Sunday, January 20, 2013

No Distractions

Krishna's lotus feet“Yoga means concentration of the mind detached from all other subject matter. And actually such concentration is samadhi, or cent percent engagement in the service of the Lord. And one who concentrates his attention in that manner is called a yogi. “ (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 1.9.23 Purport)

In the advanced technological age, daily discussions, sometimes heated at that, occur over which new piece of technology is superior. The drive for profit in a free society ensures that there will be competition, which in turn gives the consumer choices in their retail purchasing. Oddly enough, one of the arguments used in favor of a popular piece of technology is that it has less features. Less is more in this viewpoint, as the lack of features means fewer distractions in using the gadget for its main purpose. The same argument has merits when applied to the realm of spirituality, where man’s overall lethargy prevents him from proceeding down a path that is guaranteed to provide him the most happiness.

E-readers are growing in popularity. This is not surprising. Rather than purchase a bulky book that you have to store somewhere after you read it one time, you can buy a single device that holds all of your books. The device remembers what page you left off on previously, and you can flip through multiple books at the same time. The books stay with you wherever you are. You can even switch between multiple devices to read the same book. Lighting is also no longer an issue. Whether in the daytime or night, whether you are in the perfect sitting position or not, you can read.

To facilitate the demand for e-reading, there are several devices available to the consumer. They each have different features. One device is strictly for reading. It hardly has any extraneous features. This device has several different versions, and most of them don’t have a color screen. The most popular competitor to this device is feature-rich. It can be used to check email, watch videos, surf the internet, and even do work through using business applications. It is almost as good as a desktop computer, and is in many ways superior to one.

Kindle PaperwhiteYet the proponents of the simpler device will say that the device’s lack of features makes it more conducive to reading. “There are less distractions. I’m not tempted to check my email. I don’t get the urge to thumb through pictures. I can’t surf the internet really, either. There aren’t tons of applications on it. When I pick up this device, I am more or less forced to read. And isn’t that what I want an e-reader for? Why should I pay more for a device that has features that I don’t really need?”

The obvious irony in this assessment is that the feature-rich device can also be used solely for reading. One has the choice. No one is forcing anyone to check email or watch videos on the feature-rich device. Nevertheless, the “less is more” argument resonates with many, as despite the ability to exercise discretion, sometimes we need to be forced into a particular activity. If the teacher in class gives us a take-home test that is due a week from today, we may not finish the test right away. We may wait until the night before it is due to start it. If the teacher gave the same test in class, where we had to complete it within a few hours, we would be forced to focus on the test, and thus be made to finish something that required completion.

In spiritual life practiced at the constitutional level, there are no hard and fast rules. This statement will be surprising to some, as the mere mention of religion brings to mind bombastic preachers boldly labeling all of us sinners who have gone against God’s will. But after all, isn’t a religious person supposed to be critical? If we were doing everything right already, why would we need God? The initial stages of spiritual life surely require restriction, regulation, and attention to principles, but the ultimate goal is love, or prema. Love is the universal language, and when it exists it cannot be checked. Similarly, Krishna-prema, or love for God, in its pure form is unmotivated and uninterrupted. Therefore it is not dependent on any specific situation.

Those who teach others how to attain this love and hold on to it are known as Vaishnavas. The Sanskrit word means a devotee of Vishnu, who is the personal form of God. The impersonal comes from the personal. The term “God” is impersonal; it refers to an abstract being casually referred to as the Supreme Controller or the Almighty. Everything is God after all, and if He is not clearly defined I can make Him out to be anything. Vishnu is the Supreme Lord with specific features. Vishnu is described in the Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India. And Vishnu comes from Krishna, who is the original Lord. Krishna’s name appropriately means “all-attractive.”

The Vaishnavas give us nine methods for practicing bhakti-yoga, which is the original occupation of the spirit soul. Of the nine methods, the two best are hearing and chanting. Right away we see that these two activities can take place anywhere. To make it even easier, the Vaishnavas give us mantras to chant out loud, such as, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.” Hearing is simultaneously accounted for in this chanting. To increase the potency of the chanting, the Vaishnavas advise that we give up meat eating, gambling, intoxication and illicit sex.

Seems simple enough, no? Ah, but this world can be likened to the greatest entertainment device there is. On the superior e-reader we have many choices for interaction, and similarly in this world we have unlimited choices in how to spend our time. Though we learn that hearing about God and chanting His names are most beneficial, we are driven towards those things which aren’t good for us in the end. In the Bhagavad-gita, Arjuna brings up this question to Krishna, as he understands that the mind is sometimes driven to sinful activities, almost like it doesn’t have a choice.

Bhagavad-gita, 3.36“Arjuna said: O descendant of Vrishni, by what is one impelled to sinful acts, even unwillingly, as if engaged by force?” (Bhagavad-gita, 3.36)

Krishna gives the answer: lust, which is prema in a perverted form. In devotional service, bhakti-yoga, lust is transformed back into its constitutional form of pure love for God. Nevertheless, in the material world we are bound by this lust, which drives us in all sorts of different directions, even after we get good instruction. How are we to find any success then?

Deities in the templeJust as the scaled down e-reader forces us to focus on the task that we want, namely reading, the temple environment, which is nothing more than a gathering of fellow practitioners of bhakti-yoga, compels us to hear and chant. From this fact we see the true purpose of the temple. It is a house of worship for sure, and one can see a deity representation of the Supreme Lord there. One can perform worship and offer prayers, which satisfy two of the other nine processes of devotional service, namely archanam and vandanam. But the real benefit is the association of the saintly class. In their presence it is much easier to focus on devotional activities. We can also take away lessons from them to be used when we are alone, worshiping at home.

Superior to the temple is the larger aggregate known as the holy place of pilgrimage, such as Vrindavana or Mayapura. In these places the devotional attitude continues throughout all hours of the day and in areas outside of the temple as well. For this reason the saints have ranked residence in a holy place very high in the list of beneficial activities.

Bhakti-yoga is so great that it can be practiced even if the situations are not ideal. Shri Hanuman practiced it while searching inside of an enemy territory. Prahlada Maharaja practiced it while being tortured by his father. Shrimati Radharani and her friends practiced it while tending to the household chores throughout the day. If the desire to be with God exists, nothing will stop the devotee, as the Supreme Lord Himself will offer a helping hand. His benevolence in this area is fully evident in the potency of the holy name, which carries His direct presence.

In Closing:

To read books anywhere I sought,

So this new e-reader I have bought.

 

Though my primary desire is to read,

Extraneous features to elsewhere will lead.

 

When using device that is not as feature rich,

Forced to read, beneficial is the switch.

 

Temples can act in the same way,

Through sadhu-sanga, holy names impelled to say.

 

From the lessons in their company learned,

More fruitful practice at home earned.

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