Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #20 – Trust No Future However Pleasant

May 20th, 2019

It’s quite a relaxing ride. I’m in the passenger seat answering mail on my phone as we cruise down the scenic Palisades Parkway on our way to the city. I receive a call. It’s Pradyumna. We exchange many thoughts. He laments that more people do not take advantage of his advanced Sanskrit class. He is going through the various commentaries on the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam to train students how to understand the depth of our philosophy, something he is uniquely qualified to do. He laments that more devotees in the city are not taking advantage of what he is giving: “I may not be here for long. Who knows — a few years, a few months, or even twenty minutes.” As soon as he says twenty minutes — zoom! A deer darts in front of our car. Al quickly swerves to the left and misses the deer by a hair. He then swerves to the right, barely steadying the car back in our lane.

 

Al has a small PT Cruiser. If we had hit the deer the car would have been totaled at best; at worst the deer would have crashed through the windshield. Who can say what destiny holds? I can’t help but see the synchronicity between Pradyumna’s call and the deer immediately tempting our fate. I read it as, “Take care of what is important now, for the future cannot be trusted.”

 

Such thoughts have already been on my mind. I am already past sixty-eight. When in the world did that happen? How long can one put off what one should and can do now? But it is not just a matter of one’s age. The message, the urgency, is for all. It’s a theme that seems to be re-occurring.

 

I began reading the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam again from the beginning about a month ago, and I kept on running into that message of urgency. I was struck by the answer to the question by King Parīkṣit upon which the whole text is constructed: “What is the duty of man who is about to die?” His answer: “Your question is most glorious for it is most relevant and beneficial for everyone.” The import of Śukadeva’s answer is clear. Such a question is relevant to everyone as impending doom is universal. It can strike anyone anytime, so who can say who is the person who is about to die? The inquiry is thus glorious because no one can put off such inquiries for the future, which therefore requires an immediate solution.

 

When what one is reading and experiencing in life synchronize, the message should not be taken lightly. Of course, I am a monk (sannyāsi), and renunciation is my station in life, so I have specific duties, but the urgency of self-realization does not mean sannyāsa. Everyone one has responsibilities according to their station in life and responsibilities in their spiritual practices according to their level of advancement. We all need to be wary of habits of rationalization or lethargy that put off for the future what we should and can do now. That includes, of course, a specific and appropriate spiritual practice. Our availability to God’s will in all aspects of one’s life is what bhakti means. That depth of surrender is the challenge of life and what we all need to confront now.

 

I was discussing with a friend how this tendency to put off things until the future is symptomatic of the lower modes of nature. He related an interesting story that highlights this unfortunate psychology:

 

A person was visiting some friends who were perfect hosts. Every day they would feed him a sumptuous feast. He felt challenged. The food was delicious and served with so much love, but he was gaining weight, and it wasn’t good for his health. He thought of a brilliant idea to help him control himself. He immediately went to his room and put a sign above his head on the ceiling that read “Tomorrow I will fast”. Sure enough, when he woke up the next morning the first thing he saw was the sign. He therefore vowed that tomorrow he would fast. He was thus able to somehow feel good about his sincerity and determination and be assured that he would never have to regulate himself at the same time.

 

I loved the story. It’s so true. How foolish! We make vows for the future to feel good about ourselves, but that is usually all we achieve because things almost never happen unless we do them now. I think the famous American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow summed it up so succinctly in his famous line, “Trust no future however pleasant”.[1] Sādhus take heed!

 

 

 


[1] From the poem “A Psalm of Life”.

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #19 – Heart Massage

May 13th, 2019

I am often asked how I come up with a topic to write about every week. It seems a bit mystical. I just think about the first realization that came to mind since I began the last Greetings. I then begin to write. I often get stuck on a paragraph, or even a sentence, feeling hopeless on how to proceed. It’s hard to envision a completed piece. I move forward, however, in the mood of service, confident that the inspiration will surely come for Krishna is in everyone’s heart and from Him comes remembrance and knowledge[1]. Inevitably it does. Writing is just such a faith builder because it works every time. I start, can’t imagine how something of worth will come, but then watch the process unfold. By the time I am finished, I am generally quite surprised by the result. It seems to have far exceeded my own abilities, almost as if I didn’t write it myself.

 

I am staying upstate this week at my place. It is my paradise. Nothing to do, no one to meet. Just writing and chanting. Japa meditation, and all forms of meditation, are like starting a car. You don’t start in the highest gear. You have to gradually build up speed. So gaining chanting momentum takes some time, not in how quickly I am chanting, but in the intensity of focus attained. I have that time this week, and with increased focus comes realization. Well, I had one. Chanting is like a heart massage. And that is the focus of today’s Greetings.

 

A massage is something one enjoys that happens to one without one’s effort. The holy name is Krishna. We can’t create God, or the holy name, by our effort. It is something that only manifests to us fully by Krishna’s mercy in response to our heart or the sincerity of our chanting, and when the holy name does come no effort is required. Chanting then happens to us. We can relax. Let the vibration of the holy name massage the heart.

 

Krishna is not different than His name. We vibrate the name and we have direct communion with God. The vibration of the holy name is the hands of God loosening the knots of desire in the heart. Don’t just hear the holy name, feel the holy name. Let the vibration of the holy name massage the heart.

 

The best massage is done out of love. The holy name masseur does not charge anything. He is serving His devotee only out of love. The heart massage is thus Krishna’s mercy — undeserved kindness. We feel grateful. Devotion then awakens along with a strong desire to serve. And what is that service? To become purified. We accept the caress of God only to make our heart a worthy offering of devotion. Heart massage is thus our most important service. Let the vibration of the holy name massage the heart.

 

Krishna giveth. Krishna taketh. I haven’t really met my quota in the sense that I prefer Monday Morning Greetings to be a bit longer. Usually the flow continues and ends at right about the appropriate length. I paraphrased at the beginning a verse from the Bhagavad-gītā where it describes that Krishna gives remembrance and knowledge. I left out a part. From Him also comes forgetfulness. Krishna has turned off the flow of this article, so I guess it is time to end. Maybe I will just go for another massage and wait for my next realization to appear.

 

 

 


[1] Paraphrase of Bhagavad-gītā 15.15

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #18 – Difficult and Simple at the Same Time

May 6th, 2019

It’s early morning. My thoughts are clear. As I am writing, a simple but challenging question suddenly appears: Why am I writing this article? Is it for “likes”, a fan base, or any other egoistic adulation that fuels my sojourn in this world? Bhakti is for Krishna. Am I really writing for Krishna? If not, then how is it bhakti? I feel challenged. Bhakti, only for Krishna?! That’s not easy! A counter thought comes: But anyone can do bhakti, even a child. Bhakti is easy. Well, which is it? Here are my reflections.

 

Bhakti is easy

 

The Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam was originally spoken in four verses from Krishna to Lord Brahma at the beginning of creation. The fourth verse describes the abhidheya-tattva, the means for realizing the truth, which is bhakti. Bhakti is specifically described there by the words sarvatra (applicable in all space and time) and sarvadā (applicable in all circumstances). Bhakti is thus a path that is uniquely independent of any material prerequisite. In that sense it is the easiest thing to do.

 

In his commentary on this verse, which is almost eighteen pages, Śrīla Prabhupāda supports this contention of how the qualification for bhakti is so undemanding and so easy that there is no impediment to executing it, whether by caste, gender, creed, or even species. Even the unborn are qualified![1] Śrīla Prabhupāda once said that his purports are his personal ecstasy. Perhaps his extended thoughts in his long purport on the universal applicability of bhakti are an expression of his faith and joy in sharing bhakti with all.

 

“Therefore there is no need to seek properly qualified candidates for discharging devotional service to the Lord. Let them be either well-behaved or ill trained, let them be learned or fools, let them be either grossly attached or in the renounced order of life, let them be liberated souls or desirous of salvation, let them be inexpert in the discharge of devotional service or expert in the same — all of them can be elevated to the supreme position by discharging devotional service under the proper guidance.” (Bhag. 2.9.36, Purport)

 

It’s quite a declarative statement. The conclusion couldn’t be clearer: As bhakti is applicable in all time, place, and circumstance there can be nothing easier than practicing bhakti. But is it?

 

Bhakti is not easy

 

Even the simplest things are often the most difficult to execute when you have no interest or liking for them. Have you ever struggled with saying “I am sorry” or “I am wrong”? You can do either immediately in any circumstance, but it all depends on your liking — whether you want to do it or not.

 

Bhakti is like that. Although it is the simplest thing to do because there are no material prerequisites for practicing devotion — even a child can bow his head before God — it is still difficult to execute if you have no interest or liking. But how can one not like to do bhakti?

 

Certainly, simple devotional activities that attract us are to our liking and easy to do, and our various tastes in Krishna consciousness are the door to our full absorption. Pure bhakti, however, is a bit different. It is not just the activities we like to do in devotion, but the consciousness and identity in which all our activities are done. Pure devotion is to serve God without motive, never seeking the center for ourselves. To the extent that we are still seeking to be the center and thus still desiring for ourselves profit, adoration, and distinction for ourselves, is the degree to which devotional activities will be difficult when we see no personal gain. Can we deny that this spirit to be the enjoyer and controller rests in all of us, both subtle and gross? Otherwise why wouldn’t we fully surrender to guru and Krishna right now when such devotion is the ultimate benefit?

 

I like the way Śrīla Prabhupāda reconciled this simple yet difficult quandary with a concise phrase: “The process is simple. The application is difficult.”

 

My internal struggle today with writing

 

Back to my inner dialogue. Am I writing for Krishna? Is it bhakti and is bhakti easy or difficult to do? These are my thoughts: Writing is my service and it takes determination and sacrifice to do it. That’s certainly devotion. Sure, I see that there are personal fruits from my service that agitate subtle desires for distinction, but the main thing is to engage in devotional service and to give your work to God. No matter what impels us, we will be purified. But is that enough for me?

 

Śrīla Prabhupāda taught pure devotion. It means not just giving your work to God but giving yourself to God. And once you offer yourself to guru and Krishna then whatever you do will automatically be offered to Krishna and imbued with devotion. That’s real bhakti, and that’s my goal and also my challenge, to just write in a spirit of devotion.

 

I am writing this before a large picture of Śrīla Prabhupāda. I begin and end with a prayer that I may consciously write only for his pleasure, without any desire for personal adulation or profit. For one who fully takes shelter of a guru that is very easy from the start. Just flip the switch to the consciousness that I am servant of guru and Krishna, and we are liberated. So easy. Yes, simple, but easier said than done.

 

 


[1] Śrī Prahlāda performed devotional service in the womb when his pregnant mother listened daily to Śrī Nārada recite the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam.

 

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #17 – Seeing Through the Eyes of the Q Train

April 29th, 2019

Yes, us New Yorkers pride ourselves on our “antennas”. It’s a phrase we use for reading minds, a skill that seems to get refined by growing up here while negotiating the melting pot of various people, streets, and hoods. A more gross synonym for antennas would be “crap detectors”. Pardon my French. Better I stick with the term “mind reading”, or even “antennas”. Today I decided to practice my skill on the Q train. Well, not exactly practice. I haven’t used the trains for some time and was looking forward to studying New Yorkers on my way to join the kirtan in Union Square. A thought came to mind: Is this “antenna” thing just imagination or a silly cultural pride? I remember reading something on the subject of mind reading.

 

Malcolm Gladwell, in his classic Blink, discusses how the science of mind reading was discovered. He describes how two scientists, Silvan Tamken and Paul Eisen, studied the correlation between the activation of 3,000 different combinations of the muscles in the face with the emotions they represent. They then categorized them scientifically into what they called the Facial Action Coding System (FACA). Gladwell describes that Tamken was so proficient in understanding the face as a language of emotions that he could walk into a post office and tell by just looking at the most wanted criminal posters what crime they had committed.

 

In a similar vein, Gladwell also discusses autism, the mental disability where one is “mind blind”, or unable to see what another person is thinking by observing his or her behavior and bodily expression. So yes, there is something like “antennas” — an ability to decipher what a person is thinking and feeling by observing the contortion of muscles in their face. Now, back to the Q train.

 

I put on my “antennas” for the thirty-minute ride. My first impression from scanning the train: “All the lonely people, where do they all come from?”[1] Well, that didn’t take much heightened perception. Anyone could see that ordinary people in the city are generally miserable and exhausted to one degree or another. No special talent here. How could you miss what the people there were thinking and feeling about life?

 

Sitting next to me I observed some people whose mood seemed to be in stark contrast to the other people in the train. They looked so light and unburdened. The group was composed of two young Orthodox, not Hassidic, Jewish couples in their late twenties/early thirties and their children. They were joined by another middle-aged couple that seemed to be the parents or in-laws of the couples. I could overhear them talking. Maybe their buoyed spirits were because they were taking their children to the zoo, but it was more than that. I think my prejudice would tend to see Orthodox people as stodgy, but here I was surprised by how relatively carefree and joyful they were, and how functional and satisfying they seemed in their relationships with one another.

 

As I was carefully studying the situation, I began to notice that in assessing the situation around me I was using a tool even more insightful than the mind reading one. I also had at my disposal the lens of knowledge from studying a tradition of knowledge for so many years. In other words, more important than what you see is having the tools to properly evaluate it. In my tradition that tool is called, jñāna-cakṣus, seeing through the eyes of śāstra or knowledge.

 

One way to highlight the importance of jñāna-cakṣus is by describing what it would be like to perceive something without such a lens of knowledge. For example, without the lens of knowledge a misguided person could see someone as humble, but misunderstand it as weakness, while at the same time seeing one with bravado and ego as someone to emulate.  The ability to appropriately value and digest our perceptions is thus essential to navigating the world properly. Here’s what I saw today through the eyes of knowledge.

 

Through the lens of śāstra I could see beyond the fact that these people were relatively happy to the reason they were so carefree.  I have gleaned from the śāstra four pillars of stability[2] that are essential for a relatively peaceful life: a set place that one calls one’s lifelong residence, a stable life partner, a suitable and satisfying career path, and a set spiritual tradition or path to pursue. A stable tradition and community provide these pillars of stability automatically to their congregation, where the modern man, generally lacking a culture and tradition, is mostly left on his own to gain footing in life. As a result, so much energy that should be used for spiritual development has to be channeled into establishing one’s basic foundation, especially the burdensome task of finding a suitable partner, what to speak of finding a community and occupation that supports and suits one’s nature. What anxiety!

 

The first principle of satisfaction is understanding that the world is not just about oneself. Commitment to family and community, although not the highest conception of the self in itself, does give relief from the burning angst of selfishness by inspiring the principle of duty before self. Spiritual traditions that foster community by teaching and inspiring commitment to a common interest help the individual transcend the limited or selfish “I”, the root of all despair.

 

Finally, a tradition that emphasizes and keeps family and community intact provides the individual with a greater variety of healthy and dependable relationships. If there is one thing more than anything else that can be directly correlated to good health and over-all well-being, it is the number of good relationships one has had in life.[3]

 

Yes, traditions can be close-minded and hierarchical systems can be abused, and not everyone properly takes avail of their tradition properly, but today I clearly observed the relationship between tradition and contentment.

 

And that is what I saw through the eyes of the Q train.

 

 

 


[1] From the song “Eleanor Rigby”, which can be found on The Beatles album Revolver.

[2] The teachings of bhakti are not taught in a vacuum. In Bhagavatam a whole society and culture is described that supports one’s spiritual life. I have never saw these four pillars of stability listed, but from studying the text  in became evident that these four facilities were provided automatically in a varnashram or traditional social structure.

[3] https://www.adultdevelopmentstudy.org

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #16 – Happiness: What It Is and What It’s Not

April 22nd, 2019

Quickly, without thinking, say the first thing that comes into your mind: I will be happy when _____?

 

Whatever answer you gave fits into one of two general categories: I will be happy in the future when I change the world to conform to what I want, or I will be happy now when I change my consciousness to conform to what the universe or God wants.

 

If you chose the former, your faith is misdirected for three reasons: you are not the controller, so the world will not conform to your desires; even if you were successful, your achievement would be temporary; and even if that change was permanent it still wouldn’t be happiness. Real happiness is in the heart and not just the world.

 

The world is beyond our control.

 

Our quest for happiness will fail if our objective is solely in the future, because no matter how much power we amass in the form of wealth, beauty, or fame to achieve that goal, we still are not the ultimate controller. Something will surely go wrong and frustrate us. In fact, even the littlest thing out of our control can negate all of our material happiness. Think of Bill Gates with a toothache. In other words, to really be the enjoyer of the world, we need to be totally the controller of the world or our destiny, and we are not.

 

The world is temporary.

 

Even if we could control the world to finally conform to our desires, we still wouldn’t be happy, because anything achieved in this world is temporary and filled with duality. Duality means that even the best of material things is also imbued with distress, because when something is temporary there is fear of loss, and always pain when we do.

 

The world is not happiness anyway.

 

Even if you could control the world to finally conform to your desires forever, still happiness would allude you, for real happiness is not what you have, but how you feel. It is not power and consequent material accruement, but an internal state of flourishing.

 

Real Happiness

 

Two of the main words for satisfaction are very revealing concerning the internal nature of happiness: contentment and fulfillment.

 

The word “contentment” indicates that to be content (satisfied within) depends on your content (what is inside of you). One of the suspected etymological explanations of this connection between the two definitions of this one word is a phrase first used by Shakespeare, “heart’s content” [1], which means doing something to your full satisfaction. In other words, reaching the point when you are fully satisfied or content is not just how much you accrue but the content of the heart, the point where you feel full. In that regard, fulfillment as a synonym for contentment has the same connotation — that we will be happy not just with what we have but also by how much the heart is fulfilled. How many times have we seen people with everything but not feeling satisfied or full?

 

We aren’t talking renunciation here. It’s not that one shouldn’t pursue their needs, or that family and career cannot be connected or important to one’s fulfillment. Done properly, they should be. They are just not ultimate happiness in themselves, and to pursue anything external without a connection to the eternal will surely fail.

 

There is a saying I have quoted often that really sums up this concept of what happiness is and what it is not, which merits repetition and a very short analysis:

 

“Pleasure is the happiness of a madman and happiness is the pleasure of a sage.” The words can be synonymous, but in the first phrase pleasure is used to indicate external stimulation in terms of the senses and ego, which is a foolish goal. Happiness in the second phrase is defined as contentment, or an internal flourishing, which for the enlightened is actual pleasure or joy.

 

I will leave you this week with another of my oft-repeated phrases, one I heard from a simple vrajavāsī gardener. I consider it like a mantra to describes the true and internal nature of happiness:

 

Happiness is a heart filled with devotion.

 

 

 

 

 


[1] This phrase is first put into print in Shakespeare’s plays and there’s every reason to believe that he coined it. He used it in at least two plays:

Henry VI, Part II, 1592 — “Her grace in Speech, Makes me from Wondring, fall to Weeping ioyes, Such is the Fulnesse of my hearts content.” 

The Merchant of Venice, 1596 — “I wish your Ladiship all hearts content.”

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #15 – The Power of Gratitude

April 15th, 2019

Gratitude is the basis of experiencing love.

 

As a spoiled child never experiences his parents’ love no matter how much they give him, a proud and entitled person will never fully appreciate the kindness and love of others.

 

Gratitude is the basis of relationships.

 

I have observed how sometimes an ungrateful spouse neglects a good relationship by failing to appreciate the kindness of their partner, even though lavished with generosity and care, only to later regret sabotaging what they had when the relationship broke by their own doing.

 

On the other hand, I have observed very grateful people seeing the good in their substantial connections, despite other’s weaknesses, feeling very secure and loved in this world.

 

Gratitude is therefore the basis of all good relationships in this world.

 

Gratitude grounds you in present.

 

I was walking here in Colombia to visit a bakery opened by one of our friends who I met on his pilgrimage to India two years ago. Although it was only fifteen minutes from our ashram I got lost, and it took me an inordinate amount of time to get there. When I begun my return to Shyam Ashram, I therefore felt tired and bored and strongly hankered to already be back home. As I was in the midst of preparing to write something about gratitude and was contemplating how gratitude grounds one in the present, I consciously started to base myself in the moment by appreciating nature around me, and the fact that I could turn inside my mind to dwell on this subject. I was amazed. My consciousness in gratitude immediately shifted from the future and my anxiety to the present, where my satisfaction laid. My walk then became unexpectedly pleasant.

 

“Now” is rarely the problem. Our problem is hankering (what I want in the future) and lamenting (what I lost in the past), but not gratitude (what I have and appreciate now).

 

In other words, for the humble and thoughtful, gratitude grounds one in the present, where humility and joy rests.

 

Gratitude forms your character.

 

Voltaire said, “That which you appreciate gradually comes to you.” One in a state of not only recognizes the good in others, but also develops those qualities. It is no wonder, therefore, that the word “appreciate” can mean both “to value something” and “the increase of value in something”. For example, when appreciating a teacher or an elder their knowledge substantially increases or appreciates in oneself.

Unfortunately, one who is envious and ungrateful — and the two are connected — misses many opportunities to appreciate and develop good character and wisdom.

 

 

Gratitude awakens the bliss of service.

 

Gratitude naturally awakens the service mind, for when we appreciate someone we develop a desire to serve them. As service and devotion is the basis of happiness, gratitude is also the basis of joy.

 

In a talk I heard by Vaiśeṣika dāsa, he added a very powerful insight that I think is relevant to this discussion. He described that the one switch that one can immediately flip to powerfully alter our anxiety and frustration is the conscious shift in identity to “I am a servant”. He then referenced Dale Carnegie in his book How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, who offered the supporting advice that a most powerful way to free one from anxiety in any situation is to immediately find someone to serve.

 

How important for a healthy psyche to awaken the service mind by the power of gratitude.

 

Gratitude as a state of perfection

 

My close friend Guṇagrāhī Mahārāja left this world in Vṛndāvana chanting the holy name of Krishna, a sign in our tradition of attaining perfection. A week before he left this world he went into a non-communicative internal or semi-conscious state. The last words out of his mouth before he seemingly went unconscious was a response to an audio message sent to him from Kaustubha, a person he personally brought to Krishna consciousness. Mahārāja was overwhelmed with appreciation when hearing the kind thoughts from someone he loved dearly. In response, in his last audible breath, patting his heart to softly to express affection, he mustered up the strength for a final heartfelt whisper: “Gratitude, gratitude, gratitude.”

 

I noted that the feelings and words left in Mahārāja after almost fifty years of dedicated service and years of purification from a painful disease were “Gratitude, gratitude, gratitude.” I heard his voice as the pure consciousness of the soul.

 

Gratitude as a state of being

 

Yes, certainly one can count their blessings, but what about all the suffering and frustration we face in this world? How can we be thankful for that? A person who understands the nature of God, or reality, lives always in a state of gratitude because they understand that whatever comes to one is for one.[1] Rumi stated it best:

 

“When God is digging a hole to throw you in, he is actually digging a ditch to quench your thirst.”

 

The Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam is full of stories, too long to recount here, where great saints live in a state of gratitude. They see the blessings of God even in the most trying of circumstances. Here is one of many examples:

 

When Vidura was insulted and banished from the kingdom by his evil nephew Duryodhana, he both recognized the cruelness of his nephew, but also saw God’s hand. He was thus grateful that he was being directed at this later stage in life to leave the intrigue of the palace and go on pilgrimage for his own purification. [2]

 

To feel grateful in every situation is not a feat of psychological gymnastics. A person of dharma who responds to each trial in life with humility gains a concrete gift of realization from each challenge worth the price of the difficulty faced and feels grateful even in the face of death. I bow down to the power of gratitude.

 

 


[1] I like the phrase describing karma as “not to me, but for me”. It comes from a discussion about karma I had with Lakṣmī Nṛsiṁha dāsa.

[2] Some other great examples are the instructions of Bhīṣmadeva (Bhag. 1.9) and Mahārāja Parīkṣit’s reaction to being cursed (Bhag. 1.19.4).

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #14 – Can Changing Diapers Be Bhakti?

April 8th, 2019

It’s a question often asked. Well, not exactly about changing diapers, but about how, in general, we should reconcile our material and spiritual lives for full Krishna consciousness, especially when much of our material life consists of unavoidable family and occupational duties. The answer: For one on the platform of uttama-bhakti, or pure devotional service, there is, in a sense, no difference between one’s material and spiritual life. Let’s explore that concept, but first a definition of uttama-bhakti.

 

Here’s a simple but accurate definition, and one that best serves the point at hand: “To give up all separate or selfish interest for the service of the Ultimate Truth.”

 

Before I continue to make my case, I need to lay out the premises on which my reasoning will be based. I assume most of my audience already accepts these assumptions. For those who may not — perhaps those for whom bhakti is not their tradition — I hope they will still appreciate how the philosophy of bhakti works.

 

  1. There is an Ultimate Truth.
  2. A person of character puts devotion to truth above selfish interests. Such devotion, when fully pure, is called uttama-bhakti.
  3. The ultimate truth is revealed in śāstra (revealed scripture).
  4. A guru is defined as one who knows and lives by the śāstra and thus realizes that truth.
  5. Therefore, when one surrenders fully to a legitimate spiritual master, one’s whole life, including their family and work, is guided by the Ultimate Truth and on the platform of uttama-bhakti.

 

In other words, in answer to our question, a soul fully committed to guru and Krishna, who thus never acts with separate or personal interest, is always on the platform of uttama-bhakti whether at the temple, at work, or at home.[1]

 

It is for this very reason that a major subtext of the Bhagavad-gītā states that Arjuna did not have to renounce his “worldly” dharmas in order to be a fully realized yogi. In bhakti, both worldly and spiritual duties can be reconciled.

 

We should also note that although the general principle is that pure devotion does not require us to change our occupational or social status, that doesn’t mean we can do anything in the name of bhakti, or that one shouldn’t alter their activities if they are not conducive to devotion. For example, one fully surrendered to his spiritual master may very well change his job after initiation if his work promotes sinful activities, or he feels his present situation is not conducive to his devotion.

 

The fact that worldly activities can also be spiritual also doesn’t mean that marriage or a job are items or practices of devotional service. Rather, it means that to the extent that everything, even “material” duties like family and occupation, is done dutifully and from one’s identity as servant of the spiritual master, the distinction between worldly and spiritual duties blurs.

 

But what if one has natural material desires that cannot be renounced without disturbing the mind? For example, a mother needs to express her affection for her children. Is that desire not separate from the one-pointed focus required of uttama-bhakti? The body and mind will die if we don’t satisfy at least a minimal amount of their emotional and sensual needs. These needs may vary from person to person.

 

The Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam instructs that this sort of self-satisfaction may also not be separate from the path of bhakti if we take only what we need to keep body and soul together. In other words, if such measured enjoyment is not the objective but only the means to keep mentally and physically fit in order to realize the Ultimate Truth, then those needs don’t inhibit spiritual life, but instead serve it.

 

My intention here is to not cheaply promote worldly duties as necessarily spiritual, or to minimize the process of chanting and hearing about Krishna. One on the platform of uttama-bhakti is chanting Krishna’s glories at every spare minute regardless of their occupational or social status. My aim, as reasoned above, is to highlight the principle of uttama-bhakti to show how it extends to one’s whole life when one fully surrenders to a spiritual master.

 

It should be noted that we are not here just talking about the formality of initiation, but the full depth of commitment that not only substantially deepens one’s spiritual practices and devotion, but adds a positive spiritual dimension to the grind often felt while living in this world.[2]

 

So back to changing diapers. Let’s finish with a hypothetical, and then a comment by Śrīla Prabhupāda. First, the hypothetical: A mother is so eager to hear and chant about Krishna that she leaves her child unattended or sits in the class with her child crying and disturbed because the child wants to go outside. Another mother, although wanting to hear the class, dutifully cares for her child and makes the sacrifice of going outside with him. Who is pleasing Krishna more? If the former, then it seems that Arjuna should have given up fighting and taken up japa meditation.

 

Śrīla Prabhupāda’s comment on the dilemma of how to prioritize the important things in a devotional life offers a fitting conclusion to our discussion. It also highlights that bhakti is ultimately not just the particular activity one is doing, but ultimately what Krishna wants us to do at the moment.

 

“Everything in the household affairs of Mother Yaśodā was meant for Krishna. Although Krishna was drinking the breast milk of Mother Yaśodā, when she saw that the milk pan in the kitchen was overflowing, she had to take care of it immediately, and thus she left her son, who then became very angry, not having been fully satisfied with drinking the milk of her breast. Sometimes one must care for more than one item of important business for the same purpose. Therefore Mother Yaśodā was not unjust when she left her son to take care of the overflowing milk. On the platform of love and affection, it is the duty of the devotee to do one thing first and other things later. The proper intuition by which to do this is given by Krishna.

 

teṣāṁ satata-yuktānāṁ
bhajatāṁ prīti-pūrvakam
dadāmi buddhi-yogaṁ taṁ
yena mām upayānti te

 

“To those who are constantly devoted and worship Me with love, I give the understanding by which they can come to Me.” (Bg. 10.10)

 

 


[1] Just so there is no confusion, when we use term uttama-bhakti we are referring to a faithful and honest soul who has fully surrendered to his guru, not necessarily a person who is not yet free from all material desires.

[2] I thought it was important that I acknowledge how difficult it is to work in the modern world, but also offer something practical to do about it that would apply to everyone, even those not at the level of uttama-bhakti.  Below are notes I took from a discussion with Mahāmuni dāsa about karma-yoga years back.

 

Buddhi-yoga (the practice of conceptual readjustment required for karma-yoga)

 

Two aspects of buddhi-yoga:

  1. Transformation of motivation from selfishness to the desire for purification/liberation and the service of God.
  2. Identity with the self, not the body. Body assists self in fulfilling dharma (moral and religious duties).

 

Karma-yoga requires trying to consciously live the following:

  1. Dharma. Try to live according to dharma (righteous duties) since dharma is vehicle or occasion for karma-yoga.
  2. Dharma in the service of God. Be conscious while performing dharma (work, family responsibilities, chores, etc.) so that our performance is in service to God. Should be done lovingly and gratefully.
  3. Serve others. All (family members, work peers, society, etc.) are parts of God and should be respected and loved as such.
  4. Identify with true self. We are not merely the psychophysical contingencies of this life. Our core self is grounded in our relationship with God. Remember body is dependent on God to function.
  5. World is the body of God(paramātmā)  Interact with it thus.

 

Daily mindfulness of the above requires centering:

  1. In the early morning.Prayer/study/contemplation provides focus and alignment for the day.
  2. Throughout day. Fifteen minute break from work. Can include reading select versus from scripture, recitation of key prayers/mantras, contemplation of reality as posed in b, c, and d above.

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #13 – In Every Town and Village and Other Thoughts

April 1st, 2019

In Every Town and Village

 

To my surprise, the living room was already packed. I counted forty. Not bad for a weekday afternoon. Satsvarūpa Mahārāja and Ravīndra Svarūpa Prabhu, my immediate neighbors here in Stuyvesant Falls, were already sitting for the festival and listening to the kīrtana. I was very impressed by the depth of how people were chanting.

 

The day was Gaura-pūrṇimā. I immediately thought of Śrī Caitanya’s prediction, pṛthivīte āche yata nagarādi grāma sarvatra pracāra hoibe mora nāma: “In every town and village, the chanting of My name will be heard.”[1] Just two hours outside of Manhattan, Stuyvesant Falls is a small agriculturally zoned hamlet that rests inside the town of Stuyvesant, which itself has a population of just about two thousand. Ravīndra Svarūpa, also noticing the substantial turnout, turned to me and whispered, “In this remote corner of the world.” That was Śrīla Prabhupāda’s famous comment when he first visited Gainesville, Florida in 1970. He was on an international tour to all the major cities of the world and was pleasantly surprised by the unexpectedly large, enthusiastic group of devotees that greeted him in an out of the way stop to a relatively obscure place.

 

I like living here. Krishna consciousness is not a cult; it is your neighbor next door. I’m not sure how it happened, but I remember even a Girl Scout troop from here visited Vṛndāvana during a trip to India years ago. My place, a reconverted barn behind the house of Saci-suta and Keli Lalita of Equal Vision Records, shares a driveway ­– actually adjacent driveways – with Jody and his girlfriend, both in their late fifties. You could not ask for friendlier, always willing to offer a helping hand neighbors. Not bad for red cap, Make America Great Again, beer in hand “deplorables”[2] who like prasādam, but literally only when offered mac and cheese.

 

I remember when Gauravani came and did a concert in the large barn behind mine. Jody didn’t attend, but he sat in a lounge chair in his backyard right on the border of our land, listening and guzzling a beer. At the end he even walked over the boundary line ­– he’d never done that before – and bought a CD.

 

“Every town and village!” It’s a nice meditation to have on a weekday afternoon while sitting in a remote place packed with local townsfolk chanting the holy name on Śrī Caitanya’s appearance day.

 

Sevā, Dayā, and Śrī Caitanya

 

Sevā is service to a superior. Dayā is service to one’s subordinate. I had never heard the distinction explained like that before. Dayā is usually translated as compassion, but this was the distinction Śrīla Prabhupāda made in a recorded lecture from the early seventies that I listened to this morning. When I heard him say this, I had a revelation about the difference between Krishna and Gaura-lila.[3] The focus on Krishna-lila is sevā, the intimate service of others towards God. The focus of Gaura-lila is dayā, the intimate service of God towards others.

 

The Accessibility of Gaura-lila

 

There is no difference between Radha-Krishna and Śrī Caitanya. Both are svayaṁ bhagavān, the original and fullest manifestation of the Absolute Truth. The only difference is in mood and form. When the mood of dayā, or magnanimity (audārya), becomes prominent in Radha and Krishna, They become Śrī Caitanya for the purpose of giving Their love to others. Maybe in another Monday Morning Greetings this fairly deep point can be explained in more depth. I just wanted to give some background to a point I want to stress. As Gaura-lila is imbued with dayā or compassion, spontaneous devotion is more accessible to us through Gaura-lila than through Krishna-lila. An example:

 

What I am about to say is a little more esoteric than the usual Monday Morning Greetings subjects. Please follow closely. I hope you’ll enjoy the point.

 

Śrīvāsa Aṅgana in Mayapur, the birth-place of Śrī Caitanya, is the place where the saṅkīrtana movement began. Daily, Śrī Caitanya and His intimate associates would meet for twelve-hour nocturnal kīrtanas. As there is no difference between Radha-Krishna and Śrī Caitanya, Śrīvāsa Aṅgana is rāsa-sthalī (the place of the rasa dance in Vṛndāvana) in Gaura-lila, but in a more accessible form. How? What is the rasa dance? It is the love of Radha and Krishna brought to its height by the combination of dance and music, and with the accompaniment of the vraja gopīs. What is Śrīvāsa Aṅgana? It is internally the exact same thing. Śrī Caitanya embodies the mood of Radha’s love for Krishna brought to its height by music (kīrtana) and dance accompanied by Śrī Caitanya’s associates, who internally imbibe the same mood. One can see how difficult it would be to emulate the mood of Radha and Krishna in the rasa dance without filtering that experience through our mundane conceptions, but how easily that same mood is more understandable and can be emulated in its contemporary form of kīrtana and ecstatic dance as inaugurated in Śrīvāsa Aṅgana.

 

Reflection: How wonderful is it that by the mercy of Śrīla Prabhupāda that same divine love, made accessible by saṅkīrtana, inaugurated by Śrī Caitanya, is happening just as he predicted in “Every town and village”!

 

 

 


[1] Caitanya-bhāgavata Antya-khaṇḍa 4.126

[2] “Deplorables” has become a derogatory expression for white, uneducated working people, usually from middle America, after its use in the last election to describe those types of people who voted for Donald Trump.

[3] Gaura-lila is the Bengali for Śrī Caitanya’s pastimes.

 

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #12 – Just Remain Obliged!

March 25th, 2019

“Any Questions?” Śrīla Prabhupāda had finished his class and looked out at his audience in the large temple room in the Dallas Radha Kalachandji Mandir. I had just recently joined ISKCON and sat in awe of my master. After a long moment of silence, 6’6” Jñānagamya stood and inquired, “How can we repay you?” Śrīla Prabhupāda’s sober response has remained etched in my consciousness: “Just remain obliged!”

 

Perhaps Śrīla Prabhupāda would have answered differently in other circumstances, but the significance of his response to a seminal question certainly can’t be minimized. For that reason, his answer has remained enough on my mind to occasionally dwell on its importance, and to keep an eye out for how gratitude is highlighted within my tradition.

 

The first thing that became apparent in my studies was how much ingratitude stunts devotion. A proud or entitled person is never grateful no matter how much they are given. They are like a spoiled child who never feels the love of their generous parents. In the same way, to the degree a devotee feels entitlement, or takes the gifts of devotion for granted, is the extent they will not feel the mercy of God. And without feeling such love, it is difficult to have love for others. On the other hand, the humble devotee who is able to appreciate and feel God’s mercy easily awakens devotion for Krishna in response. Humility and its consequent feelings of gratitude are thus the foundation of devotion. This same point can be seen in the third verse of the Śikṣāṣṭakam by Śrī Caitanya, arguably the most important verse in the Krishna bhakti tradition, in its declaration that the humble can always chant. Why can the humble chant always? Only something done with love is ultimately joyful within itself and can be done without satiation or cessation, and, as explained before, only the humble person welling with gratitude can chant in such devotion. Thus Śrī Caitanya also affirms the importance of being consciously grateful, for only such a humble soul can chant the holy name with unalloyed and unbroken devotion.

 

Among the many ways to develop gratitude, a particularly powerful one for a devotee to practice is prayer. Prayer generally does two things. It exalts the object of our adulation and expresses our dependence and humility. In this way, by helping us feel the distance between the value of what we aspire for (and experience) and our ability to earn it, prayer evokes feelings of undeserved kindness, or mercy, and consequent devotion. A sincerely prayerful person is therefore an increasingly grateful and devotional one.

 

Besides being grateful for what we have, we also need to be indebted to those who contributed to what we have now. To take things for granted and to enjoy the fruits of the labor of others closes the heart and also does not bode well for devotion. I remember at Śrīla Prabhupāda’s disappearance festival a few years ago when a senior devotee made a poignant point in this regard. He noted the marvelous facilities that the audience in Vṛndāvana was enjoying now and contrasted that with the very austere conditions when the devotees first came to Vṛndāvana. He then described the arduous austerities the pioneers of ISKCON performed to make our centers in Vṛndāvana, Māyāpur, and Mumbai what they are today. He implored the devotees to never forget to remain grateful to the pioneers of Krishna consciousness. It is important on the path of devotion to honor all of our predecessors.

 

I can now understand what Śrīla Prabhupāda meant when he said, “We advance by appreciation,”[1] and why he told his devotee to simply remain obliged when asked how to repay him.

 

Again, there is so much to write on this subject. In fact, I think just months ago I may have written a similar Monday Morning Greetings. I was once asked to give a lecture at a devotee gathering held on Thanksgiving, a prominent American holiday commemorating the gratitude the original settlers of America felt in the New World. Naturally, I was asked to speak on thankfulness and devotion. I choose to speak on a verse by Raghunātha dāsa Gosvāmī that expresses one’s thankfulness for the gifts one gets by the mercy of the spiritual master. For the purpose of brevity and the natural flow of the article, I don’t usually include the Sanskrit translation to verses cited in Monday Morning Greetings, but it’s just too beautiful a verse not to include. By reciting this verse daily it reminds us of the gifts bequeathed on us by our lineage, represented by Śrīla Prabhupāda and his sincere followers. I pray to just remain obliged.

 

nāma-śreṣṭhaṁ manum api śacī-putram atra svarūpaṁ
rūpaṁ tasyāgrajam uru-purīṁ māthurīṁ goṣṭhavāṭīm
rādhā-kuṇḍaṁ giri-varam aho rādhikā-mādhavāśāṁ
prāpto yasya prathita-kṛpayā śrī-guruṁ taṁ nato ’smi

“I bow down to the beautiful lotus feet of my spiritual master, by whose causeless mercy I have obtained the supreme holy name, the divine mantra, the service of the son of Śacīmātā [Lord Caitanya], the association of Śrīla Svarūpa Dāmodara, Rūpa Gosvāmī, and his older brother Sanātana Gosvāmī, the supreme abode of Mathurā, the blissful abode of Vṛndāvana, the divine Rādhā-kuṇḍa and Govardhana Hill, and the desire within my heart for the loving service of Śrī Rādhika and Mādhava [Krishna] in Vṛndāvana.”

 

 


[1] This is quote is from a purport by Śrīla Prabhupāda in Cc. Ādi-līlā. I have yet to find the exact reference, but I am sure it is there.

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #11 – Chant and Be Happy: How Does It Work?

March 18th, 2019

Chant and be happy. It seems so simple. But is it? Do we find chanting automatically pleasurable, or do we find it sometimes a chore? How does bhakti work and how can I make it work for me? In other words, how can I chant and be happy?

 

Before discussing how chanting makes us happy, we first must understand what happiness is. Most people would agree that the essence of happiness is love, which is the energy that flows between two people in a relationship. A simple analogy will help us understand this concept further.

 

When a calf is born she immediately gravitates to her mother’s teats for milk, and the mother responds by intensely and affectionately licking her calf. They innately feel an intense bond, or energy, between them called love. In a similar way, as we have a natural relationship with God, being part of Him, that intense bond or energy between us, called bhakti, will awaken when we focus our attention on God. Now we can proceed to discuss how chanting works to invoke devotion and happiness in a similar way.

 

According to the yogic tradition, mantra, or specifically names of God, is non-different from God. Therefore, when we focus our attention on God’s holy name, we naturally feel the sublime energy of love between the soul and God. That’s how chanting works. Now, when doesn’t chanting work?

 

We may not necessarily experience the holy name when chanting, and thus receive the full benefit of its presence, if we are not attentive, for perception depends not just on the senses, but also on the mind. How many times when listening to a class or chanting the holy name are we not hearing the message, or mantra, because our mind is elsewhere? Chanting is therefore “not happy” when the mind is not properly focused on the holy name and thus doesn’t fully perceive Him.

 

Our ability to experience something also depends on our attitude. For example, if we envy someone, we see them as less than they are, or when lacking a loving attitude towards someone, the person directly before our eyes is not fully revealed to us. In order to fully experience Krishna in the holy name, and thus “chant and be happy”, we must, along with chanting His name, develop the proper relationship with Krishna. We do this by hearing the glories of Krishna and worshiping His form. Regularly reading the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam and visiting the Lord’s temple are thus essential to making the holy name work.

 

Finally, to fully understand something and experience its potency our focus has to be not just concentrated, but concentrated without any interruption over a period of time. That effort is called practice. In other words, to experience the holy name we must practice chanting the holy name. I thought of an analogy to illustrate this point:

 

To set alight a piece of paper by focusing the sun on it through a magnifying glass requires that the sun must be concentrated on the paper for some time. Similarly, to melt the heart and enflame our natural feelings of devotion we need to practice, or concentrate, for some time, beginning with having a time and place for chanting unfettered by any distraction.

 

In that regard, serious meditators thus usually have an āsana, or a seat, for practice. Having an āsana for chanting indicates a place that, once sat upon, is exclusively for the worship of Krishna, which, in this case, is for the chanting of His holy name. When we do that, we sit near (upa) to Krishna not just by a physical distance, but by our consciousness. Our practice then truly becomes upāsana or worship, sitting (āsana) near (upa) the Lord.

 

That’s how it works. Chant and be happy!

 

 

 

 

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