Archive for February, 2016

Monday Morning Greetings #9 – Is Surrender a Bad Word?

February 29th, 2016

When I was in my teens a popular and favorite situation comedy on television was called The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. It was about typical young men in the 50s. The character that amused us the most was Dobie’s best friend, a beatnik, Maynard G. Krebs. Beatniks, like their descendants the hippies, had the reputation of never working.  During the show whenever Maynard was causally asked if he would like to work, he would nervously shriek “Work!” We loved it. It was as if “work” was a bad word.

I almost find the same reaction today among some devotees when you mention the word “surrender”, even though surrender is the foundation of bhakti. Ouch! Why do I hear some of my readers react that way when I say that surrender is the foundation of bhakti? Is surrender a bad word?

How can that be? Surrender is unquestionably the first thing Arjuna says to Krishna after accepting Him as his guru:

“I am a soul surrendered unto you. Please instruct me.”

And later when Krishna describes the responsibly of a disciple he says  “pranipatena” –  that before receiving knowledge the student must offer prostrated obeisances which takes the “I surrender” mudra of hands raised up in the air to the next level, falling flat at someone’s feet.

When discussing this very point about surrender in my Nectar of Devotion seminar, Satyahari, one of the students and a scholar in his own right, shared an insight from one of his teachers on the difficulty for some people with the word surrender. “When you translate words from Sanskrit to English the translated word is pregnant with history [of its usage].”

The English word “surrender” means to capitulate or submit and its usage in English are almost exclusively to an enemy or opponent.

But isn’t there a better word in English for prapatti or saranagati than surrender? Why is such a word with such negative connotations as “to enemy or opponent” used?

The core meaning of surrender is derived from the Middle English word “rendre” which means to return or give back, and the prefix “sous” which mean “under”, literally to place oneself under someone else.  “To an enemy or opponent” is the implied meaning in English due to the pre-Renaissance culture into which the meaning of surrender was born. But capitulation or submission does not have to be to an enemy. It can also be done out of great love.

In other words, both prapatti and surrender have the exact same meaning. They both describe the act of giving oneself over or to or “under” the control of another party. However, according to the culture in which that word is used and one’s personal experience with authority in life, surrender will conjure up one of two images or meanings:

One hears surrender and sees an image of waving a white flag and then marching in the hot sun with bayonet in back and hands raised in air. To such a person surrender means exploitation and abuse

Another hears surrender and sees the image of a child in the arms of their loving mother, completely “under” her care. To such a person surrender means shelter and love.

Regardless how you are conditioned to view the word, the more important consideration for a devotee is whether he can accept and embrace the base meaning of surrender, “giving control over oneself to another party”, for without the mood “ I am yours” one cannot enter the door of bhakti. Isn’t the mood of giving oneself to another by supplicating one’s will to their desires the basis of any relationship with a worthy object of love, especially one’s guide or protector?

I think there are a few other images that need to be clarified before the moniker of weakness can be lifted from the word surrender. Surrender –  “giving control over oneself to another party”  – does not mean one’s initiative is squelched or one is micromanaged, provided the person one surrenders to is worthy. One is fully empowered according to one’s ability, but always in the mood of dependence and humility. I heard a beautiful analogy that describes the subtlety of balancing full initiative and full dependence at the same time:

In an Indian joint family when the father retires his sons will be given the business and full initiative to run it. The father will come, however, everyday and sit there. Although he doesn’t interfere and the sons have full initiative to run it, they happily feel his presence, shelter, and authority. In a similar way a mature and educated disciple is given full initiative to practice spiritual life and render service according to his full realization, but always with an eye towards his spiritual guardians and their authority.

“But what if the guru is not qualified and I will be mislead or exploited?” The subtleties of dealing with that are another story and another paper, but we can’t change the philosophy about what surrender means on the basis that we have entered into the wrong relationship. Before judging guru in such a way, we better be sure that the problem is not mostly with us, the disciple. And it goes without saying that there must be a period of examination between the guru and disciple before one makes such a heavy commitment as “surrender”.

That’s it. Surrender is not a bad word, although the reality of our absolute dependence on God is a challenging one. False ego means we want power to control and enjoy, and accepting authority takes that power from our hands. Naturally we resist it and the words that represent it, but surrender is just not a bad word. Surrender is the gateway to world of bhakti.


Monday Morning Greetings #8 – The Rebuplican Vaisnava

February 22nd, 2016

The Republican Vaisnava*
In New York we have a joke about Pennsylvania. “What is Pennsylvania? It’s Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in-between.” For those of you who are not from the USA, Alabama is, or a least was, synonymous with Hicksville, a place where people are backward or provincial, or who didn’t vote for Obama. Why am I telling this? Because I am about to share something with you from someone from Alabama –  I mean Pennsylvania. Even worse than that, a social conservative and a Republican elected official for twenty-five years, but a person who by his example taught me something about my own prejudice: that enlightened thought is not an east coast or west coast monopoly, or the property of someone cast in a political persuasion, but something that rests solely in the heart of those who are sincerely searching for truth and humble enough to rule their lives by it. I will let the letter from my friend speak for itself. Usually I don’t share Vyasa Puja offerings to my humble self publicly, but the humility and depth of this offering inadvertently says more about the person writing it then it does about the person it is written for.
Introducing my good friend Graham Hetrick:


My daughter stood at the landing of the stairs.  I had recently picked her up at the airport as she returned from a trip to India.  She actually extended her trip to spend more time with an individual named Dhanurdhara Swami.  She started with some hesitation and asked;  “Dad you know that Swami I was talking about?  I would like him to come here to the farm for a few days, if that’s ok with you?”

My reply was immediate: “Sure Hon, have him come. I would love to talk with him.”

Now for those who don’t know my cultural background or me; this immediate acceptance of my daughter’s journey was unusual for someone who was born and raised brethren and evangelical Christian.  Upon my entry to college I started to define God differently than my parents.  Ultimately through the expansion of my ego I even denied that existence of any creator.  I was like Nietzsche’s Übermensch, screaming: “Man created God not the other way around.” 

God is so great and his grace beyond limits.  Over the years God has put me on a course to a meditative lifestyle.  About a year before my daughter’s trip I started to immerse in the Jesus prayer.  I was seeking the Christian church in its earliest form.  This search brought me closer to Eastern Christian thought.

My goal was to take God out of the confines of religion and the concept of otherness.  I wanted my God to be bigger than how God was defined by the Western Church.  In each phase of my journey God was softening my heart.  He was leading me to a teacher, a brother, and a mentor.

The days with Dhanurdhara Swami were wonderful.  I found an immense commonality between his understanding and devotion to God and my direction – trying to communicate and worship God in every aspect of my life.

It was all so new.  This man in orange robes seemed immediately to be a family member.  I later called him my brother from another mother.  We talked, we sang praise to God, and there was no separation between our faiths and our lives.  God once again bestowed his grace on me and gave me this lifetime teacher and friend.  God knew the student was ready so he had the teacher appear. 

Each morning I sit at my altar.  Yes, this once Brethren, evangelical, agnostic built his own altar, sits there, and reads the Bible, the Gita and thanks all his bhakti friends for helping him make his God so much bigger.

Hare Krishna and may Christ be with you my brother from another mother.

Your Loving Servant,

* Graham is a Republican elected official, but I don’t think Republican is the right moniker for him. Probably a better fit is libertarian or social conservative.

Monday Morning Greetings #7 – Bhakti in Essence

February 15th, 2016

“I blew it!” The email heading was somewhat jarring. I immediately opened it.  It was from Bhurijan Prabhu. He was apologetic. He just found out the previous night that the person he asked to deliver an invitation to me for the groundbreaking ceremony of his proposed retreat center at Govardhan forgot to send me one. I read on. The function was starting in one hour! I left immediately.

I had actually never have seen the land before. It’s stunning: four choice acres facing the western side of Govardhan Hill with an incredible panoramic view of the sacred mount.

I was quite happy to be there to support a good friend. Bhurijan founded the Vrindavan Institute for Higher Education over twenty years ago to spearhead sastric education in ISKCON. Before that practically none formally existed. And for the last ten years, they have been working through the endless bureaucracy to transfer the government deed of the land they purchased, originally suited for agriculture, to a suitable designation to build a residential facility. It was finally approved. The best tithi (time) to inaugurate it had arrived.

I sat next to Bhurijan for the auspicious agni hotra (fire sacrifice) to install Ananta Sesa, the serpent form of Godhead that bears the universes on its hoods. It is an absolute must to place Him securely in the foundation of any substantial building to protect it and ensure its successful completion.

We needed to finish the yajna quickly as the auspicious time to place the Deity in the foundation would end by 11:35 AM. After an expertly done, but abbreviated yajna, we rushed by procession to center of the land where a deep pit was dug to place Ananta Sesa in a small brick enclosure built at the bottom.  We descended carefully into the pit to ceremonially assist the mason by smearing some cement and placing a few bricks on top of the cement to complete the structure.

We returned to the pandal for short taks by Dina Bandhu Prabhu, Krishna Ksetra Maharaja, myself, and then Bhurijan Prabhu. A wonderful feast was served.

A great beginning to a glorious project!

Bhurijan came up to me just after the function, thanked me for coming and said how much he appreciated what I said about how we need retreats, times of the year only for Krishna. He then offered a casual comment on the last thing I said that struck me deeply. Despite all the pomp and auspiciousness of the ceremony this was by far the highlight of my day  – for what he said was a rare jewel of a deep personal realization.

The last thing I had expressed was that I was feeling happy and sad at the same time. Happy because after so many years Bhurijan Prabhu was embarking on this wonderful offering, but sad that he was nearly approaching seventy, obviously feeling the effects of old age, and by the time the project was finished, he probably wouldn’t be around that long to enjoy it. With sincerity he humbly shared his thoughts:

“You mentioned that it is sad that I won’t be around to enjoy this project. I don’t care at all to be around to enjoy this project. It is an offering. As he said “It’s an offering” he beamed and gently moved his open hands palms up and gestured towards Govardhan as if literally offering the project to Girirja Govardhan, the sacred mount majestically standing before us.

Bhurijana has intensely studied Bhagavatam for nearly fifty years and I realized that this realization was the fruit of his studies. He was completely sincere. He really has no desire to enjoy the project. His pleasure was devotion, and devotion is for others.

I don’t know why it struck me. Isn’t that our philosophy – that real happiness is devotion, not enjoying the results of our activities? I guess it struck me because it wasn’t just theoretical, just an understanding of truth, but it was the realization of truth, where someone actually sees that truth. And I could actually see how joyful he was when he gestured with his hands to offer what he did to Krishna, a joy so different from the cheap accolades of personal accomplishment that we all hanker for. And how rare even for a devotee!

I am very happy that I got to go this morning and witness the glorious beginning of a great project inspired by a good friend, but more important I am leaving with the most precious thing, the jewel of a personal realization, a deeper understanding about the essence of bhakti.

Monday Morning Greetings #6 – ISKCON’s Greatest Deficiency

February 8th, 2016

If you think this article is ISKCON bashing, then there is no need to read further. Practically everything I enjoy in spiritual life from most of the devotees I love, to the kirtan gatherings, to the centers of pilgrimage in India I frequent, are born from and maintained by ISKCON.

ISKCON has a great mission or purpose. Its mission, why it exists, is to lead a revolution in consciousness, both individually and the world.

ISKCON also has an amazing vision, what it does to fulfill its mission. ISKCON especially publishes and distributes sacred texts to share spiritual knowledge and it opens centers of devotion. It also has a myriad of other ways to share spiritual knowledge and inspire positive transformation from the distribution of prasadam to the Bhaktivedanta Institute for the synthesis of science and religion.

But like all institutions ISKCON also has its weaknesses; its most glaring one is its culture. Culture is how an organization goes about fulfilling its mission. In too many places this is done without the fineness of behavior and presentation that characterizes Vaisnavism.

There are many ways to understand what culture is, but more than anything, even more than the philosophy espoused, culture is revealed by the feeling people have entering into a community or organization.

For example, think of an ISKCON Center that really inspires you. What do you feel when you reside in or enter that center? Do you feel cared for, welcomed, and transformed? If so, then that’s its culture.

Think of an ISKCON center that disappoints you. Do you feel ignored, uncared for, or judged? Then in spite of its noble mission and precepts that’s ISKCON’s culture there.

Generally people don’t leave, distance themselves, or reduce participation in ISKCON because they doubt its mission. Of course, some people do, but many distance themselves despite their faith in Srila Prabhupada and his mission. They drift away because visiting doesn’t make them feel welcomed or inspired.  In a similar way, people also join or return to a community when its culture and values inspire them and they feel welcome.

The tragedy of a culture not reflecting an organization’s values is that members may eventually doubt an organization’s vision of fulfilling its mission.  I think that may have happened to the publication and distribution of Srila Prabhupada’s books in ISKCON, one of the pillars of his vision for spreading Krishna-consciousness.  To the extent that the activity wasn’t supported by a strong culture of reading and practicing what was in those books, devotees became less and less dedicated to fulfilling that vision. I think it is significant that Vaisesika dasa, a very respected leader in ISKCON, has been commissioned to write a book about the distribution of Srila Prabhupada’s books and over half of his book is dedicated to the culture of book distribution, how one distributing Srila Prabhupada’s books should live by and represent the values espoused in those books.

I think Vaisesika’s strategy is right on. Corporate and organizational studies affirm again and again that a strong culture increases morale and productivity.

Cultures of expedience, where one simply focuses on one’s mission at the expense of one’s values are bound to fail. And if they don’t fail, they will certainly morph into something that no longer represents its original mission.  A good example of the ill effects of a damaged culture on an organization was the empty churches in America in the 60s, or the growth today of mega churches based on “The prosperity gospel”,[1] a view very much antithetical to the simplicity and compassion that Jesus taught.

ISKCON was not spared from the culture of expedience, especially after Srila Prabhupada left. As a result many temples eventually emptied, books distribution waned and Srila Prabhupada’s vision of sankirtan morphed into selling paintings and wares simply to make a buck.

How to institute culture change? That’s a deep subject beyond the scope of this essay. I am including for those interested a short bibliography. * But I can share one major factor that most studies affirm. In successful and sustainable organizations, the leader helps define the organizations values and then focuses on ensuring that those values become part of the organizations daily culture through education and encouragement, even stressing adherence to the organizations core values more than stressing organization and productivity.  And this culture change almost never happens without a conscious effort.

ISKCON Chowpatty has grown into one of the major, if not the major, success stories in ISKCON. It has good managers and preachers, but more than anything else it is known for how welcomed and inspired people feel when they visit.  I think one of the pillars of its success is that Radhanath Swami, its leader, has prioritized the development of its culture by focusing on and repeating again and again to its members the foundational principle of Vaisnavism, that one must be “the servant of the servant of the servant.” I remember one parikram he led to Govinda Kunda in Govardhan where he even spoke on the subject for almost two hours. Arguably more than anything else, it’s the culture permeating ISKCON Chowpatty that has successfully sustained the morale, spiritual development, and outreach of the project.

Every year I organize several Bhakti Immersion Retreats for professional people interested in Bhakti. After studying culture change and wanting a sustainable program we came up with the following mission statement:

“Welcomed, cared for, transformed, all expertly done, in the service of Srila Prabhupada.”

That’s what we want people to feel by going to our retreat. “Expertly done” means that part of one’s culture is the quality of one’s presentation. As far as possible kirtan, cooking, fine arts and so on should be done expertly according to some tradition, or established expertise, to help fulfill its mission – the devotional transformation of its participants. A leader is thus responsible to empower the development of culture, not only in standards of behavior, but also in its arts and activities.

And the real caveat of such a defined culture is that it frees the leader from so much of the headaches of day-to-day management. When strong culture permeates an institution, the culture itself informs the decision making process and sets parameters of behavior without the over involvement of the person in charge. The leader then becomes free for activities that speak more to his passion and competency.

There are quite a few good examples of success in ISKCON, but if one looks at those examples carefully it is either naturally value based, or a leader has developed a strong culture by clearly defining its values and reinforcing them.  The former is much more likely.

There are also far too many examples of dysfunction in ISKCON where coldness and disorganization are projected, where temples are either relatively empty or hide their failure by overly catering to the Hindu diaspora. Unfortunately, in far too many places this lack of culture remains ISKCON’S greatest deficiency.

My sources are:

  • The Culture Blueprint by Robert Richman
  • The Advantage by Patrick Lencioni


[1] “The Prosperity Gospel” is a preaching that promotes the worship of Jesus on the basis that the result of worshipping Jesus is material prosperity. Serious Christians condemn this approach.

Monday Morning Greetings #5 – Thou Shalt Not Kill

February 1st, 2016

A good editorial writer is not only concerned with speaking truth, but more importantly having truth understood. He has to constantly ask, “What are the readers understanding?” Sometimes, he may even be pondering the objections of a few people to see if he can potentially clear their doubts, or he may decide their prejudices are too deep and why bother. This brings me to my last piece, Archbishop John, My Good friend. While writing, I considered whether to answer the question posed by a particular type of reader:
“You are glorifying the character of this particular Christian, but does he eat meat? And if so, how can you describe him as saintly!”
I had thought of such a reader and decided it was beyond the scope of my essay to address, but I will briefly state my opinion here.
I have seen otherwise very decent people not pick up on what should be a very clear tenet of their moral values whether they are Christians or even Atheists – that to unnecessarily kill innocent creatures just for one’s palate is abominable. At the same time, I see that when people are fed a philosophy and culture that justifies such activity they can eat meat without considering its moral ramifications, and otherwise be of high character and devotion. For those people, especially Christians, like the one I wrote about, I am sharing an old and very biting poem by Madan Oppenheimer on the cognitive dissonance of eating meat and practicing Christianity.
Separation of Church and Steak
Which part of ‘kill’ don’t you understand?
Doesn’t ‘Thou shall not’ sound like a command?
Amidst the screaming and crying
You only hear your greed
Drowning out the voices
Of those on which you feed
Hurting them to help yourself
Taking care of your own hide
You have dominion over them
And you feel justified
Which part of ‘kill’ don’t you understand?
Doesn’t ‘Thou shall not’ sound like a command?
Chewing flesh, saving souls
A lie that I don’t buy
Your heart is full of contradiction
Search your soul for why
Give it up, walk away
Turn the other cheek
Find the love within your heart
And show it to the weak
Which part of ‘kill’ don’t you understand?
Doesn’t ‘Thou shall not’ sound like a command?
Meat is murder, God is love
Where is the connection?
Docile stare, knife-blade glare
Crime escapes detection
Words of truth interpreted
Ask your fellow man…
Which part of ‘kill’ don’t you understand?
Doesn’t ‘Thou shall not’ sound like a command?

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