Archive for July, 2016

Monday Morning Greetings #30 – A Sannyasi Walks onto a Train and Meets a Girl

July 25th, 2016

A Sannyāsi* Walks onto a Train and Meets a Girl

I can’t remember the exact train or time, but I do remember the girl. It was about two months ago on a crowded train from DC to New York. I got on early to get a window seat and hopefully sit by myself. A few minutes before the train was about to leave, I saw a young girl in her early twenties with much effort dragging her suitcase down the aisle. She was visibly exhausted and stopped when she got to my seat. Some good Samaritans helped her put her luggage up and she plopped down in the seat next to me. Seeing her condition, I guessed she didn’t have enough energy to go further. Otherwise why would she choose to sit down next to a fellow in robes and tilak. As she slumped down into the chair she frantically searched for a snack from her bag. It was as if she needed to eat something just to get enough energy to survive her ordeal. I overheard her on the phone: “I made it Mom. I’m OK.” Well, there goes my privacy, I thought. I continued my work.

The train drove out of the station only about five minutes when she mustered up just enough energy to ask me if I was a monk. We talked and I heard her very sad story.

She was a successful, young, athletic and gifted college student, who even managed to maintain her devout Catholicism in school, when she was ravaged by a severe case of chronic Lyme disease. She almost died twice, but her devoted parents stood by her side and nursed her to life. After a long bout fighting the disease she finally had enough energy, barely, to go by train and visit her boyfriend in Albany, also a pious Catholic from New England who had the character and devotion to stay with her. I don’t remember the details, but she suffered hell, and still does. Only her faith in God carried her through her trials with even a glimmer of hope and purpose. I encouraged her faith, which she said not many people do, and offered a few words of wisdom from what I learned from my revered teacher. She was grateful and took my card. Yesterday I received a letter from her. I thought what she wrote would be meaningful reading for our Monday Morning Greeting audience.


  This is Grace, from the Amtrak train, back in early May. I’m so sorry about the long delay in messaging. I have been meaning to write but keep getting distracted. (One of the many things I’m working on :).

  I wanted to keep in touch and tell you how much our conversation meant to me. I think you were right when you said God sat us together for a reason. As I mentioned on the train, I have been very sick with Lyme disease for many years now. It has tested me in many ways, but this experience has made me stronger both mentally and spiritually. It was such a blessing to talk to someone else who had an understanding of something greater.

  Many friends tell me they have no idea what to say to me, and many doctors similarly, tell me they don’t know what to do for me. I know God has all the answers and can heal me. Still, I have prayed so hard for God to let me meet someone “who knows more than I do.” I definitely feel that prayer was answered by sitting next to you. It was amazing how little we discussed the details of the illness, yet I felt so many of my questions were answered.

  It felt like a holiday having a conversation that lacked “small talk” and as I like to call it, “interviewing dialogue.” You seemed aware of my stress and physical ailment without me needing to explain it. I cannot tell you how happy and understood that made me feel. This may sound really silly but I’m usually the “you” in conversations. Picking up on signs such as, stress, mood, state; all while listening to the person. Receiving that sort of attention and understanding back was a true blessing I will always cherish.

  Since our train ride, I’ve been focusing more on getting off medications and healing naturally. It is difficult. It takes a lot of persistence and prayer but I know it’s what I’m supposed to do.

  I’ve been finding a lot of answers through Ayurvedic medicine. It just kind of makes sense to me if you know what I mean. I love all the warming spices, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, turmeric, and others. I’ve been cooking more often and supplementing with many herbs and vitamins. I’ll often read about natural healing methods and great herbs later to find it’s often used in Ayurvedic healing. I’m just trusting in God that what I find is what I’m supposed to do.

  Lastly, I wanted to ask a few questions. You mentioned meditating and prayer to me. At risk of sounding cliché or stereotyping does your meditation focus on breathing? Such as in yoga? Do you do yoga? I know there are different types. I’m finding my greatest struggle is the breathing. I’m having an incredibly hard time with it. I get tightness, headaches, stomach aches, etc. A lot of people talk about the breathing, but I haven’t found anything helpful yet. I’m not sure if you have any advice. However, if you have any input at all I’d to hear it. I feel my inability to truly breathe may be inhibiting my healing process.  

  Lastly, I wanted to tell you again how happy I am to have met you. You opened up my mind to many new ideas as well as confirmed many of my own beliefs. It was so good to talk about God with another person. Thank you so much for the prayers. I feel my body getting stronger and know that God is working.

  Please do not take the delay in this email as a lack of interest. I’ve written and edited it so many times and finally told myself enough is enough. I would love to hear back from you whenever you’re free. I’ll definitely do my best to reply much, much sooner. I hope you are doing well and I’ll keep you in my prayers as well.

 Thanks so much,

That’s about it. I am just happy that I can share with others what I learned in my studies and life and meet such good people as Grace. I also wanted to ask my audience to pray for her. Grace is a very sincere soul who wants God and wouldn’t mind good health to serve Him. Thanks for listening.

*A Hindu celibate monk.


Monday Morning Greetings #29 – Lessons from the CC: Antya-līlā, Chapter 2

July 18th, 2016

Lessons from the Caitanya-caritāmta, Antya-līlā, Chapter 2
Lesson 1: The Supreme Lord is merciful and thus adopts various means to liberate His devotees.
“Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu delivered almost all the fallen souls by directly meeting them. He delivered others by entering the bodies of great devotees, such as Nakula Brahmacārī. And He delivered still others by appearing before them, as in the case of Nṛsiṁhānanda Brahmacārī. ‘I shall deliver the fallen souls.’ This statement characterizes the Supreme Personality of Godhead.” Antya-līlā 2.5-6
Directly meeting (sākṣād darśan) and appearing before one (āvirbhāva) have a slight variance in meaning. The former refers to His manifest form that is visible to everyone. The latter refers to His unmanifest form, which is only visible only to a select few. For example, Lord Caitanya mystically appeared (āvirbhāva) in His unmanifest form at the Pānihāṭi festival, where only Lord Nityānanda and those qualified could see Him.
Lesson 2: We should seek the association of those advanced in devotion as their audience has a powerful purifying effect on our hearts.
“When Śrī Caitanya was personally present, anyone in the world who met Him even once was fully satisfied and became spiritually advanced.” Antya-līlā 2.7
Lesson 3: To become a successful preacher one must be empowered with devotion.
Kṛṣṇadāsa Kavirāja describes how by manifesting His own devotion in the hearts of His pure devotees, Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu influences others to become Kṛṣṇa conscious:
“Thus He empowered living beings [His pure devotees] by manifesting in them so much of His own devotion that people in all other countries became devotees by seeing them.” Antya-līlā 2.14
Lesson 4: Chanting the four syllable mantra gau-ra-āṅ-ga (gaurāṅga) is as powerful as chanting the four syllable mantra rā-dhā kṛṣ-ṇa (rādhā kṛṣṇa).
Nakula Brahmacārī was so overwhelmed with ecstatic love that it appeared he was directly manifesting Śrī Caitanya. Śivānanda Sena wanted to test if this was true and thus asked him if he knew what confidential mantra he was chanting.
“You are chanting the Gaura-gopāla mantra, composed of four syllables. Now please give up the doubts that have resided within you.” Antya-līlā 2.31

“Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura explains the Gaura-gopāla mantra in his Amṛta-pravāha-bhāṣya. Worshippers of Śrī Gaurasundara accept the four syllable gau-ra-aṅ-ga as the Gaura mantra […] Therefore one who chants the mantra “gaurāṅga” and one who chants the names of Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa are on the same level.” Antya-līlā 2.35
Lesson 5: Expression of affection is the highest truth.
“Although Nṛsiṁha Brahmacārī felt jubilation within his heart to see Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu eating everything, for the sake of Lord Nṛsiṁhadeva he externally expressed disappointment.” Antya-līlā 2.66
Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu mystically appeared (āvirbhāva) to eat the offerings that Nṛsiṁha Brahmacārī had prepared especially for Him. At that time Śrī Caitanya also ate a separate offering that Nṛsiṁha Brahmacārī made for Lord Nṛsiṁhadeva, his worshipable Deity. Although Nrsimananda was jubilant because he understood that Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu was non-different from Lord Nṛsiṁhadeva, he feigned distress to express love for Lord Nṛsiṁhadeva, showing that the expression of affection is the highest truth.
Lesson 6: One should respect those related to those one loves even if one has no particular regard for them.
“Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu derives no happiness from meeting one who is not a pure devotee of Kṛṣṇa. Thus because Gopāla Bhaṭṭācārya was a Māyāvādī scholar, the Lord felt no jubilation in meeting him. Nevertheless, because Gopāla Bhaṭṭācārya was related to Bhagavān Ācārya, Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu feigned pleasure in seeing him.” Antya-līlā 2.91
Lesson 7: One should not hear or read Māyāvādī philosophy, even if advanced in Kṛṣṇa consciousness, as it can adversely influence one’s devotional attitude (that the Lord is the master and the living entity is His servant), and even if it doesn’t influence one, still it is painful for a devotee to hear because it is antagonistic to God.
“When a Vaiṣṇava listens to the Śārīraka-bhāṣya, the Māyāvāda commentary upon the Vedānta-sūtra, he gives up the Kṛiṣhṇa conscious attitude that the Lord is the master and the living entity is His servant. Instead, he considers himself the Supreme Lord.” Antya-līlā 2.95
Lesson 8: Simplicity (honesty) is the first quality of a devotee.
“The Lord replied, ‘I cannot tolerate seeing the face of a person who has accepted the renounced order of life but who still talks intimately with a woman.’” Antya-līlā 2.117

“Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura comments that saralatā, or simplicity, is the first qualification of a Vaiṣṇava, whereas duplicity or cunning behavior is a great offense against the principles of devotional service. As one advances in Kṛṣṇa consciousness, one must gradually become disgusted with material attachment and thus become more and more attached to the service of the Lord. If one is not factually detached from material activities but still proclaims himself advanced in devotional service, he is cheating. No one will be happy to see such behavior.”
Lesson 9: A devotee must not underestimate the power of sense objects.
“So strongly do the senses adhere to the objects of their enjoyment that indeed a wooden statue of a woman attracts the mind of even a great saintly person.” Antya-līlā 2.118

“The senses and the sense objects are so intimately connected that the mind of even a great saintly person is attracted to a wooden doll if it is attractively shaped like a young woman. The sense objects, namely form, sound, smell, taste, and touch, are always attractive for the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin. Since the senses and sense objects are naturally intimately related, sometimes even a person claiming control over his senses remains always subject to the control of sense objects. The senses are impossible to control unless purified and engaged in the service of the Lord. Thus even though a saintly person vows to control his senses, the senses are still sometimes perturbed by sense objects.” Antya-līlā 2.119
Lesson 10: A person who has knowledge should also be humble and renounced.
“Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu told Rāmānanda Rāya, “Sanātana Gosvāmī’s renunciation of material connections is just like yours. Humility, renunciation and excellent learning exist in him simultaneously.’” Antya-līlā 1.201
Lesson 11: A devotee is humble.
Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī addresses himself as varāka-rūpo, which means the insignificant Rūpa, or the form (rūpa) of insignificance.
“Although I am the lowest of men and have no knowledge, the Lord has mercifully bestowed upon me the inspiration to write transcendental literature about devotional service. Therefore I offer my obeisances at the lotus feet of Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, who has given me the chance to write these books.” Antya-līlā 1.212
Lesson 12: A devotee takes his own mistakes seriously.
Choṭa Haridāsa was ordered by Śrī Caitanya not to see Him for begging rice from a woman for that was apparently improper for one in the renounced order. He took his mistake seriously and fasted, even though the lady was an older women and a great devotee.
“Haridāsa fasted continuously for three days.” Antya-līlā 2.115
Lesson 13: One should not abuse the liberality of Vaiṣṇavism in the name of service.
Śrī Caitanya was much more liberal in His attitude towards women than the other spiritual groups at the time, especially when it came to engaging women in devotional service. He punished Choṭa Haridāsa, a sannyāsi, severely for such an apparently small mistake in the service of Kṛṣṇa – he was begging rice to feed Śrī Caitanya – to set the example that one should not take advantage of liberality in the name of spirituality.
Lesson 14: A devotee is merciful and forgiving to others who make mistakes, especially those who are sincere devotees.
After Śrī Caitanya shunned Choṭa Haridāsa, the devotees petitioned the Lord on his behalf:
“Then Svarūpa Dāmodara Gosvāmī and other confidential devotees approached Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu to inquire from Him. ‘What great offense has Junior Haridāsa committed? Why has he been forbidden to come to Your door? He has now been fasting for three days.’” Antya-līlā 2.115-116
Lesson 15: Simplicity or non-duplicity is the main quality of a devotee.
“The Lord replied, ‘I cannot tolerate seeing the face of a person who has accepted the renounced order of life but still talks intimately with a woman.’” Antya-līlā 2.117

“Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura comments that saralatā, or simplicity, is the first qualification of a Vaiṣṇava, whereas duplicity or cunning behavior is a great offense against the principles of devotional service. […] If one is not factually detached from material activities but still proclaims himself advanced in devotional service, he is cheating. No one will be happy to see such behavior.”
Lesson 16: Even an advanced devotee has to be cautious in dealing with the objects of sense enjoyment.
Śrī Caitanya continues in His response to the devotees explaining why His admonishment to Choṭa Haridāsa was so strong:
“So strongly do the sense adhere to the objects of their enjoyment that indeed a wooden statue of a women attracts the mind of even a great saintly person.” Antya-līlā 2.118

“The senses are impossible to control unless purified and engaged in the service of the Lord. Thus even though a saintly person vows to control his sense, his senses are still sometimes perturbed by sense objects.”
Lesson 17: Before taking sannyāsa one must be certain that one is fit for that āśrama.
Śrī Caitanya continues his response to the petitioners on behalf of Choṭa Haridāsa:
“There are many persons with little in their possession who accept the renounced order of life like a monkey. They go here and there engaging in sense gratification and speaking intimately with women.” Antya-līlā 2.120

“One who accepts the order of sannyāsa but again becomes agitated by sensual disturbances and talks privately with women is called dharma-dhvajī or dharma-kalaṅka, which means that he brings condemnation upon the religious order. Therefore one should be extremely careful in this connection.”

Monday Morning Greetings #28 – What I Don’t Understand About Yoga Philosophy

July 11th, 2016

About 15 years ago I got my first copy of the Yoga Sūtras when I was staying at Professor Edwin Bryant’s house in Princeton. He has been an old friend since the time we stayed in the same āśrama in Vṛndāvana in the early 80s. At the time of this visit, he hadn’t yet published his lauded translation and commentary of the Yoga Sūtras, but I chanced upon a rough copy of his unpublished manuscript in the living room. I started to thumb through it and Professor Bryant gifted me a copy. I was enthralled reading it.
The Yoga Sūtras is a compilation, as the name indicates, of short aphorisms summing up the school of yoga, the school of mental discipline or psychology, one of the six schools of philosophy gleaned from the ancient Vedas. I learned many things from the Sūtras on the philosophy and practice of mental discipline that I applied to my own meditation that were completely consistent with the teachings of my own path, the path of bhakti, which also falls into one of the six schools of Vedic philosophy, Vedanta. There was one point, however, which I just couldn’t make sense of.
The Yoga Sūtras clearly professes, or at least that’s the way I read it, that thoughts rest solely in the material mind and thus the pure spirit soul is devoid of all thoughts, although possessing consciousness.
Here’s what I don’t understand: If all thoughts are only in the mind then what is the use of śāstra (teachings) whose purpose is to give us good ideas that inspire proper thoughts and impel us to liberation? Some of those thoughts are determination, thoughtfulness, inspiration, good likings, avoidance of bad habits, and so on. Now here’s the point; it’s a bit subtle so please listen.
If all these positive changes happen in the mind, and the soul, being devoid of thought, is just a third party to them, then our liberation and bondage is just a matter between God, who is moving the world, and our unconscious mind. In other words, if the soul lacks agency*, the ability to institute change upon something, then our liberation and bondage has nothing to do with us. We remain just a hapless third party witness who can never appropriately say “yes” I like this or “no” I don’t, which are the choices (or thoughts) that are the precursor to liberation. What then is the use of śāstra if the change in our mind is at another’s whim and not ours, and when even the decision to read śāstra has nothing to do with us?
And how can thoughts just be in the mind? The mind is inert. Inert matter doesn’t think. If one says, however, that the mind is just like the reel of a movie, and the soul illuminates and experiences it, then still how can you say that thoughts are not also in the soul? How can there be experience without thought?
And what about karma? And if we are truly thoughtless, why should we suffer the reactions of our good and bad deeds. All action is preceded by thought, so how can we be truly responsible for our actions, if we have no thoughts?
And suffering is also a thought. Don’t tell me it is all in the mind and I am not suffering. Of course, the cause of suffering is in the mind and I can ultimately transcend that, but how can one say that I am not feeling it now, that that feeling is someplace else, a place that is inert, the mind? Dead things don’t feel. In other words, I may or may not be in illusion about the cause of suffering, but it still hurts when I falsely identity with it. For example, I may dream of being eaten by a tiger and feel relieved when I awaken; but still was it not I, the person awakened, who had the nightmare and was gripped with fear (a thought) due to illusion?
There is an argument against thought being in the soul, that the soul is eternal and things eternal must be changeless. Why? God has energies that create so many things, but by his inconceivable potency He is still changeless and eternal. And similarly the soul can also have potency and be changeless, being a part of God. That seems to be the case.
I am not saying Patañjali is wrong, but there must be something more to this. In this debate I fall with Descartes:
 “I think, therefore I am!”
*It is hard to make sense of our notion of personal agency without thought. How can we institute any change upon something unless we have a goal to achieve, an understanding of how to achieve it, and the will to execute it?

Monday Morning Greetings #27 – The Four Pillars of Peaceful life

July 4th, 2016

There are four foundations of life that a traditional society automatically provides its community so that they can focus on spiritual life and need not overly preoccupy their minds with worry. They form the basis of a peaceful life.

  1. Where one will live
  2. Whom one will marry
  3. What one’s occupation will be
  4. Who is one’s guru

I will discuss each individually, but first I ask everyone reading this to reflect. Are these things settled in your life? If not, how much time and mental energy do you spend to fulfill the ones not settled. If they are fulfilled, how much struggle did you face to achieve that? And finally, if they have been provided, how grateful are you to the culture and people who have facilitated that?
Where you are going to live
Tejiyas das, a close god-brother of mine, who Śrīla Prabhupāda asked to start the kisān (farm) movement, and who seems to know as much about economics as anyone, once shared with me an interesting insight gleaned from his study of real economics (sustainable living). He told me that just by being born, living and dying in the same place ninety percent or all of one’s economic and social problems are solved. Without elaborating more deeply, just starting life without a mortgage by being gifted a residence by your parents (the traditional system), having a life long community support program and being assured protection and care in old age (and innumerable other advantages), one is gifted a substantial financial, social, and emotional advantage in life. Life’s natural struggles are difficult enough without having to find out where home is. You are lucky if you never had to negotiate the problem of where you should live.
Whom you are going to marry
I listened to a thought provoking talk by professor Barry Schwartz called the Paradox of Choice. He showed that although modern life offers us more choices, decisions are increasingly more difficult to make because we are constantly agonizing over which choice gives us the most enjoyment. It was a very thought provoking talk, but what caught my attention the most was his statement from personal experience that each five years he gives 25% less homework to his students, because the students have become increasingly preoccupied with thinking about, maintaining, and finding a boyfriend or girlfriend. There is so much mental energy that goes into such endeavors when there is not a system and culture in society to fulfill the most fundamental need for a lifelong partner. Needless to say, a culture that facilitates finding a suitable partner at an early age, although not perfect, is still a blessing. How fortunate not to have to waste our mental energy in such endeavors!
What is your occupation
One of the most important aspects of life is finding an occupation that not only reciprocates our economic needs, but is also fulfilling. Again without going into the details, varṇāśrama (the social/economic system of ancient India) provided full employment to it citizens with training and work according to one’s qualification. Work that reasonably reciprocates one’s needs for maintenance with an occupation suitable to one’s psychophysical nature is one’s joy in life, not just a chore. Such work also facilitates one’s spiritual life, which often entails some tapasyā or discipline, as after work one can enter one’s practices with a peaceful mind. Oppressive work demanding long hours and travel and less than ideal work conditions exhaust one. Upon returning home from such a job the last thing one has energy for is the discipline of spiritual practice. Rather one gravitates to the couch, the TV, and often a beer for relief. One is fortunate to have found one’s occupational calling in life. Tradition, especially varṇāśrama, did a much better job of doing that.
Who is your guru
There is an old Indian saying: Don’t go to a village that doesn’t have a river, doesn’t have a doctor, and doesn’t have a brāhmaṇa (spiritual teacher). Previously most villages and towns in India had bona fide teachers from authentic spiritual lines who were thoroughly trained. Today even if one transcends the propaganda of mass media that increasing material life is one’s goal, it is still difficult to find a bona fide teacher, and even if one does find a bona fide teacher and has minimal self-discipline, still there are so many cheaters in the name of spirituality. To have found one’s path and teacher is the greatest fortune.
What if I don’t have a spouse or job or have not found my place? Of course, ultimately whatever God sends or doesn’t send our way is meant to bring us closer to Him. Kṛṣṇa has a unique way to bring each closer to Him. We should have full faith in that, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try for a stable life. Just as it is one’s duty to try to both maintain one’s health, and to see disease that comes away as God’s mercy, in the same way one must reasonably endeavor to stabilize one’s life and accept one’s lot in life at the same time.
We sometimes dismiss traditional society when we feel its principles are not intelligently applied, but we should never lose sight of its wisdom. They offer basic foundations of peaceful life. We should thoughtfully understand their value and appreciate the culture that provides them.

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