Friday, April 1, 2011

Pondering Victory

Shri Hanuman “Seeing that city to be as such and difficult to overcome for even demigods and demons, Hanuman, sighing again and again, reflected.” (Valmiki Ramayana, Sundara Kand, 2.36)

tāṃ purīṃ tādṛśīṃ dṛṣṭvā durādharśāṃ surāsuraiḥ |

hanumān cintayāmāsa viniścitya muhurmuhuḥ

The sigh is the obvious sign of frustration, an indication that a particular situation has turned unfavorable or that a wished-for objective has not been met to the satisfaction of the person so desperately wanting their needs and hopes fulfilled. In terms of consciousness and the general advancement of thought processes, sighing is considered a recourse for the weak, those who are not evolved in their intelligence and understanding. In religious circles, especially amongst those who aim to practice the ancient art of yoga as espoused in the Vedas, the scriptural tradition of India, controlling desires and their effect on the psyche is very important. In fact, gaining a firm grasp on the workings of the mind that interact with sense objects forms the cornerstone of the difficult and potent practice of meditation and deep reflection on the Self. Yet from studying the activities of one of the most famous yogis in history, we see that the practice of linking with the Supreme Consciousness isn’t simply about squashing desires or trying to have every hankering met. Yoga isn’t even about avoiding frustration. Instead, it is exclusively meant for achieving the ultimate objective of life through a set of practices which simultaneously remove any and all obstacles towards the attainment of that supreme destination.

“From whatever and wherever the mind wanders due to its flickering and unsteady nature, one must certainly withdraw it and bring it back under the control of the Self.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 6.26)

Lord KrishnaIn the Bhagavad-gita, the famous “Song of God” sung by Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, topics covering the mind, the soul, reincarnation and the nature of desire are discussed. Though the ultimate conclusion of the Gita is that one should surrender completely unto the Supreme Lord in thought, word and deed, the aspects of Krishna’s teachings preceding His final proclamation certainly are interesting to study, for they serve as integral blocks that go into building and maintaining the final structure that is the pathway to spiritual freedom. As an example, Krishna gives attention to the issue of the mind and the desires that arise within it. For one who is trying to ascend the ladder of transcendental consciousness, controlling the mind is of utmost importance. The initial instruction given to students of the Vedic tradition is aham brahmasmi, which means “I am Brahman.” In the ignorant state the living entity identifies solely with the gross material body, the specific, temporary covering of individual spirit that allows for outward action and movement. We can say “my hand”, “my leg”, “my arm”, etc. and not be incorrect, but once we say “my soul”, our statement loses its validity. The word “my” already implies the soul, for the spirit within the heart is the basis for identity. This spiritual spark never changes in property, nor does it ever diminish or increase in abilities and potencies. The soul remains alive forever. It has never taken birth, nor will it ever die.

“Know that which pervades the entire body is indestructible. No one is able to destroy the imperishable soul.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 2.17)

As is the case with any aspect of transcendental life, understanding and recognizing the presence of the soul is not an easy thing, for the workings of the sense acquiring objects that cover up the individual spiritual spark result in a tendency for the individual to be illusioned by the perceptible changes continually applied to the external world. For example, there is great sadness at the time of death for both the person passing on and the relatives and well-wishers. But if we travel back not too far into the past, we’ll see that the same entities weren’t related in any way. The attachments were only formed through the assumption of a material body and the further development that resulted. In this way the links formed by the mind were simply a product of the workings of nature. In a simpler example, let’s say that we’re going about our day without any issues until we find one hundred dollars in the pocket of our coat. Obviously this will be a cause for celebration, as who wouldn’t be pleased to have found money that wasn’t known to exist? But if later in the day we end up misplacing that one hundred dollar bill, there will be sadness. The intelligent person realizes that there was no reason for the initial happiness or the sadness in the aftermath because the money really had no effect on the individual. Whether or not we have possessions shouldn’t alter our psyche, for the physical makeup of our identity-bearing element, the soul, does not change with the acceptance or renunciation of matter.

At this point, several cogent questions may arise from the inquisitive listener. “What is wrong with being sad over death and being happy over good times? What is the harm in being driven by the consciousness derived from association with the gross body?” The answer is that as long as one remains convinced that their identity relates to their present body type, i.e. the mindsets of “I am a human being, man, woman, animal, etc.”, the soul remains covered up. The soul is by quality happy, peaceful and fully knowledgeable. Though the spiritual spark never took birth, it has a source from which it derives its properties. Not surprisingly, that fountainhead of spiritual energy is God, who is also known through His expansion as the Supersoul, which resides within the heart adjacent to the individual soul. Only through yoga practice, which brings about the linking of the two souls within a specific life form, can the ignorance developed through association with matter be removed.

In this regard the aspiring yogi, one who desires to practice yoga in earnest, is advised to curb the influences of the mind, for this subtle element of material existence is directly responsible for forming attachment to non-sentient objects. All feelings of happiness and sadness result from the workings of the mind. For instance, success in a venture may lead to a positive outlook, but this predicament is only due to the thought processes of the individual. There is actually no difference between a person who is happy because they have pretended to be successful and an elated person who has actually succeeded in their venture. Surely the outward outcomes in tasks may differ, but the resulting mindsets are essentially the same. Therefore we see that the mind is a very powerful force that can be maneuvered to directly influence our consciousness. The predominant mindset, or consciousness, measured at the time of death can liberate an entity from the perpetual cycle of birth and death, putting an end to the repeated acceptances and rejections of material bodies.

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

Lord KrishnaSo how do we program the mind to avoid associating with nescience? The key is to control our desires. At every second, even during sleep, the mind is either hankering or lamenting. There is no way to stop the thought processes for even a moment, for the mind functions involuntarily. Therefore simply curbing desire is not enough. We may try to sit in silence and suppress our lusty feelings, but if the seeds of desire still remain within the mind, the renunciation is not real. To realize how to achieve success, we must understand why uncontrolled hankerings are deemed detrimental towards the advancement of consciousness. Though according to the transcendentalists’ viewpoint desires are generally considered bad, this rule does not apply universally. The end-goal of all yoga practice is to become aware of the presence of the soul and its relationship to God. Therefore any activity that can advance us further along in the process can be considered good, and anything which hampers our march towards forming an unbreakable attachment to the Supreme Lord can be considered bad. In every scope of activity, prior to judging the actions undertaken and the desires that cause them, the end-goal and the effect the proposed course of action has on it must be considered.

To see how this principle works, let’s take the example of a baseball player. In the game of baseball, the batter’s job is to get on base, which can be accomplished through either getting a hit, taking a walk, getting hit by a pitch, or having a fielder commit an error. The pitcher, the man throwing the ball to the batter, is tasked with getting the batter out. The batter stands in front of a plate, with a catcher seated behind him catching the balls thrown by the pitcher. There is a strike zone, an area in space demarked by the umpire that represents the target area for the pitcher. If a pitch is thrown in this zone, the batter is supposed to swing at the ball. Any pitch thrown in this zone is counted as a strike. If a batter fails to swing at such a pitch, or if he fails to put the ball in play after swinging at any pitch, he is charged with a strike. After three strikes, with the third strike not resulting from a foul ball, the batter is out. Any pitch that is not thrown in the strike zone and that is not swung at by the batter is deemed a ball. After accumulating four balls, a batter takes first base.

BaseballBased on this rudimentary explanation, we see that strikes are advantageous to the pitcher and balls are advantageous to the hitter. From the batter’s perspective, accumulating strikes can be compared to desires, those things that should be avoided in order to achieve success in the mission. So what happens if a batter takes a strike? What if he swings and misses at a pitch out of the strike zone? What if he swings at a pitch and hits it into foul territory? Obviously he will be charged with a strike, but is this necessarily a bad thing? What if he gets two strikes on him? The strikes are actually only detrimental if the final outcome is not reached. If the batter eventually strikes out, then the preceding strikes were most harmful. But if he ends up hitting a home run after accumulating one or two strikes, then the previous pitches, the unwanted desires, end up not negatively affecting the desired outcome. In fact, sometimes it is beneficial to take a few strikes, for seeing a few pitches allows the batter to better understand the throwing style of the pitcher. Once accustomed to the trajectory of the ball and its speed, a batter can better understand how to hit it and thus reach base safely, which is the intended target all along.

Similarly, desire, frustration and defeat are only harmful to the psyche of the yogi if they lead to an overall negative condition in the future. If even temporary pains ultimately lead to a positive outcome, there’s no reason for repression and forced renunciation. Sighing, though an outward indication of frustration, sometimes does help in achieving a favorable condition. This was the case with Shri Hanuman, the faithful servant of Lord Rama. Many thousands of years ago, the Supersoul, the all-pervading spiritual entity which resides inside of every single living being, made an outward appearance on earth in the form of a handsome and pious prince named Rama.

Sita RamaThere are different types of yoga, but bhakti is considered the pinnacle because it is the last stage in the linking of consciousness. Bhakti is the only yoga practice that doesn’t have an end-goal; it continues for all of eternity. In this sense one who practices devotion from the start doesn’t have to worry about forcefully repressing desire or controlling the mind. Rather, such beneficial behavior is automatically adopted through the sublime engagement of meeting the transcendental desires and wishes of the Supreme Lord. How exactly does this wonderful behavior that is so difficult to practice for even the greatest mystics manifest in the devotee? To give pleasure to His adherents and to give countless future generations of mankind an example to follow in respect to religious practice, the Supreme Lord Rama put Himself into troublesome situations. God can certainly never be defeated or frustrated in any attempt, but if He were to wield His formidable strength all the time while on earth, there would be nothing gained from His activities. In addition to taking on evil elements in the world, Shri Rama allowed others to kindly serve Him, for that is the main business of mankind. Of all the servants eager to please Rama, none is more celebrated today than Hanuman, the Vanara warrior and well-wishing friend of every creature in the universe.

Hanuman’s mission was straightforward: find Rama’s wife Sita Devi and return the information of her whereabouts to Rama and Sugriva, the king of the Vanaras residing in Kishkindha. Though the objectives were straightforward, the exact plan of action was not. No one knew where Sita was, and once it was finally learned where she had been taken, the task became even more difficult. Sita Devi, an innocent and beautiful princess, was brought against her will to the island of Lanka, the home of the Rakshasa king Ravana. This grand city was situated far away from any mainland, so reaching its land would not be easy. Ravana, as a powerful Rakshasa, had flown there with Sita on his aerial car. Hanuman, who was a member of a search party consisting of powerful monkeys, didn’t have such amenities available to him. Not to fear though, as he made use of his mystic powers, or yogic siddhis, to get the job done.

HanumanIt is said that once one ascends to the highest platform of bhakti-yoga, they acquire all the strength and power of the demigods. Just as there are different gradations of human beings in terms of exhibition of strength, intelligence and skill, there are many varieties of living beings, with 8,400,000 topping off the count. The demigods, the celestials in the sky, are also dehinam, or embodied in material forms, but their strengths are far greater than those found in human beings. The celestials live for a very long time, and they are charged with maintaining the functions of gross elements such as earth, water, fire and air. Since Hanuman was always thinking of Rama’s interests and nothing else, he possessed every mystic power and opulence imaginable. Therefore, when he needed to go to Lanka, he simply increased his size and leapt across the ocean.

Crossing the ocean with a single leap was certainly a great feat in and of itself, but the distance of the vast ocean was only one hurdle out of many daunting obstacles awaiting Hanuman. Upon reaching Lanka, Hanuman saw that the city was heavily fortified and opulently adorned. In the above referenced passage from the Ramayana, Hanuman is contemplating how to enter Lanka without being noticed by the enemy. We see that the brave Vanara carefully thought the matter over and over again in his mind as a way to give vent to his frustration.

“When the yogi, by practice of yoga, disciplines his mental activities and becomes situated in Transcendence -devoid of all material desires - he is said to have attained yoga.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 6.18)

Hanuman As a bhakta, Hanuman had no concern for controlling his mind, quelling desire or adhering to the principles of yoga practice. His only interest was to love Rama, and in order to show love for someone else, we try to make them happy. Nothing would make Rama happier than finding Sita. Therefore Hanuman took Rama’s happiness as his life’s mission. Hanuman’s outward display of concern would actually prove to be beneficial, as it showed the divine servant’s attention to detail and the careful consideration he gave to every matter concerning Rama’s welfare. Hanuman never acted hastily, for he knew the sensitivity of the mission at hand.

Not surprisingly, Hanuman would figure out just the right way to enter Lanka and find Sita. Successfully returning back to Rama and the monkey army, Hanuman would go on to play a pivotal role in the eventual defeat of Ravana and the ultimate rescue of the princess of Videha. To this day the name of Hanuman is synonymous with love, devotion, dedication, strength, intelligence and perseverance in practicing the ancient art of mysticism that brings attainment of the ultimate objective of life, that of becoming God conscious. Since his devotional service was never interrupted, Hanuman’s temporary signs of frustration had no effect on his overall outlook. The key to success is to change the nature of our desires rather than getting rid of them completely. Instead of squashing the incessant wants brought on by the mind, we should act on those desires that, when fulfilled, lead to the most positive condition of a pure, unbreakable connection with the Supreme Spirit. When we work in the interests of Rama, even a few tears of frustration and sighs of despondency can prove beneficial in the long run, for they teach us how to be tolerant and perseverant in our labors of transcendental love. Such properties are only prevalent in the ancient art of bhakti, the height of religious practice and the destined engagement for every spirit soul.