Saturday, March 19, 2011

Holi 2011

Narasimhadeva “Shri Rama’s holy name is like Narasimhadeva to the Hiranyakashipu-like Kali Yuga. For those who chant the holy name, the Lord offers them all protections and crushes their tormentors, just as He did for Prahlada Maharaja.“ (Dohavali, 26)

rāma nāma nara kesarī kanakakasipu kalikāla |

jāpaka jana prahalāda jimi pālihi dali surasāla ||

There was danger in the air. A sweet and innocent young child, who had no fault against him except a deep love and affection within his heart for his beloved Lord Vishnu, was about to be burned to death. Even in the strictest communities which employ the sternest of disciplinary measures, children are granted leniency for their transgressions. Should they break the law or fail to abide by the orders of the parents, punishment is rarely doled out, and if it is, it won’t be very severe. But in this particular kingdom a long time ago the situation was reversed. The pious, kind and honorable were persecuted for understanding that man has limitations and that the true benefit of human life is to understand God and take to His loving service. Though sensing the impending doom, this young boy held firm in his vows. He simply remembered the holy name, the sound vibration representing His beloved savior, his life and soul, and he was subsequently saved from all dangers. Though the nature of the rescue seemed like a miracle of mythological proportions, this real-life, historical event of the boy’s triumph over the forces of evil, a time when the holy name manifested in the form of a protective shield around a seemingly helpless soul who had no one else to save him, has been celebrated ever since as the occasion of Holi.

Prahlada MaharajaHoli is typically celebrated in a festive mood, with colors being thrown about in a playful manner. As with any other ancient tradition still honored today, it is understandable that the origins of the holiday would no longer be at the forefront of consciousness. In the Vedic tradition the annual festivals and celebrations typically focus on activities, pastimes and appearances of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Even in those individuals who aren’t very religious, don’t read many scriptural books, or fail to perform any outward worship, the general acknowledgement of a higher power is still usually present. The Vedas aim to arouse an even stronger spiritual sentiment out of every one of us by providing further information into the nature of the Supreme Being that we are all inclined to believe in and acknowledge. The more we get to know someone, especially an individual who possesses attractive features, the better the chances are that we’ll develop an attachment to them and a desire to maintain a link with them for a longer period of time. Yoga is built on this foundation, as it represents a link in consciousness with the Supreme Lord, whose every aspect is ever-pure and all-pervading. Just as the radio waves emanating from a station can travel long distances, the sweet sounds glorifying Supreme Spirit can penetrate any and all areas. The key is to know which frequency to tune into to pick up the majestic sounds that please the heart and cause an arousal of the most intense and pure loving emotions man has ever known.

The annual celebration days help to organize and assemble masses of people in remembering and honoring the Lord. Though He is described by so many names in the multitudes of spiritual traditions around the world, His complete attractiveness forms His most important characteristic. For there to be an attraction that touches every individual and never dies, there must be a tangible form, one that is permanent. If God’s form constantly changed, He wouldn’t remain all-attractive. Since He is capable of luring in the kind-hearted souls in all the universes with His names, forms, pastimes and qualities, His most descriptive name is Krishna. Since He is capable of providing transcendental pleasure to others, He is also known as Rama. Since He is all pervading, in charge of the mode of goodness, and can be opulently adorned, He is also addressed as Vishnu. Indeed, the Vedas provide thousands of names for the original Divine Being, with each appellation capable of very effectively arousing the natural loving sentiments safely tucked away in the heart.

Lord VishnuThe key is to remember and honor these names regularly. Yet due to the influences of time and material nature, there are many layers covering up real knowledge and information about Supreme Spirit. Therefore the Vedic tradition puts forth holidays and celebrations as a way to regularly attack the thick wall of nescience enveloping the sincere souls deluded by the influences of the illusory energy of material nature, maya. Holi relates specifically to a five year old devotee named Prahlada. As the son of a king, he was groomed to be a great ruler, one adept in the political, diplomatic and military arts. Though kings are a rarity today, they were prominent in ages past. A good ruler is one who can govern with an iron fist and be able to withstand enemy attack at the same time. In this regard Hiranyakashipu, Prahlada’s father, was very capable. He was so powerful that everyone in the world was afraid of him. Even the demigods, the saintly figures residing on the heavenly planets, were terrorized by him, so much so that they took on disguises to avoid being recognized by the demon king.

“Narada Muni delivered his instructions both to me, who was within the womb, and to my mother, who was engaged in rendering him service. Because he is naturally extremely kind to the fallen souls, being in a transcendental position, he gave instructions on religion and transcendental knowledge. These instructions were free from all material contamination.” (Prahlada Maharaja speaking to his friends, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 7.7.15)

Prahlada was all set to follow in his father’s footsteps, except for one small wrinkle. His mother had been instructed on the ancient art of bhakti, or devotional service, while she was pregnant with the boy. When Prahlada was born, he was able to remember everything Narada Muni, the celebrated devotee of Vishnu and tireless welfare worker, had spoken to his mother while he was in the womb. Therefore Prahlada wasn’t attracted to material affairs in any way. When he was sent to school, he would listen to what the spiritual master taught him, but remain ever devoted to Vishnu all the while. Bhakti, or pure love, can only be directed at Vishnu or one of His non-different forms. The love that we are normally accustomed to feeling and acting upon is not counted as bhakti because of the defects in the sentiment and the object of worship. All the identified strong emotions of the material world, even hatred, are derived from the natural penchant for bhakti within the soul. When the loving sentiment is directed at the proper recipient, not only is the true potential for experiencing bliss achieved, but the love and affection felt for our fellow man also increases.

Lord Varaha killing HiranyakshaWhen Prahlada would come home from school, his father would ask him what he had learned. Obviously Hiranyakashipu was expecting to hear about how a king should use different methods such as divide-and-conquer, pacification, giving gifts, and punishment as ways of dealing with an enemy. But Prahlada told his father that he had learned that life’s mission is bhakti-yoga, which can consist of hearing, chanting, remembering, worshiping, offering prayers, becoming a servant of the Lord, becoming His friend, carrying out His orders and surrendering everything unto Him. Hiranyakashipu didn’t like hearing this at all. Due to his tremendous powers and his hatred of Vishnu, Hiranyakashipu thought that he was the Supreme Being. The Supreme Lord had previously killed Hiranyakashipu’s brother Hiranyaksha. Therefore the demon was very envious of Vishnu and His authority. Now his son was glorifying vishnu-bhakti instead of describing how world domination could be had, so this was too much for the demon to take.

“Prahlada Maharaja said: My dear King, the source of my strength, of which you are asking, is also the source of yours. Indeed, the original source of all kinds of strength is one. He is not only your strength or mine, but the only strength for everyone. Without Him, no one can get any strength. Whether moving or not moving, superior or inferior, everyone, including Lord Brahma, is controlled by the strength of the Supreme Personality of Godhead.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 7.8.7)

Hiranyakashipu first asked his son to stop worshiping and praising Vishnu, but when that didn’t work, the demon tried to kill his five year old boy many times. Holi relates to the specific attempt that involved placing Prahlada in a pit of fire with a female demon named Holika. Her unique ability was to withstand any amount of fire that would normally consume anyone else. The plan was pretty straightforward. Holika would take Prahlada into a pit of fire and be able to survive herself, thereby removing the greatest source of distress for Hiranyakashipu. The demon was so hateful of the Supreme Lord that he couldn’t even stand to hear the name of Vishnu, or Krishna. Of course the boy was just the opposite in behavior. He couldn’t go very long without describing the Lord’s glories. Prahlada tried to tell his father that Vishnu was his friend too, and that his tremendous abilities in fighting were due to Vishnu’s grace.

Prahlada in the fireFaced with impending death, Prahlada really didn’t alter his behavior much. Just as he would normally do, he held on to the name of the Lord. Simply remembering His beloved Vishnu, Prahlada not only survived, but also caused Holika’s abilities to backfire. Instead of Prahlada burning to death, it was Holika whom the fire consumed. The different colors of her ashes thus became the genesis of the tradition of throwing powdered colors around on Holi. It may seem strange to celebrate someone’s ashes resulting from a gory death, but the memory of the incident with Prahlada is anything but unpleasant or ghoulish. Simply remembering the Lord’s name and holding on to it with love and affection is enough to be protected from all calamities and impediments standing in the way of divine service.

Goswami Tulsidas, the revered poet and sweetheart of a person, especially loved chanting the name of Rama. Though Lord Rama is a historical personality and an incarnation of Godhead, Tulsidas never made the mistake of separating Rama from His other forms and activities. Indeed, Tulsidas very fondly remembered the protections offered by the Supreme Lord to Prahlada Maharaja. The incident with Holika was just one of many attempts made by Hiranyakashipu to kill his son. Yet, each and every time Prahlada followed the same procedure to escape danger. The Lord finally appeared on the scene in a manifested form, but this time not just to protect Prahlada. He instead came to do away with the boy’s father. The name of God protected Prahlada at all times, and since the name is non-different from the Supreme Personality it represents, the Lord finally came to personally end Hiranyakashipu’s reign of terror.

Narasimhadeva killing HiranyakashipuThough Krishna is considered the original form of Godhead, with Vishnu being a non-different expansion of the same, the form that came to kill Hiranyakashipu was quite unusual. It was seemingly a half man/half lion; hence He became known as Narasimhadeva. Hiranyakashipu had been previously granted many boons which afforded him protection from all sorts of attack. The Lord took into account all these conditions and crafted just the right form to kill Hiranyakashipu and simultaneously not break any of the promises given to him. The man-lion, Nara-kesari, came and did away with the tormenter of Prahlada once and for all. Though he felt sorry for his father, Prahlada did not protest. Indeed, he offered a flower garland to his beloved Vishnu while the whole event was transpiring.

Holi gives us a chance to remember the magnificent protections that come from the Lord’s holy name and His divine appearances on earth in wonderfully brilliant forms like the half-man/half-lion. Tulsidas says that the Kali Yuga, the age we currently live in, can be likened to Hiranyakashipu. Just as the Daitya king was vehemently opposed to vishnu-bhakti, the makeup of society in today’s age of quarrel and hypocrisy is such that devotional service goes primarily ignored. The dark influences of material nature have found a safe and protected home in the activities of meat eating, gambling, intoxication and illicit sex. Indeed, these sinful behaviors can only have a strong presence wherever there is an absence of real religion, the practice of divine love.

Prahlada with his beloved Lord Just as Hiranyakashipu was incredibly strong, so the effects of Kali Yuga are difficult to overcome. But by remembering the name of the Lord, inimical influences in any form can be removed in an instant. Prahlada Maharaja witnessed this fact personally, so we can hold on to his example as proof of the claim. Those who regularly chant, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, will surely be protected from all calamities and be allowed to swim in the ocean of transcendental bliss that is vishnu-bhakti.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Gaura Purnima 2011

Lord Chaitanya “I offer my respectful obeisances unto the Supreme Lord Shri Krishna Chaitanya, who is more magnanimous than any other avatara, even Krishna Himself, because He is bestowing freely what no one else has ever given - pure love of Krishna.” (Shrila Rupa Gosvami)

The glories of Shri Krishna Chaitanya Mahaprabhu can never be fully enumerated, but occasions such as Gaura Purnima, the celebration of His divine appearance, bring an added emphasis on remembering His transcendental activities and, more than anything else, another opportunity to bask in the light emanating from the golden sun of spiritual potency, the only hope for those otherwise blinded by the darkness of the age of Kali. Lord Chaitanya is an ocean of mercy that is full of transcendental nectar capable of deluging the entire earth with spiritual bliss by crossing any and all boundaries erected through nationalism, dogmatic insistence, and traditions based on narrow-mindedness or flat out ignorance. Indeed, there is no other form of Godhead more merciful, and proof of His divine nature and undying compassion is seen in His instructions, His pastimes and the glorious dedication to transcendental service instilled in His followers, who to this day carry the holy name of Shri Hari across the world to those who are desperately searching for ananda, or real bliss.

Lord ChaitanyaIt is the nature of the spirit soul to crave supreme satisfaction; otherwise there would be no purpose to any activity. Every action is undertaken with a specific purpose, and upon careful observation a commonality is seen in all desires: ananda. Even something as simple as the removal of distress is rooted in the quest for pure bliss. Say, for example, that we own a car that is giving us trouble. Every week there seems to be a new problem. First the tires go bad, the next week the oil needs to be changed, and the week after that the transmission starts acting up. For those who have established a fixed routine for their daily activities, just one small slip up can cause a tremendous amount of distress. Taking the car into the repair shop results in being late to work and falling behind on the rest of the day’s responsibilities. Owning a car also involves constant worry, as the solutions to problems aren’t always readily available. As such, even when the car gets fixed, there is no guarantee that the issues will cease there.

The frustrated owner longs for the day when the automobile is either removed from their life or when it starts functioning properly on a regular basis. Though the impetus for activity, when viewed on an abstract level, seeks a remedy to a problem, the real driving force is the cherished desire for a peaceful existence. A worry-free life is one where ananda remains at high levels for extended periods of time. If we take the example of the car and expand it out to all activities, we’ll see that bliss is at the core of every action in every form of life, even outside of the human form. Knowing that bliss is the central point of interest, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could find that one engagement related to a singular entity who can provide us more bliss than we’ve ever felt? Not surprisingly, the Supreme Lord, the fountainhead of all religious practice and the ideal beneficiary of every dedicated action, is meant to serve that very purpose.

ShyamasundaraWhen seeking out pleasure, the first instinct is to take service from another entity or object. “I want to satisfy my taste buds, so I’ll go to a restaurant where a nice meal will be served up. I want to listen to some music, so I’ll fire up a CD or an mp3 player filled with songs capable of bringing me tremendous, though albeit temporary, pleasure.“ But the most ideal relationship of a loving connection with the Supreme Lord actually works in the reverse way. God, who is known as Krishna in His original form, is all-blissful. In the imperishable land situated in the transcendental sky the source of all incarnations and everything spiritual and material simply plays His flute all day and does whatever He wants. This isn’t to say that the only form of Godhead is Krishna, but rather, the most complete in terms of features and abilities is indeed Shyamasundara, the beautiful Lord having a blackish complexion.

Shri Krishna is the ultimate reservoir of pleasure, so His ananda never runs out. The individual fragments emanating from the Lord, we living entities, can tap into that storehouse of spiritual energy by engaging in Krishna’s service. It is not that we have to approach the Lord and simply ask Him to share some of His blissful feelings with us. Rather, the sentiments towards performing unmotivated and uninterrupted service are naturally aroused from within when we adopt divine love, which manifests through activities such as chanting, hearing, remembering and worshiping. More than any other engagement, constant recitation of the holy names of the Lord found in the maha-mantra, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, brings the pleasure of Krishna’s association in the quickest amount of time. The chanting of Krishna’s names also has the strongest effect on the consciousness, which needs to be purified in order to feel happiness at all times. The key to success is to regularly keep the divine vision, along with His names, attributes and pastimes, within the mind. Just as Krishna is all-attractive and always playing His flute, He also takes part in divine sports. If we have a penchant for activity, why should this behavior be absent in the most wonderful person the world has ever known?

Radha and KrishnaThe living entity is eternally a servant of Krishna. As such, only through the transcendental loving attitude can the storehouse of ananda be tapped in to. Through any other mindset, the individual living being, remaining forgetful of Krishna and the glorious nature of service to Him, must produce its own form of bliss through service to itself, the surrounding nature, or other beings not equal to God. Since none of these entities is all-attractive, they cannot even come close to providing the same pleasure that Krishna can. Therefore, the formula for finding eternal peace and happiness is to simply engage in Shyamasundara’s service, in a mood tailored to the individual, without cessation.

The trouble is that not only is knowledge of the true mission of life unknown to most, but the very idea of God having a form and being ever worthy of worship through a loving attitude is not considered at all. If anything, the Almighty is viewed as an authority figure meant to be worshiped by those looking to acquire material rewards. Indeed, under this model, since the Lord is deemed to be angry and vengeful, neglect of His powerful position will bring about the severest of punishments. What gets overlooked in this belief system is that the living entity is already suffering, starting from the very moment that he searched for ananda in a realm bereft of Krishna’s personal presence. Whether the acknowledgement of God’s existence or a pledge of allegiance to a particular spiritual figure is made or not, the misery will continue for as long as consciousness remains unchanged.

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

Krishna speaking to ArjunaThe Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, provide much detailed information about the nature of the Supreme Lord, His various forms, His pastimes and the need for the living entity to take to religion as a way of life, with the aim of steadily altering consciousness throughout the process. The thoughts of the mind at the time of death determine the nature of the next body assumed by the soul. If we think of God while quitting the body, we will attain a spiritual form in the next life. Any other consciousness brings about a renewed search for ananda that is doomed to suffer the same fate as that from the life just completed. Therefore, not wanting to risk rebirth and the renewal of the education process, sincere followers of the Vedic tradition follow strict rules and regulations aimed at purifying the thoughts of the mind. Aside from the assertive process of chanting the Lord’s names, there are restrictions on the most sinful activities such as meat eating, gambling, intoxication and illicit sex.

Yet giving up sinful behavior, engagements which maintain the thick cloud of ignorance around the consciousness, is not an easy thing at all, especially when a particular society may be wholly accustomed to unauthorized behavior that mimics the animal community. Therefore another regulation voluntarily enforced by the aspiring transcendentalist of the Vedic school relates to association. The devotees of Krishna try to remain in the company of other devotees, for that will bring about the quickest progress in terms of altering consciousness. This certainly isn’t a foreign concept. Young students attend school together, athletes train in groups, and businessmen meet at conventions and other formal gatherings to discuss ideas and to network. Spiritual life is the most intense of disciplines, so if bad association is maintained, the likelihood of remaining on the conditioned path, one that leads to the continuation of reincarnation, will increase.

“I offer my respectful obeisances unto the full-moon evening in the month of Phalguna, an auspicious time full of auspicious symptoms, when Lord Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu advented Himself with the chanting of the holy name, Hare Krishna.” (Krishnadasa Kaviraja Goswami, Chaitanya Charitamrita, Adi 13.19)

Lord ChaitanyaWhen the recommended rules, regulations, and prohibitions on association are combined, there appears to be a stalemate, a seemingly insurmountable stumbling block towards achieving purification throughout a large section of society. If devotees are to avoid the association of the sinful, how will those not born into the Vedic tradition ever achieve purification? Should the Krishna bhaktas simply sit back and hope that others somehow figure out the right path in life? Maybe others will make advancement in their next birth, so there is no need to worry? These very concerns led to the advent of the greatest preacher the world has ever seen, a man who also happened to be non-different from Krishna Himself. Lord Chaitanya first graced this world with His divine presence on the auspicious occasion of Purnima in the month of Phalguna around five hundred years ago in the holy city of Navadvipa. The pastimes He would subsequently enact and the tradition of preaching He would leave behind would firmly establish Him as the most merciful entity this world has ever seen.

Though Lord Chaitanya was born a brahmana, which is the highest order in the varnashrama-dharma system instituted by the Vedas, His purpose was to preach the gospel of bhakti to all members of society, irrespective of their family lineage. Though speaking about the eternal truths of spiritual life found in sacred texts like the Bhagavad-gita to non-devotees is prohibited, Lord Chaitanya would not deny the mercy of Krishna bhakti to anyone. Rather than openly take to preaching amongst learned intelligentsia who were only interested in the intricacies of Vedanta philosophy, Shri Gaurahari approached the masses by travelling from village to village loudly reciting the holy names of the Lord. Through this sublime method, known as sankirtana, the mercy of Krishna and the holy name quickly spread throughout India.

SankirtanaSince devotees typically avoid situations and areas where the sinful element has a strong influence, areas bearing the opposite properties thus become places of pilgrimage. The banks of the holy river Ganges, or Ganga Devi, are filled with saintly people who always discuss the glories and pastimes of Shri Krishna and His other forms like Lord Rama, Vishnu and Narasimhadeva. But through Lord Chaitanya’s tireless efforts, new places of pilgrimage sprung up, some in areas which were previously considered contaminated, as many new devotees were made after being induced to chant the holy name.

Not only did Lord Chaitanya inspire others to chant, dance and sing the names of Krishna and Rama, but He singlehandedly instituted a tremendously potent tradition of preaching that continues to this very day. His dear associates like Nityananda Prabhu went all across India and literally begged people to simply recite Krishna’s name. It is not surprising to see the lengths of desperation that salesman will go to in order to make a sale of a car or insurance policy, for the benefit to them is financially related. After all, the man selling cars makes his living off getting others to purchase his product. But Nityananda Prabhu didn’t want any money, or even any followers. His tremendously persuasive sales pitch was aimed at liberating others from the clutches of maya, or illusion.

Lord Chaitanya is so kind that if He sees that someone is already inclined towards worshiping Rama, Vishnu, or some other non-different form of Godhead, He will give them the knowledge to further increase their love and attachment. Evidence of this mercy is seen in the behavior of His followers who originally come from religious backgrounds not rooted in Vedic traditions. It is seen that Christians who take to Krishna-bhakti subsequently have a deeper and more profound love and respect for Lord Jesus Christ. Lord Chaitanya was an expert scholar in His youth, but He understood the limits to logic and argument. Rather than focus on word jugglery and logical proofs, Lord Chaitanya explained everything in terms of its relation to Krishna. As such, it is not surprising to see those who take to bhakti gain a firm understanding of the purposes behind all religions and the traits they share in common.

Shri Gauranga creates shelter with His very activities and teachings. Offering instructions and repeating do’s and don’ts are one thing, but actually going out and rescuing those who are unaware of the true bliss to be found in bhakti represents a completely different level of benevolence and universal brotherhood. Lord Chaitanya and His associates drag those who are stuck in the mire of material existence into the light of bhagavata-dharma, or devotional service. As payback for their kind efforts, all that Shachinandana and His associates ask is that we remain committed to the chanting process, to glorifying the Supreme Lord and the spiritual master, and to never forgetting Krishna for even a moment.

Gauranga On the wonderful occasion of Gaura Purnima, we remember Lord Chaitanya, who is the most merciful of teachers, the leader of the bhakti movement and the constructor of the sturdiest and most welcoming shelter this world has ever seen. May we worship Him for the rest of this lifetime and many more. Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu is Krishna Himself, so whoever honors Him will soon taste the most blissful holy name, a delight to be savored every day. Though Lord Chaitanya humbly asked that we give all our attention in worship to Shri Shri Radha and Krishna, we will never neglect service to Him nor will we ever forget His kind mercy. He is the umbrella protecting us from the harmful influences of the present age, and His associates and those who follow in His disciplic succession help to maintain that protection for all of humanity.

Thursday, March 17, 2011


Hanuman with Surasa “I offer my obeisances unto you, O daughter of Daksha. Indeed, I have entered your mouth, and the truth of the boon granted to you has been maintained. I shall now go to where Vaidehi is.” (Hanuman speaking to Surasa, Valmiki Ramayana, Sundara Kand, 1.169)

praviṣṭo'smi hi te vaktraṃ dākśāyaṇi namo'stu te |

gamiṣye yatra vaidehī satyaṃ cāsīdvarastava

Resourcefulness is seen when tasks are accomplished using items and skills that are already available. On the flip side, the requiring of extra expenditures for new tools that may or may not increase the chances for success is not considered resourceful. One divine figure in particular proved his great skill and ability to make do with what God gave him many thousands of years ago. Not only was this hero able to accomplish the task assigned to him using his own abilities, but he was also able to maintain respect for other entities. Rather than unnecessarily stir up trouble, this divine figure remained on the straightened path as he made his way towards his desired destination, where he would relay a message of grave importance.

If we witness a wrong or an injustice, the inherent reaction is to protest. After all, if something is done unlawfully, the act is performed in violation of the established guidelines found in the shastras, or scriptures. No religious text is more authentic than the Vedas due to its age and tradition. In fact, no one can accurately date the origin of the Vedas, for since Vedic wisdom was instituted by God at the beginning of creation, there is no accurate time period for its inception. Though the original scriptures for mankind give us the circumstances pertaining to their origin, since there are divine figures involved in both the maintaining of the authenticity and the subsequent bequeathing of information, non-believers and those who think they are overly intelligent will not take the words of the Vedas at face value. Instead, they will surmise their own final conclusions and take shelter of the beliefs that follow.

“All purposes that are served by the small pond can at once be served by the great reservoirs of water. Similarly, all the purposes of the Vedas can be served to one who knows the purpose behind them.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.46)

Lord KrishnaSometimes traditions are borne out of such mental speculation, and they then remain in the same form without interruption for many years. If a challenge were to be mounted against a tradition not based on authority, a common defense would be a claim of validity based on family. “Well, this is how my father did this, and his father before him. I’m simply following the tradition.” For those who are in the know, those who actually follow the correct spiritual practices and understand the purpose to them, bogus systems of worship are not easy to deal with. There are essentially two options available, with the most obvious one being to challenge. “Stand up for what’s right; buck the trend; go against authority.” These simple phrases are very appealing to those who are firmly convinced of the proper way to do something. Yet from studying historical examples, we see that sometimes it is much better to allow the ignorant practices to continue, while finding other alternatives for getting your mission accomplished.

A celebrated saint named Haridasa Thakura, along with the help of his dear friend, showed wonderful restraint, courage and perseverance in this regard; thereby teaching others that there is more than one way to reach your stated objective. During the medieval period in India a spiritual boom took place. Since the seemingly new revolution in spiritual practice focused on deep love and devotion to God, the groundswell became known as the bhakti movement. Though bhakti is the constitutional position of the soul, the actual practice of pure loving devotion to God as a religion didn’t become formalized until Shri Krishna Chaitanya, a saint, preacher, brahmana and incarnation of the Supreme Lord, appeared on earth around five hundred years ago. He especially popularized the chanting of the holy names of the Lord, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. Reciting the transcendental sound vibration representations of Supreme Spirit forms the central component of the collection of activities classified as bhakti-yoga, or devotional service.

Lord ChaitanyaThe difference between bhakti and any other system of religiosity is that it is not dependent on specific practice or regulation. Rules, sacrifices, rituals and adherence to vows certainly can carry one further down the road in their religious pursuits, but the end-goal of harboring a pure and loving attachment to the Supreme Lord is not dependent on any specific activity. Even though the Vedas, or any spiritual discipline for that matter, recommend many different practices, the final objective is still the same: God consciousness. To that end, if a practice that is believed to be authorized according to a specific scripture is taken up, and at the same time the dormant love of God does not awaken, the activity should be either abandoned or purified. One of Lord Chaitanya’s celebrated disciples, Shrila Rupa Gosvami, accurately notes that whatever is favorable towards the cultivation of spiritual attachment should be accepted and whatever is unfavorable should be rejected.

In addition to regularly chanting Hare Krishna on His japa beads and in public performances known as sankirtana, Lord Chaitanya would regularly visit temples, with His favorite house of worship being situated in Jagannatha Puri. Though the outward display of reverence offered to a personal form of Godhead is prohibited in many religious circles, the genesis of the restriction is not based on any rational thought. The aim of spiritual practice is to always be thinking about God. Who could argue against this? Thinking involves remembering, and remembering entails visualizing some form. In this way the quintessential aspect of religion, or worship, requires ascribing a form to the beneficiary of the devotion. If the form is already worshiped within the mind, what is the harm in the outward offering of obeisances facilitated through the construction of a deity? The Vedas, recognizing the incomparable benefits brought on by explicit worship, strongly recommend service and obeisance to the deity. The worshipable images aren’t carved out based on mental concoction, but rather off of careful study of the descriptions found in the sacred texts like the Shrimad Bhagavatam and Ramayana. By taking earthly elements and shaping them to match the eternal, all-blissful forms of the Lord, the conditioned living entities on earth are afforded a wonderful opportunity for rapidly developing their love for God through an authorized style of worship.

Lord Chaitanya dancing for JagannathaDuring medieval times the proprietors of the Jagannatha temple would not allow anyone not born a Hindu to enter and see the deity. Lord Chaitanya especially loved visiting this house of worship, as He would faint every time he would walk in and see the deity. Lord Jagannatha is another manifestation of Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. By seeing the wonderfully carved image representing the Supreme Truth, Lord Chaitanya felt as if He was directly in the presence of God; hence He would lose outward consciousness from the spiritual stimulation. Members of outside spiritual traditions were not allowed in because they were deemed unworthy of worshiping Lord Jagannatha. If one is not trained in the traditions of Vedic culture, which centers around Krishna worship, they will not be able to properly understand the potency of the deity and the importance of worshiping Him.

The original caste system, which calls for society to be divided into four varnas, or categories, based on the inherent qualities of each individual and the work ascribed to them, is certainly valid and doesn’t need to be apologized for. Yet, as mentioned before sometimes traditions take on a life of their own through the behavior of one or two sets of powerful, yet ignorant, people. Such was the case with the caste system, as it became degraded to the point where members were claiming to belong to a particular group simply off birthright. Being born into the highest caste, the brahmana, certainly presents a wonderful opportunity, but for one to be considered a first class person, they must exhibit the requisite qualities. Along the same lines, one who is not born in an exalted family but still shows the proper qualifications should most certainly be considered a member of the class that corresponds to those attributes.

“Since he was born in a Muslim family, Shrila Haridasa Thakura could not enter the temple of Jagannatha due to temple restrictions. Nonetheless, he was recognized by Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu as Namacharya Haridasa Thakura. Haridasa Thakura, however, considered himself unfit to enter the Jagannatha temple.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Chaitanya Charitamrita, Madhya 11.195 Purport)

Lord Chaitanya’s dear friend, Haridasa Thakura, though a Vaishnava, or devotee of Lord Vishnu, in behavior and quality, was born a Muslim and thus not allowed into the temple to see the Jagannatha deity. Lord Chaitanya was an incarnation of Godhead, and He held tremendous clout in the community. He easily could have raised a stir and demanded that Haridasa be allowed in. Instead, Shri Gauranga did one better. Rather than insult the members of the temple and force them to break their tradition based on ignorance, Lord Chaitanya decided to make the best use of the situation. He instead took to personally visiting Haridasa regularly and ensuring that prasadam was delivered to him daily. Aside from allowing those with a clouded vision a chance to see God, the deity also facilitates the offering of food by the humble devotees. The Lord can most certainly eat anything offered to Him with love and devotion, so the food presented before the deity in the proper manner turns into prasadam, which means “the Lord’s mercy.” There is great potency in this spiritually infused food, so anyone who partakes of prasadam is considered very fortunate. Even though he wasn’t allowed into the temple, Haridasa Thakura received prasadam through the arrangement of the very same Jagannatha in human form, . In this way Chaitanya Mahaprabhu gave Haridasa a benediction even greater than that of entering the temple. The resourcefulness exhibited in the situation allowed the humble servant Haridasa to remain in pure Krishna consciousness all the way up until the time of death.

Sita and RamaShri Hanuman, the faithful servant of Lord Rama, was faced with a similar quandary. His mission was a difficult one involving evil elements the likes of which had never been seen before on earth. During the Treta Yuga, the second time period of creation, the same original Bhagavan, Shri Krishna, descended to earth in the guise of a warrior prince. His wife was, not surprisingly, the most beautiful princess in the world, Shrimati Sita Devi, the daughter of the King of Mithila. While residing in the forest with her husband, Sita was taken against her will to the island kingdom of Lanka by a Rakshasa named Ravana. Since He is antaryami, Rama can find any person very easily, but rather than look for Sita Himself, Rama called upon a band of monkey-like living beings known as Vanaras. Their king was Sugriva, and his most powerful and trusted warrior was Hanuman.

The mission assigned to the monkeys involved finding Sita, relaying to her words of assurance from Rama, and returning the information of her location to Rama and Sugriva. The objectives seemed simple enough, but there was a huge hurdle to cross in the form of a geographical boundary. At the outset of the mission, no one knew where Sita was, so many search parties had to scatter about the earth. Not surprisingly, the group which included Hanuman was able to learn that Sita was taken to an island. Yet knowing Sita’s potential location was only one piece of the puzzle. The isolated land mass inhabited by her captor lay many miles across a vast ocean. None of the monkeys in the party were capable of crossing over the mighty expanse except for Hanuman, who assumed a massive form after learning of his terrific powers from the elderly monkey-leader Jambavan.

“O son of Kunti [Arjuna], I am the taste of water, the light of the sun and the moon, the syllable om in the Vedic mantras; I am the sound in ether and ability in man.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 7.8)

Krishna and ArjunaWhen worshiping the Supreme Lord, the only required ingredient is the sincerity of the worshiper. Mundane powers and skills aren’t of any use unless they are tied to bhakti. In fact, when the sentiments of bhakti are pure enough, Rama will provide for whatever skill is required. As is so nicely pointed out in the Bhagavad-gita, Bhagavan is the ability in man. As such, anyone who is honored and given a high status in society for their extraordinary skill in a particular activity actually owes a debt of gratitude to the Supreme Lord, who so kindly allowed them to possess such an ability. Hanuman was charged with the most difficult of tasks, as Ravana and his Rakshasa associates were very capable in fighting. But since he was such a pure lover of God, Hanuman was blessed with extraordinary abilities given to him by His dearly beloved Rama.

In addition to being powerful, scholarly and pious, Hanuman was also able to assume any shape at will, a skill he would have to lean on during his travel to Lanka. Ascending a giant mountaintop, Hanuman, who had assumed a massive form, leaped high into the sky and travelled through the air at the speed of the wind. Yet the path to Lanka wouldn’t be without obstacles. The first impediment came in the form of a giant female serpent named Surasa. She was actually instigated by the demigods, the celestials in the sky, to put an obstacle in Hanuman’s path. The devas wanted to see just how powerful this determined servant of Rama’s was.

hanuman_CH52_lThe boon granted to Surasa was that no one could pass by her without first entering her mouth. The natural implication was that no one would get by her alive, as whoever would enter her mouth, which was the passage fair, or toll, would be eaten up. Informed of this boon, Hanuman first asked for a pardon. He kindly pointed out the objectives of his mission and the nature of the person who was being helped. Hanuman informed the serpent that his passing over the ocean was actually for Rama’s interest, something that should not be interfered with. One would think that the Lord’s desires would take precedent over any stipulation offered by any other entity, but Surasa would not budge. At this point Hanuman had several options available to him. Being extremely powerful, he easily could have killed Surasa. But instead, he decided to make use of his resourcefulness. He found a way to satisfy all parties.

Hanuman first cleverly asked Surasa to expand her size, for the serpent wouldn’t be able to contain him in his present form, one which was the result of a previous expansion in stature to ensure a leap capable of reaching Lanka. Surasa saw nothing wrong with Hanuman’s request, as he indeed was too large to fit into her mouth. So she kindly expanded her form by many miles into the sky. Hanuman, as a counter move, expanded his own frame. Surasa kindly obliged by increasing her size even more. In this way, the two traded expansions until they were both extremely large. Seeing that Surasa’s mouth was now this cavernous expanse, Hanuman decided to make use of the complementary yogic siddhi, that of being able to become extremely small. Hanuman immediately assumed a diminutive form, entered the mouth of the serpent, and then quickly exited. Through Hanuman’s craftiness, Surasa’s boon proved truthful, the demigods were not insulted, and the divine mission could continue.

Hanuman Not surprisingly, Surasa and the celestials were well pleased with Hanuman. He found a way to not ruffle any feathers, despite the fact that the demigods were technically in the wrong by obstructing the path of a faithful servant of God. Hanuman would go on to find Sita, return the information of her whereabouts to Rama, and then help the good guys in their victory over Ravana. No one is more resourceful than Hanuman, for he uses all his abilities to advance the cause of devotional service. In our spiritual endeavors we will likely encounter similar situations, but by always keeping Hanuman’s intelligence and dedication to Rama in our minds, we will surely find a way to succeed in our efforts with minimal damage inflicted.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Sight for Sore Eyes

Lord Krishna “Whenever one develops faith in Me—in My form as the Deity or in other bona fide manifestations—one should worship Me in that form. I certainly exist both within all created beings and also separately in My original form, since I am the Supreme Soul of all.” (Lord Krishna, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 11.27.48)

Question: “Is worship of idols prohibited in the Vedas?”

Answer: The concept of worshiping a deity as a means of achieving salvation for the soul is certainly a unique and often misunderstood aspect of the most prominent spiritual tradition of India, the Vedas. As the ancient law codes provided by the Supreme Lord Himself, the Vedas provide many roadmaps towards ultimate success, with a commonality shared amongst all the different processes. Turning one’s back on material life to attain spiritual enlightenment and the sublime life that follows requires a shift in consciousness. The gross elements that surround a soul at any given time will ultimately be discarded, but consciousness carries from one body to another. One whose mind is completely fixed on the Personality of Godhead at the time of death will immediately go to the transcendental realm and never have to deal with material nature again. Indeed, whatever consciousness we have while quitting the body acts as the determinant of our future fortunes. As such, the process of deity worship, wherein a statue or picture representation of the Supreme Lord’s transcendental features is erected, observed, honored and adored, proves to be extremely beneficial. Dare we say that any spiritual tradition that lacks this potent weapon capable of attacking the negative influences of material nature will be substandard in its effectiveness? The deity is the visible manifestation of the Lord’s ever available benevolence and mercy. During His many visits to this world, the Lord Himself not only practiced deity worship, but He also recommended it to others. Anyone who says otherwise and tries to use the Vedas as the authority for their misinformed statements should be understood to be the greatest fool and cheater.

Radha and KrishnaLet’s first review the logical basis for worshiping a deity. Indeed, it is the emphatic dogmatic insistence of many followers around the world that the outward offering of obeisances to anyone, including a statue representation of the Absolute Truth, should be avoided at all costs. But at the same time, the central component of any religious practice is worship. Who could argue this fact? Allegiance to political leaders, actors, actresses, sports figures, and even family members is held strong through keeping pictures and posters within the home. The wallpaper on the computer desktop provides an indication of who or what the owner of the device assigns top priority status to in their mind. Any dedicated attention given to another entity is a form of worship. The nexus of the different varieties of worship is consciousness, the thoughts of the mind. We can say that we worship a certain individual, but if we never think about them in any way, the professions are just empty words. For instance, if we say that we are a fan of a particular athlete, and we never watch them play or even follow their ups and downs, to what value is our allegiance? Support must involve some type of worship, which starts with contemplation.

At least according to those who are spiritually inclined, God is supposed to be that one person we should always think about no matter what. Visiting church once a week or praying a few times a day are certainly wonderful habits, but the point of emphasis is still on the altering of consciousness. To this end, how can the benefits of deity worship ever be denied? The Supreme Lord has a transcendental form; otherwise He would be inferior to the living entities occupying the phenomenal world. With that form comes a penchant for activity, a desire to perform pastimes. Denying the sportive tendencies of the Supreme Lord is another foolish tactic employed by those who have no understanding of the blissful aspect of Truth. Every living entity is seeking ananda, or bliss, and this desire is derived from the eternal bliss that is found in full in the Personality of Godhead, who, not surprisingly, is addressed as Krishna in His original form. Only God can be the most attractive person who is never disturbed under any circumstance.

Lord KrishnaSince there is no benefit to worshiping a mentally concocted form representing the Truth, we must hear of the Lord’s features from authority figures, those whose spiritual lineage descends from Krishna. Just as any accompanying branch or twig is ultimately connected to the original tree, the bona fide spiritual teachers have some sort of link to the Original Person. As such, they can present to us tangible information of what the Lord looks like, what behaviors He takes to, and what pleases Him. Indeed, from authorized teachings we also find out that Krishna is not God’s only form, as He kindly expands into multitudes of non-different personalities which are equally as worthy of worship and similarly appealing to those looking for a higher taste in their activities. When the deity representations are crafted off of authorized explanations, and if they match one of the non-different expansions of the Absolute Truth, then surely worship of them would be beneficial. Any other type of idolatry is equivalent to the worship of any ordinary figure, so such practices are not only unauthorized, but they also lead to inferior results.

“Those whose minds are distorted by material desires surrender unto demigods and follow the particular rules and regulations of worship according to their own natures.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 7.20)

Since spirit is the opposite of matter, which is the temporary manifestation of a separated energy emerging from the original Energetic, worship of Supreme Spirit is completely different than any other display of reverence. When the desires of the individual are to feed the hungry senses, which are always starving for attention, the mind gets deluded into giving entities not on an equal footing with the Supreme Lord top priority. Attention is not only paid to ordinary human beings, but also to some elevated personalities, who are known as demigods. Deity representations of the divine heavenly figures can also be crafted, honored and worshiped, but the results only lead to a continuation of material life. It is said in the Bhagavad-gita, the Song of God spoken by Krishna Himself, that worshipers of the devas, or demigods, go to the planets of the devas, while devotees of Krishna go to the eternal land in the spiritual sky. Even the home of the demigods goes through cycles of creation and destruction, so nothing permanent is achieved by worshiping an inhabitant of the heavenly realm. Not all gods are the same, as no embodied being, one that is forced to accept a temporary material body, even one that remains in its form for millions of years, can be considered equal to the Supreme Personality.

Deity of Lord ChaitanyaAs a medium of communication, words can transfer information and also bring great pleasure. When read on a page, words that describe some appealing subject matter bring joy and bliss to the reader. Sound vibrations have a similar stimulating effect, as a pleasant song can alter the mood within the mind and bring the attentive listener back to a previous time. Pictures also can evoke pleasurable feelings and allow for extended contemplation on a particular person or subject. If all such aspects of the material creation can have beneficial effects, how can we not derive tremendous transcendental satisfaction from worshiping a deity? Why would the Lord deny us that benefit, especially knowing that we are already prone to worshiping man and the demigods? The claims made against the validity of deity worship don’t pass the smell test in any way. Matter is considered maya, or that which is not personally God, only for as long as it is not used to purify consciousness. God is the creator of matter, so why should He prohibit us from utilizing material elements to gain an understanding of the pastimes that continue uninterrupted in the spiritual world?

It is one thing for the uninformed outsider to rail against the deity worship tradition of the Vedas, but it is even more appalling, and humorous at the same time, to see deity worship attacked by those who cite the Vedas as the authority for their skewed viewpoint. The Vedas are originally a collection of songs that praise the Absolute Truth. Any book or poem that reaches the same conclusion as the original Vedas - that of Krishna being the only object worthy of worship and undivided affection - is considered Vedic literature. The Vedas are non-different from Krishna since they sing His names and describe His glories. As such, whatever Vedic texts say and whatever Krishna speaks personally are completely in accord with each other. To say that the Vedas prohibit deity worship is to say that the original law codes for mankind deny the validity of worshiping Krishna; a claim which, by definition, is a contradiction. The Vedas are Krishna, so they can never speak anything against any practice which aims to further one’s Krishna consciousness.

Lord KrishnaThe worst offenders are those who dare to claim that Krishna Himself prohibits deity worship through His teachings. This is an even more foolish viewpoint because it is well known that Shri Krishna appeared on earth during the Dvapara Yuga, a time period that saw a preponderance of temple worship. During that time there were many grand temples across the world which held regular worship of Lord Vishnu, who is Krishna’s four-handed expansion in charge of the majority of the aspects of creation. Krishna Himself worshiped deities, so what sane man will say that the Lord prohibits such behavior? These erroneous viewpoints come about through a narrow study of Vedic literature which focuses on versions of the Bhagavad-gita that are translated and commented on by someone who is not a devotee of the Lord. The Bhagavad-gita is one small chapter in an enormously large work known as the Mahabharata. Nevertheless, we can’t just pick up the Mahabharata and understand all the underlying purports and deep meanings behind the different accounts of historical incidents contained within. Such information has to be learned from someone who has dedicated their life to serving the Lord and understanding Him.

“The devotee should more fully establish My Deity by solidly constructing a temple, along with beautiful gardens. These gardens should be set aside to provide flowers for the regular daily worship, special Deity processions and holiday observances.” (Lord Krishna, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 11.27.50)

In addition to the instructions He provided on the battlefield of Kurukshetra to Arjuna, just prior to His return to the spiritual world Krishna imparted Vedic wisdom to His dear friend Uddhava. In this talk, which is found in the eleventh canto of the Shrimad Bhagavatam and which is also known as the Uddhava-gita, an entire section is dedicated to deity worship and how it should be performed. One who only reads the Bhagavad-gita without following the guidance of a bona fide spiritual master, an acharya belonging to an unbroken line of spiritual teachers descending from Krishna, will not understand the different verses properly, no matter how many times they are read. Indeed, even the information presented by Krishna in the Uddhava-gita about deity worship is very basic and only touches on the essentials. The practice of visiting temples and worshiping the deity was commonly known to all sincere followers of Vedic traditions in the Dvapara Yuga, so these concepts didn’t need to be expanded upon in great detail. In more recent times, the kind and merciful followers of Lord Chaitanya have very elaborately described what goes into deity worship and how to perform it properly. Shrila Sanatana Goswami especially took the time to explain these concepts by writing the handbook for devotional service known as the Hari-bhakti-vilasa, which includes countless references to Vedic scriptures to support the guidelines and recommendations for behavior contained within.

Lord Rama deity Deity worship has been around since the beginning of creation, even long before Krishna in His original form appeared on this earth. During the Treta Yuga when His incarnation of Lord Rama roamed the earth, there was a brahmana living in the kingdom of Ayodhya who had to see his beloved Rama every day before eating. A brahmana is a member of the priestly class, so he spends all his time involved in religious affairs. Since He was the king of Ayodhya, Rama especially took care of the brahmanas in the community. But since the Lord had administrative affairs to tend to, sometimes He had to go away on business, leaving the devoted brahmana bereft of the nectar of the Divine vision for certain extended periods of time. Rather than break his vow, the brahmana simply didn’t eat on days when he couldn’t see Rama. When the Lord later found out about this, He felt greatly distressed, as He was causing one of His devotees to suffer unnecessarily. Rama then told His younger brother Lakshmana to go to the brahmana’s home and install a set of Sita-Rama deities. Indeed, this set of deities had existed in the royal family, the Ikshvakus, since even before Rama’s appearance on earth. Thenceforth, the brahmana simply viewed that statue of his beloved Rama, which was paired with the Lord’s wife, Sita Devi, every day and took this vision to be as good as viewing the Lord personally.

This one incident illustrates the magic and potency of deity worship. The archa-vigraha, the worshipable representation of the Supreme Lord in the material world, is meant to evoke the spiritual consciousness within the mind, an arousal which then leads to a consciousness that can guide all activities properly. Therefore the worshipable form erected must be authorized and cannot be just any collection of wood and stone. The ordinary statue is an idol, but when the figure is authorized and fully empowered through its connection to the Supreme Lord, it turns into a deity.  The Supreme Lord is certainly everywhere, but understanding His personal presence is very difficult, especially for the material eyes that are prone to worshiping anything that is not Krishna. It also doesn’t help matters when bogus spiritual leaders try to use the Vedas as justification for their denial of devotional practices, which have deity worship as a cornerstone. Indeed, one must wonder what the motives are behind such a nefarious and dangerous viewpoint. Since deity worship is so effective and authorized, there can be no other reason for the willful neglect and erroneous teachings presented by the enemies of bhakti besides jealousy and hatred for the Supreme Lord.

Bhagavad-gita As It IsA non-devotee who studies the Vedas will never capture a complete understanding, as the first condition prevents the second. By following an authorized acharya, one who understands the Bhagavad-gita and presents it as it is, there will be little chance of becoming a victim to the jealous practices of the miscreants. The deity is the sight for the vision that has become sore through many lifetimes on earth. Bringing spiritual life to the otherwise dull and mundane material existence, the deity can help transport us back to the spiritual land, where the personal presence of Supreme Spirit can be felt and enjoyed at every single moment.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Pop Quiz

Hanuman “This glorious son of the wind named Hanuman is leaping over the ocean. Using a very ghastly Rakshasa form the size of a mountain, and showing a head with fearful tusks and red-brown eyes that reaches the sky, obstruct his path for a while.” (Celestials speaking to the serpent Surasa, Valmiki Ramayana, Sundara Kand, 1.146-147)

ayaṃ vātātmajaḥ śrīmānplavate sāgaropari |

hanumānnāma tasya tvaṃ muhūrtaṃ vighnamācara ||

rākśasaṃ rūpamāsthāya sughoraṃ parvatopamam |

daṃṣṭrakarāḻaṃ piṅgākśaṃ vaktraṃ kṛtvā nabhaḥsamam

The importance given to examinations in the education field has been an issue of contention in recent times. The controversy relates to the relevancy and effectiveness of requiring students to take tests periodically to prove what they have learned in a particular class or discipline. Regardless of the viewpoint of the educator, it is undoubtedly true that to complete the most difficult tasks in life, tests are required at some point, even if they are not administered in a formal setting with an explicit written or oral examination. Learning a new discipline involves taking in new concepts, understanding them, and knowing how and when to use them. This last point is the area of focus for the examination. For the most difficult task of altering one’s consciousness through devotion to the Supreme Lord, the exams requiring passage are many. Sometimes they come unexpectedly, similar to the pop-quiz in classrooms, but for those who have made a sincere effort at the discipline, those who have tried their best to carry out the orders of the Lord and provide Him pleasure, passing these examinations is quite easy. No matter the difficulty of the test, the transcendental lover will never miss a beat, and in the process astonish those onlookers who ever dared to doubt them.

examsAre tests really that beneficial? Let’s first cover the negative aspects. The most persuasive argument against the importance of giving regular examinations is that teachers will alter their instruction methods to simply enable the students to earn a passing grade on the test. This practice is viewed unfavorably because if a student is only interested in passing a single examination, they will have no interest in the content they are learning. A waned interest increases the likelihood of the imparted information being forgotten in a short period of time. In this way the class ends up being a waste of time after only a few short months. Education, especially for young children, is meant to serve as a foundation of knowledge to be used in later years, when the student has matured. For young students each class contains vital information that will ideally have some worldly value later on in life. If such lessons and overall instruction are simply memorized and subsequently discarded after completion of the course, the education will have no value.

Though there are strong arguments made against giving more stress to examinations, we see that the practice of instituting regular tests in classrooms has not diminished in the least bit. In fact, the more important the discipline, the greater the emphasis given to exams and their results. The arguments in favor of giving regular exams have won out time and time again. The reasons for the victories are fairly obvious. Even if a student regularly attends classes and does homework, how will the teacher be able to gauge their progress? Moreover, another person, one who is more knowledgeable, could be doing their homework for them, and the student could just be sitting in class every day and not paying attention. Only with the examination, a rigorous test of knowledge that must be completed solely by the student on a particular day and time, can the teacher tell whether or not the student has learned anything.

Surely the exam brings a lot of pressure to the student, but without an explicit requirement to prove what has been learned, there would be no impetus to study and really understand what is being taught. Let’s think of it this way: Say that we watch cooking channel programs and read several different recipe books on how to prepare dishes. We may even attend a few cooking classes, where the instructor acts out the lessons with demonstrations. While such instruction will surely be helpful, we won’t have any idea how to cook unless and until we actually get into the kitchen and apply the knowledge and techniques that we have taken in. In the Vedic tradition, the practices and regulations adopted from the ancient scriptures of India, theoretical knowledge is referred to as jnana and practical knowledge as vijnana. Jnana forms the foundation, but vijnana is more important because it gives meaning to the knowledge acquired.

The ultimate purpose of education is to alter behavior. While some may argue that simply the pursuit of knowledge itself is an exhilarating experience, if the subsequent education is not acted upon, the end-result is the same as if the person had never tried to learn anything. As an example, a dog eats, sleeps, mates and defends all day. It is not intelligent enough to talk or let itself out of the house to go to the bathroom on time. The human being, however, has a much higher potential for intelligence. Yet if, after attending school for twelve years, the human being still takes primarily to animal activities, their lifestyle is really no different than that of a dog. Without making the most of the human form of life, the knowledge acquired through education, or jnana, is of no value. The exam gives instructors a chance to see one’s vijnana. It is important to know that the student has acquired practical knowledge because their exhibition of mastery in skills will allow them to be successful in whatever venture they have planned for the future.

Sita DeviOne historical figure in particular had arguably the most difficult task ahead of him. A beautiful princess had been taken away against her will to a remote island. Her captor, a ghoulish figure named Ravana, had taken shelter on the island of Lanka particularly due to its strategic location. Far away from any mainland, Lanka was the perfect place to establish an elaborate kingdom full of every opulence one could imagine.

Though Ravana had all comforts and enjoyments at his disposal, due to his insatiable lust, he made the grievous error of taking another man’s wife, a transgression which would prove to be fatal. The husband wronged was no ordinary man either, for He was the prince of Ayodhya, the latest in the line of chivalrous and pious kings belonging to the Ikshvaku dynasty. His divine nature separated this prince from the pack of ordinary men roaming the earth at the time. The jewel of the Raghu dynasty appearing on earth during the Treta Yuga, though assuming the guise of a powerful male warrior, was an incarnation of the Supreme Lord.

A claim that someone is an incarnation of God will be met with some skepticism. “Great. Yet another powerful person that people later turned into God. Why does that not surprise me? How do we know that this person was God anyway?” Considering the fact that many gurus and pseudo-yogis have claimed to be incarnations of God over the past several hundred years, these sentiments are quite understandable. The Vedas accounted for this abuse by enumerating the primary incarnations of the Supreme Lord, who is most often addressed by the names of Vishnu and Krishna. This is not to say that Vishnu is the deity of the Hindus and Jesus the worshipable figure of the Christians. There can only be one God. Whether one wants to take the statements presented by their particular faith as axiomatic truths or not is a different issue, but regardless of a person’s belief system, country of origin, or ethnicity, there is still only one God. Just as the law of gravity applies equally to all objects irrespective of a person’s affirmation of the fact, the laws of spiritual science similarly apply to all forms of life. God is everyone’s father, so He is a natural object of worship for the love-starved individuals.

“Whenever and wherever there is a decline in religious practice, O descendant of Bharata, and a predominant rise of irreligion—at that time I descend Myself.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 4.7)

Lord Rama Why would God ever come to earth? What separates the Vedas from any other spiritual discipline is that they provide more concrete information about the Supreme Lord’s features, personality, nature and appearance. They also give us more information in regards to the origin of life and the purpose behind it. In summary, the aim of human life is to understand three things: that God is the original proprietor of everything, that He is the ultimate enjoyer and that He is the best friend of the living entities. Each of these three items must be understood in both theory and practice, as the truths are complementary.

Based on the outward behavior of the population on earth today, we see that there is virtually no knowledge of these three most important facts. It is for this reason that the Vedas declare the cognizance of these three truths to be the ultimate objective in life, the mission with the highest priority. It is not assumed that an individual will realize all these aspects in one lifetime. Therefore other, more granular systems of religiosity and societal maintenance are put into place, allowing for a gradual progression towards the highest platform of understanding. Similar to how a student must ascend the different grades in elementary school to reach graduation, a spirit soul trapped in a material body can progress through various systems of spiritual and material knowledge before they can actually get a handle on things. This isn’t to say that one can’t immediately ascend to the highest platform, for all that is required is knowledge of the three distinct features of the Lord and His relation to the individual souls. One who understands essential teachings of the Vedas wholeheartedly and subsequently bases their activities in life off of such information will bypass the need to adhere to all the rules and regulations associated with inferior forms of religiosity.

How do we know that knowledge of God’s features is absent in society? Iterating through the three necessary pieces of information, we see that the first issue relates to property. In the conditioned state the individual falsely identifies with their outward dress, a body which is constantly changing. This error then results in the flawed mindsets of “I” and “Mine”. Since Krishna is the original owner of everything, all property in the phenomenal world belongs to Him. Our so-called possessions are simply on loan from the Lord for the purpose of maintaining life.

The second essential truth of the Vedas relates to enjoyment. It must be said that many people do acknowledge God’s existence, but the method of worship followed bears striking similarities to ordinary business transactions. In this respect simply changing our method of tribute, or payment, doesn’t alter the way we view a particular entity. As an example, we show deference to the cable company by paying our bill every month, and we offer tribute to the grocer by giving him cash. Both of these offerings are made in exchange for a good or service from the provider. The transactions are based off the mindset that views the individual as being the ultimate enjoyer.

In spiritual life if we pray to God to meet our various demands, we are essentially putting Him on an equal footing with other service providers. The method of tribute may be different, i.e. we pray to God instead of sending Him a check, but the guiding mentality is the same. God certainly is the greatest order supplier, for He has created everything in this world. But the uniqueness of His powers lies not only in His ability to provide, but also in His ability to enjoy. When the Supreme Lord is taken as the original proprietor and ultimate enjoyer, He is seen in a more proper light.

Radha and KrishnaThe third aspect to the Lord’s features ties the first two pieces together. Knowing that God is the original owner of everything and the only object of enjoyment is great, but what does that mean for us? By understanding that the Lord is the best friend of the living entities, we can see that the two previous pieces of information need to be utilized for a purpose. Just as we like to please our friends by spending time with them and offering some type of service, our time on earth should be used to please the Supreme Lord.  This engagement continues beyond the current life. Taking property that originally belongs to Krishna and using it for His pleasure is the only way to behave properly in any world. Since Krishna is our best friend, His enjoyment will result in our happiness. For God to be the ultimate enjoyer, He must have others with whom to engage in sportive activities. This is where we fit in. All the individual souls, which are part and parcel of the Supreme Reservoir of Energy, are meant to always be in Krishna’s association. Those who are guided by the proper mindset are known as bhaktas, or devotees. By remaining a pure bhakta all the way up until the time of death, we can immediately be transferred back to the spiritual realm.

Those who are able to even hear of the three aspects of the Lord are very fortunate. But finding someone who understands transcendental information and how to make use of it is even rarer. For those who do make a sincere effort at this engagement, the Lord takes a personal interest. Krishna is typically neutrally disposed towards those who view themselves as the original owners of everything and take personal enjoyment to be the ultimate objective in life. One person’s walking away from God cannot be of any greater or lesser value than another’s. As there is never any benefit from association with matter, Krishna’s separated energy, there cannot be any favoritism shown by the Supreme Lord, who passively oversees affairs from the spiritual sky. But when sincerity in serving Krishna is exhibited, the Lord breaks His neutrality and outwardly shows His favoritism, the greatest form of which causes His appearances on earth.

Lord RamaLord Rama, the pious and handsome prince of Ayodhya, roamed the earth to give pleasure to the exalted sages living in the forest and also other wonderful entities residing all over the world. The princess taken by Ravana in the forest was Rama’s wife Sita Devi. Shri Rama, who is wholly capable of defeating any enemy, immediately set about searching for her, as Ravana had taken Sita when Rama and His younger brother Lakshmana were not by her side. When Vishnu incarnates, He doesn’t perform every difficult task Himself. Just as we enjoy an arduous job more if our friends are helping us, the Supreme Lord takes great delight in enlisting the help of the eager and sincere souls who are looking to please God. During Rama’s time the most enthusiastic and dedicated servant was Shri Hanuman, the Vanara warrior and chief minister to the king of monkeys, Sugriva.

Hanuman’s assigned task was quite difficult. Out of all of Sugriva’s army members, only Hanuman was capable of crossing the vast ocean to reach Lanka. Hanuman is a divine figure, so he possesses tremendous prowess. As the son of the wind-god, Hanuman can fly through the air at great speeds after leaping off the ground. In preparing for his trip across the ocean to reach Lanka, Hanuman expanded himself to a wonderful size. With a mountain peak serving as his launching pad, Hanuman thrust himself into the air with great force, resulting in a rapid speed that allowed him to swiftly course through the sky towards Lanka. The celestial figures, the elevated living entities who reside in the material heavenly realm, saw Hanuman’s flight and were quite impressed. At the same time they wanted to test him to enhance his glory for future generations of sincere listeners attached to the pastimes of Rama and His associates. While coursing through the air Hanuman looked powerful and determined, but just how capable was he?

Hanuman flyingIn the above referenced quote the celestials are asking a serpent named Surasa to put obstacles in Hanuman’s way. This is surely a puzzling request, as Sugriva’s minister was engaged in the most noble of tasks. Not only was he trying to find the whereabouts of an innocent princess, but he was also directly carrying out the order of the Lord. When one takes to bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, other sincere devotees will certainly help. The sun and the wind had already aided Hanuman on his journey, for they wanted him to succeed in pleasing Rama. Yet the celestials in the sky, those who are not quite at the level of pure God consciousness, often throw stumbling blocks in the path of devotees. More than just working off of base jealousy, the heavenly managers want to test how determined and devoted the particular individual is to meeting the Supreme Lord’s interests.

Prior to his launch Hanuman claimed to be very determined and powerful to the other monkeys in his party, assuring them that he would not return without either finding Sita or capturing Ravana. Since he is the most honest person in the world, such statements were indeed true. Yet others, those who are not sure about Hanuman or those who are skeptical about the benefits of devotional service, may have not believed him. Therefore Shri Hanuman was given tests, opportunities to display his vijnana. His meeting with Surasa would prove to be one of many examinations that Hanuman would pass with flying colors.

The single most enthusiastically recommended practice for aspiring transcendentalists of this age is the regular chanting of, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, and abstention from the four pillars of sinful life: meat eating, gambling, illicit sex and intoxication. Bhakti-yoga brings about many benefits, but it is still mainly about altering consciousness, which happens to be the most difficult task in life. In this pursuit obstacles and examinations will be presented at regular intervals. It is not that Krishna is testing our level of devotion, but rather, we are being given opportunities to take stock of our progress by putting our theoretical knowledge to good use. By passing these examinations, our consciousness of the Supreme Lord and our firm faith in His causeless mercy will only increase.