Saturday, December 25, 2010

Feeling Pity

Shri Hanuman “Whom are you lamenting for when you yourself are pitiable? Why do you pity the poor when you yourself have now been made poor? While in this body that is like a bubble, how can anyone look at anyone else as being worthy of lamentation?” (Hanuman speaking to Tara, Valmiki Ramayana, Kishkindha Kand, 21.3)

This is quite a brilliant statement from Shri Hanuman, an expert on devotional service, scholarship, Sanskrit, virtue, and every other noteworthy field of activity. It is not surprising to hear such words of wisdom emanating from the lotus mouth of Shri Rama’s greatest servant. This one passage can be studied daily, as it serves as a reminder, a jolt to the brain so to speak, of the futility of lamentation and grief. This reminder is helpful because man is generally prone to hankering and lamenting. It is a common practice to lament the plight of others, viewing them as pitiable. From Shri Hanuman’s statement, we see that any individual remaining within a body which is like a bubble is not justified in pitying any other person who is in a similar condition.

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

Lord KrishnaIn the Vedic tradition, God’s ultimate feature is taken to be a transcendental form, a body which provides sweetness and unmatched pleasure to those qualified to see it. Why are there eligibility requirements in seeing God? By default, most people don’t want to see the Supreme Lord. If they saw Him they would have no desire to remain in a world that provides fleeting happiness, a place where misery is the end result of all activity. In order to see God in His original form, that of Lord Krishna, the beautiful lotus-eyed controller of the universe, one has to have a sincere desire to associate with the Supreme Spirit. This purified longing is only acquired after other secondary desires are eliminated. What is the nature of these inferior demands? There are attractions for argument, debate, philosophy, and scientific research. These activities whet the appetite of the inquisitive mind belonging to the conditioned soul, he who wants to figure everything out in this world without approaching God. For such persons, the possibilities for acquiring knowledge are endless, for the Lord kindly provides new information piecemeal as a way of satisfying their desire. How nice is Krishna? He even satisfies those who outwardly neglect Him.

Since argument and philosophy can only take the mind so far, they eventually need to be renounced. When associated with study of spiritual matters, dry philosophy and mental speculation can lead to the conclusion that the ultimate feature of the Absolute Truth is voidness. The impersonal energy, technically known as Brahman in Vedic parlance, is void of any enjoyment, pleasure, and interaction. When one attains the platform of Brahman understanding, their ultimate destination is the impersonal energy that is situated at the outskirts of material existence. As the great acharya Shrila Bhaktivinoda Thakura states, when there is a merging into Brahman, there is no benefit to either party. The soul is not benefitted because its consumption by Brahman only results in the end of individuality, the loss of feeling, sensation, pleasure, etc. Brahman is not benefitted either, for if something is unmanifested, it cannot have any stimulation, enjoyment, or happiness.

Lord Rama For those desiring transcendental pleasure, which is a hankering that always remains with the soul as its eternal characteristic, there is the original form of the Personality of Godhead, Shri Krishna, who has wonderful attributes of sweetness. These features carry over to His limitless personal expansions. One such form appeared on earth many thousands of years ago to give pleasure to the residents of the town of Ayodhya. As the courageous and pious prince of the Raghu dynasty, Lord Rama took aim at the miscreants of the world, especially the Rakshasas who were harassing the innocent sages of the tapo-vanas, or forests conducive to the performance of austerities. While routing the Rakshasas out of the woods, Rama made His way to the forest of Kishkindha, which at the time was inhabited by a group of monkeys headed by their king Sugriva. Rama was with His younger brother Lakshmana at the time, and the two were searching for Rama’s missing wife, Sita Devi. After a meeting was brokered by Sugriva’s chief agent, Hanuman, Rama and the monkey-king formed an alliance, with Rama agreeing to help Sugriva regain his lost kingdom and Sugriva agreeing to help Rama find Sita.

The first order of business was Sugriva’s feud with his brother Vali. Sugriva was previously driven out of his kingdom by Vali, and in order to gain it back, he would need to fight him in battle. Since Vali was too strong for him, Sugriva wanted Rama to kill Vali for him. The Lord obliged by shooting Vali in the back while he was fighting with Sugriva, and as a result, Vali’s wife Tara became a widow. Upon seeing Vali’s body lying on the ground, Tara gave way to lamentation, feeling pity for her departed husband. In the above referenced statement, Hanuman is offering some cogent words of advice aimed at alleviating Tara’s suffering. While these words were directed to a grieving widow, they serve as some of the most profound teachings known to mankind. One can study the components of Hanuman’s statement over and over again, day after day, and find new applications to their meanings.

shri Hanuman Hanuman starts out by asking a rhetorical question. “Why are you pitying someone else, when you are yourself worthy of pity?” Regardless of age, intelligence, financial disposition, or comfort level in life, there is always a tendency to pity others. We look at someone in a troubled situation and think, “Oh I feel so bad for that person. It’s such a shame what they have to go through. I can’t imagine how hard life must be for them.” This lamentation can be directed at a person who has just lost a loved one, gone through a messy divorce, is suffering through poverty, or has been embarrassed in front of others. When we see a public speaker start to stutter, stammer, sweat, and get nervous, we tend to cringe inside. “Oh boy, this is tough to watch”. These sentiments are evoked even from watching similar behavior depicted in fictional movies and television shows.

All of this speaks to the natural propensity for lamentation. From Hanuman’s statement, however, we see that if we were to accurately apply this mindset to ourselves, we’d see that even we would be worthy of pity. For example, let’s say that we feel bad for someone who is going through a messy divorce. The divorced person will now have to be alone, split time with their children, and fork over monthly payments to their former spouse that they now loathe. If we look at our own situations, many of us are also alone, forced to divide up the time we spend with our loved ones, and obliged financially to so many different things. We may or may not be married or have ever suffered through a divorce, but the feelings of distress will always be there, in one form or another. Therefore, if we are lamenting the condition of others, we should also lament our own predicament.

Hanuman next asks Tara why she is lamenting for the poor, when she herself has now been made poor? This is a very interesting question. Tara is feeling sad over her husband’s death, so she feels that her husband is poor now that he has lost his life. Hanuman’s point is that Tara is the one who has been made poor, for she is now a widow. Tara was a very faithful and chaste wife, so she viewed her husband as her foremost deity. Now that her worshipable object was gone, her life and soul had left her company. In this way, she was much poorer than Vali, whose soul continued to survive. Vedic information states that the soul never dies and that death is merely the changing of bodies. One set of clothes gets old and worn out, and a new set gets put on. The nature of the clothes is determined by karma, or the activities performed during one’s lifetime.

“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 Krishna speaking to Arjuna The last part of Hanuman’s question is the kicker. This really gets to the heart of the point he’s trying to convey. The body is compared to a bubble, and since everyone lives in the same type of bubble, no one person is more worthy of lamentation than another. The bubble is a great analogy because it speaks to the temporary nature of the material body. By living for so many years, we may get fooled into thinking that the body is indestructible, or at the very least, that it is difficult to destroy. But in the grand scheme of things, the duration of life for the human being is nothing. It is paltry, pathetic, puny, and tiny compared to the duration of existence for the earth and other planets. When a bubble rises from the surface of water or is generated from soap, it is understood that it doesn’t have long to live. Indeed, the bubble can also be very easily broken. Simply swatting at the bubble or blowing air on it will disintegrate it within a second. When compared to the stability of larger land masses found in the material universe, the body of the human being is considered to be just as fragile as the bubble.

The point to understand is that we all live in one of these bubbles. This means that if we see someone else die prematurely, there is no reason for great lamentation because the same thing will happen to us eventually. One bubble may survive longer than another, but the final outcome is still the same: destruction. Since everyone is residing in one of these fragile establishments, how can any person pity another? According to the advanced transcendentalist’s angle of vision, such sentiments are silly and not based on sound logic and reasoning.

This theoretical knowledge seems all well and good, but for people who are in the eye of the storm, those who are suffering through the untimely death of a loved one, it’s difficult to maintain rationality. We may have daily studied the facts relating to the body and how no one is worthy of pity, but during times of difficulty, the feelings of attachment and loss outweigh those borne of logic and understanding. So what can we do? How do we reach the point where we can truly realize the truths that Shri Hanuman so eloquently describes?

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

ShyamasundaraSince the body is just a bubble, the soul residing within it is certainly not worthy of lamentation. At the same time, if the body is just a bubble, what is the meaning to life? Why are we forced to live in such a fragile shell? Is there another type of body that we can occupy, something more sturdy and damage-resistant? To find the answer, we must revisit the issue of the personal form of God. Lord Shri Krishna, the ultimate feature of the Absolute Truth who is also known as Bhagavan, has an eternal body which is full of transcendental bliss and knowledge. Krishna’s beauty, knowledge, and bliss are not exclusively for His own benefit. Rather, others are meant to associate with this feature of the Lord, basking in the glory of the transcendental sweetness of Shri Shyamasundara.

While remaining in a bubble-like body, one cannot associate with Krishna’s original feature without being subject to the influence of time. There may be temporary association, but the final destination of the bubble will still be the same. The key is to develop an attachment to God, a change in consciousness. One who thinks of Krishna at the time of death certainly does discard their shell-like body, but instead of assuming a new covering, they get sent directly to the spiritual world. In that realm, the liberated soul is allowed to enjoy Krishna’s association in the mood of their choosing. Moreover, the soul is given a spiritual body, similar to that of Krishna’s. In this way, not only does the individual permanently remove their fragile material body, but they assume an indestructible and imperishable spiritual body; a form which provides all the pleasure and bliss that one could ever hope for.

Hanuman chanting So how is God consciousness secured? For those who associated with Lord Rama during His time on earth, this consciousness was automatically adopted. The citizens of Ayodhya, Sugriva’s monkey army, and countless others were able to offer service to Rama directly, so their minds were always fixed on Him. The people of this age can associate with the same Lord Rama, and His original form of Krishna as well, by regularly chanting, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. This style of worship, which is the most effective at delivering liberation, is open to anyone to follow. A conditioned soul, one who is trapped in a bubble-like body, has no reason to pity another conditioned soul. The liberated souls, however, are so kind and compassionate that they desire to turn all the conditioned souls into liberated ones. Their lamentation, which is caused by a voluntary descension from the topmost platform of spiritual understanding, for the spiritually poor serves as the impetus for spreading God’s glories and fame throughout the world. Shri Hanuman is the leading exponent of the virtues of God, and through the instructions he provides, such as those offered to Tara, we can learn how to break free of the temporary material body.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Unheralded Sampradaya

Women tending to baby Krishna “’Dear child, You live long just to protect us.’ While they were blessing child Krishna in this way, they offered a mixture of turmeric powder with oil, yogurt, milk and water. They not only sprinkled this mixture on the body of child Krishna but on all other persons who were present there.” (Women of Vrindavana celebrating Krishna’s birth, Krishna, The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vol 1, Ch 5)

Piety is exhibited in a variety of ways; there is no singular behavior that exclusively indicates the high level of understanding a person possesses. Knowledge of the Absolute Truth is difficult to take in and understand; hence those who are able to grasp this highest wisdom are deemed intelligent and worthy of returning to the eternal spiritual kingdom in the afterlife. It is the basic Vedic tenet that one’s consciousness at the time of death determines the circumstances of their next life. Indeed, this is a basic law of spiritual science, the discipline that focuses on the inner workings of the driving force of matter, spirit. The soul remains forever alive, but due to the different outer coverings it assumes, we tend to think in terms of life and death. When one is in full knowledge of the differences between body and soul, the individual’s relationship to the Supreme Absolute Truth - the ever-existing, incomprehensibly powerful Supreme Lord - they become eligible for emancipation, or liberation from the cycle of birth and death. While acquiring knowledge pertaining to spiritual matters is certainly helpful, it is more beneficial to actually live one’s life based off the tenets of spirituality. In this way, even those who are not outwardly recognized as teachers, preachers, and religious men, can still prove to be the greatest exponents of the sublime engagement of devotional service, the religion of love. No one group better exhibits the effectiveness of teaching-by-action than do the Vaishnava women, the single-most praiseworthy collection of individuals to have ever roamed this earth.

Mother Yashoda with Krishna Why make the distinction between men and women? Moreover, what is so special about a Vaishnava? The Vedas are the ancient truths of life, spiritual and material, that emanate from India. While their collective teachings are commonly known as the Hindu faith, the truths found within are not sectarian in the least bit. Rather, “Veda” is simply a Sanskrit word for knowledge. Since the human being is meant to inquire about the Absolute Truth - that higher authority who is beyond duality and free from the influences of time and space - the term “Veda” naturally refers to spirituality, or more accurately, sanatana-dharma. One’s occupational duty, the activities they are naturally inclined to perform based off their essential characteristic, is their dharma. “Sanatana” is a word that means “without beginning and without end”. Therefore, spirituality, those activities which seek to connect individual spirit with Supreme Spirit, is our inherent and ever-existing duty.

The Absolute Truth is a singular entity who kindly expands Himself into many non-different forms for the benefit of the individual souls. Each non-different form allows for the worship of God in a mood specific to the adherent’s taste. Of all the different divine forms, the original is known by the name of Krishna. He is described as such because of His all-attractive nature. While Krishna is exquisitely beautiful and the provider of sublime sweetness, His immediate expansion of Lord Vishnu is generally more opulent and thus suited for those who prefer to worship God with a reverential attitude. Is there any other way to worship God? Contrary to the image of a fearful, aged, or angry God, the Supreme Lord is meant to be the supreme pleasure giver to those seeking pleasure, the individual life forms roaming in this and innumerable other universes. Since Vishnu and Krishna are the same entity, devotees of either personality are referred to as Vaishnavas. There will always be minor squabbles and debates as to which personality is superior and original, but at the end of the day, such talk is merely an indication of the great affection felt towards the individual’s specific divine object of worship.

Lord Vishnu in Vaikuntha Since the Vedas represent the supreme system of knowledge, the prescriptions they provide for societal maintenance are aimed at helping the individual souls remain committed to their dharma. Not all the prescriptions apply to every single person, for there are varying levels of intelligence and different desires based on the type of body assumed, one’s age, and the specific time period of creation they inhabit. There are generally different dharmas, or specific rule sets, for men and women. It is not that there is any difference in the spiritual makeup of either gender, but rather, there are different qualities inherent to the body types. The men are deemed to be stronger, and thus the enjoyers, while the women are deemed to be more suited towards caretaking, raising families, and beautifying external objects. Women are taken to be the enjoyed. Again, there are always exceptions to these natural inclinations, but the Vedic prescriptions are aimed at providing the most streamlined set of rules and regulations that allow for a peaceful coexistence between both genders.

“Actually, the cultivation of knowledge or renunciation, which are favorable for achieving a footing in Krishna consciousness, may be accepted in the beginning, but ultimately they may also come to be rejected, for devotional service is dependent on nothing other than the sentiment or desire for such service.” (Shrila Prabhupada, The Nectar of Devotion, Ch 14)

The men are deemed to be generally more advanced in knowledge-acquiring capabilities. It is certainly understandable that some would take offense to such a statement, but there are certain caveats that must be noted. For starters, this generalization applies simply to empirical knowledge, and not to devotion to God or the purification of one’s consciousness. While it is certainly nice to acquire a higher level of intelligence, it doesn’t necessarily equate to advancement in spiritual life. Enhanced knowledge of material affairs can often divert one’s attention towards building bombs, investigating areas of material science that only further increase the necessity demands put on the gross body, and developing theories which deny the existence of God. In this way, one’s increased knowledge actually hurts them in the end. In fact, the nadir of material existence, the last snare of maya’s influence, is when man thinks that He is God, for this is the root cause behind the conditioned living entity’s fall down to the material world and their subsequent repetition of birth and death.

Mirabai worshiping Krishna Due to the differences between men and women, there are different dharmas, or occupational duties prescribed. One’s ultimate dharma, or natural characteristic, never changes. The soul is the same regardless of the particular life form, so this means that one’s natural loving propensity always remains. The subordinate dharmas, the specific prescribed regulations pertaining to material life, are put into place so as to allow the natural loving propensity to be purified and directed at the proper entity. In the conditioned state, the living entity directs their love towards friends, family, countrymen, pets, the down-trodden, and the material senses. Dharma allows for the gradual diversion of the loving propensity towards the Supreme Spirit, the ultimate pleasure-giver, Lord Krishna.

Based on the different dharmas prescribed, men generally take to learning about the Vedas and women take to raising children and maintaining the family. It should be noted that the job of a homemaker is one of the most difficult occupations there is. Unlike an office job, there is no time off in maintaining a household. There is no clocking in or out; one is always on the job. In the traditional Vedic system, men take to learning about the Vedas, and when they are old enough, they marry a suitable girl. In the marriage institution, known as the grihastha-ashrama, the wife worships the husband as her primary deity, and the husband worships Lord Vishnu. Since both parties are performing their duties properly, there is an equality of purpose that results and a oneness in outcome. The husband is simply the via-medium to the Lord, so through kindly serving her husband, the chaste and devoted wife is actually serving Vishnu.

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

Lord Krishna The aim of life is to alter one’s consciousness to the point where they are always thinking about Krishna, Vishnu, or any other non-different expansion of the Divine. When this consciousness is fully matured at the time of death, the conditioned soul immediately becomes liberated. At that time, they return to the imperishable spiritual realm, wherefrom they never have to return. When one is already Krishna conscious during their time on earth, it is natural for them to take to preaching. This is an outgrowth of their acquired intelligence. Learning the differences between spirit and matter and the nature of the Absolute Truth are certainly beneficial to the person receiving the information, but it is even better if the same truths are then distributed throughout society to those who are sincerely interested in returning to the spiritual world.

The Vaishnava’s primary instruction is that one should take up devotional acts, or bhakti-yoga, and purify their consciousness. The quintessential act of bhakti is the regular chanting of the holy names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. Along with abstention from basic sins such as meat eating, gambling, illicit sex, and intoxication, one can very quickly make progress in spiritual life. The more one practices bhakti, the more their knowledge of spirituality increases. Since they are in direct connection with Krishna, they naturally start to see His influence in everything. When a person sees Krishna in everything and everyone, their vision is perfect.

Bhakti is actually so powerful that it is not dependent on education, caste, or gender. Moreover, one doesn’t necessarily have to be a preacher to be in perfect union with the Supreme Lord. Generally, the preachers of the Vaishnava tradition have been males who took instruction from their spiritual master, or guru. The guru is considered a direct representative of the Supreme Lord because he took instruction from his own guru, who in turn was taught by his own spiritual master. Ascending the chain of preceptors all the way to the top, you eventually reach Krishna. Interestingly enough, there is another chain of disciplic succession, or sampradaya, which consists entirely of women. This spiritual tradition is often overlooked, but its influence and effectiveness in imbibing God consciousness cannot be denied. This tradition belongs to the Vaishnava women, those purified souls who embody bhakti in all their thoughts, words, and deeds.

Sita Devi The best way to understand the workings of this sampradaya is to study the example of an ideal Vaishnava family. Say that we have a husband who is a devotee of Krishna and a wife who is chaste and abiding by the principles of the Vedas. While the husband performs his own religious duties, along with whatever occupational duties he has, the wife takes charge of managing the household affairs. In addition to taking care of the children, she will make sure to perform arati regularly, worship the deity, prepare nice foodstuffs to be offered to the Lord, and maintain the general appearance of the household. She will also receive guests nicely and feed them sumptuous Krishna prasadam.

Continuing with this example, let’s say that the couple has two children, one male and one female. When the male grows up and gets married, the newlyweds will likely live with the husband’s parents. In this instance, the duties of the mother expand, as she now has a new member of the family in the daughter-in-law. The mother will teach the daughter-in-law everything she knows about religion, i.e. bhakti-yoga. She will teach the new wife how to take care of her husband, the household, guests, and most importantly, the Supreme Lord. This same information will be taught to the daughter of the mother prior to her marriage. This way, when she gets married, she will take the traditions learned from her mother to her new family.

Mother Yashoda with Krishna As time goes on, the same traditions get passed from generation to generation, from mothers to their daughters and daughters-in-law. At this point one may question where the knowledge of spirituality belonging to the original wife, the matriarch of the family, came from. After all, if she was never educated by a guru, wherefrom did she learn who God was, what He looked like, and what prayers to offer Him? The original spiritual master of the world is Krishna, but through His different incarnations that appeared on earth in the ancient past, a very nice system of religious tradition was started. The exalted women of the Vedic tradition such as Sita Devi, Kunti Devi, Mother Yashoda, and countless others ensured that the subtle sampradaya, the unseen disciplic succession of family tradition, remained intact. The behavior of these exalted women has been documented in sacred texts like the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and Bhagavata Purana, so anyone can learn from their examples today.

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

But as we all know, sometimes traditions get broken. New movements crop up all the time, and their appeal is that they are modern and forward thinking. “Reject the outdated models of the past” is the outcry of the social evolutionists. When the influence of these concocted systems of dharma is very strong, the Supreme Lord often comes Himself to reinstitute the real principles of religion. In other instances, He empowers exalted living entities, divine preachers, to spread the gospel of loving service to the Lord. These preachers are the supreme welfare workers, for their message is not limited to any specific group of people. The Vedic scholars, those who take to strictly studying Vedanta philosophy, often believe that Vedic wisdom is not meant for the less intelligent or that Vedic wisdom can’t be understood by everyone. In this day and age, however, the most exalted preacher, Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, a direct incarnation of Krishna, taught the essence of the Vedas through the chanting of Krishna’s names. Through preaching bhakti-yoga, Lord Chaitanya allowed Vedic wisdom to be available to everyone.

Lord Chaitanya Another exalted expounder of bhakti was Goswami Tulsidas, a prolific poet, writer, and all-around saintly person. Through writing beautiful poetry in praise of Lord Rama, a celebrated incarnation of Vishnu, Tulsidas spread the glories of God and bhakti-yoga throughout India. Though the popularity of his poetry increased very rapidly, people often misunderstand his intentions and his belief system. One of the more common misconceptions is that Tulsidas somehow didn’t like women or that he was against the female gender. One can find random quotes here and there, many of which are simply references to Vedic statements, that seem to support this claim, but Tulsidas was actually one of the greatest teachers of women, empowering them with the sword of transcendental knowledge acquired through the hearing process. He singlehandedly kept alive and strengthened the subtle sampradaya of the Vaishnava women. He taught housewives and young girls all about Lord Rama through his poetry, which was often sung in a formalized setting. In this way, people could learn high Vedic concepts through music. In India, in the not too distant past, one could meet many married women who grew up to be illiterate. Because they were married at a young age, they never attended school. Yet through knowledge acquired from the hymns of Tulsidas, they could still run circles around others in the knowledge department as it related to the pastimes and glories of Shri Rama, Lakshmana, Janaki, and Hanuman. Lord Rama is a non-different form of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lakshmana is His younger brother, Janaki [Sita Devi] His wife, and Hanuman His most dear friend and servant.

Though it’s nice to be familiar with theoretical knowledge pertaining to spirituality, it’s more beneficial to practically apply these concepts in one’s daily life. This is precisely the way the women of the Vedic tradition behave. They not only chant the Ramayana, Hanuman Chalisa, and other Vaishnava poems glorifying the Lord and His devotees, but they live Krishna consciousness; they worship the Supreme Lord through their activities. They ensure that the family is well-protected and maintained and that the husband is kept happy. Not only does this practice ensure a stable family, but it leads to the betterment of society. When children are well-cared for and looked after in the home, they will grow up to be good citizens. When Krishna’s name is always glorified in the home, children can’t help but grow up to be Krishna conscious. They in turn will pass on the same tradition to their children.

Mother feeding Lord Rama While we may not all become great expounders of the high philosophy exclusive to the Vedas, we can adjust our activities in such a way that we are living Krishna consciousness. This is the example set by the exalted Vaishnava women, the keepers of the faith. Though they may be considered unintelligent in the material estimation, they are lacking nothing in respect to the highest knowledge. They have proved to be one of the strongest traditions of spiritual education the world has ever seen. Through the power of the holy names of the Lord found in the sacred hymns of the most benevolent Vaishnava saints, this wonderful tradition will hopefully continue forever. By taking to devotional service, any family can become strengthened for many generations. Devotional service is self-illuminating, so anyone who regularly engages in activities such as chanting, hearing, and remembering, will surely acquire all the good qualities possessed by one who is in full Krishna consciousness. Just as the ordinary trees lining the path to heaven become objects of worship due to their association with God, any individual, regardless of their outward appearance, becomes worshipable and the source of supreme knowledge by chanting the Lord’s names.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Consequence Machine

Shri Hanuman “Driven by a virtuous or evil purpose, each living entity performs some work, which has consequences associated with it. After death, the same person steadily reaps all those auspicious and inauspicious results.” (Hanuman speaking to Tara, Valmiki Ramayana, Kishkindha Kand, 21.2)

Negative and unintended side effects form one of the subtleties of spiritual life. Religion typically carries the promise of removing all troubles through a connection formed with the Supreme Lord. This link, known as yoga, is deemed the most powerful relationship, something which leads to the forgetfulness of all troubles and brings immunity from all other ailments. Indeed, it is the absence of this connection that forms the root cause of all problems in life. Spiritual life, the most pure form of which is known as bhakti-yoga, is aimed at purifying the individual from the effects of all activity, both good and bad. What’s interesting to note, however, is that there are still unintended consequences that result from executing bhakti-yoga, but as we’ll see, these consequences turn out to be blessings in disguise.

Hanuman In the above referenced statement, Shri Hanuman is explaining how living entities take to certain activities with a purpose. The activities adopted may be pious or sinful depending on the angle of vision, but some intention is there nevertheless. Moreover, this activity automatically brings with it various fruits, either palatable, unpalatable, or both. The resultant auspicious and inauspicious results even carry over into the afterlife, as fruitive activity is known as karma, which means any action that leads to the further development of the body, which is a type of consequence machine for the soul. The soul continues to exist in the afterlife, so the fruits of action are related to the future body that is acquired. The results of action also play a role in determining the type of body, the circumstances of birth, and the inherent qualities assumed.

One of the interesting aspects to this definition of karma is the notion of good and bad fruits, or phala. Regardless of our intentions, all work performed under the jurisdiction of karma has reactions associated with it. There are innumerable examples to illustrate this point, but we will highlight a few. Since we live in a technologically advanced age, food production is at its peak. Never was there a time in recent memory where as much food was produced by so little human labor as is done today. As a result, people living in industrialized nations have a bevy of options when it comes to eating. Since food is so readily available, problems of obesity and other health related issues have increased. One of the more common problems is diabetes, a disease which forces a person to limit their sugar intake. Products with high sugar content are certainly quite tasty, so diabetics are left with a dilemma: do they eat sugar-rich foods and take the health risks, or do they avoid such foods and miss out on the enjoyment?

Since even food production is a business, entrepreneurs have found a way to tap into the market of sugar-intake-conscious eaters by introducing artificial sweeteners. These food additives produce a similar taste to normal sugar, except they have minimal effect on insulin levels. Therefore, diabetics and others harmed by higher sugar intake can partake of these foods without having to worry about jeopardizing their health. While there have been several controversial studies linking these sweeteners with various diseases, since there is no direct perceived health damage associated with these additives, they remain a popular alternative with those seeking substitutes for sugar.

On the surface it seems that someone who takes to eating foods that contain these sweeteners will only reap positive consequences. After all, the intention, which is based on the desire to avoid damage to one’s health, is noble enough. But karma is not so kind; every action performed has positive and negative consequences, with the exact classification being subject to the angle of vision of the performer. With the artificial sweetener example, one of the unintended negative consequences has been the increase in soda pop consumption. If a person were to drink soda enriched with sugar or high fructose corn syrup, they would likely limit their consumption for fear of increasing their sugar levels and also their weight. Artificially sweetened soft drinks are labeled as “diet soda” because they don’t have any calories and thus don’t have an effect on weight.

Diet soda If we can drink calorie-free soda, we will surely drink as much of it as we can. But when our soda consumption increases, there are other issues to contend with. Most of the popular sodas are colored with caramel; hence an increase in consumption leads to a yellowing of the teeth. Avid soda drinkers will have to either walk around with discolored teeth or invest in teeth-whitening treatment. Another issue is that most sodas have caffeine in them, so an increase in consumption leads to a bodily addiction to this drug. While low doses of caffeine certainly aren’t as dangerous a form of intoxication as is alcohol, the body still does form an addiction to it. If one accustomed to drinking diet soda on a regular basis tries to go without caffeine, they can become lethargic and suffer from headaches.

This same cause-and-effect sequence can be extrapolated to all areas of life. Karma is such a complicated system that no one can accurately take stock of all the effects of action. Fruits continue to manifest even in the afterlife. Advanced transcendentalists gather all of this information and use it to their benefit. Though lamentation isn’t an enjoyable activity, it is certainly very common among conditioned individuals. Shri Hanuman’s statement quoted above was made to alleviate a grieving widow’s pain caused by excessive lamentation. The monkey-king Vali had just been shot and killed by an arrow shot by Lord Rama, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Tara, Vali’s wife, upon seeing his dead body, began to wail and moan and question why such a tragedy had befallen her.

Rama shooting Vali In response, Hanuman informed her of how karma works and how one shouldn’t lament over the changes to the body. These changes occur due to the results of previous work performed, both good and bad. Working off of this knowledge, the self-realized souls understand that since karma is so complicated and intricate, it is better to take to an engagement which transcends it. That activity is known as bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. Bhakti is technically the purified version of karma. Karma equates to work, and bhakti is the same work performed for the satisfaction of the Supreme Lord rather than the body.

“When the embodied being is able to transcend these three modes, he can become free from birth, death, old age and their distresses and can enjoy nectar even in this life.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 14.20)

Does this purified work result in only favorable consequences? Eventually it does, but on the surface the same system of positive and negative consequences is seen. Taking the example of an aspiring transcendentalist, let’s say that such a person decides to sincerely take up bhakti-yoga by regularly chanting, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, and reading books like the Ramayana and Bhagavad-gita. The positive effects of this work are that the individual becomes closer to God and slowly but surely develops their loving attachment to Him. The negative effects relate to time and bodily relationships. If a person spends all their time chanting Hare Krishna and reading about God, naturally they won’t have as much time for other things, such as talking to their friends and spending time with their family. Moreover, the enjoyment derived from these lower priority activities will also start to diminish as a result of the higher taste of bhakti-yoga. The friendships formed outside the realm of spiritual life will suffer, as will the familial relationships. This is true of dedication to any endeavor. One of the reasons movie stars have such a difficult time remaining married is that both parties end up spending so much time shooting movies. The life of a movie star surely seems glamorous, but behind the scenes there are hours and hours spent on set doing take after take. A movie can take almost a year to complete, and all this time away from home can do great damage to the relationship with the spouse.

“Being completely freed from the attraction of material attachment, one gives up the attachment for this material world, family, home, wife, children and everything which is materially dear to every person. Being dispossessed of all material acquisition, one makes his relatives and himself unhappy. Then he wanders in search of Krishna, either as a human being or in other species of life, even as a bird. It is very difficult to actually understand Krishna, His name, His quality, His form, His pastimes, His paraphernalia and His entourage.” (Shrimati Radharani speaking about what results from hearing about Krishna, Krishna, The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vol 1, Ch 46)

Radha and Krishna So if bhakti-yoga also brings unintended negative consequences, how is it different from regular activities in karma? The difference between karma and bhakti is that the negative effects of bhakti are cancelled out by the Supreme Lord Himself. Since bhakti leads to the soul’s elevation to a higher realm, all the negative consequences relating to the body become nullified. Of what use are familial relationships to those souls ascending to the spiritual planet of Krishnaloka - the realm where Lord Krishna, the original form of Godhead, resides - after death? This transcendental realm is reserved for the purified souls, those who performed bhakti-yoga without ulterior motives during their lifetime. The aim of bhakti is to shift one’s desires from the material world to the spiritual world. So in this regard, there are really no tangible side effects to performing bhakti-yoga; the consequence machine eventually stops working. The Supreme Lord takes care of the surrendered soul, so there is no reason to not take to His service and transcend the effects of karma.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


Gopis of Vrindavana “If we give a swan milk mixed with water, the swan will take the milk and leave aside the water. Similarly, this material world is made of two natures—the inferior nature and the superior nature. The superior nature means spiritual life, and the inferior nature is material life. Thus a person who gives up the material part of this world and takes only the spiritual part is called paramahamsa.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Teachings of Queen Kunti, Ch 3)

There are generally three different grades of transcendentalists. They can be thought of as spiritualists who are playing at different levels in the most important game of life. Just as one can choose ascending levels of difficulty when playing a particular video game, a transcendentalist adopts different mindsets based on their knowledge and feelings towards others. The topmost transcendentalist is known as a paramahamsa. This term wasn’t accidentally conjured up; it has deep meaning. “Parama” refers to the topmost or supreme, and “hamsa” refers to a swan. A swan is unique in its ability to take a mixture of milk and water and separate the milk portion. The paramahamsa spiritualist is similarly able to see God in everything and everyone. Therefore their viewpoint is considered supreme and at a level that anyone would benefit from ascending to. Nevertheless, to help the fallen conditioned living entities, i.e. those who are not paramahamsas, the topmost transcendentalists step down from their perch. This voluntary descension from the highest platform of understanding, done for the purposes of preaching, only solidifies the paramahamsa’s supreme stature.

“By Me, in My unmanifested form, this entire universe is pervaded. All beings are in Me, but I am not in them.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 9.4)

Lord Krishna God is everything; there is no denying this fact. Indeed, God is in everyone, but everyone is not God. This may seem like circular logic, but if we apply a little intelligence, we’ll understand its validity. According to the information passed down in the Vedic tradition, there are two distinct entities which exist simultaneously and eternally: the Supreme Soul and the individual souls. Though the individual souls aren’t singular, they are taken as one entity in this discussion due to their similar natures. The individual souls are eternal, full of knowledge, and always blissful. The Supreme Soul, who is known most famously by the name of God, also possesses these qualities but to a greater degree. Not only do these two entities exist, but there is an inherent relationship that binds them. The individual souls, being inferior, are meant to be the loving servitors of the Supreme. This natural condition is described by the term “dharma”. Dharma is an essential characteristic, and when applied to the individual soul, the basic functional unit of life, it relates to the natural love that individuals feel towards God. This affection is completely pure and uncontaminated; a love that is exercised through the free-will characteristic of the purified soul. Thus we see that pure love for God is neither forced nor expected, but rather, it is voluntarily adopted by the soul due to its dharma.

So this seems pretty simple enough; we are all lovers of God. But then how did we end up in our present condition? Surely not everyone is acting out their affection for the Supreme Lord, for there are so many calamities that take place on a daily basis. How can murderers, rapists, and enemies of religion be considered lovers of God? The Vedas, the original set of law codes passed down by the Supreme Spirit, inform us that the present condition the individual souls, the jivas, find themselves in is due to the misuse of free will. When the loving propensity of spirit is aimed at any target other than God, the result is an unpalatable condition. Yet the Supreme Lord doesn’t deny desire. He never compels anyone to love Him; otherwise the definition of free will has no meaning. The Supreme Lord always respects the game.

In order for love to be directed at someone or something other than God, a realm is required, a playing field if you will. This is where the material world fits into the equation. In order to play on this field, the purified soul requires an outside covering, a uniform if you will. Just as players on various sports teams get traded every now and then based on their desires and the wishes of management, the individual souls change uniforms, or material bodies, from life to life based on the work they perform and their desires measured at the time of death. As long as the loving propensity remains contaminated or misdirected, the playing field continues to serve as the soul’s home. When the individual sheds their false ego and attachment to matter, they can begin to take the steps necessary towards rekindling their natural spiritual relationship. At that time, the material elements lose their effect, and the liberated soul eventually returns to the purified realm where they can act out their supreme dharma.

Deity worship Though the aforementioned knowledge is freely available for anyone to absorb, even the spiritually inclined individuals will adopt differing viewpoints during their time on earth. On the most basic level, there are those who may be completely unaware of the differences between matter and spirit and the existence of dharma; yet they may still be interested in spiritual life, so they take to acquiring knowledge and studying under a bona fide teacher, one who knows the Vedas inside and out. The next level of transcendentalist firmly believes in the tenets of the Vedas and the true nature of dharma. When they see others misusing their independence and redirecting their natural love towards objects of family, sex life, pets, nation, community, or the downtrodden, the intermediate transcendentalist will take to preaching the message of the Vedas in a kind way. They will inform everyone of the existence of God, whose original form is that of Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. They will educate others about how different religions exist due simply to the different inherent desires of society over the course of time. The preacher will ask everyone to unite under one mantra, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, and refrain from the four pillars of sinful life: meat eating, gambling, illicit sex, and intoxication.

The highest level of transcendentalist, however, doesn’t see any distinctions between people. He is completely aware of the existence of God and the aim of human life, i.e. that of maintaining a steady God consciousness up until the time of death, but this knowledge doesn’t prohibit him from seeing God in the activities of those who aren’t declared devotees. What does this mean exactly? We can study the gopis of Vrindavana as an example. Though the gopis were young cowherd girls who were never formally educated in Vedic wisdom, they were the greatest paramahamsas. They achieved this status through pure loving service to Lord Krishna, who had personally appeared on earth some five thousand years ago. The gopis even retain their loving propensity and transcendental forms in the spiritual world. They are eternal servitors of the Lord. They never give up loving Krishna, even when they appear in this world or another. Another paramahamsa was Queen Kunti, Krishna’s maternal aunt during the Lord’s time on this earth. Queen Kunti always saw Krishna in everything and thus always kept her mind fixed on His lotus feet.

“My dear gopis, what auspicious activities must the flute have performed to enjoy the nectar of Krishna's lips independently and leave only a taste for the gopis for whom that nectar is actually meant. The forefathers of the flute, the bamboo trees, shed tears of pleasure. His mother, the river, on whose bank the bamboo was born, feels jubilation, and therefore her blooming lotus flowers are standing like hair on her body.” (Gopis glorifying the song of Krishna’s flute, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 10.21.9)

Gopis with Radha and KrishnaThe gopis’ viewpoint is quite interesting and illuminating at the same time. They don’t see Krishna as being absent from anywhere. If they were to study a person who took material sense gratification as the ultimate aim of life, the gopis’ opinion might be something like this: “Oh such and such person is so attached to the material energy of Krishna. They are lovers of God at heart, but due to Krishna’s influence they are taking to the worship of another of the Lord’s energies. Such a person is surely a devotee because they are allowing Krishna’s servitor known as maya to work her magic.” The gopis will look at a meditational yogi in this way: “Oh such and such yogi is such a devotee of Krishna’s expansion as the Supersoul residing within everyone’s heart. They may not understand Krishna’s original transcendental form of Bhagavan, but they are nevertheless drawn to His unmanifested form of the Supersoul like a magnet. They must be making Krishna so happy by allowing His Supersoul expansion to be worshiped and adored.”

“Those situated in the mode of goodness gradually go upward to the higher planets; those in the mode of passion live on the earthly planets; and those in the mode of ignorance go down to the hellish worlds.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 14.18)

Lord Krishna  A paramahamsa will even look at the miscreants and the lowest among mankind as devotees of Krishna. After all, a “bad” person is simply one who is struggling with the mode of ignorance. Material activities can be classified as being either in goodness, passion, or ignorance. Activities in goodness lead to a higher life form in the next life, passion in a neutral state, and ignorance in a lower life form. The animal species is considered to be in the mode of ignorance because they have no knowledge of God, spirit, or matter. A fish doesn’t even know that it is wet or that it will die if it eats too much food. The benefit to ascending to a higher species is that the individual spirit soul will hopefully have a better opportunity for liberation through the acquisition of spiritual knowledge. A person mired in the mode of ignorance takes to activities which lead neither to knowledge nor to a beneficial fruit, or result. For instance, excessive intoxication, stealing, unnecessary killing, and oversleeping are simply wastes of time that drag a person further and further into hellish life. Hell is simply a state of being where one is unhappy for an extended period of time. This condition can be achieved both on earth and on other planets in the material universe.

The paramahamsa even views those in the mode of ignorance as devotees due to their association with one of Krishna’s energies. After all, God is everything, including the mode of ignorance. Though the material modes represent His external, or separated, energy, they are still nonetheless something He created. Therefore the topmost transcendentalist sees that even the ignorant are lovers of God due to their attachment to something that Krishna creates.

Shrila Prabhupada Since the paramahamsa viewpoint represents the most esteemed and scholarly mindset, it must mean we should all try to view every person as a devotee. Following this logic, there would be no reason to preach to anyone, since everyone is associating with Krishna regardless. Yet the paramahamsas, the great devotees of Krishna, kindly descend from their topmost platform down to the middle tier to take to preaching. This is done for the benefit of the conditioned entities as well as for the pleasure of the Supreme Lord. One may ask the question, “If everyone is a devotee, why is there a need for paramahamsas to step down and preach?” The answer is that while everyone is certainly a lover of God, since their love is misdirected in the conditioned state, the resulting fruits, or rewards, are subpar. The preacher takes to instructing others because everyone is naturally looking for happiness, or a better situation. This is an outgrowth of the loving propensity. Love is a natural instinct of the soul, and the ideal result of this love is happiness, or pleasure.

Since everyone is looking for some type of pleasure, the middle-tier devotee takes it upon himself to help others find the highest form of pleasure, an enjoyment which has no side effects. The greatest enjoyment comes from direct association with Krishna; a link which can be secured through bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. Devotional service can be thought of as the appellation which describes the activities that result from the natural loving propensity of the soul in its purified form. In simpler terms, devotional service is the religion of love. When all efforts are geared towards pleasing Krishna, the resultant activities are in pure bhakti. This behavior may appear similar to conditioned activity, but the difference is that both the wanted and unwanted side effects of such actions are discarded. A person in the devotional stage remains unconcerned with the uniform they are wearing and even the nature of the playing field they are associating with. The gopis, through their pure love for Krishna, always remain in the purified state, performing bhakti. They may be separated from Krishna or directly in His company, but their consciousness is always fixed on His sweet, transcendental form. Since Krishna brings the greatest sweetness to the pleasure seekers, devotees take it upon themselves to kindly inform others about the names, forms, attributes, appearances, likes, and dislikes of the Supreme Lord.

Radha and Krishna with the goopis It should be noted that even after being subjected to the greatest and most sincere preaching efforts, most conditioned entities will likely not purify their loving propensity immediately. It is similar to how friends, family, and well-wishers will try to sway a young girl from her attachment to a boy who is completely wrong for her, someone who will cause her great harm in the future. Even through all this counsel, the girl’s love for her paramour remains strong. In the same way, even with all the cogent and insightful words of the middle-tier preachers, non-devotees will likely remain strongly attached to material nature, gross sense enjoyment, sinful life, and dry renunciation. Nevertheless, the paramahamsas take to preaching simply to satisfy the Lord. Since the paramahamsas remain Krishna conscious even while preaching, their sincere effort is reward enough.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


Sugriva and Vali fighting “Driven by a virtuous or evil purpose, each living entity performs some work, which has consequences associated with it. After death, the same person steadily reaps all those auspicious and inauspicious results.” (Hanuman speaking to Tara, Valmiki Ramayana, Kishkindha Kand, 21.2)

Karma is one of the well-known terms of Vedic philosophy, for it even plays a prominent role in Buddhism. The term is generally associated with good and bad results coming about from past deeds. If something bad happens to someone unexpectedly, it is common to see others point to karma as the cause. “That person had it coming. They acted nefariously for so long that karma finally caught up to them.” Sometimes we’ll encounter someone who is an expert cheater or someone who is very rude towards others. Subsequently, one day they get hit with some bad luck or misfortune, which will immediately remind others of karma. While positive and negative reactions are certainly a part of karma, the complete definition of the term involves work, the body, and the soul. To learn more about karma, we can reference the teachings of one of the greatest devotees in history, Shri Hanuman.

Hanuman Lord Hanuman is probably the most famous and well-respected religious figure to come out of India. He is not the original form of Godhead or even a presiding deity of any aspect of creation. Rather, he is a humble, kind, sweet, courageous, and powerful individual, someone who dedicates all his activities towards pleasing the Supreme Lord. Due to this feature, Hanuman is an ideal object of worship, for he grants his devotees all good qualities, culminating with devotion to God, which is the ultimate objective in life. More than just a worshiped divine figure, Hanuman actually enacted many wonderful pastimes directly in the presence of God many thousands of years ago. Hanuman’s object of worship is Lord Rama, an avatara of Lord Vishnu. Hinduism brings with it the three presiding deities of Vishnu, Brahma, and Shiva. Of the three, Vishnu is considered superior because He is a plenary expansion of Lord Krishna, or Vasudeva, the original personality of Godhead. Vishnu has four hands and Krishna has two, but they are the same original God. When Vishnu appears on earth for whatever reason, His expansions are known as avataras.

As Lord Rama, Vishnu came to earth in the guise of a human being, a pious and handsome warrior prince. One of the primary purposes of Vishnu’s descent was to defeat a powerful demon named Ravana. In order to take on Ravana in battle, Rama needed an excuse, something which would eventually come when Ravana would kidnap Rama’s beloved wife, Sita Devi. In the search for Sita, Rama and His younger brother Lakshmana came upon the forest of Kishkindha, which was inhabited by a race of monkeys headed by their king Sugriva. Sugriva had been driven out of his own kingdom by his brother Vali, so he was living in fear of him, “sleeping with one eye open” if you will. Sugriva’s chief minister, Hanuman, orchestrated a meeting between Rama and Sugriva, as the monkeys in Kishkindha could help Rama find Sita’s whereabouts and in return, Rama could help Sugriva defeat Vali and gain his kingdom back.

Rama aiming at Vali This is precisely what occurred, as Rama shot Vali in the back while the monkey was engaged in a struggle against Sugriva. After his death, Vali’s wife Tara took the events quite hard. She began wailing and grieving and wondering why such a terrible calamity had befallen her husband. In the above referenced statement, Hanuman is consoling her with kind words of wisdom. While these words were offered to a grieving widow, they also serve as a great description for how karma works and how the results are distributed to the fruitive worker even in the afterlife.

“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)

In the simplest definition, karma equates to the development of the body. The workings of the body surely seem involuntary, for none of us flick a switch and decide to grow or age. These things happen on their own, with the aid of time. But in reality, the development of the body is due to previous work performed, or karma. A distinction should be made between the body and the soul. Though we may be unaware of it, the soul does not grow or age; it is eternal, something which is immutable and unchanging. The entity we currently take our identity from, the body, is merely a temporary covering of the soul. The soul accepts a body and continues to reside in one for as long as karma is performed. This means that any activity that keeps the soul bound up in a covering composed of material elements can be considered karma.

Hanuman To gain a better understanding of these concepts, let’s break down the different sections of Hanuman’s statement. Shri Hanuman states that the first aspect to karma is the desire to perform work. A person has a desire to do something, a hankering which can be good or bad. This is pretty easy to understand. We’re looking for some result, so we take to a particular action to achieve that result. In this scope, the activity can be deemed pious. Not all intentions are the same, for some people want to perform activities in the mode of goodness, such as giving charity to worthy recipients, teaching selflessly, and studying scripture, while others want to perform activities in the mode of ignorance, such as taking to violence, intoxication, and excessive sleep. The reason Hanuman mentions both good and bad work, pious and impious, is that the actual motive of the work doesn’t matter. Every action performed under the rubric of karma has an intention attached to it, so the actual nature of the intention is not that important in the grand scheme of things.

The second aspect to karma deals with results. The catalyst for action is intent, or a desire for a favorable future condition, but for the work to be meaningful there must be results. In Sanskrit, these results are referred to as phala, or fruits. It is for this reason that the common English translation for karma is “fruitive activity”. Every act of karma, regardless of the intention, has an associated reaction. In fact, there can be mixed reactions: both good and bad, some good and some bad, all good or all bad, etc. Remembering the simplest definition of karma, any activity that is done for the development of the body must have consequences, for that is how the body will develop. This development doesn’t have to be positive, for a body can deteriorate as well.

The concluding part of Hanuman’s statement says that the reactions of karma steadily come to the person after death. Again, this speaks to the eternal nature of the soul. Death is not the end, for only the current body finishes at the end of life. When we say that karma refers to the development of the body, future bodies are part of the scope as well. This is how the phenomenon of reincarnation works. Reincarnation is very easy to understand; it is simply the further changing of bodies by the soul. Reincarnation even occurs within one’s lifetime, as the body of a child is completely different from the body of an adult. Throughout this changing of bodies, the soul remains the same, so the only difference is the development, or growth, of the outward covering of the soul. The reactions to fruitive activity continue to bear fruit in the afterlife. These fruits, or phala, determine the type of container the soul is placed into in the next life. The fruits come to the living entity in the afterlife regardless of whether they want them or not. That is the nature of karma; it plays no favorites, nor does it make exceptions for anyone under its jurisdiction. If an activity is performed under the umbrella of karma, regardless of the motive of the performer and regardless of the nature of the results, the fruits to such action will surely come.

“O Partha, happy are the kshatriyas to whom such fighting opportunities come unsought, opening for them the doors of the heavenly planets.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.32)

Krishna speaking to ArjunaHanuman brought up these salient points to alleviate Tara’s suffering. Vali had committed many acts of karma previously, so it was due to those activities that he had to die in the way that he did. Moreover, the fruits of his work would continue to come to him in the afterlife. He had died on the battlefield while engaged in a noble fight, so according to Vedic tenets and the authorized statements of Lord Krishna found in the Bhagavad-gita, Vali had very good karma coming his way. Even though he fought with Sugriva through ill-conceived motives, the simple act of taking up arms and fighting with an enemy had inherent positive results built in. Warriors who die on the battlefield while fighting honorably are immediately sent to heaven in the afterlife, where they enjoy material opulence for many years. Vali was guaranteed of receiving these fruits, so Tara had no reason to lament.

The ultimate lesson here is that the body is not worth grieving over. Every experience in life, from the good times to the bad, is due to karma. Every person gets what they deserve in the end, so there is no need to pay too much attention to fairness. On an interesting side note, since Vali was killed directly by the Supreme Lord, he was guaranteed of achieving liberation from the cycle of birth and death. While karma leads to the future development of the body, associating with God enables one to transcend karma. This was the example set by Hanuman, who dedicated all his activities towards pleasing the Supreme Lord. He easily can get liberation whenever he wants, but he chooses to remain on this earth for as long as Lord Rama’s story continues to be told. In this way, Hanuman is already liberated without even having to quit his body.

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

Hanuman's karma-free activities If we follow Hanumanji’s example and take up devotional service, we also can transcend the effects of karma. While acts of karma bring good and bad material results in the future, acts of bhakti, or devotion, slowly burn off all the results of karma. Bhakti, when attached to the service of the Lord, is essentially the purified form of karma; hence it is known as bhakti-yoga. The quintessential activity for the bhakti-yogi 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”. By regularly chanting this mantra with love and devotion, we can slowly burn off our karma and be able to focus our mind always on the Supreme Lord and His exalted devotees like Shri Hanuman.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Real Benefit of Liberation

Lord Krishna's lotus feet “My dear Supreme Lord Krishna, because You have given me this body of a demigod, I will have to go to some heavenly planet; so I am taking this opportunity to beg for Your mercy, that I may have the benediction of never forgetting Your lotus feet, no matter to which form of life or planet I may be transferred.” (King Nriga speaking to Lord Krishna, Krishna, The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vol 2, Ch 9)

These words were spoken by King Nriga, one of the most generous rulers in history, to Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Part of nice prayers offered to the Lord, these statements go a long way in teaching us about the different rewards one can receive from the Supreme Divine Entity and which ones are actually worthwhile. Sometimes we ask for something, but when we actually get it, it turns out to not be beneficial to us. This sequence of events is similar to how a child will desperately want to play with a particular toy. After getting the toy and playing with it for a few days, the child completely forgets about it and moves on to a new interest. The ultimate reward of spiritual life is generally assumed to be ascension to a heavenly realm, a place where the enjoyment is unlimited and the miseries of life are non-existent. The Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, provide some more detail into what actually takes place in this realm. Moreover, these books reach the conclusion that the real benefit to human life is the chance to achieve liberation, or the end to the cycle of birth and death. Release from the miserable cycle known as samsara doesn’t necessarily involve grand opulence or the removal of distresses, but rather has everything to do with concentration, thoughts, and most importantly, consciousness.

This is quite a bit of information to take in at once, so let’s break down a few of the concepts to gain a further understanding. The prevailing opinion amongst theists is that if you are generally pious over the course of your lifetime, you will ascend to heaven in the afterlife. If you are overly sinful, then when judgment day comes, you will be forced to suffer eternal damnation in hell, burning in the “lake of fire” so to speak. The general consensus is that there is only one life on earth for each individual, a life which is determined at random or at least by the will of a higher power. This singular birth represents the only chance to choose which path to take: the righteous one or the sinful one. In addition, amongst such theists there is scant discussion of the soul or its interaction with matter. The body and soul are taken to be the same, thus the body is buried at the time of death. Questions pertaining to why certain individuals are forced to suffer in their one life on earth, or why some individuals don’t even live long enough to see adulthood, are not addressed. For example, if we only get one life, and if the aim is to be sufficiently pious, what would be the benefit to living long? Wouldn’t it be better to be killed in an accident early on in life. After all, wouldn’t this early death secure an easy track to heaven?

The Vedas, being the original scriptures of the world, shed some light on this issue. The first item taught to aspiring transcendentalists of the Vedic school is that one is not their body. The soul is the basic functional unit of life. The soul is spirit, and the outer covering of the soul is matter. Matter is dull and incapable of acting on its own. Thus the soul is both the basis of individuality and the catalyst for the workings of all matter, including nature. Though the Supreme Soul, or the soul of nature as a whole, may be imperceptible to the human eye, there is certainly a more powerful entity, a giant spirit if you will, that is responsible for the suspensions and orbits of the planets, in addition to the complex workings of nature. Both the individual soul and the Supersoul are unmanifest according to the vision of the individual. As conditioned human beings, we are unable to directly perceive spirit. But this doesn’t mean that we can’t recognize its workings. The actions of spirit are seen through visible symptoms, the most obvious of which relate to the movements of the body. A person is considered dead when their gross body becomes useless. This state is achieved when the soul, the driver of the car, exits the body. Similarly, birth is the event where a soul enters a new gross body. Due to the presence of the soul, the tiny pea-like mass gradually develops within the womb of the mother and then eventually comes out into the real world. As long as the soul remains in the body, the future development of the external covering continues.

“The soul can never be cut into pieces by any weapon, nor can he be burned by fire, nor moistened by water, nor withered by the wind.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.23)

Lord Krishna Based on these scientific facts, which are quite logical and straightforward, it is understood that the soul is imperishable and capable of movement. The soul is the greatest space traveler, an entity which jumps from one body to another through the laws of nature. These laws are extremely fair, impartial, and well-executed. The collection of all actions and reactions is known as karma. It is through fruitive activity, actions which lead to some future development of the body, either favorable or unfavorable, that the soul transmigrates and associates with nature. Because the soul is imperishable and incapable of being destroyed, we all most certainly have lived before, and we will continue to live in the future.

“Those situated in the mode of goodness gradually go upward to the higher planets; those in the mode of passion live on the earthly planets; and those in the mode of ignorance go down to the hellish worlds.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 14.18)

So where do heaven and hell fit into this model? These polar opposite regions certainly do exist, and they are precisely what we think them to be. Heaven is a place of excessive opulence and enjoyment. In our current lives, enjoyment is equated with wealth, beauty, fame, sumptuous food, and arousing sex life. In this way, we even get a taste of heaven in our present world. By the same token, the hellish conditions of pain and suffering are derived from physical harm, frustration, and loss of property and possessions. This too is also experienced in the material world. Therefore, we see that heaven and hell are simply realms within the material world where either extreme condition is seen in preponderance. Heavenly life involves excessive enjoyment for a longer period of time than that seen in our present body. The length of time spent in heaven is commensurate with the pious credits we accumulate through good works in our current life. In a similar manner, the duration of our stint on the hellish planets is determined by the impious credits we accumulate through nefarious and sinful activities.

Since our time in either realm is calculated off of credits accumulated through actions undertaken, we see that residence in both hell and heaven is not permanent. This again speaks to the laws of nature and karma. The concept of “one life” seems nice in theory, but it doesn’t square with the issue of time. A life, when understood properly, is simply a demarcation of time, the duration of an individual soul’s residence within a particular developed body. In this way, the term “life”, or “lifetime”, can be considered a variable, a value not constant across every individual. Therefore the Vedas give more importance to the essence of individuality, the soul. The soul, as the ultimate space traveler, can attain any realm through activities performed in accordance with the body it resides in. Just as our individuality doesn’t change when we wake up each morning, the qualities of the soul don’t change when we accept a new body in the next life. Upon waking up in the morning, we think that a brand new day has started due to the sun rising and our awakening from a sleeping state. But in reality, this concept of a day is entirely subjective, something based on the angle of vision of the individual. If we were to stay awake all night, would that mean that a day hadn’t passed? Since each day is simply a measurement of time, we see that this duration has no effect on our individuality. The outer covering changes at every second, and just because we don’t see this morphosis, it doesn’t mean that it’s not happening. In a similar fashion, at the time of death, the soul, which is beyond the purview of the conditioned eye, subtly travels to another body, a form which is determined by one’s karma.

The Vedas, which incorporate all necessary material and spiritual information, come to the conclusion that the ultimate objective for the conditioned living entity is to achieve liberation. Unlike ascending to heaven or falling down to hell, liberation means never having to accept another body. If upon receiving liberation we don’t go to heaven or hell, where do we go? What type of body does the soul occupy in a liberated state? Moreover, is this body determined by karma or something else? In the liberated state, does the soul engage in activity, and if so, does it resemble the heavenly life experienced by the pious entities? The scriptures are full of answers to these questions, but to gain a basic understanding, we can look to the example of the famous King Nriga.

King Ikshvaku was one of the first kings on earth. Being the son of the first man on earth, Manu, Ikshvaku set the standard for chivalry and good governance. He had a son named Nriga, who himself grew up to become a famous king. He was well-known throughout the world for being extremely generous. The king’s duty is to collect taxes and use that money to provide protection to the innocent. He is also to give in charity, but not just to anyone. The priestly class of men, the brahmana, is deemed the only one worthy of charity. Brahmanas aren’t simply beggars, but rather they are pious souls who intentionally take to an austere lifestyle to remain levelheaded in their devotional practices. If a brahmana works all day to secure a living, he will not have time to study the Vedas, teach others Vedic wisdom, perform sacrifices, and complete other related religious duties.

Lord Krishna with cow So what do brahmanas accept in charity? Since they have no desire for material enjoyment, they simply require things that will sustain their livelihoods. Nothing is more economically friendly to a landowner than a cow. If the cow is well-protected and allowed to graze freely and openly, it will supply heaps and heaps of milk. This milk can then be used to produce an abundance of food dishes. In addition, the excess milk can be sold or traded for other essentials. For these reasons, pious kings used to give so many cows away in charity to the brahmanas.

King Nriga was no different in this regard, but one time he made a grievous error. Since he was giving away so many cows during one particular occasion, he accidentally took a cow that had previously been given to a brahmana. He then donated the same cow to another brahmana. Thus a quarrel ensued, as the king, in slang terminology, had essentially acted like an “Indian giver” by taking back something he had given away as a gift. Though he tried to remedy the situation by giving thousands more cows to both affected parties, no solution could be reached. At the time of death, King Nriga’s karmic slate suffered slightly as a result of this transgression. Instead of immediately ascending to heaven as was due him, he had to suffer some time in the hellish planets for having taken a brahmana’s property. The god of death, Yamaraja, “Mr. Judgment Day” if you will, asked the king if he would first like to suffer for his sins or enjoy the credits of his pious deeds. The king decided to suffer first. Thus he was cast off into the body of a lizard which remained stuck in a deep well.

Lord Krishna A long time later, Lord Krishna, the Supreme Lord Himself, descended to earth to enact wonderful pastimes. It seems odd that the Supreme Lord would come to earth in the guise of a human being, but for the devotees, there is no difficulty in understanding this. The designations of manifested, unmanifested, human, demigod, etc. are only useful to the conditioned living entities. The Supreme Lord never changes. Whether one views Him as the unmanifested, all-powerful Supersoul residing within the heart of every living entity or as the Supreme Personality of Godhead who assumes various transcendental forms to enact pastimes on earth, there is no change in the Lord. God is God, and He is always nirguna, or without material qualities. This doesn’t mean that He is formless, but rather He is devoid of a material form. When He comes to earth, His incarnations are sometimes referred to as saguna, or with attributes, but this is strictly according to the vision of the conditioned observer. The Lord comes in the guise of a human being, but He remains completely spiritual and free of the effects of nature.

“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)

The Lord’s guise of a human being benefits the living entities because it allows them to slightly conceive of the Supreme Lord’s spiritual attributes. When one remains fixed on studying the unmanifested form of the Lord, progress is very troublesome. Goswami Tulsidas says that the nirguna form of the Lord is akin to a numeral representation of the dollar amount in a bank transaction. The saguna form, or the incarnation or deity representation of the Lord, is likened by Tulsidas to the written-out version of the same numeral. When we write checks, we enter the dollar amount in numerals, but then we also write out the same amount in word form. The numerals can easily be misinterpreted, or even nefariously altered, to mean something else, so the words themselves remove all doubt. In the same way, the nirguna form of the Lord can be misidentified by the conditioned living entities to be formless or a body equal in potency to the living entities. This is where the foolish notion of “I am God” comes from. The saguna form, which is not different from any other form of the Personality of Godhead, eliminates all doubt and confusion by showing the conditioned entities exactly what God looks like, what activities He takes to, what His nature is, and what things please Him. So anytime an individual steps forward and claims to be God, we can compare their qualities to the bona fide incarnations, the saguna manifestations, to see whether they are legitimate or not. Tulsidas uses the comparison to the bank transaction to stress the importance of worshiping the saguna form, as this style of worship is much less prone to confusion and exploitation by the miscreants of the world.

Krishna's different appearances We can never truly comprehend the self-illuminating, all-powerful nature of the Supreme Lord, who is without material qualities, but through His appearances on earth in the guises of various living entities, we can gain a slight understanding. Lord Krishna, being the original, all-blissful, eternal form of the Lord, certainly helped us out a great deal by appearing on earth around five thousand years ago. During His adult years, He reigned as the King of Dvaraka. On one occasion, His family members found a lizard stuck in a deep well. Unable to get it out, they came to Krishna and asked for His help. The Lord came to the scene and was easily able to extend His hand into the well and rescue the lizard. Upon receiving the transcendental touch of Krishna, the lizard, the reincarnated King Nriga, assumed the form of a beautiful demigod adorned with a royal helmet and various ornaments. King Nriga thus appeared before Krishna and immediately offered his obeisances.

Krishna rescuing King Nriga After narrating his story about his past life to Krishna, King Nriga was ready to ascend to heaven to enjoy the pious credits he had previously accumulated. In the above referenced statement, we see that the king had no desire to go to heaven and enjoy material opulence. Rather, he was a little fearful, for he had seen the Supreme Lord face-to-face and realized there was nothing that could compare to the happiness derived from this association. Therefore he kindly asked the Lord that he be allowed to always remember Him, no matter where he went. Through this kind request, we see the true meaning of liberation, the ultimate achievement for the conditioned entity trapped in the mire of reincarnation.

The cessation of birth and death is certainly nice, but from King Nriga’s example, we see that activity doesn’t stop in the liberated state. Rather, liberation really means becoming free from the material qualities. The individual souls can never become equal to God, but they can become nirguna. Gunas are material qualities, and they are binding for as long as one is willing to associate with them. In the liberated state, the living entities use the nature around them, including their own gunas, to serve the Lord, remember Him, meditate on His transcendental form, and chant His names. Through such behavior, gunas become purified, and the conditioned living entities assume a nirguna state. Though the living entity becomes free of material qualities, their liberation still involves activity, that of service to the Supreme Spirit. This is the true benefit of spiritual life, a boon which speaks to the essential characteristic of the soul, or its dharma.

Krishna's lotus feet Though heavenly opulence seems nice, it is meaningless to those whose minds are fixed on the lotus feet of the Supreme Lord. Goswami Tulsidas says that in the heavenly planets, it is heard that since material opulence is so great, the enjoyers forget about their impending death, a forgetfulness which results in their subsequent fall down to the material world. This is precisely what King Nriga was afraid of. Surpassing the experience of life in heaven, a higher joy can be felt through dhyana, or constant meditation on the Supreme Lord. This shouldn’t be mistaken to mean silent meditation, where one gives up all activity. This certainly can be an aspect of spiritual life, but perfect dhyana is to always be thinking of the Lord wherever one goes. One in the liberated state is always meditating, throughout the day, wherever they may find themselves. Such a commitment to transcendental concentration can only be achieved through a change in consciousness.

Radha and Krishna Therefore, those who are intelligent abandon hope for heavenly enjoyment and insulation from hellish pain. They take directly to bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, through chanting the holy names of the Lord, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. Remembering, hearing, chanting, and meditating on the Lord at all times bring about the purification of consciousness. When this transcendental mindset remains at the time of death, the soul gains release from birth and death and is rewarded with the eternal association of the Lord. This connection remains unbroken and undaunted, thus giving the soul the greatest benefit it could ever ask for.