Thursday, June 16, 2011

From Drug to Devotee

Lord Rama“In the Kali Yuga, Shri Rama’s holy name is like a kalpataru that gives full refuge and auspiciousness. By remembering that name, Tulsidas has transformed from bhang into tulasi.” (Dohavali, 11)

nāmu rāma ko kalapataru kali kalyāna nivāsu|

jo sumirata bhayo bhāṅga teṃ tulasī tulasīdāsu ||

The sweetheart of all sweethearts, a man who never had a hint of sin or impurity in him, in this verse praises the power of the holy name of the Supreme Lord by declaring it to be a kalpataru, a wish-fulfilling tree capable of purifying even the most impure of persons and giving shelter and auspiciousness to anyone. The bhang leaf is an intoxicant, used by those who are on the lower stages of consciousness and thus looking for an easy escape from the temporary rises and falls of material fortune. Though bhang is sometimes associated with Vedic functions, its use is not intended for the higher classes of men, as it is tied to the mode of ignorance, the lowest of the three modes of material nature. Not only are the drug’s users impure, but so is the drug itself, as it can only lead to a further clouding of consciousness, which is the key ingredient for success in spiritual endeavors. Without a purification of consciousness, no amount of study, austerity, or yoga practice will bring tangible benefits. Yet, as Tulsidas so nicely declares, the holy name of Rama, which is as potent as God Himself, is so wonderful that simply remembering it can turn something as impure as bhang into tulasi, the most sacred of plants.

TulsidasWhy is it bad to remain in an impure state? What is so harmful of being equated with a hallucinogenic drug? Aside from the obvious pitfalls that come with drug addiction, even temporary bouts of drug-induced elation and sensory escape don’t provide any advancement or progression in thought processes. The difference between a child and an adult is the level of maturation in terms of the workings of the mind. The child simply wants to play all day, not caring about regulation, study, austerity or future benefit. If the child had its way, it would never go to school. Instead, life would revolve around television and video games, and food would have to be supplied by the elders at all times.

The advanced consciousness of the adult not only alters activities, but it also ideally leads to a sobriety of thought, a position where the highest gain is understood. In the most mature stages, man starts to question his existence, why he must take birth and eventually die. The Vedanta-sutras, the famous collection of aphorisms describing the Absolute Truth in a very succinct way, open with the declaration, athato brahma-jijnasa, or “Now is the time for inquiring about Brahman.” Though man has a natural inclination to understand the concept of a God, or Supreme Controller, Brahman speaks to a more abstract understanding, realizing an energy of Truth that is all-pervading. There is actually no difference between Brahman and God, but due to the lack of information available to the spiritualist not trained in the ancient art of divine love, the first stage of understanding the Supreme Truth involves only the study of impersonal Brahman.

“That knowledge by which one undivided spiritual nature is seen in all existences, undivided in the divided, is knowledge in the mode of goodness.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 18.20)

Lord KrishnaEvery single life form is Brahman. Anything with a soul in it is spiritual at the core, and the aggregate collection of all spirit is Brahman. Therefore the first step in spiritual realization is understanding that all forms of life, irrespective of their advancement in consciousness or lack thereof, are equal. The dog, the dog-eater, the learned spiritualist, the cow, the bird, the infant and the adult human being are all equal in their constitution. Differences are noted because of the outer coverings, temporary shells made of combinations of material elements. Just as a pile of clay can be turned into a variety of different objects, the numerous elements of material nature can be crafted and shaped into 8,400,000 different species. Yet the clay is just that: clay. It is dull and lifeless. Unless and until there is an injection of spirit, the clay cannot do anything. Similarly, the material elements are not absolute in themselves; they require the hand of spirit for movement, transformation and destruction.

Realizing Brahman is quite difficult. Based on perception in the childhood years, we see that everything around us is different. Even identical twins have differences in behavior, so how can we come to the conclusion that everyone is equal? The answer, of course, is through education and sobriety of thought. Even in the more mature adult years, while one is constantly intoxicated they are purposely not seeing things for what they are. The infamous “beer goggles” illustrate this point nicely, wherein an inebriated individual craving conjugal relations tends to view members of the opposite sex they normally wouldn’t find attractive to all of a sudden be desirable. Hence not only is there illusion in the sense that the effects of the senses are temporarily subsided, but there is also an intentional blurring of vision.

When the clouds are covering the sky, we cannot see the sun, but this doesn’t mean that the giant source of heat and light has somehow disappeared. We say that the sun sets at night, but in reality, the earth has temporarily rotated out of its view. In a similar manner, just because one is intoxicated and unable to understand the equality of all forms of life, which is the benefit of Brahman realization, it doesn’t mean that there are differences between species. The most important property of Brahman is that it is tied to the Supreme Personality of Godhead. God is the only entity who forever remains fixed in His transcendental body. The living entities making up Brahman are also eternal, knowledgeable and full of bliss, but due to their association with the clay-like elements of matter, they can assume temporary bodies and suffer through subsequent bouts of illusion. The Supreme Lord is the controller of matter, so He can never be subject to its forces.

“Unintelligent men, who know Me not, think that I have assumed this form and personality. Due to their small knowledge, they do not know My higher nature, which is changeless and supreme.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 7.24)

Lord KrishnaThe Brahman level of understanding is only the beginning, just as seeing the sun in the sky is only the first step in comprehending the presence and potency of the wonderful fiery object that has yet to burn out. By studying Brahman exclusively, one can certainly ascend to a high state of consciousness, but there is another level that must be reached. Without knowing the properties of Bhagavan, or the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the realization of Brahman remains incomplete. It is quite common for spiritualists who only study Brahman to completely ignore the existence of an original Person, a supreme master in charge of the workings of nature. Though we may appreciate the sun when it appears before us, an even higher understanding would come by actually travelling directly to the sun, studying its properties and interacting with its various energies.

Obviously this cannot happen, as man would burn to ashes long before they even came close to the surface of the sun. But with the Supreme Lord there is unmatched mercy, a benevolence that allows the sincere soul to interact with God’s personal form, resulting in a knowledgebase which automatically brings awareness of Brahman. Though the concept of Brahman represents a basic understanding of spirit, familiarity with the outer beams of spiritual light emanating from the inconceivably large transcendental body of the original form of the Lord, God is still nice enough to make personal appearances on earth from time to time, allowing those with a sober mind a chance to directly witness the potency and blissful nature of the Supreme Lord. The appearance of Lord Rama, the jewel of the Raghu dynasty, represented one such divine descent, affording the privileged citizens of Ayodhya an opportunity for having all of their wishes fulfilled.

Lord RamaThough Rama may be considered a sectarian figure by the less intelligent, there is no such thing as targeted jurisdiction when it comes to the workings of Supreme Spirit. Regardless of religious tradition or acknowledged belief in a higher power, Bhagavan’s properties do not change. One person may refer to Him as God, while another acknowledges His superior power as all-devouring death, but the penchant for worship and the service mentality of the soul stay the same. Shri Rama is exquisitely beautiful, a powerful bow-warrior, and a prince dedicated to the rules of propriety, or dharma. Indeed, Rama Himself originally imparted the system of sanatana-dharma, or the eternal occupation of man, to allow the conditioned souls to remain fully sober at all times. Dharma is a set of guidelines aimed at providing a gradual advancement of consciousness. Those who follow dharma will ultimately reconnect with the Supreme Lord through a bond of love held firmly within the heart and mind.

Though there are other non-different personal forms of the Supreme Lord, Goswami Tulsidas, the celebrated Vaishnava poet of medieval India, prefers to worship God in His form of Rama. In the above referenced verse from the Dohavali, Tulsidas states that Rama’s name is like a kalpataru, or wish-fulfilling tree. Who wouldn’t love to have a genie that granted all of our wishes, an enchanting figure emerging from a magical lamp? In the spiritual sky, the land where Rama and His other forms reside, there are numerous wish-fulfilling trees that grant every desire imaginable. Even in the heavenly realm, which is still considered part of the material world, there are suratarus, or trees of the demigods. These trees also grant the wishes of their worshipers.

TulsidasTo substantiate His claim that Rama’s name grants all wishes, Tulsidas reveals that by simply remembering the holy name of the Lord, which is non-different from His original form, he has gone from being bhang to tulasi. The significance of this comparison cannot be understated. Bhang is akin to opium or marijuana. Even in modern civilized societies, which are considered degraded due to the onslaught of Kali Yuga, marijuana smoking is considered taboo, part of the underground drug culture. Tulsidas, as a humble individual, compares his former life, when he hadn’t taken to regularly chanting the holy name of the Lord - which is the only dharma worth adopting in the current age - to be one spent in illusion. If he could compare his former self to a tree or leaf, he would be bhang. Obviously Tulsidas is an eternally liberated soul, one who remembered Rama in some way or another from the beginning of his life, but his statement reveals his humble attitude.

In the Vedic tradition, those who become brahmanas, the priestly class charged with at least understanding Brahman, get a new name at the time of initiation, the event that represents their second birth. Every person gets their first birth from their parents, so in this sense there is really nothing remarkable about emerging from the womb. The second birth is more important because it signals the beginning of spiritual life, the true benefit of the human form of body. Brahmanas are referred to as dvija, because they take their second birth upon beginning their studies with a qualified teacher, who is himself a brahmana. Based on his name now known the world over, at the time of his initiation the young poet was given the name “Tulsidas”, which means “servant of Tulasi Devi”, who is a sacred plant that is revered, honored and worshiped.

Tulasi Devi“Tulsidas” is indeed a terrific name to be given, for it means that one is a worshiper of Tulasi Devi. If they are not already, such a person will also become a great devotee of Lord Vishnu, to whom Tulasi Devi is incredibly dear. Lord Vishnu is considered the brahmanya-devaya, the worshipable object of the brahmanas who are trying to ascend past the Brahman level of spiritual understanding. Shri Rama is considered an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, who resides in the spiritual sky. Lord Krishna, the two-armed form of the Absolute Truth holding a flute in His hands, is considered the original form of Godhead, but worship of Vishnu or one of His incarnations like Rama is equally as effective. The choice of worship is up to the individual, as each of the Vishnu forms has aspects that appeal to specific moods of worship.

Tulasi Devi, though seemingly just a basil plant, is extremely kind and merciful. Vedic statements about Tulasi Devi and her qualities must be taken at face value and understood through explicit religious practice. The human mind, which is limited by time, space and rationality in its cognitive thought, is incapable of truly understanding how a woman can take the form of a plant and grant benedictions to her worshipers. Yet, just as with other aspects of life, the authority of the spiritual teachings descending from the Vedas is validated through the successful results that come from following the practices recommended. Tulsidas’ undying affection and love for Shri Rama is proof enough of Tulasi Devi’s tremendous powers. Vaishnavas honor and adore Tulasi Devi, especially before performing any religious function. Simply chanting the holy names of the Lord, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, in front of a tulasi plant on a regular basis is sufficient for understanding all there is to know about the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

Lord RamaThere is no hubris in Tulsidas’ comparison to the tulasi plant, as he is totally honored by the title and considers it a benediction coming from Shri Rama. While bhang is viewed negatively, tulasi leaves are honored and adored. An ordinary poet or writer may not get much fanfare, but a Vaishnava kavi, especially one so devoted to Shri Rama as Tulsidas, will forever be honored and worshiped. In Kali Yuga, the age that we currently find ourselves in, the many rules and regulations associated with sanatana-dharma are very difficult to follow. Not only is intoxication rampant, but so are many other activities that deviate from the standard dictates of religion. Therefore in this age there is no other way to get our true wish, that of rekindling our dormant God consciousness, than chanting the holy names of the Lord. Rama’s name is indeed a kalpataru, as it granted the wishes of many thousands of worshipers by creating such a worthy, intelligent and loveable a saint as Tulsidas. His poetry continues to enthrall, delight and inspire devotees of Vishnu around the world. Though Tulsidas was never worthy of being compared to a bhang, his initiated name was certainly accurate, as Tulasi Devi was extremely merciful upon him. As bhang is associated with the mode of ignorance, tulasi directly equates with Vishnu, who is actually above even the mode of goodness. In this age of quarrel and hypocrisy, where there seems to be no place to go for safety and comfort, by remembering the holy name of the Lord and honoring Tulasi Devi, we too can become purified and endeared to the Supreme Lord. And, just as Tulasi Devi grants devotion to Vishnu, so her devotee Goswami Tulsidas and his wonderful words of praise dedicated to his beloved Rama awaken the dormant God consciousness of the sincere souls open to hearing about the Lord and His glories.