Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Yoga Under Duress

Prahlada thrown off a cliff“If one is engaged in the advancement of spiritual knowledge, there will be so many insults and much dishonor from others. This is expected because material nature is so constituted. Even a boy like Prahlada, who, only five years old, was engaged in the cultivation of spiritual knowledge, was endangered when his father became antagonistic to his devotion.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Bhagavad-gita, 13.8-12 Purport)

Question: “How do I concentrate on devotional activities when I have so many pressures to maintain a family?”

Answer: In a particular episode of the famous American television sitcom, Everybody Loves Raymond, a doctor on the show compares the mind to a donkey. He says that there is only so much weight you can put on the mind before it decides to just sit down and stop moving. Though the analogy is meant to be humorous, it has merit. If we are bearing an excruciatingly large weight on our shoulders, how are we supposed to concentrate on anything else? For the fruitive worker entangled in so many responsibilities, the panacea of a life devoted to spirituality seems far, far away. But as was seen with one particular devotee a long time back, even under the most trying circumstances, if there is sincerity of purpose, the beneficiary of that service will make sure that the devotion can not only continue, but flourish.

The first instruction of the Vedas to aspiring transcendentalists is aham brahmasmi, which means “I am Brahman.” “You are not the body, don’t you see? The body is just temporary, like a lump of clay that can be molded and shaped at any second. In the larger scheme, the all-devouring agent for change known as time is responsible for the shifts, but this doesn’t mean that you are completely helpless with respect to your body’s transformation. Your actions have an influence on the rate of the change and its nature, but nevertheless, throughout the passage of time you are still pure spirit. Detach from the bodily influence and remain spiritually aware. Brahman is bliss. Brahman is truth. Brahman is eternal life.”

These truths are well and good to learn about when you are sober and able to concentrate on hearing and understanding the complex information, but what if you don’t have the time to study Brahman? For the adult family man living in the modern world, the average day is filled with pressures. Though time is continuous and days are only slices taken from that timeline for analytical purposes, let’s start with the morning period to see just how many pressures the family man faces and how they increase in number throughout the day. The first pressure relates to waking up at a certain time. In the winter months this is most difficult, for as soon as you emerge from underneath the warm covers, you are welcomed with colder air. As the sleeping man is in a vulnerable condition, with the vitality of the living spirit having rested for the previous eight or so hours, the sudden burst of cold is rather uncomfortable. As over time the difference in climatic conditions comes to be expected, the waking man knows what he will face should he arise, so just getting out of bed becomes a chore.

winterEmerging from bed is the start of the day. Now you have to do your routine in the bathroom, change clothes, preferably eat something, and make it out the door within a short amount of time so that you can arrive at work on time. In some cases, there may be the added step of checking email. If something went wrong overnight at work, you’ll have to fix it before you leave the house. Fixing the problem will only make you later, and thus cause you to get behind on the day’s work.

Then there is the pressure of the travel. If you take mass transit, you want to make the train or bus that you prefer to take. The public transportation vehicle must arrive on time as well; otherwise the delicate balance of time management is thrown off. For the person who drives to work, you just hope that there is no traffic on the roads. By the way, since you’re taking an automobile to work every day, you are now responsible for its maintenance. This means always keeping in mind how much gasoline is in the car and whether or not you need to bring the vehicle in for servicing. The service centers are typically only open during the weekdays, those days where you have the aforementioned morning pressures relating to work. Should the car require maintenance, you have to rearrange your schedule and hope that the repairs don’t cost too much.

If you do arrive at work on time, other kinds of pressures only begin. The difficulty of the job is what enables you to earn a living off of what you do. As in the modern age most of society doesn’t live off of farming, income is earned by being of some value to an organization that sells a good or service to others. As the profit/loss game is volatile, there is no telling whether or not the company will survive going forward. It is funny to think that those who farm for a living are now considered poor and stuck in a “third world” life, while the society filled with daily pressures and uncertainty is considered advanced.

If you manage to work your eight hours, which is actually a lot of time, you now want to get home and relax. Your work day is over, but you know that you’ll have to repeat it again the next day. This actually introduces a new pressure, one which is again based on time. You have a limited window for enjoyment, so you want to make sure that nothing gets in the way of that. Ah, but the responsibilities at home never go away, even if you leave for your job. The spouse at home may want you to pick up something after you leave work. There are so many errands to run and things to do that you’re fortunate if you can ever just travel straight home.

The family members at home may not live the same life that you do. All the work you put in, all the pressure you deal with, is for their benefit, and yet they just keep asking for things. They want money for this and that, and they want to make sure that you’re always there. This adds another pressure. If somehow you were unable to provide for them, what would they do? In this way your focus shifts towards defense, protecting what you have now, though your present lifestyle is filled with constant pressure. Rather than look for a way out of the hectic struggle, you think of ways to maintain it, thus taxing your brain constantly. Even going to bed at night is stressful, for you know that if you don’t fall asleep at a specific time, you will have difficulty waking up and preparing for work in the morning.

With such stress on the mind, how is one supposed to learn about Brahman and realize that they are not spirit? Where does the devotional aspect of life fit into all of this? The stressed worker is one scenario, but what about the person suffering from a debilitating disease? Sure, we are not our body, but tell that to someone dying of cancer. If my body is filled with pain, how am I not supposed to think about it? Fortunately, there is one method of spiritual practice that can be implemented under any condition. Success through this avenue is not dependent on extenuating circumstances, though peace of mind is always helpful.

“One who is not in transcendental consciousness can have neither a controlled mind nor steady intelligence, without which there is no possibility of peace. And how can there be any happiness without peace?” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.66)

Lord KrishnaHow can any person find happiness without peace? This cogent rhetorical question is posed by Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad-gita, the most concise and complete treatise on spirituality known in the world. It is the only book that need be read, for within it are pearls of wisdom that form the most valuable necklace of knowledge. From the Gita we learn that knowing Brahman is just the beginning. As pure spirit, we have a constitutional position, one where we are intimately tied to the Supreme Spirit, who is none other than Shri Krishna.

Studying Brahman, practicing austerity, performing sacrifices and giving in charity are meant to culminate in Krishna consciousness. Bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, is the set of activities that seek that divine consciousness right from the start. In other methods, one first starts with fruitive activity, mental speculation, or meditation and then hopefully reaches the platform of devotion to God. With bhakti-yoga, the transcendentalist immediately touches Krishna, and though their behavior may be tainted in the beginning, simply through the sincere desire to connect with Krishna, success is assured, even under trying circumstances.

There are many historical examples to show evidence of the fact, but likely the most cherished and remembered is the story of Prahlada Maharaja. The family man has a ton of pressure to deal with, but imagine if your father kept harassing you, trying to kill you day after day. As an adult, maybe this wouldn’t be so difficult, but what if you were just five years old and your father the most feared king in the world? This is precisely what Prahlada Maharaja faced, who, as a five year old boy, was stubborn in his insistence on practicing bhakti. On the other hand, his father, Hiranyakashipu, was against any type of devotional practice. He was warm to the idea of his son getting an education, but only on those topics that would allow him to follow in the father’s footsteps. The ruthless king wanted Prahlada to be just as feared, to carry on the tradition of power and strength. Thus Prahlada was sent to school to learn the art of administration.

Yet the boy had no interest in these topics. He only wanted to hear about devotion to Vishnu, which is another name for God. The father would ask the son what he learned in school, and to his chagrin Prahlada would only speak of Vishnu. Hiranyakashipu hated this so much that he finally decided Prahlada had to be killed. One slight problem though. Prahlada was unbreakable. Throwing him in a pit of snakes, setting him on fire, tossing him off the cliff of a mountain, and even attacking him with deadly weapons could not kill him. Throughout these attacks, Prahlada just remembered Vishnu, vishno-smaranam.

“Prahlada Maharaja said: Hearing and chanting about the transcendental holy name, form, qualities, paraphernalia and pastimes of Lord Vishnu, remembering them, serving the lotus feet of the Lord, offering the Lord respectful worship with sixteen types of paraphernalia, offering prayers to the Lord, becoming His servant, considering the Lord one's best friend, and surrendering everything unto Him (in other words, serving Him with the body, mind and words) — these nine processes are accepted as pure devotional service.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 7.5.23-24)

Prahlada MaharajaFrom the interactions between the famous father-and-son pair we get the definition of bhakti-yoga. Divine love can consist of nine different activities, with the most important being hearing and chanting. From hearing about Krishna one gets the seed of the creeper of devotion implanted within them. Through continuous hearing that seed can start to grow. With chanting one can make sure that the connection to God remains intact. Just by regularly chanting, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, all that one desires in spiritual life will arrive in the palm of the hand. No other method need be attempted. No austerity, penance, meditation, study, or sacrifice can bring the same benefit as that which comes through dedication in chanting.

From this sacred sequence of words, which is known as the maha-mantra, we get the solution to the problem of how to find spiritual life while supporting a family. Surely there are many pressures facing the dedicated worker supporting so many dependents, but if there is a sincere desire to connect with Krishna, the Lord will provide the necessary help. In spite of so many responsibilities, if one can make the chanting of the holy names a priority that is attended to each day, God will take care of the rest.

The routine recommended by the Vaishnava acharyas, those who follow in the mood of devotion of Prahlada Maharaja, is that one chant the maha-mantra for sixteen rounds a day on a set of japa beads. This will take quite a bit of time each day, even after one becomes familiar with the pronunciation of the words and gains some speed in their chanting. At the same time, this recommendation doesn’t mean that one who only chants a single round each day isn’t spiritually benefitted. Rather, just one pure recitation of the holy name of Krishna is enough to bring immeasurable pious credits. The struggling worker can find time to chant at least one round per day. If a steady routine is made to support that dedication, then additional rounds can slowly be added on.

With Prahlada Maharaja there was full sincerity, and since he was only five years old what could he really do to influence his circumstances? Vishnu finally arrived on the scene as Narasimhadeva and took care of Hiranyakashipu. This means that for the sincere devotee, whatever impediments are there will be taken away. Prahlada didn’t give up being a king and then move to the forest. Instead, he lived within his environment and still remained always connected with Krishna. While waking up in the morning, driving to work, or even taking care of our tasks each day, there is nothing to stop vishno-smaranam. That remembrance of God is best strengthened through regular chanting, which is our ticket out of the hectic world lacking any semblance of peace.

In Closing:

Constant requests from family member each,

Leave constant pressures, peace out of reach.

Mind like donkey facing steady attack,

Can only handle so much load on back.

But devotion to flourish in any circumstance,

Every second to chant holy names brings chance.

Prahlada of his conditions had no control,

Yet to memory of Vishnu did he hold.

Krishna takes care of those who are sincere,

Through bhakti practice to God become dear.