Monday Morning Greetings 2020 #12 – The Trick of Turning Weakness into Strength: Part 1

March 23rd, 2020

The Trick of Turning Weakness into Strength: Part 1 [1]

 

He was trying to be a devotee of Krishna. That didn’t mean his anger was gone. I briefly glanced his way in the hall of the Boston temple. I tried not to stare. He was just standing there, but I could sense the intense anger brewing inside. Growing up in New York, I have seen that type of silent fury before. I kept my distance. He had recently hit rock bottom in life and was desperate enough to seek help for his heroin addiction by enrolling in a twelve-step Narcotics Anonymous program on the urging of a friend. The program touched his soul. Despite his anger and pain, he was a devotee and sincere. Thus, he was soon able to leverage the program to break his habit.

 

I don’t remember exactly how, but as he kept visiting the temple, we soon became friends. That was more than thirty-five years ago. We often discussed the recovery literature he was reading. I was impressed by how much they paralleled my understanding of Krishna consciousness and yoga psychology. In our discussions, I was even able to analyze how the recovery process worked based on the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam. I will share that analysis here, but more importantly was an insight I got from that exploration about the path of bhakti. Our analysis begins with the first three steps.

 

  1. Admit that we are powerless over alcohol — that our lives have become unmanageable.
  2. Believe that a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity.
  3. Decide to turn our will and lives over to the care of God, as we understand them.

 

Analysis of why the twelve-step program is so effective:

 

The root cause of addiction is the deep hole of pain in the heart for affection and positive affirmation that one mistakenly tries to fill with an alcohol or drug induced high. Feeling a fleeting euphoria that deadens one’s pain, one becomes addicted to a relief that, in the long run, only increases the selfishness and lack of affection that is at the root of one’s despair and consequent addiction. By admitting that addiction has made one helpless (the first step) and by seeking God’s help (the second and third step), one has embraced the humble position. Humility allows one to shed the feelings of pride that cover the soul from the feelings of love and connection with God. Pride filters feelings of love, just like the feelings of entitlement in a spoiled child prevents him from feeling the parent’s affection no matter how much they give him out of love. Anyway, these initial spiritual feelings invoked by the humble position, which begin to assuage the need in one’s heart for mercy or kindness, give one the courage and inspiration to continue the humble work of recovery outlined in the remaining steps.[2]

 

The important insight that I gleaned from the twelve-step program that I think has profound application to those on the path of bhakti is how weakness, even moral or character weakness, can lead to strength. Obviously, our moral failings do not serve our Krishna consciousness. However, we are all, even the very sincere, plagued with imperfections. If we use our imperfections, however, even our moral weaknesses, to reflect on our helplessness and humbly increase our dependence on God, then even such weaknesses can be transformed into the greatest strength, the power of humility to invoke grace.

 

Let me finish with an oft-recited verse that touches this same point; if we can use the weakness in our character to depend on God, then our weakness has found its strength. Sounds a lot like the twelve-step program.

 

“Having awakened faith in the narrations of My glories, being disgusted with all material activities, knowing that all sense gratification leads to misery, but still being unable to renounce all sense enjoyment, My devotee should remain happy and worship Me with great faith and conviction. Even though he is sometimes engaged in sense enjoyment, My devotee knows that all sense gratification leads to a miserable result, and he sincerely repents such activities.” (Bhag. 11.20.27-28) [emphasis mine]

 

 


[1] In future journal entries, besides finding the strength in moral weakness, which I will discuss in this entry, I will also discuss transforming the weakness of our bad karma, the qualities we have that seemingly lack fortune, and the things that happen to us that are radically different than what we want.

[2] I am not an expert on the twelve-step program. Those who are in recovery, please forgive me if in my analysis I say something that is not completely accurate.

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2020 #11 – Bead Bags and Bhakti

March 16th, 2020

I don’t know if it was the effect of sitting quietly in a peaceful holy place or just the result of a spiritually inspiring time of life, which counter-intuitively often means a time when things are not particularly going your way, but my japa here at Surya Kuṇḍa, my place of pilgrimage today, was deeper than usual. There was a type of yearning where there seemed to be not much of a filter between my heart and Krishna. I thought about what had just transpired, a call for Krishna so much richer than usual, and thought about why. I had a realization:

 

Pure bhakti is done from the platform of the soul unfettered by the various external identities that bind one to the body and ego, like caste, ethnicity, gender, and so on. To the extent that your spiritual practices are mired by such material designation is the extent to which you have placed a filter between your soul and the energy of God. What does that mean? If our chanting is careless and inattentive and diverted to thoughts based on our material identities, to that extent our chanting will be somewhat anchored by those designations and will not spontaneously flow from the heart. If somehow or other, however, we ground ourselves in the soul, our temporary designations will recede. Our heart then will flow to the holy name without obstruction.

 

This concept of beginning our spiritual practice from a place beyond material identification is the basis of all meditative items of devotional service. For example, before worshipping the deity bhūta-śuddhi is performed, which literally means to purify the elements of our physical and mental body. At the minimum it entails that we at least intellectually rise above, if not actually transcend, the bodily concept of life, by meditating on the following prayer from the Padyāvalī:

 

“I am not a brāhmaṇa, kṣatriya, vaiśya or śūdra. I am not a brahmacārī, gṛhastha, vānaprastha or sannyāsī. What am I? I am the eternal servant of the servant of the servant of Śrī Krishna, the master of the gopīs.” (Padyāvalī 63)

 

In a similar way, one should begin japa meditation with a firm resolve to resist the lethargy and distraction that mires us in the material thoughts that reinforce the bodily concept of life. Serious sādhakas, therefore, usually begin their practices with a few minutes of selected prayer to inspire full concentration on the meaning of the mantra and to help their meditation touch their heart.

 

I felt especially empowered today to chant in this way. What struck me most, and what I wanted to share, is that it felt free from designations. Of course, still it is our responsibility to act in this world through those many designations—from gender, family, institutional, and varṇāśrama roles—to perform our duties properly. Chanting, however, should be done from the platform of the soul by petitioning the mood of humility and service that attempt to reflect our eternal nature. Now to bead bags and bhakti.

 

Traditionally, no matter what ashram or gender one belonged to, bead bags were always white in color, which indicated purity or beyond the material body (paramahaṁsa). In other words, when we sit down to chant, we don’t chant as a sannyāsī in varṇāśrama with a saffron bead bag to fortify the conception of a renunciate, or a woman with a designer bead bag matching her sari to fortify the “I am fashionable” conception. Again, the same point is that chanting should be done strictly from the platform of the soul.

 

Of course, dress is external and not the main point. The greatest paramahaṁsa can have any colored bead bag they want. The greatest fool can imitate the dress of a paramahaṁsa. I am just explaining this tradition to fortify my original realization—we should always chant the names of our beloved Lord without attachment and with freedom from material designation.

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2020 #10 – Krishna-bhakti, the Rasa Theory, and How to Attain Ultimate Happiness

March 9th, 2020

To understand what ultimate happiness is in the Krishna-bhakti tradition, you first have to understand the concept of rasa.

Rasa, in its broadest meaning, is the flavor of a specific all-consuming emotional experience that forms the subject of a drama. For example, in tragedy all we can think of is our loss; In an intense romance all we can think about is our lover. The originator of classic Indian aesthetics, Bharata Muni, propounded that such heightened emotional experiences should all fall within one of eight categories: rati (romance), hāsya (humor), śoka (tragedy), krodha (anger), utsāha (chivalry), bhaya (horror), jugupsā (disgust), and vismaya (awe).

In the Nāṭya Śāstra, Bharata Muni’s seminal scripture of dramatic theory, he outlines how to expertly compose a classical drama so that a qualified audience can experience the rasa that a particular drama is portraying. But, according to Bharata Muni, it was more than just entertainment. There was a spiritual purpose behind it, similar to the Greek concept of catharsis. A proper drama could lift one beyond the mundane to experience the essence of one’s own consciousness or soul and inspire one to reflect on the spiritual.

Several aestheticians after Bharata Muni continued to develop this relationship between drama and religious experience, most prominently Abhinavagupta, a Kashmiri Śaivite. Śrī Rūpa Gosvāmī of the Krishna-bhakti tradition brought the rasa theory even further. He found that the stories of Krishna as described in the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam were perfectly composed according to Bharata Muni’s rasa theory, the only difference being that a new rasa, bhakti-rasa, the overwhelming experience of loving devotion in relationship to the Divine, was being described. This brings up an interesting question. If the Nāṭya Śāstra is the apparent origin of the rasa theory, how could the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, which predates the Nāṭya Śāstra by at least a thousand years, be perfectly composed according to Bharata Muni’s rasa theory? What Śrī Rupa’s discovery implies is that the ultimate reality is bhakti-rasa, and thus the apparently original rasa theory of Bharata is inspired by and has its source in the eternal realm, a view that is supported by oft quoted, “truly, the Lord is rasa” (raso vai saḥ) of the Taittirīya Upaniṣad (2.7.1), a treatise that also substantially predates the Nāṭya Śāstra.

This statement, that God is the one who enjoys the ultimate rasa, also means that we can share that rapture with God, for in all loving relationships, in this case between the soul and God, the joy of loving exchange is a shared one. In other words, according to Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, and confirmed by the Taittirīya Upaniṣad, the ultimate happiness is the flavor or rasa of sharing a relationship with God. In the case of the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, this is exemplified through Krishna’s pastimes.

Rasa theory, as applied to bhakti, has one other very significant point about ultimate happiness. As mentioned before, the purpose of drama is to recreate an overwhelming emotion so that the qualified audience is able to experience it. As the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam is a perfectly composed drama about the pastimes of Krishna, it thus has the dramatic power to make you experience bhakti as originally manifest in the ultimate reality. Hearing the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam from a qualified speaker can thus engender in a sincere listener bhakti-rasa, the ultimate happiness. In the third introductory text of the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam the author thus implores the reader:

“O expert and thoughtful men, relish Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, the mature fruit of the desire tree of Vedic literatures. It emanated from the lips of Śrī Śukadeva Gosvāmī. Therefore this fruit has become even more tasteful, although its nectarean juice [rasam] was already relishable for all, including liberated souls.”

 

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2020 #9 – The Black Swan (Not the Movie)

March 2nd, 2020

I bought a book in the airport: 50 Philosophy Classics from the 50 Classic Series by Tom Butler-Bowdon. My idea was to skim through the summaries of the fifty classics to see if I could recognize a truth that was conceptualized and expressed in an especially inspiring way. As a writer, I am always looking for fresh material.

 

I liked that each classic had an “in a nutshell” summary that enabled me to judge which ones I thought would be worth reading and which ones I thought would not. For example, “Nicomachean Ethics” by Aristotle seemed interesting: “Happiness comes from what we have rationally decided is good for us over the longer term. Happiness is not pleasure, but a by-product of a meaningful life.” I found the idea of materialism expressed in “The Ego Trick” by Julian Baggini quite unappealing: “The brain and body provide us with a strong and continuous sense of self, which gives us freedom to create who we are.”

 

My search was not exactly what I expected. Summarizing and clearly expressing deep philosophical conceptions is a daunting task for any author. 50 Philosophy Classics was, therefore, not easy reading. What I did get while briefly going through the book was more faith in my own tradition. The Vedas teach that truth is manifest and recorded simultaneously with the manifestation of the creation and preserved through bona-fide lineages of teachers. To be connected to that gives one a sound metaphysical standard to gauge the validity of all philosophical speculations. I will try to demonstrate that by analyzing just one of the classics in the book, The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

 

The title of the book and Taleb’s philosophical message come from a particular historical phenomenon that he read about. Until a black swan was sighted by early explorers in Western Australia, people not only assumed that swans were white, but they were, in fact, even defined in that way. From this event Taleb developed an entire theory of events and causality. He postulated that things that happen against all expectations, which he named “black swans”, had a much more extreme and important impact on history and one’s life. These include, for example, anything from the unexpected spread of great ideas and powerful religions to dynamic historical events that no one foresaw, like the rise of Hitler or the spread of the Internet, and so on. Accepting this fact of randomness as it applies to the world and one’s life rather than a strictly causal or linear perspective, he concluded, is the first step in succeeding in the world. Here is how 50 Classics sums up “in a nutshell” the import of The Black Swan:

 

“We want to make the world an orderly place, but the frequency of truly unexpected events should tell us that we really don’t know what causes things.”

 

Taleb therefore concludes, “black swan logic ‘makes what you don’t know far more relevant that what you do know’, because it is the unexpected that shapes our lives.”

 

Now a brief analysis of The Black Swan from the perspective of Vedic teachings, starting with the part of Taleb’s teaching that I found reasonably congruent with what you would find in the Vedas.

 

Taleb saw an obvious weakness in human psychology. We impose order and control beyond our capacity to do so. Living in that way makes one more fearful and frustrated. In other words, to see the world too much as linear and predictable according to the way we want it is a recipe for disaster. As we are not the controller, what happens in our lives and the world around us is highly unpredictable. I think Taleb got this right. Unless we temper our hope for a world that is stable around our control and desires, we will always live in uncertainty and disappointment and be sorely unprepared for the unpredictable.

 

While I think Taleb’s insight is important, Vedic perspective gives much more depth. While certainly the world is beyond our control, he is wrong when he says that the world moves haphazardly and without meaning. The Vedic perspective teaches us that unexpected events, while far beyond our control, do not happen randomly. They are the result of the law of karma. They come to teach us important lessons essential to elevating us to a higher level of realization and satisfaction, which can be ascertain by the sacred texts under the guidance of one who understands and realizes them.

 

The frustration in writing Monday Morning Greetings is that the subjects I sometimes pick deserve elucidation far beyond the words I have limited myself to. However, I hope you get the gist of the point about the conviction I felt. “Veda” means knowledge. Connection to Vedic knowledge therefore gives a tool of understanding to put into context all philosophical speculations, and certainly The Black Swan — not the movie.

 

“When God is digging a ditch to throw us in, he is actually making a well to quench our thirst.” — Rumi

 

“We think in the future it will only get better, but actually it gets worse.” — Tamal Krishna Goswami

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2020 #8 – Perception, Contentment, and Fake News

February 24th, 2020

The black snake was still sitting on the last step of the ghāṭa. It hadn’t moved one inch since I initially saw it when descending the stairs for my bath. A little fearful, I stopped suddenly and walked fifty meters to a safer spot. I didn’t have my glasses, so I had to squint intently to see why the snake was seemingly motionless. Oh, it was just a ripped black tire! I had an epiphany.

 

All problems are perceptual and not actual. I felt threatened by the black snake, but what was my problem? Was it what was actually there or perceptual — what I thought was there?

 

The best example of a perceptual problem is death. When we lose what we are attached to, we suffer. At death we seemingly lose our very existence. We are, however, eternal. Therefore, death itself is only the illusion of non-existence and, in that sense, not an actual problem.

 

Every school of spirituality and self-improvement is based on overcoming perceptual or illusory problems. For example, the main focus of the yogic process is to conquer distress and invoke contentment by purifying one’s perception, which is distorted by the static of thoughts born of ego.

 

Yoga corrects one’s vision by bringing the mind to sattva, which means the true nature of being. The original or corrected nature of the mind, which is like a mirror or lens, is one that is not distorted or dirty. The yogic technique for bringing the mirror of the mind to its functional or true state is called meditation. By concentrating on one thought, the other distorted thoughts are quelled. The lens of the mind thus gradually moves to the platform of sattva, a higher level of perception and contentment, which is the main symptom of sattva.

 

Similarly, in its own way, modern psychology seeks to help solve one’s mental problems by giving one a higher perspective of them. Traumas, phobias, and anxieties, for example, are distortions of one’s thinking and perception. An expert in psychology may help one to identify irrational patterns of thought that skew one’s perception and cause distress. He or she then helps one to change those patterns of thought hoping to bring one to a higher level of perception and contentment.

 

The purpose of the law of karma is to elevate our vision by putting us in situations that help us to better understand the world and ourselves. In that way, all schools of thought serve a singular purpose: to enlighten us or to elevate our perception to make us content or happy.

 

I was inspired to write this Monday Morning Greetings on the relationship between perception and our mental state by reflecting on the ability of the internet to promote fake news, create false narratives, and to influence people to live mostly in a polarized world of hate. When it is used in this way, and it seems to increasingly serve this purpose, it is certainly not in itself pramāṇa, a valid means to help us understand and live in reality. It is surely not the world where the saintly reside. Śrīla Prabhupāda therefore condemned such media strongly:

 

“To read ordinary literature and books or newspapers [internet][1] is compared to the pleasure place of crows. The crows, they are very much attached to the rejected refuse, garbage.” (Lecture on Bhag. 2.3.17, Los Angeles, July 12, 1969)

 

 


[1] There was no internet when this was written, but now the internet serves as the modern source of news in every way.

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2020 #7 – Rāgānugā-bhakti and the Art of Management

February 17th, 2020

Rāgānugā-bhakti is about doing things from the heart. Management is mostly about organization and policies. Can they be reconciled?

 

People who have been on my retreats notice that I am a stickler for the details of managing it.  During my Puri retreat, one younger devotee noticed how intensely I was making sure that the prasādam was served according to traditional Vaiṣṇava standards and joked that they were surprised that a Vrajavāsī was so much into vaidhī-bhakti.[1] Although the comment was innocent, and they were, in fact, appreciating what I was doing, I could see that they had some misunderstanding about what rāgānugā-bhakti, or spontaneous devotional service, is. I quickly replied in the form of questions to help them reconcile the concepts of management and spontaneous devotion.

 

When there is good management, you don’t see the management. When there is bad management, all you see is the management. Which is more conducive to rāgānugā-bhakti?

 

When Krishna arrives home in the evening “as required according the scheduled round of each pastime”[2] is His adherence to time an imposition on His līlā or pastimes, or an asset to it?

 

After arriving home in the evening from the cow pasture, Krishna’s mother bathes, dresses, and decorates Him so that He may join the other men and boys in the community for the scheduled milking of the cows. Was her attention to detail and time connected to her motherly devotion, or her desire to advance in religiosity by doing her duty?

 

Krishna’s day is described in books like Govinda-līlāmrita as aṣṭa-kālīya-līlā, the eight-fold daily pastimes, meaning that His daily activities are scheduled practically down to the minute. If Krishna’s activities are scheduled so rigidly by His līlā-śakti, or pastime potency, how can we say that keeping things orderly is antithetical to spontaneous devotion?

 

Śrīla Raghunātha dāsa Gosvāmī is recognized as the prayojana-ācārya, the authority on prema-bhakti. His practices, like chanting and paying hundreds of obeisances to the Vaiṣṇavas, were so fixed that they are described as like the lines on a stone. Considering whom Raghunātha dāsa Gosvāmī was, how we can divorce his mood of rigid discipline from the realm of the highest devotion?

 

Kirtan is described as “when the bhava in the heart is expressed through the discipline of music”.[3]  Is the effort to make a beautiful kirtan within the parameters of classical musical discipline enhancing or obstructing spontaneous devotion?

 

At the Ratha Yatra festival in Puri, Śrī Caitanya meticulously organized the kirtan into four parties with six chanters in each party: one lead singer and five to accompany him. He then assigned two expert mṛdaṅga players to each party. In addition, he made sure the dancing was appropriate by assigning one lead dancer to each party. Śrī Caitanya came to give rāgānugā-bhakti. Was His strict oversight of the kirtan party a result of His spontaneous devotion or something else?

 

Śrī Radha learned sixty-four arts in order to please Krishna. Among them were carpentry (takṣaṇa), engineering (vastu-vidyā), mechanics (yantra-mātṛkā), and enforcing discipline (vaināyikī vidyā). Why then can’t we manage on the platform of spontaneous devotion for the pleasure of Krishna?

 

I think it is obvious by the questions I raised that one on the level of spontaneous devotion is not limited in what one does for Krishna’s service, including regulation and organization. It is thus not the activity that makes something spontaneous devotion, but the inspiration or impetus for doing it. Can rāgānugā-bhakti be reconciled with organization and management? As long as it’s born out of the deepest intimate love for Śrī Krishna, then why not?

 


[1] Vaidhī-bhakti is devotion inspired by faith in the potency of following the rules or prescriptions of devotion. Rāgānugā-bhakti, or devotion following the eternal residents of Vṛndāvana, is devotion inspired by one’s intimate relationship with Krishna.

[2] Bhāg. 10.13.23

[3] This is a definition of kirtan from the Sikh tradition from an article by Satyahari Singh published in the Journal of Vaiṣṇava Studies.

Monday Morning Greetings 2020 #6 – A Humbling Realization

February 10th, 2020

I have been here in Vṛndāvana for forty-three years, but in terms of attaining pure devotion the amount of time in a holy place isn’t the main prerequisite. What really matters is one’s firm internal commitment to surrender to Krishna. After coming to the path of bhakti that could take lifetimes, or it could happen in a moment.

 

A leader in Krishna consciousness who is allured by distinction and admiration may not attain the platform of pure devotion after decades of service, while a beginner who humbly feels impelled to take full shelter of guru and Krishna, perhaps after a lifetime of suffering, may get the full force of bhakti at once. It all depends on when one pulls up the anchor of selfish attachment and surrenders fully to guru and Krishna. A well-known tale illustrates this point.

 

The wedding party traveled all night by boat to arrive at their destination. To their dismay, upon awakening they were in exactly the same spot as when they began. Upset, they brought their complaint to the boatman, who initially defended himself vigorously. After all, he had rowed all night. He, however, soon became contrite when a person in the wedding party pointed out that he had forgotten to pull up the anchor.

 

The story illustrates my humbling realization. My many years staying in Vṛndāvana is just not a badge of spiritual attainment to be worn by itself. One must fully pull up the chain of selfish desire and come to that point of unconditional surrender, something that can be done at once providing one is inspired with the fortitude and conviction to do so.

 

I have been helping to host a group of pilgrims from the USA this past week, people relatively new to the path of bhakti. Many attend my evening class. There is some raw sincerity here. I have practically never seen people immediately dive so deeply with full heart into the holy name. The thought then crossed my mind: They have a chance to commit to bhakti immediately in a way that has taken me many years to attain, or more honestly, I have still yet to attain. Why not?

 

I am not minimizing the determination of those who stay committed to the path of bhakti for many years. There is something so glorious about that. I am just pointing out a fact — that the fruit of such determination and grace is the point of full surrender, which opens the door to the genuine sentiments of one’s eternal relationship with Krishna. That point generally takes years or lifetimes of practice to attain, or it is something that can also be achieved at once by someone who has the intelligence and strength to do so.

 

“Nonetheless, the living entities are constantly being bewildered by this very same illusory energy. In his conditioned state, the living entity discovers many forms of word jugglery to get apparent liberation from the clutches of Māyā, but if he sincerely surrenders unto Kṛṣṇa by simply once saying ‘My dear Lord Kṛṣṇa, from this day I am Yours,’ he at once gets out of the clutches of the material energy.” (Teachings of Lord Caitanya, ch. 11)

 

A stone in a glass of water will not absorb anything even if resting there for thousand years. A piece of cotton will be drenched in a minute. After so many years the same choice remains, “Stone or cotton?” How humbling!

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2020 #5 – Traveling Makes a Man Old

February 3rd, 2020

I just don’t do well traveling. I am so disoriented from the day-long travel from Puri that the travail of traveling is the only realization I have to write about. Let’s see what I can say.

 

Śrīla Prabhupāda circled the globe twelve times in ten years, beginning after the age of seventy, yet wherever he arrived, he automatically clicked into his daily schedule without losing a beat. To me that’s unimaginable.

 

I am not Śrīla Prabhupāda. I become unsettled and inefficient after even a short jaunt. By my nature, travel is especially tough. Although, in general, modern travel is burdensome in ways for everyone. I remember the cautions of an Āyurvedic doctor:

 

“Anytime you travel faster than a bullock cart it blows out the fire of digestion. If you change your environment it takes seventy-two hours to adjust physiologically to the new air, water, food, and so on. Quick movement exacerbates the mode of passion, which is not good for the mind.”

 

A spiritual mentor offered an insight:

 

“People used to walk days or weeks to arrive in Vṛndāvana. Their minds would arrive in Vṛndāvana days or weeks before their bodies. Today we fly to Vṛndāvana. Our minds arrive days after our bodies.”

 

Whenever I go to the holy dhāma, the first thing I try to do is to bathe in a holy river or lake. It is the quickest way to help my mind arrive in the place where my body rests. Another way is to circumambulate Vṛndāvana proper. Haven’t had a chance for that either. I’ll go tomorrow.

 

My service of speaking and writing requires a clear mind. Efficient memory is very much a product of the mode of goodness. If my mind is not calm and clear it is hard to keep a fluid train of thought, or to quickly access the memory for an important reference to enhance my point.

 

The passion of travel has stolen that, at least for a few days. It’s Thursday; I am just beginning this week’s post. What happened? It has become near impossible to write.

 

I have to be fair. Traveling can also have a substantial upside. When we stay in one place, we tend to build our environment according to our desires and material identity. That’s natural. We need a level of satisfaction and peace to even pursue our dharma or spiritual life, but it can also fortify the conception that one is the doer, attach one to the temporary, and create the illusion that family and home are the ultimate reality. When mature, those who seek to loosen those conceptions and who have appropriately satisfied their responsibilities traditionally retire from material life. They wander in the forest bereft of their material protective agents to learn that we are not the doer and that God is actually our maintainer and protector.

 

Of course, like many strictures of the past, one must seek the principle they represent and intelligently apply it to their present situation. However, there is something to be said about leaving one’s comforts and travelling for a spiritual purpose where one is forced to face situations that challenge one’s control and foster faith and dependence on God. All true, but my service now is to stay in Vṛndāvana. I need to be here in the proper mind-set.

 

I just finished parikramā of Vṛndāvana. It was just a two-hour jaunt. I even wore shoes and socks for the first time on the now-paved road, which traditionally is navigated barefoot out of respect. I can’t believe it. How did I get a huge blister despite thick socks and footwear? Is this Vṛndāvana monk, who has lived here for over forty-three years, getting too soft? Anyway, I have finally entered the dhāma, but only after suffering the import of the maxim:

 

“Traveling makes a man old.”[1]

 

 

 


[1] Cāṇakya Paṇḍita

Monday Morning Greetings 2020 #4 – Oldies but Goldies

January 27th, 2020

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 seva, 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 2020 #3 – How to Get a Taste for Bhakti

January 20th, 2020

In the progressive step-by-step levels of bhakti, in order to reach the stage of ruci (taste) one first has to come to the level of niṣṭha, which means to be fixed or steady. In order to set the tone for our discussion, here’s a simple example based on the Bhagavad-gītā that illustrates the connection between fixedness and taste in bhakti.

 

Krishna says in Bhagavad-gītā that He is the taste of water. That statement always puzzled me. Isn’t water neutral? Doesn’t water only become tasty when something is added to it? I never really resolved this minor conundrum until I visited Hrishikesh, where I drank the pure Ganga coming from the mountains before it flows through the plains of India and mixes with the minerals of the ground. I had an epiphany. Ahh, so tasty! Yes, this is the taste of water, when water is just water, unmixed with anything else. In fact, when water is pure we call it “sweet water”. Similarly, when we attain niṣṭha and become fixed in devotion, when our devotion is not mixed with anything else, we come to the stage of ruci, sweet or tasty devotion. Simply put, water is tasty when water is just water, and similarly devotion is tasty when devotion is just devotion.

 

The first principle, therefore, in gaining taste for bhakti is to gain this understanding or conviction that without a concerted effort to become more concentrated and fixed in your devotion, whether it is in your practices or life, your taste for bhakti will not substantially deepen. In terms of practically doing that, or achieving any spiritual goal, the most important thing is first to have the right understanding and conviction. That is the point I am making here, and it has certainly been my experience with nurturing my taste in devotion. In that regard, I will share something somewhat personal.

 

What I write is what I am thinking at the time, so my focus lately has naturally been on how to increase taste. Every morning after breakfast I take a short walk to chant some more rounds. My practice then is much more casual than in the early morning when I sit in one place and meditate. Still, this conception, the one I am writing about, kept on coming into my mind, inspiring me to remain focused so that my devotion could become just devotion. I felt the difference. It became so clear. Without the right conception in the forefront of our minds, it is just too easy to become casual and close the door to the taste of devotion. Other thoughts about this subject kept arising throughout the week related to the subject at hand.

 

I thought a lot about the nature of the mind. As the mind always seeks distraction and change, it is the enemy of fixity and taste. We must therefore, according to our capacity for meditation, set aside an exclusive time and place for meditation unmixed with the distraction of other interests and responsibility where we can be free to observe the mind and fix it on the holy name. In terms of fixing the mind, japa is very powerful, but it takes practice. Without some concerted effort for meditation, without some practice where we keep the mind in the present and experience the company of God, it is unlikely we will ever fully enter the world of ruci, or taste.

 

Although japa is powerful, and some meditational practice is essential in fixing the mind and rising to the stage of ruci, by Śrī Caitanya’s mercy we have the dispensation of kirtan where mantra is couched in raga (melody) and tāla (rhythm). Raga and tāla naturally allow us to easily enter deep aspects of the psyche to enhance our emotion and connection with mantra that can help transport even those in passion and ignorance to a state of meditation, fixity, and taste.

 

Often when writing Monday Morning Greetings, I realize that the scope and depth of my subject is so much vaster than what I can express in just a blog. In a longer dissertation so much can be said about avoiding the various conceptions and attitudes that keep our devotion unsteady,[1] especially offenses and criticisms that readily distance the mind from our connection and fixity on Krishna, even when we set a time and place to do so, but for now I will end with perhaps the most important takeaway from this morning’s musings that I think says it all:

 

“Simply put, water is tasty when water is just water, and similarly devotion is tasty when devotion is just devotion.”

 

 

 

 


[1] Mādhurya Kaḍambinī dedicates a whole chapter to anistitha bhakti (unfixed devotional practice) and lists six attitudes that prevent steadiness in bhakti. That in-depth analysis is beyond the scope of this post, but recommended reading. They are listed briefly below:

bhajana-kriyā is of two types, aniṣṭhitā (unsteady) and niṣṭhitā (steady). niṣṭhitā means one cannot fall down or slacken anymore. aniṣṭhitā is due to immature devotion. It appears in six stages as utsāha-mayī (temporary vigour), ghana-taralā (simultaneous intense and unsteady practice), vyūḍha-vikalpā (indecision), viṣaya-saṅgarā (struggle with the senses), niyamākṣamā (inability to hold vows), and taraṅga-raṅgiṇī (delighting in the facilities offered by bhakti). In the stage of aniṣṭhitā bhajana these six weaknesses gradually appear in the heart of the devotee.”

 

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