Archive for the 'Monday Morning Greetings' Category

Monday Morning Greetings 2020 #47 – Do We Live in a Matrix?

November 23rd, 2020

Do We Live in a Matrix?[1]

 

Edward Jay Epstein[2] gave me some food for thought, challenging whatever political worldview I may embrace based on the news. I gleaned this from an article he wrote in 1981 called “The Selection of Reality”[3] where he analyzed the various constraints, from the pressure of time to the demands of advertising, in accurately presenting the news. Here’s his conclusion:

 

“One question finally must be asked: Given these constraints, do the media present a picture of reality upon which rational men may make decisions? In spending over a year watching the three television networks collect, analyze, and present data in the form of news stories, I concluded that these pictures of reality were systematically distorted by organizational requirements.”

 

Professor Epstein’s analysis reaffirmed what I was already thinking based on studying the research of Johnathan Haidt[4], one of the most cited scholars on moral psychology, on the origin of political choices: that most people making political choices, whether left or right, make them based more on their conditioning than on sound reasoning, making them susceptible to unbalanced views that ultimately distort part of their worldview.

 

Of course, in reading this most people will say, “Not me, it’s the other side that lives in a fantasy world.” My experience is that people today on both sides of the aisle are much more prone to fall into tribal thinking than they realize. My aim here in quoting Epstein and mentioning Haidt is to reference the tendency to dogmatically embrace a particular vision of reality so that we can become more reflective on the causes of how we form our worldview. Another way to understand that is to look back on our life after a period of growth and reflect on just how distorted our view of the world was previously. In that sense, we have all been living, to some extent, in a reality distorted by our conditioning and misinformation.

 

I think this type of challenging, self-reflective thinking is important, because our decisions determine our fate, and our decisions are very much connected to how we see the world. Unfortunately, how we see the world is generally what we think the world actually is, despite the countless mistakes made based on our previous faulty perceptions that should have exposed our tendency to be illusioned. I am not discounting the validity of holding strong convictions based on śāstra and those who have realized it, but I am suggesting the need to be more open-minded towards others whose views and opinions are different than ours. Let me end by sharing a list I have personally made in my quest to avoid living in a matrix.

 

Avoiding the Matrix

  1. I pray to know the truth, regardless if it proves me wrong and diminishes my ego.
  2. Doubt is a sign of intelligence when it means we humbly want to understand things more deeply.
  3. While there are basic facts and śāstric principles that are the bedrock of my convictions, I am open to improve or nuance my understanding of these and anything else I may believe.
  4. I welcome having my convictions challenged.
  5. I always hear both sides of any issue.
  6. No matter how much I disagree with someone, let me understand why they think the way they do, and let me never forget their humanity.
  7. Even if I feel I have indeed realized or seen a truth deeply, I still lay that truth before trusted peers for confirmation.
  8. I stand to be corrected.

 

 

“He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion… Nor is it enough that he should hear the opinions of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them…he must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.”
― John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

 

 


[1] I am using the word “matrix” to describe living in an alternative reality that is false, not an alternative reality that is in fact the actual reality, which I am told is how the movie uses the term. This is more consistent with the sociological meaning of the word, which is the way people unreflectively live their lives based on various cultural norms born from their environment.

[2] Edward Jay Epstein (born 1935) is an American investigative journalist and a former political science professor at Harvard, UCLA, and MIT.

[3] From What’s News: The Media in American Society (1981), edited by Elie Abel

[4] His seminal work is The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012)

Monday Morning Greetings 2020 #46 – Kartik Meditations 2020

November 16th, 2020

For all practical purposes, Monday Morning Greetings was started twenty years ago while I was staying in Govardhan in 2000 for my yearly Kartik vow of increased devotional practices. It was then that I had the realization that it would be a good service to share my japa realizations regularly by email and then Facebook. Those realizations were later compiled into two books, Greetings from Vrindavan and, then later, Japa Meditations. Unfortunately, I am not in Govardhan this Kartik for only the second time in forty-four years. I do, however, try to follow the same yearly spiritual protocol and, as much as possible, live there in my mind. So back to the roots of Greetings—“Kartika Meditations 2020”:

 

Poor chanting: “When will I finish my rounds?”

Good chanting: “I hope this never ends!”

 

Chanting the holy name becomes more and more my service to Krishna as I become older. Conscious that chanting is my service, I try to offer each syllable carefully for the pleasure of Krishna. It dawned on me that I can’t perfect that service just by turning on some yogic power of concentration when I sit down to chant. The quality of my chanting depends much on how I live my life, for how I live my life is how I deal with God. In other words, just as you can’t ignore or mistreat someone publicly and expect to have them intimately deal with you in private, if we spend our day frivolously or irresponsibly in neglect of God’s will, we shouldn’t be surprised if He remains a bit distant in our meditation when we are alone with Him in the form of His divine holy name. If I am to perfect this service, I must be more conscientious in how I live my life.

 

Chanting is prayer. A successful chanter therefore has to know deep in their heart what they are actually praying for and to be conscious of that while chanting. Otherwise, their chanting may be empty.

 

We cannot earn Krishna; We can only attract Krishna. But Krishna is attracted by our humble effort to chant begging for His mercy.

 

Without regulation—a time and place for chanting—we lose focus, and when that happens chanting becomes somewhat tedious. Today I lost regulation. I thus had hours left of chanting in the afternoon. I wasn’t looking forward to it. I then had a thought: “If boredom is just a thought, then why not just determinedly neglect that thought, especially the thought of finishing my rounds. If I can neglect thoughts of boredom, my chanting will not be tedious.” It helped a lot. The eternal present is never boring.

 

As God is non-different from His name, within the name of Krishna is His form, qualities, and pastimes. These aspects of Himself are gradually revealed to the sincere chanter of the holy name, for Krishna, like any person, is responsive to love. Ultimately, we see the form and qualities of a person within their name to extent we have a meaningful relationship with them. Think of a person that you love or respect dearly. Say their name. Do you not spontaneously see their form and think of their qualities? When we sincerely serve Krishna and hear His glories and thus develop a meaningful relationship with Him, then certainly His form, qualities, and pastimes immediately come to mind when chanting His name. Even more than that, they actually manifest in His Name. When will that day be mine?

 

A bhakti catch-22: Taste in bhakti comes when we are concentrated over a reasonable period of time, but without being concentrated over a reasonable period of time it is hard to get taste. Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura offers a solution: mādhava-tithi bhakti-jananī – the days of Lord Hari give birth to devotion. In other words, if we can at least have days of the month for God, like Ekādaśī, when we fully concentrate on God, a taste for devotion arises that can help us to remain concentrated in our future practices. And even better is to take advantage of the month of Kartik.

 

Back to my roots: “Kartik Meditations 2020”. I kind of like it.

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2020 #45 – Why No Detail?

November 9th, 2020

There are thousands of volumes of elaborate descriptions in Vaiṣṇava literature about Radha and Krishna’s forms, qualities, and pastimes. They are all based on the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, but the descriptions of the exchanges between Krishna and the gopīs, and ultimately with Radha, are found in just five chapters of the book, encompassing less than 200 verses. Who then filled in the details, what was their right to do so, and how much of that was borrowed from the historical period in which it was composed?

 

I think to answer this question we first have to understand something about the Vaiṣṇava conception of the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam. Vaiṣṇavas believe that God, being Absolute, is non- different from His name and also non-different from descriptions about Him. The Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, like Krishna, is thus a person and not just a book. One can’t therefore understand either Krishna or Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam fully just by studying Them devoid of a mood of service, any more than one can fully understand anyone unless that person is inspired to open their heart by one’s service mood. The method of understanding the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam is therefore the use of one’s intellect in the service of Krishna in a mood of humility and devotion with the realization that full revelation of the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam will only be given to one who inspires the text and Krishna to reveal Their full splendor through such prayerful study.

 

The elaborate and detailed books about Radha and Krishna were thus written by spiritually elevated Vaiṣṇava scholars who analyzed the text while praying to and worshipping each word.  Volumes of meaning thus poured forth from the codes of the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, which were then recorded in their commentaries and books, which also conformed to and enhanced their own direct experience of Krishna’s form and activities. We thus have a fairly consistent description of Krishna and His pastimes in the lineage of our self-realized teachers, which allows us, under their guidance, to also fully see Krishna in the pages of the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam.

 

It is not that Krishna is not fully described in the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam; He is. But how much we can actually perceive is limited by an intelligence that is skewed by the filter of our own mundane conceptions and attachments. By somewhat hiding its full nature in the codified verses of the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, it also forces the sincere reader to go beyond our imperfect intellect and humble ourself in devotion to fully perceive Krishna in the message of the Bhagavat.

 

How much of the description is borrowed from the historical period in which it is written? Our acharyas inform us that Krishna’s manifest pastimes are a replica of the spiritual world. Obviously, in order to communicate something clearly it must be done in the language and mode of understanding of the audience to which it is directed. Descriptions of Krishna may therefore slightly vary in their expression according to how the author feels his realizations are most effectively communicated, but still all such expressions are based on how Krishna appeared in this world. For example, in the various paintings of Krishna, we see that Krishna’s complexion, which is blue, may vary in shades according to the artist, but Krishna’s color is not red or yellow. He is the color of a bluish-dark monsoon cloud, and by meditating on any of those slightly varied descriptions we can certainly realize the beautiful complexion of Krishna.

 

Why no detail? The Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam is rich in detail about the name, form, qualities, and pastimes of Krishna, but the fullest manifestation of Krishna, especially His deep intimate life, is revealed within the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam only to the pure devotional scholars who wrote voluminously about Him and to those who humbly follow in their footsteps.

 

“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)

 

 

“Wearing a peacock-feather ornament upon His head, blue karṇikāra flowers on His ears, a yellow garment as brilliant as gold, and the Vaijayantī garland, Lord Krishna exhibited His transcendental form as the greatest of dancers as He entered the forest of Vṛndāvana, beautifying it with the marks of His footprints. He filled the holes of His flute with the nectar of His lips, and the cowherd boys sang His glories.” (Bhag. 10.21.5)

 

 

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2020 #44 – On Criticism II

November 2nd, 2020

I received a lot of feedback on my previous post about criticism. Obviously, it was a relevant post to many. According to Bhagavad-gītā, we are born here overcome with the dualities of desire and hate. If that’s our basic material nature, it shouldn’t be difficult to understand why we all struggle with the problem of being over-critical. After all, the propensity to criticize is specifically born of those dualities. That being said, the question still remains: What constitutes constructive criticism, and when do we overstep that line?

 

Before defining that line, I think it is necessary to understand more deeply what criticism is, and why it should be avoided. Criticism is when envy, born of desire and hate, is expressed. It is therefore against the very foundation of yoga, which is ahimsa or non-violence. Here’s why:

 

The shadow of resentment keeps our spiritual light from shining through, never allowing us to fully experience who we are.[1]

 

Now, how do we reconcile that with the obvious need and duty to correct the mistakes of others and expose injustice? Those on the spiritual path can criticize when it is our duty to correct, when we are in position to achieve a constructive result, and if it is done with compassion, not hate.

 

For example, in the Bhagavad-gītā, the first thing Krishna says to Arjuna is, “You are a pretender and a fool, for the wise man laments neither for the living nor the dead.”[2] Krishna is taking the role of a teacher who must correct the student in a way to help the student overcome ignorance and transcend the ego. Krishna’s criticism is the right thing to do. It is His duty to correct Arjuna, who will accept His correction as His student. Most importantly, Krishna is criticizing Arjuna out of genuine affection for His devotee and friend.

 

In other words, it is not enough of a reason to criticize another simply because they have made a mistake. We have to be vigilant that our criticism is not just an excuse to enjoy a sense of superiority or that it comes from a feeling of hate. Such intentions create a cloud of ignorance that covers the soul. If we are somewhat introspective, we will realize that our criticism of others usually says more about ourselves than it does about anyone else. At least that has been my own experience.

 

I once did an exercise called “A Complaint Free World”.[3] The exercise dictates keeping a band on one’s wrist and moving it to the other wrist every time one criticizes someone. The exercise promises that if one can avoid criticism completely by keeping the band on one wrist without ever changing for it three weeks, the habit of avoiding unnecessary criticism will be established.[4] It was tough. Every time I wanted to criticize someone, I immediately became not only aware that I was doing something wrong, but I could see how much my desire was very rarely a product of duty, but mostly a selfish desire to satisfy ego and superiority.

 

The role of the critic, however, has its proper function, for unless there are people who can point out and correct the faults of others, individual or societal development will be stunted. But, again, it is only effective for those who have the duty to point out another’s faults and, most importantly, the character and compassion to do so. William Penn said it best:

 

“They have a Right to censure, that have a Heart to help: The rest is Cruelty, not Justice.”[5]

 

 

 


[1] I don’t have a reference for this, but I can attest it is anonymous.

[2] Bg 2.11

[3] https://www.willbowen.com/complaintfree/

[4] I discussed why this exercise actually works in terms of yoga psychology in my article “Yoga Psychology”: https://wavesofdevotion.com/essays/yoga-psychology/

[5] I am not a literary scholar. When I need a quote for my article, I just google the topic. Even then it is often difficult to find the right quote. On this relevant topic I found so many gems of wisdom. I will share them here beginning with two quotes supporting the critic, although the vast majority of quotes on this subject seem to oppose criticism acknowledging what a stumbling block that habit is to moral and spiritual development.

 

“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body; it calls attention to the development of an unhealthy state of things. If it is heeded in time, danger may be averted; if it is suppressed, a fatal distemper may develop.” [New Statesman interview, 7 January 1939]”
― Winston Churchill

 

“The proper function of the critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it.” ― D.H. Lawrence

 

 “The motive behind criticism often determines its validity. Those who care criticize where necessary. Those who envy criticize the moment they think that they have found a weak spot.” ― Criss Jami, Killosophy

 

“Any fool can criticize, complain, and condemn—and most fools do. But it takes character and self-control to be understanding and forgiving.” ― Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People

 

Criticism of others is thus an oblique form of self-commendation. We think we make the picture hang straight on our wall by telling our neighbors that all his pictures are crooked.” ― Fulton J. Sheen, Seven Words of Jesus and Mary: Lessons from Cana and Calvary

 

“Be warned: A person content to sit with you and criticize others will speak critically of you out of earshot.” – Richelle E. Goodrich, Smile Anyway: Quotes, Verse, and Grumbling for Every Day of the Year.

 

“Don’t criticize them; they are just what we would be under similar circumstances.” ― Abraham Lincoln

 

“I’ve been all over the world and I’ve never seen a statue of a critic.” ― Leonard Bernstein

 

 “A critic is a legless man who teaches other people to run” Channing Pollock

 

“One does not have the right to criticize until he can do the same work without being criticized” ― Dr. Amit Abraham

 

“Some people have never received compassion, only criticism. That is why criticism is all they have to hand out.” ― Richelle E. Goodrich, Being Bold: Quotes, Poetry, & Motivations for Every Day of the Year

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2020 #43 – That Last Honest Man

October 26th, 2020

That Last Honest Man [1]

 

Truth is the last leg of religion. It is rare to find. I bow down to that last honest man.

 

Truth challenges our selfish desires. It may tell us to give up things we want and to accept things we don’t. The honest, however, accepts what is right no matter what it means for his life.

 

I bow down to that last honest man.

 

The word expediency does not exist in the vocabulary of the truthful. He never makes an excuse to simply do what he wants in the face of impropriety, no matter how practical or convenient it seems.

 

I bow down to that last honest man.

 

If the truthful makes a mistake, he faces it head on, no matter how loud his false ego screams. You will never catch him trying to rationalize away or justify his missteps or mistakes

 

I bow down to that last honest man.

 

The reasoning of the truthful is never motivated. He reasons first and then comes to conclusions, not the other way around.

 

I bow to that last honest man.

 

Most are hopelessly stuck on the mental plane. Such people can’t make decisions frozen by the minute calculations of trying to calculate what is best for themselves. The honest is not shackled by such selfish concerns and therefore acts quickly and decisively.

 

I bow down to that last honest man.

 

Too many, in serving God and others, really want something for themselves, whether it’s profit, admiration, or distinction. The honest has no hidden agenda. He is completely sincere and serves only to please guru and Krishna.

 

I bow down to that last honest man.

 

The private and public life of the truthful are the same. What you see is what you get. Don’t you just love the forthright, even with their rough edges?

 

I bow down to that last honest man.

 

Authority is not a bad word for the truthful if authority means the rule of knowledge and the person who possesses that knowledge. Rather, the sincere humbly embrace and surrender to such authority.

 

I bow down to that last honest man.

 

When the leaders of spiritual institutions value the form of the institution more than the values on which they are based, such leaders fear the last honest man for he is detached and there is no way to control or silence him. Only such a man protects the legacy of those institutions from being mired in expediency and cheating.

 

I bow down to that last honest man.

 

When such institutions, however, live by the values they represent, the honest man is their defender and will give his life to protect it.

 

I bow down to that last honest man.

 

Although an honest man is bold, he fears the unnecessary criticism of others, especially those serving Krishna, and only with the utmost caution, and as a last resort, does he ever mention one personally. The truthful hate only the sin and not the sinner.

 

I bow down to that last honest man.

 

The honest man never compromises the truth in thoughts, words, or action.

 

I am not that honest man, but I know who they are and serve them. I bow down to the last honest man.

 


[1] I am posting today a reprint for the second week in a row. I got very good feedback for the few times I have done this, but the reason I haven’t been able to complete a Monday Morning Greetings for the last two weeks is that since Puruṣottama-māsa I have increased my sādhana and need to adjust my schedule for more writing time in case a particular post is challenging and requires more time. I should be back on track for next week.

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2020 #42 – On Criticism

October 19th, 2020

On Criticism [1]

 

“The poison of that which you criticize comes to you.”

 

“Criticism is worse that throwing a spear in someone’s body, because the spear can only pierce the body, but criticism can pierce the heart.”

 

“Criticism is worse than envy. Envy is when it is in the heart. Criticism is when it comes out.”

 

I have often repeated these statements. I am sure I read them someplace, although somehow I can’t find their reference. I have no difficulty, however, embracing their conclusion. And here is one strong clearly referenced statement about the necessity to avoid criticism.

 

“Of the nine processes of devotional service, the most important is to always chant the holy name of the Lord. If one does so, avoiding the ten kinds of offenses, one very easily obtains the most valuable love of Godhead.” Cc Antya 4.71

 

It’s a good reference for the most serious of the ten offenses against the holy name is criticism. Of course, the word for criticism used here “nindā” is qualified by the word “sādhu” and there is also allowance for constructive criticism. We will get to that, but we need to realize that the stakes for an offender are high. You just won’t get “love of Godhead”. And for the devotee that is everything. Best err on the side of caution.

 

I struggle with that. So many people, devotees who are dedicated and senior, sometimes do things that disturb me. How can one not criticize? Be careful! If one’s criticism is not born of compassion, but even harbors a trace of ill will, that hate will certainly cover the soul, for the soul is simply consciousness meant for love and devotion.

 

And if I think about it honestly I also must do things that serve as fuel for the lower nature of others. We all struggle with our own impurities and conditioning and its bound to be just the thing that annoys another, especially one with a different nature. That is simply the way of the world. At all costs I just don’t want to be a self-righteous hypocrite that is always clamoring for justice for others and mercy for oneself.

 

But what about all the injustice? By all means speak up and speak up strongly, but first make sure there is no hate in your own heart, otherwise your kīrtan of others faults which merely embodies the impurities of your own heart will only spread hate of others and not love of God. We have seen too often that the modern champions of controversy mostly create threads that attract the bitter.

 

I remember reading in a history of the Gauḍīyā Math of a younger devotee who had a very critical intelligence. He would often see things that are wrong. He sought the counsel of a very senior and elevated Vaiṣṇava who gave him the very simple advice which he followed for the rest of his life, “Observe and don’t talk”. He followed that instruction and attained spiritual heights. Yes, it may be one’s service to point on mistakes. I just don’t envy that person and I pray they are fairly pure. Otherwise:

 

“We all become well-disguised mirror image of anything that we fight too long or too directly… Most frontal attacks on evil just produce another kind of evil in yourself, along with a very inflated self-image to boot.” – Richard Rohr, Falling Upward

 

My prayer is to be a Vaiṣṇava. So many places in śāstra that is defined as one who is free from the propensity to criticize others. Who else can a Vaiṣṇava be other than one who has no hate in his or her heart? I hanker for such saṅga. And by Śrīla Prabhupāda’s grace there are many such souls. I just have to be the bee that seeks the honey and not the fly that looks for the sores.

 

To conclude with another oft-repeated statement of mine that has no reference, but I embrace whole-heartedly:

 

Bhakti is simple. Even a child can do it. What is difficult is avoiding offense.”

 

 


[1] This week I accidentally deleted the final part of what I was working on and couldn’t complete it on time. This is a reprint from 2016. I hope you enjoy it.

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2020 #41 – Are the Aspects of Indian Culture Srila Prabhupada Brought to the West Essential to the Cultivation of Bhakti?

October 12th, 2020

Before we talk about the relevance of Indian culture to the cultivation of bhakti, we first have to define what the different parties involved in the discussion mean by “Indian culture”. Some use the term to refer to the ideas, behavior, and material artifacts (physical objects) typical of India which facilitate their human development and have been constructed over the course of India’s history. Others use the term “Indian culture” to refer to something eternal, related to God’s nature as He manifest in this world to help us advance spiritually.

 

Which is it?

 

Srila Prabhupada taught that knowledge, which includes culture, isn’t an evolutionary development born in a particular country, but is veda, eternal and manifest in the world at creation. Therefore, when Srila Prabhupada refers to “Indian culture”, although he is talking about its external expression as it appears in a geographical place, India, and the learned culture of his birth, he is mainly referring to eternal cultural principles. The question often asked is whether each of the particular cultural elements he gave us are expressions of those eternal principles and thus essential to the Krishna-bhakti tradition, or are the eternal truths presented simply details of how the cultural principles can be expressed, and in that sense adjustable according to time and place? To try to understand the extent to which the culture Srila Prabhupada brought is essential to our bhakti practice, let’s briefly analyze two cultural artifacts: the musical style and traditional dress he introduced.

 

To better understand the constituent principles of traditional Indian music, I had a discussion with Dr. Eben Graves, the program director at the Yale School of Sacred Music, who earned his PhD in ethnomusicology by studying the history and contemporary forms of Bengali kirtan. He is also a percussionist, and teaches mridanga (or sri khol). Below is a short summary of the salient points gleaned from that discussion as they relate to today’s topic, particularly an analysis of the mridanga as an artifact of Gaudiya Vaishnava culture.

 

“Traditional forms of South Asian (or Indian) classical music, and especially forms of Gaudiya Vaishnava music, are based on supporting the voice as the main instrument to aid the essential practice of devotion, nam– and lila-kirtan. The original instruments described in Krishna’s pastimes,[1] such as the vina, bamboo flute, and mridanga (sri khol) are especially geared to do this. Although these are premodern instruments, they have the musical capacity to support the voice in its expression of Radha-Krishna devotion in a way that cannot easily be duplicated by instruments introduced to India later. For example, in padavali kirtan, as well as other classical Bengali traditional forms, mridanga supported by kartals is essential to supporting the singing of devotional lyrics, which forms the crux of classical performance. Other percussion instruments can keep time, but no other drum has the timbre, the particular sound, of a clay mridanga, nor are these other drums capable of producing the intricate beats that facilitate the emotional expressions of Krishna-bhakti – percussion techniques that have been revealed and developed by pure devotee practitioners over hundreds of years. For these reasons, the mridanga is essential to all forms of Gaudiya kirtan, while the use of instruments adopted later, even the harmonium, which has been widely accepted and appreciated as an accompanying instrument for Gaudiya singing, remains optional.”

 

What I took away from my discussion with Dr. Graves is that in the Gaudiya Vaishnava musical tradition there are original instruments that support the expression of devotion and which, by their ability to serve the purpose of kirtan, make them irreplaceable. Modern instruments can be added to kirtan as long as they are in an appropriate mode and can thereby enhance one’s expression of Krishna-bhakti. Obviously, these instruments can’t be added whimsically; they must serve the core principles of the tradition.

 

Now, what about the traditional Indian dress Srila Prabhupada introduced? Are dhotis and saris inherently spiritual coverings or simply historical clothing from the time of Lord Caitanya adopted into a Western context? How essential is this traditional dress to the cultivation of Krishna-bhakti?

 

The word dhoti, the traditional dress Srila Prabhupada introduced to his male disciples, literally means “to cleanse or wash”, implying that a dhoti is a sattvic dress cloth that can easily be washed after each wearing. Although there may be slight variances in how dhotis have been worn throughout Indian history, this type of sarong is mentioned in descriptions of both Gaura and Krishna lila.[2] It is therefore a spiritual dress both in terms of its simplicity and sattvic nature and in terms of its identification with Krishna and Caitanya’s pastimes, and so it serves as a reminder of the identity and life we as Krishna bhaktas ultimately aspire to attain. The same thing can be said for the sari.[3]

 

But is it essential for devotees to wear the traditional dress?

 

Obviously, one can perform any of the activities of bhakti and most any other activity wearing the clothes normal to one’s own culture, and I think few will deny that in some circumstances wearing a dress that is foreign to one’s audience can be unsuitable when introducing them to Krishna consciousness – when we understand that the externals will distract them from resonating with the eternal truths we are presenting. We also don’t usually go to work in traditional Indian dress and may adjust our dress to accommodate the weather where we live. Still, wearing devotional dress invokes an identification with Krishna-bhakti, and that is favorable to the cultivation of bhakti, and we shouldn’t minimize the importance of that effect.

 

We worship Krishna, who is a person, and His being a person means He has His own proclivities and preferences, including in dress and music. In fact, in both Krishna and Gaura lila He lives in a society supported by varnasrama, and this indicates that He favors such a culture. When we sift through the foreign influences that have covered India for hundreds of years and separate out India’s original traditions, we’ll find the culture that best represents what Krishna likes and is therefore the best environment to support the growth of devotion. These cultural artifacts may include rules and customs that are daunting to follow, and we may have to adjust them at times in order to allow them to flourish in foreign soil. To know how to make those adjustments requires that we first understand and honor the principles of that culture. Indian culture in this context is certainly one of the gifts that Srila Prabhupada brought to the West.[4]

 

 

 


[1] When I use the term “Krishna’s pastimes”, I am also referring the Sri Caitanya’s pastimes. The mridanga is an instrument associated with Sri Caitanya’s pastimes, although I read a commentary on the Kaliya-lila that describes Indra with mridanga joining the kirtan of the demigods to accompany Krishna’s dancing on Kaliya.

[2]   I found in Bhanu Swami’s translation of the Bhakti-rasamirta sindhu at least two verses (BRS 2.1.351 and BRS 3.4.31) where Krishna’s dress is described as dhati and is translated as dhoti. David Haberman, a noted scholar who translated the Bhakti -rasamrita sindhu also translates it in the same way. Finally, I also consulted Nityananda das, who is the editor for a forthcoming Bhaktivedanta Book Trust translation of Bhakti-rasamirta sindhu. He wrote “the word dhati literally means loincloth, but in context of those verses it can only refer to something like a dhoti. There are great chances that the word dhoti came from dhati, as Bengalis pronounce the short ‘a’ as ‘oh.”

[3] There is discussion among scholars whether the gopis wore something like a dress or a sari, but the basic idea is that they were akin to the sattvic and modest attire worn in traditional India and not western fashion.

[4] Hridayananda dasa Goswami wrote me after seeing my last post that Krishna West was misrepresented. I replied that if I did, then he may explain how and I will print it. His response, “Thanks for your reply. I appreciate that you are fair and open-minded. The basic problem, in my view, is the notion that I see KW as the only hope. I have explained endlessly that I am advocating generic western-style preaching. I have said hundreds of times that there are other excellent western preaching programs, and even that if someone has a better idea, I will be happy to join them”.

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2020 #40 – Krishna West, Krishna Best, or Krishna Jest

October 5th, 2020

Krishna West, Krishna Best, or Krishna Jest [1]

 

Hridayananda Maharaja is a spiritual trailblazer. American-born, he learned Spanish and Portuguese fluently in order to successfully fulfill Srila Prabhupada’s personal request to him to establish the bhakti teachings in South America. Expanding his service, he went to Harvard University and got a PhD in Sanskrit in order to deepen his understanding of the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition and to have more influence in intellectual and academic circles.

 

Over the past decade or so, however, he became increasingly concerned with ISKCON’s mission in the West. Not long after Srila Prabhupada left this world, Prabhupada’s once burgeoning Western centers emptied and were in dire financial straits. As a result, the Indian diaspora, who saw ISKCON as an embassy for their own culture, stepped forward to help. Eventually, the Indians in ISKCON became more and more prominent until they filled out the congregations and gradually came to manage most of ISKCON’s centers in the West, especially in the United States and the United Kingdom. Hridayananda Maharaja appreciated that these devotees saved ISKCON, but he also saw a serious problem: ISKCON was developing even more of an Indian flavor, and so had ceased to be attractive to Westerners. This especially disturbed Hridayananda Maharaja because he had been personally trained by Srila Prabhupada to teach Krishna consciousness in the United States.

 

So, to create a comfortable space for Westerners he established Krishna West within ISKCON. His aim was to keep the essential principles and practices of bhakti while shedding the externals of Indian culture, which he hoped would make communicating Krishna consciousness to those born in the West friendlier, and their experience less foreign. He hung his monk’s robes in the closet and donned slacks and a baseball cap to make himself more relatable.

 

Seem reasonable? Not to everyone.

 

Venkata Bhatta is an intelligent, articulate, and accomplished person, initiated into the bhakti tradition, and now serving as the Hindu chaplain at Princeton University. He has completed a law degree and is also now finishing a PhD at New York University. He is Indian-American and capable of relating and communicating in any setting. He is also an outspoken critic of Krishna West, which he sees as creating an artificial division between Indians and non-Indians. He knows too many people like himself – people who don’t fit neatly into one or the other category. Although, like Hridayananda Maharaja, he sees the struggles ISKCON experiences in reaching Westerners, he feels Krishna West misses the root of the problem: that ISKCON failed to make itself inclusive and accessible. To him, Krishna West is part of that same problem: an exclusive presentation of Krishna consciousness that divides rather than unites people, and thus of limited relevance in a postmodern world.

 

Venkata Bhatta and Hridayananda Maharaja agreed to meet on The Late Morning Program with Namarasa podcast to discuss their differences.

 

The meeting was cordial. Venkata reiterated his concerns and assured Hridayananda Maharaja that he shares his perception that ISKCON needs to rethink and reform its presentation. He considers that the solution, however, is not an East/West divide but making Krishna consciousness a place of “diversity, inclusivity, and equity.”

 

Hridayananda Maharaja clarified that Krishna West is not exclusive, but open to Indians and non-Indians alike – anyone who shares the common goal of wanting to impart bhakti in a contemporary and relevant way. He acknowledged that because of the resistance he felt from the more conservative quarters of ISKCON, he has had to ramp up his polemic in order to get his point across, but as Krishna West has successfully taken root, that type of polemic is more a thing of the past. He questioned Venkata’s objective to see ISKCON centers become beacons of “diversity, inclusivity, and equity,” noting that in today’s world, what usually happens to those who profess such rhetoric is not diversity, but exclusion of those who don’t share their liberality. Institutions take time – years – to perfect themselves, and Maharaja hinted at that by describing how Krishna West has been maturing since its inception.

 

Frankly, I was also apprehensive when I first heard Hridayananda Maharaja promote Krishna West. I saw it as a reaction to a legitimate issue, but in the passion to solve it the solution didn’t seem balanced to me. This is how I hope Krishna West will evolve in its conceptions:

 

  1. They should acknowledge that Krishna West is not the only way to preach in the West. Although many ISKCON temples in the West have in fact become largely filled by Indian congregations, there are still a number of preachers and organizations successfully appealing to non-Indians, and many of them have been doing so even before Krishna West was conceived.
  2. The problem with ISKCON temples that have predominantly Indian-born congregations is not that they are exclusively projecting Indian culture and values, but that there’s a lack of diversity in the community, and that has made Westerners uncomfortable. Also, those temples, if their objective is to indeed create a diverse congregation, seem to lack some understanding of how and when to present the elements of Indian culture and tradition that Srila Prabhupada introduced. This holds equally true for temples in the West whose members are not predominantly Indian and are also unsuccessful in expanding their Western-born base.
  3. Although the externals in which any spiritual culture is couched are important to the overall presentation of it, that presentation isn’t everything. There’s also a special empowerment that comes from being sincerely rooted in tradition.

 

I will end by briefly giving examples that illustrate these principles.

 

Recently, a student of mine from New Zealand who had distanced herself somewhat from ISKCON was visiting Auckland to further her education. She saw an ad for a lecture to be given by Devamrita Swami, and decided to stop by the Krishna Lounge, where it was being held. She was impressed by what she saw: 150 Western-born people in attendance. I later found that 400 had attended. Maharaja has had this type of success for years.

 

The Bhakti Center in New York has maintained a congregation of hundreds of Westerners, and many are coming forward for initiation. The Center has actually achieved substantial status and respect not only within ISKCON, but in New York City as a respected spiritual organization. That’s a real statement about communicating bhakti in the West. The Bhakti Center doesn’t flaunt or hide its connections to the traditions of India that Srila Prabhupada introduced and appropriately uses aspects of Indian culture as part of its allure.

 

Raghunath Dasa has been preaching effectively to Westerners for years. As a result, hundreds of people have become serious devotees. His efforts have culminated in a morning Bhagavatam podcast, which he presents along with Kaustubha Dasa, called Wisdom of the Sages. Hundreds of people get up early to listen to the class, which airs at 5 A.M. Over seven thousand people from diverse backgrounds listen daily, most of whom have been only recently introduced to Krishna consciousness by Raghunath and Kaustubha. These two devotees don’t shy away, when needed, from using the culture of India to effectively present their message. Rather, it’s one of their main tools. In fact, both Wisdom of the Sages and the Bhakti Center have organized trainings in and tours to India where people become immersed in a presentation of bhakti culture rooted in Indian spirituality as a means to introduce and deepen people’s connection to bhakti.

 

Rama Raya Dasa has a traditional presentation of Krishna consciousness based on harinam-sankirtan, which he performs daily with a core group of devotees in the traditional ISKCON dress. Although at times I had questions about the refinement of its presentation, I can’t deny the results. Some of the most proficient and dedicated devotees in New York were introduced to Krishna consciousness by Rama Raya’s program; these persons may not have been attracted to a program that didn’t openly display Krishna consciousness with the same level of sacrifice, sincerity, and purity.

 

I could go with other successful outreach programs in the West that do not shy away from an external presentation of Indian culture, but this is already uncharacteristically long for a Monday Morning Greetings.

 

Srila Prabhupada defined realization as the ability to communicate. Without deep realization of Srila Prabhupada’s teachings one does one of two things: one expresses Krishna consciousness only as one has met it, in its traditional form, even at times when it would prove more effective to communicate the message in another form; or, in the attempt to communicate Krishna consciousness outside the traditional cultural form, one changes the form and in the process dilutes or even loses the original message. Devotees with deep realization are able to carefully adjust a tradition’s cultural expression when needed while keeping its original message intact. The ability to do this was certainly a great part of Srila Prabhupada’s success in the West. People with realization may thus inspire others to go out in ISKCON’s traditional dress and, say, meet the public while distributing books, but teach them to do so in an attractive manner; or they may develop programs where the identity and culture of India may be used selectively or not at all. Hridayananda Maharaja has chosen to do the latter. If he succeeds, kudos to him, but let’s also honor all those who have the realization to communicate bhakti effectively according to their capacity and nature, whether they shave their heads or wear an Indian sari or they don pants and a baseball cap.

 

 

 


[1] This is part one of a two-part series. Here we will deal with the culture of India that Srila Prabhupada introduced in ISKCON in terms of presenting Krishna consciousness. Part Two will deal with that culture in terms of its value in developing Krishna consciousness.

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2020 #39 – You’re Wrong!

September 28th, 2020

You’re Wrong![1]

 

How we fight those words even when, well… we’re obviously wrong.

 

It was the early morning in Vṛndāvana during my japa meditation. As my concentration deepened, some mistakes that I made drifted into my consciousness. I could let those thoughts go, or at least I could have tried, but their nature was forcing me to confront them.

 

Then, before the pain of admission could pinch my ego, I heard a soothing internal voice: “It wasn’t your fault! It was circumstantial. The mistakes were exaggerated. And you have accepted responsibility. You’re so humble…”

 

Just as I was rationalizing my faults, however, I was hit by a more powerful and challenging message. That week in my daily sat-saga I had been teaching the story “The Deliverance of the Wives of the Brāhmaṇas” from the Tenth Canto of the Bhāgavatam. I had just lectured on the part where the learned, austere brāhmaas were awakened not only to their own offenses, but also to the realization of how paltry their spiritual attainment was compared to their simple wives. They condemned themselves in the harshest way:

 

“To hell with our being initiated priests, our vows of celibacy, and our extensive learning! To hell with our aristocratic background and our expertise in the ritual of sacrifice! These are all condemned because we are inimical to the transcendental Personality of Godhead.” (Bhāg.10.23.40)

 

What struck me in this story was the Sanskrit word used for remorse, which I gleaned to have the same root as tapa, which means “austerity” or “heat”. At least that’s how I read it. The story brought to my mind the point that embracing our faults is an austerity, a practice that burns our false ego – that cherished conception of being better than others, of being the controller and enjoyer.

 

So, that day, as I was watching the process of rationalization co-opting any sense of remorse, I thought of this pastime and was inspired to stop rationalizing and let the acknowledgement of my blunders burn the false ego, that insidious desire to be the controller. Internally I screamed, but at the same time the holy name became more and more the focus of my consciousness as I embraced the humble position.

 

“You’re wrong!” Oh, how we hate those words, but at the same time how good they can be for us if we accept them properly. We have studied the teachings the Gītā so many times, and we abhor the self-centered. Why then should it be so difficult to hear these words, even for one fairly advanced on the path?

 

We have come to this world to seek our pleasure from enjoyment, not service. We thus seek power in the form of wealth, education, beauty, position, and so on to conform the world to our desires and a sense of superiority. As admitting our mistakes even to one other person, or just to ourselves, means a diminishment of status or a loss of power, we fight that conception tooth and nail, even if it belies our core values, and it is unbecoming to our spiritual life.

 

It is counter intuitive, but all glories to “I’m wrong!

 

 


[1] This is an article from four years ago published on approximately the same month and date as today. It is not that I didn’t write a new Monday Morning Greeting. I did complete one and was very satisfied with what I wrote. But on further reflection I decided that the point I was trying to make was deeper than I initially thought, and an important topic, so I should take more time to revise the article. The article is an analysis of Krishna West, an institution within ISKCON dedicated to making Krishna consciousness relevant in the West.

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2020 #38 – The Culture of Faith

September 21st, 2020

The Culture of Faith[1]

 

Have you ever heard of the “Sherborn Gathering”? Over twenty years ago I started a yearly academic conference with young devotees who were newly transitioning out of the brahmacari ashram,[2] and who sought to make their career in academia. It was hosted every summer in a mansion owned by one of the participant’s parents in Sherborn, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. My purpose for organizing the conference was to provide these young devotees with peer comradery, as well as senior guidance. In that regard, Jayadvaita Swami, Śrīla Prabhupāda’s main English editor, and Pradyumna Prabhu, Śrīla Prabhupāda’s main Sanskrit editor, also attended.

 

I think the gatherings, which continued for ten years, were successful. The participants made life-long friendships, and most went on to achieve successful academic careers.[3] The tricky part for me as the convenor of the conference was to balance our devotional objectives with the rare occasion when one of the participants had chosen a presentation in his field of study, which may have been a critical exploration of one of the basic foundations of Krishna-consciousness. One such talk was an examination of Bhagavad-gītā As It Is based on writings in the field of scholarship that critically analyzed it.

 

Although I had doubts about the appropriateness of the presentation, I was happy with the conclusions reached after a vigorous discussion. Half the young scholars at the conference had previously attended the school I established in New Jersey to thoroughly study the basic Vaiṣṇava texts through Śrīla Prabhupāda’s books. They testified that as a result of that study their understanding of the Bhagavad-gītā was, in general, much deeper than those that they met in the university who had studied and taught it from other translations. The authenticity and effectiveness of Bhagavad-gītā As It Is stood as the natural conclusion of that session.

 

Although I was relieved, I still didn’t feel right about the presentation. I told Pradyumna about what had transpired and asked his opinion, as he had arrived late and missed that session. He offered a word of caution about how such presentations should proceed, by describing what he called the “culture of faith”. He gave many examples; One stood out. Contemporary Sanskrit scholars in the line of Madhvacarya sometimes find a mistake, I assumed not philosophical, made in a commentary by one of their revered acaryas written over 500 years ago. When they write about it, however, they never say the acarya is wrong. Instead they just write “rsi ucuh (the sagie said),” repeat what the acarya wrote, even if they believe it isn’t accurate, and then follow that with their version without passing judgment.

 

What Pradyumna explained struck a chord with me. Over the years, I have contemplated its meaning. Faith is the mechanism in the mind that allows us to contemplate and apply truths beyond our limited frame of reference to expand our awareness. Without it, our understanding is basically limited to our present conditioned frame of reference. St. Anslem summed up the necessity for faith in traditions of knowledge and the teachers who represent them: “I believe so that I may understand.” As faith is the precursor to knowledge, a proper society therefore maintains a culture that strengthens the mechanism of faith for the purpose of supporting the general enlightenment of its citizens.

 

What better testimony to this than Sri Krishna promoting such faith in His teachings to Uddhava, where He describes the necessity for a student to respect the authority of their teacher as if it were God speaking?

 

“One should know the ācārya as Myself and never disrespect him in any way. One should not envy him, thinking him an ordinary man, for he is the representative of all the demigods.” (Bhag. 11.17 27)

 

What to do, however, if one cannot accept the authority of their teacher? It is unfortunate. Either one has the wrong teacher, or one is a poor student. There are legitimate safeguards in such traditional societies to protect the citizens from unqualified teachers and to encourage students to raise all their doubts until they are cleared. Unless, however, one has implicit faith in a proper spiritual authority, no matter how intelligent one is, the expansion of our consciousness will always be impeded. Without strong faith in someone more spiritually realized and learned than us, what mechanism do we have to advance in our understanding and overcome the illusion that covers us all in this world—the vision that there is no reality beyond our present perception and opinions?

 

Even in science, culture is defined as an environment that allows something to grow to its potential. Vaiṣṇava culture is meant help the soul mature to love of Godhead. One of its main constructs are the ways one behaves to facilitate learning, including dealing with elders and especially teachers. This culture of respect fortifies the aspect of the mind that engenders trust, which is essential when we are fortunate enough to find a teacher.

 

Back to our Sherborn Gathering. If I knew then what I know now, would I have done anything differently? At least I would have injected into the conversation a healthy discussion on the culture of respect. It is certainly an important consideration, for among other things, “Your faith can move mountains, and your doubt can create them.”[4]

 

 


[1] There are many deep issues to be resolved about the issue of faith, including the danger of blind following. They are beyond the scope of this paper to discuss, but I have addressed these issues in other articles.  https://wavesofdevotion.com/2018/07/16/the-marriage-of-faith-and-doubt/

[2] Celibate student life

[3] Among the participants in our original Sherborn Gathering who completed their PhD, we now have professors of Philosophy in Boston, the University of North Carolina, and University of Florida; a Sanskrit professor at Brown University; and the Program Director for the Yale School of Sacred Music.

[4] This is an anonymous quote. When we do find a proper teacher doubts may rise. That is welcome. According to Lord Kapiladeva that is one of the five aspects of intelligence. But that type of doubt is not doubting the authority of our teacher, which makes the relationship not highly functional, but doubting our understanding and raising questions to elicit further meaning. (Bhag. 3.26 30)

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