Archive for the 'Monday Morning Greetings' Category

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.
 
 

Monday Morning Greetings 2017 #2 – I am the Greatest!

January 9th, 2017

I have finally been gifted my own residence here in Vṛndāvana after having lived here for over forty years. And what a place! It overlooks the āśrama of Rādhā-ṭilā, a place of Śrī Rādhā’s pastimes. Its simple āśrama residents try to preserve and worship the dhāma by living in exactly in the same way the Six Gosvāmīs did five hundred years ago unencumbered by any so-called modern conveniences. The special feature of Rādhā-ṭilā is that the sādhus here feed the birds of Vṛndāvana one hundred kilos of millet everyday at 2 PM. It attracts thousands and thousands of birds, mostly parrots, freely buzzing around its trees in droves during the feeding that lasts for several hours. The sight is stunning as is the remembrance of the pastime here: the parrots are the disciples of Vṛndā-devī, the goddess of the Vṛndāvana forest, who would fly all over Vraja to scout the safest passage ways for Rādhā to go meet Kṛṣṇa. In reciprocation Rādhā would come here to feed them and that bird feast is still going on after 5,000 years!
 
My seat for my japa meditation faces a large picture window that perfectly frames the top of this Rādhā-ṭilā forest with its birds. I so much enjoy sitting here and looking at the most beautiful sight in the world: the Vraja forest filled with its birds. But today a thought suddenly came, “Why do I enjoy this so much?” I searched my mind and saw a thought that disturbed me and made me question whether I was enjoying these sights as a service to Kṛṣṇa, or if there was some another reason for my joy? “I now have the best room with the best sight and thus I am better than others.” I was a bit taken aback. Was I becoming like the tourist who enjoys his vacation to an exotic destination and takes pictures, not because he is absorbed in the pleasure of the moment, but to announce to the world that he is also great because he is enjoying more than others? Am I wishing or announcing that most insidious of all thoughts:
 
“I am the greatest!”
 
My older brother and myself were big fans of Muhammad Ali. We listened intently to his fights on the radio with Sonny Liston and even went to the Felt Forum at Madison Square Garden to watch him train. We also loved his bravado as he would proudly scream, “I am the greatest!” Now, almost fifty years later, my values have changed. In contrast, I adore the humble, simple servants of Kṛṣṇa whose greatness is that they don’t think themselves better than everyone or anyone. I now worship those who see everything in relation to love and service, but deep within me I still saw the false ego wanting to announce to the world in a similar way, “I am the greatest!” And all because I have the best view. How silly the subtle mind!
 
Sādhu beware! The false ego is devious and tries to take everything for its own service, even our good qualities, as one can easily become proud of being in goodness, practicing renunciation, or even being humble. Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta thus even cautioned us about living in Rādhā-kuṇḍa, I assume because he understood how easily that same sinister voice could convince us that we are the best simply because we reside in the topmost place, a conviction that would ironically doom our spiritual life, even when residing in the best place.
 
I am sitting here writing this article on my seat of prayer enjoying this mystical scene of the Rādhā-ṭilā birds praying that my happiness is only because I am witnessing a spark of Kṛṣṇa’s splendor and feeling His mercy. I have no other qualification and by Śrīla Prabhupāda’s grace that is becoming clear.
 
 

Monday Morning Greetings 2017 #1 – Happy Birthday, Monday Morning Greetings!

January 2nd, 2017

I began Monday Morning Greetings on this same day, the first Monday in January, exactly one year ago, and in this exact same place, my residence in Śrīdhām Māyāpur, the home of Jagadīśa and Jugala. It began when Jugala expressed how much she liked my journals and then inquired why I hadn’t written any in over five years. I couldn’t think of a good reason. I immediately began this journal, now named Monday Morning Greetings, neatly on the first Monday of January last year.

I have now completed fifty-two Monday Morning Greetings that I will compile into a book. I have also decided to accept the personal challenge to continue this series for another year beginning with this entry, Monday Morning Greetings 2017 #1.

Yes, it’s a challenge to write them. Most of the initial posts were ideas I had swimming around my head for some time. I thus questioned whether I would be able to come up with enough fresh ideas to continue throughout the year when that beginning source of inspiration ran dry.

There was also the challenge of keeping the writing to the standard of clarity and force that I was demanding before each journal was to be posted. Satsvarūpa dāsa Goswāmī once told me, and I don’t know if it was his own realization or he was quoting a famous writer or artist[1], that writing is “inspiration, perspiration, inspiration”.

Unless you have something to say, some inspiration, there is really nothing to write, no matter how expert in word craft one is. And only with hard work, perspiration, will your original realization be manifest in a way in which others can experience your initial realization, or inspiration.

So, in some ways continuing Monday Morning Greetings was daunting, but by remaining steady a dynamic process of writing unfolded, a process that gave me confidence that I would be able to mine realizations, confront the initial blank page, draft the initial scrambled thoughts on the subject, and eventually every week craft that inspiration in another form – the completed written work.

I now very much enjoy watching that process manifest from my initial realization into something that can inspire my audience. And just as a side note, I want to thank the many readers who have communicated that appreciation to me. It inspires me to write. Now I will share the process.

Inspiration

I generally don’t have a specific idea of what I will write until I finish the piece I am working on, but what I do have is a frame of reference to see God in the world based on śāstra,[2] a context that I can immediately activate to find new sources of inspiration. That framework not only helps me to more and more see the world based on what I have gleaned from the sacred texts, but it also confirms those realizations in a way that brings them alive and inspires me to write about them.

For example, on the way to Māyāpur I stayed the night in Delhi at the home of a very pious Indian family who, among other things, consciously dedicates themselves to karma yoga and a life according to the Gītā. I was very impressed. I saw in them certain Gītā principles personified in a way that deepened my own understanding of them and instilled in me a desire to share what I saw in a future post.

Writing thus forces me to regularly engage with śāstra to keep spiritual thoughts in the front of my consciousness. It is the foundation of my process of writing.

Another important part of my process of gaining inspiration is lots of chanting, especially after I have completed a post. Chanting is for love of Godhead, but an important result is ceto-darpaṇa-mārjanaṁ, the mind becomes clear. It is only in that clarity of mind that I can see the world lucidly enough to become spiritually inspired by it.

Chanting is the basis of my life, but it is also now an essential element for my process of writing.

Perspiration

After the day begins my time is mixed with other responsibilities and I find it difficult to focus on writing. I am also not the type of pure brāhmaṇa that can concentrate for long periods on intellectual work. In fact, in my youth my absorption was sports and the only two books I ever remembering reading and liking was Animal Farm by George Orwell and The Mouse That Roared. [3] Since writing Monday Morning Greetings I thus have had no choice but to rise many hours before sunrise for at least thirty minutes to an hour for writing, where in abject solitude my concentration is very focused.

Thus rising early and writing daily in full focus is very much a part of my writing process where I can overcome the sometimes seemingly insurmountable obstacles to clarity and focus that a next paragraph often poses.

So that’s how Monday Morning Greetings is born and hopefully I can continue this sevā for the pleasure of Śrīla Prabhupāda and my audience.

And to my readers, I remain indebted to you. There are two types of service to a Vaiṣṇava. One is physical service and the other is hearing. In ways hearing is the best service because it engages the person one serves also in service, the service of kīrtan, or glorifying the Lord.

So again thank you and I wish all the best for you and your families from Śrīdhām Māyāpur at the beginning of the New Year and on the birthday of Monday Morning Greetings.

[1] I know Thomas Edison is famous for saying that success is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration, but I remember the phrase I was told as “inspiration, perspiration, inspiration”.

[2] Sacred texts.

[3] I only remember now that I enjoyed the book, but don’t even remember what it was about or who the author was.

Monday Morning Greetings #52 – Moral Diversity, Book Banning, and the Conservative/Liberal Polemic in ISKCON

December 26th, 2016

I recently started to write a review of a book that was banned in ISKCON, but my book review soon morphed into something else: a study of moral diversity as a template to bridge the gap between the Society’s conservative and liberal wings.
 
Three months ago, I was included as a receiver to a flurry of impassioned but reasonably well-reasoned protest letters from the disciples of Bhakti Vikāśa Swami to a long list of ISKCON leaders, arguing that it was improper for the GBC to ban their guru’s book Women: Masters or Mothers? I was a little annoyed at first. I am not an ISKCON leader, and I hadn’t read or seen the book, or even had an interest to do so. But as I received letter after letter, my interest was piqued to find out why this book was such a controversy. I protested to the writer of the next letter I received, “I am not an ISKCON leader, nor even technically in ISKCON, and I have not even read the book. If you choose to continually copy me on your complaints, at least send me a copy of the book!” And she did.
 
In a sense, whether I agreed with the author’s opinion or not, I couldn’t fathom why the book should be banned. It was mostly quotes from Śrīla Prabhupāda espousing the more traditional view of the role of women in society, and the author gave many reasonable and well-argued supporting arguments. The cover was too provocative, and some parts were too polemical—some bordering on the pejorative, especially in discussing a topic with such a history of abuse—but I just couldn’t justify the ban, and neither could the GBC.
 
The GBC soon rescinded their restrictions, but I still felt that this was a book and a subject matter that sorely needed to be addressed. I initially decided to write a careful book review addressing in depth the various issues and arguments raised, but when I realized what that would entail, I hesitated. I would not only have to deal elaborately with each, or many, of the book’s points, either defending or refuting them, but I would also risk getting drawn into a long and fruitless debate with people entrenched in their views, an exercise I definitely had no interest in or time to initiate. I decided that it would be better to just highlight the core issue and address the controversy in a more general way
 
While pondering how to tackle the issue, I came across a relevant lecture by Jonathan Haidt, a NYU professor of sociology, entitled “The Moral Roots of Conservatives and Liberals.”[1] I thought his lecture neutrally addressed the core principles at the root of the conservative/liberal dichotomy, so I became inspired, as a contribution to this discussion, to summarize his study, apply his thesis to the Mothers/Masters dichotomy, and then suggest where Mahārāja’s otherwise thoughtful social analysis based on Śrīla Prabhupāda’s teachings fell short.
 
In his lecture, Professor Haidt described his comprehensive cross-cultural study of what constitutes the moral mind. He found that there are five universal qualities that form the basis of moral diversity—an analysis of morality that perfectly conceptualizes what we espouse in our tradition:

  1. Harm/Care – A moral person has compassion for those who are vulnerable and antipathy for those who do harm.
  2. Fairness/Reciprocity – A moral person makes judgments and deals with others free from arbitrary discrimination (the Golden Rule).
  3. In-group/Loyalty – A moral person willingly adheres to, respects, and is loyal to community, order, and tradition.
  4. Authority/respect – A moral person gives deference to his or her seniors in age, position, experience, and knowledge.
  5. Purity/sanctity – A moral person believes that you can attain virtue by controlling your senses.

Professor Haidt found that liberal people are slightly more concerned than conservatives with the first two qualities of moral diversity but that conservatives, though slightly less concerned with the first two qualities, are much more concerned than liberals with the last three.
 
Because he was giving his talk at TED, an institution with liberal objectives, and was making a case for moral diversity, Professor Haidt felt the need to explain how in-group loyalty, for which liberals have much less regard, is also an important moral quality. He did this through a famous triptych by Hieronymus Bosch called The Garden of Earthly Delights.
 
The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch
 
The first panel is of the Garden of Eden, where everything is prim and proper, the second panel shows its erotic derangement, and the third displays its dark transformation and degradation.
 
To help convey his point that a morally diverse person is not iconoclastic but has a reasonable affinity for in-group loyalty, Professor Haidt made the fitting comparison that the second panel was like the 1960s and the third panel its aftermath, its degradation. His point struck a chord with me. I went to Haight Ashbury in 1970 looking for the peace and love of the ’60s (the second panel) but found that it had already morphed into a degraded, strung out, and angry drug culture (the third panel) that was even worse than the relatively puritanical Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver*[2] 1950s (the first panel) that I and so many others wanted to change or transcend.
 
Professor Haidt cannot by any means be pigeonholed as a conservative. He knows and acknowledges both the weakness of conservative thinking — “Conservatives speak for the institutions and traditions and seek order even at the cost of the those at the bottom” — and the flaw of the liberal mindset — “Liberals speak for the weak and oppressed, want change and justice, even at the risk of chaos.”
 
He concludes that both conservatives and liberals have something substantial to contribute, and that the most highly evolved people are those who are morally diverse, as represented in his template for the moral mind.
 
What I find most helpful in Professor Haidt’s discussion is that it provides a template to help reconcile Śrīla Prabhupāda’s apparently contradictory social viewpoint: his strong affinity for the social traditions of India in contrast to his sometimes liberal outlook toward their application, especially in terms of his statements about women. Bhakti Vikāśa Swami tries to reconcile Śrīla Prabhupāda’s conservative statements with his liberal statements in regard to women in ISKCON by explaining that the more liberal statements were only made initially, to encourage people in devotional service, but that now, as the movement has matured, Śrīla Prabhupāda would certainly have insisted that all women in ISKCON should be more or less limited to domestic roles and strictly follow traditional behavior and etiquette.
 
I prefer to see it that Śrīla Prabhupāda said both things because he was morally diverse. He saw the need to institute the tradition of varṇāśrama with its social mores, but he also had a strong sense of care and justice. He balanced his sense of the ideal with a concern to encourage and empower his female disciples—or anyone, for that matter—with a strong consideration for who they were now, in the moment: Vaiṣṇava members of an ancient tradition but born in a modern milieu. And it is obvious to me that he would do the same today out of a similar sense of compassion and fairness and also for the fact that few in the First World would come to Kṛṣṇa consciousness if “purdah”[3] were the face of our preaching.
 
Bhakti Vikāśa Swami argues that if we had senior women who held to the most traditional line of women’s deportment and temples organized strictly according to these same strictures, our preaching would be more successful. I think this points out a weakness of Mahārāja’s presentation—that his preaching has not been on the front lines of the First World and that he thus has only limited realization of the deep sincerity and mindset of the people whom preachers in the West confront. For his view to have credibility, he or his followers would have to lead the way and show others how to impact the First World with his tone and presentation.
 
Śrīla Prabhupāda was on the front lines and credited much of his success in the West to his liberality. Those who have successfully followed suit as preachers in the First World also seem morally diverse. That is not to say that his presentations and expectations then or what he would have demanded now were liberal or divorced from the tradition. They were not; but they were tempered—or relevantly applied—out of fairness to the times in which people were living and out of compassion for their souls.
 
I appreciate many of the points in Mahārāja’s book about the relevance of the traditional views of Indian culture, especially its promotion of the role of mothers—as would many of the senior women in ISKCON whom he calls “suffragettes.” He has a number of legitimate concerns and important things to say.[4] But I don’t think drawing sharp lines or seeing the issue in black and white is the wholesome or realized approach that Śrīla Prabhupāda espoused. Śrīla Prabhupāda was able to preach a strong affinity for the tradition without losing sight of its purpose: to inspire people in Kṛṣṇa consciousness through a practical application of its teachings, often in accordance with time, place, and circumstance.
 
At the end of last summer, one incident highlighted to me the necessity for Bhakti Vikāśa Swami to adjust his presentation in a practical way. When I am in New York, I regularly visit the harināma saṅkīrtana at Union Square, and one day I noticed that a young woman, born in the movement, had joined the chanting group. She had been there for several months participating in kīrtana and book distribution and was about to return home, perhaps to attend college. Rāma Rāya, an exemplary Vaiṣṇava and strict brahmacari, turned to me and glorified her, expressing how much her contribution would be missed. He described her as talented, dedicated, and chaste, and I could tell that she conducted herself in an exemplary manner.
 
At the time, I was reading Bhakti Vikāśa Swami’s book, and the thought came to me how he might castigate her parents for granting the young woman even this little “non-varṇāśrama” independence, when in fact her parents, who are strict devotees, were just being practical and morally diverse. They had raised their child with Kṛṣṇa conscious values with what appeared to be reasonable boundaries and, as dedicated and strict devotees, had set an example for her to follow. Out of concern for their daughter’s situation and needs, they had engaged her in practical devotional service. What in the world could possibly be wrong with that? Wasn’t that, in fact, Śrīla Prabhupāda’s mood?
 
So, what about all the direct quotes by Śrīla Prabhupāda describing varṇāśrama and its traditionalist values? If that’s what Śrīla Prabhupāda wanted, then by all means his followers should take up the service to implement it and show others its value—but only as long as they don’t, in trying to implement it, lose their heart and kick too many good, sincere, Kṛṣṇa conscious women aside—women who can be good mothers with love and respect for tradition but who also need to be reasonably empowered according to their natures and karmic situations.
 
Bhakti Vikāśa Swami is an excellent writer and a substantial preacher in ISKCON. His voice for conservative values is an important one. And he does have a point. There are radical voices in the modern world that don’t represent Śrīla Prabhupāda and whose influence in ISKCON is unwanted, and people do need to be educated in the value of tradition and what Śrīla Prabhupāda wanted. I just think Mahārāja would be more successful if his vision were a bit more morally diverse and he showed the fairness, compassion, and practicality that Śrīla Prabhupāda demonstrated in spreading this Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement.
 
[1] https://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_haidt_on_the_moral_mind
 
[2] Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver were popular situation comedies that showed the perfectly patriarchal intact family life in the postwar 1950s where everything was at least superficially functional.
 
[3] Bhakti Vikāśa Swami did not use the word purdah, nor I am meaning to use it in a pejorative way. I use it because it seems the best way to communicate the admittedly radically traditional social structure that Bhakti Vikāśa Swami feels Śrīla Prabhupāda would want to impose indiscriminately in present-day ISKCON, even in the First World.
 
[4] I too have written about this topic: http://wavesofdevotion.com/index.php?s=mind.+mothers&searchsubmit=Go
 
 

Monday Morning Greetings #51 – One Thing to Forget, Two things to Remember

December 19th, 2016

Today’s Monday Morning Greeting is one of my favorite excerpts from Greetings from Vṛndāvana.
 
One Thing to Forget, Two things to Remember
 
October 30, 2002
Govardhana

 
Omen at Rāsa-sthālī: Walking north on the parikrama path from the Narasiṁha temple I honor the rock candy given by the Narasiṁha pūjārī. To wash our hands, Vaiśeṣika Prabhu and I turn into the Rāsa-sthālī forest area (the place of Rādhā-Kṛṣṇa’s spring rāsa dance) where there is a water tap on the outside wall of the fortress-like temple compound. Before leaving, Vaiśeṣika Prabhu looks above the tap on the wall to decipher a saying written in Hindi. All of the sudden, I see an unusual furry ball whiz above his head. It happened so fast I thought that someone had thrown something, but it’s alive. A bird crashes against the wall, falls to the ground, quivers for a moment, and stops. It’s dead!
 
Eerie! I can’t help but think what this means. Is it as simple as a random bird’s death? And if it is, then why did this happen right as we entered the solitary forest? Is there something more to this omen? We continue our walk. Vaiśeṣika gets the message we need to hear: “Just see how flickering this world is!”
 
We continue walking north through monkey-land on the west side of Govardhana. In the distance one monkey holds her limp young child—another unusual sight. She puts her baby down. It’s dead! Whew! I have never seen even one death in countless parikramas, but now two in five minutes. Strange! What does this mean?
 
Vaiśeṣika spontaneously quotes in Sanskrit from the Bhāgavatam, and then translates: “Four things give us evidence of the flickering nature of this world: hearing, direct experience, inference, and traditional wisdom.”
 
Today we are learning of the temporal nature of this world through direct experience. But are we actually learning? A little more than a year ago I was in lower Manhattan when the World Trade Center collapsed. If an entire city didn’t get the message of this “flickering world,” and I didn’t get the message, then what will I learn now from a kamikaze bird at Rāsa-sthālī? 
He quotes again: “There is one thing to forget and two things to remember. Forget what you have done for others. Remember what others have done for you. And remember death!”
 
 

Monday Morning Greetings #50 – The Ten Foundational Principles of Yoga

December 12th, 2016

The Ten Foundational Principles of Yoga

  1. The goal of yoga and all spiritual paths is to end suffering.
  1. Reality is beautiful and therefore all suffering is caused by illusion. For example, the greatest fear is death, but death itself is an illusion – the illusion of non-existence. Thus free from illusion we see the beauty of the eternal soul.
  1. Illusion is caused by the distorted or impure mind, or the myriad of selfish thoughts.
  1. To free our self from illusion and to alleviate suffering the mind must be brought to sattva. Sattva literally means “the nature of being” or the true nature of something. What is the true nature of the mind? The mind is like a lens or mirror and thus its true nature is to be clean, free from distortion and perfectly perceptive of what is before it. Therefore when the mind is in sattva we are able to perceive and live in our eternal spiritual nature.
  1. Yoga or meditation is the technique or method to bring the mind to sattva. Its strategy is simple. As the mind is distorted by a myriad of thoughts, if we can just steadily concentrate on one thought, then all other thoughts will gradually quell and the mind will slowly morph into a higher level of perception and contentment.
  1. When, for a prolonged and uninterrupted period of concentration, the mind is so fixed in meditation that we are not even cognizant of anything outside the object of our mediation samādhi, or the goal of yoga, has been reached.
  1. We can steady the mind in one of two ways: by our intelligence, the strong understanding that it is good for us to fix our mind on the object of our meditation; or by our heart, a strong attachment to the object of our meditation.
  1. To be connected to an object of contemplation through some feeling (emotion) is superior to being connected by our obligation or understanding (the intelligence) because it is naturally more absorbing.
  1. Mantra has thus been the preferred object of meditation through the ages for yogis because it is God in sound.[i] Being part of God we thus have a natural relationship with mantra and by focusing on mantra our love and absorption for mantra naturally increases. It is also preferred because the mantra is not just an inert prop to help steady the mind, but it is an all-powerful person that can reciprocate with our meditational devotion by helping us remove the obstacles to meditation.
  1. As the most consummate emotion is devotion or love, bhakti-yoga, the yoga of devotion, is the topmost yoga.

 

[i] It is described in the Yoga Sūtras that God and the expression or name of God are non-different.

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