Archive for the 'Monday Morning Greetings' Category

Monday Morning Greetings 2017 #15 – Immigration and the Gītā

April 10th, 2017

A friend of mine in Washington, D.C. complained to me that the Hare Kṛṣṇa movement is losing a good opportunity to share the profundity of its teachings by not being involved in spiritual activism. [1] I will take up his challenge by commenting on the modern-day mess in governance by analyzing immigration policy based on the Bhagavad-gītā.
 
There are two extreme views of immigration. One is radically exclusive nationalism, wherein “America First” is the only principle, and to protect that principle we have to apply the letter of the law seemingly without heart. In this view, families can sometimes be separated, and people who have been terribly oppressed, some who have sacrificed their lives abroad for American interest, can be detained or deported upon arrival, even if they have already been thoroughly vetted.
 
The other view is radically inclusive globalism, a perspective that sees any imposition based on nationalist borders as antithetical to both humanistic and spiritual values. I will argue based on the Gītā that both of these views lack compassion and sensibility.
 
The extremism of the first view would be opposed by verses in the Gītā that present the universality of living entities based on the soul.
 
“The humble sages, by virtue of true knowledge, see with equal vision a learned and gentle brāhmaṇa, a cow, an elephant, a dog and a dog-eater [outcaste].” (Bg. 5.18)
 
Such verses either imply or outright condemn viewing people according to the bodily concept of life such as nationalism. Another of many examples:
 
“That knowledge by which one sees that in every different body there is a different type of living entity you should understand to be in the mode of passion.” (Bg. 18.21)
 
It should also be noted in this discussion that at times Śrīla Prabhupāda spoke very strongly against borders based on artificial bodily distinction:
 
“We pass through Canada to USA. Why Canada? Why USA? This is bodily concept. ‘It is meant for the Canadians,’ ‘it is meant for USA, Americans.’ Immigration, customs, the same mentality as a dog coming from other neighborhood. The other dogs, they all come together, ‘Yow, yow, why you have come, why you have come?’ In civilized dress only. This is the position. What is the difference between the dog’s mentality… When another dog comes to another neighborhood, these neighborhood dogs, you know that? All animals. ‘Yow, why you have come?’ So this department, ‘Why you have come here?’ dogs barking, and this immigration, what is the difference?” (June 2, 1976 Toronto)
 
Although the Gītā certainly speaks about the principle of universality, the underlying value that is against nationalism, it also promotes the value of reciprocity, a view opposed to indiscriminate globalism. I would define “reciprocity” as the principle of caring more for those dependent on one, such as family, or in this case a government giving special care or consideration for its citizens, and to understand that not doing so is impersonal. Before I reference the Gītā, I would like to share a very interesting exchange that Confucius had with an adversary specifically in relation to this tension.
 
“Confucius advocated ‘care with distinctions’: we owe everyone a baseline benevolence, but we have specific duties towards those close to us, those who have done us the most good, like our family, our parents, our close friends.
 
“He was opposed by Mozi, a philosopher who argued that we owe everyone the same care, that the idea of specific obligations was too much like partiality.
 
“Confucius’ disciples like Mencius argue that Mozi’s idea is completely impracticable; even Mozi’s best followers treated their parents with special care. But worse, it is immoral: to treat people who have sacrificed much for us, like our parents, the same way that we treat a stranger is grossly offensive.” [2]
 
It seems clear that in the Gītā, Kṛṣṇa also supports this principle “care with distinction” that challenges the extremism of the second view.
 
“I envy no one, nor am I partial to anyone. I am equal to all. But whoever renders service unto Me in devotion is a friend, is in Me, and I am also a friend to him.” (Bg. 9.29)
 
In his purport Śrīla Prabhupāda discusses how the very basis of personalism is that one appropriately reciprocates with those under one’s care and such “partiality” is beyond selfishness and karma. I would recommend that one read the whole purport, but here is just a small excerpt where Śrīla Prabhupāda defends special care as natural, not narrow:
 
“One may question here that if Kṛṣṇa is equal to everyone and no one is His special friend, then why does He take a special interest in the devotees who are always engaged in His transcendental service? But this is not discrimination; it is natural. Any man in this material world may be very charitably disposed, yet he has a special interest in his own children.” (Bg. 9.29, purport)
 
Another famous reference for the principle of reciprocity as being above prejudice:
 
“As all surrender unto Me, I reward them accordingly. Everyone follows My path in all respects, O son of Pṛthā.” (Bg. 4.11)
 
In his purport Śrīla Prabhupāda comments on this principle of “care with distinction” in relation to the dealings of Kṛṣṇa and how it is equally applicable in this world:
 
“Kṛṣṇa reciprocates with His pure devotees in the transcendental attitude, just as the devotee wants Him. One devotee may want Kṛṣṇa as supreme master, another as his personal friend, another as his son, and still another as his lover. Kṛṣṇa rewards all the devotees equally, according to their different intensities of love for Him. In the material world, the same reciprocations of feelings are there […]” (Bg. 4.11, purport)
 
I think this “care with distinction” principle is also just common sense. I know one person close to me who, when growing up, had a father who was very altruistic to everyone, but not especially partial to her, and whose evenness to everyone caused her to feel sorely neglected.
 
In regard to the issue of immigration, both universality and reciprocity, as espoused in the Gītā, have appropriate application. Every entity, whether family or country, should extend themselves as far as possible for all people, understanding the superficiality of bodily distinctions, including taking those less fortunate into one’s fold to whatever practical extent one is capable of (care). However, it is also reasonable for a country to protect its borders and show some special concern to the needs of its own citizens for economic, social, or security reason (distinction). According to the Gītā we can’t deal with even illegal immigrants just on the basis of law without some real consideration for them as spiritual beings, nor can we deal with people living here illegally in total neglect of the laws intended to protect its citizens.
 
The specific application of these contradictory principles is beyond the scope of this paper, but their application calls for compassionate and intelligent leaders who apply these principles neither as indiscriminate multi-culturalists nor as xenophobic nationalists, having respect both for the universality of all beings and the need for reciprocity with those under one’s care.
 
These are complex issues with many considerations including the legitimacy of proprietorship of those who rule certain lands, but those discussions are again beyond the scope of this column. I have presented certain eternal principles in my attempt to add to these discussions a view through the eyes of śāstra. I will send it to my friend and see if he is satisfied with my attempt at spiritual activism.
 
 


 
[1] By spiritual activism I mean having an active voice in contemporary problems, while not taking partisan sides, but rather trying to find perspectives within the spiritual traditions by which we can make sense of our problems and challenges.
 
[2] This is from a correspondence I had with Professor Matthew Dasti, Associate Professor in the Philosophy Department at Bridgewater State University.
 
 

Monday Morning Greetings 2017 #14 – Spiritual Momentum

April 3rd, 2017

Have you ever lost spiritual momentum? It happens to us all. I had realization about that in relation to my writing that seemed applicable to spiritual life. I would like to share that, but first I think I need to define what I mean by “momentum”.
 
Momentum means the power gained when moving or continuing something that grows stronger as time passes, a force that is lost when stopping or pausing, and a force that takes time to build up when beginning to move again. A good example of momentum is when you are driving a car. As you are moving you gradually may be able to shift into high gear and gain momentum, allowing you to cruise along at a high speed effortlessly. However, when you stop and have to start again, that momentum has been lost and only gradually restores after some time.
 
This concept of momentum in relation to spiritual life dawned on me when faced with the weekly demand of writing Monday Morning Greetings. I noticed that when I don’t write every day I lose momentum and it takes an inordinate amount of time to shift into a reasonable pace of writing when I begin again. In contrast, when I write every day without fail, I seem to remain in high gear and can immediately build on the frame of reference where I left off. It seems that continuity over time in all endeavors gives momentum and enhances productivity.
 
I then also realized how much this same phenomenon of momentum was applicable to my spiritual practice. While in India this year, I was somehow able to sustain the practice of rising very early every day for my chanting. I noticed how after a while my practice substantially increased both in amount and quality. Since arriving in the United States, a combination of disrupted plans, late night programs, and unexpected travel disturbed my regulation, especially rising early, causing a reduction in the amount and focus of my chanting. When that temporary disruption in schedule passed, my practice lost momentum and ironically the minimum prescribed amount seemed as daunting as what I had being doing for almost a year, although then I was doing substantially more. Only gradually was I able to gain the momentum to sustain the previous level of practice.
 
This phenomenon of momentum is alluded to in the Yoga Sūtras where practice is defined as “concentration, without break, for a prolonged time with the right mood”. Here it specifically mentions that practice must be unbroken. In other words, it just can’t be casually done here and there, for even if you do the same amount sporadically, which is unlikely, you will not have the same momentum or gear to focus intensely. And I will add that without such focus, and the consequent realization and taste that follows, even the minimum amount of chanting will remain difficult and arduous. That’s the reason serious practitioners chant their japa at least in concentrated and unbroken bunches of four, eight or sixteen rounds and not haphazardly here and there.
 
Conclusion: Strictly set aside a time and place for chanting, for without minimum uninterrupted effort, we will never get the momentum to chant spontaneously and with realization. Rather our chanting will remain a bore and the effort to perfect one’s life hampered.
 
I am writing this very early in the morning trying to get back to my schedule. I will now pick up my beads and try to apply what I just wrote. For the next two hours, I will practice without break, confident that momentum will build, realizations will come and the thing that is best for me in this world, chanting the holy name, will more and more become the thing that I derive the most pleasure from. That is the glory of momentum.
 
 

Monday Morning Greetings 2017 #13 – Why Big Temples?

March 27th, 2017

To some visiting Māyāpur the sight of such a massive and lavish building in contrast to the simplicity and perceived poverty of the surrounding village could seem callous. Why not just feed people or build them simple homes rather than waste money on an extravagant temple? The last two times I guided groups in Māyāpur at least one person in each group raised such doubts and I sensed others in the group looking for similar answers. A summary of my response to their sincere inquiries:

  1. One of the main purposes of a large temple is to attract people to a place where they leave with some sort of spiritual knowledge. As the root of all suffering is ignorance, we shouldn’t underestimate the value of distributing spiritual knowledge in whatever form it takes. Even now thousands of people are coming daily to visit Māyāpur and in the future, when the temple is built, that number will expand exponentially. Śrīla Prabhupāda himself answered this question by commenting to his disciples that if he just sat in just a simple hut, who would come to hear him? If an impressive spiritual edifice attracts hundreds of thousands to Māyāpur where they become inspired in spiritual life, it is a great contribution to society.
  2. Although spiritual education is so important, the people who live around the temple are not to be ignored. Śrīla Prabhupāda specifically directed that no one within a ten square mile radius of any of our temples should go hungry. Holy places like Vṛndāvana and Māyāpur, which attract many pilgrims in general, are one of the last places in India where people go hungry.
  3. Millions more are spent in major cities on single high rise and a football stadium, which have little redeeming value for the poor, but we rarely hear these challenged. To only criticize the construction of an opulent temple seems hypocritical and prejudice.
  4. If we really feel so strongly that everything should be sacrificed for the poor beyond our basic necessities, then we should set that example ourselves, before criticizing the “extravagance ” of a whole society in building its major place of worship.
  5. When we lament the poverty of the villages surrounding Māyāpur, we should also question how much of that criticism is due one’s own conditioning to a false standard of opulence based on modern convenience. These people may only have the most simple of dwellings but they have land, fresh air, community, and family nearby.
  6. Most great civilizations understand that aesthetics helps enrich people’s lives. In this way, beautiful temples also serve a purpose, but it’s a type of aesthetics that is shared with the public and even the very poor, unlike many of the rich who live in beautiful and aesthetic surroundings only for themselves. We protest when the government cuts funding for the endowment of the arts where hundreds of millions of dollars are spent, so why should we make an issue when a fraction is spent for a beautiful temple?
  7. Spending on a temple doesn’t mean less for feeding people or anything else. Everything comes from God and if we please Him, then there may be more for everyone. A huge temple that specifically facilitates thousands of people regularly gathering for worshipping Kṛṣṇa in the form of kīrtan is a boon for that community and the world. At least that is our faith.

I finished with just a word caution to qualify my support for the construction of such temples.

  1. Those who conceive and execute such projects are responsible for any ill effects on the community like the cheap and ugly high rises that have grown around that project that have horribly defaced part of the holy dhāma’s
  2. A temple is useless unless surrounded by a strong spiritual culture that predominates the campus. There is great responsibility that when constructing such an edifice to Śrī Caitanya that the culture around it adequately reflects His ideals.

Śrīla Prabhupāda envisioned the Temple of the Vedic Planetarium as the center of a spiritual revolution. I trust that his words will be fulfilled by the sincere people dedicating their life selflessly to this project despite the great challenges in manifesting it. I bow down to their service.

 

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”.

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