If I´d like to be innovative nowadays in writing an article, sharing some words about Dr. Jordan B. Peterson and his work wouldn´t be that novel. The author of 12 Rules for Life and Maps of Meaning is one of the most remarkable figures to emerge in recent years, and his latest book is a bestseller in the US, as well as other places. In other words, practically everyone is already talking about him. Regardless, I´ll try to share a few thoughts for my own purification. I´ll explore my particular Hindu monastic perspective in connection to the elements I´ve found in Dr. Peterson´s discourse that speak about the same conclusions expressed by the devotional mystics of India. But to bring us there, first I’ll share some words about the author:
Dr. Peterson is well-known for his charismatic approach to paradigmatic social and political issues, but he may be less known for his psychological presentations and even less frequently acknowledged for his own personal spiritual background and experience. I´ll first and foremost focus on the latter and through this exercise try to do justice to Dr. Peterson´s fervent (and often underestimated) engagement with spirituality and religion. His spiritual dexterity is one of the primary reasons I´m dedicating these words to him. I consider him to be, in the most honorable sense, a desperate inquirer and a visceral and authentic human being, a person who is trying to fully surrender and consume the whole of his life in the fire of passionate honesty and responsibility.
As William James properly expressed: “Religion exists not as a dull habit, but as an acute fever.” I cannot but fully identify Dr. Peterson with this statement. He fully walks his talk, evidenced by the fact that I can quote his own words to describe his as someone who, “acts out those ideas in which [he] really believes.” In this connection, I’ve felt quite inspired by him to improve not only the quality of my own emotional and intellectual spheres, but above all to improve my level of spiritual commitment and corresponding worldview. Though I’ve mainly been impacted through Dr. Peterson´s public talks and interviews, I found in his latest book a vast number of interesting considerations closely linked (most likely without the author´s awareness) with the ancient message of my own lineage, Gaudiya Vedanta.
In brief, Gaudiya Vedanta represents one of the many tributaries flowing from the spacious theological ocean known in modern times as Hinduism. More specifically, my tradition is part of a particular theistic current called bhakti, or devotional mysticism. And even more specifically, Gaudiya Vedanta speaks of a very special wave of bhakti’s current in the ocean of Hinduism, where we find extraordinarily refined aesthetic conclusions, such that the Infinite himself plays an intimate role in relationship with his beloved devotees.
In this article, I´ll try to draw out some basic connections between the reality of Gaudiya Vedanta and a book that (only apparently) is not touching such depths. But first, I´d like to briefly mention a handful of the almost unlimited, remarkable parallels between Dr. Peterson´s writing and Gaudiya Vedanta, which I won´t analyze in such lengths as my main points:
-The idea of chaos and order in connection to the stage of anartha-nivritti (clearing of unwanted inner habits), and the vast contemplation and introspection required for going through such motions with mature acceptance and a dynamic outward projection of that tolerance in life.
-The importance of maintaining the company of well-wishers (“people that get nurtured when they see you nurtured”), which translates as satsanga in our cosmovision, a fundamental aspect of our life and sadhana (practice), both in this present moment and in eternity.
-The utterly essential principles of sacrifice, responsibility, and commitment, which in our specific framework take the form of love itself, the ultimate destiny and result of our searching. This embodiment of love appears in such a way that we can understand how the giving of our own soul–with no ulterior motives nor even the desire to obtain emancipation from birth and death, only cultivating the desire to serve purely in heaven or even here eternally, if God wishes–represents the perfection of loving.
-Enchanting statements such as, “Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world,” perfectly align with how strict one must be in one’s own approach to spirituality and how merciful one should be to others. Instead of cheaply comparing ourselves with the rest today, it would be better to analyze our current condition in relation to our condition yesterday (another important point in Dr. Peterson´s discourse). We are our only competition.
-“The pursuance of what is meaningful instead of what´s expedient” reminds me of the temporary nature of selfish attainments on Earth, contrasted with the eternal nature of things one can and will acquire by connecting with the Divine. It also reminds me that we are being “judged” by God not according to our past nor by our present situation, but by our future prospect: our most sincere ideals. In other words, we are being considered according to who we want to become in life, no matter how far we may still be from our goal.
-The importance of establishing the limits of our rational capacities (and thus of modern science itself) and not acting as if they are absolute (“one of the main temptations of our rational faculties,” in Peterson´s words) all the while speaking of a transrational reality. Interestingly, in this connection one of my teachers accurately expressed that, “Science was born a Christian. She became an agnostic later in her youth, and now during her adulthood she has become an atheist. But if she is to survive to old age, surely she has to become a mystic.”
-How essential it is to know the art of proper hearing and to always learn from anyone and everyone, even though in some cases they may teach us what not to do. In my own tradition we speak of sravana (hearing) as the first and foremost practice in which to engage before trying to speak or sing about the glories of the Divine, and before attempting to properly relate with other colleagues in our daily spiritual exercise.
With these initial points of interest outlined in brief, I’ll now try to explain in more detail some ideas that I consider foundational both to Dr. Peterson´s book and to Gaudiya Vedanta.
Firstly, I found the title of the book very provocative, attractive and realistic. We live in a world where “rules” are generally seen as part of a rigid approach to reality, where freedom is conceived as something that includes as few rules as possible. This conception can be easily (and cheaply) applied to modern spiritual circles, where the idea of discipline and routinization in practice are seen with less than heavenly delight. But in my tradition, we abide by this foundational precept: We need a long list of rules to tame ourselves, in every level of our human experience, before we can think of transcending it. Of course, rules should be applied in such a way that they become realizations; they should not remain stagnant mandates. Dr. Peterson is clear on this point, and correspondingly in our school of thought we emphasize what we call vaidhi-bhakti, or rule-based devotion. Before entering into the spontaneous flow of divine sentiment (raga-bhakti), we must first align ourselves with a whole list of ethical, moral, psychic, and emotional considerations. These “rules” are intended to prepare us to attempt a quantum jump into a life of eternal and spiritual selflessness.
/ Another considerably important point is Dr. Peterson´s affinity for Carl Jung’s concept of archetypal symbolism, which he extends in an interesting contemporary conception to characters in Disney movies and other popular media. Dr. Peterson’s extension of Jung’s thinking inspired me to connect Jung’s ideas with the aesthetic theory of heroes and heroines found in the writings of Bharata Muni, as well as in the more recent work of Srila Rupa Gosvami in his magnum opus, Bhakti Rasamrita Sindhu. Both Bharata Muni and Srila Rupa Gosvami conceive of fundamental attributes of emotive experience as existing not only as representations in the psyche, but as literal personifications in the form of specific personalities, fictional and real. In my tradition, this conception extends even to God himself. Our scriptures describe the different roles and personalities of the Divine in astounding detail, with exacting systematization (no space for such a description here!). His various forms correspond with the types of love with which he reciprocates. For example, God sometimes presents himself in the mood of a dhira-lalita nayaka (sportive hero), and sometimes as a dhira-prasanta (brave and calm hero), and so on. These moods can be further divided into a range of possibilities, taking into account many variables such as whether the duo is married or unmarried. The final list of possibilities presents almost one hundred emotional dispositions of the Divine, in this case in his male aspect of Sri Krishna. We also find a similar, corresponding, analysis of the forms of his divine female counterpart, Sri Radha. In conclusion, studying these archetypes, which are generally applied to human behaviour, leads us finally to explore the Divine himself, accepting forms in response to a variety of spiritually emotional dispositions. In relationship with him, we will be able to fully taste what we call rasa, or aesthetic sacred rapture.
/ Peterson later quotes a koan-like, old Jewish story, which speaks about a being who is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent, but who lacks some important spice: limitation. In other words, limitation can (and must) be enchanting. And such an idea can be applied not only to Peterson´s own son or Superman “becoming boring as his power increases,” but also, and especially, to God himself. This courageous idea is totally in line with the sanskrit concept of nara-lila, or God playing the so-called imperfect role of a human (nara). We can say that being omniscient is boring, since one who is omniscient always knows what will happen next. When we are bored we generally play, and God does the same thing. But playing requires power. As children we played because we were nourished by our parents, and as adults we can play or have a vacation by obtaining money or power. So, it makes sense that the aspect of the divine who plays the most will also be the most powerful. In sanskrit the word for “play” is lila, and it refers most completely to the divine play of the all-powerful: God. When God (especially in his form of Krishna) plays, he really does it, immersing himself in such an absorbing game to such a degree that he forgets about his own position as God. In this condition, he mainly identifies himself with the different roles that his lila inspires: being the friend of his friends, the son of his parents, the beloved of his beloved, and so on. In brief, in our tradition we consider that this aspect of God is not an aspect at all, but exists as the full-fledged identity of the divine in his most intimate moments. Within God’s lila, the concept of God is, according to our tradition, only but an aspect of Krishna. We call him, “the Supreme Personality of Godhead,” and we consider him capable of facilitating a whole realm where God and his servants both forget about divinity, allowing for the closest and most loving exchange ever to be imagined. Krishna is God beyond God.
/ Last but not least, I´ve become fascinated with how Dr. Peterson presents the concept of meaning at the end of Rule 7, and how it relates, again, to my devotional tradition. He actually says many things about meaning, but the following lines struck a chord in me:
“Meaning is when everything there is comes together in an ecstatic dance of single purpose –the glorification of a reality so that no matter how good it has suddenly become, it can get better and better and better more and more deeply forever into the future. Meaning happens when that dance has become so intense that all the horrors of the past, all the terrible struggle engaged by all of life and all of humanity to that moment becomes a necessary and worthwhile part of the increasingly successful attempt to build something truly Mighty and Good.”
When I first read this passage, it was impossible for me not to think about Sri Krishna Caitanya and his ecstatic prema-sankirtana. Caitanya is Krishna himself: the God of love, beauty, and harmony, trying to measure the depths of his own self by way of accepting the mood of his topmost devotee, Sri Radha. Radha loves him, and therefore sees him, in ways he cannot fathom. The result of Krishna’s existential experiment is Sri Krishna Caitanya, the most intense manifestation of the Divine in the whole of Hinduism. While experiencing such love, which represents the full face of meaning, in the core of his heart, Sri Caitanya lived a life of constant dancing and chanting, absorbed in the practice he personified and recommended for the rest of the world: kirtana. Kirtana is the best form of celebration and glorification that Caitanya could conceive. Its practitioners chant and dance not out of emptiness, but out of fullness. And this “dance of meaning” is not just a means to a goal; rather, kirtana is both a practice and a destination, an invitation to a perpetual existence of ever-fresh meaning. Thus, the kirtana of Caitanya has been properly described as a “golden volcano of divine love, with its lava consuming everything on its way.” Again, I cannot help but find Dr. Peterson´s description of meaning charmingly tied to this truth.
These are just a few of the connections I was able to make reading 12 Rules for Life and attempting to integrate it into my work as an aspirant practitioner of Gaudiya Vedanta. This is my humble attempt to pay proper respects to Dr. Peterson for the healthy influence he is enacting, not only in me, but in many souls hankering for real maps of meaning. What surprises me the most is that the glorious shores to which Dr. Peterson, a Christian visionary, has arrived connect so closely, not only to my own lineage, but to every bonafide spiritual path. His work reveals how true spiritual practice, sincerely walked through with full attention, expands the self by putting the practitioner in connection with every other genuine path. No doubt, Dr. Peterson is indeed one such rare practitioner.