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

July 15th, 2019

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 


[1] Chapter 29, p 299 Krishna Book

[2] Cc. Madhya-līlā 13.49-51

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

 

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #27 – Marilyn Monroe Died

July 8th, 2019

He vowed never to again hear anything of this world besides the pastimes and service of his worshipful Lords, Śrī Śrī Radha Krishna. That was 1962, over fifty years, when he arrived in Vṛndāvana, and he has kept true to his vow ever since. A few years ago, my friend visited this saint. I am not sure why — it seemed a bit inappropriate — but he asked him, “What was the last thing you heard in the news?” The kind baba searched his memory for a second. His matter of fact answer took my friend aback: “Marilyn Monroe died.” He soon related his conversation to me. I was impressed.

 

Last week I got a similar message. It reminded me of the saintly no-news baba in Vṛndāvana. Again, I was impressed.

 

I needed something researched in Vṛndāvana for a book Satyarāja Dāsa is writing, so I texted a friend of mine, who took the summer months off to stay there, for help. At the end of our conversation, I casually asked him a more personal question: “How is your bhajan?” His texts surprised me:

 

“Good.

Better.

New experiences

Of chanting 64 rounds

Everyday

And reading Bhāgavatam for 3 hrs a day

Also I keep vrata of kīrtana at the temple 3 hours a day.

Nothing Going on

Summer is best for me

It’s so amazing how Vṛndāvana is so different in summer

But one thing, I miss preaching

You are the only one I shared actually

I never knew its possible

I also left social media, I use none whatsoever”

 

The last line, “none whatsoever”, struck me. Knowing him, I could imagine how much this media fast contributed to his renewed depth of practice. It got me thinking. Although I am not personally on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, I do read about the world. But how much could my personal meditation improve if the input of the world, with its very consuming distractions, hates, and dualities, was completely shut off? I began to think of those special friends that seem to go much deeper than others in their chanting of the holy name. They all seem to have, to one degree or another, one thing in common. In terms of social media, they are all in the school of “Marilyn Monroe died”, so to speak. I thought, yes, media “none whatsoever.” What is the use of having the mind stimulated with so many thoughts that are of no use to the soul? Why not go even deeper into the holy name? Time is short. I’ve begun my fast today. I’ve been here before. I have my doubts. Can I do it? I wrote something on this many years ago.

 

I am convinced that, like television, the medium of the computer has insidious effects because it subtly injects one with the need for incessant distraction—an especially menacing prospect for those on the spiritual path where the mind needs to be calmed to touch one’s essence.

 

I lived in Vṛndāvana for 20 years without even a phone. I didn’t die of boredom; instead I remained absorbed in scripture, nama (meditation on God’s names), and seva (service). To be peaceful now I require the world at my doorstep with the click of a button, even while living in Vṛndāvanaa. Something is wrong. (MMG May 27, 2004)

 

If something was wrong then, then what to speak of now! Back then, I had to walk to the nearest market to even download my email! I recalled a talk that I listened to recently that seemed so relevant to the moment here.

 

Simon Sinek described how the constant use of social media has the same chemical effect on the brain as any form of addiction, from gambling to alcohol.[1] They all produce an inordinate amount of dopamine, the chemical in the brain that activates the nucleus accumbens, the brain’s pleasure or reward center.[2] In time, as the nucleus accumbens is over stimulated by dopamine, it naturally adapts, requiring one to take more and more of one’s desired substance to obtain the same dopamine “high”. Compulsion takes over, and one is addicted. And here’s the real point that struck me: “If you arise in the morning and the first thing you do is check your computer you are addicted!

 

OK, I am using “media” to research and write this. Certainly, it has many good uses. People who are isolated can be connected to spiritual events like never before. Compassionate souls may research the world to effectively comment on it with spiritual insight. Even Śrīla Prabhupada occasionally wrote or spoke on “that rascal Nixon” or “a prayer day in the US Senate” and other worldly events to illustrate his point. So yes, our renunciation of media should be balanced — we should only reject that which cannot be used in Krishna’s service.

 

But here’s the point. How much does one need in Krishna’s service? The cultured sādhu retired in Vṛndāvana didn’t need any. And how much do you actually require for the service of Krishna? If attentive chanting is our problem, or if we want to go much deeper into the holy name, perhaps this is the cause — too much absorption in what Śrīla Prabhupada called “the world of names”. One of the main obstacles to devotion is prajalpa, idle talk. Social media is idle talk on steroids. Add that to the dopamine induced impressions for endless social and frivolous distraction and is there any wonder why we don’t have sufficient taste for sitting in one place and focusing on the holy name without distraction?

 

Just imagine that you are sitting in Vṛndāvana at the end of your life chanting and hearing about Krishna. A new spiritual aspirant walks in and asks you what is the last thing you read in the news. After thinking for second you respond […] (fill in the blank of the last thing you heard on the news). Wouldn’t that be glorious!

 

“The great kings, leaders and soldiers fight with one another to perpetuate their names in history. They are forgotten in due course of time, and they make a place for another era of history. But the devotee realizes how much history and historical places are useless products of flickering time.” (Bhāg. 2.2.3, Purport)

 

 


[1] Simon Sinek on Millennials in the Workplace — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hER0Qp6QJNU

[2] This explanation of the effects of dopamine mentioned in Simon Sinek’s talk comes from article on addiction from Harvard Heath Publishing a division of Harvard Medical School. https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/how-addiction-hijacks-the-brain

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #26 – Cultural Procreation

July 1st, 2019

What the heck is “cultural procreation”? I made the term up. Well, not exactly — a friend of mine did, but I’m using the term he coined. The explanation of the title and its origins will come later in the article.

 

I want to speak about cultural appropriation. There are many examples of a dominant culture economically exploiting the treasures of a minority culture, or the dominant culture misrepresenting a disadvantaged culture sacrilegiously, or out of context. At the same time, I think that today’s blanket application of cultural appropriation as something immoral has gone too far.[1] Taking elements of another culture as your own has historically been more of a bridge to unity than a vehicle for denigration. What I would like to show in this article is how a truth with a limited application, such as cultural appropriation, becomes a passion, a truth extended far beyond its application, specifically as applied to my lineage, the bhakti tradition of India, which actively promotes sharing elements of its culture around the world as part of its teaching.

 

Before discussing this topic further, I think it is important to know exactly what culture is. Here’s one definition that I like: “Culture is the purposeful construction of one’s environment to help one relate, learn, and communicate more effectively.”[2] Of course, there are more general definitions of “culture” that are devoid of any uplifting objective. However, if we look at the earliest derivative of the word “culture” from the Latin cultura, which initially meant to prepare the land for crops, or its later biological usage as the suitable environment for the production of bacteria or other microorganisms, this sense of facilitating growth gives a more accurate sense of the meaning of “culture” than just an arbitrary collection of communal rituals and mores. It is also consistent with the meaning of Indian culture, which in its purest sense certainly cannot be divorced from spiritual and uplifting objectives, especially in the bhakti tradition of India.

 

When the aim of culture, and specifically the culture of bhakti, is to promote spiritual growth, why would the tradition object to the adoption and propagation of that culture by foreigners when intelligently and appropriately applied? Is not one of the foundational concepts of Indian philosophy to awaken our non-designated eternal spirit souls from their temporary bodily identification? In terms of welcoming others to adopt the path of bhakti, which necessarily includes at least some elements of its culture to facilitate its growth, there are many verses in traditional texts that mention the universal applicability of bhakti, down to listing specific nationalities, such as Germans, Turks, Greeks, and Chinese.[3] In fact, one of the hallmark signs of Śrī Caitanya’s bhakti movement is that a number of its greatest early teachers were formerly Muslims, either by birth or acculturation!

 

It is therefore ironic that those who claim to speak on behalf of the tradition by criticizing foreigners who adopt and promote the culture of India are themselves violating the tradition by claiming to speak for and impose on bhakti a postmodern view of cultural appropriation, which is antithetical to the tradition itself. The bhakti tradition vigorously fought for equal opportunity in Indian societal and religious life, based on one’s qualities, against the priestly class (caste brāhmaṇas) who wanted it restricted by birth. Denying foreigners the right to practice bhakti based on the doctrine of cultural appropriation, which disqualifies people from elements of bhakti culture simply by birth, only feeds into the foundation of the discredited Indian caste system. At its worst, is it not another form of racism?

 

Further, when the banner of cultural appropriation is raised, who exactly is speaking on behalf of the Indian people? Is it the people within the tradition itself? I have lived in India for over forty years. I came shortly after Śrīla Prabhupāda, my spiritual master, returned to India from the West with his foreign disciples specifically to help revive the culture of India, which was under siege by modernity. What was the overwhelming reaction of the people of India? Rather than see forces of cultural dominance, Indians overwhelmingly saw the Westerners adopting their culture with a sense of pride and liberation. For years the British, through Christian missionaries, tried to destroy its traditions, but now those same foreigners were adopting India’s traditions as their own.

 

Back to the title. When the thought of writing on cultural appropriation first came to mind, I shared the idea with a friend who has a sense humor. He either pretended to not hear me or didn’t understand what I said, and responded in jest, “Cultural procreation.” We laughed. Later, when writing the article and looking for a catchy title, I thought “Cultural Procreation” was perfect because my idea was that rather than bhakti practitioners being affronted by emulation of their culture, one of the principles of bhakti is that its teachings and culture should be reproduced around the world. Get it? Reproduced: Cultural Procreation.

 

 

 


[1] https://iskcondesiretree.com/profiles/blogs/bhakti-yoga-club-accused-of-cultural-appropriation-and-shut-down

[2] I don’t remember and can’t find where I read this definition of “culture”.

[3] Bhag. 2.4.18

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #25 – Betrayed!

June 24th, 2019

Last week I wrote about expediency, but it was beyond the scope of the entry to illustrate the concept with an example. I thought the example of how one responds to betrayal would be an excellent way to broach the subject of when dharma is brushed aside for the sake of an immediate advantage. There seems to be no deeper hurt and stronger impetus to strike back with vengeance than when someone one violates one’s trust. How to deal with being betrayed? I think the story of Vidura illustrates that best.

 

Vidura was renowned for his good counsel. When King Dhṛtarāṣṭra, his elder brother, called him, Vidura strongly advised him to instruct his son Duryodhana to return the legitimate share of the kingdom to his cousin Yudhiṣṭhira, which he had illegally usurped. He outlined in detail the ruin it would bring upon the King. Duryodhana overheard the conversation and immediately threatened his uncle:

 

“Who asked him to come here, the son of a kept mistress? He is so crooked that he spies in the interest of the enemy against those on whose support he has grown up. Toss him out of the palace immediately and leave him with only his breath.” (Bhāg. 3.1.15)

 

How painful! Not only was he thrown out of the palace in his twilight years without any possessions, a kingdom that he served so humbly and selflessly his whole life, but he was also deeply insulted. What was especially painful was that it was true. Although Vidura shared the same father with Dhṛtarāṣṭra, his mother was not the queen, but a maidservant. Vidura thus dropped his bow at the door and immediately left “being pierced by arrows through the ears and afflicted to the core of his heart” (Bhāg. 3.1.16). Yes indeed he was hurt, but how he dealt with his betrayal was exemplary.

 

The Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam describes his attitude: “He was not sorry, for he considered the acts of the external energy to be supreme” (Bhāg. 3.1.16). In other words, although Duryodhana betrayed him, he understood that nothing moves without the sanction of God. He thus saw the same energy that was moving Duryodhana to offense and destruction was giving him a greater opportunity to fully engage in devotional service.

 

The lesson from Vidura is clear. When betrayed, don’t just look at māyā as God’s energy entangling someone who is hurting you. See it also as His illuminating energy moving the world for your enlightenment. If you focus on māyā externally in terms of its illusory effect on your perpetrator, your bitterness and victimhood will only increase. If you see, however, that same māyā internally in terms of helping you grow, your bitterness will reduce and your consciousness will elevate. In his purport to this verse, Śrīla Prabhupāda describes how Vidura was able to properly observe the workings of God’s energy: “Māyā, the supreme energy of the Lord acted both internally and externally”.[1]

 

I was also reminded of Socrates in viewing betrayal in this way. After serving his country by virtue of his wisdom and example, the government turned on him. He was falsely accused and condemned to die. His only request was to address his judge and jury, the senate of Greece. He looked at them intently and delivered his message: “If you think you can harm me, you will not harm me, you will only harm yourself.” He thus saw his apparent betrayal in the same way as Vidura. Real harm is to be disconnected from the soul, so if you harm another for your advantage it is actually your ruin, but if you see it as God’s will it’s a blessing to bring you closer to Krishna.

 

“Every betrayal contains a perfect moment, a coin stamped heads and tails with salvation on the other side.” — Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible

 


[1] There are also specific philosophical terms for this phenomenon. When māyā works to further one’s devotion it is called yogamāyā, the internal potency, and when it moves to further one’s material entanglement it is called mahamāyā, the external potency.

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #24 – Damn the Expedient!

June 17th, 2019

It bothers me when people, knowingly or unknowingly, neglect or minimize what is right for what they see as convenient or practical. It is called expediency. Perhaps that bothers all of us, but I know it especially irks me.

 

People who manage under pressure seem particularly susceptible to minimizing or neglecting what is proper for what is seemingly practical, but all of us are challenged regularly with such choices, especially when the right choice is somewhat subtle. In such situations, only the thoughtful and saintly can consistently avoid the lure of seeking a material advantage, which risks their soul, in lieu of what is right.

 

Risk their soul? For each step forward in life we have a myriad of choices to make, some more crucial than others. The soul is consciousness that reaches its fulfillment in selflessness or devotion. Dharma is the science of making the choice that moves one towards a clearer conception of the self. All other choices, by the nature of being self-serving, only further obscure that vision. So yes, expediency is at the cost of the soul.

 

It is no wonder, therefore, that this promotion of dharma and the concomitant warning against expediency rests at the root of classical Indian thought. In fact, one of the most famous moral guides in India is the Kauṭilya Sūtras (aphorisms) by Cāṇakya Paṇḍita, which was written specifically to temper the lure of expediency by promoting dharma, especially for those in positions of leadership. The first aphorism sets the tone for the book by highlighting the fruit of dharma, doing what is right in the face of expediency.

 

sukhasya mūlaṁ dharmaḥ

The root of happiness is dharma, righteousness.

 

If the Kauṭilya Sūtras is one of the most prominent moral guidebooks in classical Indian literature, the Bhagavad-gītā is the most prominent book of classical Indian thought in terms of applying spirituality in daily life. The same message that dharma, not expedience, leads to auspiciousness is also stressed there. That can especially be seen in the profound connection between its first and last verse, which is significant, as the first and last verse of a book are one of the important indications of a book’s theme according to classical hermeneutics. Here is something I wrote about in a previous Monday Morning Greetings:

 

In the very first verse of the Gītā, King Dhṛtarāṣṭra inquires from Sañjaya, his mystical advisor, about the impending battle at Kurukṣetra between his sons and the sons of Pāṇḍu led by Arjuna:

 

‘Dhṛtarāṣṭra said: O Sañjaya, after assembling in the place of pilgrimage at Kurukṣetra, what did my sons and the sons of Pāṇḍu do, being desirous to fight?’

 

The commentators explain that Dhṛtarāṣṭra is concerned with how the holy place will influence the battle, but that he expected victory in this ugly fratricidal war because of the greater size of his son’s army.[1] The verse also forebodes victory for the sons of Pāṇḍu. The battlefield is a place of pilgrimage (dharma-kṣetra) and Krishna, who upholds and protects dharma (righteousness), is on their side.

 

The last verse of the Gītā states its conclusion and answers Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s initial inquiry definitively:

 

‘Wherever there is Krishna, the master of all mystics, and wherever there is Arjuna, the supreme archer, there will also certainly be opulence, victory, extraordinary power, and morality. That is my opinion.’

 

The connection seems obvious, although I have never seen it stated. The first verse is a view of the battle through the eyes of a materialist filled with anxiety about a situation he cannot control, calculating success based on one’s personal power rather than doing what’s right. In contrast the last verse, spoken by his advisor Sañjaya is a view of that same world through the eyes of a spiritualist, seeing success or victory not by expedience or material superiority, but by choosing righteousness or dharmaDharma here is represented by the presence of Krishna, the master of all mystics, and His devotee Arjuna, the supreme archer.” (“The Talking Book”, Monday Morning Greetings 2017 #48)

 

So the Gītā also says, “Damn the Expedient!” I pray never again to fall prey to it.

 

“Cowardice asks: Is it safe? Expediency asks: Is it politic? But conscience asks: Is it right?” — William Morley Punshon

 

 

 


[1] Before the battle the sons of Dhṛtarāṣṭra were given the choice of either Krishna or Krishna’s armies. They chose Krishna’s armies which gave them even more confidence in their military superiority. It proved to have been an expedient choice.

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #23 – Our Decisions Determine Our Fate

June 10th, 2019

What we are now has been determined by the decisions we made in the past, and if that is true, what we will be in the future will be determined by the decisions we make now. There is practically not a day that goes by when we don’t have some decisions that are crucial to our future well-being. How to make the right choice?

 

Intuition

God rests in our heart and directs us from within. The force of intuition is very powerful, and sometimes the message is so strong and undeniable that the right decision becomes clear. The voices of God, however, is not the only thing in our hearts. Our hearts are also filled with the voices of ambition and desire, so how do we distinguish that what we are hearing is the direction of God?

 

Consultation

The voice of God is manifest externally through the bona-fide teacher and also via consultation with qualified peers. It is easy to find out what to do if we have the courage to accept the authority of those who are learned and wise. We are not children, however. We can’t live our life day-to-day looking for someone to tell us what to do, nor is that resource always available. Furthermore, although the guidelines to make the right decision are available through our teacher, our individual frame of reference by which to apply those guidelines, which includes our psychological capability and our personal history, is not always fully privy to others. In that case, responsibility for our final decision becomes solely ours. If we are still confused in such cases, what to do?

 

Sincerity

We often reject what is right even though the voice of God in the heart, or the voice of God through our teachers, is loud and clear. Simply put, we are naturally deaf to instructions we don’t like. Therefore, the most important thing in making the right decisions is the deep sincerity to want the truth whether we like it or not. Why would God not reveal the truth to a sincere soul who opens his heart to His will? That is often done through the voice of destiny.

 

Destiny as the language of God

God speaks to us in response to our heartfelt desire to make the right choices by moving the world around us to teach us lessons. What is the purpose of karma if not to convey a message from God? Sometimes, when we are not hearing His will, He speaks louder and louder and the challenges in our life become heavier and heavier. If what God is telling us still remains an enigma, as it often does, we can approach the Vaiṣṇavas, those who are fluent in the language of destiny. Advanced devotees can explain destiny, for they know the śāstra, which is, for all practical purposes, a dictionary of destiny. In other words, it explains what certain archetypal karmic situations mean, which learned and realized souls can apply to our life to help us understand the meaning of what is happening to us and how to respond practically.

 

Here is how it works

The topics I write are mostly things that I am thinking about at the time. So yes, I am presently on a quest for answers to a dilemma that has arisen. I first went into my heart to unconditionally seek God’s will. Although for years these questions have arisen on and off in my mind, by doing this God’s voice became unexpectedly clearer. To be certain of my choice, however, I have also opened my heart to the advice of respected well-wishers, in addition to carefully watching my destiny to see if there are any signs to confirm what I think is God’s direction.

 

An intelligent person moves thoughtfully in the world seeking God’s will, for dharma, the right decision, always leads to auspiciousness. How important to sincerely seek the will of God, for our decisions determine our future.

 

 

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #22 – How to Feel Bad About Yourself

June 3rd, 2019

A friend once joked: “You’re so optimistic that you could be falling out of the Empire State Building and on the fiftieth floor say, ‘so far so good’.” I’m a hopeless optimist. We laughed, but it is no joke. A dose of pessimism, even pain in the heart, is essential for bhakti. I feel that more and more. Comes with age? Could I be advancing in spiritual life? Who knows? But my wall of unhinged optimism is cracking, and it’s sometimes heavy.

 

The pain of purification

 

One friend described being in a holy place like putting a mirror to your false ego. Devotion is like that. It cleans the heart and helps you see yourself, warts and all. When the mind is cluttered with desires it is often hard to notice our faults, like not noticing something out of place in a cluttered room. For a minute I see myself. How many lifetimes have I been parading as Pauṇḍraka?[1] Can I bear the truth of self-realization?

 

The pain of understanding God

 

To really believe in an Absolute Truth sets a standard for our life. How demanding it is to conform one’s living to something higher than one’s whims and attachments. I am reading that standard of truth. It is called the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam. I am informed page after page, “You are not up to the mark. Change!” Can I bear the truth of self-realization?

 

The pain of realization

 

I not only understand a truth; I see a truth — a realization. That realization is so clear. I kick myself. How did I miss it? I look back. How foolish to have lived in ignorance of such a simple truth. I should have known. And such realizations keep coming again and again. I am pained to have lived in foolishness, and it follows that I must be living in folly now. Can I bear the truth of self-realization?

 

The pain of regret

 

Bhakti begins with regretting a life lived egocentrically separate from God. That regret is called tapa, or remorse. It is the first step in spiritual commitment. Tapa also means heat. Remorse is heat because admission of fault painfully burns the lurking sense of ego that engines material life. No, I am not wrong! It is not my fault! It wasn’t a mistake! Am I man enough to resist such rationalization? Admit it; regret it. Let that acknowledgment burn our charade. Can I bear the truth of self-realization?

 

The pain of opening the heart

 

The essence of the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam is to chant the name of our beloved Lord without attachment or inhibition. Such simple-hearted sincerity is painful because the proud fears vulnerability and humility. Chanting means to open that heart fully and beg for the mercy of the holy name. Why the resistance? Can I bear the pain of self-realization?

 

The joy of pain

 

Crushing thoughts awaken humility, which is the foundation of devotional yearning and thus the greatest joy. That pain, however, has nothing to do with one’s psychology. It is the soul aching for connection to God and realizing our failure. It is the birth of devotion and joy, but can I bear the price of self-realization?

 

 

 


[1] A foolish king described in the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam who paraded around in the dress of Krishna and declared himself God but was later killed by Krishna.

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #21 – A Cure for Terminal Cancer

May 27th, 2019

Disclaimer: I am not speaking about a cure as we know it. According to bhakti texts, one should try to save life as far as possible. But still, the title perfectly serves the point I want to make.

 

Years ago, I was speaking with an Ayurvedic doctor about a mutual acquaintance who was being kept alive by modern allopathic medicine. As my faith is in the Vedas and thus Ayurveda as the ultimate authority of medical knowledge, this naturally led to a discussion about the effectiveness of Ayurveda in curing the prominent terminal diseases of today. When I asked about the Ayurvedic cure for cancer, his answer took me off guard: “Death!”

 

He then illustrated his point. “Look at this photo,” he said. It showed a contemporary yogi leaving the world peacefully, surrounded by his students. As soon as the yogi found out that he had terminal cancer, the doctor told me, he fasted until death. The scene looked so dignified. The doctor continued, “By fasting to death, he was able to die before the body was completely ravaged by unbearable pain and while his consciousness and mind were peaceful and lucid.”

 

His explanation made sense, and it was consistent with one of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s last wishes. When Śrīla Prabhupāda became ill in his last days, he instructed his disciples not to take him to the hospital. He mentioned specifically that he didn’t want to leave this world with tubes in his body. I was there when he passed — peacefully and in clear consciousness, with what seemed to be minimal pain.

 

Support for this “death cure” thesis also comes from the most unlikely of places. Some time back, I read the book Morality by Christopher Hitchens, one of the most prominent “New Atheists.” The book chronicled the last weeks of Hitchens’s treatment at one of the best hospitals in the United States, just before his death due to terminal cancer. Writing was so effortless for him that he was able to describe his waning life almost to the very end. One sentence about his experience stuck out. To paraphrase, “The advancement of modern medicine is prolonging one’s torture in this world while at the same time ravaging what is left of one’s family fortune.”

 

Although Mr. Hitchens had some insight into the futility of prolonging life artificially in a body devastated by disease, he missed the real point. The solution is not just death as the end of our present suffering, but seeing death for what it actually is: the illusion of non-existence. And that’s the real import of the Ayurvedic doctor’s seemingly counter-intuitive answer about the cure for cancer. Without a culture of the soul informing our present life, including how it ends, we have no recourse but to make terrible choices, including wasting money and time artificially living in a tortured and fearful condition all because of the false notion of the eternal self as the temporary body.

 

Having lived much of my life in the holy land of Vṛndāvana, I have witnessed many saintly people leave this world. One departure in particular stands out — the passing of Mother Gauri. It also shines light on our subject — death as a “cure” for cancer.

 

On what would be the last day of Mother Gauri’s life, I was in the room when Dr. Narottama, her Ayurvedic doctor, came to check her. He mindfully took her pulse for diagnosis, looked at Gauri compassionately, and announced, “Disease is finished. You have one hour left to live.”

 

It took me a few minutes to understand what he was saying. Gauri devi was an exemplary Vaiṣṇava completely surrendered to the mission of her spiritual master. Her dying was simply the final impetus to relinquish the last vestiges of her false ego, attachment to the body. Dr. Narottama, a vrajavāsī and elevated devotee, could understand her attainment, that she was now living within the eternal soul and thus no longer identifying with the body. As cancer exists only in the body and she had transcended the non-self, he could boldly and simultaneously declare that her disease was finished and that she would also soon die. And sure enough, Gauri devi left one hour later, peacefully and extraordinarily alert and conscious. Had she not cured cancer?

 

I leave you with a verse from a song by Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura, which sums up the cure for all diseases:

 

“This temporary body is full of suffering. Take shelter of the holy name of Krishna as your only business.”[1]

 


[1] Aruṇodaya-kīrtana, Song 1, verse 6.

 

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

Next »