Interpreting The Rasik Tradition
Among the few scholars who have examined Ramaite rasik texts and practices, the most common approach has been to stress the highly derivative nature of the tradition. Thus R. S. McGregor, in a short essay on the Dhyanmanjari , attempts to demonstrate that Agradas composed his text under the influence of a Krsnaite source, the Raspancadhyayi of Nanddas. The Sanskrit BhusundiRamayana , an esoteric rewrite of the Ramayana in the light of rasik practices, has been termed by B. P. Singh "only a transformation of the Bhagavata [purana ] text," while Hans Bakker, in his recent study of Ayodhya, labels this Ramayana's conceptualization of the holy city "no more than a trivial replica of the sacred topography developed for Braj in the Vrajabhaktivilasa of Narayana Bhatta written in A.D. 1552." The writer who has offered the only ethnographic data on Ramanandi rasiks , Dutch anthropologist Peter van der Veer, characterizes their entire tradition as "the 'Krsnaization' of Ram bhakti ." Such evaluations reflect modern scholarship's preference for a historical approach—which seeks to understand religious movements by tracing them back to their presumed origins—and they indeed shed much light on the process of sectarian evolution. Thus it has been shown that from Agradas's time onward Ramanandi centers in Rajasthan were in close contact with developments in the Braj region, and that many rasik adepts received training from Krsnaite preceptors in Vrindavan. An historical perspective can also offer an antidote to sectarian fallacies—such as the Ayodhya rasiks ' claim that their tradition is in fact older than that of Vrindavan, since, as every pious Hindu knows, Ram carried on his erotic pastimes in the Treta Yug, the second of the four cosmic epochs, long before Krsna was even a gleam in his father Vasudev's eye.
The perspective of social history may also shed light on the underlying causes of the rise of the rasik tradition from the sixteenth century onward,
though here the interpretation of historical data is more problematic. Joseph O'Connell suggests that the theology and mystical practice of the Vrindavan Gosvamis reflected a Hindu retreat from the Muslim-dominated sociopolitical sphere. This view has been echoed by David Haberman, who sees the enchanted and extrasocial realm of Vrindavan as a response to a "serious need for an expression of Hindu dharma that placed the world of significant meaning far beyond that sphere controlled by the Muslims." Similarly, Singh has suggested that the practices of the Ramanandi rasiks represented a response to an age dominated by "foreign" political powers. Such theories cannot be overlooked in any comprehensive study of these traditions in their cultural context, particularly in view of the long-standing cultic emphasis on the king's identification with Visnu. Yet at the same time, scholars must be wary of judgments colored by the hindsight of twentieth-century communalism, and especially by the idealization, so often encountered in the writings of modern Hindu scholars, of an imagined pre-Muslim past—a view which often tends to compromise the complexity of Indian society at the grass-roots level, with its intricate web of interacting forces and interests. In this context, it is worth reminding ourselves that the practice of visualization and of the fabrication of inner bodies has a very old pedigree in the subcontinent, extending back long before the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate, and also that the "other worlds" of the rasiks came to prominence precisely during a period of generally amicable relations between Hindus and Muslims—most notably during the age of Akbar and his immediate successors—when Hindu nobles occupied powerful positions in the imperial administration and large temples were again being constructed in North India under princely patronage. Similarly, although the rise of the great rasik establishments in Ayodhya occurred only after the breakup of central Mughal authority, it was fueled by the patronage of the newly enfranchised maharajas of the eastern Ganges Valley—such as the rulers of Banaras, Rewa, Tikamgarh, and Dumrao—as well as, significantly, by that of the heterodox and religiously eclectic Shi'ite Nawabs of Oudh, who had their capital at Ayodhya until 1765.
Returning to the question of the genesis of Ramaite rasik practices, we may also observe that there is a stigma attached to the label "derivative," which reflects our own culture's valuation of certain kinds of novelty and originality—concepts often viewed very differently in India—and which may lead us to a cursory dismissal of what we judge to be "unoriginal" material. Useful as it is, a historical understanding offers only one perspective on the Ram rasik tradition; it tells us nothing of the special attraction of its impressive corpus of literature or of the inventive adaptations that it made within the Ramayana framework. Singh's study of this neglected tradition documents some nine hundred texts: astayam manuals, hagiographies like the Rasikprakasbhaktamal , descriptions of the divine city of Saket, and anthologies of songs stamped with the initiatory names of prominent acaryas , as well as such
intriguingly titled works as Rampriya Saran's seven-canto epic, Sitayan (c. 1703), and the earlier Ramalingamrta of one Advait of Banaras (1608). If nothing else, the realization that thousands of pious devotees saw nothing wrong in visualizing Ram and Sita's erotic sports should chasten us in our attempts w apply simplistic categories to Vaisnava traditions: the puritanical Ramaites here, the sensual Krsnaites there.
Moreover, the charge of derivativeness can be much more broadly applied, since it is clear that the whole rasik orientation in Vaisnava bhakti was heavily indebted to the Buddhist and Saiva traditions of an earlier period and indeed seems to have represented the culmination of a long historical process of the "tantricization" of Vaisnavism. This process was already reflected in the Pancaratra literature and in the Bhagavata Purana , and a circa twelfth-century Ramsite text, the AgastyaSamhita , includes instructions for an elaborate visualization of Ram and Sita, enthroned on the pericarp of an immense lotus incorporating all the powers of the cosmos. Agradas's floruit is assumed to have been the second half of the sixteenth century, which would make him a contemporary of the later Vrindavan Gosvamis. His rapid adaptation of their teachings bears witness to the fact that rasik practice was, by his day, an idea whose time had come—a pan-Vaisnava phenomenon which cut across sectarian lines.
The influence of the Ram rasik tradition grew steadily during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the movement acquired a more public profile through an influential commentary on the Ramcaritmanas composed by Mahant Ramcarandas of Ayodhya in about 1805, which was said to have openly revealed the secrets of erotic devotionalism (srngaribhakti ) which Tulsidas had deliberately concealed in his Manas Lake. Van der Veer documents the steadily growing power of rasik institutions in Ayodhya from the early eighteenth century onward—in part a reflection of the patronage of wealthy rajas, zamindars, and merchants who were attracted to the movement. Some of these patrons became initiated sadhaks , like Maharaja Raghuraj Simha of Rewa, himself the author of thirty-two works. Like the tantric tradition before it, the rasik movement underwent a popularization, acquiring a vogue among the elite which was reflected in the predominance of rasik themes in the poetry and painting of the period. And despite the attacks of the Victorians and the puritanical apologetics of the "Hindu Renaissance," the rasik point of view remains much in evidence, especially in Ayodhya, where the majority of important temples are controlled by rasik sects and where the most famous shrine—Kanak Bhavan temple—represents a full-scale realization of the mythical House of Gold, complete with Ram and Sita's opulent bedchamber. It is, of course, difficult to say to what extent the full and arduous rasik meditational regimen is currently put into practice.
It may appear to us ironic that celibate Hindu ascetics like Agradas, who typically led lives of great austerity, should have indulged in internal fanta-
sies in which they roamed jewel-studded pleasure houses and witnessed (or, in some cases, participated in) the untiring loveplay of a divine libertine—doubly ironic in that these scenarios were, as Singh has pointed out, dependent for their tangible details of architecture, dress, and courtly protocol on the recent imperial model of the Mughals. We might recall a parallel in the Western Christian tradition, where the favorite text of the monastics of the Middle Ages was the most erotic book in the Bible, the "Song of Songs." But I would like to end with the suggestion that visualization and projection are not unique to religious practitioners, but are inherent also in what scholars of religion do—the imaginative reconstruction of other people's beliefs and practices. In visualizing another world, it is impossible to avoid seeing through the lens of one's own, and we find this reflected as much in Ram's Mughal-style durbar hall as in our own readings of the rasik tradition—condemned as "licentious," because the Victorian observer is prudish, or written off as "derivative," because the late twentieth-century observer cherishes novelty. Talking about other people's myths is often only a rather arch way of talking about our own, and this being so, we might remind ourselves that the reigning fantasy world of our commercial culture—reconfirmed daily by countless visual cues in television commercials, billboards, and newspaper and magazine advertisements—bears many superficial resemblances to that of the rasiks : a fictive realm in which everyone is young, attractive, and nearly always engaged in erotic play. Yet in two significant respects this untiringly reimaged world of our culture differs strikingly from the realm of Saket: for its characters are not divine (and so not connected to the deeper values supposedly cherished by our society) and its scenarios are not chosen and generated by ourselves, but rather are created for us by the acaryas of a secular and materialist religion, who know wherein the ultimate return lies.