Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #32 – Taking Up Space

August 12th, 2019

I looked out at a sea of college students that filled the small auditorium. The professor, a friend, asked me to teach his “Introduction to Hinduism” class. Standing at the podium before them, I started with a joke to introduce myself and to warm the crowd. With a straight face I tell them:

 

“I haven’t been back in a university in almost forty years, when I was studying aeronautics.”

 

I paused for a minute to watch the puzzled audience try to digest the incongruence between what I had just said and who was standing in front of them in robes and a shaved head. I then quickly added: “I was taking up space.”

 

Get it? Taking up space… aeronautics. I heard a few chuckles, then a few more. Most got it.

 

The truth of the matter is that I studied philosophy in school, but what I said was basically true. I wasn’t a serious student, and I don’t remember even one thing I learned in class that has been useful in my life. I am not saying that because I became a Hare Krishna monk. It was the late Sixties. From all practical standpoints, most students were, in fact, just taking up space.

 

Of course, for many career choices a college degree is an essential prerequisite, and there are competent teachers in some fields of study that can share pearls of wisdom. Yes, there are also good reasons to attend college, and some elite schools work you hard, but even for most career directed majors what is too often important is not what he or she actually learned in school, but rather the graduation diploma needed as a prerequisite for a job or further education. I don’t suppose the whole college experience today is much different than it was fifty years ago, except for one big difference. This may come as a shock to you, but I paid $800 per semester for room, board, and tuition at a good school! When I graduated, I left debt free and was able to join the Hare Krishna movement — or do anything else — without being bound by debt to some useless job.

 

Now here’s a brief list of reasons why college, when not approached very thoughtfully, can be a big mistake.

 

The Financial Challenge

 

The cost of college today is exorbitant.[1] Most students have to take out huge loans to pay for their college education. Most are under the misconception that the responsibility for one’s loan begins after graduation. Not true. With many, or even most loans, you start accruing compounded interest the minute you start school. By the time you finish school and are obligated to start paying the loan back, you will be paying back only the interest you have accrued without having touched the initial principle, and this will go on for years. What’s even worse is that six out of ten students don’t even complete their degree in four years. They, or their poor parents, have basically just thrown their money to the wind.

 

To maintain a healthy life, according to the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, one must immediately get rid of three things: unwanted guests, disease, and debt. Modern psychological studies have significantly linked debt to depression, anxiety, stress, anger, fear, shame, low self-esteem, impaired cognitive ability, and mental illness. So, unless one pursues a syllabus aimed at a specific occupational goal that leads to sufficient economic remuneration, there is a chance that you will be borrowing money only to debilitate your general well-being, including enslaving yourself to a meaningless job to pay it back.

 

The Intellectual Challenge

 

Even if one does pursue a college major that trains one for a good job, is that the purpose of university — simply to get a job? Traditionally the university had a very solemn duty. It was invested with the responsibility to train the intellectual and leadership class of society to maintain and hone the foundational principles behind the various institutions and traditions within their society. How sad is it that today the university, at least in the United States, has increasingly become a social club or trade school, and a poor one at that?

 

A university is meant for intellectual rigor. Worse than becoming job training centers, too many disciplines in the universities have degraded into intellectual orthodoxies[2] where the gift of reason is not used to educate or find truth, but to confirm existing beliefs and indoctrinate students into many disciplines that, frankly, often pawn absurd ideas.[3]

 

The Education Challenge

 

Besides the lack of intellectual rigor, it seems that college is even failing to give the most basic lessons of the humanities that were once the hallmark of education. Here’s the insight of controversial Camille Paglia, an alum of my alma mater, on the deteriorating state of classic education:

 

“What has happened is these young people now getting to college have no sense of history — of any kind! No sense of history. No world geography. No sense of the violence and the barbarities of history. So, they think that the whole world has always been like this, a kind of nice, comfortable world where you can go to the store and get orange juice and milk, and you can turn on the water and the hot water comes out. They have no sense whatever of the destruction, of the great civilizations that rose and fell, and so on — and how arrogant people get when they’re in a comfortable civilization. They now have been taught to look around them to see defects in America — which is the freest country in the history of the world — and to feel that somehow America is the source of all evil in the universe, and it’s because they’ve never been exposed to the actual evil of the history of humanity. They know nothing!”[4]

 

 

The Character Challenge

 

More than anything else, the single aspect of one’s life that determines one’s success is the strength of one’s character. I can’t afford to waste precious words here arguing the obvious, which is that modern education is not geared to elevate one’s character. A few notable quotes should suffice.

 

“We are good at teaching technical skills, but when it comes to the most important things, like character, we have almost nothing to say. Modern society has created a giant apparatus for the cultivation of the hard skills. Children are coached on how to jump through a thousand scholastic hoops. We are good at talking about material incentives, but bad about talking about emotions and intuitions.” — David Brooks, New York Times columnist

 

“To educate a person in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society.” — Theodore Roosevelt, American adventurer and president

 

I will leave this section with some words on the spiritual vacuum of modern education from the very learned Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura. He went for higher education in Calcutta, the seat of the British Raj and its best schools, over 150 years ago, but his insight into the spiritual vacuum of modern education is still relevant today.

 

“The result of modern education is that one becomes no better than an ass as one only becomes more enamored with the flickering nature of this world.” (Vidyāra Vilāse v. 3)

 

 

Buyers Beware Notice

 

My perspective in life is spiritual, and my Monday musings follow suit. Śrīla Prabhupāda taught us that it is difficult to separate one’s spiritual life from the way one lives in the world. I would not be faithful to my mission in writing without an occasional social comment. Too many young people who don’t belong are entering college and going into substantial debt without even getting a good education or a remunerative career. How much better it would be if they could be guided immediately to a suitable career rather than four costly years simply taking up space. [5]

 


[1] This article may be more relevant for people in the United States where colleges cost on the average at least $50,000 and are often outfitted like country clubs.

[2] https://heterodoxacademy.org

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kVk9a5Jcd1k

[4] https://www.intellectualtakeout.org/article/paglia-dumbing-down-america-began-public-schools

[5] Some people ask me how I come up with a topic every week. It’s not easy. The above article was based on a YouTube video that someone sent me that I thought made a powerful point: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dETn6JVO-p4

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #31 – Chant and Be Bored

August 5th, 2019

Śrī Rūpa Gosvāmī was not bored:

 

“I do not know how much nectar the two syllables ‘Kṛṣ-ṇa’ have produced. When the holy name of Krishna is chanted, it appears to dance within the mouth. We then desire many, many mouths. When that name enters the holes of the ears, we desire many millions of ears. And when the holy name dances in the courtyard of the heart, it conquers the activities of the mind, and therefore all the senses become inert.” (Vidagdha-mādhava 1.15)

 

Is this our experience? Do we sometimes, often, or even always get bored by the repeated recitation of the holy names?

 

Chanting the same syllables over and over again? How can something so monotonous not be boring?

 

Obviously, others have a different experience. Although they repeat the same syllables again and again, their chanting becomes more, not less, exciting. How can that be?

 

Friedrich Nietzsche was not a theist, but he said some things about boredom that I think are relevant to our discussion. He described boredom as the “unpleasant calm that precedes the creative storm”, and described that he who never fortifies himself against boredom “will never drink the most powerful elixir from his own innermost spring”.

 

I think what Nietzsche portrayed about tolerating periods of external dullness to reap the benefit of inner excitement is especially applicable to those struggling with meditation. In meditation, when one withdraws from external objects boredom may arise, especially today when we are so conditioned by the fast, intense, and changing stimuli of the world. When we resist moving towards those impulses, however, one’s consciousness automatically becomes redirected inward to the self, and the experience of meditation becomes dynamic. We then gain faith that our temporary struggle to focus was indeed only the entrance to something deeper and exciting.

 

In bhakti meditation there is something even more. The object of meditation is not just a prop to still the mind, but the holy names of God, which is a direct manifestation of the Divine in sound. As we have an innate relationship with God, and there is a natural energy called “love” between beings in relationship, when we meditate on the names of God, the energy of that relationship, which is the highest love called prema, gradually awakens.[1] The repeated recitation of the same words, which initially may have felt somewhat monotonous, then becomes an object of great attraction, and in time one surely drinks “the most powerful elixir from his own innermost spring”.

 

Boredom is, therefore, ultimately not what we are doing, but how we feel. We are thus never bored in deep devotion, regardless of how much we withdraw from external stimulation. Bhakti yogis have chanted the same names of God over and over again with increasing internal relish despite withdrawing their senses from the world. The example of Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta, the guru of Śrīla Prabhupāda, immediately comes to mind. He took the vow of Nāmācārya Śrīla Haridāsa Ṭhākura and sat in the jungles of Māyāpur for ten years chanting one billion names of God.[2] He certainly was never bored.

 

Now the real question: What does this have to do with us? We are speaking here not about an attainment, but rather a principle that is certainly applicable to us — to advance in meditation one must initially tolerate the withdrawal of one’s consciousness from external stimuli with the faith that shortly one will enter into something deeper. Even one who has achieved samādhi in his meditation never starts at the level of samādhi. They have to rev up the consciousness first through the preceding stages of dhāraṇa and dhyāna before again getting up to the level of samādhi. It is like a car that has potential for fifth gear, but every time needs to go through the other gears first to get there.

 

In other words, we don’t start any activity at our full potential, especially meditation. We may have to initially tolerate, as Nietzsche said, “the unpleasant storm before the creative force” to awaken some real interest or feeling for the mantra. Our daily potential is surely not samādhi, but if we concentrate for a set period of time every day without interruption, then even a sincere beginner will feel that energy of connection to the divine, an experience that should allow us to get over the initial challenge of chanting that at times may feel tedious. We can then chant and be happy, rather than chant and be bored.

 

“I am never bored; to be bored is an insult to one’s self.”
― Jules Renard

 

 


[1] Verse two of Nārada-bhakti-sūtra states sā tv asmin parama-prema-rūpā; that the highest form of love is to God.

[2] One billion names is 192 rounds a day for ten years.

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #30 – The Glory of God Not Knowing Everything

July 29th, 2019

I remember when I first got the Krishna Book. My college roommate, who had since left to join the temple, returned to school to visit me and gave me a copy of the book. Instead of going to a party that evening, I stayed back in my apartment and began reading it. I couldn’t put it down. I had already become a devotee of sorts, but not to the point of full commitment, so I was only somewhat familiar with the subject. I remember getting to Chapter Two, “Prayers by the Demigods for Lord Krishna in the Womb”, where Krishna’s supremacy is first described. I had already heard stories about His loving and seemingly human exchanges with His parents, friends, and the gopīs, but now I was hearing of His omnipotence. At the time I was majoring in philosophy, and from one of my classes the definition of God was still fresh in my mind: “That being of which no greater can be conceived.” I had an epiphany.

 

“I can’t think of anything greater than this, an omnipotent, omniscient being who is not devoid of very sweet familial and romantic affairs. This is certainly greater than just an amorphous impersonal energy that can’t talk or love. Yes. Krishna must be God, that being of which no greater can be conceived.”

 

Through my years in studying Krishna consciousness, this philosophical concept became fascinating to me — that Krishna’s attributes, such as His apparent human-like activities or His form seemingly confined within space, rather than limiting His Absolute authority were in fact an opulence. I remember reading a quote a few years back in one of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s purports that especially struck me by the way it confirmed this fact in such simple terms:

 

“Krishna doesn’t have the defect of impersonality.”[1]

 

What I particularly liked about this sentence is the way the word “impersonality” is used. The word “impersonal” (impersonality) has two meanings. It can have a philosophical meaning describing God as without attributes, which in today’s world appears laudatory, for, in a sense, it describes God as transcendent. In other words, if God is impersonal one cannot attribute to His nature the dualities of this world. Śrīla Prabhupāda, however, by a play on the word “impersonality” is actually referring to the second definition, meaning cold or not concerned with another’s individual needs. By doing so, Śrīla Prabhupāda is describing God’s impersonality as a defect, for if God is impersonal, He is not only all-pervading and without duality, but also cold and void of the ability to lovingly reciprocate. Is it not somewhat absurd to describe the source of everything as lacking the ability to properly relate with others?

 

As I continued to study the teachings of bhakti, especially Krishna’s pastimes, I read how Krishna not only has human-like qualities, but qualities that even seem humanly limited. For example, Krishna is described as forgetful or unaware (mugdhatta). Again, what appears to be a diminishment of His supremacy is in fact an attribute of His divinity, for without experiencing surprise and drama (being unaware), how could God experience the full range of rasa (heightened love), and if He doesn’t then how can He be God? I think a story here will help make this point clearer:

 

Krishna’s friends are caught in the midst of a forest fire and are saved by Krishna, who swallows the fire. Afterwards, following a long trek in the forest, they finally reach the shore of the Yamuna River. Impelled by dire thirst, they quench it without thinking carefully about the condition of the water that had been poisoned by the Kālīya serpent. They immediately die. Overwhelmed by grief, Krishna begins to cry deeply out of separation from His friends. His tears of compassion revive His friends back to life. If Krishna was only all-knowing, He would lack the experience of drama and consequent feelings of compassion that such pastimes bring. Even the ordinary soul sometimes has their joy heightened by the drama of being unaware, a surprise party for example. How then can one deny the experience of drama in the source of all?

 

Conclusion: O, glory to the God who does not know everything, for I can’t conceive anything greater than a being that is all-powerful and all-knowing, but who still has the capacity to be surprised!

 

 

 


[1] It is one of my favorite quotes, but I can’t find the reference at this time.

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #29 – I Don’t Know Where I’m Going

July 22nd, 2019

I just threw out what I was working on for this week’s Monday Morning Greetings. I just couldn’t make the article work. It’s Friday. My deadline is tomorrow at noon. Can you imagine how frustrating that is? What to do? I can only do what I am doing now, baring my frustration and praying that something comes. I read about this type of desperation technique years ago in a book on public speaking. It recommended that when you are in front of an audience and somehow at a loss for words you should just run with your frailties by admitting them. Your audience will be sympathetic and embolden you, and the honesty itself will be empowering. I find it quite interesting that my thoughts here connect exactly with something I was reading just yesterday.

 

In his introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay, Philip Lopate writes that essentially a writer and reader enter into a contract. “The essayist,” he says, “must then make good on it by delivering, or discovering, as much honesty as possible [. . .] So often the ‘plot’ of a personal essay, its drama, its suspense, consists in watching how far the essayist can drop past his or her psychic defenses towards deeper levels of honesty .”

 

That is so in tune with my own experience in writing. I often get comments from my readership appreciating that I share my own struggles. And I do really feel “a contract between writer and reader”. It’s a personal relationship. I feel that sitting here trying to meet my end of the bargain.

 

Now let me share what I wanted to share this week, but have not yet been empowered to articulate in a satisfactory way.

 

I wanted to highlight how important it is to have a meaningful metaphysical goal that informs all aspects of one’s life. That idea was inspired by a paṇḍita from Vṛndāvana who was visiting the USA. He happened to be a presenter after I spoke in the same yoga teacher training program where we were both teaching. I thus stayed for his talk. He gave a brilliant analogy. Here’s my recollection:

 

He began with a puzzling statement: “The most important thing to have in life is a GPS.” He then watched the initial reaction of his audience, paused for a moment, and clarified his statement, “GPS: Guru Paramparā System. To learn any subject, one needs to study under a mentor representing a lineage of accomplished teachers. In Sanskrit that lineage is called the guru paramparā system. Just as one’s effort in driving only bears fruit when one has entered the correct address in one’s GPS, one’s endeavors in life will only be meaningful when one sets the right goal under the guidance of a bona-fide lineage, the Guru Paramparā System.”

 

I wanted to develop his point further with a strong reference. The first one that came to mind was a quote by Jesus questioning one’s accomplishments in life when devoid of a spiritual objective.

 

“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36-38)

 

A very pertinent analogy by Śrīla Prabhupāda also came to my mind. Rather than just condemn material accomplishments, he highlights their potential value when connected to that transcendent objective.

 

“So zero is zero always. Hundred million times zero adds, it is zero. But when there is one, immediately value increases. So without Krishna, all this material advancement, they are all zeros. But if you bring Krishna, then it…that increases—-ten, hundred, thousand, tens of thousands, like that millions, billions.” (July 31, 1975, New Orleans room conversation)

 

Dwelling on the subject I thought I could also touch on how much the definition and practice of bhakti is predicated on its goal: “Sādhana-bhakti is the use of the senses with the aim of achieving the goal of bhāva (mature devotion).” (Brs. 1.2.2) There is definitely a discussion to be had about the need to be consciously hankering for the goal in our devotional practices (bhāva) for them to be meaningful and dynamic.

 

There were other subjects I wanted to expound:

 

How bhakti often begins by the mercy of guru and Krishna with a small taste of the sublimity of devotion, for the inspiration to practice is dependent on one’s faith in one’s goal.

 

I wanted to discuss the honesty of the existentialists. As they see no goal or meaning in life, they honestly contemplate suicide.

 

It’s 2:00 AM. When I lost all hope of producing anything of value this week, I threw my hands up in helplessness. There is a large picture of Śrīla Prabhupāda directly facing me on the wall where my desks rests. I prayed for his help and this is what came — stress the utmost importance in having a legitimate spiritual goal.

 

When I grew up in New York there was a renowned yogi in the Bronx who was famous for his pithy and paradoxical sayings spoken in the language of the ordinary man. I leave you with one that says it all. Think about it deeply.

 

“If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.”
― Yogi Berra

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #28 – The Greatest Kīrtana Ever!

July 15th, 2019

They were wildly cheering for God! Nine hundred thousand enthusiasts lined the streets of Farrukhabad. It was their annual Ram Bharat parade. “This is God’s country!” shared one humbled god-brother observing the scene. Lord Siva sat on Mount Kailash in the float before us—a huge block of ice, with live snakes circling his body. I was freaked and restless. It was a late start—already 9 PM. When will it end? BB Govinda Swami began kīrtana in his overpowering, yet sweet and melodic style. We all joined in. At first, I struggled on that muggy summer night, but the resonant melodies opened my heart to Krishna’s holy name. I gradually began to sway with the rhythm. My heart was touched, my mind concentrated. It was 5 AM before I knew it, and time to return to Vṛndāvana. This was 1992, and certainly one of my most memorable kīrtanas. But the greatest kīrtana ever?

 

What about the kīrtana of the cowherd boys as they left for the forest accompanied by Krishna’s flute? Their kīrtana was rich with sonorous melodies, sung deeply from their melted hearts of devotion, built up slowly in tempo from the force of their bhava, and appropriate for the time of the day and pastime. Some cowherd boys even spontaneously blew trumpets crafted from the large smooth leaves of particular Vṛndāvana trees. They also returned with the same fervor, awakening the residents of Vṛndāvana from their slumber of separation. Seeing Krishna in the distance blowing His flute, prancing behind a stampede of cows accompanied by the kīrtana of the cowherd boys, they were overflooded with bliss. Imagine how the Vrajavāsīs felt. Can there be anything better than that?

 

Mother Yaśodā fainted upon seeing her son hanging limp in the coils of the many hooded snake in the midst of the fuming, boiling polluted waters of the Yamunā. She fainted. In desperation, Mother Yaśodā’s friends, whose love for Krishna was equal to her own, tried to revive her by singing with the most heartfelt devotion about Krishna’s exploits of killing the demons in Vṛndāvana. What a heartfelt kīrtana! Can there be anything deeper than that?

 

Seeing the gopīs’ seeming pride from dancing with Him in the rāsa dance, Krishna suddenly disappeared from their company. They madly began to search the forest of Vṛndāvana for their beloved:

 

“When they saw that it was getting gradually darker, they stopped. Their minds and intelligence became absorbed in thoughts of Krishna; they all imitated the activities of Krishna and His speeches. Due to their heart and soul being completely given to Krishna they began to chant His glories, completely forgetting their family interests. In this way all the gopīs returned to the bank of the Yamunā and assembled there, and expecting that Krishna must return to them, they simply engaged in chanting the glories of Krishna—Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.”[1] Can there be anything sweeter than the unsurpassed kīrtana of the gopīs on the bank of the Yamunā?

 

The depth of Śrī Radha’s devotion for Krishna manifests in her intense feelings of separation from Him. That devotion is the pinnacle of bliss, and even inspires Śrī Krishna Himself to come in the form of Śrī Caitanya to taste that love, especially during the Jagannath Ratha-yātrā, a festival that commemorates that devotion. Overwhelmed with Śrī Radha’s love for Krishna, He personally organized seven separate kīrtanas surrounding Jagannatha’s cart for His lord’s pleasure. He placed two expert mṛdaṅgas in each division, assigned Svarūpa Dāmodara, Śrīvāsa Ṭhākura, and his best singers to lead each of those parties, as well as His most charming dancers, such as Vakreśvara Paṇḍita and Śrīla Haridāsa Ṭhākura, to be the lead dancer in each group. The groups suddenly converged.

 

“All the Vaisnavas came together like an assembly of clouds. As the devotees chanted the holy name in great ecstasy tears fell from their eyes like rain. When the kīrtana resounded, it filled the three worlds. Indeed no one could hear any sounds or musical instruments other than the sankīrtana. Lord Caitanya wandered through all seven groups chanting the holy name, ‘Hari, Hari!’ raising His arms, He shouted, ‘All glories to Lord Jagannatha!’”[2] What it must have been like to be inundated with the holy name and inspired by the ecstatic dancing of Śrī Caitanya at Ratha-yātrā! Can there be anything more sublime than that?

 

Krishna surfed the return wave caused by His atomic splash into the Yamunā onto one of the wide heads of the multi-headed serpent, Kālīya. In order to dodge the bites of the venomous reptile and to crush his various poisonous heads, he dexterously jumped from one head to another. Observing His own feet moving so quickly, and being innately filled with rhythm, a beat arose in His heart. By way of His infallible desire, two ankle bells appeared on His legs, and Krishna began to dance.[3]

 

Krishna is the guru of all arts. He is thus also naṭa-vara, the most excellent of all dancers. His enthralling dance thus attracted the demigods. First came Indra, an expert in mṛdaṅga, and then Nārada, the maestro of vinā. As news of Krishna’s desire to dance began to spread, more and more celestial instrument players appeared above Vṛndāvana.

 

Of particular note were the vidyādharas, a community of heavenly musicians, especially expert in percussion. They carefully observed the tal (beat) of Krishna’s dance before starting, and they gradually supported His dancing performance in a circle of various expertly played drums, mostly the paṇava and ānaka, huge drums with majestic sounds played with two sticks on each side, one representing bass and the other treble. The vidyādharas made sure that all the instruments in the heavenly realm that were suited for the occasion were brought to enrich the kīrtana and support the dance. Experts in the flutes, bugle, vinā, and shehnai soon arrived and joined the fun.

 

The gandharvas, the heavenly singers, already knew of Krishna’s extraordinary artistic abilities. When the news of Krishna’s dancing reached their ears, they rushed to the earth for kīrtana sevā, especially the most prominent of the gandharvas, such as Viśvāvasu, Citraratha, and so on. The Krishna kīrtana of the gandharvas, the best singers in the universe, accompanied by the vidyādharas, the world’s unparalleled percussionists, and supported by the powerful mṛdaṅga playing of Indra, brought the kīrtana to heights never before imagined. And just to add to the scene’s glory, the residents of siddha-loka, the planet of poetic geniuses, arrived. They immediately spontaneously composed lyrics to what they were witnessing in booming and rhythmic Sanskrit chants.

 

As the demigods never touch the earth, the kīrtana was hovering from above, an excellent vantage point for a puṣpa abhiṣeka. Those without instruments immediately began to shower the scene with a cascade of the most colorful and fragrant flowers from the celestial realm, even from Vaikuṇṭha itself. And from the shore below, the residents of Vṛndāvana, having just gained full consciousness, became overwhelmed with relief and joy at the spectacle before them. Especially the cowherd boys danced along with Krishna’s movements in extreme bliss. By the powerful beats of the mṛdaṅga led by Indra, an instrument especially designed to invoke dance, even the crestfallen heads of the serpent began to move in time to the beat.

 

With the Vrajavāsīs dancing and cheering in utter amazement on the ground, and the kīrtana symphony of the demigods above, the performance of Krishna’s supreme virtuoso dance on the swaying stage of the serpent’s hood lighted by his red jewels became the festival all festivals.

 

And that’s what I think is the greatest kīrtana ever!

 


[1] Chapter 29, p 299 Krishna Book

[2] Cc. Madhya-līlā 13.49-51

[3] The elaborate description of Krishna’s dance on the serpent Kālīya’s head with the accompaniment of the demigod musicians is from various commentaries of Bhag. 10.18.26-19 as described in the lectures of Śrīla Radha Govinda Swami.

 

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #27 – Marilyn Monroe Died

July 8th, 2019

He vowed never to again hear anything of this world besides the pastimes and service of his worshipful Lords, Śrī Śrī Radha Krishna. That was 1962, over fifty years, when he arrived in Vṛndāvana, and he has kept true to his vow ever since. A few years ago, my friend visited this saint. I am not sure why — it seemed a bit inappropriate — but he asked him, “What was the last thing you heard in the news?” The kind baba searched his memory for a second. His matter of fact answer took my friend aback: “Marilyn Monroe died.” He soon related his conversation to me. I was impressed.

 

Last week I got a similar message. It reminded me of the saintly no-news baba in Vṛndāvana. Again, I was impressed.

 

I needed something researched in Vṛndāvana for a book Satyarāja Dāsa is writing, so I texted a friend of mine, who took the summer months off to stay there, for help. At the end of our conversation, I casually asked him a more personal question: “How is your bhajan?” His texts surprised me:

 

“Good.

Better.

New experiences

Of chanting 64 rounds

Everyday

And reading Bhāgavatam for 3 hrs a day

Also I keep vrata of kīrtana at the temple 3 hours a day.

Nothing Going on

Summer is best for me

It’s so amazing how Vṛndāvana is so different in summer

But one thing, I miss preaching

You are the only one I shared actually

I never knew its possible

I also left social media, I use none whatsoever”

 

The last line, “none whatsoever”, struck me. Knowing him, I could imagine how much this media fast contributed to his renewed depth of practice. It got me thinking. Although I am not personally on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, I do read about the world. But how much could my personal meditation improve if the input of the world, with its very consuming distractions, hates, and dualities, was completely shut off? I began to think of those special friends that seem to go much deeper than others in their chanting of the holy name. They all seem to have, to one degree or another, one thing in common. In terms of social media, they are all in the school of “Marilyn Monroe died”, so to speak. I thought, yes, media “none whatsoever.” What is the use of having the mind stimulated with so many thoughts that are of no use to the soul? Why not go even deeper into the holy name? Time is short. I’ve begun my fast today. I’ve been here before. I have my doubts. Can I do it? I wrote something on this many years ago.

 

I am convinced that, like television, the medium of the computer has insidious effects because it subtly injects one with the need for incessant distraction—an especially menacing prospect for those on the spiritual path where the mind needs to be calmed to touch one’s essence.

 

I lived in Vṛndāvana for 20 years without even a phone. I didn’t die of boredom; instead I remained absorbed in scripture, nama (meditation on God’s names), and seva (service). To be peaceful now I require the world at my doorstep with the click of a button, even while living in Vṛndāvanaa. Something is wrong. (MMG May 27, 2004)

 

If something was wrong then, then what to speak of now! Back then, I had to walk to the nearest market to even download my email! I recalled a talk that I listened to recently that seemed so relevant to the moment here.

 

Simon Sinek described how the constant use of social media has the same chemical effect on the brain as any form of addiction, from gambling to alcohol.[1] They all produce an inordinate amount of dopamine, the chemical in the brain that activates the nucleus accumbens, the brain’s pleasure or reward center.[2] In time, as the nucleus accumbens is over stimulated by dopamine, it naturally adapts, requiring one to take more and more of one’s desired substance to obtain the same dopamine “high”. Compulsion takes over, and one is addicted. And here’s the real point that struck me: “If you arise in the morning and the first thing you do is check your computer you are addicted!

 

OK, I am using “media” to research and write this. Certainly, it has many good uses. People who are isolated can be connected to spiritual events like never before. Compassionate souls may research the world to effectively comment on it with spiritual insight. Even Śrīla Prabhupada occasionally wrote or spoke on “that rascal Nixon” or “a prayer day in the US Senate” and other worldly events to illustrate his point. So yes, our renunciation of media should be balanced — we should only reject that which cannot be used in Krishna’s service.

 

But here’s the point. How much does one need in Krishna’s service? The cultured sādhu retired in Vṛndāvana didn’t need any. And how much do you actually require for the service of Krishna? If attentive chanting is our problem, or if we want to go much deeper into the holy name, perhaps this is the cause — too much absorption in what Śrīla Prabhupada called “the world of names”. One of the main obstacles to devotion is prajalpa, idle talk. Social media is idle talk on steroids. Add that to the dopamine induced impressions for endless social and frivolous distraction and is there any wonder why we don’t have sufficient taste for sitting in one place and focusing on the holy name without distraction?

 

Just imagine that you are sitting in Vṛndāvana at the end of your life chanting and hearing about Krishna. A new spiritual aspirant walks in and asks you what is the last thing you read in the news. After thinking for second you respond […] (fill in the blank of the last thing you heard on the news). Wouldn’t that be glorious!

 

“The great kings, leaders and soldiers fight with one another to perpetuate their names in history. They are forgotten in due course of time, and they make a place for another era of history. But the devotee realizes how much history and historical places are useless products of flickering time.” (Bhāg. 2.2.3, Purport)

 

 


[1] Simon Sinek on Millennials in the Workplace — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hER0Qp6QJNU

[2] This explanation of the effects of dopamine mentioned in Simon Sinek’s talk comes from article on addiction from Harvard Heath Publishing a division of Harvard Medical School. https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/how-addiction-hijacks-the-brain

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #26 – Cultural Procreation

July 1st, 2019

What the heck is “cultural procreation”? I made the term up. Well, not exactly — a friend of mine did, but I’m using the term he coined. The explanation of the title and its origins will come later in the article.

 

I want to speak about cultural appropriation. There are many examples of a dominant culture economically exploiting the treasures of a minority culture, or the dominant culture misrepresenting a disadvantaged culture sacrilegiously, or out of context. At the same time, I think that today’s blanket application of cultural appropriation as something immoral has gone too far.[1] Taking elements of another culture as your own has historically been more of a bridge to unity than a vehicle for denigration. What I would like to show in this article is how a truth with a limited application, such as cultural appropriation, becomes a passion, a truth extended far beyond its application, specifically as applied to my lineage, the bhakti tradition of India, which actively promotes sharing elements of its culture around the world as part of its teaching.

 

Before discussing this topic further, I think it is important to know exactly what culture is. Here’s one definition that I like: “Culture is the purposeful construction of one’s environment to help one relate, learn, and communicate more effectively.”[2] Of course, there are more general definitions of “culture” that are devoid of any uplifting objective. However, if we look at the earliest derivative of the word “culture” from the Latin cultura, which initially meant to prepare the land for crops, or its later biological usage as the suitable environment for the production of bacteria or other microorganisms, this sense of facilitating growth gives a more accurate sense of the meaning of “culture” than just an arbitrary collection of communal rituals and mores. It is also consistent with the meaning of Indian culture, which in its purest sense certainly cannot be divorced from spiritual and uplifting objectives, especially in the bhakti tradition of India.

 

When the aim of culture, and specifically the culture of bhakti, is to promote spiritual growth, why would the tradition object to the adoption and propagation of that culture by foreigners when intelligently and appropriately applied? Is not one of the foundational concepts of Indian philosophy to awaken our non-designated eternal spirit souls from their temporary bodily identification? In terms of welcoming others to adopt the path of bhakti, which necessarily includes at least some elements of its culture to facilitate its growth, there are many verses in traditional texts that mention the universal applicability of bhakti, down to listing specific nationalities, such as Germans, Turks, Greeks, and Chinese.[3] In fact, one of the hallmark signs of Śrī Caitanya’s bhakti movement is that a number of its greatest early teachers were formerly Muslims, either by birth or acculturation!

 

It is therefore ironic that those who claim to speak on behalf of the tradition by criticizing foreigners who adopt and promote the culture of India are themselves violating the tradition by claiming to speak for and impose on bhakti a postmodern view of cultural appropriation, which is antithetical to the tradition itself. The bhakti tradition vigorously fought for equal opportunity in Indian societal and religious life, based on one’s qualities, against the priestly class (caste brāhmaṇas) who wanted it restricted by birth. Denying foreigners the right to practice bhakti based on the doctrine of cultural appropriation, which disqualifies people from elements of bhakti culture simply by birth, only feeds into the foundation of the discredited Indian caste system. At its worst, is it not another form of racism?

 

Further, when the banner of cultural appropriation is raised, who exactly is speaking on behalf of the Indian people? Is it the people within the tradition itself? I have lived in India for over forty years. I came shortly after Śrīla Prabhupāda, my spiritual master, returned to India from the West with his foreign disciples specifically to help revive the culture of India, which was under siege by modernity. What was the overwhelming reaction of the people of India? Rather than see forces of cultural dominance, Indians overwhelmingly saw the Westerners adopting their culture with a sense of pride and liberation. For years the British, through Christian missionaries, tried to destroy its traditions, but now those same foreigners were adopting India’s traditions as their own.

 

Back to the title. When the thought of writing on cultural appropriation first came to mind, I shared the idea with a friend who has a sense humor. He either pretended to not hear me or didn’t understand what I said, and responded in jest, “Cultural procreation.” We laughed. Later, when writing the article and looking for a catchy title, I thought “Cultural Procreation” was perfect because my idea was that rather than bhakti practitioners being affronted by emulation of their culture, one of the principles of bhakti is that its teachings and culture should be reproduced around the world. Get it? Reproduced: Cultural Procreation.

 

 

 


[1] https://iskcondesiretree.com/profiles/blogs/bhakti-yoga-club-accused-of-cultural-appropriation-and-shut-down

[2] I don’t remember and can’t find where I read this definition of “culture”.

[3] Bhag. 2.4.18

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #25 – Betrayed!

June 24th, 2019

Last week I wrote about expediency, but it was beyond the scope of the entry to illustrate the concept with an example. I thought the example of how one responds to betrayal would be an excellent way to broach the subject of when dharma is brushed aside for the sake of an immediate advantage. There seems to be no deeper hurt and stronger impetus to strike back with vengeance than when someone one violates one’s trust. How to deal with being betrayed? I think the story of Vidura illustrates that best.

 

Vidura was renowned for his good counsel. When King Dhṛtarāṣṭra, his elder brother, called him, Vidura strongly advised him to instruct his son Duryodhana to return the legitimate share of the kingdom to his cousin Yudhiṣṭhira, which he had illegally usurped. He outlined in detail the ruin it would bring upon the King. Duryodhana overheard the conversation and immediately threatened his uncle:

 

“Who asked him to come here, the son of a kept mistress? He is so crooked that he spies in the interest of the enemy against those on whose support he has grown up. Toss him out of the palace immediately and leave him with only his breath.” (Bhāg. 3.1.15)

 

How painful! Not only was he thrown out of the palace in his twilight years without any possessions, a kingdom that he served so humbly and selflessly his whole life, but he was also deeply insulted. What was especially painful was that it was true. Although Vidura shared the same father with Dhṛtarāṣṭra, his mother was not the queen, but a maidservant. Vidura thus dropped his bow at the door and immediately left “being pierced by arrows through the ears and afflicted to the core of his heart” (Bhāg. 3.1.16). Yes indeed he was hurt, but how he dealt with his betrayal was exemplary.

 

The Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam describes his attitude: “He was not sorry, for he considered the acts of the external energy to be supreme” (Bhāg. 3.1.16). In other words, although Duryodhana betrayed him, he understood that nothing moves without the sanction of God. He thus saw the same energy that was moving Duryodhana to offense and destruction was giving him a greater opportunity to fully engage in devotional service.

 

The lesson from Vidura is clear. When betrayed, don’t just look at māyā as God’s energy entangling someone who is hurting you. See it also as His illuminating energy moving the world for your enlightenment. If you focus on māyā externally in terms of its illusory effect on your perpetrator, your bitterness and victimhood will only increase. If you see, however, that same māyā internally in terms of helping you grow, your bitterness will reduce and your consciousness will elevate. In his purport to this verse, Śrīla Prabhupāda describes how Vidura was able to properly observe the workings of God’s energy: “Māyā, the supreme energy of the Lord acted both internally and externally”.[1]

 

I was also reminded of Socrates in viewing betrayal in this way. After serving his country by virtue of his wisdom and example, the government turned on him. He was falsely accused and condemned to die. His only request was to address his judge and jury, the senate of Greece. He looked at them intently and delivered his message: “If you think you can harm me, you will not harm me, you will only harm yourself.” He thus saw his apparent betrayal in the same way as Vidura. Real harm is to be disconnected from the soul, so if you harm another for your advantage it is actually your ruin, but if you see it as God’s will it’s a blessing to bring you closer to Krishna.

 

“Every betrayal contains a perfect moment, a coin stamped heads and tails with salvation on the other side.” — Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible

 


[1] There are also specific philosophical terms for this phenomenon. When māyā works to further one’s devotion it is called yogamāyā, the internal potency, and when it moves to further one’s material entanglement it is called mahamāyā, the external potency.

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #24 – Damn the Expedient!

June 17th, 2019

It bothers me when people, knowingly or unknowingly, neglect or minimize what is right for what they see as convenient or practical. It is called expediency. Perhaps that bothers all of us, but I know it especially irks me.

 

People who manage under pressure seem particularly susceptible to minimizing or neglecting what is proper for what is seemingly practical, but all of us are challenged regularly with such choices, especially when the right choice is somewhat subtle. In such situations, only the thoughtful and saintly can consistently avoid the lure of seeking a material advantage, which risks their soul, in lieu of what is right.

 

Risk their soul? For each step forward in life we have a myriad of choices to make, some more crucial than others. The soul is consciousness that reaches its fulfillment in selflessness or devotion. Dharma is the science of making the choice that moves one towards a clearer conception of the self. All other choices, by the nature of being self-serving, only further obscure that vision. So yes, expediency is at the cost of the soul.

 

It is no wonder, therefore, that this promotion of dharma and the concomitant warning against expediency rests at the root of classical Indian thought. In fact, one of the most famous moral guides in India is the Kauṭilya Sūtras (aphorisms) by Cāṇakya Paṇḍita, which was written specifically to temper the lure of expediency by promoting dharma, especially for those in positions of leadership. The first aphorism sets the tone for the book by highlighting the fruit of dharma, doing what is right in the face of expediency.

 

sukhasya mūlaṁ dharmaḥ

The root of happiness is dharma, righteousness.

 

If the Kauṭilya Sūtras is one of the most prominent moral guidebooks in classical Indian literature, the Bhagavad-gītā is the most prominent book of classical Indian thought in terms of applying spirituality in daily life. The same message that dharma, not expedience, leads to auspiciousness is also stressed there. That can especially be seen in the profound connection between its first and last verse, which is significant, as the first and last verse of a book are one of the important indications of a book’s theme according to classical hermeneutics. Here is something I wrote about in a previous Monday Morning Greetings:

 

In the very first verse of the Gītā, King Dhṛtarāṣṭra inquires from Sañjaya, his mystical advisor, about the impending battle at Kurukṣetra between his sons and the sons of Pāṇḍu led by Arjuna:

 

‘Dhṛtarāṣṭra said: O Sañjaya, after assembling in the place of pilgrimage at Kurukṣetra, what did my sons and the sons of Pāṇḍu do, being desirous to fight?’

 

The commentators explain that Dhṛtarāṣṭra is concerned with how the holy place will influence the battle, but that he expected victory in this ugly fratricidal war because of the greater size of his son’s army.[1] The verse also forebodes victory for the sons of Pāṇḍu. The battlefield is a place of pilgrimage (dharma-kṣetra) and Krishna, who upholds and protects dharma (righteousness), is on their side.

 

The last verse of the Gītā states its conclusion and answers Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s initial inquiry definitively:

 

‘Wherever there is Krishna, the master of all mystics, and wherever there is Arjuna, the supreme archer, there will also certainly be opulence, victory, extraordinary power, and morality. That is my opinion.’

 

The connection seems obvious, although I have never seen it stated. The first verse is a view of the battle through the eyes of a materialist filled with anxiety about a situation he cannot control, calculating success based on one’s personal power rather than doing what’s right. In contrast the last verse, spoken by his advisor Sañjaya is a view of that same world through the eyes of a spiritualist, seeing success or victory not by expedience or material superiority, but by choosing righteousness or dharmaDharma here is represented by the presence of Krishna, the master of all mystics, and His devotee Arjuna, the supreme archer.” (“The Talking Book”, Monday Morning Greetings 2017 #48)

 

So the Gītā also says, “Damn the Expedient!” I pray never again to fall prey to it.

 

“Cowardice asks: Is it safe? Expediency asks: Is it politic? But conscience asks: Is it right?” — William Morley Punshon

 

 

 


[1] Before the battle the sons of Dhṛtarāṣṭra were given the choice of either Krishna or Krishna’s armies. They chose Krishna’s armies which gave them even more confidence in their military superiority. It proved to have been an expedient choice.

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #23 – Our Decisions Determine Our Fate

June 10th, 2019

What we are now has been determined by the decisions we made in the past, and if that is true, what we will be in the future will be determined by the decisions we make now. There is practically not a day that goes by when we don’t have some decisions that are crucial to our future well-being. How to make the right choice?

 

Intuition

God rests in our heart and directs us from within. The force of intuition is very powerful, and sometimes the message is so strong and undeniable that the right decision becomes clear. The voices of God, however, is not the only thing in our hearts. Our hearts are also filled with the voices of ambition and desire, so how do we distinguish that what we are hearing is the direction of God?

 

Consultation

The voice of God is manifest externally through the bona-fide teacher and also via consultation with qualified peers. It is easy to find out what to do if we have the courage to accept the authority of those who are learned and wise. We are not children, however. We can’t live our life day-to-day looking for someone to tell us what to do, nor is that resource always available. Furthermore, although the guidelines to make the right decision are available through our teacher, our individual frame of reference by which to apply those guidelines, which includes our psychological capability and our personal history, is not always fully privy to others. In that case, responsibility for our final decision becomes solely ours. If we are still confused in such cases, what to do?

 

Sincerity

We often reject what is right even though the voice of God in the heart, or the voice of God through our teachers, is loud and clear. Simply put, we are naturally deaf to instructions we don’t like. Therefore, the most important thing in making the right decisions is the deep sincerity to want the truth whether we like it or not. Why would God not reveal the truth to a sincere soul who opens his heart to His will? That is often done through the voice of destiny.

 

Destiny as the language of God

God speaks to us in response to our heartfelt desire to make the right choices by moving the world around us to teach us lessons. What is the purpose of karma if not to convey a message from God? Sometimes, when we are not hearing His will, He speaks louder and louder and the challenges in our life become heavier and heavier. If what God is telling us still remains an enigma, as it often does, we can approach the Vaiṣṇavas, those who are fluent in the language of destiny. Advanced devotees can explain destiny, for they know the śāstra, which is, for all practical purposes, a dictionary of destiny. In other words, it explains what certain archetypal karmic situations mean, which learned and realized souls can apply to our life to help us understand the meaning of what is happening to us and how to respond practically.

 

Here is how it works

The topics I write are mostly things that I am thinking about at the time. So yes, I am presently on a quest for answers to a dilemma that has arisen. I first went into my heart to unconditionally seek God’s will. Although for years these questions have arisen on and off in my mind, by doing this God’s voice became unexpectedly clearer. To be certain of my choice, however, I have also opened my heart to the advice of respected well-wishers, in addition to carefully watching my destiny to see if there are any signs to confirm what I think is God’s direction.

 

An intelligent person moves thoughtfully in the world seeking God’s will, for dharma, the right decision, always leads to auspiciousness. How important to sincerely seek the will of God, for our decisions determine our future.

 

 

 

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