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!

 

 

 

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #10 – Going… Going… Gone!

March 11th, 2019

Mel Allen, “the voice of the Yankees”, would announce a home run by following the ball’s trajectory with a long drawn out “going, going” and punctuating it when it would finally go over the wall for a home run with a dramatic “gone!” It was his signature call. My older brother, Barry, and I were often glued to the television in the early 60s as Mel Allen announced the Yankee games. We were charmed whenever he would call a home run. Strangely enough this impression from way back recently sprouted in my consciousness as I was finishing a one-month lecture series on Krishna leaving Vṛndāvana. While describing the three types of separation the gopis felt at that time, namely when they heard He was going, when they actually watched His chariot leave, and when He had finally gone, a voice suddenly arose in my mind, “Going, going, gone!“ To my surprise, it was a perfect summary of what I had just described.

 

While meditating on the gopis’ plight I began to reflect on my own situation. It is my last day in Vṛndāvana and l am already feeling separation. Soon I will leave and then be gone. My thoughts on “going”:

 

Knowing that I will soon leave here intensifies my understanding and feelings of the significance of where I am. There are so many things to tie up before I leave. I don’t have a second to waste, especially the precious time I have left here to honor and realize Vṛndāvana by chanting and hearing about Krishna. I am surprised by how much I am accomplishing in my last days by cherishing each second that passes. A thought comes: I could do so much more in service and chanting if only I could maintain this intensity of purpose and focus throughout the year. It is not a matter of becoming more renounced. It’s the need to become more dedicated.

 

I am feeling separation from Vṛndāvana, which is a painful feeling of loss. The mood of separation, however, is also an expression of devotion. l am thus also feeling the joy of devotion. I gain a slight glimpse of how the spiritual world is beyond duality, how the intense and painful feelings of the gopis’ separation is counter-intuitively the greatest joy. I am therefore both sadly and blissfully leaving the holy dhama.

 

It’s Sunday. I enter the temple for sandhya-ārati, a kind of good-bye to Radhe Shyam. The temple’s packed. I have never seen anywhere else such a crowd of such unbounded bliss, cheering the deities as Their doors open, jostling for darśana, and dancing without attachment or inhibition. There are sādhus of joy, families of joy, children of joy — everywhere I turn, super joyful people, down to every last friendly person that makes a point to smile at me as I stand in the courtyard observing the scene. There is just something about Vṛndāvana, where Krishna is fully Krishna, all attractive, that draws out the spontaneous devotion of the visitors like no other place in the world. Isn’t that our philosophy? It’s infectious. I will miss it.

 

I head for a quick late morning ārati at Tatiasthan. Bless the sādhus there who keep the holy land as it was five hundred years ago — a large forested, no electricity zone ashram. The ashram caller walks the parameter of the compound to announce the ārati. His loud, guttural “Radhe! Shyama!” not only wakes up the surrounding old Vṛndāvana town to devotion, but also calls the sādhus from their morning prayers. Hearing the call, the mostly elderly sādhus leave their bhajan kuṭirs and proceed to the temple. I watch them emerge from different directions, ritualistically covered from head to foot in Vṛndāvana dust tilak, walking soberly with no-bend arthritic knees, a kind of spiritual “Night of The Living Dead” scene. I enter the temple. The ceiling of this deeply impressive temple is the Vṛndāvana sky. Its floor, the daily sifted fragrant one-foot thick Vṛndāvana sand, sparkling like crushed diamonds. The pious Vṛndāvana town folk and the eerie looking sādhus begin to chant acapella, classic drupad kīrtana,[1] like the best of Gregorian chants, but in local Brajabhasa. Glory to God! To Krishna! To Radha! Powerful! Powerful! Powerful! I don’t understand the language, but I hear and feel their bhāva and take their devotion reformed into sound into my heart. I will miss the real Vṛndāvana!

 

A respected older god-brother once told me that the perfection of life is to shed tears on the disappearance day of the spiritual master because separation is the sign of real devotion. Śrīla Prabhupāda’s most declarative statement on chanting the holy name is that we should cry like a child separated from his mother. I am so glad that I am on a path of attachment. Become attached to Krishna’s holy name, His holy land, His beautiful form, His stories and songs, and, most importantly, His devotees. Feel separation in their absence, shed a tear, and perfect one’s life. What a process!

 

Now in Moscow. Going! Going! Gone!

 


[1] Dhrupad is the strictest vocal style of Hindustan music in classical Indian music. Swami Haridas the founder-ācārya of Tatiyasthan is considered to be one the originators of this style of devotional singing.

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #9 – What I Learned at a Tea Stall

March 4th, 2019

Last week I wrote about my morning Vṛndāvana walks. Recently, it has been my main inspiration so I will write something more about it, especially as this is my last week in Vṛndāvana.

 

The morning hours reveal reality anywhere, not just in Vṛndāvana, but I think especially Vṛndāvana. The quiet early morning hours are more in goodness, sattva. Sattva means the nature of being. The world in the early morning hours, before people wake up to activities of exploitation (passion) and destruction (ignorance), is thus truer to the nature of God’s creation. The early morning world also influences one to become further perceptive and to see the world as it is. Here’s what I saw this morning.

 

The road to the town’s center was almost totally desolate, except for a few very jolly townspeople and sādhus crowding around a tea shop. The shop wallah sat behind a single-burner propane stove with a tin pot of chai boiling on it. He seemed to enjoy the sense of community as he expertly sweetened, in his own estimation, his brew by flinging one scoop of sugar after another into the mix.

 

There was something about this scene that impressed me. It certainly wasn’t what they were doing. Even if I took tea, I couldn’t imagine drinking that sugary blend in the morning. What hit me was the simplicity of their joy. I am also not reiterating here my theme of natural Vrajavāsī bliss. It was just something about the fundamental principle of happiness that I saw. That simple chai community seemed to, by their contentment, shout out that happiness is a very internal thing, and something not overly dependent on the external world for our pleasure. Their modest setting wasn’t much, to say the least.

 

What I am writing here sounds to me not so substantive for my audience, but it wasn’t the idea alone that struck me as profound. It was the clarity of the realization. As I walked by in that early morning hour, I saw such a stark dichotomy between the principle of joy and what we need to be happy. It forced me to confront my own faith.

 

Do I really believe happiness is internal, or is my joy-faith still too much invested in the ephemeral world? Have I, a monk, rationalized my needs in the name of service to take way above what is required?

 

I remembered when one very senior sannyāsi spoke in a lecture about how happy he was in the early days of ISKCON when his only possession was his bead bag. Yes, when I first joined ISKCON, believe it or not, we would randomly pick our wear for the day from a common laundry shelf of folded dhotis and kurtas. Of course, artificial or excess renunciation has little to do with bhakti, but another point is being made here. Do I —do we — invest too much energy in the external when the accruement and collection of things meant for happiness usually does not deliver its happiness part of the bargain? How much have I realized that happiness is a matter of consciousness, something that radiates from the self, and ultimately not a material thing, something that comes to the self?

 

So those are my early morning thoughts and that is what I learned from a tea stall.

 

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #8 – Vṛndāvana the Beautiful!

February 25th, 2019

I renewed a cherished old daily practice. Early in the morning, before the dawn of the day, I walk out into Vṛndāvana to experience its beauty. And what is that beauty? Is it the visual as I negotiate through the meandering streets to the town’s center, or circumambulate the city on the path now paved around it? Is it the dilapidated structures, open sewers, and sleeping street dogs, or piles of strewn trash with the pigs feasting on it? What exactly is the beauty of Vṛndāvana?

 

In the far distance I periodically hear the birth of a kīrtana and then another and another. I can’t see them, but it’s so mystical to witness a city gradually awakening to the sweet sound of the holy name.

 

An elderly bābā sits on the side of the parikramā path in the cold. He sits in the same spot every day without fail, beautifully chanting the morning melody of Hare Krishna on an old harmonium. His smile reflects the beauty of his heart. I read his mind: “I am the most fortunate person in the world!”

 

I pass through the narrow corridors that embrace the once grand but now in disrepair Keśī-ghāṭa. I step over the small powerful stream of sewage rushing towards the river. I continue down the long dark corridor where on my left the path finally fully opens to the river in descending sandstone steps. A smattering of small rooms and platforms in the palace wall house sādhus and paṇḍitas huddled for joyous worship with incense and mantra. I pass a family sleeping together to the side of the path under a pile of thick blankets. The father’s head pops up “Haribol!” The children follow suit. They all smile. A blissful family in the most unlikely of places.

 

Thank God the celebrated, nasty eye glass-hat-purse snatching monkeys are still asleep as I walk the narrow street to the center of town, carefully negotiating my stroll around the resting bulls and sleeping dogs. Even I am overwhelmed, Venus and all,[1] by the thick ambrosial fragrance of devotion surrounding me. I whiff what I feel is the hearts of the vrajavāsīs’ offering incense to their Lord. My heart is buoyed by their devotion.

 

An old sādhu bathes by the hand pump in just his kaupīnas.[2] A barefoot shop keeper throws water in front of his shop to clean the ground, and then waves incense before baby Gopāla[3] on the shelf. I see the same souls every day. What happy hearts with so little!

 

A simple man on a bike passes me on my right singing odes to Krishna in joy. An old widow scurries past with soft, deep prayers to Radha under her breath. I occasionally pass a full throttled maṅgala-ārati kīrtana as I peer into the various temples behind the worn, intricately carved entrances. A few temple hopping souls occasionally rush past me to catch another ārati on their morning rounds. A whole city gradually awakening to devotion. A joyous sight!

 

I meet a simple mālī (gardener) as I walk through the beautiful flower gardens of Vṛndāvana just minutes from the town. Hundreds of acres of lush, colorful floral acres rest before me, a splash of hue if I ever saw one. Yes, the real Vṛndāvana is also still there hidden through a secret black gate that seems to forever preserve its beauty. Amidst the truly paradisiacal Vṛndāvana the mālī tells me his woes. The floods wiped out his crop. As he is complaining I am puzzled as his eyes and body still sparkle with immense joy. I ask a simple question, “How can you be so happy?” His answer was like a mantra revealing the true glory of Vṛndāvana, whether walking through its run-down town or strolling through its splendid gardens.

 

Happiness is a heart filled with devotion. Ah, Vṛndāvana the beautiful!

 

 


[1] I sometimes joke about the weak Venus in my astrological chart, which is not overly sensitive to refined things like fine scents.

[2] Loin cloth

[3] His deity of baby Krishna

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #7 – A Simple and Creative Definition of Faith

February 18th, 2019

Faith is what you value the most. Defined in this way, faith is not an intellectual choice, as in “I believe this or don’t believe this”. It is based on an experience of happiness that determines what one cherishes or has faith in.

 

Of course, one can’t make up his own definitions. The problem here is that I am trying to communicate what the Sanskrit word śraddhā means in English, but it doesn’t exactly translate into the English word “faith”. I have therefore taken leeway with its translation to try to better express its import. My explanation is actually based on Śrīla Prabhupāda’s definition of śraddhā as “unflinching trust in something sublime”. Sublimity is not a person’s decision intellectually. It is a choice one makes based on what one is spontaneously attracted to. By defining faith in this way, as what one values or is attracted to the most, I hope to enhance our understanding of śraddhā, and maybe even challenge our faith in a healthy way. I hope you will see what I am getting at as I apply this understanding first to devotion.

 

A devotee’s faith is that the highest pleasure, what they value most, is sevā, loving service to God or Krishna. Now, according to our definition, let’s test our faith. If given a choice, would you rather chant and serve the holy name of Krishna or surf the web? In other words, what do you really value most from the heart? If it’s the web, then by this definition, that’s your faith.

 

Naturally what I am writing early in the morning comes into my mind throughout the day. When I was chanting during maṅgala-ārati in the Krishna Balarama Mandir, I listened carefully to the quality of my entreaty. It hit me. The degree to which I enjoy chanting is my level of faith. It can’t be bluffed.

 

I like the definition of bhakti as the mood of being available for service. How much are you in that mood and how much do you enjoy serving? That is your level of faith, regardless of how much you think you believe in Krishna. When there is a big feast do you enjoy serving it or eating it more? Which is your faith?

 

Śrī Rūpa Gosvāmī was referring to this experiential definition of faith when he described the first stage of bhakti as ādau śraddhā, beginning with faith. The path of devotion usually starts with innocent contact with the holy name of Krishna that awakens a sublimity exceeding any previous type of joy. That encounter engenders such a strong trust in devotion that despite challenges on the path of devotion it remains our most valued objective, even if we have failed to recapture that initial sublimity, or “religious experience”.

 

The question naturally arises of how to maintain and increase our faith, for if an experience is not renewed it will gradually recede within the consciousness. Faith is rekindled by engaging with it by practice, which means four things: concentration, done over a prolonged period time, without interruption, and in the right mood. Except for some special mercy, such prolonged and uninterrupted attention is the basis of any profound renewed spiritual experience, which is the foundation of faith.

 

To translate practically what this faith generating practice implies for us, it means at least a period of time during the day reserved exclusively for our meditation on Krishna. Without that type of concentrated effort daily, the intensity of devotion that kindled our initial faith will not be strongly felt, just as the heat reflected through a magnifying glass by the light of the sun only becomes fire if focused or concentrated on a piece of paper without interruption over some time.

 

As usual, and I hope you don’t get bored of me saying it, this topic goes far beyond the limited scope of the present paper. There is so much more to discuss about faith. For example, in devotional service people become absorbed and awaken faith in bhakti in various ways according to their taste. That’s certainly worth a discussion. Also, no discussion of faith is complete without understanding the role of sacred texts in increasing our devotional aspirations and consequently our faith. There is also no time to discuss that here, but I will leave you with just one more point about faith that I think is relevant to everyone.

 

The greatest tragedy is to have the wrong objective in life and to realize that your attainment is unsatisfactory and ephemeral. Intelligent people therefore strive to awaken their eternal nature, the substantive and eternal happiness of devotion. That is the real definition of śraddhā. My simple faith:

 

Chant and be happy!

 

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #6 – Can Destiny be Changed?

February 11th, 2019

There are many subtleties to the law of karma. I thus feel impelled to tackle this question from several angles. First a story that sheds some initial light on our inquiry.

 

Five friends walk into a forest of mango trees to eat. In a very crass tone the first friend advises, “Cut down the tree!” “Why cut down the tree?” the next friend advises, “Just break off one branch.” “Why saw off the whole branch?” the third one protests, “Just break off the part where the mangos are.” The fourth suggest something more sensitive: “Why not just pick the mangos?” The fifth friend is even more considerate: “Why do we have to pick the mangos at all? Why not just take the ripe ones that have fallen on the ground?”[1]

 

The different friends entering the forest indicate different levels of egocentric acts requiring karmic reactions of progressive intensity for purification. For example, the person who expediently wants to cut the whole tree is the most selfish and requires the heaviest reaction, a reaction that certainly can’t be thwarted. The person who simply eats the fallen ripe mangos is the least selfish and accordingly requires, if any, the least self-correction. His fate certainly can be thwarted.  

 

The Jain text below hopefully puts the above points in perspective:

 

If one unwittingly makes an imperceptible and minor mistake in dealing with someone, simply regretting one’s mistake may be sufficient to mitigate the reaction. For a more serious mistake an apology may do. An even more severe offense may require atonement. For the most egregious offenses, however, only by suffering a commensurate reaction to the offense can one be purified of that transgression. In such a case one’s destiny is certainly set in stone.

 

To sum up the first consideration of our initial inquiry, there are certainly rituals of atonement outlined in various spiritual traditions that may mitigate or change destiny, but their efficacy, if at all, is limited by the severity of the offense originally committed.

 

As one advances spiritually, however, one’s tact in altering destiny changes. Rather than putting more effort into stopping what is manifest or what is to come, one puts more effort into countering destiny by properly responding to it. After all, the real fruit of karma is the happiness and distress meted out by destiny, which certainly can be changed by the proper understanding and response to it. Socrates condemnation to death is a perfect example of this.

 

Socrates was sentenced to die by the Senate of Athens for the trumped-up charges of contaminating the youth with his teachings. He accepted his fate peacefully, and simply requested an audience with the Senate to address his accusers. His powerful words recorded by Plato in “The Apology” are worth pondering: “If you think you will harm me, you cannot harm me. You only will harm yourself.” Because Socrates responded to his death with thoughtfulness and dignity his fate therefore did not affect or disturb him, while his accusers were actually karmically digging their own graves. Was not Socrates fate changed by his enlightened perspective? Imagine the fate of a person in a similar situation without his realization of karma and the eternality of the soul. Would not that person’s fate be quite different?

 

The Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam is filled with many such examples where by a deeper perspective on life, the happiness and distress meted out by the mace of destiny, is altered. I would love to write about King Parīkṣit’s response to being cursed to die, or Vidura’s reaction to being banned from his kingdom. For the purpose of this article I will just share Bhīṣmadeva’s advice to his grandson Yudhiṣṭhira, who inquired from him about how to digest his terrible fate in life.

 

There is no cause for despondency in life, no matter how trying circumstances get, if one, through understanding destiny as God’s beneficent and absolute will, does three things. One should bow one’s head in gratitude, respond in righteousness, and do so under one’s qualified mentors, thus extracting the fruit of destiny, a personal realization elevating one to a better life.[2]

 

Let’s sum up again where we are in reference to answering this article’s initial inquiry about changing our fate. We can best counter destiny, which is ultimately our distress and happiness, by appropriately responding to destiny rather than changing it. In this way, by extracting the fruit of destiny, which is the realization meant to elevate our consciousness, we remain free from despondency, and in that sense change the essence of our destiny, which ultimately is our happiness and distress.

 

Topics like this often raise more questions than are answered. I can never do justice to such a subject in such a short article. I welcome further questions from our readers and perhaps we can have a part two where I attempt to answer them. Although I have now exceeded my preferred word count, I need just a little more time to complete my explanation. Please bear with me for just a half page more as I share three more examples to further drive home the point that while the broad parameters of our destiny are mostly fixed, within those parameters our destiny can very much can be changed by how we view and experience it.

 

Example 1

A friend of mine was diagnosed with Chrohn’s disease, a serious stomach ailment that he would suffer from for the rest of his life. He reacted responsibly to his fate by a strict diet, and the symptoms of his disease have gradually been alleviated. He lives normally. Has he then not changed his karma? In a sense he has, because he no longer suffers the pain of the disease, but in a sense he also hasn’t because his diet is still restricted due to the disease.   

 

Example 2

Destiny is like being on a rocky road to a particular destination that we have no choice but to ride. In that sense destiny is fixed. One can, however, pave that road to make the journey smooth. In that sense, destiny is changed. In other words, within the parameters of our fate we can certainly mitigate the reactions of our karma, and in that sense change our fate.  

 

Example 3

Destiny is like being dealt a bad hand in poker. Your cards are fixed. Still, if you play your cards properly you can minimize your losses or even win. This is a nice analogy to show both the fixedness of destiny and the scope to change it by how we play our hand. 

 

Can destiny be changed? In the most important way, yes. I will leave you with Rumi:

 

“When providence seems to be digging a hole to throw us in, it is actually planning to quench our thirst by drawing water from the ground.”

 

 


[1] This story is from a Jain treatise on karma that a friend shared with me many years ago when I was preparing a seminar on karma.

[2] This is my summary of Bhīṣmadeva’s instructions from Bhag. 1.9.12-15

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #5 – Why I Hate Traveling

February 4th, 2019

Stuck again. People ask me how I come up with something to write every week. All I can say is that Krishna is in the heart and from Him comes remembrance, forgetfulness, and knowledge. When I finish one article I pray and generally something comes, and what comes is usually a realization from the past week. That’s the only way I can explain it. Well, something has come.

 

I arrived Friday evening after long, arduous travel from Puri. I am pretty much useless the next day, especially in terms of concentrated thought. I only now started writing the next entry, but nothing is coming. I am worried. I can’t risk waiting until later in the week to come up with an idea because the process of writing needs sufficient time to fructify to ensure I meet my deadline with something of quality. I hate traveling. Voilà! That’s what I feel now, so why not write about it? It’s kind of my Aikido writing trick, using the force of my opposition for my strength. So here it is, my latest Monday Morning Greeting.

 

A great deal of my service is writing and chanting, activities that require concentration. Traveling, which increases the mood of passion, is thus especially brutal for my service. After I travel it takes some time to shift into a productive mode for these services. Perhaps that’s just me. Śrīla Prabhupāda certainly wasn’t affected.

 

When I was younger, I remember sometimes walking out of my house to go to a social event and often just walking back. I just liked staying in one place so much better than the hassle of going to somewhere else.

 

My nature is not to get shaken or frazzled, even in crisis, but still, when it comes to travel I needlessly fret over the possibility of missing my plane or worry that I left something essential behind. I have written about that before, how I often arrive at the airport ridiculously early.

 

One of my important services is hosting people in the holy dhāma. Traveling out with people to holy places, however, is one of the last things I like to do. Those on my Puri yatra may have noticed that I skipped our visit to the famous Saksi Gopal temple, our only bus trip during the retreat.

 

I could go on and on about my repugnance for and jitters with long journeys, but I think there is an important point here to discuss. It is also a very personal one. Where do we tell our likes and dislikes to get off on the path of bhakti?

 

First, when to tell our likes and dislikes not to get off the path of bhakti. I think the best way I can do that is by sharing some of my favorite sayings on the subject:

 

“Our taste in Krishna consciousness is the door for us to gain entrance to the spiritual world.”[1]

 

“Whatever we like best we can offer to Krishna with the most devotion.”[2]

 

“The spiritual master finds the ways and means to engage one in devotional service.”[3]

 

Now where do they get off? A short story to illustrate the point:

 

About twenty-five years ago, when I had to leave India for six months, my solace was giving a weekly class at 26 2nd Avenue. At that time, I would especially relish listening to Śrīla Prabhupāda’s classes from when he preached there. One class particularly piqued my interest. Śrīla Prabhupāda was reflecting on living on the Lower East Side, which, frankly, was the dreck of New York at the time.

 

“Why have I come to this place? Why have I come to this place? Because it was the order of my spiritual master.”

 

When a person chooses a place to live, it generally reflects their proclivities and desires. The Lower East Side was the last place in the world that a very well cultured elderly devotional Bengali gentleman would retire, especially when he had already achieved residence in Vṛndāvana. Śrīla Prabhupāda’s residence in the Lower East Side was thus starkly not about his likes or dislike. And that’s the point. We accept things that are pleasing to guru and Krishna, sometimes in line with our nature and sometimes not. We tell everything else to get off, no matter what that means for our life. That’s called real love, or pure devotional service. And we won’t be cheated. Real happiness is a heart filled with such devotion.

 

I will finish this week with one more of my favorite sayings that I think is relevant to our discussion, a definition of bhakti that succinctly sums up the heart of pure devotion:

 

Bhakti means to make oneself available [for service].[4] And I may add, even traveling when one has absolutely no desire to do so.


[1] This insight was once shared with me by Bhurijana Dasa.

[2] I loved this answer to a question asked to one of the most prominent scholars in Vṛndāvana when a devotee asked if we can offer pizza to Krishna.

[3] This is a paraphrase of a quote by Śrīla Prabhupāda in the Nectar of Devotion about how the spiritual master engages the disciple according to his or her proclivities.

[4] This definition of bhakti was once shared to me personally by Pradyumna Dasa, Śrīla Prabhupāda’s Sanskrit editor.

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #4 – Oldies but Goldies: What is Vaiṣṇava Saṅga?

January 28th, 2019

It’s the one week of the year where I give myself leeway to not produce a new Monday Morning Greetings. I am incapable of devoting the concentration required to write while overseeing and teaching during my annual Puri retreat. I will therefore be re-sharing an article I post every year at this time, which is also relevant to the retreat, a subject that I feel is so important that I think it merits reading again and again.

 

What is Vaiṣṇava Saṅga?

 

Vaiṣṇava saṅga is an assembly of devotees mutually dedicated to the assembly’s objective — the glorification of the Supreme Lord.

 

As all members of the Vaiṣṇava saṅga are focused on that objective, personal objectives become secondary.

 

Although the leaders and senior Vaiṣṇavas may help guide the saṅga, and are appropriately respected, all participating members are deeply and equally valued as essential members of the saṅga.

 

Cooperation in a Vaiṣṇava saṅga is spontaneous and manifests genuinely out of the feelings of natural attachment and respect for authority within the saṅga. As much as practical within the saṅga, corporate or hierarchical structures of authority are not forcefully or externally imposed.

 

The channel of relationships and communication in a Vaiṣṇava saṅga is open due the trust among its members. Saṅga members thus get the maximum benefit from each other’s insights, including the realizations of its more spiritually mature members.

 

As mercy flows so freely in a Vaiṣṇava saṅga, a Vaiṣṇava saṅga naturally inspires humility in its members, which is the natural response to mercy.

 

The activities (service) of a Vaiṣṇava saṅga are born from a humble mood of service and thus truly become sevā, or devotional service.

 

As the members of the Vaiṣṇava saṅga are humble, they are constantly absorbed in nāma-saṅkīrtana.

 

A Vaiṣṇava saṅga is confident in the mercy it is experiencing within its saṅga. The members welcome and value any participant or visitor from any saṅga or organization as long as they sincerely want to serve the saṅga’s objectives.

 

A Vaiṣṇava saṅga does fear Vaiṣṇava aparādha. Its members deal very carefully and respectfully with everyone.

 

A Vaiṣṇava saṅga is thus the yoga of association, where members naturally control their minds and senses out of respect and appreciation for the association and care they are receiving within the saṅga.

 

The duty of an ācārya is to create Vaiṣṇava saṅga based on the six loving exchanges of a Vaiṣṇava. To assist in its development is the best offering of service for his pleasure.

 

A Vaiṣṇava saṅga is most attractive. Sincere people will appreciate it. Pure devotees will naturally gravitate towards it. It is the basis of spreading Vaiṣṇava dharma.

 

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #3 – Helplessly Perfect

January 21st, 2019

We are now near the end of Śrī Bṛhad-bhāgavatāmṛta, where the story of Śrī Nārada’s search for the topmost recipient of Śrī Krishna’s mercy is narrated. What an incredibly gripping story! Nārada has been told that he must certainly search out Uddhava, who resides in Śrī Krishna’s capital as His most confidential courier. Eventually reaching his destination, Śrī Nārada, with unbounded enthusiasm, enters the gates of the city. Running through the extremely intricate and confusing labyrinth of the city’s winding streets, intoxicated by love of God, he still manages to find himself at his destination, although apparently oblivious to what he is doing. How did he succeed? The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust commentary explains:

 

“The truth is, however, that when one is conducted ‘helplessly’ under the control of pure love of God, one actually understands everything perfectly; he certainly cannot forget the way to reach the Personality of Godhead.”

 

“Helplessly perfect” is an interesting concept and a seeming oxymoron, but if we think about it, if there is a supremely powerful and intelligent force in the universe, and instead of acting out of self-interest we become an instrument for that force, then would we not be in a sense acting helplessly and perfectly?

 

Perhaps we have personally experienced the reconciliation of this dichotomy when sharing what we know, and then in a mood of prayer the explanation comes through us in a far more fluid or perfect manner than what we could have possibly intellectually composed, or when trying to helplessly understand something about God, a realization or conclusion arises by prayer beyond our capacity to otherwise formulate or even comprehend. In such cases are we not helpless and competent at the same time?

 

This exact phenomenon of being conducted “helplessly” to reach a more perfect result is highlighted in the second of the four nutshell verses in the Bhagavad-gītā, where Krishna shows how perfect knowledge is given only to those who depend on Him in a mood of devotion.

 

“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)

 

I would like to help substantiate the “helplessly perfect” concept from my personal experience while writing this today. Attempting to compose this week’s Greeting has been exceptionally trying, as I am right in the middle of managing and leading my Puri retreat. This morning it was not surprising that I was practically staring at the blank page for hours trying to write something cogent. At the height of my helplessness, however, some powerful thoughts on how to proceed spontaneously came to mind. One reference especially from the Nectar of Devotion arose that helped resolve my quandary.

 

In the Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī described one of nine symptoms of advanced devotion as āśā-bandha, literally meaning that one’s hopes cannot be bound. In Nectar of Devotion Śrīla Prabhupāda translates the term in a very interesting way. He uses the English idiom “hope against hope”, indicating the idea of wishing for something against all odds. I found that translation quite revelatory in reconciling the dichotomy between hopelessness and perfection. The phrase “against hope” is such an excellent expression of the hopelessness of one seeking perfection on the basis of one’s own qualification, while “hope”, as used here, defines the confidence one can have at the same time when reflecting on God’s qualification, specifically His unbounded mercy. “Hope against hope” is thus a perfect aphorism for our theme here, “helplessly perfect”. It is also one that came to this essay when I myself was a bit lost about how to proceed.

 

I think Śrīla Prabhupāda’s poem “Mārkine Bhāgavata-dharma”, which was written upon arrival at Commonwealth Pier in Boston, is a perfect expression of this consciousness. He stood there with only forty-five rupees in his pocket and a trunk of Śrīmad-Bhāgavatams and began to reflect on the immense task that lay ahead, the spreading of Krishna consciousness throughout the Western world. Both his hopelessness in his personal ability to achieve his mission and his faith in the holy name to inspire him to achieve that mission arose simultaneously in his heart. The last two lines and his closing verification perfectly express this “hope against hope”, and his eventual success in that mission perfectly attests to the concept “helplessly perfect”:

 

“O Lord, I am just like a puppet in Your hands. So if You have brought me here to dance, then make me dance, make me dance, O Lord, make me dance as You like.

 

I have no devotion, nor do I have any knowledge, but I have strong faith in the holy name of Krishna. I have been designated as Bhaktivedanta, and now, if You like, You can fulfill the real purport of Bhaktivedanta.”

 

Signed-the most unfortunate, insignificant beggar
A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami,
on board the ship Jaladuta, Commonwealth Pier,
Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.A.
dated 18th of September 1965

 

And there rests the secret to Krishna consciousness. As Śrī Nārada was conducted helplessly by devotion to reach the doorstep of Krishna’s palace, and Śrīla Prabhupāda in a mood of utter humility succeeded in his mission, only by attracting God’s mercy by our deep modesty and consequent calling of the holy name can we too hope against hope to achieve the sweet fruit of helpless perfection.

 

 

 

 

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #2 – The Land of Magnanimity

January 14th, 2019

I am making a substantial statement here. For me, there is no question that holy places are, in fact, alive. I am writing this from Śrīdhāma Māyāpur, also known as Audārya-dhāma (the land of magnanimity). That’s quite a personal claim because only people can possess character traits. Anyway, I feel the magnanimity of this place, as do most others who approach this place respectfully. Each holy place has a unique personality that feels so real that, as the saying goes, “one can cut it with a knife”. Some examples to support my assertion:

 

Years ago while visiting Śrī Śrī Radha Damodara in Vṛndāvana I noticed the Vaiṣṇava scholar Śrī Gopīparāṇadhana Prabhu walking by. After greeting him and requesting him to say a few words to my group, he kindly shared with us a very interesting insight about the correlation between the internal nature of the place we were sitting and its influence externally.

 

“Radha Damodara is located within the area named Sevā-kuñja, which is not only the site of Krishna’s rāsa-līlā dance, but the kuñja (forest grove) where Krishna offered His sevā (selfless service) to Radha. Historically, therefore, Radha Damodara has always been a place to inspire sevā or selfless service. For example, there were many gosvāmī temples, but it was here, five hundred years ago, that the six Gosvāmīs met daily to discuss and gain inspiration for the sevā of expanding the mission of Śrī Caitanya. Similarly, there were many temples in Vṛndāvana that Śrīla Prabhupāda could have retired to, but it was here, almost sixty years ago, that he resided to plan and gain inspiration for his service of preaching Krishna consciousness in the Western world.” [1]

 

Yesterday, I went on pilgrimage to Godrumadvīpa, one of nine islands comprising the holy place called Navadvīpa, where each island represents one of the nine practices of devotional service. Godrumadvīpa specifically exemplifies and inspires the practice of kīrtana. It is therefore not a coincidence that five hundred years ago Lord Nityānanda chose Godruma to establish the nāma-hāṭa, his mission to spread the kīrtana of Krishna’s holy name all around West Bengal. It is the same place where, at the end of the Nineteenth Century, the great Vaiṣṇava saint Śrīla Bhaktivinoda did exactly the same. Evidently both understood and felt the particular nature of the place to give inspiration for kīrtana.

 

Perhaps the most convincing example of the personality of a holy place and its specific influence was the effect of Śrī Vṛndāvana on the visit of my dear elder cousin, Mā Sevā Bhāratī. Mā Sevā Bhāratī? Yes, that’s her name. Forty years ago, my cousin Susan took shelter of the famous yogi, Swami Rāma. Shortly after he left the world, she took sannyāsa from his successor, the great Sanskrit scholar Swami Veda Bhāratī and received the sannyāsa name Mā Sevā Bhāratī. Anyway, to continue my story, although she was residing for many years very high in the Himalayas in a place with no running water, I managed to contact her and convince her to visit me in Vṛndāvana.

 

Mā Sevā very much enjoyed her stay in Vṛndāvana, which is also known as Mādhurya-dhāma, the place of sweet intimate devotion. While there she even began to seriously chant every day sixteen rounds of the Hare Krishna mantra. I’ll never forget her appreciative inquiry to me one morning, “What is this sweetness here? What is this sweetness here?” In a sense I wasn’t surprised that by the depth of her humility and meditation she began to feel the personality of Mādhurya-dhāma, the land of sweetness.

 

After a few weeks in Vṛndāvana, I took her to Govardhana, which, according to Vaiṣṇava theology, is even sweeter than Vṛndāvana. After about week of chanting there she again shared her heart with me. I was bit stunned by the depth of her inquiry, “What is this sweetness here? What is this sweetness here? It is even sweeter than Vṛndāvana!” What a powerful confirmation that indeed holy places are alive.

 

I have a small group with me here. We have a few days left in the land of magnanimity. We have no doubt that the holy name has descended on our tongues far more than any of us deserve. I suppose if Mā Sevā was visiting me here she would be asking, “What is this mercy here? What is this mercy here?”

 

So fortunate to be in the land of magnanimity.

 

 


[1] This is what he said to the best of my remembrance.

 

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