Saturday, August 21, 2010

King of the Castle

Lakshmana “We have heard that even the demigods, who are headed by Shakra [Indra], are subject to auspiciousness and inauspiciousness. Therefore, O tiger among men, You should not be perturbed.” (Lakshmana speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 66.13)

This passage is part of a series of statements made by Lakshmana directed towards His elder brother, Lord Rama. At the time, Rama was bewailing the fact that His wife had just been kidnapped. He was so distraught that He contemplated killing every person in the world as revenge. Being the Almighty Lord, He was certainly more than capable of accomplishing this, but Lakshmana advised Him otherwise. Lakshmana makes reference to the fact that Indra, the king of heaven, must go through ups and downs in his life, so normal human beings shouldn’t overly lament over bad fortune. One should always remain on the virtuous path and persevere through adversity.

Indra The reference to Indra is important because amongst followers of the Vedic tradition, the king of heaven is held in high esteem. In summary, Indra is the god of heaven who uses his thunderbolt as a weapon to fight off demons. The Vedas, which are the oldest scriptures in existence, tell us that there is only one God, but that there are simultaneously thousands of highly elevated living entities known as demigods, who are godlike. Indra is one such godlike personality. He has a long duration of life, tremendous fighting prowess, and is tasked with governing the heavenly kingdom. Thunder, rain, lightning, wind, and other forces of nature are all controlled by various deities, or celestials.

On the surface this may seem like mythology. “These people living in ancient times didn’t have much intelligence, so they couldn’t understand the concept of science. Simply seeing the rain and thunder, they thought there was some higher authority managing those things. We see now that they were wrong, for there is no heavenly kingdom. Above the clouds is simply the outer atmosphere of the earth. Above that is outer space.” This line of thinking is certainly applicable in many situations. After all, if Indra manages rain, thunder, etc, where does he live? We’ve never seen him, so how can we believe that he exists?

Outer space Vedic information states that the demigods mostly reside on the various planets of outer space. These planets, which are part of the material world, are considered to be heavenly, for ordinary human beings can’t live there. We see that it takes great effort simply to get into outer space or to land on the moon. Millions of dollars are spent and high-tech space suits and oxygen tanks are required. All these things are required because those planets don’t have habitats suitable for human beings. If one wants to live on another planet, they need the proper type of bodily makeup.

What does the term “bodily makeup” mean? How can there be any other body type besides that of a human being? The material world is governed by three modes or qualities: goodness, passion, and ignorance. When these qualities are jumbled together into different proportions, the result is a wide variety of species. A species is simply a type of body which possesses certain inherent characteristics. For instance, the aquatics have a body type suitable for living in the water. If they are taken out of water for any extended period of time, they will die. Similarly, we human beings have a body type suited for residing on land. We could never live underwater because we wouldn’t be able to breathe.

In the same way, for one to reside on the different planets in space, they need a suitable body type. This type of body isn’t awarded to just anyone. It is considered a great benediction to be born as a demigod, or any other celestial being. Demigods have a higher level of material enjoyment than human beings do. Due to their heightened powers, they can live for a long time and also perform extraordinary feats.

Indra Lord Indra is one such demigod. The Vedas tell us that just as pious people are rewarded with heavenly bodies, the sinful are punished by being forced to accept bodies composed mostly of ignorance. Yet even though the sinful take on horrific bodily shapes, sometimes they can be very strong in fighting. This is the case with the Rakshasa species. The Vedas have a more generic term for the sinful: asura. The demigods, or saintly people, are known as suras. Since the demons are the opposite of suras, they are known as asuras.

Since the beginning of time, there has been an ongoing war between the suras and the asuras. These battles mostly take place in the heavenly planets. It is Lord Indra’s job to lead the army of the suras in these battles. For this reason, Indra is highly respected. When reading Vedic literature, one will find many references to Indra’s strength and fame. He is often used as a frame of reference when describing a person’s fighting ability or the potency of their weapons.

Lakshmana Lakshmana was quite aware of Indra’s fame and power, so he thought it wise to invoke Shakra’s name when discussing the topic of material loss and gain. It must be noted here that Lakshmana was no ordinary person. Though the demigods are quite powerful, they are not God. There is only one Supreme Lord, and in the Vedic tradition He is known as Krishna. Lord Krishna is also often worshiped in His two-handed form of Lord Vishnu, or Narayana. That very same Narayana came to earth in the guise of a human being many thousands of years ago. This avatara was known as Lord Rama, the handsome and pious prince of Ayodhya.

“Whenever and wherever there is a decline in religious practice, O descendant of Bharata, and a predominant rise of irreligion-at that time I descend Myself.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 4.7)

Why would God come to earth? Why wouldn’t He just stay in heaven? At the time, one particular demon had amassed great wealth and power. This Rakshasa, known by the name of Ravana, was feared throughout the world. Due to the curse of his father Vishrava, Ravana was born with ten heads and was thus known as Dashagriva. It was not until he encountered the great Lord Shiva that Dashagriva acquired the name of Ravana. One time the demon decided to harass Lord Shiva. In response, Shiva crushed his hands using a mountain. Since Dashagriva let out such a terrible scream, Lord Shiva named him Ravana, which means one who terrorizes others.

The demigods, including Indra, could not defeat Ravana. This was due to a boon that Ravana received from Lord Brahma. There was a catch, however. Ravana’s immunity did not extend to human beings. This meant that if there was a man powerful enough to kill Ravana, the demon would not stand a chance. Obviously there was no one capable of such a feat except the Supreme Lord Himself. Thus Vishnu appeared as Rama to carry out the mission of killing Ravana and relieving the suffering of the demigods.

Lord Rama Since He was in the guise of a human being, Rama pretended to lament when His beautiful wife, Sita Devi, was kidnapped in the forest. To console his brother, Lakshmana offered some sound words of advice. Just as Narayana had appeared as Rama, Ananta Shesha Naga, the serpent-king and servant of Vishnu, appeared as Lakshmana.

The reference to Indra is also important because Indra is the king of heaven. Lakshmana is essentially saying, “We hear that even the king of heaven has to go through ups and downs. He must suffer losses every now and then. If this sort of thing happens in heaven, it must certainly happen here on earth as well.” Lakshmana’s analogy was appropriate because Rama was considered the king of earth. Rulers back in those times were addressed by terms such as mahipatih and nara-deva, meaning the lord of earth and god in human form. Even though someone is king of a country or state, it doesn’t mean that they are immune to the effects of nature. Good and bad times will come and go, but one must always remain on the virtuous path.

Though we may not be great kings or rulers, the lessons imparted by Lakshmana still apply to us. This is because we are kings on a very small scale in that we are masters of our own body. Our arms, legs, and hands don’t move on their own. They take direction from the brain, which is powered by the heart, which is controlled by the spirit soul residing within. In this localized area, we have complete independence. Being masters of our own domain, it is incumbent upon us to always act properly, through good times and bad.

The virtuous path is known as dharma, or religiosity. Religion is important because it speaks to our soul, a soul that is eternal. The soul was there before we were born and will continue to be there after we die. Therefore it is more important to concern ourselves with the plight of the soul rather than the body. This was the example set by Lord Rama. He was wholly dedicated to dharma. Not only did He appear in a very famous dynasty of pious kings known as the Ikshvakus, but Lord Rama was God Himself; thus He is the very definition of dharma.

Often times we are taught that if we are pious in our current life, we’ll ascend to heaven after death. This is most certainly true, but as we see from the example of Lord Indra and the other demigods, heaven is not free from suffering. This is because the heavenly planets are still part of the material world, so it is under the control of nature. There is, however, a higher heaven, so to speak. This place is known as Vaikuntha, a place free of anxieties and doubts. It is on the Vaikuntha planets that Lord Vishnu resides. There is also a planet known as Krishnaloka where God, in His original form, resides alongside His close confidantes.

Lord Rama The objective of abiding by dharma is to reach God’s spiritual world after our time here is finished. Since we are the kings of our bodies, we have the power to make the dream of reaching spiritual heaven a reality. We control how we act, move, eat, and talk. If we dovetail all of these activities with God’s service, we are guaranteed of reaching that Supreme Abode. Lord Rama would heed Lakshmana’s advice and continue His search for Sita. Eventually He would find her and defeat Ravana in a great battle. Lord Rama did not let temporary setbacks divert Him from the true mission in life. We should follow His example and be perseverant in our execution of devotional service.

Friday, August 20, 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Until It Sleeps

Lakshmana “What to speak of demigods, Purushas, Rishabhas, and even great beings [planets] - every living entity who accepts a material body becomes subject to the influence of destiny.” (Lakshmana speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 66.12)

The forces of the divine affect every single living entity. There is not a mortal being among us who is immune from destiny’s influence. It is not that some people are exempt from nature’s laws due to their size, stature, or physical strength. Destiny comes from God, thus its influence is divine. Destiny’s most powerful instrument for change is time. As the saying goes, “time heals all wounds”, time also takes away all of our acquired material possessions and relationships. Time causes everyone to dwindle, diminish, and suffer loss. The wise, however, are not bewildered by the influence of time, for they understand the true mission of life.

To understand the influence of time, we need a frame of reference; something that will show us how changes occur. For the purposes of this discussion, we can study the human body. As we all know, the human body is quite frail. However strong a person may be, disease can attack them at any moment. The Vedas summarize all miseries into three categories, with one of them being the miseries brought on by our own mind and body. The disease of cancer is a great example of this. Leukemia, lymphoma, breast cancer, etc. are all diseases of the body that develop within. Once cancer cells gather steam, they start to attack the body and, over time, this eventually leads to death. No one knows for sure how or why people get cancer, but we do know its effects. Though much research has been done to fight it, cancer remains one of the greatest killers of man.

Reincarnation These kinds of diseases show us the frail nature of the body. Starting from when we are born, we develop a great attachment to our body. This is quite natural, for we have to live with ourselves at all moments. We are born into ignorance, so we don’t know anything else beyond what we experience in the current life. Through acquired intelligence, however, we can see that the body is constantly changing. In the early years, our growth is quite rapid. Some parents like to measure their children’s height periodically just to see how fast they are growing. Eventually the growth stops and we reach the stage of adulthood. This doesn’t mean the body stops changing though. Our face starts to change, wrinkles develop, we have less energy, etc. Eventually we become so old and crippled that we can’t even walk on our own. These changes are all due to the influence of time, which is constantly attacking the frail material body.

Knowing these facts, the wise realize that it is not good to develop an attachment to the body. If something is capable of killing us from within, why would we want to develop an attachment to it? Looking at the body as a giant cancer cell, we can see that we are forced to live in a death trap as soon as we take birth. If we shouldn’t overly concern ourselves with the demands of the body, what should we shift our focus to? What should be the prime objective of our work? The Vedas tell us that beyond this perishable material world is a place free of anxieties and doubts. Currently we all live with doubts because we know the temporary nature of things. Even if we have a comfortable life right now, we know that the situation can change in an instant. Besides acquiring diseases like cancer, other types of miseries can afflict us in the form of external events such as earthquakes, natural disasters, and also the actions of other living entities.

Life in Vaikuntha The spiritual world is the only place that is free of anxieties. Therefore it is known as Vaikuntha. On the Vaikuntha planets, and the planets of Krishnaloka above them, reside God and His innumerable internal expansions. In this realm, time does not exist; therefore there is no loss or diminution of any kind. Everyone who resides in the spiritual world possesses a spiritual body which is immune from the effects of material nature. We can think of it as a giant insulated bubble. Spirit can never be contaminated by matter; therefore anything spiritual is absolute, eternal, and always full of knowledge.

Penetrating the bubble of the spiritual world is not easy though. We can’t get there by amassing wealth, developing a rocket ship, or even through taking to dry renunciation. The only way to get to the personal spiritual realm is to associate with its leader: God. Lord Krishna, or God, is the only person who is always imperishable and unchanging. He is described as aja, unborn, and anadi, having no beginning. If we associate with our body, which is composed of the fallible material elements, we are destined to suffer heartache, pain, and loss. On the other hand, if we associate with the person who is above the influence of time, we are guaranteed to have an eternal, blissful life after our current one expires.

Lord Krishna Those who aren’t religiously inclined may not like the idea of having to associate with God. “Why should I focus my time on worshiping some imaginary person? How do I even know that God exists?” In reality, people are already worshipping a “God”. Since we know how fallible mankind is, and how frail the human body is, we have a tendency to adore and idolize elevated living beings. Celebrities, athletes, politicians, scientists, and scholars are all lauded and praised by the general public. They acquire this fame due to their extraordinary abilities in various material endeavors. Movie stars get to play roles where they are depicted as brave heroes who attract the most beautiful women. Star athletes can hit a baseball thrown at them at 100 miles per hour, run a marathon, or hit a golf ball farther and more consistently than anyone else. Politicians can mesmerize throngs of supporters and implement policies that credit them with saving nations. Scientists use their brain power to develop new life-prolonging medicines. They also come up with wonderful theories that describe the laws of nature. Great scholars postulate on the meaning of life and develop philosophies on how one should go about their daily lives.

Due to their extraordinary abilities, these people are undoubtedly worthy of the praise and accolades they receive, but we see that their achievements all have one thing in common: they all relate to enhancing the human experience as it pertains to the body. As mentioned before, the body is frail and lives completely under the influence of time. No amount of material wealth, comforts, or physical achievements can make the body immune from the effects of time. Not a single one of the great personalities of the past was able to stop the death process. No matter their size or stature, none of them could live forever. By giving so much attention to these elevated living entities, we are essentially viewing them as God. This is a faulty viewpoint because God Himself can never die, nor can He suffer any diminution.

Just as the Vaikuntha planets are free from anxieties and doubts, the only discipline in life which is free from doubts is that path which leads us to the Vaikuntha planets. That discipline is known as dharma, or religiosity. Dharma means that which always exists with something, a defining quality. For the living entities, that which defines us is our relation to God. Though our bodies are subject to destruction, our souls are not. The soul is what identifies us; it is the only thing that remains at the time of death.

“For the soul there is never birth nor death. Nor, having once been, does he ever cease to be. He is unborn, eternal, ever-existing, undying and primeval. He is not slain when the body is slain.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.20)

Bhagavad-gita Though the soul is imperishable, it is nevertheless subject to the influences of material nature. Nature, through the influence of time, affects the body by causing it to diminish. Nature affects the soul by causing it to repeatedly take birth in a material body. Thus the cycle of birth and death repeats, while the soul itself remains uncontaminated. There is a superior soul, however, which is not subject to the influence of nature. This soul belongs to God, who is also known as maha-purusha, or the most exalted person.

The existence of our soul, the jivatma, is defined by its relationship with the supreme soul, Paramatma. This relationship is quite beautiful, for it involves reciprocal love. In a nutshell, we are meant to be lovers of God. This shouldn’t be mistaken as love of the mundane variety. Spiritual love is known as Krishna-prema, and it is completely uncontaminated. Dharma means to abide by a set of regulative principles which keeps our soul always in contact with God.

Dharma can take many forms due to the fact that living entities possess different qualities and have tendencies to perform different work. Therefore there is a specific term, bhagavata-dharma, which describes the highest religious system. Bhagavata refers to Bhagavan, or God. Bhagavan means one who possesses all opulences, and this is most certainly an appropriate way to describe God. If we dovetail all our activities with service to Bhagavan, we are adhering to bhagavata-dharma. There are many different processes that make up this dharma, but the most effective one for 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”.

Practicing bhagavata-dharma is a little tricky since we actually don’t give up our material bodies right away. This means that we must simultaneously remain in contact with nature while taking up the sublime mission of devotional service. Though bhagavata-dharma eventually leads to ascension to the spiritual world, we shouldn’t think that our material miseries will come to an end right away. Time still has the same effect on our body, regardless of how we act. The difference with bhagavata-dharma is that our activities will eventually lead us to direct association with God when our life is over. If we neglect this service, we will be forced to come under time’s influence again upon our next birth.

Lord Rama The key to being successful in spiritual life is to not be bewildered by the influence of time and destiny. Good and bad things will surely happen to all of us, but we shouldn’t let these temporary gains or setbacks take us off the righteous path. This was the lesson taught by Lakshmana, the younger brother of Lord Rama. Many thousands of years ago, the Supreme Person, maha-purusha, appeared on earth in a spiritual body which resembled that of an ordinary human being. This person was named Rama, and He played the role of a pious prince who was dedicated to dharma. God knows it will be difficult for us to turn to spiritual life on our own. To help us achieve the ultimate mission of life, the Lord kindly appears on earth from time to time to guide us on the right path.

Lord Rama performed many glorious activities, the most noteworthy of which are chronicled in the wonderful poem written by Maharishi Valmiki known as the Ramayana. Lord Rama appeared as a human being after all, so He had to endure many of the same hardships that we mortal beings suffer through. On one occasion, Rama’s beautiful wife, Sita Devi, was kidnapped while the couple was residing in the forest. Rama’s younger brother, Lakshmana, was also there with Him. After realizing that Sita was missing, Rama and Lakshmana began a feverish search for her whereabouts. Rama eventually lost His composure and gave way to lamentation. He contemplated destroying the whole world as a punishment to those who allowed His wife to be kidnapped.

At this time, Lakshmana stepped in to counsel his brother. Lakshmana was Rama’s faithful servant who was so dedicated to his elder brother that he would not allow Him to leave the kingdom of Ayodhya and roam the forests alone. Lakshmana always remained by Rama’s side and viewed himself as his brother’s keeper. Seeing Rama distraught, Lakshmana offered some sound words of advice. The above referenced statement was part of his counsel. We see that Lakshmana makes reference to the fact that even great celestial beings such as the demigods have to suffer loss. In addition to the demigods, Lakshmana also mentions other celestial beings who reside on different planets and even those living entities who are themselves in charge of various heavenly bodies. The demigods are elevated living entities who manage the affairs of the material world. Since they are god-like, they are referred to as devas or devatas.

“The inhabitants of Kraunchadvipa are divided into four castes, called the Purushas, Rishabhas, Dravinas and Devakas. Using the waters of those sanctified rivers, they worship the Supreme Personality of Godhead by offering a palmful of water at the lotus feet of Varuna, the demigod who has a form of water.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 5.20.22)

Lakshmana In the Vedic tradition, the demigods are given great respect. These celestial beings are certainly worthy of all the adulation they receive, for no ordinary human being could do what they do. Nevertheless, they are not as powerful as God, thus they too are forced to come under the influence of destiny. Lakshmana is reminding Rama of this. He is asking Rama to endure this hardship of Sita’s kidnap and not allow it to divert Him from the righteous path. Lord Rama greatly appreciated this advice and would soon regain His senses. The Lord would continue His search and eventually find Sita. Rama would kill Sita’s kidnapper, the Rakshasa demon Ravana, in a great battle on the island kingdom of Lanka.

We are all in a race against time. Eventually we will die and our body will be destroyed. This same body that is worshiped and praised by others, will one day be buried in the ground or burned to ashes. Therefore we should make the most of the time we have right now by taking up devotional service to God. We should not get hung up on the wins and losses, for they will all come on their own. By remaining on the righteous path, we are sure to meet with success in the end. This body will eventually lay down to a permanent rest. Until that time comes, we should cling to the holy name of God and take it as our life and soul. At the time of death, this name will take us straight to the spiritual world.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

More Than Krishna

Krishna with Radha “The mayavadi [impersonalistic] philosophers want to become one with the Lord, but our philosophy is to become more than Krishna. Why one with Krishna? More than Krishna. And, actually, Krishna does make His devotee more than Himself.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Journey of Self-Discovery, Ch 3.2)

The Vaishnava preachers stand out amongst all theosophists in that they confidently assert that the ultimate aim of life is to become a devotee of God. Love God with all your heart and all your miseries will go away. The way to love God is to not remain stringently attached to a specific religious system, but rather to change one’s consciousness. Always think of God, no matter where you come from, what you look like, or what your occupation is. One of the nice side effects of adopting this attitude is that one surpasses God in brilliance, opulence, and all good qualities. This may seem hard to believe, because the very nature of God is that He is the king of all mankind. In order for someone to be a king, they must be deemed superior to everyone else. But nevertheless, the devotees do surpass the Lord, and interestingly enough, this is all due to the Lord’s mercy. Several prominent historical examples point to this fact.

Lord Vishnu Vaishnavas are followers of Lord Vishnu, who is God’s form as the all-pervading creator, maintainer, and destroyer. The name Vishnu refers to a specific entity but it is also an apt term to describe God’s features. Vedic information provides insight into God’s names, forms, and pastimes. This makes it much easier to understand who the Supreme Person is, rather than just relying on the generic term of “God”. Vishnu is actually a four-armed expansion/version of God’s original form of Krishna. In addition to these two forms, the Lord decides to personally appear on earth from time to time. This is evidence enough of the Lord’s magnanimous nature. Knowing that mankind would have a difficult time trying to decipher the good from the bad, the Lord decided that He would appear on earth periodically to reinstitute the principles of religion [dharma] and also to quell any major uprisings by the irreligionists.

“Whenever and wherever there is a decline in religious practice, O descendant of Bharata, and a predominant rise of irreligion-at that time I descend Myself.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 4.7)

One such appearance occurred many thousands of years ago during the Treta Yuga. In this instance, Vishnu expanded Himself into human form as a pious and handsome prince named Rama. Rama was the very same Vishnu, or Narayana, so He was the chief god, or deva-varah. Depending on how an object is shaped, we may or may not have an attraction to it. Outside factors also determine our viewpoint. Water serves as a nice example in this regard. On a hot summer day, a nice cold glass of water really hits the spot. It provides temporary relief from the suffering caused by the excessive heat. Yet the same cold glass of water becomes unappealing during the winter months. Moreover, when that same water is turned into ice, it takes on a completely different value. Throughout these various conditions, the water has not changed at all. It is still of the same quality, irrespective of our feelings towards it.

Lord Rama The Supreme Lord can be thought of in the same light. Depending on time and circumstance, we may or may not have an attraction to God’s original form. Therefore the Lord is kind enough to assume various shapes to allow mankind to develop an attachment to Him. Lord Rama was very attractive in this respect. Appearing as an ordinary human being, all of mankind could relate to His life’s activities. The Lord had to suffer through several hardships throughout the course of His lifetime, including banishment to the forest and the kidnap of His beautiful wife, Sita Devi. While God can never suffer, this appearance of suffering helped others form an attachment to Him.

Aside from reinstituting the principles of religion, the other benefit of God’s appearances on earth is that the devotees get to directly interact with the Lord, offering their prayers and obeisances. During Lord Rama’s time, a great saint by the name of Valmiki was residing in a hermitage in a forest of India. Lord Rama, Sita Devi, and His younger brother Lakshmana once visited Maharishi Valmiki at his ashrama. The accounts of this meeting are described very nicely in TulsidasRamacharitamanasa. Valmiki was a great devotee of Rama; he is the author of the Ramayana, a poem which describes Lord Rama’s life. During their meeting, Rama and His group first offered obeisances to Valmiki since he was a brahmana and Lord Rama was in the guise of a kshatriya, or warrior. Then the Lord asked the sage if he knew of any good place to set up a cottage.

Sita, Rama, and Lakshmana visiting sages Valmiki answered this question very cleverly. Instead of telling Rama where to set up a camp, he gave a description of the qualities of a devotee of God, telling Rama that He and Sita should reside in the heart of such a person. One of the qualities that Valmiki mentioned was that a devotee loves his guru even more than God. This is certainly a strange concept to consider, since we usually view God as the ultimate object of worship. The guru is the spiritual master, essentially a teacher of spirituality. The best guru is one who is a devotee of Vishnu, for he can then teach his students how to find Vishnu and become His devotee. It is for this reason that devotees often love their guru, who is a devotee, more than God Himself. They think, “I love God, but my guru is so nice that he brought me to God. If it wasn’t for my guru, I’d remain stuck in a lost state, not knowing what to do in life. Based on this, how can I not love my guru more than I love God?”

What’s so nice about this sentiment is that Lord Krishna is entirely okay with this. In fact, He encourages this mindset. The Lord takes it upon himself to make sure that the guru remains famous forever and in this way becomes even more exalted than the Lord. An example of this  was seen with His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Shrila Prabhupada is probably the most famous devotee of Krishna of the past five hundred years. In the late 1960s, he started a worldwide movement called the International Society for Krishna Consciousness [ISKCON], which made Krishna a household word for millions around the world.

Shrila Prabhupada Shrila Prabhupada also initiated many disciples, teaching them the science of self-realization and how to worship Krishna properly. Since he wrote so many books and gave so many lectures, people are still connecting with him to this day. He is a jagad-guru in the true sense of the word. It is quite common to see Prabhupada worshiped and loved more than Krishna. This isn’t surprising because Prabhupada provided instructions which allowed so many people to find Krishna and increase their love for Him. Understanding that this was due to the swami’s tireless efforts, devotees often make Prabhupada the prime object of worship. Krishna is more than okay with this, for He prefers worship of His devotee to worship of Himself.

Another example of a devotee achieving exalted status was Arjuna, the famous Pandava warrior. Around five thousand years ago, Krishna personally appeared on this earth and enacted many wonderful pastimes. Probably the most famous incident of His life took place on the battlefield of Kurukshetra just prior to the start of a great war. The war involved two families, with Krishna not taking sides. He did, however, agree to act as the charioteer to Arjuna, the lead warrior for the Pandava family. Arjuna and Krishna were cousins and good friends. Arjuna was hesitant to fight, and not knowing what action to take, he put the matter to Krishna. What followed was a discourse on the meaning of life given by Krishna; a discourse so wonderful that today it is famously known as the Bhagavad-gita, or the Song of God.

Krishna and Arjuna As part of His instructions, Krishna informed Arjuna that everyone on the opposing side was already dead. In His form as all-pervading time, Lord Krishna eventually kills everyone. Destiny had already decided that the fighters on the opposing side would die, so Arjuna simply had to carry out the dictates of destiny. In so doing, he would become forever famous for having defeated so many fighters. Arjuna eventually heeded Krishna’s advice, and to this day, he is considered one of the greatest devotees of God.

Valmiki’s description of the qualities of a devotee serves as a great checklist, a set of personal traits that we should all hope to one day acquire. What’s interesting to note, however, is that one historical personality already possesses all of these traits and has so since the time of Lord Rama. That person is Shri Hanuman, the Vanara and eternal servant of Rama. Hanuman probably best illustrates this principle of the devotee becoming more than God. After Sita was kidnapped, Rama enlisted the help of an army of monkeys headed by their king, Sugriva. While Sugriva was the king, Hanuman was the chief warrior in this army. It was Hanuman who was able to find Sita, set fire to the demon Ravana’s city of Lanka, and relay the information back to Rama. It was Hanuman who carried Rama and Lakshmana on his back during the subsequent great battle with Ravana’s band of Rakshasas. It was Hanuman who carried Lakshmana off the battlefield after he was injured. It was Hanuman who carried a gigantic mountain full of medicinal herbs which were used to resuscitate Lakshmana.

Hanuman What was Hanuman’s reward for this great service? When Lord Rama finally returned to His kingdom of Ayodhya to be coronated, Hanuman was given a special necklace by Sita. He was also granted the boon of being forever devoted to Rama. He was also allowed to remain in his body for as long as Rama’s story continued to be told on earth. Thus we see that Hanuman is still alive today, taking great pleasure in hearing of the glories of Rama, Lakshmana, and Janaki [Sita]. In fact, Hanuman is probably the most worshiped deity in the world. Even people who aren’t necessarily Vaishnavas take to worship of Hanuman. Tulsidas’ poem, the Hanuman Chalisa, is one of the most famous prayers in the world; it is recited by millions on a daily basis.

Radha and Krishna The followers of the Vedic tradition adopt different methods of self-realization. Some take to fruitive activity, some take to mental speculation, and some take to meditational yoga. While all these processes can eventually lead to bhakti, or devotion, one can take the fast track to salvation by directly worshiping God’s devotees. The devotees teach us how to become perfect human beings, how to gain the good Lord’s favor. The impersonalist speculators want to become one with God, the fruitive workers want to acquire more possessions than God, and the meditational yogis want to achieve siddhis, or perfections, which surpass God’s powers. But from the examples mentioned above, we see that the only way to surpass God is through God’s grace. Only the Lord can make us greater than Himself. This benediction can only be acquired by those who are sincere in their love and devotion. Hanuman, Prabhupada, Arjuna, Valmiki, and countless others never coveted the fame and adoration they received, but the Lord made sure that their service was recognized. In this way, we see that no one is more magnanimous than the Lord. He never forgets the kind service that is rendered to Him.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Sticks and Stones

Lakshmana “Even the mighty sun and moon, who are the eyes of the world, the epitomes of virtue and duty, and in whom the whole world is situated, have to suffer through eclipses.” (Lakshmana speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 66.11)

It is the natural assumption that if we seriously take up spiritual life, other people will be kinder to us. We will get respect and praise from others since we are adhering to a pious way of life. In reality, however, just the opposite situation is seen. Those who are sincerely devoted to Krishna, or God, often have to deal with many hardships not seen before. Family and friends turn into enemies, and others take to ridiculing and tormenting. Just because we are virtuous, it doesn’t mean that we are immune to bad fortune in the material sense. Spiritual life is meant for advancing the plight of the spirit soul inside of us, therefore our relationship with matter will naturally suffer as a result. The key is to remain steadfast in our devotion; otherwise we can easily fall off the virtuous path.

We take to spiritual life because we feel that it will make us happy, that it will provide us some reward that we are currently lacking. It is said that one can never become a serious devotee of God unless and until they become disgusted with material life. This seems a little extreme on the surface, for why should we be disgusted with going about our daily lives? The disgust comes through the repetitious cycle of hankering and lamenting. We work hard for something, we get the rewards of our work, and then we enjoy. Yet since this enjoyment is short-lived, we are left to repeat the cycle all over again. As the rewards keep coming to us, we derive less and less enjoyment from them.

Faced with this situation, we have one of two options. We can either realize that this sort of material pursuit represents an endless pit of misery, a situation where we are chewing the chewed, or we can start to work even harder in hopes of gaining even greater rewards. Sadly, many of us choose the latter option. Drug addicts are a great example of this. A person may start out just having a few beers every now and then to relax. Pretty soon, they take to drinking every day since one or two beers is not enough. Still not satisfied, a person can take to hard liquor, or even other types of drugs. In the end we see that this search leads to more and more misery.

Lord Krishna Those bewildered spirit souls who realize that material sense gratification has its limits have a real opportunity at achieving the true aim of life, that of becoming purely God conscious. The Vedas tell us that the spirit soul inside of us is meant to be in constant association with Lord Krishna, or God. Matter is the opposite of spirit, an inferior energy. If we associate with an inferior energy, we can never derive true happiness. Simply engaging in eating, sleeping, mating, and defending is not enough, for these activities give pleasure to the animal species. Human life is meant for higher thinking, the performance of activities based on intelligence guided by experience.

Though there are many forms of religion, the highest religious discipline is known as bhagavata-dharma, or devotional service. Those who are disenchanted with material pursuits have several avenues they can go down. They can try meditating and performing yoga exercises. They can also try reading about the differences between matter and spirit, thereby slowly reaching the angle of vision where they see everything as being part of one complete energy. The best option, however, is to take to serving the creator of everything, both living and nonliving. That creator is God, who can be more accurately described as the Supreme Personality of Godhead. God is a person in the sense that He is a controlling spirit, or purusha. When we think of a person, we think of a fallible living entity with arms, legs, and a face. God is similar to a person in that He has an eternally existing transcendental form, but unlike the living entities, He has no defects. God does not possess any limiting features, so He is capable of doing everything with any part of His transcendental body. This points to God’s absolute nature.

Radha Krishna God’s original form is that of Lord Shri Krishna. This is the information that we get from the Vedas, which include volumes upon volumes of Sanskrit verses which have no date of origin. Religion in the Vedic tradition is known as sanatana-dharma, or the eternal occupation of man. So naturally when someone takes up bhagavata-dharma, or dharma aimed at serving Bhagavan [God], they expect to see some benefits. For those who regularly chant, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, and abstain from the most egregious sinful activities, immediate benefits are most certainly seen. Peace of mind, tranquility, honesty, thoughtfulness, etc., are some of the virtuous qualities that a person acquires through the practice of devotional service. But does dedicating our lives to God mean that we will never suffer hardships again?

In reality, our most difficult times lay ahead of us once we take up devotional service. Life becomes more difficult in a material sense due to the fact that material nature itself does not go away. Even though we are engaged in spiritual activities, we must still associate with matter while we are on this earth. Matter is an inferior energy, so it is incapable of providing happiness, for it is temporary and a cause of misery. The Vedas tell us that material nature is governed by an energy known as maya. Maya is Krishna’s faithful servant; she tries to bewilder the living entities into believing they will be happy doing anything except connecting with Krishna. This may seem like Krishna is punishing us, but this is all part of His mercy. We living entities wanted to pretend to be just like God, thus the material world was created. For those spirit souls who want to forget Krishna, the Lord provides every opportunity to do so.

Taking up spiritual life means abandoning our association with maya. This is easier said than done, however. Maya will severely test us in our spiritual pursuits, for Krishna wants to see just how sincere we are in our devotion. Moreover, spiritual life is not meant to bring any type of material happiness. This includes fame, fortune, and adoration from others. In fact, the more pious we become, the more liable we are to receive ridicule and scorn from others. We see evidence of this fact everywhere. People who thank God in public or even make reference to religion are often scolded and criticized. “How dare he mention God like that all the time? Who does he think he is? How dare God be on his side and not mine?”

Newspaper cover Since we spirit souls are put on earth due to our affinity for material life, we end up being worshipers of matter by default. Therefore it stands to reason that the people who are successful in a material sense will get all the praise and adoration. We see that this is indeed the case, for the newspapers and television newscasts are all focused on the lives of celebrities and great politicians. It is a type of idol worship, with the fawning press wishing that they too could possess great wealth and fame. As a result of this desire, they end up elevating people of shady character to hero status. When these celebrities fall down from the virtuous path, the same media takes to condemnation. The situation with the famous golfer, Tiger Woods, was a great example of this. Woods was loved and adored by millions for his tremendous golf achievements and philanthropic activities. Yet as soon as his marriage infidelity was revealed, the same media took to depicting him as the greatest of villains, someone who fooled them.

For those treading the righteous path of devotional service, there will certainly be many obstacles placed in their way, but they must remain perseverant at all times. If a material discomfort causes us to give up on spiritual life, then how dedicated were we really? If we truly love somebody, wouldn’t we want to move heaven and earth to make them happy? Religious life is not meant for acquiring praise and adoration from others. The greatest devotees in history have been those who were extremely humble and remained steadfast in their devotion, regardless of praise or ridicule. The more pious we become, the more the demons will attack us. This was precisely the case with Lord Rama, an incarnation of Krishna, many thousands of years ago.

Lord Rama The sweet Lord appeared on earth during the Treta Yuga, a time when piety was still quite high in society. Appearing in the family of a famous royal dynasty, Rama was wholly dedicated to dharma throughout His life. He wanted to set the perfect example for everyone to follow. To illustrate the perseverance and dedication required in adhering to dharma, the Lord voluntarily suffered through many personal hardships. His kingdom was taken away from Him, as was His home and way of life. Forced to roam the forests of Bharatavarsha as a recluse, Rama never deviated from the righteous path, even though He had many opportunities to do so.

Since He was playing the role of a human being, Rama gave way to lamentation and sorrow on a select few occasions. One time, His lovely wife, Sita Devi, was kidnapped while residing in the forest. Rama and His younger brother, Lakshmana, were not with Sita when she was forcibly taken by the Rakshasa demon Ravana. Upon returning to the cottage, Rama could not find Sita. After searching for a while and not finding her, Rama gave way to anger and lamentation. Strongly attached to His chaste wife, Rama was ready to destroy the whole world with His bow and arrow as retaliation.

Lakshmana To calm his brother down, Lakshmana interjected with some sound words of advice. He told Rama that it is the nature of this world for men to suffer through calamity every now and then. Even the most virtuous and highly respected people have to suffer loss every now and then. In the above referenced statement, Lakshmana is giving the example of the sun and the moon. In the Vedic tradition, the sun and the moon are extremely important and highly respected. All the daily religious functions revolve around the position of the sun. The monthly religious traditions are all based on the lunar cycle as well, as is the Vedic calendar. Certain phases of the moon are considered auspicious, while others are not.

Satyanarayana Puja - typically performed on Purnima, or the full moon day As wonderful as the sun and the moon are, we see that their splendor is diminished during an eclipse. Another celestial body comes in the way and takes away the sun or the moon from everyone’s vision. This metaphor given by Lakshmana is a beautiful one, for it shows the temporary nature of both good and bad fortune. Pure devotees are always splendorous on the inside, for they are always connecting with God. In a material sense, that splendor will sometimes be covered up by bad fortune or ridicule from others. The intelligent realize that bad fortune comes and goes and that these things should not cause them to deviate from the path of righteousness.

Lord Rama greatly appreciated Lakshmana’s advice. He would regain His senses and continue His quest to find Sita. Eventually the Lord would rescue her after killing Ravana in a great battle. The demons always hated Rama, but that didn’t bother Him one bit. His duty in life was to impress His friends, family, and well-wishers, for they were all great devotees of God.

Shrila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati By the same token, our goal in life should be to impress God and His representatives. Let others ridicule and mock us, for that will never deter us in our mission of spreading Krishna’s glories to everyone. Shrila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, a great Vaishnava saint, peacefully spread God consciousness throughout India in the early 20th century. Yet many people hated him, and on one occasion, they threw rocks and large stones at his sankirtana party. These attacks never deterred Bhaktisiddhanta; therefore he acquired the nickname of the simha-guru, or the lion-like spiritual master.

The lesson here is that we should follow Lakshmana’s advice and Lord Rama’s example by staying committed to the path of devotional service. We should regularly hear, chant, and talk about Krishna. Sticks and stones may break our bones, but the words and actions of others will never deter us from loving God.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Where There’s A Will

Lord Krishna “My dear Lord, You are always full with transcendental bliss, excelling all other spiritual positions. And so, simply by seeing You from a distant place, I have come to the conclusion that there is no need of my being situated in the transcendental bliss of impersonal Brahman.” (A mystic approaching Lord Krishna, The Nectar of Devotion, Ch 35)

It’s interesting to see the frenzy that’s associated with rock concerts and the effort it takes to go about attending one of them. In order to increase sales of their latest albums, and also to whet the appetite of their adoring fans, rock bands will often embark on worldwide tours where they play to packed houses full of adoring fans. Depending on the nature of the tour, a band may only stop in a particular city for one night, thus making it more difficult for fans to get tickets to the show. Even with such obstacles, dedicated fans can’t pass up an opportunity to see their favorite bands face-to-face, so they’ll go to great lengths to make sure they get tickets. Fans derive great pleasure from seeing their bands perform live, so in order to seek out that pleasure, no expense or pain is spared. By the same principle, the highest transcendental pleasure can be achieved by personally seeking out God and viewing Him face-to-face.

Rock concert venuePopular recording artists and groups really don’t need to tour. Just putting out a high-selling CD is enough to allow a band to earn a decent living. They can give interviews to the media and put out promotional videos which appear online and on music television stations. But invariably, popular musicians will want to go on tour to spread the word about their music. The fans too will want to see their favorite bands in action, playing their songs in a live arena. This frenzy associated with a rock concert makes for an interesting study. After all, from the fan’s perspective, shouldn’t it be enough just to listen to the music? Music is just sound after all, so what could be gained from seeing the producers of said music in person?

The reality is that there is great demand for tickets to rock concerts. In most cities, the tickets go on sale to the general public many months prior to the actual date of the show. Made aware of the on-sale time, fans will form lines at the ticket counters, trying to ensure that they get tickets before the show sells out. Many times, people start forming lines outside the ticket office the night before the tickets actually go on sale. They essentially sleep outside, setting up a mini-camp. In order to reduce the crowd sizes, many venues distribute armbands to fans who show up early enough. These armbands are essentially passes which allow fans first crack at buying tickets. Online ticket sales have similar issues to contend with, with queues setup and CAPTCHA tests put in place to ensure that people have a fair chance at purchasing tickets.

Metallica concert The hoopla doesn’t stop once the tickets are purchased. The concert is where the fun really begins; where the true enjoyment is derived. Many rock concerts are held in small venues which don’t have any seats. The entire show is general admission, so concert goers stand the entire time and compete with each other for space. This has the added advantage of allowing dedicated fans to get as close to the stage as they want to. Even with arena rock shows which have designated seating, the experience for the fans is still exhilarating. The source of the joy comes from the fact that a fan can see their favorite band members face-to-face. During the performance, there is a connection between the producers of the music and the audience. Many times the crowd will be so enthused that they will sing along to all the words, with the volume of their singing surpassing that of the vocalist on stage. Another added benefit to a live concert is that a fan can see how the music affects the band members. If the band is really into the performance, a fan will see that the music makes the band members feel just as good as it makes the audience members feel. This symbiotic relationship serves as a great source of pleasure, making all the trials and tribulations associated with attending the concert worth it.

Bhagavad-gita A similar, more purified experience can be found in spiritual life. The ancient scriptures of India tell us that there is only one God. While there is one supreme controller, He can be realized through a variety of different features depending on a person’s aptitude for spiritual knowledge. For example, some people can only conceive of a “God” and nothing else. They don’t know what He looks like or if He is even a He. While they may not know of His form, they still have a firm faith in the existence of a God and the importance of adhering to religious codes. There are others who think of God in terms of positive and negative, taking the Lord to be the Supreme Absolute Truth. They realize that this world is full of dualities, meaning that there are no absolute truths, just relative ones. For example, one person may consider the acquisition of material wealth as the ultimate objective in life, while another may see material possessions as the greatest cause of distress. We can’t say with full certainty which side is correct, therefore the truths are considered relative. The Absolute Truth, however, must be one which transcends all the dualities of material nature. People who think in these terms try to seek out this Absolute Truth, their vision of God, through various methods such as analytical study and meditation.

Bhagavan Shri Krishna Anyone who is searching after God is certainly looking for pleasure; otherwise there would be no point to spiritual activity. While God certainly can take many different forms, including one that is formless [ponder that idea], He still has an original form, name, and personality. That Supreme Personality is known as Lord Shri Krishna, or Bhagavan. Bhagavan is the original form from which all others emanate. Since Krishna is the original, it stands to reason that He will also be the greatest source of pleasure. Other features of God, such as impersonal Brahman and localized Paramatma, can certainly provide pleasure to the faithful transcendentalist, but this pleasure pales in comparison to the bliss enjoyed by those who associate directly with Bhagavan. Therefore the highest discipline in life is that set of processes that helps one achieve eternal association with Bhagavan Shri Krishna.

“All different varieties of atmaramas [those who take pleasure in atma, or spirit self], especially those established on the path of self-realization, though freed from all kinds of material bondage, desire to render unalloyed devotional service unto the Personality of Godhead. This means that the Lord possesses transcendental qualities and therefore can attract everyone, including liberated souls.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 1.7.10)

How do we know that Krishna is the ultimate reservoir of pleasure? Luckily for us, we have many historical examples that we can reference. The terms “liberation” and “salvation” are thrown around quite often when discussing theology. Not surprisingly, the Vedas give us a more concrete definition of liberation. The path to salvation is referred to as apavarga, which means the end to defeat, exhaustion, bondage, fearfulness, and death. God is so kind to us that we don’t necessarily have to realize Him in His original feature to have these five distressful conditions removed. A person can become liberated if they learn to get rid of these miserable conditions. In the past, there have been several notable personalities who achieved liberation while in their present bodies. This means that they didn’t have to die to become free from the repeated cycle of birth and death. This cycle is known as reincarnation in today’s parlance, but it is essentially just the transmigration of the soul. In more simple terms, the soul can be thought of as the driver of the car known as the body. Without a driver, a car is useless, and similarly, without a soul, a material body is useless and considered dead. According to Vedic information, the soul represents our identity, so we are all drivers in a sense. However, we are constantly changing cars depending on the work we perform and the desires we have at the time of death.

Four Kumaras with Lord Vishnu Liberation means not having to find a new car. The easiest way to achieve liberation is to eliminate all desires. If we don’t want a new car, the laws of nature won’t give us one. But as we know, becoming free from the dictates of the senses is not an easy thing. In times past, people would achieve liberation after performing great austerities and dedicating themselves to meditation. This was the case with Shukadeva Gosvami, the son of the famous Vyasadeva, the author of almost all Vedic literature. The four Kumaras, sons of Lord Brahma, also became liberated by becoming free of material desires.

No one can actually become free of desires, so when we speak of liberated personalities, we are referring to the fact that they are free of material desires. As mentioned before, the body can be thought of as a car. A car is nothing more than a hunk of scrap metal molded together into a finer machine. The human body, or any material body for that matter, can be thought of in the same light. The body is just a mixture of chemicals: bile, mucus, air, pus, blood, stool, etc., put together into something which is capable of performing activity. As long as a person has a desire to associate with this car, they are considered to have material desires. A liberated personality, however, shifts their desires from the car to the owner of the car. The owner of the car is the spirit soul, thus a liberated soul takes pleasure in the self, or atma. For this reason, they are often referred to as atmarama, or self-satisfied.

Lord Krishna While Shukadeva Gosvami and the four Kumaras realized the pleasure of the self after much effort, they still weren’t deriving the highest form of pleasure. Though they were already considered atmaramas, they nevertheless eventually became attracted to Bhagavan Shri Krishna. This one fact alone demonstrates that Krishna is the most attractive person in the universe. He is so attractive that He even catches the attention of those who are above desire. If someone is considered self-satisfied, it means that they are in need of nothing. We can think of this principle in terms of eating. If we are really hungry and someone puts a fresh pizza pie in front of us, naturally we will become attracted by the food. We will eat at least one slice, maybe two, or maybe even three. Pizza is a very nice dish after all. Bread, cheese, tomato sauce…all piping hot; what’s not to like? Now let’s fast forward to when our meal is finished. After having eaten to our satisfaction, if someone puts another fresh pie in front of us, what will be our reaction? Naturally, we won’t have any attraction for the food, for we are already satisfied. By the same token, atmaramas are considered full in the spiritual sense, so nothing really attracts them. Yet Lord Krishna is so attractive that He even stimulates the spiritual senses of those who are considered beyond stimulation.

In the above referenced quote, a mystic is praising Krishna by stating that just by seeing the Lord from a distance, he has immediately forgotten about Brahman. The all-encompassing impersonal energy is known as Brahman. While it is difficult to explain Brahman by words, the best way to picture it would be to think of the sunshine. If we think of Lord Krishna as the all-pervading sun, Brahman would be the beams of light emanating off of this sun. Brahman is uncontaminated, and since it comes from Krishna, it is non-different from Him. Therefore those who achieve perfection in methods other than direct worship of Krishna, or one of His vishnu-tattva expansions, bask in the pleasure of Brahman. Yet as mentioned before, Krishna is the original form of God, therefore those who see Him immediately forget about the rays that emanate from Him. The rays become paltry in the face of the source of the energy, Krishna.

Now that we know Krishna is the supreme object of pleasure, how do we go about seeing Him? This isn’t such an easy thing, for the Brahman effulgence is very strong. As a result, many people become blinded by it. To help us understand how to go about seeing Krishna, we can look to the example of the rock concert. A dedicated fan will do whatever it takes to see their favorite band in person. This means that even if the concert tour doesn’t stop in their particular city, a fan will travel far and wide to any other venue which is hosting a concert. If tickets are sold out, the dedicated fan will find other ways to get them; scalping, online ticket auctions, etc. The key ingredient is love and devotion; as the famous saying goes, “where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

Radha Krishna deitiesThe same mindset can be adopted by those wanting to see God. If a person is sincere enough in their desire to see the Lord, Krishna will make sure they are successful. A well-meaning devotee goes straight for the highest source of transcendental pleasure, bypassing mystic yoga, fruitive activity, and impersonal philosophy. In order to see Krishna, one must always keep Him on the mind. This is known as Krishna consciousness. How does one go about remembering God at all times? In this age, the recommended practice is the constant chanting of the holy names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. There are also other aspects to devotional service such as hearing, reading books, viewing the deity in the temple, and eating Krishna prasadam. The secret is to do the necessary things that will catch Krishna’s attention. If the Lord sees our devotion, He will surely make a visit to a town near us.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

As Forgiving As The Earth

Lord Rama and Lakshmana “O Lord of Koshala, even the Earth, who is the mother of the world and respected by everyone, suffers distress in the form of earthquakes.” (Lakshmana speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 66.10)

The earth is so kind and sweet to us, even though we may not realize it. Withstanding all the punishment given to her, Mother Earth continues to supply the necessities of life which allow us to have a peaceful and happy existence. Mother Earth never breaks, and following her example, we living entities should be equally as resilient in our pursuit of spiritual perfection. The aim of human life is to become purely God conscious, and reaching that end requires a steady mind, one that is willing to survive through adversity. For those of us who take to spiritual life, there will be many hurdles thrown in our way and many people who will offend us, but we must be as forgiving as the earth. Obstacles will come and people will try to impede our progress, but we must always remain on the virtuous path. This was the example set by Lord Rama, an incarnation of God, many thousands of years ago.

Lord Rama Among followers of the Vedic tradition, the earth is very important. More than just one of the five gross material elements, earth, in the form of a planet, provides for all of our necessities. We may not realize this in the beginning stages of our lives, for we take birth and immediately begin to associate with matter. It is not until we become a little wiser that we start to question why matter exists and where it comes from. Who is controlling all of this matter that is moving around in such a complicated way that our very lives depend on it? The Vedas give us the answers to these questions. They tell us that God is the original creator of everything, meaning that He is the source of earth. More specifically, He has deputed a presiding deity for the earth whose name is Bhumi Devi.

Bhumi Devi with Sita Devi This may strike some as pantheism or a kind of mentally concocted personification, but it is actually not so. God is so powerful that He can create millions of heavenly bodies known as planets which remain in the same orbit at all times. These gigantic land masses all float in outer space on their own, without any man-made intervention. If God is capable of creating on this magnitude, why shouldn’t He be able to put the earth in the charge of a living entity? “But where is this Mother Earth? How come we can’t see her?” She is there right in front of us, but we don’t have the proper vision to see her. This is because, by default, we think of earthly elements as belonging to us. “This is my land, this is my property, these are my possessions, etc.”

We certainly have a rightful claim to the property that we peaceably and voluntarily acquire, but who owned the land before us? “Well, the person who I bought the land from.” But who was the owner before them? After all, we know that man doesn’t live for very long in this age; at most maybe one hundred years. If we ascend the chain of land owners, we’ll see that the original proprietor of everything is God. This makes sense because only He is capable of creating on such a grand scale.

Mother Earth is a presiding deity who is kind enough to provide for all of our necessities. The food that grows from the ground, the wonderful rivers, parks, mountains, plains, etc., are all blessings from her. She bestows these gifts so that we can live peacefully and happily. These benedictions are not meant to increase our sense gratification, but rather, to provide for our necessities. The motto of life given to us by the Vedas is “simple living, high thinking”. If we analyze these two terms, we’ll see that they are not mutually exclusive. Simple living by itself is certainly nice, but what do we do with all the free time we get as a result of our simple lifestyle? We must start to think on a higher level. Thinking requires effort, and most importantly, time. Time is precious, for once a moment is lost, it can never be recovered. For businesses, there are all sorts of disaster recovery plans in place which insure everything from computer records to heavy machinery. But there is no insurance plan that can recover our lost time. Time cannot be backed up or archived. Once it leaves us, it never comes back.

evolution of iPod To this end, the Vedas advise us to make the best use of our precious time. For this to occur, we must live a simple life. This means that we should perform just enough work so that the demands of food, clothing, and shelter can be met to our satisfaction. If we look around today, however, we see that most everyone is going past the bare necessities and searching for increased sense gratification. This doesn’t seem bad on the surface, for who wouldn’t want to live more comfortably by having a nice car, a big house, and all the latest tech gadgets? Yet we see that the senses are never satisfied in this pursuit. It is the nature of the human mind to hanker and lament. We hanker after something new or expensive, and after we get it, we start to lament the fact that it fails to provide us the happiness that we were expecting. Instead of stopping our pursuit for sense gratification, we begin to hanker again for an even bigger and more expensive new toy.

Offshore oil rig Through these pursuits, our mental clarity suffers and our time is wasted. We are not the only victims of this busy lifestyle. Mother Earth must bear the burden of our chase for illusory happiness. With every new invention comes new demands put on the earth. For example, the advent of the automobile brought great potential for happiness for society at large. People could now travel long distances in a short amount of time. No longer was geography a constraint on business, travel, or leisure. Yet in order to fuel these automobiles, gasoline is required. This gasoline comes from refining petroleum which is dug out of the earth.

Again, on the surface this doesn’t seem bad. After all, we have to chop down trees to get paper and also to build our houses. We have to till fields in order to grow crops. What’s so harmful about a little oil drilling? As we can see from the world’s economic climate today, oil has become a huge commodity. People are looking for more and more places to drill for oil. There doesn’t appear to be any end in sight to the oil supply, but this hasn’t stopped people from finding new places to drill. With the demands of the modern economy, oil has become a necessity, just like water and food. If we were to run out of oil today, virtually every person in the world would be negatively affected.

The Earth So we see that one small invention turned out to give us many new headaches, attachments, and dependencies. To make matters worse, Mother Earth has had to suffer greatly. In addition to dealing with the chopping of trees and the tilling of fields, she must now put up with regular drilling and mining. Yet through it all, she remains firm and stout. She even bears the burden of natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, and tornadoes. Though many people today believe that mankind is destroying the earth, she remains firm and strong and continues to provide for our needs. Her oceans recently swallowed up the large portion of an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico which was initially deemed to be a catastrophe. She is a lot more forgiving and strong than we give her credit for. Mother Earth always remains true to her mission of supporting mankind. She always remains on the virtuous path.

Lord Rama We living entities, in the course of carrying out our prescribed duties, can take a great lesson from Mother Earth. This was the point stressed by Lakshmana, the younger brother of Lord Rama. God is so kind that He not only deputes elevated living entities such as the demigods to manage the material affairs, but He also personally makes appearances in the world from time to time to give pleasure to His devotees and to teach future generations about dharma. The word “religion” connotes a type of faith or belief system. The Vedas have no equivalent word for this because our relationship with God is not something that changes. The best match for religion in Vedic terminology is dharma, which means something that defines the essence of a living entity. The essence of our existence is our relationship with God as His eternal, loving servant. This essence, or dharma, has always existed in the past, continues to exist today, and will remain unchanged in the future. Therefore this dharma is sanatana, or eternal.

By coming into contact with the material world, the living entities become enveloped in a cloud of nescience which causes them to forget about dharma. To reawaken the dormant God consciousness of the living entity, God sends His personal representative, the spiritual master. On special occasions, He personally comes to earth in the form of a living entity and teaches everyone by His example. One of God’s most famous appearances on earth took place many thousands of years ago in Ayodhya, India. The King of Ayodhya at the time, Maharaja Dasharatha, desperately wanted a son to pass his kingdom down to. God obliged and took birth as his eldest son named Rama. Each incarnation, or avatara, of God has specific characteristics and personality traits. Lord Rama’s signature characteristic was His devotion to religiosity. Rama means one who gives pleasure to others, and this was certainly the case with the Lord. There existed no sin in Him, nor did He ever waver from the virtuous path.

Lord Rama also suffered great hardships during His time on earth. God actually can never suffer, but by assuming the guise of a fallible human being, Lord Rama pretended to suffer and lament on many occasions. One time, His beautiful and chaste wife, Sita Devi, was kidnapped in the forest while Rama was away chasing a deer. Upon returning to His hermitage, He saw that Sita was gone and He immediately gave way to lamentation. Being the greatest kshatriya warrior of His time, Rama was ready to destroy the whole world with His bow and arrow. He couldn’t stand to be without Sita.

Lakshmana with Rama Luckily for Rama, His younger brother Lakshmana was by His side. One would be hard pressed to find any brother in history that compares to Lakshmana in kindness, intelligence, courage, chivalry, and dedication. Completely pious in his own right, Lakshmana abandoned all the mundane rules of morality in favor of serving Rama. This is the highest level of devotion to God, for it is spontaneous and bereft of any personal motive. Lakshmana saw that his brother was distraught, so he decided to impart some helpful words of wisdom.

In the above referenced quote, Lakshmana is reminding Rama that even the earth has to deal with so many hardships in life, and that she never swerves from the virtuous path. Good and bad things will happen to us along the way, but we should never divert ourselves from the path of dharma. We should learn to tolerate all hardships and be as forgiving as the earth. Lord Rama very much appreciated these words from Lakshmana. He would heed his advice and subsequently resume His search for His wife. Rama would eventually rescue Sita from the clutches of the Rakshasa demon, Ravana.

Lord Rama’s mission in life was to always abide by dharma, regardless of what effect it had on His personal situation. We living entities must also always remain on the virtuous path. The highest dharma of all is bhagavata-dharma, or devotional service. This is the discipline whereby we dovetail all of our activities with service to God. Just as attending church provides peace and comfort to many, devotional service aims to provide the same level of comfort at all times. If religion is so nice, why not be religious all the time?

Rama and Lakshmana with Sugriva For those who sincerely take up bhagavata-dharma, there are sure to be many hurdles along the way. Religious life is not easy by any means, especially considering how accustomed we are to material life. The virtuous path is filled with thorns, and the worst part is that the more we take to religious life, the more we enjoy it. This is certainly a good thing, but at the same time, we begin to loathe all other kinds of activities. This makes it difficult to cope with day-to-day affairs, for material activity causes us to feel separation pains from God. To help us get through the hard times, we should always remember Lord Rama’s example and also the teachings of Lakshmana. The earth is God’s faithful servant, well-respected by all, and yet she even meets with misery from time to time. If we keep our minds fixed on the most important task at hand, that of returning back to God’s spiritual realm after this life, then we’ll be able to withstand all of the storms and shakeups that life throws our way.