Saturday, April 2, 2011

Building Blocks

Krishna worship “The Vedic injunctions are there just to give the conditioned souls the chance for sense gratification under regulative principles, and thereby also give them the chance for promotion to the higher conditions of life; ultimately, if the consciousness is purified, one comes to his original position and goes back home, back to Godhead.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Krishna, The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vol 2, Ch 32)

The subtle elements of mind, intelligence and ego and the five gross material elements are often viewed in a negative light, as forces inhibiting ultimate enlightenment, by the elevated transcendentalist, one who has a firm grasp of the concepts describing the basic differences between matter and spirit. Spirit is truth, and matter is that which is not Brahman, or the all-pervading aspect of the same truth. Regardless of the viewpoint, it is a fact that we have been given these elements to associate with since time immemorial. No one can accurately pinpoint the exact moment when the sparks emanating from the truth fell from the graces of the purified realm, where the material elements do not exist. But instead of just hating the body that we are forced reside in, the wise course of action is to use whatever has been given to us by higher authorities for the pleasure of that one entity who is worth pleasing in any realm. Whether in heaven, hell, or on earth, seeking the satisfaction of the original Divine Being is always the way to go, so whatever tools we have been kindly bestowed can be used to further that purpose.

Goswami TulsidasIn the Ramacharitamanasa, the most wonderful and bliss-evoking Hindi poem describing the qualities, names, pastimes and forms of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, there is a very nice section included which lists the qualities of the topmost transcendentalist, one who has gone beyond the dualities of material existence. Based on the different possible bodily compositions one can assume at the time of birth, varieties in growth and decay cycles are encountered. Moreover, the results of the actions performed within these different bodies also lead to temporary favorable and unfavorable conditions. Life on earth is considered a tempered one, where the delights aren’t overly abundant and neither are the distresses. The heavenly realm is one where a body composed of maya, or that which is not Brahman, is also assumed, but the duration of the enjoyment resulting from material action is great. Conversely, the hellish realm is the place where the unfavorable circumstances last for a longer period of time than they do on earth.

In the Ramacharitamanasa, Maharishi Valmiki, likely the first poet of this world and a great devotee of Lord Rama, accurately notes that devotees of the Lord perform all sorts of wonderful activities, like worshiping the deity, respecting authority figures such as the spiritual master, and chanting the Lord’s name. Even though they engage in all of these regulative activities of spiritual love with a spontaneous flair of loving emotion, they only ask for one boon, that of always being able to worship the lotus feet of the Supreme Person, their beloved beneficiary of service. Indeed, even if the devotees are sent to heaven or hell, they always see God’s form holding His bow and arrow, armed and ready to protect them from any danger. The greatest safeguard to protect against calamity is Rama’s transcendental body and the activities It performs. Since distress can be controlled by the mind, only by focusing our thoughts on God can the individuals be given the solace they so desperately seek.

Lord RamaWhen this devotion to God is absent, the mind can lead to some not so pleasant effects. Not just the mind, but all the material elements in fact are sources of misery for those who don’t know how to utilize them properly. The original association with material elements occurred through choice, a decision we wholeheartedly agreed to. Though we asked for the temporary coverings that currently surround the soul, it is rare to find one who knows how to use such elements. Ignorance of the proper course of activity thus serves as the original and most potent source of distress in life.

To pass their time, young children are often given building blocks and other toys with which to play. The child only wants to have fun all day, so in one sense providing toys is a good way to relieve stress for the parents and caretakers. If the child is happy simply by playing with a few blocks, then at least the parents can relax or take care of other daily necessities. In childish play, there are ups and downs, highs and lows. Especially with toy blocks there is variety in outcomes. Some children take to building small towers and elaborately conceived mock buildings. Others may take to throwing the individual pieces at other children. Irrespective of what does or does not get built, playtime will eventually end, and the blocks will return to their original form, that of a set of individual pieces.

Balarama and Krishna as childrenIf the child should erect a very tall mock tower, the parents may applaud the child’s effort, but no one will mistakenly think that the building itself has any value. After all, the replica structure is just made up of toy blocks. With just the slight breeze of the wind or the misplacement of a single block, the entire dwelling can come crashing down. The child also hasn’t advanced that much in understanding through their building activity, as they will have to learn a great deal more later on in life to become a self-sufficient adult. More than anything else, the childish play allows the children to engage their time constructively. It also gives the parents a chance to delight in the sincere and innocent efforts put forth by their children.

The various gains and achievements made by the living entities in the material world are similarly as fragile as the building-block structures erected by children. We may be very proud of having constructed a skyscraper building or a giant palace, but the true credit goes to the creator of the elements and the laws of nature that allow for the construction and maintenance of the end structure. The child has fun with building blocks, but these toys are given to them by the parents. Similarly, the elements of this world were given to us by God, so He should most certainly get credit for whatever seemingly amazing gains we are able to achieve. At this point the skeptic might scoff. “How can we thank God? We don’t even know what He looks like? Every person has their own “God” and claims that theirs is the only one. In this sense it is probably better to just ignore such an acknowledgment.”

Despite the doubts and lack of concrete knowledge pertaining to spirituality within the individual, the worthiness of worship of the Supreme Divine Entity doesn’t change. In the playpen, one child may say that he has created the blocks, another may say that his parents provided the toys, while another may say that the blocks don’t exist at all, but the true fact of the matter is that all blocks are composed of material elements, matter which existed long before our present birth. Though the blocks were given to the children because of their desire to play, those who are able to make use of their time in a constructive way will be benefitted in the future. In a similar manner, those who abide by the eternal law codes of the Vedas, which are known as sanatana-dharma, will be able to make the best use of the material elements with which they are forced to associate.

“Dharma refers to that which is constantly existing with the particular object. We conclude that there is heat and light along with the fire; without heat and light, there is no meaning to the word fire. Similarly, we must discover the essential part of the living being, that part which is his constant companion. That constant companion is his eternal quality, and that eternal quality is his eternal religion.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Bhagavad-gita As It is, Introduction)

Shrila PrabhupadaIs the dharma espoused by the Vedas any different than other religious systems? The goal of all religion, or at least what should be the aim, is to love God. In the absence of such a goal, any system, spiritual or otherwise, can be considered substandard. In order for love to manifest, there must be specific actions, behavior which is indicative of a purified consciousness. Simple pledges of allegiance and performances of perfunctory rights and rituals are not enough. While abiding by law codes of spirituality may help elevate one to the platform of loving God, the actual success is only achieved through a full shift in the predominant thought process, one where the consciousness remains always fixed on the interests of the sweet and magnanimous Lord.

For children, the building blocks they are given can be used to learn how to work cooperatively with their fellow man, build small structures using logic and reasoning, and take to a venture and see it to its completion. While these avenues present various benefits, the best use of the blocks is to make something that will please the parents. Since they are the immediate suppliers of enjoyment for children, the parents are naturally worthy recipients of all hard work and endeavor. On a larger scale, God created all of the elements that we currently enjoy without His association. So we can make temporary gains in terms of behavior, knowledge and perseverance through association with maya, but if we take directly to loving the Supreme Lord, an engagement which represents our true dharma, our efforts will be superior in their results. The elements of nature were given to us by choice, and if we kindly invoke our free-will and independence for the benefit of the Supreme Master, a pleasurable condition can always be found.

Lord Krishna eatingThe mouth is one part of the body given to us by God. In the absence of spiritual consciousness in the mood of love, or bhakti, the mouth is used to eat food for personal enjoyment, sing songs describing worldly affairs, praise friends, and yell and curse at enemies. When under the umbrella of purified activity, the mouth is used to eat Krishna prasadam, or food sanctified by first being offered to the spiritual master, or guru, who in turn offers it to Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Rather than follow the impulse opinion that Krishna is a sectarian figure, it would help us to understand that the Supreme Lord must be the most attractive person in all the universes. Hence the Sanskrit word “Krishna”, which means all-attractive, would accurately apply to Him. Indeed, if you are the Supreme Entity, your powers must be superior in all areas of endeavor and interaction. As such, the name Rama, which means one who gives transcendental pleasure, also accurately applies to God, as He is the most capable of providing bliss to His associates. When authorized food, items in the mode of goodness, are offered to the Reservoir of All Pleasure, He will surely eat it and then return the remnants for us to partake of and distribute.

One who follows the path of bhakti also uses their mouth to expound on the glories of the Lord as they are described in the sacred texts like the Shrimad Bhagavatam, Bhagavad-gita and Ramayana. Krishna’s pastimes performed on this earth are wholly sublime, for they involve all aspects of life with which we are already familiar. Krishna played pranks in His childhood, enjoyed time with His friends, gave pleasure to His parents, always supported and took care of His friends, interacted with the most chaste, beautiful and dedicated of women, and always provided protection from the demoniac elements of the world. Since we already perform some or all of these activities on a very minute scale, we can automatically relate to many of the pastimes that Krishna performed. Hearing about these activities, especially those that took place during the Lord’s youth in Vrindavana, bring sweet nectar to the ear and to the mind.

Mirabai chanting Krishna's nameThe material elements that constitute the mouth of the human being really reach their true potential for securing benefits when they are used to chant the holy names of the Lord, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. Chanting this mantra is unlike any other religious practice. Perfunctory rules and regulations of spiritual life have auspicious times for performance and specific moments of maturation, wherein the desired objective is attained and the need for the performance ceases. Chanting, which is the most effective process of bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, is unique in that it is both a means and an end. It is the means for salvation for those who are eternally conditioned by the elements so kindly bestowed by the Supreme Lord. And yet chanting is also the end, as the liberated soul always recites the names of God wherever they go. Though they are no longer affected by the inhibiting nature of the material world, the pure devotees nevertheless continue to recite the holy name and glorify the person it addresses.

Goswami Tulsidas, in trying to accurately convey the intensity of his attachment for chanting the name of Rama, declares that the mouth of one who has no taste for performing Rama japa, or transcendental recitation of the holy name, is no different than a serpent hole. If we see a hole in the ground that is large enough for a snake to crawl into, we don’t necessarily feel good. In fact, this vision can be the cause of great fear, as a snake isn’t too pleasant an entity to be around. It is cold-blooded and married to a sinister lifestyle built on causing pain to others. Indeed, nefarious characters in life are often compared to snakes because of their slimy behavior. The Vedas also tell us that those who are overly sinful get cast into the hellish realm where there are many serpents just waiting to inflict punishment. For the living entity traversing the evolutionary process of reincarnation in the material world, the snake species represents one of the lower life forms that one must suffer through.

Hanuman chantingBy making the comparison to the serpent hole, Tulsidas accurately points out that the mouth is meant for chanting the names of Hari, which is another name for God that describes His ability to remove all fears and distresses from His devotees. The mouth is very powerful, as it can be the agent for liberation. Of all the blocks we are given to use in our building, the mouth and the tongue inside of it are the most important. Any person, at any age and at any time can take to chanting. The name of God immediately evokes remembrances of His forms, qualities and pastimes; hence it is the most potent of the divine incarnations. Under the mindset where the individual is seen as the ultimate enjoyer, the mouth can become the home of the snake-like influences of material nature. But under the proper consciousness of bhakti, wherein the mouth only speaks about and glorifies Krishna, all the material elements are both understood and utilized properly, allowing us to build the path back to the spiritual world.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Pondering Victory

Shri Hanuman “Seeing that city to be as such and difficult to overcome for even demigods and demons, Hanuman, sighing again and again, reflected.” (Valmiki Ramayana, Sundara Kand, 2.36)

tāṃ purīṃ tādṛśīṃ dṛṣṭvā durādharśāṃ surāsuraiḥ |

hanumān cintayāmāsa viniścitya muhurmuhuḥ

The sigh is the obvious sign of frustration, an indication that a particular situation has turned unfavorable or that a wished-for objective has not been met to the satisfaction of the person so desperately wanting their needs and hopes fulfilled. In terms of consciousness and the general advancement of thought processes, sighing is considered a recourse for the weak, those who are not evolved in their intelligence and understanding. In religious circles, especially amongst those who aim to practice the ancient art of yoga as espoused in the Vedas, the scriptural tradition of India, controlling desires and their effect on the psyche is very important. In fact, gaining a firm grasp on the workings of the mind that interact with sense objects forms the cornerstone of the difficult and potent practice of meditation and deep reflection on the Self. Yet from studying the activities of one of the most famous yogis in history, we see that the practice of linking with the Supreme Consciousness isn’t simply about squashing desires or trying to have every hankering met. Yoga isn’t even about avoiding frustration. Instead, it is exclusively meant for achieving the ultimate objective of life through a set of practices which simultaneously remove any and all obstacles towards the attainment of that supreme destination.

“From whatever and wherever the mind wanders due to its flickering and unsteady nature, one must certainly withdraw it and bring it back under the control of the Self.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 6.26)

Lord KrishnaIn the Bhagavad-gita, the famous “Song of God” sung by Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, topics covering the mind, the soul, reincarnation and the nature of desire are discussed. Though the ultimate conclusion of the Gita is that one should surrender completely unto the Supreme Lord in thought, word and deed, the aspects of Krishna’s teachings preceding His final proclamation certainly are interesting to study, for they serve as integral blocks that go into building and maintaining the final structure that is the pathway to spiritual freedom. As an example, Krishna gives attention to the issue of the mind and the desires that arise within it. For one who is trying to ascend the ladder of transcendental consciousness, controlling the mind is of utmost importance. The initial instruction given to students of the Vedic tradition is aham brahmasmi, which means “I am Brahman.” In the ignorant state the living entity identifies solely with the gross material body, the specific, temporary covering of individual spirit that allows for outward action and movement. We can say “my hand”, “my leg”, “my arm”, etc. and not be incorrect, but once we say “my soul”, our statement loses its validity. The word “my” already implies the soul, for the spirit within the heart is the basis for identity. This spiritual spark never changes in property, nor does it ever diminish or increase in abilities and potencies. The soul remains alive forever. It has never taken birth, nor will it ever die.

“Know that which pervades the entire body is indestructible. No one is able to destroy the imperishable soul.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 2.17)

As is the case with any aspect of transcendental life, understanding and recognizing the presence of the soul is not an easy thing, for the workings of the sense acquiring objects that cover up the individual spiritual spark result in a tendency for the individual to be illusioned by the perceptible changes continually applied to the external world. For example, there is great sadness at the time of death for both the person passing on and the relatives and well-wishers. But if we travel back not too far into the past, we’ll see that the same entities weren’t related in any way. The attachments were only formed through the assumption of a material body and the further development that resulted. In this way the links formed by the mind were simply a product of the workings of nature. In a simpler example, let’s say that we’re going about our day without any issues until we find one hundred dollars in the pocket of our coat. Obviously this will be a cause for celebration, as who wouldn’t be pleased to have found money that wasn’t known to exist? But if later in the day we end up misplacing that one hundred dollar bill, there will be sadness. The intelligent person realizes that there was no reason for the initial happiness or the sadness in the aftermath because the money really had no effect on the individual. Whether or not we have possessions shouldn’t alter our psyche, for the physical makeup of our identity-bearing element, the soul, does not change with the acceptance or renunciation of matter.

At this point, several cogent questions may arise from the inquisitive listener. “What is wrong with being sad over death and being happy over good times? What is the harm in being driven by the consciousness derived from association with the gross body?” The answer is that as long as one remains convinced that their identity relates to their present body type, i.e. the mindsets of “I am a human being, man, woman, animal, etc.”, the soul remains covered up. The soul is by quality happy, peaceful and fully knowledgeable. Though the spiritual spark never took birth, it has a source from which it derives its properties. Not surprisingly, that fountainhead of spiritual energy is God, who is also known through His expansion as the Supersoul, which resides within the heart adjacent to the individual soul. Only through yoga practice, which brings about the linking of the two souls within a specific life form, can the ignorance developed through association with matter be removed.

In this regard the aspiring yogi, one who desires to practice yoga in earnest, is advised to curb the influences of the mind, for this subtle element of material existence is directly responsible for forming attachment to non-sentient objects. All feelings of happiness and sadness result from the workings of the mind. For instance, success in a venture may lead to a positive outlook, but this predicament is only due to the thought processes of the individual. There is actually no difference between a person who is happy because they have pretended to be successful and an elated person who has actually succeeded in their venture. Surely the outward outcomes in tasks may differ, but the resulting mindsets are essentially the same. Therefore we see that the mind is a very powerful force that can be maneuvered to directly influence our consciousness. The predominant mindset, or consciousness, measured at the time of death can liberate an entity from the perpetual cycle of birth and death, putting an end to the repeated acceptances and rejections of material bodies.

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

Lord KrishnaSo how do we program the mind to avoid associating with nescience? The key is to control our desires. At every second, even during sleep, the mind is either hankering or lamenting. There is no way to stop the thought processes for even a moment, for the mind functions involuntarily. Therefore simply curbing desire is not enough. We may try to sit in silence and suppress our lusty feelings, but if the seeds of desire still remain within the mind, the renunciation is not real. To realize how to achieve success, we must understand why uncontrolled hankerings are deemed detrimental towards the advancement of consciousness. Though according to the transcendentalists’ viewpoint desires are generally considered bad, this rule does not apply universally. The end-goal of all yoga practice is to become aware of the presence of the soul and its relationship to God. Therefore any activity that can advance us further along in the process can be considered good, and anything which hampers our march towards forming an unbreakable attachment to the Supreme Lord can be considered bad. In every scope of activity, prior to judging the actions undertaken and the desires that cause them, the end-goal and the effect the proposed course of action has on it must be considered.

To see how this principle works, let’s take the example of a baseball player. In the game of baseball, the batter’s job is to get on base, which can be accomplished through either getting a hit, taking a walk, getting hit by a pitch, or having a fielder commit an error. The pitcher, the man throwing the ball to the batter, is tasked with getting the batter out. The batter stands in front of a plate, with a catcher seated behind him catching the balls thrown by the pitcher. There is a strike zone, an area in space demarked by the umpire that represents the target area for the pitcher. If a pitch is thrown in this zone, the batter is supposed to swing at the ball. Any pitch thrown in this zone is counted as a strike. If a batter fails to swing at such a pitch, or if he fails to put the ball in play after swinging at any pitch, he is charged with a strike. After three strikes, with the third strike not resulting from a foul ball, the batter is out. Any pitch that is not thrown in the strike zone and that is not swung at by the batter is deemed a ball. After accumulating four balls, a batter takes first base.

BaseballBased on this rudimentary explanation, we see that strikes are advantageous to the pitcher and balls are advantageous to the hitter. From the batter’s perspective, accumulating strikes can be compared to desires, those things that should be avoided in order to achieve success in the mission. So what happens if a batter takes a strike? What if he swings and misses at a pitch out of the strike zone? What if he swings at a pitch and hits it into foul territory? Obviously he will be charged with a strike, but is this necessarily a bad thing? What if he gets two strikes on him? The strikes are actually only detrimental if the final outcome is not reached. If the batter eventually strikes out, then the preceding strikes were most harmful. But if he ends up hitting a home run after accumulating one or two strikes, then the previous pitches, the unwanted desires, end up not negatively affecting the desired outcome. In fact, sometimes it is beneficial to take a few strikes, for seeing a few pitches allows the batter to better understand the throwing style of the pitcher. Once accustomed to the trajectory of the ball and its speed, a batter can better understand how to hit it and thus reach base safely, which is the intended target all along.

Similarly, desire, frustration and defeat are only harmful to the psyche of the yogi if they lead to an overall negative condition in the future. If even temporary pains ultimately lead to a positive outcome, there’s no reason for repression and forced renunciation. Sighing, though an outward indication of frustration, sometimes does help in achieving a favorable condition. This was the case with Shri Hanuman, the faithful servant of Lord Rama. Many thousands of years ago, the Supersoul, the all-pervading spiritual entity which resides inside of every single living being, made an outward appearance on earth in the form of a handsome and pious prince named Rama.

Sita RamaThere are different types of yoga, but bhakti is considered the pinnacle because it is the last stage in the linking of consciousness. Bhakti is the only yoga practice that doesn’t have an end-goal; it continues for all of eternity. In this sense one who practices devotion from the start doesn’t have to worry about forcefully repressing desire or controlling the mind. Rather, such beneficial behavior is automatically adopted through the sublime engagement of meeting the transcendental desires and wishes of the Supreme Lord. How exactly does this wonderful behavior that is so difficult to practice for even the greatest mystics manifest in the devotee? To give pleasure to His adherents and to give countless future generations of mankind an example to follow in respect to religious practice, the Supreme Lord Rama put Himself into troublesome situations. God can certainly never be defeated or frustrated in any attempt, but if He were to wield His formidable strength all the time while on earth, there would be nothing gained from His activities. In addition to taking on evil elements in the world, Shri Rama allowed others to kindly serve Him, for that is the main business of mankind. Of all the servants eager to please Rama, none is more celebrated today than Hanuman, the Vanara warrior and well-wishing friend of every creature in the universe.

Hanuman’s mission was straightforward: find Rama’s wife Sita Devi and return the information of her whereabouts to Rama and Sugriva, the king of the Vanaras residing in Kishkindha. Though the objectives were straightforward, the exact plan of action was not. No one knew where Sita was, and once it was finally learned where she had been taken, the task became even more difficult. Sita Devi, an innocent and beautiful princess, was brought against her will to the island of Lanka, the home of the Rakshasa king Ravana. This grand city was situated far away from any mainland, so reaching its land would not be easy. Ravana, as a powerful Rakshasa, had flown there with Sita on his aerial car. Hanuman, who was a member of a search party consisting of powerful monkeys, didn’t have such amenities available to him. Not to fear though, as he made use of his mystic powers, or yogic siddhis, to get the job done.

HanumanIt is said that once one ascends to the highest platform of bhakti-yoga, they acquire all the strength and power of the demigods. Just as there are different gradations of human beings in terms of exhibition of strength, intelligence and skill, there are many varieties of living beings, with 8,400,000 topping off the count. The demigods, the celestials in the sky, are also dehinam, or embodied in material forms, but their strengths are far greater than those found in human beings. The celestials live for a very long time, and they are charged with maintaining the functions of gross elements such as earth, water, fire and air. Since Hanuman was always thinking of Rama’s interests and nothing else, he possessed every mystic power and opulence imaginable. Therefore, when he needed to go to Lanka, he simply increased his size and leapt across the ocean.

Crossing the ocean with a single leap was certainly a great feat in and of itself, but the distance of the vast ocean was only one hurdle out of many daunting obstacles awaiting Hanuman. Upon reaching Lanka, Hanuman saw that the city was heavily fortified and opulently adorned. In the above referenced passage from the Ramayana, Hanuman is contemplating how to enter Lanka without being noticed by the enemy. We see that the brave Vanara carefully thought the matter over and over again in his mind as a way to give vent to his frustration.

“When the yogi, by practice of yoga, disciplines his mental activities and becomes situated in Transcendence -devoid of all material desires - he is said to have attained yoga.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 6.18)

Hanuman As a bhakta, Hanuman had no concern for controlling his mind, quelling desire or adhering to the principles of yoga practice. His only interest was to love Rama, and in order to show love for someone else, we try to make them happy. Nothing would make Rama happier than finding Sita. Therefore Hanuman took Rama’s happiness as his life’s mission. Hanuman’s outward display of concern would actually prove to be beneficial, as it showed the divine servant’s attention to detail and the careful consideration he gave to every matter concerning Rama’s welfare. Hanuman never acted hastily, for he knew the sensitivity of the mission at hand.

Not surprisingly, Hanuman would figure out just the right way to enter Lanka and find Sita. Successfully returning back to Rama and the monkey army, Hanuman would go on to play a pivotal role in the eventual defeat of Ravana and the ultimate rescue of the princess of Videha. To this day the name of Hanuman is synonymous with love, devotion, dedication, strength, intelligence and perseverance in practicing the ancient art of mysticism that brings attainment of the ultimate objective of life, that of becoming God conscious. Since his devotional service was never interrupted, Hanuman’s temporary signs of frustration had no effect on his overall outlook. The key to success is to change the nature of our desires rather than getting rid of them completely. Instead of squashing the incessant wants brought on by the mind, we should act on those desires that, when fulfilled, lead to the most positive condition of a pure, unbreakable connection with the Supreme Spirit. When we work in the interests of Rama, even a few tears of frustration and sighs of despondency can prove beneficial in the long run, for they teach us how to be tolerant and perseverant in our labors of transcendental love. Such properties are only prevalent in the ancient art of bhakti, the height of religious practice and the destined engagement for every spirit soul.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Necessity for Meditation

Worshiping Krishna “Since Krishna is the cause of all causes, He is worshiped by all kinds of sages and saints by observance of the regulative principles. When there is a necessity for meditation, great personalities meditate on the transcendental form of Krishna within the heart. In this way the minds of great personalities are always engaged in Krishna.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Krishna, The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vol 2, Ch 32)

A devotee will do whatever is necessary to maintain their connection with the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Krishna. The bond to the master of the transcendental world is the source of all pleasure, so any deviation from the purified thought processes or any temporary disconnection in the most important link will lead to trouble. If the electricity should go out in our home for a few hours, the resultant situation borders on an emergency, where great panic and havoc ensue. In a similar manner, for the bhakta, if there is any loss of signal as it relates to the spiritually stimulating sound vibrations and thoughts and mental images pertaining to the Supreme Lord, His countless non-different forms, or His eternal associates, the forces of illusion known as maya take hold and lead the otherwise focused mind astray into a situation of constant tumult, despair and panic. To this end, a true yogi, one who understands that the unmanifest aspect of the Supreme Lord and the localized form residing within the heart are both non-different from the original Personality of Godhead, will always take whatever steps are necessary, including meditation, to keep their consciousness purified.

Lord KrishnaThe present yuga-dharma is the chanting of the holy names of the Lord. In the Vedic tradition there are thousands of mantras, but the one considered the most effective at purifying consciousness in the present age is the maha-mantra, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. There are certainly other mantras, but this specific sequence of words best encapsulates the most powerful names of the Divine which speak to His all-attractive nature and His ability to provide supreme transcendental pleasure. Some will argue that both Krishna and Rama refer to the Personality of Godhead in His form as Krishna, while others will say that these two words address the two most notable incarnations of the Supreme Lord Vishnu. In either viewpoint the conclusion can be considered valid because the name of the Lord is absolute. If one person chooses to worship God in His Vishnu form in lieu of the Rama and Krishna forms there is no loss in benefit. The key is to remain connected to the holy name in a bond of love and affection, as that is the method recommended in the authorized Vedic texts like the Shrimad Bhagavatam and Mahabharata.

When chanting is not an option, i.e. when there is no opportunity to explicitly recite the sacred mantras on beads or together with friends, then other methods that fall under the umbrella of the sublime engagement of devotional service can take precedent. One of the more popular quasi-spiritual activities of the modern age is meditation. When not on the highest platform of consciousness the individual will suffer chronic distress, wherein seeds of desire result in frustration when defeat and loss occur. When the tumultuous situations lead to repeated pains that become more and more acute, the frustrated individual may take shelter of the meditation process to remove stress. “I just want to be more at peace. I think meditation will help me, but I don’t know how to practice it.” As described in the Vedas, which serve as the origin for all bona fide methods of religion, meditation can be of two varieties, smaranam and dhyana. Smaranam is basic remembrance while dhyana is a key aspect of mystic yoga that involves stern concentration. In reality there is no difference between the two practices when they are focused on the proper entity.

If we meditate on nothingness, there is no bliss derived, and neither is there an exchange of emotion, as an object can only be classified as such if it has names, forms, attributes and qualities. Meditating on a void can possibly keep us from performing sinful activities, or those actions which lead to further distress, but aside from the basic retraction in movement, both physical and mental, there is no tangible benefit derived. Once the meditation breaks, the performer is again cast into the ocean of ignorance, where they must fend off the tempting forces of envy, pride, greed and lust. Moreover, other conditioned souls already find themselves swimming in this ocean, so there is stiff competition for temporary gains and rewards, none of which come close to securing eternal felicity, which is indeed the only fruit that brings a permanent elimination to distress.

“I am seated in everyone's heart, and from Me come remembrance, knowledge and forgetfulness. By all the Vedas am I to be known; indeed I am the compiler of Vedanta, and I am the knower of the Vedas.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 15.15)

Lord KrishnaDhyana, which is a more standardized form of meditation, must also focus on something tangible. The meditational yogis typically focus their minds on the Supersoul residing within the heart. According to the Bhagavad-gita, the most popular, concise and complete treatise on Vedic philosophy to ever be expounded, the Supreme Lord, who is originally a personality, kindly expands Himself as the Supersoul to reside within the hearts of every living being. Since this form is not manifested to the conditioned eye, it is often described as nirguna, or that form of the Lord not having attributes. But since the Supersoul, or Paramatma, is a non-different expansion of God, it most certainly has features. When the yogi practices dhyana without knowledge of the Supersoul’s qualitative makeup, the practice isn’t much different than simple meditation on void.

Therefore the key ingredient in proper meditation is to know who and what we are focusing our mind on. The primary source of distress in conditioned life is the frustration resulting from repeated attempts at sense gratification. The Supreme Lord is the Truth, and anything not directly relating to Him, i.e. anything that is not Truth, is known as maya, or illusion. One who breaks the link between the individual consciousness and the Supreme Consciousness thus becomes a victim to maya. The chanting of the holy name is the most advocated process for spiritual salvation, which automatically brings palatable conditions in other areas of life, because it leads to a shift in consciousness. Meditation in the form of yoga is certainly nice, but once the explicit concentration practices are completed, the mind continues to work and will inevitably focus again on objects of maya. The chanting process is sublime because it keeps one always in yoga, thereby allowing for a peaceful condition in all types of situations. Moreover, the name of the Lord automatically evokes thoughts and memories of His forms, qualities and pastimes. No other feature, including the impersonal aspect known as Brahman, can bring about such images to the mind simply through invocation.

Lord KrishnaThere is inward meditation, wherein one either remembers someone or something or performs dhyana on the Supreme Spirit, but there is also outward meditation. This involves worshiping the visually manifested form of the Lord, which is described as saguna, or “with attributes”. Irrespective of the viewpoint of the conditioned soul, God’s position as a divine entity possessing spiritually enriched attributes of an incomprehensible magnitude never changes. Just as we sometimes say that the sun is not out on a particular day when it is cloudy, the conditioned entities unable to perceive of Krishna’s presence in every aspect of life describe the unmanifest form of the Lord as nirguna. But this doesn’t mean that God has somehow lost His attributes. The saguna forms are typically the deity representations, wherein wood and stone are crafted into figures that match the transcendental features of the Lord as described by the great Vedic seers who got to personally witness Krishna’s innumerable, pleasurable pastimes enacted on this earth many times in the past.

Goswami Tulsidas, a Rama devotee who spent twenty-four hours a day engaged in bhakti-yoga without even knowing it, mentions in his poetry that while meditating on the unmanifested aspect of Supreme Truth is certainly beneficial and so is focusing the mind on the deity representation, or saguna, chanting is the true gem of spiritual practice. The opinion of the bhaktas is that any aspect of devotional service performed in the Kali Yuga, the present age, can bring about perfection in consciousness, but reciting the name of Hari, harinama, is, in addition to being the most effective spiritual practice, the most relishable activity. Not only is chanting the most effective tool at changing consciousness for the better, but it also can be practiced in the most number of unique situations. For meditational yoga, which can involve dhyana, to be practiced perfectly, a secluded atmosphere and a steady sitting posture are required, with all outside thoughts prohibited from entering into the mind. Since it is constantly overflowing with desires, the mind is the most formidable force for the aspiring transcendentalist to overcome. Therefore dhyana is not very easy to practice, especially in today’s circumstances where life is very busy and many external noise elements are present.

Shrila PrabhupadaWorship of the deity is similarly difficult today because one must have a murti or picture of the Lord in front of them to focus their attention on. The deity, though made of wood or stone, is non-different from the Lord because it has been authorized as a worshipable object by the spiritual masters of the Vedic line. Indeed, Lord Krishna Himself summarizes the efficacy of deity worship in the eleventh canto of the Shrimad Bhagavatam. His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada very nicely describes how worshiping the archa-vigraha works by comparing the practice to the dropping off of letters in the mail. The mailbox is just an ordinary box made up of the same elements that are used in the construction of any other type of enclosure. But we can’t just drop our mail off in any old box and expect it to reach the proper destination. The mailbox has been authorized by the higher authorities to accept letters and packages, which, when accompanied by the proper postage, can be delivered to the intended target. In a similar manner, the deity is the authorized form of worship even though it is made of seemingly material elements. When the worshiper is purified at heart and offers their obeisances in a kind and loving way, the sentiments are transferred directly to the Supreme Lord.

But the worshipable statues and pictures found in temples and homes of devotees are not available everywhere, especially if one has to work all day at a particular office. This makes even the outward type of meditation difficult to practice perfectly in this age. Therefore Tulsidas kindly shares his revelation that he derives the most wonderful spiritual taste from chanting the holy names of his beloved Rama. Chanting Krishna and Rama can go on within the mind even while falling asleep. Generally the time of laying to rest at night is filled with concerns of the next day’s priorities and laments over events of the current day that didn’t end well. But if while falling asleep recitation of the names of the Lord continues over and over again within the mind, thoughts can immediately be transferred to the spiritual sky, where Krishna and His various liberated associates enjoy activities, transcendentally stimulating conversations and exchanges of emotions. Through simple chanting, one can fly faster than the speed of light to a far, far away universe.

Sita and RamaThough regularly hearing and producing the sound vibration representations of the Supreme Lord is most effective at purifying consciousness, the devotee will not ignore the other aspects of devotional service if needed. The person who best illustrates the resourcefulness of the dedicated soul is Sita Devi, the wife of Lord Rama. Many thousands of years ago, Shri Hari, out of His desire to exercise His sportive tendencies, appeared on earth in the guise of a seemingly ordinary warrior having extraordinary capabilities. The wonder of the form of the avatara, or incarnation, captivates the hearts and minds of everyone, including the non-devotees. Krishna’s avataras are so popular and celebrated for their activities that even the non-believers, those who take gross matter to be paramount in importance, become enamored and pay close attention. Sita Devi, the princess of Videha and wife of Lord Rama, got to personally associate with her husband a great deal, offering Him service, reciting His name and giving Him tremendous satisfaction in the process. But due to the nature of events as they were ordained by the divine forces, Sita had to be separated from Rama on several occasions. The first period of separation was by no means a peaceful or pleasant one. Forced to live in the ashoka garden in the kingdom of a Rakshasa named Ravana, Sita was not sure whether she would ever see Rama again.

Sita is described as being like Rama’s shadow, for that was how Maharaja Janaka, her father, advised her to behave when she was given away to Rama during the couple’s marriage ceremony. Sita wholeheartedly lived up to this request by always following her husband, even when He was exiled to the forest for fourteen years. It is indeed a wonder how she was able to remain in her body while being apart from Rama for so long after being taken away by Ravana. Just as a fish cannot survive when taken out of water, Sita can never live without being in Rama’s company. Yet she kept herself alive by always meditating on the Supreme Lord and His limitless transcendental qualities. Sita’s situation was quite an unpleasant one, for she was harassed by female ogres all day and night, wicked servants who tried to mentally torture her into submitting to Ravana’s advances.

Sita Devi In Sita’s situation there was no opportunity for deity worship or the dhyana of meditational yoga. Nevertheless, she was able to maintain a steady link in consciousness to the king of the spiritual world by remembering Rama’s form, activities and the time she spent in His company. When the devotee is in trouble, they will always make use of whatever tools are available to keep the link with God active. To the outsider, it may appear that Sita was engaged in meditation on nirguna or the practice of dhyana-yoga, but in actuality her behavior was in pure bhakti, or transcendental love. Exalted figures like Sita Devi are incapable of any behavior outside the scope of bhakti. In the transcendental realm all actions are considered purified because their intended beneficiary is the Supreme Loveable Object, the sweet and blissful Personality of Godhead. As such, the steady mental focus of the devotee is much different than the meditation performed by anyone outside the realm of devotional life. If we follow Sita’s nice formula for always keeping our connection with the spiritual world intact, we will never fall victim to the influences of the material world, which constantly work to divert our attention elsewhere.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Careful Deliberation

Hanuman “To accomplish this great task, the proper time for me to enter the city of Lanka is at night in a form which is not visible but still capable of meeting the target.” (Hanuman, Valmiki Ramayana, Sundara Kand, 2.35)

lakśyālakśyeṇa rūpeṇa rātrau laṅkā purī mayā |

praveṣṭuṃ prāptakālaṃ me kṛtyaṃ sādhayituṃ mahat

Outward appearance is only so important after all, so anyone whose top priority in life is how they appear to others certainly can’t be considered very intelligent. The truly wise are those who remain steadfast on their march towards meeting the ultimate purpose, all the while not caring for what they look like on the outside. This isn’t to say that the saintly class is slovenly or careless in their maintenance, but rather they are not concerned with what others will say about their appearance, positive or otherwise. The task at hand is always at the forefront of the mind for the spiritually conscious, a fact kindly validated in the thought processes of Shri Hanuman, the faithful Vanara warrior.

HanumanThe above referenced quote is from the Ramayana, and it is a continuation of the mental deliberation of Hanuman prior to his entry into Lanka. In modern terms, we can think of Hanuman’s business in Lanka as that of a reconnaissance mission, one where intelligence needed to be gathered from within the depths of the enemy’s territory, or hostile ground. The leader of the opposing party was no ordinary miscreant either; he was the most powerful of Rakshasas, or ghoulish figures given to sinful activity and expert in the use of black magic. Known by the name of Ravana for his terrorizing capabilities, this nefarious character had taken hold of a married woman named Sita Devi, the princess of Videha and eternal consort of Lord Rama. Since these events took place in the Treta Yuga, it was not uncommon for victorious kings to claim ownership of the wives of defeated parties, but in Ravana’s case, there was no open battle. He stole Sita from behind Rama’s back and then fled the scene before a fair fight could ensue.

The demoniac are so fallen that they will tear down anyone who comes in their path, regardless of how noble and innocent the advice given by the people stopping them is. When Ravana escaped with Sita from the forest of Dandaka, his aerial path was disturbed by a celestial bird named Jatayu. Obviously a bird is limited in powers, and it is incapable of using any sophisticated weaponry. Jatayu simply asked that Ravana desist from his dubious plan of taking another’s wife. But Ravana wouldn’t listen, and his stubbornness led to a quarrel with Jatayu. The end result was Jatayu’s death and Ravana’s safe return to Lanka.

Rama_DeityLord Rama was no ordinary prince however. He is an eternally existing, divine incarnation of the Supreme Lord in the spiritual sky. Thus after Ravana had fled, Rama was more than capable of finding Sita and punishing her captor. Just as a good parent will allow their children to offer kind service to them, the Supreme Lord gives an opportunity to the love-starved pious entities, those souls who have been unwillingly sitting on the bench of spiritual life for too long, to offer their most heartfelt service. The eager devotees can be compared to upstarts who just want to be given a chance at success. “Put me in, coach” is their repeated plea. As they have abandoned all hope for happiness in the material world, they spend all their time thinking about God, chanting His glories and remembering His sportive exploits.

“Always chanting My glories, endeavoring with great determination, bowing down before Me, these great souls perpetually worship Me with devotion.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 9.14)

Of all the creatures roaming the earth during Rama’s time, none was more eager to serve Him than Shri Hanuman, the faithful emissary of the monkey-king Sugriva. Using the outward excuse of needing help finding Sita, Rama and His younger brother Lakshmana finally met Hanuman face-to-face in the forest of Kishkindha. An alliance with Sugriva was then formed, and a plan for Sita’s rescue was struck. The first phase of the operation involved locating the beloved princess, as no one knew where she had been taken or if she was even still alive. After Sita was found, her whereabouts would have to be relayed to Sugriva and Rama. To this end, Sugriva dispatched a massive search party of monkeys to scour the globe. But only one group, the one blessed with Hanuman’s presence, had any real chance of finding Sita, for Ravana’s kingdom of Lanka was situated across a massive ocean on an island. Therefore anyone who wanted to reach the enemy city needed a way to cross over the ocean. Hanuman, marshaling his perfections of mystic yoga, assumed a massive stature and catapulted himself into the air from atop a mountain. By flying through the sky and overcoming the obstacles that were placed in front of him, Hanuman successfully made it to the outskirts of Lanka.

HanumanPrior to infiltrating the enemy city, Hanuman took some time to ponder over potential issues and concerns relating to his mission. One who acts without consideration to time and circumstance certainly isn’t very intelligent. Hanuman was wholly capable of destroying the Rakshasa forces and bringing back Sita all by himself, but that wasn’t the mission assigned. Moreover, from the outside the city looked quite formidable, as it was well-guarded and opulently ornamented. Just as one can be taken aback by viewing the grandeur and beauty of an ancient palace or landmark site, Hanuman was awestruck with the opulence of Lanka. He initially thought that there was no chance for success in the mission, but he carried on anyway, taking his fears and doubts to be of secondary concern.

If Hanuman were to enter Lanka in his original form, the Rakshasas would surely recognize him. The Vanara species of the Treta Yuga are usually taken to be monkeys, but they are actually more forest dwellers than anything else, a sort of elevated simian race. Lanka wasn’t situated anywhere near a forest, so Hanuman’s presence would look conspicuous. In addition, Hanuman was a dear servant of Rama’s, and we already saw what happened the last time a faithful devotee in the form of an animal tried to help Sita escape from Ravana’s clutches. Jatayu was killed by Ravana for simply trying to stop a horrible crime. Hanuman didn’t want to instigate a similar attack, so he pondered over the matter in his mind.

HanumanFrom the above referenced passage we see that Hanuman wants to enter the city at night, in a form that is invisible to the enemy. At the same time, he needs to survey the situation, searching all corners for Sita’s whereabouts. Hanuman was carrying out one of the most important missions in history, yet he had no false pride whatsoever. He didn’t care if not even a single person were to see him carrying out Rama’s orders. Hanuman wasn’t concerned with what others thought of him; whether they took him to be a monkey, a human being, or celestial figure was all the same to him. As a pure devotee of God, Hanuman is naturally beautiful. His entire body is beaming with spiritual energy. Just as love takes over the thoughts and desires of one who bears strong affection for their significant other, the spiritual energy, which is pure and unmatched in potency, completely permeates Hanuman’s body due to his unbreakable link in consciousness with Rama. Normally there is a difference between body and spirit for the living entities in the material world, with the body viewed as an inhibiting force, an instrument that further clouds the sincere soul into ignorance. The spirit soul, due to its inherent properties, is blissful, knowledgeable and eternal. These properties are inherited from its superior spiritual counterpart, the Supreme Soul, God residing in the imperishable sky.

When the soul falls down to the material world, it gets placed into a temporary container composed of material elements. One who gives priority to the needs of the container in lieu of the vital force within is thus considered ignorant. This fact is actually known on some level to even those who are unaware of the differences between matter and spirit. Vanity is not considered a laudable trait because it focuses on the outward appearance of the face and body, both of which don’t reveal information pertaining to the qualities of the individual. For one who is armed with Vedic knowledge, the sublime information passed down from the great seers of India, giving importance to the outer dress of the soul becomes an even more degraded practice. Ignorance of the changing nature of the outer covering of the soul indicates a level of intelligence that is on par with the animals.

“As the embodied soul continually passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. The self-realized soul is not bewildered by such a change.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 2.13)

changing bodiesHanuman, though possessing a spiritual body, still wasn’t overly concerned with his outward appearance. The end-goal was to find Sita without raising a stir in Lanka. He didn’t want anyone bothering him in his performance of devotional service. Whether there were hundreds of people praising his efforts or thousands voicing their opposition, Hanuman didn’t care. His mind is always focused on the interests of Shri Rama, Lakshmana and Sita. Not surprisingly, Hanuman would figure out just the right form to assume prior to entering Lanka. He would successfully find Sita and allay her fears by informing her of Rama’s dedication to rescuing her. In fact, Sita would compliment Hanuman by telling him that after being in distress for so long, to her, seeing him was almost as good as seeing Rama.

What’s interesting to note is that both Hanuman and Ravana were capable of assuming different forms. Ravana, for his part, had taken the guise of a mendicant to trick Sita into behaving kindly towards him during their initial meeting in the forest of Dandaka. Ravana essentially transformed himself from a ghoulish and fiendish figure into a more innocent one in order to carry out a despicable act. Hanuman, on the other hand, transformed himself from a beautiful and powerful figure into a diminutive and clandestine one in order to successfully carry out Shri Rama’s mission. When one is in love with the only entity capable of reciprocating any amount of pure affection to the fullest degree, the exclusive concern remains the pleasure of the Supreme Lord. If Shri Rama wanted Hanuman to always remain in his beautiful Vanara form, the faithful elephant among monkeys most certainly would have obliged. But the noble warrior was tasked with finding Sita and using his intelligence to figure out a way to succeed in the mission.

Hanuman thinking of Sita and Rama Just as Sita’s spirits were uplifted by seeing Hanuman, so our thoughts and desires can be purified by always remembering and seeing the beautiful form of the most enchanting, pious, courageous, thoughtful and perseverant Vanara the world has ever known. Whether in a tiny form, such as the one used to enter Lanka, or in a large body, such as the one assumed to cross the ocean and carry a giant mountain containing medicinal herbs for Lakshmana’s rescue during the final battle with Ravana, Hanuman is always beautiful. Anyone who remembers his example and his firm faith and determination towards meeting Rama’s interests will never fall prey to the body consciousness adopted by the animal species and the human beings at the time of birth. The spirit soul is what counts; it forms the basis of identity. When this spiritual spark is always engaged in devotional service through the regular chanting of the holy names of the Lord, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, the undesirable influences of the outer covering, the body which is ultimately subject to destruction, will immediately be halted.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

In The End

Krishna and Arjuna “While contemplating the objects of the senses, a person develops attachment for them, and from such attachment lust develops, and from lust anger arises.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.62)

In the realm of sports, the rules of the game dictate that there will be winners and losers. In other words, by the very definition of the game, there are guaranteed to be both favorable and unfavorable outcomes. The allure for the players and even for the spectators is the potential for victory, the ultimate triumph over difficult circumstances and insurmountable odds. Under ideal circumstances, however, the rules of the game are implemented quite fairly, so there is every chance of all possible outcomes occurring. This means that the same level of excitement that exists for the potential for success should also be measured against the potential for the dejection that will arise from the most unfavorable of future circumstances. Therefore those who do overly lament over the temporary losses, which are by definition guaranteed to manifest for at least half the participants, indicate with their behavior that they have failed to reach the highest platform of intelligence. The most inclusive sport of all, the game of life, incorporates rules and regulations implemented by the higher authorities. Whether one is abiding by these rules, rebelling against them, or remaining completely defiant in even acknowledging the existence of higher powers, the possible outcomes themselves must manifest. Thus there is every possibility of both positive and negative results, with life itself culminating in the complete destruction of the uniform [the body] that one assumes prior to entering the playing field of activities. When these factors are taken into consideration, along with the fact that the objects of the senses don’t originally belong to the individual, the justification for the innate fear of death vanishes.

“Just as the ripened fruit has no other fear than falling, the man who has taken birth has no other fear than death.” (Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kand, 105.17)

Lord RamaShri Rama, the beautiful, sweet, kind and knowledgeable incarnation of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, accurately notes that for the mature human being there is no other fear than its impending death. He compares this predicament with the disposition faced by the ripened fruit, which after it has reached full maturity, has nothing left to do but fall. A fruit starts off as a seed, a tiny autonomous entity that has no substantial visible covering. Through constant nourishment and care from external sources, the seed eventually develops an outer dress, culminating with the formation of a full grown fruit. But once maturation is reached, there is nothing left for the fruit to do except fall, which signals its death, i.e. the time when it is eligible to be eaten by others. Though we don’t generally equate a fruit with a living entity, bananas, apples, pears, etc. most certainly have the essence of life inside of them; otherwise they would not be able to grow. All forms of life, irrespective of their body type, large or small, are spirit souls, direct emanations from the Supreme Lord, who is known as the Supreme Energetic. The properties of the spiritual sparks expanding from the original fire of energy do not ever change, irrespective of perceptible growth and decay cycles.

“Know that which pervades the entire body is indestructible. No one is able to destroy the imperishable soul.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.17)

The human being, though deemed the most intelligent of all species, goes through a cycle similar to that of the fruit. Though we have no memory of our initial experiences in life, we all started out as tiny pea-shaped bodies living within the womb of our mother. Only through careful nurturing and protection offered by our guardians did we mature into what we are today: human beings capable of acquiring the highest intelligence. Due to the workings of nature, the human being is not only forgetful of his true nature, but he also has trepidations about his future fortunes. The greatest anxiety relates to the impending event signaling complete loss, the ultimate destruction of the body. For the wise man, one whose angle of vision has been cleared through the corrective lenses of divine wisdom, the fear of death is unfounded. Surely the unknown brings trepidation to the mind and thoughts of uncertainty, but fear over losing something that doesn’t belong to the individual in the first place makes absolutely no sense.

NFLIn the sports world the rules of the various games are put into place to be implemented fairly and evenly. Nevertheless, the full breadth of possible outcomes often times goes ignored. To take a simple example, in the National Football League, the highest professional rank of American football, there is a regular season currently consisting of sixteen games. Each team plays their games in the season, and the teams with the best records then move on to the playoffs, a single-elimination tournament to decide the season’s champion. The NFL has two conferences consisting of sixteen teams each, which are divided into four separate divisions of four teams each. The teams with the best record in their respective divisions make it to the playoffs and get the highest seeds in the tournament bracket. Then the next two teams with the best records make it to the playoffs as the lowest seeds. Having a higher seed means that you get to host the respective playoff round matchup at your home stadium. In the 2010 season, the Seattle Seahawks franchise won their division despite having lost more games than they won. In the first round of the playoffs they played a team, the Saints, who had a better record, one almost good enough to qualify for the number one seed in the conference. But since another team ended up winning their division, the Saints, the defending champions of the NFL, had to settle for a wild card berth, where they played at the Seahawks in the first round.

The precedence rules relating to playoff seedings has been in place for many years in the NFL, but it wasn’t until the Seahawks won their division with such an abysmal record that talk started to surface about changing the rules. The reaction is ironic because the possibility of a losing team winning their division was present from the very beginning. Indeed, there is every possibility of a team with an unrespectable record winning their division and then going on to win the Super Bowl. If certain outcomes are not preferred, they should be eliminated from the very beginning of competition. Otherwise, what is the point to having rules if the outcomes are tightly controlled?

seahawksIn the more expansive game of life, the possibilities of every outcome, good or bad, are present. Death can happen at any moment, for even one who is supposedly safely residing within the womb of the mother can be killed through the abortion process. On the other side of the equation, one who regularly takes to smoking, drinking and eating fatty foods can live to a very old age. Unlike with ordinary games and sports leagues, the rules governing the workings of nature cannot be changed. Nor do they need to be. Simply operating within the established guidelines can provide unmatched happiness and bliss. The first step is to acquire knowledge, becoming familiar with that proper set of information that will allow the individual to see clearly.

In the Vedic tradition the first instruction taught to aspiring transcendentalists is aham brahmasmi, which means “I am Brahman.” The Supreme Absolute Truth, an entity who is beyond duality, loss, gain, birth, death, disease and old age, is considered Brahman. Every individual spirit soul is constitutionally the same as the Supreme Truth; hence they are Brahman. Therefore aham brahmasmi can also mean “I am a spirit soul.” This instruction is very important to hear and understand because in the absence of such information, the varieties of identities adopted by the innumerable living entities will be plentiful and all faulty. One person takes their identity as being Indian, another thinks they are American, while another identifies solely with race. What we saw happen with the seed that turned into a fruit was that the outer covering eventually got discarded. Every one of us started off as a tiny seed in the form of a pure spirit soul assuming the smallest of bodies, so any features we acquire subsequent to birth must be considered temporary and thus not worthy of being used for identification purposes.

The fearing mentality is a product of animal life, which is driven exclusively by the tendencies to eat, sleep, mate and defend. Obviously these activities are required to some degree or another, but in the human form of body one can transcend them. The fearing aspect is a product of the other three activities. We take to eating sumptuous foods and enjoying the satisfaction they provide. Sleeping is a great way to relax and gain relief from the daily pressures brought on by work, school and family. Sex life is the height of material enjoyment, something seen as the most important activity for those seeking pleasure in the phenomenal world. But when these engagements are represented at an above satisfactory level in one’s daily life, there will naturally be fear of loss. “What if I lose my ability to put food on the table? What if I starve to death? What if I won’t be able to sleep tonight due to my mattress being uncomfortable? What will happen if my wife leaves me and I have to live the rest of my life alone? What will happen if I lose everything at the time of death?”

The sunThese fears are actually well founded to some extent and indicative of a progressive level of consciousness. Certainly it is better to fear the loss of important aspects of life than to be ignorant of their temporary nature. Those who understand that they are Brahman, or part of the Absolute Truth, can take the necessary steps to transcend these fears, taking the comings and goings of material life to be on the same level as the rising and setting of the sun. The sun is the most splendorous object, a direct manifestation of the Supreme Lord’s kind mercy. The sun is not only beautiful to behold, but it is the giver of life. The heat and light provided by the fiery star in the sky are unmatched in potency, thus it is a very good sign whenever we can directly perceive of the sun’s presence. But is the sun setting at night any cause of fear? Is there any reason to be worried that life will end at night or that we will be forever without sunlight? Obviously these fears are not present in those who have wisely ascertained that the sun will simply rise again the next morning.

In a similar manner, those whose eyes have been trained through transcendental knowledge and the practice of bona fide religious principles see the temporary manifestations and disintegrations of gross bodies as periodic as the rising and setting of the sun. Sometimes an individual is in a position of prominence, and other times he is in a distressful situation. Sometimes a living entity is taking birth from the womb of a mother, while at other times he is being buried or cremated to signal the end of life. Irrespective of the specific event, the properties of Brahman, or Truth, do not change. Brahman is eternal; it can never be cut up, dried, made wet or diminished in any capacity.

“The total material substance, called Brahman, is the source of birth, and it is that Brahman that I impregnate, making possible the births of all living beings, O son of Bharata.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 14.3)

Lord KrishnaIf Brahman is Truth, why are there even temporary changes? Why is there birth, and why is there impending death? Brahman is one aspect of Truth, but there is an even more powerful spiritual entity: Parabrahman. Brahman can be thought of as the giant light of spiritual energy that emanates from the transcendental and inconceivably large body of Parabrahman. Similar to how the sun exudes sunshine, the Supreme Truth, whose glories are well established in the Vedas and the Puranas, radiates brilliance in spiritual energy which is known as Brahman. The individual spiritual entities roaming the phenomenal world are sparks of Brahman. Thus there is a similarity in quality between Brahman and Parabrahman, but at the same time there is always a difference.

Lord Chaitanya, an incarnation of Godhead and the most merciful authority figure to ever roam this earth, as a divine preacher and well-wisher of every single soul, visible or not, described the simultaneous oneness and difference between Brahman and Parabrahman as achintya-bhedabheda-tattva. That the living entity can be the same as Parabrahman and yet different from Him at the same time is inconceivable to the human mind, which means that no amount of empirical evidence or logical deduction can lead the conditioned entity, i.e. us poor souls transmigrating from one body to another in the material world, or even one on the Brahman platform, to truly understand the nature of the relationship between Parabrahman and Brahman. Since we can’t understand the relationship, should we just sit on our knowledge of Brahman? From Lord Chaitanya’s teachings and personal example, we learn that it is more important to take tangible actions off the achintya-bhedabheda-tattva concept than to actually try to understand it through mental exercise. We may not understand why fire burns, but we will still use it for proper purposes. We may not understand why we were stricken with a certain disease, but we will surely take the necessary steps to get cured. Similarly, we may not understand the nature of the relationship between the individual souls and the Supreme Absolute Truth, whose most beautiful and complete name is Krishna, but we should indeed take the necessary steps to ensure that the relationship remains vibrant.

Lord ChaitanyaOnly one who behaves according to the simultaneous oneness and difference philosophy will be able to properly understand the workings of nature. Only one who knows that Krishna, or God, is the Supreme Object of Pleasure can take the necessary steps to remain always connected with Him. Brahman has tremendous potency, but when the tendency is to act against the interests of Parabrahman, the natural properties of knowledge, bliss and eternality are covered up by material elements, which work to delude the knowledgeable entities into assuming a fearful mindset. Only when the individual acts against the interests of the Supreme Lord as stipulated by the eternal law codes known as dharma is there a fear of losing objects which have no relation to the soul. The potency of Brahman is intended for the pleasure of Krishna, who, as the best friend of every living entity, subsequently provides unmatched happiness to those offering Him kind service. God’s worthiness of being worshiped is not based simply off of His superiority in the area of providing benefits. Rather, His worshipable status is acquired through His unique ability to enjoy at the highest level, a trait which He eternally exudes. Irrespective of the workings of Brahman, the mercy of the Supreme Lord and His open offer of a blissful, eternal life always remain on the table.

Radha Krishna Lord Chaitanya stressed that for the people of this age the most important and effective way to remove the cloud of nescience brought on by material contact is to regularly chant, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. This sacred formula, which is known as the maha-mantra, emanates from the spiritual world. Unlike the features of our gross body and all the objects we claim to possess, the holy name of the Lord is something we never lose. Since it is non-different from the entity it addresses, the name of God always stays with us, just as the Supersoul, the localized representation of Parabrahman, accompanies the individual spirit in all its journeys through various bodies. One who holds on to the holy name with firm attachment and takes the chanting of it to be their life and soul will never be fearful of losing objects which originally belong to nature. The soul is the essence of identity. A famous philosopher once said, “I think, therefore I am”, but the more accurate assertion is, “I am Brahman, a lover of Krishna; therefore I will never cease to be.” Those who adopt the proper mindset through regular chanting and adherence to the dictates of bhagavata-dharma, or devotional service, will certainly be blissful all the way until the end, the time when the soul will be transported back into the direct company of the spiritual reservoir of pleasure and energy.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Cloak of Darkness

Hanuman “All the Rakshasas, who have extraordinary energy, great prowess and also much strength, must be deceived by me while I look for Janaki.” (Hanuman, Valmiki Ramayana, Sundara Kand, 2.34)

ugraujaso mahāvīryā balavantaśca rākśasāḥ |

vañcanīyā mayā sarve jānakīṃ parimārgatā

Sometimes it’s just better to perform your tasks in secret, without anyone knowing about them. When engaged in a particularly difficult job, or even one that is considered laudable, others finding out about it can lead to impediments. Rather than jeopardize the success of the activity, the wise will sometimes hide their true nature and intentions. Though deceit is generally viewed in a negative light, it is sometimes required. Such was the case with a particular aspect of the daunting mission of finding an abducted princess presented to Shri Hanuman, a Vanara warrior who was more than up to the challenge.

Hanuman thinking of Sita and RamaThe movie The Shawshank Redemption has a sort of cult-like following, with many fans watching the film over and over again to repeatedly delight at the ending. The appeal of the film comes from the fact that the main character has to struggle through the worst kind of adversity, being imprisoned for a crime he never committed. After being sent to jail, rather than sulk and bemoan his plight, he subsequently takes action to remedy the situation. The steps he follows remain hidden from everyone, including his closest friends. The lesson taken away is that if you want something badly enough, you have to go after it. Even if there are impediments put in the way, the worker has to be resourceful enough to know how to get past them. The end-goal is to achieve success and nothing more. Performing one’s activities in the open is surely the easier option, but if the notoriety and attention get in the way of achieving the final objective, then the behavior certainly isn’t ideal.

Shri Hanuman, the faithful servant of Lord Rama, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, is today very well known for his bravery, great strength, dedication, and knowledge of all things right and wrong. Yet when he had to perform his most difficult tasks, he had no concern for any fame or fortune. Hanuman is never preoccupied with what anyone else thinks about him; he only acts to further the Lord’s interests at all times. Even when separated from Rama, His wife Sita Devi, and His younger brother Lakshmana, Hanuman still doesn’t perform any activity for his own pleasure. The constant chanting and reading of the accounts of Rama’s life that Hanuman performs on a daily basis are done to bring a smile on the faces of Sita and Rama. In this way Hanuman exudes the highest level of transcendental love and firmly establishes himself as a pious soul whose character is unmatched in the three worlds.

What sorts of tasks did Hanuman perform for the Lord that made him so famous? The most difficult assignment involved a reconnaissance mission, where Hanuman had to locate the whereabouts of Rama’s abducted wife, Sita. Finding out where she was and who had taken her were certainly difficult enough, but once armed with that knowledge, the real difficulties began. Sita had been taken by a powerful Rakshasa, or ogre, named Ravana. He lived on an island kingdom which was exquisite in every way. Just as how a wealthy man will live on a heavily fortified estate, complete with security cameras and gated fences, Ravana’s kingdom was fully protected on all sides by his various henchmen. Hanuman, upon landing on the outskirts of Lanka, noticed the city’s grandeur and its insulation. Being taken aback at first, Hanuman nevertheless forged ahead with the mission assigned to him.

In the above referenced passage from the Ramayana, we see Hanuman assessing the situation prior to entering Lanka. At the forefront of his mind is the search for Sita; everything else is ancillary. In fact, he is ready, willing and able to discard any impediments in his way. Whether or not these ogre inhabitants, who are merely obstacles in his mission, will take kindly to his actions or not are of no concern. Rather, Hanuman is only thinking of how to get rid of these enemies with the least possible damage inflicted to the final objective. He ultimately decides upon deceit, wherein he will trick the Rakshasas into not being able to recognize him.

Even in the Bhagavad-gita, the sacred scripture of the Vedic tradition spoken by Lord Krishna, who is non-different from Shri Rama, there is much credence given to virtue and honesty. In any civilized society dishonesty and deceit are not recommended practices, for they cast a negative light on the individual who takes to them. Hanuman’s mission, however, was to please the Supreme Lord, whose wife had been taken away from Him through an evil plot hatched up by Ravana. The rules and regulations prescribed to transcendentalists are aimed at elevating them to the platform of consciousness that Hanuman was already on. Shri Krishna is known as the enjoyer of all religious sacrifice, Yajneshvara. In one sense, Hanuman’s brave entry into Lanka can be thought of as a sacrifice, one of body, mind and speech. He sacrificed his body by putting it on the line against attacking forces. Ravana and his Rakshasa associates were very powerful fighters, and Hanuman was just a one-man army. Surely there was great risk involved in such a struggle. Hanuman sacrificed his mind by always remaining focused on the desires of Rama and His beautiful wife Sita. From this one passage alone we see how deeply devoted to Rama’s interests Hanuman was. His thoughts never deviated for even a moment from the foremost mission. Hanuman’s speech was dedicated to Rama because wherever he would go, he would simply speak of the mission he was undertaking and the worthiness of it. Even while in Lanka, Hanuman would only speak what was necessary to accomplish the Lord’s task.

Nimai Nitai sankirtanaAs the enjoyer of sacrifice, Shri Rama was the beneficiary of the noble behavior exhibited by Hanuman. The Vanara’s cunningness, acute sense of timing, scholarship, and dexterity in battle were all used to meet Rama’s objectives. Along the same lines, Shri Krishna Chaitanya, the preacher incarnation of the Lord, has instituted a sacrifice that can be initiated by all the people of this age. This religious ritual is quite easy to perform, and just like Hanuman’s activities, its intended beneficiary is Yajneshvara. The sankirtana-yajna, which consists of chanting, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, is the yuga-dharma, or the occupational duty for the people living in Kali Yuga, the last of the four time periods of creation.

The effectiveness of the chanting of the maha-mantra increases as more volume and more people are injected into the process. But sometimes finding other willing participants is not possible and neither is chanting very loudly. Just as there were Rakshasas impeding Hanuman’s path many thousands of years ago, there are many such miscreants who have no desire to allow others to freely recite the Lord’s holy names in a congregational way. But just as the strength of the Rakshasas didn’t deter Hanuman, the influence of the asuras shouldn’t discourage the sincere servant of the Lord interested in bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. Sometimes the cloak of darkness is required for a devotee to continue their chanting. If there are too many impediments to one’s devotional efforts, one can surely follow the example of Hanuman and do whatever is necessary to remain fixed in transcendental service. The holy names can always be recited in the mind while engaging in routine affairs relating to work, school or family. The ultimate objective in any devotional activity is the pleasure of the Lord of all sacrifice. Obviously it is better to perform such activity in front of as many onlookers as possible, as that will lure others into Krishna consciousness, but even when faced with obstacles, the enthusiasm and dedication towards satisfying Krishna should not wane.

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

Krishna as YajneshvaraA simple example that illustrates the occasional need for secrecy and deceit can be seen with prasadam, which is sanctified food first offered to the deity representation of Supreme Spirit. One of the central practices of any bona fide religion is eating in a spiritually conscious way. For devotees of Lord Krishna, food in the mode of goodness - generally anything vegetarian without any hint of garlic or onion – is regularly offered to the archa-vigraha, or worshipable body form of the Lord in a temple or home. The resultant food has tremendous potency, for Krishna gives His transcendental glance over the food, thus sanctifying it. For those who are not accustomed to such a practice or don’t have any faith in the authorized words spoken by Krishna in the Bhagavad-gita pertaining to prasadam there will be no appeal to eating such food. What is the devotee to do? Should they stop offering food to Krishna since others will not be so willing to eat it? Should prasadam not be distributed simply because others are not eager to enjoy it? Devotees sometimes make common items like cookies and cakes, offer them to Krishna, and then take the prasadam. Since these food items are offered to Krishna, they are free of eggs, but the taste doesn’t get significantly altered. If anything, the cookies and cakes taste much better than anything found in the stores, for they are spiritually infused.

If someone were to offer us a common dish and say that they had replaced a key ingredient with something else, obviously we would feel some trepidation. “How is this going to taste? Why would they take out that ingredient? What are they trying to do?” It is also seen that if someone else prepares and distributes food, others may take it as a form of competition, a sort of affront to their own cooking skills. But if the same food is offered and distributed without any fanfare, it can be partaken of without any qualms. Obviously it is better for the devotee distributing prasadam to acknowledge the power of Krishna and His ability to spiritualize food, but the scenarios mentioned here highlight the larger issue that sometimes even the most innocent of devotional efforts are met with opposition. In these instances the eagerness to serve the Lord should not be diminished in any way; the humble soul should find a way to continue to please Krishna in spite of any outside opposition.

Hanuman worshiping Sita and RamaNot surprisingly, Hanuman would come out successful. He would deceive the Rakshasas, find Sita, and then openly battle many of the demons on his way out of Lanka and back to Rama. Shri Rama, the Supreme Lord, accompanied by Lakshmana and a host of Vanaras would march to Lanka, defeat Ravana and rescue Sita. Hanuman, using his superior intelligence and strategic initiative, played no small role in this triumph. The Supreme Lord and His wife wholly acknowledged Hanuman’s integral contribution to the ultimate victory by granting him several benedictions. Of all the praises and commendations given to Hanuman, the one he cherishes the most is the ability to always think of the Supreme Lord and His family. Though Hanuman took part in several missions, his service to the Lord didn’t cease upon successful completion of them. Rather, his transcendental love for Rama only increases with each passing day. In a similar manner, if we remain committed to the principles of bhakti-yoga, which correspond to our natural loving propensity, something which is intrinsically part of the spirit soul’s makeup, we will slowly ascend the ladder of spiritual bliss. At the top stand the Supreme Lord and His spiritual kingdom. Upon reentry into this imperishable land, which is inhabited by the sweet, ever-blissful Bhagavan and His transcendental associates, one never has to return to the mundane world, a place where duality, duplicity and deceit are regularly employed towards furthering all of the wrong objectives.