Saturday, August 13, 2011

A Happy Fish

Lord Rama“For those who have merged in the transcendental mellow of devotion to Shri Rama, being free of all material desires, their minds are like fish that swim in the nectar made of supreme love for the holy name that rests within the heart.” (Dohavali, 30)

sakala kāmanā hīna je rāma bhagati rasa līna |
nāma suprema piyuṣa hada tinhahum̐ kie mana mina ||

The mind will wade in whatever type of water is found by the captain. Depending on the type of activities taken up by the individual, the mind, which can be likened to a fish, will have to swim in waters that may or may not be compatible. Despite how hard we may try to clean the water formed from the results of our actions, there will always be contamination, and hence an incompatible habitat for the mind. Only by being immersed in devotion to the Supreme Lord, who is known as Rama because of His unmatched ability to provide transcendental pleasure to His devotees, can the mind perpetually swim in an ocean of nectar. This reservoir is filled through the chanting process, which focuses on the sweetest collection of words found anywhere in the spiritual and material worlds, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”.

Sita and RamaWhy the comparison to fish? Why the need to make an analogy at all? Can’t we just live our lives and be at peace? In every activity, the mind’s desires, which are driven by consciousness, lead to future conditions, similar to the concept of “You made your bed, now lie in it.” The resting place at night doesn’t magically appear on its own and neither does the dwelling that we come home to after a hard day at the office. Every visible object of this world, including our different conditions, results from action, which is driven by desire. Therefore the analogy to the fish swimming in water is completely appropriate in describing how karma, or fruitive activity, operates. Every action has a commensurate reaction, even if we are ignorant of the fact.

Let’s say, for example, that we place our hand into a blazing fire. Under the spell of ignorance, a person may think, “Oh, nothing will happen. Everything in nature occurs on its own, so I can do whatever I want and not have to suffer consequences.” Unfortunately, the laws of nature will not take kindly to ignorance. In fact, whether one is in total ignorance or complete knowledge, the burning propensity of the fire will rage nonetheless. The hand placed into the fire will burn and negative conditions will result. The same cause-and-effect is seen in all activities; therefore the resulting conditions we find ourselves in are due solely to the actions that we take.

In the state of ignorance, the types of water produced by action are incompatible for the mind, which continues to function as long as the soul is present. Irrespective of what anyone thinks, the soul is the driving force to activity. Birth is the event where a soul is injected into a life form, thus causing the body’s growth, maintenance and penchant for activity. Death is the opposite event, when the soul exits the body. Without the soul, dull matter is just that: lifeless. When the soul is within the body, its presence is indicated through the functions of the living entity, with the mind operating constantly. As the famous philosopher said, “I think therefore I am”, we can understand that consciousness indicates the presence of the soul.

fireYet when activities are accepted that have no basis in scriptural injunction and bring no tangible reward, such as when placing the hand into fire, the results are not favorable. Intoxication is a great example of this. The liquor consumed can be likened to a pond that is created by the mind through the act of intoxication. Obviously a fish is not meant to swim in a pool of vodka or beer, but neither is the individual, who is brimming with spiritual potency. The spirit soul has distinct properties which are enumerated in Vedic scriptures. These properties are also evidenced through the natural penchant for action. The soul has a desire to serve, which it derives from its loving propensity. The soul is also wholly knowledgeable and eternal. Therefore the water it swims in must also bear the same properties for there to be a match. The pool of liquor is the worst kind because it keeps the mind totally in ignorance, not allowing for any advancement in consciousness. Without a positive impact on consciousness, the human birth is no different from life in an animal species.

Above ignorance is activity driven by passion, which creates a purer version of the pool for the mind, but which still has many contaminants. We can think of the resulting pond as one that has pollution at every corner but still allows for the fish to continue living. In the mode of passion, the individual understands that they must go through many trials and tribulations to gain a short term reward, but the flickering happiness that results is deemed worth the effort. Sports, gambling and even sex life devoid of the desire to purify consciousness are examples of activity in passion. Some may take exception to the negative portrayal of this mode. After all, the self-help gurus and self-esteem doctors recommend creating goals and being driven by passions to find happiness in life.

roulette_lgWhat’s so wrong with working hard to have a stable family life? What’s wrong with getting up every day and having a fervent desire to achieve a goal? Again, the nature of the results must be analyzed if we are to properly assess the worthiness of the actions accepted. In sports and gambling, the results are temporary, so much so that as soon as the goal is achieved, new ones have to be set; otherwise laziness and an increased penchant for activities in ignorance will follow. Sex life, which is seen as the pinnacle of fruitive enjoyment, is very difficult to secure comfortably for the human being. The animal kingdom has a leg up in this regard, as they do not have to worry about wooing members of the opposite sex or maintaining them by regularly purchasing jewelry and other gifts. Just like the rewards from gambling, the joy felt from sex life is very short-lived, thus requiring constant repetition of the engagement.

A higher mode aligns with knowledge and is thus considered to be in goodness. Activities under this mindset lead to a very pure pond of water for the mind to swim in. These actions are undertaken without a desire to enjoy the results. The man in goodness goes to work to support his family, but he knows that these aspects of life aren’t of primary importance. Rather, he is more concerned with understanding the differences between spirit and matter and the meaning behind life itself. Life’s necessities are given concern, with the bare essentials being enough to satisfy the senses. There is adherence to religious rituals, penances and austerities. Activities are free of sin, meaning they don’t lead to unfavorable conditions in either this life or the next. Since the soul has the property of eternality, it exists beyond the present birth. When it exits its current body, the soul immediately gets a new one crafted through the laws of karma, which take into account all of the work performed during the just completed life.

“O sinless one, the mode of goodness, being purer than the others, is illuminating, and it frees one from all sinful reactions. Those situated in that mode develop knowledge, but they become conditioned by the concept of happiness.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 14.6)

Lord KrishnaThe mode of goodness seems perfect in every respect, no? Though the pool created is pure, the fish doesn’t derive the highest pleasure by swimming in it. Surely the water is compatible and there is no pollution getting in the way, but there is nothing there for the fish that is the mind to truly enjoy, a bliss that gives the highest taste. From the above quoted verse from the Dohavali of Goswami Tulsidas, we see how to create the proper pond, one that the mind can swim in perpetually. Since the soul desires pleasure, it must have a corresponding object with which to associate. Since the soul is eternal, its object of pleasure must also have the same property. Not surprisingly, this matching entity is the Supreme Lord, who can be described as the reservoir of all pleasure.

So, how does the mind connect with this Supreme Person? That answer is also not a secret. The key is to remove all material desires, or kama, and take to bhakti, or devotion. Devotional service to Shri Rama, the Supreme Lord, brings about the highest taste, or rasa, for the mind. Activities in ignorance bring illusory tastes that are actually poisonous, while behavior in passion brings tastes that are short-lived in their duration. Activities in goodness bring almost no taste, but they keep the bitter tastes away. Only through immersion in devotional service to the Supreme Lord, Rama bhakti-rasa lina, where the soul voluntarily surrenders itself unto the kind demands and guidance of God, can the highest taste be relished.

Once the nectar is tasted, there needs to be a steady supply kept on hand for the enjoyment to continue. If we really enjoy one cookie, we want to have more and more. In the material sense, this desire is detrimental, as Lord Krishna, the same Lord Rama but in a different visible manifestation, states in the Bhagavad-gita that only the yogi who neither eats too little nor too much can make advancement. This makes sense, as eating too little strips away the mind’s ability to contemplate on God, while eating too much leads to lethargy and an increased desire for sex. Since the taste derived from devotion to Rama is transcendental in every way, however, the laws calling for moderation do not apply. No amount of bhakti is too much.

How do we keep the taste going? Tulsidas also provides that answer. Within the heart of the devotee, a pool of transcendental nectar is created from the love that is harbored for Rama’s name. By regularly chanting the names of God, which are fully representative of His complete feature as the Personality of Godhead, the mind turns into a fish that swims in a pool of nectar. From devotional service we get the highest taste, and from chanting the holy names, the quintessential act of bhakti, the nectar remains fully stocked, allowing the mind to remain in one habitat without having to move.

HanumanThe holy name is so wonderful because it can be recited anywhere. Any person, irrespective of their level of intelligence, can keep the mind fully enthralled by chanting. Through this formula Tulsidas reveals both his own doctrine, or life’s motto, and the ancient secret to happiness well established in the Vedas. Indeed, Shri Hanuman, Rama’s faithful servant, started practicing this formula many thousands of years ago. Hanuman always chants the glories of Lord Rama, His wife Sita Devi and His younger brother Lakshmana and never feels unhappiness.

Bhakti is not a modern concoction or a sentimentalist movement created by a few poets and saints in India. Under logical analysis, the Vedas and bhakti are equivalent terms, as devotion to God is the constitutional position of the soul, its dharma. Unlike religious sentiment and dry philosophy, dharma cannot be changed. Whether or not one knows their true dharma is a different story, but the foremost characteristic of the spiritual sparks emanating from the storehouse of spiritual energy, the Supreme Lord, never changes. The saints who take bhakti as their life and soul don’t actually create any doctrines or philosophies; they simply reveal to others what is the highest form of religion, as passed down by God Himself. The descriptions of the ocean of nectar created through bhakti don’t only reference the experiences of Tulsidas and other saints. Rather, the transcendental nectar in the heart can be created by anyone, should they follow the same formula of eliminating kama and loving the Lord’s name.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Say It Loud

Lord Krishna“…O son of Kunti, declare it boldly that My devotee never perishes.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 9.31)

In the Bhagavad-gita, one of the most famous discourses on spirituality ever to take place, Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, encourages Arjuna, His cousin and just-turned disciple, to boldly declare it to the world that the Lord’s devotee never perishes. In case there was any doubt on the matter, Arjuna could settle the issue once and for all by making the proclamation at the direct insistence of his teacher and life and soul, the Supreme Lord. But to the keen observer, this sort of proclamation almost seems unnecessary, as the discussions in the Gita open with the issue of eternal life and how the soul is not slain when the body is slain. Indeed, it was Arjuna’s hesitancy to fight and kill members of the opposing army on the eve of a great war that led to his approaching Krishna for guidance. If no one ever really dies, what is the need for proclaiming that devotees never perish? The distinction actually lies in the identity of the individual. Though the spiritual spark never fizzles, when it changes bodies, everything is reset. For the bhakta, since he is devoted to Krishna and on a train going back to the spiritual world, none of his efforts go to waste. Therefore his identity remains intact despite changes in body.

ArjunaArjuna was the leading fighter for his side. There was little doubt about the result of the impending war due primarily to Arjuna’s tremendous fighting prowess. Two families were at odds over the right to rule over the kingdom in Hastinapura, which is situated in the area known today as Delhi. The Pandavas had the rightful claim to the city, but the Kauravas had unjustly usurped control. Now the war to end all wars was going to settle the dispute. Arjuna, one of the five Pandava brothers, was an expert bow warrior, as this was the weapon of choice in the time period that these events took place. Never mind that Arjuna had Lord Krishna on his side as his chariot driver, the Pandavas had all they needed in the skillful mastery of the military arts found in Arjuna.

Despite their advantage, there was one slight problem. Just prior to the war’s commencement, Arjuna became hesitant to fight. He wasn’t afraid of losing. In fact, his feelings were rooted in just the opposite direction. He was fearful of what would happen if his side won. How could he live a life full of royal opulence knowing that teachers and cousins fighting for the other side were slain by his arrows? How could he enjoy a single day of life knowing that others had been deprived of their ability to live theirs? He would rather have renounced everything, taken up the life of a beggar, and allowed others to maintain their vital life breath. His thinking was similar to that of a good parent who risks everything for the health and safety of their children. Who could argue against the validity of Arjuna’s feelings? Shouldn’t we all follow our heart?

“For the soul there is never birth nor death. Nor, having once been, does he ever cease to be. He is unborn, eternal, ever-existing, undying and primeval. He is not slain when the body is slain.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.20)

Lord KrishnaSomewhat surprisingly, Lord Krishna stepped in and sort of laughingly chided Arjuna for his thinking. Not that Krishna intervened without being asked. Arjuna had made up his mind that he wanted to quit, but he was not fully convinced that it was the right course of action. He put the matter before Krishna to see what should be done. The Lord told Arjuna that his behavior was not very becoming of a warrior or a learned man. The central teaching of the Vedas is that we are not our bodies. What we consider as birth and death are simply the acceptance and rejection of temporary forms, with the soul remaining the vital force the whole time. Lord Krishna reminded Arjuna that the soul is not slain when the body is slain. Since the modes of material nature handle the different changes that take place to the body, it is silly to think that anyone can be killed or that any person can be solely responsible for another’s death.

This instruction was given with a purpose. It was Arjuna’s duty to fight in this war, for if he didn’t protect the rules of society, the laws governing man’s conduct, then who would? His desire to quit was rooted in ignorance, the idea that a person’s bodily comforts correlate to happiness. Whether Arjuna wanted to fight or not, the members fighting for the opposing army would die anyway. This is how nature works. We can try to eat right, exercise, sleep enough, and stay away from dangerous behavior, but death can still come at any time. Nature is a much more powerful force than we are. Thinking that we are capable of permanently stopping death, changing the temperature of the earth, or evolving into new species without divine intervention is simply ludicrous.

Lord KrishnaFor the benefit of Arjuna and future generations of sincere listeners, Krishna continued His discourse by delving into more important matters, such as the reason for existence and how to break free of the cycle of birth and death known as reincarnation. First, instruction on the differences between matter and spirit and the need for discharging one’s occupational duties was presented. This was followed by a brief overview of the ancient system of yoga, which as a Sanskrit word means nothing more than “addition”, or “plus”. Yoga is the union between the individual soul and the Supersoul, who is also known as the all-pervading witness. The individual soul travels through various species, and the Supersoul comes along for the ride. Yet the Supersoul, or Paramatma, is above the dualities of material existence and does not get mixed up in the enjoyments and activities the individual atma chooses to dive into.

If the Supersoul remains neutrally situated, what is the reason for its presence? Just as Krishna was Arjuna’s charioteer, and thus an overseer, the Supersoul is there to offer us guidance. He is the very same Krishna but kindly resting within our heart. As Arjuna was wise enough to seek Krishna’s guidance and fully abide by His orders, any soul can surrender unto the Supersoul and be guided from within. How to connect with the Supersoul, or God, is addressed in the yoga system, which can follow several different routes. One method of yoga involves study of Vedanta, or the conclusion of all knowledge. Vedanta philosophy is especially attractive to those who are taken by logic, reasoning, and study of esoteric matters. This path is known as jnana-yoga.

Another type of yoga is karma-yoga, where one performs their occupational duties and renounces the resulting fruits. In one sense, the advice given to Arjuna to fight was a recommendation to follow karma-yoga. Karma is distinguished from jnana because there is explicit physical work performed. Fighting is a lot different from studying; thus karma is marked by its specific actions that have reactions. But when the fruits of work are renounced, sacrificed, or simply minimalized in importance, while the consciousness is simultaneously developed, the behavior can be classified as karma-yoga.

Then there is meditational yoga, where one finds a secluded place and sits in a certain position for hours on end. The popular yoga classes of today have their roots in this practice, though the original system is meant for connecting with the Supersoul. If the conditions are just right, if there is strict celibacy and tight controls over eating and sleeping, the yogi can make tremendous advancement. Through their connection with God’s expansion residing within the heart, the yogi feels tremendous self-satisfaction, internal feelings of bliss.

When hearing of these different methods of yoga, especially the meditational system, Arjuna thought that they were too difficult to perform. After all, who can control the mind, which acts like horses let off from their leash and running in every which direction? To address His concerns, Krishna revealed a few more intimate details, information known only to those who are not envious of the Supreme Lord. Who could ever be jealous of God? It is in fact this envy that serves as the root cause behind the creation of the land we currently occupy. If there weren’t any souls desiring to challenge God in the abilities of creating, maintaining, destroying and enjoying, the earth and the other planets would never be created. Temporary manifestations are there to deal with temporary bouts of insanity, wherein otherwise pure souls think they can exceed Krishna’s stature as the Supreme Person.

“And of all yogis, he who always abides in Me with great faith, worshiping Me in transcendental loving service, is most intimately united with Me in yoga and is the highest of all.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 6.47)

Lord KrishnaKrishna told Arjuna that of all yogis, he who always thinks of the Lord in love and devotion is the best. The bhakta, or devotee, always chants the Lord’s glories and does everything for Krishna. Since they never fail to think of Krishna, those who follow bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, are far superior to other yogis. Nevertheless, for Arjuna there was still concern over the time of death. The soul’s consciousness is measured while quitting the body, and depending on the nature of that consciousness a new type of body is granted. The real aim of any yoga practice is to have a purified consciousness at the time of death, which will then result in a spiritual body assumed in the next life. Krishna says that anyone who thinks of Him at the time of death will never have to return to the material world. They will assume a nature similar to His, i.e. they will receive a purely spiritual form whose body and soul are not any different.

The oneness resulting from thinking of God at the time of death does not create equality with Krishna. Rather, the oneness relates to the relationship that is created. In a classroom there is an equality shared between all the participants, in that they are equally part of the whole object that is the classroom. For there to be a class, there must be a teacher and a set of students. If either party is absent, the object in question is invalidated. A general must have a mission in order for his title to mean anything. Similarly, a spirit soul must have God in their lives in order for their true dharma, their essential characteristic, to be considered active. The liberated soul joins the eternal pastimes of Shri Krishna in the spiritual land, hence completing the oneness of the relationship for them, with one party always remaining superior, and the other acting in the interests of the superior with a loving attitude.

Lord KrishnaBut to think of God at the time of death is very difficult. Arjuna was concerned over what would happen to the yogi who failed to achieve pure Krishna consciousness by the time of death. Krishna told him that devotional efforts never go to waste. Should a devotee not attain full perfection in the present life, they get to start their devotional efforts in the next life from the point that they stopped in the previous one. Krishna later revealed that the devotee never perishes. Rather than state this fact Himself, the Lord had Arjuna declare it. If someone who actually practices bhakti-yoga makes the proclamation, it is more believable. God can say anything, but His statements are always challenged, as is even His existence.

There are many historical incidents that show devotees remaining fully committed in their devotional efforts despite outside impediment. The famous Prahlada Maharaja, the five year old son of a king, was harassed by his father Hiranyakashipu constantly. The demon king did not like that Prahlada was a great devotee of Vishnu, who is another form of Godhead essentially equal to Krishna. Prahlada was peaceful in his devotional efforts, but his father couldn’t tolerate this devotion shown to his greatest enemy. Therefore he tried to kill Prahlada in so many ways. But as was declared by Arjuna in the Bhagavad-gita, Krishna’s devotees never perish. Prahlada was protected by divine intervention during each and every attack. Finally, Vishnu Himself came as Lord Narasimhadeva to kill Hiranyakashipu.

NarasimhadevaThe astute listener at this point may raise the issue of whether Prahlada lived forever. “Sure he was protected when he was five years old, but did he not eventually renounce his body? Haven’t devotees and saints of the past left this world? If they were practicing devotional service, how did they die?” These are wonderful questions, as they show that the statements presented by Krishna in the beginning of His discourse with Arjuna were listened to attentively. When the Lord told Arjuna that the soul is not slain when the body is slain, the statement was meant to make him understand that the essence of individuality, the identity of the life form, always remains the same. This instruction was required, because Arjuna was basing the identities of his family and friends fighting for the other side off of their bodily forms. For instance, Arjuna was worried about having to kill Bhishmadeva, a grandfather to both the Kurus and Pandavas. Arjuna was simply worried about the material comforts of his grandfather, thinking that they would be lost once death arrived. But this loss occurs regardless. Any person who associates with their body has a very painful death, because what they think is their life is essentially taken away from them. All of the soldiers assembled on the battlefield received their identities from their souls and not their bodies or their material comforts. Thus Arjuna had no reason to lament over their potential deaths.

There is a reset of the body type, however, when death comes. The living entity must again go through the learning process and the spinning wheel of acceptance and rejection. When Krishna says that the devotees never perish, the corresponding realization is that the non-devotees do perish. Since the soul is always eternal, this perishability refers to their material way of life, their association with a temporary body and temporary enjoyments. Hiranyakashipu was a great example of this. He thought that because he had conquered the world and amassed great strength and wealth that he was immortal in his position. He forgot that death could come and take everything away. Indeed, once the next life starts, all of the previous life’s possessions and gains get tossed aside.

Krishna and ArjunaWith the devotee, their identity comes from their fixed position as eternal servant of God. Therefore even when they change bodies, their identity does not leave them. They only pray to forever remain engaged in Krishna’s service. Since this is a desire wholly approved of and encouraged by Krishna, the Supreme Lord ensures that their service continues uninterrupted. Thus anyone who reignites the flame of devotion just ready to be lit within the heart can be assured that their practices in yoga will never go in vain. Arjuna would succeed in conquering his mental demons and also the enemies fighting for the other side. To this day he is always associated with Krishna, for the two remain together as the Supreme Lord and His dear friend and disciple. Wherever there is Krishna and Arjuna, there is victory in devotional service. Therefore anyone who hears the wonderful teachings put forth on that famous day on the battlefield of Kurukshetra will be able to take up devotional service with full confidence, knowing that their identity as Krishna-dasa, or servant of God, will never leave them.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Bhakti Rasa

Hanuman with Sita and Rama in his heart“For those who have merged in the transcendental mellow of devotion to Shri Rama, being free of all material desires, their minds are like fish that swim in the nectar made of supreme love for the holy name that rests within the heart.” (Dohavali, 30)

sakala kāmanā hīna je rāma bhagati rasa līna |
nāma suprema piyuṣa hada tinhahum̐ kie mana mina||

Though aham brahmasmi is a profound realization for those previously limited by blanket sentimentalism dedicated to a particular spiritual figure or from allegiance to the demands of the senses, this understanding is only the beginning, a starting point for those who are serious about following the path of self-realization to the finish. Aham brahmasmi says that “I am Brahman”, or that which is the Absolute Truth. The positions of good and bad, favorable and unfavorable, are not absolute, as the resulting conditions do not apply equally in every circumstance. For instance, in a sporting event, one team has a particular set of rules and regulations to follow which will ideally lead them to the favorable condition of victory. But another team has their own set of guidelines intended to bring about the victorious situation at the culmination of play. Since in either case the system of guidance aimed at maintaining an essential characteristic, or dharma, is only beneficial to one group of individuals, the truths espoused cannot be considered universally applicable or even beyond duality. What is victory for one person is defeat for another. The Absolute Truth is that which transcends every duality found in the phenomenal world, with the most obvious one being birth and death.

changing bodiesBirth is considered the beginning and death the end, but neither event has any bearing on the identifiable aspect within the life form: the soul. The soul is thus considered Brahman, beyond the influences of birth, old age, disease and death. The only reason birth and death are viewed the way they are is because of ignorance. As soon as there is contact with material nature, the mind deludes the soul into forming attachments which keep the person further and further away from the aham brahmasmi realization. Therefore, understanding that we are Brahman, which is the opposite of material nature in quality, is the first instruction provided to students of the Vedic tradition, a system of spirituality which does not rely on allegiances to specific historical personalities or dogmas. Though it may seem otherwise to the ignorant, the Vedas are a scientific discipline aimed at granting its participants release from the doldrums of material existence, which are fueled by further ignorance and attachment.

After understanding that we are Brahman, or Truth, we must know how to make use of this information. Just knowing that we are spirit soul is not enough to bring about a better future condition, because the nature of the soul is to be active. Without a fulltime occupation, one that keeps eagerness, anticipation, excitement and thrill alive at every turn, the individual residing within a temporary dwelling will be left no choice but to remain attached to maya, or the illusory material nature. After understanding Brahman, the next step is to abandon kama, or attachment for material enjoyment. Kama can also mean lust or sense gratification, both of which are rooted in desire.

Why is desire bad? How does it hurt us? To understand this concept we can again use the analogy to sports. Let’s say that we have a favorite team in a particular sport. They have not won the championship in many years, so we feel bad for them; we want them to desperately win to regain their prestige. Every year ends in failure, as either the team doesn’t make it to the playoff tournament or they lose before the championship round. With each new failure comes renewed heartbreak and questions as to when the big day will happen, if ever.

Stanley CupThe underlying assumption with this mindset is that once our team wins, everything will be good. “If they win, then all the years of heartache will have been worth it. We can relax and know that our team has regained the glory it deserves.” Yet in reality, once the elation of the cherished victory wears off, new desires spring up, which are rooted solely in the new attachment created. The victorious team now has a stature, an aura if you will, that follows them around in the subsequent season. The team also now has to prove that they weren’t one year wonders, that they can back up their championship with another. And what should happen if the team loses? They miss their opportunity to go down as one of the greatest teams in history, those who won repeat championships.

This same example can be expanded out in so many other areas. It is said that the man who isn’t married is always unhappy and so is the man who is married. The unmarried man wants to start a family, have a stable and secure home life, and not be viewed as an oddball by his friends and members of his family. Yet once he does get married, the attachments relating to family and spouse become a great burden, one so heavy that the same man desperately seeks some type of escape, even if it’s a temporary one.

“One who restrains the senses and organs of action, but whose mind dwells on sense objects, certainly deludes himself and is called a pretender.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 3.6)

Lord KrishnaThe better option is to remove all desire in the beginning. Completely rooting out desire is actually impossible, however, for it is the nature of the soul to crave activity. Even if one lives completely renounced and sits in meditation, if there is still contemplation on objects of the senses, the renunciation is imperfect. The better option is to find those engagements which don’t deal with maya and which further solidify the aham brahmasmi understanding. By experiencing a higher taste and removing attachment and desires for material advancement, the mind can find the most blissful state.

At the rudimentary level, Brahman is taken to be the soul’s constitutional position. Since material nature, or maya, is the opposite of Brahman, the goal is to find an escape, a release from the clutches of material existence. Therefore controlling desire becomes very important. An even better option is to find a way to use the same elements of material nature to create a condition where the aham brahmasmi mindset doesn’t flee. There is only one process that attains this goal, and not surprisingly, it is also an engagement that corresponds directly with the soul’s constitutional position.

The soul has a desire to love, a penchant which manifests in service. In the conditioned state, the loving propensity is directed at maya, which is like a section of earth that continues to spit out new seeds the more we tend to it. Material nature brings temporary rewards through hard work, or karma, but the reactions only sprout new desires, thus leading to a repetition of the same work, all the while keeping the knowledgeable spirit soul in the dark about its constitutional position. But in activities of bhakti, or devotional service, desires become purified, a higher taste is found, and gaining release from the clutches of material existence is no longer an issue.

Lord RamaThese are the points conveyed by Goswami Tulsidas in the above referenced verse from his Dohavali. The poet first mentions the process that brings the higher taste: devotion to Lord Rama, or Rama bhakti-rasa. The person unfamiliar with the Vedic tradition may take Shri Rama to be a historical personality, a Hindu god, a myth, or just some idol that is worshiped out of ignorance, but Rama’s real position is that of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. God is too generic a term to describe Parabrahman, the Supreme Absolute Truth, the entity from whom Brahman emanates. As a Supreme Person, God can come to earth whenever He chooses and also be worshiped in a variety of ways. The deity is not an idol but rather a representation of the Supreme Truth that becomes worshipable through the authorized methods used in its construction. The deities of Shri Rama are statues and paintings depicting the transcendental features of the prince of the Raghu dynasty, a seemingly ordinary man with extraordinary capabilities who was in fact an incarnation of the Supreme Lord. Through the deity, God can be worshiped every day, and the worshiper’s consciousness can be changed for the better.

Consciousness is the key element in finding happiness, as the mind is very powerful. Even in the most comfortable material situation, the individual can find himself in perpetual misery due to the mind’s influence. On the other hand, if the proper object of contemplation is found, the mind can become the greatest friend. Through devotional service to Rama free of any material desires, a supremely high taste, or rasa, is found. Is there a way to practice bhakti with material desires? If we worship Shri Rama for the express purpose of receiving some benefit, such as a fortune in terms of money, alleviation of distress, or some other gift not related to the soul, then the devotional efforts are not considered pure. Not only is the worship in this mood tainted, but the transcendental taste relished is also diminished in potency. It is akin to tasting a delicious, sweet cake after placing ketchup on top of it. Obviously the two tastes don’t mix, so the primary object being enjoyed, the cake, will not be fully relished because of the mixture with an unwanted element.

Lord RamaBhakti is best practiced when material desire, or kama, is removed. This isn’t that difficult, as bhakti is about divine love. In any other mood of service, the main objective is to see to the object of pleasure’s pleasure. The same holds true with bhakti, where the aim is to maintain the smile on the beautiful face of Shri Rama, who is non-different from God Himself. Surely Rama always smiles, but when the devotee’s mind is focused on ancillary concerns, the benefit of that smile is not received, nor is the smile readily recognized. When the mood of devotion follows the goal of always seeking Rama’s pleasure and having His association, the taste relished is unmatched.

Ah, but the action doesn’t stop just with tasting devotion to Rama. After the removal of desire and the wonderful transcendental taste comes a pulp, a nectar if you will. This nectar grows in volume through a simple, yet wonderful process, the chanting of the holy name with love. By regularly reciting, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, pure nectar comes out in such abundance that it forms a pond within the heart. The holy name is the magical link to the spiritual world, as it is a transcendental sound vibration that directly represents the Supreme Lord. The holy name is more powerful than the concept of Brahman and even the deity representation. The holy name is the crown jewel of religious objects and paraphernalia, as it can deliver any mind when utilized properly.

Is there a way to use the name improperly? From the wonderful doha given by Tulsidas, we see that being free from desire is the first step. Chanting the name of Rama, Krishna, or any other non-different representation of the Supreme Truth for a personal benefit does not create sweet nectar within the heart. There is certainly a benefit received, as the holy name is supremely powerful, but the churning of the nectar takes much longer and the sweetness of its taste is lessened. But if the individual maintains the bhakti mindset, being merged in bhakti-rasa, the heart will create a pool of nectar through regular recitation of the name done with love.

Hanuman chanting glories of Sita and RamaAnd what do we do with this newfound pool of sweet bliss? The mind, which can make or break our happiness, can then swim in this pond like a fish that is supremely happy. The fish’s attachment to water serves as a wonderful comparison for devotees who want to explain devotional service and the love they feel for God. When taken out of its natural habitat, the fish will die within a few short moments; such is their attachment to their home. No one loves their home more than the fish does, for they will die upon separation. So, when a fish does find a nice pond to swim in, it is understood that it has no desire to leave.

Similarly, once the mind swims in the pond of sweet nectar generated by devotional service to Rama and chanting His name, there will be no need for any other process of religion. Even the desire for salvation gets tossed aside, as the mind has no need to leave its newfound home. The pool gets filled up and maintained through constant recitation of Rama’s name, a process which is the life and soul of the devotee. Those who fail to reach the bhakti platform will always toggle between bhoga and tyaga, enjoyment and renunciation. The ignorant are looking for even more enjoyment in a miserable world, while those stuck on the Brahman platform will always desperately seek escape from a world they view as false. But the devotee will use whatever is around them to further their devotional efforts and thus maintain their newfound transcendental home within the heart. The mind that always swims in the ocean of nectar that is the name of Shri Rama and His holy pastimes will never have to fear birth, death, old age, disease, or the threefold miseries of life again. This transcendental pool remains alive even after the devotee’s departure from the material realm, as the spiritual sky is inundated with the transcendental nectar that is bhakti.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


Lord Krishna“Only an empowered personality can distribute the holy name of the Lord and enjoin all fallen souls to worship Krishna. By distributing the holy name of the Lord, he cleanses the hearts of the most fallen people; therefore he extinguishes the blazing fire of the material world. Not only that, he broadcasts the shining brightness of Krishna’s effulgence throughout the world.” (Shrila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura)

An entrepreneur takes their idea for a business and makes it a reality through risk, innovation, hard work and sacrifice. As most startup businesses don’t succeed, those that do tend to stand out. Just getting a local shop up and running and having it turn a regular profit is itself a grand achievement. But if the owner of the store, the person in whom the seed of desire sprouted into the full blown tree of a business, wants to increase their profits even more, or if they simply want their product or service to touch more people than just those in the local community, they will figure out a way to franchise their operation. With others around the country and world following the same business plan and selling the same product, the reach and scope of the business can attain new heights. Ironically enough, this very process explains the success of the celebrated acharyas, the spiritual masters of the Vedic tradition. Through their kind preaching efforts they have enabled a system of glorification of the holy name and the divine personality it addresses to continue on since the beginning of time. Because of this, their positive impact on society and the greatness of their stature can never be properly measured.

Shrila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati ThakuraFranchising is easier said than done. The first issue is how to repeat the same roadmap for success followed during the initial startup. To run the business the same way, to have the same profit levels, those who operate the franchises must be able to understand the product, how to produce it, and what its value is to the customers. This requires training and good guidance from the original owner. In one sense, there shouldn’t be a need to franchise. The owner has what they want: a successful business. They already know how to operate it successfully, so why the need for expansion?

In the business community, the benefits of expanding obviously relate to increased profits. The original owner can charge franchise fees and thus make money with minimal effort. Teach others how to run the business and watch the profits come in every month. Yet, on an even higher level, if the product or service offered is beneficial to society, expanding helps out so many more people. It is one thing to use your keen knowledge to gain a profit for yourself, but increasing the scope of the operation keeps so many other people employed and ensures that others will have a place to go to get your product, wherever they may live. It is for these reasons that chain restaurants end up doing so well through expansion. If a person is travelling through a foreign city and not sure of where to go to eat, they know that the chain locations will have food and service they are accustomed to. They know what they are going to get. If the original owner had decided to keep the operation localized, the benefits would have remained isolated to a specific area.

In the Vedic tradition, the oldest of all the systems of spirituality in existence, the importance of the spiritual master is constantly emphasized. Just understanding the need for inquiring about God and the reason for the human being’s existence is difficult enough. The human mind is limited in its thinking abilities, as what may be contemplated on at this very second could be forgotten in the next minute. If we can’t even remember what we ate for breakfast yesterday, how are we going to come to the conclusion of who God is and what He looks like? Moreover, how are we going to deduce the purpose to our existence and what should guide our activities?

The need for teachers is not very difficult to understand, but for some reason when the same requirement is presented for understanding the highest truths of life, there is skepticism and trepidation. To practice medicine or law, to operate heavy machinery, or to do pretty much anything unknown to us, there must be training. Young children are sent to school to learn from adults who are wiser than they are. Without the teacher-student paradigm, no information would ever transfer properly. In general conversation, where two friends are talking about the topics of the day, typically there is not a definitive conclusion reached. We are friends with someone for a reason; we consider them our equal. If we didn’t, we couldn’t enjoy their association and feel free to act as we wish. The downside to this, of course, is that when our friends try to teach us anything, the natural response is to counter their arguments and make sure that we never fully accept what they tell us.

Lord KrishnaWith teachers, the ground rules are established from the very beginning that they will instruct and that we will listen. Therefore when Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, recommends in the Bhagavad-gita that Arjuna, His cousin and dear friend, approach one who has seen the Truth to understand the higher concepts in life, the stipulation should not be very difficult to accept. Where did the guru learn their information? Obviously they got it from their own guru; otherwise the information they present is not authorized. Without proper authority, conclusions will be flawed, as the human mind cannot think beyond the bounds of time and space.

Under mental speculation or intense study of logic and reason, the highest conclusion that the mind can reach is that God is formless or without attributes. The Vedas reveal that the essence of identity is the spiritual spark residing within a particular life form. As this entity does not ever change in qualitative makeup, it is understood that all things we see are nothing but temporary manifestations of an inferior energy. The living spark is the superior entity; therefore it is beyond the dualities of the existence we witness with our senses.

Since the identity of the living entity transcends the variety witnessed in the present life, it is assumed that the higher spiritual entity, the being from whom everything emanates, must also be the same in quality. “The Absolute Truth must be without attributes, because as soon as a feature is defined, a limitation is introduced. If God has green eyes, He must be defective because He can’t then have blue eyes. If He is bluish in complexion, then He can’t have any other skin color; hence He becomes inferior.” Because of these apparent contradictions, the mind will be tempted to think that no entity can possess mutually contradictory attributes. Therefore the highest realization the mind can reach through pure study is that of Brahman, or the impersonal energy constituting all things spirit. Even gross matter is related to Brahman, but it is considered a subordinate energy.

Only through the authorized words coming from the guru can we learn that the Supreme Lord is actually full of form. Though He has no hands or legs, God can run faster than the wind and accept every offering made to Him with love and devotion. The idea of a spiritual attribute, one which is not limited in the same way that a material one is, cannot be understood mentally; it must be accepted as fact. The acceptance in this regard is meant for a purpose, for not arguing against the truth of the Supreme Lord’s form enables one to achieve the highest end, that of pure God consciousness, by the time the present life completes. The properly situated mindset leads the spiritual spark back to a land where full variegatedness is witnessed in a spiritual manifestation, where the Supreme Lord and His eternal well-wishers enjoy each other’s company endlessly, with time and space having no influence.

Lord KrishnaThe spiritual master learned the highest truths of life from his own guru, who in turn learned it from their teacher, and so on. When this chain has the Supreme Lord as its founder, whose original form is that of Shyamasundara, the beautiful Shri Krishna, the teachings presented are bona fide and can be accepted without question. With the teachings come recommendations. The instructed student is advised to give up sinful activities which will be detrimental towards their development of consciousness. Meat eating, gambling, intoxication and illicit sex form the bedrock of sinful life, so if they are cut off at the nose, before they can do any further damage, the student has a much better chance of succeeding.

More important than the restrictions are the recommended assertive actions, positive behavior that keeps the active potency within the heart fully engaged. Nothing is worse for a person’s psyche than constant lethargy, laziness, and nothing to do. The dream for the fruitive worker is to one day retire and not have the pressures of daily life, but it is seen that the retired worker often has too much time on their hands, and nothing to do except sit around the house and watch television. The spiritual masters, by matching the active propensity to serve found within the heart with a corresponding beneficiary, keep the fire of devotion and action constantly lit within their disciples. Thus there is always something to do for the enthusiastic student.

What activity could there be that we can perform without stop? Chanting the holy names found in the maha-mantra, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, can continue on and on, without interruption and without motivation. The holy name of the Lord is non-different from Him, a fact that can only be realized by steady practice of bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. There are various disciplines of spirituality, with each one leading the student to a specific objective. As nothing can be better than attaining a pure love for God that never dies out and never fades away, the discipline of bhakti reigns supreme over all others. Indeed, every method of spiritual life is meant to eventually culminate in bhakti.

Bhagavad-gitaThe guru is one who himself follows the prescriptions for action handed to him. He spends his time chanting and thinking about Krishna, or God. He reads the scriptures not necessarily for advancement in knowledge, but to remain connected to the spiritual world. We read autobiographies of famous people to get a further glimpse into their life and to better understand their nature. At the heart of this enjoyment is association, the ability to establish a personal relationship with the author. Similarly, by reading about Krishna from famous texts like the Ramayana, Shrimad Bhagavatam, Bhagavad-gita, Mahabharata and so many other works, the lonely living entity gets to be in God’s company. The words found in these works, and also in the wonderful poems authored by famous saints, can be meditated upon for days on end; thereby allowing anyone to be with God for extended periods of time.

The guru, being in the Lord’s company through utilizing the many outlets for devotion, will always be happy. And why shouldn’t he be? If you’re reading about Krishna and basking in His transcendental sweetness all the time, wouldn’t you be constantly thrilled? Yet the guru goes beyond just keeping the happiness to himself. The acharyas, those who are capable of instructing others and withstanding the public scrutiny that comes with active preaching, kindly take to passing on Vedic wisdom to others. In this respect they can accumulate many disciples and become famous themselves, but when their true purpose for teaching is understood, their glories are enhanced even further.

“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)

Lord KrishnaJust as the ultimate benefit to franchising a store is that the product or service in question gets distributed to many more people, the ultimate aim of the teaching spiritual master is to ensure that Krishna and His names get glorified in as many places as possible, by as many sincere souls as possible. In the Bhagavad-gita, Krishna says that the devotees are always chanting His glories, and this is especially true of the guru. The spiritual master thinks, “My Lord is so wonderful. I will never tire of glorifying Him and appreciating His kind mercy, which is available for everyone to take advantage of. Now, let me think of ways to increase this glorification, to amplify its effect.”

One way to beat the drum of devotion even louder is to hold a concert or live showing, where the holy name can be chanted through electronic equipment. This will ensure that many more people get to hear the sweet melodies of the maha-mantra. Yet, as we see with franchising, the better way to expand your operation is to have others take up the cause. With many people following the same formula, the product in question can go “viral” very quickly. In a similar manner, if the guru can teach others about God and devotion to Him, the mrdanga glorifying Shri Krishna gets even more powerful.

Looking at some of the greatest reformers in history, we see that they followed this very formula. Narada Muni, a world traveller and staunch devotee of God, has taught so many people how to practice bhakti. By reforming a dacoit into a devotee of Lord Rama, Narada gave the world Maharishi Valmiki, who used his enlightenment to author the Ramayana, a poem which is still celebrated to this day because of its content. The poem glorifies the life and pastimes of Lord Rama, an incarnation of God. Therefore, through Narada’s kind efforts, a tradition of glorification was established. Valmiki himself taught two students, Lava and Kusha, Rama’s sons, how to sing the poem in public accompanied by music. Thus the tradition was passed on.

Shrila PrabhupadaIn more recent times, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada set up a worldwide institution to ensure that Krishna’s name would be glorified in every town and every village. A truly humble man himself, Shrila Prabhupada did not need any disciples or anyone to worship him daily for being such a wonderful spiritual master. Nevertheless, he accepted disciples, because he could teach them how to expand the wonderful sounds glorifying Krishna that emanate from the spiritual world. Because of this sacrifice, millions of people have benefitted. When his students subsequently help others to find their way in bhakti, Prabhupada’s glories and the stature of his teacher, Shrila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, are further increased.

With this franchising system, so many people become liberated and find true happiness in life. By watering the root, connecting with the fountainhead of all things matter and spirit in a loving mood, every disturbance and source of distress is automatically removed. Though the spiritual masters are celebrated as great welfare workers, the predominant desire that guides their activities does not change. They simply want Krishna to be glorified by as many people as possible, as often as possible. Since they are wonderful devotees, the Lord ensures that their desires are satisfied. Thanks to their benevolence, the world becomes supremely benefitted.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

From an Anthill

Valmiki visited by Lord Brahma“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 ||

To convey the wonders of the integral component of bhakti, the chanting of the holy name, Tulsidas makes the beautiful comparison to the earth and the sky, which are both filled with so much potential. From the tiny seeds within the earth come the future trees, flowers, fruits, grains and grass that sustain life. Even for those who live primarily off eating meat, like the tigers and the human beings doing their best impersonation of animals, there is still a dependency on the earth, for without grass and grains the animals that are eaten would not be able to mature. The magnanimous cow, the free giver of milk who asks nothing in return but to be protected, can survive simply on the grass found on the pasturing grounds. But the first step to understanding the wonders of the earth, and also the sky which houses the innumerable planets and the almighty sun, is faith. Without a little faith in the beginning, one can’t take the necessary steps to maintain life on earth. That a single seed found within the sacred ground can lead to so much is known only to those who trust fully in the process of cultivation. Similarly, to one who has firm faith in the holy name and its power to deliver the results of every single dharma, or system of religiosity, ever created, the fruit of the human birth, the benefit to having an existence, is very quickly realized.

cowsFor a more comprehensive understanding on the issue of faith, we can look to a historical incident documented in Vedic literature pertaining to the travels of Narada Muni, who is arguably the greatest reformer in history. By singing songs glorifying the Supreme Lord a poet can make tremendous progress in his own spiritual advancement. The sound vibrations travelling through the ether can penetrate the thick wall of nescience surrounding the thoughts of those who are conditioned by material life. The welfare workers can also make a difference by feeding the poor and helping the downtrodden through different, albeit temporary, struggles, but the guru, or spiritual master, is uniquely benevolent, because he can assertively rescue a person from the clutches of maya, or that which is not Brahman.

On the most basic level, the jiva souls, we living entities who search after and worship God, can be looked at as the marginal potency of the Supreme Spirit. The spiritual energy consists of God and His direct energy expansions, while the material energy is a separate force consisting of dull matter and the like, those objects which don’t have any direct presence of the Divine. Similar to how our arms and legs are part of our body but our identities are not in them, the material energy does not carry God’s personal influence.

The jivas are on the marginal side because they have a choice as to which energy to take shelter of. By constitution, jivas are on the spiritual side, therefore their natural home is in the spiritual world alongside God and His eternally liberated associates. When drowned in the ocean of material suffering, however, which continues to impose discomfort like a wheel that never stops spinning, knowledge of the marginal position remains far, far away. Therefore the same liberated souls whose association gives us great pleasure in the spiritual sky must be sought out in our present habitation to gain rescue from the sinking ship that is material life and the activities it encompasses.

Shrila PrabhupadaThe guru is the most benevolent welfare worker because he can give personal recommendations aimed at delivering the human mind from its sufferings. At the heart of unhappiness is fear, which is strengthened through attachment and ignorance. We fear the day of death because we have grown accustomed to the body we acquired through virtually no effort of our own. We don’t remember taking birth from the womb of our mother, nor do we even know where we were prior to being born. In the grand scheme of things we are virtually powerless, yet through experiences accumulated in the temporary dwelling known as the body we create attachments and hence fear losing everything.

The guru is a wise man who has seen the light, as he has taken shelter of the Supreme Lord and realized that life’s mission is to serve Him. What to speak of this specific instance, every single go around within a specific life form is meant for finding that same engagement; hence religion is known as dharma in the Vedic tradition. Religion may change, as the faith system an individual subscribes to can be influenced by experiences and outside teachings, but one’s dharma cannot be altered. The intrinsic dharma is thus described as sanatana, or “that which has no beginning or end”. Dharma is an essential characteristic, and when it applies to the soul, the individual functioning unit of life, it speaks to the spiritual spark’s tendency towards divine love, or devotional service. The service mentality never leaves us; it just can take on different natures.

Narada MuniThe many welfare workers perform some type of service to their fellow man, but only the guru aims to rekindle the spiritual spark’s true dharma, its natural tendency towards service to God. In this connection, Narada Muni was once travelling the world, as he is known to do. As a sannyasi, one in the renounced order of life, Narada doesn’t stay in one place; he likes to go around and chant the glories of Narayana, which is another name for God. There is only one Supreme Lord, but devotees like to address Him by different names, as this practice not only serves to further glorify their beloved, but it also brings tremendous pleasure to the chanter, for the holy name and the person addressed are non-different from one another.

This particular incident involving Narada is nicely described by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada in his book, Raja-vidya, which is a short, summary study of the Bhagavad-gita, providing the essence of the classic work to those who are not yet ready to delve deep into studying the many verses of the sacred text. Narada Muni passed by two different men, both of whom posed a similar question. They knew that Narada often visits Narayana, the source of all men and the Supreme Lord Vishnu Himself, so they wanted to see if he could find out from the Lord when their salvation would come. One man was a cobbler and the other was a brahmana, or one of the priestly class. The question was a little strange coming from the cobbler, as his occupation was seen as not being conducive to immediate salvation. Karma and guna, or work and qualities, determine the type of birth we take. A brahmana is considered a high birth, the result of many pious deeds from previous lives. If one is purely God conscious, however, they don’t take birth again; they immediately return to the spiritual sky. Yet on the material sphere, when desires and work are not wholly surrendered unto the lotus feet of the sweet and transcendent Lord, pious activities lead to a promotion in birth in the next life, circumstances more conducive to spiritual understanding and ultimate liberation from the cycle of birth and death.

Narayana in VaikunthaNarada then made his way to Vaikuntha, the spiritual realm where Narayana always resides. The beloved saint asked his questions, and he was a little surprised by the answers given. Narayana said that the cobbler would attain salvation very quickly, while the brahmana would have to wait for a very long time. Narada couldn’t understand this, as he hadn’t seen any glaring distinction between the two men aside from their occupations. Lord Narayana then told Narada to tell both men that in Vaikuntha the Lord was threading the eye of a needle with an elephant. By relaying this information to both men, Narada would be able to tell the reason for the difference in their future outcomes.

Narada returned to earth and approached the same two men. Sure enough, they both asked what Narayana was doing in Vaikuntha. When the brahmana heard about the threading of the needle, he could not believe it. He perhaps thought Narada was speaking mythology or giving some symbolic lesson. The cobbler, on the other hand, was thrilled to hear such information. He remarked that from a tiny seed can come a large tree that provides endless fruits, so why couldn’t Narayana thread the eye of a needle with an elephant? In this way the cobbler was shown to have firm faith in religious practice and the mercy of the Supreme Lord, while the brahmana was merely going through the motions of spiritual life.

Lord RamaThis wonderful historical incident supports the comparison made by Tulsidas. One who has faith in the holy name to deliver all results will soon realize that the rewards of every single type of religious practice, high or low, can be attained by chanting the name of Rama, which is another word that describes the same Narayana. Indeed, in the beginning of the Ramayana, Lord Vishnu states that He will descend to earth in the form of a human to do the work of the demigods, the elevated living beings in charge of the material creation, who were being harassed by the asura element at the time. The devas are also considered dehinam, or embodied, but through their elevated status they reap the rewards of past pious activities that weren’t done on the purely God conscious level.

Tulsidas not only had faith in the holy name to deliver results in the future, but he had past experience as well to support his belief. In his previous life Tulsidas was the venerable Valmiki Muni, the poet who compiled the original Ramayana, which describes the life and pastimes of Lord Rama. Valmiki too had a wonderful encounter with Narada Muni, a meeting which changed his life. In his youth he unfortunately got caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time and thus ended up being a hunter who stole for a living. While trying to rob Narada Muni one day, the dacoit was asked several pertinent questions by the sage to give justification for his rogue lifestyle. Narada doesn’t have any possessions, so the thief couldn’t get anything out of him. What he got instead was the most powerful spiritual instruction, words that would save him from the sinful life he was accustomed to.

ValmikiNarada advised the dacoit to ask his friends and family if they would share in the sin of his theft. The thief had given the excuse that he was stealing only to support his family members. When they retorted that they didn’t know he was stealing and that they wouldn’t share in his sin, the dacoit’s eyes were opened. Narada had proved his worthiness not by citing his relationship to Narayana and not even by pulling rank as far as his knowledge of the Vedas went. Narada simply applied some logic to the situation and thus opened the eyes of the thief. Returning back to Narada, the puzzled dacoit wanted to know what to do next. Narada, as a wonderful spiritual master, instructed the thief to simply sit down and chant the name of Rama. He didn’t talk about the differences between matter and spirit, the mercy of the Lord, the marginal position of the jiva, the need for performing sacrifice and austerity, the intricacies of reincarnation, or the benefit of human life. Narada just asked the bewildered soul to sit down and chant the holy name.

But the dacoit couldn’t say “Rama”. He was so accustomed to hunting and stealing that all he could say was “Mara”, which means death. “Never mind”, Narada said, “Go ahead and chant ‘Mara’, but say it over and over again.” By saying death repeatedly, the dacoit was actually saying Rama’s name, though he was unaware of it. Since Tulsidas does not exaggerate about the power of the holy name of Rama, this chanting was all the dacoit needed to be delivered. He became so engrossed in his meditation on the holy name of Rama that many years passed by. Pretty soon the dacoit was covered in an anthill, which he hadn’t even noticed. Narada returned to the scene and then initiated the former thief by giving him the name “Valmiki”, which means one who comes from an anthill.

ValmikiThis chanting brought the initiated sage all the wisdom, knowledge and fortunes that spiritual life has to offer. Valmiki went on to become a great devotee of Rama, and his Ramayana is still worshiped, honored and respected to this day. It all started with a little faith, that the sound vibration representation of the Supreme Lord could provide the rewards and benedictions of every other system of dharma combined. The faith in God, or at least in his spiritual master, the guru, is required for success. The Vaishnava acharyas recommend the chanting of the holy names as the singular religious practice for the people living in the present age of Kali. No other aspect of spirituality better encapsulates the meaning of life and the purpose to our existence. In Rama’s name is found all dharma, so one who holds on to it for dear life and regularly hears it through explicit chanting will not be poor in any way. If we have Rama, the same person who can create the wonderful earth and the endless sky, what more could we ask for?

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Ripened Fruit

Radha and Krishna“As a desire tree, whatever you want you can have from the Vedas. Veda means knowledge; it is so complete that whether you want to enjoy in this material world or you want to enjoy spiritual life, both kinds of knowledge are there. If you follow the Vedic principles, then you will be happy.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Krishna Consciousness The Topmost Yoga System, Ch 8 )

The Vedas should not be misunderstood to be a scriptural tradition following blind allegiance to a particular spiritual personality without any variety or intricacy in teaching. Rather, the Vedas represent complete knowledge, with their many departments likened to branches on a tree. On this tree so many different pieces of information can be plucked, each of which is intended to deliver benefits and happiness to those who follow the prescriptions contained within. Though there are many fruits on this tree, there is one that is the most ripe, that provides the greatest taste. Since this fruit has been already touched by the parrot Shukadeva Goswami, its nectar tastes that much better. This fruit is none other than the Shrimad Bhagavatam, and anyone who is fortunate enough to regularly hear from it, to understand its finer points from someone who appreciates the work for what it is, the crown jewel of Vedic literature, will find the highest taste in life.

Shrimad BhagavatamWhy different branches of Vedic knowledge and their different purposes exist shouldn’t be that difficult to understand. In virtually any field of endeavor there is regulation, a system of maintenance that, when followed, leads to a pleasurable condition. The interested parties may not particularly like the restrictions imposed on them, but they are willing to abide by them to enjoy the happiness that will come later on. For instance, going to school during youth, taking instruction during the daytime from teachers and then going home to finish homework are experiences that children don’t necessarily enjoy. Following this system, however, allows children to mature into educated adults capable of using their knowledge to earn a living.

With the Vedas, which are the ancient scriptures of India, there are so many different departments of knowledge, branches on the tree which further different purposes. For those who are somewhat religious, the benefits of the human form of life can be grouped into four general categories: dharma, artha, kama and moksha. Dharma is the beginning; it is religiosity, following the rules and regulations of spiritual life. Dharma can be something as simple as getting up every morning and praying or something as complicated as observing fasting days and attending religious functions on a regular basis. The ability to abide by a dharma, or prescribed set of law codes, is what sets the human being apart from other species.

Though dharma is really an essential characteristic - and hence the rules and regulations of spiritual life aim to maintain or rekindle that defining feature of the spirit soul, the essence of life - the purpose for adherence to religiosity may not be known in the beginning stages. In conditioned life, where temporary bodies are accepted based on the laws of karma, the initial impulse is to satisfy the demands of the senses. Therefore even something as unrelated to sense gratification as dharma is initially adopted with that view in mind. “Let me be a little religious, for I don’t want to be punished with hellish conditions in the future.”

Lord Krishna with cowsAfter dharma comes artha, or economic development. The majority of the world’s governments and newsmakers remain primarily concerned with economics and the plight of the financially distressed. Without adequate food, clothing and shelter, the living entity divorced of God consciousness cannot have any type of enjoyable life. Therefore, after following religious law codes, the hope is to have life’s necessities met to a satisfactory level. In this regard the Vedas provide much knowledge, especially for how to increase food production or the output of business transactions as a whole. The dharma, or abiding principles, for members of the mercantile class, the vaishyas, is nicely provided. The basic principle is that for production to be high, it must be encouraged. The government is allowed to tax, but not to a point that further production is inhibited. The analogy most often cited is the behavior of a cow. If you tie a cow up and force it to produce milk, it will not have much of an output. On the other hand, if you treat the cow well and allow it to freely graze in the field, it will produce heaps and heaps of milk, more than even its calf can handle.

After there is sufficient economic development, the desire shifts towards enjoying the fruits of labor, or kama. The senses need constant satisfaction, so rather than take to the animalistic way of life which seeks sense gratification first, if kama is prioritized after adherence to dharma and artha, the human being feels satisfied enough. The whole aim of procuring wealth and opulence is to enjoy the senses in the end. Having a large bank balance, a palatial mansion and a fancy car is only useful if these items can be enjoyed. Otherwise, what is the point to working so hard?

Finally, after a life full of dharma, artha and kama, the individual spirit soul wants to make sure that they never have to repeat the cycle again. This is where moksha, or release, comes in. Through renunciation following an authorized system of Vedic instruction, the influence of the senses can be mitigated to the point where the desires of the mind shift towards the spiritual realm. If consciousness is focused on the Absolute Truth, or Brahman, which is pure spirit and beyond the dualities found in material existence, the next birth will not be in the material realm. Whatever we think of at the time of death is the state we achieve in the next life. After a lifetime spent enjoying sense gratification earned through economic development and safeguarded through adherence to religious principles, it is advisable to shift the consciousness to pure spirit so that there will be no chance of repeating the cycle of birth and death again.

Goddess SarasvatiWithin each of these areas there is much variety, and there are corresponding religious principles and recommendations aimed at achieving perfection. Even the famous Kamasutra, which elaborates on how to attain the highest sense pleasures, emanates from the Vedas, showing just how intricate and flawless Vedic wisdom is. For achieving material profit one is advised to worship different demigods, who are elevated living beings authorized to distribute rewards to their worshipers. It is for this reason that the Vedic tradition is known to have many gods, or devas. If you want to do well in your studies, you worship Goddess Sarasvati. If you want loads of money and an unending supply of opulence, you worship Lakshmi Devi. If you want obstacles removed from your path towards sense gratification or achieving rewards, you worship Lord Ganesha, the beloved son of Lord Shiva and Mother Parvati.

Each of these different branches and their procedures allows for a specific taste to be enjoyed by the worshiper. Each branch has its own fruit, but in the absence of a relationship to the Supreme Lord, the person from whom the tree of Vedic wisdom emanates, the resulting tastes aren’t much to write home about. With the many branches come many scriptures as well. There are eighteen major Puranas compiled by Vyasadeva, and each is tailored towards meeting specific interests. But only the Bhagavata Purana, or the Shrimad Bhagavatam, is considered the most ripened fruit, the tastiest reward growing on this wonderful tree. Moreover, this fruit has been touched by the sweetest parrot in the world, whose contact has only enhanced the glory of the fruit.

Why is the Bhagavatam so unique? Unlike other branches of Vedic knowledge, bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, has nothing to do with the material world. Bhakti is divine love, and when it is practiced as a form of yoga, its intention is to keep the living entity in constant contact with Bhagavan, the Supreme Personality of Godhead who is fully featured with the attributes of beauty, wealth, strength, fame, knowledge, renunciation and wisdom. Dharma, artha, kama and moksha are reserved for those who have yet to understand Bhagavan or who have not fully realized the benefit of connecting with Him on a regular basis.

Lord HariTo understand more about Bhagavan through the mood of bhakti, one must know what He looks like, what His features are, where He lives and most importantly, how to address Him. These issues are covered in the Bhagavatam, which comes to us in the form of a discourse between a spiritual master and a king who is on the verge of death. Vyasadeva’s son, Shukadeva Goswami, the parrot-like sage, is the speaker of the Bhagavatam, and Maharaja Parikshit is the listener. The king was cursed to die in a very short period of time, so rather than just focus on Brahman, he approached Shukadeva Goswami to understand what the highest taste in life was and whose association would be the most beneficial. Shukadeva replied by describing the details of Shri Hari, the Supreme Lord, and His different features.

To set the table, the Bhagavatam covers the origin of creation and how Lord Brahma emerged from the stem of the lotus like navel of Lord Vishnu, who is Bhagavan Himself. Yet as further information is revealed, the listener comes to know that Lord Krishna, Shyamasundara, the beautiful blackish youth with two hands, is the original form of the Lord, and that Vishnu is His direct expansion. From Vishnu come many incarnations who appear on this planet and others throughout the course of time. The primary incarnations and their activities are then described, for anyone who hears about God and His pastimes tastes the nectar that only springs from Divine association. Only in bhakti is this taste available, as contact with material nature and even Brahman is unable to meet the emotional needs of the soul.

After all the notable incarnations have been described, Shukadeva Goswami reveals the true gem of the Bhagavatam: details of the life and pastimes of Lord Shri Krishna. This information is tucked safely away in the tenth canto, acting as a reward for those who have been patient enough to hear the first nine. Indeed, without properly understanding Krishna’s position as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the origin of spirit and matter, and the best friend of the living entities, the sweet nectar emerging from the ripened fruit of the tenth canto will not bring a pleasurable taste. Just as pure milk can be spoiled when touched by a serpent’s lips, if the intimate details of Krishna’s life and pastimes found in the Bhagavatam are heard from a serpent-like fellow, one who is averse to divine love and envious of Bhagavan’s supreme position, the sweet fruit will be bitter to the listener.

The four rewards of life are very difficult to achieve one after another, for they don’t always go together. Too much adherence to religious principles can take away opportunities for economic development and sense gratification. If moksha is sought out too early, the other aspects will be ignored. Indeed, this is at the root of the trepidation felt by parents when their young children take to studying the Vedas. For parents in the Vedic tradition, one of their greatest fears is that their children will take to the renounced order of life, sannyasa, without experiencing material life at all. Taking in too much of the cutting logic and argument found in the Vedas at an early age can be detrimental towards one’s material ambitions.

Radha and KrishnaBut bhakti is not like this at all. It is not meant to be practiced before or after anything else. Even a child can learn to love Krishna without reservation. It is revealed in the Bhagavatam that the holy name is the best way to connect with God in a mood of pure love, where there is no interruption in service and no motivation to find an end position. By regularly chanting the maha-mantra, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, the consciousness can be slowly transfixed into a divine trance that leaves the mind fully relishing the taste of Krishna’s association. Just as Krishna is worshipable, so are His names. Just as the holy name is worthy of honor, so is the book which describes the name and its benefits. In this respect the Bhagavatam is as good as Krishna, so anyone who is fortunate enough to hear from it on a regular basis will enjoy the most ripened fruit coming from the tree of Vedic wisdom. Once this nectar is tasted, all other forms of knowledge and endeavor will never cut it. Nothing short of seeing Krishna’s smiling face and hearing His pastimes, activities and devotees glorified will make the soul happy.