Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Are You Better Off

Hanuman “Remembering their sons and wives, always being hungry and in anxiety, lamenting their painful situation these monkeys will turn their backs on you.” (Hanuman speaking to Angada, Valmiki Ramayana, Kishkindha Kand, 54.17)

smarantaḥ putra dārāṇām nitya udvignā bubhukṣitāḥ |

kheditā duḥkha śayyābhiḥ tvām kariṣyanti pṛṣṭhataḥ

Originating from Ronald Reagan’s famous debate with Jimmy Carter in 1980, “Are you better off today than you were before?” is now likely the most common question posed to voters by challengers looking to unseat incumbent politicians. More than any other barometer, the simple comparison of one’s life conditions between two periods of time can be enough to determine who will be supported in the upcoming election. Though civics can involve many levels of administration and decision-making and thus be difficult to comprehend, the voting public will ignore all the details and focus directly on the current situation at hand. If they are in a better predicament after having followed a particular leader’s implemented plan of action, they will likely approve of the incumbent’s remaining in office. On the other hand, if things turn sour, voters will turn their backs immediately on the existing leadership, choosing a different course of action. Indeed, a challenger often doesn’t even have to present anything substantive to the voters as far as policy goes. They can simply call for change, without actually defining what they will do differently, and still end up winning office. Shri Hanuman, the faithful servant of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, was well aware of how constituents assess their leaders, and he used this knowledge to advance the interests of his beloved friend, master and worshipable object.

Elections-VOTEIn a democratically elected and run government, passing legislation is not easy. Though presidents and prime ministers get the royal treatment upon assuming office and are viewed as ultimate authority figures, their powers are quite limited. In America for example, the head of the executive branch really can’t do much. At most the president can sign and veto legislation, appoint members to the Cabinet and judiciary, and decide where and when the armed forces go into battle. Even the power to make appointments to the Cabinet and federal judgeships is checked. A president may nominate a person for the Supreme Court, but the candidate must be approved by the Senate, which is the upper house of the legislature. All spending bills must originate in the House of Representatives, the lower house of Congress. Due to these limitations, a president shouldn’t be given full credit or blame for legislation that deals with taxation and spending.

The executive takes on his true power when he speaks. The president, or leader of a nation, is deemed to have the “bully pulpit”, which means that the executive branch has a large platform from which it can attempt to persuade the minds of the members of Congress and the voting public. When the president speaks, people listen. Because of the large megaphone, so much power and influence is ascribed to the executive. When it comes time to vote, the current situation of the country is tagged directly to the leader. The fact that legislation can take years to really take hold is not considered during election season. Rather, the majority of voters make their decision based on the answer to the simple question of, “Am I better off today than I was when I voted for such and such officeholder in the previous election?”

Hit by pitchAt the heart of material life, or fruitive activity, is the family. Man usually can tolerate personal insults and hardships, but when the same are directed at wives, husbands, parents, or children, the harsh treatment becomes intolerable. For example, in the sport of professional baseball, it is not uncommon for batters to get hit by pitches. The pitcher is trying to get the batter out, and since this involves throwing the ball at varying speeds to different locations unknown to the batter, sometimes the pitcher will make a mistake with their pitch and accidentally hit the batter. Getting hit by a baseball travelling at one hundred miles per hour is not a pleasant experience, and the immediate pain that results can cause irritation that boils up to the point of rage. The batter is already angry at being hit, but by maintaining a rational mindset, they can understand that perhaps the pitcher made a mistake.

Yet self-control and rationality go right out the window if the batter gets hit in the head by the ball. Then the errant pitch is deemed a personal attack. “This pitcher is throwing at my head. He is trying to end my career, which will result in my family losing their source of income. Since the pitcher is attacking my family, I must retaliate.” The immediately available option of retaliation is violence. As such, the angered batter then charges the mound and takes swings at the pitcher. The impetus for this violence is the perceived attack on the family members. This speaks to the truth that the family represents the most potent form of material strength, comfort, attachment and affection. If ever a person wants to influence another’s behavior, they simply have to bring up issues of family and the effect a particular action will have on them.

HanumanThe strong attachment man has to his family was well known to Shri Hanuman, a divine figure and object of worship who performed many wonderful pastimes many thousands of years ago on this earth. In fact, Hanuman lives for as long as the story of his supreme object of affection continues to be recited, honored and learned from. Who is Hanuman’s favorite person? Who is that one entity who gives Hanuman so much bliss that he refuses to quit his body for fear of being separated from the name, form and pastimes related to his object of worship? This entity is none other than the Supreme Lord Himself in His form of Lord Rama.

Rama may be considered a sectarian figure, a god of the Hindus, but there is no such thing as a god for one group of individuals and a separate primary deity for another. The Supreme Lord is a universal figure, the person to whom we are all attached based on our constitutional makeup. As individual spirit souls, our nature is to love, affection of the transcendental variety that is directed at one entity, the Supreme Soul. Upon taking birth in a perishable realm, the natural loving propensity gets redirected at other objects and entities. Every intense emotion of this world, even hatred, is related to the natural yearning to serve Supreme Spirit.

“This divine energy of Mine, consisting of the three modes of material nature, is difficult to overcome. But those who have surrendered unto Me can easily cross beyond it.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 7.14)

Lord KrishnaThe purified souls, those who have transcended the three modes of material nature, can correctly identify the ultimate object of pleasure and worship. The modes of nature, which consist of goodness, passion and ignorance, are difficult to overcome due to their binding effect. Guna is a Sanskrit word that means “quality”, but it can also be translated to mean a rope. A rope keeps the enveloped object bound up in a particular condition. Freeing oneself of the bonds of a rope is not easy; it requires intelligence, strength, perseverance and help from others. Therefore, to become liberated from the effects of material nature, the strongest of which cause the redirection of the loving propensity, can take many successive lifetimes on earth.

Yet some notable personalities, such as Lord Hanuman, a kind-hearted individual beaming with divine energy who assumes the outward dress of a Vanara [advanced monkey], are eternally liberated. Man’s imagination and mental speculation has led to the making of classic adventure movies depicting a world run by apes and also theories that mankind has descended from the simian. But the Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, not only give us concrete information about the soul but also of the types of body it can acquire while residing in the material world. The three aforementioned modes of nature can be combined into many different proportions. The result of this most intelligent of scientific experiments is the creation of 8,400,000 different species. Therefore it is not surprising at all to hear that there was once a time when human-like monkeys roamed the earth, as was the case during the Treta Yuga, the second time period [epoch] of creation.

Lord RamaThe Treta Yuga is notable for the high level of piety present amongst members of society, and also for the Supreme Absolute Truth, the universal Lord, the non-sectarian Divine Figure, having descended to earth in the guise of a warrior prince named Rama during its time. As part of His glorious pastimes, Rama befriended a group of Vanaras living in the Kishkindha forest. Divine mercy is not the exclusive property of any religious sect or country, and it is also not reserved solely for the human beings. A soul is a soul, so any form of life is considered to be part and parcel of God. Just because one person is very intelligent and another is not does not mean that God only gives attention and protection to the more intelligent. The only difference between an animal and a human being is the potential for intelligence. A human being has a greater potential for knowledge acquisition and the ability to subsequently act off of that higher standard of information, but otherwise the basic nature of activities is the same as it is for animals.

The Lord befriended the Vanaras because He wanted help finding His missing wife, Sita Devi. Rama never requires any external information, wisdom, or effort, but since it is the natural tendency of the soul to love, Bhagavan facilitates the exchange of that pure service by creating situations where transcendental activities are required. In the absence of such situations, the purified soul would be prone to misdirecting its love towards things which are not personally God, or maya. The Vanaras living in Kishkindha were actually all celestial figures who had descended from the spiritual world. Indeed, Hanuman was the son of the wind-god, Vayu. Sugriva, a son of the sun-god, Surya, was the leader of the monkey kingdom in Kishkindha and Hanuman was his chief aide.

Monkeys serving RamaFollowing Sugriva’s orders, the monkeys divided up into groups and scoured the earth looking for Sita. Hanuman’s group had the most powerful monkeys in it, including Angada, Sugriva’s nephew. After searching for over a month, the monkeys grew weary. They came up on a beautiful looking cave which had many appealing aspects to it. The allure had no relation to the mission at hand and everything to do with the easy life, i.e. giving up or retirement. Angada convinced the other monkeys to abandon the mission and either take refuge in the cave or simply starve to death on the shore of the nearby ocean.

Hanuman did not like these new options. He thought that, at the very least, they should return to Sugriva and tell him that they had failed in the mission. The cave was appealing to those who wanted to quit because it appeared to be impenetrable and full of material delights. In fact, the hidden dwelling had been created by the demon Maya in days past. Hanuman, knowing that the chosen course of action was incorrect, went to work creating dissension amongst the members of the group. Bheda, or divide-and-conquer, is an age-old tactic taught to aspiring rulers in the Vedic tradition. Governments shouldn’t solely rely on public polling and the pulse of the electorate to make decisions; they should also employ trusted techniques aimed at maintaining peace in the land, methods that deal directly with enemies. While options such as punishment and pacification certainly prove effective, dissension is also a great way of dealing with an opposing element because it picks away at the enemy’s strength from within. Angada’s power came from the support he received from the other monkeys. Therefore Hanuman chose to create doubt in the minds of these monkeys while they were in Angada’s presence.

Hanuman meeting RamaIn the above referenced statement, we see Hanuman accurately pointing out that the monkeys would not remain supportive of Angada for long, especially once they started missing their wives and children. Angada, in this instance, was akin to a political leader who was about to choose a distinct course of action. In due time, however, the voters, represented by the members of the monkey army, would have to decide whether or not to reelect Angada. The appeal of Angada’s potential choice related to the sense pleasures available in the cave and to the lack of punishment from Sugriva. The king of the monkeys had given the soldiers one month to find Sita, otherwise they would face severe punishment. The option of starving to death on the seashore seemed more appealing than dealing with Sugriva’s wrath. But if either of Angada’s options were adopted, after a short while the monkeys would inevitably ask themselves the question, “Am I better off today than I was before?” Since their friends and family would not be around, surely the answer to this question would be “No.” Once this conclusion would be reached, Angada would be dethroned, the monkeys would return to Kishkindha, and all who had abandoned the mission would be punished.

What’s amazing is that Hanumanji realized this future sequence of events within minutes. Hanuman’s wisdom, quick-wittedness and ability to think on his feet are the result of acting in pure devotion, or God consciousness. Hanuman had no particular interest in politics or psychology, but he was more than willing to use whatever tools he had at his disposal to further Rama’s interests. His only concern was completing the mission given to him by Rama. Whatever he could do to achieve success for Rama is the course of action he would take.

The point of human life is to act in God’s interests, which are clearly laid out in the Vedas. The animal has no ability to even understand the presence of the soul, let alone take the necessary steps to free itself from the clutches of material nature that squeeze the life out of the senses at every second. Every person has certain qualities and work prescribed to them, so these duties should be performed with detachment and dedication. The highest duty of all is that of returning back to the spiritual world, where the natural loving propensity can be practiced in a pure way. In order to achieve success in the mission assigned to us, we have to be convinced of its validity. If we ask ourselves the question, “Are we better off today than we were at the time of our birth?”, the answer will surely be “No” if we are not God conscious. After all, at the time of birth, we had no attachments to anyone or anything. We didn’t even have any worries relating to work, school, or family. If our tremendous potential for divine love remains untapped all the way up until the time of death, the soul again gets placed in the material ocean, having to learn how to swim all over again.

Hanuman setting fire to Lanka Progress is not found in technological advancements or supposedly new theories that describe man as the ultimate enjoyer. When one gets closer and closer to reaching the spiritual kingdom, they have made the most permanent and irrevocable progress. The path that leads to the spiritual world is devotional service, a discipline that is open to every single person, regardless of their material qualities and prescribed duties. Any person can chant, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, and worship the Lord at all times. The resulting condition known as Krishna consciousness manifests in activities, as was seen with Hanuman’s behavior. As a reward for his dedication to the Lord, Hanuman would end up successfully finding Sita and returning the information of her whereabouts to Rama. The jewel of the Raghu dynasty, Shri Rama, would march to the island kingdom of Lanka, defeat Sita’s captor and rescue the divine princess. At the end of the day, everyone, including Angada and the Vanaras, would be better off as a result of their perseverance in executing the sublime mission assigned to them. If we follow the example set by the great Vanaras, we too can surely find the best situation in the future.