Monday, June 21, 2010

Practice Makes Perfect

Lord Krishna “The Lord, being the source of everything that be, is the origin of all austerities and penances also. Great vows of austerity are undertaken by sages to achieve success in self-realization.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 2.7.6 Purport)

The opening verse of the famous Shrimad Bhagavatam relays an aphorism from the Vedanta-sutras which states that everything in this world emanates from the Supreme Absolute Truth, or God. The Vedanta-sutras are meant to consist of short and succinct phrases or aphorisms, each having deeper meaning and import. This one statement about everything emanating from God can be studied daily and still provide new and fresh meanings. It is for this reason that the bona fide commentary on the Vedanta-sutra, the Shrimad Bhagavatam, is itself quite lengthy. Moreover, great devotees have written their own commentaries on Shrimad Bhagavatam, with other devotees writing commentaries on the commentaries. Thus we see that there is no limit to God’s greatness, for on can go one explaining His powers forever and ever.

Hanuman chanting When we hear that everything emanates from God, we naturally look to objects, i.e. things relating to matter. The mountains, the sky, and the sun are obvious examples of God’s greatness. But even living entities themselves are molded after the Supreme Lord. It is for this reason that we become enamored by the events of birth and death. Planting a seed and watching it grow into a full-blown tree is one of the more amazing sights to behold. The same can be said of watching our children grow up to be adults. Though we tend to only compare objects and their relationship to the Supreme, we can also apply the same principle to various philosophies, disciplines, and exercises. Everyone has some sort of philosophy, regardless of whether or not the basis of their way of life comes from spiritual authority.

Every philosophy that has ever existed actually emanates from the Supreme Lord. To see an example of this principle, we need only study two important Vedic concepts: tapasya and yajna. Tapasya refers to the voluntary acceptance of austerities, or penances. Yajna refers to sacrifice, or in general terms, the active engagement in religious practice; rituals, chants, or travelling to spiritual pilgrimages. Sacrifice and austerity are requirements for anyone seeking spiritual enlightenment, and just as with everything else in this world, they originate from God. The Supreme Lord gave us yajna and tapasya so that we could use them to understand Him better. Many people shy away from religion specifically because of the ritual aspect of it and the need for self-control, or austerity. The irony is that austerity and sacrifice are practiced even outside of the realm of religion. This is another example of God’s greatness, and it also reinforces the meaning of Absolute. Since God is the Absolute Truth, His energies are all-pervading.

A great example of sacrifice and austerity in action can be seen in the arena of rock and roll. This will raise eyebrows right off the bat. “Rock and roll? Isn’t that the extreme opposite of self-control? People dream of becoming rock stars so that they can live a life of hedonism. Sex, drugs, and rock n roll. How can this teach us about religion?“ It is undoubtedly true that the rock star lifestyle is all about indulging the senses as much as possible. Yet if we do a quick study of what it takes to become a successful musical artist or rock band, we’ll see that self-control and discipline are two vital components.

Metallica singer James Hetfield The life cycle of a successful rock band is usually the same, but to help us understand things more clearly, we’ll focus on one example in particular: the heavy metal band Metallica. While they are currently one of the most popular bands in music history, Metallica didn’t start out that way. Like most aspiring bands, Metallica started off as a garage band; four young teenagers getting together in a small room and playing loud music. They all had long hair and a penchant for drinking alcohol. To make it in the rock business is not easy, for there are many bands competing for a record deal. In the early 1980s, Metallica had to play small clubs throughout California just to get recognized. They distanced themselves from the popular hair bands of the time by playing a style of music commonly known as thrash, or something similar to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Metallica eventually got their record deal and were flown to New York to record their first album.

In the band’s early years, the lifestyle wasn’t luxurious at all. Band members had to travel mostly by bus, taking their equipment with them. They weren’t even headlining acts, so they had to open up for other bands, playing in tiny clubs throughout America and Europe. Slowly but surely their popularity increased, and after about ten years of touring and putting out records, they finally achieved fame throughout the world. Instead of travelling on buses, they now had their own airplanes. Rock stars are famous for the riders that they fill out when they go to different venues. The host of the show will ask what each band member requires in their dressing room prior to the show. Rock stars, demanding that all their senses be satisfied at all times, ask for whatever they want, and most of the time they get it.

Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich Rock stars also have lots of beautiful women who follow them around at every show. There is certainly truth to the notion that rock and roll is all about drinking, drugs, and sex; activities which involve little to no self-restraint. But if we study a little further, we’ll see that a rock band requires self-control and discipline to be successful. The members of Metallica are all in their late forties today, but they play to giant sold-out arenas. All of the members of the band have to take care of their bodies in order to be able to play on stage for two hours at a time. The physical toll is especially great on the drummer, Lars Ulrich. Playing the drums for any other type of music may not be as physically demanding, but playing drums for a heavy metal band is a real workout. Just playing one song involves constantly moving your arms and legs to maintain the quick tempo. A typical Metallica concert is around two hours, so one can imagine how much weight is lost in terms of sweat for the drummer.

Before embarking on any major concert tour, Lars takes up a strict running regimen to get himself into shape. He also makes sure to eat properly before a concert. Though most of the members drink alcohol regularly, they keep a careful eye on their intake prior to a concert. Alcohol can dehydrate the body fairly quickly and can also have an effect on a person’s motor skills. Playing guitar in a heavy metal band requires lightning fast movement of the fingers. The lead guitarist for Metallica, Kirk Hammett, wraps tape around his fingers to prevent bleeding. The singer, James Hetfield, also isn’t immune to the wear and tear of life on the road. During the early 1990s, Metallica toured for two years non-stop. By the end of the tour, James’ voice was failing him, and he was worried that he might be seriously damaging his vocal cords. Ever since that time, Hetfield makes sure to go through a series of voice exercises prior to every concert.

Live concert All this preparation is most certainly a form of austerity. The other piece of the puzzle is activity, or sacrifice. You can’t just put any four people together and expect them to produce beautiful music. A successful rock band is one that has good chemistry and knows how to play songs in front of people. To this end, Metallica, like most other bands, must rehearse constantly to make sure they don’t mess up songs when playing them in front of 50,000 people. This dedication to activity isn’t exclusive to the live arena either. Making a studio record requires just as much effort, for the band members must play their songs over and over again until they get every piece of the song just right.

Though the rock star lifestyle is certainly filled with self-indulgence, if it weren’t for their dedication to austerity and sacrifice, bands like Metallica would never be able to do what they do. In a similar manner, success in spiritual life requires even more dedication. Sometimes we’ll get frustrated in life and turn to God. “Oh Lord, why have You put me through this? Can’t You end my suffering?” These feelings are quite natural, for we are all looking for an easy way out of our misery. But just as we see with other areas of life, success in spiritual pursuits takes some effort and dedication. We can’t just think our way to spiritual perfection. We can study the difference between matter and spirit until we are blue in the face, but God is not a person who can be realized by solving a math problem or by running through a series of logical proofs.

Lord Krishna If we want to reach the supreme destination of God’s spiritual sky, we have to work for it. The key is to figure out what things should be done and what shouldn’t. In addition, we have to know how to control our senses, i.e. how to make sure we perform at peak capacity. This is where the four regulative principles come into play. The Vedas are a very intricate religious discipline, meaning they have branches that apply to all different types of people. As we see in life, people have different desires which lead them towards performing different types of work. In a similar manner, aspiring transcendentalists also have different desires, so the Vedas kindly provide guidance in a wide range of areas. Since some people look to God to fulfill their needs, there is the karma-kanda section of the Vedas which recommends various yajnas, or ritualistic sacrifices. The performance of these yajnas rewards the practitioner with material benedictions. Some people want to stop all activity; they are sick of always having to do something. They’d rather just remain in a dormant state and not have to worry about future suffering. For these people, there is the sankhya system, where one can study the difference between matter and spirit and slowly start to negate all activity. There are others who want great strength and power, so for them the Vedas give the system of meditational yoga, which rewards the practitioners with siddhis, or material perfections.

While these are all legitimate branches of the Vedas, there is one discipline which is considered the topmost. This is bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. As the Vedanta-sutras tell us, God is a person; a separate living entity whose intelligence and strengths far exceed ours. Since He is the original person possessing all opulences, it would make sense that having His personal association would be the greatest reward in life. We are all looking for pleasure of some sort, but we see that the enjoyment derived from our current sources of pleasure is short-lived. This is because we’re not channeling our engagements towards the supreme object of pleasure, the one person from whom all other pleasures emanate. That person is Krishna, or the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

Lord Chaitanya and associates chanting Hare Krishna To know Krishna, one must perform some type of austerity. Currently our senses are attracted towards material objects, hence our pleasure is short-lived. In order to shift our desires, we have to starve our senses of the associations they are currently attached to. When encountering an enemy, it is best to attack their strengths right away. Once the enemy’s strengths are eradicated, it is much easier to defeat them. The four things which our material senses are most attached to are illicit sex, meat eating, intoxication, and gambling. Therefore, in order to control our senses, we must refrain from these four activities. This is the starting point.

Austerity is only one piece of the puzzle. We also need some active engagement, something to rehearse or practice. This is where sacrifice comes in. Though the Vedas mention different kinds of sacrifice, the one most recommended for the people of this age is the sankirtana-yajna, or the congregational chanting of the holy names of God, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. The great Vaishnava acharyas recommend that we chant this mantra as often as possible, and with as many other people as possible. This mantra is so great that it can be put into melodies and sung in the call-and-response format. If one visits Vaishnava temples around the world, they’ll see that the singing of this mantra makes up the majority of the day’s activities.

Lord Krishna At a minimum, we should chant the Hare Krishna mantra at least sixteen rounds a day on a japa mala, or set of prayer beads. One may ask what the point is to chanting so many times. The goal is to be able to chant this mantra just once without any offenses. Offenses are any distractions or ulterior motives we may have when we recite God’s names. Reciting God’s name without offense equates to a perfect recitation. Devotional service is pure when we develop a love for God and don’t expect anything from Him in return. This is the highest form of religion because it rewards us with the eternal association of the Lord, a benediction which cannot be matched.

Everyone is performing some type of austerity and some type of sacrifice. We don’t need to shy away from these principles, but just purify their execution. By regularly chanting and following the four regulative principles, we can one day hope to say God’s name in a pure way. Practice makes perfect.