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Monday Morning Greetings 2024 #9 – The Agony is the Ecstasy

February 26th, 2024

I just finished studying and teaching the second chapter of the Madhya-līlā, “The Ecstatic Manifestations of Lord Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu”. It’s a challenging chapter because counter-intuitively the highest ecstasy is described as manifest through emotions, which reflect neither ecstasy nor the highest consciousness, but gloom and an uncontrolled mind:

 

“[…] all the ecstatic symptoms of Lord Caitanya Mahāprabhu—including despondency, moroseness, humility, restlessness, joy, endurance and anger—instructed His body and mind.” (Cc. Madhya-līlā 2.76)

 

Śrīla Kṛṣṇadāsa Kavirāja outlines this dichotomy:

 

“Externally there appeared severe tribulation, as if He were suffering from poisonous effects, but internally He was experiencing bliss. This is characteristic of transcendental love of Krishna.” (Cc. Madhya-līlā 2.50)

 

My attempt to resolve this quandary:

 

Beyond Duality

The spiritual realm is beyond duality. The Taittiriya Upaniṣad describes this as raso vai saḥ, “He (the Lord) is rasa (heightened love)”, which is ecstasy, because pure love is the highest pleasure. Makes sense. If there is a God, everything that happens in His spiritual realm would naturally be only for the purpose of intensifying rasa, or His transcendental pleasure, and thus every emotion, even the apparently negative ones, would also serve this purpose and in that way there is no duality between the agony and the ecstasy there. The rasa theory further resolves this dichotomy.

 

The Rasa Theory

The rasa theory, based on the ṭya Śāstra, is a thorough description of how drama is to be composed. It’s a complex thesis but let me try to simplify it for our purpose, which is to reconcile how agony can be ecstasy in Krishna’s pastimes. Rasa is a consuming human emotion. There are generally nine in number such as tragedy (karuṇa-rasa), fear (bhayānakarasa), romance (śṛṅgāra-rasa), and so on. Rasa theory is the science of recreating a consuming emotion in a drama, so that the qualified audience feels that same emotion and enjoys the drama. In other words, the audience should feel sorrow (karuṇa-rasa) while watching a tragedy or feel scared (bhayānak-rasa) while watching a horror movie and enjoy those dramas at the same time, a dichotomy I think we may have all experienced. Śrī Krishna-līlā in the spiritual world, as portrayed in the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, operates by the same principles of drama found in the ṭya Śāstra, but instead of recreating one of the nine consuming human emotions, Śrī Krishna-līlā is about bhakti-rasa, the heightening of love for God. Cannot therefore the same principle be applied there, where negative emotions are intensely felt but enjoyed at the same time? But I think there is one more point that is even more compelling in terms of resolving this dichotomy.

 

The Lord has Inconceivable Potency

We often make the mistake when trying to solve apparent contradictions in reference to the Divine by trying to resolve them through how things operate in this world, forgetting that God has inconceivable potency and thus not subject to the laws of nature and the reasoning they dictate. The Śrī Īśopaniṣad describes this nicely:

 

“The Supreme Lord walks and does not walk. He is far away, but He is very near as well. He is within everything, and yet He is outside of everything.” (Mantra 5)

 

Śrīla Prabhupāda elucidates the point further in his purport:

 

“[…] Ordinarily, if someone can walk, it is illogical to say he cannot walk. But in reference to God, such a contradiction simply serves to indicate His inconceivable power. With our limited fund of knowledge we cannot accommodate such contradictions, and therefore we conceive of the Lord in terms of our limited powers of understanding.”

 

So, I think, in a sense, this may be the ultimate reconciliation of such quandaries—that God has inconceivable potencies, and such contradictions cannot be resolved by ordinary reasoning based on how the laws of nature operate, which do not rule the Absolute.

 

So can the agony be the ecstasy? Why not?

 

 

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2024 #8 – This is the Movement of the Living Entity!

February 19th, 2024

I was standing in a large meadow in Golden Gate Park in the middle of San Francisco before the stage where Śrīla Prabhupāda was lecturing to thousands of young people who were attracted by the Ratha-yātrā. It was July 1974. Perhaps, you remember that famous picture of Śrīla Prabhupāda wearing a white sweater adorned with a starkly contrasted bright red rose garland, his hands raised in ecstasy in kirtan surrounded on stage by his dancing disciples. To this day I remember the profundity and force of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s speech that reverberated from the speakers in the trees that lined the back of the meadow:

 

“There are so many movements of liberation: women’s liberation, black liberation, this liberation, and that liberation, BUT THIS IS THE MOVEMENT OF THE LIVING ENTITY!”

 

Now let me take you forward to yesterday, here in Govardhan, and then explain what inspired me to connect that experience to what I heard in 1974.

 

Paramananda das and his son Kana were visiting, so I took them, along with two lady guests, Bhakti Śāstra and Yogamāyā, for some Brijabasi rotis in the nearby village of Aniyor in Govardhan at the house of the family of Bal Kishan Sharma, 84, one of the blessed brāhmaṇa families who, for generations, cook rotis for the sādhus who circumambulate the hill once or twice daily. I like to share the experience of taking lunch there with others so they can relish the rotis and watch one effulgent sādhu after another show up at the door as the family enthusiastically responds to serve them. When we arrived, Bal Kishan was there along with his wife, daughter-in-law, and a couple of late teen/early twenties granddaughters congregated in their small second floor common room, which also has two attached small bedrooms and an adjacent uncovered large veranda that houses a small enclave for their one simple clay chula (stove) on the floor.

 

We watched how the family exchanged so lovingly with each other, served us with enthusiasm and reciprocated with the sādhus who blessed them with their smiles. When we finished, they also brought us into their web of joy and laughter. It took me some time to extract our group from the “party.” I finally just looked at my watch and decided it was time to kill the fun and politely asked permission to go. We then proceeded again towards the parikrama on a small village road perpendicular to the front of their house, which rests practically adjacent to Govardhan Hill. It was the first day of spring so as we were walking, we passed many elderly Brijabasi ladies sitting in bunches in front of various houses getting sun and enjoying each other’s company. Upon seeing us they also invited the people with me to exchange with them. My party was again caught in a web of joy.

 

When were back on the parikrama path, I think we all had the same epiphany—that this was a kind of Alice in Wonderland experience where you fall down a rabbit hole into a fantasy world. It was like a veil was lifted and we entered Krishna’s village thousands of years ago when He was manifest there. But something else struck me that was also more topical, which is the focus of what I was inspired to share this week and brings me back Śrīla Prabhupāda’s comment in 1974.

 

Besides our epiphany in relationship to seeing the real Vrindavan, I also saw something more basic, a very functional family and community. To me it was such a stark contrast to the increasing social dysfunction today in the west, especially America, where I stay part of the year. Numerous studies show that there is a burgeoning mental health epidemic that just can’t be minimized by the greater awareness of mental illness today.[1] It’s real, just as is the rapidly increasing problems of drugs, crime, and loneliness in the modern world are real. I think you have to be blind to not see that something has gone terribly awry. Therefore, when leaving Aniyor, and experiencing what seemed to me to be the best of tradition in terms of family and community and contrasting that to what I am seeing today, I thought of the statement by Śrīla Prabhupāda that reverberated in my ears in 1974—that although some change, some liberation was arguably needed, that alone would not lead to the transformation that people wanted and that should be obvious today more than ever. What we need more than ever before is a spiritual revival—A MOVEMENT OF THE LIVING ENTITY!

 

 


[1] Studies that indicate this take into account that mental illness is less of a stigma and more readily acknowledged and reported today.

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2024 #7 – I Have No Devotion!

February 12th, 2024

There is a principle in spiritual life that the more one is advanced in devotion, the less devotion one feels they have. Here’s how Śrī Caitanya feels at the height of His devotion:

 

“Srī Caitanya Mahāprabhu continued, ‘My dear friends, I have not the slightest tinge of love of Godhead within My heart. When you see Me crying in separation, I am just falsely exhibiting a demonstration of My great fortune. Indeed, not seeing the beautiful face of Krishna playing His flute, I continue to live My life like an insect, without purpose.’” (Cc. Madhya-līlā 2.46)

 

It sounds almost counterintuitive to have the most of something, in this case devotion, but to feel you have none of it. Here’s four reasons why this is the case in terms of prema-bhakti, the height of devotion:

 

Purity and humility

 

Just as in a clear, pure glass of water a speck of dust becomes apparent, in a pure heart even an apparent indiscretion seems significant. Srīla Kṛṣṇadāsa Kavirāja illustrates this humble position in relation to attaining prema with a similar analogy:

 

“Love for Lord Krishna is very pure, just like the waters of the Ganges. That love is an ocean of nectar. That pure attachment to Krishna does not conceal any spot, which would appear just like a spot of ink on a white cloth.” (Cc. Madhya-līlā 2.48)

 

The immanence of God and humility

 

The very definition of maya (illusion) is ma (not) ya (this)—that what you are seeing is not what it is. In other words, everything is God’s energy, but we fall into the illusion that it is not God’s because if we recognize God’s immanence then our false ego, the desire for a sense of control and superiority, cannot be maintained, and we are humbled. In contrast, one who has pure devotion embraces God’s immanence rather than avoid it, for seeing God’s immanence is simply an inspiration to serve Him. In this regard, I always liked how Śrī Gopīparāṇadhana dāsa, in his commentary to Bṛhad-bhāgavatāmṛta, described the reason why a pure brāhmaṇa so militantly demurred Nārada’s praise, when Nārada deemed him the topmost recipient of Śrī Krishna’s mercy:

 

“Any true devotee of Krishna considers himself insignificant, thinking himself one of countless jīvas who are mere sparks of God’s splendor.” (Bb. 1.1.44, commentary)

 

Hunger and humility

 

When one strongly desires something, one feels a lack of it, even if they have a substantial amount of it, just as a craving for food indicates a lack of it in one’s mind, even if one already has been sufficiently fed. Pure devotion is the strong desire to be with and serve God. Therefore, as one’s hunger for God increases, one naturally feels they have less and less devotion.

 

Reverence for the sādhus and humility

 

A devotee just related to me an exchange that he had with a senior Vaiṣṇava from ISKCON who had just given class, a devotee I know for his deep internal attainment. He asked him how to remain humble when one’s devotion increases, especially when one has a deep religious or spiritual experience. I loved his answer: “We don’t compare ourselves to our previous selves or compare our devotion to just anybody, but we compare ourselves to those more advanced in devotion. Whenever I feel Krishna’s mercy while chanting in a particular place of pilgrimage in Vrindavan, I just imagine what Srīla Rūpa Gosvāmī was feeling there in comparison, and it’s humbling”. When this was related to me, I immediately thought of Uddhava’s response when Śrī Nārada approached him as the topmost recipient of Krishna’s mercy:

 

“[…] Aware of what Nārada was thinking, Uddhava remembered many devotees who had received the Lord’s special favor. As Uddhava meditated on those devotees, their love for the Lord, and the wealth of their loving ecstasies, he felt distress, thinking himself fallen, and cried helplessly […]” (Bb. 1.6.19-21)

 

It should not, therefore, be hard to understand:

 

“Wherever there is a relationship of love of Godhead, its natural symptom is that the devotee does not think himself a devotee. Instead, he always thinks that he has not even a drop of love for Krishna.” (Cc. Antya-līlā 20.28)

 

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2024 #6 – The Art of Traction

February 5th, 2024

Years ago, I showed a short TED Talk called “The Art of Distraction” during a japa seminar.[1] It featured Apollo Robbins, the world’s most expert pick pocket, explaining and demonstrating his art. His premise was that perception is based on attention and as the mind can focus on only one sense at a time, if you can distract a person from the feel of touch in their pocket to some other sense—perhaps touching them someplace else—you can pick their pocket without them knowing it. He was so expert at the art of distraction that he was able to pick the pocket of a person brought on stage right in front of the audience with neither the person nor the audience noticing it.

This principle—that perception is based on attention—is more deeply described in ṅkhya when discussing the two main qualities of the mind as anutvam (atomic) and ekatvam (it can only focus on a singular object at one time).[2] Using these terms, for example, “the art of distraction” can be translated as deliberately moving or distracting the atomic and single focused mind away from something someone really wants, in this case a focus on the things in their pocket for the purpose of taking them without notice. It doesn’t take much to understand how this principle of perception based on attention can be applied to japa meditation, for if one doesn’t take precaution to concentrate on hearing the holy name by at least creating a time and space for chanting free from distraction, our perception of, and therefore taste for, the holy name will probably be compromised. I would like, however, to couch this discussion in just a slightly different way, which I will aptly call “the art of traction”—consciously moving the atomic and singular focused mind toward something we want, in this case the sense of hearing, so that we can perceive (hear) Krishna’s holy name during our japa meditation.

There are two ways that the mind can be focused in japa meditation by “the art of traction”. We can do this by bringing the atomic mind to a single focus on hearing the holy name by consciously awakening an understanding that we should do so (traction by intelligence) or awakening an attraction to do so (traction by the heart).

Of course, the most powerful connection with an object is through traction by the heart, or an emotional connection, in the case of japa meditation by a love for Krishna and thus an attachment to His holy name. Most of us, however, either do not have a profound attraction for Krishna or are too distracted at the beginning of our meditation to immediately access such devotion. Here are just some ways in which I try to gain traction for meditation, at least at the beginning of my chanting.

There are no hard and fast rules for gaining traction for the holy name. This post is more about explaining a principle than outlining a definitive guide. To demonstrate the “art of traction” I will therefore share two ways I have used recently to gain traction in meditation, and then I will share a link to some other ways that I have previously described.

An example of traction by intelligence

Focusing on one couplet of the mantra: I especially consciously focus on pronouncing one couplet of the Hare Krishna mantra, usually the first. At the beginning of our meditation the mind may wander even during one mantra. By bringing the mind to the first couplet with special concentration on pronouncing it helps fix the atomic mind (anutvam) back to singular focus (ekatvam) on the whole mantra. I was inspired to do this by Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura’s Bhajan Rahasya.[3]

An example of traction by the heart

Reading and chanting: The Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam and books based on the Bhāgavatam describe and imbibe devotion for the person (Śrī Krishna) whose name you are chanting. The combination of imbibing the mood of the Bhāgavatam and chanting the holy name can help one gain focus in japa meditation, especially when done together. This was the example of Śrī Caitanya in the Gambhīra. During His bhajan, He both chanted the holy name and listened to the songs and stories of the person of the name He was chanting (Śrī Krishna) recited by His confidential associates Śrī Rāmānanda Rāya and Śrī Svarūpa Dāmodara. Following His example, sometimes before chanting and after every eight rounds or so I read a few pages of Krishna Book.

Other examples of the art of traction

In a post from over ten years ago I mentioned five ways in which I gained traction for chanting, both from the intelligence and heart. For example, I mentioned how Śrīla Prabhupāda told us to chant like a child crying for his mother, which is a powerful technique to gain traction in meditation by the heart.

https://wavesofdevotion.com/2012/04/10/the-five-qualities-of-effective-mantra-meditation/

We should not be surprised that meditation is not always easy for us. The Bhāgavatam predicts that people today will always be disturbed and distracted.[4] I thus found it helpful to understand “the art of distraction” and apply “the art of traction”.

 

 


[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GZGY0wPAnus

[2] I first heard this concept of the mind in a discussion with Bhakti Vijnana Goswami about ayurveda and mental health. I assumed it is from the school of Sāṅkhya but never confirmed it.

[3] I first was inspired to do this by reading Bhajan Rahasya by Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura. He described advanced techniques to connect each couplet of the holy name with a stage of devotion and with a period of time in the day of Krishna’s pastimes. I am not referring here to such an advanced meditation, but reading this did spark in my mind that this was also a technique for mechanically focusing the mind. In our dīkṣā mantras there also is a seed mantra before each mantra that helps refocus brings the mind back to our mantra before each repetition of it.

[4] Bhag. 1.1.10

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2024 #5 – Coming Attractions

January 29th, 2024

The past week we celebrated our 17th annual Puri Yatra. I wish you could have been there especially for Hari Pārṣada Dās’s seminar, “The Joyous Waves of Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī’s Poetry”. Needless to say, I was engaged twenty-four hours a day and couldn’t finish a Monday Morning Greetings. It was not that I had a dearth of topics to write about. This week I will share a short synopsis of the topics I was thinking of writing about and then share a previous Monday Morning Greetings.

 

The Mission of Śrī Caitanya and the Genius of Sanātana Gosvāmī in Presenting It

 

This was the subject of my seminar. I described the immense challenge that Śrīla Sanātana Gosvāmī faced trying to communicate to his audience, us, the extreme level of transcendence (parama-daśānta) and the brilliant way he built the frame of reference of his audience in Bṛhad-bhāgavatāmṛta for us to understand it.

 

The Art of Traction

 

I once wrote an article about the most famous pick pocket in the world called the Art of Distraction where he showed how to take your attention away from what you were doing or thinking about so that he could pickpocket you.[1] The Art of Traction would be about the opposite, techniques that I learned to take your attention towards what you are doing or thinking, in this case meditating on the holy name.

 

Substance is Higher than Allegiance

 

Our Puri Yatra was held at a beautiful Catholic retreat center that was run by just one Catholic priest, Father Ashley. His mood of service and his non-sectarian mood was very impressive. In this article I will explore the concept that more important than the devotional spiritual lineage you belong to is your adherence to its principles.

 

 

It’s the Mind!

July 23, 2018

Everyone has their own set of irrational fears and anxieties according to their past experiences, in this life or previous ones, often embedded deep in the subconscious. Mine is travel. I wouldn’t say it is debilitating—I don’t lose sleep over it—but when I travel, I worry unnecessarily. I have to be hours early for a flight. I can understand being reasonably cautious, but inevitably I arrive far before what is necessary. And as soon as my car pulls out of the driveway to leave for the airport, I nervously slap my pockets to check for my passport, ticket, and wallet, even though I checked for these things numerous times before I left. Today, after more than forty years traveling in the Hare Krishna movement, I think I finally came to my senses:

 

Why all this worry? Am I really the controller? Whether I miss my plane or not is really not up to me. There are five factors of action, and only one is our endeavor, so just do your duty and leave on time, not hours before. The rest is really up to Krishna. He has already decided whether or not you need to be to the next place on time. It is all so basic that it is almost embarrassing.

 

Thinking this way reaffirmed a realization. It’s the mind! In other words, all our problems are more how we see things than how they actually are.

 

A personal and classic example: Previously, when coming from the airport to Vrindavan, I would have my driver head directly to Kesi Ghata on the bank of the Yamuna. My ritual was to take a holy bath for purification before daring to begin my undeserved stay in this most sacred of places. One year, while descending the steps of the ghāṭa to bathe, I noticed a big black snake looming on the bottom step. Whoa! Apprehensively, I moved thirty yards further down the river before quickly bathing, still harboring that very dangerous serpent in my mind. While walking back to my car, I looked down to the first step only to see that same black snake sitting in the exact same position. It hadn’t moved an inch! I was surprised. As I wasn’t wearing my glasses, I began to squint to examine the situation more clearly. Then I began to chuckle—it was just a black tire! Just see, a snake posed a danger, but the problem existed only in my mind.

 

A deeper existential example: The greatest problem or fear is death, because we lose everything including our present identity, but death itself is only the illusion of non-existence. How much unnecessary and unlimited worry do we have to endure due to the mind before we wake up!

 

Back to my petty anxieties: I am in Sochi. My flight for Vilnius is 11:15 AM, and the airport is 45 minutes away. My host says we will leave at 8:00. I suggest leaving 15 minutes earlier, but my host assures me that it is more than enough time. I naturally start to think, What if… but I check my impulse. Stop this silliness and depend on Krishna. I begin to reflect that the anxiety I have accrued over the years in the process of travel is so much worse than the worst-case scenario—a rare missed flight—which may never even happen.

 

It is so clear. There may be serious challenges in life, but most of our worries are needless. How much time and energy we could save for a productive and peaceful life if we could only starve those irrational thoughts by neglect. It’s funny, but I suddenly think of one of the most famous quotes in American history:

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”[2]

 

 


[1] https://wavesofdevotion.com/2016/05/23/what-i-learned-from-a-pickpocket-about-krishna-consciousness/

[2] Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd president of the United States, in his first inaugural address, referring to the Great Depression the country was facing at that time.

 

Monday Morning Greeting 2024 #4 – The Passing Away of Sridhara Mali

January 22nd, 2024

The Passing Away of Sridhara Mali[1]

This may be a relatively simple Monday Morning Greetings, but sometimes things can be superficially simple, but in essence very deep. This is about my (our) very simple, but deep friend Sridhara Mali. Our story:

When I first came to Vrindavan there was one taxi and one phone in the whole town. The phone was at the police station. Communication with the outside world was near impossible. I don’t know exactly how it worked, but to call the USA you had to call Mathura, which would call Delhi, which would call the USA, and you were rarely successful. But there was also a certain joy in that level of technological solitude. The parikramā road was still a bumpy dirt road, and halfway around you started entering the forest of Vrindavan. Those who came with me on parikramā over twenty-five years ago remember Hari Bhajan, the saintly forest sādhu whose hermitage was right off the path, and how with his charm and unbounded enthusiasm he would pull you into his forest ashram for prasādam, and then have you sit and do kirtan until it was ready. I’m just trying to give you a sense of the quietude of Vrindavan when I came and some years after that. And then suddenly, about twenty years ago or so, everything changed. The once rustic Raman Reti, where our temple is located, became the center of a burgeoning mini metropolis with traffic jams on the weekends. And that’s where the story of Sridhara Mali begins.

My service has always been sharing Vrindavan with people, but about that time new people arriving began to notice the increasing urbanization. They would become either upset or confused, expecting it to be just a little more like the description they read from Krishna Book—a place filled with flowers, birds, and cows. To facilitate my service, I began a little search for a place nearby to introduce people to the real Vrindavan. One day, instead of walking to the right on the parikramā path where it suddenly veers towards Madan Mohan, I veered left off the path to a dirt road that seemingly went to nowhere. After wandering for about only thirty meters, I saw on my left a small narrow alley leading in the distance to a mysterious black door that piqued my curiosity, so I walked to that door and pushed it open. I was stunned—acres of untouched flower gardens lush with roses, marigolds, tulsi, and a variety of fruit bearing trees. I kept walking towards the Yamuna through the gardens, carefully navigating though the faintly crushed grass paths, until I hit a long makeshift barbed fence. What I saw on the other side further astounded me—a small dirt path running parallel to the main parikramā path lined on the right with small flower garden farms and to the left by hundreds of acres of fertile farms with an unobstructed majestic view of the stately Madan Mohan temple in the distance. I managed to get through the fence and began to walk along that timeless path, and just when I decided to search for a way to get back to the main road from there, I saw a makeshift wooden gate to my right. I entered and began to walk a twenty-meter small rose garden lined path leading to what looked like—from the distance—a humble hermitage. There I was warmly greeted by a very friendly family led by an elderly sādhu, the head of the clan who insisted I take lunch. His family immediately started cooking. All I can say is that I was transported to another world. It was as if I had entered Krishna’s original village, and those Brijabasi rotis, those thick ghee ladened rotis, were like nothing I had ever tasted before. It was the home of what would soon become my good friend Sridhara Mali, his wife, his three sons and their wives, and their many happy and playful young children. They begged me to come back, and I did, bringing whichever people who would visit me. It worked! They were also transported to another world by the natural love for Krishna in the hearts of these simple Brijabasis, and by those rotis. To this day I challenge anyone after going there to look me in the eyes and with all honesty tell me that they have ever tasted anything so ambrosial as those rotis. Since then, I have taken hundreds and hundreds of people, who have all been received with the same unbounded hospitality. I especially enjoy watching how our sophisticated “New Yorkers”[2] sit in awe as these simple Brijabasi ladies, sitting on the floor and cooking on small mud stoves stoked with twigs and cow dung, make “the supreme personality of rotis”[3] with just the repeated pats of their hands. One day my Russian friend insisted on bringing one hundred and fifty people there despite my resistance to the idea. No problem. The Brijabasi lady team just made two additional chulhas (mud stoves), the children helped, and voila! One hundred and fifty Russkies also transported to the spiritual world!

As more and more people started to come and bathe in their hospitality, I built them a small, thatched pavilion to host their guests. It only cost three hundred dollars. I often joked that for three hundred dollars “my temple” in Braja—that thatched pavilion—has turned more people towards Krishna than the majestic temples that our mission is building in India costing millions of dollars. But in a sense it’s true, at least in terms of the hundreds and hundreds of international people, not yet committed devotees, who were transformed by their visit.

To this day when walking in New York near the Bhakti Center people still come up to me, and sometimes I don’t even know who they are, to remind me of the time they visited the home of Sridhara Mali with me and the lasting impression it made on them.

So that is the story of a humble man who opened his hermitage and heart to the world and carried a deep message that Śrīla Prabhupāda often taught—that simple living and high thinking puts to shame our increasing anxiety ridden and confusing techno world.

Sridhara Mali ki jaya!

Epilogue: All is not lost. His family will carry on. When I have my retreat in Vrindavan in two weeks, our group will honor him by again relishing rotis there. Hopefully we will also have a special ceremony there to remember his kindness. I also plan on building a simple shrine there to help remember him. And my challenge remains: After visiting the ashram of Sridhara Mali, look me in the eye and tell me you ever tasted something so sublime!

 

 


[1] “Mali” just means “gardener”.

[2] I initially brought groups from New York as that is where I would preach in the west, but it soon expanded to groups from other places who contacted me.

[3] “The supreme personality of” is my own term for something superlative, especially a food preparation.

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2024 #3 – The Spiritual Practice of Śrī Caitanya

January 15th, 2024

This is how Śrī Caitanya practiced and taught His direct disciples the process of attaining love of Godhead as described in Second Chapter of the Madhya-līla of Śrī Caitanya-caritāmta:

 

“By personally tasting the mellows of love of Godhead, Caitanya Mahāprabhu taught His direct disciples. Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu is a wealthy capitalist possessing the touchstone of love of God. Not considering whether one is a proper or improper recipient, He gives His treasure to anyone and everyone. Thus He is the most munificent.” (Cc Madhya-līla 2.81)

 

In the verses preceding this one, what that tasting of the mellows of love of Godhead looks like is described. There Kṛṣṇadāsa Kavirāja depicts Śrī Radha’s extreme feelings of separation from Śrī Krishna as transcendental madness, which hardly seems to be something one coming to the practice of Krishna consciousness can practically embrace. Can this really be the process that Śrī Caitanya gave to everyone and anyone? Concerning another seemingly remarkable claim about the practice of bhakti, I once asked a Vaiṣṇava scholar in Vrindavan how to possibly make sense of the last and eleventh verse of the Upadeśāmta: “If one simply bathes once within those holy waters, one’s pure love of Krishna is fully aroused.” I loved his answer: “Yes, that is true, but it is the last verse. You must first go through the other ten verses to get there, beginning with verse one where it says one must conquer all the pushing’s of the senses, body, and mind.” In the same way, the description of Śrī Caitanya tasting the mellows of love of Godhead refers mostly to His time in Puri at the end of His life (antya-līla) where He practiced nirjana-bhajan (solitary spiritual practice) to perfect His inner spiritual hankerings. Before practicing that stage, however, we are meant first emulate how He practiced devotion in His life to qualify for that stage.

 

Surrendering to a spiritual master

Śrī Krishna is the object of His devotee’s adoration. He came as Śrī Caitanya because He wanted to experience the adoration or devotion that rests only in His devotee’s heart. Therefore, only after surrendering to His teacher and invoking His grace did devotion fully awaken in Śrī Caitanya. The first principle of devotion Śrī Caitanya therefore taught by His example was guru-pādāśraya, taking shelter of a spiritual master.

 

Performance of sakīrtana

Of all nine practices of devotion, chanting the holy name is the most powerful way to attract the Lord’s mercy and advance on the path of bhakti, especially when done congregationally and accompanied by appropriate musical instruments. Consequently, when Śrī Caitanya awakened devotion after taking initiation, His main devotional practice was participating in all-night kirtans at the house of Śrīvāsa Ṭhākura.

 

Showing compassion

Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura wrote that the essence of all religion is to show compassion to the living entities by giving them the holy name. Before settling in Puri to practice nirjana-bhajan, he traveled for six years throughout southern India enlightening others and giving them the holy name. He thus taught that one cannot chant the holy name purely unless one cultivates compassion, thinking of others before oneself.

 

Seek sādhu-saga

Sādhu-saga—the association with those advanced in spiritual life, with a similar mood of devotion, and with whom we can develop an affectionate relation—is the foundation of the path of bhakti. Śrī Caitanya took advantage of the association of the eminently qualified Śrī Rāmānanda Rāya, who he met in southern India to have extensive discussions on the deepest aspects of Krishna consciousness. Later, when He retired to Puri, He asked the same Rāmānanda Rāya, along with Svarūpa Dāmodara, a similarly exalted Vaiṣṇava, to be His confidants. From them, to perfect His bhajan, He would hear the appropriate devotional songs and stories about Śrī Krishna to awaken the type of devotion He was aspiring to achieve. Śrī Caitanya thus showed that at every stage of our spiritual life we must seek the association of advanced devotees.

 

Study the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam daily

Śrī Caitanya studied the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam daily in the Ṭoṭā-gopīnātha temple from Gadādhara Paṇḍita, who taught Him through such study how to prepare oneself in the requisite knowledge and devotional sentiment to understand, awaken, and nourish one’s relationship with Śrī Krishna, in this case the mood of Śrī Radha. He especially liked to hear Śrī Gadādhara narrate and comment on the pastime of Dhruva Mahārāja, to learn determination on the path of bhakti, and the pastime of Śrī Prahlāda, to be inspired in unbroken devotion. Śrī Caitanya thus demonstrated the utmost importance in studying the complete Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam to awaken and nourish a relationship with Krishna.

 

Nirjana-bhajan

Nirjana-bhajan means to retire to a solitary place and to relish the mellows of love of Godhead that one aspires to attain by chanting the holy name and remembering those pastimes in every spare moment. Śrī Caitanya taught by His example that having been established in one’s relationship with Krishna, the foundation of such bhajan is to absorb oneself in the holy names of one’s beloved lord, which further and further reveal in the heart of the devotee the Lord’s form, qualities, and pastimes. Focus on the holy name, however, depends on the depth of our relationship with Krishna in the form of the holy name. To increase that sambandha (relationship) with the holy name, He listened to the songs and pastimes of the person whose names He was chanting, and worshiped the form of the person of the name He was chanting, in this case Śrī Jagannath.

 

So that’s the practice of Śrī Caitanya—surrender to a qualified guru, chant the holy name, preach Krishna consciousness, take sādhu-saga, study the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, and when one’s heart becomes purified and one has awakened their relationship with Krishna, sit down in a holy place and dedicate twenty-four hours a day to chanting, hearing, and remembering one’s beloved Lord. Sounds a lot like what Śrīla Prabhupāda gave us.

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2024 #2 – A Guide for Beginners (and Their Guides)

January 8th, 2024

Many people have told me that they appreciate the definition of faith that I frequently cite: “faith is trust by experience”.[1] Experience engenders faith because faith is what we trust as our goal, and that goal is generally based on a good experience. Therefore, the greatest tragedy is to have misplaced faith, such as trust in intoxication based on an initial experience of getting high, for example, and then becoming addicted and ruining one’s life. The greatest blessing, in contrast, is having faith in a worthy objective, such as attaining mature devotion to God based on an initial religious experience and becoming fulfilled in life. For that reason, I have adopted as one of my services guiding pilgrims visiting Vrindavan, for I believe it is, more than any other place, where one can easily have a transcendent experience and awaken the faith to develop love for Śrī Krishna. Being here since 1976, I have witnessed hundreds of people coming in a humble mood, under the proper guide and getting that experience and faith. I have also witnessed pilgrims visiting Vrindavan completely missing that experience, or even having a negative experience, because they are not ready to humbly follow a guide, or their tour was not properly organized. For this week’s post I will concentrate on a few basic principles that in my experience are essential for introducing new people to Vrindavan.

 

Only take qualified pilgrims

 

A pilgrim doesn’t necessarily have to have faith, which is generally the precursor for any spiritual experience such as a pilgrimage, but they at least must be open enough to the path of bhakti to be guided by a spiritual tour leader. Such minimum humility is the door to experience Vrindavan, or any devotional practice for that matter. The “failed” tours that I observed were when the pilgrims had not sufficiently been informed beforehand what was expected of them and thus had not fully bought into the pilgrimage’s objective or leadership, and never got beyond what they externally saw in India, which can at times be disconcerting. Pilgrimage is a group activity that, like all congregational practices, requires a shared experience by all members for the collective group to have the fullest experience. Even a few people that are dissatisfied can ruin it for the whole group and make the life of the tour leader difficult. Conclusion: Don’t sell a pilgrimage. Be totally transparent about your objectives and let those who really have interest convince you that they are ready and eager for what you are giving.

 

Intensely focus on serving the needs and reasonable desires of the pilgrims

 

This is not a contradiction with my previous statement about pilgrims humbly accepting the leadership of the tour. The leader must be very sensitive to the pilgrims’ needs. I have seen those humble and open to guidance have a bad experience because the tour was ill managed, and the schedule was impractical and too demanding.

 

The duration of a pilgrim’s stay should only be commensurate with their level of faith

 

Just as an eastward wind is helpful and pleasant when navigating a sailboat if you are going in the same direction, and that exact same breeze becomes unpleasant when you turn the opposite way, in the same way there is a spiritual energy in Vrindavan moving one towards God that is so helpful when going in the direction of service, but so unpleasant when moving in the opposite direction towards ego. I have composed this analogy inspired by my own experience living in Vrindavan and my observation of those staying here longer without being fully engaged in service. Therefore, one who is new to Vrindavan should stay only as long as they can maintain a very humble mood of service. The successful pilgrimage leader knows how long he can keep his people enthusiastically engaged in Vrindavan, often deciding beforehand to stay only a couple of days, focusing their tour on other less intense holy places. Those leaders who command more respect from their group can demand more from them, and of course those pilgrims new to Vrindavan, but with faith, can also stay longer provided they are enthused to remain fully engaged in service under the guidance of a senior Vaiṣṇava.

 

A mature pilgrimage guide should be expert in guiding new people to experiences in Vrindavan, especially at the beginning of the tour, that invoke a positive mood of appreciation

 

When new people first come to Vrindavan they can be overwhelmed by the urbanization of the town where their ashram is generally located. As our first experience in a place is generally the eyes by which we see everything else there, I usually initially take pilgrims to the flower gardens of Vrindavan nearby where the external bucolic scene and humble Brijabasis match more with their expectations of what Vrindavan should be. That positive and often profound experience can help open them up to the beauty and devotion of Vrindavan in other places that they may visit later that are more challenging to their cultural expectations.

 

Conclusion:

 

When retreat groups visit me in Vrindavan, I explain to them that just as a dog can hear high pitches that we are not able to perceive because we lack the proper apparatus to do so, similarly there is something here in Vrindavan—the beauty of the spiritual world—that they are not able to perceive now because they lack the faculties to do so. I assure them, however, that if they follow their guide and absorb themselves in potent devotional activities, then before they leave they will realize that Vrindavan is the most beautiful place in the world. When I see the same people before they go, I am rarely disappointed. They have seen and felt the unique transcendent beauty of Vrindavan, and by that experience have received the greatest treasure, faith in the worthiest goal!

 

 


[1] I first heard this definition of faith in an interview with the prominent Christian apologist Alvin Plantinga.

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2024 #1 – The Miracle of Composition and Happy 8th Birthday Monday Morning Greetings

January 1st, 2024

The Miracle of Composition and Happy 8th Birthday Monday Morning Greetings[1]

 

This January 1st marks eight years since I started Monday Morning Greetings here in Śrīdhāma Māyāpur. That’s over four hundred original posts. What I usually do every year to commemorate the beginning of Monday Morning Greetings is to share my realizations about writing gleaned from the previous years’ experience of writing them.

 

Every week I write something that it is published and appreciated—not an easy task. The challenge for one on the spiritual path who has a service to accomplish something in his guru’s mission is how to be always humbler than their accomplishments. The answer in a sense seems simple: give credit where credit is due—God. As I continue writing these weekly posts, I have more and more experience of how often both the realizations on what to write and how to effectively express it manifest beyond my own agency or effort. Sure, like most writers I often struggle with the composition in this way, but it is specifically at those times, when I seem the most lost, that suddenly the solution arises. When this happens again and again over eight years, I have no other answer than it’s God. It is this experience of the miracle of composition, when the result is so far beyond my own effort, that helps me be humbler than what I achieved.

 

No answer but God? Perhaps we can propose other possible explanations, but from my personal experience the most reasonable conclusion is that the “miracle of composition” is transcendent. While I am sitting there late in the week stuck in my writing, neither being able to clearly express my week’s realization—and often not even being able to conceptualize it clearly—but suddenly and repeatedly the post inevitably flows to completion, I have no doubt that I am only the instrument and God is the agent. This miracle of composition over eight years, therefore, is a great source of faith.

 

I have often defined faith as trust by experience. Now whenever I am hopelessly stuck in my writing, I push forward with confidence watching the hand of God in the miracle of composition as a faith building experience.

 

I am neither saying here that I have no agency nor ability in what I write, nor that God has written the composition, but that within the limits of the instruments He is using, which is my karmic abilities, He is making the best of that tool to produce something beyond my ability and to observe this phenomenon of “the miracle of composition” is the privilege of any humble theistic composer.

 

I have coined the term “the miracle of composition”, but I am not the first one to describe this phenomenon. Just look at what Rāmānanda Rāya, the great Vaiṣṇava poet and dramatist, told Pradyumna Miśra:

 

“There is one other thing Rāmānanda Rāya said to me: ‘Do not consider me the speaker in these talks about Krishna. Whatever I speak is personally spoken by Lord Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu. Like a string instrument I vibrate whatever He causes me to speak.’ In this way, the Lord speaks through my mouth to preach the cult of Krishna consciousness. Within the world, who will understand this pastime of the Lord’s?” (Cc. Antya-līlā 5.72-74)

 

Thank you for sharing with me the 8th birthday of Monday Morning Greetings and hopefully another miracle of composition. I was again lost, but hopefully something of worth came.

 

My wishes to all for a New Year filled with devotion!

 

 


[1] Once a year on our Happy Birthday Monday Morning Greetings post I offer, if the reader so inclined, to write me and share any post during the year that you especially liked. Feedback from my readers helps me to understand my audience and informs me what to write.

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2023 #52 – Is Sankirtan Better Than Kirtan?

December 25th, 2023

Is Sankirtan Better Than Kirtan?

Yes. Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī compares the two and says sankirtan, congregational chanting, as compared to kirtan, glorifying Krishna by oneself, gives special feelings of bliss.[1] When I originally read this in Śrī Bhakti-sandarbha a question naturally arose: “Why?” Recently, a second questions arose when reflecting on Jīva Gosvāmī’s comparison, “If devotees seem to become more easily absorbed in sankirtan than japa, then why is a certain amount of sankirtan prescribed at initiation instead of japa? Wouldn’t that be better for most struggling sādhakas? In this post I will try to answer these questions.

 

Why is sankirtan better than kirtan?

  1. Music enhances emotion: The superiority of any yogic process is the facility it gives one to connect or become absorbed in the object of one’s meditation. In bhakti-yoga, one’s connection with one’s object of meditation, which is the holy names of Śrī Krishna, is an emotional connection, which is our devotion to Krishna. As raga (melody) and tāla (rhythm) are connected to deep parts in the psyche that increase one’s emotion, couching the holy names in proper music (sankirtan) naturally enhances our devotion.[2]
  2. Shared bliss is greater than individual bliss: A proper community, like those joined together in sankirtan, is a place where shared interest is higher than individual interest and thus a place that helps remove the egocentric or limited concept of “I” or the false ego. As it is this ego that covers us from our loving connection with God, then naturally sankirtan or community kirtan, which facilitates removing the ego, helps give the sincere participant in such kirtan “special feelings of bliss”.[3]
  3. Group petition is more powerful than individual petition: Bhakti is the path of grace. We attract grace by entreaty or the humble petition for mercy. Group petition is more powerful than individual petition and thus the congregational chanting of the holy name powerfully attracts grace for a sincere participant.[4]

 

Why japa?

  1. Ultimately there is no hierarchy in the main devotional practices: The main rule on the path of bhakti is to remember Krishna and never forget Him. There are different ways to do that. What is better for one depends on one’s taste. In that sense, although we may say that one practice is better than another, there is no absolute hierarchy in devotional practice.
  2. Chanting alone is a more efficient way to access the holy name: The goal of devotion is to chant always, which is much more easily accomplished when not dependent others. How much could one fill his day or week with the holy name if required to do it with others that have a certain level of devotion and musical ability?
  3. Chanting alone deals more with control of the mind: Japa meditation is classic yogic meditation, which traditionally gives one a special facility to help control and strengthen the mind, which is essential in developing the ability to rise to the higher levels of meditation required for fully remembering Śrī Krishna’s pastimes.
  4. There is a special flavor to being alone with Krishna: As glorifying Krishna with others has a special flavor, being alone with Krishna in terms of japa affords one a special opportunity to individually and intimately express one’s own heart and develop one’s personal relationship with Him. So yes, the shared experience that one can have in kirtan gives special feelings of bliss, but so does the experience in a slightly different way of being with Krishna alone during japa in the form of His holy name.

 

So, is sankirtan better than japa? Yes, there are some unique aspects to sankirtan that help us become absorbed in the holy name that give special feelings of devotion, but we are meant to chant always, to learn to control the mind and to focus on developing a personal relationship with Krishna. For that the chanting of japa is more conducive. Our goal is to always think of Krishna and never forget Him. Our ācāryas have recommended several essential practices to help us accomplish this and they are all important. Sincere devotees may gravitate to a particular form of devotion and certain practices may be emphasized, but they do not minimize or neglect any of them recommended and followed by our ācāryas, as they all have in their own way the potency to enhance devotion and move us towards our goal, krishna-prema.

 

 


[1] This statement that compared to kirtan, sankirtan gives special feelings of bliss, is found in Śrī Bhakti-sandarbha in the section where Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī elaborates on each of the nine main practices of devotional service and describes the practice of kirtan.

[2] The relationship between music and the psyche in relation to kirtan is described in the following article, which I feel is the best I’ve read, that describes the dynamics how kirtan influences the psyche: Sat Hari Singh Khalsa, “Kirtan: The Sacred Music of the Sikhs,” Journal of Vaishnava Studies, Volume 17, No. 2 (Spring 2009), 169–184.

[3] The idea of the power of shared bliss comes from rasa theory that states for an audience to experience rasa from an appropriately composed drama the audience must hear it as if in one mind and such an experience is transcendentally uplifting. In Greek dramaturgy this is called catharsis.

[4] The power of group petition is described in the story of the birth of Krishna when Lord Brahma goes to the milk ocean accompanied by the demigods to petition Krishna’s descent. The commentators explain that he went with the other demigods because of the power of group petition.

 

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