Saturday, April 23, 2011

Long and Short Game

Lord Vishnu riding on Garuda “Actual greatness, however, is not one-sided. One who is actually great can become greater than the greatest and smaller than the smallest.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Teachings of Queen Kunti, Ch 13)

Not only has man created the massive airplane at great expense to transport large groups of individuals across long distances, but he is also keenly interested in personal flying machines, wherein just one individual can travel through the air like a bird, similar to how the fictional television series The Jetsons depicted an advanced age of space travel. The most recent popular invention involves a singular, short flight duration with a machine connected to a body of water via a tube to propel the thrilled traveler into the air across very short distances. Though the invention gets great attention because it is seen as progress in terms of technology and enjoyment, in order to be considered truly amazing a skill must be great in all areas, large and small. The human being already travelled through and survived in the tiniest of spaces when it was in the womb. Now, if such an amazing feat as that could be repeated in a scientific experiment, the achievement would be something to behold.

The JetsonsObviously bringing up the notion of womb-travel will be met with some skepticism. “Are you crazy? How are you going to move within a tiny a space as that? You would die instantly, as your body cannot squeeze into such a small area.” These concerns shed light on an interesting fact about the body and the source of identity for the individual. Surely an adult-aged human being has difficulty getting through small spaces, but at some point in the life of the same person they were able to move about and survive in the tiniest of bodies. The embryo inside the womb is a living force, as it has growth and maintenance just like the mature human being. Consciousness may not be all that developed, but this deficiency is present in the infant and we don’t hold that against them. Through the miracle of life, the identity of the individual remains intact irrespective of body type. Indeed, even if one is to lose an arm or a leg, their life force doesn’t stop; they can still carry on. Rick Allen, the famous drummer for the rock band Def Leppard, lost an arm in a car accident and yet somehow maintained his identity as an expert drummer.

The Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, accurately note that the spirit soul is the basis for identity in all forms of life. This includes not only human beings, but ants, reptiles, plants, trees, birds, and all other species. The exterior features may vary, but the essence of individuality, the spirit soul, is the same. Though it may be difficult to imagine that a cat or a dog has a soul, just by observing the outward symptoms, such as the autonomous nature of speech, thought and movement, one can very easily identify the difference between a living form and a dead one. The presence of the soul, the spiritual spark which is full of eternality, bliss and knowledge, gives the indication of life. Once the soul exits a particular body, the life form becomes dead and useless. The body immediately starts to decay, and in the case of warm-blooded animals, the internal fire also stops burning.

“If we divide the tip of a hair into one hundred parts and then take one part and divide this into another one hundred parts, that ten-thousandth part is the dimension of the living entity. This is the verdict of the chief Vedic mantras.” (Panchadashi-chitra-dipa, 81)

changing bodiesThe soul is infinitesimally small, so much so that no blunt instrument can measure its size or perceive of its presence. The soul’s properties are only perceptible through outward symptoms, and its dimensions only understood through statements found in authorized scriptures. Judging by the fact that a body as small as a tiny ant has a soul in it, we see that spirit is indeed amazing. The human being cannot fit into the body of an ant and survive, but the spirit soul, through the laws of nature governed by the higher spiritual authorities, can travel into any type of body. The exact nature of the outer covering is determined by one’s work and mental quality, karma and guna. Though the tendency for popular theistic traditions is to focus on the negative aspects of material life and the sinful engagements that result through contact with matter, the spirit soul has active engagements that it is well-suited for. When these activities are adopted, not only are the effects of the present body transcended, but the future fortunes are taken care of as well.

One who is ignorant of the properties of the soul, its inherent nature, and its ideal complementary target of service will be enamored by the workings of the phenomenal world. The undertakings of the scientists in the fields of space travel and machine generation reveal the deficiencies of material enjoyment. Though the airplane is a marvelous invention, there is much strain and effort required in successfully getting one to fly with passengers in it. Moreover, the bird already knows how to travel through the air without a problem. Aside from the pursuit of technological advancement, there is also the desire to enjoy the senses to the fullest degree, with the most potent form of enjoyment coming from sex life. Yet the monkeys and the dogs already enjoy sex without any problems, as they don’t have to worry about courting members of the opposite sex and getting them to consent to relations. Instead, the lower animal species simply go up to whoever they like and enjoy their business. They have insatiable appetites for sex, so they can continue on and on without any of the after-effects and worries.

Shrila PrabhupadaAside from the fact that animals can already do many of the activities the inquisitive human being is trying to imitate, there is the issue with one-sidedness of purpose. Space travel and the overindulgence in sex life represent the excess of achievement, the extreme positive end of the scope of activity. But in order to be considered great, one must be able to show excellence in both extremes. The airplane is very large and can accommodate many passengers, but have the scientists created anything that can transport an individual within the tiniest of bodies? As His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada so nicely notes in his Teachings of Queen Kunti, a truly remarkable individual is one who can become greater than the greatest and smaller than the smallest in their particular area of interest. The space travel of the spirit soul within the womb is only one example of becoming smaller than the smallest, but we can also understand the importance of showing excellence in both ends of ability by studying other endeavors with which we are familiar.

In the world of sports, there is always great anticipation, talk and speculation about who will win the next particular big game or the upcoming championship trophy. Even with all the talk and analysis, the matchups on paper never seem to correspond with the way the events actually turn out. Often times the truly great players and teams, those who are deemed superior, will lose in a close game to a competitor deemed inferior. In tennis, the anointed better player will say, “I can’t believe I lost to such and such a player. He is not very good.” The comparisons usually focus on the ability to do certain things extraordinary well, similar to the greater than the greatest comparison. The favorite player will be able to serve at high speeds and hit the ball very hard, while the inferior player will be deficient in these areas. But victory in any game boils down to winning specific aspects, with success in tennis furthered by putting the ball into play longer in each point than your opponent. As such, there are many different ways to win. A player who doesn’t hit the ball very hard but can play terrific defense and employ a variety of shots will be very successful. Indeed, this matches up with the historical data, as the greatest players of the past were those who could not only serve very hard and run very fast, but could also come to the net and play short shots.

putting greenGreatness in tennis or any other sport involves skill at every aspect. In the game of golf, Tiger Woods and past legends don’t just drive the ball far off the tee; they are good at the short game too. If we have one player who can hit his driver over 300 yards, but then it takes him three or four putts on the green to put the ball into the cup, he will certainly not be a very good player. Another player who can hit the ball maybe 200 yards, but then is great at the short game might be very successful. You can’t just be great in one area, fail in the overall endeavor and then expect to be praised for your abilities.

The scientists responsible for enabling travel to the moon and outer space have made a great achievement by allowing an individual to travel far distances and maintain the life force within the body. But at the same time, an honest person would have to concede that an equally as great achievement would be to remain exactly where one is and be completely steady of mind. One who can enjoy to the fullest, that is maintain a steady and positive outlook within their consciousness, without ever having to engage in sex life, travel on an airplane, or even eat nice food should be equally as lauded. There are many yogis who meet these requirements, as through their mystic practices they can perform amazing feats like exiting their body, travelling through subtle space, and remaining fixed in their sitting posture for an extended period of time. They can become lighter than the lightest and even hold their breath for hours on end.

The scientists perform feats which are seen as very great, while the yogis can do things which are seen as very small, but the common result shared by both groups is that their consciousnesses are somewhat altered. The yogi performs some mystical feat and feels very proud inside, as it took great effort to be able to acquire and master their skill. Similarly, the scientist feels tremendous satisfaction being able to say that they did something no one else has ever done before. Ah, but have they? One individual in particular has certainly done all these things before. Not only can one person create, maintain and destroy on the grandest of scales, but even His tiny fragmental sparks can perform similar feats. The scientist is proud of space travel, but the birds and insects already fly through the air without any need for jet fuel. The yogi is proud of becoming very light and being able to travel outside of their body, but the infinitesimally small spiritual spark, the individual atma, is the greatest space traveler in history. The soul, as the only natural acrobat, jumps from one body type to another through the laws of karma.

Lord KrishnaIn this way we see that trying to become greater than the greatest and smaller than the smallest are both unnecessary pursuits, as others have already performed similar feats without any strenuous endeavor. Bhagavan, the entity most of us refer to as God, reluctantly created the phenomenal world out of the polluted desire of a set of individual souls who wanted to imitate the inconceivable potencies of the Supreme Spirit. Since only God can be God, there needed to be a replica, or shadow-copy, of the original spiritual realm in order for such faulty desires to be acted upon. Hence the visible world was created, and since time immemorial it has served as the playing field for those keenly interested in paltry achievements. Bhagavan is so kind that He continues to reveal tiny bits of information about the infinitely complex workings of the universe so as to whet the appetite of the scientists who have no interest in understanding the nature of the soul, its properties and the true mission in life.

For those who are interested in a higher taste, one that far surpasses that which comes from mundane scientific or physical advancement, the system of dharma, or religiosity, is always there. The skeptic will argue that dharma cannot be universal because there are so many different religions in existence, each having their own deity and method of worship. There are different religious systems in the world, but the properties of the soul are nevertheless universal. We may have differences in body types, but the soul, the essence of life, is always the same in quality. There is no such thing as an Indian soul or an American soul.

When man is very sinful, when he is overly committed to harmful activities like meat eating and intoxication, the specific incarnation of the time, or spiritual leader who rises to prominence in a particular geographical area, will come and institute a streamlined set of rules which consist mostly of don’ts. “Don’t kill anything; don’t dishonor your parents; don’t covet your neighbor’s wife”, etc. These restrictions have helped countless individuals escape from the pangs of hellish life. Yet beyond just the restrictions and the blind sentiment that is often recommended, there is a set of positive activities which the spirit soul is naturally inclined towards performing. These activities are not sectarian in any way, and they appeal to all walks of men and women due to the singularity of purpose, that of connecting with Bhagavan.

Lord KrishnaThe Vedic scriptures, the ancient set of law codes emanating from India, describe these constitutional activities as bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. Dharma represents an essential characteristic, a property that never leaves the soul. As such, any and all law codes and recommendations aimed at reestablishing the essential characteristic also constitute dharma. The restrictions on sinful activities are only one aspect of religiosity, while the positive engagements of bhakti-yoga complete the picture. The quintessential act of devotion to God is the chanting of His names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”.

The ability to chant this mantra with full feeling and attachment is what separates the human being from any other species. The animal can travel through small spaces and live for very long periods of time without eating, but it has no ability to understand dharma or the properties of the soul. The human being, when he becomes sober through kind submission to a bona fide spiritual master, a pure devotee of God who has dedicated all of their life’s actions to Him, can understand the efficacy of devotional service and the universal appeal and worthiness of service to Lord Krishna. The skeptic, atheist, and blind sentimentalist will argue that Krishna is simply a sectarian figure, a specific viewpoint of God crafted by the Hindus. But Krishna is actually a Sanskrit word which means “all-attractive”. More than just an order-giver or a grand creator, God is the most attractive person in all the universes. Attraction to Him is never fatal, at least not for the aspect of life that counts. Love for Krishna brings eternal residence in the spiritual sky. Bhakti can be considered the religion of love, the system of spirituality aimed at bringing an eternal life and removing the painful existence arising from contact with material nature. How could any honest transcendentalist and theist ever be against loving God?

Lord KrishnaFor love to truly manifest, it must bring about a change in consciousness. Simply swearing allegiance to a particular spiritual figure and attending functions once a week is not enough to indicate a drastic shift in thought. We can say that we love someone but then dedicate all of our actions to something or someone else and thereby invalidate our initial profession of faith. Bhakti is a full-time engagement, one that always keeps the pure lover, the spirit soul, in touch with its most pleasurable object, Krishna. Though bhakti can be attempted on other worldly objects and elevated figures, it is meant exclusively for Lord Vishnu, which is another name for Krishna. When bhakti, or pure love, is attached to any entity that is not God, the results will, not surprisingly, keep one further away from liberation. We may be firmly attached to a specific politician, but when they lose or fall down from their post, the worshipers are left to search out another object of interest. Similarly, worshiping a particular spiritual leader can at best bring the dear servant in the company of the worshiped individual. Yet if the object of worship is incapable of providing supreme pleasure, if he is not a true representative of the Supreme Person, the worshiper will eventually have no choice but to divert their attention elsewhere.

Vishnu-bhakti, as the topmost form of transcendental love, is free of any defects. Not only is the object of worship ever worthy of the love and adoration of the countless spiritual entities residing in all the different worlds, but He never falls down either; hence one of His names is Achyuta. Worship of God in pure love is the true business of mankind. By following the regulative principles of freedom enjoined in the shastras, anyone, regardless of their country of origin, the language they speak, and the spiritual traditions they are accustomed to, can gain emancipation within this very life. Eternal freedom is found in the spiritual sky, where the company of the Personality of Godhead is enjoyed for all of time.

Lord VishnuThe embryo survives within the womb without a machine. The bird flies without needing refined petroleum, and the ant moves around without any need for yoga practice. In the same manner, the bhakta, without any aid of advanced technology or mystical exercise, can always remain connected with the Supreme Spirit while in any type of body. As such, the pure devotee can be considered greater than the greatest and smaller than the smallest, a property which initially belongs to Shri Krishna, who as God is capable of doing anything. By remaining firmly attached to the lotus feet of the bhaktas, the humble soul can learn how to similarly transcend the effects of nature, which are constantly enticing the individual to take to any engagement except divine love. The Supreme Lord, as the greatest of all time, tells nature what to do. Therefore when one is sincere in their desire to be with God, nature, operating at the behest of Krishna, will work in their favor.