Saturday, April 2, 2011

Building Blocks

Krishna worship “The Vedic injunctions are there just to give the conditioned souls the chance for sense gratification under regulative principles, and thereby also give them the chance for promotion to the higher conditions of life; ultimately, if the consciousness is purified, one comes to his original position and goes back home, back to Godhead.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Krishna, The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vol 2, Ch 32)

The subtle elements of mind, intelligence and ego and the five gross material elements are often viewed in a negative light, as forces inhibiting ultimate enlightenment, by the elevated transcendentalist, one who has a firm grasp of the concepts describing the basic differences between matter and spirit. Spirit is truth, and matter is that which is not Brahman, or the all-pervading aspect of the same truth. Regardless of the viewpoint, it is a fact that we have been given these elements to associate with since time immemorial. No one can accurately pinpoint the exact moment when the sparks emanating from the truth fell from the graces of the purified realm, where the material elements do not exist. But instead of just hating the body that we are forced reside in, the wise course of action is to use whatever has been given to us by higher authorities for the pleasure of that one entity who is worth pleasing in any realm. Whether in heaven, hell, or on earth, seeking the satisfaction of the original Divine Being is always the way to go, so whatever tools we have been kindly bestowed can be used to further that purpose.

Goswami TulsidasIn the Ramacharitamanasa, the most wonderful and bliss-evoking Hindi poem describing the qualities, names, pastimes and forms of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, there is a very nice section included which lists the qualities of the topmost transcendentalist, one who has gone beyond the dualities of material existence. Based on the different possible bodily compositions one can assume at the time of birth, varieties in growth and decay cycles are encountered. Moreover, the results of the actions performed within these different bodies also lead to temporary favorable and unfavorable conditions. Life on earth is considered a tempered one, where the delights aren’t overly abundant and neither are the distresses. The heavenly realm is one where a body composed of maya, or that which is not Brahman, is also assumed, but the duration of the enjoyment resulting from material action is great. Conversely, the hellish realm is the place where the unfavorable circumstances last for a longer period of time than they do on earth.

In the Ramacharitamanasa, Maharishi Valmiki, likely the first poet of this world and a great devotee of Lord Rama, accurately notes that devotees of the Lord perform all sorts of wonderful activities, like worshiping the deity, respecting authority figures such as the spiritual master, and chanting the Lord’s name. Even though they engage in all of these regulative activities of spiritual love with a spontaneous flair of loving emotion, they only ask for one boon, that of always being able to worship the lotus feet of the Supreme Person, their beloved beneficiary of service. Indeed, even if the devotees are sent to heaven or hell, they always see God’s form holding His bow and arrow, armed and ready to protect them from any danger. The greatest safeguard to protect against calamity is Rama’s transcendental body and the activities It performs. Since distress can be controlled by the mind, only by focusing our thoughts on God can the individuals be given the solace they so desperately seek.

Lord RamaWhen this devotion to God is absent, the mind can lead to some not so pleasant effects. Not just the mind, but all the material elements in fact are sources of misery for those who don’t know how to utilize them properly. The original association with material elements occurred through choice, a decision we wholeheartedly agreed to. Though we asked for the temporary coverings that currently surround the soul, it is rare to find one who knows how to use such elements. Ignorance of the proper course of activity thus serves as the original and most potent source of distress in life.

To pass their time, young children are often given building blocks and other toys with which to play. The child only wants to have fun all day, so in one sense providing toys is a good way to relieve stress for the parents and caretakers. If the child is happy simply by playing with a few blocks, then at least the parents can relax or take care of other daily necessities. In childish play, there are ups and downs, highs and lows. Especially with toy blocks there is variety in outcomes. Some children take to building small towers and elaborately conceived mock buildings. Others may take to throwing the individual pieces at other children. Irrespective of what does or does not get built, playtime will eventually end, and the blocks will return to their original form, that of a set of individual pieces.

Balarama and Krishna as childrenIf the child should erect a very tall mock tower, the parents may applaud the child’s effort, but no one will mistakenly think that the building itself has any value. After all, the replica structure is just made up of toy blocks. With just the slight breeze of the wind or the misplacement of a single block, the entire dwelling can come crashing down. The child also hasn’t advanced that much in understanding through their building activity, as they will have to learn a great deal more later on in life to become a self-sufficient adult. More than anything else, the childish play allows the children to engage their time constructively. It also gives the parents a chance to delight in the sincere and innocent efforts put forth by their children.

The various gains and achievements made by the living entities in the material world are similarly as fragile as the building-block structures erected by children. We may be very proud of having constructed a skyscraper building or a giant palace, but the true credit goes to the creator of the elements and the laws of nature that allow for the construction and maintenance of the end structure. The child has fun with building blocks, but these toys are given to them by the parents. Similarly, the elements of this world were given to us by God, so He should most certainly get credit for whatever seemingly amazing gains we are able to achieve. At this point the skeptic might scoff. “How can we thank God? We don’t even know what He looks like? Every person has their own “God” and claims that theirs is the only one. In this sense it is probably better to just ignore such an acknowledgment.”

Despite the doubts and lack of concrete knowledge pertaining to spirituality within the individual, the worthiness of worship of the Supreme Divine Entity doesn’t change. In the playpen, one child may say that he has created the blocks, another may say that his parents provided the toys, while another may say that the blocks don’t exist at all, but the true fact of the matter is that all blocks are composed of material elements, matter which existed long before our present birth. Though the blocks were given to the children because of their desire to play, those who are able to make use of their time in a constructive way will be benefitted in the future. In a similar manner, those who abide by the eternal law codes of the Vedas, which are known as sanatana-dharma, will be able to make the best use of the material elements with which they are forced to associate.

“Dharma refers to that which is constantly existing with the particular object. We conclude that there is heat and light along with the fire; without heat and light, there is no meaning to the word fire. Similarly, we must discover the essential part of the living being, that part which is his constant companion. That constant companion is his eternal quality, and that eternal quality is his eternal religion.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Bhagavad-gita As It is, Introduction)

Shrila PrabhupadaIs the dharma espoused by the Vedas any different than other religious systems? The goal of all religion, or at least what should be the aim, is to love God. In the absence of such a goal, any system, spiritual or otherwise, can be considered substandard. In order for love to manifest, there must be specific actions, behavior which is indicative of a purified consciousness. Simple pledges of allegiance and performances of perfunctory rights and rituals are not enough. While abiding by law codes of spirituality may help elevate one to the platform of loving God, the actual success is only achieved through a full shift in the predominant thought process, one where the consciousness remains always fixed on the interests of the sweet and magnanimous Lord.

For children, the building blocks they are given can be used to learn how to work cooperatively with their fellow man, build small structures using logic and reasoning, and take to a venture and see it to its completion. While these avenues present various benefits, the best use of the blocks is to make something that will please the parents. Since they are the immediate suppliers of enjoyment for children, the parents are naturally worthy recipients of all hard work and endeavor. On a larger scale, God created all of the elements that we currently enjoy without His association. So we can make temporary gains in terms of behavior, knowledge and perseverance through association with maya, but if we take directly to loving the Supreme Lord, an engagement which represents our true dharma, our efforts will be superior in their results. The elements of nature were given to us by choice, and if we kindly invoke our free-will and independence for the benefit of the Supreme Master, a pleasurable condition can always be found.

Lord Krishna eatingThe mouth is one part of the body given to us by God. In the absence of spiritual consciousness in the mood of love, or bhakti, the mouth is used to eat food for personal enjoyment, sing songs describing worldly affairs, praise friends, and yell and curse at enemies. When under the umbrella of purified activity, the mouth is used to eat Krishna prasadam, or food sanctified by first being offered to the spiritual master, or guru, who in turn offers it to Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Rather than follow the impulse opinion that Krishna is a sectarian figure, it would help us to understand that the Supreme Lord must be the most attractive person in all the universes. Hence the Sanskrit word “Krishna”, which means all-attractive, would accurately apply to Him. Indeed, if you are the Supreme Entity, your powers must be superior in all areas of endeavor and interaction. As such, the name Rama, which means one who gives transcendental pleasure, also accurately applies to God, as He is the most capable of providing bliss to His associates. When authorized food, items in the mode of goodness, are offered to the Reservoir of All Pleasure, He will surely eat it and then return the remnants for us to partake of and distribute.

One who follows the path of bhakti also uses their mouth to expound on the glories of the Lord as they are described in the sacred texts like the Shrimad Bhagavatam, Bhagavad-gita and Ramayana. Krishna’s pastimes performed on this earth are wholly sublime, for they involve all aspects of life with which we are already familiar. Krishna played pranks in His childhood, enjoyed time with His friends, gave pleasure to His parents, always supported and took care of His friends, interacted with the most chaste, beautiful and dedicated of women, and always provided protection from the demoniac elements of the world. Since we already perform some or all of these activities on a very minute scale, we can automatically relate to many of the pastimes that Krishna performed. Hearing about these activities, especially those that took place during the Lord’s youth in Vrindavana, bring sweet nectar to the ear and to the mind.

Mirabai chanting Krishna's nameThe material elements that constitute the mouth of the human being really reach their true potential for securing benefits when they are used to chant the holy names of the Lord, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. Chanting this mantra is unlike any other religious practice. Perfunctory rules and regulations of spiritual life have auspicious times for performance and specific moments of maturation, wherein the desired objective is attained and the need for the performance ceases. Chanting, which is the most effective process of bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, is unique in that it is both a means and an end. It is the means for salvation for those who are eternally conditioned by the elements so kindly bestowed by the Supreme Lord. And yet chanting is also the end, as the liberated soul always recites the names of God wherever they go. Though they are no longer affected by the inhibiting nature of the material world, the pure devotees nevertheless continue to recite the holy name and glorify the person it addresses.

Goswami Tulsidas, in trying to accurately convey the intensity of his attachment for chanting the name of Rama, declares that the mouth of one who has no taste for performing Rama japa, or transcendental recitation of the holy name, is no different than a serpent hole. If we see a hole in the ground that is large enough for a snake to crawl into, we don’t necessarily feel good. In fact, this vision can be the cause of great fear, as a snake isn’t too pleasant an entity to be around. It is cold-blooded and married to a sinister lifestyle built on causing pain to others. Indeed, nefarious characters in life are often compared to snakes because of their slimy behavior. The Vedas also tell us that those who are overly sinful get cast into the hellish realm where there are many serpents just waiting to inflict punishment. For the living entity traversing the evolutionary process of reincarnation in the material world, the snake species represents one of the lower life forms that one must suffer through.

Hanuman chantingBy making the comparison to the serpent hole, Tulsidas accurately points out that the mouth is meant for chanting the names of Hari, which is another name for God that describes His ability to remove all fears and distresses from His devotees. The mouth is very powerful, as it can be the agent for liberation. Of all the blocks we are given to use in our building, the mouth and the tongue inside of it are the most important. Any person, at any age and at any time can take to chanting. The name of God immediately evokes remembrances of His forms, qualities and pastimes; hence it is the most potent of the divine incarnations. Under the mindset where the individual is seen as the ultimate enjoyer, the mouth can become the home of the snake-like influences of material nature. But under the proper consciousness of bhakti, wherein the mouth only speaks about and glorifies Krishna, all the material elements are both understood and utilized properly, allowing us to build the path back to the spiritual world.