Saturday, July 3, 2010


Shrimati Radharani “The vibration of My transcendental flute attracts the three worlds, but My ears are enchanted by the sweet words of Shrimati Radharani.” (Lord Krishna, Chaitanya Charitamrita, Adi 4.244)

A great way of judging a person’s character is by analyzing who they hang around with and who their friends are. Analyzing the makeup of a person’s friend circle gives insight from two different angles. First, it tells us what kind of person someone deems as friend-worthy, meaning who they voluntarily choose to spend their time with. There are many activities we can take up in our free time, so naturally we derive more enjoyment when there are people to share our experiences with. This is where friends come into play. By understanding who a person is friends with, we also get insight into what kinds of people choose to be friends with said person. For example, if a famous or well-respected person is friends with another person, it must mean that the well-respected person thinks highly enough of their friend to openly declare their friendship to others. This is how political endorsements work; i.e. a politician hoping to attract more voters by getting the endorsement, which is a type of friendship, of an established political figure. Respectable people carry great clout, so if they vouch for someone else, it goes a long way towards establishing the recipient’s reputation. We can apply this same principle towards God to gain a better understanding of His transcendental qualities.

“I told him that my wife assumes that everybody is her friend until they prove differently. While such an assumption maximizes the number of friends that she will have, it also maximizes her chances of being betrayed. Unlike my wife, my assumption is everyone is my enemy until they prove they're a friend. That assumption minimizes my number of friends but minimizes the chances of betrayal.” (Dr. Walter E. Williams, Do People Care)

With so many people in the world, it’s difficult to make an accurate judgment into the nature and quality of a person. As a result, it is also harder to accurately classify people without knowing their true nature. By the same token, it is also difficult for others to know our characteristics. Economist, professor, and author Walter E. Williams often tells a funny story in this regard. When he was studying economics at UCLA, Williams met the famous economist Armen Alchian and asked him a series of questions. Williams said that his wife felt that every person automatically viewed her as their friend, while Williams believed that every person automatically thought of him as a suspect. Which of the two viewpoints was correct? Alchian replied with a question, "Williams, have you considered a third alternative, namely, that people don't give a damn about you one way or another?"

This is actually a brilliant point because most of us don’t really care one way or the other about strangers. Maybe some physical feature will sway our opinion one direction, but this is a superficial opinion which doesn’t really hold any weight. In order to have a strong opinion, a gut feeling about something, we need to delve deeper into the issue. To this end, when judging people that we don’t know much about, we often look to see who they spend their time with, and as importantly, who decides to spend time with them. For example, we may see an ordinary book on the bookshelf at the local bookstore and simply pass by it. This is our natural apathy or equanimity showing itself. However, if we see that a famous person has written the foreword to the book, we are more likely to buy the book or at least open it up to see what it’s about.

Why is this true? Say that we have a favorite talk show host, actor, or other celebrity figure. If we see that such and such a person has written an introduction to someone else’s book, it essentially means they are endorsing it and inviting others to buy the book. If we respect person A, we are likely to respect anyone that person A considers a friend. Many of the jobs in the private sector are obtained this way. Hiring a new employee means bringing a new person into the family. People spend a lot of time at work, so naturally there is a comfort zone that gradually develops over time. Coworkers become used to each other, so it is not an easy thing to bring in a new person. For this reason, many companies like to hire people based on referrals and endorsements. “Yes, this person is a great employee, so if they are recommending this other person, we should certainly hire them.” One employee vouches for another, so an inherent trust is established.

Lord Krishna Why are all these facts relevant? The one person who we should know the most about, but probably don’t, is the Supreme Lord, or God. God is great. Most of us know this fact but we’re not really sure what it means. Sure, He created this whole universe and makes sure that we have enough rain, food, shelter, clothing, etc., but does this really tell us anything about the man behind the greatness? Is He even a man? Does He have a form? Does He have a name, or does He just prefer to go by the term “God”?

The Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, try to provide answers to many of these intriguing questions. The Vedas declare that God is indeed a person, purusha, and that He is male. The term purusha can also mean male because purusha is the dominator of prakriti. Purusha is the enjoyer, or spirit, and prakriti is the enjoyed, or matter. Vedic information also states that God has unlimited forms, ananta-rupam, but that His original form is Shyamasundara, Lord Shri Krishna. Since He has unlimited forms, God has unlimited names which describe His various qualities and activities. The name Krishna means all-attractive. Shyamasundara means a beautiful person who has the complexion of a dark rain cloud.

The Vedas are very nice in this regard. They clue us in about many of the unknown questions we have about God and what He’s capable of. This is all well and good, but as we see in real life, it’s beneficial to have others vouch for a person’s character. Most of us don’t ever remember seeing God face to face, so we have to go off the authority of the scriptures. But there is another way of understanding the Supreme Lord. We can simply look to see who His friends are. By judging the character of God’s friends, we can gain better insight into how He works.

Radha Krishna So who are some of God’s friends? The Vedas tell us that His first friend is Shrimati Radharani. She is Krishna’s best friend, and since she gives Him more pleasure than anyone else, she is known as the Lord’s pleasure potency, hladini-shakti. Technically, Radharani is not Krishna’s wife, for the marriage relationship could never accurately describe the intimate feelings they have for each other. Radha and Krishna are always together in the spiritual world, but when needed, they come down to earth and enact the same pastimes for the benefit of mankind. Some five thousand years ago, the divine couple roamed this earth and enacted many wonderful pastimes in Vrindavana.

“Shrimati Radharani's twenty-five chief transcendental qualities are: (1) She is very sweet. (2) She is always freshly youthful. (3) Her eyes are restless. (4) She smiles brightly. (5) She has beautiful, auspicious lines. (6) She makes Krishna happy with Her bodily aroma. (7) She is very expert in singing. (8) Her speech is charming. (9) She is very expert in joking and speaking pleasantly. (10) She is very humble and meek. (11) She is always full of mercy. (12) She is cunning. (13) She is expert in executing Her duties. (14) She is shy. (15) She is always respectful. (16) She is always calm. (17) She is always grave. (18) She is expert in enjoying life. (19) She is situated at the topmost level of ecstatic love. (20) She is the reservoir of loving affairs in Gokula. (21) She is the most famous of submissive devotees. (22) She is very affectionate to elderly people. (23) She is very submissive to the love of Her friends. (24) She is the chief gopi. (25) She always keeps Krishna under Her control. In short, She possesses unlimited transcendental qualities, just as Lord Krishna does.” (Chaitanya Charitamrita, Madhya 23.87-91)

Radha Krishna If we consult the authorized Vedic texts like the Shrimad Bhagavatam, Brahmavaivarta Purana, and other works written by the great devotees of Krishna, we can gain a better understanding of Radha’s character. Upon consulting these works one will quickly realize that Radha’s character is top notch. She is kind, sweet, humble, beautiful, etc. The Chaitanya Charitamrita lists her primary divine qualities. She is a top notch chef, for Lord Krishna enjoys her cooking more than anyone else’s. She is shy, a wonderful daughter, has perfect knowledge of the scriptures, and is always concerned about the welfare of others. So in this regard we see that she is the topmost person. In Vrindavana her appearance day is celebrated with more fanfare than even Lord Krishna’s is. Many devotees view her as being greater than God since she is His perfect servant. Not only does she love God purely and without motive, but she is also completely unselfish, not wanting to hog Krishna for herself. She is the one who recommends devotees to Krishna. If she sees that someone is pure and interested in rekindling their relationship with the Supreme Lord, she puts in a good word with Krishna. Knowing these facts, how could anyone not love her? The Vedas tell us that Radharani is the origin of all the goddesses of fortune, meaning that Goddess Lakshmi, and Sita Devi, the wife of Lord Rama, are expansions of Radha. Sita Devi, who similarly possesses all great qualities, is the same Radharani.

Just by knowing that Radha views Krishna as the supreme object of pleasure is reason enough for us to take to Krishna’s service. But as we all know, people have different tastes. We tend to like those people who are similar to us in nature. These are the people we choose to be friends with. For example, if we are open and honest and like to be sociable, it makes sense that others who possess similar traits would attract us. By the same token, those who are shy and reserved and never want to offend others will naturally look to be friends with those who also possess these qualities.

Lord Rama Just as God has many forms and names, He also has many friends. Even if we aren’t impressed by the fact that Radha is Krishna’s best friend, we can still study the lives of some of the Lord’s other friends. Lord Rama is one of Krishna’s most famous incarnations. The handsome and pious prince of Ayodhya, Rama took on and defeated the Rakshasa demon Ravana many thousands of years ago during the Treta Yuga. Ravana had his own army of Rakshasas, but the Lord didn’t take them all on by Himself, though He easily could have. Instead, He enlisted the help of Vanaras, an elevated race of monkeys, whose lead warrior was Hanuman. In India, everyone knows who Hanuman is. He is probably the most popular divine figure, worshiped by millions. Hanuman is unbelievably strong, courageous, kind, and learned. He possesses all yogic siddhis, or perfections, so he can assume any shape at will. He can make himself unbelievably large or small.

"You are the gate-keeper of Shri Rama's kingdom, where none may enter without your permission." (Goswami Tulsidas praising Hanuman, Hanuman Chalisa)

Hanuman worshiping Rama Hanuman is so strong that he could have defeated Ravana all by himself. But why didn’t he? Of all his characteristics, Hanuman is best known for his devotion to Lord Rama. In fact, Hanuman isn’t concerned with all of his other qualities, for he views everything in relation to how it can help him serve Rama. In this regard, we see that Hanuman is of the highest character. Goswami Tulsidas, the famous Vaishnava saint and poet, spent much time worshiping Lord Rama, but his devotion didn’t reach fruition until he approached Hanuman and took instruction from him. Returning the love shown to him, Tulsidas authored the famous Hanuman Chalisa, an ode to the great servant of Lord Rama. Those who want to worship Lord Rama are advised to first seek out Hanumanji. Similar to how Radharani recommends devotees to Lord Krishna, Hanuman enables a person to develop their love for Lord Rama in a perfect way.

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

Lord Krishna Radha and Hanuman are just two of the Lord’s great friends and devotees. Prahlada, Janaka, Lord Shiva, Shukadeva Goswami, and countless others are also great devotees and friends of the Lord. These people dedicate their lives to always associating with God, and at the same time, the Supreme Lord always remains with them. The lesson here is that we should most certainly try to understand God, for that is the meaning of life. The human brain allows us to take the necessary steps to understand that God is the proprietor of everything, our dearmost friend, and the ultimate reservoir of all pleasure. Understanding these three facts is the key that unlocks the door to the spiritual world.

“The worship of My devotees is better than worship of Me.” (Lord Krishna, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 11.19.21)

Getting this key isn’t easy, so in addition to trying to understand Krishna, we should also take the time to get to know His friends. God’s friends will teach us how to become an associate of the Lord. As jiva souls, part and parcel of the Supreme Lord, we can never become God. The highest perfection we can achieve is becoming God’s friend. By offering our service to His well-wishers, the great devotees and spiritual masters, we can learn how to do just that. The pure devotee will give us a ringing endorsement, allowing us to rest assured that the Lord will accept us as His friend.

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Sacrificial Stake

Lord Rama “The powerful Raghava [Rama] will destroy whatever remains of your life. Like the life of an animal tied to the sacrificial stake, your own is incapable of being reclaimed.” (Sita Devi speaking to Ravana, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 56.9)

Though devotees of Vishnu today refrain from eating meat, there used to be a rich tradition of elaborate sacrifices performed in the past where even animals were killed as part of the religious ceremonies. Kings and other exalted living entities would go to great lengths to perform these animal sacrifices, for these rituals provided tremendous spiritual rewards both for the performers and the animals that were killed. In the Treta Yuga, the second time period of creation, the performance of elaborate sacrifices was the most effective method for achieving transcendental realization. As time went on, the practice was gradually abolished as many were taking to killing animals simply as an excuse to eat meat.

Lord Krishna performing a sacrifice Animal sacrifice, in the Vedic sense, is supposed to be a completely religious experience. By religion we mean that discipline pertaining to the advancement of the soul. The spirit soul, or atma, residing within our body forms the basis of our identity. Our arms, hands, legs, and face all go through changes, but our identity always remains the same. This is due to the presence of the soul. Religion, more accurately known as sanatana-dharma, is the set of guidelines and procedures that enables the soul to eventually return to its original home, the spiritual world. God, in His original form, along with His various vishnu-tattva expansions, resides in the spiritual world. There He is in constant association with His pleasure potency energy expansions. We living entities are meant to be part of God’s superior energy, but in order to associate with the Lord we must first break free of our affinity for material activity.

To this end, there are various processes laid down by the scriptures which enable one to rekindle their forgotten relationship with God. Sacrifice is one of the central practices of any religious discipline, so it is not surprising to see that it plays a prominent role in the Vedic tradition. Sacrifice essentially means voluntarily giving up something enjoyable for the betterment of another person or even for ourselves. Our parents, for example, sacrifice a lot for our happiness. They work very hard and give up their life of sense gratification simply to provide a good upbringing for us. We know from our own experiences that children and young adults enjoy practicing a care-free lifestyle. During the 1960s in America, there was a rebellion against the older generation, with young adults not wanting to trust anyone who was over thirty years old. This speaks to the brash nature of the young; they never want to be tied down by rules and regulations.

Yet we see that people gradually mature, and they give up their unregulated way of life when they have children or when they start an important job. This is a form of sacrifice, for a person understands that they must give up certain habits in order to be successful in other areas such as raising children and maintaining a steady job. Religious life is similar in this regard. In order to understand God and realize the presence of the soul within, sacrifice is required. What is it that we must sacrifice? Upon taking birth here, we become enveloped in a cloud of illusion which makes us think that we will be happy by meeting the demands of the senses. “I want to eat this; I want to eat that; I want to go here; I want to go there, etc.” As we soon find out, the senses can never be truly satisfied. Aside from pulling us in every which direction, the demands of the senses also cause us to drift further away from spiritual life.

Krishna and Balarama tending to a cow If we were to categorize the different kinds of activities one could perform, acts involving sense gratification would be put on one side, while spiritual activities would go on the opposite side. Spirituality involves taking care of the demands of the soul and not the senses. In order for this to happen, we must sacrifice certain things that we have attachments to. In the Treta Yuga, societal leaders relied heavily on the animal community. In the Vedic tradition, cows have always played a prominent role. Owning a cow can virtually eliminate the poverty problem. Simply by giving the cow a small plot of land to live on, one can survive on the bountiful fruits such as milk, cheese, and yogurt, which are all freely provided by the cow. The kings during Vedic times required a strong military presence, with horses playing an integral role. There were no planes, trains, or automobiles, so any type of advanced transportation required a fleet of horses.

For these reasons, the Vedic scriptures often recommended animal sacrifice as a religious activity. In order to be considered a sacrifice, the thing being given up must be something of importance. The famous ashvamedha-yajna involved giving up a horse. These animal sacrifices were nothing like the killing of animals that goes on today in slaughterhouses. The horses were allowed to roam free for a year, travelling all around the world. After the horse would come home, it would be tied to a stake, where it would eventually be sacrificed in an official ceremony.

“Ashvamedha-yajnas or Gomedha-yajnas, sacrifices in which a horse or a bull is sacrificed, were not, of course, for the purpose of killing the animals. Lord Chaitanya said that such animals sacrificed on the altar of yajna were rejuvenated and a new life was given to them. It was just to prove the efficacy of the hymns of the Vedas.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 1.8.52 Purport)

Lava and Kusha stopping Lord Rama's horse These sacrifices were completely spiritual in nature; the kings were giving up something valuable to them. The animals were also benefitted, for the soul residing within the animal was guaranteed to receive a human body in the next life. The Vedas consider the human species to be the most auspicious because the human being has the intelligence to learn about and love God. It is through the development of this loving attachment to the Supreme Lord that a soul can finally achieve the perfection of returning back to the spiritual world.

As time went on, mankind’s adherence to dharma, or religiosity, gradually diminished to the point where brahmanas were performing animal sacrifices simply to satisfy the demands of the tongue. They wanted to eat meat, so in the name of religion, they would regularly kill animals. To reform this practice, Lord Krishna, God Himself, personally appeared on earth as Lord Buddha. Lord Buddha outwardly denied the authority of the Vedas in order to give his philosophy of non-violence credence. This is a great example of God’s mercy. He knew that at the time people could not achieve spiritual perfection by killing animals unnecessarily. In order to help mankind gradually reform, the Lord preached against the Vedas. Thus the animal sacrifice practice was stopped, eventually leading to the condition today where followers of the Vedas don’t eat any type of meat, fish, or eggs.

Dasharatha's sacrifice In a properly executed Vedic animal sacrifice, the animal is tied to a stake and then guaranteed spiritual advancement after it is killed. In a similar manner, the demon Ravana was metaphorically sacrificed by Lord Rama, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. In the Treta Yuga, God appeared on earth to reinstitute the principles of religion and to annihilate the miscreants in the form of the Rakshasa demons who were harassing the saintly people of the earth. Lord Rama was born and raised in a kshatriya family, so He was quite familiar with the concept of an animal sacrifice. In fact, His father, Maharaja Dasharatha, performed an Ashvamedha-yajna that eventually led to the Lord’s appearance.

During Lord Rama’s time, the demon Ravana was chief among the Rakshasas. He ruled over an island kingdom known as Lanka and he was extremely powerful. Even the demigods, or elevated living entities, feared him. Rama couldn’t kill Ravana outright, however. The Lord, taking birth in a family of pious kings, vowed to adhere to the established codes of conduct, or dharma. These rules stipulated that a king should never attack another person without due cause. In this way, Lord Rama really couldn’t attack Ravana unless and until Ravana did something to provoke Him.

Sita Devi Ravana took care of this by kidnapping Lord Rama’s wife, Sita. Ravana brought Sita back to his kingdom of Lanka and held her captive in a garden. In the above referenced quote, Sita is responding to Ravana’s advances. She is informing him that his days are numbered and that Rama will destroy him very soon. Sita compares Ravana’s fate to that of an animal tied to a sacrificial stake. What’s ironic here is that according to the material vision, it was Sita who was the captive of Ravana. Yet from her authoritative statements, we can understand that it was Ravana who had the noose around his neck and not Sita.

Just as a sacrificial animal is guaranteed of spiritual elevation, Ravana was similarly provided the same luxury. Lord Rama eventually marched to Lanka and killed Ravana in battle. Fighting with God and being killed directly by Him are not everyday occurrences. As their reward, such fighters are granted mukti, or the liberation of merging into the body of the Supreme Lord. Liberation means that the soul is released from the cycle of birth and death. There are five primary types of liberation, each depending on a person’s consciousness at the time of death. Ravana was thinking of God as an enemy at the time of death, so he received a specific type of mukti. If such a reward is bestowed upon God’s enemies, one can only imagine what is in store for the devotees. Lord Rama’s closest associates were granted the boon of being forever devoted to Him. All the people of Ayodhya, the kingdom which Lord Rama ruled as king, returned to the spiritual world at the same time as Lord Rama. In this way, they were granted the best type of liberation, that of eternal loving association with the Lord.

Lord Chaitanya and associates The lesson here is that we don’t need to kidnap God’s wife or anger the Lord in order to be benefitted spiritually. We don’t even need to kill animals. In this age, animals don’t play as prominent a role in our economic livelihood since advanced technology has greatly increased our food producing capabilities. Sacrificing animals isn’t necessary because we aren’t really giving up much by killing them. The only bona fide sacrifice in this age is the sankirtana-yajna, or the congregational chanting of the holy names of God, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”.

How can chanting be a sacrifice? Chanting the name of God requires us to engage our tongue, our ears, and most importantly, our time. In this fast paced world we don’t have much time to think about God. We are busy studying hard in school or putting in long hours at the office. When we come home, there are the demands of the family and the house that must be met. If we are lucky enough to get free time, we just want to relax. In this way, we see that spending time reciting God’s name is certainly a sacrifice. Just as with the sacrifices performed in previous ages, the performance of sankirtana greatly benefits the soul. Sankirtana is an integral part of bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. It is the practice of this yoga that enables us to change our consciousness from the material to the spiritual world. If we think of God at the time of death, we are guaranteed to return to His spiritual abode.

“After attaining Me, the great souls, who are yogis in devotion, never return to this temporary world, which is full of miseries, because they have attained the highest perfection.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 8.1)

Ravana unintentionally tied himself to the sacrificial stake by kidnapping Sita. Lord Rama came to rescue Sita, but in the process, also rescued Ravana’s soul. For the devotees, there is a much more peaceful path to salvation. We simply have to envelop ourselves in the transcendental sound vibrations of the holy names of God. The Lord will most certainly hear this sound and come to our rescue in the same way.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Giving Back

Lord Chaitanya “Whomever you meet, instruct him on the teachings of Krishna. In this way, on My order, become a spiritual master and deliver the people of this country.” (Lord Chaitanya, Chaitanya Charitamrita, Madhya 7.128)

A term you hear quite often from celebrities and wealthy people is “giving back”. The term is generally associated with the idea of charity, i.e. giving back to the community at large. While the idea of helping the underprivileged in the community seems noble enough, how do we decide who is worthy of our service? Who is actually responsible for our success? Who have we taken from, and who is it that we owe our debt of gratitude to? More than anyone else in the world, the person we owe the most to is God, along with all of His devotees.

Famous celebrities and athletes often reach a point in their lives where they need something more. Either they have achieved all the success and fame they coveted, or they have reached a point where they feel guilty about their financial disposition. “I am too wealthy. I have more money than I can think of. I need to really make a difference in someone’s life.” To alleviate their concerns, the wealthy take to acts of charity and philanthropy. They will open schools, hospitals, or set up charitable foundations which disperse their assets throughout the community. With charity, the areas of interest often have a personal connection to the person donating the money. For example, a famous hockey player may form a program relating to helping underprivileged youths take up hockey. The player might build a rink in a poor neighborhood or sponsor a camp where lucky children get to participate in games and take hockey instruction directly from the athlete.

Sold out baseball stadium When these players and celebrities are asked why they are taking to charity, they often answer with, “I need to give back to the community.” Now if we study the makeup of this one statement, we’ll see that the premise is flawed. “Giving back” implies that something was taken. With the example of athletes, what have they taken? Their revenue comes from ticket sales, merchandise sales, and television revenue for their sport. In regards to ticket sales and the sale of merchandise, did the athlete force anyone to fork over their hard earned money? Did the athlete force people to watch games on television, inviting their friends and family over to take interest in the biggest games of the season? Do movie stars force people to spend ten dollars to see a movie in the theater, along with the added expense of buying popcorn and soda?

We see that this kind of wealth, the type earned in a free market, comes about through the peaceable and voluntary exchange of goods and services. The term capitalism is generally associated with rich tycoons and crafty businessmen, but in reality, what we know as capitalism is simply the free exchange of goods. Free doesn’t refer to the cost, but rather to the exercise of freedom. In a pure free market, no one is coerced into spending money or into selling a product or service. Hence the exchanges are made peaceably and voluntarily. Moreover, there is a respect for private property and the rule of law. This means that stealing someone’s property and then selling it is not allowed.

Baseball It is quite normal to see the wealthy disliked by others. “They have so much money, what do they need it for? They are greedy and they spend all their time exploiting the innocent public.” While there is no question that greed exists, in a free market, it is impossible for a person to become rich without voluntary support from the masses. For example, a star baseball player earns millions of dollars for simply hitting a baseball and running around bases. How does this happen? People spend money to go to games, to buy jerseys, and also to patronize the sponsors of these games when they are aired on television. So we see that the baseball player himself has done nothing to force action; no one can accurately claim that he is undeserving of his salary. If the public is outraged about a player’s salary, they have no one to blame but themselves.

The same holds true with tycoons of industry. Oil company executives have long been deemed villains, with oil spills and other related accidents not helping their cause, but how did they become rich in the first place? Don’t most of us purchase the gasoline that they sell? If none of us purchased gasoline, jet fuel, or home heating oil, the executives at the oil companies wouldn’t earn a penny. So if we are to be angry with or jealous of anyone, we need only look in the mirror. The same principle applies to software and retail outlets. Bill Gates and Sam Walton became rich because they found products that appealed to a massive audience. Their money was earned peaceably and voluntarily.

Lord Krishna So in this respect, we see that the wealthy don’t need to give anything back to the community because they haven’t taken anything. Nevertheless, the philanthropic work of the wealthy seems noble enough, so why should we care if they mistakenly believe they need to give back? The issue is with the nature of the charity work. Whether they are opening up hospitals, day camps, soup kitchens, or charitable foundations, we see that philanthropists are primarily aiding the material conditions of others. What do we mean by material?

“The Supreme Lord said, The indestructible, transcendental living entity is called Brahman, and his eternal nature is called the self. Action pertaining to the development of these material bodies is called karma, or fruitive activities.” (Bhagavad-gita, 8.3)

The Vedas tell us that all energies can be placed into two general categories: the divine and the material. The divine is related to spirit, i.e. anything that is permanent, immutable, and always full of knowledge. The material relates to anything which is created, maintained, and destroyed. Based on the definitions of these two natures, we can understand that our bodies are part of the material nature, while our souls are part of the divine nature. Of the two, the divine energy is superior because it never changes. Moreover, the divine nature is directly related with God, while the material nature is considered part of His separate energy.

Since the material nature is always changing, as evidenced by the development of our own body, does it make sense to pay so much attention to it? Many of us feel for the poor. “There are so many people out there that go to bed hungry. It doesn’t seem fair. We should help them out.” In reality, even the wealthy go hungry every now and then. The wealthy have a way to satisfy their hunger, but inevitably, that hunger is sure to return. The poor are certainly hungry more often, but they too get satisfaction from time to time. In the end, is there any difference between the hunger of a poor person and the hunger of a rich person? Are these two feelings not the same?

Bhishma remembering Krishna at the time of death The Vedas tell us that every person who lives on the material platform, i.e. he who associates exclusively with the material energy, is hungry. This means that we are all underprivileged. How do we go from being underprivileged to over-privileged? First off, no amount of money can help our spiritual condition. Money is part of the material energy, so it can never touch spirit. It has no effect on our spiritual fortunes. In order to satisfy our spiritual hunger, we must engage in spiritual activities. By associating with material nature, we work on developing our future body. Not only is our current material body always changing, but at the time of death, we are given a new body based on the activities we performed over the course of our lifetime.

“Whatever state of being one remembers when he quits his body, that state he will attain without fail.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 8.6)

The goal of human life is to take to activities which work on developing the spiritual body. How do we do this? Luckily for us, many great saints of the past saw the light themselves. They became disgusted with material life. Either they were extremely wealthy, or they realized the futility in seeking after sense gratification, so they took to spiritual life. Thankfully, they didn’t just achieve spiritual perfection and then keep all their acquired knowledge to themselves. Being the greatest welfare workers, these saints preached the spiritual message to anyone who would listen, and they also wrote down their instructions in books.

Let us revisit the issue of “giving back”. Since we see that the wealthy usually don’t take anything from anyone else, does this mean they aren’t indebted to anyone? The Vedas tell us that God is actually the proprietor of everything. This means that not only does He own all the land, air, water, sea, etc., but He even owns our bodies. “If God owns everything, does that mean we are stealing?” Though He owns everything, God kindly allows us to use those things which come to us through honest endeavors. Still, if we falsely claim ownership of everything without acknowledging God, we are most certainly thieves. The wise, realizing that God is everything, utilize all their possessions towards pleasing Him.

Valmiki writing the Ramayana In order to associate with the divine nature, we must understand three things: God is the proprietor of everything, He is the supreme enjoyer, and He is our friend. Those who understand this have no problem deciphering what action should be performed and what shouldn’t. Moreover, they also understand who they need to give back to. Service to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Krishna, is the most sublime engagement, the highest form of welfare work.

“Just try to learn the truth by approaching a spiritual master. Inquire from him submissively and render service unto him. The self-realized soul can impart knowledge unto you because he has seen the truth.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 4.34)

What activities make up this service? In order to find out, we first need to seek out someone who knows God, someone who has served Him already. God is the oldest person; He never takes birth nor does He die. Prior to the time of our present birth, God provided many great instructions and performed many wonderful pastimes. These instructions and pastimes have been documented by the great saints, the keepers of the faith. We simply need to consult these instructions to figure out the proper course of action.

Not only are we indebted to God, but to His devotees as well. They are the torchbearers. Great saints like Narada Muni, Vyasadeva, Tulsidas, Shrila Rupa Gosvami, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, and countless others have all passed on the supreme science of bhakti-yoga, or devotional service to God. We are forever indebted to them for their untiring devotion to the Lord and their desire to glorify His name, form, and pastimes. Though God never dies or goes away, these saints kept Him alive in a sense by passing on information about Him to society at large.

Lord Krishna and His pastimes How do we give back to these great saints? The first thing we need to do is consult their literature and understand their teachings. The great saints advise that we make devotional service our primary occupation. The simplest and most effective devotional activity for the people of this age is the constant chanting of the holy names of God, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. Coupled with this practice, we must also remove all unwanted things in life, anarthas, the primary of which are the four pillars of sinful life: meat eating, gambling, intoxication, and illicit sex.

Simply making a sincere effort at devotional service is enough to please the saints. Yet this alone doesn’t fully repay our debt to them. Life’s mission is certainly complete once we understand that Krishna owns everything, that He is our best friend, and that He is the greatest source of pleasure. But we should try to go one step further by then passing on this same information to others. By enlightening others about the meaning of life and pointing them in the right direction, we come closer to evening the balance sheet as it relates to our spiritual debts. Even if we can’t instruct others, if we simply tell others about Krishna and His devotees, we will be engaging in the highest welfare work. The formula is very simple, and the resultant effects in society will show very quickly.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Luck Runs Out

Lord Rama “Although, O Ravana, you may be incapable of being slain by either the demigods or the demons, since you have created a very great enmity with Rama, He will not let you get away alive.” (Sita Devi speaking to Ravana, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 56.8)

Sita Devi, the glorious wife of Lord Rama, is here informing the demon Ravana that his days are numbered. Whatever good fortune he had in the past was about to end due to one despicable act. What crime was Ravana guilty of? He kidnapped the wife of Lord Rama and forcibly brought her into his custody on the island of Lanka. For this transgression, Ravana would have to pay dearly. Sita’s words would certainly hold true, as Lord Rama didn’t let Ravana escape with his life.

Lord Krishna The first portion of Sita’s statement refers to the immunity Ravana had from attacks from demigods and asuras. Since the beginning of time, there has been an ongoing struggle between the demigods, or suras, and the non-devotees, the asuras. The Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, don’t mention anything about a devil, but they do tell us that every living entity possesses different material qualities. A devotee lives primarily in the mode of goodness, which consists of knowledge, self-control, and peace. Asuras live primarily in the mode of ignorance, which can be characterized by any activity that goes against the injunctions of the revealed scriptures and which also is devoid of any intentions for fruitive gain.

“The foolish cannot understand how a living entity can quit his body, nor can they understand what sort of body he enjoys under the spell of the modes of nature. But one whose eyes are trained in knowledge can see all this.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 15.10)

Essentially, the battles between the suras and the asuras are those between the forces of good and evil. Suras understand that God exists and that the purpose of life is to serve Him. Asuras identify solely with their gross material body, not believing in any sort of higher power or an afterlife. They believe that the ultimate aim is to enjoy as much as possible for the short duration of their time on earth. To this end, they will do whatever it takes to satisfy the sense demands of their body, including taking to sinful activity. Ravana, though born of a brahmana father, was a Rakshasa in quality from his birth. A Rakshasa is a specific type of asura, specializing in certain activities. Rakshasas love to eat meat, and they do not discriminate when it comes to the type they’ll eat. For example, they have no problem eating human flesh, for Ravana and his associates used to regularly terrorize the saints living in the forests.

“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, Bg. 17.13)

The events of Ravana’s life took place during the Treta Yuga, which by most calculations occurred millions of years ago. During those times, the religious class of society, the brahmanas, used to migrate to the forest since it was more conducive to performing austerities, or tapasya. The forests were actually referred to as tapo-vanas due to their spiritually welcoming environment. Rakshasas were expert in black magic and witchcraft. They would perform ghoulish sacrifices aimed to pleasing ghosts and spirits.

Ravana was a crafty Rakshasa, however, and he knew that to get anywhere in life, he needed to please more than just ghosts and goblins. He took to worshiping various demigods, or suras. This is rather ironic, for the Rakshasas and demigods were great enemies, so how could Ravana worship them? As stipulated by Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the demigods are required to grant benedictions to whoever pleases them properly. The material world which we live in is a sort of neutral playing field. On the highest level, there is no such thing as good and evil.

What do we mean by material? Material refers to matter, which is God’s inferior energy. Matter is inferior because it is controlled by spirit, which is superior. Constitutionally speaking, we are all spirit souls, so we are superior to matter. At the same time, there is a supreme spirit known as God. Since He is the most powerful spirit, we are subordinate to Him. When a person has material desires, it means they have a desire to increase something related to matter. For example, Ravana wanted to achieve great wealth, fame, and fighting prowess. These are all considered material things because they aren’t related to helping the spirit soul.

How do we help the soul? The Vedas tell us that the soul is happiest when it is in its natural home, its most comfortable environment. That home is in the spiritual world, where Lord Krishna and His various expansions reside. The soul is meant to be a lover of God, to be in constant union with the supreme spirit. This union is achieved through the yoga process. Yoga means acting for the benefit of the soul, a soul which is superior to matter. The soul represents our real identity, for the gross body is created at some point in time, performs some activities, and is then ultimately destroyed at the time of death. The spirit soul, however, never takes birth nor dies. It is unbreakable, indestructible, and immutable.

Lord BrahmaWhen it comes to our material aspirations, God does not take an interest. Whether we want to ascend to the heavenly planets or simply have good health, the Supreme Lord always remains aloof. This is because Krishna, or God, can never directly associate with matter. To meet the demands of the fruitive worker, the Lord has deputed many highly elevated living entities known as demigods. It is their duty to fulfill the desires of their devotees. Ravana, though a Rakshasa, was equally entitled to the rewards provided by the demigods. He performed great austerities that were so severe that several prominent demigods became very pleased with him. Lord Brahma, the first created living entity and demigod in charge of the mode of passion, granted Ravana the boon that no demigod or asura could defeat him in battle.

Ravana was thrilled by this boon. He didn’t believe in a God, so he thought that he had just outsmarted his main rivals. What’s interesting is that Ravana also asked for immunity from asuras, or his fellow demons. The conditioned living entity is forced to compete with his fellow man for sense gratification. Through ignorance, the non-devotees think that there is no God, so they in essence compete with each other to become the supreme living entity on earth. Ravana knew that his fellow asuras would compete with him over issues of sense gratification, so he made sure to ask for immunity from them. This meant that Ravana could take on any living entity on earth and not have to worry about being killed.

People in the mode of goodness will accurately note that Ravana wasted all of his hard work performing austerities. Devotees of God want nothing to do with temporary material rewards, which only provide fleeting happiness. An abundance of possessions can drive one to becoming a slave to the mode of passion, which when left unchecked can lead to anger, lust, and an overall lack of rationality. This is precisely what happened with Ravana. Through his newly acquired powers, he became the king of the island of Lanka. His kingdom was exquisite and filled with many beautiful gold-decked palaces, full of the most beautiful women in the world. Ravana had many wives whom he would cavort with regularly while drinking wine.

Sita Devi Yet this sinful life was not enough for him. Being informed by his sister that a beautiful woman was residing in the forest of Dandaka, Ravana decided that he had to have her. This woman was Sita Devi, the beautiful and chaste wife of Lord Rama. The demigods, realizing that they could not defeat Ravana in battle, petitioned Lord Vishnu to come save them. Lord Krishna is the original Personality of Godhead, and His chief expansion is that of Lord Vishnu. The avataras, or incarnations of God, that appear on earth come from Lord Vishnu. Realizing that the demigods were in a pickle, Vishnu decided to appear on earth in the guise of a human for the express purpose of killing Ravana. In his haste to outsmart the demigods, the silly demon forgot to ask for immunity in battle from human beings.

Lord Vishnu came to earth as a handsome and pious kshatriya warrior named Rama. He was married to the daughter of King Janaka of Mithila, Sita, and along with His younger brother, Lakshmana, the Lord roamed the forests of India for fourteen years. This excursion through the forest was no accident, for the Lord needed an excuse to take on Ravana in battle. Standard protocol stated that a king could not attack another without just cause. Ravana set up a diversion where Rama and Lakshmana were lured away from Sita, thus giving him an opportunity to kidnap her.

Lord Rama Sita’s kidnap sealed Ravana’s fate. Lord Rama had the excuse that He needed. As Sita states above, Lord Rama would not allow Ravana to get away alive. Stealing God’s wife will do anyone in. This is actually a great metaphor for how material life works. Since God is the creator of this and every other planet, we should assume that everything belongs to Him. If we act with this knowledge in mind, we aren’t committing any offenses. If we live under the false impression that everything here belongs to us, we are in a sense stealing from God in the same way that Ravana stole Sita.

Does this mean that we are all doomed? Does this mean that the Vedas don’t believe in private property? We certainly do have a claim to those things that we own, but we should keep in mind that everything is on loan from God. Not only do we have a right to own property for the execution of our regulative duties, but every other living entity also has a right to their property. In this way, we should live a peaceful life of mutual respect and understanding for all life that exists in this world. The best way to purify ourselves is to use the property that we do own for God’s service. This can be accomplished very easily by performing our prescribed duties and regularly chanting the holy names of God, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”.

The lesson here is that we should not raise hostilities with God, nor should we encroach on His property. This human form of life is a great boon because we have the ability to understand God. We can see God in His deity form, hear Him by chanting His name, and taste Him by eating Krishna prasadam. These experiences can be relished by all human beings. Instead of competing with God, we should work with Him in a loving way and become His friend. This is the path to perfection adopted by all the great devotees past, present, and future.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Moving On

Lord Krishna's activities “Enjoyment means variety. God became many for His enjoyment, and thus our position is that of the enjoyed. That is our constitutional position and the purpose for our creation.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Beyond Birth and Death, Ch 1)

The ending of a popular television series is a time of great sadness for both the actors and the fans of the show. There is usually a build up to the final episode, with actors and creators reflecting on the history of the show and what it meant to them. Regardless of how popular a show is, the writers eventually get tired of coming up with new show ideas, or the actors grow weary of playing the same role, or the ratings inevitably falter, causing the network executives to cancel the show in hopes of running a more popular one in the same time slot. What is interesting, however, is that even though actors can become sick of playing the same role on the same show for years, when their shows inevitably end, they immediately go looking for a new show, sometimes even one belonging to the same genre. The cycle then repeats itself. Studying this phenomenon can help us better understand the nature of the soul and how it derives pleasure.

Being on a successful television show in America is like catching lightning in a bottle. In recent times, the television landscape has changed with the advent of cable and satellite television. Now there are hundreds of channels, so creators of new shows have more options for where to shop their particular show. In days past, however, if you wanted a popular television series, you had to get a timeslot on one of the major networks: ABC, NBC, CBS, or FOX. The television season runs from September through May, so that’s when new episodes are usually aired. During the summer months, television viewing isn’t as high since people tend to go on vacation and do other things. Every fall, the networks come out with their new lineup of shows, hoping that they will garner attention. A popular show equates to higher ratings, which means that networks can charge more for advertising. Like any other business, it all comes down to dollars and cents; the shows that are profitable will stay on the air, while the shows that aren’t will quickly get the axe.

Most shows don’t make it through their first season. If a new show gets picked up by a network, typically only a single episode, known as the pilot, gets aired. Depending on how the pilot does in the ratings, with critics, and with focus groups, the network will decide to order more episodes or they will decide to pass on the show. Even if a new show gets picked up, it’s usually not for an entire season right away. The networks want to see how the show will fit in different time slots and if it has staying power with audiences. Sometimes a new show will be popular in its first week but then gradually drift off in subsequent weeks.

When a show gets picked up for an entire season, it is like hitting the jackpot. For sitcoms, a full season usually consists of twenty-two episodes. This is enough time to provide continuity in the show’s storyline and to allow for a bond to be formed between the characters on the show and the fans. As an actor, being on a show that lasts an entire season is a big deal. It is even rarer to find a show that is a hit, i.e. one that tops the ratings every week and spans multiple seasons. In the history of television, there have been several immensely popular television series. These include Mash, Cheers, Friends, Everybody Loves Raymond, Seinfeld, and The Cosby Show. The evolution of these shows makes for an interesting study, for the mindset of the actors and creators changed over the course of time.

barone2Let us take Everybody Loves Raymond for example. The show started off with creator Phil Rosenthal teaming up with comedian Ray Romano. The two had an idea for a family style sitcom with Ray playing the lead character. The show was pitched to various higher ups, with the late night talk show host David Letterman finally coming through and deciding to back the project. The show was picked up by CBS and aired on Friday nights in the beginning. Friday is one of the worst nights for primetime television because the ratings aren’t very high. Friday nights represent the beginning of the weekend, so most people are out with friends and family on this night. Luckily for Phil and Ray, the show, though not very popular, got good reviews from the critics. Moreover, it was the favorite show of the president of CBS, Les Moonves. Long story short, the show was eventually moved to Monday nights where it remained all the way through to the end of the series. The show lasted for nine seasons, but it actually could have gone on longer. The actors on the show, including its creators, felt that the show had run its course and that it was time to move on. The show ended with only 15 episodes airing in the final season. Even that took a little cajoling, for the creators were set on ending the show after eight seasons. They only agreed to come back to the show if they could have a shortened season.

Frasier The last episode was full of tearful goodbyes and fond memories. What happened next? Two of the show’s stars, Patricia Heaton and Brad Garrett, immediately signed up with new sitcoms in the following seasons. These shows didn’t do very well. This was by no means a unique situation, for this occurs with many actors who previously starred on popular television shows. Sometimes creators will come up with a spin-off to a show; a new show which has one or more characters from a previous show. This was the case with Frasier, which starred Kelsey Grammer. Grammer had been a mainstay for many seasons on Cheers, and when it ended, he immediately signed up to do Frasier. Ironically enough, Frasier lasted just as long on the air, eleven seasons. Essentially, Grammer played the same character on television for twenty years. There was even a joke made about this in a Frasier episode where Grammer’s character exclaims, “Do you know what it’s like to play the same character for twenty years?”

After playing the part of Frasier Crane for twenty years, what did Grammer do next? Well, he immediately jumped into new projects, appearing in two sitcoms which didn’t stay on the air very long. As previously mentioned, this sort of thing isn’t unique. The supporting cast members of Seinfeld all tried landing new sitcoms after the show ended, and so far only Julia Louis Dreyfus has managed to find any decent success. This whole cycle of jumping from one show to another illustrates an interesting aspect of human behavior. To start with, you have an aspiring actor or creator who just wants to be on television. They want any success they can find, something they can be proud of. Yet when their show becomes successful, they immediately start thinking about its end and what they will do next. Invariably, they jump right back into the same situation on a new show with different characters. But nevertheless, the same cycle of beginning and end repeats itself.

Shrila Prabhupada Why do actors and creators go through these cycles? They are human beings after all, and one of our characteristics is that we require stimulation of the mind. Stimulation equates to enjoyment, and to have enjoyment we must have variety. If we do the same things all the time, we start to feel like robots and we lose our taste for things. That’s why it’s very rare to find anyone who eats the exact same things every day. Moreover, it’s even difficult to find someone who will eat at the same restaurant every day.

“Enjoyment means variety. It is not possible to enjoy anything without variety. Why has God created so many colors and so many forms? In order to create enjoyment out of variety, for variety is the mother of enjoyment.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Teachings of Queen Kunti, Ch 25)

This desire for variety is actually an outgrowth of the nature of the soul. The Vedas tell us that the spirit soul serves as the basis for our identity. The soul is pure, uncontaminated, and unchanging. One of its qualities is that it desires activity. Currently, we are in a conditioned state, so our natural inclination is toward activities that please our gross senses. The senses are actually products of material nature, meaning they are inferior to our spiritual senses. Spirit is a direct representation of God’s energy, while matter can be thought of as God’s separated energy. Since matter is created by God, it is both separate from Him and equal to Him. It is equal to God in the sense that anything coming from God must be considered part of God. At the same time, matter is an inferior energy and thus exists separately from the Supreme Lord. Spirit, on the other hand, is of the same quality is God. The Supreme Lord, whose original name and form is Krishna, is described as having an eternal body which is full of knowledge and bliss. Since we are spirit souls, part and parcel of the complete whole, we also inherit these qualities of knowledge and bliss.

Lord Krishna If we are just like God, why do we try to satisfy our material senses? Moreover, why do we even have material senses? Material senses come with the material body. For the soul to reside in this world, it must be covered up by a body composed of the three modes of material nature: goodness, passion, and ignorance. By trying to satisfy the gross senses, we act in the mode of passion. The Vedas advise us not to give up our desire for variety, but to simply shift the nature of our activities from the material to the spiritual.

What does this mean? Let’s take acting for example. An actor starts a new show and is completely satisfied with their role. They get to hang out with their fellow actors each week, run through rehearsals, and then do live tapings. After a season is finished, everyone goes on vacation and does their own thing in the summer. Then in the fall, everyone meets up again and has fun taping a new season. In this way, starring on a popular television show is like going away to college. But when the series ends, everyone becomes sad. They realize that they’ll never work together in the same way. Things will never be the same. To get over the sadness of a show ending, an actor will jump right back in the saddle and start the process all over again with a new show.

We can use this same technique in our quest for spiritual enlightenment. The Vedas contain the most comprehensive set of written instructions and recorded historical incidents known to man. The oldest Vedic text that exists in written form is the Ramayana. This is quite possibly the oldest book in existence, for no one can accurately date the events that are described within. Detailing the life and pastimes of Lord Rama, an incarnation of God, the Ramayana is a lengthy work which contains stories of historical incidents and also great teachings relating to the soul, God, and mankind’s relationship with Him. If a person starts reading this book with faith and devotion, they will quickly find themselves engrossed in it. A person will quickly develop an attachment to the main characters, not wanting to ever give up the association of Lord Rama, His wife Sita Devi, His younger brother Lakshmana, and His great devotee Hanuman. Yet all things must come to an end, so there will come a time when we will reach the end of the Ramayana.

Rama Darbar Coming to the end of such a great book will naturally bring about sadness. Speaking from experience, we were quite sad and emotionally drained upon completing the Ramayana for the first time. So what did we do to get over this sadness? We immediately picked up the Mahabharata and spent the next few months reading this epic. The Mahabharata is probably the longest book ever written. Though its main plot line focuses on the plight of five brothers trying to regain their kingdom, the book covers all Vedic teachings. Thus it is often referred to as the unofficial fifth Veda. The major events documented in the Mahabharata took place some five thousand years ago when Lord Krishna personally descended to earth. In fact, the famous Bhagavad-gita, the Song of God sung by Lord Krishna Himself, can be found in the Mahabharata.

Eventually one will come to the end of this great work. This is also a sad occasion, for the end of the Mahabharata deals with Krishna’s return to the spiritual world, where He left behind His friends and relatives. Not surprisingly, we were also quite sad when we finished reading this book for the first time. So what did we do to get over our sadness? We immediately jumped to the Shrimad Bhagavatam, also known as the Bhagavata Purana. There are eighteen major Puranas, each of which is quite lengthy. The word “purana” actually means old or ancient, thus the Puranas contain descriptions of ancient historical events relating to Lord Krishna and His various incarnations.

Bhagavad-gita Hopefully by now you can see the pattern. We are all very fortunate that the great Vaishnava saints of the past sacrificed so much time and energy to write down their revelations and experiences. They were kind enough to describe Krishna’s activities in detail. Since God is absolute, there is no difference between His original form and His pastimes. Reading about His pastimes means directly associating with Him. Another great thing about reading Vedic literature is that one will never tire of reading the same things over and over again. Though nothing will beat the experience of reading the Ramayana for the first time, subsequent readings can actually bring out more meanings and revelations.

This is the beauty of God and all things relating to Him. This principle of variety in activity doesn’t have to be limited to reading. Devotional service, or bhakti-yoga, involves actively engaging ourselves in God’s service. This means that we can also spend our time producing things for God such as literature, prayers, poems, and food to be offered to the deity. The quintessential devotional act is the chanting of the holy names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. We are advised to repeat this chanting over and over, each and every day. The more we chant, the closer we come to feeling the ecstasy that comes from hearing the transcendental sound vibrations.

“O Rama, for as long as You shall stand before me, even if it be for one hundred years, I will always remain Your servant…” (Lakshmana speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 15.7)

Rama and Lakshmana Devotional service is an eternal occupation, something we’re not meant to ever give up. With our material activities, we may find something exciting to do for a short period of time, but inevitably we will want to move on. Our need for variety spurs this activity on. With spiritual activities, however, we never have to move on. We can always stay connected with Krishna, and still have all the variety we want. Jumping from one Vedic text to another seems like we are moving onto something else, but in reality our attachment to God is only increasing. Instead of becoming bored of our activities, our enjoyment only increases. This is the beauty of linking our soul with God. The soul plus God equals yoga, which equates to perfection in life.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Tidal Wave

Lord Rama “The arrows decorated with gold released from His [Rama’s] bowstring will eradicate your body, just as the waves of the River Ganga strike against her banks.” (Sita Devi speaking to Ravana, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 56.7)

Death is like an ocean current that cannot be stopped. For one who takes birth, death is guaranteed; there is nothing anyone can do to stop it from happening. The human being is intelligent enough to eventually realize this fact, and thus finds different ways to deal with it. Of all the different strategies employed, the Vedas tell us that the best one is that used by Vishnu bhaktas, or devotees of God. The aim of human life is to seek out one’s best friend, the supreme object of pleasure, and original proprietor of everything. The devotees understand that God fits all of these qualifications, thus they use everything in their power to remain attached to Him.

People usually deal with their mortality in one of two ways. The first class chooses to ignore the imminent nature of death and simply goes about their daily lives. By default, we human beings are born into ignorance. We walk around in diapers for the first few years of our lives, being completely dependent on our parents for everything. We would actually die if it were not for the care given to us by our elders in the early stages of our lives. Due to the inherent ignorance of the jiva soul, it doesn’t realize its mortality until later on in life. Because of this, most of us grow up to be worshipers of matter.

The Vedas tell us that there is one God for all of mankind. He takes many different forms, but His original form is that of Lord Shri Krishna, who is also known as Bhagavan, or the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Krishna, being the energetic, takes two direct expansions, or energies. One of the energies is known as prakriti, or the inferior energy. Prakriti is matter. Krishna’s other expansion is that of purusha, or spirit. Spirit is known as the superior energy because it controls matter. We can see this principle in action in our daily lives. Our hands, legs, feet, etc. are all composed of gross material elements. They are essentially useless without the spirit soul residing within us. It is the presence of the soul that gives something life. The event that we know to be death is actually the exiting of the soul from the material body.

Radha Krishna The jiva souls are technically part of Krishna’s marginal energy. Constitutionally we are the same as Krishna, meaning we are spirit souls at the core. Yet, unlike Krishna, we have the propensity to associate with matter, or God’s inferior energy. For Lord Krishna and all His personal expansions, there is no difference between matter and spirit. For example, Lord Krishna’s hands, legs, and arms are all completely spiritual and non-different from His identity. The same can’t be said for the living entities. As spirit souls, we are meant to associate exclusively with the spiritual energy, but due to our subordinate nature, we can fall victim to association with matter, or the inferior energy. God is the energetic and we are His energy. When the energy and the energetic meet, there is peace, harmony, and bliss. The embodiment of this union can be seen on the planet of Krishnaloka, where the Lord directly associates with His pleasure potency expansions, the gopis. The greatest gopi, and the perfect representation of God’s energy, is Shrimati Radharani. Radha and Krishna are always worshiped together because they are the symbol of perfection in life. They symbolize what our goal in life should be: the union of the soul with God. At the same time, Radha and Krishna are more than just symbols; they factually exist and constantly enjoy with each other in the spiritual world.

The living entities have a choice as to which energy they associate with. The jiva souls, those of us who take birth in this material world, had some past desire to associate with matter. That is the reason for our birth. While our current body is perishable, the soul is eternal, so this means that we have suffered or enjoyed through many previous births. The work we performed and the desires we accumulated from our previous births determined the circumstances of our current life. In this way, nothing is an accident. Since we have a desire to associate with the inferior energy, it is not surprising to see that most of us end up being worshipers of matter.

What does this mean precisely? How does someone worship matter? Sex life serves as a nice example. Sex is considered the highest material pleasure, thus it also serves as the greatest hindrance to the cultivation of spiritual knowledge. Sex life is based on physical attraction. We see a beautiful man or woman and we desire to associate with them intimately. In this way, we are essentially worshiping a person’s bodily attributes, features which are nothing more than matter. The body is composed of all sorts of disgusting elements like blood, pus, mucus, and urine. Yet it is precisely this body that we find attractive. Not only is the body material, but it is ever changing. It is subject to old age, disease, and death. So in this way, we see that exclusive worship of matter is a flawed engagement.

There are other ways to worship matter, namely the acquisition of material wealth, strength, and fame. The news media provides a great example of this. They chronicle the day-to-day lives of famous celebrities, movie stars, and athletes. These people are famous because they have succeeded in some material venture. They garner great attention from the general public because most of us wish we were like them. Having a high paying job, a beautiful wife, nice children, and a big house are seen as the goals of life. High schools and colleges hold reunions every year where students who graduated together ten or more years prior meet up with each other and catch up. At these reunions, we find out what our fellow classmates have done with their lives, and then we use that as a barometer for measuring our own success. The Vedas tell us that this is a flawed mindset because while acquiring material perfections is certainly nice, death will eventually take everything away.

There are others who deal with death in a different way. They become angry with God and material nature in general. They understand how fleeting material happiness is and how gross matter fails to provide any happiness. As a result, they take to the negation of activity. Being frustrated with material life, they hope to stop all activity through deep philosophical study and meditation. They want to make everything zero, shunyavada. This is the cornerstone of the Buddhist and Mayavada philosophies. Buddhists aim to cancel out the effects of the senses and hopefully reach a state of complete void. This type of liberation is known as nirvana, an end to material life but no engagement in spiritual life. The Mayavadis are similar, except that they believe in God, but a God who has no form. Thus their aim is the same, the cessation of all activity, but their hope is to merge into Brahman, or God’s impersonal effulgence.

The Vedas tell us that both the worshipers and haters of matter are missing the point in their ultimate conclusion. Worshiping matter is flawed because one is still required to take birth again after the current life. This means that one will have to start the whole process again. The haters of matter are also flawed because it is the inherent nature of the soul to be active. We crave individuality. Thus if we achieve liberation through the cessation of all activity, we lose our identities. This in essence represents a form of spiritual suicide. Eventually, we will crave our identity again, which will result in us being thrown back into the material world.

Hanuman - a great devotee of God If both of these philosophies are flawed, what is the right way to deal with death? For the answer, we simply have to look to the example set by the great Vaishnava saints and devotees of the past. Perfection in life comes when we achieve pure Krishna, or God, consciousness. The discipline to achieve this mindset is known as bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. As mentioned before, the soul is happiest when it is associating with God in a loving way; when the energy and the energetic are combined. God resides in the spiritual world, and He certainly can never associate with matter. However, He appears on earth from time to time in a spiritual body to enact pastimes and give protection to the devotees. Not only does He appear in His avatara form, but the Lord also incarnates in other ways, such as through His names, stories about Him detailed in the Vedic literatures, and His deity form.

It is through the mercy of the incarnations that the spirit souls are allowed to directly associate with the Lord during their current lifetime. The secret to success comes from using matter to our benefit. Matter is certainly inferior, but if we use it for Krishna’s service, it becomes spiritualized. The deity is a great example of this. We can take something as simple as stone or wood and use it to construct a statue representation of the Lord. Some people mistakenly believe that Hindus take part in idol worship, but there is no similarity between an idol and a deity of an authorized form of the Lord. Krishna’s body factually exists, for it is eternal and full of bliss and knowledge, sach-chid-ananda-vigraha. The deity is known as the archa-vigraha because it is a spiritual body that can be worshiped by the devotees.

Lord Chaitanya chanting Hare Krishna There are many other ways to practice this same principle of using matter for one’s spiritual pursuits. The tongue and the stomach are also products of nature, but we can spiritualize both by regularly chanting the Lord’s name, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, and by eating Krishna prasadam [vegetarian food offered with love and devotion to the deity]. The mind is considered a subtle material element, but we can also purify it by regularly thinking of God. Devotees use everything at their disposal to increase their God consciousness. Once they develop pure love for the Lord, they can never forget Him.

One such great devotee is Sita Devi, the wife of Lord Rama. Sita represents the perfection of God’s energy, for she never thinks of anyone except Rama. For this reason, Lord Rama is always worshiped together with His wife as Sita-Rama. During her pastimes on earth, Sita was unfortunately kidnapped by the Rakshasa demon Ravana. This was preordained since Lord Rama needed an excuse to take on the demon in battle. In the above referenced statement, Sita is informing Ravana that his death is coming very soon at the hands of Rama. Ravana had just kidnapped Sita and taken her to his island kingdom of Lanka. He tried his best to persuade her into giving in to his amorous desires, but she was having none of it.

Sita Rama Ravana was a devotee of matter. He was extremely wealthy and possessed tremendous fighting skills. He propitiated Lord Brahma and Shiva and was rewarded with great material boons. Yet his wealth and fame weren’t enough; his lust drove him to chase after another man’s wife. Sita knew Ravana’s nature, so she made sure to remind him that Rama’s arrows were plated with gold. Ravana thought that Rama was a pauper since the Lord was roaming the forests as an exile from His kingdom of Ayodhya. Ravana couldn’t understand what Sita saw in her husband. Sita reminded Ravana that everything associated with Rama was brilliant, including the weapons He used.

Sita also mentions that the force of Rama’s arrows would be just like the force of the River Ganga hitting her banks. In the Vedic tradition, the Ganges River is considered sacred because she is known as the demigod Ganga Devi, who emanates from the lotus feet of Lord Vishnu. Vishnu is God’s four-handed form. By using this comparison to Ganga Devi, Sita is reaffirming Lord Rama’s divinity. Since Lord Rama, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, is the source of Ganga Devi, it would make sense that His weapons would have the same power as the sacred river.

Death is just like a tidal wave, sucking up everything in its path. It plays no favorites; it will affect all of us at some point. Though we have no control over when the river known as death will swallow us up, we do have a choice as to where it will take us. Ganga Devi is completely spiritual, and those who give up their bodies while on her banks receive liberation from the repeated cycle of birth and death. She takes the soul back to the spiritual world wherefrom it never returns. Those who are washed up by the material ocean, however, are forced to take birth again.

“One who knows the transcendental nature of My appearance and activities does not, upon leaving the body, take his birth again in this material world, but attains My eternal abode, O Arjuna.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 4.9)

Ganga Devi We should use the knowledge of our impending death as a wakeup call to take to devotional service. This way we can guarantee that our soul can cross over the ocean of nescience at the time of death. Sita’s words would hold true as Ravana, even for all his heinous crimes, was eventually washed up by the sacred river, for he thought of Lord Rama, or God, at the time of death. If we can think of God in a loving way at the time of quitting our body, our reward will be even greater.