Archive for the 'Monday Morning Greetings' Category

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.
 
 

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”.

Monday Morning Greeting 2017 #5 – Community and Krishna Consciousness

January 30th, 2017

After the terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon three years ago I was impressed by a poignant message from Cardinal Seán O’Malley, the city’s archbishop, that highlighted for me the value, even more than the value – the practical necessity – of community for spiritual life.
 
“The crowd is made up of self-absorbed individuals, each one focused on his or her own interests in competition with the conflicting projects of others. A community is where people come to value each other, and find their own identity in being part of something bigger than themselves, working together for the common good.”
 
I thought this really underscores the foundational spiritual need that community provides: a space where one can rise above the ego based “me first” consciousness that roots us in this world.
 
Of course, I am not negating the necessity of self-preservation or protecting oneself, but a “crowd” is not supposed to be our community. We need places where we can be openhearted without laboring to protect our interests.
 
My realization on this was especially reinforced by our recent Purī retreat. Our team worked particularly hard to create an environment that we felt would best foster community, a culture that we summed up as “welcomed, cared for, expertly done in the service of Śrīla Prabhupāda.” With this mindset, our crew was very attentive to serve the pilgrims by providing a clean and quiet setting with the highest quality talks, kīrtans, and prasādam and for no cost above the payment for their rooms. [1] And we felt the result.
 
When devotees no longer have to worry about protecting or serving their own interests they become eager to serve the community that does. Bhakti so easily flows when we find an identity of belonging to something greater than ourselves. We saw that so strongly at the retreat, which was confirmed by the feedback of the participants.
 
One former ballet dancer who tastefully enlivened the kīrtans with his graceful and blissful dancing remarked he hadn’t danced like this in kīrtan for years and related his spontaneity to the sense of community he was feeling. Aesthetic or rasa theory informs us that the full force of rasa, or heightened devotion, is only felt within a group when all the members experience it as if with one interest or mind. And that is certainly the case for kīrtan. [2]
 
Many years ago, I read The Art of Loving by Eric Fromm. I don’t remember much now, but one point struck me. He described narcissism as antithetical to love and defined it as seeing the world through one’s own desires. Although we need to be careful not to use membership in any group to fortify our ego by creating a mini world of individual or collective lordship, such alliances, do have an important redeeming purpose. 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.
 
The pastimes of Kṛṣṇa demonstrate the perfect spiritual community. This is one of my favorite descriptions of community and Śrīla Prabhupāda’s relevant commentary:
 
“Like the whorl of a lotus flower surrounded by its petals and leaves, Kṛṣṇa sat in the center, encircled by lines of His friends, who all looked very beautiful. Every one of them was trying to look forward toward Kṛṣṇa, thinking that Kṛṣṇa might look toward Him. In this way they all enjoyed their lunch in the forest.” (Bhāg. 10.13.8)
 
Śrīla Prabhupāda’s commentary:
 
“The present Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement is an attempt to keep Kṛṣṇa in the center, for if this is done all activities will automatically become beautiful and blissful.”
 
Let us pray to rise above the crowd and find our community.
 
[1] To facilitate the spirit of bhakti the retreat is maintained only by donations from the participants.
 
 
[2] In the Caitanya-caritāmṛta it is described that Śrī Caitanya stopped one of the nocturnal kīrtans at the house of Śrīvāsa Ṭhākura when He suddenly felt the relish of the kīrtan diminishing. When he inquired if someone unknown had entered it was revealed that a brahmacārī with an impersonal or monistic view had entered.
 
 

Monday Morning Greetings 2017 #4 – Is Jagannātha the Highest Manifestation of God?

January 23rd, 2017

Jagannātha is the highest form of God. That’s the realization I had today here in Purī. My reasoning goes like this:
 
God is a person. I am starting from that proposition because I assume my readership mostly accepts this proposal. Also, I have already argued this point extensively in Monday Morning Greetings #26. [1] Assuming that God doesn’t have the defect of impersonality, my argument proceeds as follows from that first proposition:
 
The fullest manifestation of any person is not in their position or power, but in his or her personality or inner self as a friend, parent, or lover. For example, we may meet a very powerful person, but if we don’t have a familial relationship with them – if they are a stranger or even a reverential superior – very little of that person’s fullest or most intimate self will be revealed. Position therefore covers personality or the fullest manifestation of being.
 
The example of a high court judge is often given to demonstrate this. We may have studied the judge’s background or history or even know him as kind or sober, but his full self is not manifest while holding court. It is only manifest when he comes home and his parental, fraternal, or romantic side is not checked by the formality and majesty that judgeship demands.
 
In the same way, God is not fully manifest when he displays His full grandeur as Nārāyaṇa, or the creator and controller of existence. His personality is only fully visible when He sheds His position of grandeur and appears as Kṛṣṇa, a beautiful cowherd where His intimate side is not restrained by the opulence (aiśvarya) and formality of Godhead. Kṛṣṇa is thus aptly described by Śrī Rūpa, the great Vaiṣṇava teacher, as akhila-rasāmṛta-mūrti, the personification of the combined bliss of all rasa, or in other word, the fullest manifestation or personhood.
 
Certainly there can be nothing higher than Kṛṣṇa, but a question still remains. What is the fullest manifestation of Kṛṣṇa? Here’s where we come to Jagannātha.
 
Kṛṣṇa, like any person, gives His heart in proportion to the force of one’s love. As the most intense love is mādhurya-rasa, the mellow of conjugal love, Kṛṣṇa gives Himself most fully to the gopīs. And as Śrī Rādhā stands supreme even amongst the gopīs, Kṛṣṇa opens His heart most fully to her.
 
Therefore the fullest manifestation of Kṛṣṇa is in response to Rādhā’s love, specifically the height of that love, the peak of her separation from Kṛṣṇa. This is a love so powerful that even Kṛṣṇa’s body transforms in overwhelming ecstasy, a condition where His eyes become highly dilated and His limbs withdraw into His body, a form known as Jagannātha. [2]
 
And if there is still any doubt that Jagannātha is the fullest manifestation of Kṛṣṇa, please consider the following:
 
One of the main practices of spontaneous devotional service (rāgānugā-bhakti) is the worship of the form of Kṛṣṇa corresponding to the love one aspires to attain. Śrī Caitanya was seeking to taste the love of his best devotee, Śrī Rādhā, at the height of her love. He therefore accepted Jagannātha as His worshipful Lord and spent the last eighteen years of His life in Jagannātha Purī, and even one year when Śrī Caitanya stayed in Śrī Raṅgam for the four months of the rainy season, where the deity of Viṣṇu presides, and there is no Jagannātha temple, He personally carved His own Jagannātha deity to nourish His devotion.
 
Can there be any doubt that Jagannātha is the highest form of God?
 
[1] http://wavesofdevotion.com/2016/06/27/is-god-a-person/
 
[2] For an elaborate explanation of how Kṛṣṇa became Jagannātha see Three Logs of Wood from Gopal Jiu Publications.
 
 

Monday Morning Greetings 2017 #3 – The Cause and Cure of Anxiety

January 16th, 2017

When things go exactly our way, now that’s a time to worry! That sounds strange. Why would one worry when the world finally conforms to one’s desire?
 
About seven months ago, just as I was beginning my journey from my upstate home to New York City, a very pleasant thought struck me: “This is rare. My ambitions and desires are fulfilled. I feel completely satisfied.” I searched my mind further, “And wait, I can’t find any major problems either.”
 
Like everyone I’ve had my trials and tribulations in life. But now, for the first time since I can remember, there seemed to be no major discomfort confronting me. I also thought of the success I wanted as a preacher and how opportunities were now opening beyond my wildest desires. Then another thought struck me. “I’m enjoying what my world is now, but it will not stay this way. What my life is now is beyond my absolute control and what it will be in the future is also be beyond my complete control.”
 
As I was reflecting in this way, I began to realize something more deeply about the duality of the material world. Even when we get what we want, our happiness is mixed with distress because what we treasure is temporary. It will thus be lost in time and to the extent we are attached to it we suffer. Duality thus means that our pleasures will always be mixed with the fear of loss.
 
I especially remember the feelings of such duality and fear before I came to Kṛṣṇa consciousness when I had no conception of my eternality, when the sense that everything would end always rested as a heavy weight on my head. Can there be real enjoyment on death row? Isn’t all enjoyment for the person who thinks death is the end of existence like the pleasure of a last meal? I never want to forget the relief I felt after coming to spiritual life when that doom on my head was lifted by the simple realization that I was eternal.
 
But even for one who knows they are eternal there is still fear and suffering to extent that they are still attached to the temporary. I am not denying that there are basic material needs and desires that must be met to be peaceful. I am just acknowledging that even such attachments are still in the realm of the impermanent and thus mixed with duality.
 
As I was driving and these thoughts flashed in the mind, I realized that only by being equal in happiness and distress could one become peaceful. Yes, this was a rare moment when the world seemed to be reasonably conforming to my desires. I was happy for that, but still it was clear that I needed to be equipoised or detached, not absorbed in my “happiness”, otherwise I would suffer.
 
These thoughts may sound fatalistic, but they’re not. I do see happiness in this world, just not where we usually look for it. It rests in our free will, how we respond to the world, as long as we choose to respond by service and devotion, an option always within our control and a choice that is free from duality. But the message I received while driving my car to New York City stands without question:
 
Happiness in this world is ironically filled with worry. Don’t overly rejoice in the temporary.
 
 

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