Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #36 – The Highest Scoring Spiritual Performance

September 9th, 2019

I was a fan of watching the Olympics when I was young. One thing that I found intriguing was that gymnastics and diving competitors wouldn’t be scored just for the quality of their performance, but the degree of difficulty of the routine or dive they were attempting. I had a thought today. Why not use that same lens to increase our appreciation of what Śrīla Prabhupāda achieved in his mission by briefly highlighting the degree of difficulty of the task he accomplished?

 

For those of you who may not know, Śrīla Prabhupāda crossed the ocean by steamship in 1965 at the age of seventy to start his world mission in New York. By the time he left the world twelve years later, he established over 108 centers worldwide with thousands of followers dedicated to the promotion of bhakti-yoga, primarily focused on kīrtana. He also personally translated, expounded upon, and published over eighty volumes of authentic Indian spiritual texts, which were then translated into over fifty languages. More than a half a billion of those books have since been distributed worldwide. There’s more, but let’s keep our focus on our subject: the difficulty of his task.

 

Śrīla Prabhupāda alights on shore of the New York Harbor with only eight dollars in his pocket and a trunk of his translated works. His mission is to spread bhakti and kīrtana in the western world and to transplant an ancient culture, which, for all practical purposes, has never before left the shores of India. He stands there as a lone man with no backing, followers, or resources directly facing his opposition to the west — the full force of the most powerful material civilization known to man. Perhaps an even greater challenge is where, by providence, he was directed to start his mission.

 

After a short while in America, he winds up living in the Bowery[1] sharing a loft with a young man he hopes to teach Sanskrit. One evening the young man suddenly loses his mind on LSD and Prabhupāda is forced onto the streets of the Bowery in the depth of night. With the help of some early followers, he soon settles in an apartment in the Lower East Side with use of a storefront for his lectures. The impediments he faces are unimaginable, especially for a man of his culture.

 

“Why have I come to this place? Why have I come to place?” he ponders while sitting in his storefront in the Lower East Side, the last place a devotional, learned, and cultured Bengali Vaiṣṇava gentlemen would retire to serve his own personal needs. He immediately answers his own audible reflection, “I was cent per cent faithful to the order of my spiritual master!” By force of that faith he continues with his calling.

 

He gradually collects a group of sincere young people to help him. It is by no means easy. His field of potential candidates is not of any noted culture or training, to say the least. He takes what comes and tries to train them. One story comes to mind:

 

A young lady from the Lower East Side joins the mission and is soon initiated by Śrīla Prabhupāda. To start his mission, he has no choice but to be extremely merciful. This young lady, however, hates men. After six months she requests to see Śrīla Prabhupāda. He grants her audience. “I have been chanted Hare Krishna for six months, but I just can’t stand worshipping that man Krishna!” Śrīla Prabhupāda, replies without losing a beat, “That’s OK, we worship Radha.”[2] It is hard to imagine a more insane place to try to transplant traditional Vaiṣṇava culture than the sex crazed, drugged out, hippy land of the Lower East Side. Another story comes to mind:

 

Śrīla Prabhupāda’s new disciples indiscriminately organize programs for him to share his message of devotion and culture. They arrange for him to speak at a rally of Louis Abolafia, the founder of the Naked Party. He is running for president of the United States with a catchy slogan: “What have I got to hide?” When Śrīla Prabhupāda enters the room, the supporters of Louis Abolafia are dressed as bananas and are wildly dancing, mostly naked.[3] Śrīla Prabhupāda remains sober, talks briefly, and leaves. Afterwards one of his disciples informs Śrīla Prabhupāda that Louis Abolafia couldn’t officially run for president because he didn’t meet the minimum age required. Śrīla Prabhupāda finds that hysterical and bursts into laughter. He certainly had a sense of humor and would sometimes chuckle or laugh, but the devotees never saw him laugh so hard. I can imagine what he was thinking: “As if his age was the reason he has not qualified!”[4]

 

It is hard to imagine that a person whose mission was to create a class of Vaiṣṇava brāhmaṇas[5] actually accomplished it within such a milieu of madness and at such an advanced age, with challenged health, I should add. He had suffered two heart attacks on his journey across the sea. Should not the score of his unprecedented accomplishments therefore be exponentially increased by the substantial challenges he faced? A final story:

 

It was the disappearance festival of Śrīla Prabhupāda in 1978. Several of the most distinguished scholars of Vṛndāvana were assembled to offer their respects. I remember the homage of one of them. “If Śrīla Haridāsa Ṭhākura, Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī, and Śrīla Prabhupāda were in the same room and Śrī Caitanya appeared, who would he go to first? I say Śrīla Prabhupāda! Who could be more attached to the holy name than that person who spread it around the world!” Of course, Śrīla Prabhupāda had just recently passed from this world and the talks were in the mood of eulogy, but considering what he accomplished and the degree of difficulty of his task, is it not possible that we have witnessed the highest scoring spiritual performance in the history of Vaiṣṇavism?

 

 


[1] When Śrīla Prabhupāda arrived in the United States the Bowery was one of the worst slums in New York City, known for its homeless drunken derelicts and flophouses.

[2] This story was told to me three years ago by Nayanabhiram dasa who joined at 26 Second Avenue and witnessed this happening.

[3] The cult of Louis Abolafia believed that you could get high from smoking dried banana peels, so the glory of bananas was part of their creed.

[4] This story was told to me two years ago by my revered neighbor in Upstate New York, Satsvarupa dasa Goswami, who was one of the first devotees to join at 26 Second Avenue and was there when all of this took place.

[5] A learned and cultured teacher of bhakti.

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #35 – Brrr!

September 2nd, 2019

I have bad hot water karma. Last year in my place at Govardhana the hot water was finally fixed after four years. The local ashram tried many things year after year, but they just couldn’t get the shower to work. They finally figured out the problem. The water tank on my one-story dwelling couldn’t muster enough pressure to push the hot water through the geyser. Four years of cold showers in the late fall/early winter is a small price to stay in Govardhana, but this is not an isolated incident. It happens to me often. I am writing from our ashram in Colombia and lo and behold, like last year, despite all the best efforts no one can get the hot water in my bathroom to work.

 

What’s the message of all this “bad karma”? First, there is no bad karma, per se. You just have to use what Krishna gives you for the purpose He sends it. I am a monk, a renunciate. Perhaps I have begun to live a bit too cushy for my order. Did the Gosvamis of Vṛndāvana have hot water geysers? They didn’t die from the cold. Rather, this type of simple tolerance, called tapasya, is essential for spiritual life, and certainly mine.

 

The mind is like a river, but with a very unique feature — it runs in two opposite directions. It flows both outward towards the senses and inward towards the soul. Yoga is the means of redirecting the consciousness towards the soul from sensual contact and consequent bodily identification. It does this in two ways. The positive way is called abhyāsa, or spiritual practice. We do that by focusing on an object of meditation, which naturally draws the flow of the mind inward. The negative way is called vairāgya, where we forcefully redirect the mind back internally from its outward flow to the sense objects. Back to the yogic cold bath.

 

When there is natural discomfort in sensual contact in the course of one’s duty, such as a cold morning bath, the mind automatically abstracts itself from its outward flow to the sense objects in order to avoid distress. In contrast, living a cushy life, where we constantly attempt to readjust the environment to avoid natural austerity, conditions the mind to keep flowing outwardly to external sense objects. Such constant tuning to seek comfort and avoid distress thus only increases absorption and attachment to the bodily concept of life, which is the locus of all suffering.

 

In my residence in Upstate New York, the hot water works. By now, however, I have become inspired to take a cold shower anyway, which makes the same cold water a form of tapasya rather than just the imposition of my karma. Further realizations come:

 

The identification with the body is just a mental conception. Before you enter the cold shower the expectation of discomfort is always worse than what you actually experience. The mind also has an ability to abstract oneself from the sensations of the body just as when one takes a hot shower one has the ability to absorb oneself in the sensation. The sensations of the body, like pain and pleasure, are thus mental conceptions and thus ultimately relative. Sorry to be so morbid, but here’s the message:

 

Better to practice now some simple tolerance to abstract one from bodily identification, for the body is doomed in the future to old age, disease, and death. The only adjustment we can make to counteract those increasing difficulties is to strengthen our mind, which requires some voluntary tolerance of the dualities of heat and cold and happiness and distress.

 

Ok. Ready for my cold morning bath now: Brrr!

 

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #34 – Retreats! Retreats! You Need Retreats!

August 26th, 2019

I think most everyone who reads this – I know my audience – has spiritual aspirations. All, with perhaps a few exceptions, face the same problem to one degree or another. The world today is generally in opposition to that aspiration. It can wear one’s spiritual life down. The challenge is nothing new. What to do?

 

“Retreats, retreats, you need retreats!” I remember this sage-like advice from a mentor when a friend of mine described to him his insane schedule as a professional musician, which severely compromised his regulation and sādhana.

 

We just finished our 7th annual Bhakti Immersion Retreat.[1] The effect on people was profound. It inspired me to revisit the question, “Why retreats?”

 

Realization

To move forward in spiritual life you need faith. Faith is not theoretical or blind; it is a trust based on experience. What experience? An experience that confirms that the goal of our practice is indeed sublime. But how to get a sense of that? We need just a drop of that sublimity. How to get that realization? Realization only comes by practice, concentration without break over a period of time. Spiritual retreats afford that opportunity, a rare few days in immersion. If you are sincere and take advantage, it works. The sublimity one feels gives one hope to move forward in one’s practices while perhaps still in a less than conducive situation. “Retreats! retreats! You need retreats!”

 

Community

One of my main objectives in organizing retreats is to give the participants the feeling of community, a belonging to something greater than oneself that allows one to embrace a common interest over a selfish one. That is especially important for one on the path of devotion, for true bhakti only manifests in the heart of one who goes beyond self-centeredness. Only by such transcendence can we experience and expand our joy, like playing in a symphony where so many talented people sacrifice the spotlight to produce and relish something far greater than they can produce by themselves. Unfortunately, in today’s world, the experience of community is increasingly rare. Often, even our spiritual get-togethers become just crowds, not communities, a gathering of people of separate interests where, unfortunately, we are forced to remain guarded despite sharing a similar faith. Joining an inspiring retreat can therefore be life changing by fostering spiritual community, the place where bhakti easily seeps into the open hearts. “Retreats, retreats, you need retreats!”

 

Perspective

Living in the world has a kind of materialistic momentum where our selfish needs grow incrementally without us even realizing the subtle expansion of our entanglement. I therefore like to fast on ekādaśīs, which gives me a perspective on how little I actually need. In a similar way we need retreats to break the momentum of materialistic life and thwart the imperceptible snowballing of illusion.

Feeling stuck in your spiritual life and overwhelmed by day-to-day life? “Retreats, retreats, you need retreats!”

 

 


[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-CJF-7JL1ys

Śrīla Prabhupāda’s Greatest Glory – Dhanurdhara Swami’s Vyāsa-pūjā Offering to Śrīla Prabhupāda

August 24th, 2019

Śrīla Prabhupāda’s Greatest Glory

I gently bow my head to each tomb and meditate on the qualities of the various devotees that are honored there. I pray for those qualities to come to me. It is one of my favorite places in Vrindavan. I often visit the samādhi park at the ISKCON gośāla.

Moving clockwise, I first offer respect to the spot where Guṇagrahī Swami lies. I think of his humility and his attachment to preaching and kīrtan. The samādhi of Ananta Śānti, the first Russian devotee, is next. Vrindavan is flooded with Russian Vaiṣṇavas. I laud his sacrifice. Then where Vibhu Caitanya Prabhu rests, a self-effulgent Vaiṣṇava, universally recognized in the Vaiṣṇava community as an uttama bhakta for his deep devotion in even the simplest of services. The samādhi of Narmadā Goswami follows. He was an elderly and respected Indian gentleman who dedicated himself to the heart of Śrīla Prabhupāda, the BBT, for over 25 years. I next bow to Pūrṇacandra Goswami, a learned and Rasika Vaiṣṇava who beautifully sang songs of Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa and was very strict in the line of Śrīla Prabhupāda. The noble samādhi of Yamunā devī follows. Her name alone is synonymous in ISKCON with bhāva bhakti, the deepest devotion. Need I say more? The final one is the biggest of all the samādhi structures. Brahmānanda Prabhu rests there. Perhaps the size of his tomb represents his heart for Śrīla Prabhupāda.

In Nectar of Devotion it describes that one of the main inspirations to develop a particular relationship with Krishna is to meditate on the devotees who love Krishna in the same relationship one aspires to attain. Thus, is not remembering the departed souls who have dedicated their lives to Śrīla Prabhupāda one of the main impetuses for developing our relationship with Śrīla Prabhupāda? And do not these same devotees represent his greatest glory, what he was able to give others of himself?

Today, in remembrance of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s accomplishments, I am inspired to highlight the many Vaiṣṇavas who have unfortunately passed from this world that Śrīla Prabhupāda inspired. My only regret is not being able to mention them all, especially the ones that I have known closely – great souls who have enhanced the appreciation of Śrīla Prabhupāda in the hearts of many. If Śrīla Prabhupāda’s mercy is all that we are made of, do not these souls embody his glories? I therefore pray to all of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s followers, those past, present, and even the millions yet to born who will carry his legacy and increase his glories. I stand in awe of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s greatest glory, the many he has inspired by the depth of his devotion, and the gift of his devotion that he keeps on giving.

 

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #33 – The Agony, the Ecstasy, and the Holy Name

August 19th, 2019

In bhakti, agony can be ecstasy. An example:

 

“Lord Caitanya Mahāprabhu spoke, ‘My dear beautiful friend, if one develops love of Godhead, love of Krishna, the son of Nanda Mahārāja, all the bitter and sweet influences of this love will manifest in one’s heart. Such love of Godhead acts in two ways. The poisonous effects of love of Godhead defeat the severe and fresh poison of the serpent. Yet there is simultaneously transcendental bliss, which pours down and defeats the pride of nectar and diminishes its value. In other words, love of Krishna is so powerful that it simultaneously defeats the poisonous effects of a snake, as well as the happiness derived from pouring nectar on one’s head. It is perceived as doubly effective, simultaneously poisonous and nectarean.’” (Cc. Antya-līlā 1.148)

 

This description of agony and ecstasy is quite an elevated topic, but also core to the general practice of bhakti, at least the correlation between discomfort and devotion. Here’s the agony/ecstasy principle made simple.

 

The highest happiness is selfless love or devotion. It doesn’t always come easy, but any struggle done out of selfless devotion is mixed with a counter-intuitive feeling of happiness, because devotion is happiness. Hopefully a few examples of this apparent dichotomy will help clarify this point.

 

The first of five saṁskāras (good impressions) required for one taking initiation (commitment on the path of bhakti) is tāpa, or regret. We must regret our previous selfish life and commit to a life of selfless service. Tāpa also means to burn. What can burn more for one attached to the ego than the acknowledgement and regret of their mistakes? At the same time, what can be more blissful than the humble position, for it is the only position where love is felt and flows?

 

This agony/ecstasy principle is especially relevant to the chanting of the holy name. The first effect of chanting the holy name according to the Śikṣāṣṭakam is that it cleanses the mirror of the heart[1] and gives us clarity of perception. By sincerely chanting the holy name one can see and feel the real self, which is the pure consciousness of selflessness and devotion. Even a glimpse of the soul exposes our egoistic pretensions in comparison. How embarrassing to see our charade as the enjoyer and controller separate from God! So, which is more blissful — the pain of diminished pride where we call the names of God in hopelessness and humility, or our blasé and inattentive chanting that avoids exposing the depth and pain of our forgetfulness of God?

 

A little more about ecstasy. Happiness is selfless love or devotion, and love is manifest only through a relationship with someone either as one’s master, friend, child or lover. Krishna has appeared in His holy name. To experience the ecstasy of the holy name we must therefore talk with the holy name and pray to understand our relationship with Him. If you offer your consciousness in devotion, will He not, like any worthy person, reciprocate and increasingly reveal Himself, including your relationship with Him? Chant with attention, but pray for a relationship with the holy name.

 

There is more to say, but I have to stop here. My yearly Bhakti Immersion Retreat starts tomorrow (Friday), so there isn’t time for anything more. I just wanted to share a simple message this week before I go:

 

Be attentive while chanting, cleanse your heart, see your folly, and, in humility, beg for a relationship with the holy name.

 

Ah, the agony and ecstasy of chanting the holy name!

 


[1] Śrī Caitanya wrote an eight-verse poem called the Śikṣāṣṭakam glorifying the potency of chanting the holy name. The first verse summarizes the eight progressive effects of chanting the holy name. The first effect is ceto-darpaṇa-mārjanaṁ — it cleanses the mirror of the heart.

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #32 – Taking Up Space

August 12th, 2019

I looked out at a sea of college students that filled the small auditorium. The professor, a friend, asked me to teach his “Introduction to Hinduism” class. Standing at the podium before them, I started with a joke to introduce myself and to warm the crowd. With a straight face I tell them:

 

“I haven’t been back in a university in almost forty years, when I was studying aeronautics.”

 

I paused for a minute to watch the puzzled audience try to digest the incongruence between what I had just said and who was standing in front of them in robes and a shaved head. I then quickly added: “I was taking up space.”

 

Get it? Taking up space… aeronautics. I heard a few chuckles, then a few more. Most got it.

 

The truth of the matter is that I studied philosophy in school, but what I said was basically true. I wasn’t a serious student, and I don’t remember even one thing I learned in class that has been useful in my life. I am not saying that because I became a Hare Krishna monk. It was the late Sixties. From all practical standpoints, most students were, in fact, just taking up space.

 

Of course, for many career choices a college degree is an essential prerequisite, and there are competent teachers in some fields of study that can share pearls of wisdom. Yes, there are also good reasons to attend college, and some elite schools work you hard, but even for most career directed majors what is too often important is not what he or she actually learned in school, but rather the graduation diploma needed as a prerequisite for a job or further education. I don’t suppose the whole college experience today is much different than it was fifty years ago, except for one big difference. This may come as a shock to you, but I paid $800 per semester for room, board, and tuition at a good school! When I graduated, I left debt free and was able to join the Hare Krishna movement — or do anything else — without being bound by debt to some useless job.

 

Now here’s a brief list of reasons why college, when not approached very thoughtfully, can be a big mistake.

 

The Financial Challenge

 

The cost of college today is exorbitant.[1] Most students have to take out huge loans to pay for their college education. Most are under the misconception that the responsibility for one’s loan begins after graduation. Not true. With many, or even most loans, you start accruing compounded interest the minute you start school. By the time you finish school and are obligated to start paying the loan back, you will be paying back only the interest you have accrued without having touched the initial principle, and this will go on for years. What’s even worse is that six out of ten students don’t even complete their degree in four years. They, or their poor parents, have basically just thrown their money to the wind.

 

To maintain a healthy life, according to the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, one must immediately get rid of three things: unwanted guests, disease, and debt. Modern psychological studies have significantly linked debt to depression, anxiety, stress, anger, fear, shame, low self-esteem, impaired cognitive ability, and mental illness. So, unless one pursues a syllabus aimed at a specific occupational goal that leads to sufficient economic remuneration, there is a chance that you will be borrowing money only to debilitate your general well-being, including enslaving yourself to a meaningless job to pay it back.

 

The Intellectual Challenge

 

Even if one does pursue a college major that trains one for a good job, is that the purpose of university — simply to get a job? Traditionally the university had a very solemn duty. It was invested with the responsibility to train the intellectual and leadership class of society to maintain and hone the foundational principles behind the various institutions and traditions within their society. How sad is it that today the university, at least in the United States, has increasingly become a social club or trade school, and a poor one at that?

 

A university is meant for intellectual rigor. Worse than becoming job training centers, too many disciplines in the universities have degraded into intellectual orthodoxies[2] where the gift of reason is not used to educate or find truth, but to confirm existing beliefs and indoctrinate students into many disciplines that, frankly, often pawn absurd ideas.[3]

 

The Education Challenge

 

Besides the lack of intellectual rigor, it seems that college is even failing to give the most basic lessons of the humanities that were once the hallmark of education. Here’s the insight of controversial Camille Paglia, an alum of my alma mater, on the deteriorating state of classic education:

 

“What has happened is these young people now getting to college have no sense of history — of any kind! No sense of history. No world geography. No sense of the violence and the barbarities of history. So, they think that the whole world has always been like this, a kind of nice, comfortable world where you can go to the store and get orange juice and milk, and you can turn on the water and the hot water comes out. They have no sense whatever of the destruction, of the great civilizations that rose and fell, and so on — and how arrogant people get when they’re in a comfortable civilization. They now have been taught to look around them to see defects in America — which is the freest country in the history of the world — and to feel that somehow America is the source of all evil in the universe, and it’s because they’ve never been exposed to the actual evil of the history of humanity. They know nothing!”[4]

 

 

The Character Challenge

 

More than anything else, the single aspect of one’s life that determines one’s success is the strength of one’s character. I can’t afford to waste precious words here arguing the obvious, which is that modern education is not geared to elevate one’s character. A few notable quotes should suffice.

 

“We are good at teaching technical skills, but when it comes to the most important things, like character, we have almost nothing to say. Modern society has created a giant apparatus for the cultivation of the hard skills. Children are coached on how to jump through a thousand scholastic hoops. We are good at talking about material incentives, but bad about talking about emotions and intuitions.” — David Brooks, New York Times columnist

 

“To educate a person in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society.” — Theodore Roosevelt, American adventurer and president

 

I will leave this section with some words on the spiritual vacuum of modern education from the very learned Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura. He went for higher education in Calcutta, the seat of the British Raj and its best schools, over 150 years ago, but his insight into the spiritual vacuum of modern education is still relevant today.

 

“The result of modern education is that one becomes no better than an ass as one only becomes more enamored with the flickering nature of this world.” (Vidyāra Vilāse v. 3)

 

 

Buyers Beware Notice

 

My perspective in life is spiritual, and my Monday musings follow suit. Śrīla Prabhupāda taught us that it is difficult to separate one’s spiritual life from the way one lives in the world. I would not be faithful to my mission in writing without an occasional social comment. Too many young people who don’t belong are entering college and going into substantial debt without even getting a good education or a remunerative career. How much better it would be if they could be guided immediately to a suitable career rather than four costly years simply taking up space. [5]

 


[1] This article may be more relevant for people in the United States where colleges cost on the average at least $50,000 and are often outfitted like country clubs.

[2] https://heterodoxacademy.org

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kVk9a5Jcd1k

[4] https://www.intellectualtakeout.org/article/paglia-dumbing-down-america-began-public-schools

[5] Some people ask me how I come up with a topic every week. It’s not easy. The above article was based on a YouTube video that someone sent me that I thought made a powerful point: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dETn6JVO-p4

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #31 – Chant and Be Bored

August 5th, 2019

Śrī Rūpa Gosvāmī was not bored:

 

“I do not know how much nectar the two syllables ‘Kṛṣ-ṇa’ have produced. When the holy name of Krishna is chanted, it appears to dance within the mouth. We then desire many, many mouths. When that name enters the holes of the ears, we desire many millions of ears. And when the holy name dances in the courtyard of the heart, it conquers the activities of the mind, and therefore all the senses become inert.” (Vidagdha-mādhava 1.15)

 

Is this our experience? Do we sometimes, often, or even always get bored by the repeated recitation of the holy names?

 

Chanting the same syllables over and over again? How can something so monotonous not be boring?

 

Obviously, others have a different experience. Although they repeat the same syllables again and again, their chanting becomes more, not less, exciting. How can that be?

 

Friedrich Nietzsche was not a theist, but he said some things about boredom that I think are relevant to our discussion. He described boredom as the “unpleasant calm that precedes the creative storm”, and described that he who never fortifies himself against boredom “will never drink the most powerful elixir from his own innermost spring”.

 

I think what Nietzsche portrayed about tolerating periods of external dullness to reap the benefit of inner excitement is especially applicable to those struggling with meditation. In meditation, when one withdraws from external objects boredom may arise, especially today when we are so conditioned by the fast, intense, and changing stimuli of the world. When we resist moving towards those impulses, however, one’s consciousness automatically becomes redirected inward to the self, and the experience of meditation becomes dynamic. We then gain faith that our temporary struggle to focus was indeed only the entrance to something deeper and exciting.

 

In bhakti meditation there is something even more. The object of meditation is not just a prop to still the mind, but the holy names of God, which is a direct manifestation of the Divine in sound. As we have an innate relationship with God, and there is a natural energy called “love” between beings in relationship, when we meditate on the names of God, the energy of that relationship, which is the highest love called prema, gradually awakens.[1] The repeated recitation of the same words, which initially may have felt somewhat monotonous, then becomes an object of great attraction, and in time one surely drinks “the most powerful elixir from his own innermost spring”.

 

Boredom is, therefore, ultimately not what we are doing, but how we feel. We are thus never bored in deep devotion, regardless of how much we withdraw from external stimulation. Bhakti yogis have chanted the same names of God over and over again with increasing internal relish despite withdrawing their senses from the world. The example of Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta, the guru of Śrīla Prabhupāda, immediately comes to mind. He took the vow of Nāmācārya Śrīla Haridāsa Ṭhākura and sat in the jungles of Māyāpur for ten years chanting one billion names of God.[2] He certainly was never bored.

 

Now the real question: What does this have to do with us? We are speaking here not about an attainment, but rather a principle that is certainly applicable to us — to advance in meditation one must initially tolerate the withdrawal of one’s consciousness from external stimuli with the faith that shortly one will enter into something deeper. Even one who has achieved samādhi in his meditation never starts at the level of samādhi. They have to rev up the consciousness first through the preceding stages of dhāraṇa and dhyāna before again getting up to the level of samādhi. It is like a car that has potential for fifth gear, but every time needs to go through the other gears first to get there.

 

In other words, we don’t start any activity at our full potential, especially meditation. We may have to initially tolerate, as Nietzsche said, “the unpleasant storm before the creative force” to awaken some real interest or feeling for the mantra. Our daily potential is surely not samādhi, but if we concentrate for a set period of time every day without interruption, then even a sincere beginner will feel that energy of connection to the divine, an experience that should allow us to get over the initial challenge of chanting that at times may feel tedious. We can then chant and be happy, rather than chant and be bored.

 

“I am never bored; to be bored is an insult to one’s self.”
― Jules Renard

 

 


[1] Verse two of Nārada-bhakti-sūtra states sā tv asmin parama-prema-rūpā; that the highest form of love is to God.

[2] One billion names is 192 rounds a day for ten years.

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #30 – The Glory of God Not Knowing Everything

July 29th, 2019

I remember when I first got the Krishna Book. My college roommate, who had since left to join the temple, returned to school to visit me and gave me a copy of the book. Instead of going to a party that evening, I stayed back in my apartment and began reading it. I couldn’t put it down. I had already become a devotee of sorts, but not to the point of full commitment, so I was only somewhat familiar with the subject. I remember getting to Chapter Two, “Prayers by the Demigods for Lord Krishna in the Womb”, where Krishna’s supremacy is first described. I had already heard stories about His loving and seemingly human exchanges with His parents, friends, and the gopīs, but now I was hearing of His omnipotence. At the time I was majoring in philosophy, and from one of my classes the definition of God was still fresh in my mind: “That being of which no greater can be conceived.” I had an epiphany.

 

“I can’t think of anything greater than this, an omnipotent, omniscient being who is not devoid of very sweet familial and romantic affairs. This is certainly greater than just an amorphous impersonal energy that can’t talk or love. Yes. Krishna must be God, that being of which no greater can be conceived.”

 

Through my years in studying Krishna consciousness, this philosophical concept became fascinating to me — that Krishna’s attributes, such as His apparent human-like activities or His form seemingly confined within space, rather than limiting His Absolute authority were in fact an opulence. I remember reading a quote a few years back in one of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s purports that especially struck me by the way it confirmed this fact in such simple terms:

 

“Krishna doesn’t have the defect of impersonality.”[1]

 

What I particularly liked about this sentence is the way the word “impersonality” is used. The word “impersonal” (impersonality) has two meanings. It can have a philosophical meaning describing God as without attributes, which in today’s world appears laudatory, for, in a sense, it describes God as transcendent. In other words, if God is impersonal one cannot attribute to His nature the dualities of this world. Śrīla Prabhupāda, however, by a play on the word “impersonality” is actually referring to the second definition, meaning cold or not concerned with another’s individual needs. By doing so, Śrīla Prabhupāda is describing God’s impersonality as a defect, for if God is impersonal, He is not only all-pervading and without duality, but also cold and void of the ability to lovingly reciprocate. Is it not somewhat absurd to describe the source of everything as lacking the ability to properly relate with others?

 

As I continued to study the teachings of bhakti, especially Krishna’s pastimes, I read how Krishna not only has human-like qualities, but qualities that even seem humanly limited. For example, Krishna is described as forgetful or unaware (mugdhatta). Again, what appears to be a diminishment of His supremacy is in fact an attribute of His divinity, for without experiencing surprise and drama (being unaware), how could God experience the full range of rasa (heightened love), and if He doesn’t then how can He be God? I think a story here will help make this point clearer:

 

Krishna’s friends are caught in the midst of a forest fire and are saved by Krishna, who swallows the fire. Afterwards, following a long trek in the forest, they finally reach the shore of the Yamuna River. Impelled by dire thirst, they quench it without thinking carefully about the condition of the water that had been poisoned by the Kālīya serpent. They immediately die. Overwhelmed by grief, Krishna begins to cry deeply out of separation from His friends. His tears of compassion revive His friends back to life. If Krishna was only all-knowing, He would lack the experience of drama and consequent feelings of compassion that such pastimes bring. Even the ordinary soul sometimes has their joy heightened by the drama of being unaware, a surprise party for example. How then can one deny the experience of drama in the source of all?

 

Conclusion: O, glory to the God who does not know everything, for I can’t conceive anything greater than a being that is all-powerful and all-knowing, but who still has the capacity to be surprised!

 

 

 


[1] It is one of my favorite quotes, but I can’t find the reference at this time.

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #29 – I Don’t Know Where I’m Going

July 22nd, 2019

I just threw out what I was working on for this week’s Monday Morning Greetings. I just couldn’t make the article work. It’s Friday. My deadline is tomorrow at noon. Can you imagine how frustrating that is? What to do? I can only do what I am doing now, baring my frustration and praying that something comes. I read about this type of desperation technique years ago in a book on public speaking. It recommended that when you are in front of an audience and somehow at a loss for words you should just run with your frailties by admitting them. Your audience will be sympathetic and embolden you, and the honesty itself will be empowering. I find it quite interesting that my thoughts here connect exactly with something I was reading just yesterday.

 

In his introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay, Philip Lopate writes that essentially a writer and reader enter into a contract. “The essayist,” he says, “must then make good on it by delivering, or discovering, as much honesty as possible [. . .] So often the ‘plot’ of a personal essay, its drama, its suspense, consists in watching how far the essayist can drop past his or her psychic defenses towards deeper levels of honesty .”

 

That is so in tune with my own experience in writing. I often get comments from my readership appreciating that I share my own struggles. And I do really feel “a contract between writer and reader”. It’s a personal relationship. I feel that sitting here trying to meet my end of the bargain.

 

Now let me share what I wanted to share this week, but have not yet been empowered to articulate in a satisfactory way.

 

I wanted to highlight how important it is to have a meaningful metaphysical goal that informs all aspects of one’s life. That idea was inspired by a paṇḍita from Vṛndāvana who was visiting the USA. He happened to be a presenter after I spoke in the same yoga teacher training program where we were both teaching. I thus stayed for his talk. He gave a brilliant analogy. Here’s my recollection:

 

He began with a puzzling statement: “The most important thing to have in life is a GPS.” He then watched the initial reaction of his audience, paused for a moment, and clarified his statement, “GPS: Guru Paramparā System. To learn any subject, one needs to study under a mentor representing a lineage of accomplished teachers. In Sanskrit that lineage is called the guru paramparā system. Just as one’s effort in driving only bears fruit when one has entered the correct address in one’s GPS, one’s endeavors in life will only be meaningful when one sets the right goal under the guidance of a bona-fide lineage, the Guru Paramparā System.”

 

I wanted to develop his point further with a strong reference. The first one that came to mind was a quote by Jesus questioning one’s accomplishments in life when devoid of a spiritual objective.

 

“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36-38)

 

A very pertinent analogy by Śrīla Prabhupāda also came to my mind. Rather than just condemn material accomplishments, he highlights their potential value when connected to that transcendent objective.

 

“So zero is zero always. Hundred million times zero adds, it is zero. But when there is one, immediately value increases. So without Krishna, all this material advancement, they are all zeros. But if you bring Krishna, then it…that increases—-ten, hundred, thousand, tens of thousands, like that millions, billions.” (July 31, 1975, New Orleans room conversation)

 

Dwelling on the subject I thought I could also touch on how much the definition and practice of bhakti is predicated on its goal: “Sādhana-bhakti is the use of the senses with the aim of achieving the goal of bhāva (mature devotion).” (Brs. 1.2.2) There is definitely a discussion to be had about the need to be consciously hankering for the goal in our devotional practices (bhāva) for them to be meaningful and dynamic.

 

There were other subjects I wanted to expound:

 

How bhakti often begins by the mercy of guru and Krishna with a small taste of the sublimity of devotion, for the inspiration to practice is dependent on one’s faith in one’s goal.

 

I wanted to discuss the honesty of the existentialists. As they see no goal or meaning in life, they honestly contemplate suicide.

 

It’s 2:00 AM. When I lost all hope of producing anything of value this week, I threw my hands up in helplessness. There is a large picture of Śrīla Prabhupāda directly facing me on the wall where my desks rests. I prayed for his help and this is what came — stress the utmost importance in having a legitimate spiritual goal.

 

When I grew up in New York there was a renowned yogi in the Bronx who was famous for his pithy and paradoxical sayings spoken in the language of the ordinary man. I leave you with one that says it all. Think about it deeply.

 

“If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.”
― Yogi Berra

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #28 – The Greatest Kīrtana Ever!

July 15th, 2019

They were wildly cheering for God! Nine hundred thousand enthusiasts lined the streets of Farrukhabad. It was their annual Ram Bharat parade. “This is God’s country!” shared one humbled god-brother observing the scene. Lord Siva sat on Mount Kailash in the float before us—a huge block of ice, with live snakes circling his body. I was freaked and restless. It was a late start—already 9 PM. When will it end? BB Govinda Swami began kīrtana in his overpowering, yet sweet and melodic style. We all joined in. At first, I struggled on that muggy summer night, but the resonant melodies opened my heart to Krishna’s holy name. I gradually began to sway with the rhythm. My heart was touched, my mind concentrated. It was 5 AM before I knew it, and time to return to Vṛndāvana. This was 1992, and certainly one of my most memorable kīrtanas. But the greatest kīrtana ever?

 

What about the kīrtana of the cowherd boys as they left for the forest accompanied by Krishna’s flute? Their kīrtana was rich with sonorous melodies, sung deeply from their melted hearts of devotion, built up slowly in tempo from the force of their bhava, and appropriate for the time of the day and pastime. Some cowherd boys even spontaneously blew trumpets crafted from the large smooth leaves of particular Vṛndāvana trees. They also returned with the same fervor, awakening the residents of Vṛndāvana from their slumber of separation. Seeing Krishna in the distance blowing His flute, prancing behind a stampede of cows accompanied by the kīrtana of the cowherd boys, they were overflooded with bliss. Imagine how the Vrajavāsīs felt. Can there be anything better than that?

 

Mother Yaśodā fainted upon seeing her son hanging limp in the coils of the many hooded snake in the midst of the fuming, boiling polluted waters of the Yamunā. She fainted. In desperation, Mother Yaśodā’s friends, whose love for Krishna was equal to her own, tried to revive her by singing with the most heartfelt devotion about Krishna’s exploits of killing the demons in Vṛndāvana. What a heartfelt kīrtana! Can there be anything deeper than that?

 

Seeing the gopīs’ seeming pride from dancing with Him in the rāsa dance, Krishna suddenly disappeared from their company. They madly began to search the forest of Vṛndāvana for their beloved:

 

“When they saw that it was getting gradually darker, they stopped. Their minds and intelligence became absorbed in thoughts of Krishna; they all imitated the activities of Krishna and His speeches. Due to their heart and soul being completely given to Krishna they began to chant His glories, completely forgetting their family interests. In this way all the gopīs returned to the bank of the Yamunā and assembled there, and expecting that Krishna must return to them, they simply engaged in chanting the glories of Krishna—Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.”[1] Can there be anything sweeter than the unsurpassed kīrtana of the gopīs on the bank of the Yamunā?

 

The depth of Śrī Radha’s devotion for Krishna manifests in her intense feelings of separation from Him. That devotion is the pinnacle of bliss, and even inspires Śrī Krishna Himself to come in the form of Śrī Caitanya to taste that love, especially during the Jagannath Ratha-yātrā, a festival that commemorates that devotion. Overwhelmed with Śrī Radha’s love for Krishna, He personally organized seven separate kīrtanas surrounding Jagannatha’s cart for His lord’s pleasure. He placed two expert mṛdaṅgas in each division, assigned Svarūpa Dāmodara, Śrīvāsa Ṭhākura, and his best singers to lead each of those parties, as well as His most charming dancers, such as Vakreśvara Paṇḍita and Śrīla Haridāsa Ṭhākura, to be the lead dancer in each group. The groups suddenly converged.

 

“All the Vaisnavas came together like an assembly of clouds. As the devotees chanted the holy name in great ecstasy tears fell from their eyes like rain. When the kīrtana resounded, it filled the three worlds. Indeed no one could hear any sounds or musical instruments other than the sankīrtana. Lord Caitanya wandered through all seven groups chanting the holy name, ‘Hari, Hari!’ raising His arms, He shouted, ‘All glories to Lord Jagannatha!’”[2] What it must have been like to be inundated with the holy name and inspired by the ecstatic dancing of Śrī Caitanya at Ratha-yātrā! Can there be anything more sublime than that?

 

Krishna surfed the return wave caused by His atomic splash into the Yamunā onto one of the wide heads of the multi-headed serpent, Kālīya. In order to dodge the bites of the venomous reptile and to crush his various poisonous heads, he dexterously jumped from one head to another. Observing His own feet moving so quickly, and being innately filled with rhythm, a beat arose in His heart. By way of His infallible desire, two ankle bells appeared on His legs, and Krishna began to dance.[3]

 

Krishna is the guru of all arts. He is thus also naṭa-vara, the most excellent of all dancers. His enthralling dance thus attracted the demigods. First came Indra, an expert in mṛdaṅga, and then Nārada, the maestro of vinā. As news of Krishna’s desire to dance began to spread, more and more celestial instrument players appeared above Vṛndāvana.

 

Of particular note were the vidyādharas, a community of heavenly musicians, especially expert in percussion. They carefully observed the tal (beat) of Krishna’s dance before starting, and they gradually supported His dancing performance in a circle of various expertly played drums, mostly the paṇava and ānaka, huge drums with majestic sounds played with two sticks on each side, one representing bass and the other treble. The vidyādharas made sure that all the instruments in the heavenly realm that were suited for the occasion were brought to enrich the kīrtana and support the dance. Experts in the flutes, bugle, vinā, and shehnai soon arrived and joined the fun.

 

The gandharvas, the heavenly singers, already knew of Krishna’s extraordinary artistic abilities. When the news of Krishna’s dancing reached their ears, they rushed to the earth for kīrtana sevā, especially the most prominent of the gandharvas, such as Viśvāvasu, Citraratha, and so on. The Krishna kīrtana of the gandharvas, the best singers in the universe, accompanied by the vidyādharas, the world’s unparalleled percussionists, and supported by the powerful mṛdaṅga playing of Indra, brought the kīrtana to heights never before imagined. And just to add to the scene’s glory, the residents of siddha-loka, the planet of poetic geniuses, arrived. They immediately spontaneously composed lyrics to what they were witnessing in booming and rhythmic Sanskrit chants.

 

As the demigods never touch the earth, the kīrtana was hovering from above, an excellent vantage point for a puṣpa abhiṣeka. Those without instruments immediately began to shower the scene with a cascade of the most colorful and fragrant flowers from the celestial realm, even from Vaikuṇṭha itself. And from the shore below, the residents of Vṛndāvana, having just gained full consciousness, became overwhelmed with relief and joy at the spectacle before them. Especially the cowherd boys danced along with Krishna’s movements in extreme bliss. By the powerful beats of the mṛdaṅga led by Indra, an instrument especially designed to invoke dance, even the crestfallen heads of the serpent began to move in time to the beat.

 

With the Vrajavāsīs dancing and cheering in utter amazement on the ground, and the kīrtana symphony of the demigods above, the performance of Krishna’s supreme virtuoso dance on the swaying stage of the serpent’s hood lighted by his red jewels became the festival all festivals.

 

And that’s what I think is the greatest kīrtana ever!

 


[1] Chapter 29, p 299 Krishna Book

[2] Cc. Madhya-līlā 13.49-51

[3] The elaborate description of Krishna’s dance on the serpent Kālīya’s head with the accompaniment of the demigod musicians is from various commentaries of Bhag. 10.18.26-19 as described in the lectures of Śrīla Radha Govinda Swami.

 

 

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