Archive for July, 2017

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)
 

Monday Morning Greetings 2017 #29 – Now!

July 17th, 2017

I hate country walks! While walking briskly for my health, I plan a class, write an article in my mind, meditate on practical problems, and sometimes even make a call. Anything but nature! I grew up in Brooklyn. The action, the accents, the variety of people—I could walk all day there.
 
Today on my walk I ran out of things to occupy my mind. That’s strange. Chant? I could, but my walking is too rapid for good concentration. I prefer to sit for hours quite early in the morning. What to do?
 
An idea came: Why not just try to be in the moment? I slowed my mind and peacefully concentrated. I could see the lush forest, feel the cool morning breeze, smell the fragrant flowers, and hear the songs of nature. I stay in the moment. I see and feel God.
 
“How can they deny God?!” I never forgot the strong, angry words of Sannyāsa dāsa as beautiful full-bloomed peacocks repeatedly danced before us spreading their colorful plumes as we walked the then forest path around Vṛndāvana. His anger was directed at the Russian government. The God denying communists imprisoned and tortured him as one of the early pioneers of the Hare Kṛṣṇa movement. Yes, the beauty of peacock is proof of a designer. How can they deny God?!
 
My mind was still a bit restless, but I was determined to stay in the moment. The lush greenery to my right inspired thoughts of the spiritual world. I could easily imagine Kṛṣṇa. Through the trees I also saw our powerful waterfall, Stuyvesant Falls, the namesake of the hamlet where I live. I listened to its powerful force, a sound that creates harmony. Yes, nature soothes, no matter how loud, while the sirens, horns, and screeching cars of my youth—the man-made sounds—go against nature. They disturb. Śrīla Prabhupāda’s quote of the famous British poet Cowper suddenly came to mind: “The country is made by God, and the city is made by man.”
 
I consciously remained in the moment. As I absorbed myself in the sights and sounds around me, my country walk was suddenly finished. I was back at my place. Where had time gone?
 
My final thought on my country walk: Time does not exist now. If you stay present you will see Kṛṣṇa and you will never be bored, especially if now is the holy name, or a stroll on a country road.
 
 

Monday Morning Greetings 2017 #28 – Is It Wrong To Ask God For What We Need?

July 10th, 2017

Her kind father met her at JFK airport to see her off. She made a humble request to him, “Could you please fold your hands and make a prayer for me?” Her supportive father repeated after her, “Dear Kṛṣṇa, could you please find a good husband for my daughter?” Her father’s prayers were soon answered. After more than twenty-five years she is still happily married to a very upstanding Vaiṣṇava.
 
She didn’t always feel that she needed to get married. She had already been married before she joined the āśrama and was feeling happily sheltered in her sevā of distributing Śrīla Prabhupāda’s books with a group of other ladies, all quite elevated on the path of bhakti. What more could she want? But her idyllic life would not last. The leader and inspiration for the particular temple where her āśrama was situated fell away and as expected when a charismatic leader falls everything falls apart. But she was thoughtful. As soon as her world shifted she made an adjustment in her life. She decided to take shelter in Vṛndāvana, but also realized that she needed to get married again, this time someone who shared her ideals. Her father graciously agreed to offer her prayer.
 
But isn’t bhakti without personal desire and only for the pleasure of Kṛṣṇa? Doesn’t Kṛṣṇa give shelter and maintain His surrendered devotees by providing whatever they need? Why ask? Doesn’t Kṛṣṇa know one’s heart? Where is her faith?
 
Recently someone asked me a very similar question. This story came to my mind. On one hand, bhakti means the intention to please Kṛṣṇa without any extraneous desire, and the primary symptom of faith is that Kṛṣṇa will protect His devotees. And even when asking Kṛṣṇa for something, a devotee is very careful to not to question God’s motive or try to impose his or her will on Kṛṣṇa’s.
 
Śrīla Prabhupāda became very ill just after I first came to the Hare Kṛṣṇa movement. He allowed us to pray for him. Still he only sanctioned a prayer that seemed to include a condition that inoculated us from questioning Kṛṣṇa’s power and benevolence, “O Kṛṣṇa, if you so desire, please cure Śrīla Prabhupāda!”
 
In the Śikṣāṣṭakam, the only eight verses that Śrī Caitanya composed, the purity of devotion is highlighted from the very beginning of his short poem culminating in the ultimate selflessness espoused in the final verse:
 
“I know no one but Kṛṣṇa as my Lord, and He shall remain so even if He handles me roughly by His embrace or makes me brokenhearted by not being present before me. He is completely free to do anything and everything, for He is always my worshipful Lord unconditionally.” (Śikṣāṣṭakam, 8)
 
The path of devotion, however, does not reject aspirants with material attachment, especially when they have legitimate needs to be met for the peaceful execution of one’s spiritual life. Even in Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī’s seminal definition of pure devotion service, he doesn’t say that pure devotional service is free from all desires (anyābhilāṣa), only that it must be free from desires that are not integral with our selfish, or motivated nature (anyābhilāṣitā). In other words, the desire of a person threatened with death calling for help or a parent’s natural affection for their child are not necessarily considered against pure devotional service, although in one sense they are personal attachments.
 
So, can a devotee approach Kṛṣṇa with his needs? If we have legitimate needs that we require for the peaceful execution of devotional service and we call to Kṛṣṇa for their fulfillment, is that not part of one’s love for Kṛṣṇa? If a small child is hungry and approaches his mother for food is not that dependence an expression of love? In fact, in rāsa theory, the science of love, the flavor of a servant’s mood of affection is, “You are my maintainer!” Did not the great devotees Draupadī and Uttarā petition the Lord for protection in time of great distress? Did that compromise their devotion, or was it an expression of their love?
 
Did my god-sister, who had fully given her life at the lotus feet of Śrī Kṛṣṇa, violate her pure devotion by having her father ask Kṛṣṇa for a husband for her, or did she just show her dependence on God by asking for help to get what she required for her devotional service? It’s a fine line, and perhaps that is why this sincere and intelligent soul, perhaps being reluctant herself to ask Kṛṣṇa, asked her father to pray for her. It wouldn’t compromise her father’s devotion, as he was not a devotee, but it would endear her father to Kṛṣṇa by service to his daughter, a pure devotee. But if she did ask, what would be the harm?
 
 

Monday Morning Greetings 2017 #27 – What Makes Bhakti Sweet?

July 3rd, 2017

I think it was the flowers. Summer is here and they are plentiful. Śrī Girirāja, my deity, looked stunning. I felt happy, but the quality of happiness had a unique flavor. I reflected on the feeling and why. It was more a joy than a pleasure, something that came from the heart, not just from the stimulation of a pretty sight. That transcendent feeling is bhakti, the pleasure you get when your happiness is the happiness of another, specifically God or Kṛṣṇa, because when happiness is directed at something inclusive of everything, such love is universal.
 
Although such focus away from oneself is true happiness, why are we so conditioned otherwise? We may say we are not, but are our dreams for ourselves or for others? Go deep in the heart. Listen to the voices of desire. Are they screaming in compassion and for service, or are they the voices of petty desires?
 
When we drink ambrosial nectar we derive a certain pleasure as it pours over our taste buds and down our throat. In the same way, our hearts have a kind of taste bud for the fluid of emotion, but instead of coming from outside and stimulating something on its way down, emotion comes from the inside, stimulates the heart, and flows outward in expression. You may see or touch a beautiful thing in the mood of exploitation and feel a fleeting high, but within our heart we only experience the bitter taste and expression of lust or greed. But contact the exact same thing with the understanding of the pleasure it gives to another, especially in relationship to God, and the sweet flavor of bhakti will exude.
 
And that’s the sweetness of bhakti. It doesn’t deny sensual experience. We can see and smell beautiful flowers, taste wonderful food, and hear the most exquisite melodies and rhythms, but if offered to Kṛṣṇa and then relished with the joy of His pleasure, instead of the bitter taste of simply selfish gratification, the sweet taste of devotion flows from our heart.
 
A while back, the main kitchens in ISKCON Vṛndāvana were under my management. I wasn’t the cook, but I personally oversaw all aspects of the feasts for the nearly contiguous festivals of Govardhan Pūjā and Śrīla Prabhupāda’s disappearance. The preparation was especially challenging because we had an inadequate coal based kitchen, no dining hall to feed the thousands of devotees in one place, and took on the responsibility of a fifteen course gourmet feast impeccably served to the thousands of guests sitting in rows. It was exhausting. Only after everyone else was fed did the cooks, servers, and myself honor the feast. I noticed that especially our illustrious cooks, led by B.B. Govinda Swami, then Ayodhyāpati dāsa, took very little, but with great joy. They would relish each preparation, but in relation to how all the Vaiṣṇavas assembled had enjoyed. That is sweetness of bhakti.
 
Frankly, too often the obligation for worship in my busy day becomes too much like a chore. But today the time and inspiration was to get the best for Kṛṣṇa, and that effort was especially expressed in the beauty of the decoration, especially the lush and fresh colorful roses picked right outside of my country home. I enjoyed them, but there was some grace, some bhakti, because my appreciation was somehow shifted to how my Lord was enjoying. That sensual experience then became spiritual and naturally awakened devotion, the happiness one feels upon the happiness of the divine. That universal love is the sweetness of bhakti.
 
 

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