Saturday, October 16, 2010

Dussehra 2010

Lord Rama fighting Ravana “The mighty Rama, who possessed extraordinary strength, consecrating in accordance with the mantras prescribed in the Vedas, taking that great arrow – which was capable of removing the fears of the entire world and the Ikshvaku dynasty, capable of taking away the glory of His enemies, and conducive to His own happiness – fixed it on His bow.” (Valmiki Ramayana, Yuddha Kand, Sec 108.13-14)

Screams of joy, panic, happiness, fear, chaos, and despair are heard at different times depending on the circumstances. These sounds are indications of particular events, the results of extreme outcomes, both good and bad. There was one set of screams in particular which was so pure and indicative of the highest gain that it resounded throughout the three worlds. These screams were in response to the greatest triumph, a victory which didn’t always seem possible. This victory came after great effort, and thus the resulting joy was of the topmost variety. This triumph brought so much elation that it has since been celebrated annually as the occasion of Dussehra.

Lord Rama Dussehra, which is also known as Rama Vijayotsava and Rama Vijay Dashami, celebrates the victory of Lord Rama, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, over Ravana, the ten-headed demon king of Lanka. Many thousands of years ago, when celestials and the strongest of demons roamed the earth, there was a great disturbance caused by Ravana. He was born a Rakshasa due to a curse imprecated on his mother by the sage Vishrava. Ravana was born with a ghoulish figure possessing ten heads. Yet it was not until he was coaxed into performing great austerities to please Lord Brahma, the grandsire and first created living entity, that he was endowed with tremendous fighting abilities. Brahma can grant any boon to any person, up to the point of immortality. Ravana asked that he be immune in battle from any celestial figure. The boon being granted, the demon immediately embarked on his world destruction tour.

The influence of the demon became so strong that the demigods eventually petitioned Lord Vishnu, the supremely opulent form of the original Godhead, to alleviate the situation. Vishnu, who is neutral in the affairs of the living entities who reside in the material world, decided to show His favoritism towards the demigods since they had asked Him very nicely. The demigods weren’t asking for any personal benedictions. They simply wanted a return to their peaceful condition so that they could continue their devotional efforts. Ravana was especially keen on attacking and killing the innocent priestly class on earth. The material world can be thought of as a giant playing field where the players are ignorant of the temporary and destructible nature of the field. Since the players are enamored by the pursuit of that which is not God, or maya, they continue to play the game without stop. Since the end-goal of such play is temporary, illusive, and not related to Him, the Supreme Lord plays no direct role. Though He is certainly responsible for creating the field and empowering the governing agent known as maya, the Supreme Lord still has no interest in the temporary gains and setbacks of the players involved.

Lord Vishnu Lord Vishnu does make an exception for those intelligent living entities who have had enough of playing the game. During the Treta Yuga, these humble individuals, the sages and brahmanas, decided to use the playing surface to favor their development of Krishna consciousness, a mindset which is natural to the soul and conducive to the highest gain. The material world is full of temporary gains such as money, sex life, and good food, in addition to negative side effects such as birth, death, old age, and disease. The sages look for the highest gain: the eternal association of the Supreme Spirit, Lord Shri Krishna. Vishnu and Krishna are the same person, for all that differs is Their appearance. When the devotional efforts of those seeking the highest gain are interrupted, the Supreme Lord most certainly takes an interest.

Deciding to help the demigods deal with Ravana, the Lord descended to earth as a kshatriya prince named Rama. Lord Brahma’s boons to Ravana never mentioned human beings as being part of the exempt list. Therefore Lord Vishnu cleverly found a loophole to the great powers possessed by Ravana. One may ask why the Lord would need to find roundabout ways to kill Ravana when, as God Himself, He easily could destroy anyone. The answer is that Lord Brahma is one of the most respected living entities. The demigods are elevated personalities possessing extraordinary powers which are to be used for the common good. Lord Brahma is given charge of creation; all living entities can trace their lineage to him. Lord Brahma’s reward for carrying out Vishnu’s orders is that he can grant any boon to any person, up to the point of liberation. Only Lord Vishnu, whose many names include Mukunda, can grant mukti, or liberation.

Lord Brahma In order for Vishnu’s empowerment of Brahma to mean something, the boons given out by Brahma cannot be checked in any way. Vishnu will never give someone a particular power and then take it back later on if He sees that it is not used properly. In Ravana’s case, it appeared that Brahma’s powers were being used improperly. Instead of interfering with Brahma’s business, the Lord decided to work around the issue and appear on the scene Himself to kill Ravana. This would serve the purposes of pleasing the demigods, keeping Brahma’s name in good standing, and providing activities for devotees to hear about and relish for generations to come.

Lord Rama assumed the most innocent of guises. He always donned a pleasing smile, and He was kind to everyone He encountered. He was a warrior after all, but this didn’t take away from His compassionate nature. On many occasions in His youth, He protected the saints from the attacks of the Rakshasa demons. In order to take on Ravana in battle, Rama needed an excuse. As a pious prince, the Lord would never attack anyone without just cause. The excuse He needed came in the form of the kidnapping of Sita Devi, Rama’s wife. Taken back to the island kingdom of Lanka, Sita found herself in a precarious situation, left to wonder whether her husband would ever come to rescue her. Eventually Rama made His way to Lanka with His army of monkeys headed by Sugriva and Hanuman. Lakshmana, Rama’s faithful younger brother, also accompanied the party. This unconventional alliance was forged in the forest of Kishkindha, the place where Rama and Lakshmana initially made their way to after Sita’s abduction.

Rama's forces fighting Ravana A great war ensued between Ravana’s forces and the monkeys of Rama’s army. Finally, after days of fighting and many casualties, Rama and Ravana met face to face on the battlefield. This was set to be a tremendous fight, for no one had ever defeated either party. Many of the monkeys and Rakshasas stopped their fighting simply to watch the beautiful battle. The celestials and the sages were on hand to offer their kind words and prayers for Shri Rama. After seven consecutive nights of fighting, it appeared that there was no end in sight. Rama kept firing His arrows - the same arrows which had previously defeated great fighters such as Khara, Dushana, and Vali - but they weren’t making a dent on Ravana. The demon, for his part, threw everything he had at Rama, and yet the Lord, who appeared as an ordinary human, simply kept smiling and shooting His serpent-like arrows.

It should be noted that the exact sequence of events varies depending on the particular kalpa. The Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, tell us that the world is created and destroyed in repeating cycles. In each creation, the Lord appears on earth through His various incarnations and performs similar activities. Though the names of the incarnations remain the same, the exact sequence of activities can change depending on time and circumstance. Therefore the fight between Ravana and Rama concludes somewhat differently in each kalpa. In the original Ramayana authored by Maharishi Valmiki, the fight ends in the following way: After seeing that Ravana wasn’t being killed by the arrows shot from His bow, Rama became a little stupefied. Ravana had ten heads, and though Rama was able to sever them from his body by use of His arrows, new heads would grow immediately. At this time, Matali, the charioteer of Shri Rama, stepped in to offer some sound words of advice. He asked Rama the rhetorical question of why He had decided to play with Ravana in this way and not destroy Him outright. Matali said that the time for Ravana’s destruction had come, meaning it was time for Rama to release His most powerful weapon.

Lord Rama and His activities This weapon was an arrow conferred upon Rama by Agastya Rishi. There are particular sages who are very famous in the Vedic tradition, and Agastya is one of them. Krishna is known as brahmanya-devaya, meaning He is the deva, or god, of choice for the brahmanas, the priestly class of men. This speaks to the truth that there are different forms of Godhead, some of which aren’t as powerful as others. The demigods are also considered expansions of the Lord, but they are not direct expansions. Different classes of men can take to worshipping different forms of the Divine, but the brahmanas prefer worship of Krishna, Vishnu, or one of their non-different expansions. Agastya Rishi is especially fond of Lord Rama, as is Rama of him.

This arrow given by Agastya Rishi was actually created by Lord Brahma. The grandsire had originally given it to Lord Indra, the chief of the demigods in the heavenly planets. Therefore this arrow was particularly powerful and destructive. Lord Rama set it to His bow, softly chanted mantras invoking its power, and set it free. Mantras are the mechanism of deliverance for followers of the Vedic tradition. A mantra is simply a sound vibration which delivers the mind. Not all mantras are the same, and Lord Rama certainly doesn’t need a sound vibration to kill anyone. Yet once again, to show His great respect for His great devotee Brahma, the Lord invoked the mantra so as to empower the arrow. Once released, this arrow appeared like no other. It is described as being like an all-powerful sun, thunderbolt, and flaming serpent all wrapped into one. When this arrow pierced Ravana’s chest, the demon was immediately killed. The arrow returning to Rama’s quiver, the celestials, sages, and monkey-host let out a tremendous roar.

Rama and Lakshmana's fight with Ravana This roar was an exultation signaling victory. We sometimes see similar displays of emotion when an athlete wins a game or match, or when a person becomes freed from a terrifying condition. The screams let out by the monkeys were the most beautiful because they were indicative of their tremendous love for Rama. They weren’t just happy that Ravana was killed. They were elated that the sweet, kind, and benevolent Lord had emerged victorious and would thus soon be reunited with His wife. Lakshmana, Sugriva, and Vibhishana, the commanding generals for Rama’s side, welcomed the Lord, the victor of the greatest battle of all-time.

After the defeat of Ravana, all the Rakshasas fighting for his side immediately fled. Where there is victory of the Lord, there can be no evil element. The power of the demons pales in comparison to the power of the devotees. The good guys, the adherents to the wishes of the Supreme Lord, need to be encouraged and given hope every now and then. With Rama’s victory, the monkeys felt like they were invincible. Their terrible screams reminded the enemy that there was no chance of victory.

Rama's glorious activities In the dark age of Kali that we currently live in, the non-devotees seem to have a great influence on the workings of society. By remembering Rama’s victory over Ravana and the screams of the monkeys fighting for the Lord’s side, we can be bucked up in our battle against the unwanted forces of this world. Just as the victorious screams of the monkeys signaled the fleeing of the Rakshasas from the battlefield, the constant chanting of the holy names of the Lord, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, will mark the retreat of all unwanted spirits and elements from our lives. Giving succor and strength to the warrior-like devotees of the Lord, this mantra proves to be the fuel of the engine of devotion. Darkness can never survive where there is light. The demons can never survive where the presence of God is strong. The presence of the Lord is strongest where His names are constantly heard and glorified. On Dussehra day, we remember the benevolent Lord Rama, the beautiful arrow shot from His bow that killed Ravana, and the wonderful screams of joy shouted by the devotees on the battlefield.

Friday, October 15, 2010

A Transcendentalist’s Checklist Part 1

Rama and Lakshmana meeting Shabari “Have you conquered all the obstacles in the way of your practice of austerities? Has your practice of austerity and penance steadily increased? O lady who possesses asceticism for wealth [tapodhane], have you been able to control your anger and your eating?” (Lord Rama speaking to Shabari, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 74.8)

By associating with devotees or reading the classic Vedic scriptures, one may ultimately decide to take up bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. The seeds of spirituality certainly can vary. Some are looking for ways to be more religious, while others are looking for that one thing that provides true happiness. Either way, simply taking the initial step and having a sincere desire for success are enough to guarantee the ultimate reward of practicing the ultimate spiritual discipline. But success doesn’t necessarily come overnight. Having the desire for self-realization is certainly nice, but perfection only comes through steady practice. Along the way, it is nice to measure our progress to see how we are doing in relation to our end-goal. In this regard, it is nice to have a series of questions we can ask ourselves, a way to tell if we are on the right path or if we are headed in the wrong direction. Thankfully, Lord Rama, an incarnation of the Supreme Godhead, through a series of questions posed to the great female sage Shabari, gave us precisely the checklist we are looking for.

Lord Rama Before going any further, it would be helpful to perform a quick review of how progress is measured in other areas of life. For students, progress is measured through homework assignments, term papers, and examinations. The exams carry the most weight, so it is important to perform well on them. Exams are important not only for elementary school students, but also for adults in the real world. If a person wants to become a lawyer, doctor, or certified accountant, they must pass a series of examinations which are quite difficult. Moreover, many vocations require professionals to keep taking exams every few years or so in order to demonstrate their proficiency.

These exams consist of questions relating to the subject matter that the examinees are supposed to know. For example, doctors are asked questions pertaining to medicine, lawyers are asked questions pertaining to logic and established law, and accountants are tested on their ability to audit financial statements and their ability to apply tax laws in the appropriate circumstances. Not only are students supposed to know the answers to these questions, but they also must understand the underlying concepts and how to apply them. This is where the exams take on their difficulty. Passing an important exam isn’t all about memorizing facts and regurgitating them on command.

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

Lord Krishna In order to gauge progress in spiritual life, exams are also required. But who will administer these tests? In the Vedic tradition, the spiritual master, or guru, is very important. In fact, Lord Krishna Himself states that without approaching a spiritual master, there is no chance of success. This logically makes sense, for without taking instruction from a qualified teacher of a particular subject, we would be unable to learn anything. One may argue that you could just as easily learn medicine or law by reading books, but even this method involves submission to a higher authority. After all, the books didn’t write themselves. Professors and other highly learned professionals of their field write these books for the benefit of future practitioners.

Vedic wisdom is best acquired through aural reception. The hearing process is the most effective for taking in any information; hence the Vedas were originally passed down through an oral tradition. The Vedas are also known as the shrutis, meaning that which is heard. Based on these facts, we can deduce that the best way to take up spiritual life is to hear from a spiritual master. In this past, young students would live at the gurukula, or the school run by the guru. In today’s world, gurukulas are hard to find, thus making it more difficult to find a bona fide spiritual master who can teach us. Therefore less conventional means have to be adopted, such as approaching a guru by consulting their written instruction or recorded words. In reality, this method can be just as effective as personal contact, for there is no difference between a guru and their instructions.

Shrila Prabhupada So let’s assume that we have approached a spiritual master by reading their books or listening to their recorded lectures. The most famous Vaishnava saint of the recent past is His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. He authored over fifty books and left behind hours and hours of recorded lectures and speeches. One can focus exclusively on Prabhupada’s teachings and have enough information to gain a perfect understanding of God and one’s relationship to Him. Prabhupada’s primary recommendation for aspiring transcendentalists was that they take up the process of regularly chanting God’s names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. This is the most important recommendation, for it is the most effective process of devotional service. Chanting engages the tongue and ears in religious life. By chanting this mantra at least sixteen rounds a day on a set of japa beads, much of one’s time becomes dedicated to serving Krishna. Along with this chanting routine, Prabhupada advised everyone to give up the four pillars of sinful life: meat eating, gambling, illicit sex, and intoxication.

Let’s say that we take up devotional service, trying to adhere to these guidelines. How do we know if we are progressing? The scriptures give us a list of the qualities a devotee should possess, so naturally we can consult this list and see if we are developing these qualities. This is certainly one way to gauge our progress, but how do we know if we are on the right track? This is the most important barometer, for if we are headed in the wrong direction, our activities are essentially a waste of time. In order to help us in our service, Lord Rama, an incarnation of God, posed a series of questions to the highly exalted female sage Shabari. Though these questions were directed at Shabari, we can ask them of ourselves as well.

Rama and Lakshmana At the time Lord Rama was roaming the forests of India with His younger brother Lakshmana. The Vedas tell us that Krishna is God’s original form, but that He expands Himself into various forms to perform activities on earth. Lord Rama was one such expansion, appearing as a handsome and pious prince of the Raghu dynasty. While living in the forest, Rama’s wife, Sita Devi, was kidnapped by the Rakshasa demon Ravana. Rama and Lakshmana went searching for Sita and along the way they were advised to visit Shabari.

Immediately upon seeing Rama and Lakshmana, Shabari, who was quite advanced in age, approached the two brothers and touched their feet. This is quite noteworthy because according to social conventions, Rama and Lakshmana, who were young men at the time, were inferiors to Shabari. She knew that Rama was the Supreme Personality of Godhead, so she had no qualms about offering obeissances to Him. Acknowledging her humble attitude, the Lord kindly asked her a series of questions relating to her progress in spiritual life.

Shabari welcoming Rama Lord Rama first asked Shabari if all hindrances to the performance of her asceticism were removed. Why is this important? In order to measure our progress, we have to see where we are in relation to the end-goal. In devotional service, which is the first class spiritual discipline, the end-goal is to go back to home, back to Godhead, after our current life is over. This end-goal relates to the current body, for the liberated soul actually never gives up service to the Lord even in the afterlife. The soul is imperishable, while the body is not. The body will eventually perish at the time of death, so the soul needs a place to go afterwards. Depending on our consciousness at the time of death, the soul either remains in the land of the perishable bodies, or it immediately ascends to the spiritual world, where it assumes an eternal spiritual body and associates with the Supreme Lord.

Getting a perishable body in the next life is not very difficult. We really don’t have to do anything, just simply eat, sleep, mate, and defend, and we are sure to get a body in the next life which will be subject to birth, old age, disease, and death. In order to get a spiritual body, we must engage in spiritual activities, i.e. devotional service. Desiring to take up this activity and actually practicing it perfectly are two different things. Therefore it is important to remove all hindrances to our performance of devotional service. Since devotional life is the antithesis of material life, it can be considered a form of austerity, or tapah. In this way, Lord Rama’s first question to Shabari related to her performance of tapasya. He was essentially asking her, “Are you able to perform your religious duties? Have you successfully removed obstacles that come your way?”

Japa mala Applying these same questions to our own life, we should see whether or not we have anything holding us back from chanting our rounds. Is there any one thing in particular that is keeping us from chanting regularly? Is there anything that is holding us back from abandoning meat eating or drinking alcohol? If there are, we must remove these things as soon as possible. This may seem like an extreme step, but the more anarthas, or unwanted things, we can remove, the sooner we will see progress in spiritual life.

Lord Rama’s next question was whether or not Shabari’s asceticism was growing stronger day by day. This one issue is so important that it could fuel discussions for days and days. When people take up weightlifting or bodybuilding, they often keep a journal to track their progress. They want to make sure that they are lifting heavier and heavier weights as time goes on. Otherwise, what is the point to bodybuilding? By the same token, our eagerness for devotional service should increase day by day. Otherwise, we are just going through the motions, or we are not engaging in our activities properly. Maybe there is something getting in our way and thus quelling our enthusiasm. Devotional service is all about love, so if our attachment to God is not steadily increasing, we aren’t really progressing. Eagerness in religious practice is an easy metric to measure. We simply have to compare where we currently are in our spiritual practice verses where we were in the past. For example, if we are chanting less rounds today than we did in the past, we are obviously not progressing. Our asceticism is getting weaker, so we need to change things. If the opposite is true, we are surely on the right path.

“As the embodied soul continually passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. The self-realized soul is not bewildered by such a change.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 2.13)

Lord Rama Lord Rama’s next two questions related to anger and eating habits. Anger is an emotion reserved for the weak. Anger doesn’t really help us perform any meaningful activities since it takes away our ability to think clearly. Realizing God and understanding His glories requires sobriety on our part. Intoxication takes away our sobriety and so does anger. Anger is the result of lust, which is the result of uncontrolled passions. Religious life is part of the mode of material goodness and hopefully pure goodness as well. Being in the modes of goodness and pure goodness shield us from the effects of the mode of passion. If after taking up spiritual life, our anger is increasing, it means that the mode of passion must still be very strong. One's control over their anger is indicative of progress in spiritual life.

Lord Rama asked Shabari if she was able to control her eating. Diet is one of the most difficult things to control. The tongue is always telling us to eat this and that, even though we know that if we eat too much, we will suffer the effects later on. The best way to control our eating habits is to try to eat just enough food required for our satiation and food which is Krishna prasadam. Prasadam is sanctified food which has first been offered with love and devotion to Krishna. Since offering and eating prasadam are spiritual practices, they automatically keep one’s eating habits regulated. In this way, taking stock of our eating habits represents yet another great way to judge our spiritual progress. If we are eating more today than we used to, or if we are unable to control the urges of the tongue, we likely need some more focus and dedication in our spiritual endeavors.

Shabari with Rama and Lakshmana Since the end-goal is to have association with Krishna, the best way to measure spiritual progress is to see how much Krishna is in our life. During the course of the day, how often do we think of the Lord? How often do we say His name, and how often do we do something specifically for His benefit? A good family man is one who spends time with their family members, offering them service through financial and emotional support. In a similar manner, a good devotee is one who spends as much time with Krishna as possible. The Lord is Absolute, so there is no difference between His personal form, His names, or books which describe His glories. Shabari's darshana of Rama and Lakshmana indicates that her practice of devotional service, through dedication to austerity and penance, was perfect. If we remain steady on the virtuous path, and take stock of our progress at periodic intervals, we too can see the Supreme Lord.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

…And Mercy For All

Lord Chaitanya dancing in front of Lord Jagannatha “She has fully absorbed her body, mind and life in Lord Jagannatha. Therefore she was unaware that she was putting her foot on My shoulder. Alas! How fortunate this woman is! I pray at her feet that she favor Me with her great eagerness to see Lord Jagannatha.” (Lord Chaitanya, Chaitanya Charitamrita, Antya 14.29-30)

Question: “Though Lord Chaitanya is often considered the most merciful incarnation of Godhead, I cannot find references in the scriptures to His inclusion of women. How did Lord Chaitanya’s mercy extend to women? ”

Answer: Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu is considered the most merciful incarnation of Godhead by those who have associated with Him in one form or another. This opinion is reinforced by the fact that His divinity is only hinted at in a few scriptures, thus keeping His fame and glory limited. This was the wish of Lord Chaitanya, for He wanted to give glory and importance to Lord Shri Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Lord Chaitanya is the only reputed incarnation of Godhead in recent times who openly told others not to worship Him and to instead worship Krishna, Rama, or any other non-different form of Lord Vishnu. Due to His extreme kindness, generosity, and tireless efforts to spread the holy names of the Lord around India, He was recognized for who He was: Krishna Himself. His mercy extended to everyone in the world, including countless generations who never met Him or were never alive during His time. This mercy most certainly extended to women as well.

Lord Chaitanya God is one. There can only be one Supreme Lord; otherwise there would be no God. If there were more than one God, then the concept of a supreme controller would be invalidated. Though there is only one God, He can take to countless forms and thus be addressed by an unlimited number of names. Just as there are multitudes of forms of living entities who each perform various activities, the Supreme Lord is also full of variegatedness. The material world is simply a shadow copy of the spiritual world. In order for there to be a shadow, there must be light. In the same way, in order for the world we live in to be considered a shadow, there must be an original realm, a universe which is full of light, energy, and knowledge. This realm is eternal and self-illuminating, thus making it an appropriate home for the original Personality of Godhead.

According to Vedic information, the original name and form for God is Krishna. Lord Shri Krishna is the most-attractive and most-opulent; hence He is also known as Bhagavan. We individual souls are part and parcel of Krishna, but we always remain inferior to Him. Part of our constitutional makeup consists of free-will and independence. Though we are inferior to God, we have full independence in our choice of association. Those wanting to remain in the company of the all-attractive Lord are allowed to do so in the spiritual world. Those desiring separation also have their wishes fulfilled. The seed of this desire for separation is the flawed premise that God is equal to the individual soul. With the false premise comes the false conclusion of the individual being able to accurately imitate and hopefully surpass the Lord’s abilities in the areas of creation, maintenance, and destruction.

Lord Krishna Since both the premise and conclusion are false, the desires that result cannot be acted out upon in the spiritual realm, the origin of light, knowledge, and truth. Rather, inferior activities require an inferior playing field. Thus the Lord kindly creates the material world, a place where the autonomous individual souls desiring separation are allowed to act out their hopes and dreams of imitating God. Though the individual soul is full of independence and free will, we see that this autonomy is limited in a sense. For instance, the Lord can never be directed to a false realm through any other entity’s desires or demands. The individual souls, however, once cast into the temporary and miserable realm, remain there until their desires become purified.

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

For the living entities, achieving this pure state is not very easy, so the Lord kindly descends to the temporary realm periodically to reinstitute the principles of religion and to aid the sincere souls in reclaiming their lost relationship with the Supreme. Dharma, in its context as the eternal spiritual occupational duty, was instituted in the material world by the Supreme Lord so as to allow the individual souls who mistakenly wished for separation to return to the spiritual realm. In this way, we see the real meaning of religion. When adherence to this dharma is absent, the individual soul is tossed around from one body to another through the laws of karma, which are enforced through the workings of nature. Possessing a contaminated consciousness, the individual soul can transmigrate from one body to another, from that of a fish to a dog, or even to a human being. Dharma only applies to the human being since only man can understand the difference between matter and spirit and the existence of a God. Therefore the human form of life is considered the most auspicious; it represents the best chance for the conditioned soul to become liberated from the cycle of birth and death.

Lord Rama The avatara, or incarnation of Godhead, is a symbol of the all-merciful nature of the Supreme Lord. Dharma seems nice in theory, but its practical application is often difficult to realize. Therefore to show others the true meaning behind dharma, the Lord descends as an avatara and makes good on the promises of the scriptures. Krishna’s two most famous incarnations are Lord Rama and Lord Krishna Himself, both of whom appeared on earth many thousands of years ago. Around five hundred years ago, Krishna appeared on earth in a concealed incarnation who took on the role of a preacher. When God comes to earth as a human being, He usually assumes the role of a warrior. This allows Him to provide protection to the innocent and those practicing devotional service, or bhagavata-dharma. Krishna is Bhagavan, and one who takes to worshiping Him is known as bhagavata. Those who take their dharma, or ultimate occupational duty in life, to be devotion to Bhagavan thus become adherents to bhagavata-dharma.

“I envy no one, nor am I partial to anyone. I am equal to all. But whoever renders service unto Me in devotion is a friend, is in Me, and I am also a friend to him.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 9.29)

The Lord is usually neutral towards all forms of life because everyone has, as their original sin so to speak, the desire to imitate Him. Since this desire is based off a false premise, the Lord has no liking or disliking of any particular conditioned entity. The devotees, however, ultimately realize the flawed nature of the material world and thus take to devotional service. Through this sincere desire they become endeared to the Lord, who then takes it upon Himself to ensure that their devotional practices go on uninterrupted. Around five hundred years ago, the practices of the Vaishnavas were being tainted by the onset of Kali Yuga, or the dark age of quarrel and hypocrisy. Followers of the Vedas were mostly taking to the monist philosophy known as Mayavada. This philosophy concludes that the individual souls are God themselves, but that they are simply unaware of it. Mayavada actually represents the nadir of material existence, the lowest stage of thinking that a person can descend to. Even an animal life is considered more beneficial than a human life which is mired in the mindset of Mayavada. The animals, in all their ignorance, would still never dare think themselves to be God. “God is me” is an accurate statement, but “I am God” certainly is not. If we are God, how did we end up in a conditioned state where we had to wear diapers in our early years of life? The monist thinking is surely foolish, yet due to the influence of Kali Yuga, the Mayavada philosophy became quite prominent in India around five hundred years ago.

Lord Chaitanya Along came Lord Chaitanya, a preacher incarnation of Krishna, to reestablish the real meaning of dharma, the ultimate conclusion of life. Lord Chaitanya, who assumed the guise of a brahmana, or one in the priestly order, established the ultimate conclusion of achintya-bhedabheda-tattva, which states that the individual souls are simultaneously one with and different from the Supreme Lord. They are equal to God in the sense that everything spiritual and material is part of the Lord’s energy. God can never be separated from His energies, thus the individual souls always remain part of the definition of God. At the same time, the individuals are not nearly as powerful as the Supreme, so they remain inferior to Him at all times.

Lord Chaitanya was unique in that He openly preached His philosophy to anyone who would listen. He taught the truth of simultaneous oneness and difference through the congregational chanting of the holy names of God, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. In order to expand His preaching efforts, Lord Chaitanya took to the renounced order of life, sannyasa. He left His wife and mother at home and roamed around India as a mendicant to give His mercy to anyone who was willing to hear the holy name. As a sannyasi, Lord Chaitanya strictly forbade Himself from associating with women. The sincere women who wanted to associate with Him were advised to offer their obeisances from afar. Lord Chaitanya’s sannyasi associates were also prohibited from having intimate association with women. Does this mean that Lord Chaitanya wasn’t merciful to women?

“Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu never even joked with others' wives. As soon as He saw a woman coming, He would immediately give her ample room to pass without talking.” (Chaitanya Bhagavata, Adi-khanda, Ch 15)

Lord Chaitanya as a sannyasi To understand Lord Chaitanya’s behavior, we have to understand the intricacies of the renounced order. The aim of human life is to rid ourselves of the desire to imitate God. This is done through rekindling our loving feelings towards Him. These feelings are aroused through the performance of devotional service. At the same time, our attachment to material nature is very strong. Attachment to sex life, the desire to associate with the opposite sex or the desire to act on the urges of the genitals, is the strongest. Therefore the entire Vedic system, dharma if you will, is focused on helping the individual break free of this attachment. From the time of birth all the way up until death, there are specific rules, regulations, and recommendations aimed at achieving the ultimate goal of life: Krishna consciousness. Those who are God conscious at the time of death get to ascend to the spiritual world, wherefrom they never have to return.

Sannyasa is the last stage of life. It is the spiritual institution where a person renounces everything except for service to Krishna. We can think of it as a purified form of retirement. When one is advanced in age, it means that death is coming closer. Therefore it becomes vitally important to adjust one’s behavior at this time to increase God consciousness. Strict sannyasa life can involve many different facets, but the most important regulation is the abstention from association with women. It is not divorce per se, but the husband separates from the wife permanently, leaving her in the care of the adult-aged children. This way the dependents are taken care of, leaving the man free to devote all his time towards pleasing Krishna.

Lord Chaitanya and associates Lord Chaitanya certainly didn’t need to take sannyasa. As the original Personality of Godhead Himself, He was untainted by maya, or the illusory energy governing the material world. Sex life is considered the greatest impediment towards spiritual enlightenment, the root cause behind the perpetual cycle of reincarnation. When sex life is used for begetting God conscious children, it is not tainted, but sex for any other purpose certainly is harmful. Therefore sex life is extremely regulated under the system of dharma instituted by Krishna. Though the restriction on association with women helps a transcendentalist escape the pitfalls of sex life, sannyasa actually has two other more important benefits, both of which apply to the area of preaching.

The first benefit to sannyasa is that of mobility. Who among us wouldn’t like to travel the world and visit different places? What keeps us from doing this? Obviously, our jobs, livelihoods, and family life keep us tied down. These three things bind us to our current location and limit our mobility. By taking to sannyasa, one gives up their mundane work and attachment to family and home. In this way, sannyasis are free to roam about the world. To meet the basic demands of the body, they must beg. It is strange in a sense that the highest stage of spiritual enlightenment involves begging for a living. Again, this facilitates the mobility aspect and also maintains the humility of the devotee. If we are humble at the time of death, we are more likely to think of the maintainer, the true provider for our sustenance: Shri Krishna.

Goswami Tulsidas Now of course there are some who abuse this system of charity and benevolence for their own benefit. They take to sannyasa so that they don’t have to work for a living. Ah, but the Vedas didn’t overlook this potential for abuse, for they even accounted for such a cheating mindset. The rules of sannyasa are very strict, especially when it comes to the area of begging. A sannyasi isn’t supposed to go to a home where he is expected to get plenty of food. Moreover, he is not to take more than he needs for that particular meal. In the sannyasa ashrama, there is no concept of stocking up food for a rainy day. There really isn’t anywhere to put the reserve food anyway, since the mendicant has no fixed placed of residence. On the next day of begging, the sannyasi is to pick a new home, a place he hasn’t visited recently. Goswami Tulsidas, the great Vaishnava poet and devotee of Lord Rama, took to the renounced order of life and really had no problem adhering to this system of begging. In fact, in his Dohavali, he mentions that his life was peaceful when he lived simply off begging, but as soon as he gained a little fame due to the popularity of his poetry, his peaceful life became disturbed. This was because people started offering him so many gifts, including food, as thanks for his wonderful poetry in praise of Rama. When one eats too much, their digestive balance gets altered.  This imbalance negatively affects other areas of life as well. Tulsidas was a little agitated that his sannyasa lifestyle was altered due to the abundance of food he was receiving. This is a little humorous in a sense, since it shows that no good deed goes unpunished.  People loved Tulsidas so much that they didn’t want him to have to beg for anything.  They were willing to give the world to him as thanks for his praise of Shri Rama.  Lord Chaitanya faced similar issues, as many well-wishers would often donate loads of sumptuous food to Him.  The wives of His associates would prepare the most tasty sweets and prasadam meals and then offer them to Him when they would see Him.

The other more important benefit to sannyasa is gravitas, or reputation. A first class sannyasi is a preacher. He goes door to door begging for food, and in exchange he offers the householder sound words of advice from the Vedas. The ultimate instruction in the Vedas is that one should be attached to God instead of material nature. This message is so powerful and rooted in logic that anyone can preach it. Krishna consciousness is not dependent on any outward dress or position in life. Whether a person is a man, woman, child, sannyasi, or householder, they are equally as eligible for returning back home, back to Godhead. Yet as we all know, anyone who takes to preaching or teaching is bound to be up for scrutiny. Leeches, naysayers, and the lowest of mankind don’t want to surrender unto the Supreme Lord. Since their ultimate conclusions are not based on any logical truths or reality, they have no way to cut down the arguments of the bona fide preachers. Therefore they will take to ad hominem attacks, going after the character of those preaching the message of universal love and respect for Krishna.

Ad hominem attacks are most prevalent in the arena of politics. Such tactics are deemed fallacies because they don’t tackle the issues in question. For example, if Person A says “Be devoted to Krishna”, and Person B counters with, “Person A is fat and thus can’t be trusted”, they haven’t really addressed the claims made by Person A. In the same way, the message of the Vedas is pure and uncontaminated, so anyone who teaches it to others surely is doing the greatest service to mankind. Yet others will undoubtedly take to attacking their character as a way of cutting down arguments.

Shrila Prabhupada - an ideal sannyasi In the political arena, the attacks often focus on the friends and family members of the people running for office. “Oh so and so has a daughter who had a child out of wedlock…Such and such person was involved in extramarital affairs…Such and such person doesn’t know how many homes they own…Such and such person is too young.” In a similar manner, non-devotees will attack devotees of Krishna for being attached to family life, work, and women. The sannyasa ashrama provides the best possible insulation from these attacks. You can’t attack someone for being attached to sex life if they live as a mendicant without any family. You can’t attack someone for being attached to fruitive activity if they don’t work for anyone. You can’t attack someone for being attached to vanity and material possessions if they have a shaved head and walk around wearing a saffron robe. The only instances where personal attacks aren’t necessarily fallacies is when they relate to hypocrisy. If a political figure or preacher says one thing, but then doesn’t abide by their own teachings, it takes away from their message and the honesty of their character.

Sannyasa gave Lord Chaitanya gravitas amongst the other sectors of society. Lord Chaitanya obviously didn’t need to renounce anyone or anything for His own salvation, but since He wanted to teach others about Krishna consciousness, He wanted to establish a good reputation. Goswami Tulsidas’ wife sternly rebuked him one time for being too attached to her. Taking her words to heart, Tulsidas immediately accepted the renounced order of life and never looked back. A sannyasi is strictly prohibited from having intimate association with women, for adherence to this restriction is the greatest source of their gravitas, next to the actual message they are preaching. Lord Chaitanya associated with many other devotees and granted them His mercy. Though He stayed away from women in public, He still encountered a few every now and then. Most of them were wives of His close friends and associates. The Vedas instruct us to view every woman, except our own wife, as our mother.

“Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu said to Govinda, ‘O adi-vasya [uncivilized man], do not forbid this woman to climb the Garuda-stambha. Let her see Lord Jagannatha to her satisfaction.’” (Chaitanya Charitamrita, Antya 14.26)

What’s ironic is that a woman actually once touched Lord Chaitanya by accident when He was a sannyasi. She was in the temple of Lord Jagannatha, and since she was so eager to see the deity, she climbed on top of a column to get a better view. In so doing, her feet accidentally touched Lord Chaitanya. The Lord’s associates thought that He would get angry over such an offense, but instead, He appreciated the woman’s level of devotion. This shows that Shri Gaurahari certainly didn’t exclude women from the practice of devotional service.

Lord JagannathaA stereotype attached to Vedic life is that women are somehow subjugated, or treated as second class citizens. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The “subjugated” term is quite humorous in a sense. Any individual soul who is trapped in a material body is referred to as dehinam in Sanskrit, which means embodied. This speaks to the fact that there is no concept of freedom in the material world. Free will is a characteristic of the soul, but the results of free action are in the hands of the divine forces. Every person, man, woman, animal, plant, etc., is a slave to the forces of nature. This is evidenced by the fact that none of us can control the time of our death. We have no idea when death will come, nor do we know any way to stop it.

Even though every living entity is embodied, they take on different material qualities based on past work and desire. Therefore each person has natural activities they are suited for, and if these activities are performed in accordance with dharma, one remains completely on the liberated path. For women, their dharma is to stay under the protection of their father, husband, or eldest son. For the men, their duty is to provide complete protection to their dependents, which include wives and children.

At first glance, this seems like a sort of slavery or forced dependence. As mentioned before, there is no such thing as independence in an embodied form. Rather, true independence can only come from dependence on the right entity. Society is at peace when the brahmanas, the priestly class, are completely dependent on Krishna for everything. The king is then dependent on the brahmanas, the male head of the family on the king, the wife on the husband, the child on the mother, etc. In this way, there is an intricate chain of dependency that has at its root the Supreme Lord.

Sita Devi Vedic literature is full of examples of chaste and devoted women who had complete knowledge on spirituality and devotion to Krishna. Though women such as Kunti Devi, Sita Devi, Savitri, and Arundhati were all “subjugated” under today’s definition, they were completely independent in their thoughts and deeds. True independence comes from dependence on the Lord. The modern day notion of independence has only led to disaster for both men and women. The women are now left to be exploited by the men wanting easy sex life, and the men are tied down to worldly life due to their unsatisfied sexual desires. In the Vedic system where the men and women know their roles in marriage, there is ample time for spiritual life and the acquisition of knowledge pertaining to the soul and the meaning of life.

Goswami Tulsidas states that when the servant properly serves the master, they actually surpass the master in stature. As an example, he points to the fact that Lord Hanuman leaped over the ocean to Lanka, while Lord Rama walked across a bridge. Lord Rama, a famous incarnation of Krishna, had to rescue His wife Sita Devi from the island kingdom of Lanka. Enlisting the help of a band of Vanaras, Rama was able to have a bridge constructed, which allowed Him to cross the ocean and take on Sita’s captor, Ravana, in battle. Shri Hanuman, the most faithful and dear servant of Rama, had previously leapt his way to Lanka and found Sita’s whereabouts. Since Hanuman was the most sincere servant, Rama allowed him to become more exalted than Himself.

Hanuman performing devotional service This is the secret behind devotional service. When we declare full dependence on the Lord, He actually takes the necessary steps to make us greater than Himself. This is all done through His effort. Lord Chaitanya, though a sannyasi who avoided the association of women, established that the highest practitioners of bhakti-yoga are the gopis of Vrindavana. This is not a mistake; Lord Chaitanya declared that the most exemplary devotees, those we should all model our services after, are cowherd girls, those who are considered unintelligent by the material estimation. Since the gopis of Vrindavana renounced everything and everyone, including their husbands, in favor of serving Krishna, their love for Him remains unmatched. Since they completely became dependent on Krishna for everything, they became fully independent in their love. The gopis’ love for Krishna is so strong that not even Krishna Himself can stop them from serving Him. Usually we engage in loving service to please someone else. In spiritual life, the person we are trying to please is Krishna. So it would make sense that if He asked us to stop serving Him, we’d listen. The gopis, however, are so convinced of the superiority of loving service to the Lord that even when Krishna tries to stop them for whatever reason, they refuse.

Gopis dancing with Krishna Though Lord Chaitanya abided by the regulations of the sannyasa order to maintain the good standing of His preaching, His mercy still reached everyone. Anyone who has ever chanted Hare Krishna has received the mercy of Lord Chaitanya. The true depth of His love for humanity can never fully be known, but the more we understand Him, the more we will realize just how kind and merciful He was. Many brahmanas of His time did not like His teaching methods. Krishna is known as brahmanya-devaya, or the God of the brahmanas. Since Lord Chaitanya was freely distributing love for Krishna to all of society, many brahmanas did not like that they had to now share Krishna with others. Thus Lord Chaitanya was often criticized and ridiculed by the unintelligent. In order to maintain the good name of His movement, Lord Chaitanya took care to always display exemplary behavior. This ensured that as many people as possible would take to the chanting of the holy names of the Lord, the only effective religious practice for this age. Any person, regardless of their race or gender, can receive Lord Chaitanya’s mercy by chanting the names of Krishna and Rama and by hearing about God’s wonderful pastimes found in books like the Shri Chaitanya Charitamrita. Shri Gaurahari is the most merciful incarnation of Godhead, and His mercy is for everyone.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

What I’m Looking For

Sita and Rama "O best of men, what is the use of Your destroying the entire world? After finding out Your sinful enemy, You should uproot him alone." (Lakshmana speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 66.21)

This statement was uttered by Lakshmana, the beautiful, compassionate, and kind incarnation of Lord Ananta Shesha Naga, the celestial serpent who serves as the resting place for all the planets of the world and also for Lord Vishnu, or God. Ananta means that which has no end, and in this context, it references the unlimited hoods possessed by Anantadeva. Lakshmana, as a powerful incarnation of this divine servant, similarly possesses a limitless desire to defend and protect Lord Rama, an incarnation of Vishnu.

Lord Vishnu with Ananta Shesha Naga Why would God need protecting? The Lord doesn’t require any security, but nevertheless, He enjoys receiving service from His devotees every now and then. God is the head honcho, the “top dog” in charge of everything. Naturally, the topmost person doesn’t require anything from anyone else, but he certainly likes to be complimented and praised from time to time. In pretty much any business, the boss isn’t a very popular person. This dislike is not personal; the boss is the person in charge, so naturally the subordinates will want to complain every now and then. Complaints aren’t lodged against those that are powerless; they will be directed at the person who has absolute authority or someone who has more power than the person doing the complaining. God is the ultimate authority, so it makes sense that people would lodge many complaints against Him, being unhappy that He put them into various unwanted circumstances.

As much as we may dislike our bosses, it is a reality that a business runs smoothly when the subordinates are properly serving the superiors. If every person was on an equal footing, nothing would get done because there would be an absence of leadership. If one worker were to ask another worker of equal status to perform some task, there is no guarantee that the job would get done. Equals have no authority over one another, so there is nothing stopping a person from refusing to do the task which was asked of them. When there is service offered to the superior, things run more efficiently, the subordinates are happy, and so is the boss.

“My dear Lord Krishna, I do not want material wealth from You, nor do I want followers, a beautiful wife or the results of fruitive activities. I only pray that by Your causeless mercy You give Me pure devotional service to You, life after life.” (Lord Chaitanya, Chaitanya Charitamrita, Antya 20.30)

Lord ChaitanyaThe cohesiveness of a properly functioning work environment essentially mimics the operations of the universe in relation to God. The employer-employee relationship can serve as an analogy to the relationship between God and His devotees, but the paradigm isn’t exactly the same since there is an inherent expectation of reciprocation of service in the workplace. The employee serves the boss, provided that the boss gives payment. Since pure love for God doesn’t work this way, it is known as Krishna-prema. Prema can be translated to mean love, but it is even more purified than that. Prema means serving God without any desire for reciprocation. Lord Chaitanya, God’s most recent incarnation to appear on earth, kindly gave us the example of how to be a perfect devotee. Though He didn’t leave many written instructions, He offered a nice prayer which essentially says that He has no desire for any material opulences or fame. He simply desires to be engaged in the Lord’s service. This is the definition of prema.

Lakshmana, being a perfect devotee, also adopted this prema mentality. During the Treta Yuga, the second time period of creation, the original Personality of Godhead came to earth in the guise of a pious prince named Rama. The eldest son of the King of Ayodhya, Rama had many duties and responsibilities to tend to, including that of protecting His beautiful and chaste wife Sita Devi. On one unfortunate occasion, Sita was kidnapped from the forest by the Rakshasa demon Ravana. Rama and Lakshmana weren’t with her at the time, so they didn’t realize she was missing until after she had been taken away. Realizing that Sita was gone, Rama frantically searched for her whereabouts. Unable to find her, Rama gave way to lamentation, followed by anger. He was ready to destroy the entire world as punishment for Sita’s abduction. He couldn’t believe that someone would want to harm such a kind and peaceful person. Rama, being an exemplary government leader and warrior, was very generous. Prior to leaving for the forest, many brahmanas [priests] approached Him and asked for benedictions. Lord Rama kindly donated all His wealth to them, reminding the brahmanas that there was no limit to what He would give out in charity to those who depended on Him.

Lord Rama Lord Rama was angry at Himself for not being able to protect Sita, and He was also angry at all the other living entities who stood by and did nothing while she was taken away. The trees, flowers, deer, and other forms of life in the forest, with the exception of the bird Jatayu, did nothing as Sita was taken away. Now obviously Rama was a little aggrieved, so He wasn’t thinking rationally. These other life forms really had no ability to defend Sita, but the Lord’s sentiments remind us of an important fact. Any material body which has a soul inside it should be considered a form of life. There is no difference between the qualities of souls, just a difference in the types of bodies they occupy.

Since Rama was so angry, He was intent on firing a powerful arrow from His quiver that would destroy all of creation. Only God is capable of doing this. Through the perfect recitation of mantras, Rama’s arrows could pack the power of the greatest modern day nuclear weapon. At this time, Lakshmana stepped in and offered some sound words of advice. He reminded Rama that there was no reason to lament, nor was there any reason to destroy the whole world. After all, there was only one person responsible for Sita’s kidnapping, and thus only one person worthy of being sought out and punished.

When we hear of worshiping God and devotional service, it’s natural to conjure up images of prostrating before a deity, attending a church or temple, and reading scriptures. While these are all certainly components of devotional service, what really constitutes devotional life is love, or prema. By kindly offering instructions, Lakshmana was also engaging in devotional service, showing his pure love for his brother. Since God is the original person, He is also the original teacher, the first spiritual master. Thus no one is capable of instructing Him. Lakshmana indeed acknowledged this fact by reminding Rama that the instructions he was speaking were initially spoken by Rama Himself. More than anything else, Lakshmana was acting like a tape recorder in playback mode. A devotee’s intellect is capable of functioning like a portable music player which consists only of instructions given by the Lord. In this way, Lakshmana was an exemplary younger brother, warrior prince, teacher, and student.

Fighting in Lanka What did Lord Rama do after receiving this advice? He kindly accepted the instructions of his brother and went about searching for Sita. Eventually the Lord would find what He was looking for. After defeating Ravana in a fair battle, the Lord finally rescued Sita and brought her to safety. Rama was so kind that He made sure to take Ravana on in an open battle. The Lord didn’t lob an arrow from thousands of feet away and destroy his kingdom. The evil elements in Ravana’s kingdom were eventually destroyed anyway by Hanuman and the other Vanaras helping Rama, but the Lord wanted to give Ravana an honest fight, a fair chance to win Sita.

These incidents can teach us so many lessons. We are all in a distressed condition, even if we are unaware of it. During the 1970s, when many Americans were turning to Krishna consciousness and becoming devotees, those who didn’t understand the movement would often say that the young boys were lost. “They didn’t know what to do in life, so they took up this strange religion where they shaved their heads and started chanting in airports.” This is certainly an interesting viewpoint, but it also begs the question of how someone who has nowhere to go can be considered lost.

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

Those who don’t know they are lost, the karmis, think that life is going swell for them. Life may indeed be fine in a material sense, but what will happen to their souls after death? We all make plans for the future, either the next day, month, or year, but what about the afterlife? How many of us plan out where our soul will end up next? “Who knows where we go after death? Why should I concern myself with something that is unexplainable?” Karma refers to actions which develop the material body, the outer covering of the soul. Basically anything we do to better our material condition can be considered part of karmic activity, or fruitive action. The rewards of life can be grouped into three general categories: artha [economic development], kama [sense gratification], and dharma [religiosity]. We can think of karmic life as the search for a sea of gold. “One day I will have enough money so that I won’t have to worry about eating, sleeping, or paying bills. Then I will be able to gratify my senses and be happy.”

“The living entity in the material world carries his different conceptions of life from one body to another as the air carries aromas.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 15.8)

Lord Krishna In this search for the sea of gold, we often find ourselves in cold situations. We find something that we think will make us happy, but it turns out to be the source of so much pain in the end. Even those who are rich and famous find struggles in life. Dharma, artha, and kama aren’t guaranteed to provide us any real happiness, for they only aim to please the material body, a body which is destined for destruction. Upon destruction of the current body, a new one is molded based on a person’s desires and work. So in this sense, we can say those who don’t devote themselves to God are actually the ones who are lost. The greatest obstacle towards success lies in the fact that most of us don’t realize that we are lost, for we are unaware of the intended destination.

Devotional service How do we alleviate the situation? How do we find the right path in life? Just like in Lord Rama’s case, there is something impeding our success, an enemy who has caused us pain. This enemy is known as maya, or the illusory energy of the material world. Maya means “that which is not”; hence she causes us to think we’ll be happy associating with her, when in reality we really won’t. In order to find the proper path to rescue our soul, we have to defeat the soldiers of maya’s army: lust, greed, and anger. One who can control their senses is known as dhira, or sober, and can thus better understand the position of the soul and how it relates to God.

The great authorities, the pure devotees of Krishna, tell us to take up devotional service. We must commit ourselves to regularly chanting, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, and avoid the four pillars of sinful life: meat eating, gambling, illicit sex, and intoxication. Our execution of devotional service must be unmotivated and uninterrupted. Unmotivated in this context means without any personal desire. For example, we shouldn’t worship God in hopes of a return reward such as material wealth. We can most certainly be motivated in our service, for without desire no one would take any action. But our motivation must be on the spiritual level, where we maintain a desire to serve the Lord to the best of our abilities.

Rama Darbar After Rama defeated Ravana, His reward was the safe rescue of His wife. In a similar manner, our reward for executing devotional service is that God will be in our life all the time. Once we get Him, we should never let Him go; devotional service should remain our occupation eternally. This was the example set by Lakshmana, Sita, and Hanuman. They are eternally existing, and their only business is to go wherever Rama goes, or wherever His name is chanted. Thus by taking up devotional service, not only will we find God, but the great devotees will find us as well.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Potential For Intelligence

Radha and Krishna “Indeed, human life begins when religion begins. Eating, sleeping, fearing, and mating are the four principles of animal life. These are common both to animals and to human beings. But religion is the extra function of the human being. Without religion, human life is no better than animal life.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 1.1.2 Purport)

The true benefit of human life lies in the area of intelligence. The key distinction between the animal species and the human being is that man has the potential to acquire intelligence that far surpasses that of any other species’. Yet if this potential is not realized, the valuable human form of life goes to waste. Therefore it is vital that we take the necessary steps to acquire the right type of knowledge through hearing from the right source. This knowledge leads to the maximum realization of intelligence, a condition which results in the maximum benefit in the afterlife.

Krishna book What separates the exercise of spirituality from any other endeavor is that it is forward thinking. In other pursuits, there is an end-goal, a specific time when our work will be completed. While this time may be one week into the future or even one hundred years, the time span is relatively small in the grand scheme of things. Spirituality deals with the plight of the soul - a soul which is ever-existing, unchangeable, and undying. In the Bhagavad-gita, the famous discourse on spirituality given by the great master Himself, Lord Krishna, we learn that the soul never takes birth, nor does it ever die. After each life is over - when a living entity is deemed dead- the soul remains unchanged. The future destination of the soul is the area of concern for the discipline of spirituality. Since the soul exists forever, the destination it can reach can also exist eternally.

What does this mean exactly? The conditioned individual souls are currently residing in a temporary realm. Similar to how a life form develops from a fetus to a child and then to an adult, the world we live in goes through cycles of creation and destruction. Since there are set times for the birth and death of the universe, the realm must be considered a temporary place. Yet this doesn’t square with the idea of the eternal soul. Therefore we can deduce that there must be a more permanent home for the soul, a place where it can remain forever. This is precisely the area of concern for spirituality, or at least it should be.

“O best among the Bharatas [Arjuna], four kinds of pious men render devotional service unto Me—the distressed, the desirer of wealth, the inquisitive, and he who is searching for knowledge of the Absolute.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 7.16)

Bhagavad-gita Can spirituality be practiced incorrectly? As we all know, not every religious system or leader is the same. People take to religion for different reasons. For example, one person may have an ultimate objective of cleaning up the environment. They are distraught over the constant pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuels, the chopping down of trees, and the overall advancement in technology. While on their own they may be able to convince others of the possibility of an environmental utopia, the message would be much more effective if it was presented through the prism of religion. Therefore such people may take to religion, finding the set of scriptures and beliefs that substantiate their claims about the environment. This example only applies to a select few people, but the principle can be expanded out to pretty much anyone who takes to spirituality. One person is looking for benedictions such as wealth, beauty, and fame, while another is looking for ascension to a heavenly realm where there is a heightened level of sense enjoyment. Another person may be sick and tired of the repetitious nature of life, so they take to religion in the hopes of ending all activity.

“…Due to the great variety of desires and natures among human beings, there are many different theistic philosophies of life, which are handed down through tradition, custom and disciplic succession. There are other teachers who directly support atheistic viewpoints.” (Lord Krishna, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 11.14.8)

Lord Krishna While there are various religious systems which have different ultimate objectives, the Vedas inform us that the true mission for all spirit souls is to return back to the transcendental realm where God resides in His personal form. This realm is different from the common conception of heaven. The world we live in is generally portrayed in a negative light; it is seen as a temporary and miserable place. Therefore heaven automatically becomes a place where just the opposite situation is seen. With these two polar opposites, what wise person wouldn’t choose heaven over earth? While there are certainly other planets which are considered heavenly, i.e. places where there is a heightened level of enjoyment, any planet that gets created and destroyed must be considered on the same level. The realm of the Personality of Godhead, the person many of us refer to as “God”, is the only place where birth and death of any kind do not occur. Therefore this realm, the place where God resides alongside His liberated associates, is the only permanent home for the soul, the ultimate destination for the seekers of the Truth.

Discovering the return path to this realm is the true mission for all souls residing on earth and any other heavenly or hellish planet. Yet not everyone will realize this goal right away, since not every form of life possesses the same level of intelligence. Vedic information is so nice because it provides both comprehensive and summary level information. On the comprehensive side of things, we are informed that there are 8,400,000 different species in the world, with each specific body type determined by an individual’s qualities and their desire for work. On the summary level side of things, we are informed that the species which mainly take to eating, sleeping, mating, and defending, can be categorized as animals. Out of all of these species, the human being is considered superior due to its level of intelligence.

Shrila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura If an animal focuses its time on eating and sleeping, and at the same time is considered less intelligent than the human being, it must be concluded that the human beings aren’t meant to spend all of their time eating and sleeping. The Vedic seers, the great saints of the past who put the transcendental sound vibrations of the Vedas into written word, inform us that the true benefit of the human form of body lies in the area of intelligence. It is through the development of intelligence, which comes about through experience and the acquisition of knowledge, that the human being realizes that there is more to life than just imitating the animals. Moreover, the ultimate objective is not to simply shift the focus away from animalistic activities. Rather, a higher level of intelligence is meant to benefit the plight of the spirit soul. Only the most intelligent are capable of taking the necessary steps towards realizing the ultimate goal of returning to the imperishable spiritual sky.

It should be noted here that the difference between human beings and any other species really relates to the potential for intelligence. For example, at the time of birth, an infant is less intelligent than many adult-aged animals. A small child cannot walk, talk, or feed itself. It is completely dependent on its parents for these essential activities. On the other side, we have the animals who can eat, sleep, mate, and defend. Even though they have no understanding of God or the existence of a soul, an animal knows how to find food, how to erect a dwelling, how to take rest, and how to defend itself from attackers. The human being is considered superior because, in a mature state, it has the ability to surpass the level of intelligence of the animal’s.

Intelligence is acquired through education, but not all instruction is the same. In a typical university, there are different departments of knowledge which are tailored to the different interests of the students’. One student may take an interest in chemistry, while another focuses on music. While this sort of education certainly has its place and value, the end-result is simply a heightened level of enjoyment in animalistic activities. The brain may be stimulated a little more, but the only tangible result is a more comfortable way of eating, sleeping, mating, and defending. While this kind of education essentially keeps a person on a neutral footing with animals as far as intelligence goes, there are other kinds of education which can actually be detrimental. For example, through bad association, taking education from the wrong source, a person can learn how to make bombs, kill innocent people, and even steal from others.

Shri Hanuman - an exalted Vaishnava Our true potential for intelligence cannot be realized simply through any form of education. Rather, we must gather the right set of facts, absorbing those vital pieces of information that will help the plight of our soul. In order for this to happen, we must hear from the right source. Our teachers must already possess a heightened level of intelligence, being fully cognizant of the differences between species and the ultimate objective in life. These teachers are known as Vaishnavas, or devotees of Vishnu. God is one, but He has different names and forms based on time and circumstance. In the imperishable spiritual realm, the original form of Godhead, Lord Krishna, resides. In another planetary system in the same realm lives Krishna’s four-armed expansion of Lord Vishnu. Since there is no difference between Vishnu and Krishna, devotees of either are referred to as Vaishnavas.

Whether one refers to the Almighty as Krishna, Vishnu, or some other authorized name, the ultimate objective remains the same; that of returning to the Lord’s spiritual realm. The Vaishnavas possess the highest level of intelligence because they learned the imperishable science of devotional service from their own teachers who were Vaishnavas. If we ascend this chain of teachers all the way to the top, we’ll eventually reach the original source of knowledge: God. The science of devotional service, or bhakti-yoga, is the topmost education, the only discipline worth learning about and taking up. This sublime engagement helps the individual soul realize its true potential, putting the final pieces of the puzzle into place.

What separates bhakti-yoga from any other educational discipline? Devotional service deals exclusively with God. The perfect execution of devotional service also allows a person to acquire all the knowledge they need to be able to eat, sleep, defend, and mate comfortably. The necessities of life are still met, while the highest level of intelligence is acquired. The quintessential act of devotional service is the chanting of the holy names of God, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”.

Radha Krishna The animals aren’t able to chant this sacred mantra. They aren’t able to conceive of a God or realize the futility of the pursuit for sense gratification. They can’t understand the concepts of reincarnation and the eternal nature of the soul. Animals aren’t able to comprehend the existence of an imperishable spiritual sky where the level of enjoyment is a million times greater than that experienced in the perishable universe. Only the human being has the ability to understand these higher concepts. Therefore we should immediately take the necessary steps to acquaint ourselves with our best friend, Lord Krishna. An exalted Vaishnava can be approached in person or through consultation with their written and recorded instructions. Regardless of the nature of the interaction, the humble approach must be there on our side. Through adopting the discipline of devotional service, our true potential for intelligence can certainly be realized.