Guru, Sadhu and Sastra: an inevitable event of Hare Krishna meaning

The Swastika is a symbol of great meaning to Hindus. Bathed in tremendous antiquity, popular in socio-religious culture; most Hindus revere the symbol as sacred. Whether in knowledge of its precise meaning or not, for Hindus it signifies religious identity and the multiplicity of traditions. The Swastika is all-auspicious and evokes enduring life and prosperity. German politicians would like to see the Swastika banned in Europe. Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti was reported saying: ‘I have a strong emotional response when I see a swastika, it makes my stomach turn.’[1] The swastika is also a symbol that represents the greatest tyranny our modern times have known. It is inseparable from terror, Hitler and Nazism. One symbol, the Swastika, invokes fear and fearlessness. Considering these diametrically opposed readings of the symbol, the question arises, where does meaning exist? Is it within the symbol or the mind of the reader, or perhaps a community of people? In this case, the answer may seem apparent, we give meaning to the symbol.

Language, which is no more than an intricate and detailed form of symbolisation in sound or text, has for centuries been privileged as a transparent medium through which we articulate what exists before us in objective reality. In fact according to the bible, the ‘word’ predates our universe as its cause; even the profit Jesus is considered ‘the word of God made flesh’ (Marinelli, 1993, p. 123). In religious traditions the word in written or animated form has tremendous significance. The 'word' can be sacred in that it allegedly contains absolute truth. The Christian community accept the bible as ‘the written word of God’; the Jewish, the Torah; the Muslims- the Koran; and for most Hindus, the Bhagavad-gita otherwise known as the ‘song of God’. As with the Swastika, the sacredness of religious texts exists largely for the related community, for others such texts may insight threat and fear. Can God, truth or what's sacred exist in an objectified textual form, or like the Swastika is it we who impose or read our meaning into it?

In looking further into the question of discovering the meaning, especially sacred meaning in symbols and text, I have chosen to focus this piece on one particular faith and how it seeks to make meaning from it canonical texts. The Hare Krishna Movement, a Gaudiya Vaishnava Hindu tradition with roots in medieval and ancient India puts absolute faith in scripture. Presenting their regard for sacred text, as well as the problems that may be borne from it, I will look at this in light of the theory of reading being an ‘event’. The 'event' idea is debated by Reader-response theorists of varying views debating how we learn in the act of reading. I will consider the basic theory and its potential implication upon the Hare Krishna approach.

Sabda Pramanam: The Absolute Truth in Text
In the Chaitanya tradition (Hare Krishna) truth exist in sacred texts[2]. The literal meaning of the texts, rather than metamorphic, is also preferred[3]. In the Tattva Sandarbha of Jiva Goswami, a prominent follower of Chaitanya, the highest truth is the sacred texts (sabda pramanam), the foremost of which is the Bhagavat Purana[4]. Next to sacred texts, is reason (anumana) and then sensual perception (pratyaksa). However, when it comes to a conflict of meaning, reason and perception are relegated to a lower position. They are only accepted when they conform to the knowledge as it exists in sacred text[5]. This ideology and consequent world view is expressed by the Hare Krishnas as being the ‘Vedic version’[6].
Truth as it exists in text is taught by a succession of spiritual teachers (gurus), who in referring to the texts may only expand upon their meaning without changing it. The guru, is therefore often referred to as a ‘transparent via media’[7], and the process as—'amnaya'[8] To emphasise this point the example of Buddha is cited, even though he is accepted by the tradition to be an incarnation of Krishna, his teachings are not accepted because he himself rejected the Vedas (sacred texts)[9]. Along with the texts and the guru, followers are advised to take guidance from holy company (sadhus)[10]. When conformity of meaning is found in this tripartite equation (guru-teacher, sadhu-holy people, and sastra-scripture), a devotee arrives at truth. The guru is inseparable from the sacred texts because his qualification and status are based on them, his teachings must comply with them; and others can only realise their meaning through him. Where this conformity is true and recognised by the sadhus, truth or meaning arrived. This equation is often referred to by Hare Krishna devotees as the ‘checks and balance’[11].

The corner stone of the tripartite is of course the sacred text[12]. The text exists as the unquestioned authority which must to be understood without interpretation. Thus the Hare Krishna founder, Swami Prabhupada compared the Vedas (inferring all primary and secondary texts) to a mother in the sense that only on the basis of her authority can a person know who their father is[13]. In the rudimentary stages of practice, greater scriptural erudition elevates a person to a higher class of eligibility (Uttama-adhikari)[14].

When the founder of the Hare Krishna movement, Srila Prabhupada died, the immediate succession of mostly western born gurus to collapsed as the majority of them fell from grace. More than before the devotees turned to Prabhupada’s written works for direction. During his lifetime Swami Prabhupada had stated that everything could be known, including he himself, through studying his books: ‘There is nothing new to be said. Everything is in my books. Therefore, if you want to know me, read my books’. He taught that his instruction (vani), which now exists in textual form, was far more important than his physical presence (vapu)[15]. Some of his followers consider that his books will be the law books for the next ‘ten thousand years’. With the fall of the gurus, the resultant scepticism, and the now many views among the dispirit sadhus, the sacred canon of ‘Prabhupada’s books’ has taken centre stage. As Prabhupada's books are interpreted by followers, arguments, factions and schisms are on the increase; each proclaiming to have 'the truth'.

Pranipat: The submissive or ‘invisible reader’
Comprehensive as the tripartite equation may appear it leans heavily to the side of the texts. In the Hare Krishna movement that leaning is further accentuated to the point of complete and exclusive dependency. Understanding the texts to be crucial, many of the movements problems are put to a scriptural or sastric committee for research and response. However, it would appear that a most substantive element is overlooked in this system, and that is the individual reader. Described as a surrendered (pranipat) and submissive enquirer[16], is the reader presumed to be empty of stuff or ‘unbiased and objective’ in interpreting. This assumption is not something particular to the Hare Krishnas, as is pointed out by one of the earliest reader-response critics Louise M. Rosenblatt:

‘The long history of the theory of literature, from Plato to the present, records certain well-known shifts of emphasis. In surveying these changes, I find it helpful to visualize a little scene: on a darkened stage I see the figures of the author and the reader, with the book--the text of the poem or play or novel--between them. The spotlight focuses on one of them so brightly that the others fade into practical invisibility. Throughout the centuries, it becomes apparent, usually either the book or the author has received major illumination. The reader has tended to remain in shadow, taken for granted, to all intents and purposes invisible.’ (Rosenblatt, 1978, p. 1)

Reader response criticism in its many theories addresses this imbalance by turning our attention to the reader. Opposing the New Critics approach to literature, which considers the text to be a ‘self-contained aesthetic object’ (Dobie, 2002, p. 131) seeking to be understood; Reader-response theorists posit that the text exists only as a contributor— to varying degrees— to meaning which is in fact the creation of the reader. The deference shown to scripture by the Hare Krishna movement is much akin to that of the New Critics and may therefore contribute to the conflicts and schisms. The same scenario is highlighted by Stanley E. Fish: ‘...evidence brought to bear in the course of formalist analyses—that is, analyses generated by the assumption that meaning is embedded in the artefact—will always point in as many directions as there are interpreters; that is, not only will it prove something, it will prove anything.’ (Fish, Interpreting the Variorum, 1980, p. 166).

If indeed this is the case, that the meaning presumed to be ‘embedded’ in the text is more likely to be our own production; then where and what is it that the religious reader considers to be objectified in text?

The author, the text and the reader: a ‘live circuit’
In the Transactional theory of Rosenblatt, the ‘author’ comes to an end in committing their thoughts to written form. Through careful choice of language, authors do their best to represent their composition in ‘approximation’ as ink marks on paper. Once done it is left with the interpreter to decipher meaning. However in this act the reader, stimulated by the ink-markings, produces meaning by drawing from the entire matrix of information that exists within their head.  As the reader meets the text it ‘activates’ within them associations of external and internal reference. It meets them in their entirety, as they exist in that moment. Rosenblatt described the process as follows:

The symbols point to these sensations, images, objects, ideas, relationships, with the particular associations or feeling-tones created by his past experiences with them in actual life or in literature. The selection and organization of responses to some degree hinge on the assumptions, the expectations, or sense of possible structures, that he brings out of the stream of his life. Thus built into the raw material of the literary process itself is the particular world of the reader. (Rosenblatt, 1978, p. 11)

The finding of meaning is therefore said to involve ‘both the author’s text and what the reader brings to it.’ (Rosenblatt, 1978, p. 14). The text, far from now being redundant shapes the production of meaning by stimulation and regulation:

First, the text is the stimulus that focuses the reader's attention so that elements of past experience-concepts linked with verbal symbols--are activated. Second, as the reader seeks a hypothesis to guide the selecting, rejecting, and ordering of what is being called forth, the text helps to regulate what shall be held in the forefront of the reader's attention. (Rosenblatt, 1978, p. 11)

Rosenblatt thus considers the making of meaning to be something that exists as a ‘live circuit’ in operation between the reader and the text. In this the author is not ignored as the text represents their codified expression, the text is also not dismissed as it contains a blueprint which ‘orders’ and governs the readers thoughts. Then most importantly the reader is not considered a ‘tambula ras’ upon which meaning is inscribed. Rosenblatt proposes that in this way a text becomes a ‘poem’; it exist as an ‘event’ taking place between the text and the reader at the specific ‘time’ and ‘place’ of their coming together. This ‘whole scene’ is what constitutes meaning, if any of the ‘components’ of this circuit were to change, what would exist would be a different event or poem (Rosenblatt, 1978, p. 14).

‘Meaning as an Event’
In Literature and The Reader, Stanley Fish describes the ‘event’ as what the text ‘does’ to the reader while engaged in the act of reading. Choosing sentences which tend to leave the reader questioning and suspended without conclusion, he identifies the process the reader undergoes form logical expectation, to questioning, rereading; all provoked by the syntax. Fish considers these responses to be events within the mind and thus constituents of meaning: ‘the reader’s inability to tell...and his involuntary question...are events in his encounter with the line, and as events they are part of the lines meaning’ (Fish, Literature in The Reader, 1980, p. 73). Fish denies the idea that the text exists as an object seperate from the reader. Rather it is something which ‘happens to’ the reader. As with Rosenblatt, Fish sees an exchange between the words and the reader’s mind, as a ‘happening’ invisible to the ‘naked eye’, and made perceivable by the question: what does this text do? He concludes simply: ‘that what it does is what it means’. What it does is in effect the reader’s personal experience: ‘It is the experience of an utterance...that is its meaning.’ (Fish, Literature in The Reader, 1980, pp. 77- 78). Therefore the meaning of any text is quite simply the experience of the reader.

The objectivity of the text is a ‘dangerous illusion’ according to Fish, because it is so ‘physically convincing’. A book is something contained that we can see before us, hold, open, close and put away; it has the gloss of appearing to be the container of complete meaning. Fish prefers to see the book as ‘kinetic art’, we move it and it moves us in the act of reading. The book on its own, in the absence of the reader, has no meaning. Dobie suggests the same: ‘...the reader, without whose attention and reaction the text would be inert and meaningless. In one sense the work would not exist at all. It would be like the proverbial tree that makes no sound when it falls because there is nobody there to hear it.’ (Dobie, 2002, p. 131) Wolgang Iser concludes along the same lines, that it is in the act of reading that the work, a potential structure, is ‘concretized’ as is given value and meaning: ‘The significance of the work, then, does not lie in the meaning sealed within the text, but in the fact that that meaning brings out what was previously sealed within us.’ (Iser, 1987, p. 157)
Inevitably the text though meaningless without the reader, never disappears. However it has moved in this theory, from being understood as a container of meaning to being simply verbal symbols that provoke within the reader the meaning they make.

The reader is someone somewhere
It would be pertinent to note that the reader is a unique individual with active social and psychological content. He or she is neither static nor objective, what they bring to the text is the poem, the meaning, the ‘concretization’; however, every ‘event’ is their subjective interpretation informed by a participant community. In Subjective Criticism by Holland and Bleich, the authors bring to our attention the motivations or needs of the reader and how the reader may constitute or colour the production of meaning. Referring to the readers’ psychologies as ‘identity themes’, Holland posits that ‘interpretation is a function of our identity’, and that we replicate ourselves in making meaning (Bennett & Royle, 2004, pp. 13- 14). As such our meaning may be more of a self exposé than being the objects of discovery. Fish broadens the tone and parameters of production to what he calls an ‘interpretive community’ (Bennett & Royle, 2004, p. 13) or those with whom we share the same language, institutions and social space. Thus every reader and their psyche exists within a social and intellectual context--all the stuff that we are made of. Their responses are determined in variant degrees by the conventions within which they were taught and the ‘socio- historical’ circumstances they find themselves. Thus, the reader is engaged in a live production of meaning as part of an event which exists entirely with his or her self, informed by an inverted ‘interpretive community’ and toned by his individual psychological disposition. We may then logically say that in the act of reading, the transaction or transformation that takes place, is actually from one world to another. That is to say that the community and disposition of the author emerges in his unique production of meaning, which is then reduced and codified to verbal symbols. In time an ‘interpretive community’ arrives in the biased form of a disposed individual who produces a new composition, guided by the text, from the meaning he brings to the text. As such the experience, the meaning, what in fact the text has done is an event with an outcome that has never happened before and will never happen again. The meaning produced is someone's, somewhere and thus subjective and rather far from being ‘embedded’ in a text.

If every reading is an act which produces subjective meaning, the position of authority and absolute meaning afforded to religious texts is undermined. As described earlier the Hare Krishna movement first sees their scriptures as God incarnate and the teachings of their founder: Swami Prabhupada now etched in text, as the final word. All truths and spiritual prescriptions are therefore sought by exclusive scriptural exegesis. The implications of Reader-response theory on this epistemology, is that it unhinges the absolute from the text and fragments it within the subjectivity and multiplicity of devotee readers. The text is emptied of meaning and remains as no more than, and at best, the ‘artistic’ (the author’s text) from which the ‘aesthetic’ or readers meaning can be produced. The scripture, just as the poem, is what the reader creates by engaging with the text; it ‘stimulates’ and ‘regulates’ the meaning to be made.

The splintering of the Hare Krishna Movement caused by the variant readings of the founder’s words may well be due to the failure of the members to recognise that meaning does not exist within words. As Fish pointed out, believing meaning to be ‘embedded’ in text will point towards as many directions as there are interpreters. Perhaps that is why the guru is required: to delimit interpretational directions. However in critical assumptions his role would no longer stand to locate real meaning in the text, but rather to compensate for what is absent. The further engagement recommended with sadhus would suggest that meaning is in fact farther from the text than previously assumed. It now exists in an expansive ‘circuit’ between verbal symbols, the reader, the guru and the community of sadhus. Perhaps filling the ‘gaps’ or supplementing for what is absent, the circuit provides a sense of stable, complete and absolute meaning.

In further consideration the tripartite system could conceivably be the traditions encouragement towards what Rosenblatt calls an ‘aesthetic reading’. In this type of reading the reader is far more in tune with their internal matrix of meaning. Rather than searching for facts in the text (efferent reading) the act is far more thoughtful. The system also inherently directs the reader beyond the book, thus indirectly stating ‘all is not here in the book’. However, more interestingly, and perhaps not immediately recognisable, is that the system leaves the mediation and calibration of tripartite referencing entirely to the reader. There is no one authority directing, it is evident that the reader must synthesise their interpretations of these three parts into coherent form. This is no more than the ‘event’ as was described before, and the ‘interpretive community’ in this case is the guru and the sadhus.
In each event new meaning is made and there is a reforming and informing of the current of cognition. This would also appear to be what lies behind Swami Prabhupada’s statement: ‘so read and speak from the books and so many new lights will come’. Where the text remains exactly the same, the devotee reader or situation has changed and thus new meanings are produced. From this it would appear that Reader-response theory poses no threat to the Hare Krishna epistemology. Quite the opposite it may rather be helpful and encouraging as the 'aesthetic reading' process appears to be already inherent in the guru, sadhu and sastra system. With over emphasis and exclusive focus on the text, coupled with the presumption that meaning is embedded in text, the resulting absolutism, disallowing difference among the members, could well be causing the schisms present in the movement. Meaning as it is manufactured by a community in response to and shaped by the holy books, may well be where meaning exists. It is all in transition and transaction that include the guru, the sadhus, the sastras and importantly the reader; and is thus most definitely not solely and objectively embedded in a static text that exists outside of everything. Religious texts are a very elaborate Swastika and it is we, a whole community in time and space, that bring meaning to them.

2010 Copyright Gauri-das
Abbreviations and Primary Texts
BID Beyond Illusion and Doubt
BG Bhagavad-gita
CCML Chaitanya Caritamrta Madhya Lila
CC An. L Chaitanya Caritamrta Antya Lila
NOD Nectar of Devotion
RVL Reading in Vedic Literature
SI Sri Isopanisad
TLK Teachings of Lord Kapila
(All the above are translations and commentaries by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Los Angeles: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust)
DMT Dashamula Tattvam, translated by T.S.B.S. Narayana Maharaj (2002), Chennai: Sri Gaudiya Math.
TS Sri Tattva Sandarbha, trans. and commentary by Satya Narayana Dasa, Kundali Dasa (1995) Mathura: Jiva Institute for Vaisnava Studies.

(n.d.). Retrieved from BBC News:
Bennett, A., & Royle, N. (2004). An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory. Harlow: Pearson Education Ltd.
Dasa, B. B. (n.d.). Social Theory and Schisms in the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. Retrieved 04 29, 2010, from ISKCON Studies Institute:
Dobie, A. B. (2002). Theory Into Practice: An Introduction to Literary Criticism. Boston: Harcourt College Publishers.
Fish, S. E. (1980). Interpreting the Variorum. In J. P. Thompkins, Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism To Post-Structuralism. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press.
Fish, S. E. (1980). Literature in The Reader. In J. P.Tompkins, Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism (pp. 70- 100). Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press.
Iser, W. (1987). The Act of Reading: a Theory of Aesthetic Response. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.
Marinelli, A. J. (1993). The Word made flesh: an overview of the Catholic faith. New Jersey: Paulest Press.
Rosenblatt, L. M. (1978). The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work . Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press.
Suleiman, S. R., & Crosman, I. (1980). The Reader in the Text. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[2] TS 11
[3] CC. ML. 6.135
[4] TS 18. 2- 3
[5] TS 9, commentary by Jiva Goswami.
[6] See BG 4.9, commentary by Swami Prabhupada.
[7] TLK 11.22, commentary by Swami Prabhupada.
[8] DMT 2.1
[9] NOD pp. 61- 62
[10] ‘Sadhu, sastra, and guru corroborate one another’ Swami Prabhupada in Beyond Illusion and Doubt.
[11] RVL 1.5
[12] CCML 20.352, commentary by Swami Prabhupada.
[13] SI, introduction p. ix
[14] CCML 22.65
[15] CC An .L 5, concluding words by Swami Prabhupada.
[16] BG 4.32

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