Archive for March, 2016

Monday Morning Greetings #13 – Confucius and Krishna Consciousness

March 28th, 2016

We can learn a lot from Confucius. For example:
“One who learns from tradition but who cannot think creatively will be confused. One who thinks creatively but who does not learn from tradition is in great danger.”

– Analects 2.15
Here Confucius conceptualizes exactly the tension facing most religious or spiritual groups in the modern world. Their members often see reality through a preconceived political lens born of their own modes. Overly conservative people try to keep religion strictly in the forms in which they were born. The teachings lose relevance and people become confused. Overly liberal people reformat the presentation without proper regard for the tradition. They risk the danger of losing touch with the core principles upon which their faith was born, principles that empower transformation.
When Śrīla Prabhupāda uncompromisingly espoused the four regulative principles of no meat eating, no intoxication, no gambling, and no illicit sex he was accused of being conservative. His response was strong, “How can you say I am conservative? I let women into the ashram!” –  a practice that certainly stretched the limits of the social structure of the tradition in which his spiritual life was inspired, the Gauḍīya Maṭha.
Śrīla Prabhupāda was revolutionary in so many ways, but he wasn’t politically correct either. He also strongly espoused classical gender specific roles as the basis of an ideal social system. He was thus also a traditionalist in many ways.
His comment on the story of the passing away of Grandfather Bhīṣmadeva is revealing in this regard. Bhīṣmadeva was resting on a bed of arrows pierced through his body awaiting imminent death. The greatest yogis and sages of his time gathered to pay their last respects. Due to Bhīṣma’s condition he could not appropriately greet them according to the standard expected etiquette, but through simple gestures with his eyes he was able welcome and satisfy them. Śrīla Prabhupāda comments:
“Expert religionists know perfectly well how to adjust religious principles in terms of time and place. All the great ācārysa or religious preachers or reformers of the world executed their mission by adjustment of religious principles in terms of time and place. There are different climates and situations in different parts of the world, and if one has to discharge his duties to preach the message of the Lord, he must be expert in adjusting things in terms of the time and place.” (Bhag. 1.9.9, Commentary)
His conversation below with an American reporter is also revealing in terms of his roots in the tradition:
Reporter: Are men regarded as superior to women?

Prabhupada: Yes, naturally. Naturally, woman requires protection by the man. In the childhood she is protected by the father, and youth time she is protected by the husband, and old age she is protected by elderly sons. That is natural.

Female Reporter: That goes against the thinking of a lot of people in America now. Do you know that?

Prabhupada: No… America, maybe, but this is the natural position. Women require protection.
A person versed and practiced in śāstra (sacred texts) can’t be boxed into a political worldview based on personal conditioning and prejudices. As their views are formed beyond their conditioning based on realization of śāstra and its practical application, like Śrīla Prabhupāda, they can’t be labeled as belonging to a particular mindset like “I am conservative” or “I am liberal”.
Are you liberal or conservative? How are your values informed? Is it purely by śāstra, or is it mixed with a psychological view based on your upbringing? If you fall into just one camp it is likely that they are. In the coming weeks I will post an article titled “What is the Krishna conscious view of homosexuality?” If you are just liberal or just conservative there is a chance that you might not like it.

Monday Morning Greetings #12 – God’s Problem: The Story of Śrī Caitanya

March 21st, 2016

God has a problem.

And it is the same problem that we have.

What’s that problem?

He is not a devotee.

What is a devotee?

A devotee is one who loves God.

And love means to have a particular relationship with God.

Why is that our problem?

Because in this sense we are trying become devotees.

But why is that a problem for God?

It’s a problem because God doesn’t have love of God.

How does God lack that?

Love of God is in the heart of His devotees, not God. God is the object of such love (the beloved) not the abode of such love (the lover of God or the devotee).

And why is that such a problem?

It’s a problem because to love is higher than to be loved. God is supposed to be the Supreme Enjoyer, but he lacks the highest pleasure – to love God – and to lack love (as the giver) is a problem.

What does God do about that? Surely he can make a solution.

Yes, that is the story of Śrī Caitanya. God becomes his own devotee to become complete in his experience of love. And not only does he become a devotee, but he becomes his highest devotee, Śrī Rādhā, at the height of her love, in her deepest feelings of love – her moments of separation from Kṛṣṇa.

Happy Gaura-pūrṇimā (The appearance of Śrī Caitanya)!

Monday Morning Greetings #11 – “You teach them, but don’t love them”

March 14th, 2016

“You teach them, but don’t love them.”

A man in my class in Moscow asked me about this admonishment from a local priest, who was criticizing what he saw as the lack of welfare work by members of the Krishna consciousness movement. I quickly shot back:

“Then why is he trying to teach you!”

The audience laughed, but I also saw some truth in it. I continued:

“But we have to be careful that he doesn’t have a point.”

There is a study done that shows that 80 percent of people who are committed to religions or philosophies of transcendence are less empathetic to the suffering of others than the general public, but 20 percent are much more. I’m not sure that I exactly agree to the seemingly extreme figures, but I’ve seen enough to consider whether there is some truth there.

One time I was giving a program outside New York. I called some local friends to send a drummer. They warned me that there is someone available, but that he will burst into the room huffing and puffing one minute before the program to make it on time. And sure enough that is exactly what happened.

After the kirtan, I began my seminar “Bhakti in Essence”. To show that perfection is a quality of the heart, I asked the audience to think of the person whom they admire most. I then asked them to share the quality in them that inspired them to make that choice. I was sure that most people would choose a person because of a quality of that person’s heart. In this way I would be supporting the path of bhakti whose goal is prema, or divine love, over the path of jnana or renunciation whose goal is moksa where all thoughts and emotions are suppressed. I went around the room:

“I thought of my father. He was a very kind man,” the first person volunteered. As I continued I heard about people who were “selfless”, “humble”, “compassionate”, and other qualities of the heart – that is until it came around to the last person to share, the devotee in traditional garb. He emphatically enunciated each syllable of his answer to make sure the audience understood his point:

“Control of the senses!!”

I leaned over to him and jokingly whispered into his ear, “Who were you thinking of Hiranyakasipu?”*

Humor aside, the contrast struck me. Here were non-devotees, most likely tinged with an impersonal conception of God, who view perfection as a change of heart, and a devotee, imbued with a personal conception of God, who seemed to view perfection as heartless detachment, or the path of jnana. Although his answer did seem ironic, I didn’t think it was just an isolated case. Yes, practitioners of bhakti become softhearted and can be exceptionally softhearted, but this mindset of renunciation/indifference still seemed too prominent among those who walk the path of devotion. And frankly, as one in the renounced order, I have too often found and fought this indifference in myself. I wanted to understand why. My thinking:

It is just natural on any serious path to misunderstand spiritual life as only the negation of material life, or renunciation, as each path begins with a concerted effort to control one’s senses and their unbridled engagement in the world. We learn from the Gita that even the great devotee, Arjuna, mistakenly thought renunciation or sannyasa as the natural solution to the crisis he was facing in life.

If you doubt how easily the philosophy of bhakti can temper empathy if misunderstood, consider Krishna’s first instruction to Arjuna in the Gita:

“Although you are speaking learned words Arjuna, you are a fool. For the wise lament neither for the living nor the dead.” (Bg 2.11)

Did I hear that right? “The wise man laments neither for the living nor the dead.” If that doesn’t sound like the antithesis of empathy, I don’t know what does.

Of course the real meaning of Krishna’s instruction is a bit subtle. The point raised by Krishna is not whether one should feel or lament for others, but what is worthy of lamentation. We suffer not because the body is changing, but because out of ignorance we identify with it.  Transcendentalists thus lament for old and dying people not because of their age or physical condition (the living), or that they soon may die (the dead), but for their ignorance of the soul, and the consequent suffering and fearfulness that misconception causes.

I digress. So was the priest’s advice “You teach them, but don’t love them” correct?

Of course not. Vasudeva Datta espouses the mood of true devotee:

“I do not pray to the Supreme Personality of Godhead for the eight perfections of mystic yoga, nor for salvation from repeated birth and death. I want only to stay among all the living entities and suffer all distresses on their behalf, so that they may be freed from suffering.”

And Srila Prabhupada comments: 

“A Vaisnava is therefore described as being para-duhkha-duhkhī, very much aggrieved by the sufferings of others. As such, a Vaisnava engages in activities for the real welfare of human society.”

And story after story in the bhakti tradition describes the overflowing empathy of the devotees for the suffering of others as the foundation of bhakti.

But yes also. Like all spiritual practitioners, devotees need to cultivate an appropriate non-attachment or risk becoming too indulgent and selfish for spiritual life. But in closing the heart to that which is unwanted, there is danger of closing the heart beyond that, even tempering our natural empathy for others.

Our predecessors thus recommend yukta vairagya, balanced detachment. We don’t militantly reject everything, but reject only those things that have no value to our practice and service in bhakti. In that way we practice detachment, but the heart is exercised by using our attachments and desires in devotional service.


Teach others, but love others also, especially by feeling their pain and awakening their soul, or as Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur advises:

“The essence of all religion is show compassion to all living entities by awakening divine love in their hearts by giving them the holy name of Krishna.”


* Hiranyakasipu is the great demon described in the 7th canto of the Bhagavatam who is famous for his arduous austerities to become immortal and conquer the universe. He mastered “control of the senses!”


** The Catholics are aware of this problem and have a whole branch of theology dedicated to religious ethics called moral theology, a theology that deals with, among other things, social teachings. While theology mostly deals with what one believes, moral theology deals specifically with how one should act and feel towards others. Catholics theologians feel that without specifically focusing on a moral theology the “What you believe” in Christianity may overshadow the “How one acts in Christianity” in a way unbecoming to the teachings of Christ. I wrote an essay on this in response to a Catholic Priest and friend who asked me after reading Srila Prabhupada books, “Does ISKCON have a moral theology?” My answer: Does ISKCON Have A Moral Theology?



Monday Morning Greetings #10 – Chanting and Boredom

March 7th, 2016

A haiku and commentary:

When you are absorbed
You can never be bored
Chanting the holy name

What is boredom?

It is the listless feeling when we don’t like what we are doing and thus can’t be absorbed in the moment. Our mind moves to the future when hopefully our chore or monotony passes. Time thus slows down.

In the same way, when we are not attentive in our chanting our goal becomes finishing our “rounds”. We lose absorption, become bored, and count the minutes until we are done.

Time is thus relative to our consciousness; It moves quickly when we are absorbed in the moment and becomes overtly oppressive when we are not.

The Bhagavatam describes the relative experience of time when it seems to accelerate or “fly” in relation to the gopis ecstatic absorption in the rasa dance. They are so immersed in the moment of joy that millenniums seem to pass in a moment.

Sri Caitanya describes the exact opposite when time seems to immeasurably slow down or “stop” in relation to the deep feelings of separation of the gopis. Tortured by the absence of Krishna, they lament the moment. Time excruciatingly halts:

“O Govinda! Feeling Your separation, I am considering a moment to be like twelve years or more…” (Siksastakam 7)

Back to the meaning of our haiku about chanting: Our faith should not be in the completion of our practice (vaidhi) but our absorption in it (rag). If we chant only to finish our rounds, our practice will invoke time and become boring.

On the other hand if we learn to honor or revere the moment of our practice, where Krishna is fully present on our tongues, and we become absorbed, the oppression of time will gradually be lifted and the joy of devotion will be revealed.

In that regard, I am sharing a link to a short article that I wrote where I discuss different techniques to help us become absorbed and transcend the oppression of time.

The Five Qualities of Effective Mantra Meditation


When you are absorbed
You can never be bored
Chanting the holy name

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