Saturday, November 7, 2009

Company We Keep

Radha, Krishna, and gopis “We have experience that there is little or no enjoyment in sitting alone in a room talking to oneself. However, if there are five people present, our enjoyment is enhanced, and if we can discuss Krishna before many, many people, the enjoyment is all the greater. Enjoyment means variety.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Beyond Birth and Death, Ch 1)

Our friends and family are our life blood. They are our support system, lifting us up when we fall down and bringing us back down to earth if we get too high. Much of our enjoyment in life comes through association with our loved ones.

From time to time we do enjoy being alone. The rigors of everyday life can get to be too much and sometimes we need an escape. For example, one who works in an office may spend upwards of forty hours per week surrounded by co-workers. Even if one has their own separate office at the work place, colleagues are bound to keep coming in and out, wanting to interact. Many times other coworkers have specific requests or questions, and other times they just want to take a break from their job and have someone else to talk with. Having an office job also means having a desk phone, a cell phone, and a computer. The email program must remain open throughout the day since new messages are constantly coming in. In this technologically advanced age, these issues are standard with any office job. It is quite natural for one to want to get away from this situation from time to time. However, often times the environment at home is not much different. If we are married, then our spouse is always there demanding our time, and quite justifiably. “Oh honey, did you remember to do that? Can you make sure to do this before you come home?” Children can be even more demanding of our time. “Dad, I need money to buy this or that. Mom, can you drive me to such and such practice?” Parents’ lives revolve completely around their kids.

Sometimes, we just want to get away. Being alone can bring a peaceful feeling. Sitting down, relaxing on the couch or the bed, watching television or reading a book…this is what many people long for. While this may provide us some short term happiness, we can get bored with such situations very quickly. One can only sit around by themselves doing nothing for so long without becoming antsy. It is the natural yearning of the human spirit to be free and active. The mind is always working, for we can’t stop thinking even for a second. The mind races even while we are asleep. For these reasons, it is important to have friends. We need to have other people around with whom we can share our experiences. If something good happens to us, like getting a promotion or graduating from school, we like to tell all our friends and family. We may know of many stories relating to our own lives or the lives of the others, but these stories are meaningless unless we can share them with someone else. One of the reasons the cellular telephone is so popular is that it lets people avoid loneliness in almost any situation. It is very common to find people talking on their cell phones while driving, even though it can distract them. This has caused such a problem that many governments have passed laws prohibiting holding and talking on a cell phone while driving. As soon we get into our cars, many of us reach for the cell phone and start dialing our favorite friend so that we’ll have someone we can talk to while driving to wherever we have to go. Dialing isn’t even required since cell phones save phone numbers by contact name. If the first friend doesn’t pick up, then we can go right down the list, clicking on the next available friend. Marriages and boyfriend/girlfriend relationships are other ways to ensure having a companion with us at all times. It is a very nice feeling, for it offers us comfort and security.

Krishna and Arjuna When it comes to religious life, there is a common misconception that one has to negate all activity and remain secluded. This is the philosophy of Buddhism, which prescribes transcendental meditation, whereby all outside distractions are blocked out in hopes of achieving a state known as nirvana. The impersonalist Vedanta philosophers have a similar view, for their goal is to merge into the Brahman effulgence. Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, broached these subjects in a discussion with His cousin and dear friend Arjuna some five thousand years ago. That conversation was chronicled in a small chapter in a much larger book, the Mahabharata. This small chapter has since turned into its own famous book known as the Bhagavad-gita. Arjuna was a military man whose duty it was to fight against an army led by his cousin brothers over the right to rule a kingdom. On the eve of battle, Arjuna became hesitant to fight, basically turning into a conscientious objector. Lord Krishna used this opportunity to impart spiritual wisdom upon Arjuna, who thus became His disciple. The Lord discussed the meditational yoga system, going through its various intricacies and specific requirements. After being instructed on this discipline, Arjuna declared that it was too difficult for him to follow. Now if meditational yoga was difficult to perfect five thousand years ago, one can only imagine how much harder it has become in the present day and age. For starters, one has to go to a secluded place to properly practice yoga. One must be completely free of sex life, for that is the biggest hindrance to spiritual advancement. One must sit a certain way, concentrating the mind very sincerely on Lord Vishnu.

Shrila Prabhupada Not only is this method nearly impossible to execute in today’s age, but there are actually much easier and more effective ways to achieve spiritual perfection. Bhakti yoga, or devotional service, is declared by Lord Krishna to be the topmost form of yoga. Linking the soul with the Supersoul, or God, is the real meaning of yoga, though most associate the term with breathing exercises and sitting postures. Bhakti means love, so if one tries to connect with God in a loving way, then that system will be the most effective. Devotional service is comprised of nine distinct processes. Perfection of any one of these processes can award liberation, though in this age, chanting is the process recommended by all the great saints. Silently chanting the Lord’s name in a loving way to oneself is very nice. His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder of the modern day Hare Krishna movement, advised all his disciples to chant at least sixteen rounds of the maha-mantra daily on japa beads. One round of japa consists of repeating a mantra 108 times, so if you multiply that by sixteen you get 1,728 recitations. Chanting silently to oneself on a japa mala is essential, but chanting out loud with others is even better. This congregational chanting is known as sankirtana, and it was the process inaugurated by Lord Chaitanya some five hundred years ago in India.

Lord Chaitanya Lord Shri Krishna Chaitanya Mahaprabhu took sannyasa, the renounced order of life, at a very young age so that He could travel all round India chanting this mantra, inducing others to join Him. He was extremely successful, as He brought so many pure souls to His movement. It is easy to just sit alone in a room and think about Krishna and enjoy blissful association with the Lord. Yet it’s even better to talk about Krishna with others. This is what devotional service is all about. At first, people may not want to hear about Krishna or God. “Oh why are you getting all religious on me? I don’t want to be preached to.” This is a natural tendency, for people are apprehensive about things unfamiliar to them. A devotee is quite kind however since he speaks about the glories of the Lord and humbly offers his respect to everyone. Praising the Lord and talking about His pastimes in the presence of fellow devotees not only helps others, but actually increases our love for Krishna as well. Having association with saintly people is considered one of the highest rewards in life.

Friday, November 6, 2009

With Love and Devotion

Lord Rama “’Who, O mighty-armed one, receives such a welcome guest as Yourself? ‘ Then speedily bringing various kind of sapid rice and arghya, he (Guha) said, ‘O mighty-armed one, has Your journey been a pleasant one? This entire earth is Yours. We are Your servants, You are our master. Do You rule here, accepting the eatables,drinkables, excellent beds for Yourself, and fodder for Your horses.’ When Guha had said this, Raghava answered him, saying, ‘We have been well received by you and are well pleased with you, since coming here on foot you have shown us affection.’ Then pressing Guha hard with His arms, Rama said, ‘O Guha, it is by good luck that I see you whole along with your friends. Is your kingdom in peace both as regards your friends and the forest? Do you know me as assuming an ascetic mode of life in the woods, in which I am to wear kusha and bark, and live upon fruits and roots. So with the single exception of the food for the horses, I require nothing. With these horses being well kept, I shall consider myself as entertained and honored by you.’” (Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kand, Sec 50)

Here is the perfect example of how one can satisfy the wishes of the Supreme Lord under even the most difficult of circumstances. The purpose of human life is to rekindle our forgotten relationship with God, our dearmost friend who is kind enough to warmly welcome us as soon as we come to Him.

Lord Krishna is the Supreme Personality of Godhead according to the Vedas. People have different names for Him, but there is still only one God. He comes to earth from time to time in various forms to deliver the pious and to punish the miscreants. In the Treta Yuga, the second time period of creation, the Lord came to earth in a human form as Lord Rama. As one who gives pleasure to others, Rama was kind and compassionate towards everyone even though He belonged to the warrior class, the kshatriyas. He was the rightful heir to the throne of Ayodhya held by His father Dashratha, but as events played out, His coronation would have to wait. As part of a deal made with his youngest wife Kaikeyi, Dashratha ordered Rama to leave the kingdom and spend fourteen years in the forest, disconnected completely from the kingdom. The Lord accepted the order, and His wife Sita Devi and younger brother Lakshmana also accompanied Him, for they refused to live without Him.

Sita, Rama, and Lakshmana leaving for the forest In the Vedic tradition, if one vows to live in the forest, there are strict rules that must be adhered to. Lord Rama lived the life of a person in the vanaprastha ashrama, one who is retired from family life and no longer living at home. Because of this vow, Rama, Lakshmana, and Sita travelled through the forest, going from one place to another, not remaining in any area for too long. One of their first stops was at the camp of Guha, the leader of the Nishada tribe. Nishadas were forest dwellers, considered uncivilized and generally viewed as a lower class. Rama however, made no such distinctions when it came to judging others. Guha was a humble devotee who viewed Rama’s visit as the greatest moment in his life. He quickly welcomed the Lord, Sita, and Lakshmana by offering them a nice sitting place, some water, and the most palatable foodstuff he had available to him.

Since Rama was observing the life of a vanaprasthi, He was unable to partake of the food that Guha had offered Him. Rama’s family traced all the way back to Maharaja Ikshvaku, one of the first kings on earth. Thus Rama viewed it as His duty to protect the good name and reputation of the Ikshvakus. Since Dashratha had ordered Him to accept a certain lifestyle, Rama wanted to make sure that the orders weren’t violated. For this reason, He informed Guha that He was unable to eat the food offered to Him. More importantly, however, the Lord made sure to inform Guha that He gladly accepted all that was offered to Him. “You have treated me well Guha. Your service to me is exemplary. Though I am unable to eat what has been offered to Me, I still gladly accept it.”

Rama's group travelling with GuhaThis is a very key point. The Lord is so kind that He doesn’t look at the quantity or quality of what is offered to Him, but rather the mood in which it is presented. God declares in the Bhagavad-gita that one can offer Him a leaf, a flower, or even some water. If one offers these things with love and devotion, then He accepts them. If one presents these things to the Lord with material desires or ulterior motives such as wanting something in return, then the Lord wants nothing to do with such an offering.

It is very natural for us to want to eat food that satisfies our taste buds. The urges of the tongue and belly are very difficult to control, and eating nice food brings us some temporary happiness. In spiritual life, we don’t necessarily have to give up eating nice food, but instead we just need to change our consciousness as it relates to eating. We can still prepare very savory dishes, but they should be offered to the Lord first. This principle holds true in all aspects of life. If we shift our focus to pleasing the Supreme Lord, we automatically become free of sins.

“The devotees of the Lord are released from all kinds of sins because they eat food which is offered first for sacrifice. Others, who prepare food for personal sense enjoyment, verily eat only sin.” (Bhagavad-gita, 3.13)

One should eat yajna-shishta. Yajna means sacrifice and shishta means remnants. The highest form of sacrifice is that which is done for the satisfaction of Vishnu, or God. Krishna, Vishnu, Narayana and all the other Vishnu-tattva forms of God are all equal in potency for they represent the same original God. In this instance, Guha performed a sacrifice for Lord Rama, thus the offered food became known as prasadam. Rama gladly accepted it, and left the remnants for others to eat. This is the most sanctified of all food since it is completely free of karma. Done for the satisfaction of Vishnu, it inherits all the qualities of the Supreme Lord, with the primary quality being complete purity. Normally when we eat ordinary food prepared by others, we are eating food that bears the qualities of the cook and the cooking area. So if we eat food prepared by devotees, our food becomes infused with love for God. Prasadam is the highest quality food because not only is it prepared by devotees, but it is made solely for the satisfaction of the Supreme Lord.

Hanuman worshiping Rama From Guha’s example, we see that one doesn’t have to be a brahmana or other person of a high birth to become a devotee. Love is the most natural sentiment exhibited by all living entities, thus one who shifts his love towards God automatically becomes a bhagavata, which is higher than a brahmana. If we chant the holy names of Lord, think of Him throughout the day, follow the regulative principles, and prepare and eat as much prasadam as possible, we are sure to reap the highest benefits.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Deathly Loss

Krishna and Arjuna “The mode of passion is born of unlimited desires and longings, O son of Kunti, and because of this one is bound to material fruitive activities.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 14.7)

Suicide is the act of intentionally killing oneself. People who feel that all hope is lost for them in their current life take to this practice through various methods such as intentional drug overdose, shooting themselves with a gun, or even jumping off of a high building. It is such a horrible practice that others often wonder what would drive someone to such an extreme.

The main causes for attempted suicide are feelings of hopelessness and despair. These feelings are quite natural in all of us and we all at some point or another have given some thought to the idea of ending our lives prematurely. In the end, most of us don’t take any serious steps towards the practice because the sadness we feel isn’t extreme enough. According to Vedic philosophy, this material world is a place full of miseries, so frustration is inevitable for anyone striving for material perfection. We living entities are all spirit souls at our core, having eternally existing spiritual bodies, but due to some cause or another, we find ourselves in this world.

Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, created this world which is governed by the three qualities of goodness, passion, and ignorance. Living entities possess these qualities which guide us in our activities. The mode of goodness represents pious activity, passion represents fruitive activity, and ignorance represents inactivity or laziness. Human beings are involved primarily in the mode of passion, where we work tirelessly to procure wealth, religiosity, and sense gratification. These three modes of nature are part of the material world, having karma associated with them, which results in us continually taking birth, life after life. We may work very hard to accumulate wealth to live a comfortable life, but all of that disappears at the time of death. At that time, our desires and work in our current life, our karma, determines what type of body we receive in our next life.

Work performed in the mode of passion is binding and unsatisfying in the end. We may work very hard on a project and see it to its completion, but the feeling of satisfaction doesn’t last very long. As soon as one task is complete, another one arises. If we are unsuccessful at any time, we are prone to lament our failures. James Hetfield, the lead singer of the heavy metal band Metallica, wrote a song about feelings of suicide called Fade to Black. He wrote the song after the band’s equipment was stolen early on in their career. One of the lyric lines is as follows:

“Yesterday seems as though it never existed. But death greets me warm, now I will just say goodbye.”

Metallica At the time of the the theft, the band was steadily gaining in popularity. Yet from the lyrics we see just how intense Hetfield’s emotions were after suffering such a setback. The mode of passion is so strong that it can make people lose their sense of logic and understanding. Lord Krishna describes the mode of passion this way in the Bhagavad-gita:

“O chief of the Bharatas, when there is an increase in the mode of passion, the symptoms of great attachment, uncontrollable desire, hankering, and intense endeavor develop” (Bg. 14.12)

Regardless of the success we may have, we are bound to fail at something or feel a hankering for something new. According to the Vedas, being in the material world means always hankering after things we want and lamenting for the things we don’t have. When this lamentation reaches an extreme level, the thought of suicide creeps into the mind.

There are many short term remedies that aim to stop someone from committing suicide. Suicide prevention hotlines provide a way for the distressed to seek help anonymously by talking to trained counselors over the phone. Talking to someone, whether it is a friend or a counselor, usually helps potential suicide victims because it gives them a feeling of hope, something to live for. These are good temporary solutions because if one regains their hope in life, they can continue in the mode of passion, which is preferable to the act of suicide. Suicide is highly frowned upon by the Vedas and most other major religions.

Resuming life in the mode of passion may temporarily alleviate one’s despair, but it doesn’t stop the effects of the fourfold miseries of life, namely birth, old age, disease, and death. These four things are guaranteed for anyone who lives by the modes of nature, so minor adjustment to one’s fruitive activities doesn’t change this fact. The real way to eliminate suicidal tendencies is to rekindle the lost relationship with Krishna, or God.

When Lord Krishna came to earth in the form of Lord Rama many thousands of years ago, He was married to Sita Devi, the incarnation of Goddess Lakshmi, the goddess of fortune. The couple was happily enjoying married life in the kingdom of Rama’s father, Maharaja Dashratha, when suddenly their life was turned upside down. Lord Rama was ordered to leave the kingdom and live as a recluse in the forest for fourteen years by His father, who was fulfilling a request made by his youngest wife, Kaikeyi. Lord Rama, ever devoted to the welfare of His father, gladly agreed to the order. Just prior to leaving, the Lord went to tell Sita what had transpired, with hopes of dissuading her from following Him. Forest life is akin to being homeless, so the Lord didn’t want to subject His beautiful and chaste wife to these hardships. Such is the nature of the Lord, He always looks out for the welfare of His devotees.

“If you do not agree to take me with you, surely will I do away with my life by drinking poison, entering into fire, or drowning myself in water.” (Sita Devi speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kand, Sec 27)

Sita Rama Sita insisted on coming along. The two went back and forth in a debate format, with each person presenting sound and cogent arguments in favor of their position. As part of her case, Sita declared that she was so devoted to Rama that she would surely commit suicide if the Lord didn’t agree to take her. Now here we see the only legitimate reason for one to ponder suicide. In material endeavors, we are bound to have successes and failures, thus we shouldn’t overly lament our losses or overly rejoice over our gains. However, separation from Krishna, or God, is the greatest loss one can suffer. In fact, it is the root cause of all our miseries. Krishna is the reservoir of pleasure, but we seem to have forgotten this fact through the actions of maya. Maya is God’s illusory energy that runs the material world and clouds our judgment. We seek happiness in all other areas of life, not knowing that pure bliss comes from having a loving relationship with Krishna. By immersing ourselves in the mode of passion, we spend all day and night forgetting about God, thinking that we are the doers and that we are the cause of our fortune and well-being. Thinking ourselves to be God, which we are not, we are bound to fall prey to feelings of despair.

One may think that Sita Devi’s lamentation means she too was affected by maya. That is not correct since she wasn’t lamenting separation from any ordinary husband, but more importantly, separation from God Himself. This is the nature of pure devotees, or bhaktas. They don’t lament over material things. They understand that Krishna is the only source of pleasure in their lives, so anything besides Krishna in essentially meaningless. A devotee is never happy when he or she is separated from Krishna.

Since God resides in the spiritual world and we reside in the material world, aren’t we always separated from Him? This is certainly true for those in the conditioned state, but this rule isn’t absolute. According to Lord Chaitanya, Krishna’s incarnation as a devotee who appeared in India some five hundred years ago, there is no difference between God and His name. We may say the word water over and over again, but it doesn’t mean that water will come to us. However, if we say the name Krishna, then He immediately comes to us. All the great Vaishnava saints and devotees, including Vyasadeva, Valmiki, Tulsidas, and Hanuman, agree that in this age Krishna incarnates through His holy name. If we constantly chant the Lord’s name in a loving manner through recitation of the maha-mantra “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, God will always be with us.

Sita Devi From Sita Devi’s statement, we get a glimpse into just how great a devotee she was. She not only threatened to kill herself at the thought of separation from Rama, but she proposed to do it through some of the most painful methods possible. Willingly drowning or throwing oneself into a fire are not the typical methods of suicide, and they are quite painful. Her statement represents her pure and unadulterated Krishna consciousness. For a devotee, being separated from Krishna is the equivalent of death. Sita’s devotion was so strong that the Lord was forced to take her along, for He knew she wouldn’t survive if He were to leave her behind after such a plea. Learning from Sita’s example, we should all try to think of Krishna as much as we can during the course of a day, so that we may never forget him. Thinking of Him is very easy, for we can chant His name, read stories about Him, prepare nice food preparations to offer to His deity, sing songs about Him, and talk about His glories with others. These methods are very simple and easy to undertake, and they go a long way in fixing up our consciousness. If we always think of Krishna, He will always think of us, and thus our hope and despair will disappear forever.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Judging Character

Hanuman executing devotional service “Lord Krishna has made a firm promise for all time. If one renders service unto Him, Krishna correspondingly gives him an equal amount of success in devotional service to the Lord.” (Chaitanya Charitamrita, Madhya 8.90)

A person’s character can be ascertained based on their behavior and personal characteristics. By analyzing how a person acts towards us and towards others in all types of situations, we can get a better handle on their true nature.

Sometimes it’s difficult to get a read on someone else’s nature. The stereotypical used car salesman presents the biggest challenge. Selling cars is a cut-throat business, with profit margins hinging on the final sale price of the automobiles. The selling price is usually determined through negotiations between the dealership and the customer. Used cars are even harder to sell than new ones. They usually don’t come with any factor warranty, so caveat emptor is the motto that customers go by. “Let the buyer beware for this car may not be all it’s cracked up to be.” Since used cars are tougher to sell, a highly skilled salesperson is required to get them off the lots. Because of this, people that sell used cars tend to be expert at duplicity, deceit, and outright lying. This type of personality is good for selling cars, but not so good when it comes to making friends or maintaining long term relationships. Similar types of people also exist outside the realm of selling cars. This makes it tougher for us to judge someone’s character, since anyone can be nice to our face, but words alone don’t convey sincerity.

The most effective way to judge someone’s character and also at the same time judge how they feel about us, is to use comparison. If we compare how someone treats us versus how they treat others, we will have a pretty good idea as to what kind of person they are. If someone seems overly friendly to us, but then is mean and rude towards others, we can understand that their kindness towards us probably isn’t sincere. The opposite holds true as well. One who is kind towards all is recognized as a saintly and learned person, pandita sama-darshinah.  This comparison technique can also be applied in relationships, and in fact it is already employed by many wives towards their husbands. In any close relationship, especially of the romantic variety, each party is always wondering whether the other person loves them or not. The best way to gauge someone’s love for us is to see how they behave towards others. For example, many wives get upset because their husbands show preferential treatment towards their other friends or towards hobbies such as golf and video games. Husbands also get upset if they see their wives talking or laughing with other friends, especially if those friends happen to be male. A wife wants to feel like she is the most special person in her husband’s life and the same holds true for the husband. A person wants and expects preferential treatment from their spouse since they give all of their love to their significant other.

Lord Krishna instructing Arjuna From analyzing God’s activity and behavior, we can get an idea of who He likes and who He doesn’t like. As declared in the Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna is by nature equally disposed towards every living entity:

“I envy no one, nor am I partial to anyone. I am equal to all. But whoever renders service unto Me in devotion is a friend, is in Me, and I am also a friend to him.” (Bg. 9.29)

He makes an exception to His vow of neutrality for His devotees. Evidence of this fact can be found by studying the life of Lord Rama. Krishna comes to earth from time to time when there is a decline in the practice of dharma. The Lord came to earth in the form of a prince named Rama during the Treta Yuga to deliver His devotees from the reign of terror imposed by Ravana and his fellow Rakshasa demons. Since the Lord took birth in the family of the famous Ikshvaku dynasty, He was committed to dharma, or religiosity, from His very birth. He was loved and adored by all while He was growing up. This was due to His kind nature and the fact that He treated everyone with love and respect. As the son of a king, Rama was trained in the military arts, as was customary for kshatriyas. The warrior class of men serve as the police or military and they are known as kshatriyas in the Vedic system. According to the varnashrama dharma system, kshatriyas are to also serve as the government leaders, taking council on all matters from the brahmanas, the priestly class of men. During Lord Rama’s time, this system was in place. Rama was an expert warrior who had to administer justice from time to time. Yet, as stated by the Lord’s younger brother Lakshmana, Rama’s enemies even liked Him and could find nothing bad to say about Him.

“I do not find any such man in this world, even amongst great enemies, who, forsaken for heinous sins, can cite, even in His absence, any fault of Him” (Lakshmana speaking to Kausalya about Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kand, Sec 21)

Hanuman worshiping Lord Rama Lord Krishna’s statements in the Bhagavad-gita were true, for Rama treated everyone equally and fairly. Yet He made exceptions for His devotees. Sita Devi, His wife, and Lakshmana were both allowed to accompany the Lord while He was serving His fourteen year exile sentence in the forest. This is not something to be overlooked, since actually all the citizens of Ayodhya wanted to accompany the Lord as well. They loved Rama so much and figured that life wasn’t worth living without Him. Only Rama was ordered to live as an exile, so He wasn’t about to let the citizens suffer the same punishment as Him. He made an exception to this rule for His most elevated devotees, Sita and Lakshmana.

There are many other examples of Rama’s preferential treatment of His devotees. The great Vanara warrior, Hanuman, was considered to have a low birth since he was only a monkey. Yet due to his pure love and devotion to Rama, he was given everlasting fame by being enlisted as the chief warrior in the Lord’s fight against Ravana, who had kidnapped Sita. To this day, Lord Rama isn’t worshiped alone, but rather with His primary devotees in what is known as the Rama Darbar. Rama, Lakshmana, Sita, and Hanuman make up this most exalted group. Hanuman was also given the boon of remaining on earth for as long as the story of Lord Rama’s life was still being told. He is eternally linked with Rama, and his name is synonymous with courage, strength, love, and devotion as it relates to serving God.

Rama Darbar These are just some of the examples of the Lord’s favoritism and there are countless others involving Krishna and His various incarnations. Knowing this fact, we should strive to become the Lord’s devotee, since He will then give us His unconditional love. In actuality, He gives us this love now, but we don’t accept it. We’re rather interested in matters of sense gratification, thinking of all possible ways to forget about Him. If we simply shift our focus by embracing the Lord, very easily and quickly, we can enjoy great happiness.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Solving Our Problems

Lord Krishna taming Kailya serpent “For one who worships Me, giving up all his activities unto Me and being devoted to Me without deviation, engaged in devotional service and always meditating upon Me, who has fixed his mind upon Me, O son of Pritha, for him I am the swift deliverer from the ocean of birth and death.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 12.6-7)

The material condition of life is not everlasting. It is anything but permanent since our time on this earth is destined to come to an end. Therefore, we should search out permanent solutions to the problems of misery and distress instead of settling for the temporary sense pleasures that we currently take shelter of.

We are all going to die. This is an assured fact based on recorded history. Every person comes to this realization at some point in their life, either in their youth or in old age. It is an amazing fact to discover. One day we will be no more; our soul will depart this body. This is a fact since we know that our ancestors have all lived and died. We see people dying every day, and we know that the body is forced to grow old and suffer diseases. A sane person who truly understands these facts will eventually start to question why we even take birth in the first place, and once we do, why are we forced to die.

Many people choose to ignore this reality. It is much easier to take the route of ignorance than it is to face the hard cold fact of imminent death. The motto of life is to eat, drink and be merry. Taking birth in the material world means we seek out some heightened form of sense gratification. “I want a new car; I want a big house; I want a nice job.” These certainly aren’t bad things to have, but they are still temporary. Even our familial relationships aren’t permanent. We may have a nice wife and beautiful children, but we will be forced to sever that relationship at the time of death.

“The misguided man accepts the material condition as everlasting. One must give up his faith in material things and give up attachment for them. Then one will be sober and peaceful.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 6.15.26 Purport)

Shrila Prabhupada Simply ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away. We all witness the death of parents, relatives, or friends. Death doesn’t just happen to the elderly, for anyone can die at any moment and at any age. Television news and newspapers are filled with tragic stories of children dying from cancer or others dying from car or plane accidents. Knowing this fact, shouldn’t we all immediately try to get to the bottom of the meaning of life and why we are put on this earth?

"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." (Sb, 5.5.1)

Athato brahma-jijnasa; this aphorism is the first statement in the famous Vedanta-sutras. “Veda” means knowledge and “anta” means ending or the end, so Vedanta means the end of knowledge. The first statement in the Vedanta philosophy states that “now is the time for understanding Brahman.” According to the Vedas, Brahman is one of God’s features, representing His impersonal energy that pervades the creation. Lord Krishna, or God, has three primary features which one can realize through steady progression. Brahman is His first feature, along with Paramatama, the Supersoul residing inside all of us, and Bhagavan, the ultimate representation of God as Supreme Personality of Godhead. Krishna is Bhagavan, someone with an eternal body full of bliss and knowledge, sach-chid-ananda-vigraha. Vyasadeva, the great literary incarnation of Krishna, wrote the Vedanta-sutras, and in it he declared that the human form of life is meant for inquiring about God.

Spirit souls aren’t just found inside the body of human beings. Animals, plants, insects, aquatics, etc. are all living entities with spirit souls found inside of them. The material world has several distinctions from the spiritual world, the primary of which is the fact that material things possess qualities, referred to as gunas in Sanskrit. There are three gunas: goodness, passion, and ignorance. When a spirit soul enters the material world, it acquires these three gunas in varying degrees, and thus there are different types of bodies. The human being has the highest intelligence level, so taking birth as a human represents the best opportunity for the spirit soul to return back home, back to Godhead.

Krishna and Balarama tending to cows We are all spirit souls, part and parcel of God, but for some reason or another we have found our way to this material world. Unlike the spiritual world, this place is full of miseries, dukhalayam. At every turn there is trouble, even if we don’t realize it. We plant seeds in the form of plan-making and the acquisition of material possessions, hoping that these seeds will bear fruit in the form of peace and prosperity. More times than not, the seeds turn into trees with prickly thorns that tear us and cause us to bleed, which makes us even more miserable. For example, one may work very hard and save up money to buy a fancy or expensive car. While this is all well and good, as soon as we take possession of the car, the mode of defense kicks in. “Oh I must maintain this car very nicely since it is so expensive. I need a nice insurance policy for it. I better get a state-of-the-art alarm system to protect it from theft and vandalism. Let me make sure to park this as far away from other cars as possible so as to avoid any errant dings and scratches.” In the end, something that was intended to give us pleasure only ends up causing grief and worry.

An animal spends its time in four primary activities: eating, sleeping, mating, and defending. If we think of these activities in depth, most conditioned human beings also focus their time on these activities. An animal may sleep in the forest on a tree branch or under a rock, while a human being may sleep on a quality mattress in a luxury apartment, but the feeling is more or less the same. Knowing this fact, it is the duty of every person to rise above simple animal life and take to a higher discipline. This is where the Vedas come in. They are the original religious scriptures, passed down from God Himself for the benefit of mankind.

“The Blessed Lord said: I instructed this imperishable science of yoga to the sun-god, Vivasvan, and Vivasvan instructed it to Manu, the father of mankind, and Manu in turn instructed it to Ikshvaku.” (Lord Krishna, Bg, 4.1)

Vivasvan The Vedas are so vast that there are various routes available for aspiring transcendentalists. The Puranas, Upanishads, Mahabharata, Ramayana and other texts are all there for us to take advantage of. The great rishis of India in days past contemplated the meaning of life, performing rigid austerities. As a reward for their service, they were imparted with perfect knowledge of the soul, its constitutional position, and how one can permanently get out of this material world.

Many people are of the belief that when you die, you either go to heaven or hell. Now that is most certainly true, for the Vedas state this as well, yet residence in heaven or hell isn’t permanent. The heavenly and hellish planets are still part of the material world and one stays there for an amount of time commensurate with the merits or demerits accumulated through their deeds performed while on earth. At the expiry of these merits or demerits, one is forced to take birth again in this material world. There is however, an exception to this rule. One who is devoted to Krishna, completely and purely, and who craves association with Him, such a person goes immediately to Krishna’s spiritual planets after death. Residence in God’s spiritual world is permanent, for having gone there once, one never returns.

“According to the Vedas, there are two ways of passing from this world-one in light and one in darkness. When one passes in light, he does not come back; but when one passes in darkness, he returns. The devotees who know these two paths, O Arjuna, are never bewildered. Therefore be always fixed in devotion.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 8.26-27)

Krishna speaking to ArjunaOnce we realize the fact that this life is destined to end and that our relationship with God is what is important, what steps do we take next? Should we just abandon all of our material activities, renouncing family ties and spending the rest of our life in meditation in a secluded place? Lord Krishna advises against this in the Bhagavad-gita. The process is actually quite simple. We aren’t required to give up our occupation, but we do have to change our desires. If we act in accordance with our prescribed duties, abandoning attachment to the fruits of our activities, then we will be headed on the right track.

“You have a right to perform your prescribed duty, but you are not entitled to the fruits of action. Never consider yourself to be the cause of the results of your activities, and never be attached to not doing your duty.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 2.47)

Krishna is the source of all pleasure, and if we devote ourselves to Him, we will always be happy. Yoga means having union of the soul with the Supreme Lord, and while there are many different types of yoga, the highest form is called bhakti yoga. Some mistakenly take bhakti yoga to simply mean worship of the deity of the Lord and the chanting of His names. While these certainly are the core components of bhakti yoga, in actuality, any activity done out of pure love and devotion to the Lord is called bhakti. It is more of a consciousness and state of mind than an actual discipline involving activity. Instead of always thinking of material sense gratification, making one plan after another, we simply have to shift our consciousness so that we are always thinking about Krishna. That is pure bhakti yoga.

Lord Krishna In this current age, the easiest way to permanently change our consciousness is to constantly chant the Holy names of the Lord by reciting the maha-mantra: “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. Chanting out loud means hearing and reciting the Lord’s name simultaneously. This along with eating Krishna prasadam, sanctified food first offered to the Lord, will ultimately purify our consciousness. Such a simple process can be taken up by anyone of any religious persuasion at any age. Krishna is for everyone, for that is the true meaning of God. There cannot be one God for Hindus and another God for Christians. The Lord doesn’t operate that way. There is one God for all of us. Krishna is one of His authorized names, meaning “all-attractive.” By increasing our attachment for Krishna, we will ultimately find pure peace and happiness.

Monday, November 2, 2009

A Vow to Keep

Rama Darbar “He who attributes his virtues to you and holds himself responsible for his sinfulness; who fixes all his hopes on you and loves Rama’s devotees; in his heart dwell, you and Sita.” (Maharishi Valmiki speaking to Lord Rama, Ramacharitamanasa)

The Western style marriage ceremony usually follows the same procedure. There is a grand scene where the parents of the bride and groom-to-be walk down the aisle. Then the best man and maid of honor follow, along with the flower girl. The groom then slowly walks towards the altar, followed finally by the bride who is escorted typically by her father. The related parties all stand at the altar where the wedding ceremony is officially performed by a priest or a Rabi. Wedding rings are exchanged and invariably, in order to make the marriage official, the bride and groom are each asked to repeat several vows which they either personally wrote or that are spelled out for them by the officiating minister. The minister will ask both the bride and groom if they promise to love, honor, cherish, and obey each other for “richer or poorer, and in sickness and in health.” Both parties agree to the request and thus the marriage becomes official. The bride and groom then kiss to celebrate the beginning of their new life.

The wedding vows are important because they symbolize the true meaning of a marriage. Being joined in holy matrimony means that the man and wife merge together to start a new life. We are all individuals at our core, but a marriage revolves around the concept of oneness between two people. According to the Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, the husband and wife share a common fate in their current life and also in the afterlife.

Modern day wedding ceremony Divorce is the legal definition of a failed marriage, where the two parties agree to a permanent separation. Though the religious definition of marriage has no end, the current practice in society allows for dissolution of the marriage in the eyes of the law. A marriage ends usually due to disagreements and the fact that the husband and wife stop loving each other. Being in a conditioned state means obsessing over the idea of romantic love, but according to Vedic philosophy, this love is actually a perverted form of lust. True love is of the spiritual variety, where one surrenders themselves completely to Krishna, or God. Real love, in a material sense, means wanting more for the object of your love than you want for yourself. In the true definition, one can never fall out of love. However, we see that couples break up due to constant arguing, philandering, or loss of sexual attraction to each other. The “love” that once existed, can disappear in an instant.

Divorce renders the original wedding vows null and void. Both husband and wife agreed to love, honor, and cherish each other until death, no matter what the situation. The vows make no exception for falling out of love, cheating, desiring sex with another partner, or constant arguing and bickering. People sometimes marry simply out of attraction, which is not the original intended purpose of marriage.

Vedic style wedding of Sita and Rama According to the Vedas, we spirit souls are constantly transmigrating through various species in this material world due to our karma. The human form of life is the greatest opportunity for the spirit soul, because only humans have the intelligence to know and understand God. With this understanding, we can come to a stage where we love God, and only through that love can we free ourselves from the perpetual cycle of birth and death. For this reason, Krishna instituted the principles of dharma, or religiosity, at the beginning of creation. Dharma dictates the rules and regulations that should be followed to allow us purify our senses and come to an understanding of God. In the material world, sex desire is the greatest impediment to the cultivation of spiritual understanding, and it is for this reason that God gave us the system of marriage. In the Vedic tradition, a boy and girl should be married at a very young age through an arrangement made by the parents. Through consultation with brahmanas, or the priestly class of men, parents can find suitable matches for their children based on qualities and values. Men and women were never intended to freely intermingle with each other, for this would lead to increased illicit sexual activity, which leads to all sorts of other problems such as sexually transmitted diseases, teenage pregnancies, and abortions. Marriage was intended to be a system where sex life could be regulated. The husband and wife should engage in sexual activity only for procreation of Krishna conscious children. By bringing a spirit soul into this world, it becomes the parents’ responsibility to ensure that this birth will be the very last one for the child. If men and women freely engage in illicit sex, then naturally there will be an increase in unwanted births, which leads to the breaking of family traditions, and an increase in atheism.

“When there is increase of unwanted population, a hellish situation is created both for the family and for those who destroy the family tradition. In such corrupt families, there is no offering of oblations of food and water to the ancestors.” (Arjuna speaking to Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 1.41)

Lord Krishna and Arjuna If parents aren’t ready to raise a child, naturally the child will suffer and not be given the proper spiritual education while growing up. The Vedic system of marriage requires the husband and wife to perform austerities, known as tapasya, and to serve God together. By living peacefully together and abiding by the regulative principles prescribed by dharma, the husband and wife are sure to make spiritual advancement, which is the whole point of life.

It’s not that all love marriages are bad and all arranged marriages are good. It’s just that the strength of maya, God’s illusory energy, is very strong. Living a life of sense gratification is very dangerous because it can cause one to be perpetually bound up in the cycle of birth and death. Sex desire represents the highest form of sense gratification, so this should always be regulated in a marriage, regardless if it is a love or an arranged marriage.

Lord Rama Lord Rama was a pious prince belonging to the kshatriya race, born in the noble family of the Ikshvakus, many thousands of years ago in Ayodhya. Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead according to the Vedas, personally comes to earth from time to time in various forms in order to protect His devotees and reinstitute the principles of dharma. In the Treta Yuga, the second of four time periods of creation, He came in the form of Lord Rama, born as the eldest son of Maharaja Dashratha, the king of Ayodhya at the time. Dashratha was deeply attached to his eldest son, so one day he decided “I will install Rama as the new king. Nothing will make me happier.” However, on the day of the proposed installation, Dashratha was forced to reverse course due to the request of his youngest wife Kaikeyi. On a previous occasion, being pleased with her, the king had granted her any two boons of her choosing. Kaikeyi waited until the time of Rama’s coronation to cash in on those boons. Out of jealousy, she requested that her son Bharata be installed as the new king instead. Dashratha had four sons born to his three wives, with Rama being born to Kausalya and Bharata to Kaikeyi. Fearing Rama’s reaction, Kaikeyi also requested that the Lord be exiled to the forest for fourteen years to live as a recluse. According to Vedic codes of contact, a kshatriya king is to stand by his word no matter what. It was for this reason that Rama gladly accepted these two demands, for He wanted to maintain the honor of His father.

Sita Devi The Lord was married to Sita Devi at the time. In the spiritual world, God is served by His immediate expansion, who is in the form of a woman who is completely dedicated to Him. In Krishna’s form of Lord Narayana, Goddess Lakshmi, also known as the goddess of fortune, serves as His pleasure potency. When God descends to earth, His closest associates come with Him. Sita Devi was the incarnation of Goddess Lakshmi who played the role of Lord Rama’s wife. The two had been married several years at the time of the proposed exile. After hearing the news, the Lord went back to tell Sita what had happened. He knew that she was very attached to Him and that she would not take well to the news. He requested that she remain in the kingdom for the exile period since life in the forest was meant for wild animals, beasts, and ascetics who had their senses under control. Sita was born and raised in a royal kingdom, so the Lord thought she wouldn’t take very well to such an austere life.

“Do you take me, O Kakutshta, who am poor in spirit, devoted to my husband, ever given to your service, and participating equally in your joy and sorrow.” (Sita Devi speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kand, Sec 29)

Sita, however, was quite insulted at such a request from her husband. After duly lecturing Him on the principles of morality, she reminded Him that she was completely devoted to Him. In essence, she ordered Rama to allow her to accompany Him by reiterating the fact that she was completely devoted to Him and that she shared equally in His joy and sorrow. Here we witness the true greatness of Sita Devi. We hear the flowery language that makes up wedding vows today, but Sita actually personified them. Her husband was the most beloved person in Ayodhya, for all the citizens were eagerly anticipating His coronation. He had every material opulence at His disposal. Still, in an instant, He went from being the richest to the most poor, akin to a homeless person. Sita easily could have remained in the kingdom where she would be protected and enjoy the luxuries of royal life. Instead, she decided to adhere to the vows recited at her wedding. Sita’s father was Maharja Janaka, the king of Mithila. During the marriage ceremony of Sita and Rama, Janaka prayed that Rama would always protect his daughter and that Sita would always follow Rama wherever He went.

Sita and Rama wedding“Take this, my daughter Sita, as your partner in the observance of all duties, and do take her hand and place it by yours. May she always be pious and devoted to you, and always follow you like your own shadow.” (Vm, Bala Kand, Sec 73)

These weren’t just words to Sita. She took them seriously, and she was given the opportunity to prove her devotion when it counted most. She agreed to cherish, honor, and love her husband no matter what, even if He were sent to hell.

Hanuman, a pure devotee of RamaThe lesson we can take away from this is that we should follow Sita’s example and vow to love, honor, cherish, and obey God in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, until the day we die. Sometimes we only worship or think of God when it is convenient for us. If we are in a good position materially, we are happy with God, but if we fall on tough times, we forget about Him or become angry with Him. Even if we are cast into bad situations, we should think that God is so favorable to us, for we deserve to suffer even more. Devotees always think along these lines.

Sita easily could have complained or bewailed about the situation. She easily could have thought, “Why me? My life is so awful now that my husband is a recluse.” Yet these thoughts never crossed her mind. She immediately decided in favor of going with the Lord, and she wouldn’t take no for an answer. Lord Rama was so touched by her devotion that He was forced to agree to her request. Following in her footsteps, may we all one day have the same eagerness to serve the Lord.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Higher Education

Krishna and Balarama“These glorious acts of Yours will always be renowned all over the world. You are above all blessing, yet it is my duty to bless You. I give You the benediction that whatever You speak will remain as eternally fresh as the instruction of the Vedas. Your teachings will not only be honored within this universe or in this millennium, but in all places and ages and will remain increasingly new and important." (Sandipani Muni speaking to Krishna and Balarama after They recovered the guru’s son, Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vol 1, Ch 44)

The issue of education seems to come up during every election cycle. Candidates from both major parties stress their commitment to education reform, promising to increase the quality of education in America. Usually, the proposed solution is to increase the amount of spending that goes towards education.

In America, primary education, K-12, is run by the government through tax payer dollars. Though private schools do exist, the majority of students attend public schools. The quality of education at these schools has steadily decreased, as evidenced by the rapid decline in test scores and graduation rates. The consensus opinion seems to be that the lack of funds devoted towards public education is to blame for the decline in student performance. Reformers typically stress the need for reduced classroom sizes and increased teacher pay as ways of improving the system. They say that such changes will provide for an environment more conducive to learning. Former President George W. Bush passed a major initiative in his first term known as the “No Child Left Behind Act”, which called for massive increases in education spending at the federal level. The bill was written primarily by the late Democrat Senator Ted Kennedy and it enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress.

There is no doubt that a problem exists in the education system. Minority students are hardest since their tests scores are considerably lower on average than white students. However, increased spending itself doesn’t solve the problem. This is evidenced by the fact that foreign students from countries such as China and India typically perform very well in American schools. In fact, many Asian countries themselves typically spend much less on education than America does, yet their average test scores are much higher. The real secret to improved performance lies in pushing students harder, asking more from them. The current public education system has descended to a point where it is now resorting to promoting failing students to higher grades simply as a way to get them out of the system. Ostensibly there are people graduating from high school without even knowing how to read.

Lord Rama in gurukula The classic Vedic system of education centers on the idea of teaching students discipline, respect, and self control. This life is meant for tapasya, or austerities performed with the aim of achieving spiritual advancement. In the classic system, young children would attend school at the home of a guru, or spiritual master. This school, known as the gurukula, provided an education on all subject matters, including religion. The bona fide spiritual master, a brahmana, was expert in all academic disciplines. Life at the gurukula was no picnic either. When students weren’t taking instruction from their guru, they were begging door-to-door for alms. This is the dharma for brahmacharis, those living in the first of the four Vedic ashramas, or modes of life. The first requirement for a brahmachari is that he must be completely celibate. Sex life is the biggest hindrance towards advancing spiritually, so it especially needs to be controlled in youths. The alms collected were then given to the guru, who would distribute it amongst his family and students. In this way, school was free, but the householders still supported the gurukula through their charity. If a student wasn’t given any food by the guru for whatever reason, they would not eat that day. Through this system, students were taught to respect their guru and to live a very meager lifestyle.

Contrast this would today’s scholastic environment. Children are given sex education classes and even given condoms while at school. Not knowing the true aim of life, educators are teachings students to live a care-free life with sense gratification being the only aim. Naturally academic performance will suffer as a result. No amount of government spending can fix such a system. As stated before, this human form of life is meant for tapasya. If one learns to regulate one’s senses early on in life, it will be much easier to make spiritual progress later on. There are 8,400,000 varieties of species in the world, but only the human being has the capacity to understand God and take the necessary steps to rekindle their lost relationship with Him. Animals spend all of their time on matters pertaining to eating, sleeping, mating and defending. All of us are born in complete ignorance and for this reason we require the guidance of our parents and elders in our early years. For this age of Kali, the Vedas declare that everyone, regardless of their parentage, is born a shudra, which means a fourth class person. Shudras are considered lower class because they have no training in spiritual matters. One can be promoted to a higher class person such as a brahmana, kshatriya, or vaishya only after being trained by a bona fide spiritual master. If we don’t receive an education about God and how to serve Him, we will continue to remain in an ignorant state.

Sandipani Muni A bona fide guru isn’t interested in earning money either. When Lord Krishna personally descended to earth, He and His elder brother Balarama accepted Sandipani Muni as their spiritual master in their childhood. As stated previously, the guru never received a salary, but was rather supported by the donations given to his students by the householders in the form of alms. Also, when a student finished his studies at the gurukula, he would then give dakshina, or a gift, to his teacher. The protocol was that the student would provide whatever the guru asked for. Sandipani Mani was so fortunate to have Krishna and Balarama as students. For dakshina, Krishna and Balarama recovered the guru’s lost son from the realm of Yamaraja. The boy had drowned in a lake on a previous occasion.

Shrila Prabhupada Money doesn’t equate to knowledge, therefore today’s education crisis can’t be solved by throwing billions of dollars at it. Brahmanas, the priestly class in society, voluntarily accept a life of poverty so as to concentrate all their time towards serving Lord Krishna. For this reason, their knowledge is perfect and one who submissively poses questions to them will have all of their problems solved. If governments are serious about reforming their education systems, they will enlist these brahmanas, pure devotees of Krishna, as their teachers. Though this likely won’t happen anytime soon, we can still take advantage of the teachings handed down by His Dive Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. One who sincerely reads his Bhagavad-gita As It Is, Shrimad Bhagavatam, and other works, will most surely find answers to all of life’s questions. These students will receive the highest education.