Monday, August 3, 2009

Life Is Meant For Austerity

Sita Rama "Then raising the vessel of ghee (clarified butter) to His head, He in accordance with the ordinance began to offer oblations to the flaming fire on behalf of the mighty deity. Then, having partaken of the remaining quanity of the ghee, Rama prayed for His own welfare, and meditated on Narayana. The son of the best of men with a collected mind, and restraining His speech lay down on a kusha (grass) bed together with Vaidehi (Sita) within the graceful dwelling of Vishnu." (Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kanda, Sec 6)

We live in an era of great comfort and luxury. Though people may think otherwise, the standard of living in America, and throughout the world for that matter, has greatly improved over the past hundred years. The economic problem is almost non-existent, with farmers persuaded by the government to not grow food. Our leaders are more focused on tackling problems such as childhood obesity and the perceived overconsumption of goods and services by the population in general.

When travelling on commercial airplanes, one of the magazines commonly found in the seatback pocket is Sky Mall. This magazine is a shopping catalog full of gadgets and gizmos, a showcase of the latest advancements in technology. All the products in that magazine are geared towards gratifying our senses. One place where we often look for improved sense gratification is in the area of sleep. Ironically, the Vedas prescribe that one shouldn’t sleep more than six hours if possible. This is in stark contrast to the eight hours prescribed by most health experts.

“One should not sleep more than six hours daily. One who sleeps more than six hours out of twenty-four is certainly influenced by the mode of ignorance. A person in the mode of ignorance is lazy and prone to sleep a great deal. Such a person cannot perform yoga.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Bhagavad-gita, 6.16 Purport)

Since we spend so much time sleeping, naturally we are looking for ways to increase the quality of it. Products such as the Sleep Number Bed from Select Comfort allow couples to set different firmness levels on their mattress so that each person can spend the night in the utmost comfort. In addition, regular blankets apparently aren’t good enough for us, so we shop for luxury items such as down comforters. Water beds are another popular phenomenon in the mattress industry.

These products are no doubt very innovative and could certainly prove to be useful. However, they don’t provide us real happiness in the end. If they did, then there would be no need for new products to come out. The fact of the matter is that our real problems have nothing to do with our material comforts. According to wisdom of the Vedas, man’s material sense urges can never be satisfied. Making little adjustments here and there to our material condition only further binds us in the mode of passion.

Krishna speaking to Uddhava “My dear Uddhava, a person bereft of intelligence first falsely identifies himself with the material body and mind, and when such false knowledge arises within one's consciousness, material passion, the cause of great suffering, pervades the mind, which by nature is situated in goodness. Then the mind, contaminated by passion, becomes absorbed in making and changing many plans for material advancement. Thus, by constantly thinking of the modes of material nature, a foolish person is afflicted with unbearable material desires.” (Lord Krishna, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 11.13.9-10)

We get a new bed, but then we immediately want a better blanket. We get a new blanket, but then we immediately want new pajamas, and so on. The cycle never ends.

The Vedas tell us that this life is meant for understanding God. To understand God, one must perform austerities, known as tapasya. Tapasya is not any ordinary type of austerity, but it is geared towards releasing one from their bondage to material comforts, and thereby increasing their attachment to the spiritual world.

“Lord Rishabhadeva told His sons: My dear boys, of all the living entities who have accepted material bodies in this world, one who has been awarded this human form should not work hard day and night simply for sense gratification, which is available even for dogs and hogs that eat stool. One should engage in penance and austerity to attain the divine position of devotional service. By such activity, one's heart is purified, and when one attains this position, he attains eternal, blissful life, which is transcendental to material happiness and which continues forever.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 5.5.1)

When Lord Rama was living in the kingdom of Ayodhya, His father, Maharaja Dashratha one day decided to install Him as the new king. Lord Rama was informed of this news one day before the date set for His installation. He was instructed by the brahmanas, the priestly class of men, to fast the night before the ceremony and to sleep on the floor on a bed of kusha grass. Rama was God Himself, but He willingly followed the advice of the brahmanas to set a good example for all of us. Religious rituals may seem to strange to us at first, but they all have a purpose.

Rama was the king’s eldest and most cherished son, so He was living in complete luxury. What need did he have to sleep on the floor? Yet He and His wife Sita both did so as a means of respecting God. When we receive good benedictions, it is incumbent upon us to remember that we are not the doers. All our fortunes are tied to God and to our karma. Narayana is God’s four-handed form existing in the spiritual world. Lord Rama was an incarnation of God, so He went along and worshiped Narayana, though in essence He was offering obeisances to Himself. By worshiping Narayana, the sleeping area was sanctified.

Lord Narayana Now things wouldn’t go as planned the next day and Rama’s installation would have to be postponed by fourteen years, but that didn’t make a difference. The Lord was always committed to dharma, not for His sake, but because it serves as a guide for enabling one to make spiritual progress. Tapasya properly performed under the direction of a spiritual master never goes to waste. Through good times and bad, we must always remember the Creator. God showed us the proper means of penance and it is important for us to follow His example. The most basic form of penance we can perform is to abstain from the four pillars of sinful life: meat eating, illicit sex, gambling, and intoxication. By so doing, we will always remember God and be freed from our material attachments.