Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Moving On

Lord Krishna's activities “Enjoyment means variety. God became many for His enjoyment, and thus our position is that of the enjoyed. That is our constitutional position and the purpose for our creation.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Beyond Birth and Death, Ch 1)

The ending of a popular television series is a time of great sadness for both the actors and the fans of the show. There is usually a build up to the final episode, with actors and creators reflecting on the history of the show and what it meant to them. Regardless of how popular a show is, the writers eventually get tired of coming up with new show ideas, or the actors grow weary of playing the same role, or the ratings inevitably falter, causing the network executives to cancel the show in hopes of running a more popular one in the same time slot. What is interesting, however, is that even though actors can become sick of playing the same role on the same show for years, when their shows inevitably end, they immediately go looking for a new show, sometimes even one belonging to the same genre. The cycle then repeats itself. Studying this phenomenon can help us better understand the nature of the soul and how it derives pleasure.

Being on a successful television show in America is like catching lightning in a bottle. In recent times, the television landscape has changed with the advent of cable and satellite television. Now there are hundreds of channels, so creators of new shows have more options for where to shop their particular show. In days past, however, if you wanted a popular television series, you had to get a timeslot on one of the major networks: ABC, NBC, CBS, or FOX. The television season runs from September through May, so that’s when new episodes are usually aired. During the summer months, television viewing isn’t as high since people tend to go on vacation and do other things. Every fall, the networks come out with their new lineup of shows, hoping that they will garner attention. A popular show equates to higher ratings, which means that networks can charge more for advertising. Like any other business, it all comes down to dollars and cents; the shows that are profitable will stay on the air, while the shows that aren’t will quickly get the axe.

Most shows don’t make it through their first season. If a new show gets picked up by a network, typically only a single episode, known as the pilot, gets aired. Depending on how the pilot does in the ratings, with critics, and with focus groups, the network will decide to order more episodes or they will decide to pass on the show. Even if a new show gets picked up, it’s usually not for an entire season right away. The networks want to see how the show will fit in different time slots and if it has staying power with audiences. Sometimes a new show will be popular in its first week but then gradually drift off in subsequent weeks.

When a show gets picked up for an entire season, it is like hitting the jackpot. For sitcoms, a full season usually consists of twenty-two episodes. This is enough time to provide continuity in the show’s storyline and to allow for a bond to be formed between the characters on the show and the fans. As an actor, being on a show that lasts an entire season is a big deal. It is even rarer to find a show that is a hit, i.e. one that tops the ratings every week and spans multiple seasons. In the history of television, there have been several immensely popular television series. These include Mash, Cheers, Friends, Everybody Loves Raymond, Seinfeld, and The Cosby Show. The evolution of these shows makes for an interesting study, for the mindset of the actors and creators changed over the course of time.

barone2Let us take Everybody Loves Raymond for example. The show started off with creator Phil Rosenthal teaming up with comedian Ray Romano. The two had an idea for a family style sitcom with Ray playing the lead character. The show was pitched to various higher ups, with the late night talk show host David Letterman finally coming through and deciding to back the project. The show was picked up by CBS and aired on Friday nights in the beginning. Friday is one of the worst nights for primetime television because the ratings aren’t very high. Friday nights represent the beginning of the weekend, so most people are out with friends and family on this night. Luckily for Phil and Ray, the show, though not very popular, got good reviews from the critics. Moreover, it was the favorite show of the president of CBS, Les Moonves. Long story short, the show was eventually moved to Monday nights where it remained all the way through to the end of the series. The show lasted for nine seasons, but it actually could have gone on longer. The actors on the show, including its creators, felt that the show had run its course and that it was time to move on. The show ended with only 15 episodes airing in the final season. Even that took a little cajoling, for the creators were set on ending the show after eight seasons. They only agreed to come back to the show if they could have a shortened season.

Frasier The last episode was full of tearful goodbyes and fond memories. What happened next? Two of the show’s stars, Patricia Heaton and Brad Garrett, immediately signed up with new sitcoms in the following seasons. These shows didn’t do very well. This was by no means a unique situation, for this occurs with many actors who previously starred on popular television shows. Sometimes creators will come up with a spin-off to a show; a new show which has one or more characters from a previous show. This was the case with Frasier, which starred Kelsey Grammer. Grammer had been a mainstay for many seasons on Cheers, and when it ended, he immediately signed up to do Frasier. Ironically enough, Frasier lasted just as long on the air, eleven seasons. Essentially, Grammer played the same character on television for twenty years. There was even a joke made about this in a Frasier episode where Grammer’s character exclaims, “Do you know what it’s like to play the same character for twenty years?”

After playing the part of Frasier Crane for twenty years, what did Grammer do next? Well, he immediately jumped into new projects, appearing in two sitcoms which didn’t stay on the air very long. As previously mentioned, this sort of thing isn’t unique. The supporting cast members of Seinfeld all tried landing new sitcoms after the show ended, and so far only Julia Louis Dreyfus has managed to find any decent success. This whole cycle of jumping from one show to another illustrates an interesting aspect of human behavior. To start with, you have an aspiring actor or creator who just wants to be on television. They want any success they can find, something they can be proud of. Yet when their show becomes successful, they immediately start thinking about its end and what they will do next. Invariably, they jump right back into the same situation on a new show with different characters. But nevertheless, the same cycle of beginning and end repeats itself.

Shrila Prabhupada Why do actors and creators go through these cycles? They are human beings after all, and one of our characteristics is that we require stimulation of the mind. Stimulation equates to enjoyment, and to have enjoyment we must have variety. If we do the same things all the time, we start to feel like robots and we lose our taste for things. That’s why it’s very rare to find anyone who eats the exact same things every day. Moreover, it’s even difficult to find someone who will eat at the same restaurant every day.

“Enjoyment means variety. It is not possible to enjoy anything without variety. Why has God created so many colors and so many forms? In order to create enjoyment out of variety, for variety is the mother of enjoyment.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Teachings of Queen Kunti, Ch 25)

This desire for variety is actually an outgrowth of the nature of the soul. The Vedas tell us that the spirit soul serves as the basis for our identity. The soul is pure, uncontaminated, and unchanging. One of its qualities is that it desires activity. Currently, we are in a conditioned state, so our natural inclination is toward activities that please our gross senses. The senses are actually products of material nature, meaning they are inferior to our spiritual senses. Spirit is a direct representation of God’s energy, while matter can be thought of as God’s separated energy. Since matter is created by God, it is both separate from Him and equal to Him. It is equal to God in the sense that anything coming from God must be considered part of God. At the same time, matter is an inferior energy and thus exists separately from the Supreme Lord. Spirit, on the other hand, is of the same quality is God. The Supreme Lord, whose original name and form is Krishna, is described as having an eternal body which is full of knowledge and bliss. Since we are spirit souls, part and parcel of the complete whole, we also inherit these qualities of knowledge and bliss.

Lord Krishna If we are just like God, why do we try to satisfy our material senses? Moreover, why do we even have material senses? Material senses come with the material body. For the soul to reside in this world, it must be covered up by a body composed of the three modes of material nature: goodness, passion, and ignorance. By trying to satisfy the gross senses, we act in the mode of passion. The Vedas advise us not to give up our desire for variety, but to simply shift the nature of our activities from the material to the spiritual.

What does this mean? Let’s take acting for example. An actor starts a new show and is completely satisfied with their role. They get to hang out with their fellow actors each week, run through rehearsals, and then do live tapings. After a season is finished, everyone goes on vacation and does their own thing in the summer. Then in the fall, everyone meets up again and has fun taping a new season. In this way, starring on a popular television show is like going away to college. But when the series ends, everyone becomes sad. They realize that they’ll never work together in the same way. Things will never be the same. To get over the sadness of a show ending, an actor will jump right back in the saddle and start the process all over again with a new show.

We can use this same technique in our quest for spiritual enlightenment. The Vedas contain the most comprehensive set of written instructions and recorded historical incidents known to man. The oldest Vedic text that exists in written form is the Ramayana. This is quite possibly the oldest book in existence, for no one can accurately date the events that are described within. Detailing the life and pastimes of Lord Rama, an incarnation of God, the Ramayana is a lengthy work which contains stories of historical incidents and also great teachings relating to the soul, God, and mankind’s relationship with Him. If a person starts reading this book with faith and devotion, they will quickly find themselves engrossed in it. A person will quickly develop an attachment to the main characters, not wanting to ever give up the association of Lord Rama, His wife Sita Devi, His younger brother Lakshmana, and His great devotee Hanuman. Yet all things must come to an end, so there will come a time when we will reach the end of the Ramayana.

Rama Darbar Coming to the end of such a great book will naturally bring about sadness. Speaking from experience, we were quite sad and emotionally drained upon completing the Ramayana for the first time. So what did we do to get over this sadness? We immediately picked up the Mahabharata and spent the next few months reading this epic. The Mahabharata is probably the longest book ever written. Though its main plot line focuses on the plight of five brothers trying to regain their kingdom, the book covers all Vedic teachings. Thus it is often referred to as the unofficial fifth Veda. The major events documented in the Mahabharata took place some five thousand years ago when Lord Krishna personally descended to earth. In fact, the famous Bhagavad-gita, the Song of God sung by Lord Krishna Himself, can be found in the Mahabharata.

Eventually one will come to the end of this great work. This is also a sad occasion, for the end of the Mahabharata deals with Krishna’s return to the spiritual world, where He left behind His friends and relatives. Not surprisingly, we were also quite sad when we finished reading this book for the first time. So what did we do to get over our sadness? We immediately jumped to the Shrimad Bhagavatam, also known as the Bhagavata Purana. There are eighteen major Puranas, each of which is quite lengthy. The word “purana” actually means old or ancient, thus the Puranas contain descriptions of ancient historical events relating to Lord Krishna and His various incarnations.

Bhagavad-gita Hopefully by now you can see the pattern. We are all very fortunate that the great Vaishnava saints of the past sacrificed so much time and energy to write down their revelations and experiences. They were kind enough to describe Krishna’s activities in detail. Since God is absolute, there is no difference between His original form and His pastimes. Reading about His pastimes means directly associating with Him. Another great thing about reading Vedic literature is that one will never tire of reading the same things over and over again. Though nothing will beat the experience of reading the Ramayana for the first time, subsequent readings can actually bring out more meanings and revelations.

This is the beauty of God and all things relating to Him. This principle of variety in activity doesn’t have to be limited to reading. Devotional service, or bhakti-yoga, involves actively engaging ourselves in God’s service. This means that we can also spend our time producing things for God such as literature, prayers, poems, and food to be offered to the deity. The quintessential devotional act is the chanting of the holy names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. We are advised to repeat this chanting over and over, each and every day. The more we chant, the closer we come to feeling the ecstasy that comes from hearing the transcendental sound vibrations.

“O Rama, for as long as You shall stand before me, even if it be for one hundred years, I will always remain Your servant…” (Lakshmana speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 15.7)

Rama and Lakshmana Devotional service is an eternal occupation, something we’re not meant to ever give up. With our material activities, we may find something exciting to do for a short period of time, but inevitably we will want to move on. Our need for variety spurs this activity on. With spiritual activities, however, we never have to move on. We can always stay connected with Krishna, and still have all the variety we want. Jumping from one Vedic text to another seems like we are moving onto something else, but in reality our attachment to God is only increasing. Instead of becoming bored of our activities, our enjoyment only increases. This is the beauty of linking our soul with God. The soul plus God equals yoga, which equates to perfection in life.