Monday, July 5, 2010

Yesterday’s News

The spiritual world “Only the Supreme Lord Himself or His empowered representative can possibly free us from confinement in this dark well. Under their guidance we can come to know of the limitless ocean of the spiritual sky.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Renunciation Through Wisdom, Ch 2.7)

With the advancement of technology, newspapers are slowly going out of fashion, at least the print versions anyway. In many circles, reading the newspaper is considered part of the higher culture. The belief is that anyone who wants to know anything must read the newspaper regularly to keep up with current events. Though most news is read on the internet these days, the same belief system applies to news items of any kind. If we are given an old newspaper or sent a story which is more than a day old, we usually don’t have any interest in it. Newspapers essentially have an expiration date; they lose their importance in the matter of hours. The dead-tree editions of expired newspapers end up being used for packing material, toilet paper, or fuel for a fire in a grill. Based on this, wouldn’t it be more beneficial to read something which doesn’t lose value over time. Moreover, wouldn’t it be worth our while to spend our time learning about facts and truths that only increase in importance as time passes? This is precisely why God gave us the Vedas and all the literatures that are derived from them.

Newspaper It’s the common routine for many people to get their coffee in the morning along with the paper. The newspaper is especially nice for commuters who take public transportation to school or work. Sitting down comfortably in their seat, commuters can skim through the latest headlines, the sports scores, and even the comics on their way to wherever they are going. As soon as the destination is reached, however, the newspaper gets tossed aside. If we do end up saving our old newspapers, it’s only to use them for packing material or any other purpose except reading.

Why do news items lose their importance as time goes by? The answer should be fairly obvious. Let us first examine why we even take an interest in the news. As mentioned before, in many circles, regular news readers are considered to be part of the higher class. “If you read the news, you are up to date on the happenings of society around you. You know what the issues are in relation to elections, you know what the future weather forecast is, and you also know about any recent developments in health and science.” Along the same lines, anyone who doesn’t follow the news must be an ignorant and low class person.

There are others though, who take to reading the news simply out of boredom or the need for entertainment. They may have a particular politician, actor, or athlete that they like, so they’ll take an interest in following their every move. The editorial page also provides insightful opinions on subject matters that we may not be familiar with, so we feel like we are getting an education in addition to being entertained.

These justifications for reading the news seem valid enough. Yet why we do we see newspapers get thrown away one day after they come out? Try giving an old newspaper to someone and they will likely scoff, “This is old. Why are you giving this to me? It has no value.” Newspapers contain written words, so their importance lies in their content. When we say that a newspaper loses its importance after only a single day, we’re saying that the content is what becomes irrelevant. One simply has to examine the contents of an average paper to see why.

Without even reading tomorrow’s news, we can already predict what it will contain. Someone will have been murdered; a politician will have criticized another politician; a sports team will have won and will now think that their chances of capturing the title are good; another team will have lost; fans will be calling for such and such manager to be fired; columnists will be praising another player for performing well; predictions will be made; editorials will be written; the weather forecast will be provided, etc. Now let us go back in time to a newspaper from say a year ago. What we will find is that the nature of the stories is exactly the same. The exact names and circumstances may be different, but the theme of the stories will undoubtedly be the same. We can even go further back in time, five years, ten years, etc., and see the same phenomenon.

“In the material world we are simply chewing the chewed, throwing it away, picking it up and then chewing it again. Spiritual variety is not like this.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Teachings of Lord Kapila, Ch 13.29)

Prahlada Maharaja If the news is always the same, why do we keep following it? The great devotee of Lord Vishnu, Prahlada Maharaja, gave us insight into this concept. He referred to the repeated attempts at finding sense gratification in the same areas as “chewing the chewed”. We read one newspaper, take in all the various stories, and get whatever little enjoyment we can out of it. The next day we read the latest newspaper, thinking that the nature of the stories will be different, when in fact they aren’t. Hence the most recent edition of the newspaper is something we’ve already chewed. But since we are illusioned by the forces of maya, we think that we haven’t chewed this information already. This cycle of chewing the chewed repeats itself over and over again.

“Yet there is another nature, which is eternal and is transcendental to this manifested and unmanifested matter. It is supreme and is never annihilated. When all in this world is annihilated, that part remains as it is.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 8.20)

Lord Krishna speaking to Arjuna What is maya? The Vedas tell us that God created this world to be a flawed replica of the spiritual world. The spiritual world is full of bliss and is unchanging. This material world is just the opposite. Matter is always changing, either through human effort [paurusham] or through the influence of the divine [daivam]. Since matter is always changing, we tend to think the enjoyment that we derive from it will also change. This is the effect of maya. Maya means that which is not; she is the illusory energy which governs this material world. Her powers of illusion manifest through her ability to fool us into thinking that matter, which is constantly changing, will give us new feelings of enjoyment. But as we see with the example of the newspaper, what we take to be change is actually nothing more than the same chewed material presented in a different form.

But what choice do we have in the matter? We live in the material world after all, so aren’t we forced to associate with this changing matter? Though everything in this world can be taken to be matter, there are exceptions. The most easily perceivable exception can be found right inside of our bodies. Though our body is composed of matter, it doesn’t form the basis of our identity. For example, we have hands and legs, but we can’t say that our identity comes from our limbs. If an arm gets cut off, we can still survive, meaning that the loss of our hand doesn’t equate to the loss of our identity. Recently, one of our friends noticed a man riding the train in a major metropolitan area. This man had arms, but no hands. Yet somehow he was reading a newspaper and drinking coffee that was purchased from a local market. Reading the newspaper and holding the drink were certainly extraordinary feats by themselves for a man with no hands, but even more remarkable was that this person must have had to pay for his newspaper and drink. Even with his handicap, he didn’t seem troubled in the least bit; he had everything under control.

Lord Chaitanya So we see that our body parts, which are composed of matter, are part of our identity, but at the same time they are not. In a similar manner, we living entities are also part of the supreme whole known as God, yet we are still different from Him. This simultaneous oneness and difference is known as achintya-bheda-bheda-tattva, and it was the truth expounded by Lord Shri Krishna Chaitanya, an incarnation of God who appeared in India some five hundred years ago.

Our identity comes from the spirit soul residing within. The soul is unchangeable, unbreakable, and immoveable. When we use the terms “I” and “Mine”, we are actually referring to our soul. If we lose a hand or a leg, we can stay alive in our current form, but if we lose our soul, our life ends. The event known as death is the exiting of the soul from the body. The soul is not part of maya, hence it is an exception to the rule that all things are material and changeable. There is another exception as well: the Supersoul, or Paramatma. The Supersoul resides within the heart, but it is an expansion of God. Our soul, or atma, only resides within our body, but the Supersoul resides within the bodies of every living entity, thus illustrating the difference between us and God.

Lord Krishna Atma and Paramatma are not products of maya, nor is Brahman, the impersonal effulgence that constitutes all things material and spiritual. Still, both Brahman and Paramatma originate from a supreme person. This personality is known as Lord Krishna, or God. God is the Supreme Absolute Truth, so in this sense He is the opposite of maya. His spiritual world is that which is, meaning a place where what you see is what you get. Though we currently reside in the material world, a perverted reflection of the spiritual world, we can still associate with God in a number of ways.

When we say “we” can associate, we’re referring to the spirit soul within. The soul is currently covered by a material dress which fools us into taking material sense gratification to be the ultimate aim of life. A higher engagement is to associate with something which transcends maya. Paramatma fits the bill. Since it is an expansion of God, the Paramatma can give us supreme bliss, should we choose to associate with it. We just have to know how to achieve this association. This is where yoga comes in. Yoga means linking our consciousness, atma, with the supreme consciousness, Paramatma.

This linking can be achieved through fruitive activities, philosophical speculation, meditation, or through acts of devotion. Acts of devotion are the best way to link ourselves with God because one who devotes their life to God automatically achieves the same benefits as the fruitive workers, mental speculators, and meditators. The Paramatma is within, so it’s not particularly clear as to how we can associate with it. Since Paramatma is God’s representative within our body, it is our duty to take direction from it. Since we’re in the conditioned state, we don’t know how to take this direction. To help the living entities who are genuinely in search of the Absolute Truth, the Lord kindly sends a representative to teach from without. This representative is the spiritual master, and he is a pure devotee of Krishna.

The spiritual master Association with the spiritual master can be of two varieties: vapu and vani. Vapu refers to personal association; offering service to the guru in person. Vani refers to the words and instructions of the spiritual master. Association through vani is achieved by reading the books written by the spiritual master and following the instructions previously given. It is precisely to allow future generations of mankind the association through vani that the great acharyas of the past wrote voluminous Vedic literatures. By reading these great books, we will be engaging in a worthwhile activity. Unlike newspapers, these great Vedic texts don’t lose their significance over time. The spiritual master is a representative of Krishna, who is the original spiritual master. A bona fide guru only teaches those things which Lord Krishna Himself originally taught to great personalities of the past. Seen in this light, the instructions contained within the great Vedic texts can be considered an incarnation of God. Since God is unchangeable, it would make sense that His instructions would inherit the same characteristic. By reading the great Vedic texts, we are directly associating with God.

We may throw away the newspaper or use it for packing material, but we hold onto the Vedic texts. Books like the Bhagavad-gita and Shrimad Bhagavatam have been studied for thousands of years. The epic Ramayana is even older, and yet people are still deriving pleasure from reading it. This is something we should really think about. In our mind, let’s just try to go back in time to one thousand or two thousand years ago. Now let’s think about how different life was and how people engaged in different occupations and spoke different languages. Now let’s ponder this: even during such primitive times, the Bhagavad-gita and Ramayana were being recited, studied, and enjoyed. How amazing is that? This one fact alone proves how valuable these great books are.

“That supreme abode is called unmanifested and infallible, and it is the supreme destination. When one goes there, he never comes back. That is My supreme abode.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 8.21)

Goloka Vrindavana In today’s advanced technological age, access to information is not a problem. This means that we can read the great Vedic texts at any time and at any place. There really is no excuse not to take advantage of these great works. Many great acharyas have written wonderful commentaries on these books, passing on their wisdom to future generations. Even though these books were written in the past, they are anything but yesterday’s news. The guru carries news from the spiritual world; news which gives pleasure to the soul. By consulting the guru’s vani, we learn how to take instruction from the Supersoul within. The Supersoul will then guide us back to the spiritual world, where we will get to personally witness the latest news and events pertaining to Lord Krishna, His various incarnations, and His devotees.