama, true, but he also gave up on the idea of managing our marriages, seeing us as hopeless and unable to follow simple vows which felt natural to him. Without guidance, managing the Northern leg of our journey leading to the happy and prosperous self-sustaining society of the new “East” where we can raise a new, higher grade of vaiṣṇavas had become problematic and our devotees learned the skill on the fly. One example could be our struggle with gurukulas and government demands for state controlled curriculum, or establishing self-sustained farm communities. I think we all can acknowledge that today’s ISKCON doesn’t look exactly like it was dreamed of in the 70s. In other words, if we choose Śrīla Prabhupāda’s main accomplishments for his praṇāma mantras then we probably have to leave out establishment of daivi-varṇāśrama (new East) and the detailed science of material happiness and prosperity associated with karma yoga of the Vedic South.
Another troublesome legacy of our modern education is that we look on maps and directions from the top, with the map lying on the table in front of us, but in Vedic science this top-down perspective on the world might not even exist. When devotees brought newly published volume of the Third Canto of Śrīmad Bhagavatam to Śrīla Prabhupāda he admired everything about it until he saw the back cover which displayed “from above” view of Lord Brahma on a lotus flower, and Lord Viṣṇu farther below. This is impossible – no one can observe Lord Viṣṇu from above, such position doesn’t exist. “Helicopter view”, Prabhupada called it. We can easily imagine it, though it’s not real, and we assume it’s always there by itself and we can place the Lord within it . Such understanding of the world is very very close to māyāvāda. In Vedic science, on the other hand, we are facing East, which is a way forward. South is on the right, North is on the left, and West is behind. Pāścāt is a word both for West and for “behind”, and Dakṣiṇa is similarly both for South and “right”. And, of course, it’s the demons who appear as the back of the universal form – our demoniac western civilization fits perfectly there. We will never see the Lord’s face from where we are. So, being in the West means not seeing the Lord, which means religion of śūnyavāda – emptiness. We don’t need to be Buddhists for that, simply by being westerners we can develop nihilism just as well. Śrīla Prabhupāda then made us turn around and go towards the light of the East where we can finally find God.
Just a bit of information – historically, maps were usually drawn with the most important thing at the top so that maps reflected natural hierarchy. Chinese invented compass and their needles pointed south, but because the emperor lived in the north they drew their maps with emperor’s palace at the top. During Crusade times Europeans also drew Jerusalem – the east – at the top of their maps. It’s not clear why the tradition changed. Possibly because of the fixed position of the Pole Star around which everything rotates.
Mundane geography also fixes our directions – North is always North, South is South, but Vedic science doesn’t. Rather every society, every individual, and even every phenomenon goes through the cycle of East-South-West-North and each such cycle folds into a bigger cycle like days fold into weeks and weeks fold into months. This means that we can’t blindly repeat Śrīla Prabhupāda’s words everywhere and at all times and expect the same results. By the very nature of his message – if our praṇāma mantras are right about him – it is most potent when addressing those in the “western” phase of their lives. If we approach a millennial sitting through the night in line for the next release of a smartphone so he would be the first one to buy it – he won’t listen to Śrīla Prabhupāda’s words because he is still in the “south”, still enchanted by material prospects. If we approach that same person after he realized that promises made by the society when he was growing up will never come true and the society itself is not what it was pretending to be, he will probably be more receptive to the same message because that would be the western point of his personal cycle. If we are too late and this person takes to implementing whatever decisions he made on the basis of his disappointment, usually in the form of drug abuse and other immoral activities, then his descent would be very hard to reverse.
This model works on entire countries as well. In the 19th century westerners invented a social system opposing to all traditionally held beliefs – godless and classless communism. Then Russians, who live in the cold North, actually tried to implement it via unheard of practices of communal farming and even, at some point, communal wives. That’s a bigger picture, bigger circle. When Śrīla Prabhupāda visited Moscow Russians were still going through the “south” leg of their internal circle, fully believing that their new philosophy worked even if in the big picture it was doomed from the start. Śrīla Prabhupāda planted the seed there but nothing really happened until Russians turned back on their communist dreams – meaning they turned west in their own relative positioning and so became very receptive to Śrīla Prabhupāda’s message. Or we could look at Nordic countries in Europe which are now busy implementing bizarre ideas about gender and sexuality born out of western rejection of traditional values of marriage and gender roles. They happen to lead the world to the global North and for those who embrace these ideas our message might be too late, just like even Śrīla Prabhupāda himself couldn’t save everyone from clutches of LSD and marijuana.
So, in order to preach effectively we either need to find the “western” point in that person’s life or wait until he gets there, which doesn’t happen very often. Good news is that we, as a society, have by now developed solutions attractive for happiness seeking “southerners” – just look at how popular our messages about yoga and clever ways of living have become in India and elsewhere. These messages do not sit well with those devotees who reject “South” wholesale and this disagreement manifests as regrettable “liberal vs conservative” divide. We also have enough experience to help those struggling with their addictions and other people set on self-destructive ways of the “North”. Our Prison Ministry is an inspiring example in this area. There are also attempts to accommodate homosexuals in our movement, no doubt highly controversial. In this way we are becoming a truly universal movement covering all four directions, but our internal differences between South, North, and our original West are not recognized and we sometimes want to put everyone in the same slot, branding them as deviants if they refuse to comply.
We can say that Śrīla Prabhupāda is eternally present but we also have to acknowledge that he gave us direct guidance fifty years ago and we are not receiving it now. In this way his appearance was for the purpose of nirviśeṣa-śūnyavādi-pāścātya-deśa-tāriṇe and not so much for maintaining and developing us beyond the stage of initial deliverance, not for “southern” or “northern” stages of our lives. This means that as we want to continue our preaching mission in the spirit of Śrīla Prabhupāda we need to see where his words and methods suit the best – at the stage of the “West”, at the stage of nihilism, defiance, and disappointment in traditional values. We also need to recognize that in other places we need to derive instructions indirectly following Śrīla Prabhupāda’s spirit, his mood, his books and so on. There will be disagreements on how to do that but if we recognize that they are born out of necessity of adapting to “southern” or “northern” aspirations we might be more accommodating of disagreeing views. Our devotees are not always in the “western” stage of their lives either. Some want prosperity, some want to defy newly accepted norms of behavior and, consequently, their understanding will be different. It would be useless to argue about it because we are not “on the same page” to begin with. We should also recognize that we all have been there, that everyone goes through the same cycle and staying in one place is simply impossible, neither individually nor as a society – Vedic universe is not a static object, it always goes forward, though in circles.
It’s not the first time when the appeal to the “South” has been made in our history – Lord Caitanya Himself told Lord Nityānanda, lifelong renunciate avadhūta, to marry and settle down. As we sing during Gaura-aratik – dakhiṇe nitāi-cāńd – on His right side, ie South, is the moonlike Lord Nityānanda. I’m sure there were devotees at the time who thought it was a crazy idea and a gross deviation – we know from our literature that Lord Nityananda had quite a few detractors, but the cycle cannot be stopped, that’s how the universe moves forward. The best we can do is to find Śrīla Prabhupāda’s place in it and try to figure out how we can carry his legacy forward turn after turn, and also to learn to see his legacy in the actions of devotees we happen to disagree with. The worst we can do is to mislabel everything and forcefully apply some local rules and conclusions everywhere without any consideration. Śrīla Prabhupāda taught us better.
PS. The idea of Vedic directions step by step manifesting actual world is taken from a book Cosmic Theogony by Ṛṣirāja Prabhu/Ashish Dalela. There are lots of similar topics there, describing various manifestations of phenomenal world from fundamental philosophy of Śrīmad Bhāgavatam.