Monday Morning Greetings 2017 #38 – Rules: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

September 18th, 2017

Niyamāgraha is a Sanskrit word that means either too little or too much affinity for the rules, both of which are impediments to bhakti. It is important for an aspirant on the path of bhakti to properly understand the purpose and application of these principles.
 
The purpose of rules
 
Setting and following sound rules helps one to be governed by good judgment rather than impulse. The purpose of the rules in bhakti is simple: to facilitate the remembrance of Krishna, which is the mechanism on the path of bhakti for transformation. For example, when a devotee enters the temple, he or she must bow down. Why? We are basically egocentric. Our tendency is to lack awareness and consideration for others. Bowing down before the deity is meant to increase our awareness of God and our humble position as His servant.
 
Impediment One: Too little affinity for the rules
 
One is averse to rules because rules represent authority, a governance of life that limits our prospects for conforming the world to suit our attachments. To resist following rules just for self-centered purposes is obviously antithetical to spiritual development, especially when such guidelines are meant to uplift us. Similarly, to have too little affinity for the rules of bhakti out of this sense of rebellion, or even just laziness, is an impediment to bhakti for the rules of bhakti, as mentioned above, are meant to help us remember Krishna. Those who fall prey to or justify such folly only wallow in the impulses of their minds rather than awaken consciousness of God. Great souls thus strictly follow the rules of devotion. A good example of such firm adherence, for instance, can be found in the lives of the six Gosvāmīs of Vṛndāvana:
 
“Who could list the unlimited transcendental attributes of Raghunātha dāsa? His strict regulative principles were exactly like lines on a stone.” (Cc. Antya-līlā 6.309)
 
Impediment Two: Too much affinity for the rules
 
We follow rules not just for the rule itself, but for the purpose of the rule, which in bhakti is to enhance devotion. It is thus an impediment for the bhakta to rigidly stick to a rule in neglect of the general principle for which that rule was made. For example, on Ekādaśī Vaiṣṇavas would traditionally fast, usually not taking even a drop of water. The purpose was to reduce bodily needs and increase devotion, but if such fasting causes one to feel too weak to serve and remember Krishna, then one’s inflexibility in observance is against the intent of fasting and thus an impediment to bhakti.
 
As it is an impediment to have affinity for rules outlining practices beyond our capability, it is also an impediment to have strict affinity for rules applicable to a particular stage of devotion that one has already passed. For example, there is an advanced stage of devotion called rāgānugā-bhakti where one’s devotion is better aided by acting spontaneously in devotion rather than blindly following the dictates of a specific rule meant for those without such devotion. For instance, while it is a devotional principle to not lie down in the temple before the deity, such a rule may be an impediment for one advanced in a particular type of devotion. Śrīla Prabhupāda describes such a case:
 
“Sometimes it is found that a pure devotee lies down in the temple of the Lord in order to serve Him as a confidential friend. Such friendly behavior of a devotee may be accepted as rāgānugā, or spontaneous. Although according to regulative principles, no one can lie down in the temple of the Supreme Personality of Godhead this spontaneous love of Godhead my be grouped under devotional service in friendship.” (NOD p. 97)
 
Although those more advanced are cautioned not to be rigid about guidelines no longer applicable to their situation, Śrīla Prabhupāda cautions all his disciples about the pitfall of too much affinity for the rules:
 
“The teacher (ācārya) has to consider time, candidate and country. He must avoid the principle of niyamāgraha—that is, he should not try to perform the impossible. What is possible in one country may not be possible in another. […] The essence of devotional service must be taken into consideration, and not the outward paraphernalia. […] It is not necessary that the rules and regulations followed in India be exactly the same as those in Europe, America and other Western countries.” (Cc. Madhya-līlā  23.105, purport)
 
Too much or too little? How can we know? Śrīla Prabhupāda was once asked a similar question in terms of distinguishing between a principle (rules that have to be followed in all circumstances) and details (rules that apply circumstantially). I think generally most tend to err on the side of too little, but I love his simple answer: “It takes a little intelligence.”
 
Yes, if we are thoughtful and sincere, we will mostly get it right.
 
 

Monday Morning Greetings 2017 #37 – Death Made Simple

September 11th, 2017

While sending this article for posting, I looked at the date and just realized it was 9/11 and that by coincidence the article was on death. I liked what I wrote a lot, but not particularly for this day. I will post it to keep with the regularity of Monday Morning Greetings and offer my heartfelt prayers for those who lost and sacrificed their lives. I am from New York and was in lower Manhattan on that day so this day may have a little more significance for me. I am including a link from my diary that I wrote watching the towers fallMy 9/11 journal entry.

Death Made Simple

  1. We are eternal.
  2. Death is thus the illusion of non-existence.
  3. We fear and suffer from this illusion due to the notion that takes the self, which is eternal, to be the non-self, or body, which is temporary.
  4. This misidentification is due to false ego, the desire to be the enjoyer and controller.
  5. The real pain of death is thus not just the physical pain, which can be numbed by either coma or drugs, but more the affront to the false ego at death when all our attachments are lost at once.
  6. Our real-ego, or eternal identity, is that we are servants of God. One who fully realizes this is not affected by the death of the body.
  7. “The wise lament neither for the living nor the dead” [1] thus means that we don’t lament that people change bodies or die, but lament that due to ignorance people identify with the body and suffer.
  8. For one with spiritual understanding, the fact that everyone faces death is not an act of cruelty, but an act of God’s mercy. Death announces loudly to the soul that one is not the controller and enjoyer, helping one to overcome the false ego, which is the root cause of misery life after life.
  9. One who hears this voice and serves and accepts death as God’s mercy overcomes the false ego, becomes fearless and realizes one eternal nature.
  10. We should always remember that death is not just a matter for the end of life. We should thus die now to live. By slaying the false ego of selfish desires and embracing our real identity of selfless devotion to Krishna we will experience and live our eternal nature now.

 

 


[1] Bhagavad-gītā 2.11

Monday Morning Greetings 2017 #36 – Śrī Rādhā Made Simple

September 4th, 2017

  1. In this world everyone is seeking happiness and that pleasure is ultimately found in love. If that is the guiding principle in this world, why should it not be part of its source, the ultimate reality?
  2. If there is love in the spiritual realm there also must be beauty, for love means to offer the best.
  3. This correlation between happiness, love, and beauty is the key to understanding Śrī Rādhā.
  4. Śrī Krishna is the Supreme Enjoyer. His happiness is therefore love and the personification of that love is Śrī Rādhā, who must also be the reservoir of all beauty and good qualities, which are the concrete expression of love.
  5. For example, flowers are a common way to express love. They are fragrant, colorful, and may be soft and smooth, but offering them in love is not just a sensual experience, for getting a gift of flowers and experiencing all its wonderful attributes, is also the experience of love from the person who has offered those flowers.
  6. Krishna’s pleasure potency is called hlādinī śakti, the essence of which is Krishna prema (love of godhead) and when that love is heightened to the highest degree it is called mahābhāva. Śrī Rādhā is mahābhāva svarūpa, the form of the highest love (and pleasure).
  7. Even Śrī Rādhā’s many ornaments and decorations, which she adorns only for the pleasure of Krishna, are composed of and expressing mahābhāva. Thus Krishna’s experience of Śrī Rādhā is the experience of His greatest love and pleasure.
  8. As Śrī Rādhā is an expression of God’s own potency of love, we cannot imagine the intensity and greatness of her qualities. Although there is no limit to her love and qualities, descriptions of them can give us some idea. For example, here is a description of Śrī Rādhā’s beauty from Ujjvala-nīlamaṇi:

“The beauty of Śrī Rādhā’s smile defeats the beauty of a blue lotus. The beauty of her face defeats the beauty of a forest of blue lotuses, and the luster of her body puts gold in a painful situation.”

  1. Only someone who is impersonal is not conquered by love. As Krishna is the Supreme Person, He is responsive to and conquered by true devotion. As Śrī Rādhā is the highest form of love, her twenty-fifth transcendental quality is that she always keeps Krishna under her control.
  2. How is this relevant to us? Śrīla Prabhupāda instructs us:

“Rādhārāṇī, the symbol of the topmost bhakti, is so powerful that she has purchased Krishna. Therefore, Vrajavāsīs [1] take shelter of the lotus feet of Rādhārāṇī, for if she recommends, ‘O here is a nice devotee,’ Krishna must accept Him.” (Teachings of Queen Kuntī)

 


[1] The devotees who reside in Vṛndāvana, Śrī Krishna’s abode

Monday Morning Greetings 2017 #35 – Nāma-Kīrtana: The Essence of The Bhāgavatam

August 28th, 2017

Śrī Caitanya sat attentively at the feet of Śrī Īśvara Purī, his spiritual master, who had just promised to reveal to Him the one verse that embodies the essence of the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam. Īśvara Purī then revealed the conclusion, a verse that would form the foundation of Śrī Caitanya’s mission.
 
“One who chants the names of one’s beloved Lord without material attachment or inhibition awakens deep attachment to his Lord. As his hearts melts with ecstatic love, he laughs very loudly or cries or shouts. Sometimes he sings and dances like a madman oblivious to public opinion.” (Bhāg. 11.2.40)
 
No serious student of the Bhāgavatam questions that nāma-kīrtana is highlighted within the text. [1] How does that, however, make it its essence, the one topic that helps unify the myriad of subjects found within the Bhāgavatam that are geared to establishing Krishna as the Supreme Personality of Godhead? [2]
 
To decipher the actual theme of any book the first place to look is the history of its composition, specifically the intention of the author in writing the text. That account is told in the Bhāgavatam itself:
 
Śrī Vyāsa, the empowered editor of the Vedas, had just failed in his attempt to edit them in a relevant way for this present age of discord called Kali. Seeing his despondency, Śrī Nārada, his spiritual master, confirmed what Śrī Vyāsa had already suspected: he had not sufficiently glorified Krishna. Shaken by his teacher’s rebuke, Śrī Vyāsa entered into meditation to garner the realization necessary to properly complete his task. The result was the Bhāgavatam, a text systematically and directly glorifying Krishna in 18,000 beautiful verses meant to be read and sung in various melodies. The intention and final composition of the author of the Bhāgavatam is therefore kṛṣṇa-kīrtana, the praise or glorification of God in His fullest manifestation as Krishna.
 
A study of the standard practices of devotion also reveals the same truth. There are nine practices, beginning with hearing (śravaṇaṁ), chanting (kīrtanaṁ), and remembering (smaraṇaṁ). Each is traditionally represented by a particular exemplar. Śukadeva Gosvāmī, the main speaker of the Bhāgavatam is the specific exemplar for kīrtana because he devotionally recited the text non-stop for seven days, thus further affirming the Bhāgavatam as kīrtana.
 
We have discussed the Bhāgavatam as kīrtana in itself to support the contention of kīrtana as the book’s soul. Another way to understand kīrtana, specifically nāma-kīrtana, as the essence of the Bhāgavatam, is to understand the key message the song delivers. What is the main message of the Bhāgavatam?
 
To decipher the theme of a complex text, classical hermeneutics places stress on, among other things, the first and last thing spoken in the text. The crux of the Bhāgavatam is thus initially revealed in the first exchange between King Parīkṣit (a dying ruler and great devotee) to that same Śukadeva Gosvāmī, the saintly monk that appears at his death to enlighten him.
 
The King asks:

“What is the duty of a man who is about the die and what should he not do?” (Bhāg. 1.19.24)
 
Śukadeva replies:

“O King, constant chanting of the holy name of the Lord after the ways of the great authorities is the doubtless and fearless way of success for all, including those who are free from all material desires, those who are desirous of all material enjoyment, and also those who are self-satisfied by dint of transcendental knowledge.” (Bhāg. 2.1.11)
 
As Śukadeva’s first instruction points to nāma-kīrtana, similarly the very last verse of the Bhāgavatam and Śukadeva’s final instruction to Maharaja Parīkṣit also supports nāma-kīrtana as the text’s fundamental teaching:
 
“I offer my respectful obeisances unto the Supreme Lord, Hari, the congregational chanting of whose holy names (nāma-sankīrtanaam) destroys all sinful reactions, and the offering of obeisances unto whom relieves all material suffering.” (Bhāg. 12.13.23)
 
Every age (yuga) has a particular practice effective for that epoch. As the Bhāgavatam was written specifically for the present age called Kali-yuga, one would expect the text to represent whatever that practice would be. Thus any evidence for nāma-kīrtana as the prescribed practice for Kali-yuga would also be a kind of support for nāma-kīrtana as the essence of the Bhāgavatam.
 
Such evidence is found in the eleventh canto of the Bhāgavatam, where the recommended spiritual practice for each age is listed along with the incarnation who inaugurates that practice. The following recommendation is made for this age:
 
“In the age of Kali, intelligent persons perform congregational chanting (sankīrtana) to worship the incarnation of Godhead who constantly sings the names of Krishna […]” (Bhāg. 11.5.32)
 
Although nāma-kīrtana is certainly highlighted in the Bhāgavatam, how is one to understand the many other diverse subjects that are apparently unrelated to nāma-kīrtana? If the essence of something is that which pervades everything, how then is nāma-kīrtana the svarūpa (the inherent nature) of such assorted and apparently unconnected topics as calculation of time from the atom to the dynasty of Kings?
 
Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī gives the clue to the resolution of this quandary. At the beginning of Śrī Bhakti-sandarbha he describes the two ways in which one can approach the text: for good instruction or to relish one’s relationship with Krishna. [3] First we need good and repeated instruction to finally surrender to Krishna, at which time one awakens one’s relationship with the Lord. Having thus done so, one’s approach shifts. No longer needing just instruction, one now relishes each statement in the Bhāgavatam, including the instructional ones, as inspiration for one’s particular relationship with Krishna.
 
In other words, as it is this sense of our relationship with Krishna while chanting the holy name that is the essence of the Bhāgavatam, and each and every text of the Bhāgavatam is ultimately meant to inspire this relationship, it follows then that the whole Bhāgavatam is intimately connected to nāma-kīrtana. [4]
 
The tenth canto, although just one of twelve cantos, is by the far the most substantial in both its depth and shear number of verses. This is the part of the Bhāgavatam that not only fully delineates Krishna’s pastimes (līlā), but is considered the fruit of all the other subjects in the text studied before. Any analysis of the Bhāgavatam as nāma-kīrtana, must therefore also show the relevance between Krishna’s pastimes and nāma-kīrtana.
 
Hearing the pastimes of Krishna is directly connected to the practice of nāma-kīrtana because a mature sense of our relationship with Krishna, the key to devotional chanting, is awakened and nourished by hearing about the activities of one’s beloved, especially with those devotees whose relationship one inherently covets. [5]
 
And although it is true that the practice and goal of bhakti is to absorb oneself fully in thoughts of Krishna, especially His līlā, nāma-kīrtana still remains the foundation of such remembrance as within His name also rests His form, quality, and pastimes. That within Krishna’s name is his pastimes is seen within the initial verse cited about the essence of the Bhāgavatam where the result of chanting the names of one’s beloved Lord are crying, laughing, and other emotions. Such symptoms of pure chanting are the spontaneous response to the awakening of various līlās in one’s heart as a result of chanting the holy name. And nowhere is it recommended to give up nāma-kīrtana at this stage. Rather nāma-kīrtana remains the root of remembering the Lord’s pastimes, especially for that person who has properly heard them as delineated in the tenth canto. And that was the example of Śrī Caitanya, especially in the last eighteen years of His life in Purī. There in the Gambhīrā [6] He continuously chanted the holy name and nourished His relationship with Krishna, in this case in the mood of Śrī Rādhā, with narrations and songs based on the Bhāgavatam spoken and sung by His most confidential associates, Śrī Rāmānanda Rāya and Śrī Svarūpa Dāmodara. [7]
 
It should be noted here also, that Śrī Caitanya’s example also shows the healthy relationship between nāma-kīrtana and the other forms of kīrtana. Although nāma-kīrtana remained the base practice, the others forms of kīrtana are not to be neglected. The genuine rūpa, guṇa, and līlā-kīrtana based on the Bhāgavatam are also essential in the life of the serious practitioner.
 
One question remains: if nāma-kīrtana is the essence of the Bhāgavatam, is it the main mode of expression of the residents of Vṛndāvana as described in the tenth canto? The answer is no. The residents of Vṛndāvana are not chanting kīrtana as a practice to achieve love of Godhead. Rather their kīrtana is an expression of such love (the goal of practice) that manifests accordingly as calling Krishna’s name (nāma-kīrtana), [8] speaking about His form (rūpa kīrtana), talking about His qualities (guṇa kīrtana), or singing His pastimes (līlā kīrtana). [9] Nāma-kīrtana, however, remains the essence of the Bhāgavatam for the reasons mentioned above; it is the main process recommended by the Bhāgavatam to achieve love of Godhead and it is within itself simply kīrtana.
 
Conclusion: The essence of any text and path of yoga is samādhi, absorption in the object of one’s meditation to the point of non-awareness of anything external to that object. In bhakti-yoga such absorption in Krishna is best attained by the practice of nāma-kīrtana. Nāma-kīrtana is thus the essence of the teachings of the Bhāgavatam best exemplified by the spontaneous nāma-kīrtana of the eternal residents of Śrī Vṛndāvana:
 
“O virtuous lady, if trees or other obstacles block Krishna from sight even briefly, His companions at once shed tears and call in anxious drawn-out voices, “Śrī Krishna! Śrī Krishna!” (Bṛhad-bhāgavatāmṛta 1.6.104, spoken by Rohiṇī to Devakī)
 
 


 
[1] It should be noted that the Bhāgavatam specifically recommends ś kṛṣṇakīrtana. You will not find the practice of kīrtana emphasized in the texts regarding the worship of Śiva, Durgā, or even Viṣṇu to nearly the extent it is promoted in the Bhāgavatam in relation to Śrī Krishna.
 
[2] In Tattva-sandarbha Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī describes Bhāg. 1.3.24 as the theme verse of the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, which declares Śrī Krishna as the original personality of Godhead.
 
[3] Śrī Bhakti-sandarbha, Anuchedda 1
 
[4] It should be noted that the various subjects in the Bhāgavatam are also meant to attract a wide variety of people to devotional service.
 
[5] In the first of his seminal verses outlining the practice of rāgānugā-bhakti, Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī writes, “The devotee should always think of Krishna within himself and one should choose a very dear servitor of Krishna in Vṛndāvana. One should constantly engage in topics about that servitor and his loving relationship with Krishna […]” (Brs 1.2.294)
 
[6] Śrī Caitanya spent the last eighteen years of His life in a small cave-like room in the house of Śrī Kāśī Miśra, the paṇḍita to the King of Purī, called Gambhīrā.
 
[7] “Two people—Rāmānanda Rāya and Svarūpa Dāmodara Gosvami—stayed with the Lord to pacify Him by reciting various verses about Krishna pastimes and by singing appropriate songs for His satisfaction.” Cc. Antya-līlā 6.9
 
[8] A particularly beautiful example of nāma-kīrtana in the Bhāgavatam is when Krishna asks the cowherd boys to do kīrtana of the names of Balarāma and Himself to awaken the Vedic brāhmaṇas from slumber. See Bhāg. 10.23.4.
 
[9] A brief list of kīrtana as the main activity in Goloka, based on the Bhāgavatam:

  • Mother Yaśodā’s kīrtana – 10.9.1
  • Kīrtana of elderly gopīs – 10.16.21
  • Kīrtana in morning – 10.15.2
  • Kīrtana in the forest with cowherd boys – 10.15. 10-12.
  • How to do kīrtana – 10.15.16
  • Kīrtana returning from forest – 10.15. 41
  • Kīrtana of gopīs – 10.21.4, 10.30.43
  • Kīrtana of cowherd boys – 10.21.5

 
 

Monday Morning Greetings 2017 #34 – Is There Love in the Material World?

August 21st, 2017

While attending a lecture, I was skeptical of the apparent conclusion of the class that the only true love is bhakti, love for God, and consequently there is unequivocally no love in the material world. I respectfully raised a question and a discussion ensued.
 
For argument’s sake, even if we accept that bhakti is only for Krishna, isn’t there a danger in the application of that principle? There are studies done that show that people who adhere to movements promoting such transcendence are in general less empathetic than those that do not. Although, granted, according to the same studies twenty percent who deeply understand the tenets of such teachings are much more empathetic. Whether this study is accurate or not, doesn’t such preaching pose a danger of being misunderstood and making us more hard-hearted?
 
An intense discussion followed the morning class by Jaya Jagannāth and the discussion continued throughout the second day of our Bhakti Immersion retreat. His class was excellent and his points reasonably well argued, as was the push back to his ideas. The exchange is worth reproducing here in the form of a summary of Jaya Jagannāth’s basic view, the push back or opposing view, and what I think is the correct view, which is a kind of synthesis.
 
A summary of Jaya’s view:
 
Jaya’s class was based on a verse from the Tenth Canto of the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam where Krishna explains that it is only in relation with the self that anything becomes dear and thus there can be nothing dearer than the self. [1] He gave many good examples to support this principle, like how things are treasured or loved only because we perceive they belong to us, not in and of themselves, and how even love of family and sacrifice for country is only extending our concept of the self beyond ourselves to others. In other words, as long as love is based on the body, there is at least some element of ego involved antithetical to pure love and thus love in this world is suspect.
 
I cannot do justice to his presentation in such a short summary, but even those who disagreed with his conclusion, or wanted to modify it, appreciated the insight, logic, and śāstric reference that he offered in support of his view. Continuing his argument, he then referenced a verse from the same chapter where Krishna stated that those who understand their real self-interest render unalloyed devotion to Him because He is ātma-priya, most dear to the soul.[2] In other words, as we love or hold things dear because they belong us, and thus our self or soul is dearer than our body and its possessions, similarly Krishna, who is the soul of the soul, is the most dear object of devotion. Śrīla Prabhupāda emphatically concurs in his purport: “Lord Krishna is ātma-priya, the real object of love for everyone.”
 
Jaya Jagannāth’s main objective, which he clarified later, was that the term “bhakti” has basically been bastardized in the new age and yoga communities to include every sentiment of affection as bhakti, and that unless we understand that the true of object of bhakti is God, we will be mired in a falsely exclusive sense of love. We will then never experience real bhakti until we finally transcend or become frustrated with the mundane. His talk was thus entitled, “Love, Lust, Loss, and Beatitude”—“beatitude” meaning the state of the utmost bliss.
 
Opposing view
 
There seems to be some problems with the view that bhakti is only for God and no one else in this world, for this view inevitably limits our conception and vision of Krishna. Krishna is described in the Bhāgavatam as advayam jñāna—consciousness that is inclusive of everything. If we thus separate things from Krishna in this way, don’t we risk developing a vision that things are separate from God, the basic illusion at the foundation of material enjoyment? In the Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu Krishna is generally defined as just His personality and expansions, but in his commentary Nectar of Devotion Śrīla Prabhupāda explains that Krishna also means His parts and parcels and His different energies. So why can’t a devotee in the proper consciousness love everyone as part of Krishna? [3]
 
And isn’t genuine affection for people a part of bhakti when affection is actually our duty or service to Krishna? Would a mother be a better devotee if she only loved Krishna and just dutifully served her children without affection because she wants to transcend it? That seems absurd. Her natural affection is part of her service. Can’t that affection then be called love, especially if she sees her child as belonging to God and her service to love or care for the child? Is it illusion to have genuine friendships in Krishna consciousness, even though we are not yet liberated, and if not what do we call such affection? Is it not a type of love? [4] Certainly love for Krishna can’t mean only directing our devotion at the deity and withdrawing our affection from everyone else.
 
This argument can even be taken further by stating that a theistic conception is not even an absolute requisite for love. If our dharma, or intrinsic quality, is to serve, then does sincere affection in some way reflect the soul regardless of one’s belief, and if so then how can we possibly argue that that there is no love in the material world?
 
Synthesis
 
The next day during class Jaya Jagannāth clarified his point. He said the distinction he wanted to make was distinguishing bhakti as love with a capital “L” and love in this world as love with a lower-case “l”. I think the synthesis rests there. I think confusion initially with the presentation was that this distinction wasn’t made more clearly. That yes, bhakti is for Krishna, but that doesn’t mean that love does not exist even if it is not bhakti. A good definition of love will help further clarify this point: “unselfish loyal and benevolent concern for the good of another”.[5] In this sense, certainly people do have love and even sacrifice their lives for others, even at times for strangers who have no bodily connection to them. I thus think it is a mistake to equate that all exchanges of love in this world are purely based on ego or abject self-interest, for if we do, we also lose the ability to distinguish even benevolence from cruelty even in the face of great examples of altruism or sincere benevolent relationships.
 
In other words, the distinction that bhakti is the topmost love, as described by the great teachers such as Nārada and others, does not negate that there is love in the material world. Rather it proves it, for by deeming bhakti as the pinnacle of love, it also acknowledges a spectrum of love before that. Furthermore, if we deny the existence of such love in the world, we fall at a loss to explain on what basis the Bhāgavatam expects us to have at least a preliminarily frame of reference to understand and appreciate the descriptions of affection between Krishna and His devotees.
 
Of course, it is not that all affectionate relationships in this world are love. Perhaps even most of what we see today, especially in romance, are just selfish relationships that people enter in the name of love only. That doesn’t discount, however, that we do have the capacity, even while still impure and bound in this world, to have sincere love or concern for others. I just heard a story about Śrīla Prabhupāda that synthesizes the point quite neatly:
 
“Śrīla Prabhupāda was sitting outside on the grass speaking to a group of devotees at New Vrindavan. In front of him were some baby kittens playing and wrestling in front of him and he was just watching them. Suddenly he commented, “You see? There is love in this material world.” He paused and then added that although there is concern and benevolence in this world it will never be enough to full satisfy the soul just as someone in the desert cannot be satisfied with a few drops of water.”[6]
 
In conclusion, love is a general loyalty and affection in relationships and it exists in this world, but only when that affection is extended to the Supreme Lord is it bhakti and fully universal, but bhakti can also be extended to others when we see them and serve them as connected to the Divine. Therefore it is important for all devotees to understand and meditate on how they can connect their relationships to Krishna.
 
 


[1] Bhāg. 10.23.27

[2] Bhāg. 10.23.26

[3] When we speak of “Krishna” we refer to the Supreme Personality of Godhead along with His many expansions. He is expanded by His plenary parts and parcels, His differentiated parts and parcels, and His different energies. “Krishna,” in other words, means everything and includes everything. Generally, however, we should understand “Krishna” to mean Krishna and His personal expansions.

[4] In the Śrī Upadeśāmṛta by Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī, an important book in our tradition that Śrīla Prabhupāda translated as the Nectar of Instruction, he summarizes the essence of our teachings in just twelve verses, wherein one whole verse is devoted to the description of loving exchanges between devotees. The exact word used is “prīti” or love.

[5] Definition of Love (4.a) Merriam-Webster Dictionary

[6] In our discussion period during Jaya Jagannāth’s class my god-sister Rukmiṇī Devī recounted this story of Śrīla Prabhupāda as her contribution to the discussion.
 
 

Srila Prabhupada’s Vyasa-puja – Dhanurdhara Swami’s Offering to Srila Prabhupada

August 16th, 2017

Dear Śrīla Prabhupāda,
 
My most humble obeisances. All glories to you!
 
I stopped by Gītā-nagarī recently to take darśana of Śrī Śrī Rādhā-Dāmodara. Suddenly a thought came into my mind regarding how you were empowered in so many ways: Śrīla Prabhupāda was a visionary. And then an interesting phrase came to my mind that exemplified what I was thinking–cutting edge. I liked very much the sound of that: Śrīla Prabhupāda was cutting edge. I included that phrase in a description of you in another article that I wrote. I would like to offer that to your lotus feet in glorification.
 
“Śrīla Prabhupāda was on the cutting edge of so many things. Cutting edge means the latest or most advanced stage in the development of something. So, fifty years ago Śrīla Prabhupāda was on the cutting edge of vegetarianism, the cutting edge of kīrtana, the cutting edge of Indian philosophy and culture, and the cutting edge of sustainable living. We have succeeded in carrying your legacy in so many ways, but sometimes we have fallen short, and in too many cases have allowed others to take his mantle, especially with sustainable living. We all need to take that legacy back.”
 
I pray that I can be instrument in helping to carry your legacy. I pray that I may also be cutting edge in carrying the traditions and truths you revealed to us into the future.
 
Your humble servant,
 
Dhanurdhara Swami
 
 

Monday Morning Greetings 2017 #33 – True Devotion: “I have none!”

August 14th, 2017

Sadhu, be careful! The ego is so insidious. It can appropriate even our best qualities to make us proud, even our budding devotion, thinking that I am the best devotee, or even a devotee. This doesn’t happen, however, when one develops true devotion.  Not only does one not become proud, one feels he doesn’t even have a trace of devotion. I love the description of Śrī Caitanya’s mindset as His feelings of devotion intensify:
 
“Wherever there is a relationship of love of Godhead, its natural symptom is that the devotee does not think himself a devotee. Instead, he always thinks that he has not even a drop of love for Kṛṣṇa.” (Cc. Antya-līlā 20.28)
 
Having intense devotion, but feeling none. How is that possible?
 
Bhakti is like a thirst or hunger, but a hunger to serve. As a hungry person feels deprived of food, one with bhakti hungers for devotion and feels humbly bereft of it. As this want of bhakti is bhakti itself compassionate sages like Śrī Nārada thus pray:
 
“Śrī Kṛṣṇacandra, please grant that no one will ever feel he has enough of Your mercy, Your devotional service, or pure love for You, the reservoir of ecstasy.” (Bṛhad-bhāgavātamṛta 1.7.135)
 
Just as the hunger for devotion actually enhances it, the complacency or sense that “I have bhakti” impedes it. The first symptom of unsteady devotion is therefore called utsāha māyī or “false enthusiasm”, where the beginner in devotional service sometimes feels falsely adept or advanced in devotion causing his yearning for bhakti and thus bhakti itself to naturally slacken. In fact any sphere where we feel accomplished and proud will damper our longing and consequently our devotion. Queen Kuntī thus warns the aspiring devotee:
 
“My Lord, Your Lordship can easily be approached, but only by those who are materially exhausted. One who is on the path of [material] progress, trying to improve himself with respectable parentage, great opulence, high education and bodily beauty, cannot approach You with sincere feeling. (Bhāg. 1.8.26)
 
Sincere feeling is the key in spiritual practice, and the basis of such emotion is the humble realization that we intensely need God’s mercy, a want or sense of lack that only increases when our devotion advances. By sincerely and attentively chanting the holy name this awareness of the glory of the holy name and our own lack of qualification will become progressively revealed. If even a speck of such humility graces our consciousness we should embrace it as the greatest treasure and consciously beg for the mercy of the holy name for ironically true bhakti is the humble feeling “I have none!”
 
 

Monday Morning Greetings 2017 #32 – Yamunā Devi on Kīrtana

August 7th, 2017

After completing Japa Meditations, a book where I interviewed serious japa meditation practitioners on how they enter into the holy name, I decided to make a similar book on kīrtana. I began spearheading the effort to interview devotees who I surmised had entered deeply into kīrtana. For various reasons, the book was never finished and the few interviews I had commissioned mostly got buried in my computer. Last week, while reading the biography of Yamunā devi, and being inspired by the charming simplicity and depth of her devotion, I developed a desire to find that interview. I finally did. What a treasure of kīrtana realization! Her letter to Akiñcana Kṛṣṇa dāsa, who conducted the interviews, is found below.
 
 
“Yes, Śrīla Prabhupāda did give instructions about kīrtana at various times, in various circumstances. Here are a few I recall.”
 
Learn to listen. You cannot follow nicely unless you hear nicely and you cannot lead nicely unless you have learned to follow nicely.
 
Mumbai, 1970: One morning soon after arriving at Kailash Seksaria’s home, Śrīla Prabhupāda called on a male devotee to lead kīrtana. After two lines of Gurv-aṣṭaka, he asked him to stop and asked another devotee to lead. This same thing happened twice again. Then he asked me to lead and did not stop me. When I asked him later about why he did that, he said: Learn to listen. You cannot follow nicely unless you hear nicely and you cannot lead nicely unless you have learned to follow nicely.
 
Learn how to pronounce Sanskrit or Bengali words to the best of your ability. Listen, then repeat.
 
In August 1968 in Montreal, Śrīla Prabhupāda had our London group meet with him in the temple room after breakfast. One occasion when he requested me to lead the Maṅgalācaraṇaṁ prayers he interrupted my singing to correct my pronunciation as I chanted. Another time in Mumbai in 1971 on nagar saṅkīrtana, an Indian man criticized my pronunciation and Śrīla Prabhupāda said, “She is doing to the best of her ability. She is doing it in her own way.”
 
Learn how to play instruments “softly”, quietly, if the kīrtana leader is doing so.
 
In London in November of 1969 this was evident especially in store-front temples where our neighbors complained of excessive ‘noise’.
 
Right from the vyāsāsana, he would quietly instruct: Play them softly, quietly. This proved to be difficult for the mostly passionate 20-something devotees at that time—most who generally felt the louder the better.
 
Learn how to follow the mood and rhythm of the kīrtana leader.
 
Saṅkīrtana, India 1971: I commented on Śrīla Prabhupāda’s chanting of Jaya Rādhā-Mādhava, and made the statement that it was difficult for devotees to follow how he chanted—rhythm changes and his mood—even when chanting this simple prayer. He said Jaya Rādhā-Mādhava was one of his favorite prayers.
 
Even forty years later, how many old timers can follow the subtly of a kīrtana leader, what to speak of the often complexity of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s kīrtana mood and rhythm?
 
When Śrīla Prabhupāda led kīrtana, he opened sound windows to the spiritual world. It was obvious that his senses and mind were fully focused on transcendental sound. He often closed his eyes at the beginning of a prayer or kīrtana, later, when the beat increased or after some time, he often times opened them to observe his surroundings or the assembled chanters. This was especially true during long kīrtanas.
 
In temple kīrtanas, he favored playing karatālas or a gong. When alone or with one or two others, when chanting Narottama or Bhaktivinoda’s prayers, he enjoyed playing mṛdaṅga or harmonium. Śrīla Prabhupāda played instruments with expertise, and in a very individual distinct way, whether it was karatālas, gong, bongo drum, mṛdaṅga, or harmonium. His harmonium playing was like no one else’s I have ever heard. He said he asked his father for a harmonium when young, and he obtained one for him. At that time, harmonium was considered a European instrument, not a temple kīrtana instrument.
 
No matter what he played, instruments were there to support kīrtana. They always took second place to the role of his voice. In other words, his voice was the main dominant kīrtana instrument.
 
I recall an Albert Road kīrtana, in the fall of 1972 in Calcutta, where the leading devotee placed too much focus on his harmonium playing. Śrīla Prabhupāda stopped the kīrtana entirely and said, “Too much harmonium,” and indicated that the devotee should lead kīrtana. He said, “No harmonium,” and the kīrtana resumed.
 
Śrīla Prabhupāda’s kīrtana had no tinge of being a performance. It was purely for the pleasure of Kṛṣṇa. It allowed the chanters access to the fact that the Lord’s holy name and the Lord are non-different. He said that the key to anartha-free kīrtana rests in hearing and studying our literature, and gradually rising to the platform of pure devotional service.
 
Śrīla Prabhupāda’s kīrtanas and prayers were fully ego free and extremely potent.
 
One morning at John Lennon’s estate in 1969, Śrīla Prabhupāda asked me what my favorite prayer was and I responded Lord Chaitanya’s Śikṣāṣṭaka prayers. In turn, I asked him what his favorite prayer was and he immediately replied Hari Hari Bifale by Narottama dāsa Ṭhākura. I had the good fortune of witnessing Śrīla Prabhupāda chant his favorite prayer on four occasions. Once was at Akash Ganga. I was sitting right next to him holding a microphone in front of his face. Gurudas took photos of him chanting. His meditation that day was so deep and profound, that the skin on his face even became slack—as close as I ever saw him to the point of bodily transformation.
 
Purity is the force. Great kīrtana is experienced by the mercy of the holy name itself.
 
No matter what the style of kīrtana, a great kīrtanīyā at the least knows that there is no difference between the Lord’s holy name and the Lord Himself. This is a kīrtanīyā who closes the distance between a gross and subtle sound experience and the manifest presence of the pure Holy name. Old or young, a great kīrtanīyā has tasted the mercy of service to the Holy name, and therefore overflows with the desire to share that with others.
 
A few traits of great kīrtanīyās that come to mind are depth, focus, uncomplicated, long, smooth, soulful, steady, spontaneous, and meditative. I prefer kīrtanas supported by a few well played instruments, not the big band kīrtanas popular today that can be more performance kīrtanas than Gauḍīya tradition supplication and service to the Holy name.
 
My favorite kīrtanas and kīrtanīyās:
 
In San Francisco in ’67 and ’68: Śrīla Prabhupāda’s are classic favorites. Those early kīrtanas were non-responsive. In the temple, his congregation of chanters played instruments softly, while Śrīla Prabhupāda mostly played his karatālas and chanted alone. When the rhythm was established, he chanted through an entire prayer – most commonly Maṅgalācaraṇaṁ prayer or Gurv-aṣṭaka prayer—and after finishing, chanted Hare Kṛṣṇa and then the congregation chanted along with him. Nothing quite matches up to the power, purity, or potency of those kīrtanas, where often the entire congregation was tearfully appreciative.
 
During this period, he introduced responsive kīrtanas. New San Francisco disciple kīrtana leaders in this period: Viṣṇujana for depth; Harṣarāṇī for sweetness; Mukunda for steadiness; and Jayānanda for humility.
 
In London in late ’68: anyone in our party of six.
 
In London ’69: George Harrison for connection and expansiveness; new devotee Jaya Hari for enthusiasm; Dhanañjaya for warmth; Yogeśvara for his focus.
 
In India, late ’70 through ’72, on saṅkīrtana with Śrīla Prabhupāda: Dīnānātha for soul; Nanda-kumāra and Ṛṣi-kumāra for keeping the beat without force; Bharadvāja for smoothness.
 
From 2004 to 2009: Kartamasha dāsa, lover and servant of the holy name and Bhaktivinoda prayer kīrtana leader for his pure intent, rich bhakti and subtlety. Akiñcana Kṛṣṇa dāsa and Amal for love of kīrtana and expertise.
 
 

Monday Morning Greetings 2017 #31 – Can God Be Blue?

July 31st, 2017

That’s simple. God can be anything He wants. If there were any other reason that God was blue, then He wouldn’t be God because if a reason or cause external to one’s own will dictates one’s nature, then one would not be fully independent, which is one of the basic criteria for being Supreme. So the only reason why God is blue, if He is indeed blue, is because it is part of His intrinsic nature. So the real question in relation to the nature of God’s color should first be whether there is a God, is He a person, and whether that person is Krishna?
 
Limitations of this article

This certainly is a very deep subject. Libraries of books have been written about the nature of God. How can I possibly do justice to such a vast subject in such a short article? I think what is possible here is to give a solid outline supporting the reasonableness that there is God, who is a person, and whose name is Krishna.
 
Criteria for ascertaining whether God exists

The main criteria by which atheists have argued against the existence of God, especially in the twentieth century, and which greatly informs their reasoning to this day, is called the verification principle—a premise that states that no one should believe a proposition unless it can be proved to them rationally by logic or empirically by sense perception.
 
At first glance this seems reasonable, but in reality this principle falls far short of how we actually reason about things in the world. There are many things that people reasonably accept as true, which can’t be verified by such criteria (including, ironically, the verification principle itself). Even what we call proven scientific facts, such as the existence of protons or neutrons, are not personally verifiable by us, but are accepted on faith in the experts whom we trust on such matters.
 
Atheists themselves cannot abide by the verification principle when arguing against the existence of God, and certainly not when professing a theory for the cause of this world. So when you get down specifically to establishing the existence of God on the rational platform the argument comes down to which theory of the world makes the best sense of it, not to absolute verification.
 
Arguments for the existence of God

It seems the proposition that there is a God makes better sense of the world than the theory that everything happened randomly by chance. For example, if one wakes up in the winter and sees a snowman, by the evidence at hand it seems to make far more sense that a person made it than that snow randomly blowing around caused it, even though there may not be a way to absolutely verify it. In a similar way, the evidence of the complex and continued regularity of the world points far more to a transcendent creator than a haphazard coalescing of molecules by chance, by the simple fact that even if one of the constant variables at basis of creation swayed by one in a million, the world as we know it would not exist.
 
There are many other powerful and reasonable arguments for the existence of God. Here are a few of my favorites:
 
The only beings that have intrinsic moral values are subjects, beings who can undergo experience and who have values, concerns, and other mental states. If you deny that there is subjecthood at the foundations of the universe, you also deny that moral obligation is a fundamental feature of reality. In other words, if you believe human rights are a reality, it makes much more sense that God exists than that He doesn’t. If everything is just a product of matter coalescing by chance it is ultimately inconsistent to believe in transcendent moral values, even such values as aversion to child abuse or racial genocide.
 
Lastly, it is more reasonable to believe that something comes from something than something comes from nothing. This same simple logic is also presented succinctly in one of the prominent verses of the Chāndogya Upaniṣad:
 
“How can what is existent be born from what is non-existent? On the contrary, in the beginning this world was simply what is existent – one only without a second.” (From Patrick Olivelle’s translation—Chapter 6, book 2.)
 
I could go on and on, also discussing the reasons against God’s existence, but it is certainly reasonable and even compelling that God does exist.
 
Is God a person?

Śrīla Prabhupāda addressed this point effectively and tersely: “God does not have the defect of impersonality.” 
 
The brilliant answer by the respected Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga to the question of whether God is person also sufficiently satisfies this inquiry. His response: “God is not less than a person.”
 
Ascribing form and personality to God doesn’t limit Him. Denying that He has attributes, including personality, does. It is certainly reasonable that if there is a God that He is not less than us, and thus also a person.
 
Is that person Krishna?

If God is a person then the highest manifestation of that personhood, as with all personhood, is not majesty and power, but an all-loving personality. Śrīla Prabhupāda uses a simple analogy to demonstrate this principle in relation to the Divine. Just as when a high court judge checks his intimate self to appropriately reciprocate with those approaching him reverentially, but sheds his grandeur to reveal his full or intimate self at home, similarly the fullest manifestation of God is when he is home in Vṛndāvana as a cowherd where the complete sweetness of personality can blossom as a child, friend, or lover unfettered by the demands of reverence, not when God displays His full power as the creator, Nārāyaṇa. Therefore Śrī Rūpa Gosvāmī, at the beginning of the Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu, his seminal book on Krishna bhakti, introduces Krishna as akhila-rasāmṛta-mūrti, the fullest embodiment of the sweetness of all relationships.
 
Position covers personality and thus it is reasonable that if God is a person, His fullest expression of being would not be shackled by a display of position and opulence.
 
Again the scope of these short Monday Morning Greetings limit a thorough exposition of this subject, but I coined a phrase that I think sums up the reasonability of God’s fullest personal manifestation being sweet and modest like Krishna:
 
“Krishna is God with his guard down.” Sounds reasonable to me.
 
 

Monday Morning Greetings 2017 #30 – Tattoo Tattva

July 24th, 2017

Big, burly, bearded and tattooed—they looked fierce and I was surrounded. They had gathered for the Hare Krishna initiation of their two friends. One of the candidates even had a tattoo on his head.  I went around after the function to greet everyone, including our tattooed friends, and a realization was confirmed. When it comes to the tattooed, the face is definitely not the index of the mind. These menacing looking souls were some of the gentlest people I have ever met. It got me thinking. Why do people get tattoos? It is certainly something I never even imagined doing.
 
When I was growing up there was one man at our summer pool club that had butterfly tattoos over each nipple of his chest. We would stare at him with amusement. I knew what those tattoos projected then: Low class!
 
My dear sister-in-law, my older brother’s wife, who was dying of cancer, got a Ganesha doll from an Indian nurse. She liked it and soon elephant gifts and charms started coming, and Ganesha, the elephant deity who removes obstacles, became her good luck charm. For solidarity my sister-in-law, her husband, and their two daughters decided to all get small matching Ganesha tattoos on their ankles. I heard that my younger brother was alarmed because one can neither be buried in a Jewish cemetery nor have a Jewish funeral service for the deceased if he or she sports goyish tattoos. They went to their rabbi, a man seemingly of depth, who explained why people thought it was forbidden, but how in essence it was not, or something like that, and how he would still officiate my sister-in-law’s funeral. They got them.
 
Anyway, that is one reason people get tattoos. External symbols foster identity, in this case family solidarity. I, myself, am not free of external symbols. Look at me with robes, a tuft of hair, and tilaka—markings with sacred clay to designate my body as a temple of God, a kind of temporary tattoo, all for the purpose of identity.
 
What you wear or mark on your body definitely supports your identity and communicates identity to others, but the external may also be superfluous or burdensome. Maharaja Yudhiṣṭhira sported royal dress for his service as the King, but when he decided it was time to renounce the world, the first thing he did was to discard his military dress, symbolizing and supporting an upādhi, a material designation, that bound him to the world when it was clearly time to leave.
 
Back to our question: Why do people get tattoos, and should they? I suppose sometimes it’s anger—a way to wear our rebellion. Many years ago, I once advised a sincere young man who was coming to Krishna consciousness that he should get no more tattoos because it was a waste of money and it didn’t foster the identity he was now seeking. His girlfriend informed me a few weeks later he was going through tough times, was suicidal, and that getting a tattoo was a way that he dealt with his pain. I felt terrible and rescinded my advice.
 
The rebellion and anger, however, may have a deeper spiritual side. After all, many of the devotees that repopulated the increasingly empty ISKCON temples in early ’90s were from the hardcore music scene, which mostly seemed an expression of frustration, many or most who wore their anger on their sleeves. [1] But for many their anger and frustration was directed properly, at the exploitive and superficial aspects of society that was oppressing their genuine desire for meaning and integrity, a yearning that eventually led them to bhakti.
 
I even knew one great Vaiṣṇava named Sri Kurma Rupa Prabhu who got tattooed around his neck the famous “tṛṇād api” verse about humility after reading Sri Caitanya’s recorded biography where he declares:
 
“Raising my hands, I declare, ‘Everyone please hear me! String this verse on the thread of the holy name and wear on your neck for continuous remembrance.’ ”  [2]
 
And there it was in Sanskrit tattooed plainly and subtly around his neck like a necklace:
 
“One should chant the holy name of the Lord in a humble state of mind, thinking one self lower than the straw in the street, more tolerant than a tree, devoid of all sense of false prestige and ready to offer all respect to others. In such a state of mind one can chant constantly.” [3]
 
Back to the very gentle souls with sleeves, now in their mid-40s. Perhaps they grew up very kind and vulnerable in an imposing and aggressive world and marked their bodies with signs of rebellion to project an image that made others want to leave them alone. I don’t know, but like most things, they are not good and bad in themselves, but their value is determined by their use, and the things once needed at one stage of one’s life, like imposing tattoos, may or may not be suitable at a later time in one’s life. But although in one sense the external is superficial, in another sense it is not, as it can represent who we are. But more important than representing who we want to project, often to satisfy our ego, even that “I am a devotee”, is to actually be something that is worthy of representing, so that representing it, or wearing it, is a service to ourselves and others.
 
I will leave you with this thought from Srila Prabhupada’s translation of the twenty-first item of devotional practice from the Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu:
 
“One should decorate the body with tilaka, which is the sign of a Vaiṣṇavas. (The idea is that as soon as a person sees these marks on the body of a Vaiṣṇava, he will immediately remember Krishna. Lord Caitanya said that a Vaiṣṇava is he who, when seen, reminds one of Krishna. Therefore, it is essential that a Vaiṣṇava mark his body with tilaka to remind other of Krishna.)”
 


[1] A sleeve tattoo (or tattoo sleeve) is a large tattoo, or a collection of smaller tattoos, that has a unified theme, that covers most or all of a person’s arm, usually from shoulder to wrist.
 
[2] (Caitanya-caritāmṛta Ādi-līlā 17.32)
 
[3] (Śikṣāṣṭakam verse 3)
 

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