Saturday, November 14, 2009

Think Before You Act

Maharaja Dashratha with son, Lord Rama “He that on the eve of beginning an action either relating to this world or the next, does not take into consideration the fact that actions entail consequences light or grave, disagreeable (or otherwise), is styled a child.” (King Dashratha speaking to Kausalya, Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kand, Sec 63)

Children act without thinking. This is a widely known fact. Youngsters aren’t entrusted with much responsibility since parents understand that children aren’t mature enough to handle important decision making. Children are the essence of innocence, usually very kind and sweet. Yet this innocence can get them into trouble if they aren’t properly looked after. For this reason, young kids require constant supervision from their elders.

This same principle holds true for adults to some degree, except that the supervising agents for adults aren’t parents, but rather the authoritative scriptures. Every action has a reaction. Most people understand this fact early on in their adult life. If we sleep too much, we will be tired for most of the day. If we stay up too late, we will have trouble getting up the next morning for work or school. If we overindulge in partying and consuming adult beverages, we will likely have a hang over the next day. These are some of the immediate consequences to our actions. These reactions can be easily identified. Yet somehow people manage to repeat the same mistakes over and over. The famous comedian Bill Cosby used to do a bit in his stand-up routine relating to co-workers who love to party on the weekend. The gist of the joke was that Bill Cosby knew people who would always be excited for the weekend. They couldn’t wait to get out of work and go out partying, having a carefree night. Yet the evening would almost always end in the same way. One person or another would end up getting drunk and spending the rest of the night hovering over the toilet, waiting to throw up. “Oh my God, I will never drink again! This is it. God, if I make it through this night, I promise not to ever drink alcohol again.” Though only part of a very funny comedic routine, such situations are a common occurrence. This is the nature of maya, God’s illusory energy. She makes us forget past experiences. She tells us that material sense gratification will make us happy.

We are all spirit souls at our core, part and parcel of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Krishna. Somehow or other we have been forced to accept bodies in this material world. Life here is all about enjoyment, and to facilitate that desire, Krishna ordered maya to cast a spell over the material world.

Since we want to enjoy, God says “Go ahead. Have fun.” If it weren’t for maya, we would immediately recognize these repeating patterns of happiness and misery. The material world is a place full of dualities such as hot and cold, happiness and sadness, prosperity and poverty, etc. Aside from every action having a foreseeable reaction, there are also consequences that come later on in life and also in a future life. Since we are spirit souls, we are actually eternal. There is no birth or death for the spirit soul.

“For the soul there is never birth nor death. Nor, having once been, does he ever cease to be. He is unborn, eternal, ever-existing, undying and primeval. He is not slain when the body is slain.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.20)

Lord Krishna Our gross material body is discarded at the time of death, at which point a new body is created based on our karma. Fruitive activity or work done for a desired material result is what constitutes karma. When learning of the concept of karma, most people naturally believe in it. Its effects are quite easy to see in many cases. Sometimes we’ll see someone who is expert at cheating people. They amass large sums of money, thinking that nothing bad will happen to them. Then all of a sudden, something really horrible happens to them and they lose all their money. They are left with nothing. This is all the result of karma. We are not the doers. We only think that we are.

“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.” (Bg. 3.27)

I may have a very nice job and a beautiful wife, but I can’t get those things solely on my own. Everything is a result of karma, current and past.

Dashratha hunting deer Knowledge comes from experience. It is quite common for older people to think to themselves, “If I only knew then what I know now, I would have acted completely differently.” These were the sentiments of Maharaja Dashratha, the king of Ayodhya, many thousands of years ago. One of the first kings on earth was Maharaja Ikshvaku, who was very pious and noble. From him descended a long line of great kings, all loved and respected. Dashratha was one of them. During those times, the governments were all run by kshatriyas, men of the warrior class. Living in the mode of passion, it was quite common for them to go hunting in the woods as a way to practice their defensive skills. Violence is never good, but sometimes it is sanctioned in certain cases. The duty of a king is to provide protection to his subjects, thus he needs a way to practice his defensive skills. For this reason, kings were allowed to go hunting in the woods for deer. On one such hunting excursion, Dashratha accidentally shot and killed a young brahmana boy with one of his arrows. The boy’s parents were quite grief stricken at the news and resolved to give up their bodies as a result. They cursed Dashratha to suffer the same fate in the future, i.e. death due to separation from his most beloved son.

All of this occurred before the king was married. Later on, he would be blessed with four sons, the eldest of whom was named Rama, an incarnation of Krishna. Dashratha loved Rama the most, for he had hoped and prayed for such a son. Rama was in line to succeed Dashratha, but due to boons promised to Queen Kaikeyi, Dashratha was forced to exile Rama from the kingdom for fourteen years. In the above referenced statement, Dashratha is bewailing his plight. He is explaining to Kausalya, Rama’s mother, that this entire course of events was actually due to his past misdeed of killing the brahmana boy.

Dashratha and family The lesson given by Dashratha is that we shouldn’t waste our life on meaningless activities. Every action has a consequence, even if we don’t think so. People living a sinful life through meat eating, gambling, intoxication, and illicit sex will undoubtedly have to suffer the consequences in the future, the most serious of which is the repetition of birth, old age, disease, and death. Sinful life actually means any activity which causes one to be bound to the cycle of birth and death. This human form of life is meant for a higher purpose.

If we act merely for sense gratification, not thinking of the consequences, we are acting just like children. A sober person will ponder the meaning of life and ask what happens to the body after death. athato brahma-jijnasa. “Now is the time for enquiring about Brahman, or God.” That is the message of the Vedanta-sutra.

We should begin to take the appropriate steps towards self-realization by studying the authoritative scriptures such as the Bhagavad-gita and Shrimad Bhagavatam. The aim of human life is to become God conscious, to always think of the Lord so that we can return to Him after this life.

“One who knows the transcendental nature of My appearance and activities does not, upon leaving the body, take his birth again in this material world, but attains My eternal abode, O Arjuna.” (Bg. 4.9)

Acting in concert with God’s interests means acting like an adult.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Bringing God To The Family

Sita Devi “Being childless, he (Janaka) took me on his lap from affection and saying, ‘This is my daughter’, conceived affection for me.” (Sita Devi speaking to Anasuya, Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kand, Sec 118)

The birth of a new child is one of the most joyous occasions for any family. The new parents and grandparents are especially affected since they will now take charge of the child’s upbringing. The early years of the child especially bring pleasure to the elderly members of the family since that is when the child engages in innocent play and other sportive activities.

Children give so much pleasure to their parents because there is an innocent and pure exchange of love that exists between a father and son, mother and daughter, and so forth. Pure love is the actual nature of the material world, descending from its original form in the spiritual world.

“The Absolute Truth is the original source of everything." (Vedanta-sutra)

Krishna and Balarama as children Since everything in this world emanates from the spiritual world, we can conclude that love also exists in the spiritual world. There the love is completely pure since it is directed towards Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. That love manifests itself in a different way in the material world, usually in the form of lust. Paternal affection is actually a purer form of this lust since it is not contaminated by any selfish desires. A child is the essence of innocence since it hasn’t developed the inhibitions that most adults have. Therefore a parent feels pure bliss when exchanging love with their children. For example, if a child brings home a drawing from school and presents it as a gift to the parent, the parent takes this to be the most precious gift they have ever received. This holds true regardless of the actual artistic quality of the drawing. If something is given to us with love and devotion, then we gladly accept it. This is a trait we inherited from Lord Krishna Himself:

“If one offers Me with love and devotion a leaf, a flower, fruit or water, I will accept it.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 9.26)

A young child is completely dependent on their parents, thus the loving feelings shown by the parents increase even more. There is nothing like hearing your child say “Momma” or “Dadda” for the first time. Their first steps and their first words are forever treasured by the parents. A loving child can capture the hearts of all the members of the family. This phenomenon is seen with even the most renounced of people.

One of the most famous kings in history was Maharaja Janaka of Mithila. There was actually a long line of kings named Janaka, but the most famous one was the great transcendentalist and yogi who was the father-in-law of Lord Rama, an incarnation of Krishna who appeared during the Treta Yuga. The Valmiki Ramayana and Ramacharitamanasa make short references to Janaka’s reputation as a great yogi, but the Mahabharata goes into much greater detail. The incidents described in the Puranas, Mahabharata, and Ramayana are not simply mythological stories, but were actual events that took place during creations past, present, and future. For this reason, accounts of God and His pastimes are found not only in one book, but in many. Janaka was well renowned for his piety and his control over his senses. The fictional Star Wars movies put forth the idea of a force that one must possess, and how one should control their anger or otherwise risk turning over to the dark side. The Vedic teachings are similar except they enjoin that one should try to control the senses so that they can understand God better. The Lord resides within the hearts of every living entity through His Paramatma, or Supersoul feature. One who is a servant of the senses, godasa, cannot realize the Paramatma since they are guided by the senses seeking gratification. For one to properly see the Supersoul situated in the heart, one must become a gosvami, or master of the senses. Janaka had mastery over the senses, thus he was a perfect yogi and king.

Janaka finding SitaJanaka was married but he didn’t have any children. One day while ploughing a field with the intention of performing a grand sacrifice, he found a little girl coming out of the earth. He immediately stopped ploughing, took the child in his lap. Instantly, a bond was formed. Since she was borne of the ground, Janaka named the girl Sita and immediately accepted her as his daughter. What he didn’t know was that Sita was an incarnation of the goddess of fortune, Lakshmiji. In the spiritual world, God doesn’t reside alone but rather in the company of His pure devotees. For His pleasure, the Lord accepts eternal consorts who serve as His energy. Goddess Lakshmi is the eternal consort of Lord Narayana, Krishna’s four-handed form. Her incarnation on earth coincided with Lord Rama’s appearance.

So we see that even though Janaka was a master of his senses, he nevertheless had an instant attachment for Sita. This may seem contradictory, but it isn’t. Sita Devi was the reward for all of Janaka’s pious deeds. One can imagine how great a soul he must have been to actually have someone as exalted as Sita Devi appear as his daughter. Sita was Janaka’s prized possession, and he made sure to raise her properly. Though she never attended school, she grew up to be wiser than the greatest of ascetics. This was due to the fact that Janaka and his wife would regularly entertain brahmanas in their kingdom. Sita attentively listened to the teachings of the brahmanas and her parents.

Herein we see how to make the most of the parent-child relationship. A parent should strive to be a pure devotee of God since that devotion will likely wear off on the children. Sita Devi actually didn’t require any of this education since she was a pure devotee by nature, but Janaka still set a good example. According to Vedic philosophy, birth, old age, disease, and death occur in an endless cycle for the spirit soul. This repeated cycle is known as samsara, since living in the material world can be a painful experience. Originally we are spirit souls part and parcel of God. This universe is sort of a prison house for the rebellious souls who want to pretend to be God themselves. So in this sense, taking birth here isn’t such a great thing.

On the other hand, taking birth as a human represents the soul’s greatest opportunity to escape from this endless cycle. If one is conscious of God at the time of death, then they never have to take birth again:

“One who knows the transcendental nature of My appearance and activities does not, upon leaving the body, take his birth again in this material world, but attains My eternal abode, O Arjuna.” (Bg. 4.9)

Consciousness is something that develops over a long period of time, and even over many lifetimes. Our current body was actually developed based on the consciousness from our previous lives. Through every step we take and every move we make, we are working towards creating our next body. For one to think of God at the time of death, they must be trained in thinking about Him throughout their lifetime. There is no better time to start this training than from childhood. That is the true benefit of having children. A parent can perform the highest service by relieving their dependents of the miseries brought on by contact with material nature.

Sita Rama Janaka was a pure devotee of God and this was the quality he passed down to his children. He loved Sita so much that for her marriage, he arranged a svayamvara (self-choice ceremony) in his kingdom. Princes from around the world came to try to string Lord Shiva’s illustrious bow, but only Lord Rama was able to do it and thereby win Sita’s hand in marriage. Thus Janaka was further rewarded for his devotion by receiving God Himself as a son-in-law. When looking at their children, many parents get the feeling that they are seeing God. This is undoubtedly true as God is the origin of everything and the miracle of birth takes place through His direction. In Janaka’s case, his devotion brought both God and His pure devotee directly into his family in the form of Sita-Rama. Therefore we can conclude that by conceiving affection for Sita Devi and other pure devotees of God, we will have something very worthwhile to pass down to our children. By raising God conscious children, we too can see the Lord manifest Himself in our family and everywhere else.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Great Communicators

Lord Krishna “Shri Narada Muni from practical experience definitely asserts that the prime solution of all problems of material work is to broadcast very widely the transcendental glories of the Supreme Lord.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 1.5.40 Purport)

Ronald Reagan, the fortieth president of the United States, is often referred to as The Great Communicator. Since it is considered the highest position of power in the country, each presidency is studied extensively by historians. As an outgrowth of their popularity, each president usually acquires a nickname from the general public, and in this regard, Reagan was no different.

Ronald Reagan was a B movie actor in the late 1930s. B movies are those that aren’t very popular and don’t necessarily play in major movie theaters across America. It was during his time as president of the Screen Actors Guild that Reagan turned his attention to politics. He eventually became an activist against the forces of communism, a philosophy gaining attention in America and around the world due to the ascension of power of the Soviet Union. Travelling the country giving speeches, Reagan lucidly explained the principles of the founding documents of the country, the ideals and beliefs of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He eventually became governor of the state of California for two terms in the late 1960s, which launched him to national prominence. In 1980, he was elected president and would serve for the next eight years. He was best noted for his speaking ability. Whether it was a solemn occasion or a general celebration, Reagan could always deliver a great speech, riveting the crowd and capturing the hearts of all those watching on television. Critics attributed this skill to his acting days, but Reagan knew wherefrom his powers came.

Ronald Reagan Each president gives a farewell address to the nation just prior to leaving office. In 1989, Reagan delivered his and addressed the nickname of Great Communicator bestowed upon him. He humbly accepted such a complimentary title, but also was quick to point out that he didn’t think he was such a great speaker. Rather, he believed it was the content of his speeches that was great. Even regarding the content, he credited the ideas embedded in the country for the past two hundred years as the source:

“I wasn't a great communicator, but I communicated great things, and they didn't spring full bloom from my brow, they came from the heart of a great nation - from our experience, our wisdom, and our belief in the principles that have guided us for two centuries.”

Vyasadeva In the same manner, the spiritual master, the bona fide representative of Krishna, can also be considered a great communicator. Lord Krishna is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the one and only God who everyone can approach and love. Since He is not always physically present before us, He sends His representatives to come to earth in human form to teach the science of self realization. The Vedas touch on very complicated subject matter. The Bhagavad-gita, spoken by Krishna Himself, has been studied for thousands of years by great scholars, but only the bona fide gurus can actually understand it. The Gita covers a variety of topics including the eternity of the soul, the temporary nature of the material world, and how one can grasp the meaning of life. The spiritual master can understand this and other great Vedic texts because he studies them in a mood of devotion and love. That is the only way to understand Krishna. It is not a very difficult thing to do, but the false ego causes human beings to be skeptical of everyone around them. For this reason, only after many many births does one finally gain a proper of understanding of Krishna:

“After many births and deaths, he who is actually in knowledge surrenders unto Me, knowing Me to be the cause of all causes and all that is. Such a great soul is very rare.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 7.19)

Narada MuniThe Vedic literatures give us a detailed list of all the great spiritual masters of the past. Some of the more notable ones are Narada Muni, Parashara, his son Vyasadeva, Bharadvaja, Agastya, Vishvamitra, Vashishta, and Valmiki. Narada Muni is very famous and is known as the triloka sanchari since he trots the three worlds. Cursed by his father, Narada is not allowed to have permanent residence anywhere. Taking advantage of this curse, Narada travels throughout this universe and others to teach Krishna’s message. The two most important authors of Vedic literatures are Vyasadeva and Valmiki. Narada Muni was the spiritual master of both of them so that alone gives a glimpse into his greatness.

In modern times, there are four primary sampradayas, or disciplic successions, teaching the principles of Vaishnavism, or devotion to Lord Vishnu. Krishna, Vishnu, and Narayana are all interchangeable names for God. Krishna Himself personally took birth as a spiritual master known as Lord Chaitanya. Founder of the Madhva-Gaudiya-sampradaya, Lord Chaitanya played the role of an ideal sannyasi, preaching the glories of the Lord from door to door across India. His teachings spawned a great line of future gurus, of which include Shrila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati and A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. The modern day Hare Krishna movement was inaugurated by Lord Chaitanya Himself in India some five hundred years ago.

Lord Chaitanya The spiritual master is the greatest communicator. This fact was displayed by Shrila Prabhupada, who travelled the world for twelve years starting in the late 1960s, giving lectures and talking about Krishna to whomever he’d meet. Though his English wasn’t always grammatically correct when speaking, his speeches were nevertheless perfect, captivating audiences around the world. One who listens to these recorded lectures today will surely agree that he was a great communicator who had a firm grasp of Vedic concepts. The lesson is that we should all humbly submit ourselves to such great souls and take instruction from them. Lord Chaitanya advised everyone to become serious students of bhakti yoga. Then upon gaining a firm understanding of Krishna, He advised everyone to become a guru and teach this science to others. For those who love Krishna, speaking about Him to others will come very easily and naturally.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Source of Light

Lord Krishna “He is the source of light in all luminous objects. He is beyond the darkness of matter and is unmanifested. He is knowledge, He is the object of knowledge, and He is the goal of knowledge. He is situated in everyone's heart.” (Lord Krishna speaking about His Paramatma feature, Bhagavad-gita, 13.18)

When Lord Krishna advented on earth as Lord Rama many thousands of years ago, He was much loved and adored by the citizens of Ayodhya. Maharaja Dashratha, the king of Ayodhya at the time, desperately wished to have a son, and the birth of Rama fulfilled that wish. When Krishna incarnates on earth, knowledge of His divinity is usually unknown to most except for His most confidential associates. From His very birth, people could tell that Lord Rama had extraordinary qualities though they didn’t know that He was God Himself. Since Rama was a very pious prince, dedicated to the principles of dharma, or religiosity, He captured the hearts and minds of all those who knew Him. People loved Him so much that they would compare Him to the sun by saying that Rama possessed an effulgence greater than that exuded by the sun itself.

The sun is the ultimate source of energy. An astral body capable of providing warmth and light to the entire solar system, its potency is unconceivable to the mortal man. Scientists have studied it since the beginning of time, and they have yet to get their arms around how it functions and how it is able to sustain itself. Its potency is so underrated that mankind mistakenly attributes gradual increases in temperatures to the activities of humans. The modern day phenomenon of global warming is actually a result of increased solar activity. People tend to think that by driving their cars or by flying in airplanes, the earth’s average temperature is increasing. According to Vedic philosophy, the sun is the driving factor in our lives and is thus worthy of worship. Without the sun, we would not have the necessary light and energy to grow our food, without which we would all starve to death. Even with our advancements in technology, our electric lighting system pales in comparison to the natural light provided by the sun. For this reason, the Vedas prescribe daily worship of the sun in the morning. The famous gayatri mantra is directed at the sun. This mantra is so powerful that Lord Krishna Himself would regularly chant it as part of His daily routine while living as a king in Dvaraka.

Lord Rama Since the sun was considered such an important object, the people of Ayodhya used it as a reference point when comparing the brilliance of Lord Rama. In making such a comparison, they were actually giving us a hint into the divinity of Lord Rama. According to Vedic philosophy, Krishna, or God, is the original source of energy in this world. The light emanating from Him is much greater than that of the sun.

“The Supersoul, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, is the source of light in all luminous objects like the sun, moon, stars, etc.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Bhagavad-gita, 13.18 Purport)

God is realized in three distinct aspects: impersonal Brahman, Paramatma, and Bhagavan. His glaring effulgence, known as the brahmajyoti, is the source of the impersonal Brahman, which pervades this material world. Paramatma is God’s expansion as the Supersoul, which rests in the hearts of all living entities. Bhagavan is the original Personality of Godhead, represented by God Himself who is a person. This aspect of God is the one naturally conceived of by living entities.

“The total material substance, called Brahman, is the source of birth, and it is that Brahman that I impregnate, making possible the births of all living beings, O son of Bharata.” (Bg. 14.3)

Similar to the sun, Brahman is actually much more powerful. At the end of each creation, the entire material world merges into God, and then is released again at the time of the next creation. Similar to the concept of the sun rays emanating from the sun, the living entities are sparks released from the original source who is God.

“Henceforth, if people through ignorance say that the sun has not that burning flood of light which in Rama does shine forth, woe to them, it is falsehood.” (Sita Devi speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kand, Sec 29)

Sita Devi Sita Devi was the incarnation of Goddess Lakshmi, whose appearance on earth coincided with that of Lord Rama’s. In the spiritual world, God is always served by His pleasure potency expansion, known as hladini-shakti. Krishna is the energetic, and His consorts are His energy. Lakshmi is always serving God in the spiritual world, so naturally she performs the same functions when appearing in the material world. Sita was married to Rama, and the two were enjoying married life for several years when suddenly their peaceful life was disturbed. Dashratha had chosen Rama to succeed him as king, however he was forced to change his mind due to the request of his youngest wife Kaikeyi. Instead of becoming the new king, Rama was ordered to renounce the kingdom and live in the forest for fourteen years. The Lord had no problem with such a request, but He was worried how His wife would handle the news. Upon hearing the new plans, Sita insisted that she serve the exile period with Rama. The Lord was against such an idea because forest life was very dangerous and not fit for a woman. After putting forth a series of cogent and religiously sound arguments in her favor, Rama still rejected her request. Finally, Sita resorted to psychological tactics by comparing the Lord’s actions to that of a woman. In the above mentioned passage, she says that people must have been wrong when they claimed Rama to be more effulgent than the sun. Now obviously Sita knew that the citizens were correct, for Rama was God Himself. She was only making such statements out of loving affection. By making fun of her husband, she was hoping that the Lord would change His mind and allow her to come along. That is eventually what happened, so one can conclude that her tactics were successful.

The lesson to be learned from Sita’s statement is that God is actually much more powerful than the sun. In His personal form as Bhagavan, He is the ultimate source of energy. There is a class of transcendentalists known as the Mayavadis who prefer to worship only the impersonal Brahman. By trying to negate all activities, the Mayavadis hope to one day merge into the brahmajyoti and achieve liberation from the cycle of birth and death. However, we can see from history that souls merged in the Brahman effulgence don’t necessarily stay there forever. The living entities, being spirit souls that are part and parcel yet separate from Krishna, relish their individualism at their core. Merging into the brahmajyoti means losing one’s individuality. Since this isn’t our natural tendency, there remains all the possibility of being released from that energy and returning to the material world.

Sita Rama The highest form of worship comes from realizing God in His original feature of Bhagavan. This realization can be achieved by following the principles of bhakti yoga, or devotional service. Devotees prefer to keep their individuality and serve God instead of merging into Him. In the spiritual planets of Vaikunthaloka and Krishnaloka, which are above the brahmajyoti, devotees have personal association with God in His various forms. The relationship in the spiritual world is in the manner that the devotees want. Some serve as Krishna’s friend, servant, or conjugal lover. These mellows are known as rasas and they represent the highest form of liberation. Sita Devi was a perfect practitioner of bhakti yoga, for she served God directly while He enacted His pastimes on earth. We should all follow her lead and practice the principles of bhakti yoga and ultimately enjoy eternal association with the Lord.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Class Distinctions

Hanuman “The common religion of all classes of human beings, regardless of whosoever and whatsoever one may be, is devotional service. Even the animals may be included in devotional service to the Lord, and the best example is set by Shri Vajrangaji, or Hanuman, the great devotee of Lord Shri Rama.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 2.8.18 Purport)

Question: “Why would God create different classes and castes? What is the purpose behind such distinctions?”

Answer: The central tenet of Vedic philosophy is that we are not our bodies, aham brahmasmi. This is the first instruction given to aspiring transcendentalists for it serves as the foundation for the rest of Vedic teaching. The point of human life is to come to the understanding that we are spirit souls at our core, and then to use this knowledge to break free of material attachments and gain an attachment for God. This love and attachment for God is known as bhakti. But at the same time, the Vedas give us other systems of management, almost sub-religions in a sense, which make distinctions based on a person’s qualities and work. The primary system of governance is varnashrama dharma. So on one hand we are taught that everyone is the same constitutionally, but then we are also told that there are differences. These two ideas may seem contradictory but they are not.

The Vedas represent perfect knowledge. They were passed down originally from God Himself, imparted into the heart of Lord Brahma, the first created being. Veda actually means knowledge, and since it comes from God, this knowledge is free of any flaws. As living entities, our true identity comes from the atma, or spirit soul, inside of us. The soul is different from the material body, which consists of five gross and three subtle elements. Unlike our body which is temporary, our spirit soul is eternal. It has never taken birth, nor can it ever perish.

“Know that which pervades the entire body is indestructible. No one is able to destroy the imperishable soul.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.17)

Reincarnation The event we know to be death, is actually just a changing of bodies. Just as a person puts on new clothes each day, the soul changes material bodies at the time of death. The current body becomes old and useless, so God is kind enough to give us a new one in the next life. Though our spirit souls are constitutionally the same in nature as God, quantitatively we are different. We are great, but God is the greatest. He is the Supreme Controller, Ishvara, residing in the hearts of every living entity. Whereas we have knowledge of our current life’s experiences, God has knowledge of the lives of every living entity, past, present, and future. Though we are quantitatively different from God, we are actually equal with all other living entities. Even the animals have spirit souls inside of them.

So why do we see different types of species, with varying levels of intelligence? This is due to guna and karma. Guna means material qualities. As soon as a spirit soul enters the material world, it acquires these material qualities which consist of the modes of goodness, passion, and ignorance. Just as an expert chemist mixes elements together in varying proportions to create new compounds, so the three modes of nature can be combined in varying degrees to produce different species, 8,400,000 varieties in total. Along with guna is karma, which is fruitive work and desire. One works very hard during the daytime so that they can have enough money to maintain a home, a spouse, and children. Thus the work is performed for a desired result. This is the general nature of material world. It is governed by karma. Even people that are pious, they too perform work for specific purposes such as altruism, philanthropy, etc. With the combination of our gunas and karma, God gives us an appropriate body to take birth in. Birth doesn’t happen just once either. As long as material desire is still there, we continue to take birth after death.

Since every person is born with different qualities and desires, they all act differently. For this reason, God instituted the varnashrama dharma system so as to allow for a peaceful society. Dharma means occupation duty, varna refers to the different classes or castes, and ashrama refers to the four progressive stages of spiritual life.

“According to the three modes of material nature and the work ascribed to them, the four divisions of human society were created by Me…” (Bg. 4.13)

Lord KrishnaThe idea is that everyone is born with specific occupational duties and that they should faithfully execute them with detachment. The four varnas are brahmana (priests), kshatriya (warriors/administrators), vaishya (merchants/businessmen), and shudra (laborers). These four divisions exist by nature since people are automatically prone to fall into one of these four categories. In India, this system gradually degraded to a point where people started claiming to belong to a specific varna simply off birthright. A person born of a brahmana family claims brahminical status even though they are addicted to impure activities such as intoxication and meat eating. The original system instituted by Lord Krishna specifically states that the divisions are made by quality and work. The four ashramas of brahmacharya (celibate student life), grihastha (married householder life), vanaprastha (retired family life), and sannyasa (complete reununciation) go hand-in-hand with the four varnas. By default, it is assumed that a person will live to 100 years of age, thus they should divide their life into twenty five year increments based on the four ashramas.

“It is far better to discharge one's prescribed duties, even though they may be faulty, than another's duties. Destruction in the course of performing one's own duty is better than engaging in another's duties, for to follow another's path is dangerous.” (Bg. 3.35)

Though people perform different work based on their occupation, it is never assumed that one person is better than another. Everyone is still equal in a spiritual sense, but the material distinctions are necessary for there to be peace and prosperity. A peaceful and happy society requires all four classes working together equally. Since the qualities of a brahmana are different from those of a shudra, it is not advised that a shudra haphazardly take up the occupation of a brahmana, and vice versa. To understand this point, one can look at the example of a baseball team. In Major League Baseball, teams have a 25 man roster for most of the season. A team consists of players playing specific positions in the field. There are pitchers, outfielders, infielders, and catchers. To be successful in baseball, one requires good pitching and good hitting. The object of the game is to score more runs than the other team. A game consists of nine innings, with one inning consisting of each team batting once until they make three outs. Thus a team can have good hitters and score many runs, but if their pitching is weak, they will have trouble keeping the opposition from scoring more runs.

C.C. Sabbathia, starting pitcher Since there are so many different positions in baseball, each player has specific requirements he must follow in order to be successful. For example, a starting pitcher only pitches once every five days. The reason for this is that starting pitchers can stay in the game for upwards of seven innings to nine innings, which equates to a heavy strain on their arm. The act of throwing a baseball requires a violent arm motion. For pitchers, this is the only way to throw effective fastballs, curveballs, and changeups. Even the slower pitches still require a violent arm motion since it is actually the grip on the baseball that causes a pitch to drop in speed. Starting pitchers require at least four days of rest in between starts so that their arm can properly heal. Since the pitcher’s primary duty is to get other hitters out, he is usually pretty weak when it comes to batting. A position player on the other hand, must be a good hitter since he plays every day. Playing in the outfield, infield, or catching, everyday players don’t suffer nearly the same arm strain that pitchers do. Since they play all the time, they must be very good at hitting; otherwise they wouldn’t be valuable to the team.

Pitching legend Roger Clemens Now both the starting pitcher and position player are equal members of the team. Work is required from both of them in order for the team to be successful, but no one would ever mistake a starting pitcher for a regular hitter. In fact, sometimes teams will bring in one of their position players to pitch when the game is out of hand and the score is lop-sided. These hitters usually don’t do well at all when pitching, but it doesn’t really affect the outcome of the game any. There is a natural desire for position players to want to imitate pitchers every now and then. Yet these experiments can yield dangerous results. Often times it is seen that a position player will get injured after pitching an inning or so in relief. This makes sense because a pitcher works very hard on his mechanics to make sure that there isn’t any unnecessary strain on any part of the body. Hitters don’t have this experience, so that’s why they get injured more easily when pitching. When starting pitchers come to bat, they usually perform just as poorly as the hitters who pitch. For this reason, many pitchers are instructed to bunt when they get up, basically sacrificing their out in order to advance a runner.

The qualities and work of hitters are quite different from those of a pitcher Just as a successful baseball team requires everyone to follow the duty of their position, so the material world requires all of us to abide by our dharma. The idea is that not everyone will take to spiritual life right away. We are all born into ignorance as soon as we come out of the womb. We require the help of our parents and teachers in order to have a proper education. On a spiritual level, little children are the same as their parents and teachers, but it would be quite silly to put the children in charge of schools. The idea is that students should make gradual progress until they have the necessary knowledge. Varnashrama dharma works the same way, except that elevation takes place not only in this life, but in future ones as well. Dharma is also our governing force. The term shastra actually means that which governs. No one would prefer to live without a government since anarchy would ensue, which then leads to chaos. In a similar manner, dharma is there to keep law and order. It exists for our benefit.

Though dharma is certainly important, the aim of human life is to rise above the material conception of life. This higher platform is referred to as devotional service, or bhagavata-dharma. Loving God is the highest occupation for man, and this love can be given by anyone, regardless of their material dress:

“O son of Pritha, those who take shelter in Me, though they be of lower birth-women, vaishyas [merchants], as well as shudras [workers]—can approach the supreme destination.” (Bg. 9.32)

Hanuman Studying history, we see that great devotees of the past have all come from different backgrounds. Lord Hanuman, the great devotee of Lord Rama, was actually born in the monkey kingdom. Women such as Kunti Devi, Sita Devi, and Shrimati Radharani were all perfect devotees of God whose intelligence far exceeded to that of great scholars and mental speculators.

Shrimati Radharani is a perfect devoteeSo how did these devotees rise above material designations? They engaged in the processes of devotional service: hearing, chanting, remembering, worshiping, serving the lotus feet of the Lord, offering prayers, carrying out the Lord’s orders, becoming friends with God, and surrendering everything to Him. The recommended process for this age is chanting, that also of the congregational variety referred to as sankirtana. Though we must acknowledge that differences do exist between people, we shouldn’t take material qualities to be the ultimate identifying factor. Everyone is a spirit soul at the core. Through steady practice of dharma, one can realize this fact. Sankirtana yajna is the dharma for everyone in this age. Chanting God’s names can be practiced by anyone at any time. We simply have to execute our occupational duties while simultaneously practicing devotional service, and we will surely make progress. This formula will work for everyone.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Pleasing the Guru

Rama and Lakshmana with Bharadvaja "On the ascetic (Bharadvaja) turning away, Rama spoke to Lakshmana, 'We had surely acquired religious merit, since the ascetic has shown compassion to us.’" (Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kand, Sec 55)

Everyone is trying to please something or someone else, whether they know it or not. Even the most selfish of people dedicate their time to pleasing their senses. The wants of a person pull them in every which direction, never truly giving them satisfaction.

The close intimate relationships we form with others make up the core of material life. Upon taking birth, we immediately form a bond with our parents, our first teachers. They guide us on the proper path during the early years since little children are completely unfamiliar with proper etiquette and the rules of propriety. Our parents protect us from danger, warning us not to cross the street without looking both ways, not to put our fingers into electrical sockets, and not too eat too much junk food. They force us to go to school even against our will since they know it will be beneficial for us in the long run.

In return for their guidance and stewardship, children show unconditional love for their parents. Later on in life, the roles get reversed and it is the children who take care of the parents. This is naturally part of any loving relationship. Loving someone means you want more for them than you want for yourself. Husbands try to please their wives, and wives in turn try to keep their husbands happy. The material world is full of relationships such as these.

The Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, tell us that a high class person actually takes two births. The first janma, or birth, is from the womb of the mother. As stated before, a child is born into complete ignorance. That is the effect of maya, God’s illusory energy that pervades the material world. According to Vedic philosophy, the soul is eternal and when it falls into the trap of samsara, it takes many many births in the form of a living entity. Death is the not the end, for a person is guaranteed a new birth upon leaving the current body, similar to the way we discard one set of clothes for another day after day.

“As a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, similarly, the soul accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.22)

Reincarnation From the Shrimad Bhagavatam, we get a glimpse into what life is like for a child in the womb of the mother. The child remembers its forgotten relationship with God and swears to make their next birth the last one. If one develops a love for God in their lifetime, then they are assured of thinking of God at the time of death. As the spirit soul is leaving one’s current body, the consciousness at that time determines the type of body one will receive in the next life. If a person is thinking about God at that time, they never take birth again; instead they spend eternity in Krishna’s spiritual realm. Krishna is the name of God, meaning “all-attractive”. Krishna is for everyone because there is only one God, though sometimes He’s called by different names based on the time and circumstance. So the child in the womb promises to be a good person, completely God conscious, but that doesn’t always pan out. As soon as a child takes birth, maya casts her spell and all the experiences from the womb are completely forgotten. Not only are the experiences of the past nine months forgotten, but memories of all the events from all the millions of previous births are also erased. This is explained by Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad-gita:

“The Blessed Lord said: Many, many births both you and I have passed. I can remember all of them, but you cannot, O subduer of the enemy!” (Bg. 4.5)

Krishna speaking to Arjuna That is the difference between God and man. God is great, and man is His subordinate. Since a child is born into ignorance, it requires the protection and guidance provided by the parents. This is the first birth. However, the aim of human life is not to just live like an animal and eat, sleep, mate, and defend. Human life is meant for cultivating spiritual knowledge, a deep loving attachment to the lotus feet of Krishna. To achieve this end, one needs to take instruction from a guru, or bona fide spiritual master.

The spiritual master is the via medium to Krishna, or God. Though they appear in the dress of an ordinary human being, they are completely spiritual. God incarnates in the words and teachings of a spiritual master, thus they are considered to be elevated souls. When one agrees to take instruction from a guru and to seriously abide by their instructions, that pact is called initiation. Initiation is the beginning of spiritual life, thus it represents the second and more important birth. In the Vedic system, when one takes initiation, they are invested with a sacred thread, which is a symbolic representation of their commitment to their guru. For this reason, the brahmanas are referred to dvija, or twice-born. The brahmanas are the highest class of men in varnashrama dharma, the system of societal and class divisions based on qualities and work.

Sita, Rama, and Lakshmana talking with Bharadvaja When Krishna incarnated as the pious prince named Rama many thousands of years ago in Ayodhya, He travelled the forest for fourteen years as an exile with His younger brother Lakshmana and His wife Sita Devi. Early on in the group’s journey, they met up with the venerable sage Bharadvaja. In those times, the great rishis would set up camp in the forest since it was more conducive to spiritual life. Generally speaking, the countryside is considered to be in the mode of goodness and city life is considered to be in the mode of passion. A brahmana lives completely in the mode of goodness, for they have no desire to earn money or live in a fancy home. Bharadvaja was elated to have Lord Rama and His family as his guests, for he knew of Rama’s divinity. The group stayed at his cottage for one night, taking instruction from him on which places they should travel to next. Upon leaving the hermitage, Lord Rama uttered the above referenced statement to Lakshmana.

Rama was God Himself, but here He is teaching us about the importance of a spiritual master. If a guru shows compassion on us, it means that we are the most fortunate. A spiritual master doesn’t just sit around instructing anybody. They judge the qualities of the student, making sure they are serious about learning about Krishna. God is great and very compassionate. The spiritual master knows this but doesn’t take it for granted. Gurus are God’s representatives, so they try to protect the Lord from the miscreants. They know that those of a demoniac nature will never be able to understand God. For this reason, they carefully screen their prospective students, making sure they are humble and have the proper attitude towards God.

Shrila Prabhupada Lord Rama’s attitude was quite exemplary. God loves brahmanas very much, especially His pure devotees. In reality, it was Rama who was being compassionate towards Bharadvaja. It was the sage’s great religious merit that enabled him to personally interact with Rama. But God is so nice that He likes to glorify His devotees over Himself. What we can learn from this is that a spiritual master is not someone we should take for granted. If we are lucky enough to find a bona fide guru who is willing to instruct us, it means that surely we have performed many pious deeds in our past lives. In this current age, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada is the jagad-guru, the spiritual master of the world. Though no longer physically present in this world, he continues to teach through his many books and recorded lectures. We should all consider ourselves extremely fortunate to have his wonderful teachings at our disposal. We should make the most of it this opportunity by committing ourselves to following his recommendations of daily chanting the maha-mantra: “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare” and abstaining from the four pillars of sinful life: meat eating, gambling, intoxication, and illicit sex. If we please the spiritual master, God will be pleased with us.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Name Calling

Sita Devi “An advanced devotee situated on the platform of spontaneity is already very expert in shastric instruction, logic and argument. When he comes to the point of eternal love for Krishna, no one can deviate him from that position, neither by argument nor by shastric evidence.”  (Shrila Prabhupada, Chaitanya Charitamrita, Madhya 22.153)

“What thought of you, O Rama, my father the king of Mithila, accepting you as his son-in-law; you who are a man in form but in deeds a woman?” (Sita Devi speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kand, Sec 27)

In this passage, Sita Devi, the incarnation of the goddess of fortune, is poking fun at her husband, Lord Rama, the incarnation of Lord Krishna who appeared on earth many thousands of years ago. Lord Rama was a very pious prince devoted to the principles of dharma. He had just been ordered by His father, Maharaja Dashratha, the king of Ayodhya, to spend fourteen years in the forest as a hermit, having no access to the kingdom. This came on the heels of Rama’s would-be coronation. Events instead took a different turn and Rama’s younger brother Bharata was chosen to be the new king. Coinciding with that decision, the king was forced to order Rama’s banishment. The Lord, being the ultimate renunciate, had no problem with such an order, for He was dedicated to serving His father and maintaining his good name.

Lord Rama went to inform Sita, and upon hearing the news, she insisted on serving the exile period with her husband. Rama denied her request. He was worried how she would fare in the wilderness where danger would be lurking around every corner. Sita, for her part, refused to give in, and put forth a series of arguments in her favor which were logically sound and supported by the rules of dharma, or religiosity. Lord Rama still wouldn’t budge, so she resorted to the tactics of name-calling and insults.

No one knows how to insult a man better than his wife. A husband and wife share a life together, and thus they have the most intimate knowledge of each other. Such openness leaves each person completely vulnerable since innermost secrets are shared. An affectionate wife is always looking after the welfare of her husband and finding ways to help him. A typical husband is very obstinate to taking any input, for men generally tend to be more stubborn than women. This inevitably leads to clashes, and since the wife’s emotions are stronger, she is more likely to take extreme measures in trying to win arguments. Having intimate knowledge of her husband’s strengths and weaknesses, a wife will hold nothing back when hurling insults. It is all done out of love, for the wife, being the better half, takes it upon herself to make sure her husband is behaving properly. Similar to the way mothers nag their children to do homework and chores, a good wife nags her husband so that he may remain committed to the path of righteousness.

Sita’s insult was a very effective one, for nothing can insult a man more than being called a woman. Just as women are protective of their chastity and beauty, men are very protective of their manhood represented by their strength and ability to protect and defend their loved ones. Men pride themselves on being able to be providers and defenders. The television sitcom Home Improvement centered around this idea of a typical man who loves building things with his hands, working with tools and heavy machinery. The central character in the show, Tim “The Toolman” Taylor, hosted his own television home improvement show where he enjoyed grunting and was always seen wearing his tool belt. He was always getting into accidents when trying to build things. Women, known as the fairer sex, are generally more delicate and nurturing. For a typical man, being compared to a woman is the greatest insult for it strikes against the thing he cherishes most, his manhood.

Lord Rama Lord Rama was no ordinary man either. At the time, the world was besieged by the evil Rakshasa demon Ravana who had amassed great material wealth. Ravana was completely opposed to the rules of dharma, and he would disrupt as many religious sacrifices as he could. It was for this reason that Lord Krishna, God Himself, at the behest of the demigods, appeared on earth. God assumes different roles depending on time and circumstance, and in the form of Lord Rama, He played the role of the perfect husband, son, brother, and king. Everyone in the town of Ayodhya loved Rama, for He was known for His dedication to the welfare of others. From His childhood, the Lord was committed to following the advice of the brahmanas and others worthy of respect, such as his parents. He never swerved from the principles of righteousness for a second.

The Lord was born into the race of kshatriyas, or the warrior class. According to Vedic philosophy, society is to be divided up into four sections based on gunas, or qualities inherently found in each person. The brahmanas are the first class citizens whose duty it is to perform worship of God and disseminate knowledge of Him to the other members of society. The kshatriyas are required to provide protection to the other classes. They are to act as the military and as the government. Lord Rama was trained in the military arts as a youth and was known as the greatest warrior of His time. In fact, just prior to His marriage to Sita, the Lord and His younger brother Lakshmana both ranged the forest with the sage Vishvamitra. Vishvamitra was a pious brahmana who was being harassed by Rakshasas while living in the forest. He provided further training to Rama and Lakshmana in the military arts, teaching them the most powerful of mantras to be used during battle with the enemy. The two brothers showed their mettle by emerging victorious in several battles against the Rakshasas while ranging the forest with Vishvamitra. So in addition to being known for His piety, Lord Rama was famous for His ability to protect and defend others.

Sita Devi Sita, being very keen, was well aware of this. In insulting her husband, she went straight to attacking His strongest traits. She in essence was saying, “How can people call you strong and dedicated to dharma, when you are afraid to take me to the forest? You have nothing to fear by taking me because you are the world’s greatest protector. They say you are a man, but right now you are acting like a woman.” She also made reference to her father, Maharaja Janaka. Janaka was the king of Mithila and was known throughout world for being an expert meditational yogi. The Ramayana hints at his yogic powers, but the Mahabharata gives more details into his abilities. Not like today’s version of yoga, the original hatha yoga system was created as a means to help one become detached from their senses and come into contact with God. Yoga means union with the Supreme, so the various sitting postures and breathing exercises are meant to help one achieve that union. Yet even being the greatest of yogis who had his senses completely under control, Janaka was brought down from his yogic trance when he met Lord Rama. In actuality, getting Rama as a son-in-law was the beginning of Janaka’s real yoga. There is no higher form of meditation than to have direct association with God. This should be a lesson to all of us. The path of bhakti yoga, or devotional service, is always superior to any other kind of yoga, as evidenced by Maharaja Janaka.

Sita’s mentioning of Janaka was another attempt at trying to insult Lord Rama. Rama had the greatest love and respect for Janaka, and Sita knew this. She knew that the Lord would never want to disappoint him or see him unhappy. Sita was basically saying, “I can’t believe my father accepted you as a son-in-law. What was he thinking?” Sita’s insults were a psychological ploy aimed at getting Rama to change His mind and let her come to the forest with Him. “He won’t listen to my logic and reason, so maybe He’ll react to my insults. No man likes to be compared to a woman, so He’ll definitely change His mind now” is what she thought.

Sita and Rama in the forest Sita Devi was a pure devotee of God and her only desire was to serve Him, no matter the time, place, or circumstance. Because of her devotion, she naturally acquired great intelligence in all material areas. She was a great debater and manipulator, and she eventually persuaded Rama to take her. Her manipulative powers were also on full display later on when she, Rama, and Lakshmana were living in the forest. One day, at the insistence of Sita, Lord Rama went chasing after a demon named Maricha, who was in the guise of a deer. The Rakshasa, who was expert in illusion, made a wailing sound in the voice of Lord Rama. Sita, mistaking the sound as coming from her husband, immediately ordered Lakshmana to go and see what had happened. Lord Rama had explicitly told Lakshmana not to leave Sita’s side no matter what. For this reason, Lakshmana was hesitant to listen to Sita. Out of love for her husband, she resorted to yelling and insulting Lakshmana until he finally agreed to leave and see what had happened to Rama.

The lesson to be learned here is that we shouldn’t bother ourselves too much with acquiring great skills in material endeavors. If we sincerely take up the process of devotional service, God will automatically provide us the tools necessary to serve Him. Pure devotees are experts in all walks o life. One great devotee, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder of the Hare Krishna movement, was expert in singing, dancing, writing, lecturing, debating, and even cooking. He needed all these tools in order to serve Krishna by spreading love for Him to others. Prabhupada never sought to excel in any of these areas, but Krishna gave Him the ability to do so. In the same manner, Sita, through her pure devotional service, became the perfect woman, wife, queen, and mother. She would do anything and everything to serve God, and we would be well advised to follow her lead.