Archive for February, 2017

Monday Morning Greetings 2017 #9 – Faith: A Unique Perspective

February 27th, 2017

The best definition of faith that I have ever heard is a simple one, although I think it is quite profound. It is from Śrīla Prabhupāda: “Faith is unflinching trust in something sublime.”
 
What I like here is that faith is not just defined simply in terms of what one understands is true, but in terms of how one feels about something. Simply put, faith is where one believes his happiness rests. We may say that we have faith in Kṛṣṇa, in the sense that we have faith in a particular religious doctrine, but this richer concept of faith asks us to go further than just a rudimentary belief. It tests the level our conviction. For example, according to this notion, if we spend more time on Facebook than with the holy name, then despite our belief in a specific canon where the glories of the holy name are described, our faith, or perceived sublimity, unfortunately rests elsewhere. It is a humbling introspection.
 
I recently came across a description of Kṛṣṇa that gave me further understanding of this insightful definition of faith. In the fourth canto of the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam Nārada describes Kṛṣṇa as nṛmṇam, [1] transcendentally pleasing in all respects. Various commentators [2] cite an interesting analogy to help deepen our understanding of this term; just as the sun is emanating light, the Lord is emanating spiritual pleasure (nṛmṇam) and thus whoever comes near Him also experiences that sublimity. That occurrence is so deep and inspiring that it becomes our unflinching trust in where sublimity resides.
 
According to Śrī Rūpa Gosvāmī this type of faith has progressive stages beginning with the initial experience that convinces us that serving God is sublime. This progression proceeds as follows:
 
Śraddhā: I appreciate those who serve Kṛṣṇa.

Sādhu-saṅga: It is so good that I want to be with people that exemplify such devotion.

Bhajana-kriyā: It so good that I want to take up the practices that develop devotion.

Anartha-nivṛttiḥ: It is so good that I will give up those things that have no value to them.

Niṣṭhā: It is so good that I will do it all the time.

Ruci: It is so sublime that whenever my mind unintentionally goes someplace else, I immediately pull it back.

Āsakti: It is so sublime that I am addicted to it.

Bhāva: It is so sublime that my heart is melted by it.

Prema: It is so sublime that there is nothing in my consciousness but such devotion to such an extent that I am not even aware of anything else.[3]
 
Śrī Rūpa thus confirms that our faith or conviction in bhakti naturally progresses according to our level of taste for devotion.
 
A few challenges to this definition may arise. I would like to answer them.
 
Why doesn’t everyone who contacts the Lord in His various forms such as the holy name and His devotees develop this unflinching trust?

The soul is covered by false ego and therefore doesn’t experience this spiritual pleasure emanating from God, just as one’s eyes don’t experience the heat radiating from the powerful sun when it is covered by a cloud. When, after our boundless sojourn in the material world, we finally develop the humility that there must be something greater than just what I want, that crack in the false ego leaves a space between our soul and God to feel the Divine, just as a clearing in the cloud allows us to feel the heat of the sun.
 
Why am I not experiencing now the feelings of sublimity that I did when I initially connected with the Divine?

That initial feeling may be a special gift from God to jumpstart us on the path of devotion. This “religious experience” is also not cheap. Once this goal of our practice is instilled in our heart, it may be in our own interest to first earn it. It is thus withdrawn. We also often initially approach God unknowingly and become innocently exposed to God’s mercy, only to later become complacent and close that receptivity to God by careless offense.
 
What is the relationship between knowledge and faith?

Without teachings that give a reasonable explanation of Kṛṣṇa consciousness and a sensible understanding of the world our mind will likely close to devotion after the initial experience of mercy has worn off. Without education we may also lose the conviction to make the sacrifices necessary to advance on the path.
 
Isn’t this just blind faith?

No. One’s conviction is based on experience and knowledge. It is reasonable faith, just as it is reasonable to trust a particular doctor as a medical authority when through our relationship with him we continually experience good health.

I like this definition of faith. Faith is unflinching trust in something sublime. What else can reasonably be the goal of any endeavor but a heart flourishing with sublimity?
 
 


[1] Bhāg. 4.8.26

[2] I heard this analysis from a lecture by Śrīla Rādhā Govinda Swami.

[3] Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu 1.4.15-16
 
 

Monday Morning Greetings 2017 #8 – Family Life: A Blessing or a Curse?

February 20th, 2017

In the mid-90s I lectured on the story of Raghunātha dāsa Gosvāmī. After years of trying to renounce family life to join the mission of Śrī Caitanya in Purī, he finally sits unencumbered at his master’s feet. I read Śrī Caitanya’s first words to Raghunātha after His disciple’s long trek through the jungles of Orissa to escape his family’s watch and join his guru’s mission:
 
“The mercy of Lord Kṛṣṇa is stronger than anything else. Therefore the Lord has delivered you from the ditch of materialistic life, which is like a hole into which people pass stool.” Cc Antya-līlā 6.193
 
Wow! That’s pretty heavy, especially since Raghunātha’s family, which Śrī Caitanya was alluding to, was not only the richest family in West Bengal, which included his most chaste and beautiful wife, but they were also very faithful Vaiṣṇavas. They served the devotees to such an extent that they practically purchased an entire district in West Bengal from the Moghul potentates just to give them shelter from their rulers.
 
Anyway, I couldn’t help but notice that as I was reading this very strong reference to family life, half the audience, the older and more established Indian born devotees, seemed amused and were nodding their heads in agreement, while the other part – the younger American devotees – for the most part seemed confused and in disagreement with what was read. I tried to understand the variance in response.
 
Many of the young Americans were not yet settled in their careers and were in relatively dissatisfying relationships, if in any relationships at all. For them the very thing that Śrī Caitanya seemed to condemn – stable family life – was the blessing they were seeking. In contrast, most Indians were quite well settled in career and family life. If there was any problem at all in family life it was that they were too attached to it. They could therefore appreciate the context of Śrī Caitanya’s strong words. Let’s explore these two reactions more thoroughly and understand when family life is a blessing and when it is a curse, and also explore in what way Śrī Caitanya could dare speak so “harshly”.
 
As a Blessing

I remember a young and dynamic brahmacārī (monk) who later got married commenting to me on how his new āśrama helped him spiritually, “I understand now that the world is not just about me.” What an important lesson that very few people are able to learn if they purposely avoid commitment to marriage. I referred to this point in a recent post:
 
“When they are committed relationships in partnership, family, or community they help us understand that the world is not just about us, which is a fundamental principle in bhakti, a principle that will not be learned by one who chooses to stay alone, even as a monk, unless he or she has the extraordinary realization to rise above narcissism and become the humble servant of everyone.” [1]
 
Besides the need to rise above narcissism, one also needs to reasonably satisfy one’s desires to peacefully execute spiritual life. [2] In that sense, for one who is unfulfilled in his needs for family, to find the proper partner to start a family is a blessing one seeks.
 
As a Curse

Although one enters household life to “enjoy”, its goal, like any āśrama, is to become detached. Thus although there is some scope to fulfill one’s desires, it is done under regulation, so within fulfilling one’s desires to pacify one’s mind, one also practices detachment. [3] While undergoing this “blessing”, one naturally also has to accept the burden of many worldly responsibilities that usually substantially limit one’s engagement in spiritual life. As one in family life has been granted the leeway to enjoy, there is also the danger of becoming increasingly attached to that enjoyment, thus remaining entangled in worldly duties at a time when one should be moving towards a more renounced and simple life. Such a person, even in old age, remains mired in the illusion that my home is my eternal abode and my family is my eternal relationship – instead of seeking to attain Vṛndāvana and one’s eternal relationship with Kṛṣṇa. What a curse!
 
Harsh speech? The meaning of words is not just what is being said, but how it is understood, and that varies from culture to culture. In Indian culture, where this statement was born, people generally have been relatively “blessed” with a functional and happy family life and naturally develop a deep attachment to it. As they are pious and secure, the ācārya [4] can speak strongly to their attachments without causing trauma and they expect and welcome it.
 
Is family life a blessings or a curse? It’s a blessing for one who needs it and a curse when one becomes too ensconced in it.
 
 


 
[1] Community and Krishna Consciousness
 
[2] “Life’s desires should never be directed toward sense gratification. One should desire only a healthy life, or self-preservation, since a human being is meant for inquiry about the Absolute Truth. Nothing else should be the goal of one’s works.” Bhāg. 1.2.10
 
Purport: […] Because the body is made of senses which also require a certain extent of satisfaction there are regulative directions for satisfaction of such senses. […]
 
[3] For example, in household life there is a license for sex life so one gets to fulfill one’s desire. At the same time it is restricted in a monogamous relationship and in the highest standard for procreation only so that one’s desires and the practice of regulation or detachment are both satisfied. As a result one can gradually become detached from it.
 
[4] Guru
 
 

Monday Morning Greetings 2017 #7 – Leaving Vṛndāvana: Oy Vey!

February 13th, 2017

Leaving Vṛndāvana: Oy Vey! [1]
 
After having visited Varṣāṇā and being harassed for money by the very aggressive children, beggars, hawkers and brāhmaṇa guides there, a western pilgrim politely challenged me during my final get together with the tour group she had joined and I was hosting:
 
“These are the most aggressive and cruel people I have ever seen, and there is so much poverty, hunger, and garbage. And how they treat dogs! And this is a holy place?”
 
Unlike the person asking the question, the rest of the group had some connection and some affinity for bhakti. I looked around at my audience. After she posed her question, they also seemed desperate for an answer to reconcile their doubts and preserve their faith. [2]
 
I wouldn’t use the word disturbed, but I was highly concerned that before leaving Vṛndāvana their doubts were cleared. I have strong faith that one who approaches the dhāma [3] properly will see the real Vṛndāvana, not only the beautiful gardens and forest that rest just outside of the main town, but also the world of grace and pure devotion that lies just below the surface of its rapidly urbanized center. I have therefore dedicated myself to guiding the people who visit here and by the mercy of the dhāma we have met with some success. Vṛndāvana has become the “mecca”, the favorite pilgrimage place of most who visit me here as part of their India tour, and many return again and again to rekindle that spark of divine love.
 
And so an interesting discussion ensued. I didn’t deny the challenge posed for those who visit when confronted by the effects of urbanization combined with village mentality. I shared my own sadness regarding the increasing decay of the dhāma, and stressed the responsibility of its residents to protect and preserve Vṛndāvana’s environment. At the same time I tried to put the matter into perspective.
 
The complete Vṛndāvana, or Vraja-maṇḍala, is not a small place. It touches three states in India and has nearly 1,300 villages. The urbanization and consequent greed only covers a very small part. In fact, not more than ten minutes from ISKCON rests thousands of acres of the untouched flower gardens and farms where simple bhakti-filled residents still reside.
 
The people who beg in Varṣāṇā are not begging for food, but money for cell phones. Kṛṣṇa told Mādhavendra Purī that “no one starves in my village” [4] and that is still true today. No one goes hungry in Vraja, especially Varṣāṇā, where at the drop of a hat the disciples of Ramesh Bābā, the local saint, will feed hundreds of visitors. Then why do at least some of the simple local people still aggressively beg at some of Vṛndāvana’s major “tourist” towns like Varṣāṇā and Nanda-grāma? We are partly to blame by initiating India into modern life. We have exponentially increased the village people’s desire for many unnecessary things that simply are hard to afford in a village economy.
 
Before placing the full blame for poverty in India on its culture or religiosity, we should first look at the way we live in America and other westernized places, where the excess in our life style is often at the cost of others around the world. We should also ponder how much our vision has been conditioned to a false standard of opulence that doesn’t allow us to see within a poor villager’s life the opulence of friends and family within walking distance, fresh air, vegetarian organic food, and a lifestyle that leaves one relatively free for family and spiritual life. We pity their poverty while at the same time don’t question our so called opulent lifestyle where most break their necks working ten hours a day at horrible jobs, and many have to span continents or even oceans just visit their grown up children and families.
 
One thing that is certainly overtly disturbing and shameful is the clutter of plastic bags. When I came to India forty years ago everyone, especially at big functions, ate off leaf plates and clay cups. I was shocked that after the feast the leaf plates and cups were just haphazardly thrown and smashed, cups I would have sworn were at least ten dollars a piece at Pier 1 Imports. In other words, until recently everything in India was naturally biodegradable, so one didn’t need a sanitation department to cart off trash. Unfortunately, the indiscriminate throwing of trash became part of simple village people’s conditioning or DNA in such a way that it still continues for generations. Now instead of compost, the haphazard throwing of trash leaves mountains of unsightly plastic bags, and a once glorious biodegradable system of sanitation has become an inexcusable eyesore.
 
And while generational conditioning has its flaws, it also has its perks. Walk through any simple village in Vṛndāvana and many people who we may deem backward will immediately open their doors and feed you the most delicious vegetarian fare, “vrajavāsī rotīs”. [5] How would you be welcome in a small town in America if you showed up at people’s doors and more significantly what would they feed you? And while we are complaining about the poor neglected street dogs in India, in America they regularly slaughter millions of cows. A true spiritual culture respects all living beings. America has no claim to the ethical treatment of animals. [6]
 
I also talked about many things including how the Moghuls and British ruled India for hundreds of years and deliberately attempted to ravage their culture. There were questions and answers and a healthy discussion ensued. We then finished with a final kīrtan where I asked the audience to visit their favorite place among the many beautiful places visited in India during their tour. I was surprised and relieved how many still chose the beautiful flower gardens of Vṛndāvana with its simple village folk, but still pray hopelessly for the day when the people of Vṛndāvana even more fully embrace their bucolic roots.
 
 


 

[1]
A Yiddish word indicating dismay or grief that has become so much part of the vernacular in New York that the sign leaving Brooklyn over the Williamsburg Bridge says Leaving Brooklyn: Oy Vey!
 
[2] Varṣāṇā is the most sweet and beautiful place, but taking new people there can be hit or miss. The group went to Govardhana the day before and normally we wouldn’t give them a second long outing during their short stay, but the group, except the one lady from America who posed the question, were from Colombia and Dīna Bandhu, who speaks Spanish and had preached there, was leading the tour.
 
[3] Holy place
 
[4] See Caitanya-caritāmṛta, Madhya-līlā, Chapter 4
 
[5] A thick Indian flat bread with ghee that, in my opinion and the opinion of many I have taken to enjoy that fare, is the most tasty food in the world, better than pizza.
 
[6] I am not mocking America. If the people of America are attacked unfairly, I could also show their assets. In the MVT restaurant, which hosts here most of the foreign tour groups, the senior waitress who worked there once confided in me that of all nationalities the Americans are the most accommodating and polite while the Indians are generally the most rude. Again it’s the acculturation of people that influences their behavior and we should always take that into consideration before judging a culture harshly. Even Śrīla Prabhupāda noted that Americans generally have more respect for the dignity of labor than Indians.
 
 

Monday Morning Greetings 2017 #6 – The History of My Soul

February 6th, 2017

I am often asked how I came to Kṛṣṇa consciousness. I could start with June 7th of 1970 [1] when, by chance, I got a card advertising the Sunday Feast from the devotees chanting on Sunset Boulevard and then visited the temple on Watseka Avenue in Los Angeles. But I don’t think my journey really began then, so I prefer to answer by telling the history of my soul.

As far as I can trace it, my history begins in ignorance, the false conception that the highest happiness is only what I want. I had lived in that selfish way life after life since time immemorial. Trying to be the controller and enjoyer I traveled from universe to universe, from species of life to species of life, but it didn’t work. I was miserable, for no matter how much I tried to enjoy, even at the best of times, I was disconnecting myself from my soul, which is consciousness that reaches its fruition only in selflessness and devotion. It took so long, but then one day, I became hopeless with my self-centered existence. I was thus thrown in utter despair, and although my soul was covered by ignorance like a cloud that covers the sun, the depths of my pain suddenly caused a rudimentary spiritual thought to enter my consciousness: I yearn for truth, to be guided by something higher than only what I want. God had been watching, waiting for this moment. Seeing this slight opening in my mind, this sliver of humility receptive to mercy, He joyfully decided, “This poor soul is ready for sādhu-saṅga.” I soon again died.

Of all places I was born in Brooklyn, but little did I realize the depth of my fortune. America was to be the place Kṛṣṇa would soon send Śrīla Prabhupāda to open the hearts of countless souls to pure devotion through the inauguration the saṅkīrtana movement.

Yes, by inconceivable mercy I was in New York where the emissary of Śrī Caitanya would soon revive His mission, but still some more work was needed to open my soul in humility and dependence. I remained totally covered for almost another 20 years living out the special karma of happiness, and mostly distress, that God had decided I needed to make me receptive enough for the mercy of His devotee. Yes, there were fleeting moments of humility and feelings of the soul. Although I hated after-school Hebrew School, I was at times deeply moved by the prayers of devotion, and though mired in a culture of materialism, I sometimes, even at a very young age, thought of the futility of a life that ended in death. But mostly my life was a last fleeting attempt to control and enjoy the world while enduring the tortuous competition for recognition and sense gratification of New York City Public Schools and the wanton life of college, something I never want to be born again to experience.

Searching for relief and happiness I set off with four friends after the second year of college for California, a pilgrimage with ill placed motives, but fortunate lessons. We were sitting on a bench in Yosemite National Park as the streams from the beautiful waterfall crossed under our feet. And somehow – I don’t know how – we began chanting the Hare Kṛṣṇa mantra in the same tune as from the Broadway rock musical Hair. [2] I clearly remember feeling my soul opening with devotion and happiness. God works in mysterious ways.

Soon we all left to visit my college roommate Eric Mausert [3], who then lived in Hollywood, and shortly after that we were invited to that Sunday love feast where the full-blown force of the kīrtan entered our hearts. It was an overwhelming spiritual experience, but especially the prasādam was transcendent (or indescribably) delicious.

The next day we left down Highway 1 for San Francisco and were inspired to do kīrtan the whole way. We soon found ourselves sleeping in our station wagon in the parking lot of Kezar Stadium in San Francisco which unknowingly faced the back of the storefront of the city’s only Hare Kṛṣṇa center. We soon met the great saint Jayānanda Prabhu, and danced in the streets of Haight Ashbury with Madhudviṣa, the Emperor of Kīrtan [4] and daily had the most out of this world delectable prasādam cooked by Gaurahari. My faith that the highest happiness rested in kṛṣṇa-bhakti was gradually being solidified, but still attachments poised a painful obstacle to my full commitment.

Upon returning home we quickly went to visit the temple at 61 Second Avenue. The devotees had just moved and we were directed to Henry Street in Brooklyn where we discovered the oasis of the Rādhā-Govinda Temple where a veritable all-star line-up of young, talented, and dynamic souls resided. I religiously attended the Sunday feast when not away at college. I heard the enlightening talks of Jayādvaita and Jadurāṇī, the kīrtans of Agnideva and Jayā Śacīnandana, and the more than wonderful feasts cooked by Maṅgalananda.

That summer I even skipped out of work and hitched-hiked to JFK airport to greet Śrīla Prabhupāda on arrival. I witnessed just as he was coming out of the plane his hand gently raised to give blessings to the gathering of young spiritual aspirants gathered to greet him. Still my time had not yet fully arrived.

Three years later, while visiting the temple in Dallas, I received two rasagulās directly from the hand of His Divine Grace. The moment I bit into one all misgivings were mystically destroyed. Then and there I decided to give my life fully to his service.

And that’s the real history of my soul.


[1] Approximately.

[2] Hair was a successful Broadway musical that ran for more than five years about the hippie era that included a song where the hippies chanted Hare Kṛṣṇa.

[3] To be initiated as Akṣobhya dāsa, a wonderfully and learned devotee, who passed away while preaching Kṛṣṇa consciousness.

[4] When I first joined the movement, I remember Madhudviṣa being referred to as the “Emperor of Kīrtan”.