Sunday, April 24, 2011

Religious Garbs

Hanuman “If I stay here embodied in my natural form, I will surely be killed, and the mission of my Lord [Rama] will be harmed.” (Hanuman, Valmiki Ramayana, Sundara Kand, 2.45)

ihāhaṃ yadi tiṣṭhāmi svena rūpeṇa saṃvṛtaḥ ।

vināśamupayāsyāmi bharturarthaśca hīyate

Head dresses, shaved heads, intricate gear put around the arms and neck, turbans, etc., constitute the various religious garbs assumed by followers of the popular spiritual traditions around the world. To the common person and those unfamiliar with these traditions such dresses appear strange. “What is the purpose to them? Is religion about making yourself look like a weirdo? Is that what pleases God?” By studying the selfless nature of one of the most courageous fighters in history, we get a glimpse into the reason why the different forms are assumed by the truly devoted, those whose only business in life is to meet the objectives of the Supreme Person in the spiritual sky, the topmost personality whose orders, while tough to adhere to, bring about the highest gain.

Human life is considered the best opportunity for the cultivation of knowledge that is beyond duality, information pertaining to the nature of spirit and its constitutional position. In other species the opportunity for advancing in consciousness is missing. In the animal kingdom there is only concern over finding food, shelter, sex life and adequate defense. Knowledge of eventual death is lacking, as is information about the workings of the current environment. For instance, a fish doesn’t even know that it is wet, nor does it understand that if it eats too much food at one time it will die. One may be tempted to think that life in heaven, the place filled with enhanced levels of enjoyment resulting from pious deeds performed during one’s lifetime on earth, would bring wonderful opportunities for service to the supreme loveable object. Heaven is considered either the final destination or at least close to it, so why wouldn’t residence there be considered the greatest boon?

“From the highest planet in the material world down to the lowest, all are places of misery wherein repeated birth and death take place. But one who attains to My abode, O son of Kunti, never takes birth again.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 8.16)

Lord KrishnaAs Goswami Tulsidas so nicely notes, it’s heard that on the heavenly planets the emotional intoxication resulting from enjoyment is so great that the residents become forgetful of their impending death. A human being may live upwards of one hundred years, but a heavenly figure can remain fixed in their position of opulence for thousands, if not millions, of years. No matter the duration, short or long, both a beginning and an end are still present. Because of this limitation, the lifestyle corresponding to residence there must be considered subordinate to the way of life enjoyed by those residing eternally in a spiritual form while engaged in the most sublime activity, that of pure devotional service unto Krishna, the original form of Godhead. Krishna, who is also known as Bhagavan, is the best name for the original Divine Being because it describes His all-attractive nature. Sex life may attract a certain class of individuals for a certain period of time, as might gambling, but in the end, the taste of enjoyment starts to dull; hence the need for different conjugal partners and new wagers.

Since Krishna is complete in His attractiveness, the taste relished from direct service offered at His lotus feet only increases with time. It is the nature of the spirit soul to be a lover of God, so the more the jivatma, the individual spiritual entity capable of residing in the material world, takes to devotional service, the more they come into contact with their inner, true self. The more we stay true to our nature, the more ecstasy, or bhava, we will derive from our activities.

The animals, the residents of the heavenly realm, and even those suffering in the hellish lands are all too distracted with sense urges and punishments to understand and appreciate Krishna’s blissful nature. Only in the human form of body, where there is an opportunity to perform acts of charity, sacrifice, penance, and most importantly, devotion, can the knowledge necessary to break free of the cycle of birth and death be acquired. All the material planets, from the highest one down to the lowest, are places where life in a particular form begins, remains for some time, and then ultimately ends. Though the soul never takes birth or dies, its occupancy in any form of material body has a growth cycle. When one understands Krishna, or God, completely, the repetitious cycle, which is the root cause of misery, discontinues permanently.

Lord Krishna For those awarded the wonderful opportunity to think cognitively, any process that can be adopted to aid one’s understanding of their true, imperishable nature should be adopted, and any engagement which leads to the further clouding of the purified consciousness should be given up. The residents of the heavenly realm have no opportunity for direct service to Krishna because they are enjoying the fruits of their past labor. On the other side, the animals are either ascending their way through the various species and hopefully marching towards a human birth, or they are being punished for their previous misdeeds driven by attraction to sense demands. Animal life is considered a punishment only for those who are seriously interested in the highest gain, that of returning to a spiritual land that never perishes. But for the gross materialist, one who is ardently against any type of spiritual injunction, animal life is actually superior to human life. The animal enjoys eating, intoxication, and sex life just as much as, or if not more than, a human being, minus all the worry. The animal is unconcerned with election results, the price of gasoline, the environment, or losing its lover to another. In this sense, the spiritually unconscious human being lives a hellish form of animal life, one where hankering and lamenting continue perpetually up until the time of death.

For the human being wishing to take advantage of their unique circumstances, the first lesson to understand is that they are not their body. Aham brahmasmi is the Vedic aphorism which means “I am Brahman”. Brahman can be thought of as the luster of the all-pervasive, immeasurably large, transcendental body of the Supreme Lord. Brahman is Truth, but in an unmanifested form; it is not readily perceptible to the living entity; hence it is considered impersonal. The Supreme Lord is not impersonal, as it takes great intelligence to conjure up the systems of karma and the workings of nature. Since every spiritual spark is equally a part of Brahman, every living entity is the same in constitutional makeup. Moreover, Brahman has nothing to do with outer dress or species. Therefore our real nature is that of spirit. Yet since the spiritual spark is impossible to see with the conditioned eye, training and practice are required for the purification of vision.

Lord ChaitanyaFor those students serious about shedding their false bodily designations adopted at the time of birth, adherence to rules and regulations can be quite helpful. A foundational aspect of virtually all pursuits in spiritual life is the religious garb, a uniform or dress that helps keep the individual soul humble and grounded. The actual nature of the garb may vary, but the purpose is always the same, that of working towards release from attachment to the body which is always changing. In the Vedic tradition, young students training under the direction of the spiritual master, or guru, are known as brahmacharis, and they assume a very simple garb. When they are initiated by their guru, the students shave their heads, save for a small tuft of hair, and don simple robes. The justification for the shaved head is actually quite easy to understand. Hairstyles, makeup, fancy clothes, expensive sneakers and the like are all aimed at enhancing one’s appeal towards members of the opposite sex. The desire to appear attractive is certainly natural and not something that necessarily needs to be criticized, but for the brahmachari, there is strict adherence to celibacy. Sex life is available in the animal species after all, so it is not something unique for humans, nor is it something that requires training. Only in the human form of life, where there are standards of civility and decency, is sex life difficult. This is actually a blessing from the Lord. If our present destiny was to engage in unregulated conjugal relations, God would have put us in the body of an animal.

The shaved head and simple robe afford the brahmachari more time to focus on their studies, which involve understanding their position as Brahman and their relationship to Krishna as His dear servant. If the student, upon completion of their studies, should decide to marry, then certainly growing hair is allowed, but the primary focus always remains the same. Habits formed during childhood go a long way towards developing the behavior of the adult, so if a young student is taught to live a simple lifestyle dedicated to always chanting the glories of the Lord, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, they will likely keep such traditions even in the face of unexpected opposition found later on in life. The most serious transcendentalists, the sannyasis, are completely renounced, so they maintain the simple garb throughout their life.

Shrila PrabhupadaThe robes and the tilaka mark on the forehead also indicate to others that such an individual is a Vaishnava, or a servant of Lord Vishnu, which is another name for Krishna. We identify a police officer by the appearance of their car and the uniform they wear, so we can similarly identify a serious spiritualist by his attire. The simple garb shows dedication to spiritual life and renouncement from material pleasures. Those seeking knowledge of the Absolute can thus more easily identify who they should approach and who they shouldn’t for guidance. At the same time, the dress is only one aspect of spiritual life. A cheater, one who has no interest in advancing in consciousness but every interest in exploiting the innocent, loving sentiments of others, can very easily don an ascetic’s garb and lead others down the path to hell. The key to the garb, however, is to further decrease attachment to worldly life and increase attachment to God. When one is engaged in the Lord’s business, they have no attachment to what they wear; they choose whatever attire is suitable for the moment and appropriate for serving the cause. This attitude and its validity were illustrated very nicely by Shri Hanuman, the faithful servant of Lord Rama.

If we could describe Hanuman in one word, it would be “beautiful”. He is beaming with beauty in every respect. Every word that comes out of his mouth is wonderful; his every activity brings tremendous bliss to not only Rama, but also the millions of devotees who learn of them through the scriptures like the Ramayana. Hanuman’s kindness is beautiful, as his concern over the well-being of Rama, His family members, and all His adherents. Therefore it is not surprising that in the famous Ramayana poem penned by Maharishi Valmiki, the section dealing specifically with Hanuman’s pastimes is known as the Sundara-kanda, or the book of beauty.

HanumanThough Hanuman is all-beautiful, he has no attachment to his outward dress and appearance. Roaming the earth in the form of a monkey, one would think that Hanuman would be precluded from taking to spiritual life and serving the Supreme Lord. As mentioned before, the human birth represents the best opportunity for the jiva soul to find liberation, or an end to reincarnation, but this doesn’t mean that the exhibition of the potency of spirit is limited to the human form. Regardless of the outward dress, the constitutional makeup of the spirit soul remains the same. If one chants the holy name of the Lord, he is automatically deemed worthy of worship, despite his caste, gender, or species. Goswami Tulsidas accurately notes that devotion to Shri Rama’s feet has led to the liberation of countless souls who were in forms that appeared wretched to others; therefore devotion is the only thing that matters. Just as the trees lining the path to the imperishable spiritual sky become worshipable due to their association with God, those born in a materially designated lower caste become objects of worship through chanting the name of Rama, as this brings them in the direct company of the Supreme Lord.

Lord Rama is another form of Krishna, Bhagavan in the guise of a human being of the warrior class. To allow for personal service to be offered to Him, Rama created various scenarios where He required the help of others. Hanuman was given the task of finding Rama’s beautiful wife, Sita Devi. The princess had been taken by the Rakshasa demon Ravana, and nobody knew where she was. Gathering the necessary intelligence from helpful individuals, Hanuman was able to learn that Sita was being held captive in a far away island called Lanka. After assuming a massive form, Hanuman leapt across the expansive ocean and made his way to the outskirts of Ravana’s city. But prior to entering Lanka, Hanuman stopped to contemplate what his plan of action should be.

HanumanIn the above referenced passage, we see that Hanuman is accurately noting that if he were to enter Lanka in his natural form, he would surely be spotted by the ogres, the ghoulish demons ruling over the kingdom. Destruction or failure wasn’t that big a deal to Hanuman, but it would mean that Rama’s purpose wouldn’t be served. This is all that Hanuman was concerned about. From his deliberations we see that even Hanuman’s thoughts proved to be beautiful. As a pure servant and lover of the Supreme Lord, Hanuman had no attachment to his outward features, even though they were beautiful in every way. Just looking at Hanuman once is enough to bring tremendous pleasure to the eyes. So in this sense, why should he have had to change his form to accommodate the ghastly figures sworn to a life of deviancy?

Just as the brahmachari, the student serious about understanding Brahman, discards their attachment to flowing hair and elegant garments, the topmost devotee, the lover of the original Divine Being, discards any and all attachment to vanity and personal appearance. Whatever form is required to get the job done is what the devotee will take. Eventually, Hanuman would wisely settle upon a diminutive form, one that would allow him to enter Lanka undetected. He indeed would be successful in his mission, finding Sita’s whereabouts and returning the information to Rama. All would end well, as Rama would triumphantly best Ravana in battle and rescue Sita.

From Hanuman’s example, we see that the dress is not as important as the mission and the dedication to it of the man behind the clothes. Whatever particular outward features we can assume that will help us in shifting our consciousness towards the spiritual light is what we should take on. Moreover, whatever course of action will please our spiritual master, the boatman guaranteeing us free and safe passage across the ocean of nescience, which are the most difficult waters to pass over, is what should be followed. The Vaishnava may or may not give off the appearance of opulence and strength, but through their kind acts of devotion to Krishna and benevolence to their fellow man, they prove themselves to be the most beautiful entities in the world.