Monday, February 14, 2011

Standing Alone

Lord Krishna “A devotee who is not dependent on others but dependent solely on Me, who is clean inwardly and outwardly, who is expert, indifferent to material things, without cares, free from all pains, and who rejects all pious and impious activities, is very dear to Me.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 12.16)

A key component of preaching any important philosophy is criticism. If an advocate of a specific system of governance or a way of life is very passionate about their ideas, they will not be shy in sharing their doubts and concerns over the practices of followers of rival philosophies. Yet in order to be taken seriously, in order to be heard by those who are unfamiliar with the concepts being presented, criticism must have a presence. The philosopher, politician, or religious leader needs to cut through the noise by separating themselves from what others are teaching so that their system of behavior will stand out amongst the crowd. Yet one discipline in particular is so sublime that it remains forever at the pinnacle of all thought, worship and practice simply on its own merits. Though ardent followers of this system certainly do take to criticizing others from time to time to further the cause of sublime life, the philosophy itself is fully independent; it can actually stand on its own without any need for putting others down. Not surprisingly, the most sublime engagement, the only system of maintenance fully independent in its stature and effectiveness, is also the oldest and the most pure. This supreme philosophy and way of life emanates from the imperishable realm, a place where no other thought processes are adopted and no other engagements are taken up.

electionsWhy is it necessary to criticize? The pros and cons of attacking competing viewpoints are well represented in the political arena. In a democracy style government, leaders are elected by popular vote. As such, every few years or so, major posts in the government are up for the taking, with incumbents trying their best to hold on to their seats and challengers mounting furious opposition. In order for a challenger to be heard and noticed, they must convince the voting public that their philosophy and character are different from the current officeholders’. To substantiate the injected dichotomy, criticism is required. If the incumbent has low approval ratings with the voters, the obvious strategy for the challenger is to call for change. “I will do things smarter. I will do it better. I will not follow the same roadmap that has led to the current undesirable situation.”

Some elections hinge solely on the voting public’s distaste for a certain politician. Due to unhappiness with current circumstances, dislike for an officeholder forms the foundation of the political beliefs, the ideals that constitute a good government leader, of the dissatisfied voter. The coffee table discussions that pertain to politics often follow a similar pattern. “Oh I hate such and such president. I can’t believe what he’s doing to the country. I hope he doesn’t get reelected. I can’t wait until he’s out of office.” Though voters are certainly entitled to their opinions formed off unfavorable ratings of current officeholders, the mindset supported by pure dislike is an immature one. After all, politicians come and go, and they tend to follow similar patterns as it relates to public policy. If a voter determines their stances on issues based on their dislike for a particular politician, what will they do when the hated officeholder is no longer around? Obviously the same voter will have no choice but to find someone else to hate.

“From anger, delusion arises, and from delusion bewilderment of memory. When memory is bewildered, intelligence is lost, and when intelligence is lost, one falls down again into the material pool.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.63)

Lord Krishna Hatred is not a productive emotion; therefore it is reserved for the less intelligent. Hatred is the unpleasant complement of attachment, or strong affection. The material world is full of dualities, so if there is to be attachment, there must also be dislike. Strong hatred therefore is rooted in unintelligence, the lack of knowledge of a particular subject and the complete unawareness of the disappointment that results from misdirected attachment. For a philosophy to be truly substantive, it can’t be based simply on negation. If you take one philosophy and then negate it, you are left with nothing. Nothingness, or void, cannot rule a government or regulate anyone’s behavior, for the spiritual spark within the body is beaming with potential for potent activity, the likes of which can exhilarate and purify all the senses. Daily activities are driven by desire, a want to achieve a certain condition in the future, one that is viewed favorably by the performer. With any philosophy that an individual adopts, whether they are cognizant of the fact or not, there is an inherent assertive aspect.

Yet for a philosophy to truly stand out, it must be both positive and independent of any other belief system. What does this mean exactly? Revisiting the example with politicians, if a candidate for president says they will rollback whatever policy the current administration has put into place, the promise for change would be enough to constitute a platform. Yet what would happen once all the existing policies were rolled back? What would the new president do? What would guide their activities? In the absence of a philosophical approach to government, one that is independent of the actions engaged in by any other entity, there will be hesitance in decision making. As the famous saying goes, “he who hesitates is lost”, one who has no guiding force that is based on intelligence surely will be prone to making the wrong decisions.

Constitutional conventionSo where do we go to find a positive and independent philosophy? Can we create one on our own? Many governments and philosophers certainly do follow this tact. The Constitution of the United States of America was crafted by the Founding Fathers, individuals who had a distinct vision for the new country which was based on the principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. So in one sense, the philosophy of freedom from an oppressive government surely isn’t dependent on outside factors or the workings of other individuals. Such a philosophy can be considered a dharma, or way of life. There are actually innumerable dharmas adopted by people in different areas of interest. Under the Vedic definition, dharma is an essential characteristic, an intrinsic property that can never separate from the object in question. Since one’s guiding force for a particular activity aims to maintain the essential characteristic of the domain in question, dharma can also be considered a set of law codes or instructions. A governing document for a nation may equate to a dharma, but the scope is quite limited. For instance, the concepts of freedom and liberty are nice, for they aim to tackle oppression and tyranny. Yet violent acts of oppression can only occur when an individual has freedom. In this way we see that the philosophy championing universal liberty is a very narrow one, as freedom actually leads to tyranny when the free individual doesn’t have a guiding force for all of their activities. Just as hatred is a result of strong attachment gone awry, tyranny is the result of the misuse of freedom.

The Constitution was also crafted through careful consideration amidst members of a delegation, wherein compromises were made and different drafts were voted on. For a philosophy to be complete and independent, it cannot be subject to the voting whims of any governing body. Though the nature of the surrounding world has changed drastically since the beginning of creation, the basic properties of spirit have not; hence the ultimate, authorized and fully potent guiding force for human behavior has always remained the same. In the Vedic tradition, the eternal occupation of man is known as sanatana-dharma, or the primary set of law codes which exist eternally and maintain the ultimate characteristic of the soul, who at its core is a lover of Supreme Spirit. Since religion is commonly associated with established organizations that are subject to legislation and infighting, the term “dharma” is more appropriate when describing spirituality. The makeup of spirit never changes, though a soul can be encased in varying body types, up to 8,400,000 in fact. The ultimate dharma, the highest philosophical and regulative system, is so complete that it automatically encompasses all other dharmas. Anyone who takes the necessary steps to reestablish and maintain their firm link with the Supreme Lord through acts of love and devotion will automatically acquire the knowledge necessary to perform activities that keep body and spirit together for the further advancement and purification of consciousness.

How do we know that the essential characteristic of the soul is that of a lover of God? The short answer is that the Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India which have given us dharma and therefore have the highest authority, say so. But we don’t need to only go off of Vedic authority to understand the nature of spirit. The loving propensity is present in every living entity, including the animal species. Even the greatest demons of the past, the most brutal dictators, harbored affectionate feelings for their family members. Since the loving propensity exists in every form of life, we can conclude that it is a property that cannot be squashed or removed from the soul. Though the tendency to love is universal, differences are seen in the activities that result from the exercise of that loving propensity. One person is loving their spouse, another their dog, another their nation, and so on. Only one entity is worthy of pure and unadulterated love from every spirit soul. This entity, due to His all-attractive and ever-blissful nature, kindly reciprocates any affection shown to Him with the greatest kindness and purity of emotion, sentiments so strong that they defeat the sum total of all pleasures derived from every mundane activity and association.

Lord Krishna Due to these sublime properties, the supreme object of pleasure is known as Krishna in the Vedic tradition. Some may scoff at the descriptions presented and counter by saying that Krishna is simply a mythological figure or a sectarian character, a worshipable object of the Hindus. But as mentioned before, the spirit soul’s properties do not change from one body type to another. One person may be living in America and another in India, but the inclination towards love doesn’t vary. If the essence of the soul cannot change based on time, circumstance, or geographic location, how can the ideal object of worship? God is God for every single individual. As His reach spreads across the innumerable universes, so His offer to provide the ultimate happiness to those individuals who kindly accept His mercy remains universally available.

The original dharma, the highest occupation for man, seeks to keep the individual spirit soul always connected with Krishna, or God. Since real religion amounts to a labor of love, the essential aspects to dharma are positive in nature; they require assertive action from the individual. After all, even the loving propensity directed towards objects of the phenomenal world takes on a mostly assertive nature. In order to show love to our wife, we buy her gifts, spend time with her and compliment her appearance. Surely, there are some restrictive aspects to the close relationship, such as the need for fidelity and restraint in terms of observing other attractive women, but the affectionate bond is held together through identifiable acts of love. In a similar manner, the quintessential activity of the religion of love is the regular chanting of the holy names of the Lord, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. Transcendental chanting allows the devotee to associate with Krishna through sound and speech. The lover of God also worships the deity representation of the Lord in a formal way by offering nice flower garlands and foodstuffs, the remnants of which are known as prasadam, or the Lord’s mercy. Through chanting and outward worship, a most powerful organ of the body, the tongue, is constantly tied to Krishna’s service, through both hearing and eating. In the absence of positive service directed towards God, the tongue would be solely devoted to objects of the mundane world, such as unpleasant speech and food procured through unnecessary violence.

“The wise, engaged in devotional service, take refuge in the Lord, and free themselves from the cycle of birth and death by renouncing the fruits of action in the material world. In this way they can attain that state beyond all miseries.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 2.51)

Nimai-nitai performing devotional serviceOne who practices the religion of love is known as a bhakta, or devotee. When the loving propensity towards Krishna remains at peak levels up until the time of death, the localized instance of reincarnation immediately ceases. The God conscious spirit soul, which can never be destroyed or altered in any way, immediately ascends to the spiritual sky, where it gains Krishna’s association for all of eternity. In reality, the association is never broken, but in the conditioned state the individual is forgetful of the presence of the Supersoul within the heart, the non-different spiritual expansion of Krishna. When one takes to bhakti, which involves the aforementioned activities of hearing, worshiping and eating, along with many other activities, they are always in Krishna’s presence. The name is non-different from the Lord; as is also the case with His worshipable body, the deity, which is constructed of material elements. For those always engaged in devotional acts, the measuring of their God consciousness at the time of death becomes a mere formality, for he who always remains in Krishna consciousness is never bereft of God’s association.

Based on the descriptions presented thus far, bhakti seems quite positive. There aren’t many negative aspects to it, as the discipline is focused completely on loving that one person who is willing to love every single entity back to the highest degree. So are there no restrictions in practicing bhakti, the highest dharma for all of mankind? Though the assertive aspects of bhakti certainly take precedent, there are also regulative activities recommended to prevent a devotee’s fall down back into material attachment. The four primary restrictions are that one refrain from eating meat, gambling in any way, taking to intoxication, and sexual behavior which is illicit. These four restrictions, performed in the absence of bhakti, don’t really advance one’s God consciousness, but at the same time when one is offering their love to God, if there is an attachment to sinful activity, the offering can’t be considered pure. The potency of the relationship established with the Lord primarily benefits the conditioned individual, as Krishna remains forever unchanged in His purity, both inward and outward. The individual spirit soul is also always blissful and knowledgeable, but due to a misdirected loving propensity, it can assume miserable material bodies from time to time. For Krishna, however, there is no difference between body and spirit; His body remains forever spiritual and blissful.

“But ignorant and faithless persons who doubt the revealed scriptures do not attain God consciousness. For the doubting soul there is happiness neither in this world nor in the next.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 4.40)

Shrila Prabhupada If bhakti is so positive, why do gurus, or spiritual masters, often spend so much time criticizing others, calling them mudhas, or rascals? Certainly the practice and preaching of bhakti doesn’t require any criticism, but critical statements are made simply for the benefit of the doubting soul. Though it may not seem obvious to us, every notable person engaged in a particular activity is spreading their own type of religion. For example, whenever the news media prints a story or airs an information piece on television, their bias in terms of their ultimate conclusion in life drives the nature of their reporting. By default, the human being takes sense gratification, which has as its pillars the accumulation of wealth and the opportunity for ample sex life, as the ultimate objective in life. Since the dharma of the soul is to be a lover of God, the senses have nothing to do with spirit or the relationship with the Supreme Lord. In fact, the influence of the material senses serves as the greatest hindrance towards advancement in spiritual life. Non-devotees generally do not have to openly preach about their philosophy of sense gratification since it is taken as standard fare by the general public. Due to these circumstances, it is up to the benevolent guru, the pure devotee of Krishna, to convince others of the perishable nature of the world and the fallacy of taking the sense objects to be the greatest source of pleasure.

It must be said that criticizing others without serving a higher purpose is the easiest thing for anyone to do. All it takes is looking at someone else to find things to criticize. Basic fault-finding requires no thought whatsoever. “Hey, you’re fat. Hey, you’re bald. Hey, that shirt is ugly.” Such statements are made by those who aren’t thinking of the consequences of their speech. It takes intelligence and a purified vision to be able to see the good in other people and foreign objects, practices and concepts. Those on the highest level of understanding are thus referred to in the Vedic tradition as paramahamsas, or the greatest swans. A swan is known for its unique ability to take a mixture of water and milk and only drink the milk portion. A pure devotee, an eternal lover of God, only sees the good in people. Yet in order to convince the sincere seekers of the Truth of the inferior nature of all dharmas except bhakti, the spiritual master must criticize non-devotional activities every now and then. Fruitive activity, mental speculation, meditational yoga, and any activities based on gross ignorance, when they are divorced of their relationship to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, do nothing to advance the plight of the soul. Yet these forms of dharma are always much more popular than bhakti in the material world. In many circles, if you even mention the word “God”, others will be turned off. “Oh great, here we go again. Why do they have to bring God into everything? What does He have to do with this?”

Radha and KrishnaThe essence of bhakti is not found in the criticisms of its greatest champions but rather in the assertive devotional acts of the same divine lovers. Though in one sense there is no difference between a guru’s criticism and his praise, as all behavior is directed at furthering the interests of the Supreme Lord, the spiritual master’s most lasting contribution to society comes not from his criticism, but from his ability to evoke the highest loving sentiments in his disciples and his well-wishers. Moreover, the wonderful Vedic texts such as the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Shrimad Bhagavatam prove that the ancient art of loving God is not dependent on the actions of any other person. The celebrated poems of the great Vaishnavas are all positive in nature and completely independent of any rules and regulations. It’s easy to lurk over someone’s shoulder and tell them that they’re doing something wrong, but it’s much more difficult to only point out the positives in someone’s activities. When the loving propensity exists at its zenith, as it does in the purified souls who take bhakti to be their life and soul, there is nothing to criticize and no desire to unnecessarily find fault with others. Since in the spiritual world there is only bhakti, the term doesn’t even apply there. The word “bhakti” is only used in the mundane world to distinguish the sublime engagement from mundane acts. When one is always in the Lord’s company, there is only positive thought, even when the sentiments voiced may seem otherwise. This exclusive property firmly establishes the supremacy of the religion of love, a philosophy which stands on its own throughout eternity.