Thursday, March 10, 2011

What Makes an Object

Lord Krishna “Any object is known by its four characteristic features: name, form, qualities and activities. Lord Krishna is the Supreme Object; thus He is knowable in terms of His unlimited and eternal name, form, qualities, and pastimes. The absence of these four features in anything denies its status as object. For example, impersonal Brahman is formless; hence it is not an object unto itself, but simply a distinctive trait of the Supreme Lord.” (Shrila Haridasa Thakura, Harinama-Chintamani, Ch 2)

When stress bubbles over and all other methods of alleviation have been exhausted, the best option is to just sit quietly and meditate. Despite our best efforts at creating insulation from fear, distress, pain, heartache, frustration and chaos, there will be failure lurking around every corner of every endeavor. The material world, the phenomenal realm that we currently call home, is replete with ardent competition and the struggle for supremacy over a surface area that amounts to a tiny speck of the entire cosmos, whose length and breadth are unfathomable. Meditation or any brief renunciation from the interaction of the senses with the various objects of the world brings respite from the struggles and demands placed on our consciousness. It is our mindset, the peaceful or tumultuous nature of our thoughts, desires and lamentations, that determines whether we are in a pleasant condition or not. Therefore, meditation, which is also known as dhyana, is a proven method of temporarily alleviating the pains brought by a disturbed consciousness. Yet who or what should we meditate on? Can we just focus the mind on nothing? What about an outward, inanimate object such as wood? Fortunately, there is no need to have any doubts on this matter, as the celebrated acharya, Shrila Bhaktivinoda Thakura, in his wonderful work titled Shri Harinama Chintamani describes through the mouthpiece of Shrila Haridasa Thakura, the acharya of the holy name of Krishna, that something can only be considered an object if it bears four distinct properties. In the absence of any one of these features, the item of interest cannot be considered an object, and hence its eligibility for being the focus of meditation and worship vanishes. Of all the objects in all the worlds, none possesses the four requisite characteristics to a higher degree than does Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

Lord KrishnaIt is the very presence of these characteristics that firmly establishes Krishna as not only the ultimate object of worship, but also the fountainhead of all pleasurable entities. Since the beginning of time there have been arguments and debates over who is God and who isn’t. One sectarian group will claim that their worshipable figure is the Supreme Being, while another will point to their theistic scriptures as evidence of the divine nature of their object of worship. Yet God’s supremacy and worthiness of attention is not established simply through a mood of sentimentalism or sectarianism. Nor is He worthy of worship because of the threat of punishment. “Surrender unto such and such personality or suffer forever” is certainly not an effective marketing tool for spreading devotion to God, nor is it valid.

Hell is merely a realm where there is an increased level of distress brought on by punishing conditions. According to the Vedas, the oldest scriptural traditions emanating from India, the heavenly and hellish realms are still part of the temporary and destined for destruction material world. Heavenly opulence and hellish pangs are present in the current life. The actual nature of the unpleasant conditions can also vary, as some people, our humble self included, would consider being forced to watch daytime television or major news broadcasts as the worst kind of torture, the embodiment of hell on earth. If such suffering exists already, what fear could the threat of eternal damnation for neglecting the worship of a specific figure instill?

If God’s identity and genuineness aren’t established through sentimentalist traditions, where do we go to find out the real nature of Truth? Since meditation is an age-old, popular and effective method of stress alleviation, by studying its various components we can gain a glimpse into the workings of worship and what is required from the parties involved. Meditation is simply focusing the mind on an object, which, as mentioned before, must have four characteristics, namely that of a form, qualities, pastimes and a name. In the absence of any one of these features, the item of focus loses its status as an object. Once the necessary status is absent, the item of interest, by definition, proves to be second class, or even bogus, as a focus of meditation.

MeditationLet’s review some of the common items of focus during meditation to test the validity of the assertion relating to the four characteristics needed for an object. An effective recommendation put forth by psychologists and mental health experts calls for patients to concentrate on their “happy place”, that one situation or area where they feel best at peace. Typical “happy places” are exotic destinations, peaceful mountaintops, or anywhere the company of friends and loved ones is found. The locations of interest do have forms, but they are missing pastimes. Qualities and names may even be present, but there is no stimulative aspect to them. A land mass is in animate, therefore it provides no interaction to the concentrated mind.

Just by this one example we can rule out any inanimate objects as being worthy of worship. Yet, throughout the course of human history there have been countless instances of men concocting gods, or objects of worship, by taking wood, stone, or gold and erecting a worshipable figure. Because such items are lacking descriptive names and pastimes and don’t represent any real person, they fail to provide any satisfaction to the interested party. Another common item of contemplation for meditation is the future. The human mind is always hankering about things it wants and lamenting over those things it failed to acquire. In the peaceful state of meditation, one can calmly ponder over future plans and carefully craft strategies aimed at achieving various objectives. But once again, there are key elements missing. Goals and objectives don’t have names, pastimes, or forms. Indeed, future plans relate completely to a desired condition of the contemplative individual. In essence, the focused person is meditating on a future version of him or herself.

A human being can obviously be considered an object since it possesses all the previously mentioned necessary characteristics. Does this mean that everyone is God and thus worshipable? Can we simply meditate on a celebrity, politician, or significant other and be eternally benefitted? The key is to find that object which holds the largest abundance in both quality and quantity of the four mentioned characteristics. In this respect there is no one who can match Krishna. The individual living entity, irrespective of his present status, is destined for destruction. As they say, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust”, the material elements which envelop the soul, the basic functional unit of life, are temporary in their structure. The soul remains intact for all of eternity, but the dwellings it occupies constantly go through transformation. In the beginning stages the material elements exist on a very small scale, tiny enough to allow the soul to reside within the womb of the mother for nine months. Eventually, the soul takes on more and more material elements to the point where it can function as an independent adult. Yet as the influences of time take hold, the material elements start to dwindle and decay. Ultimately the entire dwelling, when it ceases to be useful, is evacuated by the soul, which continues to exist. Upon release from the deathtrap known as the body, the soul is immediately placed into a new form, which is crafted to match the desires and deeds performed in the just-completed life.

“Whatever state of being one remembers when he quits his body, that state he will attain without fail.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 8.6)

Lord KrishnaBecause of reincarnation, there is automatically a built-in limit, a cap if you will, placed on the variety and abundance of each specific characteristic that defines a living entity. The forms, qualities and pastimes engaged in by the individual life form, even if they should remain alive for thousands of years, are directly related to the duration of time spent in a particular body type. With the Supreme Lord, however, there is no such limitation. Since He is the oldest person, purana-purusha, and the cause of all causes, sarva karana-karanam, the potencies of His transcendental features, which include His names, forms, pastimes and qualities, are unlimited.

Krishna is known as Bhagavan, which is a word that references God’s supremacy in the areas of beauty, wealth, strength, fame, knowledge and renunciation. The exact degree of potency possessed by the Lord in each of these features will forever be unknown to the jiva, the living entity who is part and parcel of Krishna. The defect in understanding stems from the limited time allotted for the acquisition of knowledge. The living entities are destined for destruction after all. As such, it is impossible to acquire all the supreme information pertaining to the one person whose qualities never diminish or dwindle. Only God holds the position as the wisest person. Just the attempt to exceed His powers of knowledge represents a challenge to the Lord’s authority, and thus serves as the root cause behind the temporary material creation and the cycle of reincarnation that keeps its land populated.

Lord KrishnaIn addition to possessing the six opulences to the greatest degree and simultaneously, Bhagavan makes use of His features by taking to activities. A general without a mission is no different than an ordinary soldier or even a civilian. A king without subjects is just an ordinary man. In order for exalted titles to mean anything, there must be resulting activities that allow for the superior abilities to be exercised. Krishna’s beauty is exhibited in the exquisite transcendental features belonging to His unimaginably large, blissful, knowledgeable and eternal body. Krishna is greater than the greatest and smaller than the smallest. The size and reach of His transcendental features are incomprehensible, achintya. Through His kind activities, known as pastimes, or lila, Krishna gives the sincere souls, those looking for a legitimate object of worship for dedicating all their thoughts, words and deeds towards, a chance to gain a slight understanding of the transcendental features of Supreme Spirit.

Krishna’s other features, such as wealth and strength, are also substantiated through enacted pastimes. Otherwise, where is the proof of such qualities, and how were they identified to begin with? In this way we see that Krishna-lila is not merely a merciful benediction granted to the love-starved individual souls, but also an intrinsic part of Krishna’s nature. If we refuse to acknowledge the sportive tendencies of the Supreme Lord, we verily deny His existence. There cannot be God without pastimes.

Krishna pastimesSince the Lord has pastimes and qualities, He must also have a form. If an item of interest is formless, it cannot be considered a valid object of worship. The monist philosophers and pseudo-yogis are enamored by the concept of an incorporeal God, or a formless Absolute Truth. Unable to fathom any entity possessing mutually contradictory attributes, the impersonalist speculators assert that the Absolute Truth’s original feature is that of Brahman, which lacks a tangible spiritual form. Therefore, the goal for any serious transcendentalist should be to focus on this spiritual light of bliss, the brahmajyoti, with the aim of one day merging into it.

Based on the characteristics necessary to have an object, we see that Brahman is more of a trait belonging to the Supreme Lord than an object itself. Since it is not an object, there is no tangible bliss derived from association with Brahman. Even the greatest transcendentalists of the past who were wholly sincere in their meditation on Brahman found a higher pleasure once they were fortunate enough to come into contact with the Supreme Lord in His personal form. Though Krishna is considered the original form of Godhead, the Absolute Truth isn’t limited to just one transcendental manifestation. Just as there are no limits to Krishna’s attributes and pastimes, there is no accurate count of the number of non-different, wholly spiritual, and completely perceptible forms that the Lord can take to.

“All different varieties of atmaramas [those who take pleasure in atma, or spirit self], especially those established on the path of self-realization, though freed from all kinds of material bondage, desire to render unalloyed devotional service unto the Personality of Godhead. This means that the Lord possesses transcendental qualities and therefore can attract everyone, including liberated souls.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 1.7.10)

Maharaja JanakaMaharaja Janaka, a famous king during ancient times, was well-respected for his mastery over mysticism. He was so adept at focusing his mind on Brahman that he gained the title of Videha, which means one who has transcended the influences of the material body. Through his mystic practices, Janaka was no longer under the dictates of the senses in any way. Yet when he was fortunate enough to see Lord Rama, an incarnation of Krishna, in person, he immediately felt tremendous bliss. Worship of Brahman is not completely rejected as a method of self-realization, but since the process technically focuses on a feature of the Supreme Lord rather than an autonomous object, contemplation of Brahman yields inferior results compared to direct worship of Krishna. One who faithfully and sincerely worships Brahman attains to a status known as brahma-bhutah, which automatically brings with it the quality known as atmarama, or being self-satisfied. We can think of the atmaramas as possessing a full belly in the spiritual sense. If we present a pizza pie to a hungry man, he will eagerly dig in and enjoy. Yet, if after eating to satisfaction we present another full pizza pie in front of the same man, there likely will not be any stimulation to the taste buds at all. The pizza hasn’t changed, as it consists of the same ingredients and gives off the same appearance. What has changed is the level of satiation in the target entity.

In spiritual life, the atmaramas are considered completely full, not capable of being stimulated by any outside pleasures. Yet Janaka, upon seeing the exquisitely beautiful and transcendental body of Lord Rama, couldn’t help but derive tremendous pleasure from the vision before him. Janaka even thought that maybe the Brahman he had spent his whole life worshiping had now taken a form specifically to show favor to him. These are the workings of the Supreme Lord. Through His kindness, He deludes even the sincere souls into not understanding His true nature, as those who worship God without any concern for His opulence and strength are considered the topmost worshipers. It is one thing to treat Bhagavan with love and respect for His superior position, but it is an even higher display of devotion to harbor affection for the Supreme Lord while remaining in ignorance of His fixed position. Such an exalted status of worship is reserved for the greatest devotees like King Janaka.

Lord RamaIf Krishna has qualities, pastimes and forms, He surely must have names. Otherwise, how would we address the entity who bears such properties? Indeed, the activities and features of His transcendental forms are how Krishna gets His innumerable names. The name Krishna speaks to the Lord’s all-attractive nature. Rama relates to His ability to give transcendental pleasure to others, and it also references His eternal expansion form of Shri Rama. God is known as Govinda for His ability to give pleasure to the cows and to the senses. He is known as Keshava for having killed the Keshi demon during His time on earth. He is also addressed as Hari for being able to remove the distresses of His devotees. Indeed, Bhagavan is known by thousands upon thousands of names, each of which speaks to different aspects of His character that firmly establish Him as the ultimate object of worship.

Of the four characteristics that make up the Divine Object known as Krishna, the name is the most important. Only the name brings the other three features with it. Therefore every individual interested in meditation can find the most tangible effects by simply chanting the sacred maha-mantra, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. The question may be raised as to who or what should be meditated on during this chanting. When chanted properly and without offense, the sound of the holy name automatically brings the other wonderful features. Krishna brings bliss to the devotee because He possesses all the necessary characteristics of an object to the fullest degree. Therefore by chanting the word Krishna, or by hearing the blissful sound vibration of Rama, all the qualities, forms and pastimes immediately come to mind. In this way we see that success in meditation has nothing to do with quelling desires, focusing on void, or alleviating distress. It is the nature of the soul to be a lover of God. When this affection is allowed to flow in an uninhibited manner, the living entity goes from being a conditioned soul to a liberated one. When the steady stream of transcendental thoughts inspired by the regular recitation of the sound vibration representations of Supreme Spirit flows without any divergence towards the home of that most benevolent of masters, the consciousness remains forever purified and firmly fixed on the forms, qualities and pastimes of the Lord. Each of Bhagavan’s characteristics brings tremendous pleasure to the yogi who has dedicated his life to fixing his mind on Krishna.

Lord KrishnaRecitation of the holy name allows for instantiation of the original object within the mind in an instant. The resulting link to the Supreme Consciousness can be further maintained by taking to outward activities such as reading, worshiping the deity and chanting congregationally with others. The name is the nucleus of these activities which make up the discipline known as bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. When the name is present, the other requisite items of meditation immediately appear. Therefore the greatest devotees, the mahajanas, don’t simply meditate on Krishna within the mind while rejecting deity worship and service to the Lord’s exalted associates, the spiritual masters and pure devotees. When meditation is performed properly, i.e. when the name of the Lord is the predominant ingredient in the concentration, there is an even greater eagerness to worship the Lord in an outward way through service to His non-different form of the archa-vigraha, or worshipable body carefully crafted and constructed to match the known physical features of the Supreme Lord and His various avataras. Meditation on nothing will bring nothing as a benefit. On the other hand, worship of something tangible, an object which is overflowing with transcendental sweetness, will lead to the highest benefit and pleasure. Shri Krishna, through His defined features and His ability to provide unmatched bliss to the devotee, thus becomes the ideal object of meditation.