Monday Morning Greetings #28 – A Sannyasi Walks onto a Train and Meets a Girl

July 25th, 2016

A Sannyāsi* Walks onto a Train and Meets a Girl

I can’t remember the exact train or time, but I do remember the girl. It was about two months ago on a crowded train from DC to New York. I got on early to get a window seat and hopefully sit by myself. A few minutes before the train was about to leave, I saw a young girl in her early twenties with much effort dragging her suitcase down the aisle. She was visibly exhausted and stopped when she got to my seat. Some good Samaritans helped her put her luggage up and she plopped down in the seat next to me. Seeing her condition, I guessed she didn’t have enough energy to go further. Otherwise why would she choose to sit down next to a fellow in robes and tilak. As she slumped down into the chair she frantically searched for a snack from her bag. It was as if she needed to eat something just to get enough energy to survive her ordeal. I overheard her on the phone: “I made it Mom. I’m OK.” Well, there goes my privacy, I thought. I continued my work.

The train drove out of the station only about five minutes when she mustered up just enough energy to ask me if I was a monk. We talked and I heard her very sad story.

She was a successful, young, athletic and gifted college student, who even managed to maintain her devout Catholicism in school, when she was ravaged by a severe case of chronic Lyme disease. She almost died twice, but her devoted parents stood by her side and nursed her to life. After a long bout fighting the disease she finally had enough energy, barely, to go by train and visit her boyfriend in Albany, also a pious Catholic from New England who had the character and devotion to stay with her. I don’t remember the details, but she suffered hell, and still does. Only her faith in God carried her through her trials with even a glimmer of hope and purpose. I encouraged her faith, which she said not many people do, and offered a few words of wisdom from what I learned from my revered teacher. She was grateful and took my card. Yesterday I received a letter from her. I thought what she wrote would be meaningful reading for our Monday Morning Greeting audience.

Hello,

  This is Grace, from the Amtrak train, back in early May. I’m so sorry about the long delay in messaging. I have been meaning to write but keep getting distracted. (One of the many things I’m working on :).

  I wanted to keep in touch and tell you how much our conversation meant to me. I think you were right when you said God sat us together for a reason. As I mentioned on the train, I have been very sick with Lyme disease for many years now. It has tested me in many ways, but this experience has made me stronger both mentally and spiritually. It was such a blessing to talk to someone else who had an understanding of something greater.

  Many friends tell me they have no idea what to say to me, and many doctors similarly, tell me they don’t know what to do for me. I know God has all the answers and can heal me. Still, I have prayed so hard for God to let me meet someone “who knows more than I do.” I definitely feel that prayer was answered by sitting next to you. It was amazing how little we discussed the details of the illness, yet I felt so many of my questions were answered.

  It felt like a holiday having a conversation that lacked “small talk” and as I like to call it, “interviewing dialogue.” You seemed aware of my stress and physical ailment without me needing to explain it. I cannot tell you how happy and understood that made me feel. This may sound really silly but I’m usually the “you” in conversations. Picking up on signs such as, stress, mood, state; all while listening to the person. Receiving that sort of attention and understanding back was a true blessing I will always cherish.

  Since our train ride, I’ve been focusing more on getting off medications and healing naturally. It is difficult. It takes a lot of persistence and prayer but I know it’s what I’m supposed to do.

  I’ve been finding a lot of answers through Ayurvedic medicine. It just kind of makes sense to me if you know what I mean. I love all the warming spices, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, turmeric, and others. I’ve been cooking more often and supplementing with many herbs and vitamins. I’ll often read about natural healing methods and great herbs later to find it’s often used in Ayurvedic healing. I’m just trusting in God that what I find is what I’m supposed to do.

  Lastly, I wanted to ask a few questions. You mentioned meditating and prayer to me. At risk of sounding cliché or stereotyping does your meditation focus on breathing? Such as in yoga? Do you do yoga? I know there are different types. I’m finding my greatest struggle is the breathing. I’m having an incredibly hard time with it. I get tightness, headaches, stomach aches, etc. A lot of people talk about the breathing, but I haven’t found anything helpful yet. I’m not sure if you have any advice. However, if you have any input at all I’d to hear it. I feel my inability to truly breathe may be inhibiting my healing process.  

  Lastly, I wanted to tell you again how happy I am to have met you. You opened up my mind to many new ideas as well as confirmed many of my own beliefs. It was so good to talk about God with another person. Thank you so much for the prayers. I feel my body getting stronger and know that God is working.

  Please do not take the delay in this email as a lack of interest. I’ve written and edited it so many times and finally told myself enough is enough. I would love to hear back from you whenever you’re free. I’ll definitely do my best to reply much, much sooner. I hope you are doing well and I’ll keep you in my prayers as well.

 Thanks so much,
Grace

That’s about it. I am just happy that I can share with others what I learned in my studies and life and meet such good people as Grace. I also wanted to ask my audience to pray for her. Grace is a very sincere soul who wants God and wouldn’t mind good health to serve Him. Thanks for listening.

*A Hindu celibate monk.

 

Lessons from the CC: Antya-līlā, Chapter 2

July 18th, 2016

Lessons from the Caitanya-caritāmta, Antya-līlā, Chapter 2
 
Lesson 1: The Supreme Lord is merciful and thus adopts various means to liberate His devotees.
 
“Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu delivered almost all the fallen souls by directly meeting them. He delivered others by entering the bodies of great devotees, such as Nakula Brahmacārī. And He delivered still others by appearing before them, as in the case of Nṛsiṁhānanda Brahmacārī. ‘I shall deliver the fallen souls.’ This statement characterizes the Supreme Personality of Godhead.” Antya-līlā 2.5-6
 
Directly meeting (sākṣād darśan) and appearing before one (āvirbhāva) have a slight variance in meaning. The former refers to His manifest form that is visible to everyone. The latter refers to His unmanifest form, which is only visible only to a select few. For example, Lord Caitanya mystically appeared (āvirbhāva) in His unmanifest form at the Pānihāṭi festival, where only Lord Nityānanda and those qualified could see Him.
 
Lesson 2: We should seek the association of those advanced in devotion as their audience has a powerful purifying effect on our hearts.
 
“When Śrī Caitanya was personally present, anyone in the world who met Him even once was fully satisfied and became spiritually advanced.” Antya-līlā 2.7
 
Lesson 3: To become a successful preacher one must be empowered with devotion.
 
Kṛṣṇadāsa Kavirāja describes how by manifesting His own devotion in the hearts of His pure devotees, Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu influences others to become Kṛṣṇa conscious:
 
“Thus He empowered living beings [His pure devotees] by manifesting in them so much of His own devotion that people in all other countries became devotees by seeing them.” Antya-līlā 2.14
 
Lesson 4: Chanting the four syllable mantra gau-ra-āṅ-ga (gaurāṅga) is as powerful as chanting the four syllable mantra rā-dhā kṛṣ-ṇa (rādhā kṛṣṇa).
 
Nakula Brahmacārī was so overwhelmed with ecstatic love that it appeared he was directly manifesting Śrī Caitanya. Śivānanda Sena wanted to test if this was true and thus asked him if he knew what confidential mantra he was chanting.
 
“You are chanting the Gaura-gopāla mantra, composed of four syllables. Now please give up the doubts that have resided within you.” Antya-līlā 2.31
 
PURPORT

“Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura explains the Gaura-gopāla mantra in his Amṛta-pravāha-bhāṣya. Worshippers of Śrī Gaurasundara accept the four syllable gau-ra-aṅ-ga as the Gaura mantra […] Therefore one who chants the mantra “gaurāṅga” and one who chants the names of Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa are on the same level.” Antya-līlā 2.35
 
Lesson 5: Expression of affection is the highest truth.
 
“Although Nṛsiṁha Brahmacārī felt jubilation within his heart to see Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu eating everything, for the sake of Lord Nṛsiṁhadeva he externally expressed disappointment.” Antya-līlā 2.66
 
Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu mystically appeared (āvirbhāva) to eat the offerings that Nṛsiṁha Brahmacārī had prepared especially for Him. At that time Śrī Caitanya also ate a separate offering that Nṛsiṁha Brahmacārī made for Lord Nṛsiṁhadeva, his worshipable Deity. Although Nrsimananda was jubilant because he understood that Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu was non-different from Lord Nṛsiṁhadeva, he feigned distress to express love for Lord Nṛsiṁhadeva, showing that the expression of affection is the highest truth.
 
Lesson 6: One should respect those related to those one loves even if one has no particular regard for them.
 
“Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu derives no happiness from meeting one who is not a pure devotee of Kṛṣṇa. Thus because Gopāla Bhaṭṭācārya was a Māyāvādī scholar, the Lord felt no jubilation in meeting him. Nevertheless, because Gopāla Bhaṭṭācārya was related to Bhagavān Ācārya, Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu feigned pleasure in seeing him.” Antya-līlā 2.91
 
Lesson 7: One should not hear or read Māyāvādī philosophy, even if advanced in Kṛṣṇa consciousness, as it can adversely influence one’s devotional attitude (that the Lord is the master and the living entity is His servant), and even if it doesn’t influence one, still it is painful for a devotee to hear because it is antagonistic to God.
 
“When a Vaiṣṇava listens to the Śārīraka-bhāṣya, the Māyāvāda commentary upon the Vedānta-sūtra, he gives up the Kṛiṣhṇa conscious attitude that the Lord is the master and the living entity is His servant. Instead, he considers himself the Supreme Lord.” Antya-līlā 2.95
 
Lesson 8: Simplicity (honesty) is the first quality of a devotee.
 
“The Lord replied, ‘I cannot tolerate seeing the face of a person who has accepted the renounced order of life but who still talks intimately with a woman.’” Antya-līlā 2.117
 
PURPORT

“Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura comments that saralatā, or simplicity, is the first qualification of a Vaiṣṇava, whereas duplicity or cunning behavior is a great offense against the principles of devotional service. As one advances in Kṛṣṇa consciousness, one must gradually become disgusted with material attachment and thus become more and more attached to the service of the Lord. If one is not factually detached from material activities but still proclaims himself advanced in devotional service, he is cheating. No one will be happy to see such behavior.”
 
Lesson 9: A devotee must not underestimate the power of sense objects.
 
“So strongly do the senses adhere to the objects of their enjoyment that indeed a wooden statue of a woman attracts the mind of even a great saintly person.” Antya-līlā 2.118
 
PURPORT

“The senses and the sense objects are so intimately connected that the mind of even a great saintly person is attracted to a wooden doll if it is attractively shaped like a young woman. The sense objects, namely form, sound, smell, taste, and touch, are always attractive for the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin. Since the senses and sense objects are naturally intimately related, sometimes even a person claiming control over his senses remains always subject to the control of sense objects. The senses are impossible to control unless purified and engaged in the service of the Lord. Thus even though a saintly person vows to control his senses, the senses are still sometimes perturbed by sense objects.” Antya-līlā 2.119
 
Lesson 10: A person who has knowledge should also be humble and renounced.
 
“Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu told Rāmānanda Rāya, “Sanātana Gosvāmī’s renunciation of material connections is just like yours. Humility, renunciation and excellent learning exist in him simultaneously.’” Antya-līlā 1.201
 
Lesson 11: A devotee is humble.
 
Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī addresses himself as varāka-rūpo, which means the insignificant Rūpa, or the form (rūpa) of insignificance.
 
“Although I am the lowest of men and have no knowledge, the Lord has mercifully bestowed upon me the inspiration to write transcendental literature about devotional service. Therefore I offer my obeisances at the lotus feet of Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, who has given me the chance to write these books.” Antya-līlā 1.212
 
Lesson 12: A devotee takes his own mistakes seriously.
 
Choṭa Haridāsa was ordered by Śrī Caitanya not to see Him for begging rice from a woman for that was apparently improper for one in the renounced order. He took his mistake seriously and fasted, even though the lady was an older women and a great devotee.
 
“Haridāsa fasted continuously for three days.” Antya-līlā 2.115
 
Lesson 13: One should not abuse the liberality of Vaiṣṇavism in the name of service.
 
Śrī Caitanya was much more liberal in His attitude towards women than the other spiritual groups at the time, especially when it came to engaging women in devotional service. He punished Choṭa Haridāsa, a sannyāsi, severely for such an apparently small mistake in the service of Kṛṣṇa – he was begging rice to feed Śrī Caitanya – to set the example that one should not take advantage of liberality in the name of spirituality.
 
Lesson 14: A devotee is merciful and forgiving to others who make mistakes, especially those who are sincere devotees.
 
After Śrī Caitanya shunned Choṭa Haridāsa, the devotees petitioned the Lord on his behalf:
 
“Then Svarūpa Dāmodara Gosvāmī and other confidential devotees approached Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu to inquire from Him. ‘What great offense has Junior Haridāsa committed? Why has he been forbidden to come to Your door? He has now been fasting for three days.’” Antya-līlā 2.115-116
 
Lesson 15: Simplicity or non-duplicity is the main quality of a devotee.
 
“The Lord replied, ‘I cannot tolerate seeing the face of a person who has accepted the renounced order of life but still talks intimately with a woman.’” Antya-līlā 2.117
 
PURPORT

“Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura comments that saralatā, or simplicity, is the first qualification of a Vaiṣṇava, whereas duplicity or cunning behavior is a great offense against the principles of devotional service. […] If one is not factually detached from material activities but still proclaims himself advanced in devotional service, he is cheating. No one will be happy to see such behavior.”
 
Lesson 16: Even an advanced devotee has to be cautious in dealing with the objects of sense enjoyment.
 
Śrī Caitanya continues in His response to the devotees explaining why His admonishment to Choṭa Haridāsa was so strong:
 
“So strongly do the sense adhere to the objects of their enjoyment that indeed a wooden statue of a women attracts the mind of even a great saintly person.” Antya-līlā 2.118
 
PURPORT

“The senses are impossible to control unless purified and engaged in the service of the Lord. Thus even though a saintly person vows to control his sense, his senses are still sometimes perturbed by sense objects.”
 
Lesson 17: Before taking sannyāsa one must be certain that one is fit for that āśrama.
 
Śrī Caitanya continues his response to the petitioners on behalf of Choṭa Haridāsa:
 
“There are many persons with little in their possession who accept the renounced order of life like a monkey. They go here and there engaging in sense gratification and speaking intimately with women.” Antya-līlā 2.120
 
PURPORT

“One who accepts the order of sannyāsa but again becomes agitated by sensual disturbances and talks privately with women is called dharma-dhvajī or dharma-kalaṅka, which means that he brings condemnation upon the religious order. Therefore one should be extremely careful in this connection.”
 
 

Monday Morning Greetings #27 – What I Don’t Understand About Yoga Philosophy

July 11th, 2016

About 15 years ago I got my first copy of the Yoga Sūtras when I was staying at Professor Edwin Bryant’s house in Princeton. He has been an old friend since the time we stayed in the same āśrama in Vṛndāvana in the early 80s. At the time of this visit, he hadn’t yet published his lauded translation and commentary of the Yoga Sūtras, but I chanced upon a rough copy of his unpublished manuscript in the living room. I started to thumb through it and Professor Bryant gifted me a copy. I was enthralled reading it.
 
The Yoga Sūtras is a compilation, as the name indicates, of short aphorisms summing up the school of yoga, the school of mental discipline or psychology, one of the six schools of philosophy gleaned from the ancient Vedas. I learned many things from the Sūtras on the philosophy and practice of mental discipline that I applied to my own meditation that were completely consistent with the teachings of my own path, the path of bhakti, which also falls into one of the six schools of Vedic philosophy, Vedanta. There was one point, however, which I just couldn’t make sense of.
 
The Yoga Sūtras clearly professes, or at least that’s the way I read it, that thoughts rest solely in the material mind and thus the pure spirit soul is devoid of all thoughts, although possessing consciousness.
 
Here’s what I don’t understand: If all thoughts are only in the mind then what is the use of śāstra (teachings) whose purpose is to give us good ideas that inspire proper thoughts and impel us to liberation? Some of those thoughts are determination, thoughtfulness, inspiration, good likings, avoidance of bad habits, and so on. Now here’s the point; it’s a bit subtle so please listen.
 
If all these positive changes happen in the mind, and the soul, being devoid of thought, is just a third party to them, then our liberation and bondage is just a matter between God, who is moving the world, and our unconscious mind. In other words, if the soul lacks agency*, the ability to institute change upon something, then our liberation and bondage has nothing to do with us. We remain just a hapless third party witness who can never appropriately say “yes” I like this or “no” I don’t, which are the choices (or thoughts) that are the precursor to liberation. What then is the use of śāstra if the change in our mind is at another’s whim and not ours, and when even the decision to read śāstra has nothing to do with us?
 
And how can thoughts just be in the mind? The mind is inert. Inert matter doesn’t think. If one says, however, that the mind is just like the reel of a movie, and the soul illuminates and experiences it, then still how can you say that thoughts are not also in the soul? How can there be experience without thought?
 
And what about karma? And if we are truly thoughtless, why should we suffer the reactions of our good and bad deeds. All action is preceded by thought, so how can we be truly responsible for our actions, if we have no thoughts?
 
And suffering is also a thought. Don’t tell me it is all in the mind and I am not suffering. Of course, the cause of suffering is in the mind and I can ultimately transcend that, but how can one say that I am not feeling it now, that that feeling is someplace else, a place that is inert, the mind? Dead things don’t feel. In other words, I may or may not be in illusion about the cause of suffering, but it still hurts when I falsely identity with it. For example, I may dream of being eaten by a tiger and feel relieved when I awaken; but still was it not I, the person awakened, who had the nightmare and was gripped with fear (a thought) due to illusion?
 
There is an argument against thought being in the soul, that the soul is eternal and things eternal must be changeless. Why? God has energies that create so many things, but by his inconceivable potency He is still changeless and eternal. And similarly the soul can also have potency and be changeless, being a part of God. That seems to be the case.
 
I am not saying Patañjali is wrong, but there must be something more to this. In this debate I fall with Descartes:
 
 “I think, therefore I am!”
 
*It is hard to make sense of our notion of personal agency without thought. How can we institute any change upon something unless we have a goal to achieve, an understanding of how to achieve it, and the will to execute it?
 
 

Monday Morning Greetings #26 – The Four Pillars of Peaceful life

July 4th, 2016

There are four foundations of life that a traditional society automatically provides its community so that they can focus on spiritual life and need not overly preoccupy their minds with worry. They form the basis of a peaceful life.

  1. Where one will live
  2. Whom one will marry
  3. What one’s occupation will be
  4. Who is one’s guru

I will discuss each individually, but first I ask everyone reading this to reflect. Are these things settled in your life? If not, how much time and mental energy do you spend to fulfill the ones not settled. If they are fulfilled, how much struggle did you face to achieve that? And finally, if they have been provided, how grateful are you to the culture and people who have facilitated that?
 
Where you are going to live
 
Tejiyas das, a close god-brother of mine, who Śrīla Prabhupāda asked to start the kisān (farm) movement, and who seems to know as much about economics as anyone, once shared with me an interesting insight gleaned from his study of real economics (sustainable living). He told me that just by being born, living and dying in the same place ninety percent or all of one’s economic and social problems are solved. Without elaborating more deeply, just starting life without a mortgage by being gifted a residence by your parents (the traditional system), having a life long community support program and being assured protection and care in old age (and innumerable other advantages), one is gifted a substantial financial, social, and emotional advantage in life. Life’s natural struggles are difficult enough without having to find out where home is. You are lucky if you never had to negotiate the problem of where you should live.
 
Whom you are going to marry
 
I listened to a thought provoking talk by professor Barry Schwartz called the Paradox of Choice. He showed that although modern life offers us more choices, decisions are increasingly more difficult to make because we are constantly agonizing over which choice gives us the most enjoyment. It was a very thought provoking talk, but what caught my attention the most was his statement from personal experience that each five years he gives 25% less homework to his students, because the students have become increasingly preoccupied with thinking about, maintaining, and finding a boyfriend or girlfriend. There is so much mental energy that goes into such endeavors when there is not a system and culture in society to fulfill the most fundamental need for a lifelong partner. Needless to say, a culture that facilitates finding a suitable partner at an early age, although not perfect, is still a blessing. How fortunate not to have to waste our mental energy in such endeavors!
 
What is your occupation
 
One of the most important aspects of life is finding an occupation that not only reciprocates our economic needs, but is also fulfilling. Again without going into the details, varṇāśrama (the social/economic system of ancient India) provided full employment to it citizens with training and work according to one’s qualification. Work that reasonably reciprocates one’s needs for maintenance with an occupation suitable to one’s psychophysical nature is one’s joy in life, not just a chore. Such work also facilitates one’s spiritual life, which often entails some tapasyā or discipline, as after work one can enter one’s practices with a peaceful mind. Oppressive work demanding long hours and travel and less than ideal work conditions exhaust one. Upon returning home from such a job the last thing one has energy for is the discipline of spiritual practice. Rather one gravitates to the couch, the TV, and often a beer for relief. One is fortunate to have found one’s occupational calling in life. Tradition, especially varṇāśrama, did a much better job of doing that.
 
Who is your guru
 
There is an old Indian saying: Don’t go to a village that doesn’t have a river, doesn’t have a doctor, and doesn’t have a brāhmaṇa (spiritual teacher). Previously most villages and towns in India had bona fide teachers from authentic spiritual lines who were thoroughly trained. Today even if one transcends the propaganda of mass media that increasing material life is one’s goal, it is still difficult to find a bona fide teacher, and even if one does find a bona fide teacher and has minimal self-discipline, still there are so many cheaters in the name of spirituality. To have found one’s path and teacher is the greatest fortune.
 
What if I don’t have a spouse or job or have not found my place? Of course, ultimately whatever God sends or doesn’t send our way is meant to bring us closer to Him. Kṛṣṇa has a unique way to bring each closer to Him. We should have full faith in that, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try for a stable life. Just as it is one’s duty to try to both maintain one’s health, and to see disease that comes away as God’s mercy, in the same way one must reasonably endeavor to stabilize one’s life and accept one’s lot in life at the same time.
 
We sometimes dismiss traditional society when we feel its principles are not intelligently applied, but we should never lose sight of its wisdom. They offer basic foundations of peaceful life. We should thoughtfully understand their value and appreciate the culture that provides them.
 
 

Monday Morning Greetings #25 – Is God a Person?

June 27th, 2016

One Christian Theologian was challenged: “Is God a person?” He coolly replied: “God is not less than a person!”
 
I loved his answer!
 
Śrīla Prabhupāda said the same thing in a different but equally powerful way: “Kṛṣṇa doesn’t have the defect of impersonality!”
 
I came to the same conviction in college after I got my first Kṛṣṇa Book.
 
In 1971, my former college roommate, now Akṣobhya dāsa, was visiting me again at my residence at the State University of New York at Binghamton. I first met devotees with him the year before while visiting him in California after he left college. On this visit to New York, he gifted me the newly published Kṛṣṇa Book. I remember sitting in my room devouring the book. When I got to Devakī’s prayers I read so many powerful verses that stated how Kṛṣṇa was all pervading, all-knowing, and all powerful. I was studying philosophy at the time and began to think back to the definition of God I just heard in one of the introductory courses: God is that being of which no greater can be conceived!
 
I read of Kṛṣṇa, a God of perfect love, a perfect child to his mother with intense loving exchanges with his friends, who is also not devoid of pure romance, who lives in Vṛndāvana, a world of pastoral beauty, the perfect setting for kṛṣṇa-līlā, which is the most intense exchange of affection. And now I was reading the perspective of Devakī, in prayer after prayer, perfectly delineating the majesty of Kṛṣṇa. Suddenly it hit me: Yes, this is a being of which no greater can be perceived!  What can be greater than a being who has all the powers of God and all the sweetness of love? I can’t think of anything greater than the concept of Kṛṣṇa.
 
A few years later I heard about a debate between ISKCON’s young Hṛdayānanda dāsa Goswami and Professor Swāmī Agehānanda Bhāratī, a prominent Sanskritist at Syracuse University who was also a monk of the Advaita Vedānta order.
 
As I heard it (there was no internet those days to see it), Professor Bhāratī issued the first challenge:You are a Vaiṣṇava, you believe God has form. You are limiting God!”

Fiery Hṛdayānanda responded: “You are an Advaita Vedāntist. You believe God has no form or attributes. Vaiṣṇavas believe God is pervading everything by His energies and also has attributes. Therefore by denying that God has form you are limiting Him!”
 
I thought Hṛdayānanda Mahārāja’s answer was brilliant and I still do.
 
Some years later I heard the very sharp ISKCON scientist Rasarāja speak on the same topic. He challenged his audience, “People say God has no form because He must be the opposite of what we see here. What is the opposite of poor? Is it no money or rich? So what is the opposite of material form? Is it no form, or rich form, spiritual form?”
 
His answer also stuck in my mind. Recently this same subject, about the denial of personality in God, came up in a question and answer period at the yearly Cali Yogafest at our Shyam Ashram in Colombia. An intelligent young man posed a question: “I think God must just be energy or a force. How can he be a person?”
 
 I prefaced my answer with the story of my revelation in college after reading Kṛṣṇa Book and reflecting on the classical definition of God as that being of which no greater can be conceived. I then added, “I can think of something greater than God being just a force and that’s a force that can talk.”
 
I then expanded on what I said a little further. I think the person asking the question and the audience listening to the answer much appreciated this simple logic on the reasonability of God being a person.
 
So is God a person?
 
God is not less than a person!
 
What a perfect answer!
 
 

Monday Morning Greetings #24 – Why I Support ISKCON

June 20th, 2016

I can’t believe I just said that! What about the bureaucracy, the disempowerment, the micro-management, the anti-intellectualism, abuse of power, and the silly rules (think chocolate ban)? I’m not technically even a member. I support ISKCON. Here’s why.
 
The key to my sentiments can be found in the difference between reform and revolution.
 
“Reform” means to root out the problems of an established institution while valuing the societal structures that maintain it. “Revolution” means to destroy the institution and the structures that maintain it to make something better, but there is a risk involved. Societal structures, with all their weaknesses, have taken years or centuries to build and mature. They are not easily replaced. New ventures thus usually fail as they are thwarted in their development with the same problems as before, or even worse, and historically they usually even wind up more stifling.
 
So when I think beyond what I don’t like about ISKCON and contemplate the societal structures that have been inspired by Śrīla Prabhupāda and maintained by his followers, I see something quite formidable that is neither easy to recreate nor to maintain.  I see temples, festivals, farms, books, outreach and kirtan. I see Māyāpur, Vṛndāvana, and most important the association of many good devotees raised and nourished by ISKCON, some who now chant the pure name of Kṛṣṇa.  And even most who sometimes criticize ISKCON, and I can’t exclude myself, have come from ISKCON and still benefit from it.
 
Anything big will have problems, and the bigger something is and longer it has lasted the bigger its problems will be, but if the intent of the organization is sincere it’s accomplishments will also be bigger. A friend shared with me something analogous in this regard that he heard about the Catholic Church.
 
No institution has saved as many people.
No institution has killed as many people.

 
No institution had as many celibates.
No institution had as many debauches.

 
No institution has as many saints.
No institution has as many sinners.

 
Institutions have a tendency to become impersonal and to crimp initiative and individuality. Śrīla Prabhupāda, its founder, explicitly warned his disciples about that, but he also vigorously supported and promoted those same structures. A Vaiṣṇava scholar in Vṛndāvana shared with me an analogy about institutions that succinctly expresses this simultaneous necessity for institutions and the cautions of membership.
 

Institutions are like water and our spiritual life is like a boat. Just as water is necessary for a boat to keep afloat, but sinks the boat if it gets inside, institutions are both necessary to help keep a person’s spiritual life afloat and risk drowning one’s spiritual life if they become too stifling and intrusive.

 
Of course, sometimes in dire circumstances revolutions are necessary, and sometimes, like Śrīla Prabhupāda, circumstantially and reluctantly one needs to even step outside of the institution they were born into to fulfill its mission. ISKCON? I still see its growth, the substantial things it is accomplishing, the many people coming to and being trained in Kṛṣṇa consciousness and the variety of services it still offers, but I am not blind. Reform is needed and great challenges are there. I thus remain a well-wishing critic. *
 
Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura eloquently describes this difference between reform and revolution in reference to ideas, but his analysis is applicable to any attempt at making something better that you strongly feel needs reform. I leave my reader   with a part of the beginning of his well-known article The Bhagavat: Its Philosophy, Its Ethics and Its Theology.
 

He is the best critic, who can show the further development of an old thought; but a mere denouncer is the enemy of progress and consequently of Nature. “Begin anew,” says the critic, because the old masonry does not answer at present. Let the old author be buried because his time is gone. These are shallow expressions. Progress certainly is the law of nature and there must be correction and developments with the progress of time. But progress means going further or rising higher. Now, if we are to follow our foolish critic, we are to go back to our former terminus and make a new race, and when we have run half the race, another critic of his stamp will cry out: “Begin anew, because the wrong road has been taken!” In this way our stupid critics will never allow us to go over the whole road and see what is in the other terminus. Thus the shallow critic and the fruitless reader are the two great enemies of progress. We must shun them.

 

The true critic, on the other hand, advises us to preserve what we have already obtained, and to adjust our race from that point where we have arrived in the heat of our progress. He will never advise us to go back to the point whence we started, as he fully knows that in that case there will be a fruitless loss of our valuable time and labor.

 
* In terms of the need in ISKCON for reform see my recent article,  ISKCON’s Greatest Deficiency.
 
 

Monday Morning Greetings #23 – An Original Argument for the Existence of God

June 13th, 2016

I am fascinated by apologetics, the discipline of defending the existence of God through reason. I have listened to and read the best apologetics from William Lane Craig to Alvin Plantinga, and I have studied their arguments carefully. I even devised a public seminar called “Can God Be Blue?: A Study of Kṛṣṇa” based on apologetics, even including arguments for God being a person and that person is Kṛṣṇa.
 
During that time I coined what I thought was an original argument for the existence of God.  I call the argument “The Argument by Coincidence.”
 
Basically, I argue that if one carefully studies his own life he will find a synchronicity between certain events, or “meaningful coincidences” as Carl Jung defined it, whose probability of occurrence was so small that it was far more likely that the cause of those events rests beyond any random occurrence under the laws of nature. What makes those events even more improbable is the link between those external events and our inner life, as if those events were personally directed towards helping us grow. An example from the life of Jung’s practice illustrates this phenomenon:
 

A classic illustration of synchronicity presented by Jung involved one of his patients, a woman with a highly developed rational mind— a fact that made her psychoanalytic treatment difficult.  One day she was telling Jung about a dream she had had in which she received a golden scarab, a beetle with significance in Egyptian mythology.  Just at that moment, Jung reported, he heard a noise “like a gentle tapping” on his window.  When he opened the window, a scarab-like beetle flew in.  Jung caught the beetle and presented it to his patient saying, “Here’s your scarab.”  The stunning impact of this synchronicity overwhelmed the defenses of her rational mind and led to a breakthrough in her treatment.*

 
Here is a similar example from my own life:
 
I met the devotees in 1970 while visiting California during the summer break after my second year in college. While visiting Los Angeles my friend received an invitation card from the devotees chanting on Hollywood Boulevard for a Sunday Feast at their new temple on Watseka Avenue. Four of us went and very much enjoyed the feast and chanting. In fact, we enjoyed it so much that we decided to chant non-stop on our drive the next day up Highway 1 to visit San Francisco. In San Francisco, we specifically wanted to eat at one famous Chinese restaurant. When we finished, to our surprise, we saw the devotees chanting on the street right outside of the restaurant. I immediately joined in as I was already familiar with the chanting from our visit to the temple the Sunday before. When the chanting ended we proceeded to find a place to stay by calling the various references and leads we had collected in our travels to the west coast. The only person that was even the least bit accommodating was a young man who offered that we could sleep in our car in the parking lot to Kezar Stadium on the southeastern side of Golden Gate Park, smack in the middle of the city, and use the bathroom in his apartment across the street. When we drove into the empty, open parking lot, which we discovered was really only used on Sundays for the football game, we noticed that the back of the stores on Frederick Street faced us about twenty yards away. And as we looked up we saw through the back window billowing smoke and robes. It was the Hare Kṛṣṇa’s working in their kitchen! I turned to my friend and said “Holy cow, everyone in this city into this! We called out “Hare Kṛṣṇa!” Two devotees (Gaura Hari and Babhruvahan) leaned out the window at the beckoning four travellers and exclaimed “Ah! Kṛṣṇa’s brought us four! Have some prasādam!” We were offered a tray of sumptuous peanuts, raisins, and chickpeas, which we woofed down with gusto. We stayed in that lot for the last two weeks of our summer break; We visited the temple daily and met many wonderful devotees such as Jayananda, Madhuvisa and Locan das, to name a few. The rest was history. We all became devotees.
 
Of course, not everyone in the city was into this. That was the lone Hare Kṛṣṇa temple in a city. I am not sure that what happened is exactly called synchronicity, but this series of mutual coincidences – how I went to temple, met the devotees outside the restaurant, and was granted a place to stay outside the only Hare Kṛṣṇa temple in a city of millions, and then dedicated myself to that same path – is certainly a coincidence, the probability of which happening is small enough to at least stretch the concept of godless randomness as the foundation of those synchronized events. If this was perhaps the only coincidence of my life, I could pawn it off as chance, but when I look at my life and see how the world has repeatedly moved to teach me needed lessons geared directly at the most subtle impurities in my heart, the sheer probability of such synchronicity is implausible.
 
It could be argued that I am just seeing into to my apparent destiny things that don’t exist, that synchronicity is just in my mind. Besides the fact that synchronicity is an observance that happens just too often in the lives of too many people to be disregarded as chance, the fact that there is a moral force or destiny in every persons life beyond randomness that is called “the law of karma” that can be proven by the science of astrology, makes providence undeniable. It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss this is in detail, but I am puzzled as to why no one has applied the scientific method to the study of astrology to prove that there is a destiny set at birth. It seems that it can easily be done.
 
In summary, the argument of coincidence states that the preponderance of the occurrence of mutual coincidences in people’s lives and the fact of destiny are so far beyond the explanation of chance that the only plausible explanation for them is God.
 
* I found the excerpt in a magazine article about synchronicity that I was unable to locate before the deadline this morning to get this out. When I find it I will update the reference.

Monday Morning Greetings #22 – The Perfect Vacation

June 6th, 2016

I just finished our 2nd international bhakti retreat at our beautiful Shyam Ashram in Cali, Colombia. On our first day I posited reasons for taking a spiritual retreat:

  1. Recreational: You may just need to get away, especially if you live in the city, to relax in a more spiritual atmosphere, especially where there is kirtan and the devotees.
  2. Educational: There is a specific subject you want to learn, like meditation or the Gītā, and the retreat is based on that.
  3. Experiential: There is no specific educational objective, but a variety of activities keeps one immersed in devotional service and gives one a deep devotional experience.
  4. Transformational: We have certain life patterns that inhibit our spiritual growth. The retreat is organized to help us confront them, often by taking us out of our comfort zone. For one who is not familiar with the path of bhakti, just being in a retreat based on devotional objectives may be challenging in a transformative and healthy way.

There can be many reasons for a spiritual retreat, from recreational to transformative, but the main purpose that ties all of those reasons together is that we need to find times of the year to move from our day-to-day life to exclusively focus on God. A good example of this is the story of the elderly sage Vidura. He was deeply insulted and then physically thrown out of the kingdom by his evil nephew, King Duryodhana. However, Vidura was spiritually astute enough to see the hand of God. He thus heard his tribulation as the voice of God telling him that it was time to leave his kingdom. His response was like a mantra for pilgrimage:
 
vratāni cere hari-toṣaṇāni — “I make a vow, only for the pleasure of Kṛṣṇa.”
 
One advances in spiritual life when his meditation or devotional service is focused. The yoga sūtras specifically defines spiritual practice as the effort to concentrate, which bears fruits when that concentration is prolonged without interruption and with an understanding of it sacredness or importance.
 
Just as we need times of the time of the day for this type concentration, sādhana, and times of the month, ekādaśī, and even times of the life, vānaprastha or sannyāsa, we need retreats or pilgrimage — times of the year exclusively reserved for God.
 
In modern life, where it is often difficult to find even the time of day for concentration, finding times of the year, pilgrimage, is essential. The realizations gained by a prolonged and uninterrupted focus on the pleasure of Kṛṣṇa can last a lifetime.
 
Back to our 2nd international bhakti retreat at our beautiful Shyam Ashram in Cali Colombia — the beauty and food of this place is unparalleled, but it seemed our visitors more than enjoying the beautiful atmosphere, they were deeply transformed by its spiritual focus.
 
It was pilgrimage — the perfect vacation.
 
 

Monday Morning Greetings #21 – What Makes Something Funny?

May 30th, 2016

What Makes Something Funny?
 
During my research for a talk on What Makes Something Funny, which was meant to follow a performance by the B.Centered Comedy group, I was surprised that every great philosopher from Aristotle to Kant had a theory on comedy. I read through one thinker after the next trying to understand “what makes something funny?” but I found the most profound theory espoused by none other than Groucho Marx who succinctly said:
 
“Humor is reason gone mad.”
 
It may be funny that Marx trumps Schopenhauer, but it seemed to make the most sense, as it was similar to a theory of comedy I had espoused many years before based on the Bhagavad-gītā (http://wavesofdevotion.com/2001/01/13/calcuttamayapur-met-kaustubha-jai-nitai/)
 
I posited that everything in this world serves the purpose of the world, which is liberation.  As the Gītā says, when you are forced to act helplessly according to the modes of nature you are a fool. I surmised that comedy is a parody of that. On the other hand, if you describe someone who acts very thoughtfully, it is not funny, but sobering.  I thus theorized that humor discourages conditioning by laughing at it. And now 15 years after writing my thesis on what makes something funny, while studying the theories of all major philosophers on the theory, ironically I am convinced of the validity of my theory—that humor is part of the Absolute Reality meant to discourage our folly—by the insights of Marx (not Karl):
 
Humor is Reason Gone Mad!
 
 

Monday Morning Greetings #20 – What I Learned From a Pickpocket About Krishna Consciousness

May 23rd, 2016

About three years ago a friend sent me an eight-minute talk by Apollo Robbins called the art of distraction. Apollo Robbins is arguably the world’s greatest pickpocket and his demonstration showed why. I watched in awe as he pickpocketed a man on stage in front of hundreds of people, with neither the man nor audience having a clue when he did it. After Apollo finished he rewarded the man for good sportsmanship by giving him a beautiful watch, the man’s own! The man was shocked. He then proceeded to return the man’s wallet, credit card, and so on before an incredulous audience. And for a finale, he pointed out to the audience that he was wearing a different shirt from the one he started the show with. One could almost hear the audience sigh in collective astonishment, “How in the world did he do that!” Unbelievable? Just watch the video at the end of the article to witness it for yourself.
 
In his presentation, Apollo explained the art of distraction. His basic premise is that perception is not just based on the senses, but our attention. Stop reading this article and hear the sounds around you. Why are you hearing them now, and not when reading this article? It wasn’t because the sound vibration wasn’t in the air, but because your mind was focused someplace else, hopefully on what I am saying here. In a similar way, Apollo described and demonstrated that by manipulating a person’s attention, an expert pickpocket can rob one before their very eyes, and in this case before a packed audience.
 
There is such a forceful and clear point made here, a point that almost seemed to jump out of Apollo’s demonstration as a mantra:
 
Perception is dependent on attention
 
This concept is a little challenging. If perception is dependent on attention, do I actually hear or perceive the holy name when inattentive? Apollo indirectly dealt with that question also.
 
At the beginning of his short talk, Apollo put on an overhead screen an illustration about what constitutes actual perception. He projected a picture of the outline of a head with little man inside operating a control panel that could choose and direct the acceptance of different perceptive apparatus such as microphones coming from the ear and cameras coming from the eyes and so on. Behind him within the head was a storeroom representing the memory. He showed, for example, that when one is asked to remember something and scroll one’s memory, the little man in the head (representing one’s focus or attention) would turn around to do so, no longer giving direct attention to accepting input from the other sensory apparatus one directs. In the same way, when daydreaming and scrolling our memory it can be questioned if we actually hear the holy name. Hearing the holy name is not only about hearing the sound vibrating within our auditory apparatus. It is also dependent on the man in our head who focuses our attention on the sense of hearing, allowing the sound into our consciousness.
 
There is another important lesson learned by the relation between perception and attention. Just as there is very little effect from engaging with objects of devotion when we are not attentive, when we focus with concentration the effect can be exponentially profound. Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī illustrates this point in his commentary on the second verse of the Bhāgavatam.
 
The second verse states that by hearing the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam just once the Lord is captured in our heart immediately without delay. Śrī Jīva then raises an interesting question. Why doesn’t this happen to us? His answer adds another dimension to the question of what causes distraction, or on the flip side facilitates attention. His answer is simple: We don’t hear messages when we don’t like those messages. Thus when we don’t like the message of the Bhāgavatam, which is to fully surrender to guru and Kṛṣṇa, we can’t hear it, nor experience Kṛṣṇa in the pages of the Bhāgavatam, as the message of the Bhāgavatam is Kṛṣṇa incarnate (according to the Bhāgavatam itself). If that is true, then what to speak of Kṛṣṇa being captured in the heart, at once and without delay. Śrī Jīva then gives us hope. By hearing it again and again, Śrī Jīva informs us, we become gradually purified and eventually hear it with acceptance and full faith. Kṛṣṇa then appears in the heart by just once faithfully accepting that message.
 
Another dimension here has been added to this discussion of the art of distraction, or conversely the art of attention. Our perception is not only affected by our attention, but by our attitude or faith. The faith or acceptance of an object of devotion as non-different from Kṛṣṇa inspires our focus and allows the divine to touch our heart, just as ignorance or doubt closes our heart to the same experience. That’s why the śāstra informs us that whether it’s Kṛṣṇa in the form of the Bhāgavatam, his Holy Name, or His mahā-prasāda, when taken with full faith just once, sinful reactions are removed and divine love awakens.
 
When I begin these Monday Morning Greetings I have no idea where they can take me. This week my subject is opening up to practically a whole book, so I will stop now and summarize.
 
If we are distracted even if objects are before our senses then we don’t perceive them. In the practice of bhakti, attentiveness and faith thus allow the objects of devotion to enter our senses and awaken the heart. Let me leave this Monday Morning Greeting with two mantras:
 
Perception is dependent on attention.
 
Attention is based on faith.
 
Please check out this video and you will understand why I become inspired with these points:
 
Apollo Robbins: The Art of Misdirection
 
 

Next »