Saturday, September 11, 2010

Whatever Works

Lord Krishna “A yogi is greater than the ascetic, greater than the empiricist and greater than the fruitive worker. Therefore, O Arjuna, in all circumstances, be a yogi.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 6.46)

There are so many different paths towards spiritual salvation, and it seems like each interested party insists that their path is the only way towards perfection. Salvation in Vedic terms is referred to as apavarga, which is the elimination of bondage, fearfulness, exhaustion, defeat, and death. Though salvation is defined in non-sectarian terms, amongst the strictest followers of the Vedas, those who desire to love God in a pure way, there seems to be an insistence on a singular path, that of bhakti. If we do a careful study, however, we’ll see that the prescriptions provided by Shri Chaitanyadeva, namely those of chanting and abstention from sinful activities, are merely the beginning processes, the best means for achieving the greatest end. After one takes a sincere interest in spiritual life and tries to regularly connect with God, the next step is totally up to the individual. “Whatever works” is how the saying goes, so when applied to spiritual life it means that whatever path one can take towards achieving pure love for God is the path that should be taken.

Baseball To help us understand this point more clearly, we can look at the world of sports. In America, one of the more popular pastimes is baseball. This sport is similar to cricket in that it involves batsmen and bowlers, except that in baseball terminology, these entities are referred to as batters and pitchers. The pitchers throw the ball and the hitters hit it. After hitting the ball, the batter runs around the bases. If he makes it all the way around the four bases before three outs are recorded in a specific inning, he has scored a run. The team with the most runs scored at the end of the game wins. The batting stance employed by the hitters makes for an interesting study. In the major leagues, pitchers throw the ball at upwards of 90 miles per hour, so hitting is really an art form. Not only does a batter need to be able to hit the ball, but he needs to decide whether or not to swing. If the pitch is out of the strike zone, the batter is advised not to swing. Such a pitch is referred to as a “ball”, and if a pitcher throws four balls before throwing three strikes, the batter advances one base.

Some batters employ strange stancesNeedless to say, batting is very difficult. There are several fundamental techniques that must be employed in order for a a batter to be successful. A hitter has to keep their eye on the ball as soon as it leaves the pitcher’s hand, remain steady in their stance, maintain their weight on the back foot, and then make sure their swing is steady throughout. The batter should also try their best to keep an eye on the ball all the way through contact. While these fundamentals are adhered to by all the good batters, the implementations certainly vary. The batting stance illustrates this variation. There are no two batters in baseball with the exact same stance. Some hitters are left-handed, while others are right-handed, but the differences go further than that. Some batters like to keep an open stance before batting, allowing them to create sort of a sling-shot motion when they swing. Some batters like to crouch down, so as to keep their eyes steady on the ball. Some batters like to wiggle their bat violently just before the pitch comes so that they get used to the motion of the bat. Others like to remain completely still, so as to not distract from their concentration.

So we see that there are so many different techniques, yet also so many good batters. Good hitters go through years and years of training in their youth, but even in the major leagues each team retains a hitting coach or instructor. This means that the learning never stops, yet still each player has their own unique style. The goal for the hitting instructor is to find the strengths of the player.  The instructor then teaches the player how to utilize these attributes in their batting technique. The idea is that the player should use whatever specifically works for them. There is no universal batting stance or batting preparation.

Spiritual life can be viewed in the same light. All the different sects and congregations seem to have their own view on what is needed in spiritual life, with each one claiming their method is the correct one. The key, however, is to reach the end-goal: love for God. It would be hard to dispute that loving the Supreme Creator could be anything but the topmost goal for any human being. Understanding this goal at the outset helps us eliminate many of the pretender religious systems. Those leaders who take to the path of jnana and karma can be ignored by those who are seeking a higher enjoyment. The reason for this is that jnana, which is the acquisition of knowledge, and karma, which is fruitive activity, are meaningless in the absence of a relation to God.

Yoga When we add the term “yoga” to these activities, then we are getting somewhere. Jnana-yoga and karma-yoga are valid paths towards the Absolute Truth. Yoga means the union of the soul with God, or more simply just “plus”. For there to be an addition operation, there must be at least two operands. In terms of spiritual life, yoga can be considered the addition operator, with the two operands being the individual soul and the Supersoul, or God’s expansion residing within the heart of every living entity. If we take to acquiring knowledge or fruitive activity, all with the aim of connecting with God, then we are on the right path. We can even throw in meditational yoga, which is commonly referred to as raja, hatha, or dhyana, into this mix. The idea is that whatever path of yoga helps you achieve love of God is the path that you should take.

“In this age of quarrel and hypocrisy the only means of deliverance is the chanting of the holy names of the Lord. There is no other way. There is no other way. There is no other way.” (Lord Chaitanya, Chaitanya Charitamrita, Adi 7.76)

Lord Chaitanya Followers of Lord Chaitanya, the preacher incarnation of Godhead, believe that in this age there is no other way towards salvation, or apavarga, then the chanting of the holy names of God, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. Along with this chanting routine, followers of Chaitanyadeva refrain from the four pillars of sinful life: meat eating, gambling, intoxication, and illicit sex. This formula, which represents activity in bhakti-yoga, seems like it’s too specific and goes against the formula of “whatever works”. Upon closer study, however, we’ll see that these recommendations are only the beginning.

As we saw with the example of baseball batters, the key to success in hitting is adhering to certain guidelines, following certain fundamentals. How one goes about adhering to these fundamentals is up to the individual. There is no one-size-fits-all prescription that allows every person to become an expert hitter. By the same token, we shouldn’t take the process of harinama-sankirtana, the congregational chanting of the names of Hari [Krishna], as the only method of self-realization. While it’s certainly not a requirement for everyone to take to chanting, the fundamentals behind the practice speak to its effectiveness and also reveal the ultimate objective behind any bona fide spiritual discipline. The key fundamental, the ultimate goal in spiritual life, is to always be thinking of God. That is how love manifests after all. If the wife complains that the husband doesn’t love her, she is referring to the fact that the husband is not always conscious of her emotions and needs. “If you really loved me, you wouldn’t have forgotten our anniversary. If you really loved me, you would know why I’m angry with you right now.” The key ingredient in love is consciousness, keeping the object of affection always on the mind.

“And of all yogis, he who always abides in Me with great faith, worshiping Me in transcendental loving service, is most intimately united with Me in yoga and is the highest of all.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 6.47)

Lord Krishna speaking to Arjuna The chanting routine prescribed by Lord Chaitanya quickly takes a person to the proper consciousness, a stage where they are thinking of God at all times. This method is considered the most effective for this age because it brings the most people towards God consciousness. However, we shouldn’t think of chanting as the only religious practice or the end of spiritual life. God consciousness is the beginning stage of love, and as we all know, love is not something that goes away. When a person is in love, it means that they are always acting to please the object of their affection. Therefore when one takes up the chanting process and refrains from committing the four primary sins, it is the beginning of their loving relationship. What happens next is up to the individual.

Since the goal is to always please the Lord and be thinking of Him, not every person’s loving propensities will manifest through the same activities. The idea of spiritual life is not to turn people into robots, but rather to let them be free to express their loving feelings without inhibition. For this reason, we see some devotees really take to congregational chanting, or sankirtana. They write songs and perform them with others. They spend almost all of their day chanting and singing. Lord Chaitanya especially loved this style of devotion; He would regularly dance and sing in front of deities of Krishna, especially during Ratha-yatra parades. Then there are devotees who take to writing; they write as many books as they can, not letting a single moment go by without recording their knowledge and love for the Lord. Then there are those who take to lecturing; they have honed in their public speaking skills, so they love to travel around the world and give speeches. Others are expert at deity worship; they make flower garlands and offer nice foodstuff to the deity. There are still others who like to quietly meditate and keep the image of Shri Krishna in their hearts.

“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 deities As we can see, there is plenty of room for individuality in spiritual life. The path of bhakti - the purified form of work, knowledge, and meditation, and the culmination of all yoga practice - is full of variety. If one sincerely takes to yoga, the linking of the soul with God, they will surely one day be reconnected with the Supreme Lord. Not all paths work as effectively for everyone, but the chanting of Hare Krishna is the quickest and most effective method in this age for allowing the most people to begin their journey towards liberation. One who thinks of God at the time of death never has to return to this temporary and miserable material world, where the presiding deity is maya and the guiding principle is forgetfulness of God. Whatever method we can use to help us escape this mindset is the one we should adopt.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Up Up Up

Lakshmana “Unseen and indefinite are the good and bad reactions of fruitive work. And without taking action, the desired fruits of such work cannot manifest.” (Lakshmana speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 66.17)

No matter how hard we try to remain optimistic, there are bound to be certain times when our moods can turn sour. Encountering a rude person, getting into an argument with a friend or family member, or simply forgetting to do something - these are all things that can get us down. If prior to taking a trip, we forget to fill up on gasoline, we’ll have to suffer the consequences later on. We don’t usually make this sort of transgression, so the mistake is depressing in a sense. “How could I forget to do something as simple as that?” Though these things can get us down, the wise know how to persevere and forge ahead with the tasks at hand. These people can even go one step further by taking the necessary actions to improve their condition, in essence lifting their moods up. No matter how down we may be, there are always ways to get up.

Federer breaking his racket One of the primary reasons we can get down so quickly is that there is little consistency in life. It takes forgetting to do a task just one time to get us in a bad mood. We can perform the same task 99 straight times, but it is that one miss that can cost us dearly. Essentially we feel that there is no excuse for forgetting to do simple things, so we beat ourselves up over it when it happens. This phenomenon can be seen in the sport of tennis. Tennis players are notorious for their temper tantrums, which usually involve yelling, screaming, and the throwing of the racket. Now obviously the racket is not to blame for bad play, for it is an inanimate object, incapable of acting on its own. Yet when a player feels frustration, he or she must take it out on something, with the racket being the easiest target.

Frustration in tennis is justifiable. On the professional level, players are excellent ball-strikers, so they can hit the shot they want to almost all the time. For recreational players, just maintaining a steady rally of at least ten strokes is very difficult. This is because it takes not only ball striking ability, but great hand-eye coordination, timing, and body positioning to hit a tennis ball properly. For professional players, however, keeping a rally going in practice is not difficult at all. At most major tournaments, fans are allowed in for free on the days immediately preceding the start of competition. It is during these times that players come out and practice with each other, sometimes even playing practice sets. Fans can get up close and see how their favorite players spend their practice time.

Players practicing What fans see is that players can keep rallies going for up to one hundred shots. This is because they are tennis players by trade, so they have tremendous ball-striking abilities. Yet every now and then a player will make a mistake. It is at these moments that frustration can kick in. One can easily guess what the thoughts are in the player’s mind. “I hit the ball correctly every single shot, but why did I miss that one? This is ridiculous. I should be playing better than this. There is no excuse for my missing that shot.” A player only needs to think this way once in order to get the ball rolling so to speak. The next time an error comes, the anger increases, eventually boiling over into rage, and ending in the racket toss.

“While contemplating the objects of the senses, a person develops attachment for them, and from such attachment lust develops, and from lust anger arises.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.62)

You don’t have to be a professional tennis player to feel this level of frustration. Even school children have to suffer through loss and defeat every now and then. In our elementary school days, there was one particular incident which illustrates this principle. One year we had a teacher who would hand out a “Student of the Week” award to whichever student she felt was deserving of it for that particular week. Elementary school students are no strangers to homework, for there are assignments in almost every subject that are due every day. The Student of the Week Award was to be given out every Friday, and one particular week, the inaugural week of the award in fact, we had a hunch that we might win it. We performed well in that particular class, were always on good behavior, and made sure to always do our assignments. At the end of the last day of the week, Friday, it came time to hand in a specific homework assignment. Unfortunately, we had forgotten to do this particular assignment. All the other homework was done, just this one piece was forgotten; a mental slip up. When the teacher found out about this, she told the entire class that she couldn’t give the Student of the Week award to someone who doesn’t do their homework. Thus she tore up the award, which had our name previously filled in, in front of the entire classroom.

Obviously as an impressionable child, we were quite devastated from this incident. The fault was not the teacher’s, for there was no excuse for our not completing the assignment. So we see that even if we try our hardest, we are bound to make mistakes from time to time, even for the simplest things. Whether one is a famous athlete or an elementary school student, no one is immune from committing mistakes. To ere is human after all, and the Vedas even tell us that one of man’s four defects is his propensity to commit mistakes. The issue of importance, however, is how we react to our failures. Do we let setbacks get us down permanently, or do we rise back up and fight on? This was the issue addressed by Lakshmana, the younger brother of Lord Rama, many thousands of years ago.

Lord Krishna Man is fallible but God is not, thus one of His many names is Achyuta, meaning one who doesn’t fall down. Though God automatically acquires this characteristic based on His nature, He is kind enough to appear on earth from time to time and commit mistakes. By giving the appearance of fallibility, the Lord empathizes with the living entities and also allows them to foster an attachment to Him. By default, we should all love God simply for who He is. He is the Supreme Controller, the ever well-wisher. There is no reason to forget Him or neglect worshiping Him. Nevertheless, we are in the material world, which means we become illusioned by the forces of maya. Maya has many powers, but her greatest effect on us is that she makes us think that we are God. Maya tricks us into thinking that if we make just the right material adjustments, we can be completely happy.

Obviously this is not possible, because spirit is superior to matter. If we simply associate with matter, we are bound to meet with disappointment in the end, for only spirit can make us happy. God is the supreme spirit, so it is only through association with Him that we can find eternal contentment. Since the Lord is so nice, He kindly appears on earth from time to time to help us break free of the effects of maya. When He appears on earth, the Supreme Divine Entity doesn’t tell everyone who He is, nor does He display all of His features. The reasoning behind this is pretty simple. Though we should love God, no one can force us to. The same holds true with romantic love, because no matter how hard we may try to get someone to like us, the choice is completely up to them. That is the definition of independence and free will. This same independence is there in our relationship with the Supreme. He will never force us to surrender unto Him because then the resulting relationship can’t be classified as a loving one.

Lord Rama Since the Lord doesn’t openly put His great opulence on display when He comes to earth, He gives the appearance of an ordinary human being to others. This was the case with Lord Rama, an incarnation of Vishnu who roamed the earth many thousands of years ago during the Treta Yuga. Born as the eldest son of the King of Ayodhya, Rama was a handsome and pious prince, dedicated to the rule of law and the codes of religion, or dharma. Rama was God Himself after all, so He naturally possessed all good qualities. Everyone loved Him, even those He punished. All the citizens of the town were eagerly awaiting His ascension to the throne, where He would succeed His father. This wouldn’t happen right away, however, since Rama was forced into exile at a young age.

Lord Rama was married at the time to His beautiful young wife, Sita Devi. Vedic doctrine stipulates that a husband’s duty is to provide complete protection for his wife. It was because of this principle that Rama wanted Sita to remain in the kingdom, where she would be protected. His exile term would last for fourteen years, so He didn’t want to bring her to the forest where she would be vulnerable to attack. She was the most beautiful woman in the world after all, so He knew that others would try to steal her away. Not having access to His army in the forest, Rama was worried that He wouldn’t be able to protect her.

Sita Devi Sita, for her part, also believed strongly in the principle that a wife should serve her husband at all costs. She insisted on going to the forest, not for her benefit, but to make sure that her husband was always happy. She knew He couldn’t be happy if she wasn’t there with Him. Thus she refused to remain in the kingdom, leaving Rama no choice in the matter. The Lord eventually embarked for His journey, taking Sita and Lakshmana, His younger brother, with Him. Surely enough, Sita would one day end up being kidnapped by the Rakshasa demon Ravana. Rama and Lakshmana were not in Sita’s presence when this happened, so when they returned to their cottage, they saw that she was missing.

Rama immediately gave way to lamentation and anger. He knew He shouldn’t have brought Sita along in the first place. Moreover, He was now guilty of failing to protect His innocent wife. If the same thing were to happen to us, we would surely be distraught and upset. Thus Rama played the role of a human being perfectly by outwardly showing signs of grief. We must remember that Lord Rama is the Almighty, so He is not capable of making mistakes or failing to provide protection. These incidents were all carefully put together so as to teach future generations a lesson on the proper conduct for a man, husband, king, son, and human being. While Rama was bemoaning His plight, Lakshmana rose up to offer some sound words of advice.

Lakshmana The above referenced statement was the last part of Lakshmana’s advice. He is reminding Rama of the fact that one must take action in order to get what they want. We may or may not see the results of our action, but this doesn’t mean that they come on their own. Every effect has an initial cause. That cause could be some action we performed earlier on in life or even something we did in a previous life. Causes can also be traced to the activities of other living entities, but regardless, every result has some cause. A person had to perform some work in order for the result to bear fruit. Therefore Lakshmana is advising Rama to get up and continue His search for Sita, which is precisely what the Lord did.

This one statement of Lakshmana’s is so profound that one can derive so many life lessons from it. Though we may not be handsome princes or incarnations of God, we certainly have duties to perform. We are all serving someone. Students serve their teachers, workers serve their bosses, children serve their parents, etc. In the execution of this service, there are bound to be successes and defeats, but we shouldn’t let this stop us from continuing forward. We may get down from time to time, but the only way for things to come around is for us to continue to take action.

Though there are many types of service, there is one which is superior to all the rest. This topmost engagement is known as devotional service, or bhakti-yoga. The devotional aspect of this service refers to God, who is the ultimate reservoir of pleasure. We may serve our friends, family, and employers, but the enjoyment derived from such service is short-lived. This is due simply to the fact that all of these relationships are severed at the time of death. The soul, however, is eternal, so it must have an eternal companion if it wants to remain forever happy. This eternal companion is the Supreme Lord. It is only through serving Him that we can derive everlasting enjoyment.

Hanuman performing devotional service Devotional service involves many processes, the foremost of which is chanting. In this age especially, the sankirtana-yajna is recommended, or the sacrifice of congregational chanting of the holy names of God, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. Devotional service mostly involves dos, but there are don’ts as well, the most important of which involve abstention from the four pillars of sinful life: meat eating, gambling, illicit sex, and intoxication. Yet just as we saw how Lord Rama wasn’t immune from setbacks, those taking up devotional service will also meet their fair share of defeats.

Devotional life is not easy for the mere fact that one must still maintain their body. Unlike in days past when most people were farmers, the workplace is quite different today. To meet the basic demands of the body, most of us have to get nine-to-five jobs where we go into the office and deal with clients, bosses, and co-workers. This sort of life is unstable because companies always go through periods of change. Sometimes a company does well and expands, while other times it loses money and is forced to lay people off. If we lose our job, we have to find another one fairly quickly. Sometimes this involves relocating to another state or country.

“From the highest planet in the material world down to the lowest, all are places of misery wherein repeated birth and death take place. But one who attains to My abode, O son of Kunti, never takes birth again.”  (Lord Krishna, Bg. 8.16)

Lord Krishna So life isn’t easy even for devotees. Sometimes we may also fall down from the virtuous path through either forgetting to chant our prescribed number of rounds, or losing our cool when talking to others. There are many qualities that a devotee of Krishna must exude, and sometimes we’re not capable of living up to this standard. Yet the teachings of Lakshmana apply to this area as well. Though we may make mistakes from time to time, we should never deviate from the most virtuous path of devotional service. It is the highest occupation of man, the topmost dharma. The lesson here is that in times of trouble, we should buck up and forge ahead. Things can only get better if we continue to perform our prescribed duties. Our spirits can quickly rise up again if we remain on the virtuous path. Human life is not the height of spiritual evolution after all. There is one step higher, that of ascending to the spiritual abode of Lord Shri Krishna. For one who reaches that transcendental realm, there is no chance of ever coming back down.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Path of Least Resistance

Lord Krishna “A person who is not disturbed by the incessant flow of desires—that enter like rivers into the ocean which is ever being filled but is always still—can alone achieve peace, and not the man who strives to satisfy such desires.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.70)

“I pray for world peace.” This is the stock answer put forth by beauty pageant contestants when asked what they hope for most in this world. This answer wasn’t thought up by one person and then force fed to every other contestant. The hope for world peace became the most popular answer because it resonated with the most people. After all, who wouldn’t want to live in a world free of miseries, conflicts, and anxieties? While peace is certainly an ideal situation, what does it really involve? How can we tell a peaceful condition from a non-peaceful one?

One of the common mistakes made by those who are looking for peace is that they are looking for an absence of struggle and conflict. Why is this a mistake? The Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, tell us that this world will always be full of conflicts due to the different desires of the living entities. When a spirit soul is wrapped in a body composed of the five gross elements of earth, water, fire, air, and ether, along with the subtle elements of mind, intelligence, and false ego, the resulting living entity attains a distinct nature. This nature, which is sometimes referred to as a personality or demeanor, then results in the taking up of various activities. The catch lies in the fact that not everyone’s nature will match up. Just as there are no two snowflakes that are alike, there are no two living entities with the same desires and penchants for the same type of work.

“The different manifestations of body and senses among the living entities are due to material nature. There are 8,400,000 different species of life, and these varieties are the creation of the material nature. They arise from the different sensual pleasures of the living entity, who thus desires to live in this body or that.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Bhagavad-gita, 13.21 Purport)

Shrila Prabhupada The material qualities are referred to as gunas in Sanskrit. There are primarily three gunas: goodness, passion, and ignorance, but since the elements belonging to these modes can be combined in so many different proportions, we get so many distinct body types. The Vedas top the count off at 8,400,000 different varieties of combinations, with each combination matching up to a specific species. It is for this reason that we see some living entities assuming the bodies of trees, some in the form of ants, while others taking shape as human beings. These differences are due to gunas, or material qualities. By the same token, with each specific life form, or combination of gunas, there is a specific penchant for work. Not only are there desires to perform specific work, but there are also prescribed duties for each body type. Amongst the human beings, the division of prescribed duties is known as varnashrama-dharma. The duties prescribed to the different divisions, or varnas, enable a person within each division to make spiritual advancement in life.

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

Since each living entity wants to perform different work, there will be collisions along the way. Often times, desires for sense gratification can lead to lust, which then leads to anger, which then leads to delusion. Delusion ultimately can lead to the loss of intelligence, and when this happens, the human being is no different than the animal; hence conflicts are sure to arise. Due to the nature of guna and karma, this world will always be in a non-peaceful state, meaning there will always be conflict. Therefore, those who are looking for world peace or peace of mind simply through the negation of conflict will never succeed in their quest. Real peace comes from within, from being able to respond to stressful situations.

Lord Krishna This fact can be illustrated in so many ways, but for this discussion we’ll focus on the area of driving. While driving provides a level of autonomy and self-sufficiency, there are some drawbacks. Driving has advantages over public transportation in that there are no departure times, security check-in lines, or delays due to transportation hubs closing. Driving also allows a person to carry whatever they want without having to worry about keeping an eye on their possessions at all times. At the same time, driving does have some unpleasant aspects to it, with the primary nuisance being traffic. Driving is certainly nice when there is a minimal number of cars on the road, but once there is traffic, the stress really starts to mount. Traffic is a condition caused by a large amount of cars in a small area at one time. When there is heavy traffic, cars start to move more slowly since they have to worry about maneuvering around slower vehicles.

How do people deal with traffic and the stresses of driving? Let’s take a typical highway in America as an example. Regardless of the situation, traffic or no traffic, a driver is looking for peace, a way to drive without being consciously aware of the road, on autopilot so to speak. A typical highway has three lanes, so the tendency is to choose one lane which will provide the least stress, the path of least resistance. Stress comes about through having to speed up, slow down, change lanes, etc. A peaceful driving situation is one where one can maintain a steady speed and not have to worry about sudden changes in road conditions. Highways are conducive to this condition because one can travel for hours and hours without having to stop for any lights or stop signs.

So which lane on the highway should we choose in order to find the peaceful conditions we’re looking for? The most obvious choice is the left lane. On American highways, exits are typically on the right side, so this means that the left lane becomes the passing lane. If you have a slower moving vehicle in front of you, you can get around them by going into the left lane and passing them. Does this mean that the left lane is peaceful and free of cars? Many people decide to go into the left lane to coast. This immediately causes a problem for other drivers who want to pass. Instead of using the left lane to pass, they are forced to maneuver around the slower cars using the middle and right lanes. This certainly causes an unnecessary, dangerous situation where cars start to line up closer to each other, all due to the slow vehicle in the left lane.

traffic sign The key ingredient in safe driving is distance. The more distance you have from other cars, the safer you will be. Does this mean that driving slow is the answer? The problem with driving too slow is that other cars will start to pile up behind you. This means that other cars are now driving too close to one another, thus creating a situation where there is an unsafe distance between cars. Is driving fast the answer? This certainly creates space, but at the same time, one is sure to encounter slower cars every now and then. In order to keep passing the slower cars, one must get close to other cars and maneuver around them. Again, this creates a situation where cars are too close to one another.

If the left lane doesn’t provide a peaceful condition because of all the passing cars, what about the right lane? After all, people should be travelling slower in that lane, so this should allow a person to coast without any worries. There is a problem, however, in that the right lane is the exit and entry lane. This means that cars are constantly coming in and out of this lane, thereby creating a situation where one has to constantly slow down and speed up in order to accommodate the transit of other cars.

So driving in the middle lane must be the solution, right? The middle lane is where one can find a peaceful driving condition because there is no expectation of driving fast, nor the issue of exiting and entering cars. Once again, however, there are issues to deal with. Say we are driving in the middle lane and we are approaching an entry ramp where new cars are entering the highway through the right lane. What happens is that the cars who are already in the right lane will want to shift over to the middle lane. This means that the person in the middle lane must either slow down or shift to the left lane in order to maintain their speed, or peaceful driving condition.

From the example of driving on the highway, we see that there is no way to achieve a peaceful condition through the negation of traffic or the effect of other cars. Does this mean that every driver is always stressed out? The only way to achieve peace on the road is to be able to adapt to any and all situations. In this way, we see that peace is not necessarily the absence of conflict, but rather the ability to take on new challenges without getting flustered. This cool-handed approach can only be acquired through experience and knowledge. Experienced drivers can react to the other cars on the road, anticipating their every move and being able to steer clear of problem drivers.

Lord Krishna speaking to Arjuna By the same token, material nature can be thought of as a giant highway, with individuals having to travel this road alongside their fellow man. The only way to achieve world peace is to empower individuals with the knowledge and resources that will allow them to adapt to the stressful situations in life. The Vedas tell us that this knowledge can only come from the originator of all knowledge, God. He is the original teacher, and His wisdom is so spotless that anyone who takes to it will surely be able to achieve a peaceful condition in life.

“He who is without attachment, who does not rejoice when he obtains good, nor lament when he obtains evil, is firmly fixed in perfect knowledge.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 2.57)

It may seem overly simplistic to say that peace can only be acquired through God, but we have many historical examples to prove this point, with one of them involving Arjuna, a famous kshatriya warrior. Prior to the eve of a great war, Arjuna was hesitant to fight the opposing party. He wanted a peaceful condition, and he thought that he could achieve it by laying down his weapons. Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, then kindly lectured Arjuna on the meaning of life and how every person must suffer through loss and gain. By acting according to one’s prescribed duties, there would be no reason to lament losses or overly rejoice over gains. The idea was to perform activities with detachment, while remaining attached to God at the same time.

Krishna and Arjuna carrying on the fight This discourse resulted in Arjuna assuming a peaceful condition. He went on to lead his side to victory in the great Bharata War, all the while remaining detached to the outcome. In this way, we see that peace was achieved by one individual through instructions given by God. What can we take away from this incident? The yuga-dharma for this age is the chanting of the holy names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. This chanting is the central component of bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. We see that yogis are often portrayed as peaceful and in control of their senses, and this is most certainly true of bhakti-yogis. Devotional service keeps one connected with God, and this connection allows a person to handle the toughest situations with ease.

How does bhakti-yoga help us deal with stress and conflict? More than just a way of curbing the influence of the senses, bhakti-yoga involves dedicating all of one’s activities to the ultimate reservoir of pleasure. By only acting in the Lord’s interests, one automatically becomes immune to the ups and downs of material life. Conflict will surely arise, but since the mind is focused on the ultimate goal, that of achieving love of Godhead, the attachment to the conflict is limited. A devotee of Krishna only does whatever is necessary to maintain their attachment to Him. Therefore they are able to see every situation in its relation to the ultimate goal. This viewpoint allows them to quickly judge what shouldn’t be done and what should be done.

Lord Krishna It is more important to stick to the activities that should be done. In this age, every person should take up a process of devotional service, whether it is chanting, hearing, remembering, offering prayers, etc. A seasoned bhakti-yogi can deal with all the crazy drivers in life, along with the pressures that come with maintaining the body. In this way, we see that the most purified yoga practice, devotional service, is the only path towards the peace of mind that we so desperately seek.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Making Someday Come Soon

Lakshmana "Unseen and indefinite are the good and bad reactions of fruitive work. And without taking action, the desired fruits of such work cannot manifest.” (Lakshmana speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 66.17)

When we want something really badly, we have the inherent hope that someday we will get it. This hope especially applies to the area of romantic love. If we see a friend getting married or a fellow loved one meeting the person of their dreams, we naturally start to examine our own life’s situation. “When will I meet the person who fills my heart with pure joy?” Our friends and family members often will respond by telling us not to worry and that someday, eventually everything will work out. “You’ll meet someone, don’t worry.” This same positive attitude is conveyed to people suffering from depression and ill-luck. All of us at some point in our lives have been told not to worry, for events would fall into place for us eventually.

Heart While this positive attitude is nice, it is better if we take the matter into our own hands. If we take action ourselves, we are more likely to get what we want. Other people aren’t mind-readers after all, so they don’t know what we want or what we like. We have to tell people, and in the same manner, if we really want something, we have to convince ourselves that it is necessary to take action in order to be successful. From studying life around us, we can see that everything happens because of action. Houses are built, books are written, food is prepared, people are transported, etc., all through the action of man. In Sanskrit, this is known as human effort, or paurusham. This word is derived from purusha, which means spirit or life. We know that stone and dirt are considered dull matter, while trees, plants, and flowers are considered forms of life. The difference between these entities is the existence of spirit, or purusha.

In a similar manner, we human beings are all purusha, for we all have a spirit soul residing within us. This soul is the driving force of our actions; in the absence of the soul, the body is useless. If there is no soul within a body, it is known as a corpse, or a body which is in a dead state. Purusha is what makes things happen. It controls our speech, our bodily motions, and even our mental outlook. Even activities that we consider involuntary, such as breathing, the beating of the heart, and blinking, are all driven by the spirit soul.

Lord Krishna Just as the spirit soul drives the car known as the body, there is a giant soul which causes nature to function. Rain, excessive heat, snow storms, etc., don’t just happen on their own. As previously mentioned, matter is dull by itself, so it can’t do anything without the intervention of paurusham. Nature too needs a driving force, which it kindly gets from the greatest purusha. This person, or spirit, is God.

“This material nature is working under My direction, O son of Kunti, and it is producing all moving and unmoving beings. By its rule this manifestation is created and annihilated again and again.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 9.10)

So we see that God makes everything happen in nature and that living entities are the cause of life’s other events. Thus one might be led to believe that personal action is not required. “It seems like everyone else is taking care of everything. It is probably better for me to just sit back and do nothing; just wait for things to fall into place.” This attitude makes sense in many situations, for there is action in inaction. For example, many times it is better to walk away from an argument than to actually engage in fisticuffs. Sometimes not doing something is better than doing something since action can get us entangled into many unwanted activities.

iPhone - friend or foe? An example of this principle can be seen with the cellular telephone. In days past, there were no mobile phones, so if we had to call anybody, we had to use the phone in our own home or a public phone. The downside to this was that it was difficult to get a hold of people during emergencies. The cell phone seemed like a great invention; you could now carry around a telephone with you wherever you went. These phones can now support text messaging, internet browsing, game play, picture taking, and even the listening of music. This all seems well and good, but let’s examine some of the downsides to buying a cell phone. At the time of purchase, one incurs a new monthly expenditure in order to maintain service on the phone. One also needs a charger on hand, a computer to transfer data onto the phone, a hands-free device to use the phone while driving, and many other gadgets and accessories. We now also run into other people who love to talk on their phone while in public. Many people find this behavior rude and annoying. The phone can also now ring at any time of any day. This means that something that was intended to help us with emergencies now can become a great burden.

So there are certainly situations in life where inaction is beneficial. However, to get what we want, some action needs to take place, even if it’s not from us. For things to “fall into place” per se, human action is required to drop those pieces into their appropriate locations. We can examine the arena of romantic love to see this principle in practice. When two people meet up and fall in love, they like to believe that fate brought them together, and that it was all destined to happen. By some great chance, they were able to meet each other at just the right time in their lives, and were it not for this fortunate occasion, they may never have found true love. But if we examine the situation, we’ll see that it took more than just dumb luck for the pieces to fall into place. Action had to take place, even if both parties weren’t aware of it. For any two people to meet, they must take the necessary steps to be at the proper place, at the proper time. Even if one person sits back and does nothing, there is still the requirement that others perform some type of action; otherwise nothing would happen. Also in romantic relationships, there must be a first move made. Either the boy chases the girl or the girl chases the boy, and eventually one of them will make the first romantic gesture. This is another example of human effort.

Lakshmana One of the downsides to going after what you want is that you could fail. Failure doesn’t feel good at all, and repeated failed attempts can make even the strongest person weary to put forth any more effort. The Vedas, the original set of law codes passed down by the Supreme Divine Lord Shri Krishna, tell us not to worry about temporary setbacks, for all good and bad things come on their own. Rather, it is important to forge ahead with our prescribed duties, performing those actions which are necessary to keep us on the righteous path. This sentiment was reiterated by the great kshatriya warrior and younger brother of Lord Rama, Lakshmana.

During the Treta Yuga, Lord Krishna appeared on earth in the guise of a human being named Rama for the purposes of enacting pastimes and killing demons. On one occasion, Sita Devi, Rama’s beautiful and chaste wife, was kidnapped while residing in the forest with her husband and Lakshmana. The demon Ravana took her away while Rama and Lakshmana were not there to protect her. Upon returning to His cottage, Rama found that Sita was not there and He immediately began to lament. After searching for a while, Rama seemed to give up and was ready to destroy the whole world out of anger. Lakshmana, being the ever well-wisher of his elder brother, stepped in at this point and offered some sound words of advice.

In the above referenced quote, Lakshmana is referencing several key Vedic tenets. As a pure devotee of God, Lakshmana was very smart, so he had perfect knowledge of cause and effect and the nature of the rewards of action. He states that the fruits of action are unseen and short-lived. This touches on the issue of personal inaction. If we sit idly by and wait for things to happen to us, it means that we are awaiting the results of our past deeds. Karma refers to any action which has a fruitive result attached to it. We perform so many activities in the course of our lifetime that we have no idea just how many things come as a result. Not only do we not know the nature of these fruits, but we don’t know when they will come or how long they will last.

Rama and Sita By studying this one portion alone, one may be misled into thinking that Lakshmana is advising Rama to do nothing. “You have performed so many great deeds in the past and You don’t know when the rewards for such action will come. Therefore it is better to just sit quietly and wait to see if Sita comes back.” Actually this is not what Lakshmana is advising. In the second part of his statement, Lakshmana makes mention of the fact that even though the results of our actions aren’t visible, it doesn’t mean that they come on their own. In order for there to be results, there must be some work performed as the cause. Essentially Lakshmana is saying that in order to get what we want, i.e. desired fruitive results, someone needs to take action. Since someone needs to perform work, it might as well be us, provided that we have the power to do so.

287 Lord Rama very much appreciated this advice from His younger brother. Lord Rama, being God Himself and a great kshatriya warrior, was more than capable of taking action. Thus He chose the path recommended by Lakshmana. Rama would eventually compose Himself and resume His search for Sita. After enlisting the help of the Vanara army, headed by the great Hanuman, Rama would march to Ravana’s island kingdom of Lanka, defeat him in battle, and rescue Sita. His choice to act benefitted Him in the end; He was able to get what He wanted, i.e. the safe return of His wife.

When we take action, there is no guarantee that our efforts will come out successful. There is certainly the chance that the rewards of our action won’t come until later on in life, or even maybe in the next life. This is the nature of karma, for material rewards are flickering, and the enjoyment derived from them is temporary. This is why Lakshmana’s words of advice actually apply more to spiritual life than material life. He didn’t just instruct Rama to take up ordinary activity, but rather to remain dedicated to the path of dharma. Dharma can be defined as one’s occupational duty; that quality that defines a person’s existence. Rama was the son of a great king, thus His duty was to provide protection to the rest of society. Also as a husband, He was required to protect His wife at all times. Thus Lakshmana simply recommended that Rama remain on the path of dharma and not worry about loss or gain.

Wedding invitation In a similar manner, we all have a dharma, an essential characteristic that is maintained through prescribed actions. This occupational duty is not the gratification of our senses, nor is it the accumulation of great wealth. Dharma is something that eternally exists, thus its target cannot be something as temporary and mutable as matter. Since we are purusha, it is spirit which defines our existence. But this spirit isn’t meant to remain by itself, forced to suffer through life after life alone. Our dharma, or eternally existing quality, is that we are meant to be plus one. When people send out wedding invitations, there is a box to check if you are bringing a guest. “Plus one” is marked on the invitation card, letting the host know that you will be bringing another person with you to the wedding. In a similar manner, we are all originally plus one, but we have forgotten this fact.

Who is that “one” that is with us? God. He is our eternal companion. Even in our current state, God is with us, residing side by side in our heart as the Paramatma, or Supersoul. Our eternal occupation, that thing which defines us, is our relationship to this “plus one”. The evolution of the soul, transmigration from one body to another, is the process by which we can someday come into contact with God. The human form of life is considered the best opportunity to make someday come soon because the human brain has the intelligence capacity to realize who God is and what its relationship with Him should be.

Radha and Krishna In order to reconnect with our long-lost friend, we must take action. We may or may not have performed pious deeds in the past, but that in and of itself won’t take us to the promise land. We must take spiritual action, dedicating ourselves to performing activities which will elevate our consciousness to the spiritual platform. That discipline is known as bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. Simply by chanting God’s transcendental names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, we can say hello to the reservoir of pleasure, Lord Krishna. Taking this route is much better than sitting idly by and hoping for things to work out in the end. Just a little sincere effort from our part will be enough to set the wheels in motion. Chanting Hare Krishna means openly declaring to the Lord that we want Him in our lives and that we will settle for nothing less. As our eternal companion, He will surely hear us and give us the transcendental happiness we so desperately crave.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Legendary Warrior

Krishna fighting the demon Trinavarta “It is quite natural for a devotee in danger to think of Krishna because he has no other shelter. When a child is in danger, he takes shelter of his mother or father. Similarly, a devotee is always under the shelter of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, but when he specifically sees some danger, he remembers the Lord very rapidly.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vol 1, Ch 6)

Nanda Maharaja, the foster father of Lord Krishna, was returning home from a meeting with Vasudeva, Krishna’s birth father. During this meeting, Vasudeva warned Nanda about potential dangers lurking around the corner in Vrindavana. Vasudeva lived in Mathura and Nanda Maharaja in Gokula Vrindavana. After Krishna’s birth, the Lord was transferred to Vrindavana, where His care was entrusted to Nanda Maharaja and Mother Yashoda. This was done at Mother Devaki’s request so as to keep her newborn child protected from her brother Kamsa, the King of Mathura. Kamsa had vowed to kill Devaki’s eighth son since it was previously prophesized that this son would be his angel of death, the person who would kill him.

Vasudeva transferring Krishna to Gokula Who is Krishna? When did these events take place? In India, these incidents are well-known to most people. The life and pastimes of Krishna, Lord Vishnu, and Lord Ramachandra are known to almost every citizen, regardless of their personal background or religious faith. Krishna is the original Personality of Godhead, the person we naturally look to in times of trouble. Some of us may approach this Supreme Personality through His title as “God” or we may simply look to the sky when we are in trouble, but the Vedas give us information as to this divine figure’s name and form. Since God can take many forms, His original form is known as the fountainhead of all other forms. The original fountainhead is known as Krishna, and due to His numberless expansions, He can also be addressed as Vishnu, Rama, Narasimha, or even more generically as God.

God is the supreme protector, the person we look to for help during times of trouble. This interaction between the distressed individuals and the Supreme Lord is not coerced or taught. Even those who claim to be agnostic or atheist have a tendency to approach God from time to time. The reason for this natural proclivity towards recognizing a supreme authority can be traced to the fallible nature of man. Unlike God, man has the propensity to cheat, to commit mistakes, to be easily illusioned, and to have imperfect senses. These defects lead them into trouble, to places where they don’t want to go and worse, places where they don’t know how they ended up. In order for the concept of fallibility to exist, there must be something which is infallible. If there were no infallible entity, then fallibility itself would have no meaning. Since the mind is incapable of conceiving of the nature and appearance of that one infallible entity, people often refer to this person as God.

Lord Krishna as a child Vedic tradition tells us that God does have a name, form, and pastimes. Moreover, in order to prove His existence and give pleasure to the sincere seekers of His protection, the supreme divine figure appears on earth from time to time. One of His most famous appearances occurred around five thousand years ago when the fountainhead of all forms of God, Lord Shri Krishna Himself, descended to earth in the city of Mathura. Appearing as the son of Mother Devaki and Vasudeva, Krishna was born in a jail cell. Since Kamsa was eagerly awaiting the birth of Devaki’s eighth son, he had locked up his sister and her husband. Because He came to kill Kamsa, Krishna wanted to remain in Mathura, but His parents were afraid of Kamsa coming to kill their child, as he had done to their previous seven children. In order to allay their fears, Krishna instructed Vasudeva to transfer Him to Vrindavana so that Kamsa would be unaware of His birth.

One of God’s features is that He is highly effulgent, maha-tejah. This effulgence manifests not only on the transcendental body of the Lord, but also through His activities and the activities of those intimately associated with Him. Therefore even though Krishna was transferred to Gokula, word of His birth spread to Mathura and eventually to Kamsa. A short while after Krishna’s transfer, Nanda Maharaja, who was a cowherd by trade, came to Mathura to pay taxes. At this time, he met up with Vasudeva, who then eagerly inquired about Krishna’s welfare. Vasudeva knew that Kamsa had many tricks up his sleeve in relation to killing Krishna, so he made sure to warn Nanda about potential dangers coming to Vrindavana and the neighboring areas.

Krishna swallowing a forest fire As Nanda was travelling back home, he started to think about Vasudeva’s words. At this time, he immediately took shelter of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, as would any pious soul who was faced with similar danger. Luckily for Nanda, God Himself was living in his house as a young child. Kamsa would indeed send many dangerous demons to Vrindavana to kill Krishna. These demons were very powerful and ghastly looking. They could assume any shape at will; they could take on a false guise and lull the innocent residents of Vrindavana into a false sense of security. Their task was to kill a small child, so they didn’t think they’d have any trouble in this regard. They thought wrong.

Krishna spent over one hundred years on earth, but His transcendental activities performed in Vrindavana are what are most celebrated to this day. Even as an infant, His feats of strength and fighting capabilities were legendary. Kamsa sent demon after demon to Vrindavana, but somehow they all ended up being killed. Even the residents of Vrindavana couldn’t understand it. They thought that maybe Lord Vishnu, Krishna’s plenary expansion who resides in the spiritual world, was protecting baby Krishna from all these calamities. Vishnu worship is considered the topmost Vedic discipline, a tradition which continues to this day. Vishnu is essentially Krishna’s form possessing excessive opulence. Since it is the natural propensity of the living entity to subordinate themselves in the presence of God, the Supreme Lord kindly takes on a form which is conducive towards the offering of such reverential worship.

Lord Vishnu Though God can be worshiped in other ways, including through other forms, the worship of Krishna is considered topmost because it involves the exchange of pure love. This love is offered through different transcendental mellows, or rasas. Just as our family members offer their love to us in different ways, so the living entities, being part of the biggest family in the world, offer their services to the Supreme Lord in different moods such as friendship, paternal affection, and even conjugal love. Of all the different religious practices, or ways of connecting with Krishna, hearing is considered the most important because through hearing about Krishna, one rekindles their dormant love for Him. It is for this reason that stories relating to Krishna’s life on earth have been heard by generations of devotees for thousands of years.

In order for there to be a strong tradition of hearing, there must be something tangible to hear about. What better subject to hear about than Krishna’s activities relating to the thwarting of attacks from demons? This subject matter should appeal to every single person since everyone tends to turn to God when they are in trouble. Krishna’s interactions with the demons prove that when the sincere souls look to God for protection, the Lord kindly provides it. The idea of God protecting the innocent is not simply a pipe dream or part of some mythology. Krishna’s activities prove that His promises aren’t empty.

Little Krishna In the modern age, things like movies, music, and technological gadgets are sold and talked about by people around the world. This means that even the Vedic traditions are now being disseminated on a global scale. In order to benefit the millions of people around the world who’ve never heard about Krishna, sincere devotees are taking great effort to present Krishna to the masses in a way that fosters their natural attachment to God. Recently a television series was run in India called Little Krishna. This series focused on the wonderful activities performed by Krishna during His youth in Vrindavana, with special attention given to the protection He provided against the attacks of Kamsa’s demons. The series was very nicely done and is now available on DVD for people around the world to watch.

“Give up all varieties of religiousness, and just surrender unto Me; and in return I shall protect you from all sinful reactions. Therefore, you have nothing to fear.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 18.66)

Krishna's pastimes The lesson here is that everyone should take advantage of hearing about Krishna. This hearing should take place all the time, regardless of whether we are happy, sad, distressed, or in fear. If we are in fear of something, it makes it even more important to take shelter of the Lord. Krishna proved Himself to be the legendary warrior, the one person who could provide unflinching protection to anyone. This promise of protection continues to this day, so anyone who is wise enough to seek shelter of the Supreme Lord through hearing about His transcendental activities will surely be benefitted.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Cause and Effect

Lakshmana “Unseen and indefinite are the good and bad reactions of fruitive work. And without taking action, the desired fruits of such work cannot manifest.” (Lakshmana speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 66.17)

One of the unique aspects to the spiritual discipline known as bhakti-yoga is that desire is not eliminated. Generally in any advanced spiritual discipline, the two concepts of jnana and vairagya, knowledge and renunciation, are put at the forefront. Knowledge relates to information about the soul, its nature, and its future destination. Vairagya refers to detachment from the demands of the senses. In either case, the issue of desire is not usually broached. If it is brought up at all, it is portrayed in a negative light. Desire is seen as a harmful thing; something which causes the innocent spirit soul to be led off course. The path towards salvation can be thought of in terms of a ship sailing off to sea. The demands of the senses represented by desire, or kama, can be thought of as the light of a golden treasure which pulls the ship off course. Since desire diverts a person from their intended destination, it is seen as something that needs to be quelled or at least controlled. But according to the highest authorities, those who have realized the ultimate transcendental pleasure in life, desire is something that needs to be purified rather than eliminated. When our desires are pointed towards the proper destination, both the good and bad effects of the senses can be transcended.

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

Lord Krishna Our desires drive us towards activity. In Vedic terminology, there is no equivalent word for “work”. The closest matching term is karma. But this term has much more meaning than ordinary work. Karma is any activity that leads to the further development of the material body, the outer covering of the soul. Karma is the system of cause and effect, with each action having a commensurate reaction. The reactions may be visible or invisible, foreseen or unforeseen. In addition, the development that results from such action may last for a very short period of time or for a very long time. In this way, we see that it is difficult to accurately judge whether a particular activity is pious or sinful. Sinful activities are those deemed to bring about negative reactions. Pious activities are intended to bring about favorable conditions. Since the reactions aren’t always visible, it’s tough to tell if an activity is worth performing. In addition, the reaction itself may be short-lived, thus adding a quantitative element to the piety or sinfulness of a particular activity.

A few examples can help us understand this concept more clearly. Telling the truth is generally equated with piety. Honesty is a virtue, so it is usually a good idea to tell the truth. Going back to the definition of karma, a pious act is something that results in a favorable condition at some point in the future. Thus telling the truth is meant to lead to a positive development of the material body. Honesty is considered an activity in the mode of goodness, or sattva-guna. According to Vedic information, those who live primarily in this mode ascend to the heavenly planets after their current life is over. To reside on a heavenly planet, one must possess a heavenly body. Possessing a heavenly body equates to heavenly enjoyment, and so on. Since increased enjoyment is seen as a favorable benefit, pious activities are recommended.

Balarama and Krishna Yet if we closely study the issue of honesty, we’ll see that it’s not always easy to gauge whether telling the truth is the right course of action. If someone asks us about the nature of the soul, its constitutional position, and what activities will make it happy, honesty is surely the best policy. By telling the truth about Krishna, or God, and the soul’s intimate relationship with Him, we can help the inquisitive achieve transcendental perfection in life.

Let’s take another situation though. This situation occurs quite frequently and has thus formed the basis of much stereotypical male-female humor. It is quite common for a wife to ask the opinion of her husband in regards to an outfit she intends to wear. The question usually is phrased in this way: “Does this dress make me look fat?” Now what would the result be if the husband answered the question honestly, supposing that the dress did indeed serve to highlight the appearance of some rather unpleasant fatty areas on the body of the wife? Surely the wife would get offended if the husband told her the dress made her look fat. Her spirits would be dampened, she would feel unattractive, and she would surely be upset with the husband. There is a famous piece of advice given to men who have just gotten married: “If she ain’t happy, you ain’t happy.” By telling the wife that the dress makes her look fat, the husband makes the wife unhappy, and in turn has also made himself unhappy.

Honesty isn't always the best policy There are other more serious situations where lying is preferable. Say for instance that a child asks us something relating to adult matters. A child does not have the intelligence to understand grown up affairs, so it would be silly to answer all of their questions honestly. In these cases, and many others as well, it is better to lie than to tell the truth. Again, the issue boils down to the result. Depending on the scope of action, and our intended result, a particular activity may be beneficial or harmful. For example, stealing is considered sinful, but if we were to take away drugs and alcohol from an addict, surely such theft would lead to a positive result in the future. In this way, we see that piety and sin are relative. An action may be considered pious in one situation, but sinful in another. Since it is not easy to always foretell the end-result, deciding on the proper course of action becomes difficult.

Regardless of the situation or the nature of the activity, for the desired result to be achieved, one must take action. This was the point stressed by Shri Lakshmana, the younger brother of Lord Rama. In the Vedic tradition, the Supreme Personality of Godhead is taken as one who kindly descends to earth from time to time. Every living entity can be considered God’s child, and therefore the elevated souls, those who are devotees of God, can surely help the conditioned souls, their brothers and sisters, get reacquainted with spiritual life. Nevertheless, under special circumstances, the Almighty Divine Entity, God Himself, decides to make a personal appearance on earth.

Spacesuit For an ordinary soul, appearing in the material world requires the assumption of a dress composed of material elements. Our body can be thought of as a spacesuit. In order for a human being to survive in the atmosphere of outer space, a special kind of outfit is required, something which will allow the living entity to keep its vital force intact. In a similar manner, the purified spirit soul, who is part and parcel of God, needs a suitable body in order to reside on a particular planet. On planet earth, there are up to 8,400,000 different outfits a soul can acquire, each tailored to the performance of specific activities.

The uniqueness of the human body lies in the area of intelligence. In the body of a human being, the spirit soul can take to activities of intelligence, guided by the highest knowledge. This purified activity can lead to a change in consciousness, a condition which allows the soul to eventually return to its original home in the spiritual sky alongside God. While the jiva [individual] souls require an outer material covering to come to earth, the Supreme Lord doesn’t. Since matter was created by God, it can never affect Him in the same way that it does us. Therefore the bodies of His various incarnations, such as that of Lord Rama’s, remain completely spiritual. For God, there is no difference between body and spirit.

Lord Rama Rama performed many wonderful pastimes during His years on earth. On one particularly troubling occasion, He gave way to lamentation. His beautiful and chaste wife, Sita Devi, was kidnapped and taken to an island kingdom of Lanka by a demon named Ravana. Losing one’s beloved is surely the most dreadful experience for any person. In Rama’s case, He was an expert warrior and was thus tasked with providing protection to the innocent. If He couldn’t protect His wife who was by His side, how good was His protection to begin with? These are the thoughts that went through His mind after Sita’s kidnap.

Fortunately, Rama’s younger brother Lakshmana was by His side. Lakshmana was essentially a twin copy of Rama, except that his bodily complexion was fair while Rama’s was dark. Lakshmana took service to Rama to be his only dharma in life. He listened to all the instructions that Rama gave Him during their youth. Like a good disciple, Lakshmana picked the perfect time to show his brother what he had learned. When Rama needed him most, Lakshmana was there.

Lakshmana In the above referenced statement, Lakshmana is reminding Rama of the nature of fruitive activity. In the first part of his statement, Lakshmana says that it is difficult to ascertain whether a particular activity is sinful or pious. This is because the reactions of fruitive work don’t remain forever. Since the material world is one that is constantly changing, no situation can remain in place indefinitely. Pious activities lead to favorable results and sinful activities lead to unfavorable results, but in either case the reactions are difficult to see. Sometimes we think a particular activity is pious, but there are so many other unintended consequences that are associated. Karma can be thought of as a giant neural network of cause and effect, with the outcomes, represented by the reactions of work, colliding with one another. No one can make due of this jumbled mess except the Supreme Lord Himself.

Even with this uncertainty relating to karma, Lakshmana states that it is not possible for one to achieve their desired results without action being taken. This action doesn’t necessarily have to be taken by the individual seeking the result. Often times, things come to us of their own accord. In reality though, our good fortune is merely the result of activities undertaken in previous lives and also activities performed by other living entities. This supports Lakshmana’s argument. A result cannot be achieved without action. Therefore Lakshmana is advising Rama to take the necessary steps to find and rescue Sita. Without someone taking this action, Sita’s rescue would never happen.  Lord Rama would heed this wonderful advice and eventually find and rescue Sita, thus reuniting with His beloved.

“Even a man of knowledge acts according to his own nature, for everyone follows his nature. What can repression accomplish?” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 3.33)

Sita Devi So what does this information pertaining to action mean for us? Vedic information states that the highest spiritual discipline is known as bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. This discipline is unique because desire is indeed recognized and made use of. We should notice that Lakshmana didn’t discount the issue of desire in his teachings. He first reminded Rama of the uncertain nature of fruitive activity. But then he reiterated the fact that one’s desires can only be achieved through action. Herein lies the secret to bhakti-yoga. The spirit soul is always full of desire. Simple repression cannot take away the seeds of desire, the need to be happy. The discipline of devotional service calls for the purification of desire instead of its suppression. Desire is the result of a longing for a particular object or condition. When this condition relates to the material body, which includes the senses, the desire is considered polluted. When the intended favorable condition is that of God’s satisfaction, the desire is considered purified.

How can God be satisfied? Again, we can look to the example of Lakshmana. Sita was kidnapped while residing in the forest with Rama and Lakshmana. Lord Rama was only in the forest because of a request made by His father, the King of Ayodhya. Lakshmana and Sita were not requested to go to the forest, so they had no reason to be there. But since they loved Rama so much, they refused to remain in the kingdom alone. For Rama’s satisfaction, they insisted on accompanying the Lord for the duration of His fourteen years of exile in the forest. Many others wanted to go with Rama, but they weren’t given the opportunity. Lakshmana and Sita, through their pure devotion which manifested in tears of love, forced Rama to take them with Him. Goswami Tulsidas references this fact in his Dohavali. He states that Sita and Lakshmana were so purified that they were able to accompany Rama, while the other citizens were not. For Lord Rama to allow this, He must have derived great pleasure from their company. This is actually a fact. No one can give more pleasure to the Lord than Sita and Lakshmana can.

Sita, Rama, and Lakshmana leaving for the forest This means that the Lord is capable of being pleased, provided that one’s heart is pure. The Lord can only be pleased through acts of devotion. Simply acquiring wisdom or taking to renunciation is not enough. All other aspects of spiritual life are supplementary to the practice of devotional service in pure love. If we view God as the Supreme Enjoyer, all of our desires will be purified. Through God’s enjoyment, our transcendental senses also become satisfied. Sita and Lakshmana were never happier than when they were in Rama’s company. We too can forever remain focused on the Lord’s transcendental, love-evoking form by regularly chanting His names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. This is the quintessential activity of bhakti-yoga. The enjoyer in this cause and effect system is the Supreme Lord. The cause is the transcendental sound vibration uttered by the surrendered soul. The result is the satisfaction of the Supreme Lord and anyone else within earshot of such chanting. Since the Supreme Lord will be satisfied, the ultimate favorable condition is met. In such a system, sin and piety do not play a role. The good and bad are tossed aside since the Supreme Pure is immediately reached.