Monday, April 4, 2011

Something You Have

Lord Krishna “Dormant devotional service to Krishna is within everyone. Simply by associating with devotees, hearing their good instructions and chanting the Hare Krishna mantra, dormant love for Krishna is awakened. In this way one acquires the seed of devotional service.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Chaitanya Charitamrita, Madhya 19.151 Purport)

The foremost characteristic, that property the soul is never bereft of, constitutes its dharma. More than just mere religion or a system of spirituality, dharma is the quality that defines a spirit soul’s existence. Therefore those who are in touch with this intrinsic feature are deemed to be in complete bliss and knowledge. Being a pure lover of God, or a bhakta, is something that all of us are, but in the conditioned state, one brought on by contact with material nature and then perpetuated by the cloud of illusion enveloping the phenomenal world, our true properties are forgotten and covered up. Therefore one who has realized their nature and thus achieved the highest standard of thought and behavior can be considered to have bhakti. Bhakti doesn’t have to be acquired from any external source because being an eternal servant of the Lord is something we all are, but nevertheless, outward symptoms are required to indicate a purified consciousness, a mindset taken over by the bhakti attitude. More than just saying we have a deep attachment for the Supreme Lord, we must back up the claims through actions.

politicsThe behavior of politicians nicely illustrates the flaw in the belief that one can just pledge allegiance to a particular spiritual personality or system of religion and thereby be deemed on the highest platform of intelligence, on the fast track back to the land of eternity. In the democratic style system of government, the politician’s main focus is on garnering more votes than their opponent in an election contest. With the next election always lurking around the corner, it is not surprising to see that polling has become a tool almost as important as personal philosophy in formulating stances on specific issues. Public opinion polls are taken constantly, with the questions running the full gamut of thought, observation and opinion. Even though polls give an indication of what the voting public is feeling, they don’t always accurately convey what the struggling politician needs to change about themselves to become more popular.

Politicians, especially those running for high offices like the presidency, are in the spotlight all the time. No matter how hard they try to mask their nature, eventually their true colors will come out. When a seedy character wins office, the mistaken assumption is that somehow the citizens were fooled into thinking that the politician was something he was not. But in reality, all the short-comings and character flaws were well on display for everyone to see. When characters given to lying and having low moral values win office, it is to be understood that the voting public elected them despite their flaws.

Pollsters are always trying to get an edge regardless, even if their efforts are only meant for bolstering the credibility of their polling organization. Therefore one of the more typical poll questions posed after an election relates to why a certain voter voted the way they did. If they liked the politician’s outlook on life and his high moral standing, the voter will say things like, “I liked his character. He shared my values. I liked that he was optimistic instead of pessimistic. I liked that he had faith in the country.” These answers all reflect observations pertaining to the qualities visibly displayed by the politician during their time in the spotlight, where they interacted with fellow candidates and voters. These traits weren’t necessarily explicitly stated or purposefully highlighted during the campaign, but the voters ascertained them through watching and hearing from the candidates. Therefore it’s quite humorous to see politicians during the subsequent election cycle give answers to prior poll questions as part of their campaign speeches and platforms. “I’m optimistic about the country. I believe in strong moral values. I think that character is important.” These statements are silly because just saying that you’re optimistic doesn’t mean that you have a positive outlook on life. You can tell everyone that you’re in favor of high moral values all you want, but it is your behavior, especially that exhibited during times of duress, that determines whether or not these qualities exist in you.

Another humorous example that illustrates the same principles comes from the television sitcom Friends. In one particular episode, two of the female characters, Phoebe and Rachel, enroll in a self-defense class geared for women. In modern day society, women are given independence and allowed to freely intermingle with men. One of the drawbacks to this is that women are now more prone to attack from men looking for money or sexual relations procured through force. Because of the potential for danger, women need to take extra steps for safety, such as learning self-defense. Ross, one of the male characters on the show and part of the friend-circle, learns of the class Phoebe and Rachel are taking and immediately deprecates it. He tells them that they should learn the ancient art of unagi instead, which is actually a type of eel. Ross mistakes unagi for zanshin, which is a state of total awareness.

Ross describing unagi What really gives the episode its humor is the behavior exhibited by Ross after he learns of the class the girls are taking. In order to prove the supremacy of his system of unagi, Ross tries to show that the girls aren’t in total awareness of danger by sneaking up on them from behind on several occasions. Though the girls get startled by the mock attack from Ross, they end up retaliating with their own sneak attack, which subsequently scares Ross. He then decides to sneak into the girls’ apartment when they are not home to hide behind a couch to jump up and scare them. But the plan gets foiled when the girls come home and see him hiding.  They then make use of what they learned in their self-defense class and pin Ross to the ground. While they are lying on top of him, they demand that he admit that they are unagi, to which Ross responds, “Unagi is not something you are, it’s something you have.”

Just as the politician’s optimism and good moral standing must be ingrained in them and the defender’s possession of a total state of awareness must be exhibited through outward behavior, the dedication we have to divine love must exist inside of us in an active state in order to be deemed present. In the game of women’s golf, there is an automatic entry system for the hall of fame. If a player should win a certain number of tournaments, she automatically gets honored as being one of the greatest female golfers of all time. In many theistic traditions, especially those run by establishments firmly grounded in politics, legislation and strict traditions, there are similar tests for eligibility, wherein one is advised to make a specific donation to get a better seat at the table. Send the religious leader money and you will be on the fast track to heaven, i.e. make a contribution and you’ll get the better seat on the boat travelling to the spiritual realm.

Other promises from spiritual leaders are less egregious and seemingly easier to believe. For instance, if we go to church every Sunday and don’t commit any overtly sinful activities in our daily lives, we’ll be okay in the afterlife. If we pray a certain number of times in a day and observe all the fasting regulations, we’ll be safe from eternal damnation. But since the identity of the individual comes from the spirit soul residing within, any future fortunes, spiritual or otherwise, must come from the soul’s disposition. Just as the face is the index of the mind, one’s consciousness is indicative of the individual soul’s desires and wants. If the spiritual spark desires material association, one which is divorced of any personal relationship to the Almighty, separation from the spiritual realm will remain perpetually. The soul is part and parcel of God, a disposition concisely described in Lord Chaitanya’s achintya-bhedabheda-tattva philosophy. We are similar to God in quality, but vastly inferior to Him in quantitative powers.

Lord ChaitanyaIf one is sincerely desirous of returning to the Personality of Godhead’s realm, their wish will be granted. Though the boon comes to bear in the afterlife, the association of the Supreme Spirit can actually occur while in the present body. Moreover, one doesn’t have to meet God face-to-face in order to be purified in consciousness. Indeed, many famous figures of the past met the Lord personally and either didn’t identify Him properly or maintained their enmity towards Him. In this way we see that one’s consciousness, the foremost thoughts of the mind driven by the desires of the spirit soul, determines spiritual fortunes. No external or internal process, no allegiance to a specific religious sect, no adherence to a specific ritual, and no direct blessing from an exalted personality, including God Himself, can alone bring about a permanent shift in consciousness. After all, if even the most dedicated devotee were to give us their blessings, we would still have to perform activity afterwards. If our actions remained focused on the phenomenal world, it could never be said that our consciousness was purified, despite having received the most wonderful benedictions.

Bhakti, or the devotional attitude, is ingrained in every person, but at the same time the purified version of this loving sentiment is not necessarily something everyone has. We have love for lots of things, including friends, family and neighbors. But emotions are flickering, as love can turn into hate very quickly. The dharma of the soul, its affection for God, never diminishes or goes away. In the conditioned state, however, the natural loving propensity gets misdirected to other areas. Therefore we technically are already lovers of God, but without a shift in consciousness, the pure loving spirit is not something we have. In order to be a true bhakta, one who is in touch with their dharma, there must be a shift in consciousness, which is generally secured through an alteration in behavior, which means that the daily activities driven by material desire must change.

Chanting Hare KrishnaThe single practice most capable of returning one’s consciousness to their original dharma is the chanting of the holy names of the Lord, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. Chanting involves hearing as well, which is the most effective form of knowledge gathering. By hearing the Lord’s names of Krishna and Rama, the mind can gradually shift its focus, thoughts and desires. Krishna is not a sectarian name, though it is a Sanskrit word. God is certainly the most attractive entity and the giver of transcendental pleasure, so the names Krishna and Rama very accurately describe Him. Chanting is only one manifestation of a universally applicable discipline known as bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. Yoga is the linking of the individual consciousness with the Supreme Consciousness, that all-pervading thought process belonging to the Supreme Person. Bhakti is divine love, so when combined with yoga, you get the discipline which aims to keep one connected with God in a mood of pure love, or Krishna consciousness.

The bhaktas, those who are in bhakti, exhibit many laudable characteristics, which are indicated through outward symptoms. Devotees are nice to everyone; they are very compassionate; they have a deep love and respect for all forms of life. But most importantly, the devotees are always thinking of Krishna, or God. No matter where they go and what situation they find themselves in, memory of the Supreme Lord and His pleasure-giving pastimes is never too far away. In all areas of study the bhaktas present the proper conclusion in terms of its relation to Krishna. While eating, sleeping and working, thoughts never deviate from the transcendental realm. And most important of all, after maintaining their fidelity with the principles of the sublime engagement the only reward that the bhakta asks for is the ability to continue their bhakti practices. They don’t even explicitly desire a return to the spiritual world, to be recognized as a great devotee or to be saved from a future hellish condition. Rather, full surrender, or sharanagati, means relinquishing all responsibility for anything pertaining to the visible world, including reputation, peace of mind, anger, resentment and happiness. All experienced conditions are seen as blessings from the Lord.

Lord RamaThe devotee of God, though firmly convinced of the supremacy of bhakti and the infallible nature of its founder, Shri Krishna, always remains humble. Since they know that everything comes from God, they have no reason to be overly puffed up in ego or to view others as being stupid and dull. Goswami Tulsidas conveys the humble attitude very nicely in his poetry. In one of his hymns, Tulsidas mentions that his friends all love him and that his enemies all hate him. Indeed, he acknowledges that he never says anything about anyone, nor does he openly criticize others for their beliefs. Regardless, Tulsidas states that he is not bothered by any of these conditions, for they are all the responsibility of Lord Rama, another non-different form of the Supreme Lord and the worshipable deity of choice for Tulsidas. The beautiful poet says that if bhakti were to be represented by earth, or a field, his mind would be like the grass on that field.

“One who thinks himself lower than the grass, who is more tolerant than a tree, and who does not expect personal honor yet is always prepared to give all respect to others can very easily always chant the holy name of the Lord.” (Chaitanya Charitamrita, Adi 17.31)

The grass has nothing to be proud of; it is simply stepped on constantly by others enjoying activities on the field. Indeed, the trees and other plants all stand much taller than the grass. As such, the grass is the greatest emblem of humility, making it an apt comparison for describing a devotee’s humble attitude. Lord Chaitanya, the founder of the modern-day bhakti movement that is spread through the congregational chanting of the holy names of the Lord, or sankirtana, also advises that one remain humbler than the grass while chanting Krishna’s names and preaching His glories to others.

Shri Shri Radha Vrindavana Chandra Humility, kindness, knowledge of the scriptures and undying love for the Supreme Lord are all qualities that become part of the devotee; they become inseparable from the divine servant’s makeup. Though the ultimate goal is to develop a permanent consciousness always fixed on God, the outward processes of spiritual life and the different functions pertaining to formalized worship can certainly deliver great success. After all, consciousness is determined by activities; whatever one keeps at the forefront of the mind will determine their primary thoughts. No method is more effective at shifting consciousness and bringing the individual back to their original position of pure bhakti than the chanting of the Lord’s names. When bhakti is that thing we have and hold onto as our life and soul, Krishna will be the person whose association we keep for all of eternity.