Friday, August 20, 2010

Penumbra

Lord Krishna's lotus feet “Our point is that you would rather study the insignificant grass than the God who has created everything. If you could understand Him, then automatically you would understand the grass.” (Shrila Prabhupada speaking to a physics professor, Journey of Self-Discovery, Ch 1.1)

Religious life has the stigma of being overly simplistic and narrow in vision. “You study God, a set of law codes, and historical incidents, all of which are intended to make us feel guilty for the way that we live.” While this may be the viewpoint of those who are unfamiliar with spiritual knowledge, the reality is quite different. The oldest scriptures in the world are known as the Vedas, which mean knowledge. This knowledge is not limited like other forms of knowledge, therefore those who take to studying the Vedas automatically acquire knowledge of how the universe operates. In this way, Vedic wisdom is complete, or purna, for it discusses the origin of all knowledge, the Supreme Lord.

Hanuman reaading the Ramayana The desire to acquire knowledge for its own sake is not uncommon. The newspaper is built around this concept. Young students are often chastised for their lack of attention to current events, with their attraction to playing video games, going to parties, and watching television taking precedence over the acquisition of knowledge. With the advent of the technological age, there has come an added push to get youngsters to take to reading in lieu of other activities. To boost the appeal of books, reading is portrayed as a fun and productive activity. ”Learn for the sake of learning, for your knowledge will expand to new horizons.” The newspaper is seen as a great resource for acquiring knowledge. A typical newspaper has different sections tailored to different people’s interests. Some reach for the sports section right away, while others are intrigued by the latest events around the world. Some even take a liking to entertainment and gossip news.

Shrila Prabhupada Reading the newspaper is seen as a high class activity. This has been the case for many years. Reading books and studying advanced philosophy are also viewed in the same light. The mind is always working, even when we are asleep. Therefore a person’s inquisitiveness knows no bounds. To feed their appetite for knowledge, a person may take to reading many different books which span a variety of subjects. Academics especially take a great interest simply in the pursuit of knowledge. Many years back, a noted physics professor met with the famous founder of the Hare Krishna movement, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. During their conversation, the professor noted how he derived enjoyment simply from learning about things like grass and how it grows. His opinion was that just learning about science and physics was enough to bring great pleasure to the mind. The swami countered with the idea that studying God and the individual’s relationship to Him would actually provide perfect knowledge on all subjects, including the properties of grass.

“All purposes that are served by the small pond can at once be served by the great reservoirs of water. Similarly, all the purposes of the Vedas can be served to one who knows the purpose behind them.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.46)

Sunshine Studying various departments of material affairs is certainly good at providing insight into how different aspects of nature work, but wouldn’t it be better to try to understand the creator of matter? If we understand why things were created and what purpose they are intended to serve, wouldn’t we gain the highest understanding possible? Moreover, wouldn’t this knowledge allow us to understand the purpose behind other things? When we take to studying material affairs, without acknowledging their creator, God, it is akin to walking around the perimeter of a house. If we go to visit a person’s home and only remain on the outside, we don’t really learn anything about that person. We don’t know how they live, what they look like, what their likes and dislikes are. Instead, we only gain knowledge of what color their house is, what plants they like, and how well they take care of their yard. It is similar to studying shadows created by the sun, without actually acquiring any knowledge of the sun itself.

grass To help us understand this issue a little more clearly, let us take the example of grass. Scientists will study grass from the material point of view, meaning they will focus on the physical appearance of the grass and the interaction of various molecules. Seeing something grow from a set of tiny seeds into a full-fledged lawn is certainly a thing of beauty, something to marvel at. Using microscopes, scientific equations, and other instruments, one can gain a better understanding of how grass grows and what it takes to keep it alive. One will quickly realize that grass needs sunlight, fertile soil, and regular feeding in the form of water to remain alive and growing. Moreover, scientific experiments will lead to the conclusion that the grass will stop growing in the winter months, but then continue again when spring comes along.

Lord Krishna While this level of understanding is certainly nice, let’s study the same grass from the spiritualist’s point of view. How do we do this? In the Vedic paradigm, the topmost spiritualist is referred to as a bhakta, or devotee. A devotee is one who lives their life always thinking of God. This mindset is known as God consciousness. More specifically, this is known as bhakti-yoga, or the linking of the individual soul with the Supersoul, or God. What is the Supersoul? The Vedas tell us that there is only one God for all of mankind. Though He has many different names and forms, His original and most attractive form is that of Lord Shri Krishna. Krishna is also known as Bhagavan, meaning one who possesses all fortunes. While Krishna is God’s original form, not everyone will take directly to worshiping Him. Those who do are known as bhaktas.

God can be realized in other features as well. The Lord is kind enough to expand Himself into the Supersoul which resides in the hearts of every living entity. This Supersoul is known as the Paramatma, and those who take to yoga are trying to achieve a connection with it. The fire of existence, the essence of life, is the individual soul residing within the body. This soul is so powerful that it gives life not only to human beings, but to plants and animals as well. Wherever there is life, there is the individual soul, along with the Supersoul. Not everyone understands this concept, but those who do are known as paramahamsas. The true paramahamsa is a devotee of Krishna. If one is always thinking of Krishna, it makes sense that they will always see Him everywhere, even in the grass.

Lord Krishna Now let’s see how the devotee views grass. Keep in mind that this angle of vision has nothing to do with material science, a periodic table of elements, or knowledge of atomic particles. This thought process is based completely on the knowledge that Krishna is everything and that He is all-pervading. A devotee looks at grass in this way: “Oh this grass is so nice. It grows from the sunlight provided by Krishna. The sun, whose name is Aditya, is simply an expansion of the Lord. This sun is so kind that it provides heat and light to every living entity in the universe. Therefore this sun, being non-different from Krishna, is an object of worship. I will worship the sun every morning by chanting the Gayatri mantra. This sun is the giver of life, so we are thankful that it allows the grass to grow. We must also thank the clouds and the rainfall it provides for allowing the grass to grow. The rain cloud, which has the same complexion as Krishna’s body, is also a gift from the Lord. Once this grass grows, it is then eaten by the wonderful cows. A cow is so nice because all it needs is a little protection and some grass to eat. After being eaten by the cow, this grass is then turned into blood, which then turns into milk. This milk sustains the life of an infant for the all-important early years of life. In fact, a young child can survive simply off the milk given by the cow.

Radha and Krishna with cows Milk has so much utility. We can use it to produce various kinds of dishes such as paneer, yogurt, sweets, ice cream, butter, etc. All of this nice food can then be offered to Krishna in the form of His deity. The Lord states that He accepts anything offered to Him with love and devotion. The offered item needn’t be an elaborate preparation, but simply anything that the devotee can offer to the best of His ability. This offered food is then returned to the giver as prasadam, which means the Lord’s mercy. Anyone who eats this food will be spiritually benefitted for the rest of their life. In this way, we see that the wonderful grass that is given to us by Krishna plays a pivotal role in the giant puzzle known as life. This grass is a gift to us from Krishna, and we know that not even a blade of it can move without His influence.”

If we compare this mindset of the devotee versus the angle of vision of the scientist, it’s quite obvious that the devotee’s level of intelligence is higher. By studying Krishna first, a devotee not only understands grass, but also the sun, cows, food, rain, childcare, and so many other things. The same can’t be said of a scientist who ignores God’s existence. Knowing these facts, our time would be better spent pursuing knowledge that pertains to Krishna. Where can this knowledge be found? Luckily for us, the great saints of the past have compiled volumes upon volumes of written literature which describe the glories and pastimes of Krishna and His primary expansions known as avataras. We simply have to consult great books like the Bhagavad-gita, Shrimad Bhagavatam, the Ramayana, and the Puranas to make our knowledge perfect. No longer will we have to remain in the dark, traversing the penumbra of existence. Krishna is the light, and those who go to Him will be forever illuminated with transcendental knowledge.