Monday Morning Greetings 2020 #7 – Rāgānugā-bhakti and the Art of Management

February 17th, 2020

Rāgānugā-bhakti is about doing things from the heart. Management is mostly about organization and policies. Can they be reconciled?

 

People who have been on my retreats notice that I am a stickler for the details of managing it.  During my Puri retreat, one younger devotee noticed how intensely I was making sure that the prasādam was served according to traditional Vaiṣṇava standards and joked that they were surprised that a Vrajavāsī was so much into vaidhī-bhakti.[1] Although the comment was innocent, and they were, in fact, appreciating what I was doing, I could see that they had some misunderstanding about what rāgānugā-bhakti, or spontaneous devotional service, is. I quickly replied in the form of questions to help them reconcile the concepts of management and spontaneous devotion.

 

When there is good management, you don’t see the management. When there is bad management, all you see is the management. Which is more conducive to rāgānugā-bhakti?

 

When Krishna arrives home in the evening “as required according the scheduled round of each pastime”[2] is His adherence to time an imposition on His līlā or pastimes, or an asset to it?

 

After arriving home in the evening from the cow pasture, Krishna’s mother bathes, dresses, and decorates Him so that He may join the other men and boys in the community for the scheduled milking of the cows. Was her attention to detail and time connected to her motherly devotion, or her desire to advance in religiosity by doing her duty?

 

Krishna’s day is described in books like Govinda-līlāmrita as aṣṭa-kālīya-līlā, the eight-fold daily pastimes, meaning that His daily activities are scheduled practically down to the minute. If Krishna’s activities are scheduled so rigidly by His līlā-śakti, or pastime potency, how can we say that keeping things orderly is antithetical to spontaneous devotion?

 

Śrīla Raghunātha dāsa Gosvāmī is recognized as the prayojana-ācārya, the authority on prema-bhakti. His practices, like chanting and paying hundreds of obeisances to the Vaiṣṇavas, were so fixed that they are described as like the lines on a stone. Considering whom Raghunātha dāsa Gosvāmī was, how we can divorce his mood of rigid discipline from the realm of the highest devotion?

 

Kirtan is described as “when the bhava in the heart is expressed through the discipline of music”.[3]  Is the effort to make a beautiful kirtan within the parameters of classical musical discipline enhancing or obstructing spontaneous devotion?

 

At the Ratha Yatra festival in Puri, Śrī Caitanya meticulously organized the kirtan into four parties with six chanters in each party: one lead singer and five to accompany him. He then assigned two expert mṛdaṅga players to each party. In addition, he made sure the dancing was appropriate by assigning one lead dancer to each party. Śrī Caitanya came to give rāgānugā-bhakti. Was His strict oversight of the kirtan party a result of His spontaneous devotion or something else?

 

Śrī Radha learned sixty-four arts in order to please Krishna. Among them were carpentry (takṣaṇa), engineering (vastu-vidyā), mechanics (yantra-mātṛkā), and enforcing discipline (vaināyikī vidyā). Why then can’t we manage on the platform of spontaneous devotion for the pleasure of Krishna?

 

I think it is obvious by the questions I raised that one on the level of spontaneous devotion is not limited in what one does for Krishna’s service, including regulation and organization. It is thus not the activity that makes something spontaneous devotion, but the inspiration or impetus for doing it. Can rāgānugā-bhakti be reconciled with organization and management? As long as it’s born out of the deepest intimate love for Śrī Krishna, then why not?

 


[1] Vaidhī-bhakti is devotion inspired by faith in the potency of following the rules or prescriptions of devotion. Rāgānugā-bhakti, or devotion following the eternal residents of Vṛndāvana, is devotion inspired by one’s intimate relationship with Krishna.

[2] Bhāg. 10.13.23

[3] This is a definition of kirtan from the Sikh tradition from an article by Satyahari Singh published in the Journal of Vaiṣṇava Studies.

Monday Morning Greetings 2020 #6 – A Humbling Realization

February 10th, 2020

I have been here in Vṛndāvana for forty-three years, but in terms of attaining pure devotion the amount of time in a holy place isn’t the main prerequisite. What really matters is one’s firm internal commitment to surrender to Krishna. After coming to the path of bhakti that could take lifetimes, or it could happen in a moment.

 

A leader in Krishna consciousness who is allured by distinction and admiration may not attain the platform of pure devotion after decades of service, while a beginner who humbly feels impelled to take full shelter of guru and Krishna, perhaps after a lifetime of suffering, may get the full force of bhakti at once. It all depends on when one pulls up the anchor of selfish attachment and surrenders fully to guru and Krishna. A well-known tale illustrates this point.

 

The wedding party traveled all night by boat to arrive at their destination. To their dismay, upon awakening they were in exactly the same spot as when they began. Upset, they brought their complaint to the boatman, who initially defended himself vigorously. After all, he had rowed all night. He, however, soon became contrite when a person in the wedding party pointed out that he had forgotten to pull up the anchor.

 

The story illustrates my humbling realization. My many years staying in Vṛndāvana is just not a badge of spiritual attainment to be worn by itself. One must fully pull up the chain of selfish desire and come to that point of unconditional surrender, something that can be done at once providing one is inspired with the fortitude and conviction to do so.

 

I have been helping to host a group of pilgrims from the USA this past week, people relatively new to the path of bhakti. Many attend my evening class. There is some raw sincerity here. I have practically never seen people immediately dive so deeply with full heart into the holy name. The thought then crossed my mind: They have a chance to commit to bhakti immediately in a way that has taken me many years to attain, or more honestly, I have still yet to attain. Why not?

 

I am not minimizing the determination of those who stay committed to the path of bhakti for many years. There is something so glorious about that. I am just pointing out a fact — that the fruit of such determination and grace is the point of full surrender, which opens the door to the genuine sentiments of one’s eternal relationship with Krishna. That point generally takes years or lifetimes of practice to attain, or it is something that can also be achieved at once by someone who has the intelligence and strength to do so.

 

“Nonetheless, the living entities are constantly being bewildered by this very same illusory energy. In his conditioned state, the living entity discovers many forms of word jugglery to get apparent liberation from the clutches of Māyā, but if he sincerely surrenders unto Kṛṣṇa by simply once saying ‘My dear Lord Kṛṣṇa, from this day I am Yours,’ he at once gets out of the clutches of the material energy.” (Teachings of Lord Caitanya, ch. 11)

 

A stone in a glass of water will not absorb anything even if resting there for thousand years. A piece of cotton will be drenched in a minute. After so many years the same choice remains, “Stone or cotton?” How humbling!

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2020 #5 – Traveling Makes a Man Old

February 3rd, 2020

I just don’t do well traveling. I am so disoriented from the day-long travel from Puri that the travail of traveling is the only realization I have to write about. Let’s see what I can say.

 

Śrīla Prabhupāda circled the globe twelve times in ten years, beginning after the age of seventy, yet wherever he arrived, he automatically clicked into his daily schedule without losing a beat. To me that’s unimaginable.

 

I am not Śrīla Prabhupāda. I become unsettled and inefficient after even a short jaunt. By my nature, travel is especially tough. Although, in general, modern travel is burdensome in ways for everyone. I remember the cautions of an Āyurvedic doctor:

 

“Anytime you travel faster than a bullock cart it blows out the fire of digestion. If you change your environment it takes seventy-two hours to adjust physiologically to the new air, water, food, and so on. Quick movement exacerbates the mode of passion, which is not good for the mind.”

 

A spiritual mentor offered an insight:

 

“People used to walk days or weeks to arrive in Vṛndāvana. Their minds would arrive in Vṛndāvana days or weeks before their bodies. Today we fly to Vṛndāvana. Our minds arrive days after our bodies.”

 

Whenever I go to the holy dhāma, the first thing I try to do is to bathe in a holy river or lake. It is the quickest way to help my mind arrive in the place where my body rests. Another way is to circumambulate Vṛndāvana proper. Haven’t had a chance for that either. I’ll go tomorrow.

 

My service of speaking and writing requires a clear mind. Efficient memory is very much a product of the mode of goodness. If my mind is not calm and clear it is hard to keep a fluid train of thought, or to quickly access the memory for an important reference to enhance my point.

 

The passion of travel has stolen that, at least for a few days. It’s Thursday; I am just beginning this week’s post. What happened? It has become near impossible to write.

 

I have to be fair. Traveling can also have a substantial upside. When we stay in one place, we tend to build our environment according to our desires and material identity. That’s natural. We need a level of satisfaction and peace to even pursue our dharma or spiritual life, but it can also fortify the conception that one is the doer, attach one to the temporary, and create the illusion that family and home are the ultimate reality. When mature, those who seek to loosen those conceptions and who have appropriately satisfied their responsibilities traditionally retire from material life. They wander in the forest bereft of their material protective agents to learn that we are not the doer and that God is actually our maintainer and protector.

 

Of course, like many strictures of the past, one must seek the principle they represent and intelligently apply it to their present situation. However, there is something to be said about leaving one’s comforts and travelling for a spiritual purpose where one is forced to face situations that challenge one’s control and foster faith and dependence on God. All true, but my service now is to stay in Vṛndāvana. I need to be here in the proper mind-set.

 

I just finished parikramā of Vṛndāvana. It was just a two-hour jaunt. I even wore shoes and socks for the first time on the now-paved road, which traditionally is navigated barefoot out of respect. I can’t believe it. How did I get a huge blister despite thick socks and footwear? Is this Vṛndāvana monk, who has lived here for over forty-three years, getting too soft? Anyway, I have finally entered the dhāma, but only after suffering the import of the maxim:

 

“Traveling makes a man old.”[1]

 

 

 


[1] Cāṇakya Paṇḍita

Monday Morning Greetings 2020 #4 – Oldies but Goldies

January 27th, 2020

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 seva, 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 2020 #3 – How to Get a Taste for Bhakti

January 20th, 2020

In the progressive step-by-step levels of bhakti, in order to reach the stage of ruci (taste) one first has to come to the level of niṣṭha, which means to be fixed or steady. In order to set the tone for our discussion, here’s a simple example based on the Bhagavad-gītā that illustrates the connection between fixedness and taste in bhakti.

 

Krishna says in Bhagavad-gītā that He is the taste of water. That statement always puzzled me. Isn’t water neutral? Doesn’t water only become tasty when something is added to it? I never really resolved this minor conundrum until I visited Hrishikesh, where I drank the pure Ganga coming from the mountains before it flows through the plains of India and mixes with the minerals of the ground. I had an epiphany. Ahh, so tasty! Yes, this is the taste of water, when water is just water, unmixed with anything else. In fact, when water is pure we call it “sweet water”. Similarly, when we attain niṣṭha and become fixed in devotion, when our devotion is not mixed with anything else, we come to the stage of ruci, sweet or tasty devotion. Simply put, water is tasty when water is just water, and similarly devotion is tasty when devotion is just devotion.

 

The first principle, therefore, in gaining taste for bhakti is to gain this understanding or conviction that without a concerted effort to become more concentrated and fixed in your devotion, whether it is in your practices or life, your taste for bhakti will not substantially deepen. In terms of practically doing that, or achieving any spiritual goal, the most important thing is first to have the right understanding and conviction. That is the point I am making here, and it has certainly been my experience with nurturing my taste in devotion. In that regard, I will share something somewhat personal.

 

What I write is what I am thinking at the time, so my focus lately has naturally been on how to increase taste. Every morning after breakfast I take a short walk to chant some more rounds. My practice then is much more casual than in the early morning when I sit in one place and meditate. Still, this conception, the one I am writing about, kept on coming into my mind, inspiring me to remain focused so that my devotion could become just devotion. I felt the difference. It became so clear. Without the right conception in the forefront of our minds, it is just too easy to become casual and close the door to the taste of devotion. Other thoughts about this subject kept arising throughout the week related to the subject at hand.

 

I thought a lot about the nature of the mind. As the mind always seeks distraction and change, it is the enemy of fixity and taste. We must therefore, according to our capacity for meditation, set aside an exclusive time and place for meditation unmixed with the distraction of other interests and responsibility where we can be free to observe the mind and fix it on the holy name. In terms of fixing the mind, japa is very powerful, but it takes practice. Without some concerted effort for meditation, without some practice where we keep the mind in the present and experience the company of God, it is unlikely we will ever fully enter the world of ruci, or taste.

 

Although japa is powerful, and some meditational practice is essential in fixing the mind and rising to the stage of ruci, by Śrī Caitanya’s mercy we have the dispensation of kirtan where mantra is couched in raga (melody) and tāla (rhythm). Raga and tāla naturally allow us to easily enter deep aspects of the psyche to enhance our emotion and connection with mantra that can help transport even those in passion and ignorance to a state of meditation, fixity, and taste.

 

Often when writing Monday Morning Greetings, I realize that the scope and depth of my subject is so much vaster than what I can express in just a blog. In a longer dissertation so much can be said about avoiding the various conceptions and attitudes that keep our devotion unsteady,[1] especially offenses and criticisms that readily distance the mind from our connection and fixity on Krishna, even when we set a time and place to do so, but for now I will end with perhaps the most important takeaway from this morning’s musings that I think says it all:

 

“Simply put, water is tasty when water is just water, and similarly devotion is tasty when devotion is just devotion.”

 

 

 

 


[1] Mādhurya Kaḍambinī dedicates a whole chapter to anistitha bhakti (unfixed devotional practice) and lists six attitudes that prevent steadiness in bhakti. That in-depth analysis is beyond the scope of this post, but recommended reading. They are listed briefly below:

bhajana-kriyā is of two types, aniṣṭhitā (unsteady) and niṣṭhitā (steady). niṣṭhitā means one cannot fall down or slacken anymore. aniṣṭhitā is due to immature devotion. It appears in six stages as utsāha-mayī (temporary vigour), ghana-taralā (simultaneous intense and unsteady practice), vyūḍha-vikalpā (indecision), viṣaya-saṅgarā (struggle with the senses), niyamākṣamā (inability to hold vows), and taraṅga-raṅgiṇī (delighting in the facilities offered by bhakti). In the stage of aniṣṭhitā bhajana these six weaknesses gradually appear in the heart of the devotee.”

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2020 #2 – Bhakti Is for All!

January 13th, 2020

I just spoke with Raghunath. He is very enlivened leading and teaching at the Govardhan Eco Village. He quipped that unless he is surrounded by a lot of people and leading a group, he can’t imagine how he could be absorbed in Krishna consciousness. I think what people like about him now is that he is not all pretentious as a leader. He humbly shares his own struggles, at times almost to the point of self-deprecation. It was a short casual call, so we couldn’t have an in-depth discussion, but one thing stood out — that what a devotee is and how a devotee remains engaged cannot be stereotyped. There are many different types of devotees and many different things devotees do. Therefore, what makes them advanced in practice and consciousness is not particularly what proclivity and service they have, nor whether they are extroverted or introverted, but the degree to which they are absorbed in devotional service and the humility and devotion they have in executing it.

 

I sometimes illustrate this point about distinguishing bhakti from external designations in relation to my own position as a renunciate by explaining how my sannyāsa is not necessarily a sign of devotional attainment, but a reflection of engaging my propensity for renunciation in Krishna’s service. To sum it up, bhakti is independent of both jñāna-sukṛti, credits from past deeds that grant one the propensity for renunciation, and karma-sukṛti, credit from past deeds that grant one a good material situation, including one’s personality and behavior. You can thus find sincere bhakti even in situations where it appears incongruous to classic yogic spirituality. I think a stark example will help make my general point more clear.

 

One of my favorite god-brothers, and a favorite of the devotees where he serves, has severe mental health challenges. His condition is so acute that he requires strong doses of heavy medication, including lithium, just to be functional. He lives in government housing and is incapable of rising from bed until late in the afternoon. Still, every day since I have known him, and that spans over thirty years, he immediately goes to the temple after rising and spends hours into the evening intricately cleaning every nook and corner of the three-story temple/ashram structure where he serves with the utmost sincerity and dedication. He is always humble, never offends anyone, and mostly uses whatever is left of his government stipend after meeting his essential needs to serve the devotees. In this life, he certainly doesn’t have enviable karma-sukṛti or a pronounced level of renunciation. What he does have, however, is considerable devotion.

 

My point about the independent nature of bhakti and the example I gave to illustrate it shouldn’t be misunderstood to mean that those on the path of bhakti are devoid of karma or jñāna-sukṛti. They certainly don’t have to be. The point I am stressing is that bhakti can be done without reservation from any platform of life, whether materially auspicious or not, because bhakti is independent of any external cause.

 

Śrīla Prabhupāda once stated that his purports to the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam were his personal ecstasy. I don’t think it is wrong to suggest that perhaps a purport of extraordinary length can indicate a particular enthusiasm or ecstasy in relation to a particular subject, not just because of its size, but by the apparent enthusiasm in which he cites so many varied references to establish a particular truth. I challenge the reader to find a purport longer and more well referenced than Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 2.9.36, one of the four nutshell verses of the initial Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, which describes the universal application of devotional service. Śrīla Prabhupāda goes on for over twenty-six pages about the subject we are discussing, how there is no material prerequisite for devotional service regardless of caste, creed, age, or even species of life and so on. I also don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that it was this ecstasy or conviction that gave him the faith that he could transform the wayward and uncultured youth of the 1960s by finding the ways and means to engage them in devotional service.

 

Our discussion here began with Raghunath’s observation that he can’t possibly be fully Krishna conscious unless he is surrounded by others and leading them, which almost seems counter-intuitive to bhakti where God is put in the center. His inquiry, however, brought out an interesting point – that it doesn’t matter what nature or status you have if you give it to Krishna. What a merciful opportunity to perfect our lives and achieve spiritual attainment! Whoever you are, whatever you do, just give it to Krishna.

 

 

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2020 #1 – The Journey Home on Steroids

January 6th, 2020

For sheer drama and dependence on God, I don’t think any modern pilgrim’s journey can top Radhanath Swami’s trip from Europe to Vṛndāvana over forty years ago, which is memorialized in his popular recount The Journey Home. But if there is anything that even comes close, it is the recent “journey home” by a twenty-four year old from France named Marcel.[1] He not only walked from his birthplace to Vṛndāvana through Turkey and Iran to the border of Pakistan,[2] but, by choice, he did it penniless without ever stepping even once in a vehicle!

 

Upon arriving in Vṛndāvana he was directed to my afternoon class by a devotee that he met. I welcomed the sober and handsome Marcel, along with Marie, his partner of seven years, an attractive and highly educated Catholic, who occasionally joined him during her breaks from the university. After class I invited Marcel to share his story with me.

 

Marcel walked and chanted the mahā-mantra the whole way, mostly through smaller towns and villages. He was overwhelmed by the hospitality he received, especially through Turkey and Iran. He explained the culture to me. When a guest knocks on your door in the Middle East, it is considered that Allah has personally come to your home. He certainly felt received in that mood. Still, there were challenges. A substantial part of the journey through the Middle East was walking in the desert, which meant long treks between towns. He solved that problem by getting a small hand cart to carry food and water for a few days so that he never went hungry or thirsty even once!

 

I heard personally from people in Iran that despite the theocratic rule there, there is still quite a lot of violent street crime but, like most places, the crime rests more or mostly in big cities where the struggle for existence is more pronounced. As a result, he completed his journey danger free, except for one harrowing incident in Sirjan, a small city of history and culture in South Iran. He was confronted there by three ruffians, one who pulled a huge handmade dagger from under his shirt and brandished it in front of Marcel’s face demanding money. It was terrifying, and all Marcel could think of was the strange advice his well-traveled uncle gave him before he left: “If you are ever accosted on your travels, just stare quietly in the person’s eyes with a smile. If you don’t show any fear, you will go beyond the person’s eyes to find his soul. The aggressor will then immediately become confused and disarmed.” He couldn’t think of any other option, so he smiled and looked into the thug’s eyes. To his amazement, the thug just uttered some nonsense and quickly left. Marcel then continued peacefully on his journey.

 

I was impressed by Marcel’s journey of faith, but also humbled because it reminded me of my own duties to cultivate dependence on God as a sannyāsī (renunciate). It is not that I have to walk across Iran penniless, but I do have to consciously cultivate simplicity and detachment. If one doesn’t occasionally challenge one’s comforts to foster dependence, then how will one gain the deep realization that it is Krishna, not oneself, who is the protector and maintainer? And without feeling that, how is it possible to develop deeper feelings of love for Krishna?

 

Sannyāsīs today, by necessity, sometimes serve as institutional and spiritual leaders and, to one degree or another, need to accept the amenities provided to them out of respect and to facilitate their service. I admire those who cultivate dependence by selflessly taking on huge responsibility where they are forced to see Krishna’s hand in sorting out numerous seemingly impossible problems, but still Marcel’s example spoke to me. I need to shed more of what Śrīla Prabhupāda called “our material protective agents” and to learn what doing that teaches us. Sure, the world spins out of our control anyway. Just think of the inevitable struggle of old age and death. But still, if we are not careful to live a simple life and cultivate detachment, we risk obscuring God’s mercy and impeding our devotion. Without cultivating detachment, it also makes it much more difficult to face the imminent reverses in life without bitterness or fear when they do come as God’s mercy.

 

I am speaking from the perspective of sannyāsa, my āśrama, which is meant to prepare one for death by accepting situations beyond one’s control to learn full dependence on God’s mercy. I think, however, embracing difficult situations to learn dependence on God’s mercy is applicable to all on the path of dharma, for doing what is right often entails sacrifice at the expense of material advantage. And I think that is also the answer to my dilemma on how to increase my own dependence on Krishna within my service as a leader of sorts, a position that can at times compromise the life of simplicity that my āśrama calls for. My dharma is to be a sādhu, to vigilantly accept only what is necessary for the service of Krishna and not a farthing more, and then to watch how, by Sri Krishna’s mercy, His full shelter unfolds.

 

Wasn’t Marcel’s journey home inspiring? It seems to pose the following challenge to all of us: What is the best way for each of us to practically loosen our “material protective agents” so we can experience Krishna’s mercy unobscured by our false sense of control? I don’t, however, recommend a trek through Iran as your own journey home.

 

 


[1] The names “Marcel” and “Marie” are pseudonyms for our pilgrims who requested that if I write their story that their real names not be published.

[2] The immigration at Pakistan refused his request at the border to walk through their country penniless, and he was forced to fly to Delhi on his way to Vṛndāvana.

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #52 – Blind Following is Condemned

December 30th, 2019

Some readers may be thinking, “You write about authority and surrender, but isn’t blind following dangerous?” It’s condemned![1] Before exploring why, let’s put that discussion in context by first briefly summarizing something I have stressed many times — the need for faith.

 

As mentioned before, while faith is essential to learning, blind faith is an impediment. Blind faith means accepting what one hears from authority without a reasonable effort to get one’s doubts cleared to understand it. Being faithful without being thoughtful poses two risks: accepting something that is false because of faith in what an unqualified teacher erroneously taught or accepting something that is false because of misunderstanding what the qualified teacher properly taught. Either way one fails to catch the truth.

 

Accepting things that are false

 

Without being thoughtful we not only wind up accepting things taught that we would normally see as overtly false, but we also surrender the tool required to extricate ourselves from a false prophet.

 

To avoid such an unfortunate situation, it is thus incumbent to be reasonably certain that one has accepted a qualified guide before accepting their authority. The search for a spiritual guide begins with sincerity, the honest desire to live and surrender to the truth. Ultimately, a spiritual teacher is sent by providence in response to our sincere desire for truth. To ascertain, however, whether one is qualified to play that role in one’s life, one must first test the qualification of that person over a reasonable period of time by asking questions and having one’s doubts cleared.

 

Misunderstanding something that is true

 

Having a worthy guide also doesn’t guarantee understanding the truth. We often filter what we have heard through our desires and conditioning so that even if what we are taught is true, what we have understood is not. That’s why we often see good people with qualified guides embracing untenable positions in the name of faith.

 

To avoid misunderstanding a qualified teacher the student must continue, if necessary, to ask questions and get their doubts cleared. Such questioning does not belie our faith in our teacher, because we are not doubting his or her authority, which should have already been tested, but rather our own understanding of what he or she has said.

 

The need for such thoughtfulness in learning is stressed in some of the most traditional teachings of India, which are presented in the form of a dialectic where we can observe the sincere student continually questioning his teacher until his doubts or misunderstandings are cleared. The best example is the Bhagavad-gītā. It took Arjuna five chapters of going back and forth with Krishna before he finally understood one of the basic points that Krishna was stressing, which is that work can be spiritual if done with knowledge and in the proper consciousness. Arjuna is not an example of blind faith, nor is Krishna the example of a teacher who demands blind allegiance.

 

So yes, authority is not a bad word, nor is surrender, but blind faith is.

 

“Don’t follow blindly. Following blindly something, that is not good. That will not stay. But one should take everything with logic. But the servants of God, they put everything in logic. caitanyera dayāra kathā karaha vicāra. If you study the Caitanya’s philosophy with logic and argument… Don’t go by sentiment.” (Śrīla Prabhupāda’s lecture on Bhāg. 6.2.1-5, Calcutta, January 6, 1971)

 

 

 

 


[1] I got the phrase “blind following is condemned” from Śrīla Prabhupāda’s purport on Bg. 4.34: “In this verse, both blind following and absurd inquiries are condemned. Not only should one hear submissively from the spiritual master; but one must also get a clear understanding from him, in submission and service and inquiries.”

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #51 – Winter in Vṛndāvana Part I

December 23rd, 2019

It’s Tuesday — another day with the nothing-to-write blues. It’s definitely pressure, but I’m not worried. Classic Bhagavad-gītā. Do your duty and leave the results to Him. If Krishna wants, it will happen. A few reflections:

 

There is magic in putting your pen to page (fingers to the computer). It seems to activate part of the brain. I now know why Satsvarūpa Mahārāja wrote a series of books called Every Day, Just Write. If you can’t express yourself, or don’t know what to write, just write. Wonders will happen.

 

Pressure. I kind of like it. It serves as a barometer to my soul. Nothing to write. Why? Laxity in service and practice means a lack of clarity of mind and a dearth of realization to see and say something. Simple solution. Chant! Chant more!

 

Back to the page. A thought came: Winter in Vṛndāvana.

 

There is magic in Vṛndāvana in the time after Kārttika and the ensuant retreats until the Christmas holiday, when there is a short respite from the massive influx of visitors. I can even walk outside in relative solitude. Don’t get me wrong, the pilgrims bring a certain intensity of devotion, but along with the throngs of visitors comes the passion and the commercialism. This short winter lull in the bustle bares Vṛndāvana down to the local residents and their mood and culture. I love it.

 

I brought a flower garland for the deities of the Radha Tila Ashram next door. The sādhus are sitting peacefully taking prasad on the floor, which is one-foot of sifted Vṛndāvana dust, in their three-sided caged hall attached to their ashram. The small porch has a perfect view of the real Vṛndāvana. These kind sādhus have preserved a two-acre forest where hundreds of happy birds are welcomed by the pounds of millet left on the ground for their daily feed. They implore me to join them. I park myself on the cushy sand of Vraja. Ah! To sit with the simple sādhus of Vṛndāvana!

 

Vikramaditiyan, the assistant of Indradyumna Swami, takes Radhacaran and me to a place I have never seen before — the country path to Varṣāṇā through the mystical forest of Śrī Radha with its thousand-year old trees. As we walk through the thick talcum powder-like dust roads, lined with stately old trees and bordered by the lush fields of golden Radha-colored mustard flowers that are hugging the path, I am struck by its beauty. We finally reach the village of Varṣāṇā. One thought keeps coming through my mind as we pass one simple, happy “Rādhe, Rādhe!” smiling folk after another. These people have little, but what is important is not what they have, but how they feel. The fact of real happiness is staring me in the face. It’s the consciousness, stupid!

 

The parikramā continues. Vikramaditiyan takes us to an ashram on the foothills of the Śrīji Mandir, Varṣāṇā’s main temple, for prasādam. He knows the sādhus well and introduces me. I don’t know what he said, but the sādhus practically fall over each other to honor me. As I sit there honoring the most delectable prasādam, I can see that it’s not just me. Each and every visitor that enters is honored, and each person entering imbibes the same mood. Their humility is genuine. It’s like a page out of Jaiva Dharma.[1]

 

Just as I am about to leave, the mahant, who I was told has been chanting since five in the morning, suddenly comes out of his room. He profusely thanks me and drapes my shoulders with a new expensive pashima chaddar in a way that we have to embrace. A thought follows:

 

When you are criticized from people who are not well-wishers it is common to respond by thinking of your qualifications in defense. When you get honored by those who are pure far beyond what you deserve, it makes you reflect on your lack of qualification. I leave humbled and happy.

 

The winter evenings already have gotten down to 45 F/8 C degrees. I haven’t surrendered yet to using the space heater. I fear getting too cushy. I remember the advice of an old local friend, a married sādhu, who lived in Vṛndāvana so simply. “Vṛndāvana is for Krishna. When you want to have a prolonged stay here, then you have to show Krishna you are here not for your enjoyment. My experience is that you will be tested. You can either self-impose a simple life with some austerities to demonstrate your sincerity, or some challenge will be imposed in another way to test your sincerity.” I have observed that people who come here to stay a long time and adjust too much for their comforts never stay. I fear getting too comfortable.

 

“Of months I am November and December [Mārgaśīrṣa]” (Bg. 10.35, spoken by Krishna)

 


[1] Jaiva Dharma is a novel by Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura that is about the activities of very advanced Vaiṣṇava monks living in a forest ashram in Godrumadvīpa, one of the nine islands of Navadvīpa, the birthplace of Śrī Caitanya.

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #50 – Authority is Not a Bad Word

December 16th, 2019

1954. I was four years old. I remember it like it was yesterday. I was walking down the street in Brooklyn in front of my home, holding my grandmother’s hand,when I saw a tall, imposing, and dignified looking figure dressed in a blue uniform walking towards us. Excitedly I told my grandmother, “Look grandma, a cop!” She looked down towards me at her side and soberly corrected me, “No, an officer of the law!”

 

She escaped the pogroms in Ukraine and came to America in 1912. She appreciated her newfound country and the freedoms and protection it afforded. She also carried with her some of the old-time culture rooted in respect for authority. I appreciated that culture of respect and was fortunate that my parents were responsible enough not to completely ruin that for me.

 

Words are impregnated with the experience of their use. If your elders are affectionate and mature, you tend to hear the word “authority” as knowledge and wisdom, but if you experience abuse and whim you will most likely hear it as exploitation and foolishness.

 

That is not to deny the experience many people have with the abuse of authority, perhaps by the same institutions I learned to respect, but let’s not get distracted from the point inspired by my grandmother’s instruction—regardless of how you feel about the word authority, the culture of respect towards authority is an important foundation of a proper culture, especially in terms of the ability to learn, relate, and communicate. A few examples in relation to respect for the authority of teachers and elders:

 

  • Faith is the precursor of knowledge. If you don’t have faith, which is assisted by the culture of genuine respect, your ability to understand things is limited to your own frame of reference.

 

  • As teaching and learning take effort, a teacher generally extends themselves to the degree they can gauge the student’s faith shown by their sincere respect.

 

  • People naturally reciprocate honest relationships. The love that flows up to one who is senior is called respect, and the reciprocation that flows down to one who is junior is called affection.[1] If one is not taught to be naturally respectful to those who are senior, one will likely be deprived of the most prominent source of love available in a proper society – the affection of one’s elders, a void that is often filled with depression.

 

  • Loving relationships create a natural conduit between people’s hearts. It is thus especially important on the path of bhakti to be respectful and to have good relationships with seniors who embody a devotion and wisdom that can naturally be absorbed in relationship with them.

 

  • Offenses destroy bhakti. As the eyelids protect the eyes from dust, humility and respect protect the soul from offense. It is thus a hindrance on the path of bhakti to not have nurtured and imbibed the culture of respect.

 

  • The most important relationships we have are the ones where we learn and teach. Good communication is essential to those relationships. Unless we learn to be a proper student through the culture of respect, we will neither properly communicate with our teachers nor effectively learn how to properly relate with our students and children.

 

  • Part of culture is the things prescribed to help us understand that there is a world, a reality, greater than our whims and desires. Honoring and respecting those in positions of authority is one of the things in a proper culture prescribed to help move us towards the higher consciousness of service and devotion.

 

It is important to note here, as mentioned above, that when talking about nurturing the culture of respect we are not just talking about respecting people based on their qualities. We are also acknowledging and honoring the position of authority, barring, of course, any serious and obvious anomalies in their behavior. Imagine if children are taught that instead of “honor thy mother and father” to “judge thy mother and father” and then come to a decision whether they should be honored. Of course, the capacity of a child to judge is completely limited, but we are all limited to some extent by our desires and prejudices. To reserve dealings of respect based solely on our judgment simply fosters what is known as the mental plane, the sphere of thought where one endlessly calculates based on material advantage. Such a judgment culture doesn’t nurture humility and respect even where overtly deserved. That should seem obvious today.

 

The śāstra also acknowledges honoring the position of authority. In the Eleventh Canto of Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam Krishna declares that one should worship the ācārya, the spiritual master, as “Myself.”[2] While the term ācārya usually refers to the spiritual master, commentators indicate that in addition to the position of spiritual master, Krishna is also referring to anyone in a position of authority in society.

 

Of course, one may challenge that the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam describes an intact, ancient culture where people in authority were trained to represent traditions of knowledge and wisdom, whereas today authority too often represents religious fanaticism and demagoguery, and thus the culture of respect simply nourishes the cult of totalitarianism. I agree that people today, perhaps more than ever, need to be encouraged and trained to be independently thoughtful in order to keep their guard up for potential exploitation, but that doesn’t negate the need for people to nurture their character by the culture of respect, nor is being thoughtful and principled the same as acting as a rebellious teen. Despite my own occasional periods of rebellion when growing up, in retrospect I am glad grandma told me “No, an officer of the law!”

 


[1] This concept of respect being the love that flows upward and affection being the love that flows down is one that I first heard in a seminar at the Vrindavan Institute for Higher Education entitled “Vaiṣṇava Etiquette” by Śrīpad Bhakti Caru Swami over twenty years ago. Later it was confirmed by my study of rasa theory where parental love was called anugrahaḥ, mercy or affection.

[2] Bhāg. 11.17.27

Next »