Monday Morning Greetings 2018 #25 – The Kīrtana of the Cowherd Boys

June 18th, 2018

What a joyous sight! Śrī Krishna leaves every morning to graze His cows in the sacred forest of Vṛndāvana. Fearing that His beloved cows are trampling Vṛndāvana with their sharp hooves, He follows behind His herd to gently caress this sacred ground with His lotus feet. At the same time, He glances lovingly at His cowherd friends, each one intensely feeling Krishna’s love for them. The cowherds spontaneously respond to Krishna’s affection with jubilant kīrtana, a kīrtana so rousing that it continues throughout the day. Just imagine that kīrtana! What does it sound like? How does it look?  Don’t imagine, just hear:

 

anye tad-anurūpāi
manojñāni mahātmana
gāyanti sma mahā-rāja
sneha-klinna-dhiya śanai

 

“My dear King, other boys would sing enchanting songs appropriate to the occasion, and their hearts would melt out of love for the Lord.” (Bhag. 10.15.18) [1]

 

Four characteristics of their kīrtana are described. By discussing each not only is the kīrtana of the cowherd boys described, but also the authority of proper kīrtana in general is established.

 

sneha-klinna-dhiya (with a heart melted from love)

 

The most important quality of good kīrtana is that it comes from a heart (dhiya) filled with deep affection or devotion (sneha). The symptom of such a heart is that it is not hard, but melted (klinna), a condition of devotion also called bhava. In fact, real kīrtana is only when that bhava in the heart is expressed through the discipline of music. No matter how musically talented one is, it is not kīrtana without such bhava, or at least the humble aspiration for it, even when chanting the mahā-mantra. Therefore the primary quality of the kīrtana of the cowherd boys, and all kīrtana, is that it is born from a heart of devotion.

 

manaḥ-jñāni (attractive to the mind)

 

In general, proper rāga (melody) and tāla (rhythm) are connected to deep parts of the psyche that open the heart further to sentiments of genuine devotion. The kīrtana of the cowherd boys is thus not only devotional, but their devotional feelings are enhanced by sonorous melodies (rāga) and perfect rhythm (tāla) that are attractive to the mind (manaḥ-jñāni).

 

tat-anurūpāi (appropriate for the occasion)

 

Everything about Krishna, down to the smallest detail of His being and actions, is all-attractive. One day in the forest a soft wind blew Krishna’s golden dhoti so that it gently hugged His legs in a way that further revealed His form. That visual so overwhelmed His observant friends that one enthusiastically suggested, “Let’s have a festival!” The cowherd boys immediately began to organize a forest feast and spontaneously composed songs about the beauty of Krishna’s dhoti blowing in the wind. Their kīrtana was thus tat-anurūpāi—appropriate for the occasion or pastime. Whether it is līlā-kīrtana, kīrtana describing Krishna’s pastimes, or nāma-kīrtana, chanting the holy name that is sung in rāgas suitable for the time of day, the kīrtana of the cowherd boys is always appropriate­—tat-anurūpāi.

 

śanaiḥ (slowly, builds up gradually)

 

In good kīrtana enthusiasm gradually build by the force of the devotion. It is never forced or artificial. In other words, tempo never precedes devotion, but is a natural result of devotion as the kīrtana matures. The kīrtana of the cowherd boys is thus described as śanaiḥ­—it slowly or gradually builds, an essential element of proper kīrtana.

 

We can now imagine the akhanda (non-stop) kīrtana of the cowherd boys with its deep devotion, beautiful melodies and appropriate rāgas that gradually build to a crescendo as they become immersed in kīrtana, overwhelmed with devotion, and, most importantly, accompanied by the virtuoso flute of the original guru of all music and dance, Śrī Krishna.

 


[1] The various analysis of the words in this verse that describe the kīrtana of the cowherd boys are found in various commentaries on the verse that I have read or heard over the years. I didn’t have access to them at the writing of this article.

 

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2018 #24 – Humility and Low Self-Esteem: What is the difference?

June 11th, 2018

I have thought about this distinction for years and have come up with different explanations. Recently I had a sort of epiphany:

 

Humility and low self-esteem—though not just low self-esteem, but self-esteem in general—are just different categories. Humility is ultimately a spiritual category and issues of self-esteem are more of a psychological one. Thus you can have a healthy self-esteem or low self-esteem and still be humble or proud in either case. I make this distinction based on how I define humility.

 

Of course, there is a standard definition of humility (“the quality of having a modest or low view of one’s importance”), but I seek here to define humility in a deeper way. I don’t want to just say what humility is, but to define it in a way that includes what makes one humble, a definition that I hope better explains the distinction between humility and low self-esteem.

 

I define humility as the willing acceptance of authority and the conscious renunciation of the enjoying spirit in the act of doing so. Before you shut the page, let me define what I mean by “authority”. I am not referring to submitting to a person because of the authority of their position, but surrendering to the authority of truth or knowledge, including the people who genuinely represent it. This willing acknowledgment of the acceptance of the rule of truth, and those that carry the mantle of truth, is the essence of humility and the fullest renunciation of the selfish or enjoying spirit.

 

I would like to make a further distinction between the two definitions to help in this discussion. The standard or psychological definition I will call micro-humility, not in the sense that it is trivial, just that the first definition that I described as psychological modesty is not as substantive as the spiritual modesty described in the second one. I call the second one macro-humility, meaning full-surrendered humility at the very core of the soul.

 

One reason I felt inspired to look at this issue more deeply is my observance of Vaiṣṇava leadership where sometimes we see a person possessing unbecoming controlling propensities and deep devotion for Krishna at the same time. I don’t think this is hypocrisy, or at least it doesn’t have to be. Most people have, to one degree or another, some dichotomy between their spiritual side and the vehicle by which it is expressed, between inspired or deep convictions and their incidental or non-deliberate nature. It’s natural. Yes, people can even do things that exhibit selfishness and control and be overly concerned with how they look or what people think, lacking apparently micro-humility, but when push comes to shove, when conscious decisions are to be made, fully acknowledge that there is an absolute truth. They surrender to the will of God represented by Śrī Guru and the Vaiṣṇavas demonstrating substantive macro-humility.

 

I can think of many pronounced examples of the dichotomy between the non-integral and essential qualities in a person’s character. One person in particular as an example comes to mind, my friend and god-brother, the late Tamal Krishna Goswami. To be in his presence sometimes could be overbearing because of his nature to control the environment around him, but still from the core of his being he was the humble servant of his spiritual master. When Śrīla Prabhupāda heard complaints of how his fervor and competitive nature had caused disturbance to the temples of North America, Śrīla Prabhupāda called him, immediately disbanded his successful preaching party and ordered him to go to China. It was not easy, but he acceded to that directive, recognizing a rule and authority much greater than his own, showing the macro or substantive humility at the core of his self.

 

And where you find legitimate macro-humility, when the passion of one’s day and service subsides, you are also likely to find reflections of micro-humility. Although Tamal Krishna Mahārāja always took control, he did not have a self-inflated conception of his self. I never saw or heard him express that he thought himself better than others and even one time remember where he lamented his nature, noting by name many god-brothers, even leaders, and wishing he could be like them in their apparent piety.

 

I think an important point to note here before we conclude is that like all subtle principles this one can also be misapplied or abused when not understood deeply. Of course, one can’t hide behind this dichotomy describing humility in this way to protect one’s ego or blindly judge others and give them a pass. Yes, too often people who are proud and controlling are not humble on any level, micro or macro.

 

We shouldn’t also discount genuine saints who by nature are inwardly surrendered souls and also outwardly genuinely humbler than a blade of grass. I think the main point here, however, is something different and is best summed up and expressed by an elderly Vaiṣṇava I met in Bengal. He advised me that there is not an absolute correlation between the inspired side of a Vaiṣṇava and his nature or more ordinary dealings, and that if we get stuck or evaluate one only on his or incidental qualities it will not only dampen one’s appreciation for genuine Vaiṣṇavas but make one prone to offense.

 

Now we can get back to our original dilemma. How can humility (a virtue) and low self-esteem (a character defect) look the same? When you define humility in its macro or more substantive definition—“the willing acceptance of authority and the conscious renunciation of the enjoying spirit in the act of doing so” —the issues of self-esteem are inconsequential.

 

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2018 #23 – Is Jagannātha the Highest Manifestation of God?

June 4th, 2018

In honor of the upcoming New York Ratha-yātrā, we are sharing this Monday Morning Greeting from 2017:

Jagannātha is the highest form of God. That’s the realization I had today here in Purī. My reasoning goes like this:

God is a person. I am starting from that proposition because I assume my readership mostly accepts this proposal. Also, I have already argued this point extensively in Monday Morning Greetings #26. [1] Assuming that God doesn’t have the defect of impersonality, my argument proceeds as follows from that first proposition:

The fullest manifestation of any person is not in their position or power, but in his or her personality or inner self as a friend, parent, or lover. For example, we may meet a very powerful person, but if we don’t have a familial relationship with them – if they are a stranger or even a reverential superior – very little of that person’s fullest or most intimate self will be revealed. Position therefore covers personality or the fullest manifestation of being.

The example of a high court judge is often given to demonstrate this. We may have studied the judge’s background or history or even know him as kind or sober, but his full self is not manifest while holding court. It is only manifest when he comes home and his parental, fraternal, or romantic side is not checked by the formality and majesty that judgeship demands.

In the same way, God is not fully manifest when he displays His full grandeur as Nārāyaṇa, or the creator and controller of existence. His personality is only fully visible when He sheds His position of grandeur and appears as Kṛṣṇa, a beautiful cowherd where His intimate side is not restrained by the opulence (aiśvarya) and formality of Godhead. Kṛṣṇa is thus aptly described by Śrī Rūpa, the great Vaiṣṇava teacher, as akhila-rasāmṛta-mūrti, the personification of the combined bliss of all rasa, or in other word, the fullest manifestation or personhood.

Certainly there can be nothing higher than Kṛṣṇa, but a question still remains. What is the fullest manifestation of Kṛṣṇa? Here’s where we come to Jagannātha.

Kṛṣṇa, like any person, gives His heart in proportion to the force of one’s love. As the most intense love is mādhurya-rasa, the mellow of conjugal love, Kṛṣṇa gives Himself most fully to the gopīs. And as Śrī Rādhā stands supreme even amongst the gopīs, Kṛṣṇa opens His heart most fully to her.

Therefore the fullest manifestation of Kṛṣṇa is in response to Rādhā’s love, specifically the height of that love, the peak of her separation from Kṛṣṇa. This is a love so powerful that even Kṛṣṇa’s body transforms in overwhelming ecstasy, a condition where His eyes become highly dilated and His limbs withdraw into His body, a form known as Jagannātha. [2]

And if there is still any doubt that Jagannātha is the fullest manifestation of Kṛṣṇa, please consider the following:

One of the main practices of spontaneous devotional service (rāgānugā-bhakti) is the worship of the form of Kṛṣṇa corresponding to the love one aspires to attain. Śrī Caitanya was seeking to taste the love of his best devotee, Śrī Rādhā, at the height of her love. He therefore accepted Jagannātha as His worshipful Lord and spent the last eighteen years of His life in Jagannātha Purī, and even one year when Śrī Caitanya stayed in Śrī Raṅgam for the four months of the rainy season, where the deity of Viṣṇu presides, and there is no Jagannātha temple, He personally carved His own Jagannātha deity to nourish His devotion.

Can there be any doubt that Jagannātha is the highest form of God?

 


[1] http://wavesofdevotion.com/2016/06/27/is-god-a-person/

[2] For an elaborate explanation of how Kṛṣṇa became Jagannātha see Three Logs of Wood from Gopal Jiu Publications.

 

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2018 #22 – Why Death?

May 28th, 2018

I recently gave a seminar on death and a question came to my mind before the class that I felt must be answered. Why death?

 

Death is the most heartless and cruel experience when everything we cherish is lost in one fell swoop. Why death?

 

There is nothing more traumatic than that horrid moment when we lose even our very concept of existence and identity. It is so traumatic that it still remains indelibly imbedded in our subtle bodies to the extent that even as a babe in our next life we are more terrified of death than anything else, even though we have no experience of it yet. Oh Lord, can you not spare even the innocent and pure this fear? Why death?

 

O Krishna, how I pray to beat the reaper of time. Please don’t appear before me in the form of cancer, your seeming doom flavor of the month that keeps us in a state of apprehension and terror. Don’t take me now! Don’t take my loved ones! Let us live on at any cost, even a few years more! Why death?

 

Our problem is not death, or the inevitable change of body. It is the ego—the false conception of controller and enjoyer that binds us to the body and causes our suffering. Death announces with certainty that we are not the controller. It is a tool given by God to help us remove the root of our suffering—the false ego. It is not the enemy. Ignorance is! Fear not!

 

Staying in the body forever, even if healthy, is not a boon as long as we have the mood of selfishness, which disconnects us from the soul.  When that spirit dies, which is the root of all anguish, we are, in one sense, no longer in need of a body. We then live eternally within the true self, our spirit self of pure service. “Die to live.” Fear not!

 

When some things don’t go our way it is called a problem. When our world is upended it is called a tragedy. I felt tragedy. All I could do is take shelter of the holy name chanting day and night. A realization came. The voice of chanting is a heartfelt prayer for service and thus related to the real me, the soul, which is consciousness meant for service, and that me, the one calling out to God, will not end with the body. Only the false self, the ego, the voice that is disturbed when the world is not conforming to my desires, will die. I deeply sense eternality and feel great relief. Fear Not!

 

I was there when Śrīla Prabhupāda arrived in Vṛndāvana to leave the world. He called us to his room and announced ever so nonchalantly, “What is death, but a change of body?” He then quoted from the Bhagavad-gītā chapter 2 verse 13 where it says the self-realized is not bewildered by such a change. We were there when he left. He was sober, undisturbed, and not bewildered by such a change. Fear not!

 

“The holy name of Krishna is as powerful as the Lord Himself. Therefore, simply by chanting and hearing the holy name of the Lord, many men can be fully protected from fierce death without difficulty. Thus a devotee is saved. By the grace of the Lord, if a devotee, at the time of death, can simply chant His holy name.” (Bhāg. 4.10.30)

 

Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare

 

“Simply by chanting this mahā-mantra, he immediately surpasses the great ocean of the material sky and enters the spiritual sky. He never has to come back for repetition of birth and death. Simply by chanting the holy name of the Lord, one can surpass the ocean of death.” (Bhāg. 4.10.30, purport)

 

“What is death but another birthday?”[1] Fear Not!

 

Death is the illusion of non-existence. Fear Not!

 

Why death?  My question is answered.

 


[1] I remember reading how Śrīla Prabhupāda said this, but I cannot find the reference.

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2018 #21 – Accosted By a Drunk

May 21st, 2018

Don’t worry, nothing serious happened. It is a good story, however.

 

I was staying on 7th Street just off 1st Avenue. I left my apartment at 3:30 AM and turned onto 1st Avenue for the short five-minute walk to the Bhakti Center. I usually chant japa before the morning ārati, but this was the first time I walked there from outside the center. I was actually surprised to see so many people still mulling around. I guess am a bit naïve. Of course, they are out so late. It was early Saturday morning. Young singles work all week at stressful jobs, and starting Friday night it’s prime time to drown their pain into the wee hours of the morning. Mostly there were mixed groups hanging outside the bars, usually with at least one in every group nervously smoking a cigarette to hide their inhibitions.

 

As I walked past 4th Street I noticed the  “Karma” bar. Yes, that’s the name. An Indian lady and her sons own it. At least in the midst of all this ignorance someone has the sense to hang a purport to this madness. Amused, I looked across the street trying to locate the Nam Café. I can’t find it. Maybe it has been closed. Oh, the Nam Café.  I surmise that some Vietnamese immigrant opened a café with their country’s namesake and that by Krishna’s mercy the “Viet” fell off of their sign leaving us just the “Nam”, [1] as if to give those here in their stupor a hint at salvation.

 

Monday Morning Greetings is based on seeing the world through the eyes of śāstra. As a devotee of Krishna, I am trained to see things not just through the mind, which categorizes and ascribes feelings according to our past prejudicial experiences, but to see the world aided by thoughtful judgments based on śāstra, a vision I believe more lucid and healthy than just seeing only with the eyes and impure mind.

 

As I was just awakening to take avail of these hours that infuse clarity and contentment into the consciousness, the people around me, drowned in ignorance, are soon to slumber. I thus thought of the “eyes of the Gītā”, which had also become my vision:

 

“What is night for all beings is the time of awakening for the self-controlled; and the time of awakening for all beings is night for the introspective sage.” (Bg. 2.69)

 

The Bhakti Center at last! Just as I was about to try to open the door, which was, in fact, still locked, a drunk appeared out of nowhere, like “poof”.  I hadn’t noticed him at all, but even if the door was unlocked, I still couldn’t have opened it from where he was standing without moving him aside. With glassy angst eyes, his drunken head tilted to the side a few inches from my face, as if sizing me up, he asked about my religion. The drunk was about thirty, swarthy complexion, bi-racial, with semi-braided long hair, and a kind of Fu Manchu facial hair. I think of a young Carlos Santana. I did, however, see a spark of sincerity in him. I answered clearly and lucidly with a universal answer that I was confident was communicative, satisfying and stimulating. I guess not. “You’re f’ing with me!” Not what I wanted to hear.

 

I had no choice but to try to engage in dialogue with this madman, a post-modern drunk, who I could see, even if sober, would not agree with my more traditional perspective. I tried to find a common ground despite his clouded mind and muddled view in order to reason with him, but he remained belligerent, projecting that I was rude and condescending even on my most accommodating replies. He took exception to my name—“Mahārāja”. “Why did you change it? What’s your real name? You’re Jewish aren’t you?” What? The situation remained volatile.

 

I had already been up for a few hours writing and reading and I was quite peaceful. I felt no enmity or anger towards him for troubling me. I had this confidence that if I could remain peaceful, it should influence him to be at least non-violent. I thought of my study of the Yoga Sutras where the mystic perfection of ahiṁsā is discussed. One fully accomplished in ahiṁsā projects an aura of peace so powerful that in such a person’s presence even the most mortal enemies, the mongoose and the cobra, would not war. I certainly haven’t perfected that, but I was convinced that by remaining focused and calm, his frustration wouldn’t boil over. I wasn’t really sure how this would end, but I did know soon someone from the harināma ashrama would arrive, as they do very every morning at that time.

 

Suddenly Bhakta Amrit Singh opened the door and apologized that it was locked. “Come in! Come in!” My drunken “friend” looked at him and demanded three more minutes. I tell Amrit it is OK. The drunk makes one more incoherent request. I then tell him it’s time for me to go. He turned, almost sheepishly, and headed towards 2nd Street.

 

Amrit is from a kṣatriya family, all of whom served the Indian military. I have noticed that he holds himself with a certain dignity and discipline. I thus meditated on another bhāva or internal mood, that of the noble warrior. I couldn’t help but think that by the way the drunk quickly walked away that he intuitively felt some of that bhāva from Amrit, which is probably a more effective way of dealing with these modern day Jagāi and Mādhāis[2] than my attempt at ahiṁsā.

 

As I finally entered the oasis of the Bhakti Center, I reflected on the faith that I have been gifted, one that gives happiness by changing the consciousness. I contrasted that faith with the conviction I saw outside, an illusory happiness based on fleeting pleasure ending in sadness and ultimately inebriation just to dull the consequent pain. I remember a saying I read that describes it all:

 

“Pleasure is the happiness of madman, and happiness is the pleasure of a sage.”[3]

 

 


[1] “Nam” is short for “nāma”, which means the holy name of Krishna.

[2] The infamous drunken and vicious brothers that tried to kill Lord Nityānanda but were ultimately delivered by him.

[3] A quote referenced in a book called Happiness by Matthieu Ricard. I don’t know offhand the origin of the quote he referenced.

 

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2018 #20 – A Match Made in Heaven

May 14th, 2018

Even though “heaven” is technically not the right word, the phrase works here. I can’t think of a better match of two people or things than the match between humility and prema (love of God). They nourish each other. The more one’s humility increases the more one feels love of God, and the more one feels love of God the more humble one becomes. In fact, one who has attained prema is so humble that he or she feels devoid of even a scent of divine love. Let’s explore this unique relationship, for it forms the foundation of bhakti.

 

Philosophical concepts can be subtle and difficult to explain. They often need practical examples to illustrate them. In my struggles to explain the relationship between humility and prema it took me years before I finally came up with some examples to help communicate this principle.

 

Example 1

A child who is proud and entitled never feels the love of his parents even if the parents give their child the whole world, and as a result of not feeling that love from his parents he doesn’t develop love for his parents either. A child who is humble, however, overflows with appreciation and love at the slightest gesture of affection. In the same way, a proud soul feels entitled and can neither feel God’s mercy nor develop love for Him, while a humble soul can both fully experience the mercy of God and awaken feelings of devotion in his heart. Humility and prema thus naturally encourage each other.

 

Example 2

A mafia Don sees the world according to his own desire to such an extent that he may even kill a person who gets in his way. He is an emblem of pride, for in his self-created world he sees everyone under his control. That same crime boss, however, when at home may happily take the humble position in the presence of his mother and center his desires according to her will out of affection for her. Similarly, as one develops prema-bhakti, one puts Krishna in the center and sees the world according to His desires, a vision that fosters deep humility. Again, there is a direct relationship between prema and humility.

 

Example 3

As hunger increases a person feels his own lack of food more and more. Lack or poverty naturally makes one humble. Prema is the thirst or hunger for God and thus as prema increases one feels a lack of it to the extent that one humbly feels devoid of even a scent of devotion.

 

Example 4

When one receives something far beyond his or her ability to earn, one experiences undeserved kindness and naturally contemplates one’s lack of qualification. In other words, being a recipient of mercy instinctively makes one feel humble. The greatest treasure is love of God. Therefore when even a drop of that love enters the heart one feels unbounded mercy, reflects on one’s dearth of qualification, and becomes humbled by such grace.

 

Example 5

If a person keeps a messy living space then he will hardly notice the addition of more clutter, while a person who keeps things spotlessly clean notices the smallest mess. Prema is the height of purity and thus even an apparent impurity or mistake becomes glaring and prominent. Ironically, a person with the treasure of prema thus feels impure and humble, while a person filled with selfishness doesn’t even notice.

 

Example 6

Two verses come to mind that succinctly illustrate the correlation between humility and prema. The first is by Śrī Caitanya and the second by Queen Kuntī:

 

“One should chant the holy name of the Lord in a humble state of mind thinking oneself lower than the straw in the street; one should be more tolerant than a tree, devoid of all sense of false prestige, and ready to offer all respects to others. In such a state of mind one can chant the holy name of the Lord constantly.” (Śikṣāṣṭakam v. 3) [1]

 

“My Lord, Your Lordship can easily be approached, but only by those who are materially exhausted. One who is on the path of [material] progress, trying to improve himself with respectable parentage, great opulence, high education and bodily beauty, cannot approach You with sincere feeling.” (Bhāg. 1.8.26) [2]

 

The point is clear. Humility and devotion are tied at the waist. But the question remains: How to become humble? I heard a nice saying that sheds some light on the question: “It is easier to act humble and then to become humble than think humble and then act humble.”

 

Acting humble means to culture a mood of service and to think of others before oneself. In this regard, I heard one beautiful definition of bhakti: To make oneself available. And that is the mood of chanting the mahā-mantra – to announce both in voice and in heart that we want to serve and actually be ready when Krishna, through guru and the Vaiṣṇavas, respond to our prayer.

 

Whenever we talk about spiritual life and developing our relationship with Krishna it comes down to this point of humility, because it is indeed a match made in heaven.

 


[1] Implied here is that humility is the foundation of prema because the only activities that can be done ceaselessly are those done in devotion, so if humility is the cause of constant chanting it must have invoked feelings of devotion.

[2] Simply put, only one who is not proud can chant with devotion.

 

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2018 #19 – Morbid Anatomy at the Green-Wood Cemetery

May 7th, 2018

What’s a nice Hare Krishna doing in a place like that? Barring how I got there, Green-Wood Cemetery is arguably one of the most beautiful places in New York City. Walking through rolling hills and dales and sitting by its beautiful ponds and glacial moraines, I could see why this 500 acre cemetery couched in an natural park-like landscape served as the inspiration for the creation of Central Park, even though it was still technically a graveyard.

 

And what is this “Morbid Anatomy”? Oh, that. Just an exhibit of art and artifacts “designed to connect with the most universal of all human conditions: death.” I chanced upon the exhibit at the Fort Hamilton house just inside the park’s entrance on my way in for the afternoon walk.

 

My thoughts on my lovely afternoon at Green-Wood Cemetery

 

First thoughts. Why thoughts? Just enjoy the walk. I just finished a beautiful meal with my hosts David and Ann-Mary at their apartment just a few blocks a way. They go to the cemetery often. They wanted to take me for a pleasant and very interesting after lunch stroll. The city is externally hellish. Śrīla Prabhupāda once called modern day cities “dungeons of demons” and quoted part of a poem by the British poet Cowper: “God made the country, man made the town”. So after being cooped up in the city for a week why not just absorb the surroundings made by God and reconnect with the divine by a type of osmosis?

 

Of course, with all the tombstones, mausoleums, and obelisks, there was more to peak my interest than just a country-type walk in the middle of Brooklyn. I was especially intrigued by the personal epithets on the graves. They seemed to bring the dead lying there back to life, as many wore their personality on their tombstones.

 

I chuckled when I passed the tombstone of one lady who left her friend and relatives a perky message: “Get over it!” I loved the inscription on Billy “The Butcher” Poole’s grave, spoken just before dying after being shot in a Brooklyn saloon. Scribed on his tomb, serving as a good example of a typical disintegrated alpha male were these final words: “Good bye boys. I die a true American.” Mostly I appreciated the inscription of the pious, expressing their faith and peace in Jesus.

 

And naturally there were also some philosophical thoughts. As we approached the beautiful archway entrance on the other side of the park at the end of our journey, I couldn’t help but be struck by the contrast between where I was standing and the bustle and grime outside:  “Why on this absolutely beautiful sunny spring Saturday afternoon were there just a handful in this paradisiacal park, and millions standing just outside the gate in a hellish place by their choice?” I came up with two theories:

 

People are just conditioned to pleasures that don’t serve their happiness. I thought of the story of Indra, the king of heaven, who was cursed to take the body of a hog. His family and subjects finally found him after many years, and informed him that the curse had ended and he could resume his form and position as the king of heaven. They were shocked how conditioned he was to his degraded position. He replied, “Why should I go when I have such good stool to eat and so many good pig friends and family?”  In a similar way, it seems most people in Brooklyn would rather hang out on a dirty, noisy street corner than cross the street into a bucolic park, a place that by its very mode would elevate them to goodness and peace. How much are we all Indra, attached to pleasures that make no sense and cause us grief?

 

To be fair, it is a cemetery—but still, its open spaces and beauty should be a lure for the millions bordering it. It makes me suspect that people mostly avoid crossing the street due to the powerful psychological impulse of denial or fear of death, one of the five classic kleśas,[1] or foundational psychological conditions binding one to material existence. I again thought of a relevant story called “The Pool Of Death”.

 

Standing before the pool of death, Maharaja Yudhiṣṭhira, the king of righteousness, is challenged to answer one hundred questions by the Lord of Death, or else be immediately slain. He deftly answers the first ninety-nine questions correctly, but is seemingly stumped by the last one, “Of all the things in the world what is the most astounding thing?” Just an instant before the reaper of death is about to strike, the correct answer finally comes to his mind: “My father has died, my father’s father has died, and every father’s father died, but still everyone lives as they will not die. Denial of death is the most amazing thing.”

 

I took a last glance of this beautiful park and meditated on where all this ends—no pun intended—and pondered over how well I am gearing my life to this most stark fact of being, death. Crossing the street back to the real Brooklyn, I remembered a line from Bhaktivinoda’s Ṭhākura’s Aruṇodaya-kīrtana which depicted the thinking of an enlightened soul.

 

“This temporary material world is full of suffering. Take shelter of the holy name of Krishna as your only business.”

 

And that’s what a nice Hare Krishna was doing in a place like that.

 

 


[1] The impediments to samādhi are ignorance, ego, attachment, aversion and fear of death. (Yoga Sutras II.3)

Monday Morning Greetings 2018 #18 – The Trick of Turning Weaknesses into Strengths

April 30th, 2018

It’s Monday. Time again to start my next article. I have nothing to write. What to do? I will try a trick that I learned in public speaking, and see if it that helps to inspire me.  When for some reason you really have nothing to say, just be honest and share why. Connecting to the audience with conviction, even by sharing one’s shortcomings, empowers one to continue to speak with conviction. In fact, from the occasional feedback I get from Monday Morning Greetings, the articles that are most appreciated are those where I bare my faults. Anyway, I am being honest here. Usually by Monday I have already been mulling over something in my mind to write for the next week’s Greetings. I am little bit concerned today because I have a deadline and it’s the second time this year that I have no clue what to write about.

 

Although I would rather have some realization to share, I also see a benefit from not.  It forces me to search for my failings, which I see as the reason why I have nothing to share this week. In terms of my writing, it inevitably comes down to the fact that my level of meditation and study has slackened due to traveling and a consequent lack of regularity in my schedule. I always meet my vows, but to keep an edge for writing, I need to do much more, not just in quantity, but also in concentration. Without a fresh well of ideas and a clear lens to see the world, it is very difficult to see life in a way worth writing about. Well, my exercise worked. I feel some inspiration. I will speak about how to turn weakness into strength in the world, in bhakti, and in chanting.

 

In the World

 

Śrīla Prabhupāda was once asked what the difference is between a human being and an animal. He responded that a human being could ask the question “Why am I suffering?”  I loved his answer and especially its implications. If you ask the question “Why am I suffering”, the next question, “What did I do wrong”, inherently follows, as suffering is just a symptom of going against nature or doing something wrong. That naturally leads to the inquiry “What should I be doing”, which culminates in the most crucial question of all: “Who am I?” Without understanding what we are made of and what we are made for, or in other words who we are, how can we lead a life aligned with our nature, the prerequisite for harmony or happiness?

 

In this way the mistakes we make and their consequent suffering become our strength if we have the sincerity to inquire about the source of our suffering. In other words, our weakness becomes our strength if used properly.

 

In Devotion

 

Devotion often begins by a humble response to one’s lack of qualification, a reaction that inspires devotion. In contrast, pride in one’s qualifications ruins devotion:

 

“If a brāhmaa has all twelve of the brāhminical qualifications but is not a devotee and is averse to the lotus feet of the Lord, he is certainly lower than a devotee who is a dog-eater but who has dedicated everything—mind, words, activities, wealth and life—to the Supreme Lord. Such a devotee is better than such a brāhmabecause the devotee can purify his whole family, whereas the so-called brāhmaa in a position of false prestige cannot purify even himself.” (Bhāg. 7.9.10)

 

Why is the devotee, even one born in a family of dog-eaters, more exalted than a brāhmaṇa who is decorated with such qualities as self control, religiousness, and austerity?  The low-born devotee, meaning one fully surrendered to God, becomes humble or spiritual by his bad qualities, where the high class brāhmaṇa, becomes proud by his good qualities.

 

In writing this I am thinking of one striking example I knew quite well one very mentally challenged devotee. To just function in the world he would need to be heavily medicated. I am aware of the pitfalls of psychotropic treatments, but in this case he couldn’t function sanely without them. I saw that personally. Still, every day without fail for almost thirty years he would walk to the temple from his government subsidized apartment and then clean the whole four-story building from top to bottom with the greatest attention. He certainly lacked brāhmanical qualities such as peacefulness, self-control, and austerity, but his challenges made him humble, a clear example of how our karmic lacking can become our strength.

 

In Chanting

 

In previous ages like Satya-yuga, people lived very long lives and also had great strength for meditation and arduous penances, but because of such prowess they also had a difficult time developing faith in the simple and more powerful process of chanting the Lord’s name. In contrast, although today’s people lack the strength for such discipline and meditation, it is precisely because of this lack of qualification that they can more easily develop faith in the glories of the holy name.

 

“Devotion in the form of kīrtana is unlimitedly merciful to those devoid of false prestige. […] Such humility is natural in Kali-yuga because people generally lack the qualifications of those in previous ages […] therefore saṅkīrtana appearing in the midst of the people in Kali-yuga who are naturally meek, easily confers upon them all the results derived from the practices prominent in other yugas and this makes them perfect.” [1]

 

The pressure is on. How many times can I use this trick to write an article? But it did demonstrate an important principle for cultivating spiritual life: If in the natural course of any sincere endeavor you falter, make your weakness your strength by bowing your head and taking shelter of God.

 


[1] Bhakti Sandarbha, Anuccheda 273, translation by Satyanarayana dasa

Monday Morning Greetings 2018 #17 – Practicing Death

April 23rd, 2018

It felt like death. I had just spent the week finishing my last Monday Morning Greetings and pressed the command key to copy it when the whole document literally turned to Chinese letters. Now this had nothing to do with the fact that the article was on Chinese Proverbs. It was just some inexplicable computer glitch that had a twist of irony, but that’s not all it was about. Writing is an intense labor and the product is your child, so when it is lost there is pain. I am proud of myself though.  I wasn’t too flustered; although, I did wish I had my child back. What I did get, however, was a personal illustration of the theme of the lecture that I was about to give that evening called “The Art of Living and Dying”.

 

My theme was “Practicing Dying”. That was Plato’s answer when asked to sum up his teachings. And here was the example that I needed for illustrating my point. Death is the obliteration of the false ego – our inflated self-conception of being the enjoyer – when the world moves not only beyond our control, but digresses to annihilation. Similarly, in life, the false ego is also crushed as the world moves against our control, a micro death so to speak. My computer glitch and consequent loss thus made it clear that life is both like death and prepares us for death by helping us to renounce the false conception of the enjoyer.

 

The more I thought about my micro near death experience, the more I realized how such experiences work and how powerful they are. One phrase came to mind that supported my insight: “Die to live”. It’s a phase coined by the German philosopher Georg Hegel, and often used by Śrīla Śrīdhara Mahārāja to highlight the point now under discussion: In order to realize our eternal life, we must allow our ego to die. And the most substantial way to do that is to not feed it by indulging in the self-pity, frustration, or anger that arises when the world moves against our control. We can thus practice dying by neglecting the voices of the ego and by remaining equipoised, while at the same time devotedly serving in circumstances that God places us, a spirit very much akin to the nature of the soul. I think a poignant example will help further clarify these points, an example that I had the fortune to witness.

 

Gauri was convinced that suffering is caused by ignorance and that the greatest compassion was to distribute spiritual knowledge. She therefore performed the austerity of distributing Śrīla Prabhupāda’s books eight to ten hours a day. As she always thought of others before herself, she found immense inner joy doing this daily despite its challenges. Unfortunately, one day she was diagnosed with stage-four cancer and immediately left for Vṛndāvana to die. I was in her room one evening with others on what would prove to be her last day, when suddenly Dr. Narottama, her ayurvedic doctor entered. He directly went to his patient, felt her pulse and announced, “Disease is finished. You have one hour left to live!” I was initially confused by his apparently contradictory statement, but after some thought I understood his enlightened message: The real disease and the cause of suffering is not the transformation of the body, which is inevitable, but the false ego, the consciousness that makes us identify with the body and thus suffer its transformations, including death. Gauri’s disease was therefore indeed finished, although she would leave the body soon due her cancer.

 

And sure enough within one hour she was gone, but before she left in that ensuing hour, we witnessed something amazing. Not only was she fully conscious the whole time, but she even made a point to have her picture taken smiling to be sent to her friends who had served with her with similar dedication. She then verbally relayed a message to accompany the picture: By full dedication to one’s duty and service and by tolerating the concomitant dualities of the world one could, as promised, indeed conquer death. What an example of practicing dying!

 

 

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2018 #16 – A Personal Commentary on Chinese and Brooklyn Proverbs

April 16th, 2018

By chance, I came across a book of Chinese Proverbs. [1] Out of curiosity I began thumbing the pages and wound up reading the whole thing. I’m glad I did. A quote by Francis Bacon in the introduction says it all:

“The genius, wit, and spirit of a nation are discovering proverbs.”

Let me share of few of my favorites with short personal comments on each.

 

Chinese Proverbs 

Only one who can swallow an insult is a man.

A real man is one who has the strength of humility to control the false ego, which especially gets stirred when one is insulted.

 

Do everything at the right time and one day will seem like three.

To do everything at the right time means to be thoughtfully regulated in one’s activities. Making appointments with oneself helps to inoculate one from the intrusion of other less essential demands made by our minds and others. So much can be accomplished when one does this. For example, if one wants to maintain or increase one’s chanting, then one should chant every day at a prescribed time and the completion of every three rounds will seem like one.

 

Patience in one minute of anger can prevent one hundred days of sorrow.

Too much of life is wasted in dealing with problems that one has brought upon oneself by reacting impulsively. In other words, too much of what we are dealing with is self-created and could be avoided if we had more self-discipline and thoughtfulness.

 

There are two kinds of perfect people. Those who are dead, and those who have not been born yet.

The only way not to make mistakes is to do nothing. If we sincerely endeavor to improve ourselves, even if we sometimes falter, there is no reason to feel guilty. [2]

 

Men will despise you only if you despise yourself.

Unfortunately low self-esteem projects weakness and attracts scorn from those who are weak and envious. In contrast, those who feel self-worth as pure, humble servants of God attract affection from all. Śrīnivāsa Ācārya describes this about the Six Gosvāmīs of Vṛndāvana:

“They are just like the ocean of love of God, and they are popular both with the gentle and with the ruffians, because they are not envious of anyone.” (Ṣaḍ-gosvāmy-aṣṭaka v. 1)

 

To be fond of learning is to be near knowledge.

Our present knowledge is limited by our present frame of reference. There is so much more to know than what we can presently understand just by our perception. Therefore in terms of nearing knowledge, without eagerness to learn from a teacher—an authoritative source—one is doomed to either be stuck where one is or to learn very slowly.

 

Only by learning do we discover how ignorant we are.

Only by learning a subject can we understand the subject’s depth, especially spiritual subjects. For example, God is infinite. Thus the more we learn and realize about the expanse of God’s glories, the more we discover how much more there is to know.

 

Better to argue with a wise man than prattle with a fool.

Next time you engage with a Facebook thread or just follow one, keep this advice in mind.

 

To know another person is not to know the person’s face, but to know the person’s heart.

The most substantial part of any person, which is one’s nature as a friend, parent, or lover, is only revealed to one by those who love him or her. It can never be seen by perception or analysis alone. Similarly, God can only be known when He becomes inspired to give Himself in reciprocation with one’s devotion. Śrī Krishna describes this principle in the Bhagavad-gītā: “To those who are constantly devoted and worship Me with love, I give the understanding by which they can come to Me.” (Bg 10.10)

 

Learning is like rowing upstream: To not advance is to fall back.

If one is not steady in one’s commitments in spiritual life, one will not gain the strength to move forward. Enthusiasm wanes for any endeavor in which one does not feel progress.

 

Only distance tests the strength of horses; only time reveals the hearts of man.

Many people at the beginning of their spiritual life practice at a level beyond their qualification due to their initial fervor, but as their motive is not yet pure, they often become slack in their practices. The real test of one’s devotion is when one steadily executes their service for many years despite the challenges that come over time. We should very much respect those devotees who, after decades of facing life’s natural “ups and downs”, are still engaged steadily in humble service.

 

I was angered for I had no shoes, then I met a man who had no feet

One should be content with one’s immediate needs of life. Accruing more than that will only increase one’s level of attachment, leaving one with the same level of dissatisfaction as before. According to the Yoga Sutras, the result of perfecting the niyama of contentment, this satisfaction with what one has, is the attainment of the highest happiness.

 

To know the road ahead, ask those coming back.

One of the six qualities that enhance bhakti is sādhu vṛtti—to follow in the footsteps of previous ācāryas. It is described that the footsteps of a sādhu are like so many lighthouses that help one cross an infinite ocean

 

A smile will gain you ten more years of life.

Many studies show that the single most important factor for physical health is not exercise or even diet, although they are certainly important for health. The single most important element necessary for a long life is the quality and amount of the good relationships one has. It is the key because it is the foundation of happiness and “a smile will gain you ten more years of life[3]”.

 

A book holds a house of gold.

The most valuable things we possess are life realizations, for only by seeing the truth everywhere can one become happy. Realizations come by applying what we have heard from books of knowledge. A book of true knowledge thus contains the greatest treasure. In this regard see “Be a Sage Page by Page” (iOS App StoreGoogle Play).

 

The beautiful bird is the one that is caged.

Opulence, whether it is beauty, wealth, fame, intelligence, and so on, can be used either to serve others or to control them. Unfortunately, because our desire to enjoy is so strong we often see and use our “good karma” to control others, entangling us in the ropes of karma.

 

When drinking water, remember its source.

There are some things written on the subject of devotion that I don’t read even though they seem intellectually and aesthetically stimulating because I doubt the character of the source. Whatever a person shares with conviction carries his or her heart. If a person’s convictions are jaded by an agenda then those misconceptions and feelings are subtly transferred into his or her writing

 

Don’t believe you will ever reach the destination without leaving the shore.

When I begin writing Monday Morning Greetings every week I can’t imagine that a finished article will be produced, but I realize that if I don’t start, I will never produce anything. Many talented people don’t write very much because producing a written piece is daunting and they never start. If one leaves the shore of paralysis by simply vowing to write even a sentence or two a day, then one will soon reach the destination of a completed piece.

 

Listening well is as powerful as talking well, and it is also essential to true conversation.

 

I don’t have time to comment on all my favorites so I will list the last few:

 

Disease enters through the mouth; disaster leaves from it.

 

Useless as a youth, useless as a man.

 

Learning that does not daily increase will daily decrease.

 

He who teaches for a day is my father for life.

 

Life is but a journey, death is returning home.

 

Brooklyn Proverbs

I have to admit that I put this in the title to make the article more attractive to read. Now I am forced to come up with at least one “Brooklyn Proverb”. I can only think of one. It’s quite revealing about the culture I grew up in.

Nice guys finish last.[4]

 


[1] Chinese Proverbs for Today’s World by Emil William Chynn

 

[2] “Having awakened faith in the narrations of My glories, being disgusted with all material activities, knowing that all sense gratification leads to misery, but still being unable to renounce all sense enjoyment, My devotee should remain happy and worship Me with great faith and conviction. Even though he is sometimes engaged in sense enjoyment, My devotee knows that all sense gratification leads to a miserable result, and he sincerely repents such activities.” [emphasis mine] (Bhag. 11.20.27-28)

 

[3] What Makes a Life Good: Lessons from the Longest Study on Happiness – Robert Waldinger

 

[4] This was about as famous a quotation as there was growing up in New York. It is credited to Leo “the Lip” Durocher, the former manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, which was the professional baseball team we followed growing up.

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