Vrindavan, 2017.10.13 (VT): On Thursday, as a part of the 100th anniversary celebrations of Swami Hit Das’s appearance, a meeting of sadhus and sants from around Vrindavan was held to discuss the issue of “The Rasa Lila tradition in the modern context.”
The current Mahanta of the Hit Ashram, Sri Hit Kamal Dasji Maharaj, has been actively promoting a school for Rasa performance at the ashram and wants to institute year-round daily performances. The discussion comes at the end of a four-day program based on the Ashtayama.
Unfortunately, the meeting was poorly attended compared to the previous days in which Ambarishji Maharaj spoke. And, as Jai Kishore Sharanji said in his comments, there was only one representative from the Rasacharya community. Without the input of the Rasacharyas, little progress could be made on understanding or resolving the issue.
That representative was Ram Gopal Shastri, who was a swaroop as a boy and went on to become a leader of a Ras troupe. However, he told me, that he mostly does Bhagavatam these days because it is difficult to make the traditional kind of Ras Lila troupe economically viable.
He listed some of the problems: “First of all, no one wants to give their children over for training as a Rasa swaroop. Nowadays, there are many other kinds of opportunities available and parents are less inclined to think of this as a viable option. Second of all, even if they want to do so, there is no one who can properly train them any more. Fewer and fewer of the Rasacharyas are actually knowledgeable in the Vani literature that formed the basis of the Rasa performances.
“The next problem is the lack of venues. It is expensive to put on a performance, especially one that goes on for several days, and since fewer people are attracted by Rasa nowadays, there are few yajamanas or sponsors who come forward to do it.
“It used to be that in Shravan there were hundreds of Rasa performances going on around Vrindavan and Braj, but now there are only a few surviving.”
Rup Kishore Das, the mukhiya from the Ghamanda Devacharya peeth on the Parikrama Marg in Pani Gaon, like many of the other speakers, insisted that nothing could destroy the Rasa Lila tradition as it was eternal, but nevertheless he lamented the changes that he had seen and asked for a return to a purer way of doing it.
He himself said that despite the intimate relation of Ghamanda Devacharya to the Rasa Lila tradition in the Nimbarka sampradaya, he himself decided to pursue the Samaj tradition because of his disappointment in the developments within the Rasa Lila world.
Swami Hit Das was a promoter of the Rasa Lila performance tradition, but he himself told Rup Kishore Das that the loss of connection with the canonical Vani texts had diminished them. He also said that as the goal of entertainment took precedence, the spiritual potency and attractiveness of the performances diminished. And, apparently, he predicted that Bhagavatam lectures would supplant Rasa as the most prominent method of spreading Bhakti, but he also wished that the role of singing in Bhagavatam was lessened rather than increased.
He and many of the other speakers told stories of great bhajananandi saints living in Braj-Vrindavan who were regular attendees at Rasa performances and actually directly saw the Divine Couple in the swaroops during performances. There are many such legends of miracles surrounding such events. Karshni Swami Jagadananda from Moti Jheel told a story about his param gurudeva, Karshni Kalapacharya, who also had a miraculous event take place that gave him immeasurable faith in the truth of Radha and Krishna’s incarnation in the swaroops.
Rup Kishore Dasji, however, said that previously older boys who had passed puberty were not given the roles of Radha and Krishna or of the sakhis. They were also brought up in pure Vaishnava practices, and wore tilak and tulasi neckbeads all the time. He also put a lot of importance on the tradition of having only brahmin boys from the Braj areas being eligible to take up these roles, saying that this is essential for maintaining its purity. He again emphasized the need for keeping to the traditional Vani authors, whose spotless descriptions of the lilas enhance the spiritual power of the performances.
He also said that Rasa Lila troupes are departing from the tradition by also doing Ramayana and Mahabharata performances. Having older boys playing the leading roles was also a part of the problem. He said that the madhurya of the Vrindavan mood was being replaced by the aishwarya of Dwarkadhish, and that this was not desirable.
Other speakers emphasized the difficulty of competing with modern entertainments available through electronic media. Although many lamented the substance of films and television soap operas, saying that they are neither uplifting nor true to the spiritual culture of India or Braj; in fact, they promote values that are demeaning to it.