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Sri Chaitanya – The Foremost Empath

Sri Chaitanya – The Foremost Empath

Sri Caitanya being worshipped by His associates

Sometimes, a wife may ask someone, “Please pray for my sick husband”. We don’t usually take the time to contemplate this kind of statement, or to understand what it really means, and instead, we just try to say or do something to pacify the distressed person. Depending on what kind of empathy we have, we might be able to logically understand her situation, or we might feel the same feelings as her. Based on this, we act. Our response is driven by our level of emotional intelligence, of which empathy is a part.

According to Harvard psychologist Daniel Goleman, author of the best-selling book, “Emotional Intelligence”, the foundation of emotional intelligence is self-awareness.

Goleman lists four parts of emotional intelligence, all of which are critical components for advancing in spiritual life.

  1. Self-Awareness—awareness of one’s own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and how one’s ahaṅkāra and saṁskāras drive them to think, feel and behave.
  2. Self-Mastery—self-discipline to manage one’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
  3. Empathy—attuning to others through feelings (emotional), understanding (cognitive), or compassion.
  4. Healthy Relationships—how one handles oneself, to have highly effective relationships.

Definition of Empathy

The Oxford Dictionary defines empathy as, “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” Empathy is the foundation for any healthy relationship, and without empathy, a relationship feels cold and distant since there is no heart-to-heart connection. Empathy is something that a person learns in childhood, according to how their mother attunes to their physical and emotional needs. The Vedic scriptures say that the mother is the first guru, and her role is a thousand times more important than that of the father.

Three Types of Empathy

There are three types of empathy, namely cognitive empathy, affective empathy, and compassionate empathy. Each type of empathy is based on a different part of the mind.

Cognitive Empathy involves knowing how a person feels, and why they feel that way. It is a logical understanding of another person’s mental state, and is sometimes called “perspective-taking.” Daniel Goleman describes cognitive empathy as, “simply knowing how the other person feels and what they might be thinking.” It is not concerned with feelings. Therefore, people who are high in cognitive empathy tend to struggle with emotional intimacy, the juice of human relations. However, cognitive empathy can be a huge asset in management positions, in which one needs to “get inside another person’s head” or interact with tact and understanding. On the dark side, someone who has high cognitive empathy can use their clever mind to take advantage of others, by manipulating their emotions and sentiments. Because they are expert at reading the mind or mood of others, a person high in cognitive empathy will know exactly what to say to get them to dance to their tune.

Emotional Empathy, also known as affective empathy, is the ability to connect with someone else’s emotional reality by feeling what they are feeling and stepping into their world, so to speak. Goleman describes emotional empathy as “when you feel physically along with the other person, as though their emotions were contagious.” Emotional empathy is beneficial in healing professions, such as psychotherapy or nursing, and also in parenting, especially mothering. Emotional empathy involves a human’s mirror neurons, which fire in a certain way when they see another person’s behavior, making them relate to that behavior in their own body and brain. This is why someone high in emotional empathy feels the same feelings as the person who actually has the experience, even though they are just listening to them. This is also a characteristic of a sahṛdaya in rasa-śāstra. A downside of emotional empathy is the possibility of the empath absorbing other people’s suffering by getting sucked in and taking on the burden, or feelings, of others.

Compassionate Empathy enables us to not only logically understand a person’s predicament and feel their feelings with them, but also to spontaneously help them. It is also known as empathic concern, which means, “I care about you, and I want what is good for you, not just what is good for me.” Compassionate empathy is concerned with intellect, emotion, and caring action. Goleman says, “True compassion means not only feeling another’s pain but also being moved to help relieve it.” Compassionate empathy means taking the middle ground and using one’s emotional intelligence to effectively respond to the situation with loving detachment. A benefit of compassionate empathy is that it makes a person an expert at human relations because they know how to respond to different situations. They can understand another person’s reality and accept it without judgments or ulterior motives. Human connection based on sincerity, authenticity, respect, and appreciation is at the core of compassionate empathy.

Empathy in Material Relationships

By examining the question at the beginning of this article, of the wife asking for prayers for her sick husband, it is easy to see how a person with different types of empathy would respond, but it is worth examining the wife herself. Why is she asking the question? What kind of empathy does she have for her husband? If she has cognitive empathy, she will understand that her husband is sick, but will not feel his distress. If she has emotional empathy, she will feel the same distress he is feeling and would plead with you to pray for him. The wife’s mirror neurons will make her feel how her husband is feeling. Our brain is hardwired with mirror neurons to support empathy. The mirror neurons fire when humans observe and experience emotion, enabling us to read others’ emotions.

Empathy in Bhakti Yoga

Bhakti yoga is all about empathy and relationships. All other paths lead to an impersonal goal and are based on renunciation. According to Śrī Rūpa Gosvāmī, the very heart of bhakti is doing favorable action for Śrī Kṛṣṇa, and people or things related to Kṛṣṇa—ānukūlyena kṛṣṇa-anuśīlanam.  For a sādhaka, this begins with acting favorably toward one’s guru, as well as toward those who are related to the guru, and avoiding anything unfavorableānukūlyasya saṅkalpaḥ prātikūlyasya varjanam. To act favorably and to avoid unfavorable actions, one needs to be attuned to the heart of one’s guru and his associated people. This certainly requires a high degree of emotional intelligence. In the perfected state, one becomes attuned to Kṛṣṇa’s heart and also that of His devotees. In Priti Sandarbha  (Anuccheda158), while stressing the importance of empathy and attunement, Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī writes:  

 “What more needs to be said? In all the līlās of Vṛndāvana without exception, the excellence (utkarṣa) of all of Kṛṣṇa’s manifestations (prakāśa) and līlās can be directly intuited by the devotees who are empathetically attuned to its disclosure (sahṛdayas).

Śrī Kṛṣṇa Himself is the most expert in attuning with everyone. This is clear from His statements such as:

“I reciprocate with people in the mood with which they approach Me” (Gītā 4.11)

“I am equal to all living beings. There is no one detestable or dear to me, but those who worship Me with devotion are in Me and I am also in them.” (Gītā 9.29)

“My devotees are My heart, and I am the heart of My devotees. They do not know anything other than Me, and I also do not know anything except My devotees.” (SB 9.4.68)

The last verse shows how Kṛṣṇa is perfectly attuned with the heart of His devotees, and that His devotees are similarly attuned with His heart.

There is one exception to this. Kṛṣṇa expressed His inability to fully attune to the heart of His beloved gopīs:

“My beloved gopīs, even with a lifespan as long as Brahmā, I cannot repay the supremely virtuous service rendered by you (sva-sādhu-kṛtyam), whose union with Me is completely pure and faultless, and who have completely cut asunder the stringent bonds of household life just to serve Me. So, may your virtuous deeds be repaid by your own nobility.” (SB 10.32.22)

It is to truly attune to the heart of the gopīs, and especially Śrīmatī Rādhā, that Śrī Kṛṣṇa appeared as Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu in the mood of Śrī Rādhā. This is stated by Svarūpa Dāmodara Gosvāmi in his Kadacā:

 “What is the glory of the love of Śri Rādhā, which is relished only by Her? How marvelous is My sweetness that is relished by Her? How great is Her happiness resulting from this experience? Being covetous to discover this, the Moon-like Hari, absorbed in Her mood, appeared in the ocean-like womb of Śaci.” (Cited in CC 1.4.230)

Although Caitanya Mahāprabhu came to relish the mood of Śrī Rādhā, He also came to reveal it and distribute it to the conditioned beings of this material world. This mood is called mañjarī bhāva, and it is the ultimate limit of empathy. The very word mañjarī is suggestive of this meaning. Mañjarī is the flower of the Tulasī plant. The health and very existence of the mañjarī depends upon the health and existence of the plant. The mañjarī is completely dependent on and attuned to, the plant. A mañjarī in Vraja is attuned in the same manner to the heart of Śrīmatī Rādhā.

Satyanarayana Dasa