Monday, December 10, 2018

Is Rajanaka "religion"? A Note to a Friend

I wrote this first as a personal email to a friend for whom I have very deep regard. He happens to be a colleague, a college professor of history, so the tone here is meant to speak to our common concerns and shared educational values. He raised serious and basic questions about Rajanaka and especially about Rajanaka pilgrimage. I almost immediately turned my reply into a more for-everyone response. It's typically lengthy. In addition to being deeply accomplished and a gifted critical thinker, he's also sorta' new around here and I will never tire of trying to describe and explain what Appa so patiently taught me more than 40 years ago about Rajanaka. If any or all seems familiar to you, I hope it too inspires beginner's mind and opens all again to inquiry. Aappa wanted simple things first: dignity, education, support, affection, and respect. But he never thought those things were easy. The easy stuff is learning things anyone can learn, like some Sanskrit or the names of all of the gods.

Let's talk about this basic question just for fun not because all good conversation is fun but because no one else in the world needs to take this question seriously other than, say, me. Any of you who use the word "Rajanaka" have always made your own peace with its meanings precisely because that is what "Rajanaka" is _meant_ to be.

Appa encouraged me (actually it was as close to an imperative as anything he ever "suggested") to create my own sensibilities and meanings. So what is left if most is left up to you? That's a question within, behind the question that we began with. If you don't care or don't use the word "Rajanaka" other than to refer to what we do here (or what Appa or I have said), I'm only presuming we are true friends, that being all he ever hoped of me.

I'm going to take this in two pieces. First, the ways Rajanaka is _like_ religion and uses religion(s). Second, how Rajanaka is most decidedly _not_ like religion or like most religions I can reference. Since I'm, you know, a professor in a Religion & Classics Department, I'm presuming the ability to function with a bit of "outsider-ness"---in the profession we call this "etic", the view from "outside" a social group---while I'm also "emic", couldn't be more of an "inside" than this. Much of this will bore you. Because, really, who cares? It's axiomatic that I never assume anyone should or will care about ideas I find interesting.

Like a religion...

*Provenance and Tradition
Rajanaka originates in conversations rooted unambiguously in Hindu worlds. Think of this as concentric circles or our proverbial matryoshka dolls, which is how to best understand all forms of Hinduism. Working the dolls from the inside out, that is, from the particular which means the "lineage" out towards larger segments of tradition tells the story most accurately. (You never learn to generalize by learning things in general.) Rajanaka begins within the larger Nataraja Chidambaram setting, including its principal conversants being raised in that environment of images, ideas, myths, rituals, customs, and values. This already makes Rajanaka an outlier among Shaivisms of south India because Nataraja is unlike other gods and temples: it decenters the sanctum, does not privilege the linga as image, has its own rules (far, far more "liberal" than others), has no direct association with any ideology or theology, and creates no authority for source material or interpretation. The temple runs on custom, not doctrine: this is crucial because it invokes orthopraxy (do it) over orthodoxy (believe it, say it).

Sitting side by side the Nataraja center, co-equal such as it is, is the Great Goddess, the Tantra of Auspicious Wisdom or Shrividya, which has no direct historical connections with the temple other than that it's ubiquitous among Shaiva-Shakta centers across south India. Within any ordinary definition of Shrividya as doctrine or ideology, Rajanaka is heresy, an outlier, very much not like any other lineage I have studied (i.e., hundreds in text and anthropology). Where Rajanaka is like other Shrividyas is in conceptual symbolism and practices---all of which are interpreted by _every lineage_ to suit themselves. We do the stories, images, many of the pujas (not all, others don't do ours), practices, etc. that are common to nearly all Shrividya. Rajanaka begins within this context at least four or five generations before me---Appa spoke with clarity and familiarity about three sets of elders in the lines (parampara) of transmission (i.e., conversation over the same material). All of these conversants created a sammelana, that is, a commingling of the complex of Nataraja myths (plus temple lore, associations) and Shrividya.|

So Rajanaka is a parampara, just like other traditional lineage teachings, and one that has a central body that comes from geography, canons of philosophers and those employing imagery, myth, ritual, and practices (things we do like darshan, puja, meditations). It's a strange form of Shrividya with a Nataraja source, that's the simplest provenance solution. Appa extends back three or four generations and there are real names and real persons associated with that learning and "passing along." We are not based on a mystical claim or a reclamation theory (i.e., revival after loss, like all the neo-Kashmir Shaivisms). Does Rajanaka itself go back further than, say, about the middle of the 18th century? I have no historical information about that. Appa said that because it evolves in _every generation_ because it uses contemporary ideas, it's more like evolution via natural selection---it changes with the mutations that survive each generation. This is, I think, the wisest description of our continuities and connections. See the list of ways we are _not_ like religions for a further comment on this matter.

The details of the content of Rajanaka traditions are what you have all been learning in seminars and camps and pilgrimage for the last nearly 20 years now. I’m on Rajanaka year 41 and let’s say year about 44 of committed studies in Hinduism and the comparative study of religions.

To summarize, first, like other Hinduisms, Rajanaka has a history within the complexities of history, geography, language, social organization, ideologies, and practices. The most important take away is that Rajanaka does not adhere or draw its teachings or interpretations in concordance with any historical figures, schools, or canons. Rather, Rajanaka puts itself in conversation with these sources and finds itself largely at odds with basic and foundational claims. Why? First, it is the nature of a Rajanaka conversation to desist from any dogma or doctrine that avers the critical examination. Critical thought is, by every modern definition, a secular enterprise. More about this shortly. Second, Rajanaka takes what we might call "the Vedic attitude," which unlike later Hinduism has _no_ concept of final liberation, the "realized being" (pick your term here: buddha, siddha,, or mystical states that somehow exempt us from the terms of our limited, mortal condition. The Veda declares "give to me, I give," and so creates the "attitude" that life is for living, with all its imperfections, incompletions, successes and failures. Rajanaka _uses_ Hindu canons of myth (textual and oral), ritual, etc., but interprets them wholly from within "Vedic attitudes." Lots of detail here to reference later.

Rajanaka also draws deeply from certain other religions, particularly Buddhism. Appa was far more learned than any of his predecessors in Buddhism, Confucian and Taoist traditions, basically in the history of religions. He incorporated a great deal from this material as he did from western and secular literatures. You don't find this in other traditional Hinduisms but it is not terribly uncommon in what we call Neo-Hinduisms and other kinds of Perennialist formulations.

Not like a "religion"...
*Method and Purpose
Rajanaka method is grounded on secular humanistic inquiry that focuses on empirical processes of "argument." To wit, our "famous" triadic referencing of ask _any_ question, follow evidence where it leads, and always attempt to undermine your best argument with other arguments. Knowledge is provisional, unfinished, incomplete, and works within the confines of what is generally understood to be modern "scientific method." As far as I can tell, this has been a founding principle, meaning that Appa always described Rajanaka as method rather than any doctrine. As one scientist recently put it, "The history and purpose of science has been to supplant itself, throw out old paradigms as they reach a crisis and are supplanted by new ones. This never happens in theology."

If Rajanaka is a "theology" inasmuch as it uses and talks about gods (demons, etc.), then it is a science and artistry dedicated to the gods. The god are us, we are every character in the story. But the author has a point: religions do not generally desire or claim to "throw out" their old paradigms and, by the way, don't let the Buddhists fool you about this either. They too, even in their most subversive forms of doctrine, claim doctrines, not merely heuristic devices. For example, all Buddhisms claim enlightentment, buddhas, and magical powers, even Zen and Theravada based versions. There are nowadays "secular Buddhisms" that share much in common with Rajanaka's secular methodologies and humanist concerns.

*Evolutionary Identity and Individual Interpretation

Not only does Rajanaka leave it up to you to think and feel and put things in your own perspective, it's method encourages that kind of inquiry. If you wander off the reservation of secular method, I get nervous about what you might claim but it's a principle too of secular method that our personal madnesses are personal and so can't really be verified or refuted. Try not to be too crazy and do your best to stick to what we think we do know--it's the method of asking that makes us us and that's wholly "secular." Rajanaka changes with every generations' acquisition of more information, better evidence, more critical arguments. It certainly has changed dramatically in the past 40 years and has especially become more inclusive of the finding of critical thinking: history, language, science, etc.

Rajanaka takes up secular argument as its method not because its perfect, flawless, or incontrovertible but because none of those things apply. "Argument" (this is a technical term, it's not quarreling) is simply what we think is better than other kinds of evidence finding and inquiry. Arugments are replaced with "better" arguments and we think we can do that because human beings learn, albeit always imperfectly. No perfection, no finality, but a real commitment to "at present this is the best we got..." and that makes for some kind of truth. There's no higher truth, nothing but our hard-won human efforts to learn.

*Goals and Outcomes

Religions promise or claim things that Rajanaka does not advocate or express much interest in. Things like afterlife or much of what is deemed mystical knowledge is not on the docket. Other typical claims are more overtly rejected. For example, to claim a superior human state that solves the problematics of the human condition (with all its flawsn and shadows) is outrightly rejected as anachronistic and morally suspect. To claim that someone is somehow exempt or relieved of full human accountability, is immune or beyond foible or flaw in any way is dangerous and _de-humanizing_.

This means that about 99.9% of all claims for buddha, siddha, guru, etc. are regarded as religious assertions and, more importantly, are _deeply suspect_ for their implications. Abuse, misuse of power, structural privilege and prejudice certainly follow from even the most innocent interpretations of these basic concepts. Of course there is real human achievement, deep respect for learning and obvious needs for hierarchies of merit---but it is much like the American experiment as Thomas Paine put it: "the law is the king" and that means it can change, that its interpreters are often deeply flawed, and that no one beyond its ideals or merits.

Rajanaka uses "Dharma" to mean an ideal that of "laws" that must be constantly subject to reappraisal, evolution, and revision. Imperfect as we are, we are trying to make things fair and use principles of human equality. When Appa invited an American teenager to live in his orthoprax south Indian Brahmin home he was making a cultural, political, and religious statement. His religious statement was revolutionary and largely apostasy by any conventional standard. He looked at us as _human beings_, nothing more and never less. Rajanaka's goal is a life well-lived and life deeply loved. Making that opportunity possible for others and one's self is our goal. How you decided to love your life is something Appa _wanted_ to affirm---just try not to impose your preferences and consolations on others as far as possible. Appa taught freedom and thought of that as socially secular and individually about liberty. I think this is why he spoke so much about the American experiment and tied it to the ideals of India's independence, quite fully aware of the hypocrisies, foibles, on-going failures and future perils (and abuses).

Rajanaka invites moral character based on the notion that serving others' opportunities for personal development invites us to live as far as possible in the dignity and integrity of our values and ideals. It's complicated because we are all imperfect and so much is hidden from, within, and by us. We are creatures of light and shadow: Rajanaka invites us to interrogate and integrate those basic human circumstances and possibilities.


Rajanaka focuses on "indirect" sources of experience within its secular agenda. That is, we are particularly interested in mythology, poetry, literature, art, music, and human endeavors like pilgrimage, ritual, and embodied experiences (including yoga, anything that you would regard to be "spiritual" including reading or meditation). Our interest is twofold: first, to create a deeper _evocative_ human experience of _feeling_ as for resource of character and in relationships. Second, it is to work _within_ the provenance of traditions to respect and honor those with whom we participate and from whom we learn. Pilgrimage presents a particularly important example.

To take a Rajanaka pilgrimage is to enter a conversation of cultural appropriation and shared engagement. We go to south India and try to dress, act, eat, and share in and with Tamil culture as far as possible. Tamils almost universally applaud and receive this "appropriation" by westerners as deeply honoring and emotionally moving. I have heard hundreds of ambient conversations in Tamil about how our presentation is elevating, honoring, and even inspiring. But it is what this "appropriation" does as well to us and for us. Rajanaka see the world as a stage and invites us to play roles that invite deeper participation, all the while hoping not to create deeper offense. (Invariably someone somewhere will take some offense. So? Choose wisely how you engage, that is always the Rajanaka way.)

Appa thought I should "act normally" when I came back to America and basically honor my own heritage, take notice of when being unnoticed serves well. He wouldn't have said anything if I wore Indian clothes to work here but I guarantee you that he wouldn't have done that anymore than he would do puja, seek darshan, or go on pilgrimage in anything but appropriate traditional Indian dress. In our home in India, I always wore "normal" traditional Tamil dress. He would go to his university job in western clothes, as I would in Indian _unless_ he was going to a puja or temple, then he would dress appropriately for that too. In short, he did the appropriate thing and that was a judgment call, usually not a hard one.

There's a word for this in Sanskrit that we use: ācityā, which literally means "to the very boundaries of awareness" but can be translated as "appropriate." We are all appropriating _something_ all of the time. The idea here is to be respectful of others _and_ to _evoke within one's self_ the feelings that arise when one dares to create roles in life and live them with integrity. I don't invite my students at the university to use my first name nor are they permitted to attend Rajanaka events (until they graduate). I am trying to take roles and relationships seriously but also respecting context, provenance, and the ways humans use and offer_power_. If one wants to do _Rajanaka_ pilgrimage in India _with me_ then there are "rules" that apply to everyone so that we can share experiences of pilgrimage. If one has another goal or idea then they are free to do it in another context.

If 'dressing up' for pilgrimage makes you feel uncomfortable then that's part of the process and the role, just like darshan as a practice is likely to make you feel very very strange. Appa said that we westerners get more from pilgrimage and darshan precisely because it makes us feel uncomfortable while Indians see it as something not to question in the same ways. He also chuckled when I said that I make some Indian folks a bit self conscious and replied that this is part of the "theatre of memory" that churns us from the source of feeling that originates in the unconscious. It is to churn the unconscious that is at the heart of all Rajanaka learning and practices. What comes up from those deep and dark places is the light that illumines the self and the many selves we inhabit.