Sunday, May 22, 2011

Proof by Example

Lord Krishna“Who could list the innumerable transcendental qualities of Prahlada Maharaja? He had unflinching faith in Vasudeva, Lord Krishna [the son of Vasudeva], and unalloyed devotion to Him. His attachment to Lord Krishna was natural because of his previous devotional service. Although his good qualities cannot be enumerated, they prove that he was a great soul [mahatma].”  (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 7.4.36)

Who isn’t enamored by “the amazing”, for the very title hints at the effect it will have on others? Those who can perform wonderful feats relating to strength, memory and overall skill garner great attention from the common man, who then immediately tries to correlate the abilities with his own. For instance, a daredevil stuntman who flies his motorcycle between two cliffs separated by a perilous drop must have every thought entering his mind both prior to and during the stunt. The average person wouldn’t dare undertake such a feat, nor could they deal with the pressure. As is obvious to many, nothing is more amazing than the divine miracles, especially the events and pastimes of the Supreme Personality of Godhead described in sacred texts. But since God’s abilities put to shame any of those belonging to human beings, His very existence is called into question. Since we can’t fathom an entity possessing the greatest amount of beauty, wealth, knowledge, strength, fame and renunciation at the same time and to the fullest extent, it becomes easier to just deny the Lord’s existence altogether. And with each additional layer piled on top of the presentation of divine information comes another source for skepticism. There is the time element, the language barrier in the scriptures presented, and also the believability aspect pertaining to wondrous feats such as the genesis of the creation itself. Though faced with all of these impediments, if we simply study the behavior of the Lord’s adherents, we’ll see that the Supreme Spirit does indeed exist. The bhaktas, or devotees, are the proof to the claim that the meaning of life is to become God conscious by the time the end of life is reached.

“And whoever, at the time of death, quits his body, remembering Me alone, at once attains My nature. Of this there is no doubt.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 8.5)

Lord KrishnaHow did we stumble upon this conclusion? How do we know for sure that the meaning of life is to understand God? The Vedanta-sutras, one of the oldest and most respected treatises on spirituality, opens by emphatically declaring that now is the time for inquiring about Brahman, or Truth. The specific aphorism is athato brahma jijnasa. This inquiry is conspicuously absent in every form of life except the human being. The ant, cat, dog, and elephant have no understanding of the guaranteed nature of birth, old age, disease and death, even though they readily experience each of these events. The animal has no idea of the differences between body and spirit and the temporary duration of sense gratification. Only the human being, with its higher potential for intelligence and its ability to wholeheartedly submit to an authority figure, one who already knows and understands Brahman, can both inquire about and understand the highest knowledge.

The basic truths of spirituality are nicely presented in the Vedas, the scriptural tradition of India. The skeptic may argue that every region has its own specific religious tradition, so why the special attention given to the one coming from India? Indeed, the penchant for spirituality is present in every society, even if no information is ever presented on the nature of the Supreme Spirit and His relationship to the individual, subordinate entities populating the phenomenal world. The very desire to serve, which manifests in forms such as mundane love, charity, philanthropy and wholehearted dedication to meeting the demands of the senses, is indication enough of the loving propensity of the soul.

The Vedas are unique because they transcend sectarianism and sentimentalism. Surely there is devotion to a specific figure recommended, but this entity is not the exclusive property of any one group of people, and neither is He benevolent solely to human beings. Spirit is the essence of life, the driving force behind activity. Without spirit, we are left with dull matter. Prior to its entry into the womb of the mother, the spirit soul existed somewhere else. Though we can’t decipher the previous locations of this instance of spirit, we do know that life on earth was moving along just fine prior to our birth. From the events subsequent to the passing on of a person, we also understand that life continues to exist long after the soul exits its body. Therefore we can conclude that spirit is immutable, unchangeable and ever existing. The body, however, is just the opposite in quality, as it requires the spiritual injection to come into being, develop and leave byproducts. The soul is so important that the second it exits the body, the life form starts to rot and decay, giving off a foul odor.

“For the soul there is never birth nor death. Nor, having once been, does he ever cease to be. He is unborn, eternal, ever-existing, undying and primeval. He is not slain when the body is slain.“ (Lord Krishna, Bg. 2.20)

Lord Krishna with Mother YashodaNot only do the Vedas provide information about the differences between spirit and matter, but the cause behind association with the temporary body is also revealed. The Supreme Lord, the singular divine entity that every spiritual tradition is touching on in some way or another, is constitutionally situated always in the company of the individual soul. Irrespective of the level of intelligence and development of consciousness found in the living entity, God’s presence is always there. We can think of it in this way: A young child roams around completely under the protection of the parents. In the younger years, the infant is unable to understand who is a parent and what their duties are. They may see people every now and then, but there is no thought given to the importance of having protectors, nor is there appreciation for the kind and devoted efforts of the mother and father. Yet regardless of the angle of vision of the infant, the parents’ presence is still there.

In a similar manner, Bhagavan - which is a very nice name that describes God’s mastery over every opulence - is always around us; we just don’t always realize His presence. The purpose of any system of spirituality is to not only identify the Superior Person, but to also understand and realize the relationship that can be forged with Him. If someone presents us a high-end technological device that we don’t know how to use, we gain no benefit whatsoever. We may be told that God is great and that we should be devoted to Him, but if we don’t know how to offer Him service, how to make Him happy, or more importantly, how to derive pleasure from His association, the pledges of allegiance to a divine figure and the acknowledgments of a higher power are practically meaningless.

Krishna pastimesTo provide tangible information in each of these areas, the Vedas go into great detail about Bhagavan’s names, pastimes, forms and attributes. Without a form, God cannot be worshiped. An object such as wood or stone is inanimate and devoid of any spiritual injection; therefore it cannot be considered a valid candidate for attention or worship. The Divine pastimes speak to the sportive tendencies of the Personality of Godhead and the full variety that is present in a purely spiritual existence. No two human beings are completely alike, not even those who are born as twins. The spirit soul is the essence of individuality, and there is no way to accurately predict how its independence will manifest. If such variety exists in the mundane world, it will surely be present to an even greater extent in the spiritual land.

Since He has a spiritual form and enjoys variety in activity, the Supreme Lord must also have qualities. Again, this may be a little difficult to understand, for as soon as we identify an attribute we automatically introduce a corresponding limitation. For instance, if I say that my eyes are blue, this automatically means that I don’t have green eyes or eyes of any other color. If a person is a man, it means that they are not a woman. There is a defect attached to every attribute, a limitation on opulence. Therefore it is not surprising to see mental speculators and those with a poor fund of spiritual knowledge imagine the Absolute Truth to be formless, or an entity who is not to be outwardly worshiped through prostration or service offered to a deity representation.

“The Lord is personal although impersonal, He is atomic although great, and He is blackish and has red eyes although He is colorless.” (Kurma Purana)

KrishnaYet the Vedas kindly account for these issues by wholly acknowledging Bhagavan’s possession of mutually contradictory attributes. He has no hands and legs, but He can travel faster than the wind and accept every offering made to Him, even if it is as insignificant as a tiny leaf. He is without eyes, yet He can see everything. He doesn’t have ears, but every single sincere prayer offered by the surrendered soul is heard and noted. In this way we understand that God has spiritual attributes, qualities that can never be understood by those who are embodied.

Through collecting all of the relevant pieces of information, we get innumerable names that can apply to God. His most complete and concise name is Krishna, which describes His all-attractive nature. Indeed, everyone is worshiping Krishna, though not always directly. The devotees worship Krishna by regularly chanting His names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, reading about His pastimes found in Vedic literature, offering Him prayers, worshiping the deity and so many other acts that fall under the umbrella of bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. The mental speculators worship Krishna by studying Vedanta and trying to understand Brahman, or the impersonal effulgence, the effusive light beaming off of the inconceivably large and potent transcendental body of the Supreme Lord. The fruitive workers worship Krishna by operating within the laws of nature to seek out temporary gains at the cost of great pain and effort. Even the grossly foolish atheists, those who vehemently deny the existence of God and the worthiness of any spiritual practice, worship Krishna by remaining firmly dedicated to His external energy expansion of maya, or material nature.

“Whether one is without desire [the condition of the devotees], or is desirous of all fruitive results, or is after liberation, one should with all efforts try to worship the Supreme Personality of Godhead for complete perfection, culminating in Krishna consciousness.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 2.3.10)

Lord KrishnaThough everyone is worshiping Krishna in some way or another, not all methods carry the same result. As the Bhagavad-gita, the song of God sung by Krishna Himself, so nicely states that “whatever state of being one remembers at the time of death, that state they will attain without fail”, the central object of focus during one’s lifetime leads to their future destination. Again, this may seem like a dogmatic principle subscribed to by the Hindus or those who follow Vedic teachings, but we can see the effects of consciousness in everyday affairs. Those who are driven by a passion to gamble or enjoy intoxication then take to activities that lead to troubling situations. It was the consciousness that actually drove them to their destination. Consciousness drives the activities of the personal self, and at the end of life, it is the catalyst for the body-creating actions performed by the higher authorities in charge of managing nature. We can deny nature’s supremacy all we want, but we are forced to live under her stringent laws at all times. If we weren’t, there would never be any discomfort from excessive heat or cold or even disease. Death represents nature’s most powerful force, as it takes away all gains acquired during a particular lifetime without asking for permission.

“When they have thus enjoyed heavenly sense pleasure, they return to this mortal planet again. Thus, through the Vedic principles, they achieve only flickering happiness.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 9.21)

Direct worship of Krishna or one of His numerous non-different forms that are equally as potent and given to variegated spiritual activity brings emancipation of the soul, and more importantly, association with the Supreme Spirit in the afterlife. Any other type of worship must bring inferior results, as nothing can top God’s personal association. Allegiance to the exalted figures in charge of nature leads to a temporary residence in the heavenly planets. Upon expiry of the time accumulated from past pious deeds, the soul falls back down to earth to continue the cycle of reincarnation. Those in the mode of passion, taking to temporary fruitive activities that eventually only lead to a neutral position, in the next life remain in an earthly body, most likely that of a human being again. Those who outwardly deny Krishna’s existence and take to worshiping matter are demoted to a lower species in the next life. The wise will certainly view this last result as a punishment, but for the grossly foolish an animal body is much more beneficial towards meeting the target demands. If the predominant desire is to enjoy eating, sleeping, mating and defense to the fullest extent, the animals are much better equipped. The pig has no worries over divorce, the mortgage payment, fluctuations in the economy, or even death. Under a consciousness fully devoted to lifeless matter, the animal form becomes the most advanced lifestyle.

Radha and KrishnaSince bhakti requires a drastic shift in consciousness, , a revelation of sorts, furthered by regulative activities, the discipline is very difficult to adopt. Though in theory it is easy to love Krishna and devote your life to chanting His names and thinking about Him at all times, the aversion to divine love gradually strengthened over many lifetimes makes it very difficult to adopt the bhakti lifestyle with any level of sincerity. Indeed, the Vedas have many layers of presentation which serve to further insulate the sacred practice of bhakti from the dangerous influence of the pretenders. Bhakti is not a cheap or flimsy practice aimed at attracting just anyone. Just as we can’t say we love our significant other and then cheat on them with other members of the opposite sex, we can’t just declare that we love God and then spend all our time worshiping an aspect of His creation that has no direct relation to His personal self. There are certain hurdles that must be overcome in order for the spiritualist’s level of sincerity to be properly situated.

The first level of protection is the large gap between the time of inquiry and the time of the Vedas’ composition. Though scholars try to date the original compilation of Vedic texts like the Ramayana, Shrimad Bhagavatam and Mahabharata, there is really no scientific way to correctly ascertain these dates. For starters, all Vedic information was first transmitted through an oral tradition, one where sound vibrations in the Sanskrit language were passed down from generation to generation. The hearing process is the most effective in terms of information transfer, and because of their heightened mental acuity the Vedic seers like Lord Brahma, Maharishi Valmiki and Vyasadeva could retain all vital information after hearing it only once. Anytime something old is presented to us, its authenticity will be questioned. There is really no need for such skepticism, as even the sense observations that we make today will one day be considered ancient. If I see that the sky today is blue and I note down my observation in a book, will that perception lose its validity as time goes on? If in one hundred years someone reads my observation, will they be justified in thinking that I made it up or that I didn’t properly look at the sky? Yet the descriptions of Krishna’s activities found in the sacred texts are doubted precisely because of their age and their magnificence. But the Vedic seers were simply noting down what they saw and heard. They had no reason to make anything up.

Krishna lifting Govardhana HillFlying monkeys, a child lifting an entire hill with His finger and holding it up for seven days, celestial figures patrolling the sky and showering down rain and flowers on command, the sun and the moon being controlled by deities who roam around…these descriptions found in the Vedas add another layer of protection from undesirable influences. Based on our personal experience, we have no way of believing that any of these events could occur; therefore the Vedas are often taken to be mythological or simply traditions of faith. As soon as one element gets misidentified, then the validity of the entire presentation can be called into question. The Vedas certainly do include metaphorical statements and fables, but these aspects are always properly identified. But the descriptions of Krishna and His pastimes are never presented in such a way, as they are to be accepted as historical accounts witnessed by exalted individuals.

It is the presence and behavior of these exalted individuals that serves as visible proof to the claims of Krishna’s grand nature and the properties of the soul. If we have trouble believing in God or the descriptions of His features and activities, we can still get substantiation by studying the behavior of the Lord’s dearmost servants. Devotees like Prahlada Maharaja and Shri Hanuman show that dedication to God through a mood of loving service brings about every good quality and serves as the source of true happiness. Prahlada withstood the devilish attacks of his father, and Hanuman braved every obstacle thrown his way while serving Lord Rama, an incarnation of the Supreme Lord. Their exploits, which are also detailed in the Vedic texts, provide a proof to the claims made by the Supreme Lord Himself of the superiority of bhakti.

Prahlada MaharajaNevertheless, the accounts of the lives of the devotees found in Vedic texts can still be put into question based on the time gap and the wondrous nature of their activities. We’re told that Prahlada, as a five year old boy, withstood being put into a fire pit, being thrown off a mountaintop, and being attacked with deadly weapons. We’re also told that Hanuman, in the form of a monkey, flew across a massive ocean to the island of Lanka. Indeed, he also adjusted his stature on a whim, sometimes becoming extraordinary large and sometimes tiny. We don’t know any individuals capable of such behavior, so it becomes easier to just lump the devotee activities into the mythological pile.

Ah, but there is more than one way to display amazing feats. The devotees of recent times, the saints who risked everything to spread the bhakti cult, give even more proof of the claims made by Krishna and His Vedas. The saints of the past five hundred years coming from Bengal, especially those following the lead of Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Krishna’s golden avatara and supremely merciful devotee incarnation, exhibit an unheard of level of devotion. The books, songs and teachings compiled by bhakti giants like Shrila Rupa Gosvami, Shrila Sanatana Gosvami, Shrila Bhaktivinoda Thakura and most recently His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada show that followers of devotional service are capable of amazing things. No ordinary human being could write so prolifically or speak so regularly about devotion to the Supreme Lord and the benefits of being Krishna conscious. Indeed, it wouldn’t be surprising to see future generations deny the very existence of these saints, as who could ever imagine writing around one hundred books in a lifetime, with each work being completely original in its presentation and brilliant in its import? Goswami Tulsidas, another celebrated Vaishnava poet of the recent past, exudes his unreal level of kindness, compassion, sweetness and dedication in every word of his poems and songs. The same level of brilliance and genuineness is found in the original Vedic texts, but since these works are considered ancient, they are difficult to believe. Yet due to the kind mercy of the devotees of every generation, tangible proof of God’s existence remains always around us.

Shrila PrabhupadaIf we can’t bring ourselves to believe in the Vedic tenets as originally compiled, then we should at least take shelter of the modern day saints, those whose greatness and worthiness of attention we have no logical basis for denying. Attachment to the lotus feet of a saint following Vishnu-bhakti is the only life raft for the fallen souls swimming in the ocean of nescience. The saints know Krishna very well, and if they see that someone else is eager to take to devotional service, they will go out of their way to ensure the success of the devoted individual. As such, the glory of the Vaishnava saints knows no bounds. Their stature only increases with time, as they continue to rescue souls long after they physically depart this world.