Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Passing The Baton

Hanuman “Even a decision made after judging between what should be done and what shouldn't doesn't come out successful (when undertaken by a careless messenger). Messengers who think themselves learned (but act carelessly) kill all chances for success in the mission.” (Hanuman, Valmiki Ramayana, Sundara Kand, 2.40)

arthānarthāntare buddhirniścitāpi na śobhate |

ghātayanti hi kāryāṇi dūtāḥ paṇḍitamāninaḥ

It’s the home stretch, the final leg of the race. Everything is riding on these final few laps, as the teams are neck and neck. Hopes for victory lay in the hands of the final runner, the anchor man. Taking the baton from his teammate, the eager galloper, the runner deemed the fastest and most reliable by the rest of the team, swings into action, going stride for stride with the other racers. Yet all of a sudden, the relay anchor, the individual in whom all the trust and hope for victory are invested, decides to chart their own path, one unknown to anyone else. Though the entire team had prepared to run a specific type of race, factoring in all the ups and downs and pros and cons of the various options, weighing them against one another, this last runner, thinking himself smarter than the rest of his teammates, decides to chart a different path, one he thinks will indelibly mark him with fame and glory.

passing the batonIn this scenario will the anchor lead the team to victory? In a relay race, the secret to victory is good teamwork. Runners circle around the track at very high speeds, but the key to success is teamwork.  The greatest emphasis on the need for solidarity and harmony amongst members of the team with different qualities comes with the exchange of the baton, a rod-like object which is held in the hand while running. In a relay race featuring alternating runners, the handoff of the baton must be smooth and free of any hiccups, for the natural speed of the runners must not be inhibited. Runners, or any athletes involved in some sort of relay race, will map out a strategy, a game plan for victory, beforehand. The leader of the team will decide which runners will take part in which legs of the race. Usually the anchor is the fastest runner on the team, the one who has to do the least thinking. “Simply take the baton and go”, or “Run Forrest, run!”, as it was said in a famous movie.

The desired achievement is quite obvious: victory. Triumph will be shared by all the members of the team, not just the anchor. Therefore not only does the last runner have to be very fast, but he also must bear the pressure of the entire team’s hope for victory on his shoulders. Obviously this is a difficult burden to carry, but the job is made easier by preparation in the form of marching orders from the leader. The identified guide of the team will map out a certain strategy, marking things to look for and things to avoid, advising how fast a runner should travel and when it is necessary to turn on the afterburners, or the high speed. In the famous spoof movie Spaceballs, on the spaceship belonging to the villains there was a humorous demarcated level of speed known as “Ludicrous Speed”, which is meant to poke fun at the different speeds such as “hyper” and “warp” shown in various films. For the runner, there is no need to turn on “Ludicrous Speed” unless he is in dire straits. The aim is to win the race, and not to look pretty or break any records. Therefore constant attention must be kept on time and circumstance, with unnecessary actions being avoided.

Ludcirous speedIf the anchor person, who acts similar to a messenger who is carrying an important message or is executing a vital task, takes matters into their own hands and neglects the orders given to them, the chances of defeat greatly increase. There is always the slight hope that victory will come regardless, as the workings of cause-and-effect in material nature are difficult to predict. But if the runner, the person finishing the last leg of the final march towards victory, should scrap the plans of the leader out of haste, pride, or ego, the hopes of the entire team can be dashed. Such behavior is not at all uncommon, for it is the natural propensity of man to be driven by his ego, a subtle element of material nature which is deemed false in the Vedic definition.

Bhagavad-gitaThe Vedas are the ancient scriptures of India, the oldest law codes pertaining to spirituality in existence. The practice of spirituality certainly can be subject to different interpretations and meanings, but under the Vedic sense, the basic idea is to enable a living being to take the necessary steps to understand God. This gradual progression towards ultimate knowledge begins with the understanding that one is not their body, aham brahmasmi. Spirit is the guiding force behind the actions of life forms. The spirit inside the body never changes in quality, but the outer coverings certainly do. Not only do the material elements of earth, water, fire, air and ether cause both imperceptible and noticeable shifts in appearance over time, but the subtle elements of mind, intelligence, and false ego also change.

The ego is deemed false in the beginning stages of spiritual pursuits because it is based on a faulty identification. Since we are all Brahman, or part of the Absolute Truth, our identity has nothing to do with the appearance and makeup of our outer covering. Yet in the conditioned state, the one adopted at the time of birth, identity is taken solely from outward features and attributes such a skin color, nationality, gender and physical strength. Obviously these are all variables, values not constant from individual to individual. The most difficult concept to realize is that every other living entity is travelling in the same boat that we are in. It is the inherent tendency to criticize others or feel bad for them, but every single person in the world suffers through the same pains and defeats that we do. Moreover, their aim in life, their ideal final destination, is the same as well. The easiest thing to do is criticize someone else, for that doesn’t require any thought or intelligence.

“The humble sage, by virtue of true knowledge, sees with equal vision a learned and gentle brahmana, a cow, an elephant, a dog and a dog-eater [outcaste] .” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 5.18)

Lord KrishnaThe wise, however, see the equality shared amongst all life forms. Armed with this knowledge difficult to acquire, they can see the goodness in every single person. Hence the topmost transcendentalist is known as a paramahamsa, a swanlike individual who can extract nectar from any aspect of life. And what are these good things that are perceived? Not only is every individual constitutionally spirit, but their identifiable aspect has a source, a place wherefrom the spiritual spark emanates. All of us are equal in spiritual makeup, and we also have the same original father: God. Regardless of what the Supreme Being may be called and what specific set of law codes may be implemented to understand and serve Him, His position as the Supreme Father never changes. Individual spirit is simply an expansion of Supreme Spirit. Both are similar in quality; they are blissful, eternal and knowledgeable. But Supreme Spirit is far greater in potency, a fact evidenced by the fall down from the spiritual sky by the individual souls.

While falling from the spiritual realm, a place where false ego and other material elements are nonexistent, the spirit soul, through assuming a material body, earns the title of jiva. The primary symptom of the jiva is false identity, which then results in false ego. Real ego is assumed when the individual understands their fraternal relationship with all life forms and their link to the Supreme Person. Any other consciousness is thus deemed a product of the false ego. Either way, ego is always there, for that is the essence of individuality. Even in the liberated state, the individual maintains their identity in the spiritual world alongside Bhagavan in His most blissful and sweet form of Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. If God is anything, He is the ultimate reservoir of pleasure. There can be no denying this, as there would be no reason to surrender unto the Lord simply out of fear. For God to be the ultimate object of worship, He must be capable of providing the greatest pleasure, transcendental or otherwise, to the individual soul, an entity which is always looking for stimulation of the mind and the senses.

Lord KrishnaThe purified individual, one who realizes their true nature, has no traces of false ego. Again, this doesn’t mean that they lose their individuality or even their confidence. To understand the difference in behavior between one who is suffering from the false ego and one who has completely freed themselves from it, we can study the thoughts and desires of Shri Hanuman during his time in Lanka. Not only is God the Supreme Spirit in the spiritual sky, but He also accompanies the jivas during their descent to the material world. In His nirguna aspect, or unmanifested form, the Lord resides within the heart as the Supersoul. Nirguna and saguna are terms usually invoked by the class of transcendentalists known as monists, those who believe that every individual being is God and that true perfection in life comes when all the individual pieces of Brahman merge back into one. But Nirguna and saguna are actually terms applicable for the benefit of only the conditioned souls. Due to the limitations of our present bodies, we cannot properly perceive of the Supreme Spirit residing within our heart. From authorized statements found in the Vedas, we understand that the Supersoul assumes the four-handed form of Lord Vishnu, a plenary expansion of the Supreme Personality. But since this form cannot be seen by the individual, it is often referred to as nirguna, or without material qualities.

“The Supersoul is the original source of all senses, yet He is without senses. He is unattached, although He is the maintainer of all living beings. He transcends the modes of nature [nirgunam], and at the same time He is the master of all modes of material nature.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 13.15)

The Lord, knowing the deficiencies of our body types, kindly descends to earth in visible forms every now and then as well. When such a form appears before the eyes, it is described as saguna. For the Supreme Person, there is never any difference between His forms; His position as a divine entity possessing an eternal transcendental form never changes. Nirguna and saguna are simply terms derived from the angle of vision of the individual, similar to how we say the sun is setting and rising, when in fact its position never changes. Since the bodies assumed by these saguna forms of the Lord are always transcendental and free from the effects of nature, they are also known as avataras, or those who descend from the spiritual world. One of the most famous avataras is Lord Rama, the valiant warrior prince of Ayodhya who appeared on earth during the Treta Yuga.

Lord RamaThe saguna form, aside from giving succor to the eyes of the transcendentally love-starved individuals, allows those who are eager to serve God the opportunity to engage in activities to please Him. Such was the case with Hanuman, as he was tasked with a very important mission. Through the workings of yogamaya, the transcendental illusory energy directly operating under the purview of the Supreme Lord, Rama’s wife Sita Devi was taken away to an island kingdom named Lanka by a Rakshasa demon. Rather than find her Himself, something He was more than capable of doing, Rama enlisted the aid of a band of monkeys residing in the forest of Kishkindha. Ravana, the king who took Sita, was very opulent and extremely powerful. Suffering the worst kind of disease brought on by the false ego, Ravana surely thought he was God, the most powerful entity in the world. Shri Rama, being the Lord incarnate roaming the earth at the time, partnered with monkeys to show everyone that true strength comes from service to the Lord and not through any worship of heavenly figures or acquisition of material wealth.

Hanuman’s mission was straightforward: find Sita and return information of her location to Rama and Sugriva, the leader of the monkeys. While the objectives were simple, the task was by no means easy, but then again, Hanuman was not a normal servant. A pure lover of God, Hanuman had mastery of every perfection of mystic yoga, the greatest strength an individual could have, and also the highest intellect known to man. He was completely under the shelter of real ego, the mindset derived from knowing one’s position as eternal servant of the Supreme Lord. Marshaling his strength and yogic perfections, Hanuman was able to leap across the massive ocean surrounding Ravana’s island and make his way to the outskirts of the enemy city.

HanumanCrossing the ocean was just the first part of the task. Now that he was on the outskirts of Lanka, Hanuman needed to figure out how to infiltrate the enemy territory. Surely any normal man would be proud of his accomplishment of having reached Lanka via the aerial path, but Hanuman had no time for fist-pumping, end-zone celebrations, or dancing. The next part of his task was arguably the most difficult, that of finding a way into Lanka without being noticed. Hanuman could assume any form at will, but he needed to choose an appearance which would allow him to survey the situation without being noticed.

In the above referenced passage from the Ramayana, we see just how dedicated to Rama Hanuman was. Knowing that he was tasked with a very important mission, the last thing Hanuman wanted to do was screw it up. He didn’t want to become a victim to the false ego, wherein he would decide on some path that wasn’t agreed upon for the sake of achieving even greater fame. As a powerful fighter, Hanuman could have defeated Ravana and his entire army. This fact was known to Hanuman, as he would confirm this many years later in his discussion with Bhima, the strongest of the famous Pandava brothers, described in the Mahabharata. Fighting Ravana wasn’t the assigned mission, for that wouldn’t have guaranteed finding Sita. Hanuman also could have been puffed up and tempted to take Sita back himself. He in fact would later propose this to Sita Devi out of great affection for her. Yet again, such an act wouldn’t guarantee victory, as there was the chance that Sita could be injured during the subsequent attack from the Rakshasas seeing Hanuman fleeing.

HanumanSo what did Hanuman do? He eventually succeeded of course, and it was due entirely to his great attention to detail and his respect for the wishes of his most loveable object, the team leader, Shri Rama. Hanuman wasn’t able to text message back to base for advice, nor was he able to place a call into headquarters. He had to rely on his intelligence and his fixed devotion to Rama’s interests to figure out the proper course. Needless to say, Hanuman is incapable of foiling the plans adopted by the highest authority figures. In fact, Hanuman is the greatest agent for liberation, a kind messenger whose thoughts, words and deeds exude supreme confidence in the power of the unbreakable bond that exists between God and His sons and daughters. Hanuman would be rewarded for his successes with eternal devotion to the feet of Sita and Rama. Anyone who remembers him on a daily basis will similarly be able to succeed in the mission of life, that of becoming purely God conscious at the time of death, and also be thrilled to the heart from having his transcendental association.

Due to his inherent attributes, Hanuman had every reason to be puffed up, but he wasn’t. His confidence and ego came from his relationship with Rama. In a similar manner, there is no reason for our false ego to exist perpetually. We all have the same link to Shri Rama and to other non-different forms of the Lord. For the people of this age, the way to serve God is to honor the desires and instructions of His dear servants, the Vaishnavas. All the authorized Vaishnavas declare that the only means of salvation in the present time is the regular chanting of the holy names of the Lord. Some say we should chant Rama’s name all the time, while others advise us to chant the most potent name of Shri Krishna. In reality, the name doesn’t matter, as long as the sound vibration recited is authorized and representative of the attributes, forms and pastimes of the original Divine Being. There is no requirement that one chant a specific name only in defiance of their natural loving tendencies towards a specific form of the Supreme Lord. Nevertheless, the maha-mantra, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, is so nice because it is all inclusive. It consists of sound vibrations which, when regularly recited, please the ears of all sincere devotees of God around the world. This mantra has been kindly passed down to us by Lord Chaitanya, Krishna’s preacher incarnation. Taking the baton, we should run with it by reciting this sacred formula as often as possible, and in the process pass the holy name on to others. If we honor this most wonderful collection of words in this way, we will not only ensure fame and honor for ourselves, but we will also guarantee victory in the game of life for those whose lives we touch.