Steering the Head and the Heart by Yugala Kisora Dasa

Which should you trust more – your head or your heart? This question was raised at the 2007 Great American Think-Off, a national philosophy contest that gives common people the chance to debate over some of life’s more perplexing questions. The live audience in New York Mills selected as a winner an arts’ administrator from Minneapolis, Joe Kaiser, who argued that in making decisions, one should trust the heart more than the head. On the one hand, heart’s decisions come from our experience, intuitive feelings, and instinctive knowing without the use of rational processes. A decision that comes from the head, on the other hand, involves analytical thinking and methodical examination of things. Do these two modes of decision making automatically exclude each other? Furthermore, if we would apply these two outlooks to the religious life, then in meeting with God, what should be the prevailing attitude? Interestingly enough, the second place at the debate went to the ‘head’, a position defended by Paul D. Allick, an Episcopal priest (Locke, 2007, [online]).

In Indian religious tradition, devotion or bhakti-yoga is often connected with intense emotion toward the deity. Among the three ways to salvation, the course of proper action (karma-yoga) and the path of knowledge (jnana-yoga), bhakti is the one that comes from the heart. Whereas karma-yoga prescribes complicated ritualistic performances, and jnana-yoga requires rigorous spiritual discipline, by the path of loving devotion (bhakti-yoga), so the bhakti scriptures say, a person very easily achieves the desired goal – liberation from material existence.

In this essay, I examine the similarities and differences between forms of bhakti in the Srivaisnava tradition of Ramanuja and the Alvars, and the Caitanya Vaisnava tradition. Ramanuja did not try to defend the emotional bhakti of the Alvars, and was more concerned with the Vedanta philosophy, Bhagavad-gita, and the earlier Pancaratra tradition. On the one hand, in an apologetic way toward the acceptance of the older and generally more acceptable bhakti, he went for the ‘head’. On the other hand, drawing mainly from the Bhagavata Purana, Caitanya Vaisnava tradition treats emotions very systematically accentuating thus more the ‘heart’. In my essay, I suggest that one can steer the head and the heart as one, with cooperation and in contact with each other. Whereas Ramanuja purposefully veils his emotionalism, the Caitanya Vaisnava tradition couches its theology of bhakti-rasa and emotional bhakti in carefully formulated philosophical and theological system.

To establish themselves in the somewhat inflexible Hindu social milieu, in both of the traditions, Sanskrit language was used to ascertain the authority of their teachings. In the case of the Caitanya Vaisnava tradition, the important concern was also the validity of sampradaya of Caitanya, or his disciplic lineage. As much as it was possible for me, I relied on the primary sources, such as Ramanuja’s commentary on the Bhagavad-gita or the Bhakti-rasamrta-sindhu by Rupa Gosvami. Additionally, I also use the wide variety of secondary sources and works by scholars and specialists in the Srivaisnava and Caitanya Vaisnava traditions.

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