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Experiencing Kṛṣṇa: Theophilosophical, Phenomenological, and Cognitive Dimensions of Religious Experience in the Caitanya Vaiṣṇava Tradition

Panel Chair: Kiyokazu Okita | Tuesday, August 25, 3:30-5:30 p.m. | Venue

In Hindu traditions the role of religious experience is of central concern in epistemological debates about the pramāṇas, means of valid knowledge, and more specifically about the relative importance ascribed to pratyakṣa (perception), knowledge derived from the senses, and śabda (verbal testimony), knowledge derived from śruti, the Vedic scriptures. The authority of śruti is linked to the experiences of the ṛṣis, “seers,” who are held to have cognized the transcendent structures of reality and recorded their cognitions in the form of the Vedic scriptures. This panel will focus on the role of religious experience as a pramāṇa in the Caitanya Vaiṣṇava tradition, a Hindu devotional tradition that originated in sixteenth-century India and flourishes today throughout the world. Using scriptural, historical, and ethnographic data, the panelists will analyze from theophilosophical, phenomenological, and cognitive perspectives various practices that are aimed at attaining direct experience of the object of devotion, the deity Kṛṣṇa.

Barbara Holdrege

Replicating the Experiences of the Sages: Caitanya Vaiṣṇava Technologies of Meditation

Jīva Gosvāmin, one of the principal architects of the Caitanya Vaiṣṇava theological edifice, invokes the authority of the sage Vyāsa and other great ṛṣis (seers) who, while immersed in samādhi in the depths of meditation, attained a direct cognition of the deity Kṛṣṇa in his transcendent abode and recorded their cognitions in the scriptures. He declares the direct experiences of the sages (vidvad-anubhava) to be the “crest-jewel of all pramāṇas” in that the records of their experiences preserved in the scriptures are authoritative testimonies of valid knowledge (pramāṇa) for future generations. He claims, moreover, that these experiences are not the exclusive prerogative of the sages of the past but can be experienced “even today” by advanced practitioners who incorporate meditation into their devotional regimen. This paper will examine the unique repertoire of meditative practices developed by Jīva to replicate the experiences of the sages and attain direct realization of Kṛṣṇa.

Aleksandar Uskokov

Scriptural Perception and Religious Experience in the Caitanya Vaiṣṇava Tradition

The two main branches of Vedic hermeneutics, Pūrva-Mīmāṃsā and Vedānta, understand śabda, revealed scriptural knowledge, to be a form of immediate apprehension. Such apprehension is viewed as similar to pratyakṣa, perceptual apprehension by means of the senses, insofar as it is immediate, but it differs from ordinary perception in that the objects of apprehension are beyond the range of the senses. In this paper I will examine how Jīva Gosvāmin, a leading theologian of the Caitanya Vaiṣṇava tradition, draws on these subtle exegetical understandings of perceptual and scriptural knowledge to develop an original account of what we might call “scriptural perception.” Applying the basic features of perception to scripture, he claims that these features are operative in the ways in which scripture presents knowledge of God. This paper will use these ideas, developed in the context of scriptural interpretation, to explore aspects of religious experience in the Caitanya Vaiṣṇava tradition.

Hrvoje Čargonja

Aesthetics of Emotional Expansion in Caitanya Vaiṣṇava Religious Experiences

The Caitanya Vaiṣṇava tradition emphasizes emotional expansion as a central feature of religious experience. Drawing on the ancient Indian theory of drama and poetics known as rasa theory, this tradition approaches aesthetic experience primarily through the optics of emotional aesthetics. In this way the tradition foregrounds an often neglected feature of the dynamics of emotions, sensations, and feelings: their time-extended, periodic, and expansive nature. Employing the anthropological perspective of cultural phenomenology, I will use my fieldwork on the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, a modern branch of Caitanya Vaiṣṇavism, to show how the “embodied aesthetics” of emotional expansion evidenced in the practitioners’ narratives of religious experience can be described through aesthetic values of control, intimacy, and play. In this perspective the flow of emotional embodiment that engenders these three aesthetic values serves as a positive feedback loop that gradually increases the overall coherence and emotional intensity of the religious experience.

Travis Chilcott

Experiencing Deities: The Cognitive Dynamics of Perceiving Kṛṣṇa

Early Gauḍīya theologians make numerous claims that advanced practitioners have private experiences of perceiving Kṛṣṇa, but questions arise as to whether these claims are based on actual experiences that they or others had, exegetical ruminations developed on the basis of inherited teachings, or some combination thereof. In light of these questions, this paper investigates whether or not occurrences of private experiences of perceiving Kṛṣṇa can be plausibly understood within the framework of methodological naturalism. If they can, this offers support for the hypothesis that these theologians’ claims are based, at least in part, on experiences that they or others had. If they cannot, it suggests they may be better understood as the result of exegetical ruminations. This investigation combines humanistic and scientific approaches for the study historical claims to facilitate a richer interpretation and explanation of such claims than what is possible through traditional humanistic approaches alone.


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