Archive for March, 2017

Monday Morning Greetings 2017 #12 – The Problem of Evil

March 20th, 2017

Recently I became very interested in apologetics. Before I looked up the term it sounded like a group of people who just always say they are sorry and make excuses for themselves. Apologetics, however, from the Greek word “speaking in defense of”, is the rigorous discipline of defending or proving the truth of theism through systematic argumentation based on reason. In that regard, I am very inspired by the work of many profound modern day Christian apologists like William Lane Craig, John Lennox, and Alvin Platinga who publicly and successfully defend the existence of God from the modern onslaught of atheism.
 
Inspired by occasionally listening to their debates, I felt inspired for this Monday Morning Greetings to try my own hand at apologetics. Today I will try to defend the challenge that the existence of evil and suffering in the world are inconsistent with an omnibenevolent being, arguably the most confronting argument against the existence of God.
 
This is no doubt a very complex discussion. It will not be possible within the scope of this short column to do full justice from the standpoint of the academy, [1] but I am confident that I can share some good arguments on the matter, both from what I heard from the top apologists and also from what I have gathered by my own reasoning.
 
One of the most compelling arguments to help reconcile the existence of evil and a benevolent creator is the proof from the existence of evil itself. I first heard this argument from the life of the famous British novelist and Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis. He left Christianity at a young age after experiencing the hell and evil of war and later came back to Christianity when reflecting on the ontological basis of evil. His thoughts in this regard as related by Art Lindsley, one of the main scholars on his life:
 
“But, where had he gotten this idea of evil? He realized that his atheism provided no basis for it. Lewis could have said that his idea of evil was just his own private affair, but then his argument against God collapsed, too. Yet, if evil was real, then there must be an absolute standard by which it was known to be evil and an absolute good by which evil could be distinguished from good. Where could we get this infinite reference point, this fixed point above all our personal and cultural bias? Did that not demand a God as an adequate basis for absolute good? This was a first clue to the cosmos: evil was real.” [2]
 
In other words, the existence of evil shows that objective moral values exist, ideals that that are independent and transcendent to human opinion. For example, torturing babies is wrong. It is not evolutionary or culturally wrong. It is wrong beyond circumstance or time. It is wrong by basis of the very fabric of the universe. Thus modern atheism, which is reductionist and sees reality simply as a collection of causal random events has no basis for objective moral values and cannot be a reasonable explanation for the world. God is.
 
Again, it is beyond the scope in this short column to rigorously dissect all the subtleties of determinism at the basis of atheism, but it is safe to say that modern atheism robs one of free will and thus the moral responsibility of one’s actions. It is a view that even most atheists can’t in good conscience embrace, but is nonetheless the natural outcome of their worldview.
 
Sam Harris is arguably one of the most brilliant atheists publicly challenging theism. If you have time you can watch as he miserably fails again and again to directly answer William Lane Craig’s challenge to explain how atheism can serve as a foundation for morality.
 


 
Śrīla Prabhupāda also offered an interesting argument on this subject when he was once asked why we have come here, indicating this world of suffering and evil. “God did not create you as dead stone. You have chosen to come here. Now don’t blame God.” [3]
 
In other words, part of God’s perfection is that He did not make us dead stone, but has given us life, a concomitant factor of which is free will, which necessitates the possibility of choosing evil. The argument here is that some things we accept by their own definition have conditions that follow from them. In this case, the possibility to choose evil as a necessary condition that follows free will.
 
Finally, I will offer my own argument. Part of the problem of denying the existence of God based on suffering and evil is that this conclusion is based on several wrong premises. The first mistaken premise is that true happiness is controlling and enjoying the world, and not a flourishing of the soul in devotion and compassion. The second misconception is that what is good must be agreeable, when many things that are good for us, such as medicine or a surgical operation, are generally not nice at all. Suffering, therefore, even to the extent of evil, doesn’t have to be contradictory with an omnibenevolent Being if that suffering frustrates our unbecoming attempts to control and enjoy the world and helps leads us to true happiness. [4] Our condemnation of God for the existence of evil is thus only contradictory with the goodness of God from our limited perspective and not from the perspective of God who sees good in that which brings us closer to true happiness.
 
When I begin writing a Monday Morning Greetings I never know what I am getting into. I must say that this subject is a tough one. The problem of evil is a complex subject and so much more can be written, and so many more questions that can be raised and answered, but I think the basic reasoning for the reconciliation between God and the suffering of this world is clear.
 
 


 
[1] “The academy is a term used to describe all of academia.
 
[2] From “The Problem of Evil” published in the Winter 2003 edition of Knowing & Doing.
 
[3] I could not find the reference where Śrīla Prabhupāda said this, but I do have a strong recollection of reading it and trust its authenticity.
 
[4] A further challenge to this argument would be to question how the young and innocent could learn from horrid experience. It is beyond the scope of this paper to tackle this head on here, but the answer rests in an in depth discussion of how karma works and how specific karma related reactions can impact the consciousness beyond intellectualizing them.
 
 

Monday Morning Greetings 2017 #11 – Can We Offer Krishna Pizza?

March 13th, 2017

While staying at the house of a friend in Princeton, a noted scholar in Indology, I saw lying on a side table in his library an English translation of an unpublished Hindi manuscript of questions to arguably the most learned scholar in Vṛndāvana. [1] I immediately picked it up and began to turn the pages curious to see what he had to say. The questions, it seemed, mostly from western devotees, were thoughtful and the answers were quite penetrating, covering a variety of subjects from basic social concerns to rāgānugā-bhakti. I not only appreciated the depth of scholarship, but I liked the general tone, especially that the teachings seemed to mirror the same emphasis on the foundations of Kṛṣṇa consciousness that Śrīla Prabhupāda espoused. I read at a good pace and with rapt interest the answer to one question after another appreciating the maturity of the conversation until one question made me suddenly pause. Its inclusion just seemed so out of place at the feet of such a traditional, learned and 90 year-old Vaiṣṇava scholar.
 
Can we offer pizza to Kṛṣṇa?
 
There was also something I didn’t like about the question. I couldn’t help but wonder if this out of place inquiry was just a set-up to get this simple bābā to criticize the more non-traditional ISKCON – pizza, pasta, and all. I waited in anticipation and turned the page for an answer.
 
Whatever you like most you can offer to Kṛṣṇa with the most devotion.
 
I loved the answer. First I appreciated how a true scholar never serves the interest of any particular ideology, left or right, for he speaks only on the basis of śāstra, not through one’s conditioned ideological intuition. His answer here seemed quite “liberal” while most of his other answers on other subjects were quite “conservative”. True scholars are objective and independent of any particular persuasion besides the text and its realized application. It reminded me of Śrīla Prabhupāda, who similarly was unpredictable from the perspective of political affiliation, neither controlled by political correctness nor by fundamentalism.
 
Mostly I appreciated the answer because it so succinctly expressed the essence of bhakti. Kṛṣṇa is pleased not just by things that are offered to Him but also by the expression of devotion that they embody. Of course, there are certain parameters of what can be offered, but within those broad parameters the ingredient that pleases Kṛṣṇa is the devotion in which things are offered.
 
I reflected how true the bābā’s answer was. Devotion means to offer the best. As people have different tastes, the things that they can offer Kṛṣṇa with the most love vary according to what a person thinks is best. It’s just common sense.
 
I reflected on times when I have visited the homes of families of different ethnicities. I remember being invited for lunch in Māyāpur by a family from Italy. To maintain his household the father of the family was importing pasta from Italy. I remember the abject enthusiasm in which he showed me the many varieties of pasta, from fusilli to ziti, carefully explaining with unbounded enthusiasm the difference between each one. And what a meal they served and how welcomed and loved I felt! Do you think the “pasta king” [2] could have served samosas with the same devotion, or for that matter do you think a South Indian could offer pasta with the same love as a masāla dosa?
 
Kṛṣṇa, like anyone for that matter, enjoys the fine tastes, fragrances, sounds, visuals, and textures offered to Him, but only as the vehicle by which love is expressed to Him. So naturally our own tastes, what best expresses our love, is a factor in how much Kṛṣṇa enjoys something.
 
This principle is the essence of bhakti, even in nāma-kīrtan, for what Kṛṣṇa hears is not just our sweet voice and perfect rhythms, but our soul – the heart or intensity in which we sing kīrtan or chant japa with devotion. Of course, out of love we should try to make the most sonorous melody and enchanting rhythm, but bhāva, love for God, is the main impetus for Kṛṣṇa to be pleased, not just our musical talent.
 
This principle is also why Śrī Rādhā has the most wonderful qualities. As she has the greatest love for Kṛṣṇa, her mahābhāva (intense love) is manifested in svarūpiṇī (the most pleasing and beautiful embodiment of that love). In other words, in having the most love she also has the greatest capacity to express that love in the form of the superlative nature of her being – from her unbounded compassion to her incomparable beauty and abilities.
 
Can we offer pizza to Kṛṣṇa? I think the baba’s answer was perfect:
 
Whatever you like most you can offer to Kṛṣṇa with the most devotion.
 
Final Meditation: think of what you can offer Kṛṣṇa with most devotion and how much you appreciate that very same thing.
 
 



[1]
The manuscript was from the late Śrī Haridās Śāstrī Mahārāja. He had translated and published over eighty books from Sanskrit into Hindi and Bengali, many with original commentary. He held nine graduate degrees and three postgraduate degrees in the six systems of Hindu philosophy.
 
[2] I remember that this is what people affectionately called him.
 
 

Monday Morning Greetings 2017 #10 – Realization: What is It, Why is It Important, and How Do You Get It?

March 6th, 2017

What is it?

If someone steps on your toe and you become angry have you realized you are not your body? You certainly theoretically understand you are not the body, but do you realize or see it? Simply put, jñāna (theoretical knowledge) is what one understands to be true, and vijñāna (realized knowledge) is what one sees as true.
 
A good way to better grasp this difference between understanding (theoretical knowledge) and seeing (realized knowledge) is to look at the difference between how one understands and sees one’s bad habits. For example, a recovering drug addict may theoretically understand (jñāna) how much suffering addiction causes, but still due to a lack of realization (vijñāna) when confronted with the source of his addiction mistakenly sees it as a source of happiness.
 
Why is it important?

The importance of having realization should be obvious. It is easier to live by the truth the more deeply we see it and the more we live the truth the happier we become. This is true in all spheres of life from the truth about health and relationships to the truth about the self.
 
The importance of realization should be even more obvious from observing the lack of it in ourself and others. In fact, all problems are a dearth of it. For example, our greatest fear is death, but death itself is the illusion of non-existence, and thus the self-realized soul, one who clearly realizes this, is not disturbed by it.
 
This important realization – that the self-realized can conquer death – is a major theme of śāstra (scriptures). [1] For example, in the second chapter of the Bhagavad-gītā a self-realized soul is described as not bewildered by the change of body called death. [2]
 
Realization is also important because it is a prerequisite for being an effective teacher, especially a spiritual teacher. Without such depth it would be impossible for a teacher to properly explain what he or she has understood in a way to accommodate the frame of reference of his or her audience without losing the original intended meaning. Lacking realization one can only repeat what one has learned verbatim, even if his or her audience figuratively no longer speaks the same language and misunderstands what the teacher has to say. In that regard, Śrīla Prabhupāda stresses the necessity for realization as a prerequisite for effective teaching:
 
The original purpose of the text must be maintained. [3] No obscure meaning should be screwed out of it, yet it should be presented in an interesting manner for the understanding of the audience. This is called realization.” [4] (Bhāg. 1.4.1, purport)
 
The Bhāgavatam teaches us that the whole world is moving around us just to give us realizations, realizations so important it is worth any sacrifice to get them, and that properly understanding them allows one to confront any tribulation with hope. [5]
 
How to get it?

The Bṛhad-āraṇyaka Upaniṣad (4.5.6) gives a simple explanation how realization arises; first by hearing the truth, then by reflecting on it, and finally by repeatedly applying it.
 
In other words, the best way to garner realization is to regularly hear the śāstra (scripture), the repository of knowledge or good ideas, and reflect on what you have heard. This does not entail being a scholar or having to memorize text. It only requires the desire to be transformed by it and to commit oneself to regularly engaging with it. Profound thoughts will inevitably strike you, ideas that seem familiar and true, but which may not be deeply understood, but should be. By reflecting on them you will inevitably see those same truths in the world and by embracing them and acting on them gain important realizations. Your life will then change.
 
A Recommendation

While attending a seminar in Govardhana by Bhūrijana dāsa many years ago I learned a simple method to study śāstra that I regularly apply to the study of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s books that helps me get helpful realizations and is the source of many or even most of my Monday Morning Greetings.

  1. Set a time and a place exclusively for the study of śāstra. Even ten minutes will do if you are busy.
  2. Pray to the teachers you will be encountering in your study to be transformed or impacted by their teachings and to address and answer your questions and doubts. For example, in reading the Bhāgavatam I pray to Śrīla Prabhupāda and Śukadeva Gosvāmī and those teachers I am expecting to encounter in that day’s study.
  3. Read slowly. Take a prayerful disposition; imbibe the mood as if you are in audience of these great souls. Sometimes reading a bit audibly will help.
  4. When something strikes you stop and read it out loud three times.
  5. When your prescribed time is over stop. Don’t continue reading more. If you feel you can devote more time then increase your vow the next day.
  6. Pay your obeisances and offer gratitude to the teachers you encountered.
  7. Optional: Free write your thoughts for a few minutes. Underline the sentence or thought in your writing you liked best. [6]

Final Thought

I will leave the reader with a final thought that was told to me once by a sādhu in Vṛndāvana when I asked him to share with me a realization:
 
“The most important thing is to have good thoughts. From good thoughts comes good action. From good action comes good habits. From good habits come good character and from good character comes the right destination.”
 
 


 
 
[1] The seminal question of the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam is “What is the duty of man who is about to die?” and the answer begins with the proposition “If you want to be fearless at the time of death…” implying that the purpose of the Bhāgavatam is to give one the realization to do so.
 
[2] Bhagavad-gītā 2.13
 
[3] Italicized in original text.
 
[4] Bolded here for emphasis. Does not appear in bold in original text.
 
[5] I gleaned this conception of realization from the text and commentary to Bhāg. 1.9.12-14 by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda.
 
[6]Free writing is a prewriting technique in which a person writes continuously for a set period of time without regard to spelling, grammar, or topic.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_writing) It is important in free writing not to let your pen stop writing even if you write “I don’t know what to say”. My experience is that we remember a lot more than we give ourselves credit for and once the pen is moving we can hardly stop expressing our ideas.