Thursday, February 24, 2011

Heads I Win, Tails You Lose

Narayana “But if you have faith still in the words of Lord Shiva, my dear king of the demons, then why don't you make an experiment by putting your hand on your head? If the benediction proves false, then you can immediately kill this liar, Lord Shiva, so that in the future he will not dare to give out false benedictions.” (Lord Narayana in the guise of a mendicant speaking to Vrikasura, Krishna, The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vol 2, Ch 33)

“Heads I win, tails you lose” is the classic trick played on those who are temporarily out of sorts, youngsters, and those whose intelligence levels have yet to fully develop. The result of a coin toss is that the coin lands either on the heads side or on the tails side. When at a stalemate in negotiations, when no other option is available to settle the dispute, a coin toss is often reverted to since it is simply a game of chance; something which doesn’t inherently favor any party. The first party will choose one side of the coin and the other will choose the other side; thus the winner is determined by whichever side the coin lands on. By saying, “I will win if the coin lands on heads and the opponent will lose if it lands on tails”, a tautology is created; a situation where I win no matter what because the same rule was presented in both sections of the statement, but just in different words. Anyone who is thinking clearly will spot the trick right away and object to the statement, but one whose intelligence has been clouded by attachment to external objects will not notice the deceit. Such was the case with a famous demon a long time ago. He had a tremendous and potentially dangerous power available to him, but through the crafty words of Lord Narayana, crisis was averted.

heads and tailsFor a young child to be fooled by the “heads I win” trick is not surprising at all. Yet adults not only get tricked by such word jugglery in a coin toss but also in the basic arena of gambling. That excessive gambling causes a loss of rationale and unfavorable future results is a fact known to most sober individuals. When betting on a sporting event or playing a card game at a casino, the odds are always in favor of the house, regardless of what one may think. If this weren’t the case, the bookies and casinos would all be out of business. The bookmakers rely on the influences of the external sense objects to keep their business going. Only one who has completely taken shelter of the potential for quick rewards in gambling will continue to throw their money away in hopes of acquiring the fast buck.

The futility of excessive gambling is revealed in the gambler’s behavior itself. For instance, if winning a game of roulette or blackjack is worth the effort, why the need for further gambling? If I win a few hands at the card table, should not that victory bring me some satisfaction? Obviously the pleasure is short-lived; otherwise everyone would stop playing after a few winning hands. The senses, which are attached to the outer covering of the soul, bewilder the individual into taking to passionate activity without any regulation. In any field of endeavor, if there is no attention to detail and a lack of regulation, unfavorable results will ensue. In order to become a certified doctor, one must go through years of schooling and training and then pass a series of examinations. In order to fly an airplane, one must be certified to have completed a set number of hours practicing flying an aircraft. In every venture, even those bringing about tremendous sense gratification such as rock and roll and acting, if there isn’t some regulation and dedication to practice, success will not be found.

Similarly, success in the ultimate mission in life requires self-imposed regulation, or tapasya, from the very beginning. Those children who are spoiled in their youth will grow up to be malcontents and dependent on the government and other entities for their sustenance in their adult years. It is one thing to hit on some hard times and be forced to rely on others for assistance, but it is another to feel that you are entitled to the fruits of someone else’s labor. One who is taught discipline, regulation, and the value of money in their youth will likely grow up to have respect for other individuals and their property. Similarly, those who are taught to regulate the demands of their senses in their childhood years will also be able to cope with the waves of sense demands that continuously pound the shores of the mind.

“O son of Bharata, as the sun alone illuminates all this universe, so does the living entity, one within the body, illuminate the entire body by consciousness.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 13.34)

Lord KrishnaThe spirit soul is the impetus for action; it is the sun in the otherwise dark realm known as the material covering, a shell which is temporary, ever-changing and ultimately destined for destruction. The soul’s natural home is in a realm where there is only spirit, a place that is self-illuminating. Can such a land exist? The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Krishna, has such a beautiful, powerful and inconceivably potent body that His home doesn’t require a sun. Indeed, He is the source of all light and knowledge. In the realm we currently occupy, Bhagavan’s influence is felt in an impersonal manner through the workings of nature. His energies also personally manifest through the workings of the Supersoul, the powerful spiritual entity residing adjacent to the individual soul within the heart. Though blessed with the presence of Supreme Spirit within a close proximity, if the jiva, the individual spiritual spark, neglects the presence of the Supersoul, only misery, sprinkled with a few pinches of short-term happiness, will be tasted.

External objects constitute the Lord’s separated energy. Not surprisingly, association with this aspect leads to increased ignorance, wherein the soul drifts further and further away from understanding the influence of the Supersoul and the existence of the spiritual realm, where there is no such thing as a separated energy. Realizing the presence of the soul is very difficult; it requires steadfast practice of yoga, the first step of which involves regulation of sense demands. One who is serious about removing distresses and calming the mind should first of all take to mantra meditation, wherein the sacred formula of “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare” is recited regularly. If one is able to chant this mantra for a good portion of each day, the opportunities for attack by the external objects and the material senses will be greatly diminished. This mantra is the greatest protective shield, so it should be chanted as often as possible, with a minimum of sixteen rounds daily recitation on a set of japa beads providing adequate insulation from foreign attack.

Shrila Haridasa ThakuraThe acharya of the holy name, Shrila Haridasa Thakura, simply chanted the Hare Krishna mantra all the time and was thus always free from even the most powerful influence of beautiful women. He has kindly informed us that this name is the most important aspect of God because it automatically includes the Lord’s forms, pastimes and attributes. For an entity to be considered an object, it must have these three aspects plus a name. In Krishna’s case, the name is so powerful that it automatically secures the other three aspects. Goswami Tulsidas, the celebrated Vaishnava poet, remarks that the form of the Lord within the heart and the form of the Lord worshiped outwardly, such as the deity or the incarnation, are like the top and bottom sides of a golden box, with the name of the Lord being the actual jewel. The name is Krishna; so it is actually the most precious commodity for those who are firmly attached to the Lord in consciousness.

“Suta Gosvami said: Maharaja Parikshit, thus being petitioned by the personality of Kali, gave him permission to reside in places where gambling, drinking, prostitution and animal slaughter were performed.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 1.17.38)

Mantra meditation, coupled with sankirtana, the congregational chanting of the same holy names of the Lord, is enough to defeat the influences of the senses which lure one away from God. But to provide even further insulation from the potential clouding of intelligence, one is advised to refrain from four particular activities: meat eating, gambling, illicit sex and intoxication. By staying as far away as possible from these activities, the mind can remain in a sober state, or dhira, thus increasing the odds of remaining fixed in yoga. Only when these four activities are prevalent can ignorance reign supreme, as the personality of Kali, the force of darkness, resides wherever these sinful engagements are patronized. Not surprisingly, the four pillars of sinful life are the best friends of the non-devotees, those who have no interest in performing yoga. If connecting with the Supersoul brings about the highest benefit, who would be against it? The material world exists precisely to facilitate the desires of those who want to imitate God or usurp His authority. Since these objectives can never be successfully met, a temporary realm is required to act as a playing field, a mock playground so to speak. Those who are the lowest among mankind, the dushkritinas, are slaves to the influences of the senses and the sinful activities that are recommended by such contaminated objects of acquisition. Therefore those who are in the lowest stage of understanding, a level of intelligence akin to that of an animal, will not be able to think clearly and realize that they are destroying themselves.

Krishna's lotus feetTo illustrate the wonderfully stupefying effects of the conditioned senses, we can look to the example of the demon Vrikasura. A long time ago, this nefarious character took to worshiping Lord Shiva, a celebrated guna-avatara of Bhagavan. Vrikasura underwent extreme austerities and penances not recommended in the shastras to please Mahadeva, the great divine figure. Lord Shiva is Vishnu’s staunchest devotee; he spends all his time meditating on the Lord’s lotus feet. According to the most confidential and sublime Vedic information, Lord Krishna is the original form of Godhead; He is all-attractive and the provider of transcendental sweetness to those whose eyes have been anointed with pure love, premanjana. Lord Vishnu, who is also known as Narayana, is Krishna’s four-handed form that appears more opulently adorned than does Krishna. For all intents and purposes, Krishna and Vishnu are the same, though there are always arguments amongst transcendentalists as to which form is the original. In either case, exalted celestial figures like Lord Brahma and Lord Shiva always serve Vishnu as their most dear object of worship.

“O son of Bharata, the mode of ignorance causes the delusion of all living entities. The result of this mode is madness, indolence and sleep, which bind the conditioned soul.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 14.8)

Lord Shiva is in charge of the mode of ignorance; the field of activity that brings further delusion and madness to the bewildered soul. He is given this task so as to allow even the lowest among men to gradually ascend the chain of spiritual knowledge, ideally culminating with worship of Vishnu. Those in the mode of ignorance don’t know what they want, or at least they don’t know what is good for them. Vrikasura was one such fool, as he was ready to sacrifice his own head in a fire for the pleasure of Mahadeva.

Vrikasura was searching for a benediction from the demigods and upon meeting Narada Muni, he asked the kind sage which entity he should worship. The demon wanted to know which figure would provide him a benediction in the shortest amount of time. This behavior is similar to shopping around various auto repair facilities and asking which store will provide the quickest turnaround time for an oil change. Vrikasura was interested in a business transaction, one with the guaranteed shortest wait time. Narada Muni advised the demon to worship Lord Shiva, for Mahadeva is known as ashutosha, which means “easily pleased”.

Vrikasura and Lord ShivaSatisfied with the recommendation, the demon went to work on his sacrifice, steadfastly engaging in worship for several consecutive days. Seeing that Mahadeva hadn’t approached him, the demon was ready to cut off his head and offer it in the fire. Observing the extreme level of dedication to the sacrifice, Mahadeva finally arrived and saved the demon from committing suicide. Pleased with his austerities, Lord Shiva told Vrikasura to ask for a benediction. From his inquiry of Narada Muni, we know that Vrikasura didn’t want to wait long to receive his benediction, but he also had no idea what type of reward to ask for. Lord Shiva’s wife is Goddess Parvati, the beautiful and chaste lady in charge of the material creation. Seeing that Lord Shiva was pleased with him, the demon figured if he could get a powerful enough boon, he would be able to take away Mother Parvati. Vrikasura thus asked for the benediction of being able to kill any person simply by placing his hand on their head. With the boon granted, Vrikasura immediately went chasing after Lord Shiva, wanting to touch his head in order to kill him and take away his wife.

Lord Shiva fled to Vaikuntha where Lord Narayana resides. Understanding the situation, Lord Vishnu assumed the guise of a brahmachari, or celibate student of Vedic philosophy, and humbly approached the demon. Pretending not to know what was going on, the brahmachari asked the demon what the trouble was. After hearing the issue, Narayana sort of laughed it off, making a few humorous references to Lord Shiva’s ghoulish appearance. These funny statements appear quite often in Vedic literature, as they reference the fact that those who are unaware of Mahadeva’s great powers don’t understand why he wears ashes on his body and why he hangs around cremation grounds. In fact, prior to her marriage, Goddess Parvati’s female associates were terrified at the thought of their friend having to marry Lord Shiva. They couldn’t understand why Parvatiji wanted to marry someone who had such a strange appearance.

Lord VishnuLord Narayana, in the form of a mendicant, then invoked a trick similar to the “heads I win” scam to fix the situation. The Lord very convincingly said that he couldn’t believe that the boon granted by Lord Shiva could work. In fact, if it didn’t work, the demon had full license to go after Lord Shiva and kill him. Narayana asked the demon to first test the boon by placing his hand on his own head. Since he was enveloped in the mode of ignorance, the demon gave no thought to the other potential outcome, that of the boon actually working. Rather, he was convinced by Narayana’s slick words that Lord Shiva was a liar and deserving of immediate punishment. Frothing at the mouth over the prospect of punishing Mahadeva and having Parvati for himself, not thinking rationally, the demon followed Narayana’s advice and placed his hand on his own head. Since Lord Shiva doesn’t give out false boons, the demon’s head immediately cracked, and he died as a result.

Any benediction offered by any entity, divine or otherwise, that doesn’t lead to pure love for God, or bhakti, is not useful in the least bit. Surely the higher authorities can grant any material boons to anyone who pleases them properly, but the greatest benediction of all, undying love for the Supreme Lord, can only be granted by Vishnu Himself. Therefore it is always wiser to directly worship Vishnu, or one of His non-different forms, in lieu of making business transactions with other authority figures. Vishnu will always weigh the benefits of the desired reward against the effects it will have on the petitioner. Vishnu is not so easily pleased, so if we ask for something that will only cause destruction to ourselves and to others, the Lord will certainly not meet our request. At the same time, we never end up losers by approaching Bhagavan because we at least connect with the right person. Eventually, through enough contact, we will be able to see the Supreme Lord for who He is: the ultimate reservoir of pleasure. Those whose link to the spiritual world always remains active through firm adherence to bhakti never have to worry about the influence of the senses or being tricked by the gambler’s fallacy. The holy name of the Lord is so powerful that by chanting it regularly, we always end up winners in the game of life, regardless of on which side the coin lands.