Archive for June, 2016

Monday Morning Greetings #26 – 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 #25 – 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 #24 – 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 #23 – 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.
 
 

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