Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Memory Remains

Mirabai worshiping Krishna “The living entity in the material world carries his different conceptions of life from one body to another as the air carries aromas.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 15.8)

The Blue Mug is a popular play which is currently touring around the world. Though the initial performances were limited to India, the play has garnered so much attention that there is now worldwide demand to see it. The play is very simple in nature, with the actors hardly using any props, but it has a deeper message that it tries to push across: the importance of having memories. The play’s actors and director may only be trying to convey an artistic message, but they have nevertheless stumbled upon a central teaching of Vedic philosophy.

The Blue Mug Without giving away the entire plot line of the show, the Blue Mug features six actors who tell stories about the formative experiences of their lives. These stories, which are meticulously crafted and told in bits and pieces, with the actors alternating between monologues, take around an hour and a half to tell. Aside from being humorous and entertaining, the stories revolve around a central theme. A nice bonus for attendees is that after the performance, the entire cast and the director come on stage and field questions from the audience. This allows for clarification on specific items of the show. It is during this question and answer period that the director informs the audience that the main theme of the show focuses on the idea of having memories.

All of us remember things from our past; both good and bad. We remember the strangest things: what games we played as children, what our relatives used to say to us, how our parents would punish us, etc. Some of us remember the tragedies as well, such as the first time we had to attend a funeral or where we were when we found out that someone in our family had died. These events are so important that the memories stay with us all the way into our old age. A person who is fifty years old can vividly remember events that took place more than forty years in the past.

The key to remembering an incident is to focus the mind on it from time to time. For example, if something happened to us a long time ago and we never thought about it afterwards, as more time goes by, the more likely we are to forget the event. On the flip side, if something noteworthy happens to us and we constantly remember it and tell stories about it to other people, we are likely to remember the incident for a long time. This makes sense because remembering involves reliving specific moments and contemplating their meanings. Today, it is fashionable for distressed people to blame their parents for their problems. “I was emotionally abandoned as a child, so that explains why I am so distrusting now…My parents used to hit me as a child, so that explains why I can’t deal with anger very well…I have abandonment issues stemming from childhood…I have trust issues, etc.” These are some of the common sentiments expressed on the daytime television talk shows, and they all relate to memories.

The Blue Mug play The message of the Blue Mug play is that everyone needs memories to keep them alive. Great events happen in our lives which shape our character. If we don’t remember these events, it is as if they never happened. It would be quite sad if we couldn’t remember all the important events in our life, for then we would have no purpose behind our activities. We can work very hard today and enjoy with our friends and family, but the joy would be short-lived if we weren’t able to cherish the memories. Going one step further, we can conclude that it is important to not only remember major events in our life, but to also make sure we actually have things worth remembering. If we sit around and do nothing all the time, we will have nothing to remember later on in life.

What we remember actually plays an important role in our mental health, and also in our spiritual well-being. The Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, tell us that what we remember at the time of death determines what the next destination for the soul will be. Any wise person can perceive the presence of the soul within a living entity. If we kill something, it doesn’t mean that we destroy its body or disfigure it. Killing means to cause death, or the exit of the soul from the body of a living entity. Just because someone dies, it doesn’t mean that the soul ceases to exist. Death just means a changing of bodies, the transmigration of the soul.

“As the embodied soul continually passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. The self-realized soul is not bewildered by such a change.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.13)

Reincarnation If the soul never dies, what determines where it will end up after death? Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, tells us that it is our consciousness that determines our fate in the afterlife. If our consciousness is on the material platform, meaning our mind is focused on something which is part of the mode of goodness, passion, or ignorance, we will be given a body suitable for association with matter in the next life. In a similar manner, if our consciousness is on the spiritual platform at the time of death, meaning we are thinking about Krishna or one of His personal forms, we will receive a spiritual body in the next life.

What determines our consciousness? As you can probably guess, it is our memories. Even a young person has already lived many many days on earth and thus experienced many major events in their lifetime. The important events are what we remember the most, thus they shape our consciousness. This consciousness is what comes to the forefront at the end of life. Essentially, our life flashes before our eyes.

“The activities of the day evoke dreams at night and induce emotions appropriate to those activities. Similarly, the activities performed in one's lifetime flash across one's mind at the moment of death and determine one's next life. Therefore, if one's present activities are directed toward chanting, hearing, and remembering the Supreme Lord's transcendental name, along with descriptions of His beauty, qualities, pastimes, associates, and paraphernalia, then one's consciousness at the moment one leaves his body will automatically be attracted to the Lord.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Renunciation Through Wisdom, Ch 2.6)

Bhishma remembering Krishna at the time of death Armed with these facts, a wise person quickly realizes that having memories is certainly nice, but that it is more important to have the right kinds of memories. Surely it is nice to look back fondly on our childhood or on the great times we spent with friends and family, but these types of memories won’t really further the plight of the soul. In order to achieve spiritual perfection, we must have memories relating to God and spiritual life. A lot of times people will read the Bhagavad-gita or hear about Vedic wisdom from a trusted source and instantly become intrigued. They understand the truths relating to the soul and the temporary nature of the material world, but at the same time, they take spiritual life to be too difficult. They postpone their spiritual pursuits until a later date, thinking that they will have more time for religion once they are old and retired from work.

But as we know, the more time that goes by, the more memories we accumulate. This means that even if we take to spiritual life later on in life, our previous memories from material life will take precedent, outweighing our spiritual memories. This underscores the importance of taking to spiritual life as soon as possible, for there is no time to lose. We don’t know when death will come, so it is better to shape our consciousness at the present moment, rather than waiting for later.

So how do we accumulate spiritual memories? The easiest way is to take up the regular chanting of the holy names of God, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. Chanting this mantra sixteen rounds a day on a set of japa beads is enough to change our consciousness, but at the same time, we should avoid the four pillars of sinful life: meat eating, gambling, illicit sex, and intoxication. These four activities are guaranteed to create memories that we’d soon rather forget. Therefore it is important to avoid these activities altogether, while remaining committed to chanting God’s names.

Radha Krishna Once we get a steady chanting routine going, we can take up other processes such as preparing and offering food to Krishna’s deity, remembering the Lord, offering Him prayers, singing songs about Him, etc. This collective discipline is known as the religion of love, or devotional service. It is the highest discipline because adherence to it will guarantee a lifetime of spiritual memories. Though our current memories may give us pleasure and nostalgia all the way up until the end of life, they become erased once death comes. With Krishna, however, the memories always remain.

“O Arjuna, as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, I know everything that has happened in the past, all that is happening in the present, and all things that are yet to come. I also know all living entities; but Me no one knows.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 7.26)

Our spiritual memories are ever-lasting since they carry us directly to the spiritual world. Remembering the devotional activities we performed over the course of our lifetime allows us to remember God at the same time. It is this remembrance of God, vishno-smaranam, which, at the time of death, will carry us to the eternal abode, the everlasting, unchanging spiritual realm of Lord Shri Krishna.