Saturday, July 18, 2009

Good Fortune

Lakshmi “…Never consider yourself to be the cause of the results of your activities…” (Lord Krishna speaking to Arjuna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.47)

We all know certain people who seem to be luckier than others. No matter what the situation, things always seem to work out for them, while for others the opposite situation is true. No matter how much effort they put in or how hard they try, things always go wrong for them.

Inspector Gadget In the 1980s there was a popular children’s television cartoon show by the name of Inspector Gadget. The show focused on the crime fighting escapades of the main character, Inspector Gadget, who was sort of a bumbler. He had all these special gadgets at his disposal to help him fight crime, but he never knew how to operate them properly. Each episode had a similar story line: the villain, Dr. Claw, had some elaborate scheme hatched up and Gadget was deputed to try and stop it. However, he would always be led astray, going completely down the wrong path. Gadget always had his niece Penny there to help him. She would always manage to solve the mystery along with help from her dog Brain, and then give the credit to her father. In this way, Dr. Claw’s plans were always thwarted, leaving him to utter his famous phrase at the end of each show, “I’ll get you Gadget!”

In the sport of tennis, the most prestigious tournament is Wimbledon. Occurring annually in London, it is the title coveted by all tennis players, for it has a rich tradition associated with it. World number one Roger Federer, who many consider the greatest player of all time, has won Wimbledon six times, while fellow player Andy Roddick has never won it. The two have played against each other in the final round of Wimbledon on three separate occasions, with Federer winning every time. In the 2004 final, it appeared that Roddick had Federer’s number. Playing very well and taking the opening set, he had Federer on the ropes. In Wimbledon and the other three Grand Slam tournaments, the first player to win three sets wins the match. Towards the end of the second set, Federer was up 6-5 with Roddick serving to force a tiebreaker. In tennis, players alternative service games in a set until one player wins 6 games leading by 2. If the score reaches 6-6, then they play a twelve point tiebreaker to determine the winner of the set. Roddick was two points away from forcing a tiebreaker when suddenly, one of Federer’s shots hit the net chord and dribbled over, giving him a set point. Federer would win the next point to even the match at one set all. Roddick still played tough though, as he was leading in the third set when all of a sudden it started raining. Federer regrouped during the rain delay and rallied to win the third set and eventually the match.

Federer (left) Roddick (right) - 2004 WimbledonFederer wins 2009 Wimbledon In the 2009 Wimbledon final, the two met again, and this time it really looked like Roddick was going to win. After winning the first set, Roddick went up 6 points to 2 in the second set tiebreaker. The first player to win seven points leading by at least two points wins a tiebreaker. With four set points in hand, it seemed for sure that Roddick would take a commanding lead in the match. However, Federer rallied and pulled off a miracle by coming back and winning the tiebreaker, leveling the match at one set all. Roddick would continue to hang tough, as the two played an epic fifth and deciding set. In most Grand Slam tournaments, players don’t play a tiebreaker in the fifth set. This means that play continues until one player has a lead of at least two games. The two duked it out, until Federer finally won 16-14, making it one of the greatest tennis matches ever to be played. Once again Roddick came up short. In tennis, if a player can regularly hold serve, meaning win the games in which they are serving, they have an excellent chance of winning. Roddick not only held serve regularly, but he didn’t lose serve for the entire match until the very last game. He played the match of his life, and STILL lost.

Now obviously being successful in tennis or other sports requires more than just luck. However, the lesson we can take away from these examples is that we are not the doer. As much as we may think ourselves to be the cause of actions and results, we are not. Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and His energies are responsible for making the world go around. Our karma also plays a role, determining our future fortunes and misfortunes.

“The bewildered spirit soul, under the influence of the three modes of material nature, thinks himself to be the doer of activities, which are in actuality carried out by nature.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 3.27)

This is the central tenet of the Vedas. When Krishna incarnated on earth as the pious prince Lord Rama, He underwent many hardships. Things always seemed to go wrong for the Lord, with His father exiling Him from the kingdom and His wife being kidnapped by the demon Ravana. As bad as things got, the Lord and His younger brother Lakshmana always remained steady. In the Ramayana, the two brothers make many references to the fact that destiny and fate control everything and that we are not the doers. If a higher power is in charge of everything, then we have no reason to overly lament over bad times or to overly rejoice over good fortune.

Now this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t act. It’d be very easy to just say, “Well, I don’t have any control over anything, so I’m just going to stop all of my activities altogether.” The key is to act without attachment to the results of our actions.

“Be steadfast in yoga, O Arjuna. Perform your duty and abandon all attachment to success or failure. Such evenness of mind is called yoga.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.48)

The easiest way to do this is to perform everything for the pleasure of the Lord. Acting only to please Him and to make Him happy, we free ourselves from the effects of karma. Happiness and sadness, distress and relief, these are the dualities of material nature that come and go. We should rise above them by directing our actions towards pleasing the Supreme Lord Krishna. If we become attached to Him, then His wife, the goddess of fortune, will see it to that we always have the proper means at our disposal to carry out our service. Often thought of as the giver of wealth, she actually provides good fortune to us so that we may use it properly. Goddess Lakshmi is always serving the Supreme Lord in the spiritual world, so she bestows her blessings on those people who will act in the same way. By sincerely taking to devotional service, we can be assured of always having good luck.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Our Only Support System

5519_12 “Neither the father, mother, son, friends, nor her own self is the stay of a woman in this nor in the afterlife; it is the husband alone that is her only support.” (Sita Devi speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kand, Sec 27)

In Vedic culture, it is very important for a father to marry off his daughter when she reaches the appropriate age. This statement by Sita Devi explains the reason behind this. More important than anything else, a woman’s path to spiritual salvation depends on a good husband.

Over the past one hundred years, throughout the world, society at large has changed. Through democracy and liberation movements in America and abroad, men and women have been given independence, feeling more liberated than ever before. Not only changes in government, but advancements in technology have significantly changed our way of life. In days past, most people were engaged in agriculture, and even cow protection in India. Today’s employment landscape is quite different.

"Farm employment peaked between 1840 and 1870. In 1900, 40 percent of American workers were employed in farming; today, it's less than two percent. Technological advances made that possible." (Walter Williams, Foreign Trade Angst)

Going into the workplace and drawing a salary gives people a feeling of self-worth and independence. However, is it really independence? Instead of staying at home and living off the food produced on one’s own land, we now are dependent on our bosses, the business managers. Businessmen are by definition interested in one thing, that of earning a profit. We like to think that people start a business so that they can provide good paying jobs to others, but that is a secondary concern. A person doesn’t undertake all the risks involved in starting up a business unless they are seeking a substantial return on their investment. Our family, on the other hand, has only our interests at heart. With the wife taking care of the house and the children, and the husband in charge of economic development, both parties are pleased, which leads to happy family life. This sort of family has been replaced with one where husband and wife constantly argue and quarrel since they have their own career interests.

According to Vedic philosophy, a woman is never to be given independence. In her youth, she is protected by her father. As an adult, the husband provides for the wife, and in old age, the eldest son is charge of her protection. Many people misconstrue this to mean that women are treated as servants. In actuality, this system was passed down by God for our benefit. The purpose of human life is to know and understand God. The animal species lack the intelligence to even enquire about God. They spend all their time involved in activities of eating, sleeping, mating, and defending. Since they are completely unaware of dharma, they are incapable of committing sin. The first instruction of the Vedanta-sutras is athatho brahma-jijnasa meaning “now is the time to enquire about Brahman”. Brahman is God, the Supreme Absolute Truth. If we simply engross ourselves in animalistic activities, then we aren’t making proper use of this human form of life.

Working is a necessary evil since the body requires maintenance in order to stay fit in its service to God. The idea is that we should only work to provide the bare necessities of life. It is not that men are supposed to have fun advancing in a career while the wife is left to suffer at home. A marriage is a partnership, with both parties working together for a common interest. A husband and wife share in their religious merits. If a husband is pious and devoted to Krishna, then the wife will follow Him back to Godhead after this life. A father, mother, or even son can definitely prove beneficial to a woman, but they alone are not capable of delivering her to the spiritual world. However, if a woman has a husband who is a pure devotee of Krishna, even if she isn’t perfectly pious herself, then she will share in the spiritual rewards bestowed on the husband. Thus it is in the interest of parents to find the most suitable husbands for their daughters.

Sita Devi was the incarnation of Goddess Lakshmi, the husband of Narayana, who is God Himself. It is because of this that one of Krishna’s names is Madhava, meaning the husband of the goddess of fortune. When Lord Rama was exiled to the forest, he tried very hard to dissuade His wife Sita from following Him. She adamantly disagreed with Him and the above quote was part of her plea to Him. Having been instructed on Vedic tenets during her childhood by her father and mother, Sita had a perfect understanding of the rules of propriety. Lord Rama set forth very logical arguments in favor of His position that she remain in the kingdom, but Sita’s counter-arguments were even stronger. Devotees aren’t afraid to argue with the Lord if it means that He will be happier in the end. She knew that the Lord would be pleased by having her accompany Him, so for this reason she wasn’t hesitant in arguing with her husband.

Though she was talking generally about husband and wives, the actual lesson she was giving us is that women should accept Krishna, or God as their husband. Krishna is capable of supporting thousands and thousands of wives, as He did during His time on earth some five thousand years ago, so it is in the best interest of all women to accept Him as their husband, at least in their minds. If we all depend on Krishna, then He will support us in any and all situations in this life and the next.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Rising To The Challenge

Vasudeva carrying baby Krishna to safety “If a devotee is intelligent enough, he will make progress on the path of self-realization. If one is sincere and devoted to the activities of devotional service, the Lord gives him a chance to make progress and ultimately attain to Him.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Bhagavad-gita 10.10 Purport)

Many of us are born with an innate challenging spirit, arising from the mode of passion. We love to take on challenges and see if we can conquer them. Whether it is running a marathon, skiing down a mountain, competing in an office football pool, or even building something with our hands, we love taking on challenges and seeing if we can come out successful.

We are all part and parcel of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Krishna, so all of our qualities originate from Him. The material world is a reflection of the spiritual world. Everything that exists here, exists in the spiritual world but in purified form. For example, sex life in the material world is a perverted reflection of the real love that is exchanged on the spiritual planets. The loving affairs of Radha and Krishna aren’t anything like the ordinary love affairs of men and women on this earth. It is completely pure in nature, representing the highest form of bliss. Love in the material world, as we think it to be, is actually a form of lust.

“…Just like Radha-Krishna love, Kishora-kishori, young Krishna, young Radharani. This love is pervertedly reflected in this material world which is in the name of love, but it is lust; therefore it is called perverted reflection. Lust because the, a young boy, a young girl mix together, they love together, but a slight disagreement, they separate. Why? Because that is not love. That is lust. The lust is going on in the name of love. But the reflection is from there. Therefore it is called maya.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Lecture, 690425LE.BOS)

Krishna sometimes feels in the mood to challenge enemies and fight, so He creates situations in this world where that desire can be facilitated. The challenging spirit that exists inside of us is also a skewed reflection of the spirit that exists in the spiritual world. In the material world, we all have a desire to boost our ego and self-esteem. The material world is made up of five gross elements (earth, water, fire, air, and ether) and three subtle elements (mind, intelligence, and false ego). It is referred to as false ego, because it is the nature of man to falsely think himself to be the proprietor of things. Real ego comes when realize that God is responsible for everything and that our duty is to become His servant.

We all like to think of ourselves as special and extraordinary. Taking on new challenges is our way of supporting our ego and increasing our self-respect. Exercising this challenging spirit on tasks in the material world may be very nice, but in the end it really has no lasting effects. Once we conquer a challenge, we immediately need another one to maintain our ego. The great basketball player Michael Jordan won three consecutive NBA titles and multiple Most Valuable Player awards halfway through his career. He was already considered the greatest basketball player ever, so he felt that he needed a new challenge. Retiring from basketball, he took up baseball, playing in the minor leagues for the Chicago White Sox franchise. Unable to succeed in that venture, he eventually returned to basketball where he would go on to win three more NBA titles. This shows that even when we achieve all of our goals, we are still left wanting more, for our desires never become truly satisfied. The mind is constantly working. Being in the material world means we are always hankering after something we want or lamenting over something that we don’t have.

Michael Jordan The best use of this challenging spirit is to use it in our service to God. Serving Krishna involves following many rules and regulations in the beginning, specifically that of following the four regulative principles and chanting the Hare Krishna mantra. The four regulative principles require abstention from meat eating, gambling, intoxication, and illicit sex. For most people, these restrictions seem very hard to follow. Those growing up in America are quite accustomed to eating meat. The beef industry runs television commercials using the slogan “Beef. It’s what’s for dinner.” The quintessential American meal consists of meat and potatoes. This being the case, it is very difficult for people to suddenly give up meat eating. One doesn’t have to renounce everything in the material world in order to make spiritual advancement. Instead we can spiritualize material things by using them to further develop our Krishna consciousness. We can start by using our challenging spirit to help us refrain from prohibited activities. We can dare ourselves not to eat meat for a day, or for a week. Many of us have had bad experiences from intoxication which make us we swear that we’ll never drink again. Quitting anything cold turkey is very difficult to do. Instead of completely swearing off of it, maybe we can try avoiding intoxication for a few days or weeks. We can create intoxication-free streaks and reward ourselves after we pass certain milestones. Once we pass such challenges, we can create new goals for ourselves. In this way, we make real advancement and change our habits at the same time. Once we get in the habit of living a clean lifestyle, those habits will be very hard to break. These same techniques can be used to strengthen our chanting regimen. Slowly but surely, if we develop a nice routine, we can easily give up sinful activity and instead focus our time on devotional service.

The highest goal in life is for one to always be thinking of Krishna and have his consciousness completely dovetailed with the spiritual consciousness. This is a very difficult task and many are not successful even after many many births. Lord Krishna Himself declared in the Bhagavad-gita that one who is unsuccessful in transcendental realization in this life, picks up where he left off in his next life. In this way, our efforts in serving Krishna never go to waste. If we challenge ourselves and are sincere in our devotion, then our success is guaranteed.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Everlasting Fame

Hanuman“Oh Hanuman! Your magnificent glory is acclaimed far and wide all through the four ages and your fame is radiantly noted all over the cosmos.” (Hanuman Chalisa of Tulsidas)

Social networking websites have greatly increased in popularity. It seems that everyone has a MySpace, Twitter, or Facebook page. These sites make it very easy to connect with other people quickly and to share information and thoughts.

Of all these sites, Facebook has stood out as the premier social networking engine. Facebook allows you to upload pictures of yourself, describe your hobbies and interests, and make friends with a large network of people. Instead of having to contact all of your friends individually, you can just update your Facebook profile and broadcast updates about yourself to all of your friends. Your friends in turn can post responses to you or to your “wall”, creating a message board like atmosphere.

The popularity of Facebook lies in its ability to make anyone famous. We all want to be noticed and to matter. When something good happens to us, we immediately can’t wait to tell our friends. When we are sad, we take comfort in the soothing words and advice from our well-wishers. Similar to how the news media follows every move of celebrities, Facebook allows others to follow our every move. In this way, we can achieve fame and notoriety without ever having to leave our homes.

This fame and notoriety is no doubt very pleasing to us, but it has a very short duration. We are all destined to give up our current bodies at the time of death, and when we do, we give up our fame as well. From studying Vedic literature, we can see that the best way to have everlasting fame is to become a devotee of Krishna, or God. When we sincerely love God and devote ourselves to Him only, then He will automatically give us all the fame that we crave. There are many examples of this principle holding true, with four in particular that stand out.

When God advented as Lord Rama many thousands of years ago in Ayodhya, as part of His pastimes, He suffered through many trials and tribulations. One ordeal He endured was the kidnapping of His wife Sita by the demon Ravana. Though a prince and son of a great king, Lord Rama was serving His exile period in the forest at the time, so He had no army with which to attack Ravana and reclaim Sita. Instead, He enlisted the help of Vanaras, or human-like monkeys, which were dwelling in the forest. The foremost of the Vanaras was Lord Hanuman. Hanuman was a great devotee of Lord Rama and he played an integral part in helping the Lord defeat Ravana and rescue Sita. In reward for his devotion, Lord Rama blessed Hanuman and granted him the boon of remaining on earth for as long as the Lord’s story was still told and His glories still chanted. Hanuman had no desire for this fame, but the Lord granted it to him anyway. Hanuman is still worshiped to this day and his name is synonymous with love and devotion for Lord Rama.

When Lord Krishna personally came to earth some five thousand years ago, there was a great war that took place on the battlefield of Kurukshetra between the Pandava and Kaurava families. Lord Krishna was very fond of His cousin Arjuna, the leading warrior for the Pandavas, so He acted as Arjuna’s charioteer and guide. The great grandfather of both families,  Bhishma lying on battlefieldBhishma, was one of the leading fighters on the Kaurava side. Bhishma was eventually defeated by Arjuna in battle. While he was lying on the ground, his body pierced throughout with arrows, Lord Krishna instructed Yudhishthira, the eldest of the five Pandava brothers, to go to Bhishma and receive spiritual instruction from him. Bhishma was a great devotee of the Lord, and had his mind concentrated on Krishna while he was lying on the battlefield about to die. The Lord knew this and thus wanted Yudhishthira to question such a great devotee. The Lord could have taught Yudhishthira Himself, but He preferred to have Bhishma do it. God is always glad to give fame to His devotees. As much as His devotees like to please Him, the Lord prefers to give His devotees all the fame and glory.

Maharishi Valmiki, the great sage and author of the Ramayana, incarnated some four hundred years ago in India as Goswami Tulsidas. Tulsidas was a great devotee of Lord Rama from birth, and he dedicated his whole life to worshiping and writing about the Lord. His book, the Ramacharitamanasa, is revered to this very day. Tulsidas had no desire for fame or fortune. He wrote only for himself so that he could put his love for Lord Rama into words. The Ramacharitamanasa is the story of Lord Rama written as beautiful poetry in the mood of pure devotion. From reading his books, one will find that Tulsidas was one of the most humble and kind people to ever have lived. Because of his pure devotion, the Lord guaranteed him everlasting fame. His Ramacharitamanasa is today a staple in the homes of all Hindus in India. It is publicly recited during the auspicious times of the year relating to Lord Rama. Tulsidas’s poem praising Lord Hanuman, known as the Hanuman Chalisa, is equally as popular and is memorized and recited daily by millions of Hindus as well. All glories to Tulsidas.

His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, made the name Krishna known throughout the world. Instructed by his spiritual master to preach the teachings of the Vedas in English to the western world, Shrila Prabhupada came to America on a steamship from India in 1965. In the twelve years that followed, he authored almost one hundred books and started a worldwide movement dedicated to serving Lord Krishna that continues to this very day. Though the swami left this material world more than thirty years ago, he continues to teach through his books and recorded lectures. He is worshiped as the spiritual master in hundreds of temples throughout the world and in the homes of devotees. He also had no desire for fame and fortune. His only desire was to make the world love Krishna even more than he himself did. Krishna recognized this devotion and thus made him one of the most famous saints to ever have lived.

These are just some of the examples of famous devotees. In the Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna tells Arjuna to “declare it to the world that My devotee shall never perish.” So let all devotees of the world unite and spread the glories of Lord Krishna on Facebook and every other social networking site. This will be most beneficial to us, for it will give us everlasting fame. If we love Krishna and are truly devoted to Him, then He will surely make all our wishes come true.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

In Sickness and In Health

Sita Rama “Oh dear husband…father, mother, son, brother, daughter-in-law, all of them abide by the consequences of their own actions, it is the wife alone, Oh best of men, that shares the fate of her husband; it is therefore that ever along with you I have been ordered to live in the forest.” (Sita Devi speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kand, Section 27)

In Western society weddings are typically held in churches with a priest presiding over the ceremony. The bride and groom make their way to the altar, and then recite vows usually prepared beforehand. Recitation of these vows in the presence of a priest makes the wedding official. As part of the standard vows recited at most weddings, the bride and groom both promise to love each other in “sickness and in health”. The phrase that then follows is “til death do us part.” Even though such vows are made, we see that many marriages still end in divorce. So what goes wrong?

Starting with the women’s suffrage movement in 1920s, women have gradually been given more and more independence in society. Unlike the past, women play a prominent role in the work place and are given the same educational opportunities as men. Now free to pursue their own careers, women’s roles in marriages have drastically changed. In the past, they played the traditional role of a housewife, someone who would take care of the kids and manage the household affairs while the husband would go out and earn a living. In the modern age, both the man and the woman typically work in order to support the family. During the day, children are often dropped off in daycare centers or left under the care of babysitters or family members. The cost of living has dramatically increased, so in many instances two incomes are required to maintain a family.

The motives behind wanting independence and a career are very noble. There is nothing wrong with it in general. However, when we focus on our careers, other things in our life naturally will receive less attention. This holds true for both men and women. What can happen over time is that the husband and wife will gradually drift apart. Putting their personal interests ahead of their partner’s, the relationship suffers. Jealousy, anger, and resentment subsequently follow, all of which inevitably lead to divorce. The original marriage vows become dissolved in an instant through the help of the legal system. The marriage in essence doesn’t amount to anything more than a piece of paper.

Divorce is a tragic thing and it leaves us searching for answers as to what could have been done to prevent it. Authors of self-help books and relationship advice doctors make millions trying to solve this very problem. Television programs hosted by Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Phil often deal with the subject of husband-wife relations, and these shows get very high ratings. The general consensus seems to be that relationships need more communication. The modern theory is that the husband and wife should both have equality in the relationship and that there needs to be compromise. We see this message being preached everywhere, but it doesn’t seem to be providing any results.

So what can be done to actually solve the problem? The answer can be found in the Vedas, the ancient teachings of India dating back to the beginning of time. According to Vedic doctrine, each one of us is responsible for our actions. We suffer both the good and bad consequences of our actions through the laws of karma. This belief is universal and is found in all religions. The Vedas make an exception however, in the case of married women. For a married women, her only dharma, or religious duty, is to serve her husband. Now many people often misinterpret this to mean that the wife should be the slave of the husband. That is not the case. On the contrary, the Vedas teach us that both the husband and wife have equality, but not how we think of it. Their equality lies in their fate. They are both spirit souls, with the wife’s spiritual fate being bound to her husband’s. It is for this reason that a girl should be married off to a man who is very pious. If a wife faithfully serves a pious husband, then she earns all the religious merits of her husband. If her husband is very sinful, then the wife will also suffer the consequences of his actions. It is for this reason that the Vedas instruct the wife to faithfully serve the husband and ensure that he remains on the proper path of virtue.

Lakshmi Narayana Lord Rama, an incarnation of Krishna, appeared in Ayodhya many thousands of years ago. As the eldest son of the king, Maharaja Dashratha, Rama was the heir apparent to the throne. On the day He was to be coronated, Dashrata instead banished the Lord to the forest for fourteen years. This order was enacted due to a promise the king had made to one of his wives, Kaikeyi. After hearing of the new plans, Lord Rama went back to His palace to tell His wife Sita the bad news. In telling her, the Lord instructed Sita to remain in Ayodhya and faithfully serve the king and other family members until His return. Sita Devi vehemently disagreed with the Lord’s decision not to take her, and gave a stirring speech in hopes of persuading Rama to allow her to accompany Him. Sita was the incarnation of Lakshmi, who is the eternal consort of Narayana, or God. Sita never wants to be separated from Rama and it for this reason that she refused to remain in the kingdom.

From her statements, we can see that she was the perfect woman. Her husband was the king’s favorite son and had all the riches in the world. Now that He was banished to the forest, where He would live a life akin to a homeless person, Sita still didn’t think any less of Him. “What happens to You, happens to me. Don’t think of me as being a separate person from You. We are one.” is what she thought. She stood by Her man, in sickness and in health. This is the example of a perfect wife.

Sita Devi spoke eloquently about the duties of a wife, but in actuality she was teaching us how to be perfect devotees. Sita’s decision to go to the forest was completely up to her. She could have easily remained in the kingdom and lived very comfortably. Instead, she voluntarily chose to subject herself to the austere conditions of forest life. She did this so that she could remain with Lord Rama, who was God Himself. This is the path laid out for all of us. The Vedas refer to the voluntary acceptance of austerities as tapasya. Tapasya means performing austerities for a spiritual benefit and for no other reason. Sita performed tapasya so that God would be pleased with her. We should follow her example and perform our own tapasya by abstaining from the four pillars of sinful life, namely meat eating, gambling, intoxication, and illicit sex life. Just like Sita, if we give up material pleasures as a sacrifice to the Lord and always chant his names “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, then we too will get to follow Him wherever He goes.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Humble Genius

Radha Krishna “The grammatical word jugglers cannot bewilder a devotee who engages in chanting the Hare Krishna maha-mantra. Simply addressing the energy of the Supreme Lord as Hare and the Lord Himself as Krishna very soon situates the Lord within the heart of the devotee. By thus addressing Radha and Krishna, one directly engages in His Lordship’s service.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Chaitanya Charitamrita Adi-lila 7.73 Purport)

The formulaic cable television shows now regularly feature debates between so-called experts in various fields. With the debates usually dealing with issues of politics and public policy, these guests attempt to make clever arguments in favor of their position, trying to sound very erudite in the process. Most of these experts are in fact lawyers by trade, chosen to be on television more for their speaking ability than their actual knowledge of the field they are discussing.

We have all been to parties and other social gatherings where we have encountered the resident “expert”. This person has an opinion about everything and can’t stop talking. They are thoroughly convinced of their ideas but they are more or less blowing hot air. When we hear someone who isn’t an expert discussing issues that we know a lot about, we get insulted very easily. “Who does this person think he is? He is speaking nonsense. He has no idea what such and such really involves.” Whether it involves sports, news, or issues relating to our occupation, we all have intimate knowledge of the things that we are passionate about.

According to Vedic philosophy, true knowledge involves the theoretical and the practical, referred to as jnana and vijnana in Sanskrit. Theoretical knowledge forms the foundation, but it is through practical experience that we truly begin to understand something. The same way that many people pretend to be experts in various subjects, many people pretend to be experts in matters of religion. They have all these dreamed up ideas, but they don’t practice any sort of service to God. They develop their own ideas of God and what happens to us after we die. This sort of mental speculation will always lead us down the wrong path since our material minds aren’t capable of understanding God on our own. Simply being able to speak well doesn’t make one an expert either. The Mayavadis are very expert at using word jugglery to argue their position that God is impersonal and that we are all God. They quote from the Vedanta-sutras and use high class words in their arguments, but their knowledge is nevertheless useless since they fail to recognize Krishna as the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

To truly understand God, we have to take instruction from a real expert in the field, a bona fide spiritual master. A spiritual master, or guru, is one whose only passion is Krishna and who devotes his whole life to Him. He has learned theoretical knowledge through studying the Vedas and by following the instructions from his own spiritual master, and he has acquired practical knowledge through practicing the principles of devotional service. In the Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna, God Himself, instructs His dear friend Arjuna to seek out a spiritual master.

“Just try to learn the truth by approaching a spiritual master. Inquire from him submissively and render service unto him. The self-realized soul can impart knowledge unto you because he has seen the truth.” (Lord Krishna, BG 4.34)

The key is to enquire submissively. If we are hostile towards our spiritual master, then we will never learn anything. We encounter these situations often when engaging in friendly talks with others. If we state a strongly held belief or opinion, many people question us or take the opposite position simply as a way of starting an argument. This is called playing devil’s advocate, which Wikipedia defines as:

"In common parlance, a devil's advocate is someone who takes a position he or she disagrees with for the sake of argument. This process can be used to test the quality of the original argument and identify weaknesses in its structure."

Shukadeva Goswami instructing Parakshit Taking this sort of approach with a spiritual master isn’t a good idea. A devotee of Krishna is very kind by nature and readily willing to impart instruction to those who sincerely seek it. However, if a guru notes a tone of hostility in a person, they will not be likely to continue instructing them. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t pose questions to our guru, but these questions shouldn’t be in a challenging spirit. Questions should be relevant to the topics being discussed and they should be asked with the intention of furthering one’s knowledge of the Vedas. The Puranas, Mahabharata, and Ramayana all have great examples of how one should conduct themselves in front of a spiritual master. In the Bhagavata Purana, known as the Shrimad Bhagavatam, Maharaja Parikshit, a great king descending from the Pandava family, takes instruction from Shukadeva Goswami. In a very submissive manner, asking questions very nicely, Parikshit shows us that if we respect our spiritual master, then he will reward us with the highest knowledge. The Bhagavatam details the life and pastimes of Lord Krishna when He descended to earth. It was due to Parikshit’s inquisitiveness and service to Shukadeva Goswami that we are able to benefit from such stories today.

In the Ramacharitamanasa, an incident is described where Lord Rama, an incarnation of Lord Krishna, visits the hermitage of Maharishi Valmiki in the forest. Along with His wife Sita and younger brother Lakshmana, the Lord was wandering through the forest serving an exile period ordered by His father. Now Rama was God Himself, yet when He saw Valmiki, the Lord immediately prostrated Himself before the great sage and asked him very nicely where He and His family could go and set up a cottage. Valmiki was very pleased with Rama, for he knew His divinity. Instead of telling them where to set up camp, Valmiki gave a beautiful description on the qualities of a devotee, stating that Sita, Rama, and Lakshmana should always live in the hearts of such people. If the the Lord Himself submits to a spiritual master, then we should also follow suit.

Knowledge of Krishna and the Vedas has been passed down from time immemorial through the guru-disciple relationship. In the Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna explains that He first imparted spiritual knowledge to the sun god at the beginning of creation, and that same knowledge was then passed down through the chain of disciplic succession, or the parampara system. Periodically this chain gets broken and Krishna Himself comes to reinstitute it.

Shrila Prabhupada Lord Krishna is the original guru, but He Himself has told us to take instruction from a spiritual master, so we should heed His advice. A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada is the spiritual master for this age. Though we cannot personally approach him, he left behind a wealth of knowledge in his books and recorded lectures. One can find answers to all of life’s questions by steadily reading and rereading these wonderful books. Following the instructions of the spiritual master, we can become the greatest experts in the most important science, the science of devotional service.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Politically Incorrect

Sita Devi “Oh best of men, what you have said is not becoming of a mighty prince versed in military arts and is really very opprobrious and infamous. What more, it is not proper even to hear them.” (Sita Devi speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kand, Sec 27)

The concept of political correctness has steadily gained in popularity over the years and has now been subscribed to by most in society. Wikipedia defines political correctness as being

“…a term applied to language, ideas, policies, or behavior seen as seeking to minimize offense to gender, racial, cultural, disabled, aged or other identity groups.”

It is a concept that germinated from a group of people known as the “offended.” This group, which constantly takes offense to statements made about them or others, gave us the idea of “political incorrectness”, which is any statement deemed to be purposefully harmful to another group.

Any person can be part of the “offended.” Anytime anyone says something that impacts someone else in a negative way, the affected party can claim to be offended. This material world is full of dualities. Hot and cold, good and bad, likes and dislikes are concepts that everyone is familiar with. What may be viewed as beneficial by one person, may be deemed as harmful to another. Certain people like to eat vegetables, while others abhor them. So as soon as we make any statement, as harmless as they may seem to us, there are bound to be people who take umbrage. This phenomenon was never better displayed then during the 1995-96 presidential election season in America. In 1995, General Colin Powell, a well respected military man who had previously served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was contemplating running for the office of President of the United States in the following year’s election. General Powell enjoyed tremendously high approval ratings amongst the populace and it was for this reason that he thought about running. However, one fact was overlooked by many. General Powell had yet to take a stance on any major issues. No one knew what he stood for. By staying away from controversial issues, General Powell ensured that the majority of people would like him, for as soon as he declared his stance on abortion or gun control, he was sure to alienate at least half the voting public, which would dramatically affect his approval ratings.  He eventually decided against running.

Colin Powell When one makes an opinionated statement, there are bound to be those who disagree not based on the actual merits of the statement, but more on how the opinions make them feel. The person making the statements is then put on defensive and attacked not for the substance of their statements, but for their motives behind making them. “I can’t believe that you said that. You’re a racist, sexist, bigot, homophobe, etc.” is the usual retort of the offended. Common terms such as “African-American”, “Hispanic-American”, and “undocumented worker” are all products of the political correctness movement. These various groups took umbrage with the words used to describe them, so people subsequently started using terms deemed less offensive. In actuality, almost everyone is suffering from the skin disease brought on by contact with the material world. We can use less offensive terms to describe physical characteristics, but these identifications are still flawed since they don’t reference the fact that we are all constitutionally equal.

The motivation behind the political correctness movement is to stifle free speech. Labeling something as “politically incorrect” attaches a stigma to it, and people are less likely to utter such statements. One can read a newspaper or watch cable television to see examples of political incorrectness. A famous celebrity need only utter one statement deemed as offensive, and the media will subsequently run with the story. People naturally will have a negative reaction to such statements, not realizing that everyone one of us is flawed and living on the bodily platform.

Being in the material world means falsely identifying with our bodies and not realizing that we are all constitutionally spirit souls. As spirit souls, we are all equal, yet forgetting that fact, we make generalizations about groups of people based on their physical attributes. In actuality one shouldn’t be offended simply by words uttered by others. If we understand the Vedic truth of aham brahmasmi (“ I am spirit soul”), then we can easily brush aside any statements pertaining to our gross material body.

When Lord Krishna incarnated as Lord Rama many thousands of years ago in Ayodhya, He was ordered to live in the forest for fourteen years by His father, King Dashratha. This all occurred on the very day He was to be installed as the new king. Just prior to leaving town, the Lord went back to His palace and told His wife Sita the news. She was very distraught, and to make matters worse, the Lord instructed her not to accompany Him. He gave her a very erudite sounding speech, stating that her duties were now to serve the new king, Lord Rama’s younger brother Bharata. The Lord wanted to protect her from the difficulties of forest life, so He begged her to stay in Ayodhya and await His return fourteen years later.

When Sita Devi heard this, she was very angered. She was Lakshmi herself, the goddness of fortune who is always serving Krishna in the spiritual world. Lakshmi incarnated as Sita Devi as a means of accompanying the Lord in the execution of His pastimes. Sita was greatly offended at the mere thought of being separated from Rama. She immediately chastised Him for even suggesting such a thing. This represents the attitude of a true devotee of the Lord. Devotees can never live without Krishna. Any thought of separation from the Lord is immediately rejected by them.

Such ideas of separation and forgetfulness of our relationship with God represent real political incorrectness. Today there is much talk about God being dead or God not existing. Krishna is accepted as a mere mortal or a manifestation of the impersonal Brahman by many so-called yogis and Vedantists. This sort of speech is what actually needs to be stopped, not mundane statements made about someone’s bodily characteristics. Instead of identifying ourselves as American, Indian, black, or white, we should reacquaint ourselves with our true identity, that of servants to Lord Krishna. We should take offense at any blasphemous remarks directed at the Lord and His devotees, the Vaishnavas.

We should learn from Sita Devi’s example, and never put up with such talk and refute it every opportunity we get. Lord Rama, being God Himself, is incapable of making offensive remarks but He purposefully made these statements to His wife because He knew they would anger her.  He wanted people to learn from her reaction. He knew just how devoted she was to Him, but He wanted everyone else, including future generations, to also witness her display of devotion. “My Lord, you are the only truth. Life without you is a life not worth living. So please do not suggest such a thing.” These were the thoughts of Sita and for this she is the perfect woman and devotee.