Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Safety of the Past

Lord Krishna and His pastimes “Even while engaged in various activities, devotees whose minds are completely absorbed at Your lotus feet, and who constantly hear, chant, contemplate and cause others to remember Your transcendental names and forms, are always on the transcendental platform, and thus they can understand the Supreme Personality of Godhead.” (Prayers by the demigods, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 10.2.37)

Nostalgia is certainly an interesting feeling, for it brings about sweet longings for past events and circumstances which weren’t necessarily pleasurable while they were occurring. It is the nature of the soul to be blissful and knowledgeable, but with the uncertainty of the outcome of future events, it is nice to periodically step into the past and fondly reminisce about events whose conclusions are known. It’s ironic that man tends to only remember the good moments, extracting the nectar from otherwise tumultuous situations. The workings of nostalgia provide deep insight into the nature of individual spirit and what the spark of life requires to find lasting happiness. If remembering events which weren’t even that pleasurable can bring about feelings of bliss, just imagine what can happen when the mind is focused on that one individual who provides happiness to every single person the universe over.

Lord Krishna stealing butter Due to the fluctuating nature of life and the unpredictability in outcome of present events, our future fortunes and misfortunes always remain uncertain. Therefore we don’t really take comfort from our current predicaments or ponder over them in a pleasant way. Surprisingly enough, if we were to fast forward maybe one week, a month, or even a year, we’d look back on the current circumstances with some fondness. “Oh I remember that time in my life, where I was with such and such person and working at such and such job. Those were simpler times; I wish I could go back to that.” It’s ironic to see these sentiments because the events we are remembering aren’t any different than those we are currently experiencing. Something as simple and uneventful as sitting in a classroom can be remembered years later with great fondness.

Certainty and predictability of outcome are the pillars of nostalgia. There is safety in the past. Stability and knowledge of future outcomes are always welcome in life, especially when it pertains to money, holding down a steady job and health. In the daily grind, there is worry at every second, fear that we will lose everything. This is part of the natural instincts of the animal, along with eating, sleeping and mating. Certainty is especially appreciated in the economics field. For a farmer, knowing that they will have a bountiful harvest at the end of the season is very comforting. For a business, knowing that there will be customers lining up to buy their products and workers willing to put in the time to produce such goods brings stability to the shareholders and company owners. Businesses work off of quarterly and yearly projections, so the larger the scope of these forecasts the less trepidation and anxiety there will be.

How would we behave if we couldn’t be confident that we’d have a job in the near future? What would the nature of our actions be if we didn’t know that the school we were attending would be operational in the near future? Going even one step further, how would our mindset be altered if we didn’t know if we would be alive in a week, month or year? Obviously any of these conditions can apply to us because uncertainty is the nature of the world. Hence it is not surprising to see that experiences of the past are remembered fondly, with the pleasurable moments extracted from the otherwise tumultuous and uneventful ones.

Feelings of nostalgia can be brought on by sound, sight and through communication with others. For instance, if we watch a movie or a television show that we saw many years prior, we would likely try to remember where we were and what our mindset was back when we first watched that particular program. Nostalgia immediately kicks in and the same feelings of bliss can be reawakened by watching the program over and over again. Similarly, visiting our old college campus and dorm room can immediately bring about strong memories. Simply by walking through the halls and the campus of the college we attended can immediately take us back in time to when we were students. For a brief moment, the mind performs the miraculous feat of going back in time.

Reincarnation By carefully analyzing these feelings we can decipher the key to finding lasting happiness in an otherwise chaotic condition. According to the Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, the workings of this world are governed by three modes: goodness, passion and ignorance. The spirit soul, the driving force behind activity, is aloof from all these modes, but when put into contact with a material body, it becomes prone to activities belonging to material nature. Goodness is considered the best mode because it brings one closer to the finish line of mukti, or liberation from the cycle of birth and death. As long as one retains an affinity for activity in any of the three modes, the phenomenon of reincarnation, or the transmigration of the soul through various changing bodies, continues. The mode of goodness is considered superior because it allows one to reawaken their intrinsic knowledge and ignite their dormant loving passion. Once an individual acts according to their innate knowledge, they can take to constitutional activities which are free from the effects of nature.

What does this mean exactly? As we see with nostalgia, the mind can bring about blissful feelings of longing simply by remembering. Since the mind is the sole player in this case, the act of evoking nostalgia isn’t a physical one requiring any money or the performance of any work. Simply through remembering one can be brought the greatest bliss. Yet feelings of nostalgia can only bring temporary satisfaction since they focus on past events pertaining to the material body. However, if we up the ante and fondly remember activities of a divine personality, the resulting blissful feelings can last a lifetime. When the most pleasurable consciousness remains active at the time of death, the spirit soul is immediately granted mukti.

“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, Bhagavad-gita, 8.5)

Lord Krishna What does mukti entail? Who is the singular personality that we should focus our attention on? When one is released from the cycle of birth and death, they cease to possess a body composed of the material elements. At the same time, the soul must retain some sort of body. Yet this outer covering doesn’t necessarily have to be made up of elements belonging to the goodness, passion or ignorance categories. Mukti leads to the acquisition of a spiritual body. The spiritual outer covering is composed of elements with the same qualitative makeup as the soul; hence the differences between body and spirit are eliminated. In the spiritual world, there is no such thing as an outer covering separate from the individual, as the soul assumes a blissful and knowledgeable body that is never subject to destruction.

Since mukti can be of different varieties, there are different types of spiritual bodies one can acquire, but the one awarded to those who focus the mind on loving feelings of attachment directed to the most sublime divine personality allows the individual to forever associate with such a loveable object. Not surprisingly, this divine personality is God, who is known as Lord Krishna in the Vedic tradition. It is not that the Vedas give a particular name for God that only applies to people of a certain faith or region. Krishna is a Sanskrit word that means “all-attractive”, so the appellation speaks to the truth of God’s original form being one that appeals to all of humanity.

Lord Krishna So how do we remember Krishna? How do we know what He looks like? How can we look back fondly on experiences pertaining to Krishna if we don’t remember having ever met Him? Luckily for us, the Supreme Lord has appeared on earth many times in the past in non-different, completely spiritual bodies. The modes of nature only operate on the conditioned living entity. In the mode of ignorance, one becomes immune to the pain brought on by conditional activities. The difference between material activities and spiritual activities is that material engagements lead to bondage, while activities on the spiritual plane lead to liberation. We can think of it in this way: Say we have two students who are in the second grade of elementary school. One student does their homework on time, studies for exams and pays attention in class. The other student goofs off all the time, doesn’t do their homework and doesn’t pay any attention to what the teacher says during classroom hours. The steady and faithful student can be said to be on the path of liberation, one which leads to promotion to the third grade at the end of the year. The other student is wholly dedicated to the path of bondage, wherein they will have to repeat the second grade in the subsequent year.

Our activities in the material world can be thought of in the same light. Activities in goodness bring one closer to the next platform of understanding, with the hope that one day, either in this life or in a future one, the individual soul will realize that its true home is in the spiritual world with Krishna. Activities in ignorance not only lead to bondage, but they keep one from realizing the folly of their ways. Revisiting the second grade example, the student on the wrong path will get many chances to rectify their behavior during the course of the year. These opportunities will manifest in the form of negative reactions; bad grades, scolding from the teacher and meetings with the parents. In a similar manner, those who are on the path of bondage in the phenomenal world are given many opportunities to straighten themselves out. These chances manifest in the forms of bad fortune, disease, old age, death and overall pain. When one is in the mode of ignorance – when they take to excessive intoxication, extreme laziness and overall bad behavior – they become immune to the resulting severe negative consequences. Therefore the mode of ignorance is deemed the most damaging because it keeps one from even realizing that what they are doing is harmful to their future well-being.

The mode of passion, which is represented by fruitive activity, similarly leads to bondage, but in the mind the negative effects are essentially cancelled out by the temporary rewards achieved through such strenuous endeavor. For example, an athlete who trains to run a marathon goes through so many negative experiences which are deemed worthwhile once the actual marathon is completed. Yet under the intelligent viewpoint, the entire training process is one that leads to a neutral state, for once a person finishes the marathon, they are essentially right back where they started from. The mode of passion, however, is superior to ignorance because at least the individual is conscious of their negative experiences.

The mode of goodness leads to knowledge and the understanding of the differences between spirit and matter. Yet even gradually ascending the chain of empirical knowledge and education is not enough to bring about the highest form of mukti. Success in spiritual life can involve retraction, but bliss must be represented as well. It is the nature of the soul to be happy and blissful, so in addition to gradually acquiring knowledge and refraining from harmful activities, one must also be given the greatest form of pleasure through acts of the spiritual nature. In fact, one who practices these positive, bliss-giving activities perfectly has no need for retraction or any of the prescribed rules and regulations. Simply by remembering Krishna and the activities He performed on earth one can purify their consciousness.

Mother Yashoda and Krishna So this seems all well and good in theory, but how do we know that remembering Krishna actually works at purifying consciousness? For starters, those who are doubtful can at least give the practice a try. Not only has God, in His original form of Krishna, come to earth many times in the past, but so have many of His non-different incarnations known as avataras. The innumerable transcendental activities performed by the Personality of Godhead and the lessons derived from them makes the whole of Vedic literature the largest and most comprehensive set of scriptures known the world over. Not only can we learn about Krishna and fondly remember His activities, but we can also study how others always remained in Krishna consciousness and kept themselves in a blissful state of mind.

During the Treta Yuga, the second time period of creation, Krishna descended to earth as a warrior prince named Rama. At the occasion of a grand sacrifice held by the King of Mithila, Maharaja Janaka, Lord Rama was awarded Janaka’s daughter Sita as His wife. Later on, however, Sita would be separated from Rama and put into a very distressful condition. Remaining a prisoner in an ashoka garden in the kingdom of Lanka, Sita was never sure if she would see her dear husband again. Though she was in a fearful condition with an uncertain future, she remained alive by keeping her mind steadily fixed on the glories of her husband and the great activities He performed in the past. She had lived with Rama for many years, so she had many experiences to fondly look back on.

Sita meditating on Rama Sita Devi is the mother of the universe, the eternal consort of Lord Rama, so obviously she is the most exalted of devotees. But just because she is a supremely elegant divine figure, one worthy of eternal love and adoration, it doesn’t mean that we can’t follow her lead and try to fix our minds on the activities of the Lord. Just as reminiscing about our own past experiences can bring us blissful feelings of longing, remembering the sweet, transcendental pastimes of Lord Krishna, Radharani, Lord Rama, Sita, Lakshmana, Hanuman, Narasimhadeva, Prahlada, Balarama, Vamanadeva, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and so many others can bring us such great happiness that we will feel as if we have been transferred directly to the spiritual world. Just as there is safety in the past, there is eternal comfort and security that comes from warmly embracing the transcendental activities of the Supreme Lord and His associates.