Archive for the 'Monday Morning Greetings' Category

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #7 – A Simple and Creative Definition of Faith

February 18th, 2019

Faith is what you value the most. Defined in this way, faith is not an intellectual choice, as in “I believe this or don’t believe this”. It is based on an experience of happiness that determines what one cherishes or has faith in.

 

Of course, one can’t make up his own definitions. The problem here is that I am trying to communicate what the Sanskrit word śraddhā means in English, but it doesn’t exactly translate into the English word “faith”. I have therefore taken leeway with its translation to try to better express its import. My explanation is actually based on Śrīla Prabhupāda’s definition of śraddhā as “unflinching trust in something sublime”. Sublimity is not a person’s decision intellectually. It is a choice one makes based on what one is spontaneously attracted to. By defining faith in this way, as what one values or is attracted to the most, I hope to enhance our understanding of śraddhā, and maybe even challenge our faith in a healthy way. I hope you will see what I am getting at as I apply this understanding first to devotion.

 

A devotee’s faith is that the highest pleasure, what they value most, is sevā, loving service to God or Krishna. Now, according to our definition, let’s test our faith. If given a choice, would you rather chant and serve the holy name of Krishna or surf the web? In other words, what do you really value most from the heart? If it’s the web, then by this definition, that’s your faith.

 

Naturally what I am writing early in the morning comes into my mind throughout the day. When I was chanting during maṅgala-ārati in the Krishna Balarama Mandir, I listened carefully to the quality of my entreaty. It hit me. The degree to which I enjoy chanting is my level of faith. It can’t be bluffed.

 

I like the definition of bhakti as the mood of being available for service. How much are you in that mood and how much do you enjoy serving? That is your level of faith, regardless of how much you think you believe in Krishna. When there is a big feast do you enjoy serving it or eating it more? Which is your faith?

 

Śrī Rūpa Gosvāmī was referring to this experiential definition of faith when he described the first stage of bhakti as ādau śraddhā, beginning with faith. The path of devotion usually starts with innocent contact with the holy name of Krishna that awakens a sublimity exceeding any previous type of joy. That encounter engenders such a strong trust in devotion that despite challenges on the path of devotion it remains our most valued objective, even if we have failed to recapture that initial sublimity, or “religious experience”.

 

The question naturally arises of how to maintain and increase our faith, for if an experience is not renewed it will gradually recede within the consciousness. Faith is rekindled by engaging with it by practice, which means four things: concentration, done over a prolonged period time, without interruption, and in the right mood. Except for some special mercy, such prolonged and uninterrupted attention is the basis of any profound renewed spiritual experience, which is the foundation of faith.

 

To translate practically what this faith generating practice implies for us, it means at least a period of time during the day reserved exclusively for our meditation on Krishna. Without that type of concentrated effort daily, the intensity of devotion that kindled our initial faith will not be strongly felt, just as the heat reflected through a magnifying glass by the light of the sun only becomes fire if focused or concentrated on a piece of paper without interruption over some time.

 

As usual, and I hope you don’t get bored of me saying it, this topic goes far beyond the limited scope of the present paper. There is so much more to discuss about faith. For example, in devotional service people become absorbed and awaken faith in bhakti in various ways according to their taste. That’s certainly worth a discussion. Also, no discussion of faith is complete without understanding the role of sacred texts in increasing our devotional aspirations and consequently our faith. There is also no time to discuss that here, but I will leave you with just one more point about faith that I think is relevant to everyone.

 

The greatest tragedy is to have the wrong objective in life and to realize that your attainment is unsatisfactory and ephemeral. Intelligent people therefore strive to awaken their eternal nature, the substantive and eternal happiness of devotion. That is the real definition of śraddhā. My simple faith:

 

Chant and be happy!

 

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #6 – Can Destiny be Changed?

February 11th, 2019

There are many subtleties to the law of karma. I thus feel impelled to tackle this question from several angles. First a story that sheds some initial light on our inquiry.

 

Five friends walk into a forest of mango trees to eat. In a very crass tone the first friend advises, “Cut down the tree!” “Why cut down the tree?” the next friend advises, “Just break off one branch.” “Why saw off the whole branch?” the third one protests, “Just break off the part where the mangos are.” The fourth suggest something more sensitive: “Why not just pick the mangos?” The fifth friend is even more considerate: “Why do we have to pick the mangos at all? Why not just take the ripe ones that have fallen on the ground?”[1]

 

The different friends entering the forest indicate different levels of egocentric acts requiring karmic reactions of progressive intensity for purification. For example, the person who expediently wants to cut the whole tree is the most selfish and requires the heaviest reaction, a reaction that certainly can’t be thwarted. The person who simply eats the fallen ripe mangos is the least selfish and accordingly requires, if any, the least self-correction. His fate certainly can be thwarted.  

 

The Jain text below hopefully puts the above points in perspective:

 

If one unwittingly makes an imperceptible and minor mistake in dealing with someone, simply regretting one’s mistake may be sufficient to mitigate the reaction. For a more serious mistake an apology may do. An even more severe offense may require atonement. For the most egregious offenses, however, only by suffering a commensurate reaction to the offense can one be purified of that transgression. In such a case one’s destiny is certainly set in stone.

 

To sum up the first consideration of our initial inquiry, there are certainly rituals of atonement outlined in various spiritual traditions that may mitigate or change destiny, but their efficacy, if at all, is limited by the severity of the offense originally committed.

 

As one advances spiritually, however, one’s tact in altering destiny changes. Rather than putting more effort into stopping what is manifest or what is to come, one puts more effort into countering destiny by properly responding to it. After all, the real fruit of karma is the happiness and distress meted out by destiny, which certainly can be changed by the proper understanding and response to it. Socrates condemnation to death is a perfect example of this.

 

Socrates was sentenced to die by the Senate of Athens for the trumped-up charges of contaminating the youth with his teachings. He accepted his fate peacefully, and simply requested an audience with the Senate to address his accusers. His powerful words recorded by Plato in “The Apology” are worth pondering: “If you think you will harm me, you cannot harm me. You only will harm yourself.” Because Socrates responded to his death with thoughtfulness and dignity his fate therefore did not affect or disturb him, while his accusers were actually karmically digging their own graves. Was not Socrates fate changed by his enlightened perspective? Imagine the fate of a person in a similar situation without his realization of karma and the eternality of the soul. Would not that person’s fate be quite different?

 

The Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam is filled with many such examples where by a deeper perspective on life, the happiness and distress meted out by the mace of destiny, is altered. I would love to write about King Parīkṣit’s response to being cursed to die, or Vidura’s reaction to being banned from his kingdom. For the purpose of this article I will just share Bhīṣmadeva’s advice to his grandson Yudhiṣṭhira, who inquired from him about how to digest his terrible fate in life.

 

There is no cause for despondency in life, no matter how trying circumstances get, if one, through understanding destiny as God’s beneficent and absolute will, does three things. One should bow one’s head in gratitude, respond in righteousness, and do so under one’s qualified mentors, thus extracting the fruit of destiny, a personal realization elevating one to a better life.[2]

 

Let’s sum up again where we are in reference to answering this article’s initial inquiry about changing our fate. We can best counter destiny, which is ultimately our distress and happiness, by appropriately responding to destiny rather than changing it. In this way, by extracting the fruit of destiny, which is the realization meant to elevate our consciousness, we remain free from despondency, and in that sense change the essence of our destiny, which ultimately is our happiness and distress.

 

Topics like this often raise more questions than are answered. I can never do justice to such a subject in such a short article. I welcome further questions from our readers and perhaps we can have a part two where I attempt to answer them. Although I have now exceeded my preferred word count, I need just a little more time to complete my explanation. Please bear with me for just a half page more as I share three more examples to further drive home the point that while the broad parameters of our destiny are mostly fixed, within those parameters our destiny can very much can be changed by how we view and experience it.

 

Example 1

A friend of mine was diagnosed with Chrohn’s disease, a serious stomach ailment that he would suffer from for the rest of his life. He reacted responsibly to his fate by a strict diet, and the symptoms of his disease have gradually been alleviated. He lives normally. Has he then not changed his karma? In a sense he has, because he no longer suffers the pain of the disease, but in a sense he also hasn’t because his diet is still restricted due to the disease.   

 

Example 2

Destiny is like being on a rocky road to a particular destination that we have no choice but to ride. In that sense destiny is fixed. One can, however, pave that road to make the journey smooth. In that sense, destiny is changed. In other words, within the parameters of our fate we can certainly mitigate the reactions of our karma, and in that sense change our fate.  

 

Example 3

Destiny is like being dealt a bad hand in poker. Your cards are fixed. Still, if you play your cards properly you can minimize your losses or even win. This is a nice analogy to show both the fixedness of destiny and the scope to change it by how we play our hand. 

 

Can destiny be changed? In the most important way, yes. I will leave you with Rumi:

 

“When providence seems to be digging a hole to throw us in, it is actually planning to quench our thirst by drawing water from the ground.”

 

 


[1] This story is from a Jain treatise on karma that a friend shared with me many years ago when I was preparing a seminar on karma.

[2] This is my summary of Bhīṣmadeva’s instructions from Bhag. 1.9.12-15

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #5 – Why I Hate Traveling

February 4th, 2019

Stuck again. People ask me how I come up with something to write every week. All I can say is that Krishna is in the heart and from Him comes remembrance, forgetfulness, and knowledge. When I finish one article I pray and generally something comes, and what comes is usually a realization from the past week. That’s the only way I can explain it. Well, something has come.

 

I arrived Friday evening after long, arduous travel from Puri. I am pretty much useless the next day, especially in terms of concentrated thought. I only now started writing the next entry, but nothing is coming. I am worried. I can’t risk waiting until later in the week to come up with an idea because the process of writing needs sufficient time to fructify to ensure I meet my deadline with something of quality. I hate traveling. Voilà! That’s what I feel now, so why not write about it? It’s kind of my Aikido writing trick, using the force of my opposition for my strength. So here it is, my latest Monday Morning Greeting.

 

A great deal of my service is writing and chanting, activities that require concentration. Traveling, which increases the mood of passion, is thus especially brutal for my service. After I travel it takes some time to shift into a productive mode for these services. Perhaps that’s just me. Śrīla Prabhupāda certainly wasn’t affected.

 

When I was younger, I remember sometimes walking out of my house to go to a social event and often just walking back. I just liked staying in one place so much better than the hassle of going to somewhere else.

 

My nature is not to get shaken or frazzled, even in crisis, but still, when it comes to travel I needlessly fret over the possibility of missing my plane or worry that I left something essential behind. I have written about that before, how I often arrive at the airport ridiculously early.

 

One of my important services is hosting people in the holy dhāma. Traveling out with people to holy places, however, is one of the last things I like to do. Those on my Puri yatra may have noticed that I skipped our visit to the famous Saksi Gopal temple, our only bus trip during the retreat.

 

I could go on and on about my repugnance for and jitters with long journeys, but I think there is an important point here to discuss. It is also a very personal one. Where do we tell our likes and dislikes to get off on the path of bhakti?

 

First, when to tell our likes and dislikes not to get off the path of bhakti. I think the best way I can do that is by sharing some of my favorite sayings on the subject:

 

“Our taste in Krishna consciousness is the door for us to gain entrance to the spiritual world.”[1]

 

“Whatever we like best we can offer to Krishna with the most devotion.”[2]

 

“The spiritual master finds the ways and means to engage one in devotional service.”[3]

 

Now where do they get off? A short story to illustrate the point:

 

About twenty-five years ago, when I had to leave India for six months, my solace was giving a weekly class at 26 2nd Avenue. At that time, I would especially relish listening to Śrīla Prabhupāda’s classes from when he preached there. One class particularly piqued my interest. Śrīla Prabhupāda was reflecting on living on the Lower East Side, which, frankly, was the dreck of New York at the time.

 

“Why have I come to this place? Why have I come to this place? Because it was the order of my spiritual master.”

 

When a person chooses a place to live, it generally reflects their proclivities and desires. The Lower East Side was the last place in the world that a very well cultured elderly devotional Bengali gentleman would retire, especially when he had already achieved residence in Vṛndāvana. Śrīla Prabhupāda’s residence in the Lower East Side was thus starkly not about his likes or dislike. And that’s the point. We accept things that are pleasing to guru and Krishna, sometimes in line with our nature and sometimes not. We tell everything else to get off, no matter what that means for our life. That’s called real love, or pure devotional service. And we won’t be cheated. Real happiness is a heart filled with such devotion.

 

I will finish this week with one more of my favorite sayings that I think is relevant to our discussion, a definition of bhakti that succinctly sums up the heart of pure devotion:

 

Bhakti means to make oneself available [for service].[4] And I may add, even traveling when one has absolutely no desire to do so.


[1] This insight was once shared with me by Bhurijana Dasa.

[2] I loved this answer to a question asked to one of the most prominent scholars in Vṛndāvana when a devotee asked if we can offer pizza to Krishna.

[3] This is a paraphrase of a quote by Śrīla Prabhupāda in the Nectar of Devotion about how the spiritual master engages the disciple according to his or her proclivities.

[4] This definition of bhakti was once shared to me personally by Pradyumna Dasa, Śrīla Prabhupāda’s Sanskrit editor.

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #4 – Oldies but Goldies: What is Vaiṣṇava Saṅga?

January 28th, 2019

It’s the one week of the year where I give myself leeway to not produce a new Monday Morning Greetings. I am incapable of devoting the concentration required to write while overseeing and teaching during my annual Puri retreat. I will therefore be re-sharing an article I post every year at this time, which is also relevant to the retreat, a subject that I feel is so important that I think it merits reading again and again.

 

What is Vaiṣṇava Saṅga?

 

Vaiṣṇava saṅga is an assembly of devotees mutually dedicated to the assembly’s objective — the glorification of the Supreme Lord.

 

As all members of the Vaiṣṇava saṅga are focused on that objective, personal objectives become secondary.

 

Although the leaders and senior Vaiṣṇavas may help guide the saṅga, and are appropriately respected, all participating members are deeply and equally valued as essential members of the saṅga.

 

Cooperation in a Vaiṣṇava saṅga is spontaneous and manifests genuinely out of the feelings of natural attachment and respect for authority within the saṅga. As much as practical within the saṅga, corporate or hierarchical structures of authority are not forcefully or externally imposed.

 

The channel of relationships and communication in a Vaiṣṇava saṅga is open due the trust among its members. Saṅga members thus get the maximum benefit from each other’s insights, including the realizations of its more spiritually mature members.

 

As mercy flows so freely in a Vaiṣṇava saṅga, a Vaiṣṇava saṅga naturally inspires humility in its members, which is the natural response to mercy.

 

The activities (service) of a Vaiṣṇava saṅga are born from a humble mood of service and thus truly become sevā, or devotional service.

 

As the members of the Vaiṣṇava saṅga are humble, they are constantly absorbed in nāma-saṅkīrtana.

 

A Vaiṣṇava saṅga is confident in the mercy it is experiencing within its saṅga. The members welcome and value any participant or visitor from any saṅga or organization as long as they sincerely want to serve the saṅga’s objectives.

 

A Vaiṣṇava saṅga does fear Vaiṣṇava aparādha. Its members deal very carefully and respectfully with everyone.

 

A Vaiṣṇava saṅga is thus the yoga of association, where members naturally control their minds and senses out of respect and appreciation for the association and care they are receiving within the saṅga.

 

The duty of an ācārya is to create Vaiṣṇava saṅga based on the six loving exchanges of a Vaiṣṇava. To assist in its development is the best offering of service for his pleasure.

 

A Vaiṣṇava saṅga is most attractive. Sincere people will appreciate it. Pure devotees will naturally gravitate towards it. It is the basis of spreading Vaiṣṇava dharma.

 

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #3 – Helplessly Perfect

January 21st, 2019

We are now near the end of Śrī Bṛhad-bhāgavatāmṛta, where the story of Śrī Nārada’s search for the topmost recipient of Śrī Krishna’s mercy is narrated. What an incredibly gripping story! Nārada has been told that he must certainly search out Uddhava, who resides in Śrī Krishna’s capital as His most confidential courier. Eventually reaching his destination, Śrī Nārada, with unbounded enthusiasm, enters the gates of the city. Running through the extremely intricate and confusing labyrinth of the city’s winding streets, intoxicated by love of God, he still manages to find himself at his destination, although apparently oblivious to what he is doing. How did he succeed? The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust commentary explains:

 

“The truth is, however, that when one is conducted ‘helplessly’ under the control of pure love of God, one actually understands everything perfectly; he certainly cannot forget the way to reach the Personality of Godhead.”

 

“Helplessly perfect” is an interesting concept and a seeming oxymoron, but if we think about it, if there is a supremely powerful and intelligent force in the universe, and instead of acting out of self-interest we become an instrument for that force, then would we not be in a sense acting helplessly and perfectly?

 

Perhaps we have personally experienced the reconciliation of this dichotomy when sharing what we know, and then in a mood of prayer the explanation comes through us in a far more fluid or perfect manner than what we could have possibly intellectually composed, or when trying to helplessly understand something about God, a realization or conclusion arises by prayer beyond our capacity to otherwise formulate or even comprehend. In such cases are we not helpless and competent at the same time?

 

This exact phenomenon of being conducted “helplessly” to reach a more perfect result is highlighted in the second of the four nutshell verses in the Bhagavad-gītā, where Krishna shows how perfect knowledge is given only to those who depend on Him in a mood of devotion.

 

“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)

 

I would like to help substantiate the “helplessly perfect” concept from my personal experience while writing this today. Attempting to compose this week’s Greeting has been exceptionally trying, as I am right in the middle of managing and leading my Puri retreat. This morning it was not surprising that I was practically staring at the blank page for hours trying to write something cogent. At the height of my helplessness, however, some powerful thoughts on how to proceed spontaneously came to mind. One reference especially from the Nectar of Devotion arose that helped resolve my quandary.

 

In the Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī described one of nine symptoms of advanced devotion as āśā-bandha, literally meaning that one’s hopes cannot be bound. In Nectar of Devotion Śrīla Prabhupāda translates the term in a very interesting way. He uses the English idiom “hope against hope”, indicating the idea of wishing for something against all odds. I found that translation quite revelatory in reconciling the dichotomy between hopelessness and perfection. The phrase “against hope” is such an excellent expression of the hopelessness of one seeking perfection on the basis of one’s own qualification, while “hope”, as used here, defines the confidence one can have at the same time when reflecting on God’s qualification, specifically His unbounded mercy. “Hope against hope” is thus a perfect aphorism for our theme here, “helplessly perfect”. It is also one that came to this essay when I myself was a bit lost about how to proceed.

 

I think Śrīla Prabhupāda’s poem “Mārkine Bhāgavata-dharma”, which was written upon arrival at Commonwealth Pier in Boston, is a perfect expression of this consciousness. He stood there with only forty-five rupees in his pocket and a trunk of Śrīmad-Bhāgavatams and began to reflect on the immense task that lay ahead, the spreading of Krishna consciousness throughout the Western world. Both his hopelessness in his personal ability to achieve his mission and his faith in the holy name to inspire him to achieve that mission arose simultaneously in his heart. The last two lines and his closing verification perfectly express this “hope against hope”, and his eventual success in that mission perfectly attests to the concept “helplessly perfect”:

 

“O Lord, I am just like a puppet in Your hands. So if You have brought me here to dance, then make me dance, make me dance, O Lord, make me dance as You like.

 

I have no devotion, nor do I have any knowledge, but I have strong faith in the holy name of Krishna. I have been designated as Bhaktivedanta, and now, if You like, You can fulfill the real purport of Bhaktivedanta.”

 

Signed-the most unfortunate, insignificant beggar
A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami,
on board the ship Jaladuta, Commonwealth Pier,
Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.A.
dated 18th of September 1965

 

And there rests the secret to Krishna consciousness. As Śrī Nārada was conducted helplessly by devotion to reach the doorstep of Krishna’s palace, and Śrīla Prabhupāda in a mood of utter humility succeeded in his mission, only by attracting God’s mercy by our deep modesty and consequent calling of the holy name can we too hope against hope to achieve the sweet fruit of helpless perfection.

 

 

 

 

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #2 – The Land of Magnanimity

January 14th, 2019

I am making a substantial statement here. For me, there is no question that holy places are, in fact, alive. I am writing this from Śrīdhāma Māyāpur, also known as Audārya-dhāma (the land of magnanimity). That’s quite a personal claim because only people can possess character traits. Anyway, I feel the magnanimity of this place, as do most others who approach this place respectfully. Each holy place has a unique personality that feels so real that, as the saying goes, “one can cut it with a knife”. Some examples to support my assertion:

 

Years ago while visiting Śrī Śrī Radha Damodara in Vṛndāvana I noticed the Vaiṣṇava scholar Śrī Gopīparāṇadhana Prabhu walking by. After greeting him and requesting him to say a few words to my group, he kindly shared with us a very interesting insight about the correlation between the internal nature of the place we were sitting and its influence externally.

 

“Radha Damodara is located within the area named Sevā-kuñja, which is not only the site of Krishna’s rāsa-līlā dance, but the kuñja (forest grove) where Krishna offered His sevā (selfless service) to Radha. Historically, therefore, Radha Damodara has always been a place to inspire sevā or selfless service. For example, there were many gosvāmī temples, but it was here, five hundred years ago, that the six Gosvāmīs met daily to discuss and gain inspiration for the sevā of expanding the mission of Śrī Caitanya. Similarly, there were many temples in Vṛndāvana that Śrīla Prabhupāda could have retired to, but it was here, almost sixty years ago, that he resided to plan and gain inspiration for his service of preaching Krishna consciousness in the Western world.” [1]

 

Yesterday, I went on pilgrimage to Godrumadvīpa, one of nine islands comprising the holy place called Navadvīpa, where each island represents one of the nine practices of devotional service. Godrumadvīpa specifically exemplifies and inspires the practice of kīrtana. It is therefore not a coincidence that five hundred years ago Lord Nityānanda chose Godruma to establish the nāma-hāṭa, his mission to spread the kīrtana of Krishna’s holy name all around West Bengal. It is the same place where, at the end of the Nineteenth Century, the great Vaiṣṇava saint Śrīla Bhaktivinoda did exactly the same. Evidently both understood and felt the particular nature of the place to give inspiration for kīrtana.

 

Perhaps the most convincing example of the personality of a holy place and its specific influence was the effect of Śrī Vṛndāvana on the visit of my dear elder cousin, Mā Sevā Bhāratī. Mā Sevā Bhāratī? Yes, that’s her name. Forty years ago, my cousin Susan took shelter of the famous yogi, Swami Rāma. Shortly after he left the world, she took sannyāsa from his successor, the great Sanskrit scholar Swami Veda Bhāratī and received the sannyāsa name Mā Sevā Bhāratī. Anyway, to continue my story, although she was residing for many years very high in the Himalayas in a place with no running water, I managed to contact her and convince her to visit me in Vṛndāvana.

 

Mā Sevā very much enjoyed her stay in Vṛndāvana, which is also known as Mādhurya-dhāma, the place of sweet intimate devotion. While there she even began to seriously chant every day sixteen rounds of the Hare Krishna mantra. I’ll never forget her appreciative inquiry to me one morning, “What is this sweetness here? What is this sweetness here?” In a sense I wasn’t surprised that by the depth of her humility and meditation she began to feel the personality of Mādhurya-dhāma, the land of sweetness.

 

After a few weeks in Vṛndāvana, I took her to Govardhana, which, according to Vaiṣṇava theology, is even sweeter than Vṛndāvana. After about week of chanting there she again shared her heart with me. I was bit stunned by the depth of her inquiry, “What is this sweetness here? What is this sweetness here? It is even sweeter than Vṛndāvana!” What a powerful confirmation that indeed holy places are alive.

 

I have a small group with me here. We have a few days left in the land of magnanimity. We have no doubt that the holy name has descended on our tongues far more than any of us deserve. I suppose if Mā Sevā was visiting me here she would be asking, “What is this mercy here? What is this mercy here?”

 

So fortunate to be in the land of magnanimity.

 

 


[1] This is what he said to the best of my remembrance.

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #1 – Let God Do It!

January 7th, 2019

“Bhagavan will take care!” I didn’t like his answer.

 

His father was quite ill, but he never even visited him once. I asked why. This young man based in Hṛṣīkeśa was a kind of a sādhu, or at least an aspiring one, but not a serious sādhaka or tapasvī by any means. He could easily go to visit. His father lived only four hours away from Hṛṣīkeśa, so I pressed him just a bit further. He pawned off the excuse in a mumbled defensive tone that Bhagavan will take care, or something like that. I could see he felt uncomfortable by my inquiry and was leaving to go back to Hṛṣīkeśa, so I dropped the matter. But his answer, putting it on God, just didn’t sit well with me.

 

Of course, there are always existential questions about free will and agency, to what extent the living being is the doer, but factually all of that is irrelevant here. Regardless of what God can or cannot do, He has made this world to help us awaken our eternal self. One of the main ways He does this is by assigning us various roles and duties according to our present nature and the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Without preliminarily transcending the “selfish me” by adhering to such dharma, what is the question of entering pure devotional service, which is selfless service to God?

 

This may be an unusual reference to rally against those who prematurely shun dharma, but I really like how the famous American satirist Tom Wolfe couched such social irresponsibility in his article “The Me Generation”. He debunks the hippie and new age narcissism of my generation, the prosperous baby boomers, with the phrase, “They will never understand duty above self.” Similarly, waving the “I am sādhu” transcendence card in the face of responsibility is just a ruse for lazy people pawning off their duties out of ignorance. It certainly isn’t the core philosophy of the Bhagavad-gītā.

 

If Krishna thought that being “not the doer” meant that we really don’t have to do anything because He Himself is the doer, then Krishna certainly would have never urged Arjuna to fight on the battlefield. Not only is being attentive to our duties in the world not inconsistent with realizing our deep self in relationship with God, but it is in many ways the vehicle to do it, regardless if the results are up to God or not. I like how Krishna puts it in chapter 2 verse 47 of Bhagavad-gītā:

 

“You have a right to perform your prescribed duty, but you are not entitled to the fruits of action. Never consider yourself to be the cause of the results of your activities, and never be attached to not doing your duty.”

 

Let me paraphrase the relevant points in Krishna’s message here in relation to our thesis “you should do your duty, although what happens, the result, is My will.” This type of prescription of duty for the sake of duty itself is just like a parent who is ever so capable of doing something quickly and efficiently, but still gives those tasks to his very young children to teach them character and their place within the family.

 

While writing this I couldn’t help but remember a contrasting example to my young friend’s shunning his duty. When Keśava Bhāratī Goswami’s mother fell ill with terminal cancer and there was absolutely no living relative to help her, he didn’t appeal to Krishna as the doer to care for her. He carefully considered the circumstance in consultation with others and concluded that it was his duty to care for her, although he had left home so many years before and as a sannyāsi had minimal contact with his family. Although it was quite an arduous sacrifice for him, by not shunning his responsibility he not only helped her, as among other things she became a devotee due to his visit, but I’m sure his sacrifice and selflessness reaped internal rewards so essential for developing the heart of a devotee.

 

Of course, if parents are overtly inimical to our path, or one is that rare soul that is called by God for a higher purpose and is not a cheater, we may in some circumstances not have such duties. That’s not the point. The point is that we should never avoid our duties, whatever they are, with the scam and philosophical dishonesty that Krishna will do them. It’s a failure of Krishna conscious understanding 101.

 

It is interesting to note that even when the six Gosvāmīs renounced the world out of compassion for the spiritually poor, they did not just leave it to God to take care of their families. They first carefully divided up their assets appropriately to meet family and social responsibilities. Even after Śrī Caitanya took sannyāsa, He lived in Purī on His mother’s wish out of obligation to her.

 

Wait a second. Doesn’t Krishna say in the Bhagavad-gītā to renounce all dharma and surrender unto Me? Of course, the highest duty is to surrender to God, and in the rare circumstance when that conflicts with a social duty, the social duty can be transcended. But also note that after Arjuna surrendered to Krishna, Krishna still asked him not to renounce his duties, but to fight in the spirit of one’s highest consciousness and eternal duty, surrendering unto Him.

 

Sorry, I have to go now. Although it’s the morning here in Māyāpur, it’s New Year’s Eve in New York. I need to call to wish my 97 year-old mother the best for the New Year. And to all my friends who are faithful readers: All the best to you for the New Year, which is also the third anniversary of Monday Morning Greetings. I am indebted to you all as readers. Thank you.

 

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2018 #53 – Idiots and Ideologues

December 31st, 2018

Despite the pejorative title, I am not being patronizing. I am commenting on a fundamental problem with human psychology of which I also have to be mindful. It is called the “righteous mind”. We tend to make moral judgments, whether political or religious, that have more to do with our personal psychology than our reasoning. Uncompromising and dogmatic, we become ideologues. I hate it.

 

Wait, I’m a Hare Krishna! I certainly have uncompromising beliefs. Isn’t that what an ideologue is by definition? Before I continue with my issue against ideologues, I think a clear distinction has to be made.

 

The term ideologue refers to an individual, not an ideology. It’s alright to have firm conviction in an all-encompassing belief or ideology whether one is a theist or atheist. Almost everyone does. Strong conviction alone doesn’t make one an ideologue, as long as one’s convictions are based on reason and experience, and one is willing to intelligently explore and test one’s conviction for a deeper understanding, including seriously hearing opposing views. What makes one an ideologue, then, is when one imposes one’s own moral bias, conservative or liberal, as the single lens to interpret the world. As a result, much needed civil discussion on controversial issues is often stifled. For instance, when a conservative or progressive ideologue seeks to understand the application of traditional gender roles in modern society, especially a religious one, they start with their conclusion and then gather facts, rather than first studying the tradition neutrally and then coming to a conclusion.

 

Now that it is hopefully clear that an ideologue is not just one with a conviction, but one with a biased mindset that prejudices how one understands the subtleties of their conviction, let me continue my thoughts on idiots and ideologues.

 

Of course, no one thinks they are an ideologue, but at least the best seekers of truth will train themselves to give other views full consideration before denigrating them. I myself try to become fully aware of my own biases to make sure that my opinions are based as much as possible on well thought out research after hearing both sides. Otherwise one’s conclusions may be influenced by an ingrained psychology more shaped by one’s relationship with one’s parents while growing up than anything else. For example, it is no coincidence that the four horsemen of new atheism, Dennet, Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris, all had problems with their fathers, as did Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Russel, Camus, Sartre, and practically all of their prominent predecessors.[1]

 

To be specific, this is what I hate about political and religious ideologues:

They view facts not to come to a conclusion, but rather to support their conclusion.

They only hear from and read those that agree with them.

They denigrate those with opposing views before considering their arguments.

They don’t accept that there are independent thinkers that don’t have a homogenous political persuasion. If one therefore disagrees with any of their issues, or even questions them, they lump them in with the opposing party and condemn them.

They don’t welcome civil discourse.

They don’t realize they are ideologues.

They see only the opposing party as one.

 

It is interesting that the term for metaphysical knowledge in Sanskrit is sambandha-jñāna. Sambandha means relationship. In other words, to have metaphysical knowledge one must understand the relationship between various and often opposing truths.[2] For example, there is a truth of detachment that we are not the body and should cultivate renunciation, and there is a truth of attachment that we need to appropriately work through our attachments before fully renouncing them. One with sambandha-jñāna thus knows the appropriate relationship or balance between the two, as he does between all truths, by carefully studying the śāstra to understand things deeply, while ideologues just study, quote references, and give examples only to support their forgone conclusions.

 

The Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam gives the key to rising above prejudiced ideological perspectives. It teaches that if one really wants to objectively understand tattva (reality) in all its phases and subtleties then two things are required: faithfulness to a tradition of knowledge and thoughtfulness in understanding it.[3] If we are not faithful to a tradition of higher knowledge then our purview of the world will be limited to our own conditioned frame of reference. Similarly, if we are not thoughtful, we fall prey to filtering the truth through our pre-conceived notions and faithfully get it wrong. Ideologues are not thoughtful, nor do they welcome others who are. They thus fail in fully understanding tattva.

 

Idiots and ideologues. Sorry for the strong language. Everyone one has their pet peeves. I feel strongly about this, and I did need a catchy title. Perhaps even those reading it will push back. You say you are balanced, but that’s also a psychological lens. Great, let’s discuss my points. I stand to be corrected.[4]

 


[1] http://enrichmentjournal.ag.org/201203/201203_112_Is_God_crutch.cfm

[2] I gleaned this idea of sambandha-jñāna in a personal discussion with Pradyumna dāsa, Śrīla Prabhupāda’s Sanskirit editor.

[3] Bhag. 1.2.12

[4] “I stand to be corrected” is a phrase that I always hear Vaiśeṣika dāsa repeat. I don’t know its origins.

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2018 #52 – Don’t Think This Won’t Happen to You

December 24th, 2018

Śrīla Prabhupāda had been bedridden for months in Vṛndāvana while preparing to leave this world when he turned to his young sannyāsi disciples surrounding his bed and issued a sober warning: “Don’t think this won’t happen to you.” Well, forty-one years later it is happening. Śrīla Prabhupāda’s disciples are leaving us at an increasing rate.

 

I remember one devotee describing this phenomenon with the analogy of cooking popcorn. The analogy, although helpful for my point, is a bit morbid, so please bear with me. Initially when heating up the kernels just one or two will pop. Gradually, minute by minute, the number of kernels popping increases exponentially until they are all popped. In the same way, we had only one or two premature departures of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s disciples in my first few years as a devotee. Now, as those devotees are aging, we are losing a few every year, a number that will continue to increase more and more until, in the not so distant future, they will all be gone.

 

When I begin to write each week I look for a realization that has crossed my mind the preceding week, so excuse me if what I came up with this week is a bit gloomy. I remember sitting at my desk in Vṛndāvana, reflecting on my life, and marveling at the thought that at sixty-eight years of age I am about the same age as Śrīla Prabhupāda when he left for America. I just couldn’t believe that I am that old. It was then that Śrīla Prabhupāda’s words, “Don’t think this won’t happen to you,” came to my mind and a flood of thoughts followed.

 

Mostly, the realizations were positive and inspiring. For sure it makes one much more detached. In the presence of temporality, many things that seem of grave importance suddenly seem petty.

 

The reflection that hit me strongest was the thought of impending separation from many Godbrothers and Godsisters who may leave the world before I do. It was hard to fathom the void in my life by the absence of such substantial people, even if I only see them just a few times a year at most.

 

I also realized how much we need such reality checks for a healthy spiritual life, and that if we don’t refresh the fact of our temporality such thoughts will certainly recede in our consciousness by the core nature of human psychology. The Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam thus tells us that the most amazing thing in the world is that we act as if in this body we will live forever in the face of the fact that everyone in history has died. So yes, realizations of the temporary nature of the world do most often fade. I love the generic term Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam uses for this phenomenon: śmaśāna-vairāgya, the temporary thoughts of renunciation that arise only at a funeral and then quickly fade, but I pray not.

 

I am left with a sobering thought. Seriousness in Krishna consciousness is not something we plan for the future. If we don’t appropriately dedicate ourselves now to guru and Krishna according to our station in life, it may never happen. Trust no future, however pleasant.[1] I pray to heed Śrīla Prabhupāda’s words spoken in earnest to his young disciples. I meditate how much more relevant they are to me now: Don’t think this won’t happen to you!

 

 

 

 


[1] From “The Psalm of Life” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2018 #51 – The Supreme Personality of Rice

December 17th, 2018

If you look at my astrological chart, you will see that my Venus is debilitated. I joke sometimes that even if you buy me a new set of silk clothes, as soon as I put them on I will walk out the door and somehow my pocket will get caught in the doorknob and my fine clothes will be torn. I don’t know much about astrology, but I know that, among other things, Venus rules very fine things. It’s just not my karma to procure, possess, or be surrounded by fine things. I surmise that’s a good thing in general for a sannyāsi, for if one overly makes demands on the environment for fine things it would be difficult for one to remain an honest renunciate. Now on to the “Supreme Personality of Rice”.

 

Narma Sakhi from Iran invited me to lunch and the rice preparation was so fine it was almost like I had never had rice before. The imported Iranian rice itself was so fragrant that just keeping it in the room, even before cooking it, seemed almost like lighting incense. It was perfectly cooked and mixed with finely sliced almonds and pistachios, raisin sized pieces of fried paneer, and bright saffron. It was all of the finest quality ingredients and the taste was simultaneously incredibly rich and subtle with flavors. What to speak of the walnut/pomegranate sauce served on top! It was so ambrosial that after the meal I joked that I just had the supreme personality of rice.[1]

 

 

I am by no means a connoisseur of food, but boy was that rice good! And how much I enjoyed not just the taste, but also the aesthetic of it. It was so fine and perfect in every way, from the texture and color to the fragrance and taste. So here is the question: Is it good or bad to like fine things? Or perhaps a better question would be what is the role of fine things in society? First, we need a definition of culture to give us a foundation to understand the proper role of fine things in life. Here’s one that I particularly like:

 

Culture is the deliberate organization of society for the purpose of creating impressions in the consciousness to help one learn, communicate, and relate better.[2]

 

The key point here in the definition to help us understand fine things is the aspect of helping one relate better. Fine things are an essential part of exchanging love or relating better with others because love means offering the best to one’s beloved. A proper culture therefore evolves fine music, art, and so on, as well as fine cuisine in order to, among other reasons, enhance the expression of affection for others, including one’s devotion to God.

 

Another aspect of the necessity of fine things is the effect fine things can have on elevating the consciousness to transcendence. Things like art, music, or even great natural beauty elevate the consciousness by impassioning one with an undeniable feeling of meaning and truth in life, whether one believes in God or is secular. Leonard Bernstein, the great American conductor and composer, expressed this concept beautifully in relation to hearing properly composed music, but it can be applied to all finely created things:

 

Beethoven turned out pieces of breath-taking rightness. There is something that checks throughout, that follows its own law consistently: something we can trust, that will never let us down.

 

Also, in relation to music, in The Republic Plato discusses how good music puts order in a child’s soul by training the child to have proper emotions even before he or she can intellectually understand them. He thus speaks of quality music as educating “through habits, by imparting by the melody a certain harmony of spirit that is not science, and by rhythm, measure and grace” and affirms its instrumental educational role “because more than anything else rhythm and harmony find their way into the inmost soul and take strongest hold upon it.”

 

Śrīla Prabhupāda makes the same point not just about music, but the effect of fine things in general in his commentary on verse 1.11.12 in the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam where the beauty of Krishna’s city of Dvārakā is described. There he comments how “beautiful gardens, parks and reservoirs of water with ducks and swans playing in the midst of lotus flowers […] are essential for developing the finer tissues of the human body.” In contrast he described how congested, run down industrial cities “deteriorate the finer sentiments of the human being and society to form a dungeon of demons.”

 

Of note here is that the fine things of culture are never just limited to those of economic status. It was the duty of the government to provide an environment of fine architecture and nature, and the duty of those with money to especially construct beautiful temples and churches to soothe and elevate the consciousness of all the citizens, regardless of caste or creed. Of course, deep poverty can ruin all good qualities, and the government needs to assure a minimum sense of decency. If people have even a simple standard of living, they can keep their immediate environment and behavior fine and clean in order to deepen their spirituality, from how they keep their home to the music they listen to and so on.

 

Back to our original question: Should one in spiritual life dedicated to simple living surround oneself with fine things? Like all enjoyment in life, the value of fine things, as described above, is determined by how it is used. In other words, fine things, like most things in life, when applied appropriately and according to one’s nature and ashram, can help purify the consciousness. But when they are used ostentatiously or indulgently they can degrade it.

 

It should be noted that one in bhakti-yoga who has a propensity for fine things and has the means to procure them can become absorbed in deity worship where, according to one’s means, one can procure the best for Krishna. And by offering them to Krishna we can see, smell, and taste the finest things, not in the consciousness of selfish enjoyment, but in devotion. One can also exchange lovely gifts and finely cooked prasādam with the devotees to enhance the culture of loving exchanges so necessary in opening the heart for bhakti.

 

Certainly, as a renunciate I should cultivate detachment to anything not directly used in Krishna’s service, and not seek fine tastes and food, but boy was the supreme personality of rice good!

 

 


[1] Morassa Pulao (Nuts Rice)

Serves 6

Ingredients:

  • Rice, 6 cups
  • Oil, 8 tablespoons
  • Water, 10 cups
  • Salt, 6 teaspoons
  • Powdered saffron, 1 tablespoon
  • Curd cheese (paneer), chopped into 1 cm cubes, 2 cups
  • Chopped pistachios, 1 cup
  • Chopped almonds, 1 cup
  • Barberries (washed and drained), 1 cup
  • Cooking raisins (washed and drained), 1 cup

 

Directions:

  1. Wash and drain the rice.
  2. Heat 4 tablespoons. of oil over medium heat in a large pan and fry the rice for two minutes. Then add the water and salt and bring to a boil. Place the lid on the pan and simmer over medium heat for 20 minutes.
  3. Add a little hot water to the powdered saffron in a small bowl
  4. Heat the rest of the oil in a pan and slightly fry the curd cheese. Fry the chopped pistachios and almonds together with the barberries and raisins for 5 minutes and add the saffron to the mix. Mix all the ingredients with the rice and let it cook for further 10 minutes.

 

[2] I remember reading this definition of culture, but offhand don’t remember where it came from.

 

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