Saturday, January 22, 2011

We’re Not Alone

Hanuman “His [Hanuman’s] capabilities being well known from his past deeds and his having been specifically chosen by his master, the mission will certainly be completed successfully.” (Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Kishkindha Kand, 44.10)

tat evam prasthitasya asya parijñātasya karmabhi/ bhartrā parigṛhītasya dhruvaḥ kārya phalodaya

Due to the never-ending difficulties in life, success is never guaranteed in any venture. Though we may forget it every so often, we are not alone in this world. We may choose to take up the most difficult tasks by ourselves, but this needn’t be the case. To successfully reach the finish line, the ultimate objective of life, we can rely simply on the greatest warrior, the most ardent supporter of all that is good in this world: Shri Hanuman, the beautiful divine figure of the Vedic tradition, the emblem of love, loyalty and devotion to the Lord. His merits have been battled tested on many an occasion and he has always passed with flying colors. More than just a loyal warrior, Hanuman is the bridge between the world of darkness and the realm of pure light. Those seeking the way towards ultimate freedom can steer their ship in the right direction through Hanuman’s kind mercy.

Hanuman The most difficult task facing the conditioned entity mired in an endless cycle of reincarnation is the altering of consciousness to the point where a permanent pleasurable mindset can be adopted. Surely the subject matter pondered over by the brain can vary, but if we were to classify the objects of our thoughts and efforts, we’d see that there really isn’t much variation. For example, say that one day we spend all our time thinking about eating pizza. While we are at work or sitting at home watching television, we just can’t wait until lunch or dinnertime when we’ll be able to get a piping hot pizza pie or slice in front of us. Moving forward to the next day, since we satisfied our desire for pizza the previous day, our thoughts can move towards another food item. This time we can think about eating some nice Indian food, perhaps dosa or idli. Again, thoughts of enjoying sumptuous food consume our consciousness throughout the day.

On the surface it appears that there are differences in the natures of both thought processes, but in reality, there isn’t. On both days, the primary thoughts of the mind are focused on food, the eating of which results in the satisfaction of the taste buds and the stomach. In a similar manner, almost all the objects of our daily thoughts can be categorized into four basic activities: eating, sleeping, mating and defending. The Vedas, the ancient system of knowledge originating in India, declare that these are the four primal activities of the animal species. As human beings, we are supposed to have an advanced level of intelligence, a knowledge base which sees past the basic activities performed by animals. Humans are animal-like, but the heightened potential for intelligence exists for a reason. If our consciousness remains stuck on animal activities, we aren’t making the best use of our brain power.

“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, Bhagavad-gita, 2.20)

Lord Krishna An advanced consciousness is one that works towards eliminating the need for eating, sleeping, mating and defending. The wise and challenging student in the classroom would at this point mention that there is one easy way to get rid of all activity: death. But nature doesn’t allow for such an easy escape. The spirit soul residing within the body is ever-existing, so it does not die when the body decays. We can think of each day as a measurement of time, a line of demarcation. Every day that we wake up is essentially a new birth, for our body, mind and consciousness have all changed from the previous day. Death represents a similar change, except that the entire outer covering of the soul gets replaced. The exact nature of the new outer covering is determined by one’s consciousness at the time of death, which is determined by the activities they performed during their lifetime. Unlike the laws of the state which are sometimes not enforced, the laws of nature are precise and completely fair. Every action has a commensurate reaction which must bear fruit at some point in the future. The more severe the original action undertaken, the greater the intensity of the reaction will be, and vice versa.

To truly transcend the base animal instincts, consciousness must be shifted towards service. Ironically enough, even the animals are engaged in a kind of service. Since the human beings are similar to animals at the beginning of life, they too have a natural inclination to serve, as divine love is characteristic of the spirit soul, which is the impetus for activity in all forms of life. In addition to being undying and unchanging, the soul has an essential property, or dharma. To allow the wandering souls to remain true to their essential characteristic, the Supreme Master instituted a set of law codes which governs mankind’s activities. Since these codes are for the soul’s benefit, they are also known as dharma. Thus dharma can mean an essential characteristic or the laws of God.

When consciousness is focused on animalistic activities, the beneficiary of the mood of service is the gross senses. In more simple terms, the individuals in this situation are only interested in serving themselves. A higher, more noble level of service involves helping other living entities, an arena where the donors derive more pleasure than from selfish pursuits. For instance, business tycoons and wealthy proprietors are lacking nothing in the area of sense gratification. They can eat what they want, go where they want and associate with whomever they want, at any time. Since money is of no concern, they have complete freedom in tending to the demands of the senses, which attack incessantly like the waves that pound the seashore. Yet it is often found that such wealthy men end up going in one of two directions. One class gets so fed up with sense gratification that they take to slowly killing themselves through drug and alcohol abuse. The other class takes to serving their fellow man through acts of charity and philanthropy. Benevolence is certainly the more healthy option, and it is more closely tied to the essential characteristic of the soul.

Yet even this type of service falls short of providing the perfect consciousness. The living entity without any knowledge of the Supreme Spirit has no idea how to properly serve their fellow man. Body consciousness gets tiring after a while, for it fails to provide any lasting happiness. Yet even when those who are fed up with serving their own interests take to pleasing others, the type of service they offer only relates to bodily demands. Essentially, such charity and philanthropy, though well intentioned, only seek to satisfy the gross senses of those being served. If such a mode of life proved inferior for the philanthropists, what guarantee is there that the same lifestyle will provide any sort of relief, temporary or otherwise, to those being helped?

“After many births and deaths, he who is actually in knowledge surrenders unto Me, knowing Me to be the cause of all causes and all that is. Such a great soul is very rare.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 7.19)

Lord Krishna If serving the interests of the senses is futile, and so is offering material aid to our fellow man, what are we left to do? A life dedicated to associating with matter falls short of perfection because the service is directed at the outer covering of the soul. The loving propensity is purified when it is directed at spirit, or that entity which remains aloof from the temporary changes of the body. How exactly can one go about pleasing the soul? The wonderful properties that belong to the individual spirit are actually derived from a more potent entity, a person who is known as God to most people. In the Vedic tradition, God is called by thousands of different names, each of which describes a different transcendental feature. The individual soul emanates from the spiritual spark known as the Supreme Lord, so there is a similarity in quality between the two entities. Though the qualities are similar, the exact natures are different. One entity is supreme, while the other is subordinate. When both entities are adherent to their respective positions, a peaceful, pleasurable and ideal situation is reached.

The Supreme Spirit never deviates from His position; it is impossible for Him to do so. God is always God. Therefore the onus for change rests squarely with the individual souls. Through activities of sense gratification driven by animal instincts, consciousness remains focused on the body’s needs and wants. Matter is that which is not God, so acting in its interests goes against the essential characteristic of the soul, or its dharma, because under this mindset, the individual is taken as the supreme entity. As a result, the less intelligent activities of eating, sleeping, mating and defending are given precedence by those with no knowledge of their constitutional position. One in the know, a wise individual who realizes their subordinate position, immediately takes to pleasing the Supreme Lord and relying on His mercy. When one’s thoughts and desires always follow this mode of activity, the consciousness remains purified.

Hanuman thinking of Sita and Rama Achieving the highest level of consciousness is the most difficult task, for very few entities currently residing in the perceptible world have successfully reached it. Luckily for us, many great personalities of the past not only ascended to the topmost platform of consciousness, but they also performed many great activities as a result. One such individual is Shri Hanuman, the great Vanara warrior. During the Treta Yuga, the second time period of creation, the Supreme Spirit kindly appeared on earth in the guise of a seemingly fallible, yet powerful human being. As mentioned before, God’s position never changes. Even when He appears in the form of a conditioned entity, His supremacy is still intact. Unlike with the animals, humans and all forms of living beings, there is no difference between God’s body and His spirit. He is completely spiritual and full of knowledge.

To offer a service opportunity to the sincere souls looking to please Him, the Supreme Spirit, in His form as a pious prince named Rama, put Himself into various situations where He appeared to require assistance. One such predicament involved the rescue of Rama’s wife, the kind and sweet-hearted Sita Devi. She was kidnapped by a Rakshasa demon named Ravana and taken to an island kingdom of Lanka. Since Rama didn’t know where she was, He enlisted the help of a band of Vanaras, monkey-like humans, living in the forest of Kishkindha. Their leader was Sugriva, whose chief warrior was Hanuman.

Prior to sending out his huge monkey army to search for Sita, Sugriva specifically addressed Hanuman with kind words of confidence. After hearing this praise, Shri Rama thought the matter over. In the above referenced passage, we see that Rama ultimately concluded that success in the mission was guaranteed due to the words of Sugriva and the qualities of Hanuman. Rama makes mention of the fact that the results of Hanuman’s past activities in the service of Sugriva were well known, thus proving that his abilities had been battle-tested. In the task at hand, Hanuman was actually offering service to Rama through the proxy of Sugriva. Rama’s intuitions would turn out to be correct, as Hanuman would successfully find Sita and return information of her whereabouts.

To be successful in changing consciousness for the better, the direct shelter of the Lord, or the protection of one of His proxies, His bona fide representatives, is required. To this day, Hanuman is known as the greatest devotee of Rama, so it’s not surprising to see that he is worshiped by millions around the world. Knowing that we should direct our service towards the Lord and actually doing it are two different things. The challenging spirit remains very strong in the individual who has developed a deep-rooted desire to compete with God in the areas of creation, maintenance, destruction and enjoyment. Even Krishna Himself, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, is viewed to be either a mythological figure or one who is worshiped simply to further some other fabricated cause like women’s subjugation or widespread violence. Such thoughts are conjured up by the grossly foolish, those who can’t stand to see others worshiping Krishna in lieu of being perpetually miserable through allegiance to matter, illicit sex life and stiff competition for the enjoyment of material resources.

Hanuman For those sincere souls living in this current age of quarrel and hypocrisy, where there is no shortage of miscreants and enemies of spirituality roaming the land, there is only one method of salvation, a singular religious practice that can be adopted in even the most adverse of conditions. This efficacious transcendental practice is the chanting of the non-different names of the Supreme Being, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. In addition to chanting this mantra regularly, we should also seek the association and well-wishes of the divine servants of the Lord such as Shri Hanuman. Chanting, reading, hearing and other aspects of devotional service represent the beginning steps towards achieving a purified consciousness, but the ultimate objective is to keep our thoughts fixed on the Supreme Truth at the time of death. Though the task may be daunting, if we are armed with the blessings of the powerful, courageous and benevolent Shri Hanuman, success will be guaranteed.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Visible Benefits

!B-Ql7jQBmk~$(KGrHqF,!h0EzLZUTCRiBM8PF2DRWw~~_3 “One who restrains his senses and fixes his consciousness upon Me is known as a man of steady intelligence.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.61)

In the realm of politics, the concept of visible beneficiaries and invisible victims applies to the practice of direct government involvement aimed at alleviating a perceived distressful economic situation. It is the nature of many constituents to look to the higher authorities in charge of crafting public policy to solve their problems. While it is certainly a good practice to try to help those who are in trouble, problems arise from the fact that entities not directly benefited by the seemingly kind acts of politicians are often negatively affected when help arrives. After all, the government doesn’t earn any money; it collects all of its income through taxes and fees. Therefore in order to “help” anyone, the powers that be need to dip into the coffers which are so kindly filled up by forced donations from the general public. Ironically enough, the concept of visible benefits and invisible harmful effects actually reverses in the area of spirituality, thus making the discipline of bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, very difficult to adopt for those whose eyes aren’t trained to see things properly. Upon careful analysis, however, we’ll see that the invisible benefits of the sublime engagement of connecting with the Supreme Spirit are well worth whatever visible harmful effects one must endure.

The bailout of a fledgling company is the quintessential act of government benevolence aimed at alleviating a perceived problem. You have one company that manufactures a product and thus maintains a large workforce. When said profit-seeking entity starts to lose money due to a poor business model, lack of customers or a high overhead, they will look to anyone or anything to help them escape trouble. The government is the ideal savior in this scenario, for they are the only entity legally allowed to use force to enact their wishes. Indeed, the government decides what behavior is legal and what is not. But lobbying government officials is not easy; there must be a benefit to the politician. For the business looking for a bailout, the benefit to the politician is the saving of jobs, for this is the most visible benefit any government official can provide to their constituents. Though the exact details of the hypothetical scenario can vary, the general course of action followed by the politician is to rescue the struggling company by giving them financial aid in the form of millions of dollars. Those who oppose such action will be cast as cruel-hearted and mean. After all, who could be against such a visible benefit as saving jobs, which sometimes can number in the thousands? The affected workers have their own families that need to be fed and mortgage payments that need to be made. Why would anyone want to stand in the way of helping people in need?

Capital building Though the justifications for direct government intervention seem obvious enough, the other side of the equation is rarely considered. As the famous saying goes, “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”, there is no such thing as a bailout without negative consequences. As previously mentioned, government is financed by taxes which are collected through the threat of force. If someone perpetually fails to pay their taxes, they will be sent to jail. Taxation and the force applied to collect the related funds are completely justified behavior provided the government adheres to its dictates. The first principle of good governance is that the ruling entity must protect all citizens equally. Every individual may have their own wishes, desires, friends and well-wishers, but since the government is to govern all of the people, it cannot play favorites. In order to apply its forces equally, a government must protect innocent life and property. Following this simple formula, a government stays in the good graces of the people and doesn’t incur any sin by exacting taxes.

In the typical bailout example, the fact that only a single company is benefitted immediately breaks the rule of impartiality. But aside from the moral implication, there are also victims to such action, though they may not always be readily identifiable. Since the bailout is funded through taxation, the money belonging to other citizens must be used for an interest that they don’t necessarily agree with. Say that the struggling company is in the business of selling cars. In a free society, goods and services are exchanged peaceably and voluntarily. As such, if a citizen wants to buy a car, no one can force them to buy from a certain dealership or pay a certain amount. The struggling car company obviously wasn’t very effective at selling cars in this peaceful system. Even if they were, their business model was flawed to the point that they failed to earn a profit. This means that they didn’t utilize their resources efficiently.

Through the government bailout, the taxpayers become the invisible victims, for their money is now used to fund companies that they didn’t deem worthy of their patronage to begin with. In addition, the same taxpayer money could have been returned to the citizen, who would in turn use it to support a company that created a superior product, or one that was produced through a wise utilization of resources. Though the example of the bailout may initially only create a small number of victims, the future implications are even worse, for the struggling company has learned nothing about how to turn a profit, allocate resources properly, or create a product that others are willing to buy. What they have learned is that if you are in trouble running a business where making a profit is the primary objective, you can successfully lobby the government to save you by dangling visible beneficiaries in front of them.

The practice of bailing out fledgling companies and ignoring invisible victims is simply a byproduct of the illusion that envelops the material world. Illusion starts at the time of birth, where the newly born living entity immediately identifies with their body. The outer covering is constantly changing, so much so that the body of an adult-aged individual is completely different from the one possessed by a young child. The false identification further leads the living entity astray by causing them to take sense gratification and the interests of the body, a form which is destined for destruction, to be paramount.

Lord Krishna These issues combined together greatly decrease the likelihood that one will take to the only discipline that seeks to benefit the soul and its Supreme Master. This sublime engagement is known as bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. Only in the temporary and perishable realm is there even a word such as “bhakti”. In the spiritual sky, all activities are dovetailed with loving service to Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Since in the spiritual world there is no contamination or any activities rooted in illusion, there are no distinctions made between activities. There is no difference between body and spirit in the eternal realm where Krishna lives; everything there falls under the umbrella of bhakti. Only in the presence of illusion can there be any activities which are not dedicated to Krishna’s pleasure.

If everything is so wonderful in the spiritual world, why are we enveloped by illusion right now? Why do we attach ourselves to that which is not, i.e. the body? Greatness in any area of endeavor must deal with both extremes of excellence. For the spiritual realm to be so sublime there must also be a realm which is a shadow copy, i.e. a place full of illusion. The existence of both areas speaks to Krishna’s complete nature, where His personal side secures bliss to His associates and His impersonal and separated aspects fail to bring about supreme pleasure. When the soul desires to imitate God and surpass Him in the areas of creation, maintenance and destruction, a temporary and perishable realm must be created. The world we currently inhabit can be thought of as a giant playpen for children. When a group of children are placed into one playing area, there are bound to be ups and downs, highs and lows, friendships and enmity. When a person turns into an adult, however, they no longer desire to remain in the playpen. The catch with the material world, however, is that the time factor constantly works to diminish whatever gains are made as it pertains to the body and mind. As such, if at the time of death we haven’t realized the illusion and the flaw in playing God, we will be forced to repeat the cycle again in the next life.

“Whatever state of being one remembers when he quits his body, that state he will attain without fail.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 8.6)

Lord KrishnaGaining release from the cycle of reincarnation is quite simple; we must change our desires. But since illusion leads to a false identification, knowledge of the necessity to shift our desires also remains clouded. Therefore in order to gain release, we must take to activities which slowly but surely remove that illusion. These activities belong to the category of bhakti, wherein the spirit soul aims to satisfy the Supreme Spirit, the one person who never falls victim to illusion. The quintessential act of bhakti is the chanting of the holy names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. Bhakti, when practiced properly and regularly, brings full retraction from all negative activities. A harmful activity is anything which leads to an unfavorable future condition. By definition, any activity performed off the bodily concept bears this property.

Since it is not possible to make bhakti our full-time occupation in the beginning stages, dedication to simultaneous retraction is required. Renunciation from the most harmful activities - those which not only serve to keep the cloud of ignorance fully embodied, but actually further augment its influence - must be practiced. The great Vedic seers, the saints of the past who always remained committed to bhakti, have grouped the most harmful sinful activities into four categories: meat eating, gambling, intoxication and illicit sex.

Lord Krishna Glancing at these four restrictions for the first time will certainly bring a chuckle to those deluded by the workings of nature. These activities are not only practiced by the majority of the world’s population, but they are a staple of everyday life, a mainstay of what is deemed enjoyable. Due to this situation, taking to bhakti has an attached stigma of bringing the most visible of negative effects. The conditioned soul will think, “If I take to bhakti, I essentially have to give up fun. No drinking? No gambling? What am I going to do with my time? I will be bored out of my mind and completely miserable.” The invisible benefit to this system is the soul’s promotion to the spiritual realm in the afterlife. Yet as we saw with the example of the bailout, the invisible aspect to the activity will almost always lose out to the visible aspect. If we were to put the attention given to the visible portion on one end of a seesaw and the attention paid to the invisible portion on another, the visible aspect would always remain firmly grounded.

“After many births and deaths, he who is actually in knowledge surrenders unto Me, knowing Me to be the cause of all causes and all that is. Such a great soul is very rare.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 7.19)

These factors make the bhakti lifestyle very difficult to adopt. It is precisely for this reason that Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, states in the Bhagavad-gita that it takes many lifetimes for one to even endeavor for self-realization. And among those who make a sincere effort at spiritual perfection, hardly one will succeed. We can be aided in the process by understanding that the perceived visible negative effects aren’t harmful at all. Happiness is a state of mind, a condition where hankering and lamenting, the two primary products of the conditioned consciousness, are in balance. By chanting on a regular basis, retraction is simultaneously accomplished. The aim of bhakti is to change one’s consciousness; hence bhakti-yoga is often translated to mean Krishna consciousness.

Lord Krishna When one’s mindset is fixed on Krishna by constantly chanting His names, hearing His pastimes and activities, and worshiping His deity, renunciation from sinful activity is wholly established. During the other times of the day, by refraining from the four sinful activities, the mind will actually be extremely benefitted. When bhakti as a whole is practiced properly, the invisible benefits become visible. Surely the soul will be transported to the spiritual world after death, but when one is constantly thinking about Krishna and remembering His glorious nature, happiness and peace of mind are achieved while in the present body. The purest of devotees are described as being completely spiritual, for the illusion that surrounds the newborn child has been completely removed. It is not surprising to see such people take to teaching others out of their causeless mercy. By following the examples of the eternally liberated souls and remaining fixed on the only path that leads to the highest benefit for all of humanity, we can one day realize the visible benefit of meeting the Supreme Lord face to face and remaining in His company at all times.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Letter of Recommendation

Hanuman “In all respects, the lord of monkeys [Sugriva] is certain about Hanuman's ability to meet the objective, and Hanuman is even more certain of his ability to carry out the work necessary for success.” (Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Kishkindha Kand, 44.9)

sarvathā niścita artho ayam hanūmati hari īśvara

niścita arthataraḥ ca api hanūmān kārya sādhane

When applying for a new job or entrance into a higher education establishment, letters of recommendation are often required. At the very least, these documents prove helpful towards the granting of admittance. The prospective employers and administrators certainly take into consideration a candidate’s own qualifications, but the recommendation serves as a way to support the claims of capability presented in a resume or personal interview. The recommendation is an indication that another credible entity is willing to support the candidate’s purported qualities to the point where they will write down their thoughts and descriptions of attributes on paper. Recommendations can also come from phone and face to face interviews, but the concept is still the same. In addition to the recommendation, the candidate also needs to show confidence and passion in the particular area of interest. If a candidate exudes confidence, it shows that they will settle for nothing less than the successful prosecution of the tasks handed to them. Similar principles apply in the spiritual realm, where the prospective position is that of servant in the transcendental army tasked with fighting the illusory forces of maya. In order to secure this most coveted occupation, a candidate needs to have both confidence in himself and the wholehearted recommendation from those who are already engaged in the struggle.

Hanuman What is the exact nature of the conflict? In short, the aim of life is to reconnect with the Supreme Spirit. Every person, regardless of their religious persuasion, is engaged in some sort of struggle, a fight towards achieving an objective. The plight entails resistance because the desired end-result is not easily attained. If it were, then there would be no question of unhappiness, distress or frustration. Part of the allure of the desired palatable condition is its elusive nature. Because it is difficult to attain, the desired condition becomes more attractive, for it promises to bring a thrill not currently available to the person seeking it. In this regard, the desired palatable condition can vary from person to person; hence the actions undertaken and the causes they represent also differ. The desired end-goal, the favorable condition, can be deemed an individual’s dharma, or essential characteristic. The desired predominating quality then leads to activities or duties, which can also be considered a dharma.

The Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, not only give us the term dharma, but they also provide information into its nature, i.e. that dharma is something that doesn’t change. Surely everyone can adopt different dharmas based on the scope of activities they engage in, but the true essence of the individual doesn’t vary based on time or circumstance. Since dharma is ever unchanging, it is described as sanatana. Therefore religion in the Vedic tradition is defined by the term sanatana-dharma. The essential characteristic of the individual soul is that of pure love for the Supreme Soul. The outer covering of the soul, the body, causes a false identification at the time of birth. Since every life form’s outer covering is different, the false identifications also vary. The soul is what counts, so it is only from this entity that we can derive our true identity.

Unlike the material elements surrounding it, the soul is always knowledgeable, full of bliss and unchanging. Since the atma inherits its qualities from its Supreme Master, the Personality of Godhead. its essential characteristic is to always be in the presence of its complementary and superior spiritual entity. While residing in a temporary covering composed of varying material elements, knowledge of the essential characteristic gets clouded, or at least forgotten. Therefore the aim of life, the eternal occupation of man, sanatana-dharma, is to take the necessary steps to reawaken one’s dormant God consciousness, a rekindling of the essential characteristic.

For the conditioned soul whose knowledge of spirituality is covered up from the time of birth, adoption of the cause of sanatana-dharma is not easy. Simply put, man is incapable of properly understanding or even conceiving of the Personality of Godhead without help from a third party. Those with a puffed up false ego will surely scoff at such a notion. “Human life is all about perception. Why should we believe something someone else tells us? We shouldn’t blindly follow anyone.” While this line of thinking seems valid, it contradicts the very essence of how knowledge is acquired. For example, as young infants we had no ability to talk, walk or even feed ourselves. Through experience we certainly learned these things, but there was education involved as well. Knowledge pertaining to reading, writing and arithmetic isn’t just acquired in a single day. Extensive education is required, and the more willing a student is to accept such instruction the faster their progress in the acquisition of knowledge will be.

“The Blessed Lord said: Many, many births both you and I have passed. I can remember all of them, but you cannot, O subduer of the enemy!” (Bhagavad-gita, 4.5)

Krishna and Arjuna The greatest limiting factor towards the acquisition of knowledge through simple sense perception is time. In the grand scheme of things, the average lifespan of the individual in a specific body is quite short. Since the soul is eternal, it never takes birth or dies. As such, our current life is not the only one we’ve ever had. The soul can be thought of as the greatest acrobat that jumps from one rope to another, with each rope representing a new body type. Yet with each jump, knowledge and memory are erased. This is actually by design, for there would be less enjoyment if we knew exactly how old the soul was and where it had previously been. The individual spirit souls crave freedom outside of the Divine’s association, so the enjoyment that results, which is more or less an illusion, is augmented through forgetfulness, the clean slate we start with at the time of birth.

We can certainly acquire knowledge through experience. The elderly are given respect for this very reason. They have seen all that life has to offer and its various pitfalls and shortcomings. Yet no amount of experience can teach us about the Supreme Divine Entity, who is the oldest person, purana-purusham. Moreover, from texts like the Bhagavad-gita, we understand that His memory never diminishes. He remembers every single incident pertaining to every single living entity since the beginning of time. Just this concept alone, the beginning of time, can only be understood by the Supreme Lord and no one else. The conditioned soul is incapable of thinking beyond the bounds of time and space.

The living entity has an inherent penchant for spiritual activity because the soul, in its constitutional position, is fully knowledgeable. This is a property it shares with the Supreme Soul. Yet the forces of material nature are so strong that the natural light of knowledge is covered up. It can only be uncovered through the mercy of one who is already liberated, one who has already removed the cloud of ignorance brought on by material contact. No amount of mental speculation, mathematical problem solving, rhetorical debate or experimental knowledge can remove the nescience that envelops the pure soul. We can scour the earth, dig deep into the depths of the ocean and travel far into outer space and still never even come close to understanding the glorious nature of the Supreme Absolute Truth, whose original form is that of a blissful and extremely merciful personality named Krishna.

Lord Krishna So if we can’t discover our intrinsic knowledge on our own, it surely must be taught to us. But if someone else is teaching us this information, how can we be sure that their instructions are correct? After all, aren’t they a conditioned living entity as well? If it is impossible for the brain to conceive of God on its own, how were such teachers able to learn the Truth? The most complete available description of the spiritual realm was provided by its proprietor at the beginning of creation. The first entity who took in this information then passed it down to his disciple, who then passed it on to their disciples and so on. In this way, through the descending process, knowledge of the Supreme Absolute Truth was made available to subsequent generations. We simply have to approach a person belonging to the bona fide chain of disciplic succession and kindly pose our questions to them. Only through the descending process of knowledge gathering can the information necessary for rekindling one’s dormant God consciousness be acquired.

Knowing that the ultimate aim of life is to be eternally engaged in our true dharma, devotional service to God, is one thing, but actually successfully prosecuting this mission is another. Becoming a devotee can be compared to the process of landing a job that we must be qualified for and be accepted into. In order to secure the highly coveted transcendental post, we require both confidence in the worthiness of the mission and the recommendation of a person who is already engaged in the task. Not surprisingly, an example always helps to explain these concepts more clearly. Fortunately for us, Vedic literature is replete with instances of such principles put into action.

Lord Rama A long time ago, during the Treta Yuga, the Supreme Personality of Godhead decided to appear on earth in human form. Through the divine descent, the Lord kindly reinstitutes the original principles of spiritual life to the members of society at the time. Sometimes the chain of disciplic succession gets broken, so the Lord sends one of His eternally liberated associates from the spiritual world to come and reinstitute them. On special occasions, Krishna decides to appear Himself in an eternally existing, transcendental body. Such was the case with Lord Rama, who played the role of a pious prince and noble warrior.

When the Supreme Lord comes to earth, He doesn’t just go around beating His chest and forcing everyone to surrender unto Him. Since the natural constitutional position of the living entity is that of servant of the Supreme, the Lord creates opportunities for such service to be enacted. In order for the living entities to garner an interest in serving the Lord, there must be tasks that require dedication, hard work, and most importantly, love. We would be hard pressed to find a more difficult task than the finding of a kidnapped princess. Such was the mission presented before Shri Hanuman, the chief warrior to the Vanara king, Sugriva.

Lord Rama’s wife Sita Devi had gone missing while she was residing in the forest with her husband and His younger brother Lakshmana. Seemingly unaware of where Sita had gone, Rama roamed the forests looking for her with Lakshmana. Eventually the two brothers made their way to Kishkindha, which was inhabited by a race of human-like monkeys at the time. Their leader was Sugriva, who himself had been driven out of his kingdom and estranged from his wife. Agreeing to help Rama find Sita, Sugriva divided up his monkey army and ordered them to scour the corners of the earth. He gave special attention, however, to Hanuman. He praised Hanuman’s qualities and his perseverance. Sugriva entrusted the entire matter to Hanuman, because he knew that only the great warrior would be capable of actually finding Sita. Since the princess was so beautiful and chaste, her kidnapper would make sure to take her some place that would be almost impossible to find. This was indeed the case, as the Rakshasa demon Ravana had taken Sita to the island kingdom of Lanka. Sugriva knew that finding Sita would be difficult but that Hanuman was surely up to the challenge.

In the above referenced passage, Lord Rama is pondering over Hanuman’s attributes and the praises relating to his qualities put forth by Sugriva. From Rama’s thoughts, we see that Sugriva fully recommended Hanuman for the task at hand and that Hanuman himself was fully confident in his abilities. Lord Rama appreciated both of these sentiments very much. As a result, Rama agreed to allow Hanuman to engage in this most difficult task. Rama essentially gave the green light to Hanuman to take up devotional service to Him. The great warrior would indeed go on to find Sita, allay her fears, return information pertaining to her condition and location to Rama and then help Rama and the army of Vanaras take on Ravana and rescue Sita.

Hanuman Aside from being a valiant and courageous warrior, Hanuman is also highly learned. As a pure devotee of the Lord, he is not only versed on all the theoretical knowledge of the Vedas, but he also practically applies them on a daily basis. Hanuman knows no other God besides Rama, and he knows no other dharma besides bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. For those souls sincerely interested in returning back to the spiritual realm, approaching an exalted divine figure such as Hanuman can never prove fruitless. If Rama’s eternal representative, the glorious and beautiful Shri Hanuman, is pleased with our sincerity and sees that we are confident in our belief of devotional service being the highest engagement in life, he will surely recommend us to Shri Rama. With Hanuman vouching for us, the Lord will surely accept our humble service.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Safety of the Past

Lord Krishna and His pastimes “Even while engaged in various activities, devotees whose minds are completely absorbed at Your lotus feet, and who constantly hear, chant, contemplate and cause others to remember Your transcendental names and forms, are always on the transcendental platform, and thus they can understand the Supreme Personality of Godhead.” (Prayers by the demigods, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 10.2.37)

Nostalgia is certainly an interesting feeling, for it brings about sweet longings for past events and circumstances which weren’t necessarily pleasurable while they were occurring. It is the nature of the soul to be blissful and knowledgeable, but with the uncertainty of the outcome of future events, it is nice to periodically step into the past and fondly reminisce about events whose conclusions are known. It’s ironic that man tends to only remember the good moments, extracting the nectar from otherwise tumultuous situations. The workings of nostalgia provide deep insight into the nature of individual spirit and what the spark of life requires to find lasting happiness. If remembering events which weren’t even that pleasurable can bring about feelings of bliss, just imagine what can happen when the mind is focused on that one individual who provides happiness to every single person the universe over.

Lord Krishna stealing butter Due to the fluctuating nature of life and the unpredictability in outcome of present events, our future fortunes and misfortunes always remain uncertain. Therefore we don’t really take comfort from our current predicaments or ponder over them in a pleasant way. Surprisingly enough, if we were to fast forward maybe one week, a month, or even a year, we’d look back on the current circumstances with some fondness. “Oh I remember that time in my life, where I was with such and such person and working at such and such job. Those were simpler times; I wish I could go back to that.” It’s ironic to see these sentiments because the events we are remembering aren’t any different than those we are currently experiencing. Something as simple and uneventful as sitting in a classroom can be remembered years later with great fondness.

Certainty and predictability of outcome are the pillars of nostalgia. There is safety in the past. Stability and knowledge of future outcomes are always welcome in life, especially when it pertains to money, holding down a steady job and health. In the daily grind, there is worry at every second, fear that we will lose everything. This is part of the natural instincts of the animal, along with eating, sleeping and mating. Certainty is especially appreciated in the economics field. For a farmer, knowing that they will have a bountiful harvest at the end of the season is very comforting. For a business, knowing that there will be customers lining up to buy their products and workers willing to put in the time to produce such goods brings stability to the shareholders and company owners. Businesses work off of quarterly and yearly projections, so the larger the scope of these forecasts the less trepidation and anxiety there will be.

How would we behave if we couldn’t be confident that we’d have a job in the near future? What would the nature of our actions be if we didn’t know that the school we were attending would be operational in the near future? Going even one step further, how would our mindset be altered if we didn’t know if we would be alive in a week, month or year? Obviously any of these conditions can apply to us because uncertainty is the nature of the world. Hence it is not surprising to see that experiences of the past are remembered fondly, with the pleasurable moments extracted from the otherwise tumultuous and uneventful ones.

Feelings of nostalgia can be brought on by sound, sight and through communication with others. For instance, if we watch a movie or a television show that we saw many years prior, we would likely try to remember where we were and what our mindset was back when we first watched that particular program. Nostalgia immediately kicks in and the same feelings of bliss can be reawakened by watching the program over and over again. Similarly, visiting our old college campus and dorm room can immediately bring about strong memories. Simply by walking through the halls and the campus of the college we attended can immediately take us back in time to when we were students. For a brief moment, the mind performs the miraculous feat of going back in time.

Reincarnation By carefully analyzing these feelings we can decipher the key to finding lasting happiness in an otherwise chaotic condition. According to the Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, the workings of this world are governed by three modes: goodness, passion and ignorance. The spirit soul, the driving force behind activity, is aloof from all these modes, but when put into contact with a material body, it becomes prone to activities belonging to material nature. Goodness is considered the best mode because it brings one closer to the finish line of mukti, or liberation from the cycle of birth and death. As long as one retains an affinity for activity in any of the three modes, the phenomenon of reincarnation, or the transmigration of the soul through various changing bodies, continues. The mode of goodness is considered superior because it allows one to reawaken their intrinsic knowledge and ignite their dormant loving passion. Once an individual acts according to their innate knowledge, they can take to constitutional activities which are free from the effects of nature.

What does this mean exactly? As we see with nostalgia, the mind can bring about blissful feelings of longing simply by remembering. Since the mind is the sole player in this case, the act of evoking nostalgia isn’t a physical one requiring any money or the performance of any work. Simply through remembering one can be brought the greatest bliss. Yet feelings of nostalgia can only bring temporary satisfaction since they focus on past events pertaining to the material body. However, if we up the ante and fondly remember activities of a divine personality, the resulting blissful feelings can last a lifetime. When the most pleasurable consciousness remains active at the time of death, the spirit soul is immediately granted mukti.

“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 Krishna What does mukti entail? Who is the singular personality that we should focus our attention on? When one is released from the cycle of birth and death, they cease to possess a body composed of the material elements. At the same time, the soul must retain some sort of body. Yet this outer covering doesn’t necessarily have to be made up of elements belonging to the goodness, passion or ignorance categories. Mukti leads to the acquisition of a spiritual body. The spiritual outer covering is composed of elements with the same qualitative makeup as the soul; hence the differences between body and spirit are eliminated. In the spiritual world, there is no such thing as an outer covering separate from the individual, as the soul assumes a blissful and knowledgeable body that is never subject to destruction.

Since mukti can be of different varieties, there are different types of spiritual bodies one can acquire, but the one awarded to those who focus the mind on loving feelings of attachment directed to the most sublime divine personality allows the individual to forever associate with such a loveable object. Not surprisingly, this divine personality is God, who is known as Lord Krishna in the Vedic tradition. It is not that the Vedas give a particular name for God that only applies to people of a certain faith or region. Krishna is a Sanskrit word that means “all-attractive”, so the appellation speaks to the truth of God’s original form being one that appeals to all of humanity.

Lord Krishna So how do we remember Krishna? How do we know what He looks like? How can we look back fondly on experiences pertaining to Krishna if we don’t remember having ever met Him? Luckily for us, the Supreme Lord has appeared on earth many times in the past in non-different, completely spiritual bodies. The modes of nature only operate on the conditioned living entity. In the mode of ignorance, one becomes immune to the pain brought on by conditional activities. The difference between material activities and spiritual activities is that material engagements lead to bondage, while activities on the spiritual plane lead to liberation. We can think of it in this way: Say we have two students who are in the second grade of elementary school. One student does their homework on time, studies for exams and pays attention in class. The other student goofs off all the time, doesn’t do their homework and doesn’t pay any attention to what the teacher says during classroom hours. The steady and faithful student can be said to be on the path of liberation, one which leads to promotion to the third grade at the end of the year. The other student is wholly dedicated to the path of bondage, wherein they will have to repeat the second grade in the subsequent year.

Our activities in the material world can be thought of in the same light. Activities in goodness bring one closer to the next platform of understanding, with the hope that one day, either in this life or in a future one, the individual soul will realize that its true home is in the spiritual world with Krishna. Activities in ignorance not only lead to bondage, but they keep one from realizing the folly of their ways. Revisiting the second grade example, the student on the wrong path will get many chances to rectify their behavior during the course of the year. These opportunities will manifest in the form of negative reactions; bad grades, scolding from the teacher and meetings with the parents. In a similar manner, those who are on the path of bondage in the phenomenal world are given many opportunities to straighten themselves out. These chances manifest in the forms of bad fortune, disease, old age, death and overall pain. When one is in the mode of ignorance – when they take to excessive intoxication, extreme laziness and overall bad behavior – they become immune to the resulting severe negative consequences. Therefore the mode of ignorance is deemed the most damaging because it keeps one from even realizing that what they are doing is harmful to their future well-being.

The mode of passion, which is represented by fruitive activity, similarly leads to bondage, but in the mind the negative effects are essentially cancelled out by the temporary rewards achieved through such strenuous endeavor. For example, an athlete who trains to run a marathon goes through so many negative experiences which are deemed worthwhile once the actual marathon is completed. Yet under the intelligent viewpoint, the entire training process is one that leads to a neutral state, for once a person finishes the marathon, they are essentially right back where they started from. The mode of passion, however, is superior to ignorance because at least the individual is conscious of their negative experiences.

The mode of goodness leads to knowledge and the understanding of the differences between spirit and matter. Yet even gradually ascending the chain of empirical knowledge and education is not enough to bring about the highest form of mukti. Success in spiritual life can involve retraction, but bliss must be represented as well. It is the nature of the soul to be happy and blissful, so in addition to gradually acquiring knowledge and refraining from harmful activities, one must also be given the greatest form of pleasure through acts of the spiritual nature. In fact, one who practices these positive, bliss-giving activities perfectly has no need for retraction or any of the prescribed rules and regulations. Simply by remembering Krishna and the activities He performed on earth one can purify their consciousness.

Mother Yashoda and Krishna So this seems all well and good in theory, but how do we know that remembering Krishna actually works at purifying consciousness? For starters, those who are doubtful can at least give the practice a try. Not only has God, in His original form of Krishna, come to earth many times in the past, but so have many of His non-different incarnations known as avataras. The innumerable transcendental activities performed by the Personality of Godhead and the lessons derived from them makes the whole of Vedic literature the largest and most comprehensive set of scriptures known the world over. Not only can we learn about Krishna and fondly remember His activities, but we can also study how others always remained in Krishna consciousness and kept themselves in a blissful state of mind.

During the Treta Yuga, the second time period of creation, Krishna descended to earth as a warrior prince named Rama. At the occasion of a grand sacrifice held by the King of Mithila, Maharaja Janaka, Lord Rama was awarded Janaka’s daughter Sita as His wife. Later on, however, Sita would be separated from Rama and put into a very distressful condition. Remaining a prisoner in an ashoka garden in the kingdom of Lanka, Sita was never sure if she would see her dear husband again. Though she was in a fearful condition with an uncertain future, she remained alive by keeping her mind steadily fixed on the glories of her husband and the great activities He performed in the past. She had lived with Rama for many years, so she had many experiences to fondly look back on.

Sita meditating on Rama Sita Devi is the mother of the universe, the eternal consort of Lord Rama, so obviously she is the most exalted of devotees. But just because she is a supremely elegant divine figure, one worthy of eternal love and adoration, it doesn’t mean that we can’t follow her lead and try to fix our minds on the activities of the Lord. Just as reminiscing about our own past experiences can bring us blissful feelings of longing, remembering the sweet, transcendental pastimes of Lord Krishna, Radharani, Lord Rama, Sita, Lakshmana, Hanuman, Narasimhadeva, Prahlada, Balarama, Vamanadeva, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and so many others can bring us such great happiness that we will feel as if we have been transferred directly to the spiritual world. Just as there is safety in the past, there is eternal comfort and security that comes from warmly embracing the transcendental activities of the Supreme Lord and His associates.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Divine Arrangement

Shri Hanuman “Then, after hearing that the success of the mission lay with Hanuman, and knowing Hanuman very well, Raghava reflected.” (Valmiki Ramayana, Kishkindha Kand, 44.8)

Hearing from Sugriva, the great-monkey king, of Hanuman’s virtues, abilities and attributes, Shri Rama, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, pondered the idea of all hope for success resting in the efforts of a singular entity. The task at hand was quite a daunting one: the rescue of a missing princess who was taken by someone who didn’t want to be found. The criminal was both wise and powerful enough to remain hidden from sight, so discovering his hideaway location would not be easy. Moreover, after being discovered, such a miscreant surely would take whatever steps necessary to ensure that his secret location remained concealed from the purview of others. Thus the reconnaissance mission at hand required the most adept of intelligence agents, the most powerful, deliberate, wise and sincere of servants. Prior to making a final judgment, Lord Rama pondered the matter over, taking into account the various attributes possessed by Hanuman, characteristics that were known to Rama through His own dealings with the great Vanara and which had also just been extolled by Sugriva.

Lord Rama Who is Lord Rama? In the Vedic tradition, the Supreme Absolute Truth is described in different ways, but ultimately He is taken to be a person, or purusha. A personality is not limited to possessing a human body, but rather He can assume any type of vigraha, or form. Purusha represents the individual spiritual spark, the basis for identity. Matter, or prakriti, is dull and incapable of movement, change and even the ability to leave byproducts. Purusha is the essence of life, and since all life comes from the Almighty, it would make sense that He too is a purusha. Since His spiritual qualities transcend darkness, or ignorance, He is known as Purushottama. The Supreme Person is full of form, knowledge and bliss, and due to His causeless mercy, He kindly appears on earth in the guise of a living entity from time to time. Sometimes the Lord descends as a fish, a boar, a turtle, and even as a lion-like figure. But since we are in the human species - the most advanced of material bodies due solely to the increased potential for intelligence - we give more attention to the human-like incarnations of the Lord. Rama was one such avatara who appeared on earth many thousands of years ago.

The Supreme Absolute Truth is described as both nirguna and saguna in the Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India. Nirguna means without gunas, or material qualities. Another translation for guna is “rope”, or that which binds. The living entities in the material world are pure spirit souls at the core, but since they are covered up by material qualities, they are deemed conditioned. The different gunas of goodness, passion and ignorance lead to various changes, both beneficial and harmful and subtle and visible, to the living entity. The Supreme Lord created the material world and its gunas, so He can never become subject to the forces of nature. Therefore He is described as nirguna, or without material qualities. Yet such a description doesn’t mean that He is formless. We know from Vedic information that the Absolute Truth’s hands and legs are far-reaching. His hearing and seeing abilities are also unmatched. God has a form, one that is transcendental; it transcends the modes of material nature.

Hanuman worshiping Rama's deity Since it is impossible for the living entities in the conditioned state to conceive of the true reach and scope of the Lord’s transcendental form, the Supreme Absolute Truth kindly takes various forms in the material world. These forms are referred to as saguna since they are perceived to have qualities. It must be said that the Lord can never associate with matter. For the individual, there is a difference between matter and spirit. Spirit is Brahman, which is full of knowledge, while matter is maya, or that which is not Brahman. But since the Lord is the fountainhead of both Brahman and maya, He can never associate with anything inferior or binding. His incarnations and their deity representations are described as saguna because they appear to possess material qualities to the ordinary living entity. The individual is incapable of properly offering service to the Lord’s original spiritual body. We know from the Bhagavad-gita and other Vedic texts that the Lord’s body is infinitely large. So how can we offer our respects and obeisances to something we can’t even conceive of? Due to the kind mercy of the Supreme Spirit, He appears in His saguna forms to provide a glimpse of what His original form looks like.

The saguna manifestations, such as those of Lord Rama, Lord Krishna and Lord Vishnu that appear in the material world, also serve to remove any doubt about the transcendental form of the Lord. Nirguna, or the unmanifested aspect of the Absolute Truth is a little tricky to understand, and there is every chance of misinterpretation by those who only seek to understand this aspect of the Divine. The saguna forms, however, help to remove all doubt. Goswami Tulsidas, the beloved devotee of Shri Hari, another name for the personality of Godhead, gives a great analogy to help us understand the difference between the two aspects. Tulsidas says that nirguna is akin to the numeral representation of a number, while saguna is the representation of the same number but written out in letters and words. When doing business with banks or other parties, a person will write the amount of the transaction on the check using numerals. However, just to make sure there is no funny business, the person will also write out the same amount in words.

“For those whose minds are attached to the unmanifested, impersonal feature of the Supreme, advancement is very troublesome. To make progress in that discipline is always difficult for those who are embodied.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 12.5)

This analogy illustrates how the nirguna aspect of the Supreme Absolute Truth can be easily misunderstood. The greatest misinterpretation occurs when the living entity takes himself to be the Absolute Truth. Understanding that God has a formless aspect, the conditioned living entity can make the mistake of thinking that there is no Personality of Godhead and that each individual is God Himself. The saguna forms remove the confusion by exposing all the chicanery and trickery employed by the impersonalist philosophers who take Brahman, or the blissful light emanating from the transcendental body of the Personality of Godhead, to be the ultimate realization while ignoring the words of Bhagavan found in texts like the Bhagavad-gita. The analogy to the monetary transaction is appropriate because with numbers it is very easy to change a numeral or transpose a decimal to get a completely new number. For example, if we write a check for $1,000.00, simply adding a zero in the middle can change the value to $10,000.00. But when the same amount is written in the word form of “one thousand dollars”, it becomes much more difficult to manipulate. The string “ten thousand dollars” looks much different than “one thousand dollars”. Therefore the saguna forms are more important to worship because they give a glimpse of the Supreme Lord’s transcendental forms that exist in the spiritual world. In fact, the saguna forms are non-different from the original; that is the magic of the Supreme Lord. Indeed, those who understand the saguna form automatically realize the true nature of Brahman, just as one who knows the properties of the sun automatically gains a better understanding of the sunshine.

Events of Rama's life When the Supreme Personality of Godhead appeared on earth as the pious prince named Rama, not only did mankind get to see His saguna form, but they also got to witness His joy-evoking activities. After these transcendental pastimes were enacted, devotees talked about them and wrote down their accounts in books. One of the more famous incidents from Rama’s life involved His friendship with the monkeys residing in Kishkindha. Rama’s beautiful and chaste wife, Sita Devi, had been kidnapped by a demon while she was residing in the forest with Rama and His younger brother Lakshmana. Not knowing where she had gone, Rama made His way to the Kishkindha forest, where He ended up forming an alliance with the king of Vanaras, Sugriva, who agreed to help Rama find Sita.

Since no one had any idea where the princess was, Sugriva decided to divide his massive monkey army up into teams. Each team would scour a different corner of the earth. But in the end, right before the great egress of monkeys, Sugriva took shelter of Hanuman, his chief warrior. He knew that Hanuman would be the one to find Sita, for amongst the monkeys, he had a monopoly on all the characteristics necessary to complete the task. After hearing the virtues of Hanuman, who had actually helped forge the alliance between Sugriva and Rama, the Supreme Lord pondered over the idea. He took stock of Hanuman’s attributes and the words uttered by Sugriva.

Hanuman Rama didn’t have to think long. He had seen Hanuman’s attributes on display already. The Supreme Lord is antaryami, or the witness of everything, so He already knew what Hanuman was capable of. Hanuman would indeed prove himself to be more than up to the task. He would find Sita’s whereabouts, battle the attacking Rakshasas, set fire to Ravana’s city of Lanka and return the relevant information to Sugriva and Rama. Hanuman’s behavior proves that the representatives of the Lord are placed into just the right situations through Divine arrangement. The ascension of a spiritual master or pure devotee to prominence is no accident. After all, the Supreme Lord knows what He’s doing.

The conditioned living entities mired in a perpetual cycle of reincarnation fueled by material desires need guidance in life. We may have an inclination towards spiritual life, but that tendency gets thwarted if we remain in the association of those who have other interests. An individual’s primary desire in life essentially represents their dharma. Dharma is an occupational duty or an essential characteristic. Whatever condition a person deems as their ultimate favorable one will then determine the nature of their activities. Thus dharma can be relative in the eyes of the conditioned living entity. The Vedas tell us that there is really only one dharma, that of service to the Supreme. Since the living entities are eternally linked to the original Divine Entity, there is a natural inclination towards that service lying deep within the recesses of the heart.

“Whatever action is performed by a great man, common men follow in his footsteps. And whatever standards he sets by exemplary acts, all the world pursues.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 3.21)

Society tends to work in a pack mentality. What one leader does, others will follow. Going against the grain is not an easy thing, so if we have an inclination towards rekindling our forgotten relationship with the Supreme Personality of Godhead, it may not be so easy to take the necessary steps in the beginning stages. Therefore, we require the association of a saint, someone who is fearless in their execution of devotional service. The ultimate dharma, that occupational duty that ignites the fire for performing unalloyed and uninterrupted loving service to the Supreme, is bhagavata-dharma, or devotional service. The purified saint, the bona fide representative of the Personality of Godhead, takes this dharma to be their way of life. No person can convince them otherwise. Even if the entire world is against the practice of this sublime engagement, the saint will never deviate from their service. Shri Hanuman is one such unabashed lover of Godhead.

Hanuman thinking of Sita, Rama, and Lakshmana The greatest benediction in life is to have the association of one who is dedicated to the Supreme Lord in every thought, word, and deed. If we happen to come across such a blessed soul by meeting them in person or reading their books, we should consider ourselves highly favored by the man upstairs. We should also keep in mind that such a devotee was specifically empowered by the Supreme Lord to execute their service. Hanuman’s acts of bravery exhibited in his loving service of Shri Rama were no accident. Before any definite plans were agreed upon for Sita’s rescue, the Lord carefully pondered over the matter and accurately deciphered that Hanuman would be successful in the most important of missions. For the living entities conditioned in the material world, the most difficult task is that of crossing over the ocean of nescience, going from the material world to the spiritual world. The devotee of the Lord, the fearless servant, is the via-medium, the only person who can help us cross this ocean. By always remaining in their association through following their example and instruction, all our doubts and inhibitions harbored towards the validity of the imperishable engagement of devotional service will be quickly removed, thus allowing for a peaceful return to the imperishable realm of the transcendentally and blissfully situated Supreme Lord.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Better To Give

Lord Krishna “One cannot satisfy the Supreme Lord by his riches, wealth or opulent position, but anyone can collect a little fruit or a flower and offer it to the Lord. The Lord says that if one brings such an offering in devotion, He will accept it and eat it. When Krishna eats, the entire world becomes satisfied.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Chaitanya Charitamrita, Adi 9.44 Purport)

The old adage, “Tis better to give than to receive”, is invoked quite often, especially during the Christmas holiday season. In America especially, Christmas brings with it the frantic search for gifts, with young children standing to benefit the most from the receipt of heaps of presents. Those who are able to anticipate such an event start to ponder over what they will receive and how they will enjoy it. In such circumstances, the parents and other wise elderly members of society will remind everyone that the act of giving is actually the greatest gift, for receiving doesn’t result in as much pleasure as bringing a smile to someone else’s face. If this principle holds true in our worldly dealings, it most certainly must apply to our relationship with the most loveable object, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Krishna.

Lord Krishna Why do we enjoy receiving gifts? The answer is quite obvious. For starters, a gift will have some value to us. In our youth, the annual “back to school” season, which signaled the end of the summer holiday, meant it was time to go shopping for new clothes. In some states, this time of year brings discounted prices and relief from sales tax. Parents make sure their children are well-equipped with the latest clothing, outerwear, and footwear. But when we get older, there really isn’t a need to buy new clothes. The body stops growing at around eighteen years of age, so if our clothes don’t wear out, there is no reason to buy new ones, save for fashion considerations.

In adulthood, the gift-giving times of the year are when we’ll likely receive new clothes such as sweaters, dress pants, and dress shirts. Gifts are always nice to receive because the act of giving shows that someone else cares about us. In addition, there is a use for the items we receive. For children, the annual occasions which call for the giving of gifts bring about enjoyable presents such as new toys, video games, bicycles, and other entertainment items. More humbling than the actual gift is the thought that goes into it. If too many extravagant gifts are given, the receiver will likely become spoiled. If we get something very expensive as a gift in one year, the next year we will expect something even better. Therefore it is wiser for the gift-giver to present something from the heart, an object whose sentimental value exceeds its worldly value.

Lord Krishna Goswami Tulsidas, the great devotee of Lord Rama, accurately notes that the worldly value of an object, i.e. what society deems to be valuable or worthless, generally remains steady, despite what a particular individual’s estimation might be. For example, if something very expensive such as jewelry and gold is tossed aside by one who is not very intelligent, the worldly value of the object doesn’t change. On the flip side, something which is used by Lord Krishna, God Himself, doesn’t necessarily increase in worldly value due to its association with the Divine. Lord Krishna regularly wore peacock feathers in His hair and black ointment around His eyes, yet these items remain relatively inexpensive on the open market.

More important than worldly value is sentimental value. When a gift is given from the heart, it takes on more meaning, especially when the flickering nature of material happiness brought on by association with objects which have a high worldly value is understood. In the famous American television sitcom Cheers, there was one episode in particular which dealt with such gift-giving issues. One of the main characters on the show, a bartender named Woody, started dating a girl named Kelly who was from a very wealthy family. Woody was invited to one of Kelly’s birthday parties and he was worried about what to bring as a present. At the party, Kelly opened up all her presents, which included lavish items such as a new Mercedes automobile, while Woody’s gift to her was a song that he wrote and performed in front of her. After hearing the song, Kelly asked Woody where his real present was.

Long story short, Woody finally explained to Kelly that he didn’t have money and that the song was his gift to her. Understanding the true sentiment behind the gesture, she realized that his gift was more valuable than anything else she had ever received. The appreciation of the pure motives behind a kind act unlocks the secret to gift-giving; it’s the thought that counts. The more thought and emotion you put into a particular gift, the greater the value it will have to the receiver. This rule applies especially to our dealings with the Supreme Lord.

Lord Krishna God is indeed a person. Depending on the scriptures that are read and a person’s angle of vision, the Lord may be taken as an impersonal effulgence whose attributes are not clearly defined, a powerful localized spirit, or a grand personality full of every opulence. This last viewpoint is the most accurate, for it includes the other two. Under the most complete angle of vision, the liberated soul sees God for who He is: Bhagavan. The Supreme Personality is not the sole property of any group of individuals, and neither is He a figment of anyone’s imagination. Though our bodies always change, Bhagavan’s does not. He remains transcendentally situated for all of eternity, with His various energy expansions taking care of what we deem as vital functions such as creation, maintenance, and dissolution.

There are different scriptures and religious systems, but the variety of spiritual traditions doesn’t indicate that there are different Gods. For example, if someone were to write our biography, the accounts would vary depending on who was writing the book. Our mother would tell our life’s story from a certain perspective, as would our father. Our siblings would have a completely different viewpoint of our activities and nature. Along the same lines, liberated souls view the Lord in different moods of transcendental love, thus there are various scriptures which detail the Lord’s attributes and activities. Some individuals are even devoted to the Lord through an inimical attitude; hence they author books which put forth philosophies that are grounded in atheism.

“They [the asuras] say that this world is unreal, that there is no foundation and that there is no God in control. It is produced of sex desire, and has no cause other than lust.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 16.8)

Lord Krishna Since only the works compiled and authored by the bhaktas describe the Lord in His original forms that are full of potent features, taking to philosophies written in the moods of enmity and envy will lead the followers astray. The difference in the two paths can be thought of in this way: Krishna’s multitudinous energy expansions generally belong to one of two categories: spiritual and material. Association with spirit brings spiritual rewards, while association with matter brings results of the material variety. Spirit is permanent, immutable, and blissful, while matter is impermanent, mutable, and the source of misery. Both are energies of Krishna’s, but only the spiritual side leads to association with Krishna and thus positive results.

Krishna’s feature as Bhagavan is the most complete because it allows for interactions between the individuals souls and the Supreme Soul. It is the nature of the individual spiritual spark, the atma, to crave companionship and enjoyment through association with other spiritual entities. The tendency towards divine love is an intrinsic property of the soul, therefore taking to acts of bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, is the natural engagement of the individual.

When the natural loving propensity is covered up or redirected elsewhere, activities of altruism and affection for friends, family and nation take effect. The loving nature of spirit is actually responsible for the practice of gift-giving. Since everything in this world is a reflection of the purified version of the same object belonging to the spiritual world, even the practice of giving gifts to others is something that is seen in Krishna’s land. As such, we can most certainly have the same exchanges of heartfelt gifts and their resulting emotions with the Supreme Lord.

“If one offers Me with love and devotion a leaf, a flower, fruit or water, I will accept it.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 9.26)

Lord Krishna with Mother Yashoda But what can we give Krishna? Can we give him money? Who do we send it to and how do we offer it? He created everything in this world after all, so why would He accept anything we gave Him? Lord Krishna is the seed-giving father of this universe; thus everything, including vegetation, grains, fruits, water and milk are coming from Him. In the conditioned state, however, one is forgetful of this fact. Gathering seeds in the hand, one puts them into the ground, tills the soil and then regularly waters the surrounding areas to bring about growth in the form of plants, which eventually bear fruits that are enjoyed. The bewildered spirit soul, conditioned by the three modes of material nature [goodness, passion and ignorance] views himself as the doer of activities. The individual certainly takes the impetus for action in the seed-planting scenario, but wherefrom did they get the water and soil needed to grow the plant? Where did they get the sunlight necessary for photosynthesis? These things are taken for granted, for the sun and earthly elements existed long before our present birth.

Yet just as we came from somewhere, namely the womb of our mother, the elements of this world, including the incomprehensible sun, have a source: God. Therefore instead of being proud of their abilities to secure fruits through worldly activity, a wise person will realize that nothing is possible without the intervention of God. Not even a blade of grass can move without Krishna’s intervention. The pandita, a learned man who views all living entities equally, sees the hand of Supreme Spirit in everything. Therefore, even when eating sumptuous food, the humble sage will make sure to offer up such items to the Supreme Lord first.

“I consider that this quantity of chipped rice will not only satisfy Me, but will satisfy the whole creation.” (Lord Krishna speaking to Sudama Vipra, Krishna, The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vol 2, Ch 26)

Lord Krishna welcoming Sudama Vipra How do we know if Krishna will accept such items? How can the offering be made to Him? Fortunately for us, the Lord has appeared on this earth many times in the past. While roaming the earth in the guise of a human form - one so enchanting that others mistakenly took it to be the body of an ordinary, but beautiful, mortal being - Krishna gave practical evidence to support the statements of the Vedas that glorify His nature. In the Bhagavad-gita, the most complete and authorized Vedic text, Krishna assures Arjuna that He accepts simple things such as fruit, water and flowers when offered to Him with love and devotion. This is not simply a theoretical statement, but a fact substantiated by Krishna’s personal dealings with others. A poor brahmana named Sudama once visited Krishna and only brought with him a small bag of chipped rice. Since it was not a very extravagant gift, the brahmana was so ashamed to present his offering to Krishna, but the Lord, as antaryami, or the omnipresent witness, knew of the chipped rice and snatched it away from the brahmana and began to eat it. Krishna enjoyed this rice more than any ordinary elaborate preparation since it was brought to Him with love and devotion.

Krishna doesn’t even have to perceivably partake of the offering to accept it. In a previous time, Bhagavan roamed the earth in the guise of a pious prince named Rama. In accordance with an order given by His father, Rama traversed the expansive wilderness located in the area today known as India for fourteen years, living the life of a mendicant. Early on in His journey, He was greeted kindly by the Nishada chief, Guha. Guha was so pleased to have Lord Rama visit him that he offered the Lord wonderful food to eat. Shri Rama, appreciating Guha’s sentiments, informed him that He had taken a vow to live the life of an ascetic and thus He couldn’t partake of the nice preparations. A vow is a vow after all, so it shouldn’t be broken even if someone else is offering us gifts out of kind sentiments. Lord Rama informed Guha that if he could take care of the group’s horses, which were driven at the time by the royal charioteer Sumantra, He would be equally as pleased. Rama also made sure to tell Guha that his offerings, though not eaten, were wholly accepted by Him.

Lord Rama The dedicated, faithful and unwavering servants of Bhagavan are His representatives on earth. Just as the pleasure of the horses brought satisfaction to Shri Rama, the pleasure of the brahmanas, the saintly class of men, brings the greatest joy to the Lord. If we want to offer something nice to God, the proper etiquette is to first present the offering to a bona fide brahmana, a guru who teaches us about Krishna and His glories. When simple offerings such as fruits, water and milk are offered to the guru, the gifts eventually make their way to Krishna. Usually the offering is presented in front of a deity representation of the Lord, the non-different archa-vigraha expansion which brings the divine vision of Bhagavan and His pleasure potencies. But even if we only offer our food to the guru, the kind gesture will still please Krishna just the same.

“That thing which comes to Me at the destruction of friends or relatives I do not accept, just like food mixed with poison.” (Lord Rama speaking to Lakshmana, Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kand, 97.4)

The key is to make an offering with love and devotion. While our gift to Krishna can be something as simple as water, the idea is that we should offer whatever we are capable of preparing and giving up. Sacrifice performed with the mood of love and devotion, keeping in mind what Krishna likes and what He doesn’t like, is what matters. Krishna especially prefers milk products and sweets, so usually the best offerings are those which combine both aspects. The Lord doesn’t accept meat, for it involves violence towards animals. Other divine figures, such as the demigods in charge of the material creation, may accept meat offerings from time to time, but such worship is not in the mode of goodness. Bhakti transcends all the material modes of nature, thus there is no need for harming anyone while practicing the religion of love. The Lord will not accept anything that comes at the expense of another innocent living entity.

Bhakti is available for every single person. Even the poorest man can take some water and offer it to Krishna. The Lord is bestowing His gifts upon us every day, but giving is more satisfying than receiving. By viewing every day as a new opportunity to give back to Krishna, we can take the necessary steps to rekindle our eternal loving relationship with the ultimate reservoir of pleasure. When Krishna eats, the whole world eats, so the potency of the process of transcendental gift-giving should not be overlooked.

Krishna and Balarama deities Gift-giving is also a reminder of how others feel towards us. Even a married couple which has successfully raised multiple children and been faithful to each other still can be doubtful of the level of affection harbored by the spouse. “Does he still love me the same way? Does she not love me now that I’m older?” Such doubts are quite natural, so the gift-giving season helps lovers solidify their relationship and reestablish their dedication and love. Similarly, though we are natural lovers of God, sometimes the loving propensity is forgotten. In fact, the forgetfulness of our relationship to the Supreme Spirit is the root cause behind the existence of the phenomenal world. Therefore it is vital to take the necessary steps to remind Krishna just how much we love Him. Through acts of bhakti, which involve hearing, chanting, remembering, and worship of the deity, we can remind the Lord every day just how much He means to us. Such a practice will solidify our relationship with Him and allow us to return to the spiritual sky after our time on earth is finished.