Saturday, August 6, 2011

Betting On The Cure

Lord Krishna“Those who are not faithful on the path of devotional service cannot attain Me, O conqueror of foes, but return to birth and death in this material world.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 9.3)

Allergy season getting you down? The pollen, the trees, the freshly cut grass just lying everywhere can become unbearable after a while. First the eyes well up with tears, and this is followed by constant sneezing. It gets even worse when coughing starts, as that is usually reserved for when we have a cold or some more severe disease during the winter months. To alleviate the sufferings from seasonal allergies, we head to the drug store and find the strongest medication there is. Many of these drugs are now available over the counter, but there are still some controls in place, as in America one must show their driver’s license at the time of purchase. Then there are still the prescription drugs, those medicines requiring the consent of a physician and which need to be carefully formulated in the store by the pharmacist on hand. These drugs of course have unpleasant side effects, but the nuisances are tolerated because of the overall benefit.

prescription drugsJust from the behavior exhibited by sufferers of allergy season, we see that there is so much trust and faith put into the drug manufacturer and the pharmacist at the store. When the drug works properly, when it has been composed according to standards, some side effects, such as drowsiness, dryness of the mouth, and an overall strange feeling in the mind, will surely come. Now just imagine if some person along the chain of action should make a mistake. To ere is human after all, so the chances of committing an error are always there, especially in a field as sensitive as pharmacy. If the drug is composed incorrectly, the side effects can be greatly intensified, thus causing major problems. Yet we put our trust and faith in the pharmacist anyway, as their many years of schooling serve as proof of capability. In the grand scheme of things, we put so much faith in our fellow man for everything, from trivial items to important matters of life and death.

If this trust is already present, why not apply it to spiritual life as well? The prescriptions of the Vedas, which are the oldest scriptures in existence, are not meant to be dogmatic principles applicable to only a select few. Spirituality is a science, a discipline that can be understood through establishing select principles, layering them on top of one another, and then applying them to our daily lives. The via-medium for the information transfer is the spiritual master, or guru. He is the true representative of God, and by extending our faithful attitude to his words and instructions, we can be cured of the wickedest disease: affinity for material existence.

Shrila PrabhupadaWe are diseased already? We know from past experience that life is not permanent. The soul, the living force responsible for instigating action, the entity which takes the responsibility for making choices, does live forever, but when it appears in a particular life form, that manifestation is not permanent. This is not that difficult to understand, as even the specific form generally accepted as a life goes through constant changes with the passing of time. If matter were permanent, or if the dwelling encasing the soul never changed, all of us would remain infants forever. But we know that as soon as we take birth from the womb of our mother, growth inevitably starts. Indeed, the aim of the parents is to ensure that their child grows up to be a fully capable, healthy, sturdy, independent, and logically thinking adult. The difference between an adult and a child is mostly evidenced in the difference in thought processes, or consciousness. Yet with that maturation comes a brand new body, one that is vastly different from the tiny form that survived for nine months within the womb.

Eventually, after enough time passes and the adult body ceases to be useful, the entire dwelling is discarded. This shedding is the event most of us know as death; something which is rarely welcome. After all, after death is the great unknown, something no one seems to be sure about. “What happens after I die? Will I live again? Will I see my friends and family again? Where will I go?” Since these questions inevitably arise, as death is guaranteed for whoever takes birth, we can understand that every single living entity is diseased. A disease is something which causes discomfort, pain, and, in the worst cases, death. Since the end of life is already guaranteed, we can understand that concomitant with birth is a deadly disease, which comes to bear through the forces of time.

Mother Yashoda with KrishnaWith ordinary diseases, we seek treatment and cures, so why should this pursuit be absent with the illness that is accepted at the time of birth? This is the true purpose for spirituality; to stop death. From the Vedas, we understand that the soul lives forever, but it gets different bodies based on the individual’s desires and work. Just as if we drop an object out of our hand it will fall to the ground, every action we take accumulated over the course of our days in a particular form has an effect that must come to bear in the future. Either these results are witnessed in the present lifetime, or they are seen in the next form of body accepted by the soul. This explains why people are born into different circumstances. Some people are born into abusive families, homes where the father beats the mother, or where there is constant angst and pressure put on the young children. Others are born into the arms of loving parents who are wholly dedicated to each other and their children. These circumstances are determined by one’s karma, which is the system managing fruitive activity.

Through following proper prescriptions, we can actually break free of the undesired cycle, which is known as samsara-chakra, or the wheel of material existence. The wheel continues to roll, with the living entity caught underneath, as the revolutions repeat. When in between the wheel and the ground, the pressure causes great pain and distress, and when the same part of the wheel rolls back above ground, there is a temporary period of happiness and relief. Nevertheless, the spinning continues, so the wise try their best to completely escape from the suffering condition and find permanent and everlasting peace. As the soul is eternal and blissful, its constitutional position also has the same properties. This is where God’s presence is really required. He is described as having a transcendental body that is fully blissful, eternal and knowledgeable, sach-chid-ananda vigraha. Through connecting with Him on a regular basis, we can get the cure to the most acute disease known to every living entity.

“Just try to learn the truth by approaching a spiritual master. Inquire from him submissively and render service unto him. The self-realized soul can impart knowledge unto you because he has seen the truth.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 4.34)

Krishna with ArjunaGetting the cure is not that difficult. Simply surrender unto a spiritual master, one who has seen the light, and follow his instructions. How hard can this be? We put so much trust and faith in others every day, so why the difficulty in understanding the Supreme Truth? The largest stumbling block is the mind, which has rightfully grown skeptical of religion and its champions. As desire forms the bedrock of fruitive activity, so the tainted wishes of the conditioned living entities have degraded religion to the point that God is seen as an order supplier. “Pray for what you want, and keep on praying no matter what.” In this respect, there appears to be a contradiction raised. If one person prays for something, and another person prays for the exact opposite reward, how will the Supreme Lord reconcile the two requests? How can God ever take sides? Aren’t we all His children?

Because of these contradictions and the fact that everyone seems to be painting God in their own way, there is a general distaste for religion, as nothing tangible seems to come from its practice. If one person prays all the time and gets what they want some of the time, and another person is equally as fortunate without praying, what need is there for religion? This skepticism is healthy, as it shows a level of sophistication and intelligence found only in the human species.

Bhagavad-gitaWith the Vedic seers, however, the prescriptions aren’t so narrow in purpose. The sum and substance of Vedic philosophy can be found in the Bhagavad-gita, which is a collection of verses sung on a battlefield around five thousand years ago. The teacher in this case, Lord Krishna, is considered the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the origin of knowledge. He is indeed the object of all religious sacrifice, as pleasing Him brings more pleasure to the worshiper than any other activity. But Krishna’s worthiness of worship is not a sectarian principle, one just followed by those growing up in India. Rather, the themes and concepts revealed in the Bhagavad-gita are universally applicable. Karma, renunciation, material nature, disease, death, old age, reincarnation, and, most important of all, the constitutional position of the living entity, are discussed with full clarity, but also succinctly.

At one point in the Gita, Krishna advises His dear friend and cousin Arjuna to approach a spiritual master and learn the truth from him. This is ironic because the Gita itself represents a talk between a guru and his student. Krishna is the teacher in this case and Arjuna, a warrior feeling hesitant prior to the commencement of a grand war, the student. A bona fide spiritual master is one who follows the teachings presented by Krishna in the Gita, which don’t contradict any other religion’s central teachings. Based on time and circumstance, the exact implementation of the principles may vary, but the ultimate conclusion, the final destination, can never be altered. The living entities are part and parcel of God, and due to this relationship they are best fit for serving the Supreme Lord as their primary object of importance. From this focus every beneficial attribute and condition is met. When there is pure God consciousness, the soul is no longer subject to the spinning wheel of material existence. Just as there is eternality and full bliss in God, so there is never a chance for fall down for one who is fully Krishna conscious.

Lord KrishnaEvery prescription offered, every ritual and function of spiritual life that is bona fide, is meant to further this God consciousness. Even the prayer requests and the seeking of material rewards represent a sort of advancement, as the animals don’t have the ability to pray to God. The material body is temporary, so any reward sought out for its comfort misses the target that is pure God consciousness. Nevertheless, just approaching the Supreme Lord one time in a sincere mood helps further the thought processes of the mind, keeping it aligned with the proper path in life.

The Vedic seers, those who carry the torchlight of knowledge kindly revealed by Krishna Himself on many occasions in the past, advise everyone in this age to simply chant the holy names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. This specific sequence of words is known as the maha-mantra, and it is a sacred formula that can be repeated in a variety of ways. It is best to chant this mantra out loud, congregationally with other devotees of God. Through this method spiritual knowledge can be passed on to others without them even knowing it. It is seen that when devotees join together in what is known as a sankirtana party and take to the streets chanting this mantra, many people come out and enjoy the sounds. They may not even have ever heard of Krishna or the Vedas, but simply from hearing the holy names enthusiastically belted out by the chanters, they feel satisfaction and happiness.

These properties stand in stark contrast to what is seen with the dry worship of an abstract vision of God and the allegiance and support shown to worldly entities, those who are not God. Therefore just from the immediate effects we can understand that there is something special in the chanting prescription, that sankirtana and its foundational mantra have some real efficacy. Along with the chanting recommendation, the spiritual masters advise that we refrain from the four pillars of sinful life: meat eating, gambling, intoxication and illicit sex. In many spiritual traditions there are recommendations for various animal sacrifices. There are also found restrictions on eating certain kinds of food and prohibitions on consuming specific beverages. Avoiding the four pillars of sinful life doesn’t clash with any spiritual tradition. One faith may have recommendations for animal sacrifice, but some logic should be applied to understand the reasoning behind the recommendation. The animal community often kills and eats other animals, and even the human being has the wherewithal to go hunting and open slaughterhouses. If knowledge of how to slay animals is there already, what would the purpose be for recommending animal sacrifice in scripture?

Lord KrishnaThe rational person will understand that animal sacrifice is meant to serve as a way of curbing the sinful practice of unnecessary violence. If the ultimate purpose is to reach a state of pure God consciousness, where the sweet, smiling face of the Supreme Lord is etched into the mind, every recommendation offered should be juxtaposed with this final destination, the end position. In this way we see that whatever targeted recommendations for action exist are there simply to further a higher purpose. Since there is less time and opportunity for full adherence to every ritual from the time of birth for the average human being today, the spiritual master of the Vedic tradition has streamlined the recommendations, allowing for universal principles to be adopted. Not eating meat, never gambling, avoiding illicit sex, and never becoming intoxicated do not violate any religious principle in any way. Rather, by following these restrictions one becomes the most superior and respected member of society.

Krishna is our best friend. This is His most important role, as He can fulfill anyone’s request for opulence or the alleviation of distress, but these gifts don’t eliminate the root of our problems: separation from God. As Krishna says in the Bhagavad-gita, He resides within everyone’s heart. Once our consciousness becomes purified, we can realize this fact and relish the opportunity for divine service so kindly afforded to the human being. We already put so much faith in our fellow man to heal us and ensure our safety, so adding the spiritual master to that list of people is not really much of a gamble. Surrendering to Krishna and those who are forever devoted to Him is the only wager that wins every time. The reward awaiting the person wise enough to put faith in the proper channels is the reunion with their best friend, whose company cures all ailments and brings all pleasures.

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Home of Dharma

Lord Rama“Just as within the earth are found every kind of seed and within the sky live all the stars, Tulsidas knows that Shri Rama’s holy name is the reservoir of all dharma.” (Dohavali, 29)

jathā bhūmi saba bījamaya nakhata nivāsa akāsa |
rāmanāma saba dharamamaya jānata tulasīdāsa ||

The sound vibrations that emanate from the chanting of the sacred maha-mantra, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, are so infectious that they can mesmerize people of any age and any religious persuasion. Someone could have never heard of Lord Krishna, the beautiful youth with a bluish complexion holding a flute in His hands and wearing a peacock feather in His hair, before and still be drawn to chanting this mantra over and over again. They may have no idea who Lord Rama, the jewel of the Raghu dynasty and greatest bow warrior this earth has ever seen, is or why His name is addressed so many times in a sequence of words repeated over and over again accompanied by the beating of mrdangas, the clapping of karatalas, and the dancing of spiritually infused devotees not ashamed to share their true emotions, those found deep within the heart. While to the uninformed it may seem that the act of chanting itself is what causes the wonderful effects, the key ingredient is actually the words within the mantra. Not that any word can just be repeated over and over again to get the same effects, the names of Krishna and Rama have deep meaning; they are the reservoir of all goodness.

Lord KrishnaAre there people who claim that you can just chant any word and elicit the same emotional response? And if they did, how can they be wrong? Isn’t God one? Doesn’t His mercy apply to every single person, regardless of their background? If He is universally benevolent, how can He be limited to just one or two names? God certainly is for everyone, but this doesn’t mean that just any process can be used to connect with Him. The hands, legs, stomach, and eyes play specific roles in maintaining the body of the human being. The eyes can’t be used to hear and the hands can’t be used to digest food. They are both equally part of the body but they each operate according to their abilities.

The same principle applies to sound vibrations, and, more specifically, words. Words mean things. Just by uttering certain words you can cause emotional harm to someone else. Some words are so bad that they are not used in common conversation. On the other hand, some words are so beautiful that they bring delight to the person hearing them. If this applies to our general conversations, why would it be absent in spiritual life?

pencils, booksThe Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, were originally known as the shrutis, or “that which is heard”. School children sing the song of “no more pencils, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks”, at the end of the school year, but such a song couldn’t apply to the early periods of the earth’s creation. There weren’t any books to get rid of. No pencils either. Information was passed down through aural reception, and since man was so pure in thought, he could hear Vedic wisdom just one time and remember everything. More than just tape recorder like technology, the mind could assimilate the presented truths in a very short amount of time.

Since hearing was so powerful, the content of the information being disseminated had to be carefully crafted as well. Just as in communications we use certain words to properly express our ideas, the truths of spiritual life - which include the eternality of the soul, its position relative to the material and spiritual lands, and its inherent link to the Supreme Personality of Godhead - are best presented through sound vibrations that are the most complete in terms of the information they carry. A seemingly miraculous effect evidenced since the beginning of time is the ability of small words, which represent names at their core, to bring the association of the Personality of Godhead.

Lord KrishnaBy personality we refer to God as a person, someone who is an individual just like us. Rather than accept this information through logical deduction and a series of experiments, we can take it as fact from authority figures, those respected acharyas who follow Vedic teachings to the letter. Even easier than this method is simply hearing certain sound vibrations, select names passed down through the sacred hymns of the Vedas. Though God is never limited to only one name, since He has unlimited attributes, He is addressed in a loving way by the people that know Him. In order to address someone properly, we’ll reference their qualities, pastimes, and how they are related to us. Similarly, to address God, the devotees use names that reference the Lord’s wonderful qualities.

Of the many names assigned to God over the years, Krishna and Rama are considered the most complete. Lord Vishnu is the Supreme Lord in charge of the creation, for He simply exhales once and introduces the many universes and their component objects. Vishnu is the same person most of us refer to as God. He is the very figure whose existence the atheists deny, and the person cursed at by the scorned fruitive workers drowning in misfortune. It is said that reciting the thousand names of Vishnu brings all auspiciousness in one’s life, for the holy name is non-different from the person it addresses. The formal ritual of reciting Vishnu’s thousand names is thus done primarily for the purpose of connecting with God. The promise of auspiciousness is just there as a side effect, for how can one have inauspiciousness if they are linked to the Supreme Lord in love?

Lord RamaSaying the holy name of Rama once is as good as reciting the thousand names of Vishnu. Lord Rama is the incarnation of Vishnu who roamed the earth during the Treta Yuga, the second time period of creation. Not just a folk hero who later got tagged with “God” status, Rama’s divinity is mentioned in the shastras, or scriptures. He didn’t go around this earth claiming to be the Supreme Ruler either. Through His actions, He fulfilled His promise to annihilate the miscreants and reestablish the true principles of religion, or dharma.

Saying the holy name of Krishna is equivalent to reciting Rama’s name three times. Krishna refers to Shyamasundara, the two armed, most attractive form of the Lord. Krishna is taken to be either an incarnation of Vishnu who roamed the earth around five thousand years ago or the original Lord Himself. In this way Krishna and Rama are the most important names to recite. The devotees of Rama do not abandon His name even though it is said that Krishna’s name is more powerful. Rather, the apparent deficiency places an added emphasis on repeated chanting. Because of the glory of the two names, it is not surprising that they would form the core of the maha-mantra, the one sequence of words that can best evoke God consciousness within the soul, the individual identifiable aspect of every living being.

Lord KrishnaWhat results from chanting the maha-mantra in full earnest? For starters, the effects of the senses get gradually mitigated. This is indeed very difficult to do without outside help. Chanting, which forms the bedrock of the discipline known as bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, is seemingly easy to take up, but actually convincing the mind of the worthiness of the endeavor is very difficult. To use an example, in order to lose weight, we just have to eat less. It’s a simple formula: create a calorie deficit each day, which means that you have to burn more calories than you take in. The easiest way to do this is to just eat less food.

This is easier said than done, however. Put food in front of us and we’ll likely eat it until it’s all gone. Then there are cravings for food containing fat and sugar, for these ingredients add taste. Therefore, even though curbing food intake itself does not require any skill, convincing the mind of the need to follow this line of behavior is very difficult. Thus other tools are invoked, such as exercise, diet pills, and strategic eating, where only certain foods are eaten at certain times. These other paths are much more difficult to implement, but in the end they have the same effect as limiting overall food intake.

Lord KrishnaIn a similar manner, convincing the mind of the need to surrender unto the personal form of God and chant His names in a loving way is the largest obstacle to overcome in the march towards self-realization. Lest we think this is an exaggeration, it is this aversion to divine love that serves as the root cause of the creation. If everyone were open to bhakti-yoga, there would be no need for a material realm, where loss follows every gain. As soon as there is acceptance, rejection must follow. This applies to every single aspect of life, including the body itself. As soon as there is birth, there must be death. This fact was revealed by Lord Krishna at the outset of His famous discourse on spirituality delivered on the battlefield of Kurukshetra many thousands of years ago.

“For one who has taken his birth, death is certain; and for one who is dead, birth is certain. Therefore, in the unavoidable discharge of your duty, you should not lament.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.27)

What other processes are taken up besides bhakti? To those who don’t know the magic behind divine love, just the results of bhakti practice are noted, with the aim then being to find other ways to reach the same end. The devotee immersed in God consciousness through chanting and abstaining from the four pillars of sinful life [meat eating, gambling, intoxication and illicit sex] is happy, detached from the senses, kind to everyone, and, most importantly, on a fast track to the spiritual land, a place where Krishna’s association never has to be rejected. The imitator not wanting to accept bhakti will try to downplay the effectiveness of chanting the names of Krishna and Rama. “Oh, you can just chant any names, it doesn’t matter. Hari is a word that means the “remover of distress”, so whatever name you chant that can remove your pain is your Harinama.” This is a dangerous, erroneous and completely bogus assessment. “Hari” is a Sanskrit word that can have several different meanings, but when used in the term “Harinama”, it refers to the holy name of the Lord. When Hari is used to address Vishnu, it refers to the Lord who removes the distresses of His devotees. When used to describe bhakti or chanting, the term “Harinama” does not refer to anyone except Vishnu or His non-different forms.

Lord VishnuRemembering that “words mean things”, if we want to call out to our friend, we have to address them by their name. We can’t just call out any word and expect them to know that we are trying to get their attention. We can’t send a letter in the mail and write down any address and expect to have it delivered to our intended destination. We can’t pick up the phone and dial a random set of numbers and expect to have our friend pick up on the other line. In the same way, just any sound vibration cannot be used to connect with the Supreme Lord. The names of Vishnu, or Hari, passed down in the Vedic texts have specific meanings. They give life to the Harinama process. Without Vishnu and His names, there is no real efficacy in any religious process.

This is the point made by Goswami Tulsidas in the above referenced verse from the Dohavali. He says that just as the earth is the reservoir of the many seeds used to grow plants and the sky the home of the numerous stars, the holy name of Shri Rama is the reservoir of all dharma, or religiosity. Bhakti-yoga is the real dharma of the soul; hence the discipline is also known as sanatana-dharma or bhagavata-dharma. The essential characteristic of something is its dharma. The procedures used to activate and maintain that characteristic can also be referred to as dharma; hence the common correlation between dharma and religion.

starry nightThe different methods that mimic bhakti practices and are used to receive some of the same results found in bhakti are also types of dharma. There is meditation, study of Vedanta philosophy, fruitive work with the results renounced, and a host of other more targeted methods of spirituality. They each have their place and can prove to be effective in helping one reach the bhakti platform, but they are not fully potent without the holy name. The seeds in the ground are wonderful because from them come the plant life and fruits we need to maintain our lives. Though the seed is so wonderful, it is meaningless without the soil. Moreover, just having a few seeds cannot compare to having the full earth which contains all the seeds. It’s like having a small quantity of honey versus having the entire jar that is full of honey. Obviously having the full jar is more important. The same holds true with the stars in the sky. A few stars are wonderful in their brilliance, but the sky is more important because it holds all the stars.

The many types of dharma practiced over the years are important in their own right, but one who has the holy name of Rama doesn’t need anything else. From the name they acquire detachment, kindness, and pure love for God. These rewards are unmatched in their brilliance. They are the different end goals of the various other dharmas practiced. Notice that Tulsidas doesn’t say that any name is the reservoir of dharma. He doesn’t say that chanting a sound vibration or meditating on a mantra is the pinnacle of religious practice. He specifically mentions Rama and His name because these are non-different from the Personality of Godhead. You can’t just chant a guru’s name over and over again and expect to have Krishna or Rama’s association. The guru is the representative of God who teaches the disciple how to chant properly and which names to use. He never becomes God himself, especially if he presents bogus definitions of Harinama and tells his disciples that they can just chant whatever they want and expect to get the ultimate benefit in life.

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

But aren’t there many holy names that represent divine personalities? In the Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna, the same Lord Rama but in a different outward, spiritual manifestation, reveals that whatever state of being the departing soul remembers at the time of death, that state they will attain without fail. Therefore if we chant the names of other divine personalities who are not equal to the Personality of Godhead, the best we can hope for is their association in the next life. Since their homes are not eternal, the cycle of birth and death will roll on. Lord Vishnu and His forms live in the spiritual sky of Vaikuntha, and Krishna in the same realm but on the planet of Goloka Vrindavana. This planetary system does not suffer destruction; therefore residence there is eternal. It would make sense that the Personality of Godhead’s land would inherit the Lord’s qualities of eternality and bliss. This is why the vishnu-tattva names represent real Harinama and chanting them is what constitutes real bhakti.

Sita, Rama, Lakshmana, HanumanThe holy name is the home of religion. One who lives in it need not be concerned with any other regulative principle. One doesn’t need to be Hindu to be attracted to chanting the holy names either. Moreover, reciting the maha-mantra does not violate any religious principle nor does it break the allegiance to a particular spiritual tradition. What harm can there be in taking shelter of the complete dharma, the resting place of every system of maintenance? The aim of following a particular system is to receive a specific benefit, to further an end. If all of those ends can be attained in just one place, why would we bother taking the circuitous route? Tulsidas, as a wise Vedic seer armed with both practical experience and knowledge inherited from authority figures, knew what he was talking about. For religious practices to have efficacy, they need a home. Without finding the proper home, the mind will continue to speculate on the nature of the world and the meaning to life. As the true answer will never be found through this method, the mind will never be at peace. On the other hand, he who takes shelter of Rama’s holy name can rest comfortably knowing that they have the whole world available to them.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Why Should I Try

Lord Vishnu“In the beginning of creation, the Lord of all creatures sent forth generations of men and demigods, along with sacrifices for Vishnu, and blessed them by saying, ‘Be thou happy by this yajna [sacrifice] because its performance will bestow upon you all desirable things.’” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 3.10)

Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead and original spiritual master of the universe, reveals in the Bhagavad-gita, the Song of God, that at the beginning of the creation, the Lord of all creatures instituted the system of sacrifice, wherein rituals and functions are to be performed for the satisfaction of higher entities, managers of the material world. Those following these prescribed sacrifices would be rewarded with plentiful rain, which in turn would give life to the crops, which would be used to sustain life. Even for carnivores there is a reliance on grains, which cannot survive without rainfall. In this way sacrificing to higher authority figures is a way of repaying debts, showing gratitude to those who provide sustenance, allowing us to seek pleasure. The soul is by nature blissful, so in order for the pursuit of happiness to commence, the spiritual spark must have a viable form, a field on which to act. Yet with the current makeup of the environment and the seemingly strong influence that people have over their direct actions, it appears that maybe there is no longer a need for sacrifice. If this initial method of religious practice can be so easily invalidated, then maybe God Himself doesn’t exist? From studying a few simple examples from everyday life, however, the purpose behind sacrifice and the glaring need for it can be realized.

“Unseen and indefinite are the good and bad reactions of fruitive work. And without taking action, the desired fruits of such work cannot manifest.” (Lakshmana speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 66.17)

LakshmanaJust because people who aren’t religious are able to amass wealth doesn’t indicate that the divine presence is made up or irrelevant. On the contrary, every reaction that we see is caused by some previous action. Karma is fruitive activity, though in the vernacular the term is associated with good or bad reactions coming from specific actions undertaken. “I get good karma when I act charitably and when I am nice to people. I get bad karma when I steal and when I lie.” But karma doesn’t operate just on grand and visible actions; every deed is taken into consideration. Whatever we see before us is the result of a previous action. The result may not manifest immediately, nor may it even be noticed, but it will nevertheless arrive.

For those who become wealthy through no dedication to sacrifice or religion whatsoever, it is to be understood that their past karma brought them to their current position. The soul is the essence of individuality; it does not die when the body is discarded, nor does it take birth when the body emerges from the womb. The soul never changes in properties, but it can travel through different forms. The types of body accepted are the fruits of previous desires and work performed. As an example, if we take to a strict exercise and diet regimen, pretty soon we’re awarded a new body, one that is more fit and lean than the previous one. Similarly, based on the desires at the forefront of consciousness at the time of death, a specific form is created for the soul’s next encounter with the material creation. The cycle thus continues perpetually until desires are purified to the point that association with matter is no longer preferred.

While it may be difficult to believe that a wealthy person is today reaping the rewards of past activities, we know from the existence of “trust fund babies” and children born of well to do parents that not everyone has the same starting point in life. The son who gains a large inheritance suddenly becomes wealthy. What if he were to say, “Look, I did nothing and I’m rich. Why can’t everyone else do this?” Obviously the source of his wealth was the hard work and endeavor of previous generations of family members. It would be silly to think that the wealth just came on its own.

keyboardIn actuality, every reaction we see is influenced by more powerful entities. Even with the simplest of examples like the entering of a keystroke on a keyboard and seeing the inputted value on the computer screen, there are so many outside influences that are not within the control of the worker. If I depress a certain letter on the keyboard and see it pop up on the screen, naturally I will think that I am the sole cause of the result. But what gets overlooked is that the results are not always the same for every person. For instance, some people will get hit by a tornado, earthquake or other natural disaster and thus not be able to type on their keyboard. Another person may have a debilitating disease that prohibits the movement of their hands and legs. Another person may be violently attacked by another living entity, thus losing their chance at acting out their desires. Another person can perform the exact same action, i.e. press the letter on the keyboard, and not have anything result because of a defect in the hardware or an error in the keyboard’s construction.

Just because one person can type on a keyboard and have the intended result appear on the screen doesn’t mean that they are solely responsible for what results. So many other things didn’t happen in the same time that it took to depress the specific key. Through this small example we see that we have very little control over anything. The higher authorities, known as devas, or demigods, in the Vedic tradition, manage the different elements of life, such as earth, water, fire, air and ether. They are also responsible for distributing one of the threefold miseries of life, adhidaivika, which are those pains inflicted by nature. Karma always delivers the results that are due a person, but in order for the results to manifest, a spiritual injection, instigation from a superior entity, is required.

demigodsEven when apprised of this information, the tendency may be to overlook the need for worshiping God or His deputies. “I’m already enjoying the results of my karma, so why should I worry about religion? It seems like the results are out of my control anyway, so why should I be concerned over how to secure future rewards? Why can’t I just let everything happen on its own?” This line of thinking seems valid enough, for the higher authorities are much more powerful than we are. Nevertheless, there is a purpose to the human form of life. Simply meeting the basic demands of the body is not enough, for the wealthy are always craving action and looking for new ways to spend their time and money. If accumulating wealth and possessions was the aim of life, the well-off would just sit around and do nothing.

The behavior exhibited by wealthy parents towards their children gives us a glimpse into why the system of sacrifice was instituted by the Supreme Lord at the beginning of creation. Let’s say that we succeed materially and accumulate more wealth than we know what to do with. Our children will inherit this opulence and thus not have to worry about meeting the basic demands of the body as they grow up. With this situation, how will we behave towards our children? Will we just allow them to enjoy playing throughout their life without giving any attention to education or work? On the contrary, as good parents we will try to get them into the best schools so that they can become smart enough to use their talents towards furthering their desires. So even when life’s necessities are met, there is still a reason for going through the perfunctory processes, as there are life lessons to be learned from following a recommended course of action.

With spirituality, the aim of every recommended practice is to bring about a gradual shift in consciousness. While the human being is advised to hold sacrifices to please the demigods, the animals don’t have these concerns; and yet all of their necessities are met. Even the tiger, which lives off killing other animals, is given enough food to survive on at just the right times. The animal community doesn’t have any government panels, taxing schemes, economic forums, or stimulus plans to aid in supplying their basic necessities. Their requirements are provided by nature, which is ultimately under the control of the Supreme Lord.

Lord KrishnaThe human beings are a superior species, and yet they are given the added requirement of sacrifice. Therefore there must be a purpose to religion and its recommendations. Sacrifice is intended solely for the purification of consciousness, as the “I am master” mentality is what keeps the soul away from God. The Supreme Lord is known as Krishna because He is all-attractive. Just one look at the smiling face of Shyamasundara can secure the soul enough transcendental pleasure to last a lifetime. In its constitutional position, the soul is a lover of God. Love manifests in service, activities driven by the attitude which seeks to put a smile on the loveable object’s face.

In the conditioned state, the living entity takes the highest object of pleasure to be any object or entity except God. This attitude is not in line with the constitutional position of the soul; hence the requirement for a separate habitation. The material world that we currently occupy is part of the Lord’s separated energy; His direct presence is not here. The ultimate objective for any soul within any form of life is to choose in favor of spiritual association, as this will lead to the greatest pleasure. Unfortunately, the animals don’t have the ability to even make these distinctions or give the up or down vote indicating their choice in association.

Only in the human form of body can the individual gather the intelligence necessary for choosing in favor of association with God. In order for this choice to be made, the false identification with the body must cease. For this barrier towards spiritual realization to be broken, the “I am God” mentality must be shed. Through sacrifice and the regulative principles of religion, the living entity can slowly but surely take the necessary steps towards understanding that God is superior and that they are meant to voluntarily serve Him. Serving the Lord out of fear is not a first class type of worship, for Krishna has no explicit desire to punish us. Just being separated from the company of the spiritual world and its inhabitants is punishment enough. In a world devoid of God, there will be constant competition for supremacy. Since there can only be one Supreme Controller, despite any gains made this competition will eventually result in defeat.

When sacrifice is avoided, the mentality that keeps one conditioned to material life strengthens. Life’s necessities will always be there, as food, grains, milk and water are readily available and relatively inexpensive compared to other items. If the animals get everything through the mercy of the demigods, why shouldn’t the human beings? The suras, who manage the different elements that make up the necessities of material life, act directly under the order of Krishna. By worshiping them, one works their way up towards the Supreme Lord. Yet since in this age adherence to religious life is virtually absent, there is little time for following every single rule, regulation and recommended sacrifice. Rather, the only recommended sacrifice for this age is the sankirtana-yajna, chanting, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”.

Lord KrishnaAs altering consciousness is the aim of human life, the more we can remain in contact with Krishna, the better off we will be. He is the object of sacrifice anyway, as one of His names is Yajneshvara. Sacrifice to the demigods is meant to serve as an indirect way of worshiping the Supreme Lord, who sanctions the rewards distributed by the devas. The wise, however, seek not the temporary benefits of a material existence. They go straight for the sublime association of the most attractive person, the entity whom all the world is seeking. Through His holy name, He can be found within a second. Whether or not we put forth an effort at securing temporary pains and pleasures will not make a difference, as these will arrive in due course. Karma always bears fruit, either immediately or some time into the future. The soul is full of potential for action, and this is by design. Our original form is that of servant of Krishna, so by following activities that maintain the connection with the Lord in a stream of purified consciousness, our efforts exerted in the valuable human form of life can bring about the best fruit, ascension to the imperishable spiritual sky.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Starting Point

Lord Rama“Just as within the earth is found every kind of seed and within the sky live all the stars, Tulsidas knows that Shri Rama’s holy name is the reservoir of all dharma.” (Dohavali, 29)

jathā bhūmi saba bījamaya nakhata nivāsa akāsa |
rāma nāma saba dharamamaya jānata tulasīdāsa ||

Where should we start in our spiritual journey? Say that we are curious about the truths of life, the reason for our existence, which direction we should go in, what determines pious action and what is considered sinful - where do we go to find the answers? Should we start out small, or is there a singular process that can reveal everything? In this age of Kali, where dharma, or religiosity, is conspicuous by its absence, and quarrel and hypocrisy are commonplace, following the bottom up approach is very difficult. To understand the nature of the soul, appreciate the matter outside, realize the common bond shared between all forms of life, and then finally marvel in the wonder, beauty and benevolence of the almighty Creator and recognize His transcendentally blissful form is a very difficult sequence of steps to follow. If we choose one special course, however, we’ll soon realize that in just one aspect of the Supreme Absolute Truth can be found all the others, both material and spiritual. Thus not only is this method of spiritual practice complete in every way, but it also serves as both the starting and end points.

Goswami TulsidasTo understand the distinctions more clearly, we can look to the first two examples given in the above quoted verse from the Dohavali, or collection of couplets, of Goswami Tulsidas. The wonderfully sweet, kind, humble and exquisitely learned poet first says that within the earth are found all seeds. Let’s pretend that we are starting our knowledge gathering efforts from scratch. This isn’t that difficult to imagine, as during infancy we are completely helpless and ignorant. The young child is actually no smarter than an animal, and in many cases is less intelligent, as adult aged animals know how to feed themselves, sleep on time, reproduce, and adequately defend themselves from attack.

Let’s say that as we mature from infancy into childhood, we start to appreciate the surrounding environment. The first things we might notice are the wonderful trees and plants in the garden in the backyard. We might ask our father, “Dad, where did these plants come from? Where did these tomatoes that we eat every night appear from magically, all of a sudden?” Our father will then walk us through the entire process, how a seed is planted in the soil, and how through careful attention and consideration it eventually fructifies and grows tomatoes. This wonder of nature is certainly easy to overlook, as it is truly a miracle that food items can sprout from the tiniest of seeds.

tomato plantsUnderstanding how just one plant grows serves as a substantial foundational base, but then we might also notice other plants. Again, we’ll ask our dad, “Father, wherefrom did these other plants come? Do they grow in the same way as the seeds that produced the tomatoes?” This time we will witness the growth cycles again, note down the results of the experiment in our mind, and then increase our appreciation for the seeds. Gradually, as we start to add to our knowledge base, we may start to appreciate more and more plants and the overall miracle of life.

A similar appreciation can come from watching the stars in the sky and the workings of the sun. During the morning the sun rises and gradually warms up the earth, causing plants to grow and human beings to have the benefit of natural light. When the sun sets at night, the heat and light vanish, thus bringing a depressing condition. Through daily observation, the young child will slowly but surely start to appreciate the wonderful sun and its benevolence. The moon can be similarly noticed and appreciated for the functions it performs daily, which don’t require any outside intervention. The moon provides light at night, supplies the juice of life to the vegetables growing in the ground, and influences the tides of the oceans. Thus the moon and the sun can be both appreciated through seeing how they operate.

“I enter into each planet, and by My energy they stay in orbit. I become the moon and thereby supply the juice of life to all vegetables.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 15.13)

Lord KrishnaIn both instances, full appreciation is eventually reached, but through a step-by-step process. Eventually, if we study all the plants that grow from the ground and all the stars situated in the sky, we’ll see that the earth and the sky are the abodes of both miracles of material existence. If we would have first studied the earth and the entire sky, then we would have automatically learned about the different plants and stars. The earth and sky are actually more important because they are reservoirs, the holding places, for the individual miracles that were noticed.

Expanding the scope of vision out fully, it is seen that all dharmas, or systems of religiosity, are held nicely within the reservoir of pleasure and energy, the Supreme Lord, who is known by many names in the various spiritual traditions around the world. In the Vedic tradition, He is often addressed as Lord Rama, for this not only points to His avatara as a pious prince who appeared on earth during the Treta Yuga, but it also describes God’s ability to provide transcendental pleasure to His devotees. Shri Rama is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and as such, in Him can be found every religious process and every aspect of life.

Lord RamaWhy is it important to know that Rama holds the many systems of religion within Him? Similar to how our appreciation increased when we learned more about the earth and the sky, if we know a little bit more about the object of all religious sacrifice, penance, austerity, charity and dedication, we will be able to understand and appreciate the individual aspects of spiritual life more fully. Rama is not a sectarian figure; He is the Supreme Lord for all of humanity. Though there are various non-different forms of the same original person, Tulsidas especially worships God in His form of Shri Ramachandra, who carries a bow and arrow in His hands and promises to always protect the surrendered souls.

In spiritual life especially there are divergences in the specific practices adopted, with some worshiping through meditation, others studying the difference between matter and spirit, and some even praying to an abstract entity to remove their distresses. If we were to practice every single one of these processes, we could maybe gain a greater appreciation for the Supreme Person who not only distributes the results of sacrifice, but serves as the creator of every spiritual tradition known the world over.

Lord RamaThere is an easier method, however, for understanding everything. At its root meaning, dharma is the essential characteristic of something, and in the religious sense it is meant to apply to the soul, which is the individual functioning unit within every living being. To maintain the essential characteristic within, to bring it to the forefront of consciousness and activity, a set of rules and regulations is required, a recommended way of life aimed at evoking the primary properties of the soul. This set of principles can also be described using the word “dharma”; hence the common English translation for dharma being “religion”. In its constitutional position, the soul is blissful, eternal, knowledgeable and most of all, a lover of God. One who loves must engage in some service; so when the soul loves God it must have a series of activities aimed at keeping that bond of affection intact.

For the conditioned souls roaming the earth that is full of seeds and appreciating the sky with its numerous stars, knowledge of the relationship to God and the inherent characteristics of spirit remains unknown. Therefore the original dharma, which is described as sanatana, or eternal, is needed. In the absence of deference to dharma, mankind is no different from the animal, for no other species has the intelligence capacity to even understand the need for abiding by the rules governing right and wrong, piety and sin, virtue and vice. Only the human being can understand these concepts, and only through dharma can they find the proper path in life.

Lord RamaTulsidas declares that in Rama’s name can be found all dharma, or systems of religiosity. This is indeed true, as the name of Rama automatically brings His audience, thus allowing the conditioned souls to directly approach God right away. Chanting the 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”, forms the cornerstone of the engagement known as bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. Only in the material realm, where other disciplines besides divine love can be practiced, do the terms “bhakti” and “dharma” even apply. When in the pure state, the soul has no other business but constant service to the Lord and enjoyment of His company. Just as darkness only exists when light is absent, the different processes of religion are only introduced when the highest engagement of bhakti is not practiced.

The transcendentalists known as monists, or those who believe Rama to be simply a manifestation of the Absolute Truth known as Brahman, of which we are all part, take bhakti to be another process of dharma aimed at bringing self-realization. In reality, bhakti is the pinnacle of religious practice, the storehouse of all other engagements. This is the point put forth by Tulsidas, as the name of Rama is the complete whole, not simply an aspect of religion or a manifestation of the Truth. Those who don’t know Rama’s name or don’t understand the true dharma of the soul will speculate that life is about merging into the Absolute Truth and negating material action, but these are just two tools that can help in reaching the bhakti platform, a state which can be directly found by chanting Rama’s name with love and devotion.

“One who is thus transcendentally situated at once realizes the Supreme Brahman. He never laments nor desires to have anything; he is equally disposed to every living entity. In that state he attains pure devotional service unto Me.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 18.54)

Lord KrishnaAll aspects of religion are similarly just tools meant to lead to bhakti. Let’s say that we take bhakti to be just a method of self-realization aimed at removing one’s attachment to matter and the senses. When the state of Brahman realization, or brahma-bhutah, is attained, then what? The soul is inclined towards activity, so even when it no longer desires association with material life and deference to karma and sense demands, it still must have something to do. Therefore even brahma-bhutah represents an imperfect state, a platform which must lead to something better.

In the Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna, the very same Shri Rama but in a different form, states that once the yogi attains the state of Brahman realization, He can take to worshiping the Supreme Lord in love and devotion. The same principle applies to meditational yoga, fruitive activity, or any other non-bhakti discipline. Dharma can involve more granular procedures depending on the scope of activity. For instance, pious behaviors such as telling the truth, being kind to others, sharing your wealth, helping the poor, etc. are smaller forms of religion that descend from the highest practice of loving God.

We can accept the individual processes and maybe one day come to the final realization of our relationship with the Supreme Lord as His part and parcel fragments made to always be in His company, but by chanting the non-different names of God with love and devotion, all necessary knowledge can be acquired. Moreover, the benefits of every other religious practice can be found as well. Thus the bhakta, or devotee, is never a loser. Understanding the nature of the earth will give us more appreciation for the seeds that come out of it, and studying the sky can help us better understand the stars that remain comfortably housed within. Similarly, chanting the holy name of the Lord through love and devotion brings about real God consciousness, where the many processes of religion are simultaneously understood properly.

Sita, Rama, Lakshmana, HanumanIndeed, devotees can explain every aspect of life, material or spiritual, through its relation to God. This is how the famous acharyas and saints have produced seemingly endless volumes of literature glorifying the Lord and devotion to Him. The name of Rama opens our transcendental eyes and allows us to have a clear vision. Moreover, the bhakti platform is an eternal one, bringing an attitude of undying love and affection aimed at everyone’s dearmost friend, the Supreme Lord. Just as the name of Rama safely holds the different systems of dharma known to man, in the devotee of Rama can be found the fruits and rewards of all religious practice, namely every beneficial quality and attribute one can acquire. Therefore the dust of the lotus feet of a Vaishnava, the devotee of God’s personal forms, is the greatest benediction in life, as the dedication to chanting exhibited by the bhakta serves as the best example to follow.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Ease of Implementation

Lord Krishna“Persons who have acted piously in previous lives and in this life, whose sinful actions are completely eradicated and who are freed from the duality of delusion, engage themselves in My service with determination.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 7.28)

Pick up any book on Hinduism and you will surely get a brief rundown of the several avenues available for self-realization, for attaining the highest state known for the soul, which is the essence of individuality, that autonomous entity residing within every life form that is immune to the effects of the material existence driven by the dualities of love and hate, acceptance and rejection, and happiness and misery. Within this rundown, bhakti, or devotion, is commonly mentioned as being the easiest of the various processes. With the ultimate aim being defined as the realization of Brahman, or the Absolute Truth, the method that can be taken up by the most people and which has the least prerequisites and difficulties as far as skillset and attributes will be labeled the easiest. Yet if we actually look at the number of people who take up bhakti-yoga sincerely compared to its apparent ease of implementation, we see that bhakti is actually the most difficult of all the methods of self-realization, as it is the only process that directly corresponds with the properties of the soul in its pure form. Only once all past sinful effects and reactions have exhausted can one actually take up pure loving service to God.

What are the different methods of self-realization? How can there even be more than one avenue towards salvation? Can’t we just pick one person and worship Him exclusively? The Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, the tradition that is today known as Hinduism, actually provide the most concrete information about the soul, the meaning of life, and what can be done to attain the ultimate goal, the best destination. In this sense sectarianism and sentimentalism towards a particular faith without having knowledge of the intricacies of life and the justifications for requiring such worship are immediately bypassed by the Vedic tradition. There are different methods of self-realization, because not everyone will be willing to return to their constitutional position right away. The first instruction taught to aspiring transcendentalists in the Vedic school is aham brahmasmi, which means “I am Brahman, or a spirit soul.” This information is important to learn, because in the absence of knowledge of Brahman, the individual will adopt a false identification.

schoolWhat does it mean to wrongly identify oneself? Let’s say that we have graduated the first grade and then started the second grade of elementary school the next year. If we base our identity on our class standing from the previous year, we will obviously not make any progress, and we won’t be engaging in the proper activities. First grade classwork is meant for students of a particular level of intelligence. The second grade is there for those who have advanced past the first grade. If our identification remains flawed, we will not be able to take full advantage of the ascension to the second grade.

In a similar manner, if the spirit soul granted a human form of body doesn’t understand who they truly are, they will remain in the mindset accepted in their previous life form. We know from our own experiences that animals are not very intelligent, as a fish doesn’t even know that it is wet, nor does any animal have any idea of impending death. The human being has the increased potential for intelligence, so in taking advantage of this feature the first thing to do is understand who we really are.

The knowledge capacity given to the human being reveals the real purpose to religion, or spirituality. More than just surrendering to a particular divine figure out of fear, there must be some intelligence to guide the individual and keep them committed to voluntarily adopting that level of service. Otherwise, the devotion will be rooted completely in a mood of defense, which is an animal instinct. Brahman is beyond the dualities of material existence, which function through the repetition of birth, old age, disease and death. With every new birth comes a new instance of the cycle. The soul remains the same in quality throughout these changes; hence it is referred to as Brahman, or Truth.

If we are already Brahman, why do we even need an education? If I am a spirit soul at the core, above the mundane existence, why do I need to be reminded of this fact? Though we are Brahman, or spirit soul, we are actually part of an energy that has a marginal position. From God comes the total energy, which includes both the internal and external. Material nature, that which is dull and lifeless in the absence of a spiritual injection, is the external, or inferior, energy. Spirit, which is always dominant over matter, is the superior energy. God is the source of both, so He is never subject to delusion or forgetfulness. He never needs educating or self-realization.

We spirit souls, being part and parcel of Brahman, are marginal in the sense that we have choice in association. By constitution we are spirit, but we can associate with matter if we like. Deciding in the wrong direction brings forgetfulness of our real position; hence the need for self-realization. Understanding that we are spirit soul is the first step, but where we go from there is dependent on our desires and natural proclivities.

“Perform your prescribed duty, for action is better than inaction. A man cannot even maintain his physical body without work.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 3.8)

Lord KrishnaOne avenue for self-realization is known as karma-yoga. At its core karma just means “work”, actions which have commensurate reactions. The different material bodies are formed as the result of karma, so the kind of work we take up is very important. In the absence of Brahman realization, the false identification with material elements will continue. Thus the default is to take to activities in karma. With karma-yoga, however, the results of action are renounced; they are sacrificed in favor of advancement in consciousness. This method can be likened to going to work on a regular basis, living within your means, but then sacrificing the results by being charitable and performing religious functions recommended by spiritual authority figures. The aim is to perform prescribed duties while remaining detached from the outcome.

Another avenue is known as jnana-yoga, which is the pursuit of esoteric knowledge. Through this method one studies the differences between matter and spirit and slowly but surely renounces activities that further solidify the false identification with the body. The more material activities are renounced, the easier it becomes to realize Brahman. This method is much more difficult to implement, as the conditioned soul is naturally prone towards explicit action. Jnana-yoga is especially feared by parents of young children, for if their kids take to studying Brahman, they might live a life of austerity and thus have no steady source of income or food when they grow up. For the jnana-yogis this is by design, as less attachment is seen as being beneficial towards ultimate realization of the Absolute Truth.

Another method is meditational yoga, wherein one combines different aspects of jnana and karma. In karma there is work, and in jnana there is inaction, so meditational yoga takes elements of both to create a regimen dedicated to performing breathing exercises and sitting in certain postures for extended periods of time. Since there is dedication towards physical activity, there is some karma involved, and since the discipline rewards renunciation from worldly attachment, there is a jnana element as well. This is likely the most difficult method of self-realization, for performing meditational yoga properly carries strict requirements. Many of them are detailed in the Bhagavad-gita, the most concise and complete treatise on Vedic philosophy delivered by the object of sacrifice, the Supreme Lord Himself, Shri Krishna.

“The culmination of all kinds of yoga practices lies in bhakti-yoga. All other yogas are but means to come to the point of bhakti in bhakti-yoga. Yoga actually means bhakti-yoga; all other yogas are progressions toward the destination of bhakti-yoga.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Bg. 6.47 Purport)

Shrila PrabhupadaThis brings us to bhakti. On the surface, bhakti seems the easiest to implement out of the different yogas. One doesn’t even have to give up their job. A bhakta can work, study scriptures and do meditation, all while increasing their knowledge of God and the soul. At the heart of bhakti-yoga is practicing devotion. This is facilitated through acts of love, which in their pure form lack both motive and interruption. Just based on these two properties alone we see that bhakti is superior. Indeed, the secret known only to those who practice bhakti-yoga as a way of life is that all other forms of yoga are meant to culminate in devotional practice. You’ll never see someone attain the highest platform of God consciousness in a mood of pure love and devotion and then subsequently take to some other method of self-realization. On the other hand, there have been countless instances of great historical personalities attaining the brahma-bhutah platform of consciousness, the understanding of Brahman, and then still not finding full satisfaction. It was not until they took up bhakti that they realized the true fruit of their birth.

How do we practice bhakti? What is its central component? For the ascetic dedicated to advancing in spiritual life, at the heart of their practice is penance. An ascetic without penances is a spiritualist in name only. Similarly, a yogi without dedication to meditation is also a pretender. The life of the karma-yogi is the sacrifice of the fruits of their labor. For the devotee, the life and soul of their practice is the holy name. Through regularly reciting sacred formulas like, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, the bhakta stays always connected with God. Krishna and Rama are Sanskrit names that apply to the Supreme Lord, the singular entity who is everyone’s God, even if they don’t know it. Only the narrow-minded think in terms of “my God” and “your God”, for if there is to be a Supreme Being, His mercy must extend to everyone, including life forms beyond the human community.

Lord KrishnaBhakti is considered the easiest yoga, because its implementation is not difficult at all. Even a small child who has no inkling towards self-realization or understanding the worthiness of worship of the Supreme Lord can take to bhakti by chanting, dancing, or singing. Indeed, even language barriers are absent in bhakti. One needn’t know Sanskrit to chant the maha-mantra and enjoy the effusive transcendental sound vibrations that are produced. Women, children, the unintelligent, and anyone else for whom the other practices of yoga are deemed too difficult to perform can take to bhakti and make full advancement. Bhakti is transcendental love after all, so who isn’t capable of offering their heartfelt love and respect to the Supreme Lord?

What’s interesting to note, however, is that bhakti is actually very difficult to adopt with any level of sincerity. For starters, unless one understands who the object of worship is and why there is a need for connecting with Him, they will never realize the true benefit and superiority of bhakti. When the aim is to understand Brahman, or the impersonal Absolute Truth, bhakti is taken to be an inferior method. “Oh, if someone isn’t smart enough to study Vedanta or doesn’t have the time to perform meditational yoga, they can still concoct deity manifestations and keep their focus on spiritual life in that way. By worshiping any deity, it doesn’t matter of which personality, regularly, they can become detached from the senses and gradually realize that they are Brahman. Once they attain that position, they can give up their bhakti as well, for they won’t need it anymore.” Under this thinking the methods of bhakti are seen as something like training wheels, guides that help in the beginning stages but then are eventually renounced.

Lord KrishnaBhakti, however, is transcendental love. Does a good mother ever stop loving her child? Does the husband tell the wife, “Okay, we’ve been married for a certain number of years, so I’ve loved you enough. It’s now time for me to stop.”? Divine love is actually engrained within the soul; having an attachment to God in full affection is everyone’s constitutional position. The Supreme Lord is directly represented in bhakti, whereas He is partially present in the other types of yoga. We say this with great confidence, because since He is the most merciful, it would make sense that the topmost yoga discipline would be the one that would also be the most benevolent, the method that could be practiced by every single person, irrespective of their level of intelligence or ability to put their arms and legs into impossible positions.

Just as those things we actually need in life are relatively inexpensive and abundant, the only method of self-realization that need be adopted is the easiest to find and implement. All you need is the holy name. Simply reciting the name of Krishna or Rama just one time without any offense brings cognition of the forms, pastimes and qualities of the Supreme Person. In the absence of bhakti, the highest stage of understanding the spiritualist can attain is that of Brahman. Maybe Paramatma, the localized aspect of God resting within the heart can be realized, but these features are not complete representations. Through divine love, one remains forever in the company of the Personality of Godhead, whose activities and teachings are so wonderful that one can become enthralled just by hearing about them. Krishna’s instructions in the Bhagavad-gita are the most celebrated, studied and contemplated words on spirituality known the world over. Krishna’s pastimes documented in texts like the Shrimad Bhagavatam and Ramayana have been sung and glorified more than any other person’s.

RamayanaThough life’s necessities like grains, fruits, water and milk are highly abundant and inexpensive, we don’t consider them very valuable. Similarly, since bhakti is available to everyone and easy to implement, it is the least appreciated and least availed of the various disciplinary systems. In the absence of a pursuit of self-realization, the human being imitates the animals and operates exclusively under the mode of sense gratification. In the universe of available activities, it is this pursuit that is the most popular. When spirituality is taken up, every method except bhakti is adopted first. There is a reason for this. With every discipline except bhakti, full surrender unto the highest authority figure is absent. The false ego, which not only identifies with gross matter but also causes the individual soul to view itself as the supreme enjoyer, repels the idea of full surrender to God. This is why out of all the spiritual practices bhakti remains the most difficult to adopt with any level of sincerity.

“Out of many thousands among men, one may endeavor for perfection, and of those who have achieved perfection, hardly one knows Me in truth.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 7.3)

Krishna and ArjunaLord Krishna even addresses this fact in the Bhagavad-gita, where He states that out of many thousands of men, one may strive for self-realization. And then out of those seekers, hardly one will actually know Krishna in truth. Therefore when we do see someone who is dedicated to bhakti and loving God to their heart’s content, we should appreciate their efforts. The need for surrendering fully unto God is the most difficult fact to accept, but with proper guidance and a sincere desire for achieving a beneficial position, the right mindset can be attained. Since the bhakti platform corresponds directly with the constitutional position of the soul, there is no loss on the devotee’s part. We have everything to gain from connecting with Krishna in consciousness at all times.

Monday, August 1, 2011

At Every Step

Lord Rama“Shri Rama’s holy name is like a desire tree in Kali Yuga and is the root of all auspiciousness. Whoever remembers it gets all perfections in the palm of their hand and supreme bliss at every step.” (Dohavali, 28)

rāma nāma kali kāmatarū sakala sumangala kanda |
sumirata karatala siddhi saba paga paga paramānanda ||

Lord Rama, the jewel of the Raghu dynasty, the prince of Ayodhya, the only worshipable object for Goswami Tulsidas, Agastya Rishi, Sita Devi, Lakshmana, Hanuman, Valmiki Muni and a host of other exalted personalities, is worthy of our exclusive attention not only because of His being non-different from the person most of us refer to as God, for He is the very same person in a unique spiritual form, but also because of the wonderful benefits He provides to His devotees, especially those who chant His name and remember Him constantly. In this wonderful verse from the Dohavali, we see that chanting Rama’s name is like a wish-fulfilling tree, and remembrance of that name brings all perfections to the palm of the hand. These aren’t just lofty words; they are facts attested to by elevated personalities who previously looked for fruits of enjoyment through every activity except devotion to God. When they subsequently turned their eyes towards the smiling face of Shri Rama, an image which can be produced very easily within the mind by regularly chanting, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, they found what they were looking for, and that discovery didn’t take very long to materialize.

Lakshmana, Rama, and SitaKarma is typically translated to mean “fruitive activity”, because the development of a seed into a tree or plant which bears fruit is the best way to describe action undertaken on the material plane. All energies seen can be typically grouped into two categories. One is directly related to God, while the other is considered a separated expansion, a force which operates somewhat on its own and with no relation to the Supreme Person. In reality there is no difference between God and His energies, but based on the purview of the soul deluded by ignorance and doubt as to the existence of the Supreme Person, distinctions are made between this feature and that feature. As an example, the hands and legs are part of our body, and when they act according to the dictates of the mind, they can be considered part of us. Indeed, if an athlete in a particular sport is adroit in using his hands or legs, the commentators and spectators may compliment the player for having “soft hands” or “quick feet”.

But if the hands and legs should start acting on their own, in defiance of the will of the person calling the shots, the spirit soul, which sends its signals for action to the brain, the very same hands and legs will need to be removed. In one sense it is humorous to think about. Let’s say that we go up to a stranger and introduce ourselves. Common protocol calls for a handshake, but if the hand were to operate independently and punch the stranger in the stomach instead of shaking their hand, what would we do? Obviously the hand would have to be renounced at some point if it didn’t start behaving properly again and following the dictates of the mind.

In a similar manner, material nature, the gross and subtle elements of life assumed at the time of birth, are meant to be used in service to their creator, the Supreme Lord. Without knowledge of His presence and His worthiness of worship, however, our hands, feet, legs and other aspects of the body are used to further the interests of the senses which are divorced from God consciousness. As soon as the deviation occurs, which is actually the root cause for the creation of the universe, karma sets in, and the activities are described as fruitive in nature, with rewards sought through hard work.

harvestUnderstanding the comparison to the growing of a plant should not be very difficult. The farmer tills the soil, plants the seeds, and then regularly tends to the crops as they start to grow. The aggregate expenditure of effort is aimed at enjoying the resulting fruit, whatever the plant has to give. Whether the fruit is enjoyed personally for taste or is sold for profit, the aim is still the same, that of enjoying some benefit. What might get overlooked, though, is that through this process there are cause and effects to every action. Sometimes the work goes for naught, as a drought or natural disaster can wipe out the entire harvest. In addition, if much time is spent tending to the crops, other duties and relationships can be neglected. In this way, every single action undertaken without knowledge of the Supreme Person suffers reactions, with the sum total of effects combining to lead to both favorable and unfavorable conditions.

Tulsidas says that if you chant the name of Rama in Kali Yuga, the process is like having a kamataru, or desire tree. The name of the Lord is also likened to the root of all good fortunes. A desire tree exists in the heavenly realm, a place above the earthly plane but still part of the material world. Ascension to heaven is a wonderful attraction for those disappointed by their fruitive efforts, those desiring lengthy bouts of personal enjoyment. Though the celestial land has residents who remain there for thousands and sometimes even millions of years, its duration of existence must complete at some point. While residing in that sphere, desire trees that grant whatever wishes one wants can be found. The regular planting of a tree that sprouts fruits takes much effort and patience, all done for some paltry level of enjoyment. But the wish-fulfilling tree is so wonderful that it gives the worshiper whatever they want immediately.

Lord RamaRama’s name is non-different from Him, so anyone who chants it, especially in the dark age of quarrel and hypocrisy, has their desires fulfilled. Yet it should be noted that the nature of those desires bears no resemblance to what is found in the heavenly realm or even on earth. Sakala sumangala references all good fortunes, and since the desire tree that is Rama’s name brings about these wonderful delights, the process of chanting it can be considered the root of all good fortunes. The present age is especially known for the difficulty in securing the essentials in life, as quantities of food, water and milk are abnormally low around the world. Even though these products are found in general abundance in industrialized nations, security is still absent, as there is constant worry over economic misfortunes, job loss and the inability to pay the monthly bills.

Chanting Rama’s name fulfills desires, because it is the purification of activity. In the conditioned state, the living entity prays for temporary rewards and works hard to try to achieve them. Since Rama’s name is completely spiritual, chanting it first brings about a change in consciousness. Say that I start out with the desire to have a high end sports car. Since I can’t afford it myself, I pray to Rama through chanting His name and ask Him to bring it to me. If I am sincere enough in my chanting, if I hold on to the name for dear life, the impetus for my desire, the potential enjoyment that I thought I would receive from the new car, gets addressed. The same enjoyment is acquired but through bhakti instead, as the name of Rama brings about remembrance of His transcendental form, pastimes and qualities. Rama is not only the Supreme Lord, He is also a historical personality who appears on earth in a visible form during every Treta Yuga, or second time period of creation.

Lord RamaTulsidas next mentions remembrance of Rama’s name and the wonderful benedictions it brings. Indeed, the chanting process first referenced is aimed at causing remembrance. The mind must always contemplate something, as even during sleep thoughts continue to fly through the brain. Tulsidas says that remembering Rama’s name brings every perfection, or siddhi, within the palm of one’s hand. While this point can reference those who perform sacrifices aimed at successfully bringing rewards, it especially applies to mystics, those who are enamored by meditational yoga. When realizing the temporary nature of the material world, there are generally two options one can take. One is to seek out even more enjoyment through forgetting God, and the other is to turn to spiritual life, which aims to tackle the effects of the senses. Mystic yoga is especially meant for those who are overly bothered by the demands of eating, sleeping and sex life. Through sitting postures and breathing exercises, the effects of the senses can be mitigated and the mind can be more at peace.

Through even more rigorous yoga practice, several seemingly miraculous siddhis, or perfections, can be acquired. These include the ability to become very small or very large, travel outside of one’s body, move things with the mind, and be able to decide the time of your own death. These abilities are so wonderful that many yogis have convinced others that they are God through their exhibitions. But to the trained eye, one who knows the amazing abilities of the Supreme Lord and the limits of meditational yoga, these mystic perfections aren’t that big a deal. The issue goes back to interest. When the material elements are used to further one’s own desires, they can be considered separate from God. So when mystic perfections are used to convince others that they have become God or to enjoy some magical ride through ethereal space, the yoga doesn’t have much use.

HanumanRemembering Rama’s name actually brings these siddhis very easily, as one doesn’t have to go through the rigorous processes of meditation, which require strict regulations on association, time, place, and eating and sleeping habits. One person who nicely illustrates how remembering Rama can bring all mystic perfections is Hanuman, the Vanara warrior who is considered Rama’s greatest devotee. Roaming the earth in a monkey form at the same time that Rama had appeared many thousands of years ago, Hanuman had no proclivity towards meditational yoga. Indeed, the form of a monkey is considered a very low birth, as the species is prone towards illicit sex life and uncontrolled eating. Hanuman is no ordinary monkey, though; he is a divine figure who loves Rama more than anyone can possibly love another person.

Hanuman is always eager to serve Rama, so the Lord gives him many chances to act out such desires. Since Hanuman is so pure at heart, he has mastery over every yogic siddhi, which he acquires through no extraneous endeavor. Hanuman never claims to be God, nor does he show off his perfections to boost his ego. Rather, he uses his abilities to serve the interests of the Supreme Lord, as he did on many occasions while searching for Rama’s missing wife Sita Devi in the enemy territory of Lanka.

Hanuman in LankaFinally, Tulsidas says that remembering Rama’s name brings paramananda, or supreme bliss, at every step. Who among us isn’t looking for bliss? The Vedas say that the very nature of God is pure bliss, or ananda-chinmaya-rasa. As part and parcel of the Supreme Person, we too are blissful by nature. That’s why we seek out fruits, mystic perfections and other sources of enjoyment during our time on earth. Even in the ignorant state of mind, the tendency towards bliss does not diminish. Aside from the mystic yogis and the fruitive workers governed by the laws of karma, there are those who wish to negate every aspect of material existence. Since they do not have a concrete idea of who God is and what constitutes His nature, the highest platform they can reach is the merging into the light of Brahman.

The Bhagavad-gita, the most concise treatise on Vedanta philosophy so nicely expounded by its founder, Lord Krishna, who is the same Shri Rama but in a different outward appearance, says that whatever state of mind one remembers at the time of death, that state they will attain in the next life without fail. Since the impersonalist philosophers consider material nature to be false, or a separate energy only conducive to misery, their mentality at the time of death will not be focused on material existence. Therefore they get a spiritual nature in the next life, but since they don’t know of the Personality of Godhead and the wonderful bliss that comes with His association, the enjoyment they feel is referred to as brahmananda, or the bliss coming from merging into Brahman.

This merging into Brahman is equally as difficult to acquire as the siddhis of yoga. Those who study impersonalist Vedanta implement strict rules on eating, sleeping and association. The renounced order of life, or sannyasa, is a must, and there cannot be any association with maya, or the false world. Therefore ascending to the brahma-bhutah platform, the state of mind where all forms of life are understood to be Brahman, or pure spirit, is very difficult, as the allures of material life and the bliss-seeking tendency of the soul cause constant urges for some sort of activity. Since in the impersonalist discipline there is no bliss derived from association with the reservoir of all pleasure, Shri Rama, the itching towards seeking material enjoyment further increases.

Lord RamaLest the impersonalists feel they would be missing out by taking to such a simple a process as the chanting of Rama’s name, Tulsidas correctly asserts that remembering Rama brings the highest bliss, greater than that found through merging into Brahman, at every step of the process. This means that one doesn’t even have to become a perfect yogi, an expert on Vedanta, or the wealthiest individual in the world to realize fruits from the wish-fulfilling tree that is Rama’s name. At every step of the way, the chanting of the holy names, which forms the cornerstone of the transcendental engagement known as bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, brings everything one could desire.

While this seems too good to be true, those who have practiced bhakti can attest to its validity. Tulsidas himself, through the workings of yogamaya, the energy of the material nature operating directly under the purview of Rama Himself, was attached to his beautiful wife in his younger years. There is certainly nothing wrong with harboring affection for family members and friends, but when the highest bliss, the perfections of life and the fruits of enjoyment are sought out through any material endeavor, the resulting enjoyment is substandard. Indeed, when one first seeks out Rama and chants His name, all the other aspects of life become spiritualized and act as a way to continue remembrance of the Lord.

Tulsidas eventually dedicated his whole life to chanting Rama’s name and glorifying the Lord. Even while living the life of a sannyasi, he had everything available to him; he was in need of nothing. He hung on to the name of the Lord as his life and soul, and instead of becoming poor and downtrodden, he found that everything he required and wanted in life was supplied to him. The same holds true today for Tulsidas’ beloved Shri Hanuman, who continues to remain on earth for as long as the glories of Rama are sung and the details of His life described and talked about. Hanuman’s necessities in life are met through the benedictions offered by Sita Devi, the goddess of fortune and eternal consort of Lord Rama.

Sita and RamaIf we simply take up bhakti with a little sincerity, we’ll see that the lofty promises made by the devotees are not exaggerated in the least bit. The sweetest fruit in life is to be able to remember the Supreme Lord at every single moment without deviation. With such a reward, the devotee feels like they have the whole world in their hand, with bliss enjoyed during every second in life. Not surprisingly, the time of death goes from being a feared moment to one not worried about, as the state of mind will be guaranteed to be fixed on the lotus feet of the Supreme Lord, who is the shelter of the surrendered souls.