Sunday, February 20, 2011

An Eternal Flame

Narasimhadeva with Prahlada “My devotee is not deterred by any adverse conditions of life; he always remains firm and steady. Therefore I give Myself to him, and I favor him so he can achieve the highest success in life.” (Lord Krishna speaking to King Yudhishthira, Krishna, The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vol 2, Ch 33)

The promise of protection offered by the Supreme Lord is not empty in the slightest. One who takes to the sublime engagement of divine love is not only guaranteed of aid from the Supreme Person Himself, but the emotional fortification that results is so strong that the lover remains fixed in determination to execute their service, irrespective of the ensuing conditions, favorable or otherwise. Only in this highest engagement, which can be described as bhakti-yoga, bhagavata-dharma, or devotional service, is the property of perseverance coupled with lack of expectation of reciprocal benefit present. In every other sphere of activity, spiritual or otherwise, there comes a fizzling point, a moment when the driving force behind activity either burns out or fades away. Such is not the case with the soul’s natural activity, loving service to God.

Lord Krishna and His pastimesDivine love in the mature stage can be likened to a fire that never stops burning. Based on observation, the only object we know that bears such properties is the sun, the greatest astral body which is so powerful that it grants heat and light to millions of individuals spread across thousands of miles in distance. Due to this benevolence and steady nature, it is not surprising to see the sun worshiped in many religious circles, including in the Vedic tradition. The original scriptures of India, the Vedas, serve as the foundation for religious practice, the highest system of knowledge reserved for those who ponder the meaning behind the temporary gains and setbacks that result from association with matter, the Lord’s temporary energy manifestation. Irrespective of gender, nation, ethnicity, time, or circumstance, the Supreme Lord’s position remains steady just like the sun. Though scientists have studied the blazing fire in the sky since the beginning of time, they have yet to even come close to understanding it. From where does the sun get its power? How is it able to constantly burn without any external fuel source?

“Of the Adityas I am Vishnu, of lights I am the radiant sun, I am Marichi of the Maruts, and among the stars I am the moon.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 10.21)

For those who are spiritually inclined and fortunate enough to take information from the right authorities, the fairly obvious answers to these questions are kindly revealed. As the longtime servant of the original divine being, the sun is simply acting according to the duty that it has so kindly been bestowed. The sun has no other engagement except to meet the demands of the original creator of this and every other universe. The sun doesn’t burn out because, as a faithful servant, it is aided in its tasks by the Supreme Lord Himself. Why would the sun and other such objects receive the direct favor of Bhagavan, the most fortunate of all persons? The answer can be found in the workings of the loving relationship. If a son wants to make something for their parents or maybe even get them a Christmas gift, if the sentiments that go into the thoughtful act are genuine enough, the parents will actually help the child along. The parents have no desire for any gift from the child, for the children don’t work for a living, so they don’t have any money to buy any object of tangible value. Yet the parents are so endeared to the child’s motivation and pure sentiments that they actively take part in helping the child execute their service.

Lord KrishnaWhen the loving sentiment is strong and not tainted by any external motivation, the perseverance shown by the lover increases to the highest level. In independent dealings between men and women, it is often seen that upon initial meeting the man will flick on the charm switch and really try to woo the woman. If he is successful in his attempts, some sort of short-term relationship will result. But as soon as the man gets what he wants, it’s not uncommon to see him renounce the same woman immediately afterwards, moving on to the next sexual adventure. Such dealings cannot be considered pure love, for there was a desired end-goal in mind tied directly to sense gratification. In addition, once the desired stimulation was experienced, all motivation for future service went away.

Basically all subordinate activity, i.e. anything not performed for the direct pleasure of the Supreme Lord, follows the same pattern. As spirit souls, our constitutional makeup is that of lovers of God. The natural affection harbored for God found within the recesses of the heart is of the purest variety; hence it is known as prema in Sanskrit. Prema fructifies from bhava, or pure nature, which comes from complete surrender, or sharanagati. This surrender doesn’t culminate in giving up all activity and sitting around like a log. Renouncement leading to bhava initially aims to quell the hot pursuit of sense gratification, which is a chase that takes the form of competition with our fellow man. One person is trying to become the richest, while another is after fame and beauty. Yet another person tries to become the most intelligent, while another makes a show of being the most renounced. One who is armed with intelligence, however, realizes that such pursuits are futile because of the inferior nature of the results. The Sanskrit word “Bhagavan”, the sublime name given to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, speaks to the Lord’s possession of every single beneficial attribute to the fullest degree and at the same time.

BhagavanIf we can’t become Bhagavan or equal to Him in attributes, what is the purpose to our existence? What are we supposed to do with our time? The precious moments spent on earth in a human form of body are meant to be used to perform activities in line with our constitutional makeup. Chasing after God’s opulences and competing with Him for supremacy are deemed conditioned activities, for not only are these engagements destined for failure, but they also go against the original nature of the soul. As mentioned before, the soul, or individual spirit, at its core is a pure lover of God. For this assertion to be true, the purported properties of the jiva must manifest in practical life. Theoretical statements are nice, but they aren’t accepted without perceptible evidence, instantiations of the different postulates. The fact that we go to such great lengths to serve our senses and our fellow man is proof positive of the natural loving propensity. When the inclinations borne of the spiritual makeup are shifted in the right direction, the result is the emergence of bhakti-yoga, or devotional service to Bhagavan.

Working hard to get a promotion at work or studying rigorously to pass a certain exam in a class certainly has the service mentality built into it. But at the same time, once the desired objective is attained, the motivation for service dwindles, thus further substantiating the claim that acts devoid of God’s association are conditioned. When one takes to devotional service, however, the primary driving force is the natural loving propensity of the soul in a purified form. Therefore, only in the sublime engagement of divine love does the spark for action never fizzle out. Moreover, the Supreme Lord personally takes an interest in such activities, as He is the intended beneficiary to constitutional behavior. Due to His direct intervention, not only does the devotee never waver in their dedication, but their ultimate success in whatever specific venture they adopt is very easily achieved.

These truths seem logical enough to accept, but there are also countless historical examples that very nicely illustrate the undying nature of the flame of divine love. Prahlada Maharaja was a son of a demon king many millions of years ago. There were two sisters, Diti and Aditi, and their sons took diverging courses in life. Aditi’s sons grew up to be devotees, and Diti’s sons were all demons. Prahlada was an exception to this, for though he appeared in the ancestral line of demons, he was a devotee from the time of his birth. The demon king Hiranyakashipu was very powerful and wreaking havoc throughout the world. When his wife became pregnant, the venerable Narada Muni came and instructed her on spiritual matters. While in the womb of his mother, Prahlada heard all of Narada’s instructions. At the time of birth, Prahlada was able to recall these sublime teachings through the help of the divine consciousness. Indeed, he grew up to be a child prodigy of sorts, able to recount the most important Vedic teachings and impart the same instructions to his classmates.

“Narada Muni delivered his instructions both to me, who was within the womb, and to my mother, who was engaged in rendering him service. Because he is naturally extremely kind to the fallen souls, being in a transcendental position, he gave instructions on religion and transcendental knowledge. These instructions were free from all material contamination.” (Prahlada Maharaja, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 7.7.15)

Prahlada MaharajaHiranyakashipu didn’t like that his son was a devotee of Lord Vishnu, the four-handed all-pervading, opulent form of the Supreme Lord. Hiranyakashipu, as a demon, was a devout devotee of matter and took himself to be the most powerful person in the world. Yet even in the face of the greatest opposition, Prahlada, though only five years old, never wavered in his devotion. He tried his hardest to convince his father of Vishnu’s pleasure-giving nature and His omnipresent position as the Supersoul residing within the heart of every living entity. Hiranyakashipu, for his part, tried every which way to kill his son, but none of them worked. Since Prahlada survived placement in a burning fire, being dropped off of a cliff, and being attacked with deadly weapons, the king thought that maybe his son had mastered some mystic power or was getting help from some outside entity. He finally questioned the boy as to where his power was coming from. Prahlada replied that the source of his strength was the same as his father’s: God.

“O son of Kunti [Arjuna], I am the taste of water, the light of the sun and the moon, the syllable om in the Vedic mantras; I am the sound in ether and ability in man.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 7.8)

Prahlada’s assertion was completely true, and even on more than one level. In the Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, states that He is the ability in man, or paurusham. As spirit souls, we have independence in how we choose to interact with nature, but the exercise of our abilities and the fortunes that result are due solely to Krishna’s grace. We may be the doer in the sense that we take the impetus for action, but the results of all work are out of our hands. In Prahlada’s case, his staunch devotion to Vishnu guaranteed him protection at every turn. As a reward for the child’s steadfast practice of bhakti-yoga under the most adverse of conditions, the Lord directly intervened to save the child each time he was placed into distress, finally culminating with His personal appearance as a half-man/half-lion known as Narasimhadeva. This most unique and beautiful form of Vishnu ferociously did away with Hiranyakashipu once and for all, allowing Prahlada to live peacefully in the devotional attitude for the rest of his life.

HanumanMany thousands of years later, another famous devotee faced his own obstacles. Charged with the task of finding the whereabouts of a kidnapped princess, Shri Hanuman braved his way onto the enemy grounds of the island of Lanka. Ravana, a demon similar in character to Hiranyakashipu, had taken Mother Sita, the wife of Lord Rama, and tried his best to win her over. Yet Rama was another incarnation of Vishnu, and Sita an expansion of Goddess Lakshmi, therefore it was impossible for Ravana to even gain an ounce of favor from Sita. Hanuman, though in the form of a Vanara, or monkey, courageously leapt his way across an expansive ocean to reach the shore of Lanka. Even while exhibiting herculean feats of strength and bravery, Hanuman’s mind never wavered from his main point of focus, that of pleasing Rama by finding His wife.

Yet there were many obstacles along the way, and a few times Hanuman appeared to lose his nerve, thinking that it would be impossible to achieve success in the face of such a massive opposing force as the army of Rakshasas in Lanka. Yet just as was done with Prahlada, the Supreme Lord came and helped Hanuman by giving him the inner strength to carry on. Hanuman certainly thought about quitting a few times, but his strong love for Rama kept him going. Eventually, Hanuman would find Sita, withstand a strong attack from Ravana and his Rakshasas, and set fire to Lanka. To this day Hanuman is considered Rama’s greatest devotee due to his unflinching faith and devotion to the divine tasks assigned to him.

Krishna and the PandavasAround five thousand years ago, five brothers belonging to the royal order faced tremendous hardships and torments at the hands of others. Their leader, the eldest brother, King Yudhishthira, was the rightful heir to the kingdom in Hastinapura. Yet through the nefarious tactics employed by his cousin Duryodhana, Yudhishthira and his brothers were driven out of the city of elephants. Prior to their exit many attempts were made on their lives, but each time they managed to escape. Not surprisingly, it was divine intervention that saved the day, as Yudhishthira and his brothers, including their mother Queen Kunti, were intimate associates of Lord Krishna, who had descended to earth at the time in His original form. Outwardly, Krishna was related to these brothers, known as the Pandavas, as their cousin, but inwardly He was always with them as their supreme loveable object. In the face of every disturbance, Yudhishthira and the Pandavas remained dedicated to dharma, or virtue, and thus they were able to successfully win back their kingdom and execute devotional service for the rest of their time on earth.

His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder-acharya of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, at a very advanced age travelled across the ocean to America. His mission was simple: impart the essence of Vedic wisdom to the people of the Western world. Though the task was straightforward, its execution and its success were not. Yet since he was faithfully carrying out the orders of his own spiritual master, Shrila Prabhupada remained committed to his task. Due to this genuineness, Shri Krishna again personally intervened and guaranteed the swami’s success. Shortly thereafter, the Krishna consciousness movement spread across the world and is still being carried on to this day by the kind, humble, sweet and dedicated disciples of the swami and their spiritual descendants.

Shrila PrabhupadaWhat’s interesting to note is that even after the Lord personally intervenes and guarantees success for the sincere individual in their tasks, the impetus for action does not fizzle out. Prahlada didn’t stop worshiping Vishnu after the impediments placed by his father were removed. Hanuman’s love for Rama only increased after Sita was rescued and Ravana defeated. Yudhishthira Maharaja and his brothers never forgot about Krishna; not even for one second. Shrila Prabhupada remained committed to preaching Krishna consciousness all the way up until the time his life air left him. In this way we see that the only engagement that further increases one’s passionate love even after encountering success after success is devotional service. With this unique property the supremacy of the sublime engagement of divine love is firmly established. What’s even more astounding is that this wonderful discipline can be very easily taken up, as the quintessential act of bhakti is the chanting of the holy names of the Lord, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. By regularly chanting this sacred formula, which is the singular method of salvation endorsed by the highest authority figures of the Vedic tradition, and offering humble services to a spiritual master or pure Vaishnava, success in the mission of life, that of permanently altering our consciousness, will surely be achieved. The Supreme Lord guarantees that the devotees will always win in the end, securing for them achievements which subsequently keep the fire of devotion burning even stronger.