Saturday, April 17, 2010

Finding Gold

Sita Devi “Then a voice, sounding like a human being, was heard from the sky which said, ‘O king, this child is rightfully your daughter.’ Thereupon my father, the righteous King of Mithila, was greatly pleased. Obtaining me as his daughter, that ruler of men felt highly blessed and fortunate.” (Sita Devi speaking to Anasuya, Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kand, 118.31-32)

These statements are part of the story of how Maharaja Janaka found Sita Devi while ploughing a field. Janaka was a great king who ruled over Mithila a long long time ago and Sita Devi was an incarnation of the goddess of fortune, Lakshmiji.

Lakshmi Narayana Lakshmi is the wife of Lord Narayana, the four-handed expansion of Krishna residing on the Vaikuntha spiritual planets. Vaikuntha means a place free of anxieties and doubts. Such a place can only be found in the spiritual world, for the material planets are places full of miseries, dukhalayam. The only way to be free of anxiety is to be connected with God, who is a person. According to the Vedas, the original form of God is Lord Krishna who resides on the spiritual planet of Krishnaloka. His immediate expansion is Lord Narayana who is also known as Lord Vishnu. Vishnu is almost identical to Krishna, thus the two names are often used interchangeably. Lord Krishna’s immediate pleasure potency expansion is Shrimati Radharani. She is representative of an energy known as hladini-shakti. Krishna is the energetic and Radha is His energy. In Vaikuntha, Radha takes the form of the goddess of fortune, Lakshmi.

Depending on a person’s angle of vision, Lakshmi can be considered to be a demigod, but in actuality she is a devotee of God. Though there is only one God, He deputes various other exalted living entities, known as demigods, to manage affairs in the material world. Lakshmi is given the task of providing wealth and fortune to those who please her. She is depicted as sitting on a lotus flower which is floating on water. While sitting on this flower, she is distributing money to her devotees. It is often seen in marriages that the wife will stay at home and manage all the affairs of the household. This includes managing the finances by paying bills and ensuring that the family adheres to its monthly budget. Lakshmi plays a similar role in that regard. People generally don’t worship Krishna or Vishnu for any personal or material benefit. Even if they do, God isn’t required to oblige such requests. The demigods, on the other hand, are required to give benedictions to their devotees, regardless of the motive. Lord Shiva, Krishna’s guna-avatara who manages the mode of ignorance, has given out boons to demons on several occasions, such as with Vrikasura and Ravana.

Shri Lakshmi Knowing that Lakshmiji gives out wealth, it is not surprising to find that she is one of the more popular demigods. Along with Ganseha, her picture is seen wherever there is any reference to Hinduism. This should make sense to us. Almost everyone lives on the platform of karma, or fruitive activity. We work hard day and night so that we can have enough money to support our family and then engage in sense gratification. Even those who are a little advanced are still primarily concerned with dharma (religiosity), artha (economic development), kama (sense gratification), and moksha (liberation). In this sense, Ganesha and Lakshmi are treated as order suppliers. “Please give me this, give me that.” Lord Ganesha is the son of Lord Shiva and Mother Parvati, and he removes obstacles from the path of his devotees. So the general routine is to pray to Lakshmi to give us money and then to pray to Ganesha to remove our obstacles towards economic development and sense gratification.

This kind of worship certainly isn’t bad. Those subscribing to this type of worship at least understand that there is a higher power that has control over their lives. But worshiping Lakshmi for the purpose of obtaining money to be used for our own sense gratification doesn’t elevate us to the highest platform of worship. In actuality, the money and fortune bestowed by Lakshmiji should only be used to serve Lord Krishna, or God. Lakshmi is always serving Lord Narayana. Her only business is to see to it that her husband is happy. So when she gives us money, it is done with the understanding that we will use it in the same way that she does. Originally everything belongs to God. We may lay claim to our wealth, but that money is actually just on loan from Lakshmiji. She is the owner of all wealth and fortune.

“Generally, the wealth of misers never allows them any happiness. In this life it causes their self-torment, and when they die it sends them to hell.” (Lord Krishna, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 11.23.15)

Lakshmi and Ganesha If we spend her money for other purposes, it leads to trouble. The practice of feverishly working to amass large amounts of money falls into the category of the mode of passion. Three modes govern the material world: goodness, passion, and ignorance. Passion manifests itself in fruitive activity. One is advised to rise to the mode of goodness, which is any activity done in accordance with the injunctions of the scriptures. Goodness means knowledge. The highest knowledge is that which leads us towards devotional service to Lord Krishna. The mode of passion, when left unchecked, can lead to greed, lust, and anger. In the Shrimad Bhagavatam, Lord Krishna tells His friend Uddhava that too much wealth can lead one to hell in this life and in the next. Often times we see that the wealthy become obsessed with their net worth and become afraid of losing their fortune. In this sense, they live a life of hell since they are always worried about losing the money they worked so hard to acquire. At the same time, their trepidation leads them to act miserly, which in turn causes them to go to hell in the next life.

God is so nice. All we have to do is love Him and we’ll be happy. If we are blessed with great fortune from Lakshmiji, we don’t need to artificially renounce it. Rather, we can use everything at our disposal for God’s happiness. This will benefit us in the long run. This is the lesson to be taken away from Sita Devi’s statement. Janaka was so pious that he was rewarded with the goddess of fortune herself as a daughter. As a great king, he already had every material facility available to him. He didn’t need Sita to help him amass anymore wealth. Finding Sita was good fortune for Janaka because it ultimately led to him getting Lord Rama as a son-in-law. Coinciding with Sita’s appearance, Lord Vishnu advented on earth as Lord Rama, the prince of Ayodhya. Sita and Rama were married at a grand ceremony held by Janaka. The above referenced statements by Sita were made to the great female sage Anasuya. She had asked Sita to narrate the story of her marriage to Rama.

Marriage of Sita and Rama The highest reward in life is to have association with a saintly person. There are varying definitions of what makes a person a saint, but in the Vedic tradition, a saint is any person who is a pure devotee of Krishna. Sita Devi is the purest of the pure, the mother of the universe. If we show the same love and respect to Sita as Janaka did, then there is no doubt that we too will be blessed with the greatest fortune of all, eternal devotion to God.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Forever Young

Lord Rama “Being under the influence of illusion, I underestimated Rama and took Him to be a mere child. Thus I ran towards Vishvamitra's sacrificial altar. With that, Rama released an acute arrow capable of destroying His enemies. Upon hitting me, that arrow forcefully threw me away to an ocean one hundred yojanas [eight hundred miles] away.” (Maricha speaking to Ravana, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 38.19)

The Vedas tell us that Lord Krishna is the Supreme Personality of Godhead. He is the fountainhead of all other incarnations and expansions of God. The major religions of the world may have different names for God, but this doesn’t mean there is a different God for everybody. God is one and He is meant to be worshiped and adored by everyone. Even though He can take various forms, there is still only one God. Even Lord Krishna Himself has various forms, but the authorized statements of the Vedas tell us that His original form is that of a youth.

Lord Krishna This may seem odd at first. God is great. Most everyone knows this. The Vedas even try to describe His greatness by referring to Him as Bhagavan, meaning one who has all fortunes. Bhagavan possesses the qualities of wisdom, renunciation, strength, wealth, fame, and beauty to the fullest degree and at the same time. We may know someone who is very powerful and beautiful, but it would be difficult for them to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are the richest person in the world. Beauty is also subjective, so claiming to be the most beautiful is also hard to prove. Even if a person does possess these opulences, since they are mortal they are destined to give up all these attributes at the time of death. God is eternal, meaning He always possesses wealth, beauty, fame, etc. He is the most famous because He has been around forever. In fact, the conceptions of time and space don’t exist in the spiritual world. They only exist in the material world as a way to represent the outer limits of the powers of the human brain.

Since God is so great, we have a tendency to imagine Him as being gigantic, an awe-inspiring figure. Some religions even depict God to be an old man. This seems like a logical conclusion for the Lord is the wisest person and has bestowed His wisdom upon us through written scripture. The Vedic scriptures are also referred to as the shastras, meaning law codes or that which governs. Coming up with laws and governing documents through consensus is one thing, but God created the scriptures all on His own. Real religion refers to that discipline which can teach us how to know, understand, and love God. We tend to associate wisdom and intelligence with learned academic scholars. These intellectuals are usually old and wear glasses. This also makes sense because we see that as we get older, we tend to become wiser due to our life experiences.

“Krishna does not increase His age that although He is the oldest personality and has innumerable different forms, His original form is always youthful.” (Shrila Prabhupada, The Nectar of Devotion)

Lord Krishna Yet the Vedas tell us that God does not appear old at all. He never takes birth, nor does He die, thus He doesn’t need to acquire any wisdom. His knowledge is eternal, for no one taught God how to do anything. Lord Krishna personally appeared on earth some five thousand years ago to enact various pastimes. His most celebrated activities are those He performed as a child in Vrindavana. When God comes to earth, He doesn’t accept a material body, but He still gives the impression that He is an ordinary human. This is for the benefit of His devotees. God wants us to love Him, but He will never force us to become devotees. Even after delivering the famous Bhagavad-gita to Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, Krishna still left the choice up to Arjuna as to what to do next.

“Thus I have explained to you the most confidential of all knowledge. Deliberate on this fully, and then do what you wish to do.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 18.63)

Appearing in the guise of a young child, Krishna performed wonderful activities such as stealing butter, killing various demons, playing with His young friends in the field, and even dancing with the young cowherd girls of Vrindavana known as the gopis.

To the outsider, these activities may seem strange for God. “If He is God, why is He dancing with girls? Why is He accepting the body of a child and drinking breast milk from Mother Yashoda? This person can’t be God.” This is the mystery of the Lord. Many people wonder why God doesn’t appear for them or why they can’t see God. Well the truth is that the Lord is right there in front us, but we need the proper set of eyes to see Him. Ordinary material eyes are not enough. We can see examples of this principle by studying the Lord’s various incarnations and advents on earth. Demons got see the Lord face-to-face, but they could not properly identify Him.

Lord Rama One such encounter took place between Lord Rama and the demon Maricha. During the Treta Yuga, the second time period of creation, Krishna appeared on earth in human form as a kshatriya prince named Rama. As stated before, Lord Krishna can never assume a material body. In fact, He can never associate with material nature, which is a manifestation of His inferior energy. This is the difference between the living entities, jiva-tattva, and God, vishnu-tattva. We are similar to God in quality, but we are vastly inferior to Him in quantitative powers. Due to our qualities and desires, we have the ability to interact with material nature; something which is both temporary and miserable. God, on the other hand, is the source of both the spiritual and material energies. Therefore even when He appears on earth through His various incarnations, He never actually associates with maya. His body is always full of bliss and knowledge.

In His incarnation as Lord Rama, God played the role of a pious prince dedicated to dharma and the protection of the saintly class. The venerable Vishvamitra Muni had enlisted His services when Rama was just a mere boy of less than twelve years of age. At the time, the Rakshasa race was on full attack. Rakshasas are a species of demons committed to atheism and sinful life. They were harassing the great sages living in the forest. Maricha was one such powerful demon. One day, he came to attack Vishvamitra while the sage was performing a sacrifice. Lord Rama happened to be with Vishvamitra at the time, but Maricha discounted Him to be a mere child.

Herein lies a great lesson. Vishvamitra, a devotee and pure soul, knew that Rama was no ordinary man. When looking at Rama, he didn’t see a young boy or a helpless child. Vishvamitra knew that Rama could protect him, so that’s why he went to the king of Ayodhya and requested that Rama be his escort in the forest for a short period of time. Even though Lord Rama was God Himself, He didn’t openly declare this secret to everyone. He adhered to the principles of dharma by rendering great service to Vishvamitra. In return, the sage initiated Rama into the military arts, giving Him very powerful mantras to be used when fighting enemies. As soon as Maricha attacked, Rama defended the great sage by shooting Maricha and throwing him hundreds of miles away.

God is never to be taken lightly. Maricha didn’t have the eyes to see God standing right before him, and he paid dearly for this transgression. Not only is God’s original form that of a youth, but this is also how devotees prefer to see Him. Sometimes God reveals His true nature to the fortunate souls. During His time spent on earth in His incarnations, to prove to the devotees that He indeed was God Himself, the Lord displayed His virat-rupa, or universal form. Arjuna saw this massive form of Krishna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. Similarly, the great Markandeya Rishi was once shown the universal form while inside the belly of Lord Narayana during the dissolution of the world. Lord Rama also once playfully swallowed the crow Kakabhushundi and showed him His universal form inside His mouth.

“After seeing this universal form, which I have never seen before, I am gladdened, but at the same time my mind is disturbed with fear. Therefore please bestow Your grace upon me and reveal again Your form as the Personality of Godhead, O Lord of lords, O abode of the universe.” (Arjuna speaking to Lord Krishna, Bg. 11.45)

Lord Krishna showing His universal form It certainly is nice to get a glimpse into God’s greatness, but devotees nevertheless prefer to see the Lord in His original youthful form. It is this form that best depicts God’s true nature of kindness and compassion towards all. We are eternally indebted to the Lord for allowing us to see His beautiful, youthful body. One look at His smiling face can give enough transcendental pleasure to last a lifetime. It is imperative that devotees make a habit of viewing and offering obeissances to pictures of the Lord and His deities as often as possible. God gives us the rules and regulations of religion to guide us in our daily affairs, but more importantly, He wants us to derive joy and happiness through His association. It is up to us whether we want to see Him or not.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Supreme Deity

Krishn and Arjuna“I am in everyone's heart as the Supersoul. As soon as one desires to worship the demigods, I make his faith steady so that he can devote himself to some particular deity.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 7.21)

Ravana was the leader of the Rakshasas during a brief period of time in the Treta Yuga, the second time period of creation. Since every living entity has different desires and karma, we see up 8,400,000 varieties of species. Rakshasas are notable for being expert in black magic and having a penchant for sinful activity. Ravana was an appropriate leader for them since he was an avowed enemy of the suras, or demigods. Initially, he had performed great austerities for pleasing the demigods. The devatas, or demigods, are elevated living entities who possess the power to grant material boons. They have been so deputed by God Himself, Lord Krishna. Any good government requires advisors and ministers in order for there to be law and order. The material creation is no different in this regard. God Himself has no interest in our day-to-day affairs in karmic life, so He appoints demigods to act as the Cabinet, so to speak, of universal affairs. They are required to grant boons to whoever pleases them properly.

RavanaDue to the curse of his father Vishrava, Ravana was born with ten heads. While performing austerities, Ravana cut off his heads, one by one, as a sacrifice to the demigods. With only one head remaining, Lord Brahma appeared on the scene to stop Ravana’s sacrifice and to let the demon know that he was pleased with his efforts. Lord Brahma then granted Ravana invincibility in battle against any celestial being and also restored all his of his heads. Immediately after acquiring his power, Ravana went on the attack. He terrorized the associates of the same demigods whom he had previously worshiped.

While ruling over his island kingdom of Lanka, Ravana once sent 14,000 Rakshasas to the forest of Janasthana to deal with a prince named Rama who had set up camp there. Rama was the son of the king of Ayodhya, Maharaja Dasharatha, and He had been banished from the kingdom by His father. Ravana’s sister, Shurpanakha, requested Ravana to attack Rama as a means of retaliation for Rama’s brother, Lakshmana, having disfigured her. To Ravana’s surprise, Rama easily routed all 14,000 Rakshasas single-handedly. After hearing what had happened, Ravana was intent on getting revenge. He wanted to kidnap Rama’s beautiful wife, Sita. He went to his advisor Maricha to see if he could come up with a plan. Maricha immediately advised him against such a plan. To show Ravana the error of his ways, Maricha narrated a story relating to a prior encounter he had with Rama.

Lord Rama What Ravana didn’t know was that Rama was God Himself appearing on earth in human form. Dasharatha was very pious but had no son to whom he could pass his kingdom down to. He performed a great sacrifice and was duly rewarded with four beautiful sons, with Rama being the eldest. At the time, the great sage Vishvamitra Muni was living in the forest. During the Treta Yuga, elaborate religious sacrifices were commonly performed, for that was the recommended method of self-realization. The brahmanas, the priestly class of men, had taken to forest life since it was more conducive to the performance of sacrifice and austerity. However, the Rakshasas at the time would regularly attack the sages and their sacrifices. Vishvamitra knew that God had come to earth as Rama, so he immediately went to Dasharatha and asked to have Rama accompany him in the forest. Dasharatha was against the idea, for Rama was still under the age of twelve. The king eventually acquiesced, as he knew that the requests of pure devotees of God should never be denied.

Vishvamitra was thus accompanied by Rama and His younger brother, Lakshmana, while roaming the forest. Vishvamitra was protected by Rama and Lakshmana, and in return, the sage imparted sacred mantras unto the two brothers. This is how the guru-disciple relationship works. The disciples follow the direction of the spiritual master, and the guru in turn teaches the students how to be successful in spiritual life. Since Rama and Lakshmana were of the kshatriya order, their dharma in life was to provide protection. To that end, Vishvamitra taught them sacred mantras to be used specifically for fighting. The Treta Yuga seems like a primitive time to us, for all fighting was done with bow and arrow. However, with the aid of these mantras, the arrows fired from Rama’s bow would have the same potency as a modern day nuclear weapon.

“Then I, resembling a cloud and having molten-golden earrings, made my way into Vishvamitra's asharma, for I was very proud of my strength due to the boon given to me by Lord Brahma. As soon as I entered, Rama quickly noticed me and raised His weapon. Though He saw me, Rama strung His bow without any fear.” (Maricha speaking to Ravana, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 38.16-17)

Lord Rama Maricha was one of the Rakshasas who would regularly attack the sages. On one particular occasion, he had the good fortune of plotting an attack on Vishvamitra’s ashrama, while Rama was there. It was good fortune for Maricha because he had the opportunity to see God face-to-face, which is something that doesn’t happen every day. From the above referenced passage, we see that prior to entering, Maricha was very proud of the boons that had been given to him by Lord Brahma. This pride represented a great folly on Maricha’s part. Demigods are certainly powerful, but they are not God.

We see that among followers of the Hindu faith, many take to demigod worship as a way of life. On the surface, this isn’t a bad thing, for even Shrimati Radharani, Lord Rama, Sita Devi, and other expansions of God regularly adhered to demigod worship during their time on earth. However, one should never take the demigods to be equal to God Himself. Demigod worship is meant to be a regulative activity which elevates one’s thinking. Human beings inherit a faulty mindset at the time of birth. This mindset causes them to associate with their gross material body and to think that they are responsible for their material fortunes, good and bad. Demigod worship helps us break out of this mold, for it reminds us that there are elevated living entities who sustain our life. The demigods provide rain, which is used to produce crops, without which we certainly couldn’t survive.

“Endowed with such a faith, he seeks favors of a particular demigod and obtains his desires. But in actuality these benefits are bestowed by Me alone.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 7.22)

Lord Krishna Above the demigods, however, is Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. If one doesn’t realize that there is a God higher than the demigods, their religious efforts don’t yield the highest results. This is precisely what happened with Maricha. He worshiped Lord Brahma and received great boons from him, yet he was still so foolish that he thought himself to be the cause of his strength. In the Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna specifically states that the demigods are not capable of bestowing any rewards without His sanction. This may seem strange at first. If Krishna sanctions all the rewards given by the demigods, then He must have allowed Lord Brahma to give boons to Maricha. Why would He do that?

The answer is that God gives people what they want and deserve, especially if they are engaged in material activities. Maricha was a gross materialist and a pure atheist. He was so demonic that he used the powers given to him by Lord Brahma to attack the sages, who are pure devotees of God. Lord Brahma himself is a devotee of Krishna. He is the author of the wonderful prayers offered to Govinda, or Krishna, which appear in the Brahma-samhita. If we analyze this logically, we see that Maricha’s strength came from a devotee of Krishna, and at the same time, Maricha used his strength to attack devotees of Krishna. This mindset is laughable in a sense. It represents the epitome of foolish pride. Maricha had no personal affection for Lord Brahma; he only used him for personal aggrandizement.

“God has given independence to everyone; therefore, if a person desires to have material enjoyment and wants very sincerely to have such facilities from the material demigods, the Supreme Lord, as Supersoul in everyone's heart, understands and gives facilities to such persons. As the supreme father of all living entities, He does not interfere with their independence, but gives all facilities so that they can fulfill their material desires.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Bg. 7.21 Purport)

Nevertheless, Maricha was greatly rewarded for his hubris since he got to meet Lord Rama face-to-face. As soon as he tried to attack, Rama strung His bow and came to Vishvamitra’s aid. In this passage, Maricha is unintentionally pleasing future generations of devotees by describing the beautiful scene. Rama means one who gives pleasure. His devotees not only derive pleasure by seeing Him in pictures or in His deity form, but also from hearing descriptions of His activities. The vision of Lord Rama stringing His bow brings a lifetime of bliss and happiness to His devotees.

Rama and Lakshmana protecting Vishvamitra The lesson here is that we should never be too puffed up with pride. All our material powers, riches, and good fortune come from God, even if we don’t realize it. The demigods are certainly very powerful, but it is foolish to think they are God or equal to Him in power. Lord Krishna, or one His vishnu-tattva expansions such as Lord Rama, should be the ultimate object of worship since They represent the original God. Moreover, we should never attack the pure devotees in thought, word, or deed. God protects His servants, so our time would be better spent engaging in devotional service.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Wanting to Hear

Sita paying respect to Anasuya “I have heard, O Sita, that your hand in marriage was won by the renowned Raghava on the occasion of the self-choice ceremony (svayamvara). O Maithili, I wish to hear that story in detail. Therefore please narrate to me the entire sequence of events as you experienced them.” (Anasuya speaking to Sita Devi, Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kand, 118.24-25)

Here we see the example of a perfect devotee, Anasuya, eagerly waiting to hear about Krishna and stories relating to Him. This is the key to making spiritual progress. Above all other religious practices, one must be eager to hear words and discourses about Krishna, or Krishna-katha.

Sita and Rama The above referenced statement was part of a conversation between a highly exalted female sage, Anasuya, and Sita Devi, the wife of Lord Rama. Lord Krishna is the original Personality of Godhead, but He has many different expansions and forms. Lord Rama is one of His primary incarnations appearing in the Treta Yuga of each creation. The world we are living in now has been created and destroyed many many times before. Each creation has a fixed time period of existence which is known as one Yuga. This time period is then further divided into four periods, which are also referred to as Yugas but with specific names attached to them. The Treta Yuga is the second time period of creation and it occurred many thousands of years ago. Rama was born as the eldest son of the king of Ayodhya, Maharaja Dasharatha. As the events of His life unfolded, He was forced to accept an exile punishment from his father. Taking His wife, Sita Devi, and His younger brother, Lakshmana, with Him, Rama travelled all across India, visiting various places of pilgrimage.

This sort of religious touring still goes on today. India is a place with a rich history, so there are hundreds of places of historical significance as it relates to Krishna, His various avataras, and His exalted devotees. Even during Lord Rama’s time, there were many great sages inhabiting the forests. Brahmanas are considered the highest class in society since they engage in the cultivation of knowledge. True knowledge is that found in the Vedas, the original scripture for man. The hustle and bustle of city life can be distracting for those seeking enlightenment, so the sages would often seek refuge in the forests where it was peaceful and quiet. Lord Rama used the exile punishment as an opportunity to visit these great sages. In actuality, Rama’s visit was more for the benefit of the sages than it was for Him.

Sita Devi The topmost brahmana is one who devotes His life to serving Lord Krishna, or God. One may be expert in the shastras and the performance of various sacrifices and therefore be a qualified brahmana, but that doesn’t automatically make them a Vaishnava. Devotees of Lord Vishnu are known as Vaishnavas. Lord Vishnu, Narayana, and Krishna are essentially interchangeable since they represent the same original God. Lord Rama knew these sages were Vaishnavas so He made their devotion to Him bear fruit by personally visiting them. Many hermitages were visited, with one of them being the home of the female sage, Anasuya. She was the wife of another famous sage, Atri. Anasuya was very happy to see the group, and was especially fond of Sita Devi. We see similar situations occur in our own life. If we attend a family get-together or are invited as guests of another husband and wife couple, it is common to see the women huddle together in the kitchen, while the men sit on the couch and discuss politics or sports.

Anasuya knew very well of both Sita and Rama, and she was especially fond of how their marriage was arranged. In the classic Vedic system, a father would give away his daughter to a suitable boy based on the similarities in qualities and horoscopes. The king of Mithila, Maharaja Janaka, considered Sita to be so exalted that he couldn’t decide on just any prince to give away his daughter to. Rather, he chose to hold a self-choice ceremony known as a svayamvara. Sita would marry whichever prince could string the illustrious bow of Lord Shiva that had been given to Janaka on a previous occasion. Many valiant princes came and tried, but only Lord Rama was able to lift and string the bow.

From Anasuya’s statements we can understand that the story of Rama’s lifting of the bow was well-known throughout India at the time. Even though Anasuya knew of the events, she still requested Sita to tell the story in her own way. This is noteworthy because according to social conventions, Anasuya and her husband were superior to Sita and Rama. Yet it was Anasuya who treated Sita as the exalted one. This is the code of conduct for pure devotees. When they meet God or one of His representatives, they offer them the highest respect. Sita Devi very nicely described the circumstances of her birth and how her marriage took place. Anasuya then presented her various ornaments as a gift.

This is another sign of proper etiquette. Brahmanas are usually the ones who talk about Krishna and other religious subjects. If a devotee is kind enough to enlighten us on spiritual matters, we should present gifts to them in return. That is the highest form of charity. This etiquette has been followed in India since time immemorial. Brahmanas and panditas perform religious functions and are given gifts in return. Students at gurukulas, the schools hosted by brahmanas, would give dakshina, or gifts, to their spiritual masters at the completion of their studies. In this instance, Sita was the daughter and husband of kshatriyas, but she was nevertheless given the respect of a highly learned person. She earned this respect through her pure devotion and love for Rama.

Marriage of Sita and Rama Just like Anasuya, we should also have an eagerness to hear about God and stories relating to Him. For our benefit, the great sages of the past have composed thousands of beautiful shlokas in praise of the Lord and His associates. If we are sincere in our desire to hear and learn, then the Lord will personally appear before us or He will send His authorized representative to teach us. Though there are nine processes that make up devotional service, just hearing itself is sufficient since all other good qualities will manifest as a result.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Samsara Chakra

Prahlada and Narasimhadeva “O most powerful, insurmountable Lord, who are kind to the fallen souls, I have been put into the association of demons as a result of my activities, and therefore I am very much afraid of my condition of life within this material world. When will that moment come when You will call me to the shelter of Your lotus feet, which are the ultimate goal for liberation from conditional life?” (Prahlada Maharaja speaking to Narasimhadeva, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 7.9.16)

The Vedas tell us that man is born with the four defects of having imperfect senses, the propensity to commit mistakes, being prone to be easily illusioned, and the tendency to cheat. It is natural for man to want to get ahead in life and make material gains very quickly. Cheating can help speed that process along, but as the saying goes, “Cheaters never win.” This is because cheating involves dishonesty and the practice of adharma, or irreligion. Though we may not see it, these impious actions have far-reaching unintended consequences.

Congressional districts The arena of politics serves as a great example to illustrate this point. In the modern age, the democratic style of government is very popular. Considered free and fair, democracy involves popular elections where leaders are appointed to their posts based on the will of the people. Because winning and losing depends on garnering more votes than your opponent, a politician’s duty is to try to enhance their popularity as much as possible. Yet this is not so easy, especially since the minds of voters constantly change based on economic and social conditions. If economic conditions are bad, with high unemployment rates and slow GDP growth, citizens are likely to rebel against incumbents. There is nothing a sitting officeholder can say or do to stop this tide.

For these reasons, politicians try to insulate themselves from the democratic process as much as possible. Essentially, they try to adjust things so that they, or their political party, can remain in power in perpetuity. In American political history, Elbridge Gerry is a notable figure. Not only was he a signer of the Declaration of Independence, but he was also involved with the practice of redrawing congressional districts for the express purpose of favoring political parties. This practice, now known as gerrymandering, is widely in place. The lower house of congress, the House of Representatives, consists of 435 members elected from the fifty states. A state’s congressional delegation is determined by their population. The higher the population, the more congressional seats a state will get. The actual congressional districts themselves aren’t drawn arbitrarily. Rather, party leaders meticulously weave their way through the various counties in a state to try their best to make sure their incumbents remain in power. The population statistics for the country are compiled every ten years through the Census, and it is during these years that the congressional districts get redrawn. Thus it is considered extremely beneficial for a political party to be in power during a Census year. Gerrymandering is very simple. If say the Republican Party gets to redraw the district maps, they will try to tweak things so that Republican incumbents get put into districts that consist primarily of Republican voters. This will ensure an easy reelection campaign. For party leaders, putting a sitting Republican into a primarily Democrat district would not make any sense.

Yet cheating never pays. Even if there are short term gains for a particular party, the voting demographics of a state can always change. Drawing a “safe” district for one party member also means that the opposing party will also get their share of safe seats. For a party in power, should one of their safe seats somehow change hands, then the entire balance shifts. These are the unintended consequences of cheating in politics. In 1990 which was a Census year, the Democrat party was in charge of the House of Representatives and thus had influence over redistricting, but they were thrown out of power four years later. In 2000, the Republicans were in control of the House, and they too were thrown out of power only six years later, thus proving that gerrymandering and other forms of cheating can only take you so far.

Bhagavad-gita The Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, tell us that the material world is governed by karma, or fruitive activity. Every action that we perform has a commensurate reaction. We are all hankering after things that we want and lamenting over things that we don’t have. There is nothing wrong with earning an honest living or working hard to achieve a goal. However, we must remember that karma is completely fair, meaning that every other living entity has an equal right to the fruits of their labor. This means that cheating never pays because in the end, someone else will end up cheating us in return. Many times we end up cheating ourselves without even knowing it.

Above the material world is a spiritual realm where karma doesn’t exist. Karma is a material energy, created by Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. We living entities are here in this material world because we have a desire to enjoy nature. God Himself has no interest in our material gains and losses. In essence, He is an innocent bystander. Moreover, He wants us to return to His spiritual realm because that is where the spirit soul can be truly happy. Nevertheless, He allows the demigods and the forces of karma to manage material affairs. Thus we are forced to suffer the reactions of our work. If we are pious, we go to the heavenly planets after death, and if we are sinful, we suffer in hell. When our accumulated merits and demerits expire, we return to the material world and repeat the cycle of birth and death.

Mirabai performing devotional service This cycle of suffering is known as samsara-chakra, or the wheel of material existence, and is not natural. The spirit soul is by nature happy and full of knowledge. The material world is a place of nescience where our purity is contaminated through the assumption of a body composed of material elements. The actual business of man is service to the Supreme Lord. This discipline is known as bhagavata-dharma, or devotional service. Since it is the eternal occupation of man to engage in religious activity, the Vedas refer to religion as sanatana-dharma. This occupation is sanatana because it never changes. Regardless of the material condition, whether we are in an advanced technological age or in the stone ages, our constitutional position remains that of servant to the Supreme Lord. Our dharma, or religious duty, never changes. The spirit soul can only be happy when it associates with the spiritual energy. We are the same as God in that we are both spirit, however, God can never associate with His inferior energy, material nature, whereas we living entities not only associate with maya, but we become illusioned by her.

HanumanDevotional service, like karmic activity, also has unintended consequences, but these consequences are all beneficial to us. Our end-goal is to think of God at the time of death, for that guarantees an end to rebirth. Devotional service can involve nine different processes, the primary of which are hearing and chanting. Hearing is the best process for receiving transcendental knowledge. Chanting is the best way to purify our speech. By regularly chanting, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, out loud, we also engage in the hearing process, thereby doubling the benefits received.

Devotional service means associating with the spiritual energy. Those who are in constant association with God automatically acquire all good traits. They start to view everyone equally, and they lose their desire to cheat. Krishna is the origin of dharma, or righteousness, so those who sincerely serve Him automatically become aware of the rules of propriety. We can see evidence of these principles by studying the lives of the great Vaishnava saints. Hanuman, Prahlada, Bhishma, Janaka, etc. were all outstanding individuals who were greatly respected. To this day, Hanuman remains one of the most famous and revered religious figures in the world. His name is synonymous with love and devotion to God. He is the epitome of dharma.

“O Shri Nrihari, please deliver those human beings who have suffered all kinds of torments and been ripped apart by the sharp edge of samsara's wheel but who have now somehow found You and are surrendering themselves unto You." (Shrila Shridhara Svami offering prayers to Lord Narasimhadeva)

Narasimhadeva with devotees These great saints didn’t need to cheat at all. They honestly practiced devotional service and achieved perfection as a result. We cannot imitate their extraordinary activities, but we can learn from the example they set. Instead of making material adjustments here and there, we simply have to make the adjustment to spiritual life and all our troubles will vanish.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Newly Risen Moon

n24525368223_1401566_9117 “Beautifying the entire forest of Dandaka with His own radiating effulgence, Rama appeared like the newly risen moon." (Maricha speaking to Ravana, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 38.15)

The darkness and light metaphor is used quite often when comparing and contrasting opposing elements. The material world is full of dualities such as heat and cold, and pain and pleasure. Night and day are the most obvious symbols of duality. When concepts are addressed in terms of night and day, they are easier to understand because we all have a basic understanding of the difference between nighttime and daytime. In this regard, God and His glories can also be described in terms of light and darkness. Lord Shri Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, is the embodiment of light and knowledge, for He shows us the path out of this world of nescience.

Sunrise Most people prefer the daytime to the nighttime. The day is nice because it represents life. Most of us wake up in the morning hours, so we’re greeted with sunshine and an incredible amount of light. In a popular video game of the 1980s, the phrase, “The morning sun has vanquished the horrible night”, would appear on the screen indicating that the character was safer in the daylight hours than he was in the nighttime. When we fall asleep at night, it is dark, and when we wake up, there is light out again, thus signaling the beginning of a new day. Since material life is all about performing work, it is much easier to carry out our prescribed duties during the daytime. The natural light we see during the daytime is much more powerful than any artificial lighting system we may use at night. This is due to the sun. A monstrous fiery solar body, the sun provides heat and light to billions of living entities on earth.

Vivasvan - the sun-god The sun is essential for our sustenance. If the sun were to go out or be destroyed, life on earth would not last very long. However powerful we think ourselves to be, we would not even be able to eat were it not for sunlight. The Vedas recognize this fact, and thus recommend that we worship the sun on a regular basis. Though we may find it hard to understand, the sun and other planets and stars are all governed by various demigods. All living entities are spirit souls at their core, but they are placed into material bodies based on their past work and material qualities. Spirit souls aren’t exclusively found in the bodies of human beings, for even animals and plants have souls. There are actually 8,400,000 different species, with the demigods being one of them. A demigod, or devata, is a living entity who is god-like, meaning they possess extraordinary powers. Human beings can live upwards of one hundred years of age, but demigods like Lord Brahma can live for millions and millions of years. Since even the demigods have a date of birth and date of death, they remain subordinate to the Supreme Lord Krishna.

“The time early in the morning, one and a half hours before sunrise, is called brahma-muhurta. During this brahma-muhurta, spiritual activities are recommended. Spiritual activities performed early in the morning have a greater effect than in any other part of the day.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 3.20.46 Purport)

There are thousands upon thousands of demigods, each of whom is responsible for a specific department of material creation. Surya, the sun-god, is one of the primary demigods since He is the sustainer of life. In the Vedic tradition, when celibate students are initiated into spiritual life by a guru, they are given the sacred Gayatri mantra and told to recite it daily. This mantra not only addresses God, but the sun as well. In fact, the daily rituals of offering arati to the Lord revolve around the positioning of the sun. Followers of the Vedic tradition perform managala arati, the offering of light to the Lord in the morning. This arati is best performed right before the sun has risen, during the brahma-muhurta period.

Rama and Lakshmana serving Vishvamitra The last religious function of the day is the sandhya arati, which is performed just as the evening time starts, about an hour after the sun sets. In previous ages, brahmanas were such strict adherents to these rules that they considered it a great offense if they were to somehow skip performance of one of these aratis. When Lord Rama, and incarnation of Krishna, and His brother Lakshmana were travelling with Vishvamitra Muni in the forest, they would both make sure to perform these aratis on time every day. When Lord Krishna personally appeared on earth some five thousand years ago, He would also chant the Gayatri mantra regularly in the morning. Thus God Himself shows us the importance of honoring the sun and all that it offers us.

The nighttime is just the opposite of the daytime, for darkness pervades everywhere. The sun has moved away from us, so we are left to use artificial means of lighting. In the modern age, electricity and technological advancements have greatly enhanced our ability to see at night. Yet when compared to the power of the sun, this artificially produced light is paltry. Driving an automobile illustrates this principle. It is much harder to drive at night, for even if we put on our headlights, the glare from the lights of other drivers impedes our vision. Many places in America don’t have streetlights, so driving in the night means relying solely on the light produced from the headlights of the car. In these instances, the regular headlight beams are insufficient, thus requiring the use of high beam or bright lights. High beam lights certainly help us in seeing, but there is a drawback. If another driver approaches on the opposite side of the road, our high beam makes it almost impossible for them to see. It is the standard etiquette of driving that one should lower their high beam when there are other cars approaching. Artificial lighting in automobiles is so fragile that if one of the headlights goes out, it presents a real hazard on the road. It is actually against the law to drive around with a malfunctioning headlight. Police officers issue citations for such offenses.

“Among the Daitya demons I am the devoted Prahlada; among subduers I am time; among the beasts I am the lion, and among birds I am Garuda, the feathered carrier of Vishnu.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 10.30)

Lord Krishna Day is certainly better than night, but there are a few beautifying elements to the nighttime. The moon and the stars only come out at night, and people derive great pleasure from gazing at them. Just as darkness can be dispelled by light, the rays of moonlight offer soothing comfort to those wandering about in the nighttime. The Vedas tell us that God is the representation of everything good in this world. Since the sun is the embodiment of light and knowledge, it is a direct representation of God. In a similar manner, the newly risen moon can also be equated with God.

In the above referenced quote, the demon Maricha is describing to Ravana how he saw Lord Rama in the forest of Dandaka. Rama, God Himself, appeared on earth during the Treta Yuga specifically to protect His devotees. As part of His pastimes, He roamed the forests of India. At the time, many sages had taken to forest life since it was conducive to spiritual activities. They were having some trouble however, as the Rakshasas were regularly attacking them. Rakshasas are a race of demons with human-like characteristics. Their fatal flaw is that they are atheists by nature, meaning they take to sinful activity as a way of life. They spend all their time eating meat, drinking wine, and enjoying illicit sex. It would be one thing if they acted this way and kept to themselves. However, they also have a deep hatred for devotees of God. Rakshasas are often referred to as rangers of the night. They live life in the mode of darkness, thus they prefer the nighttime. For the pious, the nighttime is a time for rest. The Rakshasas used this fact to their advantage. They would regularly attack the sages in the forest when they were most vulnerable. This is similar to how modern day terrorists strike the innocent by blowing up bombs in public places.

The sages humbly approached Lord Rama and asked Him to protect them. In His incarnation as Lord Rama, God appeared in the body of a kshatriya warrior. Rama not only gave pleasure to all the devotees He encountered, but He also doled out punishment to the miscreants. There are no higher offenders in this world than Vaishnava-aparadhis, or enemies of devotees of God.

Rama and Lakshmana in the forest As a typical demon, Maricha used to enjoy going on the attack during the nighttime when it was harder to see. On one particular occasion, he went to go attack the venerable sage Vishvamitra. Upon approaching Vishvamitra, Maricha was surprised to see Lord Rama, at that time merely a boy, standing there protecting him. God is the source of light and knowledge to the pious. Vishvamitra had previously approached King Dasharatha of Ayodhya and asked him to borrow Lord Rama for protection. Because of this, even in the dead of night, Maricha and other Rakshasa demons could not successfully attack the sages in Rama’s presence. Maricha saw Rama in the forest and accurately described that He appeared like the newly risen moon. This moon, in the form of Rama, shed light on the sages and offered them protection from the demons.

Lord Rama We currently live in the Dark Age known as Kali. Religiosity is almost non-existent, so there is essentially an all-pervading darkness in terms of lack of revealed knowledge. Ignorance and mental speculation gets lauded, while real religion is shunned. However, just as in days past, God can act as the newly risen moon and remove this darkness. If we simply chant His name regularly, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, the evil elements will never touch us, day or night.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

My Brother’s Keeper

Lakshmana “Please tell me which of Your enemies shall today be deprived of their life, fame, and friends by me. I am Your faithful servant, so please do instruct me as to how I shall go about bringing this whole earth under Your control.” (Lakshmana speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kand, 23.40)

The most highly acclaimed and heralded lawyers are those who know best how to use argument and rhetoric to persuade others into agreeing with their position. Winning an argument requires confidence, conviction, and sometimes even trickery of word. The “leading question” is one of the most commonly used tricks of the legal trade.

A leading question is a quested posed to a witness wherein a specific premise is automatically built into the question. The result is that this premise becomes automatically accepted regardless of the answer to the question. The most common example given of a leading question is, “Are you still beating your wife?” If the witness answers “yes”, then it is confirmed that they are continuing the practice of wife-beating. If the answer is “no”, then it doesn’t necessarily mean that they never beat their wife; it just means that such a practice has stopped. If lawyers for the opposing party are quick enough to recognize these questions, they can raise an objection with the judge, which usually results in the original question being stricken from the record. Nevertheless, the art of crafty legal debate revolves around this concept of word jugglery. It is similar to the discipline of logic taught to math students. If one fact is true, and another fact is based off the original fact, then the second fact must also evaluate to true. There are many such laws in the discipline of logic. In fact, having good logical skills is one of the requirements for being a good lawyer. For trial lawyers, their aim is to do whatever they can to get the jury to believe their side of the story. To that end, a good lawyer is one who can best use his logical skills to interpret the law and the words of others to his advantage.

Lord Krishna The Vedanta-sutras declare that everything in this material world is but a reflection of what already exists in the spiritual world, janmady asya yatah.

“O my Lord, Shri Krishna, son of Vasudeva, O all-pervading Personality of Godhead, I offer my respectful obeisances unto You. I meditate upon Lord Shri Krishna because He is the Absolute Truth and the primeval cause of all causes of the creation, sustenance and destruction of the manifested universes…” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 1.1.1)

Therefore the systems of logic and reasoning are things that emanates from God. For this reason, devotees of the Lord are well acquainted with the discipline. Just as lawyers defend their clients, the pure devotees act as God’s representatives on earth, serving and defending Him to the best of their abilities. A learned person is referred to as a pandita, and the devotees are the greatest panditas since they have perfect knowledge of the Absolute Truth, Lord Shri Krishna. They are no strangers to the logical tricks used by lawyers, but there is a key difference. The devotees use logic and word jugglery to defend God’s interests.

Lakshmana was an example of one such devotee. An incarnation of Lord Ananta Shesha Naga, Lakshmana was a pandita from his birth. Born as a son to Maharaja Dasharatha of Ayodhya, Lakshmana served as the close confidante and ever well-wisher to his elder brother, Lord Rama, an incarnation of Krishna, or God. Due to unfortunate circumstances, Dasharatha had to banish Rama from the kingdom for fourteen years. Rama was the rightful heir to the throne, but Dasharatha was forced to choose his other son, Bharata, to succeed him. Rama had no problem with such a request. One of God’s features is that He is atmarama, meaning self-satisfied. He is need of nothing, so renunciation is a quality that He automatically possesses to the highest degree.

Lakshmana was Rama’s closest brother. Rama’s other two brothers, Bharata and Shatrughna, both loved Him very much as well, but Lakshmana was the one who spent the most time with Rama. Growing up in Dasharatha’s kingdom, Rama and Lakshmana learned the military arts together from their spiritual master Vashishta. In fact, the two did everything together, for Lakshmana wouldn’t even eat unless Rama was with Him and ate first. This is the etiquette followed by pure devotees. They know that God is the proprietor of everything, so they recognize His supremacy at all times throughout the day. Eating, though a necessity, is one of the highest forms of sense gratification. Devotees do everything for the satisfaction of God, however, so even when they eat, they first recognize God.

Lakshmana and Rama eating Lakshmana was extremely angry at his father for the order he laid down on Rama. Rama was ready to start serving His exile sentence when Lakshmana did his best to persuade Him otherwise. The above referenced statement was part of his plea. Lakshmana’s idea was that Rama should be installed as the new king anyway. Lakshmana would personally see to it that no one would interfere. Always his brother’s keeper, Lakshmana had abandoned any family ties or affection he held for anyone else in favor of serving Rama. This is the behavior of a true sannyasi, or one in the renounced order of life. One can put on a saffron robe, carry a stick, and go begging from door-to-door, but if they don’t have pure love and devotion for God, then they cannot be classified as a true sannyasi.

So Lakshmana was ready to fight anyone, including other family members if he had to, in order to secure Rama’s installation as king. His final statement to Rama was, “Who do You want me to kill first?” By using a leading question, Lakshmana tried his best to persuade Rama to listen to him. In actuality, such a coup wasn’t required. Everyone in the kingdom loved Rama very much, so there would be no need to fight anyone. Also, Rama had more important things to accomplish by going to the forest, and He wanted to maintain Dasharatha’s good name. In the end, Rama would leave for the forest, taking His wife, Sita Devi, and Lakshmana with Him.

Sita, Rama, and Lakshmana leaving for the forest Lakshmana’s actions are still noteworthy. A devotee will do whatever they can to protect God from miscreants. Being a kshatriya, Lakshmana was ready to use all his fighting skills to help Rama, but he was also ready to use his logical skills to persuade Rama to do what he thought was right. Fellow devotees today can follow Lakshmana’s lead by using their brains to defend God.

So who does God need to be defended from? From the beginning of time, there has been an ongoing war between the daivas, the devotees, and the asuras, the atheists or demons. In the age of Kali which we currently live in, the influence of the asuras is greater than it has ever been. Aside from the ascendency of the avowed atheists, there are others who use the statements of the Vedas to further their bogus ideas of impersonalism and voidism, which are really no different than atheism. In this age, bona fide kshatriyas are hard to find, so it is up to the devotees to do the fighting, using words as their weapons.

Just as Lakshmana fired arrows to defend Rama from Rakshasas, devotees can fire arrows in the form of words and logic. Bhaktas simply have to push forward the authorized statements of past great personalities. Vyasadeva, the author of all major Vedic texts, takes Krishna to be the Supreme Personality of Godhead, as do great devotees like Prahlada and Hanuman. Devotees simply need to broadcast the message of these great saints, and at the same time, use logic, analogy, and deductive reasoning to defeat the bogus arguments of the atheists.

Lord Chaitanya and associates God doesn’t require this action from people, but He most certainly appreciates it. Lakshmana openly declared himself to be a humble servant of Rama and nothing else. Even though He was a powerful kshatriya warrior, he had no attachment to his great strength. His only business was to serve his brother. In this way, he is our role model. Lord Chaitanya, Krishna’s incarnation appearing in India some five hundred years ago, was a great logician and learned scholar, known as Nimai Pandita in his youth. He could explain one verse from the scriptures in eighty different ways, but in the end, He would explain everything as Krishna, or God. That is the lesson for us. Logic and deductive reasoning exist for only one purpose, to further the legitimacy of the discipline of devotional service, or bhagavata-dharma, the only occupational duty of mankind. We simply have to chant “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, follow the regulative principles, and most importantly, explain everything in terms of Krishna, and the Lord will be pleased with us.