Saturday, March 12, 2011

A False Choice

Lord Krishna “One is understood to be in full knowledge whose every act is devoid of desire for sense gratification. He is said by sages to be a worker whose fruitive action is burned up by the fire of perfect knowledge.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 4.19)

Question: “How do I find the right balance between material life and spiritual life?”

Answer: Picking up the random book on Hinduism or dharma, the items discussed within typically cover the illusory aspect of this world and how pains and pleasures always come and go. The wise can block out these unwanted extremes by steady practice of meditational yoga, systematic worship of a divine figure, or through fruitive work with the results sacrificed to a higher cause. Presented with this introduction, those contemplating a dive into spiritual life may start to worry that a too rapid an elimination of pains, pleasures, and highs and lows will result in the basic obligations of family life not being met. But for one who follows the bhakti process, the religion of love and the pinnacle of all spiritual practice, there is no question of too much renunciation or giving up necessary activities. Indeed, even Lord Krishna, who is Himself the beneficiary of bhakti, declares that every soul has a penchant for work, so repression itself cannot accomplish anything. For those following the highest form of spirituality, every second of every day is spent engaged in the Lord’s service, as the mind works under the control of the purified consciousness. This is not a hostile takeover by any means, as the mind assumes its true value when focused on the proper object, that entity who is capable of bringing about the highest bliss.

Lord KrishnaThe fears pertaining to a disturbance in family life are certainly well founded. After all, if, as a family man, I were to play sports every night or go out to bars and nightclubs, surely the quality of life at home with the family would suffer. Not only would there be financial loss from the money spent on outside endeavors, but there would also be less time spent with the spouse and kids. Activities under the umbrella of spirituality have the aura of being even more dangerous towards strong attachments, as one who understands that they are spirit soul and not their body may decide to forgo every responsibility in life altogether. The renounced order in the varnashrama-dharma system, the prescribed divisions of society and life stages put forward by the Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, is known as sannyasa. Since time immemorial it has been every parent’s great fear that their child would renounce the world at a young age and take to the life of a mendicant, wherein they would voluntarily restrict themselves from having any association with money, women, or fruitive activity. Lord Chaitanya, a divine preacher and spiritual master appearing in India some five hundred years ago, had to deal with similar issues with His parents. Shri Gauranga’s older brother Vishvarupa had taken sannyasa at a young age, so the parents were afraid that their beloved Nimai would soon follow suit. As a precautionary measure, they even took Lord Chaitanya out of school for a few years, fearing that if He became too wise, He would see the futility in worldly life and the benefit to renouncing every aspect of family. Despite their best efforts, their son would eventually take sannyasa at the age of twenty-four, but He would make the best use of renunciation by actively changing the world for the better through the introduction of the sankirtana movement.

Though the fears of the parents are quite understandable, they are not justified in the case of those students taking to the bhakti school, especially as it relates to the worries of the children maintaining their livelihoods and level of enjoyment. The tradition commonly known as Hinduism is understood to be the path of spirituality having several different options for success. The paths are described by the different terms of yoga: jnana, karma, hatha and bhakti. The uninformed belief is that one can just choose any of these paths and practice them perfectly to become self-realized. But this viewpoint is not accurate in the least bit. It is humorous to see reviews made of the poems written by Goswami Tulsidas, a dear devotee of Lord Rama and Shri Hanuman, with the commentators declaring that all the different paths of Hinduism are equally as beneficial and that Tulsidas just happened to choose bhakti as his preferred method of worship. This fact couldn’t be further from the truth. All other forms of yoga, though legitimate in their own right, can only lead up to bhakti, whereas bhakti automatically brings the results of all the other systems combined.

TulsidasTo understand the distinctions, familiarity with the properties of the soul is required. In schools of thought not tied to bhakti, the entire external world is taken to be maya, which can mean “false”. Maya is that which is not, so when applied to the phenomenal world, it references the fact that everything that is visually perceptible, and any knowledge that is acquired through the senses, must be considered the opposite of Truth. The Supreme Absolute Truth is the more accurate description for God, as it speaks to His infallible nature and indisputable, fixed position. But in reality, maya is not false, only temporary. It may be a matter of semantics, but we can think of the workings of nature in terms of the effects of a dream. During the dreaming state, we imagine ourselves in various situations, some pleasant and some not so nice. Surely the situations and our behavior enacted during these dreams are fake, as they have no reality whatsoever. Yet the pains and pleasure felt are real, as we can wake up in a cold sweat and have our heart rates rapidly increase.

Since the world around us is constantly changing, the outside settings can be compared to a dream. Yet the pains and pleasures are real, as are the manifestations. They come into creation, exist for some time, and then eventually get destroyed. Since the material elements, which exist eternally due to their inherent link to the Supreme Lord as His external energy, are temporarily manifest before us, they don’t need to be rejected outright. When the objects of this world are used to further cloud the intelligence of the pure soul into thinking that he is the ultimate enjoyer and original proprietor, then surely the effects of maya are in full force. God is God; His position never changes. Not only did He create everything, but He is the only entity that enjoys to the fullest degree. Since God is every single life form’s best friend, His enjoyment automatically leads to the pleasure of His associates, those who are intimately linked with Him in consciousness.

Radha and KrishnaThose engaged strictly in fruitive activity take the objects of the world and use them for their personal betterment. But there is actually no benefit at all, for as long as there is intimate association with maya, the soul cannot return to the spiritual world, its natural home. At the core, the soul is a lover of God. Based on this predominant characteristic, there is only one constitutional activity: divine love, or bhakti. The terms “bhakti” and “yoga” are merely products of the phenomenal world, as identifiers are required to distinguish constitutional activities from conditioned ones. In the spiritual world everyone is a lover of God, whose original form is that of the all-pleasing and all-attractive Lord Krishna. Krishna is the Supreme Being for everyone and not simply a sectarian figure. Devotion to Him is ingrained in the soul’s makeup. Divine love does not need to be followed through blind sentiment or unjustified faith. Rather, by understanding the makeup of the soul, the supremacy of bhakti can be easily acknowledged. Yet bhakti is so powerful that anyone who takes to it even half-heartedly will gradually acquire all the knowledge they need. Simply by chanting, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, the soul deluded into a false ownership mentality by the effects of maya will slowly but surely realize its constitutional position as servant of the Lord. Service to Krishna, when practiced properly, follows sharanagati, or complete surrender.

It was this sharanagati that Tulsidas firmly believed in. The pure bhakta, or devotee, doesn’t even know what the term bhakti is or how to describe it. There is no accurate way to compare divine love to any activity of the mundane world, but the closest match may be the behavior of the devoted mother towards her child. A good mother loves her child throughout his or her life, irrespective of the outward changes. Even if the child is in his or her thirties, the mother will still view them as a tiny infant. This is actually an advanced vision, one which comes close to accurately identifying the properties of the soul as being unchanging. Whether in the body of a child or an adult, the makeup of individual spirit never changes. Reincarnation is merely the complete changing of bodies, the discarding of one set of clothes in favor of a new one. The good mother, wanting only to please and protect her child, will take whatever steps are necessary to be an effective parent. She is not conscious at all about the skills required for parenting or the rules and regulations. Her pure love guides all her activities. In this heightened mood of service there is tremendous bliss derived from simply having a legitimate object of worship. Moreover, there is little or no tangible return sought, as a good mother is one who can raise a child that eventually no longer requires her aid. Thus parenting proves to be the most thankless of tasks, yet one that is accepted with enthusiasm and excitement nonetheless.

TulsidasTulsidas and other Vaishnavas on the highest platform of worship take to serving Krishna, or one of His non-different expansions, with full heart and soul, not expecting anything in return. Tulsidas compared his devotion to Lord Rama to the Chatak bird’s dedication to viewing the dark raincloud in the sky. The analogy is apt because the body of the Supreme Personality of Godhead in His original form and Vishnu expansions has a dark blue color, almost identical to that of a cloud that is about to pour down rain. Tulsidas asserts that not only does he exclusively view this cloud all day, but he never even expects any gifts in return. It may rain or it may not, but the Chatak’s dedication knows no bounds. Since the Chatak overlooks any and all defects that may be perceptible in the cloud, the bird’s love cannot be measured to any accurate degree, as there is no limit to the loving affection.

The dedication of the Chatak best illustrates the bhakti spirit, a penchant to love found within the soul. In the phenomenal world the loving propensity gets misdirected; hence all sorts of undesirable issues result. Objects of maya are externally related to Krishna, so they are not able to provide any tangible pleasure to the worshiper. If maya is part of Krishna’s energy, why would it have such a deluding effect? The answer is that the souls who wanted to leave Krishna’s association and pretend to behave as God were allowed to do so. Since there is only one Supreme Controller, no amount of imitation can prove worthwhile. Yet due to the causeless mercy of the Supreme, the delusion is continuously supported through the effects of maya.

Lord KrishnaAnother question may be raised as to why Krishna would knowingly allow any of us to be tricked by an illusory energy. The answer is that if God is the Supreme Personality in all the worlds, His powers and the behavior directed towards Him must be of all varieties. The soul, as part and parcel of Krishna, is also independent, eternal, knowledgeable and blissful. In order for free will and independence to have validity, their potential exercises must travel in both directions: in favor of Krishna and against Him. If there was only favoritism towards Krishna, there would be no truth to the fact that the individual souls have free will. The soul’s abilities are much smaller in comparison to God’s, but this discrepancy doesn’t mean that individual spiritual sparks are not free to act out their propensities.

Just as the good mother will automatically learn how to hold her young child, change its clothes, and feed it properly, one who is completely immersed in bhakti will automatically acquire the knowledge necessary to keep the internal fire of devotion lit at all times. His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder of the modern day Hare Krishna movement, embodied this principle. During his time on earth, Shrila Prabhupada, whose only business in life was to serve Krishna and spread His glories to others, took on the roles of parent, spiritual master, teacher, businessman, cook, writer, lecturer, translator, artist, musician, accountant, and so many other important posts. He was highly skilled in each of these endeavors, though he had no attachment to any of them. Indeed, he didn’t even make a separate effort to acquire above average abilities in any of these fields. Since his predominant desire was to serve Krishna, the Lord, who is the ability in man, paurusham, ensured that Prabhupada had all the skills and knowledge necessary to carry out his service.

Shrila PrabhupadaOther types of yoga do not bear such properties. One may take to fruitive activity and purify themselves by giving up the results to worthwhile causes, but this doesn’t automatically lead to the highest platform of pure bhakti. Renunciation of results surely can help the sincere soul elevate to the transcendental plane of consciousness, but success is not guaranteed. Similarly, through the yoga system that leads to the acquisition of theoretical knowledge of the nature of this world and the properties of spirit, one can ascend to a higher level of thought. Yet familiarity with esoteric information is not enough. There must be constant activity for the soul. One may have a medical degree from a respected university, but unless they are regularly practicing and treating patients, their knowledge essentially goes to waste. A general has no special status unless he has a mission to command. Similarly, the knowledge the soul is naturally beaming with must have a target to shine on in order for the intelligence to be worthwhile. In the absence of a steady engagement, no perfection in life, be it material opulence, the mastery of a mystic ability, or knowledge of the Absolute, can provide any tangible benefit, at least as it pertains to the current lifetime. One who is pious and well positioned by the time of death certainly gets to continue their efforts in the next life, but bhakti provides benefits immediately.

“Abandoning all attachment to the results of his activities, ever satisfied and independent, he [the person in full knowledge] performs no fruitive action, although engaged in all kinds of undertakings.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 4.20)

The issue of finding a balance between material and spiritual life presents a false choice because only one who is not practicing bhakti thinks along these lines. The initial concern is understandable for those who aren’t familiar with the practices of the ancient art of the religion of love, but those who are sincere servants of Krishna firmly understand that in the realm of bhakti, every minute of every day brings another opportunity to please the Supreme Lord. The dry renunciates may reject the world as false, and the fruitive workers may accept everything for their own enjoyment, but the bhakta uses everything at their disposal to ensure that the intoxicating smile on the sweet face of Shyamasundara never vanishes.

ShyamasundaraThe differences in viewpoint pertaining to material nature are nicely illustrated in the behaviors resulting from the purchase or receipt of a laptop computer, or other high-end device. The impersonalist mental speculator, one who is studying the esoteric information pertaining to body, mind, soul and matter, will look at the laptop as an object of maya, something that will lead to false enjoyment and misery. Thus the object must be shunned outright. The fruitive worker, taking the objects of the world to be the source of ultimate enjoyment, will eagerly get to work on the laptop and use it for activities such as chatting with friends, watching movies, and maybe even scouring internet sites for pornography. Without leading to a higher shift in consciousness, none of these activities bring any tangible benefit, and they surely can cause the further clouding of the natural intelligence possessed by the individual.

The bhakta, however, will see the laptop as an opportunity to serve Krishna. “I can connect this to the internet and talk about Krishna with millions of people. I can view pictures of the Lord, download lectures about Him, and learn how to cook food for Him that later turns into prasadam.” In this way the laptop and its components take on their true value. The matter that went into the computer’s construction belongs to Krishna’s external energy. These elements can only be considered maya as long as they are inhibiting towards one’s drive to perfection in consciousness. If the objects of this world are used to further the cause of bhakti, pleasing Krishna, there is no question of maya, or illusion.

“Dear Krishna, we are always busy in our family affairs. We therefore request that You remain within our hearts as the rising sun, and that will be Your greatest benediction.” (Gopis speaking to Lord Krishna, Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vol 2, Ch 27)

GopisThe proper use of the laptop is one example, but there are many more that illustrate the bhakti mindset. Indeed, the most pure bhaktas, those entities we are advised to model our behavior after, were themselves firmly ensconced in material life, or at least they appeared to be so to the outside observer. These grand yogis, the gopis of Vrindavana, were family women, but because of their pure love for Krishna, they were not entangled in any work. There was no question of balancing spiritual life with material life, as their entire consciousness was steadily focused on Krishna’s sweet, transcendental form and the beautiful sounds that emanated from His flute. From the worldly perspective, the gopis were mothers and cowherd girls. In modern terms, they could be considered the first “working women”. Though they were dependent on their husbands for protection, they were completely independent in their dealings. Freedom doesn’t mean forgoing responsibilities and the proper standards of conduct. Rather, independence is a frame of mind, one where the consciousness is not inhibited by external demands. The gopis, exercising their free will, chose to adhere to their family duties at all times, while remaining ever fixed on the lotus feet of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Shri Krishna, who had been kind enough to live in their town of Vrindavana for many years.

The gopis’ daily chores consisted of tending to children, taking care of cows, churning butter, going to the neighboring town of Mathura to sell yogurt, butter and cream, and taking care of the household, which included seeing to the satisfaction of their husbands. They were working all day and night, tirelessly and without any direct compensation. From the perspective of one who is not well versed in bhakti, it would appear that the gopis were one hundred percent engaged in material life. Save for the few visits to local temples and the service offered to the brahmanas, the gopis had no hint of spirituality in their lives. But in fact, just the opposite situation was present. The gopis had not a hint of material contamination; they were always thinking of Krishna. They are deemed the greatest lovers of God, as they are always attempting to elevate others to the platform of Krishna consciousness through their recommendations made to Krishna. The gopi in whom the qualities of bhakti are found at the highest levels is Shrimati Radharani, Krishna’s eternal consort. She is so kind that if she sees us taking to bhakti sincerely, she will recommend to Krishna that a new candidate for receiving His favor has emerged. Such kindness cannot be found anywhere in this world; as it is the exclusive property of Radha, Krishna, and those liberated souls who always aim to please Them.

Radha and Krishna Bhakti is not simply a method of self-realization; it is religion. All other rules, regulations, codes of dharma, dresses, fasting days, etc. are all meant to lead to elevation to the platform of bhakti. In this day and age, it is better to take to devotional service right away, even if it is not practiced at the most advanced level in the beginning. By regularly chanting Hare Krishna and associating with devotees, the spiritual consciousness will gradually be awakened. In bhakti, there is no question of balance, as the highest level of intelligence is found very quickly. Family life and concerns for one’s friends and neighbors are automatically taken care of, as the ultimate objective becomes the service of the Lord. The bhakta accepts everything that is favorable towards the purification of consciousness and rejects anything that is unfavorable. The lifestyle of Krishna consciousness is open to any person, of any age, and at any stage in their life. It is not true that liberation, or the release from the cycle of birth and death, can only be granted to sannyasis, those in the renounced order. Krishna’s mercy is available to everyone, but we must make the choice to accept it. Since the spiritual consciousness only brings tangible benefits, there is no reason to not at least take the first steps by chanting the Lord’s names. Even if there is a perceived fear of imbalance between material and spiritual life, one should at least include some spirituality in their daily affairs. Something as simple as chanting Hare Krishna sixteen rounds a day on a set of japa beads is enough to form a minimum regimen. The rest of the day can be spent in material life, though by following this chanting routine along with abstention from meat eating, gambling, intoxication and illicit sex life, the individual will slowly but surely realize that Krishna is in everything and that every minute of every day, irrespective of the engagement one is immersed in, can bring tremendous bliss through tapping into the purified consciousness.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Always Beautiful

Hanuman “Covered with various flowers, shoots and buds, that monkey, resembling a cloud, became beautiful to behold, looking like a mountain with fireflies.” (Valmiki Ramayana, Sundara Kand, 1.51)

sa nānākusumaiḥ kīrṇaḥ kapiḥ sāṅkurakorakaiḥ |

śuśubhe meghasaṃkāśaḥ khadyotairiva parvataḥ

The Sundara-kanda of the Ramayana is a unique section of Vedic literature because it is almost exclusively dedicated to the exploits of someone who is not deemed to be the original form of Godhead. Though the Ramayana gets its name from the central object of worship and the character who garners the main focus of attention in the work, an entire section of this poem is still dedicated to someone who gives off the appearance of an ordinary monkey. Though roaming the earth in the outward dress of an animal, the star of the Sundara-kanda, a divine figure in his own right, is the most courageous of servants, the dearmost friend of the Supreme Personality of Godhead and everyone related to Him through familial bonds or through the relationship of pure loving service, or bhakti. Just as the Supreme Lord is the ultimate reservoir of pleasure and a singular entity who possesses the most blissful form, His pure devotees, those who take Bhagavan’s interests to be their life and soul, similarly possess a radiant beauty that never diminishes. The Sundara-kanda is filled with descriptions of the outward brilliance of Hanuman and the glorious nature of his activities.

HanumanWhen a man is bitten by the love bug, he tends to view his object of affection as being the most beautiful in the whole world. As the saying goes, “the clothes make the man”, the outer garments worn by a human being can make a difference in how others view them. Some attire is more visually appealing than others, so carefully choosing the right outfit for each occasion is important for those who want to stand out and be known for their appearance. Those who are in love, however, view their loveable objects as being beautiful regardless of the situation or what they are wearing. For example, a man harboring deep affection for his girlfriend or wife will feel that she is exquisitely beautiful, even after she has just gotten up out of bed in the morning. For the female recipient, such feelings aren’t easy to understand, for there is a reason behind the expression, “You look like you just got out of bed.”

Sleep doesn’t do much to enhance the outer beauty of the individual, as lines and wrinkles develop around the face, and the body becomes unclean through hours of remaining in a dormant state. A person needs to clean themselves up before they feel they can make a presentable appearance to anyone outside of their intimate circle. It is undoubtedly true that a person looks different after taking a shower compared to how they appeared when they first got out of bed. But the lover sees the inner beauty of their object of affection, so any association, regardless of the time or circumstance, is cherished. Since the beloved wife looks the most innocent right after waking up in the morning, the inner beauty of her soul comes to bear in the eyes of the husband.

Lord RamaThe ability to see beyond the manifestation of clothes and skin is dependent on the angle of vision of the beholder, as the level of amorous feelings harbored can drastically alter the way others are viewed. Yet those who take to the most sublime engagement of devotional service always remain beautiful, both on the inside and out, regardless of external observation. For our material beauty, we require validation from others, but when we take to devotional acts aimed at pleasing the wishes of the Supreme Lord Krishna, the inner and outer beauty are retained at all times. One such magnificent figure is Shri Hanuman, the faithful servant of Lord Rama, who is a celebrated incarnation of Krishna and a worshipable object for millions around the world.

Ironically enough, Hanuman takes the form of a Vanara, or a human-like monkey. Not to be confused with some science-fiction character, a Vanara is a forest dweller of the Treta Yuga, a time period which occurred many thousands of years ago. Since the second age of creation saw a high level of purity amongst the population of the earth, even the monkey figures had an enhanced level of intelligence. Though they retained their natural penchant for intoxication and excessive sex indulgence, the monkeys showed signs of civilized life. Hanuman, though in the form of a Vanara, retained his exquisite beauty at all times. His behavior was not limited to his body type, nor was he a servant of the senses. Even the human beings are driven by the desires to eat, sleep, mate and defend, but one who has controlled their senses can see past these activities, giving priority to those engagements which fit into the larger picture.

What exactly is that grand vision? The individual soul is by constitution blissful, full of knowledge and brimming with spiritual appeal. Yet, in the conditioned state, the soul is placed into various types of bodies depending on past activities and desires. Karma works off of the thoughts and wishes at the forefront of consciousness, and it rewards or punishes the living entity according to the activities driven by the mind. Therefore the soul is sometimes placed into the body of an animal, while at other times it gets the form of a fish. Of all the forms of body, none is considered more auspicious than the human being. The human form brings the best opportunity for the soul to take to activities that can complete the evolution of consciousness. Unlike the material elements that surround the soul in each lifetime, consciousness stays with the individual from body to body. When the mindset is fixed on the lotus feet of the Supreme Lord, the individual is deemed liberated. When the mind is free of material designations, attachments and allurements to sense demands at the time of death, the soul is immediately transferred to the spiritual sky, the land that exists outside the purview of time and space. In the wholly pleasurable realm, all the aspects of creation, including knowledge, renunciation, material elements, birth, death, old age and disease, are non-existent. In the spiritual world everyone is engaged in bhakti, or loving devotion, at all times.

HanumanThough the human form of body is the most auspicious, Hanuman didn’t require a particular form to successfully carry out his tasks. He had a more important purpose to serve than merely searching for liberation from the cycle of birth and death. Hanuman is an eternally liberated soul, so he is never under the clutches of maya, or the illusory energy of material nature. Since his body is always beaming with devotion, his effusive aura results in an exquisitely beautiful sight to behold for whoever is fortunate enough to point their eyes in his direction. This wonderful effulgence was on full display when the great Vanara leapt his way to the island of Lanka. During Hanuman’s time, Lord Rama, a pious prince and incarnation of God, roamed the earth. As part of His pastimes, He kindly allowed a group of Vanaras to aid Him in the search for His missing wife, Sita Devi. These monkeys lived in the forest of Kishkindha, which was presided over by the Vanara king Sugriva.

Hanuman happened to be Sugriva’s chief aide, his most trusted servant. When Hanuman met Rama and His younger brother Lakshmana, a bond was immediately formed. Though Hanuman was a devotee from birth, it wasn’t until he met Rama that he became reacquainted with his true nature. Since Rama asked for Sugriva’s help, Hanuman took the monkey-king’s subsequent instructions as his life and soul. Sita was being held captive on the island of Lanka, which was situated across a massive ocean. When Hanuman’s search party reached the shores of the ocean, it seemed as though they were stuck. Each monkey in the group declared how far they could leap, but the distances put forth were not far enough to reach Lanka.

HanumanTo break the impasse, Jambavan, one of the elderly members of the group, apprised Hanuman of his original nature, of how he had taken birth from the wind-god Vayu and how he could assume any shape at will. After making note of Jambavan’s words, Hanuman increased in size to a massive stature and confidently asserted that he would leap his way to Lanka and find Sita. If Sita wasn’t in Lanka, he would leap his way to the heavenly realm and look for her there. If he still couldn’t find her, he would bring her captor, the demon-king Ravana, back with him to Kishkindha. If Ravana put up resistance, Hanuman would uproot the entire island and carry it back with him, such was the strength possessed by Shri Rama’s most dear friend.

In the track and field sport of long-jump, the competitor runs for a short period of time in order to gain momentum prior to their leap. The idea is that the faster the jumper runs, the longer they will be able to travel once in the air. Hanuman also got a head start, but not from a short run. The illustrious son of the wind-god climbed atop a mountain peak and crouched down very low to increase the intensity of the ensuing thrust into the air. Since his size was massive at the time, many trees and flowers were uprooted in the process of his preparation. When Hanuman finally catapulted into the air, the trees and their accompanying flowers followed him in his initial ascent. Maharishi Valmiki compared the buds, shoots and blossoms to well-wishers who travel with their friends for a short period of time as they are departing. It is quite natural for hosts to not want their guests to leave the home, especially if the guests are close friends and relatives. It is often seen that when the guests are departing, the host family will come outside of the house and maybe even go up to the car. They will remain outside until the guests are finally out of vision.

Sita, Rama and Lakshmana leaving AyodhyaIn ancient times guests would leave on horse-driven carts or on foot. Therefore the hosts would follow their friends on foot for quite a distance in order to retain the personal association until the last possible moment. When Lord Rama, Sita Devi and Lakshmana had to leave the kingdom of Ayodhya, the citizens followed the chariot all the way into the forest. The well-wishers were so attached to their beloved prince Rama, an eternally existing manifestation of the Supreme Lord, that they refused to live without Him. Finally, Rama devised a plan for escape, which had His charioteer waking up early one day and creating two sets of tracks with the wheels of the cart. Seeing that Rama’s cart had left and not knowing which direction it had gone, the citizens had no choice but to turn back to their homes.

The trees and flowers were so attached to Hanuman and his glorious mission that they refused to let go of him right away. They joined him for the beginning of his aerial journey, finally relenting and falling into the sea. In the above referenced passage, we see that Hanuman’s appearance was like that of a giant mountain covered with glowworms, or fireflies. Resembling a massive cloud in the sky, Hanuman appeared exquisitely beautiful. Normally, the uprooting of trees is a sign of destruction and impending chaos, but in this case, the incidental damage was an indication of future success and victory. The trees were more than happy to assist Hanuman, as he was executing the mission of the Supreme Lord.

Hanuman flying to LankaHanuman is loved and adored by the sincere souls because there is only one activity he takes to: devotional service. For exalted figures such as Hanuman, there is no other duty. He is full of knowledge, bliss and understanding, and he uses whatever is at his disposal for the pleasure of Rama. In this way he proves to be an exemplary character and an object of worship. Not surprisingly, Hanuman would successfully find Sita, return the information of her whereabouts to Rama, and then play an integral role in the subsequent war fought between Rama’s army led by the Vanaras and Ravana’s army led by the Rakshasas. All would end well, as good always eventually triumphs over evil. Through it all, Hanuman remained beautiful, for that is his very nature. To this day he remains firmly dedicated to hearing about Sita, Rama and Lakshmana, and chanting their glories. Day and night, through good times and bad, through war and peace, Shri Hanuman always beams with transcendental love, or bhakti. He is the beacon of light, the savior for all the fallen souls who have lost sight of the true mission in life, that of returning back to the spiritual world. Focusing our attention on the incomparably sundara Hanuman, we can never be led astray.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

What Makes an Object

Lord Krishna “Any object is known by its four characteristic features: name, form, qualities and activities. Lord Krishna is the Supreme Object; thus He is knowable in terms of His unlimited and eternal name, form, qualities, and pastimes. The absence of these four features in anything denies its status as object. For example, impersonal Brahman is formless; hence it is not an object unto itself, but simply a distinctive trait of the Supreme Lord.” (Shrila Haridasa Thakura, Harinama-Chintamani, Ch 2)

When stress bubbles over and all other methods of alleviation have been exhausted, the best option is to just sit quietly and meditate. Despite our best efforts at creating insulation from fear, distress, pain, heartache, frustration and chaos, there will be failure lurking around every corner of every endeavor. The material world, the phenomenal realm that we currently call home, is replete with ardent competition and the struggle for supremacy over a surface area that amounts to a tiny speck of the entire cosmos, whose length and breadth are unfathomable. Meditation or any brief renunciation from the interaction of the senses with the various objects of the world brings respite from the struggles and demands placed on our consciousness. It is our mindset, the peaceful or tumultuous nature of our thoughts, desires and lamentations, that determines whether we are in a pleasant condition or not. Therefore, meditation, which is also known as dhyana, is a proven method of temporarily alleviating the pains brought by a disturbed consciousness. Yet who or what should we meditate on? Can we just focus the mind on nothing? What about an outward, inanimate object such as wood? Fortunately, there is no need to have any doubts on this matter, as the celebrated acharya, Shrila Bhaktivinoda Thakura, in his wonderful work titled Shri Harinama Chintamani describes through the mouthpiece of Shrila Haridasa Thakura, the acharya of the holy name of Krishna, that something can only be considered an object if it bears four distinct properties. In the absence of any one of these features, the item of interest cannot be considered an object, and hence its eligibility for being the focus of meditation and worship vanishes. Of all the objects in all the worlds, none possesses the four requisite characteristics to a higher degree than does Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

Lord KrishnaIt is the very presence of these characteristics that firmly establishes Krishna as not only the ultimate object of worship, but also the fountainhead of all pleasurable entities. Since the beginning of time there have been arguments and debates over who is God and who isn’t. One sectarian group will claim that their worshipable figure is the Supreme Being, while another will point to their theistic scriptures as evidence of the divine nature of their object of worship. Yet God’s supremacy and worthiness of attention is not established simply through a mood of sentimentalism or sectarianism. Nor is He worthy of worship because of the threat of punishment. “Surrender unto such and such personality or suffer forever” is certainly not an effective marketing tool for spreading devotion to God, nor is it valid.

Hell is merely a realm where there is an increased level of distress brought on by punishing conditions. According to the Vedas, the oldest scriptural traditions emanating from India, the heavenly and hellish realms are still part of the temporary and destined for destruction material world. Heavenly opulence and hellish pangs are present in the current life. The actual nature of the unpleasant conditions can also vary, as some people, our humble self included, would consider being forced to watch daytime television or major news broadcasts as the worst kind of torture, the embodiment of hell on earth. If such suffering exists already, what fear could the threat of eternal damnation for neglecting the worship of a specific figure instill?

If God’s identity and genuineness aren’t established through sentimentalist traditions, where do we go to find out the real nature of Truth? Since meditation is an age-old, popular and effective method of stress alleviation, by studying its various components we can gain a glimpse into the workings of worship and what is required from the parties involved. Meditation is simply focusing the mind on an object, which, as mentioned before, must have four characteristics, namely that of a form, qualities, pastimes and a name. In the absence of any one of these features, the item of focus loses its status as an object. Once the necessary status is absent, the item of interest, by definition, proves to be second class, or even bogus, as a focus of meditation.

MeditationLet’s review some of the common items of focus during meditation to test the validity of the assertion relating to the four characteristics needed for an object. An effective recommendation put forth by psychologists and mental health experts calls for patients to concentrate on their “happy place”, that one situation or area where they feel best at peace. Typical “happy places” are exotic destinations, peaceful mountaintops, or anywhere the company of friends and loved ones is found. The locations of interest do have forms, but they are missing pastimes. Qualities and names may even be present, but there is no stimulative aspect to them. A land mass is in animate, therefore it provides no interaction to the concentrated mind.

Just by this one example we can rule out any inanimate objects as being worthy of worship. Yet, throughout the course of human history there have been countless instances of men concocting gods, or objects of worship, by taking wood, stone, or gold and erecting a worshipable figure. Because such items are lacking descriptive names and pastimes and don’t represent any real person, they fail to provide any satisfaction to the interested party. Another common item of contemplation for meditation is the future. The human mind is always hankering about things it wants and lamenting over those things it failed to acquire. In the peaceful state of meditation, one can calmly ponder over future plans and carefully craft strategies aimed at achieving various objectives. But once again, there are key elements missing. Goals and objectives don’t have names, pastimes, or forms. Indeed, future plans relate completely to a desired condition of the contemplative individual. In essence, the focused person is meditating on a future version of him or herself.

A human being can obviously be considered an object since it possesses all the previously mentioned necessary characteristics. Does this mean that everyone is God and thus worshipable? Can we simply meditate on a celebrity, politician, or significant other and be eternally benefitted? The key is to find that object which holds the largest abundance in both quality and quantity of the four mentioned characteristics. In this respect there is no one who can match Krishna. The individual living entity, irrespective of his present status, is destined for destruction. As they say, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust”, the material elements which envelop the soul, the basic functional unit of life, are temporary in their structure. The soul remains intact for all of eternity, but the dwellings it occupies constantly go through transformation. In the beginning stages the material elements exist on a very small scale, tiny enough to allow the soul to reside within the womb of the mother for nine months. Eventually, the soul takes on more and more material elements to the point where it can function as an independent adult. Yet as the influences of time take hold, the material elements start to dwindle and decay. Ultimately the entire dwelling, when it ceases to be useful, is evacuated by the soul, which continues to exist. Upon release from the deathtrap known as the body, the soul is immediately placed into a new form, which is crafted to match the desires and deeds performed in the just-completed 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 KrishnaBecause of reincarnation, there is automatically a built-in limit, a cap if you will, placed on the variety and abundance of each specific characteristic that defines a living entity. The forms, qualities and pastimes engaged in by the individual life form, even if they should remain alive for thousands of years, are directly related to the duration of time spent in a particular body type. With the Supreme Lord, however, there is no such limitation. Since He is the oldest person, purana-purusha, and the cause of all causes, sarva karana-karanam, the potencies of His transcendental features, which include His names, forms, pastimes and qualities, are unlimited.

Krishna is known as Bhagavan, which is a word that references God’s supremacy in the areas of beauty, wealth, strength, fame, knowledge and renunciation. The exact degree of potency possessed by the Lord in each of these features will forever be unknown to the jiva, the living entity who is part and parcel of Krishna. The defect in understanding stems from the limited time allotted for the acquisition of knowledge. The living entities are destined for destruction after all. As such, it is impossible to acquire all the supreme information pertaining to the one person whose qualities never diminish or dwindle. Only God holds the position as the wisest person. Just the attempt to exceed His powers of knowledge represents a challenge to the Lord’s authority, and thus serves as the root cause behind the temporary material creation and the cycle of reincarnation that keeps its land populated.

Lord KrishnaIn addition to possessing the six opulences to the greatest degree and simultaneously, Bhagavan makes use of His features by taking to activities. A general without a mission is no different than an ordinary soldier or even a civilian. A king without subjects is just an ordinary man. In order for exalted titles to mean anything, there must be resulting activities that allow for the superior abilities to be exercised. Krishna’s beauty is exhibited in the exquisite transcendental features belonging to His unimaginably large, blissful, knowledgeable and eternal body. Krishna is greater than the greatest and smaller than the smallest. The size and reach of His transcendental features are incomprehensible, achintya. Through His kind activities, known as pastimes, or lila, Krishna gives the sincere souls, those looking for a legitimate object of worship for dedicating all their thoughts, words and deeds towards, a chance to gain a slight understanding of the transcendental features of Supreme Spirit.

Krishna’s other features, such as wealth and strength, are also substantiated through enacted pastimes. Otherwise, where is the proof of such qualities, and how were they identified to begin with? In this way we see that Krishna-lila is not merely a merciful benediction granted to the love-starved individual souls, but also an intrinsic part of Krishna’s nature. If we refuse to acknowledge the sportive tendencies of the Supreme Lord, we verily deny His existence. There cannot be God without pastimes.

Krishna pastimesSince the Lord has pastimes and qualities, He must also have a form. If an item of interest is formless, it cannot be considered a valid object of worship. The monist philosophers and pseudo-yogis are enamored by the concept of an incorporeal God, or a formless Absolute Truth. Unable to fathom any entity possessing mutually contradictory attributes, the impersonalist speculators assert that the Absolute Truth’s original feature is that of Brahman, which lacks a tangible spiritual form. Therefore, the goal for any serious transcendentalist should be to focus on this spiritual light of bliss, the brahmajyoti, with the aim of one day merging into it.

Based on the characteristics necessary to have an object, we see that Brahman is more of a trait belonging to the Supreme Lord than an object itself. Since it is not an object, there is no tangible bliss derived from association with Brahman. Even the greatest transcendentalists of the past who were wholly sincere in their meditation on Brahman found a higher pleasure once they were fortunate enough to come into contact with the Supreme Lord in His personal form. Though Krishna is considered the original form of Godhead, the Absolute Truth isn’t limited to just one transcendental manifestation. Just as there are no limits to Krishna’s attributes and pastimes, there is no accurate count of the number of non-different, wholly spiritual, and completely perceptible forms that the Lord can take to.

“All different varieties of atmaramas [those who take pleasure in atma, or spirit self], especially those established on the path of self-realization, though freed from all kinds of material bondage, desire to render unalloyed devotional service unto the Personality of Godhead. This means that the Lord possesses transcendental qualities and therefore can attract everyone, including liberated souls.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 1.7.10)

Maharaja JanakaMaharaja Janaka, a famous king during ancient times, was well-respected for his mastery over mysticism. He was so adept at focusing his mind on Brahman that he gained the title of Videha, which means one who has transcended the influences of the material body. Through his mystic practices, Janaka was no longer under the dictates of the senses in any way. Yet when he was fortunate enough to see Lord Rama, an incarnation of Krishna, in person, he immediately felt tremendous bliss. Worship of Brahman is not completely rejected as a method of self-realization, but since the process technically focuses on a feature of the Supreme Lord rather than an autonomous object, contemplation of Brahman yields inferior results compared to direct worship of Krishna. One who faithfully and sincerely worships Brahman attains to a status known as brahma-bhutah, which automatically brings with it the quality known as atmarama, or being self-satisfied. We can think of the atmaramas as possessing a full belly in the spiritual sense. If we present a pizza pie to a hungry man, he will eagerly dig in and enjoy. Yet, if after eating to satisfaction we present another full pizza pie in front of the same man, there likely will not be any stimulation to the taste buds at all. The pizza hasn’t changed, as it consists of the same ingredients and gives off the same appearance. What has changed is the level of satiation in the target entity.

In spiritual life, the atmaramas are considered completely full, not capable of being stimulated by any outside pleasures. Yet Janaka, upon seeing the exquisitely beautiful and transcendental body of Lord Rama, couldn’t help but derive tremendous pleasure from the vision before him. Janaka even thought that maybe the Brahman he had spent his whole life worshiping had now taken a form specifically to show favor to him. These are the workings of the Supreme Lord. Through His kindness, He deludes even the sincere souls into not understanding His true nature, as those who worship God without any concern for His opulence and strength are considered the topmost worshipers. It is one thing to treat Bhagavan with love and respect for His superior position, but it is an even higher display of devotion to harbor affection for the Supreme Lord while remaining in ignorance of His fixed position. Such an exalted status of worship is reserved for the greatest devotees like King Janaka.

Lord RamaIf Krishna has qualities, pastimes and forms, He surely must have names. Otherwise, how would we address the entity who bears such properties? Indeed, the activities and features of His transcendental forms are how Krishna gets His innumerable names. The name Krishna speaks to the Lord’s all-attractive nature. Rama relates to His ability to give transcendental pleasure to others, and it also references His eternal expansion form of Shri Rama. God is known as Govinda for His ability to give pleasure to the cows and to the senses. He is known as Keshava for having killed the Keshi demon during His time on earth. He is also addressed as Hari for being able to remove the distresses of His devotees. Indeed, Bhagavan is known by thousands upon thousands of names, each of which speaks to different aspects of His character that firmly establish Him as the ultimate object of worship.

Of the four characteristics that make up the Divine Object known as Krishna, the name is the most important. Only the name brings the other three features with it. Therefore every individual interested in meditation can find the most tangible effects by simply chanting the sacred maha-mantra, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. The question may be raised as to who or what should be meditated on during this chanting. When chanted properly and without offense, the sound of the holy name automatically brings the other wonderful features. Krishna brings bliss to the devotee because He possesses all the necessary characteristics of an object to the fullest degree. Therefore by chanting the word Krishna, or by hearing the blissful sound vibration of Rama, all the qualities, forms and pastimes immediately come to mind. In this way we see that success in meditation has nothing to do with quelling desires, focusing on void, or alleviating distress. It is the nature of the soul to be a lover of God. When this affection is allowed to flow in an uninhibited manner, the living entity goes from being a conditioned soul to a liberated one. When the steady stream of transcendental thoughts inspired by the regular recitation of the sound vibration representations of Supreme Spirit flows without any divergence towards the home of that most benevolent of masters, the consciousness remains forever purified and firmly fixed on the forms, qualities and pastimes of the Lord. Each of Bhagavan’s characteristics brings tremendous pleasure to the yogi who has dedicated his life to fixing his mind on Krishna.

Lord KrishnaRecitation of the holy name allows for instantiation of the original object within the mind in an instant. The resulting link to the Supreme Consciousness can be further maintained by taking to outward activities such as reading, worshiping the deity and chanting congregationally with others. The name is the nucleus of these activities which make up the discipline known as bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. When the name is present, the other requisite items of meditation immediately appear. Therefore the greatest devotees, the mahajanas, don’t simply meditate on Krishna within the mind while rejecting deity worship and service to the Lord’s exalted associates, the spiritual masters and pure devotees. When meditation is performed properly, i.e. when the name of the Lord is the predominant ingredient in the concentration, there is an even greater eagerness to worship the Lord in an outward way through service to His non-different form of the archa-vigraha, or worshipable body carefully crafted and constructed to match the known physical features of the Supreme Lord and His various avataras. Meditation on nothing will bring nothing as a benefit. On the other hand, worship of something tangible, an object which is overflowing with transcendental sweetness, will lead to the highest benefit and pleasure. Shri Krishna, through His defined features and His ability to provide unmatched bliss to the devotee, thus becomes the ideal object of meditation.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Mission Statement

Hanuman “In every respect, I will do whatever is necessary to find Sita. If I am unsuccessful, I will uproot the city of Lanka and bring it back here with Ravana.” (Hanuman addressing the Vanaras, Valmiki Ramayana, Sundara Kand, 1.42)

sarvathā kṛtakāryo'hameṣyāmi saha sītayā |

ānayiṣyāmi vā laṅkāṃ samutpāṭya sarāvaṇām

Shri Hanuman is here stating the objective of his mission, the purpose behind the most transcendental of promised acts, that of leaping across the massive ocean to the island of Lanka, where the Rakshasa king Ravana was residing with his band of ogre cohorts. Hanuman was the most powerful and capable warrior in a group of soldiers asked to find the whereabouts of a missing princess, a sweet lady who was taken away from her dear husband through a backhanded plot. Though the mission was difficult, Hanuman was up to the task. And lest anyone doubt his chances for success, Hanuman gave assurance that even if he couldn’t find the beautiful princess of Videha, he would uproot the massive island inhabited by her captor and bring it back with him.

HanumanWhy was Hanuman given this task? Moreover, who was the divine princess that garnered so much attention? During the Treta Yuga, the second time period of creation, a handsome and pious prince took birth in the exalted Raghu dynasty, a family which traced its lineage back to not only the notable King Raghu, but also Maharaja Ikshvaku, one of the first kings on earth. Anytime a child was born in this dynasty it was a big occasion, but the birth of one particular prince was especially noteworthy due to the fact that the king at the time, Maharaja Dasharatha, was without a son. For the family line to continue, there must be a son, a successor to whom the reigns of the government can be passed down. Not only was Dasharatha’s son fit in every respect to handle the control of the leadership, but He also happened to be an incarnation of Godhead.

God can incarnate? The Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, accurately note that the human being constantly goes through changes resulting from the forces of nature, which work to alter the surroundings consisting of matter. Something as simple as water can change in appearance and utility depending on the temperature and the container it is placed into. When a large amount of water is placed in a recessed area of the earth, the result is a pond, lake, or river. When the same water is put into an earthen pot, we have a pitcher of water. When poured into a container used by the human being for consumption purposes, the water turns into a drink. When the same water is cooled to the freezing point, it turns into ice, something which can be used to cool a beverage or give comfort to a wounded portion of the body. When the same water is heated to the boiling point, water vapor results, something which can be used to steam vegetables and provide comfort to ailing muscles.

“The five great elements, false ego, intelligence, the unmanifested, the ten senses, the mind, the five sense objects, desire, hatred, happiness, distress, the aggregate, the life symptoms, and convictions-all these are considered, in summary, to be the field of activities and its interactions.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 13.6-7)

Krishna speaking to ArjunaThe identity of the individual, the basic functional unit within all forms of life, is the spirit soul. Yet just like water, the spiritual spark can give the appearance of different forms based on its outer covering. It is not that the soul can change in property, but rather, its container can shift in makeup. Sometimes the container is that of a plant, while at other times it can be one belonging to a ferocious animal. Only in the human form of body can the knowledge of the nature of the container and its owner be realized. The owner of the body is also known as the knower. The body and the matter on which it operates are known as the field of activities.

“The Supreme Personality of Godhead said: This body, O son of Kunti, is called the field, and one who knows this body is called the knower of the field.” (Bg. 13.2)

Why the need to understand the distinction between the field and the knower of the field? Is there any advantage to knowing this information? If the aim of life is taken to be repeated indulgences in sense gratification, wherein the tongue, genitals, eyes, ears and taste buds are satisfied to the extreme at all times of the day, then there is no difference between the animal form of life and a human one. In fact, in the absence of knowledge of all things spiritual, the argument can be made that the animal form of life is more beneficial. After all, an animal enjoys eating, sleeping, mating and defending just like the human being except without all the hassle. There is no concern over tax rates, the mortgage payment, unrequited love, and most importantly, fear of death. The animal has no knowledge of these things, for the focus is solely on sense gratification.

Human beings are given advanced intelligence for a reason. Through logical deduction and observation of the events around them, man can tell that their containers are constantly changing. At the time of birth, the covering of the soul is considered fresh and full of potential. As time goes on, the shell gradually develops and partakes of activities. There reaches a point, however, when the covering stops growing and starts to dwindle. The last step in the decaying process is death, where the spirit soul within the body finally exits. The future destination of the soul is then determined by the desires of the entity at the precise time of quitting the body and also the results of the work that were previously performed.

“The living entity in the material world carries his different conceptions of life from one body to another as the air carries aromas.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 15.8)

Lord KrishnaBased on the nature of these changes, we see that the soul is not affected by any processes of growth or diminution. In fact, the soul never changes in properties. From the knowledge passed down through a tradition of spiritual enlightenment which began from the first created living being, Lord Brahma, we understand that the soul has a life partner, an ideal loveable object if you will. There are actually two souls within each body, one identifying the individual and the other identifying a Superior Entity. In most circles the superior is addressed as God, but this term is very vague and not providing of any bliss or sweetness. Why is there a need to take pleasure from God? Actually, knowledge, bliss and sweetness are always tied to the soul’s qualities and desires. In order for true pleasure to be found, there must be a complimentary entity, one that interacts with the soul and provides it happiness.

In the conditioned state, one where the soul is placed into a temporary and ever-changing container, the search for love leads to all areas except those where God’s personal presence is felt. The plenary expansion of the Lord known as the Supersoul resides within the heart of every living entity, side-by-side with the individual soul. The Supersoul is different, however, in that it doesn’t take part in any activities driven by the individual, nor is it beholden to any of the laws of nature. The soul’s destination is determined by its consciousness at the time of death, but the Supersoul’s is not. What is the purpose of God’s incarnating inside the conditioned entity then? Why, pleasure of course. Though the individual will misdirect its loving propensities towards external objects, simply looking inside itself is enough to find the real form of the bliss that is so desperately sought after.

Understanding the presence of the Supersoul is not easy, even for those who are sufficiently trained in a spiritual discipline which touches on the relevant topics of life, death, karma and the constitutional position of individual spirit. To help the illusioned living entities understand who God is and how He exists inside of everyone, the Supreme Lord appears in a manifested form, one that is visible to the external senses of the living entity. If the spirit soul can reside in a container which is visible to others, then surely the Supreme Lord can as well.

Lord RamaA key distinction with the bodies possessed by God’s manifested appearance on earth is that there is no difference between the knower and the field of activities. For God, there is no difference between body and soul, matter and spirit. He is always spiritual. In fact, the manifested form of the Supreme Lord is no different than the one residing within the heart as the Supersoul. The cause for the difference in understanding is the angle of vision of the conditioned entity, who is trapped inside a container which clouds the natural, transcendental vision.

Lord Rama, the prince of Ayodhya, the eldest son of Maharaja Dasharatha, is one of God’s most celebrated manifested forms to have appeared on earth. In addition to playing the role of a prince perfectly, Rama took part in many wonderful pastimes aimed at attracting the hearts and minds of those sincere souls who were desperately looking to connect with the Supreme Lord through the process of yoga. In order to further the attachment felt by the citizens of the time, and also future generations of devotees who would read about the accounts of Rama’s life found in wonderful books such as the Ramayana and Ramacharitamanasa, the Lord took to divine activities, some of which outwardly seemed to be unpleasant and the source of heartache and pain.

Sita and RamaOne such incident involved the kidnapping of Rama’s beautiful and chaste wife Sita Devi. The king of Lanka at the time, a ghoulish figure named Ravana, was very lusty and intent on enjoying as much sex life as possible. Hearing of a beautiful princess residing in the forest of Dandaka, Ravana became intent on having her. Since he couldn’t defeat Rama in a one-on-one battle, Ravana hatched up a scheme which momentarily lured Rama and His younger brother Lakshmana away from Sita’s side. Pouncing on the opportunity, Ravana forcibly took Sita back to his kingdom of Lanka.

To help in the search for Sita, Rama teamed up with a group of Vanaras living in the Kishkindha forest. Their king was Sugriva, who had a massive army of soldiers at his disposal. Dispatching them around the world to look for Sita, Sugriva hoped to please Rama by finding His beloved wife. One search party in particular was considered the most capable. They were headed by Sugriva’s nephew, Angada, but the true strength of the group lay in the wonderful power, perseverance, courage and devotion to Rama found in Shri Hanuman, Sugriva’s most faithful servant.

Not surprisingly, Hanuman would be called to step up to the plate when the monkey group came upon their most troublesome situation. Learning that Sita was in Lanka, the monkeys were prepared to march forth, but they first had to figure out a way to get across the massive body of water that separated them from Ravana’s island. At this time, it was discovered that only Hanuman, who was capable of assuming any sized shape at will, could leap far enough to make it across the ocean and thus reach Sita.

Hanuman In the above referenced quote, Hanuman is openly declaring the objectives of his soon-to-be completed mission to the monkeys. He had just assumed a massive size and climbed atop a mountain peak. He was ready to leap into the sky, so before going he wanted to state clearly what his purpose was and what he would do if different obstacles stood in his way. First, he said that he would find Sita in Lanka, and that if she wasn’t there, he would leap all the way up to heaven and find her there. If Sita couldn’t be found in heaven, Hanuman would bring Ravana back to the monkeys as a captive. Finally, Hanuman reassured his friends that in every respect, with whichever route he would follow, he would do whatever it would take to find Sita. If, after exhausting all his efforts, he was still not able to find her, he would uproot the entire city of Lanka and bring it back with him.

Such wonderful and inspiring sentiments emanating from the lotus mouth of a dear servant of the Lord are uttered with a purpose. The aim is to show others just how dedicated the performer is to a particular mission. In the movie Batman Returns, one of the lead villains is played by the actor Christopher Walken. Towards the beginning of the film, Walken’s character, who is a businessman, is involved in a secret meeting to put something into place that would be damaging to the city he inhabits. His secretary accidentally overhears his nefarious plot, and instead of trying to silence her, Walken pushes her through a window on one of the upper floors of the high-rise office building. Being a fictional movie relating to superheroes, the secretary is able to survive the great fall after being resuscitated by cats. She then turns into the villainous character, Catwoman. When she returns to her secretary post a few days later, Walken’s character is shocked to see her alive. Though somewhat phased by the development, Walken’s character later openly quips that if she should try to blackmail him over what had happened, he’ll just push her out of a higher window.

Christopher Walken in Batman Returns This line aroused great laughter in the theater that we happened to be watching the movie in. The reason for the humor is quite obvious: the character was so set in his evil ways that he was firmly committed to killing all his opponents, no matter how hard he had to work. If one method didn’t succeed, he would just put more power into the job the second time around. A similar mindset, though in a purified form, existed with Hanuman. If Sita wouldn’t be found in Lanka, Hanuman would go to wherever she was residing. If he couldn’t find her anywhere, he’d take Ravana back to Rama. If Ravana didn’t want to go, Hanuman would carry the entire city back with him; such was the dedication of Rama’s dearmost servant.

Though Hanuman was a soldier engaged in a reconnaissance mission, he was actually performing a form of yoga known as bhakti. As mentioned before, true bliss for the soul is found through interaction with the Supersoul within the heart. The linking of these two souls is known as yoga. Since there is more than one way to achieve this link, there are different names ascribed to yoga. Bhakti is the discipline which aims to connect with God, in any of His non-different expansions, through acts of love and devotion. Hearing and chanting are the two most effective processes, but carrying out the orders of the Lord is also a tremendously potent and authorized method of bhakti. Hanuman constantly hears about Rama’s glories and chants His name on a daily basis, so in this sense his mood of bhakti is never broken.  Nevertheless, he also had the wonderful benediction of being able to personally carry out the Lord’s orders given to him through the proxy of Sugriva.

Rama Darbar Bhakti is transcendental love, so when carrying out God’s orders, there must be determination and a sincere will to achieve success. As displayed by Hanuman, perseverance and dedication is the key. Even if success is not achieved, there must not be any hesitation in the intent. Hanuman didn’t say, “Oh, perhaps I will succeed, and maybe I will find Sita and return the information of her whereabouts to Rama.” He was acting for the pleasure of the Lord, so he took the mission as his life and soul. In a similar manner, we should take full advantage of the human form of body by making success in devotional service, bhakti-yoga, our only mission in life. Dedication to chanting, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, and refraining from the most sinful activities will help put us on our way. Difficult times will surely be encountered every now and then, but if we remember the wonderful determination of Hanuman, the great love he feels for Sita and Rama, and the unbreakable bond of affection that Sita, Rama and Lakshmana have for him, we will never fail in our mission.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Degree of Deviation

Radha Krishna “Devotional service, beginning with the chanting of the holy name of the Lord, is the ultimate religious principle for the living entity in human society.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 6.3.22)

The principles that bring about spiritual freedom, those regulations that serve as the foundation for bhakti-yoga, are so nice that they immediately lead to benefits, both short and long term. The principles of the religion of divine love are pretty straightforward: love God with all your heart, and refrain from the most harmful activities such as meat eating, gambling, intoxication and illicit sex. By following this regulated way of life, consciousness immediately becomes altered, causing the primary focus to shift from worldly objects to matters of spirituality twenty-four hours a day. The discipline that brings about this change is superior to any other system, spiritual or otherwise, not only because of its direct relation to the inherent qualities of the soul, but also because of its tireless nature. Meditation can be practiced for an hour or two at a given time, but the remaining portion of the day leaves the sincere student vulnerable to the attacks of the sense objects, which constantly demand attention, love and sacrifice. The same holds true with the knowledge-acquiring process, as once intelligence has been elevated, a practical application is necessary to realize true benefits. But the secret to bhakti is not found in the processes themselves, but rather, in the object of worship, the beneficiary of all sacrifice and penance. Wholehearted dedication to mundane objects such as wood and any manifestation of matter can’t provide the same benefits even if the identical procedures from bhakti are applied. The continued existence of the phenomenal world is due solely to the innumerable religious systems, or activities based on manmade, mentally concocted ultimate conclusions, that are followed. The degree of the divergence from the flawless principles belonging to bhakti and their intended beneficiary thus determines the intensity of the detriment witnessed by the follower led astray. Therefore, under all circumstances, one should remain steadfast on the path of bhakti by dedicating their sincere efforts towards the only object worthy of our time, sacrifice, words and efforts: Lord Krishna.

Lord KrishnaUnderstandably, after hearing the glories of divine love and the need for the permanent shift in consciousness, the not fully convinced listener, the skeptic who wants to challenge the recommendations put forth by the acharyas, or spiritual leaders who lead by example, will ask many “why” questions. “Why do I have to stop eating meat? Why do I have to chant, ‘Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare’, sixteen rounds a day on a set of japa beads? Can’t I just do something else all day and still be engaged in bhakti?” Mind you, these are just the questions of those who are somewhat interested in the regulative principles of freedom of bhakti-yoga but not initially willing to wholeheartedly follow the dictates of the spiritual master, or guru. The Vedas, the scriptural tradition which espouses the supremacy of bhakti over all other processes, declare that one must offer humble service to a bona fide guru in order to make progress in spiritual life. This concept shouldn’t be very difficult to understand, as we have to follow teachers in all other areas of life. Even those who are self-starters, the passionate individuals who forego college to start their own businesses, follow the advice and instruction of authority figures at some point in their lives. When engaged in simple arguments with friends, there is never any worthwhile conclusion reached. The primary benefit to being friends with someone is that you have a peer, an equal. How can someone who we relate to on an intellectual and emotional level be more intelligent than us? How can they explicitly teach us anything?

“I have in the past addressed You as ‘O Krishna,’ ‘O Yadava,’ ‘O my friend,’ without knowing Your glories. Please forgive whatever I may have done in madness or in love. I have dishonored You many times while relaxing or while lying on the same bed or eating together, sometimes alone and sometimes in front of many friends. Please excuse me for all my offenses.” (Arjuna speaking to Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 11.41-42)

For knowledge to be properly received and understood there must be a teacher and a student. The roles may reverse from time to time, but the dynamic is still the same. A student who is not sincere in their service offered to the guru will find many difficulties along their journey towards enlightenment. In fact, the more one is adherent to the kind advice provided them by the spiritual master, the more quickly they will see the benefits of the instructions offered. When presented information about the religion of love, not only are there skeptical students, those who may not offer their objections directly in the presence of the guru but at least have a challenging mindset within, but there are also others who will take the principles of bhakti and apply them to worldly objects and entities of interest who have no spiritual potency. By constitution, every single living entity is a spirit soul at the core. The spiritual spark is the essence of life, the instigator of activity. Though individual spirit is quite powerful, its potencies pale in comparison to those of God, He who is known as the Supreme Spirit, or Paramatma. The living entity is truth, or Brahman, but the Supreme Lord is Parabrahman.

Lord KrishnaOnly God, or one of His non-different forms, of which there are many, is eligible for worship. This isn’t to say that we are forced into this relationship. Rather, just as with the friendships and other affectionate relationships that we voluntarily form in our daily affairs, there is a benefit to be gained from interaction with our spiritually linked reservoir of pleasure. Shri Krishna, who is known as the original form of Godhead according to the Vedas, is not only worthy of worship from every single living entity due to His status as the original proprietor and supreme enjoyer, but He is also the universal best friend. As such, His pleasure automatically equates to our pleasure. If we are truly friends with someone else, their happiness brings joy to our heart. Only the worst miser, one who is living completely in anguish and envy, would not be elated at the good fortune received by his friend.

The formation of a loving attachment through bhakti-yoga, the linking of the individual soul with the Supreme Consciousness through acts of love, brings the highest benefit. True affection only travels in both directions when the relationship is entered into voluntarily; otherwise the result is that of indentured servitude. The person offered the service in the unidirectional exchange of love may be benefitted, but the server certainly doesn’t feel any pleasure. But there is not even a hint of this defect with Krishna, as since He is all-attractive, the servitor automatically feels the greatest bliss by kindly chanting His names, reading books about Him, serving His devotees and dedicating all thoughts to Him. The more one sheds their jealousy, resentment, anger and dislike of Krishna, the more they will reap the benefits of bhakti-yoga.

Lord KrishnaThe devoted skeptic, though, will view the principles of bhakti-yoga as a separate entity, studying just the activities while simultaneously detaching the procedures from their object of interest. This is indeed a grievous error, as the principles themselves are meaningless without Krishna. Dharma, or religiosity, only exists to elevate the conditioned soul to the platform of loving service to God. Though the exact rules and regulations to achieve the pinnacle of consciousness may vary depending on a person’s age, spiritual affiliation and disposition in life, the end-goal is always the same. Therefore the processes themselves aren’t of primary importance. Dharma is an essential characteristic, and when applied to spirit, it speaks to the individual soul’s natural attachment to God. Dharma turns into a system of religiosity when processes are adopted that help maintain one’s essential characteristic. In this respect, dharma can apply to many areas of interest, as there are rules and regulations applying to all sorts of endeavors aimed at maintaining a primary characteristic which leads to a palatable, though albeit temporary, condition. The end-result is what is important, not necessarily the rules and regulations.

“It should be understood that all species of life, O son of Kunti, are made possible by birth in this material nature, and that I am the seed-giving father.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 14.4)

To see how more granular dharmas can vary in their effectiveness, let’s study one simple example. Kindness, or being nice to others, is certainly a beneficial behavioral characteristic. Holding on to this quality is critically important for the bhakta because kind behavior is an indication of a heightened level of consciousness. If one is following the regulative principles of freedom faithfully under the guidance of the spiritual master, there will hopefully come a time when they truly realize the greatness of the Lord and His inherent relationship with all forms of life. When a glimpse of Krishna’s greatness is revealed and understood, the dedicated devotee will have love, respect and compassion for every form of life, including the animals, because the purified angle of vision allows for a proper surveying of the external world, giving an almost x-ray vision-type ability, where all life forms are seen for their spiritual beauty. Universal brotherhood, where even the large animals all the way down to the tiny ants are respected, is only achieved through bhakti and no other process. One may ascend to different levels of expanded inclusion in their fraternal feelings, but the resulting vision will always remain defective unless and until the original source of life, God, is understood and worshiped.

Sankirtana party headed by Lord ChaitanyaElevation to bhakti is not measured by how many people you hate and despise, but rather, how many more different entities you love. Especially for those with a higher level of spiritual knowledge, the easiest thing to do in the world is criticize somebody else. “Eww, look at that karmi! I can’t believe they waste all their time every day just earning money. Such fools! Eww, look at that dog; it just runs around all day and does nothing. Eww, look at that drug addict, all worried about how they’re going to shoot up or drink tonight.” Such sentiments and observations are readily available even in the conditioned stage, so one who is on the path towards liberation from the cycle of birth and death, something only secured through pure Krishna consciousness, need not indulge in meaningless hatred for others. Indeed, the topmost transcendentalist is referred to as a paramahamsa, or supreme swan. A swan has the unique ability to separate milk from a mixture of milk and water. A truly enlightened individual, being the best at separating pure goodness from a seemingly homogeneously contaminated mixture, sees everyone for who they are, a spiritual spark. A paramahamsa can extract the good from every person and every situation.

While kindness is certainly indicative of a high level of consciousness and love, it is not always the best policy. For instance, if one of our children should snatch a bottle of chemical cleaner from underneath the kitchen cupboard and decide to start drinking it, our kindness would be worthless. If we sat back and said, “Oh, this is my child, I love them so much. My policy is that of kindness, so I can’t criticize what they’re doing or even try to stop them.” Actually, such an attitude would be incredibly foolish and sinful at the same time. From the variety of circumstances and what can result from inaction, we see that kindness itself is not even always pious behavior. Rather, one has to measure every activity and every behavior in terms of the desired palatable condition, or dharma. For the parent, the occupational duty is to see to the safety and health of the children. If a child lies, cheats, steals, or takes to dangerous activity, it is up to the parent to be very firm and vehement in their criticism and instruction. Modesty and unnecessary kindness will not do anything for the child who is on the wrong path.

There are right ways to do things and wrong ways. To feed the entire body, one must put food into the mouth, which subsequently transports the nutrients in a digestible form to the stomach. Even in cases with ill patients who need feeding tubes, the stomach is still the distributing organ. If out of haste or dedication to the neglected body parts one decides that they will offer their services to the feet and hands instead, there will be nothing gained. We can offer food to our foot all we want, but this will in no way provide any nutrients to the body. Similarly, we can’t just chant the word “wood” over and over again, sit in front of a tree to offer our respects, and expect anything tangible to result. The only worthy beneficiary of devotional acts is God; otherwise the activities undertaken can’t be considered bhakti or even authorized.

Laddu gopal deity Sadly, in the world we live in there are many such unauthorized dharmas adopted and recommended. Service and love are offered to all sorts of entities who are incapable of reciprocating on any notable level. Love offered to a movie star or celebrity brings nothing back to the fan. Maybe the fanatic is able to avoid dangerous behavior during the time of their worship, but as far as consciousness goes, there is no benefit. The secret to success in life, to finding eternal happiness, is a proper shift in thought processes. One may be a dedicated servant of matter, spending all their time accumulating more wealth and possessions, but at the end of the day, if their way of thinking isn’t altered, no amount of material acquisition will bring any lasting satisfaction. In this sense, the spiritually ignorant rich man is no better off than the destitute beggar.

The degree of deviation from the bona fide principles of bhakti determines the intensity of the detriment received by the performer. Unfortunately, even in the arena of spirituality many unauthorized entities are taken to be the ultimate object of worship. In the Vedic tradition, the worship of the devas, or gods, is very prevalent. Though Krishna, or Vishnu, is the ultimate form of Godhead, the singular divine entity, there are numerous godlike figures in charge of the various aspects of the material creation. They are known as suras, or great devotees of Vishnu. If even the suras are wholly aware of Krishna’s supremacy, then surely there would be no reason for others to take any embodied deva as the vara, or chief. Yet this is precisely what happens, as the materially conscious become enamored by the benedictions received from the pleasing of the exalted demigods in the sky. The monists, those with a poor fund of knowledge resulting from remaining stuck on the platform of logic and argument, further delude the minds of the innocent by proclaiming that there is no difference between any of the devas, including Krishna. One can worship any divine figure and be equally as benefitted.

Krishna's lotus feet Yet only Krishna, or one of His non-different Vishnu forms, is the giver of pure bhakti, which brings a return to the original constitutional position of the soul. Other demigods can certainly help one along in their devotional efforts, but material benedictions themselves don’t relate to the plight of the soul. Even Mahadeva, the greatest deva in charge of the material creation, fixes his mind on the lotus feet of Lord Vishnu every day. He can grant liberation, or mukti, but only through whispering the holy name of Rama, another form of Vishnu, into the ears of those who die in the city of Kashi. This wonderfully generous behavior shown by Mahadeva, who is ever worthy of respect and adulation, further substantiates the claims made by the Vaishnavas pertaining to the potency of the holy name. The principles of bhakti can be imitated in other endeavors, but there will never be any lasting benefits. Such behavior shouldn’t even be attempted, as the further the invalid object of worship is from Krishna, the greater the plunge into the depths of hellish life there will be. Krishna is the fountainhead of all forms of Godhead, and devotional service to Him is similarly the origin of all religious practice. In this age there is no need to bother with any other form of spirituality, as bhagavad-bhakti, pure devotion to the Lord, will provide all the results in the shortest amount of time.