Saturday, May 1, 2010

My Loss Becomes My Gain

Mother Yashoda feeding Krishna “If the devotee offers something to the Lord, it acts for his own interest because whatever a devotee offers the Lord comes back in a quantity a million times greater than what was offered. One does not become a loser by giving to the Lord, but he becomes a gainer by millions of times.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Krishna, The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vol 2, Ch 26)

Even those who are engaged in karmic activity, material life, have the ability to take small steps towards transcendental realization. Service to God isn’t reserved exclusively for those in the renounced order of life. Rather, the Vedas recommend gradual progression through the four ashramas (brahmacharya, grihastha, vanaprastha, sannyasa). One should abide by the prescribed duties of their particular order, performing them with detachment, all the while fostering a love for Krishna by performing devotional service. For those in the grihastha ashrama, householder life, one of the best ways to rapidly cultivate spiritual knowledge is to perform sacrifices in the home.

Vasudeva and Devaki praying to Krishna A householder is a family man. His or her duty is to engage in fruitive activity in order that they may support their family members. Karma means fruitive activity, or those actions taken with the desire of receiving fruits. These fruits can take many forms, but for the householder, they generally take the form of artha, or economic development. People spend up to forty hours per week at work so that they can provide food, shelter, and clothing for themselves and their family members. The Vedas don’t shun this lifestyle by any means. This stage of life is known as the grihastha ashrama, meaning it is still intended to be a spiritual institution. An ashrama is usually associated with a religious school or a place where spirituality is discussed and practiced. This means that married people have prescribed duties relating to religion as well. Service to Lord Krishna, or God, is the primary duty of people in any ashrama, but the actual type of service varies based on one’s understanding. The primary requirement for a householder is that they must perform yajna, or sacrifice. To sacrifice something means to voluntarily give up something or perform an activity for the benefit of something or someone else. In the case of yajna, the sacrifice is done for Lord Vishnu, who is Lord Krishna’s primary expansion.

“Work done as a sacrifice for Vishnu has to be performed, otherwise work binds one to this material world. Therefore, O son of Kunti, perform your prescribed duties for His satisfaction, and in that way you will always remain unattached and free from bondage.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 3.9)

Lord Krishna For the householder, the items to be sacrificed are the fruits of their labor. This usually means money and food. God is the original proprietor of everything. We may cultivate a field, plant seeds, and tend to the resulting crops, but it is still God who deserves the credit for supplying us food. Plants are also considered life, and the source of life is God. For this reason, any food that we receive is actually a benediction from God. Keeping this in mind, the Vedas recommend that we offer nice food to Lord Krishna as a sacrifice. We offer food to the Lord as a way of giving thanks and also purifying ourselves. Food offered to Krishna’s deity in a sacrifice then becomes prasadam, meaning the Lord’s mercy.

“The devotees of the Lord are released from all kinds of sins because they eat food which is offered first for sacrifice. Others, who prepare food for personal sense enjoyment, verily eat only sin.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 3.13)

This prasadam is unlike ordinary food, for it is karma free. If we cook food for our own sense gratification, then it is has karma associated with it, good or bad. The same goes for food prepared by others, especially non-devotees. Prasadam is completely spiritual since Lord Krishna has given His glance over it. One who eats prasadam immediately becomes connected with God, which is the ultimate objective in life. Prasadam also illustrates another larger point. Sacrifice means to voluntarily give up something. By giving something up, we become separated from that object, but in the case of prasadam, the opposite is true. We take ordinary food in the mode of goodness (fruits, flowers, grains, milk, water) and offer it to the Lord as a sacrifice. Krishna is so nice that He eats the food, but still leaves all of it for us. The food comes back to us in an augmented form. In mathematics, one minus one equals zero. This is an absolute law, but in the spiritual world, one minus one can equal two or greater. Prasadam is proof of this. We give up ordinary food in sacrifice, and God returns us something of even greater value. Therefore sacrificing for Lord Vishnu means we are gaining, not losing.

Prabhupada distributing prasadam marriage_poster_QO87_l This fact was on full display many thousands of years ago in Maharaja Janaka’s kingdom of Mithila. A famous and pious king, Janaka one day was ploughing a field with the intention of performing a grand sacrifice. During previous ages, all governments were ruled by kshatriya kings. Along with the four ashramas of life, the Vedas also prescribe four societal divisions known as varnas (brahmana, kshatriya, vaishya, shudra). The kshatriyas are the warriors and they are responsible for providing protection to the rest of society. Since government exists primarily to provide protection, kshatriyas are the ideal candidates to administer government. Janaka was also a householder, thus the dharmas relating to both his varna and ashrama required him to perform sacrifices. A pious king would also regularly perform sacrifices to propitiate the demigods and the brahmanas of his kingdom.

While ploughing the field, Janaka found a little baby girl coming out of the earth. Holding her in his arms, an immediate bond was formed. Janaka took the girl in as his daughter and named her Sita since she was born of the earth. Janaka and his wife raised Sita to be the perfect woman and devotee. What they didn’t know was that Sita Devi was an incarnation of Goddess Lakshmi, the eternal consort of Lord Narayana, or Vishnu. She appeared on earth to aid Lord Rama, an incarnation of God, in His pastimes. When Sita reached an age appropriate for marriage, Janaka decided to hold a grand sacrifice where kings from around the world would come. Janaka had been given the illustrious bow belonging to Lord Shiva on a previous occasion. He decided that Sita would marry whichever king could lift this extremely heavy bow.

“Seeing that greatest of bows, which had the weight of a mountain, the kings offered their respects to it but then left on account of being unable to lift it. After a long time, this Rama, the highly effulgent descendant of the Raghu dynasty having truth for his prowess, arrived along with His younger brother Lakshmana and the sage Vishvamitra to see the sacrifice. (Sita Devi speaking to Anasuya, Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kand, 118.43-44)

Vishvamitra and Lakshmana watching Rama break the bow In the Vedic tradition, every important event occurs as part of a sacrifice, which usually has a fire associated with it. A marriage is performed in the presence of a fire sacrifice, with the actual ceremony taking many hours, sometimes even days. Sita Devi’s svayamvara, or self-choice ceremony, was no different in this respect. Many kings came to try to lift the bow, but also many others came simply to witness the sacrifice. During this time, Lord Rama and His younger brother Lakshmana were roaming the forest with the venerable sage Vishvamitra. Janaka, being ever pious, welcomed Vishvamitra with open arms. This is the proper etiquette for any householder. It is considered a great boon for a person to have a brahmana visit their home. Vishvamitra then introduced Rama and Lakshmana to Janaka which led to Rama attempting to lift the bow. Being God Himself, Rama lifted, strung, and broke the bow all in one fell swoop. Thus destiny was fulfilled with the union of Sita and Rama.

By holding the self-choice ceremony, Janaka appeared to be engaging in a material activity. In actuality, he was performing his duties as a father and a king with detachment. Since he didn’t know who Sita’s birth parents were, Janaka actually didn’t want to marry Sita off to anyone. Due to her spotless character, he didn’t think anyone was worthy of her hand in marriage. Nevertheless, as a great king, he knew that he would receive ridicule for not marrying off his daughter. Thus he decided on the bow lifting sacrifice as a compromise, for he didn’t think anyone would be able to lift it. By properly executing his duties as a king, father, and householder, Janaka was rewarded by receiving God as a son-in-law.

This proves without a doubt that sacrifices performed for Lord Vishnu only benefit us in the end. It should also be noted exactly how Rama was brought to the kingdom. Janaka met Rama and subsequently gained Him as a son-in-law only through the help of Vishvamitra, a great sage and devotee of God. The spiritual master, or pure devotee of Krishna, is the via-medium to God. As Krishna’s authorized representative, the devotee blesses those who are worthy of receiving God’s mercy. It took two great devotees, Sita Devi and Vishvamitra Muni, to bring Lord Rama to Janaka’s family.

Sita declaring Rama the winner Now King Janaka was a great transcendentalist and devotee himself. According to the scriptures, there are twelve great authorities on devotional service to Vishnu, and Janaka is one of them. Nevertheless, the king was a strict believer in the power of sacrifice. For people living in this age, it’s not possible to perform all the great yajnas of the past. For this reason, God has recommended only one sacrifice for this age: sankirtana-yajna. Sankirtana is the congregational chanting of the holy names of God. Any person, of any age, in any stage of life, can simply chant “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare” and make spiritual progress.

Those in the grihastha ashrama should regularly perform sankirtana-yajna with their family, inviting friends, neighbors, and relatives to join them. If possible, they should also invite sadhus, or great devotees of Lord Krishna, to their homes as often as possible. Saintly people visiting the home means that Lord Krishna will come as well. If the Lord feels welcome in a home, He will stay there forever.

Friday, April 30, 2010


Radha Krishna “By performance of religious rituals one ultimately reaches the supreme goal of knowledge by understanding that Vasudeva, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, is the cause of everything.” (Shrila Baladeva Vidyabhushana, Govinda-bhashya commentary on Vedanta-sutra)

Many advanced transcendentalists and religious scholars downplay the need to perform Vedic rituals and sacrifices. To back up their position, they point to various statements in the Vedas that openly declare that simply performing rituals is not enough. This is indeed true in many instances since simply going through the motions of religious functions is a waste of time if it doesn’t lead one towards devotion to God. In truth, Vedic rituals can prove to be an invaluable tool in the arsenal of spiritual activities available to an aspiring transcendentalist. For this reason, these sacrifices and religious functions should not be neglected.

television The performance of Vedic rituals is very important for people who are just starting off in religious life, i.e. the beginners. Those unaccustomed to spiritual life naturally have an affinity for material sense gratification, or karmic life. Almost everyone engages in a life of sense gratification, whereby they perform just enough work to maintain their bodies. When they are not working or sleeping, they are finding ways to enjoy their leisure time. In the modern age, television viewing is a popular pastime. The existence of cable and satellite television means that there are hundreds of channels to watch at any given time. Digital video recorders provide added convenience since they can record every episode of our favorite shows to be watched at a later time. This means that we can develop a love and attachment to various television shows and their characters.

Most television shows don’t stay on the air for very long. There is fierce competition between the major networks, which means that if a new show doesn’t garner high ratings in the beginning stages, it is likely to be cancelled very quickly. Even the shows that prove to be successful only last at most eight to ten years. One of the most popular television sitcoms in history, Friends, ran for ten seasons; Seinfeld and Everybody Loves Raymond for nine seasons, and Cheers for eleven. The typical television season spans twenty-two episodes, which means that a long lasting show will likely eclipse the two hundred episode mark. Taking the sum total of all the episodes of all the famous television shows will leave a fan with a lifetime’s worth of television viewing. Most of these shows are available on DVD now, meaning that we can watch all our favorite episodes over and over again.

Lord Krishna Television viewing, done in moderation, isn’t overly harmful. People work hard during the day, so they like to relax at night. Television is nice because it lets the mind escape from the daily pressures of life. Too much television viewing, or sense gratification in general, can be harmful to us because it robs us of precious time. In the grand scheme of things, our time on this earth is very short. The Vedas tell us that this particular creation will last for billions and billions of years. Many of us fear what will happen to our souls after death. Where will we go and for how long? An equally relevant question can be asked about our past. Where were we before our current life? The earth has been around for billions of years, so what were we doing during all that time?

“Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.12)

The Vedas, the original scriptures for mankind, help us answer these questions. Since Vedic wisdom emanates from Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, it represents the most authorized form of knowledge. Unlike scientific theories and hypotheses, the Vedas represent undeniable truths of life expounded by the Supreme Lord Himself. To help future generations of man, the Lord kindly imparted this wisdom to several exalted living entities in the past, who subsequently passed down the same knowledge to their disciples. Thus the Vedic literature that we see today, consisting of the Puranas, Mahabharata, Ramayana, etc., contain the same information that God Himself spoke to Lord Brahma at the beginning of creation.

“Brahma, it is I, the Personality of Godhead, who was existing before the creation, when there was nothing but Myself. Nor was there the material nature, the cause of this creation. That which you see now is also I, the Personality of Godhead, and after annihilation what remains will also be I, the Personality of Godhead.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 2.9.33)

Lord Vishnu The central teaching of the Vedas is that we are not our bodies. Life is indeed short, but the lifetime of our soul is not. The events we refer to as birth and death are in actuality just changing of material bodies. Death represents the shedding of our current set of clothes, and birth represents the assumption of a new set. The spirit soul remains intact throughout this whole process. These events of birth and death continue in a repetitive cycle due to the living entity’s desires and work. Essentially, it is up to us as to whether we want to continually die and take birth again.

To break free of this cycle, we have to simply change our desires. This is the benefit of human life. Other species have no ability to understand desires and work. They simply act off their animal instincts. A pig, cow, or bird has no idea that it is going to die. It has no understanding of the difference between matter and spirit. Only human beings can understand this fact. We are so smart that almost all of us eventually realize that life is short and that we will be forced to die on day. However, knowing this fact and acting on it are two different things.

Many of us choose to deal with the death issue by ignoring it. “Sure, I’m going to die, but so what? Why do I want to obsess over something so grim? Let me just live my life and enjoy every possible moment.” This mindset may appear to be logically sound, but its major flaw lies in the fact that death doesn’t represent the end. God is very nice. If we want to stay here in this material world and enjoy, He will gladly let us do so. Once our current body becomes old and useless, He lets us assume another one and start our activities all over again.

“As the embodied soul continually passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. The self-realized soul is not bewildered by such a change.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 2.13)

Changing of bodiesPerfection in life can only be achieved when one understands who God is and what their relationship is with Him. Lord Krishna says that anyone who thinks of Him at the time of death will immediately be granted liberation from the cycle of repeated death. Not only will their soul never return to the material world, but they will also enjoy eternal association with God in the spiritual world. This is the real definition of liberation. We may try to enjoy in various ways here on earth, but real enjoyment can only be of the spiritual variety. God is the supreme spirit, so through association with Him we can enjoy pure transcendental bliss.

There are various transcendental mellows that one can experience with Krishna, but before we can associate with Him, we must purify ourselves. Karmic activity is very hard to break free of, for it is what we have been accustomed to throughout our many lifetimes on earth. This is where Vedic rituals come into play. Knowing that loving God is the true purpose of life is one thing, but actually realizing this fact is another. Theoretical knowledge serves as a good foundation, but this knowledge is worthless if we don’t use it for our benefit.

“Regulated activities are prescribed in the Vedas, and the Vedas are directly manifested from the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Consequently the all-pervading Transcendence is eternally situated in acts of sacrifice.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 3.15)

Hanuman To help us get on the path towards liberation, the Vedas prescribe two important regulative functions: tapasya and yajna; austerity and sacrifice. There are many different kinds of austerities and sacrifices, but the most important ones are those done for the satisfaction of Lord Vishnu, or God. Vishnu is a direct expansion of Lord Krishna, thus the two names can be used interchangeably when referring to God. Tapasya isn’t meant to be a method of torture. The great acharyas have recommended that we refrain from meat eating, intoxication, gambling, and illicit sex life. Abstention from these activities serves as the primary form of austerity. Also, on specific religious holidays people are advised to fast for a set duration of time or to avoid certain kinds of food. The performance of tapasya is aimed at curbing the influence of the senses. Our minds are always hankering and lamenting, and if we always act on our desires, our senses will never be controlled. Tapasya helps us regulate our senses so that we can better focus on serving God.

Yajna Yajna is the performance of sacrifice. Most Vedic sacrifices include some type of fire ceremony, with oblations of clarified butter, or ghee, poured into the fire while auspicious mantras are recited. One of Krishna’s names is Yajneshvara, meaning the lord, or controlling power, of sacrifice. To those unfamiliar with Vedic customs, such sacrifices may seem strange. “Oh these are just rituals. Every religion has their own rituals.  They must not be that important. What’s more important is to study Vedanta or other highly philosophical Vedic texts.” Yajnas certainly do appear ritualistic, but they actually serve a great purpose. While tapasya involves abstention from activities, yajna involves actively engaging oneself in religious life. It is the nature of the spirit soul to be active, meaning we must always be doing something. Rather than waste our time on useless activities, the Vedas advise that we perform sacrifices so that we can always stay connected with God. Human beings are creatures of habit. The more accustomed we get to performing sacrifices, the more likely we are to think about God, which in the end, is the whole point.

It is very difficult to control the mind and to have it constantly focused on spiritual matters. By engaging in religious activities, we give the mind more events and experiences to use as reference points when contemplating matters relating to the soul and God. Religious leaders around the world advise their members to visit church every Sunday. This certainly isn’t a bad thing since going to church helps a person think about God. If it’s a good thing to think about God once a week, wouldn’t it be that much better to think about Him every day? This is the opinion of the Vedas. To help us think about God every day, the scriptures provide us a multitude of religious rituals and other rules and regulations to follow.

Panchatattva performing sankirtana The current age we live in is not very conducive to the performance of elaborate sacrifices or the adherence to strict rules and regulations. In the Kali Yuga, the recommended sacrifice is 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 beauty of this sacrifice is that anyone can perform it. One doesn’t have to be an expert brahmana or even a Hindu to chant Krishna’s name. There is only one God, and He is for everyone. Therefore the name of Krishna is open to everyone to chant, regardless of their age, caste, nationality, or ethnicity.

This chanting should be taken up by every person. It is a great way to spend our time. His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada advised everyone to chant the Hare Krishna mantra at least sixteen rounds a day on a set of japa beads. Chanting, along with visiting temples, adhering to regulative principles, reading Vedic literature, and eating Krishna prasadam are enough to secure liberation in one’s current lifetime. These activities, which collectively make up the discipline known as devotional service, are all aimed at pleasing the Supreme Lord. Devotional service helps us use our time constructively. By following the regulative principle in the beginning stages, we are sure to be rewarded one day with pure love for God, or Krishna-prema.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Religion and Spirituality

Lord Chaitanya hugging Krishna “Loving God is the natural function of every living entity. It doesn't matter whether you are a Christian or a Hindu or a Muhammadan. Just try to develop your love of God. Then your religion is very nice.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Journey of Self-Discovery, 2.6)

Comment: “I just want to state that religion and spirituality are TWO DIFFERENT things, which most religions are far from spiritual (especially Catholics and Christians). Also, A LOT of what people claim is a religion, like Hinduism and Buddhism, ARE NOT religions, but mere ways of life... ways of viewing and experiencing.”

Response: Religion certainly means different things to different people. The ancient scriptures of India, the Vedas, actually don’t have a term that matches up with religion. The closest thing we can find is the term “dharma”, which is a much more concrete definition of what spiritual life really means. Dharma is that which is the essential quality of something, and when it is applied to the living entities, it means that the living entities’ natural occupation is that of being a loving servant of the Supreme Lord. Religion generally means a kind of faith; a set of guidelines which certain groups of people adhere to, while others do not. Faith can change at a whim, and we see that the religious beliefs of various sects around the world have certainly morphed over the years. It is for this reason that many people are justified in viewing the term “religion” with contempt.

Religion is also equated today with the practice of organized establishments, similar to how political organizations operate. The major established religions of the world today are run by governing bodies, with policies determined by the votes of the higher members. Now there is certainly some merit to having a governing board which oversees basic doctrine, but as we see in the arena of politics, things can get muddied fairly quickly through influence-peddling and corruption. People start holding strong to their positions and end up fighting with each other simply to advance their own personal agenda.

Krishna with cows A great example of this can be seen with the practice of meat eating. The Ten Commandments clearly state that “Thou Shall Not Kill”, yet we see that religious leaders of today have no problem with the existence of slaughterhouses. The Vedas tell us that every living entity, from Lord Brahma all the way down to an ant, has a spirit soul residing within that forms the basis of their identity. This means that even animals have souls. This concept isn’t very difficult to understand if we apply a little intelligence. We human beings have souls because we know that as soon as we die, our bodies become useless. Our bodies don’t necessarily change at the time of death, but what causes our life to end is the exit of the soul from within the body. This means that our real identity, the guiding force, the master of the ship, is the soul within.

Animals are no different in this regard. Their bodies are very similar to human beings. Like us, they eat, sleep, mate, and defend. They may not have the same level of intelligence as humans, but they still perform many of the same activities. Their physical makeup can be so similar to those of humans that many scientists perform research on lab animals to test the effects of drugs and other therapies. Since even animals are living entities, the Vedas advise that we shouldn’t unnecessarily kill them. Formerly animals used to only be killed during elaborate sacrifices which were performed with the aim of achieving great material benefit and not simply as an excuse to eat meat. These sacrifices would test the mantra recitation capabilities of the brahmanas, or priests. Gradually over time, the practice degraded to the point where brahmanas were performing animal sacrifice simply as an excuse to eat animal flesh. Thus the practice was completely abolished, though the principle of non-violence towards innocent animals never actually changed.

Contrast this with today’s situation where millions of innocent animals, including cows, are sent to the slaughterhouses every year simply to satisfy the taste buds of the general public. Such a practice should never be sanctioned by any serious religious leader, but we see that this is not the case. In order to justify their sanction of meat eating, these same religious leaders have concocted the idea that animals don’t have souls. “Even if they do have souls, they are not the same as those of human beings”. Now this notion is actually quite silly, for a soul is a soul; there is no difference in quality between the souls of various living entities.

Lord Krishna The only difference can be found with the soul of the Supreme Lord, who is known as maha-purusha, while we living entities are just ordinary purusha. Purusha means spirit, male, or controller. Matter by itself is dull and incapable of motion or action. It needs the hand of purusha in order for it to move. The example of the body can be used again. If it weren’t for the spirit soul, or purusha, residing within, our body would be completely useless. Death is the event of purusha exiting a material body (prakriti). The same principle holds true in the body of an animal. The components of the body of a cow are simply matter, or prakriti. It is the soul within, purusha, which causes the machine known as the body to function. Killing the animal means forcing the purusha to exit.

Another excuse given for animal killing is that animals lack the intelligence of human beings. Even this reasoning can be refuted quite easily. When a human being is an infant, its intelligence is actually less than that of many animals. Moreover, we don’t just kill a human being simply based off its intelligence. In life we meet many smart people and many unintelligent people, but we would never decide who should live and who should die based on this characteristic. Yet that is precisely what is done with animals. For example, cats and dogs aren’t sent to slaughterhouses. On the contrary, they are held in high esteem by their owners, for many people treat their pets better than they do their own family members. Yet what is the difference between a dog and a cow? A cow is so kind and compassionate; it doesn’t bother anyone. It simply requires some grass to eat and a place to stay. In exchange for this protection, the cow kindly offers us milk which can sustain our lives. The same can’t be said of a dog.

Lord Krishna Yet just because the meat of a cow tastes palatable, people have taken to sending them to slaughterhouses by the millions each year. Religious leaders, not wanting to give up their meat eating habits, make up excuses for this animal killing by changing their established principles, for even many years ago the Catholic Church advised its members to refrain from eating meat on Fridays. So this is where people get turned off by religion. It is certainly a fact that animals have souls, but established religions around the world say otherwise, thus people have a hard time taking such religions seriously. As mentioned before, real religion is something that should never change because the relationship between the living entities and God never changes.

“The English word ‘religion is a little different from sanatana-dharma. Religion conveys the idea of faith, and faith may change. One may have faith in a particular process, and he may change this faith and adopt another, but sanatana-dharma refers to that activity which cannot be changed.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Bhagavad-gita, Introduction)

We can also see the degradation of religion by studying how religious leaders are elected today. For example, when the Pope dies, there is a vote that takes place to determine the new pontiff. The worldwide media coverage of these votes is quite insightful. There are roundtable discussions held with “experts” speculating over what the new Pope’s policies might be. “Will they allow gay marriage? Will they still hold firm on the issue of abortion, taking it to be a sin?” Thus we see that politics plays a huge part in established religion today. The principles of spiritual life should never change because spirit itself is unchanging, as is God.

“It is said that the soul is invisible, inconceivable, immutable, and unchangeable. Knowing this, you should not grieve for the body.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.25)

Hanuman - an eternal servant of God Many people prefer the term “spirituality” over “religion”. Spirituality refers the true nature of the living entity, that of a spirit soul. Yet just knowing that we are spirit souls is not enough. As we see with all living entities, there is an inherent desire for activity. The exact nature of this activity certainly varies, but we still see that everyone wants to do something. Everyone has to be somewhere, doing something. So what is that something that we should be doing? The Vedas tell us that it is our nature to be servants. This may seem strange to hear at first, for we all love the concept of independence. It is certainly more pleasing to act on our own whims instead of listening to others, but this doesn’t mean that we still aren’t servants.

Our service mentality manifests through love. We love our country, our fellow man, our friends, spouse, and children. Loving someone means wanting more for the other person than you want for yourself. This love comes out in a variety of ways. Some of us love through intimate association, while others love through teaching and providing counsel. Even something as simple as filling up the gas for our spouse’s car can be considered an act of love. So we see that the commonality in all these activities is service. The Vedas tell us that this service mentality is actually an outgrowth of our original constitutional position as loving servants of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Krishna.

“…the tendency to love and serve others is your dharma, or your religion. This is the universal form of religion. Now, you have to apply your loving service in such a way that you will be completely satisfied. Because your loving spirit is now misplaced, you are not happy.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Journey of Self-Discovery, 2.6)

Shrila Prabhupada Spiritual life means directing our service to the Supreme Lord. This service also must be performed voluntarily and with love, otherwise it is not pure. Real religion means serving God in a loving way, with all our hearts. So how do we practice this service? This is the million dollar question. Along with dharma, the Vedas give us the term “yoga”. Not to be confused with gymnastics exercises, real yoga means linking our soul with the Supreme Soul, or God. There are different ways to practice this linking, but the topmost system is known as bhakti yoga, or devotional service.

Devotional service involves nine different processes, the perfection of any of which can provide spiritual union with God. Though there are nine processes, two of them are recommended for the people of this age: chanting and hearing. These two processes can be simultaneously executed by regularly chanting “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare” out loud with our friends and family, or simply to ourselves.

In order to achieve success in yoga, one must practice it all the time. This means that bhakti yoga should be a way of life, not something we do for five minutes a day, as is the case with many pseudo-yogis and gurus. These spiritual leaders sit in meditation for a few minutes each day and then spend the rest of their time smoking cigarettes, eating meat, and indulging in other forms of sense gratification. Even the animals engage their time in sense gratification, so it is incumbent upon human beings to make the most of their intelligence by rising above animalistic tendencies. Understanding that we are spirit soul is one thing, but practically realizing it is a different matter. We can be a believer of the tenets of the Vedas, but this doesn’t mean that we should stop there. As previously mentioned, it is our nature to always be active. If we aren’t practicing yoga, then we are more likely to fall back into the pit of animalistic life. Living life without following the guidelines of a bona fide spiritual discipline is akin to animal life.

Lord Ganesha - scribe of the demigods The term “spirituality” certainly describes dharma more accurately than does the term “religion”. But as we see, spirituality must be matched up with a full-time discipline in order for one to be considered on the path of dharma. Thus we can say that “spirituality as a way of life” is a more accurate translation for dharma. At this point one may ask, “Why even use the term religion if it is so inaccurate? Wouldn’t you be better served just using terms like dharma, spirituality, yoga, way of life, etc?” There is validity to these concerns, but we have to keep one underlying principle in mind. The Vedas themselves were originally transmitted in the Sanskrit language, which is also known as the language of the gods. These Sanskrit verses were carefully crafted and are very intricate, meaning even people born and raised in India have a hard time understanding them. We currently live in the Kali Yuga, which is known as the dark age of quarrel and hypocrisy. This means that people’s mental capabilities are greatly diminished from those who lived in ages past. It is for this reason that translation of the Vedas into other languages is required.

Regardless of what we may think of the term, “religion” is the word that most people associate with spiritual life. Thus in order to properly convey ideas and thoughts contained in the Vedas, we must make use of the term religion from time to time, as flawed as it may be. The same issue occurs with the term “God”. God can mean so many different things to different people, and the Vedas themselves don’t have any term that directly matches up to it. The Vedas tell us that the Supreme Lord’s opulences and powers are unlimited, thus He is given thousands of names. His primary name is Krishna, meaning one who is all-attractive. Krishna is also referred to as Bhagavan, meaning one who possesses all opulences. We are also supplied with others names such as Rama (one who gives transcendental pleasure), Parameshava (the supreme ishvara, or controller), Achyuta (one who is infallible), Govinda (one who gives pleasure to the senses and the cows), etc. Since these terms can’t really translate directly to God, His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada invoked the term “The Supreme Personality of Godhead” to describe Krishna. This term is still limited in a sense, but it is certainly more descriptive than the term “God”.

“The supreme occupation [dharma] for all humanity is that by which men can attain to loving devotional service unto the transcendent Lord. Such devotional service must be unmotivated and uninterrupted to completely satisfy the self.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 1.2.6)

Radha Krishna When describing God’s glories to others, issues of translations, vernacular, and semantics will certainly come up from time to time, but we must remember that the ultimate goal is to awaken every person’s dormant love for the Lord. Words exist for the purpose of communication, and the highest message we can communicate to our fellow man is that we should all reacquaint ourselves with our original friend, the Supreme Lord. That is the universal religion. We should all make a sincere effort to take up spirituality as a way of life. People of all ages and all cultural backgrounds can follow the simple formula of regularly chanting Hare Krishna and abstaining from the four pillars of sinful life: meat eating, gambling, intoxication, and illicit sex. This will lead us towards loving devotional service to Krishna, which is the supreme occupation for all of humanity.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


Shri Rama Darbar “In one who has unflinching devotional faith in Krishna, all the good qualities of Krishna and the demigods are consistently manifest.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 5.18.12)

Sita Devi, the wife of Lord Rama, and the female sage Anasuya, mother of Dattatreya and sister of Lord Kapila, had a wonderful conversation many many years ago which is documented in the Ramayana of Valmiki. Lord Rama, an incarnation of God, was passing His time in the forest with His brother, Lakshmana, and His wife, Sita. The group visited various places throughout India, stopping by the hermitages of the great saints.

Sages in the forest These events all took place during the Treta Yuga, the second time period of creation. Man was still generally pious during that time so it was not uncommon to find great sages living in the forests. City life is sufficient for most people since it reinforces a community mentality, where goods and services are easily available. Yet for those seeking higher knowledge, or information of the Absolute Truth, the peace and quiet of the forest is preferable. The highly advanced brahmanas, the priestly class of men, would renounce city life to go live in the forests. Generally the wilderness is reserved for the animal kingdom since man is usually too attached to sense gratification to survive such an austere lifestyle. But the performance of austerities for religious purposes is actually one of the important practices recommended by the Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India. These austerities are referred to as tapasya, and the sages living in the forest were well accustomed to performing them.

While the sages lived in the forest, contemplating the meaning of life and performing various sacrifices for Lord Vishnu, they would often times receive guests in the form of travelers or pilgrims. This is still the case today as millions of people each year visit the famous tirthas in India. It is beneficial for one to visit these sacred places since saintly people usually reside there. The purpose of the priestly class is not only to perform religious functions for themselves, but to also guide the rest of society on the proper execution of dharma. This human form of life is meant for God realization, thus becoming purely God conscious is the ultimate objective. Man has a natural propensity to sin, thus it is the duty of the saintly class to steer society in the right direction.

Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana visiting a sage Lord Rama and His family members were all very pious. Since He was God Himself, Rama was the embodiment of virtue and chivalry. Nevertheless, since He took birth in the kshatriya race, Rama followed standard protocol by taking instruction from brahmanas on all matters. The Vedas declare that the highest reward in life is to have the association of a saintly person. This means that if one is fortunate enough to meet face-to-face with a devotee, they should take full advantage. Rama was well aware of this tenet, so He and His group made sure to visit all the great sages residing in the forest. On one particular occasion, the group stopped at the hermitage of Atri Rishi and his wife Anasuya. At the time, both Sita and Rama were very famous throughout the world. Kings during those times were referred to as the lords of earth. Rama’s father, King Dasharatha, was held in very high regard. Rama actually took birth in the Ikshvaku dynasty. Ikshvaku was the son of Manu, the first man on earth.

“At the time of a great sacrifice performed by Daksha, with affection the very intelligent Varuna gave Devarata an illustrious bow along with quivers which would never run out of arrows. Incapable of being moved on account of its weight, the kings could not even dream of bending the bow. Having obtained the bow, my truthful father first invited all the princes of the world to an assembly of great rulers of men, and spoke to them as such: ‘Whichever man is capable of lifting and string this bow will receive my daughter's hand in marriage. Of this there is no doubt.’” (Sita Devi speaking to Anasuya, Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kand, 118.39-42)

When Anasuya welcomed Rama and His family, she immediately struck up a conversation with Sita Devi. This practice is customary even today in social situations, where we see women huddling together and the men separating to go have their own conversations. Anasuya knew all about Sita’s family history but she was nevertheless very eager to hear Sita’s narration of the events surrounding her marriage. The above referenced statement was part of Sita’s telling of the story.

Lakshmi-Narayana Maharaja Janaka, the king of Mithila, one day found a little girl in a field that he was intending to plough. A bond was immediately formed and Janaka decided to take the girl in as his own daughter. He named her Sita since she came out of the ground. Sita Devi was actually an incarnation of Goddess Lakshmi, the goddess of fortune and wife of Lord Narayana. According to the Vedas, Lord Krishna is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, but He has many direct expansions. Lord Narayana is one of the primary expansions, meaning He can be considered to be God. Rama is also an incarnation of Krishna thus He is also taken as God. Therefore Sita Devi is to known as the eternal consort of God. Janaka was unaware of her divinity, but he could still tell that she was something special. Her behavior was perfect in every regard. Though she never attended school, her knowledge of the Vedas was perfect. This shouldn’t be surprising to us. A pure devotee of God naturally acquires all good characteristics and knowledge of the scriptures.

“An advanced devotee situated on the platform of spontaneity is already very expert in shastric instruction, logic and argument.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Chaitanya Charitamrita, Madhya 22.153 Purport)

Lord Rama lifting the bow Janaka was in a quandary. He didn’t think there was any man worthy of Sita’s hand in marriage, but he knew it was his duty, as the father, to get her married. As a compromise, Janaka decided to hold a self-choice ceremony (svayamvara), where princes would come and try to lift the illustrious bow of Lord Shiva. A long time back, the great Prajapati Daksha performed an elaborate sacrifice. As a result of the events that occurred relating to this sacrifice, the celestial bow of Lord Shiva was given to Devarata, a great king. This same bow was eventually passed down to King Janaka. Its weight was enormous and no king could dare think of even moving it. Ironically, in her youth Sita Devi was once lifted this very bow without a problem. Knowing all these facts, Janaka decided that Sita would only marry the prince that could lift this great bow. In essence, he was confident that no one would be able to lift it and even if they did, that person would surely have to be a celestial.

Herein we get another glimpse into Sita Devi’s greatness. Every person born in this world has certain attributes based on their guna and karma, or qualities and work. When it comes to marriages in the Vedic tradition, these qualities are compared between boys and girls in order to find a suitable match. From Janaka’s decision, we can understand that the only match for Sita was Lord Rama Himself. Only Rama had the necessary strength to move the bow.

Greatness can be described in many ways. We can praise someone based on their qualities and their different accomplishments. Sita Devi’s greatness can surely be characterized along these lines, but her most outstanding feature is that Lord Rama is the only suitable husband for her. This distinction is reserved for only the purest of devotees. God doesn’t just accept anybody as a wife or intimate associate.

Lord Rama with His devotee Hanuman When we make friends with someone, it is usually because the other person is nice to us or has our best interests at heart. We don’t make friends with people that are mean to us or who envy us. We still may be kind to everyone we meet, but that doesn’t mean we’ll befriend every single person. God is similar in this regard. By default, He views every living entity equally.

“I envy no one, nor am I partial to anyone. I am equal to all. But whoever renders service unto Me in devotion is a friend, is in Me, and I am also a friend to him.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 9.29)

The exception to this rule applies to the devotees. The bhaktas love God purely and without any motive. This is the definition of true love. For God to accept us as His friend or life companion there must be an exchange of love. This love may be of different varieties, but the sentiment must be genuine.

Sita, Rama, Lakshmana, and Hanuman God is so great. He is kind, compassion, and very sweet. Rama means one who gives pleasure to others and this was certainly true throughout Lord Rama’s time on earth. As great as Lord Rama is, Sita Devi might even be greater, for she loves the Lord and all His devotees so much. She is the standard bearer for the perfect execution of devotional service.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Hooked Into This Deceiver

Arjuna and Krishna “The Blessed Lord said: It is lust only, Arjuna, which is born of contact with the material modes of passion and later transformed into wrath, and which is the all-devouring, sinful enemy of this world.” (Bhagavad-gita, 3.37)

Lust is so strong that it devours all good judgment. An outgrowth of the mode of passion, lust can lead to anger, which can then lead to bewilderment and loss of rationale. This was the case with the Rakshasa demon Ravana many thousands of years ago. His lusty desire to enjoy another man’s wife cost him dearly in the end.

Ravana During the Treta Yuga, one particular Rakshasa was ascending to power. Known by the name of Ravana, this demon had ten heads and invincibility in battle. He had achieved this strength and fame through the performance of great austerities. He underwent severe penances, or tapasya, and pleased various demigods. They gifted him with several boons, one of which was that no celestial, animal, or other elevated living entity could defeat him in battle. In his haste, Ravana forgot to ask for immunity from ordinary human beings. The demigods used this loophole to put the pieces into place for his demise.

Ravana was granted all these boons and he in turn used them against the same class of people whom he had worshiped. Ravana took on and defeated his own brother, Kuvera, the treasurer of the demigods. Fearing worldwide domination by the Rakshasas, the demigods petitioned Lord Vishnu to come to earth and kill Ravana. Lord Vishnu is God’s personal expansion. There are actually several different forms of Lord Vishnu, with each one of having a specific purpose. The Vedas tell us that God’s original form is that of Lord Krishna, but that Krishna then personally expands into several forms to carry out various functions. Lord Vishnu incarnated on earth as a human being by the name of Rama. When Vishnu comes to earth, his closest associates from the spiritual world usually come with him. Lord Vishnu’s eternal consort in the spiritual world is Goddess Lakshmi, the goddess of fortune.

Aside from being exquisitely beautiful and extremely pious, Lakshmi’s trademark characteristic is her devotion to Narayana, or Vishnu. When she came to earth, she played the same role as God’s pleasure potency. Lakshmi incarnated as Sita Devi, the daughter of the pious king of Mithila, Maharaja Janaka. When They reached an appropriate age, Sita and Rama were united through the bonds of holy matrimony. In order to compass Ravana’s death, Rama needed an excuse to attack Ravana. To this end, the Lord accepted a fourteen year exile punishment to the forest handed out by His father. Sita and Lakshmana, Rama’s younger brother, insisted on accompanying Rama on His journey. On one occasion while the group was in the forest of Janasthana, Rama was visited by Ravana’s sister, Shurpanakha. An argument ensued which resulted in Shurpanakha being disfigured by Lakshmana. She immediately went to Ravana and explained what had happened. Ravana then sent 14,000 Rakshasas to attack Rama, but the Lord easily killed all of them.

“I am your dear friend and ask you again to desist from this plan. If you should aggressively take Sita away by force, you and your relatives will lose your life and be taken to the abode of Yamaraja, being destroyed by Rama's arrows.” (Maricha speaking to Ravana, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 38.33)

Shurpanakha running back to Ravana One of the Rakshasas, Akampana, managed to escape and relayed to Ravana what had happened. He advised Ravana not to attack Rama, but to devise a plan to kidnap Sita. He believed that since Rama loved Sita so much, He wouldn’t be able to live without her. Ravana was greatly intrigued by this idea. Just by hearing about Sita’s beauty, he had to have her. He immediately went to his advisor, Maricha, and proposed the idea to him. In the above referenced quote, Maricha is strongly advising Ravana against such a plan. Maricha was no fool. On a previous occasion, he had tried to attack the venerable Vishvamitra Muni while in Rama’s presence. The Lord punished Maricha so badly that he was lucky to still be alive afterwards. Maricha warned Ravana not to mess with Rama, for that would lead to his destruction.

At the time, Ravana was living in a sinner’s paradise. The Sundara-kanda of the Ramayana gives us a vivid description of Ravana’s city of Lanka, and all the beautiful palaces contained within. Lord Hanuman, Rama’s eternal servant, later travelled to Lanka in search of Sita after she was kidnapped. He saw first-hand what life was like for Ravana. Ravana and the other Rakshasas were always drunk. They would stay up late into the night and enjoy drinking wine and having sex. Ravana had many beautiful wives and they used to drink with him too. When Hanuman travelled through the palaces, he saw the women were all passed out from drinking and that some had fallen asleep on each other. Meat eating was also very common, for Rakshasas even ate human flesh.

Sita Devi With all this opulence, what need did Ravana have for Sita? His desire to steal another man’s wife shows the illusory nature of material sense gratification. Our material senses can actually never be satisfied. Our body is a deceiver in a sense, and we are hooked into this deceiver, thinking that the more we satisfy it, the happier we will be. The Vedas tell us that true happiness can only be found in the spiritual world. To this end, they recommend that we strictly control our sense gratification through the practice of tapasya.

“And that sacrifice performed in defiance of scriptural injunctions, in which no spiritual food is distributed, no hymns are chanted and no remunerations are made to the priests, and which is faithless—that sacrifice is of the nature of ignorance.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 17.13)

Yet we see that Ravana performed many great austerities in his early life and still ended up being extremely addicted to sinful activity. What happened? The Vedas tell us that the material world is governed by three gunas, or modes: goodness, passion, and ignorance. Every activity we perform can be categorized into one of these three modes. This applies to religious activity as well. Ravana’s austerities were performed in the mode of ignorance, meaning they were detrimental to his future well-being. He only performed religious activities so that he could engage in sinful life. This is not the purpose of religion. Sacrifice and austerity are meant for bringing one closer to God. By regulating the senses, our minds remain at ease and thus it becomes easier to learn about God.

Trying to steal Lakshmi is one of the most grievous sins. Lakshmiji is meant to be enjoyed only by God Himself. Yet since she is the goddess of fortune, she is still kind enough to send material opulence our way from time to time. In fact, Ravana even had a fountain of Goddess Lakshmi in his kingdom. This illustrates another folly on his part. Though technically considered a demigod, Lakshmi is God’s pleasure potency expansion, hladini-shakti. She is actually a great devotee and an example of how to achieve perfection in life. God is the master and we are His servants. Those who realize this fact will be happy, and those who don’t will be forever miserable. As part of her duties, Lakshmi bestows wealth and fortune to those who please her. She is often depicted seated on a lotus flower and distributing gold coins from her hands. But this wealth must be used for the right purposes, otherwise it will lead to our downfall.

Goddess Lakshmi Lakshmiji provides us good fortune so that we may use it for serving God. If we use money for nefarious purposes, we are essentially stealing Lakshmi. This is exactly what Ravana did. He kidnapped Sita and tried to keep her for himself, but this can never happen. Rama, Lakshmana, Hanuman, and the rest of the Vanara army would eventually march to Lanka and rescue Sita.

Maricha’s warning would serve as a foreshadowing of events to come. As a spiritual guide to Ravana, Maricha gave him sound advice on what to do. He had seen God’s power firsthand, so he was relaying that information to Ravana. Not only did he describe Rama’s glories to Ravana, but he also advised his ten-headed friend to use that information to avoid acting sinfully. In a similar manner, the great Vaishnava acharyas and saints have written many books about Krishna and devotion to Him. They too have seen the Lord’s opulences firsthand. These saints advise us to give up sinful life and to take up devotional service to the Lord. If we follow their advice, we can be assured of not ending up like Ravana.

Monday, April 26, 2010

A Match Made in Heaven

Lord Rama winning Sita's hand in marriage “Knowing me to be one not born of any mother's womb, the king, after great thought, was unable to find a suitable husband for me. After reflecting thus, this thought occurred to the wise king, 'I shall hold a svayamvara (self-choice ceremony) for my daughter’s marriage. ’” (Sita Devi speaking to Anasuya, Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kand, 118.37-38)

In the Vedic tradition, marriages are arranged by the parents of both the bride and groom. Marriage itself is known as the grihastha-ashrama, meaning it is meant to be a spiritual institution. For this reason, the covenant of marriage is not something that should be entered into lightly. Great care must be taken to ensure that the bond will be a lasting one.

For marriage arrangements, the primary instrument used by parents of the Vedic tradition is the horoscope. Today the idea of horoscopes and astrological charts bring justifiable skepticism from the general public, but real astrology has its origin in the Vedas. The original scriptures for mankind come from India and they are referred as the Vedas, which mean knowledge. The primary purpose of the Vedas and religion in general is to give mankind a set of guidelines which can help them fulfill their true destiny in life, that of returning back home, back to Godhead. This earth is not our actual home. All the planets of the solar system and even those of other universes constitute the material creation.

“The whole cosmic order is under Me. By My will it is manifested again and again, and by My will it is annihilated at the end.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 9.8)

Lord Krishna By rule, anything created must be also be subject to destruction. Thus everything in this world is temporary, including our bodies. However, the spark that illuminates this body, the individual spirit soul, is eternal. The soul has no birth or death but due to association with material qualities, it is currently in an embodied form. The Vedas give us sanatana-dharma, or the eternal occupation of man, which is a set of guidelines that will help us break free of the repeated cycle of birth and death. The biggest hindrance towards spiritual perfection is sex life. The highest of material pleasures, sex life can lead to an attachment that keeps us bound to this material world, forcing us to repeatedly take birth, life after life. Marriage was created by God so as to allow us to control our sex desire. If we live a regulated life, free of attachment to fruitive activity (karma), it will be easier for us to think of God.

Since marriage is an institution where regulated sex life is allowed, an unmarried person desirous of sexual activity should enter into it as soon as possible. The current model where men and women freely intermingle is not recommended by the Vedas. God doesn’t want to explicitly punish us in any way, for having to live here is cause for misery by itself. The Lord would much rather help us along in our journey towards self-realization. In the Vedic tradition, parents are required to get their children married as soon as there is any inkling for sex desire. This way other problems such as single-parenthood, sexually transmitted diseases, adultery, etc. are all eliminated. When searching for a suitable husband or wife for their child, parents compare the astrological chart of both their own child and that of the potential spouse. The alignment of the planets at any given time signifies certain characteristics of the people born during such a time. There are auspicious signs and inauspicious signs. Expert brahmanas can predict the future of a young child simply by studying their astrological signs.

“After the birth of a child, the astrologers calculate the moment of the birth and make a horoscope of the child's future life. Another ceremony takes place after the birth of the child: the family members take baths, cleanse themselves and decorate themselves with ornaments and garlands; then they come before the child and the astrologer to hear of the future life of the child.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Krishna, The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vol 1, Ch 5)

Garga Muni reading Krishna's astrological signs Parents will never agree to a marriage if their child’s astrological signs don’t match those of the potential spouse. It’s not that the characteristics of both children have to be the same, but rather they must be compatible. We see that this formula holds true even in love-marriages. The husband and wife rarely have the same personality type or interests. The husband may be quiet and calm while the wife is very talkative and friendly. Yet these relationships can work since the characteristics of each person match well together.

Krishna and Rukmini tending to a brahmana guest More than anything else, the husband and wife should have the same value system. A marriage is a partnership where both parties are required to work for the same goal. Friction will naturally arise in any relationship, but if there is a dedication to dharma, there is no risk of separation or divorce. The common goal should be that of serving Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. A householder has clearly delineated duties as outlined by the shastras. They are to offer as much food as possible to the Lord. The resultant prasadam should then be distributed to as many people as possible. “Feed God and guests”; these are the two simple rules for householders. A husband and wife share in the accumulated spiritual merits, thus it is in both of their interests to stay committed to the path of dharma.

Many thousands of years ago, there was a great king by the name of Janaka who ruled over Mithila. One day while ploughing a field for the purpose of performing an elaborate religious sacrifice, he found a little girl coming out of the ground. He picked her up and immediately accepted her as his daughter. This girl was none other than the goddess of fortune, Lakshmiji. Janaka immediately felt affection for her. He named the girl Sita since she was born of the ground. Being a pious king, Janaka knew that some day he would have to find a suitable husband for Sita. When the time came, he was in a quandary. Knowing that Sita had no parents, he couldn’t find a suitable husband for her. Simply based on her qualities as a person, he knew that there was no ordinary man who was worthy enough to receive her as a wife.

Lord Rama lifting the bow Nevertheless, Janaka knew that he would face much scorn and ridicule if he were to keep Sita from getting married. To allay his fears and mollify potential critics, Janaka decided to hold a svayamvara, or a self-choice ceremony. On a previous occasion, he had been given a bow of Lord Shiva which was impossible to lift. Janaka decided that he would call princes from around the world and that whoever could lift and string the bow would win Sita’s hand in marriage. This satisfied all of Janaka’s conditions, for he knew that no one would be able to lift it. Even if someone could, that person surely would have to be a celestial or a highly advanced soul.

As it turned out, only Lord Rama, the prince of Ayodhya, could lift and string the bow. He not only lifted it, but He broke it in half. This wasn’t surprising since Rama was an incarnation of Lord Krishna, God Himself. The fact that Rama was chosen as Sita’s husband definitively reveals her true identity as God’s wife. As the Lord’s eternal consort, Sita can never have any other husband except God. Most of the world’s major religions give us some conception of God. They tell us that He is great. This is most certainly true, but the Vedas go one step further by enlightening us as to just how great He is. The Vedas tell us that Lord Krishna has thousands of names. Actually the entire list of names is impossible to count since God is all-powerful and all-attractive. Nevertheless, each of the provided names describes a specific personal feature. These names also prove that God is a person. An impersonal spirit can never be classified by different names because something that is impersonal, by definition, must be free of attributes. God has attributes, but they are not of this material world. He is completely spiritual, possessing an eternal body full of bliss and knowledge, sach-chid-ananda-vigraha. A few of Krishna’s names are Shripati, Madhava, and Shridhara. These all reference His eternal bond to Goddess Lakshmi. In Sanskrit, the word for husband is pati, which directly translates to lord or master. Krishna is the lord and master of Lakshmi.

Radha Krishna deities God is known as the energetic, while His eternal consorts serve as His energy. They are considered part of His pleasure potency, hladini-shakti. We living entities are part of the Lord’s marginal energy. While we are elevated in a sense, Sita Devi is at the topmost level since she directly pleases God. For this reason, she is given the same respect as God Himself. Whenever we see pictures of Lord Krishna or His expansions such as Lord Vishnu or Lord Rama, They are always seen with Their pleasure potency expansion. Radha and Krishna, Lakshmi and Narayana, Sita and Rama; these are the deities that are worshiped by Vaishnavas.

Sita and Rama both had specific duties to perform during Their time on earth. One can only imagine how exalted a person Janaka was to have to Sita as a daughter. Through his piety and devotion, he had the wisdom and foresight to figure out how to find just the right husband for Sita Devi. Nothing makes devotees happier than to see Sita and Rama always together. Even though they were separated from each other several times due to the course of events, God actually never lives apart from His devotees.

“For one who sees Me everywhere and sees everything in Me, I am never lost, nor is he ever lost to Me.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 6.30)

Sita's svayamvara May King Janaka forever be praised for bringing the divine couple together. May the beautiful image of the marriage of Sita and Rama forever be imprinted in our minds.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Bitter Clingers

Lord Krishna “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)

Sometimes people mistakenly believe that religion is just for those who are poor, or for those who are distrusting of others. “These people are unsuccessful in life, so in order to feel better, they took to religious life.” Some famous politicians refer to these types of people as “bitter clingers” who hang on to their guns and God as a way of coping with life. In reality, religion is for everyone, including those who are well-off.

Money It is the consensus opinion that material life should be considered successful if one becomes financially well-off. The entire school system is geared towards achieving this end. “Go to school, get into a good college, land a high paying job, and sustain you and your family with a nice salary. This is the path to success and happiness.” The World War II generation suffered through great hardships during their lifetime, including two world wars and a great economic depression. Times were tough, and the good life was never taken for granted. Having any steady job was considered a great reward. For this reason, future generations have tried their best to avoid suffering financial hardships. Politicians and societal leaders try their best to help the “little guy”. Economic policies all revolve around increasing growth and employment and enabling people to get high paying jobs.

Strangely enough, many followers of religion have also adopted this mindset. Religious leaders around the world extol the virtues of prayer. “If you want something, pray for it sincerely and maybe you will get it. Attend church, behave virtuously, and God will reward you with material success.” God is viewed as an order supplier; a person who can heal us and deliver our necessities. Religion is seen as the path to good fortune.

The modern day situation has thrown a monkey wrench into this view of religion. Due to the influence of Kali Yuga, more and more people today have no interest in religion. Strangely enough, it appears that this tendency towards adharma has not resulted in any negative consequences. Though economic times have been tough recently, the standard of living in America is as high as it has ever been. Even the average poor person today owns a house, a car, a few television sets, and an iPod. There is such an abundance of food that the federal government subsidizes farmers and advises them to limit crop production as a way of stabilizing prices.

With the current situation as it is, many people are led to ask the question, “Why do I need religion? I have a nice house, a good paying job, and a happy family life. I have been able to achieve all this success without any need for religion. Therefore spiritual life must not be very important. It only gives poor people false hope.” In reality, this line of thinking is actually correct when it comes to how religion is portrayed today. If God is viewed as an order supplier, and at the same time others can procure wealth without praying to Him, what need is there to be religious?

Krishna Book The Vedas give us the answer to this. Emanating from India, the Vedas are the original religious doctrine for all of mankind. Since each person possesses different qualities and attributes, the Vedas have separate branches, or departments, tailored for specific groups of people. Most of us are karmis by default. Karma is fruitive work done under regulative principles. Whatever my occupational duties are, I perform them to the best of my ability, and then enjoy the results of such work. In a broader sense, karma can also refer to any type of activity or action taken which is either performed for a desired result, or which has material reactions associated with it. By rule, every action we perform on the material level means there is a commensurate reaction. Sometimes we’ll see that certain people are prone to stealing and to cheating others. The laws of karma dictate that these same people will be cheated and stolen from in the future. Their impious deeds have negative reactions.

On the flip side, pious deeds have positive reactions attached to them. Similar to how religious leaders today recommend the process of prayer, the Vedas advise those seeking the four rewards of life: dharma, artha, kama, and moksha, to take to the performance of yajna, or sacrifice. The Vedas tell us that there is only one God and that His original form is that of Lord Shri Krishna. Krishna then deputes elevated living entities known as demigods to manage the affairs of the material world. Through sacrifice, the demigods are propitiated. They then reward the performers of sacrifice with rain, which in turn is used for food production, which enables us to eat and maintain our lives.

“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)

Yajna for Lord SatyanarayanaOne may wonder how America can have such an abundant food supply when almost none of its citizens perform such sacrifices for the benefit of the demigods. The answer is that demigods certainly do provide us boons, but these rewards must be sanctioned by Krishna first. Moreover, all of our material fortunes and misfortunes are a result of our past karma and the karma of others. If we are well-off in this life, it must mean that we performed many great deeds in previous lives. Just as we make plans for the next day while falling asleep at night, every action we perform in our current life serves as preparation for our next life. Our desires at the time of death, along with the work we performed during our lifetime, determine what type of body we will receive in our next life. The Vedas tell us that our souls are eternal, but that our bodies are not. Death is actually just the changing of bodies, similar to how we change clothes after taking a shower.

Krishna and Balarama feeding a cowKrishna, or God, not only supplies food to us humans, but He also maintains all the animals and plants of the world. The animal kingdom certainly doesn’t perform any sacrifices. They have absolutely no idea who God is, for their brain powers are limited. We human beings, the more intelligent species, are so puffed up with pride that we have the nerve to think that we are responsible for our wealth and good fortune. In essence, we think that we are God, since we take ourselves to be creators, proprietors, and destroyers. The reality is that we will be forced to die some day. All these same materials, which make up our possessions, existed on this earth for billions and billions of years prior to our birth, and they will continue to exist long after we are gone. In the grand scheme of things, our time on earth is tiny compared to the age of the universe. Our insignificance cannot be understated. Yet knowing these facts, many of us still think that God is just for the poor or for people who are in need of help in a material sense.

Just because we are well-off financially doesn’t mean that all our problems are solved either. We see that the wealthy are some of the most miserable people. Lord Krishna personally appeared on earth some five thousand years ago to kill the demon Kamsa and to enact wonderful pastimes in Vrindavana. Just prior to returning to the spiritual world, He gave a beautiful discourse on the meaning of life to His good friend Uddhava. Krishna explained that acquiring too much wealth can be very harmful to a person for two reasons. Firstly, the more wealth we acquire, the more we have to defend. A great example of this can be seen with cell phone technology. Competition between cell phone companies is fierce, so there are always new models of phones coming out, each having more and more features. Some of these phones are very nice and valuable, so the people who buy them want to do whatever they can to protect their precious toy. Buying a top of the line cell phone is not enough, for one must have a nice case for the phone that will give good protection. The same holds true with fancy sports cars. One must have a good insurance plan should anything happen to the car. The car also must be washed regularly and checked for nicks and scratches.

Lord Krishna speaking to Uddhava This attention to the mode of defense is not very good to us. Money is supposed to make us happy, but we see that the more possessions we acquire, the more miserly we become, as we are always on edge trying to make sure that we don’t lose what we have worked so hard to achieve. This mood of miserliness accounts for the second reason why too much wealth is bad for us. As stated before, every material action that we perform has a commensurate reaction that must bear fruit either in this life or in the afterlife. The Vedas tell us that being charitable is a great virtue. For every dollar we give in charity to a worthy recipient, we receive at least double that amount in a future life. In a similar manner, being miserly brings about negative karma. If we have loads and loads of money and simply hog it for ourselves, we will be forced to suffer in hell in the afterlife.

Thus we see that too much material success can lead to a hellish condition in both the current life and the afterlife. These facts alone should be enough to disprove the notion that religion is just for the poor. The question that may then be asked is, “If religion is not for procuring material benefits, what is it for?” This is the million dollar question. Actually, anyone who sincerely looks for an answer to this question will be guaranteed of success in spiritual life. The Vedas tell us that human life is not meant for driving a nice car, eating sumptuous food, or even enjoying unlimited sex life. Human beings are unique to all other species in that they have a high level of intelligence. This intelligence was given to us so that we could use it to know, understand, and love God.

Athato brahma-jijnasa, “Now is the time for inquiring about Brahman, or God.” Religion is for everyone. All of us should question what the meaning of life is. Material wealth comes and goes, as do our lives. There must be a higher purpose to our existence than the pursuit of mundane sense gratification, for even the animals get to enjoy that. The Vedas tell us that the eternal occupation of the soul is bhagavata-dharma, or devotional service to God. More than just a simple order supplier, God is our dearmost, ever well-wishing friend. He is the reservoir of all pleasure. This means that if we connect with Him, we will feel transcendental bliss. This is spiritual happiness and, unlike material sense gratification, it can last forever.

Radha and Krsihna So how do we achieve this happiness? This blissful feeling comes from Krishna-prema, or love for God. We already have this love in our heart, for we are all originally companions of Krishna in the spiritual world. In order to rekindle that relationship, we need to engage in the processes of devotional service, the simplest of which is the chanting of the holy names of God, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. Even if we live the most comfortable life, we are destined to give up all our possessions and family relationships at the time of death. Krishna is our eternal friend, and sincere service to Him brings immediate results. Serving Krishna means happiness in this life and the next. The spiritual world is not a pipe dream or some mental concoction, but rather it is where we are meant to live.