Monday Morning Greetings 2020 #42 – On Criticism

October 19th, 2020

On Criticism [1]

 

“The poison of that which you criticize comes to you.”

 

“Criticism is worse that throwing a spear in someone’s body, because the spear can only pierce the body, but criticism can pierce the heart.”

 

“Criticism is worse than envy. Envy is when it is in the heart. Criticism is when it comes out.”

 

I have often repeated these statements. I am sure I read them someplace, although somehow I can’t find their reference. I have no difficulty, however, embracing their conclusion. And here is one strong clearly referenced statement about the necessity to avoid criticism.

 

“Of the nine processes of devotional service, the most important is to always chant the holy name of the Lord. If one does so, avoiding the ten kinds of offenses, one very easily obtains the most valuable love of Godhead.” Cc Antya 4.71

 

It’s a good reference for the most serious of the ten offenses against the holy name is criticism. Of course, the word for criticism used here “nindā” is qualified by the word “sādhu” and there is also allowance for constructive criticism. We will get to that, but we need to realize that the stakes for an offender are high. You just won’t get “love of Godhead”. And for the devotee that is everything. Best err on the side of caution.

 

I struggle with that. So many people, devotees who are dedicated and senior, sometimes do things that disturb me. How can one not criticize? Be careful! If one’s criticism is not born of compassion, but even harbors a trace of ill will, that hate will certainly cover the soul, for the soul is simply consciousness meant for love and devotion.

 

And if I think about it honestly I also must do things that serve as fuel for the lower nature of others. We all struggle with our own impurities and conditioning and its bound to be just the thing that annoys another, especially one with a different nature. That is simply the way of the world. At all costs I just don’t want to be a self-righteous hypocrite that is always clamoring for justice for others and mercy for oneself.

 

But what about all the injustice? By all means speak up and speak up strongly, but first make sure there is no hate in your own heart, otherwise your kīrtan of others faults which merely embodies the impurities of your own heart will only spread hate of others and not love of God. We have seen too often that the modern champions of controversy mostly create threads that attract the bitter.

 

I remember reading in a history of the Gauḍīyā Math of a younger devotee who had a very critical intelligence. He would often see things that are wrong. He sought the counsel of a very senior and elevated Vaiṣṇava who gave him the very simple advice which he followed for the rest of his life, “Observe and don’t talk”. He followed that instruction and attained spiritual heights. Yes, it may be one’s service to point on mistakes. I just don’t envy that person and I pray they are fairly pure. Otherwise:

 

“We all become well-disguised mirror image of anything that we fight too long or too directly… Most frontal attacks on evil just produce another kind of evil in yourself, along with a very inflated self-image to boot.” – Richard Rohr, Falling Upward

 

My prayer is to be a Vaiṣṇava. So many places in śāstra that is defined as one who is free from the propensity to criticize others. Who else can a Vaiṣṇava be other than one who has no hate in his or her heart? I hanker for such saṅga. And by Śrīla Prabhupāda’s grace there are many such souls. I just have to be the bee that seeks the honey and not the fly that looks for the sores.

 

To conclude with another oft-repeated statement of mine that has no reference, but I embrace whole-heartedly:

 

Bhakti is simple. Even a child can do it. What is difficult is avoiding offense.”

 

 


[1] This week I accidentally deleted the final part of what I was working on and couldn’t complete it on time. This is a reprint from 2016. I hope you enjoy it.

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2020 #41 – Are the Aspects of Indian Culture Srila Prabhupada Brought to the West Essential to the Cultivation of Bhakti?

October 12th, 2020

Before we talk about the relevance of Indian culture to the cultivation of bhakti, we first have to define what the different parties involved in the discussion mean by “Indian culture”. Some use the term to refer to the ideas, behavior, and material artifacts (physical objects) typical of India which facilitate their human development and have been constructed over the course of India’s history. Others use the term “Indian culture” to refer to something eternal, related to God’s nature as He manifest in this world to help us advance spiritually.

 

Which is it?

 

Srila Prabhupada taught that knowledge, which includes culture, isn’t an evolutionary development born in a particular country, but is veda, eternal and manifest in the world at creation. Therefore, when Srila Prabhupada refers to “Indian culture”, although he is talking about its external expression as it appears in a geographical place, India, and the learned culture of his birth, he is mainly referring to eternal cultural principles. The question often asked is whether each of the particular cultural elements he gave us are expressions of those eternal principles and thus essential to the Krishna-bhakti tradition, or are the eternal truths presented simply details of how the cultural principles can be expressed, and in that sense adjustable according to time and place? To try to understand the extent to which the culture Srila Prabhupada brought is essential to our bhakti practice, let’s briefly analyze two cultural artifacts: the musical style and traditional dress he introduced.

 

To better understand the constituent principles of traditional Indian music, I had a discussion with Dr. Eben Graves, the program director at the Yale School of Sacred Music, who earned his PhD in ethnomusicology by studying the history and contemporary forms of Bengali kirtan. He is also a percussionist, and teaches mridanga (or sri khol). Below is a short summary of the salient points gleaned from that discussion as they relate to today’s topic, particularly an analysis of the mridanga as an artifact of Gaudiya Vaishnava culture.

 

“Traditional forms of South Asian (or Indian) classical music, and especially forms of Gaudiya Vaishnava music, are based on supporting the voice as the main instrument to aid the essential practice of devotion, nam– and lila-kirtan. The original instruments described in Krishna’s pastimes,[1] such as the vina, bamboo flute, and mridanga (sri khol) are especially geared to do this. Although these are premodern instruments, they have the musical capacity to support the voice in its expression of Radha-Krishna devotion in a way that cannot easily be duplicated by instruments introduced to India later. For example, in padavali kirtan, as well as other classical Bengali traditional forms, mridanga supported by kartals is essential to supporting the singing of devotional lyrics, which forms the crux of classical performance. Other percussion instruments can keep time, but no other drum has the timbre, the particular sound, of a clay mridanga, nor are these other drums capable of producing the intricate beats that facilitate the emotional expressions of Krishna-bhakti – percussion techniques that have been revealed and developed by pure devotee practitioners over hundreds of years. For these reasons, the mridanga is essential to all forms of Gaudiya kirtan, while the use of instruments adopted later, even the harmonium, which has been widely accepted and appreciated as an accompanying instrument for Gaudiya singing, remains optional.”

 

What I took away from my discussion with Dr. Graves is that in the Gaudiya Vaishnava musical tradition there are original instruments that support the expression of devotion and which, by their ability to serve the purpose of kirtan, make them irreplaceable. Modern instruments can be added to kirtan as long as they are in an appropriate mode and can thereby enhance one’s expression of Krishna-bhakti. Obviously, these instruments can’t be added whimsically; they must serve the core principles of the tradition.

 

Now, what about the traditional Indian dress Srila Prabhupada introduced? Are dhotis and saris inherently spiritual coverings or simply historical clothing from the time of Lord Caitanya adopted into a Western context? How essential is this traditional dress to the cultivation of Krishna-bhakti?

 

The word dhoti, the traditional dress Srila Prabhupada introduced to his male disciples, literally means “to cleanse or wash”, implying that a dhoti is a sattvic dress cloth that can easily be washed after each wearing. Although there may be slight variances in how dhotis have been worn throughout Indian history, this type of sarong is mentioned in descriptions of both Gaura and Krishna lila.[2] It is therefore a spiritual dress both in terms of its simplicity and sattvic nature and in terms of its identification with Krishna and Caitanya’s pastimes, and so it serves as a reminder of the identity and life we as Krishna bhaktas ultimately aspire to attain. The same thing can be said for the sari.[3]

 

But is it essential for devotees to wear the traditional dress?

 

Obviously, one can perform any of the activities of bhakti and most any other activity wearing the clothes normal to one’s own culture, and I think few will deny that in some circumstances wearing a dress that is foreign to one’s audience can be unsuitable when introducing them to Krishna consciousness – when we understand that the externals will distract them from resonating with the eternal truths we are presenting. We also don’t usually go to work in traditional Indian dress and may adjust our dress to accommodate the weather where we live. Still, wearing devotional dress invokes an identification with Krishna-bhakti, and that is favorable to the cultivation of bhakti, and we shouldn’t minimize the importance of that effect.

 

We worship Krishna, who is a person, and His being a person means He has His own proclivities and preferences, including in dress and music. In fact, in both Krishna and Gaura lila He lives in a society supported by varnasrama, and this indicates that He favors such a culture. When we sift through the foreign influences that have covered India for hundreds of years and separate out India’s original traditions, we’ll find the culture that best represents what Krishna likes and is therefore the best environment to support the growth of devotion. These cultural artifacts may include rules and customs that are daunting to follow, and we may have to adjust them at times in order to allow them to flourish in foreign soil. To know how to make those adjustments requires that we first understand and honor the principles of that culture. Indian culture in this context is certainly one of the gifts that Srila Prabhupada brought to the West.[4]

 

 

 


[1] When I use the term “Krishna’s pastimes”, I am also referring the Sri Caitanya’s pastimes. The mridanga is an instrument associated with Sri Caitanya’s pastimes, although I read a commentary on the Kaliya-lila that describes Indra with mridanga joining the kirtan of the demigods to accompany Krishna’s dancing on Kaliya.

[2]   I found in Bhanu Swami’s translation of the Bhakti-rasamirta sindhu at least two verses (BRS 2.1.351 and BRS 3.4.31) where Krishna’s dress is described as dhati and is translated as dhoti. David Haberman, a noted scholar who translated the Bhakti -rasamrita sindhu also translates it in the same way. Finally, I also consulted Nityananda das, who is the editor for a forthcoming Bhaktivedanta Book Trust translation of Bhakti-rasamirta sindhu. He wrote “the word dhati literally means loincloth, but in context of those verses it can only refer to something like a dhoti. There are great chances that the word dhoti came from dhati, as Bengalis pronounce the short ‘a’ as ‘oh.”

[3] There is discussion among scholars whether the gopis wore something like a dress or a sari, but the basic idea is that they were akin to the sattvic and modest attire worn in traditional India and not western fashion.

[4] Hridayananda dasa Goswami wrote me after seeing my last post that Krishna West was misrepresented. I replied that if I did, then he may explain how and I will print it. His response, “Thanks for your reply. I appreciate that you are fair and open-minded. The basic problem, in my view, is the notion that I see KW as the only hope. I have explained endlessly that I am advocating generic western-style preaching. I have said hundreds of times that there are other excellent western preaching programs, and even that if someone has a better idea, I will be happy to join them”.

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2020 #40 – Krishna West, Krishna Best, or Krishna Jest

October 5th, 2020

Krishna West, Krishna Best, or Krishna Jest [1]

 

Hridayananda Maharaja is a spiritual trailblazer. American-born, he learned Spanish and Portuguese fluently in order to successfully fulfill Srila Prabhupada’s personal request to him to establish the bhakti teachings in South America. Expanding his service, he went to Harvard University and got a PhD in Sanskrit in order to deepen his understanding of the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition and to have more influence in intellectual and academic circles.

 

Over the past decade or so, however, he became increasingly concerned with ISKCON’s mission in the West. Not long after Srila Prabhupada left this world, Prabhupada’s once burgeoning Western centers emptied and were in dire financial straits. As a result, the Indian diaspora, who saw ISKCON as an embassy for their own culture, stepped forward to help. Eventually, the Indians in ISKCON became more and more prominent until they filled out the congregations and gradually came to manage most of ISKCON’s centers in the West, especially in the United States and the United Kingdom. Hridayananda Maharaja appreciated that these devotees saved ISKCON, but he also saw a serious problem: ISKCON was developing even more of an Indian flavor, and so had ceased to be attractive to Westerners. This especially disturbed Hridayananda Maharaja because he had been personally trained by Srila Prabhupada to teach Krishna consciousness in the United States.

 

So, to create a comfortable space for Westerners he established Krishna West within ISKCON. His aim was to keep the essential principles and practices of bhakti while shedding the externals of Indian culture, which he hoped would make communicating Krishna consciousness to those born in the West friendlier, and their experience less foreign. He hung his monk’s robes in the closet and donned slacks and a baseball cap to make himself more relatable.

 

Seem reasonable? Not to everyone.

 

Venkata Bhatta is an intelligent, articulate, and accomplished person, initiated into the bhakti tradition, and now serving as the Hindu chaplain at Princeton University. He has completed a law degree and is also now finishing a PhD at New York University. He is Indian-American and capable of relating and communicating in any setting. He is also an outspoken critic of Krishna West, which he sees as creating an artificial division between Indians and non-Indians. He knows too many people like himself – people who don’t fit neatly into one or the other category. Although, like Hridayananda Maharaja, he sees the struggles ISKCON experiences in reaching Westerners, he feels Krishna West misses the root of the problem: that ISKCON failed to make itself inclusive and accessible. To him, Krishna West is part of that same problem: an exclusive presentation of Krishna consciousness that divides rather than unites people, and thus of limited relevance in a postmodern world.

 

Venkata Bhatta and Hridayananda Maharaja agreed to meet on The Late Morning Program with Namarasa podcast to discuss their differences.

 

The meeting was cordial. Venkata reiterated his concerns and assured Hridayananda Maharaja that he shares his perception that ISKCON needs to rethink and reform its presentation. He considers that the solution, however, is not an East/West divide but making Krishna consciousness a place of “diversity, inclusivity, and equity.”

 

Hridayananda Maharaja clarified that Krishna West is not exclusive, but open to Indians and non-Indians alike – anyone who shares the common goal of wanting to impart bhakti in a contemporary and relevant way. He acknowledged that because of the resistance he felt from the more conservative quarters of ISKCON, he has had to ramp up his polemic in order to get his point across, but as Krishna West has successfully taken root, that type of polemic is more a thing of the past. He questioned Venkata’s objective to see ISKCON centers become beacons of “diversity, inclusivity, and equity,” noting that in today’s world, what usually happens to those who profess such rhetoric is not diversity, but exclusion of those who don’t share their liberality. Institutions take time – years – to perfect themselves, and Maharaja hinted at that by describing how Krishna West has been maturing since its inception.

 

Frankly, I was also apprehensive when I first heard Hridayananda Maharaja promote Krishna West. I saw it as a reaction to a legitimate issue, but in the passion to solve it the solution didn’t seem balanced to me. This is how I hope Krishna West will evolve in its conceptions:

 

  1. They should acknowledge that Krishna West is not the only way to preach in the West. Although many ISKCON temples in the West have in fact become largely filled by Indian congregations, there are still a number of preachers and organizations successfully appealing to non-Indians, and many of them have been doing so even before Krishna West was conceived.
  2. The problem with ISKCON temples that have predominantly Indian-born congregations is not that they are exclusively projecting Indian culture and values, but that there’s a lack of diversity in the community, and that has made Westerners uncomfortable. Also, those temples, if their objective is to indeed create a diverse congregation, seem to lack some understanding of how and when to present the elements of Indian culture and tradition that Srila Prabhupada introduced. This holds equally true for temples in the West whose members are not predominantly Indian and are also unsuccessful in expanding their Western-born base.
  3. Although the externals in which any spiritual culture is couched are important to the overall presentation of it, that presentation isn’t everything. There’s also a special empowerment that comes from being sincerely rooted in tradition.

 

I will end by briefly giving examples that illustrate these principles.

 

Recently, a student of mine from New Zealand who had distanced herself somewhat from ISKCON was visiting Auckland to further her education. She saw an ad for a lecture to be given by Devamrita Swami, and decided to stop by the Krishna Lounge, where it was being held. She was impressed by what she saw: 150 Western-born people in attendance. I later found that 400 had attended. Maharaja has had this type of success for years.

 

The Bhakti Center in New York has maintained a congregation of hundreds of Westerners, and many are coming forward for initiation. The Center has actually achieved substantial status and respect not only within ISKCON, but in New York City as a respected spiritual organization. That’s a real statement about communicating bhakti in the West. The Bhakti Center doesn’t flaunt or hide its connections to the traditions of India that Srila Prabhupada introduced and appropriately uses aspects of Indian culture as part of its allure.

 

Raghunath Dasa has been preaching effectively to Westerners for years. As a result, hundreds of people have become serious devotees. His efforts have culminated in a morning Bhagavatam podcast, which he presents along with Kaustubha Dasa, called Wisdom of the Sages. Hundreds of people get up early to listen to the class, which airs at 5 A.M. Over seven thousand people from diverse backgrounds listen daily, most of whom have been only recently introduced to Krishna consciousness by Raghunath and Kaustubha. These two devotees don’t shy away, when needed, from using the culture of India to effectively present their message. Rather, it’s one of their main tools. In fact, both Wisdom of the Sages and the Bhakti Center have organized trainings in and tours to India where people become immersed in a presentation of bhakti culture rooted in Indian spirituality as a means to introduce and deepen people’s connection to bhakti.

 

Rama Raya Dasa has a traditional presentation of Krishna consciousness based on harinam-sankirtan, which he performs daily with a core group of devotees in the traditional ISKCON dress. Although at times I had questions about the refinement of its presentation, I can’t deny the results. Some of the most proficient and dedicated devotees in New York were introduced to Krishna consciousness by Rama Raya’s program; these persons may not have been attracted to a program that didn’t openly display Krishna consciousness with the same level of sacrifice, sincerity, and purity.

 

I could go with other successful outreach programs in the West that do not shy away from an external presentation of Indian culture, but this is already uncharacteristically long for a Monday Morning Greetings.

 

Srila Prabhupada defined realization as the ability to communicate. Without deep realization of Srila Prabhupada’s teachings one does one of two things: one expresses Krishna consciousness only as one has met it, in its traditional form, even at times when it would prove more effective to communicate the message in another form; or, in the attempt to communicate Krishna consciousness outside the traditional cultural form, one changes the form and in the process dilutes or even loses the original message. Devotees with deep realization are able to carefully adjust a tradition’s cultural expression when needed while keeping its original message intact. The ability to do this was certainly a great part of Srila Prabhupada’s success in the West. People with realization may thus inspire others to go out in ISKCON’s traditional dress and, say, meet the public while distributing books, but teach them to do so in an attractive manner; or they may develop programs where the identity and culture of India may be used selectively or not at all. Hridayananda Maharaja has chosen to do the latter. If he succeeds, kudos to him, but let’s also honor all those who have the realization to communicate bhakti effectively according to their capacity and nature, whether they shave their heads or wear an Indian sari or they don pants and a baseball cap.

 

 

 


[1] This is part one of a two-part series. Here we will deal with the culture of India that Srila Prabhupada introduced in ISKCON in terms of presenting Krishna consciousness. Part Two will deal with that culture in terms of its value in developing Krishna consciousness.

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2020 #39 – You’re Wrong!

September 28th, 2020

You’re Wrong![1]

 

How we fight those words even when, well… we’re obviously wrong.

 

It was the early morning in Vṛndāvana during my japa meditation. As my concentration deepened, some mistakes that I made drifted into my consciousness. I could let those thoughts go, or at least I could have tried, but their nature was forcing me to confront them.

 

Then, before the pain of admission could pinch my ego, I heard a soothing internal voice: “It wasn’t your fault! It was circumstantial. The mistakes were exaggerated. And you have accepted responsibility. You’re so humble…”

 

Just as I was rationalizing my faults, however, I was hit by a more powerful and challenging message. That week in my daily sat-saga I had been teaching the story “The Deliverance of the Wives of the Brāhmaṇas” from the Tenth Canto of the Bhāgavatam. I had just lectured on the part where the learned, austere brāhmaas were awakened not only to their own offenses, but also to the realization of how paltry their spiritual attainment was compared to their simple wives. They condemned themselves in the harshest way:

 

“To hell with our being initiated priests, our vows of celibacy, and our extensive learning! To hell with our aristocratic background and our expertise in the ritual of sacrifice! These are all condemned because we are inimical to the transcendental Personality of Godhead.” (Bhāg.10.23.40)

 

What struck me in this story was the Sanskrit word used for remorse, which I gleaned to have the same root as tapa, which means “austerity” or “heat”. At least that’s how I read it. The story brought to my mind the point that embracing our faults is an austerity, a practice that burns our false ego – that cherished conception of being better than others, of being the controller and enjoyer.

 

So, that day, as I was watching the process of rationalization co-opting any sense of remorse, I thought of this pastime and was inspired to stop rationalizing and let the acknowledgement of my blunders burn the false ego, that insidious desire to be the controller. Internally I screamed, but at the same time the holy name became more and more the focus of my consciousness as I embraced the humble position.

 

“You’re wrong!” Oh, how we hate those words, but at the same time how good they can be for us if we accept them properly. We have studied the teachings the Gītā so many times, and we abhor the self-centered. Why then should it be so difficult to hear these words, even for one fairly advanced on the path?

 

We have come to this world to seek our pleasure from enjoyment, not service. We thus seek power in the form of wealth, education, beauty, position, and so on to conform the world to our desires and a sense of superiority. As admitting our mistakes even to one other person, or just to ourselves, means a diminishment of status or a loss of power, we fight that conception tooth and nail, even if it belies our core values, and it is unbecoming to our spiritual life.

 

It is counter intuitive, but all glories to “I’m wrong!

 

 


[1] This is an article from four years ago published on approximately the same month and date as today. It is not that I didn’t write a new Monday Morning Greeting. I did complete one and was very satisfied with what I wrote. But on further reflection I decided that the point I was trying to make was deeper than I initially thought, and an important topic, so I should take more time to revise the article. The article is an analysis of Krishna West, an institution within ISKCON dedicated to making Krishna consciousness relevant in the West.

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2020 #38 – The Culture of Faith

September 21st, 2020

The Culture of Faith[1]

 

Have you ever heard of the “Sherborn Gathering”? Over twenty years ago I started a yearly academic conference with young devotees who were newly transitioning out of the brahmacari ashram,[2] and who sought to make their career in academia. It was hosted every summer in a mansion owned by one of the participant’s parents in Sherborn, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. My purpose for organizing the conference was to provide these young devotees with peer comradery, as well as senior guidance. In that regard, Jayadvaita Swami, Śrīla Prabhupāda’s main English editor, and Pradyumna Prabhu, Śrīla Prabhupāda’s main Sanskrit editor, also attended.

 

I think the gatherings, which continued for ten years, were successful. The participants made life-long friendships, and most went on to achieve successful academic careers.[3] The tricky part for me as the convenor of the conference was to balance our devotional objectives with the rare occasion when one of the participants had chosen a presentation in his field of study, which may have been a critical exploration of one of the basic foundations of Krishna-consciousness. One such talk was an examination of Bhagavad-gītā As It Is based on writings in the field of scholarship that critically analyzed it.

 

Although I had doubts about the appropriateness of the presentation, I was happy with the conclusions reached after a vigorous discussion. Half the young scholars at the conference had previously attended the school I established in New Jersey to thoroughly study the basic Vaiṣṇava texts through Śrīla Prabhupāda’s books. They testified that as a result of that study their understanding of the Bhagavad-gītā was, in general, much deeper than those that they met in the university who had studied and taught it from other translations. The authenticity and effectiveness of Bhagavad-gītā As It Is stood as the natural conclusion of that session.

 

Although I was relieved, I still didn’t feel right about the presentation. I told Pradyumna about what had transpired and asked his opinion, as he had arrived late and missed that session. He offered a word of caution about how such presentations should proceed, by describing what he called the “culture of faith”. He gave many examples; One stood out. Contemporary Sanskrit scholars in the line of Madhvacarya sometimes find a mistake, I assumed not philosophical, made in a commentary by one of their revered acaryas written over 500 years ago. When they write about it, however, they never say the acarya is wrong. Instead they just write “rsi ucuh (the sagie said),” repeat what the acarya wrote, even if they believe it isn’t accurate, and then follow that with their version without passing judgment.

 

What Pradyumna explained struck a chord with me. Over the years, I have contemplated its meaning. Faith is the mechanism in the mind that allows us to contemplate and apply truths beyond our limited frame of reference to expand our awareness. Without it, our understanding is basically limited to our present conditioned frame of reference. St. Anslem summed up the necessity for faith in traditions of knowledge and the teachers who represent them: “I believe so that I may understand.” As faith is the precursor to knowledge, a proper society therefore maintains a culture that strengthens the mechanism of faith for the purpose of supporting the general enlightenment of its citizens.

 

What better testimony to this than Sri Krishna promoting such faith in His teachings to Uddhava, where He describes the necessity for a student to respect the authority of their teacher as if it were God speaking?

 

“One should know the ācārya as Myself and never disrespect him in any way. One should not envy him, thinking him an ordinary man, for he is the representative of all the demigods.” (Bhag. 11.17 27)

 

What to do, however, if one cannot accept the authority of their teacher? It is unfortunate. Either one has the wrong teacher, or one is a poor student. There are legitimate safeguards in such traditional societies to protect the citizens from unqualified teachers and to encourage students to raise all their doubts until they are cleared. Unless, however, one has implicit faith in a proper spiritual authority, no matter how intelligent one is, the expansion of our consciousness will always be impeded. Without strong faith in someone more spiritually realized and learned than us, what mechanism do we have to advance in our understanding and overcome the illusion that covers us all in this world—the vision that there is no reality beyond our present perception and opinions?

 

Even in science, culture is defined as an environment that allows something to grow to its potential. Vaiṣṇava culture is meant help the soul mature to love of Godhead. One of its main constructs are the ways one behaves to facilitate learning, including dealing with elders and especially teachers. This culture of respect fortifies the aspect of the mind that engenders trust, which is essential when we are fortunate enough to find a teacher.

 

Back to our Sherborn Gathering. If I knew then what I know now, would I have done anything differently? At least I would have injected into the conversation a healthy discussion on the culture of respect. It is certainly an important consideration, for among other things, “Your faith can move mountains, and your doubt can create them.”[4]

 

 


[1] There are many deep issues to be resolved about the issue of faith, including the danger of blind following. They are beyond the scope of this paper to discuss, but I have addressed these issues in other articles.  https://wavesofdevotion.com/2018/07/16/the-marriage-of-faith-and-doubt/

[2] Celibate student life

[3] Among the participants in our original Sherborn Gathering who completed their PhD, we now have professors of Philosophy in Boston, the University of North Carolina, and University of Florida; a Sanskrit professor at Brown University; and the Program Director for the Yale School of Sacred Music.

[4] This is an anonymous quote. When we do find a proper teacher doubts may rise. That is welcome. According to Lord Kapiladeva that is one of the five aspects of intelligence. But that type of doubt is not doubting the authority of our teacher, which makes the relationship not highly functional, but doubting our understanding and raising questions to elicit further meaning. (Bhag. 3.26 30)

Monday Morning Greetings 2020 #37 – Waiting for God, Oh!

September 14th, 2020

Waiting for God, Oh![1]

 

It was 1976. I was sitting in the temple room of the former Hare Krishna skyscraper on 55th Street in Manhattan. Kirtanananda Swami, in good standing at the time, was giving class. He was known for being laconic, a kind of master of spiritual one-liners. At least what he said was powerful enough that it stirred my intellect. I remember it to this day:

 

“Waiting is the greatest surrender!”

 

Surrender means to accept that there is an authority, a truth, that is higher than our opinions and desires, and that we must make sacrifices to follow it.[2] I hear that expressed today, perhaps without deep understanding and in a seemingly gentler way, in the phrases “Let go!” or “Go with the flow.” In other words, stop resisting what you should do, and be in harmony with something greater than yourself. That’s called character. We struggle with character, with surrender, because we are here in this world with the expressed desire to be the central enjoyer, and thus lack faith that the universal will is higher than our own.

 

I am not sure waiting is the greatest surrender, but when I heard the phrase it struck a chord. I reflected on how difficult it is to wait for something that I felt was important that was beyond my control to quickly obtain. It struck a nerve, for the desire for self-centered enjoyment is embedded in the DNA of this world. Waiting thus takes surrender, because it’s a challenge to be happy with God’s will when one has absolutely no power to attain what one desires.

 

Obviously, these are “pandemic” thoughts. When Covid-19 first hit and everyone was quarantined, I marveled at God’s power. In one fell swoop, Krishna announced to everyone in the world, even the most powerful controllers, “Stay in your home!” And now, six months later, Krishna seems be saying the same thing in just a little bit of a different way: “Just wait!” Quite tough, especially when you are waiting for a ticket to Vrindavan.

 

Yes, waiting is a great surrender. It is one of the ways God tells us we are not the controller. The thoughtful, who finally hear and happily accept that message, even while waiting, certainly reap the fruits of spiritual surrender—the opening of the door to bhakti.

 

 

Waiting for God, oh,

He answered my loud demands,

“Wait like Her, longing.” [3]

 


[1] The title is a pun. I wonder how many people get it?

[2] We are conditioned to hear the word “surrender” in a negative way. I have previously written about this: https://wavesofdevotion.com/2016/02/29/is-surrender-a-bad-word/

[3] I got feedback that people liked the haiku at the end of the Monday Morning Greetings two weeks ago. I asked Jan, my poet friend, to write another one for this article.

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2020 #36 – But the Quality of Life Hasn’t Improved!

September 7th, 2020

Two months ago, I woke up with some stiffness in my left thigh that was quite debilitating. Within two days, I could no longer find a comfortable position to sleep at night and was forced to rest in a recliner chair. The stiffness began to shift to different parts of my body until I couldn’t even put on my socks or lift a t-shirt over my head without great difficulty. I was constantly cold and required two blankets and a sweatshirt at night even though it was the summer. My comprehensive blood work could not come up with the cause of my illness. As my condition had already persisted for six weeks, the doctor offered the option of steroids to relieve my discomfort, which I postponed to first seek an alternative. Fortunately, soon after my blood test, a devotee with a certification in Chinese Medicine called to offer a visit. The cause of my debilitation was immediately identified. I had textbook symptoms of B1 syndrome dampness. A protocol for recovering my health was recommended, including acupuncture, fresh ground Chinese herbs, and avoidance of the foods causing the disturbance. I was seventy per cent better after the first two acupuncture treatments. After a month, my condition is almost back to normal. My personal experience of the profound effect of an ancient medical system reminded me what Śrīla Prabhupāda often stressed—that the advancement of civilization based on modern scientific and technological improvement is a myth.

 

Certainly, there is no dearth of advanced material knowledge in ancient life traditions, such as medicine and architecture, to challenge the view that advancement in civilization is exclusive to the evolvement of modern society over time. What is even a stronger argument to debunk the view that progress in civilization is advancing over time is that the real template of what makes civilization advanced is its ability to elevate the consciousness of its citizens, and in that regard modern civilization has sorely failed. That the standard of advancement of civilization should primarily deal with the mind is just common sense. What value does a new gadget have, or anything for that matter, no matter how startling the wizardry, if it is not connected with the elevation of the mind? And what does Elon Musk and Silicon Valley contribute to that?

 

Śrīla Prabhupāda would often give a clear example to illustrate how advancement in technology is not commensurate in itself with the advancement of civilization. He defined animal life as eating, sleeping, mating, and defending and challenged how using a sophisticated car to pursue those goals is more advanced than the four legs of a dog moving for the same objectives.

 

I sometimes wonder if we modern yogis have a disconnect with what we read in the texts of our traditions about the advancement of civilization and how we live our lives. Have we gauged the environment that we have weaved around us and its effect on the upliftment of our minds? Have we been subtly conditioned to a false standard of happiness based on technology and in the process sacrificed a more evolved mode of living and thinking?  Do we even notice?

 

In 1980, when I returned to the USA to visit my parents after three years of living in India, my mother immediately took me to the supermarket to pick up a few things that suited my diet. I was taken aback when the price of the items we purchased were marked and added immediately on the cash register just by touching them to the counter, an innovation introduced only after I had already left for India. I immediately blurted out, “Things have advanced so much!” I paused, then immediately corrected myself based on what I had been taught, “But the quality of life has not improved!” The cashier shook her head affirmatively, and even my mother could see the validity of what I said.

 

I sit here writing this in fairly good health in a world that is imbued with the marvels of technology and reflect how what I said forty years ago is more relevant today than ever before: “But the quality of life hasn’t improved!”

 

 

 

You can best serve civilization by being against what usually passes for it.”
― Wendell Berry

 

(When asked what he thought of Western civilization): “I think it would be a good idea.”
― Mahatma Gandhi

 

“Civilization is a hopeless race to discover remedies for the evils it produces.”
― Rousseau

 

“The truest test of civilization is not the census, size of cities, or crops; but the kind of man the country turns out.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

“Progressive civilization is based on Brahminical culture,[1] God consciousness and protection of cows”[2][3]

―  A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami

 

 

 


[1] A society and its culture guided by people in sattva-guṇa (the mode of goodness) who are thus learned and well-behaved.

[2] Bhag. 1.19.3, Purport

[3] This is a bit unorthodox, but I need to include here a note from my previous Monday Morning Greetings. I saw the necessity to end my last piece about “regret” with a haiku. I received a lot of feedback that people liked it. I didn’t sufficiently make clear its origin, and I wanted to clarify that. After I wrote it, I sent it to my friend Jan Potemkin, who studied Asian Literature in graduate school and is a poet. He found that one essential component of the haiku needed to be enhanced ― that it must have more imagery. So, he rewrote it and sent it back.

 

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2020 #35 – I Regret

August 31st, 2020

Regret is the first stage of devotion. Without regretting, to one degree or another, our past mistakes that were based on a desire to control and enjoy, how will we ultimately embrace our identity as unalloyed servants of God? The Sanskrit for regret or remorse is tapa, which is the same word for austerity or heat. There is nothing that burns the false ego more than acknowledging that our life and self-image as the center was regrettable. Tapa is therefore the first of five saṁskāras for those committing themselves to the devotional path.

 

Those who can relinquish the false ego in this way and humbly surrender to the tenets of the bhakti lineage become qualified to awaken their spiritual identity. I lament that when first committing myself to bhakti my regret was not deep enough to thwart my lingering false ego that sometimes mixed with my devotional service. At the age of 70, I therefore look back on my life and see within my service many mistakes due to material identity (false ego).

 

Although it is difficult to look back and acknowledge our frailties, I can sense how sincere regret can potentially deepen devotion. The false ego covers the soul from feeling our connection with Krishna. Regret razes the ego, allowing us to directly feel Krishna’s mercy, which inspires us to call out His name in devotion.

 

Perhaps this sounds a bit morbid. Isn’t our self-esteem today already so battered?  It is true that regret diminishes our self-conception, but I think that is very different from low self-esteem. Low self-esteem is feeling bad about one’s lack of material status, although still desiring it. Tapa, on the others hand, is not about lamenting material status, but regretting having desired it, and in the process forgetting God. Regret thus uncovers the soul and allows one to feel authentic self-worth, being loved and recognized by God as His insignificant humble servant.

 

A well-known example of the type of tapa that impels one to heights of devotion is found in the story of Yāmunācārya. He was a king who naturally enjoyed the pleasure of wealth and women. Upon visiting the famous Ranganatha temple, he had an epiphany that his life of sensual pleasure was regrettable. He immediately renounced the world to live as a sannyāsa. His strong sentiments of tapa or regret kept him humble and inspired. They are immortalized in a famous line from one of his compositions:

 

“Since I have been engaged in the transcendental loving service of Krishna, realizing ever-new pleasure in Him, whenever I think of sex pleasure I spit at the thought, and my lips curl with distaste.”

 

Yāmunācārya was speaking as a great renunciate, who had transcended the bodily platform and was relishing the highest levels of devotional ecstasy. His mood of regret, however, is something for us all to emulate. I regret.

 

Regretting old faults,
toss them on the altar flames.
Fragrant soul ascends.

 

 

 

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2020 #34 –  Sri Radha Made Simple in Ten Easy Steps

August 24th, 2020

  1. In this world everyone is seeking happiness, and that happiness is ultimately found in love.
     
  2. If that is the guiding principle in this world, why should it not be part of its source, the ultimate reality?
     
  3. If there is love in the spiritual realm, there must also be beauty, for love means to offer the best.
     
  4. This correlation between happiness, love, and beauty is the key to understanding Śrī Rādhā.
     
  5. Krishna’s happiness potency (that which gives Him pleasure) is called hlādinī śakti, the essence of which is Krishna prema or love of Godhead. When that love is heightened to the highest degree, it is called mahābhāva. Śrī Rādhā is mahābhāva svarūpa, the form of the highest love (and pleasure). In other words, as Radha is the personification of the happiness potency, which is intense love, Radha has the full capacity to offer such love in terms of Her exemplary qualities.
     
  6. To understand Radha more deeply one has to understand the relationship between love, an internal emotion, and the necessity of a concrete expression of that love to enable another to feel it. An example should help. When we love someone, we may offer them flowers to express our love. Why? Flowers are fragrant, colorful, and may be soft and smooth. The experience of those flowers is not just a sensual experience, but an emotional one, which is the experience of the love from the person who has offered it so nicely.
     
  7. Similarly, as Śrī Rādhā is an expression of God’s own potency of love, there is no limit to the intensity and greatness of Her qualities to express that love. Descriptions of those characteristics and abilities, however, can give us some idea of the intensity of her love. For example, here is a description of Śrī Rādhā’s beauty from Ujjvala-nīlamaṇi, just one of Her twenty-five prominent qualities:
     
    “The beauty of Śrī Rādhā’s smile defeats the beauty of a blue lotus. The beauty of Her face defeats the beauty of a forest of blue lotuses, and the luster of Her body puts gold in a painful situation.”
     
  8. Śrī Rādhā’s many ornaments and decorations, which She adorns only for the pleasure of Krishna, are also a personification of mahābhāva, the highest manifestation of Krishna prema, and naturally non-different from Her. Therefore, Krishna’s experience of Śrī Rādhā, down to His appreciation of those decorations, are the highest experience of happiness.
     
  9. Only someone who is impersonal is not conquered by love. As Krishna is the Supreme Person, He is responsive to and conquered by true devotion. As Śrī Rādhā is the highest form of love, Her twenty-fifth transcendental quality is that She always keeps Krishna under Her control.
     
  10. How is this relevant to us? Śrīla Prabhupāda instructs us:
     
    “Rādhārāṇī, the symbol of the topmost bhakti, is so powerful that She has purchased Krishna. Therefore, Vrajavāsīs[1] take shelter of the lotus feet of Rādhārāṇī, for if She recommends, ‘O here is a nice devotee,’ Krishna must accept him.” (Teachings of Queen Kuntī)
     

 

 


[1] The devotees who reside in Vṛndāvana, Śrī Krishna’s abode.

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2020 #33 – If You Think It is a Good Idea

August 17th, 2020

There is something charming about Krishna’s relationship with the residents of Vrindavan. Almost as enlivening as hearing about the rasa of Krishna and the Brijabasis is hearing the gems of philosophical understanding that are placed within those stories. It is almost as if they have been carefully placed there just to take advantage of the receptive heart that has been opened by the sweetness of those stories itself. Today we will discuss one of those points. First the context:

 

Krishna’s friends forcibly, but with love, ask Krishna and Balarama to quell their hunger by going to the forest of Tālavana, where hundreds of thousands of succulent, fragrant tāla fruits are lying on the ground, guarded by the ferocious man-eating ass demon and his cohorts. After informing Krishna three times in no uncertain terms how great their desire is for these fruits, they end their entreaty by qualifying their request with two simple words: yadi rocate (“if you think it is a good idea”). Thus, hidden within this sweet story rests a powerful instruction: There is room on the path of bhakti for our own personal desires, as long as they conform to the will of God.

 

Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura speaks very strongly about the necessity for personal enjoyment even when on the path of bhakti: “Without enjoying the sense objects, a living entity cannot survive. As soon as the living entity gives up sense enjoyment, he leaves the body.” (Śrī Bhaktyāloka p. 2)

 

When I initially read Śrīla Bhaktivinoda’s comment, I was a bit surprised by how strong it was, considering that the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam seems to repeatedly espouse almost the opposite. One of my favorite verses in this regard: “My dear sons, there is no reason to labor very hard for sense pleasure while in this human form of life; such pleasures are available to the stool-eaters (hogs).” (Bhag. 5.5.1)

 

The simple reconciliation of the two perspectives is that sense gratification is heavily condemned when not sanctioned by the Lord and allowed if Krishna “thinks it is a good idea.” The question, then, is when does Krishna think it is a good idea?

 

A healthy peaceful mind facilitates meditation and devotional service. For that, different people require different levels of enjoyment. When our goal is self-realization and we sincerely take only what is prescribed to keep body and soul together, then our sense gratification is what Krishna so desires, or at least has been sanctioned by Him.

 

When sense pleasure, however, becomes the goal in itself, which is usually the case in this world, then it is not what Krishna thinks is a good idea. It is then utterly condemned.

 

This relationship between sense pleasure and devotion is clearly outlined in Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 1.2.10 in response to a question that commentators imply from the previous verse: “What about sense gratification (kāma) on the path of bhakti?” Sūta Gosvāmī answers that sense gratification is not for the pleasure of the senses in itself (kāmasya nendriya-prītir). We should only take as much as we need (lābho jīveta yāvatā) to maintain a heathy life for the purpose of realizing the self (jīvasya tattva-jijñāsā). Simply put, although we may get pleasure from the senses, its purpose should only be to satisfy our need for a peaceful mind for the higher endeavor of self-realization.

 

The cowherd boys’ simple words, “if you think it is a good idea”, in the midst of their sweet, playful exchanges with Krishna are a powerful template for all of one’s activities. The most important consciousness for a devotee to have, therefore, is the mood and conviction that nothing I do or want should be independent of the will of God. A sincere bhakta, therefore, carefully gauges all of their activities, even their sensual and emotional needs, by sincerely petitioning Krishna in their heart with the same simple words of Krishna’s friends: “if you think it is a good idea.”

 

Next »