Srila Prabhupada’s Vyasa-puja – Dhanurdhara Swami’s Offering to Srila Prabhupada

August 16th, 2017

Dear Śrīla Prabhupāda,
 
My most humble obeisances. All glories to you!
 
I stopped by Gītā-nagarī recently to take darśana of Śrī Śrī Rādhā-Dāmodara. Suddenly a thought came into my mind regarding how you were empowered in so many ways: Śrīla Prabhupāda was a visionary. And then an interesting phrase came to my mind that exemplified what I was thinking–cutting edge. I liked very much the sound of that: Śrīla Prabhupāda was cutting edge. I included that phrase in a description of you in another article that I wrote. I would like to offer that to your lotus feet in glorification.
 
“Śrīla Prabhupāda was on the cutting edge of so many things. Cutting edge means the latest or most advanced stage in the development of something. So, fifty years ago Śrīla Prabhupāda was on the cutting edge of vegetarianism, the cutting edge of kīrtana, the cutting edge of Indian philosophy and culture, and the cutting edge of sustainable living. We have succeeded in carrying your legacy in so many ways, but sometimes we have fallen short, and in too many cases have allowed others to take his mantle, especially with sustainable living. We all need to take that legacy back.”
 
I pray that I can be instrument in helping to carry your legacy. I pray that I may also be cutting edge in carrying the traditions and truths you revealed to us into the future.
 
Your humble servant,
 
Dhanurdhara Swami
 
 

Monday Morning Greetings 2017 #33 – True Devotion: “I have none!”

August 14th, 2017

Sadhu, be careful! The ego is so insidious. It can appropriate even our best qualities to make us proud, even our budding devotion, thinking that I am the best devotee, or even a devotee. This doesn’t happen, however, when one develops true devotion.  Not only does one not become proud, one feels he doesn’t even have a trace of devotion. I love the description of Śrī Caitanya’s mindset as His feelings of devotion intensify:
 
“Wherever there is a relationship of love of Godhead, its natural symptom is that the devotee does not think himself a devotee. Instead, he always thinks that he has not even a drop of love for Kṛṣṇa.” (Cc. Antya-līlā 20.28)
 
Having intense devotion, but feeling none. How is that possible?
 
Bhakti is like a thirst or hunger, but a hunger to serve. As a hungry person feels deprived of food, one with bhakti hungers for devotion and feels humbly bereft of it. As this want of bhakti is bhakti itself compassionate sages like Śrī Nārada thus pray:
 
“Śrī Kṛṣṇacandra, please grant that no one will ever feel he has enough of Your mercy, Your devotional service, or pure love for You, the reservoir of ecstasy.” (Bṛhad-bhāgavātamṛta 1.7.135)
 
Just as the hunger for devotion actually enhances it, the complacency or sense that “I have bhakti” impedes it. The first symptom of unsteady devotion is therefore called utsāha māyī or “false enthusiasm”, where the beginner in devotional service sometimes feels falsely adept or advanced in devotion causing his yearning for bhakti and thus bhakti itself to naturally slacken. In fact any sphere where we feel accomplished and proud will damper our longing and consequently our devotion. Queen Kuntī thus warns the aspiring devotee:
 
“My Lord, Your Lordship can easily be approached, but only by those who are materially exhausted. One who is on the path of [material] progress, trying to improve himself with respectable parentage, great opulence, high education and bodily beauty, cannot approach You with sincere feeling. (Bhāg. 1.8.26)
 
Sincere feeling is the key in spiritual practice, and the basis of such emotion is the humble realization that we intensely need God’s mercy, a want or sense of lack that only increases when our devotion advances. By sincerely and attentively chanting the holy name this awareness of the glory of the holy name and our own lack of qualification will become progressively revealed. If even a speck of such humility graces our consciousness we should embrace it as the greatest treasure and consciously beg for the mercy of the holy name for ironically true bhakti is the humble feeling “I have none!”
 
 

Monday Morning Greetings 2017 #32 – Yamunā Devi on Kīrtana

August 7th, 2017

After completing Japa Meditations, a book where I interviewed serious japa meditation practitioners on how they enter into the holy name, I decided to make a similar book on kīrtana. I began spearheading the effort to interview devotees who I surmised had entered deeply into kīrtana. For various reasons, the book was never finished and the few interviews I had commissioned mostly got buried in my computer. Last week, while reading the biography of Yamunā devi, and being inspired by the charming simplicity and depth of her devotion, I developed a desire to find that interview. I finally did. What a treasure of kīrtana realization! Her letter to Akiñcana Kṛṣṇa dāsa, who conducted the interviews, is found below.
 
 
“Yes, Śrīla Prabhupāda did give instructions about kīrtana at various times, in various circumstances. Here are a few I recall.”
 
Learn to listen. You cannot follow nicely unless you hear nicely and you cannot lead nicely unless you have learned to follow nicely.
 
Mumbai, 1970: One morning soon after arriving at Kailash Seksaria’s home, Śrīla Prabhupāda called on a male devotee to lead kīrtana. After two lines of Gurv-aṣṭaka, he asked him to stop and asked another devotee to lead. This same thing happened twice again. Then he asked me to lead and did not stop me. When I asked him later about why he did that, he said: Learn to listen. You cannot follow nicely unless you hear nicely and you cannot lead nicely unless you have learned to follow nicely.
 
Learn how to pronounce Sanskrit or Bengali words to the best of your ability. Listen, then repeat.
 
In August 1968 in Montreal, Śrīla Prabhupāda had our London group meet with him in the temple room after breakfast. One occasion when he requested me to lead the Maṅgalācaraṇaṁ prayers he interrupted my singing to correct my pronunciation as I chanted. Another time in Mumbai in 1971 on nagar saṅkīrtana, an Indian man criticized my pronunciation and Śrīla Prabhupāda said, “She is doing to the best of her ability. She is doing it in her own way.”
 
Learn how to play instruments “softly”, quietly, if the kīrtana leader is doing so.
 
In London in November of 1969 this was evident especially in store-front temples where our neighbors complained of excessive ‘noise’.
 
Right from the vyāsāsana, he would quietly instruct: Play them softly, quietly. This proved to be difficult for the mostly passionate 20-something devotees at that time—most who generally felt the louder the better.
 
Learn how to follow the mood and rhythm of the kīrtana leader.
 
Saṅkīrtana, India 1971: I commented on Śrīla Prabhupāda’s chanting of Jaya Rādhā-Mādhava, and made the statement that it was difficult for devotees to follow how he chanted—rhythm changes and his mood—even when chanting this simple prayer. He said Jaya Rādhā-Mādhava was one of his favorite prayers.
 
Even forty years later, how many old timers can follow the subtly of a kīrtana leader, what to speak of the often complexity of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s kīrtana mood and rhythm?
 
When Śrīla Prabhupāda led kīrtana, he opened sound windows to the spiritual world. It was obvious that his senses and mind were fully focused on transcendental sound. He often closed his eyes at the beginning of a prayer or kīrtana, later, when the beat increased or after some time, he often times opened them to observe his surroundings or the assembled chanters. This was especially true during long kīrtanas.
 
In temple kīrtanas, he favored playing karatālas or a gong. When alone or with one or two others, when chanting Narottama or Bhaktivinoda’s prayers, he enjoyed playing mṛdaṅga or harmonium. Śrīla Prabhupāda played instruments with expertise, and in a very individual distinct way, whether it was karatālas, gong, bongo drum, mṛdaṅga, or harmonium. His harmonium playing was like no one else’s I have ever heard. He said he asked his father for a harmonium when young, and he obtained one for him. At that time, harmonium was considered a European instrument, not a temple kīrtana instrument.
 
No matter what he played, instruments were there to support kīrtana. They always took second place to the role of his voice. In other words, his voice was the main dominant kīrtana instrument.
 
I recall an Albert Road kīrtana, in the fall of 1972 in Calcutta, where the leading devotee placed too much focus on his harmonium playing. Śrīla Prabhupāda stopped the kīrtana entirely and said, “Too much harmonium,” and indicated that the devotee should lead kīrtana. He said, “No harmonium,” and the kīrtana resumed.
 
Śrīla Prabhupāda’s kīrtana had no tinge of being a performance. It was purely for the pleasure of Kṛṣṇa. It allowed the chanters access to the fact that the Lord’s holy name and the Lord are non-different. He said that the key to anartha-free kīrtana rests in hearing and studying our literature, and gradually rising to the platform of pure devotional service.
 
Śrīla Prabhupāda’s kīrtanas and prayers were fully ego free and extremely potent.
 
One morning at John Lennon’s estate in 1969, Śrīla Prabhupāda asked me what my favorite prayer was and I responded Lord Chaitanya’s Śikṣāṣṭaka prayers. In turn, I asked him what his favorite prayer was and he immediately replied Hari Hari Bifale by Narottama dāsa Ṭhākura. I had the good fortune of witnessing Śrīla Prabhupāda chant his favorite prayer on four occasions. Once was at Akash Ganga. I was sitting right next to him holding a microphone in front of his face. Gurudas took photos of him chanting. His meditation that day was so deep and profound, that the skin on his face even became slack—as close as I ever saw him to the point of bodily transformation.
 
Purity is the force. Great kīrtana is experienced by the mercy of the holy name itself.
 
No matter what the style of kīrtana, a great kīrtanīyā at the least knows that there is no difference between the Lord’s holy name and the Lord Himself. This is a kīrtanīyā who closes the distance between a gross and subtle sound experience and the manifest presence of the pure Holy name. Old or young, a great kīrtanīyā has tasted the mercy of service to the Holy name, and therefore overflows with the desire to share that with others.
 
A few traits of great kīrtanīyās that come to mind are depth, focus, uncomplicated, long, smooth, soulful, steady, spontaneous, and meditative. I prefer kīrtanas supported by a few well played instruments, not the big band kīrtanas popular today that can be more performance kīrtanas than Gauḍīya tradition supplication and service to the Holy name.
 
My favorite kīrtanas and kīrtanīyās:
 
In San Francisco in ’67 and ’68: Śrīla Prabhupāda’s are classic favorites. Those early kīrtanas were non-responsive. In the temple, his congregation of chanters played instruments softly, while Śrīla Prabhupāda mostly played his karatālas and chanted alone. When the rhythm was established, he chanted through an entire prayer – most commonly Maṅgalācaraṇaṁ prayer or Gurv-aṣṭaka prayer—and after finishing, chanted Hare Kṛṣṇa and then the congregation chanted along with him. Nothing quite matches up to the power, purity, or potency of those kīrtanas, where often the entire congregation was tearfully appreciative.
 
During this period, he introduced responsive kīrtanas. New San Francisco disciple kīrtana leaders in this period: Viṣṇujana for depth; Harṣarāṇī for sweetness; Mukunda for steadiness; and Jayānanda for humility.
 
In London in late ’68: anyone in our party of six.
 
In London ’69: George Harrison for connection and expansiveness; new devotee Jaya Hari for enthusiasm; Dhanañjaya for warmth; Yogeśvara for his focus.
 
In India, late ’70 through ’72, on saṅkīrtana with Śrīla Prabhupāda: Dīnānātha for soul; Nanda-kumāra and Ṛṣi-kumāra for keeping the beat without force; Bharadvāja for smoothness.
 
From 2004 to 2009: Kartamasha dāsa, lover and servant of the holy name and Bhaktivinoda prayer kīrtana leader for his pure intent, rich bhakti and subtlety. Akiñcana Kṛṣṇa dāsa and Amal for love of kīrtana and expertise.
 
 

Monday Morning Greetings 2017 #31 – Can God Be Blue?

July 31st, 2017

That’s simple. God can be anything He wants. If there were any other reason that God was blue, then He wouldn’t be God because if a reason or cause external to one’s own will dictates one’s nature, then one would not be fully independent, which is one of the basic criteria for being Supreme. So the only reason why God is blue, if He is indeed blue, is because it is part of His intrinsic nature. So the real question in relation to the nature of God’s color should first be whether there is a God, is He a person, and whether that person is Krishna?
 
Limitations of this article

This certainly is a very deep subject. Libraries of books have been written about the nature of God. How can I possibly do justice to such a vast subject in such a short article? I think what is possible here is to give a solid outline supporting the reasonableness that there is God, who is a person, and whose name is Krishna.
 
Criteria for ascertaining whether God exists

The main criteria by which atheists have argued against the existence of God, especially in the twentieth century, and which greatly informs their reasoning to this day, is called the verification principle—a premise that states that no one should believe a proposition unless it can be proved to them rationally by logic or empirically by sense perception.
 
At first glance this seems reasonable, but in reality this principle falls far short of how we actually reason about things in the world. There are many things that people reasonably accept as true, which can’t be verified by such criteria (including, ironically, the verification principle itself). Even what we call proven scientific facts, such as the existence of protons or neutrons, are not personally verifiable by us, but are accepted on faith in the experts whom we trust on such matters.
 
Atheists themselves cannot abide by the verification principle when arguing against the existence of God, and certainly not when professing a theory for the cause of this world. So when you get down specifically to establishing the existence of God on the rational platform the argument comes down to which theory of the world makes the best sense of it, not to absolute verification.
 
Arguments for the existence of God

It seems the proposition that there is a God makes better sense of the world than the theory that everything happened randomly by chance. For example, if one wakes up in the winter and sees a snowman, by the evidence at hand it seems to make far more sense that a person made it than that snow randomly blowing around caused it, even though there may not be a way to absolutely verify it. In a similar way, the evidence of the complex and continued regularity of the world points far more to a transcendent creator than a haphazard coalescing of molecules by chance, by the simple fact that even if one of the constant variables at basis of creation swayed by one in a million, the world as we know it would not exist.
 
There are many other powerful and reasonable arguments for the existence of God. Here are a few of my favorites:
 
The only beings that have intrinsic moral values are subjects, beings who can undergo experience and who have values, concerns, and other mental states. If you deny that there is subjecthood at the foundations of the universe, you also deny that moral obligation is a fundamental feature of reality. In other words, if you believe human rights are a reality, it makes much more sense that God exists than that He doesn’t. If everything is just a product of matter coalescing by chance it is ultimately inconsistent to believe in transcendent moral values, even such values as aversion to child abuse or racial genocide.
 
Lastly, it is more reasonable to believe that something comes from something than something comes from nothing. This same simple logic is also presented succinctly in one of the prominent verses of the Chāndogya Upaniṣad:
 
“How can what is existent be born from what is non-existent? On the contrary, in the beginning this world was simply what is existent – one only without a second.” (From Patrick Olivelle’s translation—Chapter 6, book 2.)
 
I could go on and on, also discussing the reasons against God’s existence, but it is certainly reasonable and even compelling that God does exist.
 
Is God a person?

Śrīla Prabhupāda addressed this point effectively and tersely: “God does not have the defect of impersonality.” 
 
The brilliant answer by the respected Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga to the question of whether God is person also sufficiently satisfies this inquiry. His response: “God is not less than a person.”
 
Ascribing form and personality to God doesn’t limit Him. Denying that He has attributes, including personality, does. It is certainly reasonable that if there is a God that He is not less than us, and thus also a person.
 
Is that person Krishna?

If God is a person then the highest manifestation of that personhood, as with all personhood, is not majesty and power, but an all-loving personality. Śrīla Prabhupāda uses a simple analogy to demonstrate this principle in relation to the Divine. Just as when a high court judge checks his intimate self to appropriately reciprocate with those approaching him reverentially, but sheds his grandeur to reveal his full or intimate self at home, similarly the fullest manifestation of God is when he is home in Vṛndāvana as a cowherd where the complete sweetness of personality can blossom as a child, friend, or lover unfettered by the demands of reverence, not when God displays His full power as the creator, Nārāyaṇa. Therefore Śrī Rūpa Gosvāmī, at the beginning of the Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu, his seminal book on Krishna bhakti, introduces Krishna as akhila-rasāmṛta-mūrti, the fullest embodiment of the sweetness of all relationships.
 
Position covers personality and thus it is reasonable that if God is a person, His fullest expression of being would not be shackled by a display of position and opulence.
 
Again the scope of these short Monday Morning Greetings limit a thorough exposition of this subject, but I coined a phrase that I think sums up the reasonability of God’s fullest personal manifestation being sweet and modest like Krishna:
 
“Krishna is God with his guard down.” Sounds reasonable to me.
 
 

Monday Morning Greetings 2017 #30 – Tattoo Tattva

July 24th, 2017

Big, burly, bearded and tattooed—they looked fierce and I was surrounded. They had gathered for the Hare Krishna initiation of their two friends. One of the candidates even had a tattoo on his head.  I went around after the function to greet everyone, including our tattooed friends, and a realization was confirmed. When it comes to the tattooed, the face is definitely not the index of the mind. These menacing looking souls were some of the gentlest people I have ever met. It got me thinking. Why do people get tattoos? It is certainly something I never even imagined doing.
 
When I was growing up there was one man at our summer pool club that had butterfly tattoos over each nipple of his chest. We would stare at him with amusement. I knew what those tattoos projected then: Low class!
 
My dear sister-in-law, my older brother’s wife, who was dying of cancer, got a Ganesha doll from an Indian nurse. She liked it and soon elephant gifts and charms started coming, and Ganesha, the elephant deity who removes obstacles, became her good luck charm. For solidarity my sister-in-law, her husband, and their two daughters decided to all get small matching Ganesha tattoos on their ankles. I heard that my younger brother was alarmed because one can neither be buried in a Jewish cemetery nor have a Jewish funeral service for the deceased if he or she sports goyish tattoos. They went to their rabbi, a man seemingly of depth, who explained why people thought it was forbidden, but how in essence it was not, or something like that, and how he would still officiate my sister-in-law’s funeral. They got them.
 
Anyway, that is one reason people get tattoos. External symbols foster identity, in this case family solidarity. I, myself, am not free of external symbols. Look at me with robes, a tuft of hair, and tilaka—markings with sacred clay to designate my body as a temple of God, a kind of temporary tattoo, all for the purpose of identity.
 
What you wear or mark on your body definitely supports your identity and communicates identity to others, but the external may also be superfluous or burdensome. Maharaja Yudhiṣṭhira sported royal dress for his service as the King, but when he decided it was time to renounce the world, the first thing he did was to discard his military dress, symbolizing and supporting an upādhi, a material designation, that bound him to the world when it was clearly time to leave.
 
Back to our question: Why do people get tattoos, and should they? I suppose sometimes it’s anger—a way to wear our rebellion. Many years ago, I once advised a sincere young man who was coming to Krishna consciousness that he should get no more tattoos because it was a waste of money and it didn’t foster the identity he was now seeking. His girlfriend informed me a few weeks later he was going through tough times, was suicidal, and that getting a tattoo was a way that he dealt with his pain. I felt terrible and rescinded my advice.
 
The rebellion and anger, however, may have a deeper spiritual side. After all, many of the devotees that repopulated the increasingly empty ISKCON temples in early ’90s were from the hardcore music scene, which mostly seemed an expression of frustration, many or most who wore their anger on their sleeves. [1] But for many their anger and frustration was directed properly, at the exploitive and superficial aspects of society that was oppressing their genuine desire for meaning and integrity, a yearning that eventually led them to bhakti.
 
I even knew one great Vaiṣṇava named Sri Kurma Rupa Prabhu who got tattooed around his neck the famous “tṛṇād api” verse about humility after reading Sri Caitanya’s recorded biography where he declares:
 
“Raising my hands, I declare, ‘Everyone please hear me! String this verse on the thread of the holy name and wear on your neck for continuous remembrance.’ ”  [2]
 
And there it was in Sanskrit tattooed plainly and subtly around his neck like a necklace:
 
“One should chant the holy name of the Lord in a humble state of mind, thinking one self lower than the straw in the street, more tolerant than a tree, devoid of all sense of false prestige and ready to offer all respect to others. In such a state of mind one can chant constantly.” [3]
 
Back to the very gentle souls with sleeves, now in their mid-40s. Perhaps they grew up very kind and vulnerable in an imposing and aggressive world and marked their bodies with signs of rebellion to project an image that made others want to leave them alone. I don’t know, but like most things, they are not good and bad in themselves, but their value is determined by their use, and the things once needed at one stage of one’s life, like imposing tattoos, may or may not be suitable at a later time in one’s life. But although in one sense the external is superficial, in another sense it is not, as it can represent who we are. But more important than representing who we want to project, often to satisfy our ego, even that “I am a devotee”, is to actually be something that is worthy of representing, so that representing it, or wearing it, is a service to ourselves and others.
 
I will leave you with this thought from Srila Prabhupada’s translation of the twenty-first item of devotional practice from the Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu:
 
“One should decorate the body with tilaka, which is the sign of a Vaiṣṇavas. (The idea is that as soon as a person sees these marks on the body of a Vaiṣṇava, he will immediately remember Krishna. Lord Caitanya said that a Vaiṣṇava is he who, when seen, reminds one of Krishna. Therefore, it is essential that a Vaiṣṇava mark his body with tilaka to remind other of Krishna.)”
 


[1] A sleeve tattoo (or tattoo sleeve) is a large tattoo, or a collection of smaller tattoos, that has a unified theme, that covers most or all of a person’s arm, usually from shoulder to wrist.
 
[2] (Caitanya-caritāmṛta Ādi-līlā 17.32)
 
[3] (Śikṣāṣṭakam verse 3)
 

Monday Morning Greetings 2017 #29 – Now!

July 17th, 2017

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

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

July 10th, 2017

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

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

July 3rd, 2017

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

Monday Morning Greetings 2017 #26 – Hare Krishna! The Mantra, the Movement and the Swami Who Started It All — Coming soon to a theater near you!

June 26th, 2017

I never thought I would be so proud to be a Hare Kṛṣṇa. Of course, I am proud of the tradition and the philosophy to which I belong and proud of what it has accomplished. But I am talking about a different pride—a more public pride. The pride one feels walking north up 2nd Avenue to attend the premiere of Hare Krishna! The Mantra, the Movement and the Swami Who Started It All and seeing the crowds of people waiting to enter the Village East Theater under the marque that announced its abbreviated title Hare Krishna. This pride swelled further when I entered the posh lobby as several photographers were flashing away trying to capture and document the excitement of the moment. The feeling of satisfaction continued to expand as I entered the ornate 400 seat theater and saw the people of New York pack the event, all to hear the inspiring story of Śrīla Prabhupāda, the founder of the Hare Kṛṣṇa movement! And my pleasure continued even while leaving the theater. There were long lines waiting to enter for the next showing.
 
It was a watershed moment for the Hare Kṛṣṇa movement. I believe that was the term used in the film to describe the moment in 1977 when the Supreme Court of New York issued the verdict in response to a serious court case backed by the anti-cult movement that the Hare Kṛṣṇa movement is a bona fide religion. I sensed the film was again that type of moment. In fact, in the introduction before the film, the co-directors, John Griesser (Yadubara dāsa) and Jean Griesser (Viśākhā dāsī), mentioned to the audience a review of the film describing it as the second coming of Śrīla Prabhupāda. It certainly felt that way. Śrīla Prabhupāda was not only manifest through such a powerful medium, but the fact that it would to be shown worldwide if the opening was successful—and by all reports it was—is certainly, dare I say, a watershed moment for the Hare Kṛṣṇa movement.
 
I had a good view of the arriving audience from where I sat. I not only saw committed members of ISKCON parade in, but many others also, including people that have been touched in New York by the force of our kīrtanas and teachings around the city, but who have not yet really met its founder in any profound way. I saw many such familiar people from a subway conductor to the heads of several major yoga studios in New York. Yesterday I received a letter from Sybel Sierra, a former vice president at Morgan Stanley, who I met at the premiere. Sybel initially came in touch with devotees through a bhakti seminar I gave at a major New York yoga studio. What she wrote reflected what I had hoped the effect of the film would be:
 
“I was so happy that I could attend the premiere. I especially loved how the film captured the impact of a person’s strong faith on the hearts of everyone he touched. I knew something of Śrīla Prabhupāda from being around the devotees, but the film gave me an intimate view into his life and elevated his teachings to a much more personal level.”
 
It is hard to be this film’s critic when just about everything about Śrīla Prabhupāda inspires his followers, but I also tried to watch and study it carefully. Those of us who knew Śrīla Prabhupāda knew the expanse of his preaching. I marveled at the austerity it must have been for the directors to pick and choose a fraction of his life to communicate his whole life, but in a sense that highlighted his glories, because as I watched I could also reflect on how many wonderful aspects of his life and accomplishments had to be omitted. If I had a chance I would have liked to ask the directors why certain scenes were chosen over other important scenes, such as the omission in the film of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s dramatic journey on the Jaladuta, but I think the answer is obvious: just how much of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s rich life could be packed in an hour and a half? No matter how hard you try significant events would have to be omitted. Still I felt that still the film captured, summarized, and communicated quite effectively his personality and accomplishments.
 
A good film or drama has the very difficult task of creating a single mind out of an audience of various types of people. In classical Indian dramaturgy, for example, it is stressed that the purpose of a drama is to create this shared experience. I felt the film did an excellent job of creating a shared experience or understanding for its wide range of viewers. I liked how towards the beginning of the film an interview of Śrīla Prabhupāda is shown where he is asked what he thinks of the Bible potentially pigeonholing him as sectarian. Śrīla Prabhupāda immediately responds that any scripture is good as long as it promotes love of God and recommends the chanting of God’s names. I think his answer was far better than my memory of it, but I am sure his answer had a powerful and unifying effect on the audience, many not of our faith, especially accompanied by clear subtitles dramatically highlighting his speech. At the same time the film did not shy away from vintage Śrīla Prabhupāda speaking directly and boldly the philosophy of Kṛṣṇa consciousness, exposing the real problems of life and promoting the necessity to spread Kṛṣṇa consciousness. At the Bhakti Center reception after the show, I mingled with the crowd, especially to gauge the reaction of people who were not members of ISKCON by asking them what in the film struck them the most. I especially liked the answer of Katie, which surprised me, as I thought her answer was not what most people influenced by the post modern world would appreciate:
 
“I liked that he was so straight and direct. All successful people have a clear mission. He knew what he wanted and articulated it clearly, directly, and consistently.”
 
I spoke to Rāma Rāya, of Union Square harināma fame, yesterday about the film. He liked it so much he saw it four times over the last week. He loved how it directly promoted Śrīla Prabhupāda’s mission of chanting and spreading the holy name and he added an extra special appreciation of the directors who have dedicated their whole lives to Śrīla Prabhupāda by communicating his glories through film. He described their accomplishment in producing this film as a “triumph!” I also strongly felt that. The accomplishment of producing this excellent film is the example of two humble and dedicated disciples of Śrīla Prabhupāda, who gave their whole life to promote Śrīla Prabhupāda’s mission through media, and now at the twilight of their careers succeeded against all odds with the perfect offering of that service at their spiritual master’s lotus feet.
 
I beg you—please go see this triumph!
 
 

Monday Morning Greetings 2017 #25 – Seeing is Believing

June 19th, 2017

As I quickly closed the pasture gate to prevent the affectionate cows from following as I left, I ran into an elderly Colombian cowherd coming to take them to another pasture. He looked at me with a closed teeth smile typically indicative of the natural gladness of a good heart. I had never met him, but he was welcoming. We spontaneously hugged. If the face is indeed the index of the mind, his heart was pure contentment. Seeing him somehow unexpectedly awakened a much deeper understanding of something I read or heard many times in the teachings of my guru: the joy of simple living and high thinking. I thus not only saw him, but I saw before my eyes a whole social philosophy, one that promises contentment as a direct result of a sustainable natural life style, especially centered on the cows and the land. I read and studied this concept so many times before, but for some reason I never saw it as clearly as I did that day.

As much as the realization itself struck me, and there is so much I would love to discuss about that, something struck me even more from this epiphany: as much as we need philosophy to understand the world, we need to see such truths embodied in someone to fully comprehend them. I thought of the concept of humility for example. In a world of increasingly failed authority and exploitation, it is hard not to project weakness on modesty until we see the strength and beauty of one fully surrendered to guru and God.

I was recently teaching the Yoga Sūtras here in Colombia to a progressive and professional audience. I was trying to explain the concept found in the first pada, īśvara-praṇidhānād vā, the option in meditation of devotional surrender to the Lord. Good teachers should try to get a sense of their audience’s frame of reference to appropriately communicate their message. I had some doubt whether, despite the generally piety of the audience, all would fully appreciate the concept of surrender to God, probably having been disappointed with the Catholic Church when growing up and then influenced by modernity. I suspected, however, that despite such spiritual prejudice, the influence of devotion was still very firmly rooted in this deeply Catholic country. I attempted explaining the beauty of surrender to God by asking the audience to think of the qualities of their grandmothers, often very pious and humble Catholic ladies. As heads subtly nodded I sensed my strategy worked. As the saying goes, “example is better than precept.”

In his commentary of Bhagavad-gītā, Śrīla Prabhupāda made a similar point through a short aphorism about the necessity of living a philosophy in order for it to be understood: “Religion without philosophy is sentiment, or sometimes fanaticism, while philosophy without religion is mental speculation.”[1] The term “religion” here is not referring to a religious dogma, but the practical application of a teaching as opposed to just a book one, meaning that without embodying a teaching very little of it will be understood by ourselves or others.

Seeing this simple farmer inspired me, but it also put pressure on me. By putting Śrīla Prabhupāda’s teachings so starkly before my consciousness, it also put the weight of responsibility on me as his follower to somehow serve that mission, understanding that no matter how successful I become in sharing Kṛṣṇa consciousness within today’s world, it will lack a certain integrity and clarity without a better example of how a devotional society can be structured in a more sustainable way. I also felt pressure to be a better example, for if I want to influence people to live spiritual lives they have to see those teachings not just spoken by me, but also more powerfully embodied in me. And that is everyone’s challenge -somehow inspired by seeing the beautiful contented smile of a simple farmer.

 

 


[1] Bhagavad-gītā As It Is by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, Chapter 3, Text 3 commentary

 

 

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