Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Pop Quiz

Hanuman “This glorious son of the wind named Hanuman is leaping over the ocean. Using a very ghastly Rakshasa form the size of a mountain, and showing a head with fearful tusks and red-brown eyes that reaches the sky, obstruct his path for a while.” (Celestials speaking to the serpent Surasa, Valmiki Ramayana, Sundara Kand, 1.146-147)

ayaṃ vātātmajaḥ śrīmānplavate sāgaropari |

hanumānnāma tasya tvaṃ muhūrtaṃ vighnamācara ||

rākśasaṃ rūpamāsthāya sughoraṃ parvatopamam |

daṃṣṭrakarāḻaṃ piṅgākśaṃ vaktraṃ kṛtvā nabhaḥsamam

The importance given to examinations in the education field has been an issue of contention in recent times. The controversy relates to the relevancy and effectiveness of requiring students to take tests periodically to prove what they have learned in a particular class or discipline. Regardless of the viewpoint of the educator, it is undoubtedly true that to complete the most difficult tasks in life, tests are required at some point, even if they are not administered in a formal setting with an explicit written or oral examination. Learning a new discipline involves taking in new concepts, understanding them, and knowing how and when to use them. This last point is the area of focus for the examination. For the most difficult task of altering one’s consciousness through devotion to the Supreme Lord, the exams requiring passage are many. Sometimes they come unexpectedly, similar to the pop-quiz in classrooms, but for those who have made a sincere effort at the discipline, those who have tried their best to carry out the orders of the Lord and provide Him pleasure, passing these examinations is quite easy. No matter the difficulty of the test, the transcendental lover will never miss a beat, and in the process astonish those onlookers who ever dared to doubt them.

examsAre tests really that beneficial? Let’s first cover the negative aspects. The most persuasive argument against the importance of giving regular examinations is that teachers will alter their instruction methods to simply enable the students to earn a passing grade on the test. This practice is viewed unfavorably because if a student is only interested in passing a single examination, they will have no interest in the content they are learning. A waned interest increases the likelihood of the imparted information being forgotten in a short period of time. In this way the class ends up being a waste of time after only a few short months. Education, especially for young children, is meant to serve as a foundation of knowledge to be used in later years, when the student has matured. For young students each class contains vital information that will ideally have some worldly value later on in life. If such lessons and overall instruction are simply memorized and subsequently discarded after completion of the course, the education will have no value.

Though there are strong arguments made against giving more stress to examinations, we see that the practice of instituting regular tests in classrooms has not diminished in the least bit. In fact, the more important the discipline, the greater the emphasis given to exams and their results. The arguments in favor of giving regular exams have won out time and time again. The reasons for the victories are fairly obvious. Even if a student regularly attends classes and does homework, how will the teacher be able to gauge their progress? Moreover, another person, one who is more knowledgeable, could be doing their homework for them, and the student could just be sitting in class every day and not paying attention. Only with the examination, a rigorous test of knowledge that must be completed solely by the student on a particular day and time, can the teacher tell whether or not the student has learned anything.

Surely the exam brings a lot of pressure to the student, but without an explicit requirement to prove what has been learned, there would be no impetus to study and really understand what is being taught. Let’s think of it this way: Say that we watch cooking channel programs and read several different recipe books on how to prepare dishes. We may even attend a few cooking classes, where the instructor acts out the lessons with demonstrations. While such instruction will surely be helpful, we won’t have any idea how to cook unless and until we actually get into the kitchen and apply the knowledge and techniques that we have taken in. In the Vedic tradition, the practices and regulations adopted from the ancient scriptures of India, theoretical knowledge is referred to as jnana and practical knowledge as vijnana. Jnana forms the foundation, but vijnana is more important because it gives meaning to the knowledge acquired.

The ultimate purpose of education is to alter behavior. While some may argue that simply the pursuit of knowledge itself is an exhilarating experience, if the subsequent education is not acted upon, the end-result is the same as if the person had never tried to learn anything. As an example, a dog eats, sleeps, mates and defends all day. It is not intelligent enough to talk or let itself out of the house to go to the bathroom on time. The human being, however, has a much higher potential for intelligence. Yet if, after attending school for twelve years, the human being still takes primarily to animal activities, their lifestyle is really no different than that of a dog. Without making the most of the human form of life, the knowledge acquired through education, or jnana, is of no value. The exam gives instructors a chance to see one’s vijnana. It is important to know that the student has acquired practical knowledge because their exhibition of mastery in skills will allow them to be successful in whatever venture they have planned for the future.

Sita DeviOne historical figure in particular had arguably the most difficult task ahead of him. A beautiful princess had been taken away against her will to a remote island. Her captor, a ghoulish figure named Ravana, had taken shelter on the island of Lanka particularly due to its strategic location. Far away from any mainland, Lanka was the perfect place to establish an elaborate kingdom full of every opulence one could imagine.

Though Ravana had all comforts and enjoyments at his disposal, due to his insatiable lust, he made the grievous error of taking another man’s wife, a transgression which would prove to be fatal. The husband wronged was no ordinary man either, for He was the prince of Ayodhya, the latest in the line of chivalrous and pious kings belonging to the Ikshvaku dynasty. His divine nature separated this prince from the pack of ordinary men roaming the earth at the time. The jewel of the Raghu dynasty appearing on earth during the Treta Yuga, though assuming the guise of a powerful male warrior, was an incarnation of the Supreme Lord.

A claim that someone is an incarnation of God will be met with some skepticism. “Great. Yet another powerful person that people later turned into God. Why does that not surprise me? How do we know that this person was God anyway?” Considering the fact that many gurus and pseudo-yogis have claimed to be incarnations of God over the past several hundred years, these sentiments are quite understandable. The Vedas accounted for this abuse by enumerating the primary incarnations of the Supreme Lord, who is most often addressed by the names of Vishnu and Krishna. This is not to say that Vishnu is the deity of the Hindus and Jesus the worshipable figure of the Christians. There can only be one God. Whether one wants to take the statements presented by their particular faith as axiomatic truths or not is a different issue, but regardless of a person’s belief system, country of origin, or ethnicity, there is still only one God. Just as the law of gravity applies equally to all objects irrespective of a person’s affirmation of the fact, the laws of spiritual science similarly apply to all forms of life. God is everyone’s father, so He is a natural object of worship for the love-starved individuals.

“Whenever and wherever there is a decline in religious practice, O descendant of Bharata, and a predominant rise of irreligion—at that time I descend Myself.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 4.7)

Lord Rama Why would God ever come to earth? What separates the Vedas from any other spiritual discipline is that they provide more concrete information about the Supreme Lord’s features, personality, nature and appearance. They also give us more information in regards to the origin of life and the purpose behind it. In summary, the aim of human life is to understand three things: that God is the original proprietor of everything, that He is the ultimate enjoyer and that He is the best friend of the living entities. Each of these three items must be understood in both theory and practice, as the truths are complementary.

Based on the outward behavior of the population on earth today, we see that there is virtually no knowledge of these three most important facts. It is for this reason that the Vedas declare the cognizance of these three truths to be the ultimate objective in life, the mission with the highest priority. It is not assumed that an individual will realize all these aspects in one lifetime. Therefore other, more granular systems of religiosity and societal maintenance are put into place, allowing for a gradual progression towards the highest platform of understanding. Similar to how a student must ascend the different grades in elementary school to reach graduation, a spirit soul trapped in a material body can progress through various systems of spiritual and material knowledge before they can actually get a handle on things. This isn’t to say that one can’t immediately ascend to the highest platform, for all that is required is knowledge of the three distinct features of the Lord and His relation to the individual souls. One who understands essential teachings of the Vedas wholeheartedly and subsequently bases their activities in life off of such information will bypass the need to adhere to all the rules and regulations associated with inferior forms of religiosity.

How do we know that knowledge of God’s features is absent in society? Iterating through the three necessary pieces of information, we see that the first issue relates to property. In the conditioned state the individual falsely identifies with their outward dress, a body which is constantly changing. This error then results in the flawed mindsets of “I” and “Mine”. Since Krishna is the original owner of everything, all property in the phenomenal world belongs to Him. Our so-called possessions are simply on loan from the Lord for the purpose of maintaining life.

The second essential truth of the Vedas relates to enjoyment. It must be said that many people do acknowledge God’s existence, but the method of worship followed bears striking similarities to ordinary business transactions. In this respect simply changing our method of tribute, or payment, doesn’t alter the way we view a particular entity. As an example, we show deference to the cable company by paying our bill every month, and we offer tribute to the grocer by giving him cash. Both of these offerings are made in exchange for a good or service from the provider. The transactions are based off the mindset that views the individual as being the ultimate enjoyer.

In spiritual life if we pray to God to meet our various demands, we are essentially putting Him on an equal footing with other service providers. The method of tribute may be different, i.e. we pray to God instead of sending Him a check, but the guiding mentality is the same. God certainly is the greatest order supplier, for He has created everything in this world. But the uniqueness of His powers lies not only in His ability to provide, but also in His ability to enjoy. When the Supreme Lord is taken as the original proprietor and ultimate enjoyer, He is seen in a more proper light.

Radha and KrishnaThe third aspect to the Lord’s features ties the first two pieces together. Knowing that God is the original owner of everything and the only object of enjoyment is great, but what does that mean for us? By understanding that the Lord is the best friend of the living entities, we can see that the two previous pieces of information need to be utilized for a purpose. Just as we like to please our friends by spending time with them and offering some type of service, our time on earth should be used to please the Supreme Lord.  This engagement continues beyond the current life. Taking property that originally belongs to Krishna and using it for His pleasure is the only way to behave properly in any world. Since Krishna is our best friend, His enjoyment will result in our happiness. For God to be the ultimate enjoyer, He must have others with whom to engage in sportive activities. This is where we fit in. All the individual souls, which are part and parcel of the Supreme Reservoir of Energy, are meant to always be in Krishna’s association. Those who are guided by the proper mindset are known as bhaktas, or devotees. By remaining a pure bhakta all the way up until the time of death, we can immediately be transferred back to the spiritual realm.

Those who are able to even hear of the three aspects of the Lord are very fortunate. But finding someone who understands transcendental information and how to make use of it is even rarer. For those who do make a sincere effort at this engagement, the Lord takes a personal interest. Krishna is typically neutrally disposed towards those who view themselves as the original owners of everything and take personal enjoyment to be the ultimate objective in life. One person’s walking away from God cannot be of any greater or lesser value than another’s. As there is never any benefit from association with matter, Krishna’s separated energy, there cannot be any favoritism shown by the Supreme Lord, who passively oversees affairs from the spiritual sky. But when sincerity in serving Krishna is exhibited, the Lord breaks His neutrality and outwardly shows His favoritism, the greatest form of which causes His appearances on earth.

Lord RamaLord Rama, the pious and handsome prince of Ayodhya, roamed the earth to give pleasure to the exalted sages living in the forest and also other wonderful entities residing all over the world. The princess taken by Ravana in the forest was Rama’s wife Sita Devi. Shri Rama, who is wholly capable of defeating any enemy, immediately set about searching for her, as Ravana had taken Sita when Rama and His younger brother Lakshmana were not by her side. When Vishnu incarnates, He doesn’t perform every difficult task Himself. Just as we enjoy an arduous job more if our friends are helping us, the Supreme Lord takes great delight in enlisting the help of the eager and sincere souls who are looking to please God. During Rama’s time the most enthusiastic and dedicated servant was Shri Hanuman, the Vanara warrior and chief minister to the king of monkeys, Sugriva.

Hanuman’s assigned task was quite difficult. Out of all of Sugriva’s army members, only Hanuman was capable of crossing the vast ocean to reach Lanka. Hanuman is a divine figure, so he possesses tremendous prowess. As the son of the wind-god, Hanuman can fly through the air at great speeds after leaping off the ground. In preparing for his trip across the ocean to reach Lanka, Hanuman expanded himself to a wonderful size. With a mountain peak serving as his launching pad, Hanuman thrust himself into the air with great force, resulting in a rapid speed that allowed him to swiftly course through the sky towards Lanka. The celestial figures, the elevated living entities who reside in the material heavenly realm, saw Hanuman’s flight and were quite impressed. At the same time they wanted to test him to enhance his glory for future generations of sincere listeners attached to the pastimes of Rama and His associates. While coursing through the air Hanuman looked powerful and determined, but just how capable was he?

Hanuman flyingIn the above referenced quote the celestials are asking a serpent named Surasa to put obstacles in Hanuman’s way. This is surely a puzzling request, as Sugriva’s minister was engaged in the most noble of tasks. Not only was he trying to find the whereabouts of an innocent princess, but he was also directly carrying out the order of the Lord. When one takes to bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, other sincere devotees will certainly help. The sun and the wind had already aided Hanuman on his journey, for they wanted him to succeed in pleasing Rama. Yet the celestials in the sky, those who are not quite at the level of pure God consciousness, often throw stumbling blocks in the path of devotees. More than just working off of base jealousy, the heavenly managers want to test how determined and devoted the particular individual is to meeting the Supreme Lord’s interests.

Prior to his launch Hanuman claimed to be very determined and powerful to the other monkeys in his party, assuring them that he would not return without either finding Sita or capturing Ravana. Since he is the most honest person in the world, such statements were indeed true. Yet others, those who are not sure about Hanuman or those who are skeptical about the benefits of devotional service, may have not believed him. Therefore Shri Hanuman was given tests, opportunities to display his vijnana. His meeting with Surasa would prove to be one of many examinations that Hanuman would pass with flying colors.

The single most enthusiastically recommended practice for aspiring transcendentalists of this age is the regular chanting of, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, and abstention from the four pillars of sinful life: meat eating, gambling, illicit sex and intoxication. Bhakti-yoga brings about many benefits, but it is still mainly about altering consciousness, which happens to be the most difficult task in life. In this pursuit obstacles and examinations will be presented at regular intervals. It is not that Krishna is testing our level of devotion, but rather, we are being given opportunities to take stock of our progress by putting our theoretical knowledge to good use. By passing these examinations, our consciousness of the Supreme Lord and our firm faith in His causeless mercy will only increase.