Saturday, October 23, 2010

Chief of the Gods

Lord Rama “O best of men, today, by worshiping You - Rama who is the greatest of all the gods - my religious practices have become fruitful and my ascension to the heavenly realm will surely take place.” (Shabari speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 74.12)

Herein we get one of the most concise descriptions about spiritual life and what is needed for success. There are many religious systems, or dharmas, that people adopt over the course of their many lifetimes on earth, but there is one method of worship, and also one object of worship, that stands head and shoulders above all others. Those who worship Lord Krishna, or one of His Vishnu expansions such as Lord Narayana or Rama, achieve all the opulences and benedictions available to those who practice other religious systems. Not only is Narayana the chief among the gods, but the rewards bestowed to His devotees are also foremost.

Lord Rama Why would we want rewards from God? Activity is sparked by personal interest. Unless there is something in it for us, why would we take to a particular activity? Even acts of charity and general altruism have personal motives built into them. “I will give in charity so that one day they can find a cure to cancer or other deadly disease. I will help the downtrodden so that their suffering will end. In this way, I will feel better and so will the recipients of my charity.” Even this perceived unselfishness has a hidden agenda behind it. By the same token, spiritualists also look for personal benefits. The driving force to all activity is the potential for enjoyment.

Enjoyment has two aspects to it. The first part involves the removal of distresses. The Vedas tell us that all miseries in life come from one of three sources. Adhibhautika miseries come from other living entities. Bhautika refers to bhuta, which means a living entity. These miseries are easy to identify. We run into someone during the day that is mean to us, or maybe we see another person that wants to steal our possessions. In extreme cases there is war, government tyranny, or oppression. These are all adhibhautika miseries. The second kind of misery is that which comes from our own body and mind; hence it is referred to as adhyatmika. Adhyamta refers to the soul, the spirit inside of us which causes all of our activities. Every action we perform has a commensurate reaction; hence we feel either happy or sad depending on the nature of the result. Our own body can cause us great grief, either through diseases or through mental agony. If the love of our life suddenly leaves us or if we don’t do well on a test, the resulting sadness is very difficult to overcome. The third kind of misery is that which comes about from Mother Nature. Earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, etc. are all part of nature’s workings. The Vedas refer to these miseries as Adhidaivika. This nature has some intelligence behind it though.

Demigods The word “adhidaivika” means that which comes from daiva, or the divine. Daiva is derived from the word deva, which means a god or a celestial being. The common misconception associated with Hinduism is that it involves many gods. This is indeed true, but at the same time, it is misleading. There are many devas, but there is only one chief God, or Supreme Personality of Godhead. If there is one God, why are there so many devas? This brings us back to the issue of enjoyment. We experience varieties of enjoyment and happiness in this world, but actually there is a place where the level of enjoyment is much higher. Enjoyment involves the removal of distress and also an object from which one derives pleasure. Normally these objects are of the material variety: clothes, jewels, money, sex life, etc. We see these objects in our everyday life, but they all actually originate elsewhere. We can think of life on earth as a reflection of something that exists in the real form somewhere else. That somewhere is heaven, the planetary system above ours.

The devas reside in heaven. They live a much more opulent lifestyle than we do. Devas also live for much longer than we do. The original deva, the first created living entity, is Lord Brahma. He lives for billions and billions of years. He is the oldest person in the world and his associates are also very old. Since they are elevated living entities, the devas, who are also known as demigods, reside on heavenly planets where there is an abundance of gold, women, jewels, and other opulences. Heaven exists for those who are interested in advanced material enjoyment. Ascension to heaven isn’t easy, for it requires the performance of many great sacrifices, or yajnas, and adherence to piety.

“Those who study the Vedas and drink the soma juice, seeking the heavenly planets, worship Me indirectly. They take birth on the planet of Indra, where they enjoy godly delights.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 9.20)

Lord Krishna The desire to ascend to heaven is quite natural. The threefold miseries of life can get to be too much for us after a while. We want a way out, a place to go where we won’t have to feel miserable anymore. In addition, we’d like to have a place where life can be enjoyed to the fullest. In this respect, there are many sacrifices and other activities prescribed for those with heavenly aspirations. Most of these recommendations can be found in the karma-kanda section of the Vedas. Karma refers to fruitive activity and kanda means a section or branch. Other religious systems have similar rituals and practices aimed at delivering one to the heavenly planets.

As mentioned before, there is a chief deva, or celestial figure. This is the person most of us refer to as God. Unlike the demigods, however, God has His own planetary system where He resides. Why is this? God has nothing to do with material life. He is above the so-called enjoyment that comes through association with matter. Just as the enjoyment on earth is a reflection of the enjoyment that exists in heaven, the opulences in heaven are simply a reflection of the imperishable riches that exist in the spiritual world where God resides. This reflection isn’t complete, but rather it is inverted, or even perverted. The distinction is made because real enjoyment can only come through association with God, who is also known as Lord Krishna. The word Krishna means all-attractive, thus anyone who associates with the all-attractive will surely feel the greatest enjoyment. If we are attracted to something, we will naturally derive some enjoyment out of it. The more attractive something is, the happier it will make us once we associate with it. Since God is the most attractive, it stands to reason that association with Him will give us a feeling of bliss that we’ve never felt before.

IMG_0221 Based on this information, we can conclude that the highest religious practice is that which takes us towards achieving association with the original God. While we can compare the levels of enjoyment on the different planetary systems, there really is no way to quantify the enjoyment felt on the spiritual platform. There is real enjoyment, that which comes through association with Krishna, and false, or illusory, enjoyment. Currently we only know about the illusory enjoyment. We are so illusioned by objects of matter that we think that going to the heavenly planets of the devas will make us happier than we are now. In the eyes of a conditioned entity the demigods certainly do enjoy on a higher level, but even their time there is limited. Eventually everything in this material creation will be destroyed. The same can’t be said of God’s spiritual world.

So how do we associate with God? We know how to perform sacrifices and offer prayers in hopes of a better condition in life, but how do we take the necessary steps to achieve Krishna’s personal association? Thankfully for us, the Lord is kind enough to appear on earth from time to time to show us the way. Not only does He perform transcendental activities for the benefit of others, but His devotees also show us how to properly worship the Lord and please Him to the best of one’s ability. One such interaction between God and His devotee took place many thousands of years ago in the forests of India. Lord Krishna, who is also known by His four-handed form of Lord Narayana or Vishnu, came to earth in the form of a handsome and pious prince named Rama. Since Lord Rama is an avatara of Lord Vishnu, He is not different from God. Worship of Rama is worship of God. We living entities, bhutas, are separated expansions of God, so we can’t be considered to be on the same level.

Lord Rama Lord Rama performed many wonderful activities during His time on earth. On one occasion, He and His younger brother Lakshmana visited the female sage Shabari. At the time, Rama’s wife, Sita Devi, had just been kidnapped, so the Lord was trying to find her whereabouts. Rama was told to visit the sage Shabari, who was residing in the forest and performing great austerities. Shabari’s teachers had told her that she would one day achieve salvation by meeting Rama and Lakshmana face to face. In the above referenced quote, Shabari is offering a nice prayer to the Lord after having kindly welcomed the two princes to her hermitage.

This one prayer by Shabari sufficiently describes the meaning of life and how to attain perfection. She kindly addressed Rama as deva vare, which means the chief of the devas. Moreover, she said that she could now easily get to heaven or anywhere else since she had worshiped Rama. Shabari here clearly spells out the difference between Narayana and any other deva, or demigod. Since Nara means man, Narayana is He who is the source of all naras. Since God is the source of all bhutas, or living entities, He is also the source of all enjoyment. By worshiping Rama, one can achieve all the opulences and enjoyment available to those who take up other religious practices.

Shabari with Rama Since worship of Krishna automatically brings about heavenly opulences and other enjoyments, why would we take to any other type of worship? Not only is Rama the best of the devas, but those who worship Him are the best of the dharmacaris, or those dedicated to religious principles. So how do we perform this worship? It is quite simple actually. We have to show the same level of respect and hospitality towards Lord Rama [God] that Shabari did. Immediately questions may arise as to how we can meet Lord Rama. Sure, Shabari got to welcome Him to her home, but how do we bring Rama into our house? Why would He even agree to come visit us?

The key is to have a desire to associate with God. This desire must be pure and without personal motive. The Lord will already give us what we want, so there is no reason to ask Him for enjoyment or any other kind of pleasure. Shabari simply had a desire to see God, to welcome Him, and to reciprocate the feelings of love that He already had shown her. Shabari hadn’t met Rama before, but she knew that God loved her. That love came in the form of her spiritual guides, or gurus. The bona fide spiritual master is a godsend, a person sent from the spiritual world to help us rekindle our forgotten relationship with the Supreme Lord.

“But those who worship Me with devotion, meditating on My transcendental form-to them I carry what they lack and preserve what they have.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 9.22)

Shrila Prabhupada So how do we find our guru? How do we receive Krishna’s mercy in the form of the gurudeva? If we are sincere in our desires, Krishna will certainly bring us the guru we need. Luckily for us, there are many bona fide spiritual masters that we can easily approach today without having to leave our homes. His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada is the foremost teacher of devotional service, or bhakti-yoga, for the people of this age. Though He is no longer present on this planet, His written instructions and recorded words live on. In this way, Shrila Prabhupada never dies.

How do we associate with this great swami? We simply have to follow his instructions, the primary of which calls for the constant chanting of the holy names of God, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, and abstention from the four pillars of sinful life: meat eating, illicit sex, gambling, and intoxication. After we steadily follow these regulations for an extended period of time, we can then take up the process of deity worship. Personal association with God is reserved for the great devotees like Shabari, but it doesn’t mean that we are left out in the cold. The deity is the worshipable form of the Lord, hence it is known as the archa vigraha. If we treat the archa-murti with the same love and respect that Shabari showed to Rama, we will most certainly be granted the same benediction of salvation.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Enjoyer

Radha and Krishna “On any platform of activities, the principle of sense gratification is there. But on the spiritual platform, sense gratification is for the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krishna, whereas on the material platform it is for the performer.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vol 1, Ch 29)

The term “Mayavada” is thrown around quite often by Vaishnava preachers and those who have an utter distaste for any philosophy that treats individual souls and God as equals. Not only does the Mayavada term describe those who believe in a formless God, or an Absolute Truth which lacks an eternal and transcendental form, but it also applies to any person who views any entity besides God as the ultimate enjoyer. For these reasons, it is not surprising to see the words “Mayavada” and “Mayavadi” invoked quite often. Yet this term only represents the negative side of things, the wrong way to go about viewing spiritual life. The other side of the equation is the positive activity; those guidelines and beliefs that enable one to practice religion the proper way. Though these activities can take on different sizes and shapes, they share a commonality in that the ultimate enjoyer is taken to be Lord Krishna, or God. When we stop looking at ourselves and our fellow man as the ultimate enjoyers, and instead shift this designation to the Supreme Lord, we can go about practicing real religion, the religion of love.

Lord Krishna To paint a clearer picture of the issue, let’s analyze how many of us go about our daily lives, taking into account some of the primary activities that we take up and which ones we deem to be the most important. To understand the different philosophies and perceived occupational duties of the world, both theistic and atheistic, we can spend time studying all the faiths that have ever existed and what their ultimate conclusions are. Luckily for us, the Shrimad Bhagavatam, the crown jewel of the Vedic literatures, gives us all the information we need regarding any type of philosophy or religious tradition. A religion is merely a philosophy which describes the ultimate conclusion or the ultimate object of worship in life. In this regard, even atheism can be classified as a religion, for the adherents take man, nature, or chemicals to be the supreme controllers. Aside from the issue of an ultimate controller, or a “God”, the more important aspect to religion relates to enjoyment and service. We may or may not believe in God, but how we act on our beliefs is what really counts. For example, we can pledge allegiance to the flag of a specific nation, but this patriotism doesn’t really take shape until we are called to defend our country in one way or another. In a similar manner, we can go through the various rites and rituals of a particular faith, but our true feelings are exhibited by how we go about our lives. Our consciousness and who we identify as the primary object of worship are what really determine our faith and allegiance.

“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)

Under Vedic terminology, most everyone in the world would be described as a karmi. Karma refers to any activity which leads to the development of the outer covering of the soul. This covering, which is composed of various material elements, is constantly going through changes, with the activities and desires of the living entity acting as the catalyst. Karma is generally seen in the light of positive and negative consequences to action, but more specifically, it refers to the development of the material body of the soul. Whether this development is favorable or unfavorable is dependent on the viewpoint of the observer. The real issue lies with the strong attachment that remains between the soul and its outer covering. Since karma leads to the development of the material body, there must be an activity which can stop this development. In this regard, there are two options, two different ways to halt this development. The difference between the two paths relates to enjoyment.

In Vedic terminology, jnana describes the acquisition of knowledge. Since jnana has nothing to do with the development of the body, it is seen as the polar opposite of karma. Jnana is a mental exercise, an activity of the subtle body consisting of mind, intelligence, and ego. The pursuit of knowledge can focus on different subjects, but on the highest level it deals with the difference between matter and spirit, body and soul. Through acquiring such knowledge, the soul can be liberated from the cycle of birth and death, thus freeing itself from accepting future bodies.

Shrila Prabhupada Jnana and karma actually share one thing in common. They both view the individual as the ultimate enjoyer, the entity which needs pleasing the most. It is for this reason that the Vaishnava seers, those possessing a clear vision acquired through submissive service offered to their guru and the Supreme Lord, view any spiritual discipline, or any religious tradition, which functions only off of karma and jnana to be a Mayavada-like philosophy. The term Mayavada comes from two words: maya and vada. Vada means a conclusion and maya refers to that which is not. Since maya refers to spirituality, it means that which is not God. Any person whose ultimate conclusion is that everything in this world is not God, including God’s words, teachings, and activities, is considered a Mayavadi. Generally the term is applied to those who view Brahman, the formless feature of the Absolute Truth, as the only reality, with everything else in the world being maya. At the same time, those who view themselves as the ultimate enjoyers, which the aforementioned philosophers certainly do, can also be considered Mayavadis, for their ultimate conclusion is that God is not important. If the individual living entity, who is so miniscule and unimportant in the grand scheme of things, is taken as the ultimate enjoyer, then naturally God’s influence is diminished. When God is neglected, the resulting conclusion cannot be classified as anything but Mayavada.

What does this concept of the “ultimate enjoyer” mean? The karmis best illustrate the significance of this term. Let’s say, for example, that a person visits a house of worship at least once a week, be it a church, synagogue, or temple. They go through all the perfunctory rules and regulations, uttering prayers when needed and rising and kneeling at the appropriate times. During the rest of the week, however, they focus completely on satisfying their own senses or the senses of others. They spend their days catering to their dog, taking it for walks, and bowing down to pick up whatever bodily waste it is kind enough to leave on the sidewalks. When this person is not catering to their pets, they’re paying careful attention to their husband or wife. Whatever the spouse wants is what the person will do, for keeping their beloved happy is the primary objective. Husbands have summarized the secret to success in marriage into one simple phrase: “If she ain’t happy, you ain’t happy.” This same principle can be applied to other areas of life such as school, work, or any place where we are interacting with our fellow man.

Though the objects of affection may vary, the enjoyer is still the individual. Even if we are opening hospitals, feeding the poor, or giving in charity, sense gratification is still there. We are either satisfying our own senses through activities such as eating, intoxication, gambling, and sex life, or we are trying to satisfy the same senses of others. Regardless, the individual is still the object of worship, the supreme enjoyer if you will. The jnanis - those who take to the acquisition of knowledge - are similarly viewing the individual soul as the entity which needs to be pleased. The perfection of jnana-yoga is achieved when the soul merges into Brahman, a condition which leads to the loss of individuality. By merging into Brahman, the Absolute Truth, the individual frees themselves of suffering.

Pancha tattva chanting Hare Krishna So what other choice do we have? What other kind of activity can we take to? The Vaishnava seers, the purified souls, take to activity which is known as bhakti. While jnana and karma see an individual other than God as the supreme enjoyer, bhakti does not make the same mistake. Bhakti can involve activities which on the surface appear similar to jnana and karma, except that the object of enjoyment is different. Bhakti means love or devotion, and when directed at the Supreme Lord, it is known as bhagavad-bhakti. The collective discipline which aims to satisfy God’s senses is known as devotional service. While this sublime engagement can comprise of many activities, the most effective for this age 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”.

This simple chanting process perfectly illustrates the difference between karma and bhakti. The karmi similarly chants, except that they are aiming to please their own senses or those of others. One may sing a nice song to themselves or take to the stage and sing in front of thousands of adoring fans. The bhakta also takes to chanting, but the subject matter is transcendental. The most complete feature of the Supreme Lord is that of Bhagavan, the Personality of Godhead possessing every opulence imaginable to the fullest degree. Bhagavan’s power lies not only in His spiritual form, but also in the transcendental sound vibrations used to address Him. Therefore, by reciting the Lord’s name in a loving way, the adherent, the purified devotee, takes to pleasing the Supreme Lord’s senses. Any activity can be classified as bhakti if it follows this formula, that of aiming to please Bhagavan.

Bhagavan The greatest impediment towards advancement in spiritual life is the mindset of “I am God”. This seems silly on the surface, because who would be foolish enough to think that they are God? Aside from the fact that many spiritual leaders have openly boasted of this attribute in public, anyone who views the individual as the ultimate enjoyer adopts a similar mentality. This means that all of us think of ourselves as God by default. This is the true meaning behind being born ignorant. Intelligence is acquired through experience and the instructions offered by others, but this knowledge is meaningless unless and until we shed the “I am God” mentality. Even the jnanis, those spiritualists who take to connecting with Brahman, fail to shed this false identity. They take to the mindset of aham brahmasmi, which means “I am Brahman.” But since they view Brahman as the ultimate feature of the Lord, they essentially take themselves to be God.

The correct translation of aham brahmasmi is “I am a spirit soul, part and parcel of Brahman.” An easier way to understand this is to adopt the mindset of “God is me”, which is more accurate than “I am God”. As fragmental sparks emanating from the original heat, the individual spirit souls taken collectively can be included in the definition of God. At the same time, this doesn’t mean that the individuals are the Supreme Lord, but rather they are meant to be intimately connected with Him. If the Supreme Lord is satisfied, the individuals become satisfied as well. This is the secret to bhakti-yoga. Through satisfying the senses of Krishna, the transcendental senses of the individual are also satisfied.

Radha and Krishna Everyone should strive to practice the religion of love. This discipline is not the exclusive property of any group of people. Any person, in any country, and at any age, can practice bhakti-yoga, and especially the chanting of the holy names of the Lord. Of all the various prescriptions provided for the aspiring transcendentalists of this age, none is more powerful than the constant recitation of the transcendent Lord’s names. This chanting satisfies not only Krishna, but all of His great devotees as well, including the bhakta doing the chanting. The same can’t be said of any other activity, be it of the religious or non-religious variety. Bhakti is the purification of all activity, so it is our primary duty to take to it.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Parallel Lines

Rama and Lakshmana meeting Shabari “Today, being graced with Your presence, I have obtained the results of my penances and austerities. Today, my birth has been made fruitful and my spiritual masters have been well honored." (Shabari speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 74.11)”

Service paid to the spiritual master and worship of the Supreme Personality of Godhead run on parallel lines. By worshiping both parties simultaneously, one achieves the greatest reward of liberation from the repeated suffering brought on by contact with the temporary world. Only in the afterlife, the realm where spirituality reigns supreme, can the agonies brought on by gain, loss, birth, death, happiness, and sadness be permanently eradicated. In order to enter this realm, one must be stripped of all egoism and false pride. One must be a complete adherent to the dictates of the Divine Being, whose instructions are carried out in this world by His purified servants, the spiritual masters who embody virtue, kindness, compassion, and deference to the laws of the Supreme Master. While service to the guru brings pleasure to the Supreme Lord, the reciprocal benedictions bestowed on the sincere servant by God also bring pleasure to the spiritual master. This truth was stressed by the exalted female sage Shabari when she had the wonderful opportunity to meet the Supreme Personality of Godhead face to face.

Sita DeviIn the world of sports, politics, literature, or any field which has achievements and accomplishments, there are often discussions pertaining to which person or team is the greatest of all time. The purpose behind such discussions is quite easy to decipher. Fans of sports, politics, and literature have particular favorite personalities, “stars of the game” if you will. In order to praise the stars, fans need a frame of reference, something or someone to compare achievements to. By having this juxtaposition, one is better able to offer a proper compliment to their particular favored party. For example, Sita Devi, the wife of Lord Rama, once offered a very nice compliment to her husband, Shri Rama, by making a comparison to a notable powerful entity.

“O Raghava, if I am in Your company, even Shakra [Indra], the lord of the demigods, with his great strength would not be able to overpower me.” (Sita Devi speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kand, 29.6)

Lord Rama, an expansion of the original, all-blissful, ever-existing Personality of Godhead, roamed this earth many thousands of years ago in the guise of a pious, kshatriya prince. We can think of a kshatriya as the most honest and capable defender of the innocent. This honesty and dedication to righteousness doesn’t exist only in theory. Rather, there are many occasions when a defender is put to the test. As the saying goes, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going”, Shri Rama proved His mettle on many occasions, the most notable of which related to His exile from His opulent kingdom of Ayodhya.

When Rama was still a young man, He was on the precipice of coronation; He was to succeed His father on the royal throne. Yet through a series of unfortunate events, the kingdom was snatched away from Him at the last moment. To make matters worse, He was ordered to leave the community and not return for fourteen years, during which time He would have no ties to the regal life. God is atmarama, meaning one who is self-satisfied, so such an order didn’t phase Shri Rama one bit. But He was married at the time, and as is custom in a marriage, the husband often has to deliver unpalatable news to the wife. A married man can’t just stay out late all the time without telling his wife first. A good husband will not leave home without at least telling someone where they are going.

Sita and Rama When Rama went to tell Sita the news, she didn’t take to it too well. She wasn’t necessarily worried about her future as queen being in jeopardy. Rather, she was dreading the impending separation from Rama. Instead of agreeing to her husband’s request that she remain in the kingdom, Sita insisted on coming along. Her main argument was that, as Rama’s shadow, it would be impossible for Him to roam the earth without her. In order for a shadow to exist, there must be an original light. In this way, Sita was saying that she couldn’t exist without the beacon of light which was her husband.

In order to convince Rama of her position, Sita pointed to His extraordinary abilities in the area of defense. Rama tried to dissuade Sita from going by reminding her of the dangers of forest life. Sita not only countered this argument by saying that Rama was strong, but she emphatically pointed out that not even Indra, the king of the heavenly planets, could harm her if she was in Rama’s company. Comparisons to Indra are quite commonplace in Vedic literature. He is the strongest of the suras, or the devoted living entities possessing heavenly bodies. Therefore if someone is stronger than Indra, it means that they must be one of the most capable fighters in the universe.

Sita and Rama When praising an athlete or famous figure, one will often make comparisons to legends of the past. Every sport or discipline of interest has a specific icon, or standard bearer, for the sport. In ice hockey, the icon is Wayne Gretzky, in basketball Michael Jordan, in computers Bill Gates. If a new player comes along and breaks established records, comparisons will be made to the previous legends. If a player should happen to surpass a former great’s achievements, debates will begin as to which person is the greatest of all time.

Wayne Gretzky What often gets overlooked in this debate is the influence of the legend on the newcomer. Let’s take Wayne Gretzky for example. Prior to Gretzky’s arrival in the National Hockey League, Gordie Howe was considered the greatest player of all time. Gretzky was actually a big fan of Howe growing up, so it would stand to reason that Howe had a significant influence on Gretzky’s career. So when Wayne amassed wonderful point totals and goals, shouldn’t Howe have been given some of the credit? If the predecessors are somewhat responsible for the achievements of the newer generation, doesn’t the “greatest of all time” argument lose its steam? How can someone be the greatest of all time if previous greats were partially responsible for their abilities?

This speaks to the truth that our teachers and role models make us who we are. In the Vedic tradition, the first objects of worship are the parents. They take care of us in the early years of life and give us a basic understanding of right and wrong. In the absence of this care and affection, we easily could be led off the straightened path. In adulthood, the object of worship is the guru, or spiritual master. The parents give us our first birth, but in order to achieve success in a spiritual sense, we need a second birth. The spiritual master gives us this reawakening of divine consciousness through the initiation process. When one is properly educated in a spiritual sense, they no longer see bodily designations; they see only spirit and its relationship to an ever-changing matter.

Rama and Lakshmana with Vishvamitra Not only do students learn about spirituality from their gurus, but they also become familiar with the most sublime engagement of devotional service, or the religion of love. The aim of life is to change one’s consciousness to the point where all thoughts are revolving around love, service, and affection for the Supreme Spirit. This Divine Personality goes by different names according to time and circumstance, but the Vedas inform us that His most complete name and form is Krishna, a word which means all-attractive. Devotional service aims to keep one’s mind always fixed at the lotus feet of the Supreme Lord, who possesses a love-evoking, transcendental form.

A spiritual master is not chosen on a whim, but rather is sought out based on their qualifications. Of all the characteristics of a guru, his most endearing qualification is his ability to liberate his disciples from the repeated cycle of birth and death. If our consciousness is not purified by the time we die, we will be forced to take birth again to a new set of parents and repeat the same knowledge-acquiring process. If we can find a bona fide spiritual master and follow their instructions wholeheartedly, we can avoid this unnecessary rebirth.

Prabhupada Since the guru is a representative of Krishna, he is to be honored in the same way that one would worship the Lord. This means that if we fall flat on the floor and offer our obeisances to the spiritual master, we are essentially offering our prayers to the Supreme Lord. The spiritual master is often compared to a boatman who carries the wayward spirit soul across the ocean of nescience back to the transcendental realm. In this way, we see that service to the guru equates to happiness to the Supreme Lord. Krishna is happy because the guru is bringing back one of His lost souls, an expansion of the Supreme Energetic which is meant to provide enjoyment to the Supreme Enjoyer.

By satisfying the guru with our service, the chain of causation eventually finds its way back to God. When the guru is pleased, the guru’s guru is pleased, the guru’s guru’s guru is satisfied, and so on. What’s often overlooked, however, is the end-result of such service and its effect on the parties involved. We know what the initial act of service to the guru will lead to, but what effect does the result of this action bring? For example, say that we please Krishna by pleasing the guru. If the Lord offers us a nice benediction in return, are we the only ones benefitted? According to the opinion of the most exalted associates of the Lord, those liberated souls who properly served their gurus, the benedictions received from God directly affect the same chain of spiritual masters. This fact was reiterated by the female sage Shabari.

Shabari greeting Rama and Lakshmana Rama’s younger brother Lakshmana also insisted on accompanying the Lord during His travels through the forest. Agreeing to take Sita and Lakshmana with Him, Rama embarked on His journey. On one unfortunate occasion, Sita would be kidnapped by a Rakshasa demon. In their subsequent search for her whereabouts, Rama and Lakshmana made their way to the hermitage of Shabari. When she saw them approaching, she immediately got up and touched their feet. She had been waiting for Rama ever since her spiritual guides told her that she would be granted liberation upon meeting the Lord. After being welcomed in such a hospitable way, Rama asked Shabari some very nice questions pertaining to her spiritual practices. One of the questions He asked was whether or not her service to her gurus had borne fruit.

In the above referenced statement, Shabari is responding to Rama’s questions. We see that she states that the service she offered to her guravah, her spiritual masters and respectable elders, has most certainly borne fruit. She not only stipulates that the service was successful, but she also provides a reason. Shabari states that by having Rama’s darshana, seeing Him face to face, her gurus have been duly honored. This speaks to the truth that the spiritual master and the Supreme Lord are always linked. You cannot serve one and neglect the other. No one is dearer to Krishna than His sincere servant.

Shabari’s kind words also reinforce the fact that a person’s greatness and accomplishments are a reflection on their teachers. By meeting Rama, which is the highest benediction one can achieve in life, Shabari honored herself and her spiritual masters. After all, it was her gurus who taught her about spiritual life and how to perform tapasya. They taught her how to control her anger and her eating habits. Not only Shabari, but every one of us has to be taught how to live a regulated life. In the absence of this instruction, we would most certainly take to nefarious behavior or those activities which would end up harming us.

Lord Rama This event with Shabari took place many thousands of years ago during the Treta Yuga, but we see that even back then women were eligible for spiritual instruction. Even though it wasn’t common for women to take to an ascetic lifestyle, those who were properly qualified certainly could. The guru’s mercy is open to every single person, so anyone who is sincerely interested in spiritual life should try to humbly soak in the kind instructions of the pure devotee. Though we can never properly repay the debts we owe to the great saints of the past, if the Supreme Lord should happen to be pleased with us, all of our teachers and superiors would be duly honored at the same time, thus completing the circle.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Bow Down

Vasudeva and Devaki offering obeisances to Krishna “Always chanting My glories, endeavoring with great determination, bowing down before Me, these great souls perpetually worship Me with devotion.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 9.14)

Though the ancient scriptures of India, the Vedas, are quite complex as far as teachings go, there is one truth that stands above all others. This truth is known as the ultimate conclusion, the definitive explanation of the relationship between the individual and the higher reality, the divine person in the spiritual sky. This ultimate conclusion is known as achintya-bhedabheda-tattva, which stipulates that the living entities are part and parcel of the Supreme Lord. They are simultaneously one with and different from the Absolute Truth. More important than this conclusion is the relationship derived from it. As part and parcel of the Supreme Energetic, the original Absolute Truth, God who has an ever-blissful form, the fragmental sparks are meant to be constantly in association with their superior “twin”. This connection is achieved through worship of the divine in His original form as the Personality of Godhead, who is addressed as Krishna.

Lord Krishna This ultimate relationship derived from the highest truth seems simple enough to understand. It sounds like a fancy way of saying that we should love God with all our hearts and that we should always be in His association. Instead of dedicating our lives to mundane sense gratification, wherein we compete with our fellow man for resources, pleasure, and the enjoyment of members of the opposite sex, the real business in life is to take to worship of God. Who could argue with this mindset? The sectarians and the sentimentalists, however, have their own sets of scriptures. Vedic wisdom, the crown jewel of which is found in the hallowed pages of the Shrimad Bhagavatam, is very comprehensive and thus covers all aspects of material and spiritual life. Since the Vedas are so detailed, they even account for the existence of rivaling and varying religious systems. Vedic wisdom is complete, or purna, but there are other systems of spirituality, some of which are even rooted in the Vedas, that crop up based on time and circumstance. This isn’t to say that other systems are not legitimate, but rather they aren’t as complete in their philosophy and instruction as the highest truths of the Vedas are.

“…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)

Since the sentimentalists and sectarians hold steadfast to their one or two scriptures, the intelligence they acquire from studying such philosophical doctrines often peaks at a level below the summit. As a result, instead of merely focusing on their own business and the recommendations given to them, they take to criticizing others, especially the followers of the Vedic tradition. One of the more commonly lodged complaints about devotees of Krishna is that they spend their time worshiping a personal form of God. Moreover, they carve out images, turn them into deities, and then worship by prostrating before them and chanting various hymns. The narrow-minded sectarians cannot fathom ever taking up such activity, for they claim that their scriptures strictly prohibit such practices.

Lord Krishna To justify their position, the sentimentalists will quote from their own scriptures, invoking statements which can be summarized in the following way: “One is meant to worship such and such God and no one else. Carving out images of such a God or any other heavenly figure is strictly prohibited. Moreover, no one should prostrate before such a carved out image, nor should they offer it any prayers. God is an angry and jealous man who severely punishes those who violate His orders. One should surrender to such and such personality since they are the only ones who can lead us to God. Such surrender, which is acknowledged through a formal acceptance process or ritual, enables a person to become free from all sinful reactions.”

This is certainly a lot to digest. If we cover the basic components, however, we’ll see that the restrictions imposed actually prevent one from achieving the desired aim, i.e. that of worshiping God. As a result, the restrictions and the ultimate conclusion end up contradicting one another. Since the aforementioned viewpoints are held by the sentimentalists and the sectarians, not much thought is given to the statements contained within. Rather, everything is accepted blindly, without much attention given to the justification and effectiveness, or lack thereof, to such procedures. A quick analysis of each one of the above mentioned stipulations can help clarify the similarities and differences that exist between the sentimentalists and the purified devotees of a personal God.

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

Lord Krishna The first injunction is that one mustn’t worship any other God except the specific personality in question. Actually this injunction exists in all major religions. In the Vedic tradition, this same point is raised in the famous Bhagavad-gita, the discourse on philosophy, life, and the soul given by Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Though the Gita delves into several topics of interest, the ultimate conclusion, the final instruction, is that one should simply surrender to Krishna, giving up all other religious systems, or dharmas, and be ultimately freed from all sinful reactions. This is most certainly true, for only God can permanently remove all sinful reactions. Direct worship of the Supreme Person indeed represents the highest form of religion.

Are followers of the Vedic tradition violating this principle of surrender by worshiping Krishna instead of other notable personalities? Are the followers of other faiths guilty of the same crime through their own religious practices? In order to understand what it means to not worship any other God, the term “God” itself needs to be defined. Every person in this world is religious. This is because every person, whether they believe in God or not, has an ultimate object of worship. They may not be able to identify this object with ontological certitude, but they most certainly act in a reverential attitude towards it. This speaks to the fact that the acknowledgment of something as the ultimate object of worship occurs through acts of devotion, not merely statements of allegiance or professions of faith.

Love To understand this point more clearly, let’s take the example of the romantic dealings between men and women. In today’s world, men and women are free to intermingle; therefore anyone can have sexual relations with anyone else. It is the natural tendency of the man to want to have sex with as many women as possible, while the woman is generally more interested in establishing a safe and secure relationship. In order to meet his objective, the man will often lie and misrepresent his true identity in the beginning stages of the relationship. The thought process is pretty simple. “I want sex, so I will do whatever is required to get it. Afterwards, I can act naturally, or I can just move on to another woman.” The three famous words, “I love you”, give testimony to the great lengths that some men will go to to get sex. If the woman is unwilling to have sex with a man unless and until love is established, the man will have no problem saying “I love you” to get what he wants. In the end, these three words merely become a profession of faith, a hollow statement. There is an ulterior motive, thus making the words meaningless. If a man professes to love the woman, but then casts her aside at some point in the future, the article of faith was simply a hoax, a way to cheat the object of affection.

In the realm of spirituality, simply professing a faith is not enough. In order to accept someone or something as God, we have to make them our ultimate object of worship. Therefore if one simply pledges allegiance to a specific notable divine personality, but then still treats other people and entities as their ultimate objects of worship, their worship of God becomes meaningless. This is actually the case with many so-called religious followers around the world. During the weekdays, they engage in meat eating - which is facilitated through the killing of innocent animals - illicit sex, intoxication, and gambling, and then on Sundays they will attend some religious function and feel as if everything is alright. It must be said that every living entity has freedom in how they choose to act. If someone chooses to eat meat, devote time and money towards leisure activities, or profess their love to their significant others, they have every right as free people to do so. At the same time, such activity certainly violates the tenet of not worshiping any other God. Worship is facilitated through activity and, more importantly, consciousness. If a person’s consciousness is focused on material life, it must be said that their main object of worship, their “God”, is matter. In this way, they are violating the primary rule of the doctrine they are so fond of quoting.

Lord Krishna The sentimentalist’s next stipulation is that one should not carve out any images of God or any other heavenly figure. One especially shouldn’t bow down to such a carved image or offer any worship. This activity is deemed as idol worship and is strictly prohibited by most faiths. This stipulation is probably the most contradictory of all the rules and regulations of the non-Vedic faiths. The contradiction again lies with the issue of worship. In order to worship God, a Supreme Person, the greatest divine figure, one must remember. Remembering, which is known as smaranam in Sanskrit, is the quintessential devotional act. Wherever we are, wherever we go, we simply have to remember God in order to be worshiping Him. Even if we are sitting in church or going through some other religious function, the remembering process is still at the forefront.

So how does remembering contradict the restriction on deity worship? In order to remember, we have to have something to focus the mind on. This object of focus cannot be nothing. If something is void or formless, by definition, it cannot be remembered. In this paradigm, the concept of worship immediately becomes null and void. The sentimentalists will counter with the argument that the mind should focus on the specific divine personality that one goes to for salvation. Yet this argument actually further enhances the contradiction. If we are to worship God through remembering a divine personality, a great prophet of the past, are we not fixing our minds on a specific form? Did these prophets not have a physical form when they roamed the earth?

Narasimhadeva with Prahlada Maharaja Obviously these divine figures were real and full of form. Therefore remembering their form is certainly an authorized method of worship. If remembering such figures in our minds is an accepted method of worship, how can carving an image of them be prohibited? Is not the carved image simply a replica of the image that is in our minds during times of worship? Moreover, isn’t the worship of the carved replica image a higher religious practice than simply remembering them in the mind? After all, if we worship a deity, we get to act out our devotion. Without such a practice, our level of devotion remains in a theoretical state. “Oh I love God; I accept such and such as the savior.” These sentiments are meaningless unless acted upon. If a carved image is created, worshiped, and prostrated before, then not only is the worshiper benefitted, but so is anyone else who witnesses such a display of devotion.

This brings us to the next restriction: prostration. Not only are the sentimentalists against carving out worshipable forms of their divine figures, but they are against offering prayers to such images. The prostration before the deities of Krishna, Vishnu, and the spiritual masters are seen as great sins by outsiders and neophytes. Ironically enough, people are already offering their obeisances to other “Gods”, prostrating themselves in different ways. Prostration simply means acknowledging the supremacy of the object of worship. This is already occurring in the areas of sports, politics, and entertainment. Though the prostrations can take on different forms, the end-result is the same. In the world of sports, the bowing down occurs through the buying of tickets to events, the screaming in jubilation, the purchasing of memorabilia and apparel, and the overall love and adoration directed at the sports figures. In entertainment, a similar style of worship is seen through the attendance of movies and the following of the day-to-day happenings of favorite actors and actresses. Politics sees the greatest form of worship, with the prostration occurring through attendance at campaign rallies, political donations, and the dedication to showing up to vote for particular candidates. In the realm of romantic love, men even kneel before their significant others when making marriage proposals. Pet owners regularly bow down to pick up the waste that their pets leave on the ground. There is even a popular saying, “Dogs have owners and cats have servants.” So if we are already bowing down to other gods, other people that we have turned into our ultimate objects of worship, what is the harm in prostrating before the real God?

Radha and Krishna The next point raised by the sentimentalists is that God is angry and jealous, and that He punishes those who forget Him. Vedic information actually debunks these opinions quite systematically. First off, everyone is already punished through taking birth in the material world. Our current residence is governed by an energy known as maya, which means “that which is not”. Maya is “not God”, therefore this place is one where every living entity is competing to become God. The Supreme Lord has no interest in this competition, therefore He remains neutral. At the same time, He kindly seeks our prayers so that we can be benefitted, not Him. The Supreme Lord is described in terms of thousands of names in the Vedic tradition, each of which speaks to His transcendental qualities. One of God’s names is Achyuta, which means one who never falls down. He is also described as atmarama, meaning one who is self-satisfied.

“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, Bg. 2.62)

In order for God to be angry, He must be fallible. Anger is a result of frustration, the inability to satisfy one’s lusty desires borne out of attachment to material objects. By definition, this emotion can never apply to God because there is nothing that He is incapable of doing. The Supreme Lord can never be frustrated in any effort or endeavor. He especially has no reason to be angry with the living entities, for their powers are insignificant and puny when compared to the great energy of the energetic Supreme Lord. Jealousy is an emotion that results from insecurity, the worry that someone else will surpass us in beauty, wealth, strength, fame, renunciation, or wisdom. Since God is known as Bhagavan, He already possesses all of these opulences simultaneously and to the fullest extent. Therefore He has no reason to be jealous of anyone.

Lord Krishna The sentimentalists’ last point of surrendering unto a specific personality is probably the most important one to properly understand, for without legitimate surrender no one can make advancement in spiritual life. Surrender means losing one’s will to fight. It involves putting someone else in charge of everything and having complete faith in their abilities. Surrender is not accomplished simply by waiving a white flag, signing a document, or professing an allegiance to a specific figure. Surrender in the realm of spirituality comes from giving up the fight to be God, relinquishing the idea that one can enjoy more than the Supreme Enjoyer.

“For those whose minds are attached to the unmanifested, impersonal feature of the Supreme, advancement is very troublesome. To make progress in that discipline is always difficult for those who are embodied.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 12.5)

For surrender to truly occur, one must worship God in His original, personal form. This is because surrender, salvation, and the elimination of sinful reactions can only occur through a change in consciousness. Worship starts and ends with the mind. The mind is always working, so whatever it chooses to spend the most time thinking about is what constitutes the ultimate object of worship. Moreover, the mind can only contemplate on things that it has experienced or seen. If a person spends all their time in material pursuits - not giving credence to the subtle laws of nature, the plight of their fellow man, and ignoring the equality of all forms of life – the mind will focus on maya, or not God. Therefore such a person can never truly surrender to the Supreme Lord. In order for one’s consciousness to be changed, the nature of their activities must also be altered.

Mirabai worshiping Krishna This is where bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, comes into play. Devotees in the Vedic tradition take to directly worshiping Krishna, the primeval Lord, the oldest and kindest personality in all the universes. Krishna was there at the beginning of creation. At that time He expanded Himself into His four-armed form of Lord Vishnu and then imparted Vedic wisdom to the first created living entity, Lord Brahma. It is the duty of every person to follow the example of their original father. Lord Brahma, the progenitor of man, took to devotional service immediately, spending all his time thinking about Vishnu. Since that time, Lord Vishnu has been kind enough to make several appearances on earth. In these instances, Vishnu appeared in a transcendental and spiritual body, though it appeared as though He was an ordinary living entity. The conditioned souls can practice bhakti-yoga by regularly remembering Krishna, Vishnu, or one of the non-different expansions which appear on earth.

The deity plays a central role in this worship, for it allows a devotee to back up their claims of religiousness. By carving out a deity based on the specifications provided in the authorized scriptures, a devotee can worship a non-different form of the Lord. This form is completely transcendental and vital towards achieving advancement in spiritual life. A devotee can offer prayers, dress the deity, and prepare nice food preparations to be given in sacrifice. More than anything else, the devotee should regularly chant, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, in front of this worshipable form. If God wants us to think of Him, why not use all the tools at our disposal to ensure that such remembrance continues uninterrupted?

Radha Krishna deities A sin is an activity which results in a temporary unfavorable condition. Separation from God must be considered the most unfavorable of conditions. Since we all find ourselves in this situation today, we must all be considered sinful. The only way to remove the reactions to our sins, the unfavorable conditions, is to reconnect with God. The Lord is already residing inside of our hearts as the Supersoul, but we are currently unaware of His presence. Through the changing of consciousness, this connection with God can be reestablished. By worshiping the deity, bowing down before the Lord and the spiritual master, and regularly chanting the holy names of the Lord, we can achieve the ultimate objective in life, that of returning back to God’s spiritual kingdom.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Impetus For Action

Lord Rama “Today, being graced with Your presence, I have obtained the results of my penances and austerities. Today, my birth has been made fruitful and my spiritual masters have been well honored.” (Shabari speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 74.11)

Though many of the activities we perform on a daily basis are simply part of our routine, if we were to delve into the origins of such actions, we would find that they all have one thing in common. No matter the task, large or small, complicated or simple, the impetus for all action is the hope for some type of future enjoyment. This conclusion seems obvious enough, for why would we work hard unless there was some benefit to be derived from such effort? This same concept holds true with spiritual life, and unlike with our ordinary endeavors, when spirituality is practiced perfectly, it can bestow the highest of rewards, as it did to the famous female sage, Shabari, many thousands of years ago.

Winning the World Series Let’s first review what kinds of enjoyment we expect to receive from some of our more common activities. In this advanced technological age, one of the more popular forms of entertainment, especially for young men, is the playing of video games. Sports heroes can be seen performing their magic on television. When these athletes are successful, they hoist up the championship trophy and get all the glory. These victories don’t come easy, as there is fierce competition between other professionals in their field. For the average person, winning Wimbledon or holding up the Stanley Cup is a mere pipe dream, something that will never be experienced.

Fear not, however, as there is a way to imitate these activities, a way to give the average person a watered down sense of enjoyment and bliss. Video games allow us to pretend to play some of the most difficult sports right in our very own living rooms. Through the use of televisions and gaming consoles, we can pretend to be Tiger Woods or Wayne Gretzky. Many of these games allow us to simulate an entire season of a particular sport. We can also participate in major tournaments such as the Masters, Wimbledon, the World Cup, etc. Competition is provided by either the computer, which is powered by artificial intelligence, or other human players. We can play with our friends and family at home or with strangers on the internet. The possibilities are endless.

Original Nintendo Video game system Video games are popular because, as with any other activity, there is a desired end-result, a type of enjoyment that the player inherently expects to derive from the game. For example, if we play a Tiger Woods golf game, we obviously hope to gain proficiency over the controls. Our desire is to compete against other players and win tournaments. In this way, the expectation is to experience the thrill of victory, while hopefully avoiding the agony of defeat.

To those unfamiliar with gaming consoles, playing video games may seem like a waste of time. “Why are they pretending to do something when they can go outside and play the real thing? What are they getting out of playing these games? Do they really feel happy after beating their friend in a silly computer game?” The reality is that video game players most certainly do feel some sort of enjoyment from playing, otherwise why would they even take the time to play? This same concept actually applies to all of our activities. Even the things that we don’t like to do, such as taking out the trash, washing the dishes, doing laundry, etc., are all performed with a desired positive result in mind. By performing our chores, we will hopefully feel happier knowing that our life is in order and that we’re not living like slobs. Going to work on time and keeping up with our studies have similar built-in positive results.

While these facts seem pretty obvious to most of us, they are often overlooked with respect to spiritual life. Religion is seen as the polar opposite of fun. This stigma is the result of the perceived restrictive nature of religion. Spirituality is seen as a discipline full of rules and regulations that must be followed. If one violates these rules, they will have to deal with chastisement from religious leaders and other authority figures. None of us enjoy being yelled at or taken to task for our shortcomings, so why would we even want to associate with religion?

Yet just as with any other activity, transcendentalists take to spirituality with an intended goal in mind. The skeptic may say, “Yes, I know. They want to go to heaven. But heaven can only be achieved after death, meaning that a person must deprive themselves of fun for an entire lifetime. And even then, they aren’t guaranteed of going to heaven.” For the neophyte spiritualist, ascending to heaven after death is surely the desired goal. With this aim in mind, people take to various pious activities such as attending church, performing rituals in the home, and worshiping elevated religious personalities.

Praying to God While wanting to go to heaven is certainly a nice goal, there is actually a much greater reward available to those who practice spirituality perfectly. The Vedas define religion as dharma, or one’s occupational duty. If we equate dharma with the idea of ascending to heaven, it would mean that it is our duty to act in such a way so as to facilitate our ascension to the heavenly realm after death. Though going to heaven is a great reward, something which gives us enjoyment, how can the achievement of this reward be our dharma? What if we don’t want to go to heaven? What if we’re happy where we are right now?

Though going to heaven is certainly a nice reward, it should not be the main impetus for religious activity. The Vedas refer to religion as our occupational duty because our identity comes from the soul within. What does this mean? Currently we base our identity off of our bodily features. If we are born in America, we naturally identify ourselves as American. If our parents practice the Hindu faith, we will identify ourselves as Hindu, and so forth. These identifications are certainly valid within the scope of discussing nationality or religious affiliation, but our identities carry much greater importance than simply the geographic location of our birth or the religious practices of our ancestors.

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

Lord Krishna Lord Krishna, the originator of Vedic wisdom, the Supreme Divine being, tells us that the soul is eternal. This means we are eternal; we have never taken birth nor have we ever died. The body certainly goes through birth, old age, disease, and death, but the soul does not. As a result, any identification made off bodily traits will be invalid in the grand scheme of things. We may be born as Americans in this life, but since the soul is eternal, it stands to reason that we may take birth in a different land in our next life. Since the soul doesn’t change, neither does our identity. Therefore it is silly to identify ourselves based on the traits of our current body.

Since the soul is eternal, it must have an ever-existing quality, a set of activities which it is inclined to perform that provides enjoyment. This is where dharma comes into play. Dharma is an occupational duty, and it is sanatana, or eternal. When we practice dharma, we aren’t looking for any type of material enjoyment or the alleviation of some sort of distress. Dharma is an eternal occupation because it is the inherent nature of the soul to derive transcendental pleasure through association with other souls. Currently our soul is covered up by a material dress, so when we interact with other living entities, we are only associating with their material coverings. For the soul to derive pleasure, it must associate with other souls, and more specifically, it must associate with those things which are free from the contaminations of matter.

In the body of every living entity, there reside two souls: the individual [atma] and the Super [Paramatma]. Paramatma represents God’s expansion as an impartial witness who lives inside the heart for our benefit. Dharma is meant for connecting with this Supersoul. Unlike the atma which can transmigrate through various forms of bodies under the dictates of nature, the Supersoul is not subject to the same influences. This should make sense as the Supersoul is a manifestation of God and is thus the creator and controller of nature. The highest spiritual discipline is that which aims to associate with the Supersoul, to please it, and to take direction from it.

Shabari As we see with our normal activities, the impetus for action comes from the desire for rewards. In a similar manner, our soul is naturally inclined to performing spiritual activities, for the rewards achieved from spiritual association far surpass those we get from any other activity. Hence we see the real reason for taking to religious life. The Vedas tell us that this discipline of connecting our soul with the Supersoul is known as yoga. There are various kinds of yoga which all serve as stepping stones to achieving the end-goal of pure love for God. This is the real benefit of acting in accordance with dharma. Love for God is known as Krishna-prema, and it is the most pure form of affection that exists. If we adjust our activities in such a way that we achieve Krishna-prema, we’ll know that our spiritual endeavors have borne fruit. This was the case with the great female sage Shabari.

God lives within as the Supersoul, but this soul is simply an expansion that emanates from the original person. Most of us refer to this original person as God, but the Vedas tell us that He has a more descriptive name: Krishna. Krishna means one who is all-attractive, and thus it is an appropriate way to address the Supreme Lord. Krishna has multitudes of forms, all of which serve different purposes. In His expansion as Lord Rama, God came to earth to protect the pious and grant them the wonderful benediction of seeing Him face to face. Many great personalities had the good fortune of meeting Rama, with Shabari being one of them. As part of His pastimes, Lord Rama travelled through the forests of India, living as a recluse, accompanied by His wife Sita Devi and younger brother Lakshmana.

Lakshmana and Rama On one unfortunate occasion, Sita was kidnapped by a Rakshasa demon. When Rama and Lakshmana went looking for her, they were told to pass by an area where a female ascetic lived. When we speak of God’s pastimes, we must keep in mind that everything occurs for a reason. Nothing happens by chance. Rama’s meeting with Shabari serves as a great illustration for this point. On a previous occasion, Shabari was granted the benediction that she would achieve liberation from the cycle of birth and death by having darshana, or a vision, of Lord Rama. To make this prophecy hold true, as well as many other curses and predictions, God has to manipulate events in just the right way. Thus by Sita being kidnapped, the Lord was able to travel through the forests with Lakshmana and meet just the right people and grant benedictions to them.

When Rama and Lakshmana arrived at Shabari’s hermitage, she immediately got up and touched their feet. Lord Rama then politely posed several questions to her relating to her ascetic vows. Rama wanted to know if she was progressing in spiritual life and if she was deriving the full benefit of her pious deeds. In the above referenced quote, Shabari is answering Rama’s questions. We see that right off the bat, she lets Rama know that just by seeing Him in person all her pious deeds have borne fruit. This one statement speaks volumes, for it illustrates the essence of devotional service, or bhakti-yoga.

In the beginning stages we may take up devotional service to the Lord for various personal reasons. Maybe we are distressed, we want money, or we’re inquisitive. The wise, however, take to devotional service because they want to know the Absolute Truth. What better way is there to know God than by seeing Him face to face? Shabari knew that since she saw Rama, there was no other conclusion to be reached. Whatever she had done in the past, whatever she had learned from her spiritual guides, must have all been worthwhile and correct, for she was now seeing God in front of her.

We too can be granted the same benediction. We shouldn’t think that this event was an anomaly or something that can’t Rama and Lakshmana with Shabari happen for us. If we’re sincere in our service, and if we kindly follow the instructions of fellow devotees, we will surely one day meet God. The other point to note here is that Shabari mentioned that by meeting Rama, her birth was blessed. According to the material estimation, being born as a vaishya [merchant], shudra [laborer], or woman is considered to be a second-class birth. But we see from Shabari’s example that devotional service is open to every single person, regardless of the circumstances of their birth. Not only is devotional service open to everyone, but so are the resulting rewards, i.e. association with God.

So let us all take up the sublime engagement, devotional service to the Lord. Dharma exists eternally, so God is waiting for us to rekindle our relationship with Him. We don’t need to take to spiritual life out of fear or frustration. Association with God represents the greatest reward in life, thus making devotional service the highest engagement. This fact alone should be enough to get us to turn our eyes towards Krishna. If we even get one look at the face of the Supreme Lord, we’ll never want to turn away.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Best Advice

Hanuman worshiping Sita and Rama “To those who are constantly devoted and worship Me with love, I give the understanding by which they can come to Me.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 10.10)

Regardless of the particular sect, denomination, or region, the basic principles of religion are pretty much the same: devote yourselves to God, don’t be selfish, and be kind to your fellow man. In the Vedic tradition, especially amongst the followers of Lord Vishnu, the ultimate objective of spiritual life is the changing of consciousness. Since the conditioned soul is mired in a consciousness which focuses on temporary and transient objects, the purified consciousness is one where the reverse situation is true. The goal of human life is to always be thinking about God and to be conducting one’s actions based off this mindset. To this end, bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, is the recommended spiritual discipline, the only engagement worth taking up. While this linking of the individual consciousness with the Supreme can have one or many components, the quintessential act of devotion 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”.

Shrila Prabhupada To learn more about the science of bhakti-yoga, one is advised to approach a bona fide spiritual master, a person who has given up the pursuit of perfection in material life and instead shifted their consciousness to the Divine. Those who fit this description are hard to find, therefore it is advised that one at least consult such an exalted figure’s writings. More than any other spiritual tradition, the Vedas have the most comprehensive set of scriptures, poems, and commentaries that exist in the world. There are the primary texts such as the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and Puranas, along with countless commentaries and summary studies provided by the great saints of the past. Though the depth and scope of Vedic literature is quite vast, the ultimate conclusion across these works remains the same: God is the Supreme, and as fragmental sparks from the Supreme, it is the duty of the individual to be fully engaged in His service.

For the people of the current age, the Vedic seers, the Vaishnava saints, recommend not only the chanting of the holy names of God, but also the abstention from sinful life, the most harmful activities of which fall into four categories: meat eating, gambling, illicit sex, and intoxication. Chanting is the assertive activity, an act of work and devotion, and the restrictions on sinful life are the passive activities. These restrictions are known as the four regulative principles, and simply by adhering to such standards, one can make tremendous progress in spiritual life. As Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, states in the Bhagavad-gita that all purposes of Vedic rituals are served by one who knows the purpose behind them, one who knows the reasoning behind the chanting and four regulative principle recommendations certainly has achieved the highest level of understanding.

Lord Krishna So what is the purpose behind such recommendations? Why are there do’s and don’ts in spiritual life? As mentioned before, the ultimate objective is to change one’s consciousness. Currently our consciousness is focused on things of the immediate future, such as where to eat, sleep, mate, have a good time, etc. Our consciousness also sometimes delves into incidents of the immediate past, most notably those events which didn’t go our way. “I can’t believe such and such said that to me; I can’t stand them; I can’t believe I had to wait so long at the airport; I’m never flying with that airline again.” So many thoughts go through our head throughout the course of the day, and all of these ponderings and lamentations make up our consciousness.

The aim of spiritual life is to change our way of thinking. The ultimate enjoyment in life comes through love. Through spending time with our friends, family, or paramours, we exchange love and thus feel a great sense of pleasure. By the same token, the most intense emotion in all of life, both material and spiritual, can be felt when this love is exchanged with the ultimate reservoir of pleasure, Lord Krishna. Though man takes in so much information throughout the course of one lifetime, there are really only three things worth realizing: God is the original proprietor of everything, He is our friend, and He is the ultimate enjoyer. In order for the Lord to enjoy, there must be an enjoyed. This is where the individual souls come into play. As subordinate fragmental sparks from the original fire, we are meant to be enjoyed by God. Since we have a minute amount of independence, we have a tendency to forget this fact and think of ourselves as the enjoyers. When our mindset changes from enjoyers to the enjoyed, we have achieved perfection in life.

Lord Krishna So we have the prescriptions given to us by the great saints. While chanting God’s name is seen as the most effective religious activity for the people of this age, not everyone will take to it. Even if we do adopt a chanting regimen, how much time should we devote to it? After all, we have other responsibilities to meet during the course of the day. If we don’t work, we won’t have any money to take care of our home, friends, and family. If we don’t clean the house, everything will get dirty and start to look unpleasant. If we don’t eat on time, we will get hungry and tired. These obligations surely must be met, but the chanting routine mustn’t be neglected. Therefore Vaishnava saints have prescribed a minimum number of chanting rounds to be performed. While God’s name is powerful enough to provide liberation, chanting is usually performed in a semi-formal setting. One first takes a japa mala, a kind of rosary set which consists of 108 beads held together on a string. The mala is held in the right hand, with the fingers focusing on one bead at a time. On each bead, the selected mantra is chanted, and then one moves on to the next bead. After one has chanted on each of the 108 beads, one round of japa is complete. The minimum number of rounds recommended for each day is sixteen.

For those who are familiar with Sanskrit, or a language derived from it, chanting the sacred maha-mantra is not that difficult. The tongue is already accustomed to saying “Krishna”, “Rama”, and “Hare”, so after some familiarity with the mantra is acquired, this chanting process doesn’t take that long. During formal Vedic functions, one will notice that the brahmanas [priests] performing the rituals recite the relevant mantras very quickly. They whip through the most complex of Sanskrit words without a problem, pronouncing all the words perfectly at the same time. In the 1980s, there was a notable personality on television who was known for his fast-talking abilities. John Moschitta, Jr. appeared in commercials for toys like Micro Machines by speaking very quickly and cramming as much relevant information into the allotted time as possible. The yajnic brahmanas sound very similar with respect to the speed in which they recite mantras.

Japa malaFor those who are unfamiliar with speaking a Sanskrit-based language, chanting the maha-mantra can be quite difficult. As an added wrinkle, one is advised to avoid various offenses while chanting, one of which is inattentiveness. All of these issues combine to make chanting sixteen rounds quite difficult, especially in the beginning stages. Though the routine is difficult, we should remember the purpose behind such a recommendation. The ultimate aim is to change one’s consciousness, and this can only occur through activity. We can’t just decide to change our way of thinking overnight, especially if we are engaged in activities that relate to the things that we are trying to forget. It’s like saying that we never want to think about food again, while at the same time spending the entire day at a buffet restaurant.

So let’s say that we adhere to the chanting routine of sixteen rounds daily, along with refraining from the four pillars of sinful life. Does this mean that our problems are over? Obviously it doesn’t, for material life is full of ups and downs, highs and lows. During the low times, where do we go for guidance? What if there are no spiritual masters around to help us? How do we solve our problems if we are already engaged in devotional service?

Devotional Service To find the solution, let’s analyze the two most common problems that come up in our day-to-day affairs. The first negative condition is disappointment. They say that all the thoughts of the human brain can be grouped into one of two categories: hankering or lamenting. One minute we are hankering after something; either the association of a person or the acquisition of an object. The next minute we are lamenting the fact that we don’t have said object or that we have lost something valuable to us. Disappointment arises from the failure to achieve a positive condition, especially if the condition was expected to be met. For example, say that we’re driving to work one day and all of a sudden there’s a huge traffic jam. Some accident has occurred many miles ahead, and now traffic is backed up to a standstill. Naturally there will be disappointment because we had the expectation of getting to work on time. Arrival at work was the positive condition that we were expecting, and now suddenly it gets taken away.

“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)

The other commonly encountered negative condition actually results from disappointment. This condition is known as anger. We become so disappointed from failing to achieve our desire that we become angry. Anger is worse than disappointment because anger can lead to bewilderment, which can lead to loss of judgment. By losing our judgment, we can act irrationally. Irrational actions lead to a much worse negative condition than what we started with; hence it is not known as activity which is not based on any rational thought. The famous saying, “Cut your nose to spite your face”, illustrates the cause and effect of irrationality. If one is angry at their face for the appearance it presents, cutting off the nose doesn’t make any sense. It is an irrational act because cutting the nose off actually makes one look even more unattractive, while at the same time doing nothing to quell one’s anger.

Shri Shri Nimai Nitai worshiping Radha and Krishna So where does bhakti-yoga fit into all of this? How do we solve our problems of disappointment and anger without the physical presence of a spiritual leader to help us? The above mentioned examples only scratch the surface of disappointment and anger, for the magnitudes of both negative situations can be greatly increased through tragic events such as death, loss of wealth, and divorce. How can Krishna help us deal with these situations? Moreover, how can we decipher the proper course of action in situations where we are not confident in ourselves?

The solution to these problems can be found in bhakti-yoga itself. Disappointment in relation to maya, or things which aren’t Krishna, can never be eradicated. The secret to success is to mitigate the effects of disappointment. This can only happen when our main business is bhakti-yoga. The more we take to devotional activities, the more the influence of outside desires and the potential for disappointment get reduced. Our main business every day is to perform as much devotional service as possible. This service includes chanting, hearing, remembering, worshiping, and surrendering everything unto God. If we are chanting sixteen rounds and still feeling anger and sadness, we should either take to chanting more rounds or find additional activities of devotional service. Part of the day can be spent reading Vedic texts, watching classic movies, listening to kirtanas, travelling to temples, looking at pictures, offering prayers in front of the deity, cooking nice food preparations to be offered to the Lord, etc. The options are endless.

As mentioned before, Krishna is the enjoyer, so He is the real beneficiary of devotional service. When we are faced with a quandary, a situation where we’re unsure of what to do, the way to decipher the proper course of action is to figure out what will make Krishna happy. Lord Hanuman, the faithful servant of Lord Rama, once faced a difficult situation where he was unsure of what to do. Hanuman was sent by Rama, an incarnation of Krishna, to find the whereabouts of Sita, the Lord’s wife. Upon reaching the island kingdom of Lanka where Sita was, Hanuman saw the great strength and opulence of the King of Lanka, Ravana, and became distraught. Thinking that there was no way to find Sita and successfully return to Rama, Hanuman contemplated suicide. Not knowing what to do, he ultimately decided to carry on with his mission because only by staying alive could he have the opportunity to serve Rama. Not performing devotional service would not have done anyone any good. He chose the path of action in devotion because even if he failed, at least he made an attempt to satisfy Rama.

Shri Hanuman Of course things would work out in the end, for no one is stronger than Hanuman. We can apply the same lesson to our situations. We certainly will have to deal with unexpected predicaments even after we sincerely take to devotional service, but our aim should be to please Krishna, the ultimate enjoyer. Keeping this goal in mind, both the spiritual master, in the form of his instructions, and the Supersoul residing within our heart will surely guide us on the right path.