Saturday, August 28, 2010

Sin and Piety

Radha Krishna “The activities or desires that relatively help a soul attain his constitutional position are called piety. The opposite are called sin. Since devotional service to Krishna is one’s constitutional position, when one cultivates this service, then nescience, which is the root cause of relative situations in the form of sin and piety, is gradually fried and abolished.” (Shrila Bhaktivinoda Thakura, Shri Krishna Samhita, 10.2 Purport)

Sin and piety represent the polar ends of the spectrum of all activity. Sin is considered any bad activity; those actions which are harmful to the betterment of the soul or those deeds which go against the established rules and mores of a society. Piety is just the opposite; anything considered to be good and noble. Usually piety is associated with honesty, charity, and the performance of various religious functions. While sin and piety certainly do play a prominent role in the spiritual practices of those around the world, the Vedas tell us that one must take to activities which transcend these two designations. The aim of human life is to achieve a permanent return to one’s constitutional position.

Building a house To understand this point more clearly, let us analyze the results of sin and piety. The actual definition of what constitutes sin can vary depending on the time, circumstance, and nature of activities. Sin also can apply to any activity, not just those in the religious scope. In simple terms, we can think of sin as any activity which is done incorrectly. For example, say that we are building a house. There are certain rules and regulations to follow in order for a proper structure to be erected. The beams and columns must be placed in a certain orientation; the foundation must be laid properly, etc. If the people building the house don’t align everything properly, they are essentially committing sin. In this scope, there are varying degrees of sin. If a wall is not laid down properly, the result of the sin may be a loud house, or a wall structure which doesn’t take well to paint and the hanging of pictures, etc. A larger sin, however, can be the misplacement of a beam. This can lead to a disastrous result such as structural damage later on. People could end up dying due to this sin.

We can take the same example of the house and look at the other end of the spectrum to get an idea about piety. Pious acts are those performed in knowledge; activities which are in line with the proper code of conduct. If the house is built according to code, the established guidelines, the result will be a situation devoid of the aforementioned negative consequences. Piety brings about more than just an elimination of negative side effects. A properly constructed house means that a person will be able to enjoy their living arrangements; gaining the ability to host parties, welcome guests, and raise a family. A house is something people strongly identify with; it’s where memories are made and relationships are formed. For most people, their childhood home is the place looked to with the most fondness. So in this regard, we see that piety can have very nice consequences.

Bhagavad-gita - a prominent text of the Vedic traditionOne thing that both of these activities have in common is that the results are temporary. When committing sin while building the house, the negative consequences can be small or great, but the resulting distress is only temporary. The same holds true with the result of pious works. If we expand this truth to the spiritual realm, we can get a better understanding of why the Vedas tell us to transcend piety and sin. The Vedas are the ancient scriptures of India. When the word “Veda” is translated into English, it means knowledge. There are various departments of knowledge based on the scope of activities, but the highest knowledge is that pertaining to the soul. The soul forms the basis of identity, the driving force for all activities. It is the future destination of the soul that the Vedas are most concerned with. When analyzing piety and sin in terms of its effect on the soul, one will see that the resulting positive and negative consequences are only relative.

“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)

Vedic wisdom states that the primary functional unit of life is the soul; an entity which is eternal and never takes birth and never dies. Vedic information doesn’t stop here. We also get information of the soul’s constitutional makeup. When we study matter or any material structure, gaining further insight into its makeup sheds more light about the structure and how it works. The culinary arts also work in this way. If we eat something that tastes very nice, it’s helpful to find out what ingredients are found in the dish. This way we can take some of the same ingredients and use them to make even more tasty dishes. By the same token, if we understand the constitutional position of the soul, we can gain better insight into how to work with it and give it pleasure.

Lord Krishna The Vedas describe the soul as being amazing, unchanging, and immutable. These properties are inherited from the creator of the soul: God. In this sense, the soul is the same as God, but there is a slight difference. Since God is superior to the soul, the soul is incapable of equaling the Lord in terms of quantitative powers. Since the soul comes from God, its constitutional position is that of eternal servant and associate of the Supreme Lord. While there are many ideas of who God is and what He looks like, the Vedas inform us that He is indeed a person. Not only is He a person, but He’s the most attractive person, one who provides the greatest amount of pleasure to the soul . Thus the natural conclusion that can be derived from this information is that the aim of human life is to rekindle the association with the most attractive entity: the soul meeting God.

How do we meet God? Is He with us now? If not, then why are we separated from Him? Currently the souls residing in this world are deemed as conditioned. The soul becomes conditioned upon assuming a temporary body composed of material elements. The nature of these elements can be classified into three different categories: goodness, passion, and ignorance. Since these categories of elements can be mixed in multitudes of proportions, there are many varieties of material bodies which the soul can be placed into. The human body represents one such variety. While this outer covering is temporary, the imperishable soul continues to jump from one body to another through the process of reincarnation. Reincarnation continues until the soul finally desires to return to its constitutional position.

Reincarnation This seems easy enough. The human being simply has to desire to return to its original position and perfection is thus achieved. This is easier said than done though. Assuming a material body brings along some not so nice side effects, the primary of which is false identification. As mentioned before, an individual takes their identity from the soul. The outer covering of the soul is only temporary and constantly changing. However, upon becoming conditioned, the subtle element of the mind causes the conditioned soul to associate only with the body, almost completely forgetting the presence of the soul and where it came from. In order to regain the proper understanding, the correct personal identification, one has to take to certain activities prescribed in the Vedas.

This is where sin and piety come in. Sin can be thought of as activities in the mode of ignorance. These acts cause the conditioned soul to become even more forgetful of its relationship to God. In order to help the soul achieve perfection in life, the Vedas, and any worthwhile spiritual discipline for that matter, recommend that one abstain from sinful activities. The more one stays away from sin, the greater their chances are of reclaiming their lost identity.

Praying to God Piety is any activity which brings about a temporary return to one’s constitutional position. For example, say we perform a sacrifice intended to bring about great material rewards. “Please God, give us our daily bread. Please God, let us go to heaven.” These are undoubtedly pious pleas, with God consciousness at the forefront. While a person is performing such activities, they are thinking about God and realizing His supremacy. In this regard, the performers are somewhat returning to their constitutional position. At the same time, however, once the rewards are achieved, the purified constitutional position is again forgotten. This is because once the rewards of piety arrive, a person’s focus shifts towards the enjoyment of these rewards versus actually remembering God.

People who sin are advised to take to various kinds of atonement, while those who are not religious are advised to take to certain pious acts such as charity, sacrifice, and austerity. While piety and sin are certainly important and should not be overlooked, a higher engagement is to take to activities which bring about a permanent return to one’s constitutional position. There is only one discipline that allows a person to achieve this purified state: bhakti-yoga. Bhakti is love or devotion, and yoga is the linking of the soul with God, so when taken together, bhakti-yoga can be thought of as the religion of love, or devotional service. This discipline is aimed at keeping one always thinking of God, hence the resulting condition is known as God consciousness.

Shyamasundara The term “God” is very generic and doesn’t speak to the Supreme Lord’s limitless attributes. To give us further insight into the true nature of the Supreme Lord, the Vedas describe the different forms the Supreme Divine takes, and the corresponding names for such forms. Of all the forms of God, obviously the original will be the most potent and therefore the most attractive to the conditioned souls. The original form of God is known as Krishna, meaning one who is all-attractive. Since Krishna’s form is so beautiful, He is also known as Shyamasundara. Bhakti-yoga aims at keeping the mind always attached to Krishna, or at least to one of His direct plenary expansions such as Lord Vishnu, Rama, Narasimha, Chaitanya, etc. In this age, the easiest way to always remain connected with God is to chant the famous maha-mantra, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”.

Ironically enough, those who take to the path of bhakti don’t have to worry about performing pious and sinful activities. This isn’t to say that piety is ignored or that sins are committed, but rather the devotee doesn’t concern themselves with relative adjustments to their constitutional position. An analogy can help us understand this principle. Say we are training for an important tennis match. During practice sessions, we will want to focus on certain activities, working on certain aspects of our game. If we make mistakes during this time, we may want to voluntarily punish ourselves and force atonement through various activities. This is a way to train our bodies to avoid committing the same mistakes in the future. At the same time, we can also take to various activities which will give us rewards. Say for example we hit three aces in a row; we can give ourselves a nice reward for this. The idea is to encourage positive activity.

Rafael Nadal Now let’s shift the focus to the actual match that we play afterwards. If during the match we commit the same mistakes that we punished ourselves for during practice, are we going to want to worry about atonement? Obviously we aren’t since the ultimate goal is to win the match. Mistakes will be made, but the successful player will shrug them off and keep the end-goal of winning the match at the forefront of the mind. By the same token, if we play very well for one set during the match, there is no need to reward ourselves. The goal is to win enough sets to win the match, and celebrating upon reaching a certain benchmark doesn’t really do anything for us. The ultimate objective is to win and not concern ourselves with temporary setbacks or gains.

“Anyone who quits his body, at the end of life, remembering Me, attains immediately to My nature; and there is no doubt of this.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 8.5)

Radha Krishna In the arena of bhakti-yoga, the ultimate objective is to permanently return to one’s constitutional position, that of eternal servant of Krishna. This can be achieved by keeping Krishna at the forefront of one’s consciousness. If this mindset is there at the time of death, a time that none of us can accurately foretell, we will immediately return to the spiritual world and reassume our original position. We should do our best to avoid sinful activities, especially those of meat eating, gambling, intoxication, and illicit sex. We should also perform as many pious activities as possible, but they should all be directed at pleasing Krishna. By sticking to these principles, we can gradually return to our original constitutional position, thus eliminating the root cause of all relative situations. When the relative changes in consciousness are removed, everything is then seen in the light of Krishna; thus in this state there is no need to worry about piety or sin.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Object of Morality

Lord Rama “O best among men, after fixing your intelligence in transcendental knowledge, do you follow completely the course of action decided by your mind. Being engaged in activities guided by intelligence [buddhya-yukta], those possessing great wisdom can decipher between auspicious and inauspicious activities.” (Lakshmana speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 66.16)

For many of us, adhering to right and wrong is very important. We have an inherent understanding that certain activities should not be done and that others should be. Even if we aren’t aware of all the rules, we still more or less have a desire to remain on the virtuous path. Yet in this endeavor there are many gray areas; situations where we aren’t sure on what the proper conduct should be. In these instances, who should we turn to? The Vedas tell us that the only person who has a perfect understanding of right and wrong is the one who created the system in the first place.

Krishna and Balarama with cowThrough experiencing life, we gain a basic understanding of morality, even if it may be relative. We should tell the truth, be kind to others, share our possessions with friends and family, and have compassion for the poor. On the flip side, we should avoid lying, stealing, cheating, etc. These are basic rules that most of us live by. But not every issue is black and white. Sometimes we’re not sure if we’re abiding by the virtuous path. For example, meat eating is a cause for concern. On the one hand, we have a desire to eat nice food, and the flesh of animals certainly tastes very good. On the other side, we have the issue of how to procure such food, for violence is most certainly required. Unless we wait for an animal to die of natural causes, we must mercilessly kill an innocent living being in order to eat its flesh. According to the viewpoint of many, this type of violence is never justified. The animal did nothing wrong, so why should we kill it? At the same time, there are others who believe that God gave man dominion over the animal kingdom. There are many animal species that actually kill other animals themselves, so in this regard, we aren’t really doing anything unnatural.

The issue of animal killing is only one small example of the questions that arise in relation to morality and virtue. Where do we go to settle such disputes? Most of the time, we approach those who come up with their own view of morality. Such people have been around since the beginning of the creation, for mankind has an increased level of intelligence over other species. Thus man will want to use his brain power to come up with various philosophies and ideals to live up to. We can’t blame people for coming up with their own ideas of morality, because they simply don’t know any better. If no one is there to teach right or wrong, or if there is a lack of authorized leadership in society, what are people to do?

There have been so many morality and pseudo-spiritual movements that have cropped up throughout history. Some famous personalities believed that violence was never allowed under any circumstance. Even if someone were to break into your house and attack your daughter, violence in retaliation still was not justified. Non-violence was the only way to perfection in life since it meant that you weren’t harming anyone else. Then there are others who believe that telling the truth is the most important virtue. Under no circumstances is lying acceptable. There are others who take charity and philanthropy to be the greatest virtues. Above anything else, we should try to help the poor and the down-trodden by giving them money. “Open nice schools and big hospitals, because service to mankind is the highest religion.”

Amazingly, there are also those who actually believe that the highest virtue in life is to try to satisfy the senses in any manner possible. What most of us would consider as impious behavior [lying, cheating, and stealing], others view as virtuous. “After all, this life is the beginning and end of everything. Why not try to enjoy as much as possible? You only live once, so why not make the most of it?”

bookstore It is impossible to take an accurate inventory of all the theories and philosophies that are in existence today. If you walk into a retail chain bookstore, you will see hundreds of self-help books on every subject imaginable. Each one of these authors has a different philosophy on life, a set of moral principles to live by. So how do we know who is right? How do we know if we are acting piously or impiously?

To answer these questions properly, we must first examine the purpose of virtue and morality. Why is it important to behave properly? What is the ultimate objective? To this end, we see that there are different virtues and moralities based on what we are trying to achieve. For example, say our end-goal is to make sure every person in the world has adequate food, shelter, and clothing. Keeping this vision in mind, we would take the necessary steps to not only give away our own wealth, but also to induce others to be charitable. We would lobby governments to change their taxing and spending policies to make sure the poor were taken care of, regardless of who else might get hurt. In this system, right and wrong is determined by comparing the result of an action to the end-goal of eliminating poverty. If we have a question as to whether we are behaving piously or impiously, we simply have to decipher whether the action we are taking is furthering the mission of serving humanity through charity.

This same concept can be applied to almost any other philosophy. For example, right and wrong for a high court judge is determined by studying the law. Say that a judge must adjudicate a trial relating to the issue of abortion. Though for many of us, the practice of abortion is an issue of morality, in this case the judge must put aside their personal opinion. Right and wrong is determined solely by what is stated in the law. If existing law states that abortion is sanctioned, and there is no other case law or written code which refutes this, then all cases relating to abortion must be decided in favor of the practice continuing. For a high court judge, their occupational duty is to view cases without any bias and with deference to the law. Thus their system of right and wrong is based solely on what is written in the law codes of the city, state, or country.

Judge's gavel This is all very interesting, for we see that there are so many different systems of right and wrong depending on a person’s disposition. But how do we decipher right and wrong for every person as it relates to daily life? How do we determine the common standards of morality and decency which everyone can abide by under all circumstances? Once again, the issue comes down to our end-goal, what we are striving for. We have already seen that morality can change based on a person’s occupational duty or desires. Yet we also understand that every person has different desires, so there really is no way of determining whose occupational duty will take precedent. One person may be a lawyer and another may be a police officer, but there’s no way of adequately determining whose occupational duty is more important or virtuous.

In order to find real morality and virtue, we have to know the purpose of our existence. Contrary to what most people believe, the aim of human life is not the acquisition of wealth, fame, beauty, or knowledge. Though it is nice to gratify our senses, this pursuit is not the reason for our existence. The Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, state that every single person’s occupational duty is to seek out the supreme enjoyer, the original owner of everything, and the best friend of all the living entities. Only one person meets these qualifications: God. The occupational duty of finding and serving God exists eternally and applies to every single living entity, regardless of their religious faith, gender, ethnicity, age, etc.

Lord Krishna How do we know that our duty is to love God? We inherently understand that simply taking up some mundane occupation cannot be the point to life. After all, everyone has different desires and goals, thus each person walks a different path in life. Even after achieving all of one’s goals, desire still remains. We see that the most celebrated financiers and business moguls remain ever-unsatisfied even after acquiring billions of dollars in wealth. We see that successful politicians become so much attached to power that they never want to give it up. Many past Senators in America served so long that they actually died while in office.

There is a higher form of happiness and bliss which cannot be achieved through material pursuits. There is a dormant desire for spiritual bliss that exists inside all of us. This inclination towards spiritual life is not easily acted upon because we’re not sure which religious system is correct. Who can we trust? One religious leader says one thing, while another says something completely different. This is why the only bona fide religious system is that which teaches people to love God. Any other religious system or philosophical speculation will fall short if it is not attached to God.

The Vedas define the occupational duty of man as dharma. Dharma is that set of principles which is all-encompassing, meaning that one who properly understands dharma will have perfect knowledge of right and wrong under any and all circumstances. For example, there is a right way to go about building a house, and also a wrong way. The right way will lead to a sturdy and safe housing structure, while the wrong way can lead to disastrous results such as the house collapsing. Similarly, there is a right way to read and a wrong way to read. Reading the right way means understanding the words as they are presented, while reading the wrong way means being unable to understand the intent of an author.

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

Bhagavad-gita Dharma can be thought of as the sum total of every right and wrong way to do something. This is because real dharma comes from the creator of everything in this world: God. We may be able to create on a small scale, and a giant business magnate may be responsible for all the buildings in a particular city, but there is only one person who has created everything in this world. That person is known as Lord Krishna in the Vedic tradition. We can think of Krishna as God, but the word “God” itself is not very descriptive. Every person has a different conception of what God means, but more or less, we don’t have any concrete understanding of what He looks like, what His activities are, or what His demeanor is. To fill in the blanks, the Vedas give us God’s names, forms, and attributes. Though the total number of qualities is unlimited, there is one form of God which stands above all others. That form is Lord Krishna, whose very name means one who is all-attractive.

Lord Krishna Since God is the beginning, middle, and end of everything, it makes sense that He would be the proper person to turn to for issues relating to right and wrong. After all, the purpose of human life is to reconnect with Krishna, so wouldn’t it make sense to look to Him to provide guidance on how to go about making that connection? God is not unkind in this regard. Though He allowed us to take birth in this world, He doesn’t want us to remain here perpetually. Through His kind mercy, He gives us the set of guidelines which, when followed, will allow us to return to His spiritual abode. This set of guidelines is known as dharma.

One may ask, “Where do I go to get these guidelines? I don’t know where God is.” Though the Lord, as antaryami, is all around us through His various energies and expansions, it is true that we currently cannot see Him with our material eyes. Fear not though, as the Lord was kind enough to pass down Vedic wisdom to great personalities in the past. They in turn then passed it down to their disciples, thus creating a chain of disciplic succession known as the parampara system. If we want to know what is right and wrong, and how we should act in every situation, we simply need to consult a person belonging to this chain.

“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, Bg. 4.7)

Lord Rama Sometimes this chain gets broken, so the Lord personally appears on earth to reinstitute the principles of religion. Around five thousand years ago, Lord Krishna came to earth in His original form to impart spiritual wisdom to His dear friend Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. Many thousands of years before that, however, the Lord appeared on earth in His incarnation as Lord Rama. An avatara, or incarnation, of Krishna is non-different from the Lord, even though His outward physical features may be different. Lord Rama appeared in the guise of a handsome prince who was the son of the king of Ayodhya. On one occasion, Lord Rama’s beautiful wife, Sita Devi, was kidnapped while she was residing in the forest with Rama and His younger brother, Lakshmana.

Lord Rama, who was God Himself, played the part of a human being very well, so He gave way to lamentation and grief after finding out His wife was missing. He searched the forest for a little while, but couldn’t find her. Losing rationality and good judgment, Lord Rama became so angry that He was ready to destroy the whole world as revenge for His wife’s kidnapping. At this moment, Lakshmana stepped in and offered some sound words of advice.

Lakshmana In the above referenced statement, Lakshmana is asking Rama to deliberate on what is right and wrong by taking shelter of transcendental knowledge and then decide on the proper course of action. Prior to this, Lakshmana had offered his own sound words of advice, reminding Rama that every person must meet both good and bad fortune in life, but that these temporary setbacks should not deter anyone from remaining on the path of dharma. Yet after uttering these cogent statements, Lakshmana reiterated the fact that Rama Himself was more than capable of determining the right course of action. This is exemplary behavior from a pure devotee of God. Lakshmana, having always been by Rama’s side throughout his life, was a true expert on morality and virtue. He took service to Rama to be his only dharma in life, thus he automatically acquired perfect knowledge relating to the rights and wrongs of all other areas in life. Yet Lakshmana made sure to remind Rama that He was God Himself, and that He didn’t need this sort of counseling.

The lesson given by Lakshmana here is that the truly wise can, by always occupying themselves in activities guided by the highest intelligence, determine on their own what is the right course of action. The only way a person can be classified as truly wise is if their intelligence comes directly from God or one of His representatives. This was the case with Rama and Lakshmana, for one person was God and the other was His protector and representative. In a similar manner, we too can make ourselves wise by humbly submitting to a devotee of Krishna. The spiritual master has seen the truth because he himself learned it from his spiritual master. We can’t make up morality on our own, because even if we try, we will always come up short.

The spiritual masters take to devotional service, or buddhya-yukta, as their main occupation. Devotional service is described as such because it represents the most intelligent activity. The most potent process of devotional service 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 to this process and following the instructions of the spiritual master, we can fix ourselves in transcendental knowledge, and thus be able to choose the right course of action in any and all situations.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Demon Worship

Rama and Lakshmana fighting Ravana “…Lord Rama was so saintly that people were anxious to live in His kingdom, (Rama-rajya), but Lord Rama never showed any cowardice. Ravana was an aggressor against Rama because he kidnapped Rama's wife, Sita, but Lord Rama gave him sufficient lessons, unparalleled in the history of the world.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Bhagavad-gita, 1.36 Purport)

Ravana is one of the more intriguing figures in history, especially for those who live in India. While most people who grow up in the Western world have certainly heard about Lord Jesus Christ, not every person is aware of the details surrounding his birth, life’s activities, or teachings. In India, however, almost every person is acutely aware of the heroic and villainous figures of the Vedic tradition. Amongst all the heroes, probably the most celebrated is Lord Rama, an incarnation of Godhead who appeared on earth many thousands of years ago. Where there is a hero, naturally there will also be a villain, so this part was played by a Rakshasa named Ravana. The interactions between Rama and Ravana are chronicled in full detail in the famous Ramayana poem penned by Maharishi Valmiki. While most sober people realize that Rama is a divine figure and that Ravana is an enemy of God, there are still many who take to worshiping Ravana instead of Rama.

Lord Rama The first point that must be stressed is that when God comes to earth, He doesn’t just fight with anyone. According to Vedic doctrine, there is only one God for all of humanity, but He takes many different forms, each tailored to attract a certain kind of person. Everyone is the same spiritually, but their bodily makeup can vary. Some are pious, some are mixed in piety and passion, and some live completely in ignorance. God is for everyone, so for this definition to be valid, He must have an attractive feature for every type of person. Therefore the Lord expands Himself into direct copies and sometimes partially direct copies in order to attract the wayward souls. On special occasions, however, the Lord personally comes in an original form, a body which is completely spiritual and existing eternally. This was the case with Lord Rama, considered one of the most prominent avataras of Lord Vishnu, the Supreme Godhead and expansion of Lord Krishna.

Aside from giving pleasure to the saintly class, God’s incarnations also serve to annihilate miscreants. On the highest level of understanding, there is no difference between good and bad people. A good person is usually equated with one who takes to acts of piety. Piety is really any activity which leads to a relative or temporary return of one’s consciousness to its original position. Originally, every spirit soul, including one in the body of an animal, plant, or aquatic, is God conscious. This means that their primary thoughts and ideas are focused around God and loving service to Him. In this world, however, that consciousness becomes perverted. Instead of God conscious, we become body conscious, so we take the demands of our senses to be of utmost importance. This consciousness then drives us to different activities. Pious activities are those which bring about a temporary return to the original consciousness; activities that allow us to remember God for a short period of time. The duration of this consciousness eventually expires, thus a return to our former state of body consciousness is inevitable. The same holds true with sinful activities, i.e. they cause a temporary diversion from body consciousness to total ignorance. Eventually one returns to their previous state.

Vishnu avataras Since there is really no good or bad in a material sense, God doesn’t take any direct interest in the day to day affairs of the material creation. So why do the avataras come to earth then? There are special occasions where certain demoniac elements rise to power. If there is no such thing as bad, how can anyone be a demon? We can think of it in this way: While there is no good or bad, there is hot and cold. The aim of human life is to rekindle one’s God consciousness, an achievement which allows the wayward spirit soul to return to its original constitutional position permanently. Upon assuming this God consciousness, the soul returns to the spiritual world, where it always thinks about, serves, and associates with the Supreme Lord. Therefore all activities conducted in the conditioned state can be thought of as either getting us closer towards the ultimate destination [warmer], or further away [colder]. Under this paradigm, the demons are those people who thwart the activities of those who are trying to get warmer. Krishna, or God, is the ultimate energetic, the source of all heat and light, so those who are trying to get closer and closer to this powerhouse of energy are certainly on the warmer path. These people are known as devotees. The demons, while certainly remaining on the colder path by taking to sinful activity, sink to an even lower level by trying to thwart the activities of the devotees.

God doesn’t stand for this. It is one thing if a person wants to ruin their own lives. That is all well and good, for every living entity is granted a small amount of freedom. This independence manifests through acts of sense gratification and choices as far as which direction to take in life. But the Lord objects when this freedom is misused to infringe on the rights of others, especially as it relates to spiritual life. In this regard, there was one demon in particular many thousands of years ago who had taken to harassing the saintly class of men. At the time, many sages had taken to forest life since it was peaceful and thus conducive towards the practice of austerity and sacrifice. These two practices, austerity and sacrifice, or tapasya and yajna, are two critical components of a potent spiritual discipline. When practiced correctly, these two techniques can deliver quick results in one’s pursuit towards God consciousness.

Sages living in the forest The sages had no problem living in the forests because even the animals residing there didn’t bother them. A certain race of demons known as Rakshasas didn’t play as nicely. Since every material body is composed of so many varying elements, there are actually 8,400,000 different life forms. The Rakshasas are one of them, and their bodies are mostly made up of the mode of ignorance. Nevertheless, they closely resemble humans, but due to their ignorance, they live almost completely in sin. As mentioned before, this sin only causes a temporary deviation from body consciousness, but due to their demoniac nature, these Rakshasas took to harassing the sages living in the forest. What was the nature of this harassment? The Rakshasas could assume any shape at will. Taking advantage of this ability, they would first approach the sages in a non-threatening form. Then, when the sages had their guard down, the Rakshasas would reassume their original form and attack the innocent saints. Killing the sages wasn’t enough, for the Rakshasas would eat their flesh afterwards. This was all done right at the time of a sacrifice, meaning that they waited until the sages were engaged in the most important part of their duties.

The leader of these Rakshasas was a demon named Ravana. He had set up a beautiful kingdom on the island of Lanka. On the strength of boons given to him by Lord Brahma and Lord Shiva, Ravana was invincible against almost anyone in battle except ordinary human beings. Brahma and Shiva are suras, or devotees, so it may seem strange that they would grant Ravana boons. While Krishna, or God, is not required to give anything to anyone, this is not the case with the demigods. As mentioned before, the Lord has no interest in material advancement or regression, so if someone desperately wants to acquire material powers, the Lord doesn’t stand in their way. In order to encourage religious practice, the Lord put in place several heads of state, elevated living entities known as demigods who are in charge of giving rewards to anyone who pleases them properly. In this regard, Lord Brahma and Lord Shiva were bound by duty to give Ravana whatever he wanted, up to the reward of immortality. Lord Brahma himself isn’t immortal, so he surely can’t grant this boon to anyone else.

Sita Devi The Ramayana is quite lengthy, so describing Ravana’s entire life would certainly require pages and pages of discussion and descriptions. Long story short, God appeared on earth as Rama to kill Ravana. Rama was born as a prince belonging to a very famous family of warriors. While residing in the forest of Dandaka, Ravana would come and steal Rama’s wife, Sita Devi, while the Lord was temporarily away from her side. This set the wheels in motion for Ravana’s demise. Eventually Rama would march to Lanka, and aided by an army of monkeys, He would defeat Ravana and his army, killing the demon and rescuing Sita.

This wonderful historical event has been celebrated ever since. For the suras, the event reminds them of God’s triumph over the demons. Ravana was harassing the saints, so God stepped in to save them. For the philosophers and impersonalist mental speculators, the event represented the victory of good over evil. For the non-devotees, however, the event represented the slaying of a great king, a powerful materialist who had to be taken down by Rama for no justifiable reason. One would be surprised to know that Ravana is still worshiped to this day by many in India. Some view him as a great king, while others conjure up crackpot theories such as that Ravana was so powerful that Rama became jealous of him. Then there are others who adore Ravana since he was a great devotee of Lord Shiva. So what do we make of all this?

As mentioned before, when God comes to fight in this world, His adversaries are no ordinary people. From Vedic information, we understand that God’s enemies all receive the salvation of merging into His transcendental body. This type of mukti, or liberation, is considered inferior to the liberation of associating with God in His eternal body. Nevertheless, it is still a type of liberation, or an end to the repeated cycle of birth and death. God grants this liberation because these demons think of the Lord at the time of death. One’s consciousness while quitting their body determines the type of body they will receive in the next life. Ravana was thinking of Rama, or God, at the time of death, so naturally He was able to merge into the Lord’s body.

Lord Rama From the Uttara-kanda of Valmiki’s Ramayana, and also from the Ramacharitamanasa of Tulsidas, we see that Ravana wasn’t actually so evil. Since the events of the Ramayana occur over and over again in each creation, sometimes the events unfold in different ways, though the general sequence remains the same. In some kalpas [creations], Ravana is a great king in his previous life, a pious soul who gets tricked by a former adversary into feeding flesh to brahmanas. The brahmanas then curse the king to take birth as a hideous Rakshasa in his next life. In another kalpa, we see that Ravana one day approaches the great sage Sanatkumara and asks him what happens to people who die while fighting human beings and demigods. The sage answers that the fighter would go to heaven for a period of time, and then return back to earth. Ravana then asks what would happen to those who die while fighting Vishnu. The sage answers that the fighter would attain Vishnu’s nature. Upon learning of this, Ravana decides to take away Sita in order to be killed by Vishnu in battle.

In the Ramacharitamanasa, we see that Ravana eagerly awaited defeat from Rama, though outwardly he continued to play the part of the demon to perfection. This is an interesting point that shouldn’t be overlooked. Every single living entity is part and parcel of God, so at their core, they are perfect beings. They are gold that is currently covered up by material elements. Even the most vile person, be they a killer, a thief, a rapist, etc., is part and parcel of God and a devotee at heart. So does this mean that we should worship everyone? While everyone may be a devotee originally, they can’t be considered pure until they exhibit the proper qualities. When we criticize Ravana for his actions, we aren’t saying that he isn’t a devotee. Rather, we know that he only played the role of God’s enemy in order to teach future generations a lesson. So when we criticize him, we are finding fault with his activities and reminding people of what happens when one takes to the path of the demons.

Lord Shiva As far as Ravana’s devotion to Lord Shiva goes, it should be noted that this devotion was not offered out of any type of love. Ravana first tried to battle Lord Shiva, and only after being soundly defeated did he take to worshiping him. In fact, this was how all of Ravana’s friendships were formed. There was a great monkey king by the name of Vali who Ravana tried to once fight. At the time of their meeting, Vali was on a beach involved in meditation. Instead of waiting for him to finish his meditation, Ravana decided to do a sneak attack from behind. Vali of course could sense the demon coming, so he waited until the opportune moment and then put Ravana in a headlock. Vali was extremely powerful, so Ravana was unable to free himself from the monkey’s grip. Vali then paraded Ravana in the sky for all to see. After being defeated in this way, Ravana decided to forge a friendship with Vali, with their alliance ratified in the presence of fire.

The lesson here is that there is no need to imitate Ravana’s activities or even to worship him. Demons and other materialists may acquire great powers, but there is no need to be enamored by this. Though fictional villains such as Darth Vader and the Joker are adored and loved by many, imitating their nefarious behavior certainly isn’t recommended. While we are thankful to Ravana for acting as a sparring partner for Lord Rama, our devotional efforts should be directed at the Supreme Lord. He is the only person who can grant us the highest type of liberation, a permanent return to our original constitutional position. One who thinks of God in a loving way at the time of death ultimately attains the Lord’s nature of bliss and knowledge. This nature is acquired not through merging into the Lord’s body, but rather through constant association with God and His devotees in the spiritual world. Krishna is the only deva for all of mankind, for even Lord Shiva and Lord Brahma worship Him on a daily basis.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Great Seers

Lord Rama “O Rama, keen observers such as Yourself never lament even when faced with the most distressful of situations, for they are able to maintain a steady outlook.” (Lakshmana speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 66.15)

The Bhagavad-gita chronicles a famous historical incident where God Himself offered counsel and sound words of advice to one of His dear devotees. Such a situation is not difficult to imagine, for God is the all-knowing and all-powerful, while we mortal human beings are limited in our knowledge capacity. Yet God’s kindness towards His devotees is so great that He often likes to do a role reversal. In these situations, He pretends to be the one who is lacking knowledge, thereby allowing His devotees to offer Him counsel.

Bhagavad-gitaAs human beings, the highest achievement we can hope for is to become a lover of God. The Vedas tell us that the Supreme Lord, Krishna, is the energetic, while the living entities are His energy. The perfection of life is to have fusion between the energy and the energetic. What results is pure love, the variety of which cannot be found in the three worlds. Not even the heavenly planets can give a glimpse of the pure bliss that exists in the loving relationship between God and His pure devotees.

As spirit souls, we are meant to always be with our eternal companion, Lord Krishna, who is the great soul, or Paramatma. Eternal happiness does not come through the acquisition of wealth, the frantic search for empirical and practical knowledge, or the gratification of the senses through eating, sleeping, or sex life. These material endeavors certainly do provide a limited form of happiness, but true ananda, or bliss, comes through association with God. After all, our senses are only material coverings made up of the various elements of nature. The spirit soul, on the other hand, transcends nature and thus for it to be happy, it must associate with things that also transcend nature.

Lord Krishna Becoming a successful industrialist, a world-famous inventor, or a great politician is not the ultimate aim of life. The most exalted figures in history from the spiritualist’s point of view are those who attained pure love for God through the practice of devotional service, or bhakti-yoga. These figures are so famous that they remain objects of worship for thousands and thousands of years. Their notoriety is acquired through the grace of the Supreme Lord, who makes sure to highlight their extraordinary qualities for future generations to observe and learn from. This is an important point because it is only through studying the action of these famous devotees that we can achieve life’s ultimate objective. If we imitate the activities of ordinary fruitive workers, at best we can hope to be just like them. For example, if we admire a great politician and study their teachings, it is likely that we too can become a great statesman some day. Yet this type of notoriety is not ever-lasting, nor does it provide any extended bliss. Whatever material perfections we achieve, they must be given up at the time of death. Then upon taking birth again, we must start all over in our material pursuits.

Spiritual pursuits are different. Taking up devotional service to God means trying to reconnect with our spiritual nature. As mentioned before, the spirit souls are meant to serve as God’s energy. Since we are currently in a conditioned state, we falsely believe that we are the energetic. Thus we gradually drift away from our natural constitutional position as eternal servants of the Supreme. Therefore we require some help in this matter; someone to show us the light. The great devotees fit the bill, for they are prime examples of perfection in life. The great devotees of the past realized that they were meant to serve as God’s energy, so they set the example for how we should act.

Radha Krishna Throughout the course of human history, there have been many notable devotees. According to the opinion of Lord Chaitanya and other great Vaishnavas, the perfection of spiritual energy can be seen in Shrimati Radharani, the eternal consort of Lord Shri Krishna. Radha is always thinking of Krishna and trying to serve Him. Not only does she derive pleasure by associating with Krishna, but the Supreme Lord similarly feels tremendous satisfaction by accepting her service. Another great devotee is Lakshmana, the younger brother of Lord Rama. Many thousands of years ago, Lord Krishna appeared on earth in the form of one of His many incarnations. The word “avatara” gets used quite often these days, but it actually has its origin in the Vedas. Avatara is a Sanskrit word which means one who descends. This person who descends is God, and He is coming from the spiritual world. Though the Lord appears to come to earth in a material body, the avatara actually exists eternally in the spiritual world. Thus there is no difference between a Krishna avatara and Krishna Himself.

Since Lord Rama was God Himself, it makes sense that He would be an authority on matters of religion. He was wholly dedicated to dharma, or religiosity, so He taught primarily by example. As the son of a great king, Rama’s occupational duty required Him to be chivalrous and equally disposed towards all living entities. This is the proper way for a societal leader to behave. Currently we see that politicians run on various platforms, saying they’re for this group and against another. “I’m for working families; I’m for the little guy.” While this is all well and good, a truly wise person will be for everyone. This is how God behaves, for He is the creator of every single living entity, even the animals. Supporting the little guy at the expense of another person simply due to differences in salary is an activity of the ignorant.

Rama and Lakshmana Though Rama taught religious tenets by example, He was nevertheless playing the role of a human being. As the saying goes, “To ere is human”, Lord Rama showed signs of imperfection from time-to-time. We shouldn’t mistake this to mean that God is fallible, because He is anything but. One of Krishna’s many names is Achyuta, which means one who never falls down. Even when Rama appeared to make mistakes, He did so specifically to prop up and highlight the virtues of His devotees. One such time was when His wife, Sita Devi, was kidnapped while residing in the forest. Since Rama was God Himself, it made sense that His closest associates possessed the topmost character. We often see that we can judge a person’s character based on the company they keep. If someone is hailed and highly regarded by other respected people, then we can assume that they are a good person. This is the reason why politicians lobby to get endorsements from notable public figures.

Rama’s closest associates were His younger brother, Lakshmana, and Sita. As part of His pastimes, Rama had to roam the forests of India for fourteen years, living essentially the life of a homeless person. This was the result of some unforeseen family politics. Nevertheless, Lakshmana and Sita refused to allow Rama to wander the forest alone, so they both renounced their family and home in favor of helping Him. Unfortunately, one day Sita was kidnapped through a sinister plot hatched by the king of demons, Ravana. The ten-headed Rakshasa king, Ravana, devised a plan whereby Rama and Lakshmana would be lured away from their camp, thus leaving Sita all by herself. The plan went through without a hitch, and when Rama came back to His camp, He saw that Sita was gone.

Sita and Rama Immediately the Lord gave way to lamentation and anger. It is impossible to put Sita’s glories into words; she was the very same Shrimati Radharani appearing in the guise of a beautiful queen. So in this regard, her devotion to God was unmatched. At the same time, she was kind, sweet, and very innocent. No one could ever think of harming her, yet she met with the awful misfortune of being kidnapped. Rama did not even want to think of what might have happened to her. We can all sympathize with this situation, for our worst fear is that something bad will happen to one of our family members. If our dear wife or daughter were kidnapped, we wouldn’t know what to do. If God forbid something were to happen to them, we’d seriously contemplate taking our own lives.

“The Blessed Lord said: While speaking learned words, you are mourning for what is not worthy of grief. Those who are wise lament neither for the living nor the dead.” (Bhagavad-gita, 2.11)

By having to suffer this type of separation, Rama played the role of an ordinary human being. This unfortunate incident, though seemingly an unforeseen mishap, allowed Rama to glorify His devotee younger brother. Seeing Rama’s lamentation, Lakshmana immediately interjected to offer some sound words of advice. He put forth a series of wonderful arguments, all based on the eternal truths of the Vedas. In the above referenced statement, Lakshmana is reminding Rama that those who have experienced life, and understand what should be done and what shouldn’t be done, the great seers, never lament even in the face of the greatest calamity. They always remain calm and maintain a steady outlook, not being deterred by the negative situation. These statements are similar to the instructions that Lord Krishna would provide many thousands of years later on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. Krishna advised His cousin and disciple Arjuna to stand up and fight and not worry about the consequences because by acting according to one’s occupational duty one can never incur any sin.

“Do thou fight for the sake of fighting, without considering happiness or distress, loss or gain, victory or defeat—and, by so doing, you shall never incur sin.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 2.38)

Bhagavad-gita Experience is very important in being able to understand how one should act. In the beginning stages of any endeavor, we are likely to commit many mistakes since we don’t know much about the field of activity we are interested in. Yet through experience, enduring successes and defeats, we slowly gain a better understanding of how something works. On a more abstract level, those who are experienced in life come to the sober conclusion that good and bad things come and go on their own. It is often said that the elderly aren’t afraid to die because they have experienced all that life has to offer. This means that they don’t fear bad things happening because they have seen it all; “been there, done that”.

The neophytes don’t have this knowledge. Especially amongst the younger population, there is an idealistic view of the future. Young people think they can rule the world and that if they acquire enough material success they will always be happy. Getting old and dying doesn’t even cross their minds. It is incumbent upon those who are inexperienced in life to take instruction from those who are experienced. At the time these statements were made, Lakshmana was still quite young, yet he had the knowledge of an elderly wise man. Lakshmana acquired this knowledge not only from his own experiences but from taking instruction from the wise brahmanas of his kingdom. This is an example of acquiring knowledge through the descending process. One person acquires knowledge of a set of facts and then kindly distributes that information to those who don’t have it. It is much easier to learn this way since the student doesn’t have to make the same mistakes that the teacher did.

Lakshmana The other part of Lakshmana’s statement deals with the concept of keeping a clear vision, knowing what to do and what not to do without becoming disheartened by the current situation. Those who know what to do in life understand that excessively lamenting over temporary setbacks is something not to be done. This sort of lamentation is the behavior of the unintelligent. Those who associate exclusively with their material body don’t have an understanding of the soul or the temporary nature of this world. Therefore they easily lament at the slightest loss of sense gratification or the severing of a close relationship with another human being.

Avoiding lamentation is something that we should do, but there is still the other half of the equation. It is not enough to simply refrain from certain behavior. We should have something to occupy our time, something that we should be doing. This occupation is known as dharma, the highest of which is bhagavata-dharma, or devotional service. It is our inherent duty to take the necessary steps to learn about God, understand who He is, and use that knowledge to serve Him. This is the real aim of life. Yet we still must perform our prescribed duties since we need to maintain our bodies. The key is to perform our activities with detachment, not caring for loss or gain.

Lakshmana and Rama fighting Ravana It was Lord Rama’s duty to rescue His wife and defeat the Rakshasa demon Ravana. Thus Lakshmana’s advice was that Rama should give up His lamentation, remain resolute, and continue His search for Sita. This is precisely what Rama would end up doing, as He would eventually find Sita’s whereabouts and rescue her after defeating Ravana in battle. The lesson here is that we don’t need to go through a lifetime of suffering to understand the eternal truths of life. The glorious Lakshmana has provided beautiful words of wisdom which we can all live by. Lakshmana is an incarnation of Baladeva, who is considered Krishna’s immediate plenary expansion. Lakshmana is also representative of the spiritual master, or guru. By following His instructions, we can slowly make our way back to the spiritual world. We should all try to perform as much devotional activity as possible. By keeping an attachment to God, we will automatically detach ourselves from the illusory material nature, thus making it easier to perform our prescribed duties without giving way to lamentation.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Worshipable Body

Krishna as a child “Childhood age, childish dress, movements by the child, sweet words spoken by the child, nice smiling and various forms of childish play are considered provocations for increasing the parental love for Krishna.” (The Nectar of Devotion, Ch 43)

Though a human being goes through many changes in the course of their lifetime, their individuality remains the same throughout. The intelligence level certainly can increase with time, as can a person’s penchant for sinful activity. Nevertheless, the individual is the same, so there is no reason to treat a person any differently based on their age. In fact, there are growing movements and social causes which seek to stop the practice of discrimination based on a person’s age. Though an individual remains the same, it is undoubtedly true that the childhood form is the most conducive for receiving love. By the same token, the same can be said of the Supreme Lord Shri Krishna. From the devotee’s perspective, Krishna’s childhood form is the best when it comes to the offering of love and affection.

Mother Yashoda loving KrishnaIs there a difference in the offering of love to a child versus an adult? Let us do a quick comparison of how we treat the two forms. When a child is first born, there is much attention given to it. The child is helpless after all, so it makes sense that the elders will want to do whatever they can to provide protection to the child, taking care of its every need. Many people go above and beyond this. For example, it’s quite common for adults to make childish sounds and funny faces in front of an infant. “Goo goo, gah gah” and other such strange noises are commonly voiced by the adult when in the presence of a child. Moreover, loving feelings easily flow in this exchange. Even if the child isn’t ours, but only a nephew, grandson, or child of a friend, we can still form a deep attachment. In this way, we see that love is very easy to give to another person if they are in a youthful body.

So what happens when the child grows older? Do we treat them any differently? Surely we do. A child is helpless and ignorant of the ways of the world. An adult, on the other hand, is tasked with greater responsibilities. Upon becoming adults and parents, the same children are now put in charge, and they have to provide for the protection of their dependents. Thus through the aging process, the same child now takes on a completely different form, and as a result, others treat them differently. But has the person inside really changed? Is it not the same loveable child but in a different body? If the individual hasn’t changed, why should we not offer the same level of love and affection?

Krishna and Balarama The reason is that the childhood form is the one most conducive to the offering of worship and love. An adult is viewed to be less innocent, thus they don’t require the same level of attention. Also, if we were to treat an adult the same way that we treat an infant, surely the adult would scoff at our behavior. “Why are you talking to me in that weird voice? Why are you hugging and kissing me?” This dichotomy is better illustrated when dealing with the children of friends and even strangers. Let’s say for example that we’re in a public place like a post office. We’re waiting in line, minding our own business, when the lady in front of us is called to the counter with her two small children. These kids are carefree and not overly concerned with postage rates, shipping methods, and the strict rules and regulations that go with standing in line. In fact, they are so happy that they’ll gladly go up to strangers and talk to them. How do we react in these situations? Most of us will kindly smile back at the children, maybe play with them or ask a few innocent questions.

Now let’s extend this hypothetical situation out several years into the future. Again, we are on the same line at the post office, and the same children walk in. This time, however, they are full grown adults. Will we smile when we look at them? Will they willingly walk up to strangers and start waiving their hands? Obviously this isn’t likely to happen because now that they are adults, inhibitions take over. They aren’t as innocent, so they also start to view others with a little more scrutiny.

Krishna bringing slippers to His father In reality though, there should be no difference between the two situations. The parties involved are the same; the only difference lies in the type of body occupied by the living entities. When occupying the body of a small child, a form viewed to be more innocent and accepting of love from others, a person is treated differently than when they occupy the body of an adult. Therefore we can conclude that the childhood form of a human being is the most conducive for the offering of love and affection by others.

This tiny detail can help us a great deal in spiritual life. Scientists, theologians, and great scholars since time immemorial have pondered the meaning of life. Why are we put on this earth? Why is there even an earth? The Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, provide the best answers to these questions. The Vedas state that this perishable universe was created by a supreme entity in order to allow subordinate entities the chance to play and imitate the superior’s powers of creation, maintenance, and destruction. Though this perishable universe constantly goes through changes, it remains in existence for as long as the desire for imitation by the subordinate entities remains.

Krishna is God Bearing these facts in mind, the meaning of life becomes obvious: to shed one’s desire to imitate this supreme entity. The subordinate entities take on the forms of human beings, animals, plants, etc. Any form of life is considered subordinate to this supreme entity. This supreme entity goes by many names, the most well-known of which is "God”. The Vedas give a much more specific name for God. He is known as Lord Shri Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Krishna is Bhagavan, one who possesses all auspicious attributes to the fullest degree and at the same time. The subordinate entities, the jiva souls, are similar to Bhagavan in quality, but vastly inferior in quantitative powers. When the jivas desire to imitate the superior, the superior kindly creates a temporary replica of His home. Since this realm is only a replica, a shadow if you will, it only manifests for a set period of time, and is thus inferior in nature to the original.

Simply put, the aim of human life is to return to the original spiritual realm, the place where Krishna lives. Returning to this place is actually quite easy; one merely has to have a sincere desire to go there. If the formula for success is so simple, why are we currently living here instead of in Krishna’s world? The answer is that while the path for returning to the imperishable universe is quite straightforward, hardly anyone has the desire to return. This temporary world has an illusory aspect which fools the subordinate entities into thinking that this land is their permanent home. Obviously if someone feels at home in one place, they are not likely to want to move. Therefore, in order to achieve the ultimate objective in life, one must come to the understanding that one’s real home is in the spiritual world.

Practicing bhakti-yoga How do we come to this understanding? While there are various methods for success, the most effective one is known as bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. This discipline involves dovetailing all of one’s activities with spiritual interests. To practice bhakti-yoga, we have to always be Krishna conscious, performing all of our activities for Krishna’s benefit. This requires a subtle shift in consciousness, for all of us are currently body conscious. We think in terms of “I” and “Mine”, when in reality, Krishna is the owner of everything. Devotional service is the highest spiritual discipline, the most pure and sublime of engagements.

In order to dedicate our activities to Krishna, we have to know who He is. Luckily for us, the Lord personally appeared on this earth some five thousand years ago and enacted many wonderful pastimes. While He roamed the earth for over one hundred years, His most cherished pastimes took place in Vrindavana during His childhood years. How can God be a child? While Krishna is the original form of God, He is still kind enough to expand Himself into an unlimited number of other forms. As many waves as there are in an ocean is how many incarnations there are of Krishna. The incarnations are nice because they allow every person to be attracted to God in some way. The incarnations, known as avataras, also speak to the time and circumstances of society. For example, many millions of years ago, mankind may not have been able to offer service to Krishna directly. Therefore the Lord was kind enough to appear in His fish incarnation of Matsya. Similarly, in another time society was best able to offer service to God in His half-man/half-lion Narasimha avatara.

Krishna is all-attractive Since Krishna is God’s original form, He is considered the most attractive. This means that more people will be able to offer their worship to Him than any other form. Ironically enough, even the personality of Krishna has many forms. During His time on earth, the Lord’s body appeared to go through subtle changes, from infancy to childhood, from childhood to boyhood, from boyhood to adulthood, etc. Though the body appeared to be changing, all of these forms are eternal and spiritual. This means that if we worship Krishna of a specific age, that worship can continue forever.

It shouldn’t surprise us that Krishna’s most worshipable form is the one He assumed as a child [bala]. In India, the local shops are filled with pictures of Krishna during this time in His life. In Vrindavana, during His childhood, Krishna performed so many wonderful activities which gave pleasure to all the inhabitants of the town. Mother Yashoda and Nanda Maharaja, Krishna’s foster parents, especially took great pleasure in interacting with this form. Mother Yashoda kindly offered Krishna her breast-milk in addition to dressing Him on a daily basis. As the perfect mother, Yashoda used to cook for Krishna, talk to Him, lay Him down on His bed, call Him home to eat, and offer wonderful prayers around His body while asking for God’s protection.

Lord Krishna When seeing pictures of Krishna during this age, one will notice how wonderfully dressed the Lord is. He has beautiful earrings, a nice gem on His chest, a flower garland around His neck, a peacock feather in His hair, ointment [kajal] around His eyes, and armlets around His wrists. The young Krishna was the primary object of worship for all the inhabitants of Vrindavana; therefore they made sure that He was always beautifully dressed. Since Krishna is so naturally attractive, He actually enhanced the beauty of His ornaments. Normally such accessories are meant to augment the appearance of the person wearing them, but with Krishna it was the other way around.

The Lord also spoke very nice words to His parents and other elderly family members and neighbors. Though His words were sometimes broken, the parents didn’t mind at all. They couldn’t believe that they had such a wonderful child. For a devotee, simply thinking of Baby Krishna speaking is enough to give transcendental pleasure for a lifetime. The Lord was also a great prankster, with His most famous naughty activities involving stealing butter and yogurt from the neighbors. Vrindavana was a farm community, so there were plenty of cows around, along with butter and yogurt. Krishna especially loved to sneak into the rooms where this butter was stashed. He and His young friends would devise various plans to make their way into these locked rooms, take the butter, and then feed it to the monkeys. Krishna would be caught regularly, but the elders actually derived great pleasure by seeing this activity of the Lord, even if they would sometimes feign outrage.

Krishna Book Though these events took place thousands of years ago, we can still derive great enjoyment by hearing about them from great devotees or by reading about them in the Shrimad Bhagavatam. His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada did a wonderful service to humanity by composing an English version summary study of the tenth canto of the Shrimad Bhagavatam. This work, Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, covers the major events of Krishna’s life, especially focusing on His childhood. It can be considered the best biography of Krishna that is out there. By associating with the Lord in His childhood form, we can offer our love and adoration to the Lord without holding back. Young Krishna is waiting for us to come back to His spiritual world, where we’ll get to play with Him for eternity.

Monday, August 23, 2010

One Who Laments

Lakshmana“O Raghava, even if Vaidehi [Sita] has been killed or taken away, it is not appropriate for You, O brave one, to lament in the same way as an ordinary person.” (Lakshmana speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 66.14)

The famous Hindu caste system is generally thought of to be a social pecking-order based off bigotry and narrow-mindedness. Those unfamiliar with its origins, and even those who think they know how it should work, mistakenly believe that followers of the Vedic tradition subscribe to the idea of dividing people into groups based on their family heritage, and that certain people should be shunned since they belong to a lower caste. If we delve a little bit deeper into the subject, we’ll see that this is most certainly not the case.

“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)

The spiritual master's school What we generally refer to as the caste system is actually known as varnashrama-dharma in Sanskrit. Varna refers to one’s occupational duties and ashrama refers to a spiritual institution or stage in one’s life. Dharma can mean religion, but a more accurate definition would be an occupational duty. The Vedas, which are the oldest scriptures in existence, tell us that religion is not just some blind faith where one steadfastly holds to a set of scriptures without knowing the meaning behind any of the statements contained within. Spirituality is a deep and intricate science which covers all bases of material existence. Religion really means connecting the soul with God; yoga. Dharma is that ever-existing quality or trait that defines something. For us spirit souls, our existence is based off of our relationship with God. Divorced from God, we cannot exist. One may ask, “How can one exist today if they don’t believe in God? “ The answer is that simple forgetfulness of the Supreme Lord and His powers is not enough to be divorced from Him. Though one may be unaware of the existence of God, it does not mean that they are separated from Him. In this regard, we see that dharma doesn’t change.

Though dharma is eternal, or sanatana, the magnitude of one’s adherence to it can certainly vary. Those who are well aware of their relationship to God as servant always remain on the righteous path and thus ensure that all actions are performed in accordance with dharma. Others, however, who make their own path in life, tread the road of adharma, or irreligion. The term dharma sounds nice, but what does it actually mean? What does it mean to connect with God all the time? To shed light on the subject, the Vedas introduce the concepts of varna and ashrama. Though we are all equal in a spiritual sense, upon assuming a material body, we inherit different qualities. Influenced by these qualities, we develop a penchant to perform some type of work. Not everyone wants to perform the same work. Some want to be government leaders, some want to engage in fighting and gambling, others are interested in business, and there are still others who are quite content with offering menial service to the rest of society.

These four divisions exist naturally, for even in the most secular of societies we see that there are people who engage in each one of these activities. The Vedic concept is that instead of artificially renouncing the reality of diversity in hopes of a Utopian idea of equality of outcomes, we should embrace these differences. More than just welcoming the varieties of work performed, we should dovetail this work with spiritual life. This is where ashrama comes in. Every person should engage in their occupational duties, but at the same time, advance in spiritual life. What does advancing spiritually mean? The aim is that one should gradually work their way towards realizing the fact that they are not their body.

Marriage of Sita and Rama At first glance, this idea seems silly. “If I am not my body, then what am I? All I know is my body.” It is for this reason that the understanding of aham brahmasmi, or “I am a spirit soul”, takes a lifetime of study and spiritual endeavor to understand. Therefore the scientific system of societal maintenance passed down by the Vedas advises that one gradually progress through the four ashramas of life. In the beginning stages, we should humbly submit ourselves to a spiritual master. Living as a celibate student, we can take in spiritual wisdom in an unfettered environment where we don’t have to worry about maintaining a job and family. When we reach adulthood, we can get married and thus gain a partner in our religious efforts. A religiously inclined wife is referred to as a sadharma-charini in Sanskrit, a term which references the fact that the wife is the performer of religious duties along with her husband. After many years of family life, we can retire from our job and focus more on connecting with God. After a few years of retired family life, we should finally renounce everything and make spirituality our full-time occupation. This will prepare us for our impending death. If we have the right consciousness at the time of death, we can immediately ascend to the imperishable and eternally existing spiritual world, where we can have loving association with the Supreme Lord in His personal form.

“Whoever, at the time of death, quits his body, remembering Me alone, at once attains My nature. Of this there is no doubt.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 8.5)

For the purposes of this discussion, we will focus on the four varnas laid out in the Vedas, and more specifically the shudras. As mentioned before, in any society there will be people who are quite content doing manual labor and offering service to others. In Vedic terminology, this group is known as the shudra class. In India, this word “shudra” has become taboo in a sense; it is considered an epithet for low-class people. It should not be considered as such because the word shudra actually has a deeper meaning. Shudra means someone who is untrained in any religious discipline. It is this characteristic that makes one a candidate for performing simple labor.

Just because someone takes to manual labor as an occupation, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are a shudra. Nor does one’s family heritage determine their caste either. The system of varnashrama-dharma is very scientific and it is completely based on one’s qualities. In the original system, a person belonged to the higher classes [brahmana, kshatriya and vaishya] after they were initiated by a spiritual master, or a brahmana guru. This initiation only took place after a brahmana judged the qualities of a student. If a student had a proclivity towards higher learning and studying Vedic literature, he would be trained as a brahmana. If a person had an inclination towards fighting and providing protection to others, they would be trained as a kshatriya. Similarly, if a student took a liking to business, agriculture, and cow protection, they would be trained as a vaishya.

The shudras would never receive training from a guru since they were considered not intelligent enough to understand the duties of the higher castes. This doesn’t mean that simply because a person’s father was a shudra that they would be automatically deemed unintelligent. The spiritual master would judge a person’s qualities and then determine their caste. As time went on, the practice degraded to the point where people began claiming higher caste status simply off birthright. This degraded caste system is still practiced in parts of India, though it is not in line with Vedic principles.

Kalau shudra-sambhavah: in the age of Kali, everyone is born a shudra.”

Since a shudra is anyone who is untrained in any Vedic discipline, we all assume this designation at birth, and it remains with us until we are given a spiritual education. A shudra has one other noticeable characteristic: they easily lament. What do they lament over? Things pertaining to the body. This includes death, the loss of money, bad fortune, etc. Since our identities ultimately come from the soul residing within, lamenting over things relating to the body is considered unnecessary.

Lord Rama with Hanuman One may wonder what is wrong with grieving over the body. Are we not supposed to be sad if our friends and family members die? Are we not supposed to get bummed out if we lose our job? Are we not supposed to have compassion for the poor? Concern for these things is certainly justified. Of course we will be sad when bad things happen to us or to others, but the wise don’t let these unfortunate events take them off course. The mission in life is to learn about God and use that knowledge to love Him. One cannot truly understand God unless and until they understand who they are. If they remain on the bodily conception of life, taking issues relating to matter to be of utmost importance, they will never understand who they really are.

We are all meant to be God’s servants. This isn’t a forced type of service such as slavery. Pure devotion to God is completely voluntary and results in the highest bliss. God is so kind that He does not force us to love Him. If we want to forget Him and take our bodies to be the beginning and end of everything, He will most certainly allow us to do so. At the same time, those who are forgetful of God are more likely to become depressed when faced with temporary setbacks. It takes a little intelligence to realize that everything relating to matter is temporary. The higher classes of men are trained in the Vedic discipline, so they are taught to persevere through the tough times. We may live a comfortable life, with a nice salary and a nice home, but these things can be taken away in a second. As we’ve seen over the course of history, economic conditions can fluctuate very quickly in a country. One minute there is an economic boom and the next over ten percent of the population is unemployed. Our wonderful life, with all our nice relationships, can be turned upside down in the blink of an eye.

It is the duty of those who are trained in the Vedic discipline, the higher castes, to set a good example for the rest of society. When they hit upon hard times, they should remain firm and steady in their execution of dharma, for the rest of society will follow their lead. If our leaders exhibit the qualities of shudras, whereby they easily lament over issues relating to the material body, then the rest of society will follow suit. This will result in a condition where all the citizens will be constantly in distress and always on edge. The leaders must be of topmost character and highly perseverant.

Lakshmana and Rama This was the lesson taught by Lakshmana, the younger brother of Lord Rama. Many thousands of years ago, the Supreme Absolute Truth Himself appeared on earth in the guise of a human being. Since God is Absolute, when He makes a personal appearance on earth, everything relating to Him remains completely spiritual. So even though Rama appeared in the guise of a kshatriya warrior, His body was completely blissful and full of knowledge. God doesn’t appear on earth just for His own fun, but rather to set a good example for future generations. Not only can we learn from God’s activities, but we can take delight in them as well. Just as we like to watch television shows and movies to see our favorite actors in action, God performs wonderful pastimes for the benefit of future generations who will read about His activities in the great Vedic texts.

Lord Rama wanted to set a good example of how one should always follow the path of dharma. As a member of the kshatriya caste, Rama’s duty was to serve as a leader in society. Yet since He was in the guise of a human being, He also wanted to show how human beings must endure tragedy and calamity. On one occasion, Rama’s beautiful and chaste wife, Sita Devi, was kidnapped from the forest. Rama and Lakshmana went looking for her but couldn’t find her. Rama loved Sita very much; she was a true sadharma-charini. The trio was in the forest due to an exile punishment handed out by Rama’s father, the King of Ayodhya. Sita and Lakshmana easily could have stayed back in Ayodhya, but they refused to let Rama suffer alone.

Sita and Rama Since His wife was kidnapped, Rama felt like a failure. He failed to perform His duty as a husband of providing complete protection to His wife. After searching for a while, Rama gave way to lamentation. He became sad and then angry to the point where He was ready to destroy the whole world as an act of revenge. Lakshmana, Rama’s wonderful younger brother, took this opportunity to offer some sound words of advice. In the above referenced statement, he says that even if Sita were dead, Rama still shouldn’t lament in such a way.

This may seem a little odd at first. A person’s wife being kidnapped and killed is most certainly a cause for great distress. Who wouldn’t be greatly saddened by such a tragedy? Yet Lakshmana’s statements were completely accurate. One of the most famous books of the Vedic tradition is the Bhagavad-gita, which is known as the Song of God. In the Gita, Lord Krishna, God Himself, personally appears on earth and delivers a wonderful dissertation on the meaning of life and the difference between matter and spirit to His cousin and disciple, Arjuna. This talk was delivered on the battlefield of Kurukshetra just prior to the commencement of a great war. At the time, Arjuna was hesitant to fight because he didn’t want his cousins and other family members, who were fighting for the opposition, to die.

“The Blessed Lord said: While speaking learned words, you are mourning for what is not worthy of grief. Those who are wise lament neither for the living nor the dead.” (Bg. 2.11)

Lord Krishna In His opening statements, Lord Krishna emphasized the fact that grieving over the material body is not wise. The learned never rejoice nor lament the condition of others, for they understand that there is an equality shared amongst all living entities due to the fact that every living being has a spirit soul residing within. This soul can never be destroyed no matter what is done to the body. From the passage above, we see that thousands of years prior to Krishna’s advent, Lakshmana possessed this very same knowledge. This illustrates the potency of the varnashrama-dharma system when it is properly implemented. Not only did Lakshmana understand these higher truths, but so did all the kshatriyas and brahmanas of the time.

In the end, Lord Rama would heed Lakshmana’s advice and continue His search for Sita. Eventually Rama would march to Lanka and take on Sita’s captor, Ravana, face to face. After a wonderful battle, Ravana would be defeated and Sita would be rescued. The lesson here is that we should try to understand Vedic knowledge by humbly submitting ourselves before a bona fide spiritual master. The great Vaishnava saints have left volumes upon volumes of written instruction. If we have the desire to understand God, we should take the necessary steps to reconnect with Him. We should elevate ourselves from the status of shudras and try to come to a higher understanding.

Whatever bad fortune comes our way, we should not let it divert us from the path of devotional service, or bhakti-yoga. This is the highest religious system. Even if we are unable to understand higher concepts of spiritual life, we can all take to devotional service by simply chanting, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. By keeping ourselves always connected with God, we can be sure that lamentation will never take us off the righteous path. Following Rama and Lakshmana’s example, we can sleigh the demon of ignorance and finally achieve true enlightenment; love for God.