Saturday, July 24, 2010


Lakshmi Devi “How can that female swan who is accustomed to sporting with the king of swans amidst lotus flowers ever cast her eyes on a water-crow that stays amidst bunches of grass?” (Sita Devi speaking to Ravana, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 56.20)

Expensive chocolates, the finest wines, the most succulent of meats…these things are all considered part of finer living. This lifestyle isn’t enjoyed by most people, so one who can indulge in such enjoyments is considered blessed and part of the upper tier of society. More than just an issue of affordability, indulging in the finer things in life requires sacrifice and commitment. One must really derive great enjoyment from these amenities in order to make the necessary investment of money. As a result of this higher level of enjoyment, one grows accustomed to having only the best things in life. A resulting side effect is that one can never go back to their old way of life. Cheap cars, foods, and drinks become intolerable. Along the same lines, devotees of God experience the highest taste by constantly associating with the Supreme Lord. When asked to indulge in material life, a return to the miserable and temporary existence of the conditioned, devotees utterly reject such a notion, being incapable of adapting to a substandard way of life. An example of this was seen with the wife of Lord Rama, Sita Devi, many thousands of years ago.

Why are there different classes of meat? Why doesn’t everybody just eat the same kinds of food and live in the same types of houses? Things would be a lot easier that way. There would be no fuss or jealousy, and everyone could be more at ease. The problem is that every individual is born with different qualities and desires. The concept of individuality implies that there is a desire to stand out, a need to be different. A person loses their individuality if they act the same way as everybody else, performing the same activities, and enjoying the same pastimes. Not only is there a desire to be different, but this is actually the natural course of things. For example, not every person goes into the same field of work when they turn into adults. Medical schools and business schools certainly recruit their fair share of candidates in the hopes of churning out bright, new doctors and businessmen, but there is no fear from the public that every single person will become a doctor or a business. Carpenters aren’t worried that there won’t be any new carpenters around, and policemen aren’t worried that there won’t be anyone to defend the innocent public in the near future.

“According to the three modes of material nature and the work ascribed to them, the four divisions of human society were created by Me. And, although I am the creator of this system, you should know that I am yet the non-doer, being unchangeable.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 4.13)

Krishna speaking to ArjunaThese worries relating to the choices of occupation are absent because it is seen that people naturally take to different activities. The Vedas, the scriptures emanating from India, tell us that each individual is the same in quality but that their material bodies are composed of different modes. The individual gets their identity from the soul, or atma, which is the same in quality for every person. This atma is pure and uncontaminated, for it inherits its qualities from God. The Supreme Lord, whose original form is Krishna, can be thought of as a giant fire and the souls of the living entities as minute sparks from that fire. Though these sparks are pure and full of bliss, when they come to the material world they assume a body composed of the modes of nature. These modes are goodness, passion, and ignorance, and they are referred to as gunas in Sanskrit. Guna means a material quality or rope, and it is defined as such because a material quality causes the soul to be bound to the laws of nature. As a spiritual spark, the soul is not bound to anything, completely autonomous in its wanderings. However, in order to appear in the material world, the soul must agree to be bound up by gunas. This binding is voluntary and not instigated by the Supreme Lord.

When the soul gets covered up by gunas, the resulting life form, the living entity, takes to different activities. Since gunas can be mixed up in so many different proportions, there are no two conditioned living entities that are exactly the same. This is good in a sense because individuality is maintained, and thus differences are seen in activities and natures. Since there is no equality in the material sense, we see that some people take to enjoying the finer things in life, while others do not. For example, a rich person may require a private airplane, fully stocked with adult beverages and lavish furniture, while a middle class person may prefer travelling on a commercial airplane or simply driving their cars from place to place. Some people insist on eating high class foods, while others are fine with just simple grains, milk, and fruits. In fact, many yogis in India go their whole lives surviving simply off fruits and milk.

iPad Since the material world is full of dualities, what is palatable for one person may not be so for another. To many, the renounced lifestyle of a yogi seems torturous. These differences in viewpoints speak to the notion of dualities, the fact that everything is relative. People grow accustomed to their way of life, especially if they enjoy fine living, so what they often view as painful really isn’t. For example, in today’s age, most everyone is accustomed to watching television, talking on cellular telephones, and using computers. Just twenty years ago, cell phones were hardly used and computers weren’t even owned by most people. In today’s world, it may seem impossible to get by without the internet, but people lived for so long without it and had no problem. If our cable or satellite television goes out for just a short period of time, we panic or get angry, but in previous times there was no need for such things. This shows that one who enjoys the finer things in life, the “good life”, has no desire to return to what they deem as ordinary or substandard life. Once a person grows accustomed to using their iPods to listen to music, going back to using walkmans and CD players is not an option.

Usually when discussing this phenomenon in terms of its significance in spiritual life, the issue is portrayed in a negative light. One of the central components of spiritual life in the Vedic tradition is tapasya, or penance. The more a person becomes attached to objects of sense gratification, the harder it becomes to perform penance. Penance isn’t simply a tool of punishment, but rather a way to curb the influence of the senses and acquire detachment. This detachment is extremely helpful in fostering one’s attachment to God, which is the ultimate objective for every person in life. Though others may be unaware of this objective, it is undoubtedly the highest engagement for the soul to reconnect with its source, the Supreme Lord. Awareness of this objective can take many many lifetimes to acquire, but that doesn’t diminish the superior nature of the sublime engagement of devotional service to God, or bhakti-yoga.

Hanuman engaged in bhakti yoga Though becoming attached to the finer things in life can certainly be a hindrance towards spiritual advancement, the phenomenon actually can teach us a lot about the benefits of performing bhakti-yoga and some of the side-effects that come from associating with God. Sita Devi illustrates this point quite clearly in the above referenced statement. Many thousands of years ago, the Supreme Absolute Truth, the original fire from which all sparks in the universe emanate, God Himself, appeared on earth in the guise of a human being. The activities of this human being have been chronicled in the famous poem composed by Maharishi Valmiki called the Ramayana.

One of the nice things about God appearing on earth is that it lets others see how those who have achieved the ultimate objective in life behave. Since the goal of human life is to associate with God and to always be thinking of Him, it makes sense that God’s associates who are present during His time on earth would be perfect candidates to study. One such associate was Sita Devi, Rama’s beloved wife. She exuded all the qualities of the perfect woman, mother, daughter, and wife. In many respects she was greater than Lord Rama, for she taught others how to practice devotion through her example.

Lord Rama Sita’s execution of bhakti-yoga wasn’t without obstacles. We can look back now and see that everything ended well for her, but her life was full of pain and suffering. In this way, she showed us how to remain firmly committed to the righteous path, regardless of what setbacks we may have to suffer through. Probably the most terrifying period of her life was when she was kidnapped by the Rakshasa demon Ravana. Rama, His younger brother Lakshmana, and Sita were residing in the forest of Dandaka when one day Ravana came and set up a diversion to lure the two brothers away from Sita. Successfully taking her back to his island kingdom of Lanka, Ravana tried every which way to get Sita to turn her eye towards him. This, of course, was impossible, for Sita never turns her thoughts away from God.

While rebuking Ravana, in order to get her point across about how she would never give in to him, Sita offered up a series of metaphors, each one beautifully illustrating her desire to be with Rama and her utter repulsion towards Ravana. In the above referenced statement, we see that Sita compares Rama to the king of swans, or the greatest swan, and Ravana to an ordinary diver bird, or water fowl. She is saying that as the wife of the king of swans, she has grown accustomed to sporting with her mate amidst bunches of lotus flowers. Flowers are a symbol of the good life, for they have a pleasing fragrance and an outward appearance which is appealing to the eye. In the Vedic tradition, flowers play an integral role in beautification. They are used to make garlands which are offered to the spiritual master and to the deity residing within the temple. The lotus flower is also the symbol of Lord Vishnu, Krishna’s primary expansion residing within the spiritual world. One of Vishnu’s names is Padmanabha because He has a navel which looks like a lotus-flower. Vishnu’s wife, Lakshmi Devi, is known as Padmini because she sits on a lotus flower while residing in the spiritual world with her husband. This is a relevant point because Sita and Rama were technically incarnations of Lakshmi and Vishnu. From her statement, Sita is secretly hinting at her divinity and how she and her husband are always with lotus flowers.

Padmini Ravana, on the other hand, is compared to a low-class bird who simply hangs around bunches of reeds and grass. In this way, he is viewed as living a low-class life. Sita is saying that since she has experienced the higher taste of fine living, it would be impossible for her to associate with the low-class life that Ravana was accustomed to. What does this mean for us? Aside from helping us achieve the ultimate objective in life, bhakti-yoga is deemed to be fine living in the grand scheme of things. This may seem strange at first because we usually associate a yogi with someone who has a shaved head, simple clothing, and no possessions. In fact, the most elevated status in spiritual life is sannyasa, which is the renounced order. By fine living, we are referring to spiritual living. Bhakti-yoga is considered the high life because it involves direct association with God.

Though Sita got to travel the world alongside Rama, it doesn’t mean that we are bereft of this association today. In this day and age, we can directly connect with God through the transcendental sound vibration of His names. By regularly chanting, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, we can experience the high life. Fine living wouldn’t be complete without nice food, music, and clothing. These things certainly do exist in the life of a bhakti-yogi, but they are meant for the enjoyment of the Supreme Lord instead of the individual. Devotees offer up the tastiest food to the deity of the Lord, dressing Him in the nicest clothing, all the while playing the sweetest music.

Sita and Rama Bhakti-yoga represents the sublime life. If we get accustomed to this transcendental lifestyle, we can one day have the same fortitude and determination that Sita did. She never gave in to Ravana because she didn’t find him or his lifestyle appealing in the least bit. By the same token, if we become attached to the wonderful food known as Krishna prasadam, and the beautiful music known as harinama-sankirtana, we can surely reject all the unnecessary and unwanted things in life.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Watering the Root

Lord Rama worshiping Lord Shiva “No one else is as dear to Me as Shiva. An enemy of Shiva, although he calls himself My devotee, cannot attain Me even in a dream. He who is opposed to Shankara and yet aspires for devotion to Me is doomed and dull-witted.” (Lord Rama, Ramacharitamanasa, Lanka-kanda, 1.4)

Comment: “For me Lord Narayana will be always the supreme God. But it is your ignorance that you don’t know anything about Lord Shiva. My Lord Krishna is only the first and the greatest devotee of my Lord Shiva…”

Response: One of the side-effects of offering praise to a particular person or entity is that faithful followers of other great personalities may get offended. This makes sense because people are so strongly attached to their particular object of worship that if they see another entity being praised more, they will feel slighted. Looking to correct the situation and stop the neglect, these devotees may even take to criticism. Amongst followers of the Vedic tradition, one of the more common clashes occurs between devotees of Lord Vishnu [Vaishnavas] and followers of Lord Shiva [Shaivites]. There is actually no need for such conflict since the objects of worship, Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva, are best of friends and completely respectful of one another. Lord Shiva spends all his time meditating on the lotus feet of Lord Vishnu, and Vishnu harbors eternal affection for Shiva.

Lord Shiva No matter where you go in the world, you will always find arguments relating to politics and religion. People have their own ideas of who God is and how one should conduct themselves in life, thus there naturally will be clashes between the various factions. The Vedas, the ancient truths which originate in India, tell us that God certainly does exist and that He has many names based on His innumerable attributes, forms, and activities. Of all of God’s forms, there is an original, however. This original form has a name: Krishna. The word Krishna is Sanskrit for “all-attractive” and “blackish”. Only God can attract every single person in the world, thus Krishna is an apt title for Him. Krishna also possesses every material opulence to the greatest degree and simultaneously. These may all seem like obvious features of God, but the Vedas expound on these truths to reiterate the Lord’s greatness. Another reason for the detail is that many transcendentalists take to denouncing the idea of there being a God. If they do believe in a supreme controller, they take it to be an energy, something which every living entity is part of. Due to these flawed philosophies, it is necessary to establish God’s existence and explain His innumerable forms and attributes.

Lord Vishnu Though Krishna is the original form of God, there are many sub-forms or expansions of the Lord. Krishna’s primary expansion is that of Lord Vishnu, who is also known as Narayana. Krishna is the most attractive, but through the course of history, mankind has not always been ready to embrace that all-attractive form. We can think of it this way: as time goes on, man gains a better ability to accept God’s features and attributes. This means that at the beginning of creation, man could only conceive of the Lord through transcendental sound vibrations. That is why the syllable “Om” is so important. Before man had the ability to recognize the ever-existing transcendental form of the Lord, they used to contemplate the Absolute Truth by reciting “Om”. As time goes on, however, little by little the Lord reveals Himself. Lord Vishnu is a little different from Krishna in that He has four hands, while Krishna has two. Vishnu’s opulence is also more prominent, and due to this feature, He appeals to those who view God as a Supreme Controller, the most powerful person in the world.

Mother Yashoda with Krishna Is there any other way to view God? Devotees of Krishna certainly understand that God is powerful, but their devotion to Him is based more on love which is exchanged in various transcendental mellows, or rasas. Lord Krishna can be worshiped in the mood of parental affection, where the devotee views the Lord as a dependent child, someone to look after and nurture. This style of love is considered superior because the devotee doesn’t expect any service from the Lord. Rather, they are giving service to God without any expectation of return. Nor is there any fear involved. When we view God as excessively opulent and powerful, naturally there will be an element of fear involved. This is certainly understandable in the case of distressed devotees, but in reality, there is no reason to fear God in any way.

Not every person will initially be attracted to Krishna due to different proclivities towards offering service to the Lord. Therefore, in the Vedic tradition, Lord Vishnu plays as prominent a role in worship as Lord Krishna does. The two forms are essentially interchangeable. When a person refers to Lord Vishnu, they are also referring to Lord Krishna, and vice versa. Lord Krishna and His direct expansions are referred to as vishnu-tattva, and the separated expansions are referred to as jiva-tattva. We living entities are jiva-tattva, so we can never be equal to God.

Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesha The material world we live in is different from the spiritual world, with the most obvious difference being the influence of matter. We can think of matter as the presiding deity of the material world. Since matter, which is known as prakriti, is subordinate to spirit, or purusha, there needs to be someone in charge of managing the creation. Lord Vishnu transcends matter, which means that He never associates with it in any way. Matter is certainly one of His energies, but since it is a separated energy, the Lord has no interest in associating with it. In order to manage the material affairs, the Lord deputes elevated living entities known as demigods to handle every aspect of the creation. The three primary demigods are Lord Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu.

The first thing we’ll notice is that Lord Vishnu is listed as a demigod in this group. In reality, Vishnu can never be considered a demigod, for as mentioned before, He transcends matter. These three deities are referred to as guna-avataras, or incarnations of the Lord in charge of gunas, or material qualities. Though this form of Lord Vishnu is the avatara in charge of sattva-guna, or the mode of goodness, He is still nevertheless the same Supreme Personality of Godhead. The same can’t be said for Lord Brahma and Lord Shiva. Brahma is in charge of the mode of passion, rajo-guna, and Shiva is in charge of the mode of ignorance, tamo-guna. Material creation is made up of these three modes, with the bodies of the living entities consisting of varying combinations of these three ingredients. For example, the human beings are mostly in the mode of passion, while the demigods are mostly in the mode of goodness. The animal species are mostly in the mode of ignorance. Goodness is knowledge, those activities which are in line with revealed knowledge, or scriptures. Those who act in the mode of goodness thus possess bodies which are in goodness. Passion is any fruitive activity, any work performed which has a result, with the results usually being used for the satisfaction of the gross senses. The mode of ignorance is any activity which lacks both goodness and passion.

One thing that we should note is that even though Lord Brahma is in charge of the mode of passion, it doesn’t mean that he lives in passion. The same holds true for Lord Shiva. Both of them are highly exalted personalities put in charge of the modes of passion and ignorance by Lord Vishnu Himself. One should never make the mistake of thinking that these two great demigods are on the same level as the conditioned living entities.

Lord ShivaThe issue we run into is in relation to the word “demigod”. Devotees of Lord Shiva will argue that he is not a demigod, but that rather he is the original form of God. After all, some of the Puranas hint at this fact, so how can we deny this? The answer is that Lord Shiva is technically not a demigod, nor is he the Supreme Lord. The best way to illustrate the difference between Vishnu and Shiva is to study the difference between milk and yogurt. Yogurt is a product of milk, meaning you can’t get yogurt without milk. At the same time, yogurt is not milk; for in recipes calling for milk, you can’t substitute yogurt and end up with the same dish. So in this regard, Lord Vishnu is milk and Lord Shiva is yogurt. Shiva comes from Vishnu, so he is the same as God in that regard, but at the same time he is different. He is often referred to as a demigod simply as a way to speak to the difference between himself and God.

Is it bad to be a devotee of Lord Shiva? Well, there are generally two kinds of devotees of Lord Shiva, each of which worships a different aspect of Shankara Bhagavan. Since Lord Shiva is in charge of the material mode of ignorance, one of his tasks involves destruction. He is known as the destroyer because he is in charge of destroying the material creation at a specific time. The Vedas tell us that the world we live in constantly goes through cycles of creation, maintenance, and destruction. We are currently in the maintenance phase, but eventually everything will be destroyed. Since Lord Shiva has the ability to destroy the entire creation, he must be very powerful. Since he has great powers, many people take to worshiping him. Lord Shiva, acting as a demigod, has the ability to grant boons to his devotees. He is known by the name of Ashutosha, which means that he is easily pleased. By rule, anyone who worships him properly gets whatever they want, regardless of their motive. Lord Shiva wants to meditate all the time, so he pushes through people’s requests for boons as quickly as possible.

Lord Shiva There are many people who take advantage of this feature of Lord Shiva. History is full of incidents of demons taking to worship of Lord Shiva for nefarious purposes. Probably one of Shiva’s most famous devotees was the Rakshasa demon Ravana. Due to a curse imposed by the sage Vishrava, Ravana was born as a Rakshasa demon possessing ten heads. He didn’t even get the name Ravana until later on in life. He was initially known as Dashagriva and Dashanana, meaning ten-headed.
Also due to his father’s curse, Ravana did not have a very good character. He had the form of a demon and also the demeanor of one. Vishrava had another son named Kuvera who was born through a different mother. Kuvera performed great austerities and was rewarded by the demigods with great opulence and strength. Ravana’s mother, being jealous of Kuvera’s position, asked her son to also perform great austerities in hopes of rivaling Kuvera’s strength. Ravana followed suit, and after performing great penances, he was rewarded with tremendous fighting strength by Lord Brahma.

What did Ravana do with his newfound strength? He went on the rampage of course. After routing Kuvera out of his home on the island of Lanka, Ravana went on a world tour, taking on and defeating anyone in battle that was willing to fight him. One day, Ravana made his way to a mountain where Lord Shiva was meditating. Ravana wanted to fight with Shiva, so he tried to agitate the Lord’s meditation by moving the mountain he was on. Shiva of course was way more powerful than Ravana, so he simply brushed the demon aside by shaking the mountain with his toe, crushing Ravana’s fingers in the process. Ravana let out such a terrible scream that Shiva decided to then give him the name “Ravana”, which means one who terrifies others. While his fingers were still being crushed, Ravana offered kind words to mollify Lord Shiva. Eventually Mahadeva relented and removed the pressure. Ravana then became a devotee of Lord Shiva and was rewarded with several boons.

There are many other similar incidents in history of demons taking to worshiping Lord Shiva simply for receiving material benedictions. This type of worship is certainly second class and it brings up several larger issues. Lord Vishnu, or Krishna, is never beholden to devotees in this way. A demon can certainly worship Lord Vishnu, but the Lord is not obliged to answer anyone’s prayers. Many times Lord Vishnu will take away a person’s wealth and possessions in order to help them progress in spiritual life. Lord Shiva and other demigods are duty-bound to bestow gifts on anyone who worships them properly, regardless of the person’s motive.

Shiva, Parvati and family This brings us to the second kind of devotee of Lord Shiva. Though Shankara is required to give out boons to his materially inclined devotees, it doesn’t mean that he wants to. Rather, he is acting purely out of love for Vishnu. At the beginning of creation, Lord Shiva simply wanted to sit in meditation all the time and concentrate on the lotus feet of the Lord. Lord Hari, however, told Shiva to get married to Parvati and to manage the affairs of the material creation. Shiva was a little hesitant, for he knew that taking a wife would distract from his meditation. This is the mood of a pure devotee; they are always thinking about how to serve Krishna. They don’t reject or accept anything outright; they first gauge whether or not something will help them in their devotional service. Lord Hari informed Shiva not to worry because since Parvati [Mother Durga] was chaste and pious, she would only help increase Shiva’s devotion for Him. In this way, Lord Shiva got married and had two wonderful sons, Skanda and Ganesha.

More than anything else, Lord Shiva is a great devotee of Vishnu. He is often considered the greatest devotee, for he agreed to break his meditation and take charge of material affairs. Not many of us would be willing to do this, but Shiva loves Vishnu so much that he never goes against His orders. Since Lord Shiva is a great devotee, he is certainly worthy of our highest respect and worship. People who worship Lord Shiva, taking him to be a great devotee, are certainly engaged in first class worship. Vaishnavas are especially fond of Lord Shiva since he is a great spiritual master. The Padma Purana states that in this current age, there will be four bona fide Vaishnava sampradayas, or disciplic successions of gurus. Each of these sampradayas has a founder, with Lord Shiva being one of them. Since he is the founder of a Vaishnava line of gurus, certainly Lord Shiva is an object of worship for devotees of Lord Vishnu.

Worship of Lord Shiva Lord Shiva also is the narrator of one of the greatest stories ever told: the life and pastimes of Lord Rama, one of Vishnu’s primary incarnations. Out of all of the vishnu-tattva forms, Lord Rama is Shiva’s favorite. In the Ramacharitamanasa of Tulsidas, which is based off the Adhyatma Ramayana, Lord Shiva narrates the life and pastimes of Lord Rama to his wife Parvati. Devotion to Vishnu is a two-way street, so naturally the Lord has just as much love for Lord Shiva. During His pastimes on earth, Lord Rama once famously worshiped Lord Shiva. Thus the Lord showed us the example of how to properly show respect to the demigods. Lord Krishna similarly worshiped Lord Shiva during His time on earth, taking instruction from the great sage Upamanyu. Obviously God can never be instructed on anything, but He nevertheless set a good example of how one should always respect the brahmanas and Lord Shiva.

“If we learn how to love Krishna, then it is very easy to immediately and simultaneously love every living being. It is like pouring water on the root of a tree or supplying food to one's stomach.” (Shrila Prabhupada, The Nectar of Devotion, Preface)

Lord Krishna If Lord Shiva is so wonderful, why don’t Vaishnavas explicitly take to worshiping Him? Why are there no altars dedicated to Lord Shiva and Mother Parvati in Vaishnava temples? The answer to this is that worship of Lord Krishna, or Vishnu, is enough to please the entire world. A common analogy that is used is the watering of a tree. If you water the roots of a tree, the branches and leaves are automatically fed. In the same way, by worshiping Lord Krishna, all the other Vishnu forms, demigods, and living entities are similarly pleased. Especially in this day and age, there is no time to strictly adhere to all the various ritualistic functions enjoined in the Vedas for householders and brahmanas. The only process recommended for this age is the chanting of the holy names of the Lord, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. By taking up devotional service, or vishnu-bhakti, even Lord Shiva and Lord Brahma become pleased.

If this is all true, why is there fighting between Vaishnavas and Shaivites? The primary reason is that people have so much love for their particular deity that they get offended when they see others neglecting them. This phenomenon is even seen amongst Vaishnavas. For example, if a person sees that only Lord Krishna and Lord Rama are being worshiped, while Lord Chaitanya isn’t shown as much attention, they will get offended. They will think that such worshipers are offending Lord Chaitanya, who is also an incarnation of Krishna, by not giving Him attention. So in one sense, these kinds of complaints actually show great love and devotion from the part of the worshipers. But as mentioned before, all vishnu-tattva forms are essentially the same and Lord Krishna is the fountainhead of all exalted personalities, so there is no reason for people to feel offended if their particular deity is neglected.

Lord Chaitanya The basic principle we should understand is that every person in this world is religious; it is just the objects of worship that vary. People who worship Lord Rama will have association with Him in the afterlife; the same holds true for Lord Krishna, Vishnu, etc. Even worshipers of the demigods gain the association of the demigods in the afterlife. The difference between the planets of the demigods and the planets of Lord Vishnu is that Vishnu’s realm is eternal, whereas the realm of the demigods is not. Demigods reside on planets which are part of the material world, so these planets go through cycles of creation and destruction. Lord Vishnu’s spiritual realms of Vaikunthaloka and Krishnaloka don’t suffer from this defect, so devotees who go there never have to return to the material world.

The lesson here is that we should never disrespect Mahadeva, for he is very dear to Lord Krishna. This fact alone is enough to make Mahadeva an object of worship. We certainly can’t imitate Lord Shiva’s extraordinary activities, but we can follow his teachings and show him respect. Lord Shiva spends all his time meditating on the lotus feet of the Lord, so we can do no wrong by following in his footsteps. By praising Krishna and concentrating our minds on His lotus feet, the whole world becomes satisfied.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

A Higher Taste

Sita and Rama “How can that female swan who is accustomed to sporting with the king of swans amidst lotus flowers ever cast her eyes on a water-crow that stays amidst bunches of grass?” (Sita Devi speaking to Ravana, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 56.20)

Those who are unfamiliar with Vedic customs find it hard to believe that someone can live without eating meat or drinking alcohol. What’s even more surprising is that people who grow up in America and other countries around the world which don’t have a steeped tradition of Vedic culture can also give up these bad habits. The secret to this renunciation is attachment, the development of a higher taste. Vishnu devotees have found something that gives them thrills and highs that far surpass the temporary feelings of happiness derived from engagement in sinful activities such as drinking and taking drugs. This ananda, or bliss, can only be achieved through association with the Supreme Lord.

Devaki and Vasudeva praying to Lord Vishnu Devotees of Lord Vishnu are known as Vaishnavas. There is only one God, regardless of what anyone else may claim. God cannot be the exclusive property of any one group of people; He exists, and His dominion is over all of mankind. The Vedas, the oldest scriptures in existence, are unique in that they go beyond just telling us that there is a God; they give us details about what He looks like, what activities He performs, and what His names are. The Vedas tell us that the original form of God is that of Lord Shri Krishna. He is also known as Bhagavan, meaning the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Godhead is a more accurate description for God because it speaks to the fact that God can take many forms. Krishna is the fountainhead of all these forms, thus He is known as the Supreme Godhead. Krishna’s immediate expansion is that of Lord Vishnu, who has four hands and lives in the Vaikuntha spiritual planets.

Since there is essentially no difference between Vishnu and Krishna, devotees of either or both are referred to as Vaishnavas. A key distinction between an untrained theist and a Vaishnava is that a devotee of Vishnu voluntarily gives up what are known as the four pillars of sinful life: meat eating, gambling, illicit sex, and intoxication. One may wonder what these activities have to do with God. After all, isn’t it enough to just believe in God? The reason these activities are deemed sinful is that they cause one to be bound up in the illusion of this material world. Illusion means taking something to be one thing when, in reality, it is something else. The world we live in is deemed to be illusory because it makes us think that we will be happy associating with it.

Material happiness is an illusion because matter itself is constantly changing, being subject to creation, maintenance, and dissolution. Sex life which is against religious principles serves as a great example in illustrating this point. When men and women reach a mature age, they seek out each other’s company. Men look for certain traits in a woman, and women have their own set of qualities they look for in a man, but a commonality exists in that both groups look for beauty. They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but there is no denying that beauty is often related to a person’s outward features. These features consist of matter, for that is what the gross body is comprised of. The body is constantly changing: from boyhood to youth, from youth to adult, from adult to old age. Though the body constantly changes, the identity of the owner of the body doesn’t. This is because the spirit soul residing within the body is what determines a person’s identity; it forms the essence of existence. The outward covering is simply a dress, something which gets worn out over time.

Krishna in Vrindavana As the body gets older, it becomes less attractive to the opposite sex. The same woman we were attracted to in our youth, now becomes less attractive in old age. So the driving force behind sex life, material beauty, can be considered an illusion, for it is ever changing. This is one small example of how material happiness works, and the same principles can be applied to gambling, intoxication, and meat eating. This is all by design, though, for the material world is not meant to be our permanent home. Since spirit is superior to matter, there is another world where spirit reigns supreme. That place is known as the spiritual world, where God and His eternal associates dwell. Unlike the material world, everything in Krishna’s realm is blissful, permanent, and full of knowledge. What we see is what we get, so there is no illusion.

Returning to the spiritual world is actually quite easy. We simply have to have a sincere desire to associate with God. If this desire remains with us at the time of death, in our next life we receive a spiritual body. If we assume a spiritual body, naturally we will live in the spiritual world. Krishna’s promise to us is that once we assume a spiritual body, we will never be subject to the forces of the material world again. This means that our days of being tricked by material nature will be over.

So this seems simple enough; just desire to be with God. Here’s the catch though. In our current conditioned state, we have a tight attachment to sinful activity. This attachment is not very easy to give up. Even if we want to be with God, if we still have an addiction to any sinful activity, we will be forced to accept another material body at the time of death. To help us remain on the virtuous path, the great Vaishnava saints recommend that we kick our addiction to the above mentioned pillars of sinful life. No meat eating, no gambling, no intoxication, and no illicit sex.

Shrila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati For people growing up in Western countries, even giving up one of these activities is difficult. There is a well-known historical incident involving of one Shrila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati’s preachers going to England and trying to convert famous dignitaries into devotees of Krishna. A high ranking government official in England asked the preacher how he could go about becoming a brahmana, or high class priest. “Can you make me a brahmana?” the person asked. The preacher replied that it would be very simple, that the person would only need to give up the four primary sinful activities. Immediately this dignitary replied that it was impossible. “Give up drinking? Give up meat-eating? No way; I can’t do it.”

This sentiment is echoed by many people who live in countries which have a rooted tradition of meat eating and intoxication. “If we give up these activities, what will we do for fun? What will we eat?” These are certainly valid concerns, which luckily have been addressed by the great devotees of Krishna. The acharyas tell us that more than simply giving up activities, we need to take up a full-time engagement which will make us automatically give up all bad habits. This engagement is known as bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. The primary component of devotional service is chanting. If we regularly recite God’s names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, we will slowly develop an attachment to God.

Panchatattva chanting Hare Krishna How do we develop an attachment to somebody we can’t even see? The secret lies in the fact that God and His names are identical. This is a little tricky to understand at first, but it is undoubtedly true. Being the Supreme Absolute Truth, there is no difference between Krishna and any of His primary expansions. This means that Krishna’s original form, His arms, legs, names, and books that describe Him are all equal, for that is the very definition of Absolute. Chanting is the recommended process of devotional service for this age because it is the easiest and most effective method of connecting with God. Along with performing other activities such as hearing, remembering, and offering prayers, a person can spend twenty-four hours a day engaged in Krishna’s service.

Associating with Krishna by these methods is in some ways better than offering service to Him face-to-face. This is because if we hear about Krishna or chant His name, many of our inhibitions are removed. Our love for Him is free to grow, and it doesn’t get checked by any social conventions or self-consciousness. We are free to love the Lord unconditionally, without any expectation of reciprocation.

Lord Chaitanya as a sannyasi As a result of associating with God, one automatically loses tastes for other subordinate activities. If a person regularly engages in devotional service, they no longer desire to associate with illusory matter, something which provides no lasting pleasure. This essentially describes the life of a sannyasi, or one in the renounced order. Sannyasis renounce material life, dedicating their whole lives to serving Krishna. Usually the idea of sannyasa is equated with shaving one’s head, carrying around a stick, and travelling from place to place. These things certainly do help one remain renounced, but sannyasa is more a state of mind than anything else. By dedicating their lives to Krishna, sincere devotees find a higher taste, something which gives them a million times more pleasure than anything they ever did before. In this way, we see that sannyasa is more about pleasure than it is renunciation.

Due to His causeless mercy upon the fallen conditioned living entities, Krishna descends to earth in a spiritual form from time to time. He enacts pastimes, punishes the miscreants, and gives pleasure and protection to the Vaishnavas. One such appearance took place many thousands of years ago in the Treta Yuga, the second time period of creation. Appearing on earth as Lord Rama, the handsome and pious prince of Ayodhya, God’s mission was to kill the Rakshasa demon Ravana. In order to facilitate Ravana’s destruction, Rama needed an excuse to take him on in battle. This excuse came through the kidnapping of Sita Devi, Lord Rama’s wife, by Ravana.

Sita and Rama Taking Sita back to his island kingdom of Lanka, Ravana tried his best to win her over, but he was unsuccessful. In response to his advances, Sita scornfully rebuked him and let him know just what was in store for him as a result of his horrible act. In the above referenced statement, Sita is asking Ravana a rhetorical question relating to her love for Rama. She compares Rama to the greatest swan [raja-hamsena] that lives with its consort amongst lotus flowers and Ravana to an ordinary diver-bird who rustles around in reeds and grass. This beautiful analogy also describes the difference between spiritual life and material life.

Sita is saying that she has already tasted pure bliss through association with God. She was more than just an associate; she was God’s wife, His eternal consort. Sita and Rama can never be separated at any time. Even though Ravana kidnapped her, he was only able to touch and see a material version of Sita. The sinful and the materially conditioned can never see God and His pure devotees for who they truly are. This flawed mindset leads them to view the deities in temples as ordinary wood or stone statues.

Sita and Rama Ravana was a gross materialist who took the satisfaction of the senses to be his topmost priority. He lived in beautiful palaces, had a tremendous fighting army of Rakshasas at his disposal, and was married to hundreds of beautiful princesses. Yet all this was not enough; lust drove him to forcibly take another man’s wife. Actually, material life is never enough for any person, not just Ravana. This is why religion exists; it is our way out of this ocean of nescience. Due to Ravana’s sinful nature, Sita wanted nothing to do with him. More than just not wanting to be with him, there was simply no way for Sita to ever associate with Ravana. In thought, word, and deed, Sita was wholly dedicated to Lord Rama.

Having found a higher taste, Sita could not tolerate the mundane enjoyment provided by matter. Her statement also shows that she had completely renounced material life, something which is not common for women. The sannyasa-ashrama, as well as the entire varnashrama- dharma system, is intended primarily for men. A woman’s dharma is that she should be dedicated to her husband, and thereby share in the results of his pious activities. Sita, being a pure devotee, transcended all these rules and regulations. This proves that any person, regardless of their race, gender, or ethnicity, can take to devotional service and achieve perfection in life. Being madly in love with God is the true sign of one in the renounced order. The lesson here is that we can easily renounce all sinful activity simply by accepting a higher taste, the sweet transcendental mellow of pure loving association with the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Attaining Yoga

Lord Krishna “A person is said to have attained to yoga when, having renounced all material desires, he neither acts for sense gratification nor engages in fruitive activities.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 6.4)

In its simplest definition, yoga means addition or plus. In order for there to be addition, there must be one or more operands, at least two terms which are being added. When this definition is applied to the famous discipline which emanates out of India, yoga becomes that activity which enables the individual soul to connect with the Supersoul, or Paramatma.

“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, Bhagavad-gita, 2.13)

Lord Krishna Every life form has a soul within it. Though this soul doesn’t change, the body it inhabits most certainly does. At some point this body is created, grows for some time, leaves byproducts, and then eventually gets discarded. Throughout all these changes, the identity of the life form does not change. We can take our own life as an example. As youths we had completely different bodies than we do as adults, yet our identities never change. We may look at an old picture of ourselves and be amazed at how we looked, but we can never accurately say that the person in the picture was someone else. The individual always remains the same because the soul never changes.

From Vedic information, we understand that the life spark inside the body is a tiny little entity known as the atma, or soul. The soul is so small that it cannot be measured by any blunt scientific instrument, nor can it be perceived by the naked eye. The only way to understand the presence of the soul is to study the symptoms of the outward body. In this regard the soul is similar to the wind. No one can actually see the wind, but we can realize its presence by feeling the air blowing on our faces or by seeing the trees and the clouds move.

Even the nicest car needs a driver Every living entity - any person, animal, fish, insect, reptile, plant, etc. - has an individual soul which serves as the guiding force for all activities. The soul can be thought of as the driver of the car. We can have a world class automobile with state of the art engineering and precision handling of the wheels, but all of this craftsmanship is useless without a driver. It is the person operating the vehicle who allows the automobile to have any value. In a similar manner, it is the presence of the spirit soul within the body that enables a person to be deemed alive. The soul is not alone, however. The Vedas tell us that there is another tiny spark residing side-by-side with the atma. This spark doesn’t belong to the individual though; it is an expansion of God. This soul is similar in quality to the individual, but since it is a direct representation of God, it is much more powerful. For this reason, this specific soul is referred to as Paramatma, or the Supersoul.

Hanuman with Sita and Rama in his heart Why is it super? With our individual soul we can manage the activities of our current body. This body may change over time, but the driver remains the same. So in this regard, the individual soul is quite powerful. The atma is limited in power, however, in that it cannot control the actions of any other body. A soul can only reside in one body at a time, meaning that we are unaware of the activities and experiences of other living entities. The Supersoul does not have this limitation. Since God expands Himself to reside within the heart of every living entity, He is conscious of all activity, past, present, and future, of every living entity that has ever lived and that will ever live in the future. Thus God’s soul is super, or param.

“The Supreme Lord is situated in everyone's heart, O Arjuna, and is directing the wanderings of all living entities, who are seated as on a machine, made of the material energy.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 18.61)

The question then arises as to the need for two souls. If our souls are sufficiently capable of driving the car known as the body, what is the need for the Supersoul? Why would God decide to expand Himself to reside within our heart? This is where things get a little tricky. While the individual soul is certainly responsible for the activities that a person chooses to take up, it is the Supersoul that is responsible for the results. Paramatma is a neutral witness, which means that it doesn’t play favorites in regards to material fortunes and misfortunes. At the same time, Paramatma is a representation of God, thus nothing can occur in this world without its intervention. All actions and reactions in this world are due to the influence of the Supersoul. The Supersoul is the source of all matter and spirit in this world, for Paramatma is non-different from God.

Aside from controlling the workings of nature, Paramatma exists for another more important reason. As individual spirit souls, our natural constitutional position is to always be engaged in service. Currently, we are engaged in all sorts of second-class service; service to our friends, family, community, nation, cat, dog, employer, etc. Since our individuality comes from spirit, naturally our service should also be directed at the spiritual instead of the material. Where do we find this spiritual entity who we can serve? Where do we go to find our natural occupation?

This is where yoga comes in. God is already residing within our heart, though He is standing by as a neutral observer. Since our soul is meant to engage in His service, we need only look inside our own heart to find our eternal companion. Knowing that the Supersoul exists and realizing its presence are two different things. We need a discipline, a set of activities which will help us connect with the Supersoul. This is precisely what yoga aims to do.

Now that we understand the meaning of yoga, how does this relate to all the different sitting postures and breathing exercises? Most of us know yoga to be a gymnastics exercise, something used to improve health and flexibility. The biggest hindrance to realizing the presence of the Supersoul, i.e. attaining yoga, is the influence of the senses. Therefore, an aspiring yogi’s first aim is to curb the influence of the senses. This is why yoga commonly involves strange breathing exercises and tricky sitting postures. These exercises were all passed down from God so as to help the living entities reduce the influence of the senses. Once our senses are kept in check, it becomes much easier to realize the presence of the Supersoul.

Lord Chaitanya The five senses are hearing, smelling, touching, tasting, and seeing. When we speak of sense gratification, we are referring to any activity that aims to please one of these five senses. For example, eating is aimed at satisfying the sense acquiring organs of the tongue and stomach. Sex life aims to provide sense gratification through stimulation of the genitals. Based on this definition, it seems that everything we currently engage in is sense gratification. If everything is sense gratification, what else is there? How can we curb the influence of the senses when every activity we perform involves interaction with the senses?

“Bhakti, or devotional service, means engaging all our senses in the service of the Lord, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the master of all the senses. When the spirit soul renders service unto the Supreme, there are two side effects. One is freed from all material designations, and one’s senses are purified simply by being employed in the service of the Lord.” (Narada-pancharatra)

The soul, or atma, is above the influence of the senses. The senses are products of matter; they are tied to the body that we currently occupy. We know that certain species have heightened senses of smell or hearing. This is evidence of the fact that senses are part of the material body; a body which is ever-changing and non-permanent. The soul, on the other hand, is immutable and unchangeable. Aside from the soul being above the influence of the material senses, there is also something called spiritual sense gratification. Just because material senses are part of the temporary material body doesn’t mean that there aren’t spiritual senses. Spiritual senses are those things relating to the atma and the Paramatma. Since these senses can’t be realized until the material senses are nullified, the process of yoga is required.

Since God is the supreme spirit, association with Him represents the highest form of spiritual sense gratification. Associating with God automatically makes us immune to the effects of the material senses. This is why yoga is such a popular discipline. When a person practices yoga very nicely, they will start to transcend the effects of the material senses, which means that they will see some nice side-effects as a result. For example, their body will be in equilibrium, so their blood pressure will be lower, their breathing will be less restrained, and their heart will be healthier. At the same time, they will become more flexible and less restricted in their bodily movements. These material perfections come as a result of satisfying the spiritual senses. What happened over time, however, was that people started taking to yoga simply to achieve these side-effects, while completely ignoring the spiritual aspect to the discipline. Hence we are left with the current situation where nobody is able to really practice yoga perfectly. They may be able to stand on their head or put their legs into strange positions, but they are nowhere near realizing the presence of the Supersoul.

Lord Krishna performing yoga In the famous Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna briefly covers the key components to practicing meditational yoga properly. The first requirement is that one be completely celibate. Sex life causes the greatest stimulation of the material senses, thus it represents the biggest hindrance towards advancement in yoga. No one can be considered a serious yogi while remaining a slave to their senses. Another requirement is that one must find a sacred place to practice their yoga. This requirement makes sense because yoga requires silence and concentration. Since time immemorial, the serious yogis in India have chosen sacred and secluded places to practice their yoga. One must also sit up straight and have a cushion made of deerskin in order to keep insects away.

From these rules and regulations described by Lord Krishna, we can understand that meditational yoga is almost impossible to perfect in this age. Luckily for us, there are other forms of yoga. Since the goal is to achieve union of the soul with God, there will surely be other ways to achieve this connection. More than anything else, one must always remain with the Lord at all times in body, mind, and spirit. The most effective type of yoga for the people of this age is bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. Bhakti means love or devotion, so when it is applied to yoga it means directing all of one’s activities towards connecting with God.

Panchatattva - performers of sankirtana Of all the activities of bhakti-yoga, chanting is the most powerful. The chanting process is also commonly referred to as mantra meditation. One sits quietly and recites a sacred formula, or mantra, over and over again. The type of mantra makes a difference, for a mantra is a series of words designed to produce an effect. The most efficacious mantra for bhakti-yogis is the maha-mantra, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. This is the greatest [maha] mantra because it contains God’s most important names, Krishna and Rama, along with His energy, Hara. When one performs this mantra meditation silently and to oneself, it is called japa, and when it is performed in a congregational manner with others, it is called sankirtana.

Whether we choose japa or sankirtana, the important point is to always perform mantra meditation. Unlike other kinds of yoga, this mantra meditation can be practiced by any person, at any time, and at any place. A person doesn’t have to be born to Indian parents, or enroll in a yoga class, or even understand Vedanta or Sanskrit. All that is required is a sincere desire to connect with God. Of all the yogas and religious practices that are adopted, this mantra meditation stands head and shoulders above the rest, thus it is something we should all sincerely take a shot at. Chanting Hare Krishna will allow our minds to focus on God at all times, delivering us the spiritual sense gratification we so desperately need.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Can’t Touch This

Sita Rama “It is not possible for a chandala to tread heavily on an altar which is beautifully decorated and situated amongst a sacrificial fire, pots, and ladles, and sanctified by the mantras of the brahmanas. Similarly, I, being the religiously wedded wife of one who is Himself ever committed to dharma, am firm in my vows and thus, O lowest of the Rakshasas, it is not possible for me to ever be touched by you, who are a sinner.” (Sita Devi speaking to Ravana, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 56.18-19)

This is a beautiful analogy used by Sita Devi, the wife of Lord Rama, to describe how Ravana was unqualified and incapable of touching her. This may seem strange to hear because Ravana, a Rakshasa demon, had just kidnapped Sita from the forest of Dandaka and forcibly brought her to his kingdom of Lanka. Yet as all the great acharyas confirm, Sita Devi could never be touched by Ravana because she always remains completely spiritual. She is God’s wife in the spiritual world, meaning that she is not tainted by any material qualities. Only those elevated personalities, those whose minds have been purified through proper training, can understand and see Sita’s true spiritual form.

Sita Devi The Indian caste system is famous throughout the world. It is usually understood to be a sort of social pecking order, where certain classes of people are deemed more worthy than others. Aside from the four primary castes, there are also those considered untouchable. When learning about Hindu culture in American schools, the issue of the untouchables is almost always broached. The actual Vedic system, however, has nothing to do with social statuses or ostracizing people based on their birth. The caste system, more accurately known as varnashrama-dharma, is a natural ordering of society based on the inherent qualities that people possess and the work they perform. In the Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, says that He created this system based on guna and karma. He never mentions anywhere that one’s varna, or caste, is inherited at the time of birth.

Lord Krishna The reason for the divisions is that every person will have different tendencies. The modern day movements aimed at providing social justice and the equal distribution of wealth are certainly idealistic, but not practical since everyone has different desires and qualities. Not every person has the same work ethic, nor does everyone want to be rich. In fact, if you conducted a poll to find out at what annual salary a person would consider themselves rich, you’d get a wide variety of answers. To some people, earning $100,000 a year is considered great wealth, while others would require multiple millions of dollars before they felt comfortable. These differences in desires and qualities are natural, and they are acquired over the course of many many lifetimes. Vedic teachings tell us that our consciousness at the time of death determines the type of body we inherit in our next birth.

“In whatever condition one quits his present body, in his next life he will attain to that state of being without fail.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 8.6)

Lord Krishna The four varnas of the famous caste system are the brahmanas, kshatriyas, vaishyas, and shudras. Then there are those who are considered so uncivilized that they don’t even fall into any of these categories. These “untouchables” are the mlecchas, yavanas, and chandalas. For the purpose of this discussion, we will focus on the two extreme ends of the spectrum: the brahmanas and the chandalas. The meaning of brahmana is someone who knows Brahman. Most of us understand that there is a personal God who is in control of everything. He is the person we go to when we want things, and He is also in charge of making the impossible seem possible. The Vedas give us further details into God’s nature. He who most of us know as God is actually Bhagavan, or the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Bhagavan, whose original form is that of Shri Krishna, then takes two primary expansions. The Lord is kind enough to live within our body as a minute spirit soul. We also have our own spirit soul that forms the basis of our identity, but God’s soul is there alongside ours. Our soul is known as the jivatma, or just regular atma. Since God’s soul is much more powerful, it is known as Paramatma, or the great soul. The Paramatma can be realized through yoga. Yoga itself means the linking of our soul with God’s expansion residing within our heart. There is a less granular expansion, or classification, of God known as Brahman. Brahman is an all-encompassing energy. Everything, including matter and spirit, is Brahman.

“Peacefulness, self-control, austerity, purity, tolerance, honesty, wisdom, knowledge, and religiousness—these are the qualities by which the brahmanas work.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 18.42)

Those who know Brahman understand that all living entities are an equal part of the creation. There is no difference in quality or quantity between one jivatma and another. To know Brahman and truly understand it, one must possess certain qualities. Such a person must be peaceful, humble, tolerant, wise, etc. These are the qualities, or gunas, of a brahmana. Along with these qualities, brahmanas must perform certain types of work. Their prescribed duties, or karma, include reading the Vedas, teaching others Vedic wisdom, performing sacrifices, teaching others how to perform sacrifices, taking charity, and giving charity.

Shrila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati - an exmplary brahmana To be considered a qualified brahmana, one must be properly trained. There are many caste brahmanas in India who inherited their status from their forefathers. Essentially any caste brahmana can trace their family lineage all the way back to a famous sage of the past. Having this sort of ancestry is certainly very nice, and it presents a wonderful opportunity. However, as mentioned before, one’s varna is determined by qualities and work. If we are born in a brahmana family but don’t exude any of the qualities of a brahmana or perform any of their activities, we can’t be considered a bona fide brahmana.

To know Brahman means to know that we are not our bodies. The spirit soul, or atma, represents our identity. Those who live on the bodily conception of life, considering themselves to be Indian, American, black, white, etc., certainly don’t know Brahman. A person born in a brahmana family who doesn’t have respect for all forms of life certainly cannot be considered a qualified teacher of the Vedas. To know Brahman, one must be trained by a qualified brahmana, someone who knows the Truth.

Lord Krishna performing sacrifices The sacrifice is an essential part of religious life in the Vedic tradition. Sacrifice involves voluntarily giving up something that is valuable to you. In the ancient times, kings would perform grand sacrifices where they would offer a horse or some other valuable animal to God. These sacrifices were very intricate and complex, and they required the perfect recitation of specific Vedic hymns and mantras. A qualified brahmana was required to perform these sacrifices, otherwise the desired result would never be achieved. In a properly executed sacrifice, the soul residing within the animal would immediately be promoted to the human species in the next life, and the king would reap tremendous material rewards as a result.

Since the sacrifices required meticulous attention to detail, only trained sages could perform them. By the same token, those who were unclean and not trained in any Vedic discipline were strictly forbidden from taking part in such sacrifices. In the varnashrama system, the shudras are considered the fourth and lowest division. They are laborers by trade, and they receive no formal training in any Vedic discipline. The chandalas, or dog-eaters, are considered even lower. Even in today’s society where meat-eating is quite common, if someone were to start eating dog flesh, they would be considered uncivilized and an odd-ball. In ancient times, these people were not allowed anywhere near a sacrifice, for their presence would taint the whole proceeding. Such a person could surely tread across any normal area of land, but as soon as that same land became sanctified with the paraphernalia of a Vedic sacrifice along with the recitation of mantras by qualified brahmanas, such a person was restricted from setting foot on it.

Airplane takeoff Now this restriction may seem a little harsh to the lay-person. To properly understand the context, let’s take the example of flying an airplane. A plane is an enormous vehicle, requiring expert pilots to operate it. A pilot must go through hours and hours of training before they are allowed into the cockpit to personally steer a plane from takeoff to landing. We would never think of taking any odd person off the street and asking them to fly a plane, for the results would be disastrous. The plane probably would never even make it off the ground, and if it did, it most certainly would crash. The Vedic sacrifice can be thought of in the same light. Though we may not see its results directly, a yajna, or sacrifice, is performed for the benefit of Lord Vishnu. In fact, the word yajna itself means Vishnu, or the four-handed expansion form of Lord Krishna. All yajnas are meant for the satisfaction of Vishnu, which means that if a non-devotee, or person lacking knowledge of Vishnu, performs a sacrifice, there will be no tangible result. More than just nullifying the effects of the sacrifice, a chandala can do great harm by causing animals to be needlessly killed or causing the ingredients of the sacrifice to be wasted. This is precisely what occurred over time as unqualified brahmanas started taking to animal sacrifice simply as an excuse to eat meat. For this reason, the practice of animal sacrifice was eventually abolished.

Sita and Rama in the forest This analogy to a chandala being restricted from a yajna was appropriately used by Sita Devi when talking to Ravana. During the Treta Yuga, the second time period of creation, Lord Krishna descended to earth in His all-blissful, all-knowing form of Lord Rama, the handsome prince of Ayodhya. Rama’s wife was Sita Devi, an incarnation of Goddess Lakshmi. The couple was residing in the forest of Dandaka along with Rama’s younger brother, Lakshmana, when one day Sita was kidnapped by Ravana. The Rakshasa race was quite strong at the time, and their leader was the ten-headed son of Vishrava, Ravana. Though Ravana was quite capable in battle, he knew he didn’t stand a chance against Rama and Lakshmana, so he devised a plan where he could kidnap Sita in Their absence. Successfully taking Sita to his kingdom of Lanka, Ravana tried every which way to win her heart over, but he failed every time.

In the above referenced statement, Sita is letting Ravana know that he can never touch her. She compared him to a chandala, or the lowest class of man. This analogy is important because Ravana certainly viewed himself as high class. He lived in the finest palaces, drank the best wine, and had hundreds of beautiful wives. He even thought that he was a religious person, for he used to regularly perform worship of various demigods. Nevertheless, he lived completely in the bodily conception of life. He didn’t believe in a Supreme God, for he was trying to be God himself through the conquering of enemies and the acquisition of material wealth, strength, and fame. As a Rakshasa, he was accustomed to eating meat. The irony of Ravana’s haughtiness was that he was actually lower than a chandala. A chandala is so low that they eat dog flesh, but Ravana actually ate human flesh on a regular basis. He and his Rakshasa associates would harass the great sages living in the forests, attack their sacrifices, kill them, and then eat their flesh.

“To say nothing of touching mother Sita, a person with material senses cannot even see her. When Ravana kidnapped her, he kidnapped only her material, illusory form.” (Lord Chaitanya, Chaitanya Charitamrita, Madhya 9.193)

Lord Chaitanya Sita was dead-on in her characterization of Ravana. The demon certainly did touch her, but just as a chandala can never properly execute a sacrifice, Ravana was never able to actually touch Sita’s spiritual form. He only associated with a material form of Sita, a sort of fake covering. Only devotees can see God and His associates as they are.

If we see God and His pure devotees as being products of material nature, we can never get the true benefit of their association. The impersonalist philosophers, the Mayavadis, encounter this very problem when they try to execute bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. The Mayavadis believe that Brahman is the ultimate feature of God, meaning they don’t believe in a Paramatma or Bhagavan. Because of this, they try to worship some imaginary form of God, or worse, they take God’s authorized forms such as Rama, Krishna, etc. to be products of maya, or material nature. For these reasons their performance of bhakti-yoga is useless. Their viewpoint is no different than how Ravana viewed Sita, Rama, and Lakshmana. In the end, Sita’s words would hold true as Ravana was never able to win her over. Lord Rama eventually came to Lanka and killed the demon and all his soldiers after a series of fierce battles.

Rama Darbar The lesson here is that if we want to truly get the benefit of association with God, we must be properly trained from a devotee. The devotees of Lord Vishnu, Vaishnavas, are actually above brahmanas in stature because they understand Bhagavan. Since Bhagavan is the source of Brahman, Vaishnavas automatically acquire all the qualities of a brahmana. In this age, we can all become Vaishnavas, regardless of our ancestry, simply by regularly chanting God’s names in a loving way, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. This chanting is known as the sankirtana-yajna, and unlike sacrifices of the past, there are no restrictions on its performance. Any person can chant and receive all the glorious benefits. This is Krishna’s mercy for the people of this age, and we should most certainly take advantage of it.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The King of the Jungle

Lord Narasimhadeva “Anyone who prays unto Me and takes shelter from Me becomes My ward, and I protect him always from all sorts of calamities.” (Lord Narasimhadeva, Narasimha Purana)

The lion is the king of the jungle. Of all the animals living in the wilderness, the lion is best at protecting itself and its family members. Other animals live in fear of the lion and thus offer respects to it through their behavior. In a similar manner, God offers complete protection to all His devotees. Since the Lord is all-powerful, it is not surprising to see that one of His eternally existing forms is that of a half-man/half-lion, Narasimhadeva. The beauty of Lord Narasimhadeva lies in the fact that He offers mankind the simplest formula for protection in life. Take shelter of this transcendental lion and all your fears will go away. The Lord will take charge of your protection and ensure that no one else will be able to harm you.

Lord Krishna How can God be a half-man/half-lion? The real question should be how could He not be a half-man/half-lion? There is only one God, the Almighty creator who is the father of all mankind. Instead of just worshiping an impersonal spirit or an old man who lives somewhere up in the sky, the Vedas tell us that we should take to worshiping God in His original form or one of His innumerable expansions. Veda means knowledge, so when applied to the arena of spirituality, this wisdom is intended to provide the king of all knowledge, that pertaining to the soul and its relationship with the Supreme Lord. Vedic information states that God’s original form is that of Lord Shri Krishna, who is more accurately described as the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Since God is the representation of all that is good in this world, He naturally will be the most attractive person, possessing every auspicious feature known to man. God is the most beautiful and the most attractive, thus He is the only person truly worthy of the name Krishna.

Krishna is a Sanskrit word that can mean blackish. In this respect, many great historical personalities have been named Krishna. God’s literary incarnation, Vyasadeva, was also known as Krishna because of His bodily complexion. Draupadi, the wife of the famous Pandava brothers, was also commonly referred to as Krishna for the same reason. But when we take the word Krishna to mean the most attractive, someone who captures the hearts and minds of all living entities, then it can only apply to the Supreme Absolute Truth, the creator who has a body full of bliss and knowledge. Though Krishna is the most attractive, He doesn’t limit Himself to only one form. Rather, He takes innumerable expansions which reside on various spiritual planets. These expansions inherit the property of eternality, thus they are no different from God Himself.

Lord Vishnu One of Krishna’s most well-known expansions is Lord Narayana, who is commonly referred to as Vishnu. Those who may have a basic understanding of what is today known as Hinduism understand the concept of the three rulers of creation: Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesha. In this context, Vishnu is known as the maintainer, while Brahma is taken as the creator, and Mahesha [Shiva] as the destroyer. Of the three, only Vishnu is a direct expansion of the original form of Godhead, thus He is worshipable as the Supreme Lord. Vishnu is known as Narayana because He is the source of all naras, or men.

Original Vedic wisdom was passed down in the Sanskrit language. The Sanskrit script is known as Devanagari, which means the language of the demigods. This language is quite beautiful and apropo when describing God’s glories. All the names for God that are given in the great Vedic texts have specific meanings. The forms of Godhead weren’t just created on a whim, for there is intelligence behind them. Lord Narayana’s expansions which appear on earth are known as avataras. An avatara is one who descends, meaning that the term refers to an incarnation of God which comes down from the spiritual world. Though it may seem that an avatara appears and disappears, thus going through birth and death, the avatara has an eternal body and form. This means that an avatara is the same as God in that respect; undying and unborn.

Narayana’s avataras are famous for the activities They perform and the unique forms which They assume. Lord Narasimhadeva is one of Narayana’s most celebrated incarnations. The most authoritative Vedic text, the Shrimad Bhagavatam, gives us the list of God’s primary incarnations. This book also tells us that the complete list of incarnations is impossible to compile, therefore only the most famous avataras are known to mankind. The word Narasimha has meaning behind it. Nara means “man” and simha means “lion”, thus Narasimhadeva is the half-man/half-lion form of the Lord.

Narasimhadeva Why would God appear in this strange form? There are many reasons, all of which combine and join forces to cause the Lord’s appearance at just the right time and place. According to Vedic information, the world we live in goes through cycles of creation and destruction. The time period of creation is known as a kalpa. The Lord’s avataras appear on earth in each kalpa, so we can’t really say that someone like Lord Narasimhadeva appeared only in the past. According to the timeline of this current creation, Narasimhadeva appeared on earth many millions of years ago, however, He will surely appear again in a future creation. One of the causes for His unique form was the Lord’s desire to keep Lord Brahma’s boons intact. God is the original proprietor of everything, but to allow the living entities to pursue their material objectives, the Lord deputes elevated living entities to dole out rewards. The seekers of material perfections worship the demigods and are duly rewarded, even though none of these gifts can be bestowed without Krishna’s mercy.

Lord Brahma, being the self-create and thus the oldest person in the world, is one of the more famous demigods. He is well-respected even by the demon class. One famous demon named Hiranyakashipu pleased Lord Brahma enough to the point where he was granted several extraordinary boons. The first thing Hiranyakashipu asked from Brahma was immortality. Since Lord Brahma himself is not immortal, this was not something he could give out. To try to get around this fact, Hiranyakashipu then asked for several other boons which gave him immunity from the attacks of human beings, celestials, weapons, air, land, sea, day, night, etc. Hiranyakashipu thought he had all his bases covered, feeling that he had essentially tricked Brahma into giving him immortality anyway.

The first question one may ask is why would Lord Krishna sanction such rewards for a demon like this? The answer is that when the Lord gives authority to the demigods, this authority must be absolute. Basically, God can’t say that someone is capable of doing something and then take that power away based on the nature of the activities. In this respect, Lord Brahma is given absolute authority to hand out whatever boons he feels his devotees are worthy of, up to the point of mukti, or liberation. The Lord has so much love and respect for Lord Brahma that He doesn’t want to make him appear to be a liar.

Prahlada Maharaja So does this mean that everyone should take to worshiping Brahma in lieu of Krishna? Just because the demigods can hand out great material rewards, it doesn’t mean that they are the highest authority figures. With the case of Hiranyakashipu, Narayana found a way to thwart the demon’s reign of terror by coming to earth in the form of a half-man/half-lion. This form was beautiful because it showed respect to Lord Brahma, while at the same time giving protection to Hiranyakashipu’s son Prahlada. Prahlada was a great devotee of Vishnu, and he prayed regularly to Him for protection from the attacks of his demon father. Narasimhadeva finally came to earth and killed Hiranyakashipu, while keeping all of Lord Brahma’s boons intact. The demon wasn’t killed by a human being, celestial, animal, ordinary weapon, on land, at sea, during the day, or at night.

Krishna and Arjuna The appearance and activities of Lord Narasimhadeva are documented in many Vedic texts, including several Puranas. This specific form of God is celebrated throughout the world along with Prahlada. More importantly, however, is the promise that Lord Narasimhadeva offers His devotees. He asks sincere souls to simply surrender unto Him and thus be guaranteed of full protection. Normally when we hear of such a thing, it seems like a pipe dream, an empty promise. After all, life is full of trouble and misery. Death is always lurking around the corner in the form of oil spills, diseases, natural disasters, criminals, etc. Surrendering unto God seems like too simplistic a formula, something that won’t work.

“Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reaction. Do not fear.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 18.66)

In addition to the aforementioned circumstances, it was also to dispel these doubts that Narasimhadeva chose to appear on earth. His protection is not a fairy tale, for Prahlada Maharaja can attest to its validity. As we all know, there are so many dharmas, or religious systems, that are out there. Lord Narasimhadeva’s prescription represents the simplest dharma, the easiest religious system to follow. All we have to do is surrender and have everything taken care of for us. Why would anyone choose any other avenue towards salvation?