Saturday, March 12, 2011

A False Choice

Lord Krishna “One is understood to be in full knowledge whose every act is devoid of desire for sense gratification. He is said by sages to be a worker whose fruitive action is burned up by the fire of perfect knowledge.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 4.19)

Question: “How do I find the right balance between material life and spiritual life?”

Answer: Picking up the random book on Hinduism or dharma, the items discussed within typically cover the illusory aspect of this world and how pains and pleasures always come and go. The wise can block out these unwanted extremes by steady practice of meditational yoga, systematic worship of a divine figure, or through fruitive work with the results sacrificed to a higher cause. Presented with this introduction, those contemplating a dive into spiritual life may start to worry that a too rapid an elimination of pains, pleasures, and highs and lows will result in the basic obligations of family life not being met. But for one who follows the bhakti process, the religion of love and the pinnacle of all spiritual practice, there is no question of too much renunciation or giving up necessary activities. Indeed, even Lord Krishna, who is Himself the beneficiary of bhakti, declares that every soul has a penchant for work, so repression itself cannot accomplish anything. For those following the highest form of spirituality, every second of every day is spent engaged in the Lord’s service, as the mind works under the control of the purified consciousness. This is not a hostile takeover by any means, as the mind assumes its true value when focused on the proper object, that entity who is capable of bringing about the highest bliss.

Lord KrishnaThe fears pertaining to a disturbance in family life are certainly well founded. After all, if, as a family man, I were to play sports every night or go out to bars and nightclubs, surely the quality of life at home with the family would suffer. Not only would there be financial loss from the money spent on outside endeavors, but there would also be less time spent with the spouse and kids. Activities under the umbrella of spirituality have the aura of being even more dangerous towards strong attachments, as one who understands that they are spirit soul and not their body may decide to forgo every responsibility in life altogether. The renounced order in the varnashrama-dharma system, the prescribed divisions of society and life stages put forward by the Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, is known as sannyasa. Since time immemorial it has been every parent’s great fear that their child would renounce the world at a young age and take to the life of a mendicant, wherein they would voluntarily restrict themselves from having any association with money, women, or fruitive activity. Lord Chaitanya, a divine preacher and spiritual master appearing in India some five hundred years ago, had to deal with similar issues with His parents. Shri Gauranga’s older brother Vishvarupa had taken sannyasa at a young age, so the parents were afraid that their beloved Nimai would soon follow suit. As a precautionary measure, they even took Lord Chaitanya out of school for a few years, fearing that if He became too wise, He would see the futility in worldly life and the benefit to renouncing every aspect of family. Despite their best efforts, their son would eventually take sannyasa at the age of twenty-four, but He would make the best use of renunciation by actively changing the world for the better through the introduction of the sankirtana movement.

Though the fears of the parents are quite understandable, they are not justified in the case of those students taking to the bhakti school, especially as it relates to the worries of the children maintaining their livelihoods and level of enjoyment. The tradition commonly known as Hinduism is understood to be the path of spirituality having several different options for success. The paths are described by the different terms of yoga: jnana, karma, hatha and bhakti. The uninformed belief is that one can just choose any of these paths and practice them perfectly to become self-realized. But this viewpoint is not accurate in the least bit. It is humorous to see reviews made of the poems written by Goswami Tulsidas, a dear devotee of Lord Rama and Shri Hanuman, with the commentators declaring that all the different paths of Hinduism are equally as beneficial and that Tulsidas just happened to choose bhakti as his preferred method of worship. This fact couldn’t be further from the truth. All other forms of yoga, though legitimate in their own right, can only lead up to bhakti, whereas bhakti automatically brings the results of all the other systems combined.

TulsidasTo understand the distinctions, familiarity with the properties of the soul is required. In schools of thought not tied to bhakti, the entire external world is taken to be maya, which can mean “false”. Maya is that which is not, so when applied to the phenomenal world, it references the fact that everything that is visually perceptible, and any knowledge that is acquired through the senses, must be considered the opposite of Truth. The Supreme Absolute Truth is the more accurate description for God, as it speaks to His infallible nature and indisputable, fixed position. But in reality, maya is not false, only temporary. It may be a matter of semantics, but we can think of the workings of nature in terms of the effects of a dream. During the dreaming state, we imagine ourselves in various situations, some pleasant and some not so nice. Surely the situations and our behavior enacted during these dreams are fake, as they have no reality whatsoever. Yet the pains and pleasure felt are real, as we can wake up in a cold sweat and have our heart rates rapidly increase.

Since the world around us is constantly changing, the outside settings can be compared to a dream. Yet the pains and pleasures are real, as are the manifestations. They come into creation, exist for some time, and then eventually get destroyed. Since the material elements, which exist eternally due to their inherent link to the Supreme Lord as His external energy, are temporarily manifest before us, they don’t need to be rejected outright. When the objects of this world are used to further cloud the intelligence of the pure soul into thinking that he is the ultimate enjoyer and original proprietor, then surely the effects of maya are in full force. God is God; His position never changes. Not only did He create everything, but He is the only entity that enjoys to the fullest degree. Since God is every single life form’s best friend, His enjoyment automatically leads to the pleasure of His associates, those who are intimately linked with Him in consciousness.

Radha and KrishnaThose engaged strictly in fruitive activity take the objects of the world and use them for their personal betterment. But there is actually no benefit at all, for as long as there is intimate association with maya, the soul cannot return to the spiritual world, its natural home. At the core, the soul is a lover of God. Based on this predominant characteristic, there is only one constitutional activity: divine love, or bhakti. The terms “bhakti” and “yoga” are merely products of the phenomenal world, as identifiers are required to distinguish constitutional activities from conditioned ones. In the spiritual world everyone is a lover of God, whose original form is that of the all-pleasing and all-attractive Lord Krishna. Krishna is the Supreme Being for everyone and not simply a sectarian figure. Devotion to Him is ingrained in the soul’s makeup. Divine love does not need to be followed through blind sentiment or unjustified faith. Rather, by understanding the makeup of the soul, the supremacy of bhakti can be easily acknowledged. Yet bhakti is so powerful that anyone who takes to it even half-heartedly will gradually acquire all the knowledge they need. Simply by chanting, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, the soul deluded into a false ownership mentality by the effects of maya will slowly but surely realize its constitutional position as servant of the Lord. Service to Krishna, when practiced properly, follows sharanagati, or complete surrender.

It was this sharanagati that Tulsidas firmly believed in. The pure bhakta, or devotee, doesn’t even know what the term bhakti is or how to describe it. There is no accurate way to compare divine love to any activity of the mundane world, but the closest match may be the behavior of the devoted mother towards her child. A good mother loves her child throughout his or her life, irrespective of the outward changes. Even if the child is in his or her thirties, the mother will still view them as a tiny infant. This is actually an advanced vision, one which comes close to accurately identifying the properties of the soul as being unchanging. Whether in the body of a child or an adult, the makeup of individual spirit never changes. Reincarnation is merely the complete changing of bodies, the discarding of one set of clothes in favor of a new one. The good mother, wanting only to please and protect her child, will take whatever steps are necessary to be an effective parent. She is not conscious at all about the skills required for parenting or the rules and regulations. Her pure love guides all her activities. In this heightened mood of service there is tremendous bliss derived from simply having a legitimate object of worship. Moreover, there is little or no tangible return sought, as a good mother is one who can raise a child that eventually no longer requires her aid. Thus parenting proves to be the most thankless of tasks, yet one that is accepted with enthusiasm and excitement nonetheless.

TulsidasTulsidas and other Vaishnavas on the highest platform of worship take to serving Krishna, or one of His non-different expansions, with full heart and soul, not expecting anything in return. Tulsidas compared his devotion to Lord Rama to the Chatak bird’s dedication to viewing the dark raincloud in the sky. The analogy is apt because the body of the Supreme Personality of Godhead in His original form and Vishnu expansions has a dark blue color, almost identical to that of a cloud that is about to pour down rain. Tulsidas asserts that not only does he exclusively view this cloud all day, but he never even expects any gifts in return. It may rain or it may not, but the Chatak’s dedication knows no bounds. Since the Chatak overlooks any and all defects that may be perceptible in the cloud, the bird’s love cannot be measured to any accurate degree, as there is no limit to the loving affection.

The dedication of the Chatak best illustrates the bhakti spirit, a penchant to love found within the soul. In the phenomenal world the loving propensity gets misdirected; hence all sorts of undesirable issues result. Objects of maya are externally related to Krishna, so they are not able to provide any tangible pleasure to the worshiper. If maya is part of Krishna’s energy, why would it have such a deluding effect? The answer is that the souls who wanted to leave Krishna’s association and pretend to behave as God were allowed to do so. Since there is only one Supreme Controller, no amount of imitation can prove worthwhile. Yet due to the causeless mercy of the Supreme, the delusion is continuously supported through the effects of maya.

Lord KrishnaAnother question may be raised as to why Krishna would knowingly allow any of us to be tricked by an illusory energy. The answer is that if God is the Supreme Personality in all the worlds, His powers and the behavior directed towards Him must be of all varieties. The soul, as part and parcel of Krishna, is also independent, eternal, knowledgeable and blissful. In order for free will and independence to have validity, their potential exercises must travel in both directions: in favor of Krishna and against Him. If there was only favoritism towards Krishna, there would be no truth to the fact that the individual souls have free will. The soul’s abilities are much smaller in comparison to God’s, but this discrepancy doesn’t mean that individual spiritual sparks are not free to act out their propensities.

Just as the good mother will automatically learn how to hold her young child, change its clothes, and feed it properly, one who is completely immersed in bhakti will automatically acquire the knowledge necessary to keep the internal fire of devotion lit at all times. His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder of the modern day Hare Krishna movement, embodied this principle. During his time on earth, Shrila Prabhupada, whose only business in life was to serve Krishna and spread His glories to others, took on the roles of parent, spiritual master, teacher, businessman, cook, writer, lecturer, translator, artist, musician, accountant, and so many other important posts. He was highly skilled in each of these endeavors, though he had no attachment to any of them. Indeed, he didn’t even make a separate effort to acquire above average abilities in any of these fields. Since his predominant desire was to serve Krishna, the Lord, who is the ability in man, paurusham, ensured that Prabhupada had all the skills and knowledge necessary to carry out his service.

Shrila PrabhupadaOther types of yoga do not bear such properties. One may take to fruitive activity and purify themselves by giving up the results to worthwhile causes, but this doesn’t automatically lead to the highest platform of pure bhakti. Renunciation of results surely can help the sincere soul elevate to the transcendental plane of consciousness, but success is not guaranteed. Similarly, through the yoga system that leads to the acquisition of theoretical knowledge of the nature of this world and the properties of spirit, one can ascend to a higher level of thought. Yet familiarity with esoteric information is not enough. There must be constant activity for the soul. One may have a medical degree from a respected university, but unless they are regularly practicing and treating patients, their knowledge essentially goes to waste. A general has no special status unless he has a mission to command. Similarly, the knowledge the soul is naturally beaming with must have a target to shine on in order for the intelligence to be worthwhile. In the absence of a steady engagement, no perfection in life, be it material opulence, the mastery of a mystic ability, or knowledge of the Absolute, can provide any tangible benefit, at least as it pertains to the current lifetime. One who is pious and well positioned by the time of death certainly gets to continue their efforts in the next life, but bhakti provides benefits immediately.

“Abandoning all attachment to the results of his activities, ever satisfied and independent, he [the person in full knowledge] performs no fruitive action, although engaged in all kinds of undertakings.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 4.20)

The issue of finding a balance between material and spiritual life presents a false choice because only one who is not practicing bhakti thinks along these lines. The initial concern is understandable for those who aren’t familiar with the practices of the ancient art of the religion of love, but those who are sincere servants of Krishna firmly understand that in the realm of bhakti, every minute of every day brings another opportunity to please the Supreme Lord. The dry renunciates may reject the world as false, and the fruitive workers may accept everything for their own enjoyment, but the bhakta uses everything at their disposal to ensure that the intoxicating smile on the sweet face of Shyamasundara never vanishes.

ShyamasundaraThe differences in viewpoint pertaining to material nature are nicely illustrated in the behaviors resulting from the purchase or receipt of a laptop computer, or other high-end device. The impersonalist mental speculator, one who is studying the esoteric information pertaining to body, mind, soul and matter, will look at the laptop as an object of maya, something that will lead to false enjoyment and misery. Thus the object must be shunned outright. The fruitive worker, taking the objects of the world to be the source of ultimate enjoyment, will eagerly get to work on the laptop and use it for activities such as chatting with friends, watching movies, and maybe even scouring internet sites for pornography. Without leading to a higher shift in consciousness, none of these activities bring any tangible benefit, and they surely can cause the further clouding of the natural intelligence possessed by the individual.

The bhakta, however, will see the laptop as an opportunity to serve Krishna. “I can connect this to the internet and talk about Krishna with millions of people. I can view pictures of the Lord, download lectures about Him, and learn how to cook food for Him that later turns into prasadam.” In this way the laptop and its components take on their true value. The matter that went into the computer’s construction belongs to Krishna’s external energy. These elements can only be considered maya as long as they are inhibiting towards one’s drive to perfection in consciousness. If the objects of this world are used to further the cause of bhakti, pleasing Krishna, there is no question of maya, or illusion.

“Dear Krishna, we are always busy in our family affairs. We therefore request that You remain within our hearts as the rising sun, and that will be Your greatest benediction.” (Gopis speaking to Lord Krishna, Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vol 2, Ch 27)

GopisThe proper use of the laptop is one example, but there are many more that illustrate the bhakti mindset. Indeed, the most pure bhaktas, those entities we are advised to model our behavior after, were themselves firmly ensconced in material life, or at least they appeared to be so to the outside observer. These grand yogis, the gopis of Vrindavana, were family women, but because of their pure love for Krishna, they were not entangled in any work. There was no question of balancing spiritual life with material life, as their entire consciousness was steadily focused on Krishna’s sweet, transcendental form and the beautiful sounds that emanated from His flute. From the worldly perspective, the gopis were mothers and cowherd girls. In modern terms, they could be considered the first “working women”. Though they were dependent on their husbands for protection, they were completely independent in their dealings. Freedom doesn’t mean forgoing responsibilities and the proper standards of conduct. Rather, independence is a frame of mind, one where the consciousness is not inhibited by external demands. The gopis, exercising their free will, chose to adhere to their family duties at all times, while remaining ever fixed on the lotus feet of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Shri Krishna, who had been kind enough to live in their town of Vrindavana for many years.

The gopis’ daily chores consisted of tending to children, taking care of cows, churning butter, going to the neighboring town of Mathura to sell yogurt, butter and cream, and taking care of the household, which included seeing to the satisfaction of their husbands. They were working all day and night, tirelessly and without any direct compensation. From the perspective of one who is not well versed in bhakti, it would appear that the gopis were one hundred percent engaged in material life. Save for the few visits to local temples and the service offered to the brahmanas, the gopis had no hint of spirituality in their lives. But in fact, just the opposite situation was present. The gopis had not a hint of material contamination; they were always thinking of Krishna. They are deemed the greatest lovers of God, as they are always attempting to elevate others to the platform of Krishna consciousness through their recommendations made to Krishna. The gopi in whom the qualities of bhakti are found at the highest levels is Shrimati Radharani, Krishna’s eternal consort. She is so kind that if she sees us taking to bhakti sincerely, she will recommend to Krishna that a new candidate for receiving His favor has emerged. Such kindness cannot be found anywhere in this world; as it is the exclusive property of Radha, Krishna, and those liberated souls who always aim to please Them.

Radha and Krishna Bhakti is not simply a method of self-realization; it is religion. All other rules, regulations, codes of dharma, dresses, fasting days, etc. are all meant to lead to elevation to the platform of bhakti. In this day and age, it is better to take to devotional service right away, even if it is not practiced at the most advanced level in the beginning. By regularly chanting Hare Krishna and associating with devotees, the spiritual consciousness will gradually be awakened. In bhakti, there is no question of balance, as the highest level of intelligence is found very quickly. Family life and concerns for one’s friends and neighbors are automatically taken care of, as the ultimate objective becomes the service of the Lord. The bhakta accepts everything that is favorable towards the purification of consciousness and rejects anything that is unfavorable. The lifestyle of Krishna consciousness is open to any person, of any age, and at any stage in their life. It is not true that liberation, or the release from the cycle of birth and death, can only be granted to sannyasis, those in the renounced order. Krishna’s mercy is available to everyone, but we must make the choice to accept it. Since the spiritual consciousness only brings tangible benefits, there is no reason to not at least take the first steps by chanting the Lord’s names. Even if there is a perceived fear of imbalance between material and spiritual life, one should at least include some spirituality in their daily affairs. Something as simple as chanting Hare Krishna sixteen rounds a day on a set of japa beads is enough to form a minimum regimen. The rest of the day can be spent in material life, though by following this chanting routine along with abstention from meat eating, gambling, intoxication and illicit sex life, the individual will slowly but surely realize that Krishna is in everything and that every minute of every day, irrespective of the engagement one is immersed in, can bring tremendous bliss through tapping into the purified consciousness.