It is the final and definitive state sought by mystical saints across different and divergent faiths who seek to unite with the Supreme Power.
Hasidic Jews, Sufi saints, Eastern Orthodox and Western Christianity, Vaishnava gurus, Saktas and Shaivites; all have explored and revelled in the ecstasies and agonies of divine madness.
Psychiatry defines madness (psychosis) as “grossly inaccurate sense of reality.” Which reality? If one accepts the philosophy that considers the world as illusion and the Divine as reality, all enlightened saints by this definition suffer from ‘madness’.
Enlightened saints rise above the collective madness of the culture and society they live in. For the greater part of their time, they live internally in a purificatory spiritual trance, filled with a divine version of the worldly conditions they choose to leave behind.
Renowned ‘mad’ saints
In Tamil Nadu, the Alvars and the Nayanars displayed extreme shades of divine madness. Kannappa Nayanar carried flowers in his hair, water in his mouth and carefully tasted the meat he carried for offering to the Vayu Shivalingam at Sri Kalahasti. Since one of the eyes on the lingam was bleeding, Kannappa plucked out his own eye and placed it on the lingam. Seeing the lingam’s other eye bleeding now, Kannappa placed his foot on that eye (to “feel” the location) and plucked out his other eye. He was about to place it where his foot signified the spot when Shiva appeared before Kannappa and embraced him in appreciation of his selfless devotion. To an observer, Kannappa’s acts would’ve certainly appeared to be that of a madman. However, Shiva recognised them to be an expression of extreme and divine madness.
In Tamil, the word Alvar means “one immersed in God”. The Alvars recognised saints by their madness. To the Alvars, a saint was one who displayed signs of being mad with love of God. Such an individual would run, jump, cry, laugh, sing, dance and roll on the floor in ecstasy, totally uninhibited. In Maharashtra, Sant Tukaram declared that the first sign that appeared after he had had a vision of God was madness. Tukaram states the ideal devotee is one who is mad in the eyes of the world. He describes himself as being drunk with God-realisation, no matter that it might seem foolish or crazy.
Saint Gora Kumbar once ecstatically danced in divine madness, oblivious of the fact that he was trampling his infant son to death. Sant Namdev revealed his divine madness by calling out, “Lord, please don’t take your offering without this ghee”, while running behind a dog that snatched a roti prepared for prasadam.
Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was the role model for all mystic madmen. In his lifetime, Chaitanya displayed a range of ecstatic states. He would jump, dance, laugh, cry, roar and act as if possessed. He would roll on the ground, perspire and change to different colours; parts of his body would swell and transform. Chaitanya’s body would stretch disjointedly in an abnormal way and then there were times when Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s limbs would withdraw into themselves like a tortoise.
Rani Rasmani who owned the Kali Temple where he served as a priest, at first considered Ramakrishna Paramhamsa as mad. Ramakrishna sat and cried for long periods of time and could not keep his clothing on his body. He cleaned out houses with his hands, ate the leavings of the jackals, and threw money into the river Ganga as he considered it to be useless.
The Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition is unique in cultivating divine madness by systematic design. Here the guru leads the disciple step by step through all the levels of bhakti from sadhana to the mystic madness of bhava and prema.
Sadhana Bhakti has two aspects, Vaidhi Bhakti and Raganuga Bhakti.
Vaidhi Bhakti consists of the many external regulative practices for purifying the soul. The chief regulative practices are: chanting Krishna’s name, worshipping Krishna’s moorthi, reading the Bhagavata Purana, living in a place of worship and associating with bhaktas or devotees.
Raganuga Bhakti or Lila Smarana is the interior practice of visualisation meditation. Here – similar to Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises for his Society of Jesus – the disciple enters Divine (Krishna) Leela in a siddha deha or spiritually perfected body joining in as an observer and minor helper.
The potent cocktail of Vaidhi and Raganuga Bhakti explode in the agony and ecstasy of bhava and prema.
Role of the guru
The role of the ecstatic guru in the divine madness of bhakti is twofold. In the first phase, he initiates the novice and leads him into divine madness. In the second phase, the guru teaches the ecstatic, ‘mad’ person how to control and hide these states, so he may fit effectively in ‘normal’ society.
Such gurus are rare and evidence of their exaltation is not the states they display (for these can be faked), but the ecstatic states they are able to induce in their disciples.
If one has the fortune to find such a guru, one must firmly hold on to his feet and follow him to divine madness.