Monday Morning Greetings #38 – On Scholarship

October 17th, 2016

Scholarship is underrated. Scholarship is overrated.  I just can’t make up my mind. When I see conscious choices in behavior and policy based on whim rather than the rule of śāstra and witness the lack of depth in spiritual discourse in the general devotee community, I bemoan the lack of qualified Vaiṣṇava scholars to guide us and I become convinced we underrate the value of study. But when I see learned so-called scholars miss the most rudimentary truths of Vaiṣṇava behavior, I bemoan their learning as useless and I become convinced that scholarship is overrated. Just how important is the role of scholarship in the practice of devotional service?
Scholarship is underrated
Śrīla Prabhupāda was a Sanskrit scholar, at least enough of one to be prolific in quality translations of standard bhakti texts, such as the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, Bhagavad-gītā, and the books of Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī. In many ways the basis of his mission was to distribute knowledge in the form of those books. He also implored his devotees to read his books from different angles and chastised his disciples that “we are not just an export business,” warning his disciples that they must not only distribute his books, but also vigorously study them. Although the conclusion of those books is simple, that Kṛṣṇa is God and that we must fully surrender to Him, it is a conclusion that is realized only after years of sincere study.  Otherwise why would the Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu proclaim that the topmost devotee is one who has both strong faith and is well versed in śāstra (sacred texts). They are obviously not unrelated. We thus need learned devotees to give integrity to the Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement both by their spiritual attainment and their ability to enliven others and move them towards such attainment.  Our need for scholarship is thus definitely underrated.
Scholarship is overrated
What is the purpose of scholarship or knowledge on the path of bhakti? Like any path, you can’t begin to understand and have faith in what to do without knowledge. Knowledge is thus also the basis of moving forward with confidence and determination in bhakti.  Knowledge is also required not only to know what to do, but also how to do it, to know the exact method of our practice (bhakti sādhana). But knowledge also has its limits, especially when you consider the nature of the object to be known or attained, which is Kṛṣṇa.  God is personal and like any person is only superficially known by analysis. That Kṛṣṇa, like any person, reveals Himself fully only in love or relationship is affirmed by Kṛṣṇa Himself:
“That very ancient science of the relationship with the Supreme is today told by Me to you because you are My devotee as well as My friend and can therefore understand the transcendental mystery of this science. (Bhagavad-gītā 4.3)
The limits of scholarship in gaining full knowledge is directly and powerfully espoused in the Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad:
“Only unto those great souls who have implicit faith in both the Lord and the spiritual master are all the imports of Vedic knowledge automatically revealed.” (Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad 6.23) *
The import of Vedic knowledge is to free oneself from false ego. Here it explains that unless one is actually attempting to do that by surrendering to guru and Kṛṣṇa, one will just not have the frame of reference to recognize that same core principle when studying the vast and complex Vedas, just like a woman who is a PhD in child pedagogy will not be gifted with a deep understanding of motherhood despite her study unless she is first a responsible mother. The above text also informs us that deep insight into the infinitely deep Vedas are only possible when gifted with such insight by the mercy of God who sees in one a sincere desire to be transformed by such knowledge, and not by one who is just interested in the ego gratification of being learned.
Scholarship is thus vastly overrated as a barometer of spiritual attainment because one who is not surrendered to guru and Kṛṣṇa and thus approaches the sacred texts only for mastery and influence misses its true import and simply becomes proud. Unfortunately, this has too often been the history of scholarship in modern day Vaiṣṇavism where people who study often lack the upbringing of service and humility to inoculate themselves from such motive and misconception.
In conclusion, I would like to offer my profound respect to the late Vaiṣṇava scholar Gopīparāṇadhana Prabhu who showed us the proper use of scholarship. He was vastly learned, and had a natural propensity and love for learning. In fact, I first met him in the early 1970s after he joined the Brooklyn temple as a graduate in linguistics from Colombia University, but history has shown that he took up the service of scholarship not to become a respected linguist, but only as service to his spiritual master Śrīla Prabhupāda. He was thus a devotee first and a scholar second, which is actually the message of Vedic knowledge. In that sense the result of his study gave him the greatest insight into its true meaning, which he not only imbibed personally as a humble Vaiṣṇava dedicated to service, but as teacher who effectively inspired others to become Vaiṣṇava scholars as well. His life thus teaches us not only the importance of scholarship, but it limits as well, that it shouldn’t overshadow the import of its message, to become a humble servant to guru and Kṛṣṇa.
* yasya deve parā bhaktir
yathā deve tathā gurau
tasyaite kathitā hy arthā

prakāśante mahātmana


Monday Morning Greetings #37 – On Criticism

October 10th, 2016

“The poison of that which you criticize comes to you.”
“Criticism is worse that throwing a spear in someone’s body, because the spear can only pierce the body, but criticism can pierce the heart.”
“Criticism is worse than envy. Envy is when it is in the heart. Criticism is when it comes out.”
I have often repeated these statements. I am sure I read them someplace, although somehow I can’t find their reference. I have no difficulty, however, embracing their conclusion. And here is one strong clearly referenced statement about the necessity to avoid criticism.
“Of the nine processes of devotional service, the most important is to always chant the holy name of the Lord. If one does so, avoiding the ten kinds of offenses, one very easily obtains the most valuable love of Godhead.” Cc Antya 4.71
It’s a good reference for the most serious of the ten offenses against the holy name is criticism. Of course, the word for criticism used here “nindā” is qualified by the word “sādhu” and there is also allowance for constructive criticism. We will get to that, but we need to realize that the stakes for an offender are high. You just won’t get “love of Godhead”. And for the devotee that is everything. Best err on the side of caution.
I struggle with that. So many people, devotees who are dedicated and senior, sometimes do things that disturb me. How can one not criticize? Be careful! If one’s criticism is not born of compassion, but even harbors a trace of ill will, that hate will certainly cover the soul, for the soul is simply consciousness meant for love and devotion.
And if I think about it honestly I also must do things that serve as fuel for the lower nature of others. We all struggle with our own impurities and conditioning and its bound to be just the thing that annoys another, especially one with a different nature. That is simply the way of the world. At all costs I just don’t want to be a self-righteous hypocrite that is always clamoring for justice for others and mercy for oneself.
But what about all the injustice? By all means speak up and speak up strongly, but first make sure there is no hate in your own heart, otherwise your kīrtan of others faults which merely embodies the impurities of your own heart will only spread hate of others and not love of God. We have seen too often that the modern champions of controversy mostly create threads that attract the bitter.
I remember reading in a history of the Gauḍīyā Math of a younger devotee who had a very critical intelligence. He would often see things that are wrong. He sought the counsel of a very senior and elevated Vaiṣṇava who gave him the very simple advice which he followed for the rest of his life, “Observe and don’t talk”. He followed that instruction and attained spiritual heights. Yes, it may be one’s service to point on mistakes. I just don’t envy that person and I pray they are fairly pure. Otherwise:
“We all become well-disguised mirror image of anything that we fight too long or too directly… Most frontal attacks on evil just produce another kind of evil in yourself, along with a very inflated self-image to boot.” – Richard Rohr, Falling Upward
My prayer is to be a Vaiṣṇava. So many places in śāstra that is defined as one who is free from the propensity to criticize others. Who else can a Vaiṣṇava be other than one who has no hate in his or her heart? I hanker for such saṅga. And by Śrīla Prabhupāda’s grace there are many such souls. I just have to be the bee that seeks the honey and not the fly that looks for the sores.
To conclude with another oft-repeated statement of mine that has no reference, but I embrace whole-heartedly:
Bhakti is simple. Even a child can do it. What is difficult is avoiding offense.”

Lessons from the CC: Antya-līlā, Chapter 3

October 3rd, 2016

Lessons from the Caitanya-caritāmṛta, Anyta-līlā, Chapter 3
Lesson 1: One should not instruct or criticize one’s teacher.
One young boy would regularly visit Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu. Dāmodara Paṇḍita, one of his disciples, was concerned that people may criticize Śrī Caitanya. The child was not only the son of a beautiful young widow, but Śrī Caitanya was still a young and handsome man and, more importantly, in the renounced order of life. He thus began to instruct him.
“Dāmodara Paṇḍita impudently said to the Lord, ‘Everyone says that You are a great teacher because of your instructions to others, but now we shall find out what kind of teacher you are.’” Antya-līlā 3.11
“You are known as Gosāñi (teacher or ācārya) but now talk about your attributes and reputation will spread throughout the city of Puruṣottama. How Your position will be impaired!” Antya-līlā 3.12
“Dāmodara Paṇḍita was a great devotee of Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu. Sometimes, however, a person in such a position becomes impudent, being influenced by the eternal energy and material considerations. Thus a devotee mistakenly dares criticize the activities of the spiritual master or the Supreme Personality of Godhead.” Antya-līlā 3.11
Note: What to do if one is actually concerned that a teacher or senior is doing something wrong? Never criticize. Bring your concerns to a trusted peer of your teacher who can make a impartial decision on whether there is a problem and who is in the position to correct or instruct him.
Lesson 2: Although a student may violate etiquette in correcting a teacher and the teacher may rebuke the student, the teacher will forgive him if the student is simple-hearted and his motive pure.
“Having said this, Dāmodara Paṇḍita became silent. Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu smiled, pleased within Himself, and considered the impudence of Dāmodara Paṇḍita.” Antya-līlā 3.18
[Śrī Caitanya thought:] “This impudence is also a sign of pure love for Me. I have no other intimate friend like Dāmodara Paṇḍita.” Antya-līlā 3.19

“[…] The Lord could understand that it was because of Dāmodara Paṇḍita’s simplicity that he impudently dared criticize him. Nevertheless such behavior by a devotee is not very good.” Antya-līlā 3:17
Lesson 3: A devotee should never neglect the welfare of their parent.
After chastising Dāmodara Paṇḍita Śrī Caitanya orders him to stay with his widowed mother to protect her:
“The Lord said, ‘My dear friend Dāmodara, you had better go to Nadia and stay with My mother.’” Antya-līlā 3.21
Lesson 4: A devotee who is neutral or detached can be objective and speak strongly about religious principles.
By sending Dāmodara Paṇḍita to stay and protect his mother, he is not only saving him from more offenses, but using his critical nature in service: He informs him:
“I can see no one but you to protect her, for you are so careful that you can caution even Me.” Antya-līlā 3.22
“You are most neutral among my associates. That is very good, for without being neutral one cannot protect religious principles.” Antya-līlā 3.23
Lesson 5: A devotee exchanges love with others, especially other devotees, by offering them prasādam.
After instructing Dāmodara Paṇḍita to go and look after his mother, he sent with him prasādam to offer to the various devotees in her town.
“After saying this, Śrī Cainatnya Mahāprabhu ordered that varieties of prasādam offered to Lord Jagannātha be brought. The Lord then gave him the prasādam, separately packed, to offer to various Vaiṣṇavas and His mother.” Antya-līlā 3.41
Lesson 6: One should carefully follow the order of one’s spiritual master.
After Dāmodara Paṇḍita received his instructions from Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu he carefully carried them out.
“He delivered all the prasādam to such great Vaiṣṇavas as Advaita Ācārya. Thus he stayed there and behaved according to the order of Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu.” Antya-līlā 3.43
Lesson 7: A devotee who desires to spread God-consciousness to others should be very emphatic even to those that are sinful and think of ways to deliver them.
In a discussion with Haridāsa Ṭhākura, the preeminent teacher of the holy name, Śrī Caitanya expressed his unhappiness that there is no way to rectify those that are most sinful, even those that slaughter animals.
“How will these yavanas be delivered? To great my unhappiness, I do not see any way.” Antya-līlā 3.51

“Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu was always anxious to deliver the fallen souls because their fallen condition gave Him great unhappiness. That is the platform by which one can propagate the mission of Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu.” Antya-līlā 3.51
Lesson 8: It is the main service of those in line from Śrī Caitanya to try to relieve His anxiety by compassionately preaching Kṛṣṇa consciousness.
To relieve Śrī Caitanya’s anxiety Haridāsa Ṭhākura addresses Him:
“Haridāsa Ṭhākura replied, ‘My dear Lord, do not be in anxiety. Do not be unhappy to see the condition of the yavanas in material existence.” Antya-līlā 3.52

“These words of Haridāsa Ṭhākura are just befitting a devotee who has dedicated his life and soul to the service of the Lord. When the Lord is unhappy because of the condition of the fallen souls, the devotee consoles Him, saying “My dear Lord do not be in anxiety.” This is service. Everyone should adopt the cause of Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu to try to relieve Him from the anxiety He feels. This is actual service to the Lord. One who tries to relieve Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu’s anxiety for the fallen souls is certainly a most dear and confidential devotee of the Lord.” Antya-līlā 3.52
Lesson 9: As long as the holy name is chanted innocently, even if chanted improperly, its potency will not be diminished.
In answer to Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu’s question of how the yavanas will be delivered, Haridāsa explains that even when the yavanas utter the word “Ha Rama”, which in their language means condemned, the potency of the holy name is not diminished.
“Namācārya Haridāsa Ṭhākura, the authority on chanting the holy name said, ‘The chanting of the Lord’s holy name to indicate something other than the Lord is an instance of nāmābhāsa. Even when the holy name is chanted in this way, its transcendental power is not destroyed.’” Antya-līlā 3.55
Lesson 10: Despite its potency, one should vigilantly avoid offenses to the holy name if one wants to receive the full benefit of chanting.
“If a devotee once utters the holy name of the Lord, or if it penetrates his mind or enters his ear, which is the channel of aural reception, that holy name will certainly deliver him from material bondage, whether vibrated properly or improperly, with correct or incorrect grammar, or properly joined or vibrated in separate parts. O brāhmaṇa, the potency of the holy name is therefore certainly great. However, if one uses the vibration of the holy name for the benefit of the material body, for material wealth or followers, or under the influence of greed or atheism—in other words, if one utters the name with offenses—such chanting will not produce the desired result very soon. Therefore one should vigilantly avoid offenses in chanting the holy name of the Lord.” Antya-līlā 3.60
Lesson 11: Even one’s surrounding environment becomes purified when one chants loudly, especially when one’s chanting is accompanied by others.
After hearing how the yavanas can be delivered, Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu raises the concern how the moving and non-moving living entities can be delivered from material bondage. Haridāsa responds:
“You have loudly chanted the Hare Kṛṣṇa mantra, and everyone, moving and not moving, has benefited by hearing it.” Anyta-līlā 3.69
“My Lord, the living entities who have heard Your loud saṅkīrtana have already been delivered by bondage to the material world, and after the non-moving living entities like trees hear it, there is an echo.” Antya-līlā 3.70
“Actually, however, it is not an echo: it is the kīrtana of the non-moving living entities. All this, although inconceivable, is possible by Your mercy.” Antya-līlā 3.71
“When loud chanting of the Hare Kṛṣṇa mantra is performed all over the world by those who follow in your footsteps, all living entities, moving and non-moving, dance in ecstatic devotional love.” Antya-līlā 3.72
Lesson 12: There is no limit in how far we can glorify the Lord’s pure devotee.
After Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu heard Haridāsa’s explanations on the power of the holy name He was so impressed that he went to His personal devotees and began glorifying Haridāsa as if “he had hundreds of mouths”. Kṛṣṇadāsa Kavirāja’s comments:
“The transcendental qualities of Haridāsa Ṭhākura are innumerable and unfathomable. One may describe a portion of them, but to count them all is impossible.” Antya-līlā 3.95
Lesson 13: The most important spiritual practice is to chant a prescribed number of the Hare Kṛṣṇa maha-mantra.
“Haridāsa Ṭhākura constructed a cottage in a solitary forest. There he planted a tulasī plant, and in front of tulasī he would chant the holy name of the Lord 300,000 times daily. He chanted throughout the day and night.” Antya-līlā 3.100

“[…] the process of chanting the Hare Kṛṣṇa maha-mantra with a vow before the tulasī plant has such great spiritual potency that simply by doing this one can become spiritually strong. Therefore we request the members of the Hare Kṛṣṇa movement to follow Haridāsa Ṭhākura’s example rigidly.” Antya-līlā 3.100
Lesson 14: One should only take food in the house of a brāhmaṇa or Vaiṣṇava where food is offered to Kṛṣṇa with love.
Lesson 15: Whether one is a renunciate or a householder, if one is serious about spiritual life one should not live an unnecessarily luxurious life.
Haridāsa Ṭhākura would only eat what he could beg from a brāhmaṇa’s house.
“For his bodily maintenance he would go to a brāhmaṇa’s house and beg some food […]“ Antya-līlā 3.101

“If we take food from the house of others, such as karmīs, we shall have to share the qualities of those from whom we take alms. Therefore Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu took prasādam in the house of Vaiṣṇavas. This is the general process. The members of the Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement are advised not to take food from anywhere but a Vaiṣṇava or brāhmaṇa’s house where the Deity worship is performed […] We must always remember that a devotee’s life is one of vairāgya-vidyā, or renunciation and knowledge. Therefore all devotees are warned not to live unnecessarily luxurious lives at the cost of others.” Antya-līlā 3.101

Monday Morning Greetings #36 – You’re Wrong!

September 26th, 2016

How we fight those words even when, well… we’re obviously wrong.

It was the early morning in the sweet land of Vṛndāvana during my japa meditation. As my concentration deepened suddenly some mistakes that I made drifted into my consciousness. I could have let those thoughts go, or at least I could try to, but the nature of those thoughts were forcing me to confront those mistakes, but before the pain of admission could pinch my ego, I heard a soothing voice come to the rescue.

“It wasn’t your fault! It was circumstantial. The mistakes were exaggerated. And you have accepted responsibility. You’re so humble…”

But just as I was rationalizing my faults, a more challenging and powerful message hit me. That week I had been teaching in my daily sat-saṅga the story “The Deliverance of the Wives of the Brāhmaṇas” from the tenth canto of the Bhāgavatam. I had just lectured on the part where the learned, austere brāhmaṇas were not only awakened to their own offenses, but also to the challenging realization of how paltry their spiritual attainment was as compared to their simple wives. They condemned themselves in the harshest way:

“To hell with our being initiated priests, our vows of celibacy, and our extensive learning! To hell with our aristocratic background and our expertise in the ritual of sacrifice! These are all condemned because we are inimical to the transcendental Personality of Godhead.” – Bhāg. 10.23.40

What struck me in this story was the Sanskrit word used for remorse that I gleaned to have the same root as tapa, which means “austerity” or “heat”. At least that’s how I read it. The story thus brought to my mind the point that embracing our faults is an austerity, a practice that burns our false ego – that cherished conception of being better than others as the controller and enjoyer.

So that day as I was watching the process of rationalization co-opting any sense of remorse I thought of this pastime and was inspired to just stop rationalizing and let the acknowledgement of my blunders burn the false ego, the insidious desire to be the controller. Internally I screamed, but at the same time the holy name became more and more the focus of my consciousness as I embraced the humble position.

“You’re wrong!” Oh how we hate those words, but at the same time how good they can be for us if we accept them properly. We have studied the teachings the Gītā so many times and we abhor the self-centered. Why then should it be so difficult to hear these words even for one fairly advanced on the path?

We have come to this world to seek our pleasure from enjoyment, not love. We thus seek power in the form of wealth, education, beauty, position, and so on to conform the world to our desires and a sense of superiority. As admitting our mistakes even to one other person or just ourselves means a diminishment of status or a loss of power, we fight that conception tooth and nail, even if it belies our core values and it is unbecoming to our spiritual life.

It is so counter intuitive, but all glories to “I’m wrong!



Monday Morning Greetings #35 – The Absolute Tooth

September 19th, 2016

I have been laying in the dentist chair for almost the last two hours here in Cali, Colombia. Oscar is drilling away. If he hits a nerve, he says, I may require root canal. Not really where I want to be, but I tolerate. What’s the use of studying the philosophy of Kṛṣṇa consciousness, if you don’t apply it practically in day-to-day life? The drill seems to hit a nerve. I ask for anesthesia. Some thoughts come:

  1. The day before I went to the dentist, I had just finished a five-day course on bhakti here in Shyam Ashram in Colombia. I prepared a lot for the course not wanting to lose the opportunity to give my best to people new to the subject. After finishing the course successfully, I realized that I didn’t have pressing duties or problems to minister to and that I would now be able to just concentrate on chanting and writing, things that I most like to do. I thought to myself, “Finally a rare time where the world has conformed exactly to what I want. I can now really be free to enjoy these last two weeks here.” Bam! Immediately an unexpected trip to the dentist arose. Kṛṣṇa is so kind. Even on those rare occasions when the world finally seems to conform to one’s personal desires, he won’t let his devotee become complacent and fall into the illusion that he or she is the controller. This type of enjoyment is just simply too superficial, filled with the duality of temporality, and distances oneself from the selfless happiness of the soul. The drilling got a little more intense, but I tolerated thinking, “How merciful Kṛṣṇa is that as soon as I thought I was the enjoyer, He gave me a pinch to save me from complacency in this world of birth and death.”
  2. When I came into his office Oscar (my dentist) carefully explained to me the procedure and asked me if that was OK. I told him, “I am a soul surrendered unto you!” I thought to myself that this is what Kṛṣṇa consciousness means, that in every sphere of life, and especially spiritual life, there are people who are authorities in particular subjects. They know more than others, and thus the best way to avail oneself of their knowledge is to surrender to their direction. I don’t know if he was flattering me, but when I saw Oscar the next day he reminded me of what I said and told me, “You are my best patient.”
  3. Oscar was one of my students in the bhakti course, but now I was sitting in the chair helpless and dependent on him. He was sincerely trying to help me and I felt his care and shelter. My affection for him thus increased. I thought this is analogous to our relationship with God. When we realize that we are totally dependent on God and humbly take shelter of him with the faith that whatever he does is best, then bhakti naturally arises in the heart.
  4. If I didn’t get this treatment now, it is likely that I would have had to have serious dental work, or even root canal, in Vṛndāvana. That would obviously have been substantially more inconvenient and painful. These thoughts enabled me to sit, tolerate, and be grateful to Oscar although sitting in his chair was not fun. I thought how this was also analogous to the world. We suffer here, but our suffering is only to make the future better. Thinking like this enables one to be patient and tolerant amidst difficulty.
  5. To the extent that one practices the austerity of a relatively simple life, one will be able to extract oneself from bodily identification, and will be capable of tolerating the pains and pleasures of this world. While Oscar was working away, I saw that spiritual life enabled me to tolerate and extract my self from that pain just a little more than if I carelessly indulged myself in life. I gave myself a little pat on the back, although the pain really was minimal.
  6. The expectation of the pain from the dentist drill and its disturbing shrillness was actually worse than the actual experience of it. I thought this is also like the world in general where the expectations of pain and pleasure are generally more excruciating or pleasurable than the actual experience of it. This is especially true of the sensual and egotistical pleasures of this world.
  7. American cultural imperialism — Frankly, the expertise, equipment, office and care were far above anything I experienced in America. America has good facilities, but it is overrated, especially in health care.
  8. When you are a guru and go to a devotee dentist or doctor make sure to let them know that you are not transcendental to the pains and pleasures of the body so they are more inclined to help you numb the pain and that’s the Absolute Tooth.


Dhanurdhara Swami with Oscar

Monday Morning Greetings #34 – Are Vaisnavas Democrats or Republicans?

September 12th, 2016

Do Vaiṣṇavas have an ideology? Śrīla Prabhupāda had an interesting take in reference to the great Vaiṣṇava King Yudhiṣṭhira.

“Therefore there are so many states over the earth quarrelling because of ideological differences or other selfish motives. But a king like Mahārāja Yudhiṣṭhira had no ideology of his own.” (Bhag. 1.10.4, Purport)

Certainly Vaiṣṇavas strongly profess a particular system of economic and political ideals, an ideology called varṇāśrama.[i] How could Śrīla Prabhupāda describe a great Vaiṣṇava as Mahārāja Yudhiṣṭhira as having no ideology of his own?

The reconciliation is simple. Śrīla Prabhupāda is not saying that a Vaiṣṇava doesn’t have an ideology. Rather in describing a Vaiṣṇava as “having no ideology of his own” he means that unlike most modern day conservatives or liberals a Vaiṣṇava’s “own” conditioning does not bias his or her views. Rather a Vaiṣṇava’s opinion is informed by a detached judgment based on śāstra, not a predictable prejudiced “left” or “right” response regardless of the issue.

A Vaiṣṇava’s objectivity beyond bias is also described by Śrīla Prabhupāda in reference to the rule of Mahārāja Yudhiṣṭhira:

“He had but to follow the instructions of the infallible Lord and the Lord’s representative and the authorized agent, Bhīṣmadeva. It is instructed in the śāstra that one should follow the great authority and infallible Lord without any personal motive and manufactured ideology.” (Bhag. 1.10.4, Purport)

A learned Vaiṣṇava can thus not be pigeon holed politically simply as “left” or “right”. Śrīla Prabhupāda is a good example. Although in one sense he could be called conservative as he often espoused traditional mores in context of culture and civilization, he wasn’t limited by that ideology either. When teaching in the west, for example, he took a more liberal approach in terms of engaging and empowering women, although certainly not to the level of unabashed feminism. In other words, his views were not informed by his own ideology “left” or “right”, but by the authority of śāstra that advocated both a strong tradition and gave leeway for its practical application in modernity. Thus when in arriving in San Francisco and being shown by the devotees an article where Allen Ginsberg commented that he was conservative, Śrīla Prabhupāda was indignant that although he was conservative in the sense of restricting sex and drugs according to śāstra, “Conservative, we are not”. He went on to describe that although traditional sannyāsis like Śrī Caitanya would not even look at a woman, that he was accepting everyone “regardless of sex, caste, and position or whatever.” And later he would even engage those same women as head pūjārīs[ii] in his temples outside of India.

Are Vaiṣṇavas Democrats or Republicans? Such limited ideology born of one’s own material conditioning is just not how a Vaiṣṇava informs his or her views, nor does a Vaiṣṇava have faith that such a limited ideological platform of “left” or “right” would ever even come close to meeting any promises for a better world.

My views on the subject 13 years ago:

Are Vaiṣṇavas Democrats or Republicans? Part I

Are Vaiṣṇavas Democrats or Republicans? Part II

[i]  The social and economic system of traditional India.

[ii] The head priest of the temple Deities.

Monday Morning Greetings #33 – Giving Birth to Devotion

September 5th, 2016

I like the analogy of devotional activities giving birth to devotion like a mother gives birth to a child. One day there is no child and suddenly one is born. In the same way, although bhakti is generally a gradual process, bhakti can one day suddenly manifest or be born as a result of powerful spiritual activities.
In one song that highlights the potency of honoring special days of the Lord, like ekādaśī and Janmāṣṭamī, Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura points out the possibility of such an unexpected surge in bhakti. He sings:
mādhava-tithi (the days of Lord Hari) bhakti-jananī (gives birth to devotion)
I would like to share with you my realizations of this principle in relation to our first Janmāṣṭamī here in the beautiful Shyam Ashram in Cali, both in this short post and the accompanying pictures to the event. First some background:
Our ashram is maintained by yoga and retreats, but we have Gaura Nitāi deities, and a mandatory morning program of maṅgala-ārati and japa for our small crew of resident teachers. There is plenty sat-saṅga, teaching and hearing śāstra (sacred texts), especially when either Kaustubha, Jaya Jagannātha or myself are here and quite substantial Gītā seminars by the trained residents when we are not present. The closest thing to Shyam Ashram would be The Bhakti Center in New York, a devotional cultural center that is increasingly attracting a professional class of people. By the location of our ashram and the type of outreach we do, we seem to cater to a very established class of people that have formed our growing congregation. The nice thing here is that, unlike many places, the well-to-do people here are generally pious Catholics, stable and family oriented, and thus naturally respectful and receptive to culture and people of devotion. Now the festival:
Although it was a first here, our festival was a typical Kṛṣṇa celebration. There were plentiful and stunning floral arrangements, a well-prepared bounty of tasteful foodstuffs offered to Kṛṣṇa, non-stop and melodious kīrtan, and a colorful abhiṣeka (ceremonial bath) of our Deities. I also gave a short talk to our first time participants explaining the relevance of the function. Most importantly the ashram residents and a core congregation were engaged non-stop throughout the day in devotional service preparing the elaborate celebration. My realization:
Flowers, food, and song offered in devotion embody the devotion that is created and offered with them. To see, taste, or hear them is thus not just a sensual experience. It is also an emotional or spiritual one because they project the potency of devotion that produced them. Our new time visitors were thus transformed by the overwhelming color, flavor, and sounds of our joyous celebration. I witnessed that and many also expressed that to me. The occasion was a substantial milestone for our project.
When I walked around Shyam Ashram early the next morning I saw Ximena (one of our directors), who worked tirelessly the day before the festival helping to prepare the festivities, sweeping and mopping the floor as she was chanting joyously. She has become dedicated in devotion, but her chanting this day had a special quality and depth. As she sang I could feel the extra devotion that had been born in her heart. I immediately thought of Bhaktivinoda’s song:
mādhava-tithi (the days of Lord Hari) bhakti-jananī (gives birth to devotion)
I thus became inspired to write this post. Enjoy the pictures!
Continue Reading »

Monday Morning Greetings #32 – More is Less: The Secret of Chanting

August 29th, 2016

When I am in America and not traveling, I live in Stuyvesant Falls — a quiet, small agricultural hamlet in Upstate New York — just two hours by express train from New York City. A converted barn is my Western bhajan kuṭīra*. I naturally chant more while there. When blessed, realizations come. I will share them here.

August 7

Realization I

Today the practice was better. I was more concentrated and chanted longer in the right mood without interruption. The real test of better chanting is the benediction of realization. I had one today: More is less. I am chanting more here, quite a bit more, but it feels easier, much easier than when I do less. More feels less. Why?

The saying goes, “Time flies when you are having a good time.” What is a good time? It is not what we usually think it is, a world conforming to our desires. It means living in the soul, which first awakens in gratitude and humility. In that place, one can live for forever, for gratitude is the basis of devotion, and love is the only place one never wants to leave for someplace else.

We feel time when we dwell in the past or the future. Focused in the present there is no time. When we live in gratitude and humility we are happy and present now, otherwise we lament (for the past) or hanker (for the future) and become oppressed by time. Chanting in gratitude and humility thus transcends time. If we are not concentrated in chanting and live in the future thinking, “When will I finish my chanting,” two rounds can seem like hours or more. If we are concentrated hours of chanting will seem like moments.

Am I there? I am practicing.

But by prolonged chanting when layers of ignorance are gradually pealed away, one may glimpse the soul. One may feel gratitude and humility and want to live in that place of devotion forever. Time then stops. So by chanting more and more, one feels less. Less doesn’t mean less chanting. It means one feels less of the oppression of time. So in good chanting, more is less.

Simple choice: Concentrate or be oppressed.


Realization II

A humble soul can feel God’s mercy and therefore respond by chanting with love and devotion. Humility is thus the key to chanting. Unfortunately, I need to be beaten by the world to be humble.

How? By having to confront reality.

What is that reality? It is the stark truth that the world moves at God’s whim and that I am not in control.

That thought is unnerving – that anything can happen. And it inevitably does. What a crazy world. It is hard to take. All I can do is take shelter. But that feeling of shelter, although inspired by apprehension and fear, is the greatest solace. That is the way of the world, to push us from ego to the lap of Kṛṣṇa. And I can stay there forever chanting the holy name.


* Meditation hut or humble place where one chants and hears about Kṛṣṇa.


Monday Morning Greetings #31 – Old Soul (And Body Too)

August 22nd, 2016

I went with Jaya Jagannātha to visit someone who is perhaps New York’s oldest living servant of Śrī Śrī Rādhā Muralīdhara. When I say oldest, I am not just referring to age, now past eighty, but years at Their lotus feet, now past thirty. Jayati Rādhikā has been visiting Śrī Śrī Rādhā Muralīdhara even before The Bhakti Center or The Sanctuary (its former namesake) existed, when they resided in a humble storefront on Manhattan Avenue in Brooklyn, only eight blocks from her home. But I think she must have worshiped Them even longer than that, perhaps for many lives. I see in her all the symptoms of an old soul.
Jayati Rādhikā was not a hippy, or a straightedge, or from the yoga scene, and certainly not born in the movement, or any of the prominent sources or veins from where Hare Kṛṣṇa devotees are usually mined. She was just a simple middle class New York housewife, a mother and a dedicated registered nurse, when returning home from work in 1981 she encountered a young Hare Kṛṣṇa monk on the street and purchased from him an Easy Journey to Other Planets, one of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s first books. When she reached home she read it from cover to cover, searched the address of the nearest ISKCON center, and that same Sunday visited the Rādhā Govinda Mandir. She never looked back, even though her family, although supportive, didn’t follow her on her journey.
Jayati Rādhikā is now bed-ridden, spending her last days in an assisted living facility in Western Massachusetts near the home of her daughter, but somehow she still greeted me with that same simple smile of contentment, a beam that had endured forty-eight regimens of chemotherapy over the last sixteen years and the constant pain of rheumatoid arthritis. That same smile had also belied her condition as she regularly trekked to The Bhakti Center every Sunday all the way from her home in Howard Beach, Queens. As we began kirtan, she closed her eyes and tapped her feet under the covers. When we finished the kirtan I began to reflect.
We read about advanced yogis who have practiced santoṣa (contentment). How many of them could have endured such ardor year after year without even the slightest scent of dejection or bitterness, not even when her husband fell ill in the last few years and was incapacitated mostly under her care. I inquired:
“How did you remain so joyful over the years despite the tribulations you faced and how do you remain so now even in the face of death and distanced from the association of devotees?”
She replied in her simple and guileless brogue, “Kṛṣṇa is in charge. Leave it to Him. Everything will be OK.”
I pressed further, “But aren’t you afraid of death?”
“People ask me that all the time. Not at all. I kind of look forward to it. I just know that Kṛṣṇa is in charge and if I leave it to Him, everything will be OK. I felt that from the first day I went to the temple.”
Although she spoke with such conviction, there was no alarm or drama in her reply. It was so matter of fact, almost amused, and certainly without fear. I pondered what she shared.
“Kṛṣṇa is in charge. Leave it to Him. Everything will be OK.”
What takes a lifetime of trial to realize, what is the essence of approaching the world and death with fearlessness, what is a realization so deep that it guarantees us entrance to the kingdom of God*, and a thought so transforming that it gifts us a heart of contentment and a smile of joy, was the property of this very simple housewife from the beginning of her spiritual life. How is this possible?
This is indeed a very old soul
* See Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 10.14.8

Monday Morning Greetings #30 – Sixty-Five is the New Fifty

August 15th, 2016

About 25 years ago one sādhu in Vṛndāvana told me why traditionally at the age of fifty a person would start considering a life of renunciation.
“The Hindi word for fifty is pachasa. Asa means hope. At fifty, one still has hope. Hindi for fifty-one, however, is ikyavan, van means the forest.  Go to the forest, renounce life, there is no hope.”
Although I had taken sannyāsa at the age of thirty-two, even at the age of fifty it seemed as if I still had hope, ambitions, and dreams connected with garnering distinction. Old age was thus still something in the future. Marc Jacobson of the New York magazine describes this phenomenon:
“Throughout my life, there has always been a number that sounded old. When I was sixteen, it was twenty-seven; at twenty-nine it was forty-two; at thirty-eight, it was fifty-two, at sixty-five, however, it was sixty-five.”
Sixty-five means the creaky knees and bad digestion and other creeping physical anomalies. It’s destiny representing the voice of God telling you loudly that the vehicle you are riding in, in my case a vintage 1950 New Yorker, has had its days. It is the stark realization that you just can’t trust the future, for no matter how much you calculate there are just a few more years.
But for me, more than anything else, it’s the stark understanding of what death means and the fear of facing that in ignorance expressed so clearly to me by a Vaiṣṇava scholar and friend:
“The pain of death is not the physical pain. For if that becomes too intense one will either automatically go into a coma or will be medicated. The real pain is the losing of all one’s attachments at once.”
Am I ready?
Another friend related to me a sobering thought:
“What we think of at the moment at death will be what our mind spontaneously gravitates to and not what we will because our body and mind will be too disturbed. Do you want to have a glimpse of what that will be? Just look at what you dream. It is directly analogous to what you will think of at death because, like death, your thoughts are not consciously directed.”
Now that is really a sobering thought! And more sobering is the fact that what we are putting in our minds now will determine what we think of when we die. How much is about Kṛṣṇa? And what else do we put in? At sixty-five this seems to really be the challenge — to consciously re-program the mind in an even more serious way than ever before, to significantly increase the download of chanting and hearing and to ultimately gauge the success of that programming by what I am dreaming now.
It’s strange, but at sixty-five I am being called to real sannyāsa, something I took 33 years ago, and something that should have been taken at least by fifty — not just the change of cloth and a new position, but the death of the ego, the chance to die while living so that I am detached at that stark moment when everything is ripped away.
I feel the need to get serious as never before.
Sixty-five is the new fifty.

Next »